I have some formatting issues here from Word. It’s readable though. Sorry.
The town of Potola was the last decent sized place to buy supplies before his camp ground. There was a little place called Beckwourth that wasn’t an official town, just a place name. They had a good tavern that served a pulled pork sandwich he liked. And it had a gas station with stuff for sale, that fell somewhere short of being a general store. But the prices were high for stuff like charcoal, and they didn’t have fresh meat, just some burger patties and hot dogs in the freezer case with ice cream and other junk food.
They did have lots of things campers forgot or discovered they needed. Cheap work gloves, bungee cords, cooler chests, sun screen, hats, bug spray, and toilet paper. BBQ tools and aluminum foil. Stuff that could be had for near half the price at a big box store in LA.
Jack was organized. He’d done this before, and had a checklist. He also knew what you expect is climate, and what you get is weather. He was prepared to dress for heat or cold, wet or dry. He had a reservation at the camp grounds. There were only a dozen sites, and every one of them was nice, well separated and against deep woods.
He set up easily, taking extra care to groom where his tent went. A small charcoal grill was much easier to use, and safer than a wood fire, even in the provided pit. He got it ready even though it was not time to light it. A lot of campers used the folding chairs that had a complicated frame, shaped square like a director’s chair. Jack favored a Hardoy chair. The frame was simpler and the cloth was just a rectangle with a pocket sown on each corner. If it got bent or ripped he could fix it, while the newer chairs were pretty much a throw-away if anything went bad. To him it was more comfortable too.
Most of his things would stay in the truck where they could be locked up while he was fishing. It was rare somebody stole a tent this far out in the country. He’d take his chances on that since it was a cheap three season tent. Closer to a big city he’d have had to take it down every day if he was away. The homeless filled up the campgrounds too close to big cities and social service offices. Out here it was too far to travel and no public transportation.
Jack got himself a lemonade from the cooler, positioned his chair where it would stay shaded awhile, and got his phone out to continue with the book he was reading right now.
About a chapter later movement made him look up. There was a deep green SUV coming up the drive slowly, checking out the sites. There were two young guys in it. It was the same make and model as the burgundy one that followed him yesterday. He hadn’t seen the two young men that clearly, to remember them. They had been brown haired and non-descript, like these, but it made him uneasy.
It appeared their site was about three down from him, and when they turned in they would no longer be visible. The privacy here was one of the things he liked normally. He had an itch to check out what their camp looked like, but had no reason to walk past. Instead the toilet and water were before his site, so they had reason to walk past his. It wasn’t long before one did, carrying a large jug for water. He looked Jack over, but then he was looking around at everything.
After a bit he walked back the other way with a heavy jug. It wasn’t long until their vehicle backed onto the camp drive, and took off again. Jack thumbed his phone to camera mode and zoomed tight on the little SUV. He got a good shot of the rear plate, before it disappeared down the loop. He couldn’t tell from the rear if one or both of them were inside, the tinted glass and headrests obscured the view. It was mighty bad planning to need to run back into town so soon.
California left no rock unturned for revenue, so they were pleased to sell Jack the vehicle history for that plate. A hundred and ten bucks seemed pretty steep, and he suspected he’d feel stupid afterwards, until he had it on the screen. It was a year old Honda Portage, which had no reported accidents, been subject to one minor recall, and belonged to Tangent Industries. Uh-huh. They did return later after enough time to have gone to the store for supplies.
Sleeping in the tent didn’t feel safe now. He moved stuff from behind the driver’s seat so it would recline all the way, and removed the bulb in the overhead light. He had a reflective sunscreen and put it across the cab back window. The side windows had a decent tint, so in the dark you could not see a person in the truck. He could see his tent and chair just fine slouched in the seat.
The clock did not dim with the dash lights, so he put a piece of tape over it. With both windows down a crack he could hear too. He didn’t want to be too paranoid, but he left his key in the ignition, ready to leave in an instant, and laid his pistol on the passenger seat with a bandana over it.
He let the fan run for awhile circulating him fresh air, but as it cooled off quickly he was happy to shut it off. If it ran the battery down too far the truck would auto-start to charge it, and he didn’t want that. Despite all the uncertainties he fell asleep before very late.
* * *
Early morning was dark in the thick trees, even if the sky was silvery looking straight up. Everything had that blue cast, and the shadows were still deep and black. Jacks eyes popped open, but he didn’t move just yet, aware something had awakened him, but not what.
The green SUV was pulled across the entry to his campsite. They likely coasted down in neutral, but the crunch of tires on gravel could have awakened him. He didn’t appreciate being blocked in. The two men were standing looking at his tent with some sort of monocular. The fellow using it the bucket carrier from last night.
“There’s no hot-spot. He isn’t in there,” the fellow with the viewer said.
“Crap, do you think he went off fishing at the crack of dawn?”
“If he is he’ll probably be gone at least the morning.”
“But he could have gone to take a piss and be right back.”
“You want to back the Honda up to our site and watch awhile?”
“No, if we start it we might wake somebody else up and draw attention. I’ll look in the tent and you check out the truck. If he comes back we’ll brazen it out. I don’t think one senior citizen is going to want to get into it with both of us.”
The one fellow boldly unzipped his tent and entered, the other came up to the truck and produced a very sophisticated jimmy tool, the sort to get around the guards most manufacturers built in now, with an adjustable hook on the end.
He slid it under the rubber window channel and tried to lift the lock arm a few times. It didn’t catch so he adjusted the end and tried again. All the while Jack laying back watching him work. Jack picked up his pistol and shifted it to his left hand. He shot just fine lefty too.
The door lock popped up, and the young fellow looked very satisfied. He pulled the door all the way open, turning with it to lay the tool on the ground. When he leaned into the dark cab Jack extended the pistol and planted the muzzle square between his eyes.
“Quiet.” He demanded softly.
The fellow pulled his arms back palms displayed, and then hesitated a little and opened his mouth.
Jack thumbed the safety off and stuck his finger in the trigger guard. That re-froze him.
“Reach back and get your wallet, and toss it past me very gently into the passenger footwell.”
“Did you say something?” came muffled from the tent.
Jack drew back the pistol and smacked the fellow hard above the ear. He went down easily the first blow. He immediately started the truck and pulled forward driving over the front of the tent with the door until both front wheels were pinning it down firmly, and the volume was reduce by over half. Trapping the other man against the back wall of the tent.
“What the hell?” sounded from inside, but there wasn’t much he could do. He might cut his way out eventually, if he had a really good knife, but the newer fabrics were amazingly tough.
Jack dragged the young fellow around to the other side of the truck where they were not visible from the loop road. The guy in the tent was objecting, so he walked over and kicked the struggling shape about where he guessed the guys butt would be. It was enough he fell down inside, and shut up for an instant. “Ryan?” he asked in a little bit.
“Ryan is indisposed. If you have any brains you’ll shut the hell up, because if I have to deal with you I’m going to make damn sure Ryan is not a threat at my back. Understand?
“Good.” Jack got some cable ties from his truck and cuffed Ryan’s hands in front of him. Rather than do his ankles he ran a tie through the lower laces on both shoes and linked them. He could shuffle if he stood up and just in case he could kick them off too fast he undid the kids belt and pulled his pants down. If he stood up he’d have them around his ankles too.
He relieved him of his wallet, phone, the Honda keys, and finding no weapon unfolded his chair beside the young fellow. For an instant he worried he was too still and felt for a pulse at his neck. It was there, but he was still limp as a dead fish. That would be a problem if he was in a real coma. He put charcoal in his grill and started it, sitting reading the young man’s documents. His Tangent Industry Security card and driver’s license went in his own wallet. The other items and cards carefully examined got tossed one by one on the fire.
The kid rolled on his side and projectile vomited. He didn’t get any on Jack, which was good. Jack was grumpy, missing his breakfast, and not terribly kindly disposed toward him. The kid spat, gasping and found out he was cuffed.
“You’re in a hell of a lot of trouble old man!”
Jack couldn’t help it. He laughed so hard it hurt. When he got through he tossed the kid’s Bank of America card on the fire and watched it melt.
“What are you doing?” he said horrified.
“Well, if the police come you are going to be a completely undocumented person. I don’t have to tell you the suspicions that arouses in police today. They will immediately suspect you of something serious if you chose not to have ID on you. And no matter what shakes out it going to be a tremendous big pain in the ass to replace all these cards and stuff. I’m just stacking the deck against you any way I can. You can hardly blame me for that.”
Jack had already put the couple hundred dollars from the wallet in his pocket. The ones and a few fives the kid had he folded over as he withdrew them to hide the bulk, and tossed them on the fire too, just to freak the kid out. It worked.
“You are crazy…”
“I didn’t invade another man’s rented living space and break in his vehicle. I believe this qualifies as a home invasion by case law. Is that your brand of sane?” He tossed the empty wallet on the fire.
The boy had no answer.
Jack went to the truck and got his hand ax. It was far sharper than firewood required. His prisoner said nothing, just looking worried.
“Watch your toes,” Jack told the lump in the tent. “I’m going to hack a hole down by the ground.” It took a good dozen strokes, but he got a ragged slit as long as his hand.
“Pass your wallet and phone out. If you try to take stuff out I’ll know. I’ve already been through Ryan’s”
“No friggin’ way.”
Jack just sighed, wearily. He walked back and got the bottle of charcoal lighter fluid and walked back to the tent. He stuck a stick in the slit to spread it squirted a steady stream of fluid in the hole.”
“What are you doing?” the voice from inside had a little panicky tone to it this time.
“Tents ruined. Might as well dispose of it.”
“That stuff is dangerous. Just a little vapor and it could flash over from your fire!” the cuffed kid warned.
Jack had a thought and walked to the truck. He reached up inside the fender and removed the tracker. Putting it on the concrete fire circle he smashed it with the back of the hatchet head. Then he put it on the fire too, piling some more charcoal on top of it.
“Oh shit. Ernie?” he called to his buddy in the tent.
“The old man just pulled the tracker off his truck and destroyed it. It’s a set up. He had us made, crap, who knows how far back?”
“Before I even left LA fool,” Jack assured him.
“Are you agency?” the kid asked. He was finally broken, and looked near tears.
“I don’t owe you any information,” Jack assured him. He gave the kid a squirt of lighter fluid in the hair, and another on the front of his shorts. He looked panicked at the close grill.
“What are you going to do?”
“You just don’t understand do you?” Jack asked. “You stalk me, invade my space, tear into my stuff, and I heard you assume you can just beat up an old man if he resists. But when the shoe is on the other foot you think you can call a time out and act like it all was a joke? You are a threat to my life. I didn’t get to be an old man by letting threats come back on me latter. If I let you go you’ll try again in a week or a month and you might actually be cautious enough now to get the upper hand. There’s going to be another tragic tent fire, like you read about in the news, and a couple young city fools who didn’t respect fire let it get away from them. Tragic, but these things happen every season.”
“What do you want?”
“Your buddy already refused me the wallet and phone. I’m not in a bargaining mood.”
The wallet miraculously got shoved out the slit in the tent. “My phone is in the car” Ernie said from the tent. Jack retrieved it and opened it behind the back of the fellow on the dirt. The Tangent ID and license were conveniently in the top two pockets and went in his shirt pocket. He sat back down and resumed reading ID and systematically burning them. There were a couple interesting business cards he kept too, not even trying to hide that. Eventually this wallet went on the fire too. It was wet with the fluid so it went up nicely. He took the battery out of the phone, but didn’t mess with it.
“OK, now I have some questions.” There wasn’t any response to that.
“What is the business of Tangent Industries?” Jack asked. Silence.
“What is the business and association to Tangent of Quest Star Associates?” Jack read off the one business card. Silence.
“What is the business and association to Tangent of Orion Fabricating?” Silence.
He thought about asking why Tangent needed space suits. It might not be good to reveal how much he knew yet, and these men might not even know if they were low level security. “Are you willing to die deny me this information?” he asked instead. No reply again.
“Are you deep conditioned to be unable to tell me these things?” Jack asked with sudden insight.
The kid on the ground started shivering violently, and beaded with sweat quickly.
“Yeees,” was all he could stutter through chattering teeth.
“Well,” Jack said aloud, surprised. Long ago he’d served a short stint in the air force, before he went to university to learn CAD and have a civilian life, he’d heard rumors of such conditioning for government spooks. He’d still bet these folks were not some black government program. They were doing something on the cheap. That was not a quality of black programs. And yet it had something to do with space. He still wanted to know what, and now he was just a bit irritated with them too.
“I’m going to make the extraordinary gift of your lives to you,” Jack informed them. “Not for your sake, but because I am not yet ready to declare war on your employers. If you haven’t figured it out by now I will also instruct you. Don’t mess with the old boys. You think we are feeble minded old fools, but some of them have forgotten more than you will ever know, before you ever stood to take a piss. If I see you try to track me again I won’t be so generous.”
Jack folded his chair up and put it and the hand ax in the truck, dumped his coals in the pit and put the hot grill and supplies in the back of his truck. He got a pair of sheer gloves from the first aid kit, took a bottle of high strength hydrogen peroxide, and got a bandage soaking wet with it. The young man wisely didn’t try anything stupid when he wiped down the cable ties with it thoroughly. He sprayed extra freely around the barb head soaking it. When he was done he squeezed the bandage dry and dropped it on the pile of coals.
If they wanted his DNA they or the police could find it on the tent or somewhere on the campsite, but leaving it on the cuffs was a direct link to a criminal act. He walked down to the Honda and was very careful not to touch bare skin to anything. There was nobody in sight and he started it and backed up, parking it in their campsite again. Then he got out he walked around, shooting out all four tires. They were the modern high pressure super-high mileage kind, so instead of a neat hole the entire thin side wall ruptured at least a quarter of the way around when breached. They ran at about a hundred and sixty psi, so they blew a big blast of air out almost as loud as the gun.
He kept the key as well as the other fellow’s phone out of the dash pocket, and walked back to his camp slow and casual, gun under his jacket. There was one man walking along, looking in each site, but he was going the wrong way, away from Jack. It apparently was hard to tell which direction the shots came from. Good.
Jack got in his truck and backed out, not hurrying. The fellow in the tent didn’t come rushing out. When he passed the man looking for the source of the noise he was going slow and cautious, just like you should drive in a campground. The fellow just nodded at him. He was glad he didn’t flag him down and ask if he knew what was going on. If he had, he’d have said it worried him too, and he was leaving because it didn’t seem safe now. Being a geezer in a cheap truck had its advantages. He didn’t look threatening.
When he pulled out on the county road he had to smile. The police would probably be summoned before the two could disappear, and their lack of ID and shot up vehicle would be hard to explain. Then he frowned. He really should have taken their shoes too. Just to make sure they couldn’t take off across country and evade the police. But perhaps he was crediting too much ability to them.
He really had to find somewhere for a decent breakfast, maybe in Potola, he was starved.