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’d expected Colt to be scared. I’d again misunderstood the mettle of the boy. What he appeared to be was confused. Then I found out why. “Why aren’t you worried?” he asked. “They could have the place surrounded, waiting to take us when we arrive. They might already have spotted us!”
I shook my head, motioning him to be silent. Sound carries a long distance at night. The truth was, I never spend much time worrying. I’d rationalized it for myself. The only time you really need to worry is if they kill you as soon as they catch you, and then you don’t need to worry because you’re already dead. If they don’t kill you, then you need to spend your time planning your next move, your escape, your psychological approach to dealing with your captors, and you need to be too busy doing that to worry. So, no worries, but lots of thinking. That was my creed.
I whispered to Colt, “Right now, they don’t know we’re here. If there is a ‘they’. If they did know, we’d see movement up there. So, right now, we’re in the driver’s seat. We know they’re there, and they’re unaware of us. We need to take advantage of that, and we don’t need to waste a lot of energy worrying.”
Colt looked at me like I was crazy. “Hey,” I said, “I told you I liked the adrenalin surge, the risk, the danger. I like figuring out how to survive even better. I like the planning, and I like the execution of the plan. That’s what we’re going to do now: use our wits and abilities to survive. I like it. Did you think I was lying?”
He was still just looking at me. Probably thought my attitude too cavalier. Some of my bravado was because I was trying to get him on board. Some of it. “Look,” I said, “we just need to figure this out. Let’s think about it for a moment.”
He still seemed edgy. I thought maybe a calm discussion would give him time to gather himself, so I decided to get expansive.
“We know someone is out there,” I said, sounding very relaxed. “Just one man that we can be sure of, but there might be more. OK, why’s he there? Well, we can’t be sure. But what do we know that’s really and for sure true? Let’s see.”
Colt looked a little exasperated, but better that than nervous and on an adrenalin rush. I continued.
“One thing we know is that your dad doesn’t get along with the authorities in this county. This means he’d be hard-pressed to get any kind of cooperation and almost certainly in this case wouldn’t ask for any. So, anything he did on his own or assigned someone else to do would be done undercover, without sanction from this county’s authorities. That limits what he’d be able to do. But we’re pretty sure he’d be doing something.
“That’s because he really wants to find you. You know all about him and what he’s done in the past, and he doesn’t want you in a position where you could talk about it. He needs to make sure you can’t do that. So he’ll do whatever he can to get you back.”
Colt was now riveted to what I was saying. His body language looked calmer. Then he scowled. “Get me back dead or alive,” he muttered.
“Well, yeah, probably. But let me continue. “This guy means to take you back or probably kill you if he can’t do that. How many men does your dad have that would do that? How many men does he have that work undercover? Because that’s who he’d use, that sort of person. Probably one who does his illegal shit for him, one who’s done this kind of thing before. Does he have several of those?”
Colt shook his head. “He does have one; maybe two. Neil Braken for sure. He’s not a nice guy. I stay out of his way when I see him. Tall guy. Mean.”
“OK, so that’s probably old Neil in the car. He has no authority here. So, he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s here. I doubt very much he has a team of guys with him. There are too many other places your dad has to cover to put a lot of men here. Besides which, one illegal strong-arm guy working with your father is about all he’d be likely to have, and one is probably all he’d need here. If we’d traipsed in from the highway without a care in the world, one would have been enough. So, looking at the big picture, I’d say there’s a ninety percent chance he’s alone.”
Colt looked like he was thinking it over. Good. I needed him, and I needed him accepting my thinking, my plan. I’d already come up with one.
“And if all that’s true, it makes sense to me that this man would do just what we’re seeing. He’d stake the place out, because it seems a natural place for us to hide our car, and he’d know we’d have to do that. Because he knew we couldn’t be driving around in a Caverton County patrol car. We’d have no business having that car. So, he’d know we’d have to ditch it. And he’d see this barn as a likely spot for us to do that. We were looking for a place, remember? This was the only place we found. He might have done the same thing.
“What we don’t know is if he knows the car is inside or if he has a partner. I’d guess no for both. How would he know the car is in there? It can’t be seen from the window, and the door is locked.”
“He could have busted in some way,” Colt ventured. “And if he did, and found the car, he could have radioed for more men, and they could be waiting for us inside. Some of dad’s deputies would be willing to come help take me prisoner if that’s all they were going to do, and with a bunch of them on hand, killing me wouldn’t be necessary. They’d figure they could get me back to Caverton County with no one the wiser about where the capture had been made. Braken could be waiting outside ready to radio them to be ready when he saw us coming. And actually, if he got up to the window the way we did and used a flashlight, I think he could have seen the back bumper of the car. So he wouldn’t even have had to break in.”
I nodded. “That’s possible. I don’t think it’s so, but it’s possible, and we can check it out. He can’t see the front of the barn from where he is. He’s there because he expects us to appear from the Ardon side of the property walking along the road. So, that means one of us—you—can circle around behind him and come up on the barn from the other side. Then you can check to see if the doors are still locked from the inside. If they are, then we’re probably safe. It’s probably just him. If someone’s with him and they’re inside, there’s no reason they’d lock the doors. They’d want them unlocked so they could get out in a hurry if needed.”
Colt was shaking his head again. “This seems like an awful lot of guessing to me,” he complained. “You don’t know if any of this is true. And going in there, well, you like risks, and I don’t mind taking them either, but this seems like it’s way too uncertain. But if I do it and find the doors locked, and you think that means it’s only him, then what? We’re no better off then, are we? He’s still there, and we can’t get our car because you’re still out here. If I get inside, it doesn’t help, because you’re still outside, and opening the doors—one squeaks. He’ll hear it. He’ll come running with his shotgun.”
I started to object, but he wasn’t finished. “Also, say he does have a partner. Would the partner go inside and wait for us? Why? The only way in is through the window, and so, why not wait outside where he can watch the window. And it might well be just one extra man if they plan for an execution here. Two men would be enough, and more would make too many witnesses.
“So, if there are two men—one in the car and one more as backup—I’d say the one more would be behind the barn. Why go inside at all where he isn’t much use to the guy outside if that guy needs help? If I were doing it, I’d hide behind the barn and simply watch the window.”
I thought about that and agreed if there were two men, both of them outside made more sense. I didn’t think there would be two men—I thought Colt’s dad would want this as private a matter as it could be—but it would be good to know that for sure.
“OK,” I said. “I’ve thought of something else, but it depends on how many men they have. I agree that if he saw the car inside, he’d have called for backup. And I agree that if he has backup, it’s more likely to be outside. So, we need to find that out first. That’ll be your job. The only place to hide behind the barn is by the junk pile. Everything else there is just flat fields with low weeds and bushes, bushes too low to conceal anyone. So, if you make a wide pass back into that field, a very wide pass, and make your way forward toward the junk pile, staying low, moving slowly and quietly, you can see if there’s another man. You willing to do that?”
He smiled at me. “Yeah. But on one condition.”
“I get to carry Bart’s service weapon.”
“You ever fire one?”
“Yeah. They thought it was funny because I couldn’t hit anything. And I couldn’t, at first. But I learned. Then they didn’t want me doing it any more because I got so I could shoot better than they could.”
“OK. When you’re out there, go far enough so you can see the other side of the barn so we know no one’s there. Then move up enough so you know the junk pile’s clear. If that’s OK, work your way back here. I expect doing all that’ll take maybe an hour, but that’s OK. The longer it takes, the better the chance that the guy in the car will fall asleep, and that would be perfect.”
I handed him Bart’s gun, and he moved off into the dark, keeping low, keeping brush between him and the car. I knew he’d have an easier time doing this than I would have, being shorter and more limber. Still, I was worried about him. I wasn’t used to that. I didn’t worry much about myself, and I’d never had anyone else to worry about. Now, for the first time I did. And for the first time, I felt fear because of it.
The next hour or so would be hard.
I sat, mostly concealed behind a low bush, watching the car and thinking and sweating. Occasionally there’d be a red glow over by the barn, meaning Neil had lit another cigarette. I couldn’t smell anything; what slight, occasional wind there was came from behind my back. He had to have the car windows open. It was too warm to be shut up in that car otherwise, and he’d want to be able to hear anything there was to hear.
The minutes ticked away. Usually I could pass time like this easily. Now it was much different. I could visualize things happening to Colt. I finally had to stop doing that. I was frightening myself.
I kept checking my watch. When an hour had passed, my worry shot up tenfold. Where the hell was he? I knew if they’d caught him, I’d have heard something, but what if he’d seen someone and then the person had moved so that Colt had to lie still, and then he’d been trapped, in danger, not able to move for fear of being caught? What if the man was even now moving closer, and Colt was about to be seen. Caught. What if—
And then he was at my side. I hadn’t even heard him coming.
“No one’s out there.” His voice was almost a whisper. “The stuff we used to see in the window isn’t where we left it. It’s been moved from there, so someone looked inside. We don’t know if the car was seen.”
“I don’t think it was; he’d have expected it to be out in the middle of the room, the logical place,” I said. “You’re right in thinking if it had been seen, he’d have called for help. Unless he’s a real cowboy. And since you didn’t find anyone, I think he didn’t see the car, didn’t call for backup, and so we can assume he’s just sitting out the night, feeling this is a place we might use to ditch the car, and it’s the best hope he has of finding us.”
“So, we should just capture him?” Colt was looking at me like I had all the answers. Well, I didn’t, but I did have a plan.
“The best thing for us is if we could get our car out of there and he never knew it had been there. If we capture him and take him inside, he’ll know we still have the car and are using it. He might even manage to see it, see how we’ve painted it, and we don’t want that. So, I’ve had an idea. I think he’ll fall asleep eventually. It’s hard to do a stakeout like he’s doing, especially if he’s been up all day. So if we wait long enough, I think we can drive the car out of there and he’ll never see it go.
“But I considered something else while you were scouting around. What if we were wrong? What if there is another man, but instead of being outside, he’s inside? And what if you get up by that window and try to crawl inside? He could either shoot you when you were outlined in the window, or just grab you when you came through. It’s too dangerous. I’d say there’s only a ten, fifteen percent chance anyone’s in there, but that’s still too much if you’re going to be in harm’s way.”
Colt was shaking his head. “There can’t be anyone in there. How would he have got in? You couldn’t have got through that window. Neither could he have. No way.”
“He could if he were small. I’m a good-sized man. A smaller man could do it. It might have been a tight fit, but he might have managed it. We can’t count on it that no one’s inside. Not to risk your life on, crawling through the window.”
“So what’re we going to do, then?”
“Well, let me ask you this. Think about it for a sec. How did whoever locked this barn up the way we first found it get out afterwards?”
Colt opened his mouth to answer, then closed it. Then opened it again. “Just the way we did. Have a kid—” he stopped and gave me a scornful look “—or a small man climb up and out the window.”
“Except there was nothing under the window inside to climb up on, and there was still broken glass in the window frame.”
He just stared at me then. I looked back, then grinned. “I can only think of one way. I think there’s a loose board somewhere that opens up. I think the barn was locked from the inside; then whoever did that came through that board, which he then put back in place. If we can find that board, then maybe we could get inside while whoever is in there is still staring at the window. And if there isn’t someone in there, then we can wait till old Neil falls asleep.”
OK, now I was worried—me, the non-worrier. This was tricky. As we’d been making a huge circle around the barn, deep into the fields surrounding it so as not to be seen, I’d thought of something else. If there was someone inside, it only made sense that the guy outside would have a way of letting the guy inside know that he’d seen someone coming. The most likely way to do that would be that both guys would have cell phones. That meant, if the inside guy heard us moving around the barn, testing boards, he could call the outside guy and ask what was happening, and the outside guy could come running with his shotgun. Not good.
So we had to do something about that, and the best thing to do would be to keep an eye on the man in the car. If he suddenly got out, grabbed his shotgun, and took off running, well, we needed to prevent that. And I’d figured out how to do so.
When we were behind the barn, up close to the back wall, Colt found a length of thin pole in the junk pile, probably once part of a push broom. The threaded wood on one end suggested that. I moved so I was at the corner of the barn and could see the back end of the car—actually see through the back window. I signaled to Colt to go ahead.
He reached up with the pole and bumped it a couple times against the wall under the window softly, then rubbed it against the window frame itself. We wanted to make it sound like someone was piling wood against the wall there, preparing to climb up.
Colt then retreated to the other corner of the barn. I wasn’t surprised to see he was holding his handgun.
I watched through the car’s window. If there was a guy inside and he wasn’t asleep, he’d probably have heard the noise and moved to a suitable position for Colt’s entry through the window, but he certainly would call the outside guy. I’d be able to see old Neil take the call.
I watched. And watched. The guy in the car never moved.
I retreated and met up with Colt. “I don’t think anyone’s inside. But, to be more sure, why don’t you start back here testing the boards, working your way around to the other side. See if any of them wiggle when you try. Be as quiet as you can. I’ll keep watching the man in the car. If you find a loose one, come get me. Don’t go in!”
He nodded and started feeling the boards along the back wall while I went back to my surveillance position at the corner. I figured I was in for a long wait. There were a lot of boards. And it was possible the loose one—I was sure by now that there was a loose one—was on the same side of the barn the car was parked.
There was no movement from the car, not even another cigarette being lit. But then that changed. I was taken by surprise when suddenly the driver’s side door opened and the man stepped out. The dome light didn’t go on, so I knew he’d turned it off.
I drew my Beretta from my belt in the small of my back. If he started toward the front of the barn where Colt might be right then, it would be tricky. If I shot him and there was a guy inside and he raced out, Colt could be in danger. If I just told the man to freeze and he darted behind the front of his car, there could be a shootout with the same result.
The guy didn’t do that, however. What he did was unzip and unload about a quart of kidney-filtered water. Then he stretched, turned in a 360 circle, yawned, and got back in the car. Hopefully to bed down for the rest of the night.
I took a deep breath, then almost jumped out of my skin when Colt laid a hand on my shoulder. He’d come up on me silently again.
“Found it,” he whispered.
He took me to it. It was a board on the other side of the barn from where the man in the car was. Colt had only discovered one that wiggled easily, and noiselessly, when he’d tried it. He hadn’t done more than that. He didn’t think he’d made any noise at all.
This was the time to reflect. Should I really open that board and walk in? If someone were there, I’d be a sitting duck.
We were both whispering so softly we could barely hear each other.
“Go back and make those noises like you were coming in the window. A little louder this time, but not so the guy in the car can hear. If someone’s inside, I want his focus on the window. If he immediately uses his phone to call Neil, I’ll be able to see the light from his phone’s screen.”
I put a hand on his shoulder. “After that, come back here and hide. Find a place to hide here outside the barn and wait for me. Don’t even think about coming inside after me.”
He scurried away, and I waited. Then, I heard a very faint tapping from the rear. I waited a moment, then pulled on the board Colt had shown me; it pivoted on a nail at its top. I swung it away from the other boards, creating a three-foot-wide gap in the wall.
It was pitch black inside. I waited, hesitating, but it was time. Able to see nothing at all, my gun leading the way, my heart beating a staccato allegro in my chest, I stepped into the void.
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