Uncle B.J.’s home sits at the end of a hidden little cul-de-sac vaingloriously titled Castle Circle, which is just the way we all like it. There are no castles on Castle Circle, but there’s only one way in and one way out.
The six homes on Castle Circle are all occupied by small business owners, two of whom work from home and all of whom vote Republican. Our dwellings are well maintained, well fortified, and–if need be–well defended. The rest of the ‘hood refers to us as the Gang of Six.
They don’t understand us, but they don’t mess with us, either. B.J. jokes that those outside the cul-de-sac see us as exotic zoo animals, too different to destroy, valuable for our entertainment value alone.
“Look, Mommy! It’s those butt-bag Republicans from Jerkel Circle!”
Some wag actually looked up “cul-de-sac” on the Internet one day, found out it literally meant “butt of bag” in Catalan, and the rest was history. Quiet history, usually; nobody talked smack to B.J.’s face, and few tried it a second time with me.
Shyala met us at the door, a big welcoming grin splitting her face. “You two are home early for a Saturday.”
“Bit of a smackdown over in HR territory,” her father explained, tousling her hair on the way in. “Seemed a good time to call it a day and vacate the premises.” He was–unless there was a boyfriend I didn’t know about–the only man on the planet allowed to do that and get away with it. Shy, whose name didn’t fit her at all, topped out at six-two, just like me. At eighteen, the only one of six girls left at home, she was enjoying her summer and then some.
Colleges were all over her with basketball scholarship offers. With her height and a body made for playing hoops, she had coaches panting after her like dogs after a bitch in heat. Which was understandable; my youngest cousin had it all when it came to athletics. A fully two-handed player with the wheels I lacked, the floor generalship of a born point guard, unbelievable pick setting skills, a soft touch from beyond the three-point line, and the ability to bang the boards elbow to elbow with the toughest broads out there.
Plus, she was an absolutely stunning girl.
Don’t get me wrong when I say that. Our family doesn’t go in for the kissing cousin thing. But she’s been my best friend since the day I got off the bus from South Dakota six years ago, when she was twelve and I was in my own puffed-up 17-year-old mind the hottest thing since B.J.’s specialty chili.
Besides, I prefer ’em kinda short. Like, I had to admit to myself, Tania Overgood. Hadn’t once asked the girl out. Hadn’t managed to play white knight today, either; the old geezer with the steel rebar “cane” had done that.
What, I wondered, did the old bugger B.J. calls a “protector” mean when he said, “She’s with me.” ? Maybe just laying down the challenge….
“Earth to Jackson!”
Wha–?? “I was lollygagging?”
“If that’s what you western folks call spacing out, then yeah.” Shy gestured toward the kitchen counter. “I was saying, supper’s in the crockpot any time you’re hungry, and it’s my turn to pick the show.”
“Wow.” I made my eyes go wide, as if there was any doubt which one she’d choose. In this house, B.J. and I both preferred action flicks, but the lady of the house was an absolute addict when it came to–
“Mantracker,” she announced.
I groaned theatrically, scooped up a supersized bowl of chicken and dumplings from the crockpot, and–
What, you think I’m pulling your leg with the chicken and dumplings? Well…yeah, I am. You’re right; it was beef stew. It’s Mom who makes chicken and dumplings, and she’s still back in Idaho, working for the same rancher who employed her before I became a sticky fingered peck of trouble for her as a parent.
Hope to get back to Rexburg for Christmas. She won’t come east of the Mississippi, not even for Treemin Jackson, her one and only son. The eastern half of the country has some kind of hex on her.
Which gives you some idea of how desperate she had to be to ship me back here on the freaking bus six years ago. I’m still ticked off a bit about that, though I’ll never admit it.
On the wide screen, Mantracker and Curtis were sitting their horses in deep timber, looking all steely eyed and waiting for the exhausted “prey” to stumble smack into them. Same old, same old. But Shy loved the show with a passion, and that made it all right.
“Mm?” Not polite to talk with your mouth full.
“What is it you don’t like about Mantracker? Specifically.”
I swallowed, cleared my throat, and answered a question with a question. “I’ve never said?”
“Nope. You always just clam up and look sulky. I”m not saying you’re not polite about it, you understand. But….”
“Okay. You asked for it. Mainly, the show is so stacked in favor of Mantracker and his buddy, it’s ridiculous. Every time I watch it, I just want to grab a big stick and knock those two off their fancy pants ponies into the deepest mudhole possible.”
“Stacked?” Uncle B.J. hadn’t said anything up till this point, having been utterly absorbed in filling his belly. Which was still washboard flat, but the man could eat.
“To the max.” I was kind of surprised he had to ask. Didn’t his world class city street smarts translate to the country?
“How so? I mean, besides the fact that the boys they chase are always on foot and the pursuers got horses; that’s obvious. But beyond that.”
I was giving my uncle a lecture on strategy and tactics and reality now? Huh. Okay, I could play this game. I began ticking off points on my fingers.
“Number one: All four men, pursuers and pursued alike, know where they have to go. If the prey can get to the goal line without being captured, they win, right? That’s bull s**t.”
“Watch your mouth, kid. We’re not all guys here.”
“Sorry. That’s…ridiculous. Let’s say I’m suddenly on the run–don’t look at me like that; we’re just talking theory here. I’m on the run, Man thinks-he’s-so-hot tracker knows my Mom lives in Idaho, and he figures I’ll head that way. But he can’t know for sure, not if I’m any good. If I’m a thinking fugivitve, I go anywhere but there or here with you two. I could change my mind in midflight, head for Canada or Mexico or freaking Mars, for that matter.”
“If you could stowaway on a Mars shuttle.” The big man’s booming laugh rang out, rattling dishes in the cupboard and making both me and Shyala grin ear to ear.
“Then there’s the fact that nobody’s armed. You ever heard of a real manhunt where everybody leaves their weapons at home? In real life, as opposed to a reality show, the hunters would be carrying rifles and more, while the fugitives might be armed and dangerous or seemingly unarmed and even more dangerous.”
“Huh?” Shy wrinkled her nose at me. “That makes no sense.”
“Sure it does. Cuz, I’m no survivalist, but I did grow up in the wild country, and I’m telling you. These Mantracker shows cover usually a couple of days, right? Well, that means everybody goes to bed when it gets good and dark. If it were me out there, shivering and half drowned, I’d seriously think about eliminating my pursuers. Double back, belly in while they were sleeping, bash their heads in with a rock if nothing else.”
“Steal their horses, whatever weapons they have, and head on outa there. Oh, and one more thing. They got the Mantracker cam and the prey cam, right? So who’s manning those cameras? You think they’re all automatic, maybe mounted on the men somewhere? Nuh-uh. There’s long shots, show both men on their horses or both boys huddled in the timber. They’ve got camera crews out there, following them people. Plus, that’s some wild country they’re covering. There’s gotta be backup, men with high powered rifles who can take down a ticked off grizzly bear if necessary.”
I stared at Shyala in disbelief. “So, city girl, Mantracker don’t gotta track nothing. All he’s gotta do is follow the crash-bang trail blazed by the crew following the young men on the run. Duh. There’s no more real question of the outcome than there is in pro wrestling.”
We shut up for a while then, my cousin and my uncle both mulling over what I’d just said, me just beginning to realize how survivally disadvantaged lifelong urban folk truly would be if ever they had to make it outside city limits.
On the screen, one of the prey guys was brought to bay by Curtis charging down a steep slope at him on his, duh, charger. I was beginning to seriously miss Idaho, pondering the old saying that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
And my cell phone rang.
We don’t disrespect each other by talking on the phone in the same room where others are watching TV. I took the call in the kitchen.
From the caller’s first words, my adrenaline spiked high enough to power a moon launch.
“T-t-treemin?” The trembling fear in the speaker was obvious, the struggle to stop crying long enough to get the message out.
“Speaking,” I replied in my calm-the-freaked-out-mustang voice. That voice has gotten me through a lot of scrapes where revealing my inner turmoil would be a very bad idea.
“Oh, good. I–I wasn’t sure this was the right number.”
“Appears to be. Is this Tania?” I was guessing, but it was an educated guess. I’d paid attention to the girl ever since B.J. and I had installed her Dad’s iron work. She’d been sixteen then, hot to trot but still statutory rape jailbait. It sounded like her, if you could analyze through the stress factor.
“It is! You recognized my voice?”
Wow. Sometimes even a former juvenile delinquent can say something right. I could hear her using my recognition to heal herself, pull herself together.
“I did.” Resisting the temptation to say, “Of course I did; I’ve wanted in your pants for the past four years. I know more about you than the average stalker, girl!”
“Oh. That’s good. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. What’s up, honey?” Oops. A little early for the honey bit, idiot!
“I–I can’t leave the house, but…Treemin, I need to talk to somebody, and you got elected. If you will. Can you come over here?”
Boy howdy, could I! Beautiful damsel in distress, color me aroused and ready.
Hey, I’m only twenty-three.
“You all pretripped, Tree?” B.J. didn’t show his concern, but I could feel it. None of us left our Castle Circle fortress after dark–especially on a Saturday night–without good reason. I knew he’d have volunteered to come along, watch my back, except neither of us was about to leave Shyala home alone. The cul-de-sac being the safest little oasis in the entire ‘hood didn’t mean it was necessarily safe.
“Absolutely,” I assured him. The Walther P22 rode in its usual spot in the small of my back, with the Taurus Ultra-Lite Nine ankle holstered. Fortunately, the Kevlar vest was the new model, noticeably lighter and not quite so hot as its predecessor.
Back in cowboy country, my classmates used to tell me that “being prepared” when you went out on a Saturday night meant making sure the condom in your billfold was fresh.
Oh, for the good old days.
The drive to Overgood’s home, a distance of some seven point three miles from Castle Circle, was entirely without event. The streets were almost deserted, strangely silent as if the city was maybe holding its breath, either waiting for the other shoe to fall or getting ready to rip one nasty-assed fart.
Which worried me. When Hartford, Connecticut, breaks wind, ‘hood residents get gassed–sometimes in more ways than one.
The Overgoods have a chain link yard fence with one of those locking gates that roll back to open, the kind you see on a lot of mini storage places. They knew my (fully restored) white ’89 Pontiac Grand Prix, though, and the gate was already opening by the time I turned into their driveway.
All the yard lights were ablaze, including the one illuminating the backyard barbecue grill, but the interior lights weren’t showing much. This family was expecting trouble, most likely of the incoming ordnance sort.
I didn’t run from the car to the home’s front door, but I didn’t dawdle overmuch, either. You never knew who might be lurking behind that hedge across the way, or getting ready to roar down the street, spraying bullets in a drive-by.
Shyala’s Mom, B.J.’s wife, had died that way, seven months pregnant with the family’s first son. Who also didn’t make it. Three years later, my uncle had moved himself and his six daughters into the much more defensible home at Castle Circle.
Ben and Quichona Overgood are good people. I’d been in lust with their daughter from the first time I laid eyes on her, yeah, but the parents deserved respect. Ben drove a city bus. Quichona had just shifted from teaching middle schoolers to administration as an assistant principal. They’d done a fine job raising their only child–maybe that’s part of the attraction, I thought suddenly, me and Tania both being only kids–and worked with disadvantaged youth on the weekends.
They also voted straight Democrat party ticket and believed Obama stood just slightly higher than the Second Coming, but you can’t have everything. What the hey, it went with the territory; they were both on the public payroll.
Which was about all I remembered about them.
Tonight, they were obviously terrified. No wonder Tania was losing it; her folks were pussies and passing it on.
Judgmental? Who, me?
We sat around the kitchen table, nursing mugs of scalding coffee–except for Tania, who was turning a Pepsi bottle around and around in her hands, trying to twist her problem into submission. The only illuminaton came from the light over the stove.
Vee meet here to determine how to assasinate der Feuhrer und live to tell about it!
Hey. I get these thought forms, just busting in like that. Give me a break. Especially on the German-English mish-mosh; it’s not like I’m fluent in Deutsche.
Ben got the ball rolling. “Treemin, Tania tells us that you and your uncle witnessed something this afternoon. Could you tell us what you saw?”
Okay, now here’s the thing. The man likely meant well, he was scared spitless, and he likely didn’t mean anything by it. But it came out like a cop telling a scumbag suspect, “I will ask the questions and you will answer them. Is that clear?”
Which is not something I was about to take from a forty-something, pudgy, paunchy, balding, nearsighted bus driver with an I.Q. of maybe a carrot plus two. So I answered his question with a question.
That set him back. Guess he thought—heck, I don’t know what he thought. But after a moment of silence, he explained. Did a right fair job of it, too, despite having to perform in front of two very nervous women.
“Tania got a text message about an hour before she called you. Just two words, if you can call them that.” He reached over, slid Tania’s phone to my side of the table. It was a model I knew, not that different from mine. Easy enough to find the saved texts.
Just two words, all right: YUR DEDD
“Clearly not from an English major.”
Tania and her Dad just stared at me. Quichona–as I learned then–was made of sterner stuff. Maybe it came with being an assistant principal, or having a name like Quichona. “Har-de-har,” she intoned, flat as a penny left on the tracks for a train to run over.
I nodded her way. “Har-de-har. You tie this to this afternoon, why?”
The woman shrugged. “Why not? If our daughter’s memory is correct, the HR’s were badly humiliated today, and by an elderly white gentleman at that. According to her account–which we quite frankly find incredible, and thus need to compare your version and hers–this frail-looking old guy pounded six bangers right into the concrete. Nobody died, at least not yet, but only because one of the least injured boys knew enough to cut a hole in his leader’s crushed neck so the guy could breathe until the ambulance got there. That much we know from my contacts at the PD.”
“Fair enough. I understand your need to know.” I thought it over. Impressively, all three of the Overgoods waited me out. Not all that many folks are comfortable with silence.
“Okay.” I took a sip of coffee, which had cooled considerably but still nearly burned my tongue. “Super-condensed version. Uncle B.J. and I were sitting across the street in his car, trying to decide whether to make one more stop for some needed hardware or just call it a day. Old white dude comes hobbling up the walk. Tania books past him going the other way, six HR bangers in pursuit.”
“And you did nothing?” Quichona had that mama grizzly look in her eye, the one that says men are lousy defenders of the young.
“Started to,” I replied quietly, “but the old fellow called ’em out. Didn’t quite catch what he said to them (hey, there is such a thing as too much honesty), but the fight was on. And yes, just like Tania told you, he put ’em all on the ground, just that fast.”
Mr. and Mrs. Overgood stared at each other. Tania stared at the table top.
“Well then,” Ben said finally, “that does confirm it. Our girl saw the gang whipped by not only a lone old man, but a lone old white man. The death threat is at the very least a warning to keep her mouth shut, so the word doesn’t get around.”
I wondered for the first time about the Overgoods and their parenting skills. The man and his wife had both just said in so many words that their grown daughter was a liar unless a separate witness–me–confirmed her story. I had a sudden urge to punch Dad in the nose and…I don’t know, maybe stick my tongue out at Mom. Or something.
Tania spoke suddenly, the first word I’d heard from her since she’d called me on the phone. “No.”
My turn. “No, what?”
“No. It’s not a warning. It’s a promise. They’re trying to pin me down long enough to make an easy kill. I don’t have a job, so I have no reason to go anywhere. They’ve got a watcher out there somewhere, guaranteed. Mom and Dad both have to be back at work on Monday. I’ve got till Monday to live, if I don’t leave the house, and then it’s home invasion time.”
I nodded. “No witnesses. Okay, but their next move would logically be against me and my uncle, right?”
“No,” she said again. Mighty free with that word, she was. But then she took a deep breath, and those D cups did their thing, and none of that mattered.
Did I mention I’m shallow?
“No. Everybody knows not to mess with B.J. Hennessey if they want to keep on breathing, but mostly, I don’t think they even realized you were there. Treemin, they were focused on me, tight like the racetrack greyhounds after the rabbit. And then of course on the old dude, whoever the Hell he was.”
“Watch your language,” Quichona admonished. Tania shot her a dirty look.
Personally, I thought the girl had it analyzed about right. It felt right. Which meant the surest way to an early grave for the hottest sister I knew was to do nothing.
Yeah. Like that’s happening.
A plan sprang full-formed into my mind. Looking squarely at Ben and Quichona, but mostly Quichona–who clearly packed the biggest set of cojones in this bunch–I popped the question.
“Which is the more important, in your minds? Being able to see your daughter regularly, or having her survive to see her twenty-first birthday?”
I seriously thought the assistant vice principal was going to haul off and smack me for that one, but it didn’t matter. There was only one way to answer, and we were going to have to move fast.