Without warning, a tie rod shot out of the battered Ford sedan. Immediately, all engine power was lost. Swearing, Face pulled the car off to the side of the interstate. He knew enough about cars to know it wasn't going to be worth repairing. He doubted BA would even want to, especially since Hannibal was making noises about it being time they all switched to vehicles the military didn't know they had.
"Great," Face muttered. "Figures this thing would die in the middle of nowhere. I have got to get a car phone." He sighed, too well aware that the finances hadn't yet stretched to such luxuries, popped the trunk, and got out of the car. The trunk held a large black duffel bag, which Face swung onto his shoulder before shutting the trunk.
He counted his blessings: it wasn't raining, and he was still wearing clothes appropriate for the hike out to his friend's remote cabin. He was about two hours northwest of LA, though this was a fairly deserted stretch of state highway, with no sign of civilization for miles. He'd been coming back from visiting a friend who, for a small fee, created the paperwork to back up the false identities that kept the military from finding where the team lived. Face had gone to retrieve a new set of identities, as something told him they were going to be needed soon. It was supposed to be a simple day trip: three hours out to where his friend lived; three hours back.
Face sighed, and started walking. Whenever he heard a car, he stuck out his thumb and put on his best smile.
He was rewarded half an hour later when a classic black Mustang convertible pulled off the road. A striking brunette was at the wheel.
"Need a lift somewhere?" she asked.
Face smiled. "If you'd just drop me off at the next town, I can call my friends to get me," he told her.
Her eyes raked boldly over him, undressing him with frank appreciation. Slowly, her lips curved into a smile, and he had to rein in the urge to take a breath at the impact of that smile. Here was a woman who knew she was beautiful and knew how to use it.
"What's your name?"
"Tim," he lied.
"I'm Amanda. Hop in," she invited.
When he was settled in the car, she pulled back onto the highway. "I can do better than the next town. I'm headed down to LA, if you're interested in going that far."
Face looked at her. She wore a short red mini-dress that only served to emphasize her curves; if she had a weapon hidden on her, it wasn't anywhere obvious – the dress was far too revealing for that. She radiated confidence, as if she had no doubt of where she was going or how she was going to get there.
Face had hitchhiked before; he knew how dangerous it was. Yet, she didn't strike him as being one of the ones he had to fear.
"LA would be nice," he agreed. "Would save my friends the trip."
She flashed that killer smile at him, and he felt his heart jolt. "My pleasure. So what happened to your car?"
"It died," he replied, grinning. "I'll leave the gory details of how to my mechanic. What brings you this way?"
"Interstates are so impersonal," she told him. "You get there faster, but you miss out on the scenery. I live in San Francisco, but the tryouts for the circus are being held in LA."
"Oh?" Face said, intrigued. "So what do you do?"
Amanda smiled. "High wire acrobat." She chuckled softly. "I'm the 'Amazing Amanda.' Not a very original name, but —" she shrugged "— circuses aren't exactly known for being creative with those sorts of things."
"I can't say I've ever watched a circus," Face admitted.
"Really?" she asked with interest, glancing over at him as she drove. He spared a moment to note she handled the manual transmission car with the ease of long familiarity. He also noted that they were traveling a good twenty miles over the speed limit, but she didn't seem to care.
He shrugged. "Wasn't something I did as a kid," he said honestly. "Then I grew up and got interested in other things."
"You should come see me sometime," she told him.
"You that sure they'll take you?" Face asked in surprise.
She grinned. "Darling, no one's better at the high wire than the Amazing Amanda. I'll even work without a net."
"What do you do in a high wire act that you'd need a net?"
"Well, the wire's at least twenty feet in the air, it's usually about 21 mm in width, and it's at a specific tension between two poles. That's for starters. Then, the basics: walking on that wire without falling, adding in props, maybe a few gymnastic twists, all the stuff to make the crowd gasp, thinking you're going to fall."
Face digested this information. Amanda seemed to live in a world apart from the women he'd gotten to know over the years, and he knew he was intrigued by her. "Twenty-one millimeters? How in the world do you walk on that?"
She chuckled. "Very carefully," she said seriously. "It takes practice to know how to walk and, how to fall if you do fall so you don't collide with the wire."
He winced as his imagination came up with the possible injuries from such a collision. "I can't imagine anything paying enough to be worth that kind of risk."
"It doesn't," she admitted. "But I love what I do. Up there, there's nothing more important than doing what I'm supposed to do. There's no war, no hate, no fighting, no games. It's just me, the wire, and the routine I'm doing. Even the crowd fades away."
Something in the way she said that made Face reevaluate her. There were depths to this woman:woman; her attire said upscale, the car said collector, but the words she spoke said she was more than she appeared. He was fascinated and attracted. He knew that was a dangerous place for him to be, and reminded himself that she was a stranger who'd picked him up. She could be anything and he was better off trusting that she meant him harm.
"Must be nice to have someplace you can go escape the world like that," he said quietly.
She glanced at him, and he wondered briefly if the fact he'd learned how not to slouch betrayed his military background. He had a sneaking suspicion she'd pegged him for a vet. All she said, though, was, "It is. I think people need places like that. Get all wound up in life and forget to enjoy it sometimes."
"Better living through joy?" he teased her.
She laughed softly. "Why not? Seems to me like we've tried everything else."
He chuckled. "I don't know if people can handle that. There'd be someone who'd insist on spoiling the fun."
She frowned. "Unfortunately, you're probably right." Abruptly, she shifted into a lower gear, slowing the car down rapidly as they approached the outskirts of a town before she actually applied the brakes.
For the six blocks that comprised the town, Amanda kept to the posted speed limit. Face saw why as they passed the sheriff's car just inside the town limits on their way out. The sheriff looked positively disappointed they'd avoided his speed trap.
"Like that guy?" Face couldn't resist commenting when they'd passed the town limits sign.
Amanda flashed him a grin. "Like that guy." He could feel the car's speed was steadily increasing and had no doubt she'd be speeding again. He couldn't remember the last time he'd done some low-level flying like this without being worried about being caught. It felt oddly exhilarating to be a passenger like this, too, knowing that if they were stopped he'd have to do some serious fast-talking to avoid suspicion.
"So what do you do?" Amanda asked a half-mile later.
"I perpetrate the myth that working in an office actually accomplishes something," he told her blandly. He'd already decided that Tim was an office drone; it didn't seem worth it to make him into anyone with a more glamorous profession, especially since his hiking boots, jeans, and knit shirt didn't scream money. He'd dressed to go hiking; he hadn't dressed to impress anyone.
"I've often wondered about that," she told him. "I've never worked in an office. Well, unless you count the box office of the circus, and even then I was just selling tickets. Not pushing papers."
He shrugged. "I wouldn't know anything different," he lied smoothly. "It's what my parents did."
"I don't remember my parents," Amanda admitted. "I haven't felt like I missed anything by it, either. I've had good friends; they've been family to me."
Face was tempted to agree, but he decided that hadn't been Tim's life. He spun a tale of a small but close family, a few good friends, but always that perfect family he'd never had. He threw in a few details from living on a farm borrowed without shame from Murdock's life; he'd heard the stories enough times to retell them as if they were his own. He could tell Amanda bought it, too, which only proved yet again that he could talk anyone into believing anything.
"Your parents must be proud of you," Amanda remarked. "Are they in LA with you?"
Face shook his head. "No," he said regretfully, "they retired to Florida. I try to make it out there for the holidays, but I know it's not nearly enough." He sighed. "Thank God for long-distance phone calls."
Amanda smiled. "I know how that feels — my friends are all over the place!"
Face didn't have anything else to add to that, so he let the conversation stall there. He could tell from the roadway signage that they were less than half an hour from LA now.
"Where in LA are you headed?" he asked a few minutes later.
"Would you believe a Holiday Inn?" she returned with a grin. "If I remember the directions right, it's off Highway 101, near where 101 meets I-5. I can drop you off elsewhere if you like."
"No, that's fine," he told her. "Don't want to be any more bother than necessary."
She looked him over quickly, the gaze heating his blood. "Pity I have an audition," she purred. "I wouldn't mind you bothering me some more."
A blind man could see she was interested in him. Face wasn't blind, nor was he stupid. Interested in him or not, he knew better than to get involved with the person who'd picked him up hitchhiking. "Maybe some other time," he offered noncommittally.
Amanda looked disappointed, and he had a moment to wonder if she'd give in gracefully or not. "Of course," she said finally.
All too soon, she pulled up to the Holiday Inn. Face got out as she did the same, exiting before he had a chance to open her door.
He smiled at her as they met at the rear of her vehicle. "Thanks for the ride, Amanda."
He nodded once in acknowledgement of her words and started walking towards the hotel lobby in search of a phone. He could feel her watching her leave and hid a smile at the predictable gesture.
Just short of the phone, he turned to face her. She was still standing there, watching him. "Buy you a drink, in thanks for the ride?"
She smiled slowly. "I'd love that."