As the cars shot down out of the winding hills of a run-down residential area, the Thunderhawk driven by Roy Harper was catching up to the other two cars.
“One mile to the finish, Roy,” said David Lattimore. “Most folks give it about two tenths, then they punch the nitro.”
“And you’ve got this baby fully charged, right, Davey?” Roy said, grinning. “Man, I love this stuff.”
“See if you can close the gap in case they pop the bridge.” Dave noted the sideways glance from Roy. “Drawbridge about halfway down. They don’t always raise it for the races. I ain’t seen a car yet that can jump the gap when it’s fully open.”
Roy looked down at the speedometer. One-hundred-thirty-five miles an hour. “How long is your nitro good for?”
“About a fifteen-second burst. You’ll need it for the last half-mile.” Dave looked down the road. “Damn! Bridge is going up. You ain’t gonna make it, Roy!”
“Watch me.” Roy turned his full attention to the road, watching as first the black Can-Am, then the green Warhorse sped up the rising road surface of the drawbridge. Both cars disappeared as they jumped the gap. “Standard twin exhaust system on this rig?”
“Glass packs for a little added rumble, but no special venting or anything.” Dave watched as Roy fumbled in his jacket and pulled out a cigarette lighter. “Oh, no, no, no, man, you trying to kill us?”
“Hey it works for fighter jets, doesn’t it?” Roy gripped the wheel with both hands as he hit the joint where the bridge met the fixed pavement, the lighter held between two fingers. As soon as he cleared it, he grasped the lighter with his left hand and punched a button on a panel screwed to the steering column. There was a surge as nitrous oxide mixed with the oxygen being fed into the combustion chambers. Roy’s thumb flipped open the lighter and spun the thumbwheel inside. His mind instinctively calculated speed and distance as the speedometer moved up past the one-hundred-seventy mark. He tossed the lit lighter out the window. “Hang on, buddy!”
The lighter tumbled end-over-end, coming down at the back of the car. It passed through the invisible cloud of exhaust gases coming from the twin tail-pipe. The gases, containing the still-volatile byproducts of nitro-enhanced combustion, ignited. As the car approached the end of the inclined bridge surface, a fireball blossomed at the back end of the car, propelling it up and over the end of the bridge.
Artemis reached up and touched one of her earrings. “TJ-One, this is Artemis. You out there?”
“Cyborg here. We’re a half-mile out, ready to lift and grab you out. You got the slimeball yet?”
“No, but I’ve got his pick-up men. Arsenal is on his tail now.”
“You mean, you got his eyes un-glued from those leather pants?” Artemis heard laughter over the comm-link, that of both Cyborg and their younger New Titans teammate, Changeling. “Seriously, you want us in there yet?”
“Keep the jet out there. Send Changeling in to check on Arsenal — see if he can spot them.”
“I’m on my way, Wonder-babe!” This time, the voice was loud and clear. Apparently, Changeling leaned over to the microphone to reply before leaving. “Comm-link on. I’ll give you the run down.”
Out over the ocean, a small green bird emerged from a sleek silvery craft hovering near the water’s surface. It climbed quickly, shifting forms as it climbed as different birds better adapted to the altitude. Once he was satisfied, he changed to a hummingbird to cover the distance more quickly. It only took a moment for him to reach the shore. As he approached, he noted the raised drawbridge and saw two cars cross the widening gap.
“Um, Artemis, what kind of car is Arsenal driving?”
“A red Thunderhawk, ’62 or ’63,” she replied over the comm-link.
“OK, he isn’t one of the nuts jumping the bridge, then.” There was a pause. “Oh, my, God!”
“Gar? What’s going on?”
“I see him. He’s crazy! He’ll never make it!”
“Make what?! Changeling, what is it?”
“He’s suicidal! That car won’t make it over that bridge! He’s gonna — yow!”
“Green-genes, if you don’t tell me what’s going on, I’m going to wring your scrawny neck!”
“I don’t know what the heck he just did, but he just blew that car over the gap. Damn, he blew it right over the bridge, and, uh-oh–”
“What, Gar?” He could hear the concern in Donna Troy Long’s voice.
“He’s going to over shoot the ramp. He kicked it too much, and now he’s going to pancake it! Unless I can…”
“Hush, I gotta focus on this one!”
Roy and Dave both whooped as the Thunderhawk was propelled by the afterburner effect created by the lit exhaust fumes. They both watched as the gap slid underneath them, then the roadway of the bridge.
“Oh, hell. Overdid the nitro — we’re going to miss the whole bridge. How’s your suspension, Davey?”
“Not that damn good! We’re gonna hit that pavement, and that’ll be all she wrote.”
“Brace yourself!” Roy mentally checked the inventory of crossbow bolts that were stashed in his jacket, trying to figure out if he had anything that might slow their descent. He realized that there wasn’t a solution there.
Neither of them noticed a fleck of green flash past the window. As the car descended toward the ground, the green fleck expanded, changing shape. A green mastodon took shape under the car, crouching down with its trunk extended. The car struck the back of the beast, which flexed its knees to absorb some of the impact. The thick, matted hair of the mastodon caught in the wheels, slowing the car somewhat even as the hair tore from the flesh of the beast. The still-burning exhaust ignited the hair as the car moved swiftly down toward the ground.
“Changeling, I love you, man!” screamed Roy as the car struck the ground, still moving at ninety miles an hour. “See what I mean about friends in high places?”
“Yeah, Arsenal, just remember that love the next time my birthday rolls around!” called Changeling as he shifted form again to a salamander who wouldn’t be bothered by the flames.
“They’re almost to the line. Hit the nitro again — get us up there,” said Dave, trying hard to forget the image of a green beast catching his car.
Roy pressed the button again and felt the g-force press him into the bucket seat as the speedometer climbed back up to the top end. He was a mere twenty yards behind when the black Can-Am crossed the line with the green Warhorse alongside, its front bumper only three feet behind that of the leader. He saw the Shark jump from his car and run over toward a man with a heavily laden knapsack.
“There’s the payoff! Just one more trick. Davey, I think I owe you a new car.” Roy turned the wheel, aiming for the nose of a Vectrette that was facing away from the finish line. The low front of the sports car acted as a ramp, lifting the Thunderhawk off the ground. It jumped up, over the crowd and the cars, coming down on the back end of the Can-Am. Roy was already jumping from the car as it hit. He came down just behind the Shark, grabbed him by the shoulder, and spun him around. “Gotcha!” cried Roy as he lashed out with a left cross that spun the drug dealer around and left him on the ground.
It was nearly four in the morning when the T-Jet arrived back at Titans Tower in New York City after a brief stop to let Artemis off left the sleek aircraft with four aboard. At the Tower, Cyborg and Changeling headed off to their rooms, leaving Arsenal and Dave Lattimore alone in the lounge.
“Almost feels like the old times with the DEA, Roy. Kind of freaky, though, realizing that you were holding out on me all that time.”
“Hey, it’s part of the rules of the super-heroing game. Protect that old secret identity at all times.” Roy stepped behind a counter and pulled a couple of bottles out of a refrigerator. “Soft drinks only around here.”
“No prob.” Dave looked off at nothing for a few minutes, then turned again to Roy. “You know, when I asked about her, I was only kidding.”
“And you didn’t know that she’s happily married.” Roy grinned. “Once upon a time, well, we had a little thing, but now…?”
“Yeah, well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” Dave took a drink from his bottle. “You remember Lynn Carter?”
“Agent we worked with in Columbia? Hell, yeah, she’s not the type you forget easily.” The grin fell as Roy saw the look on Dave’s face. “What happened to her?”
“She died in March. It was that AIDS virus.”
“What?! I thought that was only hitting the gays!”
“That’s bull, man. It hits anybody, and that’s what’s scaring me. They say it gets passed on during sex, and, well, she and I…”
“Davey? You saying that you’ve got it, too?” Roy shook his head in disbelief.
“No, but I do have the HIV bug, which they think leads to AIDS. And it’s looking like this stuff can sit in your system for years before it shows up on the tests.”
Roy stood and came over to sit by his friend. “Look, Dave, if there’s anything I can do to help you, just say the word.”
“There is one thing, Roy. I know you and Lynn spent more than a few nights together. Get your ass tested, man, and let anyone else you’ve been with know. They ain’t got a cure for it yet, but maybe if we can keep people from passing it on, there’ll be a chance.”
“Yeah, buddy, I’ll do that.” Roy thought about his baby girl Lian staying with a friend back at the reservation in Arizona — and of someone else. “Look, there’s a room down the hall here; why don’t you crash there for the night, and we’ll get you back down to Virginia tomorrow, OK?”
“Yeah, man, and thanks.”
Ten minutes later, Roy sat on the bed in the room that he still kept in the Tower, staring at the phone. He debated whether to call this late but decided that it was best to get it over with quickly. He picked up the phone and dialed the number from memory.
It took seven rings before the call was picked up. “Hello?”
“It’s Roy. I know it’s late, Donna, but we need to talk.”