LONG WEEKEND! YAAAAAY! Now I can sleep all day - since I've been up all night writing this chapter...I'm wrecked.
So, since I can't think of much else to say, enjoy! And thanks to everyone who read, reviewed, PM'd and emailed! You know who you are...right now, I can't think of names...
"As in, 'a dingo ate my' -"
"Yep. Actually, it was 'a dingo got my baby', but anyway…"
Rock 'n' Roll shook his head. "That's sick," he said.
Mel grinned at him. "It's fittin'," she corrected. "The Dreadnok's'll love it."
The entire group of Joes was assembled in the apartment - Scarlett, Rock 'n' Roll, Roadblock, Clutch…and Duke, of course. The other Joes - including Psyche Out, Lady Jaye and Covergirl - were already waiting outside the hotel. They'd provide an 'escort' for the dark blue sedan that Duke and Mel would be riding in…driven by Clutch, of course.
As she'd expected, Mel hadn't got much sleep last night. She'd woken up first at three in the morning, then again at four, and once again at five. After that, she hadn't bothered trying to get back to sleep; instead, she got up and sat at the kitchen table, going over her notes one last time, while she had the chance. Scarlett joined her soon after, and had sat quietly with her. Mel hadn't felt much like talking - she was beginning to feel the first butterflies fluttering around in her belly. It happened every time, just before the start of a mission; once she was actually out there, she was fine.
Well…as fine as she could be under the differing circumstances.
Still, Mel was getting impatient. She just wanted to get on with it.
The others had wandered into the room - after knocking, of course - at around seven. Roadblock had taken the liberty of ordering breakfast for them all, although he'd had it delivered to the room he, Rock 'n' Roll and Clutch were sharing, and they'd brought it in with them. Couldn't have the hotel staff thinking Mel was getting spoiled. She'd indulged in several pancakes with sugar and maple syrup and two glasses of orange juice; Scarlett had made a crack about her having the sugary diet of a Dreadnok already.
Mel felt a hand on her shoulder and glanced up to see Duke returning her gaze. "Time ta go?" she asked.
He nodded. "Time to go."
She pushed her chair back and grinned. "I'll go get changed. Don' leave without me, will ya's?"
Clutch sniggered. "We'd be pretty screwed if we did," he pointed out.
Before she could head to her room to change from her t-shirt and good jeans into her ripped jeans and singlet, Duke grabbed her arm. "When you're done, there are a few last minute things I want to go through."
She nodded. "Yeah, 'kay."
Mel studied herself in the full-length mirror mounted on the inside of the wardrobe door. Her choppy black, green and purple hair stuck out around her head messily, framing her round, lightly-freckled face. Her shredded jeans fit her hips snugly; the cut-off blue singlet showed off a flat stomach - and the star tattoos, of course. She crossed to the bed and sat on the edge, leaning over to pull her heavy black biker boots on.
Now that she was alone, Duke's voice immediately brought to mind the two kisses they'd shared the night before. She allowed herself a small smile at the pleasant memory: Duke's lips on hers, surprisingly soft, his muscular body pinning her against the kitchen bench.
Aaaand…that was enough of that. "Yeah?" she called.
He hesitantly opened the door, his eyes lowered.
"I'm dressed, Hauser," she said with a chuckle. "Ya can look."
He snuck a quick glance - as if he didn't believe her and expected her to be sitting on the bed naked, or something - not that that wasn't a tempting idea. "Right."
"Don' sound so disappointed."
He looked at her sharply. "I'm not -"
"That was a joke." She grinned. "You are allowed'a laugh every now an' then, ya know."
Needless to say, he didn't even crack a smile. He just shot her a pointed look.
"Oh-kay," she said slowly. She finished tying her laces and sat up straight, slapping her hands on her knees - one of them bare through the rips in her jeans. "So, what're these last minute things ya wanna talk about?"
"Actually, it's just this." Duke reached into his pocket, pulled out a slip of paper and offered it to her. "Memorise it."
"Wha'ssis?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. "Ya phone number? Do I hafta eat it when I'm done, or will it self-destruct?"
The big man frowned at her. "Don't be a smartass, Mel," he said. "Not now."
He had a point - now wasn't the time for it. Mel unfolded the paper to see two short words - but she had no idea what they said. "What the bloody 'ell's this? Russian?" She snorted. "I can't read Russian, Duke."
"You don't need to read it," he explained. "Just memorise it. One of the Joes who'll contact you is mute; this will be how you know he's one of us."
Mel raised an eyebrow. "Course 'e's mute," she said dryly. She stared at the note - it'd been handwritten. "Did you write this?"
"I didn't know ya know Russian," she said. It probably shouldn't have surprised her.
He finally gave her a smile and rattled off something in the language - then abruptly changed to French, followed by German.
"Alright already, ya bloody show off." Mel cut him off and waved her hand at him impatiently, still trying to make sense of the writing. Eventually, her curiosity got the better of her. "So…what's it say?"
"Does it matter?"
She gave him an even look. "Prob'ly not," she admitted, shrugging, "but I wanna know, anyway." Of course she wanted to know - he'd tried to avoid answering.
Well, that and the fact that it was kind of a turn on that he could speak so many languages.
Duke met her eyes. "It says, 'got you."
The words were loaded. She heard it in his voice. She must've made an impression last night.
Mel stood and handed the paper back to him - stepping a little closer than necessary, letting her fingers linger on his a little longer than she needed to. Damn, she wanted to kiss him, to see if he was coffee-flavoured again.
"You ready?" he asked quietly, tilting his head down to her. She felt his breath on the top of her head.
No matter how much you studied, or how long you had to make up your cover story, you could never be fully prepared for a mission like this. There was only so much that the gruelling training she'd undertaken could prepare her for. She was about to walk into the lion's den, to head straight for the part of the map that read 'here there be monsters'.
Her cover could be blown. She could be taken prisoner, held hostage, tortured for information.
She could be killed.
Then again, she'd known the risks when she'd taken the job. The danger had been partly what had drawn her to it.
Mel tipped her head up to his and stood on her tiptoes - the only way she could reach him - brushing her lips against his, biting gently on his bottom lip. Yep...coffee-flavoured. He didn't return the kiss - his shoulders relaxed just the tiniest bit, rounding toward her, and he shifted his weight forward slightly.
Mel grinned as she pulled back, holding her wrists up so he could cuff them. "Yeah. Now I'm ready."
The Joes crowded into the elevator. Mel stood in the middle, dwarfed by Roadblock and Rock 'n' Roll behind her. Duke and Scarlett stood to either side of her - like the top sergeant, Scarlett was also wearing a smart suit…although at least Scarlett's jacket had both sleeves. Duke hadn't got himself a new one, and carried his ripped one over his arm…which was fine by Mel, because his white dress shirt fit him very well. Clutch had gone downstairs a few minutes before them, so he could bring the car around.
Just before the lift reached the first floor, Duke unfolded his jacket. Mel rolled her eyes. "Duke, I really don' think it matters that much if -"
With a smirk that was almost cocky, he chucked the jacket over her head.
"Aren't people s'posed ta see me face?" she asked.
"They don't need to," Scarlett answered. "We've made sure the, uh…right…people know that a Dreadnok's been arrested and is being transported in a nondescript vehicle, via some very conveniently open roads, to a secure facility."
"The right people, eh?" Mel jerked her head, trying to flick the jacket off. It wasn't that she didn't trust the Joes - she did, despite having only known them for a short time. She just hated not being able to see anything but her own feet and the jacket's single sleeve swinging in front of her like an elephant's trunk.
"Uh huh." Scarlett sounded like she was grinning. "And this way, the hotel staff won't notice we've given you a makeover." The redhead adjusted the jacket, pulling it further down over Mel's face.
"Alright, alright. Point made," Mel conceded.
The lift slowed to a stop. Scarlett and Duke took a firm hold of Mel's upper arms, and, as the doors pinged open, they frogmarched Mel out.
All Mel could see was the shiny tiles of the hotel lobby floor, her feet, and the odd glimpse of Duke's left foot and Scarlett's right. She heard people muttering as they crossed the big room, and several sharp gasps when people noticed her handcuffs. Behind her, Rock 'n' Roll and Roadblock's boots thudded loudly. They were in casual clothes, as was Clutch - but they were all armed.
Mel felt a cool breeze hit her as one of the Joes opened the hotel door. From there, it was only a few steps to the dark blue car parked directly out the front.
Duke opened the back door. "Watch your head," he said quietly, putting a hand on the top of her head and pushing down. She made a show of resisting - just in case anybody was watching - before slumping into the seat. The door thunked closed behind her.
Mel reached up and pulled Duke's jacket off her head - the sedan's windows were tinted; nobody could see her face now she was in the car. Several people out the front of the hotel were looking at the car curiously. Two more cars were parked in front of the hotel, exactly the same as the dark blue sedan, only black.
Clutch was looking at her over his shoulder; for once, he wasn't grinning. "If things don't go as planned…just know we've got your back."
She nodded as Duke got into the car. "Let's get moving, Clutch," he said, his tone serious. "We've got an ambush to walk into."
They took back roads - roads with very little traffic, which would not only make it appear that the Joes were in a hurry to get somewhere and didn't want to get stuck in traffic jams, but which would also ensure that there were less civilians to drag into the mess. The last thing they needed was a car full of dead bystanders.
They'd been driving for just under two hours. They were out of the city now…but so far, there'd been no sign of the Dreadnoks. The only motorbike they'd seen was a shiny purple Harley ridden by a guy who looked like he had a severe case of mid-life crisis.
Mel leaned forward between the front seats and looked at Duke, raising an eyebrow. "Well, this's fun," she said dryly.
His eyes scanned the roadsides ahead, watching for any sign of an ambush. The whole plan hinged on the Dreadnoks attacking and 'rescuing' Mel from her handlers.
"Do we 'ave a Plan B?" Mel pressed. "Just in case -"
"This'll work," Duke interrupted firmly. "There's an overpass five miles ahead. I'll bet next month's pay check that's where it'll go down." He turned and fixed her with a pointed gaze, but said nothing.
Mel nodded and sat back, pulling her seatbelt tighter. She took a deep breath, rolling her neck and her right ankle.
Even Clutch fell silent for the next couple of minutes - a miracle, as far as Mel was concerned. The grease monkey made her laugh, but damn he talked a lot. She guessed maybe he was trying to lighten the mood a little; seriousness was coming off Duke in tidal waves. Mel herself wasn't exactly feeling very talkative, either - for the last couple of hours, she'd been running through scenarios in her head. The best case scenario, the worst case scenario, every scenario in between.
Still…there was no telling what was going to happen.
"Here we go," Duke said quietly, gesturing ahead.
Mel looked up to see the overpass looming into view. The road they were following dipped under the hill the overpass was built up on. The road above was empty save for a couple of trucks rumbling toward them.
"See anything?" Clutch asked.
Duke shook his head. "Could be waiting on the other side. Or even up top."
The escort car in front - with Lady Jaye, Covergirl and Psyche Out - was only a short distance in front of Mel, Clutch and Duke; the second escort, with Scarlett, Rock 'n' Roll and Roadblock, followed closely behind. If Duke was right - which, knowing him, he probably was - this was it. The Dreadnoks would make their appearance.
Mel's heart was pounding.
Clutch's knuckles were white on the steering wheel.
Duke's jaw was clenched.
And then the overpass exploded.
Mel hunched down in her seat as concrete, steel and asphalt dented the roof of the car. Clutch swore loudly and swung the wheel hard left, narrowly avoiding a massive chunk of concrete that'd slammed down on the road in front of them. He spun the wheel again, but the tyres couldn't get any purchase on the rubble-covered road - the car spun a full 360 and slammed sideways against the wall with a screech, hard enough to crumple the door inwards. The curtain airbags deployed with a puff, bursting out before Mel's head cracked against the window. It still felt like she'd been punched in the face. She shook her head, dazed. Exploding overpasses had not been in her scenarios.
In the front, Duke groaned and rubbed his shoulder. "Everyone okay?"
"Yeah," Clutch replied distractedly, turning the steering wheel back and forth.
"Uh huh," Mel answered, shoving at the now deflated airbag. "You?" she added.
"I'm fine." Duke turned in his seat, looking over Mel's head and out the rear window. "Here they come!"
She glanced over her shoulder. The second escort car was stopped diagonally across the road, the hood crumpled, flames licking up from underneath it. Two motorbikes roared past it; she recognised the riders.
Buzzer and Torch.
Clutch swore again. "What I wouldn't give for a VAMP right now!"
"You'll have to make do," Duke retorted. "Let's make this look good! Go, go!"
"I'm tryin' ," Clutch shot back through gritted teeth. "I think the wheel pushed in when we hit; it's catchin' underneath the car."
Buzzer and Torch flanked the sedan.
"Hey!" Mel yelled suddenly, unbuckling her seatbelt and scooting over to the other side of the car. The airbags on that side hadn't gone off - she pounded her clenched fists on the window. "Hey, get me outta here!"
Buzzer was outside. He peered in at her, studied her for a moment…and lifted his diamond-toothed chainsaw, swinging it toward the car.
Mel flinched away, blocking her ears at the shrieking sound of ripping metal. "I said get me out, not cut me up!" she shouted, banging on the window again.
"Oh, yeah, she'll fit in just perfect," Clutch muttered, glancing over at Duke. "She's just - oh, shit…oh shit!"
For a moment, Mel didn't understand what Clutch was swearing at.
Then she heard it; a long, constant blast: a truck horn.
And then the squeal of brakes.
"Aw, ya've gotta be fuckin' jokin'." Mel glanced out at Buzzer, then lowered her head so he couldn't see her speaking to the two men in the car. "Uh…seriously, now would be a good time ta move." She made a show of trying to open the door - of course, it didn't budge. Damn child lock.
When she looked up again, Buzzer and Torch were already riding away.
What a surprise.
"Clutch!" Duke said urgently.
"I'm tryin'," Clutch said again, working the gears. The sedan jolted backwards a little, something grating underneath. The grease monkey shifted up again, floored the accelerator - and the car lurched forward.
The engine stalled out.
"Come on, baby," Clutch cajoled, turning the key. "Do it for ol' Clutch, now…"
As if to oblige him, the car started up again. Clutch threw it into gear and eased down on the gas. It didn't sound healthy - but the car moved. Fast.
Just in time, too. As Mel watched, wide-eyed, out the back window, the truck - a big, shiny, long-nosed black beast - thundered over the edge of the destroyed overpass. It arced out into thin air, and then it just…dropped. The nose of the truck crumpled back on itself - the driver, if he hadn't jumped clear - had no chance. The trailer crashed down on top. Even though they were a fair distance away, Mel still felt the impact shuddering up through the damaged wheels of the sedan, shaking the entire car. "Wouldja look at -" she started.
She didn't get time to finish. She threw herself down on the seat as a wave of flame washed over the sedan.
"Oh, that's just fuckin' brilliant," Mel complained. "Now they're tryin' ta fry me!" She hammered on the window again. "Hey. Hey!"
"Last stretch, Clutch," Duke said. "Let's go."
Clutch slammed his foot on the gas. The tyres screeched on the road and the sedan sped forward. Mel could smell burning rubber from the burnout - and from the tyre that Torch had set on fire.
Up ahead, the first escort car was heading back toward the overpass - further down the road, there was a smoking heap beside the road which looked suspiciously like Ripper's bike.
Clutch managed to steer the poor car a few hundred more metres before there was a loud bang from the left side of the car. It swerved wildly to the side - he wrestled with the wheel, but the car kept fishtailing. "Hold on, we're gonna flip!"
Duke looked over his shoulder. "Mel, buckle up!"
She swore and hurried to fasten her seatbelt - she hadn't bothered to fasten it after switching seats. "Nobody said anythin' 'bout flippin' cars!"
"Just another day at the office," Clutch replied, still struggling to keep the car on all four wheels.
And then - of course - the engine stalled again.
Mel didn't even have time to wonder what was happening. The steering wheel locked in Clutch's hand; before he could grab for the keys, the car spun out. At least one of the tyres blew; the sedan tipped onto its left side.
Mel automatically reached for something, but for some reason she couldn't find the armrest - she felt like she was on one of the rollercoaster rides she loved, only her seatbelt didn't do as good a job of holding her in place as a safety harness would. And it hurt - the diagonal strap across her chest bit in painfully. It held her in her seat, yes…but what it didn't do was stop her from lurching sideways as the car rolled once, twice - or was it three times? Mel couldn't tell. The curtain airbags on this side had deployed, buffeting her about the face again.
The sedan landed heavily on its roof, crunching down hard. It skidded along the road with an ear-splitting squeal that set Mel's teeth on edge. Behind the airbags the windows shattered, leaving a trail of bluish pebbled glass across the bitumen. The roof, not built to hold the weight of the rest of the car, crumpled inward.
Mel couldn't stop herself - she gave a sharp cry of fear. She was used to being in control of a situation, more or less; she wasn't used to a situation being completely out of her hands. She didn't like the feeling.
Eventually - finally - the car ground to a halt. Mel immediately unclicked her seatbelt and thumped to the floor…or roof. She sprawled there for a moment, catching her breathe and deciding whether or not she was going to throw up. Her ears were ringing, her head hurt, her chest hurt. She was vaguely aware of popping noises coming from outside the car, but right now she couldn't figure out what they were. She groaned, rolling onto her knees.
Duke unbuckled his seatbelt and fell awkwardly onto his shoulder. The big man struggled ungracefully to right himself - Mel, small enough to easily roll right way up, still managed to snigger at him, but it was only a half-hearted attempt.
"I take it you're okay," Duke grumbled, still stuck on his side with one foot somehow hooked around the passenger seat headrest.
She nodded, not allowing herself to wince as her head throbbed and willing herself not to spew. "Yep," she assured him. She grabbed his foot and gave it a shove, freeing it from the headrest.
The driver groaned, almost landing on Duke as he fell out of his seat. "What a waste of a car…"
Duke rolled his eyes and turned back to Mel, obviously satisfied Clutch wasn't seriously damaged. "This is it. You're on your own from here. Sounds like the others are already laying down some cover fire for us."
"I'll try not ta get hit." She waved her cuffed hands at him impatiently. "Go!"
Duke gave her an even stare, then the corners of his mouth quirked up ever so slightly. "Be careful."
She met his eyes and gave him a quick nod. "Don't you go gettin' yaself killed before I get ta buy ya a beer, okay?"
"What about me?" Clutch asked, clearing away the saggy airbags and shattered glass so he could crawl through the broken windscreen.
"I'll buy you one too, then, but not in the same context."
"Beer's beer." And with that, Clutch and Duke left her alone in the overturned car.
Mel stuck her head out the side window, looking around. The first escort car was parked across the road, providing cover for the Joes as they crouched behind it. She couldn't see the second car - she hoped Rock 'n' Roll, Scarlett and Roadblock had got out before the truck crashed.
A round pocked the ground close to her head, but not close enough to be dangerous. Nevertheless, she drew back quickly into the car and scrambled over to the other side.
The Dreadnoks were taking cover behind the overturned sedan. They were right outside - she could see their boots.
Mel rattled her handcuffs noisily. "Oi!" she shouted. "Hey, someone get me outta 'ere!" She stuck her cuffed hands out the window, then tried to crawl out. She managed to get her shoulders halfway out before getting wedged in the crumpled window frame. "Ah, fuck it. A little help?"
"An' who've we got 'ere?" Buzzer asked, revving his chainsaw as he peered down at her.
She gave him an impatient look, even though it felt like her heart was beating hard enough to shake the entire wrecked car. She was in an extremely vulnerable position; standing over her like he was, Buzzer could just as easily bring the diamond-toothed chainsaw down on her neck rather than on the cuffs. "C'mon, hurry up!" she urged, rattling the handcuffs again. "Get me out!"
Buzzer glanced from her to the other two Dreadnoks, then grinned. "Let's just deal with you then, shall we?" He raised the chainsaw.
Mel squeezed her eyes shut as he swung downward, waiting for the chain to bite into her neck, ripping her skin to shreds before chewing into her spine. She wondered if she'd die first, or if she'd…feel it.
The pain didn't come. Instead, she heard a loud squeal and felt the links joining her cuffs together skittering violently before they snapped apart.
"Now, don't move," Buzzer cautioned before she could say anything.
A little surprised by the warning, Mel opened her eyes, only to see a shower of sparks angling away from her, the screech of tearing metal insanely loud in her already tortured ears. The chainsaw was slicing into the car like it was nothing - god, if Buzzer misjudged…
Buzzer let the chainsaw idle and kicked at the car, and suddenly Mel was free. She scrambled to her feet, looking up and finally getting a look at the three main Dreadnoks. "Phwoar. Ta, mate," she said, ducking instinctively as bullets pinged off the car.
"We got what we came for, mates," Buzzer said, turning to Ripper - who looked slightly singed and battered - and Torch. "Let's go 'ome."
He grabbed Mel by the wrist and began pulling her toward his motorbike.
"Wait a sec, I 'ppreciate ya bustin' me out an' all, but I'm not goin' anywhere -" Mel started, playing hard to get.
Buzzer let go of her hand. "Fine. Stay 'ere an' get chucked back in the slammer when the backup arrives, see if we care."
Mel glanced from the Dreadnok, to his motorbike, to the Joes still crouched behind the car as Torch tried to burn them to cinders. The tongue of flame from his weapon got nowhere near their cover - but the sheer heat held them back, covering the Dreadnoks' exit. The Joes were pointedly trying not to notice her being 'rescued', but even from here she saw Duke's eyes flick over to her more than once. Luckily Torch was too busy wrangling the flamethrower, and Ripper had already climbed onto the back of Torch's bike.
"Gotcha," she said, turning back to Buzzer, but he was already gunning the engine of his motorbike. "Hey, alright, alright! Wait fa me!"
To his credit, Buzzer did wait. Mel swung her leg over the bike behind him; he leered at her over his shoulder. "Hold tight."
She slipped her arms around his waist and pressed herself a little closer to him than was strictly necessary. She didn't need to, but hey…it couldn't hurt to ingratiate herself a little to the smartest of the Dreadnoks. That wasn't counting Donald. Road Pig cancelled Donald out immediately.
"What's ya name, luv?" Buzzer asked over his shoulder.
"Don't call me luv. Me name's - ahh!" Mel swore profusely as a bullet clipped her shoulder. Buzzer looked back in alarm as she jerked a little, throwing the motorbike off balance.
"Did they get ya?"
Mel gritted her teeth as she prodded at the small groove in her skin. Somebody was going to get an earful for that. "Hardly," she said. "Anyways, me name's Dingo. Who're you?"
"Buzzer." He gestured to the other two. "That's Torch, the other one's Ripper."
There. The ice was broken.
She wasn't Mel anymore. From now on, she was Dingo.
Duke emptied the last clip at the rapidly retreating Dreadnoks before giving the order to cease fire. He was sure somebody had clipped Mel - he'd seen her make a sudden movement that almost threw both her and Buzzer off the motorbike.
He was going to get an earful for that if he ever saw her again.
No. When he saw her again.
Duke watched as Buzzer rode away, Mel clinging tightly to him. She was pressed close to the Dreadnok's back - the top sergeant felt an unreasonable pang of jealousy.
Back in her room only - yes, it was only a couple of hours ago - it'd been so hard not to get carried away with the last kiss she'd given him. Her bed had been right there; for a fleeting moment, Duke had considered scooping her up and laying her down on the mattress, to kiss each tattooed star on her breasts and strip off those tight, torn jeans that she might as well have not been wearing anyway, they were so ragged.
But they were both professionals. A kiss was one thing (or three, he thought wistfully); anything more was…well, it just couldn't happen.
Although she had offered to buy him a beer. Maybe, if they both - no, when they were both done with this operation, he'd ask if she wanted to have dinner with him.
With a sigh, Duke turned to survey the damage - the totalled sedan, the flaming wreck of the truck. Roadblock, Rocky and Scarlett had got out of the second escort car unscathed - the same couldn't be said for the car itself. A flaming piece of metal from the truck's cab had smashed the windscreen.
"Alright, Joes," he said. "Let's get the clean up started. I'll let Hawk know the mission's a go."