Zora stood on her rickety porch and looked out over the scrubby farmland that sort of passed for being a town. A bottle of beer was clutched loosely in her left hand, a mostly ash cigarette dangled from her lips. She wore a checkered shirt one size too large for her and faded jeans almost worn through at the knees. Her once dirty blonde hair had become a brash red mass that hung limply around her ears because she’d cut and dyed it herself in a fit of misguided inspiration.
She was a mess.
She knew it.
She didn’t much care.
It had been six months since Savage had walked out the front door. Six months without word from the man who professed his love for her. She was beginning to think he’d abandoned her, or worse, that he was dead. Maybe they’d killed him when he’d gotten back to the base. The only sign that she wasn’t completely alone was the money that showed up monthly in a bank account. A few days after she’d been left in the godforsaken dump a credit card had shown up in the mail and on the fifteenth of every month, five hundred dollars was deposited to it. That alone wasn’t proof of life, she knew it was little more than a slim hope to cling to, but she clung to it fiercely none the less.
What they don’t tell you about being a wanted criminal on the run is the fact that it’s boring. Incredibly boring. Once you get over the daily adrenaline spikes caused by a new mailman or a dog barking at the wrong time of the day or night, it’s just like ordinary life again. Ordinary life without prospects, without the chance to improve your lot, just dreary, grinding ordinary life that stretches on and on and on until the distant promise of death.
Zora had made the best of her situation in her own way. There was one automated teller machine in town in the grocers cum pharmacists cum outfitters – the general store. That was a good five miles away, a distance that would have probably kept her fit had she walked it, but she’d put a portion of the savings she’d been making from her allowance towards an old beater. No two panels of the late 70’s Ford were the same and there was an oil leak that nobody could quite put their finger on, but it got her into what passed for a town center well enough and allowed her to stock up on beer.
The fifteenth of the month had rolled around yet again and she was heading out on a supply run, eager to see if the money was there, but even more eager to drop by the town’s only bar. She scuffed down the steps of the porch and yanked the car door open then slid into the driver’s seat, drained the rest of the bottle between her cracked lips then tossed it into the growing pile of abandoned bottles that were piling up along the foundations of the house.
The car failed to start on the first try, but roared into life on the second twist of the key that she never bothered to take out of the ignition. Smoke came sputtering out of the tail pipe in great billowing clouds and she was off down the dusty, bumpy roads. She passed near the turn off to the main road and just like every time, there was a wild impulse to take that turn off and go zooming back to Savage. Memories of armed men slamming through hotels and choppers hovering above made her hesitate however, and she remembered his promise. He said he’d come for her if he could. If he could.
She scowled at the dusty road. Savage had never been able to make life anything more than mildly tolerable for her. He should have left her alone in the first place. He should never have dragged her out of her life and forced her into the military servitude that had put her in such danger. It was his fault as much as it was the fault of his evil superiors. It was his fault and yet day after day she waited for some sign that he was still there, that he still cared, that he still loved her. The waiting and longing twisted her mind and heart so she took refuge in the alcohol. After a few drinks the pain would go away to be replaced by something more rosy and glowy. Sunsets were better after a glass or two, so was breakfast for that matter.
Before long she was in town. Not that town was largely different from not town. The center of Iron Horse was two things, the general store and the bar. Zora parked outside the bar and went inside. First things first, money was nice, but it could wait.
“Hey Laura,” Melissa the bartender sang out as Zora entered. Laura was the name Zora had taken to protect her real identity. As Laura told things, she’d once been a high flying Hollywood type before suffering a nervous breakdown and retiring to Iron Horse. It was a solid enough story and as the few townsfolk had all witnessed her transformation from toned blonde bombshell to slightly chunky red head, nobody much questioned it anymore.
“Whiskey,” Zora said, slapping a twenty dollar note on the bar and settling into her favorite stool, the one right at the end of the bar where the lights weren’t so bright, where nobody bothered her.
“Coming right up.” There was no need to ask how Laura wanted her whiskey. She always had it the same way, double shot on the rocks. A kind hearted middle aged woman with breasts the size of Zora’s head, Melissa slid the drink over to Laura along with her change. “You doing okay?”
“Better now.” Zora made an attempt at a smile that came out looking more like a sick grimace and took a big sip of the whiskey. It burned, oh it burned so good, a potent heat seeping through her chest and belly, making everything okay.
“A drink makes the day right, doesn’t it?” Melissa beamed with good humor. She took her role as enabler quite seriously. She’d never been known to turn anyone down for a drink. If you could still articulate what you wanted and you had the coin to pay for it, well, Melissa reckoned it was your god given right to have it.
Zora downed her drink and ordered another. Things were beginning to look up for the day. A beer buzz didn’t cut it anymore, not really, left too much room for thoughts. Now whiskey on the other hand, whiskey was an entirely different beast.
Whilst she was contemplating the wonder that was whiskey, the bar door opened and a man entered. Zora didn’t see him, but she could tell by the way Melissa’s face lit up that it was a man, and a handsome one at that. Melissa didn’t believe in playing hard to get or hiding her desire. When she saw something she liked her lips would become pouty, her eyelashes would start batting and she’d stick her chest out for all that she was worth.
“Hey stranger.” Melissa’s voice dripped with honeyed seduction.
“Howdy ladies,” a deep, gravelly voice responded. Melissa almost cooed with joy and even Zora felt a shiver pass through her. The man had some voice. She found herself glancing over her shoulder as he approached the bar. Her first impression was of a sleek blackness. He was dressed in a black silk shirt and black jeans – not the sort of attire suitable for a dusty little town. His boots, which had probably been clean before he arrived were already covered in a light golden dust.
She didn’t get a good impression of his face until he reached the bar and she could see him in the reflective shelving behind Melissa’s head. It was plain to see why the bar tender was melting. He was a handsome man in his mid forties with a thick head of dark hair that was just long enough to be fashionable. His features were on the slim side but well defined and well balanced, set off by a carefully trimmed mustache.
“Hot day. It’s savage out there,” he said, his voice rumbling pleasantly.
Zora’s entire body tensed. The word ‘savage’. It hadn’t been an accident, had it? She sipped at her second whiskey of the day, keeping her ears pricked .
Whilst Zora drank, Melissa was agreeing that it was indeed uncommonly warm outside in a tremulous kitten voice that made Zora want to slap her. The man ordered a beer. Once he had his beverage Melissa leaned on the bar as she chattered inanely, her cleavage clearly visible in her low cut shirt. She was doing everything to seduce him barring actually throwing her vagina at the man.
Still, her flirtation did serve a useful purpose. Zora managed to learn that the man’s name was Tex and that he was originally from Texas, hence his name. He claimed he was a journalist doing an expose on the bikers of California, but Zora wasn’t buying that bit for a second. California had a lot of bikers, but Iron Horse didn’t see many of them. Iron Horse didn’t see any of them actually, it was the deadest of dead ends and not the sort of town where biker outlaws would have much chance of establishing themselves.
Not sharing Zora’s skepticism, Melissa expressed her admiration for journalists at length. Eventually Zora finished her drink, wrote off Tex’s use of the word ‘savage’ as a coincidence and scuffed her way out of the bar without having spoken a word to anyone.
She made her way to the general store with the mind of withdrawing her monthly cash. She liked having cash. The card was fine, but there was nothing like knowing you had hard currency if you needed it. It took her a couple of goes to punch the right PIN number into the ATM, but she got there eventually and felt a flutter of excitement when she saw that there was another five hundred waiting for her. Every time the money came it was like a covenant had been renewed, as if Savage himself were reaching out to her through the ATM. She withdrew the cash then wandered the shelves of the store for a few minutes, picking up some supplies in the form of microwave meals and potato chips.
There was no chit chat at the cash register, Brittany Daniels, the teenage daughter of the proprietor was on duty and she was very firmly in the stage of life where she had no patience for any human older than herself. Zora therefore got away from the general store with little more in the way of conversation than dramatic sighs and eye rolls when she asked for a larger box of tobacco.
All stocked up for a few more days at least, Zora carried her goods over to the car and piled them into an untidy heap on the passenger seat. That was when she heard it, the unmistakeable sound of a camera shutter flickering closed somewhere close by. She turned and saw nothing at first, but then Tex stepped out from the bar, a camera slung around his neck and she knew. She just knew. Her heart began pounding in her chest as old fear came rushing back. She’d become dulled to the feeling of being on the run, the days had become one long procession of alcohol and tobacco. But the feeling was back now, it was as fresh and real as ever. If Tex was a journalist, she’d eat her socks.
He was walking towards her, a disingenuous smile on his face. In the split second between fight or flight, Zora’s mind made the decision for her. “No pictures!” She screamed hysterically as she ran around to the driver’s side door, jumped into the car and turned the ignition. Nothing happened. She swore and tried again. Tex was getting closer. He was still walking at normal speed, but he was less than six feet away. She pumped the accelerator then tried the ignition again. She got a small sputter of noise, but no motion. “Fuck oh fuck!” She swore to herself then tried again. The engine sputtered once more, then choked and died. Tex was around behind her car now and before she could take another crack at starting the bucket of bolts, he was bending down at her window.
“You’ll be flooding the engine,” he said, smiling in a way that might have been described as friendly.
“Go fuck off!” Zora swore, only marginally coherent. She was drunk. She wished she wasn’t, but she was.
Tex sniffed and his nose wrinkled. “I don’t think you’re in any condition to drive, if I dare say so,” he said, reaching for her keys.
“Don’t!” She slapped at his hand.
“Calm down Zora.”
Hearing her name spoken by the stranger cum government spy, Zora started screaming hysterically and twisting the key for all she was worth whilst stamping on the gas. The car chose that moment to come to life and she was off in a roar of smoke and screams, careening down the center of Iron Horse, burning rubber with the handbrake on. Tex leaped back just in time to avoid being hit by the car as it fishtailed in the dust and headed for the wild blue yonder.
Even with the handbrake still very much on, Zora was driving too fast. The roads surrounding Iron Horse were windy and worn and the tires of the car weren’t much better. It seemed as if it was only a matter of time before disaster found her as she gunned the motor and headed for home.
By a miracle she managed to bring the car to a skidding halt outside the house without anyone being harmed. She dashed inside, heading for the stash of items she’d been keeping for a rainy day. The backpack she’d grabbed out of the hotel room all those months ago had gone largely untouched since she’d been dumped in Iron Horse. It was still stuffed with clothes, cash and information and sitting in the corner of her wardrobe, just where she left it. She yanked it up, tossed it over her shoulder and ran back out to the car, but the low squat shape of a black government issue sedan hurtling down the road towards the house told her that she’d been followed. Panicking, she ran back into the house and hid under the bed. It was a childish thing to do, but it was difficult to think clearly with very little blood in her alcohol stream. The beer and double whiskeys she’d consumed on an empty stomach were hitting her hard.
As she panted, trying to control her breathing, the front door opened and heavy footsteps entered. “Zora? It’s okay, I’m a friend.” Tex’s gravelly voice tried and failed to reassure her.
She held her breath as he moved through the house, searching for her. “I know you’re here,” he said. “I saw you run inside.”
“Maybe I went out the back?” Zora made the suggestion out loud, then clamped her hands over her mouth. She’d made a terrible mistake. Possibly the last mistake she’d ever make.
A dark chuckle proceeded Tex as he entered her bedroom and went down on one knee, peering under the bed. “Come on out from under there. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“That’s what someone who was going to hurt me would say,” Zora argued, buying herself a little time.
“You can come out from under there yourself, or I can drag you out. Your choice.”
Zora was barely listening to him, she was rustling through her backpack, looking for something she was sure she’d stashed inside it. There was so much loose cash cluttering up the thing it was difficult to find anything else, but her fingers eventually closed around the smooth butt of a loaded pistol. She clicked the safety off and pointed it at him. “Leave me alone.”
“I can’t do that.” His expression had not changed, and even though she was viewing him through beer goggles and at a very weird angle, she found that odd. Most people got at least a little perturbed when you pointed a loaded weapon at them.
“Go away,” she said, waggling the nose of the pistol at him. “Get in your nice car and go.”
His expression remained impassive, his voice calm and low and patient. “Come out from there Zora.”
“I’ll shoot you! I’ll shoot you right between the eyes.”
“No you won’t.”
“How can you be so sure of that?”
“Because you’re trying to bargain with me. You don’t want to shoot me. If you wanted to shoot me you would have done it al…
Zora discharged the weapon at Tex, disproving his statement. The bullet missed him by a fraction of an inch, slamming into the floorboard just in front of his knee. “I almost made you a cripple,” she declared triumphantly. “You still want to argue with me?”
“You didn’t shoot me.” It was his turn to move quickly, he reached for the hand holding the gun and managed to catch Zora’s wrist. It was enough of a grip to allow him to yank her out from under the bed in one strong movement. She fired the gun again, but the bullet didn’t go anywhere near Tex, it hit the wall and kept going.
“Cut that out,” he growled, wresting the gun away from her. “Cut it out and calm down already.”
Zora didn’t have much choice but to calm down, he had her pinned on the dusty floor, her cheek pressed against the rough floorboards, one hand held behind her back to stop her struggling.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Two questions that would have been far more useful asked up front if only she’d had the presence of mind to ask them before diving under the bed like a frightened cat.
His voice rumbled above her, sounding like he had a bunch of gravel stuck in his throat. “My name’s Tex, and I just want to ask you a few questions.”
“I don’t know anyone called that.”
His grip tightened. “Don’t lie to me.”
“You’re lying to me,” she argued.
“Well maybe I am and maybe I’m not, but I’m the one on top and the one with the gun and that should probably count for something,” he tried reasoning with her.
“I don’t care,” Zora growled defiantly. “I’m not telling you anything.”
Tex hauled her up onto her feet, lifting her into the air as if she barely weighed a thing. He was a lot stronger than he looked. “Here’s what’s going to happen,” he said, laying down the law. “We’re going to go to the kitchen, sit down and have some coffee and a talk Nobody is going to shoot anyone. We’re going to play this out nice and friendly.”
Zora shook her head emphatically. “I’m not having coffee with you and I’m not telling you anything.”
“Listen,” Tex said, turning her so that she was forced to face him and his mustache. “Savage is my friend too, okay? He’s gone missing. I need your help to find him. Now can you do that for me?”
Zora nodded slowly. “Maybe.”
“Good. Now let’s get you sobered up a bit.”
Zora was still scowling, but she followed Tex out to the kitchen and sat in a chair, watching as he put the kettle on the stove. She didn’t trust a word he was saying, but he definitely knew about Savage and he knew about her and if he knew that meant that other people might know, other people who might shoot first and ask questions later.
“How do you know Savage?” She tested his knowledge a little bit.
“We first met on Desert Storm,” Tex said, leaning back against the counter with his arms folded over his chest. “He was special ops. I was intelligence.”
“Why do you want him now?”
“Like I said, he’s gone missing.”
She shrugged. “Maybe he’s just been sent somewhere. They’ll do that to you.”
“Maybe,” Tex said. “But I have pretty high clearance and there’s no record of any missions. And I got this in the mail.” He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a small white envelope and tossed it on the table in front of Zora.
She picked it up, opened it and squinted at the contents. There was a slip of paper with her name, her address, and a symbol she didn’t recognize.
“What’s this?” She pointed to a circle with two horizontal arrows through it.
Tex chuckled as if something was funny. “It’s a hobo symbol. Means hit the road quick.”
“So he sent you after me,” she mumbled.
“He did. You must be special to him.”
Zora felt his keen eyes boring into her head. Tex was making a good job of playing the concerned friend, but she could sense danger so thick she could almost smell it. The man standing before her was no friend of Savage’s – and he was no friend of hers either.