Road Rage

I made sure to stay a few cars behind Manny, which wasn’t difficult. Manny was driving as he usually did—like the star pupil of the Driver’s Ed teacher. He’d indicate every lane change, keep under the speed limit, and of course he’d never run a yellow light.

The drive south to the port would take a while as we were nowhere near. The first thirty minutes or so were quite relaxing, actually. At least for me. I didn’t know how Manny was doing, but I hoped he was enjoying the experience of driving his first supercar.

Once the adrenaline of getting away clean from the first part of our heist had faded, I thought to check the tingling in my head. I poked at it and a notification popped up.

Job Unlocked – Soldado (E) (Shadow)

Requirements Met:

  • Deal with an enemy
  • Solve a problem with a weapon five times

Accept this Job?

WARNING: This will replace Dealer. Unlocked Job-exclusive skills will remain available but will no longer Earn.

I’d finally unlocked a second job. It wasn’t that rare or even hard to get—the requirements made that clear. Just point a gun at enough different people and you’d unlock it. That and ‘Deal with an enemy,’ which I had to assume was fulfilled when I shot Zeke.

I declined and the UI disappeared.

Manny had been pretty clear when he told me that I wasn’t tied down to my Dealer job but changing while driving just out of curiosity seemed like a bad idea. I’d do it later when it wasn’t possible something could go catastrophically wrong.

Our drive continued peacefully, although there was a butt-clenching moment when we were cruising down a wide boulevard toward the 110 and a cruiser pulled out in front of us. It crept up around the traffic and slotted in behind Manny in the Mercedes. Flattop was watching through the slit and spoke up.

“Don’t worry, Hondo’s plates are good. They’ll hold.”

“Unless whoever that snitch is has a warrant,” I said.

“Just relax, we’re good,” Flattop said.

The cop hung behind the Mercedes for what I thought was an obnoxiously long time. Eventually the cop changed lanes and passed Manny, his check complete.

“See, I told you. The plates are good. We’ll have a nice drive to the port, and then we’ll all get some beer to celebrate,” Flattop said.

I internally cringed at Flattop jinxing us, but I was hoping that was just me and my gamer superstitions. Of course, that was wrong.

Traffic got heavier as we approached the on ramp to the 110 ahead, and I was still sticking to the space a few cars back from Manny when things went wrong. Manny had stopped for a yellow, blithely ignoring the angry honking of the driver behind him. I knew from experience that Manny was totally immune to those. It was like he didn’t even notice them—he’d drive properly and fuck everyone else’s opinion.

We were a few cars back from him when I heard the tinkling crunch of an impact breaking glass and denting a fender. A powerful engine revved and I looked in the side mirror in time to see a shiny black SUV force its way into the mostly-empty left turn lane beside me. A chorus of angry horns greeted this action.

I recognized the SUV immediately as a Suburban, favorite of government agents and narcos alike. This one had fully blacked out windows and I couldn’t see who was driving. It roared past me and screeched to a halt just behind the one occupant of the turn lane, a bright red Volkswagen bug. The passenger door opened and a bald man in a bright red tracksuit and spotless white sneakers jumped out. In his right hand he was carrying a jagged-looking machine pistol. He dashed toward Manny in the Mercedes.

“Oh, shit,” I cursed, and reached for my gun and the door handle.

I was terrified for Manny, but I shouldn’t have been. He wasn’t being stupid. He was paying attention to everything. He’d seen that Suburban, and he’d seen the gangster in the tracksuit jump out. Still, Manny surprised me. Before the goon had gotten halfway there the Merc’s engine roared and Manny laid a long streak of rubber. The silver Mercedes shot like a bullet through the red light. Manny dodged crossing traffic like he did it every day and the engine howled a crescendo as he left the intersection behind.

The gangster raised his gun as if to fire at the escaping Mercedes, then thought better of it and yelled a curse in what I could only assume was Russian. He dashed back to the SUV instead, and I IDed him.

“Baraban”

“Shit!” Flattop was yelling from the back. “Wait, Mack, I’m coming up there.”

“What?” I yelled, confused. I had my gun half drawn but everything was moving so fast.

In front of us, Baraban was back in the Suburban. The big truck clipped the bug, smashing the tiny car out of the way as they took off in pursuit of Manny.

Before I’d even formed a full question, Flattop was opening my door and pushing me into the passenger seat. He was wearing the balaclava and didn’t spare the muscle. I slammed into the opposite door, bruising my shoulder. Hondo in the back just had time to close the rear doors before Flattop stomped the accelerator. He expertly weaved between stopped cars to chase the Suburban. The white van slalomed around the crashed bug, into the intersection and expertly through the course of stopped and still-moving traffic disrupted by Manny and Baraban. Flattop made it look effortless.

“What the hell, man?” I asked, flopping around the cabin, and trying to brace myself.

“Russians! You missed the fucking tracker, Hondo,” he yelled.

“I did not,” Hondo yelled back.

“Why are you up here, wearing that mask? Won’t we get pulled over?” I asked.

“I’m a Wheelman. Without my skills we have no chance of catching those two in this piece of shit. Even with them, we might not.”

“Manny’s got a good head start and that Merc is fast,” I said. “There’s no way they’ll catch him.”

“Sure, if we were on a racetrack. If he gets caught in traffic though, he’s fucked. We’ve got to try to get them off of him.”

“What about the mask, then?” I asked.

“Fuck the cops, you really don’t want these Russians knowing your name. You should put yours up.”

I took his advice, and also buckled myself in. Flattop chuckled.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to crash,” he assured me.

Of course, immediately after he said that we passed a minivan so closely I think they could count our eyebrow hairs. I got a brief glimpse of an entire family screaming in terror and then they were behind us.

We were rapidly approaching the 110 on-ramp and could just barely see Manny in front of us, Baraban’s Suburban lagging quite a way behind. Manny took the on-ramp at speed, dodging slower moving traffic by riding on the soft shoulder and weaving when needed. I was impressed, to say the least. Flattop, not so much.

“What the fuck is he doing? He’s supposed to get somewhere and ditch the car, not get on the goddamn freeway.”

“Freeway’s a lot more like a racetrack than the city, isn’t it? He can outrun them.”

“Maybe. We’ll see,” Flattop said.

In order to get us on to the offramp without slowing, Flattop drove like a crazy person for the last little bit. He screeched left across three lanes and then back across to the right to hit the on-ramp, threading a moving needle with our contractor van. Hondo thumped around in the back like an abused basketball, and a stream of curses came to us through the slit.

“Well fucking hold on then!” Flattop yelled back, not taking his eyes off the road.

Whatever his skills did, it was working. We were gaining on the SUV, and the little underpowered white van seemed faster and more agile than it ever had when I was driving it. Flattop seemed to know exactly where to go to find a clear route through traffic without having to stop. Whether that was his skills, or sheer experience, I didn’t know.

Our original plan had been to take the 110 south to the port. It looked like Manny, rather than ditching the car, was sticking to the plan. The highway was as clear as could be hoped for on a Sunday, but that meant there were still a lot of cars. We roared up the on-ramp and merged with traffic, doing at least 120 miles an hour. I was surprised our little van could even do that much. When I looked at the speedometer, the needle was almost at the end of its travel. Going by the engine sounds it seemed like the van had a little more to give if Flattop needed it. System magic once again.

We weaved aggressively through the traffic, never slowing, or at least not much. We crept closer to the Suburban as Flattop’s skills made the difference. Manny wasn’t getting much farther ahead though, as although the Merc was a lot faster than either of our vehicles, his driving skill just wasn’t up to it. Either that, or maybe he was driving more cautiously than he should have been. I didn’t fault him, if he crashed the car not only would that be bad for him and his dog, we’d lose our payday. I hoped he could see us back here, trying to get the pursuers off of him.

When we got around thirty feet away from the Suburban’s rear bumper, Flattop spoke urgently.

“Mack. That pistol, you any good with it?”

“No, why?”

“Fuck. Try anyway. I’ll get near and you shoot out the left rear tire.”

“You want me to shoot at another car on the highway?”

“Yes. Alright, here we go. Take the shot!”

Flattop swerved to the left of the Suburban and gave me a decent view of the left rear tire twenty or thirty feet away. I raised my pistol and gripped it with both hands before I stuck it out the open window. The buffeting of the wind did exactly what I’d hoped it wouldn’t and shoved the gun around in my hands. I clamped down as hard as I could, lined up the sights and pulled the trigger.

The gun barked in my hands, and a spark flashed as the bullet hit the asphalt underneath the Suburban, ricocheting God knows where.

“No good, keep firing,” Flattop said.

The next three shots were nowhere near, not even visible as sparks. Traffic around us had responded to the gunshots. The cars around us dropped back, some slamming on their brakes. I heard the crunch of accidents behind us. If this had been back in LA, we would have at least one or two following us with their mobile phones out, streaming live to the Internet. I was glad it wasn’t back home, once again.

“Shit, you weren’t lying. You really are terrible with that thing. Put it away,” Flattop instructed.

Despite me not actually hitting the Suburban, they now knew we were there. The rear door passenger window went down, and another bald gangster in a green tracksuit leaned out to point a submachine gun at us.

Flattop immediately reacted, braking, and drifted directly behind the Suburban. The wind noise diminished as we drafted the big vehicle.

The traffic ahead was starting to thicken, and I could see the Mercedes getting closer as Manny was forced to slow down.

“Shit, we’re out of time,” Flattop cursed. “I’m going to use a trick I know, but if this goes badly, we’re fucked. Be ready with that gun.”

The Suburban was now aggressively trying to give the shooter on the passenger’s side a shot at us. The big SUV weaved back and forth, but Flattop was sticking directly behind, making it look easy. There was the clatter of automatic weapons fire as the gunman fired a burst at us and missed.

“Hang on, I’m going to do the pit maneuver. If I screw this up, we’ll need to shoot our way out. Be ready,” Flattop said.

I had no idea what the pit maneuver was, but Flattop showed me a second later. He feinted left quickly and then slalomed right, stomping on the gas pedal. The little van’s engine strained the hardest it could, and we shot forward about half the length of the Suburban. The gangster in green seemed surprised at the less than a second opening we gave him. That gave Flattop just enough time to crank the wheel left and crunch the full weight of our van into rear quarter of the Suburban.

The Suburban spun violently, and the gunman in green velvet toppled but sprayed the front of the van. Bullet holes stitched the windshield and I felt the passage of air and the spray of powdered glass as bullets impacted the seat I was sitting on and the wall behind me.

Time seemed to slow down as Flattop struggled to retain control of the van. The Suburban continued its spin out to the right while we kept left. Then time sped up and we were past, the Suburban spinning to a stop and then being hit by traffic that hadn’t fallen back quite far enough.

Flattop didn’t let up on the accelerator, continuing to dodge traffic. Manny was a little farther ahead than he had been, a large screen of vehicles between us and him.

Once we were clear of the crashed Suburban, Flattop tore off his balaclava and tossed it into the foot well on my side.

“Masks off, now.”

I pulled mine down.

“We’ve got to get off the highway. We can’t follow Manny anymore. He wasn’t involved in the shooting, so the cops shouldn’t be looking for him. They will be looking for this van, though.”

“What? How could they?” I asked. “I didn’t see any cameras.”

In my world, of course there would have been cameras covering every inch of this freeway way up on poles. Those didn’t seem to be a thing here, so I didn’t understand how the cops would know anything happened without a cop actually seeing something.

“Someone behind us will have stopped at one of the emergency call booths and called it in. Happens every time. We need to get the hell off the freeway before they send a ton of cars and the helicopter over here.”

“Who were those guys in the Suburban, anyway?” I asked.

“They must be the Russians that own the garage. I don’t know them. I didn’t think they would come in that heavy, even if we did miss a tracker,” he said, raising his voice to just under a yell at the end.

“I didn’t miss a fucking tracker,” Hondo yelled back. “They must have marked it.”

I’d forgotten about Hondo, and all of a sudden, I was worried. In the separating wall behind us were quite a few bullet holes.

“You alright back there, Hondo?” I asked.

“No new holes if that’s what you’re asking. I did smack my head though. Thanks for that.”

“You’ve got a hard head,” Flattop replied.

We took the next exit, flying down the ramp. As soon as we were off the highway, Flattop slowed down and began to look for a place to park.

“We don’t need anything too fancy. Just somewhere to park where the van won’t be immediately visible.”

We found what we needed soon after—an alley between two rows of shops. Without slowing much at all, Flattop pulled off the street, into the alley and slammed to a halt in a small notch that would hide most of the van from passing traffic.

I bailed out, moving around to the back. Hondo opened the doors and staggered out; his shirt spotted with blood from a cut on his forehead. It didn’t look deep, but it was bleeding quite a bit. He looked unsteady on his feet as well.

“That doesn’t look good,” I said.

Flattop looked him over. “Yeah. Take this, hold it on the wound,” he said, offering his balaclava. Hondo took it without comment and pressed it on the cut.

“We’ve got to get away from this van,” I said. “If the cops are coming, they’ll be looking for it.”

“Yeah, let’s go. We’ll get a few blocks away and call a cab,” Flattop agreed.

“Wait. Bunny’s shotgun is in the back. We should take that,” Hondo said.

None of us had anything to carry a shotgun in and walking with it in hand didn’t seem like a good idea.

“We can’t. I’ll wipe it down and we’ll leave it,” I said.

Hondo protested about leaving free money, but not too hard. I found the shotgun wedged under one of the shelves and wiped it down with my t-shirt. When I was done, I set it back down, climbed out and closed the rear doors.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We moved as quickly as we could away from the van and the roads leading from the freeway. We heard lots of sirens in the distance, but no cruisers came by to eyeball us. I wasn’t sure what they’d make of the three of us walking in shadows, one of us with a head wound. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be good. Hondo got steadier on his feet, but still needed support now and then.

“You might have a concussion, Hondo,” I said.

“I don’t know, maybe? I’ll walk it off.”

A few blocks of walking later, we were far enough away and stopped near a phone booth. I ducked inside, found a number stuck to the wall and dialed. Since I had no idea where we were, I willed the system to show me.

Harbor City, California, 13:21 Sunday March 08, 2020

255th Street West and Dodge Avenue

Walking in the Shadows

When the taxi dispatcher answered, I read our address off the screen in front of me. They acknowledged and I hung up.

“On their way,” I reported.

Flattop nodded but was distracted looking around for cruisers and occasionally sneaking a concerned glance at his cousin Hondo.

Hondo was sitting on the curb, still holding the balaclava to the cut on his head. He didn’t seem inclined to close his eyes, and as that was the only thing I remembered about concussions—don’t let them sleep—I thought everything was probably fine.

The taxi showed up ten minutes later. The cabdriver complained about the blood, but when Hondo showed him the bleeding had stopped and we gave him an extra $20, everything was fine.

Flattop gave him a corner two blocks away from the LSS shop as our destination, and we were on our way.

As we drove, I wondered how Manny was doing. I was fairly sure he had been in the clear, but it was up to him. I felt bad leaving him without backup, but I had faith that he would come through for us.