She’d been walking along the side of the road for what seemed like forever, and not one of the cars would stop for her. Every time she heard one passing she’d turn, smile, stick out her thumb, and every time – nothing. Either she was doing something wrong, or drivers these days were just jerks. Selfish jerks who didn’t want to help anyone out.
Of course, she could be doing something wrong, and she’d have no idea. She’d never tried hitching before. But she didn’t have her own car, so...here she was.
Another car roared up. She turned, pasted on her smile, stuck out a thumb, and...it drove straight on by, kicking dust up into her face and making her cough.
She turned and kept trudging along. The side of the road was rough, hard to walk on, but she kept going. She only had to keep her mind on what she was leaving, and it made the whole thing a lot easier.
Yet another car went by, and she shut her eyes against the dust.
It was all so stupid. How long had she wanted to leave? And then the day she finally did, she went with no plan and nothing better than the clothes she was wearing and an old backpack half-full of whatever she’d grabbed on her way out. Ridiculous. But she couldn’t go back, not after…
She heard the rumble of a truck approaching, and immediately she stepped away from the road, covered her face – the dust that the cars were throwing up was bad enough, but one of the big trucks? This wouldn’t be fun.
The truck went by, and oh wow, it was so much worse than she’d anticipated. The cloud was enormous, choking, and seemed like it was going on forever. She ran out of air and inhaled, immediately coughing as the foul taste of the dust filled her mouth. Finally the noise stopped, and a few moments later she could breathe again, the cloud clearing.
She blinked her eyes and waved the rest of the dust away. Then she blinked again.
The truck wasn’t gone. It had stopped, pulled over on the verge in front of her. It wasn’t until the door opened that she realised what was happening, and then she kicked herself into a run, sneakers slipping on the uneven ground, but she made it there and started to pull herself up into the cabin.
“Oh, thank you so much, I’ve been waiting out there for ages, you wouldn’t believe-”
She stopped abruptly at the sight of the driver. She was a tough, scary-looking woman with muscular shoulders, an eyepatch, and a mess of scar tissue across the right half of her face. And if that wasn’t intimidating enough, she was armed, pistols in holsters under each arm. Still, the woman gave a little nod. And she had stopped for her, after all.
“No problem. Come on, strap in, I’ve got a schedule to keep.”
With no better options, and reminding herself what was behind her, and telling herself this woman probably wasn’t as scary as she looked, she belted herself in and they took off down the road.
It had been miles, and they hadn’t spoken yet. She was too intimidated. The woman driving watched the road like she was expecting it to bite her – not fearful, but wary. The way she looked, she’d probably shoot it.
The thought almost made her laugh, but she muffled it. No sense making a stranger think that she was making fun of her. She needed the lift, after all.
“So, uh,” she ventured, “what’s your name?”
The woman glanced at her for the tiniest part of a second, and at first she thought that she wouldn’t answer.
“...Marie.” Stupid. Why did she lie? And if she was going to lie, why hadn’t she picked one in advance?
But the woman didn’t seem bothered, if she noticed at all. “Alright. So, Marie, I’m headed to Rook City. Is that okay with you, or is there somewhere I should drop you off on the way?”
She’d heard about Rook City. Her father said it was rotten to the core, full of criminals and low-class scum who preyed on each other and any outsiders who were stupid or unlucky enough to wander in. But if he hated it, that meant it couldn’t be all that bad. “Rook City’s fine. What are you taking there?”
“Oh, this and that. A few medical supplies. Plus a…special item for a friend of mine. So tell me. What are you running away from?”
“Well, you clearly don’t care where you’re going – so what matters is where you’re coming from, what you’re leaving behind. Or maybe who you’re leaving behind?”
God, she wasn’t any good at this. It wasn’t like she hadn’t lied to anyone before, but for some reason this woman’s relentless directness made it hard to come up with anything. She was blushing even thinking of lying about it.
The woman didn’t answer, only nodded.
“He thinks he runs everything. He thinks he’s always right, about everything, and if you don’t agree with him then you’re just stupid and need to shut up. He wants everyone else to just sit down and be quiet and do what they’re told, even me. Especially me. But I’m not going to do what he wants!”
She realised she was yelling, and her jaw slammed shut. But the woman didn’t seem to mind, in fact she was smiling, just at the corner of her mouth.
“Alright, I can see why you left. Controlling parents are the worst. But you’re away now. Nothing else we need to worry about from him, right?”
She simmered down a little. “No. I...no.”
“Well, alright then.” Amanda turned her focus back to the road, still smiling. After a minute or so of silence, she broke it again: “Your dad sounds exactly like my mom. I ran away from her when I was a kid, too. Best choice I ever made.”
“Really?” She bit her lip.
“Absolutely. She’s not a great person, getting away was the only way I’d have anything like a normal life. Not that my life is normal, exactly. You know what I mean. I got out and made my own way in the world. Yeah, it was a good idea.”
“Do you...miss her?”
Amanda made a strange sort of half-shrug. “Well, I still see her sometimes. We sort of move in the same circles. Professionally.”
“But...I guess I do miss her. I don’t know, it’s complicated.”
“Yeah.” It was complicated for her too.
Night was falling, and the only light in the cabin was coming from the last remnants of the sunset behind them. The first stars were starting to show up in the eastern sky, and blue was shading towards black.
Her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t bothered to bring dinner, and the bottle off water she’d grabbed had been emptied hours ago. She frowned out the window and tried to ignore it.
It took her a moment to realise that Amanda was speaking. “Sorry, what?”
“You want to stop and get dinner? We should do that sometime soon anyway, and I think there’s a decent place coming up.”
“Yeah, sure.” She was pretty sure that she was failing to sound nonchalant.
“Cool.” And a few minutes later, it was done – the truck found an exit and lumbered off the freeway, down to a sprawling rest-stop.
Amanda kicked her door open and dropped down from the cab. Marie was a little more delicate, and had to half-run to catch her as she walked away. The parking lot was full of cars and a few other big trucks, and the two of them weaved their way through on their way to the bright lights of the eatery ahead.
As soon as they entered, the noise hit them. The place hadn’t looked that busy from the outside, but it was packed with people, all of them apparently having conversations at the top of their lungs. The sound was a wall, and the smell and the light and-
Amanda was there, with a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, kid. You okay?”
“I’m fine. Fine. I’m just...a little overwhelmed. Give me a minute, I’ll be fine.”
She would have to be. She took a couple of deep breaths, then straightened back up. She could do this. “Yeah. Okay, let’s eat.”
The counters were as crowded as the rest of the place, and she was glad that Amanda was so tough – all she had to do was follow along in the wake left as she pushed her way through. She was a rock in a seething sea of people, and Marie clung to her for safety.
When they made it to the front, Amanda asked her something that she couldn’t hear, and she just nodded mutely. She turned back to the serving staff and hollered an order, and quickly enough they handed her over a couple of greasy paper packages. Then she turned back to Marie, gestured a little, and they moved away again until they found a clearing where they could sit. Amanda slid over one of the packages, and she unwrapped it to find the greasiest, cheesiest burger she’d ever seen. She wasn’t sure if the smell of it was revolting or enticing, but she bit into it all the same.
The taste was...odd. She’d had burgers before, but they tended to be a bit classier, and containing something identifiably vegetable. And the beef would taste of beef. From what she could tell, this mostly tasted of cheese and a hint of ketchup. But her stomach was still grumbling even as she ate it, so she kept on chewing. Amanda, for her part, actually seemed to be enjoying her dinner.
They didn’t bother trying to talk as they ate, the noise from everyone else around them making it pointless. It was oppressive, and she felt it pressing in against her temples, but she did her best to shut it out and focus on eating. So it came as a real shock when Amanda dropped her burger half-finished onto the paper, stood, and pulled her up from her seat. She managed to keep a hold of her dinner as she was dragged along, stumbling as they strode towards the door. Amanda shoved past anyone in her way, and finally they reached the doors and were outside in the cold evening.
Now that they were out of the noise, she might have said something, but Amanda was already talking:
“When it starts, get down, and run to the truck. Understand?”
“What? No! When what starts!?”
There was a loud metallic click. “Stop right there.”
She spun around, and in the corner of her eye she saw Amanda turning in a much more careful, measured way. There were four men in grey suits standing there, and they were all pointing guns at the two women. No, not at both of them – just at Amanda.
For her part, Amanda looked unruffled. She was even smiling, and her hands were resting casually at her waist.
“Took you long enough. I was starting to wonder if this trip was going to be more boring than I thought.”
The lead man sneered. “Shut up. Give us what we want and we’ll let you be.”
She grinned like a shark, and her fingers twitched. “Counter-offer. Run away with your tails between your legs, and I promise not to hurt you all too badly.”
The man’s nostrils flared and his face flushed. “What, do you think we’re kidding? I will shoot you in the face if you don’t do what we tell you to!”
“Look, in a minute you’re going to really regret not taking my offer.”
He raised his gun. “Fuck this. Fi-”
There was a gunshot and a scorching sound, and the man went down, little arcs of electricity reaching out from his shoulder. Marie only saw that for a fraction of a second, then Amanda was on top of her, throwing her down behind a car. “Run to the truck! Don’t wait for me!”
She crawled, scrambled, then got her feet under her and ran. There were shots behind her and she stumbled, half-expecting to feel bullets ripping into her back. But the pain didn’t come, and she kept moving, dodging through the crowd of parked vehicles. One bullet shattered a car window, and the alarm screamed into the night.
Her pulse was thumping, lungs heaving, legs aching, the truck was too far away. Another pair of shots sounded behind her, and a scream.
Just get to the truck. Desperate running. Gravel slipping under her shoes. Finally, reaching it, the metal of the door under her hand, and she wrenched it open – unlocked, thank goodness – and hauled herself in, then curled up as small as she could and listened, straining to hear, shaking in terror.
There were no more gunshots. Just silence.
Then she heard footsteps. Not running, but walking quickly, gravel crunching with each step. She curled up harder, tried to be completely invisible.
The footsteps came closer, closer, stopped. She tried to stifle a gasp.
The door opened.
She screamed, scrabbled at the door but couldn’t find the handle, and then a hand grabbed her leg. She slapped at it desperately, struggling like a cornered rabbit.
“Hey! Marie!” It took a moment to remember that was supposed to be her. “Marie, it’s me, Amanda. Stop shouting!”
She faced her rescuer, and stopped, though she was still pressed up against the door. Satisfied enough with that, Amanda pulled herself up into the cab and started the engine. It took a moment, but it caught and the growl of the engine shook the truck as they started to move. Mechanically, Maria buckled herself in.
They were on the freeway again for only a minute or so before Amanda broke the silence.
“I’m sorry about what happened back there. Didn’t mean for you to get caught up in that.”
“You were...expecting that?”
“Something like it, yeah.”
What the hell did that mean? Did Amanda know who she was? Who her father was? But even if she did, she wouldn’t be expecting this kind of…
“Well. You remember I told you I was making a special delivery, right? Well, my friend isn’t the only person who wants it. Those idiots might not be the last to come after us. Or the worst. If you want me to leave you somewhere so you can find someone else to take you the rest of the way, I get it.”
That would make sense. She’d never been shot at before, and she wasn’t eager to repeat the experience. On the other hand, it seemed like any danger Amanda caused, she could deal with it too.
“Did you kill those guys?”
“Nah.” She snorted. “They weren’t worth killing. I just stunned them, and I’m sure the local police will collect them easily enough. Also I try to avoid just murdering people – it creates more problems than it solves. Usually.”
Marie nodded slowly. She couldn’t tell if Amanda was being serious. She certainly sounded serious, but she had a wry half-smile that might be teasing. And with the adrenaline leaving her body after running from the gunmen, she was shaky and exhausted, too much to ask any more questions.
Amanda seemed to notice. “Look, we can talk later. You don’t look like you’re up to much now. Get some sleep. Once we’ve made a bit of distance I’ll find us a rest stop and we’ll stay the night. Okay?”
She thought she agreed, but she fell asleep so fast that she might not have said anything back at all.
When she woke up, it was still dark, and the truck was stopped. The clock on the dashboard said it was just after two in the morning. Amanda was sleeping next to her in the driver’s seat.
She lay there for a moment, just looking at the older woman and thinking. She didn’t look much less scary while she was asleep. Her brows were furrowed and moved occasionally, as if she was having a glaring match with her dreams. Her hands twitched sometimes too, fingers firing imaginary guns. She wondered who she thought she was fighting.
She shifted her legs a tiny bit, and the movement made her suddenly realise how extremely uncomfortable she was. She stretched out as much as she could, but the cabin was far too cramped and she couldn’t get enough space, her aching muscles complaining at every awkward move.
With no other comfortable options, she opened the door and stepped out. That was better right away. The night air was cold, the parking lot they were in was densely packed with other trucks to a claustrophobic extent, and she wasn’t dressed for this weather by any measure, but at least she had room to move, room to stretch. She took a few steps along the gravel, the soft crunching carrying into the quiet, empty air. The only other sounds were the soft hum of electric lights overhead and a gentle midnight breeze, and somewhere the rumble of other trucks rushing on through the night.
As her body woke, a couple of organs made their particular complaints known, and she looked around to see if there was a toilet. She thought she could see something, off through the rows of trucks. She walked stiffly over, trying not to jostle her bladder too much as she went, moving as softly as she could to avoid disturbing any other sleepers in the vehicles around her.
The little building was ugly and utilitarian, but the sign said restroom and that was all she needed. She went in, held her breath, and used a stall while touching as little as she could. Then she washed her hands and dried them on her clothes, for lack of any better options.
She looked at herself in the mirror for a moment. The version of her staring back looked tired. Not as beautiful as usual, not as made-up or well-rested. Her hair was a mess and her clothes were getting sweaty and dirty. She looked like a spoiled little rich kid who had run away from home.
She sighed, pinched the bridge of her nose, and stepped back outside, started the walk back. The truck wasn’t too far away, and even if it was uncomfortable, she was looking forward to getting back to sleep. Tomorrow they’d continue their journey, and soon she would arrive in Rook City. Then she could start a new life doing...who knew what, she hadn’t worked that out yet. It didn’t matter.
There was the sound of other footsteps behind her.
She was on the point of bolting when a voice softly said. “That’s far enough, Raquel. Stop there.”
The footsteps got closer, their owners stepped into view. Two men in suits. They looked faintly familiar, but she’d seen enough men in suits in her life that she couldn’t be sure if she’d actually met these ones before. They were all basically interchangeable anyway.
“You caused your father quite a bit of trouble, you know that? He’s a little upset with you. He sent us to make sure you got home safely.”
The words were innocuous, but Raquel knew what they meant, and her heart rushed, flooding her with fear. There was nowhere she could run. Nothing she could do.
“Come on, Raquel. Come with us. Everything will be fine if you just come with us.”
There was a grinding, gravelly sound, and her head moved involuntarily to see Amanda stomping a cigarette butt out on the ground.
“You know it’s funny, I thought I’d shown you all the error of your ways when we met last time? I guess it’s like they say – you can’t cure stupid.”
Both the men in suits drew their guns. Amanda hadn’t drawn hers.
“Really, you want to shoot me just for calling you idiots? Guess I must’ve hit a nerve, huh.”
The first suit was sneering, about to attempt some sharp riposte, when the second chimed in with a quaver in his voice - “Oh my God, Jerry, that’s her! That’s Expatriette!”
Amanda smiled and rolled her eye. “Oh no, I’ve been recognised. Alert the paparazzi.”
Jerry levelled his pistol and snarled. “We’re not afraid of you, and we’re not alone. Give up the girl and you can leave alive.”
The next few seconds flashed by, but Raquel saw them all in crystal clear slow motion, barely hearing the noise over the pumping blood that thundered in her ears. She watched as Amanda dropped to the side, drawing her pistols bringing them around to her attackers. She noticed how beautiful they were, shining silver and dark gunmetal, each with a dove stretching from the grip up onto the slide. The guns flashed in unison, and the suited men fell, one shaking with an electrical shock, the other with an arm that was suddenly encased in a spreading block of ice.
Others were appearing, the backup that Jerry had promised was there, but Expatriette didn’t flinch. More of her special bullets flew, and the goons were sent down as quickly as they appeared, one after another. The gunwoman whirled, and took down a pair that had been creeping up, then turned again and fired a shot that took down a straggler, and he dropped the gun he’d been aiming as his body shook. In a few moments, everything was still again.
The whole scene had taken perhaps half a minute, and Raquel didn’t think she’d seen even one of the suits fire a shot.
In the near-silence that followed, Expatriette stepped up to Raquel. “Okay, ‘Marie,’ I think it’s time we get back on the road. We’ve got a long way to go, and we need to talk.”
In spite of what she’d said, Amanda drove a good few miles along the freeway before she spoke.
“You lied to me.”
She flushed. “I know I gave you a fake name, I’m sorry, I don’t even know why I did it-”
“Not that. I don’t care about your name. Hell, I don’t know who you really are even now. When I offered to drive you, and I asked if there was anything I needed to know about, you said no. I don’t think ‘My dad is sending a pack of poorly-disciplined gunmen after me’ goes without saying!”
“I didn’t know he would do that, okay? I didn’t know!”
“And after they attacked us the first time? You let me believe that was my fault, that it was me putting you in danger! Dammit, did you think I was a complete idiot?”
“No! I just...I was scared, alright? I thought that if I told you, that you wouldn’t want to take me any further, that you’d leave me out here in the middle of nowhere! And I can’t do that, and I can’t go back home to my dad, not after...”
“Not after what?” Raquel hesitated. “Come on, I think I deserve that much. What did he do that persuaded you to run off?”
“He...scared off my boyfriend.”
Amanda was perfectly quiet, and Raquel couldn’t tell if that was good or not, so she tried to explain.
“Look, you have to understand my dad is a powerful man. He’s rich, and he runs his business like it’s an actual empire, you know? Always talking about running competitors out of town or closing them down or whatever. Anyway he’s always treated me like a princess in some book, tried to lock me away from everything, from the whole world. He even tried to stop me going to school for a bit, but I fought him until he gave in.” There was a brief flicker of pride in her voice. “Anyway, he’s always hated any boy I got near to, but Eddie was something special. He was gorgeous, and smart – we’d only been together for a couple of months but we were already talking about our future, you know? And I know you probably think that’s stupid, a couple of teenagers planning their lives together.” Amanda gave no sign either way. “But we were serious. We were meant for each other, you know what I mean? He was perfect.”
She curled her legs up onto the seat and wrapped her arms around them, folding into a loose ball. “Then about a week ago, he vanished. Just completely disappeared from school, from his job, even his mom didn’t know where he was. Some of the guys at school said he’d run off to live with his dad in Italy, but I knew he wouldn’t have just left me like that. Not without a good reason. And I knew who would have given him one.” Tears of anger and frustration were forming in her eyes and her throat was choking up, but she had to power through, had to explain herself properly.
“I finally asked him a couple of nights ago, just like that, asked him right out. He just laughed in my face. Said he didn’t need to do anything, that Eddie was too smart to be with someone like me, that he’d be better off alone or-” The tears were finally too much, and they broke over her, pouring down her face, choking her throat and ripping sobs from her chest.
Amanda frowned and nodded. “Okay. Yeah. I get why you left. I get it.”
The tears kept coming for a few minutes before she could get them under control and turn the awful sobbing into a trickle of tears and a few sniffles. Amanda grabbed her some tissues from the glovebox, and she did her best to dry her eyes and blow her nose. God, she felt like such a mess.
“Your dad sounds like a nasty piece of work.”
She just nodded.
“Well, don’t pay attention to what he said. I’m sure Eddie really cared about you.”
Another quiet nod. For a minute, the two of them sat in silence, with just the noise of the road for company.
Some of that noise was getting louder. Expatriette glanced at the mirrors and frowned. “Hey, quick question. How good of a driver are you?”
“Uh...” she sniffed “I’m okay I guess? I haven’t done it that much.” The noise was even louder now, clarifying into the sound of several motors, approaching fast.
“Good enough. All I need you to do is keep us on the road, and the cruise control will mostly take care of the rest. Can you do that?”
“Okay.” Amanda grabbed Raquel’s hand and slapped it onto the wheel, then pulled out her guns.
“What the...what are you doing?”
“I just have to discourage some people from following us. Shouldn’t take long.”
Expatriette leaned out the window, and Raquel shifted across to take the wheel more strongly. The gunwoman took careful aim and fired a shot, and there was a bright flash in the night, then screeching tires. Racquel glanced in the mirror to see a trail of fire that ended at a motorcycle, whose rider had pulled it over and bailed out at the side of the road. They vanished into the distance as the truck drove on, but several more bikes were keeping pace, pulling up alongside the truck.
One of the riders pulled out a machine pistol and fired a quick burst. The cracking sound made Raquel flinch, and the truck wobbled as she jerked to the right.
“Keep it straight!” barked Expat, and she did her best, bringing the truck back under control. She took aim again, and fired two shots – one froze the gunman’s arm, dropping the weapon from his grip, while the other burst on the road into another pool of flame. The riders dodged around it as best they could, and only one was caught, their ride’s tires smouldering and starting to smoke. That didn’t stop them, and the three formed up together, speeding up alongside the truck.
A movement in the mirror alerted her, and she yelled: “Amanda! The other side!” Another two bikes were moving up the other side of the truck, hemming them in.
Amanda growled. “Damn! Hold the truck steady, understand? No sudden movements!” She fired again at the trio on their left, scattering them for a moment as she pulled herself all the way out of the window and onto the nose of the truck.
Racquel drove as carefully and as smoothly as she could, trying to keep her hands from shaking. Expatriette strode confidently across the truck’s bonnet, drawing a bead on the second pair. Her first shot hit and a front tire flashed into flame, and that bike’s rider pulled it to the side of the road just before the tire split open completely. Two more shots hit the road, and the second rider swerved around the fires that sprang up. They were pulling close now, almost level with the door, and they drew their own gun, taking aim. Expat narrowed her eye and fired. Two shots hit – one freezing the gun in the rider’s fist, the second setting fire to their jacket. That double-whammy was finally enough to make them give up and peel away.
There was a loud metallic thump. Raquel glanced to her left and yelped – the bike belonging to the third rider on that side had caught fire, and they’d abandoned it and leapt straight onto the truck. They were clinging to the door, trying to hold themself steady while getting a grip to open it.
Her yell and the shaking of the truck had been sufficient to call Expatriette back, two quick strides carried her across the truck and she brought a gun up at the one-man boarding party. They grabbed at their own gun, and swung out wildly as they did so. Instead of taking a shot, Expat ducked back, letting them steady themself a little. She kept low, crouching in front of the windscreen, until they’d brought the gun out and were swinging it to find a target – then she popped back up and fired two shots – one froze the gun in their left fist, the other froze their right hand onto the door handle. They yelled at her through their helmet in inarticulate rage, but her focus was already moving elsewhere – the final pair of riders were coming up fast. A burst of gunfire zipped past them, clipping one of the mirrors and making Expatriette duck down again. The one swinging from the door did their best to avoid the bullets, but didn’t quite succeed, and a shot grazed their shoulder, the force of its impact swinging them to clatter into the door again. They yelped in pain. Raquel was just driving as steadily as she could, fixing her eyes to the road in the headlights, trying not to flinch when another few shots blazed past the window. Expatriette fired back, three more blasts of flame driving the bikes away from them, screeching as they swerved.
Something in the headlights caught her eyes – a sharp turn. Shit.
She yelled to Amanda: “Hey! Hang on!”
Amanda didn’t ask why, she just dived forward and grabbed the edge of the windscreen and held as hard as she could. More bullets whizzed over her head from the riders, she tried to bring up one of her pistols to fire back – then Raquel hit the turn. She hauled hard on the wheel, braked as smoothly as she could, and the truck...barely turned. She hauled harder, threw her weight into it, the truck started to turn but not fast enough, the edge of the road was getting closer, she was drifting towards the verge and the riders were pulling back, away from the imminent crash, Expatriette was gripping the windscreen as hard as she could and her teeth were bared in a grimace, the tires were rumbling and they weren’t going to be okay and…
they were through. The turn was done, they were out. She took a moment, just a moment to breathe.
Then the truck stalled. It juddered gradually to a complete stop.
The two riders zipped past them, braking and turning with a screech, beautifully lit in the headlights as they came around to the attack. They raised their guns and-
Two last gunshots sounded, and both riders fell to the ground, parts of their bodies encased in ice from Expatriette’s high-tech bullets. She sneered.
She holstered her guns, clambered down from the bonnet, and came around to the driver’s side door, which still had a groaning gunman frozen to it.
“Well, we can’t have you hanging around, can we?”
She pulled out one of her guns and the figure flinched away, went to say something – but she just fired a shot at the ice, and a flash of flame melted it away enough that they fell to the ground. The impact made them yell out again, and Expat gave an unkind little smile. Then she crouched down beside them and pulled off their helmet, revealing a man somewhere in his twenties or thirties, with a face full of unspeakable hate.
“Hurts, does it?”
He just glared at her, didn’t say anything.
“Good. Because I want you to deliver a message. Tell your boss, if he keeps sending more of you? My patience might just run out. Tell him the next idiots he sends won’t just get hurt, understand me?”
He kept the tough-guy glare, but nodded.
She climbed back up into the cabin, and Raquel let her have the driver’s seat back. The truck started easily, and she rounded the fallen riders, pulling off along the road into the distance.
The rest of the night passed without incident, and the rest of the morning too. Scenery slid by, blurring into a continuous mass of highway, and there wasn’t much to break up the monotony besides squabbling whenever they had to change the radio station – she found the Amanda’s tastes in music to be too industrial and honestly kind of scary, while Amanda had given an impassioned speech about the ‘soulless, overproduced synth-pop’ that Raquel liked. They mostly managed to compromise with classic rock, which always seemed to be available on some station or other. The afternoon was starting to slide towards evening again when finally they started to pull into the outskirts of Rook City. Raquel watched out the window as the houses got smaller, more clustered, and if she was honest quite a bit uglier. The towers in the near distance loomed up, filling the skyline with jagged teeth.
She was starting to feel very far from home.
Before she knew it, they were pulling into a truck depot. Amanda said nothing as she carefully entered and parked the truck in its narrow bay. She turned off the engine and let out a tiny sigh.
Then she seemed to remember Raquel was there. “So, made it at last! How are you feeling?”
God, she was feeling all sorts of things. “Exhausted, mostly. I don’t know. It’s been a pretty hard trip.”
She hadn’t meant it to be funny, but Amanda chuckled all the same. “Yeah, we had enough excitement, didn’t we? You did pretty well, considering.” She opened the door and hopped down, and figuring this was some sort of cue, Raquel did the same. Amanda went around to the back of the truck, unlocked it, and collected one small box, about the size of a hardcover book. Then she re-locked the door and tucked the box under one arm.
“Well, that’s the end of the road. All I need to do is drop this off with my friend, and I’m done. Do you have any plans for where you’ll be staying?”
“Uh...” She did not. She hadn’t really planned this far ahead.
“Okay, well I that case do you want a lift into the city? You should be able to find a proper place to stay there. As long as you brought some money with you. You did, right?”
She nodded a bit too hard, eager to show that she’d at least put a tiny bit of thought into running away.
“Okay then. Come with me, we’ll go for a ride.”
It was the first motorbike Raquel had ever been on. A couple of the edgier boys at school had offered to take her for rides, but she’d never accepted – she hadn’t been that interested in them, and if she was honest, she’d been a bit scared of the idea. Now that she was doing it, though, it was thrilling. The air was pulling at her, tugging hard as they accelerated, whipping at her clothes every time they turned a corner. Despite the worries about her future, despite complete uncertainty, despite everything, she was enjoying herself, and she grinned into the wind as she clung to Amanda’s waist.
They arrived all too soon, pulling up alongside a small dusty shop in the city. Raquel hopped off the back, and Amanda swung her leg off the bike, grabbed her package from the back, and turned to face her passenger.
“Okay, this is my drop-off. Give me a minute, then I’ll be back out. I can at least help you get oriented.”
Amanda turned and went inside the little shop, leaving her alone for the first time since the truck stop. She looked up and down the street. It was quieter than she’d imagined, only a few people walking urgently, eyes darting and heads down. A raven croaked somewhere on the rooftops.
She thought she heard something, a strange noise coming from an alleyway. There didn’t seem to be anyone nearby, but something had to have made it. Should she call for help? But it might be nothing.
She walked towards the sound. Just to check it out, see if anything was wrong. The alley wasn’t too far off. A quick look. She rounded the corner, and took a quick glance – and when she realised what she was seeing, she turned to run. Not fast enough. She only took a couple of steps before someone grabbed her hard from behind. She tried to scream, but a handful of cloth was clamped over her mouth, and she blacked out.
When she came around, the first thing she noticed was that her mouth tasted disgusting. The light was too bright, and she blinked to get adjusted as she ran her tongue across her teeth. Ugh, gross. The place looked hazy, then gradually started to come into focus. Weirdly, it seemed to be a hotel – a nice one, too, not what she’d imagined someone would wake up to when they were abducted off the street.
Her brain actually took a long moment to focus on that thought, but when it did, it was like ice through her mind, and she felt properly awake all at once, senses powering up fast as they could. She felt the ropes tying her to the chair, and heard the sounds of people – maybe two of them – standing in the room, shifting their weight but not saying anything.
A surge of nausea welled up from her stomach, and she tried to hold it down. It wouldn’t make a good impression on anyone if she vomited all over this nice carpet. She kept it down, just barely, but the effort made her groan aloud.
“She’s awake,” said one of the people behind her, “get the boss.”
There were footsteps off behind her to the left, and a door opened and closed – when she turned her head and squinted, she thought she could just about see it, a blurry rectangle in a blurry wall. There was muffled conversation from the other side, and then more footsteps and the door opened.
Even through her confusion and hazy vision, she recognised her father when he stepped in front of her. He was wearing a grey suit with a dark blue tie, a combination which she’d always thought made his eyes look cold. They were certainly doing that right now, their pale blue seeming like it was carved from glacial ice, frozen for thousands of years. He stared down at her, almost expressionless, only a slight downward twist of his lip conveying his feelings.
She tried to shrink into her chair, but could hardly move against her restraints. She’d seen him angry before, plenty of times, but she’d never done anything like this to earn it, and it seemed different somehow. Something about him felt crueller.
“You gave the boys quite a chase.”
She wasn’t sure what to say to that. “I’m sorry.” It came out almost as soft as a whisper.
“Be quiet. I don’t care if you’re sorry, I do not care what you feel. You defied me, girl. And then when I sent my people after you, you had the insolence to keep running from them. As though you owed me nothing.”
He loomed closer, face taking up her whole world. The nausea was rising again – swallow it down, don’t throw up on his suit. “You belong to me, girl. You owe me your entire life, and rest assured if you defy me again I will take it back from you.”
She couldn’t hide, couldn’t even control herself enough to turn away, hypnotised by his chilling eyes, and so she almost failed to notice when there was a snapping noise and a thump from the other room. Her father barely reacted either, his eyes leaving hers for only a moment and flicking up at someone, then over to the door. An imperious order without a single word. The thug moved to the door, gun in hand, and reached to open it when it suddenly crashed inwards, slamming into him hard and knocking him almost off his feet. There was another rustle from behind Raquel then someone stepped through the door, gun raised, and said simply: “Don’t.”
It was Expatriette. She looked, if anything, even scarier than she had on the road, in tight blue pants and a blue and white top that left her arms bare – combat clothes with nothing unnecessary, nothing to impede movement. And her face was decorated with one of the most confident smiles Raquel had ever seen.
The rustling stopped.
“That’s perfect,” said Expat. “Now, stop looming over the girl and let her go.”
Her father rose upright, and turned his gaze to the gunwoman. “Ah, you must be the girl who was so irritatingly helpful to my daughter. Rest assured, you will not be so lucky now that you can’t keep running away.”
Expat rolled her eye. “Please. I’ve been threatened by champions, you wouldn’t even hit the top twenty. Untie her.”
“No, I don’t think I will.” He sounded as smug as ever. “You’re alone, aren’t you? You’ve managed to get past a few of my men, and you think you can come in here and make demands until you get your way.” He sneered. “Pathetic girl. Any minute now, you’ll be dragged off to jail.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before too. But then, you never struck me as an original thinker. Raquel told me a little about you, Mr. Ward. And I’ve found out everything else that I needed to know.”
He blinked, and for the shortest moment she thought he might actually be afraid. But his expression didn’t change at all. “If you know who I am, then you must realise what I can do to you. You do not want to upset me any further.”
“Oh please.” Expatriette’s smile had spread into a grin. “Your bluster’s getting pathetic. Let her go, or take your shot.”
There was a rush of movement, she got only the merest glimpses – her father going for a gun, his goons firing, Expatriette ducking and weaving and charging.
It was over almost before she knew it was happening, with her father lying on the ground, Expat’s foot on his chest and her gun close to his face. She was looking down at him, and now her smile was almost as cold as his eyes had been.
“You took your shot. Now, unless you want me to take mine...”
He tried to speak, but the first attempt came out as only a croak. He swallowed, and when he did manage to speak, it wasn’t nearly as confident as it had been. “Jones. Untie Raquel. Let her go.”
One of the goons moved – slowly, carefully, doing nothing that might get him shot – to remove the ropes binding her to the chair. Suddenly everything hurt as her blood tingled through tired fingers. She tried to stand up and couldn’t quite do it on her first try. Expatriette glanced at her, but didn’t move. She had to do this little thing herself.
She heaved herself up, and suddenly the nausea was back in a rush, clawing its way up her throat. It stayed down, she kept it there by a huge effort, and took a few unsteady steps, getting better, feeling coming back. By the time she made it to Amanda’s side, she almost felt human again.
“We’re going now. And you won’t bother Raquel again, understand? If I hear she’s had any trouble from you, I will be very disappointed.”
Mr. Ward nodded, from his awkward position on the ground.
“Good. Oh, one more thing. Raquel told me that she was involved with someone, and that you had your men scare him off. Is that right?”
He barked a laugh. “I didn’t scare the boy away. I had Mr. Jones here shoot him and dispose of the corpse. In the river, I think.”
Suddenly her eyes were so full of tears she could hardly see. Eddie was dead? She’d been miserable enough when she just thought he’d been intimidated into running, and she’d known she’d never see him again. But dead?
Without thinking she’d taken a step or two forwards, and her hand was gripping something tightly, something it had grabbed from the ground. She raised it up, feeling like a mere audience to her own actions as she watched the gun move to point at her father’s face. The sneer was gone, and for the first time in her life, she could see an expression on his face that looked like he was afraid of her. Not contemptuous, or commanding, but afraid of what she might do to him.
“I really cared about you, dad. Did you know that? I loved you.” She took a breath, and it was ragged in her throat. “But I loved Eddie too.”
For a moment nobody moved, nobody spoke. The only sound was her own rough breaths. Despite everything, the gun barely shook as she held it at his face.
Amanda was the first to speak, and she did it in soft, measured tones. “Listen, Raquel. I’m not going to tell you what choice to make. I’ve solved enough of my problems like this, I can’t tell you not to do the same. And I know he deserves it as much as anyone. But I don’t think that’s you. And I know this idiot isn’t worth losing yourself for.”
She stared down at the man who had ruined the first nineteen years of her life, had tried to control and destroy the rest of it. Who had pursued her across the country when she dared to defy him. Who had killed a good man. A man she’d loved.
Her finger tightened against the trigger, eager to squeeze – then she let it go, and handed the gun back to Amanda.
“You’re right – death’s too easy for him. Too quick. Let him get locked up instead.”
He looked up at her from the floor, ignoring Expatriette’s other gun that was still levelled at his face, and sneered. “Oh, of course. As if you would have the strength-” Then his voice cut out into a wheeze as the foot on his chest pressed hard again.
“Alright, that’s enough from you. Well, Detective Perez? Did you get everything you needed?”
An imposing woman in an untidy coat came stomping into the room, followed by a couple of uniformed cops. “Certainly did, Ms. Cohen. Mark Ward, you are under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, and honestly whatever other charges we can toss in there at this point, and your mooks are going to be just as screwed as you are. Yes, idiots, I see you down there, move on the guns and you won’t make it to prison. You do not have to say anything, because you’ve said plenty at this point. Now put these cuffs on and come with me. Quietly.”
A little while later, Raquel and Amanda were sitting on a park bench with a couple of coffees, up on a hillside, watching the city nightlife go by. The police had taken her father away, and she’d watched from the other side of the road as the car drove off into the night.
“Are you sure it will all be okay?”
“Positive. I know Perez, she’ll make sure that your dad gets to the right jurisdiction to get put away properly.”
She took a sip. “That’s not really...”
“Oh, sure. Sorry. Well, I told you about me and my mom, right?” She paused for a moment, staring up at the darkening sky. “That sadness you’re feeling right now, it doesn’t ever really go away. When you love someone, it doesn’t matter whether they deserve it or not. You still loved them, you know? But the pain gets less with time. And you’ll find other people, people who are worth caring about. Who are good for you”
She just nodded.
“So what happens now?” she asked, and Amanda nodded seriously.
“Well, after your last experience with wandering off alone in the city, I don’t think I can let you do that again.” Raquel smiled ruefully. “So I’ll help you find somewhere to stay, maybe give you a couple of pointers on half-decent places to work. But you know, I don’t think you’ll do too badly.”
“Really? Because I feel like this whole ‘running away from home’ thing has been way more dramatic than I was planning.”
Amanda laughed. “Sure. But hey, you dealt with it. You travelled across a whole country, escaped armed gangsters and turned the tables on a kidnapper. That’s impressive, ask anyone.”
She grinned. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Amanda gestured broadly at the skyline before them, and it didn’t seem as scary or strange as it had before.
“Welcome to the big bad city, kid. I think you’ll do just fine.”