The Orange Bitch

Posted: April 4, 2015 in Book I Terror in Texas
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Tate Hamilton had not slept in nearly twenty-four hours. Between drive time, a three-hour wait to offload the trailer then getting the rig back across town, it had been a hell of a day, but added to a profitable month.

She thought about renting a motel room, but when it came down to parting with the money, she always reconsidered. The hefty truck payment due at the beginning of each month seemed daunting at times but then she’d slide into the black leather seat of her rig and well, it was worth it. The orange rig with red and gold flames stenciled on the side of the hood, she referred to as the Orange Bitch, was hers. Well, hers and the bank.

Besides she knew when the sheets in her rig’s sleeper had been washed last and who had been sleeping on them. She parked at the Rios Truck Stop where she could park the rig overnight, use the showers and get a good meal.

She’d have a few hours to kill the next day before picking up the next load, but no matter, it would give her time to visit with the owners. Pablo and Maria Rios had become friends when she was still driving with her dad before his fatal heart attack.

She would enjoy the time catching up on family news. There was always news since Pablo ran the gift shop/fueling station while the adjoining restaurant was his wife’s domain. Tate glanced across the street and shrugged. She could even pick up a bottle of shampoo at Walgreens, so it was a no-brainer.

Tate pulled the Orange Bitch into the parking lot alongside one of several fueling islands next to a red truck, killed the engine and jumped to the ground. She slid her bank card into the slot on the pump and entered the pin number before picking up the diesel nozzle. She pulled the cap off the main tank, shoved the nozzle in, locked the flow open and stood waiting for the tank to fill while considering what she would order for dinner. Shouting drew her attention back to voices on the other side of her rig.

“I ain’t hanging around, man. This shit’s crazy. I heard the base is fucked.” A gravelly voice announced.

A male answered. “¿Qué pasa con la carga?”

“The load? To hell with it! I’m going to my sister’s in Colorado.” A truck door slammed and a motor roared to life. “If you’re smart, you’ll get the hell out of town, too.”

The Hispanic man answered. “Mi familia aquí. I cannot leave without mi familia.”

“Suit yourself.” Another door slammed and another motor cranked.

Tate looked up as a bright red truck pulled away from the fueling island. A moment later, a sun-faded green truck followed the first out of the parking lot and turned into the street heading the opposite direction.

Tate wondered about the conversation while she finished filling the reserve tank before hanging up the nozzle. She quickly forgot the exchange when she saw the hit her checking account was taking and made a mental note to transfer money tomorrow.

She patted the side of the tank. “Well, Bitch, you’re fueled up and now it’s my turn.” Tate pulled herself back into the driver’s seat, cranked the engine and shifted into gear. Tate crept across parking lot and parked the rig under one of the back security lights, climbed out, locked the door and headed to the drugstore.

An hour later, standing in front of the mirror in a private shower at the Rios, Tate examined the tips of her spiked hair. The color matched her truck and that made her smile. She studied the reflection in a mirror and decided she liked her dark brown hair bleached and colored at the ends.

She stepped away from the sink and noticed her reflection in the full-length mirror on the door and smiled at seeing a feline face creeping over her shoulder. She turned to the side and could see the brightly colored tattoo that began on her left hip with the black curl of a panther’s tail and wound around her back to end on her right shoulder with a black head with green eyes peeking through leaves, vines and blossoms over her shoulder.

Mario, the tattoo artist, called her his masterpiece. She had to admit it was a beautiful tattoo even if few people would ever see it in its entirety. The vines and blossoms had started out as a cover-up of an old boyfriend’s name on her shoulder and evolved into a panther surrounded by the jungle in all its glory.

She slipped into underwear, jeans, pencil-strapped tank top and a plaid shirt tied at the waist. She gathered her toiletries in a bag, unlocked the door and stepped out into the hall. She heard voices from the front of the gift shops.

“Hey, Pablo,” Tate called out. “Thanks for the shower. Something smells really good.”

“Ah, Señorita Tate, Maria is making your favorite. Enchiladas with tasajo beef.”

Pablo rang up a customer at the register then waved toward a young girl stocking candy. She set the box back on the cart and walked to the counter.

“Papa, I still have homework.” The girl chided with a grin.

Pablo stepped out from behind the register and winked at the girl took his place. He walked up to Tate and wrapped a thick arm around her shoulder. Together they walked through the store into the restaurant.

“Maria will be glad to see you. It has been a long while. Sí?”

“Yes. It has been.” Tate answered. “How’s the kids? Sofia is all grown up now, I see.”

“Sofia graduate high school next month.” He answered. “Juan is come home from Iraq in June. All is good. Fuel prices down so more customers. Business is good.”

Tate leaned over to kiss Pablo’s cheek. “Good to hear. I’ve missed seeing you and Maria.”

“You been busy?” Pablo asked in his accented English.

“I spent two weeks on the west coast a couple months ago then had a run to Chicago, from there to Boston, then up and down the east coast a couple times. From Atlanta, I ended back in Chicago. Now I’m here. Lots of driving time.”

“You work too hard.”

“Got big truck payments.” Tate laughed.

“Come, have your dinner. You eat then you rest.”

Pablo led Tate to a table and waved at a short thick-bodied woman with a glistening crown of platted black hair. She hurried across the dining room with tray in hand. She placed a glass of tea, napkin wrapped flatware, chips and sauces on the table.

“Niña. So nice to see you.” Maria gave Tate a big smile. “I bring dinner. You watch TV.” She turned to her husband. “Viejo, back to your job. Your daughter got studies.” She patted his cheek and he headed back to the gift shop. Maria disappeared back into the kitchen.

“You’re daughter, Sophia, tell me already.”  He answered and walked back to the store.

Tate laughed as she emptied two packets of sugar in the glass of tea. She looked to the flat-screen television across the room but only caught bits and pieces of the news reports when several emergency vehicles raced past the station heading in the direction of the military base a couple miles away.

She glanced back at the flat screen and tried to put the collage of images in some context with what the talking head was saying. The reporter talked about a terrorist attack by two drones over a parade ground full of military personnel at the base. There were injured and dying soldiers all over the parade ground. First responders were flocking to the site. It was a confusing collection of reports and images for a sleep deprived mind.

Tate struggled to stay focused on the newscast until Maria brought a plate of enchiladas, beans and rice, then she turned her full attention to the meal. Even with the jalapeno burning her lips she was having a hard time staying awake long enough to eat. Finishing her meal quickly, she barely tasted the spices and tender beef. She laid cash on the table and waved at Maria as she picked up her bag and walked out of the eatery.

After a quick stop at the toilet, Tate stumbled across the parking lot to the truck. She climbed into the driver seat, locked the doors and dropped her shower bag on the floor in front of the passenger seat.

Pulling her legs up into the seat, she turned and climbed into the sleeper. She settled in the middle of the mattress and opened a green duffle bag. She pulled out a Mossberg, checked the load then laid it to the back of the mattress. With the shotgun stowed, she pulled a Ruger from the bag. She checked the load then slid the weapon into the back pocket of the driver’s seat.

She stowed the bag, turned on the air conditioning then stretched out on the mattress. Tate sighed when the unit began rattling softly. The air conditioner needed servicing but at that particular moment, she was thankful it muted the noise of blaring traffic and screams of sirens. She laid her head on the lavender scented pillow and closed her eyes. She fell asleep almost instantly.

“Back! Jackson, damn it! You get away from me!” A voice called out. “Come on son, don’t do this.”

Tate scrunched her eyes closed trying to recapture the untroubled slumber, but the panicked voice outside called out again.

“Don’t do this. I’ll split your skull!”

Bodies slammed against the side of the sleeper. Tate groaned. “Damn it.” She cursed. “You’ve done it now you dick-heads.”

She glanced at the clock and realized it was nine and the sun was shining. She had slept for more than eighteen hours. Her bladder screamed for relief as she ran her finger through her hair. The styling gel in her hair had turned style into a severe case of bed-head overnight. She imagined she looked pretty scary, but as pissed as she was at the commotion outside, she didn’t care.

She ignored the cotton feel in her mouth and climbed into the driver seat, stepped into boots and jerked open the door just as the combatants slammed into her sleeper again.

“Hey you dip-shits, some of us are trying to sleep.”

Tate jumped to the ground ready to enter the fray but froze in place when she saw the two men. They were locked in a grappling struggle, but the fight itself was not what drew her up short.

The younger of the men was covered in blood and gore. The back of his pants were stained dark brown and the stench wafting from his direction left little doubt as to what the stain was. He had remnants of a dressing on an open wound on his arm. His neck had a patch of ragged torn flesh. A strip of tape hung from his neck where a bandage had fallen away. His eyes were glazed over with a whitish film. The undamaged flesh appeared gray and cyanotic. He kept leaning his bared, gnashing teeth toward the older man.

Tate was dumbfounded when she realized he was trying to bite the man’s face. The older man grappled with a bat, pressing the length of wood against the aggressor’s chest trying to keep him away. The assailant just pushed closer.

The attacker swung an arm at the bat and knocked it from the old man’s grasp. It fell to the ground and the attacker lunged. The man grabbed at the attacker shoving his hands into the blood splattered throat wound pushing the snapping teeth from his face.

The defender backed away while the attacker followed never giving him a chance to turn and run or grab the bat. He looked over his shoulder and yelled at Tate.

“Get the bat. Hit him over the head!”

Tate glanced from the battle to the bat on the asphalt and back again. She glanced around the lot for any sign of assistance, but there was no one else to help.

Realizing she was the only hope the man had, she rushed to the bat and picked it up ignoring the end covered with blood and gore. With a clinched jaw, she ran to the fight and took a swing at the younger man.

She slammed the bat down on the man’s shoulder. The impact barely registered despite the sound of his collar bone snapping. He acted as if he hadn’t even noticed the blow. He just leaned his open mouth closer to the older man’s throat as the man’s arm weakened.

“Hit him in the head!” The defender huffed. “Do it now!”

Tate took a step back with the wood over her left shoulder then swung with all her might. The bat made a wide arc connecting with the side of his skull with a hollow, bone shattering thud. The man collapsed in a heap of blood and gore. He remained still, not moving again.

Tate was horrified to see the side of his skull had split open with the momentum of the swing. Blood, so dark it was nearly black, and gray matter oozed from the gaping wound.

The man fell to his knees at the side of the body. He pulled the younger man into his arms and cradled the body as he wept and mumbled. “Son, I am so sorry. Oh, God, son, how am I going to tell you mother?”

Tate looked on in horror. “I’m sorry.” She whispered. “I…I didn’t mean to.”

He turned to face Tate. “You did what you had to do.” He got to his feet and glanced around the near-empty parking lot. “What are you still doing here?”

“What do you mean? I spent the night here. I’ve got a load to pick up down the street at two this afternoon. What in the fuck is going on? Why is all the lights out? Where is everyone?”

“You don’t know?” The man took off his jacket and laid it over the face of the young man at his feet. “You don’t know about the infection on the base?”

“I saw something last night on the television about an attack.”

She got an uneasy feeling and noticed for the first time how really quiet it was. There were no cars or trucks moving on the streets around the truck stop. Traffic lights were out. She looked back at the building just as Pablo, Maria, and half a dozen others stumbled through the shattered glass storefront of the truck stop. Each was covered in blood and bore terrible wounds.

“Fuck girl. You just woke up to a new world and it ain’t pretty.” The old man declared. “We gotta get outta here!”

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