Part Six: Chapters 37-39

      Mike slung the paper bag onto the kitchen counter, snickering at the suggestive rubbery thump as it hit and bounced. Man, buying that thing had been embarrassing as hell, but it was going to be worth it, just to see the look on the new guy's face tomorrow. The plastic bag he put down with quite a bit more care, since it had food in it, and goddamn, but he was hungry.

      Humming under his breath he slapped open the dishwasher and pulled out a clean plate and fork. Maybe after he ate he'd take a moment and actually empty the dishwasher, he told himself, knowing full well that he wasn't going to. He had to at least intend to, though. Far as he was concerned, virtuously intending to clean the kitchen was almost as good as actually doing it. Especially if he didn't actually clean anything and got to lounge around afterwards with the full knowledge that whatever he was doing, it was still better than drudging around in the kitchen.

      Mike emptied the styrofoam box onto his plate, scraping the last bits of brown goo out with the fork. Even the dried-out nasty white rice that came with his mediocre Chinese takeout couldn't dampen his good mood too badly. He'd survived! Not only had he survived but Sandy hadn't even hit him once! And now everything was out and in the open and someone else's responsibility, and he didn't have to worry about it any more. Nate had promised to put together some kind of recording device for his phone tomorrow, Farraday was lying low and would probably get his ass caught soon in any case, and he was going to get to pick on the new guy for days. The rest of that stuff, well, he had to admit that Sandy had a point, or several points, a couple of which were really nice to look at, but he was pretty confident that things would work out okay in the end.

      He grabbed a beer from the fridge—the last one, actually, he'd have to do something about that tomorrow—and ate leaning against the kitchen counter, just because he could. Why take the plate out of the kitchen if he was just going to have to bring it back in ten minutes? Mike swallowed the last bit of his chicken-bits-in-sweet-brown-stuff and glanced at the clock on the microwave. Seven minutes, actually. He balanced the plate on top of the others in the sink, ran water over it for a few seconds, declared that good enough, and carried his beer out into the main room, opting to flip through the channels instead of emptying the dishwasher.

      One of the movie channels was showing Top Gun. The twelve-year-old that Mike still essentially was made him stop there, his brain patriotically switching itself off.

      The credits rolled. Mike blinked at his long-empty beer can like he'd forgotten why he was holding it and then checked the clock on the DVD player. Almost ten. Huh, well, maybe he'd go ahead and empty the damned dishwasher before he went to bed, since the sink was starting to get kind of full—

      His phone blared from the kitchen counter, screaming The Imperial March at no one. Mike nearly jumped out of his skin, his stomach cramping with reflexive nerves, and ran for it. Had that asshole Farraday—it wasn't a number he recognized, thank God. "Shit, it's a bit late for socializing," he informed his phone, his voice a bit shaky. He could just let it go to voice mail... but even as he had the thought, he flipped his phone open. Just in case. "Yello?"

      Someone gasped in his ear. Ordinarily he'd think that was an excellent start to a conversation, but right now it brought him fully upright like someone had goosed him. "Mike!" Diana Fontaine cried not a second later, confirming his worst fears. "Oh, God, you've got to help me—"

      Mike grabbed his phone in both hands. "Where are you?" he demanded to know, steamrolling right over her panic.

      Diana swallowed. "Ah, ah, at a Sunoco," she said. "On Route 1. I-I'm hiding in the ladies' room."

      "Is he there? Are you in immediate danger? If so you need to call 911 right now—"

      "No! No. I don't think so, anyway." She'd already started to calm down, although she was still breathing a little hard. "I'm sorry! Oh, God. I'm just so scared!"

      Mike relaxed, a little. Not much. Just enough to regret passing up the entertaining reference to the ladies' room. "Okay. Deep breath. Then tell me what happened."

      There was a brief pause, during which he could hear a little shifting rustling sound. "Oh, God," she said again. "I think I made him suspicious. I don't know. I was—" she paused and heaved in a suspiciously snuffly little breath "—I was trying to get him to tell me what was going on, I told him it was because as his lawyer I might need to know, to be prepared for anything, it used to work! He used to tell me these things!"

      "What happened this time?" Mike took his shoulder rig off the counter and shrugged back into it.

      She took another deep breath. "He went quiet and... looked at me. I don't know how to describe it. It was like... a little light went on in the back of his head. And then he patted my hand and told me h-he had to go but not to worry about a thing because he had it all under control and he never used to talk down to me!"

      Mike winced away from the phone. "Okay," he said. "Did you drive there?"

      "Yes!" She didn't sound calm, but she wasn't wailing any more, either. "I didn't know where to go so I just... got away. I just took random turns—I don't think I've ever been this far north on Route 1 before."

      "Okay," Mike said again, rolling both shoulders to settle the harness. "Don't worry. You did good. Where's your car now?"

      "Behind the convenience store." She made a little sound, sort of like a laugh. "I tried to hide it behind the dumpster."

      "Good idea." Mike loped into the front hallway and grabbed his jacket down off its hook. "Okay. Tell me how to get there."

      "It's... just south of where Truslow branches off. You probably want to take 95 to Route 17, go... go east. It'll hit Route 1, go north. The station's on the right."

      Mike stomped into his shoes and grabbed for the doorknob. "Got it. Okay. You stay there, try to stay in sight of other people, call 911 if you even think you see him. I'll be there as soon as I can. Half an hour, tops."

      "Can you... can you stay on the line with me?" Diana asked, falteringly. "I'm sorry, I'd just feel more comfortable..."

      "Well, I tell you what," Mike said, kicking the front door closed behind him and thudding down the stairs two and three at a time. "I can either stay on the line or I can bust ass with both hands and get there faster. Which one do you want?"

      For a moment, Diana was silent, breathing into the phone. "Get here as soon as you can," she finally said, her voice trembling but brisk. "I'll survive."

      "Good girl. Hang in there. I am en route." Mike closed his phone and stuck it back on his belt, slamming out of the building and into the night. It wasn't until he was already in his car and groping for the bubble light under his seat that he paused. "... did I just call her a 'good girl'?" he asked the air. "Good thing it wasn't Sandy, shit, she'd kill my ass."

      His blood up, Mike used the bubble light and the accelerator shamelessly all the way down 95 and then eased up on both the moment he hit the exit ramp. Rolling his window down (and blasting himself with an October night moving by at high speed) Mike fetched in the bubble light and hucked it back under his seat, drifting to a smooth stop at the light. No sense advertising himself too much, since there was always a slim chance that Farraday was out looking for his lady and he didn't really crave the lunatic's attention right now.

      Without the bubble light going, his car was pretty damned nondescript. Mike liked that 'anonymous getaway car' feel in his transportation, although he drew the line at actually driving a Ford Escort. Mid-sized was as low as he'd go, since he liked the feel of a little steel between himself and the rest of the world, none of whom could drive worth a fuck, in his opinion. Like this idiot in front of him, for example—Mike hit the horn and the car in front of him lurched out into the intersection before sheepishly accelerating through the green light that was almost five seconds old.

      Mike snorted and turned left onto Route 17. A flick of his fingers angled his car into the left lane and Mike blew past the idiot, feeling a little better once that guy's headlights were dwindling in his rearview mirror. Eventually they vanished; while Mike was never quite alone on this stretch of road, for a good minute or two there was no one behind him at all, which did wonders for his fledgling paranoia. (At least, there was no one behind him driving with their headlights on, a thought which also did wonders for his fledgling paranoia, giving it wings.)

      By the time he hit Route 1 his nerves had dissipated. He was calm. Game face on. Farraday would have to be some kind of genius to find Diana Fontaine all the way out here, and have to be some kind of idiot to actually show his face. Of course, Farraday had always been some kind of idiot genius, but still, Mike figured that the actual risk here was pretty low. Or, at least, he hoped so.

      The Sunoco loomed brilliant on his right, bright yellow and blue against the night sky. Mike hit the turn signal and bounced in. His tires hit rough pavement and he cursed under his breath. "Nice pothole," he muttered, whipping his palm over the steering wheel and spinning his car into the nearest spot, which happened to be handicapped. Oh, well. Everyone thought he was psychotic, did that count?

      He saw the bright aureole of Diana Fontaine's blonde hair through the window even before he could shut off the engine, and he paused with his fingers still on the key. She was darting through the aisles of the convenience store towards him—Mike's hand leaped from the key to the butt of his gun, his heart seeming to pause before leaping into a rapid, adrenalin-fueled rhythm—and then out the front door, accompanied only by the blare of the electronic door chime. No Farraday seemed to be in pursuit. Mike's heart slowed again.

      Diana Fontaine more or less hit the passenger-side door, bouncing off it and clawing at the handle at the same time. Mike hit the lock button just a second too late, precipitating one of those idiot dances where the passenger's repeated attempts to get into the car keep foiling the driver's attempts to unlock the goddamn door. It was only drawn out the further by Diana's stubborn, panicky handle-rattling. "Whoa!" Mike finally yelled, startling her into letting go just long enough for Mike to get the thing unlocked.

      Panting, Diana yanked the door open and fell into the car. "Go," she said, slamming the door and fumbling for her seatbelt. "Turn right, go north, go."

      "Right," Mike said, dropping the car into reverse and giving up the handicapped spot. His tires screeched a little, and he winced. Man. Rein it in. He throttled himself back, put the car in drive, and left—at a fast clip, but under control. "You okay?" he asked once they were on Route 1. He checked the rearview mirror. Then he checked it again.

      "Yes," Diana said, her voice brisk and businesslike. Contrary to the evidence of her voice she was huddled up in the passenger seat, her eyes shut, rubbing her arms nervously. "If you keep going this way you can pick up Truslow on the left and take it back to 95."

      "Okay." Mike shifted over into the left lane. He was completely at a loss for what to say now that the crisis had passed: 'hey, nice jeans'? 'Got your Halloween costume yet'? 'Nice night for being stalked by a crazy fucker'? Diana didn't seem to be feeling very talkative either. For a while the only sounds were the rumble of the car's engine and the little slithery sound of Diana's fingers rasping up and down over the silky fabric of her sleeves.

      Truslow rose up on the left, leading off into the dark, and Mike slapped on the turn signal and heeled over. Route 1 receded to a single bright point behind them and suddenly his headlights were the only lights in the world, curving through the darkness on a two-lane stretch of tarmac that tunneled through the trees. "Here's how it's going to go down," Mike said, finally. "Unless you've got some strong objection I'm just going to take you back to my place for tonight, okay? I think we'd both majorly prefer if I was within screaming distance, and it's cool, I have a couch and everything. Hell, I'm totally a gentleman, I'll even be the one to sleep on it, 'less you wanna get all liberated on me."

      He paused. After a moment, Diana nodded and swallowed, completely failing to tell him how dangerously unstable he was this time. Emboldened, Mike went on. "Soon's we get to my place I'll call the state road crew and get them to go tow your car to the impound lot. It'll be safe there and they won't charge you for anything since it was my call, okay?"

      "Fine," Diana said, her voice still abrupt. She looked up and leaned forward, staring out the windows, looking from side to side. "What... whatever you say."

      "That's right, whatever I say," Mike said with a reasonable amount of cheer, settling down in his seat. Truslow was completely dark both behind them and in front of them. For the first time since his phone had rung Mike was starting to feel safe, or at least like he'd gotten away with something. "Tomorrow we'll get you in with the rest of the team, make better arrangements for your safety—"

      He saw the flash out of the corner of his eye, at almost the exact same moment that the back tire blew out with a jolt that threw him forward against his seatbelt. Suddenly the car was slewing out of control, the remaining three tires screaming on the tarmac, and Mike grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and hauled his suddenly-cranky fucker of a car into the skid, barely able to hear himself yelling "FUUUUCK!" over the noise. Beside him Diana was screaming, her arms thrown protectively up over her head, and a second flash heralded the loud spang! sound of a bullet impacting metal somewhere behind them. "Down!" Mike yelled, even as the car spun into its second revolution and he lost track of where the flash had come from. "Jesus fucking Christ he's shooting at us get down!"

      With a roar like an avalanche the crippled car spun off the road and onto the graveled shoulder, finally crunching to a halt and rocking on its offended shocks. Nearly standing on the brake Mike grabbed the back of Diana's neck and forced her down against the seatbelt, below the level of the windows, hunching over her protectively and desperately scanning the darkness. Where was he, where was the fucker—there was another flash off to his left, emanating from a dim black bulky shape silhouetted dimly against the stars, and one of the back windows blew out, scattering little cubes of safety glass over them both. Diana shrieked again.

      Leaning over her Mike grabbed the door handle and shoved the passenger side door open. "Out!" he yelled, jamming a hand down between them and punching the first seatbelt release button he came across, which turned out to be hers. "Get out, stay down behind the car, put your back to one of the tires!" The seatbelt retracted with a whistling whump and Mike just flat-out pushed Diana Fontaine backwards out of the car. Her ass hit gravel—he heard it—and then she was scrambling on all fours for the front tire.

      Mike undid his own seatbelt even as the front tire blew out. This time, listening for it, he heard the flat sharp crack of rifle fire underneath the sound of the tire exploding, and he wailed "Fuuuuuck!" again. Crunched flat against the front seat with the emergency brake jammed painfully into his chest, Mike slammed the car into park and grabbed for the lights, wrenching the switch to 'off'. The car's lights went out, all but the dome light. Mike yanked the keys out of the ignition purely by reflex and then kicked himself straight forward out of the car, nearly doing a bellyflop in the gravel. At the last second he threw his hands out and caught himself, grinding gravel deep into his palms, which stung like a motherfucker. Behind him the driver's side window blew out and a puff of smoke and stuffing uncurled from the driver's seat, just a second too late.

      Palms stinging, heart racing, Mike kicked the passenger side door shut and rolled for the back tire. The idiotic dome light stayed on—fucking modern cars and their 'helpful' lights—and by its light he could see Diana, huddled up against the front tire just like he'd told her to and digging frantically through her purse. "My cell," she panted, her voice all screamy and hoarse. "It's my cell, I called you on my cell, he must have bugged it after all, my cell—" She ripped her phone out of her purse and flung it straight away from her with reflexive revulsion, the treacherous little thing flying over the low wire fence to vanish into the woods beyond. Mike heard it hit something and bounce away.

      Another bang, another flash, another spang! The car rocked. Diana slapped both hands over her mouth to muffle her scream. Mike cursed and grabbed for his belt, pulling his own cellphone off it. "Here," he said, tossing it to Diana, who nearly fumbled it. "Bring up the menu, find the one marked 'Texas', call him and tell him where we are—" spang! "—and I'll see if I can't hold this fucker off until the cavalry arrives," Mike finished in a growl, pulling his own gun from its holster. He didn't dare pop up from behind the trunk just in case Farraday had some kind of scope—it wasn't like he'd magically be able to see Farraday in any case—so he poked the muzzle of the gun up over the car's side and blindly fired twice, aiming in the general direction of the low bulk of the building up on the hill.

      The echoes of Mike's shots faded and suddenly the night was ominously, eerily silent. Mike half-closed his eyes and strained to hear a sound, any sound, like possibly the sound of approaching crazy-fucker footsteps—all he could hear was Diana panting for breath. Not that this made him feel any better. Farraday was obviously just getting himself some better cover before he picked up the assault again.

      Off to his right his cell phone was beeping cheerily, its little screen casting a harsh light on Diana's face. The dome light finally went out—fucking finally—and suddenly the light of the cell phone was the only light for miles. Mike took one look at that and fired again, because if Farraday spotted that—! Three bullets down. Shit, did he have a spare clip, please God let him have a spare fucking clip..."In the glove compartment," he groaned, bashing his forehead against the dusty metal side of his car.

      "What?" Diana whimpered. "What's in the glove compartment?"

      "Never mind," Mike said. "Just call. Tell Texas Farraday has a rifle." As an afterthought he wriggled out of his jacket and threw it at her. "Put that over your head, hide the light of the phone."

      "What?" she said again, but before he could repeat himself she scrabbled his jacket up off the ground and threw it over her head, the phone's light nearly vanishing. Good enough. Mike turned his attention back to the night.

      "—and so I told her that if she was going to do that she needed to get the entire department to chip in, not just those of us in her group—"

      Johnny swung his stocking feet up onto the arm of the couch and settled in, making himself comfortable, closing his eyes so that he didn't have to stare up at the ceiling. Pretty boring ceiling. The lady on the other end of the line kept prattling on cheerily. "Uh huh," Johnny said at what seemed like the proper time, rubbing his temples. Goddamn, wouldn't Honda laugh at him tomorrow: picked another crazy one, Texas. Shit. Buy her one goddamned dinner and she decides they're some kind of soulmates or some shit—Johnny cracked one eye open and checked his watch. After 10:30. She'd get ten more minutes, he decided, and then he was going the hell to bed. "Uh huh," he said again.

      "—anyway, when I got home it turned out my dog had pulled the trash can over and scattered the garbage all over the kitchen floor, so I had to deal with that—"

      His phone beeped in his ear, momentarily drowning out the crazy lady's palaver. Low battery...? Johnny pulled the phone away from his ear and checked the screen. Incoming Call: honda, it said. Thank Christ, work. ... shit, work? At 10:30? Fucking Farraday—"My call waiting," Johnny said, overriding her story about her goddamn dog or some shit. "It's work. Gotta go." And without so much as waiting for her to stammer out her surprised goodbyes Johnny hit the CALL button and bought himself an earful of gaspy whimpering. "Yo," he said. "Honda, I know that ain't you."

      "Texas?" some lady whispered. "Is this Texas?" And then there was gunfire on the other end of the line and Johnny sat right up, already grabbing for his boots.

      "Yeah," he said. "Where are you?"

      "Mike told me to call," she said in this terrified little whimper, apparently deaf to what he'd said. "Mike told me to call, the colonel's shooting at us, Mike says it's a rifle, he shot out the tires, we're trapped—"

      "Where are you?" Johnny said again, leaning on it this time.

      Another flat crack of gunfire scared a little scream out of her. "Truslow Road!" she said, nearly wailing it. In the background Mike was cursing, and suddenly she was babbling: "Ea-east of 95! In Virginia! About halfway along, there's some kind of abandoned falling-down barn at the top of the hill, he's hiding in it, Mike can't get a clear shot!"

      "I know where it is," Johnny said, running for the front hall. Automatically he fished a toothpick out of his shirt pocket and poked it into his mouth as he went. "Saw the exit a while back. You hang in there, I'm on the way."

      "Please hurry!" she said, but Johnny was already folding his phone away and only barely heard it. He stuck his cell phone into his pocket and kicked open the coat closet, pushing aside his winter things with one hand and grabbing for the shotgun with the other. He stuck it under his arm and groped around until his fingers hit the box of shells—then, with the shotgun under one arm and the box clutched loosely in his free hand, Johnny hit the ground running.

      He passed his landlady on the stairs, going up as he was heading down. She took one look at what was stuck under Johnny's left arm and flattened herself back against the wall, her eyes wide and her mouth gaping like a fish's. Johnny eased past her as politely as possible and resigned himself to maybe losing his lease in the next couple of days. "Evenin'," he said, giving her a half-assed salute with the box of shells. "'Scuse me." And he thudded on down the stairs, aware of her eyes on his retreating back. Shit. That could have gone a little smoother, maybe.

      The driver's side door of his truck didn't actually lock any more. Hadn't for almost a year. Still, Johnny's truck was an ugly and piebald old thing (with the rusting remnants of a gun rack on the back window, not that he actually kept any guns back there) and he hadn't ever been too worried about some idiot trying to steal it. Johnny slung the shotgun in across the passenger seat and threw himself in after it, dropping the shells on the seat by the shotgun. Shifting his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, Johnny pulled the bubble light out from under the seat and stuck it to the roof, then broke his shotgun open across his lap and thumbed in as many shells as she'd take.

      Good enough, he thought, and dropped the shotgun across his lap, just under where the lap belt of his seatbelt lay. He pulled his pistol out and racked the slide, loading a round into the chamber. Armed for bear—or squirrel—Johnny stuck the key into the ignition and brought the truck to life with a choking roar. The walls around him went a strobing blue as his bubble light kicked in, and Johnny threw the truck into gear and laid one hell of a patch as he peeled out of the parking lot. Mike would say that that was no goddamned way to treat a motor vehicle, but Johnny'd just have to admit that maybe he'd never gotten all the way over being sixteen and terminally stupid, and if you couldn't burn a long strip of rubber off your tires when you had two loaded guns sitting pretty in your lap and a goddamned police light on your roof, when could you?

      His tires bumped lightly over the curb and then he was out in the street, the back end of his pickup slewing a bit before it grabbed the road again. Johnny shifted the toothpick back and got the hell out of Dodge.

      Five rounds. He had five rounds left, and then it was either sit here and wait to get shot or make a try for the clip in his glove compartment, which would set off the dome light, which would illuminate him like a fucking Christmas tree, which would get him shot, which would majorly suck.

      Mike risked a glance right at where Diana was huddled against the front tire, still hiding inside his jacket, her arms up over her head. "Still with me?" he asked, trying to keep his voice down in direct defiance of the adrenalin burning along his nerves.

      "Yes," she said, her voice pitifully tiny. "He said he was on his way and then he hung up."

      "Needed both hands to carry more weapons, probably," Mike said, forcing a little cheer and confidence into it for her sake. "Don't worry. We're totally fuckin' saved, although I know it doesn't so much look like it right now—"

      From the other side of the road there was another flash and crack, and the passenger-side window exploded overhead, showering them both with glass again. They both flinched back, Mike with a hoarse yelp and Diana with a little scream that she pinched off pretty quick. Mike stuck the muzzle of his gun up again and returned fire—this time he could swear he'd heard the dull splintery thud of a bullet hitting wood. Great. He'd literally hit the broad side of a barn. Despite the fact that he was now down to four rounds, he laid his head against the car's metal flank and tried hard not to start laughing. That shit was hysteria, and it wouldn't help anybody.

      He glanced up at the remains of the passenger-side window, the first glimmerings of an idea starting to come to him. "You know," he said, his voice still quivering with all that misplaced funny, "I'm not sure my insurance is going to cover this shit."

      Diana turned ever so slightly towards him, her eyes wide and disbelieving under the collar of his jacket. Mike patted the car's side. "Think maybe they're going to total it out?"

      After a long moment, Diana nodded, just a little. It made Mike happy to see it: at least she wasn't totally gone. "Well, goddamn, in that case, I'm gonna try something, and I need your help, okay? When I tell you, you reach up and pull the passenger-side door open, okay? Think you can do that?"

      Diana Fontaine shrank into a terrified little huddle against the front tire, automatically shaking her head. She wasn't actually saying 'no' so much as she was refusing to do anything but curl up and hide—Mike sighed, his hysterical good humor fading just as fast as it had bubbled up, and decided that maybe now was the time to level with her. "Okay. Look," he said, turning the gun out and showing her its side. "I've got four rounds left in this clip. Four more shots, and then we're going to be a sitting duck dinner if we don't do something about it." Diana's eyes were now huge with terror. It made Mike feel pretty much entirely like shit, and so he hurried on. "But I've got a whole 'nother magazine in the glove compartment, and the only thing really standing between me and it is—"

      Across the street the rifle cracked again, the bullet thudding into the car's side and making it rock on its shocks again. Quickly, before he could lose his nerve, Mike stuck his own gun up through the hole where the passenger-side window used to be and shot out that fucking dome light—it exploded in a shower of sparks and glass, and what was left of his windshield crazed with a spiderweb of cracks. "—the fucking dome light that's just been taken care of now open the goddamned door and help me save your worthless lawyer's ass!"

      His voice cracked across her face like a slap. Shocked into motion she reflexively lunged for the handle, whimpering in terror but dragging the door open. Another shower of sparks came from the ruined dome light and the little light stuck in the passenger-side door came on but Mike was already half-inside the car, scrabbling for the glove compartment, which fell open with a thump and showered him with three years' worth of insurance cards and old maps and the clip, the clip, thank God!

      He whipped back, fresh clip in hand. The tire was a welcome relief against his back, and he heaved out a grateful breath and shut his eyes for a fragment of a second. "Close it," he said, his voice cracking. "Shit, I forgot about the stupid little light in the door panel, close it again."

      After a pause, there was a soft rubbery thud and the door arced shut. Diana Fontaine pulled her sneakered foot back into her little huddle. "Thanks," Mike said, shoving the full clip into his front pocket. "Hang in there. Cavalry always gets there just in time. Well. In the movies, anyway."

      "That's not as reassuring as you think," Diana said in a tiny little voice, and Mike couldn't help it: he laughed, just a little bit.

      Approximately a millennium passed. The rifle fire from the old barn across the way kept up, slow but steady—Mike didn't even want to think about how many holes there must be in the driver's side of his car by now—and Mike conserved his bullets as best he could.

      The three in his current magazine ran out, and he ejected it into the gravel and slapped in the new one, racking the slide. "C'mon, Texas," he muttered under his breath, picking up the spent clip and sticking it in his pocket. "Any year now, Texas. That laconic shit is not funny at this point in time, Texas."

      "How... how many do you have left?" Diana asked.

      Mike blew out a breath. "Seventeen," he said. "Texas'll get here before I fire off ten of 'em. Swear. He doesn't and I'll eat one." The shocked little sound she made at that made him rapidly add, "Joke, just a joke, bad joke at that, sorry, I tend to run off at the mouth in high-stress situations, don't mind me."

      "... I keep expecting to hear sirens," Diana said. "I keep thinking that someone has to hear all this godawful noise, or at least drive past and see the car..."

      "Unfortunately, the sound doesn't carry as well as you'd think," Mike said. The rifle cracked from across the street and Mike blindly returned the shot. "C'mon, Texas," he muttered again.

      He was nine rounds down when he heard the gloriously familiar sound of Johnny's engine off in the distance. No other pickup truck in the world sounded like that, Mike was sure. "Here he comes," Mike said, shifting. "I'm gonna start shooting like fuck as soon as he comes 'round that curve, try and pin Farraday down so he doesn't take out Johnny, too. It's gonna get loud. Put your hands over your ears and hang on."

      Diana nodded, her mouth set in a thin, grim line. Her hands vanished under Mike's jacket and she hunched forward, hands tight over her ears, eyes squeezed shut. Mike rose up on one knee, rested the muzzle of his gun on the lip of the trunk, and waited. "Hope you got a plan, Texas," he said, the tone of his voice almost conversational. "Or maybe a rocket launcher, you know, I'd settle for that—"

      Headlights exploded around the curve in the road as Johnny's truck hove into view. The rifle cracked, once—at which of them Mike wasn't sure—and then Mike stuck his head up above the edge of the trunk and just fucking well opened fire, stitching a crooked line of five bullets across the barn's side. He risked a glance at Johnny's truck just as Johnny spun the wheel and sent his truck careening off the road and onto the shoulder— "Oh, fuck, Texas, you crazy son of a bitch!" Mike cried.

      The truck hit the roadside ditch, bouncing right back out like Johnny thought he was starring in his own personal off-road vehicle ad. Behind the ditch there was nothing but a rusty barbed-wire fence, the twin of the one behind Mike; the truck's crumpled grill hit it at an angle, with a tortured screech that might have been fence or might have been truck, Mike couldn't tell which. In the end it didn't matter. Johnny's bastard of a truck was ugly but tough and the old barbed wire let go with three loud twanging noises like a guitar snapping in half.

      For half a second the truck was still, settling ever so slightly backwards. Then Johnny downshifted, the roar of his engine going throaty and furious, and gave it everything it had. Gravel sprayed madly under the truck's spinning back tires for a second before they caught, catapulting the truck on a lunatic bouncing arc almost straight up the hillside towards the barn. His headlights strobed madly up and down, splashing across the landscape like some kind of demented lightshow—Mike put two more bullets into the barn, just in case, screaming "Don't you go in after him alone, Texas, you goddamned crazy man!"

      The truck breasted the hill and balanced on its back tires like a rearing horse for just a moment before crashing back down. Dirt sprayed up against the night sky and the truck dug in for half a second before lunging forward again, its back half fishtailing, a cloud of dust billowing out in its wake as Johnny hauled it around in a vicious tight semicircle. The barn, caught in the rapidly shrinking circles of Johnny's headlights, was a half-rotted, ramshackle, ugly thing—and then Johnny crashed his truck into it hard enough to make the truck's back wheels jolt up off the ground and it abruptly got a whole lot uglier.

      The echoing, hollow boom of the collision sounded like an explosion. A frantic cloud of either pigeons or bats came swarming out of the hole in the barn's roof. For a moment the night was full of the sound of shrieking, splintering wood as the barn shuddered and swayed drunkenly and developed a slight but definite cant to the left. Johnny's engine revved, his tires spinning furiously in the dirt, his front bumper grinding back and forth against the barn's wooden backside—Mike's jaw dropped—Johnny downshifted again and punched the accelerator and the barn screamed like a woman, old nails pulling free of old wood. It was leaning at a crazy drunken angle now, the whole thing, the wall that Johnny was pushing against now at so acute an angle that the truck's front tires bit in and started climbing it.

      Barely a second later, with a deafening splintering crash like thunder, the barn fell right the fuck over, collapsing in on itself like a house of cards and belching out ancient dust and smoke in all directions. "Timber, motherfucker!" Mike screamed, jittering back and forth on his knees in insane glee.

      Part of the billowing cloud of dust on the hilltop lit up hellishly bright and Johnny's truck burst out of it a second later, bouncing its way back down the hill towards the road. Mike shoved his gun back into its holster and crouch-ran along the side of the car to where Diana was huddled. "Get ready!" he yelled, and she blinked at him in confusion for a moment before shifting awkwardly to her feet, her purse clutched to her belly, Mike's jacket still over her head.

      Casually, as an afterthought, Johnny took out another section of barbed-wire fence with another series of broken-guitar noises. His truck hit the blacktop and slewed, slightly, before righting itself; he screeched to a halt just past the bullet-riddled ruin of Mike's own car and leaned over, unlocking the passenger-side door and kicking it open. "Come on!" Johnny bellowed.

      "Go!" Mike yelled, pushing at Diana's shoulder as hard as he dared. She stumbled once and then scrambled for the truck, Mike right on her heels. Without even thinking about it he grabbed the waistband of her jeans and hoicked her right into the truck, shoving her up against Johnny's side. Mike threw himself in after, yelling "Go, go, go" and hauling the passenger-side door shut. Johnny's tires screeched on the road and then they were gone, hauling ass down Truslow, leaving Mike's car behind.

      "Whoooooo!" Mike screamed, so high on adrenalin that he couldn't sit still. "Holy shit, Texas, that was the most awesome fuckin' thing I've ever seen and I've seen some awesome fuckin' things! Holy shit!"

      "Yeah, it'll do," Johnny said, but he was grinning like a maniac around a totally shredded toothpick, which was almost the same thing as screaming, for Johnny. Instinctively they high-fived each other—Diana shrank back, startled and still scared, but right at the moment Mike didn't care so much. "Pity he probably got out before it went," Johnny said.

      "Yeah, probably, 'cause he's one canny motherfucker," Mike said, jittering along. "Still, that'll give him something to think about!"

      "Shit, I'm gonna get sued by some fuckin' pissed-off farmer," Johnny said, and they both burst out laughing, Diana huddled on the seat between them staring straight ahead like they were both crazy, which Mike figured they probably currently were.

      Side streets and buildings eventually started appearing along the sides of Truslow, right about the same time that the excitement started to wear off and Mike's scraped-up hands started to hurt in earnest. Johnny put the bubble light back on the top of his truck just to keep from having to answer awkward questions and handed Mike the shotgun. Diana sucked breath between her teeth and shrank away from it as it went past. "Hey, I got shotgun!" Mike cried. Johnny snorted out a laugh so hard that he coughed out his toothpick.

      Finally, just as Truslow gave way to 95, Johnny glanced past her at Mike. "You tell Springheel what was up?"

      The last of Mike's adrenalin high burned itself away on the instant, replaced by a sudden and extremely healthy fear of his own imminent death. "Aw, fuck!" he cried, banging the heel of one hand against his forehead (and immediately regretting it). "She's gonna kill me!"

      Johnny considered this for a moment. "Naw, maybe not," he finally said. "You wanted to get to Miz Fontaine without delay, right?"


      "So you were plannin' to call just as soon as you got away safe, right?"

      "Right," Mike said with a good deal more enthusiasm, seeing where this was going.

      "And you're just now gettin' away safe, right?"

      "Right!" said Mike. "So you should totally call her right now!"

      Johnny sighed. "Shit, guess I do deserve to take one for the team," he said, fishing out his own battered cell phone.

      "I fuckin' love you, Texas," Mike said. Looking down at Diana Fontaine, Mike said, "I fuckin' love him, you know."

      Diana nodded, her teeth chattering. Mike's smile faded. "Aw, c'mon, here, it's okay, it's over," he said, awkwardly shifting to put an arm over her shoulders. Diana made a small whimpering noise and burrowed up against his side, making him yelp a little in surprise. Johnny glanced their way then looked back at the road, his phone pressed to his ear.

      "Right," Johnny said. "Right. We'll let you know." Without saying goodbye he folded up his phone and stuck it in his breast pocket.

      Mike looked up. Diana had either gone to sleep or passed out snuggled up close against him, and he really had no fucking idea what to do about it (other than put his arms around her and try real hard to enjoy it) so until he thought of something, he was letting her sleep. "Well?"

      "It's cool," Johnny said. "She's a little pissed at you but it's normal-type pissed."

      "I can totally handle that," Mike said. Diana made a little grumpy sound and hid her face against his chest. He winced and patted her shoulder, lowering his voice. "So where are we gonna take her? I was just gonna take her to my place but I guess maybe that's not such a hot idea, since Farraday knows she called me and all..."

      "Probably not," Johnny said. "Probably shouldn't take her to Sandy's, either."

      Mike shuddered. "Man, that's a cat-fight waiting to happen, there..." He paused, thinking about it, then added, "Actually, that's kind of a good reason to take her there, now that I think about it."

      Johnny didn't dignify that with an answer. "Hell if she's coming to my place, and Templar's got his own problems. So..."

      "Nate," they said in unison. Mike nodded. "Yeah, Nate," he said. "Perfect. He's got an actual house and guest room and everything, and his ma's there to sorta... chaperone things."

      "Yeah, 'cause Specs is an uncontrollable womanizer," Johnny said, pulling his phone back out. "I'll call him."

      "Tell him I wanna stay too," Mike said, glancing down at Diana. "I'll sleep on the couch, it's coo'. Figure maybe an extra gun hand around the place wouldn't go wrong, you know?" He sighed. "And my hands hurt like fuck. Hope he's got some peroxide or something."

      Johnny paused, then nodded. "Right."

      All the lights in Nate's house were on when they pulled up, and Nate himself was sitting out on the front porch, waiting for them. Johnny glanced at him and snorted out a little laugh. "Cute," he said.

      Mike looked at Nate and laughed a little himself. Nate's hair was standing up in big fluffy sleep-induced spikes and he was wearing bedroom slippers with his jeans, but what really made the picture complete, in Mike's opinion, was the gun. Nate looked to be just awake enough to have realized that sitting out on his front porch unarmed was a bad idea, so he was sitting on the top step with his gun dangling from one hand, casual as anything, blind to the 'crazed killer in between rampages' look he was currently sporting.

      Diana sat up, knuckling at her eyes, her hair all weirdly flat on one side. "Where are we?" she asked nervously.

      "Specs' place," Mike said, resisting the urge to comment on her hairdo. "You'll be safe here until tomorrow, when we can find you something a little more permanent. Okay?"

      "If you say so," said Diana. Her fingers crept up and fluffed out the flat spot in her hair.

      "Yep, I do." Mike unlocked his door and opened it, sliding out. "'Sides, I'll be staying too, just to keep an eye on things. Safe as houses. Promise." He held out his hand to Diana, who took it after a moment of hesitation and slid out of the truck after him, wobbling a little before her legs steadied again.

      At the top of the steps Nate rose, blinking, and shoved his gun back into its holster before he padded down the steps to meet them. "Whoa," he said once he got there. "What happened to Johnny's truck?"

      Mike turned around, took one look at the truck, and had to clap a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing loud enough to wake the entire neighborhood. Johnny's front bumper was crumpled and bent, one long curl of rusty barbed wire caught in it like a stray hair and a bunch of wood splinters wedged in the grill; the headlight on the left was still lit but the glass cover had gotten knocked off, leaving the headlight a single bright point of light. Paint and rust alike had been scored off the hood, leaving long bright gouges of raw metal shining in the streetlights, and grass and mud were caked an inch deep on the tires and splattered in the wheel-wells. "Little matter of a head-on collision with a motherfuckin' barn," Mike said, dropping his hand. "I shit you not. Man, it was awesome, you totally should not have been there."

      "With a what?" Nate said, frowning. "I'm really sleepy, could we not mess with my brain right now?"

      Johnny came slowly around the front of his truck, inspecting the damage. Apparently satisfied, he patted the truck's hood. "Ugly bastard's tough," he said proudly.

      "Yeah, yeah, we all know you are," said Mike, steering the stumbling Diana around in front of him. "Nate, this is Diana, Diana, Nate, now let's get our asses inside before someone calls the cops on us, huh?"

      "Oh. Yeah," Nate said, glancing around. "C'mon in. Mom's putting sheets on the guest bed."

      "Man!" Mike said, gently pushing Diana up the walk and falling in step behind her. "Live-in maid service! You're gettin' the four-star treatment tonight, Di."

      "Please don't call me that," she said dimly. She was nearly staggering: probably exhausted, thought Mike, paying attention just in case he was going to have to lunge forward and catch her. "I hate that."

      "Kay-o." Mike took her elbow just before she hit the steps, just in case. Johnny, taciturn as ever, brought up the rear.