The Suburban’s headlights slice through the inky air like white lasers, searching the blacktop gliding toward us. Pine and oak trees border both sides of the confined two-lane road, a thick black wall of forest. Above the treetops, a narrow strip of sky shimmers with stars.
I’m definitely getting nervous. The only thing keeping my heart rate below two-hundred per minute sits calmly beside me. Luis. Like Mr. T--the former TV star who claimed fame winning The World’s Greatest Bartender title--mi amigo Luis can handle anything.
The Suburban’s red-glow dash lights fire up the angled edges of Creeper’s profile. Almost inhuman, really. Cartoonish. Fiery colors. Trick imaging, yes, but I can’t shake the feeling he’s a monster driving me and Luis on some highway to hell.
Bluefish saying, “So, Max, tell the guys here about your first job. The one you had when you were thirteen.”
Bluefish thinks this is funny. He covers his mouth with his fingers. Call it a silly hunch, but I’m going out on a limb here. I predict this revelation about creepy Max’s teenage past is going to make me worry even more about Luis’s future.
“Max work with circus,” Creeper says. Talking about himself in the third person again, his voice is a crackling whisper. Broken glass thrown on sandpaper.
“No, tell them what you did for the circus,” Bluefish says.
“Max wrestle bears.”
Bluefish fakes a cough. “Notice he said ‘bears,’ guys. Not ‘bear.’”
The Suburban swings into a private driveway. Six-foot lengths of treated logs bridge the roadside ditch where water trickles through tall grass. A battered black-squirrel mailbox stands as wooden sentry. How cute, except the critter’s had his head shot off. The trees outside the SUV window are broken, gnarled, and twisted pine.
Seventy-five feet off the blacktop, the forest opens into a grassy clearing and a mulched playground for kids, with slides and jungle gym, and a parking lot big enough for a dozen cars. Three brick barbecues line one side of the parking area. Probably where Bluefish holds his company picnics. Buries his wives and girlfriends.
The Suburban rolls to a stop against the parking lot’s log boundary. Luis’s hand is locked onto the door handle, his gaze pinned on Creeper. Luis’s body language reminds me of a house cat. Watching Max like he’s a mouse.
Trouble is, I figure Creeper for more the Giant Rat of Sumatra.
Bluefish saying, “Do I even need to get out of the car, Max? I mean, how long could this take?”
I hear Max click a switch. All the Suburban’s doors pop free, and Luis is outside before I smell fresh air. Wow. I saw his hand move this quickly once, when some pachuko hoisted Luis by the collar and my favorite bartender went for his switchblade. But Luis’s whole body is a blur this time. Like that house cat, making his move.
Poking my head outside, I see over the SUV’s roof that Luis is loose and ready beside the Suburban’s flank while Max still squeezes from behind the wheel like some ugly brown gob of toothpaste.
When Luis kicks Max’s door, stomping on the hinged steel like he’s breaking down a locked vault, Luis times his explosion. He catches Max’s pumpkin-sized noggin just as Creeper’s face moves between the top of the Suburban’s door and the truck’s frame.
Ouch. The chunky sound of steel on Creeper’s thick head--like someone dropped a stick of butter--makes me wince.
Max staggers down to one knee, blood oozing from his temple. His body weaves, then tumbles face first onto the parking lot’s shredded bark. The earth shakes like somebody dropped a piano.
My heart’s drumming, hard rain on a cardboard roof. The two guys in suits scramble out of the Suburban’s rear seat, knocking me down, pushing past. They want Luis. One rushes around the grill, the other goes for the rear bumper. My lungs want more oxygen.
Luis stoops out of my view, then reappears like magic photography back inside the Suburban, scrambling into the driver’s seat. One hand extends a gun toward Bluefish’s head. Luis must have taken the weapon from Max. A tear of sweat rolls down my right flank.
I see Luis’s end game, at last, and jump back inside the Suburban. Same seat I had before, behind Bluefish. Damned if I don’t hear the hoot-hoot-hoot of a horned owl before I slam the door. Are the spirits with us?
Luis hits the override soon as my door shuts, locking the three of us inside. Luis grins as he hands me the gun. What an hombre. “Watch carefully Bluefish’s hands. If you lose sight of them, shoot.”
It would be my pleasure, I think. I’m no killer, but if Bluefish has another gun on him, and I don’t shoot when he goes for it, Luis and/or me could suffer serious and permanent injury.
No risk taker, however, Bluefish shows me the back of his hands, one poised by each ear. How sweet. He’s wearing his missing wife’s wedding band. Wonder if he’s still offering a reward.
I line up the muzzle with the back of Bluefish’s demented cerebellum.
The two guys in suits are hammering the windows and yanking on the doors. When that fails, they start shooting. Cracks appear on the window beside Luis’s head, but the bullets don’t penetrate. Wow. Bulletproof glass. I’m impressed with Bluefish’s defenses, and the fact Luis must have figured this out earlier. I remember him tapping the glass with his knuckles.
Luis throttles the Suburban into a bark-spewing K-turn.
Bluefish saying, “You humps are as good as dead.”