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CHAPTER 23 – Skilled Tracker



Thirst and weariness plagued the group, making each plodding step seem like a great accomplishment, even overshadowing a gnawing hunger that began to make demands, and still Vince drove them on. Overhead, the summer sun beat down, pressing down on them like a heavy blanket.

At their sluggish pace, they followed the course of the car over a curving, rising grade and down the other side, through the narrow canyon, and finally into town. Even with the use of his cane, it was slow-going and painful for Vince. It was only about a mile from where they had left the Bronco, but the others had no incentive to push themselves like the obsession that drove Vince. He was also keenly aware that the only incentive that kept the others going was the certainty that Vince would leave their bodies rotting in the sun if they lagged. Another certainty that he couldn’t allow himself to forget was that none of the others would stay with him if given the opportunity to leave, something he would never again permit. Also, aware that he could not stop them if they were ever out of his view or the reach of his bullets, he kept the Python loaded and at hand stuck into his waistband. He secured the one person he considered most valuable, the one whose escape he would least tolerate, with the chain Vic had used on Erin’s collar attached to the one still about Rachel’s neck. The touch of the leather loop about his own wrist instead of Vic’s was a constant reminder of his loss, and a constant fanning of the flame raging in his gut.

They came in on the long, straight street that stretched ahead until swallowed in the distance by smoky haze. Vince sent Carl and Logan into the first unburned house they came to where they found water and no shortage of food. But almost everything they found would have required some kind of cooking or preparation, or even further searching for a can opener, and Vince would not delay. They did, however, come up with a few pieces of fresh fruit, a package of cupcakes and half a loaf of bread beginning to go stale. They ate as they walked. Vince let Logan roam ahead, looking into holes and behind things. Occasionally he came up with something he considered interesting, even if no one else did. Vince tolerated it like a man will permit his sufficiently trained—or cowed—dog to roam free as long as it remained within voice command.

“Mister Morgan!” Logan called out. “Mister Morgan, you want to take a look at this?”

Vince had just taken the shortest passage around the back end of a car sitting cross-wise in the first intersection. Carl and Mandy stayed with him, and Rachel trailed behind. Vince glanced at Logan who was squatting at the other end of the car beside the twisted wreckage of what might have been a red and white tricycle at one time.

“You sure it’s worth the pain and effort for me to drag myself over there, Logan? It’d better not be something like another piece of someone. I think we’re going to be seeing plenty of that.”

Logan paused for just a moment, evaluating the chances of his find being important and good for a pat on the back verses a big nothing and a swift kick in the ass—or worse. He glanced back down at his find, then back at Vince. He said, “Yes, Mister Morgan. I think you’ll like this.”

Vince made a slow pivot around his cane and hobbled across the street.

“You see those skid marks back there?” Logan asked then went on when Vince glanced back up the street at the four, long, black streaks that ended just a few car lengths away. “A car going real fast made those tryin’ to stop or avoid something. But I don’t think it was this car that done it. It’s in the wrong position, and facin’ wrong, and, well, it just don’t fit those skid marks. I think he was trying to miss this car. But there ain’t no other car here—no wreck—so, he musta missed what he was tryin’ to. But he didn’t miss this.” He nudged the tricycle with the toe of his shoe.

He took a few steps away from the tricycle and knelt. He swept his fingertips on one hand through some drops of liquid onto the pavement, rubbed his fingers together, sniffed them briefly, and said, “Brake fluid. Fresh, too. Probably not more’n an hour old.”

He pointed off down the street into town. The trail of brake fluid could have been missed with the small amount of fluid involved, and there were stretches where there was nothing. But, knowing what to look for, Vince could just make it out.

“Think it was them, eh?”

“No other cars passed us.” Logan’s voice was shaky. He felt pretty sure of what he had found, but if he was wrong.... “There’s a real good chance it was them.”

Vince peered down the street as far as he could discern the faint trail of drops and sprays, and beyond. The grin that spread across his face and burned in his eyes had about as much cheer as a coffin. “I think you’re right, Mister Logan. There’s a real good chance.”

With Logan tracking the faint trail like a hound with his nose to the ground, the tattered group continued down the street. Lining both sides were once fine, eighty and hundred-year-old homes and shaded by an endless variety of trees. The houses and trees now varied in their level of destruction from ash-laden plots to blackened, smoking hulks to a few that were hardly scorched.

When the trail of sprayed and dripped brake fluid came to an end after a couple of blocks, Logan felt panic grip the stringy muscles along the back of his neck, grip them and squeeze as surely as Vince would when he realized the quarry had escaped again. Since he was already leading the others by a hundred feet or so, Logan was well beyond the trail’s end before Vince began to peer about, no doubt trying to locate where the trail of stains resumed.

Logan began searching desperately for some sign of the car’s passage. Anything would do, a stray piece of broken grill plastic un-crunched by subsequent cars rolling over it or a scratched and dented hubcap or wheel cover leaning against the curb where it had come to rest after popping off one of the fleeing car’s spinning wheels. He needed a sign that he had not made a fatal mistake.

Just as Vince called his name, Logan saw them up ahead, two faint parallel black marks, five inches wide and five feet apart, stretching off down the street.

“Logan, I can’t see the trail anymore. I hope you haven’t been feeding me a bunch of crap, getting my hopes up for nothing.”

“No, Mister Morgan. They just ran out of brake fluid, that’s all. They kept going this way. See? From down here you can see their skid marks.”

“More skid marks? How did they leave more skid-marks if they were out of brake fluid? What’d they do, punch the gas to lay down a patch of rubber for us to find?”

Logan’s mind raced for a logical reason he could give to Vince. From looking at the clearly defined edges of the skid-marks, he was sure they had been made by braking. Maybe it was another car, even days earlier, that had left these marks.

I’m dead, he thought. He’ll choke the life outa me just like Cappy. And for the same, plain reason that I’ll be handy. He could still feel Cappy’s struggles against his back. His friend had fought with surprising strength for just one more breath, and he never took it.

Logan had been a fair mechanic once he learned his way around under a hood in Uncle Sam’s Army motor pool. And one reason was because he was always able to figure out what mechanical action, whether designed or a result of a malfunction, would result in the observed behavior. It took a little while, sometimes, maybe hours or even days if he was able to put off starting any repairs until he was able to determine what needed repairing. But he didn’t have hours or days now. Probably not even minutes. When Vince asked a question, he liked to be answered right away. And God help you if your answer wasn’t pleasing to the emergent tyrant.

“No, Mister Morgan, these are skid marks from braking. You can tell by the way the rubber is laid down. It—” Suddenly, inspiration struck like a blinding light. “They were probably using the emergency brake to try to stop. That’s why there’s only two marks. Only the back wheels were skidding. They shouldn’t be much farther, now.”

Working himself into more and more of a hole if it turned out he had been mistaken about the first signs of skid marks and brake fluid he found, Logan extended his lead on the others, praying that he would find the wrecked or abandoned car soon.

The marks began to drift off to the right. Then, inexplicably, they turned hard to the left and were joined by two others, a sign that the car had gone into a broadside skid. His eyes followed the confusing jumble of black marks over to where the car apparently struck the curb, spun around, and—

There is it! I found it! I was right!

Logan caught himself in his unthinking rush towards the car they had chased all the way from the coast, now apparently abandoned in the middle of a huge front yard beneath a tree. But what if it wasn’t abandoned? What if they were waiting for him to come close enough?

Still at the edge of the street, he crouched forward and down behind a big oleander and peered intently at the windows of the car still well over a hundred feet away. He scanned the leafy, hidden reaches of the tree spreading above the car. He peered into the shadows behind several bushes across the front of the house and at the curtained windows above them. He scrutinized well-established hedges and bushes in neighboring yards that could have concealed a full platoon, but he saw no signs of an ambush.

A high, thick hedge ran along the edge of the yard with the oleander capping the end at the sidewalk, and other bushes ran across the front of the yard he had just passed. In the planter strip between sidewalk and curb a couple of mature trees whose half-dead, ivy-covered branches were threaded up through the power lines anchored to a pole between them and overhung the sidewalk. The sidewalk from the west passed through this tunnel of greenery, and it was into this shadowy recess that Logan inched back into.

He glanced over his shoulder at Vince and the others trailing a couple of hundred feet back. He was eager to flaunt his find, his discovery, his prize. He knew the others doubted him at least as much as Vince, they just dared not voice any doubt. Nobody wants to rain on the king’s parade—not when the king is his own executioner.

But now they’ll see I know what I’m talking about. They’ll listen to me next time I say something. Maybe they’ll even start coming to me with their questions, now. I can give them advice as good as anyone else. Probably better. Shit, yeah! When Vince starts to ask Carl which way they should go, he’ll think about how right I was and he’ll tell Carl to never mind, then he’ll ask me, instead. Mandy, too. Women are always needin’ a man to tell ’em how to take care of one problem or another. I’ll advise her, too. On all sorts of things. Private things. Things she wouldn’t even think of asking Carl or Vince about. She’ll come to me ‘cause she’ll know I know more’n both o’ them put together. ’Course, I’ll have to have payment. Nothing extravagant. I won’t be expensive. Especially for Mandy. And Rachel. Oh, man, what a body. I wonder if he knows...well, shit yeah, he knows how me and Carl and just about any other guy would dearly love to bang her. I wonder what the hell the story is with those two. I’ll bet she knows how to thank a man, though, if he was to be nice to her. I’ll bet she could be real grateful. Yeah, I’ll bet she—

All thoughts of erotic payments of gratitude suddenly vanished. His mind froze. His body turned numb while his stomach burned, soured and turned upside down, and he shivered with icy chills all at the same time.

Into the brown tinted sunlight, there emerged from the house a trio of figures that were so strange Logan had to blink several times and shake his head to convince himself he was actually seeing them. He eased backwards and sideways into deeper shadows of the thick foliage.

The trio had paused to mill about in the yard and appeared to be having a discussion. When he was sure he could move farther backwards without attracting the attention of the creatures, he crept back to the second tree. He waved his arms with as much animation as he dared until Vince noticed him, and he continued to motion desperately for silence. Then, still silent, Logan waved them over to the cover at the sidewalk, at the same time signaling with his finger to his lips for them to keep silent, relying on his body language along with the terror clearly expressed on his face to relay the urgency of the situation. When Vince was close enough to be able to hear a raspy, hurried whisper, Logan described what lay just beyond the cover of foliage, no longer concerned with how to score the most points for being right all along about the car.

At Logan’s urging, Vince had Mandy take Rachel into the yard next door where they would be better concealed behind the hedge. Then, with Carl close behind, Vince crept up to the place from where Logan had spied the invaders. They were too far away to make out the details of the facial features. But even at that distance and with their views partially blocked by thick shrubbery, the strangeness of the figures left no doubt that they were not human.

When the aliens split up after a few seconds and two started out toward the street, Vince motioned for everyone to get behind the hedge. The two creatures went across to the other two houses at the intersection that hadn’t burned down. The third moved over and stood beside a body on the ground, twisted and humped into a lifeless lump. Logan had seen it lying there and assumed it was one of those they pursued. A couple of minutes later, a man burst out of the house across the street where one of the aliens had gone in. The alien emerged right after him and fired its weapon at the fleeing man, striking him squarely in the back with a beam of violet light. With a single scream, he flopped to the ground and lay still. The alien killer returned to the one near the car.

A couple of minutes later, the third alien came back out of the house across the street on the far side and walked over to join the others. When they bent down and lifted the body from the grass, Logan realized it, too, was not human. The aliens walked off down the street to the next corner, turned left and were gone.

When Carl agreed with Logan that the man the alien had shot was not one of those that had killed Vic and tried to free Rachel, Vince stood slowly and with obvious pain. “Okay, so the bitch and her friends aren’t here. Not now, anyway—not alive. But they were here. Look around.”

After confirming no bodies were in the car, Vince sat in the shade against the tree trunk with Rachel slumped nearby. Carl and Mandy walked about the yard, looking for footprints in the grass, but Logan confined his efforts to the car. After a few minutes, certain this latest find would be more points in his favor, he approached Vince. “One of ’em got cut, it looks like. There’s a bloody hand print on the dash just below that hole in the windshield.”

“That’s nice, and I hope it gives them extreme pain, but that doesn’t help find them now, does it?”

“No, sir. I’ll keep looking.” Hell, there’s just no pleasing him.

As Logan wandered off towards the front door of the house, Vince let his mind turn back to before he and Vic had driven out of Petaluma. He thought of the scene at the cemetery, of how he had again backed down from a confrontation with his father. He also recalled how Ellie had cried, begging her husband to be compassionate with his remaining sons. He thought how he would like to see them both again, but for very different reasons. The Morgan home was just a few blocks away. He could walk that far. They might both be dead…but they might not be.

Logan approached and said, “It looks like they went into the house, Mister Morgan. There’s a bloody handprint on the knob. On the inside, too.”

Vince looked up at the little man and waited. When it was clear that nothing more was forthcoming, he said, “Okay. Did you find a body that had bled to death? Is the search over?”

“, sir.”

“Well, then why don’t you go inside and maybe you can find other smears of blood. Maybe you can find a footprint. Maybe you can find a note they left for us telling us where they went.”

Logan cringed at the syrup-sweet sarcasm with which Vince coated each softly spoken word.

“Yes, sir.”

After Logan went in, Carl suggested they all go inside in case the aliens came back. Vince nodded his assent and climbed to his feet while Carl went after Mandy and Rachel.

After Carl and Logan were able to assure Vince that Erin and her accomplices were not in the house, Vince allowed them all to kick back for a few minutes and just relax.

“You know, Vince,” Carl said after they had been there for ten minutes or so, “I could get used to living in a place like this. Why not settle in here? Make this our base?”

“It’s got possibilities.” Vince had even been thinking the same thing, but he wasn’t ready, yet, to settle down to one base. He still had a quest that had priority over all else. “Maybe after we catch ’em. After I’m satisfied I can’t squeeze any more blood from them, when I think I can rest, knowing that Vic is also resting in peace at last, maybe then we can come back here. But first, since we really don’t know which way they went from here, I’ve been thinking about going to see if Ellie is okay. And, maybe, while I’m there I might give a few belated whacks to the old son-of-a-bitch with her.”

Logan, who had been up and prowling about after only a five-minute rest, came back into the living room and said with a grin spanning his entire face, “I found where they left, mister Morgan. They went out the back door, and they left another bloody hand print to show us the way.”

Vince looked up at the little man who often got on his nerves, but he smiled. “Did you, now, Mister Logan? Did you really? Well, now, that may not be as clear and precise as a spelled-out letter, but it may be just as good.” He motioned for Carl to help him to his feet then hobbled over to where Logan stood. All thoughts of checking on Ellie vanished from his mind. “Let’s take a look out back. Maybe they were careless enough to leave other signs.”

In the back yard, in a bed of loose dirt near a small opening in a large, otherwise impenetrable hedge, Logan found prints made by at least two different sets of shoes, faint but fresh.

Again, taking the lead like a hound on a scent trail, Logan led the way northwest.

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