"I'm not dangerous," Eddie said. "And I'm not a criminal."
"So, you're taking my friend to jail?" Bryce said.
"We ain't got no jail," the waiter Skeez said. "We want to know what you stole."
"I didn't steal anything," Eddie protested.
"If you're on the run, you got your loot with you somewheres. Turn out your pockets."
"Ed, don't do anything he says," Bryce said.
"Oh, he'll do what I says," Skeez said with a sneer. "Tad."
One of the goons stepped forward and yanked Eddie out of his seat by the neck.
"Skeez, what are you doing?" It was the woman again, the one in charge.
Skeez took the slip of paper off the table and turned. "They be thieves, Miss Sefoni. Look."
Sefoni took the strip of paper and scowled at it. She tucked it into a sleeve. "Grand larceny. What did you boys steal?"
Eddie tugged at the huge fingers gripping his larynx. "Nothing," he gasped.
She squinted. "We'll see." She turned to the other brute. "Earl, get the other one."
The big man reached for Bryce, who leaned away and slapped his hand aside. "Get your hands off me." He fought as the man persisted, struggling to get past him. Bryce ducked under his arm, pushed by and gave three sharp punches to the man's kidney. The man grunted, turned, and caught Bryce by the face. He dragged him towards the door as he struggled.
Sefoni watched, satisfied. Once the goons had Eddie and Bryce secured, she motioned to two of the little fish faced men who bussed a table. "You two gurgs, get the girl and bring her."
The two "gurgs" bowed and drew Kai out, who put up no fight at all. She followed, stunned, as the procession moved out the front doors.
Sefoni led the way to the convertible. "This is their vehicle. Search it."
"What are you looking for?" Eddie asked.
"We'll know when we find it," Sefoni said with a shrewd grin.
Skeez pulled open the glove box and threw out the sunglasses and an empty Twinkie wrapper. He examined the stun baton and tossed it on the floor.
"What's in that chest in the back seat?"
Skeez checked it. "Looks like soda pop. But here's something interesting. He pulled out the mayor's staff. "It's got some kind of gem in it. Might be valuable."
Sefoni stepped forward to inspect the staff. "Check the trunk," she said.
Skeez and one of the brutes fought with the struggling Bryce for a minute before Skeez pulled the keys from his pocket. He popped the trunk open, looked down and frowned.
"What is it?" asked Sefoni.
"See for yourself."
They all gathered around the trunk. Kardhoom lay there, glaring up at them. He hissed a few words in his own language.
"What'd he say?"
"He said, 'I'll kill you all,'" said Eddie.
Sefoni blinked. "Who is he?"
"He's a dragon rider. He's been abducting people in a town called Holcomb."
Sefoni's scowl deepened. "There's no town called Holcomb in the turnpike."
"It's not in the turnpike. It's on the surface."
All eyes turned to Eddie. Except for the little fishmen called 'gurgs.' Their eyes remained on the swearing man in the trunk.
"You came from the surface?"
Eddie shrank back. "Yes ma'am."
"Not possible. The surface is poison. It has been for generations."
"Maybe in your past, but since the mishmash event—"
"The what?" Sefoni blinked.
"You know," Skeez said. "Since everything changed a few weeks back. The big mishmash."
"Yeah," Eddie agreed. "It may have been poison on the surface in your world, but not in ours. You've got the internet back, along with a whole new surface world."
Sefoni frowned down at him. "I find that very hard to believe."
Eddie shrugged. "Well, that's how it is. If you go out, you'll see."
"Let's say your story is true. Why is this man in your trunk?"
"There's a bounty for him, in a city called Graden. East of here, I think."
Skeez laughed out loud. "You two pipsqueaks are bounty hunters?"
"Why is that so hard to believe?" Bryce said. "Yes, we're bounty hunters. He's in our custody. Now if we can't eat here, give the man back his credit card and we'll be on our way."
Skeez and the goons turned to Sefoni as if waiting for a cue. She studied the man in the trunk, then the two boys. She turned to Kai, who now stood alone. The two gurgs who had been holding her now stood by the trunk, watching the man within with awe.
Sefoni gave Eddie and Bryce a tight smile. "I think we'll take your prisoner and collect the bounty ourselves." She held up the mayor's staff. "And this."
"Bullshit," Bryce shouted. "That's our property."
"There's no authority here," Sefoni said. "No law. It's the powerful people that decide who gets what, and I represent the most powerful man in the turnpike. You should be grateful if I let you drive away from here in that car. I could get a fortune for it, and there's nothing you can do to stop me."
"If you treat your customers so poorly," said a deep voice behind her, "They'll give your restaurant a bad review."
They all turned. Standing a few feet away stood a big bear of a man. He stood with the young man in the baseball cap and the cyborg woman Eddie had seen in the restaurant, along with three toad men, and a half dozen gurgs.
"What do you want, Melbourne?" Sefoni said.'
"I want you to let these folks be on their way."
"You have no authority here."
"Maybe I should." The man Melbourne did not raise his voice. He held his hands behind his back, his face passive. "If you rob the only outsiders to come into the turnpike in generations, we might get a bad reputation down here. We need to follow the law."
Sefoni scoffed. "Barlow is the only law we need."
"Barlow is a thug," Melbourne countered. "He is a thief, and he can't be trusted to know what's best for us now that the outside world is restored."
"And what's best for us?"
Melbourne rolled his eyes. "Don't you see, Sefoni? This turnpike could be great again. We could have travelers rolling through here. Your service plaza could be a thriving enterprise, not this dark hovel. Our ranchers could sell to the outside. We could all be very wealthy if we do things right."
Sefoni's eyes grew distant, her brow furrowed as she performed inner calculations. "And what about Barlow?"
"We don't need him." Melbourne said.
Sefoni glanced at her thugs, who watched this conversation with alarm. Finally, she said, "Go home, Melbourne."
The big man frowned. "Fine. But we're taking these people with us." He nodded towards Eddie and Bryce.
She stiffened. "Be careful. You know the consequences if you cross me."
"We're taking them, along with the man in the trunk and that staff you've been cradling. No one is robbing these boys today."
Sefoni scanned Melbourne and his gang. Her eyes stopped on the cyborg, who stood with hands at her sides, her knees slightly bent, ready for anything. Sefoni tossed the staff back into the convertible. "Barlow will hear about this," she said. She turned to her thugs. "Tad, Earl, let them go."
"You ain't serious," Skeez protested.
"They aren't winning," Sefoni said, her eyes fixed on Melbourne. "They're just buttering themselves up to get baked. Barlow will handle them."
The brutes released Bryce and Eddie. Eddie rubbed at his neck. "I want my credit card back."
Skeez reached into a pocket and tossed it at him. "You're dead meat, boy."
Eddie threw his hands up. "I didn't do anything to anyone."
Skeez only grinned at him.
Melbourne turned to Bryce. "You follow me in your car and stay close. I'll bring you back to my ranch."
"Why are you helping us?" Bryce asked.
"Because I have a business proposition for you."