We love great writing and we love cars. When the two come together, even better. This is the first of what will be a new feature on Rides & Drives, excerpts from books – both contemporary and classics – that feature cars and driving. We’re proud to start with Milwaukee-born novelist, Nicholas Petrie and his second novel, ‘Burning Bright.’ Read our interview with Nick here.
Nick came on with a bang with his ex-marine PTSD protagonist, Peter Ash, in ‘The Drifter’ and he continues the excitement with the next installment, ‘Burning Bright’. In this second book, Ash is still dealing with his claustrophobia and it has lead him deep into the redwoods in Northern California. A run-in with a grizzly directs him up a tree where he encounters a network of ropes and platforms and tech journalist June Cassidy who is on the run from people who say they are with the Department of Defense. Intrigued by June and feeling the rush of fighting for one’s survival and using his military skills Peter protects and defends June as they attempt to know why someone is after her and if her mother was really murdered or not for her artificial intelligence software. Among the high tech gadgetry, conspiracies and body count Petrie delivers a book with strong characters that you care about, thrills abound and a good twist in the end. This is a series and author worth reading and following. You can purchase a copy of ‘Burning Bright’ here or at your local independent bookstore.
While June turned the car around, Peter jogged back to the gate.
She rolled down her window as he walked the gate closed behind her. She had her seat belt on and snugged up tight. “How do we know they’re coming?”
Because they know every place you’ve been since they hacked your phone, Peter thought, but he didn’t say it.
“They’re pros. They already found you at least twice.” He jogged around to the passenger side and slid in. “They’re coming.”
“I can’t outrun them,” she said, revving the engine. It sounded pretty good. “Not in this old girl.”
“Don’t worry about the car,” he said. “Drive it like you stole it.”
She flashed that same fierce wild grin he’d seen in the tree. “I can do that.”
He patted her shoulder, then reached up and pushed the sunroof back. Got the bow where he could reach it. Put one end of the long box of arrows down by his feet, the other end propped up by the emergency brake. He looked up the road toward the trailhead parking lot. He thought he heard the rumble of a big engine starting up, but it might have been his imagination. “Better get moving,” he said.
June wore hiking pants that converted to shorts by unzipping the pantlegs at mid-thigh. At some point she’d removed the lower sections. Her legs were tan and sleek. She popped the clutch and cranked the car around the corner, spitting gravel from all four tires, shifting into second while they were still sliding.
Yeah, Riot Grrrl could drive. But he should have expected that from the way she attacked that zip line.
He turned in his seat to look out the back window, holding onto the lip of the sunroof for leverage. It was too wet for another car to raise a dust cloud, so he wouldn’t have much notice. Just the nose of the vehicle coming around the curve behind him.
He was assuming that the hunters would have a big American SUV, something like a Chevy Suburban or a GMC Denali, because that was what a lot of federal law enforcement people drove. Something big and powerful, great for eating up the highway, but also kind of a boat. Not particularly suited to a narrow twisting lumpy gravel road barely wide enough for two cars to pass at a crawl. He was hoping the little Subaru’s scrappy off-road handling would force the hunters to make a mistake. Lose it on a curve, maybe even end up in the ditch. That was best case. A hope, really.
If they came to a long paved straightaway, they were screwed.
Peter hoped it didn’t come to plan B.
He looked over at the speedometer. She was going about forty, both hands on the wheel. Already too fast for the road, but not fast enough. “How far to pavement?”
“About ten or fifteen miles,” she said. “Along the river the whole way. But the road gets better before that, maybe six or seven miles.”
Then he saw it, the big black vehicle coming around the curve behind them, the tires chunking up into the wheel wells with each bump, the red Chevy logo on the radiator grille getting larger by the second. It looked like a Tahoe, the short-frame version of the Suburban. Better turning radius, less likely to bottom out. A big engine.
“Here they are,” he said. “Punch it.”
June’s eyes angled up to the rearview for just a moment, and the Subaru’s little power plant wound up as the old car responded. She still had it in third, which wasn’t the worst way to go, especially if you didn’t care much about the engine. She could brake just by letting off on the gas, and the torque would let her build up speed again quickly. He looked out the back again and saw a man lean out the passenger side window with a rifle.
Before Peter could say anything the man fired, three-shot bursts, takatak, takatak. He missed more than he hit, but still Peter heard the familiar unwelcome thunk of a bullet puncturing sheet metal. Then the passenger-side mirror exploded.
“Motherfuckers,” said June, and she rammed the shifter into fourth, powering ahead. She was using the whole road now, taking the curves on the inside, slaloming around the worst of the ruts, hammering the car on the washboard sections. At higher speed they almost floated above the washboard. Not a lot of traction there.
The hunters weren’t losing any ground. The Tahoe’s beefy suspension ate up the road. The driver clearly had some training, and thirty years of automotive advances made a difference. The shooter fired low, going for tires, Peter figured, if they wanted to capture her alive. Although at this speed on this road, losing a tire might mean a fatal accident.
Fuck this, he thought. Plan B. He picked up the compound bow in one hand, took the lip of the sunroof in the other, and stood on his seat.
Peter and his dad had set up a practice range in the barn for his fourteenth birthday. He’d no shortage of practice in high school, but he hadn’t pulled a bow in ten years. He told himself it was like riding a bike.
The man with the rifle looked a little startled to see Peter pop up through the sunroof. Clearly the man hadn’t grown up on Dukes of Hazzard reruns, although the little Subaru was nothing like that hopped-up orange Dodge Charger. Peter had changed out some of the arrows on the snap-in quiver, and he now had one broadhead and three of the ball-headed shafts June had used to get a line up into the trees. He notched one of the ball-heads. It would hurt like hell if he hit anyone. He’d be lucky just to spiderweb the windshield with this crappy road and the madwoman behind the wheel. Hell, he’d be lucky to hit anything at all.
He drew the bowstring back to his cheek and aimed, waiting for a moment of calm, the tension still familiar on his two fingers. The ride smoothed out for just a moment, and he released.
The arrow left the bow very fast, but the heavy ball head dropped faster than he’d thought, skittering off the hood of the trailing Tahoe and skating up the windshield with barely a scratch. The shooter smirked behind his sunglasses and raised his gun.
Peter had another arrow notched and drawn before the shooter could get himself stabilized in the window. The road was forgiving for just that moment as he aimed and released.
The ball dropped again, but this time Peter had corrected. It punched right through the center of the hunters’ windshield with such velocity that it made a relatively clean hole, albeit one the size of a baseball.
The Tahoe lurched and dropped back, swerving. Peter imagined the confusion inside as the arrow came through, shards of glass everywhere. Maybe he’d even hit someone. It would be like getting hit with a hammer.
Peter smiled back at the shooter, who was now holding onto his ride for dear life, trailing his rifle outside the window by its strap. The Waylon Jennings song from The Dukes of Hazzard stuck in his head. “Just a good ol’ boy, never meanin’ no harm….”
They came to a long turn and the black truck came up again. This time the shooter stuck his rifle out of the hole in the windshield. Peter didn’t know if that would help the man’s aim or not. He notched another ball-headed arrow.
The rifle purred again, now on full auto, still aiming for tires but firing wild. The bumps would be exaggerated from inside the truck, making it harder for the man steady his aim.
If it were me with the gun, thought Peter, I’ve have shot at the guy with the bow and arrow. They must want her bad, trying not to fire into the car by accident. Or maybe they were figuring two for the price of one, as any loss of control could be fatal for Peter, standing halfway out of the sunroof. If he was thrown clear at fifty or sixty miles an hour, the impact would turn him into jelly.
So why was he having so much fun?
He pulled the bowstring back to his cheek, feeling the pressure on his bare fingers. Aimed at the muzzle of the gun this time, waited again for a moment of calm, then released. The arrow made another hole to the left of the first, and now spiderwebs appeared in the glass. The muzzle of the gun jerked wildly for a moment, then pointed upward. Peter felt the blast of joy, reminded himself to take a deep breath, then watched as the muzzle steadied back down to point directly at his chest.
He already had his last arrow from the quiver notched and ready. It was the broadhead, the hunting point designed to slice into flesh. He aimed for where he thought the driver’s center of mass would be. Standing on the seat gave him a high vantage, so he figured the steering wheel wouldn’t interfere much with his shot.
He aimed and released.
The broadhead smashed through the windshield high and to the left of where he’d been aiming, although he still could have hit the man. The black Tahoe fell back again. Peter had more arrows below him in the long box, but he wasn’t about to ask June to hand him more. The road curved sharply ahead, the mountain on the left, the wide rocky bed of a drought-lowered river on the right.
As he bent his knees to drop back into the car, he heard the blast of an air horn. Blaat blaaaaaat.
He turned as he dropped to see the dirty red nose of a giant logging truck coming around the curve, hogging the road and growing fast.
“Omigod omigod omigod,” June’s voice rose up in a losing battle with the truck’s air horn.
The logging truck was two hundred feet away.
At their combined speeds, Peter figured they had about two seconds.
The world slowed. June’s knuckles white on the wheel, braking to buy time as she steered them toward the nonexistent right lane. No air bags in this old car.
Peter planted himself in his seat, precious fragments of a second lost as he maneuvered the awkward bow over his shoulder into the back, then jammed his feet to the floor, hoping the box of arrows would be trapped under his legs. Loose arrows could kill them as easily as the crash.
A hundred feet.
Blaaaaaaaat blat blaaaaaaaaat.
The wandering gravel road was not designed for two vehicles to pass at speed. Definitely not when one of them was a giant semi-tractor. Reaching for his seatbelt with his right hand, Peter remembered the time in Oregon he had driven in reverse for twenty minutes to find a spot wide enough for a fully loaded logging truck to get past.
The Subaru was halfway onto the shoulder, a weedy slope that dropped unpredictably toward the rocky riverbed. The truck’s front grille was enormous, taller than the car. Peter could see giant bugs crushed on the glass of the headlamps.
Peter’s hand found the buckle, pulled it down and across, and snapped it into the latch as the car left the road. He planted his feet hard and threw out his left arm to keep June’s head from banging into the steering wheel. The front passenger wheel dipped. He reached for the dashboard with his right hand, locked on tight.
The landscape whirled around, the sky beneath them, weeds overhead. Then sky above and dirt below. Now clouds beneath and rocks above. Crap floated through the air as the car rolled, energy bars and water bottles and lemonade packets everywhere. Peter banged around in his seat like a toy shaken by an angry toddler, banged in the chest and legs and back over and over for what seemed like forever, until the car finally came to rest.
Peter looked out his window. The glass had disappeared completely.
The sky was up and the ground was down. They were on the dry section of the riverbed.
He looked over at June. “Are you okay? June. June!”
She looked back at him, blinking. “Oh, man,” she said sadly. “I really loved this car.”
“Are you hurt? Is anything broken? Look at me. Look at me!” All the while taking an inventory of his own injuries, the aching shoulders, the pain in his ribs that hurt when he breathed in, the left leg on fire.
She had a bruised lip that would get nice and fat, and a bloody elbow, maybe from all the glass in her lap. No compound fractures that he could see. Her window was mostly gone, but the windshield was intact.
The hunters. The black Tahoe.
He tried to open the door, but it was stuck. He looked for the bow, couldn’t find it. He looked down at June’s feet and saw a black short-barreled revolver on the floor. “What the hell.”
He forgot he was belted in when he bent over to get it, and his ribs howled in protest. He gasped and straightened enough to unbelt himself, then bent again. His cheek brushed against her thigh as he reached for the gun, pressed against fine blond hairs and warm tanned skin. Her legs smelled like sunshine and lotion and he wanted to fall asleep right there. His hands were shaking with the aftermath of the crash and it took him a few fumbling seconds to come back up with the gun.
“Hey,” she said, “I always wondered where that went.”
She was dazed but oddly lucid. Peter figured she was in shock.
“My dad gave it to me. I was fourteen. Kind of a weird birthday present if you ask me. My mom kept telling me to get rid of it, but then I couldn’t find it. That was years ago. I haven’t cleaned out this car in forever.”
It was a Colt .38, the walnut grips worn but solid, the finish starting to go, maybe an old police model long out of service. It looked clean enough except for the gum wrappers and dust from where she’d lost it under the seat. He found the cylinder release and flipped it open. Five beautiful brass rounds, nothing under the hammer, a lovely circle of daylight through the barrel. He’d been a little worried he’d find a crayon jammed in there. He snapped the cylinder shut with a flick of his wrist.
“Stay here a minute,” he said. He’d check her more fully when he came back. “Don’t go anywhere. Okay?” Without waiting for an answer, he stood on the seat to climb painfully out through the sunroof.
The Tahoe lay on its side like a beached whale about thirty yards away.