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 was awakened the same way I’d done to Colt that morning. He tickled me! I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. He had the biggest grin on his face. I tried to act as grumpy as he’d been but couldn’t pull it off. I was in trouble. I was getting way too fond of this kid and knew that when I found him a place, I’d be leaving. Getting attached wasn’t something I could afford to do.
I showered, and then we were off. The three of us. I thought it better to leave Fitz in the room. Colt didn’t agree. So we were off, the three of us. We walked around, seeing quaint touristy places. There also were a variety of the usual stores, and when we passed a men’s store, I stopped. The displays in the window looked good to me. “What do you think?” I asked Colt. “We could get clothes here rather than at a mall. Probably get better service, and probably better clothes as well.”
Colt grinned at me. “You’re the boss. I’ve never had any really nice clothes. Shorts and tee shirts and flip flops are about it. And that’s what I like, too. I don’t need anything fancy.”
“Well, we’re going into disguise. Like it or lump it.”
“What, they don’t say that any more?”
“I’ve never heard it.” He said it like, if he hadn’t heard it, it must be simply wrong.
I managed to look astonished. “You must not hang with the cool crowd.”
He giggled. I pushed the door of the shop open. A clerk, a young man who appeared to be in his early thirties, came up. “Can I be of assistance?” His voice was very effeminate, as was his walk.
“Yes, if we’re allowed to bring the dog in.”
He frowned. “Uh, you’re not supposed to.”
He saw me frown back at him and take a step toward the door. “But…”
I stopped, looking at him with a question in my eyes.
“But the manager isn’t here today. I’m running the shop. We’re never busy in the morning. It’s just me, and I like dogs. So, bring him in.” He smiled at me, and I smiled back and winked. He opened his eyes a little wider, and I shook my head. He pursed his lips and gave me a slight nod.
“For the boy, we need a set of decent clothes: a dress shirt, a tie, a pair of dress slacks, a sports coat, a pair of decent shoes, socks and underwear—the sort of ensemble he could wear to a fancy country-club dinner and fit right in. Then a tourist outfit: polo shirt, good shorts, name-brand sneakers and footie socks. A pair of in-style jeans and shirt to match. Oh, and a swimsuit.”
He was nodding and looking at Colt as I spoke. The longer I went on, the broader his smile became. When I stopped, he sort of walked around Colt, looking from all angles. Then he said, “You came to the right place. This is going to be fun. And what about you? Anything for you?”
“Yeah, but I’ll just look and find what I want while you tend to Colt.”
He nodded. “My name is Bryce. Your things will be at the front of the store. Colt, if you’ll come with me, the young-men’s wear is in the rear.”
Colt followed him to the back of the store, glancing back at me once, with some trepidation in his eyes. I laughed.
I picked out a pair of nice khakis, a sports coat, a shirt and tie, and then some casual wear as well. Their prices weren’t cheap, but not over the top, either. Still, this would take a chunk of change. I smiled, thinking of my boss’s reaction. I hadn’t formally checked back in from my last job. Until I returned to Washington, officially I was still on the job. Officially, till check-in, all expenses were government expenses. I could claim any and everything were deep-cover necessities. And my usual expenses were bare minimums, especially compared to agents who ran up large bills with regularity. Paying a thousand dollars or more for clothes on an assignment was nothing for them. My boss might not be happy, but he wouldn’t complain all that much, either.
I tried things on in a dressing room and then collected everything in a pile and took it all to the cash register. While I’d been shopping, I’d heard talk and the occasional giggle coming from the rear. I laid down my intended purchases and started toward the back of the store and was stopped when Bryce saw me coming.
“Not yet!” he said. “We’re not ready yet! Why don’t you have a cup of coffee and a Danish in our waiting room? I’ll come get you when we’re done.”
I started looking over his shoulder, looking for Colt, but didn’t see him, and then Bryce took my arm and led me to an alcove. “Wait here,” he said and then was gone. I sat and in a moment was joined by Fitz. I guessed he was bored, too. Or maybe the aroma of the Danish attracted him.
Fifteen minutes and two cups of coffee later—it was good coffee—Bryce returned, and he led me to the back of the store, where he had me sit down. “He wants to model his choices for you,” he said, mincing just a bit.
“He wants to? I can’t imagine that boy wanting to do that. I think maybe you want him to model them for me?”
Bryce laughed. “Well, whatever. Getting him out of that god-awful stuff he was wearing, he’s an awfully attractive kid and has loads of individuality. With a haircut, he’ll look stunning. Here’s my stylist’s card. I called him and made an appointment for later today. It’s a tragedy what that kid has been hiding.”
He turned towards the rear dressing room and said, “OK, Colt!”
The door opened, and a furiously blushing Colt stepped out. He was wearing a bright-blue polo shirt with a small animal of some sort embroidered on the left breast where a pocket would be if there was a pocket, which there wasn’t. The shirt showed off his slimness, fitting him perfectly. Below, he had on a pair of brilliant white shorts that came down just below his knees and a pair of bright blue sneakers that matched the shirt. No socks showed, but I could detect footies in the shoes as he turned around on Bryce’s signal.
“OK, next,” Bryce commanded, and Colt, with a nervous glance at me, walked back into the dressing room. He returned a minute later wearing a different polo shirt, this one darker, and a pair of stonewashed, pale-denim jeans that were as slim as he was and showed off his form to spectacular effect. He’d changed to a pair of white sneaks that had a bright red swoosh of some sort on the side.
He turned around twice, letting me see him from all angles, then blushed again and rushed back into the dressing room.
Bryce said to me, “Wait!” and then hustled through the door right behind him.
A few minutes later, Bryce emerged and stood next to my chair. Then Colt came out. Blushing again. This time he had on a dark-blue blazer, a white dress shirt with a dark-blue tie which bore a few thin, diagonal, tan lines on it, a pair of light khakis and tasseled oxblood loafers. The kid looked like a million dollars.
After a moment of silence, while Colt again did his 360, Bryce said, disappointment ringing in his voice, “He doesn’t want to model the swimsuit.” I was just sitting there, stunned, imagining the boy I saw burst from the woods, dirty, shirtless, with worn and dirty cutoffs and disreputable flip-flops and a look of terror in his eyes.
Then I saw Colt looking at me, his eyes showing a question that was slowly turning into something that looked like disappointment, and I jumped up, unable to control myself, and hugged him. Hard. “You look absolutely fantastic,” I whispered in his ear. “Some young boy is going to eat you up!”
At that, he giggled, the blush returned, and he headed back to the dressing room.
“Wear the shorts outfit,” I called in after him.
I told Bryce we’d take the lot, and to add a couple more polo shirts and another pair of different-colored shorts and, what the hell, some boxer briefs, T’s and socks. Maybe another pair of sneaks as well.
We left the store soon after that, leaving the clothes for pickup when we had the car, me with a significantly lighter wallet, Colt with an uncontrollable smile on his face and Bryce with a far-off look on his face. As we were leaving, Colt turned and rushed over to Bryce and hugged him. I thought I saw Bryce’s eyes get shiny, but then we were out the door.
“We need to find a place for lunch,” I said. “One with a patio, like this morning.” Colt nodded, agreeing. Fitz neither agreed or disagreed, just continuing on by Colt’s side.
Colt was silent at lunch. He didn’t look unhappy but just wasn’t saying anything. Finally, I asked if everything was OK.
He smiled. “Yeah. It’s just, well, no one has ever told me I looked good. Ever. And I’m still feeling that. I don’t know what to say. Thanks, I guess. But it’s more than that. No one’s ever really cared about me.”
“Hey. None of that blubbery stuff! We’re a couple of dudes here. No feelings, OK?” I laughed, giving up trying to sound gruff. It wasn’t working. But I had to tell him something; he had to hear it. “Colt, maybe you were on your own, maybe you didn’t have anyone to cuddle you and wipe your butt or talk softly to you when you needed it, but somehow the result of that is how you are today. You’re a very self-confident kid who handles himself and his problems in a much more mature manner than a kid with a normal upbringing would. You don’t panic. You don’t give up. You figure out what you need to do. You fight on. You know how to do things, how to take care of yourself, how to manage on your own. Where you missed out on someone caring for you, it taught you self-reliance. Most things in life are a tradeoff. I think you’ve come out of your upbringing, what there was of it, pretty damn well. I’m proud of you; I’m proud to call you my friend.”
I wasn’t sure he was buying any of that. He was smiling, however, and didn’t pursue it. He continued smiling for a long time.
After lunch, we walked back to the body shop. I had Colt and Fitz stay out of sight. No reason for the guy in the shop to see us all together. None at all. He’d looked kind of shady to me. Like cutting corners was something he was used to doing. I thought, well, he’s in the business of fixing cars, and some of those cars, who knew how they’d ended up as they were? When I’d told him I wanted the car back that afternoon, he’d given me a look, and I’d looked back a little guiltily. I thought it might help if he thought I was on the lam or had stolen the car. He might charge more, but would get the job done quicker and probably keep his lips closed. Building a rep in his line of work, the sort of rep where certain types could count on him to keep quiet and not look at things too closely, was likely to bring repeat business and probably would pay him a good dividend.
He was at the counter when I walked in. “Car ready?”
“Let me check.” He looked at me, then walked through a curtain of long, hanging, overlapping plastic panels into the shop. It took him a few minutes, then he was back.
“Yep. She’s ready.” He handed me the invoice, which was $200 more than what we’d agreed on.
“This is wrong.” I said. I stood up a little straighter.
“So was your story about buying it from a consigner. I ran the VIN.”
I allowed my eyes to harden. “That’s a good way to find yourself in a world of trouble,” I said, my voice as hard as my eyes.
He didn’t blink. “Good way to keep the profits up, too. I make money no matter what. Don’t pay, I keep the car, and I notify the police. Don’t think you can get rough, either. I got a guy in the back room who’s listening in on the intercom. I say the right words, you get shot. $200 extra isn’t much, and you’re the one who stays out of trouble.”
I stared at him a little longer, then pulled out the money and laid it on the counter. He scooped it up and said, “Car’s in the lot out back. Keys are on the top of the front, left-hand tire. Don’t need to see you again.”
“You’d better hope you don’t,” I said, and he heard the edge in my voice. Didn’t seem to intimidate him, though.
I turned and walked out. Colt was halfway down the block, and when he saw me, he started towards me. I signaled him to stay where he was, and then walked behind the place. Along the side of the building there weren’t any windows; I reached behind me and withdrew my Beretta, palming it, letting my arm hang naturally at my side.
The car, now a light beige, was sitting by itself at the side of the lot near a bunch of wrecks. I looked around, saw no one, checked there was no one in the open door of the garage, and walked swiftly to the car. The key was where he’d said it was. I got in, started the car, and drove out. I turned right out of the driveway and stopped a little farther on for my passengers. Then I goosed it a little, and we were down the street and safely away.
Colt saw my gun in my lap. I saw him looking and managed to get it back in my holster. His eyes were asking what was going on, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk. I was furious. How much had the body-shop guy done? Had he called the Caverton Sheriff’s Department to check when he found out they held the car’s registration? I had to assume that was a distinct possibility. I didn’t know if we’d been compromised, but I had to act as though we had been.
If he’d made that phone call early in the day, Braken would have had enough time to get to Niceville by now. The fact that I’d got the car back meant if he were here, it wasn’t to arrest me, because that could have been done most easily by not allowing me to take the car. But Braken didn’t want to arrest me with witnesses around. So, what he’d have done was wait for me to pick up the car, then follow me, us, see where we were staying, and either wait till I was driving somewhere, somewhere he thought he could take us, or, more likely, bide his time and come for us at night.
He didn’t want clamor—or notice. He wanted us dead, but without any commotion. The easiest way to accomplish that would be to kill us softly in our beds. Easy enough to do if he had a gun with a silencer. Three shots. No more than a couple of seconds would be needed to do the trick. The hard part would be getting into the room, either silently or using subterfuge, but there were ways to do it. If I knew them, and I did, he certainly did, too.
I’d turned off the main street the body shop was on and was driving through a residential area now. Nice lawns, nice houses. Maybe the name of the town was appropriate.
“Colt?” I said.
“Tell me everything you know about Braken. Everything.”
He sat up and stopped patting Fitz. “He’s scary. He’s been at our house several times. I heard him laugh about some pretty bad things he done; he laughed and I shuddered. Hurting people. Killing people. Torturing people. I try not to be around wherever he is.
“He’s about your age, I guess. I can’t tell with an older guy like you. Tall guy, real tall, and thin. Has a thin mustache. Black hair, dark eyes. Smokes a lot, cigarettes without filters, one after another. I’ve never seen him drink, though. Dad’s always sucking on a beer. Braken drinks water. Not even ice in it.”
“Know anything about what weapons he uses. Anything at all?”
He stopped to think. “I’ve seen him stretch out in an easy chair, legs stuck way out straight in front of him. He has an ankle holster with a gun in it. I know he has a shoulder holster, too.”
“What about a silencer? You seen him with one of those?”
Colt shook his head. “No. No idea.”
I nodded. He was staring at me now. “Why? He doesn’t know where we are. We got away. Why are you asking me about him?”
“Well, don’t turn around, but we’ve had a tail ever since we left the body shop. He’s pretty good, stays way back, keeps cars between us when he can. But it sure looks like the car that was at the barn. And…”
“… it has Georgia plates.”
Colt’s eyes grew large. “It’s him!”
“Probably.” I turned at the next corner, heading back toward the main drag. There was a stoplight there, and I sat on the red. His was the only car behind us now, and he pulled over to the curb a little more than a block back when he saw us stop. I thought about waiting out the next green until it turned yellow and then shooting through the intersection. But I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to lose him, and I didn’t want him to know he’d been made.
When the light changed, I pulled ahead and took state route 20 toward the airport, then kept going on the Eglin Parkway into Ft. Walton Beach. There was an outdoor mall north of the city, and I pulled into the parking lot.
“Get out, walk to the center of the mall, take Fitz with you. There’s a large fountain there. I’ll meet you at the fountain. Go quickly but don’t run. Don’t look back, either.”
Colt was nobody’s fool. He didn’t stop to argue or complain or discuss. He simply got out of the car with Fitz and headed toward the mall. I got out, too. And walked with him for a ways, then sidled between two cars. I stopped and looked back through their windows. I could see the all-black car just turning into our row of cars, then slowly coming up the row, looking at the cars on both sides.
When it reached my car, it stopped. As I watched, a tall, thin man got out and stepped to my car. He was smoking a cigarette. He took a last puff, then dropped the cigarette and stepped on it, wiggling the ball of his foot on it to crush it. He was looking down while doing that, and then crouched and, I imagined, started tying his shoe, although I couldn’t see him with all the cars between us. A moment later he got back up, got into his car, and drove away. I stepped further between cars and then crouched down where I couldn’t be seen as he passed only a few feet from me. He was looking straight ahead when he passed me; he never looked in my direction. He turned at the end of that row, then headed out of the lot and back onto Eglin Parkway. The last I saw of him, he was headed back toward Niceville.
We headed back, too. There was a hair stylist we had to visit.
I could relate how Colt looked when the guy was done fussing with him but I think I already overdid it with the clothes. Let’s just say, I’m not sure anyone in Fredericksville would have recognized him. They’d have been looking for an unkempt ragamuffin, and I was now being accompanied not by a boy model—it still wouldn’t be accurate to call him cute—but a distinctive, handsome young man who would draw attention and turn heads.
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