The red Jeep heads east toward Hemlock through fallow, wind-scoured farmland. Abandoned in the fields are harrows, seeders, cultivators, combines—all scavenged to useless hulks. A tall fence surrounds the huddled main buildings of each small farmhold. Some of the fences are built of logs and sawmilled planks; most are patchworks of everything from road signs, to sheet metal, to plywood.
The Jeep now turns south onto a dirt driveway that leads to one of these farm compounds, its fence made mostly of road signs. At the end of the driveway, the driver turns left, stops, backs slowly alongside the fence, then suddenly brakes.
Two tall men step out of the Jeep, their faces hidden behind aviator sunglasses and bandana masks. The ginger-haired passenger heads for the gap he has just spotted between the metal signs that rattle and clack in the dirty wind. The driver, drawing his Walther PPK from its shoulder holster, strides around the front of the Jeep to the passenger side, leans over the hood, and trains his weapon north.
He decides the best position for attackers would be about 400 yards to the northwest, from behind either a thick growth of flowering sumac or a cluster of eastern hemlock. A makeable rifle shot.
Now the man with the ginger hair says, “They’ve got a puppy, Wolf!” He beckons Wolf to the eye-level gap he found between a yellow NO U TURN sign and one with fancy blue lettering that says SWENSON’S BAKERY.
Wolf glances over his left shoulder. “I believe you, Lenny.” Then he focuses again on the wind-tossed sumac and hemlock.
“It’s not even a guard dog.” Lenny’s freckled forehead is wrinkled in disbelief. “It’s just a damn brown puppy, layin’ there on that old porch, chewin’ a stick.” Lenny’s powerful voice booms through his bandana mask. “How can they afford to feed it?”
Wolf shrugs his high, wide shoulders. “People need dogs.”
Lenny rolls away from the gap and leans his back against the fence, crossing his big arms over his black denim jacket. “Yeah, to guard things.”
“For more than that. A dog is a safe place for the heart.”
Lenny cocks his head, then nods. “There you go again, Wolf, talkin’ wise.”
“Just an observation.” Wolf’s reedy voice is muted by his mask.
For a moment, the men are silent. Then Lenny says, “So what are we waitin’ for? Nobody’s shootin’ at us.”
“I’ve got the baby, my baby. So what you gonna do about that?”
Wolf can see the man now, about fifteen feet off to his right. In the crook of his left arm is the baby—its blanket covering most of the man’s denim vest and the tattoos on his bare chest. The man has at least fifty pounds on Wolf; he has a thick neck, a round face, and a double swastika tattooed on his shaved head. And in his right hand he’s holding a rifle, its barrel pointing down.
“Drop them long guns right now or I’ll break this little bastard’s neck.”
Wolf lowers his rifle and shotgun to the ground.
“Now the handguns.”
Wolf takes the chief’s Glock out of the tactical holster on his left thigh and his M45A1 from his shoulder holster, then lowers them to the ground.
“Now kick all them guns away from you.”
Shoving the weapons aside with his foot and taking a step forward, Wolf clears a path between him and the massive man.
Wolf speaks in a high, nasal voice as he begins gesturing continuously with his hands, in ever widening arcs. “Why are skinheads runnin’ with Skin Searchers? You guys are tough. They’re nothin’ but little pricks. What can you possibly have in common, besides the word ‘skin’?”
“None of your fuckin’ business.”
“Just askin’ a question. Say, haven’t I seen you someplace before?”
“I’m Big Jim Brege. You got away from me once, but you won’t do it again.”
“How’d you get after me so fast?”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“I was just giving you a compliment. You were really fast.”
“Ruthie got us on the CB.”
“That was a really smart trick you pulled on the road, with the baby. Does it usually work?” Wolf takes a step toward Brege.
“It always worked. Till you came along.”
“Where’s the baby’s mother?”
“I broke the bitch’s neck. Cryin’ and yellin’. She was no good to me with her kid gone. How was I supposed to know I’d get it back?”
“What are you going to do with the baby now?” Wolf takes another step, his hands still moving.
“You’re curious for a man who’s about to die.”
“Do you have to be someplace in a hurry?” Wolf is now within ten feet of Brege.
“The baby won’t last long without her. And it’s all your fault. You screwed up a good trick.”
“So what’s your plan with me?”
The man sets the baby in the bushes off to his side, then starts straightening up and raising his rifle, saying, “How about I show you instead.”
Before Brege finishes speaking, Wolf has pulled the Bowie knife from behind his back, taken two long quick strides, and is leaping in a crouch through the air.
Wolf’s feet land in the middle of the big man’s chest, sending the rifle off into the trees, while the blade in Wolf’s right hand descends, severing the man’s left carotid artery and his internal and external jugular veins.
As the big man falls backward, Wolf begins standing up on Brege’s chest, so that when the body thuds to the ground, he is able to step off and walk away.
The dying man’s blood jets off into the Ponderosa pines while Wolf cleans the Bowie knife on nearby weeds. “Well, me and my baby have got to get on down the road now.”
Wolf opens his door, slams it behind him, walks to the front of the Jeep.
Then drops to his knees in the sand.
Ava is a few feet from him, facing the golden water, slowly lowering the yellow dress down her arms, down her back, letting it drop to her hips where it clings for a moment, then falls with her panties to the grass.
Now she looks back over her shoulder at him, her wide amber eyes filled with desire. He clasps his hands between his knees, falls back on his heels. And in that stunning moment of recognition, all his power is fixed on possessing this woman.
She steps into the water, her hair falling in great amber swirls across her shoulders and down her tapering back, walks until the water is up to her thighs, turns her head once more and looks at him, with the same desire he saw in her eyes before he knew her.
His spirit knew from the first that she was the Woman. Now even his mind admits it, doesn’t care that it is irrational. He holds his breath, afraid to move for fear she will vanish. And he wonders why the small of a woman’s back has never before seemed to him so seductive, so perfectly made. A secret place, an unexplored country.
Suddenly she dives, transfigured into a long shadow beneath the surface, swimming away from him, now turning back in long undulations until she rises from the water and stands before him, slowly smoothing the wet hair from her exotic face while glimmering gold water streams down her silken skin, parting between her magnificent breasts with their large areola, joining again in a delta of gleaming hair whose lower tip touches the reflecting water to form a perfect golden hourglass.
“Why don’t you come in?” she asks in her own sultry voice.
“I want you to come here,” he says evenly, his hands shaking.
She tosses her hair, then reaches up to arrange it, lifting her high breasts still higher. Wolf feels his lips parting.
Now she walks toward the shore but at an angle away from him. When she reaches a wide blanket of salt grass, she kneels, looks back at him, then lies on her back with her arms above her head, closing her eyes to the golden sky.
He can hear her breathing.
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