Ashley slipped her duffle off her shoulder, into her hand, and then from hand to hand as she shrugged out of the parachute pack—by which time the Mercedes was parked right below her, men coming out of the doors. She let herself fall onto the car roof, then barely maintaining her footing, ran off it to bound off the hood as goatee-man appeared in front. She kicked him in the face, clambered down off the hood as his hands flew up to his nose and, evading another pair of hands, darted into traffic away from them. She didn’t slow to dodge around the hurtling metal, just cut straight across the way, making a silver Lexus screech to a halt just short of hitting her, a big black Cadillac SUV honk aggressively as it missed her by inches and kept on going.
After hitting the sidewalk she slowed just enough to turn as she continued toward the lights and noise of the square. The lights grew brighter and the noise louder with each step, but not so loud she didn’t hear that sound like a car backfiring that made her duck reflexively. She ducked again at a second bang, felt the shot whip through the air inches from her to chew into a wall a few feet ahead of her.
The rent-a-cops were getting closer, or their shooting more accurate, but now she was running through the junction where this avenue merged into the next to create a broad super-avenue for the next five blocks, planted with a garden of singing electronic flowers in full bloom under the night sky, and so thickly crowded even at this hour that there just wasn’t room for her to run anymore. All she could try to do now was keep up a brisk walking pace, and even that took endless weaving in and out and around the locals out for the night, the gawking tourists with their cameras, the loners and couples and groups and crowds strolling and window-shopping and going in and out of the stores and restaurants and multiplexes, the theaters and hotels. Eating, drinking, talking, laughing, sightseeing, oblivious people, their merrymaking uninterrupted even by the sound of the gunfire.
Another gunshot made Ashley duck again, and then she found herself looking back, because it hadn’t sounded right, somehow, and saw the jumbotron that was grand sovereign over all the rest of the ad-driven spectacle. Part of the video being looped on it now was an ad for the release of the past summer’s Wonder Woman on Blu-Ray. Another gunshot rang out in THX, and she watched as the bullets moved toward Wonder Woman in slow motion, and she deflected them with her magic wrist bands.
Was that ad all she’d heard a few moments earlier? Ashley chanced a look back now, didn’t see the men in Thorn uniforms, bumped into an old man, disentangled herself from him without a word. Just as she was putting the pedestrians between herself and the men chasing her, they could have been behind any of those people behind her, that couple heading into the Pizza Bell, that party gabbing about the flick they’d just watched on their way out of the movie theater . . .
Proceeding deeper and deeper into the square, passing one restaurant after another, the fatty, savory, greasy, salty, saucy, meaty, cheesy aromas of a dozen different kinds of comfort food filled her nostrils. (French fries! Triple-cheese pizza!) Running like this seemed absurd all of a sudden, the situation unreal, but never so unreal that she slowed her pace any more than she absolutely had to, never stopped looking for escape routes . . .
There, the alley opening just past the Burger Hut, she thought, and slipped right inside to find herself in an alley that ran clear across the block, toward what seemed a darker, quieter street. She kept going, faster now without passerby blocking her way. And started thinking of how little she saw in this dark passage, and how as she got deeper and deeper inside she put herself that much farther away from both of the exits, each of which could be easily closed off; about how little cover there was inside if she was trapped in there. (Any doors into the buildings lining the alley, any junctions with other passageways, were invisible in the gloom.)
Ashley half-expected to hear pounding feet behind her again, or to see one of the guards from Thorn pop up at the far end of the alley, ready to shoot on sight, or worse, both those things at once. She was sure she’d made a mistake, leaving the crowds and the confusion for this dark tunnel where her pursuers could have a clear shot, but no one else turned up as she ran through the tunnel-like alley, or out its far end—
Where a patrol car rolled into view. Ashley resisted the temptation to run back into the alley, deliberately continued walking in the opposite direction.
The patrol car’s occupants didn’t show any interest in her as they passed on by. Maybe her movement in their direction had fooled them, but it was probably the case that she hadn’t become a concern of theirs yet. She couldn’t count on that lasting for long, though, which was all the more reason for her to get to safety, fast.
Ashley knew she stood a much better chance of that if she got out of the jumpsuit. Just the thing for prowling around a dark office, it was conspicuous on the street, even these streets. She had a change of clothes in the duffle, but she needed a place where she could change into them, and that was the uppermost thing in her mind as she scanned the buildings around her. Those closest to the alley’s exit on this side mostly seemed to offer office spaces that were desolate at this hour, creating a relatively quiet space amid the area’s bustle.
However, just a little further on she saw people walking about (happily, none of them in anything that looked like a security guard’s uniform), a few lit windows, neon signs hinting at other, more nocturnal functions. But she wanted to put still more distance between herself and the square before stopping any place for long, while Northrop’s men, hopefully, were still chasing a barely glimpsed woman through the crowds, poking about in all those doors they couldn’t possibly cover in their numbers.
Ashley crossed the street again, and kept on going, running through a second alley where she stepped over a bundle of rags that proved to be a homeless person and jumped a chain-link fence to get to the far end. A few minutes later it seemed like she’d gone a lot more than a few blocks from the Crossroads of the World, while she found a hopeful sign of a suitable place to stop in a neon sign that read MCLAREN’S. A bar, perhaps, which would have a restroom, and perhaps not be too brightly lit or overfull of alert patrons mindful of their surroundings. She stepped up her already brisk pace, hoping she’d finally caught a break.