Freedom

Part 1

October 1978

Mickey Kostmayer stood outside Fort Leavenworth Prison and lifted his face slightly to let the autumn sun bathe him in its warmth. He still couldnít believe the strange turn his life had taken Ė yet again.         

Five days ago, a man named Robert McCall had walked into his prison cell to tell him that he had new evidence clearing him of the murder charge that had got him sentenced to ten years hard labor. He had promised to get Mickey out of the brig ASAP but Mickey didnít permit himself to have much hope.    

Around noon today, he had been called into the Commanderís office and told that he was free to go. He had signed some forms and now, a couple of hours later, he was standing outside the prison gates with his small bag of belongings and McCall was asking him what he might do next.

Mickey laughed, "Hell! Iíve spent the past, I donít know how long, wishing for a thick juicy steak and a beer." He grinned, "And then I want to find me a nice friendly lady to spend some time with. Then maybe, in a couple of days, I plan to visit some family in Houston."

Setting his sunglasses over his eyes, McCall said, "Your aunt lives in Houston, doesnít she?"

He didnít bother wondering how McCall knew about his aunt, the guy had to have connections to get him out of the brig so quickly. Mickey couldnít help but admire McCall, he had style without the flash of a weaker man. He also had a huge pair of solid silver balls. In his experience, average men didnít go toe to toe with all the chicken shit, paper pushing, ass covering bureaucrats in the United Statesí Military, and win. Yep, McCall was one piece of work.

"Yeah, Aunt Frieda and my brother Nick were the only ones who believed I was innocent. Nick wrote me last week that she wasnít doing so good."

"How are you planning to get to Houston?"

Mickey shrugged, "I donít have any real money until my back pay comes through. They gave me just enough to cover a bus ticket to Houston and a couple of meals till I get there."

Mickey saw McCall look around them, making a point of noting the desolate surroundings. The prison loomed large above them, seeming to suck the life and energy from everything that surrounded it along with the souls of the aimless men who dwelt inside its walls. Even the squat bushes that were planted around Leavenworth seemed stinted without any life to them.

And thatís what Mickey suddenly felt deep inside him, a dank, inert gloom.

Mickey looked at McCall again. The man fairly glowed with life and its power. His suit must have cost what Mickey used to make in a couple of months, and McCallís car Ė a top of the line Jaguar Ė looked like it smoldered with animation and life of its very own.     

Suddenly he felt a longing for McCallís world. Mickey hoped the hunger didnít show in his face.

"Iíll tell you what, Mickey, why donít you let me drive you to Kansas City? I have to get my flight back to New York from there anyway. Iíll buy you dinner, find you a room and then I can see about helping you get what you need for your trip."

He felt his gut leap with joy, but he looked at the Brit feeling real wary; he learned long ago that favors always needed something in return. "Whatís in this for you?"

McCall gave a half smile, "I might have a job for you. I am right in assuming that you wonít be rejoining your SEAL unit am I not?"

Mickey felt his temper flare and a cold rage spread throughout his chest. "Damn right I wonít! Those bastards assumed I was guilty along with the rest of them."

Raising an eyebrow in a question, McCall said, "Why donít we discuss my business proposition over dinner? A friend told me about a very good restaurant in the city."

In the very short time he had been free, it had crossed Mickeyís mind that the job prospects for an ex-SEAL werenít that extensive. At least not if he wanted to stay alive. Deciding to go along and hear what the man had to say Ė even though he had an idea who McCall was fronting for Ė Mickey walked over and opened the car door, "As long as I can get a beer and a steak and youíre buying, Iíll eat anywhere."

He heard McCall chuckle as he walked around the car to open the driverís side door.

Mickey spent the rest of the afternoon watching and listening. He had seen enough Company spooks in Nam and Cambodia to know that McCall was one of them, but he got a feeling that McCall might be one of the better operatives around. Instinctively he knew that McCall was a standup kind of guy, and even though he was looking for clues, Mickey got no hinkey feelings that McCall was measuring him up to be reamed in any way.

~~~~~~~~~

McCall had finished his desert and ordered coffee while Mickey worked his way through a second slice of apple pie a la mode.

"So what long term plans do you have?" McCall asked, "Have you thought what you might do after youíve seen your aunt?"

Mickey pushed his empty dish away and wiped his face with a linen napkin to give himself time to think about his answer. "Iíve thought about it some. There isnít much call for my skills in any legitimate work that I can see."

"What about joining the police? They are always on the lookout for trained people." McCall sipped his coffee, but his eyes never left Mickeyís face.

Mickey got the feeling that the guy was truly interested in what he had to say. In spite of all the crap he had been through over the last months, he found himself liking McCall Ė a lot.

"Be a cop? Naw, I donít think I could cope with the regulation bullshit again. Iíve been thinking about maybe becoming a bounty hunter. More action and less rules."   

McCall smiled before he answered and Mickey had a vague feeling that the guy had steered the conversation in the direction he wanted. "You know, I might have just the thing for someone with your training and expertise, young man. In the course of my investigation into your case I looked at your Navy record. As a SEAL you were trained extensively in the use of weapons and demolitions and you speak several languages. I work for a Company where those talents would be very useful."

This was it, Mickey knew, now they were getting down to the real reason that McCall had gotten him out of prison and spent all the money on him. "Let me get this straight, are we talking ĎThe Companyí here?"

"Yes."

Mickey nodded, "I knew it. Well, what happens if I say no? Do I get my ass hauled back to prison? Or at the very least, do I have to pay back all the money you spent on me this afternoon?" Mickey knew he was coming off as a schmuck but he needed to push McCall to find out exactly where he stood.

The other man smiled and once more Mickey had the feeling that he was sitting opposite a master of manipulation. "No, of course not."

Mickey thought for a moment, there was no way he was going to take up the offer, but he fully intended to get as much payback as he could for all the crap he had endured over the past year. "Tell you what, Iíll think about it and if I like the idea, Iíll call you when I get to New York."

"Fine. "McCall took his napkin off his lap and set it down on the table. "And just to show you that even if you say no, there arenít any hard feelings, Iíve booked you a hotel room for tonight."

Mickey tried not to pay attention to the niggling idea that he was being stage-managed into something. "Thanks."

He was trying to be polite but he really wanted to get away from McCall now. Having satisfied his yen for steak and beer, the kind of entertainment that Mickey had in mind for after-dessert probably wasnít to the taste of a guy like Robert McCall. "Er, McCall, what time did you say your flight back to New York was?"

McCall looked at his watch, "In an hour, Iíve plenty of time to show you where youíre staying tonight. Itís right here, across the street. "

Oh well, Mickey figured he could go back to the room with McCall and then, when he had left for the airport, he could go out and hit a few bars and see if he could rustle up some company.

The hotel was a little flashy for Mickeyís tastes but again, he wasnít paying, so he thought it could be nice to be surrounded by luxury after all the time he wasted in prison and in the jungles of Asia. He signed the card they gave him at the desk.

"Mr. Kostmayer," the fancy schmancy desk clerk looked at Mickeyís signature, "will you be checking out in the morning, or will you require more time?"

Mickey picked up his duffel bag before the bellboy could get a hold of it. "No, Iím on my way tomorrow."

Robert rubbed one finger over his brow, "You know, you could take more time here, if you like."

The feeling that something else was going on kept poking at Mickey. He looked at McCall, but the other man still gave off only pleasant vibes. They followed the bellboy into the elevator. "No," Mickey insisted, feeling antsy now, "Iím on my way to my aunt. Iíve got to get to the bus terminal and see how much the ticket is to Houston early tomorrow."

"Nonsense, " McCall said, as the doors to the elevator closed, "There is a car already rented for you in your name. All you need do is ask the hotel to bring it round."

Mickey stared at McCall. "Youíve already rented it? Pretty sure of me, arenít you?"

McCallís smile was calm. "Iíve learned to cover all my bets, Mr. Kostmayer. In the event that you refused, I would have simply cancelled the car. It would not have been a problem."

They got off at the fifth floor and followed the bellboy along the hallway. He opened the door of the room for the two men. Mickey looked around and hardly noticed McCall slipping money into the bellboyís waiting palm. Shit! It really was a suite and it was as big as the apartment his parents had rented in Brooklyn.

Mickey felt a little in awe, "You didnít need to go to all this trouble, McCall. A simple room would have been okay."

"Not at all, I want you to know that the Company will value your services, that is," he added, "should you decide to join us." McCall looked at his watch again and turned and headed for the door. "I must be going now or Iíll miss my flight."

"Well, McCall," Mickey hesitated, "Well, I donít know what to say. Thanks for everything," he extended his hand, "I appreciate what youíve done for me." Mickey spoke sincerely; he did appreciate the effort that McCall had shown on his behalf.

The two men shook hands. Mickey noted that the handshake was very firm. McCall smiled. "Itís my pleasure and Iíll be waiting for your call." A knock sounded at the door and McCall opened it.

"Ah, Amanda, right on time as always." McCall took the womanís hand and then they exchanged a quick kiss.

Blonde and very classy, Amanda was a real looker. Mickey was amazed. What a guy! McCall certainly had good taste in traveling companions.

Hoping that he wasnít drooling, Mickey watched as Amanda walked further into the room to stand in front of him. She smiled sweetly and, to his amazement, looked him over from stem to stern!

McCall stepped next to him. "Amanda, this is Mickey. Iíll leave him in your capable hands."     

Mickey nearly choked. She was for him?     

"Hi Mickey," Amanda said in a breathy voice, as she ran her hand over his shoulder and down his arm, "Itís so very nice to meet you. I know we are going to have a lovely time together."

Still stunned, he let Amanda take his hand and lead him into the bedroom.     

Much, much later, when he had a moment to catch his breath and think about it, Mickey realized that he hadnít seen or heard McCall leave the hotel room.

~~~~~~~~~

Early the next morning, Mickey waited while the doorman from the hotel loaded his brand new luggage into the trunk and gave the guy five bucks Ė hell it wasnít his money Ė before he climbed into the rented fire-truck red Thunderbird convertible.

McCall had thought of everything. A wad of cash, big enough to choke a horse, had been delivered at breakfast with the new set of luggage. There was also a note telling Mickey that a line of credit had been set up for him with the hotelís menís shop so that he could get himself outfitted for his road trip.

Now Mickey adjusted his new sunglasses, started the engine and, following the doormanís directions, headed for the highway, south out of Kansas City.

A week ago, if anyone had told him that he would wake up this morning in a fancy hotel room paid for by some secretive Brit dandy after probably the best night of his life, he would have laughed in their faces. But that was exactly what had happened.

Mickey knew he was being wined and dined by the Company. He knew that all these perks were supposed to turn his head and seduce him into joining up, but he didnít care. He had never lived so high on the hog before, and found that after the hell that had been his life for so long, he liked the feel of silk sheets and silken thighs surrounding him.

Finally, driving clear of the city limits, he pushed the throttle down hard. As the engine roared its throaty resonance, he fed a cassette into the player and turned up the volume.

At first, he laughed out loud at the feelings of elation that welled up inside, then howled joyfully into the clear blue open sky, vowing to leave the memories of Leavenworth and the shit that had been his life over the past year behind him.

As the miles went by, he began to think through his options. After nine months in prison, protesting his innocence, he had just begun to come to terms with the fact that he would spend ten years of his life behind bars for something he didnít do. But if anything, now that he was free, that increased the sense of injustice that gnawed away at him.

He hadnít killed his buddy Rimsky, but no one from his unit and not even the military counsel sent to defend him, had believed him. And that, Goddamn it, hurt like hell.

He had given the Navy and the SEALS his unbounded loyalty. Since he upped at nineteen he had risked his life, not so much for the cause, but for the men that watched his back every minute of the day. They had become more to him than family; they had become his own blood and bone.

It took a total stranger, McCall, to make the Admiral and his lackeys listen and admit that they had made a mistake. He didnít know how McCall had accomplished that Ė those guys never overturned a conviction Ė but Mickey had the gut feeling that McCall was one of those men who fought for what they believed in and made miracles happen out of the force of their own will. He seemed like a stand up guy and after everything he did for Mickey in front of the tribunal, Mickey knew he would be able to trust Robert McCall. He wouldnít leave any man out to dry the way those Navy bastards had.

Screw the Navy and the SEALS. Screw that he had given his loyalty and risked his life for an organization that had left him to rot on a phony charge of murder. He was a free man now, and Ė goddamn it Ė he was going to make up for all the hard time he had done and all the shit he had taken from the cons in the brig. He was going to grab life with both hands and never leave himself open to being locked up again.

He breathed deeply, calming himself and filling his body with the scent of the open road and freedom, as he felt the beat of the music blaring from the speakers. Normally he wasnít a Beach Boy fan, his taste ran in other directions, but he had heard one of their songs on the prison radio just before he was released. Hearing the same one now, it came to represent freedom to him. The music almost smelled of free will and the joy of life, things that had been drained from him when he was on the inside.

The song made him think of sun and serf Ė and half naked women. And that thought took him right back to the night before Ė and Amanda. She had guaranteed that she would do anything he wanted and by God she had Ė for as many times as he could. A man might live his whole life and never get a chance for a night with a woman like Amanda. Just for that, he owed McCall a debt of undying gratitude.   

Tapping his hands on the steering wheel in time to the music, he looked at his bare arms, bathed in the sunshine that enveloped the convertible. They were startlingly white and pale Ė the skin of a con. Never again, he vowed, never again would he spend his days trapped inside, out of the sun.

He was going to weigh all of his options before he committed himself to anything, but he knew he wasnít going to waste his life being a nine-to-fiver, like his Dad. And he wasnít going to go on his knees to anyone or anything again in his life. Not like his little brother, the priest. Not now, not ever.

Mickey laughed out loud again. The wind had shifted and he felt the shadows of the past year slip slowly away. And as they were blown behind the carís wake, he swore that they would never catch up with him again.

~~~~~~~~~

The drive to Texas was proving relaxing. He took his time, going down side roads and talking to the people he met. All in all Mickey found he was beginning to calm down and regain his Texas roots.

The sun was setting on his third day of freedom when Mickey pulled the car off the road and into the parking lot of the Dew Drop Inn Motel. By his calculations he was still two hundred miles from Houston and if he drove on, it would be too late to visit Aunt Frieda. Nick had said she was in a private nursing home and there was no way they would let him see her in the middle of the night. His game plan was to get a room here and make an early start. That way he could call the home when he got to Houston and find out about visiting hours.

In less than ten minutes he had registered in the motel and, after a quick conversation with the desk clerk, he was back on the road. The woman behind the desk told him the location of a local roadhouse named The Busted Steer, which served a great steak and ice-cold beer. It had been years since Mickey had been to a real Texas bar, and he was looking forward to kicking back and enjoying himself.

When he reached the roadhouse, the dirt road around it that served as a parking lot was filled with vehicles of all types, from a big-rig to a top of the line sports car. The dark night around the juke joint was bursting with the noise of music blaring and the voices of people intent on wringing as much fun as they could out of a few beers and a willing companion.

When Mickey walked through the door, he was nearly overwhelmed by the size of the place and the number of people inside. He had to squint to see through the cigarette smoke that curled up towards the ceiling.

It was almost too much and he had to stop in the doorway for a second to gather his wits. In prison, crowds had been bad news. A crowd was where the shivs and broken bottles came out and blood got spilled. For a moment he considered leaving and finding somewhere else that was quieter to eat, but instead he forced himself to go in. He was out of prison and had to start living like a normal man again.

Spotting a table over on the far side of the room, he headed that way, instinctively selecting a seat against the wall with a clear view of the door. He looked around but no one gave more than a passing glance at him.

He had spent most of his adult life having to watch his back and old habits died hard. He smiled to himself, better old habits than him Ė for sure.

The waitress came over almost at once. She was about the same age as him, slim but busty, around five-six with long auburn hair and feisty green eyes. "Hi there good-lookiní, what can I get you?" she asked with a hundred watt smile.

He almost had to shout to make himself heard above the din. "Iíd like a beer and some food."

"No problem, Hun, be back in a sec with a menu."

He watched her hips sway as she walked back to the bar, pick up a bottle of beer and knock the cap off. Then she picked up a menu in her other hand and headed back his way. She put the beer down and handed him the menu.

"Iíll be right back, sugar." She shot him a wink and sashayed away.

Mickey studied the menu. Laughter from a nearby table of teenagers made him look up, their football jerseys and jackets told Mickey that they must be the local team. For a second Mickey wondered why teens were being sold booze, but he didnít care enough to spend any time on that thought. The boys seemed to be interested in a couple of girls who had just sat down at one of the nearby tables.

The waitress came back and Mickey saw her give him a long appreciative look-over, taking in his short hair and still pale arms. Giving her his biggest and most encouraging smile Mickey asked, "Whatís good to eat here?"

"Well Hun, my nameís Maryann," she patted her hair, "but if youíre talking about the menu, that depends what youíre hungry for."

He looked at her left hand and was disappointed to see a wedding ring on her fourth finger. Even though he was more than a little rusty, and had absolutely no intention of getting involved with a married woman; he decided he might as well have some harmless fun and play the flirting game.

He tried to be charming as hell, "Well, Maryann, itís been a long time since I had something really spicy."

Her smile became even more inviting as she started to write on her order pad. "If thatís the case, I think you ought to try the chili. Itís hotter than hell."

He grinned at her, "Nah, maybe not. I wouldnít want to pick anything too hot for me to handle. How about a nice chicken fried steak?"

"Gee, sugar, Iíd think that there ainít many things thatíre too hot for a man like you to handle," she began to laugh, her voice deep throated and pleased, " But sure thing, if thatís what youíd like, our steaks are good too." She winked at him, "How do you want it?"

"Still breathiní rare, with all the trimmings. And can I have another beer when you bring the steak?"

"Sure Ďnuff. Coming right up."

Mickey watched Maryann wiggle her perky ass as she walked away. He took a mouthful of the beer, savoring the taste. It was ice cold and hit the spot.

Waiting for his food, Mickey slowly began to relax as he looked around. Other than the teen-age football players getting a little too noisy at the other table, he liked the place. Soon, he found his feet tapping in time to the country music coming from the jukebox. Couples were on the dance floor, moving in time to the music, laughing and joking. He seemed to be the only man in the room who wasnít wearing a cowboy hat, but his jeans and plain white t-shirt fitted in just fine. He had also noticed with some amusement, that his childhood Texan accent was returning fast.

The women were all dressed in tight jeans or skirts that swung around them as they walked or danced. He found his eyes following Maryann as she moved around the room, serving customers and clearing away empty bottles, glasses and plates. She was good at her job. She smiled at everyone and avoided the worst of the groping hands with ease and good humor.

Mickey looked at the girls at the next table. They looked even more out of place than he did. He guessed they were about his age too, one was short with shoulder length dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her red pants and yellow short-sleeved shirt stood out in the roadhouse. The other one was taller and, Mickey had to admit, really stacked. She had her black hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her head and her skirt and blouse were creased as though she had been sitting for hours. The way the taller girl was clutching a big, red leather bag made him think that they werenít comfortable.

Mickey moved his glance away when the shorter one looked over in his direction. While he might have been looking for a quick roll in the hay tonight, there was no way he was going near either of them. They were looking around like theyíd never seen the inside of a bar before. He didnít need any complications dealing with naive women right now.

Just for something to do, Mickey moved his chair over a little and tried to eavesdrop on the girlsí conversation. They sounded like they were from the East Coast and he wanted to hear them talk a little more to see if he was right.

The taller one was speaking, "Swell place here. I still donít know, Dot. It looks kinda wild and I feel bad that Iím dressed like a slob."

The smaller one answered, "Oh come on, Angie, weíve been traveling for a week now and after tomorrow weíll be living in your uncleís houseÖ" He couldnít make out the rest.

Well, they were definitely from the East, New Jersey most like from the look of them and their accents. Thinking of the coast made Mickey consider Robert McCallís proposition again.

There were two sides to joining the Company that he could see. One side was that heíd still be taking orders from someone else, still in a military-like setting, which he pretty much had a belly full of. But the other side was that he would still get to do the adrenaline producing stuff, which was the reason he transferred to the SEALís, in the first place. The thought of a boring nine to five existence didnít thrill him at all. He knew it would be torture.

Movement at the next table caught his eye. Angie, the stacked one, was shaking her head at her friend and he heard her say, "Öone beer."

Dot looked a lot peppier and Mickey would just bet that she was the one that got the pair of them up and moving on this trip. Dot said, "Ö or two."

He heard Angie clear as day, "Youíre not gonna think about picking up any guys, right?"

Dot caught his eye for a minute and Mickey quickly looked away, acting as though he was just taking in the roomful of people. He didnít want her to think that he was in the least interested.

He heard Dotís voice, sounding disappointed, "Right. No guys tonight Ė just some food and a beer. Then we go to the room and get some sleep to be all fresh and respectable for your Dadís brother."

Hearing her thought, Mickey couldnít help but chuckle bitterly. Respectable wasnít even a word in his vocabulary anymore! He took another draw from his beer. Any hope he had to be respectable was long gone from his life. His only skills were killing people and surviving in the jungle Ė or prison. Not exactly the résumé of a respectable man. Angry, he set his beer back down on the table with a loud thump. He might have been proven innocent but his life had still been screwed by the system.

Before he could get too wound up Maryann came back with a plate heaped with food and his second beer.

"Here you go, Sugar. Enjoy. And if you want anything else, just give me a holler."

Mickey winked at her, "Sure thing."

He set the plate in front of him and started chowing down. The steak came with fries and Mickey couldnít be sure, but he thought that sitting in that roadhouse, stuffing his face with great food, was as close to heaven as he was going to get.

From the corner of his eye Mickey saw Dot grab Angie by the arm and shake her. "Come on, have fun. Loosen up, Angie."

He had cut into his steak when Angie protested, a little too loudly, "I am loose."

He tried to squash the grin that threatened to break out on his face at that statement, and the football players must have heard her comment also, because they roared with laughter.

As he concentrated on his food, Maryann passed him and went to the table where the girls from Jersey were sitting. Mickey could hear her easily. "How yíall doing? Díyou want to order something to eat now?"

Dot gave Maryann a friendly grin and said something that Mickey didnít catch. Maryann stood by their table, talking to the girls but Mickey deliberately tuned them out until he heard Angie mention the Dew Drop Inn Motel, his motel

Finally, he overheard Maryann say, "Iíll go get you girls another beer while you wait for the food."

Concentrating on eating slowly, Mickey looked around him; the football players were still looking at the girls and laughing. Mickey shrugged, somehow he didnít think that Angie and Dot were interested in kids. In fact, he wasnít sure that Angie would be interested at all. But Dot on the other handÖ

Forgetting himself, Mickey let his gaze rest on the busty one, Angie, for too long and she saw him staring. She began to blush furiously and Mickey looked away and went back to the last of his steak.

What the hell was with him anyway? He knew better than to be obvious about looking at anyone. He had learned that lesson in Leavenworth.

His head facing his food, Mickey could see Maryann go the girlsí table. She brought them a bottle of beer each.

"You two gonna be able to stick around town for the football game on Saturday?" Her voice carried well, Mickey could hear everything easily. "Our little townís finally got a team that good enough to get us in the running for the State championship." She pointed over to the table of kids, "The boys from the team want to buy you two this round."

Mickey glanced up. The boys began to make fools of themselves by waving and grinning to the girls.

"Heck!" Dot exclaimed loud enough for everyone in that section to hear, "They donít look old enough to stay out at night, much less drink. Tell them no thanks, my friend and I pay for our own beer."

Maryann looked over at the biggest of the boys and shook her head and shrugged.

Mickey was finished with dinner and took the opportunity to wave at Maryann. She scooted over right away. "Anything else? We got some real good homemade apple pie."

Mickey grinned and patted his stomach. "Yeah, why not, Iíve got a little more room left. And another beer?"

"Sure thing, handsome." Maryann stared at him for a moment, and then asked, "Mind if I take a load off for a second?"

"Not at all," Mickey said as he stood up and pulled a chair out for her to sit in.

Maryann, eyebrows lifted in surprise, sat down, "Youíre not from around here either are you?" she asked.

"Well, I was born in Houston."

"You donít sound like youíre from Texas." She looked at him with more interest.

"IĎve been away for a while."

Maryann nodded knowingly, "I guessed from your haircut. You in the Army?"

"Nah. I was in the Navy, but not any more."

Maryann hesitated for a moment and then asked, "Were you in Vietnam?"

Mickey nodded.

"Yeah. You got that look, that haunted look my baby brother had when he got out." She took Mickeyís hand. "So, whereíre you headed?"

"Iíve got a job offer in New York City, where I lived before I upped."

"Hey Maryann, pick up!" the bartender shouted from half way across the room, "We got food here for table sixteen."

With a sad smile she stood up. "Sorry, I gotta go." She hurried off to the kitchen and in moments was back with two heaped plates that she set in front of Dot and Angie.

Then one of the boys from the football teamís table got up and walked over to Maryann. He spoke to her and the waitress shook her head. The boy seemed insistent and she shrugged and then went back to the kitchen.

When she came back, she brought Mickey a huge piece of apple pie and his beer before taking two more bottles over to the girlsí table.

"Here ya go ladies. The football team insists that they pay for this round."

Mickey ate his pie and, feeling content, he watched the goings on.

Dot glared at the boys, "No. Theyíve been making rude comments all night. We heard them and wonít accept anything from those kids."

Angie chimed in, more loudly than Mickey had heard her talk all evening, "We pay for our own drinks. Tell the dumb jocks we donít want their beer."

Dot patted her friendís hand, "Donít get upset, Angie. Weíll be out of this town by morning and weíll never think of them big dummies again." She looked around at the boys and laughed, "They are big guys arenít they?"

Mickey felt the slightest tingle of trouble coming.

One of the boys, the biggest one and a real bruiser, made his way closer to Dot. "Well Miss," he leered, "you know what they say? They grow Ďem big in Texas." He prodded his hips closer to her and Mickey could see Dot move back. "Yaí get my drift?"

Mickey was watching the other table outright now. He knew it was none of his business, and he didnít want to take on any trouble but something in him wouldnít let him stay disinterested.

A few other boys had gotten up from their table now and they moved closer, listening to what was going on with the girls.

Angie spoke, "Donít pay the big ape any attention, Dot."

"Oohh Kevin," one of the other boys taunted, "You gonna take that from her?

Another one jeered, "She got you good there. I guess she donít know who we are."

From the way he was swaying, Mickey could tell that Kevin was very drunk; he slurred his words, "Dot? What kinda name is Dot? Is it cause you let lotsa men have a poke at ya?"

The boys hooted with laughter.

Angie turned and spoke loudly to the kid, "Jesus, what a punk. Ya canít be polite to some people." She waved her hands, "Scram, beat it. Go peddle your papers elsewhere."

Her outburst had startled Mickey. He hadnít expected her to be so forceful.

A boy still sitting at the table called out, "Come on Kev. Forgetíem. We donít want trouble tonight!"

Kevin turned quickly, nearly toppling over, "Hey Frank, why you defending these Yankee tramps? Look at Ďem." With care, he walked slowly around the table, staring at Angieís chest, "Lookie this heiferís hooters! They ready to pop out!"

Mickey remained in his chair; the kid was rude, but there was still no real reason to get involved Ė yet. Angie looked like she was about to cry, and Dot stepped in between her and Kevin. "I think we ought to leave, Angie. I can see this place is full of juvenile idiots."

It took a while for her words to sink into his drunken brain but suddenly Kevin realized that they had been insulted, "Youí all oughta have more respect for the countyís best football tight end."

"Tight end?" Dot shrieked, "Is that where you keep your brains, Bub?"

Angie was getting up from her chair before another of the boys put his hands on her, "Looks like youíd give a well-hung young stud a fine ride."

Mickey was going to teach the kid a lesson in manners when Angie shoved his hands away, proving that she could take care of herself like every other Jersey girl that Mickey had ever known, "Watch your dirty hands. And watch your mouth when you talk to me. You kiss your mother with that filthy mouth?"

Dot spoke again, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Hell, from what I heard about these Southern boys, they do more then just kiss their mamas."

Kevin exploded, "Why you slut!" and drunkenly lifted his fist.

Mickey was just about to jump from his chair, but before he could the bartender was in the middle of the group, a baseball bat pushed into Kevinís chest. "Now Kev, donít start no problem. It wonít be good for the captain of the winning team to get into trouble."

Kevin looked hard at the bartender and then calmed down. "No problemo here. Weíre cool. We was just trying to be friendly to theseÖ ladies.

"Okay boys, go back to your table and Iíll treat you to some of my fried chicken, on the house."

After a couple of seconds the boys began to shuffle back to their table. Mickey saw that Maryann had her arms around Dot and Angie and was talking quietly to them but he couldnít hear a word that was being said.

Dot brought out her wallet and pushed some bills into Maryannís hand, shaking her head when Maryann tried to hand the money back. Angie was busy looking in her huge bag and he could just make out the words "Whereíre the keys?"

With a little wave at Maryann, the two women left the roadhouse and Mickey leaned back in his chair. The action was over.

A few minutes later, as he was finishing up the last of his beer, Mickey waved to Maryann for the check. The boys at the table were still grumbling as they finished their drinks and got up to leave. Mickey saw the bartender hand them a big bucket of chicken as they walked past him heading for the door.

One of the boys was slower than the rest and remained at the table with an unhappy expression on his face. He and Mickey exchanged looks before the kid scowled, grabbed his jacket and hurried outside to catch up with his buddies.

Maryann brought his check and Mickey said, "What was that all about?"

"Just some local kids feeling their oats." She gave Mickey a very friendly smile, "You know what thatís like, a nice looking fella like you. Iíd guess youíre not the type to refuse a fun time and a night on cool sheets with a warm woman. Am I right, handsome?"

Mickey smiled, "Look Maryann, youíre real pretty but Iíve seen your ring and I donít plough another manís field -- if you get my drift."

Maryann set her rosy lips in a pout. "You sure, sugar? My old manís been away on a long haul, and Iím feeling mighty lonesome."

Mickey stood up, dropping some bills on the table. "I donít need those kind of complications right now, darliní." Giving her a quick peck on the cheek, he headed out of the roadhouse, feeling pretty damn good.

~~~~~~~~~

He took deep breaths of the fresh night air. There was a high full moon and Mickey spent some time trying to remember the last time he had seen the full moon over an American night sky. He reached his car and stopped to look around. He was far enough away from the roadhouse for the  noise and light spilling from it not to bother him.

He hooked one hip on the door of his car, leaning for a moment, just appreciating his freedom to enjoy all of this. He was never going back to jail, not ever.

Getting into the car, he started the engine and moved along the road that led back to his motel, driving slowly, savoring the peace. Occasionally, he could see the eyes of animals reflected in his headlights as he followed the quiet country road.

About a mile from the roadhouse, he saw two cars pulled up to the side. His first thought was that they belonged to some kids that were necking, but it was unusual to see make-out cars parked so close together. Couples usually wanted some privacy.

When he saw that one of the cars had a Jersey license plate, warning bells began to ring. He slowed down and stopped behind the cars, noticing that the ground around them was scuffed up as though they had gone off the road quickly.

Wishing that he had a weapon, he got out of the Thunderbird. As much as he wanted to get back into his car and carry on as though nothing had happened, his conscience wouldnít let him. He had a strong feeling that the girls from the roadhouse were in trouble and he just couldnít leave them.

He went to the car with the New Jersey plates. The door had been left partially opened, The keys were still in the ignition, and a couple of high school jackets were lying on the back seat. He picked one up and under it he saw the big red bag that Angie had been holding onto all evening.

Not a good sign.

Looking around, he still couldnít see anyone, so he walked over to the other car. the keys were still in the ignition here too and the bright yellow blouse that Dot had been wearing was lying torn on the back seat.

Snake eyes.

He stopped short, something that sounded like voices drifted towards him from way off in the woods.

Dropping the blouse, he turned towards the trees. Part of his mind was telling him to get back in his car and leave Ė it wasnít any of his business. The girls might be just fine. Maybe they had changed their minds and were having some fun with the football players.

Suddenly he heard Angieís voice shriek Dotís name and his mind was made up. They were in trouble.

Wishing that he had grown callous enough to leave and not care about anyone elseís troubles, Mickey headed silently into the trees.

The shouting grew louder and he tracked them purely by sound. Even though the full moon was casting plenty of light, the shadows among the trees were making it difficult for him to see much of anything.

Memories of night patrols during the war suddenly flashed through his mind. The night had belonged to the VC and a momentís carelessness would mean you were dead or, maybe worse, captured. Move and kill silently. That was what he knew, that was what had kept him alive.

Putting his heel down first and then the rest of his foot, he made sure that he made no sound, though with the noise the group was making he could charge through like a bull elephant and they wouldnít hear a thing.

Finally, he reached a break in the trees and in a moonlit clearing he could see about six boys standing in a ring. They were flinging the terrified girls around from one to the other, shouting taunts, pulling at their torn clothing.

Dot was pushed up against one of the boys, who grabbed her around the waist and shouted, "Not so smart-mouthed now, are you bitch?" He pitched her into the middle of he circle again.

Staggering from the push, wearing only her pants and bra, Dot cringed, keeping her arms crossed in front of her chest, trying to cover herself.

Shit! Mickey cursed, now Iím going to get involved with a bunch of drunken kids and have to remind them of their manners? Damn it, Iím not anybodyís MP! He readied himself to tear into the group anyway.

One boy was standing outside the circle of teens. "No! Donít!" he yelled.

Mickey stopped short. He recognized the one yelling as the teen that had tried to calm the group down at the roadhouse. Maybe the kids would come to their own senses and he wouldnít have to become involved.

"Stop everybody! You donít want to do this!" the kid shouted, looking around at his teammates.

"Shut up Frankie! You little wussy!" Another voice shouted out. It was Kevin, the biggest of the kids and the ringleader.

Frankie looked crestfallen and he turned his back on the group and sat down by a tree.

"Weíre gonna have some fun with these two." Kevin pushed his way into the ring and grabbed Dot by the wrist, pulling her towards him, pushing his face onto hers. "You shoulda been nicer to us!"

Even from where he was standing, Mickey could see that the drunken boys were past the point of realizing what they were doing. Unarmed, and up against six young males in their prime, Mickey kept a cool head. He needed to have some sort of plan. If he simply ran in to bust the group up now, he would be out muscled.

"Get off me you stupid, bastard," Dot cried hysterically and pushed him away.

Kevin staggered and nearly fell. That seemed to enrage him and he swung his hand up in the air and held it there menacingly. Dot looked up at the hand poised to strike and screamed in fear.

"No!" Angie shrieked as Dotís knees gave way.

Both of the girlís cries were drowned out by the other boys cheering, "Go on Kev, hit her, thatíll show her whoís boss."

Kevin stood over Dot, his fist sill raised high in the air, seeming to enjoy her cowering at his feet.

"No, Kev Donít!" Frankís voice rang out from the side, "You swore youíd never ht a woman, that youíd never be like your Dad."

Kevin hesitated; his friendís words seemed to affect him.

By now Mickey had crept to within ten feet of the group, he had the idea that the way to stop all of this was to take Kevin out. Without his leadership the others might back off easily.

Suddenly, one of the boys grabbed at the shoulder of Angieís blouse, tearing it half off her, partially exposing her enormous breasts.

All of the boys, including Kevin, howled approval. A couple of the troupe tore at her skirt and pushed her down on her back while Kevin dropped his fist to his side, reaching his huge arms out to Dot, pulling her up, engulfing her. He ground his body onto her, his mouth crushing onto her face.

The remaining boys were all cheering the action on.

Thatís it! God damn it! Time to move!

Without thinking, Mickey stepped into the clearing, poised on his toes, his fists balled at his side. "Stop this!" he bellowed at he top of his lungs. He was going to stop the kids, but he was intent on giving them a chance to come to their senses.

All of the boys stopped and looked at Mickey with glazed eyes. Beside a tree, at the edge of the clearing, Mickey saw that Frankie was staring at him, his mouth open in surprise.

In the middle of undoing his fly, Kevin glared drunkenly at Mickey, "Iíd get the hell out of here, pal. This is a private party," he said, his voice dripping with malice.

Mickey looked back at Kevin, letting the ringleader see from his expression that he wasnít going to back down. "Looks like the women donít want to be here." Mickey let his eyes set on each of the football team. "You boys are drunk and have made a bad mistake tonight. Just let them go before you do anything more that youíll regret for the rest of your lives."

The girls were weeping and the boys seemed to hesitate. But then Kevin sent a signal with his eyes to one of the bigger boys. Kevin zipped up and they both moved closer to Mickey.

"This is your last chance." Kevin sneered, " You got no right to throw your weight around here, man. Get lost now."

Mickey glared at him, "I donít think so."

Before Kevin had done more than raise his arm, Mickey stepped quickly to one side twisted and kicked out, catching the kid square in the balls. The teen folded and Mickey had just enough time to see him fall in a heap before the rest of the group of boys came at him, bellowing in rage. They managed to land a couple of powerful blows before Mickey stopped thinking and reacted instinctively.

Time slowed and he found himself moving automatically. It was as though the fight was happening to someone else. Nothing reached him; he felt no pain even though he knew that blows were landing. There were just sensations and sounds. His hands were slippery with blood where he had broken someoneís nose and the snap of broken bones barely registered on his consciousness.

He wasnít sure how much later it was when he came out of his fighting fog. He was the only one left standing. All the boys were out for the count, on the ground and moaning softly. Dot and Angie had gotten up sometime during the fight and were huddled together against one of the trees, whimpering. Their eyes were wide with fear Ė towards him.

Mickey looked at his hands; his knuckles were raw and bleeding. He could feel blood trickling down from his lip and the corner of his eyebrow. His ribs ached. He guessed he couldnít blame the girls for thinking they were in as much danger from him as they were from the group of boys. He knew that when he was enraged he was barely human, only remembering shadows of what he had done.

He looked over at the girls and made an effort to soften his voice, "Are you okay?"

They moved closer to him but stayed huddled together.

"Thanks to you," Dot said. Her voice was trembling and she avoided meeting his eyes. "If you hadnít got involved, they would have raped us and maybe worse." Taking a deep breath, she raised her gaze to his face. "Youíre bleeding."

"Iíll be fine." He pointed into the trees, "Your car is that way and the keys are in it." Mickey spoke slowly, both girls looked as if shock might set in soon. "Thereís a phone a quarter mile back, I want you to call the sheriffís office and explain what happened. Iíll wait here to keep an eye on this garbage."

Dot looked the boys over, swallowed hard, and then nodded. Mickey had figured that she would bounce back quicker than Angie, who was still crying gently. Dot let her friend lean on her as they made their way back to the car.

When the girls had gone, Mickey walked around the group of wounded boys. A couple of them were sitting up now, moving their arms and legs carefully to see how much they were hurt.

Kevin was lying there in the middle of the group, cursing. One look at the awkward angle of his leg told Mickey that it was broken and the paleness and sheen of sweat on his face said that he was hurting.

Frankie was still sitting by the tree with his head in his hands, shaking. Mickey crouched down and tapped him on the shoulder, "Hey! You okay?"

The boy flinched and looked up, his eyes filled with tears, "Stay away from me."

"Itís okay Iím not going to hurt you."

Mickey got up and walked around the perimeter of the clearing, looking around at the damage he had done. One of the kids was sitting, staring in shock at his fingers, covered in blood from his broken nose. Another was looking at the ground, clearly not able to say or do anything just yet. None of the kids looked like they needed emergency triage. Good.

Mickey shook his head as the adrenaline rush subsided. He was only around a year older than these guys when he had seen his first man killed in Vietnam.

He took a position by a tree to stand sentry, making sure none of the boys tried to leave.

He had a sneaking suspicion that he wouldnít be seeing Aunt Frieda anytime soon.

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