Free Fiction: Drive Chapter 6: Rainbow’s End

This has been one wild ride, and I have loved taking it together! I’ll keep posting free short-stories each week while we are in quarantine, so check back on Tuesday!

Rainbow's End by Jamie Aldis

The shocking conclusion to Drive. 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.


by Jamie Aldis

Chapter Six: Rainbow’s End

Private Airplane, somewhere over New York State – Sunday, afternoon

Sarah Williams stared out the window of the plane at the silver ribbon of a river far below. Her heart hammered and her thoughts still spun since she had seen Jason, her dead husband, shining on the wall during the briefing at the airport. He had died in the accident that had nearly killed her. He had died in the Race they had run years ago. He had died and the Race had hired her to work for them, because she had been tragically widowed during that race. During their race. He was dead. But he wasn’t. He was racing again, and with that pretty little Anne. Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe that wasn’t her dead husband. It couldn’t be him, because if it were him, the Race had lied to her about him being dead. Why would they lie? So it must not be her husband. But it looked so much like him. She had to know, she had to. How could she find out?

Her fingers tapped nervously on the bare sill beneath the airplane window as she stared at the passing landscape. The Niagara Falls International Airport stretched beneath them, zooming closer. They were setting up their communications center in a rented lodge on the river, and she was going to be very busy once the plane landed. Usually they leap-frogged the checkpoints, but something had all the supervisors in a frenzy, and their orders had changed to put extra staff at Niagara.

“I heard that they are terminating the race here,” George said, leaning near her to get a look out the window. He’d been a good plane companion, leaving her to her thoughts. “Do you think that means we’ll be laid off? I wonder if they’ll even give us a ride home,” he mused. Sarah grunted enigmatically. George was usually wrong with his fear driven worries.

“Yeah, I heard that, too,” Peter from the seat in front of them said over the top of the seat. “My brother Paul, who was sent here a week ago to set things up, said that their orders changed this morning, and they are setting up quite the blow out!”

“What does that mean?” George frowned in irritation.

Peter shrugged, “Hell if I know, you know how it is, non-disclosure and all that.”

“Oh, stop gossiping like a bunch of hens,” Alicia snapped. “We are about to land, and we all have plenty of work to do.”

Sarah watched the runway get closer and closer until finally they bumped onto the wheels and rolled to the hanger where a number of vans were waiting to transport the employees and equipment. Sarah thought about her dead husband. She had to find out if that man was Jason.

Falls View Lodge, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, noon

Sarah Williams slipped into the hotel room with a thermos of coffee in one hand, a stack of magazines under her arm, and a Subway sandwich bag hanging from her wrist. She slipped the room key into the pocket of the photo ID badge she wore around her neck. All the furniture was buried under so much electronica it looked as if a Tiger Direct warehouse had exploded. She tossed a chagrined smile at the surprised man sitting at the table behind four large plasma monitors and a dizzying array of complicated equipment.

“Hey, Mike, I’ve been sent to relieve you,” Sarah said.

“Really?” Mike blinked in disbelief. He’d been manning this post for 48 hours, and the company didn’t like it when the monitors weren’t watched at all times. On the screens were blinking colored dots following crooked, intersecting lines.

Sarah nodded solemnly, as she put her coffee and sandwich on top of the printer. She had been working since 5am, and knew tomorrow would be a tough day, so she was not at all happy to be told she was going to be on watch duty all night, too. It was a boring job, but she had an eye for detail, and a skill at hypothesizing a racer’s motive for choosing a given route which got her assigned to this post frequently.

“Wake me at sundown, ok? I don’t want to miss the fun,” Mike said, as he gratefully left the uncomfortable hotel chair. Sarah tapped her code into the keyboard to sign in, and Mike keyed his to sign out. The board was officially hers.

She wanted to ask what the fun after sundown was going to be, but if working for this super secretive company had taught her anything it was that curiosity was the fastest way to get someone to stop telling you what you wanted to know.

“Will do. What’s the sitch?” she asked, nodding toward the screens.

“We’ve got some teams grouping together,” he pointed to several clusters of dots. “I’m sure the order to break those up will come soon, so I was writing that report up.”

Sarah nodded, knowing that order would never come since John James, all of them, had been ordered to bottleneck the racers on Goat Island later. She knew how to keep her information to herself, too.

“There are a few teams who seem to have no clue where they are going,” he pointed to the large scale map on one of the monitors which showed a few colored dots far from everyone else. That was the sort of thing Sarah was expected to analyze and guess what had led them astray. Sponsors never liked it when their teams displayed gross ignorance or stupidity, though their opponents loved it. And that’s what this was all about, after all, amusing the sponsors.

“Is everything all set, then?” she asked, hinting at secrets.

“Mostly. The supplier is waiting on delivery of the C4, but he’s expecting it in the next hour or two, so it should be in position by the time the Colonel gets here. HQ has been calling every half hour for updates on that, and they are getting pretty antsy, but the supplier says it’ll be there.”

“Does the Colonel get a call or a text, and when?” Sarah asked. She didn’t even know who the colonel was, but delivering messages on time was her main responsibility in this room. It was a measure of how agitated the higher ups were, that her briefing for this post had been left to the person she was relieving of duty. Fortunately Mike thought she was just testing him, since his eyes narrowed.

“Bright will flash the verification, and the text goes out then.” Mike tapped the slightly wrinkled and stained operations folder that sat on the desk. The exact wording of the text messages she needed to send out and when was there. Apparently John James was in charge of the last minute changes, not the communications center.

“Ok, thanks. Sleep well,” she sat in the chair.

“Just call me at sundown, ok?” Mike asked.

“I will.”

She slipped the headset onto her ear as Mike left with a wide yawn. A quick glance at the log for the number, and she called the supplier. She jotted her own log entry down as the phone rang.

“Hello, this is Jean from Bright Industries checking up on our order,” she said to the coarse voice that answered the phone.

“You people will nag a man to death! Like I told the other guy an hour ago, it’ll be here. I’m expecting my guy at one. You’ll be the first to know when it gets here,” the man snarled.

“I’ll arrange for pick up at one, then.” The line went dead. Sarah shrugged as she checked the operations folder for the number of the team assigned to pick up the delivery. Had Mike said it was C4? She sent the text to the assigned team with the time and location of pick up. They had their orders, and needed no other information. She’d have the answers without hesitation if the bosses called about the delivery. It was time to find out where everyone was; she studied the monitors, hovering over colored dots for the information pop-ups.

She lingered over light blue, Anne Collins, who seemed to have teamed up with Nathan Reynolds. The two phones were at the same GPS on I-76 in south western Pennsylvania. Most of the teams seemed to be in the same general area, within a county or two of each other. Except for that cluster of teams heading north on the I-476.

Sarah stared at the light blue dot. Was her husband alive? Was he in that car? It had to be someone else, because her husband was dead. The phone was ringing before she realized she had dialed Anne’s race phone. A woman answered, sounding cautious and confused. That must be Anne.

“May I speak with Jason Williams, please?” Sarah asked politely.

I-76, Gibsonia, Pennsylvania – Sunday, after noon

“Hello?” Anne answered her race phone. Jason Williams shot a glace at Nate whose phone had not rung. Nate shrugged and looked at Anne in his rearview mirror. She had been sleeping in the back seat for the past several hours. “It’s for you,” she said, passing the phone up to Jason.

Oh shit, I’m a dead man, he thought. He took the phone and placed it to his ear, a sickening lump twisting his stomach.

“Hello?” he ventured.

“Jason? Jason is that really you?” his dead wife said.

“Sarah?” Jason’s thoughts exploded and stopped simultaneously.

“Jason! Oh my God! It IS you! They told me you were dead!” she said.

“Sarah, they murdered you,” he said at the same time.

“Oh Jason!” she started to cry and Jason’s heart ripped in two. “Shit! I have to go!” The line went dead.

Jason clutched the phone, staring at its black screen. “That was my wife. She was kidnapped to get me to race five years ago. They murdered her when I didn’t win. My car went off the road a hundred yards from the finish line. In the hospital, they showed me pictures of her murdered body.” His voice was flat and hollow. Anne and Nate exchanged a look in the mirror. Her hand settled warmly on his shoulder.

“She’ll call back,” she said.

Goat Island, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

The parking attendant lifted the bar and let the blaring ambulance into the parking lot, saving Tiffany Davis and Lucia Harris an $8 they didn’t have. The last gas run had bled them of all money, but they were here now, and that was all that Tiff could think about. Luc kept insisting they had to find the checkpoint, and whenever Tiff stopped or slowed down, her friend had started screaming and going crazy. Tiff was pretty sure she was going a little crazy herself. She rubbed the exhaustion from her eyes and grabbed Luc’s hand. She pulled her unusually silent friend to the glossy, colorful map that stood near the visitor’s center.

“Cave of the Winds,” she pointed. It looked like she was going to have to figure out how to steal a couple of rain slickers.

Goat Island, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

Retired Colonel Jack Brown lined up his BMW motorcycle in the crosshatch area at the front of the parking lot. Mary looked stiff as she swung her leg over and dismounted. His own back ached, but pain meant you were still alive. She was his tough little wife, and she had never complained about anything in their forty-five years of marriage.

“Let’s find this waterfall, shall we?” he said. They paid the rental fee for the ponchos, and he ran up the stairs, knowing his wife would follow him anywhere.

Cave of the Winds, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

Jennifer Miller stared in awe at the power of the waterfalls before her. The vapor saturated the air, and mingled with the tears that flowed down her face. She wouldn’t know she was crying, except her tears were hot. Chelsea would love this view. She vowed she would bring Chelsea here, when she got her daughter back. She had to get her daughter back. Her cheeks burned a little bit hotter with the tears.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” a kind old lady patted her hand, mistaking Jenn’s tears for awe at the view. The lookout platform was quite crowded in the mid-afternoon of a holiday weekend. Brian was scouring every inch of it, looking for the checkpoint marker. They were in the right area, she was sure, since she had spotted several other teams. No one looked like they really knew anything more than she did.

“I want to bring my daughter here,” she said to the kind old lady. She got another pat on her hand, and then the woman moved off, her eyes filled with a sorrow that made Jenn’s heart ache.

“It’s not here,” Brian slipped through the crowds to stand next to her, water dripping from his nose and chin. “I know we are close, what are we missing?”

“They probably wouldn’t put the checkpoint in such a public area. Didn’t we pass another path on the way up?” Jenn asked.


“Yeah, it was closed, remember. The sign said it used to be a path behind the waterfall, but rock falls made the path too dangerous and it was closed last decade or something?”

“I didn’t see that, but it sounds about right,” Brian said. “Which way? Back the way we came?” He moved off in that direction.

Jennifer stared at his back for a moment. It was the first time since they got that call that he hadn’t argued with her. She brushed her scalding tears from her eyes. 

She ducked under the chain with the “No Access” sign and hurried into the dark cave, her heart hammering madly.

“Are you sure this is it?” Brian asked nervously.

“Let’s follow it and see,” she replied. The tunnel was unkempt and more than a little dangerous. Or maybe she just had a touch of claustrophobia. Loose rocks littered the floor, and rock falls piled up here and there. In one place they had to climb over a pile, and she kept looking up into the darkness above listening for sounds of a new fall coming down on their heads. When they topped it, however, they were rewarded with the flashing red light of the checkpoint marker.

Mr. Bright sat on a folding chair, in front of a wall of water. His back was to the cave wall so he could gaze upon the waterfall, and watch the tunnel approach. He wore a raincoat and wide brimmed rain hat, but managed to look impeccably sharp. The waterfall behind him was glorious. It was so thick it nearly obscured the view out of the cave, but in one spot the water passed around some obstacle farther up and you could see the magnificence of Niagara Falls arcing into the distance. The roar was intense, and rainbows were everywhere. Jennifer stared, holding her breath in the presence of such natural majesty. Tears once again slipped down her cheeks, her eyes burning from too many of them.

“Welcome to Niagara Falls, Mr. and Mrs. Miller,” Mr. Bright said cheerfully. “You are in first place. Your clue will arrive shortly, but first we have a reward for you. At the rockfall, if you turn to the left at the top and climb down into the darkness, you will find a staircase leading up. At the top, there is a magnificent view. Be sure to look through the binoculars.”

“Where is my daughter!” Brian growled.

“All in good time, Mr. Miller. Go look at the view. I’m quite sure you’ll like it,” Mr. Bright smiled and turned his gaze back to the waterfall, ignoring them completely.

Hope surged in Jenn, and she pulled on her husband’s arm, “Let’s just go!” She clamored over the rock pile, ignoring the fear in her hammering heart. She descended into the waiting darkness. The opening was so small it tugged at her clothes. She waited for her husband to follow her, and together they carefully ascended the black spiral staircase. The metal felt corroded under her hand, but the steps seemed secure. She jumped when the race phone rang. The light it cast made the narrow circular staircase even creepier.

“It’s the clue,” she said.

“What’s it say?” Brian growled.

“It says, ‘Over the Rainbow and through the woods. Climb the highest high, to ride in the Sky.’”

A grunt was the only response Brian gave. When the glow faded from the screen she slipped the black phone back into her pocket and continued to climb the long, dark, spiral stairs; the rust crunching beneath her feet. It ended at a black ceiling.

“That bastard!” Brian said, turning to head back down.

“Wait,” she hissed. She could hear the waterfall, and she was certain there was more here. She pushed on the ceiling, and was rewarded with a small crack of light. “It’s a door!” She pushed again, but could only raise it a few inches. 

“Let me,” her husband said. She crawled over him, gripping the corroded railing like a lifeline. They managed to swap places and her husband climbed high, grunted and heaved, lifting the door on his shoulders, his legs bunched strongly under him. With a strained grunt, he pushed the door over his head and it crashed open, revealing the blue sky above them. They climbed out onto a disheveled lookout balcony. The wooden railing around it was broken and sagging in places, but their footing was on stone. It was even dry. They stood above the waterfalls, the water cascading below them, crashing impossibly far. Jennifer swallowed the lump that choked her throat.

“Those must be the binoculars,” Brian said pointing to an old pillar with a hinged viewing scope on top of it. It was aimed away from the falls upstream. A faded sign talked about the history of Rainbow Bridge, which crossed the river not far upstream. He looked through it. “Nothing, it’s black.”

Jennifer walked up to it, read the instructions. “Put a nickel in it.”

“A nickel? Aren’t these a quarter?” he muttered, digging in his pants pockets.

“They are now,” she said. She took the nickel from him and dropped it into the coin slot where it jingled its way down with a satisfying clunk. The blackness snicked back, and Jenn looked through the viewers.

She looked at the bridge, and someone was waving madly. She squinted, adjusting the focus on the binoculars then gasped. “Chelsea!” she yelled.

Bridal Veil Cave, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

Mary Brown climbed over the wobbly rock fall. Her husband had caused several pebbles to clatter and echo in the narrow passageway when he climbed over it, so he had tossed back a warning for her to be careful. Another couple in the race had been heading out of the tunnel when they found it, so Mary knew they weren’t the first to this checkpoint. She nearly cried with relief when she spied the red light of the line. Her husband was talking to Mr. Bright, who handed him an envelope. Their voices were drowned out by the roar of the waterfall behind them. It was so beautiful. That sight was almost worth the pain she felt in every limb. She sat on the top of the rock fall, balancing carefully on the sharp points. She rubbed at her chest, feeling light headed and breathless. Her husband’s stamina awed her. She refused to complain, however. Retirement had knocked the wind out of his sails, so when he told her he wanted to travel the country she had agreed. She thought he had meant an RV, not a motorcycle. But how could she dim the sparkle in his eyes as he proudly showed off his new purchase? And when he had filled with purpose and life listening to the call from the race phone that first day, she knew she could not take that away from him either. She had never expected it to last so long, however, or be so tiring. If only she could lay down and go to sleep. Even the sharp rocks wouldn’t stop the unconsciousness that tugged at the edges of her mind.

The race phone chirped in her pocket. 

Sky Pod, CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

That was clear enough. They had been promised a shortcut. Her husband had left Mr. Bright; he had that hard-eyed look he wore when he got home from certain missions.

“We need to go,” he said curtly, gesturing for her to climb off her rocky perch. She closed her eyes, tried once again to catch her breath. Her chest felt so tight, maybe it was the water vapor in the air and the elevation. She climbed down and heard him clatter the stones behind her.

“Twenty meters down there is a turn into an alcove, there is something in there we need to pick up,” he said.

“I’ll keep an eye out,” she said breathlessly, too tired to be curious. “The next checkpoint came to the phone,” she added dutifully.

“Good. There is something we need to do first, though,” he said grimly. What would make him sound like that? She knew better than to ask him.

They found the alcove easily, once they knew to look for it—a darker shadow in the dimness of the unlit cave tunnel. A large duffel lay on the ground. There was only one, so she assumed this was part of their reward. Jack grunted when he picked it up, so it must be heavy. She led the way out of the cave, passing two young girls who were coming in. One of them looked Mary straight in the eye and muttered feverishly.

“Stop them, they must be stopped.”

Falls View Lodge, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

Sarah breathed a sigh of relief when her supervisor finally left the room. She had come so close to being caught making an unauthorized phone call when her supervisor had walked in a few hours ago. Fortunately, the stern woman had been focused on the papers in her hand, and not on noticing that Sarah had quickly terminated a phone call.

The plans for the race had changed again, and her boss was here to make it all happen. The woman must be going a little deaf, because the headset was so loud that with a little bit of effort, Sarah could hear the other half of the conversation. Her boss’ words were always guarded and innocuous. It’s what was said on the other end that put ice in Sarah’s veins. It took all Sarah’s will power to look bored as she monitored the screens while her boss made call after call, and sent text messages to all the thugs in the field.

Sarah dialed Anne’s number. Her light blue dot was flashing on the edge of the parking lot. Sarah watched the red dot that was the colonel with his deadly pack approach Anne’s position. “Pick up. Pick up!” She muttered as the phone rang without being answered. No one ever failed to answer their race phone.

Goat Island, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

Nate pulled into the crowded parking lot and found a space near the exit. It was far from the paths to the rest of the park, but he was primed for a fast getaway. It could only help, especially since there was no parking available closer to the front. An ambulance sat in the emergency zone, it’s lights whirling, it’s plates from Florida. Looked like the girls made it. Near it was the sleek BMW motorcycle. They were definitely not first.

Jason had been silent and brooding for hours, ever since that phone call. Nate expected him to vanish any moment, since the man had always had his own agenda in this race. Nate suspected that agenda revolved around the wife who was supposed to be dead but apparently had called Anne’s race phone. Anne believed the clue meant they were looking for an old path or bridge that once went into the rocks, behind the waterfall at Cave of the Winds. Nate kept scanning the area. He felt jumpy, and tight. It was the feeling he always got before a big fire broke out, or the alarm went off for a multi-car accident on the freeway.

Nate saw the crisply dressed angry man who stood impatiently near the visitor’s center. He saw him, and dismissed him because in a place like this there were always irritable fathers and husbands with no patience for the quirks of being a tourist.

“It should be somewhere in here,” Anne said, pointing to the long, crooked line of stairs drawn in cartoonish clarity on the park map.

“Anne Gropdich!” the menacing shout rang through the clatter of tourists and Anne’s face drained of color. For one heart chilling moment, she looked at Nate with stark terror in her eyes. Nate spun to face whatever came, and saw the man he had dismissed. He was a moment too late to stop the bruising grip that took Anne’s arm. “I’m taking you home,” he said, the threat clear. Anne tried to break her husband’s grip.

Jason cold-cocked the man so fast even Nate hadn’t seen it coming. Anne stumbled as her husband jerked back, his grip releasing so violently red welts formed on her arms. They looked like they would bleed. 

Anne’s husband backed away, shaking his head, clearly not used to fighting. “Two of them!?” he screamed, “You fucking whore! I’m going to kill you for this!” Two police officers stepped up. One aimed a gun at Jason, and the other grabbed Anne, pulling his handcuffs out of his belt.

Her race phone rang.

Goat Island, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

Retired Colonel Jack Brown gave a wide berth to the arrest happening near the park map. Some racers seemed to be involved. Good, he thought, fewer people for him to compete against, though he did wish that the nice man Nate was not in the middle of it. Good man, Nate was, the kind of man you wanted at your back in a bad situation. He set the heavy duffel of explosives down next to his bike, and opened up the storage box for some bungee cords. Maybe he should ask Mary to stay here while he set the charges. She was looking a bit pale, and her breathing was labored. But he needed to be on the far side of that bridge when it blew, and if Mary stayed here, they would lose their advantage if he had to come back for her. So how was he going to strap that heavy bag to the bike, and leave room for her to ride.

He grimaced when the two women he had passed in the tunnel emerged from the path, headed for the ambulance they were driving. He knew he would only keep his advantage in the race if he fulfilled his mission quickly, and raced for the next checkpoint. The others did have an extra checkpoint to get to, while he got to skip ahead.

Setting charges on the bridge would be easy. He had done plenty of that in his military career. Good thing he was the one who had won the advantage, or the savings the city thought it was making on having one of them do it for the race, for free, would have been cost much more in the long run for a bungled job. Then again, the instructions in the envelope had been very detailed, and would bring down the large bridge quite nicely. With all the bridge collapses that had been happening around the country lately, it was nice to see a city taking a proactive approach, and planning to build a new bridge, with new technology. Had to clear out the old one, first, though. The Rainbow Bridge was an icon of the Falls. Jack hoped they planned to build the new one quickly, since the bridge was a major artery between the US and Canada.

A shot rang out and he hit the ground fast, looking around. Nate grappled with the police officer and his gun. Some woman was being dragged off by a man and the other police officer, while a third man Jack had seen traveling with the woman on the race was diving to intercept them. People were running and screaming, but other than the danger of a wild bullet, he and Mary were in no immediate danger. He grabbed her arm to pull her behind the motorcycle, at least until that gun was in someone’s control. Her arm had a stiffness that made him finally look at her. Her face was pale, and her eyes were wide and horrified. The bag of explosives was unzipped, her hand pulling it open. Her other hand clutched her chest just before she collapsed.

“Medic!” he screamed out of long habit. He jerked to his feet and grabbed the girl in the scrubs as she reached for the door of the ambulance. “My wife! I think it’s a heart attack!”

The girl screamed with pain and fainted. The other one, with the crazy eyes, launched herself at him, “Your wife is dead, and you must stop. Stop, before you kill all the others, too! Your wife tells you not to do it! Do not kill them!”

He pulled away from her, his thoughts slicing in half. He fell on his wife, fingers to her throat. Nothing. Her eyes were open, blank. No pulse. No life. He screamed his throat raw, his face upturned, accusing God. The world fell silent, blackness shutting out everything except the mission. You survived by focusing on the mission and nothing else. His training taught him that. There was only the mission. He zipped the bag shut, strapped it onto his wife’s seat on the motorcycle, and sped out of the parking lot faster than thought. First the mission and then he would see his wife again.

Goat Island, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

Brian cursed the construction crews that clogged the roads that had been clear just a couple hours earlier. Workmen in orange vests and construction vehicles were blocking the road and traffic was all but stopped. His daughter was on Rainbow Bridge, and he had to get to her. They had managed to get out of the parking lot, and off the island, but apparently they were rebuilding the roads to the bridge.

A motorcycle with a large duffel bag strapped to the passenger seat rolled by, waved through the other side of the barricades by the construction crew. Brian cursed and banged the steering wheel as he was allowed to inch forward at a snail’s pace while his wife tapped her fingers impatiently, leaning forward to see if she could spy an alternate path, or a break in the traffic.

Goat Island, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, afternoon

“They aren’t cops!” Nate yelled as he lunged for the gun. It fired as he pushed it into the air, hoping no one was hit as the crowd screamed and dove for cover. He’d been a fireman in the state of New York for his entire adult life, and he knew a New York state cop uniform when he saw it, and these guys were wearing the wrong color. They had the wrong bearing, too, more like thugs. When the cop’s partner lunged for Anne instead of using his radio to call for backup Nate knew he was right. Anne was being hauled off, grabbed by her husband and the fake cop. Jason grabbed the cop and threw a punch. The gun fired again, and Nate pulled his attention back to his own fight. He pushed the gun higher, cocked his neck, and head butted his adversary in the nose. The man yelled, and let go of the gun to drop to his knees and hold his bleeding, broken nose.

“Freeze right there!” he yelled, stopping Anne’s husband. Jason had his knee on the back of the other cop’s neck, pinning him face down to the ground. Anne jerked her arm out of her husband’s grasp. She slapped him, hard.

“I want a divorce!” she screamed in his face. She walked to stand behind Nate, or maybe just behind the gun that kept her husband at a distance.

“This isn’t over,” he said.

“Yes, Philip, it is,” she said. “Now leave before I shoot you myself!”

Nate waved the gun a little, “Get your buddy and go,” he told Broken Nose. Jason slowly released the guy he’d been kneeling on and backed away. The two thugs ran off, into the Visitor’s center, which Nate thought an odd choice. Probably felt safer in a crowd. Or maybe they needed to clean their shorts. Bullies rarely liked being on the other end of the gun.

“Get out of here!” Anne screamed. “I never want to see you again!” In the hush that followed the ring of her phone sounded strangely loud. She answered it, like a robot, turning her back on her husband in a final act of rejection.

Nate kept his eyes on the man who glared, but decided to leave. He backed toward the parking lot, disappearing behind a Hummer.

“A colonel with C4 is going to blow up a rainbow?” Anne repeated into the phone. “What are you talking about? Hello? Hello?”

Nate stuffed the gun into his pocket and looked toward the only colonel he knew. The motorcycle was gone, Luc was sobbing over the dead body of the colonel’s wife Mary, and Tiff was struggling to push herself up, her face ashen and pinched.

“Was that Sarah?” Jason asked Anne, reaching for the phone.

Anne shrugged, “I think so, she hung up.” She looked between Nate and Jason, her eyes had the shocked stare of a trauma victim. “She said a colonel with C4 is going to blow up a rainbow. Then she hung up. Is he gone?” She looked around the parking lot.

“He’s gone,” Nate assured her.

The phone rang again. Jason snatched it from Anne’s hands before she could react.

“Sarah?” he said. A look of relief flooded his face, then he grew pale. Fear then anger followed. He nodded. “Be careful, Sarah!”

Jason looked at Nate, his eyes had grown hard. “Sarah says there is a colonel who is going to blow up the Rainbow Bridge. We need to stop him.”

Goat Island, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, late afternoon

Drew pulled into the parking lot. Traffic was blocked up getting out, even an ambulance was stopped while trying to leave the parking lot. He saw more than a few racers stuck in traffic, so they were no longer as far behind as they had been, after the girl went the wrong direction. Fortunately she had finally shut up and sat in silence when her father had told him he needed to head east. He’d hauled across New York State as fast as his very fast car could take him. He figured they were behind, but as long as they were still in the race they were still in the race. Or something like that. At least he could drive faster now, and didn’t have to follow this old man and his annoying, but hot, daughter around anymore. It wasn’t such a bonus that they were riding with him now, but he’d take what he could get.

He and the daughter were running up the stairs after forking over twenty bucks, while the dad rested in the car. Smart man, Drew couldn’t ditch ‘em if he was in the damn car. At least he wasn’t likely to steal the car if his daughter was with Drew, so everyone was happy. Sort of. He spied someone who looked familiar dodging under the chain and running back down the stairs.

“Over there, I saw someone,” he said to Lexi.

“Following people, your speciality,” she sneered, but she ducked beneath the chain and slipped into the cave.

Rainbow Bridge, Niagara River, New York – Sunday, evening

Retired Colonel Jack Brown tore the tape that secured the second charge at the base of the column. Now he had to climb up and begin to set the charges in the under supports of the bridge. The traffic seemed oddly loud for a bridge that would be empty in just a couple hours, but the construction crews and detours had been going up when he passed by on his way to the bridge.

Just a few more charges, one more mission, and he would be able to see Mary again.

Falls View Lodge, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, evening

“I need to grab some dinner before the fireworks,” Sarah’s boss said. She was coming back, and soon, so this was Sarah’s only chance. She started the routine backup of files onto tape. While that was going, she grabbed one of the portable devices they sometimes gave to operatives and programmed it with Anne’s and the Colonel’s signal. Finally she programmed the numbers she thought she might need into her own cell phone. When the back up was finished, she stuffed the tape and the portable into a small backpack.

A quick peak into the hallway showed no one was nearby. She ran down to the room with the ice and vending machines and stuffed the backpack behind the vending machine. The elevator door was opening just as she slipped back into the communications room. She struggled to slow her breathing and her heart rate, plopping into the chair trying to look as if she hadn’t left as her boss walked in carrying a soda and a sandwich.

Her boss narrowed her eyes, “You look flushed, anything happen?”

“No, we are good across the board,” Sarah said. “Dinner didn’t agree with me,” she explained. “I’ll be fine.”

Her boss nodded uncaringly. She sat down in front of the board, and put on the headset. A quick scan showed everyone in place. She called her boss, someone Sarah never heard, saw, or even heard mention of other than when her boss called in to report.

“The charges are in place,” she said. A few moments later, “Stateside only, sir. Yes, sir. Everyone is in position. Yes, sir.”

She sent a text to the thugs who were all called John James. “Let the racers onto the bridge.”

The tension in Sarah’s stomach gurgled loudly and her boss gave her a dirty look. Sarah would never get a better opportunity.

“Dinner really isn’t agreeing with me, may I go to the restroom?”

The cavalier wave was her only reply. She raced out of the room, grabbed the back pack and hurried out of the lodge into the rapidly darkening evening. The Race had rented the whole lodge, and everyone was poised for the night’s big events, so the driveway was deserted as Sarah ran. It took her three tries to dial Anne’s race phone.

“Anne, listen to me,” she said urgently when the woman answered, “and do exactly what I say.”

Rainbow Boulevard, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, evening

“It’s Sarah, again, and she wants me to do what she says,” Anne said wearily. She was numb, and the entire world felt like it was underwater. She had been glad they were stuck in unmoving traffic, because she was sick of everything.

“Do what she says!” Jason urged.

“Are you sure we can trust her?” Nate asked. “Are you sure it’s even her?”

Anne couldn’t deal with the arguing. She didn’t want to listen. She didn’t want to do what someone else said. She didn’t want to breathe. She thumbed the speakerphone on. “You’re on speaker.”


“Jason! Oh my god, Jason! The charges are in position! They are going to let the racers onto the bridge. I think they are going to blow everyone up!”

“Who is they?” Nate asked.

“Who is that? Jason? Who is there?” the panic in her voice was thick.

“Just Nate and Anne, Sarah, it’s ok.”

“Nate, you mean Nathan Reynolds?” Sarah asked. “That’s right, I forgot you were riding with him.”

“Who are they, Sarah?” Nate asked again.

“The race. The FBI are on to the race, and I think they’ve decided to blow the bridge and everyone on it to end the race.”

“Sarah where are you?” Jason asked. “We’ll come get you!” he said.

“They won’t let you off the road! You are being herded to the bridge!”

“Like cows to slaughter,” Anne said to herself.

“The bridge that’s being set to blow up?” Nate asked.

“Yes! That’s what I mean. Everyone is going to die!” she said.

“We need to get off this road,” Nate muttered. “Can you help us get off this road?”

“What? Maybe. Hold on. I’ll call you back,” with that Sarah disconnected the line.

Anne blinked and stared at the dead phone. First she finally escapes her husband, even if that probably wasn’t over yet, and now whoever put her in this race in the first place is trying to blow her up? She was getting really tired of bullies playing games with her life.

Rainbow Boulevard, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, night

“About fucking time,” Drew muttered as he turned his engine over. The sweet bass purr of his baby always brought a smile to his face, but this time he might have to admit the construction guy flagging him on might be even better. They had been sitting still, in traffic, for hours. He couldn’t see any damn reason for the road being closed, though David said maybe there was an accident they couldn’t see. David looked like an accident already. He was a color no living body should be, and it creeped Drew out. Lexi sat in the back with her father looking like she had lost her puppy. ‘Course she was losing her father, so Drew cut her some slack for that.

Some cars were being waved left, some were being waved right. They better not try to make him go anywhere other than the bridge. He was going to get on that Rainbow bridge if it killed him. He had a race to win, and he better do it before the smart old man died and he lost his advantage. The flag man waved him left, which was where he wanted to go. He could see the bridge rising in the distance. Traffic was speeding up a little, though he saw brake lights on the bridge itself.  He inched his way onto the bridge and was glad when he could see water rushing beneath him. They couldn’t stop him now, he sighed with relief. Looking around he saw a lot of the racers around him, plus the usual traveling types. That was good, it meant that traffic had leveled the playing field, and in a road race he would win every time. He and his little bumblebee were fast. It was the clues that tripped him up, but David found the clues dead easy. He hadn’t had to think to know where they were going this time. Of course, he had an annoying tendency to turn it into some history lesson or something, but as long as they didn’t lose time with that, Drew could put up with it.

Niagara River, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, night

Sarah balanced the laptop she had stolen on her lap, as she perched on a cold stone. The river rushed by, which would obscure the sounds she was making, if anyone was looking for her. Unfortunately, she thought she would not hear anyone coming, either. Her original plan had involved Jason picking her up on the road, but if he needed help getting off the road, she needed a place to work without being seen first. So she doubled back and headed to the river bank where she could see the Rainbow Bridge, and whatever sound or light she made would hopefully go ignored.

She quickly discovered the laptop would not do what she had hoped, which was give orders to the John James’s. She encountered a lot of encrypted files, but her boss used her pets name as a password. Sarah shook her head at that surprising bit of foolishness. The woman brought that tea cup dog with her every where, it wasn’t exactly a hard guess. The screen filled with folders of bank information and sponsors, and her bosses’ orders. Sarah stared in open-mouth shock. She thought she had grabbed an operations computer. This was the mother load. Only it did not help her get Jason off that road at all.

She dialed Anne’s number. Jason answered this time.

“I can’t help you as much as I hoped,” Sarah said quickly. She glanced at the portable which was tracking their position. “It looks like you are almost to the bridge. Just don’t get on that bridge. Do what you have to do, but please don’t get on that bridge. I can’t lose you again!”

“What do you mean it looks like we are almost to the bridge?” Jason asked. “You can see me? Where are you?” The pain and urgency in his voice made her heart ache.

“I stole a tracker when I left, we have tons of them, so one won’t be missed.” Unlike the laptop. Good thing her boss was busy coordinating an act of domestic terrorism and was too busy to notice her laptop was missing. Sarah needed to get very far away before the theft was discovered.

“What are you tracking?” he asked. Sarah shook her head. He was always asking questions when he’d have the answer if he just thought about it.

“The race phones,” she said. “Most of the racers are on the bridge already, you and a few others are still approaching. Looks like it won’t be long now.”

“You are tracking the race phones? Can all of them track the race phones?” Jason asked. It sounded like he was repeating something someone else had asked.

“Yes,” she said simply. His dot was nearing the bridge.

“We have to go now, where can Jason meet you and when? Somewhere not here, and don’t say it, just say something he’ll understand,” Anne had obviously grabbed the phone. Jason was protesting in the background.

Sarah blinked, then felt like a thoughtless fool. How could she not have thought the phones could be listened to? “Um, the place we first kissed. A week from now. Good luck, Anne. Tell him I love him,” Sarah disconnected the phone. She pulled the battery and the sim card out and threw all three pieces into the river.

“Fuck!” Her only hope was that no one had been trying to triangulate her end of the phone line, but if they were, they knew she was by the river. She decided to take the risk of staying here a bit longer, where she still had signal for the laptop. She opened the folder called “Operations Budget” and whistled in shock.

Rainbow Bridge, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, night

Tiff pulled the ambulance onto the bridge and then stopped, once again, as traffic turned into red brake lights. Luc had been screaming for hours that they had to stop it, but she had quieted down now. She seemed to be chatting quietly with Heather, and her grandmother.

“We tried,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “It’s too late now, but Tiff and I will be with you soon.” Tiffany tried to ignore the ominous sound of that and focused on breathing around the bloody rattle in her chest.

Rainbow Bridge, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, night

Nate grabbed the phone from Anne when she was done, and opened his car door. He was idling along a cement barrier just before getting onto the bridge itself. He tossed both his and Anne’s phones into the back of the pickup truck just in front of him, and slipped over the cement barrier. It was a bit of a drop, but not too far, though the incline down to the river and the base of the bridge was steep and slick. He crouched and waited. First Anne, then Jason slipped over. Fortunately the workers were not paying much attention to their location. They were supposedly locked in. The pickup truck inched forward, moving their signals farther along on whatever monitors were being watched. If they had been toward the back of the racers, there was little time left.

“What about the FBI?” Jason asked, his voice low and hushed.

“The FBI?” Nate blinked.

“The ones who were after the race. The ones who sprang Anne out of jail? Shouldn’t they be out here? They tapped Anne’s phone, and should have heard every word. Shouldn’t they be stopping this?”

“They probably weren’t real FBI. Or if they were, they were paid off by the Race,” Anne said softly. Jason cursed.

Nate started walking, half sliding, down the embankment. When he got to the bottom, he and the others looked until they found it, an explosives charge on the support pillar. Nate followed the wire up, and eventually he found him. Colonel Jack Brown was sitting from a lower rafter with his feet dangling.

“Colonel!” Nate shouted. He had to repeat himself several times before the colonel heard him and looked down. It was dark, and the river was loud, but Nate prayed he could be heard. “Don’t do this!” The man put his hand behind his ear and Nate cupped his mouth and shouted it again. The colonel looked sad, shook his head. Then he pointed downriver vigorously and held up two fingers.

“Two minutes,” he said, Nate could barely understand the words, but the vigorous gesture pointing downriver clued him in.

“RUN!” he screamed at Anne and Jason.

Rainbow Bridge, Niagara River, International Border – Sunday, night

Jennifer Miller finally saw her daughter. Chelsea was standing exactly where she had been hours earlier, when her mother had seen her with the binoculars. She wasn’t waving anymore, and she looked cold. Traffic had been brutally slow, and Jenn had almost given up hope, but seeing Chelsea still here was euphoric.

“She’s there!” she pointed, and her husband looked up. She pulled open the car door, and started running toward her daughter screaming, “Chelsea!!” Brian was close behind her, yelling her daughter’s name.

The young girl looked up and smiled. Jennifer felt as if a sunbeam hit her soul. Then the bridge rocked, followed by a thump. Chelsea looked confused, then scared, and Jennifer’s heart broke all over again.

“Chelsea!” She screamed, and ran as fast as she could toward her daughter. She was still running when her eardrums shattered, and the world went white.

Niagara River, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, night

Sarah jumped when the explosion shook the ground. The white flash lit up the night like lightening, and the sound of crumbling cement, screaming metal, and heavy splashes would haunt her dreams forever. She stared at the destruction and wept. She felt dirty, and responsible, and she prayed that her husband had somehow lived. She would find out in a week. She pulled the thumb drive from the laptop, then threw the computer into the river. She ran through the trees away from the river to find a road.

Niagara River, Niagara Falls, New York – Sunday, night

Anne pulled herself out of the cold water and gasped for breath. Her hands were bleeding from the death grip she had on the stones that kept her from getting pulled into the river’s current. She looked behind her at the blazing destruction of the international bridge.

“Anne? You ok?” Nate’s voice rang into the screaming night.

“Yeah, I think so,” she said. When they had leapt over the large boulders, Nate had pushed them into the water with a hissed order to hold on to something. She had barely managed when the air turned into fire. She’d been glad for the cold water when hot bits started pelting them from above. It was a miracle she was alive, with only a few scrapes.

They both heard splashes down river. Nate rushed out of his spot and ran to help Jason ashore. Anne pulled herself out of the river a little more slowly. They had nothing, and could not even trust any of the emergency personnel who would be rushing to secure the area.

“I think we better go,” she said. At least walking might raise her body heat enough to dry her clothes. Eventually. They were her only clothes, now.


Venada, Sonoro, Mexico – Saturday, sunset

“Gracias,” Nate said as he dropped to the ground from the back of the pick-up truck. He raised a hand to help Anne down. She ignored him. Jason climbed out behind her and the truck they had hitched a ride on rumbled away.

“We need to find the beach,” Jason said. They followed the smell of salty air, and the soft murmur of crashing waves. Soon enough the ocean opened before them, orange light gilding the watery expanse a lustrous copper.

“That’s beautiful,” Anne said. “I’m hungry.” The men exchanged a look that made her want to smack them. They should try hitchhiking across country without a dime, while pregnant, and see how hungry they got! Of course, they might understand her hunger better if she told them she was pregnant, but she had not.

“There is a cantina where we are going. We just need to find it,” Jason said.

“Which direction do we go?” Nate asked, looking up and down the beach.

“Um, I’m not sure,” Jason hesitated.

“If you don’t get me some food soon,” Anne threatened, “someone is catching and cooking me a crab!”

They laughed as if they didn’t believe her. Jason started walking along the beach, the water on his right. Anne wondered how many little crabs would make a good meal. Too many, probably. Her stomach rumbled. Hopefully Sarah had made it here, and had food. Money would be good, too, but food would be better.

Suddenly the feel and smell of her own grime was intolerable. She angled her walk toward the water and found it surprisingly warm. Encouraged, she waded deeper. The men kept walking, discussing their destination. With a small smile, Anne reveled in her tiny moment of privacy and dunked her head underwater. She scrubbed her itching scalp vigorously, praying she had no lice. Her clothes were ragged and filthy, but they were all she had, so she tried to rub off as much dirt as possible. She stood, taking a deep breath.

“Anne!” Nate yelled a bit nervously, looking up and down the beach.

“What?” she said, exasperated.

His head jerked toward her in the water. “Oh,” he said lamely. “Tell a guy the next time you are going to disappear underwater, ok?”

Anne felt petulant but she nodded. Really, she owed her life to this man, and it was because the three of them had looked out for each other that they had made it this far. She was grateful. She was also dead to the world she had known, supposedly having died in that bridge explosion. It grieved her that she would never see her friends again. Her parents were gone, so at least she wasn’t losing that, like Nate had. They knew that if the Race ever discovered them alive, they would not stay that way long. Then again most of her friends were Philip’s friends. At least she never had to see him again, now that he thought she was dead, too. He had not wasted any time announcing her memorial service on the internet. 

“If there is a cantina, I didn’t want to smell like I belong in the outhouse, even if I look like it,” Anne protested. “The two of you could use some cleaning up,” she added.

The three of them tried to get their bodies as clean as possible in the warm waves of the Mexican sunset.

Rosa’s Cantina, Venada, Sonoro, Mexico – Saturday, night

Sarah sipped a tropical drink with a colorful umbrella whose name she could not pronounce. The sun had set in glory, as it had the past two nights since she arrived. She sat in the cantina, excited and worried. She prayed every day that Jason had survived the explosion. Nate and Anne had been declared dead. Sarah knew the Race would make sure all the racers were declared dead in that explosion. Better to not have any lose ends, after all. Loose ends like Sarah. She hoped she had covered her tracks well enough.

The door opened and a trio of vagrants entered the cantina. The bar tender started protesting, and moved out from behind the bar. Anne heard a snippet of voice, and stood straight up, looking at the vagrants intently. She barely recognized her own husband. She slipped a fifty dollar bill, American, into her palm and hurried to the bartender.

“It’s ok,” she urged, “I know them, I’ve been waiting for them.” She grabbed his hand, shaking it eagerly, palming him the bribe. She’d been tipping well since she got here, so he didn’t even blink and nodded acceptance.

“Oh my god, Jason!” She crushed her husband into a tight embrace, tears streaming down her eyes. She had not seen him since he supposedly died in the race five years ago. He was wet, and her clothes got damp.

“Do you have any food?” Anne asked. Sarah laughed at the starved look in Anne’s eyes.

“Yes, of course!” she said, leading them to her table. Anne did not hesitate before she started devouring Sarah’s half-eaten dinner. All three of them stared at her.

“We haven’t eaten much,” Nate apologized. Anne kicked him under the table. 

“You survived. You all survived!” Sarah breathed. She clung to Jason’s hand, pressing her entire side against his as they sat at the table. He kept staring at her, memorizing her face. She could barely look at him, instead she held his hand, vowing she would never let go. “You’ve been declared dead,” she said to Nate and Anne.

“We know. We checked out the internet a couple times on our way here,” Nate explained.

Sarah pulled a few pieces of paper from out of her purse and handed one to Anne, and one to Nate. Anne had finished Sarah’s food and was downing the fruity beverage. She took the small paper and slurped the rest of the drink as she read the long series of numbers and letters.

“Bank account,” Sarah explained. “It’s all yours.”

“How did you get this money?” Nate asked warily.

“I stole it from the operations budget,” she whispered.

“They are going to kill you for that,” Jason gripped her hand so tight her bones ground together.

“It was on my bosses’ computer, with her passwords. I framed her for it,” Sarah said calmly. At the horrified expressions on her companions faces she added, “She’s the one who told me you were dead. She’s the one who recruited me to work for the Race. I had no idea what they were really doing until you turned up alive, and I dug deeper into restricted files. She’s the one who executed the orders to blow up hundreds of people on that bridge! As far as I’m concerned, she deserves what’s coming to her. I just decided we deserved a little by way of damages, seeing as how we all have to live in the wind, now.”

Jason put his arm around her. “We are together, now, baby. That’s all that matters.” She nodded, tears stinging her eyes.

“How much is in the account?” Nate asked, fingering his slip of paper.

“Five million,” Sarah said softly.

“And my share of that?” he asked, nodding.

“That is your share, five million,” she corrected him. “And five million in Anne’s. Ten million in ours.” 

“You stole twenty million dollars?” Jason gaped.

Sarah shook her head, “My boss stole twenty million dollars. That’s what was in the operations budget. There was more in a few other accounts, but I didn’t think I needed to be greedy.”

“Why share with us?” Nate asked. “You could keep it all to yourself.”

Sarah shook her head. “You brought Jason back to me. I owe you for that. Besides, I’ve seen what too much money can do to people.”

“Wow, thanks,” Nate said. He looked stunned. Anne just stared at her with wide eyes, her hands over her stomach. “I wish they hadn’t gotten away with it all, though.”

Sarah smiled, feeling triumphant. She placed her thumb drive on the table. “I’ve got it all right here. Everything that was on my bosses’ computer.”

“The sponsors?” Nate asked.

“Maybe, I’m not sure, it’s encrypted.”

“What are you going to do with it,” he asked her.

“I hadn’t decided. I thought we’d decide together when I saw you.” She leaned into her husband, grateful to share the burden. 

“Oh my god,” Anne said to herself, looking down at her hands, “we are going to be ok!” 

Sarah frowned at the woman. “Anne, are you pregnant?” she asked.

Anne laughed, “Why yes, yes I am!” Nate looked gobsmacked and Jason just looked confused.

“How about we order some more food, then?” Sarah grinned.

Free Fiction: Drive Chapter 5: Nothing to Lose

It’s Friday and we are racing fast and furiously now! If you missed the beginning, this week I am posting, for free, a novel. Each day is a new chapter! Welcome aboard, and enjoy the ride!

Drive: Nothing to Lose

Desperate, determined, and maybe a little bit crazy! 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.


by Jamie Aldis

Chapter Five: Nothing to Lose

Washington Monument Parking Lot, Washington DC – morning, Sunday

Tiffany snarled at Nate, “Thanks, but I’m fine.”

“You aren’t fine, you have broken ribs, and possibly internal bleeding,” Nate said, long legs easily keeping up with her stride to the ambulance. He wondered how she came to be driving an ambulance when she looked like she should be in one.

“Why that old man gets the advantage, when we got to the finish line first just isn’t bloody fair!” Tiff snarled, ignoring him.

“At least let me rewrap your ribs. It’ll help you breath a little easier,” Nate offered. “I was a fireman and EMT, once upon a time.”

Tiff paused and looked at him, seeing him for the first time. “Why would you help me?”

“Because you need it,” Nate replied.

“Yes, I know,” Lucia said to the air beside her. She turned to her friend, her eyes too bright. “Heather says we have to win, we have to stop them.” Her madness and urgency was painfully clear, but Tiffany just nodded sadly.

“I know, Luc.”

“Heather?” Nate asked, “I saw her with you the past couple stops. Where is she now?” They had arrived at the ambulance, and he found it well stocked. He pulled out what he needed. Lucia climbed into the front seat, raving about how they needed to win, while Tiff climbed into the back with him and stripped her shirt off with an economy of movement and lack of self-consciousness that told Nate she must be in shock or extreme denial. He was right, her ribs were broken. He palpitated her ribs and organs, though he was no doctor, he thought she was moving around awfully well for a woman with so much visible bruising. His question hung in the heavy silence as he moved swiftly to rewrap her ribs as tightly as he could.

“Heather is dead,” she said, her voice emotionless and flat. “We were hit by a hummer on the I-10 about an hour outside Tallahassee.” She finished buttoning the lab coat she wore over a pair of hospital scrubs once he was finished wrapping her ribs.

He pushed open the back doors of the ambulance and stepped out. Across the parking lot two men leaned against a blue Mitsubishi eclipse. Their arms were crossed, and they had the cave man scowl of hired muscle. The one on the right looked vaguely familiar, and Nate frowned, trying to place the man. Tiffany followed his gaze as he gave her a hand down from the ambulance. She stumbled, her grip tightening fiercely on his hand. He steadied her. She had turned so pale she was almost grey, her eyes wide and full of fear as she stared at the men Nate had been looking at.

“That’s him!” her voice came out as a cracked, hoarse whisper. “That’s the man who killed Heather!”

Nate swiveled his gaze around and frowned. Then it clicked. The man on the right had been driving the silver Mitsubishi that had caltropped him on the highway, just after Key Largo. He jumped when the ambulance engine started. Tiffany pulled out of the parking lot so fast everyone nearby turned to look. Including the men leaning against the Eclipse. The dirty blond that Nate recognized met his gaze, and smiled blackly, his eyes hardened by a long acquaintance with delivering death. A chill fell down Nate’s spine, invaded his veins. He watched the two men nod to each other. The dark haired one climbed into the blue Eclipse, the dirty blond walked behind it and got into the familiar silver car that Nate had been looking for since it had cut him off that day.

Washington Monument Parking Lot, Washington DC – morning, Sunday

“Shit!” Jason exclaimed as the thug who had been following him since Key West climbed into his silver Eclipse. His exclamation attracted Nate’s attention. As Nate walked up to him, he glanced at the gate the racers had climbed over to see if Anne was back yet.

“Jason,” Nate said. “I am glad I caught you.”

“That guy who got into the silver Eclipse, did you see him? Did he see me?” Jason asked, his fingers drumming a nervous rhythm on the yellow and black Mustang he was leaning against.

“You know that guy?” Nate asked.

“Not exactly,” Jason replied.

“He’s the one who threw the caltrops under my tires in Florida,” Nate said, his voice low and a little dangerous.

“That’s right, he did, didn’t he,” Jason muttered.

“You sound like you know that,” Nate’s eyes narrowed in a scowl.

Great, just what I need, Nathan Reynolds to be pissed off with me, Jason thought. “I was in Anne’s car when it happened, and she was right behind you. Damn near rolled the car to avoid you and those caltrops, she did.”

“Did she?” At least Nate no longer looked pissed. In fact he looked thoughtful. Then he nodded to himself, looking a little startled. “He works for them, doesn’t he? That makes sense. But why kill people?”

“Who works for who?” Jason tried to keep it there, play it dumb and safe, but curiosity got the better of him. Besides, he was supposed to get information now, wasn’t he? He was undercover for the FBI, after all. “Who was killed?”

“I want to ask you about the race, who runs it? How does it really work?” Nate became very insistent.

Jason frowned, and looked around. “Not here, here we are probably under surveillance. Have you been to the finish line yet?” He gestured over the fence.

“Yeah,” Nate nodded.

“So you have the clue.”


“Are we going north or west?”

“Hell if I know, it’s another riddle, of course, and I haven’t even tried to figure it out, yet.”

Jason nodded and frowned. “We need to meet somewhere, if we want to talk.”

“I’ll follow you, stop for breakfast somewhere, and we can talk then.”

“Ok, sounds good, but let’s put some miles behind us, first.”

“Fine.” Nate turned to walk away.

“Oh, Nate?” Jason stopped him, “Don’t make it look like you are following us.”

“Damn cloak and dagger shit is really starting to irritate me,” Nate muttered to himself as he walked to his car.

Me, too, Jason thought to himself. People were starting to climb back over the fence, and he realized Anne was among them. He grinned. That woman had a way of being in the lead, even though she looked so small and mousy and weak. He stepped away from the bumblebee and walked to meet Anne at her car. She powered the locks open, and they climbed in silently.

“So where are we going?” he asked.

“You sure do ask me that a lot,” her lips twitched in a brief grin as she started her engine and pulled out of the rapidly emptying parking lot. “Read it for yourself, and see what you can make of it.”

“We should have gotten the FBI to help us figure these things out, somehow,” he said.

“Hmph,” was her only response as she turned onto Independence Avenue.

“What?” He couldn’t resist asking.

“Nothing,” she shrugged.

“You like it!” He exclaimed. “You like figuring it out! You like the race!”

“Hmph,” was all he got. He decided to wait until they were on the highway before telling her about the breakfast plans he had made.

Washington Monument Parking Lot, Washington DC – morning, Sunday

David handed the keys to his sixteen year old daughter, hoping she did not notice the trembling in his hands. He fought a rush of nausea and watched as his vision narrowed down to a pinprick as he clutched the roof of his economical Toyota. The cold metal stayed under his hands, and a few moments later his vision slowly expanded again. The look of fear in his daughter’s eyes stung his heart.

“Dad, are you ok?”

“I’m fine, Lexi,” he lied. “Just tired.” He climbed into the passenger seat before he fainted. Lexi got behind the wheel and pulled out of the parking lot. He was pretty certain she no longer believed him, but was grateful she wasn’t asking a lot of questions.

“He’s following us again,” she said instead.

“Someone is following us?” he asked, hoping his voice sounded stronger than he felt, as he reclined the seat.

“Yeah, that guy in the car that looks like a bee. He followed us from Tallahassee, too.”

“Really?” He was beginning to drift off again.


“Yes?” He was barely conscious.

“Where are we going?” The anxiety in her voice pulled him away long enough to answer.

“Niagara Falls, dear,”

“Where is that?” she asked.

“Buffalo, New York.”

“And where is that?” she asked, but he lost consciousness before he could answer.

McDonald’s, McLean, Virginia – morning, Sunday

“Let’s stop here for breakfast,” Jason said.

“I’m not really that hungry yet, let’s push on until we get into Pennsylvania,” Anne replied.

“I really need to take a leak. And I’m starving. We’re here, let’s just stop,” Jason urged. His voice was taking on a whine that set Anne’s teeth on edge.

“Fine!” she relented, pulling onto the off ramp with a sudden swerve, cutting off a car whose horn honked loudly. “But we are doing drive-thru.”

“I need the bathroom! And it’s number two, so let’s just go in.”

Anne rolled her eyes, but she pulled into a parking space. Jason rushed to the bathroom while Anne walked up to the counter. She might as well order breakfast while she was here, then she could push on through the day. There was no line so her McMuffin was in her hand almost instantly. She sat down and just begun to unwrap her sandwich when a man sat down at her table. She flinched when his shadow crossed her vision.

“Philip!” she exclaimed before her brain registered that the man sitting at her table was not her husband. Her heart hammered, but anger swept the fear away. Only then did she recognize Nate, the man who had helped her through the maze. “Do you mind?” her voice was harsh and rude, even to her own ears.

“I generally prefer to be called Nate, actually,” he joked, his eyes glinted with amusement, though the worry lines on his forehead did not ease.

“I’m sorry, for a moment I thought you were someone else,” she said.

“Someone unpleasant, it would seem,” Nate ventured. Then he added, “Where is Jason? He said we could talk when he pulled over for breakfast.”

“Oh he did, did he? And when did he agree to this?” Anne glared at the bathroom door.

“At the monument, I need to talk to him. And you, too. I take it he didn’t mention it?”

“No, he didn’t.” Anne glared at her food as she took a hostile bite of her warm McMuffin.

“Is he in the bathroom?” Nate asked. Anne nodded, her sandwich in her mouth. “Ok. Might as well get something to eat, then.”

Jason emerged from the restroom while Nate was ordering, and Anne glared at him as he walked to the counter. He and Nate greeted each other, and both carried their food to the table.

“What is all this about?” Anne demanded. “I’ve got a race to win.”

“Why?” Nate asked.

“Why what?”

“Why do you have a race to win?”

“I could use that money,” Anne said, unaware that her hand hovered protectively over her abdomen.

“She’s running away from her abusive husband,” Jason added.

“I never said he was abusive!” Anne exploded. “I never said anything about him at all!”

“So it’s a loving husband who calls with threats and then gets you arrested for stealing your own car?” Jason asked.

Nate interrupted gently, “That’s why you want to win the race, not why you have a race to win. What I mean is, who put you into this race?” His voice was low and conspiratorial. Jason’s expression closed down like a switch had been thrown.

Anne blinked at them both, “What do you mean?”

“Who do you think invited you? Who put you in the race in the first place?”

“At first I thought it was a game my husband was playing with me,” she paused. “Mr. Bright?”

“He’s just a hired hand,” Jason said. Nate nodded.

“You know who puts us into the race, don’t you?” Nate asked Jason.

“No,” the cold anger in Jason’s voice chilled Anne to the core.

“Are you talking about the people the FBI are after?” Anne asked.

“The FBI?” Nate asked while Jason glared at her shaking his head violently, indicating she should say nothing further.

“It’s best not to talk about the race, even to each other. People end up dead that way,” Jason said. “Enough of this, let’s go!” He started to get up. Anne stayed where she was, looking between the two men.

“You’re making a scene,” Anne said. “Sit down.”

“I think we all will end up dead, anyway,” Nate said softly. “This is what I know. I was somewhere very remote, very dark, and very personal when I got a call from the man we call Mr. Bright. He knew me far too well for a stranger, proven just in the way I got the race phone in the first place. Then some guy who works for the race tried to take me out of it just a couple hours into the game. I think you know who that man is, since you recognized him this morning. Because of him, I lost the first leg, and I was given a gun as a penalty and told I had to kill someone to get them out of the race, or I was going to be killed instead.”

Anne’s blood ran cold, and her just finished sandwich turned into lead. She gulped her luke warm coffee, but it didn’t help. Nate continued speaking softly.

“I had decided I was going to let them kill me, but one of the race cars had a fatal accident on the way to Tallahassee, and Mr. Bright thought I had arranged it. There has been at least one other death I know of, also because of that man. Additionally, I know that the Miller’s are in the race because their daughter was kidnapped, and they were thusly coerced into racing. So what we have here are three counts of murder, kidnapping, and however many illegal charges there are to having a race. But really what I figure is that there are some very rich people playing us like pawns in some sick game, and people are dying left and right. I want some answers from you, Jason, since you seem to know more about what is going on than anyone.”

“I have no answers to give you,” Jason said.

“He was in the race before,” Anne said. “Now he’s working for the FBI.”

Jason’s face turned a grey white. “You’ve just killed me.”

“What? I did no such thing!” Anne exclaimed. “You are such a drama queen!”

“The people who run this race have eyes and ears everywhere. That clerk behind the counter could work for them. They have probably tapped into the surveillance of this place already. They will kill me if they know I’m in the race.”

“They know already, or did you forget that you happily slept under their cameras for several hours this morning at the monument? Or that the guy in the silver Eclipse saw you?” Nate added. “And you are no fed, so I don’t know what story you’ve been telling Anne here.”

“No story, the FBI pulled me out of jail in Jacksonville. They took my race phone, bugged it I assume, then handed it back to me, and told me Jason was my new partner,” she explained.

“You were in jail in Jacksonville?” Nate asked.

“Her husband put out an APB on her and the car, saying she stole it,” Jason said.

“Would that be why the police are running the license plate of your car?” Nate asked casually.

Anne spun in her chair and looked out the window where a state trooper was idling behind her car, reading his monitor. He spoke into the radio. He clearly didn’t like what he heard. A few moments later, he turned off his engine, blocking her in, and stepped out of the car, his hand on his gun.

George Washington Memorial Pkwy, Virginia – morning, Sunday

Nate’s palms were sweating against his steering wheel as he revved up to speed on the highway, the patrol car unmoving in the parking lot of the McDonald’s they had so swiftly vacated. “We’re clear,” he said.

Anne pulled herself up from the floor and stared out the window behind them. She looked more than a little shaken and her hands trembled, though she tried to hide it. Glancing in his rearview mirror he saw Jason sit up from the backseat.

“So glad you thought to park on the other side of the McDonald’s from us,” Jason muttered, also turning around to look behind the car, though the highway had already eaten the view.

“It seemed like the cloak and dagger way to go.” He wiped his palms on his thighs. “Besides, we still have much to discuss, and now no one has to worry about losing time in the race.” He said with a wry grin. Anne smiled wanly in return. “Hope you didn’t have anything important in the car.”

“Just my money and clothes,” Anne said, her hands curled protectively around her abdomen.

“The car was obviously a liability,” Jason said. “You and that persistent husband of yours.”

Anne fell silent, worrying at her lower lip with her teeth. Nate said the first thing he could think of that might distract her. “So who is the guy who tried to kill me with caltrops.” He shook his head to himself, way to go Nate, that’ll cheer her up.

“Sure, why don’t I tell you?” Jason sneered, “I might as well spill everything. I’m a dead man anyway. If the race doesn’t kill me, then the feds will send me to prison for pulling a gun on them, so I might as well commit as many fuck ups as possible, why don’t I?”

“You pulled a gun on the feds?” Nate asked.

“Yeah, I did. So what if I didn’t know it was the feds? That doesn’t matter. You want the story? Fine, I’ll tell you the story!” An hysterical edge had crept into Jason’s voice. “It all started the day I came home from work on my third anniversary. I was a few minutes late, because the jeweler hadn’t quite finished the diamond setting on the wedding band I was finally able to buy my wife. I came in and the furniture was overturned, and my wife was nowhere to be seen. I called the police, and next thing I know I’m being interrogated under suspicion of murdering my wife, because they found her blood in the kitchen. Not a lot of blood, and there was no body, so twenty hours later, they let me go telling me I better not go anywhere. When I got home, a phone rang. The opportunity of a lifetime, and my wife at the finish line. But only if I won, of course. I got in my car, and the next week of my life was a living hell. I barely survived to the last leg of the race. By the end, everyone was trying to kill me, the other racers, the thugs, the police, everyone. But I was in the lead, and racing for the final finish line. There were people all lined up on a hill beyond the finish line, and my wife was one of them. It was a dirt road in the desert, somewhere in Utah or Arizona or something. My eyes were on my wife, and that’s when it happened. The car behind me passed me and crossed the finish line. As soon as it did, my wife’s chest exploded in blood as they shot her from behind. I screamed and must have jerked the wheel, because the next thing I knew I was driving right over the edge of the canyon cliff we’d been racing next to. I blacked out when the car hit the ground, and I woke up three weeks later in a hospital. I got some flowers with a note the day after I woke up, “Congratulations on your second place prize!” I got a phone call later that day telling me if I ever breathed a word of the race my prize would be rescinded. I had no idea what it meant for several weeks, while I laid in the hospital with nothing to do but think and try to make my muscles work again. I didn’t understand until I went home. The police investigation was over. My wife was listed as a missing person, and my suspicion in the matter had been cleared up completely. It was all over. They never found her body. I’ve been trying to find the race ever since.

“There, that’s my story, now you know everything!”

Nate let the silence hang for a few moments, absorbing the pain of Jason’s tale, sorting the information. It was a grim tale, and it confirmed what he had begun to suspect.

“Not everything,” Nate said. “I still don’t know how you pulled a gun on the feds!” He kept his voice light, and was rewarded with a snort of laughter from Jason which broke the heavy tension in the man’s face.

“It’s all your fault. It was your gun!” Jason snorted again, “In Tallahassee, I grabbed your gun from your pocket in the maze. There was this van in the parking lot, and I thought it was a surveillance team from the race, so I pulled the gun and opened the van door, and demanded answers. I got a face full of brass, glocks, and some very pissed off FBI agents.”

“What’d you do, talk ‘em into letting you spy on the race?”

“Basically, yes. They were there following the race, investigating something about it.”

“And how did you end up in jail?” Nate asked Anne.

“Some cops picked me up in Jacksonville, saying I had stolen my car from my husband. The FBI took custody of me, and next thing I knew, Jason was in my car, and we were back in the race.”

“They needed a race phone, the police scanners said Anne had been picked up. It was just convenient,” Jason shrugged.

“So the FBI are somewhere behind us, following Anne’s race phone, and tapping the clues and calls it gets?” Nate rubbed his eyes. This was getting quite complicated.

“Yep, as near as I can figure. They have probably solved the clue by now, and are getting agents to the next checkpoint.”

“What do they intend to do then?”

“Hell if I know.”

“So all you wanted was to hear Jason’s story?” Anne asked.

“No, I want help convincing everyone else to quit the race before anyone else dies. And we have to find the Miller’s baby girl. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that the colonel is going to have to kill someone, too.”

“Is that all?”

“No, I want to know who wanted me in this race. Haven’t you ever wondered who paid to put you in the race?”

“Paid?” Jason frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, this race must be expensive as hell, and that’s not even counting the prize money, if there even is a prize. It’s clearly invite only, so who is doing the inviting? The only thing that makes sense is that we each must be sponsored by someone who really wants to fuck with us, and is willing to pay a great deal of money in order for it to happen. So the question is, who are you? Who are each of us, why have we been invited into the race?”

“Me? I’m nobody, I’m a pizza delivery guy.”

“But who were you before?”

“Just a man in love with his wife.”

“Before that?”

Jason frowned. “I was a race car driver.”

“Did you piss anyone off? Someone wealthy?”

“My owner was very unhappy when I quit to live the married life.”

“What about you, Anne?”

“The only rich man I know is my husband, and he wants me at home. He doesn’t even like it when I go grocery shopping. Of course, he dislikes doing his own shopping even more. What about you?”

“Me? I’m just a former fireman with a bad back, and I don’t know anyone with two nickels to rub together.”

Ronald Reagan Airport, Washington DC – midmorning, Sunday

John James shuffled in his chair, glaring at the eleven other John James’s in the room. They all looked as bored and suspicious as he felt. He had never seen them all gathered in one place. By nature they were all like him, and his bosses knew better than to bring a collection of men like this together in one room. The mercs lining the walls holding automatic weapons encouraged them to keep the peace, however. He was very annoyed that he’d been recalled. At least he wasn’t the only one who had been. It looked like they all had, though no one ever told him how many John James were working the race. Still, his target was undoubtedly in Pennsylvania by now, and it made him jittery. Judging by the discontent in the room, it made them all jittery.

The usual office staff was busy running around the hanger like ants spilling out of a flooded ant hill. Sarah was here, which meant the Battle-Axe was here. Great, just what he needed. Sarah was busy pulling the plugs and packing the impressive array of electronic equipment they traveled with. When the Battle-Axe strode across the room, her heels clicking like a death march across the concrete floor, he was almost glad to see her. At least he could go soon, once she said her piece. At her entrance, Sarah ran to the laptop that sat on the table at the front of the room and hurried to turn it on. After a few flickers the grey wall in front of them turned blue, showing a waiting computer screen. Fucking joy, they were recalled for one of the stinking slide shows the race loved to put together. As one, every John James in the room groaned. They all hushed quickly as the Battle-Axe glared at them. She grabbed the remote from Sarah, and the pretty assistant scurried to the rear of the assembly, and resumed packing up equipment.

“There is little time, so I’ll be quick about this,” the Battle-Axe’s voice rang out like the harsh kiss of steel on steel. “Pay attention, I will not repeat myself.” She glared at the thugs draped menacingly across the metal folding chair. “The FBI have infiltrated this race.”

John James and his cohorts all snapped to attention at that one. Not one of them was innocent in the eyes of the law.

“We are moving this race across the border after the next checkpoint. They must cross the Rainbow Bridge, and they are racing faster than anticipated, so slow them down. We need time to get the advance teams into Canada,” She clicked her remote and a map of Niagara Falls and Rainbow Bridge came up on the screen.

A general grunting indicated that the John James collective understood their orders.

“How do you know the feds found us?” One guy, stupider than the rest, ventured the question. You never questioned the Battle-Axe. But he was probably assigned to one of the pansy advance team units that set up, rather than his follow and clean-up unit. To his surprise the Battle-Axe decided to answer.

The blond broad that John James’ thief had hitched a ride with clicked onto the screen. John James started to curse under his breath. “The racer Anne Collins was arrested in Jacksonville, but the FBI took her into custody. She checked in at this morning’s checkpoint, on time, and in the company of this man.” John James bit his tongue not to swear out loud as the thief he’d been trying to kill since Key West flashed on the screen. The picture was poor, taken from the surveillance cameras at the monument, and blown up as it was onto a roughly painted wall, but that was the man. A loud crash ricocheted through the hangar and everyone turned to see Sarah staring wide-eyed at the man on the wall, her face pale and white, a box of equipment dropped at her feet. She looked like she’d seen a ghost. She muttered an apology and hurriedly picked up the box under the glare of the Battle-Axe who continued speaking as if nothing had interrupted her.  “None of the sponsors claim the act, so we must conclude the man is FBI or working for the FBI, and this race has been compromised. We must, at all cost, protect the sponsors. Is that clear? Your orders are to get all the racers onto that bridge,” the map returned to the screen, “at the same time. Failure to do so will mean your lives.”

She strode away with a harsh clack of heels, leaving the map glowing starkly on the wall. One of the assistants stepped up to the table, his voice hesitant and wobbly. “There is a plane to take you to Buffalo, where your cars will be waiting. Since the racers are so close together at this point, we anticipate that you should be able to delay most of them at Goat Island easily enough. Encourage stragglers to get there on time, delay the leads, and allow the colonel through to fulfill his challenge. Your cars at Buffalo will be equipped with trackers so you’ll know where the racers are. You have your orders. Your plane is waiting.”

SR-295, Baltimore, Maryland – Sunday, midmorning

“Dad? Dad? Are you awake?” Lexi’s voice pulled him out of his sleep. At least he hoped it was sleep. He was beginning to think he had less time than he hoped. “Dad, I don’t know where to go from here.”

“Where are we,” he mumbled, barely able to hear himself.

“Baltimore, and there are like eight roads that go north, and I don’t know which one to take.”

David Campbell rubbed his eyes, ignoring the pain that filled his head with cotton. “We need to get to Buffalo.”

“Yeah, I got that Dad, and it’s in New York, which is north. But which north road? Should I pull off the highway and get a map? That guy who has been following us for, like, ever, is still behind us, so I wanted to ask you what you wanted to do.”

His daughter tried to hide the concern in her voice, and that touched his heart deeply. Instead of saying anything, though, he reached for the safer subject, “That yellow and black car, you mean?”

“Yeah, him.”

“Hm, he seems like a nice enough fellow,” David said. An idea began to form in his muddled thoughts.

SR-295, Baltimore, Maryland – Sunday, midmorning

Drew frowned as the father daughter team pulled off the highway into the city of Baltimore. They always seemed to know where they were going, but he just didn’t think Baltimore was where they were supposed to be going.

“They probably need gas,” he muttered to himself. He checked his gas gauge and added, “Probably not a bad idea.”

They pulled into a mini-mart gas station. He pulled up nearby and began filling up his car. The daughter went into the mini-mart. She had a nice tight ass, he noticed. Jailbait, though. He turned back to his gas pump, and jumped when he saw dad standing right next to him, giving him the evil eye.

“You’ve been following us,” the dad said.

“Uhhhhh,” he answered.

“My name is David Campbell,” the man paused, waiting.

“Uh, Drew.” The silence stretched even longer. “Uh, Drew Thompson. Uh, sir.”

“I have a suggestion,” David finally nodded, and began. “Clearly your vehicle is faster than mine, yet you follow us, which suggests that you don’t know what the clues mean.”

Drew opened his mouth to protest, but David held up his hand to cut him off before he even began. He was starting to feel stupid, and he hated feeling stupid.

“I know where we need to go, but I’m feeling unwell and can’t help my daughter drive. I propose we team up for the remainder of the race.”

Drew took an involuntary step back, “Whatcha got?”

The man laughed at him, “Nothing contagious, and I’m mostly just tired from all the driving. Not as young and strong as some.”

Drew stood up a little straighter, liking this man a bit more. At least he knew when he was beat. “You’re the second person to ask me to team up,” he said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, and he wondered why the man was making the suggestion, when he’d been in the lead much of the race.

“It would appear to me that a person alone is at a disadvantage than one with a partner,” David said. “And ten million dollars is still a lot more than nothing.”

“I’m already getting where I need to be,” Drew said.

“But can you get there if we stop racing here and now?” David asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that we team up, or I drop out of the race here and now.”

“Dad! What are you doing!” Lexi shouted, close enough to have heard her father. She was thrusting her tits out in her anger and Drew had to rip his eyes away before either of them caught him looking. This was gonna get interesting. 

“We need a partner, Lexi, because I don’t think I can drive anymore.”

“I can do the driving!” She insisted.

“Not all the time,” her father said. He turned to Drew, “Well? What do you say?”

Since he had no clue where the hell Lelawala was, Drew didn’t see that he had much of a choice. “You tell me where we are going, then we take my car, old man.”

David laughed sardonically, “We can take your car, but I’ll only tell you our destination once we are back on the road.”

“Yeah, all right.”

Gas station, Baltimore, Maryland – Sunday, mid-morning

Lexi fumed as she stomped back to her car. “I’m not going with that stupid pervert!” she said to her dad, once they were far enough away from Drew.

“Lexi, I have to tell you something. This isn’t easy, so please, understand.” The look on her father’s face scared her more than she would ever admit, and her heart leaped into her chest. He took her hands in his. They were cold, and his face had a grayish cast to it that did not look good at all. She swallowed the lump in her throat hard, and waited as he took a deep, shuddering breath.

“Lexi, remember those doctor appointments I had last month?”

“Your check-ups?” She suddenly knew they had not been ordinary check-ups, and she didn’t want to hear any more, but if she protested, then the tears she was fighting would fall.

“Yes, those. Lexi, there is no easy way to say this. I’m dying. I have an inoperable brain tumor. When I got the call, I thought I could make it through the race without a problem, but, as you know, I’m not doing so well.”

“But dad!” The tears slipped her hold, and burned like acid down her cheeks.

“Hush, pumpkin,” he wrapped his arms around her and held her like he had when she was seven. “It’ll be all right.”

“We can quit the race, Dad, and go find other doctors, someone who can fix you!”

“Lexi, my sweet daughter, I’ve been to all the doctors, and they all agree. Inoperable. I wanted us to have this race, this time together, a last, great adventure.” She sobbed into his chest. “We just need a little help getting to the finish line, that’s all.”

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!


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.


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.

Free Fiction: Drive Chapter 3: Penalties

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!

Drive: Penalties by Jamie Aldis

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.

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.


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.

“What for?”

“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.”

“Whatever, man.” 

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.

Free Fiction: Drive Part 2: Last Place

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

Drive: Last Place by Jamie Aldis

You don’t want to be in last place in this crazy race! Drive for your life or they will kill you. Hang on to your hats, because this is the story of an illegal road race and the people, willing and unwilling, who must race for their lives.

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

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


by Jamie Aldis

Chapter Two: Last Place

Casa Marina, Florida – Friday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flagler Street, Key West, Florida – Friday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now! We have to go now!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flagler Street, Key West, Florida – Friday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

The tallest mosquito lights the way.

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

Everglades, Florida – Friday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

“Well, you didn’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Mile Bridge, Florida – Friday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason looked behind them, worried and afraid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go, go, don’t wait for me,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“That’s illegal!” Anne exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” he replied.

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

“What does it say?” he asked.

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

“Oh,” Jason said. Some help he was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know that?”

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

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

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

South Dixie Hwy, Florida – Friday, late afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everglades, Florida – Friday, early evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miami, Florida – Friday, evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, her!”

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

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

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

Heather frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You stole his computer?”

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

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

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

“What was encrypted?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he lied.

She narrowed her eyes, and stood up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discount Tires, Florida City, Florida – Friday, sunset

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

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

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

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

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

Florida Turnpike, Florida – Friday, sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the second half?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lighthouses!” she exclaimed triumphantly.

“Yes, that’s right! Very good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing like that around here,” John said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So!” Drew bristled.

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

“What you talking about?” Drew asked suspiciously.

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

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

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

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

“So, what’s the next clue?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the penalty?” Nate asked.

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

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

“Eliminated?” Nate repeated hollowly.

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

Free Fiction: DRIVE Part 1: The Starting Line

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

Drive: The Starting Line by Jamie Aldis

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

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

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


by Jamie Aldis

Chapter One: The Starting Line

Eugene, Oregon – Wednesday, afternoon

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

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

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

“Where is Chelsea?” Jennifer asked.

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

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

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

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

Schaumburg, Illinois – Thursday, morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berthoud Pass, Colorado – Thursday, midnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugene, Oregon – Wednesday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should call the police.”

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

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

Schaumburg, Illinois – Thursday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berthoud Pass, Colorado – Thursday, midnight

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

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

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

“Do I know you?”

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

“What is this, some kind of joke?”

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

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

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

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

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

Addison, Illinois – Thursday, morning

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

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

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

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

“And everything in between,” Anne added.

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

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

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

Salem, Oregon – Wednesday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, Yosemite,” she blurted.

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

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

“Sure,” Sherry sounded uncertain.

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

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

Key West, Florida – Friday, early morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said.

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

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

“Not Philip Gropdich, or Anne Gropdich?”

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

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

“Yes, ma’am, it is.”

“Is there another Casa Marina in Key West?”

“No, ma’am.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would a king-sized bed do, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key West, Florida – Friday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keys Ballroom, Casa Marina, Florida – Friday, afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Fiction: The Sacred Flame

As we all settle in to social distancing, shelter-at-home, quarantine, and/or lock-down there is much to process each and every day. I find myself turning to stories when I need a respite, and I will continue to offer my own stories here, free, for anyone who is likewise turning to story to offer respite and escape.

Here is the first Band of Lyra story, with Tahana on her first epic challenge.


On her first mission since her ordainment, priestess Tahana, disciple of the goddess of joy, travels to investigate an abbey gone silent.

The small abbey, taken by bandits, her fellow sisters hostage.

Can Tahana’s faith and magic save the day?

The Sacred Flame” by Jamie Aldis and its sequels, are published in Beginnings: A Collection of Short Stories.

The Sacred Flame

by Jamie Aldis

THE CRISP AIR of early spring tickled her cold nose. Tahana smiled up at the radiant yellow sun beaming in the deep blue sky. The hint of warmth in the rays danced on her cheeks, fending off the lingering cold of the snow that still clung to the rocks and shadows of the mountain pass. The towering pine trees smelled so good she breathed deeply. The green of them filled the world, their tall cones reaching high above to the soft fluffy white clouds.

A red-feathered cardinal took flight from a low hanging pine branch as she passed. Birdsong filled the morning as the chirping conversations of unseen birds rustled branches far overhead.

She paused in the splash of warm sun and took a drink of cold water. The clean mountain spring water tasted of minerals and leather but eased her dry throat. The higher she walked up the mountain, the thirstier she became. Her water skin held plenty to make it the last few miles to the abbey, though she knew her radiant goddess Lyra would grant her the blessing of creating water if she needed it.

The hard packed road that switched back and forth up the mountain was softening into crusty mud where the joyous light warmed it. Her sturdy brown leather boots kept her feet dry and warm. Once she arrived at the abbey she would need to polish them free of the weeks of travel that clung to them.

She took another swallow of water then smiled again into the warm rays of the sun. She pulled her grey woolen cloak close around her, settled her heavy pack onto her shoulders, and headed back into the shadow of the mountain as the road turned. The air was colder in the shadow, and the snows were more persistent. Spring was coming, but winter still held sway where the sun had less dominion.

She hurried along to keep herself warm, and to finally reach her destination. The abbey, she had been told, lay just beyond the tree line, high on the mountain. Centuries ago it had been a guard tower to protect the mountain pass for some long vanished kingdom. If she had known she would be traveling here she would have read up on it. The old fort now gave shelter to her fellow sisters of Lyra and she was eager to meet them and conclude her first mission as a full sister.

Tahana had been ecstatic when she had been tasked to travel to the remote abbey and find out why the sisters had stopped sending correspondence to the mother temple. Her very first assignment, and she was eager to do well. The trip had taken her weeks. She would undoubtedly find that it had been a late season storm that had delayed correspondence, and that the sisters in the abbey had already written long ago. Still, it was the kind of assignment often given to new sisters to accustom them to being in the world as a cleric of Lyra and sharing the holy blessings of joy. Some would find it not to their taste and would live in a temple, or even abbeys like the one she sought.

Tahana had thrived on her journey, loving every minute of it, even the sore muscles that miles of walking had brought her those first days on the road. She had met so many kind people, in her travels.

The world was a beautiful place.

She felt called to do the work of the gods—to bring about the changes they are constantly working in the world. Tahana would carry Lyra’s Joy across the land and show everyone the beauty and joy of the world.

She rounded the final bend in the switchbacks of the mountain path. Large granite boulders blocked her view ahead, but the towering pine trees opened up to show the wide blue sky and cotton clouds. She quickened her pace.

The boulders, lodged deep into the ground by a centuries old landslide, ended abruptly and Tahana saw the small stone abbey. Indeed, it did look like an old fortified bunker. It could only have held a few score men when it was built. Local legends she had heard in her last stay at an inn a few nights ago said only a dozen men was enough to hold this pass all winter, in the great wars that were so old no one remembered who fought them or why.

The sisters had planted a vegetable garden on the sunny side of the building, though it had not yet been tilled for the spring. The cages that would support the abundance of the harvest were lopsided and forlorn in the flat, untended patch. A few wooden outbuildings had been built neighboring the primary stone fort, making the area look more like a living settlement.

“Get moving!” A man’s harsh voice growled.

Tahana snapped her gaze to the sound, and saw a tall hairy man shove a white robed sister into the stone building. The sister whimpered in pain. Her traditional robe was stained and the hem was ragged and ripped. The man had a scruffy beard. A short sword was stuffed into an ill-fitting sheath at his hip. His leather clothing was worn and slashed from old battles. She could smell his foul body odor from yards away. In fact, it seemed to be getting stronger.

“What ‘ave we ‘ere?”

The stench grew into a shadow that blocked the warm light of the sun. Tahana looked up and blinked against the backlit form of another man above her. She could see only his unkempt hair as a glowing ring of fire around his head, and the crossbow he pointed at her. He stood high above, on the tall boulders to her right.

“Looks like another one,” said a third man as he jumped down from the boulders onto the path behind her. He landed silently. With an alarming gracefulness he drew a short sword.

Tahana sprang forward to run the ten feet she needed to reach open ground. The steep mountain-side fell at a harsh angle to her left, the towering pine trees testament to the angle of the dangerous drop off the edge of the narrow path.

“Now, ‘ere do you think yer goin’?” A large man chuckled as he stepped in the path in front of her, his accent thick and strange. The shadows of the rocks gave his skin an odd grey hue.

Tahana skidded to a halt, looking frantically at the ruffians who surrounded her.

“Lyra shield me!” she shouted, pulling from her pocket a small piece of parchment she’d written holy words on when she set out on her journey. She shoved the small piece of parchment back into her pocket as a shimmering field appeared around her. As long as she kept her focus, it would aid her. She had thought she might need protection from winter hungry animals, not bandits who attacked clerics of joy in peaceful abbeys. Her goddess was with her, regardless of her lack of preparation.

The backlit man on the boulders above shot his crossbow, the string twanging in the crisp morning air. Even the birds had gone silent. The bolt veered off-course just as it passed through her shimmering shield, and barely missed hitting her. He was a frightfully good shot. Even the magic of her faith could not protect her from a perfect aim.

The man behind her began to slowly advance, waving his sword menacingly.

Tehana’s heart pounded in fear.

A quick glance at the man in front of her—he blocked her path. He was a brute. He stood with bulging muscles, his arms crossed. He wasn’t moving. He just stood about five feet in front of her, smirking as his companions began to close in on her.

“Water, joyous Lyra! Make rain!” Tehana cried out to her goddess as she splashed a few drops of water from her water skin onto the ground. Rain began to fall in a small area, right over the heads of the men behind her. The string slipped out of the cross-bowman’s hands as he was attempting to reload. The swordsman slipped, having to pause his advance to catch his balance on the suddenly slick rocks of the path.

Tehana had never used that spell for anything other than watering a garden, or filling her water skins. She was amazed it worked.

Her rain would not delay them long.

She quickly slid off her backpack, pulling free her warhammer, tearing the strap that held it in place. Her shield, with the triple six-pointed star symbol of her goddess, slid onto her arm as she kicked her backpack away from her feet. She kicked too hard, and watched her pack roll over the side of the path and down the drop-off.

Warhammer swinging, Tehana screamed as she rushed at the man in front of her. She surprised him and landed a hearty blow against the brute’s chest, just missing his head. He did not retreat, as she had hoped. He roared, uncrossing his muscled arms, his fists swinging for her. She blocked with her shield, stumbling back to catch her footing after his massive blow. With a shock, she realized that his grayish skin was not a trick of the light, and she gasped as the sun lit his face when he stepped up to swing at her again. He was a half-orc.

Behind her the splashes in the rain and the irritated curses of the other two men told her that they were again coming for her. With a deep breath she focused on keeping her shimmering shield in place. It would make it harder for them to hit her.

She swung at the half-orc, landing a hard blow on his head, which made his punch swing wild and miss her. She spun just in time to block the swordsman with her shield. She kicked him back as another crossbow bolt barely missed her.

She tried rushing the half-orc again, this time slamming her warhammer into his groin. If she could just get around him, and into the open, she might be able to escape. He grunted and fell to the ground, completely blocking the path.

With a curse she ran and leaped over his body. The sharp bite of a sword slashed across her exposed back. She lost her concentration and the shimmering magic shield collapsed.

She arced over the groaning body of the half-orc, her mad leap nearly had her to freedom.

The half-orc reached up and grabbed her ankle, just as a crossbow bolt slammed into her shoulder from behind. Her arm went numb and her warhammer flew forward out of her grip. The half-orc yanked her down.

She smashed into the ground.

The warm sunlight kissed her face just as she lost consciousness.

* * *

Tahana’s head throbbed, aching with every beat of her own heart. She lifted her arm and cried out in pain as her broken ribs screamed fire into her lungs. A strange rasping moan escaped her lips.

“She’s awake!” a hushed and worried whisper sounded very close.

Tahana blinked her eyes, trying to focus through the pain.

“Be still, child, you are quite injured,” a sister of Lyra whispered into Tehana’s ear. Her warm, comforting hand pressed gently on Tehana’s shoulder.

“You were near death when they threw you in here, but we managed to stabilize you.”

“Thank you,” Tahana rasped.

The effort of speech caused excruciating pain. She blinked in the small, dark room. The walls felt very close, and there was only a small sliver of light from under the door. She lay very near that sliver of light. The ruffians must have dropped her on the floor like a sack of potatoes. She could hear them clomping in the room on the other side of the door, and talking with each other, but her head hurt too much to be able to focus.

“Where are we?” she asked, wincing at how much it hurt to speak.

“In the storage room of the garden shed,” the sister near her said. Tehana could hear a few others breathing in the tiny space.

Ignoring her broken bones grating against each other, she lifted her arm to her neck. Around her neck was the simple chain. She nearly cried with relief. Gripping the triple star pendant in her hand she muttered a prayer to Lyra for healing. Her goddess answered her. Relief flooded her body with warmth and the pain vanished as her bones knit cleanly and her head stopped pounding. She took a slow, deep breath, reveling in just being able to expand her ribs.

“You healed yourself!” The sister next to her gasped.

“Lyra has graced me with healing ability, yes.”

“But you didn’t pray first!” the sister said.

“I have a talent for it,” Tahana replied. “Now let’s see about getting out of here, shall we?”

She shushed the sister as she opened her lips to speak again. Tahana peered through the gap at the bottom of the door and listened.

“I’m just sayin’ ‘e should just kill ‘em and be done with it,” the half-orc said, his strange accent easy to distinguish.

“No. Boss said we might get ransom for ‘em, and I ain’t doin’ nuthin’ ’til he gets back,” said the crossbowman.

“I still say ‘e should kill ‘em. Starting with that little-un.” The half-orc shuffled around the room his big feet clomping past a pile of supplies. Tahana recognized her shield and warhammer among them.

“You are just mad she smashed your balls and now you can’t sit down,” chuckled the swordsman.

“They are big as grapefruits!” said the half-orc.

“You wish!” laughed the swordsman. “We sit tight for Boss and he’ll decide. This is a big score for us, when that caravan comes through. For now, we follow orders, and hold the fort.”

The ruffians fell silent, devouring bowls of grub with grunting gusto. Tahana sat up and looked around at her fellow sisters. There were three of them in the tiny room and they slumped with defeat.

The sister who had seen her heal watched her with wide, awe-struck eyes.

How long had they been captive? It had been months since the mother temple had a letter from this abbey. There were supposed to be twelve sisters in residence here.

“I’m Tehana,” she whispered quietly. “The temple sent me to see how you fared.”

The woman farthest from her snorted and said, “Fat lot of good you are doing.”

“I’m going to get us out of here in no time! Lyra is with us,” Tehana said.

“Lyra ain’t been here in months. She’s abandoned us.” The woman’s bitterness made the other sisters rustle and hang their heads even lower.

“She most certainly has not abandoned you. I’m here to do her work, now aren’t I?” Tehana said. “What are your names?”

“I’m Rose, and this is Myrtle and Ivy,” said the sister who had seen Tahana heal.

“Ivy,” Tahana said to the quiet one who kept her eyes on the ground , “what happened here?”

The sister, not much older than Tahana herself, had eyes swollen with tears from long crying.

“They came across the pass just before the last big storm,” Ivy said. “Said they worked for the supply caravan that comes across every spring, and were sent to see if the pass was clear yet.” She started to cry again.

“The storm came that night,” Rose said. “We sheltered them, as we do for all. By the time the skies cleared, they had killed most of us.”

“A few tried to escape,” Myrtle said bitterly, “to send for help. But they killed them too. They aren’t even buried!”

“How many of them are here?” Tahana asked.

“Four, at the moment,” Rose said. “The one who leads them left a few days ago to get more. They plan to stop the spring caravan.”

“Which will starve out half this region for months, until the harvests start ripening,” Ivy said.

“We shall stop them, then.” Tahana said confidently. “We will leave tonight!”

“That’s impossible,” Myrtle said, “we can’t possibly overtake them.”

“Of course not,” Tahana said. “They are trained fighters! Do any of you have weapons training?”

They all shook their heads dejectedly.

Tahana nodded. “We shall sneak out while they sleep!”

The sisters fell silent, so Tahana began to plan their escape. She did have her holy symbol, but very few supplies. The bags of fertilizer in the room they were locked in would not help them much. Her parchment, and the shield of protection she could summon with it, was still in her pocket. She intended to avoid combat, however, so that was less useful to her.

The sun fell, which she could only tell by how the light seeping under the door dimmed and began to flicker with the fire in the hearth. The temperature in the room dropped as the icy cold of night gripped the land. Ivy shivered and the four sisters huddled together to keep each other warm.

Tehana began to sing the hymns of the mother church. She had no particular ability at singing, but the sounds comforted her. She had a mission here, now. She would not falter. After a few bars, the other sisters joined her. They were on their third hymn when the half-orc shouted.

“Shut up in ‘ere, or ye won’t be gittin’ any food tomorrow!”

The sisters hushed instantly. Apparently the thieves withheld food often, judging from their emaciated bodies. Tahana was really beginning to dislike that half-orc.

She settled in to pray to her goddess for the gifts she would need later this night.

* * *

It must have been past midnight when the men were all sleeping. The crossbowman was supposed to be on guard duty, but the dark and quiet night had him dozing, slumped on the table. The other three were in their pallets in the main room. Tahana wondered why none of them slept in the sisters’ quarters in the main fort. That would have made sneaking out much easier.

She gently shook the sisters awake. There was almost no light to see by, so she could only grip their hands to give them courage. It had taken a fair bit of convincing to get them to agree to even try to leave. She swore to them that Lyra was on their side, and would help. Myrtle remained negative, but even she eventually decided to go.

“Are you ready?” Tahana whispered. The sisters answered by standing and facing the door. There was barely enough room for Tahana to stand.

She whispered her prayers to her goddess, and felt the sharp points of her holy symbol as she tucked it under her shirt. Lyra answered. The ground beneath them trembled with a small earthquake.

The sisters gasped in shock.

While the earthquake rumbled, she carefully lifted the latch on the storeroom door. Opening it just a tiny crack, barely could she see the main door of the wooden building.

She whispered her prayers.

The door to the outside flung open, startling all the thieves awake. They jumped to their feet, weapons ready—just as she had hoped.

One more whispered prayer, and from outside it sounded like the rustle of bushes and the clatter of weapons from an imminent attack.

They all rushed out of the building.

Grabbing the nearest sister’s hand, she ran out, pulling them behind her. Their plan depended on speed, and stealth.

She ran out the door, into the black of night, blinking in the brightness of the starlight. The smell of fresh pine filled her with joy. She pulled the sisters the direction opposite where she’d cast her noise spell. She stopped—pushed them forward while she listened into the night at the thieves who were shouting at shadows, and not finding the threatened attack. The sisters ran on, following the line of the big stone fort, the cool starlight lighting their way, Their tattered white dresses were easily visible against the dark stone.

The sisters rounded the far corner of the building, out of Tehana’s sight. A sharp crack of a stick echoed in the night, followed by a small cry of pain.

“They are escaping!” the swordsman said. He was too observant by half.

Tahana ran the length of the stone building, aiming for the tree line the sisters had said was relatively flat, compared to the cliff that had edged the path the other direction. She turned the corner.

One sister had fallen, and another was trying to help her stand. Was that Rose who had fallen and Ivy was helping her? Myrtle bravely stepped in front of them, standing between them and the thieves who were running toward them from the other side of the building. The crossbowman stopped and aimed at her.

“Lyra protect her!” Tahana shouted.

She clutched the bit of parchment in her pocket. Myrtle turned and saw her just as the light surrounded her. Her eyes widened in shock as the bolt the crossbowman fired at her warbled as it hit the shield of light that Tahana had cast to protect her.

Ivy helped Rose stand up. She cried out as she put weight on her leg. A crossbow bolt slammed into Ivy’s head. Rose screamed and fell as Ivy collapsed dead next to her. Myrtle shouted, enraged, and ran toward the crossbowman.

A sound behind Tahana spun her around just in time to see the half-orc’s fist slam into her face. The last thing she could see before blackness claimed her was the ground coming fast at her.

* * *

“That was stupid,” the crossbowman was saying to Myrtle as Tahana came to consciousness.

“This one ‘ere’s awake!” the half-orc said. His thunderous voice was so close she could smell his foul breath.

She gagged on the amount of blood in her mouth. The beast had broken her nose. She could barely see out her swollen eyes.

“Lyra will help us,” Myrtle said to the crossbowman, but she was looking at Tahana. “Now let me set Rose’s broken leg.”

The crossbowman waved permission, and Myrtle knelt down by Rose, who was unconscious on the floor. She worked swiftly and set the bone. Rose, mercifully, remained unconscious.

“And you,” said the crossbowman, “we found your little secret, so no more out of you.” He held up the silver chain and pendant with Tahana’s holy symbol. He slipped it into his belt pouch with a chuckle. “You get to stay out here with us, so no more funny business!”

Tahana tried to speak, but she just gurgled with blood and pain. The half-orc laughed. She rolled over to give him a rude gesture, which made him laugh even more. But there, behind him, on the floor was her shield. From here, she could clearly see the triple stars of her goddess emblazoned on the front of her shield.

She let herself fall limp. She needed to rest, but her goddess had come through for her yet again. It was surprisingly easy to fall into sleep, despite the throbbing of her face, and the smug conversation of the thieves.

When she awoke it was daylight. The first thing she did was see if her shield was still facing out. It was. She prayed fervently, her lips whispered for healing, as her face throbbed. She hoped there was enough blood coating her skin, that the thieves would not notice she had healed.

She heard the rustling of skirts behind her, and turned to see Myrtle was holding Rose, who had been stricken with a fever in the night.

Myrtle looked up at Tahana and smiled.

“I have been blessed with the Sacred Flame of Lyra,” she said.

“No talkin’!” said the half-orc who was standing in the open doorway. The sharp light of early morning made him only a silhouette in the door.

Tahana could hear a conversation outside.

“He’s coming this afternoon,” said a voice she did not recognize. “They are a few days ahead of the caravan, so orders are to start setting up immediately.”

This afternoon!

Tahana looked at Myrtle, who had also heard the conversation. The woman looked serene. Sacred flame, she had said. She must have found her faith again.

“I am ready,” Myrtle said, mouthing the words soundlessly. “Pray and prepare.”

Tahana turned back to see her shield when it dawned on her—Myrtle must be talking about the sacred flame of divine wrath. Tahana had completely forgotten Lyra gave gifts beyond the divine joy and healing that were Tahana’s specialty.

This afternoon more men were showing up. Tahana did not have much time. But she had faith on her side. She prayed.

The messenger told the bandits they were to prepare the fort for the boss and the coming men. The messenger and one of the thieves was to hire more crew from the town Tahana had last stayed at a few days away. They would “mop up” any from the caravan who got through the ambush being laid for it here on the pass.

That meant the Boss and his extra men were coming from the other direction. That was useful information.

Here, now, there were only three thieves guarding them.

At least until the Boss and his big band arrived this afternoon.

The half-orc sat back down at the table, and was playing a knife game with his fingers. One of these days he’d chop his fingers off. The remaining two ruffians, the crossbowmen and the swordsman, were preparing the main fort for the arrival of their boss.

This was their best chance.

She caught Myrtle’s gaze and nodded.

A radiance like flame descended on the half-orc. He was so engrossed in his game that he failed to dodge. Pain seared through him—he screamed. Tahana snatched her shield and warhammer from the pile.

Beating her goddess’ triple stars emblazoned shield with her hammer, she shouted a prayer and sent it to Rose who gasped awake from the sudden healing she received.

The half-orc stumbled to his feet, and knife out, he came at Tahana. She blocked with her shield, his rotten breath puffing into her face.

Behind him Myrtle again sent the flames of pain down on the half-orc. He managed to dodge, but that gave Tahana just enough time to cast her own sacred flame. He screamed in pain, rage filling his eyes. The brute was unaccustomed to magical attacks.

Myrtle hit him again. He screamed.

Tahana swung her warhammer and smashed into his face. See how he liked having a broken nose. He fell to the ground with a thud. The sudden silence revealed the sound of running feet.

Tahana stepped into the doorway, her shield up, her hammer ready, and she cast as soon as she saw who was closest. The crossbowman was just twenty feet away. Tahana prayed to her goddess.

“Smite this evil who has killed your devoted followers.”

A flash of light streaked from Tahana and hit the crossbowman squarely, his dodge coming just moments too late. He fell dead to the ground.

Myrtle came up behind her, helping Rose who was barely limping. Her leg was mostly healed, and the fever had clearly left. Rose held onto the doorframe. Myrtle grabbed a fire brand from out of the fire and set the sleeping pallets of the thieves alight. The flame swept through the room with shocking speed, the wooden floor catching the fire, and the room began to fill with smoke.

Tahana stepped out into the light of the morning, the warm sun on her face.

“Praise to Lyra!” she shouted.

Myrtle and Rose fell in behind her, their steps hurried to keep close to her.

Tahana beat her shield, “Face me if you dare!”

She found the swordsman standing where she had first been ambushed by the thieves. The close quarters would favor his weapon over hers.

Without hesitation she called down the flaming light. She could hear Myrtle behind her doing the same. The swordsman was fast, but not fast enough to dodge two strikes.

Tahana rushed him, slamming into him with her shield before he could raise his weapon. He grunted, then ducked her hammer blow. He rallied and tried to stab her exposed flank.

She dropped her shield, catching his arm. She ripped down, his hand dropped his sword, numbed from her blow. His eyes caught hers as her hammer swung down on his head. He crumpled to the ground.

Tahana grabbed his belt pouch and ripped it off. She wanted to dig out her pendant, but she did not know how long they had until reinforcements came.

“My pack is down there,” she said to her companions. She pointed at the steep cliff over which her backpack had fallen in her first fight. “Keep walking, and I’ll catch up once I’ve got it.”

Myrtle nodded. “Hurry up. We’ll shout if we see anyone coming.”

Tahana carefully climbed down, holding on to the tall trees to keep from slipping. Just a few bare feet from the edge was her pack, hung up on some low branches. Relieved, she pulled it on. The strap that held her warhammer was broken, but mending it would have to wait until she had rested and prayed for her goddess’ help with it. She had asked enough of her goddess for one day.

She climbed back up, surprised to see Myrtle and Rose still there. Myrtle was watching the path carefully, but Rose was tending to the swordsman.

“He wasn’t dead,” she said. “I couldn’t let him die.”

Tahana smiled and nodded. “We must go now, though, before the rest of them arrive.”

Rose nodded, and stood. “He will not die, now. His friends can take care of them.”

Myrtle snorted her opinion of that, but said nothing.

Together the three of them hurried down the switchbacks out of the mountain pass. Rose barely limped, her leg mostly healed. Above them the birds sang in the blue skies and warm spring sunlight. Tahana had two days of food in her backpack. Not much when split between the three of them, but it should be enough for them to get to town. She knew she would be able to create water once she rested some, so that was no concern.

Behind them, rising in a pillar above the tree tops, they could see the smoke of the garden shed burning. The fire must have spread to a few other out buildings. Hopefully that would give a warning to the unsuspecting caravan.

A few hours had passed, and they paused to rest deep in the tree line. Even the rising smoke could not be seen through the canopy anymore.

“Thank you,” Myrtle said. “You brought Lyra back to us.”

“She had never left you,” Tahana said. “She just needed us to know there was a mission here for her work to be done.”

“Yes, thank you for saving us,” Rose said.

“Of course,” Tahana replied, “but that mission is done.”

“What do you mean?” Rose asked.

“I will stop those thieves,” Tahana said. Her green eyes glittered with fervor. “This region must be saved. That caravan must be saved. Lyra’s Joy will not be felt here if those supplies cannot get through.”

“You intend to go back?” Myrtle asked. She shook her head in disbelief.

“Yes, of course.”

“They will kill you!”

“I think not. But first, we must get to town.”

Tahana did not add that she intended to stop that messenger from recruiting more men. She did not mention that she intended to find good men of her own to stop what was happening. Lyra had clearly given her this mission, and she would stop at nothing to complete it.



Copyright ©2016 by Jamie Aldis

Published by Valsaga Publishing LLC

Cover Design copyright ©2016 Valsaga Publishing LLC

Cover art copyright © Photowitch |

This story 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.

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Free Fiction: The Warm Sunrise on a Green House


Emily Winters restores a mansion into a destination hotel to bring the love she never knew to others. “The Warm Sunrise on a Green House” is a touching tale of the love of an old house and family bonds.

“The Warm Sunrise on a Green House” by Jamie Aldis is also available in Beginnings: A Collection of Short Stories.

The Warm Sunrise on a Green House

ROSELYNN HOUSE stood like an emerald gem at the top of the hill. Fresh green paint glowed in the pale pink light of the spring dawn. The white shutters, and filigree Victorian railings on the porch glittered like facets in a gem.

Emily Winters had done it.

The house was a glowing memory to history brought back to life.

And hopefully to love.

Originally built by her great-great grandfather in the 1880’s for the love of his life, the house had once known the love and laughter of family and prosperity.

Or so said the disintegrating diary she’d found in the attic.

Emily watched the sun rise over the cold grey waters of the ocean. The golden rays kissed the eastern side of the house, lighting her up like she was finally in love again. Maybe she was, Roselynn House had been long neglected.

Emily had not even known the house was in the family, nor that she was a direct descendent. Maybe not so direct. Turns out she was the last blood descendent the lawyers could find alive. Apparently the last couple generations had been hard on her family. A family she had never known having grown up the daughter of a single father. Her mother dead the day Emily had been born. Her father too drunk the rest of the years of his life to speak about her.

Her paternal grandparents had taken her in when she was ten, after her father went to jail for yet another DWI. They had sent her to a good school, and helped her get a good marriage. It never occurred to them that she do anything else. It never occurred to her to want anything more than a family to love.

Too bad her husband had never wanted to love anything at all except his political career and prostitutes and cocaine. He was surprised when his career was destroyed by his two vices and it all went horribly public. Emily’s grandfather saved her again by helping her hire a really great divorce lawyer.

That same year her father died of his alcoholism and her grandfather had a heart attack. He had lived, but there were dark days he had been in the hospital and she and her grandmother clung to his parchment hands and whispered their love of him to the steady beep of the hospital machines.

Feeling all hope of family slipping away from her, Emily had sent her DNA off to be cataloged by those ancestry sites. She had needed to feel part of something, and seeing the world map of where her ancestors hailed from helped. She had shared the results to her grandfather as he slowly recovered from his surgery.

The day the letter came from a lawyer she did not know, from a state miles away Emily had been confused. Her grandfather explained she had inherited something. He got his own lawyers involved. Turns out, they had found her based on the ancestry site. The state wanted to sell the property, get the fortune in property taxes paid at the very least.

No sooner had she inherited the house, the ink was not even dry, when developers started hounding her. Her grandfather had been delighted. She would be set for life, he told her. With her trust fund inherited from her father, and her substantial divorce settlement, the sale of this “Roselynn’s House” and the kind of offers coming in would take care of her forever.

She had not even seen the house yet.

She could not just sell it and be done with it without even seeing her legacy. She got the impression that her grandparents had not much liked her mother, and wanted little to do with her.

Emily fell in love with the derelict house the moment she saw it. Overgrown weeds, weathered shutters falling off their hinges, the house so faded you could not even tell what color it had been. Apparently she owned the entire tiny island a short boat ride from the mainland. Beer bottles and graffiti testified to its use as a party spot for kids.

She had gone back to her grandfather and declared she was going to fix it up and live in it. Turn it into a bed and breakfast, maybe.

You know nothing of business, her grandfather had laughed. You will having nothing to live on. The taxes and repairs will take everything. You will have nothing.

She will have the house, her grandmother had said, her warm, calm hand encompassing her husband’s. Emily had hugged them both, tears streaming down her eyes.

Now the house glowed on the hillside, reborn with hope and love and every last cent of both inheritances and her divorce settlement. It had taken two years to get all the needed repairs, and work done. Her grandfather had let her hire his contractor. He had said at least if the work was done right, she could always sell the property for even more than her offers when it was a derelict. Property was worth investing in, so they might as well do the job properly.

Emily went back to school, adding business and hotel management to her former history degree. She juggled her education, and decisions about structural integrity over historical preservation, as well as replacement tiles and wall plaster.

The dawn sun kissed the twenty-room Victorian house built by the love of a man over a century ago for his beautiful wife and family. Emily’s heart filled. Tears ran down her cheeks. The warm pink light made the white shutters glow as if they were dipped in rose gold.

The final inspections had all been passed, and today she was opening her doors. Roselynn House, would be open for business. Her Grand Opening party was in a couple months, scheduled for Memorial weekend, and the start of the tourist season in this area. She had a full house reserved for that weekend, so she was glad for the soft opening to work out whatever kinks were left in the house.

Her grandparents were going to be her first customers. She had a few other reservations coming as well, her website had been collecting bookings for the last six months.

Emily had built a beautiful place, and she loved every inch of it. She loved the quiet dawn light. She was the only person on the island this morning. The last of the tradesmen had left on last night’s ferry. Her employees were due on the morning ferry. She had loved her night alone with her beautiful house.

Negotiating that daily ferry across the water had been one of her biggest challenges. The town had not liked her much, thinking she was just another rich developer slinging money around and planning to steal business from the locals. None of them had believed her when she insisted that she intended to run it locally. She had started with the ferry service. Her workers had needed to get supplies to and from the island, after all.

When the warm sunrise finally reached her, as she stood on the graveled walkway, she felt as if it kissed her soul and blessed her entire house.

Her grandparents were coming to see the place that they had only ever seen in pictures. They were coming to be her first customers. Emily thought her grandmother insisted on that. She suspected her grandmother did not think Emily knew it was also their sixtieth wedding anniversary.

Emily had eight other rooms booked for this weekend, and three of them were honeymoons. Yes, this house would again be filled with love. It helped that Valentine’s Day was later next week. That weekend was completely booked, thanks to the special deal she had advertised online.

One final walk-through in the quite dawn hours. Pre-dawn to check the soft solar lights that illuminated the grounds at night, and now that the sun was up, she would walk the grounds again, as well as every room of the house. Then she would greet her staff as they arrived on the morning ferry. Of course, they had all been here before, for their interviews and for training. She had kept to her promise, and hired local people. The town had warmed up a bit as she filled her small staff of landscapers and cleaning crew, chef and servers from the local town across the way. The farmers and fishermen who would be supplying most of her food had really warmed to her.

She was looking forward to her staff arriving. She had a full day planned. A final review and walk-through for everyone. Just because the maid would not be trimming bushes did not mean they did not need to know how to turn off the sprinklers in an emergency. They would have a nice staff dinner—her chef already had it planned—and then her first customers were due to arrive on the afternoon ferry.

Her grandparents were due to arrive on the afternoon ferry, and she could not wait to see them and show them her beautiful house.

* * *

“Grandpa! Grandma!” Emily called out, her smile beaming from ear to ear.

Her stylishly dressed grandmother smiled back, waving, the diamonds on her hand and the pearls on her neck sparkling in the afternoon sun.

“Emily, it looks so beautiful!” her grandma said.

“Are you sure it’s the same place?” her grandpa teased. His suit was crisp and pressed, looking sharp compared to the t-shirts and jeans of the other guests getting off the ferry and walking up to Roselynn House.

Emily laughed, hugging them both. “I’m so glad you are here!”

“Well, let’s see this place,” her grandfather smiled. He grabbed the hand of his wife of 60 years and kissed it. She smiled at him.

Behind them, just getting off the ferry was a young couple, also holding hands. When the young woman saw the glimmering building at the top of the hill her jaw dropped. She turned to her husband and kissed him thoroughly, forcing another couple to walk around them.

That third husband put his arm around his wife’s shoulders as he pulled their suitcase behind him.

Emily’s heart glowed like the shining sun on the waters of the bay. Yes, love would definitely be filling this house again.

“Your carriage awaits!” she said, turning back to her grandparents. She gestured to the golf cart. Her grandparents smiled in pleasure, not envying the climb up the stairs that most of the guests were taking. Others were walking up the sloping tree-lined drive way that spiraled up the hill from the dock. Emily loaded her grandparents bags onto the cart, and turned on the electric engine.

Up the beautiful gravel drive they went, passing lovers holding hands, and couples who were smiling and taking photos of the trees and flowers lined the walkway. Her grandma kept pointing out some various details to her grandpa, which had Emily beaming with pride. She had kept as much of the original vegetation as possible, but had worked closely with the landscapers on designing something breath-taking.

She had wanted to inspire love from the moment people stepped off the ferry, and it looked like she had achieved it.

* * *

Her grandparents were settled into their rooms, with an eastern view of the Atlantic ocean. Emily smiled at guests and kept on the move with a sharp eye for potential problems.

Her staff was fabulous, and very few stopped her to solve problems. The house filled with conversation and laughter as people found their rooms, or explored the building, reading about its history on the walls.

Emily had framed prints of the house from the one that had originally been taken when it was first built, to several newspaper articles she had managed to find from its early years. Even the derelict overgrown building she had photographed when she first saw it was on the wall, as well as a series depicting the restoration. This morning she had photographed it again, and as soon as she could get the print made, it too would go on the wall.

She pushed open the doors of the grand dining room and smiled in pleasure. Her event manager had done a spectacular job of decorating the room in silver and gold. Tasteful, yet elegant. The china hinted of bygone eras, but the food would be modern and amazing.

Emily had hired an ambitious young chef who had a passion for fresh, seasonal and sustainable food. He had also written a self-published cookbook on aphrodisiac foods, which is how she had found him. She had wanted even her food to promote love.

There was even going to be a cake, decorated to honor her grandparents 60th wedding anniversary. They were going to be so embarrassed when she surprised them with it, but she knew they would love it.

Guests were being sat in the dining room, and phone cameras were capturing the decorations, the view, and even the flowers. Her guests were falling in love with Roselynn House just as much as she had.

The maitre d’ caught her eye and gave her the signal. Emily slipped out of the dining room to greet her grandparents.

“I hope you rested comfortably?” she smiled.

“We did. The room is lovely, Emily. You’ve done an amazing job here!” her grandma kissed her cheek. “And you look beautiful.”

Emily ran her hands over the beaded dress she wore.

“So do you! You always taught me to respect dinner and dress well for it.”

“A habit from an era gone now, I fear,” her grandpa said as she kissed his cheek.

“I wanted to capture a little bit of that here,” Emily said.

“You have, indeed!” her grandma’s gesture swept the hall.

“Are you ready to be seated?” Emily took the menus that her maitre d’ handed to her and led her grandparents to their table with the best view of the ocean.

She held the chair out for her grandmother, while one of the servers held out her grandfather’s chair.

She handed over the menu, “Tonight’s menu has all of your favorite dishes.”

“Enjoy your dinner! I’ll return and join you for dessert. We’ve got something special planned!”

Emily went to the kitchen. The first orders of the restaurant were coming in and Chef and his cooks were doing great. She nodded and gave a thumbs up to Chef when he noticed her there. He smiled back, delighted to have the kitchen open to the public at last. He would shine here, she knew. His food was amazing, and he put his whole heart into every dish.

She slipped back to the walk-in and took a peek at the gorgeous cake. Her breath puffed in the cold room, but she had to check, one last time, that every detail was perfect. It was, of course.

Time for her surprise.

She entered the dining room and picked up the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you all as our first guests to Roselynn House,” Emily announced. She stood on the small stage that backed the small dance floor. The ballroom had a much larger dance floor. The pianist was quiet behind her, ready.

“Roselynn House is about love and family, and tonight is a very special night,” Emily said. “Not only is it our opening, but I’m proud to congratulate my grandparents, Mr and Mrs Winters, on their 60th wedding anniversary! We have a very special dessert tonight, in honor of this very special anniversary.”

The servers pushed the cake cart into the room, and it looked glorious. Her grandma gasped, and her grandpa reached over and held her hand.

The pianist began his song, their song, the song her grandma had told Emily they had first danced together. The diners in the room applauded.

Her grandpa stood, and extended his hand to his wife. She beamed at him, and together they took the dance floor. Soon other couples were also dancing while the servers were cutting and delivering the cake.

Emily beamed. She sat at her grandparents table as they finished their dance. The pianist kept playing, and couples kept dancing. Emily hoped her chef could see the expressions of bliss as the guests took their first bite of cake.

Her grandparents sat down. They were smiling from ear to ear.

“You have outdone yourself, my girl. I’m so proud of you,” her grandpa said.

Emily leaned over and grabbed his hand in hers. “I could not have done it without you. I’m so grateful for you in my life!”

She kissed them both, and noticed she and her grandma both dabbed away tears at the same moment.

Copyright ©2017 by Jamie Aldis

Published by Valsaga Publishing LLC

Cover Design copyright ©2017 Valsaga Publishing LLC

Cover art copyright © Clovercity |

All rights reserved.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. 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.

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