Saturday, August 5, 2017

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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