Saturday, August 5, 2017

Death Race to Urbana

A dying man sends Tom Jurgen on a road trip downstate to deliver a metal box holding an ancient book. It should be an easy drive—until a deadly race begins, as enemies determined to steal the box start chasing Tom down the stormy highway.

Death Race to Urbana, Part One

Randall Russo was dying.
“Uncle Rand?” Andy Russo buttoned his uncle’s sweater and pulled a thick gray blanket up over his shoulders. “This is Tom Jurgen. The private detective.”
 “Mr. Jurgen.” Russo’s lips curled in a crooked smile. “Excuse me for not rising.”
I nodded, nervous. “Hello, Mr. Russo. So what can I do for you?”
“Andrew? You explain.” He wrapped his arms around his shrunken chest and closed his eyes.
            Andy took me into the small apartment’s kitchen. Dirty dishes and empty fast food containers littered the sink and the counter. He poured me a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. “It’s cancer.”
            “I’m sorry.” It sounded lame, but that was all I could think of.
He sighed. “He’s 91 years old.” He blew his smoke up toward the fan on the ceiling, twirling slowly under the lights. “I got your name from a friend. Diane Ness?”
“Sure.” I’d helped her a few months ago. She’d thought her ex-boyfriend was trying to scare her. Instead, the ghost of her jealous first husband had been trying to kill her.
            These are the kinds of cases I get, aside from the usual cheating spouses and workers comp fraud—magic, the supernatural, demons, vampires and the like.
Who you gonna call? Apparently me.
            “So what can I do for you?” I asked again.
            He sighed. “I have to stay with my uncle. I need you to take something down to Urbana by midnight.”
            I looked up at the wide clock hanging over the door. 7:30. Urbana was about 120 miles or so southwest of Chicago. I could make the drive by midnight easily. “What is it?”
            Andy dropped his cigarette in an ashtray stuffed with dead butts. “Here.”
He led me across the narrow hall into a cramped bedroom that smelled like faded flowers. Bending down, he reached under the four-poster bed and pulled a metal box across the floor. He paused to wipe a hand over his forehead.
            I leaned against the door frame. “What’s that?”
“Just a minute.” Grunting, he bent down and grasped two handles mounted on the sides of the box. Gasping, he lifted it up and then dropped it onto the bed.
The mattress sagged. “Okay. Here it is.”
            The box was dull gray, with symbols engraved on the top in a language I didn’t recognize. “What’s in there? I can’t take anything illegal.”
            “It’s not illegal.” He flipped a latch and opened it. Inside was a leather-bound book with a picture of a dragon on the cover.
            I opened it up and flipped through the pages, making sure nothing was hidden between them—drugs, daggers, tiny little dragons ready to spring forth and burn the world. But it was a complete book, filled with the same strange language from the lid. Or maybe a different one. I’m a detective, not a linguist.
I closed the book. “That’s it?”
Andy latched the box again. “It moves between members of my family. My aunt—my father’s sister—is next in line. Maybe someday I’ll be stuck with it.” He patted his pockets, looking for his pack of cigarettes.
            “Okay.” I wouldn’t make much money, but it was just a few hours’ drive.
            Back in the kitchen Andy lit anther cigarette and wrote me a check. “You can spend the night down there if you want. Just send me the receipts and whatever more I owe you. And here’s the address.”
            We exchanged cell phone numbers. He went to check on his uncle, but Russo was still asleep. Breathing shallowly, but still alive.
            Andy helped me carry the box down to my Honda on the street. After we put it in my trunk, he shook my hand. “Thanks. Drive safely.”
            “Always do.”

Before starting the car I called Rachel. She’s my upstairs neighbor, my girlfriend, and sort of psychic. “Want to drive down to Urbana with me? It’s for a case.”
            “Ooh, an all-expenses paid road trip to beautiful exciting downtown Urbana, right in the middle of the prairie?” Rachel sighed. “No thanks. I’ve got this website to design, and it’s all your fault I’m behind because I had to help you with the witches’ coven case last week.”
            That had taken days. “Okay. Sorry. I’ll call you.”
            I could feel the box weighing down the car as I pulled away from the curb.   

I’d visited Urbana a few times during college and once when I was a reporter, so I remembered the route. Long flat roads, a few rest stops, lots of exits for fast food, flat farmland on either side of the highway, and a porn shop somewhere. I turned the radio to a classic rock station, hit the cruise control, and sat back, humming along to Jackson Browne, checking my rearview mirror every few minutes.
            Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels . . .
            The miles passed. I gulped some water and thought about stopping for coffee at the next exit. This was going to be easy.
            Then I spotted a shadow in the rearview mirror.
            A bird, maybe. A big bird. Or a plane off course from O’Hare?
            Long and dark, soaring over the highway on wide wings.
            No cars behind me. I hit the accelerator and shot into the left lane. It followed me.
            I twisted the wheel and shifted back into the right lane. It rose up and veered off, circling out of my sight.
            What the hell? I kept my speed up. Ninety miles an hour. Fortunately the highway was almost empty. Except—
            I saw a truck behind me. Coming up fast.
            I flashed my lights and slowed down to let him pass. He honked his horn and headed forward, flashing his lights back at me.
            I looked up into the sky over my windshield. Scattered clouds obscured the stars. I saw the moon overhead, a quarter-million miles away.
            A long black wing flew across the sky.
            My mouth dried up. I wanted water, but I didn’t dare take my hands off the wheel.
            The tires bumped across a rough path of pavement. I kept control, checking my mirrors, looking up into the sky. Lights were sparse at this stretch of the highway. Only my headlights gave me any hint of what was coming my way.
            On the other side of the highway a Megabus zoomed north, followed by another truck.
            I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I wanted to call Rachel. But she was working. Still, she’d be mad at me if I got killed on the highway.
            But before I could punch her number the thing swooped down across the road in front of my car.
            I got one good look, and managed to keep my hands on the wheel as my heart thudded in panic.
            It was a dinosaur.
            I’m no paleontologist. I read dinosaur books as a kid, and I saw Jurassic Park and all the sequels. But what I saw in the dim night sky was clearly a reptilian creature with wings. And it was about to dive-bomb my car.
            I twisted the wheel left. The creature rose up, wings flapping, and disappeared from my sight as it circled around in the sky. Presumably for another run.
            Oh god, oh god. I wanted Rachel. I hadn’t talked to my mom in weeks. And now I was going to die on Highway 57?
            I hit the pedal. On the side mirror I caught a glimpse of the thing zooming behind me. Jaws open wide. A long mouth. Rows and rows of sharp jagged teeth.
            We’re going to need a bigger boat. Or car. Whatever.
A sign beside the highway promised a rest stop in two miles. Maybe I could make it. But what then? Could I hide from the dinosaur in a smelly restroom? Did this thing breathe fire? Would it burn me and every other car away? What about the box in my trunk?
            Then I saw an overpass across the highway. Maybe, just maybe . . .
            The flying dinosaur was right behind me. But the overpass was only a few hundred yards ahead. If I could do this . . .
            I pushed on the brake, slowing down, letting the creature drop lower and draw closer. Come on, come on—
Right at the last minute, I floored the accelerator.
            The creature came on, shrieking so loud it rattled my windows. I ducked down, my fingers locked on the wheel. This would either work or—
            I raced under the overpass.
The dinosaur, or whatever it was, hit it full on.
            Oh, no. What about the cars on top of the pass? I hadn’t even thought. Would they—
            A cloud of smoke bloomed up behind me. The creature—dinosaur, dragon, whatever it was—dissolved in the night air. The overpass was intact.
            The rest area sign made me hit the brake. I was going 110, but I managed to turn off and slow down enough to pull into the lot without running off into the grass or hitting anything.
            I leaned over the steering wheel, catching my breath and letting my heart slow down. But I kept the car running.
            After five minutes I sat back, gulped some water, and started punching numbers on my phone.
Andy Russo answered after one ring. “Mr. Jurgen? Are you there yet?”
“A flying dinosaur just dive-bombed my car!” My voice shook. Generally I try to stay calm when talking to clients, but my heart was still thudding inside my chest. “What the hell is going on?”
“Oh shit.” I heard Andy gulp. “I was afraid of this. There are—powers that would like to get hold of that box. I thought if someone else took it, it would be safe. So I called you.”
I looked up at the sky. “Safe from what? Who sent that thing?”
“It’s complicated.” Andy sighed. “Look, there’s a war going between my family and a group called the Raen. It’s been going on for centuries. All I can tell you is that it’s vital that you get that box to Urbana before midnight. One o’clock at the latest.”
A war between families? Great. “Who are the Raen?”
“It’s too complicated to go into right now. They only want the box. That means they won’t try to kill you. If you go fast enough—”
            “I’m a private detective, not Vin Diesel!” I’d thought this would be an easy job. “That flying dino didn’t seem interested in pulling me over and popping my trunk with its teeth. Why shouldn’t I just dump it on the ground and go home?”
            Andy didn’t answer. For a moment I thought he’d hung up. That would have been fine. An excuse to quit this job.
            Then Randall Russo’s voice rasped in my ear. “Mr. Jurgen?”
            Okay. The old man was at death’s door. At least I could listen to him. “Yes, sir?”
            “That box needs to get to my sister. If it doesn’t . . .” He coughed. “If the Raen get hold of it . . .” He coughed again, almost choking. “The world could end. Soon. Maybe tonight.”
            Andy’s voice came back on. “I’ll double your fee. Triple it. Whatever you want. We have resources. But this has to be done before midnight.”
            For Christ’s sake. “You could have told me.”
            “I was afraid you wouldn’t do it.”
            I rolled my eyes. “You might have been right.”
I stared at the sky. Turning back now probably wouldn’t do any good. “Okay, I’m already on the road. What else do I have to look forward to?”
            “Like I said, they don’t necessarily want to hurt you. They don’t want to risk damaging the box in any way. They’ll try to force you to give it over. Don’t do it. Don’t stop for anything until you get there.”
            I swallowed. The end of the world? Someone had been watching too many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Fine. We’ll talk about my fee later, I guess.”
            “Thank you.”
            I hung up. My motor was still running. I wanted coffee and a bag of Doritos, but I didn’t want to risk getting out of the car. At least my water bottle was mostly full.
            So I called Rachel. “This is more interesting than I thought.”
            She grunted. “Well, I’m still working here, so—”
            “A flying dinosaur tried to kill me. It’s got something to do with a group called the Raen.”
            “Oh hell.” Rachel groaned. “I can’t let you go anywhere, can I?”
            “I’m going to call you again in a few minutes, on the road.” I looked out at the highway. “You don’t need to talk if you don’t want to. But I’m going to need to hear your voice and know you’re hearing me.”
            “Goddamn it.” I could feel her eyes blazing. “What are you into now, you idiot? I swear, I don’t know—”
“A few minutes. I love you.”
“Oh no you don’t! You can’t—”
I hung up and pressed another number. It was late, but she’d probably answer.
“Hi, mom.” I hung the phone on its dashboard perch. “Sorry I haven’t called in a while . . .”

Death Race to Urbana, Part Two

My mom and I talked for 10 minutes. She told me about my brother, I told her about Rachel, and she asked about my business. I didn’t mention my current job. She always wanted me to be an accountant like my dad. We ended with “I love you,” and I went back to concentrating on the road ahead and behind.
            I called Rachel again. “I just want to stay on the line in case anything happens. We don’t have to talk. If I start screaming, assume the worst.”
            “Don’t you dare get killed. We have tickets for The Book of Mormon next week.”
            “I have my seatbelt on. I’ll be fine.” I wished I believed it.
            Just past Kankakee something swished by my window. Too fast to see. A bird? Smaller than the flying dinosaur. I tensed up again, clutching the wheel tight.
            Who were the Raen? What was Russo’s side called? I thought dealing with vampire kings and queens were bad, but at least they couldn’t bring down an actual apocalypse.
            Maybe Randall Russo was just suffering from dementia. It was the first time in my life I’d ever hoped for that, but it was better than—
            Then something hit my windshield.
            “What?” Rachel shouted. I must have yelled.
            It skittered across the glass, then darted up into the air again.
            “A bat.” I checked my rearview mirror. “It just hit my windshield. And—”
            Thump. Another one. And then another. One slammed into the window next to me, bounced off, and flew away.
            I fought to breathe without hyperventilating as more and more bats hit my windshield. Fortunately they couldn’t grab onto anything, so they rolled off right off and circled away,. But more came back. If enough of them kept leaping at the screen it wouldn’t matter if they fell off. I wouldn’t be able to see the highway.
            Rachel was talking but I couldn’t bother listening to her right now. I turned on my windshield wipers and the washer. That knocked some of the bats away, but the wipers gave them something to grab onto. Damn it!
            In half a minute the wipers wouldn’t move, jammed by the swarm of bats hanging onto them. Hitting the washer scared some of them away, but more came back.
            I could see part of the road through them, and none of them could find a hold on my rear window. Unfortunately, a bunch of them managed to perch on my side mirrors, clutching against the wind as I hit 90 mph.
            A minivan passed on my left. If the driver saw any bats, he didn’t react. Maybe only I could see them. The same way the dinosaur had disappeared when it hit the overpass.
            I honked the horn. No effect. Flashed my brights. No effect. Just more and more bats flying at my car.
            “Tom!” Rachel’s shouting finally got through to me. “Ground Control to Major Tom! Listen to me!”
            “Sorry. What?” My heart was pounding again. If I made it to Urbana without a heart attack I’d have to ask my doctor for blood pressure meds. “What?”
            “Bats use echolocation to get around!”
            “So what? I can’t even whistle!”
            “I think I can send a signal through the phone that’ll mess with their radar. But you’ll have to open your window.”
            Open the . . .? That would let them inside—at least a few of them. I’m not too squeamish about spiders and snakes and other things. But the thought of bats flying around my shoulders and over my head gripped me with terror.
            But driving like this for even a few more miles would probably get me killed.
            “Okay.” I swallowed. “Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, I lo—”
            “Shut up. I’m turning it on right now.”
            I hit the pedal, going up to 110 again. The bats had to be flying around for this to work. Right? I hoped so. So I held the wheel with one hand and turnrf my phone’s volume up to the max with the other. Then I switched hands and put a finger on the window control.
            I hesitated, my throat dry. I couldn’t hear anything from the phone. But I wouldn’t, would I?
            So I gritted my teeth and forced myself to take the window down an inch, hoping the bats couldn’t squeeze though. Then I somehow managed to shift hands again without crashing and hold the phone up across my shoulder at the crack in the window while gripping the wheel, my knuckles trembling.
            I heard skittering noises outside the window. One bat stuck its wing through the opening, then darted off into the night. Another forced part of its head inside and got stuck. But others flew away. In a moment the side window was clear.
            I used the edge of the phone to push the trapped bat outside. I hit the accelerator again, hoping a higher speed would make flying harder for the bats once their radar was jammed.
            It worked.
Not all at once. But the bats on my side mirror dropped away. One of them hit the pavement and flew off in a circle. On the windshield, my wipers started moving again. Slowly at first, then moving faster as more and more bats left.
            I wanted to tell Rachel it was working, but I wasn’t sure if my voice would interrupt the signal and bring the bats back again. So I kept my mouth shut and kept my hand on the wheel and hit 120. Then 130.
I veered around a station wagon. The driver flipped a finger at me as I left him behind.
 I wasn’t sure the Honda could even take the speed—I’d never hit it this fast before—but in a few miles the bats were gone. I saw a cloud behind me, a whirlwind of dark shapes, but none of them followed me anymore. And the road ahead was clear.
            For the moment.
            “It worked.” I slipped the phone back into the holder. “It worked!
            “Of course it did.” But with the volume up to 11, I could hear Rachel’s sigh of relief.

Death Race to Urbana, Part Three

Sixty miles to go. Fifty. I’d passed the porn shop 10 minutes ago. My water bottle was almost empty and I had to go to the bathroom, but I went past the rest stop and kept going. I was 20 minutes away. My pulse had almost returned to normal again.
            Rain started falling on the highway. A few drops on my windshield, then a few more down the back. Lighting flashed to my side.
            Rachel piped up. “I found something about the Raen.”
            I jerked my head up. “What?”
            “Were you asleep?”
            “I’m on cruise control.” I blinked my eyes. “Getting close. So what did you find out?”
            “The Raen is some kind of doomsday cult. Part survivalist militia with all the paramilitary stuff, and part magic. If the end of the world doesn’t come on its own, they’re ready to help it on its way.”
            “What about the book?”
            “There’s nothing about any book. The other group is called Rossini. Apparently it’s a family that came to its senses and split off from the Raen a couple hundred years ago. Maybe they took the book with them.”
            That would make sense. I’d have to talk to Andy about it later. When I wasn’t driving for my life. “All right, thanks.” I peered down the highway. “So I’m maybe half an hour away. What about your deadline?”
            She groaned. “Screw the deadline. I just didn’t want to spend a night in a motel in Urbana. If I’d known it was going to be this exciting I might have come with you—”
            “Then you wouldn’t have been able to save me from the bats.” One of them still hung from a side mirror on the other side. “So, good call.”
            “Just keep your eyes on the road.”
            “Got it. Just a few more miles, but . . . wait a minute.”
            Her voice tensed. “What?”
“Hang on.” I peered in the mirror. “Oh hell.”
            “What?” Rachel sounded frantic. “What’s going on?”
Riders on the storm . . .
Horses. Five, maybe six. Galloping down the pavement, faster than any horse should ever run. Gallant white stallions, pounding forward on hard hooves as the rain started pouring down.
I hit the wipers again. “Horses. Chasing me.” I hit the accelerator hard. My leg was getting cramped.
“Wait.” I heard keys tapping. “They’re not the four horsemen of the apocalypse, are they? Because that would be too much of a cliché.”
            “There’s more than four. And no one’s riding them.”
            A sign flashed by. I’d have to turn off the highway in about five miles.
            The horses stormed closer. Once again, the cars around me either didn’t see the horses or just ignored them. I veered back and forth, trying to hold them back, but they kept up at an insane pace.
Why were they always behind me? They could have headed me off anywhere on the highway instead of chasing me.
Maybe that meant they didn’t know where I was going. Maybe the Raen could only send their plagues from one specific location.
But I didn’t have time to think about that right now. The exit was coming up. And the horses were stampeding closer and closer.
I veered into the right-hand lane. The horses pounded behind me. “Rachel? Which Fast and Furious movie did we watch?”
“What are you—oh no. What are you doing?”
            I was glad she wasn’t next to me, punching my arm. “Not flying into the air. I hope. Just give me a minute—”
            The sign on the ramp warned cars to take it at 20 mph. I twisted the wheel and took it at 50.
One horse slipped and fell over, hind legs thrashing up in the air. A second horse collided with it and dropped to the pavement. Both of them vanished.
A third horse made the turn, snorting as it ran, and then hit a barrier up at the top of the ramp. Its hoof slipped and it fell, rolling over as the rest tried to jump past it.
My tires skidded on the pavement. The Honda slid left and right, and then the tires caught the pavement again. I made the turn and straightened out, surging down the road to Urbana.
            One horse still followed. Galloping like a thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby, but with enough energy to run for miles.
I veered into the left lane.
            “I made it.” My voice was a dry whisper. “There’s one horse left.”
            “Did you kill them? You asshole!” Rachel’s a vegetarian, and a bit of an animal rights activist. “I mean, I’m glad you’re still there, but—”
            I saw a car calmly cruise past the racing horse, blinker on for a left turn toward a shopping mall. “I don’t think they’re real. Like the flying dinosaur. Nobody else on the road seems to see them.”
            “Sorry.” Rachel hardly ever apologizes.
            “Yeah, thanks.” I spotted the exit I needed: Cunningham Avenue. I tapped the brake as much as I dared and shifted right.
            The last horse seemed to be pacing itself now. Right behind me, but not trying to overtake the Honda. Was that good or bad?
            The Raen didn’t know where I was going. That was obvious. But what would they do when I stopped the car?
            I hit the bottom of the ramp and ignored the “No Turn on Red” sign—no cars were coming from the left anyway—and slammed down the street.
The horse was gone. I didn’t let myself breathe any sigh of relief.  Anything could come next. Crows. Rats. Flying fish.
I forced myself to drive close to the speed limit. Getting stopped by the cops now would be problematical. “Sorry, officer, I was being chased by bats and a flying dinosaur and . . .”
Then I looked up.
Above me in my rearview mirror, the last horse flew high across the sky. Firm white wings sprouted from its muscular shoulders.
“Rachel?” My voice shook. “It’s a flying horse. And it’s right over the car.”
“Pegasus.” Rachel tapped her keys. “Or something else. How close are you?”
“Close.” The horse swooped down.
I ran a red light past two gas stations and reminded myself to fill up before heading home. If I lived that long.
Now I was on a long tree-lined street. The flying horse was right behind me, maybe 20 feet in the air. Would it just land on top of me and pound the car with its hooves? Or drop down in front of the Honda for a collision that would kill me, even with my seatbelt and airbags?
I blew through two stop signs, silently apologizing for breaking all local traffic laws. But the street I was looking for was close.
The horse swung down, its thick wings flapping.
I caught the sign: McHenry. An oncoming car honked at me as I swung the Honda in a hard left turn.
            The horse spun in the air, wheeling around on its wide white wings. I spotted a house light and managed to read the numbers below it. My destination. Finally.
            I missed the driveway and skidded on the lawn, chewing up grass under my rear wheels. I hit the trunk release, grabbed my phone, and flung my door open.
            Two women burst from the house. They carried automatic rifles. I flung myself on the wet dirt as they fired into the air.
            The horse howled. I didn’t see where it went. I was face down in the grass.
            A hand clutched my shoulder. “Are you Tom Jurgen?”
            I looked up. The woman was young, with short blonde hair and a black T-shirt and white shorts.
I lurched up. “I brought the book. Don’t shoot me.”
“I’m Georgeanne. That’s Mika. Get inside.” She slung her weapon over a shoulder and joined the other woman to pull the box up from my trunk.
I grabbed my phone and let them carry the box. Inside the house I collapsed on a sofa.
“I’m here,” I told Rachel. “I made it.”
“You idiot.” But she laughed. “I knew you would.”
The door slammed. Georgeanne and her friend lugged the box into the living room. “Mother?”
A gray-haired woman walked from the kitchen, holding an aluminum cane. She wore jeans and a long white blouse. “Tom Jurgen? Andy said you’d make it.”
“Yeah.” I slipped my phone into a pocket, hoping Rachel would be able to listen to whatever happened. “He didn’t tell me what I’d have to drive through.”
She slumped in a wide leather chair. “My name is Carole Rossigna. Would you like some wine?” She pulled a cork on a bottle next to the table.
I really wanted a beer. “You’re part of the Rossini, aren’t you?”
“You know about our war?” She held out a glass.
The house shook. I felt like I was sitting in the Alamo while Santa Ana shot cannons at the walls.
“Just a little.” I took the wine. It was dark and musky. “I only took a job to bring a book down here.”
“And you did it. Thank you.” She sipped her wine as the windows rattled. “Hurry!”
Georgeanne emerged from a basement door, carrying a box just like the one I’d put in my trunk. But she carried it under one arm, as if it was made of cardboard. Mika followed her, but she wore a pair of thick gloves like you’d use for a barbecue, or maybe taking rods out of a nuclear reactor.
Georgeanne set her box on the floor next to mine. Mika knelt between them. The floorboards trembled under our feet. What the hell was out there?”
“Do it quickly.” Carole straightened up in her chair. “Now!”
Georgeanne unlatched my box and pulled the lid open. The book lay inside, the dragon on its cover looking up at us.
I set my wine down and waited for her to open the book up. Read a spell that would protect us. Send whatever was outside away.
Instead she tossed the book at me. “Here. You can keep this.”
What the hell? I caught the book in my arms. “I just drove two hundred miles for this—”
“It’s not the book.” Carole shook her head. “It’s the box.”
“Wait—what?” I dropped the book on the floor. The box?
The box.
Georgeanne lifted the lid on the box she’d carried up. A bright yellow light shot up from inside. I could feel its heat on my skin.
“Don’t look too long.” Carole shaded her eyes. “Mika!”
Mika’s gloved hands dove down. I saw a multicolored jewel with a thousand surfaces, each one glowing with a different color—colors I’d never seen before. I turned away, my eyes burning.
From the corner of one eye, though, I watched as Mika quickly lifted the jewel and placed it into the second box. My box. Then she slammed the lid down and shut the latch, gasping.
            Mika stripped off her gloves. “Oh,” she groaned. “That hurt.” Tears dripped from her eyes. “Damn it!”
            “It’s done.” Carole sat back. “You’ll feel better soon. Georgeanne, take it downstairs. Then see to your cousin.”
            “Right.” Georgeanne pulled at one handle. But the box was heavier than the one she’d brought up. “Oops.” Bending her knees, she lifted with both legs, staggered and turned, and then lumbered through the door to the basement, her feet thudding with each step.
            The house stopped shaking. Suddenly everything was quiet.
            Mika wiped her eyes, stood up, and stumbled toward the kitchen.
            I looked down at the book on the floor. “So what the hell is this?”
            “It’s a book. Nobody knows what it says. Probably it’s just gibberish.”
            “Then what . . .” I felt stupid. But I had to ask. I pointed at the thin box. “What was that?”
            “That was the Star.” Carole poured more wine. “It fell to Earth hundreds of years ago. The Raen found it, and protected it, but over time some of them decided they wanted to use it to speed the end times. You felt it, didn’t you?”
            I’d felt power. Heat. I rubbed my face, feeling a burn. And that had been just a few seconds.
            “So your people stole it.” I sat down again, tired.
            Carole nodded. “It has to be encased in thick lead. But its energy ultimately burns through everything. Every hundred years or so, it needs a new casket to protect the world from its fury. And this one—” She pointed a foot toward the thin box. “This one was wearing thin. A few more days, and it would have broken down. And then the Star could have destroyed the world.”
            I gulped my wine. “So the Raen sent everything they could to stop me from getting the new box here.”
            “They have access to strange powers. You know something about that.” She smirked. “That’s why Andy hired you.”
            I wanted to break a window. “So the Raen were hoping I’d lead them to you? That’s why they never tried to head me off?”
            “They’ve been trying to get the Star back for years. We had to find some way to get the latest box here safely.”
            Safely. I snorted. “I’m going to have to charge more than my usual hourly fee for this.”
            Carole nodded. “Talk to Andy. We have resources. Whatever’s fair. You’ve earned it.”
            “All right.” I didn’t trust myself to talk more. “Is it safe to go out there?”
            Georgeanne came up from the basement. “It’s secure. They’re gone for now.” She looked at me. “It’s safe to go. Unless you want to stay.”
            She had long legs, and her T-shirt was tight. For a moment I forgot that Rachel was listening.
            Then I shook my head. “Thanks. I’ll just find a motel.”
            “Mr. Jurgen?” Carole Rossigna stood up. “I’m sorry for all this. But you did a good job. I hope we can depend on you again.”
            In a war against apocalyptic anarchists? I hesitated. “I’ll want all the information next time. If there is a next time.”
            She bowed her head. “Of course.”

Out in my Honda—the night clear, just a little rain—I lifted my phone. “Rachel? Did you get any of that?”
            “Most of it. You’re an idiot.” She sighed. “Get some sleep.”
            “Plan one.” I checked my rearview mirror. “After I find a bathroom.”

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