The last orange embers of sunset were fading in the west when we crossed the border into Pennsylvania. Shadows were gathering and sight was dim, but we had clear sky with stars and a gibbous moon overhead. By the moonlight I could see the landscape changing from the grassy expanses of the Midwest to lush woods and hillocks of the Appalachian plateau. The roads were not so square anymore, not so north-south and east-west, which forced us to slow our speed.
We were especially wary now, having seen the French mafia, the Beaux Voyous, fly by in three blue speedsters while we were stealing holy relics from an Episcopal priest’s privy. I began to get worried. We shouted over the engine’s attenuated noise.
“Mitts, the Beaux Voyous could be parked at a motel or something waiting for us to drive by.”
“Maybe we should get a room for the night.”
“We can’t just check into a hotel, a couple of teenagers.”
“Maybe we just hide somewhere. Like another barn.”
She pulled over in the darkness and turned off the engine. It was now fully night and we got out of the car to stretch our legs. The continuous rancor of our motor was replaced with a gentle wash of cricket chirps like waves crashing on a beach. She reached high in the air and bent down to touch her toes. I twisted left and right at the waist and waggled my head on my neck. A train horn sounded far away. In the sudden peaceful interruption to our mad flight, my thoughts began to return to the ordinary life I’d unintentionally left behind.
“I’m ready for a break,” she said. “Why don’t you drive for a while.”
“I can’t believe we are doing this. Ringo tells us to ‘leave the state’ and we just do it? What are our parents going to think when we don’t come home?”
“My parents won’t mind.”
“My parents will figure that I’m with Ringo, so they won’t panic. But they’ll be upset I’m not checking in. Tomorrow they’ll be extra angry at Ringo. What’s with your parents that they don’t care about you?”
She looked me up and down, affronted. “My parents care about me. They just know I can take care of myself. In Freemantle, I used to be gone for days at a time. Sometimes a couple of weeks.”
“You’ve heard of Perth? In Australia?”
“Crickey. Freemantle is a little town on the west coast. When I lived there, my parents knew I would often go out surfing with a few mates.”
“I read about surfing in National Geographic. I hear it’s all the rage in California.”
“Yeah, Australia too. We took the buses down the coast to Cowie Bombi, the best surf spot. Where the big waves are. It’s a long drive so you don’t just go down for a day. We slept on the beach, or if we met some locals, we might flop in their bungalow. We’d catch fish, eat wild fruits.”
“That sounds…terrifying. Do all Aussie kids live like that?”
“Not all. Just the lucky ones. I’ll take you there sometime, ay boy? Teach you how to surf?” She took my hand and kissed me. “Would you like that?”
I nodded distractedly, fidgeting.
“What I’d like right now is to get off the road somewhere and get some sleep.”
If you had asked me then if I was glad to be back in the driver’s seat, I would not have known how to answer. Sure, I was back in control, behind the wheel, feeling the perversely excessive power that the tiniest flex of my ankle yielded. But I was tired too, it was starting to get chilly, and I felt a certain inevitability that we would draw the eyes of the Bugatti racers.
We were just outside of a little borough called Mercer. I wanted to drive through just as Dimity had done—without stopping, just a spectacle that would soon be forgotten. But I was down to a quarter of a tank of gas, and I had two dollars.
In Mercer, I pulled into a service station. The bells clanged and a couple of attendants in spiffy uniforms hustled out to the car, slowing and dropping their jaws as they approached. Their peppiness was gone as they practically knelt in reverence beside the car, but we were in a hurry.
“Just gas please. Two dollars.”
“Yes sir. Would you like me to check the oil? I don’t mind taking a look under the hood…”
“Just the gas!”
Back on the road and quickly leaving the small perimeter of Mercer, I headed northwest toward the entrance to Allegheny Forest as Ringo had instructed, Dimity now wrangling the map in her lap and beginning to shiver. The temperature was now briskly cool and the wind in our faces from the open top Lancia made it worse. I began to scan barns or abandoned edifices where we might shelter the night and escape almost certain pneumonia.
As I sailed past a blind of trees, the Beaux Voyous were waiting for us. The three cars sped out after us. I heard that long straight-8 hum of their Bugatti engines in triplicate. Their vision was handicapped by having to drive by the moonlight having no headlights, but they more than overcame the deficit with pistol fire. Shots rang out in the night. I felt like I was in a William Holden film. One shot shattered the diminutive windscreen that gave us a little break from the night air. Dimity gave a quick scream, more outraged than scared. At the time I didn’t give much thought to her response because I felt the same way, but I did do a double-take when she said,
“Bloody hell! If I had a gun, I’d gutter all three of those bastards!”
I accelerated as fast as I dared and they held on to my tail, a cacophony of engines screaming into the night. The undulations in the road almost lifted us off the pavement sometimes as we flew over a short hill. The irregularities gave us a little protection from their bullets; the Bugatti 251 is a one-seater making it smaller and lighter than the Lancia, but that meant that the shooter was also driving the car, and that’s not an easy combination at one hundred miles per hour in the dark.
The chase took the form of the intown portions of the Mile Miglia when we had to navigate a couple of small cities that were not built with flat, straight roads. In Franklin, we made hard left and right turns between cars parked on the shoulders. It was there that I first got to experience the considerable merits of the famous Double Wishbone suspension, and on hard right turns it was all Dimity could do to keep from tumbling wholesale into my lap, a welcome prospect in any other scenario.
River City was approaching, and I knew from summer trips to Allegheny Forest that there was a hard right onto a bridge that crossed the Allegheny River, and a railroad crossing was immediately beyond it. Sometimes traffic was backed up all the way across the bridge. What were the chances that I could foil my pursuers by cutting them off with an oncoming train? Very slim, I knew. But I had an idea.
Instead of turning to cross the bridge, I continued on the main road that ran parallel with the train track across the water on my right. I would be able to see a train coming at me. The goons would follow me, then I would double back and try to time my crossing exactly with the passing of the train to leave them behind.
I continued on, anticipating an oncoming train. Eventually, one appeared headed toward that crossing just as I’d planned. Soon we were outside the city and flying dangerously down yet another two-lane road, the train plugging on. In my mind, I knew I had to drive against the train to give it enough time to get down to the crossing and doubling back had to be perfectly timed with the arrival of the train to allow me across and to cut the goons off. But I had no means other than my guesstimation as to how long and far to go. Furthermore, how to I get turned around, and return to the crossing when the goons are behind me? Dimity found a way on the map.
Along with the train tracks, there was a creek that also followed my road. Where the road happened to cross over the creek, Dimity slapped my arm,
“Here! Here! Here! Turn left!”
It was not a road at all, but a hiking trail that would take us back to the crossing. Speed would not do now. I had to go slow enough to keep the goons behind me but arrive at the crossing at the same time as the train. The trail was bumpy, and although they were closer on my tail, the trail kept the guns silent. I cut them off as they tried to pass, forcing them into shrubbery or trees that lined the path. Ahead, the dirt trail connected back with the main road and would take us back to the hard turn across the Allegheny and the railroad crossing.
The train approached and I took the hard turn at the narrow river crossing, the gangsters right behind me. Oncoming cars kept them from passing. I was not exactly on time as I’d hoped, just a few seconds early. I stopped at the crossing, holding up traffic. The train got closer, fifty feet. The Beaux Voyous saw what I was doing, and they fired their guns in the air behind me.
“Arrêtez ou vous êtes mort! Sortez de la voiture!” They threatened to shoot if I didn’t get out of the car. I raised my hands high in the air.
“Don’t shoot!” I yelled and flashed my terrified face back at them. They saw that I was just a kid.
“C’est juste un jeune!”
Glancing around for any potential police interference, the goons leaped out of their cars to come physically take control of the Lancia.
Fools. As they were getting out of their cars coming toward me, the train still twenty feet from the crossing, I took off, and crossed the tracks. And although they ran frantically back to their cars, they were too late. We got away.