DUEL 1 2 3 4 5 6

5

The only thing to do, the only option we had, was to get back on the road. Our timetable had a little flex in it, but not much. This whole deal was ugly. The local combine had gotten their hooks into Michelle at ruinous interest. I figured it out in about three minutes -- they knew who she was from the beginning. They knew if they could get the pressure on her, they could get a disposable courier. If they had tried to contract me through normal channels, I would have respectfully declined and watched my back for the next six months. But they owned Michelle, and so, they owned me.

It was a classic setup. My biggest problem was, not knowing what I was transporting or who was harassing us, there was no way to put together a rational plan. For all I knew we were hauling weapons-grade botox sealed in a carnauba wax and sawdust binder, and the combined intelligence services of the western world were closing in on us. It was about as likely a cargo as Count Dracula's sleeping dirt, but still, you gotta be prepared for anything.

And I was, or so I thought.

We drove on through the ugly barrenness of the Wyoming interstate.

Maybe someone taking the drive for pleasure, without a timeline, on a pleasant vacation, would find beauty and relaxation there. But running contraband across the mountains takes some of the charm out.

An hour or so down the road, a state trooper pulled in behind us.

After a mile, he popped on his lights. Michelle blanched and dropped her crossword puzzle magazine. "Be cool, toots. We're on vacation." I muttered out of the side of my mouth, feeling like an idiot. I pulled over and rolled down my window, watching the cop in the rearview. I've seen and dealt with my share of cops, and this one was pure harness bull. He was big, on the wrong side of fifty, with one of those guts that looked like an overstuffed pillow -- but if you punched it, you'd probably break your hand. He had that rolling walk, gunbelt slung low, one hand on the butt of his service revolver. He did not have a regulation baton, but an old-style straight nightstick. He pushed his hat up with his ticket book. If he'd been wearing mirrored pilot glasses I would have not been able to keep from laughing and looking for the cameras, but his shades were a flat, depthless matte black, and round.

It gave him an even more threatening aspect, like a blind man who could somehow sense your thoughts without seeing or hearing you.

He stood behind the car too long. Then he slipped the ticket book into his pocket, took two steps back, and motioned me out of the car. I knew right then that whatever level of trouble we were in, it was about to get worse.

There are three types of cops I've met on the interstates. The first kind, most numerous, are just cops. If you're speeding a little, have a taillight out, no alcohol on your breath, and play stupid, you can wrap a fifty around your license and drive away with a verbal warning.

The second kind, still pretty common, don't want your fifty -- either they have a quota to fill, or they're new enough to still take their job seriously. With them, it's best to just take the ticket, say sir a lot, and play stupid. It won't cost you much, and the best defense is to simply drive legally, but not so legally that you become conspicuous. Cops look for the patterns, and anyone violating those patterns is meat. When in Rome, wear a togawhen in Minneapolis, drive like an idiot.

The third kind are the ones you pray you never have a run-in with.

There's nothing less trusting, more avaricious, and more volatile than a crooked cop.

"Stop right there. Hands on the roof. Passenger, remain seated, keep your hands where I can see them. Son, what happened to your bumper?"

I mentally kicked myself. "Somebody hit it last night at the motel. No note, no nothing."

"Isn’t that a tough break." He could afford to be chummy. He was about to put on the squeeze. "You do know we have laws in this state about driving an unsafe vehicle?"

This would have been a good time to smile and reach for my wallet.

"It's just a couple of scuffs -- "

There is no good way to describe the speed and accuracy of the nightstick. By the time the smashed remains of my taillight hit the asphalt, it was already back in its holster. "Now, boy, I do believe you've underestimated the damage." The son of a bitch was enjoying this far more than I. "This vehicle needs a field inspection. Passenger, out of the car, hands on the roof."

I should have screamed, I should have kicked up a fuss, whined about my rights as soon as he pulled us over. Then he would have mistaken me for a citizen. I let him kick my feet apart and swing my hands behind my back. The cuffs bit into my wrists, the left one catching briefly on the copper link bracelet I'd been wearing for years. It pressed the metal painfully into the knob of bone on the outside of my wrist. I could smell roast beef and gravy on his breath and he growled into my ear. "I know you're holding, I can see it in your eyes. If you want to walk away, you'd better tell me where it is."

"There's seventy five in my wallet and a couple hundred inside the visor. That's it."

"You're lying, boy." I looked Michelle in the eye. She wasn't scared, she was angry, and about to say so. I tried to tell her to shut up without saying anything, but before I had a chance, the pain in my wrists tripled and dropped me. When my knees hit the pavement, a pebble jammed through my jeans and into the leg, driving through the skin under my kneecap. I bit back a scream. "Now, where is it."

Suddenly the bent cop realized he might be on the trail of, rather than the simple bit of highway robbery he had planned, a real bust.

Three things happened at once. An engine screamed in my ear as a motorcycle, unnoticed by any of us, tore past. The cop dropped like a steer. I flung myself to the side, landing heavily on my hip and shoulder, the cuffs wrenching my arms back at an unnatural angle. I scrabbled for position, trying to take the pressure off my shoulder before it popped out of its socket, ending up eye to eye with the trooper. Or, to be more precise, eye to gaping bloody hole that used to be an eye.

Michelle ran around the car and fumbled with the dead weight, finally getting his keys loose. She unshackled me. "Fuck fuck fuck now what do we do?"

I tried to stand up but my wounded leg folded. "Help me get him into his car." Have you ever tried to move a corpse? It's true, they do weigh more than a living person. The autonomic tension in a breathing body, even an unconscious one, helps, their muscles pulling against yours and keeping them together. Moving a body is like trying to hoist three hundred pounds of spaghetti with shit sauce in a burlap sack. It's heavy, wet, stinks, and bits keep flopping out. We managed to wrestle the dead cop into the back seat of his cruiser.

Somehow, our luck was holding. No cars had passed since the motorbike. It couldn't hold much longer. I handed Michelle the cop's gun. "If anything happens, you just keep driving."

"But -- "

"No buts. If you don't get home on time, none of this matters, does it. You go ahead, take the first exit with nothing there, and get as far away the freeway as you can. Take every turn away from the freeway. If I'm not there in twenty minutes, do whatever you have to do." I flipped her my wallet and started the cruiser. "Go, goddamnit!" She went. I took a carefully measured one hundred eighty second eternity checking the car before starting it. The video camera was unplugged and the radio was off. Good. He hadn't checked in. Of course he hadn't -- he wouldn't want any help taking us off.

The first car to come along was going the other way. I could not believe it.

It was bluish silver, an anonymous box. It screeched and whipped around. This time, I did manage to get a good look at the driver before I floored the gas. He was blond, with a square, acne-scarred face.

I once had a friend who made an adequate living as a freelance wheelman. His favored work car was the Mustang. He swore by them and would never steal anything else.

Either he was a fool, or there was something special under this guy's hood. He caught up with me and held even in my blind spot. I didn't have long to spend, the first exit was ten miles up the road and at the speed we were going, six minutes would be too long. I gave him half a minute, then whipped into his lane and hit the brake hard. The cruiser fishtailed but somehow he managed to avoid the collision.

His hand came out the window, just like the last time I'd seen him. Only this time, he was not pretending to hold a gun. The first muzzle flash was just that, but the second starred my rear window.

I yanked the shotgun out of its holder and tried to rack it one-handed, feeling the torn muscle in my shoulder rip further. I felt rather than heard the bullet hit the door beside me, but it did not penetrate into the car. I slammed the brakes again.

He was beside me.

The shotgun boomed and flew out of my hand, striking the passenger door. Against all the laws of physics I actually hit the car, blowing out his passenger window. He swerved in front of me, clipping the front end and spinning off the shoulder. I didn't hang around to see if he was OK, just drove the last mile to the exit, praying Michelle had chosen this one. It was bad enough driving a stolen cop car, but a damaged cop car with the owner dead in the back seat? If I got stopped there would be no trial, no chance to bullshit my way out of this one.

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