The snow was falling again as Vaughn coasted into the last gas station. He didn’t have enough fuel to make it home. To his dismay, he found the pumps covered with yellow baggies indicating “out of service.” His options were to leave his truck and walk the last five miles or beg the storekeeper to sell him a gallon illegally. Neither option was very appealing.
He noticed a shadowy figure making his way down the road toward the station. He was not a local; he had a vagabond appearance dressed in a frayed, black trench coat. Vaughn decided it best to beg for gas rather than leave his truck behind. He went up to the door of the store but found it locked. The lights were on inside so he knocked. The shopkeeper came to the door, looking irritated. Vaughn made himself look as pathetic as possible. The shopkeeper unlocked the door and let him in. The vagabond followed behind him..
“Ain’t got no gas,” said the shopkeeper
“Please,” Vaughn begged, “all I need is a gallon, even half a gallon—just enough to get home. I’ll give you all I have.” Vaughn pulled out his wallet and began counting off bills… ten… twenty… thirty…. The shop keeper just rubbed his handlebar mustache, peering through his squinty eyes while Vaughn counted.
“Even if I had any, I couldn’t sell any to you. I’m at my daily quota.”
The vagabond who followed Vaughn into the store stepped toward them. His black stocking cap was pulled down low, almost over his eyes. He was shivering.
“Would you sell it to him if he had a black card?” the vagabond asked.
The shopkeeper’s squinty eyes popped wide open.
“A black card? Let’s see it, then.”
The vagabond turned to Vaughn first. “If I can get you some gas will you give me a ride?”
Vaughn considered it for a moment. It sounded like a bandit’s ruse but he was desperate. “Where to and how much gas will you get me?”
“Not too far. I’ll tell you outside.” He reached into the breast pocket of his overcoat and pulled out a money clip containing a wad of Reagans—$500 bills—and a black credit card with a luminescent gold eagle on the face. It had no other identifying marks other than the matte data strip on the backside. “Here.” He handed it to the shopkeeper.
“How much do you need?” asked the shopkeeper.
“Fill it up.”
“You got it. Pump number two. Just put the yellow bag back on when you’re done.”
Vaughn couldn’t believe his spectacular good fortune. It was too good to be true. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a full tank of gas. But there had to be a devil in the details, somewhere. Vaughn and his new benefactor stepped outside.
“This isn’t a a ruse, is it?” Vaughn asked, as he pulled the yellow bag off the nozzle and stuck the spout into the tank. “Are you going to rob me?”
“No. Do you have anything I’d even want?”
“So where am I taking you, then?”
Vaughn noticed that the vagabond was standing in front of Vaughn’s license plate, blocking it from the view of the shopkeeper who spied on them from the inside of the shop, twisting the ends of his moustache again as he watched.
“Let’s wait until we’re out of here,” he said as he bent down and began unscrewing the license plate.
“I really don’t have anything valuable,” Vaughn said. “Anything you take from me would be worth far less than this tank of gas.”
“I suppose I could steal your truck but I don’t imagine I’d get very far with all the checkpoints.” He tucked the license plate into his overcoat.
“Why are you taking that off?”
“Just to be safe. There’s a lot of snitches around. A black card tends to draw attention. We’ll put your plate back on up the road a mile or so.”
“Are you in trouble or something?”
“Who isn’t these days?”
The gas pump clicked off.
“Let’s go. Back out over there so he can’t read your back plate.” He winked, dispelling some of Vaughn’s anxiety. They got in. Vaughn started up the truck andthey backed out and drove down the road.
They travelled a mile in silence. Vaughn was too nervous to come up with any small talk. It didn’t matter anyway. His passenger didn’t seem like a fan of idle chat. His rider stared directly ahead, almost without blinking.
At what point does he take out his gun? Vaughn wondered.
“Stop here. I’ve got to pick something up over there. Hang on a second. You aren’t going to leave me, are you? I still have your plate. I can find you.”
“No, I won’t.”
He got out and jogged into the woods just off the shoulder. Vaughn felt an urge to stomp on the gas, but his integrity made him wait—he did make a deal after all. His passenger retrieved a loaded trash bag hidden in the brambles and snow. He opened the passenger door and placed it in the cab on the floor. Then he walked to the front of the truck. Vaughn tried to discern what was hidden inside the bag while the vagabond screwed his license plate back on. Vaughn didn’t quite have the nerve to peek.
“Okay, let’s go.”
They continued up the canyon road toward Vaughn’s house.
“This would be a great spot for an ambush,” the rider observed. “See that bend up ahead? That ridge above it? You could block it off just around the corner there with a couple of trees or wrecked cars. They wouldn’t see it until it was too late. It’d take forever to back up to that turnout we just passed back there. And there’s all kinds of cover for exfiltration. It’s perfect.”
“So will you tell me who you are?” Vaughn interrupted.
The vagabond grinned. ” That’s a fair question.” He took off his stocking cap revealing his shaved head. “My name is James. You can call me Jimmy. But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell that to anyone until I’m long gone.” He loosened his overcoat revealing a khaki-colored t-shirt. He opened his bag and stuffed his hat into it revealing the barrel of an M4.
“You’re a soldier.”
“Yeah. I was.”
“Is that a problem for you?”
“No, no. Not at all.”
“Look, I don’t want to get you in any kind of trouble. I just need a ride a few miles down the road towards Bailey. Maybe you got some food I can eat before you take me there? Maybe some civilian clothes would be nice, if I could borrow some. This old coat smells like piss. I had to pay a bum a Reagan for it.”
“I can do that for you but I—”
“Don’t worry. I won’t roll over on you. I ain’t going to get captured, anyway. Not alive. They don’t take deserters alive.”
“I guess. I guess I didn’t really dig on shooting up civilians too much. There’s a whole lot of us that feel that way. There’s half a division running around out here, now.”
“My mother said that the Army shot up a riot in Denver the other night. Is that true?”
“It was hardly a riot. But yeah, we did. That’s why I’m here.”
“How could they do that?”
“Soldiers follow orders. It’s what we do. Hell, we did worse than shoot people.”
“Like what?” asked Vaughn.
Jimmy turned and looked out the window as they flew past the snow-covered ponderosas closing in on either side of the narrow road. “This whole stretch of road is an insurgent’s wet dream. You get a lot of patrols through here?”
“Like Humvees, MRAPS. Military hardware.”
“I haven’t noticed a whole lot of that. I guess I’ve seen a couple come through this way.” Vaughn changed the subject. “I have some food at the house,” he offered. “And you’re welcome to some clothes too. I really appreciate the gas.”
“So what’s your name?”
“What’s your story, Vaughn?”
Vaughn came right out with it. “My wife’s been kidnapped. I’m trying to get her back.”
Jimmy Marzan was suddenly afflicted with the realization that Vaughn’s plight might be a great opportunity for him. Funny how God always presents us with opportunity for redemption, he thought.
“So who took her?” Jimmy asked.
“I’ve no idea.”
“What’s the ransom?”
“They think I have Krugerrands.”
“And my guess is you don’t have any.”
“They got me mixed up with my neighbor, I think.”
“What are you going to do, then? Are the police working on it?”
“They’ve got bigger problems to deal with.”
They turned up Vaughn’s road and pulled into his driveway. Marzan scanned the tree line and neighbor’s windows for spooks before exiting the truck. “You’ve got to be wary of the ‘see something, say something’ types,” he said. He took his stocking cap out of his bag and put it back on. He pulled it down low and he flipped up his coat collar obscuring as much of his face as possible. He grabbed his bag and the two of them hustled into Vaughn’s house.
“You mind if I take my stuff out here?” Jimmy asked.
“Not at all, but it might make more sense to do it in the room, back there.”
Marzan made his way into the back bedroom with Vaughn trailing behind him.
“What happened here?”
“They ransacked the place. I haven’t had time to put it back together.”
Marzan tossed his trash bag down on the mattress and tore the bundle apart.
Vaughn’s eyes widened. “Is that an AR-15?”
“It’s an M-4.” He ticked off his inventory. “I got a hundred and eighty rounds of 5.56. Gen 5 night vision. Had to let the radio go—they put GPS in them. There’s a med kit with sutures, gauze, antiseptic, forceps, and a plastic thing to hold over a chest wound so the air doesn’t leak out.” Marzan turned to Vaughn and grinned, punctuating his gory imagery. “There’s two tear gas grenades, a silencer, gas mask, flashlight, one big motherfucking knife, a fat wad of Reagans, and a Gideon’s Bible. I’m wearing my Kevlar. All this and my fatigues, this coat that smells like piss, and my black card—which they’ll soon trace to that gas station back down the road. That’s everything I own in this world, Vaughn. Oh yeah, and my 9mm.”
“So what’s your plan? Where are you going? Are you going home?”
Marzan chuckled. “Irvine, California. It won’t be long before the Army tells my family I’ve done something terrible. They’ll have that place staked out. There’s no going home for me until it’s all over.”