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The Final Vampyre

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I am beginning a new story. The new story is a sequel to Undercover Alien, and begins a few days or weeks after Ritz and his juvenile sidekick decide to leave the city. As you may recall, Ritz is now an unemployed former "White Hat" cyber warrior. He and the kid are vacating Gotham for Silicon Valley where they hope to find the means to found a crypto-focused cybersecurity startup.

This "secret page" is where I will share the project with the beta team until I establish a proper beta-reader team portal. We've barely begun.

The story opens with the pair in the Texas Hill Country, where they have encountered a delay in their migration to the west coast. While temporarily stopped in the rural county of Rio Rancho they become ensnared in a series of violent murders.

The first three items below are not intended to become a part of the finished manuscript. They are tools to help the writer visualize the characters and develop the plot. Some parts may be dropped into the story where appropriate, but there will be no C.V. pages for the characters, nor will the finished book have a "prologue." I have placed a few comments for beta readers in braces, but of course those will not be in the final book.

The actual story begins with "Chapter 1" (scroll way down).

Prologue

In the Texas Hill Country, a new breed of bloodsucker lurks. This is not the brooding gothic vampire of legend, nor a romanticized big screen antihero. The hard-working small-town and rural folk have long held deep suspicions around the occasional strange disappearances. Tales of supposed UFO abductions, kidnappings by Sasquatch, and the mysterious, sudden, and untraceable vanishings have long been the subject of frantic whispers behind closed doors. Those who take the whispers seriously seldom go out at night. Those who scoff too loudly rarely return home.

No, this is something else. These murders are uncommonly gruesome. No quiet disappearances, and the sheriff is desperate. The gruesome crime scenes leave little to the imagination. Bodies exsanguinated as though drained by a vampire, but not through petite fang pricks. Bodies torn asunder with a savagery that would sicken Jack the Ripper himself. No, these are something else — something far more terrifying.

The first awareness of this killer’s spree began with a string of bizarre and gruesome murders. They found the victims with their throats ripped open and drained of blood, as though by a monstrous, blood-thirsty shop vac. Then, sucked dry, the monster tore the bodies to pieces, ripped limb from limb. The bewildered sheriff could find no clues — these murders had no motive, no pattern, and no suspects.

But as the body count rose, a dark, shadowy criminal profile emerged. This was no ordinary serial killer; by all appearances, the murderer was a vampire, an undead creature of the night that feeds on the blood of the living. But this was no movie vampire, no brooding romantic figure, erotically draining small amounts of their victims’ blood through needle-sized pricks of the neck. This was a brutally savage murderer. And besides, vampires are not real. Everyone knows this. That didn’t stop people from using the term to describe the murderer. Fictional or not, everyone agreed a vampire was at work.

Rumors of a vampire spread panic throughout the hill country. People locked themselves indoors from dusk till dawn, leaving the streets deserted. But the murders continued. The perpetrator moved through the town and nearby ranches like a ghost, preying on the unwary.

By the fifth murder, the FBI took notice. The agency formed a special task force to deal with the threat, but they were no match for the perp’s seeming supernatural powers. Although never actually seen, the evidence left behind implied the vampire was faster, stronger, and more cunning than law enforcement could believe.

Cattle mutilations are a thing in the southwest, although often dismissed as the domain of late-night talk shows. The hill country had experienced unexplained cattle mutilations in the past, but not for many years. As the public took effective precautions, the gruesome mutilations returned with a vengeance. It seems Nosferatu had branched out. Although the vampire prefers human blood, it seems any blood will do in a pinch.

As the death toll rose and the town descended into chaos, a small group banded together in a vigilante team to fight the vampire. A motley crew — a scientist, a cop, a hacker, and a street kid — they had something in common: they were all smart, capable, and desperate.

Evidence notwithstanding, they decided the vampire was not invulnerable. They reasoned the vampire must have weaknesses they can exploit, and the vigilantes were determined to find them. Although as afraid to die as anyone, they will take a few calculated risks. The vigilantes gathered information, built weapons, and set traps.

But as they tracked their foe, they realized there was something deeper. This was not a mindless monster — it seemed sentient, with an agenda. As the vigilantes delved deeper, they discovered a dark and twisted purpose that was far more complex than they ever imagined.

Not just a threat to the community, this was a potential threat to the entire world. They fought not just for their own survival, but for the survival of humanity itself.

The novel is a story of survival, bravery, and sacrifice. It’s also a story of mystery, intrigue and the discovery of a hidden world, where the lines between good and evil blur, and the characters must navigate deep moral complexities. It’s a new take on the vampire genre, where the monsters are not what they seem.

 

Introducing Sheriff Johnson

Name: Jack “Sheriff” Johnson Age: 57 Occupation: Sheriff of Rio Rancho County, Texas

Background: Jack Johnson, or “Sheriff Jack” as the county residents know him, is a seasoned police veteran with over 30 years’ experience in law enforcement. He began his career as a patrol officer in the Dallas Police Department before working his way up to detective and eventually becoming a member of the department’s elite SWAT team.

In his big-city career, Sheriff Johnson has been involved in high-speed chases, shootouts, and has dealt with some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. Despite the dangers and job stress, he always maintained a focused and level-headed approach to his work, earning him the respect of both his fellow officers and the community.

After decades of big-city policing, Johnson began feeling the pull of a simpler life. He longed to decompress and to trade the pressure of the city for the peaceful tranquility of rural life. So, he retired from the Dallas PD to spend his remaining years as a small-town sheriff.

He quickly found the ideal opportunity. Rio Rancho County, a rural Texas county that needed a new leader. The county’s influx of new residents from other states has brought a rising crime rate, and the previous sheriff found himself more interested in retiring than facing the newly aggressive criminal element.

The County Board feared Johnson was over-qualified, believing he would soon get bored and leave. They were slow to understand his desire to move from the vibrant big city to their sleepy small town. Without quite understanding why, Jack found himself pitching his talents to a skeptical audience. However, eventually, they recognized in Johnson the perfect candidate for the job, and they were right.

Sheriff Johnson settled in Rio Rancho County and immediately went to work. Of course, he did the usual stuff, set up neighborhood watch programs, introduced new policies and highly efficient police procedures, but he also worked closely with the community to gain their trust and cooperation. He held weekly town hall meetings to hear the concerns of the residents and implemented highly visible and proactive programs such as the neighborhood watch groups to show the community that he meant business when he said he intended to keep them safe.

He also saw that word got around among the petty thieves and drug dealers, that they would do well to move their operations elsewhere. It took a few months of aggressive police work, and the abrupt removal of two officers with secret ties to local drug and bootleg liquor operations.

Johnson policed with a heavy hand, but remained fair and professional. He worked endless 16-hour days and hundred hour weeks. For months, he kept a cot in the office and slept there, when he slept at all, and his efforts gradually gained traction. With the corrupt cops gone, and harsh, determined prosecution making examples of the felons they arrested, the professional criminals soon went searching for a more favorable locale, while the local petty thieves and miscreants opted to remain on their best behavior around town.

Through his efforts, crime rates in Rio Rancho County plummeted, and the community has once again become a safe place to live and raise a family. The ranchers and town-folk alike trust and respect Sheriff Johnson, and they know he has their best interests at heart.

Personality: Sheriff Johnson is no-nonsense, straightforward, and a never-married, confirmed bachelor who keeps his personal life private. In fact, if he has a personal life, no one seems aware of it. When speaking as Sheriff, his words are eloquent, scholarly, and persuasive, but otherwise, he is a man of few words, taciturn almost to a fault, although always willing to lend an ear to anyone who needs it.

He is fair but firm, and he expects the same from his officers. He is also a man of integrity and places the safety and well-being of the community paramount.

Skills:

  • 30+ years of law enforcement experience

  • Expertise in criminal investigations and crime scene analysis

  • Skilled in firearms and hand-to-hand combat

  • Excellent leadership and management skills

  • Strong public speaking and community relations abilities

Education:

  • Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Texas State University

  • Graduate of the FBI National Academy

Certifications:

  • Texas Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST)

  • Advanced SWAT Training

  • Advanced Crime Scene Investigation

Awards and Honors:

  • Meritorious Service Award (Dallas PD)

  • Officer of the Year (Dallas PD)

  • Outstanding Community Service Award (Rio Rancho County)

Sheriff Johnson is the perfect person to serve as the Sheriff of Rio Rancho County, with the experience, skills, and outstanding dedication such a job demands. He is a respected leader who has earned the trust of the residents and has a proven track record of reducing crime and keeping the community safe. He is a true asset to Rio Rancho County and intends to continue serving and protecting the residents for many years to come.

Introducing Dr. Parker

Meet Dr. Samantha Parker, a 30-year-old woman with a passion for criminology and a drive to make a difference. She possesses a Bachelor’s Completion Degree in Criminology with a Cyber Crime Certificate, and Criminal Justice Online (CCJO) and a PhD in Criminology, showcasing her dedication to her field of study and her ability to excel in academics.

Dr. Parker is an extremely intelligent individual with a stratospheric IQ. Her remarkable ability to analyze and understand complex situations and her quick thinking and analytical skills make her a valuable asset in any criminal investigation. Her intelligence is matched by a bold and confident personality. She rejects the “gender intelligence gap” stereotype. Although she well knows some may think she is arrogant or aggressive if she asserts her intelligence, she refuses to downplay her abilities. She refuses to accept that a woman must hide her intelligence, is not afraid to speak her mind, and can effectively communicate complex thoughts and ideas to others.

Not only highly intelligent, Dr. Parker is also uncommonly physically fit. She understands the value of physical conditioning for her job, which can be extremely demanding. Her physical fitness also adds to her confidence and stunning beauty, which she downplays in order to be taken more seriously in her profession. Although others often find her sensuality overpowering, she mitigates the effect with fake plastic rimmed eyeglasses and unassuming clothing. Even so, her pheromones’ influence is powerful, and sometimes as much a handicap as an asset.

Dr. Parker has experience working in both the private and public sectors of the criminal justice system. She has worked as a criminal investigator for a private detective agency and as a consultant for the FBI. Her work as a criminal investigator has honed her skills in conducting investigations, gathering evidence, and interviewing suspects. Her work as a consultant has given her valuable insight into the inner workings of the police department and how to improve the criminal justice system.

Dr. Parker has also been a guest speaker at several conferences and has published several articles in prestigious criminology journals. Her research focuses on the intersection of technology and crime, and how it can improve the criminal justice system.

Dr. Parker is a highly motivated and dedicated individual with a passion for making a difference in the criminal justice system. She is always looking for new challenges and opportunities to grow and develop her skills. She is confident that with her intelligence, physical strength and agility, and experience, she will be a powerful asset to any organization or project that she is a part of.

In summary, Dr. Samantha Parker is a highly intelligent, physically fit, and confident woman who has a passion for criminology and a drive to make a difference. With her Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice Online (CCJO) and a PhD in Criminology, she has a solid academic background and a wealth of experience working in both the private and public sectors of the criminal justice system. Her analytical skills and ability to think on her feet make her a valuable asset in any criminal investigation. She displays dedication to her field in her published research and speaking engagements. Dr. Parker constantly seeks new challenges and opportunities to grow and develop her skills, making her an ideal candidate for any organization or project.

But Dr. Parker possesses a secret. Unknown to even her closest professional associates, Dr. Parker’s veins course with extraterrestrial blood and her genes contain a few sequences otherwise uncommon on Earth. Although born on Earth, and, fully human, her ancestors hail from the dead planet Ashera, from which the population sought refuge centuries ago. Asherans are fully human, although they lack the RH protein found in native human blood. They came to Earth as refugees when their home planet died, and live among the native population, keeping a low profile. Many Asherans born on Earth know nothing of their extraterrestrial heritage, and have intermarried with native Earth humans. Dr. Parker not only knows of her Asheran heritage, she disagrees with her people’s desire to keep a low profile and blend in. Instead, she intends to leave her bold mark on humanity.

Chapter 1

Ritz is sweating, and his ass hurts. When their trip began, he mistook the van’s seat for tolerable, but comfort has long since proven illusory. The air conditioner ignores the Texas heat, not making the slightest effort to keep it at bay. Sweat stains mar his crumpled custom Milano shirt, and his Madison-fit trousers fare no better in the swelter. Hot, tired, and cranky, he wants to stop, grab a motel room, and rest under a working air conditioner. A creaky twin bed with a lumpy mattress would be heavenly.


He mulls buying hardier clothing, a western shirt and some denim jeans in the next town. He fears that if they stop, he may never find the fortitude to resume.


Shifting his position with a grunt, Ritz studies his young companion. The kid enjoys driving. That’s fine with him. The young man, just halfway through his sixteenth year, is more experienced than him, in his 30-plus years. He dislikes driving. Although they take turns, he cedes the wheel on any excuse. Stripped to the waist, visibly commando under thin, skimpy white gym shorts, and barefoot, the kid’s pale white skin glistens with a sheen of sweat. Despite this, he offers no complaints. The boy revels in the heat. {n.b., Foreshadowing the kid’s future adventures in Chromosome Quest, with the alien planet’s insanely hot, tropical climate.} A large, gray tomcat lies sleeping on the engine cover, monopolizing the mediocre air flowing from the vents. {n.b., Introducing Nixie}


The hot, sticky seat creaks as he shifts within the confines of the tight-strapped seatbelt. Eyes closed and arms folded, he braces himself against the discomfort. He contemplates how they came to be rolling through the Texas Hill Country, in the hottest days of summer, and in a van they do not own.


Well, it’s a technicality. 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. Could a 16-year-old own a vehicle in his own name? Is the transfer legit? The license sticker is valid, and the kid carries the pink slip assigned to him. But in NY, one must be twenty-one to own a vehicle. Ritz also possesses the paperwork that shows he is the kid’s legal guardian.

Would that satisfy the police at a traffic stop? He didn’t know and feared to find out.


Rithwick Jahi Pringle, a.k.a. Ritz is an unemployed hacker—a loaded word for a cyber warrior, a cube monkey waging virtual battles without ever meeting the enemy face-to-face. Except that he did, when dark forces marked him for death. Ritz walked out of a respected, high-paying job as a “White Hat” for the “Agency,” after his former boss and lover faked her death. A fire destroyed the mansion, and officials identified her body.


Yet he saw her after the fire, as she chased their foe while discarding clothing with ecdysial grace, until she was stitchless. He still shudders at the sight. She was naked as an egg when she dove into a shimmering portal; or at least something that resembled the portals in Sci-Fi TV shows. They were chasing Nehemiah Scudder, a purported extraterrestrial bent on dismantling human civilization. Or so he said.


Like Scudder, the woman who captured his heart claimed to be an extraterrestrial. He believed, while under her spell, but now his doubts grew with each passing day. Absent the influence of her pheromones, reason and logic reassert themselves. For the sake of his sanity, he needed to be done with the Agency and the Hats, secret societies, extraterrestrials. And in particular, the heart-stealing woman and her jovial band of manipulative, pheromone-wielding Asherans. He does not wish to be a pawn of people who invade his psyche, bypass his judgment centers, and cause him to believe the ridiculous. {n.b., Some of the Asherans — Athena’s People — possess a powerful ability to influence others through the use of sex appeal and their pheromones. Toward the end of Undercover Alien, Ritz realized how much they manipulated him, especially Athena herself, and rebelled against her influence.}


His thoughts replay the well-worn memory track of his affair with Athena, a pet name he gave her. He was thankful that she spared the youngster from her extraterrestrial intrigue. Milner Fitzroy Smith, a.k.a. Fitz had been in her wardship. She took him in and rescued him from “the system.” Whatever drew her to him remains a mystery; she spared him a life in and out of foster homes.


The boy has little trust in adults, including his benefactor. The kid knew of her involvement in various shady affairs and secret societies—he even knew she and Ritz were lovers. Despite living under her influence for years, he remained unaware of her deeper secrets. {n.b., This is why, when he meets her again in Chromosome Quest, he does not know her, does not recognize her. Spoiler alert: The reason she adopted him is that she is his great grandmother. How about a little incest in your fiction?}

She never used her sexual powers to influence the boy, and theirs was a complicated relationship. Despite rescuing him and his cat Nixie, the boy instinctively kept a wall between himself and his guardian, or at least he kept his feelings under wraps. His face reflected obvious pain when he learned of her death, but otherwise, he scarcely acknowledged the loss.


With Athena and her alien friends absent, Ritz made a clean break—he’d had enough of Hats, cyber wars, aliens and all the rest. He and Fitz headed to Texas or California. They are intent on launching a startup around his novel application for Crypto technology. He has ideas about managing the identity, name, image, and likeness of athletes and actors. His ideas could be world-changing, or so he believes.


The kid interrupts his reverie. “How fast do ya think this thing will go?”


Ritz jumps, eyes-wide in terror. “I don’t know and don’t want to know. Just keep her slow and steady, at or below the limit!” {n.b., Ritz is an uneasy rider, who prefers public transit. He doesn’t like to drive and doesn’t trust most drivers.}


With a mock sneer, the kid jeers, “Chicken!” He mashes the accelerator to the floor. The van responds with a deeper shade of noise, but does not seem to speed up. Given that the posted speed is 75, and the van struggles with that, much increase seems improbable.


“Damn right I am! Our title to this machine is murky, and I don’t want to be pulled over for speeding and find out how truly murky it is. Keep it slow. Many of these 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.”


The kid unmashes the peddle. The noise diminishes, although the van’s velocity does not seem to change. Then, as they crest a rise, the vehicle jerks as if they hit something. Dashboard lights flash red, and the temperature climbs.


Leaning over and glancing at the dash, he shouts, “Pull over! NOW! STOP!” Nixie’s ears perk up and he becomes alert as he looks in alarm, first at his owner, then at Ritz.

The kid backs off the accelerator, and the truck coasts to a halt on the side of the road. The engine dies with a “kerfluf-ketch-ketch-ketch,” as steam roils from beneath the hood. Well, Ritz needed a break.


They raise the hood, only to recoil from the billowing steam. Stepping back, Ritz turns away from the deserted roadway and unzips his fly. Nature has been whispering in his ear for the last 30 miles.


The youngster sighs in mild disapproval. He jumps into the van and emerges with a soft-sided pet carrier. The kid shows no qualms about his near nudity, but throws shade at discrete outdoor urination. He is the opposite. He could never be comfortable shirtless in public, even if no one else was around, much less approach the kids’ present skimpy state of undress. But taking a leak is natural and unavoidable.


As he climbs out with the pet carrier, the kid says, “With the motor stopped, it will become hot in there fast. Are you okay, Nixie?”


The cat blinks at his owner but says nothing.


Just as the youngster reaches into the bag to stroke his friend, a police car pulls in behind them.


While zipping up, Ritz notes the battered patrol car and the shield of authority on the door. It reads “Sheriff.”

So, not a Texas State Trooper. Is that good or bad? He remembers unsavory tales of small town cops taking undue advantage of out-of-state travelers. Particularly 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. He wonders, was Uneasy Rider only a song?


Worried, he dons his best blank expression as the officer steps from his car. The cop gives the pair a sharp scrutiny before turning his attention to the van, still billowing clouds of steam. He touches the van and then moves forward, approaching the pair. He asks, “Are you two okay?”


Dumbly, he nods. The kid echoes his action, neither speaking. Ritz notes the name on the officer’s badge.
His expression dour and stern-faced, the cop asks, “Either of you armed?”


“No sir,” answers Ritz. Fitz shakes his head. The officer appeared more interested in the skinny kid than the much larger, stronger, and darker man.


“With New York plates, I would have bet you weren’t. You boys are a long way from home.” It was a statement, not a question.


Ritz answers anyway, while noting how the officer is eying the boy. “Yessir, we are on our way to California.” {n.b., is there some significance to the Officer’s interest in the youngster? What are we foreshadowing here? We will have to see how the story develops.}


“Kinda lost, aren’t cha?” Noting Ritz’s blank stare, he adds, “I-40 would be a more direct route, wouldn’t it?”


“Yeah, I guess so, but we were stopping in Austin to meet a potential employer. If they offered the right opportunity, we planned to stop there.”


“I see. Do you have any ID?”


For about three milliseconds, the corny comeback “Bout Whut?” tickled his brainstem, but he didn’t need to try very hard to suppress it. He has no intention of being tagged as a smart-ass by a Texas cop. He hands the officer his driver’s license without comment. The youngster does so too, not waiting to be asked.


The officer examines their licenses and wordlessly hands them back. Next, he asks, “Who is Hazel M. Stone? I ran your plates, and they came back registered to her.”


Ritz responds, “She was his guardian until she died a couple of weeks ago. They transferred his guardianship to me and the vehicle to him. He’s 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.”


“What sort of job are you looking for?” The way his eye keeps wandering towards the kid bothers Ritz. While they are talking, Nixie pokes his head from his carrier, and Fitz strokes the cat’s chin.


“I’m in cybersecurity. He,” he nods at Fitz, “is learning the ropes, and hopes to make a career in the field too.”


The office nods, accepting their story. “Who was driving?”


“I was,” said the youngster.


“You know, I clocked you at 77 MPH when you crested that hill. That’s not much over the limit, but we like to stick it to New Yorkers when we can.” The officer smiles and winks. “But you have enough trouble without the pain of a ticket,” he reaches a hand out to Nixie, “and besides, I like cats. Also, Texas needs talented cybersecurity experts. Get a job and stick around the Great State of Texas. And get your Texas plates—we can’t have you being mistaken for New Yorkers.”


“Thank you, sir.”


“Do you have a phone?”


They both nod. Who doesn’t carry a phone these days? Ritz pulls it out and holds it up. “Three bars worth,” he says.


“That’s fine. Call the Mammoth Garage in Yanno and tell Hervey that Sheriff Jack sent you. 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 might look into changing that, especially in the Hill Country.”

With that, the officer returns to his car, and moments later, drives away.

Chapter 2

Ritz is succumbing to the heat—now that it’s stopped, he thinks perhaps that air-conditioner wasn’t really so lame. His shirt, already wrecked, is now a gummy, unsalvageable mess. The permanent press is permanently unpressed. It’s doubtful even the focused attentiveness of a professional dry cleaning and pressing service can restore its former trim. His expensive, custom-fitted professional wardrobe is not the optimal attire for Texas summer heat. He envies his young companion’s virtual nudity, although with his innate modesty he could never emulate the boy. The heat seems impotent against his natural defenses of unrestricted air movement and free-flowing perspiration. The kid seems immune to the Texas heat, whereas Ritz is approaching well-done. He wonders whether his innate modesty might be a character flaw.


Hervey said he would be out “dreckly.” Ritz has just learned a new southernism. The 15 minutes they have waited feels like endless hours. Ritz is unsure how long he can last in the oppressive heat. The kid wanted to talk about the latest developments in crypto-based identity verification, but the unbearable heat left Ritz unable to focus.


Earlier that morning, they had watched a roundtable on the recent “Sign-in with Crypto” standards proposals. Ritz, gratified that the open-source industry seems poised to lead, worries that unless they can find funding and launch their venture quickly, the world will move on without them. He intends to be involved in the battle when the big boys fight back. His blockchain-based open-source Root Proof of Identity concept is too good to allow the big proprietary players to derail. They believe breaking big tech’s stranglehold on identity management is an opportunity too good to miss, but right now, he would trade it all for an air-conditioned hotel room.


Just as he believes he might soon die, a battered SUV slams on the brakes and pulls in front of their vehicle, backing up slightly after stopping. Ritz lethargically struggles to his feet, dreading to leave the rapidly disappearing 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 wears lightweight khaki shorts and a matching short-sleeve khaki shirt, with bare arms and legs taking advantage of the chilled air. Her legs were long, lean, and tanned. She had unbuttoned her shirt from the midpoint down and tied it in a loose knot, forming a cropped shirt and exposing her bare midriff. The knotted shirt formed a loose bra, and if a more conventional cupholder hid beneath the folds, he could not detect it. Her presence hit him like an ice-cold double shot of tequila! His head reeled and his heart pounded, and not only from the heat.


“You look like you have some problems,” she said with a faint Texas accent. Her heavy plastic-rimmed glasses and mousey brown hair gave her an academic air, and she wore a baseball cap bearing the logo of the Yanno Hornets. Ritz presumed this was the local varsity high school football team.


“A little,” Ritz admitted, as he struggled with his eyes. “Hervey from the Mammoth Garage in Yanno is coming to tow us, but we are melting in the meantime.”


The woman studies the nearly nude kid, then glances at Ritz. Winking, she says, “You look as if you are about to melt, but your friend knows how to adapt.” Then, raising her voice to ensure the boy hears her, she says, “A trifle underdressed for polite company, though, don’t you think?”


At her dig, a flush spreads across the kid’s face, but he stands steadfast, refusing to break eye contact, turn away, or strategically adjust his hands as a sop to modesty. Laughing, she says, “I’m kidding! If similarly stranded 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 says, “My name is Sam.” She then gave Ritz a more serious appraisal. “You look 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 notices her M1911, a weapon he had recent cause to appreciate. She must have noted his body language as he spotted the weaponry. She says, “This is dangerous territory. There are deadly predators, especially at night.”


“Sheriff Jack said something similar. I’m thinking there could be a message here.”


Sam looked pensive as she bit her lip, as though hesitant to share. After a moment, she says, “This is wild pig country, and there are also mountain lions, bobcats and rattlesnakes. Especially 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 had missed. “This is a Taurus Judge, with .410 buckshot shells. It is 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 calmly removes five shells from the weapon, spins the empty cylinder, and hands the weapon to Ritz. When handed a firearm for the first time, its weight shocks most people. His recently gained familiarity with weapons saves him. He does not embarrass himself by nearly dropping it. Instead, he hefts it, spins the barrel, and examines it, demonstrating the professional weapons handling etiquette that Athena had so diligently drilled into him. He did not realize it, but he was being tested. Thanks to Teena’s training, Sam smiled.
The forceful stream of cool air had restored Ritz by this time, and he is feeling much better. “I am Ritz. He is Fitz.”


She cocks an eyebrow. He went on. “Nicknames, of course. My given name is Rithwick Pringle, and his is Fitzroy Stone. His adopted mother died a few weeks ago. She and I were friends; actually, she was my boss at the Agency. He is practically an adult, but still in need of adult guidance; so she made me his guardian. We are in cybersecurity. After her death, we left New York to explore Texas and California for better work opportunities. Don’t let his casual dress—or undress—mislead you. He wears the hacker hoodie quite well—but we’re strictly the White Hat types.”


Her brow lifts in surprise at his mention of the Agency, but he doesn’t notice. She reclaims her calm and says nothing. From her connections in Law Enforcement, she knows quite a lot about the clandestine organization. Frankly, she’s surprised that an Agency alumnus would drop it in conversation with a stranger—those arrogant pricks are tighter-lipped than a mob boss. Perhaps it was a slip brought on by the heat, but she needs to learn more about this mysterious pair. They sit in silence for a few moments as she digests the implications.


Her expression slowly darkens as she ruminates. Then she commits to sharing. “Also, we have had some ugly murders lately. We believe we have a serial killer on the loose. I am a criminologist. Sheriff Jack knew me from his years in the Dallas PD. He thought the first case was animal predation, but when he realized the second was murder, he called me to help him catch the sonofabitch. We racked up our third body last night.” Then, under her breath, she mutters, “Sick bastard!”


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

Ritz laughs. “I have no idea! My ancestors came from India, obviously. But I know that only from looking in the mirror. I am from the Bronx, a product of various foster homes. Never met my parents, just like the kid there. He ricocheted from foster home to foster home until the last one, where he stuck. Hazel Stone took him in, adopted him, gave him her surname—tough break she died on him. I hate to think about what might have happened without her influence. The kid has serious cyber talent, and he will go far, mark my words.”


Another few moments of silence as she digests this. Finally, 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 quickly. If you like, I can take you two into town and help you get a motel room.”


“Three.”


Her eyebrows rise. He goes on, “Fitz has a cat, Nixie. He is closer to that cat than he is to me.”


She laughs. “Well, the three of you, then. I can take you into town, and Hervey can get your vehicle any time.”
Ritz motions to the kid and explains the proposition. Fitz shakes his head. “We have all of our stuff in the van. I don’t want to abandon it. The heat doesn’t bother me.” He wipes dripping sweat from his brow as he says this. “Nixie and I will stay with the van and wait for Hervey. You grab us a nice, cool motel room. We will meet later at the Mammoth Garage.”


“You want me to take Nixie? The poor boy must be miserable.” The strain on the kid’s face was obvious. He did not wish to leave his best friend’s care to anyone else, not even Ritz, but he also realizes Nixie is uncomfortable.


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

Chapter 3

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. You can 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 big male Russian Blue feline 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.


“He’s a handsome boy,” says Sam.


“Yeah, he’s more than just a pretty face. He’s also fluent in several programming languages. He knows Scratchcode, Mewscript, PurrL, Feline-C, and Meowthon. Fitz found him as a kitten and they have been best friends ever since. I think six or seven years. They grew up together. I never quite got the full story, but it seems when Fitz found him, the kitten was feral, surviving alone in the woods. He doesn’t like to talk about it. Anyway, 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 don’t like cats. I’m sure he had to fuss and fight, but somehow they stayed together.”


As they drove, the conversation drifted to personal histories. He told her little about his years with the Agency, instead guiding the conversation into mundane cybersecurity stories that were common knowledge. He did not mention his after-hours online pursuits, or how his dark web Ph3Dora drew the attention of the assassins.. After a few minutes, he says, “It’s all pretty boring, really. I was just a cube monkey, chained to a workstation, chasing the bad guys around the net. Then, when I had them, I handed the details to Law Enforcement. I seldom learned what became of the people I targeted. But what about you? You said you were a criminologist?”


Impressed by the way he skirted the top secret details, and never again mentioned the Agency, she concluded his one slip had been due to fatigue and heat exhaustion. With her Cyber Crimes background, she knew enough to understand what he wasn’t saying, and why. She said, “Yes, that’s right. I have a Bachelor’s Completion Degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice Online (CCJO), plus a Cyber Crime certificate, and a PhD in Criminology. I have worked on some of the biggest cases in the country. Even though I am not a Hat, I understand the role of an Agency Cyber Warrior.”


Her reference to the Agency and use of the term Hat were unexpected. He had not used Hat or Cyber Warrior to describe himself, but clearly she knows something about the world of online warfare. “You seem to have packed a lot into your years. You look too young to have a PhD and so many years of experience. Did you get your bachelor’s at age 12 or something?”


She laughs, and his heart skips several beats.


“Not quite, but I matriculated younger than most, and perhaps I’m not as young as you think—I have good genes. I am passionate about my field, much as you appear to be about yours.”


His eyes widen. She quickly adds, “I can read between the lines enough to know what you aren’t saying. There are only a few places that employ highly capable white hats, and my career has familiarized me with all of them. So let’s not talk about clandestine organizations that employ white hat hackers.”


He laughs but says nothing—he is still reeling from the near-heart attack, subconsciously struggling to repress his reaction to her pheromonic flood. He realizes he genuinely likes and admires her as a person. She exhibits the same drive and passion for her work as he does, and he respects that in anyone, especially attractive women.


They stop at the town’s only traffic light. She points. “Over there is the Super 8, and a block further west is the Best Western. Neither one is five-star rated. Their 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 grabbed all the rooms.”


She pulls into the motel parking lot. He asks, “The what?” She doesn’t answer, instead, she parks, jumps out, and heads for the desk. Boggled, Ritz follows as quickly as he can wipe the stunned expression from his face.

She left the motor running with the air on for Nixie’s comfort while they arranged for the two men’s accommodations. Once he has the keys, Ritz checks out the room, sets the air-conditioner on max, and returns to the car.


She resumes the conversation. “The Ladies in Leather are a motorcycle rally and parade that travels around the southwest. They show up in Yanno every summer. They will be here next week, so you luck out. They have rooms now, but next week you might not be so lucky.”


“I see. Let’s go to the Mammoth Garage and see what’s up.”


Hervey’s assistant told them he had just headed out to retrieve their vehicle, and should return ‘dreckly,’ with Fitz and their van. Sam says, “Let’s walk 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 to the restaurant, leaving her SUV in the garage parking lot. Ritz turned off the engine and retrieved the pet carrier. He is a big man, and although he has no difficulty, he notes with surprise just how heavy it is. Nixie is a big boy too.


They seat themselves in the back booth, discretely sliding Nixie’s bag under the table and almost out of sight.

As she walks up to their table, the lone waitress gives the pet carrier a quick glance and smiles, but makes no comment. Since the lunch mob had gone and the supper crowd was still to come, customers must be on the restaurant’s endangered species list.


“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 gave him an exaggerated wink. “What can I get you two?”
Sam smiled at her friend’s hosing as she responds, “Just a weekend outing, dearie. I’ll let you know when I’m done, but you might have to charge the battery.”


Ritz, shocked at their bawdy wisecracking, dons a wooden expression and says, “I’ll have the Breakfast Skillet—but take your time. We’re waiting for someone. I’m Ritz, and my friend, Fitz, should 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 onion, but no other toppings.” He nods at Sam. “What will you have? My treat, the least I can do.”


The women’s sexually charged ribaldry pains Ritz. He struggles to maintain a stony face. Although he imagines himself as well-versed, especially after his time with Teena, he still becomes tongue-tied at such awkward moments. He thought his affair with the free-wheeling, uninhibited Teena had cured him of such nerdy shyness, but the impersonal ribaldry 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 possibly say that would be appropriate and not misunderstood?


At a loss, he responds by not responding.


“The breakfast skillet is my favorite! I haven’t eaten today, so I’ll have that too. If you spot a skinny young man with Hervey and dragging a van, crank up the fire and bring it on out.”


“I gotcha, girlfriend, will do.” Then she leans over and speaks in a conspiratorial voice. “Would you like a little something for your ‘luggage’ under the table? 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.”


Seconds pass in stony silence as she studies his face with growing contrition. Then a rueful smile crosses her face as she says, “We were roommates at UT for a couple of semesters, and I fear we were a bad influence on each other.”


Before he can answer, Mary Lou returns with a sizable chunk of cooked and chopped meat on a saucer. “Here, put this in your luggage,” she said.


“Thank you,” says Ritz as he takes the saucer. He leans over to feed the treat to Nixie, and Sam accosts Mary Lou before she can return to the kitchen.


“We owe Ritz an apology, college chum. Our bawdy repartee was a trifle over the top, doncha think?”


“You’re right. My whack-a-doodle Jiggery-pokery was NSFW. The boss would have reamed me good 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.”


“It’s okay, I brought my energizer.”


Sam looks at Mary Lou, does a spit-take, and both explode in laughter.


After their laughter subsides, Mary Lou points out the window and asks, “Is that your friend?”


He turns to look where she’s pointing and nods. A tow truck has just pulled in with their van, and Fitz is climbing down from the truck’s cab. The boy has traded his skimpy, nearly translucent gym shorts for ragged denim cut-offs, and donned a grimy tee-shirt. The dirty tee and cut-offs appear to be the same ones he wore the first time they met. He is also wearing sneakers without socks. Ritz sighs and closes his eyes in pain. His attempts to influence the boy, to guide him in the art of dressing well, have shown poor progress. At least his clothing is now acceptable for public spaces, albeit tilting to the scruffy side. Moments later, he exits the Mammoth Garage and trots toward the Burger Shack.

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