26 Stories

26 Stories: The Courier

This story… this one. I’m not 100% happy with it (I’m not 100% happy with anything, but this one more than others). I read it at my writer’s workshop last night and it generated some good, albeit somewhat extensive, critiques. Namely that I do too much world building (I cut out quite a bit before reading it, too) and the two characters have too similar voices. Both of those are valid issues that I didn’t even remotely have time to address before today, so you’re getting the raw version (and I’m certain that I came across two typos during my read, and now I can’t find them, so feel free to typo hunt).

This is a departure from the mostly horror stuff I’ve been toying with; it’s a move into dystopian future. It is also the start of a non-nuanced, not-at-all complex piece of political commentary disguised as an action piece that is destined to be Mad Max meets Smokey and the Bandit meets Michael Bay. It’s a potential chapter one of a longer piece, but I think it’s going to go to the back-burner in favor of something else (perhaps my favorite “don’t call him an ‘urban’ wizard,” Dominick).

Anyway, it’s faults aside, enjoy!

The Courier
20th Floor

Juárez: Day 1, 6:32 am

The Courier waited for his delivery, the engine running. The modified Hellcat was, like its namesake, ready to pounce. He hated to idle, given how critical fuel calculations were. Stopping for gas even one more time than anticipated—or worse, running out of fuel—could get him pinched by the police. These days, that meant summary execution by the side of the road. But the game was a calculation of seconds, milliliters, and inches. The difference of 0 to 120 was huge if he had to fire the engine up. Authorities shot first, rockets moved fast, and this job was hot and likely to attract attention.

About the time he started to think about cutting the engine, the door to the run-down house opened. A man came out escorting a smaller figure covered by a jacket across the street to where he waited. The man fast-walked his charge over to the passenger side of the car and yanked on the door handle.

The Courier shook his head and pushed a button on the dash, On the outside of a car, a small slot opened in the door. The Courier made the universal sign for “pay now.” The escort pushed a stack of bills into the open slot. The slot retracted, and the Courier counted his fee. The escort surveyed the empty street.

The Courier picked up his pistol, made sure it was very visible to the escort, and popped the lock. The door opened, the Fare was pushed into the seat, and without even a “thank you” for his effort, the escort slammed the door shut and fast-walked back to the house.

The Courier and the Fare sat in silence for a moment.

“Seatbelt,” the Courier said, breaking the silence. The Fare jerked in surprise.

“What?” a woman’s voice responded, muffled by the jacket.

“Please buckle up,” he replied. “Safety first. Also, you can take the jacket off.”

A slight hand reached up and pulled the jacket down. The girl sitting next to the Courier was young; couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen. “Christ,” he said. “I don’t run kids.”

“Excuse me?” English, accented, but slight. She either spent some time in an English-speaking part of the world or was educated at a pricy private school. Both suggested money, and money meant pissed off relatives.

“I don’t take kids across.”

“Isn’t the money good enough? And I’m not a kid. I’m sixteen.”

“Still a kid, kid.”

The girl’s face fell. Moisture pooled at the corners of her eyes. “Please, you don’t understand. I can’t go back to my parents.” Angry parents, probably monied, confirmed. “I can’t even go back in there,” she gestured to the house. “I’ve been abused. I’ve been-”

“Save it,” the Courier said. “I’ve seen better.”

“Fine,” she replied in a normal tone, the façade dropped. “I really can’t go back to my parents. They will kill me, and while I can see that you’re trying very hard to do the whole ‘stoic badass,’ thing, I can see through you, too.” He scoffed.

“Money’s good enough, I suppose. And I’d rather not leave you to someone else. They might not be as professional as I am.”

“I’m prepared to do whatever I need to get to Canada.” As if to prove the point, she put a hand to her chest and began to unbutton her shirt.

“Stop,” the Courier said. “I’m making an exception running you, but not this.”

“You’re already bending the first rule.”

“Second one’s non-negotiable.”

She relaxed. “Well, good.”

“Contract says your pick-up is in Toronto, so we’ll be going straight north to Canada, and then…”

“You should go straight to Toronto. That’s fastest.”

“No,” the Courier said, “we most certainly should not go straight through. You clearly don’t know geopolitics.”

“Fancy word for a driver to use.”

“Courier. Our best, safest bet is to go straight north to Calgary or Regina, then ease over to Toronto once we’re safely out of America. Canada’s borders are open to refugees. Hell, you could even take a bus once you’re there, and save money on me.”

“I don’t have that kind of time.”

“No one ever does. Listen, the idea is to get you to Canada as quickly as possible, and straight north is it. Oklahoma and Missouri ain’t safe. Diverting around to Kansas or Arkansas? Even worse.”

“I’ll double your money.”

“That’s ridiculous. I suspect you gave me all you had.” She reached into her shirt, and he stopped her. “I told you, no.”

“No,” she said, “not that. Try this.” She pulled out a pendant on a chain. It sparkled with several very impressive looking gemstones.

“Those can’t be real.”

“I assure you, they are.”

“Where did you get that?”

“My parents gave it to me on my birthday.”

“Hell of a present. I got a second-hand Nintendo once, from a garage sale. Sure you want to be running away? Life like that must be pretty easy.”

“Yeah, my parents—my father, really—are the reason I’m seeking asylum in Canada. Please, I have to be in Toronto in thirty-eight hours. It takes over fifty to get there through Regina. I checked online, and it takes thirty-hours to get to Toronto from here, and that’s driving speed limits. That’s eight hours of extra time even if you drove casually; you ‘Couriers’ are supposed to be fast, right?”

“Missouri isn’t safe,” he emphasized each word.

“All the more reason to drive faster then.”

The silence was painfully long; ironic given his previous worries about seconds, inches, and milliliters.

“I’m going to regret this. Those,” he pointed to her pendant, “had better be real.”

She let out a breath. “Thank you.”

He stepped on the brake, put in the clutch, and grabbed the shifter. “Thank me when we get there in one piece.”

The Hellcat roared and pounced.

*             *             *             *

               “Crossing,” the Courier said, “will either be very easy or very difficult.”

               “What makes it easy,” she asked.

               “If the right bribes went to the right people, we’ll pull in, our papers will be in order, and we’ll just drive on through.”

               “And if not?”

               “If not, you find out why this job costs so much. And we hopefully don’t die.”

               “I’d like to avoid that.” She almost meant it.

               “Risking dyin’ must be better’n what you’re running from.” She responded by staring out the window watching ramshackle houses race past.

               “Right.” He nodded ahead. “As your unofficial tour guide, I feel like this is the time to point out that the Wall is coming up. If you want to see it.” She did.

               The Wall was immense. She had been a toddler when the world watched as the Americans fought over whether the Wall was a necessity, weather it would be effective, and whether it was feasible. When the dirty bomb went off in Tucson, the debate ended. A state of emergency was declared, martial law was imposed, and the purges began. Fascism came to America in earnest, and construction began on the Wall immediately.

               A decade later, the southern border was closed. The Wall stretched two-thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. Everyone moving across the border was scrutinized, or they were supposed to be, but like any good, corrupt government, officials could be plied with enough cash.

               To cross any other way was risky, to say the least. Customs and Border Protection had shoot-to-kill orders. Armed drones thwarted most remote crossings, and scanning technology made smuggling through commercial checkpoints near impossible. That was, of course, if the scanners weren’t conveniently in maintenance mode. Harder to pull off, but doable.

               Getting across the Wall, which had been dubbed the “Concrete Curtain” in some circles, was easiest to do at the civilian crossing points, where inspections were still visual. It was easier to cloud the guards’ eyes with dollar signs then get a dedicated scanner to glitch out at the right time.

               The great wall of America was not at all impenetrable, despite its imposing gray profile, and the Courier knew who to bribe. He brought the ‘cat down to a respectable speed to merge into the line of traffic.

               “Fuck,” he said.

               “What?” The Fare was nervous.

               “Bribes didn’t work.”

               “How do you know?”

               “The STRIKE squads.”

               She looked around. “What? Where?”

               “There are snipers on the wall, twice as many visible soldiers as standard, and that van to our right? Fast assault units trying to be invisible.”

               “Are they here for us.” The Courier shrugged. “What do we do?”

               “We don’t do anything suspicious. We try to get through, as planned, and hope we’re on the all-clear list. If not, I find out if I can out-drive drones.”

“Drones?”

“Drones with TOW missiles.”

               “Can you?”

               “I said I’d find out if I could. I’ve never had to before.” The Fare sank down into her seat. “I would like to tell you that this is the hardest part, but since you’re insisting on going straight through the country to Toronto, that would be a lie.”

               The line ahead of them inched forward, and the Courier followed suit.

               “Can we go to a different checkpoint?”

               “They’ve already tagged every car in line. If we turn away and show up at another point, we’ll be flagged.” They crept forward again, the border a few cars ahead.

               “Can you run now? Why wait?”

               “As cool as the ‘cat is, she still has to obey the laws of physics, and other cars object to sharing her space. Second, even if there was a clean run up to the border, as fast as I can go, we’ll be slag before we get there. If I’m going to try and run, we’ve got to be at least on the American side. Preferably about a hundred miles in.”

               “We have to wait.” The car crept closer again.

               “Yup.”

               “But we run if it looks bad when we get up there?”

               “Yup.”

She looked around outside. “What if,” she asked, “we had a distraction?”

“We’re a little too late for a distraction.”

“Don’t count on that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Three cars behind us is a black SUV. In that black SUV are agents sent by my parents.”

“Have they spotted you?” They were one car from the front of the line that was finishing up its visual inspection. Timing was going to be close.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well,” he said, opening the sunroof, “let’s let ‘em get a good look at you.” She poked her head out of the sunroof, looked back, and smiled at the SUV. In the rearview, the Courier saw that the SUV’s driver noticed and gestured to someone else in the car. She popped back down just as the Courier pulled up to the start of the line.

Three things happened at once.

The Courier handed over his papers to the border guard when asked. This was as intended, and if the bribes had worked, nothing in their paperwork would be off.

As this exchange happened, four men in black suits, doing poor jobs of concealing the fact that they were armed, exited the SUV and advanced on the Hellcat.

Finally, as an agent on the passenger side tapped on the glass for the Fare to roll down her window—which she did—the Fare, with no trace of an accent, asked, “do those guys behind us look dangerous to you?”

The agent on the driver’s side frowned at the Courier’s papers, and reached for his radio, when the passenger side agent said through the car to him, “Johnson, we’ve got a problem, six o’clock.” Johnson looked away from the Courier’s papers. He handed the papers back to the Courier, his hand tightening on the grip of his rifle. “Sir, you can go. And you should go fast.”

“Gee,” the Courier replied, taking his papers. “I guess I can do fast.”

The agent pressed the call button on his radio. “STRIKE team, Delta 10-99, entry Victor Tango. Four targets. Armed and hostile.”

The Courier shifted into drive and was gone. They was a quarter-mile away before he heard the gunshots receding behind them.

Following the agent’s advice, the ‘cat hit one-hundred with the rumbling grace that her name implied, leaving the border and the chaos that they had set off well behind them.

“I’m Carolina,” the Fare said.

“And I don’t like names.”

“I’m not calling you ‘the Courier’.”

“Clint.”

“Very American name.”

“So,” the Courier said as the desert yawned before them, “who exactly are your parents?”

*             *             *             *

               Santiago seethed.

               It wasn’t just that Carolina had run off, though that was most of it. If cornered, or drunk, or high, or just in the right mood, he would admit that he hadn’t wanted the little bitch in the first place. Her mother thought differently, of course, but mothers always did. He’d wanted a son, someone to take over when he was ready to step down. Someone strong and resolute, not the sensitive, emotional child his loins had produced. Girls were trouble, destined to be shrieking hags. Boys turned into men. Leaders.

               That was bad enough. Perhaps he could have married her off to a worthy successor from one of the loyal parties in the government or the more influential cartels. But no, she had to fall in with the Socialists. She had to be public about her disdain for the State. Her rebellious phase had to be political instead of sex or drugs. Those, he could have handled (generous application of murder and torture of non-sanctioned dealers and would-be suitors usually did the trick). She had quite the following before he killed the State’s access to outside Internet. Supporters from here to Canada (especially dissident groups in the United States, a country too big for its leaders to properly crack down on resistance) had egged this on, and he hadn’t reacted in time.

               The mewling lieutenant on the other end of the call reported on the failure of his men to capture her before crossing into the United States. Not only had they failed to bring home one little girl, they had also managed to get detained by CBP in the process. He would have to book rooms in America’s president’s hotels at inflated rates if he wanted to get his men back. And he would, because he didn’t want their punishment to merely be rotting in an American prison. He would want to punish them himself. 

In the meantime, he had to reevaluate his strategy. The men he’d sent had been too obvious at the border. Slipping in more would be easy. The kleptocratic regime in charge of the US was on friendly terms with his own “democratic” rule, but they were too unreliable. If Carolina was going to where he assumed she would be in Canada, they would have to cut through the lawless middle of the country, meaning his erstwhile ally in America would not be willing to send extraction teams. If anything, they would just send kill drones or leave Carolina and whoever was transporting her to the savages and warlords. Santiago almost let it go at that, but the optics of it would be particularly bad, especially with the unrest in the north of his own country. Carolina was well-loved by easily enraged fools, and violent crackdowns never played well. His media would have a hard time spinning it.

No, she had to be brought home, safe and sound. He would “convince” her to make a very public show of reconciliation and embrace the State. Sometimes, political theater was easier than slaughtering dissidents, though admittedly less satisfying.

               Santiago made two calls. The first, to his contacts in the United States Embassy, who would oversee the proper means to get his men back, where he could deal with them. There would be a public execution to plan, but he had ministers to see to that.

               The second call was to al old friend.

               It was time for Carolina to come home.

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