We speed through Brookfield, blowing red lights and stop signs and ignoring the honking of other cars we nearly hit. Valencia refuses to move into the passenger's seat, but stays on the floor, clutching everything in sight. "Max, you're going to crash and kill us both," she breathes.
"Would you rather drive?" I snap. I check the rearview mirror. A black Sedan is behind us, exceeding the speed limit to catch up with us. "We're being followed."
"What do we do?"
I glance at the Glock lying on the console. "Can you shoot?"
"Try anyway. Aim for their tires or their engine." I pass the car in front of us, earning another honk from traffic in the opposite lane. "Actually, don't shoot."
Valencia looks up at me. "Do you think they know where we're going?"
"It wouldn't surprise me."
"Then shouldn't we go somewhere else?" She jumps as Suzanne tells us to turn left.
We skid as I slam on the brakes and turn, earning a few more honks from oncoming traffic. "Where else can we go?" I ask, my teeth clenched.
Suzanne refuses to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. "In half a mile, your destination will be on--"
Her voice is drowned out by an earsplitting crash. My car jolts, Valencia screams, and we spiral out of control. We crash through the window of an abandoned storefront. The airbags deploy, trapping me against the back of my seat.
As soon as the airbag deflates, I grab my Glock. I look at the car that hit us--fortunately in the rear--and out of the back seat steps the deplorable New Yorker, Skylar Keeson himself.
Valencia fights against the airbag, shaken but not apparently injured. "Max...."
"Stay in the car, lock the doors, and call 911," I tell her. I clutch my pistol so my hand will stop shaking, and I exit the car to face Keeson.
"My men tell me disturbing things, de Angelis," Keeson says. He seems shaken too, as if he hadn't intended to hit me so hard. I see the driver of his car slumped over the steering wheel--perhaps dead, perhaps unconscious, but no one I can afford to be concerned with right now. What matters is Keeson, and Valencia, and keeping her safe.
"I am surprised," I say, "to learn you have the mental capacity to be disturbed."
"Shut up." Keeson aims a pistol at me, and I return the gesture. "Why can't you just do a job, de Angelis? How hard is it to rid the world of a single witness?"
"I'd like to think that you wouldn't kill someone merely because they caught you embezzling." An idea hits me, like lightning from God. "Then what else are you afraid she knows? You're into computer software. You aren't selling viruses, are you? Illegally collecting information? Rigging the stock markets?"
Beads of sweat form on Keeson's forehead. "I told you to shut up."
I hear the unmistakable click of a car door opening, and I wince.
Skylar Keeson smiles when he sees Valencia, only her head visible behind my car. "You truly are a master of your art, de Angelis. You got her to trust you. Now finish the job."
Valencia pales. "What's going on?"
"Massimiliano de Angelis. He's a hitman." Keeson glares at her, then at me, and fires his pistol at Valencia. She shrieks--which hopefully means Keeson missed, because a dead woman cannot shriek--and falls behind my car. Keeson cocks his pistol again. "A terrible one at that."
A siren wails in the distance, and it grows quickly louder. I smile, but my hands sweat. "Skylar Keeson, consider yourself arrested."
Keeson scowls and curses me. I want to shoot him--at least in the foot so that he cannot run--but I keep my finger off the trigger. "You failed me."
I glance at my car to see Valencia's frightened face hiding behind the front fender. "Only a sick man would take another's life to preserve the quality of his own," I retort. "And I find no pleasure in taking lives, especially those of the innocent. Valencia Marianne Beltramo is innocent, and so long as I draw breath, no harm will come to her."
The sirens grow louder before they stop. Car doors open and slam again. Keeson finds yet another gun aimed at him. "Freeze! Police! Drop your weapon!"
Keeson smiles--a sick, twisted smile--before pulling the trigger. Something rips into my chest. It hurts no more than a bee sting, but the world begins to spin. I hear the voices of police officers and see the face of Valencia Marianne Beltramo before my world grows dark, then disappears completely.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.