STRATAGEM Chapter 26
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
DEREK’S BACK SLAMMED AGAINST THE SEAT. The Accord lurched foward when Mom downshifted and the tachometer’s needle reached the red zone. Instantly, a flash of high beams flooded through the rear window.
He looked back.
Within the cabin of the car chasing the two people from back at the gas station sat, their features obscured by the dark of night except for the intermittent flicker of blue light from their eyes.
Who are these people? ‘What’ they were was the more appropriate question, but no answer would make sense.
“Hold on,” she kept her eyes on the road.
Paige sat up, rubbed her eyes with one hand while cradling Hulk with the other. “Huh?”
“It’s all right, sweetie,” Mom said. “Make sure you’ve got your seatbelt on.”
The engine of the car behind them roared as it raced right up to the Accord’s rear bumpers.
Mom swung the Accord abruptly to the left.
“Holy—!” Derek nearly choked on his breath.
The black car sped ahead.
Before Derek realized what had happened, Mom had already driven the Accord at full speed back into the lane behind the black car.
She kicked the gas pedal, thrusting the Accord on a diagonal collision course with the black car’s tail.
“Mom, look out!”
But it was clear that she knew exactly what she was doing.
Charging ahead, she clipped the black car’s rear bumper sending it into a spin off the road. Her eyes darted back and forth from the road to the rearview mirror.
Derek craned his neck to look.
The black car had smashed into a utility pole, its hood mangled and twisted around the wooden post, its windshield shattered. The wheels continued to spin sending clouds of dust and smoke into the moonlit night.
Morbid curiosity kept his eyes on the crash scene. Was it going to happen?
Sure enough, the man inside kicked open the jammed door.
“Did you see that, back there?”
The man staggered out of the car, his neck twisted at a perverse angle, his leg clearly broken and dragging with each step. Form contorted, he leaned against the wreckage and faded into the distance. All Derek saw before the crash site dropped from view was the man’s eyes flickering blue…
…then out, like candle extinguished.
He turned to consider Mom. “Did you see that?”
“He just climbed out of the car,” he hissed.
“No one could’ve survived that crash,” Mom said.
Derek’s voice sounded hollow, even to his own ears. “I’ve seen it happen earlier today in Manhattan.”
“Wait, Mom. How in the world did you learn to drive like that?”
“You saw them, Derek. They were chasing us.”
“I know, but….I mean….You just…” A silent, “What the hell…?” floated past his mouth, agape once again.
“Take a few minutes to gather youself.”
Derek nodded. “Yeah…okay…”
“I promise, I’ll answer any question you have when we get there.”
She kept her gaze ahead and paused.
“The safe house.”
Safe house? Since when did Mom ever talk like this? She barely watched TV, and maybe once in a while watched a movie with Dad that could possibly have used such a term, but this was about as unexpected as, well…her evading those blue-light zombies in a dangerous high speed chase.
She didn’t say anything else, just kept driving.
The two-lane road became a single.
To Derek’s surprise, Paige had fallen back asleep with Hulk resting his head in her lap.
Fatigue enveloped him like a heavy duvet. Nothing that happened this day made sense—but he couldn’t muster the energy to attempt figuring it out anymore.
Just a few minutes.
Clearly, Mom was not as helpless as he’d thought. If he could just shut his eyes for a few…
“Derek?” Mom’s voice rose from a whisper to slightly urgent. “Wake up, Derek. We’re here.”
No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t open his eyes. His entire body ached and consciousness seemed to elude every attempt he made. “Huh?”
“We’ve got a bit of a walk, so it’s time to rise and shine.” The only visible light came from the flashlight she pointed at his face. Standing outside his open passenger-side door, she already had Hulk under her arm and Paige at her side. “Come on.”
For a split-second, he thought it had all been a bizarre nightmare—the explosions, the inert bodies, the blue-light ‘zombies’…
“Wakey-wakey, Derek,” Paige said, giggling.
Nope. Not a dream. Incredible as it had been, it had all happened.
He groaned and got out of the car.
“Good,” Mom said in a surreptitious tone. She pointed to the ground the front bumper. “Now pull that tarp over the car.”
Beneath the car lay the edge of what looked like fabric and tree leaves. He reached down and grabbed its edge and sure enough, he lifted a large covering with tree branches with realistic plastic leaves. When he covered the Accord, it looked like a pile of wood and leaves. From a distance, you would never know that it was camouflaging a car.
“All right, grab that backpack and follow me.”
He picked it up.
All the supplies. She’d thought of everything. By crinkling paper inside, she’d even bought dog food for Hulk. Derek twitched his eyebrows and walked after her. “Hm.”
Mom shut her flashlight off and for a moment, all Derek could discern was her shadowed outline between the tree trunks, which he and Paige followed deeper into the woods. Finally, far off in the distance, cool moonlight glinted off the placid surface of a lake.
He pointed over to the water. “I don’t remember a lake.”
“We’re not going to the cabin.”
“Right.” The path took a slight incline. His breath grew increasingly labored. “Safe…house…”
“Try to keep up.”
“Seriously?” He hadn’t worked out seriously in a few months, but Mom was in full-on beast mode, neither slowing down nor straining for breath. “How are you doing this?”
“Hold on, if we’re not going to the cabin…” Nothing around him seemed remotely familiar. “I thought…How did you expect me to find this place?”
“I didn’t. The cabin’s not nearly remote or secure enough. I had to see if you were serious enough about all to want to go and disappear because well, you know…you don’t always follow through.”
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it? Anyway, you proved serious enough, so I decided to trust you and take you to the safe house.”
“You keep using that term,” Derek said. “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
“There’s a lot for me to explain,” she said walking forward without the slightest gasp. “As soon as we get inside.”
“Right, inside your secret doomsday bunker, Agent Mata Hari.”
She chuckled. “Don’t you get fresh with me, young man.” Reaching the top of the hill, she stopped unexpectedly. “Shh!”
Hulk let out a faint growl.
Two steps later, Derek came to her side and looked down the other side of the hill into a small clearing. Paige yawned, rubbed her eyes, and leaned against Derek’s side.
“See that?” Mom said.
He squinted. “See what?”
“There, down by that pine on the left.”
There stood the tree, but what was there to notice about it? “I don’t see anything.”
“Exactly. There’s supposed to be a branch about six feet off the ground, pointing straight out.”
“Maybe a bear broke it off?”
“Maybe.” She placed Hulk on the ground, handed the leash to Derek, then scurried down the hill. “You and Paige wait here.”
“Wait, no. Mom!”
By the foot of the tree, she brushed away a pile of leaves and soil, uncovering what appeared to be a blinking red LED.
Quickly, she covered it again and climbed up the hill.
Now, she breathed with effort.
“Well, what is it?” Derek said.
She pointed back to the clearing. “That’s the entry hatch for the safe house. The branch was the first part of the security system—it’s actually a lever and it’s been pulled down.”
“And the blinking lights?”
Mom reached behind her back under her jacket, pulled out a gun, clicked off the safety, and chambered a round. “It means someone’s breached the security system and entered.”
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
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