Today’s story is called Road Rage. it features a rather unsympathetic protag, something I don’t normally do.
Road Rage appeared in the February, 2009 issue of M-Brane SF. It is a 5000 word story that was my 25th published.
Robbie Kent hated crowds. He also hated waiting. Most of all, he hated traffic. Traffic in the rain was the worst, so it should come as no surprise that Robbie was in a particularly foul mood driving to his client’s factory through a torrential downpour during the morning rush hour. His black pickup was a magnet for assholes.
The exit neared, and Robbie moved into the right hand lane so he could get off the freeway. Suddenly, a blue pickup cut in front of him, exiting from all the way in the left lane. Robbie stomped on the brakes to avoid being hit, and nearly slid into the ditch at the side of the off ramp. He felt a thunk on the left side of the bed and looked into the side mirror to see a bent signpost in his wake. Not the paint!
At the light, Asshole hit the green, and Robbie got the red. He pressed in the cigarette lighter. Arming missiles. Fire. “Boom.” In his mind, the blue pickup turned to slag. Sigh. The light turned green and Robbie continued to his client’s factory, still fuming from the close call.
After pulling into the lot, Robbie looked at the side of his truck. He didn’t notice the rain, just the dent and scratch gracing the wall of the bed. It stretched from the wheel-well all the way to the tail light. The money saved for that new computer would now go to the body shop. He turned to walk toward the lobby door and accidentally dinged the truck again, this time with his toolbox. Dammit. A visit to the body shop seemed to be inevitable.
After a twenty-minute wait in the lobby, his contact finally greeted him, a portly man who obviously didn’t take care of his health. Management, no doubt.
“You the laser guy?” he asked.
Yeah. I’m the laser guy, you fat fuck. I should put that on my business cards. “That’s me.”
The manager stuck out his hand for a shake. Robbie stood and met it with his own hand. After shaking, the manager said, “Have you signed in?”
“First thing I did.” He signed in at every client’s front desk.
The manager put his arm around Robbie’s shoulder to guide him through the factory, but Robbie twisted away as he picked up his toolbox. He followed the manager onto the factory floor. “This is the equipment that needs the upgrade,” the manager said.
It was a Nippon Toolworks RX27, one of the best CO2 laser cutting tools on the market. Mostly companies with deep pockets upgraded these babies because the old version still kicked ass over most everything else. “Do you have the upgrade kit?” Robbie asked.
“Sully’s getting it.” The manager pointed to a stool near the RX27. “You can wait for him over here.” Then he walked away.
A metal stool. All the comforts of home. Robbie opted to stand—for the first twenty minutes. It turned out Sully forgot to order the upgrade kit, and was scrambling to get one by pulling favors. Two hours and one sore ass later, Sully arrived with the upgrade kit inside a damaged box, and a story Robbie couldn’t care less about.
The kit consisted of a new laser, several fitting screws, a grommet, and circuit board replacements. Ninety minutes of work that Robbie made last three hours. If this company wanted to waste his time, they could compensate him. It’s why he billed by the hour.
After filling out an invoice, Robbie picked up the old laser and started looking for either Sully or the manager. He finally found the manager just in time to intercept him on the way to the restroom.
“Who gets the old laser and the bill?”
“I’ll take them.” The manager held out his hand, and Robbie turned them over.
“That laser is still good,” Robbie said. “You should probably keep it as a spare.”
“Good idea,” the manager said as he grabbed both the laser and the invoice without missing a beat on his way through the restroom door.
Robbie headed straight home after that. It wasn’t until about four thirty in the afternoon that he realized he left his toolbox behind. Trying to catch Sully or the manager before five, Robbie jumped into his truck and peeled out of the carport.
Robbie ended up behind a fifty-year-old station wagon at the ramp to the freeway. The guy behind the wheel looked like he was old before the car was built, and he drove like it, too. The fossil must have mistaken the freeway for the Brookhaven Assisted Living Center, because he drove up the ramp like he was expecting speed bumps. Fed up with this guy, Robbie took advantage of the gravel shoulder to pass him on the right. That toolbox was too important to let an old fart like this ruin his chances of getting it back.
As he passed the station wagon, Robbie rolled down his window to yell, “Get a new car!” To emphasize the point, he tried to spray the hood of the station wagon with gravel as he got back on the pavement.
He moved over to the left lane to get past the slower traffic, but it made no difference. Traffic slowed, then it came to a stand-still. Evening rush hour. No way he was going to get there before five o’clock. Hopefully, someone was working late. It was nearly six o’clock by the time he got past the accident and drove to the factory.
Robbie splashed through the puddle from the morning’s rain as he pulled into the lot of the darkened factory. He parked in the spot closest to the front door. There were no other cars in the lot.
The front door was locked. Damn. Maybe someone was still in back. He walked around the side of the building past a few emergency exits, a water meter, and a dumpster with a lid open. When he found the back door, he discovered it locked, too.
Robbie tried knocking for a few minutes before he gave up and started back to his truck. He took a peek inside the open dumpster as he passed by. Something caught his eye. That fat fuck manager tossed the old laser in the trash instead of saving it as a spare.
The toolbox could wait for tomorrow, but an opportunity to get a free CO2 laser this powerful might never come again. Robbie reached inside to retrieve the laser. It was damp, but looked okay. He tucked it inside his jacket before casually walking back to his pickup.
Robbie didn’t really know what to do with the laser, so when he got home, he just put it on the overhead shelf in the closet. The next day was Friday, and in the morning, he decided to take another stab at retrieving his toolbox.
He had to drive through the typical heavy traffic of a Friday morning rush hour, arriving at the freeway exit about the same time as the previous day. As Robbie pulled up to the light, he looked in his rear view mirror. Unbelievable. In the mirror, he saw a blue pickup that looked a lot like the asshole that forced him into the sign yesterday.
The driver was a relatively young man with a bald or shaved head. A wife-beater shirt revealed tattoo-covered arms. A complete waste of protoplasm.
His turn today. Let’s see how this asshole likes being fucked with. Robbie continued to sit at the light after it turned green. Blue Pickup leaned on his horn and revved his engine, but Robbie didn’t budge. Cars behind Blue Pickup layed into their horns, too. The light turned yellow, and still Robbie sat there. As the light turned red, Robbie floored the gas and peeled through the intersection, leaving Asshole to wait for the next green.
Man, that felt good. Robbie pulled into the factory parking lot through the now small puddle and parked in the first available space. He walked into the lobby and headed straight to the reception desk.
The receptionist took one look at Robbie and said, “We’ve been expecting you.”
“Oh?” Oh shit was more like it. They must have cameras.
“Sully will be here in a few minutes to escort you.” Why Sully?
Robbie sat on one of the sofas and paged through an old issue of National Geographic, even though nothing inside caught his attention. Fifteen minutes later, Sully came into the lobby.
“Mr. Kent,” he said, “Please come with me.” Sully led him into a conference room. The tubby little manager was there, along with a security guard. Uh-oh. They do know about the laser.
“Good morning, Mr. Kent,” the fat little manager said. “We understand you paid us a little visit after hours yesterday.”
“I left my toolbox here,” Robbie said.
“You left your umbrella, too,” Sully said. “You’ll get them back when you leave.” They had to know about the laser.
“The old laser is missing,” the manager said.
Robbie pointed at him. “I gave it to you.”
Sully continued. “We saw you in back on the security tapes.”
Oh-no. Should have left the laser in the dumpster. “I was hoping to find somebody still working in back so I could get my toolbox. Tools aren’t cheap.”
Sully waved his hands in front of him. “Don’t worry, we aren’t accusing you. We just want to know if you saw anything.”
Lucky, lucky, lucky. They must not have a camera on the dumpster. Play it straight. “I didn’t see anyone. Sorry.”
The security guard spoke for the first time. “Anything suspicious, no matter how small, can be of help.”
Robbie shifted in his chair. “I’m sorry. Everything seemed normal to me.”
“If you think of anything,” the security guard said as he passed his business card across the table, “please free to give me a call.”
Sully stood. “I’ll bring your toolbox and umbrella to the reception desk.” Handshakes went all around, then the fat manager escorted Robbie out to the lobby. After a five-minute wait, Sully brought up the toolbox and umbrella. Feeling smug in his victory, Robbie was soon on his way home. He didn’t have any clients today, so he was anticipating some relaxation in front of the television, and maybe renting a movie.
It was while merging onto the freeway that his good mood was shaken. As he tried merging, some dickhead in an SUV changed from the middle lane to the ramp lane by cutting right in front of Robbie. The SUV almost clipped the bumper of Robbie’s pickup. He was seething, and wanted to chase the SUV down, but already passed the exit.
Every day it was the same –get cut off, get pissed off, and it was getting old. First you’ve got the damn hip hop with the bass so loud it resonates in your bones, then you’ve got the smug fuckers that cover their license plates with plastic to fool the red light cameras, just to advertise they intend to run the lights–assholes all.
There had to be some way to fight back. Robbie didn’t want to go through life as a freeway victim. He pulled his truck into the garage, still thinking about the problem. There seemed to be no solution. If only there was a way to just fuck up their paint job or something—anything!
Robbie fixed himself dinner, and just as he started eating, a knock came at the door. He walked across the room and opened the door to see Jim, his next door neighbor. Now what?
“Hey, Robbie,” Jim said.
“I’m headed up to the canyon this weekend. You think I could borrow your binoculars?”
Never see those again. “If you promise to be careful with them.” Where are they? Oh yeah, the closet. “Hold on, I’ll go get them.”
Robbie walked to the bedroom and checked for the binoculars on the top shelf of the closet. He found them right away, but something else also caught his attention–the laser he found in the dumpster. Would it fit under the hood? Here was the invisible revenge Robbie was looking for—if he could make it work.
He absently grabbed the binoculars and forced himself back to the front door. Jim looked a little miffed at how long he had to wait. Too bad, beggars can’t be choosers. Better give him a line anyway so the binoculars have a chance of coming back home. “Sorry it took so long. I had trouble finding one of the lens caps.”
That seemed to satisfy Jim, who said, “No problem. I’ll bring them over Monday night.”
“Sure,” Robbie said while closing the door. He locked it, then walked back to the bedroom to pull the laser out of the closet.
“Let’s take a look at you.” He set it on the desk, then read the specification label. One thousand watt CO2 UV pulse laser. Unusual for a CO2 laser to pulse, but then, the RX27 was an unusual cutting tool. That the thing lased in the UV was a bonus—the beam was completely invisible.
Next, he looked at the placement of the holes for the mounting screws. Not bad. He picked up the laser and carried it out to the garage, popped the hood, then tried different locations inside the engine compartment to figure out where the laser might fit and still have a direct path out the front. Hmmm. By moving the coolant reservoir and mounting the laser right there, it would fire right through the grille without having to make any new holes. It was going to fit, but would the laser work with available power?
He let the hood drop, then carried the laser to the kitchen, placing it on the table. A couple hours later, Robbie thought he had a functional setup. He yanked the battery from his pickup and connected it to the laser on his kitchen table. Now came the test.
Robbie aimed the laser at the empty soda can across the room, then powered the laser on and waited for it to warm up. When the ten minutes were up, Robbie fired the laser at the can for a good thirty seconds.
The results were discouraging. There was a little spot of discoloration, but even that was surprisingly minor. Without documentation for the laser, it took nearly an hour of paging through a laser handbook before he figured out the problem. The laser was losing coherence. It needed modification to maintain beam coherence over a range of several meters.
Several days passed before Robbie managed to find the necessary part. He finally piggy-backed the part onto a client’s order. Because he knew this company had no laser expertise to audit the purchase order with that kind of detail, he even managed to get them to pay for it. He thought that particularly clever.
Two weeks after the first test, he was ready to try again. Robbie set a soda can in the same spot across the room then fired the laser. This time, it didn’t take thirty seconds. After only a couple seconds, a wisp of smoke appeared on the can. When Robbie walked over to inspect the can, he saw a beautiful black spot. Installation into the pickup took just under two hours.
Robbie had an appointment to perform some maintenance for Larson Brothers the next morning. It was the first time in years he was excited to get on the highway. Robbie knew roughly when Asshole and his blue truck tended to be in the area, so he left home trying to time his arrival to match. When he got to the exit near Larson Brothers, Robbie was not disappointed. Asshole’s blue truck was a lane over, and the exit was coming up.
Robbie slowed to bait Blue Truck, and it worked. Suddenly, the blue truck pulled across Robbie’s lane, cutting in front as they headed down the exit ramp. The light was red, with one car ahead of Blue Truck. Robbie waited to see what Asshole would do. When the light turned green, the car in front went on its way, but Blue Truck stayed put. It was exactly what Robbie hoped he would do.
Robbie flipped the switch to the laser, and a thin wisp of smoke rose off the pretty blue paint. Look at it burn!
Asshole pulled away when the amber light turned red, and Robbie shut down the laser. That dumb-ass had to be wondering why Robbie was smiling at him as he ran the red. Robbie was still smiling as he pulled into the lot of Larson Brothers.
He spent an uneventful morning on laser maintenance, and even spent a half-hour having coffee with Sully and the fat manager. They weren’t really such bad guys.
On his way home, he was cut off by a motorcycle. Robbie made a quick move to follow the bike off the highway. It would be a challenge to hit such a small target. The light was green as they came through the intersection. Fortunately, the bike got stuck behind a slow car.
Robbie pulled the pickup as far to the right as he could in order to center the laser on the bike. Once he was aligned, Robbie fired it up. At first, a beautiful wisp of smoke came from the fender, but then the slow car turned into a parking lot and the bike pulled away. With distance, the laser still lost coherence, and the bike was soon completely out of range.
The range problem was frustrating, but nothing Robbie couldn’t handle. After a week, he had modified the laser again, adding a full array of batteries—connected per his own calculations to provide maximum power to the laser. He had the opportunity to try this new configuration on his way to the grocery store.
Robbie got trapped in the right lane behind an old Buick, and boxed in by a semi to his left. The grocery store was on the left side, and after two blocks he couldn’t handle it anymore. This slow sonuvabitch had to be taught a lesson. He fired up the newly enhanced laser and waited.
Wow! As he watched the trunk of the Buick, little bits of molten metal began to spwut-wut-wut off the back of the car, looking like an intermittent sparkler.
Woah! This thing plows right through the sheet metal! He let the laser cut into the metal for a few seconds, then suddenly the spwut-wut-wut stopped, and all that was left was a hole. Robbie turned off the laser and stepped on the brakes so he could slow up enough to get around the back of the semi. He pulled into the grocery store, still awed with his handy work.
* * *
On Thursday, Robbie had an appointment across town with a new client. He was in an adventurous mood, and when he realized that he pulled up behind a cop at the traffic light for the freeway on ramp, he just couldn’t resist. Nail a cop car, and the cop would never know!
Robbie turned the laser on, then watched the visual spwut-wut-wut of the laser digging into cop car metal. When the molten metal stopped sputtering, Robbie turned off the laser and stared at the little black hole until the light turned green. Tag, you’re it! See you, cop!
Robbie took it easy the rest of the way to his new client. No reason to arouse suspicion. The install went well, and Robbie was on his way home when a woman in a green luxury car cut him off. This was more money than brains, for sure. Time to teach the rich bitch a lesson. On went the laser as Robbie tried to see the woman’s face in her mirrors. The spwut-wut-wut had already stopped when he realized he knew her.
Who the hell did she meet that had that much money? This bitch needs some pain. Teach her to dump me like that. Just keep the laser pumping into that rich bitch car. Let’s fuck up the whole back end.
Robbie drifted back and forth in his lane with the laser still pumping at full power. The spwut-wut-wut of molten metal danced across the back of her car, and he didn’t stop until it evolved into a black gash across the trunk. Savoring the victory was only interrupted when Robbie noticed his exit coming fast. He swerved across three lanes of traffic, and barreled down the exit ramp with blaring horns in his wake. Robbie learned on the news a few hours later that the green luxury car was carrying a full can of gasoline in the trunk. The car burst into flames a half mile after he exited the freeway. The driver did not survive. He turned off the television before the story was over.
How dumb can you get—carrying gas in your trunk. Serves that bitch right for being so fucking stupid. Robbie opened a beer, kicked back, and threw Cannonball Run into the DVD player. He didn’t want to see the news.
The next day, Robbie had no clients scheduled, but he decided to drive around anyway. This laser was simply too much fun to let it sit idle. There were so many assholes on the road. Time to strike back. He tooled around town most of the day, looking to make them pay. On Seventh Avenue, a bag lady was crossing the street with her shopping cart and tying up traffic. Robbie nailed her in the hip with a short burst from the laser. How she ran!
The next time he used the laser was when a car going the other way didn’t stop for a school bus. Robbie pulled out and turned around to chase the guy down, then put a nice gash along his trunk. Spwut-wut-wut.
After that, he got on the freeway and was cut off by a pickup raised high off the ground. Robbie knew he couldn’t hit the truck, so he lined himself up with one of the tires. He hated those lifted trucks. They were so damn pretentious. He fired. At first, nothing happened, then suddenly, the tire burst, causing the driver of the truck to lose control. It swerved onto the median and rolled. Robbie looked at the truck as he whipped past. Next time, don’t get a truck with such a high center of gravity.
About ten miles farther down the road, a low rider careened across three lanes, nearly running into Robbie’s truck. He fired. Spwut-wut-wut. The sparks popped off the back of the low rider. Strange, it didn’t seem to take as much metal as the last time. It couldn’t last forever. The laser needed a new CO2 charge. He shut it off, then headed toward home. Even if the laser was spent, it was well spent.
He removed the laser from his truck that evening, sorry there was no obvious way to recharge it, at least not any time soon. By the time he finally got his truck back to normal, it was almost eleven o’clock. Robbie was scheduled for maintenance at Larson Brothers in the morning. They were turning into great clients, so he didn’t want to be late.
* * *
It was driving on the freeway headed toward Larson Brothers that Robbie saw the blue pickup in his rear-view mirror. With his own truck no longer armed with the laser, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Normal patterns said that Asshole should cut in front, but that’s not what happened. Asshole pulled in behind Robbie. He wasn’t sure why until, in the rear-view mirror, Robbie saw a wisp of smoke coming off the tailgate of his truck. What the…? Asshole has a laser?
Because he didn’t know what Asshole was firing, Robbie decided to end this confrontation, but there was a car in front of him, and a semi to his right. He passed under a freeway sign that said ‘17th Street, 1/4 mile. Suddenly, Robbie’s foot decided to slam on the brakes. Asshole swerved to avoid hitting Robbie’s black truck and ran into the concrete divider in the median. Robbie cut across three lanes of traffic and rolled down the 17th Street ramp. He never made it to Larson Brothers. His trip down the exit ramp was just too fast, and Robbie slammed into a telephone pole. All he could remember was that his legs hurt like hell.
* * *
The nurse wheeled Robbie into the rehab clinic and parked his wheelchair next to another patient in a wheelchair. She was blonde, probably in her mid-twenties, and gorgeous. “How’s your rehab coming?” he asked.
“Slow. I can stand now, but I can’t walk yet,” she said.
They shook hands, and she said, “I’m Leslie. Your first time here?”
Sweet voice, too. “How did you know?”
She smiled. “I’ve been here every day since the accident, but it’s the first time I’ve seen you here.”
“I was in an accident, too. My truck met an angry telephone pole.”
Leslie laughed. “I wish I were so lucky. I was riding with my husband in his truck. It was a lifted truck, you know the kind I mean? With big wheels?”
“The back tire blew out on the highway and the truck rolled. The cops said it looked like a laser cut the tire.”
Oh, shit. “A laser?”
She got a peculiar look in her eyes. “Didn’t you know that some nutcase is running around town shooting lasers at peoples’ cars? It’s been all over the news.”
Robbie tried to remain calm. Did he do that to this girl’s legs? “I haven’t watched the news in weeks. The cops say the back of my pickup truck was cut by a laser, and that caused my accident.”
“We’re like brother and sister, then.” Leslie closed her eyes and shook her head, then she started to cry. “It’s not fair!” She pounded her fist on the arm of the wheelchair. “Why did they have to die, Robbie? That son-of-a-bitch killed my husband and my baby. I hate that…” She sobbed uncontrollably.
Robbie was too stunned to say anything. He took the life of a baby, and tore a family apart before it had the chance to really get started. All those cars he nailed with the laser weren’t faceless assholes anymore. Now he had the face of a victim in his mind, and the death of an innocent baby on his conscience. He didn’t notice the physical therapist until she started wheeling his chair across the room.
The therapy did not go well the first day. He couldn’t concentrate on his legs. He killed someone. A baby was dead. A family destroyed. A woman’s legs were crushed—a woman who didn’t know she was talking to the person she hated most in the world. How do you concentrate on yourself when you caused so much pain and suffering?
Robbie watched the news that evening for the first time in a long while. Three more laser incidents were reported on the highways today. Police estimate three unreported incidents occur for every reported incident, and at the current rate, there will be over fifty incidents each day by the end of the year.
The next day, more of the same—suffering the hatred of the beautiful woman who didn’t know she was talking to the man she hated, failing to put forth any effort in therapy, and watching the news in the evening. The police raided a black market auto-laser operation and hope this will send a message to the rest of the city that arming vehicles will not be tolerated. The ring-leader was a punk named Jed Parnavek. Police confiscated his blue pickup. Five more incidents were reported in another part of town.
And so it went. Daily misery. The woman, Leslie, was released from therapy after six weeks, released to live her new life alone. Robbie progressed quickly once she was gone, and he was released four weeks later. He went back to work the following Monday.
* * *
“It’s good to see you back,” Sully said.
Robbie followed him to the RX27. The laser was down for repair, and had been out of service for a month. Larson Brothers was desperate to get it back into production. Robbie spent the morning troubleshooting the tool, stopping only when Sully came by.
“Want to go to lunch?” Sully asked.
Sully waited as Robbie extracted himself from the tool. “Manny’s Mexican on Third Street.”
“That’s kind of a seedy area, isn’t it?” Robbie stuffed the screwdriver he was using into his back pocket. “How’s the food?”
“Best in town.”
They took Sully’s car. The parking lot was nearly full, but they found a parking place in back. The back parking area was full of rocks and papers, with a dumpster against the wall of the building, and a chain link fence on the other side of the alley behind them. Robbie looked at Sully’s shop clothes and decided he looked at home here. Then he looked down at his own clothes. He probably fit in, too.
As they rounded the corner of the building, a young man wearing a leather jacket approached. “Hey, man,” he said. “You know anybody who wants to buy an under-the-hood laser?”
Robbie looked at Sully, who had a look of disgust on his face. Turning his attention back to the man in the leather jacket, Robbie pulled the screwdriver from his pocket. No more families blasted apart. He lunged, stabbing the man fourteen times before Sully could stop him. END