Dark Dragons

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Chapter 2 - Lonesome Loser

Friday, May 14

Present Day

Darren Seymour looked up to see Ms. Weatherbee’s chalk make huge streaks on the blackboard——the kind of chalk which screeched and made thick lines because the old lady had a tendency to press too hard. She was trying to draw an oxygen atom, but the apathetic, twelfth-grade class sitting behind her saw only crazy circles that made no sense.

“Does anyone know the atomic number and weight of this element?” she asked. “Any hands?”

None.

“May I suggest a pop quiz and a two chapter reading assignment?”

Still no response.

Her gaze swept the classroom, one eyebrow raised so high it threatened to overtake her hairline. “Okay, if that’s how it’s going to be,” she said with aplomb. “Let’s have a quiz. Go ahead. Get your notebooks open.”

Everyone obeyed, but it was slow, disheartening. Weatherbee just shook her head.

Darren returned to the words on his notebook. His words. He was too preoccupied with the short story flowing from his pen to be paying any attention to Witch Weatherbee. The world around him was just a macrocosm of nuisances and confusion better left alone and ignored.

Darren didn’t belong to any of the numerous social groups in school——just another boring face in the crowd that clogged the hallways like a clotted artery. He had moved here to La Crescenta from Michigan in the fall of the previous year, and like any new student, was still having difficulty adjusting. Trying to conform to Southern California’s fast-paced lifestyle was quite a culture shock for a Midwestern kid.

His story was entitled Jonathan Chance and the Marauders of Kathmandu. Jonathan Chance was a reckless CIA agent who lived in Virginia next to headquarters and had beers with the old guys at the bar when he wasn’t on assignment. Darren pictured Jonathan Chance as his alter ego . . . swashbuckling through exotic lands, enduring great perils, killing bad guys and saving damsels in distress. The usual plots and stereotypes were purely intentional.

Darren was finally up to the ending with Jonathan standing at the doors of Marcus Killjoy’s Himalayan fortress. Marcus Killjoy was a warlord heroin smuggler, a character of recent creation in fact. Somewhere inside the stronghold, Marcus had the U.S. president’s beautiful daughter held captive:


Jonathan leveled his M-16 and gunned down the locks, and took out the guard just behind it. He burst in and blasted away at a pair of appraoching approaching henchmen that drew machetes. “Bringing a knife to a gun fight?” Jonathan bellowed at the corpses.

Jonathan moved down the torch-lit passageway toward Marcus’s throne room. The fat-ass slob was probably preparing for a rude violation of the girl! Move faster Chance!

He leapt and kicked the door in, rolling across the throne room floor, spewing volleys of lethal machine gun fire. Henchmen fell. Blood, red and glistening, splattered the walls. One henchman asshole came at Chance with a machete. Jonathan ducked and grabbed the weapon’s handle just below the punk’s hand. He wrestled it from the hench asshole and brought it down and chopped the guys head in two. Brains fell out.

He picked up his M-16 and held the trigger down. Henchmen fell. No mercy for the dead, he thought. Suddenly the sound of gunfire was replaced by Marcus’s echoing, mocking laughter.

Jonathan was out of ammunition!

The President’s daughter, Vanessa, was chained to the wall, her clothing in shreds.

“Jonathan Chance . . . you die here!” Marcus growled when he pulled out a long sword with spikes and razors in it. “Do you really think that you’ll get her? Do you? Well my friend, she’s mine!” Marcus lunged at Jonathan and swung his weapon down. Jonathan recoiled and jumped just as the blade made sparks where his feet were just a split second ago. The fat bum swung again and when he missed, Jonathan leaped up into the air and kicked him backwards with both feet. Marcus tripped trying to get his balance and fell into his crocodile pit!

Jonathan heard a high pitched cry like a little girl’s followed by a sickening CRUNCH!! He looked over the edge and saw the crocs were tearing Marcus’s body up. The water turned red. Jonathan could even see that Marcus was still alive! His eyes were bulging like a guy who had his hand caught in a blender. One of the crocs bit through his neck and the suffering was over!

“Junk food,” Jonathan murmured with cool finality. Then he staggered over to Vanessa. The shackles came off under his brute strength. Vanessa fell into his embrace and her eyes stared deeply into his. “Oh Jonathan . . . I love you.”

“I love you too,” he said softly.

Their faces came closer. Vanessa closed her eyes and parted her lips. Jonathan could feel the

Weatherbee’s gnarled hand——quick and rather snake-like for a senior citizen——appeared above Darren’s notebook and tore the paper out with a deafening SHHHRRIIIIP! Chuckles rose from the classroom, and Darren’s face grew hot.

“We were having a quiz, Mr. Seymour, but it looks as if you’ve found something else more important,” she murmured, striving for theatrical menace. “You know if I catch anyone writing anything other than lecture, I read it to the class.”

“Yeah!” someone shouted. The rest of the class followed suit.

“I was just doing some of my English assignment,” he lied as quietly as possible so the others couldn’t hear him. “I won’t do it again.”

“I know you won’t.”

“Read it!” someone shouted.

At that, Weatherbee raised one eyebrow, apparently a non-verbal agreement for such a request. She gave Darren’s paper a quick snap for effect and began to scan the paper’s contents. “Oh, it’s a story, class.”

Giggles. High-fives.

Darren sat there stewing in his sweat, thinking violent thoughts of Weatherbee and the rest of this hole called a school. Not only were his peers being jerks, but even the teachers were stooping to incredible lows. I can’t believe she’s going to do this! What balls! Please God, bring down the lightning and zap this bitch to Mars!

The Almighty did not bring down His wrath but saved Darren from wholesale humiliation anyway in the form of Mr. Chambers, the physics teacher, who poked his head into the classroom and rapped on the doorway. “Sorry to interrupt, Agnes,” he said sheepishly, “but could I talk to you for a moment?”

Weatherbee looked down at Darren and frowned. “Yes, Bob.”

The pleasure of making an example appeared to be delayed. In that moment of carelessness, she dropped Darren’s paper on his desk, and he quickly snatched it up, stuffing it into his pocket. He kept his head down but knew everyone was watching.

Weatherbee left the room and closed the door behind her.

In the next row, Marcus Lutze said, “Read it to us, Seymour, you worthless shit.” Then he chuckled to his friends sitting nearby who had to attest their loyalty with their own giggles lest they cramped his style.

Darren kept his mouth shut, his stomach in knots.

Marcus Lutze was such a goddamn high school cliche: typical California, beach-blond school punk on his way to an Ivy League college back east, care of wealthy parents. He sat one chair back in the next row from Darren and had the coincidental pleasure of having Darren in two other classes. His Corvette convertible and amazing linebacker talents——before he got kicked off the team anyhow——naturally granted him the Big Shot On Campus Award.

Marcus had those powers typical of the Chief School Jock, that being the authority to determine a person’s caste in the Hindu hierarchy of the high school order. Was he a Brahmin priest or an untouchable? A fellow sports jock or a geek ripe for the Physics Club? The “cool students,” simple disciples of the Jim Jones School of Mob Manipulation, always let Marcus Lutze make up their minds. The jock always delighted his friends by teasing the merry hell out of Darren, since timid looks were grounds for cruelty at Verdugo Valley High. Marcus had beat the crap out of him twice in the past.

“Read it!” Marcus shouted.

Make it three.

“Bite me,” Darren murmured with sudden defiance. He looked behind him and saw Marcus stand up, all two hundred and twenty pounds of him. Someone stop this goon before he reaches into my throat and tears my lungs out. He wished Weatherbee would come back into the room. He looked down into his notebook, as if ignoring Marcus would make the prick realize he was being rash and decide it wasn’t worth——

Nope.

A steel fist seized him by the back collar and yanked him out of the chair. The next thing Darren realized, he was on his back five feet away, books and papers scattering, desk toppling. People around them stood up to move away, chairs and desks skidding across the floor.

Darren felt disgraced, angry he couldn’t defend himself, near-sympathetic to the psycho emo kids on the news who shot up their schools. He wanted to crawl into a bubble and seal himself off from the world. The fact girls stood around watching made everything worst. Darren felt relieved Vanessa Vasquez was in another class.

He got to his feet and tried to move away, but Marcus punched him so hard in the stomach that Darren thought his balls had exploded. The lights went out of him, and his knees struck the floor.

“Stop!” Weatherbee shouted from the door. “Stop, right now!”

Darren couldn’t breathe, his lungs full of rocks. He could hear blood pounding in his head and somehow got to his feet to show he wasn’t down. Finally, he got his lungs to inhale.

“What on Lord’s creation is this?” Weatherbee growled.

Great, Darren thought. Showing up like the cavalry at the last goddamn moment.

“Pick up your books and papers,” Weatherbee said with a sudden self-righteous poise. “We’re taking a walk, boys.”

A chorus of “Whoa’s” and “Oooo’s” rose from the classroom.


Charles Barstowe sat behind his desk with the best poker face Darren had ever seen. No facial movement flinched across his face. Only his eyes moved, and Darren was sure that Barstowe hadn’t even blinked since Darren entered his office a minute ago. Barstowe put on a good act, but Darren called his bluff. He knew a phony “skunk eye” when he saw it.

Barstowe’s dark brows were always curved down sharply at the ends to almost touch the eyes, his bottom lip scarred from a knife that a kid high on meth had given him a few years ago. Rumor said he liked to go down to the gym and babble with Coach Kenney just so he had an excuse to leer at the girls who played volleyball in their tight shorts. But so what? So did every other guy in school including Darren.

The lecture began. “Pot. Crack. Shrooms. LSD. This slacker, You-Tube Generation X-Y-Z you belong to is going to the dogs, m’boy. You have to take some custody, some responsibility before us Baby Boomers end up in Florida or the Sunshine Home, playing putt-putt golf or checkers. You’ll have to take care of us someday. You’ll be CEO’s of large corporations, doctors, and——god forbid——politicians.” He went on jawing, flogging Darren with more attempts at discipline.

Darren just sat there, occasionally nodding his head and saying “Uh-huh” and “Yeah” during various points of the conversation. He knew Barstowe hadn’t really talked to Marcus who had been asked to see the principal first.

Darren had no trouble talking to adults. Most, if not all kids his age found it impossible to talk to authority figures like parents or teachers. Darren, however, found them easier to talk to than his peers because he knew they had an intelligent answer to his questions, a reasonable comment to his own remarks. Maybe Darren was just different from his peers because he liked adults. Except the one sitting in front of him and the witch back in his chemistry class.

“. . . you see?” Barstowe continued. “It isn’t all that bad. You just have to apply yourself. Just like the Latinos down in Boyle Heights planting gardens instead of bangin’ all over town with the MC gangs.”

It was time for Darren to enter the conversation. “Do you even know what the fuck you’re talking about?” Brazen insurrection had finally reared its head after ten months.

Barstowe’s mouth hung open and his eyes wandered as he searched the far wall. Then he apparently remembered Darren’s inquiry had included a swear word and had to take immediate action. “Well . . . I . . . will not hear that kind of language in my office or in my school. You understand?”

“Did you even talk to Marcus, or did you guys just sit around and talk football?”

“No, Mr. Seymour, we didn’t talk football. I told him the same thing I told you.”

“What? You gotta be kidding?”

“Look, this——”

“No, wait a second. You gave him the same lecture I’m getting? You didn’t give him one of your yellow slips?”

“Yes, I gave him a yellow slip.”

“So am I going to get detention, too, even though he started the fight?”

“The way you’re going now, yes.”

“He’s the one who started the fight in the first place. Weatherbee left the room, and that’s when Marcus started hassling me. He threw the first——”

“Marcus is just unhappy with himself. Anyone who teases another is just dejected inside. He got kicked off the football team, you know, so he’s probably jealous of his older brother Todd, the All-Star quarterback. His parents probably give Todd more attention than he gets, which is why Marcus likes to tease others. He’s really a good——”

“Bullshit,” Darren spat.

Barstowe pointed his finger at him. “There it is again. If I hear one more ounce of profanity come out of your mouth, I’m going to give you detention for three days.”

“‘Marcus is just unhappy with himself,’” Darren said, mocking Barstowe’s remarks. “‘Just like those gangbanging Latinos down in East L.A., but, boy, haven’t they improved.’ You know, an excuse like not getting along with your parents is pretty lame. I don’t get along with my mom all the time, but you don’t see me giving the nerds in the Computer Club any shit.”

“There it is,” Barstowe said, withdrawing a pad of yellow detention slips from his drawer.

“Why don’t you just admit this whole school, including the faculty, kisses his ass because he intercepted the ball in the state final that clenched the win last semester? Who cares if he got kicked off the team and suspended from school because he date-raped some girl, right?”

“That turned out to be a lie. The girl changed her story, so we exonerated Mar——”

“Yeah, because Marcus’s mommy and daddy threw a few thousand dollars at her parents.” Darren watched Barstowe’s pen scurry across his pad. “Detention, huh? Why don’t you access my grade list on your computer and see what a bad boy I’ve been lately. Four A’s and three B-Plus’s. That was last quarter when I made the honor roll. Aren’t you proud of me?”

“Here you go, Mr. Seymour.” Barstowe handed him his dreaded yellow slip.

Darren crumpled it and tossed it over his shoulder. “I get three days of detention for offending you with curses you’ve probably heard in the movies, and Marcus gets——what?—— one, two days washing dishes in the cafeteria?”

“Mr. Seymour, you’ve got quite a smart-mouth on you.”

“Yeah, my dad taught me. He said to use it whenever the world wasn’t listening to you.”

“I remember your mother told me your dad was killed by a drunk driver in Michigan.”

Ah, there it is. Angst. Pathos. Thank you, dear principal. Why Barstowe had suddenly pulled this stinky goo of fresh manure out of his bag and spread it across his desk, Darren couldn’t be sure. Here now, let’s both take in a big whiff of this shit and see what germinates. He wanted to grab the spiked baseball bat that Barstowe kept on the wall behind him with DON’T FEAR THE REAPER scored into it and trash the principal’s office and stupid golf trophies.

“Would you like to talk about your father’s passing?” Barstowe said, now with the mellow voice of a consoling priest.

“No, I don’t want to talk about my father’s passing.”

A knock came to the door and Barstowe’s blond secretary poked her head in. The man’s self-righteous attitude immediately changed to some child-like response, sexual in nature. “Yes, Cheryl,” he said. “What can I do to . . . uh . . . do for you?”

“Mr. Peter Nelson from the board is here,” she said with a blatant bounce-me-off-the-bedboard smile. “He says it’s urgent.”

“Well, tell him I’ll be there in an itty bitty second.”

Cheryl giggled convulsively and left.

Darren was going to be sick. It wasn’t hard to see that Mrs. Barstowe was getting the short end.

“I’ll be back in a minute, Seymour,” Barstowe said, rising from his chair.

After Barstowe left his office, Darren got up, walked around the desk and entered Marcus’s name into the computer. When he did, he noticed Barstowe’s desk drawer ajar and spotted an opened box of condoms next to the stapler. Darren smirked and looked at the computer again. Marcus’s grades and suspension charges scrolled up on the screen.

Three C’s, a C-minus, and a fat D heavy enough to crush the air from the lungs of a dipshit trying to spell “C-A-T.” As Darren searched the suspension charges, his mouth fell open in disgust. Marcus had received only a one-day suspension, just as he figured.

“What are you doing?” Barstowe demanded from the doorway.

Darren looked up, not at all surprised or guilty that he’d been caught, and gave Barstowe a vicious retort. “You only gave him one day for turning my stomach into mush! So you’re going to screw me like you screw the cheerleaders behind your wife’s back? I can see the box of rubbers in your drawer you left carelessly open. A box of prophos? In a high school principal’s office?” Darren made sure his voice carried out to the lobby where Jessy Nelson, top school gossiper, was stapling a SQUASH OUT DRUGS poster to the bulletin board. He smelled a week of detention coming on, but he was ready to quit this school and ignore his mom’s inevitable pleas to go back.

Barstowe’s face turned red like a slow-roasted lobster. “One week, Mr. Seymour. You’ve got one week in the cafeteria washing dishes or doing double-homework in detention hall.”

Darren wasn’t listening. He walked out of Barstowe’s office and smiled. “Maybe your secretary will be nice with you and let you ‘skin it’ sometime. See ya, Chuck.”


Darren flung his locker door open so hard it nearly came off the hinges. The metallic clank echoed down the empty hallway, and one of the teachers stepped out to identify the bothersome source of the tumult before returning to his classroom.

He threw his books and papers in and removed his valuables: pictures of various rock bands, bikini babes, and a blue 1970 Mustang Boss 429 he tore out of a Car and Driver. He shoved them in his notebook and slammed the locker shut. Leaning up against the next locker stood a small, red-haired punk.

“Marcus Lutze beat the piss out of you again, didn’t he?” he asked.

“Go play with a pit bull, Geils.”

Geils Woodbury knew when to push the right buttons and hammer down on them. He had the annoying habit of dropping in on someone unexpectedly. Like a stomach ache.

“You know Todd Lutze just started going out with Vanessa Vasquez?” Geils asked. He also knew Darren had a thing for Vanessa. Hell, every other guy in school had a thing for her.

“So what?” Darren couldn’t stop looking at her. The thought of her with Todd Lutze, who, unlike his asshole younger brother, was actually an okay guy, turned his stomach inside out.

He spun on his heels and walked away, but Geils followed. “Vanessa’s a babe,” he said, tossing his bathroom pass up in the air. “I’d love to——”

”Shut up, Geils!” Darren shot back, wishing the runt didn’t live next door to him. Listening to Geils’s How-I-screwed-Lori-Thompson lies everyday on the way home drove Darren schizo. No matter how much someone cut Geils down, he would easily bounce back from every retort, always chuckling and assuming the guy was just kidding.

Geils scratched the dandruff on his scalp. “Bill Seaver told me he saw Todd and Vanessa in his Vet in the Wal-Mart parking lot the other night, going at it like——”

Geils never finished. Darren turned and shoved the little puke backwards, so hard that Geils’s head and arms jerked forward before he fell on his ass ten feet away. Just like Marcus had done to him. Geils’s bathroom pass slid down the hall along with a calculator and a couple of pens.

Darren stood over him and said through his teeth, “Say another word to me, and I swear to God, I’ll break your legs.”

Geils didn’t smile like he usually would have. He actually looked hurt, shocked. Darren turned and walked away.

What Geils had said about Todd and Vanessa had to be untrue. Geils was just relaying what his friend Bill Seaver said, a major bullshitter in a school full of bullshit. However, the thought of Vanessa and Todd. . . .


He stood outside Mr. Morgan’s algebra class, peering in through the door window from a spot where he couldn’t be seen. Vanessa Vasquez sat on the other side of the room, listening to Mr. Morgan spout on about Y- and X-axis’s. Darren had seen plenty of gorgeous girls before, and listened to guys divulge stories of how the hottie they saw the night before was the greatest piece of eye-candy ever beheld, but when Darren finally saw that babe, she just wasn’t his idea of “hot.”

However, Darren was sure that after God made Vanessa Vasquez——like he had overheard his dad once say about an attractive actress during a manly poker game——the Almighty not only broke the mold “but dipped the pieces in chocolate and swallowed them all.” Fathers always held the right truths, Darren thought with a grin.

Vanessa was eighteen like Darren, and her gorgeous Latino lineage dazzled him: long, wavy black hair, soft auburn eyes, olive-skin, and a smile that could end war. Today, she was wearing blue-jeans and an aquamarine blouse with a heart-shaped necklace. Darren thought Vanessa could wear dirty blue-jeans and a puke-green shirt that said CHOOSE DEATH and still look good.

One time he actually bumped up against her in the hall when his friend Tony Simmons deliberately pushed him into her. It was just a slight bump, so she didn’t turn around to offer a retort or an “excuse me.” Vanessa’s arm was soft, he remembered. The rest was probably soft, too.

But Darren would never find out. He was going to ask his mom to transfer him to La Canada-Flintridge or maybe Glendale. He promised himself he would visit this hole again, just to catch a glimpse of Vanessa, any glimpse. Of the few people he knew here, the person he would miss the most hadn’t even looked at him or knew he breathed the same air she did.

“Hey, Seymour.”

Darren turned around, recognizing that deep voice. Todd Lutze, six foot four, neck thicker than Darren’s thigh, stood behind him. “Whatcha doin’?”

Staring up your girlfriend. “Trying to get Jay Rogers attention,” he lied. “He owes me ten bucks.”

Todd nodded, looked off into space. His mouth opened slightly, like he was about to speak, but nothing came out. Then an odd look came over his face. Like he had to piss.

What does Vanessa see in this——?

“Oh yeah, I’m glad I caught you,” Todd said, his memory reignited. He pointed a finger at Darren. “You told me a couple weeks ago you have the Cliffs Notes to Catcher in the Rye? I need to borrow it.”

“Yeah, right. I’ll bring it Monday morning.”

“How about I come around tonight and pick it up? Report’s due Monday. You live in the foothills right? Sutton Cannon Drive?

Darren nodded.

“Yeah, I know where your crib is. You just live two houses up from Carl Spencer. I’ve been there before. We see your mom drives a kick-ass Jaguar, right?”

Darren nodded.

“Hey, don’t sweat Marcus. I heard what happened in Weatherbee’s class. I know he’s an ass hat, but what can you do?”

Darren shrugged.

“Okay, I’ll be seein’ you tonight. You gonna be home then?”

Darren nodded.

Todd looked into Mr. Morgan’s class and pointed a finger. Vanessa had been watching. She winked and gave Todd a smile that had silent words attached, words Darren could only fantasize about. For just the slightest moment, Darren could have sworn that she had been looking at him for the Wink and Smile, but then realized he was standing pretty close to Todd and she was sitting on the far side of the room from the door. Nope. Put that wish in the waste basket.

Darren turned around and headed for the exit.

“Later, Seymour,” Todd whispered after him.

Darren’s throat tightened, and he felt angry, out of place. He suddenly wished he hadn’t pushed Geils and wanted to track him down and apologize. That look of hurt in Geils’s eyes was real. But Darren knew he never would, though. This place did crazy to a person. One day you’re swapping dirty jokes with a guy and the next day you’ re pounding the merry hell out of him to the delight of your new jock friends. Darren was no different than the other animals here that stalked the halls and preyed on the weak. Maybe it was in the air.

He gave the place one last look and then put his back to Verdugo Valley High School.


Two minutes later, he had his back to Marcus Lutze and Greg Shaw behind him in hot pursuit. Typical school bully——had to bring friends. Tom Nichols, another Lutze crony, was following everyone in his pickup truck on the street next to the school tennis courts.

Darren sprinted across the court and hurtled the tennis net, aiming for the opposite entrance in the tall fence. He stole a look behind him, and saw Marcus and Greg less than twenty feet away. He would never be able to outrun them. Two football linebackers? With his short ass legs? His brain scrambled for a solution. Marcus and Greg easily cleared the tennis net, their arms pumping madly.

Off the school grounds, Darren burst through a stand of trees, dashed across someone’s back yard and jumped onto the patio. He slid the glass door open with a slam and glided into the house.

“Hey!” a women doing dishes called to him from the kitchen.

“Pardon me, pardon me!” Darren shouted as he tore through the house.

“Hey you!” the woman cried out. “Hey you!”

“Where you keep your car keys, lady? I gotta borrow your wheels!” Darren looked and saw that Marcus and Greg had stopped on the patio, deciding whether to storm in after him or not.

“You get the hell outta my house!”

Darren spotted a key holder on the wall next to the front door. “Thank you!” He ripped it off the wall and took the keys out the door. Five little kids stood in the front yard watching him burst out of the house. Tom Nichols’s pickup truck squealed to a spinning halt, Tom honking his horn.

The family who lived here had a two-door Pontiac Sunbird. Just as Darren piled into the front seat, the lady suddenly gave her screen door a manly kick and aimed a .38 Snub in his direction, both feet spread.

“Oh shit!” Darren fumbled with all of the keys on their holder, trying to find the square one with “GM” on it.

Bang!

Darren jerked from the noise, and the windshield spider-webbed from the bullet.

Bang! Another spider web.

“Jesus Christ, lady!” Darren roared in terror. He found the key and shoved it into the ignition, pulled the stick down into Reverse, stood on the gas and peeled out of the driveway with a smoking squeal.

Bang!

Darren heard a lead bumblebee zip through the open window and pierce the dashboard in front of the passenger seat. “You’ll get your car back, lady, so quit——”

Bang!

“——shooting at me, you damn——”

Bang!

Darren jammed the Sunbird into Drive and stomped on the gas.

Bang!

The rear window disappeared in a shower of glass. In the rearview mirror, Marcus and Greg were leaping into the pickup’s bed.

Two blocks up the street, Darren came to Foothill Boulevard, the main drag through La Crescenta. The light went yellow, and Darren sped up to beat the red light coming. He turned east onto Foothill Boulevard and nearly swapped paint with a black Ford Escape turning in the same direction. The Escape’s wide-eyed driver blew his horn.

Not only was he worried about Marcus and his guys but the police as well. If that gun-toting bird kept her promise, then the 911 dispatcher had already broadcasted an All-Points Bulletin on a burgundy Pontiac Sunbird with six bullet holes. Darren had to ditch this car and do it quick.

“There are three kinds of speed drivers in the world,” Mr. Hardy, his driver’s training instructor, had said once. “‘Old Lady Drivers,’ ‘Normal Drivers,’ and ‘California Drivers.’” Darren had already surpassed those groups and had now achieved “Get-My-Pregnant-Wife-To-The-Hospital,” pushing “Dead-Crossing-Guard-Stuck-In-The-Grill-During-The-Getaway.”

A quick peek in the rearview mirror revealed Tom’s pickup truck growing smaller and smaller. Nice. Now he had to worry about police. His eyes shifted between the rearview and side mirrors, scanning for flashing blues and reds behind him.

Looking forward again, he spotted what he had feared——a black and white LAPD squad car, maybe a block ahead, heading west in his direction. The cop didn’t have his lights and siren going, but that didn’t give Darren any comfort. He tensed up in the seat, gripping the steering wheel tighter, ready to put forth every driving trick his dad and uncles, avid muscle car racers, had taught him. The cop passed him for what seemed like forever, and Darren looked in the rearview mirror to watch him go. “Oh please God, oh please, oh please——”

The flashers came on, and the cop made a hard, reckless U-turn into traffic.

“Shit!” Darren mashed the accelerator and wove into the other lane to pass the cars ahead. He spotted a red traffic light up ahead and a row of five cars waiting to turn. Darren inhaled sharply, the car barreling at sixty, and turned into the southbound lanes, relieved there was no traffic coming at him yet.

He clenched every butt muscle as hard as he could and rushed into the intersection against the cross-traffic. A northbound Corvette clipped the back-end of the Sunbird, and Darren thought for a moment that he had lost the race but managed to straighten the car before he could plow into a couple of pedestrians standing on the corner. He looked in his rearview mirror. The cop wasn’t about to execute the same maneuver and locked up his brakes.

Heading south, Darren passed over the Foothill Freeway and approached another busy intersection, Montrose and Ocean View.

The light for the southbound traffic turned green, but the cars turning left were moving too slow for Darren. He pulled onto the northbound lanes, made a pick-up truck swerve and another car hop the curb, and whipped the wheel to the left, locking up the brakes in a tire-peeling squeal, every horn at the intersection blaring at him.

A block or two down the street——flashing reds and blues coming straight on. Darren leaned on the accelerator, heard the Sunbird’s engine roar, and jumped the curb onto the sidewalk. Then he rammed a Cyclone fence at a sharp angle so that he could hurdle the two-foot concrete barrier on the other side. The right front tire rode up the barrier, and the whole car let out a violent shout of rending metal, the front bumper exploded, the windshield spider-webbed further, and for a moment Darren thought he had snapped the rear axle. The car’s momentum, however, shoved it right over the concrete barrier, hard enough to go airborne, and Darren was peeling across a large parking lot to a warehouse of some kind. He appeared to be in a small industrial park.

He looked out the window. No cops yet. Just behind a large building, he spotted a small parking lot with some tree cover. Darren turned hard right toward his target, but saw that he would have to ram another fence. This was thinner than the last one, though, and he knifed through it easily.

He stood on the brakes, let the chunk of fence slide off the hood, and found a place to hide the beat up car in the parking lot. No one around. Darren shut the car off and used his shirt tail to wipe his prints off the wheel, keys and shifter. He got out and did the same to both door handles. Warm Santa Anna winds brought in the wail of far-off sirens.

A silver Ford pick-up was backing out of its parking space, and Darren went for it, summoning the last of his energy into his legs. The driver put the truck in Drive, only twenty feet away. He pumped faster, lungs hot, and caught the right wall of the truck bed and heaved himself up and over as slowly and as quietly as he could, careful not to knock his shoes against the truck. Incredibly, the driver didn’t hear the disturbance, and Darren flattened his profile to avoid the rearview mirror. He quickly looked over his shoulder. A single cop car had stopped behind the wrecked Sunbird, now steaming from a broken radiator.

A half hour later, he called a cab from a gas station. Just another day in SoCal paradise.

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