Chapter One—The Cliff Notes for Immortality

Immortal Red

By Keith Hummel

What a cruel joke that God should present the gift of immortality to a creature totally lacking the capacity to appreciate it.

Chapter One

The Cliff Notes for Immortality

Friday, 23 April 2004

Coastal North Carolina

10:55pm

The young woman who calls herself Lucy checked the rearview mirror again.

Still there.

The car had been her companion for twenty miles. Despite her ancient Land Rover’s slow cruise at forty-five, it did not pass. Never closer than ten car lengths, it vanished on the gentle turns only to reappear on the rare straightaways.

Lucy relaxed her grip on the steering wheel and slowed to take in the nighttime view. To her left the rising moon painted the shore an iridescent blue, while the strand of low dunes and marsh seemed to radiate rather than reflect the opalescent light. The beach was a luminous smudge separating marsh and ocean. The narrow tarmac road, an accidental pencil line in the sand, ran straight for a quarter mile then darted inland, swallowed by a vast pine forest. Lucy closed her eyes for an instant, savoring the sea smells and the gentle kiss of salt air.

Another perfect night in paradise. I could live here forever—if it didn’t mean certain death. One mistake in two years—one stupid mistake, and now I have to leave the closest thing I’ve had to a real home since—.

She glanced at the ocean and touched the battered leather briefcase containing her mother’s research papers.

The Cliff Notes for Immortality?

To her right, the onrushing blackness punctuated by occasional flashes of light had swallowed the stars. Too far away for thunder, but it was coming fast. Soon, the approaching cold front would collide with the gentle moisture of the sea breeze and everything would change. Storms this big, natural or personal, tended to be game changers, brief spasms of cleansing or destruction, or both. By this time tomorrow, her storms would be over.

The car was still dogging her.

Probably just an elderly driver, but enough is enough.

Lucy slowed to thirty-five. The car dipped its lights and pulled out to pass. It drew even and for a moment matched her speed. She caught a glimpse of broad-shoulders and short gray hair as the driver slowed and glanced toward the ocean. A second later, the Ford sedan accelerated hard, extinguished its lights, and raced for the forest turn.

What the—

A flash drew her gaze to the strand. Halfway between the road and the ocean a line of a dozen flashlight beams swung back and forth probing the dune and scrub, their arcs precise and barely intersecting so as not to blind each other.

She lifted her right foot and the Rover slowed as if braked. Faint tongues of light erupted from the line of flashlights.

They can’t be looking for me—not yet, not out here.

She listened for the telltale pop of gunshot but heard only waves crashing in the distance.

Flash suppressors and silencers—serious stuff. Professionals, running some poor bastard to ground, firing blind in grid patterns, hoping for a hit.

She glanced at the briefcase.

They would kill her for this.

A sudden movement drew her eyes to the road. Fifty feet in front of her, a man, clothes covered in blood, staggered into her path. He stopped, turned an expressionless face toward the headlights, and raised a hand to shield his eyes.

Her foot stabbed the brake pedal. The Rover groaned in protest and pitched forward, its tires searching for grip on the uneven tarmac.

Oh, shit. He’s toast.

Lucy’s eyes locked on her unwanted prey. Too late, she recalled Tommie Whitefeather’s defensive driving instructions.

Avoid target fixation. If you stare at the rock, you will hit the rock. Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go.

She struck him with a dull thud. He went up and over the hood-mounted spare tire, smacking the windshield like some giant bug.

Oh, God, oh God, oh God . . .

A front brake locked, the Rover dipped, swerved, and stopped, tossing the motionless victim back across the hood and onto the pavement.

Great save, Chloe. Why not just shoot him?

“No,” She corrected herself aloud. “There is no Chloe. I’m Lucy now.”

She doused the headlights but left the engine running.

Standard Operating Procedure: hide the ride, but don’t trust your starter. Half-moon—I can see well enough.

She jumped from the vehicle and approached the motionless figure, his arms and legs akimbo like some giant crushed spider. Blood soaked his clothing.

He’s probably dead. Just get in the car and go, or you’ll be dead too.

Out on the strand, the flashlights still stabbed the darkness, but were angling away from her position.

I can’t just leave him. What if he’s alive? What if it were me lying there?

She knelt by the crumpled figure.

Remember the survival training, A-B-C: airway, breathing, circulation.

Initial assessment. Blood, lots of blood and unresponsive.

Ignore that. Remember the training, stupid.

The crumpled figure gasped and moaned.

Airway. Thank God. I hate mouth-to-mouth.

Lucy palpated his carotid artery. The pulse was weak and thready but strengthened to a rapid bound in seconds.

Airway, breathing, circulation—at least he’s alive. Secondary assessment—gunshot wound right shoulder, gunshot wound left thigh, fair amount of ooze, couple of small pumpers.

A few hundred yards away the shots had stopped. The line of flashlights was stationary. The formerly choreographed beams flicked in all directions.

They haven’t spotted us yet, but if they get much closer, the surf won’t hide the exhaust noise. I’ve got to get him in the truck. Grab and go; grab and go.

Elbows locked in the man’s armpits, Lucy walked backward, staring at his face as she dragged him to the Rover.

Male, early thirties, athletic build. He might live if we get out of here. Remember your training, Lucy.

Struggling to open the rear cargo door, she placed his arm around her neck and boosted him to a semi-standing position facing the vehicle. Lucy flopped his upper torso inside. In a squat, she put her shoulder between his legs, came to a standing position and slid him inside.

Textbook one-man load.

She grabbed two surgical pads and some Bloodstopper from her trauma kit, but the bleeding had stopped. There was no entry or exit track, only the “fresh ground-beef” look of a healing wound.

Damn, no GSW? If those weren’t gun-shot wounds where did all the blood come from? And what happened to those pumpers.

Lucy dressed the wounds, placed the Bloodstopper back in the kit, and leaned against the door until the latch made a near-silent click.

What’s the plan? The gas station… It’s closed. I can put him around back and call 911 on the pay phone. That’s anonymous.

Her hand lingered on the door latch.

No, that’s like putting out the trash. Tommie will know what to do with him.

Back in the driver’s seat, Lucy depressed the clutch, urged the truck into first gear, and stole a look at the wandering flashlights.

Still clueless, so, no headlights. Moonlight only. A quarter-mile dash to the forest. If we’re not dead by then—piece of cake.

Her leg shaking, she popped the clutch. The Rover bucked once and died.

Damn. Stalled it.

Lucy cranked the starter and pumped the accelerator. The heavy smell of diesel filled the truck.

It’s diesel, not gas, stupid.

“Over there, a Jeep or something.” A shout from the scrub.

Don’t panic. Foot off the accelerator. Hand off the starter. Glow plug—count to twenty.

Cold sweat stung her eyes. She held her breath and listened.

There is no shouting now.

A rustle in the sea grass. The tentative crunch of a boot on gravel.

They’re coming.

Lucy punched the starter; the engine coughed once and clattered to life.

More accelerator—less clutch. Don’t stall.

She wiped the sweat from her forehead.

Something struck her hard on the left ear. She shook her head and turned to look. A young man with a crew-cut, jeans and a dark shirt pressed a pistol to her neck. His mouth was moving, but the roaring in her head made hearing impossible. She struggled to read his lips.

You have something that belongs to us.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The briefcase weighed heavy on her thigh.

The barrel poked harder. "Don’t be stupid.” He jerked his head toward the motionless figure in the rear of the Rover. "Shut it off. Put both hands on the wheel."

Lucy hesitated. She could just make out the words through the ringing in her ear.

If I pop the clutch—his shot will go wild. Or I could give him the guy and be on my way.

“Don’t even think about it,” The barrel moved to her temple.

The ringing faded. She heard the click as he thumbed back the hammer followed by the unmistakable cough of two silenced rounds. The pressure on her neck eased. The limp body slid down the door. The pistol clattered to the tarmac. Across the road, a familiar figure, broad shoulders, short-cropped gray hair, camo pants, black t-shirt, and military-style boots cradled a silenced assault rifle. He nodded once and raised his right hand in a two-fingered salute.

“You. How did you—?” She glanced from the puddled figure on the tarmac to her rescuer. “You were following me.” He was the man from the coffee shop.

She followed his gaze to the figure in the back of the Rover.

“No, it’s him—you were looking for him.” She shook her head. “Why?”

There were more shouts and crunches of gravel. A beam of light played across the Rover.

"Go on. Get him out of here.” He fired several shots toward the advancing flashlights, ran across the road, and disappeared into the trees. Lucy slipped the clutch and accelerated as fast as the aging diesel would allow. Gunfire erupted as she raced for the curve and the safety of the woods. Bullets thudded against the iron bumper and tinked as they penetrated the aluminum body panels. Small bits of asphalt exploded on the road in front and to her left.

Semi-automatic and pistol fire, mostly wild shots.

She glanced at the speedometer.

Forty miles per hour and nearly to the turn. We might live.

Lucy braked for the corner. a brilliant red dot lit up her rearview mirror.

Laser sights.

She jinked right and the glass of her left-side mirror exploded. The thuds and tinks continued as more rounds found the bumper and body.

I’m not hit. The tires aren’t hit—still moving. Just drive, no paralysis-analysis—just drive.

She rounded the corner and the shots stopped. The adrenaline rush faded and her thoughts turned to Nick, the Prince Charming she’d met on the road only two days ago. What was his place in all this?

Forget Nick. Stick to the plan. Stash the documents. Get back to the house. Talk to Tommie. Grab your stuff, ditch this unwanted passenger, and get out of Dodge.