Meeting the Man Who Wasn’t There

I had an unsettling experience the other morning. It was Wednesday morning, and I was . . . wait. That’s wrong. It couldn’t have been Wednesday. I was at the dentist on Wednesday. No, it definitely wasn’t Wednesday. And it couldn’t have been Friday. I had a nagging headache Friday morning, the result of excessive imbibing with friends the night before. So it had to be Thursday.

Yes, Thursday it was. I was enjoying a pleasant late morning breakfast at my favorite little cafe only a few blocks from home. The name of this understated culinary oasis is Elmer and Fern’s by the way, should you care to look it up. I recommend it. The weather was delightful, exactly as a fall morning should be, so I had walked the six blocks from home. I find that walking to breakfast aids in establishing a happy anticipation of appetite, while walking back home helps to settle and arrange everything in a satisfactory manner.

I was in my usual chair at my customary corner table, taking my time in savoring an exquisite bacon and cheese omelet, with a side order of blueberry pancakes. I accompanied this delicate feast with the cafe’s locally renowned, ground-on-the-premises Bolivian coffee, while casually leafing through the morning paper. I had just swallowed a tasty morsel of pancake, and was reaching for my coffee cup when a pleasant voice addressed me from behind Wednesday night’s baseball scores.

“That omelet does look scrumptious.”

I was startled. I hadn’t noticed anyone approaching the table. I carefully lowered the paper and looked across at . . . no one. The chair was empty. There was no one there. I glanced discretely over my left shoulder, then my right. I was alone. I decided I must have imagined the voice, or perhaps picked up a parcel of conversation spoken overly loudly from nearby. I dismissed the moment, sipped my coffee, inserted a bite of fluffy omelet into my mouth, and returned to the scores.

“Ahhh, that coffee does have a delicious aroma. That wouldn’t by chance be Bolivian dark roast, would it?”

I lowered the newspaper very quickly. There was still no one there. I chewed carefully, looked around to make sure no one was turned in my direction, and leaned to look under the table. My feet sat on the linoleum by themselves. I raised up casually, hopeful that my behavior had not been noticed.

“It’s all right,” the voice said as politely as before. “No one ever sees me, you know.”

I paused before slowly folding my newspaper and laying it down. It occurred to me I was either having a delusion, or something exceedingly strange was occurring. I lifted my coffee cup toward my lips.

“Would you mind wafting a bit more of that aroma over here? I do love the fragrance of a full bodied Bolivian.”

After looking around to make sure no one was watching, I waved my free hand over my coffee, toward the empty chair across from me. I heard a deep intake of air. The voice sighed pleasantly.

“Ahhhh, that is lovely. Thank you.” Keeping my eyes focused on the vacant chair, I took a drink of coffee, then another.

“Pardon my asking,” I said, almost whispering, “but who are you? And why can’t I see you?”

“Oh, I am so sorry,” the voice said. “I should have introduced myself at the beginning. I’m the man who isn’t there.”

My hand stopped halfway back to the saucer. I looked around again. No one was watching, thank goodness.

“Looking for someone? Other than me, I mean?” the voice asked.

“I was making sure no one saw me talking to myself.” I whispered.

“Ahh. No worries on that count. Anyone who notices, will realize in an instant that you’re talking to me.”

“How’s that?”

“Why, they’ll see you talking into empty space, and realize immediately that you’re talking to a man who isn’t there. And that would be me.” I could hear a smile in the statement. I opened my mouth. No words came out I drained the rest of my cup. One thing was certain. I wasn’t going to get through whatever was happening to me without my hand-ground Bolivian. Agnes the waitress saw my gesture from across the room and hurried over to deliver a smile to me, and a refill of hot coffee to the empty cup, then returned in the direction of other customers.

“Look,” I said, “this is ridiculous. It’s impossible. To begin with, there’s no such thing as the man who isn’t there.” The voice clucked.

“But of course there is. You’ve even referred to me many times yourself.”

“Oh come now. How could I refer to you when I don’t even believe you exist.”

“The same way everyone does, of course.”

“And how, exactly is that?” I asked. It didn’t occur to me that I had actually settled into a conversation with an empty chair.

“By referring to me in the absent tense, of course. Like that time, let me see, you were six, as I recall, and you got a terrible scolding for eating the last two cookies your mother was saving for your father. You protested, and I quote — I have a very good memory you know — “But nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to!” I’m afraid that was me. I wasn’t there to tell you.”

I was mulling a reply to that when the voice coughed politely.

“Excuse me. I hate to be a bother, but could you, you know, while it’s hot?”

“Oh, certainly,” I said, now oblivious to the absurdity of the whole thing. I waved my hand over my fresh coffee in the direction of the voice.

“I hope that’s satisfactory.” Another satisfied sigh was my answer.

“But see here,” I began. “that’s a bit far-fetched, don’t you think? Just because I…”

“And don’t forget that algebra test in ninth grade. You were extremely upset that no one told you there would be one. That was also me, not being there. You got a ‘D’ as I recall. I’m very sorry about that. I was occupied not being somewhere else.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” not realizing I had fallen into a conversation with an invisible somebody who wasn’t even present. ” I wasn’t very good at Algebra, anyway. But I have to tell you, what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. It’s impossible to not be somewhere.”

“Are you sure of that?” The voice became smug.

“Absolutely.”

“Then tell me this. While you sit here, what about all the places you aren’t?” I chewed my omelet more firmly.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well then, consider. Someone could be asking for you right now. In Paris, say, or Lisbon, or just across town. Do you know what the answer would be?”

“Well of course I do. The answer would be I’m not…”I clamped my mouth shut.

“There, you see?”

“Yes, but how does that apply to you? I could say the same, you know. Somewhere someone is asking about you, but you’re not there. And you’re not there, because you’re here?”

“Am I? Here? What do I look like? What color are my eyes? What am I wearing? Can you tell me anything about me, other than my voice? Can you point to me and call out, ‘Look here at this man?’ Go ahead. Try that. It should be fun.”

“Well then, listen here, whoever you are…”

“You can call me Noah, if you want. My friends do.”

“Noah, as in the flood?”

“Oh no. Noah as in no one at home.” I wiped up the coffee that had just jumped out of my cup.

“Well then, Noah, if you’ve been keeping track of me all my life, why didn’t you pitch in and help a little, now and then?”

“Oh, but I did. I’m hurt that you give me no credit.” Indeed, I could hear the disappointment in the voice. “March seventeenth, two thousand and eleven, at nine thirty-seven pm. Have you forgotten?”

I took a drink of coffee while I tried to place the day. I shook my head, setting the cup down. I remembered to waft some aroma across the table.

“No. I’m sorry. I don’t remember.” I heard another deep inhale.

“Thank you. And allow me to refresh your memory.” the voice said. “You were cruising down Fairchild Street that night, and failed to take note of the red light at Misthaven Avenue. You barreled right through the intersection, barely missing a delivery truck, whose driver braked urgently, honked extensively, and offered an obscene gesture as you fled. Yes siree, you owe me big time for that one.”

Now I remembered the event. It had scared me half to death and left me shaking. I had been driving more carefully ever since.

“I don’t know why I should. I don’t see where you helped me at all on that occasion.”

“Oh no?” the voice took on a self-satisfied tone. “What about the policeman you looked around for, and were relieved to see wasn’t there.” My cup froze on its way to my mouth. I wiped up the fresh spill.

“My God. That was you?”

“In the flesh. Well, you know what I mean.”

I nodded. I fed a forkful of now cooling omelet into my mouth while looking around to see if anyone had yet noticed my talking to myself.

“You have to excuse me if I’m a bit taken back by this whole thing.” I said. You must agree it’s most unusual.” The voice took on a smiling tone again.

“Oh, of course. For both of us, in fact. It’s not often that I let someone know I’m not there.”

“Do you mind if I ask some questions?”

“Absolutely not. Question away. But we do need to be brief. There’s someplace I need to not be in a few minutes.” I nodded.

“Very well then. And thank you. The first question, obviously, is back to my previous one. How can I be having a conversation with you if you aren’t here?” I heard a deep breath.

“Ahh, yes. That’s a good one. It’s complicated. To be totally honest, I don’t really have a handle on it myself. I’m sure you’ll understand it’s very difficult to figure something out how something happens when you’re not even there.”

He had me there. His logic was impeccable. I nodded.

“Yes, I do see your point. Well then, have you been following…” the voice clucked at me. I immediately realized my mistake. “…excuse me, not following me around, my whole life?”

“Off and on. You’re not the only one I’m not there for, you know. There are a great many people I don’t keep track of. The job is rather demanding, if I do say so. There really should be twice as many of us if we’re to not be there properly for everyone.”

“There are that many of you? Really?”

“Oh yes. Though as I said, the team really should be bigger. I’m not as young as I once wasn’t, either. I really should be thinking of retiring.”

I nibbled a corner of toast.

“How long have you been around then?” I sipped coffee while he thought that over.

The voice hummed a tuneless melody for several seconds before answering.

“Yes, that’s it, I’m sure of it. The first time I wasn’t there was not telling Caesar about the knives. Nasty business that.”

I gasped, hopefully not so loudly as to attract attention.

“But that would make you over two thousand years old!”

“Actually, we like to say un-old.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I said. “Of course. Makes perfect sense. Still, we’re talking over two thousand years of being, I mean not being, around. That’s impressive.”

“Well, you’re an intelligent man. Surely you understand, not being there tends to be much easier on the body than the reverse.”

I nodded. His logic was irrefutable. We sat — at least I assumed he was sitting — quietly for a minute before. I directed some more Bolivian fragrance his way, then thought of another question.

“Was there ever a time you regretted not being there?” There was another slight pause, then an unhappy sigh.

“I have to admit I’m not proud of being absent and letting Mrs. O’Leary’s poor cow take the blame for the fire.” The voice took on a decidedly sad tone. “And I’ve long wished I could tell everyone what actually happened to Amelia Earhart. Everyone loved her so much. But, you know…” I nodded

“Of course. You weren’t there.” The voice took on a happy tone.

“You’ve got it, now. And I’m afraid the rules are very strict. If I’m not there…”

“Then you can’t tell. I understand completely.”

“Oh, the things I could tell you, otherwise.”

I nodded. As I was mulling my next question, Agnes came by with my check. She seemed perplexed.

“Sir, are you feeling well?” she asked. “You don’t seem quite yourself this morning.” I thought fast and brought up a laugh I hoped would be convincing.

“Oh. You mean…” I used my hand to indicate the empty chair and myself. “Just a little play acting, Agnes. I’m working on a new book, you see, and I’ve been practicing a bit of dialogue for it.”

Agnes was obviously relieved, and her normal smile returned.

“Oh,” she said, “so that’s how you writers do it. I always wondered. You must let me know how it comes along, now. Have a happy day.” With that she turned and headed for another table. I turned back to my conversation.

“Sorry about that. Tell me, has there been a time you were especially happy to not be there?”

I was answered by silence.

“Noah?” Still no response. More than that, now that I was more acutely attuned, I could sense a void, a clear absence. I was alone.

The man who isn’t there, wasn’t there.

I finished eating, paid my bill, and walked home, sipping coffee from a cardboard cup. I walked more thoughtfully and with a slower gait than usual, replaying the whole incident in my head. I stopped once or twice to listen carefully. Had I just heard a soft voice? No. I hadn’t. My new acquaintance was no more there than he had ever been.

I sat down when I got home and wrote out the entire episode, just as you see it here. As the weeks passed, I found myself thinking about the strange meeting—if it could indeed be called that—an inordinate amount of time. I might have convinced myself the encounter had never happened at all, except that every time I visit Elmer and Fern’s now, Agnes asks how my book is coming along. I smile and tell her it’s coming along fine, just fine. And I sit at a table in the farthest corner of the room now. Just in case.

I have reached a point now where I’m comfortable with the whole experience. I try not to over-think it. I have accepted it as one of the exceptional marvels of an amazing universe, more things in heaven and earth and all that. If I occasionally dismay those around me by turning suddenly silent and aloof as I listen to determine if a nearby voice is particularly familiar, that is their concern and not mine.

I did decide that a close friend, having witnessed one of these moments, was correct in suggesting I might benefit from more companionship. I now share my house with a handsome cat, attained at a nearby shelter. He’s what they call a polydactyl, a cat with extra toes, like thumbs, on his front paws. He is black and white, intelligent and affectionate, and almost always agreeable. He likes to curl up on my lap as I read. His name, of course, is Noah.

a short story — DARK RAINS AND HURT THINGS

4895

I damn near killed her. I’d been driving through a steady early autumn rain ever since leaving St. Louis and through the same kind of weather for most of three days before that. I’d left the Interstate an hour earlier and pointed the rental toward the old family homestead along an old state two-lane. It was the only way to get there.

The gloomy Missouri afternoon had grayed into premature dusk and was sinking toward early darkness. The wipers were on high and the headlights on dim for better visibility. I barely noticed the rhythmic thump-whump of the wiper blades. I was road tired and I knew it, so I was keeping my speed down. That’s what saved her life.

She was shuffling along right on the edge of the pavement. I didn’t see her until I was a hundred feet or so from hitting her. At forty miles an hour I had less than a second to react, even while noticing she was completely naked. Then she stumbled and veered to her left, right into the center path of my grill. I hit the brakes and jerked the wheel left at the same time. The rental didn’t like it. It skewed left and started to fishtail on the wet pavement. I steered into the skid, which took me sliding right back toward her. I felt the tires grab, released the brake and hit the accelerator. The skid marks formed a perfect upside down  question mark as I looped around her. Another hundred feet and I’d pulled off to stop on the muddy shoulder, which was mostly nonexistent. Probably the reason she was walking on the pavement.

In my review mirror she stood frozen in the middle of the road. I killed the engine, set the brake and ran back. She watched me without expression, without moving. As I got closer, I slowed down. I tried to avoid staring. I guessed her age at anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-five. Average height. Slender, not skinny. Long light hair darkened by the rain. She stood there shivering in the cold downfall, arms hanging at her sides, unsteady on her feet, seemingly oblivious to the rain and her nakedness. Her hair dragged across half of her face. Her glazed eyes watched me as if she didn’t really see me. I was ten feet away from her when I saw the gun for the first time. She was holding the .357 revolver straight down at her right side.  It glistened darkly in the rain as she raised it with a steady hand and centered it on my chest. I froze. She pulled the trigger.

We stood there less than ten feet apart like two statues in a rain globe, water dripping off us, she with her arm fully extended, nothing moving except the rain and her finger pulling the trigger over and over, the hammer rising and falling again and again. Every time it dropped It made a loud click that sounded to me like a kettle drum bouncing off the rain drops. Click. Click. Click. It slammed down on one empty chamber after another. Click. Click. Click. She was in shock, staring unblinking at me in the rain, the hammer rising, falling, clicking, the cylinder turning, one spent chamber following another under the firing pin. I carefully stepped closer. Even in the dimness and the rain I could see deep red rope marks around her wrists and arms.

When I got close enough I reached out slowly, put my hand around the revolver, eased it out of her hand. She didn’t resist. With the gun gone, she wrapped her arms around herself, over her breasts. Her eyes never wavered from mine. I spoke quietly.

“You’re safe. No one can hurt you now.” She didn’t react. I repeated it.

She blinked. Once. I kept my voice slow and calm. A father speaking to a hurt and frightened child.

“Let me help you. Let’s get you warm, and dry.” I stuffed the gun in my pants at the small of my back. Still slow. Still calm. Still keeping eye contact. I held my hand out to her.

“You are safe,” I said again. “You are okay now.” I knew I was lying. I doubted life would ever be okay for her again. I kept my hand out, palm up. I waited for her to take it.

Then in a blur she lunged forward, wrapping her arms around me, holding onto me, burying her head against my neck and shoulder. For a moment we just stood like that, letting the rain wash over us. I felt more than heard the sobs begin. I tried to turn us toward the side of the road. She held on tighter. I waited a few seconds. I tried again and she let me turn her enough so that we could walk to the car, shuffling sideways, two rain shrouded forms moving as one.

I opened the rear door, carefully pried her away from me to ease her inside. She held my hands in a ferocious grip. Her eyes stayed locked on mine, a visual embrace, her lifeline. Her breathing was shallow, shuddery.

I kept my voice slow, calm. “My name is Raymond. Raymond Chance. I will protect you. No one can hurt you. I won’t let them. Do you understand?” She looked at me as if she was trying to figure out the question, then nodded almost imperceptibly. Her eyes seemed to search my soul. She stopped sobbing, but tears continued to roll from her eyes, mixing with the rain drops, rolling down her face.

“I need to get a blanket for you from the trunk of the car. Can I do that?” Seconds passed. The rain picked up a little. I felt it soaking through my clothes. It didn’t matter. She nodded, but didn’t loosen her grip. I tried a smile.

“I need my hands. To get a blanket. We’ll cover you, get you warm. You can watch me through the window. Okay?” Another pause, another slow nod, still holding tight. Her grip finally relaxed enough that I was able to ease my hands away. I left the door open as I moved to the trunk. Her eyes stayed on me all the way. She turned sideways to keep me in sight through the rear window. I opened the trunk, rummaged through the duffel bag beside the two suitcases, found a blanket and a towel. When I stood back to close the trunk I almost jumped. She was standing right beside me, staring at me. As I turned her arms went back around me, her head back against my shoulder. I held the blanket and towel close to keep them dry while I got her back in the car. Then I wrapped the blanket around her as well as I could. She helped a little. That was a good sign. It also gave me a better look at the deep rope bruises on her wrists. Her eyes continued to follow every move I made. I gently dried her face with the towel. I smoothed her hair back, ran the towel over it. She let me do it, tilting her head back, watching me. I handed the towel to her. She took it.

I got in the driver’s seat and started the heater. I turned the dome light on and looked back at her. She blinked in the relative brightness. I didn’t let myself react to the bruises on her face.

“You’ll be warm in a minute.” I got another little nod. I turned the radio on and surfed until I found some music. I thought it might help her regain some normalcy. Yeah, right, I thought again. Normalcy. That word had disappeared from her vocabulary forever. She pulled the blanket tighter around herself, held the towel in her lap. Her eyes never left me.

“I’m going to call the police now.” Another expressionless nod. I couldn’t tell whether she even heard the music. The whole of her attention was focused on me as I made the call.

I reached the Highway Patrol, gave the officer my name and told him what had happened. She leaned back. Her eyes slowly closed.

I described the rope marks, the bruises I had seen on her face under the dome light. I told the trooper about the gun, that it would be lying on the dash. I answered his questions, told him who I was, what I thought had happened.

The trooper told me to keep the connection open. They’d use my directions and track my cell signal to get to us. Could be twenty or thirty minutes, due to the rain. He was putting the call out with his computer as we talked. I put the phone on speaker and laid it on the dash. When I turned back to check on the woman, she seemed asleep, breathing steadily, leaning into the driver’s side corner of the seat and the door. I shifted around so that I could reach over the seat.

I took hold of her shoulders as gently as I could and started to lay her down. She stiffened and her eyes popped wide open. It was like a slide show watching them change from terror to confusion to recognition. When she realized it was me she relaxed a little, but not much. I told her again that she was safe, that I wouldn’t let anyone hurt her, that the police were on their way, and that I was only laying her down so she could sleep. I asked her if that was okay. There was a long pause as her eyes reached into mine, questioning, processing. That her mind seemed able to do that was another good sign. After several seconds she did her little head nod, and let me ease her down on her side. She pulled the blanket closer around her, curled up under it and let her eyes close. She reached for my hand. I gave it to her, and watched her until I was sure she was sleeping again before gently sliding it free.

I checked my watch, took stock. Given the weather, it wasn’t reasonable to expect law enforcement in less than half an hour. Maybe there was a Sheriff’s unit closer than the Patrol. Maybe they’d get here in five minutes. Probably not.

God only knew how the woman had gotten away from whoever was holding her. And from whom? The bruises and rope marks attested to a violent attack and brutal restraint. Yet she had managed to break free, even to grab his gun and turn it on him. And she had probably hit him. I doubted she would have escaped, or reached the road otherwise. That led to another question. Was he dead? Badly wounded? Or was it possible he might just be wounded, maybe only grazed, still mobile, still out there, still able to come after her? One thing wasn’t a question at all. If he could come after her, he would. He’d have to do it. He would have to find her and finish what he had started. She was more than a victim now, more than a prize. She was a witness. If the guy was alive and able, he’d be coming.

So another Question. How far had she run?  How much time did we have? If he was coming, how far behind her would he be? Until the police arrived, a half hour or more, probably, I was the only thing standing between him and her. Maybe the police would get there first. I thought they wouldn’t. It wasn’t my nature to err on the side of optimism, and my gut told me she hadn’t run and walked and stumbled all that far.

And I was mad. Every time I looked at the woman under the blanket, I got a little madder. Every time her eyes reached into mine, every one of those little nods, every time I thought about those rope marks and bruises, thought about her standing naked in the rain, staring at me vacantly while pulling the empty revolver’s trigger over and over like a robot, like some unfeeling automation, pushed my anger higher. If the guy was looking for her, if he got there before the law, he’d be dealing with me instead of her. It would be the worst day of his life.

I checked again to make sure she was sleeping soundly. I opened the door very quietly and didn’t close it all the way. The rain continued to fall steadily, colder than before, the drops playing a toneless tune on the roof. I quietly opened the trunk. I leaned around to see if she had awakened. She hadn’t.

I pulled the Colt Defender from an inner pocket of the duffel. slid the clip home, jacked a shell into the chamber then took the clip out and replaced the round that now rested under the firing pin. That gave me eight shots. I didn’t plan on needing that many. I found the black waterproof jacket. The Colt went into the right hand pocket, an extra clip into the left, just in case. I pulled on the long-billed baseball cap to keep the rain out of my eyes.

I needed to be outside and mobile if the guy who belonged to the .357 got there first. That created a problem. I sure as hell wasn’t going to take her back out in the rain. But if she woke up and found me gone she could panic. That could get us both killed. I woke her as gently I could. Her eyes sprang open again. She started to bat my arm away, then realized it was me. She grabbed my hand. Grabbed it tight. Focused on me again with deep hazel eyes that could haunt me.

I spoke softly and slowly. I told her I was going outside for a couple of minutes. I promised her I’d be watching the car the whole time. It was the truth, just not the whole truth. For a moment I thought she wouldn’t let me go. Then I got another small nod. When I started to pull my hand away she held on awhile before laying back down. Her grip relaxed as her eyelids drifted shut. She was trusting me to keep her safe. I was damn well going to do it.

I turned the radio and engine off, then the dome light. Checked her again. She was breathing easily under the blanket. I exited the car quietly. This time I locked it. I crossed to the other side of the road, pulling the jacket’s collar up against the rain as I went. It wasn’t yet too dark to see through the rain and gloom, but it was getting there fast. I picked out a sizeable oak tree just off the shoulder, about twelve feet forward of the rear door. It gave me invisibility as well as cover from the rain. The country road was narrow, so I was less than thirty feet from the car, closer to twenty-five, with a good angle that would keep the woman out of the line of fire. I took the little tac flashlight off  my keychain, turned it backward and clipped it onto the bottom of the Colt’s barrel. I pushed the button and a small, bright red dot appeared on the car’s rear door. At this distance I was as good with the Colt as Davy Crockett, even in the rain. The laser made me better. It made me perfect. Now it was just me, the rain, and whoever showed up. A small part of my mind said it would be better if the police got there first. Justice by the letter of the law. But the bigger part of me, the part that got madder every time I thought of the woman, that seethed every time I looked into those intense staring eyes, saw the rope bruises on her arms, the  ones from his fists on her face, hoped the guy would beat them. Justice came in different forms. I felt a smile cross my face. It wasn’t a nice one.

A few minutes passed before a car drove by left to right, heading west, the direction the woman and I had come from. It kept going. More minutes ticked by. A van rattled by in the opposite direction. Neither vehicle had slowed down as they passed the rental. I stayed behind the oak. I was holding the Colt under the fold of the jacket. A couple of minutes later I saw another set of headlights approaching from the west.

It was an older model pickup truck, black or maybe dark blue, with a nasty dent on the front driver’s side fender. It went right on by without stopping, the driver a large dim form behind the wheel. He didn’t seem to notice the rental at all. Then the brake lights flared. The truck stopped, sat there for several seconds before the backup lights lit up. The driver angled his way onto the muddy shoulder and stopped bumper to bumper with the rental. He didn’t get out. I could see him look into his side mirror.

Maybe the guy was a good Samaritan.  Maybe he thought the rental was broken down and wanted to help. I didn’t think so. He was too nervous for a Samaritan. The way he sat there and kept looking down the road, then back the other direction through his side mirror told me that helping wasn’t his agenda. My gut talked to me again, told me he was the one. I started thinking along with him. He didn’t know if the deserted car meant anything. Had it broken down? Run out of gas? Was the driver farther down the road in the rain, walking along miserably, looking for a gas station? Or could she be in there?

The big guy was pretty sure she had reached the road, or he wouldn’t be out here in his pickup. He had likely seen her run in the direction of the road while he gathered himself, got past the panicked moments of diving for cover and realized how much trouble he was in if she escaped. So he had started driving and looking. There wouldn’t be much traffic in this weather, probably wasn’t that much anyway. So why hadn’t he found her yet? He had to be feeling pressure. The clock was running, time shrinking. If she’d already been picked up, he was too late. It was over. Simple as that. He’d have to cut his losses and run. But the deserted car was right there. If it was really deserted. On the off chance she could be in there, he needed to check it out. He had to look. He had to be sure.

He levered himself out of the truck. He was big, well over six feet tall, and heavy. He had on a short bulky jacket, blue jeans, a dark shirt, work boots. He had a full, heavy black beard. He was left handed. I knew that because his gun holster was on his left hip. It was empty, and big enough to hold the .357. A video started running in my mind of what had probably happened.

I was guessing he had just laid that heavy cannon of a revolver down somewhere handy once he had her secured. Mistake number one. And he hadn’t made a knot or two quite tight enough. Mistake number two. Maybe he had gone to the bathroom then, fixed a drink, made himself a nice sandwich while he anticipated what he was going to do to her, drawn pictures in his mind of the fun that was to come. But the woman had been stronger than he thought, with enough guts and determination and emotional reserves to keep fighting even after being beaten and tied, even while terrified, slipping into shock. And he had made those two little careless mistakes.

A .357 was God-awful loud, and all of a sudden it was thundering, throwing death at him, and he was scrambling for his life. She had hit him, too, at least grazed him. Twice. There was a thick white bandage with a sizeable red blotch wrapped around his head, partially covered by a baseball cap. Another one wound around his left leg just above the knee, seeping blood. It looked like he had cut and ripped the blue jeans off to get at the wound. His blood mingled with the rain running down through thick leg hair into the boot.

He limped as he got out of the car. I could hear him grunt painfully with the effort. Good for her. Beaten, weakened, half out of her mind with fear, the big revolver kicking back at her like a mule, she had still managed to hit him twice with those magnum bullets that were like little artillery shells. Flesh wounds they might be, but they had hurt him, dazed him, disoriented him, scared the living hell out of him, made him take time to do some serious first aid, put him out of action long enough for her to escape out into the rain and start running.

She had found the road and had run until she couldn’t run any more. Then she had just kept walking blindly along in the rain, disoriented, her mind shutting down a little more with each step, shock settling in deeper minute by minute, blanking out conscious thought. She had kept putting one foot in front of the other, not feeling the rain or her nakedness, going forward because it was the opposite of where she had been, the gun dangling from her hand, each step a little bit weaker than the last. Then I had come along and almost finished what he had started. She hadn’t known who I was, only that I was a large male, like him, so she had pulled the gun up and started squeezing the trigger again.  It was my dumb luck that she had already emptied all six chambers at the bastard.

Now that bastard stood in the rain, looking over the rental. I could almost hear him thinking about it. Was she in there? Maybe with someone else? Both of them lying low? There was only one way he was going to find out. He reached back into the pickup and came out with a shotgun, a big twelve gauge pump. Probably a Winchester or a Remington.

The guy limped slowly the length of the rental, staying five feet or so away from it, being careful, peering inside. I could see and hear every step exact a price. Good for her again. I hoped that he hurt like hell. He was going to hurt a lot more.

He paused and leaned forward when he saw his .357 lying on the dash. Then he stiffened when he saw her curled up in the back seat under the blanket, sleeping. He took a painful limp closer. He grabbed the rear door handle. When it wouldn’t open, he tried the driver’s handle. Same result.

He stood still for a minute, looked down the road again in both directions, toward the woods on either side. I could feel him weighing the situation. Where was the driver? Had he left the car unlocked and just trudged away before she came along?

Time. That was the sixty-four dollar question. How much of it did the bearded guy have? Were the police on their way? How long before they got there? I could almost hear him decide there was no point worrying about the driver. No time to spend doing it. The driver wasn’t a witness, not his problem. His problem was right there in front of him. Time was short and getting shorter. The guy turned back to the car. I eased the Colt out from under my jacket and stepped out from behind the tree. He had his back to me, no idea I was there in the near darkness. I laid the little red dot on his back, between the shoulders, took a quiet step closer, then another. Under twenty-five feet now.

The big bandaged head nodded a couple of times. He was deciding he didn’t even need to get the door open. Not with the big twelve gauge at hand. He hefted the shotgun. He could take her right through the window. One blast to do the job, one more for insurance, and maybe just for the fun of it, for the bitch daring to hurt him. Then one through the driver’s window. He’d grab the revolver and be gone. Two minutes. Less. A minute and a half, he’d be down the road, farther away every second. Free to heal, free to hunt again, and by God, the next woman wouldn’t be getting away, wouldn’t get a chance to hurt him.

I took another step closer. Twenty feet. The laser dot glowed and beckoned between his shoulder blades. I didn’t want to shoot him in the back. He racked the shotgun’s slide as he took a backward step. That was when everything went to hell.  A shotgun rack and load is loud and distinctive. Maybe the woman heard it even through the rain and closed car door. Maybe she somehow sensed him standing there, watching her through the glass. Maybe it was just Murphy’s Law.  Suddenly she was sitting straight up, still clutching the blanket around her, seeing him, her mouth open without any sound coming out. He started to raise the gun. I yelled at him, just as loud as I could.

“Over here, Stupid!”

If he’d been smart he might have lived. If he’d had the presence of mind to drop the shotgun right then, right in that tenth of a second when he heard my voice, throw his hands in the air, he might have been able to get himself a good lawyer and play the system for years while he ate prison food and watched prison television. But he wasn’t smart. He was just as dumb as I had hoped.

He spun around. trying to get the shotgun into firing position and find the threat at the same time. He stumbled on the bad leg she had given him. He never had a chance. He didn’t deserve one. And he’d wasted his tenth of a second. The shotgun never got close to level. His turn put my little red buddy right in the center of his chest the same instant I started squeezing the trigger. Four forty-five caliber jacketed hollow points tore into him right where the little dot asked for them. Four in the ten ring, four loud, overlapping little thunder claps making one big roar. The shotgun bellowed toward the sky and flew away when the first slug hammered into the guy. It was still in the air when the fourth one arrived. It bounced on the blacktop, barrel first, as the shots echoed and faded. The big bearded guy slammed back against the rental, rocking it, looking confused. He was already dead as he dropped face first onto the wet pavement. It would all have looked beautiful in slow  motion.

I checked the body. The bastard was as dead as dead got. I left the shotgun where it had fallen. The woman was still squeezed back into the far corner of the seat, holding the blanket wrapped tightly around her, staring at me with wide panicky eyes. I was sorry for that. It couldn’t be helped.

There were some flares in the trunk. I trudged through the rain to place them well behind the car, closing off the lane where the corpse and his shotgun lay.  I checked the body again. It was still dead, just wetter. I unlocked the car, cleared the Colt, pocketed the clip,  and laid the automatic on the dash next to the .357. Started the engine and turned on the heater and headlights and emergency flashers. Then the radio.. She watched me do it all. Our eyes connected as I slowly and gently slid into the back seat. I leaned against the door, keeping space between us.

“That was him.” I said. A statement, not a question. She nodded. I nodded too.

“It’s over. He can’t hurt you again. Not ever.”

She continued to stare, big hazel eyes searching my soul.  The panic had subsided, replaced by something I couldn’t quite fathom. I had no idea what was going on in her mind.  She stared while I told the trooper what had happened..  He had heard the shots. She watched me,  the big hazels more liquid than before, as I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes.

A few seconds later I felt her move, bending over me, looking out the window.  A drop of warm liquid that wasn’t rain fell on my hand. Then I felt her lean back next to me and curl up against me, cocooned in the blanket, her head on my shoulder. I carefully and very gently put my arm around her. Seconds passed. Her breathing slowed, fell into a slow steady rhythm. I held her like that until the sirens came.

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