He was on his way home, a leisurely trip driving back roads in rural Georgia.
A sudden encounter with a young teen interrupted his trip.
He’d just completed a job, and the last thing he needed was a passenger.
Especially a kid as a passenger.
Colt turned the dispatch radio back on. We could hear chatter. There were occasional reports of no success spotting Colt. After a spell, there was a call out for Bart. A few minutes later, another one, angry, telling him to get his ass back in his car. Colt smiled, which wasn’t what it looked like but what it probably was meant to be. “That was my dad,” he said.
“They’ll call the restaurant next,” I said, not smiling.
We’d come to the turnoff and were well on our way towards the next county. We’d eaten the food, and, even cold, it had been delicious; Fitz hadn’t objected to his cold hamburger, either. I was surprised the coffee hadn’t spilled with all the crunching around we’d done, but other than a little having sloshed out of the cover of the cup, it hadn’t. When I’d finished drinking it, Colt had poured a little bottled water into the cup, rinsed it out, then filled it halfway; Fitz had drunk it all.
“How far’s the county line?” I asked after we’d been driving a spell.
“Maybe fifteen, twenty more minutes,” Colt said.
“I’ve been thinking. Maybe it’s best if we don’t just try to cross the line on this road. It’s a good road, and if they set up any roadblocks, having one on this road would make sense. Is there any way we could get across the line by taking side roads off this one? We’ve passed a few.”
He thought for a moment, then said, “Yeah. Next crossroads, take a right. It’s a dirt road, really built as a fire-access road through the woods. But it crosses another dirt road that goes all the way into Brevert County.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. In a few minutes, I saw the road and turned onto it, headed back north. Thick woods were on both sides of us again. The road itself was better kept and smoother than the gravel road had been. Still, I slowed down to 25, remembering the deputy not being able to stop after rounding a bend.
We drove in silence for a ways. Colt kept glancing at me, then away. About the sixth time he did it, I said, “OK. What?”
He hesitated, then said, “You had a gun. I didn’t even know you did. But you had one. And when you confronted my brother… See, most people are scared shi… scared of him because of his size and how he acts. You weren’t scared at all. And you seemed to know just what to do. Not only after we’d stopped, but even before that, just thinking ahead. You knew we had to stop him from using his radio when he caught up to us, calling for backup, and you set it up so he wouldn’t. You knew if I was not quite in the woods, he’d step out to try to stop me, not bother with the radio. I wouldn’t have thought all that out.”
He stopped. I guessed he wasn’t going to ask a question. Just point out a few facts, see if I wanted to explain anything.
I tried. “Well, it’s just smart, having a gun when you’re all alone and traveling around. It gives me a feeling of security, is all. Lots of single guys out in the boonies carry a gun. Nothing much strange about that.”
He was looking at me hard again. “That’s bullshit. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But they’re not as cool as you were. None of that explains how you acted out there—or even before it. You had it all set up so we’d get out of that mess.”
We drove farther in silence. He was back to glancing at me and turning away again. Finally, I sighed. “OK. I work for the government, Colt. I can’t really tell you much about it other than I get into some things and sometimes have to be pretty quick on my feet to stay whole. I’ve carried a concealed weapon for years. It’s tiny, easy to conceal, but it shoots straight when that’s important. I don’t like having to use it. I didn’t have to today. Just had to have it.”
He wasn’t glancing away now. “If you’d had to use it…?”
I nodded. “I would have. I was pissed off he shot at you. He was serious about killing you or, at the very least, not worried about doing so. But shooting a law-enforcement officer would have caused us problems that we don’t need. Even if he deserved it, it wouldn’t have been good. So I’m glad I didn’t have to.”
“You’ve shot people before?”
Why did people always want to know that? It didn’t tell them anything about who I was. Well, not much anyway. “Yes,” I said, “but only when necessary. And only bad guys.”
He nodded. He was quiet then, but after a while blurted out, “I shot Burt yesterday. I didn’t think I’d feel anything doing that. But I did. I still do. Both those guys have done things to me. And laughed about it. So why do I feel funny about shooting Burt? I only shot him in the leg, but I still feel bad about it.”
“It’s serious business, shooting someone. It’s heavy stuff, and you should feel something. I’m glad you do.”
He didn’t say anything more then, and soon we came to the road where we needed to turn. It was just as deserted as the one we’d been on. Just as forested on both sides, too.
“How do you know all this land so well?” I asked.
“My dad thought I’d be a deputy when I was older, and he had me going out on patrols beginning when I was nine. All over the county. Roads like this, sometimes people use them to get into the forests to grow marijuana. So we’d patrol them, and I learned my way around.
“And then Dad and my brothers took me hunting, too, so I’ve been in all these woods. These woods here, they’re full of squirrels, fox, and whitetails. Of course, Dad and my brothers didn’t care if it was game or not. Anything that was alive, they tried to kill. Had a great time, just banging away. I was always afraid they’d shoot me if I strayed far off. They’d shoot into bushes that moved with no idea what was in them.”
“Your dad sounds like he’s a law unto himself.”
Colt nodded and frowned. “I hate him,” he said. “He got rich taking from people who didn’t have much but who’d earned what they had, mostly from working their land. After he’d stolen a lot of good farmland, he rented a lot of it out to farming conglomerates. He made enough money doing that that he got some investors and plowed up and bulldozed some more of the land he’d stolen and built a fancy-ass golf course. He sold memberships for a lot of money, and he charges the members yearly fees. He’s rich but still as mean and cheap as he can be.”
We crossed the county line a little later. I didn’t know, of course. There were no signs. But Colt seemed to know. I was impressed with his knowledge of things. He was a bright kid. And confident, too. Other than his family, he seemed to know how to handle things. He hadn’t hesitated to act as bait, either. How many kids his age would have done that without a quiver of doubt?
“We need to get back on a main road,” I said eventually.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, giving me an awkward grin. I think he realized he should have figured that out already. “Just take any of the dirt roads back south. They’re all fire roads, and they all connect to the highway we left earlier.”
“We still have a problem,” I said. He looked over at me. “Figure it out,” I said, laughing.
It didn’t take him long. “The car!”
“Got it on your first try. Yeah. We could keep it and try to talk our way out of why we have it, make up a story, but if your dad has sent out an alert to nearby counties for it, talking wouldn’t be too effective. We’d be held for some time in custody while things were sorted out, and who knows what might come of it.”
“You want to ditch it?” he asked. “We could do that. Drive close to a town so we wouldn’t have to walk a hundred miles, then dump it and walk into town. I could figure out some roads to get us close in.”
I liked this kid! “Well, maybe, but it would present problems. One, we wouldn’t have transportation. And I wasn’t planning to take up residence permanently in Shitsville, G. A.”
He grinned. When he was grinning or smiling, he looked a lot different. Not so ordinary. Livelier. More appealing. “We could steal something.”
“Maybe, but then we’d be criminals. We don’t want that. We’d probably get caught.”
“Maybe. But, so what? If you work for the government, just tell them who you are, what happened, and get some sort of clearance from Washington. They were going to kill me—and Fitz! Can’t you do that?”
“To quote you again, maybe. But I don’t want to do that. My boss wouldn’t want me to, either. You’ve heard the word clandestine, haven’t you?”
The blank look on his face showed he hadn’t. “It means covert—” another blank look “—or secret. People who work in the job I do aren’t supposed to reveal who they work for or even that our agency exists. And I pride myself in getting out of jams without having to fall back on my get-out-of-jail-free card. Maybe it’s just silly pride, but I’d rather find a way out of this that doesn’t include talking to the police and telling them things I don’t want them to know. So, it would be better if we can make a plan that doesn’t involve anything criminal.”
“We’re already criminals,” he pointed out. “We stole a cop car.”
“Well, there is that,” I agreed. “But if we can, we should stop with that. That we can explain: he shot at you. So, the thing to figure out is, where do we go from here? Your idea to get close to some decent-sized town and hide the car is a good one. Just not thought out quite far enough. How about doing this?”
I told him my idea, and he thought I was crazy, but then, I’d had a lot of that over the years. Anyway, we talked it through and he agreed to do his part because, after all, I was keeping him with me, trying to work out what to do with him instead of abandoning him to his own devices at the side of the road. Therefore, all that was needed now was a town bigger than Crocker Corners. Quite a bit bigger, really. Big enough that we wouldn’t be noticeable.
Aldon wasn’t a big city by any measure, but I estimated it at maybe 10,000, 15,000 people. It was just into afternoon before we arrived. Colt didn’t know the area nearly as well as he did places nearer his nest. But we managed to get there using mostly back roads, and we didn’t meet any cars. I thought that was good, as we were certainly noticeable.
When we were within what he thought would be a 30- to 45-minute walk of Aldon, we started looking for places to hide the car. There were fire access-roads, but they had solid trees on both sides and I didn’t see any way to drive into them. We’d passed some farms on the main roads in the short time we’d been traveling those, but they didn’t seem to offer us anything.
We’d just pulled back onto the main road again, getting too close to Aldon now to suit me, when Colt said, “Hey, look!”
I pulled to the side of the road and looked through his side window. What had caught his attention was a farm, but one that didn’t seem to be active. The fields that lay along the road had weeds and brush rather than crops. In the distance I could see a small house and large barn, but they too had the obvious signs of neglect one sees with abandoned properties. The house actually looked from our distance away like it was tilted to one side a bit.
“Let’s check it out,” I said, and we drove a short way till we came to what must have been the driveway at one time. I turned in and immediately slowed. It didn’t seem any vehicle had been on this in years, as all sorts of growth had taken over.
The cruiser had a crash bar on the front bumper that was slightly damaged now but still useful and this was a powerful vehicle, so I simply drove through everything in front of us, doing so at a snail’s pace. Eventually, we came to the house. Up close, it looked like a squatter’s shed or a tumbledown shack rather than a house. It was a tiny, single-story structure of unpainted wood. The front door was busted open and hung on one hinge. As far as I could see, there were no windows on one side, and the two on the other side and the one in the back were broken.
The shed was close to the barn. While the shed itself looked uninhabitable, the barn wasn’t in the same dilapidated state. I stopped the car, and we both got out. Immediately, I was sweating. It was about 75 in the car. About 90 outside, and the humidity might have even been higher. Colt felt the same thing, and he stripped off the tee shirt and tossed it back in the car.
“Let’s see if we can open the doors,” I said, but Colt was already heading in that direction. He didn’t seem as bothered by the heat as I was.
There were two doors on the front end, the short side of the barn, and they opened outward. I tried one, and it wouldn’t budge. Colt was working on the other with the same lack of success.
He stopped and looked at me.
“Let’s see if there’s another way in,” I said. “I’d like to get in there. This barn is the perfect place for us.”
He nodded and headed to the left, then disappeared around the side. I went in the other direction.
From the side of the barn I could see only weedy bushes and unworked fields. The side wall of the barn itself was just boards needing paint; it had no windows at all. We met on the backside. There were three windows there, two small ones up near the roof and one larger one in the middle that was just too high to look through. The glass was mostly broken out of it, too—as I expected—but it wasn’t so high I couldn’t boost Colt up so he could look inside.
“It’s mostly just a big empty space inside,” he called down to me. “I can get through it, but we need to get rid of the glass first.”
I let him down, and we found an old trash pile further back in the field from the barn. It contained all sorts of rubbish, including some old crates and pallets that we liberated. Colt helped me stack them up under the window to make getting up to it easier.
There were jagged edges of glass still in the frame, but I found a broken board in the trash heap and busted out all the glass that remained and smoothed the edges of the frame till the window was safe to climb through. I took the time for a look-see and found there’d be no way I could fit through that window. I looked down at the floor underneath the window to make sure Colt wouldn’t be landing on broken window glass, then helped him climb into the window and held his wrists to let him down inside. His drop wasn’t far.
I walked around to the doors and didn’t have to wait long. As I was standing there one of the doors squeaked and then swung open. Colt was behind it, pushing, a big grin on his face. “Just a metal rod running down into a slot in the ground holding each door. I pulled up the rod and the door swung right open.”
I left him to open the other door and got back in the car. I pulled into the barn, turning on the lights as I did. It was, as Colt had said, a huge empty space in the middle, with a few stalls on one side, and a ladder leading up to a loft. After making sure it would fit, I swung the car into a stall at the back which, without the car lights on, was dark. The entire interior of the barn, even in broad daylight, was dark enough to make it difficult to see in.
“OK. Let’s lock the doors again after getting you something to stand on to get back out the window,” I said.
Five minutes later, we were walking to town. Just over a half hour later, we were in the lobby of a reasonable-looking motel on the outskirts of town, getting a room for the night for my wife, son and me, asking for a room with two beds, a good shower and even better A/C. We’d left Fitz waiting in the shade outside, out of sight from the lobby. Colt had simply told him to stay, and that was that.
The two of us were drenched in sweat, Colt was shirtless and wearing flip-flops. The clerk looked at us, then looked outside and asked where my car was. I had no trouble at all telling him my wife had dropped us off and then gone to fill the tank. We’d been running on empty for the last ten miles and had had to turn off the A/C to save what was left in the tank to be sure we made it, which is why we were so sweaty. The clerk nodded. He’d evidently had to do the same thing once or twice himself.
He still had us pay in advance. He happily took cash, though he demanded a deposit in addition if I didn’t have a credit card. I did but didn’t want to use it. I tried to never leave more trace of myself than I had to.
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