Don't Kill the Messenger

by Christopher Burke

HTML conversion by Michael P. Owen, April 2000

Life as a messenger can really get a guy down sometimes. Don't get me wrong -- I live for danger. Usually, I love a long distance haul on the open highways. But this was one of those times. The highways have become increasingly more perilous over the past few years. A driver would have to be nuts to get on the interstate unarmed. Anyone who even thiis of trying it should be put in a wooden box or a rubber room.

I was speeding down the interstate in an unarmed compact.

The messenger business takes unusual twists every now and then. You never know what might happen when you're making a delivery. A courier has to protect himself and his cargo at all costs. When an unmarked car approaches, there's a standard procedure. First, try to establish contact -- it could be an escort. Second, if he's not an escort, warn the vehicle away. Third, if the driver refuses or does not answer, trash him.

However, if you trash an escort, you could cause an incident, even if the other guy has a broken radio. The boss was not amused and did not care whose fault it was. He gave me the choice between "offensive probation" or a quiet lifetime of interoffice memos. If it can be said that driving unarmed is like spitting in Death's face, then it is my belief that interoffice memos are in the deepest circles of Hell.

I decided to take my chances with ambushes. They have better dispositions than most of the firm's partners anyway.

It was shortly after 11 a.m. when I left Wall Street in a company car, complete with ramplate and a mini-van trailer. No guns. The theory was that I could outrun any potentially dangerous situation because of the nice, big engine under the hood. In any case, there is nothing more satisfying than the kick of a Thundercat power plant when you step on the pedal.

The boss' standing order is No Stops on a Run, "unless you're dead." Death, by the way, requires a note from your doctor. I ignored his standing order about lunchtime and pulled into an anonymous little truck stop on the way.

I picked the wrong place.

Inside the diner was a wildcat trucker with whom I'd gone to high school. Joe Carletti was by no means one of my better friends, and I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of being my worst enemy. He was, in fact, a liar, braggart, prankster, self-centered cretin and all around pain in the neck. I was not surprised when he didn't let me eat my lunch in peace. I had hoped he would ignore me if I ignored him. Sometimes I'm dumb like that.

"Hey, guys!" he yelled. "That's my old pal, Sean O'Hara! How are you doing? I haven't seen you since that night we were racing and you drove into the lake!"

"With a little help from my friends," I muttered. Keeping my head down, I concentrated on my hero sandwich. Carletti walked past me and looked out the diner's inch-thick safety window.

"Where's your car, O'Hara? I don't see any rusty barrels."

I made another mistake. I decided to humor him to keep him off my back. "Right outside. The one with the mini-van attached."

After studying it for a moment, Carletti became hysterical. "You mean that tin can? For heaven's sake, O'Hara, that thing's unarmed! I remember you being crazy, but never suicidal. I like the itty-bitty ram plate."

He turned to face me, a grin twisting his face. "Say, d'ya want to go head-to-head?"

Actually, I wanted to go fist-to-skull with him. One thing I could not understand about truckers was why they put ram plates on their rigs. Talk about overkill. Carletti was laughing his way across the diner back to his friends. After joking around, they apparently wised up and left him. He came back to my table. Lucky me.

"O’Hara, let my buy you a drink." He leaned over my table. "For old time's sake."

I was becoming nauseous rather rapidly. "You mean like the time your pals tossed me onto the rifle range and you shot out all of the targets around me? Or the time I found your pistol in my locker and you suddenly popped up spraying an Uzi at me, screaming "Self defense!" at the top of your lungs?”

Missing the chair he was about to sit in, Carletti fell to the floor, still laughing. You might have thought he had just spent six hours watching Three Stooges reruns or something. To him, a chuckle at my expense was a wondrous thing.

"What’s the big deal?" He said, pausing for breath. "I missed you, didn't I? You didn't think I was actually going to hit you, did you?"

"The thought had crossed my mind."

All laughter stopped. The room could not have been quieter if a librarian in powered armor had walked in. Tension built in Carletti's face. He exploded.

"Who do you think I am? I do not slip up. I never slip up! You, on the other hand, are a different story." He paused, and smiled nastily.

"I remember your performance on the rifle range. The coach finally asked you to quit the team as a public service. He knew you might kill somebody."

Leaving the last bite of my hero, I quickly left for the door. I knew that Carletti was up to something and thought it best that I leave before he could try anything. When I walked outside, I saw that the trailer had disappeared and the chain was lying on the asphalt.

"Where is it, Carletti?"

"Where's what? What are you talking about?" His friends backed him up with a few muddled responses, all mocking.

"There's a state trooper behind the Burma Shave billboard," I said as I got into my car, "about a mile up the road. The two of us will be back soon." I could see him as I drove off, telling his buddies how I was running like a scared rabbit with my chain dangling between my rear wheels.

Shortly afterwards, the gang was boozing it up, awaiting my inevitable return with the police. Their victory bash was interrupted by a small explosion. Piling out of the diner, they saw me jumping my accelerator. The chain behind me was wrapped tightly around the front of Carletti's rig.

"Hey, Joe! He's trying to steal your truck!"

Everyone cheered me on in my attempt at the absurd. Carletti was laughing too, although he was also pulling out his machine pistol and walking my way. When I started moving, their jolly time ended. The tractor was following me, slowly but surely. Its back was still smoking from where I'd blown the kingpin. I told you Thundercats were great!

"Blast him!" Carletti yelled frantically. The jerk suddenly realized he was standing between me and his buddies and kissed asphalt before he could be shot in the back. Too bad.

The worst damage done was scratching the paint on Carletti’s cab. I wanted to fire back, having a great excuse for picking off Joeboy, but pity stayed my hand. Pity I had no weapons . . . On top of that, my concentration was mainly planted on trying not to kill myself while pulling off the most insane stunt of my life. Impulsive. Sometimes I'm just too damn impulsive.

Their only option lefi was to pursue me. Someone had started their truck. Six of them, including Carletti, piled into the ten-wheeler and gave chase. "You're not leaving, O'Hara!" my radio spat.

I wondered for a moment if he knew what I was up to. I swung the car around, executing a very wide turn, and managed to survive without bringing the tractor down on top of me. They did not stop to ask why I had turned around; they just fired heavy artillery at me. I could almost see Carletti yelling, "Be careful of my truck!"

Carletti was on the radio again. "Stop it right now, O'Hara!"

This time, he was a little off, but he was close. I hit the brake lightly and the tractor rear-ended me, shattering my hitch with its ram plate and sheer momentum. The impact had me wondering if I could sue myself for whiplash. With a very loud prayer, I swerved out of the tractor's path. The tractor made a beeline for Carletti's trailer.

The explosion was spectacular. It was a shame that his rig wasn't a gasburner -- what a fireball that would have been - but one must make do.

Without missing a beat -- unlike my heart, which missed quite a few -- I swung around and was leaving for real. Acceleration was no problem with the extra baggage gone. Over the radio, for the first time in my life, I heard Joseph Antonio Carletti cry.

"L-look what you d-did to my r-r-rig!" Alas, the tears were short-lived. He composed himself quickly and buzzed me again. "Kiss your van goodbye, O'Hara. We'll settle this next time. Tell your boss you lost your cargo in a parking lot."

Trying to follow me would have been impossible. Besides, Carletti seemed bent on revenge. The truck stopped and the motley crew unloaded themselves. They gathered together and opened the cargo bay, revealing my mini-van. Presumably, Carletti was about to destroy it and its contents. I could not allow them to do that.

I did it myself.

With a touch of the radio remote, I set off the charges packed inside the mini-van. It blew up from the inside out. Shards of metal and plastic flew out of the rear of the truck, and Carletti and his pals jumped for cover.

My main regret over the whole incident was that I couldn't use napalm -- I have this thing about fire. Unfortunately, prices being what they are, the boss nixed the idea. There is a very strict spending limit for decoys, since the firm doesn't make any money on them.

I pulled a large brown envelope out of the glove compartment, folded it, and stuck it into my jacket.

"I'd better get you delivered before we have more problems."

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