A thin yellow beacon extends into oncoming traffic when I depress the button. I keep the flashlight on three beats, off for the same. Kind of like humping when I’m trying to extend my performance time: It definitely helps to employ techniques and devices.
I couldn’t remember exactly which Parkway exit Gianni used last night--something south of sixty-three--so Luis suggested I blink the flashlight off and on between six o’clock and six-fifteen. If we don’t hook up, I’m to hide, er...retreat again until seven, do the same fifteen-minute drill then.
It’s six-o-five. Nothing yet. The headlights zip by me in flourishing numbers, Atlantic City drawing its usual and dedicated contingent of Saturday night gamblers. Imagine focusing all that energy--all those quarters--on some major world problem? Imagine the resources the right organization could muster?
Stop Hunger for Infinity Through Slots. Well, maybe S.H.I.T.S. isn’t such a great acronym.
I blink the flashlight again. Wish the thought occurred to me earlier, say while Luis and I made our plans, but what if one or more of Bluefish’s men is making regular trips down this part of the Parkway, too? Waiting for just such an obvious signal as my flashlight?
They don’t know I have a cell phone, of course, that I can call for help. But why would they rule it out? And lost in the pine barrens, where else would I meet someone, if not just north of the exit I used last night?
I’m worrying too much. No way this baseball team from hell, the Branchtown Bluefish, is looking for me here. They walked right past me, then must have doubled back because I never saw them again.
Luis will be here any minute anyway.
A tall pair of headlights flash their high beams, an answer to my latest signal. The vehicle slows, kicks on its orange emergency blinkers, and searches for parking near my position by the fence.
Sure the hell hope this is Luis. Although actually, at this point, I’d take even Susan.
A soft night breeze brushes cool against my cheeks and neck. My knees ache from crouching.
I recognize Luis’s Jeep and breathe happy for the first time all day. My lips spread into a grin.
When the Jeep’s wheels stop rolling, I scramble up the grassy incline. My legs balk with weariness. My arms and hands sting with scratches. I try to forget my exhaustion and pain, keep my intent focused on safety--that red Jeep’s back door.
Who is that riding shotgun? Sure ain’t Umberto.
I yank at the back door handle, bend my butt to stuff myself inside. The interior light stays off. I understand the concept, but the darkness starts a shiver. My driver and front passenger show me only outlines.
“Hurry,” Luis says.
Is that a woman next to Luis? Looks like it. In fact, I’m thinking the shape seems familiar, her hair, I mean, the way--
A meteor rips the right shoulder of my jacket and cobwebs the window beside Luis’s head. Popping glass and the sharp crack of gunfire hit my ears a fraction of a second later. My heart rate doubles.
I yank shut the Jeep’s back door. Wonder if that meteor could have been a bullet. Think?
Luis’s front seat passenger leans out her window. She’s got something in her--
Bang. Bang. Bang. Her three, return-fire gunshots light up the woman’s face, the interior of the Jeep, even the edge of the forest. Oh, my. Her two-handed grip and rapid sturdy shooting tell me Walter’s new replacement, Franny Dahler, has fired many a handgun at hostile forces.
Ms. Strawberry an experienced shooter?
The Jeep’s engine races when Luis stomps the accelerator. Our ass-end fishtails down the slope before catching purchase in the grass.
Five seconds later we’re on the Parkway, free and clear.