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    C James
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
In Memory of Ed Wooton

For the Love - 27. Unraveling

Watching my rearview mirror, seeing the Piedmont cruisers fall further and further behind, I felt relieved that my ordeal was almost over. The county line was coming up fast, but I concentrated on keeping the Charger on the road, forgetting to watch the gauges, so I was caught unawares by the first slight cough of the engine. I scanned the gauges immediately, noticing that the gas gauge was hard over on empty.

The second, slightly stronger hesitation from the engine confirmed my fears; I was running out of gas...

The Charger's engine hesitated again as I glanced in the rearview mirror, squinting against the glare of the setting sun. The Piedmont patrol cars were over a mile behind me, but not far enough. Trying to maintain my lead for every possible moment, I eased my foot to the floorboards as I tried to figure out what to do.

I knew that I was at least a few miles from the county line and unlikely to make it that far. The engine coughed again, repeatedly. Ahead of me, the highway entered a slight, gentle curve. Not enough to slow down for, but the Charger was slowing anyway.

By the time I entered the curve, the engine was chugging, my speed dropping to a hundred and twenty, continuing to fall as I broke into a cold sweat.

The curve had hidden me, for a few moments, from the Piedmont patrol cars, so I braked hard, looking for a gap in the Mesquite, sagebrush, and Palo Verde trees that abounded in this stretch of desert. I couldn't find a gap in the brush and was running out of time. Without a gap, there was only one thing I could do: cranking the wheel to the right; I aimed for a row of sagebrush near a clump of Palo Verde trees.

The Charger jostled over the rough ground, dry branches scraping against the sides as I swerved to the left, grinding to a halt between a stand of Palo Verde trees and the highway. The engine sputtered, dying of its own accord as I grabbed the key from the ignition and dived out the car door, running for all I was worth into the desert, hoping that the Piedmont cops couldn't follow me far on foot. I could hide and then phone for help, or so I hoped.

The wail of sirens filled my ears and I heard the Doppler shift lowering and deepening the siren's tone as they passed by at high speed. I kept running, wanting as much of a head start as I could get. I heard the sirens growing fainter and I stopped, pausing to listen in disbelief as they faded into the distance. They hadn't stopped.

Listening to the fast-fading sirens, I could only guess that the Piedmont cops hadn't seen Steve's Charger resting behind the trees and were assuming that I had pulled even further ahead.

Not knowing how much time I had, I hesitated, trying to decide whether to keep running deeper into the desert, or return to the Charger. Hoping I would be able to hear the cruisers from far enough away to hide should they return, I sprinted back to the Charger.

Running past the back end and grabbing hold of some tumbleweeds that I'd knocked loose with the car, I stuffed them into a few likely gaps in the vegetation, trying to hide the Charger and make it hard to spot from the highway.

That done, I listened, hearing no indication of the return of the Piedmont police, I took a moment to check the Charger for damage. The first thing I noticed was a dent in the back bumper, but I knew that would be easy enough to fix. Stepping around to the side of the car, I saw that the paint job had been scratched beyond repair by crashing through the dry desert brush. 'Steve is gonna kill me...' I thought, trembling from the ebbing adrenalin high, just feeling glad that he'd likely have the chance.

Another quick look gave me confidence that, if I had some gas, I could probably get the Charger out of here. I took out my phone, hoping that I'd be able to get a signal. Luck was with me; I had one bar, and hoped it would be enough. I hit the speed-dial for Betty.

"Are you in Lonesome Valley already?" she asked, answering after the first ring.

Taking a deep breath, I explained, "Uh, no... I ran out of gas... I'm still a few miles short of the county line."

"You had better be joking, Chris," Betty said with an ill-tempered growl.

"I wish I was. The Charger is hidden in the bushes and I'm a few yards away. The Piedmont cops who were chasing me didn't see me pull over so they sailed right on by. Could you bring me a can of gas?"

I had the sense to hold the phone away from my ear before Betty yelled, "You areout of your fucking mind. They are looking for that car, you moron. Just leave the damn thing and I'll pick you up. We can send somebody back for it later."

That probably would have been the smart move, but I didn't want to quit, not after all I'd been through. I also thought about those Piedmont patrol cars, which were now between the county line and me.

Going with my best argument I said, "Betty, if I'm in your car and they search it, we're both in big trouble. I think I'm safer in a car that can outrun them, and you would be a lot safer without me. Just bring me a few gallons of gas, please?"

There was silence on the line, but I heard the road noise at her end decrease before she said, "Okay, you win. I'm a couple of miles out of Piedmont, but I'm turning around. I'll see if I can get a couple of gas cans at the station. Leave your phone on and I'll call when I get close, 'kay?"

Agreeing, I ended the call. My next call was to the Lonesome Valley Sheriff's department. I filled them in on the situation and as I'd expected, they informed me that they couldn't enter Piedmont County to help, but they had stopped the Piedmont cruisers a few miles past the county line and made them turn back. That was the good news. The bad news was that the two Piedmont cruisers, apparently unsure as to whether I'd really made it over the line, had taken up blocking positions, right at the county line, with a Lonesome Valley patrol car a few feet away, keeping an eye on them.

I told the officer about my plan to get gas and he told me to go ahead but to sit tight for a while.

Sitting down to review my options, I realized that I didn't have many. Every alternate route that I knew of either started on the far side of the county line, or required going back through Piedmont. It was almost dark, which might help, but I doubted it. With two patrol cars blocking the highway, I had qualms about even being able to get past them. I didn't like the idea of trying to get through, trapped and helpless in Betty's trunk. So there I was, stuck and figuring on just waiting them out.

I knew I needed some way to signal Betty. I had no way of telling her exactly where I was, because I didn't know myself. The gathering darkness prompted me to walk back to the Charger and search it, looking for a flashlight. After looking for quite a few minutes, I found absolutely nothing.

One way would be to keep her on the phone until I spotted her and then talk her in, but she would likely be passing through signal dead zones, which would make that difficult. If only I had a damn flashlight, or even a lighter, but I didn't.

A light... Suddenly remembering just how the sheriff had discovered me: the camera light on my cell phone, I pulled out the phone and sure enough, the light came one when I hit 'camera'. I clicked it off, relieved to have something go my way.

The next bit of news came in the form of my ringing phone. The caller ID came up 'unknown' for this call, but I recognized the voice of the officer at the other end.

The officer was in an upbeat mood as he spoke, "Keep out of sight, those cars should be passing you soon. We foxed 'em for you; we told 'em that you had just arrived here. They waited a couple of minutes, then left. They should be passing you soon, so keep out of sight. Oh, and my boss told me to tell you that you damn well better head straight here, or he'll personally have your hide."

Thanking him, I rang off to sit alone in the dark, wondering what in hell was taking Betty so damned long. As I sat two cars passed by, one after the other, heading towards Piedmont. I joyously raised my middle finger in a parting salute to the Piedmont Sheriff's Department.

I sat there wondering if I should call Steve, then decided against it. I knew he'd be worried by now, but telling him I was stuck in Piedmont County was not likely to reassure him, so I decided to call as soon as I got back to Lonesome Valley.

What was taking Betty so long? I wondered standing up and pacing while the moonless night closed in and the desert bugs came out. Swatting at one, I wished I still had my shirt. I trotted back to the Charger, figuring it was now safe enough for me to wait inside the car and away from the bugs.

I was just climbing in when my phone rang, and Betty gave me the welcome news; she was well outside of Piedmont and on her way with two gallons of gas for me, she should be about where I thought I was within a couple of minutes. Before the signal faded out, I was able to tell her that I'd signal her with a light.

Walking back to the road, I stood on the gravel shoulder, pacing and waiting impatiently. With the curve, I couldn't see far up the road. I paced in fading twilight, wondering what was keeping her. A glimmer of approaching headlights and the hum of an engine filled me with relief. Clicking on the light, I aimed it at the road, smiling as the headlights rounded the curve.

As the car slowed down and pulled over, my smile faded: Betty's old car had round headlights, while this vehicle had square lights and they were higher than a car.

I was about to run when I recognized the vehicle. Weighing the option of running away, I knew it would only delay the inevitable. Reluctantly I decided that it was too late, resigning myself instead to stay and meet my fate with as much courage as I could muster.

My hand found its way to my hair as the driver leapt out, and I rolled my hair through my fingers as she stormed up to me.

Veronica stopped inches from my nose and smiled sweetly, her eyes shooting daggers while her voice was melodious and gentle as she said, through gritted teeth, "Hi, Chris. Strange, that I should run into you here, in Piedmont County...but, it's been a strange day. I was working at the diner and what did I see? One police car chasing another. The one being chased was trailing something and sparks were just flying everywhere. Then, the car came back by, took out a fire hydrant, and I got a glimpse of a familiar-looking shirtless guy driving it. Then you know what happened? I heard what I thought was thunder, then a fire engine, and then somebody came in screaming that the sheriff's house had just blown up. Oh, and then, I saw somebody driving Steve's Charger right through downtown. And now here you are, standing in the desert, waving a light. I'm sure this is all just a coincidence, right? Because surely you wouldn't be stupid enough to go to Piedmont..."

Her finger jabbed my chest making me stumble backwards, as Veronica was yelling at full volume, "I thought Blondie might, just might, be stupid enough to go to Piedmont and try to get the Charger back. That's why I told you not to tell him. Never, never in a million years did I imagine that you would be this fucking stupid. Now, what the fuck are you doing out here, still in fucking Piedmont County?"

I swallowed once, running my fingers through my hair, "I ran out of gas..."

Veronica inhaled, as I shrank back from the oncoming verbal barrage, just as another set of headlights rounded the curve. Ignoring whatever it was that Veronica was going to yell about, I fumbled with the phone again and signaled with the light just in time. Betty braked hard and pulled over, parking in front of Veronica's truck.

"My gas is here," I mumbled, before dashing over to greet Betty.

Betty opened her trunk, producing a two-gallon can of gas. When the trunk light came on, Veronica gasped. "Is that blood coming from your ear?" Betty and Veronica exchanged puzzled glances as they followed me to the Charger.

Veronica and Betty had met a few times at the bookstore, so there was no need for introductions. I concentrated on pouring the gas into the Charger, hoping that neither of them would lay into me, which turned out to be a foolhardy hope.

Betty started it off, "What the hell happened? You said you were just going to look around and take a picture!"

Making sure not to spill a drop of gas, I replied, "You didn't tell me that a light would come on when I took a photo. I was in a building at the scrap yard, hiding under a table, when the sheriff was taking money with the Charger in the background. It was the perfect picture so I took it, but they saw the bright light and I had to run for it."

Veronica was about to yell at me again when Betty interrupted her with a wave of her hand, "You got the picture?"

"Yup." I said, my face lighting up with a big grin.

I finished the refueling, saving enough to pour a few drops directly into the carburetor. After priming the carb and tossing the gas can into the Charger's trunk I said, "I'm heading for the Lonesome Valley sheriff's office. The two Piedmont cruisers passed by a few minutes ago so I should have a clear run. Veronica, could you do me a favor and swing by the house to pick up Steve?"

Veronica nodded, and as she turned towards her truck, she snapped over her shoulder, "Don't think I'm done, Chris. You and I are going to have a long chat when you are done at the sheriff's office. I'll bet Steve will have some words for you, too."

Betty fixed me with a glare, "I'm sure Sheriff Buchanan will have some choice words for you too, and don't forget Steve's father. Then it's my turn. You just might be better off returning to Piedmont."

Betty and Veronica waited in their vehicles as I cranked the Charger, pumping the gas pedal, hoping and praying that it would start. Finally, it did and I backed it through the brush, onto the shoulder, and then swung around to point the nose at Lonesome Valley. As soon as the rear wheels were on pavement, I eased down on the gas pedal, accelerating smoothly to sixty miles an hour.

I wanted to get the hell out of Piedmont County as fast as possible and I figured they would be looking for the Charger, so speeding wouldn't draw any extra attention. What I was concerned about was running out of gas again. I had two gallons in the tank and Steve's Charger was a gas hog; getting around eight miles to the gallon on the highway. That gave me a range of about sixteen miles and by my best guess Lonesome Valley was twelve miles ahead. I'd make it, with some gas to spare, as long as I kept the speed reasonable.

I held it at sixty, cruising through the sultry night air, wishing that I were already in Lonesome Valley.

Veronica and Betty's headlights kept pace in the inky darkness behind me and I thought of calling Steve. Figuring Veronica would be giving him an earful within a few minutes, I held off. Patting the phone in my pocket, I savored the thought of the picture it contained. More precisely, what it could do in the right hands.

The glitter in my rearview mirror took me by surprise, and as I looked towards it, my hands gripped the steering wheel tightly, as the flashing blue lights moved onto the highway behind me, a few hundred yards back. I cursed as my foot found the floorboards and the Charger surged ahead, wondering why in hell I'd assumed the two cars I'd seen pass by were the Piedmont patrol cars. One of the cruisers was now behind me: but where was the other?

The Charger's wheels screeched as I took a slight curve at a hundred and forty, pulling away from the pursuing Piedmont cruiser. My eyes kept glancing at the gas gauge, but two gallons was not enough to register; it was pegged on empty.

I slowed down to a hundred and twenty, which was my best guess at the speed of the pursuing cruiser. I'd opened up a lead of close to a mile and all I had to do was maintain it, and save every drop of gas.

A sign flashed by far too quick to read, glowing for a brief moment, lit by the Charger's headlights. I knew from its shape what it was; I'd just passed the county line. A new set of flashing lights lit off behind me, pulling in behind the Piedmont cruiser. Holding my breath, I hoped that the Piedmont car would break off, but no such luck. At least I was finally out of Piedmont County.

Racing through the night, I reached for my phone, intending to call the Lonesome Valley Sheriff's Department, but I realized that it was useless; their cruiser would have radioed in and if they had anything to tell me, they had the number, assuming I was within range of a cell tower.

Cresting a slight rise, I saw the lights of Lonesome Valley in the distance, just a few miles ahead. My hopes rose, only to be dashed by that all-too-familiar hesitation from the engine.

I didn't know what would happen if both the Piedmont and Lonesome Valley cars were behind me when I stopped, and I didn't want to find out. I floored the Charger, building up speed, until the engine coughed and died at a hundred and forty as I passed the Circle K at the edge of town.

There was about a mile to go and I had more than enough speed to coast in, well ahead of my pursuers. What I didn't know was what to do when I got to the station or, more aptly, what would happen then. There was little time to figure it out; I was still doing ninety as I approached the station and slammed on the brakes.

With the engine off, I discovered the Charger had no power assist and I had to press the brake pedal hard just to be effective. With the brake drums howling, I stomped on the emergency brake, slowing down just barely enough to whip the Charger into the Lonesome Valley Sheriff's station parking lot. I bounced to a halt close to the front door, seeing the welcome sight of Sheriff Buchanan and another deputy near the door, radios in hand, rushing over to me. Easing open the Charger's heavy door I stepped out.

Sheriff Buchanan turned to face the road, where we saw the Piedmont cruiser come into view, driving slowly, the officer looking out the window in my direction. He continued slowly past, and then flipped off his lights before making a U-turn, heading slowly back towards Piedmont. The Lonesome Valley cruiser came into view next, and I heard Sheriff Buchanan bark into the radio, "Escort him all the way back to the county line."

"You, inside, now," Sheriff Buchanan yelled, before telling his deputy, "Impound this vehicle and be careful not to disturb anything."

The deputy approached the Charger, pulling on gloves as I told him, "It's out of gas, but the key is in it."

I took one glance back as I entered the building; watching for a moment as the deputy struggled to push the Charger from the open driver's side door towards the gated impound a few yards away.

We were barely through the door when Sheriff Buchanan let loose at full volume, "What the fuck do you think you were doing? Do you have any ideahow foolish you were? You are damn lucky to be alive, and I've got half a mind to turn you over to Piedmont. They did request, then demand it a few times once they thought you were here. Seems like you raised all sorts of holy hell over there. Now explain to me why, exactly, you pulled this stunt," he paused for a moment, staring at my ear, "You're wounded. Come over here under the light, let me take a look."

The sheriff studied my ear for a moment before telling me, "You've been creased by a bullet. It's just a small nick on the ridge of your ear, but I think I see powder marks." The sheriff retrieved a camera and some tape from a drawer. After taking a few pictures of my ear, he began sticking a few strips of tape to my face before depositing them in an evidence bag. With that done, he growled, "I need to know what this hot evidence you have is."

I fished in the pocket of my filthy jeans for the cell phone. Handing it to the sheriff, I managed, far more calmly than I felt, to say, "I've got a picture of the Piedmont sheriff standing in front of the Charger with his hand out, taking money."

The sheriff whistled, "Wow, that's something, all right. With that, he can be hung out to dry. However, I've been hearing wild stories all night about what went down in Piedmont and I'll tell you this: if you hurt so much as one innocent person, I'll turn you over to the State Police. Got that?"

I nodded as he continued, "All right. Just so we're clear on that. What's going to happen now is you are going to sit down and tell me, on tape, every damn thing that happened, while it's still fresh in your mind. In my office, right now."

The sheriff slammed the heavy door behind us, pointed me towards a chair, and clicked on a cassette recorder, giving me the terse order, "Start talking."

I started at the beginning, with my reasons for going to Piedmont. Then my plans, and how those plans had fallen apart. I skipped over Betty's role in getting me to Piedmont, and was thankful that the sheriff didn't ask, though he did shoot me a glare. When I got to the part where I'd been discovered due to the camera light, the sheriff's face remained impassive, but I noticed him biting his lip. As I described hitting the Piedmont Sheriff in the ass with a hubcap, he turned away, covering his face for a moment, before turning back, chewing on his lower lip, nodding for me to continue.

The sheriff maintained an impassive stare, until my description of coming out of the Piedmont Sheriff's house to find him with his pants down, dressing his wounded ass. Again, Sheriff Buchanan turned away, covering his face with his hand.

As soon as I said the words "And then that end of his house blew up," the sheriff slammed his fist on his desk, curled forward, and guffawed; shaking with laughter as his hat fell off, landing on the gnarled wood of his desk.

When he finally stopped laughing, he nodded for me to go on, and I continued my recount, ending with my arrival in his parking lot.

"Well, that's one hell of a story. I wish I'd have been there to see that corrupt bastard's house go up. I just hope, for your sake, that we can put together enough of a case for the State Police to take him down, 'cause otherwise he's going to do every damn thing he can to get you, because you just made it personal. Okay, go get yourself cleaned up, and then we can look at your evidence."

Relieved, I stood up, and exited the sheriff's office, only to run right into Steve's arms. He hugged me so hard that I couldn't breathe, but I didn't care; clutched in his grip, I finally felt safe.

When he eased off, still holding me, and said in a shaky voice, "I was worried when you were late getting home, and then Veronica came by. I thought she was pranking me when she said you'd been in Piedmont, but she dragged me down here. How did you get hurt? Are you okay?"

Before I had a chance to answer, the sheriff emerged from his office, coughed once, and told me, "Go get yourself cleaned up, so we can look at the evidence."

Steve followed me into the bathroom. Once inside, I caught sight of myself in the mirror, barely recognizing my own image. My bare torso was covered in dirt, grime, and dried blood, my jeans faring little better. My hair was wild and filthy, and Steve summed it up with the comment, "You look like you've been in World War Three."

Steve helped me wipe down and clean up a little, but I gave up, preferring to wait and have a good shower at home.

I washed my face, attempted to pat down my hair, and gave Steve another reassuring hug, something I'd thought, many times during the day, that I'd never be able to do again.

"Chris, I'm happy that you're okay, but why the hell did you do it?" Steve asked, sounding distraught.

I eased back to face him before replying, "Three reasons. The first was to get evidence against the sheriff. The second was because you were so broken up over your car and it was about to be chopped up, and the third is I thought you would find out about the Charger and go there yourself."

Steve shook his head, "It wasn't the car, well not mostly, that I was bummed out about. There's something I haven't told you, only because I didn't want you feeling bad too. It's my folks; I gave my grandparent's house a call, just to check in. I wheedled some information out of grandpa; my parents are at a marriage-counseling center, not at my grandparent's. Mom set it up before they left, and I don't think Dad even knew. I knew Mom was taking all the crap that's happened hard, but I had no idea it was this bad..."

I hugged Steve, hard, "Hey, you should have told me. Oh man, no wonder you were bummed. I just thought it was your Charger... I know how much you love that car."

Steve moved beside me, ripped some paper towels out of the dispenser, dampening them in the sink before he began dabbing at some of the grease and dirt that covered my chest. After a few moments of silence he said, "I admit, that was hurting a little too, especially because it was Eric who took it, but there's no way in hell I'd ever want you to put yourself in danger for a car. I guess it's chopped up by now, huh?"

I grabbed Steve's wrist, holding him until he looked into my eyes, "Didn't Veronica tell you anything?" I asked, puzzled.

Steve shrugged, "Veronica dragged me out of the house the second she got there. All she would tell me was that you had gone to Piedmont and had raised all kinds of hell over there before ending up here. She called you a bunch of really obscene names, but before I could get a word in edgewise, we were here."

Chuckling, I told Steve, "She should have told you. Your Charger is how I got back. It's been impounded, but you will have it back in a few days."

I watched as Steve's face lit up and quickly added, "Don't be too happy; there's some damage. I scratched up the paint pretty bad going through some brush, and there is a dent in your back bumper from where the Piedmont cruiser rammed me to spin me out."

Steve's jaw dropped, and he gaped at me for a few seconds before asking, "A cruiser rammedyou? Damn, I didn't know. So what happened, how did you get hurt and so dirty?"

"Let's just say it was an interesting day." I said pulling Steve into another hug. "I'll tell you all about it once we get out of here," I continued nodding towards the door, "I've got to go over some evidence with the sheriff first but we should be free to go soon."

As we turned towards the door, Steve gave me one last dab with the wet paper towels, and I glanced down my bare chest, "I don't suppose you brought along an extra shirt? I kinda left mine in Piedmont."

Steve chuckled, pulling off his own shirt, his muscles rippling beneath his tan skin, "Here, have mine."

I slipped the shirt on, feeling Steve's warmth, "Thanks," I said, as we returned to the main squad room.

Veronica and Betty were already gathered around a computer, along with the sheriff and his deputy. Betty was busily explaining how to get the picture out of the camera and into the computer.

I watched, unable to see the screen, as the sheriff followed her instructions. After a few moments, the sheriff cocked his hat back on his head, fixed me with a glare, and growled, "Thisis your big evidence?"

Looking over Betty's shoulder, my jaw dropped as I saw the screen. I'd captured a great shot; two sets of legs with a car tire and a sliver of fender in the background.

The sheriff slowly shook his head as I stared at the photo, "Two sets of feet and not much else. This won't be of any use."

"I... I... I thought I got the shot..."

The sheriff stood up, "What you almost got was shot, with a gun. If this was all you had, I'd be taking your hide right about now."

I blanched, until the sheriff added, "Lucky for you, it ain't. You said you pegged Sheriff Johnson in the ass with a hubcap, and when you blew up his house, he had his pants down dressing the wound. So I figure the blood on the car seat and a few bloody fingerprints to be his, and I'm betting we can match the prints off his gun to confirm it. If that pans out, it means we can prove he was inside a stolen car he denied having any knowledge of."

I felt a hand on my shoulder and stumbled as I was spun around, meeting Steve's eyes as he gaped before blurting out, "You blew up his house?"

"Uh, sorta, but it wasn't on purpose. The house blew up after I crashed his car through the living room. I'll tell you about it later." I said softly.

Steve just stared at me with his mouth hanging open as Veronica broke the silence, "He's got quite a tale to tell, Steve. I saw some of it, and I damn well better hear the rest of it, soon."

Sheriff Buchanan reclined in his chair, eased his hat back, and chuckled, "Y'all get on out of here. Just one thing," he glared at me, "if you ever, and I mean ever,do anything anywhere near this dumb again, you better hope that Piedmont Sheriff gets you, because you'd be a hell of a lot better off with him than me. Got that?"

The sheriff escorted us to the door of his station and as we left he told Steve, "You'll get your car back in a few days."

Betty offered Steve and me a lift back to my Jeep, while Veronica glared at me.

Veronica then informed us that we would both be coming by her house tomorrow to fill her in on the full story.

Steve and I piled into the back seat of Betty's car, accompanied by her stern admonition of, "No funny business back there." En route to the bookstore, Betty didn't ask, but she looked relieved when I told her I'd left her role in getting me to Piedmont out, and the sheriff didn't know.

Once we arrived at the bookstore, Betty seized me by the arm, pulling me towards the bookstore door, letting me know in no uncertain terms that I was going to spill the whole story. I looked to my shirtless boyfriend for some support but apparently, he was anxious to hear my tale as well.

Betty sat us down at a small table in the back room and for the second time that night, I told the story. While I was repeating the conversation between Eric and the sheriff, Betty interrupted to ask Steve, "Why didn't you tell me you were related to that sheriff?"

Steve gave us both a puzzled look, "Because I'm not..."

Betty glared at me, "Then what's that bit about 'blood is thicker than water'? That phrase means a relative, and if Eric's related to the sheriff, so are you, right?"

I hadn't noticed at the time, but I dimly remembered that Betty had it right, and realized that this would explain Eric's ability to mouth off to the sheriff and live.

Steve shrugged, "As far as I know, no, I'm not related."

Betty gave Steve a thin smile. "If I were you, I'd start digging around in my family tree, 'cause it sure sounds like you might be unaware of a limb or three." She then motioned for me to tell the rest of what had transpired.

Betty didn't interrupt again, though she did slap my shoulder a few times.

Steve mainly stared, his eyes wide, occasionally giving me a look that clearly told me he thought I was insane.

When I'd finished my tale, both of them told me that I was lucky that I hadn't been killed. I nodded in agreement and eager to change the topic of conversation I glanced over at the wood paneling that now concealed what we thought was a bricked-up tunnel. Walking over to it I said, "I still want to find out what's behind that new brickwork."

Steve got up, walked over, and slung his arm over my shoulder, "Trying to change the subject, huh? Don't count on it working, 'cause I think we're on to you," he chuckled, "but you do have a point about the bricks. I've been thinking about that and I remember Dex showed me a gadget a year ago, some kind of fiber-optic camera he used for looking inside of stuff. Maybe we could ask him to bring it by and drill a small hole for a look-see?"

Betty nodded, signaling her approval of the plan.

Turning towards Steve, I asked, "Any idea when Dex will be back?" still trying to avoid the earlier conversation.

Steve blanched as he whipped his head around to stare at a clock on the wall, blurting out, "Oh, shit, with everything that happened I forgot. Dex sent an e-mail. It just said 'bingo, urgent.' and said he'd call us at home at eleven tonight from a payphone. Maybe he's cracked the data stick."

I spun to stare at the clock, which told us that we had fifteen minutes, plenty of time to get across town if we left right away.

We said a quick goodnight to Betty. She followed us out, growling, "Steve, you drive, because this idiot," she pointed at me, "would probably head for Piedmont again."

Steve climbed into the driver's seat as I stood in the open passenger-side door, grinning at Betty, "Nah, I wouldn't, and come to think of it, youdrove to Piedmont, not me."

I jumped in and slammed the door behind me as Betty stormed up, "Chris, I'll get you for that, count on it. Goodnight, Steve," she said, before looking at me and smiling wickedly. "And goodnight to you too, Rambo."

Steve crumbled over the steering wheel, laughing his ass off, before recovering enough to gasp, "I guess you've got a new nickname, dude."

"Just what I need," I mumbled, as Steve fired up the Jeep and headed home.

We arrived home with ten minutes to spare. Steve booted up his computer as I stared at the phone, willing it to ring.

Steve coughed, pointing at his screen, "We're an hour early. Dex sent us another e-mail. He said he'd forgotten they do that weird Daylight Savings Time crap in California, so his call will be at midnight our time. We've got an hour so let's get you cleaned up."

Steve pulled me into his bathroom, tugging my shirt off as he ran the shower. I was still covered with grime, but the sight of Steve shucking off his jeans made the shower appealing in other ways as well. My blood ran hot as I saw ample evidence that Steve was thinking along the same lines, and I stripped out of my remaining clothes as fast as I could.

Taking great care, Steve washed me down, soaping away the grease and filth, caressing me as he lathered us both up. Once I was clean, with my hair washed, Steve's caresses continued, but cleanliness was the last thing on our minds.

I pulled him to me, drinking in the sight of him, the feel of his gorgeous body, the burning passion in his blue eyes, thankful that his recent disinterest in sex was so obviously over. As I took the proof of his renewed interest in my hand, he let out a disgruntled groan and I bit my lip, cursing the sound that filtered into the shower... the ringing of the phone.

I nearly said to hell with it, burning with a desire to concentrate on the task literally in hand, but then I remembered, "Dex," I mumbled, as I dashed from the shower, naked and dripping, lunging for the phone in Steve's room.

Steve followed right behind me, standing by my side as I snatched up the receiver to hear a familiar voice. "Dex," I whispered to Steve, before greeting our friend.

Steve dashed from the room as Dex told me, "I screwed up on the times so I figured I'd better try now. Is Steve there too?"

Steve's voice came on the line, "Yeah, I'm on the cordless, what's up, you said it was urgent?"

Steve returned to the room, still dripping, as Dex replied on the line, "Oh, yeah, big news. You guys pegged it about Leviticus. That passage from Leviticus that my keylogger caught wasn't the final pass phrase. So I looked up what version of the bible used that wording, then I typed in the verses one by one, and let me tell you, that was damn tedious..."

In an anxious voice, Steve interrupted, "So, what happened?"

I could almost hear Dex smile, "I've done it. I decoded the data stick."

©Copyright 2007 C James; All Rights Reserved.
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Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent.  The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"

Many thanks to Conner for editing, support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions on this chapter.
Many thanks also to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions (and for thinking up a title!).

Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading and advice, and for putting up with me.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.
Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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Blood thicker than water....Marriage counselling set up by Mom??? Glad the guys are back, Dex has cracked the code and the Charger is not in pieces.

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