The Hat, the Cat, and the Texas Entomorph
Chapter 2 — Highway Encounter
Ritz’s muscles tense like coiled steel cables beneath his rigid facade. The air is thick and heavy, suffocating; as if each inhalation is a struggle against invisible weights. His face, an unreadable mask, belies the churning storm of fear within. The fine fabric of his custom Milano shirt, now clinging to his skin with nervous perspiration, betrays his anxiety. Would the cop raise an issue with their tenuous title to the vehicle? Would he question his legal guardianship of the youngster?
It’s a stifling pressure cooker of a moment. Every heartbeat reverberates like an echoing gong of impending consequences, resonating in his chest and causing his breath to come faster, ragged.
The officer gives the pair a sharp scrutiny then turns his attention to the van. As clouds of steam still billow from under the hood, he touches the taillight before approaching the two men. The metallic tang of the overheated engine mingles with the acrid scent of burnt rubber hanging in the air like a warning.
He asks, “Are you two okay?”
Ritz nods, the movement almost imperceptible. As he casts a quick sidelong glance at the teenager, the kid copies his action, neither speaking. Ritz notes the name on the officer’s badge — Sheriff Johnson. The badge glints in the sunlight, a small, shining emblem of authority that does not quell his unease. His mind, a battlefield of fears and doubts, yearns for a speedy resolution — one which doesn’t involve flashing lights, official questions, or worse.
The officer’s features are dour and stern-faced, his gaze darkly appraising the skinny, scantily clad young man while almost ignoring the larger, stronger, and darker adult. Ritz quails at the cop’s intimidating aura, not knowing that the officer had just left a terrible crime scene. Despite mounting fears, he clings to a scant hope they might emerge from this encounter unscathed.
“Either of you armed?” the policeman asked.
“No, sir,” he answers, as the youngster shakes his head. The policeman seems interested in the boy, a fact which doesn’t escape Ritz’s attention.
“With New York plates, I would have bet you weren’t. You boys are a long way from home.” A statement, not a question.
While the cop’s eyes linger on the kid, Ritz responds, “Yessir, we are on our way to California.”
“Kinda lost, aren’t cha?” Seeing Ritz’s blank stare, he adds, “I-40 would be a more direct route, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess so, but we planned on stopping in Austin to meet a potential employer. If they offer the right incentive, we intend to stop there.”
“I see. Got any ID?” The officer’s faint Texas accent becomes a touch less subtle with the last few syllables.
For about three milliseconds, the corny comeback “Bout Whut?” tickled his brainstem. The corner of his mouth tugged in private amusement, but he crushed, melted down, and recycled the thought. He has no intention of being tagged as a smart-ass by a Texas cop. Without comment, he passes the officer his driver’s license. The youngster does so too, not waiting to be asked.
The officer studies their licenses, his expression an inscrutable mask, revealing nothing of the tumult brewing beneath the surface. Wordlessly, he hands them back, his gaze lingering on young Fitz, as though the young man had materialized out of thin air.
Then, with a furrowed brow and a tone strained with disbelief, he finally breaks the silence. "Who is Hazel M. Stone?" he asks, his face set in stone, betraying the weight of unresolved emotions. "When I ran your plates, they came back registered to her."
Ritz responds, “She was his guardian until she died a few weeks ago. They transferred his guardianship to me and the van to him. He has the title but is too young to own a car in New York, which is one reason we’re moving to Texas or California. Better employment prospects, and he can own and register his vehicle.”
The sheriff's face briefly reflects shock at the mention of her death. He again turns his gaze on the boy, scanning him, scrutinizing his bare, bony frame with an intensity that makes Ritz nervous.
“What sort of job are you looking for?” The way his eye keeps wandering towards the kid bothers him. While they are talking, Nixie pokes his head from his carrier, and the boy strokes the cat’s fur.
“I’m in cybersecurity. He,” Ritz points his chin at his companion, “is learning the ropes, and plans to make a career in the field too.”
The officer nods, accepting their story. “Which of you was driving?”
“Me,” says the youngster.
“Ya know, I clocked you at 77 MPH when you crested that hill. That’s not much over the 75 MPH limit, but we like to stick it to New Yorkers when we can.” With a sudden break in the tension, the cop smiles and winks.
“But you have enough trouble without the pain of a ticket,” he reaches a hand to Nixie, “and besides, I like cats. Also, we need talented cybersecurity experts. Get a job and settle in the Lone Star State. And get your Texas plates — we can’t have you being mistaken for damn yankees.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Do you have a phone?”
Both nod. Pulling his out and holding it up, Ritz says, “Three bars worth.”
“That’s fine. Call The Mammoth Garage in Yanno and tell Hervey Sheriff Jack sent you. Trust he’ll take care of you. While you wait, stay close to your vehicle. Don’t go wandering into the brush; it can be quite dangerous. It’s risky to be unarmed around here. If you settle in Texas, you want to change that, especially in the Hill Country.”
With that, the officer returns to his patrol car, and moments later, drives away.
As the sheriff’s car disappears down the road, Ritz’s pent-up breath explodes in a turbulent rush of relief.
“Did that feel as odd to you as it did to me? He seemed nervous and unsettled.”
“Yeah, kid, he was worried, but not about us. He acted like he wanted to tell you to put some clothes on, but other than that and the mechanics of the stop, his attention to us was robotic. He acted stressed and his manner seemed to imply danger. Of course, there are rattlesnakes and such, but I suspect he was concerned about other dangers, not something as mundane as snakes.”
“Yeah, rattlers are bad, but avoidable if you stay alert. They’re only dangerous if you’re careless.”
As they settle beside their broken-down vehicle, an eerie feeling washes over them, a foreboding premonition that their journey is about to veer into uncharted territory. Their conversation takes a grim turn, fueled by the sheriff’s cryptic warning and the elusive specter of hidden danger.
As the meager shade beside the van dwindles, their anticipation swells. What lies concealed beyond the realm of mundane threats like rattlesnakes? What enigmatic secrets does Yanno hold?