Listen, I’m going to tell this tale, but you need to understand something… Hold on, I’ve got a primitive alert system rigged across this hillside and one of my alarms is jiggling something bigger than a ground squirrel.
Denton breaks open his double-barrel and drops in a pair of blood-red #6 duck-shot, the only type of shell that remains in his collection. He pockets two more, clamps the ammo can shut and slips out the uphill door of the cabin.
This time of the season, corn fit to reach the sky, squash and beans resting while they wait for first frost, I see vandals come up the valley from that cesspit of a town. I hate to waste shot, but if I don’t, they think they can come back with a mob.
He heads across the slope avoiding the sight of anyone trekking across his fields toward his house. His gardens are below in a broad swale that stays naturally moist throughout the summer; the dry heat elsewhere burns crops to a crisp. His wide descending arc brings him to his plot—this end showing rows of peppers, deep green, crimson and gold. A woman is walking, oblivious, straight through his gardens.
Would you look at that. Talk about brazen disregard for self preservation. She’s not stopping to steal or even marvel at my work. What she doin’…
“Denton Cronsky, come out and show yourself.” the woman’s solid voice runs up the hill to the cabin, its brick battlements hiding windows, solar-cells aligned in a checkerboard across the south-facing roof.
She looks healthy enough. No limp in her stride or stutter in her voice. Not like the vagrants that wander the land these days. She must be from across the river, west I recon.
“Denton Labast Cronsky, come the fuck out of that cabin and face me, you bio-freak. I’ve got news for you.”
Shit. Nobody in these parts knows that name.
The woman marches through the garden to the base of the hill and shrugs off her pack. She removes the plaid shirt she’s been wearing revealing a tight blue t-shirt, round bare shoulders and a feminine waist. With the top flap open she rummages through her pack pulling forth a tablet that shimmers as she holds it up, its back to the sun. After thirty seconds she lowers it and taps the face. She begins to read.
“Denton Labast Cronsky, age at induction: 82. Inmate number 75232, Beaumont, Texas, Federal Corrections facility.” Her finger swipes sideways. “Convicted of four hundred and seventeen counts of manslaughter caused by the release of a deadly pathogen into the ventilation system of a Royal Viking cruise ship, February 2022.”
Shit, shit, shit. That was more than fifty gottdamn years ago. How the hell she find that information? How the hell does she have a working gottdamn SunTab?
“… released in 2042. Thought responsible for the later development and distribution of the genetically engineered virus that swept as a pandemic in the year 2051.” The woman stops reading and repacks the SunTab. From a side pocket she pulls out a floppy hat and some paper wrapped sundry which she proceeds to eat. “I got all damned day, Cronsky. All week in fact. You got something I need. And I, I’ve got… Hell, Denton! Show that freakface of yours.”
Sonofabitch. The woman must be an agent or a gottdamned spy. New government hell-bent on hunting down cold trails. I’d better…
Off to the south, at the fringe of brush and low trees that Denton tries to keep thinned around his crucial haven of crops, three ball-capped men slink through the shadows.
Shit. She dragged in a couple of stragglers.
Lowering his gun Denton walks between knee-high rows of peppers, into his tomatoes and turns right along the pole beans to meet the woman at the base of the hill. “Quit your damn hollering, lady. These woods got eyes and ears.” He offers his empty hand as half peace offering, half plea for shut-the-fuck-up silence.
Miss SunTab reaches around her back and pulls out a black-as-oil automatic pistol. “One more step you fr…” As her eyes take in Denton Cronsky’s features her breath catches. “Who the hell are you?”
Denton grins. His chalk-white smile stretches across his smooth face.
“You expectin’ someone a bit more, elderly?”
SunTab deep-blinks, “No, no. Makes sense now. I should have guessed, seeing how…”
A poorly shot arrow flicks between them like a demon spawned hornet. Denton turns to see three screaming locals, rags tied around their heads, primitive weapons raised or drawn for the attack.
Natural as swatting a fly, he lifts the shotgun and fires both barrels of duck-shot. Denton’s motion triggers the trio of attackers to spin and show their backs. At thirty yards the pellets spread to cover all three assailants. But thick bark, tied like turtle shells, absorbs the impact of dozens of steel BBs. They whoop cries of triumph when none appear to have been hit and turn back to the fight.
In easy motion, Denton breaks the gun. The empty shells fly over his shoulder and he pinch-drops two fresh loads into the barrels. As he sights down range, off to the side he spies the woman’s stance.
“No One,” the woman yells as she pulls the pistol’s trigger. The crack of the gun stuns the thieves to a halt. The shot goes high.
“Shoots an arrow…” Boom! “At me…” Heavy caliber explosions rattle the heads of the corn stalks around her. Her second shot hits the dirt, her third takes brigand number-one in the shoulder. His screams turn the others who blanch and dash from the field. Number-one stops, touches the wound and the initial surge of blood, his hand coming away bright red in the afternoon sun. He stumbles over himself turning to flee.
“And lives to tell about it.” SunTab slow-aims her forth shot at the center of the wounded man’s back. The shock knocks him to his knees, but the thick bark protects him from instant death. He regains his feet and lopes sluggish as a porcupine into the southernmost forest.
SunTab lowers her pistol. Her heavy breathing and the smell of her sweat, Denton realizes she’s standing just an arm’s length away, focuses the man’s mind.
Fuck me sideways. I better not play hardball with this crazy bitch.
“Look what you made me do.” The woman is staring at her oddly dark pistol as if it confuses her. “I hate wasting ammo, killin’ people.”
“You suck at it, you know.”
Geezus, did I just say that? I’ll never, gottdamn learn.
SunTab looks up at Denton and tilts her head. Her jaw muscles flex beneath bronze skin. “I know. Ricky says it’s because, deep down, I really do hate it. Maybe he’s right.” She returns the pistol to a holster at her back and plops down next to her pack. “Can you help me find the casings? Ricky says, always pickup your brass.”
“He’s right. I do the same thing. Tries to anyway.”
The woman collects the empty .45 shells, picks up the paper-wrapped meal she dropped, takes a nibble and stuffs the lot back into her pack. The sun remains high but she appears to take a chill and dons her shirt. Denton watches as if mesmerized.
Thirty, thirty-five maybe. Thick dark hair. How’s she look like that with the world as it is?
“I’m Krystal, with a kay. You’re Denton Cronsky, mass murderer, and like a hundred and something years old.”
“One hundred and thirty-seven.”
“You got any hooch up in that cabin, you, you ancient, freaky-looking fuck?”
She looks like she’s gonna cry, puke, or start hollering at me again.
“Grab your belongings and follow me—exactly. Any side steps… I got plenty of libation. Enough to set your nerves to right.” Denton angles off to the right, returning to the path he took to get down. “You’ll probably like the apple brandy best. Sweeter, you know.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Krystal?” Denton takes a few steps. “That fellow, I’ve seen him before. He’s tough. A pain in the ass. Tenacious as a tick. He’ll live.”
“Don’t… You don’t need to play the type. I know you ain’t got it in you.” Krystal’s steps become longer, steadier. “Besides, I’m nearly as old as you are. So, you don’t give me your grandfatherly bullshit. I don’t shoot you in the back.”