Sunday, May 15, 2011

To Trouble

The Finneys’ places were on the far side of the main highway, so Dylan had to drive through the town centre. Several people smiled at the truck, but their smiles disappeared when they saw it drive right through. The boy had changed his habits, all right: normally, he stopped a while and palavered. He had gotten into the habit honestly; it came from his dad Darren. Habit broken, people wondered what was up. They would soon find out from the gossip network.

Not stopping had made Dylan a little uncomfortable. Not only was he breaking convention, but also Neil needed orienting. So the old boy spoke up.

“Normally, when we go into town, we stop a while and talk things over. It’s what we do. I’d be doing it now, but we don’t have the time.” Sundown was approaching, and Dylan’s steady diet of bad news from Freham made him want to get there before the night turned ugly.

Covered by wires and tools, Dylan’s varmint gun was well-concealed. If there were trouble, he could say he forgot it was there. By “trouble,” he meant trouble with the law, as based on his Wakia experience. The other kind of trouble, he had anticipated but didn’t feel.

A couple of years earlier, when relatively new to carrying the 12-gauge, he had asked himself if he could kill a man. The thought had left him enervated. Varmints were one thing, but killing a human was murder - plain and simple. Guns were only to be used on animals, either dangerous ones like attacking bears or ones destined for the food table. Once, the former has served as the latter. Dylan had decided that the greasy, sweetish, grainy, fibery, gamey taste of black bear wasn’t for him. Not having a taste for fat, he didn’t see bear fat as any great treat.

Seeing his distant cousin getting abstracted, Neil asked what was up.

“Just stay away from the bears,” Dylan replied.

Back in Dylan’s clubhouse, the party was getting rolling. Although Dylan’s age, Evan had enough experience with the world of wine to concentrate on his smartphone while the videos were playing. They’d switch to a movie later, but the videos gave Evan a chance to see what his old friend was about to face. Switching through several social networks, he gathered up what his friend’s dad had seen. Some of it looked like city complaints, but some of it looked real.

As a trial run, he switched over to Twitter and entered the search string “truck Freham.” Evan knew he’d see nothing about Dylan, as it was too early, he wanted to get a feel for the background chatter. Most of it was of the variety, “Went over to club in new truck. Everyone amazed!!!” There weren’t any alarm bells.

Evan hoped there wouldn’t be. Satisfied, he disengaged his smart phone and went back to the entertainment. The jungle-juice boys, absorbed in the video and alcohol, didn’t see his scouring as anything worth asking about. Although the liquor-cabinet concoction didn’t taste good, they liked the effects. Since they were a little ahead, Evan took a big swig of his wine and smiled over at them. The alcohol was working its magic.

A half an hour out of Wakia, it was sundown. Seeing a gas station and convenience store, Dylan pulled over to the right lane and gripped the wheel. There was enough traffic to make him reluctant to do most of the slowing down on the main drag. Turning the wheel right, he got onto the gravel that preceded the asphalt turning lane for the station. Slowing down was a little rough at first, but the truck was well capable of handling it. By the time it got to the drive-off lane, it was going half the speed of traffic. That gave him more than enough slow time to make a smooth turn into the station itself. Neil looked nervous on the gravel, but didn’t complain.

Noting the price of the gas, Dylan quick-calculated that a fill-up from empty would cost close to a thousand dollars. By his reckoning, it was a bargain. He didn’t know, but the station’s gas price marginally cheaper than that of those in Freham.

He pulled into the parking lot, the tank being near-full, and stopped. Both he and Neil took off their seat belts and got out.

Inside was a well-kept, neat if small store with the usual offerings, including several portable vats of coffee in different flavours. Neil saw the security cameras and took them in stride, but Dylan blinked. Wanting to see what was up, he walked over to the cash register and buttonholed the clerk. Neil, not having anything particular to do, followed him.

“What’s with the security?”

The clerk, an older man, looked watchfully at him for a few seconds before answering. “I don’t recall seeing you before. You from around here?”

Dylan started blinking again; Neil joined him by feeling apprehensive. The Freham-raised boy was used to seeing security cams, but he wasn’t used to the clerks being anything but welcoming. Security cams were just part of the ambience – weren’t they?

“Wakia,” Dylan answered with little faze. “The way you got this place decked out, I thought I had already gotten to Freham.”

The way the older man’s posture straightened up said to the boys that this was no mere clerk. Both of them wondered why the owner of the place would be manning the cash register on a Friday night.

“That used to work, kid,” he said in a manner connoting that he took no offence, “but not now. You could say that Freham’s spread out.”

Evidently wanting to talk, he continued. “It’s the inflation, you see. Everyone’s getting the idea that a fellow who waits his turn and does things by the book is a sucker. It’s as if we were all Frehamites now.” He didn’t ask if they were going to buy anything, preferring to get what he had stored up off his chest. Neil looked perplexed; he hadn’t known that the rural denizens used his old home city as a professional bad example.

“In fact, just five miles away – “ The owner’s eyes jerked to a display underneath the cash register, and then looked uncertainly out the window to the gas pump. A newer-model subcompact had pulled up by the front pump, and disgorged a young man with rumpled mid-length hair in jeans and checked shirt. Frowning after reading the pump, he turned and bounded in. By the time he was in the door, he had replaced his frown with a jaunty grin.

“Hey Jack,” he belted out, “what’s with the lockdown?”

“Jack’s not my name, sir, and the pump’s been secured because some’s disappeared when I wasn’t looking.”

Neil had been the first to move away from the cash register; he covered it up by going to the coffee and making himself up a large regular. Dylan didn’t join him, preferring to watch, but he did step back too.

“Well, maybe it was your wife!” The guy’s goatee was accentuated by his now-full smile.

“Maybe it was,” ‘Jack’ answered easily. “If she complains to me in a certain way, I’ll know it was her.”

The stranger’s teeth were now gone, but the smile remained. “Ain’t that the truth.”

“I’ll turn the pump on for you.”

Dylan hadn’t bothered to get a coffee, having been more interested in the back-and-forth between the two. At first wary, he had then waited to be noticed by the stranger; he wasn’t. Neil had handed over a twenty for his coffee and got eight back.

Now back on the highway, Neil opined that there should be a thousand-dollar bill. “I don’t know why they don’t. They say the thousand’s only good for drug runners, but it’s not much more than a hundred’s worth back when we were born.”

Eyes not turning from the road, Dylan answered: “They want to track everyone. You hand over a twenty: no-one knows unless it’s entered into the system. Use a debit card, and everyone knows.” With the assurance that came from a largely clean if not sober town, he added: “the drug war’s largely an excuse anyhow. They” – meaning, the citified federal government – “just want to keep an eye on everyone.”

Neil hadn’t seen it that way. Hearing the more rural take on the matter didn’t gibe with his own, so he didn’t respond while Dylan opined that the inflation was a trick to make cash money obsolete.

A half an hour later, just after passing through the larger town of Arkdale, they saw a transport truck stuck on the shoulder with hazard lights on and warning flares burning. It was now twilight; there was still enough light to see. Without a word, Dylan pulled the truck onto the shoulder; Neil didn’t comment. They stopped about fifty yards after the flare, which offered enough room to manoeuvre around using the far side of the shoulder, near the transport truck. Dylan, although minding the highway traffic, got out first. Neil again followed.

Striding up to it, they could see the back doors of the trailer were hanging open. Neither boy had any knowledge of trucking, so they didn’t see anything unusual about it. They both assumed that the driver had done it for some professional reason.

The trailer was painted with a large image of Pollard’s, a popular beer. Pollard had a brewery in Arkdale that supplied a fair number of jobs, so the truck made sense. It must have suffered a breakdown of some sort, which wasn’t terribly unusual in this time. Dylan was just curious, as was Neil.

They found the truck driver looking at them apprehensively. He had Cintas work pants below a jean short with a badge stencilled onto the left breast with his name, Gil. His baseball cap, now off, had left an etching in his sandy hair. Gil was in his thirties, larger than medium height and fairly husky, and was a couple of days away from his last shave. A lit cigarette was between his middle and index finger, which did not have any nicotine stains on them.

“You look worried,” Dylan introduced himself. “What gives?”

“More like ‘who swipes,’ kid,” Gil answered. “I’ve been broken down here since a little before sundown. Ever since then, my truck’s been a popular destination for those fine people who like to have themselves a little free beer.” He looked at the half-finished lit cigarette, and then chucked it on the gravel. Neil noticed that he looked relieved when cars drove by on the highway without stopping.

“I don’t even know why I got out of my seat,” he continued with a put-upon look. “Back in the old days, people would have looked and saw a man and they would have at least hesitated. Now, they don’t care. Some of them wave, of all things.”

Dylan mulled it over and asked if Gil was financially responsible for the beer.

“Nope,” the driver replied, “I’m waged. Owner-operators are being squeezed out because the insurance costs are skyrocketing. Mine would be, had I been,” he said dolefully.

“It’s the inflation, you see. Inflation means there’s no shame anymore.” He looked down the highway. “The folks who did it are local, of all things. They come from the area. They know I’m only wage, but they also know that Pollard’s provides jobs for the area. I’m no corporate apologist, but I do know that you don’t steal from the jobs. It’s almost as if my colleagues were siphoning gas from the other guys’ trucks at the truck stop.” With the last sentence, he looked vacant. “Yep, it’s close to us stealing from each other.”

As if Gil had introduced them, a late-model SUV filled with four youths stopped right behind them. They had found out about the accident, like their predecessors in swiping, through the local social network. Laughing and grinning, they got out and headed to the back of the trailer with impunity. One of them climbed up and began handing 24-cases out to his friends. Transferring them to the back of the SUV, they didn’t stop until eight cases had gone.

The guy who had handed them out saucily waved at Gil as his friends got back in the SUV. “Thank Pollard for making up for our gas, friend.” Friend? Both boys’ eyebrows wrinkled. Dylan was already folding the incident into his healthy prejudice against the big city. This time, it was Neil who stepped forward.

“Why are you guys swiping?”

The young man, muscles showing through his T-shirt, cracked up. “Kid, why aren’t you?” He snorted genially. “Too young to drink? Driver’s love-boy?”

Seeing the kid’s look of disgust at the last, he continued with the same self-confident air. “Boyo, it’s easy. Ever calculate the rate of inflation? Try it sometime. I figured it, and my figures show we’re being charged twice the price for Pollard’s that we should be charged. Same with gas, man.”

Assuming that a reasonable approach would work, Neil responded that gold was $20,000 an ounce while official inflation would indicate a price of somewhere around $5,000. He hoped the word ‘official’ would get the hint across.

It didn’t. Feeling his own not-quite healthy prejudice confirmed, the young man continued. “I know who sells it. The banks, right? They fixed it, just like all the big corporations fix everything. The banksters, they’re manipulating the gold upwards - just like they manipulate oil.”

Evidently used to having people listen to him, he continued. “I’m not stupid, and you aren’t either. The CPI says 14% inflation. My bills say, somewhere between 30 and 40%. Put ‘em together; it’s easy.”

By now, Neil was little more than a shadow – as was the ringleader of the swipe gang; it had darkened. “I’ve pumped more than enough money into Pollard’s corporate pocket as it is. ‘Buy for the jobs,’ ‘buy for the local economy,’ ‘buy to help your friends’ – what a crock of crap.” Hoping to get a better view, he approached the boy. His own shadow showed a narrow waist and wide shoulders to complement his well-muscled arms. “The way I figure it, they owe me loads. I’ve paid up more than enough to entitle me to a huge discount, and that’s what we’re getting here.”

Neil saw the swiper-in-chief’s head, now ten feet away, turn to the driver. “And what about you? If you were smart, you’d be selling the load until you’ve topped up your wages. What do you get, cost of living? The way these guys lied, you should be getting double to keep up. If they’re underpaying you, why wouldn’t you be getting back at them?” His tones suggested there was something wrong with Gil. “What’s the matter – got Pollard’s stock?”

“I do fine, kiddo,” Gil answered with a completely different tone. “But since you’re so concerned for my welfare, I can sob-story you back. The Pollard stock I got has gone down half using your cost of living figures.” The last fact, he intoned it as if he were trying to flash a deputy’s badge.

Evidently deciding that Neil was a neutral party, or at least corruptible, the young freebooter turned back to him. Dylan stood watching, ignored by all.

“The banksters, right? They manipulate the stock market, downwards. Everyone’s stealing, and the big boys steal the most.”

Not noticing that Neal’s eyes were darkening, as he was insulting his audience's father by implication, he continued. “Why don’t I get up and toss you a few cases? If you’re, uh, ‘too young to drink,’ you can still barter ‘em.”

Neil tried to be diplomatic, but his voice sounded principled – or, to a certain type of person, truculent. “No thanks, I’ve been looked after.”

Pausing, the young thief looked him over and then smirked. “You’re quite the Richie Rich type, aren’t you." He paused for a moment. His expression was invisible to Neil, as it was to Dylan and Gil. Being brushed off, he now ignored the latter; the former, he didn't recognize at all. Neil occupied his attention.

“Kid, let me give you a tip: there’s lots of Freham gals ‘bout ten years older than me – call it twice your age plus seven – who’s love to get their manicured hands on the likes of you. They pay for it: lots. They have mucho money but no class, you get? They’d love to rub their thingies on a classy young son. Top dollar goes to virgins, too, but you only get that once.

“Don’t laugh,” he continued without checking Neil’s reaction. Having decided to be friendly, he now saw no need. “I’ve heard of boys like you that are clearing twenty thousand a night. ‘Presents,’ you get? You might even get gold for it.

“Hell, I’d get into it myself, only I’m ten years too old and they don’t go for working stiffs.” Pausing, looking reflectively at the backsides of the cars speeding by, he added: “The funny thing is, those babes are a lot like the ones you see the business channel. They’re good-looking. I know guys who’d pay them for the privilege.” Surprisingly to Neil, the rapscallion’s tone had indicated a compliment. “Just goes to show you how confused everything is." The charm he put on didn't get though to the boy whose ears he was bending.

Misinterpreting Neil’s silence as the boy considering what he suggested, he continued easily: ”By all means, think it over, kid. Youth is wasted on the do-gooder. I can assure you of it.”

By now it was dark. Neil saw the headlights of a car that was pulling over to the disabled transport truck. The beer trailer was turning into the head of a parking lot, it seemed. From what he could tell, it was a regular sedan. Two guys, also in their twenties, jumped out.

His would-be mentor was about two feet away from him; the young man not only had ten years and three inches of bicep on him, but also about three inches. Neil wasn’t intimidated at all. The schooling he got at Yancey Grove gave him enough poise not to flinch.

One of the guys from the sedan belted out, “Hey! Is that you, Ralph?”

Ralph turned, smiling. “Yep, it’s me. Here for the free-beer rebate.” Squinting through the dark, he recognized a regular at the hardware store he worked at. Incongruously, Ralph had been recently chosen to be the supervisor in the camping department. He was already being discussed, albeit tentatively, as a store manager or franchisee by the time he was forty.

He saw no contradiction between he being on the corporate fast track at Bild-It Hardware and he lifting beer from a ‘thieving’ corporation. He had gotten to where he was by being in the swim of things. Popular in school, he remained popular when he signed up with Bild-It. At first, he being in the swim of things, he had made jokes at management’s expense when in the free-spending bar. Older employees sought his company out. Later, though, he had become used to the job and showed a knack for bucking people up and even motivating them. Because he was well anchored in the culture mainstream, people tended to like it when he motivated them; his charm carried. The promotion therefore had come quickly.

He, and management, found that his subordinates didn’t mind being bossed by him; his irreverent humour turned into a self-confident light touch. That gave him a crucial edge over someone who knew the job much better than him but didn’t have his people skills. It was that type who disliked being bossed by him, he being a fitting match for the symbolic sleazebag who always euchred out the hard and conscientious worker. Ralph wasn’t a thief by nature, but ‘getting back at the Man’ was in the swim of things.

His managers knew that he had made fun of them but they promoted him nonetheless, once he grew out of it. They did so because he would tolerate jokes made at his own expense once he had attained management rank. Having done so himself, he’d identify with them and thus let it slide. Even the store manager had followed the same track himself; it was part of growing up.

Since going with the flow worked for him, Ralph saw nothing wrong with going with the swiping trend. Unfortunately for him, the same process that would lead to him abiding jokes made by subordinates at his expense had fatally compromised his probity. He far from knew it, but the only way he could keep his own employees from stealing when he was a real boss was to get self-righteous. The unaware Ralph, seeing impunity in popularity, didn’t even discern that the swim of things was to carry him to the shoals once he was in charge. Given his outgoingness and popularity, it would be all-but impossible to conceal his ‘past.’

Oblivious, he walked away from Neil and to the new arrivals. Greeting them self-confidently, he paraphrased his earlier self-justification – this time, to an approving and agreeing audience. Now left alone, Neil looked back for Dylan’s shadow. He could hardly see his companion and Gil the trod-upon truck driver. The stealings weren’t coming at Gil’s financial expense, but they would require forgiveness. And, that forgiveness wouldn’t take away him seeing his own upright values being violated, with popular impunity. In a very real way, he was the unwilling host of a swipe party - one that the cops wouldn't raid.

Carefully walking back, staying as close to the truck and as far away from traffic as he could, Neil saw the two now standing at the front of the tractor part. Dylan greeted him with, “You’re not going to believe what got this guy stuck!”

Gil nodded, with a sour smile. “Yep, I ran out of gas.”

Neil’s eyebrows jolted up. “This close to the town? Why?”

Now, the truck driver snorted. “Management, that’s why. Some ‘get-eveners’ like those dolts keep stealing diesel from my truck. Management’s gotten the idea that we’re somehow responsible, so they’re rationing the purchase orders. I go in, damn lucky to reach the depot on fumes, and find out that I’m not yet entitled to a purchase order for a fill-up. Half my tank got siphoned. ‘Okay’, I said to the dispatcher, ‘then I’ll keep running on the fumes and you guys can come fill me up when I’m stranded.’ He laughed, ‘cause he didn’t make the rule.

“Just like I told you, kid,” he added to Dylan, “you can’t fix stupid unless it breaks something. Then you can. For being stupid, the boss not only cost a special fuel run but also a lot of inventory being swiped. If they try to lay it on me, I’ll up and tell them: ‘What do you expect me to do, bring a shotgun? You going to fix it for me so I can carry one on the truck legally?’”

Now facing Neil, he continued: “I’ll be backed up, that’s for sure. Management needs to see and feel they’ve been stupid. Then they can spend the added money for better truck security, just like we’ve been telling them. But, as I said, you can’t fix stupid unless it breaks something.” Dylan nodded, sagely.

“It’s as if they were living in a dreamworld,” Gil continued, “one where inflation’s nothing other than numbers on a screen that just require adjustment. They’re too out of it.”

With that, he let the boys go. Both of them knew he had gotten his game face on, for when his rescue came. He now had assertiveness in his voice that was absent when he tried to get across his standard of right and wrong.

Thankful for their company, he decided to offer the boys something. Although illegal, it was only breaking a blue law. Nothing like stealing.

“Tell you what: I’ve got twelve smokes left in my pack. I bought it two weeks ago.” He sometimes smoked one cigarette at the end of the day, but mostly not. It depended on his mood. “Why don’t you guys take it.”

Neil looked over at Dylan, ready to refuse. His distant cousin, with eyes resembling his, replied: “Sure, thanks.

“Maybe we’ll see you again,” he said encouragingly as he discerned loneliness shaping the trucker’s face.

“Yes, thank you,” Neil added out of politeness. It seemed the right thing to do, and the guy hadn’t asked them to light up.

“Git outa here,” Gil relied easily. “It’s past your bedtime.” He seemed bittersweet.

After Dylan had explained that you never turn down a gift from someone who’s hurting, the two fell silent at the journey continued through the night. Neil had long finished his coffee, and glanced occasionally at the pack of cigarettes on the dashboard. Neither of them being smokers, neither had a match or lighter.

They had been on the road a full three hours before they reached the outskirts of Freham. Both boys had cell phones, but they both appreciated their newfound independence so they didn’t make any calls along the way. Nor were they called, which Neil appreciated. Dylan was close to taking it for granted.

Thanks to an informal improvised jailbreak, though, Neil’s smart phone transmitted his exact location to his father’s home network – but to no-one else. Albert, although not seeing any restaurant or gas station next to where the two boys had stopped, had assumed that they had found an out-of-the-way place that wasn’t on the computer map. If it were new, there’d be some time before it appeared on the maps. It was close to Arkdale, the phone worked, and his son didn’t call him, so he assumed that they were just having a good time and stretching the trip out.

Darren, after phoning ahead to Albert, had joined him. He trusted his son to do the right thing, but it was a serious job. Since he didn’t wind up the week at the bar or the beer fridge, he was fit to watch along with his distant cousin and new neighbour. It was he who suggested that the boys were goofing off in a restaurant or some place, but it jibed with Albert’s own intuition.

The two men sat at one end of the elongated banquet table in the open-space dining room, watching and sipping colas.

Dylan was amazed at the sight, which was merely homey to Neil. Starting with a white-yellowish corona on the horizon, the lights of Freham turned into a polka-dot display of streetlights punctuated by lit buildings that seemed to go on to infinity as they drove in. Being used to a town with only a minor highway as the main drag, the born-and-raised Wakian thought the city went on forever.

But, he knew they had to exit – so he concentrated on one of the many main drags of Freham, Unity Avenue. Four miles down that way would take them to a lesser turn-off into the ritzy area of town. A few more turns down well-treed and fat-lotted side streets, which Neil knew from memory, would take them to Harold Renfrew’s place. A divorcé, he had not gone with the swim of things and acquired himself a trophy wife; he felt that doing so would shame his two sons and daughter, all of which had flown his nest. So, he lived alone on his Tudor-style mansion and did without. Although his home was only the same size as the one he had sold for Albert, it was on a bigger lot in one of the richest areas of Freham. He had inherited it, and was in part acting as custodian for his eldest to inherit it from him. Unlike Albert, Harold had no intention of moving from Freham. For him, money for a personal security detail was money well spent.

Having gotten off at Unity, they went halfway there when Dylan decided to pull off to a drive-through restaurant for a midnight snack. It was pushing eleven o’clock.

Seven people his age were in the parking lot. In keeping with the times, they were dressed in well-priced casual clothes: no faux-prison garb. That marked them off, Neil knew, as upper middle class: professionals’ kids, in a feeder school for universities. They looked rowdy, but seemed safe.

Now that they were in Freham, Dylan turned the pleasantries over to Neil. After all, Wakia’s newcomer had been born and raised in the big city. He would know what to do.

Having gotten the standard burgers and fries, which cost them a little less than fifty bucks each, they parked in the lot near the gathering they had seen when coming in. “You might as well do the honours,” Dylan said jauntily. He parked the truck so as to get Neil’s door closer to the crowd. On a hunch, he also parked so that there was no vehicle beside theirs on either side.

There were five boys and two girls, all teenagers. Before Neil got out, Dylan said, “Take the pack of smokes with you.” Knowing that a lot of veterans smoked, he assumed it would make them look tough. You never knew.

Getting the hint, Neil did so as he got out. Dylan followed him out, but stayed behind the truck and watched. Something didn’t seem right.

Whatever that something was, Neil was oblivious. Politely, he walked over to the seven and kept a respectful distance.

One of the boys approached him, with a mean look in his eyes. Not expecting it from this crowd, Neil assumed that he was ticked off at something. Maybe this fellow got a rejection letter for the college of his choice, or gat a B on a test, or something of that sort. The collegiate kids, they cared deeply about their grades and their prospects.

The strange boy was Neil’s height, and built a little thicker. Neil’s civil assumption was flayed when the boy opened his mouth.

“A smoker, eh? Come to kill us with your second-hand smoke?”

Thrown out of gear, Neil reacted placatingly. His back to the truck he came from, he didn’t see what Dylan was doing. The young tough did, but concluded that the other boy was using the truck cab to hide. He was quite sure that both newcomers were weak; what this new kid said and did confirmed his impression.

Putting the pack in his pocket, Neil replied peaceably: “There, it’s gone. Nothing to worry about.”

Encouraged by what he thought as weakness, the boy withdrew a knife to the approving glances of his girl and the rest of the pack. “You sound Yancey,” he spat out. “Bankster boy. The way I figure, you owe me. You owe us.

Contemptuously looking at the somewhat beaten truck, he continued spitting out his hostility. “Chicken, trying to hide what you got. Figures.

“Well, Yancey boy, you can call me ‘Taxman’ ‘cause you’re getting an audit.”

“Yeah!” one of the boys behind him exclaimed. ”Audit him!” The next sentence mixed “tax” in with a couple of invectives.

“Oh yes, sir,” the boy replied sarcastically. “And we’ll be needing an inventory of what’s in your fine truck. Or perhaps I should say, our truck.” All seven were now moving in, looking excited, scenting victory over the hapless pair.

The boy that the young gang leader thought was too scared to show his face, seemed to have disappeared. “Now hold on,” Neil said, trying to reach their better nature. “I’m not at Yancey and I don’t know what the rules are here.”

Enjoying the sight of what they took as squirming, they closed in and circled him. Dylan, thinking his cousin was a stand-up guy, took the placating as a delaying tactic. Since Neil’s supposed deference was working, Dylan decided to add to it. Deliberately putting synthetic fear in his voice, he said from behind the truck: “Neil, just lie down on the ground.”

“Good one!” the young thug chimed in. “Better do as your cowardly friend says, Yancey boy. It’ll make the audit go much - more - smoothly.” Neil, trusting Dylan, did so. His nose touched the pavement. Unknowingly to both him and Dylan, several people gathered on the sidewalk side of the parking lot to see the robbery go down. Not wanting to get involved, they just watched. Most of them were full adults.

Now, the gang leader boomed: “Hey coward! Stop cowering behind the truck and bring me the keys!” One of his confederates looked lewdly at the other, swung his foot as if to kick something and looked at Neil’s torso. The other nodded, grinning in the same way. The girls’ lips and eyes glowed as they looked at the rest of the gang.

Dylan had found his earlier enervation, elicited at the thought of shooting a human being, gone. These thugs weren’t acting human; they were varmints. Dangerous ones. So, he acted exactly like he was facing down an attacking bear when he hauled himself half-up, using the truck bed as a shield, and clicked the shotgun into readiness. Part of his ‘cowering’ was spent making sure the safety was off, the parts were assembled smoothly, and the magazine had enough ammo. He knew very well that the shotgun had better work.

The sound of it being readied almost echoed through the parking lot as everyone hushed.

Most of the gang changed from lewd to open-mouthed. There was enough light to show the eyes of a ‘coward’ who in fact was a trained killer. Granted that Dylan had only killed animals, but his adrenaline-soaked subconscious had pegged the targets as nothing more than varmints.

Sensing something, Neil rolled around and saw his towering tormenters frozen. “It’s in the car; we can’t get to it,” one of the boys said unsteadily to the gang leader.

His eyes still glinting, Dylan trained the sights on the leader. He figured, correctly, that the others were under his thumb except perhaps for the girl he was banging.

Jerkily relying on his bravado, the head thug took a step forward. The lot echoed with a crack as the shotgun pellets deliberately went over the boy: Dylan had fired a warning shot. At that sound, everyone ran to the two cars they drove up in except for one of the girls. He face showed the exact same look a fading beauty showed when she discovered her first crow’s feet. Two of the spectators let out a yelp, but no-one started screaming

Neil stood up. Getting the scent of the turn-the-tables victory, he stood tall. Seeing it, the girl’s eyes turned obsequious as she lowered herself to her knees and opened her mouth in a clearly suggestive manner.

Disgust overcoming the tingle in his midriff, Neil backed up. “Get in the vehicle!” Dylan belted out. He has seen them ruffling around for something in one of theirs.

Neil bolted to the truck, almost tore the door open, and jumped in without fastening his belt; Dylan didn’t either. Seat-belt tickets were the least of their worries right now.

His hand shooting to the key, he started up the truck after handing the shotgun to Neil. “Just pretend,” he barked as his right hand jerked the vehicle into reverse. Both boys were jerked by his quick back-up and turn, shove into drive, and slam-down of the pedal. The people watching by the parking-lot exit hastily cleared a wide, respectful path for him; they looked scared. Jerking the accelerator back, Neil coasted to the exit and turned a hard right onto Unity Street.

Luckily for them, the gang had forgotten their own gun. There was less than two miles to go before Dylan and Neil reached the turn-off to the Renfrew place.

Their luck continued. This part of town, although middle class, was becoming used to teenage gangs. Those who weren’t scared of calling the police, didn’t bother because they figured those young hooligans got what they deserved. As for the others, they’d get theirs once the word spread; it would all even out in the end.

Yes, Dylan and Neil were very lucky: they had been accosted at the time when the collegiate-school bangers inflicted violence only on each other and strangers. Had they begun shooting the innocent, it would be a very different story.

The more aggressive gangs were moving into the drug trade. Those less aggressive took up burgling, after carefully confirming that their target houses were insured. They justified their thefts by saying that they weren’t ‘really’ stealing, as the insurers picked up the loss. Insurance companies being easy political targets, they were no longer allowed to jack up their premiums above the CPI rate unless they could show “clear cause” for doing so. It would take a long time for the insurance companies to convince a now-cynical regulatory staff that this part of Freham was turning into a jungle. There was now a fixed formula, which the thieves knew about. Using their university-track education, they calculated the number of robberies they could commit before the threshold was reached. If the area went over the threshold because of outside or professional thieves, the gang boys and girls could blame the outsiders for the premium hikes. The drug dealers, quite righteously, looked down on the thieves.

Without knowing it, the two had confronted a farm-league offshoot of a drug gang. Most of the spectators did know it. Almost instantly, the word spread across cyberspace. There were now new boys in the ‘hood!

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