42

THE MAN IN THE BACK SEAT threw an arm around both Jax’s and Alex’s necks at the same time, pulling them back against the seat, choking them both. His bare arms were massively muscled. Alex’s vision dimmed down to a narrow, dark tunnel. The powerful arm was cutting off his blood supply as well as his air. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Jax’s arms and legs flailing and he knew the man was hurting her even more.

Alex tried to reach the steering wheel. The way the man’s arm had him around the throat, pinning him back to the seat, Alex couldn’t pull away. Try as he might, he couldn’t reach the brake, either.

He was only able to sporadically get his fingertips on the steering wheel. The truck slowly started taking an arcing course across the road, toward oncoming traffic. As Alex brushed the wheel with his fingertips, it started back the other way, toward the right side of the road. He struggled to correct with the wheel to keep them from crashing into a light pole.

He couldn’t get a breath. He tried to twist enough to steer with his left hand and pull at the arm with his right, but the fingertips of one hand weren’t enough to steer. Alex used his knees to steady the wheel and switched to using both hands to try to pry the arm away. He reached back, trying to get ahold of fingers, but couldn’t reach them.

His lungs burned for air. He was starting to have difficulty focusing his vision. He knew that if he didn’t do something, and soon, he would lose consciousness. If that happened, it was all over — they would have him.

He could hear strangled sounds coming from Jax as she desperately struggled to breathe. Out of the corner of his eye Alex could see her face turning red. He could also see that her arms were hardly moving anymore.

The powerfully built man growled with the effort of keeping his arms clamped around them both. In the position he was in, Alex had no chance to gain the advantage.

He tried again but couldn’t reach the brake. He couldn’t reach the gas pedal, either, but since they were going down a slight grade the truck wasn’t slowing.

In his rush to get away from the hospital, he hadn’t retrieved his gun. He had figured that once they were safely away he would then get it out from under the seat. He had thought that if any of Vendis’s men tried to stop them he would have enough time to get the gun out. He hadn’t figured on a man materializing in his back seat.

He could think of nothing else but to try to reach under the seat for his gun. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t get to it. It might as well have been a mile away.

He abandoned his attempt to get the arm off his throat. He pushed back against the man behind them to force him to change his hold a little. Just as the man loosened and moved his arm a bit to improve his hold, Alex lunged forward with all his strength.

Alex managed to grab the steering wheel with both hands.

He immediately cranked the wheel to the right. They were going slow enough that the front tires stuck and the truck cut violently to the right, hitting the curb and going up over it.

Between the sudden right turn and bouncing up over the curb, the man was thrown hard to the left. He probably didn’t know anything about riding in a truck; it didn’t appear that he was prepared for such a maneuver. He had such a hold on Jax that as he was thrown to the left he took her with him, pulling her by the neck, half between and half over the seats.

As he slid across the back seat, his head slammed into the metal of the door along the bottom of the window. The blow caused his stranglehold around both of them to loosen a little. He didn’t let go, but it was enough that they both could at last get desperately needed air. He could hear Jax gasp several times.

Being pulled up out of her seat as she was, and with enough air to regain her wits, Jax was at last able to reach around and pull a knife from the small of her back. When the man had fallen over to the left, he not only pulled her back, but turned her a little, facing more toward Alex. She brought the knife around and sliced cleanly through the upper ligament of the biceps of the arm holding Alex. Their attacker cried out in pain and rage as his slack arm slipped off Alex.

Alex immediately slammed on the brakes. The man, already off balance, slid off the seat, down onto the narrow floor area. He lay sideways, stuffed into a space that was too small for him, but despite everything, his beefy arm remained locked around Jax’s neck.

Pulled over as she was on her back, between the seats, and held by the throat, she was unable to maneuver. He had pressure on her throat again, cutting off her air. Her movements slowed as she started to lose consciousness. The man was obviously intent on breaking her neck, but being on the floor with her partly on top and somewhat behind him, he was having trouble accomplishing that task. He appeared perfectly willing to simply strangle her.

As the man fought to gain his balance and get up, Alex yanked the syringe from his pocket and popped the cap off with his thumb. In one swift movement he turned and thrust the needle down into the side of the man’s bull neck. He pushed the plunger home.

The man kicked and bellowed in rage, struggling to get up. Alex stabbed the gas and slammed on the brakes, jerking the truck to keep him off balance. With his injured arm, he still managed to grab Alex’s hair in his fist. Alex could tell that he was slowing from the drugs, his movements becoming less coordinated.

Still, Jax was in desperate trouble. She, too, was hardly moving as she lost consciousness.

Alex stripped the silver knife out of her hand. He pulled away from the fist holding his hair, turned, and leaned over the back of his seat to stab down at the man. As the man came up from the floor he met Alex’s blade on its way down. Alex added all his strength to thrusting the knife through the side of the man’s throat.

By the sudden spurts of blood, Alex knew that he’d hit an artery — the same one he’d managed to hit with the syringe. By the sounds of the man’s breathing, he knew that he’d also hit the windpipe. The heavy volume of blood pumping from the severed artery flowed down into the deep gash and into his lungs as he gasped for air. The man started drowning in his own blood.

In the grip of the drugs and the throes of death, he finally let go of Jax. She gulped in air. Even as she was gasping and regaining consciousness, she took the knife back from Alex. As the man’s arm flailed weakly about, his hand trying to grab her, she stabbed it. He reflexively, slowly, pulled the hand back and pressed it against the gaping wound in the side of his neck and throat. It appeared he was trying to stop the bleeding.

Alex was sickened by the messy act of killing a human being. It was a difficult, gruesome task.

As the man’s struggles slowed, Jax began cutting symbols in his forehead. She wasn’t waiting until he was dead. He managed to get out a gurgling curse as she gouged the lines of the design into his flesh.

Alex turned his attention to getting the car off the grass and back on the road before anyone came to see what was happening. With all the police cars in the area that was all too real a risk.

He didn’t see what Jax did, but the burbling curses died out in muffled grunts.

In mid-grunt, it suddenly went silent inside the Jeep. A glance back between the seats confirmed what he thought: The man was gone, along with all the blood.

Jax let out a huge sigh as she flopped back into her seat. She held her throat as she coughed.

“Dear spirits, that hurt,” she said in a hoarse whisper.

Alex had the Jeep back up to speed.

“Stop!” she suddenly cried out. “Stop the truck right now!”

Alex, surprised by her screamed command, slammed on the brakes. The Cherokee slid to a stop. He pulled off the road onto a thinly graveled parking area on the shoulder.

“What? What’s the matter?”

“I’m an idiot!” Jax growled.

“What are you talking about?”

Jax reached up, grabbed the rearview mirror, and twisted it until it ripped off the windshield.

“What the hell are you doing?”

She threw open the door and heaved the mirror into the bushes. “Saving our lives.”

She retrieved her silver knife from the floor and used the pommel to smash the glass in the side mirror on the truck door. The glass broke into a spiderweb of cracks. She bashed at it over and over with the butt of the knife handle until all the pieces of glass were knocked out. A black socket with an adjustment cable was all that remained.

She ran around the front of the truck and did the same thing to the driver’s-side mirror. When she had finished she rushed back around and got in.

“Let’s go,” she said as she slammed the door shut. “Get us away from this last spot they saw us! Go, go, go!”

Alex checked over his shoulder and then dumped the clutch, spinning the wheels in the gravel as he pulled the Cherokee back out onto the street.

“You think they found us by the rearview mirrors?”

She slumped back in her seat, comforting her neck. “How else?”

He turned to look out the back window to make sure they weren’t being followed.

He saw a big man in a leather vest running after them from the graveled parking area.

With a cold wave of shock, Alex realized that the man must have arrived in this world right where the Jeep had been only a moment before. She had told him once, in the driveway of his house, that they usually arrived in pairs. That was the partner of the man they had just killed and sent back.

Alex stepped on the gas. The next time he looked back, they were too far away for him to see the man. He would never be able to follow or find them on foot. Alex let out a sigh of relief. He gripped the steering wheel tighter to try to stop his hands from shaking.

Jax, also watching the man vanish in the distance behind, looked over at Alex out of the corner of her eye, as if to ask if he understood, now.

“That was close,” he admitted. “But how am I going to drive without mirrors?”

“Would you rather drive with new passengers arriving from my world every few minutes?”

“I guess not,” he admitted. He glanced over at her. “Are you all right, Jax?”

Her brow wrinkled as she fought back tears while rubbing the muscles in her neck. “I think I will be after I get some sleep.”

“Close your eyes,” he said in a gentle voice. “I’ll wake you when I get us a room. Sleep until then.”

She didn’t answer. He didn’t know if she’d fallen asleep or if she had passed out.

Alex looked back over his shoulder. The road behind was empty. He wasn’t much comforted.

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