R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author Urban Fantasy
A n   autistic   man   living   in   a   group   home,   a   slacker,   and   two hunk-brothers   with   an   ocean   under   the   bridge   between   them are    an    unexpected    foursome    to    recover    bail    jumpers    and fugitives.   More   unexpected,   their   success.   And   luck   staying alive.   It   helps   that   one   of   them   has   a   little   unnatural   help.   And can hack any computer network.
Chapter 1 ~ T he   stabbing   pins   of   the   shiver   crawled   over   Jon’s   shoulders   as   he   pulled   into   the driveway,    like    every    other    visit    the    past    several    weeks.    The    sensation    was    getting stronger   every   visit.   Often   felt   as   though   it   seeped   into   his   bones.   Its   occurrence   seemed important but the why  eluded him. The shiver always made him have to pee, too. As   soon   as   he   opened   the   front   door   of   the   Palm   Street   home,   the   whiff   of   urine   and antiseptic   struck   him.   Nine   years,   Jon   had   been   volunteering   his   time   with   those   with special   needs,   since   his   senior   project.   Still,   the   smell   of   the   home   was   something   he couldn’t get used to. A   hellish   scream   jerked   through   the   air.   Terry   was   unhappy   about   something.   The man’s    wheelchair    careened    around    the    corner    from    the    kitchen,    his    helmeted    head wobbling   as   though   it   might   fall   off   without   much   coercion.   A   sneeze   could   do   it.   Terry screamed   again.   His   chair   plunged   into   the   ragged   back   of   a   couch.   It   had   obviously absorbed hundreds of strikes from more than one wheelchair. “Get back here, Terry,” billowed from the kitchen. The   home’s   daytime   caregiver   peeked   around   the   doorway   with   a   quirky   grin   on   his face.   “I’m   gonna   get   you,”   he   called.   From   his   expression   he   could   have   been   shouting “redrum” and just hacked through a bathroom door with an axe. I watch too many old movies at night. Terry   screeched   again   as   he   struggled   to   withdraw   the   chair’s   footrest,   embedded   in the back of the couch. “Hey,   Jon.”   Louis   greeted   him   with   hardly   a   glance.   The   man’s   focus   remained   glued on    his    wheelchair-bound    charge.    “I’m    commmmingggg,    Terry,”    he    called,    before lowering his voice again. “Augie’s in the backyard.” Louis   dashed   forward   and   grabbed   the   top   of   Terry’s   helmet,   reached   around   to   wipe the   jelly-smeared   face.   Terry   screamed   a,   “No!”   that   sounded   as   though   it   originated from a harpy trying to escape hell. “Are   you   sure   this   is   a   good   idea?”   Jon   asked   Louis   when   the   man   finished   wiping Terry’s face, the challenged man’s complaints done, the assault already forgotten. Louis   turned   his   attention   back   to   Jon.   “He   deals   well   with   surprise.   Don’t   worry about it. He loves every second you spend with him.” Not   all   of   the   men   Jon   worked   with   in   the   past   took   the   unexpected   well.   He’d   been shocked   when   the   caregiver   suggested   making   the   outing   a   surprise   when   Jon   called   the day   before.   Jon   grimaced.   Louis’   smile   broadened.   He   turned   toward   the   kitchen   and waved Jon to follow. The   worn   linoleum   crackled   under   Jon’s   steps.   The   antiseptic   smell   wore   stronger   in the   kitchen.   Two   men   Jon   knew   well   sat   at   the   long   dining   table.   Jon   paused   and watched    them    play    high    card    as    though    it    was    a    riveting    high-stakes    poker    game. Neither of the residents ever looked up from their cards. “Stop your lolly-lagging. Augie’ll be fine.” Jon   tried   a   casual   smile,   but   by   Louis’   wink,   he   knew   he   didn’t   succeed.   He   walked toward   the   back   door,   nape   tingling   more   with   each   step.   Through   the   screen,   he   saw Augie   turn   his   head   to   face   the   house.   He   closed   his   three-inch-thick   book,   rose   out   of the   chair   swing   methodically,   and   plodded   across   the   tall   grass,   lifting   his   feet   high   as though walking in snow. Augie   is   twenty-four,   looks   forty-four.   A   hint   of   a   paunch   pressed   the   waist   of   his jeans,   but   he’s   deep-chested,   muscled   like   a   body   builder,   though   Jon   doubted   he   had ever   seen   the   inside   of   a   weight-room.   He   rarely   got   his   nose   out   of   one   of   the   hefty books he always carried. Like   every   Thursday,   he   wore   his   favorite   shirt,   a   gift   from   Jon,   a   purplish   Floridian- print   of   palm   trees.   It   had   faded.   Jon   needed   to   take   him   shopping   again.   Something special to do for their next Thursday outing. Augie   didn’t   smile   as   he   approached   the   back   steps.   His   eyes   never   connected   with anyone’s.   They   always   moved   back   and   forth   scanning   ten   feet   in   front   of   him,   like   a Battlestar     Cylon’s.    Though    his    expression    never    changed,    Augie’s    body    language effectively communicated his emotions. It made up for his indifference to speech. Or   at   least,   Jon   always   knew   what   the   young   man   felt,   somehow.   It   was   a   little   weird, as   though   tuned   into   Augie’s   private   radio   signal.   The   connection   had   been   growing stronger   for   months.   The   reason   Jon   never   missed   his   weekly   get   together   was   the intensity of appreciation that psychically emitted from Augie. Not   that   Jon   believed   in   such   things,   but   it   best   described   what   the   two   men   shared. Whatever   it   was,   guilt,   self-conscious   compulsion,   Jon   could   never   withhold   that   kind   of joy from anyone. “Thirty-seven,”   Augie   said   softly,   as   he   lifted   a   muscled   leg   to   climb   the   back   stairs. “Four hours, thirteen-minutes.” Jon   thought   quickly   to   figure   out   the   riddle.   The   first   was   easy.   The   number   of   weeks they   had   “been   together.”   Jon   looked   at   his   watch.   He   normally   picked   Augie   up   after work. Jon was four hours earlier than usual. The day was special. “Hi, Augie. How ya doing today?” Augie   didn’t   answer,   of   course,   but   Jon   felt   the   man’s   excitement,   even   if   none crossed his face. “Before the park today, if it’s okay with you, I have—” “We are going to your office,” Augie said, passing him. Jon looked over at Louis. The   caregiver   took   Augie’s   book   from   him.   “I’ll   put   that   in   your   room   for   you.”   Louis turned back to Jon. “I didn’t tell him. Really. I didn’t.” Augie    had    already    disappeared    around    the    corner.    From    the    other    room,    Terry grunted, unhappy about anyone passing too near. Jon   waved   a   goodbye   to   Louis,   hurrying   to   catch   up   with   his   friend.   “I’ll   have   ’im back after dinner.” Augie   stood   rocking   next   to   the   old   Mustang.   Jon   groaned.   He   hoped   the   change   in schedule   might   prompt   him   to   overlook   the   ragtop   wasn’t   down.   But   oh   no.   Despite   the mid-day   sun,   Augie   wasn’t   going   to   get   in   until   the   top   was   down.   He   liked   the   openness of the convertible. “The air conditioner will feel awfully nice,” Jon tried. Augie looked down at the pavers of the driveway, continuing to rock. “We’ll stop in just a few minutes or so anyway.” He rocked. “Okay, okay.” Augie   opened   the   door   and   folded   into   the   passenger   seat,   after,   the   ragtop   was lowered. “My boss invited—” Augie   knew.   Jon   shuddered.   There   was   no   explaining   how   he   knew   that   Augie   knew. The man just did. And Jon picked it up somehow. Had to be body language. Jon backed down the drive onto Palm. “Who told you I was taking you to my office?” Augie   tilted   his   head   back   and   closed   his   eyes,   enjoying   the   sun   on   his   face,   the   wind billowing    his    long,    dirty-mustard-hued    locks.    Beads    of    sweat    glimmered    on    his forehead,   but   he   was   happy.   He   liked   driving   in   the   naked   car—his   expression   for   the top down. Jon reminded himself he needed to get sunscreen on his friend’s freckles. “At    my    office,    you’ll    need    to    keep    your    hands    to    yourself.    You    may    see    lots    of interesting things on the desks, but it’s important you leave them alone.” How insulting. “Just so we understand. Otherwise we won’t be welcomed back.” No one likes me around anyway. Jon’s   nape   tingled   something   awful.   It   was   nuts   to   transfer   his   own   thoughts   as   an answer   from   his   friend,   but   he   couldn’t   stop   himself.   Each   time   he   visited   Augie,   the compulsion grew stronger. They   were   quiet   the   last   two   blocks   to   his   parking   lot   and   the   walk   to   the   municipal building   where   Jon   clerked.   His   gut   tightened   as   they   passed   through   the   glass   doors into    the    lobby.    Would    something    unusual    cause    an    outburst?    They    were    rare    from Augie. He’s a high-functioning autistic. Jon   signed   Augie   in   and   affixed   the   sticky   visitor   badge   to   Augie’s   shirt.   As   they strode   across   the   lobby,   Jon   considered   taking   the   stairs.   He   had   mentored   others   who couldn’t   take   the   claustrophobia   or   the   movement   of   a   lift.   Augie   strode   past   the   stairs and to the elevators though, pressing the call button. “Are you sure you’re okay with the elevator?” Augie   answered   by   looking   up   and   watching   the   location   of   the   pair   of   lifts   on   the upper panels, his eyes performing their Cylon programming. “Okay.” The   door   opened.   Augie   stepped   in   quickly   and   pressed   the   button   for   the   fourth floor.   Jon   couldn’t   remember   ever   telling   him   where   he   worked,   much   less   what   floor. The   shiver   worked   at   his   neck   again.   Augie’s   hand,   pressed   against   the   leg   of   his   shorts, fluttered   to   the   tempo   of   the   elevator’s   vibrations.   The   door   clacked   open.   This   time Augie   waited   for   Jon   to   exit   first.   He   rocked   just   a   little   at   the   shoulders,   his   sign   of   mild anxiety. Could it be my concern he picks up? Jon   led   him   down   the   hall   to   the   employee   entrance.   There   was   a   short   line   at   the service   window   twenty   feet   away.   Augie   paused   before   following   him   in.   He   faced   the people   waiting   to   be   helped.   He   didn’t   rock.   He   leaned   forward,   head   tilted   down   more than usual. His hands moved at his sides. The muscles in his forearms flexed. He   would   be   a   natural   weight   lifter.   Gotta   take   him   to   the   Y   and   see   if   he’d   like working out. Bet he could bench press a bunch. “This way,” he finally encouraged Augie. His   friend   nodded   and   rocked   a   moment   before   turning   to   follow   Jon   through   the entrance. “This is where I—” Augie took a left. “This way, Augie.” But   he   continued   down   the   long   aisle   lined   with   file   cabinets,   took   a   right   between desks   of   co-workers   oblivious   to   them,   and   headed   straight   for   the   window   office   in front of him. “Augie,” Jon hissed for the fifth time. “Let’s go this way.” But   his   friend   was   focused.   Jon   stopped   and   grimaced,   watched   Augie   stride   into   his boss’s office. Jon   heard,   “Gotta   go.   Got   a   visitor,”   and   the   clack   of   a   phone   shoved   in   its   cradle. “You must be Augie. We were expecting you.” Jon rushed into the office. “Hey, boss. Sorry for the interruption.” Erik Turney stood and extended his hand. Augie took it. Took it! There   was   no   anxious   rocking.   He   didn’t   like   to   be   touched.   At   all.   He   stood   facing Erik,   though   his   eyes   peered   at   the   man’s   chest.   Jon   felt   his   mouth   hung   open,   and   shut it quickly. “You’re   welcome   to   visit   any   time   you   want,   Augie,”   Erik   said.   “Be   sure   to   have   Jon take   you   up   to   the   mayor’s   office   to   look   at   the   view   over   the   bay.   It’s   pretty   from   up there.” Erik   turned   to   Jon.   “Speaking   of   the   mayor,   she’s   looking   for   a   report.   You   see   Silas on your way up here?” Augie spun and rushed past Jon. “Augie. Augie. Where ya going?” “Whoa,” Erik said. “Something caught his fancy.” Jon   nodded   a   thanks   to   Erik   and   followed   Augie   through   the   outer   office,   out   into the   hall,   down   to   the   end   of   the   corridor   where   he   pushed   open   the   door   to   the   stairs.   He turned back, his nose scrunched up like he’d just smelled a week-old carcass. “What’s up, Augie?” Without   stepping   through   the   doorway,   Jon   knew    he’d   find   the   missing   Silas.   Jon leaned   into   the   stairwell   and   met   the   man’s   guilty   expression.   A   swirl   of   smoke   escaped from behind him where he hid his cigarette. “Erik is looking for you. You owe him something for the mayor?” “Ah,   crap.”   Silas   crushed   his   cigarette   into   the   top   of   a   soda   can   before   dropping   the butt   in   it.   He   set   the   can   in   the   corner.   “What’s   it   take   to   get   a   smoke   break   around here?” Jon   grinned.   “That’s   a   two   hundred   dollar   fine,   smoking   in   here,   you   know?   I   might turn you in for the reward.” “Yeah, sure. I know where you work, remember.” Silas   brushed   past   and   hurried   back   to   the   office.   Augie   followed   him   without   a   word until   he   reached   the   glass   bulletin   case   Jon   was   responsible   for   keeping   up-to-date. Augie   stood   and   began   his   thoughtful,   not   his   anxious   rocking,   his   hips   driving   the motion,   not   his   shoulders.   He   lifted   his   fist   up,   thumb   extended   a   little   like   a   fat   pointer, dragging slowly over the pictures of the mug shots of the local miscreants. “See anyone you know?” Augie   rocked   harder   for   a   second,   before   turning   and   striding   purposefully   down   the hall. He passed the door to Jon’s office without a flinch. “Guess we’re done in the office, huh?” Augie   of   course   didn’t   answer,   not   until   he   reached   the   elevators.   “Pretty   view,”   he said, punching the up, call button. “Didn’t forget, eh? Okay. But you have to be quiet up there. Promise?” Of course. Jon’s   nape   burned   for   the   six   seconds   they   waited   for   the   lift   door   to   open   and   they stepped   inside.   Jon   selected   the   top   floor   on   the   panel.   Augie   studied   the   floor   tiles, stood motionless, except for his thumb which caressed the top of his forefinger. The   man’s   hands   weren’t   delicate   as   Jon   would   expect   for   someone   who’d   never done   any   kind   of   labor   before.   They   weren’t   callused   or   rough,   but   they   were   a   man’s hand,   even   though   the   nails   remained   meticulously   groomed,   as   though   he   visited   one of   those   women’s   places   to   have   them   done.   But   Augie   managed   them   himself.   He wasn’t obsessive about his grooming that Jon had ever noticed. Just considerate. When   the   elevator   door   opened,   two   police   officers   stationed   behind   a   panel   of   thick glass   turned   to   study   them.   Jon   reached   in   his   breast   pocket,   withdrew   his   city   ID   and clipped it onto the collar of his polo. “Your business?” one of the officers asked. “I’m—   I’m   escorting   a   visitor,”   Jon   said.   “May   I   just   take   him   to   the   waiting   room   to look at the view?” The   officer   moved   around   the   glass   and   nudged   a   sign-in   book,   which   lay   on   a   small table, forward an inch. Jon’s   cheeks   prickled.   He   had   signed   Augie   in   downstairs,   but   this   log   required everyone’s   signature.   Did   Augie   even   know   how   to   write?   Jon   wasn’t   sure.   Sure   he   could read, or pretend well enough, but write wasn’t a given. Jon   leaned   over   the   table.   Augie   faced   the   officer,   doing   his   calm   rock.   He   murmured something.   Numbers.   When   Jon   finished,   Augie   took   the   pen   from   him.   Jon   watched   in surprise   as   he   wrote   in   beautiful   script,   Augustus   T.   Nellis.   Under   purpose   of   visit,   he wrote, pretty view. The   officer   turned   the   book   around   and   read   what   they   had   written,   compared   Jon’s name to his badge. He finally looked up. “Just to the waiting room and back.” “Yes, sir.” “One   eight   zero   zero   eight   seven   three—”   Augie   mumbled   as   he   strode   through   the lobby. Augie   took   a   brief,   disinterested   look   out   the   floor-to-ceiling   windows   overlooking Hillsborough   Bay   and   the   islands,   and   turned   to   go.   Jon   followed,   a   little   disappointed in    Augie’s    reaction.    It    wasn’t    that    his    friend    didn’t    appreciate    the    view.    There    was something else on his mind. That itch nicked Jon’s nape. ~ J on   pulled   into   the   Riverfront   Park   lot.   He   hadn’t   expected   to   spend   any   time   outside that   day.   Figured   he   and   Augie   could   blow   several   hours   downtown,   inside,   with   air conditioning.   It   was   just   too   dang   hot   and   muggy   for   an   April   afternoon.   But   Augie   had no   interest   in   doing   anymore   exploring   at   the   City   Center   or   downtown,   and   it   was   too early to go to Rick’s for Augie’s fish sandwich. Augie climbed out of the car and studied the asphalt until Jon joined him. “Warm day, huh?” Jon held out the tube of lotion. “Hold out your hand.” Augie   grunted.   He   didn’t   like   putting   on   sunscreen,   but   would   cause   a   scene   if   Jon tried to apply it. If only he would wear a hat. Those freckles turned red, fast. “No sun screen, no park.” “Ahhhhhh.” Augie rocked, his irritated sway. “None of that. Hand. Or no river. No feeding the ducks.” Augie   proffered   his   palm   and   Jon   squeezed   a   smidgen   of   lotion   onto   the   tips   of   his fingers.   Augie   dutifully   applied   it   across   his   nose,   forehead   and   cheeks,   turning   away from the parking lot before he was finished. “Where ya going?” Augie   didn’t   head   for   the   edge   of   the   park,   the   roundabout   way   they   always   took   to the   river.   He   walked   toward   the   basketball   courts.   Jon   retrieved   their   bag   of   week-old bread and followed. There   was   a   lackluster   game   of   three-on-three   going   on.   The   young   men   were   mostly trash   talking   and   taking   turns   hurling   long,   arching   three-point   shots.   There   wasn’t much   defense   going   on.   Jon   didn’t   like   their   looks.   They   appeared   more   interested   in just having a presence in the park than playing hoops. Jon’s neck twitched. He   caught   up   with   Augie.   He   had   stopped   at   the   sidewalk   facing   the   occupied   court, mumbling   again,   rocking   slowly   at   the   hips.   A   bizarre   sense   of   danger   enveloped   Jon. He   reached   out   to   pull   Augie   away,   and   decided   a   shriek   of   insult   for   being   touched wouldn’t be the best way to get away unnoticed. “One eight zero zero—” “Augie, let’s go. Come on.” “One eight zero zero eight—” “Augie, please, let’s go.” Augie pulled Jon’s cell phone off his belt. “One eight zero zero—” A phone number. “You want me to dial some—” Augie   ratcheted   up   his   agitation,   rocking   harder,   shaking   his   fist.   “One   eight   zero zero.” Jon   took   back   the   phone   and   dialed   the   number   as   Augie   repeated   it.   After   two   rings, “Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay. How may I help you?” Ah jeez. Tyrone. Jackson . The name popped in his head. “You have a tip on the location of Tyrone Jackson?” the woman asked. I said the name out loud? “I’m at Riverside Park. He’s here playing basketball, right now.” Why am I saying this? “Would you please hold a minute?” Without    answering,    music    replaced    the    woman’s    voice.    Why    ask?    The    warm afternoon suddenly felt much hotter. Sweat trickled down Jon’s face. Oh, what am I doing? A   second   song   started.   It   wound   down   as   a   police   car   eased   into   the   parking   lot.   Jon couldn’t   see   through   the   dark   windshield   against   the   glare   of   the   sun.   Another   song started. A second car pulled up, the same model without any of the police markings. Oh, God. They’re gonna be pissed when I can’t identify this Tyrone Jackson. The woman came back on the line. “Do you have a pen handy, sir?” “Uhh,   yeah,   just   a   sec.”   Jon   pulled   a   pen   and   a   gas   receipt   out   of   his   cargo   shorts   and cradled his phone in the nook of his shoulder. “Go ahead.” He   wrote   down   the   number   she   recited   but   only   half   listened   as   she   read   off   a   long spiel   about   how   important   it   was   not   to   lose   the   number.   His   interest   was   instead captured   by   two   black   SUVs   that   entered   the   parking   lot.   Other   cars   pulled   up   along North Boulevard thirty yards away. “Have a good day, sir.” Her voice faded with a cliché, thank you for calling. Jon    disconnected    and    groaned.    Cops    carrying    shotguns,    wearing    black    vests emblazoned with Police, rushed the courts from three directions. “Oh, what have I gotten you into, Augie? What have you gotten me into?” But   Augie   held   his   eyes   wide   open   showing   unusual   excitement,   for   him.   Motion behind   Jon   caught   his   attention   and   he   turned   toward   the   courts.   Four   of   the   men   who had   been   playing   on   the   green   asphalt   scattered,   like   rats   under   the   bird   feeder   at   night when the porch light is turned on. Augie pointed at one of them and shouted. “Tyrone. Tyrone. Tyrone.” “Down! Down! Down!” A dozen voices shouted throughout the park. Before tackling Augie, Jon felt Tyrone Jackson’s eyes burn into his forehead. “Nooooooooo!”   Augie   screamed.   He   plunged   an   elbow   into   Jon’s   stomach   that   sent him   rolling   over   the   concrete   walk   like   a   discarded   hamburger   wrapper.   Jon   sucked   in for air, gagging as his stomach threatened to empty. The man did not  like to be touched. Being tackled fit in the touch category. Chapter 2 ~ J on   threw   the   munchkin   chicken   bone   into   the   little   green,   plastic-webbed   bowl   and slurped   the   hot   wing   sauce   off   his   fingers.   The   heat   drove   him   to   gulp   the   last   of   his beer.   The   waitress   looked   his   way   as   though   he   had   psychically   tapped   her   shoulder,   and Jon   held   a   thumb   in   the   air.   She   gave   him   a   wink.   Nothing   better   than   a   sexy   female’s wink. Jon sighed. “How’s your sandwich, Augie?” His     friend     didn’t     physically     acknowledge     him,     but     Jon     could     sense     his contentedness, somehow. It was there, deep down. “Eager    to    watch    the    news    tonight.    Think    they’ll    have    a    report    on    your    buddy Tyrone?” Augie   sliced   into   his   sandwich   with   the   tiny   plastic   knife   like   a   surgeon   making   an opening   incision.   He   set   down   his   precision   instrument   with   care,   picked   up   the   bite with   the   little   plastic   fork,   and   transplanted   it   into   his   mouth.   He   looked   back   up   to study   the   river   as   a   pelican   careened   into   the   surface   of   the   water.   Augie’s   eyes   opened wider,   the   bite   forgotten.   His   face   returned   to   its   normally   placid   veneer   a   moment   later and he continued chewing. That    process    continued    for    thirty    minutes,    until    he    transferred    his    attention    to knocking   off   his   French   fries,   which   would   take   another   thirty   minutes.   The   drudgery   of watching    Augie    eat    might    have    been    irritating    in    another    environment,    but    Jon appreciated his friend’s quiet company. His   budget   only   allowed   Jon   to   eat   out   once   a   week,   their   Thursday   routine,   and   the only   time   he   ever   treated   himself   to   beer,   was   there   at   Rick’s   on   the   River.   So   Jon   made the   most   of   the   experience.   Besides,   the   waitresses   at   Rick’s   were   nice   to   look   at.   They had   a   slutty-sister   appeal.   Sexy,   but   not   too,   with   their   deep   vees   showing   just   enough cleavage, and every lower back below the midriff sported a tat. Their   waitress   set   down   his   plastic   cup   of   Bud,   leaning   over   just   enough   to   show   a little   more   cleavage.   Jon   sighed   as   she   walked   away.   He   studied   the   representation   of eagle wings that spread out over the top of her shorts. “Wish   I   had   the   nads   to   ask   something   like   that   out.”   He   shook   his   head   sadly.   “But unless I get a gig paying a lot more—” Augie   was   just   arching   his   third   French   fry   for   his   mouth.   Jon   took   a   sip   from   the newly-delivered,   eight-ounce   cup,   his   fourth,   one   more   than   usual.   He   got   an   early   start that   evening.   They   had   to   wait   for   their    table   to   free   up.   Augie   refused   to   sit   at   any   other table.   So   Jon   had   an   opportunity   to   finish   a   couple   cups   while   they   waited,   standing   at the   bar,   with   Augie   glaring   the   whole   time   at   the   two   biker-dudes   that   were   so   rude   to   sit where they weren’t welcome. Thankfully they never picked up on Augie’s hostility. ~ A ugie   reverently   finished   his   last   fry,   thoroughly   cleaned   his   hands   with   the   tiny   wipe, and stood up to complete their ritual. Jon   had   paid   their   tab   twenty   minutes   earlier.   He   followed   Augie   outside   and   down to    the    dock.    Only    the    crescent,    top-edge    of    the    sun    showed    above    the    roof    of    the restaurant,   and   the   tint   shining   off   the   trees   on   the   opposite   side   of   the   river,   especially the palms, looked copper-filtered through a photographer’s lens. Ducks   converged   on   them   instantly.   Jon   handed   Augie   slice   by   slice,   the   last   of   the day-old   bread.   Augie   took   his   time,   patiently   ensuring   every   duck   in   turn   got   a   morsel, ignoring   the   annoying   gulls   that   flew   past   them,   noisily   demanding   their   share.   Jon’s chest almost hurt from the emotion he felt emanating from his friend. I don’t want to go back to the home. “I had a lot of fun today,” Jon told Augie. It smells. “Do you think you’d like to go to the Y with me some time?” They treat me like I’m stupid. “I think I could get you in for free. I’ll talk to the manager tomorrow.” I can’t talk to any of them, like I can with you. Jon   turned   and   faced   Augie.   Could   they   really   be   Augie’s   thoughts,   not   my   own? “Are you talking in my head?” Really stupid question, Jon. Don’t make me go back. “It’s your home, Augie.” I could stay with you. “I live in a studio apartment. I  barely fit in it.” Please get out of my head. The man’s anxiety tempted Jon to wrap his arm around his friend’s shoulder. Don’t touch me. Augie   rocked   from   the   shoulders.   Loud   laughter   erupted   from   the   cabana   behind them   making   Augie   jerk.   The   mosquitoes   were   picking   up.   It   would   be   full   dark   in   a   few minutes. “I need to take you home.” I hate you. Jon’s   breath   caught   in   his   throat.   He   closed   his   eyes   and   tried   to   breathe   in   slowly. When   he   opened   his   eyes,   Augie   was   walking   away   from   the   dock.   Jon   hurried   to   follow him across the parking lot. ~ A ugie   walked   to   the   front   door   like   he   walked   to   his   own   circumcision.   That   thought didn’t help Jon feel any less guilty. I   don’t   like   to   be   broke,   and   rely   on   my   mother   to   pay   my   insurance   premium   half the   time.   But   that’s   life.   Augie   lives   in   a   home   because   he   can’t   deal   with   reality—not everyone else’s sense of reality. Jon   struggled   to   get   the   Mustang   in   reverse,   had   to   force   it   in   third   and   roll   forward a   nudge   before   it   would   slide   into   reverse.   He   backed   out   of   the   drive   wondering   why Augie   lived   in   a   home.   He   functioned   well   enough.   No   danger   to   himself.   There   seemed no reason for it. He   had   heard   Louis   mention   a   few   times   that   he   had   to   get   permission   from   Augie’s parents   for   this   outing   or   another,   so   he   wasn’t   a   ward   of   the   state.   Would   Louis   tell   him about them, give him their number? Tomorrow he’d ask. Chapter 3 ~ T he   Y’s   manager   was   aware   of   the   home   five   blocks   up   Palm.   “It’s   always   quiet   around here   on   Friday   evenings,”   he   said.   “Why   don’t   you   bring   him   then,   so   I   can   see   how   he does   with   the   other   folks   working   out.”   He   shook   his   head   a   tiny   bit.   “Any   disruptive behavior, and he’s out’a here, understand?” “More than fair. Can I bring him over now?” The man smiled, so Jon pulled out his cell and called Louis. The   caregiver   was   silent   for   too   long.   Jon   figured   he’d   have   to   get   permission,   which would    rule    out    tonight.    Louis    finally    said,    “He’ll    miss    dinner.    Can    you    see    he    gets something to eat after?” Jon   nearly   blurted,   “Sure.”   But   his   budget   was   tight.   Another   restaurant   tab   for two— “I planned spaghetti at home, would that be all right?” There was silence. “You don’t have to tell me that’s frowned upon,” Jon said. The   silence   lingered.   “Jon,   I   know   you.   This   isn’t   your   first   little   brother,   and   Augie’s situation   is   a   little   different.   But.   You   gotta   be   discrete,   do   you   understand   what   I’m saying.” “I’ve assisted in a board review.” The   man   chuckled   softly.   He   drew   his   words   out   slowly.   “Then   we   understand   each other.” There was a personal threat in the tone, which Jon appreciated. “You’re coming right now?” “If you’re sure you’re good,” Jon said. “I’ll have him ready for you.” ~ J on   was   surprised   Augie   wasn’t   sitting   on   the   porch   when   he   pulled   up   five   minutes later.   He   was   usually   waiting,   when   Augie   expected   him.   Jon   walked   into   the   living room. Louis was there. “He still changing clothes?” Jon asked. Louis   shook   his   head.   “He   got   really   agitated   when   I   told   him   you   were   on   your   way. Did something happen last night?” Jon   felt   immediately   hot   as   he   thought   about   the   adventure   at   the   park   with   Tyrone. That   escapade   would   freak   Louis   out.   He   hoped   the   caregiver   never   learned   about   that, for sure. But how would he explain what he thought Augie was really upset about? “Ahhh.   You   have   some   nerve,   here   today   trying   to   make   up   for   some   insult.   You know you can’t treat these people like that.” Louis’ jaw set tight. “No.    Nothing    like    that.    Really.    He    was—he    was—    We    actually    had    a    really    nice afternoon, and dinner. But—” How do I say this? “You know they can hold a grudge a long time.” Jon’s   chest   tightened   like   it   did   the   previous   night,   watching   Augie   trudge   for   the door. “He got upset when I said it was time to go home. That’s all.” Louis narrowed his eyes a little, but didn’t say anything. “He in his room?” Jon asked. “No. Wouldn’t come in.” Jon nodded and walked around Louis for the back yard. ~ “W hat’s up, Augie? I thought you’d like to go to the Y with me.” Augie twisted in the swing, ensuring Jon wasn’t in view. Don’t push. Jon   walked   about,   picking   up   acorns   and   idly   throwing   them   at   the   enormous   tree that shaded the backyard. He hoped that would distract Augie from his other irritation. Jon’s   tactic   succeeded.   Augie   grunted   irritably   after   only   a   few   acorns   sailed.   That backyard   was   his.   He   didn’t   like   anyone   messing   with   it.   Even   displacing   an   acorn   was   a slight. He   climbed   out   of   the   chair   and   walked   toward   the   house.   Jon   smiled.   Augie   would go to the Y if it meant Jon would leave his acorns alone. Chapter 4 ~ T he    most    difficult    part    of    getting    Augie    started    was    directing    his    activity    without touching   him.   It   was   natural   for   a   first-time   lifter   to   let   their   elbow   push   away   from   their body   during   a   curl,   a   fast   track   to   tendonitis.   A   trainer   would   normally   press   the   elbow in.   Touching   Augie   was   not   an   option.   But   the   man’s   anal   retentive   compulsions   helped. He was like a copy machine, duplicating everything he saw in exacting detail. Augie   looked   like   a   true   gym   rat   with   his   bulk,   t-shirt   and   cargo   shorts.   Fitting   in visually   helped.   Because   of   his   distaste   for   being   touched,   he   stayed   out   of   the   way   of others,   so   interactions   weren’t   likely.   He   stood   beside   Jon   as   they   took   turns   doing   their sets. Augie bent to the next exercise without a grunt of complaint. Jon   felt   a   sense   of   gratification   flow   from   Augie   as   he   got   into   the   effort.   The   man’s face lined with determination. The freckles flamed red with exertion. He was no slacker. All   went   well.   Until,   Augie   oddly   stepped   away   directly   into   the   path   of   a   mountain- shaped   regular   in   the   gym   Jon   had   never   seen   smile.   The   man   wore   a   tattoo   of   a   Bowie knife   on   his   throat,   long   hair   in   a   ponytail,   a   muscle   tank   that   showed   more   muscle   in one   pec   than   Jon   had   in   his   whole   body.   Additional   tats   worked   down   both   of   the   man’s arms. Muscle-man glared at Augie, a dare to continue standing in his way. Jon    dropped    his    weights,    a    little    hard,    to    hurry    to    get    Augie    out    of    the    brute’s way—without touching him. “Augie. Augie. Let the man by. Come over here, Augie.” The man seemed to silently snarl. “Augie. Augie.” The   dude’s   attention   leapt   from   Augie   to   Jon.   “What’s   with   the   Stephanie   Plum crack?” he growled. “What?” “He comparing me to Stephanie Plum?” Jon   took   a   step   back.   With   the   man’s   raised   voice   it   was   a   perfect   time   for   Augie   to get anxious. But he stood quietly, as though waiting for his turn at the weights. Jon   looked   back   at   the   mountain.   “I   don’t   even   know   what   a   Stephanie   Plum   is.   I have no idea why he would say that?” He heard the panic in his voice. The   man   nudged   Augie   aside   and   took   a   step   toward   Jon.   Augie   didn’t   make   a   peep. No rocking. No outburst. But the man loomed over Jon. “Enrique Montes,” Jon found himself mumbling at the guy’s chest. “What about Montes?” the man hissed, turning back to Augie. Augie remained quiet. No rocking. “You   know   where   I   can   find   Montes?”   Mr.   Muscles   seemed   to   have   collected   himself from   the   moment   before.   “Don’t   screw   with   me.   I   only   have   two   more   days   to   find   that rat bastard.” That’s where I’ve seen him besides the Y. Talking to Erik Turney downstairs. Erik manages the municipal bonds with the bonding agents. “Like I don’t know that,” the man said. Oh, crap. Did I say that out loud? “You have diarrhea of the brain? You say a lot out loud. What about Montes?” What would it be worth? The   thought   blocked   out   other   thoughts.   Jon   turned   angrily   on   Augie,   but   of   course he didn’t return his look. Augie stood, eyes Cylonning the far wall. “What would it be worth ?” Muscle Man asked. Oh   hell,   I’m   freaking   possessed.   Why   are   these   things   skipping   through   my   head   and going directly to my mouth? Muscles   glared.   “I’ll   talk   to   my   partner.”   He   walked   over   to   his   gym   bag   and   fiddled inside   it   for   a   moment,   before   returning   with   a   business   card.   He   shoved   it   at   Jon.   “Call me first thing in the morning.” “O—okay.” I’m in freaking Oz. Jon   hurried   to   collect   his   own   bag,   and   encouraged   Augie   to   follow   him.   Augie   didn’t make   a   fuss.   Jon   finally   looked   at   the   business   card   as   they   walked   toward   the   lobby. Mueller   Brothers.   Fugitive   Recovery   Agents.   Licensed.   Bonded,   stretched   across   the   top of the card in bold, red letters. “Looked like Augie had a good conversation with Michael.” Jon   jerked.   The   owner   of   the   voice   walked   up   to   him.   Jon   looked   at   the   card   again. One   corner   listed   Michael   Mueller   and   his   contact   information.   The   other   corner   was left for a Roger Mueller. “Nice   guy   to   have   around,   if   he’s   a   friend,”   the   Y   manager   said.   “You   know   him long?” “Just met him,” Jon answered. “He   was   Army   Special   Forces.   Came   home,   did   a   few   years   on   the   police   force.   Said being   a   cop   bored   him   to   death.   Carries   a   bit   of   an   attitude,   but   a   good   guy.   I’d   hate   to accidentally cross him.” The Y manager faced Augie. “You enjoy yourself?” “He   did,”   Jon   answered   for   him.   “Had   a   blast   with   Michael.”   He’s   going   to   get   me killed. The   man   chatted   on   about   Augie   being   welcome   as   Jon’s   guest   as   long   as   things continued to go well. Until he gets me killed. Chapter 5 ~ P ulling   out   of   the   parking   lot,   Augie   pointed   to   the   right.   Now   what?   Jon   debated   the sense   of   following   the   driving   directions   of   a   near-mute   autistic.   But   it   was   still   early   and it   wasn’t   like   he   had   anything   else   to   do.   Jon   drove   up   Palm   until   it   branched   to   the right, when it became a one-way street toward them. Augie   raised   his   loud   and   ugly,   “Ahhhhhh,”   complaint,   and   rocked   in   his   seat.   He pounded his thigh with a closed fist. “Can’t go straight, Augie. Hold on, I’ll get you there.” The   anxious   wail   continued.   Jon   accelerated   through   the   s-turn   to   get   to   the   next parallel   street.   Turning   left   on   North   Boulevard,   Augie   quieted,   and   Jon   took   a   deep breath. “You have to trust me a little, Augie. A little patience—goes a long way.” They crossed the river and Augie waved for him to turn to the right. “Oh, no, Augie.” He   stopped,   glaring   at   the   infamous   projects.   When   he   was   in   high   school,   a   cop   had been   killed   there,   three   wounded,   a   couple   brothers   from   the   hood   bit   it   too,   all   over   a traffic stop. “How do I make you understand?” Augie rocked. Pointed into the complex. “I’m crazy. If Louis ever hears about this, he’ll never let me visit you again.” Augie rocked harder. Jon   put   the   car   into   gear,   wishing   his   windows   were   darker.   He   turned   right   off North    Boulevard    and    pulled    into    the    parking    lot.    As    they    approached    one    of    the buildings,   Augie   held   out   his   hand   for   Jon   to   stop.   He   followed   his   direction,   expecting   a bullet to shatter the windshield any moment. Augie   rocked   in   slow   motion   for   a   moment,   before   motioning   Jon   to   proceed.   At   the third   building   Augie   rocked   hard,   his   head   pitching   four   times   like   he   tripped   during   a rave.   Jon   took   from   that   it   was   time   to   get   the   hell   out   of   Dodge.   He   struggled   to   keep from    driving    noticeably    fast    to    get    out,    turning    back    out    on    North    Boulevard,    and heading for his modest garage apartment. “So, is that where Mueller will find that Montes guy?” Enrique Montes. “I   hear   you.”   The   skin   crawled   across   Jon’s   shoulders.   I’m   possessed.   Ain’t   right. Freaking Oz. Chapter 6 ~ T he   next   morning   Michael   Mueller   had   an   offer   that   made   Jon’s   skin   prickle   for   a different   reason,   one   that   was   less   confusing.   A   thousand   dollars.   That   was   a   lot   of money. Jon could buy Augie a lot of fish sandwiches with a thousand dollars. “We have a deal?” Michael asked. Jon’s   satanic   possession,   or   perhaps   greed,   took   over   his   sanity.   He   heard   himself say, “Yeah, I’ll call you right back. Can you pick us up at the Y?” “Pick us  up?” Jon had to pull his cell away from his ear. “What   the   hell   are   you   talking   about?   You   think   we’re   running   an   escort   service. Give me an address.” “You   want   Montes,   you   pick   us   up   at   the   Y.”   Jon   grabbed   his   chest.   What   am   I doing? I’ve lost the last of my sanity. Am I having a heart attack? Can’t breathe. There   was   silence   on   the   phone.   It   gave   Jon   a   few   moments   to   recover   from   his   panic attack. He wiped sweat from his forehead. “You stay out of the way or I’ll shoot you myself.” “I have no plans of getting in your way.” The   connection   dropped.   Jon   dialed   Louis.   After   the   polite   hellos,   Jon   told   him,   “I promised   to   take   Augie   for   a   ride   out   in   the   country   today.   Anything   interfere   with   me picking him up in a few?” Louis didn’t say anything. Jon’s   paranoia   screamed   and   echoed   inside   his   skull,   like   the   cavernous   chamber   it was.   It   would   mean   he   and   Augie   had   spent   three   days   in   a   row   together.   Would   that make   Louis   think   he   was   some   kind   of   pervert?   He’s   going   to   call   HRS,   or   whoever   did that kind of investigation now. “Odd,”   Louis   began   slowly.   “We   work   our   tails   off   to   get   people   interested   in   our residents. You show interest, and I’m asking why.” “I   enjoy   being   with   Augie.   He’s   the   brother   I   never   had.”   That   was   true.   “More importantly,   I   think   a   few   hours   of   my   time   means   a   lot   to   him.   I   haven’t   seen   him   have an outburst in months. Have you?” “I’m asking the questions, here.” “Look.   I   don’t   want   you   to   do   anything   you’re   not   comfortable   with.   Tell   Augie   for me that I’m sorry but you couldn’t let him go.” “Don’t manipulate me, young man.” “What?” “Don’t load me with crap,” Louis snapped. “I’m not some naive punk.” Jon smiled. The pause lengthened. He sensed the man was going to cave. “Good thing I’ve known you a long time. When you picking him up?” “Thirty minutes.” Chapter 7 ~ T he   Mueller   brothers   turned   and   glared   when   Jon   and   Augie   got   into   the   backseat   of   the black   Tahoe.   Their   expressions   were   not    friendly,   though   the   much   younger   brother sitting in the passenger seat seemed a little less perturbed. He turned back around. Could   they   really   be   brothers?   Roger   looked   as   straight   as   they   come,   buzzed   head, clean shaven, no tattoos that Jon could see. “What’s he doing here?” the scraggly muscleman behind the wheel asked. Augie lurched forward in his seat and rocked. “Calm down. You don’t want to get him upset.” Michael    Mueller    barked    something    that    was    probably    meant    as    a    laugh.    “Calm down? You’re telling me to calm down?” Jon   felt   like   an   eight   year-old   looking   up   at   his   irate   father.   His   bladder   suddenly   felt like he killed a carafe of coffee before he left home. Oh God. Michael stared a moment longer before turning and putting the SUV in reverse. “No. No. No.” Augie’s screech made the three of them jump. “What. The. Hell!” “You have to put on your seat belts,” Jon explained. Michael   jammed   the   vehicle’s   shifter   forward,   keyed   the   engine   off,   turned   around, and   plied   Jon   with   a   look   that   could   peel   barnacles.   Damn,   he   had   a   mean-looking   glare. The tat on his throat throbbed a little from a fat vein than ran through it. “Let’s just get this over with, Mikey.” The   older   man   turned   to   his   brother,   but   he   didn’t   hold   the   expression.   Jon   would have   sworn   the   corner   of   his   mouth   curled   up   the   tiniest   bit.   Michael   swore   something that   would   still   have   gotten   Jon’s   mouth   washed   out   at   home,   or   at   least   his   carcass kicked out the door. Michael   wrenched   a   look   at   Jon   again   for   a   moment,   before   looking   at   Augie   and shaking    his    head.    He    faced    forward,    pulled    his    seatbelt    across    his    thick    vest,    and restarted the Tahoe. “Right on Palm, left on North Boulevard,” Jon said. As they cleared the river he told them to pull into the projects. Roger shook his head. “Man, I hate that place. Six years in the Marines—” “Yeah,   yeah,   yeah,”   Michael   moaned.   “Two   stints   in   A-stan,   and   ya   had   to   take   a   call in there to get shot. Ya want me to let ya out?” He  was one of the cops shot nine years ago? “Stick it.” Augie rocked. “Third building on the right,” Jon said. Men    who    had    been    loitering    on    the    sparse    lawn    and    leaning    against    the    cars sprinkled   around   the   parking   lot   began   to   disappear   at   the   sight   of   the   black   Tahoe. Women    sitting    on    cheap    lawn    chairs    followed    the    Tahoe    with    their    eyes.    Children pointed. Augie rocked harder. Jon   jerked,   nearly   gagged.   Two   images   flashed   through   his   mind.   An   automatic firing,   brass   pinging   in   the   air,   the   second   vision,   the   skate   park   north   of   downtown.   Jon looked up to see Roger looking back at him. “You all right? Looked like someone just poked a dead rat in your face.” “Montes isn’t here. Get out. Hurry!” “Look. You dragged us here—” “Ahhhhhhhhhh!”   Augie   screamed,   clutching   Roger’s   headrest   and   shaking   it.   The whole   seat   pitched   as   though   it   was   going   to   dislodge   from   the   floor   of   the   truck.   Jon was sure the headrest would at least fly off. “Ten, twelve, two o’clock!” Roger shouted. The   Tahoe   lurched   as   Michael   accelerated.   He   was   shouting,   “Shit,   shit,   shit,   shit, shit!” Jon sunk into the seat as the SUV veered through the parking lot. “Stay down!” Michael shouted. Augie   fell   toward   the   center   of   the   seat   as   Michael   whipped   to   the   right.   Jon   reached out   to   hold   Augie   down.   His   anger   for   being   touched   almost   drowned   out   the   sound   of the screeching tires. Oh, don’t wet your pants, Jon! Augie screamed on. Jon   felt   the   burst   of   acceleration   as   the   Tahoe   sped   down   the   longer   drive   that   led   to Main. The truck turned left. They were still alive. “Let him up before he breaks my eardrums,” Roger shouted. “I   can’t   believe   you   led   us   into   the   OK   Corral.”   Michael   thumped   the   steering   wheel hard   with   the   palm   of   his   hand.   “Should   kick   you   the   hell   out.   Leave   you   there   for   the Clampets.” “Clantons,” his brother said. “Whatever.” “Are you all right, Augie?” Jon asked, trying to ignore Michael’s ranting. Augie’s   expression   hung   peaceful   as   could   be.   He   might   have   even   had   a   bit   of   a   grin. No.   That   was   impossible.   Just   imagination.   But   calm?   Hadn’t   he   just   been   screaming   his head off? Jon could hardly breathe yet. “If   you   ever   see   me   again,   ever,   anywhere,”   Michael   shouted,   “you   better   turn   away and   hide,   because   I   may   just   wring   your   neck   if   I   see   you .   You   weasels.   Was   this   the   day to   get   a   couple   bounty   hunters   killed?   I’m   still   mad   you   called   me   Stephanie   Plum.   You skinny-assed bastard.” Who the hell is Stephanie Plum? “Hey! Wasn’t I the one who shouted at you to get out of there?” Jon countered. “But you got us here in the first place, you chicken-necked pecker.” Take Palm back to Tampa and take a right. “No, no, no.” “Then who in the hell did?” “Not that.” I don’t want any more things popping into my head. Jon watched Augie rock softly. His eyes scanned the seat-back in front of him. “Not what?” Michael demanded. Too many conversations. “Take Palm to Tampa and take a right.” Michael   screeched   a   one   note   profanity   mixed   with   what   could   have   been   a   laugh.   “Is that the nearest canal? ’Cause that’s where I’m gonna dump your lifeless carcass.” “Shut the hell up.” Did I say that?   “You want Montes, or not?” There was silence for a moment. Michael looked at his brother. “Did that pipsqueak tell me to shut the hell up?” “I think he did.” “I’m gonna kick his ass.” “But   he   has   a   point.   Goldman   is   going   to   be   pissed   if   we   don’t   get   Montes   to   booking by midnight Sunday.” “He told me to shut up.” “You’re whining.” Despite    his    complaints,    Michael    turned    on    Tampa    Street.    He    and    his    brother continued   to   banter   like   two   angry   bulls   when   Jon   told   him   to   take   a   left   on   Scott. Michael   followed   Jon’s   directions   though   he   interrupted   the   expletives   and   euphemisms he was sharing with Roger to throw a few Jon’s way. “What did you say?” Michael shouted. My—God! Did those words really come out of my mouth? I’m possessed. “Did he really, freaking say I prattle like a girl?” “I   think   he   did,”   Roger   said,   nodding   his   head   like   one   of   those   eight-inch   dogs   that sit in the back window of cars. “He   wants   to   die   a   horrible   death,   doesn’t   he?”   Michael   asked,   jerking   his   thumb toward the back seat. “I think he just said what I was thinking,” Roger answered. “Take a right.” Michael turned. “Now where, your Excellency?” “He’s   at   the   skate   bowl,”   Jon   said,   following   the   second-half   of   the   image   that   nearly emptied his bladder. “You    thought    he    was    in    the    projects.    Now    you    think    he’s    skating.    You    mind explaining   that?   Is   God   speaking   to   you,   or   what?   Why   the   hell   am   I   even   talking   to   you? You   talk   to   imaginary   friends.   A   half-wit   and   a   no-wit.   Roger,   why   am   I   talking   to   this guy?” “Hell,   I   don’t   know.   Maybe   ’cause   you   prattle   like   a   girl?   You   got   nothing   better   to   do on   a   Saturday   morning?   You   like   amusing   half-wits?   Am   I   close?   Just   tell   me   if   I’m warm.” “Stick it.” Roger’s   face   held   a   handsome   smile,   one   that   any   man   could   hate   him   for.   Jon   hated him.   The   man   was   just   too   handsome   for   reality.   And   his   shoulders   bracketed   his   seat   as though he was half Brahman bull. Plus, he was funnier than hell. The   Tahoe   reached   the   park   and   Michael   turned   serious,   and   quiet.   He   slowed   and the   two   brothers   studied   the   faces   of   the   young   men,   mixed   with   a   couple   of   girls   and kids, loitering about the concrete ledge of the boarders’ paradise. “I   don’t   believe   it,”   Michael   said   in   a   whisper.   “Isn’t   that   him?   In   the   Buc’s   shirt, black cap.” Michael   drove   to   the   next   break   in   the   median   and   made   a   U-turn.   As   he   slowed, Montes   ran.   Roger   bolted   from   the   truck   so   fast   Jon   jerked.   Recovered   from   the   shock, he looked over at Augie. He looked calm, rocking gently, his hands quiet in his lap. Michael   sped   north   on   Orange,   clipped   the   curb   as   he   tried   to   follow   his   brother’s progress through the park. “Glad   those   peckers   like   their   pants   hanging   down   to   their   knees.   Makes   it   so   much easier.   He   ain’t   gonna   go   far.”   He   chuckled.   Sounded   like   a   gagging   bullfrog.   Perhaps   he didn’t   experience   humor   often   enough   to   demonstrate   it   with   any   effectiveness.   “Got him!” He slammed on the brakes. Put the Tahoe in reverse. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Fantasy Dystopian Suspense
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
SEEker Chapter 1 ~ T he   stabbing   pins   of   the   shiver   crawled over   Jon’s   shoulders   as   he   pulled   into the   driveway,   like   every   other   visit   the past   several   weeks.   The   sensation   was getting   stronger   every   visit.   Often   felt   as though    it    seeped    into    his    bones.    Its occurrence    seemed    important    but    the why  eluded him. The   shiver   always   made   him   have   to pee, too. As   soon   as   he   opened   the   front   door of   the   Palm   Street   home,   the   whiff   of urine    and    antiseptic    struck    him.    Nine years,    Jon    had    been    volunteering    his time    with    those    with    special    needs, since   his   senior   project.   Still,   the   smell of   the   home   was   something   he   couldn’t get used to. A   hellish   scream   jerked   through   the air.       Terry       was       unhappy       about something.       The       man’s       wheelchair careened    around    the    corner    from    the kitchen,   his   helmeted   head   wobbling   as though   it   might   fall   off   without   much coercion.    A    sneeze    could    do    it.    Terry screamed   again.   His   chair   plunged   into the    ragged    back    of    a    couch.    It    had obviously   absorbed   hundreds   of   strikes from more than one wheelchair. “Get     back     here,     Terry,”     billowed from the kitchen. The       home’s       daytime       caregiver peeked     around     the     doorway     with     a quirky   grin   on   his   face.   “I’m   gonna   get you,”   he   called.   From   his   expression   he could   have   been   shouting   “redrum”   and just    hacked    through    a    bathroom    door with an axe. I    watch    too    many    old    movies    at night. Terry       screeched       again       as       he struggled      to      withdraw      the      chair’s footrest,   embedded   in   the   back   of   the couch. “Hey,   Jon.”   Louis   greeted   him   with hardly     a     glance.     The     man’s     focus remained     glued     on     his     wheelchair- bound    charge.    “I’m    commmmingggg, Terry,”    he    called,    before    lowering    his voice again. “Augie’s in the backyard.” Louis    dashed    forward    and    grabbed the     top     of     Terry’s     helmet,     reached around   to   wipe   the   jelly-smeared   face. Terry   screamed   a,   “No!”   that   sounded as    though    it    originated    from    a    harpy trying to escape hell. “Are   you   sure   this   is   a   good   idea?” Jon   asked   Louis   when   the   man   finished wiping     Terry’s     face,     the     challenged man’s     complaints     done,     the     assault already forgotten. Louis    turned    his    attention    back    to Jon.   “He   deals   well   with   surprise.   Don’t worry   about   it.   He   loves   every   second you spend with him.” Not   all   of   the   men   Jon   worked   with in    the    past    took    the    unexpected    well. He’d   been   shocked   when   the   caregiver suggested   making   the   outing   a   surprise when    Jon    called    the    day    before.    Jon grimaced.    Louis’    smile    broadened.    He turned    toward    the    kitchen    and    waved Jon to follow. The    worn    linoleum    crackled    under Jon’s   steps.   The   antiseptic   smell   wore stronger   in   the   kitchen.   Two   men   Jon knew   well   sat   at   the   long   dining   table. Jon   paused   and   watched   them   play   high card   as   though   it   was   a   riveting   high- stakes     poker     game.     Neither     of     the residents    ever    looked    up    from    their cards. “Stop   your   lolly-lagging.   Augie’ll   be fine.” Jon    tried    a    casual    smile,    but    by Louis’   wink,   he   knew   he   didn’t   succeed. He   walked   toward   the   back   door,   nape tingling   more   with   each   step.   Through the   screen,   he   saw   Augie   turn   his   head to   face   the   house.   He   closed   his   three- inch-thick    book,    rose    out    of    the    chair swing   methodically,   and   plodded   across the    tall    grass,    lifting    his    feet    high    as though walking in snow. Augie     is     twenty-four,     looks     forty- four.    A    hint    of    a    paunch    pressed    the waist     of     his     jeans,     but     he’s     deep- chested,    muscled    like    a    body    builder, though   Jon   doubted   he   had   ever   seen the   inside   of   a   weight-room.   He   rarely got    his    nose    out    of    one    of    the    hefty books he always carried. Like    every    Thursday,    he    wore    his favorite   shirt,   a   gift   from   Jon,   a   purplish Floridian-print    of    palm    trees.    It    had faded.   Jon   needed   to   take   him   shopping again.   Something   special   to   do   for   their next Thursday outing. Augie   didn’t   smile   as   he   approached the      back      steps.      His      eyes      never connected    with    anyone’s.    They    always moved   back   and   forth   scanning   ten   feet in   front   of   him,   like   a   Battlestar    Cylon’s. Though   his   expression   never   changed, Augie’s       body       language       effectively communicated    his    emotions.    It    made up for his indifference to speech. Or    at    least,    Jon    always    knew    what the   young   man   felt,   somehow.   It   was   a little     weird,     as     though     tuned     into Augie’s      private      radio      signal.      The connection   had   been   growing   stronger for     months.     The     reason     Jon     never missed   his   weekly   get   together   was   the intensity         of         appreciation         that psychically emitted from Augie. Not   that   Jon   believed   in   such   things, but   it   best   described   what   the   two   men shared.    Whatever    it    was,    guilt,    self- conscious   compulsion,   Jon   could   never withhold that kind of joy from anyone. “Thirty-seven,”   Augie   said   softly,   as he   lifted   a   muscled   leg   to   climb   the   back stairs. “Four hours, thirteen-minutes.” Jon   thought   quickly   to   figure   out   the riddle.   The   first   was   easy.   The   number of   weeks   they   had   “been   together.”   Jon looked   at   his   watch.   He   normally   picked Augie   up   after   work.   Jon   was   four   hours earlier than usual. The day was special. “Hi, Augie. How ya doing today?” Augie   didn’t   answer,   of   course,   but Jon   felt   the   man’s   excitement,   even   if none crossed his face. “Before    the    park    today,    if    it’s    okay with you, I have—” “We   are   going   to   your   office,”   Augie said, passing him. Jon looked over at Louis. The   caregiver   took   Augie’s   book   from him.   “I’ll   put   that   in   your   room   for   you.” Louis   turned   back   to   Jon.   “I   didn’t   tell him. Really. I didn’t.” Augie      had      already      disappeared around     the     corner.     From     the     other room,    Terry    grunted,    unhappy    about anyone passing too near. Jon     waved     a     goodbye     to     Louis, hurrying   to   catch   up   with   his   friend.   “I’ll have ’im back after dinner.” Augie   stood   rocking   next   to   the   old Mustang.    Jon    groaned.    He    hoped    the change   in   schedule   might   prompt   him to   overlook   the   ragtop   wasn’t   down.   But oh   no.   Despite   the   mid-day   sun,   Augie wasn’t   going   to   get   in   until   the   top   was down.    He    liked    the    openness    of    the convertible. “The   air   conditioner   will   feel   awfully nice,” Jon tried. Augie   looked   down   at   the   pavers   of the driveway, continuing to rock. “We’ll   stop   in   just   a   few   minutes   or so anyway.” He rocked. “Okay, okay.” Augie    opened    the    door    and    folded into   the   passenger   seat,   after,   the   ragtop was lowered. “My boss invited—” Augie    knew.    Jon    shuddered.    There was    no    explaining    how    he    knew    that Augie   knew.   The   man   just   did.   And   Jon picked   it   up   somehow.   Had   to   be   body language. Jon    backed    down    the    drive    onto Palm.   “Who   told   you   I   was   taking   you   to my office?” Augie   tilted   his   head   back   and   closed his   eyes,   enjoying   the   sun   on   his   face, the     wind     billowing     his     long,     dirty- mustard-hued     locks.     Beads     of     sweat glimmered   on   his   forehead,   but   he   was happy.    He    liked    driving    in    the    naked car—his    expression    for    the    top    down. Jon   reminded   himself   he   needed   to   get sunscreen on his friend’s freckles. “At    my    office,    you’ll    need    to    keep your   hands   to   yourself.   You   may   see   lots of   interesting   things   on   the   desks,   but it’s important you leave them alone.” How insulting. “Just    so    we    understand.    Otherwise we won’t be welcomed back.” No one likes me around anyway. Jon’s   nape   tingled   something   awful. It   was   nuts   to   transfer   his   own   thoughts as    an    answer    from    his    friend,    but    he couldn’t    stop    himself.    Each    time    he visited     Augie,     the     compulsion     grew stronger. They   were   quiet   the   last   two   blocks to   his   parking   lot   and   the   walk   to   the municipal   building   where   Jon   clerked. His     gut     tightened     as     they     passed through   the   glass   doors   into   the   lobby. Would     something     unusual     cause     an outburst?    They    were    rare    from    Augie. He’s a high-functioning autistic. Jon   signed   Augie   in   and   affixed   the sticky   visitor   badge   to   Augie’s   shirt.   As they     strode     across     the     lobby,     Jon considered    taking    the    stairs.    He    had mentored   others   who   couldn’t   take   the claustrophobia    or    the    movement    of    a lift.   Augie   strode   past   the   stairs   and   to the   elevators   though,   pressing   the   call button. “Are   you   sure   you’re   okay   with   the elevator?” Augie    answered    by    looking    up    and watching   the   location   of   the   pair   of   lifts on       the       upper       panels,       his       eyes performing their Cylon programming. “Okay.” The   door   opened.   Augie   stepped   in quickly   and   pressed   the   button   for   the fourth    floor.    Jon    couldn’t    remember ever   telling   him   where   he   worked,   much less   what   floor.   The   shiver   worked   at   his neck      again.      Augie’s      hand,      pressed against   the   leg   of   his   shorts,   fluttered   to the   tempo   of   the   elevator’s   vibrations. The   door   clacked   open.   This   time   Augie waited   for   Jon   to   exit   first.   He   rocked just   a   little   at   the   shoulders,   his   sign   of mild anxiety. Could it be my concern he picks up? Jon    led    him    down    the    hall    to    the employee   entrance.   There   was   a   short line   at   the   service   window   twenty   feet away.    Augie    paused    before    following him   in.   He   faced   the   people   waiting   to be    helped.    He    didn’t    rock.    He    leaned forward,    head    tilted    down    more    than usual.    His    hands    moved    at    his    sides. The muscles in his forearms flexed. He   would   be   a   natural   weight   lifter. Gotta   take   him   to   the   Y   and   see   if   he’d like    working    out.    Bet    he    could    bench press a bunch. “This    way,”    he    finally    encouraged Augie. His     friend     nodded     and     rocked     a moment    before    turning    to    follow    Jon through the entrance. “This is where I—” Augie took a left. “This way, Augie.” But   he   continued   down   the   long   aisle lined    with    file    cabinets,    took    a    right between   desks   of   co-workers   oblivious to    them,    and    headed    straight    for    the window office in front of him. “Augie,”   Jon   hissed   for   the   fifth   time. “Let’s go this way.” But     his     friend     was     focused.     Jon stopped    and    grimaced,    watched    Augie stride into his boss’s office. Jon   heard,   “Gotta   go.   Got   a   visitor,” and   the   clack   of   a   phone   shoved   in   its cradle.    “You    must    be    Augie.    We    were expecting you.” Jon    rushed    into    the    office.    “Hey, boss. Sorry for the interruption.” Erik   Turney   stood   and   extended   his hand. Augie took it. Took it! There    was    no    anxious    rocking.    He didn’t    like    to    be    touched.    At    all.    He stood     facing     Erik,     though     his     eyes peered   at   the   man’s   chest.   Jon   felt   his mouth hung open, and shut it quickly. “You’re    welcome    to    visit    any    time you   want,   Augie,”   Erik   said.   “Be   sure   to have    Jon    take    you    up    to    the    mayor’s office   to   look   at   the   view   over   the   bay. It’s pretty from up there.” Erik   turned   to   Jon.   “Speaking   of   the mayor,   she’s   looking   for   a   report.   You see Silas on your way up here?” Augie spun and rushed past Jon. “Augie. Augie. Where ya going?” “Whoa,”      Erik      said.      “Something caught his fancy.” Jon    nodded    a    thanks    to    Erik    and followed   Augie   through   the   outer   office, out   into   the   hall,   down   to   the   end   of   the corridor   where   he   pushed   open   the   door to   the   stairs.   He   turned   back,   his   nose scrunched    up    like    he’d    just    smelled    a week-old carcass. “What’s up, Augie?” Without       stepping       through       the doorway,     Jon     knew      he’d     find     the missing     Silas.     Jon     leaned     into     the stairwell     and     met     the     man’s     guilty expression.    A    swirl    of    smoke    escaped from    behind    him    where    he    hid    his cigarette. “Erik   is   looking   for   you.   You   owe   him something for the mayor?” “Ah,       crap.”       Silas       crushed       his cigarette    into    the    top    of    a    soda    can before   dropping   the   butt   in   it.   He   set the   can   in   the   corner.   “What’s   it   take   to get a smoke break around here?” Jon   grinned.   “That’s   a   two   hundred dollar   fine,   smoking   in   here,   you   know? I might turn you in for the reward.” “Yeah,   sure.   I   know   where   you   work, remember.” Silas   brushed   past   and   hurried   back to     the     office.     Augie     followed     him without    a    word    until    he    reached    the glass   bulletin   case   Jon   was   responsible for   keeping   up-to-date.   Augie   stood   and began    his    thoughtful,    not    his    anxious rocking,   his   hips   driving   the   motion,   not his    shoulders.    He    lifted    his    fist    up, thumb     extended     a     little     like     a     fat pointer,      dragging      slowly      over      the pictures   of   the   mug   shots   of   the   local miscreants. “See anyone you know?” Augie    rocked    harder