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By Tarlan


I didn't know where we were headed. I guess it didn't matter. I only knew I had an important job to do in a less than perfect world.

Those were my thoughts as we drove away from the Pedro Municipal lock-up. Monica had smiled enigmatically as she gunned the engine, and I glanced over my shoulder to see similar smiles on the faces of Helen and Gracie Rickman. My heart contracted in a pain that had little to do with fear, knowing that I had accepted the task of protecting Gracie for as long as she needed me.

Part of me wondered why I feared for her future, especially as Newmeyer was dead, incinerated along with the contents of his laboratory in the old Dairy. However, someone must have been paying for all the expensive equipment, paying for all the research, as Newmeyer and Rickman had not been much more than research scientists in the beginning. They must have shared their discovery with someone in order to gain the necessary finance, though they might not have been too honest about the kind of research they had been undertaking. Still, once that person, or corporation, started to investigate the events surrounding Newmeyer's death then there was every chance they would learn of Newmeyer and Rickman's apparent rejuvenation.

I looked back at Gracie, seeing the innocence in her bright eyes.

Gracie Rickman held a fountain of youth within her small frame -- Deep Red -- and there were plenty of people in this not so perfect world who would kill to possess that microscopic machine.




Four months passed without incident, and they shared an almost idyllic existence on a run-down homestead more than ten miles out from the nearest piece of so-called civilisation. In that time Joe had never felt better in his life as the Reds repaired the damage to his body. The Reds in his body, a regular gift from Gracie, had brought him back to peak condition, erasing the years of abuse through smoking and through fatigue. In fact, he rarely smoked any more, no longer experiencing a craving for nicotine as he had in the past.

His days were spent making minor repairs to the old ranch house, and mending broken fences, and his nights were spent reacquainting himself with the joys of a marriage that he had thought long dead after the terrible events surrounding Mack's family. He no longer suffered from the nightmares, no longer relived the frightened screams of Mack's wife and daughter as they were gunned down in cold blood before his eyes, while he was supposed to be protecting them.

When he stepped out of the ranch house that morning, he found Gracie playing with a doll he had bought for her during one of his recent trips into the closest town. Joe knelt down beside her, grinning softly as he teased the child, and laughing happily when she threw her small arms around him and hugged him tightly. He knew it had been a risk buying her a doll but she had been forced to leave all her toys behind when she and her parents were forced to run for their lives.

They played tag for a few moments and then Joe placed her back into the safekeeping of her mother and Monica before he climbed into the car.

"Any special requests?"

They shook their heads, just as they always did, and he quickly gunned the engine and pulled away, glancing back into the rear view mirror as Gracie waved goodbye.

Within twenty minutes he had reached the small town of Oakley Creek, slowly driving along the single main street and parking close to the General store. The town couldn't boast more than three hundred inhabitants, and though it meant he stuck out whenever he went into the town for supplies, the same disadvantage applied to any other newcomers. Knowing how important it was to know about any strangers a quickly as possible, Joe had done his best to cultivate the friendship of the man running the General Store.

So far there had been one or two people driving through the town but no one had stopped to ask any questions relating to a little girl and her mother.

He stepped inside and grinned a welcome at the store owner.

"Hey Walt, how're you doing?"

"Not bad, Joe. You want the usual?"

Joe nodded and pulled a paper from the stand while Walt Johnson pulled together his usual grocery order for the coming week. He perused the paper with disinterest, merely checking for any strange anomalies but nothing new had appeared in the press regarding Newmeyer, Rickman or the incident surrounding them since the week it happened. He sighed, hoping that it would remain old news.

When he looked up, Walt was watching him keenly, and he frowned as the older man beckoned him over.

"Problem?"

Walt indicated the man who had just stepped into the store.

"Been asking about a little girl, and I recalled you buying that doll a week back."

Surreptitiously, Joe regarded the man browsing the magazines in the rack at the far end of the store. The man was obviously not from around these parts, for he had the look of a city slicker. His chambray shirt and designer jeans had come from a big city department store, and his desert boots were far more ostentatious than the kind bought by the average person in these parts.

The man looked across at Joe, dark eyes narrowing in suspicion behind the raybans, and Joe felt his sixth sense kick in. He accepted the grocery bags from Walt and bid him good day, trying to look nonchalant as he made his way through the store and out of the door. When he reached his car, Joe spotted the man in his peripheral vision as he placed the groceries into the trunk. He swore under his breath and quickly slipped into the driver's seat.

As he pulled away from the store, he saw the man jump into a light-colored sedan parked just a couple of places behind his own. Once more, he swore under his breath, undecided as to what he ought to do next. If he went back to the homestead then he'd be leading these people right to Gracie... but who was to know that they hadn't already discovered that information from someone else in the small town? For all he knew, they might be zeroing in on the homestead while he puttered along the main street.

And where could they go without transport?

With his decision made, Joe pressed his foot harder on the accelerator, heading back towards the homestead. He grabbed the cell phone from the console and hit the rapid dial, hoping Monica was listening in for any trouble... as long as she was still free to listen.

"Joe?"

He gave a silent sigh of relief that Monica was still able to answer the phone.

"Trouble. Get them ready to move... NOW!"

Joe knew he had to do his best to shake the guys following, knowing how important it was that he buy time for them to disappear into a new location. The sudden zing of metal striking metal caught his attention, and he swore profusely as he eyed the man hanging out the passenger window, seeing the small machine gun jumping in his hand as more bullets struck his car.

The rear window shattered, and Joe ducked instinctively, the car slipping and sliding in the dusty ground as he fought to retain control.
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