Yanaba spied the stranger’s approach from the corner of her eye, and her alertness ascended to the next level.
“Maybe we can help each other out,” he murmured as he stepped to her side.
She shifted half a step away from him while sizing him up. He was a young man, maybe mid-twenties. Only a few inches taller than her, he had a lean build worthy of a track runner. His blonde hair was a bit tousled, and there was stubble on his face. His navy blazer, light blue shirt, and khakis were rumpled. Although after what happened last week, most people looked rather frumpy these days.
“How so?” She figured it was a good idea to determine his motivation.
Unless he was a complete loon, he surely wouldn’t try anything now. About twenty National Guard personnel – a small fraction of their usual entirety – were milling about the school parking lot as they secured the dragged-out-of-retirement vehicles to deploy from the city of Paducah in Kentucky.
He slipped a blue knapsack off his shoulder and deposited it beside him on the pavement. “I heard you get to hitch a ride with this caravan since you’re a congresswoman. But peasants like me aren’t allowed. Take me along as one of your staff, and I’ll see to it you get to your destination safely.”
How did he find out about her arrangement with the unit? And did a threat lurk within that offer?
“I’m already surrounded by military.”
“Mm-hmm.” He glanced at the soldiers and their equipment before returning his attention to her. “But do you really trust every single one of them one hundred percent? And riots have broken out in some places. What if some gang gets cocky about raiding this convoy?”
“Does half a dozen dirty trucks pulled out of mothballs qualify as a convoy?” As soon as the question escaped her lips, she regretted it. What if he was a scout for some such gang, trying to mole his way in so he could compromise their defenses?
The left corner of his lip curled, and he stepped slightly in front of her. His left hand tugged aside the front panel of his blazer, revealing a shoulder holster and the pistol it contained.
“All the more reason to carry extra protection.” He slipped back to her side.
Although Yanaba’s glimpse of the weapon was fleeting, it appeared to be small caliber, perhaps only a .25. Her husband would call it a lady’s gun. This guy had taken a risk showing her that. How could he assume she wouldn’t alert the nearby soldiers?
He quickly followed up. “You know how to shoot a semi-automatic?”
She studied his face. “Why do you ask?”
“Because this is the deal I’ll make with you: get me on that caravan, and you get to carry the pistol.”
“You’d surrender it to me?”
“Only while we’re traveling together.” He smirked. “As soon as we part ways, I get it back.”
That seemed like another risk on his part, and maybe she could use that to dampen his enthusiasm. “You trust me to give it back?”
“Fair enough, isn’t it? We’ll have to trust each other.”
She wanted to concentrate on getting home, not on figuring out this guy’s angle. For nearly a week now, ever since a solar storm of unprecedented magnitude leveled the electric grid and everything dependent upon it, she’d been trying to get back to her husband and two sons.
US representatives – especially freshmen – weren’t high enough on the food chain to commandeer any military transportation that was already stretched thin. And fully cognizant that congress was impotent in addressing a coronal mass ejection, Yanaba had no qualms about joining the thousands, or probably hundreds of thousands, attempting to get home.
With what little influence she had, she’d managed to hop from unit to unit, helping to pack and unload supplies. She was still only about a third of the way to her destination, but she’d managed to get this far without the aid of any staff.
“Where’d you get that, anyway?” Maybe she could punch a hole in his story if it was cockamamie enough.
“Gift from my parents. Years ago.” He shrugged. “I’m trying to get back to Colorado. I was unfortunate enough to be attending a security conference in Lexington when all the lights went out. It took me this long to walk this far.”
His right foot rose slightly as he twisted the sole toward her. The leather sneakers were scuffed and tattered.
He lowered the foot. “So I’d like to get home before spring turns into summer and I wind up barefoot.”
His reference to the conference smelled too convenient. “What kind of security are you in?”
“Oh, right now I’m just a peon who helps make sure drugs don’t get smuggled out of the hospital. The conference was supposed to upgrade my training, give me a nudge toward consultant or analyst work.”
Belittling himself seemed to be a habit, but it didn’t give her any real clue about what kind of person he was. A conman would know some people might find the trait endearing. And a conman could possess certain other skills….
“How did you find out about me hitching a ride with this unit?”
“When technology is kaput, the grapevine flourishes.” The left corner of his mouth curled again. “Sorting the truths from the lies was a formidable challenge, but I heard that skeleton military units were addressing the riots in the bigger cities, and occasional convoys would resupply them.
“I also heard they refuse to take civilian passengers because there are too darn many stranded folks like me trying to get home. But if you have a clout, you know, like a politician, they’d make exceptions. I overheard you making arrangements with them.”
Yanaba frowned. “I don’t recall seeing you around here.”
“I was under a truck, fixing a leak, trying to ingratiate myself before using some fast talk on the friendliest-looking person I could find.”
She studied his disheveled clothes. Yeah, he looked like he could have been crawling under trucks….
He asked, “What do you think of divine intervention?”
The question caught Yanaba off guard, causing her gaze to lock on his face for a few seconds. As a woman of the Diné, more commonly known as Navajo, she harbored a hesitation for prolonged eye contact. But sometimes, especially around any Bilagáana, she had to overcome that instinct.
The sentiment he’d just expressed was the sort of reference she rarely heard from others. When she did, it usually meant she was among friends.
“Why do you ask?”
“Our meeting when we did, at the right place and the right time, can’t just be coincidence. We can help each other get home.” Soft intensity crept into his voice. “I want to find my family and know that they’re safe. I’m sure that’s what you’re trying to do. We increase our odds if we join forces.”
No red flags were becoming apparent, but his suggestion of divine intervention had momentarily distracted her from some of the details in his story. Had that been on purpose?
“If I decline your offer, will you resort to fast-talking the friendliest-looking soldier?”
His lips pursed and his brow furrowed. “That depends … are you determined enough to get rid of me that you’d make sure I fail?”
She didn’t like playing hardball like this, but these were peculiar times. The world was more dangerous now. She had to assume everybody would have an ulterior motive of stealing whatever they could, with whatever devious plan they could come up with.
“Maybe you should just be grateful I don’t report what you’re packing to those soldiers. Fair enough?”
He continued to study her, and she forced herself to keep her gaze locked with his. This was no time to show any weakness.
His tone was slightly lower when he replied. “Then I thank you for upholding my Second Amendment right, congresswoman. I don’t suppose you can give me any tips for trying to catch a ride with anybody else?”
Maybe it was the disappointment in his voice, maybe it was the fact he remained polite with her, but something spurred that twist in the pit of her stomach. She had no tips … and wished that she did.
“I’m sorry.” A touch of regret managed to sneak into her voice. “I’m barely able to keep up with these units as it is. I don’t know about any other options.”
“Can’t blame you, of course, and can’t blame me for trying. I knew it was a longshot.” He picked up the knapsack. “Hope your path stays safe.”
He slung the bag over his right shoulder and sauntered away from her. Yanaba’s stomach wrenched again as he departed, never looking back, each step steady and deliberate.
He’d be all right. He was young and fit – and resourceful. Those shoes could hold up for many more miles.
No … this was wrong.
There was nothing new about living in peculiar times. Suspicion and distrust reigned throughout history. The world had earned its reputation for being cold and cruel. But when people stood together, united in a common good, they persevered against iniquity.
He offered her the gun, for crying out loud.
Sometimes divine intervention had to be delivered with a smack.
“Wait a minute.” She didn’t want to speak too loudly and draw attention from the soldiers. But despite his leisurely pace, the fellow didn’t seem to hear her.
Yanaba broke into long strides to catch up to him. “I just thought of something.”
He hesitated this time, and turned to face her. “You have a suggestion?”
“Maybe we should introduce ourselves.” She held out her hand. “I’m Yanaba Todacheene.”
The shadow of a smile touched his lips before he grasped her hand. “You’re right. My apologies. I’m Fritz, Fritz Kaufmann.”
“Well, Mr. Kaufmann, now that we’re no longer strangers, shall we discuss your idea in more detail?”
His smile broadened as he released her hand. The ache in her stomach faded as he nodded.
“Please, just call me Fritz. And thank you for such a wonderful suggestion.”
Here my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and the prompt word used here is Peculiar. Speaking of peculiar, you might have noticed the Part One designation, which means next month’s story will actually be related instead of the usual wildcard.
And don’t miss out on checking into what other writers submitted this month!