By Laura Tripoli
"Now Griz, if you'll just put the acetylene torch down, I'm sure we can discuss this rationally," I said, crouched atop the Samaritan, easing my hand behind me groping for the spray gun I'd set down only a few seconds previously. I'd seen him in this kind of mood only once, and that was when he'd overheard a boyfriend of his sister's bragging about how he was finally going to get to know her a lot better that Friday night. I hear the poor slob might regain full use of his right arm someday.
"Whaddaya mean, we're going on a road trip?" he roared, coming around our unit from the front, being careful not to flame the bear and songbird I'd just repainted on our newly patched side armor. "What road trip?"
His voice was amplified by the huge area inside the empty bay. Our workshop, a patched and leaky hanger on Floyd Bennett Field (a military airstrip all but abandoned since my great-grandfather's childhood), was tentative proof of possessions being nine-tenths of the law. Sure, my mom lived a bare ten minutes away up Flatbrush Avenue, but I'd rather be scrounging on my own two feet than sponging free meals from her.
Lucy MacLaine was neither an admirer of ne'er-do-well family nor of knuckle-heads, and according to her, my brother Andy and I were first-class examples of both. At the slightest provocation (and sometimes none I could distinguish) we'd be regaled with a harangue - invariably ending with a disgusted, "Phauuggh, kids!" and a rough hug. The Nightingale MacLaine version usually ended with a friendly shove and suggestion I settle down and marry Grizzly. "After all, the two of you are living together. Things aren't that different from when I was your age . . ."
"Mom, we're not really living together, nor the way you mean it. The hanger's huge, plenty of room for one of us to bunk inside the van and one out. You know Griz and I are just friend." I was still making payments on my Gold Cross plan, and would rather live in a decrepit hanger and have up-to-date coverage than live in a cozy apartment and get splattered permanently doing something stupid like crossing the street. Besides, it wasn't as if there was anything going on between me and Griz. Our relationship was strictly business, right?
"Uh-huh." Then invariably came the look signaling the "Someday you'll have kids and then you'll understand," speech. That was when I'd make my excuses and cut and run. I knew she loved us and had it rough raising a pair of toddlers after Dad was gone. I knew not every autoduellist's 20-year-old widow could have successfully reached such a willful daughter and reckless son. I loved her fiercely, but we could never easily live under the same roof again.
I tore myself away from thoughts of mom. "Come on, Grizzly, you know neither of us has the money to buy a ramplate or upgrade the turret to a universal," I said soothingly, making sure to place myself just behind the second of those expensive acquisitions in hopes that he'd want to destroy it less than he'd want to kill me. "You must've known there was a catch somewhere. How do you think I got this stuff?"
"I was hoping you'd been out nobly plying the world's oldest profession to get some cash so you could surprise me with some early Christmas gifts."
"Richard Anthony Santino! How could you even imagine such a thing?"
"You know my imagination stretches pretty far," he chuckled. "Now quit pretendin' you're all insulted and tell me what you've gotten us into this time."
"As if I've ever gotten us into a scrape we couldn't handle," I sulked.
"Hmmmmm, I seem to remember a certain Samaritan driver going 60 miles an hour eastbound on the westbound side of the Belt Parkway. Because, I believe, she claimed the tie-up on the eastbound side was so bad we'd never get there in time to haul any live ones to Victory Memorial?"
"Well, we're still here, aren't we?" Okay, so maybe that hadn't been the smartest idea I'd ever had, but it worked. I hoped he was going to be merciful enough not to mention anything about our latest adventure in Canarsie. I'd been off crutches for two months now, but my pride still hurt almost as much as my left leg dose when the weather changes.
"Need I mention the header you took through the skylight into Boom-Boom's workshop . . . ?"
That tore it. "All right alrady! You don't have to go, okay, we can just rip all this stuff out and return it . . ."
"You know they won't take back installed accessories, 'Gale . . . "
"Or you can stay here and mope while I go on this trip and make enough money to buy out your share of the Samaritan!"
He chuckled then. "What, and let you drive off with my third share?
I slid down the front windshield, landing on the balls of my feet. "That's your quarter share, Grizzly, and don't you forget it!"
"Okay, okay," he said in a placing tone, putting his arms around me for a quick hug. "I'll try to work it so I can go on your trip. I really wish you'd said something before this, though. As it happens, I had a sweet little deal all worked out. All we had to do was drive up to Chicago . . . "
Here he was, lecturing me about telling him my plans a few days in advance, and he was springing a surprise drive in the country on me. I probably would have burst a blood vessel right there and then, except something he'd said set off a warning bell. "Chicago?"
Grizzly looked puzzled. "Something wrong, 'Gale?"
I leaned back against the Sanaritan, my eyes closed. I didn't have a headache yet, but I had a feeling I was going to get one soon. "Tell me please you didn't say Chicago."
"Yeah, I did. What's with you? You feelin' all right?"
There was that headache. I began to bang the back of my skull against the side armor. Thump Thump. Thump. Surprising how soothing something like that can be. Diamondback, I cursed silently, you sly sonovagun. "So, what'd he offer you?"
"All expenses, plus five grand," Griz replied casually, I waited. It'd have to sink in sooner or later.
It turned out to be a lot sooner than I thought - only 45 seconds before Grizzly asked softly, "What d'ya mean, what'd he offer me?"
I sighed, jacking my thumb over my shoulder in general direction of our gleaming new universal turret, "Where do you think that came from?"
"Diamondback," Grizzly muttered under his breath.
"Diamondback," I agreed.
"That sly sonuvagun!" Grizzzly shook his head in wonder. "'Gale, we've been had!"
"Tell me about it."
"What'd that snake tell you we were doing?" I could tell that Griz would gladly have wrung Diamondback's neck on the spot. For once I wasn't sure who was angrier with - ol' Diamondback Peters, or himself for being suckered. The only safe thing to do when he was in that kind of mood was to tell the unvarnished truth and get ready to duck.
"We're playing doctor for one of his convoys to Chicago, I said. "I figured it was easy money. After all, nobody in his right mind fires on a Samaritan. What'd he tell you?"
Grizzly frowned. "Patient transfer. Said he wanted us to drop one of his boys off for some reconstructive surgery."
I whistled in amazement. "Must be some injury, sending someone all the way to Chicago. Couldn't they do it here?"
Griz seemed to be cooling down in the face of this puzzle."Guss not. Either whoever it is can't afford Gold Cross, or maybe he's not that much of a goner."
"Poor fella. Wonder what happened to bust him up so bad?"
"Or for Diamondback was aptly named - and I was getting really tired of playing Eve and eating apples. I shook my head. "Say, Griz, you fix that loose cabinet door yet?"
"I was just goin' to now."
A knock rattled our corrugated tin door.
I looked up at Grizzly and saw a grim, slightly puzzled look in his eyes that was surely reflected in my own. He draped one of his arms around my shoulder absently and called, "Come in!"
The door scraped open, and a slight figure limped in. He looked a lot scruffier and limped a lot less painfully than when we'd last seen him, but I recognized him instantly. There was no doubt our guest had recognized us, for the moment his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the hanger he stopped dead, his jaw tensed, and the color drained from his face.
"You!" he squealed, jumping back like a frightened wild colt. His left leg folded under him, and he crashed to the ground with a metallic clank. As a matter of reflex, both Grizzly and I were at his side and helped him back up, after a cursory survey showed that the fall hadn't harmed him. "I'm sorry, it's all a big mistake," he raced on, trying to back away again, "wrong address, you know how it is . . . "
"Yeah, we sure do," Griz growled sympathetically, taking the poor man's hand, engulfing it in his huge paw, then shaking it vigorously. "Welcome to the club pal."
Kneecap looked from Griz to me uncertainly, and I couldn't blame him. The last time the three of us met, Griz and I had nearly killed him. We hadn't, obviously, but his erstwhile partner, Autopistol, hadn't been so lucky. A petite young woman from the islands named Flashpoint had seen him preparing to blow me away, and that had been his last mistake. No citizen tolerated the murder of a perfectly good (or even perfectly mediocre) Samaritan. You never know when you might need one.
Kneecap was a little slow, but suddenly a glimmer of understanding entered his muddy brow eyes. "Diamondback."
"You got it."
"Diamondback!" he shouted, kicking our tool cabinet viciously. "Of all the low-down sneaky stunts that lousy sonovabitch could pull . . . !"
"My sympathies," I snorted as he hopped around on one foot, cursing. Our cabinet wasn't packed, it was packed, and there just wasn't any give to it anymore. Serve him right if he broke his foot, I thought, turning and heading for the Samaritan.
Kneecap hobbled after me fast as he could. "Where ya goin'?"
"To see a man about his last wish, if you must know."
"Diamondback?" He didn't wait to hear my answer before he pushed past me to sit inside,
"You're not leaving me stranded in the boonies again!" he shot back. "Do you have any idea of what I had to do to get home after you two so-called 'angels of mercy' left me in Canarsie?"
"Not interested," Griz replied.
That didn't seem to slow him at all. "I had to beg a ride from jailbait, that's what! Took her trike into Canarsie on a dare. And you know what? She wanted me to pay for the ride!"
I tried to pretend I wasn't interested.
"I didn't have any money left, if you recall, after you sold me back my own gun to go with those clips you traded me for the location of Boom-Boom's garage!"
Grizzly yawned elaborately. He was a lot better at feigning indifference than I was. His knuckles also popped louder. "So?"
"So, she wanted to take it out in trade, if you, uh, know what I mean."
I grinned wickedly. "And you couldn't rise to the occasion?"
He looked miffed. "No! I mean, um, of course I could."
Griz whooped. "You got caught with your pants down!"
Kneecap blushed furiously. "Her five Italian uncles didn't have much sense of humor, it seems," he said dryly. "It's not very healthy for me around here any more."
I frowned slightly. "I still don't get how Diamondback figures into this. How'd you get involved with him?"
Kneecap shrugged. "Hey, I was desperate. Word was, he could get me out of Brooklyn fast." He smiled wickedly. "So, what's your excuse?"
I went for him, and Griz grabbed me by the shoulder. "Cut it out, you two! That won't solve anything!"
"It'll solve him," I grumbled. "Whar're we going to do, Griz? I'm not hauling him to Chicago!"
"And I wouldn't travel with you if my life depended on it!"
"In case you've forgotten, Prince Charming, your life dose depend on it!"
"Shut up!" Grizzly snapped. It's very simple, troops. We'll drive over to Diamondback's garage and shove a grenade up his . . ."
We drove over to Diamondback's garage. Although I talked Griz out of his grenade plan, he insisted on being the one to tell Diamondback where to shove his lousy job. When he came back almost immediately, his silence and flinty eyes told me all I needed to know.
"He's bugged out, hasn't he?"
"He did this to us on purpose. Look what I found taped to the door." He tossed a crumpled paper ball into my lap, and after smoothing it out, I read it.
There were only 13 words printed on the page. In Diamondback's distinctive scrawl of barely legible block letters. How techs ever read his designs, I'll never know. The Note Read:
Live With It Guys
Only 16 Hrs. To Chicago
See U there
"Live with it?" Kneecap moaned.
"We're not going." Grizzly said decisively. "Screw him and his mind games. I quit."
Now Kneecap panicked. "You can't quit! Someone's got to get me outta Brooklyn, and that someone is you! If I stay here, I'll die!"
"You're breaking my heart. We're not going, right, 'Gale?" He looked toward me, expecting confirmation.
I shook my head. "Wrong. We do go."
"Look, we have to Griz, he's outmaneuvered us for the moment. He paid for the new additions to the rig, and he'll leap at the chance to repossess her if we renege. And Kneecap, you've probably paid him big time to get you out of Brooklyn, right?"
Kneecap had sprawled, to my annoyance, on one of our gurneys, and had been humming tunelessly for some time. "Hey, sweetheart, think we can pull over so I can, uh, take care of business?"
I rolled my eyes at Grizzly. "Better radio and let our pals know we're making a pit stop."
"We're already behind schedule," Griz reminded me.
"Yeah, I know. But I'm not riding to Chicago in a puddle."
Griz frowned and picked up the mike. "Breaker, Hawk, this is Mercy-1, come on."
I'd met Hawk, the driver of the lead truck, at one of Diamondback's victory parties. He didn't look particularly hawklike, but I don't look like a drab brown bird either. He was a handsome young man dressed in a weathered brown bomber jacket with a sheepskin collar. What intrigued me most was his entirely unassuming demeanor as he watched everyone else at the party, occasionally flashing an engaging smile at acquaintances. Jimbo and I had just had a particularly nasty break-up, and I'd quietly been putting away enough whiskey to support a small family in Scotland. Suddenly, I'd found myself without a glass and on the receiving end of the most deeply relaxing shoulder and neck massage I'd ever experienced. The rest is history, Not very interesting history, since at the time I was too hung up on Jimbo to realize what a "catch" Hawk was. By the time I'd finally wised up, Hawk was happily pursuing a pretty, smart young lab technician. We still flirted, though that was as far as it went.
"I read you, Griz. What does Legs want now?"
I leaned over to the microphone while keeping my eyes on the road. "One of your patented neck rubs for one, lover."
"Granted, when we pull into the truck stop tonight. And anything else you want to rubbed, too. Anything else?"
"We're pulling over for a pit stop. We'll catch up with you guys in ten, okay?" Griz answered before I could get a word in.
"Anything wrong?" Hawk asked worriedly.
"Nah, just need a man about a horse," Griz told him.
"I copy. 'Gale, you take good care of Griz, now, hear?" He sounded a little uneasy about leaving us, but he knew as well as I that if we pulled over the entire convoy, it would take twice as long than if we hung back and caught up with them.
"I heard that, Hawk. Catch ya later," I said.
"Not if I catch you first."
"Promises, promises," I sighed, scanning the side of the road. A few minutes later I spotted a place where a few haggard trees provided privacy from passing traffic. I parked and opened a cabinet about a foot away from Kneecap's left ear. "Whatch your head," I said as I took down a handful of sterile gauze pads. "Here you go, sir. Restroom's on the right."
He looked out the windshield gloomily. "You're kidding."
"No, I'm not kidding. We're late, and we don't have time to look for a truckstop, so get moving."
"What if somethung happens? Like, I get bitten by a snake?"
"We'll congratulate it," Griz said, "then we'll treat you."
I leaned back in my chair, stretched lazily, and closed my eyes. "We'll wait five minutes. If you're not back by then, we'll call the snake patrol."
Muttering darkly, no doubt about my parents' state of matrimony, he climbed down and walked off.
"Think we should just drive off and leave him Griz?"
He speculated a moment. "Nah, 'Gale. Too easy."
Blam, blam! Two quick shots in succession, and a scream of utter panic. "Guess he found that snake."
Grizzly fairly shot out of his seat, grabbing his rifle off the rack behind him. "Guess again."
As Griz ran to the back doors, flung them open, and took aim, I started the Samaritan. I saw Kneecap pelting toward us, his jumpsuit only half-zipped. Driving slowly behind him, laughing and firing just close enough to keep him moving, was a Bombardier, Two good 'ol boys having a little fun. They caught sight of the Samaritan and Griz's rifle and sped up.
I gunned the engine. "Move it!"
Kneecap dove for the back doors, and Griz caught him on the fly. He yanked Kneecap in and slammed the doors just in time to stop a volley of gunfire that would've cut them both in half.
Grizzly flung himself towards the front of the Samaritan as I threw her into gear. As Griz strapped in, I heard Kneecap fumbling behind me. Rather superfluously, I thought, he screamed, "Hijackers!"
The tires squealed as I skidded onto the roadway, spraying gravel. "Whatever gave you that idea?" A flash of red streaked by my window.
"Pull over!" the radio crackled.
"Like hell!" Griz snarled, and I heard the VMG whine around sputter furiously.
"Why are they shooting at us?" I howled as I heard my beautiful paint job being blasted away.
"Because we're carrying narcotics and look like a fat, easy target?" Griz said in a sweet sing-song.
"We're Samaritans, damm it!" I looked into my side mirror. They were gaining fast, and I saw what looked like a missile launcher being brought to bear. We had other problems, too, a jet 'copter coming up fast. Strange that we were well within missile range and it hadn't opened up yet. I tried not to think about our problems in the air since there wasn't a damned thing I could do abut them. My main concern was spoiling the Bomb's aim. I took one hand off the steering controls to punch a red button on the roof between Griz and me.
I heard their tires screech as they tried unsuccessfully to avoid running right into a wall of flame. For the few moments that they gained some precious distance. God, I loved my HDFOJ!
"Call the truckers!" Kneecap squeaked.
"For one bombardier? Are you kidding? We'd be laughed right out of Brooklyn." Grizzly kept firing.
"Oh joy." Kneecap moaned. "After all, it's much better to be dead."
"Make that one Bomb and a jet 'copter, Griz. Check six and thank Diamondback for upgrading our turret to a universal."
Against my better judgment, I took my eyes off the road to look up in the rear view mirror - the one I'd affixed to the front windshield. Not that in an ambulance you could see traffic coming up behind you; that was the job of the oversized shatterproof mirrors on either side of the Samaritan's cab. My 'rear view' was strictly for looking into the back of the Samaritan to see how Griz and our patients were doing.
Kneecap didn't look too happy. He'd strapped himself into the hard little fold-down seat and was hanging on for dear life. "Are you trying to get us killed, you stupid woman driver?"
Grizzly never took his eyes from his display or stopped firing the VMG. "Shaddup, ya wimp," he growled, slapping Kneecap across the side of the head.
"Hey! Look who's talking! Here you are shooting at tires when we got a ramplate!"
"Not in back, we don't!" he snarled back.
I swung hard to the right to avoid a missile burst, and sure enough, I heard a loud thunk and a curse. I'd been after Grizzly to fix that loose cabinet door for months. Every time I made a tight right, the latch slipped and the door swung wide, braining whoever was lucky enough to be sitting in the fold-down seat.
Even as I swung left to force the door to latch, I heard the muffled sound of sterile dressings raining down on Kneecap. "Watch your head!" I advised.
It did indeed. It opened up just in front of us and pelted the windshield with chunks of asphalt. Instinctively I flinched, and we sloughed to the right and nearly ran off the road.
That did it. I dropped the side window and stuck my head out, looking back wildly for dark green Bombardier that had been blazing away at our tail armor. Now it was only a car-length away from being parallel with my window. "Whadd-arya, blind?" I screamed, jacking a thumb back at my side panel. "Can'tcha see I'm a medic?!"
"Medic!"" the bomb's gunner yelled back. "Why ain'tcha marked?"
"What!" I slammed on the brakes.
We skidded to a stop on the gravel shoulder, while the Bombardier overshot us and pulled to a screeching halt . . . right in front arc of our VMG. Almost before we stopped, Griz was out the door. I'd switched the VMG to my controls, my finger tensing nervously on the trigger. Griz took only a minute to come back with the bad news.
"Paint gun," he said with disgust. "Someone nailed us but good . . . all our red crosses but the topside."
The Bomb's driver looked uncomfortable. "Oh. Maybe that was what our air unit was a trying to tell us, huh, Moe?"
"Paint gun?" That bastard who'd been following us! I folded my arms and put them and my head on the steering yoke. "What color, Griz? Electic blue? Nion pink? Acid green?"
"Hospital white. And it ought to be easy to touch up." He reached in through the window and patted me on the back of my crash helmet. "They didn't splatter a single drop on the mural either."
"No?" I lifted my head, looked at him hopefully.
"No. Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber left some nice marks, though."
"I'll kill them," I started to slide out the window to get a better look, but my holster got caught. As I drew my Puma so I could wriggle free, the Tweedles started jabbering.
"Hey, come on, man, we didn't know you was medics!"
"Yeah, you wasn't marked or nothin'. And how do we know you are medics anyway?"
Grizzly slipped his hand into his license pocket. "Here. If you don't believe us, I can shoot you and 'Gale here will treat you,"
From underneath my supplies in the back of the Samaritan, I heard a muffled voice. "That was a joke, right?"
"That was a joke. I think."
We caught up with Hawk and the other truckers without further incident, and pulled into the heavily fortified truck stop they'd selected for the night. We were all hungry, so the matter of what to take care of first - rooms or food - was easy. Truck stop restaurants aren't much to look at, but they serve the best coffee and pie anyone could ever want, and the best food, if you order anything too fancy.
There were a bunch of cyclists inside, but that didn't worry me much. What we hadn't counted on was that I was the only woman in the place. There wasn't even a waitress; you gave your order, carried it to your table, and cleaned up when you finished.
The truckers gave me a warm boisterous welcome. I grinned a little uneasily, said a general "Hi, guys," and sat down to study my menu. Griz, Kneecap and I shared one table while Hawk, the other two drivers and their gunners took a table for six nearby.
"Hey, beautiful, if you're lookin' for some southern comfort, come on up to my room."
I looked up and meet the gaze . . . no, the lear of the scruffiest person I'd ever seen. He was dressed in black leather and seemed never to take the toothpick from the corner of his mouth. I felt Grizzly tensing up beside me, and saw Hawk watching from the corner of his eye. With as charming a smile as I could manage, I said, "I don't think so, thanks."
"Baby, your the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen. Looked over here and said to myself that I just had to have you."
I felt the smile freeze in place, "No, really. Thank you for the compliment, but all I want is to get some supper and turn in by myself."
He leaned over me, and put his hand on my shoulder. "Come on. We both know what kind of lady you are showing up at a truck stop, so quit playin' so hard to get. You came in with two men. Why not give a little fresh blood a try" he asked.
Kneecap scrunched down in the booth, trying to hide behind his menu. "Please," he muttered softly to the scruffy-looking cyclist who was standing over our table picking his teeth, "don't start with her. We don't want any trouble."
The cyclist turned to him with a nasty, gap-toothed smile. "Oh, I can see you're not looking for trouble, Gimp," he sneered, slapping Kneecap on the left knee just a tad too hard to be friendly. Kneecap sucked in his breath, his eyes clenching shut, but otherwise said nothing. "Whatsa matter, little man . . . you 'fraid to take it outside if I bother your old lady?"
Old lady? I felt my cheeks start burning, and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the plate glass window. My upper lip was peeled back slightly over my upper teeth, my eyes narrowed. The unflinchingly optimistic might have termed my expression a smile, but Griz looked my way, he closed his eyes and rested his head on his folded arms. His voice, much muffled, seemed to vibrate on the still, smoky air. "Please, 'Gale, not now. I've got a headache."
"Hey, it's cool, "I said, trying to reassure Griz and get rid of the cyclist at the same time. I didn't feel much like a brawl myself. Truck stops are supposed to be neutral territory. Besides, I didn't want to get kicked out before a quick shower.
"Look, man," Kneecap replied softly to the cyclist's last question, "I'm just telling you for your own good . . . "
The cyclist's face positively beamed with joy. "That was a threat!" he crowed, grabbing Kneecap by the front of his jacket.
"You threatened me right here in front of everyone. Right, guys?"
"Yeah, whatever," some weary, put-upon traveler yawned. "Just keep it down over there."
The cyclist pulled back and cocked a fist. I'd never seen anyone so happy to get an excuse to break a face before. I had a big choice: let Kneecap get some teeth knocked out, or get involved. Personally, I was inclined towards the former. Kneecap and I were hardly on the best of terms. I was the reason for his nickname, having damaged both his kneecaps in less than 48 hours. However, he was going to get his face beaten in in defense of my honor, and that was a privilege I reserved for myself, for Grizzly and for my family.
I jumped up, barking both thighs against the table's edge, and grabbed the cyclist's wrist. "I said, 'It's cool', "I repeated icily.
There was a blinding white gash of pain, and I found myself sprawled on the cold, supposedly white linoleum. I put my hand to my face - it hadn't started hurting anywhere specific yet - and came away with a handful of hot, coppery-smelling blood.
"Hey!" That brought Grizzly rearing to his feet, swatting the formica table out of his way with a wicked backhand. The table skidded about a foot out into the aisle before it crashed into me, and I swore roundly as its pedestal settled on top of my right hand. From my vantage point, I could see Hawk charging toward us.
"Eeep!" Keecap commented as he ducked and Griz's swing whistled overhead. Too bad the cyclist didn't catch the hint half as wall as he caught Grizzly's roundhouse . . . in the teeth.
The cyclist was knocked back, still hanging onto Kneecap, and landed on the table of the traveler who'd asked him to keep it down.
That was when the fun began.
"Ow!" I whined, jerking away from the stinging antiseptic swab Grizzly was dabbing my forehead with. I'd bandaged his slashed arm, and now it was my turn to have all sorts of uncomfortable things done to me in the name of warding off infection.
"Keep still," he said soothingly, "I'm almost finished."
"Want me to kiss it and a make it better?" he asked quietly, smiling and leaning a bit closer.
"Yeah, me too," Kneecap moaned, startling us and making Griz jump back. "Why don't I get an ice pack and 'you'll be fine' when I've been beaten within an inch of my life she gets the royal treatment for a little cut on her head?"
"Because she's prettier than you are." Hawk smiled and stepped into the van, sporting one hell of a shiner. "How you feeling', Legs?"
"I'm fine. Kneecap's right, it's mostly superficial." I put a hand to my nose to make sure the bleeding stopped.
Hawk chuckled and stepped behind me, massaging my shoulders while Griz glared poisonously at Kneecap. "Legs, Griz, I hate to say it, but you're trouble magnets. Every time I turn around you're patching each other up."
"Not true," Griz protested, "Most of the time things are pretty quiet. Seems like the only time people stars gunning for us is when Diamondback's involved."
"Yeah. Funny how it wirks that way, isn't it?" Hawk said thoughtfully. "Though you two are the only ones it seems to happen to twice in one day . . . "
I know I should have been grateful to have reached Chicago in one piece the next day, but as I carefully guided the Samaritan through the streets I felt anxiety settle like a cinder block inside my chest. I found myself checking mirrors religiously every few seconds. Brooklyn habits die hard, especially when I'd been running as long and as hard as I had during the past two days. "How's the wing, Gris?" I asked.
"Been better," he grunted. I could see from the corner of my eye that blood was starting to soak through the bandages, but he merely asked nonchalantly, "Why do you ask?"
"I dunno, Griz. I've just got this, well, feeling."
"I often have that effect on women, you know," he rumbled teasingly, patting my right knee with his left hand.
"Griz, that's not what I . . . " I trailed off and frowned slightly, looking at Griz from the corner of my eye. Was it my imagination, or had I been as dense as neutronium? Suddenly I got the feeling Grizzly wasn't hanging around just because he owned part of the Samaritan. Sure, we did just about everything together, and he'd always been protective of me. I'd always gone out on a limb for him, too. Sure, he'd hated Jimbo on sight. I should've followed his lead. As I was trying to figure out how I felt, I got the distinct feeling I should stop worrying about our partnership and start worrying about our skins again.
He must've sensed how ill at ease I was, for suddenly he turned serious, "Trouble?"
I shock my head. "I dunno."
He checked his mirror. "'Cept for an ice cream truck, we're clear aft. There ain't a duellin' machine in sight."
"Yeah, guess so." I sighed, and peered into my mirror. It was one of those boxy trucks, with an ugly lit-up plastic clown and a plinkety melody guaranteed to attract every kid in the neighborhood and cause any nearby adult to cough up money just to make the damned thing go away. The other thing I (and most other city drivers) hate about ice cream trucks is that they're a bona fide road hazard. If a kid ran out to the curbside and accidentally dropped some change in the street, those truck's literally stop on a dime. While I was a young EMT in training on the city ambulance corps, I'd been riding shotgun with my instructor. We were cruising along on the Belt Parkway service road when this ice cream truck right in front of us came to a stop so short that we plowed right into the back of his truck, and I do mean into the back of his truck. Hated them ever since.
I guess having that monstrosity latched onto my rear bumper for six blocks was beginning to get on my nerves, and I checked my mirror again. "Griz . . . will you scope out the rear view?"
He looked into his side mirror, scrawling, "Ain't it gone yet? He gonna pass us or what?"
I shot another look in my side mirror. "I don't get it. Kneecap hasn't done anything cute like write 'Help, I'm being kidnapped' on the back windows, has he?"
"With what?" Griz got up, walked back and looked at him anyway. "Sleeping like a baby, but otherwise fine."
Something in the mirror caught my eye, and I looked back to see the impossible. There was a kid chasing the ice cream truck, waving a ten cursing the driver at the top of his lungs. I saw the driver flip the kid the bird, and that's when I knew.
I slammed the accelerator to the floor. The laws of physics dictated what happened next: bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, and bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. Grizzly stayed at rest relative to the rest of the Samaritan just a moment too long. His feet were yanked out from under him, and I heard a wheezy grunt of expelled air as he fell on top of Kneecap. "What the hell . . . "
"Ambush!" I howled into the radio, and I flipped on the lights and sirens.
"OW." Kneecap said softly.
Grizzly staggered forward as I tried to lose the ice cream truck. I heard the staccato stutter of a machine gun.
Grizzly punched the flaming oil jet again. This time, there was no familiar fireball, and Griz swore and punched the dashboard as he dropped into his station. "We're samaritans, damn it! Why is everyone gunning for us this trip?"
"Don't ask me, I'm just the driver!"
"Well, who else should I ask?" he asked, blazing away at the ice cream truck.
I pulled a sharp left through an intersection, swore, and swerved right again. I almost missed the wire trash can on the corner, It rebounded off the corner of my bumper and crashed through the front window of a bar.
Kneecap was standing at the back. "Great driving, MacLaine! You know what kind of bar that was?"
"Let me guess. The kind where they serve booze?"
"Give you a clue. There are 30 guys getting on their cycles."
"Oh. that kind of bar."
I looked into my side mirror. Grizzly seldom panicked, and when I got a look at what he'd already seen, my heart nearly stopped. The plastic clown was tilting back, and I didn't like what I saw mounted underneath it. There was no way we were going to survive a hit from a supermissile. Not with our weakened rear armor.
Grizzly was keeping the ice cream truck from getting a clear shot by hammering at their front armor and their windshield. Those bikers were getting closer, too. A quick look in my side mirror showed they'd been joined by a pickup full of heavily armed punks.
"So, tell me Kneecap," I said calmly, easing the puma out of its holster. "Who should I ask about why everyone is gunning for us?"
"I, I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, I think you do." I put my gun in my lap. "The drivers of the Bombardier were chasing you. Ther'd be no for anyone to set me and Griz up. How powerful were these Italian uncles you crossed?"
"No, it couldn't've been them." Kneecap protested. "They're strictly local!"
"Listen, if they were connected, would they have came after me personally? With baseball bats?"
He was right, that didn't sound likely. I looked into the side view. The cyclists had just drawn even with the ice cream truck.
The super missile was pointed right at us. We couldn't go any faster. There wasn't time to turn off the avenue. And there was nothing we could do to avoid getting hit.
"Hang on," I shouted, and slammed on the brakes.
"Lady? Lady, are you all right?" Someone was shaking my shoulder firmly, and someone gently slipped my crash helmet off. "Maybe we better send for another ambulance . . . "
I roused myself at that. Maybe I wasn't fit to drive, but I'd be damned if I arrived at the emergency room without my Samaritan. Somebody knew his stuff: my head was being held in line with my spine. I ached all over, but my neck didn't hurt enough to signal any serious injury. I felt a pair of sure hands glide over the back of my neck, feeling for any deformities.
"I don't think it's broken," I ventured shakily. "Where's my partner?"
"Right here, 'Gale." Grizzly walked into view, smiling grimly. His helmet scuffed up and had a terrible crack in it, but I could see he was all right. "Lucky I had this to break the radio with instead of my pretty face, huh?"
"You were right, Griz. That was a stupid place to put a radio."
Griz leaned over and checked me out. "Well, it looks like your thick skull hasn't been hurt in the least. You can turn her loose now, Fever."
My eyes adjusted as a man dressed entirely in black leather came around and grinned at me. "Say, gorgeous, you ever wanna put those driving skills to good use, why don't you dump the extra tonnage and try two wheels?"
"I've grown accustomed to breathing," I answered. Motorcycle wrecks were the worst.
He laughed. "Be serious. The way you handle this monster, you're a natural!" He hopped out from the side door and trotted toward the back of our Samaritan.
I turned to Griz, and hugged him. I needed the support in more ways than one. "What happened?"
He stroked my short blonde hair. "They never got a chance to fire the missile. They would've gotten a clear enough chance to fire despite me, but their driver was a little hyper. He was practically riding our bumper when you hit the brakes."
"Where are they now?"
"Fever's gang got'em. They were pretty upset when you sent that trash can through the front window of their favorite bar, but when they saw why, well, it was the cavalry to the rescue." He sighed, and held me away from him by the shoulders, his expression turning serious. "Nightingale, would you do me a favor? If I asked you real nice, I mean?"
"You got it, buddy, whatever you want." I said brushing the hair out of his eyes tenderly.
"Don't ever do that again!" he growled, punctuating each word with a shake.
"In case anyone's interested," Kneecap said faintly from under a pile of sterile dressing and rubber gloves, "I'm fine."
"Hey. Thank God for rear armor, huh?" I pulled away from Griz, opened the door, and more or less fell onto my feet. I'd limped barely six feet before with purple hair and a safety pin through her ear came over and handed me an ice cream cone. "Have a cone on the house."
"You're kidding. It was a legit ice cream truck?"
"When they weren't busy tryin' to knock folks off, yeah. Probably how they paid for their toys."
I looked at the back of the Samaritan. Diamondback was going to be extremely glad to see us, or rather how much damage we'd expenses paid." The ice cream truck was in a lot worse condition, and its launcher wer missing. I cocked an eyebrow at my companion. I looked at the dripping cone in my hand. "Rocky Road?"
"Under the circumstances, it seemed kinda appropriate."
"Huh. You have no idea."
We drove straight to Diamondback's garage, honking the horn about 50 feet from the door. "He'd better damned well open that door, Griz, or I swear I'll drive right through it."
"Take it easy, 'Gale. I know it sounds strange, but it might not be his fault we got into all those scrapes," Griz said.
"Do you really believe that?"
"No, but one of us has to be reasonable."
The door to garage lifted slowly, and as our headlights swept into it, we could see that there was a party going full swing in there. My blood pressure crept up another few notches as I pulled into the bay and shut the engine off. "Before we all get out, are you sure there's nothing I should know, Kneecap?"
I heard the sliding door slam shut.
"That's about what I thought." I opened my door and jumped down. Grizzly was about three moves ahead of me. He'd already gotten out of the van, gabbed Diamondback, and was holding him against the wall by his throat.
"'Gale! Grizzly! Are you a sight for sore . . ."
"Can it!" I snapped. "You set us up! You always set us up!"
"I do not always set you up. Remember Canarsie? I told you I'd take care of it, but you were dead set on finding Boom-Boom yourself. I merely stepped in when it seemed judicious to do so."
"You took advantage of the situation!" Grizzly snarled.
"I never said I didn't," Diamondback said defensively.
"You also never said you didn't set up this time. What was it? Contraband in the universal? New designs in a secret compartment in the ramplate?"
"'Gale, dear I never lied about what you were carrying."
"You never told me who I was carrying!"
He smiled nervously, "May I finish, please?" Your good friend, Kneecap there, whom incidentally we know you'd never agree to take, may be a lousy thug and a worse gunner. He is, however, a superb designer,"
I whirled and looked at Kneecap. He was standing behind one of Diamondback's mechanics . . . until the mechanic saw the look in my eyes and stepped out of my line of fire. "And?"
"In addition to his troubles with certain irate persons, his boss, Oddjob, really didn't want him to go . . . "
"So we've been playing bumper tag all this time with Oddjob's goons?" I asked.
"I'm afraid so." Diamondback smiled. "On the other hand, uh, I'll be glad to repair the damage to the Samaritan . . ."
"And move the damned radio," Grizzly rumbled.
"And move the radio." Diamondback continued pleasantly.
"And install an anti-paint system," I added.
Diamondback's face crumpled into a frown. "Come on, 'Gale, be reasonable . . ."
"Let me put it to you this way: Which do you think is worth more, installing it, or your life?"
Diamondback smiled nervously. "One anti-paint field generator coming up. But that's all, 'Gale."
"Hey, fine with me." I turned to Griz. "turn him loose."
Griz looked at me as if I were insane, but shrugging, he did. I turned and we started to walk away.
Diamondback never realized what was coming. If he did, he had the good grace to walk right into what he had coming to him. I whiled around and punched him as hard as I could right in the solar plexus. I knew, both from my course work and hard experience, that a well-placed punch at this nerve juncture was no picnic. He fell to his knees, wheezing, and looked up at me with surprised puppy-dog eyes. It didn't work this time. I was too mad at him to care. A gasp went up among his techs and guests, and the party came to a grinding halt.
"Don't you ever let me catch you using us again, you son of a bitch!" I snarled, not caring who or how many were staring at us. Then, with as much dignity as we could muster, Griz and I stalked out.
It didn't occur to me until nearly a month later - when Griz, our gleaming new Samaritan and I were safely back in Brooklyn - that all I'd done was tell Diamondback not to get caught.