That night, I got home, and my uncle was waiting for me on the porch. He watched me over another pipe, and it took me a moment to remember that he'd mentioned something about having a plan. Normally, he'd still be engrossed in his writing, but he looked like he'd put it all aside for something important. I wondered if I was about to get a lecture. He'd never really been one for lecturing, though... I finally reached the house, and stumped up onto the porch, dropping my bag by the door.
My uncle smiled at me, and let his pipe go out, scraping the tobacco out of it and tucking it away into his pocket. I tilted my head in the way of a question.
"Right. There's much you have to learn yet, and it doesn't all happen at school." He got up, and then gestured for me to follow him inside. I did, and I saw that the table, chairs, and everything that populated our kitchen had been pushed to the walls, creating a wider space that I would have thought possible in our little house. "Tonight, Todd, we learn to dance."
If I could've laughed, I would have.
I tossed my bag onto the table.
My uncle saw my raised eyebrow and smiled at me. "You'll thank me later."
A ghetto-blaster sat on the sink, and at a direction from my uncle, calming waltz music began to play. My uncle was almost half a head shorter than me, but he didn't seem to care. He gave me the general run-down of the waltz - the time, the footwork, and the movements. I followed his directions to the letter, but somehow managed to bungle it constantly. I didn't let it get me down, though, and persevered. My thoughts, though, were with Millie and the others. As tried to attain the effortless grace of my uncle's footwork, I eliminated possibilities as to where they were staying. There were two motels in Flagstaff - both of them empty most of the time during school. They'd probably be staying in one of those. The Beach Palms motel sat right next to a diner. It was a convenient place to stay and I'd put my money on the bling-boys parking themselves there for the night.
Ten minutes to walk into Flagstaff.
Then what? What was I going to do, spy on these people? Catch some of their conversation? The whole plan seemed ridiculous. Wait at a window and hope that they just happen to leave it open? My uncle jerked me back into reality as the song ended, and he looked over me with a critical eye.
"You've good footwork, I'll give you that. But you still need practice. I'm more than happy to help you with that, Todd." He grinned and slapped me on the shoulder. "A month of this and you'll be excellent. Give me a year and you'll be one of the most sought-after young chaps in this entire village."
I laughed silently at him. Yeah, yeah.
"Do your homework."
Already done. Always was - I nailed everything to the ground so that I never needed to spend a minute out of school doing any actual schoolwork. Not that he knew that, though. I wandered into the bathroom, had a shower, and then pulled on a pair of cargo pants and a black shirt. I could already feel excitement, a thrill of anticipation, charging through my body. The clothes wouldn't help much with concealment, but then, I didn't plan on being seen. I was going to say all the hell out of their line of sight, find out what I could and then get back home as soon as possible. I'd probably start with their cars. My uncle's dancing instructions just seemed to be another method of distracting himself from his work, and I wasn't grudging him that. I waited until he was back in his study, and gave it another ten minutes. By then, he'd be completely engrossed in his work, and I could've blown up the kitchen and not gotten a reaction out of him. I slipped out of my bedroom window, and then started the walk to Flagstaff. It was well past eight, and most respectable people were in bed or thinking about it in town. I knew that the newcomers wouldn't be. And neither would Millie.
The lights of the town appeared in front of me, and I kept walking, padding silently over the road. I knew this place like the back of my hand, and it took me three minutes to get to Beach Palms. My suspicions were right on the money - parked outside of the motel were four tricked-out cars. Two of them I recognised from the school parking lot. A white BMW caught my attention, and I realised after a second that it was Millie's. She was here.
I slipped soundlessly through the parking lot, over the lawn, towards the flat that still had light streaming out from the windows. I made my way silently to the porch, and then settled under the window. Two things hit me - first, the pungent odour of cigarettes, and a curse as one of the newcomers spoke harshly with a marked Latino accent.
"... what the hell did you think you were doing?" the man snarled.
Millie's lilting, musical voice. "Getting away from you."
"Yeah, well, your old man needs you back at his nightclubs again," another voice told her, this one with a strange inflection that I identified after a moment as British. "Business is dropping."
"I told him that I'm done," Millie said, her voice cold and hard.
"Doesn't make any difference to him," said the Latino.
"You can go back and tell him that he can go and **** himself," Millie said, her voice poisonous now. "I said I'm done, and I meant it." I heard the scrape of a chair, as she got up, heading towards the door.
A flash of adrenalin had me leap off the porch and vanish between the four cars, keeping out of sight.
I sneaked a glance over the hood of one of the guy's Jeeps.
Millie stepped out of the door, but a skinny, tattooed guy caught hold of her arm, trying to stop her movement. She blurred, suddenly twisting into a back kick that slammed into his gut and threw him into the doorframe, cracking his head. Then she sprang away from the door and ran towards her car, hair streaming, breathing hard. She jumped, sliding effortlessly over the hood, to the driver's side.
I heard a curse behind me.
One of the city-people had stayed behind to watch the cars. He tossed away his cigarette, and then flicked open a butterfly knife, spinning it in a fancy flourish. Halfway through his acrobatics I caught hold of the weapon from the left, wrenched it downwards and then hit him with a straight left that sent him crashing into the side of his Jeep. He swore, trying to pull himself back to his feet... just as my knee slammed into his groin and folded him up on the ground. I turned to see Millie, her ivory-handled 9mm levelled at my head, astonishment on her face.
"Todd, what the hell...?"
GO!! I shouted silently.
There was a deafening crack from the doorway, and something ploughed into the car beside me, shattering the window. It took me half a second to realise that I was being shot at. I wrenched the shotgun seat of Millie's door open, and there was another explosion of noise, as something ripped through the window of the door I was holding. Powdered glass flew into the air. I twisted, reflexes taking hold, and hurled the butterfly knife in the direction of the shooter, before ducking down into the car. The entire windscreen frosted over as it caught a bullet, and, through the echo of the gunshots, I heard a scream. Millie somehow was already behind the wheel, and she started up the car, ripping it into reverse and making the engine roar. Then I jolted forwards, my shoulder hitting the dashboard as Millie flipped the BMW into a deft 180. More gunfire - it was obscenely loud in the night - and something smashed the rear-view mirror on my left. Then I was hurled backwards into my seat as Millie hit the gas and made the sportster scream over the asphalt and onto the road. How the hell she could see through the frosted glass, I had no idea...
"Give us half a minute and they'll all be on us," Millie said, her voice strained. "Any ideas?"
If I could've spoken, I would've, but there was no way she could see what I was doing with my mouth. Instead, I pointed to the left. She slammed up another gear and cannoned around the corner, and in moments we were racing over the road, away from the quite little town of Flagstaff. Millie didn't slow down, but kept pushing her car, getting as much distance between us and the people behind us as possible. She leaned back in her seat, and, one-handed, pulled on her seatbelt.
I followed her example, and we sat dead silent, the engine howling in front of us.
Finally, Millie dropped back a few gears and brought it down to a legal speed.
"What the hell were you doing there?" she demanded suddenly, looking at me.
The strangest part was, I didn't even know myself. Getting information, I mouthed.
Millie laughed incredulously. "Yeah, well, you get any?!"
Rhetorical question. I wasn't about to answer it.
"What, so I don't tell you my whole life story at school and you almost get yourself killed trying to find it out anyway?" She shook her head. "I thought you were smarter than that, Todd. Jesus, you're lucky that you didn't get a bullet in the face for your trouble. Are you OK? They hit you?"
I made a negative gesture. All good.
Millie let a deep breath hiss through her teeth. "Perfect. Just perfect."
My mind raced to keep up with what was going on. I'd found out more about Millie in ten minutes sneaking out than I had in an entire day at school pretending to be her best friend. She was older than she looked, obviously - my guess was eighteen, nineteen. Her father owned nightclubs in the city, which would probably explain the kind of money that Millie had on hand - the BMW, the ivory-handled 9mm. It all screamed criminal and she hadn't given me any indication otherwise. So, why had the city lunatics come after her? They'd been sent by her father, obviously... one of the gang had mentioned "business is dropping". It had something to do with Millie's absence. Then it clicked. Goddamn... she'd been some kind of entertainment device, then? The thought made me feel sick to my core. What kind of father would do that to his daughter?
It didn't matter anyway. Part of the gang had come in to Flagstaff to take Millie back with them. They knew that their presence alone would be enough to take her off-guard. But her resistance, and my sudden appearance, had escalated everything - there'd never been a gunfight in the streets of Flagstaff so far as I could remember. The police would be crawling all over looking for Millie. The gang would've been smart to make themselves scarce, and the best way to do that was to follow Millie hell-for-leather and worry about the consequences afterwards.
What had I gotten myself mixed up in?
Pursued by police and a gang?
I would've given anything I'd had to be able to talk...
Millie glanced at me, and a smile touched her face. It was mild amusement coupled with sadness, and it made me realise just how real all of this way. "You sure know how to impress a girl, Todd."
I raised an eyebrow at that. Come again?
"You probably saved my life."
You're the one doing the driving, I tried to point out.
She sensed my discontent. "It doesn't matter either way. I've got to get out of the state, at least. I need to lie low for a while, ditch the car. I'll let you out at the next gas station and you can hitch a lift back to Flagstaff, OK?"
I shook my head. Not OK.
Millie gritted her teeth. "Dammit, Todd."
I'm not leaving you alone in this.
"You stay with me, you're going to get killed."
I leaned back and shrugged. Fine by me.
"You're not going to die because of me."
I nodded sagely. I know. I'm perfectly capable of getting MYSELF killed.
She didn't know what I'd said but it didn't matter. "I'm not playing games."
I held up her 9mm that she'd lost as she dived over the bonnet of the car. I'd tossed it into the car without a second thought, barely even registering what the hell it'd been. Carefully, I hit the release catch and checked the magazine. It was full to the brim of little bronze heads of death, and I clicked the mag back into the weapon, flicking the safety back on and dropping it into the centre console.
Millie looked at me, long and hard.
My little demonstration with her gun hadn't gone unnoticed.
She knew perfectly well what I was thinking.
I wasn't playing games, either.