Mack and Sam talked more as their journey continued. It helped to pass the time; even Sam's book and Mack's iPod and Gameboy got tiresome after awhile. It was around three in the afternoon when the bus pulled into a station. They would change buses here. Mack put on his coat so it would be fewer things for him to carry in. Sam seemed to travel lighter, he didn't even have a suitcase; the only clothes he seemed to have were the ones he was wearing.
They were somewhere in Oklahoma City at the bus terminal, Mack and Sam headed inside. Sam's cell rang and he said he'd meet Mack inside in the café. Sam stood outside, talking on his phone. Mack walked into the terminal, looking for which bay held the bus to LA and Bakersfield.
Inside the terminal, a wiry, somewhat seedy looking man with ash brown hair, a thin mousy brown mustache, and a couple days worth of stubble was looking through the group of new arrivals through hazel eyes. He was sizing them up, seeing which would be an easy mark. There were several women who looked like easy prey, but Chris Smart preferred to follow a young man into the bathroom and rob them when their pants were down; literally. Chris had been doing this in various bus terminals in other cities in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado and Arkansas. He had scored quite a bit, stealing identities and using their credit cards. Often they had cash, too. Terminals like these were easy. Security was usually not that great; people traveling by bus or train usually didn't have as much money, but they were far more vulnerable than those at airports. Chris was too smart to go after someone there. A few credit cards and a wallet full of cash wasn't worth being nailed as a terrorist. Bus terminals were the best; all he had to do was hang out for a day or so to learn the rhythms and see how lax the security was. This one had an elderly guy who was pretty strict, but he watched the lobby during the graveyard shift. At the moment, some love struck kid had the shift and he was at this moment in the café trying to get in one of the waitress' pants. This meant that now would be a good time to look for potential victims.
Chris waited until his mark went to the bathroom; if the place was empty and the mark was using a urinal, he'd put a knife to his throat while he took his wallet. He would pull the guy's pants down, push him over and before the victim could recover he'd be gone. Sometimes Chris kicked in the stall door and, using their surprise to his advantage, point a knife in their face and demand their valuables.
The scruffy looking kid with the goatee who just came off the bus didn't look all that vulnerable, but he was alone, and he guarded that backpack just a little too well. Chris figured that any valuables he might have were in it, but he checked out his rear just to be sure. The kid didn't have the bulge of a wallet in his back pocket; it must be in the backpack not the suitcase. The way the kid held the small soft-sided suitcase told Christ that there wasn't anything in there worth stealing. Chris followed him into the bathroom and sure enough, the kid went into a stall. Chris took the stall next to his and waited. Most of the men in the bathroom, Chris knew, would use the urinals and be gone in few moments. Some of the guys coming off these buses, like this kid, spent awhile in the stalls, taking a long dump or jacking off or better still, both. This meant that those who might also be using the stalls would be in the middle of something during his attack and those that just had to take a piss would be long gone, probably in the nearest food vendor or on a telephone. Chris knew better than to try this kind of thing when there was more than a couple of buses arriving at the same time as there would be too many men using the restroom.
Chris waited and sure enough, the crowd in the restroom thinned out and left. Chris waited a little longer for stragglers, but none came in. He made noises like he was wiping and buckled up, flushed and left. Just outside the door, Chris paused and looked around. No one was headed toward the bathroom, the lobby was generally clear, lover boy with the security badge was still trying to get some action and other than his mark in the bathroom, it was empty. Perfect!
Wasting no time, Chris went back into the men's room and stopped outside of the stall. He raised a foot and kicked hard. The door was weak and caved in easily, much more easily than Chris had expected. It usually took twice before the door buckled and gave way.
Inside the stall, Mack was cleaning himself. He looked up, at first shocked. The intruder seemed to know exactly what he was after. He broke in, scanned the stall and took the backpack while Mack had just managed to shout in indignation.
The thief pointed a blade at Mack's chest and said, "Stick your legs out straight in front of you!" Mack hesitated and the thief moved the knife toward Mack's throat and repeated his demand. Mack glared at him, then complied. The thief then pulled the waistband of the jeans and underwear down, turning the legs inside out until Mack's feet were inside the jeans. He grabbed a long cable zip tie from his pants pocket, this was something new he was trying and hoped it would work. He handed it to the kid and put the knife point right at his Adam's apple.
"Put it around your ankles and zip it up and you won't get hurt, get it?" Chris hissed and moved the knife to the side of the kid's throat to allow him to follow the order.
Mack angrily complied.
Chris knew the kid would be too embarrassed to hop out naked into the lobby after him and that it would take him the better part of a minute to get a pocket knife out to cut the cable tie. He'd be out the door by then.
"Nice doin' business with ya!" Chris laughed.
The thief, having grabbed the backpack and temporarily immobilizing his victim, now made a quick move to the exit. He reached the restroom door, the kid yelling obscenities after him and trying to free himself. Chris opened the door quietly, putting the knife in his pocket, and looked out into the lobby. No one was between him and the exit, in fact the lobby was empty except for people on the phone and they weren't paying attention to the yells coming from the bathroom. The homeless came into the terminal to use the bathrooms and it wasn't unusual for some of the less mentally stable to yell and carry on in the bathroom. Chris moved quickly to the lobby doors and made his way out.
From out of nowhere a huge hand grabbed his shoulder as he quickly rounded the corner into a side alley. The hand swiftly pulled him into a half nelson hold, another leather clad arm wrapped around his throat. The voice was calm, icy cold, and deep. "Drop the pack and I won't break your scrawny little neck."
"Let me go, fucker!" Chris managed to squeak out.
"Drop it or I'll gut you, right here on the street. " The voice said and now there was a deeper tone to it and a very low growl followed the command. The grip around Chris' neck tightened and he could feel the blood being cut off.
Chris reached for the knife in his pocket.
"Not a good idea." The deepening voice said coldly. Almost conversationally it continued, "You couldn't stick me fast enough before I snapped your neck." The pressure increased.
Seeing that he was getting nowhere, and that this guy was probably insane enough to do just what he suggested; Chris removed his hand from his pocket slowly, without the knife.
Chris raised his hand in full view of the ape that had a choke hold on his throat and a tight grip on his arm and was firmly pushing up on it behind his back. He grabbed the shoulder strap of the pack and dropped the pack gently to the ground. Immediately the grip was released and he was shoved away, sending him tumbling to the ground. Chris turned to see a huge bearded man dressed like a biker scooping up the backpack. The guy had to be four feet across at the shoulder and at least seven and a half feet tall, his fear magnifying the biker's size. He looked mean too, and even if he wasn't as big as Chris' fear made him, he was more than big enough. Chris decided to cut his losses and make a run for it.
"Now get the fuck out of here before I decide to make you my special project," the huge man said in no more than a normal speaking voice.
Chris stumbled to his feet and ran, rubbing his bruised throat.
By the time Mack had managed to get himself free and put his clothes back in order so that he could go after the thief he was sure the guy was many blocks away. He rushed out of the bathroom, his suitcase in hand, only to find Sam standing there, holding his backpack.
"I think ya lost somethin'?" Sam said with a huge grin on his face.
He handed the backpack to the young man. Mack took the pack and impulsively grabbed Sam around the middle as far around as he could reach and gave him a tight hug.
"Thanks, man!" Mack said and Sam wrapped his huge arms around the young man and hugged him back.
"My pleasure," Sam replied.
With his nose so close to Sam's chest, he took in the big man's scent. There was that musky 'animal' scent again, mixed with the smell of unwashed male. The undertone scent seemed stronger, but oddly for a young man who'd never made love with another man, he found the musky male scent sent excited chills down his spine that went straight to his balls and made them tingle. Mack was getting hard and moved to break the hug strategically, yet casually, moving the pack between his crotch and Sam's eyes long enough so that his erection could subside.
Sam released Mack from the embrace and Mack looked up into the big man's face. Sam was only about a foot taller than Mack, but at this moment, he seemed like a giant, a god, a savior who had just found Mack's dignity and returned it to him.
"How…?" Mack began and Sam cut him off.
"I caught the guy as he was runnin' out the door. I saw him from the outside makin' a B-line for the doors an' saw he had your backpack. I stepped over behind the brickwork so he couldn't see me an' waited. He wasn't too reluctant when I asked him nicely for it."
Sam smiled innocently though his bushy mustache, his white teeth gleaming.
"Look, Mack, I think it would be best if I rented a car an' you an' I head out to Flagstaff so I can pick up my scoot instead of riding the dog any more. Then you can ride out to Bakersfield sittin' behind me… there's nothin' like seein' the country on a hawg." Sam said merrily.
"I dunno, shouldn't we file a police report or something?" Mack said.
"On that guy?" Sam asked with a little laugh, "Why? He's an amateur, he almost got caught this time an' he'll probably be caught soon enough."
"But..." Mack began and Sam cut him off.
"Look, I really don't wanna delay my trip by sitting in a police station filling out reports. Do you? They won't do anything much anyway, you got your pack back, and he's probably not going to try ta do that again soon; an' if he does, he's someone else's problem. He's probably crawled back under whatever rock he came from by now. Forget about him. Look, come with me! A car is gonna be a whole lot more comfortable than that bus." Sam said.
"Sam, we just met yesterday, I hardly know you." Mack said.
"Yeah? Well actually we met about twenty years ago, Mack. Had a piece of your birthday cake, watched you blow out the candle. If I remember right, the cake hand clowns on it. I remember it was chocolate with cherry cream filling. I'm sure you don't remember me, but I remember you. I'm very good friends with your Uncle Russ, real good friends." Sam said. "I'm gonna cut through the cloak and dagger stuff, here's my proof."
Sam took out the cell phone and dialed a number. He waited and then said, "Hey Russ, it's Sam. Look, Mack here is kinda reluctant to ride with me an' I suppose that's to be expected." there was a pause as Sam listened, "No, we're not in Amarillo. Oklahoma City, I'll explain later when we have time to talk. Here, I'm putting Mack on, tell him I'm on the up an' up, OK?" There was another pause, "Yeah, it'll make our trip faster an' more comfortable. Tell him about the birthday, when you an' your homophobic brother were still talkin', right before your dad died."
Sam handed the phone to Mack and sure enough, his Uncle Russ answered.
"Hey Mack!" Russ' cheerful voice came through the phone.
"Hi, Uncle Russ."
"Look, Mack, you can trust Sam. He was with me when I visited you on your third birthday, but you probably don't remember. He looked different then too, clean shaved, short hair and in a black business suit." Russ said and Mack searched his memory. He vaguely remembered a large man in a dark suit, but always thought that was another uncle, one of his mom's brothers. His mom's side were better off than his dad's, his Uncle Richard owned his own successful medical practice. He was used to seeing his mom's brothers dressed up.
"I asked Sam if he wouldn't mind traveling with you out to California when I knew you were coming. He was back east and agreed to come out with you." Russ said.
"Why?" Mack asked.
"Because I thought it might be best. I love you Mack, you're my favorite nephew, I wanted someone watching over you. Sam thought it was a good idea too." Russ said. "Are you OK with that, Mack? Sam will take good care of you."
"Yeah… Yeah, I'm OK with that… you both were doing what you thought was right." Mack said. “But...”
"Look, Mack, I've gotta run. I'll see you when you get here, OK?" Russ said.
"Yeah, OK, Uncle Russ." Mack said.
"I love you Mack, remember that. Now, I gotta go, g'bye." Russ said.
"OK, I will, g'bye." Mack said and the phone disconnected.
Mack handed the phone back to Sam.
"See, Mack, I'm really not a stranger. You're uncle cares a lot about you an' I was literally in the neighborhood. I gave him a call from Virginia 'bout the time you told him you were comin' out on the bus an' he asked me if I'd keep an eye on you," Sam said
"Look, I don't need protection. I'm not a kid anymore," Mack said and Sam could tell he was hurt.
"I know you are. You're a grown man, goatee an' all with a couple days scruff on your face too, but even a combat veteran needs a buddy to watch his back in a fight. It's not that your uncle doesn't think you're a man. Russ figured I was big enough to discourage anyone from muggin' you. That punk who stole your pack is the kind of thing I'm here for. I'm your buddy, I'm here ta make your trip easier." Sam smiled a big toothy smile.
"Oh, but you don't need an escort?" Mack said and the illogic of what he'd just said was obvious even to him.
Sam replied tolerantly,"No, not usually; most people give me a wide path an' those that don't are either my friends, stupid, or they've got a whole lot of tough to back them up. That guy who stole your pack was probably waitin' for someone like you. He was waitin' for someone a little younger than he was, who looked inexperienced. An' right now, that's how you look to predators. They figure if they can get you alone, they can take you. Trust me, if he'd harmed you, I'd be hunting him now. He might end up in a hole somewhere where no one's gonna find him until they do archaeological digs on early twenty first century trash heaps. Course, there are other things I could do so's they wouldn't even find bits of him," Sam said and his voice was soft, calm and beautifully resonant; it held patience; great, respectful patience. There was not a hint of malice or anger in his voice as he talked of these things in a matter-of-fact way; but his eyes were hard and cold and there was a flatness in them that Mack had not seen; and it made his blood run cold for a moment.
Mack realized Sam was more than what he looked like. He slowly realized that Sam could be a killer. Something on par with a Green Beret or Navy Seal; not a hit man, because his vibe just now was very definitely 'commando' not mob enforcer. Sam was hard core; but hard core what? Mack wanted to withdraw his protest at being escorted. Of course this bearish man didn't need an escort, he was the sort of man which other people needed an armed escort to protect them from.
Sam's face softened as he watched the realization of what he potentially was cross Mack's face. The boy was quick. Less than two days and Mack was already making some good guesses about Sam's real nature. How long would it be before Mack realized something a little more basic about him? He would let Mack solve that for himself, even if it was pretty obvious. Perhaps the kid didn't think bearded hulking macho men were capable of that? No, he probably suspected nothing, yet. The macho men he'd been exposed to all his life probably weren't. Then of course, there was the final matter of Sam's truest nature, but by the time Mack discovered that, it most likely wouldn't make any difference. It hadn't for his Uncle Russ and the kid was like his uncle was in his twenties. Sam had to be gentle; hitting Mack square across the face with truths about the nature of his huge traveling companion this soon might be just a bit too disturbing for one so young and relatively innocent, however much potential he had.
Mack, looking up into Sam's face, took stock of what he found there. He was handsome and he was smiling at him in a gentle, almost fatherly way. His eyes were once again warm and soft and Mack knew it was because, like his Uncle Russ, Sam cared a lot about him. Sam might be an efficient killer, possibly a war vet of some sort, but he was a guardian and Mack had no doubts that Sam would do what was necessary to protect him.
"I guess I need a bodyguard after all. That was pretty stupid of me back there," Mack said He felt Sam's huge warm hand on his shoulder.
"Ah, don't worry. Its just inexperience. You'll catch on quick." Sam removed his hand and patted Mack's shoulder before returning his arm to his side. "I'm here to see that you get the chance to become the kind of man people give wide berth to. For now, though, there are people who are too stupid, too crazy or too drugged to care if they kill ya ta get what they want. The world's a wonderful an' dangerous place, boy. Let me an' Russ help you smooth out some of those bumps on the road 'til you can do it for yourself, OK?" Sam gently squeezed Mack's shoulder again.
"OK,” Mack said and smiled.
"I'll make you a deal; I'll watch your back an' you watch mine, ok?" Sam said. Mack smiled at the ridiculousness of the statement.
"OK, deal," Mack said with a smile and squared his shoulders.
"Buddies?" Sam said and he play punched Mack in the shoulder.
"Yeah, buddies. And I'll watch your back; though I don't think you need it watched too often," Mack said, voicing his thought at Sam's offer.
"You'd be surprised; when I get really drunk I sometimes need someone to keep an eye out for me," Sam said and winked. "All right. Well, let's forget about the bus an' go get a nice luxurious car. There's no need spendin' any more time tryin' ta gain your confidence; I think I already have it, don't I?" Sam said and chuckled.
"Yeah, I trust you. No sense in sitting and sleeping in those small seats anymore," Mack said.
"That's m'boy! Luxury when you can get it, right? Let's get the car an' then I'm in the mood for some really good food. We'll have to look around for a good restaurant," Sam said and picked up Mack's suitcase. Mack shouldered his backpack and the pair left the terminal in search of a car rental place.