Boudreaux saw with some frustration that the few remaining late season mangoes had been stripped from the full-size trees, and that the wind was beating the hydrangea, bougainvillea, and hibiscus bushes to death. The smaller, potted mangoes had been moved to the brick potting house, and he hoped they were faring better.
The water in the yard was shin deep, and branches, small garden pots, and unfamiliar debris from other yards swept across his path as he made his way to the garage.
He had to use the key to open the door to the garage where he kept his hunting truck, a Ford F450 that had been lifted and set upon oversize tires for mucking through Tate’s Hell Forest. It was overkill, but he occasionally enjoyed a little overkill.
It took him a minute to work the key underwater, then he pulled up the door. The garage, too, was flooded, and he sloshed to the truck, glad for a brief respite from the wind and the rain. He was already soaked, despite grabbing his yellow raincoat and, at 45mph, the rain felt like broken glass.
He started the Ford and pulled to the end of the driveway as a five-ton National Guard truck with a green cargo cover pulled to a stop just in front of him. A blond soldier in his early twenties leaned out the open passenger side window. Boudreaux rolled down his window and winced against the rain.
“Sir, can I ask where you’re headed?”
“Well, I was a little too stubborn last night, but I’m evacuating now,” he answered.
“Is it just you, sir?”
“Yes, sir,” Boudreaux said pleasantly. “The rest of the family left yesterday.”
“Well, there’s bad flooding all along 98 on the bay, so we’re directing everyone left to take 12th Street to Bluff Road and on to the airport,” the man said. “We’ve got shelters set up there for you.”
“That’s where I’m headed,” Boudreaux said. “Bluff Road.” Lying was always easier when it was mostly truth.
“Very good, sir. Good luck,” the man said, and the truck moved on, slowly making its way along Avenue D.
Boudreaux pulled out onto the street and turned left, away from the Guard truck, to head for 12th Street and Bluff Road. Maggie’s road.
Wyatt waited at the checkout counter at the car rental agency, leaning on his cane for balance as the young redheaded girl with the impossibly bright smile tapped away at her keyboard.
“And you’ll just be using the car locally?” she asked.
“Yes,” he lied, and felt bad about that, but he was pretty sure that if he said he was driving over to the Gulf Coast, she wouldn’t give him the keys.
She tapped a few more keys. “Okay, we can give you the Florida resident, local only rate of $29.99 per day, with a free upgrade to a mid-size sedan. Does that sound good?”
“That sounds great, thanks,” he said, and looked at his watch.
“Here’s your license, Mr. Hamilton, and I’ll just print out your agreement for you to sign.”
Wyatt put the license back in his wallet and tried Maggie’s cell one more time. Nothing. He slid the phone back into his shirt pocket.
“Here you go, Mr. Hamilton,” the redhead said. “If you’ll just sign where indicated and check the boxes that are highlighted, we’ll have your car brought around front.”
Wyatt got everything signed and checked, and smiled and said “thank you” where indicated as well, but he had a hard time not rapping the cane against the counter and asking her to speed things along.
Finally, she handed him seven copies of his rental agreement in three different pastel colors, and pointed at the glass front doors. “There’s your car now,” she said. “We’ll see you back here tomorrow.”
“Okee-doke,” Wyatt said, and lurched toward the doors.
He knew that, most likely, Maggie had had car trouble or some other minor issue that had prevented her leaving Apalach as scheduled. He also knew that, given the fact that one of them had been shot every time they tried to have a real date, it wasn’t that outrageous to assume she’d simultaneously had phone trouble. He just wasn’t sure he was buying it.
If he drove through hell and high water, pissed off his doctors, and was popping Percocet tonight all because she forgot to gas up the Jeep or something, he’d go ahead and yell at her for a while, then make her cook him a steak. Maybe he’d even take her dog.
Until then, he was going to assume that there was a good reason for him to be doing what he was doing.
When Maggie felt the rope actually give, truly and without question move, she immediately broke into a sweat.
It wasn’t that she was exerting herself any more than she had been; it was the almost instantaneous supply of adrenaline her brain provided her heart and muscles as soon as it perceived that she had a reason to need it.
Her mouth opened just a bit, and her eyes widened, and she saw immediately that Sky noticed. Sky had been watching her for the last half hour, alternating staring at her mother with glancing over at the man, who seemed newly enervated by the promise of the new arrival. He had been walking around the main room without purpose, occasionally stopping to check his phone, get a drink of water, or watch the storm out the kitchen window.
Maggie purposefully and with great effort kept her breathing slow and even, and kept her butt in her chair and her arms back, though every instinct but the smart ones pushed her to leap from her chair.
What she wished was for the man to go to the bathroom, go anywhere that would give her half a chance at getting to one of her guns on the kitchen counter. But she knew that she would be unlikely to have enough time to get there, reload one of the guns he’d emptied, and be ready before he shot her in the back.
The man walked over to the front door and laid his ear against it, listening. Maggie heard nothing but the incessant wind and rain.
Her focus changed to the gun that was already loaded, the one tucked into the front of his waistband. She needed that gun.
She was taking slow, deep breaths, trying to slow her thoughts so that she could come up with something viable, when Sky got up out of her chair, wobbling a little unsteadily on cramped legs.
“I need to pee,” she said boldly.
The man straightened up and snarled at her. “No, you don’t. Sit back down.”
“Sky!” Kyle croaked.
“No! You wanna kill me, you ignorant redneck, then you go ahead and do it, but they’re not gonna find me with piss running down my leg,” Sky snapped. “Take me to the freaking bathroom.”
Maggie’s heart pounded with hope as the man shot over to the table, but he pulled out the .22 and pointed it at Sky’s face. “Sit down now,” he said through his teeth. Maggie’s eyes zoomed in on the safety, expecting him to flick it off at any moment.
Sky’s eyes blinked several times, but when she opened her mouth, all she said was, “No.”
“Sky!” Kyle yelled again, and Coco started barking furiously from the bedroom.
The man kipped the gun sideways and pulled his arm back a bit to strike Sky with it, and Maggie stopped thinking.
She grabbed the loose rope in her right hand and whipped the remaining knot off of her left wrist as she got to her feet. She had been planning on slapping at the gun with it, but as she got up, she changed her angle. It was unplanned and awkward, and she was slower than she had been when she’d envisioned it in her mind.
She slung it underhand, hitting him where his wrist met his hand. She was unsteady on her feet and her head spun a little, so she didn’t have the momentum she’d hoped she would, but it was enough to knock the gun from his hand. It clattered to the table, then skidded off the table and onto the wood floor, where it slid under the kitchen island.
Sky sat down hard in surprise as the man whipped his head to follow the trajectory of his gun, then spun back to face Maggie. Maggie got one kick to the back of his thigh, but she had to use her left leg and wasn’t really positioned for good leverage. The kick was slightly weak and put her off balance, but it was hard enough and well placed enough to make him slump a bit.
As he did, Maggie stepped forward and got him in the throat with the side of her left hand. It was a hit, but a weaker hit than she needed it to be. The pain registered on his face, but when she went for an upper cut with her right fist, he caught it.
She twisted out of it before he could break her wrist, but his free hand popped straight at her and he slammed her broken nose with his palm. Pain exploded in every part of her face and head, and her vision swam. It gave him the precious few seconds he needed to wrap both hands around her throat.
Maggie heard both Kyle and Sky screaming behind her as the man bent her backwards over the table. She thrust her arms between his and outward against his elbows in an attempt to break his hold, but she didn’t have the speed or power behind it that she needed.
He actually lifted her by her neck, stronger than he’d appeared to be, and slammed her down on the table on her back. For a moment, Kyle’s face was visible above her, just inches away. She grabbed both of his thumbs and started trying to bend them backwards, to twist them enough to make him loosen his grip, but she couldn’t breathe and her vision was already darkening.
Maggie kept pulling back on the man’s thumbs, trying to dislodge his hands from her throat just enough to get one breath of air, one breath to keep her conscious. The man lifted her neck just a few inches and slammed her head against the tabletop. She heard Kyle screaming, could see his frightened eyes just a few inches above her, as he sat there, staring down in horror.
She felt her brain start to shut down, and she thought, Please don’t choke me to death six inches away from my son. Please don’t do this in front of my children.
Above the sound of her children’s screaming and the man’s cursing, she heard the front door slam inward. It crashed against the wall with a clap as loud as thunder, and suddenly wind filled the room, and rain fell onto Maggie’s legs where they twisted and kicked between the man’s.
Then, like something her air-starved brain had conjured, Boudreaux’s face appeared over the man’s shoulder. He was looking at her, and the pure, unadulterated, animalistic rage in his bright blue eyes was like something from someone else’s nightmare.
Maggie didn’t even have time to reconcile what she was seeing with what she thought ought to be there. Boudreaux’s arm whipped around the man’s neck, and the man released Maggie’s throat. Two seconds later, they were both gone. Boudreaux pulled the man backwards, back out the front door, and the wind yanked the door shut again with a bang.
It was as though some huge, tentacled creature had wrapped itself around a sailor and pulled him overboard into the sea, just like that. If she couldn’t still feel the rain on her legs, couldn’t see the water all over the floor in front of the door as she pushed herself up on one arm, Maggie would not have believed that it had actually happened the way her eyes told her that it had.