Mark was driving. I'd worn out five miles after we hit the Ohio border. The stress was too much. I'd slept until the last good road, which ran out just after dusk. By the time a cup of coffee cleared up my brain, we were deep into hill country with its sloping, twisting roads and cool night air.
Thermal vision lit the windshield as the night was replaced with heat signatures so we could drive without headlights. It occurred to me that either Mark had a hell of a lot of money of his own or someone was paying his bills.
"How much further?" I asked.
"You ever wonder what they think you know that they want?" he said.
"I'm so stressed out I have a hard time thinking about it. And I don't really know that much for them to be coming after me like this. Maybe they want to know what Emily told me. Maybe there's something in that letter taped to the picture. Maybe they think I'm somebody else."
"You going to tell me how much further?"
"You sound like a kid," he said.
I wanted to know what was in the letter he'd found taped to the back of the picture. One tiny alien floating in blue fluid like it was a biology specimen. Or a Photoshop freak show clipped off the Internet and turned into a Polaroid photo by a Web Warrior who didn't want to clean his or her room.
"Ever since Emily gave me the alien artifacts my life has turned to shit," I said. "I'm on the run one day and I'm already so tired of it I could punch myself in the head. I hate this. I'm glad you saved my ass by coming to get me, but I feel like I need to be doing something other than running. And I want to know what's in that letter. It will give me something to think about. Something to analyze so I can figure out what to do next."
The van slowed and finally stopped.
"We're here," he said.
His stubbled face glowed orange-green in the light from the windshield.
"I don't see anything," I said.
"That's the plan," said Mark, and he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a gun.
"Why are you pointing that at me?" I asked.
"Time for you to get out?" he said.
"You're kidding, right?"
"No hillbilly humor tonight, friend. I'm dead serious. I'll send somebody for you when I know it's safe. I got a wife to think of before I worry about you. Now open the glove box and grab the thing that looks like a cellphone."
"Why are you doing this?" I asked.
"Told you already. I've got a wife to protect. She'd do the same for me. So you just push the button on that thing and turn it on. You see that little green light near the top of the screen? You start walking that direction. Whichever way that dot moves on the screen, that's the way you go. Long as you do that you'll be alive come morning."
We parked somewhere in the middle of the Kentucky hill country on a moonless night and he was dumping me there.
"What am I supposed to do for food and water?"
Mark raised the gun a little higher.
"Get out now or I'll shoot you and leave you for the bobcats to eat."
I didn't move.
"Last warning," he said.
I opened the van door and noticed the dome light didn't come on. I realized then he'd planned all along to dump me in the middle of nowhere. It was so dark outside that I could hardly see the ground. Something wet hit my cheek. Then another. High overhead, the night rumbled.
"It's starting to rain. You can't leave me out here in the rain."
"Go where the green dot takes you. Shouldn't take you more than two or three hours to get to the cave. Keep your hands up and in front of you so branches don't poke your eyes out."
"You're an asshole."
"But I'm an asshole with a gun and you're a federal fugitive. Now get going and close the door."
I closed the door like he said and he drove away. He said he'd send someone for me in three days. I wondered if anyone would show up.
Standing on the middle of a dark highway was a bad idea. I walked to the side of the road and heard a soft, annoying beep. The green dot on the screen of the cellphone thing was now angry red. When I walked toward the other side of the road, it turned a friendly shade of green.
The rain was coming down quicker. I needed to find shelter. So I walked the direction that made the locator device happy. Wet weeds slapped against my pants and I could feel but not see things crunching under my feet.
From somewhere to my left, I heard the solid impact of wood against wood.
A streak of lightning lit the dark sky and turned the forest an electric neon blue-white. I saw that I was surrounded by trees and vines so thick they looked like zoo snakes. As the light faded, a dark shape moved across the edge of my vision.
The night closed in.