They Walk Among Us, Chapter Four: Sunburn

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The hit men might have lost our trail for the moment, but we couldn’t count on it staying that way. For one thing, how had they come right up on us the first time around, back at the Petro in Illinois? That shouldn’t have been possible.

“Mom,” I told my mother on the phone, “until we know we’re clear of those two for sure, we’re not coming to Rexburg. Bad enough the way it is; we’re not going to lead a couple of hired killers right back to you and the ranch.”

“Don’t hold off on our account,” she replied. “I spoke to Sim about it. He says, two Derek Jeter lookalikes come around here hunting for anybody, they’ll have more deer rifles punching holes in them than Fox News punches holes in Obama’s story lines.”

I found myself nodding, though of course she couldn’t see it. We were parked at a Super 8 motel in Iowa for the night. She was on an Idaho ranch, relaying her employer’s reassurances. Sim Bowles was an old school kind of cowboy, and he employed something like a dozen hands–plus Mom as cook–at any one time. Some of those guys, those working cowboys, were pretty salty, too.

But not all of them, and it wasn’t their fight.

“Thanks, and tell Sim thanks, but…not just yet. We’ll stay in touch.”

“You do that, honey. And give my hugs to Tania.”

We hung up. “Mom says give you her hugs.”

“She hasn’t even met me.”

“Doesn’t matter. She means it anyway. Believe me.”

We sat for a time in relative silence, Tania thumb-cocking the .22 caliber Taurus again and again and again, aiming at various “targets” in the room, then letting the hammer down easy. She’d emptied the cylinder first, of course. Especially after I’d told her about my experience at the age of thirteen when, practicing my fast draw, I’d once let the hammer on Sim’s old Iver Johnson down a mite too quickly–and blown a hole in the rancher’s full length wardrobe mirror.

He’d just grinned, told me, “Better than blowing a hole in your own knee. Seen more than one wannabe gunslinger manage that.”

The Taurus wasn’t much as a firearm, maybe a couple of notches above a hardcore Saturday night special. The Brazilian company was slipping these days. But it was the only “small” gun I had with me, and my horny little hottie clearly felt better having something with which she could fight back.

Who knew? My ankle holster didn’t fit her, and the fanny pack was fairly obvious, but she might still surprise the buggers if it came down to that.

We’d stopped for most of the afternoon at an Iowa State Park, where I’d showed her the basics and let her put 100 rounds of CCI Stingers through the tube. Maybe because of the short two-inch barrel, the pistol was wildly inaccurate. I’d paced off 21 feet–typical close combat range–and set up targets, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for civilians or, God forbid, Park Rangers. Aim each time, squeeze correctly, and you’d put two, maybe three rounds from the nine-round cylinder into or near the bullseye. The rest would be flyers, all over the place.

Tough trigger pull, too. Had to be close to 12 pounds on double action. But Tania’s finger power turned out to be more or less up to the task, and there wasn’t any other weapon handy that I’d trust her with.

Certainly not my baby, the Walther P22. With that, I could pop nine out of nine into the 10-ring, time after time after time. But it would take a while to train my girl on a semiauto, plus I wasn’t about to share. Nobody touches the Walther but me.

Obviously, the stainless steel .44 Mag, a Ruger Super Redhawk with a 7 1/2 inch barrel, was out of the question and then some.

My cell phone rang again.

“Grand Central.”

“Listen up.”

“Go, unk.”

“You tucked in for the night?”

“Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors.”

“And locked and blocked, one presumes.”

“Duh. And both of us using the bed away from the window, and a few other things. But you didn’t call about that, B.J.” Tania had stopped working the .22 and was quietly loading the cylinder, watching, listening.

“Sure didn’t. Looks like we know how they tailed you.”

I thought about that, just for a second. How would such information come into the hands of our people–meaning my uncle, my cousin, and Tania’s parents–at this stage of the game? Sounded like–

“Quichona. Her contacts at the Hartford PD–” I cut myself off, realizing what I’d been about to say might be new information to my honey. But B.J. caught my drift, big time.

“Yep. We’re getting to know each other rather well, kid. Meeting for lunch, comparing notes.”

Hm. While Daddy Ben the bus driver was out there sucking diesel smoke on his route around the city. Got it. B.J. and Quichona? Actually, I could see that happening. She was surely one helluva lot more woman than Ben was man.

But I could think about that later. Right now, my favorite (and only living) uncle was giving me the rundown.

“Turns out her so-called contacts at the PD are really just one man, but nothing to sneeze at. He’s a Captain of Detectives, gets all the inside scoop. And gladly spills the beans to Quichona in return for a little afternoon delight now and then, quid pro quo.”

Which didn’t seem to bother B.J., so it surely wasn’t going to bother his nephew. Quichona’s daughter might be another matter. I could see it now. Mom is humping a cop at the same time she’s moving toward a hookup with your uncle and dumping my Dad altogether? Well, whoopee.

“And the latest beans?”

“Your Pontiac’s got a GPS tracker on it.”

There was a near-deathly silence, both in our motel room and on the line, while I worked that out in my mind.

“How?”

“Not sure, but–let me back up a minute here. Of the six bangers that old man put the hurt on, two of ’em are dead now.”

Huh. “Of the injuries?”

“No. Bludge, the guy whose brass knucks smashed little Capper’s nose?”

“Yeah?”

Suddenly, there was amusement in the voice on the other end of the line. “Seems Capper was a bit offended by that. Sucked Bludge away from the others, into an alley between two dumpsters, and filled him full of holes.”

I found myself grinning. That would be Capper. “For real?”

“That’s the word. But wait, there’s more. Then Slim Jim, who’s going to be talking with a rasp in his voice for however long he lives now–after catching that rebar in the throat–he and the others decided they couldn’t have even their best shooter capping one of their own. So they made an example of the little guy. The cops and a pretty grossed-out homeless man found parts of him in three different dumpsters on three different streets.”

Okay-y-y-y…well, it’s not like we hadn’t seen that coming, or something like it. The fledgling Hood Rat gang members weren’t destined to live long and prosper. But….

“You’re getting to the tracker part?”

“Yep. You know how some folks have been wondering about why it is that the cops don’t seem to give a crap about black on black crime? Guess the Mayor decided he could get some great political exposure by pushing on this one. So, with the cops feeling the pressure, the heat got applied some serious, and a couple of the HR’s cracked.

“Turns out the source of their recent wealth as a gang? Not drugs at all. Car theft. They got a deal on these trackers–don’t know from where; Quichona’s lovable Captain of Detectives is still working on that part. But they got a deal some time back. The way they work it is, they slap the tracker up inside the back bumper, usually, at least on the older models–so yeah, that’s probably where you’ll find yours on the Pontiac.”

“Wait a minute.”

What was wrong with this picture?

“I see where you’re headed with this. They spot a likely car, but it’s on the street in broad daylight. Safer to hotwire the thing elsewhere, at the owner’s home in the middle of the night. Pretty good thinking. They could have bugged the Grand Prix any time I was out and about, at the store or the movies or wherever. And then just not had a real crack at nabbing it later from the house after tracking me home, ’cause Castle Circle is not an easy nut to crack. I can buy that. But….”

Tania, I noticed, had gotten more than nervous from hearing my side of this conversation. She was up off the bed, on her feet by the too-large-as-always motel room picture window, cracking the drapes just enough to peer out into the parking lot. Our car was parked right in front of the door; it wasn’t like we couldn’t keep a watch on it.

What the hey. Better a woman who’s alert and nervous about a real threat than an oblivious Mary Poppins type.

B.J. asked, “You’re wondering how on Earth they missed you at the Petro?”

“Yeah. Wouldn’t their follow-thingie display, however that works, wouldn’t it have pointed right to our car then and there? Heck, it wasn’t more than two, three hundred feet from the fuel island at the time.”

The big man’s chuckle rumbled through the phone and into my ear. “These yahoos kind of outsmarted themselves. Turns out these particular GPS trackers are some really new model, made only for the military. Or maybe the CIA; I’m not sure which. Seems enemy forces have come up with–most likely bought from the French–technology that can pin down the older tracker models with a simple sweep. But these have some kind of super-stealth, ultra-passive feature built in.”

“Huh?”

“Simple. They’re like a lump of rock to any and all sensors when the vehicle’s engine is not running. If you’ve got that V-6 turned off, they can’t find you till you fire it up again. The technology “recognizes” any near-and-steady running engine and comes to life only when the cylinders are firing.

“Plus, their receivers can only pick them up from a range of maybe 50 miles or so. Pretty good range at that, but they’re not infallible.”

With that update, sleep should have been impossible. Which it was for a while, but after I managed to coax Tania away from haunting the window, our hormones took over. One big advantage, I guess, of being young and in lust.

And then we slept. Deeply, too. Had the assassins come busting through the door in the middle of the night, we’d have had to shoot them in our sleep.

Sleep-shooting.

Come to think of it, would that work as a defense in court? I wonder. We ain’t responsible for the deaths of those men, your Honor. They came busting in when we wuz sound asleep and suffered the consequences. We’re both sleep-shooters, and….

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By the dawn’s early light, we’d packed the car, triple-checked the room to make sure nothing had been left behind, dropped the key at the front desk, and headed to the Denny’s across the street.

Jack Hill was already seated in a booth. Waved us over.

“He’s creepy,” Tania muttered at my side when she saw the old man. “Scares the crap outa me.”

Creepy? The man had saved her from the proverbial fate worse than death once, quite possibly saved her life twice. How creepy is that?

Well. Time to insist on some answers, maybe. Can’t be hanging around a fellow who freaks out your wife to be. Ain’t healthy for the relationship. Or at least, so I’m guessing.

“Tree. Tania.” He smiled, mouth nearly closed so his toothlessness didn’t show. The guy could be one heck of a ventriloquist if he wanted to. Hadn’t shaved since the last time we saw him, near as I could tell. Besides the stubble getting longer, you could see on his skull where he was naturally bald and where he wasn’t.

Didn’t have Howie Mandel’s time and money, obviously, to maintain the perfect cue ball effect every hour of every day.

“Jack,” I responded. Tania mumbled something unintelligible, and we sat down. I could feel the tension in her, now that she’d clued me in. Must have been there all along; how could I have missed it?

Rhetorical question. I’m a guy. We miss most everything, most all the time, when it comes to women. Or so the women tell us.

We made small talk till our orders were placed, but then it was time to get it over with.

“Mind if I grill you like a salmon?” I asked our booth host.

“Novel way to put it,” he grinned, toothlessness obvious this time, “but why not? I reckon in your place, I’d be doing a bit of wondering myself.”

“Yeah. Okay.” I was still forming the first question in my mind when Tania broke her silence.

“How the Hell did you just happen to be in a ghetto neighborhood in Hartford that day? How old are you? How have you been meeting up with us out here on the so-called open road? Who are you, really? What are you?!”

When she finished, she was actually panting. Not reaching for the pistol in her fanny pack, though. At least there was that.

Hill took a deep breath, let it out again slowly before speaking. “Sorry, Ma’am. It was never my intent to alarm you.”

“Well, you have!”

“I see that. Now, how to answer…truthfully, of course, but also in a way you can hopefully understand. Though if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that nobody can guarantee understanding when it comes to communication between people. But I promise to try my best, okay?”

He paused as if actually waiting for my girl to give her okay. Which I guess she did; out of the corner of my eye, I could see she nodded.

“Some time back, decades at least,” he began, “I started realizing that taking care of just myself was a simple sort of thing. That is, if I needed money or food or whatever to survive, I’d always manage somehow, find a job, catch a leprechaun, something. Meaning, sometimes I was luckier than made a whole lot of sense to most people.”

He stopped to throw down a swallow of coffee. We waited, Tania with some skepticism for sure, me with–what’s the term? Bated breath.

When I was a kid, I always thought that was “baited” breath. Go fish.

“Over time, I came to a conclusion: Life for me, personally, was tough enough–but not as tough as most people had it. So maybe I came to this Earth for a deeper reason. Like maybe helping out others. But not the usual way, not by joining the Peace Corps or doing charity work or adopting a couple dozen orphans. That way of going about it was just too…constraining for me. It didn’t feel right.

“Instead, as I gradually came to realize, if I listened to my own intuition, watched the signs as they came to me, I’d end up being where I needed to be when I needed to be there. Wherever it was, whatever the deal was going to be, every time.”

He stopped talking. Picked up a fork. Attacked his senior omelette, which had no doubt gotten cold.

“That’s it?” Tania’s voice had a coldness to it, a tone I’d not heard from her before. Nor did I much care for it now, despite it being directed across the table rather than at me.

“Nope,” Jack mumbled around a mouthful of hash browns. “That’s just answering the one part of your many questions. That’s how I come to be where I could do you some good, which I’ve since figured was more to let us three meet each other than to protect you per se.”

“What do you mean?” I felt compelled to jump in, not because I was feeling left out, but because I mostly didn’t trust my woman right this moment. What the Hell was wrong with her?

“Sunburned,” the Protector replied, responding to my unspoken question.

“Huh?”

“Sorry. Forgot to segue. Tree, I pack a…guess you could call it a power flow that runs through me. Too much exposure, too quick, for some people–it’s like getting sunburned. Only in the psyche, not the physical body.”

“I don’t get it.” Again that flat, cold tone. Tania added, “You’re a fraud.”

“Perhaps,” he replied mildly, while I was trying to figure out how I was going to handle this.

Fortunately, Hill seemed to know what to do. Which made sense; he must have seen this before.

“Tree, Tania, we need to come back to this later. I had a dream last night, tells me those hunting you have anything but given up. Do you–”

“I do.”

Tania double-tensed at my side, every fiber of her being willing me not to share information with this person. But to my mind, I had no choice–and I knew, long story, not to let any woman control how I dealt with other people. So I brought him up to date, including how I’d found the GPS tracker magnetized to the Grand Prix’s bumper this morning, right where B.J. had said it would be. Had it in my pocket, figuring to drop it into the trash at Denny’s when we left the restaurant.

Instead–feeling my partner silently scream at me as I did so–I palmed the little gizmo over to the old man. He studied it unobtrusively, holding it down below the table top so no one else could really see what he was looking at.

Then he dropped it into his carry bag instead of returning it.

Which was too much for Tania. “That tears it,” she muttered, low and fierce. “I’m outa here. See you at the car, honey, whenever you can tear yourself loose from Mr. Guru.”

And she was gone. Hadn’t eaten a bite. In fact, our food hadn’t arrived yet.

“Sorry to abbreviate your honeymoon.” Hill twinkled at me, but I got the sense he really did regret the situation.

I shrugged. “Nice while it lasted. She’ll get over it. I hope.”

“Me too. Tell you what, Tree. I got the feeling those two shooters are closing in again, maybe even close enough to pick up on the tracker. So what I propose is, you head on out, take care of your woman. I’ll hook off to the side, drop down toward Pella, attach this little puppy to some innocent, bright red Cadillac or something down there.”

That sounded…”They catch up to you, you could be in trouble.”

“Nothing I ain’t seen before,” he said, and I believed him.

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Tania waited till we were rolling down I-80 before she asked quietly, “What were you two talking about in there?”

“Logistics.”

“What are those?”

“How to work things. He’s going to dump the tracker on another car–one that looks nothing like ours–off in a little town south of here. Then he’ll be looping back up to the freeway, coming up behind us once again.”

She sighed deeply. I could feel her relaxing. “I’m sorry I got so weird. Don’t know what came over me.”

Hm. Best wait a few beats before responding to that. “You think he’s right?”

“About what?”

“The sunburn thing. That you just can’t take being near his, um, presence for very long at a time. At least not yet.”

For a time, she did not answer. One hand, I noticed, stayed touching the fanny pack. Comforting, knowing the pistol was there. Lord, I hoped this girl wasn’t OCD, compulsive, unable to control repetitive stuff. Hadn’t seen any real indication of that yet, though, outside of the fanny pack fetish.

Finally, she admitted that she just did not know. “I never heard of one person burning another like that, but…”

“Psychically.”

“Yeah. Psychically. On the other hand, blowing up at him did seem to make me feel better.”

“He still creepy?”

She laughed then, made my heart sing. Happy wife, happy life. “Not so much. Insane? Totally out of his freaking mind? Maybe that. I just don’t know.”

“Well…we’ve got a ways to go. You’ll figure it out.” I hoped. “And you’ll need to, because he’s given us an option for the end of the line.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Just a minute. Cops coming up fast.” I swung to the side of the road, applied the brakes. Along with everyone else on the westbound side, we sat on the shoulder, watching as one, two…five cop cars, an ambulance, and a fire engine tore past, lickety split down the freeway, lights flashing and sirens wailing.

“Must be one helluva wreck,” Tania commented.

“Or something. Anyway, back to Jack Hill. Turns out, he, too, lives on a ranch. Sort of. He’s got one full section of land–that’s one square mile–in western Montana. There’s a spare mobile home on his property, been sitting empty for a while. We’d be welcome for as long as we need it, rent free. He doesn’t raise cattle or horses or anything, but the big ranch next door does.”

She turned in her seat. I could feel her staring at me. “You’re thinking of us living on this man’s–this Protector’s property? Right there. On. His. Property?!”

I shrugged. “It’s an option. He says the ranch next door, the B bar B, raises purebred Brangus cattle. A lot of ’em, three thousand or more. Being ranch raised–partway, at least–I figure maybe I could find work there. Not have to go into the towns much for a while. Keep a low profile till we’re sure this matter of having hunters on our trail is settled one way or another.”

The silence stretched on so long, I wasn’t even sure we still had a relationship. Turned out I was going to have to get used to her silences; when Tania Overgood has to do some deep thinking, she thinks. Nothing else exists, period.

When she surfaced–hours later?–we were clearing Des Moines. “Out there in the sticks, those killers would stand out, wouldn’t they?”

“Almost as much as us,” I grinned. “Us creosote critters.”

“Well…like you said, it’s an option. But I do have to ask you one thing, Treemin.”

“Eh?”

“What’s a Brangus?”

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