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Books: Volume Ten
On a Mission ...
Those infamous words, said so eloquently before the team, came back to haunt him as the new morning rays pierced his skull and slapped his face. The aroma of brewing coffee dragged him from the sofa like the dead rising. The kids were in the kitchen preparing fossil fuel to pour into his body so his engine would turn over. He felt like shit.
Rider scratched the stubble on his jaw. To say that they could go on this mission later and do this another day just wouldn’t be right… would be like blowing off children on Christmas morning. He’d never do that, had vowed never to be a stinking, lying, hollow-promising drunk like his old man had been. He might be some of those things, but a liar he was not—at least that’s how he justified his condition to himself.
Besides, for all Bobby and Dan knew, this would be their first solo mission to ride shotgun with him to go build the ammo supply. J.L. and the others had to stay put—his orders—so the two youngest best buds were bouncing off the walls and raring to go on an adventure.
Rider scratched his head, yawned, and then stood with a hard stretch. It took him a moment to steady his focus before he could amble to the kitchen in search of java.
Shit, shower, then shave—that was the natural order of things. His universe was simple. Coffee would take the edge off; a shot of Jack would bite the snake that bit him; nicotine was necessary to make the venom go down smoothly. Yes, his world order and priorities were just fine, thank you very much.
“Yo, Rider, you carrying a Glock or an Uzi on this run?” Bobby smiled brightly and poured the coffee too fast, half spilling it.
Rider closed his eyes and leaned on the doorframe. The puppies had too much energy first thing in the morning.
“Double-aught to go in the Jeep is the way the man likes it,” Dan said with authority, tossing a pack of smokes to Rider.
The cigarettes hit Rider’s chest and fell to the floor. He held up his hand, squinting to stave off their enthusiasm and winced as he bent to pick up his Marlboros. Dan seemed crushed, like he’d thrown a baseball to his favorite Major League player who’d missed the catch.
“Gimme a minute,” Rider said, not wanting to spoil their image of him, whatever that was, but it was all he had. “Java first,” he added, accepting the mug from Bobby and slurping from it loudly. Then nodding to Dan, he put a cigarette in his mouth. “Now the matches.”
Dan eagerly hiked a box of stick matches to Rider, who caught them this time without looking up from his coffee. The smile on Dan and Bobby’s faces said it all==big brother hero restored.
“So, when’re we leaving?”
Bobby was practically bouncing off the walls as he tried to drink his coffee the way Rider took it, clearly trying not to wince.
He didn’t answer the kid, but just meandered over to the kitchen sink, bent, and began rummaging for a stashed bottle. He sighed with satisfaction when his fingers blindly found it. “Fifteen minutes,” he said, pouring a healthy jigger of Jack Daniels into his black coffee. “Let me get my morning constitution done, then meet me in the Jeep.”
* * *
Rider leaned his head on the steering wheel, his eyes shielded behind dark glasses and a tawny, felt cowboy hat. Jesus make the driveway hold still in a straight line. Bobby and Dan’s voices were drilling a hole in his skull by way of jackhammer—right at the temples.
Nevertheless, he straightened his back, coordinated his fingers enough to turn the key in the ignition, and started the motor.
Dan patted the Glock nine millimeter in his shoulder holster, making Bobby do the same.
“Rule number one, never take off your gun while Rider is doing a buy,” Dan warned, addressing Bobby’s wide-eyed stare of awe. “The shotgun on the floor is your friend. We watch the door and watch Rider’s back. Bikers are as bad as some of the vamps, ‘cause if they know he’s got serious cash on him, they may try to roll him. We’re his reinforcement. Enforcers—got it?”
Bobby nodded enthusiastically and never took his eyes off Dan.
“That’s why you couldn’t go out with us until you turned eighteen and your Mom got cool with it.”
“Leave the puppy alone, Dan.” Rider let out a weary sigh as he drove. This was gonna be a long day. “He’s old enough to serve in the military, go to war, and die for this country, plus old enough to vote for the next President. So if Uncle Sam says he passes the litmus test, he’s old enough.” Rider glanced over the back seat at Bobby, who had such an expression of pride on his face he almost saluted the kid. “Rules of the road when you’re rolling with me, what happens in New Orleans, stays in New Orleans.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and then glanced at Dan. “We clear?”
“That’s cool,” Bobby said, sounding confused. “But I thought we were going to the Mexican border?”
Rider briefly released the steering wheel and rubbed his palms down his face. “That’s because your Mom would have a hissey fit knowing we were headed for the vamp Big Apple… Damali wouldn’t allow it, nor would Marlene. But the best buys are there, and I don’t screw with El Diablo weapons traders from Mexico—that’s Rivera’s specialty, not mine. So, if I went into details, this little adventure would have been null and void. I couldn’t tell you two puppies before now, because you guys are as easy to read as the Sunday paper. No psychic skills necessary. Your faces give headlines in bold print. That’s why you suck at poker. I had to tuck my ace under the ten gallon.” Rider tipped his hat and shook his head.
Dan glanced at Bobby. “Okay, so then, exactly where in New Orleans are we going?”
“Relax. I’m not crazy enough to take you lair busting during the day. But I am gonna take you where I should have taken you guys a long time ago. Couldn’t, though, because we were under siege and it wasn’t prudent.”
Rider spied the two younger Guardians from his peripheral vision with a half grin. It was impossible not to smile. Their expressions were priceless. To his way of thinking, he had a virgin and a near-virgin that were both too old for the condition—and he’d been charged with getting them calmed down enough to become sharpshooters? Fat chance.
After a moment, Dan and Bobby both looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Get out, man!” Dan said laughing hard. “You’re gonna take us bar hopping in The Big Easy?”
Rider stared out the windshield. They just didn’t get it.
“Dude, I’m gonna get hammered!” Bobby shouted, laughing harder.
Rider shook his head. “Where we’re going, gentlemen, you gotta leave your gun at the door, so all this excess arsenal we loaded in the Jeep was just to make it look good for the house Moms. Good exit strategy. Now, my friend who is an ex-Vietnam chopper pilot, also has a little Cessna that will be flying two hours differential, which means we can stay till near sunset and pick up two hours on the back end when we head West again.” He glanced over the seat at Bobby and then to his right toward Dan. “Always know your daylight window for a mission, and keep a compass in your head,” he added, suddenly glad he’d made the decision to get the three of them out of the house. “Note, I mentioned that my buddy is an ex-vet, why?”
“Because we shouldn’t get on his nerves with a lot of unnecessary convo,” Dan replied, sounding unsure.
“Precisely,” Rider said, pleased. “Yep. And a true soldier handles his business on a need to know basis—translation—nobody but the three of us need to know, and therefore even casually discussing it when we get back is off limits, especially having seers in the house.”
“No problemmo,” Bobby said quickly, falling back against his seat still smiling.
Dan pounded Rider’s fist.
“Shoulda done this for you, man, a long time ago. My apologies.” He glimpsed Dan as a pang of guilt stabbed him. “Things got hectic, I got busy, and as the last new kid on the block until the new crew came along, you sorta fell through the rites of passage cracks, what can I say? But you’re a good egg, an ace on the slingshots, really stepped up back in Ethiopia… like your style.”
“Thanks, man,” Dan said quietly, his eyes holding admiration. “I wanna learn from the best.”
“That would be Rivera,” Rider said. “Or—”
“Rivera is awesome, and so are Shabazz, Mike, and Jose—Damali is unmatchable, but if you haven’t noticed, everybody is caught up in their own shit and really isn’t listening to us new squad. There’s nobody to really talk to, even though the house is loaded with bodies. But you spend more time with us, though… are still the best sharpshooter on the team.” Dan looked at Rider and then glanced away. “You hear us when we haven’t even said stuff.”
Bobby nodded adamantly. “You make the time, man, and that means a lot.”
Momentary silence felt like it was swallowing the Jeep cabin whole. How and when did he become den-Dad? That had always been Shabazz’s role, and he was always the rebellious one that needed a behavior chaperone as much as the newbies did. But the shift oddly felt pretty good.
“I really needed to get out of that house, Rider… ‘ppreciate the day pass, dude.” Dan sent his gaze out the window and swallowed hard.
Rider glanced at Dan. “Listen… things sometimes don’t always go your way, but you’re still young enough to recover. Gotta keep hope alive. Comprendo? I know where you’re at, and you just need to get out and blow off some steam—so that’s what we’re gonna do today.”
Bobby looked out the window as Dan’s gaze briefly returned to Rider. Every man in the Jeep knew the reference was about Krissy. But some things were just not to be said outright between men.
“I just can’t believe you’re taking us bar hopping, dude,” Bobby said, cracking first under the pressure of the silence.
Rider kept driving and knew Bobby’s dilemma from experience. It was no fun having one’s best friend in love with your sister, but your sister in love with another guy who was your next best friend. Why did women put men in positions like that, he wondered? He thought of what to say. When the smoke cleared in the house, Dan and Bobby were the solo males… so it stood to reason they should be partners in crime.
“We’re not going bar hopping,” Rider said after a while, his tone flat. “Although the lady of the house does have a nice selection of to shelf at her establishment.” A sheepish smirk fought for control of his facial muscles and won. “Besides, consumption of too much alcohol deadens the senses, takes years off your life, and generally fucks up your life—ask me how I know. So go easy on the booze, and I’ll break your arm if I catch either one of you smoking—that goes for weed, too… do as I say, not as I do, especially around the ladies. Got it? Finally?”
Rider waited. He braced himself for the volume spike. He still had a hangover after all. Then it hit, nearly rocked the Jeep as Bobby and Dan whooped in unison.
“Noooooo…” they said in a simultaneous rush.
“Get outta here, dude!”
Rider had to laugh as the two younger Guardians pelted him with backslaps, almost making him swerve off the road. In their celebration, Dan and Bobby almost hugged each other, but then quickly checked themselves and offered high-fives instead. He was just glad that the fact that J.L. had been excluded from the adventure had passed right by them. Krissy was pretty much spoken for, and the last thing he could go through was another heartbroken newbie. This was best, to his way of seeing things.
Left with no choice, he waited until some of the reverie in the vehicle died down to a dull roar, and decided to do what he knew how to do best—layer on the sarcasm to keep the convo light. He didn’t want Dan to go morose on him. Thinking too hard and analyzing too much would do that to a man, and this was a mission of mercy.
“Hey,” Rider said with a shrug, breaking up the laughter. He adjusted the brim of his ten gallon and reached in his vest for a cigarette. “Mar and ‘Bazz told me to make you pro sharpshooters. If anybody asks, that’s what I’m doing. No details, that’s your line that you stick by.”
He grinned in the rearview mirror at Bobby as the two younger Guardians erupted in a gale of laughter again, and accepted the lit match from Dan. Leaning in to catch the flame, Rider looked at Dan over the tops of his dark aviator sunglasses, took a hard drag and tossed the match out the open window.
“Dude, save it for the ladies—the lighting my cigarette thing. I know you’re excited and it’s been a long time since you got laid, but don’t do that where we’re going. I don’t want ‘em to think you just got out of prison.”
Dan raked his hair and laughed, embarrassment staining his cheeks rosy. “Shit, Rider, I did just get out of prison, man. You’re gonna make me tattoo your name on my arm for this one, brother.”
Bobby doubled over laughing, and Rider gave in to a hard chuckle.
“I can respect an honest man,” Rider said with a wink, exhaling a billowing trail of smoke. “But to our friend in the backseat who likes jokes,” he added, issuing Dan a sly nod to let him know is was Bobby’s turn to get ribbed, “Don’t go in there and embarrass me as the fastest gun in the West.”
Dan whooped and pounded Rider’s fist. Bobby hollered and shoved Dan’s shoulder.
“We are Guardians,” Rider said, putting bass in his voice while smiling widely. “We have a reputation to uphold and defend. I train sharpshooters, which is a skill requiring accuracy and control. I don’t train Minute Men, like this is the Revolutionary war… even they took time to reload their muskets. And just ‘cause you’re packing automatics, don’t go in there and spray the freakin’ wall with shells… what has always been my motto?”
“Find your target, hold the shot, squeeze the trigger slow and—” Dan, gasped through gales of laughter. “Oh, shit, you’re killing me, Rider!”
“Short, controlled bursts from the automatic,” Bobby howled, slapping the back of Riders seat and wiping his eyes. “Don’t blow your load and waste shells!”
Rider was laughing so hard the vehicle swerved as they speed along to the private airstrip. “I paid for the entire afternoon, you knuckleheads—four hours—so you can come back for seconds and thirds, buffet style. Anything you want. So, don’t waste my five grand, okaaaay.”
“Five grand?” Dan whispered, and then just fell back against his seat and closed his eyes.
Bobby whistled and was still laughing. Rider shook his head. The older one knew what time it was.
“You definitely kill me, dude. I’m with Dan,” Bobby said, wiping his eyes. “Five fucking grand?” After a moment Bobby fell silent and just stared out the window as though in shell shock.
The change of mood in the Jeep made Rider raise and eyebrow; Dan opened his eyes and looked over the back seat at Bobby.
“Are they pretty?” Bobby fidgeted with his shoulder holster.
Again, Rider just shook his head as he puffed on a cigarette. Both young Guardians were looking at him now.
“Yes,” Rider said sarcastically. “For five grand they’ll look like they walked off the showroom floor in Vegas. Red heads, brunettes, blond, pick a color.” He briefly let go of the steering wheel, tossed his cigarette butt, and cupped his hands over his chest for a second before grabbing the wheel again. “Silicon to here—this is New Orleans, don’t insult me.”
“Which one, I mean type are you gonna pick?” Bobby asked in a rush. “What do you suggest, since you’ve been here before?”
“Nah… this is your play day,” Rider said, reaching for a new cigarette. “You guys are under thirty and your hearts can take it. Me, I’ll wait for you in the bar. Not to worry, I’ll be your shotgun by the door and will smoke a cigarette or two, maybe pass out and get a few more Zs on the parlor sofa. The babes in there will give me a heart attack at my age. Any more questions?”
There was a long pause, but he knew several hundred more questions loomed. The insane conversation reminded him so much of his Harley riding days out West with Snake and the gang before his life changed. He remembered how the older bikers took him on a Rites of Passage mission like this when he’d joined the squad as their mechanic. Then, he was the youngest kid, the one wet behind the ears—and he remembered how much he loved those guys like family until it all went belly up. A quiet sadness filled him. That was during the time he’d met Tara. Man, this was a Harley riding kinda day. But the vamps had wrecked his bike, just like they’d wrecked his woman… had wrecked his biker-family… had wrecked his life. He hated vampires.
Pushing away the blues, he fought through the last vestiges of the Jack Daniels haze and tried to recall being Dan and Bobby’s ages. He let out a hard exhale and pitched his cigarette butt out the window.
“Okay, here’s the protocol,” Rider said, trying to smile through the memories. “We’ll go in, and the lady of the house will greet me, and she’ll smile and fawn over you. But she’ll talk to me.” He glanced at both younger Guardians, almost sighing with fatigue as they hung on his every word. “I’m the paying client, you two puppies are there to get a full service oil change and a lube job on my dime, but she’s businesswoman enough to know that if you guys walk out of there smiling, I’ll consider it money well spent. I also asked her to send you the books, rather than have you choke on your own spit during an in-parlor selection process.”
“Books?” Dan asked quietly. “Like how do they work?”
Rider sighed. “Don’t they teach you anything in school these days? Why, by the time I was halfway through high school…” He lifted up his hat and set it back down on his head hard. “See, all this cyberspace bullshit and reliance on technology is dulling the social skills of Generation X!” He lit another cigarette when Bobby and Dan exchanged a confused glance. “Gentlemen… you get escorted to a room, you look through the photo book, you dial the number on the page of the cutie who strikes your fancy which routes your call to an in-house line, and very shortly thereafter, she’ll appear like an angel—wearing very little, and will lock the door behind herself.”
“Ooohhhh…” Bobby said, wiping his brow beneath the bill of his baseball cap. “Deep.”
In a huff, Rider pointed at both Guardians and talked with the cigarette precariously dangling from his lips. “See what constant cyber-sex will do for you? Dulls the cognitive skills. At least with a magazine you’ve gotta use your imagination—and I promise you guys, after this, you’ll never be able to go back to a wireless laptop in the shed again.”
The situation had lit a fuse of anger within him, and he found himself waving his arms as he drove, spoke, and smoked all at the same time. In his opinion, all of this was a travesty. Young kids in the prime of their lives shouldn’t have to go to these lengths, when they should be out having fun with other kids their own age on a beach during spring break somewhere. The cosmos had a wicked sense of humor.
“But what do we say to them when they come in the room?” Dan ran his fingers through his hair. “Is there some sorta—”
“Put a gun to my temple and pull the trigger, why don’t you,” Rider exclaimed and glanced up to the vehicle ceiling. “Guys… you have to talk to ‘em a little. Compliment their hair; say something halfway reasonable, even though you’re paying. Some things are just gentlemanly manners. You talk a little once you make your pick, sit back for a few, have a beer to relax—and in your conditions, whatever you do, don’t throw back a shot of hard liquor. Then, she’ll sidle up to you after handing you your beer, will ask you if you wanna get comfortable—your answer is, ‘Yes, darlin’, that would be nice.’ Easy. The rest she’ll do and do well.”
Bobby and Dan exchanged another nervous glance.
“Damn, Rider,” Bobby said in a quiet voice. “Like you could’ve told us, and that way I would have worn better underwear or taken a for real shower, or something. I thought we were going to hang out with bikers, not babes.
Dan absently reached in his jeans pocket and tossed Bobby a roll of mints. “I mean, I woulda shaved, ya know.”
“Oh, for chrissakes, guys! They have showers, bath tubs, soap, toothpaste and will bath you naked, if that’s what you want to spend time doing.”
“Whoa,” Bobby whispered.
Dan blew out a long whistle and kept his gaze trained on the horizon.
“How many businessmen come through these types of establishments and gotta go back to work, the conference they slid out of, or home to a nagging wife smelling laundry fresh? While I happen to think a midday change of scent to freshly showered is a dead giveaway, the house I’m taking you to has said facilities—these are not street walkers or crack-heads giving you a roll in an alley for five bucks! These girls are at the top of their profession, probably have a medical and dental plan better that we do, and this is the good ole south, thank you very much. The profession is managed with a level of gentility often neglected in the greater Northeast or back in Los Angeles, which can border on tacky sometimes—but in a pinch, those work, too. Who’s complaining?”
Quiet descended upon the vehicle again. Rider braced for another round of questions that were percolating in the silence and kept his gaze focused on the road. Maybe this was a bad idea. Their innocence would be ruined but their horizons expanded. These two guys had no idea the range of skills gorgeous working girls possessed, and although they were gonna get their pipes cleaned good today, it would never compare to being with a soul mate… the love of one’s life. That he couldn’t explain to them or buy for them, as much as he wanted to make their lives a little less painful. Losing Lopez had fucked him up but good.
He couldn’t get that out of his mind… a kid, a virgin, clerical status notwithstanding, dead on impact from a demon tail-spear. Any night, one of his newbies could go down, just like they’d lost Dee Dee and the others. So, rather than live life on the cautious side and bury another young person who hadn’t experienced the full buffet of life, he’d decided to go for broke. The seniors would have to get over it—so what he took the young dogs out and let ‘em off the leash to play. God only knew Dan and Bobby were starting to develop nervous ticks.
But, no, he wasn’t interested. This was their day. After having steak, everything else was hamburger casserole, and at this juncture in life he’d become a very picky eater. What was there to have after Tara?
He saw Dan take a breath as though to speak and then watched him gaze out the window. That worried him.
“Yes, they have condoms. Like I said, they’re pros.”
Dan glanced at him. Good. Then it wasn’t about Krissy, per se. Then again, with the young guys, one could never tell.
Reaching for a diversion, Rider pressed on in a nonchalant tone. “Word of advice, let her do most of the work—unless you feel compelled and just can’t help yourself. Your day will last longer that way. But when you meet me back in the parlor, I’ll bitch-slap you both if either one of you tells me you’re in love. This is a service being provided by those in a very old and admirable profession. But just like you don’t fall in love with your dentist for giving you extra gloss on your pearly whites, you do not fall in love with your service provider in there. Got it?”
Heads bobbed enthusiastically in unison.
“Cool,” Dan said.
“Yeah, we cool,” Bobby reiterated.
Rider inhaled a long drag. These guys were anything but cool. Sweat was already making dark Vs in their t-shirts, and they were so lost in thought that the questions finally ceased. Gazes were out the window, muscles in jaws lines pulsing. It was like watching hunting dogs pointed toward quail in the bush—intense focus. He almost laughed, and would have if it weren’t so pitiful. He remembered those days, still had ‘em from time to time… more at night when Tara’s nick burned.
Note to self: get these young men out once a month until I go broke or get busted by Mar. Postscript: Reminder to have a drink with Berkfield and then kick his ass for allowing his son to be tied to Marj’s apron strings so tight. No job was that important to let her do all the raising. No wonder the kid had been giving them grief until he joined the team.
“One last word of advice, guys,” Rider said, just to mess with their minds—but he was also half serious. He paused for dramatic effect, taking a long, thought-filled rag on his cigarette. “If you can manage it, do a quick room scan and be sure you know how to open a window. In the event of a raid, at all times you should know where your pants, boots, wallet, and gun are, in that order—even when getting’ laid. That’s cowboy code and been done like that in the ole West since the West was won.” He chuckled as their expression went ashen. “Where do you think the term knocking boots came from?” He exhaled showed and stared at the ember, and then took another drag. “Half the time we never took ‘em off to ride.”
He spied his young pupils from a sideline glance. Their mouths opened and then closed, and gazes sought the window again.
“Thanks, man,” Dan said so quietly he could barely hear him.
“Yeah… thanks,” Bobby murmured, his line of vision fixed on the distance beyond the window.From the corner of his eye, Rider glimpsed their glassy stares. He could only shake his head; there just oughta be a law!