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.
I couldn’t see a thing so had to rely on my hearing. I came through the hole in the wall as low to the ground as I could get. I knew the floor was flat, packed dirt, and as soon as I was inside I dropped down onto it, scooted to the side, then reached back and replaced the board over the gap. Very little light had come in while it was open, but if anyone were inside with me, there had been a few moments when, if they’d been looking in that direction, they’d certainly have seen it, and maybe me.
I crawled noiselessly to the side a few feet and then lay still, trying to sense a presence in the space around me.
I heard scratching at the back wall. Colt was obviously still trying to attract the attention of someone if there was attention to attract. I listened and heard nothing else. The scratching stopped completely, and there was still nothing inside.
Yet I lay still. I didn’t know if it was just nerves or some deep sense telling me I wasn’t alone, but I didn’t feel safe. So, I waited.
I crawled a few feet toward the center of the barn. Still nothing.
I stood up. Nothing. I walked very slowly, silently, toward where I knew the car was parked. It was in the last stall, back against the rear wall, which was why it was difficult to see from the window. It could be that if someone were here, they were in that stall, knowing whoever came to get the car would have to come to them.
The closer I got to the stall, the more my gut was telling me something was wrong. There was nothing physical to verify this. It had to be nerves, or perhaps some weird sixth sense I felt. I finally arrived where the car was parked. I dropped to my hands and knees, then peered around the edge of the partition that formed the side of the stall. My eyes were dilated as far open as they could be in the blackness, and I could just make out what I thought was the car. It had a different density from the rest of the darkness. I detected nothing else.
I stayed still. If there was anything to be causing the hairs on my arms to be standing up, if there really was someone here, let them come to me. I could wait.
I thought I detected a sound behind me, back toward the middle of the barn. I turned my head but could see nothing. I turned back, staring into the stall again.
And I saw the density of the darkness had changed. I could still sense the car in front of me, but the shape seemed to have changed. In a flash of insight, I realized that something else was there.
I reacted, yanking my head back, and as I did so, I felt a rush of air as something whistled by my head. I rolled backwards and then heard a thump. Someone was swinging something at me, a club of some sort, and it had just hit the ground, inches from where I was. I rolled again, then sprang to my feet and jumped sideways just as a shot rang out. I dodged further to the side and drew my Beretta as I did, feeling it was already too late. Whoever it was squeezed off a second shot at where I’d just been, and I returned fire, still moving, hoping he couldn’t see me any better than I could him. At the same time I heard another shot, this one coming from behind me, from the middle of the barn. That was followed by a grunt, a gasp, and something falling to the floor, and then a gurgling moan which quickly died away.
“Kent,” a voice I knew was Colt’s cried out. It was full of alarm.
“I’m OK,” I called out. “But stay down. The guy outside heard this. He might come in. And we don’t know about this guy in here yet.”
But the guy outside didn’t come in. He had to have heard four shots. They’d come from three different guns—none of them sounded alike. He knew he had a man inside—but only one—so two of those shots meant there were two other guys in there, and they were both armed. It was two to one, the two weren’t on his side, and maybe that’s why he hadn’t come charging into the barn.
So what was he going to do? I found out sooner rather than later, and it wasn’t what I expected.
I heard his car start and then the sound of it taking off at high speed. I absently wondered if it would survive that rugged driveway at any speed above a crawl. While thinking that, it occurred to me that him leaving meant there was only one man inside. Otherwise, he might have stayed.
“Stay put,” I called to Colt. “Stay behind some cover. I’ll see what we have here.”
I moved so I was against the back wall of the barn, then sidled along till I reached the stall containing the car. It took only a moment to reach it. I opened the front door, ducking behind it as I did. The dome light came on, seeming brilliant in the darkness. Then I switched on the headlights.
I called out to Colt. “Do you see him?”
“Yeah, there’s a body lying on the floor, kind of close to the car. It isn’t moving.”
Staying close to the car for cover, I edged toward the front of the stall.
On the floor just in front of the car was a man. Lying a foot in front of him was a handgun. The man indeed wasn’t moving.
I slid out of the stall, made my way carefully toward the man with my gun trained on him all the way, kicked his gun away, then knelt down, feeling for a pulse.
“It’s OK,” I called out to Colt. “He’s gone.”
A moment later Colt was at my side. He didn’t stop there. He came in front of me and grabbed me. I hugged him back. “I killed him, didn’t I?” he asked, his voice muffled by his face being against my chest.
“Don’t know,” I said. “I shot at him, too. One of us hit him, maybe both. But it was self-defense. He shot first.”
I was sure, however, that it was Colt’s shot that had hit the man. I only saw one entrance wound, and it was in his back. Colt had been father back in the barn and behind him. Had I hit him, it would have been in his chest.
Colt held on to me, and I could feel him shaking. It felt good, comforting, holding him, but I knew we had to get going. If the guy in the car, old Neil, happened to call in an anonymous tip to the local cops and they showed up and found Colt and me with a stiff and us with guns, one or both of which ballistics would show were culpable, and both of us with GSR on our hands, well, I’d rather we weren’t here when they arrived.
“Hey, buddy?” I said gently. “We’ve got to vamoose. I mean five minutes ago.
He heard me and let go, stepping back. I quickly moved to the car, got in, started it and drove out into the middle of the barn.
“Let’s get him in the trunk,” I said.
Colt gave me a funny look.
“Better we take him and dump him somewhere. But we need to be sure we don’t leave any blood or forensic evidence in the car. Hey, I remember seeing some empty feed sacks out on the trash pile. Three, four of those to line the bottom of the trunk should be enough.”
Colt was gone before I’d even finished, headed back to the loose board. I looked around and made sure we’d left no evidence we’d been there. Colt returned with the sacks, and we laid them out in the trunk, then lifted the body in and gently laid it on top of them.
I drove out of the barn, and Colt locked the doors after me, then made his way out of the gap, replacing the board when he did. As well as we could manage it considering the rush we were in, the barn looked much the same now as when we’d found it.
I drove slowly down the driveway and stopped when we came to the highway. I turned and we were back on the road, heading back toward Aldon. A few minutes later we’d gathered both gear and dog and were on our way.
Except neither of us had any idea where we were going.
We weren’t going anywhere, really, other than away. We were leaving where we were and going somewhere else, somewhere that would be impossible for Colt’s dad to discover. We needed to be safe before I started looking for Colt’s mother and not looking over my shoulder every two seconds. And to my way of thinking, we weren’t really safe anywhere in Georgia.
When we’d left the motel and were cruising through the city, staying at the speed limit, we seemed to be the only car on the road. It was 3:35 AM. I felt the urgent need to rid ourselves of our silent passenger. I didn’t know what Colt felt. He was just as silent as the guy in the trunk. Fitz noticed somehow and managed to squirm between the two bucket seats and got as much as a 100-pound dog can of itself into his lap. He then proceeded to lick Colt’s face.
Colt buried his face in Fitz’s fur and hugged him. I could see Colt’s body shaking. I continued to drive.
I was nearing the outskirts on the other side of town when I saw what I wanted. It was one of those places that took in old, worn-out automobile tires. They ground them up and sold the shredded rubber to companies that used it as a raw material. The place was over an acre in size and just covered with tires—piles of them, stacked high and low or not stacked at all. There was a fence around it but no guard shack. Not too much value in treadless tires I guessed—not enough to pay wages for someone to guard them.
I pulled around to the back of the place. There was a gate there as well as in the front. It wasn’t locked. I jumped out, opened it—all the time hoping no police patrol car would wander by—and drove in. I roused Colt enough to help, and we dragged the body out of the trunk and over to a stack of six over-sized truck tires. I pulled the wallet from the stiff’s pocket and checked his ID, using my handkerchief so as not to leave fingerprints on it. Then I returned it to his pocket, and with considerable effort, we lifted the body and set it into the round hole in the middle of the stack of tires that was surrounded by other stacks. Then it was just a matter of placing several more tires on top till all it was, was just a stack of tires, not a stack of tires with a body poking out the top. After which we scrammed.
“Where to?” I asked when we were back on the road. “Florida? Alabama? Tennessee? I’d rather not drive back east into the middle of Georgia.”
He still looked dazed. We’d left the town a few minutes earlier, just driving slowly. Now, I pulled to the side of the road, off onto the shoulder, and turned the car off. Then I unfastened my seat belt and motioned with my head toward the back seat. “Come on,” I said. I got out and into the back seat, and he followed.
I opened my arms, and he fell into them. I just held him for a spell, gently rocking him. He sniffled once or twice. Fitz decided this was all crap and managed to wiggle his way into the back as well, joining us. Which made it crowded, but none of us seemed to mind.
“You did what you had to do,” I said softly. “How’d you know who to shoot at, though? That’s what I’m wondering.”
I figured if I could get him talking, he’d pull out of what he was feeling sooner.
He didn’t answer right away. When he did, his voice had the timbre of a younger child. “I know you.”
“I know you! You could have killed Bart. You didn’t. You could have killed Braken. You didn’t. You come across as this tough, insensitive, macho guy, this shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later guy but you’re not. I know you.”
“You’re wrong about that, but what’s it got to do with anything, anyway?”
“I know you. You wouldn’t just shoot someone without giving them a chance to surrender unless you really had to. And you didn’t want Braken to know we were in there, so the last thing you’d do is just shoot someone. You would shoot back as a last course of action, but the first shot wouldn’t have been yours.”
His voice had been getting stronger as he spoke. More confident, too. “I told you I could shoot. And he was dumb. He stayed where he was when he shot. The muzzle flash showed me where he was. I was scared he was going to kill you. When I shot, I thought he might already have.”
I was still holding him, and I hugged him tighter. “You probably saved my life,” I said.
“Bullshit,” he said.
I looked down at him, startled. He looked up at me. “Bullshit ‘probably.’” Then his face slowly changed, and eventually he laughed. OK, I’d been right all along. This kid did have a lot of spunk.
“Did you recognize him? Was he one of your dad’s men?”
“Yeah. Him and Braken were the ones who did most of his really nasty stuff. I don’t feel bad that he’s dead. I do feel funny about killing him. But I’ll get over it.”
“This has been quite a time, hasn’t it? Almost getting killed in the woods, shooting your brother, then this. There’s nothing wrong with being shaky after this. We need some time to relax. I think that’s what we’ll have next. We need to search for your mom, but that can be done in an office or just with a computer. No bad guys, nothing to worry about. We just have to decide where to go.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “You’re the adult, and you’re driving. Your choice.”
“OK,” I said. “How about Niceville?”
“It sounds, uh, nice!” He laughed, then said, “You’re making that up, aren’t you?”
“Nope. It’s an actual place. In the panhandle area of Florida. Not too far southwest of us. Around 15,000 people. Neither too big or too small. Touristy. And not somewhere that people would think to look for us. We wouldn’t stand out as being strangers because of all the tourists there.”
“Let’s go, then.”
I got back in the front seat and started the car. Colt stayed in the back with Fitz, and I think they were both asleep before I’d pulled back on the road.
I figured we had a drive ahead of us of about 150 miles. Probably three hours on country roads. That would get us into Niceville around breakfast time. I’d been there once, several years ago. My job sometimes took me to locations where people or things could be entering the country illegally, and Niceville was on a bayou and a bay that were accessible to the Gulf. But it was—dare I say it—a nice town, a retirement community for some, near Ft. Walton Beach and Eglin Air Force Base, yet off the beaten track enough that we could feel safe.
Except for the nagging realization that Braken knew about us. Would know soon that we’d survived. Knew about the car; if he’d stationed his partner inside the barn, he’d certainly been in there, too, and he’d have seen the car himself. Now that we’d escaped, he could send out a bulletin to all Georgia counties and to nearby states under the aegis of the Caverton County Sheriff’s Office, giving accurate descriptions of us and the car and falsified descriptions of what crimes we’d committed.
So we were far from safe as long as we had the car and as long as we looked like we now did. We were on the run, and while the Florida Panhandle would certainly be safer than Georgia, we weren’t safe enough.
I had to find a way to change our appearance and either ditch the car or again modify its looks.
I had a lot to think about and three hours to use to do that.
The sun had risen when I entered Niceville. I stopped just outside town and checked the Yellow Pages online and found a body shop that advertised quick turn-around service. I got out of the car, opened the back door and tickled Colt awake.
“Rise and shine, and pee if you’ve got to. We’re about to hit town. Put your other tee shirt on, the new one. We’ll fix your hair at the breakfast place.”
While he was grumpily doing that, throwing me dirty looks like I was responsible for the sun coming up as early as it did, I attended to the car doors. Then we drove into town.
At the body shop, I took in the shop’s and the manager’s appearance and decided to go ahead. He looked a little seedy, a little coy, a little the sort who’d treat some of the rules and regulations he was supposed to follow as suggestions rather than laws. I told him I’d just bought my car from a consignment dealer, and it had been a good deal, probably because of the vandalism. I showed him where some disgruntled high-school students had maliciously keyed the doors, showing their anger at the Fulton County School District and especially the Truancy Abatement department. The guy laughed, and we discussed colors, timing and money, and then Colt and I walked the two blocks to a great breakfast place I knew about. Franklin’s On The Bayou.
We went and got a seat on the patio, where Fitz was permitted, and then headed straight to the restroom, sneaking Fitz in with us. I couldn’t do much with Colt’s hair. He desperately needed a haircut if we really wanted to change his appearance. But we could at least comb him out, and with a little hot water, a little scrubbing his hair around and then combing it, and then scrubbing his face as well, he did look a different boy. Younger. Less like a mongrel.
The temperature was in the high seventies, and it was very pleasant eating outside. The waiter, a boy hardly out of his teens, made a happy fuss over Fitz. Between the fuss, the food and the friendliness, I saw Colt giving him the eye and was reminded why Colt got in trouble with his father in the first place. I saw the waiter glance back at Colt once or twice. I couldn’t help but smile.
Both boy and dog ate like they’d been hungry for a month, the boy having pancakes and sausage, the dog sharing the sausage and eating a bowl of oatmeal. I had bacon, eggs, grits, toast and coffee. Colt watched me pull a large bill out of my pocket to pay the check.
“You’ve been paying cash for everything. You rich?”
“Hah. Not likely.” I was on my third cup of coffee, full of good food and feeling very content. “But in my job, there are times when I need to be able to flash some dough. The job I just came off of, I didn’t have any extra cash, but when I picked up my pickup truck, my boss had some hidden in it so I’d be able to get by without using credit cards. Some jobs, I’m given a large wad going in and until I get back, if I need it for anything, I’m authorized to use it. Then I have to explain where it went, and we negotiate how much is personal expense and how much the government will cover. Being the government, they bargain hard and are cheap. They’re cheap about every nickel.”
“Why not credit cards? Then all your expenses would be listed. Easier to remember and account for purchases then.”
I gave Colt a funny look. “What’re you, a budding accountant? I don’t use credit cards if I don’t have to. One, doing so leaves a record of where I’ve been, and two, the trail can be picked up by both good and bad guys, and I don’t like either knowing where I am.”
He returned my funny look. “Why not? You know, I want to know more about who you work for and just what your job is. I know you’re a good guy. I trust you, and if you hadn’t come along when you did, I’d probably be dead by now. But some of the things you do…” He broke off, and I sort of dropped my eyes from his. I did cut some corners. He was figuring this out. I wasn’t always proud of everything I did. Other than the fact I’d survived as long as I had.
“I want you to tell me more about you,” he said. Not begging, just saying. “You seem to know how to do things that make me wonder about you. Like disposing of a dead body and not breaking a sweat doing it, like it’s just an everyday activity. How many people act like that’s just something to be done and forgotten about it? How many guys pay cash for everything because they don’t want to leave an electronic trail behind them?”
I didn’t respond. Colt shook his head. “Don’t you trust me?”
I could hear something in his voice. I didn’t like hearing it. “I do,” I replied. “It’s just...I’ve been doing what I do for some time, and I’ve learned to be as discreet as possible. Look, it’s dangerous if you know more about me than you already do. If you need to know something, I’ll tell you. But it’s best if you just accept that I’m on your side and I am on the right side of the line between good and bad. I do things that benefit and protect our country.”
I met his eyes, and we looked at each other, and I was surprised at what I could read in his. I could see admiration in them, but that wasn’t really surprising. I mean, after all, we’d done some things together now that had been hairy but had worked out pretty well, so it made sense he might be impressed by that and maybe overvalue what I was capable of. But the surprise was seeing affection in his eyes, too. I wondered if he could see that in mine, too, because I knew I was feeling something for him that was new to me.
“They said the car would be ready this afternoon,” I said, changing the subject. “What do you want to do in the meantime?”
He looked around at what could be seen from the patio. The bay—with the sun rising and pelicans swooping around, doing their own breakfast shopping—was quite pretty. We could also see some of the town by swiveling our necks in another direction. He turned back to me. “We could get a motel room,” he suggested. “You must be tired. At least I got some sleep in the car. You didn’t.”
“OK,” I said. There was no question; I was exhausted. “And another thing we need to do is buy both of us some clothes. Starting now, we’re changing our image from two country yokels into civilized city folk. Tourists. Upper middle class. So maybe we can find a motel, take a nap, and then hit a mall before picking up the car.”
Consulting my phone again, I located several motels within walking distance. This was tourist country, and there were lots of motels in town. I called till I found one that welcomed pets and made a room reservation, telling them I’d be in to pay for it shortly.
It was still early when we got there—before 9 AM. The bed looked awfully inviting to me. I hung the Do Not Disturb card on the outside door handle, told Colt to wake me at noon, pulled off my clothes and was in bed and asleep before Colt even got out of the bathroom.
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