STRATAGEM Chapter 13
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, NEW YORK
IMPOSSIBLE! How could they survive that? Was he hallucinating? Derek blinked and shook his head. No one could get run over by a car, struck head-on, and just get up like those people back there.
Add to his rap sheet: Vehicular Manslaughter, Attempted Murder—with a deadly Ford Fusion.
It was self-defense!
Hulk continued to bark.
Eyes wide, Paige covered her ears.
“Down, Hulk!” He glanced back and continued driving toward the highway. “You okay, Paige?”
“Uh-huh.” She reached over and put her arms around the Corgi, who calmed down and sat across her lap.
“Did you get hurt?”
She shook her head. “No, just scared.”
Hopefully, she hadn’t seen or realized the degree of violence that had just occurred back outside the police station.
“So…those two back there? The ones who tried to take you away—they’re not your parents?”
“Then who were they?”
Paige shrugged and pet Hulk from head to tail. “I don’t know.”
“But I saw them with you this morning before I took you to the hospital.”
“Mommy and Daddy were sick this morning. They wouldn’t wake up. I went outside to look for help. That man and that lady said they were going to drive me to school.”
“Do you know them?”
“Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to get in a car with strangers?”
Their eyes met in the rearview mirror. The irony hit him like a baseball bat.
“Are you a stranger?” Paige asked.
“Well, yes. I am.”
“They said they were gonna help me, just like you did.”
They were coming up to the George Washington Bridge. Derek took a quick scan of the area. Everything appeared normal—the usual bottleneck of cars leading up to the toll booths in either direction. The entire tri-state area, if not the entire world must have heard about the plane crash, but did they have any idea of all the other bizarre things happening? The televised news report showed people clueless of all the dead people at the hospital, the ones at the police station, and the swath of destruction that followed him from the Upper West Side.
Derek slowed the car to a crawl with about four ahead of him and leaned back. “Paige, listen. Hulk and I really are going to help you, ok?”
She smiled, rubbed Hulk’s belly, causing him to stomp his hindfoot. “I know,” she laughed.
Thank God that ghastly couple who he’d tried to kill—or stop, or whatever—were not, in fact, Paige’s parents. In all likelihood, they had already fallen victim to the same fate as those who had died at the hospital and precinct.
So many questions, so little made sense.
Had to call and make sure Mom was safe, though. He reached for his phone but realized he never got it back after the arrest. It was somewhere in the station and there was no way he could go back there.
“Where are we going?”
Indeed, where were they going? His first thought was to bring her back to her parents. But they were gone and any attempts at going back to the city would surely put them both all in danger.
“I’m taking you to meet my mother,” Derek said. “She bakes the most amazing chocolate chip cookies.”
“Soft, hot, and chewy. How does that sound?”
The driver behind them leaned on the horn.
Derek threw his hands up. “All right, all right!”
The lane was clear up to the toll booth. He drove up in a hurry.
Just as he pulled up to the attendant, he realized he didn’t have his wallet.
“What’s wrong?” Paige asked.
The tollbooth worker folded her arms and glared at him.
The car behind him honked again.
Derek blew out a frustrated breath. Once again, he found himself in a “stolen” vehicle, but without a phone or wallet, and no way to pay the toll.
He lowered his window and grinned at the attendant. “Here’s the thing…”
“What are you, stupid?” she said.
More angry honks from behind, two or three cars this time.
“It’s just…I don’t have my wallet—”
“You got an EZ pass, man!” She waved him on. “Quit holding everyone up, you idiot!”
“Oh, right! Yeah, my bad! You have a great d—”
“Get outta here already!” An entire chorus of dissonant car horns joined in.
“Okay, see ya!” Derek rolled up the window and drove out…slowly. “You all need to use the magic words.”
Paige got up and turned around, leaning on the seatback. “Yeah! Magic words, you meanies!”
Hulk stood on his hind legs and joined her with a few choice barks and growls.
Dodged that one, thank God. First good turn of the day. Derek let out a slow breath and made his way to the bridge. Blue skies above, the Hudson River below, and Fort Lee across. The fuel gauge indicated a nearly full tank, so he’d be able to make it straight to Mom’s in Columbia without any issues.
“Hey…” Paige called out, sounding offended. “That’s not my name!”
“What?” Derek glanced back. She was pointing to something outside.
“My name’s Paige!”
In the driver’s side rearview mirror, the digital billboard atop the toll plaza displayed a photo of Paige, with detailed information too small to read at this distance. But the words in bold font read: