SPLAT CHAPTER ONE
October 4, 2007
Damn, I missed.
Out of the corner of her eye Suzie caught a flash of international safety orange disappearing over the barrier, making a clear path for a fraction of a second, arching over the hood of a red pickup in the passing lane. She steered with her left hand and pumped off two more shots, aiming at the windshield.
Another miss. Damn. And another. Shit.
She was weaving in and out of the lane, swearing at the guy, her car jerking with every shot. She was seething with frustration. The driver of the other vehicle noticed nothing, even as a slow barrage of orange paintballs crossed his windshield. He was on the phone, and could only see things right in front of him, and only if they didn’t move. Like the road stretching on ahead, which was clear and unchanging because he was single handedly blocking all the traffic on the road behind him. And there she was, trying to kill him. And he never noticed.
Suzie turned her attention to the traffic for a moment as they went around a bend, and then matched speed with him again and aimed a shot at his passenger side window. She decided that trying to hit his windshield presented too many physics problems at the moment, and went for the cheap hit. If I can’t kill him, at least I can put the fear of God in him, she thought. She squeezed the trigger, and heard a click, but no pop.
Empty. Feh. With a bleat of frustration Suzie threw the gun down onto the floor of the passenger side. It was a cheapo starter paintgun that only held ten rounds, passed down to her when one of her roommates got tired of it. But she had been practicing. And she was in hot pursuit. And she was out of paintballs.
Sniping 101: It’s not easy to hit a moving target head on sideways through sixty-mile-an-hour winds. She was going to have to figure in the air resistance of a marble-sized plastic ball. She was going to have to figure out crosswinds and parabolic trajectories. She knew she’d get a headache trying to figure it out.
She was disappointed in herself, and was glad her dad couldn’t see her. She promised herself that the first chance she got, she was going to get away to the hideout and practice with moving targets, something on a rope swung from a big branch.
She was also going to have to figure out a way to load more paintballs. Hoppers that sat on top of the barrel of the gun were just too visible in a car where just anybody could look inside and see what you were doing. If she was going to be Vigilante Of The Year then she was going to have to remain below all sorts of radar. Waving her starter paintgun around was bad enough, but at least she could keep it mostly below the level of the door, and maybe work on disguising it somehow.
Suzie was still riding next to her intended target. He was still driving in the passing lane, and had no idea that this was his lucky day because she was out of ammo. So she shoved her middle finger out the window at him, also unnoticed, and then worked her way over into the right lane and took the next exit.
She thought about logistics. She was way out I-20 west of town, almost to Douglasville. She could get back on the highway going east and take 285 around to 75 south. There wasn’t much traffic right now, it was two in the afternoon. It shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes to get down to see her boyfriend Nelson, and she had plenty of time before work. Unless there was an accident. She looked out the window at the passing scenery. It was a nice day. She decided to take the back roads anyway, see some countryside on the way to Riverdale. Suzie reached into her heart and pulled out all her rage and flung it out the window like a girl with a Care Bear in her bag.
The guy in the red pickup had been bothering her for miles, driving in the passing lane. A lane meant for passing, she had thought furiously at him. You goddamned redneck. Something about the way he drove pressed a button, and she’d been indulging in road rage again. She had this thing about drivers with less than courteous manners and less than average driving skills.
Suzie had noticed him ten minutes earlier when she was getting onto the Connector downtown. She’d been on the Freedom Parkway overpass, merging southbound on I-75/85 just before the east-west I-20 interchange. She’d noticed him driving erratically below. He stuck out as the problem vehicle in six lanes of slowing, crowded highway.
His was a large red pickup in the passing lane going first faster, then suddenly slower than everyone else as he realized he had to cross six lanes of traffic to make his exit onto I-20. What an idiot, she thought. Right where traffic gets sticky and he’s in the left lane being macho.
It was the Grady Curve, mentioned in every rush-hour traffic report. A wide bend in a congested area right in the middle of Atlanta, where two major north-south interstate highways cross a major east-west interstate highway. the bends were the designer’s little joke on everybody. Hours of disruption every day; hundreds of thousands of drivers tailgating through crowded downtown exit and entrance ramps. It was always a bottleneck. Right in the dead center of town, a city in the middle of the forest, with five million people and eight million cars.
Suzie had just come out for her patrol and had been scouting for her first offender when she spotted the red F-350. He nearly rammed her trying to cross over to his exit to I-20, and from that point on, he was her suspect.
They both pulled into a lane at the same time from opposite directions, she with her signal flashing, he swerving unannounced into the hole she was edging into. Suzie first thought he must be drunk. He was a crew-cut white guy in a white t-shirt, kind of beefy-looking. He had Douglas County plates, a plastic trash bag flapping in the bed of his truck, and a Heritage Not Hate license tag frame.
He’d gone from the passing lane through three lanes to almost hit Suzie, and was pulling over another lane to the right. Traffic was slowing and car distances were only slightly larger than a car length as cars backed up around the Grady Curve.
He shouldered into the next lane, causing the guy he cut in front of to swerve and brake suddenly, and then he pulled into the next right lane with barely a glance to see who he was displacing. I’m right, Suzie could almost hear him exuding. I’m important. Fuck y’all.
Suzie saw him thrusting into her lane and had to hit the brakes to avoid his rear bumper. This in turn frightened the guy behind her who was too close to begin with, and he put his brakes on, and the guy behind him had to put his brakes on when he saw it, and if it had been any closer to rush hour, it would have turned into a slowdown all the way back to Tenth Street.
When she saw him horning in front of her, Suzie’s first thought was to creep up behind the car in front of her and squeeze him out, but he barged in anyway. She gave way only because he was so much bigger and so much more determined, and he grinned as he pulled in front of her and then proceeded to barrel his way into the exit lane just as the white line changed from dotted to solid, and the I-20 traffic split off from the I-75/85 traffic.
On impulse she followed him, hurrying to the right across the solid line and taking a graceful merge between two cars, waving thanks to the car behind her. She briefly noticed a gaggle of homeless guys sitting under the bridge watching traffic. They looked happy in the warm spring sunlight; amused.
She brought her attention back to the asshole in the truck. Did I see a nice big victorious grin on your face? she wondered. Just ram your big old truck in front of me and everybody else with barely a glance? Didn’t even look. Wouldn’t care if you sideswiped me. Probly don’t even have insurance, and you for sure wouldn’t stop even if you did. Would it be the end of the world to miss the exit and go around? No, but you’ve got to come all the way over no matter what kind of trouble you cause. You’ve just got to ride in the passing lane. You probly cut across all those lanes of traffic every day.
She merged with I-20 traffic westbound, and drove down the road with him for a few miles, hanging back, watching. Just as he did on the Connector, he got into the left lane and stayed there. It was early afternoon and there wasn’t much traffic. The road was moving at 75 miles an hour right through the middle of downtown Atlanta. The guy and his red pickup were four or five cars ahead of her, and thin as the traffic was, it was still starting to back up behind him waiting for him to get over so they could pass on his right. Like they’re supposed to, she thought approvingly. Using the passing lane. The lane designated for passing slower traffic. Asshole. She looked viciously at his car.
Suzie inched up through traffic to get closer to him. She was driving a ’94 Dodge Doohickey two-door automatic six-cylinder POS that got twenty-eight miles to the gallon, catching up to a Ford 350 truck with wheels the size of her door. Normally a truck like that would leave her in the dust. But she had a mission. And she was determined. And he was driving erratically. And he was on the phone.
She saw this with intense disapproval. He was looking straight ahead. Driving at the same speed as the guy on his right, probably subconsciously. He was blocking, she counted, six cars who wanted to be on their way. Talking on the cellphone, his brain the size of a pea, his vision narrowed to a cone, his eyes glazed over. He’d stopped making sense of what was going on around him. All his attention was on his conversation. And what could be so important? His job, his girlfriend, his buddy, a bill collector? She started screaming at him. ‘Look at what you’re doing to the road!’
She was even with him and two lanes over to the right, gripping the steering wheel with superhuman strength. Her costume itched as she began to sweat. She scratched with the tips of her driving gloves; the fishnet weave made a great scratcher, and besides, she bit her nails. Her windows were down halfway and there was a nice cool breeze, but the sun was out and she could feel the sizzle right through the windshield. The road was going 58 because of the red Ford.
Four lanes; people in the slow lanes driving 55; people in the next left lane doing 60, the leftmost two lanes should be doing 65 and up to 75 except for this redneck just sitting at the head of a clump of traffic, in the passing lane, forcing anyone who wanted to pass to go around to the right. Which in case he didn’t know, she pointed out to herself, is illegal. She shook her first at him violently. The cars in back of him were flashing their lights and tailgating trying to give him the message, but he was on the phone, and probably unaware that he was in the passing lane at all.
So one car after another jerked into the next lane, whipped around him to the right, and then came back into the lane in front of him to continue on their journey. Suzie saw at least one finger and heard several honks. But he never noticed. His windows were up, loud country music was on the radio, he was shouting into his phone, his brainstem maybe the only part of him paying attention to the road. And maybe not.
As a fifth car finally swerved past him, she saw him finish his call. He put his phone down, put both hands on the wheel, looked around for the first time in minutes, and sped up to 70.
Suzie became aware of other things as she relaxed her obsession with the guy’s bad driving habits. I-20 had was now cruising through the treed, genteel area called West End, a turn of the last century area of old Queen Anne houses with twelve-foot porches under ancient trees. A great, old, upper middle class black neighborhood. Now and then the gable of a house could be seen through the greenery. Traffic was thinning out as the pickup stopped blocking the flow. Cars settled into their preferred lanes and relaxed into a constant speed and generous spacing as the road gentled its way through the trees toward I-285 and the Chattahoochee River. The red truck was still in the left lane, but he was passing the slower cars like he was supposed to, and generally behaving himself.
Suzie backed off her stalking and let him get further ahead of her. If he was being reasonable, there was no point getting all upset about him. There were plenty of bad drivers to choose from in Atlanta. She looked through a gap as she passed the exit to MLK Drive, the road peering over the tops of trees for a moment as it rounded a bend, looking out over a sea of green.
The pod of traffic she was riding in crossed over the I-285 interchange, everyone driving at a safe distance from each other, letting merging cars and trucks integrate without any crowding. And this was how it was supposed to work. There were both left and right exits onto the Perimeter, and huge big heavy trucks were allowed, for one mile only, to use all six lanes of traffic to get into position for their exits. An asshole driving in the left lane at the wrong time could screw the process right up.
Suzie loved to drive: it brought her such peace. Except for the idiot drivers. She had a real problem with bad drivers. Her dad had a real problem with bad drivers. All her dad’s trucker buddies had a real problem with bad drivers, especially around Atlanta, where there were bad drivers from all over the country who moved here just so they could screw up traffic on a daily basis.
Then Suzie saw the driver of the red F350 weave and jerk as he picked up the phone again, flipped it open and started pushing buttons. His foot let up on the gas pedal and he began to slow down the moment he put the phone to his ear. While the first cars behind him cruised up and passed easily, the others were prevented from swinging out by a VW minding its own business in the next lane. So the cars started piling up again, waiting for the bug to get past the truck so they could get by, flicking their headlights hoping to make him notice.
As they approached a double-lane exit for Six Flags, several cars cut over to take the exit at the last minute. She could see the guy shouting into the phone two lanes over and two cars ahead of her. He was oblivious of the traffic ripples in the other lanes; his fingers twitched on the wheel, and he slowed even further as the conversation developed into an argument. Suzie watched as the drivers behind him got impatient and started swerving around him. She braked sharply as the car in front of her braked sharply to avoid a Mercedes cutting out to pass the guy. Asshole, she thought. You’re a danger to decent drivers. You really shouldn’t be allowed to live.
She rolled her window all the way down. The wind blew in on her face, and the sound of engines and spinning wheels on concrete rose up to a loud, dull roar. She gripped the wheel with both hands and spat hair out of her mouth so she could see, edging forward and working her way left to approach the red truck. Like a cat stalking a bird, she crept up on him, watching him continuing to disrupt traffic. She was fully in her mission now.
In her head she accused him, argued the case, and justified his sentence. It’s his fault, your honor, she argued in her head. Causing a traffic jam in the middle of the day, when everyone can expect an easy, pleasant ride down the fucking highway. He’s too stupid to drive and talk at the same time. She nodded over at him. There he is, driving in the passing lane. Going below road speed. Nobody can pass him. People are taking chances to get around him. He’s an accident just waiting to happen. And he’s on the phone. Not paying any attention at all to the road. Or the traffic around him. And now he’s fighting on the phone. Getting all emotional and driving on automatic. And where are the cops? Would they even stop him? He’s barely going the speed limit. They would only notice him if they were driving in traffic with him. Like me.
Suzie sat up straight. She felt like a real crusader for justice, and at that moment was prepared to take her mission very seriously. She had gone to the trouble of wearing a superhero costume, even though it chafed, just to prove her commitment. And she’d worked up an elaborate crime fighting ritual to enhance her focus. She was doing her bit to keep Atlanta free of dangerous should-be traffic criminals and hazards to public safety. There were lives at stake, and it was her duty to do something about what any idiot could see was a very real and present danger. If the cops were too busy, then it fell to her as a citizen to step in and do what was right.
Another car swept to the right of the redneck in the truck and angrily cut back into the left lane in front of him, narrowly missing his front bumper. Suzie could see the driver shaking his fist at the guy. But he never noticed. The next car did the same, but put on his brakes as he pulled in front of the guy, whose dull satisfied gaze withered and grew into an ugly look as he noticed, then braked, then watched the guy flip him off and stand on the hammer of his Mustang. But his worry was momentary. He went back to his argument, his face settled back to bovine, and he thought no more about it.
He’s slowed back down! she thought in fury. I can’t stand this. He’s the worst driver I’ve seen all day. He truly deserves to die. She bent over to scratch a sudden itch at the back of her knee where the sparkly tights of her superhero costume rolled and pinched. Then she reached under the seat on the passenger’s side, swerving slightly as she ducked down to grab her paintgun. Carefully checking that nobody was observing her from neighboring cars, she brought the gun up into her lap and cradled the barrel in her left elbow, waiting for her chance.
She was mad enough to kill someone, and that someone was still on the phone and driving like an idiot. Sitting bolt upright with one hand on the wheel, short red hair whipping around her head, she was concentrating so hard on her subject that she was forgetting to check her mirrors or monitor her instruments.
Her attention was divided between staring hard at the target and glancing at the road in front of her. With every look she grew more angry, and she could only have vaguely described her feelings or the reasons for them. He’s a bad driver and deserves to die, was how she would put it, but that wouldn’t begin to describe the feelings that made her vengeance feel so right.
She felt rage, anger, fear, and sadness, in that order. The sadness was buried; the fear was physically and emotionally thrilling; the anger gave her the energy she needed to execute the sentence; and the rage was against negligent drivers everywhere, focused tightly on this one crew-cut pudgy redneck son of a bitch driving down the left lane in a gas-guzzling pickup with penis-extender monster truck tires.
Although Suzie had experienced road rage for years, and though she’d played through revenge fantasies a hundred times, she’d never actually tried to kill someone before. This was, in fact, Suzie’s debut as a modern crime fighter, and as she shadowed him down the highway, she had to admit to herself that so far she wasn’t doing very well. She’d missed, again and again, and now she was out of ammunition and never thought to bring a spare 10-round tube. The rage boiled up, and she just barely choked off the impulse to ram his truck. I’ll push him off the road into the median where he’ll flip over and catch fire, she thought. But a quick look at the size of his wheels brought her back to reality. And so she gave up her pursuit, just like that, thrust a finger at him, and started moving through the right lanes to exit and turn around.
The good ol’ boy in the red pickup cruised ahead down the road, trying to calm his wife down. She’d been going thru his drawers again. He was going home to a night of hell. If he’d known he had a choice, he might have let Suzie hit him.
Three cars back, in the right lane, a blond woman in a red SUV was driving back to Douglasville from dropping her husband at the airport. The kids were watching a DVD in the back seat, and her mind was somewhere else. It was over before she knew it, but her eyes happened to be focused on Suzie’s blue car, and so she saw the whole thing. She dialed 911.
‘Hello…What’s my emergency? I want to report someone shooting at a car…Yes, I just saw a driver in a car. Shooting at another driver…In another car…A truck…A blue car…I don’t know what kind…I don’t know what year…I didn’t see the driver.’ Holding her phone to her ear and trying to think, she started drifting to the left, and swerved to correct it. ‘Well, yes I did see the actual gun. I’m pretty sure of that…Or movements like firing a gun…The driver pointed it at him from the driver’s seat…I saw the bullet…Yes, I did. It flashed real bright, like a tracer, like on those shows on the War Channel…Yes, really.’
Brake lights came on in front of the woman as traffic continued to adjust for the red pickup controlling the road from the left lane, now ten cars in front. She didn’t see the brake lights because she was so busy trying to recall details about the assailant’s car. Traffic slowed to 35 miles an hour on the road in front of her, but she didn’t notice.
Somewhere in her brain as she cruised down the road, whole cell colonies cringed and tried to avoid an impact as the traffic slowed to twenty-five, then fifteen. Finally she made sense of the panorama and put on her brakes. She screeched to a halt only inches from the next car’s rear bumper, as it came to a halt only inches from the next car in front of it. The kids set up a wail of complaints, and her bag on the front seat flipped over and ejected its contents onto the floor. She dropped the phone; it flipped shut and cut off the call.
The dispatcher scratched her head and did what she always did with calls like that. She notated it on the log as incomplete and went back to filing her nails.
In her ancient blue Dodge Doohickey, Suzie Q Public, Queen of the Road, slipped the car into neutral and coasted up the exit ramp.
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