Refuge

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CHAPTER 19 – Car-Jacked

NORTH OF MUIR BEACH

FRIDAY

Half a mile up the road, Nate guided the car onto a dirt pullout next to a sparse cluster of pines and overlooking the ocean far below. On the right side the land dropped away to a wooded canyon. That same ubiquitous chaparral covering the slopes of the coastal hills that Jason and Emmie had grown so accustomed to on their morning hike grew in a dense mass of tangled scrub and low trees covering the slopes on both sides of the road.

With a clear view of a quarter mile of road behind them, Erin and Emmie stood on the pavement and watched for Vince. Nate dug out the bumper jack and raised the car while Jason tackled the lug nuts. Jason swore softly with each lug nut squealing its protest. It was just a matter of minutes, then, to swap the damaged wheel with the spare.

“Okay,” Jason called. “Everyone back into the car.”

It hadn’t occurred to Jason to check the area for danger. They were far from any town, and the ranches in the area were spread pretty thin. But as he stood beside the open passenger door, waiting for Emmie and Erin to get in, he was looking straight at the bushes beneath the nearby trees when a man stood up and stepped out of them. The rifle in the man’s hands shook, but not much.

“Nate,” he called softly.

The man motioned for Erin and Emmie to get out of the car with his left hand, then quickly repositioning it on the rifle’s hand guard, he silently motioned for Nate to come around the car to join the others. Then, using the rifle barrel as a pointer, for them all to move behind the car. Slowly, then, he stepped sideways to a point just ahead of the rear of the car. Again, with the rifle barrel, he motioned for everyone to move away from the road and toward the trees and bushes.

“What do you want?” Jason asked. “We really don’t have anything.”

“Just the car,” the man answered with a nervous quiver in his voice.

“Hey, look, we need the car pretty badly,” Jason responded.

“We need the car to go for help,” Erin said. “Some men have a girl back there, and—”

“Shut up! ...Look, I’m sorry about your problem. But I’ve got a problem, too, and I need a car.”

“Why don’t you come with us into town?” Jason suggested. “It’s not far. Then you can take the car wherever you want. I’ll even fill up the gas for you.”

“No. I’ve got to go the other way. I’ve got to get to...it don’t matter. I’m taking the car.”

Jason tried again. “Look, I know for a fact there is nothing that way. I’ve been there. Everything south of here is destroyed—dead. There’s—”

“Shut up!” the man screamed. Then softer, “Just...shut up. I’ve got to… My family’s in San Francisco. I’ve got to get to them.”

Jason tried to think of a way of describing what San Francisco had looked like the day before yesterday without causing the man such utter despair that he would kill them all in his grief and rage. “Listen, mister,” he began. “Maybe you aren’t aware of...”

“Stop! Don’t say anymore! I know you’re going to tell me the city is nothing but ashes, and that it’s useless to try to go...to try to find... I’ve already been told, so don’t bother. And it don’t matter. I’m still going. I’m sorry.”

“Can we get our things out before you take it?” Erin asked.

The man thought for a moment. “Yeah, go ahead. ...No! Wait! You—the girl—you get it.”

Before Emmie could open the door, the man said, “Wait! Let me look first.”

She backed away again.

He peered inside briefly, then reached through the open back window and withdrew the 30-30. He glanced over at Jason and Nate with a look of hurt on his face, as though they had lied to him, betrayed him. He held the rifle in his left hand while keeping his own pointed at Jason with his right.

“It’s empty,” Jason said. “And we don’t have any ammunition for it.”

After another moment’s consideration, the man heaved the weapon into the brush on the slope beyond the trees. “Okay.” He motioned Emmie back to the car. “Get what you need.”

With their meager pile of belongings on the ground and Emmie back with Erin, the man said, “I’m really sorry.” He looked into Jason’s face, and his voice quivered when he said, “You’ve got a nice family here, mister. Take care of ’em. Don’t leave ‘em. Not for nothin’!”

With that, he got into the car through the passenger side and slid across the seat. He kept his rifle pointed at them until he turned around and drove away back the way they had come.

“Good luck,” Jason muttered.


MUIR BEACH

“What do you mean, they got away!” Vince thundered. He stomped about the yard, ranting and cursing, with little regard to his throbbing knee. “You actually had her in your sights, and she still got away? What’d she do, spit at you?”

“No, Vince. I was just saying we were approaching the car when the guy with the rifle got the drop on us. He just came out of nowhere, like he was waitin’ for us.”

“Oh, you stupid shit! Why would he wait to ambush you then let you go? What about you two?” Vince’s wrath suddenly fell on Cappy and Logan. “Didn’t either one of you idiots see him? You—” he pointed at Cappy. “You had a gun. Why didn’t you cover Carl while he caught that bitch? Why the hell do you think I let you two hang around? The whole bunch of you is less than useless.”

Vince limped back over to a vinyl-covered recliner he had held back from Vic’s funeral pyre. As he eased himself down, he said, “Get the Bronco loaded up. We can still catch ’em. You’re sure they went north on the highway?”

Relieved to address something that didn’t reflect on his poor judgment or reasoning, Carl said, “Yeah, I could hear the engine racing for quite a while. They had to be half a mile away by the time I couldn’t hear ’em anymore, and still going strong.” Not really—it was probably more like a short city block when he heard the RPMs back off, but he didn’t need to mention that to Vince.

Minutes later, they were in the big Ford with Carl driving. Vince was riding front passenger, massaging his knee and scowling. Mandy sat between them. Cappy and Logan had the back seat, and Rachel cowered in the space behind them.

Gravel and sand flew when Carl jammed on the brake as they approached the last curve before the bridge and spotted the tree across the ground. “What the—?”

“Damn!” Vince spat. “I thought I heard a tree fall. And you can bet your ass it was no accident. Go see if there’s any way over the bridge.”

Carl came back a minute later with the bad news; it was completely blocked. Vince turned around and glared at White and Logan. “How can we get to the highway? Is there another way out—up over the top?”

White looked at his buddy and shrugged his shoulders. Logan stammered, “We, uh, I don’t really know...uh, the roads up there are...uh...our houses were over there along those bushes. We didn’t do a lot of visiting anyone higher up, but I don’t think this bottom road connects with the ones up there. You’d have to go out to the highway and—oh…”

“Useless piece of—” Vince growled. “Okay—is there another way to get across the creek, and if we do, can we get out to the highway?”

“The beach!” White blurted out. “Go down onto the beach, then across the creek where it goes across the sand and there’s no steep bank and go back around through the field on the other side. Simple.”

“Simple, huh?” With a flick of his thumb, Vince motioned for Carl to turn the Bronco around. “We’ll see.”


SHORELINE HIGHWAY

Jason tried to sound encouraged even if he didn’t feel it. “Come on, everyone, snap out of it. We’re not finished, yet.”

“But, Dad, we’re miles from anywhere. What if Vince comes now?”

“Nate, how far is it to the next town?” Jason asked.

“From here, Stinson Beach is probably four or five miles.”

“Okay. Four or five miles—we’ll be there well before noon. And, if Vince comes, with all these curves and hills, we’ll hear him before he sees us. We’ll just get out of sight until he’s gone by.”

They each carried something, blankets, small bags of canned food and sandwiches. They still wore their jackets against the chilly sea air. After a quick glance at the brush-choked hillside that had swallowed the empty 30-30, Jason decided it wasn’t worth the time to search for it.


MUIR BEACH

“You stupid, worthless idiots!” Vince screamed. “Get out there and push! Carl, if you need something for traction under the tires, use them! At least their hides may be good for something.”

Carl , White, and Logan pushed from behind while Vince drove, and they soon had the rugged Bronco up and over the far side of the hole whose size became evident only after the front wheels fell through the masking growth. The reeds and marsh grass grew in a deceptively even blanket; effectively concealing mud bogs and washes formed by the mini-delta.

They started to get back in when Vince stopped them. “No. You two walk ahead. Carl, sit up on the roof. I can’t see a goddamned thing from here.”

The two locals waded and scouted ahead, testing the ground, often at Carl’s instruction to try this way or that, and Vince kept the Bronco inching forward. Once, he had to sit idle for forty minutes while they found a way around a particularly bad area. The sun’s slow climb while beating on him through the windshield was a constant reminder of their snail’s pace.

In his mind, Vince pictured Vic’s killers speeding up the highway, probably singing, while they put more and more distance between them. How many crossroads had they already passed? How many alternative paths would he have to choose from when he could finally get moving again? But it wouldn’t matter, not if there were ten or ten thousand. He would never rest until he had tracked them down. His resolve was more solid than the bedrock beneath this morass of swampland that, for the moment, hindered him.


COASTAL HIGHWAY NORTH OF MUIR BEACH

Nate led the group by forty feet or so. Next came Jason, eyeing the hillsides above them and the road behind. Erin and Emmie walked together twenty feet behind Jason. Only occasionally could they look back on their weaving course over the coastal hills and the road that climbed, twisted and dipped ahead of them and behind. Twice, they forced their tired bodies to rush through low areas or tight turns where their view behind was limited to a hundred yards or so. If Vince came along with them in such a place, they would have little chance of eluding him.

On their left, the ocean lay as a great expanse of rippled blue-green stretching to the western horizon where a line of haze blurred the line between water and sky. The ground dropped away in places as a steepening slope for several hundred yards that might end at a small beach. In others, sheer drops of two and three hundred feet to where the surf foamed in and about the rocks began just beyond the road’s shoulder. On their right vertical walls of rock where the roadway cut into the hillside often blocked the looming coastal hills from view. Between cuts, low scrub grew thick to the edge of the road and forbade shortcuts, even if the terrain was level enough to make the attempt worthwhile.

They passed three cars crashed in the panic driven exodus of two days past and abandoned by whoever survived. They saw no signs of the survivors or anyplace they might have gone other than the open road. Jason supposed some may have been picked up by other cars, and he wondered how many would have stopped. They had not seen one moving car since striking the highway north of Muir Beach.

Jason called out, “Hey, Nate! How much farther?”

Without breaking stride, Nate half-turned his head and said, “Just around a couple more curves, couple more hills.”

Jason stopped and waited for Emmie and Erin to catch up to him then fell in beside his daughter. After a couple of steps, he hooked his arm around Emmie’s back and under her arm. Without lifting her completely, he was able to take enough of her weight so that she could continue walking.

After Emmie was able to catch her breath enough to talk, she looked over at Erin and asked, “Was John your boyfriend?”

“Emmie!” Jason scolded. “Now is not a good time to be asking such—”

“No, wait, it’s all right.” Erin looked at them both. “Now probably is a good time to talk about…good things. Good people shouldn’t be forgotten.” She paused her words for several paces and went on. “No, John wasn’t my boyfriend. But he was a very dear friend, and I would have been his girlfriend or wife in a heartbeat, but he was not available to me.”

“You mean he was married?” Emmie asked.

“No, he wasn’t married; he was gay.”

“Oh! Sorry…I mean….”

“No, don’t be sorry. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be ashamed, or confused, or anything, except maybe angry—no, outraged, that such a man was murdered. He was kind and gentle, always ready to help, and he was a genius with a camera.”

“I have a camera.” Emmie smiled up at Erin, but only for a moment. “Only it’s at home. I was going to bring it today, but I forgot. Anyway, my pictures always came out funny. Sometimes I don’t get people’s heads, or the sun shines wrong, or the thing I try to get a picture of is so small I can’t even see it.”

“It can be tricky, all right. I’ve worked at it for years, and still get funny looking pictures, sometimes. But I don’t think John ever took a funny looking picture unless he wanted to. I met him years ago, back when I was a young model still impressed with myself. John put me in my place—but in a nice way. He got me to understand how things were the way they were for me mostly through good fortune. For my looks I had to thank my parents and their parents, and some really good make-up artists. I got presented in the best light, thanks to the talented photographer that compiled my portfolio, or, like John, that used me in their shoots. I was made known to just the right people in a really cutthroat profession by a hardworking agent. Oh, I put in my share of sweat equity to keep my body in the shape everyone thought it should be. God, I must have spent ten times as much time in the gym as I did in front of a camera. Back then I was at least fifteen pounds lighter, slim, beautiful—and always hungry.”

“You’re still beautiful.”

“And I still love hearing that. Thank you. Anyway, I was ready to believe I was just what the world was waiting for. I had men fawning at my feet, eager to be my footstool. Just a dumb, young kid, I rushed into a couple of marriages, first to the month’s latest rage in Hollywood and then to a Super Bowl MVP. The first one lasted almost until the Hollywood-bowl-size wedding cake got stale. The second one lasted longer, but not by much. It sure seemed longer, though. Dear old Rod, the Super Bowl darling, was a real animal. He liked to hurt people, and even more so after a few too many drinks, which he insisted he could hold. He gave me this,” she said as she touched her scarred cheek. “Remember?”

“But John was in a whole other category. Our friendship grew, blossomed, matured. Oh, how I wished I had met him first. I would’ve married him in a minute, even after I learned he was not that way inclined. It was John that convinced me that I didn’t have to stay with Rod for more beatings, and he put me in touch with a good lawyer. Then, when I turned my interest in photography to a career on the other side of the lens, he was there to help. He even helped my little sister to break into modeling, a really murderous career field, and he’s been there for us both when we needed him.”

Emmie spun her head to gaze into Erin’s face, smiled and said, “You’re Shannon Doyle’s sister! I thought you looked familiar.”

Erin returned the smile. “That’s right. I had to work like hell to sculpt my body the way everyone insisted. Shannon was lucky enough to have that look naturally, but even she had to have a dollop of luck. But, I was determined to have enough strength that I’d never again have to submit to a bully. Don’t tolerate bullies, Emmie, not even for a minute.” Erin smiled across the top of Emmie’s head at Jason and said, “Seems to me, though, that the gym was never this tiring. Or, maybe it was, but I could always grab a water and take five. Any idea how much farther?”

“Well, he did say it was only just ahead. I’ve never...hey! What’s that?”

They had just topped another rise, and the road ahead was a long, straight downward slope to a sharp curve. At the end of a line of twisting skid marks that were every bit of three hundred feet long, a car sat at the edge of the road.

Nate was already jogging ahead. He called back, “Come on, you bunch, there’s a car down there, and it ain’t wrecked!”

Several crows and gulls took flight from behind the car at Nate’s approach.

When Jason got closer, he could see the precarious position of the car, a Mercury Montego from the mid-eighties. It wasn’t as old as Nate’s, and it was almost as big so it probably had a decent size engine. It had skidded and bounced partially over the low berm at the west side of the road. There it balanced with its frame below the front seat resting on the ridge of dirt and asphalt and the front wheels suspended four feet above the sloping ground on the other side. Beyond the berm, the ground fell away in a low scrub covered wasteland for perhaps a hundred yards, and then it disappeared at the edge of a sheer drop two hundred feet above the water.

Jason looked inside at the driver’s door standing open and found it empty. Nate rose back up into view from squatting on the other side of the car and walked around to join him.

“Driver’s over there.”

Jason looked at Nate’s strained face.

Nate nodded towards the other side of the car. “I guess she was the driver. No one else around, anyway. She’s dead, and the birds have been at her—not pretty to look at. From her clothes, I put her as elderly. And the way she’s still clasping her dress front over her chest, I’d guess she had a heart attack after coming so close to going over the edge.”

Jason nodded. “Okay, the key’s still in the ignition. Let’s see if we can get it back on the road?”

With Nate and Erin sitting on the rear bumper to prevent the car from tipping forward, Jason eased into the driver’s seat. Almost afraid to breathe, he waited to see if the rocking he caused would die down or increase as he gazed through the windshield at the bobbing watery horizon and the steep and gravely slope between him and the edge of the world.

The turning of the cold engine caused the finely balanced car to rock even more, but Jason was already holding his breath, so he just kept cranking. Emmie joined Nate and Erin sitting on the trunk lid, and her added weight settled the teetering car with its rear wheels on the ground.

With a cough, the engine caught and fired with a loud roar and a swirling cloud of smoke from the exhaust. Without waiting for it to warm up, or even stabilize, he threw it into reverse.

The rear wheels ground and chewed at the loose surface but couldn’t get sufficient purchase to haul the weight of the car off the dirt bank.

Nate turned around to face towards the front of the car and set his feet on the bumper. Gripping the lip of the trunk lid with just his fingertips, he shifted his weight out away from the car. Erin realized what he was doing, and she followed suit—then Emmie. The maneuver moved the center of gravity rearward enough for the tires to grip, and the big car rolled backwards with a loud rasp as the frame scraped across the top of the dirt.

“Jump!” Nate called out. “To the side!”

Emmie leaped to the right out of the car’s path with Erin right behind her, and then Nate flew off to the left.

By the time the front wheels reached the bank, the rear wheels were digging into the gravely pavement. The front end bounced over it and onto the road. Jason let it roll across the road then swung it around to face back to the north.

Nate slid into the right front seat, and Emmie was about to squeeze past Erin who was holding the left rear door open, when she noticed Erin’s face blanch and her eyes go wide in terror. She turned to look back where Erin was looking.

A big black and white vehicle was just dropping below the crest of the last rise back.

“It’s them!” Emmie screamed. “They’re coming!”

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