“Ben, it’s settled.” Quichona spoke to her husband in a tone that brooked no argument. “Tania is willing to go with Treemin, it’s a death sentence if she stays in Hartford, and that’s that.”
Ben Overgood sulked like a little kid. Not too thrilled about losing Daddy’s not so little girl? Irritated at being overruled by the Overgood women? I had no idea.
Didn’t much care, either.
I excused myself. There was one thing I had to do before calling B.J.
Out west, I wear Wranglers or Levis, but in the ‘hood it had always been cargo pants. Good for hauling all sorts of stuff, such as the night vision monocle. An out of date version, true enough, but still infinitely better than nothing.
My request made Ben Overgood go from pouty to apprehensive in a heartbeat, but his wife stifled him with what could only be described as a snort. Not a snort of cocaine, but a snort of outgoing breath through the nose. Grumbling under his breath, the man shut off all the lights he could, plunging the home into almost utter darkness. Out front, there was still the one street light functioning, but short of taking a potshot at it, there wasn’t much to be done about that.
Out the back door–which squeaked. Of course. Didn’t the bus driver ever oil those hinges on his days off?
Can’t stand lazy, sloppy homeowners. OCD, some say. I just figure it’s a low tolerance for slackers.
I went out on my belly, though. The HR’s wouldn’t be looking for that. Not in their repertoire.
As for me, I’d never been in the military. No Special Forces training or anything like that. But I had stolen a ton of stuff from an everloving lot of places in my day, a hundred heists for every one where I got caught or was even suspected.
Thinking like a thief is pretty good survival training in and of itself. The way I moved on the ground, I might not ever be a cat burglar, but if it came to it, I’d be a snake burglar. Cross between a cobra and a low-to-the-ground Ninja.
By the time the Overgood yard lights came back on, three minutes exactly, I was perched in the tree whose branches spread over a goodly portion of Quichona’s garden. There was a stout branch about thirty feet up, enough foliage to disguise my presence–should anybody think to look–but not enough to prevent me from seeing out.
There were two HR sentries, ghostly green images like those you see in some of the older video games. Both bangers had been easing in closer to the house until the lights came back on, at which point they retreated to their surveillance post in some haste.
Survellance post defined: One old, battered, windowless, dirty green minivan, a Plymouth Voyager or some such.
HR sentries defined: For one, little broken-nosed Capper himself, or I missed my guess. The mean in that kid just would not be denied. And…couldn’t be sure about the other. Bigger, older–he was the driver, for one thing–but beyond that, no clue. Both bangers were hitting the green pretty hard; judging from the length of the time the joint tip glowed red with each pull, they were taking that smoke clear down to their toes.
Something I’d never been able to do. Tried weed just twice. The first time, merely buzzed on my share of a joint we had to split between four of us, I’d noticed (a) old Cheech and Chong videos are funny as Hell when you’re stoned, and (b) in the dream state after, I ended up flying out of control backwards.
Mixed results, right there.
The second time, there’d been no question. A cute little flute player had talked me into taking a hit, and brother, did it ever hit. Halfway down to my lungs, that 1200 degree nasty-assed poison crap had triggered a coughing fit like no other.
Silver lining: The musician chick laughed her cute butt off, but she never pushed at me to toke again, ever.
Grass, the Drug of Peace. Sure. It might be calming psycho twelve year old Capper down a mite, from hyper-insane to merely ultra-deadly, but that was about it. Of course, they were also no doubt doing meth, a really inferior grade of which the HR’s labbed and sold to elementary school kids who stole the money from their parents and whoever else to pay for it, but hey.
Twenty minutes later, the lights went out again. Carrying across from the street in the still night air, I could hear Capper’s thin, reedy voice demanding, “What the f**k?!”
It took another ninety-seven minutes for me to call my uncle and for him to do what he needed to do.
At precisely 10:33 p.m. plus eleven seconds (by the wall clock in the Overgood kitchen), the lights went out for the third and final time that night. They came back on when the Pontiac’s V-6 cranked up. The yard gate rolled back, I backed out into the street, and we were off.
Not to the races. Not yet. Feigning ignorance, I drove slowly, easily, right past the HR minivan, turning to look the bangers in the eyes as I did so. There’s a finely tuned protocol when it comes to dealing with these idiots. If you avoid eye contact entirely, they assume–usally correctly–that you’re scared of them. Which can encourage stupid behavior on their part, a commodity of which they have an overwhelming abundance.
But if you give them the look, well, then they’ve been challenged, and it’s kill or be killed time, right then, right there. I suspected the geezer with the rebar cane, ol’ Whitey himself, had given Capper and the rest of them the look in full knowledge of what it meant.
If you’re not ready to take them down on the spot, you have to split the difference between the look and complete avoidance of eye contact. Trouble is, of course, sometimes that difference is a razor thin line. Easy to miss the mark.
They were stoned, all right. Slow to react. Did they fire up their beater, pull a uey, follow me back to my uncle’s? Or stick with surveilling the home of the chick they’d sworn to kill, the one eyewitness (and a girl at that) who could put the “pussy word” out on them, tell the world six of their bunch had been whupped just like that by one frail old honky?
Apparently, they decided to stay put. At least, they hadn’t moved by the time I reached the corner and hung a left.
Halfway up that block, B.J.’s big red and black ’46 Hudson eased away from the curb and fell in behind my Pontiac.
“Can I sit up yet?” Lying back as flat as possible in the passenger side recliner seat, Tania had been invisible to the stoned HR sentries as we went by them. Of course, “flat” is a relative term when it comes to my girl, what with those D cups jutting up like that.
What? My girl? Hey, I’m embarking on something like a 2,500 mile cross country run with this hot little sister in tow; I figure I’m entitled to think of her as my girl. Save a life, take a wife.
Did I mention that some folks consider me a tad impulsive?
Besides, if she didn’t work out, I could always kick her to the curb.
It’s a joke, all right? Sheesh!
“Yeah,” I told her. “B.J.’s got our back door covered, and I don’t see anything coming at us. Come on up.”
There was no sign of pursuit. By the time we cleared New Britain, I figured we’d be all right; B.J. could leave off his escort duty and get back home and snag a few hours of sleep before it was time to get up and go to church. But he had other ideas–I kind of think maybe he wanted to stick with me as long as he could, knowing I might not ever be back this way–so we teamed it all the way to the west of Danbury, just short of the New York state line.
At a little pullout we found, which allowed us to transfer my gear from his big Hudson to the back seat of my Pontiac (the trunk being jammed to the corners with Tania’s stuff), he explained.
“I’d go on a bit farther with you, nephew, but I’m still wanted in New York state.”
“Wanted?” My eyebrows climbed. “I don’t recall you ever mentioning anything about that.”
He shrugged. “Never came up. I friend of mine had her baby stolen by the baby’s father. He ran off with the kid to New York. Holly couldn’t get the authorities to move on it, so another guy and I trekked on across the state line, crawled in through the a-hole’s apartment window, beat the crap out of him, and took the kid back to Mommy. Pussy filed assault charges. That’s all. No big.”
He laughed his booming laugh. “You ought to have seen the look on that guy’s face when he saw us. Dude was taking a dump, reaching for the toilet paper, when he looked up and there we were.”
I shook my head, mostly trying to picture B.J. Hennessey fitting through an apartment window. Must have been a picture window.
“Never boring,” was all I said, sticking out my hand for him to shake. He grabbed it, used it to pull me into a bear hug, and about broke every rib in my body.
“You take care, cowboy,” he muttered somewhere above my hair.
Shyala, who’d been riding shotgun in the Hudson, hugged both Tania and me. “You take care of Tree,” she told the shorter woman. “He’s a good man, but sometimes he doesn’t think things through all the way. Leaps before he looks.”
“Like rescuing my chubby death-sentenced butt?” My girl delivered the line with a straight face. Dang. I was beginning to think I might actually learn to like this female, not just lust after her body. What a revolutionary concept.
I wouldn’t have described her butt as chubby, by the way. Well developed? You betcha.
When we got rolling again, there was something wrong with my vision. Tania pretended not to notice…but out of the corner of my eye, I could see her wiping away a tear or two of her own. Which made me think. I, at least, was heading back to Mom and the Idaho mountains I’d loved till I started rebelling against my environment all those years ago. My passenger, however, had not been outside the city limits of Hartford before, not once in her entire life.
Something landed hard in the pit of my stomach. What had I talked her into? I’d covered some serious territory in my time, both with and without familiar things around me to provide comfort, but now the only familiar thing Tania Overgood had to hold onto was me.
Well, me plus all her junk in the trunk.
After I thought about that for a minute or two, though, I noticed the lump in my gizzard lightening right up…and the lump in my pants taking a definite interest. Apparently, at least for some men, having a beautiful female entirely dependent on them for everything is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
We were halfway through New York, finally driving in daylight–though I was going to need to sleep pretty soon or else–when my new life partner turned to look at me. Stared my way, in fact, until I glanced over her way in return. Which is when she asked calmly, “When are you going to f**k me?”
It was the closest I’ve come in all of my twenty-three years to running right off the road and into a tree.
For three days after that, it was honeymoon tourist time. It had turned out, thank the good Lord and all His angels, that Tania and I were as hot together in the sack as both of us had been fantasizing for years.
Yeah. That’s right. I said “both of us”. Four long years and neither of us making the first move. Turned out sixteen year old Ms. Overgood had been as aroused by me as I had by her, back when B.J. and I installed all that wrought iron at her parents’ home.
Speak of the Devil. Those parents of hers, Daddy Ben in particular, had pestered her on the cell phone almost constantly for most of our second day’s travel–though thankfully after we’d stopped for a few hours sleep and a few hours of you-know.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Questions. He had a million of ’em. “Where are you now? Do you think you’ll be coming back to visit when this all blows over?” And so on, and so forth.
My girl solved the problem rather neatly. “Phone’s breaking up, Daddy. I think I need a new one.”
Then she turned the thing off…and at the next rest stop, dropped it neatly down the porta potty hole.
“Thought I’d never get out from under those two,” she grinned at me when she got back into the car. “FREEEEEDOM!!”
I laughed, not the booming sound B.J. produces, but close enough.
When my uncle did check in, though–my phone still being in my pocket rather than down a porta potty hole–the message was anything but funny.
“Quichona called,” he told me.
“Upset about Tania cutting them off?”
“Don’t know. She didn’t say. But Tree.”
“Her contacts at the Hartford PD just gave her a heads up.”
There went the adrenaline. Again. “Oh?”
“Yeah. Seems they have a couple of the Hood Rats in jail. A cellmate snitch is claiming they’ve anything but given up on taking out Tania.”
“Speak to me, uncle.”
“Yo. That’s what I’m doing. Here’s the deal: Seems they’re pretty flush at the moment, made a big drug deal or something, blackmail, whatever. Point being, they came up with the cash to hire a hit team–and these guys they hired, they’re not your myopic, city-centered, gang types. They’re mercenaries, killers for hire. And–at least according to the snitch–they’ve picked up your trail. Don’t know how, you’re not running credit cards or anything easy like that, but that’s the word.”
“Okay, unk, thanks for the heads up. I’m on it.”
“Need some help out there?”
“That’s my boy.”
We hung up. My wife to be, already able to half read my mind and having heard my side of the conversation, asked a one word question.
“They’re after us, aren’t they? After me.”
I answered without taking my eyes off the road. “Yeah. But we need to get one thing straight, honey. If they’re after you, they’re after us. You and me against the world. Okay?”
“Okay.” There was such trust in her voice, such confidence that her big, bad Treemin Jackson could take out anyone who came against her–against us–that I ’bout choked up. We were cruising along on I-80, light but steady traffic. Not a likely time and place for a hit, a bit before two p.m. and broad daylight, but you never knew. I thought about the Walther P22, tucked under the seat. That would have to get strapped back on, first stop.
Every car that passed us, every eighteeen wheeler we passed from then on, got a second look. That green Jaguar, snooty pipes calling out, “Money! Money! Money!” Yonder longnosed Pete pulling the dry van, and in front of that, the flatbedder hauling a mini-excavator on its rubber tracks. This dusty green Subaru Outback, sailing on by with a shaved-headed old white man at the wheel.
A shaved-headed old white man? Nah. Couldn’t be. The Protector who’d rebar-caned all those bangers and gotten this whole ball rolling had been bald, true enough. Couldn’t tell about shaved; B.J. and I hadn’t been close enough to the action for that.
Had to be coincidence.
“There,” I pointed to a Petro truck stop sign. Fuel, food, and a chance to rearrange my weapons, coming right up. “We’re due for a little break. But you stick with me, baby, except in the john, and even then I’ll be right outside the door. Well within earshot and well armed.”
“Okay, Tree. Do I need a gun?”
“Do you know how to use one?”
“Well, sweetheart, I’ll teach you when we have time. But for now, you just stick with me. Be the girl. I’ll take care of the fighting.”
The restaurant was busy, crammed to the gills with tired truckers guzzling 100-mile coffee and civilian tourists pretending to be truckers. I didn’t have a CDL, Commercial Driver’s License, so didn’t dare sneak us into the Drivers Only section.
No place to sit…until a man parked in a booth all by himself noticed our predicament, caught my eye, and gestured us over.
I about crapped my pants. This guy was white, old, wearing a cowboy hat I’d bet was at least a $50 Resistol. Lean, long of limb…and it was him.
It was the shaved-headed driver in the Outback. It was the geezer with the rebar cane. We were close up and personal, in the presence of the Protector.
“Plenty of room here, at least if I remembered my Right Guard,” he grinned, indicating the booth bench across the table from his plate of–get this–liver and bacon. We sat. Later, I would marvel at myself, everything else going on and me thinking the strangest thing about the day was some old white guy actually liking liver and bacon. Liver I kind of enjoy now and then, but bacon?
I’ll eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, and I’ll eat liver. I just try not to mix the two.
“Jack Hill,” he said, extending a hand. I’d have said a gnarled hand for literary effect, except this dude’s hand was anything but twisted. No arthritis here. A few liver spots, and yeah, wrinkles. But other than that, it was the hand–with the grip–of a much younger man. Piercing blue-gray eyes, so penetrating it took me a while to even notice the whites were also noticeably bloodshot. How old was this fellow, this–this whatever he was?
“Treemin Jackson.” We shook. “Friends call me Tree. And this is Tania.”
Tania’s handshake was a mite tentative. It dawned on me that this might be her first time, touching and being touched by a white man. Especially one old enough to be her grandfather. Unless she’d seen one in a museum somewhere.
We ordered. We ate. We made small talk, drank coffee, and all the time, I was wondering, “How am I going to stay in touch with this guy? I really do want to know how he does what he does. And how he ended up in Connecticut just when Tania needed him, and now he’s here…wait a minute. Does that mean–?”
“Friends of yours?”
I followed his gaze. From where we sat, the nearest window afforded a view of the four-wheeler fuel island. A sleek black…Mercedes, I thought…was gassing up. One man was standing by the fuel hose; another was checking the car’s oil. Light skinned black men, both of them, Derek Jeter hue.
And Connecticut plates.
There was no time to ask Jack Hill how he knew. Our Pontiac was parked well out in the lot, one white car among dozens. They might not yet know we were here. But how would we get past them without being seen?
I started to get up, touching Tania on the arm and giving her the we go now look.
“Tree,” Hill spoke quietly, “I’d strongly recommend you sit here a bit longer. Give me ten minutes.”
He removed his hat, put it down on the seat. Reached into a little carry bag I hadn’t even noticed. Pulled out a stocking cap, put it on. Then an old black windbreaker, worn but serviceable, and a pair of ten dollar Walmart-class sunglasses.
And he was gone.
We had to get out of here, at least get away from this crowd of people in case it came down to shooting. But…I’d seen what the old man, the Protector, could do once before.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I wanted to see the show.
“What–” Tania said. I shushed her quietly, and we settled in to watch.
Our waittress stopped by, looked at the old man’s seat, now vacant except for his hat and carry bag.
“Restroom,” I explained. She nodded, topped off our coffee, and moved on.
Outside, the show was starting. Jack Hill meandered aimlessly over toward the black Mercedes. Attired as he was, into character with all the intensity of some great Shakespearean actor, he looked…homeless.
Hey, who else but the homeless do you see wandering around in a stocking cap and jacket in late June when the temp is hovering around ninety?
The hit men looked wary at first, plus a bit hostile. But not for long; pretty soon, the Mercedes guys were deep in animated, gesturing conversation with the geezer.
He’d said to give him ten minutes. It took him eight and a half. By the time he slid back into his seat and exchanged stocking cap for Resistol, morphing back into pure cowboy, the black car was pulling back out toward the freeway.
He grinned. Toothless. “Word for word?”
“Paraphrased will do.”
“Admired their Mercedes. Told ’em it was one fine looking automobile, and they were some fine looking men of color their own selves. Not like them two creosote critters I’d seen in that white Pontiac.”
Tania giggled, a sound I’d not heard before. “You didn’t!”
He grinned again. “Indeed I did. That part’s not paraphrased.”
“So,” I surmised, fighting a grin myself, “you just happened to mention seeing those two, as you called ’em, creosote critters turn off on another highway, maybe?”
“Pretty much. Now, folks, I do need to be getting on down the road. And I’m thinking you two may be wanting to extend this conversation a bit, but sitting here like, um, sitting ducks might not be the time or the place for it. So, tell you what. Let me get the bill. You guys boogie on.”
He was right. “We’ll meet again?”
“Good Lord willin’ an’ the crick don’t rise.”
“Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” If he wanted to play the Cowboy Cliche game, heck, I’d give it a shot.
We were back on the road, rolling ever westward, before Tania busted out with her query. “What does any of this have to do with a horse? And what’s a crick?”
“Beloved life mate,” I smiled, heart full of love, “I do believe it’s time we began your education on the Cowboy Way.”
Deep inside, though, I was definitely still wondering. How does Jack Hill–if that’s his real name–do what he does? Hill’s Subaru Outback was nowhere in sight; we’d gotten out ahead of him. When would we see him again?
Did I mention that, besides being shallow and having an impulsive streak, impatience is one of my many character defects? One of my better counselors in South Dakota once told me,
“Treemin, you’re the ultimate IM kid.”
I almost smacked him for calling me kid, but curiosity got the better of me.
“IM kid? Instant Messaging?”
“No, no. IMpulsive, IMpatient, IMpudent, sometimes IMproper, but once you strip all that away, get down to brass tacks, extremely IMpressive.”
Couldn’t say I was feeling all that IMpressive at the moment. Had my woman with me, though, and the bad guys were at least temporarily diverted.
I’ve definitely had worse days.