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Fic: Time to Kill(1/1) OCs [X1-X2, PG-13]

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  • pphillips914
    It s implied that the Professor has an organization filled with people who we never see. What do they do? Title: Time to Kill Author: Pat Phillips Rated:
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 5, 2004
      It's implied that the Professor has
      an organization filled with people
      who we never see. What do they do?

      Title: Time to Kill

      Author: Pat Phillips

      Rated: PG-13(Violence, Cussing)

      Characters: OCs (Jake and Max)


      Yeah, yeah. The dreaded original
      characters. But hopefully you'll
      find that Jake and Max are worth your

      It always struck me that Professor
      had to have a larger organization
      than what we saw in the movies --
      not every situation would require
      a full-bore visit from the X-Men.
      This story is about a pair of
      Xavier's 'grunts'.

      The theme's running through this
      story can be formulated as questions:

      Who does the dirty work?
      Why do they do it?
      And what will it cost them?

      The Sandhills are real. So is Cherry
      County. But as far as I know, there
      is no town called Hickock in Cherry
      County, Nebraska.


      I do not own these characters. Instead,
      they are the property of Marvel Comics.

      As a firm believer in property rights,
      it's only reasonable that I specify that
      my use of these characters should in no
      way be interpreted as a threat to Marvel's
      ownership of them.

      All of my fan fiction, including this story,
      is a not-for-profit venture. After all, when
      you get down to it, who would pay for this


      My daughter could make anyone laugh. I guess that was Amy's 'power'.
      She was a mutant, you see. And her power was that when she laughed,
      everyone around her laughed. 'Projected telepathic empathy' is what
      Dr. Grey called it.

      When you get down to it, that wasn't much of a 'power', or 'gift', or
      whatever-the-hell you want to call it. It certainly didn't do
      anything to save Amy when that bastard shot her because he was afraid
      that my daughter might somehow 'contaminate' those useless pieces of
      trash that were his kids.

      The ambulance crew tried their level best, but there was nothing they
      could do for Amy. She was dead before they got her to the hospital.
      I remember standing in the lobby of the hospital as old Joe Graham --
      the man who delivered me and Amy both -- tried to explain what had
      happened. Joe was an old, old man. But when he helplessly told me
      that my daughter was gone, his eyes seemed like they had seen a
      thousand years.

      I just stared at Joe, at first not grasping what he was telling me. I
      just didn't understand. Hell, I didn't want to understand. Just that
      morning Amy had waved goodbye to me and gone off to school. How the
      hell could she be dead?

      It just didn't make sense.

      So I just stood there and stared at Joe until he finally ran out of
      words. Then he called a friend, who drove me home.

      It's hard to explain how it felt. It was like something had been dug
      out of me and left a hollow space that couldn't ever be filled. For
      the next few days, I went about my affairs in a haze. I took care of
      business as best I could and got Amy properly buried in the same
      cemetery that held my parents.

      Amy's mother actually put in an appearance for the funeral. We didn't
      speak, but that was no big deal. We had nothing to say to each other.

      A month passed. I quit my job and I hit the bottle.

      The man who murdered my daughter managed to convince a jury that it
      was manslaughter instead of murder. He got ten years. If you knew
      the guy in question, then you'd understand that he would do the full
      sentence. He's not kind of person known for 'good behavior'.

      My drinking became worse. There are whole weeks that I can only
      remember in incomplete, disconnected fragments.

      Then I met a man named Xavier, who had decided that I had some talents
      that might be useful to him. He offered me a job, but he had a
      condition: I had to stop drinking. It took some time, but I
      eventually crawled out of the bottle.

      So I went to work for Xavier. But really, I was just passing time. I
      had a lot of time to kill.

      In fact, when Xavier called me about the Nebraska job, I had eight
      years, seven months, and three days to kill.


      I looked up from my map. We were in the middle of western Nebraska
      and a looooong way from the nearest main road. Cherry County is one
      hell of a big place.

      Max -- he's my partner -- growled at nothing in particular. He was
      unhappy about being cooped up in the truck.

      "What?" I growled back.

      He just looked away, obviously bored. The terrain outside of the
      truck seemed to stretch on forever. At first glance, it looked like
      an endless series of grass-covered rolling hills. But actually, it
      was sod-covered sand dunes. Every now and then you could see
      white-brown sand in the occasional break in the ground cover.

      The Sandhills region is pretty sparsely settled. Cherry County is
      bigger than some countries, but it has a population of only 6,000
      people. The people who live there mostly earn a living by ranching,
      although there's also some irrigation-based farming in the valleys.

      This particular job was weirder than normal. Max and I were looking
      for two kids who were supposed to be surviving on their own in the
      Sandhills. That gizmo that Xavier kept in his basement pegged the
      kids as mutants.

      But the Sandhills are a big place and the kids were apparently trying
      not to be found. The jobs we normally did for Professor Xavier
      usually didn't involve searching for someone in the middle of nowhere.
      Fortunately, both Max and I had spent a fair amount of time outdoors
      -- in our different ways we've always been hunters.

      Max looked at me again.

      "I've got an idea," I said to him.

      He wasn't very interested in hearing my idea, so he put his head
      between his paws and closed his eyes. I scratched him between the
      ears and he whined in pleasure.


      Pastor Lawrence was in his seventies, but still as sharp as a tack.
      He was the Lutheran minister of Hickock, Nebraska -- which was the
      closest thing to a population center in the southern part of Cherry
      County. In the rural parts of America, churches are a great source of
      information. However, you have to wiggle some cooperation out of
      people first. That can be tricky. While that part of the country
      isn't exactly hostile to outsiders, it can be wary.

      I cheated and used a fake ID card that said I was a reporter for
      something called the "Western Stockman's Quarterly". Since I grew up
      around ranchers, I could fake the lingo.

      It was fairly easy to break through Pastor Lawrence's natural reserve.
      I suggested to him that the folks at the "Quarterly" were wondering
      why the Nebraska state government was refusing to take seriously the
      reports of children lost in the Sandhills. That struck home with the

      So Pastor Lawrence invited me into his tiny home, poured me a cup of
      coffee, and started talking. And all it cost me was a few lies.
      Hopefully, the Lord will understand. Lately, I'd been hoping that the
      Lord would understand a lot of things.

      "I must admit that normally I wouldn't believe these stories either,"
      he said with a sigh.

      "But you think there's something to it?" I asked.

      He nodded firmly, "The people reporting this are honest folk with no
      history of alcohol abuse, publicity-seeking, or mental illness. Oh,
      and I've heard about so-called mass hysteria -- and I simply don't
      accept that as an explanation in this case. The stories I've heard
      have been very consistent and are coming from genuinely worried people."

      "So what are these folks seeing?"

      "Two naked Asian children, about nine or ten years old. One of my
      parishioners served during the Vietnam war. He swears that they are
      Vietnamese. They appear to be wandering the hills, completely on
      their own."

      I shook my head, "That's a bit hard to believe."

      Pastor Lawrence sighed, "Yes, it does sound absurd."

      "Two youngsters wouldn't last very long on their own in the wild."

      He nodded, "I know. I know. Especially since we now have a wolf

      That raised my eyebrows, "Wolves? Here? In Nebraska? Uhm, Pastor,
      folks are still arguing about whether there are any packs in Central
      Wyoming. And we're a long ways from there."

      "Yes. But there have been sightings. And tracks have been found.
      Two sets of tracks."

      It took me a second to see what Pastor Lawrence was hinting at.

      "When did these wolves show up?" I asked.

      "Around the time the two children were first seen," he answered
      carefully. The Pastor's face was expressionless in a way that told me
      that he had taken that line of thought as far as he was willing to go.

      I put down my coffee cup.

      "Sir, how about you introduce me to some of the people who have seen
      those kids?" I asked.

      He nodded, "I'll do better than that. Why don't we go visit some of
      them right now?"


      Pastor Lawrence grabbed a jacket from a peg near the door and fished
      his car keys out of a pocket.

      "Do you mind if we take my Jeep?" he asked.

      "Sure. You know the area better than I do."

      We left the Pastor's house. Max was lounging near my truck. A couple
      of the neighborhood kids stood at a safe distance, watching him with
      awed expressions. When Max saw us, he lurched to his feet and came
      towards us, his tail wagging slowly.

      Pastor Lawrence blinked in surprise and froze. Max has that effect on

      Max didn't know the Pastor, so he sniffed his chest. People usually
      find that kind of strange. They're used to having dogs sniff their
      legs or crotch. But when he's standing, Max's nose is on sternum
      level with most men. I figure Max weighs over 200 pounds.

      "Be polite, Max," I said absently. My mind was occupied with other

      "What kind of dog is this?" gasped Pastor Lawrence.

      "A big one," I replied with a laugh. I honestly didn't have a better
      answer. Max is a mongrel who looks more like an over-sized,
      dark-furred, German Shepard-Husky mix than anything else, but I have
      no clue what he really is.

      Well, maybe a little bit of a clue.

      Pastor Lawrence grinned and carefully scratched Max behind the ears.
      Max decided that the Pastor was okay.


      The Pastor and I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon bumping
      around the back roads of Cherry County in the Pastor's elderly Jeep.

      We talked to maybe a half-dozen ranchers and their families and hired
      help. The men were uniformly embarrassed at the ridiculousness of
      what they had seen and would only talk when Pastor Lawrence prodded
      them on the subject. The women we talked to were just as convincing
      -- as well as concerned that something had to be done to find the

      However, it was obvious to me that we weren't hearing the whole story.
      More than a few witnesses would have an awkward moment when their
      mouths would open as if they had something more to say... and then
      they would shut up.

      Or at least, that was the case until we talked to Ben Winters. Ben
      was a middle-aged bachelor with a gravelly voice who owned a ranch
      near Salt Creek. Ben struck me as a life-long loner who didn't think
      much of people. It was sort of hard to see him as a churchgoer, but
      he seemed to have a lot of respect for Pastor Lawrence.

      "I saw them two days ago," he said flatly, as if he was discussing the
      weather. "It was up near Redoubt Hill -- that's about five miles
      north of here."

      I nodded, "What exactly did you see, Mr. Winters?"

      He squinted at me, glanced at Pastor Lawrence, and then answered,
      "What everyone else has seen. A pair of Chink kids. Naked. Not yet
      old enough to be growing hair on their privates."

      "What were they doing?" I asked.

      "Drinking water from one of my stock tanks. I parked my truck about
      fifty yards away and watched them."

      Pastor Lawrence asked the next question, "Ben, did you try to talk to

      Ben nodded, "Tried to. When I got out of my truck they took off like
      a pair of rabbits. I tracked them for a couple miles..."

      Ben ground to a halt.

      "And?" I encouraged.

      The rancher wrestled with himself for a moment. But a lifetime of
      saying exactly what the hell was on his mind was too hard of a habit
      to break.

      "And... And then they turned into wolves. After that, they ducked
      into a line of cottonwood trees on the creek. That's when I lost them."

      The rancher had the defiant look about him of a man who was perfectly
      willing to punch the first person who laughed at him.

      "Ben, what do you mean by, 'turned into wolves'?" asked Pastor
      Lawrence calmly. I kept the expression on my face interested, but
      otherwise absolutely neutral.

      "Just what I said. Damnedest thing... sorry, Pastor. Darndest thing
      I ever saw. At first I thought something was wrong with my eyes."

      "As the kids ran away, they got darker and darker. I figured out
      later on that was because of the fur sprouting out of their skin.
      They would also stop running every now and then, for just a second or
      two. Their bodies would be different -- changed -- when they started
      running again."

      Ben hesitated, something sympathetic in his eyes, "I think it hurts
      the kids when they change. The whole thing took maybe five minutes.
      But by the end, they were wolves."

      "What kind of wolf?" I asked.

      Ben looked at me and frowned.

      "I'm not making fun of you, Mr. Winters. I'd really like to know.
      What was their fur color?"

      "Brown. Dark brown."

      I nodded. That wasn't the normal color of wolves in the western USA.
      They tend more towards a gray coloration.

      "Aren't you two going to tell me that I'm lying, or crazy, or
      something like that?" demanded Ben.

      Pastor Lawrence and I exchanged looks.

      "No," replied the Pastor.


      After talking to Ben, the Pastor and I called it a day and headed back
      to town. There aren't any motels in Hickock -- the town is too far
      off the beaten path to need one. I had planned on sleeping in my
      truck, but Pastor Lawrence suggested someone who might be willing to
      rent me a room for the night.

      Things got a might unpleasant once I left Pastor Lawrence's place.

      A brief howl of a siren let me know that someone was behind me.
      Looking in the rear-view mirror of my truck, I saw the flashing lights
      of a patrol car.

      According to my speedometer, I wasn't speeding. I pulled over to the
      side of the street. The patrol car parked behind me. It wasn't the
      Hickock police department -- in fact, I wasn't sure if Hickock had a
      police department. Instead, it was a County Sheriff car.

      I pulled out my drivers license as Max began growling.

      "Cut it out," I hissed at Max as I rolled down my window. Max
      grumpily went silent.

      "Let me see your license and registration," said the deputy sheriff
      who had pulled me over.

      Handing over my expertly forged license and dummy registration, I
      asked, "What's the problem, deputy?"

      At first, the deputy didn't take my papers. He was staring at Max.
      But he quickly shook off his surprise.

      He didn't bother to respond to my question as he turned on his heel
      and went back to his vehicle. The deputy was in his mid-thirties;
      slender, clean-cut, and good-looking. At first glance, he looked like
      a recruiting poster police officer. But the attitude gave him away.
      I'd seen his kind before. No matter how hard a police department
      tries, some of his type somehow always manage to creep into the system.

      Fifteen minutes later, having found out a lot of useless information
      about a man and a vehicle that didn't really exist, the deputy handed
      my license and registration back to me.

      This time, I managed to catch a glimpse of his name tag. It said

      "I clocked you going five miles over the speed limit," he said. "I'm
      letting you off with a warning this time. But watch yourself."

      I nodded, "Sure. Sorry about that, deputy."

      He didn't immediately leave. "I hear tell that you've been asking
      questions about those kids that some folks have been seeing."

      "That's right."

      "It's all a bunch of foolishness," he said flatly. "We've checked it
      out and found nothing. If I were you, I'd quit wasting my time."

      He turned on his heel and headed back to his vehicle. I was pretty
      sure that I hadn't been speeding. The deputy had been fishing. Now,
      maybe he was just curious and had decided to check out the stranger
      who was asking odd questions. You could even argue that such a thing
      wasn't a completely unreasonable. But I had the definite feeling the
      Deputy Gridley might be trouble.


      Mrs. Wright was an old-fashioned lady. She charged me $20 for the
      room and threw in dinner and breakfast to boot. I ate hamburgers at
      her kitchen table while she told me about her family. Her husband was
      long dead -- taken by cancer back in 1986, she said. Once her
      children grew up, they both moved out of town. Her boy was a welder
      and lived in Omaha. Her daughter was married to a computer programmer
      and lived in Denver. A lot of the rural counties are like that. As
      generation after generation of young people leave, the average age
      steadily increases. Eventually, a lot of elderly folks and thin
      scattering of youngsters are left.

      After I ate, I went outside and dumped some dog food in a bowl for
      Max. Mrs. Wright was kind enough to let me use her garden hose to
      fill Max's water bucket.

      After he ate, Max and I sat on the porch together and watched the sun set.

      When I was sure we were alone, I opened up a special gizmo that looked
      like a normal cell phone. I didn't dial it -- it only connected to
      one location.


      "Kitty. It's me, Jake Collier."

      "Oh, Mr. Collier! What's up?"

      Kitty is one of Professor Xavier's brightest students. Because of
      that, one of her jobs is to give a hand to the people that Xavier had
      out in the field.

      "I need you to do some of your computer magic for me, sweetie."

      "Sure, Mr. Collier! What d'ya got in mind?"

      "USGS topographic maps for a twenty mile radius around Hickock,
      Nebraska. Overlay them with property lines, structural information,
      and landmark names."

      "Okay. Anything else?" she asked.

      "Nation-wide missing persons reports for two pre-teenager children of
      Asian descent. Report logs for the Nebraska State Patrol referencing
      Cherry County, Nebraska. Oh, and get me whatever you can find on a
      Cherry County deputy sheriff with the last name 'Gridley'. He might
      be a problem."

      "Can do." I could almost hear her mind begin to click away.

      I couldn't help but smile. I like Kitty a lot. She was about the
      same age as...

      I cut off that line of thought.

      "I'll post the information at the usual address," Kitty continued.
      "Is your laptop's satellite connection still working okay?"

      "Yeah. It's fine."

      "All right, then. I figure it'll take two or three hours. Is that okay?"

      "That'll be fine. Thanks, Kit."

      "No problem, Mr. Collier! Later!"

      And then the cheerful voice was gone. I spent a long time staring out
      into nothing.

      I went to bed early, but had some trouble falling asleep. Plans for
      finding the two mutant kids were running through my mind. I had a few
      ideas, and I would try the most obvious one the next day.

      Glancing at my wristwatch, I noticed that it was just after midnight.
      It was a new day.

      I had eight years, seven months, and two days to kill.


      Mrs. Wright was as good as her word: the breakfast she served up the
      next morning was fit for a king. After I was done, I got my laptop
      out of the truck and hooked up to the secure website where Kitty
      posted useful information.

      The maps were up to Kitty's usual high standard. I could use the
      laptop to consult them whenever necessary.

      The missing persons reports only had one lead, but it was a good one.
      A Mrs. Nguyen had gone missing while driving from Chicago to
      Billings. Her two children -- a boy and a girl -- were also missing.
      They had fallen off the edge of the world about six months ago.

      A week after she failed to arrive in Billings, Mrs. Nguyen's car was
      found near Hot Springs, South Dakota. Otherwise, there was no sign of
      her or her children.

      Two weeks later, the Nebraska State Patrol got its first report about
      the children roaming the Sandhills. If they were Mrs. Nguyen's kids,
      they had been wandering in the wild for almost six months, doing
      everything they could to avoid contact with another human being.

      There was no way they would have survived if they had been normal kids.

      The Nebraska State Patrol had taken over a dozen reports of lost kids
      in the Sandhills. They kept passing it on to the Cherry County
      Sheriff's department. Guess who was the county's point-man on dealing
      with that particular situation?

      That's right: Gridley. And Deputy Gridley was an interesting
      character. He had started out as a city cop in Rapid City, South
      Dakota. After three years on the force there, he resigned for
      unspecified reasons, but apparently Rapid City PD wasn't sorry to see
      him go. A couple of years later, he turned up as a patrolman for the
      McCook, Nebraska police department. He lasted two years there and was
      dismissed for disciplinary reasons.

      After the McCook police department fired Gridley, he fell off the law
      enforcement map -- which was probably a good thing. But about five
      months ago he finally resurfaced when he was hired as a Deputy Sheriff
      for Cherry County.

      So Gridley had held three peace-officer positions, each one garnering
      less pay and benefits than the previous one. And he got the Cherry
      County job after being fired for cause by the McCook police
      department. A guy with that kind of background was an unlikely hire
      for a County Sheriff's office. So how had Gridley got his job?

      Oh, and the timing was interesting. Gridley showed up as a deputy
      just after Cherry County started buzzing with stories about a pair of
      kids wandering the hills.

      But that wasn't the least of it. The Professor kept an eye on
      anti-mutant organizations. He had more than a few membership lists
      stored away.

      Gridley was a member of something called the 'Natural Order'. They
      were a pretty ugly bunch of dangerous wackjobs. The Professor
      suspected that the 'Natural Order' had killed a few mutants in the
      western parts of the US and Canada.

      Sipping coffee as I sat at Mrs. Wright's kitchen table, I jotted down
      some notes and thought over my options. I had to get this settled as
      quickly as possible. Otherwise, Gridley would become more and more of
      a threat as time passed.

      I shut down the computer and got to my feet.

      "Ma'am," I said to Mrs. Wright. "Thank you for your hospitality. I'm
      not sure about my schedule, but I might be back again tonight -- if
      that's all right with you."

      Mrs. Wright smiled at me, "Of course you're welcome. Please stop by

      Outside, Max was already pacing back and forth near my truck. He knew
      that something was up and he was eager to go.

      It was a cool September morning. The winter was coming early. The
      kids had been first seen in early April. They hadn't gone through a
      Nebraska winter yet. I wasn't willing to bet that they would survive

      I opened the door to my truck and said, "Okay, Max. Let's go find us
      some underage werewolves."

      Max bounded inside the cab and took his position in the passenger
      seat. I swear he was grinning.


      My truck was parked on the side of a two-track road just north of Ben
      Winter's place. After the usual cursing and button-pushing, I managed
      to uplink to the maps that Kitty had made for me.

      Redoubt Hill was clearly labeled on the topo map. Using the map, a
      compass, and my GPS, I identified a bare-looking lump of sodded-over
      sand as the hill in question. The hill was crowned with a ring of
      protruding sandstone that gave it a fort-like appearance. I presume
      that's where the name came from.

      It wasn't too hard to identify the stock tank where Ben had seen the
      two kids watering. It was also on the map.

      Ben's sighting was the most recent. That would be the best place to
      start searching.

      I pulled a dart pistol out of a hidden compartment in my truck and
      loaded a knock-out dart into it. I holstered the gun and buckled it
      around my waist. A package with four more darts went into my vest.
      Then I slung a canteen over my shoulder.

      Max looked at me with eager eyes, his tail frantically wagging.

      "Find 'em," I ordered.

      We started walking.


      Without any particular guidance from me, Max walked us straight to Ben
      Winter's stock tank. A small herd of skinny cattle munched dry grass
      and watched us disinterestedly as we worked our way past them.

      Max eyed the cattle mournfully. I had told him to leave them alone.

      Fortunately, the wind was blowing towards us. Otherwise, the cattle
      might have caught Max's scent. That probably would have upset them no

      At the stock tank, Max sniffed the area carefully, taking his time to
      be sure. Then he headed roughly north as I followed him. We were
      heading towards Salt Creek.

      We continued northwards. I climbed over a couple of barbed-wire
      fences while Max wiggled under them. Within a half hour, I could see
      the cottonwood trees that lined the banks of Salt Creek.

      The wind shifted slightly. Max suddenly jerked his head into the air,
      his nostrils quivering and a challenging growl rumbling out of his chest.

      Moving slowly, I put my left hand on Max's head to calm him, as my
      right hand drifted down to the holstered gun on my hip.

      Max had stopped growling, but he was looking intently at the tree
      line. He kept sniffing the air.

      "Easy, boy," I whispered, scratching him behind the ears.

      Max leaned up against me and rubbed the side of his head against my side.

      "Good boy," I told him. "We have to follow them -- not chase them."

      After a few minutes, Max began slowly walking towards the tree line.

      Just off the creek bank, we found a spot where the grass had been
      flattened out. Something had killed and eaten a rabbit there. Max
      looked that spot over, sniffed the area, and then started heading

      The creek cut through a low ridge line -- part of the same sandstone
      formation that included Redoubt Hill. Just before we got to the
      ridge, Max hunkered down in some tall grass, carefully watching the
      water- and wind-carved rock formations ahead of us.

      I sat beside him.

      Two hours passed in a silence that was only interrupted by the whisper
      of dry grass stirred by the occasional ripple of cool wind.


      Finally, Max got to his feet and began moving into the rocks. I
      followed, keeping as low as possible.

      We found them sleeping underneath a stone overhang.

      They were in human form -- a small boy and girl as naked as God had
      made them. They were covered with dirt from head to toe. Their faces
      were smeared with the dried blood of the rabbit that had been their
      most recent meal. And they were curled around one another for warmth.

      I eased the dart gun out of my holster. Max moved off to the side,
      positioning himself to cut them off if they ran.

      Something set the boy off. He suddenly exploded to his feet, wide
      awake and eyes ablaze with hate and fear.

      I held the hand that wasn't holding a gun up towards the boy.

      "Easy..." I began.

      He darted off to one side. Max blocked him and the boy hesitated,
      trying to reorient himself on the fly.

      It was a tough shot, but I tagged him with the dart gun. The boy
      screamed in pain and surprise as the needle slammed into his back. He
      staggered several steps, but kept his feet under him and took off at
      an impressive rate of speed.

      Max glanced my way.

      "Follow! Guard!" I yelled at Max. He took off after the boy.

      The little girl was on her feet now. Her face was partially covered
      by a tangle of long, black hair. But I could see her dark eyes
      watching me through that natural veil.

      She didn't seemed to be frightened. She just seemed... accepting.

      I holstered the pistol and put my hands down by my sides.

      "Hi," I said to her.

      She hesitated. Her lips moved slightly, a puzzled expression on her face.

      "Hi," she finally said back to me.

      "My name is Jake. What's yours?" I asked.

      "My name is Jake. What's yours?" she repeated.

      Okay, she obviously wasn't all there. And I didn't have the slightest
      idea what to do next.

      Suddenly, she sank to her knees, her backside resting on her heels and
      her arms wrapped around her chest. She closed her eyes, lowered her
      head, and moaned slightly.

      Then she began to change. The first sign was dark fur appearing on
      her arms and legs.

      It was a terrible -- and beautiful -- thing to see. I didn't think to
      time how long it took, but after a few minutes a dark, young wolf got
      shakily to her feet and peered up at me uncertainly.

      I pulled the canteen strap over my head and unscrewed the cap. I took
      a long drink. Then I crouched down, poured some water into my hand,
      and offered it to her.

      She walked over to me and began licking at the water in my palm.


      With the young wolf by my side, I followed Max and the boy. There was
      so much sand on the ground -- it was like a beach -- that I had no
      trouble tracking them.

      The boy was as tough as nails. He made it about a mile before the
      drugs in the dart knocked him out. Of course, I had deliberately put
      a light dosage into the dart. But still, it was pretty impressive.

      Max lay near the boy, looking bored.

      Head and tail down in a submissive posture, the girl-wolf approached
      Max and the boy. Max looked at her once, gave his equivalent of a
      shrug, and then lay his head down and closed his eyes.

      The girl-wolf began whining and licking at the boy's face. But she
      didn't interfere when I hoisted the boy up over my shoulder. And she
      followed along with Max and me as we headed back to my truck.


      At the truck, I tucked the boy into Max's normal spot in the passenger
      seat -- Max looked a bit outraged by that. I felt bad about it, but I
      handcuffed the boy before I covered him with a blanket.

      The girl-wolf unhesitatingly hopped into the bed of truck and curled
      up in one corner, shivering slightly. I tossed another blanket over
      her and she immediately tangled it around herself.

      I got onto the radio. Jubilation -- Kitty's weird best friend --

      "Hi, Mr. Collier!" she said as she popped her gum.

      "Hey, Jubes. How are you doing?"

      "Fine. I'm dating this new guy name Cory. He has these cool tattoos
      of dragons on his back and butt and he's saving up to buy a
      motorcycle. Oh, and he has a tongue-stud."

      "I really don't want to hear the details."

      She laughed. Jubes likes to play, "shock the old folks." It would be
      cruel not to cooperate.

      "So what can I do for you, Mr. Collier?"

      "Tell the boss that I found our two problem children. I need a pickup
      as soon as possible. There might be some trouble brewing with the
      local law."

      Suddenly, Jubes was all business. Underneath that California clueless
      slut act, she's a good girl.

      "Give me your position," she said. I could hear her typing away at a
      keyboard as I read off the numbers from my GPS. There was a long
      pause as she checked with the powers that be.

      "Mr. Summers says he can be out there in about an hour and half in the
      jet. How's that by you, Mr. Collier?"

      "Sounds good. Later, honey. Oh, and tell the guy with the
      tongue-stud that I expect him to behave like a gentleman."

      "Too late. Bye!"

      Shaking my head, I laughed and closed the phone.

      Out of the corner of my eye, I caught some movement. It was a
      slow-moving vehicle cresting another hill about a mile away. The car
      was coming down the same road that I was parked on.

      It was a Sheriff's car, and it wasn't really much of a guess as to who
      was driving it. Either someone had seen me and had tipped off
      Gridley, or he was checking out Ben's report on his own. Either way,
      that was a problem.

      I stood there and considered my options. Unfortunately, I didn't
      really have many. The road was a dead end -- four-wheeling wasn't an
      option in that country -- and the only way out was past Gridley. And
      I had to get the kids out of there as soon as possible.

      The dart gun wasn't the kind of weapon that would help me if it came
      to trouble -- the darts took too long to work. So I put it and the
      holster away. Then I pulled out a .45 revolver and loaded it.

      I dropped the tailgate and sat on it. The revolver was concealed in a
      jacket laying on the tailgate next to me. The girl was back to being
      human. She was completely covered by the blanket except for one bare
      foot and an eye that was looking out of a fold in the blanket. I
      reached over and shifted the corner of the blanket to cover her
      exposed foot.

      "Honey, where's your mother?" I asked her softly.

      She didn't say anything. She just huddled deeper into her blanket.

      Max growled a warning. He hadn't seen the car coming -- his eyesight
      is only so-so -- but he had just caught the scent of an intruder.

      "I know," I told him. "Let's wait and see what he does. Maybe we can
      settle this peacefully."

      Max gave me an irritated look and crawled underneath the truck.

      Still sitting on the tailgate, I waited, sipping occasionally from my
      canteen, my other hand near the jacket that concealed the gun.

      It took him longer than I thought it would. The Sheriff's car pulled
      up as I watched. Gridley got out and looked me over.

      I screwed the cap back on my canteen and put it down. "Afternoon,

      Without a word, Gridley walked over and looked at the blanket-covered
      girl in the back of my truck. She shifted away from him. He reached
      over and yanked the blanket away from her face.

      They stared at one another for a long, painful second. Then Gridley
      stepped away and looked inside the cab of my truck.

      He smiled crookedly. Then he walked back to his car, reached inside,
      and pulled out a shotgun.

      "You're under arrest."

      I shrugged, "What charge?"

      "I'll think of something," he snarled.

      I sighed, "Can't we be reasonable, deputy? It doesn't have to be this

      "I've got a badge and a shotgun, pal. It'll be exactly the way I
      goddamn well want it to be. Now, who the hell are you really working

      It was possible -- just barely possible -- that if I explained the
      situation then this could be settled without someone getting hurt. I
      just wanted to get the kids out of there without any hassle. So I
      gave diplomacy a shot.

      "I work for a guy back east who runs a school for mutants. Look,
      Gridley, the kids were a problem. I've solved your problem. I'll
      take them away and they'll be out of your hair and properly taken care
      of. Just let us go and you can go back to... doing whatever."

      That crooked little smile flickered across his face again and then

      "No," he said. Then Gridley chambered a round into the shotgun with a
      self-satisfied smirk. The dumb motherfucker obviously liked the
      oh-so-scary sound of the slide working. He liked seeing people get
      scared when he did that.

      Okay, that was how it was going to be.

      "So tell me," I asked, "what happened to Mrs. Nguyen?"

      Gridley froze, his eyes closely examining my face. He didn't say

      "Let me take a guess. About six months back, Mrs. Nguyen and her kids
      were heading north, minding their own business. And then something
      happened. I'm thinking that somebody saw something that proved that
      one or both of the kids were mutants. The word got to your buddies in
      the 'Natural Order', who decided to make the world a little more
      'natural'. Am I on the right track, Gridley?"

      He still didn't say anything.

      "I figure Mrs. Nguyen is dead," I continued. "But the kids somehow
      got away. And that's a problem since they're witnesses, after all.
      The guys running the 'Natural Order' freaked out. They had to get rid
      of those kids before they start talking to someone."

      "And then people begin telling crazy stories about a pair of kids --
      who may be more than just kids -- wandering the Sandhills.
      Fortunately, the 'Natural Order' had a connection in the Cherry County
      Sheriff's department. Maybe the connection is a member -- or maybe
      he's just someone's uncle -- but he's a connection. So they used that
      connection to get a disgraced failure of an ex-police officer back
      into uniform. C'mon, Gridley, it's not that hard to figure out."

      Still nothing, but a muscle on Gridley's right cheek was twitching.

      "So where do you fit into this Gridley? Did you pull the trigger on
      Mrs. Nguyen and then lose the kids? Or were you just pulled out of
      the Order's lineup to clean up a mess that someone else made? And
      what do you plan on doing with the kids?"

      He was pissed-off enough to drop all the pretenses, "Listen, old man.
      Those freaks aren't going anywhere except into a shallow grave. But
      don't feel bad. You'll be right with them, you mutie-loving

      I couldn't help by laugh out loud.

      That took Gridley back for a second. But then he gave me the cocky
      smile of a guy who's only brave when he's holding all of the cards.

      "Say goodbye to this world," he chuckled.

      I shrugged, "Goodbye."

      Gridley hesitated. Something wasn't right. Even a dim bulb like him
      could sense that.

      Then something told him to look over his shoulder.

      It wouldn't have been very hard to shoot him, but I didn't bother.

      Max had worked his way around us while I kept the deputy distracted.
      He was right behind Gridley.

      Max reared up on his thickening hind legs as a dozen stinger-tipped
      tentacles erupted out his back. His forelimbs lengthened, grew a new
      joint, and extended serrated rows of jagged bone hooks. But the worst
      was when his lower jaw unhinged and suddenly Max's mouth was a cavern
      ringed with teeth that were steadily growing into huge, triangular
      fangs that would have scared a shark.

      Gridley tried, I'll give him that. But he wasn't anywhere near fast

      Grabbing the girl, I pulled her to me and buried her face in my chest.
      I didn't want her to see this. She clutched at me with surprising
      strength as Gridley screamed and screamed and screamed.

      I did nothing to stop Max. After all, he'd more than earned a good meal.

      Gently rocking the sobbing girl, I whispered her a lullaby.


      The jet settled down with barely a thud. Not for the first time, I
      wondered how the hell Xavier could afford a piece of equipment like that.

      I had kicked what Max had left of Gridley into a nearby ravine. A
      couple of hundred yards away, a pair of coyotes were watching
      patiently. They wouldn't approach until Max and I were gone.

      After waiting for the dust and sand to settle, I walked towards the
      jet as the cargo ramp lowered. Max was back to being a really big
      dog. He was lying down next to the pickup, licking the last of the
      blood from his fur. The girl was still human and was wearing one of
      my t-shirts as a makeshift dress. She was walking beside me. The boy
      was still unconscious. I had him wrapped in a blanket and was holding
      him in my arms.

      Scott and Logan came down the ramp. Neither of them were wearing
      those dorky leather S&M outfits. Both nodded to me. Logan and Max
      exchanged that look that's always worried me. Someday, those two
      would inevitably try to settle the question of who was tougher. They
      really had no choice, it was a part of who they were.

      I handed the boy over to Scott, who took hold of him with practiced
      grace. Despite being a youngster and a bachelor, Scott had held more
      than a few kids in his arms. That sort of came with the turf when you
      worked for Professor Xavier.

      Meanwhile, Logan grinned and crouched down, bringing himself to eye
      level with the little girl. Instantly charmed, she smiled back at
      him. The 'ladies love outlaws' effect seems to span age groups.

      "Good work, Mr. Collier," said Scott solemnly. Scott is a damned good
      man, but I hope he gets that railroad spike out of his ass someday.
      He takes everything way too seriously.

      "Thanks, Scott."

      "Kitty and Jubilation said you mentioned something about a problem
      with local law enforcement?" he asked.

      "It got settled."

      Logan looked up at me. Then at Max. Then at the area of wet,
      discolored sand where Gridley had died. It was hard to read the
      expression on his face. With a slight shrug, he looked back at the
      girl and began gently brushing her hair back behind her ears as her
      smile turned into a grin of delight.

      "Glad to hear it," said Scott. "I'm sorry, but we've got to run, Mr.
      Collier. We have to get the kids back to the school."

      "That's fine, Scott. Say hello to Professor Xavier for me."

      Scott nodded. Logan stood, took the girl's hand, and walked her up
      the ramp.

      Just before they got back inside the jet, the girl turned and looked
      at me.

      "My name is Linh," she said.

      I couldn't think of anything to say to her and there was something in
      my goddamned eyes, so I just waved goodbye.


      Max and I watched the jet take off from a safe distance. Then we hit
      the road. In the rearview mirror I could see the coyotes wandering
      down the hillside towards the ravine.

      The information that Kitty had dug up on Gridley included his home
      address. It was a small apartment up in Valentine, Nebraska. We got
      to Valentine and lay low until just after dark. Then I broke into
      Gridley's apartment and tossed it, looking for any useful information
      on the 'Natural Order'.

      There were some names, phone numbers, and addresses. Most of the
      addresses were out of South Dakota. I took everything. I would
      double-check with Kitty to see what matched with what we already knew
      about the 'Natural Order' and what didn't.

      The 'Natural Order' had just hit the top of my personal list. My plan
      was to head to South Dakota and settle in for a while. I'd use the
      information I had found in Gridley's apartment and cross-reference it
      with Xavier's files on the 'Natural Order'. Eventually, I'd track
      down the men who murdered Mrs. Nguyen.

      We got back on the road. Hours later, near Rapid City, I stopped to
      get gas for the truck, a cup of coffee for me, and some beef jerky for
      Max. As I paid the cashier, I noticed that the clock on the wall said
      that it was one in the morning.

      It was a new day.

      In eight years, seven months, and one day the man who killed my
      daughter would be released from prison. All I was really doing was
      waiting for that day.

      Until then, I had plenty of time to kill.


      Afterword: So is Max a mutated dog or a mutated human? I don't know.
      But in the first draft of this story, he was Jake's son.
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