THEIR BLACK COUPE HOVERED INCHES ABOVE THE ANCIENT HIGHWAY. Verch sped through traffic as slim cars flashed by. Their car buzzed, burning fuel. He jerked the handle-wheel to cross lanes alongside a snake truck. The amber bellies of truck platforms flickered, bouncing cargos of nested drums.
Murphy reclined in the passenger seat.
Laura felt his glare through the rearview mirror, crawling over her legs and her skirt. She sunk back into the leather cushions and glanced out at the sky, so lavender and huge. The teal windows of high-rises peeked over the edge of the concrete side barrier. She parted her hair out from in front of her face and closed her eyes, resting against the window.
“It looks like an electric razor?” Murphy squeezed the rubber handle, projecting red crosshairs on the dashboard. “It’s not working.”
Verch took it from him and punched a few buttons. “Here.” He handed it back. “I’m User One—you’re User Two. It didn’t recognize your face so it couldn’t track your pupils.”
Murphy held the pistol and the crosshairs obeyed his eye movements, dancing over the dashboard and the windshield. “Everywhere I look,” he exclaimed. “Damn!”
“Careful, that thing could incinerate this car.” Verch pulled the wheel left.
Streetlight glared off a truck’s airfoil, reflecting onto Verch’s platinum watch while Murphy’s chain tattoos on his wrists seemed to blend into the rosebush embroidery of his faded T-shirt.
“Hey, why do you think she ran away?” Murphy asked.
Laura caught Verch glancing at her in his rearview.
“Remember when we found her at the train station?” Verch asked. “I got her to smile when I asked if she’d ever had champagne? I saw her chipped tooth and her swollen lip. Her dad hit her—so she left. It doesn’t matter. That can be fixed. She’s got class—innocence. I’ll get double the usual credit from Jason’s connect guy.”
“You can’t know all that from a tooth.”
“How about it honey,” Verch said. “Your daddy smack you around a little?”
“Yes.” She turned to the window. They hadn’t just mentioned the champagne at the station. They said she looked hungry and that they were going to a party in LA with live music and food. They said she was beautiful.
She didn’t care. She was dizzy. Everything was more and more like a dream. Wherever she was going, she hoped there would be food. Then she could think straight. Then she could figure out what she did wrong and how to set things right with her father.
“Hey, Verch.” Murphy turned to gaze at Laura. “Do you think we could take some time for—for, you know—ourselves, before we get to LA?”
“We’re just making a delivery. No complications.”
“What I’m saying is—”
“Murphy, no offense, but I can’t talk to you when you’re not high. Take yourself a hit, Murphy.”
Murphy pulled the pressure gun out of his bag, “How is this gonna help you talk to me?”
“Take a hit,” Verch said, “Take a hit Murphy.”
“Fine,” he rolled his shirtsleeve up to his shoulder and injected himself, “Ah! Damn. It burns. . . I’m punchin’ through in flames.”
Verch grinned and slapped him on his shoulder, “But you’re taller than your dreams, right?” He laughed and threw his head back. The car shivered from speed as he switched lanes and ripped open his shirt. “Give me the pressure gun.”
“What? You can’t drive on this stuff.”
Laura swallowed. She fastened her chest restraint.
“The hell I can’t. Hand it over.” Verch injected himself below his chest, “Ah! Yes!”—He grew pale as sweat beaded over his locked expression, “Yes! That’s it. That’s all I want!” He turned up the radio. The car speakers hummed techno with a berserk, Spanish flow. The two men snickered. “Do you feel that base? Can you feel it in your chest?” Verch swerved in and out of lanes “How about this?” He sped, “I know you can feel this.” They sunk back, streaking between cars and hovertrucks.
The speedometer passed 400 miles per hour.
Laura clenched the hand-rest. Her stomach fell as the two men smiled and laughed with eyes brimming.
“This is it,” Verch’s face reddened. He shook his head, “This is what it’s like! This is what life should be. Every second!”
Murphy slapped his hand rest and shook his head, “Incredible!”
“Watch this,” Verch bumped a car on the right.
Inside, a man and woman looked back in fear while a young boy and girl appeared confused.
Murphy laughed, “Do it again.”
Verch sideswiped them harder.
The man slowed and tried to switch lanes, but became blocked-in on three sides.
“Wait,” Murphy laughed, “Watch this.” He raised the pistol and attempted to sight the little boy through the windshields. “The glass is messing it up.”
“I think there’s a mode for that.” Verch looked over, “Look at them all. Like mindless schools of fish,” he shook his fist, “Get to work on time!”
The boy’s face turned from confusion to fear as he watched his mother break down and cry.
“The mom’s crying,” Murphy said. He looked up, “Shit!”—he lowered his pistol as a black craft hovered above, dangling a trunk-like camera below a huge gyroscopic ring. The ring spun as fiery blue nozzles angled in disjointed directions. Spotlights on either side lighted up their coupe—“The Cali Patrol!”
“So?” Verch asked.
“I think they saw the pistol. They’ve got me on flash holding the pistol.”
Verch swiped down the stereo. “Those traffic controllers are directed by computers. They only report major problems like multi-car pileups.”
“Murphy. In Washington, controllers are backed-up by police dispatchers. But in Cali, there’s just too much volume. They can’t do shit.”
Their car-lanes merged with a highway branch as they banked left. Verch laughed with highway lights whizzing.
“You’re still worried about that flying robot,” Verch said, “The Cali patrol is worthless. Say it! Say, ‘it’s worthless!’ You’ll feel better.”
“The Cali patrol is worthless!” A stupid look grew on his face.
“THE CALIFORNIA POLICE AIN’T SHIT!”
They came down from the overpasses onto a ridge in a hill with the cross traffic below an embankment. Laura wondered if the softening of the lavender sky at the horizon was the Pacific. Everything was too big, without trees and houses. In Medina, the trees and houses had held things close together so that she could feel safe outside.
“Are you going to take NI-440, again?” Murphy asked.
“Yes. Less traffic.”
“Verch. How much do you owe Jason?”
Verch turned. “Hard to say. It’s a lot. I guess, somewhere along the line, I lost track.” He swiped off the radio. “You hear something?”
“Something shrill . . . behind us . . . somewhere.”
“You can’t hear anything outside the car.”
“It seemed like it was behind us.”
“Wait,” Murphy said. “I hear it.” He turned around. “There’s something back there.”
“What is it?”
“A funny looking car or—or something. Can’t tell. It’s too far back. I thought this car was sound-proof?” Murphy leaned to the right. “Lost it.” He turned forward. “That was weird. So you don’t know how much you owe Jason. Partying ain’t cheap, huh? Especially with the drugs. And you’re family’s loaded, right? I mean, you’re a Transpurton. They won’t bail you out of all that debt?”
“Drop it, Murphy,” Verch took a left onto NI-440.
“It’s just, the debt, you know. It’s probably important, right.”
“When’s the last time you had sex with a woman? You know? the kind without diapers.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You don’t know?”
“No. Explain it.”
Murphy scratched the back of his head.
Verch hit the brakes to turn through a cloverleaf. “These interstates are so screwed up—I hear it! It’s louder. Like a siren.” He glanced up at his rearview, “What!”
Murphy spun, “It’s . . . It’s a wheel-car, man! They don’t let wheel-cars on the interstates anymore. That’s what was behind us before?”
Laura looked out the rear window and jerked forward to the speedometer which read 375 as Verch turned out of the cloverleaf.
“It’s following us,” Murphy turned to Verch, “Maybe a Dodge from the 1960’s or 70’s. You can tell by the grill and the headlights. Look!” Murphy pointed. “I think it’s a patrol car. It’s got those lights up top.” Murphy snickered. “Maybe it wants to pull us over?”
Verch sighed. “We’re being pulled over by a wheel-car from the 1970s.” He swerved between lanes and sped around cars. “Is it still with us?”
The wheel-car pulled closer with the wind sucking fragments of its cracked windshield inside its black cabin.
Verch hit the brakes and pulled into the slowest lane. Red and blue lights flooded their car and Verch rolled down the passenger window.
“Maybe it’s a ghost.” Murphy snickered.
“Shoot the tires.”
Murphy swung his torso out, bracing himself on the roof.
The wheel-car closed in behind them with its floodlights flickering inside their coupe—red-blue, red-blue. Its headlights burned into Laura’s eyes with streetlight reflecting off its chrome grill. A spinning glare from the patrol lights blinded her.
Flashes from Murphy’s pistol exploded beneath the wheel car’s chassis in blooms. The wheel-car neared, undisturbed. Murphy shot again and then swung back inside the cabin. “Damn! I should have hit something.”
“Never mind.” Verch crossed into faster traffic.
The wheel-car passed through a red coupe. Light played over seams and curves and the two cars’ shadows merged, the wheel-car inside the coupe before emerging out its left panel.
Verch glared at him.
“I know what I saw, Verch. That thing just passed through three cars!”
Verch sped. He rolled up the window, silencing the wind. “I can’t stand it! The siren!”
Within the wheel-car’s dark cabin, the outline of a head and shoulders moved closer. Calm eyes glowered before a male face hid behind the windshield’s branching cracks.
The speedometer passed five-hundred as they moved into the fastest lane with Verch’s tight fists clenched over the handle-wheel.
“It’s lost in cars,” Murphy said.
Verch shook his head. “We’re imagining it. We’re not being followed by a wheel-car from the 1970’s.”
“I know what I saw!”
“This ain’t no disease.”
“It’s the same idea. I say something, you say something. When we first thought it was following us, I took that cloverleaf at over three-hundred. There’s no way a wheel-car could take that turn at that speed without melting its tires and flying off the road.”
Murphy was quiet. “We ask the girl.” He turned, then slapped at his ear, “Ah! It’s . . . louder. That siren. Drilling—drilling into my skull.”
Edges of the black hood shimmered. She wondered why she couldn’t hear whatever siren they were talking about.
“It’s in your head,” Verch said. “Block it.”
“No. It’s the wheel-car. From inside the car.” Murphy leaned toward Laura, “Did you see it? Did you see the wheel-car?”
Laura opened her mouth and froze. Tears rolled over her freckles.
He swung the pistol, sighting crosshairs on her throat, “DID YOU SEE IT, BITCH!”
“Yes,” she rasped, “I saw it.”
Their car lurched.
The broad grill backed away, rattling an impacted headlight.
“IT’S HIM!” Murphy’s voice hoarsened, “I saw him. His eyes. In there! I’m gonna shoot that bastard! Gonna bag him.”
“We can outrun it,” Verch said.
“No. Gotta shoot. He’s crazy. I saw him. With coldness—somehow—with coldness.” Murphy turned back. “Look. Look inside!”
“I can’t see anything inside!”
“Yes you can. Pull to the slow lane,” Murphy said, “I can bag this bastard. I can bag him between those cold eyes.”
Laura looked to the rearview. They had distance between them, but it was back there. Verch crossed lanes.
The window rolled down. Murphy gripped the door. The wheel-car neared, narrowing the gap, pulling to the right.
Verch slowed to bring them closer.
Murphy’s eyes grew. “I figured out what he is—”
“Shut up and shoot.”
Murphy grinned. “He’s judgment. To judge me for what I did. It’s followed me. Always. From farther back there. Way back, behind the cars we try to drive away from. Now it thinks it’s over.” Murphy looked at the pistol, “But I still got something . . .” He jerked outside.
Verch looked up, “Murphy! Wait!”
A pistol held outside the wheel-car’s window flashed red, recoiling, and Murphy’s shoulders and chest fell along the window’s edge.
“Murphy!” Verch looked over, “Murphy.” He unfastened his chest restraint to reach him and pull him inside, turning him over. Blood poured out between his eyes where the slug had crushed his skull.
“Ahhh!” Laura shrieked. She shrunk into a ball and peaked out at them through a slit eye.
Murphy’s dead hand clenched the pistol. Verch looked up to the gray concrete of an overpass as it neared, “NO!”
Concrete pulverized. Fragments cracked the windshield as their side struck, sending their tail spinning, tottering, flipping, gray walls whirling like nightmares. They jolted up and down with metallic shrieks, sliding on the driver side with spark showers pelting their windows. They hit near the end of the containment wall on the far side of the overpass. Dust billowed. Thinned.
Verch coughed and unfastened his waist. He bled along his forehead and chest as the wheel-car slowed behind them. He snatched the pistol from Murphy’s hand and punched buttons on the gun’s panel. “Get out!” he called to Laura, “We’re getting out.” He unfastened Murphy and shoved him, retracting the passenger door.
Traffic screams of cars struck with machine gun cadence. Laura groaned. He yanked her arm. She found the embankment a split-second before him. It was up ahead on the right. Cars flashed by below. Further down, the Pacific lapped a rocky beach. He headed toward it.
Laura staggered in the opposite direction.
She was grabbed and pulled close with the pistol pointed at her stomach. Their shadows stretched toward the Pacific as she wiped dust from her sweaty face and touched a cut on her forehead.
He pulled her down and along the embankment toward a retainment sheet of gravel. Streetlight from the highway hit sharp facets and she watched her footing as she stepped.
He pulled her. “Get the fuck over!”
A rustling came from the highway shoulder. Boots crushed grass. He stood over six feet in blue pants and tan short-sleeves. Blood trickled through runlets from his chest to his boots as the .357 swung loose from his arm and gusts fluttered his raven hair.
Verch sighted the crosshairs on the man’s face.
Laura’s stomach plummeted. She met the officer’s stoic eyes—archetypical eyes, like the angel Gabriel.
The officer raised a walky-talky to his mouth, “There’s four of them.”
“What?” Verch asked.
Laura looked behind them, but there were only the two of them on the embankment. She noticed the man looking off at something slightly over their heads.
“You don’t look good, man,” Verch sputtered. “Why don’t we call it a night? That’s fair. Fair . . . right?”
The walky-talky issued a garbled message. The man responded, “White van. New Mexico plates. I’ll check it out.”
Verch glanced over his shoulder again. “New Mexico?”
The gun swayed as the officer walked. He polished blood from his badge with the bronze points spinning out the streetlights in star-gleams.
Laura winced and blinked away the spots in her vision.
“Ah,” Verch yelled and grimaced from the light as crimson pulses spun and launched from his gun.
The grass behind the man ignited.
“What?” Verch staggered over the rocks.
She was pulled into his side with the pistol against her neck.
Behind them, hordes of cars flashed in cross-traffic with the tide crashing over and through boulders. Verch laughed and grew pale, “Do you know who I am?” he staggered, sliding through gravel, “I’m a Transpurton. I’m, I’m Verch—Verch—Transpurton!”
The boots stopped.
“My family owns four corporations!”
Her hair was clenched and pulled. She shrieked.
“We can negotiate this out like men. Like men!” He stumbled and gathered.
“Two suspects armed with shotguns. She’s pregnant.”
“You crazy man?” Verch asked. “Ain’t nobody pregnant over here?”
“No,” the man told his walky-talky. “I can help her.”
“You can’t help her. You can’t help anyone in this world, man, you know that. But we can make a deal!”
The officer discovered him. He locked onto Verch with his stoic eyes, “No deals!” He swung the .357 up and grasped it two-handed as he drew in a low stance.
Verch’s eyes widened, “Wait—wait—no—I—!”
The barrel flashed. Gray tendrils rose up fast in a breeze. Verch jerked and rolled down the hill, his arms and legs bouncing against rocks.
The officer holstered his gun. His voice was tired: “You’re safe,” he said. “You’ll be alright. I promise.” He turned from her and began walking away.
She balanced herself, her stomach grumbling and knees weak. She looked up, “Why?”
He stopped, “It’s my job.” Then he continued up the hill before falling to his knees and onto his side.
She looked along the embankment. The impression of a body had pressed the grass flat with bloody blades flittering.
A traffic controller rumbled overhead; its spotlights blinding her as it swooped toward the highway and her stomach churned. She swooned, falling backward into a soft bed of powdery gravel.
As the traffic controller was landing, the huge lavender sky loomed above. She felt peaceful as she imagined the officer’s promise for the rest of her young life.