Rocky Start, Chapter Two: Max

You met Rose, here’s Max.

Chapter 2
MAX

The forest became quiet as I stood there, balanced on one foot. The good news: I hadn’t been killed immediately by an explosion when I hit, but did not break, the tripwire. I’d spotted it a fraction of a second before my right foot touched it. My momentum, plus the fifty pound backpack I was carrying, caused me to stretch the wire, but my combat-honed, peace-dulled instincts stopped me before breaking it. I remained frozen in place, foot a couple of inches above the forest floor, pressing against the wire, and considered my next move.

The bad news was that I was going to have to do something about this.

Looking left and right, I saw that the wire extended to trees on either side, went through green metal o-rings screwed into the trees, made turns, and continued on as far as I could see which explained why there’d been no big bang. It was an alarm, not an ambush.

There’s a limit to how long I can stand on one foot. I started to wobble. I slowly, very slowly, brought my foot back. I wondered about Maggs, but she was trained, having gone to school for a heck of long time, topped with a lot of real world experience, to avoid such things as trip wires and stupid owners.

Technically, I didn’t own the dog. It was more that she tolerated my existence.

Clear of the line, I looked about a bit more closely than I had been and spotted the reason for the alert line.

Ahead of me were large swaths of cannabis, aka, weed, growing in the Cherokee National Forest, where the undergrowth had been cleared out of a couple of acres hidden under the trees. The plants were not there due to nature’s whims. Someone had planted them, and whoever it was probably didn’t want me wandering through.

I considered turning back, but that would mean going uphill and making an even bigger detour from the Appalachian Trail than I already had. I was tired and grouchy and hungry and my right knee hurt, a reminder I wasn’t getting any younger and that my youthful world adventures were taking a toll in middle-age.

It was just weed, after all.

I stepped over the wire and continued on, a bit more wary.

I envision my innate warning system like a geiger counter and right now it began a very slow, low clicking in my head. I didn’t think weed was legal in Georgia or Tennessee or North Carolina and I was near the nexus of those three states coming together in the Smoky Mountains. I hadn’t bothered to check the news since starting the trail months earlier, so maybe something had changed and pot was legal in one of those states. Maybe aliens had invaded. Maybe world peace had broken out and everybody was high.

I was doubtful on all three, particularly the last one. I just wanted to keep my own peace. I figured I could hurry through because there was something I needed in the oddly named town of Rocky Start, which wasn’t far ahead.

I was on a deer trail after leaving the Appalachian Trail to the northeast along the angled border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Maggs was off to my left about ten meters. I just wanted to make it through to the town peacefully.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m living in some sort of sadistic simulation and whoever was running it liked to mess with me because as soon as I thought about peace, two young men, almost boys, appeared to my right front at twenty meters, one of them carrying an AK-47, the silhouette of the assault rifle unmistakable and one I’d seen far too often in my past. Carrying one was legal in all three states, as opposed to growing weed, which is a head scratcher if you think about it. They saw me at the same time I saw them. Which meant I’d been wrong about how the tripwire worked.

I sighed, debating whether to turn about. I glanced over and saw Maggs on alert. I gave her a quick hand signal to lay low and remain in place because people often mistook her for a wolf. She crouched down and disappeared from sight.

“Hey, you!” the one with the AK called out.

I turned around, ready to backtrack, resigned to a slog uphill and a big loop around.

“Hey, I’m talking to you! Stop!”

He was yelling at me. I’d walked away from people yelling orders years ago, so—

A shot rang out and I froze. I felt, more than heard, the snap of a bullet going by, hyper-sonic. It wasn’t close. I knew what close was, and worse, what too close felt like, but still it was a bullet.

I turned around, not drawing the pistol inside my light coat because once you draw a weapon you use it, and when you use it, you kill, and I wasn’t in the mood to kill. Or die at the moment. It was just weed, after all.

The guy with the AK looked a little surprised, as if he hadn’t meant to pull the trigger, which really didn’t matter, because he had. Guns don’t shoot themselves. His buddy was slightly behind him, apparently not armed. AK guy was holding the rifle at hip level, approximately aimed in my direction. Worse, his finger was still inside the trigger guard. They both were dressed in dungaree coveralls with brightly colored tie-dyed t-shirts underneath.

“Geez, Reggie,” the unarmed one said, shaking his head. “Why’d you do that?You might have hurt somebody.”

A genius at work. I held up both hands. “Sorry. I wandered off the A.T.. Got lost. I’ll leave.”

“You a cop?” Reggie asked, trying to regain some bluster.

Sure, a cop just wandering around in the woods with a rucksack on his back. “I got lost,” I repeated.

Reggie was shaking his head. “No way, dude. Can’t have you going around telling people about the farm.” The two stopped about ten meters away.

The other boy looked at him. “Come on, Reggie, just let him go.”

After all I’d been through over the years, the concept of dying over a field of pot in the middle of bumfuck nowhere because a guy named Reggie was a paranoid moron seemed ludicrous. Then again, I’d seen people die over much less in much worse places.

I tried once more. “I’m through-hiking the trail. I’ll be out of the area before you know it.”

Reggie looked back at his buddy, who appeared a bit out of it, perhaps partaking of too much of their product. “He’ll rat us out, Marley. We ain’t nowhere near the trail.”

“Dude, he’s a stranger,” stoned Marley said. “He got lost. Chill out.”

Reggie was uncertain and uncertain people are in many ways more dangerous, especially when they have their finger on the trigger. A person who was certain would have already killed me or let me pass through without raising the stakes. Reggie was lost on a middle road that didn’t exist. Now that they were closer, they appeared related, solidly built with the same curly dark hair and blue eyes, probably brothers. Reggie and Marley, the Weed Brothers. Great.

“I don’t know, Marley, man,” Reggie said. “I think he’s a narc.”

Marley was nervous. “Dude, just let him go.”

“What do you think Pike would say if we let him go?”

“We don’t tell him,” Marley said, which seemed reasonable to me. “He’s gonna be mad if he finds out you took his gun, and he’ll know you did if you use it.”

Marley had a portion of logic going inside his muddled head although he’d already forgotten that his brother had fired a warning shot. Details make all the difference.

“We’ll tie him up and see what Pike wants to do,” Reggie said. “You know what he says about Outsiders.”

He made the last word seem like a profanity and definitely capitalized. I half expected a banjo to start playing. I didn’t want to see what Pike wanted to do, and no one was going to tie me up, and squealing like a pig was never going to happen. I started walking toward the two which surprised both. “I don’t want any trouble,” I said.

Five meters.

“Stop,” Reggie said uncertainly, waving the barrel of the AK back and forth as if it were some sort of magic warding stick. Too much Harry Potter in his childhood.

“Let me just do this,” I said, which further confused both of them. But he still had that gun, finger twitching inside the trigger guard, and I knew I was going to have to get Maggs involved.

I whistled a two tone note.

Maggs came fast and hard from the left, a big blur of fuzzy black streaking through the forest. She scared even me a little bit and we’d been together for two years. She went for Reggie because she knew what a gun looked like and if it wasn’t in my hands, then it was a bad thing.

Maggs didn’t like bad things.

She leapt and that was when the two stoners became aware of her, some latent caveman survival gene kicking in. Maggs hit Reggie in the shoulder with her chest, her jaws clamping on his neck but not closing as her sixty-five pounds of muscle and bone and claw and tooth took him down before he was halfway turned toward her.

She whined in pain as she did so, which upset me. Marley was turning in surprise to his brother but by then I had the Glock out and my finger was on the trigger and I was closing on him and aiming for a head shot and for some reason, I didn’t shoot.

Probably because I hadn’t killed anyone since I’d retired.

Marley was still trying to figure out what day it was, and Reggie had dropped the rifle and was on his back, whimpering in fear, as much he could with Maggs’ teeth on his throat, a command away from having it ripped open. And I didn’t give the command.

I was violating my rules. About drawing a gun. About assholes.

Worried about Maggs’ whine of pain, I tapped the barrel of my pistol against the side of Marley’s head as he was still trying to process what had happened—don’t do drugs, kids—and he crumbled to the ground, out cold. I knelt next to Reggie.

“I didn’t want trouble,” I said in what I considered a reasonable tone, although it had been weeks since I’d actually talked to anyone other than Maggs. “I don’t want any more. There’s no such thing as a warning shot, son. If you remember that, you’ll be a better person for this encounter. I’m taking the gun because I don’t want to be shot in the back and you don’t know what you’re doing with it. I see you again, I’ll kill you. No warning, no hesitation. Just stone cold dead. Understand?”

He wanted to nod, but was too afraid of Maggs, her mouth clamped over his throat.

“Blink twice if you understand,” I said.

What was he gonna do with fangs pressing on his carotid? He blinked. I could smell urine and wasn’t sure which one of them it came from. I didn’t care.

“Blink twice if you agree.” Because understanding wasn’t necessarily assent.
He blinked twice.

I stood. “Release,” I said in a command voice and Maggs let go. She looked up at me with those big brown eyes that could make the stoutest heart melt, even while she was ripping out a throat. “Good dog.” I knelt and checked her while Reggie watched, wide-eyed.

She’d caught her paw on the button of his coveralls and it had dug in under her pad. There was some blood. Nothing major. I stood, hefting the AK, and walked past them toward the road they’d been coming up since it headed in the right direction, hoping my day was going to get better.

I figured it couldn’t get much worse.

Maggs was limping next to me, so when we hit the dirt road and then crossed a wood single lane bridge over a fast-moving river just outside of town, I shrugged off my rucksack. I broke down the AK-47, which took all of five seconds which is why it’s very popular among the stupid and untrained, and slid the parts inside my ruck.
I took a closer look at Magg’s paw. It was bleeding worse. I pulled out the first aid kit and cleaned the wound as best I could, put some triple antibiotic in it, then bandaged it.

I stood up, shouldering my ruck. I checked to see how Maggs did with the bandage and of course, she promptly started to chew it off.

“No,” I said.

She looked at me for a moment, ran that command through her brain, decided nope, not in her skill set, then finished ripping the bandage off. She seemed very proud of that. Another game we could play.

Great.

I re-bandaged the paw, using all of the medical tape in my kit, plus a bit of duct tape which I kept for extreme emergencies such as sucking chest wounds. Maggs took that as a challenge and lowered her head to chew.

“No!” I said in my best command voice, but I knew it was a losing battle. She was going to tear that off and I had nothing left to put on it and it would get infected and . . .

Fuck.

I was close to the town. Maybe there was a vet. I only had one errand there: My current pair of boots were really worn, my big toe poking through the top of the right one. That hole in the toe doesn’t sound like a big deal unless you’ve walked some miles, 2,641 in this particular case, not that I’m counting. So I had plenty of time to get Maggs seen too.

We started down the road toward Rocky Start.

My new plan was pick up my boots where they were waiting for me at the Rocky Start post office, get Maggs’ paw seen to, and then get out of town and hole up for a couple of days to let Maggs heal.

I had to constantly chastise Maggs not to chew the bandage but her limp became more pronounced. So I cached the rucksack in the woods off road, just outside of town. Then I picked her up, cradling her in my arms and carried her. She seemed pretty content with that, but she was really heavy. Not as much as you might think since a lot of her appearance was the puffy hair, but the core was all lean muscle, bone, fang, claws and a big heart.

I staggered out of the forest on the eastern edge of town, where the two-lane highway hugged the river. The town was on the other side of the highway, spreading out for a half mile covering a bend in the river away from the highway.

As we got farther into the town, I heard some shouting from a store and then a guy stumbled backwards out of the door and down the steps, followed by a crazed lady swinging a small black statue, driving him into street. There was a limo, engine running parked across the street, which seemed odd.

The store they came out of was called Oddities, which seemed about right.

Also, none of this was my business.

But then he backhanded her. I don’t care who started it or who was in the right or wrong, you don’t hit women. You might have to kill one if she’s trying to kill you, but that’s a different scenario. I put Maggs down and motioned for her to remain in place. Then I went up the steps to them, noting that the woman was a furious, violent, middle-aged version of the girl-next-door, all curly dark hair and flashing eyes. Cute in a she-demon kind of way, but then I’d been on the trail for months.

I noticed a bulge under the guy’s jacket that he was reaching into and realized he was armed and this could get really ugly, so I grabbed the guy’s collar and pulled him backward and behind me into the street.

60 thoughts on “Rocky Start, Chapter Two: Max

  1. “Cute in a she-demon kind of way, but then I’d been on the trail for months.” ROFL!

  2. I’m not really a dog person, but I love that stubborn, willful dog! And Max… He doesn’t seem very social, but he sure has principles, and he stands by them. What an introduction! There’s a lot of action in the very beginning of this novel that sucks me in.

    In the paragraph where he is explaining the altercation on the steps, there should be a “the” after into: Into “the” street.

    The jerk took a limo to the store? I’m not sure what to make of that. And why is Max measuring distance in meters?

    I loved “Too much Harry Potter in his childhood.”

    I’m an hour away from going in for my first cataract surgery, so I’m a bit scattered from nerves. Thanks for sharing this. The dynamics are going to be exciting. Already are.

      1. Thanks. Unfortunately, I have PTSD from one of those automatic blood pressure cuffs, and that’s what they use during the surgery, so my BP shot up, and the surgery was cancelled. If you’ve ever had one of those go rogue on you and get so tight you thought your arm was going to be cut off, you understand. So, things are in flux and cancelled indefinitely, while I try to figure out how this can happen. They say they have to use the automatic cuff. I wonder what they did before the automatic cuffs? Anyway, I will see my doctor in May (not till May!) and figure this out. Thanks for your good wishes, all of you.

        1. I didn’t have one of those during the operation. They might have taken my blood pressure with one before it, I suppose. But surely they could just use a tourniquet on you?

          1. I think of a tourniquet as a binding that holds back hemorrhaging. It must mean something else to you. They evidently wanted to keep a running tally of my BP. For what reason, I don’t know. As long as things are OK, why go to all that trouble?

        2. Sounds like you might benefit from a bit of chemical help prior to the surgery- in dentistry I have seen Adivan used. Or, after reading the Max piece… weed?
          Just kidding, also some docs will prescribe a low dose of a B-blocker like propranolol for things like stage fright or specific situational anxiety. Lowers BP.

  3. There he is!!!!!! Loved it!

    Your writing is what inspired me to write, and I’ve been letting it sit on the backburner for years. I feel inspired again! Thank you, Jenny! I can’t wait to read more. 🙂

  4. Oh, gosh! After these two chapters, I really want to read the rest. Why don’t you, guys, forget all the big snobby publishers and self-pub your books. Between you two, you have enough fans to sell well. I’ll buy anything new with your names on the cover. I guess, everyone who reads this blog will.

    1. I’m pretty sure the Liz and Vince books are going to be self-rubbed, which means they’d be out soon. I’m all for it.

      1. Some of my favorite authors, who write under the name Ilona Andrews, have done some self publishing and written some informative blog posts about doing so.

  5. I am stealing “Maybe world peace had broken out and everybody was high. ”

    I would BUY it if it were ready for sale……. just saying.

  6. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who can’t stop their dog from chewing off bandages.

  7. I’m going to be the exception: I don’t like him at all. But then I had to skim Bob’s half of your other collaborations. I’m glad that working together is working so well; and you’ve obviously got a good audience. I’m just hoping you also manage to write solo.

    1. Thank you for saying that, Jane. I enjoy the different forms of wit expressed by Bob, but the masculine influence somehow skews the whole experience, for me. I really prefer Jenny’s solo works, too. But, if this collaboration keeps her writing and happy, I guess it’s good.

    2. A lot of testosterone certainly. The protagonists will have to change each other- she will soften him and maybe get his sense of humour going and he will hone her strategies for self-preservation

  8. I’m really enjoying that sense of trajectory that we know is going to bring these two together, but we don’t know how it’s going to happen. And the dog, of course.

  9. I couldn’t find a fault with either chapter. And now want to read the rest of the book. This is really good. A strong opening and characters I already want to spend time with.

  10. Of course I love Maggs—competence porn for dog lovers. Interestingly I kept arguing with Max, about what he was saying, not what he was doing. Reading Rose, I had questions, not arguments. I love both their voices.

    1. Many Anne, I finally asked Siri what 10 meters was in feet. It’s about 33 feet. That just gets in my way, every time he refers to meters. Why? Why? Why? It takes me out of the narrative and into math, which is detrimental to the immersion reading experience. I suppose, for people in the UK and Europe, it’s not a problem, but this book is being written in America, about an American town and people.

      1. A surprising amount of the US military runs in metric and alot of the Soldiers I know flip back and forth pretty well depending on what they are talking about. Most military maps are divided into kilometers. Aviation still use latitude/ longitude but infantry, etc. less so.

      2. I’m a Canadian, but meters is my stuff. I’m lost when people start talking about feet and miles and Fahrenheit temperature. I’m glad they count in meters in these snippets.

        1. I think the US is one of only two or three countries that doesn’t use metric. Metric is standard everywhere else for good reason.

          1. I remember all the way through school in the 60s being taught metric measurements and being told the U.S. was going to convert soon. Oh, well.

      3. Meters is a more precise measurement so it’s used by the military; Max is retired military, so that’s how he thinks. Think of meters as being yards only slight longer and you can get a general idea.

      4. My grandmother had a yardstick/meter stick she got in 1939 that was one meter on one side and thirty-nine inches on the other, so I grew up visualizing meters into approximate yards. Also some of my father’s engineering rulers were metric and others in inches. So I can flip inaccurately back and forth.

  11. This is a great intro to Max-I bet he will be of help with the Ozzie problem! They sound like a couple that will shoot sparks off eachother.

    A couple of word repetition issues – too many uses of the word ‘peace’ all close together.World peace, keep my own peace, peacefully. Also having the dog ‘seen to’ is mentioned twice in quick repetition. ( if being super picky- ‘hole up’ in town follows immediately after hole in his shoe)

    At first mention of Maggs- I was unsure if the dog was there with him or not. Instead of ‘wondering about’ Maggs, could he shoot a quick glance at Maggs and see her holding a still pose beside him?

    1. If Reggie and Marley are going to feature in the book again, I wouldn’t mind them having a more distinctive family feature than just blue eyes and dark curly hair. Mouth-breathers? Mono-brow? Receding chins? Or just some unfortunate acne scars.

      1. The problem is that Max sees them at a moment of high tension where he has to figure out how to disarm them and then what to do with them, so he’s not going to notice details–actually, the blue eyes are probably too much–just evaluate them as threats. And yep, they show up later.

  12. Well done. I will wait sort of patiently for the full novel. Time for my annual re-read of Agnes and DLD.

    When self-publishing, will you publish for a Nook or KOBO too?
    Thank you.

  13. I am laughing so hard because in my RSS feed reader, when this post came up, it asked me: Is this article about guns?

  14. This section needs tightening. For example he thinks “I just wanted to keep my own peace. ” and then in the next para “ I just wanted to make it through to the town peacefully.”
    There are a number of places you could cut.

    1. Yes, the feel of it is great, the flow is good, I feel like I am in Max’s head, just need line editing

  15. I’m just sitting here basking in the wonderfulness that is “Jenny and Bob are writing another book”!

    Kinda what I needed this week lol.

    ~Chelle S.

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