by Michael Kingswood
Humidity made Carl O’Bannon’s shirt cling to his torso, almost completely soaked despite not being out and about all that long. He felt like he was sweating a river, though in reality it wasn’t all that hot out. It was like an ocean itself was condensing on top of him, and he helpless against its spread.
For a moment there, he almost felt that for real and a surge of dread filled him. He didn’t know how to swim, so what would he do if an ocean…
“Dummy,” he muttered to himself, and forced that foolishness down deep.
It was still bloody uncomfortable out.
He’d left his little cottage on the outskirts of Riverwood and set off even further away from what amounted to civilization maybe half an hour ago, clumping upslope in his old, well broken-in boots and brand new jeans and blue, long-sleeved collared shirt, with a Red Sox baseball cap on his head. And very quickly regretted being so heavily dressed.
The thought crossed his mind now, as he stopped to lean against a maple tree to catch his breath and instead had his drowning fit, that he ought to go back home and change. Or just bag this entire idea altogether.
He looked down the gentle slope he had been ascending, his vision quickly obscured by tree trunks and undergrowth so he couldn’t see more than a hundred yards. But all the same, he felt the presence of his home; like a beacon calling to him. He was certain he was looking straight at it.
Or rather, at the talisman overtop his mantle. The relic passed down from father to son for generations, or so his grandfather had told him. It was bound to his line, and they would never be without it. Would know its lack, if ever it went missing.
And that had turned out to be literally true, for Carl at least. It was like a lodestone to his spirit; he could always turn and point straight at it. Feel how far away from it he was.
Remarkable, considering the thing looked like a competent but not overly impressive oil painting of a jagged mountain peak thrusting up out of rolling hill country, with the sun climbing up over the mountain’s right flank.
He felt it now, knew how far away it was. And realized it would take less time to just get up to where he was going and finish his chore than it would to go home and change.
So screw it. He could deal with a little extra sweat and discomfort.
Wouldn’t be the first time.
He pushed himself off the rough hardness of the maple’s trunk and squared his shoulders, then resolutely turned back uphill and commenced climbing again.
The glade he was heading toward was another half mile away and probably a hundred fifty feet above where he had stopped. The ground leveled out here, forming a little bowl where the hill continued to slope up on either side but the flatness pushed back into the hill itself so that the back of the bowl was almost a sheer cliff.
The trees grew more closely here, the trunks more thick, so from a distance a person wouldn’t know the little glade even existed. But after rounding and sliding his way past the seemingly impassible press of ever-growing wood, Carl stepped out into streaming sunlight.
It had been overcast when he left his cottage. For most of his hike uphill it had remained overcast through the breaks in the trees that he could see. But here the sun shone down without blemish of cloud, illuminating the crystalline pool at the center of the little bowl.
Grey-brown rocks lined the edge of the pool, natural yet also somehow not. Like someone or some thing had placed their uneven bulks there intentionally to separate the water from the land, which was covered with fine grass from the rocks to the edge of the treeline. No bare earth here at all, except on the cliff face at the rear of the bowl.
The place was quiet. A feeling of utmost calm permeated it, and the temperature and humidity had changed from the oppressive soup-air that Carl had trudged his way through to crisp and just pleasantly on the cool side of warm. It smelled of something semi-sweet that he could never quite put his finger on. Nor could he find any source, any of the times he had come here.
The ever-pleasant and calming odor just lingered, like the place itself exuded it.
Carl wasn’t going to complain.
This little glade was special. Sacred, Carl’s grandfather had said. Not just anyone could find it, and even those who could would not always be able to access its greatest secrets.
But his family could. Grandfather never explained why, just speculated that maybe there was some link between the glade and the talisman. That because their family was the keeper of the talisman they could—
Carl froze, his thoughts coming to a halt as quickly as his body when a jolt went through his spirit to the very core of his essence. And then he realized it.
The talisman was gone. The awareness that he had always lived with—that he had learned to live with but had never been able to ignore completely—winked out between one breath and the next, leaving him feeling like a vessel adrift, with no anchor and no engine, just bobbing along without direction or meaning.
Even as the realization of his sudden loss swept over him, Carl saw the light fading in the glade. He looked up and saw clouds encroaching. Looked back down and saw the pool drying.
The talisman was gone, and he was losing access to the power here. Perhaps for all time.
Biting back a curse, Carl turned and shoved his way through the tree trunks, now seeming closer than they ever had before, as though they were in fact merely one tree split into dozens and were now twisting back together into a single, solid whole.
It felt like he was going to get stuck between the last pair of silent guardians…but then he was through. Through and sprinting downhill toward his house.
He had to see what had happened.
Carl was huffing and puffing, and he only thought he had been soaked with sweat before, by the time he reached the cottage. He couldn’t remember ever running that far so fast; it was only about a mile and a half total, but it seemed he emerged from the tree line to see his red vinyl-sided, one-story abode mere moments after he started off.
The front door was leaning open, the white-painted jamb surrounding it shattered where the deadbolt should have kept intruders out.
But apparently not determined intruders.
Carl dashed inside, and immediately his eyes swept to the back-fronted fireplace at the back of his small living room. And more in particular, to the bit of wall above the polished oak mantlepiece.
The painting was still there.
For a second, relief swept through him, but then he realized the feeling of the talisman was still gone. What was—?
He approached the mantle, stepping around his stuffed chair, which sat almost directly in front of the fireplace, its matched ottoman teasingly close to the transparent glass doors that separated the burning wood from the rest of the house. As he did so, he saw that the painting was there. But not all there.
A piece of the canvas had been cut out. Two thirds of the way down from the upper right corner. A section maybe an inch square.
Cut out and gone. And with it, any feel of the talisman’s presence.
A car engine outside drew his attention back to the front of the house before he could fully consider the implications of that. Carl surged out the door in time to see an orange Dodge Charger zip out from behind his place to the left, fishtail in a sliding right-hand turn that tore up a sizable chunk of the grass in his front lawn, then tear off down the gravel path that made up his driveway, the one link from his house to the town not so very far away.
There were two men in the car. As it sped past, Carl locked eyes with the fellow in the passenger seat. Bright, dangerous green eyes tracked to follow his, then the car turned and swept out of sight.
“Son of a bitch,” Carl said.
Then he dashed back inside, to the closet in his bedroom where he kept his shotgun and shells.
Two minutes later, he was in his own car. Wasn’t much, a late-90s model Explorer whose once-blue paint job was now turning to rust in the rear wheel wells and whose headlight lenses were so UV-degraded they looked more milky than transparent.
Still ran like a champ, though.
As he sped down his gravel driveway, he racked his brain. Why would someone come for the talisman, and more in particular….how?
It was a family heirloom, never talked about with outsiders. Or really among the family, because all this time, Carl thought the talisman was the painting. But apparently, it was actually something hidden within the painting.
But it didn’t seem to do much except point the way home for him and his family members. And somehow, someway give them access to the glade and its pool. Which, again, seemed to have only subtle effects.
Why steal that, even if someone else had learned of it somehow?
He was still pondering when he came to the end of his very long driveway. The two-lane country road that the driveway T-ed into would take him back into Riverwood if he turned left. Or on to the interstate, fifteen miles away to the right.
No one in Riverwood had a car like that Dodge; it would stand out like a sore thumb. If the thieves had gone that way, they would be easy to find…probably. But it would take time, and if he was wrong…
Once they reached the Interstate, he would lose them forever. Them, and the talisman.
Just let it go.
The thought was hard to ignore. So he lost the thing. Not like it had ever really done him any good. And with grandpa dead now there was no one left in the family but Carl. Grandpa had had to watch both his sons die. Carl’s dad to cancer when Carl was still a teenager. And Uncle Ted to the Gulf War.
Carl only had vague memories of Uncle Ted; images and impressions. But Dad he remembered well, even after all these years. And Grandpa all the more, since he had only passed three years earlier.
Seemingly useless or not, the talisman was their family heritage. Both men had impressed that on Carl his entire life.
He couldn’t just let it go.
Fine, but call the Cops, at least.
And tell them what? That a magical talisman that didn’t really seem to do much had been stolen by random strangers who he didn’t know where they were from or who they were?
Fat lot of good that would do.
So he turned right onto the country road, and gunned the engine.
The speed limit far exceeded behind him, Carl kept his eyes locked on the road ahead. In his mind, the minutes ticked by slowly, inexorably, and with them, the miles. There were two crossroads between his house and the Interstate, and as he drew near the first one, he considered that the thieves may have turned off on one of the two.
He cast that thought aside as he began slowing toward the intersection ahead, and the yellow light turned to red.
It wasn’t that they couldn’t have turned off. But he had to think they’d head toward their avenue of quickest return to wherever they came from.
And anyway, if they had turned off, they were lost to him already. And with them, his family heritage.
So when the light turned, he gunned it again, and said a silent prayer that his assumption was correct, and all was not yet lost.
He passed through the second intersection without having to stop; he caught the timing of the light just right.
Then, a couple minutes later, he saw the overpass for the Interstate looming ahead. Still a few miles distant, but plain to see.
And there, approaching it but still with a ways to go…was that car orange?
He was already going faster than he ever had in his Explorer. The wheel vibrated beneath his fingers as high speed amplified every little glitch in the steering system, in the wheel assembly. Every tiny bump in the road.
Still, the engine was purring like always, but was that a faint hint of burning he smelled, like maybe some part of the exhaust plenum had parted, or had some wiring insulation begun to singe? And there was a rattle from somewhere in front of him and to his right that he’d never heard before.
But his quarry was in sight, so he depressed the accelerator again, and the Explorer strained forward to even more speed.
He was gaining, and at a more rapid clip than he would have thought. The car ahead was clearly visible now. Definitely the Charger.
For a second, he wondered at being able to catch up to such a more powerful car than his. Then reason wagged its finger at him. They wouldn’t want to get pulled over. They would keep to the speed limit, and drive conservatively.
Which meant he had an advantage.
Until they realized he was pursuing.
He eased off the gas, letting his speed lower as he continued to gain on them. Maybe a mile and a half from the Interstate now, and the Charger was a quarter of a mile ahead.
Follow them. Wait for your time.
He nodded to himself and reduced his speed more, so that he was only a bit above theirs, closing very slowly. Carl glanced down at his gas tank. 2/3 full. He could go about 150, maybe 200 miles on that.
A satisfied smile made his cheeks feel like they were being compressed. Hard.
Ahead, the Charger’s brake lights came on, and it shifted over into the exit lane for the Northbound onramp. Carl did the same. He lost sight of them as he rounded the long, circular ramp up onto the highway. But once he got firmly into the traffic flow on the Interstate, he quickly gained them again. A few hundred yards ahead, past a single intervening car. In the right-hand travel lane, going just slightly above the speed limit.
Carl hung back, watching them carefully as the minutes and miles ticked away again.
They passed exit after exit, and the shadows were beginning to shift. Carl glanced to the left, and saw that the afternoon sun had already begun dipping down toward the horizon. A glance at the clock on his console made his stomach twitch. Maybe a couple hours of daylight left.
Once the sun went down it would be next to impossible to keep track of the Charger unless he stuck directly behind them, and that probably wouldn’t be a good idea.
Even Carl could pick out the same car behind him for a long time, at night. And he’d had no training in this sort of thing to speak of.
Of course, he’d have to stop for gas well before then at this rate. The needle was down to the halfway mark now.
How much gas do they have, and would they need to stop before him?
If not, he’d have to make a move before he ran out completely. But what kind of move? Run them off the road?
He snorted loudly to himself. Even if he wanted to do that, then what? What if he seriously injured them, or himself? Wouldn’t do him much good to get the talisman back if he winded up in the hospital, or in jail. Not to mention if he wrecked his own car how would be get back home?
Really what was the plan here? He hadn’t thought it through; he’d just pursued. But now, with time and opportunity winding down, Carl found he really had no idea what he was going to do.
One thing was certain, though. He couldn’t just let his family’s heritage drive away. Not without at least making an attempt to get it back.
Those thoughts were swirling around and around his head, going nowhere and generating no ideas at all, when up ahead, he saw the Charger’s blinker turn on.
An exit ramp was coming up. The signs indicated gas stations and restaurants. Hope buoyed within Carl, and when the Charger shifted into the exit lane, expanded.
He followed them off the Interstate and then to the right, and found himself on a four-lane road. Ahead was an Exxon on the right, a 7-Eleven and a McDonald’s on the left.
The charger was pulling into the McDonald’s parking lot.
Carl pulled into the Exxon and stopped at the self service pumps. He got out and set the pump to fill his tank, then hurried inside, glancing to see the Charger stationary in the other parking lot and its two passengers heading inside before he did so.
A trip to the bathroom and a bag of potato chips later, he finished topping off his gas and got back behind the wheel.
The shotgun was propped up in the floorboard of his passenger seat. The shell box on the seat, next to his bag of Ruffles. He always kept the shotgun loaded, just in case, but not chambered. Now as he considered that he only had the 5 shells from the tube when he could have 6, he regretted that precaution.
“Idiot,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re not going into a gunfight. Not if you can help it.”
He looked away from the weapon back toward the McDonald’s.
The Charger was still there. And no sign of the men. They had parked on the side of the restaurant, away from its main entrance and opposite the 7-Eleven. There were only a few other cars in the parking lot.
Maybe they’d left the talisman in the car, and he could go snatch it—
“Idiot,” he said again.
No way they’d be that dumb. A little scrap of painting, and whatever else was there, they would keep on their person. They wouldn’t risk losing it by chance.
He started the engine and put the Explorer in gear, then eased out onto the road. A quick shift of the lanes and he was pulling into the McDonald’s lot.
If he couldn’t nip the talisman from the car, he could at least get their plate number. Might be able to use it, somehow, to track them down, if he lost them.
Though how exactly he could do that, he had no idea.
First things first.
He pulled into the parking lot and slowly maneuvered around the restaurant toward the Drive Thru entrance. That brought him past the Charger, and he craned his neck to get a view of it.
Yep, there was the plate. AGE 2182
Then he was past and into the Drive Thru. There was one car ahead of him, and the driver was taking her—it was certainly a her—sweet time ordering.
In the rearview, Carl saw two men round the front of the McDonald’s. He recognized their clothing—both had black leather jackets and wore dark cargo pants and boots—as being the same as the men who had gotten out of the car when it parked. And sure enough, they made a beeline for the charger, one of them carrying a McDonald’s takeout bag in his hand and the other one sipping from a cup with a straw.
Carl looked back forward. The driver ahead still had not ordered.
The men got into the Charger and eased it back out of their parking spot. They drove out, around the front of the building, and a white minivan came into view where they had just left.
Carl looked forward. Still not done up there.
Muttering to himself, he put the Explorer into reverse and looked back. To find the minivan stationary behind him, in the DriveThru lane.
“Son of a bitch!” Carl said.
The minivan wasn’t moving. His reversing lights had to be clearly visible, but no, the driver, and older man with curly grey hair, didn’t seem to care.
In fact, he was gesturing impatiently through his windshield for Carl to get moving froward.
Carl looked ahead and sighed with relief. The car ahead had finally moved up. He shifted back to drive and moved forward, ordered a strawberry milkshake, then sat impatiently while the people in front of him again took forever to take care of business.
Then he got his drink and was finally able to get the hell out of there.
The DriveThru window was located near the rear of the brick-fronted building. The exit lane passed about thirty feet of blank wall before emerging back into the parking lot after passing a dumpster enclosure on the right. Up ahead he saw three or four cars in the parking lot.
He hoped against hope that one of them would be Charger, but no.
Carl glanced toward the Exxon as he drew up alongside the dumpsters…
A flash of orange ahead and to the right, then he was surging forward in his seatbelt as the sound of metal meeting and then tearing reached his ears and the car shuddered.
The Charger had been parked right up next to the dumpsters. Now it was halfway into the DriveThru exit lane, and his Cherokee’s bumper had just impacted its right quarter panel.
Adrenalin surged through Carl as the two front doors of the Charger opened and the two men got out.
The passenger, blond haired and green eyed—Carl could still remember the near shine of those green orbs as they sped out from his property—stopped and put his hands on his hips, shaking his head as he looked at the impact zone.
The driver, darker of hair and skin—his hair was nearly black it was so brown—stepped all the way around the two cars until he was standing next to Carl’s driver window.
He knocked on the window with his knuckles.
Swallowing, Carl hit the button to lower the glass.
The man had lighter eyes than Carl would have thought from the rest of him. Brown-orange, the tint of which Carl wasn’t sure he’d ever seen on a man before.
“You suck at tailing people, O’Bannon,” the man said in a smooth baritone that sounded, if anything amused.
Adrenalin surged again, and Carl fought to keep his face calm. He wasn’t sure how well he succeeded, but he could feel the sweat beginning under his arms as his body began responding.
“I don’t know what—“
“Can it,” the guy said, his initial good humor leaving abruptly, replaced by icy steel. He met Carl’s eyes with a gaze that was even harder than his tone, and shook his head slightly. “What I don’t get is what you thought you were going to do? Jump us? Play,” he gestured toward the shotgun, which had to be clearly visible from where he was standing, “some kind of half-assed Rambo routine?”
The man shook his head, making a tsking sound.
Carl didn’t respond. Partly because the man’s question so readily paralleled the questions he was asking himself not so many minutes ago. But also because he wasn’t entirely sure his voice wouldn’t break from nerves at this point. And he didn’t want to give the guy the satisfaction.
For a second, he thought about just gunning it into reverse and getting away back how he’d came in the DriveThru lane. Then he recalled the minivan, and he lost that idea.
A glance in the rearview shelved that idea even further, as he saw the minivan right up on him, the grey-haired man staring hard at him.
But this wasn’t a stare of annoyance. It was more serious. And Carl saw something black sitting atop the minivan’s dashboard, no doubt intentionally so he could see it. A gun.
The minivan guy and the Charger guys were in cahoots.
Carl swallowed. Hard.
“So this is the part,” the driver continued, drawing Carl’s eyes back to him, “where we give each other our information.” He flashed an ironic grin. “But I already know yours, O’Bannon. So this is your one chance.” He leaned in slightly, and Carl could feel the hot breath on his face as the man spoke again, his tone gone past cold to entirely menacing. “Let. It. Go.”
Then he retreated fully back out of the window again, and his tone returned to that almost playful amused voice he used at first. “No sense getting you or your family hurt over something you didn’t really know what to do with in the first place, right?”
With that, the driver smacked his hands down onto the open window frame of the Explorer’s door. Then he turned and walked back toward his car.
From the other side of the Explorer, Carl heard another knock. He turned to see the blond guy staring in at him earnestly, and Carl lowered that window as well.
“Hate to tell you, buddy, but your tire popped when you hit us.” He was fidgeting with his hands, just high enough that Carl could see he was closing the blade of a pocket knife. Blondie grinned at him, amused mockery in the expression. “Hope you’ve got a spare.”
Then he followed his buddy and got into the car. The engine started, and the damaged car pulled forward away from Carl’s Explorer, then turned left and accelerated out of the parking lot.
It proceeded toward the Interstate onramps and Carl saw it switch on its blinker, indicating a left-hand turn.
Into the South-bound lanes of the Interstate.
“Son of a bitch,” Carl said.
He pulled the Explorer out of the DriveThru exit lane and into a parking spot, then got out and watched as the minivan passed him. The driver gave him a mocking little salute with one finger, then followed his fellows out the parking lot.
Carl stepped out and watched the van go, and made note of its plate number. PYT 3145.
Then he opened his cargo compartment door. He did indeed have a spare, but it would take him a good half hour or so to get the flat off and the spare on. There was no way he’d ever find either of the vehicles with that long of a head start. Not today.
But he at least had something to go on for later.
Maybe the orange-eyed driver was right. Maybe Carl should just let it go. He didn’t really know what the heck the talisman was or what it did. Near as he could tell, near as grandpa had ever said, it didn’t do much at all except that beacon routine.
Was that really worth risking his neck over, even if he managed to find some way to use those plate numbers to his advantage?
The image of grandpa’s eyes, so earnest, so proud as he told Carl the story of their family’s legacy and the talisman they had been bequeathed by fate came to Carl’s mind. And he put those questions aside.
O’Bannons may not be rich or powerful, but they were also not pushovers. And he wasn’t going to just give up on his family’s heritage. No sir.
So he changed the flat, then he drove back to the Interstate and then toward home. He was going to need a plan, and some help.
And more than a little luck.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: