Chemical Burn

By

Quincy J. Allen

Part One

 

 

REAGENTS

 

Irony on Ice

Irony stings when I’m on the receiving end and about to die. Until now, it’s always been some other dumb slob who got in over his head. Then I’d come along and cash in his chips. In those days I had eyes as cold and merciless as a shark’s—like the eyes I’m staring into now. It’s simply my turn, I suppose, but for the first time in my life, I’m scared for … well … me.

 

I never thought I’d go out like this—fires burning everywhere, wrecked tanks and planes tossed around like the broken toys of an angry child. I can hear screams through the assault unit’s canopy—dying soldiers who had no idea who or even what was killing them, let alone why. Circles of glistening pavement surround each fire, pools of dark tarmac against sparkling, white snow.

 

I glance at the lifeless console of my assault unit and wonder how they … he … found me. He’s shut me down completely. There’s no way to power up or pop the canopy, which means I can’t even face him down and see who’s better.

 

Irony.

 

There’s this superior little smile on his face, and he’s wearing a long black coat that brushes the snow—like the coat I sometimes wear. He has a black ghost-suit beneath, like the one I’m wearing. He’s pulled the hood back, exposing a thick shock of black hair slicked back above thin, angular features reminiscent of my own. How many times had I been in his position? Too many, I think with a good bit of shame.

 

A weak smile bends my lips. At least they didn’t copy my mohawk.

 

A smooth white control appears in his hand. They’re used to shut down the machine that is about to become my coffin. Twenty-five years, and I never got around to changing the access codes to my equipment. What can I say? I didn’t think I’d need to. Countless light-years from home, there was no way they’d ever find me … at least I thought. I guess I got rusty. Careless. Now I just want a way out of this goddamn cockpit.

 

He disappears from view, and I can hear him climbing up the hull … slowly, patiently … savoring the kill, like I would. His face appears before me, and his smile grows. It’s almost like looking into a mirror, but there are subtle differences. He sets the remote on top of the canopy, reaches into his long coat, and pulls out a massive burner from one of the deep pockets within. Burner’s that size are designed to torch their way through heavy armor … armor from home.

 

How did you find me?” I ask.

 

He cocks his head to the side, looking at me like a piece of meat.

 

Without a word, he pulls his eyes away from mine and keys in the detonation sequence.

 

Come on,” I say, “I gotta know.”

 

His finger hovers above the actuator, and he looks at me with an almost pitying look. “The portals,” he says.

 

As his hand descends, I can only think of how this all started with my fucking dry cleaning.

 

***

 

Dinus Interruptus

 

Rain fell all day and into the evening, and with the sun on the other side of the planet, yes, it actually was dark. Some clichés simply can’t be avoided. My assistant Rachel and I were celebrating the closing of what I had dubbed The Three Monkeys and a Football case. The Comparsi twins, who weren’t really twins at all, were also in attendance. It was their case, after all. We—me and my friends, not the monkeys—were sitting around a table at the Sunset Grill. I’d invited my buddy Xen too, but I hadn’t heard from him in a few days. Probably working on the data I’d sent him, I thought.

 

The twins wore matching, blue, high-sheen suits. Their short, blond hair and close-cropped beards made them look like the Hollywood trash they were. Rachel looked immaculate in a slinky, black satin dress that drew the eyes of every straight man and at least bi-curious woman who walked by. Long, auburn hair done as usual in a simple ponytail draped down between her exquisite shoulders, and her hazel eyes were easy for people to get lost in. She used her looks to get information, and she was damn good at it, dodging would-be suitors like a matador. Under that flawless surface lay one of the most dedicated, trustworthy, and decent humans I’d ever met, and I’d met quite a few over the years. She was absolutely, unequivocally my best friend on Earth.

 

Normally, service at the Grill was outstanding, but tonight was a little different. We’d been seated, provided water, and given menus quickly, but we spent the next forty-five minutes making small talk, mostly about the three monkeys and the amusing irregularities of simian mating habits. Unusually packed for a Wednesday night, the Grill sported a crowd thick with Hollywood wannabes, a couple of has-beens, and the odd is scattered throughout.

 

Must be a premiere or something, I thought.

 

I had gone to the bar a couple of times for drinks and managed to get mai-tai shooting out of the noses of both twins not once, but twice, so I already considered the evening a victory. As we continued chatting, I habitually scanned the crowd, and from the corner of my eye caught sight of a waiter approaching from behind me.

 

I didn’t recognize the guy, but it should have struck me as odd that he held the serving tray with a fresh, white towel draped over his hand behind it. The staff didn’t use towels like that.

 

In retrospect, the guy didn’t feel like a waiter. As he approached, I reached into an inner pocket of my coat, pulled out four straws and laid them on the salad plate in front of me—one of them noticeably shorter than the others.

 

Isn’t it just hysterical?” Stevie Comparsi asked with a distinctly effeminate lisp.

 

I really don’t understand why they kept doing it,” his un-twin Riki said, smiling broadly. “I mean, honestly, after two days straight, breaking only to eat bananas and throw crap at each other, you’d think they would have gotten bored with—”

 

I pulled a twelve-inch meat cleaver out of another, pulled a whetstone out of a different pocket, and prepared to sharpen the blade. The coat, like me, isn’t from around here. It’s got damn near everything in it but the kitchen sink.

 

My friends looked at me with shock pasted to their faces.

 

What?” I asked innocently, grinning at the circle of wide eyes as I casually held the lethal kitchen implement. I made rhythmic whisking noises as I ran the blade across the stone. No one at the table said a word.

 

I’m sorry for the delay, folks,” the waiter said as he came up behind me. “We had a change of staff at the last minute.…” The waiter’s voice trailed off as he looked over my shoulder and spotted the heavy meat cleaver.

 

I stopped sharpening and turned to him with a genuine smile. “Oh … no worries,” I said. “In fact, you just saved somebody’s life.” I waved the cleaver in the general direction of my companions. “We were getting ready to eat one of our own, but we hadn’t gotten down to drawing straws to see who ended up on the rotisserie. You do have a rotisserie back there, don’t you?” I asked.

 

The twins giggled while Rachel doled out a faint smile in my direction, shaking her head lightly. She’d been inoculated against my antics three years prior during the Green Orca Case—Orca, in this case, referring to a man, not a whale. That was when we’d first met, I’d saved her life and, as a result, she worked first for and then with me. It was an important distinction … for both of us.

 

The waiter didn’t look amused. He leaned in close enough to whisper and not be heard by anyone else. “Put the fucking cleaver down on the table and rest your hands on either side of the plate,” he hissed.

 

I felt something hard pressed into that classic spot between shoulder blades—the one where guns always get jammed when assholes make unreasonable requests. I heard the all-too-familiar “snick” of a hammer being pulled back. Through a mai-tai haze I began to suspect this guy might not be the waiter, or if he was, he was having a really bad night.

 

My eyes got wide, and I stopped smiling.

 

And don’t move or yell,” he added, “or you get it … then the lady.” Although the twins didn’t notice the change in my expression, Rachel did.

 

Jesus, man, it was a joke,” I said quietly, laying the cleaver down. “I’m a very big tipper, I swear! Twenty … sometimes even thirty percent!”

 

Shut your fucking mouth, would you, Case?” the waiter-turned-gunslinger growled, just loud enough for everyone at the table to hear over the crowd.

 

How rude!” the twins said in unison. They had finally figured out something was very wrong.

 

We’d never let our staff speak to customers that way,” Stevie blurted.

 

I never did understand that fad about the New Cruelty,” Riki added in his partner’s ear.

 

The twins ran an up-scale Italian restaurant on the other side of town. They had exceptional food, but to celebrate I’d had my heart set on burgers and fries, so I’d suggested the Grill.

 

Okay folks,” the gunslinger grumbled, clearly running out of patience, “here’s how this is going to work. Case is going to reach into that coat of his, drop a hundred bucks on the table, and then he and I are walking out the front door. The three of you are going to the bathroom. You can all use the ladies’ room, right boys?” He tossed a sneer at the Comparsi twins. They both glared at him. “If any of you stops on the way there, he gets it. If anyone reaches for a cell phone, he gets it. If anything else goes wrong … a cop walks through the door, lightning strikes, a plague of locusts … if I get a hangnail or stub a toe on the way out … he gets it. Get me?”

 

They all nodded.

 

Rachel looked at me, asking with her eyes what she should do. A pang of worry shot through me at the thought of her getting hurt. She could take the guy apart in close quarters—I’d trained her myself—but I didn’t want to see her take a bullet. Besides, I really wanted to know what this asshole was after. Someone had gone to considerable trouble to interrupt my dinner plans, and I rarely kill the messenger. I prefer to kill the sender.

 

It’s okay Rachel,” I offered quietly. “Do as the man says.”

 

That’s right, Rachel,” the gunslinger agreed. “Do as the man says. Now, Case, grab your wallet real slow and put the money on the table. I don’t get paid by the hour, and I have some other work tonight that’s more pleasure than business.”

 

I slowly lifted my hand and slid it into another inside coat pocket. I felt my way past a few miscellaneous items I’d been saving for a different rainy day and wrapped my hand around my billfold. I pulled it out, opened it, and separated a hundred-dollar-bill from the thick stack within. I dropped the C-note on the table and started to put my wallet away.

 

Hold up,” the gunslinger said abruptly. “Gimme the stack,” he ordered. “And hand it over below your elbow. We don’t want the customers to get suspicious, do we? That would be bad for everybody.” I could actually feel the man grinning.

 

Son-of-a—” I grumbled, but he jabbed the gun hard into my back.

 

I pulled out the stack of hundreds and moved my hand below and behind me. The gunman leaned the serving tray up against the leg of my chair, the towel still hiding the gun. I felt the money pulled away and heard him slide it into a pocket.

 

Okay. Now, everybody play their parts so we can all get on with our evenings.”

 

Everyone stood. Rachel and the twins put their napkins on the table and walked towards the restroom. I turned towards the front door, my escort close behind. We picked our way through the crowd, walked through the front doors, and stepped into a hard-hitting downpour that quickly soaked us both and, regrettably, flattened my mohawk.

 

To your right,” the man behind me said. “The limo.”

 

A few car-lengths up sat a black, über-stretched limo, double-parked with the motor running. I headed towards it and scanned the street. There were no pedestrians, and it occurred to me that I could spin and clobber the guy, taking my chances with the pistol. However, I really hate getting shot, and I wanted to know who was in the car.

 

It turns out that was a miscalculation I later blamed it on the mai-tais. I should have taken my chances with maybe getting a bullet there on the sidewalk as opposed to the near-certainty of getting one later on. Getting shot has invariably been what happened to me in situations where I got abducted and driven someplace in a limousine. It had happened before … more than once. Granted, I didn’t know I’d get shot for sure, but statistically speaking, the probability of a bullet wound was pretty high. Had I simply stopped, turned around, and taken the guy’s head off, I probably would have avoided the twenty-four hours of chaos I endured before a particularly unpleasant plane ride … but I’m getting ahead of myself. Whoever sat in the limousine clearly needed me a hell of a lot more than I did them. A door in the middle of the limo opened as we approached, and I stared into darkness.

 

Please get in,” a woman said, her silky, central-European accent floating up out from the abyss.

 

Bad News

 

I stepped into the limo and settled into plush, black leather. All I had seen in the streetlight as I got in were the long, athletic legs of a tanned woman wearing a gray business skirt and expensive, medium-heeled shoes. I thought it odd there were no lights inside, but I should be the very last person to criticize someone’s eccentricities. Besides, I can see better in the dark than any human. The gunslinger closed the door behind me, and as I leaned back I heard the locks engage. I sat with my back to the front of the car, and an opaque glass partition behind the woman hid the rear area of the limo.

 

She pressed a button on the panel next to her, and dim internal lights came on, bathing us in soft light. I found myself faced with a raven-haired beauty attached to the business end of the legs.

 

Stunning, I thought as I soaked in her features.

 

She wore a gray, European business jacket and skirt with a low-collared, white blouse underneath. She ignited a high pressure lighter and lit the end of a slim cigarillo, drawing in several puffs till it glowed brightly. Billows of smoke curled around her shapely face. There were subtle, Eastern Bloc angles and curves to her features cast harshly in the bright flame. With a click she closed the lighter and slid it into the inside pocket of her jacket. Silent internal fans pulled the smoke up to the ceiling where it disappeared.

 

I guess you won’t mind if I smoke, will you?” I asked and reached into a pocket.

 

Please be careful, Mister Case. Sudden moves could be … misinterpreted.” I picked up the trace of a central European accent in her sultry voice, a trace most people would have missed. I tried to figure out if I’d pissed off any Europeans recently, hoping to get a clue as to why someone would go to the trouble of asking me so nicely if I’d go for a ride. There were those two thugs I’d killed down at the docks a few weeks back, but I was fairly certain no one had seen me. It had been nothing more than taking care of a couple of assholes who tried to mug the wrong asshole. I tallied the list of likely Europeans and came up with a big, fat zilch.

 

Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “If I had wanted to cause violence, I would have done it before I got into the car. I’m curious at this point.” I smiled.

 

From an inner pocket I pulled out an oiled leather tobacco pouch and a drop-away pipe. I quickly packed it, pulled out a lighter of my own, and lit up.

 

How quaint,” she said.

 

Quite,” I said with a faux English accent as I put the pouch and lighter back in my coat. “A friend of mine turned me on to the pipe instead of cigarettes. I still grab for a cigarette when I’m stressed, though.” I smiled, leaned back comfortably, and drew long puffs as I waited for her to tell me why she—or they—had gone to such lengths to get me into a limousine on a stormy Wednesday night.

 

Looking down, I noticed there were temperature controls on the panel of the door near my hand. I placed my hand on it and crossed my legs to try and obscure her vision. Without looking, I bumped the temperature up a couple of degrees. The woman didn’t seem to notice, or if she did, didn’t say anything.

 

Go ahead, Victor,” she said to the driver. The limousine pulled away from the curb and headed off into the rain, aiming for the freeway.

 

It’s a lovely suit,” I purred, looking her up and down.

 

Thank you, Mister Case. Valentino.” She didn’t seem to mind me eyeballing her. “You’re a lot younger than I thought, and I had heard you were young. Are you twenty-five? Six?” It was her turn to look me up and down carefully.

 

So this is a referral, I thought. She doesn’t know me directly but needs me for something. I smiled. “I’m a bit older,” I said evasively. “Healthy living. Your waiter owes me four … err … eight grand, by the way.” I bumped the temperature up a couple more degrees. “By the lack of any accent, I’m assuming he was a local contractor.”

 

A slight look of embarrassment crossed her face. “My apologies, Mister Case. We were somewhat pressed for time and had to make do. Victor, would you please compensate Mister Case from the slush fund? With interest,” she added, raising her voice so the driver could hear her.

 

Interest?” I asked. “In that case, it actually was only four grand, not eight.” I smiled, not at all embarrassed.

 

She smiled back like a mother catching her kid with a hand in the cookie jar. She nodded her head once knowingly. “Your reputation precedes you, Mister Case, and business is business after all.”

 

After about thirty seconds, the partition window behind me opened. A black leather glove poked through, holding a folded stack of crisp, hundred-dollar bills roughly double the thickness of what I’d given the waiter. I spotted a black tattoo on his wrist. It looked like foreign letters, but I couldn’t make them out.

 

I love working with professionals,” I said mostly to myself, smiling as I took the cash. I kissed it and nodded to the woman. Pulling out my wallet, I separated half of the stack and stuck it into the billfold. I folded the rest and slipped both into my coat. The temperature was starting to come up closer to my comfort level, and I noticed a slight sheen on the woman’s exposed skin.

 

You don’t seem to mind the heat, Miss …” I hesitated. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your name.”

 

Natalia. And I had some idea you preferred warmer climes. I want you to be comfortable, Mister Case.”

 

That made me even more curious. Whomever she had spoken with knew quite a bit about me. I used the heat gag when I could to distract people and give me an edge. It was subtle, and I couldn’t use it often. Only a short list of people knew about my preference for heat.

 

Natalia,” I repeated. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. And as Marilyn Monroe would have said, ‘I do like it hot.’ It reminds me of home.”

 

And where is home?” she asked.

 

I paused the way I always do when people asked me that particular question. I gave the standard answer. “Let’s just say I’m not from around here.” I gave her a warm, secretive smile and relaxed my shoulders.

 

Do you know anything about dry cleaning, Mister Case?”

 

Hunh?” Although my face and posture only showed it a little, the question took me off-guard—not because I was unaccustomed to strange questions, but because, as a matter of fact, I know a great deal about dry cleaning. I regained my composure and relaxed back in my seat, pulling on the pipe and watching the billows shift and twist their way up into the ceiling vents like fat, wispy serpents. Gears rolled in my head, and I had a good idea why I was in the car.

 

That is a very strange place to lead a conversation, isn’t it?” I looked past the woman to the opaque glass behind her. I very much wanted to know who was back there. I grinned broadly, waving at whoever observed us and, no doubt, listened in. The woman looked calmly back to the glass and then returned her gaze to me, a faint smile crimping the corners of her lovely lips.

 

Privacy is of some import to my employer, Mister Case. Please forgive the impropriety.”

 

No trouble at all,” I said cheerfully. “I’m a bit of a recluse myself. And it is your ride. I’m just a passenger.” I drew on my pipe. “So what’s this about dry cleaning?”

 

I bumped the temperature up a couple more degrees, prompting a polite sigh from Natalia. She opened the top button of her blouse, and treated me to a grander view of what could only be described as magnificently tanned cleavage. My smile stretched my cheeks to their limits.

 

Natalia sat up and put out the cigarillo in the ashtray built into the door and stared into my eyes, painful loss filling her eyes. “Xen Li is dead, Mister Case,” she said slowly.

 

My heart dropped. Genuine sadness filled her voice, almost despair, but she also watched my reaction closely, as if this involved something both professional and personal. My expression went from openly cheery to a very deadly calm. I felt the old me take hold—the killer. That part of me is a predator. Heartless. Vicious. A half-dozen heartbeats passed before I spoke.

 

Natalia suddenly looked uncomfortable. The young cheery fellow before her had been replaced by something very different. Few people ever see this part of me, and when they do, they usually end up dead. Natalia found herself faced with a cold-blooded killer, and she knew it. I watched her fight the urge to shy away.

 

I spoke slowly. “I want you to tell me how.” She slowly took my hand in hers to try and ease the rage she could see burning behind my eyes.

 

I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath. “We found him in a sealed vat of a concentrated tetrachloroethylene-variant at our facility. All that remained were his clothes, glasses, some hair, his fillings, and a volume of his DNA mixed in with the solution.” I saw Natalia holding back tears. She was good, and there was only a glimmer, a slight sheen, but they were there. She took a deep breath. “Someone threw him in, sealed the door, and opened the valves. It’s an industrial-grade variant of a special compound we are researching. We’re hoping to market it to abatement companies that clean up crime scenes and suicides. It’s designed to quickly and thoroughly break down biological material. In this case it did its job all too well.” Her voice wavered as she spoke.

 

She had known Xen and liked him, I thought … or more, I realized.

 

When?” I was all business now. I simply don’t permit people to hurt my friends without settling the score on my terms. And when my friends have been killed … those responsible meet violent, bloody ends. Always.

 

Three days ago.”

 

Who?” I asked, the rage building up.

 

We don’t know, but we’re looking into it. Xen was working on something very important for SolCon. Something new. Something … revolutionary.” She peered at me closely. “But I think you already knew that, didn’t you Mister Case.”

 

I paused. There were implications that could jeopardize the identity I’d maintained for twenty years, but Xen was more important than that. “No one was supposed to know about that. And yes, I did.” I felt sick to my stomach. “It seems I may have gotten Xen killed,” I added.

 

After we discovered his … well …” I saw that she couldn’t speak of it. “We were forced to do a deep search of all his materiel, both in his office and home. In his home we found some interesting chemical data. You sent that data, Mister Case.”

 

Whoever did this is dead,” I said, “and you better keep your people out of my way, or they’ll end up the same way.” It was the old me talking, and part of me was ashamed of it, but the sorry truth is that I sometimes don’t have any control over him … and don’t want to. What can I say? I’m a work in progress.

 

I’m very sorry about your friend, Mister Case,” Natalia said as rain droned against the roof. She still held my hand. “But if we’re going to find out who killed him and why, we need to get down to business.” I thought I saw moisture welling up in her eyes again, but she fought it. The predator in me didn’t care about her feelings … only about the inevitable bloodletting that lay ahead.

 

Yeah,” I said distantly. “Let’s do that.” I focused on Natalia, all business.

 

The chemical data you sent him,” she started, “how did you come by it? You’re not a chemist, are you?” she asked.

 

Me? No.”

 

Then how? Who gave it to you?”

 

I scratched the back of my neck and thought back to my youth. “My father, actually. He knew a thing or two about chemistry … and dry-cleaning,” I said a bit elusively. I felt the limousine exit the highway.

 

Can we talk to him?” she asked. “Xen hadn’t completed his work.”

 

I’m afraid he’s not available. Not on …” I paused, “… in the country … and I haven’t seen him in a long time.”

 

Pity,” she said sadly. “A silicon-based molecule in this application is a revolutionary idea.”

 

Old hat for him, I would think,” I added, reminiscing about my father.

 

Do you have any way to reach him?”

 

I looked at her and shook my head. “No. I wish I did,” I added sincerely. I took a few puffs on my pipe and thought about a far off place for a few moments, about something unreachable.

 

Could you finish the work?” she asked. I picked up an eagerness that seemed out of place. Corporations always want new products, sure, but her tone, the way she pressed the issue, it gave me the sense that they, or she wanted something else.

 

Me?” I smiled at the impossibility of the notion. “Like I said, I’m the furthest thing from a chemist. It broke my father’s heart, too,” I sighed deeply. That last bit wasn’t entirely accurate, but I liked to think it was true, especially near the end of things. “I’m more of a hands-on kind of guy,” I continued, “but such is life.” I stared out the deeply tinted window and, based on the neighborhood sliding by, realized where we were headed. “Xen’s place?”

 

Correct.”

 

Won’t the cops have it locked down?” I asked. “Or do they even know he’s dead?” I realized that my buddy Captain O’Neil certainly would have mentioned it if he knew Xen had been murdered. The two had met a number of times, and O’Neil knew that Xen was one of my closest friends.

 

Of course they know he is dead, Mister Case,” she said a bit defensively. “This is a murder after all, of a SolCon contractor. We’re very interested in finding those responsible. I’m very interested … for both the company and for personal reasons, if you catch my meaning. We’re working with the Oakland police department, and they’ve already granted us access.”

 

That explained why O’Neil didn’t know. O’Neil and the Oakland homicide chief had actually come to blows a few years back. They didn’t speak to each other unless they absolutely had to, and then only through clenched teeth. I also couldn’t help believing that Natalia and Xen were involved—romantically, it seemed. Good for Xen, I thought. I always considered him a bit introverted, but to hook up with a woman like Natalia … well … I hoped Xen had been able to enjoy everything Natalia clearly had to offer.

 

I think I understand,” I said. “It also means we have something in common. We both cared about Xen a great deal.”

 

She smiled lightly.

 

I saw two black SUVs pull up in perfect unison on either side of the limo. The rear windows of both vehicles rolled down. Gun barrels slid out into the night, pointing at the forward section of the limo.

 

I leapt forward, grabbed Natalia, and pulled her down onto the floor. We landed with a thud, and I rolled on top of her, my hips pressed between her legs.

 

What the!—” Natalia shouted.

 

Hang on!” I whispered into her ear, covering her with my body as much as I could. I couldn’t let her get killed if I wanted to find Xen’s killer.

 

Machine gun fire shattered the night, and even through the heavily tinted windows and the downpour outside, it bathed the interior in bright, flickering-orange light. Bullets bounced off armored steel, glass, and pavement, filling the interior with thunder.

 

We heard the limousine’s engine roar as Victor hammered the gas, and the rear tires screamed, breaking loose from the wet pavement for thirty yards as they fought the mass of the heavily armored sedan. The headlights of the two SUVs drifted back to the rear-quarter of the limousine, and the gunfire stopped briefly.

 

Friends of yours?” I asked.

 

What do you think?” she replied, a bit perturbed but remarkably calm for a business executive—man or woman—exposed to gunfire. Most suits would have shit themselves after the first shot.

 

Engines roared as our pursuers pulled forward again, drawing even with the limo. Gun barrels slid out to fire another volley when the limousine swerved violently to the left. Metal screeched on metal as the two vehicles smashed together. Tires squealed on the left as the driver slammed on his brakes. A second later, a deafening crash filled our ears when the SUV smashed head-on with a garbage truck going the other direction. The SUV’s horn stuck with the impact and faded quickly behind us.

 

Then a machine gun from the other SUV cooked off. The thunder of ricochets again filled the compartment, and as I looked up, I saw the barrel drift down towards the front tire of the limo.

 

This thing have solid tires, by chance?” I asked, yelling over the sound of the gunfire.

 

Of course,” she hollered back matter-of-factly.

 

We’re gonna need ’em!” I yelled as the sound changed from bullets hitting steel and glass to hitting pavement and solid rubber. I could feel the front tire start to bounce and bump unevenly as chunks of it were chewed away by the barrage.

 

The limousine lurched again, to the right this time, and we careened off the SUV. Both vehicles swerved back and forth several times, crashing solidly against each other, but the greater mass of the limo began to win out. Each crash pushed the SUV closer to the curb.

 

I heard a squeal of rubber as the SUV’s tires locked up. The limousine passed a light-post that the SUV must have barely avoided hitting. The window between the driver and us slid open.

 

Where to, madam?” Victor shouted over the roar of the engine. His voice was pained but calm, thick with Russian origins. By the sound of it, he had taken a slug.

 

Are we near Xen’s house?” I yelled.

 

Yes!” he replied.

 

Drive this thing through the front doors!” I ordered.

 

Are you out of your mind?” Victor hollered back.

 

Just DO IT!” I screamed. I turned to face Natalia, and our noses nearly touched. “We can’t out run them, and if they catch us in the open, the five or six guys in that SUV will tear us to pieces. In cover we have a chance. Trust me.”

 

Do it, Victor,” Natalia yelled.

 

Da!” Victor obeyed.

 

The limousine swerved around several more corners with the sound of multiple machine guns bouncing bullets off the back of the limo and into the rear tires.

 

Hang on!” Victor yelled.

 

I grabbed Natalia tightly and rolled on my side with my back facing the front. The front of the car bounced off the curb, absorbing our momentum as the front end tore up a big chunk of Xen’s lawn. With the impact Natalia and I slid neatly up against the base of the front seats. The limo ran over several bushes and small trees in Xen’s yard and passed through the yellow police-line tape barring the front doors. The tape made a lot less noise than the doors as we passed through. With a deafening sound of crunching metal and splintering wood, we came to an abrupt stop.

 

Tires squealed behind us as the second SUV came in for the kill.

 

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