Camera Obscura

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Chapter Seven

The light in the town car was soft, as was the leather of the seats and the muted music that came from the speakers somewhere out of sight in the back.

“Back to the house.” Vladimir Wulf spoke with a soft European accent as he ordered the driver away from the airport. He turned to his companion, “It went as planned.” The other man merely nodded.

The rear compartment of the car was quiet. In the driver’s seat Dennis Ritchie headed the car back to the freeway without a word. He occasionally glanced into the rearview mirror in the middle of the windshield, but even though the glass between the two compartments was down, there was little to see.

“Raise the glass,” came the order from the back. Ritchie wondered why. Neither of the men had moved nor spoken, but knowing the consequences of disobedience, he quickly did as he was told.

The two men sat silently. Wulf held the briefcase in his hands but didn’t open it. The other man, an enforcer, whose name changed with each contract he accepted, stared stone-faced out the window. He had worked with Wulf before and knew him to be a man of few words who would tolerate no idle discussion. At times it was difficult to be in Wulf’s presence because, despite his profession, the enforcer was a man of mirth. He enjoyed a good joke, and when he wasn’t working, he often found release in the zany comedies from the 40’s and 50’s, laughing until his sides ached.
The night slid by in streaming headlights and garish neon signs proclaiming “All Nude” and “Girls Girls Girls.” Dennis Ritchie scanned the road in front of him. He drove carefully and at a moderate speed, so as not to attract undue attention. He knew that at any time there might be a bullet through the window or the flashing lights of a patrol car signaling them to stop, so he kept a close watch in his outside mirrors, hoping never to see anything out of the ordinary.

Fifteen minutes into the drive from the airport, a glimpse in the mirror on the passenger side of the car caught his attention. He frowned. Had he seen that car before? He couldn’t be sure. There were a number of cars of the same color on the freeway. What was it that gave him that uncomfortable feeling of deja vu? He looked again, but the car wasn’t there.

He pulled carefully into the lane on his left. The sideways movement was so slight that the men in the back barely noticed. Ritchie was a good driver; they weren’t disturbed. He looked in the mirror again and saw the car dart into the lane behind him. It could be a coincidence, but it was foolish not to be concerned.

He picked up the phone connected to the rear compartment. “I think we’re being followed.”

“Who?” came the sharp response.

“I don’t recognize the car.”

“Lose them.”

The town car picked up speed, still attempting to avoid the appearance of alarm or excessive haste, and pulled ahead of cars flanking it.

“I think they’ve spotted us,” Larry said grimly, as he pushed the gas pedal to the floor.

“What’re you doing?” Jill cried out as the car lurched in pursuit, weaving carelessly from one lane to another in and out of traffic. She grabbed the “jesus christ” bar over her window and held on as if her life depended on it, which at this speed it probably did.

“You don’t think I’m going to lose them now, do you?”

As the central business district approached, the limo took an exit from the freeway and headed into the City proper. Larry followed, making a turn on two wheels. As they dodged in and out of the early morning traffic, they ran red lights and stop signs, leaving in their wake blaring horns, one fender-bender, and several near-accidents.

A white-faced Jill braced herself as best she could, shutting her eyes at intersections, and squealing in fear at the near misses. Larry was grim-faced with determination as he wrested the steering wheel back and forth avoiding obstacles in his path. Both cars actually left the pavement as they soared over the crest of one of San Francisco’s hills, landing with teeth-jarring blows. Larry was surprised that there were no tire blowouts, but the thought was a fleeting one as he concentrated on not letting the town car out of his sight.

Through the streets, they raced until the Bay was ahead. They turned onto the street that ran along the waterfront and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a taxi appeared in front of the town car. There was no way to avoid a collision. The limo ran broadside into the cab and careened away from the crash, through a fence along the walkway, and out of sight into the water.

Jill screamed as Larry fought to avoid the taxicab and headed after the limo, toward the frigid, black waters of San Francisco Bay. At the last moment, the car shuddered to a stop, its front tires mere inches from the shattered fence and the edge of the Bay.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god!” Jill moaned over and over. Strapped into the seat of the car and unable to move to release herself, she hadn’t even opened her eyes to see how close they had come to nosing into the water.

“Jill,” Larry said, unclasping his seatbelt. She didn’t respond but kept repeat her mantra, oh god, oh god oh god, until he put his hand on her shoulder and repeated, “Jill. We’re all right. We’re fine. Open your eyes, Jill.”

She finally squinted at him through silted eyelids, “We’re okay?”

“Yes. Now, open your eyes. We need to get out of here.”

She did as he asked and when she saw how close they were to the water’s edge, she shuddered and closed them again.

“Come on, Jill. Get out of the car. If someone bumped it just right, it still might go over.”

That suggestion opened her door and she was out of the seat, backing away from the car as if she was afraid that if it went over, it would still pull her in after it. She edged toward the water and looked to see if there were any survivors of the town car. There weren’t even any dark bubbles rising from where the vehicle had entered the water.

The cab was obviously totaled. Its passenger side was now sitting where the driver was supposed to be. The few people who were up at that hour had gathered around the taxi driver, who was sitting dazed on a curb nearby. Larry approached him as the driver said, “I never saw him. Honest to God! I never did. Ow! Watch it!” This last was in response to one of the by standers who had pressed a handkerchief against a bleeding cut over the man’s left eyebrow. That, except for various bruises and angry muscles, seemed to be his only injury.

Larry took a cell phone from his pocket and called nine-one-one. A minute later he told the driver, “Take it easy. An ambulance will be here in a minute or two.”

“You sure are lucky you didn’t have any passengers,” a man with a large red nose said. He was apparently one of the many people who hung around the area after hours, drinking from brown paper bags.

“You got that right!” the driver agreed vehemently. “First time not having a fare was good luck. But…shit! Look at it!” He pointed at the wreck at his elbow. “My wife’ll have my ass for sure!”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Larry reminded him.

“Hell, no,” another by-stander agreed, “I saw the whole thing. You had the right-a-way. That big mother wasn’t watchin’ where it was goin’.”

Larry looked up when Jill touched his arm.

“How ’bout the others?” he asked.

She shook her head. Her eyes were dull and her white face showed that stress and fear had drained her. She lifted her head and cocked an ear in the direction of a siren, approaching a few blocks away. “Don’t you think we ought to go?” she asked quietly. “We don’t want anyone to know we had any part in this, do we?”

Larry nodded and led her back to the car. No one seemed to notice as they quietly backed the car away from the edge and quickly drove away.

In the darkness some distance from the accident, no one saw a figure quietly pull itself from the water. Deep in the shadows, Vladimir Wulf crouched for a moment watching the commotion as an ambulance and a lone police car pulled to a stop by the ruined taxicab. He heard the faint splish of someone else rising from the water. He turned to see his companion silently, wetly, pad to his side. They watched stone-faced as more squad cars appeared and a phalanx of blue uniformed men began questioning witnesses and searching the water with spotlights. Neither man spoke, and no one saw the figures slip away into the night.

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