Current Day, East of Mount Silver, Va.
“Well, well, look who’s finally awake!”
“Dammit, what was that for?” Cole asked loudly, covering his left ear with his hand. The pistol’s discharge still rang like a church bell through his skull. “You didn’t have to go and pull the trigger that close to my freakin’ head, Kevin!”
“You didn’t want to get up sleeping beauty, so I decided to give you a little kiss.”
Cole’s memory of the previous evening was nothing more than a blank slate. “How the hell did I get here, asshole?”
“Me and my friends brought you here,” the armed man said with a grin. “Ol’ Ben told me where to find you. You know, I didn’t believe it when he told me he saw you workin’ at the garage.”
“Says he knows you from prison,” Kevin replied. “says he owes you one...and that you were a real badass.”
“I know a bunch of guys from the joint,” Cole said. “And I damn well don’t recall anyone by that name, him owin’ me anything or not. Either way, you know I ain’t got no more dealings with you or anyone down at your bar!”
“Now, that’s where you are all kinds of wrong, Cole. Don’t you remember about four or so years ago, when you disappeared with all that money, my money? Well, I want my money back,” the man replied, his pistol pointed at one groggy Cole Hitchens sitting up against a hay bail on the dirty barn floor.
“You kill me and you ain’t getting nothin’, Kev.”
Kevin Munroe pulled the weapon away, pointing it into the air. He rested the metallic object against his face. “C’mon Cole, I don’t want to kill you. Yeah, I’m still sorta pissed and all, but I just need for you to pay me back my money.”
“I don’t have it and as far as that goes, half of that was mine and you know it!”
“Well there Cole, we can agree to disagree on that. How about this though, I have a proposition for you, something to consider,” the man said.
“Ain’t nothing to consider, Kevin. Whatever it is, I ain’t gettin’ involved.”
“Well someone’s got to pay me back all my losses. Hmmm, I know,” his eyes darted around the old barn as he tapped the barrel of his 9mm against his scruffy chin in contemplation. Kevin stood over Cole wearing his ever-present black biker jacket, two white stripes running the length of each sleeve. The leather made a stretching sound as he bent over and lowered his weapon, pressing it against the cheek of the kneeling man at his feet. “You know that pretty fanny...” the man stopped to laugh. “Heh, fanny...I made a funny, boys!” He stood, several dirty blonde strands of stringy hair falling onto his face. Kevin swiped them back in place with an open hand then glanced back at the two ridiculously large men flanking him on either side.
They joined him in laughter.
“I meant Frannie not fanny. Dude, I just don’t know how you ain’t still getting’ all up in that, bro! ‘cause she’s always had a nice one, too, you know? Maybe that’s what I was thinkin’ about. Hmmm, maybe she and that lovely daughter of yours, maybe we can get the payment from them? I got a real good idea how they can repay me and the boys here for your thievery.”
Cole glared at Kevin angrily. “You can do what you want to me, Kevin, but my family ain’t got nothing to do with all this. Don’t you touch them, or I swear I’ll...”
“Kill me? Damn son, you do got a set swingin’ under there don’t ya, especially since I’m the one sittin’ here with the gun in his hand.”
“You’re dead, you hear me?” Cole stated flatly, his voice cold. “Dead.”
A look of alarm settled over Kevin’s face. “Whoa! Hold up cowboy! You got to know I’m just messin’ with you about your family! I ain’t never been the type to play them kinda games, especially with you.”
“This is now far from a game, Kev!”
“Jesus, did the joint mess you up so bad that you became a killer?” the man asked, holstering his pistol to roughly snatch a dusty, overturned chair from the floor and set it upright. He spun it around and sat in it backwards, facing the angry Cole Hitchens seated on the floor in front of him in a dirty white t-shirt and jeans. “Nah, I don’t wanna believe that’s what you are now, Cole, but just in case, I’m keeping my pistol handy.”
“You do that, Kev.”
“Okay fine! I get that you’re good and pissed now. So, I’m going to quit joking around and...”
“Get to the damn point!?!!”
“Right. Gettin’ to the point! Well, seeing as how we used to be such good buddies and all, I’m giving you a chance to come back and work for me. You do a good job and we’ll see about writing off your debt .”
“I gave up all that when I got sent away,” Cole said. “I’m done.”
“I just knew you were gonna say that.”
“Listen Kevin, I’m clean now and I ain’t goin’ back! So, you can just kiss my ass!”
“I knew you were gonna say that, too. Look, I let your little act of thievery go out of respect for what you did it for and also because you and me had history, but recently something’s come up...”
“So what? I just said I don’t give a damn about all that stuff you do anymore, Kevin! Are you deaf?”
“C’mon now, Cole, you and me, we were like brothers! We go way back all the way to junior high. You can’t lie to me and tell me that the fire in you, the one that helped me kick nearly half the asses in this town has burned out and that thrill of skirtin’ the law don’t call you every now and then like it used to?”
“I get it, we had a past. That’s all it is now.”
“Alright, I know you like to scheme and make your little plans, in fact, I know I’m participatin’ in one now...” Cole paused and pursed his lips. “Can we just go on and get to where you’re going with all of this, Kev. I got to work tomorrow,” Cole said, rubbing his temples. He felt a headache setting in. “And that money I owe you is from years ago. So, go on and tell me the truth as to why you askin’ me about it now.”
“Well, apparently after you and me parted ways so terribly after that last job down in Caryvillle and a year or so before you ended up in the slammer, I heard from a little birdy you was doing some work running guns and other serious shit for Frannie’s old man to make ends meet. His crew of patriot psychos was the reason you did the time, right?”
“You and me? Well, we never got caught, did we? Even after Caryville. That should say somethin’,” Kevin said with a smirk. “And I’ll even say everything that went down there was my fault if it’ll make you feel better.”
“Alright, fine, I won’t then,” Kevin said, narrowing his eyes at his former partner. “Regardless, I heard through the grapevine you picked up some neato, groovy skills during all that time you was runnin’ around doing that stuff with those commando fellas. Specialties that it seems I am currently in need of.”
“Grapevines and birdies, huh? What is it you think you know about all my dealings?” Cole asked with a grimace. “Damn headache...”
“I know since you and Frannie’s preacher daddy were buddy, buddy with those Virginia Free Militia fellas up in the hills, you got a real good training from ‘em, right? At least that’s what Ben tells me. In fact, I imagine if me or my friends here were to turn our backs on you, we would probably be dead in an instant. Why do you think we spiked your drink with that date rape stuff at the pizza place?” Kevin paused and shook his head with a laugh, “Hell, ol’ Phil back there got excited and was thinking about gettin’ real friendly with your hiney, but I wouldn’t let him...sick bastard. Ain’t that right, Phil, you ol’ prison pervert?”
“Yeah, you right!” laughingly replied a very large man sporting a crew cut, a nasty grin, and one lengthy scar. It ran down his face from his left temple and across his very crooked nose.
“Anyways, I know you are just waiting for the chance to slit me and the boys’ throats, so let me cut to the damn chase before you try it and somebody needlessly gets gutted.”
“Finally,” Cole said as he slowly stood and brushed himself off. “Still, don’t turn your back on me...seriously, don’t,” he said glaring at the trio of hoodlums.
The men tightened their grips on their pistols.
Kevin smiled. “Well, just to make sure you don’t try to snuff me out right yet, I wanted to let you know I have some guys sitting down the road from your wife’s, ummm, ex-wife’s house.” The man’s grin faded. “They will help keep your family safe until such a time it’s practical to let ’em be.”
“Goddamn it, fine, I ain’t trying nothing, just tell me what you are after, Kevin! Quit beatin’ around the freaking bush!” Cole said angrily.
“Ever heard about that big ass hush-hush laboratory up in the hills above Thompsonville? The one that looks like a tiny army base?”
Cole sat up. “Nah uh.”
“Well, I got approached by this China man down at the Roadhouse a couple days ago looking for somebody around these parts that could, um, requisition him some stuff outta there.” Kevin reached down with his free hand and adjusted himself in his seat. “Yeah, that joker stood out like an Armani suit wearin’ Asian in a biker bar filled with white dudes.”
“Maybe ’cause he was, dumbass?”
“Keep running your mouth, boy.” Kevin brandished the pistol and lightly shook the weapon at Cole. “Well, anyways, this guy said he heard I was the man around here that got things done. I told him, yeah, whatcha want done?”
“Still don’t know what you want from me...”
“I’m getting to it! He says he wants some files they got up in that Radii lab place.”
“I don’t know, but he’s offerin’ me a shitload of money to pull it off.”
“Alright, I’ll bite, what’s in it for me ’cept you ain’t gonna kill my boy and my girls?”
“Damn, I ain’t wantin’ to go and kill anyone, Cole! I just need you to listen for a minute without doing it to me and the boys!”
Kevin pursed his lips and lowered his eyebrows, running his eyes over Cole’s face as if trying to read his mind. “Bro, what say you and me go and do this job together like old times, 60/40? Well, 60/30, I gotta pay these jokers that work for me something for all their hard work standing around and all.”
“30%? Of what?”
“You should sit down,” Kevin laughed and then paused for effect. He waved a hand in the air. “Screw it, I know you ain’t going to, so I’ll just tell you. Look Cole, he’s offering up one million dollars for the job.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. Come to think about it, it’ll be 25% after I take out what you stole from me down at the Roadhouse.”
Cole scratched his head, his mind racing. “I don’t know...”
“You could make sure them kids of yours get a real good education and get outta these hills, bro.”
“Fine! You ain’t gotta tell me anymore, I’ll do it, but I want the 30% and you forget the debt. Pay your men out of your own pocket.”
Kevin blinked. “What’d you say? I thought I just heard you agree to do it.”
“I said I’ll do it for $300,000, debt gone, and it’s a deal!”
“Well, I’ll be, I wasn’t expecting that. This was easier than I thought, alrightee boys, put ’em away, then,” Kevin said with a smile. “Me and Cole are friends again, look at that! Who says money can’t win friends and influence people?” He fished a flip phone out of his leather coat, opened up the device, and pressed send. Ring...ring...“Hey it’s Kevin, tell Billy to call it off. Huh? What you mean you can’t call it off? Where are you at? In the house? Why the hell are you idiots in the house?”
Cole’s forehead wrinkled and his fists clinched, “What the shit’s going on, Kevin?”
The leather jacket stretched as the man raised a finger indicating Cole should hold his thought. “Goddammit, I told you not...They were going to old man Dunham’s store to get dog food? When did they get a dog? Alright, dumbass we headed over there, keep ’em calm until then and for Christ’s sake don’t you scare them kids. Hey, this is important you dumbass, don’t you dare shoot none of ’em, you hear me!?!!”
The jaw muscles in Cole’s face tensed, his blue eyes filled with anger. “I will kill every single one of your men if one finger is laid on my kids or Frannie, got me, Kev?”
“Unbunch your panties, Cole, I got this. C’mon let’s go.”
“I’m trustin’ you Kev, but just know I owe you an ass kicking at some point in the future for all this.”
“One, talkin’ nasty shit about my daughter. Two, talking about my ex. Three, shooting that gun off near my head and four, nearly getting me butt-raped by King-Kong back there.”
The 1969 Camaro rumbled to life as if it were a dragon awakening from slumber. Cole plopped down onto the tattered leather seat, partially held together by duct tape and dirt. “You still driving this damn thing, huh?” he asked Kevin, who was busy lining his bottom lip with tobacco.
“Reliable transportation is hard to come by these days,” Kevin replied looking over his shoulder. He threw the vehicle into reverse, sending loose gravel flying as the tires dug for traction, then when the car was clear of any obstacles, slammed the gear into drive and headed toward the highway. As the tires squealed onto the blacktop, Kevin buried the gas pedal to the floorboard and the 350 V8 engine roared, propelling the antique car forward, fishtailing down the pavement, producing the smell of burning rubber and smoke. With a firm grip on the steering wheel, the driver tamed the wild beast attempting to escape his control and the muscle car quickly snapped to attention, screaming forward like a rocket. “This is why I keep her around. Try to get one of those pansy-ass Prius’ to do this shit!” he said with a grin.
Cole shook his head and hung his elbow out of the open passenger window as if it were old times. He stared out across the fields of tobacco streaking by.
“After all this time, why are you jumping on this train, Cole?”
“The money, that’s the big thing. That and I realized there was truth in some of what you were sayin’ in the barn.”
“Like what? I don’t get told too often that what I’m babbling about makes any kind of sense.”
“My kids, they deserve better, you’re right. They’ll never get out of here if I don’t do this. This might be their only shot.”
“That all? That’s the takeaway?”
“No, smartass, look, you know that energized feeling you get when you are doing wrong but getting away with it...that feeling? After being in, um...being in prison for a little while you start realizing how messed up that line of thinkin’ is and this leads you to understand you are the reason for it all the bad shit that keeps swirling around you. It’s a tornado that catches everyone around you up in it, too if’n you ain’t careful.” Cole paused to examine some rocky white cliffs rising skyward in the distance. “I always thought I was doin’ the bad things I did for good reasons and that made it all okay, but something happened in there, in that prison that made me realize someone has to pay the price for every bad thing you do and you don’t get to always pick who that’s gonna be. I know my life might end up short because of how I’ve been livin’, so I might as well do what I can, while I can, to fix every bad thing I’ve done.”
“Some of that why you been avoidin’ your family?”
“I suppose you could say that,” Cole replied, looking over at Kevin intently.
“Ah, makes sense. Guess I’m lucky then, I ain’t got any kinda family...well, ’cept you at one time. So, I guess I don’t have to worry about it, then,” he said flatly.
Cole looked down at the old Camaro’s floorboard for a moment and thought about what Kevin said. He sighed and decided to change the subject, “What kind of information is this Chinese fella lookin’ to get?”
“Not really too sure, he was talking way above my paygrade. All I took away from it was something called a gizmo or some such shit.”
“Gizmo? Like in the gremlin movie?” Cole asked, angling his head to look at the Camaro’s driver.
“Yeah, I think that’s what he said. ”
Cole nodded. “Thought I heard you, right. So, he wants us to steal some kinda gizmo thing?”
“Yeah, who cares what it’s called? Shit, for a million dollars I’d kidnap the president. I might would even eat all of that whack shit on that fantastic race show includin’ them donkey nuts. Hell, money’s money round here, you know that. Ain’t you tired of workin’ your ass off for nothing?” Kevin lifted an old soda bottle to his mouth, spit some tobacco into it, then shoved it back into the space between the seat and the center console. “Still can’t believe you’re hidin’ out pretendin’ to be some mechanic when we both know you are capable of so much more.”
Kevin smiled. “You know, Cole, you and me, we could get lots of nice round Mexican booty and plenty of cerveza down south of the border with that much money.”
“Still, that’s a lot of cash just for some information. I would bet whatever it is, that shit’s worth a lot more than a million bucks. This fella’ is probably thinking we ain’t too smart and just looking at the dollar signs.”
“Uh oh, is that the old Cole I hear sneakin’ out?” Kevin laughed and slapped the steering wheel. “Whoooweee! It is. Where’s that mind of yours goin’?”
“Someplace it shouldn’t, but I think you and me, after we get Frannie and the kids calmed down and away from your thugs, we need to sit down and have a little chat with your Asian friend. Just to see exactly what we are dealin’ with.”
“You thinking we might be able to, ummm, double-dip?”
Cole scratched his head. “Sumthin’ like that, maybe. I mean we are already gonna be inside that place, hopefully there’s more of what where going in there for and we can, you know, offload it to someone else.”
“Hot damn! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Kevin shouted as the Camaro kicked up a cloud of dust and slid off the paved rural highway. “Hang on!” The machine veered onto the dirt path and made a bee line straight to Frannie’s house perched on the top of Devil’s hill.
Cole looked away and let the smile slide from his face.
The car careened wildly up the curvy, dusty road until it reached a break in the trees bordering each side of the trail.
Cole spotted the top of a very familiar rusting tin roof and old brick chimney rising in the distance. As the vehicle traveled ever closer down the dirt road toward their destination, the aging home’s slightly sagging front porch under which he had spent many hours sitting with his children and Frannie appeared before him.
The Camaro’s rear bumper narrowly missed a weathered mailbox haphazardly leaning forward into the rutted road as Kevin yanked the steering wheel to the left. The action forced the car to slide in line with the home’s dirt driveway running in a 90° angle from the main drive.
Cole sighed noting the kids’ tire swing lying uselessly on the ground beneath the old oak tree in front of the home. Its yellow rope lying over the top of the black rubber surface. There was a sadness to the scene, almost allegorical. He thought of those times, those magical moments, almost dreamlike to him now, of pushing Kaitlyn back and forth on the thing, her large smile competing with the sunlight flickering through the leaves. The sweet sound of her laughter carried on the light summer breeze now fading away in his memory like the tire lying useless in the dirt. Just another sad reminder of something wonderful never to return again.
As the rumbling Camaro skidded to a dusty stop in front of the house, Cole realized he was trembling, not from the thought of Kevin’s hired thugs or what had happened up until now. Those were only things in his periphery. He was frightened, instead, of the children inside expecting to meet a man he no longer was and could probably never be again.
“Let’s go clean up this mess I made,” Kevin said shutting off the roaring engine. He jumped from the car, raced onto the porch, and skidded to a stop with his hand on the screen door’s handle. “After you...hey, where are...?” he turned to see Cole still seated in the car. “Well, what the hell are you waiting on, bro? We’re here!”