She was driving on the freeway from UCLA to Castaic. It was slow-going through the San Fernando Valley, but when she hit Santa Clarita, traffic came to a complete stop.
Nannette Chan had admitted to herself that she was falling in love. There was an age difference, but that didn’t matter to her at all. She never thought that she would fall for someone significantly older than her, and had dated men closer to her own age multiple times in the past, but it had never seemed to work out. She found herself looking at the age gap as something completely insignificant altogether. She still had concerns about the relationship, the primary one being that she felt that Mark did have a problem with their differences in age even though he was clearly interested in her.
Their phone conversation had gone very well that evening, after the awkward kiss from two nights prior. That kiss...ugh. She thought they had both gone in for it almost naturally, then she waited for it to go further, some movement, some tongue, something, but it had been like kissing a mannequin for ten seconds, nothing at all from Mark. She assumed that he had felt awkward about their ages or wasn’t quite ready for a kiss like that. She did have a feeling that he was embarrassed after it was over.
They had talked about nonsense, Indiana Jones, and the current heat and ocean issues that were plaguing the planet. When she had mentioned her own fears about her future and the future of mankind, Mark had said that she should not just come over, but move in.
“You’re welcome to come over, Nannette,” he had said.
“There’s so much traffic, and I do have a lot of studying tonight.”
“It’s up to you of course. Do you have class tomorrow? “
“No, the rest of the semester will be online now, and classes have been postponed a week for the professors to prepare them. I just have a lot of research to do online.”
“You can do it from here. If you are uncomfortable at all, you can stay here, not just tonight, but for as long as you want. I’m not saying anything too forward. I am happy to take the couch. I just want you to be well, and you seem scared by yourself down there.”
Nannette was overjoyed with the invitation, but tried not to let it show in her voice. “Mark, I really don’t want to intrude.”
“You wouldn’t be intruding,” Mark encouraged her. “Look we are at a higher elevation up here than down in LA. If the waters come, you will be safer here for a while. Also, there’s lots of looting and rioting going on farther west and south. It’s not bad up here. Safety in numbers and such.”
“Okay, maybe I can stay for a few days. I’m not kicking you out of your bed. I insist on taking the sofa.” She found herself wondering if either of them would sleep on the sofa at all, and blushed.
“We can talk about who sleeps where later, if you insist on the couch, that’s fine, but I will offer to do it for you again. Pack some bags and head on up. Eddie and I will be waiting for you.”
So she had done just that and was on the road in less than thirty minutes.
She did expect some traffic, as she had experienced an increasing amount the last two times that she had come up that way. However, she did not expect to be at a complete standstill in traffic for over twenty minutes. She saw a freeway sign that indicated that the next exit was Lyons Avenue. She decided that if traffic decided to continue moving forward at all, that she would try to get off the freeway and attempt some side roads running parallel to the freeway to get to Castaic. She wasn’t overly familiar with the area, but could allow her GPS to tell her where to go.
Getting a little bored, she decided to call Mark. Soon, she allowed the primordial part of her brain, the part that protected her, controlled her fight or flight response, warned her of danger, to temporarily shut down as she paid more attention to the conversation with Mark than she did her surroundings. Mark was central and all her attention focused on him, both the conversation and side thoughts of any future they might have together, allowing very little perceptive ability beyond that.
She heard someone yell, “Hey!” She noticed a group of people near the exit, not too far away. It was one of them that yelled. Her brain didn’t seek to question why they were there.
“Someone outside is yelling,” she said to Mark
“About what?” asked Mark.
“Who knows, the world has gone crazy. Are we going to watch more Indiana Jones tonight?”
“Sure, if you want. I recommend the third in the series. If you really want to, we can watch Crystal Skull too, which is inferior to the first three. The fifth one... I refuse to even own that film.”
“Will you be my Dr. Jones?” she giggled.
It was then that she noticed the man coming around her car. She didn’t notice his mannerisms, the way he was looking at her, or the determination in his eyes.
“Perhaps,” Mark said. “You know that’s a little weird that you keep saying that.”
“There’s someone outside my car, I think he needs to talk to me.” She said. Not thinking clearly, she rolled down the window. It was a casual, robotic gesture that she almost did automatically, without much thought at all.
“Be careful, why is someone outside your car on the freeway?” asked Mark.
Rational thought remerged inside her mind. Why is someone outside my car on the freeway?
It happened quickly. As soon as the window was completely rolled down, the man stuck his right hand in the car, and pulled up the lock. With his left hand the door was opened, in less than a second he was between the car door and her. He had a knife in his right hand, the hand that had popped up the lock, that registered with her a bit too slowly.
“Demon,” said the man.
Nannette flung herself toward the passenger seat, forgetting that her seatbelt was still on, and did it with such fear and force that she nearly gave herself whiplash.
She felt a sharp pain in her left breast. The man had stabbed her! He awkwardly didn’t have much room to maneuver around in the close quarters between her and the car door. That prevented the knife from getting through her rib cage.
“Help!” she screamed as she fumbled with the seatbelt.
That action resulted in getting her left hand slashed with the knife. Again the man stabbed her in the chest, and again the force was relatively light.
She decided that it didn’t matter if her hand got cut up. It was much better than dying. Her hand could heal.
She reached down and tried to more calmly unlatch the seatbelt. Within a few seconds, that seemed like minutes, it was unlatched.
She received two more chest stabs in the time it took to unlatch the seatbelt.
Right before Nannette attempted to fling herself into the passenger seat, the attacker switched tactics. He climbed into the car on top of her and shoved the knife into her chest.
The man was big and Nannette felt crushed beneath him. The physical sensation was nowhere near as overwhelming as the emotional fear that she felt. She was going to die, she thought. Why did I roll down the window? Why?
She began slamming her hands, curled into small fists, into the man’s head, from both sides. As she realized how ineffectual it was, she began to cry.
The man took both his hands and wrapped then around the large, hunting knife. He then used all the force of his arms and his body to slide the knife into her chest.
It went in much deeper this time.
Hornblende was tired. It was the most ludicrous assignment, getting people to leave the freeway and go into homeless shelters in the all the parking lots near the off ramps on Lyons Avenue. Giant tents and small sheds were set up all over the area. What was the point of that? Most of these people might walk through Santa Clarita altogether and be out of their jurisdiction. The mayor decided, in his infinite wisdom to divert them directly into the city and force them to stay the night. Who was to say if they would even leave the next day?
He had been at it for hours. Even though he was exhausted, he remained highly alert because he felt a pervasive sense of doom in the air. The night was morbidly hot. Everything seemed as normal as it could be under the unusual circumstances of having thousands of cars and people gridlocked in a place that wasn’t designed for so many. It all looked okay. It didn’t feel okay.
Hornblende liked to trust his instincts, and his instincts were telling him that something was off. Something bad was going to happen.
The people on the side of the road usually walked in groups, but he noticed a large man walking by himself. He was moving slower than others until he finally just stopped and stood there for a few seconds.
“Come on buddy, keep moving. You have to be involved in a serious felony for us to even bother you tonight. No one is going to search you or take your drugs. Keep moving.” Hornblende said quietly to himself.”
The man began walking out into the stopped traffic. “Shit” he said.
All the headlights of the vehicles ahead of him made it difficult to see the man when he entered the traffic. He could tell where the man was going but was partially blinded to more subtle movements.
“Hey,” he yelled, then began walking out amongst the cars, toward the strange man that seemed to know where he was going.
As Hornblende had just barely gotten out into traffic, the man stopped at the driver’s side of a vehicle.
Hornblende kept walking toward him, his hand on his holstered weapon.
It looked like the door of the car was opened, but he couldn’t tell what was happening. Maybe they knew each other. That would make sense for the man to walk out into to traffic and the person in the car to open the door.
Something still felt off. Hornblende continued walking forward. The car started moving, as though someone was moving around desperately inside it.
“Help!” broke out into the already noisy evening.
He drew his sidearm and then Hornblende began running toward the vehicle. He wasn’t completely sure where the cry had come from, but he was pretty sure, and the vehicle was moving more violently and erratically.
As he came upon the vehicle, the door was open, but the man wasn’t around. When he got within ten feet of the car, the man exited the vehicle, he seemed to adjust himself, then prepare to get back in, or do something else with the vehicle, as his gaze never left. At his angle, Hornblende was able to see much better, and he saw the man raise a bloodied knife into the air, seemingly about to bring it back down on the occupant of the vehicle.
Hornblende didn’t say, Freeze. He didn’t say Stop. He didn’t announce himself as a police officer. Something about the man told him that he would have been ignored and wasted a precious second. He brought up his weapon and fired.
The man was hit in the left shoulder and then spun around to look at Hornblende. He seemed shocked and stunned, and just stood there for a few seconds.
At that point Hornblende could have said something. He didn’t. The man’s face told him all he needed to know. The man would not listen to him and was mentally regrouping in his mind.
Hornblende had seconds this time. He took a solid aim. He fired again. Center mass, right in the chest and the man went down.
The missing persons detective immediately went up to the man, hoping his eyes were open and blankly staring into the night sky, but they were closed, meaning he was probably still alive. He kicked the knife out of the man’s hands, stepped over him and looked into the vehicle.
There was a girl, or a woman, barely a woman, so young, and also slightly familiar. Where had he seen her before? Her entire chest was painted crimson, and blood was coming from her mouth. She looked up at him, tears streaming down her face to mix with the blood erupting from her mouth. “Why?” she whispered, almost silently, so barely audible that Hornblende wondered whether she spoke at all or if he only imagined it. Then she closed her eyes forever.
Soon three of the men he had been working with came upon him to find him attempting CPR on the woman. One was a firefighter, and the others were volunteers. After several minutes Hornblende ordered the firefighter to continue CPR on the woman, so that he could take a break.
As he stood up, one of the other men said, “This one’s still alive, should we start CPR on him?”
“Fuck him,” said Hornblende.
“Hey,” said the firefighter, “We don’t judge out here. It’s not our job. That’s for the courts to decide. They’re all equal out here.”
“Fine, don’t judge him as I could give two shits about who you judge or don’t. You follow my orders out here. If you feel the need to report me later, go ahead. All emergency efforts are to focus on the girl. Also, stop fucking talking. It’s interfering with your counting. You,” he said to the other man who seemed to be just standing around confusedly, Get that last guy over here. Forget about getting people off the freeway. It was an asinine assignment to begin with.”
That was when Hornblende realized where he had seen the girl before. At Oren Phileus’s house. Nannette Chan. It was the girl that had been with Mark Nicastro the night of the meeting. What secrets can you tell me? He wondered.
When they called for an ambulance, they were told that looting had started in other areas of the city, and shortly afterward, so had some rioting. People were being injured in multiple places and many had had the luxury of being injured before the woman. They guessed it would be about ninety minutes.
They were wrong. It took almost three hours. Both the suspect and the victim were pronounced dead at the scene.
Hornblende had thought he had heard a buzzing off and on throughout the ordeal near the woman’s car. After the ambulance left with the bodies, he realized that it was her cell phone that was on the passenger seat. The buzzing was an incoming call.
Looking at the caller ID, he realized it was a Mark Nicastro. Hornblende answered the phone.