Fourteen-year-old Robert Greggs took a deep breath and began to walk across the street. He knew how this would likely end, but he was hungry.
Very, very hungry.
It was the main street of the small town, Copperstone, but even so it was still fairly empty. Cars lined the edges of the sidewalk, but they mostly belonged to the owners of the street’s many shops and other services. In a town this size, cars were virtually unnecessary. Robert had to shield the left side of his face from the bright glare bouncing off the brand-new jet-black street, made even hotter due to the initial heat of early-summer Arizona.
He took a step onto the sidewalk, dropping his hand as the shade of the buildings took the heat away. He put his hands in his pockets and looked at the man several hundred yards away, shuffling something inside a large black smoker with a long spatula. Robert was standing downwind from him, and the warm fragrances of meat, peppers and eggs beautifully mingled together drifted through the air. Several people stood in a line in front of the smoker.
Now or never, he thought. He strutted down the sidewalk and stood at the back of the line, fingering a ten-dollar bill in his pocket. He ignored the sideways, or direct, glances coming from the passers-by. He recognized every one of them: Phil, the town’s only mechanic, beard just as thick as when he had last seen him, Jean, the silver-haired hairdresser, and others. The only one who didn’t pretend not to notice him was Drake, a seventeen-year-old who only got to the fourth grade by automatically moving up every two years. He looked right at him and stuck his pierced tongue out, walking away like he had never seen him. Only Sarah, the church’s young pianist, managed to smile at him slightly, but even she went on past.
The last person eventually walked away, and Robert approached the man, who, after wiping his hands on his messy apron, started to say, “We’re out of jalapenyas, so—”
His eyes fell on Robert.
“What d’ya want? I ain’t havin’ nothin ta do with the likes of you.”
“Please, I’m hungry, and I can pay! See, I have—”
“I don’t care what you have, git before I call the cops.”
“I haven’t eaten in two weeks, it doesn’t even have to be something big, even a—”
“I don’t cater to crazy runaway orphans. I’m losin’ ma temper. Beat it.”
Robert’s eyes exploded with fire, and he almost jumped over the smoker and strangled the man. He wasn’t an orphan, and, contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t crazy.
“I’m not an orphan!” He blasted. “My parents are still alive and I’m going to find them.”
“Good luck with that.” The man reached into his apron pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He dialed three numbers and waited. Robert looked left and right, then began stepping away from the smoker. The police station was down the road and to the left; it wouldn’t take them long to get here. But he was clever, and he’d been avoiding police for two years. Rather than run away, he ran to the right, towards the station. The man at the smoker paid him no mind and began catering to his other customers.
The usual glances he received upon returning to Copperstone every few months grew into stares as he ran full sprint down the street. He pretended not to notice them and ducked into a group of bushes at the end of the street, just as two police cars zipped past, sirens blaring. They picked up speed after slowing at the curve and kept barreling down the street.
Robert took ten deep breaths and stuck his head out of the bush to make sure no one was looking his way. Satisfied, he stood and ran, slower this time, the direction the police cars had come from. He had to talk to Roger before he left again.
The main street stopped at the edge of Copperstone, then curved around and snaked along in between the city and a large patch of woods, branching off to the left at several points, until drifting off past the city and onto a lonely highway and then finally merging into the interstate. It was almost as if they had built the entire road first, then built the town. It was odd, but the citizens of Copperstone became used to it after over sixty years of life there.
Robert walked along the road for several minutes until he came to a building identified as Copperstone Police Department. A left turn off this road would take a car past it.
He walked across the street and lifted his foot to go up the steps, then paused. The gun in his pants.
He reached behind him and pulled the .22 caliber pistol he carried for protection from his waistband and hid it behind a bush. It hadn’t been easy to get it without being caught, and he didn’t want to lose it now.
He casually walked back up the steps and rested his hand on the gray door handle. A firm pull swung the door towards him. He stepped inside, and his heart sank when he saw that the station was empty. Roger had probably gone to look for him.
He walked to the desk across the room and looked through the glass to see if anyone was still there. “Roger?” he called.
No answer. He tried again.
This time, a door opened in the room behind the glass, and a burly officer in full uniform came through. It had been several months, but Robert still recognized him.
“It’s been a while, Roger,” he said.
“It has. I’m surprised to see you here. We’ve been looking for you for two years, Robert, and every time you come back to Copperstone you seem to slip from our fingers.” Roger approached the desk and faced Robert.
“I’m aware. All the police you’ve notified across Arizona haven’t helped my cause in the least. You of all people should know that I can take care of myself just fine.”
“I know you can. But because of my position I can’t just let you roam Arizona as you please. I’ve tried to help you to the best of my ability, but I can only do so much.”
“I understand. Have you—”
“It’s the same as it was last time, and the time before that. And before that. No, I haven’t heard anything about your parents,” Roger interrupted.
Robert’s head dropped slightly.
Roger sighed and leaned on the desk with both hands. “Son, your parents are dead. I’m sorry, but they’re dead. It’s a miracle that you survived that crash, but they’re dead. Two years of looking for them should tell you that.”
“Then why haven’t we found their bodies?” Robert asked quietly.
“We don’t know. But we know that at the speed both vehicles were going, there’s no possible way they could have survived. They probably wandered off into the woods just before dying. But you know no one’s going into those woods.”
“There’s nothing in those woods, Roger.”
The superstition had started three years prior to the accident. The woods that sat tight against Copperstone began to glow a bright orange hue, then an ear-splitting crack pierced the air, like a gigantic cannon going off. Two great red circles had appeared in the woods, like eyes, then vanished as suddenly as they had come. Only four people had witnessed the event, and only one had caught it on camera.
“Would you go in them after that?’ Roger said.
“To find my parents? Yes.”
Roger sighed again. “Fine. Do as you like. But the best I can do is to act like you were never here and delete the last five minutes of camera feed. The others should be back soon, and they’re still just as convinced as the rest of Copperstone that you’re insane. If you wanna get out of Copperstone before they come back you’d better leave now.”
Robert nodded, and began to leave.
Robert looked back.
“You may need this.” Roger held out a small box. Robert took it. 20 rounds of .22 ammunition. He looked at Roger, who winked. “Let’s pretend I don’t know.”
Robert grinned. “Thanks.”
Upon leaving the station, he tucked his pistol back into his waistband and put the small box of ammunition in his pocket. He got back on the main road and began to walk back to the crash site.
Halfway down the road, a small, silver car, sounding something like a dying rhinoceros, slowed beside Robert. He glanced at it. He’d never seen it before; it was probably a visitor. Why anyone would bother visiting Copperstone, he didn’t know.
The driver’s window rolled down, and a young man who Robert didn’t recognize poked his head out. “You need any help?” he said. “You don’t look so good.”
Robert was dumbstruck. It had been years since anyone had asked him if he needed help. He looked down the road; the crash site was only several hundred yards away. But this could be the last time anyone would give him food in a while, and he hadn’t eaten in days.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“A restaurant down the road here. I gotta meet someone.”
“If I could get a ride there and out of the city, I’d appreciate it.”
“Sounds good. All my junk is in shotgun, so you’re gonna have to sit in the back.”
Robert stepped off the grass, crossed the road and opened the back door, which took more force than he’d expected and released a sound resembling a sick cat. He winced as he got into the car, pushing random trash to the other side of the car.
Jesse shifted gears and gave the car some gas. Too much gas. Robert’s head smacked against what should’ve been a head cushion, but it was missing. Jesse kept driving.
“Hey, slow down, will you?” Robert yelled above the engine’s groaning.
Jesse eased off a little. “I was only going forty.”
“This zone is thirty.”
“Whatever. Do you know what this place is I’m lookin’ for?”
“Well, the only restaurant we have is Frank’s. It’s a barbeque.”
“Oh. I was hopin’ it was gonna be a bar or somethin’. Or maybe a Chik-fil-a.”
“We don’t have bars here. Or fast-food.”
“What?! No McDonald’s?! Burger King?! KFC?!” Jesse shouted with shock.
“All the franchises bypass us because of our size.”
“Oh. Say, what’s a kid like you doin’ on the street? Shouldn’t you be in school? You a runaway or somethin’? You look kinda familiar.”
“It’s June. School’s out right now. And what I do is my own business.”
Jesse threw his hands up. “Whatever, keep your junk to yourself. I don’t care.”
Jesse flicked his blinker and waited for the light to turn green, then turned left and ran a stop sign.
When they got out of the car, Robert wasn’t sure he wanted to eat. “You all right, squirt?”
“Yeah, just… ughhh…”
“What, don’t like my driving? Well, you picked the ride. This the right place?”
Robert looked up. They had parked in front of a dark red building with the words ‘Frank’s BBQ’ in neon letters inside the window. He nodded.
“Good,” said Jesse. “I’ve got ten bucks left, and thirty to fill up the tank.”
Jesse went first, not bothering to hold the door for Robert. Robert attempted not to look at anyone, but he noticed several people get up and leave as he walked in.
There were several tables on their right and a bar on their left, but Robert knew they didn’t serve alcohol here. Several grills and stoves sat against the wall behind the bar, creating the scents of grilled sirloin and sizzling hamburgers. A potbellied man with a handlebar moustache worked the grills.
Robert saw Jesse spot another man, who seemed to be a little older than him, and they both smiled and shook hands. They exchanged some words that Robert couldn’t hear. Then the other man looked at Robert. “Who’s this? He looks familiar,” he asked, with a light smoker’s voice. He was dressed in a dingy suit, a white button-up underneath, and jeans. No slacks, no tie. It was obvious he was a visitor.
“I picked him up on the road. He says he wanted a ride here then out of the city.”
“Nice to meet you. Don’t hit me and we should get along just fine.”
Robert wondered if the man greeted everyone that way. He took a seat at the bar, two seats away from the pair just to be on the safe side. The men began engaging in an inaudible conversation.
Frank stepped up to Robert first, wiping his greasy hands on his apron. “What’s you doin’ ‘ere?” he said in a thick Irish accent.
“Trying to get some food.”
“The law’d be all ova me if they knew I’d given ya food and let ya go. I’ll have to call the authorities.”
Jesse heard the comment and turned his head. “He’s with me,”
Frank gave him a look. “This ‘ere’s a runaway orphan. By law I’ve got ta hand ‘im ova.”
“I said he’s with me.”
“Sonny, I’ve been knowin’ this ‘ere lad for since ‘is mama birthed ‘im,” Frank said. “And I knows you’re not bein’ part of ‘is family. The authorities be lookin’ for him for a long while.”
In one swift move, the man beside Jesse lunged over the counter, grabbed the straps of Franks apron, and pulled him into his face. “If he said he’s with him, that means he’s with him!” he shouted.
“A-all right, lad, I meant no offense!” stammered Frank, shaken. The man put him down, and all eyes in the restaurant were on him. He paid no attention to them.
“Um…What is the angry man hungry for?”
“Nothing. Just a root beer.”
“I ain’t hungry,” said Jesse. “Just throw a steak in a bag or somethin’.”
Frank raised one of his bushy eyebrows, then turned back to Robert.
“I’ll take whatever’s biggest for ten dollars.”
“Ah, a bit on the hungry side, are we?”
“Well, let’s pretend ya don’t have any money, and I’ll pretend ya do.” He smiled and turned to the grills.
In a short time, he’d gotten two sirloins, four ribs, three chicken wings, and a drumstick all in a Styrofoam box in front of Robert, and another sirloin on a plate in front of him. Frank gave him another smile and proceeded to flip burgers on the grill. Robert smiled as well. Not everyone in Copperstone avoided him.
The sirloin disappeared within minutes, and Jesse noticed. “We’ll be done in a minute,” he said.
As Jesse returned to conversation with the strange man, Robert noticed that the latter wasn’t focused on the conversation anymore. He was staring past them, through the glass window.
“Jesse, take the kid and get out of here. You were never with me.”
“Just do what I said! I’ll contact you when I need you.”
Robert looked through the glass door to see what the man was looking at. He saw three men, very well dressed and clean-cut, crossing the street toward the barbeque.
“Kid, follow me.” Jesse got down from the stool and walked toward the door. Robert glanced at the other man. His hand was in his suit, and he heard something click.
“Come on!” Jesse shouted. He was holding the door open. Robert jumped down and made for the door.
But before he could make it, one of the men shouted something, Another took something from his jacket. Pointed it at Jesse. A loud pop, and Jesse fell to darken the sidewalk.
Robert’s world was ringing; the gunshot had momentarily killed his hearing. He could faintly hear someone screaming Jesse’s name, and then two more gunshots, but closer. He saw two of the dark-suited men fall, and the other point his gun in Robert’s direction. Robert jumped away from the door and hid behind a table. He looked around to see what had happened to his now-silent surroundings. Jesse’s friend was still firing shots, and Frank had disappeared. The few people that were in the restaurant had gone frantic and ducked into a corner. Robert glanced at the door, and saw the suited man standing there, pointing a gun. Robert closed his eyes and waited for another gunshot.
But all he heard was “Outta my restaurant, ya slimebags!” and another gunshot, but this one sounded different. He looked up to see Frank at the bar, holding a smoking double-barrel shotgun. The man in the door was gone.
Robert slowly got up, and Frank snapped the barrel of his shotgun over to reload it. “Ain’t never had ta use this thing. What’s a bunch ‘a gun-firin’ city slickers doin’ out here?”
Jesse’s friend reloaded his pistol and tucked it back into his jacket. “We have to leave. Sorry about the little fiasco.”
“Heh, no problem. We could use a little action around here every once in a while,” said Frank.
“Kid, you’re gonna have to come with me,” said the man. “I’ll explain later.” He walked to the door and took Jesse’s keys from his pocket, taking a moment to look at him. He muttered a few words, then stood and walked to the car. Robert followed.
“What’s your name?” asked the man. “I can’t keep calling you ‘kid’.”
“I’m Butch. Me and Jesse are—were—brothers.” He started the engine.
“Why did you two come here?”
“Long…Ugh, come on!” He looked in the rearview mirror. Robert swung his head back and saw a black car swerve around a bend and streak toward them. Something put a hole in the back window and whistled past Robert’s head.
“Get your head down!” shouted Butch. He laid onto the gas, turned in a quick U as fast as he could, then sent the car back the way they had come. Robert was surprised at the versatility of the beat-up vehicle.
“Who are these people?!” Robert shouted.
“Just keep your head down!!” Butch pointed the pistol behind him and fired several shots over Robert’s head. He pulled the trigger two more times, this time getting no more than a click.
“Crud, I’m out!”
Three more shots flew into the car.
“Kid, under the seat your head’s on is a box of ammo; I need you to fill this up. Got it?” He threw the pistol in the floorboard. Robert reached under the seat and felt for the box. His hand contacted something hard and square. He pulled it out and opened it.
“Three bullets left.”
The man slammed his fist on the steering wheel. “Whatever, put ‘em in.”
Robert released the clip and slid the three rounds into the clip, then stuck the clip back in the handle of the gun, almost dropping it as they swerved left. The man grabbed it from his hand, and pointed it behind him again. “Blast it, it’s jammed!” He threw the pistol in the passenger seat. “All right, I’m about to jump the curb and drive into these woods. Hold on.”
Robert wrapped his left hand around the seat, and with his right hand pulled a seat belt around his shoulder. He felt two big jolts; one as the car ramped the curb, and another as it hit the ground. They sped into the woods, their pursuers out of sight. He stopped the car and put it in park.
“Who were those people?” asked Robert.
“I used to work for a company called Standridge Enterprises. They did biochemical stuff, genetic engineering, technology development, and some other stuff I’d rather not attempt to pronounce. They supposedly made food better and made wild animals tame with a simple injection, stuff like that. There’s hundreds of branches and sister companies, like RidgeTech and Standridge Foods. I happened to work for BioRidge.”
“Why were they chasing you?”
Several months prior
Butch slid the file cabinet shut. He’d cleaned all the old, unneeded files out. He picked up the rubber tub that held the folders he’d just removed, and walked out into the hall.
He walked several offices down and stepped in front of a cloudy glass door marked “Christopher Merton, CEO”. His hands were full, so he knocked with his knee. No one answered. “Mr. Merton?”
No one called back. He held up the tub with his leg and tried the doorknob. It was unlocked, so he swung the door open and walked inside, returning to a two-hand grip on the tub.
There was no one in the room. He walked to the desk at the end of the room and set the tub in a corner behind it so Merton could sort through them.
As he turned to leave, he noticed Merton’s computer was still open. A naturally curious man, Butch leaned down to see what he’d been looking at.
Merton’s email was open, and one of them was selected. The subject read “ProjectIronthornDetails.” It was all mathematical equations, charts, and graphs that he knew nothing about. Was this a project? But Standridge always told the staff when he’d come up with a new project. Dated March 17th… It was April, and the file had no signs of the project being canceled. Yet no one had said anything to anyone.
He opened a drawer in the desk and rummaged through it. His hand contacted a 16-gigabyte thumb drive. He stuck it into the computer, right-clicked on the email, and hit “Copy”. Opened “Documents”, scrolled down to “Drive”, right-clicked, and hit “Paste”. In less than ten seconds, the copy was finished. He took out the drive, stuck it in a pocket, shut the drawer, and wiped the computer’s mouse off with his jacket. No fingerprints.
He looked at his watch; his shift was over. He shut the drawers and stepped out of the office.
Twenty feet down the hall, he heard steps behind him. Brisk steps. He took several halls that no one would usually take to see if they were just walking or not. After five minutes he became sure that they were following him. They saw me? He would have to take a different door. He turned right instead of the usual left and tried to find the back door. He still heard his follower behind him. He turned left and began walking faster. Above a door at the end of the hall was a sign that said ‘EXIT’. He walked faster, until he finally collided with the door and opened it. He walked from the building into an alley, his pursuer still behind him. They were close enough to knife him if they wanted to. But instead, he felt something nudge his back. He came to a halt and raised his hands.
“Give me the file.”
Butch started to turn.
“Keep facing the road.”
He stopped turning and reached his hand into his pocket, pulled out the drive and handed it over his shoulder to the unknown stalker.
“You saw this?”
Butch said nothing.
“Better you had left it in the cabinet.” The thing in his back moved up to his head.
Butch ducked as the bullet flew over his head and smacked into the brick wall in front of him. Before they could readjust their aim, he spun on his heels and threw his fist into their chin as he stood up. They dropped their gun and fell on the sidewalk, unconscious. Butch reached down, picked up the gun and stuck it in his jacket. He searched the man for anything good, only finding a small box of ammunition and his I.D. He was identified as Kaleb Summers, the head of security at BioRidge. He started to pick up the drive, but he could hear loud footsteps coming near the door. He threw the I.D. on the man’s chest and ran out the alley.
“So why did you come to Copperstone?”
“Because the only thing in the file that I could understand was the city ‘Copperstone, Arizona’. I figured if I’m going to find out anything, it would be here. But I guess they found me.”
“Put your head back down.”
“Put your head back down. They’re at the edge of the woods.”
Robert laid back down in the seat. Butch rummaged through all the trash, presumably looking for another bullet. Robert remembered what he was carrying and reached behind his back.
“Would this help?”
Butch looked at him and grabbed the pistol. “Where in blazes did you get this?”
“I, uh, ‘borrowed’ it.”
“Huh. How many bullets are in it?”
“Plenty. I’m getting out; you stay down.”
Butch cautiously opened the door and got out on his hands and knees, then crawled to the hood of the car. Robert saw his head peek over the edge, then both of his arms. He stayed there aiming for minutes, when he finally pulled the trigger. Then again, and again. He stood up and ran past the car. Robert stayed where he was for several minutes, until Butch finally came back with something in his hands. He popped the trunk and laid something inside. Then he opened the front door and got back in. “You can get up.”
Robert sat back up. “What happened?”
“They’re out. I was right; they were working for Standridge. You think this looks like me?” He held up some sort of I.D.
“Maybe if you shaved.”
“Why don’t we take their car?”
“I thought about that, but Standridge isn’t stupid. Every computer in every facility he’s got is probably trackin’ that thing.”
“What did you stick in the hatch?”
“Rifle. Found it in their car. We may need it later.”
“Sorry, kid, but they’ve seen you. No doubt they had cameras hidden on them. They’d shoot you on sight. We’re together from here on out. You got parents?”
“Actually,” Robert swallowed, “That’s why I needed to get to the woods.”