The Hat, the Cat, and the Texas Entomorph
Chapter 1 — Are We in Hell, or Texas?
Ritz is sweating, and his ass hurts. When their trip began, he mistook the van’s seat for tolerable, but that long since proved illusory. The vehicle’s AC ignores the heat. Sweat stains mar his crumpled custom-tailored Milano dress shirt, and his Madison-fit trousers fare no better in the swelter. Hot, tired, and cranky, he wants to grab the nearest motel room and lay down under a working air conditioner. A creaky twin bed with a lumpy mattress would be heavenly.
Perhaps he should make buying hardier clothing a priority. A western shirt and some denim jeans would work well enough, but he fears if they stop, he may never find the fortitude to resume.
“Want a break? I can drive a while.” The youth enjoys driving. The young man, halfway through his sixteenth year, is more experienced than he in his 30-plus years. Ritz hates to drive and cedes the wheel on the slightest excuse, but he’s guilt ridden for letting the youngster do most of the driving.
The kid is NSFW commando beneath sweat-soaked, whisper-thin white gym shorts. He drives barefoot, stripped to the waist, his pale white skin glistening with a moist sheen of perspiration — the boy revels in the heat.
A magnificent gray tomcat lies on the engine cover, monopolizing the mediocre air conditioning.
With a head-shake, the kid instead asks, “How fast do ya think this thing will go?”
Eyes bulging in fear, he jerks upright, voice rising to a squeak. “Don’t know and don’t wanna know — keep her slow and steady, at or below the limit!”
With a mock sneer, the youngster jeers, “Chicken!” As he mashes the accelerator to the floor, the van responds with a deeper shade of noise, but the hypothetical acceleration is imperceptible. Given their speed and the underpowered vehicle, ‘Take it to the limit’ is a meaningless phrase.
“Damn right, I am! Your title to this machine is murky, and I don’t want to be pulled over for speeding and find out just how questionable it is. Take it Easy. Many small towns have speed traps, too, so be mindful of any sudden drops in the limit. A cop sitting behind a 35-mph sign could make for an expensive pee break.”
Laughing, the kid unmashes the peddle. The noise diminishes, though the van’s velocity does not appear to change. The hot, sticky seat creaks as Ritz shifts within the confines of the tight-strapped seatbelt. Closing eyes and folding arms, he braces himself against the discomfort and tries to relax. Half-dozing, he contemplates how they came to be rolling through the Texas Hill Country, in the hottest days of summer.
Rithwick Jahi Pringle, a.k.a. Ritz is an unemployed hacker — a loaded word for a cube monkey. He spent his days waging virtual battles without ever meeting the enemy face-to-face. Except when unidentified dark forces tried to kill him. That experience terrified him. Traumatized him so thoroughly that he’d rebelled by walking out of a respected, high-paying career. He abandoned his exalted position as a White Hat for The Agency after his former boss and lover died in the fire, and officials identified her body.
Yet he was certain he saw her after the mansion’s destruction. She had chased their foe while discarding clothing with ecdysial grace until she was stitchless. Naked as an egg, she vanished into a flickering rift of light and shadow; something resembling the portals he’s seen in Sci-Fi TV shows. She was chasing Nehemiah Scudder, a purported extraterrestrial bent on dismantling civilization. Or so he’d said.
Nightmares still haunt him, visions so intense he has trouble distinguishing recollection from dream. It’s not surprising his mind rejects so much from that time that he retreated into a willful faux amnesia in his attempt to cope.
The well-worn memory track of his affair with Athena, the pet name he had given her, replays in his head. She’d shielded the youngster from her intrigue. Milner Fitzroy Stone, a.k.a. Fitz, a.k.a., the kid, had been in her wardship. She took him in and rescued him from ‘the system.’ Whatever drew her to him remains a mystery, but she spared him a life in and out of foster homes.
After resigning from the Agency, he found the van’s title among the papers they sent. Someone, Alex perhaps, signed it over to the kid, but in NY, one must be twenty-one to own a car. Despite being underage, the license sticker is valid, and the youngster carries the pink slip. Ritz also possesses the paperwork, which shows he is the kid’s legal guardian. Would that satisfy the police if pulled over? He doesn’t know and fears finding out.
As they crest a rise, the wheel jerks as if they hit something. Dashboard lights flash, and the temperature gauge shoots into the red.
Leaning over and glancing at the dash, Ritz shouts, “Pull over! NOW! STOP!” Nixie’s ears perk up and he becomes alert as he glances in alarm, first at his owner, then at Ritz.
The kid releases the accelerator, and they coast to a halt by the side of the road. The engine dies with a “kerfluf-ketch-kitch-kaketch,” as a turbid cloud of whiteness roils from beneath the vehicle.
Well, he needed a break. Nature has been whispering in his ear for the last 30 miles.
They raise the hood, only to recoil from the billowing steam. Stepping back, he turns away from the deserted roadway and unzips his fly.
The youngster frowns in disapproval; he shows no qualms about his own skimpy attire but throws shade at a discrete outdoor pee. For Ritz, even shirtless outdoors would be unthinkable, but taking a discreet leak is natural and unavoidable.
Jumping into the van, the kid reemerges with a soft-sided pet carrier, cooing to the feline, “With the engine off, this van is gonna get crazy hot real quick. Are you okay, buddy?”
Nixie blinks at his devoted friend and servant, but, feline cool, he says nothing.
As he reaches into the bag to stroke his dear pet, a police cruiser pulls in behind them.
Zipping up, Ritz notes the battered patrol car and the shield of authority on the door—Sheriff, it states. So, not a Texas State Trooper. Is that good or bad? He recalls unsavory stories he’s heard. Myths, legends, or cautionary tales of small-town cops taking undue advantage of unfortunate travelers. In particular, those with a high melanin factor. “I was takin’ a trip out to LA, tooling’ along in my Chevrolet,” echoes in the back of his mind. Was Uneasy Rider only a song?
Worried, he dons his best blank expression as the officer steps from his car.