Though he didn’t hear anything unusual, Fitz instantly knew he was in trouble. The back end of his Silverado began to wander, and he carefully eased off the gas pedal and aimed for the side of the road. It wasn’t too difficult to bring the truck to a stop. He hopped out, pulled a small flashlight out of his left pocket, and quickly found the culprit. His left rear tire was shredded.
Fitz sighed. It was one o’clock in the morning on a lonely stretch of Route 301 south of Petersburg. At this time of day, he was unlikely to get any help, nor did he expect anyone to bother him. Not that he needed any help to change a flat, but it was going to be a pain to keep the light on his work. He wished he still had the LED headlamp the Army had issued him, but he had to give it back when he retired. Resolute, Fitz clamped the flashlight between his lips and opened the tailgate. If he was lucky, he’d get the tire changed and be back in D.C. before the sun came up.
Yesterday had been his 50th birthday. He’d headed down to Rocky Neck to meet up with his best friend and his wife, who had taken him out to dinner. They’d also given him a big birthday cake, which was sitting uncovered on his back seat. They didn’t have any room left after dinner, so Fitz just put it in the back seat and tried not to slam on the brakes during his trip home. The cake was sort of a joke, as his friend knew he didn’t really like sweets, but he could share it with his coworkers on Monday morning.
He worked at an unhurried pace. The road was deserted, and only the sounds of crickets and the hum of Route 95 in the distance could be heard. The last of the lug nuts refused to be moved, and he grunted as he strained against it. Finally it gave way. Fitz breathed out his frustration, and tossed the wrench into the back seat. He realized a moment later that the cake was still there, and he stood up to look. Sure enough, the pointy end of the wrench had impaled the cake, right through the strawberry-flavored zero.
He considered chucking the cake into the culvert, but decided to keep it and eat at least one piece. He moved the icing-encrusted wrench and went to the back to grab a paper towel. He paused at the tailgate. The crickets had stopped chirping. He put the wrench down and scanned the area with his flashlight. His right hand moved to the .45-caliber Springfield on his hip. There was nothing. He wiped off the wrench and grabbed the jack. Sitting ungracefully on the asphalt, he maneuvered the device into place. The old tire was ruined; the sidewall had completely separated. He began to wonder if this wasn’t a good time to get four new tires, rather than just replace this one. He’d have to measure the tread to be sure…
For a split second, Fitz thought he’d been stung by a bee on his shoulder. An instant later, every nerve ending in his body was on fire. He spasmed uncontrollably for two or three seconds before being engulfed by unconsciousness.
An indeterminable time later, he awoke. He was inside a garage, zip-tied to an old office chair. His head rang like the bells of Saint Mary’s and his bones ached. Through the windows in the garage door, he could see a street light. He sensed he wasn’t far from his truck. The inside of the garage was mostly dark. Fitz could feel something on his head, and realized a moment later that there was something stuck in his left ear. The chair wasn’t fixed to the floor, so he swiveled around to look at the rest of the room. There was a dog, some sort of shaggy mutt, hog-tied and gagged in the middle of the floor. There was also someone in the back, shrouded in shadows. A very strange noise met his ears, sort of a combination of growling and a long sigh, with a flanging echo.
“Can you understand me?”
The words hadn’t come from the back of the garage, but from the thing stuck in his ear. Fitz considered his options. The person had doubtlessly taken possession of his Springfield, so even though he figured he could stand up and rush him, chair and all, it would probably be suicide. That or the person would just tase him again. He decided compliance was his only option for now, but he would look for an opportunity to fight back. Fitz had always been a big dude, and he was in relatively good shape for his age. Take the weapons out of the equation and this guy would have his hands full.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Good. Here comes the interesting part.”
“Look, pal. I have a five hundred dollar a day limit on my bank card. Why don’t we drive to an ATM and I’ll get you the money? You get that, my truck, and a nice pistol. Not a bad haul for one day.”
The thing on his head got slightly warmer, and seemed to buzz with an almost imperceptible electrical current. Fitz felt his adrenaline fade away, and he suddenly stopped worrying about getting hurt.
“Wouldn’t you rather be my friend?” asked the strange voice.
That sounded like a great idea. His adrenaline came back, but this time he was excited. He’d just made a new best friend! What was he so concerned about a minute ago?
“Cool! Hey, I’m James. What’s your name?”
The figure silently drew beside him and cut the zip-ties. He handed Fitz the knife, which was his own Kershaw folder.
“Why don’t you give yourself a shallow laceration on the outside of your leg?”
“You got it.”
Fitz ran the blade of his knife along his thigh, easily slicing through his jeans and into his flesh. It hurt like hell, but since his new best friend has asked, he didn’t mind.
“That’s good enough, James. Wipe off the blade and give it back to me.”
Doing, so, he noticed that the person was wearing fuzzy winter gloves. Something in the back of his mind was telling him to stop the bleeding. He figured he’d better wait until he was told.
“One more thing, James. Your firearm is on the table over there. I want you to kill that animal.”
Without hesitation, Fitz grabbed his Springfield and shot the dog in the head. His right ear went deaf, but his left seemed to be protected by the device. He put his pistol back on the shelf. The figure emerged from the shadows. Fitz smiled. The man was not a man. It had a humanoid body but the head of a panther. Its feline eyes glinted in the low light, and its shiny black fur was perfectly groomed. Fitz was thrilled. His new best friend was a seven foot tall anthropomorphic cat! Eat your heart out, Calvin.
“My name is Thel Maktar. From now on you will do only as I say. First of all, never remove the device attached to your head, and never mention me to anyone unless I instruct you otherwise. Clear?”
This was just fine with Fitz. “You got it, boss.”
Maktar bared his fangs, apparently in a smile. “Good, because we have a lot of work to do.”