Chase! (a story fragment)
They were in an empty side street. There was no one to stop or interfere. The gun wavered in between them as if it were somehow detached, balanced between the rigid lines of their standing figures. In fact, it was covered in Roth’s white, bony knuckles, at the end of his long arm. His baggy coat sleeve was whipping around it sloppily in the wind, back and forth, making the whole situation look even more unsteady than it really was. Roth’s eyes were tight slots, squinting against that same bothersome wind, and his sunken chin and cheekbones looked more thoroughly gaunt even than when Jamie had seen them in prison. Jamie had his elbows bent, his hands up to either side of his body in a careful gesture of surrender. A small, burlap bag was behind his feet. He was trying to keep his eyes on Roth’s face, behind that wobbling gun. He didn’t want to miss anything, miss a moment’s opportunity he might get to escape, but he kept blinking, a nervous habit that reminded him of being called on in middle school and not having any answer ready to give to the demanding teacher with her haughty eyes behind the crisp glasses perched on her too-long nose.
“Just give me the bag already,” said Roth. “Don’t be idiot, Jamie. Is this silly game worth taking a bullet for? Give me the stupid bag.”
Jamie shifted on his feet slightly. “Okay, man, but you just said to put my hands in the air and keep them there, and that’s what I’m trying to do here. You realize you’re giving me contradicting orders, don’t you?”
The gun shifted in response. “Just kick it to me,” said Roth. His chipped front tooth stood out to Jamie. That must be new. I hadn’t been there in the old days.
“You don’t want this, Roth,” he said. If he could hold him off for just a few minutes, maybe Emma could find them. She would have the professor with her by now, and he would know what to do.
“Oh, I think I do,” said Roth. “Just kick it to me, or you’ll never see your precious girlfriend again.”
Jamie bit his lip, desperate to stall. “We’re . . . we broke up. Emma and I broke up.” He gulped, trying to look emotional. “She, uh, she was always in love with you.”
The tip of the gun dipped for a second. Just a second. It came back up at once, quivering more than ever. Roth’s slits widened. “What?”
“She told me that.” He shook his head. “That she always regretted—”
“Stop!” Roth snarled. His lip was quivering. He took a step toward Jamie. Now the business end of the pistol, a deadly extension of Roth’s thin arm, was just inches from Jamie’s forehead.
Jamie shuddered for the first time. Bringing Emma up had been a mistake.
A bead of sweat snaked down Roth’s high, pale forehead and ran into his right eyebrow. “I don’t want to have to do this to you, Jamie, but believe me, I will.” He stepped closer again, and the cold metal tip of the gun touched the skin between Jamie’s eyebrows.
That step closer let Jamie see the thin red strands of red in the whites of Roth’s eyes. Suddenly, he believed him.
He took a breath. “Okay,” he said. “You can have it.”
Roth took a step back again. “Kick it to me,” he said.
Jamie nodded. He stretched his right leg behind him and scooping the bag with his foot, slid it across the uneven bricks of the alleyway until it bumped into Roth’s feet.
Roth gave a smile, too wide by half. “See? That wasn’t so hard.” He dipped his chin in exaggerated politeness. “Thank you, Jamie.”
“Don’t break it,” said Jamie.
Roth’s smile died. “Who do you think I am, a library doofus? A clumsy nerd who’s gonna drop it?” He bent down, his gun and eyes staying pointed at Jamie the whole time, and picked up the bag. He peeked inside. The smile reappeared, marred only by that one chipped tooth. “I know what this is, and I know how to be careful.” He gave a short, barking laugh. “Unlike you, apparently.” He backed off down the alleyway, and then bolted.
Once Roth and his gun were out of sight around the corner, Jamie gave them both the finger. Then he whipped out his cell phone and hit speed dial 2.
“Hello?” Emma sounded breathless.
“Where are you?”
“On our way. Driving as fast as I can. Have you seen Roth?”
“Yeah,” said Jamie. “He’s got it. He took it from me.”
“What??” Emma’s shrill exclamation made the phone crackle harshly. “Where is he now?”
Jamie stepped out of the alley in time to see Roth hopping onto his moped. “He’s on his moped.” Roth turned onto Brill St. “He just turned onto Brill St. Pick me up and we’ll catch him.”
He hung up before Emma or the professor could call his plan into question, and a minute later he was piling into Emma’s little Volkswagen. “Can this thing maneuver at all?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
He looked into the back seat. “Where’s the professor?”
She looked down. “Jamie . . . he died. He bled out. One of Roth’s goons but a bullet through his shoulder. There was blood everywhere. I’d never seen so much blood. I didn’t know a human shoulder had that much blood in it.” She choked up. “I, I tried to bandage him, but I wasn’t fast enough.”
Jamie had frozen, seat belt half on. “He’s dead?”
She just nodded.
Jamie shook himself out of his stupor. “We have to go after Roth anyway. We have to recover that bag.” He buckled. “It’s what the professor would have wanted.”
Emma nodded again. “Okay.” Her tires squealed as she pulled out of the alley.
The sidewalks and street signs whipped past them. Jamie silently promised himself he would never forget this, would never disrespect her Volkswagen again.
“There’s Brill,” he shouted a moment later. “Turn now.”
The wheels squealed again, and suddenly they both saw Roth up ahead, resting uneasily on his moped, stuck at a long red light. The precious bag was slung over his shoulder.
“There he is!” he yelled. “Go, go, go, go, go, go!”
Emma put her foot down hard on the little pedal and they roared forward, devouring the distance between them and Roth.
Roth looked over his shoulder and saw them. They were gaining so fast, Jamie thought he could see Roth’s eyes go big in fear. Their prey jerked his moped around suddenly into a tight left turn.
“He’s heading into the ethnic market neighborhood!”
“Yeah, I see that,” said Emma through gritted teeth as she wrestled the steering wheel.
They turned onto a narrow street. Small shops and stands crowded both sides, and vendors were shouting like mad in strange accents. Roth had pushed his dinky yellow moped to the max and was almost at the end of the street already.
“We’re losing him!” shouted Jamie. “We can’t let him get away with the bag!”
“I know!” shouted Emma. Again she stamped on the gas pedal. The Volkswagen lurched forward with a growl of its tires on brick and loose gravel. An unlucky fruit cart slipped into their path and was smashed. Brightly colored fruit flew harmlessly up their windshield and everywhere else, a beautiful explosion of color. Next they narrowly avoided two men carrying a giant glass plate window across the street. Emma laid on the horn, her beautiful face flush with the excitement of the chase. Jamie had never seen her look so sexy. He almost wanted to lean over and kiss her right then.
Suddenly there was a flash of motion in front of them. Emma shifted with a yelp to the brake pedal, but not quickly enough. There was a sickening thud. The car stopped. Screams erupted. “What’s going on?” yelled Jamie. “Why aren’t we going?”
“I hit something, you idiot,” hissed Emma. She opened her door and stepped out. The small bloody body of a child lay crumpled beneath their front tires. Blood was dripping from his mouth and nose, and his head was snapped back at a horrible angle. She stood frozen for a second, and then fell on her knees next to him. The screams of the neighborhood mothers and grandmothers and cousins were in her ears. She tried to reach under the boy’s broken head to cradle it, but the minute she felt slippery blood there, she pulled back, her hands red. The kid’s eyelids were still flickering, and for a moment his eyes met hers—small, brown, and uncomprehending. Emma was shaking. She became vaguely aware that Jamie had run around the car and was trying to lift her to her feet, to shove her back into her driver’s seat. But the shocked crowd were screaming at him and slapping at him. Emma just stared at the gurgling boy. He was gone, mere seconds after Roth disappeared at the end of the narrow street.