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.
We’d had a couple of awful days, and I thought it would be fun and hopefully take some of the edge off if Colt and I could have a relaxing, fun evening. Driving back from the mall, Colt of course was anxious about what had happened. I told him what I’d seen and that Braken had simply driven off.
“You mean he’s given up?”
“No, I don’t mean that at all. I mean he’s waiting for the right time. I’m pretty sure that’ll be tonight. Late. When we’re asleep.”
“So he’s still watching us, then? He parked outside the parking lot and waited for us? You think he’s following us now?”
“No, no, and no. None of that. What I think he did, what I’m sure he did because I checked when we returned to the car, was put a homing device under the rear fender of our car. Doing that, he doesn’t have to follow us and take the chance of being made. Uh, do you know what that means?”
He gave me a scornful look. “I grew up listening to three cops talk business at home and watching TV! Of course I know what ‘made’ means!”
I laughed. “OK, OK, don’t get your knickers in a twist. Anyway, I checked. I was pretty sure but wanted to know it wasn’t a listening device as well—or a bomb. It isn’t. So, he’ll know where we park the car tonight, but that’s all. So, how about we get cleaned up and have a nice dinner, maybe even see a movie?”
Colt could easily have been too scared, thinking what was coming later, to have any interest in what came before. But that wasn’t Colt. And so we ended up at the fanciest restaurant in Niceville, and Colt got to wear his new dress clothes, sans tie, as he said it was summer and way too hot and he wasn’t ready for that yet, and besides, he was on vacation!
Even with an open shirt collar, the kid looked stunning.
I had sea bass, he had lobster and blushed when the waiter—this town seemed to specialize in having comely young men with grace and charm serve as waiters—fastened a bib around his neck and then smoothed it out over his chest and stomach. It was all I could do to repress my laughter.
We went to see the latest sci-fi blockbuster and Colt sat at the edge of his seat, eyes fastened on the screen while I spent a lot of time watching Colt. What was I going to do with this boy? The more time I spent with him, the more I knew I had to find the right place for him. He was more than special, and by now meant more to me than I wanted to admit.
I’d left the car parked on the street instead of in a parking lot. There was a lot of foot traffic on the sidewalk and vehicle traffic on the street where I was parked. I was confident Braken wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sabotage the car while we were in the theater. From what Colt had said, that didn’t seem to be his style anyway.
We drove back to our motel, and I laid out my plan for Colt. He was nodding, as it explained some of the purchases I’d made at the local Target when we’d stopped for a small bag of dog food earlier while returning from the mall.
When we got back to the motel, Fitz showed how happy he was to see us with his boisterous tail. Colt had fed him before we left for dinner. Seeing his tail wag and half his rear end, too, when we returned from the movie delighted me. It meant no one had been in our room while we were gone. Not that I had expected anyone would have been. I doubted very much Braken knew exactly where we were. When we’d returned from the mall, I’d parked the car across the street and a block away from our motel, actually in the parking lot of another motel. There were several of them in this part of town. Not only didn’t Braken know which one we were staying at, he also had no idea what name we’d registered under.
Now, I parked my car right outside our room. I knew he’d be coming during the night. I knew he was coming, and he had no idea I knew it. I figured I’d get the jump on him. I’d had experience planning things like this.
It was a warm night, but being close to the water, not nearly as hot as it was in Georgia. The quartering moon we’d had the night before—was it really only last night—was now closer to a sliver and gave little light. There were overhead lights high above the parking lot, but only a few, and our room was a long distance from them. On the front side of the line of rooms, dim lights illuminated each doorway. On the backside of the building there were deep shadows along the wall, the only light out there coming through the bathroom windows where lights had been left on.
I assumed Braken would come from the front, as the bathroom windows in the back were both high up on the wall and too small for an adult to get through. From the front, he had options. One was to knock on the door and pretend there was an emergency, a fire, perhaps, or a police investigation of some sort. Once the door was opened, he could do what he wanted. Or, maybe he’d be confident we had no idea he was coming and would leave the front window open. I guessed he’d be playing it by ear after casing the place.
I expected him to come late. Probably two, two-thirty. Dead of night. Everyone asleep. No traffic. No witnesses. With a silencer, no noise.
It was a soft night. No need for air conditioning. I’d left our front window open a couple of inches. With the bathroom window open a bit, too, there was some air movement in the room, fluttering the curtains on the front window, making the room perfect for sleeping with just a sheet over us. I’d left the light on and the door cracked to the bathroom. If either of us needed to pee during the night, we wouldn’t be tripping over anything getting to the bathroom with a sliver of light showing.
I’d thought about how Braken would approach, what he’d be looking for, what he’d see. Two beds. A man, a boy, a dog. Fitz, as usual, wouldn’t be content to sleep on the floor and would be in bed with Colt, only his nose and one ear showing. The back of Colt’s head would be out of the sheet. My bed was the one farthest from the window in the darkest part of the room. I’d be uncovered half-way down my back, the sheet covering the rest.
Two-thirty. He hadn’t come. I was getting antsy. Waiting was the hardest part of any mission. Listening intently to the point of getting a headache. Knowing I’d have to react quickly.
Two-forty-five. I heard the sound of a car pass through the parking lot, crawling very slowly by the cars standing in front of the rooms. It drove on past. I didn’t move.
A minute later, it was back. I assumed it was the same car. I couldn’t see it.
It stopped. I heard a door ease open, then shut a moment later without latching. I was listening as hard as I could. No footstep sounds, but if he was wearing sneakers and walking softly, there wouldn’t be. I waited. Waiting was almost impossible as every nerve in my body was screaming at me.
I waited thirty seconds. Couldn’t wait longer than that. Couldn’t. Moved my arm, positioned the mirror I was holding and checked the front of the building. He was there, his back to me. At the window. Looking in. Pushing the curtains apart with something in his right hand.
He was dressed all in black. He was tall and thin. That was all I could see of him.
Without making a sound, I rolled out from under my car. I was about twenty-five feet away from him, plenty close enough. I rose to my knees just as I heard pfutt, pfutt, pfutt. He pulled his arm back from the window and was starting to turn when I shot him.
I was up then in a hurry, racing to him. He was down and incapacitated, as expected. I had a pair of handcuffs and cuffed his hands behind his back. I dragged him to the door of my room, pulled him inside, then gagged him. I used some clothesline I’d bought at Target to hogtie him, securing his ankles together, then elevating them up so his knees were bent and his legs were behind him at almost a right angle to his torso, then finally tying them to his handcuffs. He was about as immobile as I could make him.
The taser shot had worn off by then. He was conscious and angry rather than scared, but he was also helpless.
“If you start making any noise at all,” I said, “I’ll very happily kick you in the head till you stop. You just tried to kill me and the boy, and even shot the dog. Well, what you thought was the dog. And the boy. And me. So I will enjoy inflicting a little brain damage on you if you become a nuisance. I really would rather enjoy it. I’m leaving you now. But stay still. I’ll be back, and if I hear anything at all when I come, well, you’ve been warned, and I’m not a compassionate man.”
Then I left him. I walked four doors down and knocked, and almost immediately Colt was there. He’d been sleeping but obviously not too deeply. He was still dressed. Fitz was next to him. Fitz always seemed to be next to him.
“Got him,” I said. “Let’s go.”
The three of us went back to my room. Braken was still lying where I’d left him. That was no surprise. Being hogtied is no joke.
While I was going through his pockets, Colt was taking the mannequins I’d bought out of the beds and out to my car. He took the stuffed animal that had represented Fitz, too.
I found a motel-room key in Braken’s pocket. That and his car keys were what I’d been looking for.
Later that night or early that morning, however one wants to figure it, while Colt was sleeping in the car and Fitz too was down for the count, I was in Braken’s motel room on the phone to a sleepy deputy sheriff in Georgia. He was working nights, and his shift was winding down, and he sounded tired and provoked. Myself, I felt like I hadn’t slept in a month.
“Look, buddy,” the guy started in when I asked if anyone had taken a call on a dead body in a deserted barn. I didn’t know if Braken had made such a call, but it was a 50/50 proposition he had. It was an option he’d had as he’d left the barn, hoping Colt and I would get hung up with a dead guy and have a lot of explaining to do, and that Brevert County could be persuaded to turn the two of us over to Caverton County. After all, it was one of our guns that had shot him. Even if the guy in the barn wasn’t dead, there’d be a whole bunch of confusing and conflicting stories being told, and they all would have emanated from Caverton, and getting rid of the whole mess would be something Brevert might like to do.
“Look, buddy,” the deputy said. “I was the one who took that call. I went out there. Wasted a couple hours in the heat, finding nothin’. No body, no nothin’. You the one who called that in? Was it supposed to be funny? Because when I find out who it was…”
“Look,” I said, interrupting him, trying to be patient and wanting to get to bed more than anything. “This is the real deal. The guy who called you was working for the sheriff in Caverton County. It’s a long story, and you wouldn’t believe it if I told it all to you. So I’m not going to. All I’m going to tell you are the verifiable facts. One, the dead body you thought was in the barn was moved to the used-tire disposal yard you have in Ardon. It’s at the back of the yard in some stacked-up tires. May be getting odiferous by now. The guy who shot him is handcuffed to a bed in Niceville, a couple hours south of you. The gun he shot the guy with is in his holster in the room with him. So’s the gun he’s shot a bunch of other people with, one with a noise suppressor attached that he used tonight, trying to kill me. Ballistics on that might turn up all kinds of interesting stuff. ”
The deputy came alive at that, but I hushed him. “Let me finish. You interrupt again, I’m hanging up, and you’ll have no idea what’s what. Don’t even think about catching me. I’ll be long gone before you even get a start at finding me.
“Now, as I was saying, this guy here works for the Caverton sheriff; he’s his undercover agent and his hit man. He shot the guy in the barn, then moved the body. How long did it take you to get to the barn after the anonymous call?”
“About 45 minutes. Why?”
“Because in that time, he realized he might have left something incriminating there, and he decided it was best if there was no body to find. So, he moved it. To the tire place. I know, because I followed him. I’ve been following him ever since. I was the one he was aiming at in the barn, and he shot his partner, instead. It was dark, and I managed to get away after he thought he’d shot me. I saw him move the body. Carried it to his car, which was parked on the west side of the barn, and laid it in the trunk after putting some feed sacks in there, probably to keep any blood from leaking on the trunk’s carpeting. Then he drove to the tire place and hid it in some tires. I don’t know if the bullet’s still in the body or not. But if it is, it just might match the gun in his holster.
“He still was looking to kill me after he saw he had hit his partner instead. I know some stuff he’s done, and he wants to shut me up. I figured it was best for me to stay behind him rather than having him show up behind me. I’ve been tailing him. Tonight, I got careless, and he almost got me, but I got lucky and got him, instead. Didn’t kill him. Might have messed him up some. I’ll leave him to you. I’m no killer.”
He started barking, but I just kept talking.
“What I’m going to do is give you his location. He’s in Niceville. What you need to do is call the Niceville cops and have them come and hold him until you can get here. He won’t stay cuffed to that bed for long. He’ll find a way to escape. He’s clever, and he could talk himself out of a noose while on a gallows. So they have to move fast. You ready for the address?”
He started to sputter. He wanted my name. He wanted me to stay where I was. I told him I was going to give him the address and then head out, and if he’d rather yell at me than take it down, that was his prerogative. Then I began giving him the name and address of the motel. He shut up immediately.
I hung up, then walked to the bed where Braken was cuffed. I looked down at him. He looked up at me, and then I saw fear in his eyes as he was watching mine.
“You tried to kill the kid and his dog,” I said.
He didn’t respond. I picked up the bedside lamp and hefted it a couple of times, weighing it. Then I smashed the base of it into the side of his head, hard. It did the trick. He’d nap for an hour or so now. Only his chest was moving to show he was still alive when I returned the lamp to where it belonged.
I had a few more things to do that I didn’t want him to know about. One, I wiped down the gun Colt had been using, put it in Braken’s unconscious hand, then took his ankle holster from his leg and the gun out of it and replaced it with the one from his hand. I transferred the gun from his ankle holster to his shoulder holster where I guessed he’d been carrying his silenced pistol, then I put that gun on the dresser, in Braken’s sight when he awoke but not in his reach. Then I took his car keys and went outside. I opened my trunk, took out the feed bags that were still there and put them in Braken’s trunk. Braken, when he was up and ticking again, would have no idea that any of this had happened. That would make it easy for the cops to think he was lying when he denied all this and so probably lying about most everything he said.
It had taken me only a couple of minutes to do this, but I was very aware of time passing. I wiped anything I’d touched, including his car and motel keys, and then was out of there. The last thing I had to do was remove the homing device from my car and toss it into the bushes.
As I was leaving, I turned right onto the main drag, and in the rear view mirror, way back, I saw a light bar flashing on the roof of a patrol car, running without a siren. I shut off my lights and pulled to the curb. Crouched down, had Colt do the same. It took a half minute before the cruiser reached the motel driveway. He turned in and drove toward where Braken’s car was parked. I drove away, keeping my lights off till the next block. Then I headed for Ft. Walton Beach. Our stay in Niceville was over.
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