(For Part XI click here)
“Is this some kind of a hobbit bridge to like Middle Earth?” Madison asked. “After this week, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Just say the magic words, Maddy,” Sylvia laughed. “No, there really is a bridge here. Trust me: I’ve been on it a thousand times. It’s just under the waterline. That’s why you can’t see it. The story I was told is that the Germans built several of these secretly in World War II for their tanks. They camouflaged them, but …. See the sparkly bits from the stars? They’re moving around all over the place, but when the moon comes out, the bridge deck doesn’t reflect the stronger light, and they disappear. The bridge looks black — no sparkly bits — but in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere … unless you know it’s here, you’ll never see it. We just wait for the moon. Slick, huh?”
“I trust you, but World War II was like 100 years ago. It’s probably fallen apart by now.”
“N-o-o. Smuggling didn’t stop just because I did. The locals use these bridges all the time. Over there,” Madison couldn’t see the gesture, “just on the other side, there’s a village. Their bread and butter depends on this bridge.”
“Oh, boy! Driving into a river in the middle of the night … Jeez, when you said badass, you weren’t kidding.”
“Relax, Maddy. I’ve done this lots of times. Come on! Let’s talk about something else. Tell me about your young man. Grader? Gator? What’s his name?”
“Graydon. And he’s not my young man. Actually, I don’t think he’s even a friend anymore.”
“I’ve been thinking about it. What’s a twenty-one-year-old college guy doing, hangin’ with a kid like me?”
“You’ve a very attractive young woman, Maddy.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said ruefully. “But I’m in high school. I’m not even a senior yet. I’ve looked around these last few days, and man, I don’t know anything about anything … And I think he knows that.”
“God, I hope I haven’t made you cynical.”
“No, it’s just … things are a lot more complicated than I … How did you do it? How did you figure things out? You came here when you were my age.”
There was a serious pause.
“I talked to Cenk, and did the math. You were like sixteen.”
“That’s just it. I was young. I didn’t figure anything out. I thought I wanted to see the world.”
“And you did.”
“No, I didn’t. All I saw was a whole lot of this.” Sylvia waved an invisible arm. “I always meant to leave. Get on a plane. Find another cruise ship. I always said to myself, ‘One more score, and then I’ll have enough money to do what I want.’ But I never did. I always thought I needed just a little more. Then when I was in Russia, just me, alone, I realized I didn’t want to see the world. I wanted to be safe. It finally dawned on me that I was addicted to the adrenaline because that’s what made me feel safe. You can’t imagine how you feel when it’s over and you’ve got clean sheets and four walls between you and the nasty bastards of the world. It’s such a high. I – uh — can’t describe it. But when I was trying to get out of Russia, the adrenaline never quit. I overdosed … and … uh … I don’t know … uh … Anyway, what I’m trying to say is nobody has it figured out, Maddy. Nobody. We all just do stuff because stuff keeps happening.”
“So what happens now? Now that you’ve had a taste of it, again?”
“You’re a pretty smart girl for someone who isn’t even a senior yet.”
“You’ve been different ever since Freddy and Teddy.”
“Yeah, I suppose. I don’t know. I’m just like you, trying to figure things out.”
“I’ll tell you one thing: Senior Prom at Nathan Hale High is going to look pretty lame after this.”
“Try sitting through a company dinner with a bunch of sugary bankers’ wives, sucking up to you because of your husband.”
“Graydon’s taking financial planning,” Madison said laughing.
The two women laughed together.
“Holy shit, Sylvia! Look! There it is.”
And right in front of them, there was a faint black path across the river.
“Okay, Maddy. Let’s go. Are you sure you can do this? I’ve driven it before.”
“Yeah, like fifty years ago. Don’t worry. Just guide me along. I can handle it.”
They crept across the river with the headlights out. Both women with their heads out the window, watching where the blackness ended. On the other side, Madison switched the headlights on again and found the road. They turned onto it and drove east, parallel to the river again. What they didn’t see was the blacked-out pickup truck that pulled in behind them. It kept its distance but kept their taillights in sight.
“Okay, there’s a village just ahead. We need to be careful. Try and keep an even pressure on the gas so the engine doesn’t race. We want to be gone before they realize we’re not local.
But they didn’t get the chance. Just before the first house, the pickup truck behind them raced forward and turned on its headlights. In front of them, two men stepped into the road. They both had assault rifles.
“Dammit! Okay. Okay. It’s alright: they just want money. Maddy, stop right in front of them, but don’t take the car out of gear. Just keep your foot on the brake. Roll down your window, and lean against the door– so they can’t see in the back seat.”
Sylvia turned her head slightly into the glare of the pickup lights.
“Girls, be very quiet, and don’t move. There’s no problem: all they want is money. We’ll pay them and get out of here, but don’t make a sound.”
One of the men raised his gun and walked around to Madison’s open window, while the other one idly pointed his at their windshield.
“Tovarishch. Tovarishch.” Sylvia said, leaning towards the open window.
The man spoke rapidly, gesturing with his gun.
“Ne ponimayu?” Sylvia said, “Den’gi? Money? We have money.”
The man took his hand off the trigger guard and raised three fingers.
“Nyet! No. One thousand! One thousand. American dollars. Tysyacha!” Sylvia made a flat line with her hand.
“Why are you negotiating?” Madison thought, the fear crawling through her stomach.
“Tree sousan!” The man shouted, pushing his fingers into Madison’s face. “Tree sousan, Euro!”
Sylvia pulled a stack of bills out of her bag.
“Nyet. Two thousand. Dve tysyachi. Dva. Finished.” She shook the bills in the air.
“Tree!” The man pointed his finger, and Madison instinctively moved away. Sylvia caught the movement in the man’s eyes and the flicker of recognition as he saw what was in the back seat.
“Okay. Okay,” she said frantically.
Sylvia reached back as if to get more money, and in one fluid motion, she pulled Sinclair’s gun out of the back of her jeans. She pointed it directly at the man, her elbow slightly bent, and then, almost casually, she flicked the safety off with her thumb.
“Madison, get ready to hit the gas.” Sylvia’s voice was low and even and cold, and her eyes never wavered from the man in the window.
“If this guy doesn’t want our money, I’m going to shoot him in the face. When I do, drive straight ahead, as fast as you can and don’t stop until I tell you.”
Sylvia shook the money again. Out of the corner of her eye, Madison saw Sylvia smile ever so slightly and crinkle her eyes. But this time, there was no sparkle.