“That kid took Father to that side of the store,” Tony said, pointing toward the produce department. He jumped on his mountain bike and began peddling down the broad aisle between the checkout counters and women’s clothing.
Max was right behind Tony until he saw the checkout with tobacco products. He got off his bike, went around the counter, and grabbed a couple packs of cigarettes, which he shoved into his pockets, along with a lighter. “Tony, hold on.”
Tony stopped and looked back at Max, who was lighting a cigarette as he climbed back onto his bike. “When are you going to quit smoking? Those things will kill ya.”
“I’ll quit when this madness quits,” Max said, catching up with Tony. His hand quivered as he brought the cigarette to his mouth. “They help calm my nerves.”
Tony rubbed his tired eyes and called, “Father, where are you?”
They sat motionless on their bikes, straining their ears to hear even the slightest of sounds. There was no answer.
They rode slowly past lettuce and onions and then stopped where they had seen Vin take Father around the corner past ten-pound bags of potatoes.
Max jumped, almost dropping his filter tip, when the spray mist kicked on over the carrots. He took another drag. “I should’ve gotten me some heart medicine. My ol’ ticker isn’t going to make it.”
Tony looked back at Max and almost laughed. A cigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth as he leaned forward on the handlebars. His disheveled hair, bug-eyed glasses, and bristly gray growth of beard did indeed make him look like he was going to drop dead from a heart attack at any moment.
They rode on past the beef, pork, and chicken then stopped in front of the double doors leading into the butcher’s area. The only sound was the dull hum of coolers.
“Father,” Tony shouted. His voice seemed to carry throughout the interior of the vacant building. “It’s Tony. Where are you?”
“I heard something,” Max said, pointing toward the butcher doors. A low muffled sound came from behind the double panels. “He’s in there.”
They got off their bicycles. Tony put his hand on the metal panel and slowly pushed the swing door open. He stepped into the cold darkness just as a saw powered on, triggered by the booby-trapped door. When he looked in the direction of the loud buzzing noise, he saw Father Mitch. He had a gag in his mouth, and next to the teeth of a spinning blade were his hands, tied securely only inches away from the meat saw.
Tony reached down to retrieve the Bowie knife from his boot, but it was gone. He had forgotten that Half-Pint took it when the gang of kids captured them. He saw a butcher knife on the counter next to a slab of red cow muscle and used it to quickly release Father’s hands and remove the gag.
Father was stiff and cold as Tony took him through the doors and into the aisle.
“I’ll get blankets,” Max said, peddling away. He was not sure he was going the right direction; he rarely went to large stores.
Max was not a people person; and would order whatever he needed online, if he needed anything at all. Max preferred to be alone, away from people who had nothing interesting to say. Maybe he avoided people because he thought, they thought he was peculiar, and envisioned them staring and speaking under their breath. Whether the problem was people or Max, he preferred his own company, or the company of Professor Dillon in the solitude of Owl Observatory.
He slammed on the brakes when he passed the fish aquariums. Something about the way they were swimming caught his attention. He watched the guppies, tetras, and minnows swim, in a unified pattern as if they were performing some type of aquatic dance.
He brought a finger to the glass and gave it some quick gentle taps. He almost fell over when they bolted toward his finger, their mouths open and gulping as they pelted the side of the aquarium.
“What the . . .” Max said, jumping back. He turned and pedaled away, reading the signs hanging from the ceiling that would guide him to the blankets.
After finding a soft fleece throw, he rode back to where Father was sitting on a rack that Tony had laid on the floor sideways, spilling bags of potato chips across the floor.
“Here,” Max said, draping the wooly blanket over Father’s shivering shoulders. “How are you feeling?”
Father shrugged, pulling the blanket up to his chin. “I’ll be fine.”
“Why’d that lunatic do that to you?” Max asked, frowning.
“I don’t know,” Father said, pulling the blanket tighter around his body. “He said something about an ace in the hole.”
“What an idiot,” Max said. “At least those juvenile delinquents are gone.”
“Are you good enough to walk?” Tony asked. “We should see if Max’s car is out front.”
“It better be,” Max said, getting back on his bike.
Father stood and began walking. “Let’s get out of here.”
Max rode his bike while Tony helped Father Mitch walk. When they reached the main exit, they could see the Mustang parked at an angle in front of the doors.
“What’s with all the damned seagulls?” Max asked, lighting another cigarette. He looked at the largest flock of birds he had ever seen, larger than any migrating blackbird super flock. The gulls were perched on the Mustang’s windshield, seats, and hood, along with most of the parking lot.
“They’ll probably fly away when we go out there,” Tony said. “Nothing to worry about, they’re just birds.”