While in Afghanistan, an operation under his command goes horribly wrong, ending his military career. Ty is thrust back into civilian life, stuck working as a security guard at a truck stop. To make matters worse, he struggles every day with the demons that followed him home from the war.
His new job is routine, even boring, until a young girl is abducted while he’s on duty. Ty can’t let the case go, even when law enforcement insists he leave the investigation to the professionals.
Ty doesn’t listen.
He cannot listen.
His gut tells him that the investigators are going down the wrong road and with every minute they waste, the girl slips farther away. Unable to accept that outcome, Ty risks it all for this new mission. He knows that somehow their fates are inextricably bound. If he can save her, then somehow he might just be able to save himself.
Release date: May 8, 2020
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 296
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Two Years Earlier
Tyler Stone was running a five-man team in the northern part of the Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Their mission was to conduct reconnaissance on a village where the Taliban was rumored to be stockpiling weapons. They’d been in position for three days and pinpointed a cave with a lot of suspicious traffic. Ty was fairly certain the crates being hauled into the cave didn’t contain cases of beer and bags of pork rinds.
Sometimes their job was to find the weapons and call in an airstrike. They’d paint the target with an infrared laser and air support would blow it back to the Stone Age. This mission was different. They were there to collect photographs and coordinates, then transmit the data back to command. Supposedly, folks higher up the chain would use that data to extrapolate a more complete picture of the supply chain in the region.
The mission was going smooth as glass, which made everyone jittery. Once they transmitted their data, they were ordered to return home. That was when they paid the price for the previous lack of complications. They were rucking out on a goat trail when their mission was blown in the same way so many other covert ops in the Afghan hill country were compromised.
Up until that point, they’d done everything right. They’d gathered their intel, avoided detection, and sustained no casualties. The two teenage shepherds wore drab pajama like clothing and carried herding staffs, looking like two kids who’d just wandered out of some biblical tale.
"Keep moving," Ty ordered his team. “Kamran, handle this.”
Kamran, their “terp”—interpreter—approached the boys and gestured wildly, warning the young men to remain silent or they’d be killed. Perhaps it wasn’t the approved, politically correct method of requesting cooperation from locals but it was often the most effective. Ty kept his team moving while Kamran assured the shepherds that men would come back and wring their necks like scrawny desert chickens if they sounded the alarm.
The terp made a good show of it but you never knew how those threats would work. Sometimes the locals resented the Taliban for some atrocity they’d committed on their village and they’d keep silent. Other times, more scared of the Taliban, they’d raise hell, sounding the alarm as soon as you were out of sight. Ty thought they’d actually pulled this one off until they hit open terrain and he chanced a look back at the village thorough his M151 spotting scope.
"Son of a bitch,” he growled.
“What is it?”
Taco, a weapons sergeant, shaded his eyes and tried to make out what he was looking at. He was a tall dude, wrapped in tattoos and muscles, the man just as battle-worn as his gear. His nickname had nothing to do with ethnicity but instead came from his last name, which was Bell. “Please tell me that’s just a dust devil.”
“That’s a negative, Taco. I’ve got at least two dozen armed riders headed in our direction. Those fucking shepherds sold us out.”
Taco shook his head in disgust. “Why am I not surprised?” He threw up his rifle and studied them through the scope.
Ty packed up his spotting scope. “We need to haul ass.”
“Should we engage?” Taco asked. “If I can’t drop them, I can at least scatter them. Slow them down.”
“Negative on that. While we’re engaging, the rest will close around us and we’ll get penned in. Then we won’t be going anywhere.”
The two men ran to catch up with the rest of their team. Ty flagged down his commo sergeant, Hoot. “See if you can find us a ride out of here!”
A chopper could light those Taliban cowgirls up and haul the team back to base. Command was expecting their request for exfil, anyway. Surely someone was monitoring their op and waiting for the call.
Ty watched Hoot’s face while he talked, and after two minutes of agitated jabbering, he knew there was a problem. He started to get a sinking feeling in his gut. “What’s the hell’s going on?”
Hoot whipped off his headset, looking pissed. "Everything is grounded. Major fucking storm on our ass. Could be tomorrow before shit settles down."
“Great,” Ty mumbled. “You tell them we had our own storm to worry about?”
“Affirmative. They suggested we request the QRF if we needed them,” Hoot relayed, referring to the Quick Reaction Force.
“Bernie’s unit is on QRF now,” said Taco. “You know he won’t put anyone at risk. They’ll drag their ass and get here tomorrow so he doesn’t take casualties.”
“Do it,” Ty said.
Hoot got on the radio and passed on Ty’s request. Ty could soon tell Hoot wasn’t having any more luck with this than the exfil request.
“QRF says they’ll contact command and advise us when they have their orders,” Hoot repeated.
Ty shook his head in disgust. He scanned the horizon and in the distance found the storm Hoot was referring to, a dark mass emerging on the horizon ahead of them like some enormous beast. “There’s your dust devil, Taco.”
“I still say we dig in and engage them. We got this. We can take them.” Taco’s speech was rushed. They were all huffing and puffing from humping heavy gear at a rapid pace, their adrenaline pumping. After sitting in those hills for three days everyone was jacked up and ready for a fight. Running didn’t taste good on anyone’s tongue.
“Negative,” Ty said. “They pin us down and there’ll be a hundred of them surrounding us by tomorrow. They’ll pound us with rockets and there won’t be enough left to bury. We’re going to outrun them, or at least try to.”
"You got to be kidding me," Hartsock said. He was MARSOC, or Marine Special Operations Command, and had embedded with Ty’s team before. They got a laugh out of it because his name was Hartsock, making him Hartsock from MARSOC. Sometimes that shit was funny when you had nothing else to laugh at, but at the moment, nothing was funny.
"I’m open to ideas if you got anything," Ty said.
“I don’t think we can outrun them. Those horsemen will ride us to ground,” Hartsock said. “We need a defensible position."
Ty raised his shemagh and mopped at his face. “They pin us down, we die,” he countered. “We’re going into that storm. They probably won’t follow us in there, but if they do, they’ll lose us. Once we get on the other side, we’ll hunker down and call for a pickup. Maybe someone will be flying by then.”
“If we come out on the other side,” Taco griped. “We’ll be blind in there. We could go around in circles and run into the enemy head-on.”
“We’re better than that,” Ty told him. “We tighten up and make sure that shit doesn’t happen.”
Despite any reservations they had, Ty was in charge. They followed orders and ran toward the storm. Ty could see his men glancing nervously at the approaching weather conditions while monitoring the other ominous cloud rising behind them. Ahead was a menacing blizzard of dust and wind. Behind, a band of murderous Taliban intent on torturing them to death and posting videos of it on the internet. This was a solid team, tough men used to suffering, but Ty could tell the ticking clock was wearing on them. No one liked being sandwiched between those two threats. They were truly caught between a rock and a hard place.
They closed on the great storm as it closed on them. The wind picked up immediately and Ty began to have second thoughts about his decision. This was not thunderstorm wind. This was stepping out into a hurricane wind. Dirt pelted them like a sandblaster, making any exposed flesh burn as it was abraded away.
Although they had goggles over their eyes and filthy sweat-soaked shemaghs wrapped around their faces to filter out the dust, it was a futile effort. Their ears filled with grit and dirt. Before long, their clothes were covered with so much dust that each man looked like a boulder risen from the barren landscape and marching around of its own accord. It would be perfect camo if they survived, but that was a big ask.
Ty shouted at his men to stay together but the buffeting wind drowned out his voice. As they finally lost sight of the pursuing riders, the swirling storm consumed them totally. There was the faint sound of rifle fire behind them. Their pursuers were giving it one last college try before they lost sight of the enemy, sweeping the storm with blind barrages of AK fire.
"Anyone hit?" Ty barked.
No one answered. He doubted they even heard him. Ty caught their attention and directed them through hand signals to change course. He didn’t know whether the Taliban riders would charge into the storm or balk at its approach. While he doubted they would risk it, they were dogged fighters and it remained a possibility. The team slogged onward, the men shoulder to shoulder so that no one got lost.
Just as he thought it couldn’t get any worse, Mother Nature said, “Hold my beer” and they were startled by a bolt of lightning. Thunder shook the ground like mortar fire. If there was anything worse than a dust storm, it was when it intersected with a thunderstorm. The product was what you might expect. It rained mud.
A torrent of muddy rain slammed into them. It was like being hit with a firehose and they were quickly drenched, their sodden gear doubling in weight. Ty frantically yanked his shemagh down off his face, the damp cloth making him feel like he was being waterboarded. Mud streamed into his mouth, bitter and gritty. He used the back of a glove to swipe at his goggles but it was futile. He couldn’t see shit and they were running blind.
He was seriously beginning to question the wisdom of charging into the storm. Hell, could people drown while walking upright? It was starting to feel like a possibility.
Inside the storm, the conditions had not only impaired their visibility but had greatly reduced the amount of light reaching the ground. In those twilight conditions, with mud-encrusted goggles, Ty was placing tremendous focus on the terrain under his feet and keeping his men close. Touch was the only sense still working at full capacity. He noticed the terrain change under his feet and it stopped him dead in his tracks.
He grabbed Hartsock, the man nearest him, by the shoulder and pulled him to a stop. One by one, the men slowed their companions and circled up.
“I think we’re on the road!” Ty screamed, trying to overpower the wind.
“How the hell can you tell in this mess?” Taco demanded.
“I can’t be certain but the surface feels different. It felt like there was a shoulder at the edge. Let’s head south.”
Ty could barely see any of his men but he got the distinct feeling that they were looking at him like he was an idiot. That was a fair assessment of how he felt at the moment. “That way,” he said, pointing in the direction his smeared GPS assured him was south. “Move!”
They resumed their cautious advance and marched through the blinding slurry of desert mud. Ty took a sip from his hydration bladder, trying to rinse out his mouth, and it was vile, the bite valve nearly as muddy as his boots. Then, as quickly as the storm hit them, they walked out of it.
Except they weren’t completely out of it. Instead, they’d wandered into what appeared to be the eye of the storm. All around, completely encircling them, was the turbulent spinning blackness of the mud storm. They’d somehow landed in an insulated bubble of calm in the middle of it.
“Dude, this is fucking weird,” Taco said, spinning slowly, watching for the Taliban horsemen to come pounding into their little oasis at any moment. “I don’t like it.”
“Spooky,” Hartsock mumbled.
Ty took the opportunity to try to clean his goggles, smearing the mud from a thick coating to a thin veneer that he could almost see through.
“It won’t last,” Kamran assured them. “A minute or two. The storm is moving too fast.”
Aware that he was correct, Ty signaled the men to start moving again. They were halfway across the eye, on the surface of the road, when he saw a reflection in the darkness ahead of them. “What the hell?”
“What is it?” Hartsock asked.
“I thought I saw something,” Ty said. “A light or some kind of reflection.”
Then it was on them and there was no time to bolt for cover. They threw up their weapons and leveled them on the black Mercedes Sprinter van. It skidded to a stop in front of them, mud dripping from every surface. Inside, the wide-eyed man and little girl stared out through the smeared windshield at what probably looked like aboriginal mud men surrounding them with guns.
The terrified driver raised his hands in panic. He was screaming, jabbering, but Ty couldn’t hear a word of it. He moved around the driver’s side, his weapon never leaving the man’s face. Hartsock did the same on the other side. Ty heard the sliding door roll open on the far side as Hartsock checked the rear of the van. Ty pulled the driver’s door open and turned off the ignition. He scanned the driver’s lap and checked around the seat for any weapons but didn’t find any. The driver was frantically trying to explain something but Ty didn’t understand a word of it.
“Kamran!” he barked. “Get over here!”
The terp rushed to his side and looked from Ty to the driver.
“Tell him we need a ride. Now!”
Kamran spent a moment nailing down a dialect the two shared, then relayed Ty’s request.
“No,” the driver replied in English
“Uh, he said no,” Kamran replied.
“I think I understood that part,” Ty growled.
“He says he’s Pakistani and here on business. He’s already late for an appointment.”
The rain began to pelt them again as Ty stewed on their predicament. The eye was passing and the storm was nearly back upon them. He was not letting this vehicle pass unless he and his men were aboard it. Command would frown on stealing a vehicle, regardless of their situation. They never wanted you to do anything that might end up on the evening news. Ty was struggling to figure out a different approach, a bribe or threat that might make the driver acquiesce when a gunshot split the air.
Ty flinched and flattened himself against the vehicle, head swiveling for the source of the shot. Then he saw the column of Taliban riders had burst into the eye of the storm as well. They may have looked like a sodden mass of swamp creatures but they were deadly and only seconds away. Ty swung his rifle and tore off several shots in their direction. The rest of the team did the same.
Negotiations were over. Ty made a command decision, shoving the driver out of the seat and onto the floor. “Get in!” he bellowed, and his team scrambled for the side door, exchanging gunfire with the approaching riders as they piled in.
The terrified young girl screamed at the top of her lungs.
Taco pounded the back of the driver’s seat. “Go! Go! Go!” he barked.
There was the rattle of more gunfire and one of the back windows shattered, spraying the interior with pellets of safety glass. Ty turned the key but it wouldn’t start and his heart sank. They were dead.
“Go!” Taco demanded.
“Wrong gear!” Kamran shouted, leaning forward to place the shifter into the Park position.
Ty could have punched himself in the head. God, he was an idiot. Apparently he’d turned the key off when the van was in Drive so it wouldn’t start. He tried the key again and it fired right up. Ty stomped the gas pedal and the van slewed, the tires spinning on the mud road. He eased off until they gripped and the van lurched forward. The girl, still in the seat beside him, emitted another bloodcurdling scream. The sound was grating on Ty’s nerves. There was enough chaos without her adding to it.
“Take her!” Ty instructed her father, the man apparently too petrified with fear to act. He hadn’t moved since Ty shoved him onto the floor between the seats.
When the Pakistani man didn’t react, Ty shoved him, jarring him from his paralysis. He gestured at the girl. The father’s arms shot forward and collected his daughter. He pulled her to the floor with him and shielded her with his body. Her scream became a keening whine of terror, melding with the general state of chaos.
More gunfire sprayed the back of the van, punching holes in the sheet metal and remaining glass. Ty had hoped to gain distance from the riders but they lost visibility as they re-entered the storm and he couldn’t go much faster than they could. If he got the van stuck or went off-road and hit a rock, they were dead. Hartsock and Taco were wallowing on the floor, trying to peel off their soaked packs, slippery with mud. Hartsock came out of his gear first and rolled to his knees.
He aimed through a jagged hole in the rear window and started pounding out controlled bursts of 5.56 fire at the pursuing Taliban. The sound of the automatic fire in the enclosed space of the van was deafening. They all had hearing protection stashed somewhere in their gear but who the hell had time to look for it?
“Get’em, cowboy!” Taco hollered, finally making it to his feet and joining the fight.
He ripped the muddy goggles from his head and tossed them to the side, raised his boot, and stomped the shattered pane of glass from the opening on his side of the rear door. The addition of a second shooter only intensified the noise and bedlam in the van.
“Kamran! Ask him where this fucking road goes!” Ty bellowed, unable to judge the volume of his own voice since he couldn’t hear shit.
The terp shoved the Pakistani man to get his attention and launched a barrage of questions at him.
One of the pursuing riders got lucky and swept the rear of the van with another burst of gunfire. Ty had the sensation of being touched on the shoulder. He thought Kamran might be trying to get his attention but he was afraid to take his eyes of the road.
Taco cried out and collapsed to the deck. The girl screamed and Ty caught a flurry of movement in his peripheral vision. He spun to see what the girl was screaming about and realized the touch on his arm was the sensation of her father’s brain spraying onto the right side of his body. Ty was covered in gore, the dampness going unnoticed due to his already saturated clothing.
Ty roared from rage and frustration, pounding the steering wheel with his palm. He was splitting his focus between the road, where he couldn’t see shit, and the back of the van, where he had no fucking idea what was going on. “Taco? Talk to me!”
“Thigh wound!” Hartsock barked. “Missed the artery. He’s plugging it now. He’ll live.”
“Not if we don’t get out of this mess,” Ty countered.
The girl slipped from beneath the bloody crush of her father’s body and crawled into the passenger side footwell, pressing her tiny body as tightly as she could into the cramped space. She was no longer crying, her eyes squeezed desperately shut, tears streaking her stained face.
There was a jolt as a wheel rode over the nearly invisible shoulder. He jerked his eyes back to the road and struggled to correct the van without losing control. It slid dangerously, the back end slewing left and presenting just enough of its side to the enemy that they pounded it with 7.62 rounds.
Ty glanced back and saw holes punched in the van’s sidewall. He also noticed his terp gasping for air, frightened eyes opened wide. “Hoot!” Ty called to the commo guy. “Kamran’s hit!”
Ty wasn’t sure if Hoot could hear him or not. He had to be as deaf as the rest of them at the moment. He was in the back of the van trying to shoot out of the same holes Taco and Hartsock were but was having a hard time staying out of their way. There was too much flying lead in too small a space. Hot brass bounced in every direction and rolled around on the floor. It was like trying to stand on marbles.
“Hoot!” Ty repeated.
The commo guy heard him that time and sprang into action, checking the now collapsed terp. “Got between his armor!” Hoot yelled. “I think he took one in the lung.”
Ty whipped his head around in time to see Kamran emit a cough that sprayed a mist of blood onto his already dirty face and gear. “Can you get a chest seal on him?”
“Look out!” Hoot screamed, gesturing frantically toward the windshield.
Ty swung his eyes back to the road in time to see they had driven out of the storm and he was about to crash into a HUMVEE stopped directly in front of them. Ty locked onto the steering wheel with both hands and stood on the brakes. The heavy van went into a slide and stopped mere feet shy of the armored vehicle. There were groans and cursing from the back as men fought to get on their feet, hot rifle barrels scorching them through their clothing.
The second HUMVEE in the column had a roof gunner and his weapon was trained directly on Ty’s window. They had no idea who he was or who the van belonged to. Ty raised his hand as soldiers spread around the vehicle, trying to figure out what was going on.
“We’re Americans!” Ty yelled.
When one of the soldiers barked commands Ty gestured at his ears. He couldn’t hear a thing over the persistent ringing.
They figured it out soon enough. About the time the soldiers realized there was an American beneath the mud and gore, the Taliban arrived on the scene. A soldier threw open Ty’s door and pushed him into the floor, just as Ty had done with the Pakistani driver earlier. The soldier pulled the van around the column and the new arrivals opened up on the approaching riders. Ty grinned as the welcoming committee chimed in with their vehicle-mounted machine guns. They killed several of the Taliban before driving the remainder back into the concealment of the storm.
Ty knelt between the seats, watching the action. He was finally feeling a glimmer of hope they were going to survive this mission, when he noticed he was crouched on the arm of the dead van owner. He glanced toward the man’s daughter, ready to give her an apologetic look for the misery they’d brought upon her. They’d not asked for this.
He was met with staring, dead eyes. A brilliant stream of scarlet blood traced the dusty crease of the child’s face, her hair matted around an entry wound on her temple.
Ty had no idea what happened to him at that point. All he would remember later was feeling as if his electrical system had overloaded. He fell over backwards, his head hitting the sliding door. His legs were draped across the dead Pakistani and the wounded, gasping terp. Someone slid open the bullet-riddled cargo door and sunlight hit Ty in the face, blinding him.
Hands hooked under his arms and dragged him clear of the van. A medic was in his face asking him questions he couldn’t hear to answer. He was covered in blood, mud, and it sounded like a freight train was pounding through his head. The medic put both hands on Ty’s face and screamed a question at him.
Ty couldn’t hear it but finally understood that he was being asked where he was wounded. He pointed to his ears.
The medic and another soldier began peeling Ty’s gear off, searching for wounds despite his protestations. They poured water on him, looking for wounds beneath the dirt and gore. Ty turned his head toward the van and saw Hartsock stumble off, a bloody Taco leaning on him for support. Hartsock was being questioned by a soldier as he walked. Hoot came out under his own power but he’d taken a shoulder wound at some point and his arm hung at an odd angle.
The dead were left inside to be photographed. Those photographs would become part of the investigation that ultimately ended Tyler Stone’s military career. Ty would never need to see those photographs to remember the scene that day. It was something he would never forget. It was something that would visit him in nightmares for the rest of his life.
Ty sat in his truck outside his sister’s house and scanned the streets. Kids were home from school and adults were getting off work. There were too many cars coming and going. It took him a moment to acclimate to the level of activity. Every location, every area of operation, had a vibe and a particular flow. Ty needed to familiarize himself with that flow before he ventured out into it.
Women parked minivans and struggled with bulging grocery bags, children lined behind them like ducklings. Men straggled in from whatever job consumed their day, looking haggard and defeated. A retiree mowed his lawn from a pristine lawn tractor, a smile plastered on his face like it was the highlight of his day. Ty checked his rearview mirror again, decided this was as good as it was going to get, and jogged up Deena’s driveway.
He climbed the brick steps and knocked on the glass storm door. The reply from inside was indecipherable, a chorus of both his niece and sister’s voices yelling different things at the same time. He took it as an invitation to go inside. He found his niece Aiden seated at the kitchen island while his sister Deena stood before her in a bathrobe. She was trying to get ready but was being peppered with questions.
Eleven year old Aiden stopped her interrogation to regard Ty with that same look of disdain that eleven-year-olds give adults. It was eerily similar to the way cats looked at people, reminding them that, if they were larger, they would eat us and take over our houses. In this particular case, it was a look that said Ty had to prove himself worthy of Aiden’s attention before he would be granted any.
Though she greeted him this way each time they saw each other, she always relented. With him having been deployed for so much of her life, she looked at Ty with the same reserved fascination she might use if some B-list celebrity she’d never heard of showed up at the house. She was intrigued but too cool to show it.
Aiden understood that Ty had been to a lot of exotic places and he was gone for long stretches of her childhood. She was aware he knew a lot of neat things like how to start a fire, how to tie knots, how to do first aid, and how to say hello in several languages. He could call someone a butthead in those same languages and had taught her how to do it. Her mother had not been as proud as Ty had.
He was proficient in martial arts and could do push-ups with her on his back. He could do pull-ups while she clung to his back like a monkey. She also understood that Uncle Ty's place was not child-friendly which made her want to visit his apartment whenever she could. She’d been there a couple of times but Deena usually found an excuse to keep her away, preferring that Ty visit her house instead. He didn’t take it personally. It was easier than tidying up his own place, which he preferred to keep functional rather than pristine.
"Where are you eating tonight?" Aiden asked her mother, her voice firm. She sounded like a parent questioning a teenager about a date.
"I don't know yet," Deena replied. “We haven’t decided.”
"Is it someplace good?"
“I just said I don't know where I'm going. That means I don’t know if it’s someplace good or not, but I would assume it is. I hope my friends wouldn’t take me to some crappy restaurant for my birthday."
"Is it someplace I’d like to eat?" Aiden continued.
"If I don't know where I'm going, how do I know if it’s someplace you'd like to eat or not?"
"I don't want you eating anywhere without me that I might like," Aiden stated. “That’s not fair at all.”
Deena sighed. "So what you're saying is that you want your mother to have a bad dinner because the only way she’s allowed to have a good dinner is if you're there to enjoy it?"
Aiden grinned broadly and nodded. "That's exactly what I mean."
"You apparently take after your Uncle Ty," Deena said, winking at him. "He was exactly like that as a child. If Ty wasn’t happy, no one was happy."
"Don't believe her," Ty stage-whispered to Aiden. "Your mother is just mad because our parents liked me better."
"Oh, that's exactly it," Deena replied with an eye roll.
"It’s okay, Uncle Ty. I know Mommy isn’t taking me because she’s ashamed of me," Aiden said, wiping at a fake tear.
She was good. If you didn’t know the kid, you’d think she was truly heartbroken. Ty knew she didn't mean it. Her mother also knew she didn't mean it, but it was the kind of comment that a parent couldn’t leave standing.
"You know that's not true," Deena said. "My girlfriends are taking me out to dinner for my birthday. It’s just adults and there won’t be any children present."
"Wow, I never knew there were so many other parents who were ashamed of their children too. Maybe someone will start a special home for us. Someplace we’ll be loved and treated nicely. Someplace with puppies and all the ice cream you can eat.”
Ty gestured at Aiden. "Come on, devil child, we better get out of here before you get in trouble. Your mom needs to finish getting ready."
Aiden slipped off her stool. "Okay, let me get my stuff.”
"We’re going to the movies and to get something to eat. How much stuff do you need?"
Aiden looked at Ty as if he had no concept of the societal burdens of an eleven-year-old girl. She stalked off and came back with something that was half purse, half backpack.
"You're taking all that?" he asked. “You planning on camping somewhere along the way?”
"Come on," she said, ignoring his question. “Let’s go before Mommy says more mean things to me.”
“I didn’t say anything mean!” Deena exclaimed.
“Hug your mother,” Ty reminded her.
Aiden gave her mother an appraising serious look. “I’m not sure she’s worthy at the moment.”
“She’s worthy. Do it before she makes you stay home with a mean old babysitter that smells funny and makes you play Scrabble.”
Aiden conceded, hugging her mother and heading for the door. Ty hugged his sister then rushed off before Aiden got too far ahead of him. Even though this was her house, in her neighborhood, he cringed at the way she confidently burst from the door and started down the driveway without so much as a glance at her surroundings. It was like he was on an executive protection detail with a particularly uncooperative client. Despite the subtle hints he gave her about personal safety, Aiden had no situational awareness at all. He was going to have to work on that.
He struggled to dial it down a notch and not helicopter over her. People tended to dislike the hovering. Besides, they were in the United States, in the peaceful little town of Abingdon, Virginia. While it was a relatively safe community, Ty wasn’t sure any place would ever feel safe to him again. If he lived on a thousand-acre ranch in the mountains of Montana he would continue to check for bad guys when he went out the front door. He would react the same way if he lived in a one-horse town with thirty-eight people and no stop signs.
That was how he was wired these days. His little bubble of ignorant bliss had been punctured a long time ago. There would never again be a time in his life where he was as casual and happy-go-lucky as Aiden had the privilege of being. He'd seen too much of the world, gotten his hands too dirty.
They drove twenty minutes to the shopping center with the movie theater she liked. It was the peak weekday hour. Kids were being dropped off by parents who either wanted them out of the house or were tired of listening to the begging. There were families there to see movies together and groups of teenagers slinking around, enjoying their lack of adult oversight.
"I'm hungry," Aiden said as they got out of his truck and the scent of popcorn hit her nose.
Her voice startled Ty. He was lost in the chaos and sensory overload of the parking lot. There was a movement, a lot of people, and too many places to hide. Every situation had a rhythm and he was quickly assessing this one. Was it simply a shitload of people doing people stuff or was there threat present? No matter where he was, he always had to ask himself that basic question.
“We’ll get you some popcorn in a second,” Ty said. “Enough to fill a bathtub if you can eat that much.”
Aiden made a curious face as the image played through her head. The movie she wanted to see was a fairly new release, and the afternoon matinee showing already had a line waiting for tickets. Ty expected there would be more lines at the concession stand inside the busy theater. Great. Lines and crowds spelled stress and discomfort for him but he'd agreed to do this. Deena needed a night out. She hadn’t had many since the divorce. He’d promised her he’d do it. He needed to do it. It was a normal thing that normal people did and he wanted to be a normal guy again.
Looking back at his military career, the things he'd done over fourteen years of service, this was minuscule by comparison. How could going to a matinee with his niece be such a big deal? It wasn’t, and he had to quit making it into something bigger than it was.
Buckle down, he reminded himself. You got this.
The ticket line was irritating. He didn't like strangers standing directly behind him, their presence looming over his personal space. It was one of the sensations he had the most trouble with in the civilian world, the awareness that someone was directly behind him and he was unable to keep an eye on them. In regular life, the situation was unavoidable. You couldn’t just turn around and stare at the people behind you in line. That got weird. It was never a problem in the military. Someone that close was a brother, a man you could trust. A man who’d lay down his life for you with the expectation you’d do the same for him.
The slower moving concession stand line was even worse. Sounds from the adjoining arcade filled the concession area with a barrage of sound effects – beeps, chirps, and firing lasers. Ty was getting antsy, shifting on his feet, anxious to get into the theater and be seated. Maybe then he could chill out a little bit. He’d close his eyes in the comforting darkness and take some deep breaths, use some of those relaxation strategies they kept pushing on him. He needed to find his happy place, although he hadn’t had much luck with that. Perhaps he didn’t have a happy place. Could be that all he had was a dark and angry place. That was how it felt sometimes.
It didn't help that there was an action movie playing in one of the theaters. The ultra-realistic sound system shook the walls with gunshots and explosions, the sounds pulling Ty in like a nightmare. It was remarkable how the explosions in that theater, rattling the walls and making the floor tremble, sounded like they were being shelled.
The sound made Ty increasingly uncomfortable. He felt exposed and vulnerable, like he should be doing something, anything, to get them out of there. He needed to get Aiden somewhere safe before a round hit the building. At any moment they could be trapped in a pile of rubble with all these people. A line of sweat trickled down his back.
The people ahead of them got their popcorn and drinks, then moved on. Stuck there in his head, Ty didn’t notice the line moving. He didn’t notice that Aiden had already stepped forward and was waiting on him to join her. What Ty did notice was the man behind him reach forward and peck him on the shoulder.
“Go on, buddy,” the guy said. “Wake up.”
That unexpected physical contact was exactly the wrong thing for the man to do. Ty didn't hesitate. He didn't think. He spun and trapped the man’s outstretched arm beneath his left. His right shot to the man’s throat and locked onto it. He swept his leg, and took him to the floor hard. It was pure reflex, the product of over a decade of training. He had every intention of shoving the man’s voice box through his spine when he caught himself.
He saw the man’s shocked expression. He swept his surroundings and took in the stunned faces of the man’s family. He took in the sea of other dumbfounded faces in the concession lines. This was not the kind of thing you saw at the Movie Mall Twenty. Everyone stood there frozen in that awkward moment, uncertain of how to back up from it. Ty certainly had no clue and the man in his grasp was too scared to even breathe.
"Uncle Ty?” It was Aiden, her quiet voice breaking the spell.
Ty released his grip on the man and stood. The other man got awkwardly to his feet, brushing at his clothes. Ty didn’t help him.
"Don't touch people you don't know," Ty warned, his voice barely above a whisper.
There were a lot of people were staring. It was uncomfortable attention.
"We want the bottomless popcorn with lots of butter," Aiden told the concessionaire. She’d already moved on. "What do you want to drink, Uncle Ty?"
He turned to the counter and hesitantly gave his drink order. Rattled, he took a napkin from a dispenser on the counter and mopped at his forehead. They got their jumbo tub of popcorn and two overpriced drinks, then turned around to find two security guards waiting on them. Behind them was the man Ty had dropped, standing with his wife and their two confused young boys. Ty knew he’d screwed up.
"Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave the premises."
There was a day when Ty would have given these guys a run for their money. He would have called them names and warned them they were biting off more than they could chew. The fact there were two of them meant nothing to him. Odds never concerned him. The problem was that Ty was currently employed as a security guard too. He worked for a different company but it was the same crappy job. Any of the slights he would have thrown in their direction would have applied to him equally and he didn’t want to go there. He’d heard it all before and hated it when people treated him like a second-class citizen because he was a security guard. There was something about that uniform that made you a magnet for assholes and anyone with something to prove. People talked real tough when they knew you couldn’t fight back.
The other side of the spectrum was that the uniform sometimes made you invisible. People were programmed to ignore you in the same way they did homeless people. They didn’t make eye contact, didn’t speak. Somedays Ty craved that invisibility.
The only thing that made him reconsider taking the high road was the smirk on the face of the man he’d taken to the floor. Ty had already calmed down, the moment had passed, but that look stood ready to inflame his anger all over again. He was pretty certain if he tossed his drink forward the two security guards would jump to the side. That would leave an open channel to the smirking man and Ty could finish what he’d started. On the other hand, there was Aiden and the trust his sister had placed in him. He didn’t want Aiden to see him hauled off in handcuffs.
"Sir, I'm not asking again. If you don't leave right now we’ll call the police and have you removed. Please don't make a scene in front of these children."
Ty released a long sigh, trying to blow off this new stream of tension, but it would only go down so far. He glanced at his niece and found her staring back at him with large, curious eyes. Not disappointed, not angry, simply watching and waiting to see what he’d do.
"Let’s just go, Uncle Ty. Mommy will be mad if I have to go to the hoosegow."
Ty couldn’t help but smile. "Where did you ever learn a word like that?"
"Uh, you taught me."
The nervous security guards insisted on following them out the door and all the way to his truck. Ty could sense their relief. They didn’t want to fight him. He and Aiden didn't particularly hurry, enjoying their popcorn and drinks as they walked. Ty gave a little wave to the security guards as they pulled out of the lot. He noticed one of them snapping a picture of his tag number. He was uncomfortable with that. The best case scenario was they would ban him from the facility. The worst was that he might get a visit from the cops tonight.
They drove to a park less than a mile away. They found a rickety wooden picnic table, its peeling green paint carved with initials. They had a picnic of popcorn and gigantic sodas.
"Your mother is going to be so mad at me," Ty said, slurping from his cup. He’d been mulling it over while watching Aiden toss popcorn kernels to a chunky gray squirrel.
Aiden snapped her head round and looked at him like he was crazy. "How’s she going to find out? I'm not to tell her. Are you going to tell her? ‘Cause that would be dumb. I’m just saying."
"Well, I didn't exactly plan on it but I assumed you might since it was probably the most interesting part of the evening. Isn’t that what kids do? They tell their moms about their day and stuff?"
Aiden narrowed her eyes and stared off into the distance. She almost looked like a wizened old trapper recalling a particularly hard winter. "I learned a long time ago you can't tell mothers everything."
Ty grinned. "You learned that a long time ago, huh?"
She nodded and shoved so much popcorn in her mouth that she couldn't close it. She nodded and chewed, struggling to speak, popcorn falling out of her mouth. "Yeah, I figured that out pretty quick after I started elementary school."
“You told on yourself?”
“A few times,” she admitted. “Then I figured it out.”
"You know, you're a pretty sharp cookie. You might be a force to contend with one day."
She frowned at him. "What does that mean?"
"It means you're smart enough to be dangerous. It means you're so smart that the things you say will make people mad at you sometimes. You’ll understand things about people and smart-aleck comments will come out of your mouth before you can even stop them."
Aiden smiled at that, relishing the thought that she had a tool of torment in her arsenal of which she’d previously been unaware. “I think that already happens sometimes.”
“I’m sure it does.”
She took a drink from her vat of soda and gave Ty a serious look. “So why did you get mad at that man? Did he do something to you? I didn’t see what happened.”
“What man?” Ty’s head had wandered somewhere else and it took him a moment to find his way back.
“Duh? The one in the popcorn line? How many other men have you laid the smackdown on today?”
Ty frowned at her choice of words. More disturbing to him was how he could have forgotten the situation that had just taken place? If violence was that inconsequential to him, was he even fit to be wandering around in normal society? He wondered sometimes. It was part of what he was trying to come to terms with.
“No, he was the only one today. Lines make me nervous. The guy touched me and it startled me. I reacted before I had a chance to stop myself.” He started to add that it was a “war thing” but didn’t know if that would mean anything to her. He certainly didn’t want her to think there was something wrong with him. He didn’t want her to be scared to be around him. While he wasn’t the most sensitive guy in the world, that would hurt.
“Are you a ninja?” she asked.
Ty laughed. “No, definitely not a ninja.”
“Have you ever in the past been a ninja?”
He admired the way she rephrased the question. She was sneaky. “Not exactly.”
“Well, that was a ninja move. You dropped that guy like a bad habit.”
“Where do you learn these expressions?”
Aiden shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I overreacted because he startled me. There was nothing cool about it. I shouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t the right thing to do and you should never act like that. Just because I did it doesn’t make it right.”
“I know. Mom said you get like that sometimes,” Aiden admitted. “She said I shouldn’t jump out of the dark and scare you.”
Oh great, Ty thought. She already knows there something wrong with me.
He smiled warmly at her. “Definitely not. I might wet my pants and I’d be embarrassed.”
Aiden thought that was hilarious. She held her belly and laughed.
“So what do you want to do, kid? I don’t imagine you want to sit here and talk to me all evening. Would you like to go to a movie at a different theater?”
She looked doubtful. “Can we do that?”
“Of course we can. You think they’ve got wanted posters for me at every theater now?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. They might.” She was fighting back a smile, the edges of her mouth twitching.
She looked at her drink and popcorn. “Will they let me take this in at a different movie?”
“I doubt it. Toss the popcorn out for the squirrel. It’ll make him happy and I’ll buy you some more at the next movie.”
Aiden dumped the greasy bucket to an excited looking squirrel and they threw their trash in a rusty green can. Ty took a deep breath.
Let’s try this again. Going to the movies with your niece, take two.
“That squirrel is going to get really fat. I bet he won’t be able to get back up that tree when he’s done,” Aiden said.
“Try calling her again,” Barger suggested.
They were in Richmond, Virginia. The RV had been parked in a WalMart parking lot all night and she’d done nothing but call and send messages since they got there. She groaned. Barger was getting on her nerves. “I’ve been calling. She’s not answering.”
“Why the hell is she not answering? You’ve been talking to this girl for months, right? She said she would go. Why isn’t she here?”
“Fuck if I know. Yes, I’ve been talking to her for months. Yes, she said she wanted to come. We’ve been planning this for weeks. She was supposed to be right here but she’s not. What do you want me to do about it?”
Barger had no answer for that. “Maybe she doesn’t see us?” He scanned the parking lot outside the window.
“Seriously? We’re the only RV here. We’re the biggest damn thing in the whole parking lot. If she were here, she’d have no trouble spotting us. She’s just not here.”
“Then where the hell is she?”
Tia pushed herself up from the leather recliner. She couldn’t listen to Barger any longer. He was like a broken record. She ambled stiffly to the table and grabbed a pack of menthol 100s. “I need a smoke.”
She left the frustrated Barger pacing around the narrow confines of the RV. He was getting on her nerves with his ranting and stomping around. How was she supposed to know what was going on? She’d done this dozens of times and it always went the same way. Everything went like clockwork.
Until this time.
She lit a smoke and walked around, though she didn’t go far. She was fifty-five years old now, ate poorly, and drank too much. She was overweight and her hips hurt with every step. She wiped her forehead with the tail of her tank top. The parking lot was not only hot, but humid in a way they didn’t experience in Arizona. It was like she was slowly being steamed to death, like a stalk of broccoli. She didn’t know how people could live here. The whole place was flat, hot, and miserable.
While she walked, she scrolled through her phone, a sharply-pointed green nail clicking as it tapped the screen. The girl’s name was Kellie and the two had been in regular communication up until yesterday. Kellie had accepted her invitation and was ready to come live with her. Tia had come all way from Arizona based on her word. They were supposed to meet last night but Kellie hadn’t shown. They’d been there for nearly twelve hours and Barger was getting nervous. He said he needed to get back home. Tia wanted to get back too, but she didn’t want to leave empty-handed.
Although she and Kellie usually communicated via Snapchat, they also used text messaging, Facebook, and Instagram. She leaned against the shady side of the RV and checked Snapchat again. Her message had still not been read. She went to send another and received a message that she’d been blocked.
What the hell?
She went to Instagram, both to check for any updates and to send a message through that app. The account she was looking for was gone. Tia went to Facebook and found the same thing. All of Kellie’s social media accounts had been deleted. This was not good.
Tia went to her messaging app and confirmed that none of the text messages she’d sent since arriving in town had been read. She had one thing left and it was something the two had never done. It was something she’d never done with any of the girls. She clicked on Kellie’s contact and chose to dial a voice call.
She raised the phone, her anticipation growing with each ring. It was not a person who answered. After several rings, an automated message informed Tia that the number she was attempting to contact was no longer in service. Either Kellie, or someone acting on her behalf, had made it impossible for them to contact each other.
Tossing the cigarette butt into the parking lot, she shoved the phone into her sweaty bra and clambered inside the RV.
Barger looked at her expectantly. “Anything?”
Tia waved him off. “We might as well get going.”
Slouched in the dinette booth with a bottle of water and a bag of chips, Barger looked at her with surprise. “What? We’re leaving without her? What about that stupid puppy you promised her? The damn thing pisses all over the place. I’ll never get the smell out.”
Tia shrugged. “She either cut ties with me for some reason or they were cut for her. We probably don’t need to be sitting around here any longer. If her parents caught her packing, they might go to the cops. Who knows what she told them?” She ignored his comments about the puppy. It was just a prop, insignificant in the bigger picture.
Barger cursed and ranted as he made his way to the driver’s seat. She let him blow off steam, then settled into the passenger seat when he finally shut up. He started the engine, put the large vehicle in gear, and pulled out.
“So, I guess we’re headed home?” His tone was clipped, his anger apparent.
“Guess so,” she said. “I have other prospects but none are anywhere near our route. None were so far along in the process as Kellie.”
Barger didn’t care about that part of it. Those were Tia’s problems as far as he was concerned. “I still get paid, right? I mean, I did my part. I did what I was supposed to do.”
She didn’t answer him. The asshole always had his hand out. He had no appreciation. No respect.
“I mean, you being successful was never a condition of me driving,” Barger continued. “I’ve got fuel expenses, plus lost time on the job. This cost me money.”
“It cost me money too,” Tia retorted. “You think I don’t got shit to do? You think I lay around all day eating Doritos and watching telenovelas?”
Barger was silent. That was exactly what he thought.
Tia could tell he wanted to say more but was biting his tongue. She was aware he saw her as a washed-up old lady. He forgot who she’d been. Sometimes she had to remind him but right now she was just sick of him. They’d spent too much time in tight quarters over the last couple of days.
“You could at least pay for a tank of gas,” Barger mumbled. “I’ve paid for everything.”
Tia waved him off. “You put it on your card.”
“I get a bill for that card!”
“I’m an old lady on a fixed income. I have to watch my expenses.”
Barger snorted. “Yeah right.”
“How about you just hush and let me keep working on this. I’ll see if I can move one of the other prospects along.”
“I’m not going out of my way unless it’s a sure thing. I’ve got shit to do at home. Jobs that pays the bills.”
“Grumble, grumble, grumble,” Tia mocked, tapping at the screen of her phone.
Barger shut up and stewed in silence. Tia sent a few messages and scrolled through updates. When they were rolling down Broad Street, she got up from her seat and went to the back of the RV. She shut herself into the tiny bathroom with a purse the size of a shopping bag. She lowered the lid of the petite plastic toilet and dropped heavily onto it. She lit another cigarette and fished an embroidered silk pouch from the depths of her bag.
From the pouch, she removed a statue around four inches tall and reverently stood it on the edge of the sink. It was a skeleton dressed in a robe like the grim reaper, complete with scythe. The skeleton held a globe in its outstretched, bony hand. Tia removed a bottle of perfume from her purse and sprayed some at the base of the statue as she prayed. The Bony Lady liked nice things.
Tia took out a tiny bottle of tequila from her purse. She splashed an offering at the base of the statue, then tipped the bottle up and finished it off. She had a better altar at home but sometimes she needed to speak to Holy Death when she was away. She carried the statue with her everywhere she went, along with some of the things Santa Muerte liked. She was fond of apples, but Tia was out. She would buy another the next time they stopped.
The RV swayed as Barger negotiated the onramp, pulling onto the interstate. Tia pinched the statue between long green nails, making sure it didn’t fall over. “You have always blessed me, Holy Death. You have protected me against all enemies. Have I earned your displeasure? Have I failed you somehow?”
Tia stared at the blank orbital sockets and the impassive expression on the little resin statue. It wasn’t that she expected a verbal response, though it would have been nice. It would make things so much easier. Tia began to pray in earnest, two splayed fingers locking the statue to the edge of the sink. She bowed her head in deference and spoke low, a whispered supplication. When the cigarette burned down to her fingers, she tossed it into the shower where it scorched the plastic base. Barger would be angry but he was a cabron, a bastard. To hell with him.
She resumed her prayer and it was an hour before the words stopped coming. When she was done, she was drained, lightheaded. She kissed the top of the statue and replaced it in the pouch. She tried to stand but found it difficult to gain the necessary momentum in the narrow space. She locked a hand over the lip of the sink and finally managed to heave herself upward.
She checked herself in the mirror but wished she hadn’t. It was an old habit and she was certain she was less to look at than she’d once been. She was fat and wrinkled. She wore too much makeup, but there was not enough in the world to hide what time was doing to her. She wore cheap stretchy clothes that were comfortable but not particularly flattering due to the egg-shaped body she’d developed in middle-age. It was the body of her mother and grandmother. There was no escaping it. On top of it all, she added lots of gold jewelry so people would know she was someone.
Santa Muerte had brought her so much but she knew that restoring her youth, her beauty, was even beyond what The Bony Lady could do.
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