“Next time—” Something catches his attention, and his easy calm shifts to sudden alertness. His focus goes down the line, and he bellows out, “Cease fire! Cease fire!”
I feel a sweep of adrenaline ping every nerve, and I go very still, assessing, but this isn’t about me. Raggedly, all the percussive noise of the range dies, and people pull their weapons down, elbows in, while he walks down four stalls. There’s a burly man there with a semiauto pistol. Javi orders him to clear the firearm and step away.
“What’d I do?” the man asks in a belligerent tone. I pick up my bag, nerves still jangling, and head for the door, though I do it slowly. I realize the man hasn’t done as Javi instructed; instead, he’s chosen to get defensive. Not a good idea. Javi’s face goes stiff, and his body language changes with it.
“Clear that weapon and place it on the shelf, sir. Now.”
“Ain’t no call for this. I know what I’m doing! Been shooting for years!”
“Sir, I saw you turn your loaded weapon in the direction of another shooter. You know the rules. Always point the muzzle downrange. Now clear it and put it down. If you don’t follow my instructions, I will remove you from the range and the police will be called. Do you understand?”
Smiling, calm Javier Esparza is now someone else entirely, and the force of his command blasts through the room like a stun grenade. The offending shooter fumbles at his gun, gets the clip out, and throws it and the weapon down on the counter. I notice the muzzle still isn’t pointed downrange.
Javi’s voice has gone clear and soft now. “Sir, I said clear your weapon.”
As the man stares, Javi reaches for the gun, ejects the last cartridge from the slide, and sets the bullet down on the counter beside the clip. “That’s how people get killed. If you can’t learn how to properly clear a weapon, you need to find another range,” he says. “If you don’t know how to obey a range instructor’s orders, find another range. In fact, you might want to just find another range. You endanger yourself and everybody here when you ignore safety rules, do you understand?”
The man’s face turns a puffy, unhealthy red, and he balls his fists.
Javi puts the gun back down exactly the way it had been when he picked it up, turns it downrange, and then pointedly turns it to lie on its other side. “Ejection port goes up, sir.” He steps back and locks eyes with the man. Javi’s wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt, and the shooter is wearing a camo shirt and old army-surplus uniform pants, but it’s clear as day which one is the soldier. “I think you’re done for the day, Mr. Getts. Never shoot angry.”
I’ve never seen a man so clearly on the edge of either outright, unthinking violence or a massive heart attack. His hand twitches, and I can see him wondering how fast he can get to his gun, load it, and start to fire. There’s a heavy, sick weight to the air, and I find my hand moving the zipper slowly down on the bag I’m holding, my mind calculating the steps—just as he is—to preparing my gun to fire. I’m fast. Faster than him.
Javier isn’t armed.
The tension shatters as one of the other people standing frozen at a shooting station takes a single step out, halfway between me and the angry guy. He’s smaller than both Javi and the red-faced man, and he has sandy-blond hair that might have been close-cropped once but is growing out to fan his ears now. Lithe, not muscular. I’ve seen him around but don’t know his name.
“Hey now, mister, let’s just gear this back,” he says in an accent that doesn’t sound like Tennessee to me but comes from somewhere more in the Midwest. Folksy. It’s a calm, quiet sort of voice, seductively reasonable. “The range master’s just doing his job, all right? And he’s right. You start shooting angry, never know what could happen.”
It’s amazing, watching the rage drain out of Getts, as if someone has kicked a plug loose in him. He takes a couple of deep breaths, color fading back to something like normal, and nods stiffly. “Shit,” he says. “Guess I got a little ruffled there. Won’t happen again.”
The other man nods back and returns to his shooting window, avoiding everyone’s curious looks. He starts checking over his own pistol, which is oriented the correct way, downrange.
“Mr. Getts, let’s talk outside,” Javier says, which is polite and correct, but Carl’s face twists up again, and I see a vein pulse in his temple. He starts to protest and then senses the weight of eyes on him, all the other shooters waiting in silence, watching. He steps back into the booth and angrily begins shoving his kit into a bag. “Fucking power-hungry wetback,” he mutters, then stalks toward the door. I pull in a breath, but Javi lays a friendly hand on my shoulder as the door slams behind him.
“Funny how that asshole listens to the white guy before the range master,” I say. All of us in here are white, with the exception of Javier. Tennessee has no shortage of people of color, but you’d never know it from the makeup of the people on the firing line.
“Carl’s a jackass, and I didn’t want him in here anyway,” Javi says.
“Doesn’t matter. You can’t let him talk to you that way,” I say, because I want to slam a fist into Carl’s teeth. I know it wouldn’t go well. I still want to do it.
“He can talk any way he wants. Blessings of living in a free country.” Javi sounds pleasant, still. “Doesn’t mean no consequences, ma’am. He’ll be getting a letter banning him from the range. Not because of what he said, but I don’t trust him to be responsible around other shooters. Not only are we entitled to turn people away for unsafe and aggressive behavior, we’re required to.” He smiles a little. A grim, cold little smile. “And if he wants to have a word with me in the parking lot sometime later, fine. We can do that.”
“He might bring his beer buddies.”
“That’ll be fun.”
“So, who was the guy that stepped up?” I jerk my head toward the man; he’s already got his hearing protection on again. I’m curious, because he’s not a usual range rat, or at least not during the times I tend to shoot.
“Sam Cade.” Javi shrugs. “He’s okay. New guy. Kinda surprised he did that. Most people wouldn’t.”
I hold out my hand. He shakes it. “Thank you, sir. You run a tight range.”
“I owe it to everybody who comes here. Be safe out there,” he says, then turns back to the waiting shooters. He breaks out his drill sergeant voice again. “Range is clear! Commence fire!”
I duck out as the thunder of bullets rattles again. The run-in between Javi and the other man has shaved a little off my good mood, but I still feel vastly elated as I leave my hearing protection on the rack outside. Fully certified. I’ve been thinking about it for a very long time, cautious, unsure about whether or not I dared to put my name on official records. I’d always had guns, but it had been a risk, carrying without a license. I finally felt settled well enough here that I could take the leap.
My phone buzzes as I unlock the car, and I nearly fumble it as I open up the back to place my gear inside. “Hello?”
“Ms. Proctor,” I automatically correct, then glance at the caller ID. I have to suppress a groan. School administration office. It’s a number with which I am already depressingly familiar.
“I’m sorry to tell you that your daughter, Atlanta—”
“Is in trouble,” I finish for the woman on the other end. “So I guess this must be Tuesday.” I lift the panel on the floor. Beneath, there’s a lockbox, big enough for the gun bag, and I put it in and slam the box shut, then pull the carpet back over to conceal it.
The woman on the other end of the call makes a disapproving sound, low in her throat. Her voice rises a notch. “It’s not funny, Mrs. Proctor. The principal is going to need you to come in to have a serious discussion. This is the fourth incident in three months, and it’s simply not acceptable behavior for a girl of Lanny’s age!”
Lanny is fourteen, a perfectly predictable age to be acting out, but I don’t say that. I just ask, “What happened?” as I walk to the front of the Jeep and climb in. I have to leave the door open a moment to let the suffocating heat bleed out; I hadn’t managed to score one of the shady spots in the range’s narrow parking lot.