Where Dogs Run – Chapter 4

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12:15 PM

The outer room of the principal’s office houses Mr. Livingston’s secretary as well as his love for bowling.  His amateur trophies clutter the back counter, all polished and positioned around a single bowling pin encased in glass.  “The one that got away,” the gold plate reads beneath it.  “2nd Place – Duckminster Classic.”

Mr. Livingston’s longtime secretary, Mrs. Swarthmore, busily types on a computer while humming along to a song playing softly on her radio.  Glancing over the partition board as Josh enters the room, she points a finger in the direction of the principal’s main office.  “Keep walking,” she says in that strained and bothered tone.  “Looks like you have some explaining to do.”

Josh had already hashed out his explanation during his walk from the playground.  He’d lost something, he’d say, and had gone out to the playground to retrieve it.  If the principal asks who the man on the playground was, Josh will shrug his shoulders.  If the principal asks what they had been talking about, Josh will tell him that he was simply inquiring about what he had lost.  The plan seems surefire – flawless – the result most likely chalkboard duty, but nothing that might jeopardize the integrity of the mission.  However, as Josh strolls into the office, his confidence falls to the wayside.  Not only is Mr. Livingston holding a bowling ball and demonstrating his approach, but he is doing so for the man in the brown three-piece suit and matching fedora.

“There you are,” Mr. Livingston says, looking up from his imaginary lane.  “I’d like you to meet someone.  This is Special Agent Blair.  He’s a federal investigator.”

Josh slights the agent’s offer of a handshake.  “The F.B.I?”

Agent Blair smiles.  “That’s right,” he says, moving from the edge of the principal’s desk to the center of the room.  “I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

He pulls an old high school mug shot from the inside of his jacket.  “We have reason to believe that you’ve recently been in contact with this individual.”

Josh studies the photograph.  The quality is poor, the image a bit blurry, but there is enough to tell that the young man in the picture is Tuscaloosa with a dated haircut.  “I don’t know,” he says, feeling an uneasiness build inside his stomach.  “What is this all about?”

“He’s a very dangerous man,” Mr. Livingston interjects.  “Special Agent Blair is trying to get him off the streets.”

Josh nods, never taking his eyes off the photograph.

“It’s a copy of an old picture,” Agent Blair adds.  “Probably too hard to tell.”  He turns to the principal.  “I’d like to take him down to our office so he can have a look at some more current pictures, if that’s okay.”

“Of course,” Mr. Livingston says, walking towards the door.  “I’ll just have my secretary phone his house.”

“That’s not necessary,” the agent replies.  “His parents are already on their way.”

Josh looks up at the principal.

“Very well then,” Mr. Livingston says without a flinch.  “I’ll have Ronnie collect his homework.”  He looks down at Josh.  “Can you pick it up from her after school?”

“I guess.”

The agent puts his hand on Josh’s shoulder and leads him to the door.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” he tells the principal.  “You have a very fine school.”

Agent Blair directs Josh through the school’s double doors and out to the sedan, which is still parked in the turnaround.  The other agent drops his cigarette and slides into the front seat.

“Get in,” Agent Blair tells Josh after opening the back door.  “Sit by the window.”  He then grabs Josh’s hand and cuffs his wrist to the door’s armrest.

“What’s this for?” Josh asks.

“Flight risk,” the other agent declares from the front seat.  “Don’t roll down the window or open the door.  You do what we tell you and everything will be okay, okay?”

The door slams shut and Agent Blair drops behind the steering wheel.  “All right kid,” he says, peering into the rearview mirror.  “You know who we’re looking for.  We know you’ve seen him.  So how ‘bout we make this easy?  Tell us where he is and nobody gets hurt.”

* * *

Stump City Grocery is by far the most popular retailer in town.  Sitting on a large parcel of land that also accommodates a video store and shoe repair shop, the huge market lays claim to a busy parking lot.  With a constant flow of cars, carts, and customers, the parking area is home to as many accidents as arguments.  From coupons to the closest available parking spot, customers will fight for their right to shop – at bargain prices.

Agent Blair pulls into the parking lot and cautiously steers the sedan up and down each lane.  He dodges an abandoned cart on the run and cringes when it hammers into the bumper of a parked car.  He slams on his brakes to avoid hitting a careless pedestrian.  He nearly collides with a postal truck that is backing out of a handicapped spot.  After watching an old lady swing her car door into the side of a van, he quickly retreats to the furthest corner of the parking lot.  Cutting the engine, he tells his partner to go inside but not to make a scene.

“We’ll approach him when he comes back out.”

As the unnamed agent heads for the market’s sliding glass doors, Agent Blair pulls a cigarette from the inside of his shirt pocket.  He whistles softly while waiting for the car’s lighter to pop.  Pressing the cigarette to the red metal glow, he pinches the filter between his lips and exhales a puff of smoke through the corner of his mouth.

“Hang in there, kid,” he tells Josh after rolling down the window.  “This shouldn’t take too long.”

Josh rolls his cuffed wrist back and forth.  “I thought I was supposed to look at some pictures.  He’s probably not even here.  I don’t even know if this is the guy you’re looking for.”

Agent Blair laughs at Josh and then angles the rearview mirror towards the front of the store.  He hangs his cigarette out the window and chuckles to himself.

“What the –” he suddenly cries out, clenching every muscle in his face.  As his arm is wrenched towards the asphalt, he unleashes an earsplitting scream.

“Unlock it,” Tuscaloosa barks through the open window.  He squeezes Blair’s smoldering fist in his hand.  “Quit your crying and open the door.”

Blair opens the door and Tuscaloosa swiftly repositions his grip, pushing the man’s body forward and pressing his face hard against the steering wheel.

“What are you doing here?” Tuscaloosa asks Blair, twisting his arm high up his back.  “Whose side are you on, huh?  You helping them find me, is that it?  Huh?  Higher?  You want me to go higher?”  Any higher and the man’s shoulder will pop.  “Talk to me.  What is this?  Some sort of trap?”

Blair shakes his head, nods his head, does whatever because he is not listening, only feeling, lips quivering inarticulate words – swear words – easy words that fall straight from his mouth.

“Have mercy!” he cries out before his voice fades to a whimper.  “Please, oh please, I’m just doing my job.”  His fingers uncurl; they bloom from the snuffed cigarette sticking to his palm.  He drops his other hand onto the dashboard and blindly slides a brown envelope in Tuscaloosa’s direction.

“We’re supposed to give you this,” Blair sobs.  “That’s it.  We’re just supposed to give you this.”

Tuscaloosa drops Blair’s arm and grabs the envelope.  He tucks it under his injured arm.  “What is it?”

“I have no idea.”

Tuscaloosa squints his eyes and notices Josh sitting in the backseat.  “So you were in on this, after all.”

“No!” Josh blurts.  “I didn’t do anything!”  He points at his cuffed hand – “See!” – but Tuscaloosa only shakes his head.

“You have to believe me!” Josh shouts.  As he starts to beg, Blair drops a sly hand to his ankle and draws a butterfly knife.  He whips the blade at Tuscaloosa’s jean jacket.

Josh jumps and shuts one eye in fear.  With the other, he watches Tuscaloosa display his karate skills, blocking the attack with a rolling forearm and delivering a mind-numbing head crack with the heel of his hand.

Blair’s body slumps to the side.  His hat slides off his thinning hair and his nose drips blood.

“Get out!” Tuscaloosa barks through the back window.

Josh coils in the backseat.  As he watches Tuscaloosa pace outside the car, a transformation occurs before his eyes.  Chest expanding, shoulders widening, Tuscaloosa’s simple walk converts to a full-blown stomp.  If he hadn’t blinked twice, Josh would have testified to its plausibility, swearing if he had to that mutants do in fact exist, that they “live among us,” and for the most part lead very ordinary lives.  But because he blinked twice, now forever uncertain, Tuscaloosa is still just a man, albeit a few steps closer to resembling the mammoth emblazoned on his T-shirt.

Tuscaloosa plucks the car keys from the ignition and hurls them atop the grocery store’s roof.  “You hear me?” he asks Josh.  “Get out now!”

Josh reaches for the door lock but it is too late.  Tuscaloosa swings the door open and Josh, still clasped to the armrest, tumbles to the warm asphalt below.

“Don’t kill me!” Josh screams.

“Where are the keys?” Tuscaloosa asks, his frustrated glances moving from the handcuff to the market’s automatic doors.  “We gotta get out of here!  Where are the keys?”

Josh, burying his head into his shoulder, cowering against the pavement, prepares for the unexpected and the very worst.  His muscles ice over, his eyes clamp shut, his front teeth burrow into the chapped swell of his lower lip.

“Do you want to live?” he hears Tuscaloosa ask in a tone too real to be imagined.

“I don’t want to die,” Josh replies just loud enough for the man to hear.

Tuscaloosa kneels to the ground, lowering his head to Josh’s.  “Then answer me,” he says more softly.  “Listen to me.”  Gone is the sense of urgency in his voice, perhaps in recognition of Josh and his age.  “Where are the keys?”

Josh pulls his head from his shoulder and looks to his own gut.  “In your life,” his mother had once told him after a bad dream, “you will be faced with choices – many choices.  Some will be obvious while others will not.  Whatever path you choose is yours to follow.  Where it leads, how far it goes – it all means nothing as long as you enjoy the walk.”

With the shadow of a hovering bird lending its shield to the blinding sunlight, Josh points to the shiny keys now atop the grocery store’s roof.

“Rely on your instincts and never give up,” his mother whispered to him at his bed.  “The bad guys will always bite at your heels.  Only if you stop will they eat you alive.”