Paul was horrified to see a hulking, wild-eyed man climbing into the back seat. “Who the hell are you!” he gasped, “And what—”
“Shut your mouth,” the man grunted, pulling the rear door closed with such force the entire Mercedes shook. He was not soaked like the girl, though his clothes were spotted and streaked with rain.
Paul tried another tack, trying to seem as if he was in control while not setting the guy off. “Listen, all I’m saying is—”
“We’re taking this car to L.A.” The man’s tone was menacing. So was the gun he produced from beneath his shirt. The cold steel was close enough that Paul could read what was etched on the side: RUGER. Large caliber, too—probably a .45. Paul’s frightened gaze traveled down the barrel of the pistol to the fist of the man holding it, along the sleeve of an undeniably muscular arm, and finally arrived at his tormentor’s face. The features were weathered and hard, like sun-beaten rock. The man’s cold blue eyes fixed on Paul. “You can drive or you can ride in the trunk. Got that?”
“Sure.” Paul hated that his voice came out in a squeak. “No problem.” He saw that Minnie had turned in her seat and was giving the man her undivided attention, though whether out of love or fear, Paul could not tell.
“Good. Now, this is what’s gonna happen—” Suddenly the man winced as if in pain. His free hand went to his stomach and his head dipped forward, greasy brown hair hiding his face. The hand holding the gun shook.
“Marcus? Are you all right?” Minnie cried.
Paul made a wild calculation—could he grab the Ruger without getting shot?
With an effort, Marcus lifted his head. His face was twisted with pain but his eyes were flat and emotionless. “Don’t fuck with me, man. I’ll splatter your brains all over that dashboard.”
Minnie’s heavily ringed hands gripped the headrest as she leaned over the back seat. “Marcus, you need help. We’ve got to get you to a doctor.” She cast a pleading glance at Paul. “He’s sick. Food poisoning or something. We’ve got to—”
“Don’t you look at him!” Marcus barked. He smacked the back of her seat with his free hand and Minnie gave a little shriek. “And don’t tell him nothing, either. Man, I gotta lie down.” He shoved the duffel bag into the corner and propped himself against it. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Let’s go, Paul,” Minnie echoed, her voice soft and pleading.
Paul shifted the car into gear. The back tires spun briefly, then held. As he strained to remain focused on the road, Paul managed to cast occasional sideways glances at Minnie. She was staring straight ahead, a vacuous expression on her face. Involuntarily his gaze dropped lower. The dappled light coming through the windshield cast flickering shadows across her long legs. Despite the danger, Paul couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to spread those firm thighs apart and—
“What the hell are you looking at!” Marcus suddenly bellowed from the back seat.
“What? Nothing. Jesus, I wasn’t—” Paul gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. He sensed that Marcus was sitting up again but was afraid to look around. Then he felt something cold and hard against his right ear.
“You look at my lady again and I’m going to take your fucking head off.” Marcus shoved the Ruger against Paul’s ear for emphasis. “Then I’ll leave your body in the middle of the road so the next big rig that comes by drives right over your corpse.”
“It was a mistake, okay? I’m sorry!” Paul croaked. “You…you need me to drive, right? I’m going to get you to L.A.”
“Hey, Minnie.” Marcus smacked the back of Minnie’s seat again, hitting the headrest so hard that her head flew forward like a ball whacked in a game of billiards.
“You know how to drive a car?”
“What?” she said, as if startled out of a reverie. Marcus repeated the question and she seemed puzzled. “Of course I know how to drive.”
“You hear that?” Marcus said to Paul. He gave Paul’s head a final nudge with the Ruger and then leaned back in his seat. “Minnie knows how to drive. I know how to drive. You’re just some rich asshole in a Mercedes and we don’t need you at all.” He seemed pleased by this logic. Then another bout of pain gripped him and he sank back against the duffel bag.
“Poor baby,” Minnie cooed. Turning to Paul, she asked, “Can we have some music?”
“Uh, sure.” Paul thumbed a button on the steering wheel and the Bose system sprang to life.
The wandering, melodious strains of What a Wonderful World filled the car. The downpour was easing and the Mercedes’ rain sensors automatically switched the wiper setting to low. Paul nodded to himself. Maybe Marcus was dying. This was a cheering thought, but driving around with a dead body—tonight of all nights—would present a whole new set of problems. He had to consider his options. There might be a way this situation could be turned to his advantage. It was possible, if only…a mighty groan came from the back seat and he saw that Marcus was up again, looming like a vengeful ghost in the rearview mirror.
“What is this crap?” the big man demanded.
“It’s just some light jazz,” Paul said. “Kenny G.”
“Kenny G,” Marcus said, mimicking the tremor in Paul’s voice. “You’ve got five seconds to get me a news station.”
Paul’s trembling fingers found 1070, a twenty-four-hour news station that he listened to because of the traffic reports. A report was in progress as he tuned in. Paul found the impersonal yet familiar voice reassuring.
“…We've got a backup on the 605 from Imperial all the way to the 91 junction where CalTrans is doing some nighttime maintenance. Got a fender bender on the Pomona freeway eastbound at Etiwanda, but it looks like everything is on the right shoulder…”
There was no mention of the 57, the freeway they would need for San Dimas. That same route could also bring them into Covina, which the girl had mentioned earlier. Paul eased the Mercedes into the right lane to make the transition.
In the seat behind him, Marcus was immediately suspicious. “Where you going, Paul?”
“We have to change freeways,” Paul said. “Minnie said you live in Covina.”
For once the big man seemed completely caught off guard. He turned to stare at the girl. “You said what?”
She shook her head. “I said I was from Covina,” she explained patiently. “I’ve told you that before, Marcus. I was born and raised there. I went to high school—”
“All right, whatever,” Marcus interrupted. “The point is, we sure as hell ain’t going to Covina now.” Another spasm gripped him and he grunted in pain.
“Well, we’re not going to make it to L.A.,” Minnie declared. She turned to Paul. “Is there a good hospital in San Dimas?”
“I think there’s an urgent care center,” Paul said, thinking it was a fair bet that Marcus had no insurance, “but I don’t know if—”
“San Dimas,” Marcus bellowed. “What the fuck does San Dimas have to do with anything?”
“Nothing, baby,” Minnie soothed. “That’s just where Paul told me he lived.”
“Oh yeah? That sounds good,” Marcus gave the driver’s seat a nudge with his heavy work boot. “Take us to your house.”
“Wait a minute,” Paul stammered. “Let’s think about this—”
“Shut up!” Marcus snapped. “Turn up the radio.”
Paul did as he was told. A local news report was in progress, and a chill ran through him as he realized that this was what Marcus had been waiting to hear.
“…Less than an hour ago an explosion rocked this quiet Palm Springs neighborhood as a small home on Saguaro Lane was engulfed in flames. Police believe the home was being used as a methamphetamine lab. The residents are missing. An alert has been issued for their vehicle, a pickup with an extra long cab. These suspects are considered armed and dangerous…”
Marcus had heard enough. “Shut it off.”
Paul obeyed. The silence that followed seemed fraught with menace. At last Marcus groaned and leaned back against the duffel bag. Minnie stared out the window, her expression unreadable. Paul remained outwardly calm, but his mind was racing. The chances that he was going to survive this encounter were growing increasingly dim. For the time being, the only thing he could do was keep driving.
After a while, the 57 freeway merged into the 210; he took the exit at Raging Waters Drive. The area was almost exclusively residential. Impressive homes, some of which could be called mansions, had huge landscaped yards and multiple-car garages. Paul was aware that his passengers were gawking as he navigated what must have seemed a confusing labyrinth of quiet streets.
“These houses are beautiful,” Minnie breathed. “I wouldn’t mind living up here. You must be really rich, Paul.”
Paul did not appreciate this observation, reasoning that it would give Marcus yet another motive to execute him. “It’s mostly my wife’s money. Her father owns a chain of furniture stores. I just work there.”
Soon they reached their destination. A steep, winding driveway led onto the property. Paul brought the Mercedes to a stop in front of a large Tudor style house. On the first floor, the lights were on.
“Anybody home?” Marcus said. His gun was out and he looked ready to use it.
“Just my wife,” Paul stammered. “But I’m sure she’s in bed. She doesn’t like to sleep in a dark house.”
“You better be right, Paul.” Marcus eased himself out of the car. Whatever was wrong with him was made worse by movement, and he groaned when he tried to stand up. “Minnie!” he barked. “Get our stuff.”
She scampered out of her seat and came around to the back of the car.
Paul got out too, but remained standing by the driver’s door. The cool night air seemed wonderfully fresh and he took several grateful breaths. It wasn’t raining here, though the ground was still wet and large grey clouds loomed overhead. He saw that Minnie was having trouble with the duffel. With a sigh of frustration and pain, Marcus reached over to help her. Paul took his chance, knowing it was now or never. He bent down and fumbled under the driver’s seat. After a moment’s desperate search, he found what lay hidden there.