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Omega, p.17

Omega, page 17

 part  #3 of  Alpha Series

 

Omega
 


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  Right in the middle of the road, the engine just up and died. I turned the ignition, the engine sputtered a few more times, wheezed, turned over, and then, surprisingly, caught just long enough for me to hang a left onto Avenida Puglisi and drift into a handicap parking spot before the motor coughed like an asthmatic smoker and died again. I rested my head on the steering wheel, sweat dripping off my nose and sliding down my spine, smeared on my face and my shoulders and...everywhere.

  Brazil is fucking hot.

  I'd long since drunk the last of my water and the protein bar was also long gone. I had five real, and a pocketknife.

  But Harris was coming.

  Time to hide.

  I spent a few minutes ransacking Pedro's car, digging under the seats and in the glove box and in all the crevices, but only came up with a single crumpled one-real bill. I popped the trunk and checked in there, but he'd taken anything of value out of it, leaving only some garbage, an empty plastic bag, a tire iron and donut spare, an empty red gas can, and some empty baggies that had once held pot.

  I found a scrap of paper and wrote "obrigado" on it, set it on the driver's seat with the keys under the seat, and then set out on foot.

  I trudged out from the relative cool and shade provided by the buildings of the downtown area and down to the beach, removing my flip-flops and stuffing them in my back pockets. The dry sand was hotter than Satan's asshole, but I trotted through it to the surf, letting the water slosh over my bare feet. There wasn't a cloud in the sky overhead, only a stiff, steady, hot breeze from off the water.

  I just walked. North, I was pretty sure, but it didn't really matter. The beach was actually fairly deserted, only a few couples and individuals here and there. I tried to seem at ease, as if I was just a lone tourist taking a walk on the beach.

  I made it as far north as the beach would go until it ended at a cluster of high-rise condo buildings butting up right to the edge of the sea, hiding what looked like an outcropping of rock covered by a scrim of jungle. I kept walking, following the narrow streets uphill and around the ridge jutting out of the hillside and back down to the beach.

  Know what I did then?

  I walked.

  And walked.

  And walked.

  Theoretically, I could probably just keep walking up the coast of Brazil until there was no more beach. In reality, I was fucking tired of walking. But what else could I do? I didn't have money for a hotel, or food. I couldn't just sit down on the beach and wait for the next ten hours. I didn't want to stop, didn't dare stop moving. If I stopped moving, I'd start thinking. If I started thinking, I'd have a nervous goddamn breakdown because I'd killed a man two hours ago. And once I started dwelling on that happy little fact, I might never stop bawling like a baby.

  So I walked.

  I followed the beach and tried to just enjoy the sunlight and the heat and the ocean and the beauty of Brazil, and tried not to think. I just walked. Eventually, after maybe three miles, the beach ended at another rising mountain of jungle, this one much larger and more permanent, as in not the kind of outcropping you could walk around. So I picked a road and started following it, passing a lovely cafe right on the water, the kind of place where I'd have loved to be able sit at a table and watch people come and go, eat, drink, argue, kiss. But I didn't dare stop. So I followed the road, up, up, up. It just kept going up, half-finished high-rises on my left, the jungle on my right stopping just at the road's edge. Not a nice area, necessarily, not for tourists. But I kept going. Unwisely, perhaps, but I was committed to just walking, walking, walking.

  The jungle gave way to a mammoth hotel, and I realized I was topping the rise. Sort of.

  Okay, no, not really. There was still a lot of hill left to climb.

  A lot of hill.

  Jesus.

  I started climbing and was sweating balls, out of breath, and exhausted beyond all comprehension, but I'd started up this hill and by god I'd make it to the top. Just because I'm fucking stubborn that way.

  Up. Up. Up.

  It eventually crested with the sea far below and off in the distance, blue and hazy, nothing but an outcropping of tree-covered rock ahead and a handful of dilapidated, white-washed buildings off to my right. The road turned into ancient, cracked octagonal cobblestones, angling to my right toward the cliff's edge. A hand-painted sign announced a telephone number, and beneath the number were some Portuguese words, and one word in English that I recognized: "camping"--a campground, then. Run-down, out of the way, and shitty.

  Perfect.

  A trio of chickens meandered past me, clucking to each other, seeking shade under a lone palm tree, hustling a little faster as I passed them. At the road's edge was a white-washed cinderblock building topped by a slab of corrugated tin, nothing but some cheap chicken-wire fencing at the very cliff's edge. A couple of yellow signs announced something or other in Portuguese, which obviously I didn't read. But I did know enough back-of-the-house restaurant Spanish to recognize that "fritata" and "coco verde" probably meant food of some kind. That, plus the rickety plastic table and chairs and the bright pink umbrella, meant this was very likely a restaurant of some kind.

  Way out here, five real might just get me something to drink and somewhere to sit and not have to walk for a few hours.

  In I went. It was dark, the ceilings low, and it smelled wonderfully of frying food. It was hot, but cooler than outside, a window AC unit puffing away noisily somewhere, and a wide-bladed fan overhead lazily stirred the air.

  So... "restaurant" may have been stretching things a bit.

  But it was a public establishment, and it was deserted, so I could probably kill time here without attracting any attention.

  There was a table near the door, and I sat down with my back to the wall so I could watch the interior as well as the door and the street beyond. I heard voices in the back chattering in Portuguese, but I was in no hurry. I was just glad to be off my feet and out of the sun. Eventually a tiny, hunched old woman emerged from somewhere, saw me, and started exclaiming excitedly, hustling over to me, placing a twenty-year old laminated menu in front of me. It had maybe six items on it, none of which I recognized, but at least the numbers next to the items told me I could probably make the last of my stolen money stretch enough to get me a meal and something to drink.

  I spoke over the old woman's excited rambling. "American. I speak Ingles."

  "Oh...no, no. No Ingles." And then she was off again, chattering way too fast for me to catch anything even if I did speak the tiniest amount of Portuguese, which I didn't. Except "thank you", which was obrigado.

  Um.

  "Agua?" That was Spanish again, but it was all I had to go with.

  She understood, bustling away and returning with a tall translucent red plastic cup, the kind you used to get at Pizza Hut. It was full of ice water, and I took it and guzzled it down greedily, offering my best version of "obrigado," which made her grin and chatter something else at me.

  I fished the crumpled five-real bill out of my pocket and set it on the table, gestured at the menu with a shrug, and then patted my belly. Which hopefully translated to "Pick something for me, lady, because this is all the money I have and I don't read Portuguese."

  Apparently she understood, because she took the money, stuffed it into her apron pocket, and vanished. She returned with a fresh glass of ice water and then vanished once more. This time she was gone for about twenty minutes, which were gloriously silent, except for the occasional crackle of ice against the red plastic. When she returned, it was with a plate loaded down with a shitload of food.

  It looked like little balls of something deep fried, a large empanada sort of thing, but bigger and flatter and crispier-looking, and then a huge glop of rice and beans topped by what looked like a fried flour substance mixed with bacon and peppers of some sort. It smelled like heaven. But way too much food for a measly five real. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and turned them out to show that I had no more money, and then s
hrugged broadly.

  The woman just waved at me, and a dismissive grandmotherly wave is the same all over the world, it seemed. "Comer! Comer!" she said, gesturing at the plate.

  I'd seen the gesture before, but in Italian--"Mangia! Mangia!", or "Eat! Eat!".

  I thanked her again, picked up the fork and tried one of the deep fried balls. Ho-leeee shit. Best. Thing. Ever. It had some kind of creamy melted cheese and shredded chicken inside it, and it was divine.

  The woman pointed at the deep fried balls when I stabbed another one. "Coxinhas." Co-sheen-yas.

  Delicious.

  The empanada-thing was next. I forked it open and discovered that it contained more melted, gooey cheese, ground beef, sauteed white onions, and jalapenos. She called it a pasteis. I didn't care what she called it, as long as I could keep eating it. The rice and beans and flour concoction was just as amazing as everything else, so by the time I finished I was sated, stuffed, and happy.

  I wished I had more money to give her, but I didn't, so I had to settle for effusive thanks, which the woman just waved away. I took my cup of ice water--my third one--and moved out to the table on the patio, sitting in the shade of the umbrella, and stared out at the sea.

  Gradually, my belly full and my anxiety lessened, I decided to rest my head on my arms for a moment.

  *

  A scream woke me.

  Not mine, but someone else's. A woman's. Terrified. Panicked.

  I bolted upright, reaching into my back pocket for the knife. The patio was empty, but there was a big black SUV sitting with its engine idling and all four doors open. Definitely the kind of big black SUV a kingpin would send his thugs out in to look for a certain American girl.

  I realized as well that my spot at the table with my head down and hidden behind the tilted umbrella meant that they might not have seen me. But they'd followed me here, somehow. I heard shouting, a gunshot, and a scream, the sound of a bullet piercing the tin roof.

  What to do?

  Duh. Only one thing to do: steal the truck. I hated letting the nice old lady get hurt over me, but hopefully the thugs wouldn't actually kill her if she didn't really know anything about me. I was essentially defenseless, anyway, so what could I do to help? Don't bring a knife to a gunfight and all, right?

  Cursing under my breath, I watched the door for a split second, and then bolted, vaulting the low fence separating the patio from the parking lot, slid on dirt, ran around the SUV slamming the doors closed on my way to the driver's seat. I jumped in, hauled the door shut, and threw it into reverse, gunning it and jerking the wheel around. The powerful vehicle skidded backward and spun in a circle on the gravel, scattering hens and pebbles all over the place. I almost crashed into a nearby hut but I recovered and jerked the gear shift into drive, shoved the gas pedal to the floor.

  I heard gunshots, and the back window shattered and the round buried itself in the passenger seat headrest. More rounds hit into the body, the rear quarter panel. Then I was around the corner and out their field of vision.

  I hauled ass down the hill at a reckless speed, hit the beach and turned into the city.

  How the hell had they found me?

  My phone rang. Because of the traffic I was forced to go slow, so I answered it, watching my mirrors for signs of pursuit.

  "Harris?"

  "Yeah, it's me. I'm in Sao Paulo right now, headed down your way." I heard road noise in the background. "Where are you?"

  "Still in Guaruja, although I've just run into trouble." I glanced in the rear-view mirror just then and saw a black SUV identical to the one I was driving cut into oncoming traffic, pass three cars, and pull up behind me.

  "Trouble?"

  "Yeah. I had this nice little spot out of the way at this tiny little cafe. And they just...showed up. I don't know how they found me. I walked there, and didn't stop to talk to anyone. I didn't think anyone even fucking saw me." BLAM! A round slammed into the radio. "Shit. They're shooting at me."

  "Do you have a gun?"

  "No, but I have a knife. Hold on one second." I tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and jerked the wheel to the right and stood on the brakes.

  This earned me a rear-ending which jolted me forward and gave me a nasty case of whiplash, but my pursuers shot past me, which was my goal. I gunned the engine and pulled up next to them, gritted my teeth, and hauled the wheel left, bashing into them. My window shattered and the door crumpled against my leg, but the other SUV didn't fare as well. I'd forced it into an oncoming cargo truck, which plowed into the black SUV, demolishing its front end. I floored the gas pedal and pulled away, cut left onto a one-way street, and then made a couple more turns at random.

  "Layla!" I heard his voice distantly, tinny, and remembered the phone.

  "Harris, hey, I'm here. Sorry about that."

  "Are you okay?" He sounded panicked. Well, maybe not panicked exactly, but concerned at the very least.

  "Yeah, I'm okay. I sideswiped them into oncoming traffic. I think I lost them."

  "Don't assume. There are always more."

  "Thanks for the reassurance," I said, deadpan. "I'm pretty sure I just caused a lot of injury and death."

  "You want me to lie to you?" he asked.

  "No," I admitted. "Keep telling me the truth."

  "The truth is you're going to be fine. Keep doing whatever it takes to avoid letting them get their hands on you. Don't worry about the collateral damage; just pretend you're in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, all right? Get back to the 160, the road you took south out of Sao Paulo. Head north, and call me when you're on it. We'll figure out a place to meet."

  "Got it."

  "All right. See you soon."

  "Promise?" I hated how vulnerable I managed to sound in those two little stupid syllables.

  "I promise, Layla."

  Click. I hung up on him, to save him the difficulty of saying goodbye. And because if I didn't hang up right then, my thin facade of strength would come crumbling down. I'm a tough bitch, but everyone's got a breaking point, and I was nearing mine.

  I managed to find the road north, totally by accident. I was checking my rear-view mirror regularly, watching for any more black SUVs, but so far I'd seen nothing. They'd managed to find me when I'd been absolutely positive I'd gotten away clean. Had they planted a tracker in me, like some kind of Tom Cruise spy movie? I mean, how else could you explain them just showing up like that? Only sheer luck and a big pink umbrella had prevented them from seeing me.

  When I was out of the city proper I called Harris back, told him I was on the 160 heading north, and hung up before he could say anything.

  With two broken windows, the ride was noisy and windy. My leg ached from where the door had crumpled, and I was pretty sure I didn't want to look down there to assess the damage. My neck was sore and stiff too, from the whiplash. Also, the climb up the hill had exhausted me.

  But at least I wasn't hungry, right?

  Always look on the bright side of life.

  If you're humming the Monty Python song, then I love you forever.

  Thirty minutes of driving lulled me into complacence; my phone rang, startling me enough that I shrieked and jerked the wheel, nearly sideswiping the car next to me.

  "Hello?"

  "It's me," Harris said. "We should be getting close to each other. Have you reached the point where the north and southbound lanes merge, yet?"

  Leaving Guaruja, the north-and southbound traffic lanes were often far apart, taking totally different routes through the mountainous terrain, only joining a good thirty miles or so north and west.

  "No," I said, "not yet."

  "Okay, good. When the lanes start merging, I want you to pull over and hide in the woods in the median. Get as far north as you can, so you're at the very edge of the woods, looking north. I'll find you. You see anyone else but me coming for you...well, do what have to."

  "Okay. Got it."

  "Any questions?" he asked, his voice firm and brusque and calm
.

  "Just one."

  "What is it?"

  "Does knowing you've killed someone ever get easier?"

  He didn't answer right away. "Yes and no. Like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. But that comes with a price." Another pause. "We'll talk more when we're together."

  "It was ugly, Harris." Why the hell was I saying any of this? I didn't want to think about it. I'd been trying not to.

  "Death is ugly, Layla. No two ways about it."

  "I'll see you soon."

  "Yes, you will." He was the one to hang up, this time.

  I tossed the phone on the passenger seat and focused on driving, focused on watching the terrain and watching for pursuit. After another ten minutes, I saw the southbound traffic lane in the distance, off to my left, just a strip of gray in the green of the forest, sunlight glinting occasionally on windshields. When the lanes were a hundred yards or so apart, a thin screen of trees appeared in the ever-decreasing space between lanes. I moved into the left-hand lane and slowed down, earning horn honks and angry shouts as the faster-moving traffic swerved around me.

  Another three minutes, and the median narrowed yet further and the trees thinned to a point. There wasn't a shoulder, so I had to pull off the highway and directly onto the grass, thudding and bouncing as I braked to a halt. I shut the engine off, left the keys in the ignition, palmed my phone in one hand and my knife in the other, glancing in both directions. I was earning a lot of looks, but no one was stopping, yet.

  I took off running for the trees.

  As I made the tree line, I heard a car door close somewhere behind me.

  Shit. Of course.

  It was a big black SUV, parked directly behind mine. Five men were moving toward me, and each one was blatantly carrying a machine gun. They strode toward me calmly, unhurried, making directly for my position.

  Now what the actual fuck? I'd been watching behind me every step of the way, and I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that I hadn't been followed. Yet here they were, coming right for me.

  "Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!" I shouted it the last time, and one of the men laughed.

  It wasn't a pleasant sound.

  I ducked behind a tree, unfolded my knife, and dialed Harris.

 
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