15. 11:34 P.M.. OUT OF GAS

As they crossed the county line, Rex kept his eyes locked on the road ahead. “Are they giving up?”

Angie turned to stare through the back window, then let out a string of curses. “No, still with us. And if they’re risking Bixby at this hour to catch us, that means they’re in a really bad mood.”

Rex gripped the steering wheel, trying not to scream with frustration. In all his detailed planning, it had never once occurred to him that the real Grayfoots would show up. “How did they know we were meeting?”

“No one followed me, Rex, I’m positive.”

“What about your phone?”

“They couldn’t have tapped it. That number I gave you was a disposable cell phone I bought last week at the Tulsa Mall. Never used it before you called, so they couldn’t have…” Her voice turned cold. “You didn’t call me from your house, did you?”

Rex didn’t answer for a few critical seconds, and by the time he found the right words, it was too late to lie.

“Was I not supposed to?” he finally managed.

She let out a groan.

“You mean, my phone is tapped?” he cried.

“Only for the last two years. Pinhead.”

Rex drove on, waiting for the burning sensation of a knife slipping between his ribs, but all he heard was Angie muttering beneath her breath. “Jesus. Maybe you really are just a bunch of kids.”

The pursuers drew closer, filling the old Ford with their headlights. They were easing up on either side now, like wolves shepherding wounded prey away from the herd, out to a nice, private killing ground. This abandoned stretch of the access road was probably just the sort of place they’d been waiting for. Rex’s plan had brought them to a perfect spot.

Angie pulled out a phone. “All right. I’m calling the police.”

“It won’t work out here,” Rex said softly. He and Dess had picked this route to make sure Angie couldn’t escape the blue time after the car ran out of gas. Since the new highway had been built, hardly anyone ever drove through Saddleback. There were no cell phone towers, no houses, no cops—just rattlesnakes, slither burrows, and plenty of places to bury a couple of bodies.

Rex checked his watch. If Dess’s calculations were on target, they’d be sputtering to a halt in about three minutes. He had to think of something soon or they were both dead.

But what could he do, trapped on a road with no turnoffs, no choices but to keep driving straight?

Suddenly Rex felt something deep inside himself laughing at his own paralysis. Why was he thinking like prey? Why was he letting his pursuers dictate the terms? Why not make them take some risks? He gritted his teeth and pulled the wheel sharply to the left. The Ford slid from the road and onto the sandy shoulder, where it swerved like a sidewinder for a few seconds. Then the tires gripped the hard-packed desert floor, and the car straightened, rattling like an old washing machine as it crashed through mounds of scrub grass and rumbled over prairie dog holes.

For a moment the pursuing headlights angled off into the distance behind them. But then the two Mercedes swerved from the road, turning onto the desert in pursuit.

“What are you doing?” Angie cried, her teeth snapping as the car shook.

“Out here there’s a chance one of them will get a flat.”

“Isn’t there also a chance of us getting a flat?” Rex only nodded, deciding not to explain that one way or another, the Ford was about to stop moving. “Have you got a better idea?”

“My better idea was not using a tapped phone!”

“You could have mentioned that in your note!”

“It was so obvious we were watching you! Jesus. How did you people ever take control of a whole town?”

“That wasn’t us who…” Rex’s words trailed off. Up ahead was a cluster of glistening humps, like a field of spiky basketballs glowing in the moonlight. He smiled at the sight. If all three cars were disabled, he and Angie might stand a chance of escaping on foot.

He aimed toward the humps, ignoring the Ford’s rattling complaints and building up as much speed as he could. Gas or no gas, tires or no tires—once Melissa’s car got going, it took a while to come to a stop.

“Rex? What is that ahead?”

“Big patch of rainbow cactus.”

“What the hell? Are you trying to get us killed?”

“No. But we’re about to run out of gas.”

“What?”

“Long story. This way at least we’ve got a chance.”

“Of what? A quick death?”

His answer was cut off by a sudden bang beneath the car, a sound like a watermelon hitting concrete at eighty miles an hour. More collisions rocked the Ford, Angie crying out as each cactus struck. The shock of the impacts shot up through the car seat, jolting Rex like a series of kicks in the butt.

Behind them a pair of headlights dropped back. One of the Mercedes had ground to a halt, with either a tire burst or an axle busted. As Rex watched in the shuddering rearview mirror, the car was overwhelmed by its own cloud of dust.

Only one to go.

Then, with a parting bang, the cactus patch fell behind them. Melissa’s Ford was wobbling, its right-front tire making a sound like a rubber flag in a strong wind. But the engine kept rumbling underneath Rex, and the desert still flashed past in front of their headlights.

“They’ll be getting nervous now,” Angie said, looking back.

“Nervous?”

“If they lose the other car, they’ll have no way to get out of the county in time. They’re Grayfoots, brought up so they’d rather die than be in Bixby at midnight.”

Rex blinked. After all his careful planning for tonight, would his insane, wildly improvised idea of barreling through a cactus patch be the one thing that actually worked? Inside him, the darkling half of his mind was quietly pleased.

“Rex, did you say something about running out of gas?”

“Well—” he started, but suddenly another explosion shook the car. The steering wheel jerked out of his hands, and the car began to swerve out of control across the desert floor, swinging into a bootlegger’s reverse, tipping so far to the right that Rex thought it was going to roll over. The horrible screeching of bare metal skimming across rocks and hard-packed sand filled his ears, and a cloud of dust rose up to swallow the world around them.

Somehow the Ford didn’t roll over, but when they finally skidded to a halt, it was listing to one side like a sinking ship. Rex was pretty sure that both right tires had been reduced to rubber confetti.

The engine died then with a cough, finally realizing that it had run out of gas.

Rex waited for a pair of headlights to lance through the dust swirling around them. The other Mercedes couldn’t be far behind.

The view gradually cleared, revealing a starry sky, the dark mountains in the distance—and a pair of red taillights receding into the desert.

“What the hell?” he said. “They totally had us.”

Angie took a while to catch her breath, her hands slowly releasing their grip on the upholstery. “It’s too close to midnight.”

Rex looked at his watch. “But they still had fifteen minutes. Plenty of time to kill us and get to the county line.”

“Yeah, but first they had to drive back around the cactus to pick up whoever was in the other car.”

“What? They’re too nice to just leave them out here?”

“Those were all Grayfoots.” She let out a snort. “And they’d never leave family behind.”

He looked at her. “Just you.”

Angie nodded slowly. “Just me.” Her dazed eyes took in the slowly clearing dust, the empty desert, and finally dropped to stare at her watch. “I guess I’m screwed. Your little mindcaster friend will be here soon, won’t she?”

The smell of terror from Angie had become almost overwhelming. Her hands were shaking now, as if she were even more afraid of a mindcaster entering her brain than of the Grayfoots catching her.

Rex let out a slow breath, willing his thudding heart to calm down. With Angie’s fear scent filling the car, a hunting frenzy threatened to take over his mind. But he needed to keep control, to keep talking to her.

“Let me be honest, all right?” he said through gritted teeth. “It was always my plan to trap you in Bixby for midnight. That’s why I only had so much gas.”

“So you knew the Grayfoots were going to show up? And you came anyway?” She whistled. “You’ve got guts.”

“Well, not exactly. Things didn’t quite go the way I planned.” He sighed. “But listen, Angie, have you really been telling me the truth about the past? The way the old midnighters—” Rex’s voice choked off as his nose suddenly caught the sharp smell of stainless steel. Angie’s knife flashed in her hand. “Hey, what the hell?”

“Listen, Rex, I know that in fifteen minutes you can do anything you want to me, make me drooling and stupid like your father, maybe turn me into your slave. But that doesn’t mean I can’t even the score.”

“Hold up, Angie! No one’s going to turn you into a vegetable!”

“Yeah, right.” She snorted. “So you lured me out here to steal my bank card password?”

“No, to make sure you were telling the truth!” The knife came closer, and his darkling mind writhed at the smell of steel. “We had to do this! If the world’s ending, we had to know for sure!”

Angie paused, her eyes narrowing. “What did you just say? If the what’s ending?”

“The world… or at least a great big chunk of it.” Rex spoke quickly, his eyes never leaving the knife. “We think the blue time is expanding far enough to swallow millions of people. They’ll be defenseless against your darkling pen pals.”

She shook her head. “That’s crap, Rex. Darklings can’t hurt normal humans.”

“Not usually. But the barrier between normal time and the secret hour is weakening. In certain spots daylighters can slip through. You know that girl on the news this week, the one who disappeared in Jenks? She walked into the blue time.”

“Come on, Rex,” Angie said. “Didn’t she turn up the next day?”

“Yes, because we saved her… from a huge, hungry darkling, I might add.”

Her eyebrows raised. “I don’t remember that part being on the news.”

“Well… no.” Rex swallowed. “We may have asked her not to say anything about the, uh, incident.”

“You erased her memories,” she said coolly.

He narrowed his eyes. “We had to.”

The knife drew closer, the tip barely touching his cheek, where it burned like a spent match tip. Rex’s eyes focused on the pulse in Angie’s throat, the darkling part of his mind set on edge by the steel against his flesh, thinking killing thoughts. He knew that if he lost control, the short, brutal fight between them would be more evenly matched than Angie would expect, knife or no knife. But that wouldn’t accomplish anything. They had to communicate, not kill each other.

“And what will you do to my memories?” Angie said softly.

Rex tore his eyes from her throat. Would she believe that he’d wanted to change as little as possible inside her mind? Just find out what she knew about the Grayfoots leaving town and maybe introduce a strong phobia about kidnapping people in the future. Unless, of course, Melissa lost her temper in the middle of the whole thing and forgot her promises…

If that happened, Rex wouldn’t want to be in Angie’s shoes.

Maybe there was another way to do this—one that didn’t involve any mindcasting.

Rex tried to ignore the knife in his face. “Do you really believe all that stuff? About how the old midnighters were totally evil?”

“I don’t believe it, Rex, I know it. I’m a real historian, not some amateur. Before I found out about the secret hour, I was researching a book on Oklahoma’s early statehood. I’ve documented everything the old man told me about his childhood. I’ve found the court records in Tulsa, from when they got his parents.”

Rex’s eyebrows rose. He’d collected old newspapers and handbills from Bixby’s past but not court records, and nothing from as far away as Tulsa.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“It was a big case in the nineteen-forties. Old Man Grayfoot’s parents contested an oil claim made on Indian land by some of the town fathers—seers like you, pillars of the community. Normally the trial would have been rigged so the midnighters would win, no problem. But the case wound up in a court in Tulsa, a judge that they couldn’t control.”

Rex frowned. “So what happened?”

“One day all the Native American parties involved decided to back down. They gave up the case, then sold their houses to pay the town fathers’ court costs. They lost everything they had.”

He swallowed. “That sounds… unfair.”

“Doesn’t it? And you know what’s worse, Rex?” she said. “After that day, Grayfoot’s parents never showed another ounce of backbone, except to agree with whatever the town fathers said. Just like a whole lot of other people always did. So the old guy got to thinking that things weren’t right in Bixby.”

Rex blinked. He’d spent his whole life learning this history; how could there turn out to be a completely different side?

The odd thing was, whenever Rex read normal daylighter history, he never took the word of just one historian. You had to check with several sources—everybody knew that. But until Angie had gotten into his car tonight, he’d never had another viewpoint to compare against the lore.

But after all she’d done, how could he trust her to tell the truth?

“Okay,” he said. “I want you to pull that knife back a few inches.”

“Why should I?”

“Because now you’re going to tell me what happened between you and the Grayfoots,” he said. “Are they really blowing you off just because you’re not related?”

The knife wavered. “Well, that night in the desert, the night we gave you to the darklings, none of us expected that little kid to appear. She was the first halfling, wasn’t she?”

“Her name was Anathea,” Rex said.

“I mean, I know she was a midnighter, and she would have become a monster like all the others. But Jesus, she didn’t look any older than twelve.”

“She wasn’t, much,” Rex said. “She spent those fifty years mostly in frozen time. Afraid and alone, surrounded by real monsters.”

Angie sat silently for a moment. “So I started wondering out loud if it was worth it, making another halfling. I thought the old man would listen to me. But the darklings weren’t even talking to us. So the Grayfoots started getting cagey around me and nervous about the future.”

“How do they know what’s going to happen?”

She shook her head and lowered the knife still further. “The last thing Ernesto told me is that there was something coming up, something that had been planned for a long time. The Grayfoots had been looking forward to it, but now that the darklings weren’t talking, it might be dangerous for them.”

“Not just for them,” Rex said. “You should leave town too.”

“I’d love to. Except in about… five minutes I’m going to get my brain turned to mush.”

Rex shook his head. “No, you’re not. I’m not going to let Melissa touch you.”

Angie snorted. “You’re just saying that so I won’t slit your throat.” She let out a deflated sigh and put the knife back into her coat pocket. “Well, you can relax. I think maybe my child-sacrificing days are over.”

As the knife disappeared, a cool sensation went through Rex. Not just a feeling of relief, but a decision. “No, I mean it. We’re not like that. Melissa doesn’t need to touch you at all. It’s quiet out here, mind-noise quiet, and she can tell if you’re lying to us, even in normal time. After midnight—when you unfreeze—just tell us everything Ernesto said.”

“And you’re going to trust me?”

Rex shrugged. “Like I said, Melissa will know if you’re lying… without having to touch you. But once midnight passes, you can just walk away if you want. So yeah, I’m trusting you.”

She narrowed her eyes, glancing at her watch. “And after midnight I’m not going to find myself suddenly mush-brained or wanting to give you my bank account?”

“Bank account?” He shook his head. “Did you get a look at this piece of crap? It’s not exactly a Mercedes, like your buddies’ cars back there.”

“I guess not.” She took a slow breath. “All right, I suppose I don’t have much choice about… Uh-oh. Speaking of cars.”

Rex followed her gaze through the front windshield. Headlights had reappeared on the horizon, making their slow way through the ravaged cactus patch.

“Crap!” he cried, reaching for the Ford’s dashboard and killing the headlights. “I hope that’s not the cops.”

She squinted. “No, it’s not a police car. Or a Mercedes, either. Looks like … I don’t know. Looks about as crappy as this piece of junk.”

Rex breathed a sigh of relief—it was Jonathan and the others.

“Okay. It’s just friends.”

A shudder went through Angie. “Including the mindcaster?”

“Yeah, but I promise she won’t touch you.” He leaned forward and turned the headlights back on, then blinked in disbelief as the car rolled to a stop a few yards away.

Jonathan and Dess were visible through the front windshield, but there was no one in the backseat. They’d followed him and Angie here without picking up Melissa and Jessica, expecting to be heroes.

He let out a frustrated sigh. Had they actually thought they were going to save him from the Grayfoots? Didn’t they know how full of darklings this part of the desert would be in two minutes?

“What’s the matter?” Angie asked. “You said they were friends, right?”

“Don’t worry. It’s not a problem… for you.” He shook his head. “Just the rest of us. If we all disappear after midnight, don’t bother leaving any more notes. We’ll all be dead.”

“Dead? Why?”

“Because your darkling pen pals are very nasty, Angie, much worse than you’ll find in any court records. And because my brilliant schemes don’t seem to be working very well tonight.”

Rex leaned back in the driver’s seat, waiting for the last few seconds of normal time to tick away. He’d been following his darkling instincts when he’d turned the car onto the flats, and they’d led him out here—miles into the deep desert, farther than he had ever been before at midnight.

Maybe part of him had wanted this.

It looked like his meeting with the old ones had come sooner than he’d planned.

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