The Hat, the Cat, and the Texas Entomorph
Chapter 4 — Juicy Burgers and Bloody Secrets
Nixie pokes out his head. “Wrrrrmmaao.”
Ritz scratches the animal between his ears. “I know, fella, you wanted to stay with Fitz, but it’s much cooler here. Hang out with me for a while. We’ll meet him soon.”
The cat climbs from his pet carrier, stretching to place his nose into the stream of cool air. “ummmm,” he says. The huge Russian Blue tomcat stretches and preens, tail-high, basking in the cooling flow. Then, relieved from the oppressive heat, he settles in Ritz’s lap and begins purring.
“What a handsome boy,” she says.
“Yeah, he’s more than a pretty face. He’s fluent in several programming languages. He flings Scratchcode, Mewscript, PurrL, Feline-C, and Meowthon with a coding fervor fueled by catnip.”
Ritz winks and smiles at the driver. “Right, buddy?” he says, as he pauses to scratch Nixie’s chin.
“Fitz found him as a kitten and they have been best friends ever since. About six or seven years, I think. The two sorta grew up together. Though I never quite got the full story, I believe when the kid adopted him, the kitten was feral, surviving alone in the woods. Anyhow, he doesn’t like to talk about his past. But, they met each other, and the rest is history. Nixie has often been the only constant in his life, as they bounced from foster home to foster home. I’m surprised he could keep him since many people dislike cats. No doubt he had to fuss and fight, but they stayed together.”
Sam smiles as she glances at Nixie, curled in Ritz’s lap. The cat’s trust and contentment with the big man, though not his owner, is instructive. Trust begets trust, she thinks.
As they drive, the conversation drifts to personal histories. Exposing little about his years with the Agency, instead, he guides the discussion toward well-known, mundane cyber incidents. Nor did he mention his after-hours online pursuits, or how his dark web Ph3Dora identity drew the attention of assassins. Even so, Sam’s intuitive sense reads much between the carefully traced lines he draws.
After a few minutes, he says, “Cybersecurity is all quite boring, really. Just a cube monkey, chained to a workstation, chasing the bad guys around the net. When I had them, I handed the details to law enforcement and seldom learned what became of those I targeted. But what about you — you said you’re a criminologist?”
Her intuition is highly attuned. He deftly skirted the top-secret stuff, without betraying any further trace of the Agency, she mused. Perhaps that one slip was due to fatigue and heat exhaustion. With her Cyber Crimes background and keen intuition, she knew enough to understand what he wasn’t saying, and why. She can’t deny it; he pulls at her curiosity like a thread waiting to unravel a tapestry of secrets. He is truly a man of mystery and intrigue.
“Yes, that’s right, I have a Bachelor’s Completion Degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice Online (CCJO), along with a cyber crime certificate. Also, I recently completed my PhD in Criminology. Since graduating, I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to some significant cases in the country. Sheriff Jack and I met during a previous investigation, so when he began uncovering these grisly killings, he reached out to me. Got here two days ago, and sure didn’t have to wait long. Early this morning, a call came for a welfare check, and he found our latest murder scene. Awful thing.”
Then, her somber tone shifts, and she says, “But tell me more about yourself. Although I am not a Hat, I understand the role of an Agency Cyber Warrior.”
Startled, he blinks open-mouthed at the reference to the Agency, and her use of the term Hat. His prior unguarded mention of the Agency has escaped his awareness. He hadn’t knowingly used Hat or Cyber Warrior to describe himself, yet she appears knowledgeable of the world of online warfare. As he reclaims his calm, he redirects the conversation. “Well, you appear to have crammed a lot into your years — you look too young to have a Ph.D. and so many years of experience. Did you get your bachelor’s at age 12 or something?”
At that, she laughs, and an electric jolt hits his psyche, as his heart skips several beats. Awash in a sea of pheromone-driven emotions and gasping for breath, he clenches the armrest.
“Not quite, but I went through my nerd phase early, and perhaps I’m not as youthful as you think — terrific genes, I guess. I am passionate about my field, much as you appear to be about yours,” she says.
Eyes bulging and mouth dry, he struggles to compose himself.
Before he can speak, she adds, “I’m psychic enough to hear what you aren’t saying. There are only a few places that employ skilled white hats, and my career path has familiarized me with all of them. So let’s not talk about clandestine organizations that recruit white hat hackers.”
Still reeling from the near coronary, he laughs but says nothing.
Struggling to suppress his fiery arousal; he rationalizes his reaction by seeking refuge in the notion that he merely holds a genuine appreciation of her as a person. He admires how she exhibits the same drive and passion for her work as he does. A Teena-like magnetism draws him to her, something which he dares not acknowledge.
He’d had quite enough of Hats, cyber wars, aliens, and all the rest!
“Over there,” she says, pointing, as they halt at the town’s only traffic light. “That’s the Super 8, and a block further west is the Best Western. Neither one is five-star rated. The most important rating will be the vacancy sign out front. Let’s hope they aren’t full. The Ladies in Leather are due this week, and they might have already grabbed all the rooms.”
As she pulls into the motel parking lot, he does a double take and asks, “The what?” But she doesn’t answer. Instead, she parks, jumps out, and heads for the check-in desk. Boggled, Ritz follows, wearing his signature dumb look, grateful for a few moments’ distraction. She’d left the motor running with the air on for Nixie’s comfort, which assaulted his every instinct. In the city, the car, feline occupant, and weaponry would have disappeared in a nanosecond.
As he arranges for the two men’s accommodations, she disappears with a quick, “Meet you back here in a moment.”
Keys in hand, Ritz checks out their room and cranks up the air-conditioner, before taking a porcelain pit stop to relieve his jittery nerves. The emotion-driven, uncontrolled timpani of his heartbeat has slowed to mildly elevated by the time he rejoins her.
While walking from the motel parking lot across to the garage, she points at a street banner. “The Ladies in Leather is a motorcycle rally and parade that travels around the southwest. They show up in Yanno every summer—they will be here next week. Finding a room then might not be so easy.”
“Wow! That oughta be interesting. Let’s check with Hervey and see what’s up.”
Hervey’s assistant told them he had headed out to retrieve their vehicle, and should return ‘dreckly,’ with Fitz and their van. Sam says, “Let’s go over to the Burger Shack and grab some food. I don’t think they will object to Nixie in his crate.”
“Deal, but let’s wait for Fitz. I am sure he is hungry, too.” They walk the short distance next door to the restaurant, leaving her SUV in the garage parking lot. But, not before shutting off the engine and retrieving the pet carrier. Ritz is a large man, and although he has no difficulty, he notes with surprise how heavy it is. Nixie is a big boy too.
Since the lunch mob was gone and the supper crowd was still to come, customers appeared to be on the restaurant’s endangered species list. As they seat themselves in the back booth, discretely tucking Nixie’s bag into the corner, the lone waitress walks up to their table. She glances at the pet carrier and smiles but makes no comment.
“Hello Mary Lou, how’s the food biz today?” Sam spoke to the woman as if they were old friends.
“Business goes on, but my feet are voting to join a Union. I see you’ve found a new ride. Did you sign a lease or just a test drive?” She gives him an exaggerated wink. “What can I get you two?”
Sam grins at her friend’s light-hearted hosing as she responds, “Just a weekend outing, dearie. I’ll let you know when I’m done, but you might have to recharge the battery.”
The women’s sex-charged double-entendre laced ribaldry pains Ritz. Not used to being treated as an inanimate, and shareable, object, he tunes out their words as he struggles to hide his shock.
Ritz, shell-shocked at their bawdy wisecracking, locks down a cold, stony expression. Although he imagines himself as well-versed, he still becomes tongue-tied at such awkward moments. He thought his affair with the free-wheeling, uninhibited Teena had cured him of his nerdy shyness. But the casual and impersonal bawdiness between this pair left him shaken and off-balance. How should he respond? Ignore it, or jump in and take part? If the latter, how? What could he say that would be appropriate and not misunderstood?
At a loss, he responds by not responding.
Ignoring their banter, and avoiding looking either woman in the eye, his voice is a flat monotone. “I’ll have the Breakfast Skillet — but take your time. We’re waiting for someone. I’m Ritz, and my friend, Fitz, will be along any minute. Hervey is towing our car, and my partner will be hungry too, so we will wait for him. He’ll have your double-meat cheeseburger with chopped onion, and no other toppings.” He nods at Sam. “What will you have? My treat, the least I can do.”
“The Breakfast Skillet is my favorite! I haven’t eaten, so I’ll have that too. If you spot a skinny half-dressed young man with Hervey and dragging a van, crank up the fire and bring it out.”
“Gotcha, girlfriend, will do.” She leans over and speaks in a conspiratorial voice. “Would you like a little something for your ‘luggage?’ I might have a small piece of beef scrap in the kitchen.”
Sam turns to Ritz, who smiles and nods. “Yes, that would be excellent. I am sure the ‘luggage’ is hungry, too.”
She notes the subtle creases of his brow and the hint of weariness that shadows his eyes. She senses an unexpected depth and intensity that awakens an inner fire. What stories do those eyes hold? What secrets does his guarded expression conceal? I have hurt you without meaning to.
As her gaze lingers, an inexplicable pull, a magnetism tugs at her swirling thoughts and awakening fantasies and desires from deep within. How odd that her ribald humor had so easily pierced his armor. A sensitive and caring soul resides behind the formidable exterior and the enigma he embodies. I must learn more about this strange pair, she muses.
A rueful smile crosses her face. “We were roommates at UT for a couple of semesters, and I fear we were a bad influence on each other.”
As he is about to reply, Mary Lou returns with a sizable chunk of cooked and chopped meat on a saucer. “Here, put this in your luggage.”
“Thank you,” he says, taking the dish and scrunching down to feed the treat to Nixie. As he does so, Sam accosts Mary Lou before she can return to the kitchen.
“We owe Ritz an apology, college chum. Our bawdy repartee was a trifle much, doncha think?”
“You’re right. My whack-a-doodle jiggery-pokery was NSFW. The boss would have reamed me a new one if he heard me talking like that in front of a customer. Not everyone shares our free-wheeling ways. I’m sorry, Ritz, I apologize.”
His face brightens, and he breaks into a toothy smile. “That’s okay, I brought my energizer.”
Sam glances at Mary Lou, does a spit-take, and both explode in laughter.
After their mirth subsides, their host points out the window and asks, “Is that your friend?”
Ritz’s eye follows her finger to a tow truck with the van enhooked, and a teenager climbing down from the truck’s cab. The boy has traded the socially questionable semi-translucent shorts for ragged denim cut-offs and a grimy tee shirt. No doubt these are the same ones he wore the first time they met.
He also wears sneakers without socks; Ritz sighs and closes his eyes in sartorial pain.
At least the kid’s clothing is acceptable for mixed company, albeit tilting toward the scruffy. Moments later, the kid exits the garage and trots in the direction of the Burger Shack.
Turning back to his companion, he notes a flicker of intrigue crossing Sam’s face. She leans closer to Ritz and whispers, “There’s something about that boy... I can’t quite lay my finger on it, but I detect a whisper of fate enveloping him as if hidden traumas and uncanny abilities lie close at hand. It’s as if he has a higher destiny than we mere mortals.”
Intrigued by her intuition, he cocks an eyebrow as as his young partner approaches. Does she sense something to which he has become inured? He has only known the kid for a few months, and he too sensed a touch of providence when they met. As they have grown familiar, he pushed aside the feeling, but now reminded, he pulls it out and examines it again.
The enigmatic teenager is introverted, boring, and mundane. And yet somehow, he is simultaneously profound and mystical — a dual Heckyll and Jive personality crammed into a single soul. As the boy’s guardian, he sometimes imagines he is charged with protecting and nurturing a strange being from an alien world.
With Sam’s intuition of kismet coalescing halo-like around the young man, Ritz contemplates the extraordinary dangers and opportunities lurking on the horizon, poised for a future both perilous and promising.