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44

Two days later Hood again let himself into the Valley Center barn. Bradley was due in half an hour. He had agreed to be on time for what Hood promised would be an important meeting.

Hood got the stepladder and slid open the bathroom attic hatch, careful not to tear up the insulation.

When he turned on the light, he saw that the blanket was thrown to the floor and everything was gone. Everything gone but the blanket and the table.

He climbed back down and settled the access cover into place and took the ladder back where it belonged.

Outside in the barnyard he looked out at the massive old oak tree and the pond and the dirt road that separated the property from Betty Little Chiefs.

He sat on a bench in the shade of the barn and tried to figure out what would happen next, knowing he had little say in it now.

Then up the dirt road came Bradleys green 1970 Cyclone GT, slowly but thunderously, the dust rising behind the fat back tires and the Glasspaks spitting up dirt. It made a deliberate turn at the pond, and Hood heard the snarl of the 351 Cleveland in first.

Behind it was a low-slung Honda Accord, and behind the Honda was a cobalt blue Mitsubishi Lancer, and behind that was an old red-and-white two-tone F-150 agleam within the swirling dust.

The Cyclone rumbled along and came to a stop twenty feet from Hood. Bradley was at the wheel and the back-seats were piled high with luggage and boxes. The other cars idled in a loose line behind the Cyclone, exhaust stirring the road dust. Two of the other drivers were young men, genuinely tough-looking. Hood couldnt see much of the truck driver.

The drivers-side window went down, and Bradley looked at Hood from behind dark sunglasses.

Looks like youre moving out, Bradley.

Thats because I am.

You going to just drop everything, or finish up school and sports?

More or less.

Where you going?

Bradley shook his head. Places.

Take off those glasses, Bradley.

Bradley hesitated then pushed his sunglasses up into his long black hair. I knew youd been up there. You didnt put the insulation back right. Sorry I had to spoil your surprise.

I thought you might do this. I dont know what your mother wanted for you, but Ive thought about it a lot. I decided the right thing was to tell you, show you those things in the attic, let you take it from there.

She tried to tell me a couple of times. She never quite got the words out. But really, how hard was it to find that stuff? I had years.

Hood looked back at the other cars then at Bradley again. These guys looked too young to be outlaws, but he knew they werent too young.

The trouble is, youll get shot down and youll be dead forever, he said. It happened to Joaquin and Suzanne and itll happen to you.

Do you feel obligated to say that?

Only because its true.

Well, Hood, thanks for the counsel.

You can do better, Bradley. The whole world is out there. You can be whatever you want.

Im already what I want.

Hood didnt answer. The driver in the Honda gunned his engine, then the Lancer and the pickup truck followed suit. Bradley answered with some throttle of his own, checking his buddies in his sideview mirror.

Its a waste of your life and youll regret it.

I like you, Hood, but you old guys dont know shit.

Are you going track down Kick?

Wouldnt you?

Dont try it in my jurisdiction.

Bradley lowered his sunglasses. Then he reached into the passengers seat and brushed aside a leather jacket and lifted the jar containing Joaquins head. For a moment he held it up in front of his face. The head shifted slowly and the hair lilted and the surface vibrated with the car engine. Then Bradley put it back on the seat and covered it with the jacket. He looked at Hood and nodded and gunned the engine.

Then the Cyclone trundled around the oak tree, spit some dirt and rocks against the old trunk and lumbered back down the road the way it had come.

Bradleys gang followed, engines growling, the first two drivers giving Hood their best killah stares as their cars eased past him.

The truck came last and paused, and Hood saw that the driver was a girl, red-haired and beautiful.

She studied Hood for a moment with an expression beyond her years, then the truck accelerated around the oak tree and down the road.


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