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Cicada Serenade:
The Hat, the Cat, and the Texas Entomorph

Cicada - cover v19.jpg

Chapter 3 — A Cat, a Hacker, and a Detective

Ritz is succumbing to the heat. His wrecked shirt has become a gummy, unsalvageable mess. The permanent press is permanently unpressed. It’s doubtful that even a professional cleaning and pressing can restore its former trim. His expensive, custom-fitted wardrobe is less than optimal for Texas summers.

 

Although envious of his young companion’s uninhibited non-attire, he could never emulate the boy. The hot weather is impotent against the younger man’s free-spirited semi-nudity. The kid appears immune to the heatwave. As Ritz approaches sizzling-well-done, he wonders whether his innate modesty might be a character flaw.

 

Hervey said he would be out “dreckly.” Ritz has learned a new Southernism. The fifteen minutes they have waited weighs like endless hours. Ritz is unsure how long he can last in the oppressive heat. The kid wanted to talk about crypto-based identity verification, but the heat was unbearable.

Earlier, they’d watched a roundtable on the exciting ‘Sign-in with Crypto’ proposals. The two of them are intent on launching a startup around his novel application for blockchain technology. His ideas about managing the name, image, and likeness of athletes and actors using the same distributed ledger approach underlying cryptocurrency could be world-changing, or so he believes. The blockchain-based open-source Root Proof of Identity concept is too important to allow the tech giants to derail. Unless they can launch soon, Ritz worries the world will move on without them.

Breaking big tech’s stranglehold on identity management is an opportunity too perfect to miss. Right now, he would trade it all for an air-conditioned hotel room.

Damn this heat, he thinks. Melting underwear, wet in all the wrong places. People die like this!

At that moment, a battered SUV slams on the brakes and pulls in front of their vehicle, backing up after stopping. Rousing from heat-induced lethargy, Ritz struggles to his feet, dreading to leave the vanishing shade next to the van. The driver rolls the window down as he approaches. The blast of chilled air through the open window lifts his spirit like a religious salvation.

 

The driver’s attire is perfect for the summer scorch. Khaki shorts complement a light beige short-sleeve top. Air conditioning caresses her exposed skin with a cooling flow. Long, toned legs are stunning beneath form-fitting shorts. Confident and stylish, she had unbuttoned her blouse midway and tied it into a knot. The teasingly cropped shirt reveals a toned and muscular midriff, and the knotted shirt forms a loose bra. If a more conventional cup holder lurks beneath the folds, he cannot detect it. 

 

She oozes an innocent, fearless sexiness that hits him like an ice-cold double shot of tequila! Head reeling and heart pounding, the heat isn’t the sole cause.

 

“Looks like you have some problems,” she says with a faint Texas accent. Heavy plastic-rimmed glasses and mousey brown hair give her an academic air, and she wears a baseball cap bearing the logo of the Yanno Hornets. The local varsity high school football team, he presumes.


“A little,” Ritz admits, his gaze momentarily flickering away as he wrestles with social interaction. For a millisecond, he withdraws, eyes downcast, shunning human contact. Then, his shoulders squared with determination, he forces himself to meet her gaze and conjures his most engaging, friendly smile — a practiced expression rehearsed before countless mirrors. “Hervey from the Mammoth Garage in Yanno is coming to tow us, but we are melting in the meantime.” His eyes, warm and inviting like a friendly puppy’s, should disarm and enchant. With genuine hope of putting her at ease, he flashes his practiced smile, and to his relief, it seems to work.


A twinkle lights her eyes, then a smile tugs at the corner of her mouth as the woman studies the nearby all-but-nude young man. Glancing at Ritz, she winks and says, “You seem as if you are about to melt, but your friend copes well.” She whistles and raises her voice. “A trifle underdressed for mixed company, doncha think?”


At her dig, a flush spreads across the kid’s face, but he remains impassive, refusing to break eye contact, turn away, or adjust his hands as a strategic sop to modesty. Laughing, she says, “I’m kidding! If my car broke down in this heat, I would bend the legal minimum and stick out my tongue at Mrs. Grundy. Modesty is for church.”


After a moment’s pause, she adds, “My name is Sam.” She gives Ritz a more studied appraisal. “You appear on the verge of heatstroke. Jump in and cool off under the air for a minute before you faint.”


“Thank you,” says Ritz as he reaches for the passenger-side handle. “You’re a lifesaver.” 


As the door opens, he spots the shotgun hanging from a sling behind the seat and eyes her M1911, a weapon he had cause to appreciate. She notes his body language as he spots the weaponry. “This is dangerous territory, rife with deadly predators, particularly at night.”


He nods. “Sheriff Jack said something similar. Perhaps a message worth heeding.”


A pensive expression descends, and she bites her lip as though hesitant to share. Her intuitive sixth sense kicks in, delivering an immediate impression of the big guy’s authentic self. She’s flooded with trust, mingled with a charming, almost endearing, innocence. His presence not only envelops her in comfort but also exudes an irresistibly magnetic allure. After chewing her lip, she says, “This is wild pig country, also mountain lions, bobcats, and rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes! This must be rattlesnake heaven — the area is lousy with them. Around water, you need to be alert for water moccasins, too.”


She pulls from the door pocket a third weapon, which he’d missed. “This is a Taurus Judge, with .410 buckshot shells; the standard for a snake gun. Don’t go into the brush without a weapon. The brush is dangerous and fraught with ways to die, most of them quite painful. So be careful.”


She removes five mini-shotgun shells from the gun, spins the empty cylinder, and hands him the weapon. He hefts it, turns the cylinder, and examines it. His confident manner shows the professional weapons-handling etiquette Athena had demanded he master. When handed a firearm for the first time, its weight shocks most people and they embarrass themselves in their awkwardness. Unknowingly, he was being tested. Thanks to Teena’s training, Sam smiled.


The forceful stream of cool air has restored Ritz, and he is feeling much better. “I am Ritz, he is Fitz.”


She cocks an eyebrow. He continues, “Nicknames, of course. My given name is Rithwick Pringle, and his is Fitzroy Stone. His adoptive mother died a few weeks ago. She and I were friends; in fact, she was my boss at the Agency. Although he is nearly an adult, he still needs guidance; so she made me his guardian. After her death, we left New York to explore Texas and California for better work opportunities.”


He doesn’t spot the telltale lifting of her brow at his mention of the Agency. She wonders, What connection could he have with those manipulative power-mongers?

 

The conundrum piques her interest in this peculiar duo. She finds such a casual mention of the secretive organization by an alumnus shocking. Through her Law Enforcement and other, more personal connections, she is familiar with the clandestine organization in ways few outsiders are.


She regains her composure, keeping her thoughts to herself. Those arrogant Agency pricks are tighter-lipped than a mob boss. The unmitigated heat may have prompted his slip-up. She decides she needs more information about this enigmatic pair. A momentary silence descends as she ponders this.


She idly chews a fingernail for a moment, then asks, “So, what kind of work are you looking for?”


“Cybersecurity is our field, although crypto is my present focus, and he’s my padawan. Don’t let his casual dress — or undress — mislead you. The hacker hoodie fits him well — but we’re strictly the White Hat types.”

 

As she ruminates, her expression darkens for a moment, then lightens as, responding to some deep-seated instinct, she commits to sharing. “We’ve had some ugly murders in the county. I’m a criminologist — here because I believe we have a serial killer on the loose. Sheriff Jack knew me from his years in the Dallas PD. The first incident was mistaken for animal predation, but when he realized it was murder, he called me to help him catch the sonofabitch. The third killing happened last night; we just left the scene.” Under her breath, she mutters, “Sick bastard!”


His eyebrows rise and a shadow crosses his face, his usual composure shattered. Such emotional moments often leave him floundering. Stunned and unsure how to respond, he choked out, “That’s terrible. Hope you catch them.”


After another, longer pause, she asks, “Rithwick? Is that Hindi?”


Relieved to switch topics, Ritz laughs. “No idea! My ancestors came from India, obviously. But I know that only from looking in the mirror — I’m from the Bronx, a product of various foster homes. Never met my parents, not unlike the kid. Ricocheted from foster home to foster home until the last one, where he stuck. Hazel Stone took him in, adopted him, and gave him her surname. Rough break she died on him — but I’d hate to think about what might have happened to him without her influence.”


Enthralled, she notes, “He appears stoic and inwardly focused.”


Ritz nods and sighs. “Yeah, he’s had it rough. Withdrawn, he keeps to himself and never attempts to mingle with others or start small talk. If you ask him something, he’s friendly and responsive, but that’s it. So, he spends much of his time alone and I’ve tried everything to persuade him to dress properly. Although I’ve tried to teach him the importance of presenting a well-dressed, professional appearance, it doesn’t stick — never met anyone who despises nice clothing as he does.”


At this comment, her eyebrows rise, and she smiles in an odd, knowing way. “I kinda got a sense of that.”


After a momentary silence, he continues. “Most find it easy to label him as an introvert and imagine he is weird, boring, and dull. Nothing could be further from the truth. Introverted, yes, but he’s a deep thinker, always got something interesting on tap. He makes fools out of those who mock him without changing expression and is so damn capable at everything he does. Don’t dismiss him. The kid possesses a unique gift for cyber, and he will save the world one day.” With a feeble laugh, he adds, “Either that or destroy it. Take your pick.”


Another few moments of silence. Then, she says, “Hervey is dependable, but they keep him busy. If he said he would tow your car, you can trust he will be here, but I can’t say how soon. If you like, I can take you two into town and help you find a motel.”


“Three.”


Eyebrows rise again, and her head tilts in question. He goes on, “Fitz’s tomcat, Nixie. The kid is closer to that cat than he is to any human.”


“Ha,” she laughs. “Well, the three of you, then. I can take you into town, and Hervey can pick up your vehicle any time.”


Ritz motions to the kid and explains the proposition, at which the boy furrows his brow and gives a headshake of disagreement. “All of our stuff is in the van. Someone might steal our computers and things. The heat doesn’t bother me so much.” The dripping sweat he wipes from his brow as he says this belies his words. “Nixie and I will stay with the van and wait for Hervey. Grab us a nice, cool motel room, and we’ll meet at the Mammoth Garage.”


“Shall I take Nixie? The poor boy must be miserable.” The strain on the kid’s face was obvious. He doesn’t wish to leave his best friend’s care to anyone else, including Ritz, but he also realizes his friend is terribly uncomfortable.


The conflict plays out in his face until he relents and hands Nixie and his pet carrier to Ritz. Moments later, Sam, Ritz, and Nixie are heading toward the nearby farm town and Rio Rancho county seat, Yanno.


Anxiety clenches Ritz’s gut at the prospect of abandoning Fitz with the broken-down van. Guilt gnaws at him for leaving his young friend. As the road leads toward Yanno, a cloud of uncertainty hangs on the horizon. What trials await them? Will the van’s repair be a swift triumph, or will complications ensnare them in a web of delays? Their startup dreams hang in the balance, a delicate dance with time as the tempo quickens.


Yet, amidst the whirlwind of ambition, a siren presence tugs at him — an enigmatic woman who blurs lines and stirs uncharted desires. He suppresses and ignores his physiological reaction. But his lizard brain, buzzing with primal attraction, cannot ignore her overwhelming magnetism. The allure is palpable, undeniable, and yet she’s a puzzle, a piece of the unknown intricately woven into his destiny.


A symphony of uncertainty crescendos around them, and Ritz, caught in its spell, hurtles toward whatever revelation awaits at the crossroads of fate and desire.

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