Aaron Steinmetz

...be very still...the bird's angry...and I think he can see us.

Cocoa Tales: Episode Eight

Inside the Deluxury truck, the Sandman took the corners faster than he should’ve, but then he had a very narrow timetable, didn’t he? He had to get the kid to safety before the cops got to the Gerald Estate and get back to blow the place up after everyone left to look for the kid. Montgomery Gerald wouldn’t leave the house, not with a price on his head. His wife might stay; he couldn’t do much about that.

The Sandman was trying to minimize collateral damage, not eliminate it. He was The Sandman after all, the best, the most reliable hitman ever trained. In his advancing years he had visions of retirement, of a life devoid of murder and mayhem. Perhaps he’d get married, perhaps have a child.

But if children were anything like the little bundle of joy next to him in the passenger seat of the Deluxury van, perhaps murder and mayhem would suffice.

"Why isn’t there a seatbelt in here mister alien?"

The Sandman sighed. "Because...I dunno. I stole it from a human being and there weren’t seatbelts in here when I stole it."

"Where are we going?"

"I’m just trying to keep you safe, kid."

"You know, the safest place is where you keep your gold, did you know that?"

"Really," The Sandman mumbled as he swerved the truck around another corner.

"Yeah, people put their gold in a safe place and no one knows where the place is so they don’t find the gold only I found the safe place I call it the gold house we should go there mister alien."

The Sandman didn’t reply. Just kept driving.

"You know, it isn’t very safe driving around without seat belts. You aliens should really get your act together."

The Sandman handed her another bar of chocolate and said, "Here, have some more candy."

"Oh thank God you’re here," Caroline exclaimed as she ran down across the driveway. The carefully manicured bushes were weed-free and blooming beside her as she hurried to Faber and Floyd’s car. Her eyes were red from terrified tears and the previous hour between realizing Carrie was missing to the detectives’ arrival had been an eternity for Caroline Banter. "I told her not to go into the woods but that has to be where she is."

Gripping her hands firmly, Faber said, "Don’t worry Mrs. Gerald, we will find your daughter."

Shyly, Caroline said, "She’s not my daughter. I’m the sitter."

"Oh," Faber replied. "Well, we’ll find your..."

Leaning in, Floyd said, "Ward."

"We’ll find your ward, I assure you."

"Thank you," Caroline said as fresh tears welled up in her eyes.

"Good, you’re here," Monty Gerald said as he marched out of the house. "I have, um, business to attend to so I won’t be able to assist you gentlemen in the search, but I need you both to understand something: do not search the woods to the west of the house. I assure you, my daughter is not to the west, there’s nothing there for her or you to find. Understand?"

Faber and Floyd glanced at each other. "Perfectly," Faber said. He returned his attention to Monty Gerald, but he was looking over them to the turnaround beyond them.

"I’ll be in the house," Gerald said, staring at the Deluxury truck that was pulling in. He didn’t wait for a response from the detectives; just turned and speed-walked back to the estate.

Faber and Floyd had both turned to look at the truck as well. The driver, obscured by shadows, navigated the truck around the turnaround slowly.

As its side became visible to them, Jessica read the logo aloud: "Deluxury," she muttered, "The Sandman."

Shoving the two detectives to the side, Jessica burst into a sprint between them running toward the truck as it turned away from the house.

"So we’ll just look for the girl, then?" Faber hollered.

"You’ll do fine without me," Jessica shouted as she ran toward the truck. With agility that surprised both detectives, Jessica leapt onto the back of the truck hanging onto the side handholds as the truck quickly accelerated away from the estate.

Eyebrows raised, Floyd said, "That woman really cares about her job."

Breathing quickly through clenched teeth, The Sandman shook his head and cursed. How could they have responded so quickly? How could they have gotten to the house that fast? They had to have been already on the way to the Gerald Estate before he took the kid.

Nothing left to do but go check on the girl and make sure she was safe. Last thing he needed was to let a little girl get killed on his watch. He was having enough trouble sleeping as it was.

He also wasn’t checking his mirrors. If he had, he might have seen the hand of the woman clutching the handholds on the back of the truck for dear life.

And wasn’t life dear to Jessica Holiday? The daughter of one-time head of the FBI Kim Holiday, she hadn’t exactly lived up to her mother’s reputation which had earned her the nickname "Mauliday" for one maul a day. No, Jessica had been too reserved, too shy, and she had spent far too many years in solitude pushing papers across her desk within the bowels of the Pentagon.

Then came The Sandman, dead, as far as most FBI agents were concerned. But a clerical error too obscure to describe here led Jessica Holiday to believe The Sandman was still alive and as prolific as ever.

A few forged papers later, and she was on the trail of The Sandman, international killer extraordinaire.

She wasn’t entirely clear on her motives: was she after The Sandman for justice or was it purely out of boredom? He hadn’t wronged her in any substantial way, not directly. But he was evil, and that was all that mattered to her.

That, and not falling off the Deluxury truck which was driving far too quickly for the narrow, hairpin turns. This Sandman fellow wasn’t exactly safe, an observation she muttered out loud to nobody.

As they stomped through the woods leading away from the Gerald Estate, Floyd turned to Faber and said, "We’re going west, right?"

"Oh of course," Faber replied. "Just wanna go north for a bit and work our way back once we’re out of sight."

"Okay, good," Floyd said, "because this Gerald guy: he’s up to no good."

"I know, right? The way he bought this mountain," Faber said, staring up at the Lassen peak above him, "it was too quick. Too easy."

"I heard he’s trying to rename it Mount Gerald."

"Bah," Faber said with a wave of the hand. "Terrible name. It’ll never catch on."

"Worked for the Shasta family," Floyd said, pointing at Mount Shasta far off in the distance.

"That was a million years ago," Faber said. "Mount Gerald will never catch on."

"We should be out of sight by now," Floyd said, motioning them to the southwest.

The Sandman was turning circles in the clearing, the place he’d left Carrie Gerald with explicit instructions to stay put. Why would she leave? This was a forest. It wasn’t safe. Wasn’t the kid smart enough to stay where she’d be safe?

He heard the crackle of footsteps in underbrush a few seconds before she spoke: "Freeze, Sandman."

His head hanging low, he sighed, not taking his hands off his hips. What a day this was turning into for him.

"Turn around slowly," Jessica continued, her gun pointed at him, "and put your hands on your head."

"Ms. Holiday, I presume," he said, not turning around, not putting his hands on his head. "Nice to know at least one person at the FBI is still looking for me."

"Do as I say, or I will shoot," Jessica said.

"I hope I don’t have to shoot him," she muttered.

The Sandman turned around slowly to face the young redheaded girl pointing a gun at him, and then he slowly raised his hands to his head. "All right, Ms. Holiday, I’ve done as you’ve instructed. Now what?"

She walked toward him slowly, ready for any movement that caught her eye, any gesture that might give him away, ready to shoot at a moment’s–

The movement was so fast, it was almost lightning. The swift punch with one hand against his other arm broke her grip on the gun quickly and it went flying into the bushes. And before she had even a moment’s chance to respond, he had her in his grip.

"Never try this alone, Ms. Holiday," The Sandman said quietly as he choked the life out of her. "You’ve so much to learn."

She fought against his grip, but the fight ran out of her quickly, and before long, all for her was darkness.

The wrapper to the chocolate bar listed lazily in the bush it was caught in as the breeze drifted around it. Several feet behind it, the loud stomping of two detectives told the wrapper two men were approaching. Floyd was the first to notice it. He snatched it from the bushes and showed it to Faber saying, "The chocolate on the inside is still fresh."

Faber nodded, and then said, "We’re pretty much exactly west of the house."

"Seems like the daughter knows more than the father thinks," Floyd said casually tossing the wrapper over his shoulder. "Think she headed that way?"

"Probably," Faber replied. "True west. Let’s go."

They continued marching through the woods. Had they continued far enough, they would have returned to Redding eventually, but neither the detectives nor the little girl had the strength to make it that far. They hopped across a stream and continued through the woods.

The canopy of pine trees above them sheltered them from the sun, but the heat was still working its way through their bodies as they marched further and further from the home until they heard the voice: it was inscrutable at first but as they closed it, they both recognized a young girl singing.

"Take the canyon to the river and you hang a little right: follow through the woods to the shack that’s out of sight. Take the canyon to the river and you hang a little right..."

"Hardly a river," Faber said.

"To a kid that young," Floyd replied, "any creek is a river. Let’s go."

They saw the shack down the hill just as the little girl entered, shutting the door behind her. Without a word they took off running toward the shack. Faber was the first to reach it and he flung the door open, sending the padlock flying from the latch.

The girl whirled around to look at them, alarmed at first, and then she excitedly said, "Are you aliens too!?"

Neither Faber nor Floyd responded. For the moment, they’d forgotten about the girl. They were staring mouths agape at the piles and piles of gold bars all neatly stacked up within the shed.

"Well," Faber finally said, "we found the kid."

"And so much more," Floyd added.

Her face fell as Carrie said, "You’re taking me home aren’t you?"

"We are," Faber said as he knelt next to the girl. "I don’t suppose you know the way?"

They returned around noon with Carrie Gerald in tow. She’d fallen asleep before they’d gone halfway home, but Faber and Floyd recognized enough landmarks to find their way by that point. Indeed, the enormous mountain towering over them was a good sign.

Faber carried her piggyback as she slept against his shoulder and Caroline was the first to spot them. She ran to them across the lawn and took Carrie in her arms. The girl woke enough to say, "I found the aliens."

"We’ll have a long talk about that later," Caroline replied as she took Carrie in her arms. She thanked Faber and Floyd.

"Just doing our job, ma’am," Floyd said.

"And doing it quite well, I might add," Faber said with a smile. "We need to get on the road, though."

"You should see Mr. Gerald," Caroline said, motioning toward the house, "about the reward."

Faber shrugged. "Without going into too much detail," Faber said, not looking at her, "Montgomery Gerald’s gonna want to keep as much money as possible. For now."

A team of officers took Montgomery Gerald into custody that very night. He didn’t resist. In fact, one officer said he had a look of unbridled relief.

Jail, for the man with a price on his head, was probably the safest place in the world.