Dawn lit the land when Tom reached the turnoff of the long gravel road. He was almost within sight of the family homestead, yet he never felt so far away. Frost still clung to the tall yellow grass, and his ears and nose were red from the chill – Big Piney wasn't called "Ice Box of the Nation" on its town welcome sign for nothing – but he felt sweaty with nerves.

The trucker who picked him up from the highway in the middle of the night only took him as far as the junction with Highway 351. The kind, salty-haired man radioed ahead, however, and found another truck to give Tom a ride to the little town of 500 residents.

A 60-year-old husband and wife duo drove the second truck. They also had two yapping terriers that were sweet but annoying as hell. They bought Tom breakfast and shared a booth with him at a local grease spoon. They went on incessantly about how much they missed their own grown children. They asked about his life, but he couldn't bring himself to say much, except that he was going home to see his mom and he was worried about her.

He was still sure the worry was irrational. More than anything he was afraid of what he would find when he got home. If she hadn't been answering or returning his calls all this time, would she talk to him once he was there? He was pretty sure she was fine. He wasn't sure their relationship was fine. He knew it wasn't, actually.

The chitchat over breakfast weighed on him like the actual baggage he didn't have. All of that luggage had been left in that snake's car. His brow twitched as he recalled the man threatening him with the gun under the dome light of the station wagon.

It was not quite 7:30 a.m. but the journey was already much longer than he ever imagined when he left California. He was too tired to think much as his shoes crunched up the 2-mile road to see whatever waited for him at the house.

•••

Tony Lopez didn't worry too much about his prey catching up with him when he peeled back onto the road from the shoulder of the highway, escaping into the dark night. At the time, Tom was just another tourist – used and abused, amigo. Such is life, he often thought whenever he counted cash from someone's wallet. In this case, his payoff included some bags of quality outdoor gear like shell jackets and a bivy sack, and a pretty nice PC laptop. Not as good as cash, but much of it was worth something.

Lopez drove straight to the farmhouse at the end of the road. It didn't take long to find once he got to Big Piney at 11 p.m. If there's one charming thing about small towns, it's the reliability of everyone having their names and addresses in the phone book.

He creeped up the dirt road with the headlights off. His eyes were keen to any lights or movement around the house. It didn't look as if there was even a working vehicle on the premises. The lack of tracks in scattered snowdrifts betrayed the fact that there had been little, if any activity of late.

He left the engine idling in front of the house and approached the rest of the way on foot.  He walked cautiously, but also in a confident manner that suggested he wasn't trying to hide if anyone were to surprise him. If confronted, he would claim to be very lost and seeking direction to a different address he'd memorized from the phonebook. Nothing stirred.

Clip. Clop. ... Clip. The heels of boots pattered on wood planks leading to the front door. Nothing moved as he stood still another moment, listening, regulating his frosty breath. The sweat on the back of his T-shirt froze, and his arm hairs stood up with a shiver. Christ, it's cold for early October, he thought.

Clip. Clop. Now he stood at the door, and looked deeply through the glass window with the country-style curtains that were pulled to either side around a wooden sign that read, "Welcome."

Lopez tried the doorknob, which turned and opened. He held it, not surprised to find it unlocked, and closed it with a soft click. He strolled all the way around the building – still softly, avoiding patches of snow, but confident as ever – then got back in the idling station wagon. He eased down on the gas pedal, and rolled the car slowly around to the back of a barn, where he cut the ignition.

A streetlamp in the middle of the compound gathered insects in its cone of light. The faint, electric buzz sounded lonely in the solitude of the ranch. Tony's ears loved such silence. The lonely times were the best times. It relaxed him to feel far away from all people.

He stretched, walking through the light like a weary traveler who finally found his bed for the night. This time he walked to the back door – also unlocked – and went inside after pulling on a pair of thin gloves. He had almost all the time in the world.

He used a small flashlight from his keychain to sweep through the rooms. After checking the last bed, he flipped on a light and settled in with the rummaging. The next house was almost a mile away over a small hill. No one would see a light in the window, and if they did, no one was likely to care.

He started his work like a true professional – methodically. His hands worked mindlessly, in the rhythm of routine. His eyes worked the same, scanning piles of mail, photos that were both framed and those stashed in drawers – anything that might provide a crumb of advantage. He used every sense while keeping his mind blank and open for receiving any bit of insight he might stumble upon.

It didn't take long to find the gun case. There was an old .30-cal rifle that appeared to be a working keepsake from the Korean War, and a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol. There were a couple of .22 rifles in the case as well, but Lopez didn't see them beyond a second glance. His hands were already groping for any set of keys, which took but another 30 seconds.

Tony smiled to himself as he strapped the well-oiled Colt .45 around his chest with a shoulder holster he found. Coming here certainly proved worthwhile enough. He left the rifle sitting in the case for now. He would take it when the time came.

Then he saw some photos on the wall that wiped the smug grin from his mind.

It's that man-child puta madre I robbed on the highway, he thought. Motherfucker. Motherfucker lied to me about his mommy or auntie, or whatever. Lied to me when I asked him about the lotto winner – his fucking mama.

There was a bolt of panicked consideration. What do I do when that spoiled brat gets here?

Then the smugness returned. He was once again grateful and proud of his ability to adapt.

The messages on the answering machine confirmed his prediction about the boy. It was no surprise in the morning when he heard a knock and the front door open.

"Mom? Hello! ... You around? Hello?"

•••

Thomas stepped inside almost as cautiously as Tony Lopez had, unsure of what he might find. He, too, was relieved to find the place empty. Mom was out for something and would be home eventually. This gave him time to open the fridge and make himself comfortable at the table with a bowl of cereal.

He sat there, elbows on the red-checkered tablecloth. His lips smacked between several spoonfuls of Crispix before he noticed a feeling that something was off. The glass door on the gun safe was slightly open. Only slightly, but open. Mom never left it open.

He was still staring at it, dumbfounded, when he heard a footstep behind him and the metallic point of something between his shoulder blades. Tom didn't have to turn around to know who the voice was.

"If you had told me you were coming here, amigo, I would have taken you the whole way."

Posted
AuthorDerek Franz