By Hannah Christensen
Ferda gave his chauffeur’s uniform one last brush. Today was his first private assignment from the King. Taking a deep breath, he headed out to receive his instructions.
Bilko waved as he walked through the garage. “Drive well! We’ll miss you.” Ferda nodded back, his tongue too twisted up to answer. Tomorrow he would probably be back amid the errand runners, sharing tidbits about this day, but for now all he could think about was his meeting with Jozka.
The clock chimed half-past seven, and Ferda lingered outside of the the garage office’s door until the last bell struck.
The old steward stood inside, studying some papers.
“Ah, Suchy. Come in.”
Ferda stood, at attention with his hands clasped in front of him. Jozka did not start with explanations, but continued to survey his papers.
Several minutes passed before the door behind him squeaked open.
“Did I miss anything?” Crumbs tickled Ferda’s ear around the whisper. Ferda’s heart leaped. If a guardsman was also assigned to this task, it was likely something significant. Vilem was not a personal palace guard, so he should not expect to be driving the princesses to a picnic, but still his heart beat faster as he waited for the steward to share their instructions.
Jozka tapped his papers together. “Officer Vrabec. I seem to be under the impression that it is against regulation to eat on duty.”
“Sorry.” Vilem began to cram the rest of the pastry into his mouth. “I thought I was here to get my assignment, didn’t realize I was guarding this meeting.”
“Listening to your assignment is part of your duty.” Jozka’s eyebrows took on a stern angle.
“Sorry,” Vilem mumbled again around his bulging mouthful, pulling himself up into attention.
“Very well. Make sure it doesn’t happen again, and do not let Madame’s pear preserves steal your attention. Ferda Suchy, you are commanded to deliver a car belonging to his majesty that is currently in—” He ran a finger along the side of the paper. “—Anahid’s garage in Lusnikaghak.”
Ferda felt a jolt of surprise. Lusnikaghak was a city in Kevorkia. While it was not quite true that Kevorkia was an enemy with the Kingdom of Lansky—enemies meant war—it was not a friendly neighbor.
Vilem interrupted. “Did this car break down while out of country? Or did the Kevorkians cry faulty papers or some such nonsense?”
“The papers are all in order. It is merely a matter of bringing His Majesty’s belongings safely into his hands.”
Ferda nodded. Any country that confiscated his king’s monogramed cuff links did not deserve to be trusted with any of his king’s belongings.
Jozkin laid out the details of the trip to the garage, and the return. He pulled out several documents, all marked with the king’s own signature and signet ring rather than the ordinary seal. Ferda accepted each one gravely.
Before they left, Jozkin fixed Vilem with a stare. “As your assignment will take close to twenty-four hours to complete, you will be allowed to eat on duty. However, only once you are as certain as you can be that no danger is present, and only while holding yourself alert and ready to jump into action at any moment. The same goes for sleeping.”
The ride down was tiresome, but uneventful. Ferda and Vilem were dropped off at the border by another chauffeur, and once they were allowed through, found a bus for the rest of the trip. Ferda closed his eyes. He might as well get rest while he could. The trip home would be the leg he was required to stay alert for.
Anahid’s Garage was the second sleaziest Ferda had ever seen, and the only thing that kept it that high was the lack of termites trailing their way in and out vehicles strewn about the place. He pursed his lips. If his king had been compelled to leave something of his own here, then he, Ferda, would also enter.
They eventually found the proprietor by spotting his feet sticking out of the window of the car he was lounging in. The fellow looked speculatively at the authorization of the paper presented to him, and invented three fines on the spot. Ferda beat him down to twelve percent of the price. Even that was extortion, but Kevorkians never did anything for free and had the habit of forgetting any payment from the past.
When the man led him to the car, Ferda almost jumped him for switching license plates to pass off a lemon for his king’s car and keep the other to his profit. A second look showed more than the liscence plate matched the description.
“Mmm,” he said, opening a door and critically inspecting the inside. It was cleaner than one might expect in a heap like this. The controls matched the model noted. What was most convincing of all, though, was the coat of arms gleaming from a panel near the control board. He gently traced the eagle rampant below the double coronet. It was the king’s, no doubt.
Ferda opened the hood.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to get you to cut corners, do whatever you need to do,” Vilem murmured directly behind him. “But now would be the time to stick to the basics. I’ve noticed that the longer one stays in Kevorkia, the more the fees that settle on you. Recently they’re more likely to come with stings attached, and I’m not liking the looks of this fellow.”
“I never drive a vehicle before checking its fluids.”
“Check away, friend.”
Ferda carefully noted the levels, finding the oil lower than he liked, though acceptably clean for the return trip. He was pleased to see the gas sitting firmly on a quarter tank. Perhaps the proprietor was not quite the scamp he had suspected him of being. Vilem stayed perched directly behind him, spreading uneasiness enough that Ferda declared himself ready to go without any further ado.
Money and keys changed hands, and the two Lanskians loaded up.
Vilem rolled his shoulder and arched his back before settling into the passenger seat. His eyes slid down to slits. “Next stop, the palace.”
“Next stop, the gas station,” corrected Ferda, flicking on a blinker.
Vilem’s eyes sprang wide.
“We can’t make the entire trip on a quarter tank of gas, and more oil would be wise,” explained Ferda. “I don’t suppose I could send you in with a description of what we needed?”
Vilem scrutinized his companion with a side look. “I don’t suppose you would stay in the car if I did.”
Ferda started to protest.
“Because,” Vilem spoke over him, “While you’re submerged in engines and oblivious to everything around you seems like a prime time to need protection.”
“I’m a driver, not a mechanic!”
Nevertheless, they both went in at the gas station. Ferda bought an extra bottle of oil just in case, and after a pause, added a gas can to fill. Outside, he sighed as he washed the windows. The whole vehicle needed cleaning, but that would have to wait until they crossed the border. Not that a thorough cleaning would do anything for the dents and cracks. Ferda sighed again before giving up.
The closer they got to the outskirts of Lusnikaghak, the more relaxed Vilem grew. He didn’t seem to notice the lopsided tug of the brakes or the whine of the accelerator or any of the army of shivers and thumps that made the driver’s knuckles grow tighter and tighter. Ferda took a deep breath and forced his hands to relax their grip.
BAM. The whole car jerked.
Vilem bolted upright, gun out. The seatbelt stiffened around him, pinning him against the seat, half strangled with flailing arms. “Fall back and trail that semi,” he croaked.
“Watch where you’re waving that gun!”
“There—shelter behind that billboard.” Vilem’s voice was hard to hear over the engine’s racket.
“Vilem, we’re not under enemy fire,” Ferda shouted back.
Ferda huffed, but jerked behind the half fallen, twisted sheet of metal and canvas.
Vilem had fought free of his seatbelt, and knelt on his seat, scanning the area for threats. He waved for the driver to get down.
Ferda slid down in his seat, his dignity stinging. Though hiding might be as dignified in such a place as displaying his face.
“Vilem, nobody shot at us. There is no reason to hide behind a decrepit billboard.”
Vilem waved at him again, this time apparently to be quiet. A minute later, he slid back down to sitting. “Attack by pothole, huh?”
“Actually, I believe it was abandonment by muffler.”
Vilem considered. “Right. That will teach me to sleep on guard duty. I suppose we should get on our way.”
Ferda glanced backward down the road. “It occurs to me that we would be abandoning the king’s muffler on the highway of a hostile nation.”
“I’m sure his majesty has better mufflers. Besides, we didn’t abandon it. It abandoned us.”
Ferda looked back one last time before merging into traffic.
The engine was loud enough it was no surprise he missed the sirens coming up on them, but was rather chagrined he did not notice them in his mirrors sooner. He was wondering what ailed the double tractor trailer pulling over behind him when a dazzle of red and blue emerged from behind it. Ferda quickly pulled over as well and waited for the police car to pass. Instead, the vehicle screamed to a stop in front of them, and slowly backed up to close the distance. A police officer in rusty brown stepped out and spoke into his radio before swaggering over.
“I didn’t think this car looked up to speeding,” said Vilem.
“I was not over the speed limit,” Ferda snapped. “I have been keeping at 63 exactly.”
Vilem looked puzzled.
“You can’t get pinned for obstruction of traffic for going only two miles under the speed limit, and it keeps faulty speed readers from marking you as speeding.”
“’Can’t’ sounds awfully strong,” Vilem said, but under his breath. The police officer was at the window.
Ferda rolled the window down.
“You know, don’t you, that evading the law can land you in jail as well as give you a hefty fine.” The stout police officer clicked his pen ready and flipped to a clean sheet in his notebook. “And that’s not even counting what you’ve already got coming.”
Ferda started to open his mouth, but closed it again. Arguing would not help. He only hoped Vilem would stop his spluttering.
“First, there’s disturbance of the peace. And then unauthorized parking—”
Vilem spat aside his spluttering. “Our muffler fell off! You can’t—”
The police officer spoke over him. “Driving a deficient vehicle on public roads, littering, spewing pollution—”
“Sir,” Ferda tried to interrupt.
“—contempt of the law.” The officer slammed down his notes against the hood of the car. “That’s the one that really irks me, you…”
His papers began to smoke. Ferda closed his eyes. Maybe it would have worked better to have just pointed at the smoke leaking out of the hood. Then again, drawing attention to a problem would be more likely to get fines for more infractions than get a problem addressed.
He opened his eyes and glanced at Vilem. The guard was too furious with the verbal assault to notice the charring papers.
“…get your hands away from that weapon!” The police officer let go of his pages to clutch menacingly at his own gun. He didn’t even notice when flames began show their heads.
Ferda leaned back. He knew it wouldn’t really protect him if the car caught on fire, but he didn’t want to get caught in crossfire between the Kevorkian police and his own body guard.
“Do you know what you could get for threatening the law?” The police officer snatched up his notepad. Immediately he dropped it and stepped back. Vilem craned forward to see what he was staring at.
“I’ll be back!” called the policeman as he retreated. “And if things aren’t fixed by then, you’ll see what trouble really is!”
“He’s just running?” Vilem asked. “Cowards are all talk.”
“Seeing as these are the same ‘cowards’ who cut short their majesties’ last visit to the country, I would prefer to be off, as well.” Ferda jumped out of the car to stamp out the fire. “Thankfully, he lost any information on us he may have jotted down, but when he’s back with reinforcements it won’t be just the king’s car that I’m supposed to deliver that will be impounded.”
“Leaving to get reinforcements?” Vilem snorted. “The first thing we were taught—”
“Be quiet and do something useful, will you?” Ferda twisted the cap off a water bottle and poured the contents over the hood. A hissing veil of steam rose. “If you went back and found that muffler, they would have one less thing to trace us by.”
Vilem tried to protest, but the driver would not listen.
“The safest thing to do right now is to move out of danger.”
Reluctantly Vilem agreed to go look for the muffler, but only if he could leave a pistol. “And you have to promise not to leave it lying on the ground or in the car. Keep it with you.”
Ferda sighed, but nodded agreement. He held the gun out in front of him, staring at it without enthusiasm for a bit before wedging the thing into his belt. Once the hood was cool enough to open safely with gloves, he began looking for the problem. A little drinking water helped cool it further. He was just wrapping up when Vilem returned.
“It’s the radiator.”
“We didn’t buy any extra radiator fluid.”
“And we don’t have the time to right now. What do you want me to do with the muffler?”
Ferda rubbed his head. “Put it in the back seat for now. Maybe when we stop, I can rig something up. Do we have any baling wire?”
A snort of laughter burst out of Vilem. “We may have to wait until we’re more rural for that. We’re fresh out of barbed wire fences here.”
“Sorry.” Vilem smiled in a lopsided way. “But you are right. We should get on the road as soon as possible.” He tossed the muffler into the backseat where Ferda put the last of the water bottles, emptied into the radiator for a temporary solution.
Ferda had climbed halfway into his seat when he remembered the gun. “Here,” he said, twisting around and wriggling it free of his belt.
A shot exploded from the handgun.
Vilem leaped, half up onto his seat and half out of the door.
Ferda stared at the hole by the stick shift, the hole in the king’s own car.
“What happened to the safety catch?”
“My question exactly!” Vilem snatched the weapon away and held it away from him to inspect as though it might catch fire. “What were you doing with it off?”
“I didn’t turn the safety off.”
“And I gave it to you with the safety on!”
“I didn’t touch it! Unless you’re suggesting the car turned it off…”
Vilem groaned and ran a hand up over his eyes. “Ferda, you are absolutely perilous when it comes to mechanics. No, no, my fault. I should have known better. What’s the damage? Can we still move?”
Ferda lingered over the ignition before finally turning the key. The car coughed and shook, but did not show any signs of immediately bursting into flame. Gingerly he eased it back onto the road. It didn’t seem to be working any worse than before.
“Vilem, would you mind looking up an alternate route?” Ferda’s voice strained. The bullet hole in His majesty’s car superimposed itself over the view from the windshield. “I don’t want to go switchbacking through unmapped country roads, but it might be just as well to find a secondary highway with a little less patrolling along it.”
“Be glad to.” The glove compartment squeaked open and crashed shut, then rustling came from the passenger’s door pocket. “I don’t suppose you brought any maps, did you?”
Ferda chewed on his lip. “There’s my essential pocket road atlas in with my personal things. It has a double page spread on Kevorkia, but it is rather basic.”
“In that case all the roads on it should be major routes.” Vilem dug around in Ferda’s little green shag carpet bag and pulled out a slim leather volume.
Two police cars passed on the other side of the divided highway before they turned off onto a slightly quieter road, but no one tried to pull them over for muffler violations.
Towns on this road were fewer, and it was half an hour before they found a gas station to stop at. After refilling the gas tank, Ferda pulled into a parking spot at the side of the building. He couldn’t properly fix the muffler, but found supplies to rig it up to be quieter. What he didn’t find was radiator fluid.
“Out,” explained the employee.
“Out.” Ferda took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Very well. I’ll be right back in.” If they couldn’t purchase radiator fluid, they could at least refill those water bottles in case of an emergency. He opened the car’s back door. “Vilem, do you know where—”
“Watch it.” Vilem jerked his head toward a car cruising into the parking lot. It was a police car. “I think we’d better get going before we attract attention. We can worry about the fluids later.”
Ferda bit his lip, but slid back into the car. He clicked his seatbelt on, turned the key, and shifted into reverse. The gears did not engage. The car continued its waiting growl, but did not move.
“Ferda, we need to get going.”
Ferda slipped into forward and eased off the brake. The car went inched forward.
Vilem grabbed hard at his door and the side of his chair. “Backward would be less conspicuous.”
“I think we’re having issues with backward.” Ferda tried reverse again, but nothing engaged.
“It worked fine before.”
“I’m thinking that was before it got shot.”
Vilem slumped down and put his head in his hands. “Right. So what’s the plan, auto man?”
“We have a choice. We could either go forward and make a tight turn, or put the car in neutral and push it out backwards. Which would you call the least conspicuous?”
Vilem stared at the space between them and the building. They had parked a little out from the sidewalk to give Ferda more space to work, but the area was still constricted. “How tightly does this thing turn?”
“Even being familiar with a model is not enough to answer that question,” said Ferda. “You have to have experience with the individual vehicle.” He shifted back into forward.
“And there’s just one way to get experience.” Vilem gritted his teeth. “Just stop before we go crashing through a window. That would be a hundred times worse than pushing the thing backwards. At least pushing we could pretend we were bringing it to a repair shop.”
They might have made it if the sidewalk had not had such a steep curb. The incline pushed into their angle.
“I don’t think I can watch,” Vilem said in a strangled voice, eyes fixed to the brick wall looming by their bumper. He braced himself back against his seat.
“Leave the driving to me and worry about the people. Are the police gone yet?” Ferda continued to ease the car forward, leaning the wheel as hard to left as it would go. The steering ground, but they moved slowly enough that they could conceivably miss catching any notice.
“I—” Vilem sucked in his breath as the side view mirror clunked against the wall. He twisted around to look back. “Here comes one. And a clipboard, it looks like.”
Ferda frowned, considering the side road. If they were up against a window, he wouldn’t keep pushing. But if this police officer was as ticket happy as the last, their trip home might seriously be delayed. His job was to deliver this car to the King, not get it impounded. He tapped the accelerator, leaning heavier than ever on the wheel. The car surged forward. The mirror scraped, ground, and then cracked. It scraped along the building, sparking a couple of times, as Ferda straightened to drive parallel to the building.
“Don’t go so fast!” cried Vilem.
“You can complain about my speed when I hit twenty.” A glance into the rearview mirror told Ferda both that they were nearly clear of the building and that the police officer was now running toward them. With a precise push, he fed more gas into the engine. They peeled away from the gas station, scraping the back bumper and pushing past the prescribed twenty miles an hour by the time they reached the exit drive. Ferda did not slow down. He had timed his exit to put a cattle truck between him and any pursuing driver. It was not a perfect plan, but might buy them a little time, and would certainly help hide them from sight for a bit.
The engine hiccoughed as he began to turn, but he was too far committed to back off. The cattle truck was coming. Ferda gunned the engine, and the car leaped forward.
Vilem screamed. He looked in the rearview mirror and screamed again.
“Are they following us?” Ferda asked.
“Suchy, you are insane!”
Ferda sighed. “Well, then, at least help me navigate. I want to get back onto the highway by a different route so we don’t have go past the same gas station.”
After turning into a residential area to throw off possible pursuit and becoming tangled in that mess of streets, they eventually found a highway out of town. It was not the same road, but was at least going in the generally right direction. The towns were fewer and smaller. The first one barely had a gas station. Vilem and Ferda exchanged glances.
“How’s our gas?” Vilem asked.
“Fair. I think we can risk getting farther away before stopping.”
“Good. We probably want to do something about our mirror before stopping someplace public anyway.”
“Mmm.” Ferda refrained from pointing out that stopping by the side of road had caused more trouble so far than stopping in gas stations.
Five miles down the road, the engine overheated again. Ferda pulled into a field entrance.
“Next time we find a town, I’ll let you stop and buy as many fluids as you want,” Vilem promised.
Ferda swallowed a sigh. “Help me find the water bottles,” he said. “There’s bound to be a farmhouse before we get back to town.” He nodded toward the tractor trudging through the field in front of them.
Vilem looked at him. “Water bottles? You mean those empty water bottles lying all over the back seat?”
“Ah. I’m afraid I cleaned out the back seat while you were working on the muffler.”
Silence greeted this statement.
“Left them in…well, they looked like trash to me.”
Ferda closed his eyes. “And how do you propose we get water for the radiator, pray tell?”
Vilem looked at the thirty-two ounce cup in his hand. “I suppose I could dump out my soda.”
“Your soda! Do you have any idea how many trips it would take to get enough water from a fountain cup to help a radiator?”
“All right, all right, I’m sure we can find something in the car.”
After much searching, Vilem held out the gas can. Ferda frowned slightly and started to open his mouth, then blanched and flinched back. “No,” he said.
“It’s the only container we have in here.”
“No! Vilem, it’s full of gasoline!”
Vilem sighed. “I meant to empty it first, not pour gasoline into the radiator.”
Ferda stammered and fluttered his hands in half formed gestures.
“You can empty it into the gas tank. There should be some room, seeing as we didn’t stop for gas.”
“Here.” Vilem walked over to the fuel door. There was no finger hold to open it. He flicked out a pocket knife and bent over to find the best place to pry it open. It popped open and bonked him on the nose.
“I-it needs a key, too.” Ferda walked over while Vilem rubbed his nose. “Popped the catch in the front,” he explained, fumbling with the keys. On a second try, the cap came off.
Most of the gas fit. Vilem sloshed the last inch. “Not bad,” he said hopefully.
Dismay still scribed itself all over Ferda’s face. “It will still have gasoline traces, even if we—” He choked. “—dump the rest out.”
“Suchy, it’s either the gas can or the cup. Your choice.”
“You don’t understand! I shot King Risa’s car! Shot it! Then I ripped off a mirror and overheated the engine, and that doesn’t count the muffler that fell off on its own account. Gasoline in the radiator would cause even more problems than I know.”
“Well, I guess we could just leave it here at the side of the road.”
Ferda stared at him.
“We could find a tow truck in Lansky to—”
“No.” Ferda snatched the can and strode over to the ditch. “My mission is to deliver this car to my king, and that is what I am going to do.” His voice cracked as he poured the last of the gasoline into the weeds. “Just think what a heyday of fines and regulations the Kevorkian police would throw at a truck towing over the border.”
The walk to a farmhouse was longer than they had hoped. They were approaching the outskirts of town before they found one. Vilem entertained the five growling dogs while Ferda knocked on the door and tried not to smell nervous.
The knocks had gone from polite to loud to worried before someone cracked the door. Ferda waved the gas can and explained their need of water for a broken car radiator, but the door did not pull back to show more than an eye peering out. He tried emphasizing the need and the small amount of water needed to fill their container. The only answering sound was that of the dogs behind him. He outright asked for water, considering kneeling and begging, but was afraid the owner of that unfriendly eye would set the dogs on him if he got down.
“Well,” said a rough woman’s voice. “I suppose there’s the old pump. You’ll have to do your own pumping, though. An’ be careful of the dogs.”
Ferda bowed in thanks and carefully backed off the porch. It took a few minutes to find the pump, with claims on his attention from both the dogs and the eye that still peered through the crack of the door at them. The pump ended up buried in brambles halfway between the driveway and the clothesline.
It took two tries to get the pump going, and then on the third the handle came off. Ferda quickly pushed it back on and kept his pushing close to the base of the handle. His shoes were soaked through by the time enough water made it into the can to fill it—and the soda cup, for good measure. By the time they were back to where they had pulled over, the dusk made it hard to see where the car was.
“I’m sure it’s right up there,” said Vilem, peering into the dark.
Ferda sighed. This was the second time Vilem had been sure they were coming to the spot.
“If only the farmer hadn’t gone home yet.” Only ten minutes ago, the lumbering tractor had passed them, lights bobbing.
“No need. It’s right up here.” Vilem ran up to a field entrance. “I remember it.” He sniffed deeply. “And I can smell gasoline.”
“But it’s not here.” Ferda gestured to the carless space. “We need to go farther. Until we find tractor lights.”
“He went home.”
“I’m wrong. It must have been a different tractor. He couldn’t have left the field we were at because the car—” He started and shared a horrified look with Vilem. “The car was in the way!”
Dropping their water, they began to run around, looking for signs of a misplaced car. Vilem found it half-way down the ditch on the other side of the road.
The ditch was deep and rock strewn. The two Lanskians climbed down to survey the damage.
“Did he kill it?” asked Vilem.
“Not that I can tell. Of course, it’s hard to tell in the dark, and hard to get at in this angle.”
“How are we supposed to get this thing out?” Vilem kicked at a tire.
Vilem groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding. Ferda, I’m ready to give up. Let’s just leave it here and tell the king it’s a piece of junk that couldn’t make it back.”
The driver glared at him. “Take the next taxi home, is that it? Listen, even if we had another way to get home right now, this is my commission, and I am not leaving it behind.” He slapped the hood. “Do you hear? So go get your flashlight out and I’ll change the tire.”
The car did not have a jack of its own, and Ferda’s personal emergency kit did not have anything that fit quite right, but with improvisions using an allen wrench, wire, tape, and three tools from Vilem’s army knife, he exchanged the flat for the spare. Getting back up onto the road was no easier, but eventually, covered in sweat and dirt, they loaded back in. Vilem complained that the car felt like it was tipped toward the new tire. Ferda did not answer, but from time to time traced his fingers over the royal coat of arms on the dash.
“Don’t you need a drink break or something?” complained Vilem. “I think this thing is getting more lame with every mile. It’s not just limping now, it’s moaning.”
“It’s not the tire. That’s the engine.”
“What?” Vilem jerked forward. “Maybe we should stop. It’s too dark to see when the radiator starts smoking.”
Ferda sighed. “Feel that…there? It’s not the radiator that’s the problem. Or at least, not only the radiator.”
“You’re the navigator.”
“Right.” Vilem flicked his flashlight back on and started looking for a town.
Almost two hours later, they found a gas station to pull into. Ferda glided to a stop beside a pump and parked. He stretched as the engine stopped, glad for the break.
The parking lot lights blinked off.
“What—oh, no,” said Vilem as the station worker flicked off the building lights, too, and stepped out the door. Vilem sprang out his door and dashed up to the worker. Ferda scurried after, hoping to encourage the encounter to be a little less confrontational.
Vilem had the worker cornered against the door of the service station, key still in the door.
“Don’t fear,” said Ferda. “We aren’t planning any violence.” He glared at his companion, who leaned over like a vulture over a dying animal. “We just wanted to catch you before you finished closing for the night. It’s hard to find a gas station around here.”
“You want gas?” The station worker suspiciously eyed Vilem’s weapons.
“We want to buy gas,” Ferda assured him. “And water.”
“And batteries,” added Vilem. “The way we’re going, I’m going to run out.”
“No car batteries,” objected the station worker.
“Not for the car. For this.” Vilem waved his flashlight at the man.
“Too late. Already closed.”
“Ah, but only mostly,” Ferda said. “Surely you can spare a few minutes for one last paying customer.” He stressed the word, paying.
“Already closed. I would need an opening fee.”
“How about the cost of two extra gallons of gas—one for opening back up, and one for having to reclose.”
The man looked at him with slightly lowered eyelids. “Also overtime.”
Ferda considered, then offered the equivalent of hour’s pay for cheap labor. The man looked offended. “You think I am railhand?”
“You think we’re going to take an hour?” muttered Vilem while Ferda bartered for an acceptable price.
Inside, they loaded their arms with water. Vilem reached for a bottle of radiator fluid, but Ferda shook his head. “I don’t know if we can afford to add anything to the list now that we’ve made it.”
“Change of plans fee?” Vilem asked sourly. “You’d think he’d be happy to sell his stuff, not squawking like we were robbing him.” He dumped his water bottles by the cash register, but frowned when they were rung up. “That’s not the price—”
“After hours price.” The Kevorkian raised his eyebrows. “You want them reshelved?”
Vilem scowled, but kept his mouth shut. He didn’t need Ferda stepping all over his toes to know that reshelving would only be another fee.
Outside, Vilem pumped gas while Ferda checked the radiator.
“There’s still a little water left,” he said. “It wasn’t the radiator we were hearing.”
“If this thing breaks down on our way out of the parking lot, I vote we use it to sleep in tonight and find a tow truck in the morning.”
“I know, I know. Silly of me to complain, really. Driving seems to be the hard half of this job.”
“For beak and talon, then?”
Vilem gravely nodded toward the panel in the dashboard. “Beak and talon.”
The car exited the gas station without problem. The rest seemed to have done it good, for it did not shake again until a few miles out of town.
Little by little, dark and quiet took over. Vilem yawned. “No stars. I hope it doesn’t rain. I’d hate to have to test out this thing’s windshield wipers.” He yawned again.
“You could probably take a nap. We seem to be safe enough.”
Vilem considered. “Maybe a catnap. The road does seem to be abandoned.”
The drive continued fairly smoothly until a few hours after midnight when they came to some hills. The engine strained and coughed as they inched upwards. Ferda listened anxiously, hoping none of the other gears had been harmed by the gunshot.
“Problems?” Vilem asked sleepily.
“Not yet.” Ferda coaxed the vehicle up a few more feet. “I think we’ll make it to the top.”
“Just as long as we don’t overheat and catch fire.”
They came to a shuddering stall right before the crest, but then the engine caught and they cruised down. The second hill was no better. Ferda had to use the emergency brake to keep from rolling back twice.
“How many of these do we have?” asked Vilem as a third hill rose into sight.
“I think this one’s shorter,” said Ferda.
“I hope so.”
The car ground under them, protesting at the mere taste of an incline.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Vilem murmered as the car shuddered and stuttered slowly closer to the top of the hill. They had almost reached the summit when the power whined down. Not only the engine slowed, but the headlights dimmed and the dashboard snuffed out.
“Oh no you’re not,” cried Vilem, flinging his seatbelt off. “We’re making it if I have to push!”
“Vilem—” Ferda’s protest was cut off with the slam of the passenger’s door. “Just don’t get run over,” he muttered.
With the engine and brake taking turns stuttering, they finally reached the top. As soon as the car’s nose started to tip downward, Ferda planted the brakes to give his friend a chance to get back into the car. The engine died.
“What’s the diagnosis, doctor?” asked Vilem when he hopped back in.
“Not good, but it didn’t look like we had any more climbs to make.” Ferda gripped the steering wheel harder than normal
“From what you can see in the dark.”
“True. This side doesn’t have a long slope before it plateaus, so I thought we would try gliding to a stop and see if it starts up better on flat land.”
Vilem nodded, and Ferda released the brakes. The rolling swoosh did not take long to even out and slow down. The two men sat quietly for several minutes, listening to the clicking of heated parts.
“Well,” Ferda finally said, “I suppose we should try again.”
“Yes, I suppose we should.”
He timidly turned the key. A long dry cough racked the ignition before it finally caught.
Vilem leaned back in relief, but Ferda leaned forward. “Something’s wrong with the lights,” he said. He toggled the controls. “They won’t come out of the parking lights. And the dashboard is so dim I can’t read it properly.”
“At this point, what I want to do is advise you to drive as quickly as possible, speed limits be stoned. Want to.” Vilem held up his hands to ward off the answering protest. “The last thing we want is another run in with the police, and that’s assuming the parking lights are strong enough to warn of impending doom before we drive off a broken bridge or something. But I’m starting to think that we’re in a race against time here. It would be a pity if the time bomb exploded right before we crossed the border because we had to drive slowly.”
Ferda leaned gently on the accelorater and manuevered around a pothole. “Really, there’s really no…” His voice trailed off, and the car followed suite.
“What’s the matter?” asked Vilem.
“There are no blinkers.” Strain edged Ferda’s voice. He sat poised in the same position as when driving, but now his eyes were closed, and his body showing more tension than his voice.
“I just changed lanes, but they wouldn’t come on.”
“Guess we should have picked up some blinker fluid, too.”
“Vilem Vabrec!” Only the seatbelt held Ferda from shooting out of his seat. “This is not a joke! We have no blinkers! None! They don’t even click on, ba-blink, ba-blink, ba-blink inside. I can’t drive like that. Even if you could plot a course with no turns—not one!—what about pulling off for gas or changing lanes or—” His voice broke, and he crumpled into his seat. “I can’t do it. I can’t.”
“I give up,” he whispered.
Vilem lay a hand on the driver’s shoulder. He sat quietly for a few moments, then lifted the driver’s hand and laid it against the eagle and double coronet on the panel. “Beak and talon, remember? Here, tell you what. Do you have a flashlight in that kit of yours? If you need blinkers to drive, I can sit on the hood and blink with our flashlights whenever you need me to.”
“I think, all things considering, the hood may be too hot to sit on.” Ferda’s voice wavered and cracked still.
“Lay on the car top, then. Since we already decided you won’t be speeding.”
“Vilem…thank you…” Ferda pressed his lips together. “If you’re sure…I mean, maybe it isn’t…it isn’t…exactly…” He took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “Maybe I should just…”
The lights dimmed further.
“It looks like we might be needing those flashlights anyway,” said Vilem.
“How bright are they?”
“Enough to keep going. Come on. The sooner we start, the closer we get to home. I think I’d rather be doing this in the dark than in the light.”
The driver’s window resisted opening, but they managed to crack it enough to communicate with Ferda cranking and Vilem pulling down, the window sandwiched between his palms. The other window opened easier, and they strung a rope harness through them and over the roof to help Vilem stay on.
The lights never went completely out again, but came close enough several times that Vilem kept both flashlights on. The one car they passed that night drove by as Vilem sliding down for a break from bracing himself spreadeagled. He gave them a stiff little wave as their headlights twitched a swerve.
“Bet they’ve never seen that before,” Vilem said, leaning against the side of the car.
“As long as they don’t come back to see it again,” answered Ferda.
The last two hours before dawn Vilem especially struggled to stay awake. He caught himself short of dropping the flashlights several times.
“Do you need another break?” Ferda called up.
“No.” Vilem dropped his voice to a whisper. “I just need to be finished.”
The horizon was beginning to look suspiciously grey and Ferda was nervously looking for signs of farmers coming out to their fields when a bang rocked the car.
“Watch it!” called Vilem, scratching for a hold as his head and shoulders jolted over the windshield. A flashlight tumbled to the ground.
The car rolled to a stop.
“Worse,” said Ferda.
Immediately, Vilem dropped off the side of the car and stumbled into a crouch. He reached for his gun.
“No, it’s the engine,” said Ferda. “I don’t think it’s going to go again.”
“Let’s take a look.” Vilem looked down at the flashlight he was still holding, and then blearily looked around for the other. Ferda popped the hood before he could find it, so he stopped to light the engine for his partner.
Several minutes confirmed Ferda’s prediction. He dropped the hood and shook his head. Moments ticked by, greying the black sky more and more. The two men looked at each other. Vilem cocked an eyebrow and tipped out a crooked smile.
Slowly, one corner of Ferda’s mouth began to quirk up, too. He nodded. Without a word, they both walked to the back of the car and began to push.
Slowly, the sky lightened. Slowly, the the car moved. Slowly, more drivers came out on the roads.
Pink gilded the sky.
“The good news is, I think I can see the border,” Vilem gasped as yet another car passed.
“The bad news is, I think I hear a siren,” Ferda groaned.
Vilem glanced around the car again. “Definitely the border.”
They dug their feet in and tried to push faster.
Now the siren distinct: faint, but no longer fading in the wind.
Vilem imagined he could smell the sweet air of Lansky.
“We’re not going fast enough!” said Ferda as another car passed, screeching on its horn.
“Keep pushing. We’re getting closer.”
“Not as close as the siren.”
It was true. The siren swell was strong and loud now, almost upon them.
“It could be headed…for someone else,” said Vilem.
“It will stop. We aren’t going to make it,” said Ferda.
“Keep pushing. Keep—Suchy!”
It was too late. Ferda let go of the car. He scrambled to the roof of the vehicle and stood, waving his arms. “Help! In the name of King Risa, help!”
Ferda could see the border guards looking their way, but no one moved from his post. He dropped to his knees. “In the name of the king…” Tears ran down his cheeks.
A brief beep from behind made Vilem jump. A car had nosed up, almost bumper to bumper. “Go around!” yelled Vilem. “We can’t go any faster.”
The driver waved him to get aside. Vilem turned away and began pushing again. The other car beeped again and nosed closer. Vilem jumped up onto the back of the king’s car to avoid being caught between the bumpers.
Once the bumpers settled together, the driver behind gunned his engine. Both cars began to move.
“Suchy! Suchy! Get down and drive this thing!” called Vilem.
Ferda did not move.
“It’s going to be alright,” whispered the driver, his eyes fixed on the border guards busy on clearing the path for their entry. “It’s going to be alright.”
“I would still feel better with you at the wheel instead of just those ropes we rigged,” said Vilem.
The car behind pushed them past the borderline just as the Kevorkian police car wailed up. The driver stuck his head out of the window. “Long live King Risa!” he called cheerfully, then backed away to start on the prescribed crossing procedures.
“They’re going to nail him for us, aren’t they?” said Vilem.
“We’ll see what we can do to help,” said one of the border guards. “Look, there’s Michal heading that direction already.” He studied the car. “It looks like you could use a tow truck. Got any papers?”
“Do we ever,” said Vilem as he and Ferda pulled out their commissions.
Ferda stood at attention, only his stiffness betraying the nerves plaguing him as the tow truck rolled in with its burden. Besides the usual number of drivers and mechanics, Jozka stood waiting at the garage. As soon as the tow truck left, the steward strode toward the deteriorating vehicle. Ferda tried not to wince as Jozka opened the door. He had not yet been called on to give a full report, and did not relish confessing to have shot out the reverse gear of the king’s car.
The old steward did not so much as glance at the controls. His hands went straight to the panel bearing the king’s coat of arms. With one finger he traced the arch of the eagle’s wing, and then pushed down hard. Then his other hand twisted at the coronet. The panel popped open.
Ferda stared as Jozka carefully drew out a padded box. The steward saw his look and smiled.
“You know how their majesties were forced to leave suddenly last time they visited Kevorkia,” he said. “Under cover, one might even say. When they left, they were unable to bring away the crown jewels they had with them. We managed to hide them—the Kevorkians only laid hands on the king’s cufflinks—but could not bring them away for being watched. That information couldn’t be allowed to become public, you understand. Now, you have safely returned one of Lansky’s greatest treasures. You have done well, Ferda Suchy.”
Jozka turned away, his face for the palace and his back to the king’s car. Ferda could only stare after him.