The Firecat made no evasive moves. This is going to be easier than I had planned, thought Madison. Roberts had been full of warnings about this one; dropped mines, weird maneuvers, a car that could outrun most pros. I haven't even been spotted, thought Madison. Roberts must be getting paranoid in his old age. Madison closed in on the Firecat and released a burst of fire.
He missed. Just as he fired, the Firecat swerved right, left the road and crashed through a hedge. Madison shot by the opening in the hedge and slammed on the brakes, swinging the Bowie around. He drove slowly back by the hole. There was no sign of the Firecat. There appeared to be a deep ravine on the other side of the hedge. Madison stopped and peered closer, trying to see any signs of a crash.
The Bowie jumped and sparks showered Madison as sixty-caliber rounds from the Firecat pierced the rear armor of the Bowie. Madison cursed and stomped on the accelerator. The Bowie lunged forward, and Madison swerved left, trying to avoid any more fire. He cursed again as a thin red beam singed the paint on his right side. He slammed on the brakes and swung around again, determined to meet the Firecat head on. This seemed to agree with his opponent, who sat quietly waiting on Madison's next move.
The Firecat and the Bowie faced each other without moving. What is this, thought Madison, High Noon? He had not finished the thought when a thin red light shot from the front of the black car. Madison cursed and released a stream of fire from his flamethrower. He was still too far away to hit the Firecat, but the smoke dissipated the laser beam and blocked the views of the two duellers. Madison cut the flames and stepped on the accelerator again. The Bowie lurched forward and burst out on the other side of Madison's cloud, ready for full battle.
The Firecat was gone. "Damn it," said Madison as he slowed, looking at the hedgerows lining both sides of the road with suspicion. It's time to leave, he thought. His opponent obviously know the terrain better and was damned unpredictable. If he chickened out of this one, Roberts would kill him. Got to stick this one out.
Madison moved slowly down the hedgerows, searching all directions for any sign of the Firecat. The hedges ended on the right at a sparse grove of trees, and Madison approached it cautiously, waiting for an ambush. The nose of the Bowie edged beyond the hedge, but drew not fire. The left hedge ended at an open field a bit further up the road, and Madison approached the landmark just as cautiously.
Nothing. Where the hell did he go? Madison picked up a bit of speed and swung the Bowie into a U-turn. No choice but to run the hedge gambit again. If nothing else, it was the way back home.
The Bowie was just pulling straight in the road when the sixty-caliber rounds from his opponent hit again, showering Madison with glass shards and metal splinters. The Firecat had fired from behind the hedges, and it spun out into the road only twenty meters away, ready to continue the attack. "Shit!" Madison screamed as he reached toward his weapons panel. The Vulcan was just about to fire when the Firecat's lasers found their target, and Madison's weapons panel began to spit sparks as the heat from the melting Vulcan caused an overload. No, Madison thought angrily. You are not getting away with this, you son of a bitch. The Bowie lurched forward as he gunned the engine.
The Firecat's rear wheels threw up showers of dust and gravel as they spun in reverse. The black car sped backwards, then swung into a reversed bootlegger as the driver slammed on the brakes.
Madison grinned. "Sorry, guy," he said. "You don't have enough time to pull it off. this old bounty hunter's a little faster than you expected."
The Bowie rammed the Firecat in the rear, locking the two cars together. Madison could see his opponent struggling with his seat straps when the first cracking sound came from the Bowie's power plant. "You lose," he said, as the two cars disappeared behind the flames of the first explosion.
Guy lounged against the front fender of Jill's orange Firecat, waiting on her. He was using a polishing cloth to remove an imaginary smudge on the blue "Daddy's Girl" which was scrawled along the fender, and he refused to look up at his sister. "I double-checked all your systems," he said softly. "Since you are determined to go through with this, I thought I could of that much."
"You could do a lot more," Jill said sharply. "He was your father, too."
Guy shook his head. "I can't be your gunner for this, JJ."
"You could if you'd stop thinking of just yourself."
Guy looked up. "Stop it, Jill," he said angrily. "We've been through this too many times already. I want to carry on the James name in the arena, not running bootleg tobacco. And certainly not in this kind or crazy ambush. I know you were Dad's favourite, but I doubt seriously he would have approved of this kind of obsessive behaviour."
Jill jerked open the door of the Firecat. "You have no idea of what he would have approved of. You never knew him at all."
Guy stepped toward her. "Dammit, Jill -" he broke off and inhaled deeply. "No. I refuse to fight with you about this any more. You're determined to get yourself killed in Giles James' name, and I am not going to have our final goodbye be an angry one. O.K.?"
Brother and sister stared at each other. Physically, they were younger copies of Giles James, but they had very different ideas of living out their heritage. Guy wanted to revive the James' family reputation as pro-duellers; Gillian wanted to carry on her father's illegal tobacco trade. They had been close, but their father's death six months earlier had shattered their affection. Now Guy wanted to forgive and forget. Gillian was not sure she ever could, at least not until she had avenged her father's murder.
"O.K.?" Guy repeated.
Jill shook her head. "Our final goodby will not be an angry one, Guy, But this is not our final goodbye. I'll be back, if only to get my clothes." She tuned and started to get in the car.
Guy grabbed her arm and she froze, staring down at his hand. "Let go," she said evenly.
He released her. "Make him proud, JJ," he said.
Jill paused. "We always do," she said as she slid under the wheel. "I will be back." She shut the door. And the Firecat's engine hummed quietly as it backed out of the drive.
Roberts' grin widened. Business had started improving six months ago, just after he had gotten rid of Giles James. There were a lot of bac-runners, but James was the best. Roberts had been smart to get rid of him instead of fooling with all the others. James' death had frightened the rest of them. If Roberts dared enough to hire one of the most expensive bounty hunters to tackle James, a lesser bootlegger didn't stand a chance. Most of them had fled the area; the rest had gone into hiding. Yes, hiring that stupid Madison had been a very smart move. All of Roberts' assistants said so.
With a chuckle, Roberts snapped off the terminal and stood up. He felt better than he had in years. He had finally been able to afford that private gym. He had also managed to dump Lillian and ensconce the little blonde from accounting - hm, Jeanine, yeah, that was her name - in one of his condos. "Regular exercise and lots of money," he said aloud. "That's the secret to happiness."
"Secrets." said Davenport.
Roberts glowered at his best driver, who was lounging on the office couch. "What did you say?"
"Secrets," repeated Davenport. "Regular exercise andlots of money."
"You read too much," growled Roberts.
Davenport shrugged. "Not much else to do around here lately." He sighed. "I really miss James. At least he kept life interesting."
"He made life hell."
Roberts' best friend hesitated. "I do have to admit you've been a hell of a lot easier to get along with in the past six months."
Roberts' scowl darkened. "I think we should leave now."
Davenport stood slowly and stretched. "'Bout time. Y'know, Carl, I think a weekend alone with Jeanine would do wonders for your mood."
"Mind your own business." Roberts strode to the door and yanked it open. He paused, waiting for Davenport. "Let's get going." He suddenly grinned. "Thought you're probably right."
His driver returned the grin. "Of course, I'm right. Remember who recommended Jeanine? Which car will you ride in today?"
"Guess," said Roberts as he followed Davenport toward the garage.
Obsession. Jill gripped the steering wheel and took a deep breath. God, how she hated that word. That's what Guy had called it when he had refused to be her gunner, saying he wanted no part of the obsession which was alienating all their friends and was going to get her killed. Jill smacked the dash with her hand. Dammit, why didn't he understand?
Jill inhaled deeply. Calm down, she told herself. You can't afford to get mad now. Too much is at stake. Calm is better. Especially when you're ambushing three heavily-armed limos. She might not be obsessed, but she was stark raving crazy. Certifiable.
I don't care. That son of a bitch had my father killed.
Carl Roberts, Tobacco King. When tobacco had become scarce, then federally controlled, Roberts, a small-time bootlegger of alcohol and marijuana, had convinced the government that he was the perfect man to be in charge of the region's largest cash crop. He maintained a tight control on rationing which encouraged bootleggers. Later, he began to secretly gain control of the black market trade by extortion - trading protection from the government in return for 75% of the profits. Behind his government title, Roberts had a close network of bac-runners, and he made it unprofitable for any runner who didn't work for him by destroying sources or hiring bounty duellers to take care of the delinquent runners.
Giles James had defied Roberts for a long time, and his reputation had given rise to a new crop of independent bac-runners. His status had made him a prime target, but he destroyed four bounty duellers before Madison. Giles had been a top name pro-dueller who had found tobacco running more profitable, and he had trained his children in the family business. Jill had been his best student, even before Guy had retuned to the arena. She was not the best dueller around, but she handled the tricky bac routes with a skill that threatened to surpass her father's. It was her duelling skills, however, that she had been working on during the past six months. preparing for this day.
Jill glanced at the slight mounds in the road. This kind of gravel road was full of irregularities; she hoped a few more wouldn't be noticed, even by Roberts' drivers. If she hoped to succeed with this, she had to take out at least one limo immediately, hopefully damaging one of the others simultaneously. Roberts always travelled the same rout home, but he wasn't completely stupid. He rode in a caravan of three limos, picking his ride car at random. Jill wasn't the only enemy Roberts had, and he wanted to make it difficult to take him out on the road. few people were willing to take on three limos when all three had to be destroyed for a sure kill. The three limos were heavily armored and their drivers and gunners were trained to fight in tandem. Separation was Jill's first strategy. Divide and conquer.
Jill grinned. This was going to be fun. She checked her watch, then her side view mirror. Dust from the road was stirring less than a mile back. Her's to you, Hunter Madison, she thought wryly, for providing me with the perfect ambush spot. She tightened her chin strap and gripped the steering wheel tightly. Show time, folks. She checked the aim on the Vulcan machine gun in her turret one last time.
The three limos shot under the railroad trestle, and hit the stretch between the hedges at 65 mph. The first one erupted in flame as the buried mines destroyed the bottom armor and lifted the car off the road. It careened to the right and disappeared through the bushes, exploding again when it hit the bottom of the ravine on the other side.
Strike one for Daddy's Girl, thought Jill as she pulled out from under the trestle.
The middle limo had hit the brakes when the mines went, sending the rear end into a fishtail and leaving the car sideways in the road. The third car slammed into the driver's side. Both cars slid nine meters before stopping.
Damn, thought Jill, they may take each other out if I don't get in there. She gunned the engine, aimed the Vulcan, and Daddy's Girl Firecat went into action. She peppered both cars with Vulcan fire as she swerved around them.
Roberts' gunners were quick and not easily confused. Several rounds of sixty-caliber shells dotted the top and side armor of the Firecat before Jill could crash through the hedge on the right. There were less than seven meters between the hedge and the ravine, and a skilful and practised combination of the right speed, brakes, and down shifting was necessary to slide the car to the right and to stay out of the ravine. Too slow and the slide wouldn't work; too fast and the ravine took the car. Jill had practised a lot in the last week to get used to the extra weight of the ambush weapons. The Firecat had been designed to run, not fight. She bit here lip, then grinned as she completed the slide smoothly.
Jill gunned the engine again, chewing up the grass of the narrow boulevard between the hedge and the ditch. She burst through the hedge a hundred feet away from the limos and swung the Firecat into a bootlegger turn to face them.
They were waiting, side by side, facing the smaller car with two turreted Vulcans aimed directly at Jill.
She pushed the car through the left hedge, and raced toward the limos. Fire from the limos hit her continuously, tracking her as she closed in, shredding her father's carefully cultivated hedge. Several of the shots penetrated the armor of the Firecat, and sparks flew around Jill. She cursed constantly, and wondered why the hedges had not blocked their radar as she checked her systems. Yes, they were still operative. Slamming on the brakes, Jill swung the car sideways and emerged from the hedge within three meters of the middle limo. The Firecat's grill dropped, and Jill braced for the recoil. The Firecat's front end seemed to explode as the twin Six-Shooters released all twelve rockets.
Jill grinned as she shoved the car in reverse and sped away from the satisfying devastation. In the flash second before the middle limo disappeared behind a wall of flame, she had seen its driver's face. His expression of amazed terror was gratifying in the memory of her father's death.
Strike two for Daddy's Girl.
The last limo driver left a shower of gravel as he deserted his destroyed partner and swung into position further down the road.
Gotta get him quick, thought Jill, as each car waited for the other to move. His ability to track the Firecat annoyed Jill. It couldn't be radar or the hedges would have blocked it. Mus be a sound tracker. It made the hedge gambit almost useless, and she had planned on the last one giving chase. His reluctance to move was frustrating. Like a toad that sulls up at every sound.
Every sound. Jill glanced at her watch, and took what might be her last gamble. She cut her engine.
The two cars waited. The last limo of Roberts' caravan waited for Jill James to move so that his sound tracker could aim the Vulcan. The Firecat waited for the 6:15 Birmingham Express.
The South is a region steeped in tradition. No matter how bad conditions became, some tradition were kept alive out of a sense of novelty or just old-fashioned obstinance. When a Birmingham millionaire restored an old steam engine for pleasure, dozens of train lovers joined him. Three years later, that millionaire had four engines running the deserted tracks, pulling armored passenger cars. The 6:15 Express out of Birmingham arrived right on time.
Jill chewed her lip and held her patience until the Express was at its peak roar over the trestle before starting her engine. She raced down behind the left hedge and burst through just in front of the limo, releasing more than a dozen rounds of Vulcan fire as she crossed the road and dived toward the right hedge.
The limo returned fire, destroying the armor around her Vulcan and seizing up the barrel. Jill completed the complicated hedge swing and turned back toward the road, trying to get behind the limo.
The damage to her opponent was minimal. His sound tracker was confused, and he took advantage of the vulnerability of the wounded Firecat and gave chase. Gravel and dust scattered as he pushed the big engine into full power and swung left. He crashed through the hedges at almost 40 mph, just as Jill pushed back through onto the road.
The more manoeuvrable Firecat took the 180 degree turn with ease, and rammed the rear of the lim with a satisfying crunch. The front end of the limo slid out over the ravine, and it took another shove from the Firecat before it toppled out of sight. There was no fire or explosion, and Jill waited a long time before releasing her seat straps and stepping from the Firecat.
Her sleek bac-runner was smoldering from its wounds. She patted the hood affectionately as she walked toward the ravine. Looking over, she could see the remains of the luxury vehicle resting on its roof. All doors were open, but the occupants had not been able to move far. The driver and gunner were draped over their doors, obviously dead. Their passenger was a few feet away. He lay on his back, conscious, but fatally injured. His last business was to look up at the young bac-runner he had forgotten about as soon as her father had died. She held up three fingers, and her voice echoed eerily down the ravine.
"Strike three for Daddy's girl, you son of a bitch."
Jill stepped out of the car and took off her helmet. "Yeah. I think Johnson will have a run for me Tuesday if we can get her fixed in time."
guy shook his head. "Forget it." He glanced up at the turret. "Two weeks, at least. I'll have to win a couple of duels just to get the money."
Jill shook her head. "We can do better than that. We're James' kids. We can always do better."
Guy looked his sister over, then nodded. "We'll always make him proud."
Giles James' Firecat: Mid-sized, X-Hvy chassis, Hvy suspension, Large power plant, 4 solid tires, driver only. VMG in turret, Laser front, Hi-res computer. Fireproof Armor: F30, R30, L30, B30, T35, U25. Cargo capacity: 2 spaces, 220 lbs. Accel. 5, HC 3, 5,540 lbs. (with no cargo), $28,060.
Giles James is a resourceful fighter with lots of arena and highway experience. He is a Driver +3, Gunner +2, Cyclist, Mechanic +1.
Hunter Madison's Bowie: mid-sized, X-Hvy chassis, Hvy suspension, Super power plant, 4 Solid tires, driver only. VMG in turret, FT corner-mounted front left, Hi-res computer. Fireproof Armor: F30, L30, R30, B30, T35, U25. Cargo capacity: 1 space, 20 lbs. Accel. 5, HC 3, 5,740 lbs; $21,810.
Hunter Madison is a Driver +2, Gunner +3. Regular payments to Gold Cross gives him an added edge - the freedom to engage in suicide tactics, if necessary.
Gillian James' Firecat: Mid-sized, X-Hvy chassis, Hvy suspension, Large power plant, 4 Solid tires, driver only. VMG in turret, 2 Six Shooters linked front, Hi-res computer. Fireproof Armor: F30 (with ramplate), R30, L30, B30, T35, U25. Accel. 5, HC 3, 5,460 lbs; $22,450.
Bac-Runner Option: Remove one Six shooter and link. Cargo capacity: 2 spaces, 450 lbs. Vehicle is 5,310 lbs; $21,950.
Gillian James may someday surpass her father's accomplishments in bootlegging, but right now she's a little short on experience. She is a Driver +2, Gunner +1.
Lead Limmo: Luxury, X-Hvy chassis, Hvy suspension, Super power plant, 4 solid tires, driver, gunner, 2 passengers. VMG in turret, 2 Gauss guns linked front, 2 Hi-res computers, Improved fire extinguisher, Sound Tracking System. Laser Reflective Fireproof Armor: F25, R22, L22, B10, T15, U10. Accel. 5, HC 3, 6,594 lbs; $49,750.
Middle Limo: Luxury, X-Hvy Chassis, Hvy suspension, Super power plant, 4 solid tires, driver, gunner, 2 passengers. VMG in turret, 2 Gauss guns (one each L, R), 2 Hi-res computers, Improved Fire Extinguisher, Sound Tracking System. Laser Reflective Fireproof Armor: F15, R27, L27, B10, T15, U10. Accel. 5, HC 3, 6,594 lbs; $49,700.
Rear Limo: Luxury, X-Hvy Chassis, Hvy suspension, Super power plant, 4 solid tires, driver, gunner, 2 passengers. VMG in turret, Gauss gun back, Spear 1000 MD back, 2 Hi-res computers, Improved Fire Extinguisher, Sound Tracking System. Laser Reflective Fireproof Armor: F15, R25, L25, B32, T15, U10. Accel. 5, HC 3, 6,592 lbs; $41,350.
Carl Roberts has no appreciable duelling skills. His regular driver, Davenport, is a Driver +2, Gunner +2, and drives whichever limo Roberts takes. The other two drivers are Driver +2, Gunner +1. The three gunners in Roberts employ are all Gunner +2.
The sound Tracking System (STS) costs $3,000, and takes up no weight or space. A vehicle with STS can spot other vehicles within 2 miles (under optimum conditions, like deserted countryside - considerably less for noisy conditions). The STS will be confused b a nearby loud sound (like a passing train), and will not function. STS does not identify objects but can amplify sound so driver can attempt to identify them. STS will operate as long as the power plant functions, and is destroyed when the plant is destroyed.
The Birmingham Express is a curiosity and tourist attraction owned by a train-loving millionaire. It does not carry freight or anything of value - even joy-riding tourists are required to leave valuables in vaults at the depot. Track security is monitored electronically for breaks, and security patrols cover the short route (one team every five miles or so) with instructions to bring in saboteurs dead or alive. These measures, combined with the lack of monetary incentive, make attacks on the train and the tracks more trouble that it's worth - which is exactly what good security is all about.