Claire Hanson was one happy nine-to-fiver that was about to begin her two week vacation and it was already paid for, including expenses. Her grin grew wider as she thought of her winning the office pool?that she had been pressured to contribute to. That last niggling point had her mouth drop into a frown.
Ehh. But there's the rub. Now what am I gonna use as an excuse to not waste my money in those stupid pools? Shit. That's a downer. Nope. Not gonna let them apes ruin my vacation. Alright, let's focus on something not about work.
She exited the freeway and headed for her apartment.
Okay, dump briefcase and pager, pick up camping gear. I hope the sheet I put over my stuff protected it from King George taking revenge. Damn cat always has to show me how pissed off he is about me leaving even for a few days.
Pulling alongside of the red painted curb, a building away from her own, Claire muttered curses at everyone that chose to park near her apartment building thus depriving her of legal parking. Turning the hazard lights on, she checked around for anyone likely to call out parking enforcement as she opened the door. The curtains to John's apartment were parted, indicating he was home.
"Mr. Neighborhood Watch," she muttered. She had about ten minutes to grab her stuff before John's call to ticket her offending vehicle was responded to. Claire suspected with tight city budgets a push for enforcing parking violations would move up the priority list.
Hauling her briefcase off the passenger seat, she sprinted up the sidewalk, then took the stairs two at a time, and managed to fling open the door without nailing a cat. She gave each startled feline a pat with one hand, dropping her brief case in a corner with the other, and then hefting her pack onto one shoulder, and the tent on the other. As she banged down the stairs she was hoping the new neighbor was not home so the racket would not result in a bad start to neighborly good relations. The tent and pack were tossed into the trunk and back up the stairs she raced to grab the box filled with important things like food, clothes, and other small stuff.
"Bye guys! Don't do anything that will get us evicted!" she called before locking the door behind her and sprinted down the stairs, feeling lucky she did not stumble down the last few steps with the box. Her supplies were dumped unceremoniously on the front passenger seat when she thought she saw the small parking enforcement vehicle turn down the far end of the one way street. Quickly she ran around to the driver's side, slid behind the wheel and started the engine in quick succession. Gloating that she beat the Enforcer, her nickname for the parking officer, she watched in her rearview mirror as he stopped alongside of an old van. The owner only moved it from one side of the street to the other to accommodate street cleaning. A ticket was placed on the windshield.
"You can't store vehicles on the street," Claire sang.
When she had a camping van of her own, it was a pain to move it every six days ten yards from the last parking space to satisfy the city ordinance. But now that she was one of the many that had to find parking on a one-way street where residence parking was a premium and rented parking spaces were expensive, she held less sympathy for the owners of second vehicles that took up space one car owners competed for. Anxiety from memories of hard feelings had her clamping down on revisiting things from the past. It was one of the habits she was taking a vacation from, besides needing to get away from concrete and over crowding. It seemed these days she was always anxious, and getting jumpier each day.
The traffic lights were with her and she managed to make it to her next stop in twenty minutes. Marge was standing outside of her house staring at a paper in her hand with a long face. Apparently she just arrived home because she was wearing her working uniform, a dark blue silk business suit, with her purse slung over her shoulder.
"Hey, girl! How's it going?" Claire shouted through her window as she parked in front of Marge's house and slid out to give her a hug.
"Like shit. Hey!" Her voice went from low to high in a moment, causing Claire's eyebrows to rise. "Can you do me a favor?" she asked happily.
"If it doesn't mean I have to give up my two weeks?sure," Claire responded carefully.
Marge waved the paper towards the city construction signs posted on both sides of the street. "The city's water works is digging a trench along the street for water pipe repair, meaning no parking day or night for about a week?or so they say."
She pointed at her custom built Dodge Roadtrek camping van parked in the driveway. "Would you mind taking the Mollie Bree camping? My insurance already covers Gail and you and I have the same agent? I'll have you added for a couple of weeks?just don't total it. I'm kinda of fond of her," she teased.
"Are you sure?" If I'm dreaming don't wake me! Claire sang to herself.
"Yeah. The newness has obviously worn off because I can actually entertain the thought of lending her out without getting the shakes. We'll have to park both SUVs in the driveway and with the van they won't fit?but swapping your car for the van will. And, Teddy is very protective of Mollie Bree and more prone to stick near her than your car," Marge added.
"I'd love to help out." What a break! I get to camp in luxury. Claire tried not to do a happy dance or look too much like a puppy about to piddle in happiness.
"I wouldn't be asking you if you didn't know how to take care of a van or hadn't been out with us a few times in her," a relieved Marge was explaining. "If I took it over to my sister's her kids would be doing something obscene in it. No telling what I would find in it when I got it back."
Marge proceeded to tell her about the quirks of the Mollie Bree while they moved her gear from her car to the van with the exception of her tent.
"Can you call Rey and Sandy and change my tent space for RV?" Claire remembered to ask.
"Sure will. And don't forget to keep in touch," she reminded Claire of their policy for friends who traveled alone.
"Right. Ooh. It's been a long time since I rented RV space."
November was not a normal time for camping so she was sure there would be plenty of space where RV's usually parked and plugged in. She was excited that she was actually going to have electricity, heat and could see some movies. Marge stored the bag of DVDs borrowed from their library in the back. Claire, though not a movie person, could be easily persuaded if that was all she had to do. Knowing her weakness, she promised herself that she would limit herself to one a day so as not to turn her time out in the 'wilderness' to 'civilized' escapism?which it was.
"There's some books in the cupboard, you have clean linen and towels and there's some food in there?but I wouldn't be able to tell ya what," Marge told her as she stood outside of the driver's door.
Loaded and ready to go Teddy, a dog that really loved to travel, settled in his portable bed that was set in the center of the aisle near the sink and looked up at the two women with the expectation that the trip would now begin.
"No problem. I got my own box full of goodies. Thanks again?and thank you Ladies of Fate," Claire chuckled and gave Marge a kiss on each cheek. "Teddy, say bye-bye to mommy number one."
"Oh, and check the propane. It's low?the station on Gilmore and Monroe has a savvy traveler that does it in nothing flat. Bye Teddy Bear and remember your table manners," Marge cautioned.
The two women waved as Claire settled comfortably in the captain's chair that felt as if it were made for her, clicking the seat belt and pulling it to fit. While humming a song as she pulled away from the curb, her thoughts were on how to get to the corner Marge mentioned without getting stuck in traffic.
With the unscheduled stop for propane taken care of Claire headed the RV and her companion to the nearest freeway, giddy with the run of good luck.
"Well, Teddy, we are off and in luxury?well?for me, anyway." Her grin turned into a frown as she moved onto the freeway in bumper-to-bumper traffic. After not moving very far in an hour, she decided that the traffic accident up ahead was not likely to be cleared anytime soon. With determination, she moved foot by foot to an off-ramp and started to take side roads that would by-pass the jam. At a light she used her hands-free to let Margie know that she was not following her usual route and would go the long way around.
Settling down to the rhythm of lights and city traffic, for the first hour she drove in silence, acquainting herself to the sounds and handling of the vehicle. On previous trips with her friends she was merely a passenger and had no reason to be attentive. After she felt comfortable with the noises of the van, her fingers poked at the radio to see if there was anything of interest on the station that reported traffic conditions.
"Damn!" she muttered as she neared a car that looked like it had a spin out. She lowered the volume on the jazzy saxophone of Pamela Williams, studying the site with an expert's eye. The vehicle, a crème colored Lexus, had skidded for a good distance before ending up with a front tire in an old construction ditch. She slowed to see if anyone was hurt, but no one appeared to be around it. No spent flares or cones left about. No dark pools to hint of spilt blood or oil, or anything to indicate it was once part of a crime scene or paramedic call. Her eyes swept the nearly private road that snaked around homes tucked in rolling hills that had not been overrun with construction. Though curious about why the vehicle had not been towed out since it did look like it had been there for more than a few days, she firmly reminded herself it was not her concern. She was about to increase her speed when she could see someone further up the road walking.
"If it's a woman, should we pick her up?" she asked no one in particular. "Shit. These days?" But she rolled up alongside of the figure anyway. The woman's direction veered away from the road as the van slowed beside her.
"Hey, need a ride?" she called out of the passenger window she opened. The woman had a bruise over her forehead; otherwise her attire did not look as if she had been in a car accident, nor did it look like she was prepared for a hike.
The woman looked warily at the van then at her.
"Just me and Teddy?.a small dog," she added, realizing she would not be able to see Teddy. "I'll open up the side door so you can take a look in."
When the woman nodded she unbuckled her seatbelt and stepped over her backpack to unlock the door. She could have used the automatic unlock but one unlocked door to keep track of was enough. Claire unlocked the side door and pushed it open for the woman to investigate, stepping back to her seat. The woman cautiously studied the interior before climbing in. Teddy did not get out of his bed, but he lifted his nose to sniff the air she brought in with her. The woman froze, as if she were facing a ferocious dog.
"His bark is worse than his bite. Since he's still in his bed, I would say you haven't impressed him as dangerous," she joked. "My name's Claire. Do you want me to drop you off somewhere?" She thought the woman lived in one of the private homes in the area.
"Where are you headed?" the woman softly asked.
Claire's antenna went up and would have twitched if it could. Something's odd here. She's not dressed for a hike? and you are on a vacation that does not include looking for adventure. She nearly groaned at this type of self-talk she developed over the years since her job took on an isolated tone. So, what are ya going to do? her mental chatter continued. "A camp site up the coast. It's about?" she glanced at the clock on the dashboard, "by the way traffic will be on the freeway?four hours?" She paused, waiting for the woman to say something. "You look like you can use some water." She handed her an unopened bottle that lay on the passenger seat across from her. "You're welcome to come along." Ohhh, baby doll! I can't believe you just offered a stranger a ride?and an open invitation to stay. Girl, do NOT try to turn this into some kind of sexual fantasy vacation! Get a grip! She is NOT, not, not, even your type.
"Thanks. I appreciate the offer. I accept," the soft voice responded.
"Okay. Buckle in the seat back there." She gestured to the passenger seat behind her, not wanting to move all her gear from the passenger seat next to her. Claire refastened her belt, and pulled back onto the roadway. Hmm. Aside from the bruise, she looks fine. No purse. Loafers and nice slacks, sweater and shirt underneath. Nails are manicured short but with clear polish and very little make-up. Hair is neither blond or brown?verrry nondescript?and a hell of a place to be without a car. The car in the ditch didn't look like it was hers, and I don't think I saw any other car on either side of the road?but, I could have missed it.
In the rearview mirror Claire glanced at the woman. Her eye color was impossible to tell.
After three hours Claire noted that it was getting time to pull over and fill up. She took time to get the propane tank filled but she begrudged any more delays to hit the road, so she left the three-quarter tank as it was. This was the part when she would rue that she chose the van over her cheaper compact car but she reminded herself she had two thousand dollars to peck away at. It was one of those rare times she won anything. Goody for her.
She turned on her blinker and the woman's reflection in the rearview mirror suddenly came alert. "I'm gonna fill up. Do you need something from the mini-market or need to use the restroom?" She rolled the van up to a pump.
"No," was the quiet answer.
"Okay. Come on, Teddy. This is your chance to check the local smells and leave your calling card." She took the keys with her. Not just because it was a sensible thing to do, but because she needed the key to unlock the gas cap. While the tank filled she walked Teddy away from where someone would object if he had a BM that she did not pick up.
She let Teddy back into the van and grabbed her thermos that she had forgotten to fill. Pausing, she checked the gas progress. Still filling. She also glanced at the price that was clanking along and grimaced. With the thermos from the van tucked under her arm, she headed for the mini-market. First stop was the restroom, and then she picked up a hand basket. The camp site store usually had fresh produce so she bypassed the over-ripe fruit and looked at other goodies?like cheetos, fritos and donuts?however, she restrained herself and picked trail nuts, a variety of creamers and filled up the thermos with coffee, emptying the store's freshly filled pot.
Gassed and once more ready to go she checked on her passenger who was sitting on the floor appearing to be making friends with Teddy.
"I got some coffee for us?if you drink it. Cups are in the cupboard above the sink. Creamers are in the sack?plain and flavored. I didn't get any sugar but there's plenty in the creamers. There's also trail mix in there. Help yourself. If you need the flashlight, it's clipped to the corner behind your seat or just use the light over the sink. If you don't mind, can you fix me a cup, two creamers?" Geeze, like I don't have enough food in the box already. Get extra cash in my pocket and I spend it.
In the twenty minutes of being off the freeway the traffic was still heavy. She switched on the headlights and checked her side mirrors before squeezing between a double trailer rig and a RV bus. Her cell phone rang and she automatically clipped in her earpiece before picking up the call.
"Yeah?...Hey, Gail. I forgot to call. Sorry?Did you just get home?...Working late are ya?....Yeah, can you believe it. I didn't think Marge would let anyone sit in the driver's seat at least until she permanently imprinted her fanny in the seat...Well, we both lucked out. Did Margie switch my? good. I'm about an hour and a half away?. yeah, yeah. Traffic is a real bitch?.Uh huh, I took the back road but it did not save time. Passed two accidents?.Oh, yeah. You'll get my daily hellos just so that you know Teddy is still alive and hasn't been eaten by a raccoon ?okay. You guys take care?right, bye-bye."
"Coffee on your right," her passenger informed her. The woman returned to her seat and the belt clicked. Claire noticed the curtain across her window was pulled closed.
"So, do you want to share a name?" Claire asked.
"Char?Charlotte," she offered.
"Char is your nick name?"
"No," she said firmly.
"Do?you have a destination in mind?" Claire smiled at the strength behind the reply. She obviously did not want a nickname. Her quick glance in the mirror revealed a smile on Charlotte's face as if she was also amused at her forceful return.
"No. Mind if I hang around a few days?"
"You're not running from the law, are you?" she asked her lightly, though she did not think that was what this woman was about. She usually could read people quite well.
The voice gave a short laugh. "No. Nor am I running from a spouse?kids or parents."
"Okay. Just like to get some things out in the air with someone I'm going to share space with and maybe some clothes. It gets cold and you're not exactly dressed for camping out."
"I understand. Any other worries?"
"Yeah, do you mind a purple toothbrush? I bought one in the mart just in case you didn't have one," she smiled at her night reflection in the windshield.
"Purple. Thanks for the thought."
Claire pulled the van up in front of the rental office. She removed the keys from the ignition and hopped out to sign in and get her space number.
"Hey, Ray!" she greeted the manager.
"Evening, Claire. Marge called to change your spot. Didn't think she would be loaning out her rig to anyone for a few years more. Not like your old Dodge, eh? I gave ya Marge and Gail's favorite space near the stream. We're not expecting any rain for your stay, but if ya gotta move, pick anywhere. Some of the gang has already arrived," he chuckled, gesturing at the board where personals were placed for card games and hikes. "Let me know if you repark just in case we get some real customers."
"Okay." Claire could smell his dinner and knew he was eager to sit and eat so she paid the fee plus extra for a guest and then signed the contract. She was excited about her slot. It was near the stream and under a group of trees. The showers and rest rooms were up the road, though she had both in her rig.
"Ah. So, Miss. I-Like-Being-Alone has brought a guest?hm," Rey teased.
"It isn't what you think," Claire returned, sounding as firm as she could.
"Okay," he laughed holding up both hands in mock apology.
Charlotte was not shy about working. Between the two women, they got the van leveled, hoses and electrical connected, the awning set up and the picnic table dragged under the awning and covered with a table cloth. Teddy's traveling water dish, heavy and deep, was placed under the table and filled. Claire also set the outside motion detector lights so that they covered blind spots. Nothing taller than Teddy could approach the van after dark without a light coming on.
Taking a breather both drank deeply from water bottles. It was then Claire thought it was time to get sleeping arrangements setup. "You have the choice of sleeping in one of the twin beds in the back or we can turn these two seats into a twin."
"I don't want to be any more trouble, so, if you don't mind?I'll sleep in back where the bed is already made."
"I don't mind. It does make it easier. I would have to read the owner's manual to figure out how the front bed works," Claire admitted. She got up and pulled out the box she still needed to unpack that had her camping food. "If you see something you would like for dinner, leave it out."
"Hmm. Jamaican BBQ chicken sound okay? It says for two."
"Sounds yummy. There's a shower up the slope. I have sweats and T-shirt you can change into. If I'm up here alone I usually take Teddy and lock ourselves in the building." She wondered what Charlotte would do with her open-ended offer.
"Okay. Got an extra towel? We can buddy up. You can leave Teddy here to watch the van?unless you would rather?"
"Ehhh?no, if you're thinking of me choosing Teddy over showering with you. Wet dogs?euww," Claire laughed easily. "Alright. I think there are some extra towels in the cabinet there. I'll get you sweats and a shirt?"
Claire turned off the burner to the hot water that she had started while they set up the van. She tossed in the package of dehydrated food and then covered it. She was expecting a nice warm meal on their return.
Leading the way up the trail she breathed in deeply the evening's chilly air that was not like city air. Her red light, used so that her night vision was not impeded, shined the way on the weather rutted slope to the restrooms and showers. Both women were quiet as each listened to what was going around them. The two buildings, one for men and one for women, were newly painted by the smell. Small lights only meant to reveal the door so as not to disturb the environment's natural atmosphere had Claire shinning her light carefully around for anything that may be menacing, like spiders.
While Charlotte stood by the entrance Claire went through the toilet stalls and then the showers, making sure there was no one in the room that should not be.
"All clear?" Claire glanced at the door where she heard the lock click into place. Claire held up her bag with a bar of soap, shampoo, conditioner, two toothbrushes and toothpaste.
"Do you go to bed early?" Charlotte asked as she made sure the curtains around the van were fastened before sitting down to their steaming dinner.
Charlotte's shoulder length hair was mussed from the quick towel dry and she smelled of Claire's soap. It was distracting Claire and therefore irritating. It made no sense to her to sniff after someone that was not interested. She turned back to her clothes that she was hanging in the armoire, pointedly ignoring the braless woman that was near her, grateful it was a black shirt and did not reveal anything personal.
"Sometimes?but tonight, well, I'm wound up from the drive so?I'll probably watch a movie, read a bit then?do you mind about the movie? I picked a few movies from Marge and Gail's collection. They're avid collectors of all sorts of movies?foreign and?well?" she slowed down, realizing she was chattering.
"No. I don't mind at all. What do you have in mind?"
Before heading to the back, Claire stopped to turn the overhead heater on. It got very cold in the evening and early morning hours and since she had the choice of waking up warm, she was going to take it. Claire's eyes followed Charlotte's movements as she plumped up a pillow that Claire had tossed on each of the beds.
Claire frowned wondering why she was not feeling nervous with the situation. Her usually reliable antenna was picking up absolutely nothing about this woman. That should put up a red flag but it did not.
Claire pulled out the bag of movies but it seemed to be a lot heavier than what she remembered. She reached in and pulled out what her fingers touched, thinking the DVD would be one of the Alien adventures she had packed. She blinked a few times in the low lighting at what she was holding.
Claire looked up at her. "Well, I remember only packing the Alien series and this?I don't recognize it."
Charlotte reached over and plucked it from her fingers. "Claire of the Moon," she read. "Shall I put it on?"
Claire's brain had shut down and dumbly she just nodded. Charlotte slid the movie in, adjusted the television so they both could see and handed Claire the remote.
"Have you ever seen this movie?" Claire asked with studied casually.
"No. Is it R rated or something that requires a hanky?"
"Yeah," she responded without clarifying.
Claire, true to her usual self, got involved in the story and made small noises at different parts of the movie without noticing and did not become aware of Charlotte until the end of the movie.
"You want to turn it off or do you like to watch the last of the credits?" Charlotte asked as she got up to flip the covers back and climb into her bed.
Claire blinked a few times, moving her awareness to real time. "Right." She turned off the movie, removed it from the DVD player and got ready to take Teddy out for his potty break. She slipped her warm coat on and slid her stockinged feet into her hiking boots, pausing to lace them. It was a good habit to always be prepared for the unexpected.
Teddy was quick about his business and Claire was sure it was because it was cold outside.
"Night," Claire whispered as she settled down.
"Goodnight," was the muffled return.
Claire's waking thoughts were wandering on something that made no sense at all, but dreams were not connected to cognitive functions.
"You're awake," the soft voice announced. "Coffee is ready."
Claire rolled over and looked toward the small doorway to see Charlotte wearing her own clothes. "What time is it?"
"I don't know. You want to sleep some more?"
"No." She stretched languidly and then slid out of the bed. As she made her way to the toilet she noted Charlotte's bed had been made up neatly. I must have been tired because I didn't even hear her.
When she finished her morning toilet, taking two short steps she was standing over the small kitchenette sink to brush her teeth. Next to her elbow was fresh coffee, triggering a reflex deep breath of the aroma. She pressed a sliced bagel between a special wire-rack and turned on the burner to crisp it. She dumped it on a plate, spread a thick layer of cream cheese on the bagel, and turned to face her guest. Charlotte was sitting at the picnic table sipping her coffee and watching the morning light brighten-up the surrounding forest.
"Good morning. Mind if I join you?" Claire asked.
"'Morning. Nope. It's a nice sunrise," she remarked, while with her cup she gestured to the sun that could barely be seen through the tree's branches.
The privacy tarp had been rolled up on all three sides, letting in the chilly breeze and morning light. The sounds of creatures waking were all around them. Claire stood still, absorbing nature's energy, filling her lungs with it in a steady inhale, and then exhaled the stress and weariness she had been feeling of late. The peacefulness of her surroundings brought a profound joy that she returned with a silent heart felt thanks.
I really need this, she thought.
Claire sat at the table and took a bite out of her bagel. She needed to ask this woman what she was planning on doing, but was not ready to hear the answer because it may mean Charlotte would leave. That struck her as odd until she talked herself into believing it was because Charlotte was a mystery and she was challenged to figure out just what that was. You know, not all mysteries are meant to be solved.
"What do you plan on doing today?" Claire asked, after emptying her mouth.
"Do you want me to leave?"
"Not unless you have somewhere to go." She answered too quickly for her sensible side to censor. I don't have any ulterior motives! she quickly told herself as her ever present conscious was tweaked. Geeze. Give me a break. I can't just toss someone out in the middle of no where after?ahh, shit! She could not believe she was having this argument with herself.
"Not at the moment. And you?" Charlotte's dark brown eyes studied her with curiosity.
"Oh, uh." She looked out at the stream that was just a stone's throw from them. "I usually go climbing around here?or sometimes just do nothing but kickback with a book. Teddy's not in for blazing any trails. Thank gawds," she laughed. "So he hangs around the van and watches over the place while I do whatever moves me." She looked down at the dog that was lying under the picnic bench. His muzzle lifted up catching what scent was on the breeze and then turned to watch squirrels and birds hop around.
"Where are you going to climb?"
"Don't know. I just start walking. Do you want to come along; you can borrow my tennies?"
"No. I'm more of the kickback and read type of person. If I walk, I need a destination."
"Well, I have a few books I brought along and my friends keep some of their favorites in the armoire." Claire was racking her memory as to what types of books the two would keep to reread. They both liked science fiction, mysteries and lesbian fiction. So, what would they keep in the van?
Claire decided to not worry about it. She rose to collect her backpack, and then turned to look at the woman who was not dressed for camping, which regardless of having the van, she still considered herself camping. "I have some extra jeans and socks if you want to try them on. We're about the same size?." Oh, you liar. She's thinner and taller.
Not in any hurry and taking frequent breaks along her walk, Claire was about two hours along when she found a place she wanted to sit and sketch. She was following the small stream bed that could easily turn into a fast moving corridor of water and whatever else the rain runoff caught in its path. The tumultuous flooding changed areas dramatically, giving her new scenes from her last visit to draw or just look at. She leaned against her pack and began her work. Finishing one she began another; picking areas that were interesting of themselves and then drawing a larger picture.
Her growling stomach had her fishing out her packed lunch and sipping water to wash it down. Breathing in deep her eyes looked over the area again, this time without regard to drawing it. A bank had collapsed taking a tree with it. Its bared roots created a painful picture for a tree lover, which she was. Its corpse created a bridge to the other side of the stream. A piece of fabric or trash was flapping on one of the branches taking some of the romantic isolation of the area out of it.
Chewing, and staring at the log an indeterminate amount of time passed as she reflected on her job and the tension that was always there since the shooting. She wondered if the scene before her was like her life?and she was now on the opposite side of the river from the rest of the department. Sighing, she tried to pinpoint just why she felt so tense. Taking another bite out of the sandwich she chewed on the feeling she got when sitting at her desk. It was as if she was being watched. Without humor she recalled her thorough search of the women's rest room for any surveillance equipment, and though she did not find anything, she periodically reinspected it. It was an odd thing to do in a police station.
Her automatic crumbling of her napkin brought her back to the immediate. Finished with her lunch she pulled out her chalk and began a more elaborate rendition of what was in her mind and not necessarily before her, though she occasionally did look around for inspiration.
"There you are," a soft voice broke in on her isolation.
Claire looked up and could see Charlotte's figure moving towards her. Her hair was mussed as if she had been working out?but then the trail was rough in some parts. Though she did not draw people, for that moment she wanted to?
"You know, there's less than an hour of light left." She glanced down at Claire's sketch pad which Claire had not closed. "Nice."
"Thanks?I lost track of time. You look like you need some water." Claire gestured to her canteen. Carefully she stored her pad so that it would rest against her back rather than bent around her box filled with drawing tools. Charlotte handed her back the water, which Claire took a drink and then started back down the trail that was fading with the day's light.
"It's a nice walk up to here," Charlotte remarked.
"Yeah. After each rain the river bed changes. With the shadows and trees I get some nice angles to?" she laughed, shaking her head. So, I just told her that I'm not a stranger up here and she already knows I will be missed should I suddenly disappear. Wonder what else she picked up? And what does it matter? Because I don't know anything about her, she ruefully admitted to herself.
"What? Why did you stop what you were saying?"
"I?just didn't want to go off on a tangent about drawing techniques."
"I don't mind."
I'm sure. So who the hell are you Charlotte? Maybe self-employed? A private eye? Hmm. Don't think so? Damn, she's hard to read.
The walk back down was quiet except for the thumping of their feet as both women concentrated on not twisting an ankle. The light was fading fast as the bright orange orb dipped behind the trees. Claire pulled out her small flashlight from her pack. Though it took hours to hike up, the trip downhill was faster since she was intent on speed and did not pause to admire what she was seeing. By the time they had reached the van, it was dark. Teddy was happy to see them, as it was nearly past his dinner time.
"So, what would you like tonight?" Claire asked as she rummaged around in the food cabinet.
"Why don't you pick," Charlotte suggested, as she placed two dishes on the small dinette table along with napkins and forks.
"How does Fettuccine Primavera with strawberry cheesecake for desert sound? I also have a bottle of wine?"
"Sounds like the perfect meal to finish off a hike with."
"A shower and out of these clothes would be nice too. While it's steaming, shall we take a trip up to the showers?"
"So, what's tonight's movie?" Charlotte's voice asked as Claire was locking up the van for the night.
"It's your turn to choose." Claire plopped herself down on her bed and fluffed up the pillow. Charlotte reached in the brown bag and pulled out a DVD.
"What's the grab bag pick?" Claire asked.
"Hm." Claire had a crush on Sigourney Weaver and in this movie she thought she was really hot. "One of my favorites." The movie started and again Claire became involved and only when it was finished did her surroundings fade back in. While Charlotte put the movie away she put her coat and shoes on to take Teddy out for his potty break. Her coat was handed to her by Charlotte, who had to move out of the way for her to exit the van.
On returning, Charlotte was already snuggled under her covers. "Goodnight," Charlotte's muffled voice wished when Claire slid between her sheets.
"Goodnight," Claire returned. Claire stared up at the ceiling for a long time before falling asleep. She imagined what the sequel would be for Alien Resurrection if one was written. Ripley and Annalee Call could undo all the nasty secret plots the corporate politicians had against the common people? A strong yawn reminded her she was tired. Hmm, it would put an interesting spin on the Xena and Gabriella tale.
The next morning was pretty much like the first day. Claire took off with her pack secured on her back. Along with her drawing supplies she had water, a sandwich and trail mix. She made a mental promise to herself to pay more attention to the time since it seemed to worry Charlotte. Glancing up at the overcast sky, she determined by noon it would be hot. Wandering, with no particular place in mind, Claire found her thoughts also wandering to Charlotte. Each time she firmly changed her thoughts, her direction on the path also changed. Standing high on a trail she could see the small market through the trees. She was going to head down and buy some fresh produce when she noticed that someone that looked like Charlotte was using the pay phone. The person glanced up and saw Claire. Claire waved and then started down the trail to the market. She was feeling disappointed that maybe Charlotte's stay would be brought to an end with her phone call.
When she got to the market Charlotte was nowhere to be found.
"Hey, Sandy. How's the day going?"
"Well. How's your spot?"
"Love it?even better I'm not in a tent. I came for your home-grown produce. Too good to pass up."
"Not huge but sweet and tasty," Sandy agreed, bagging the food and ringing it up.
"Did anyone come in here a few moments ago?"
"I didn't hear the door. Who was here?"
"My guest?I thought I had seen her at the public phone."
"That phone hasn't worked for ages. Telco doesn't want to send anyone out because they don't make money on it. I usually let people use the office phone."
"Hm. Well, I'll see ya around."
Claire was not that deep in thought to miss the sound of a footstep stumbling behind her. She turned to see who was there. No one.
Okay. Let's see if I can find out who's following me.
She climbed back up to the cliff where she would have an aerial view of her surroundings including the path she took. Nothing; not even a disturbed bird.
It was nearly dark when she made it back to the van. When she stepped into the covered shelter she found Charlotte pacing in the small area around the picnic bench.
"I stopped at the market and got some fresh fruits and vegetables," she told her while pulling her backpack off her shoulder.
Claire unpacked the produce, remembering that the strawberries were not made for backpack transportation.
"These look home grown," Charlotte remarked as she looked over the strawberries and then the apples.
"They are. It's from backyard growers. Rey and Sandra can keep their prices down for a lot of their produce because it's supplied by private individuals that grow it in their backyard gardens."
"You must come up here quite often."
"As I need it?or can get away." Claire's hands were moving over the corn, pulling the husks and tossing the remains in a paper bag meant for the recycling bin at the market.
Charlotte had the water for the corn ready. A family size lasagna meal was put into another pan to boil. While they waited for their meal to cook the two sat at the small dinette table.
"How are you at cards?" A pack of cards was pulled out the back pocket of the driver's seat.
"What'll it be?"
"Uh?poker or something..."
Charlotte smiled, tapped the cards and expertly cut them and then quickly shuffled them.
"Hey, you're not some card shark are you?part-time Vegas dealer?"
Charlotte stopped shuffling the cards and looked at the backs of the cards. Claire had not realized they had a naked woman on the back.
"Oh. This is not my van so whatever we did not pull out of my supplies I am not responsible for."
"Uh, huh. So, how good are you?" Charlotte asked, resuming her shuffle of cards and sizing up her potential mark.
"Not. I suck. Even at fish. I play solitaire on my laptop or mahjong and just recently dominos," Claire replied, picking up on the gleam of a gambler in Charlotte's eyes.
"You like the solitary life." Charlotte dealt out the cards quickly and looked over at Claire. "We'll play one game of each type and see what you're made of."
The smell of the roiling corn rescued Claire from herself. She had quickly lost the four games Charlotte dealt.
"Card games are not your best skill," Charlotte remarked as she slid the cards back into the box.
"Right," Claire agreed. "I could never get into them," she admitted as she removed the lasagna pouch from the boiling water. She placed a bottle of water for each of them on the counter which Charlotte retrieved and set on the dinette. Claire pinched out the corn and placed them in their special curved dishes, sticking the corn holders in the ends.
Both women hungrily bit into the corn, crunching their way around the cob that was soaked in butter and sprinkled salt.
"So, you can do something more than boil trail food and clean up," Charlotte observed after she tasted her first bite of corn.
"If it's the taste of the corn you're referring to?I can't take the credit. Sandra won't tell me who grows these but?it's the corn kernel, dirt and whatever they fertilize it with."
Charlotte wrinkled her nose. "Hm. For a city girl, I'm only familiar with the finished product. I don't want to see the eyes of the meat I'm eating to remind me that it was once someone's pet or hear that in third world countries they use their waste to fertilize their gardens."
"Eww. My brain is picturing sick. I am hoping these backyard gardeners only use recycled kitchen waste?gawds, I used that word again."
Charlotte chuckled. "So, are we doing the movie thing again?"
"Yeah. I?" she hesitated about going out in the dark to shower. She was sure someone had followed her part of the way and she did not want to set herself up to be a victim? she also needed to warn her camping buddy just in case it was a cause for alarm. "I'm going to try the shower here, if you don't mind."
Charlotte was watching her face as she thought about her decision. Claire could have sworn she guessed she was nervous about something.
Damn, the woman has good instincts. Well, dummy you should tell her what you suspect. She's in just as much danger as you.
"I felt someone following me earlier?from the store."
Charlotte nodded looking serious. "You didn't see anyone." She affirmed Claire's unspoken explanation that she had not been able to see anyone definitely but her suspicions were that there was someone there and she took it seriously, to Claire's relief. "Is that why you took so long to get back?"
Claire let out a disgusted snort. "What do you do, read minds?"
Charlotte looked at her startled. "No. So, is there something else you need to tell me?"
"Well, when I was up on the path above the store?I thought I saw you at the payphone."
Charlotte's face did not change, but her vibes did. Then it was gone. "Not me. I was reading Sphere and keeping your bodyguard company. When you felt you were being followed, was it before or after you thought you saw me?"
"After. Whoever it was, was gone by the time I got down the trail. Sandy didn't see anyone, but she was in the back of the store when I came in."
"Well, I'm with you. I always tell a woman to trust her instinct; that's why we have it."
"Well, I'm going to feel more comfortable using the shower in here?unless you want to trek up the road."
Charlotte shook her head. "I think here is a good idea until we get an idea at who is following you."
"Okay. Using the shower means it'll be cold and you'll be cut off from the other third of the van. Do you want to sit on the bed until it's your turn or wait up front?"
"I think I'll sit up front and read. Do you have a map?"
The movie she picked was The Bourne Identity. It confirmed her suspicion that Margie added some DVDs of her own, thinking she was going to be viewing more than one a night. Margie found it difficult to believe someone actually camped for solitude from other humans, and away from the electronics of civilized life.
After the movie Claire took Teddy out for his potty break. He sniffed here and there and did not seem to find a threat anywhere, so he did his thing and then promptly trotted back to the van.
Charlotte was already sleeping, or so it seemed when she returned. Sleep did not come to Claire and she finally got up so as not to disturb Charlotte with her moving around. Claire sat in the driver's captain chair and thought about what was bothering her.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Charlotte's soft voice asked.
Claire looked up startled. Charlotte slid into the other chair, their knees nearly touching.
"Who are you?" Claire asked.
"I'll tell you what?we'll play five questions?you get five and I get five."
"Well, at least this isn't like truth or dare?"
"If you don't want to answer a question?just say so," Charlotte affirmed.
Claire thought about it because something she did learn in her forty years is that when a gift is given, it's best to check it out before accepting it. Nothing came free and when it seems there is nothing to lose, that is when to really look hard.
She sighed heavily. "Given that I have a choice?"
"There is another thing?once one of us chooses to not answer?the game ends."
Great. That means she could end it with my first question of her?ahh. Sneaky. To keep asking her questions?I not only have to keep them neutral but not get up tight when she asks me some tricky questions. Ohhhh, but she is very slick?but then again, I don't have to play.
But Claire was curious so she nodded. "Okay."
"Alright, let's draw to see who goes first." The cards were pulled out and as funny as it can get, they both pulled sevens out and then queens and then aces. The fourth time a suspicious Claire pulled a five and a smiling Charlotte pulled a queen.
"Are these marked or something?" Claire demanded looking closely at the cards. All she saw was the same naked woman on the back of each card.
"So, my first question?what do you do for a living?"
Claire smiled, hiding how her thoughts were busy with trying to figure out how she could avoid saying who her employer is.
"Beep! Times up?no half truths, Claire," Charlotte grinned.
"I work for the city of Petima?behind a desk. Nothing exciting?more like boring."
Charlotte smiled. "Uh huh. Your turn."
"Who do you work for?"
"Ah." Claire gave her a suspicious look. So, I guessed right that she is self-employed.
"What do you do working behind a desk?I'm letting you get away with the half answer you gave previously," Charlotte pointed out. "Now give me some details."
"I file reports?clerk stuff, and take phone messages," Claire insisted, not wanting to bring up anything that may lead to talking about her past. "What were you doing along the road?" she boldly asked to keep Charlotte off balance.
"Looking for a ride. What are you doing with this?" Charlotte pulled out Claire's police semi-automatic and her ID that she had stashed in the glove compartment.
"Souvenirs," Claire answered angrily. Grabbing the two articles she slammed them back into the glove compartment. She headed to the back of the van, feeling violated but too angry at being found out. She slid into her bed and turned her back to the door, feeling not only embarrassed but angry with this whole situation. She should be shouting at Charlotte for her nerve to be looking through her things?except the van was not hers and?she remembered she left the magazine in a conspicuous place. Claire almost slapped her forehead. Charlotte asked her for a map and she had told her it was in the glove compartment. Duh.
She heard Charlotte sit on the bed across from her. "Why the games?" she asked softly. "If you're so damned touchy about being a cop or doing desk duty, just say so."
Claire could feel her face heat up. Charlotte was right?but she too was hiding something. "Why the games?" She turned over to look at the shadowed form of Charlotte.
"Like you?I have memories I don't want to be digging up."
"Then why this stupid question game?" she asked frustrated.
"Because someone followed you?I needed to know if it was something you were working on."
Claire was quiet for a while thinking if anyone would be hunting her down. "No. When I worked the streets it was just the usual shit. What about you?"
"Maybe. But I doubt it."
"You think I might have imagined it?"
"No." She said it with such firmness that Claire's eyebrows rose.
"So, maybe it's just someone curious?" Claire asked, but not believing it.
"Why don't we take a trip down to the store tomorrow and find out who all is officially here?"
"Okay. Do you know how to use a gun?" Claire asked curious.
"How about self-defense?"
"How about you?" Charlotte countered.
"I've spent four years in the military police," Claire shared.
"Hm. Well, I haven't been in the military?but I've taken classes in hand-to-hand. I guess, we'll just have to see?though, I hope not."
Teddy's whining woke Claire. When she glanced towards the bed next to her she found it was empty. As usual, the bed was made. She sniffed the air and did not detect coffee being made. She let Teddy out and while the coffee sputtered, she used the toilet and brushed her teeth.
Freeze dried pancakes sounds good.
Her thoughts went back to Charlotte finding her HK P7 and badge. She forgot to leave them at her apartment but it was better to have left the pager locked in her briefcase than her weapon and badge. Though she was no longer on a beat or working on cases, she did not like leaving the two objects too far from her.
If I had thought I was going to have company, I would not have put the magazine in such an easily found place. Damn. If I was in a van with a stranger and found a magazine to a semi-automatic I would be looking for the weapon too. She had forgotten she had tucked it near the coffee pot with the intention of putting it somewhere else once she was settled.
She noticed that her warm coat and her hiking boots were missing. Now, why am I not surprised. I sure hope they fit her because hiking around in boots that are too small or too large is asking for blisters.
She wore tennis shoes and a sweat shirt that needed to be washed. Her backpack was stored in front of the passenger seat on the floorboards, and this she pulled up to struggle into when she stopped her motion to toss onto her shoulder. Why she felt it was necessary to check the pack she did not know but?maybe it was because she was not that trusting of her guest. She pulled out her drawing tools and case and there wrapped in a rag she always carried she found a small box. Locked, but it would not take much to break the lock. She rewrapped it and, possibly she would regret it later, she put it back in her pack. For a moment, she wondered if she should take her P7 but she quickly put that idea to rest. That would be attracting trouble she did not want to deal with.
Yeah, right. So what are you doing picking up a strange woman on the road and not dropping her off at the nearest bus station with a ticket? Gawds! This is weird.
She made sure Teddy had his water under the awning and locked up the van. If Charlotte returned, she was going to have to wait for her to get back?though, for some reason, which she laughed to herself at, she did not think a locked van was going to keep Charlotte out.
It was still too early to visit the market so she followed the river towards the ocean, under the freeway bridge and to where she could sit and think on the beach. For a while she found sketching the cliff and parts of the beach interesting. But her curiosity at knowing who else was camping out caused her to put up her drawing tools earlier than she would normally stay out and trudge back up the path to the private park. Her eyes took in the few tents and people that were at the public camping area and as she walked up the narrow canyon, her hearing focused on what did not belong in the air. She felt watched, but it could be the male campers that were further up the beach. She noticed a lot of trash and beer cans scattered around the trash bin that did not make it into the large bin.
"Great," she muttered. Sometimes assholes became real bothersome when they thought they could get away with something. However, Claire had faith that she could handle anything short of a bullet.
The market was busy with four other people. The group appeared to be with each other. From the remarks they made, they were parked further up the road and they liked to run around naked?'hope that does not bother you,' type of chatter. If she felt so inclined, she could join them.
No thanks. Even if you were all women?I don't do orgies. Grew out of that I did. The threat of Aids, Chlamydia and STDs cured me of that fantasy.
"Hey, Rey," she nodded to him and he motioned her over to the side counter.
"Someone bothering ya?"
"Yeah, but I don't know who. I heard someone following me from here yesterday and while I was hiking from the beach to here. You know anyone that strikes you as someone I need to keep an eye on?"
Rey laughed and gestured with his head at the foursome that had just left. "I gathered you're not interested in joining them."
"I'll look around and let the others know. Gil's up above that quartet probably cursing me while he's got his NVGs on scoping the sights. It'll give him something to do to keep him from getting cabin fever."
"Ohh, gawds. Doris is probably fighting for her turn," Claire laughed heartily with Rey at the thought of the two ex-cops that came up here to work on a novel and going batty with having to sit down and organize themselves?and agree on how to write the book. They had a real RV bought in celebration of their retirement. It had hydraulics to enlarge the front room and bedroom space. It was to get away from their kids that moved back in with their families and brought unwanted chaos into the lives of their retired parents.
"Jay and Cynthia are to the south of ya. The two B's are up there too. They like living on the edge. Then there's Kenny. He has his tent up on the public beach. Maybe he's heard something. He comes over about dinner time. Breaks our boredom. Wanta join us one of these evenings?you know what time?"
She shook her head. All they did was drink, eat, reminisce and take her money in cards. "Kenny? I thought he was one of those weekend warriors and was shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan."
"Yeap. Came back a week ago and just hangs out on the beach. Quit the PD and resigned his commission from the military, he said. They were going to extend his stay and he decided he had enough."
Claire sighed. He sounded like burnt out case and Sandra knew how to help the lost souls. She knew that from her own experience. It brought back memories, but surprisingly enough, they were not as painful as she thought they would be.
"You alright?" Rey asked gently.
"Hm. I was just remembering my own episodes. Without the two of you?" she shook her head. "I'd probably be doped up on some illegal drug and selling the neighbors goods to keep up my habit."
"You have some powerful friends that would not have let you get that far, kiddo. Don't under value them." He laughed, then. "They would have hog tied you and locked you up in a tiny room until you worked out your problem. Gail is one very determined cop that is not going to let the demon take anyone she knows under."
Claire smiled, feeling the truth of that. "You're right. I don't know why I suddenly got in the dark cloud there. Since I got here I've been falling in pockets of Miss Doom and Gloom. So, are they the only ones here?"
"Aside from the guest you brought, yep. Anyone we would know?" Rey asked, wondering if it had to do with her guest.
Claire shook her head. "I'm giving her a place to stay for a while. Have you met her?"
Rey shook his head. "I did see her though. I was up at the showers early this morning and saw her at your site. Since Bear didn't bark I kinda figured she's your guest. I always thought Bear had good instincts about people."
"Me too," she sighed a little, "I don't think there is anything to worry about from her?"
"Ranger Harland came by yesterday. Those dickheads at the public beach are giving her a headache. She asked if they were bothering anyone over here?could they have been following you?"
"Maybe. The ranger came here did she? Ha. She came here so that some of the RC gang will take the challenge and beat the crap out of them. Did you explain that RC lot is too old for those shenanigans?" Claire asked.
"Well, I gotta go. Lunch of a boiled bag of BBQ Jamaican chicken and rice with fresh strawberries are calling me," Claire hummed.
Rey blanched at the mixture. "Keep in touch."
Claire nodded. It was their private message that since she was alone?she needed to check in more often. Claire had filed enough missing persons reports to know it was not an unhealthy paranoia, just good old fashion caution. It was nice to know that she had friends that gave her the space she needed but still looked out for her. She smiled as she made her way back up the trail. Whoever was following her was in for a very big surprise. Once the RCGs, the Retired Cops Gang, got the message that there was something sinister going on around their campsite they would all be donning NVGs, night vision goggles, and start a game of tag. She shook her head feeling sorry for whoever it was if the Gang got a hold of him or her.
Teddy was happy to see her. No doubt he was lonely. While she prepared her lunch, she debated what to do about her missing guest. However, when Teddy turned to the door with a fully engaged tail she guessed she would not have to figure that out.
"Hey, got enough for two?" Charlotte asked as she collapsed in a chair.
"Sure do. How did your skulking about go?"
Charlotte laughed and nodded that Claire guessed right. "It went well. I found out where your stalker is from."
"One of the tents on the beach?"
"Nope. A car parked up the road. John Regan. Ever heard of him?"
Claire shook her head. "No. No Regans in my arrest files. What about you?"
She shook her head.
"So?is he packing?"
"He's got a camera."
"Well?I'm not on disability, I'm not married or fooling around with anyone, nor do I plan on getting naked in public ?so?are you sure it's me he's interested in?"
"He shot two rolls of film on you while I was watching him. However, he did get sidetracked with another group up the road?"
"The 'let's get naked' group?"
Charlotte laughed. "Yeah."
"Well, they invited me to join them?wonder if they are working with the photographer." Claire frowned trying to think how unrealistic that sounded. There is no reason for someone to take the time to discredit her?she had no political aspirations. She also shot any chance for her advancement to management?.in a literal sense of the word. Maybe she was jumping to conclusions about the connection of the nudie group and the photographer. But, why was someone taking photos of her?
"Well, maybe he's going to find a way to put you on the internet?you know, super impose your head on some nude woman's body," Charlotte teased.
"Well, he better make it a woman and one with a nice bod."
"You don't seem to be too worried."
"There is nothing I can do. There is no law against taking pictures of people and as much as I appreciate you checking my stalker out?" She turned around to look at Charlotte. "Where did you say he is parked?"
"You plan on stealing some film?" Charlotte looked interested.
"Nooo. But I would like to meet him face to face. See what he has to say for himself. Though, if he's not around?" Except, maybe that's the intention, for me to get caught breaking into someone's car. Damn, woman! You are sooo paranoid!
"Top of the cliff gives a good view of the road both ways."
"Sounds like a plan?but he'll be real suspicious if I change my habits?" For a few moments she was quiet. "Want to meet the people that own this place? Rey and Sandy."
Charlotte looked interested.
"They used to be in the law-enforcement business?they inherited some money and bought this place."
"So, no wild shootings or disappearing spouses are likely to be happening up here."
Claire snorted. "Rey and Sandy take no misbehaving crap from anyone."
"So, getting back to why you're being stalked, what's interesting about your job?" Charlotte asked.
"Nothing. It's quiet, isolated and devoid of politics."
Charlotte watched Claire's face intently, looking for tension or eye movement that would show she was nervous. "Maybe one of the cases you've reviewed?.?"
"Let's talk about something else."
Charlotte persisted. "We both are exposed here."
Claire took a deep breath and let it out. "You said you work for yourself?just what do you do?"
"You don't look like a bounty hunter. You don't have the vibes," Claire objected, having met a few and not liking them one bit.
"That's why I'm still alive. I don't look or feel like one. Most bounty hunting jobs involve stake-outs and research from the Internet and phone books. Very boring for the active minded."
"Are you on a job right now?"
"So, was that you at the phone booth I saw?"
Charlotte leaned forward interested. "No. Can you draw me who you saw?"
"I don't do people so well?" But she leaned over to where her backpack was and pulled out her drawing pad. As she was feeling around for the box with her drawing tools she pushed aside the bottle of water and felt the rag she always carried.
"Did you put anything in my pack?" Claire asked as she pulled out the rag and then dived back in for her drawing box.
"No. Why?" a suspicious sounding Charlotte asked.
Claire laid out her box of tools and then unraveled the rag. Out dropped the small box and would have hit the ground had not Charlotte caught it.
"When did you find this?" she asked seriously, gently setting it on top of the drawing pad.
"This morning. I thought maybe you put it in there."
Charlotte shook her head. "There isn't anywhere on my body I could hide this. Do you ever lend your pack out?"
"I did lend my tent and backpack to some friends a month ago. I have no idea who used the backpack." Claire picked up the box and pried open the box with a knife blade she usually used to sharpen her pencils with. The lid opened.
"Ooh, shit!" they echoed.
Claire dipped her finger in and tasted it. "Shit, shit, shit!"
"The guy with the camera?think maybe he's tracking this?"
Claire looked over at Charlotte. "And I thought I was the most paranoid person. What the hell am I going to do with this?" She picked up her rag and started to wipe prints off the case. "Why is someone setting me up?"
"Hm. We're still going to the store?"
"Yeah. Now I really want to find out if Rey and the gang tracked this elusive photographer down."
"Yeah. I told Rey I felt I was being followed. Don't worry. The gang is a bunch of retired cops that like to come up here for R&R of the quiet type."
Charlotte leaned over and whispered, her breath tickling Claire's ear and neck. "Do you think this van is bugged?
Claire shook her head and pulled out of her pocket a radio frequency detector. "I have issues with privacy," she said softly.
"Alright, this is how we can work it. You head off to the store and I'll follow a few minutes later. I'll take this stuff and hide it somewhere?"
Claire was shaking her head. "Believe it or not, I have issues with trusting strangers with my welfare. I'll take it and hide it somewhere?chances are, if this is a setup, they're going to have a dog that's going to be sniffing for this?"
"Wanta go for a swim?"
Claire smiled. "Ah?I got it. Like give the bag a salt water bath to get rid of the scent. It's going to be interesting to see just who shows up for this bust because?then I'll know better what the hell is going on?I hope," she muttered in the end.
After doing what she thought was a good job of laying a false trail and hiding the box Claire headed for the beach. Finding a place to sit in isolation was easy since the beach had few people about. A rock that she hopped out to was where she decided she could get good views of the cliff face and beach to the left. Pulling out of her backpack her pad and some pencils she settled for a pleasant afternoon, finding the brisk breeze okay for now. It was about three in the afternoon, and as long as she was in the sun the breeze was not too chilly.
Her first sketch was of the person she had seen at the phone booth. Drawing nature was easier because if she did not reproduce a tree limb for limb it did not matter. Drawing a person meant it had to have some resemblance to the subject.
Geeze! Good thing you don't plan on doing this for a living.
She lifted her head to check around her. Her sun-glassed eyes scanned the beach, picking out a 'tourist' armed with a camera pointed in her direction. Suddenly he was backing up and hiding behind a vehicle. Charlotte appeared on the path from the private camp ground.
As Claire stood, her foot kicked her backpack into the water. An accommodating wave pulled it out. Charlotte had something in her hand that had Claire's rapt attention. It looked like an ice cream drumstick.
"Hey! Is that yours?" Charlotte pointed with one of the ice creams when she was near enough.
Claire reluctantly looked out where she was pointing, and then looked down at her feet. "Shit!" Claire pulled off her jeans and in her underwear, waded out to grab her backpack that was sinking lower into the water. The wave that lapped up her crotch was cold and took her breath away, but she gamely wadded towards her backpack that was heading into the rocks further from her.
Wet up to her waist, Claire pulled herself up on the rock to face an amused Charlotte. Charlotte obviously had a better idea on how to innocently rinse out the backpack in salt water.
"Very good, but dropping an ice cream in the bag and then rinsing it would have been my choice. I take it you would rather eat the ice cream," she laughed.
"Cold or no, I won't pass up an ice cream drumstick. I'll just have soup later to thaw out."
Claire removed her underwear and slipped on the jeans. Charlotte offered herself as a wall from any prying eyes. "I sure hope there is only one person with a camera," Claire grunted as she tried to pull her jeans over her damp and cold legs.
"Hm. He's hiding behind a trash bin. I think he's interested in the guys dancing around by the beach," Charlotte reassured.
"Okay, let's go."
Charlotte carried her pad and box of pencils, and Claire followed holding the wet pack and the rag towel from each hand.
They stopped by at the store, where Sandra had some information.
"Faithful Teddy was barking his head off. Rey was up there cleaning the restrooms and caught the 'love to run around naked group' taking too much interest in your place. He ran them off. Told them he didn't want to catch them again nosing around other people's belongings."
Sandra got up to answer the phone. "It's for you," she informed Charlotte.
Whatever Charlotte had to say was brief and was spoken too softly for either of them to hear.
"So, you're being followed Rey said," Sandy mentioned, hinting for more information.
"Yeah. Charlotte tracked him and said it was a photographer. John Regan. Know anyone by that name?"
"It's a common name," Sandy told her. "But maybe Rey knows someone by that name."
Claire looked over at Charlotte who was walking back towards them. "You ready to head back? I'm tired."
Charlotte nodded and then followed Claire out, carrying a bag of strawberries. Charlotte picked a few out of the bag and offered Claire a pick as they climbed the slope to their site.
Teddy was not in his usual place under the picnic table. This time he was standing on top of the table. Claire took time to coo to him her praise of being the watchdog he was intended to be. His tail waved enthusiastically and then he hopped down and waited in front of the van's door.
"Ya worked up an appetite did ya?" Claire obligingly prepared his bowl which he promptly buried his nose in the mixed dry and wet food when it was set on the floor.
Tiredly she plopped in the chair opposite of Charlotte. Her cell interrupted the conversation they needed to have. "Yeah?"
[Hey, miss vacation! How's Teddy and Mollee Bree?] Gail's voice asked.
Claire frowned but went along with the conversation. She left a voice mail on their service saying she was fine, so why the call? "We're all doing fine. Teddy Bear got to bark at some campers that came too close to the place and Rey came over to investigate."
[Ohhh. That must have made his day!]
"Hm. Hey, tell Marge I found the extra movies she stuffed in the bag. How come she didn't add any Xena ones?"
[I don't know. I'll ask her when she gets back. She went to the store. I got a package for you. It was sent to our address?]
"I didn't order anything. Does it say who from?"
[Nope. That's what has me worried. Are you involved in any cases?]
"No! You know I work a desk? Nothing exciting happens." She cringed inwardly, somehow feeling that was putting a jinx on her.
[Well?I asked Jeff to bring his pooch over for a test sniff. In the mean time?it's sitting out in the middle of the backyard.]
"Who delivered it?"
[Janey, our regular mail carrier. It came by regular USP.]
"Did you run an electronic bug detector over it?"
[Did all that stuff.]
"Well?I know they can't be those battery powered French ticklers I ordered. I already received them?" she teased nervously.
[Can I open it?]
"If it's sent to your address?go ahead."
[Okay. Catch ya later.]
"Yeah, bye," Claire muttered. "Damn."
"Why is that?"
"Tell me about your phone call first," she bargained.
"My partner nabbed our man. He's retrieved my vehicle and hopes to see me in a few days with a new contract."
"However, I told him I have some unfinished business here," Charlotte lowered her voice. "I'm curious how your business is going to end." She grinned.
"So am I," Claire agreed.
"So, what was your call about?"
"Gail, Teddy's number two mama, said she received a package in the mail. It had my name, her address and no return address on the box. Gail is a very paranoid chick."
"Ahh. So?do you think it ties in with the photographer?"
Claire laughed but in weariness. "I don't know. I sure hope that's not the supposed cash that goes with the cocaine in the box."
"Who is Sandra?"
"She used to be my department's shrink? Rey was captain of detectives until they inherited some money."
"Ah. So did you tell them about the box?"
"Sort of." Claire tried not to squirm since there was no rational reason why Charlotte's question should make her feel guilty.
"Okay," Charlotte replied looking bemused. "So, I would make a good guess that whoever placed the box in your bag, is keeping an eye on you, and knows you found it. What do you think will happen now?"
"True. Because they or he is not going to believe that it was dumped in the ocean," she snorted disgustedly. "Whether I'm here or not, they'll tear this van apart looking for their prize."
"What do you plan on doing?"
"I think I'll take Teddy for a walk to the market tomorrow. When they search the van, I don't want to be here and I'm not leaving Teddy behind. One kick and he's dead and so will I be, to say nothing of not wanting to live with myself. And you?I don't think it would be wise for you to be here either."
"Okay. Tomorrow we'll make a group visit to the market and let whoever drops in have a free inspection. So, what's our movie tonight?"
It was during their viewing of The Banger Sisters that the bust occurred. They were forewarned when Claire's cell rang once, then once again. Ten minutes later, Teddy was bristling which gave them the next clue, and then he broke out into frantic barking.
Claire took a deep breath and cautiously opened the van door, only to have it ripped out of her hands and she was dragged to the ground. She was aggressively and unnecessarily kneed into submission, where her hands were bound with nylon cord. Around her she could hear two dogs barking and the awning ripped to the ground.
Shit. They are not going to lend me the van again.
Suddenly she was yanked to her feet and put into a choke hold that had her struggling for air. When she struggled a rifle butt slammed into her stomach, knocking her into semi-unconsciousness. When her vision returned, black clad men standing around her with rifles pointing at her head frightened her. She sagged against the picnic bench wheezing from the blood that crusted her face and over her nose. The familiar tension adrenalin gave to people on the edge put her attackers on a hair trigger. Anything could set them off and someone could lose a life. She prayed the RC gang would be very careful what they did next.
This was supposed to be a quiet vacation. Where did I go wrong?
Claire turned her head to the side to see where Charlotte was. The small movement brought a gloved slap across her face, rocking her head back.
She could see her badge on the table so they knew she was a cop.
"Where is it?" a deep voice asked above her.
"Where is what?" she coughed painfully. Her ribs hurt too. They must have kicked her when she was unconscious. For a moment she thought that he was going to hit her with the butt of his rifle again. She could see it in his dark eyes, glittering behind his mask.
"You know fucking well what, bitch trash!"
"Since you know I'm a cop, you know you're in deep shit for whatever this is."
This time she did get hit and she went down face first.
Roughly she was jerked back up and dragged into the van. Her pulse beat painfully against her jaw. It felt broken. Her captor shoved her into one of the chairs where she sagged. Charlotte was pushed into the other, her hands also bound behind her.
"I'm going to start beating on your pooch here or your girlfriend if you don't give me some answers."
Something was tracking down her cheeks. Claire wondered if it was blood or tears. Hopefully it was not blood that would stain the carpet.
"Where the hell is it?"
She shook her head, not being able to move her jaw without pain. A droning that increased in volume had her wondering if she was passing out.
"This is the police?drop your weapons and stand out where we can see you!"
"FUCK!" a group chorus blurted.
Claire wavered in her seat. She could feel someone supporting her weight so she did not fall out of the chair, but she was not too clear on what was happening.
For an undetermined amount of time, Claire was suspended somewhere where she felt like she was in a bubble with noises outside of her distorted and by the time they reached her everything was garbled and not understandable. Her hands were freed.
Something cold was pressed against her jaw and automatically she raised her hand to touch it. Her hand came in contact with warm ones, a sharp contrast to what was against her jaw. Her eyes tracked to blue ones that were watching her worriedly.
"Hey, you back with us?" Sandy asked gently.
Claire blinked and then nodded, which hurt.
"You don't have a busted jaw, but it's sure as hell is going to hurt for a few days," she smiled. "Got a shiner and a swollen face. Swollen wrists and cuts?everything is recoverable after a week more of vacation."
"Whaaa haaaunn?" She swallowed and tried not to cry from the pain that small movement brought.
"Their IDs show they're FBI. They claimed you were identified as a courier for a Mexican drug cartel they've been watching for a few years. You were supposed to have drugs and money on you. However, they didn't find the 'marked' money or drugs." Sandra sighed. "Excuse me if I state the obvious? This does not feel right. I've never heard of it being okay to beat the crap out of a prisoner that has her hands bound."
"Hmph," she grunted. "Gaa assspin?"
"I'll give you something that will knock you out in about ten minutes. The paramedics checked you out?and since there is no emergency room or hospital around here?I'm your doctor. Rey is keeping Detective Smith outside until I make sure you're alright to be questioned."
"Your gun?" Sandra held up her badge and HK P7, the semiautomatic that was lying on the counter. "No magazine?"
Claire pointed at the cupboard. Sandra stood up and checked. "Nothing here."
"Shii!" she got out painfully.
"Let's get the interview over quickly so you can pass out in comfort. Detective, she's ready for some questions, but with her jaw swollen up she'll have to write her answers and you're in trouble there?her handwriting is atrocious."
Sandy switched places with an older man, someone ready to retire, Claire thought. While he got comfortable in the passenger seat across from where she was sitting, Claire's eyes sought Charlotte. It was dark outside so she saw nothing.
"ers Char?" she started painfully.
"She's alright. Which, leads me to think you're who they were after. Any reason you can think of?"
Shit! He get's right to the point.
She took the pad he handed her.
"You're a cop?do you have any cases or contacts out on the street that would finger you with a grudge as a courier?"
He nodded and wrote that down. "That's what your captain said. Any reason why he's pissed at you?"
Claire's eyebrows rose in surprise. "ooo," she whispered.
"Okay. Did you recognize any of those characters?"
She did not want to point out that they were wearing masks, because if you were familiar with someone?their body language and the way they held a rifle would give them away.
"Well, you're one hell of a lucky person. If they had any more time?we would have been having this conversation in a hospital." He got up and nodded to her. "When you're able to speak?before you head home?I'd like to continue this interview. Until then, write down what happened and bring it with you."
Claire leaned back, closing her eyes and holding the ice to her aching jaw.
"Ready for your medicine?" Charlotte's voice asked.
Claire opened her eyes and could hear Teddy's excited bark. She could barely make out Charlotte's form. She was feeling sick and felt very tired.
"Come on. Drink this and then let's get you to bed."
How she got to bed and under the covers she would have to believe that it was with Charlotte's assistance.
"We got the picture of their dog matched up?" Rey's voice came floating to her.
"Ooohh, gawds!" she groaned when her mental and physical awareness sharpened. Holding her face she swung her legs over the bed and held onto the small set of drawers that separated the two beds in the back. Taking a deep breath she focused on the figure that took a seat on the bed across from her. She did not look up. That would take too much effort at this time.
"Good afternoon, kiddo!" Sandy leaned over to touch her shoulder, handing her a glass of something. "Drink it. It will take the edge off most of your rotten feeling yet not make your thinking muddled."
"She is out with a few of the guys, looking over the nudie's camp site. They left sometime after the copters arrival and light show."
"Hey, Claire. Gawds but if we didn't have you?we'd be bored to death up here," Rey teased as he reached and gently touched the swollen jaw. His touch was so soft she was not aware of it.
"Teddie? What about the dog?where's Teddy?"
A small pointed muzzle, with a shinny black nose peeked through Rey's legs at the mention of his name. Rey reached down and scratched his head. "I think he got the hell scared out of him when that German Sheppard growled back at him."
"Shit. They're not going to let me borrow their van and Teddy any more," Claire groaned.
"We got most of the mess cleaned up. Marge and Gail are more worried about you?as for the equipment, FBI will pay for it," Sandy comforted.
Claire accepted the mirror Sandy handed to her. The bruise above her eye was a shiner. She looked like a battered woman. She turned her head to get a better view of an imprint of a ring on her face. "Did you get pictures of any of this?" she pointed at her face.
"Yeah. And a picture of the ring that did that damage to your face. Evidence," Rey answered. "And the condition they left the van. The Gang didn't want to come barging down and make things worse but they were filming with infrared and putting a fire under the butts of the local cops to make noise to break up the party."
Claire nodded. "So, which office are they from?local?"
"No. Texas. Sloppy work. They didn't bother to verify that you were who their snitch said you were. Their dog went over the van inside and out finding nothing?or I gathered they found nothing or they would have arrested you by now.
Claire rubbed her head that was aching. "Did you guys run a bug detector over this place?"
Rey nodded. He sat next to his wife, sliding an arm around her waist. "Found four. Even one in your toilet cabinet. Talk about sick."
"Let's see if we can get a handle on this. Can you start a story?" Sandra asked.
"You guys are going to really flip?but here it goes. A detective and his trainee went out for a routine check on a street snitch and the world changed dramatically for all of them," Claire started.
"Geeze, not that Sammie mess!" Rey let out explosively. As he was leaving the department for retirement, internal investigation was just wrapping up their investigation on Claire's partner that was shot in the head by a juvie he was questioning on the street.
"Okay, first question?what makes today's incident connect to that incident?" Sandra asked her patient, knowing that Claire still had nightmares about it and was the reason why she was satisfied with her desk job.
Claire pointed to her face. "That mark from the guys ring?it reminds me of Sammie's." Gently she touched her jaw where the bruise was in the outline of a design.
"This is a problem that keeps haunting us all," Rey remarked, sounding put out.
"There's no running from it," Sandra agreed.
"Well, I'm not running," Claire grumped at unfinished business through no fault of hers.
"Why do you have to run?" Charlotte asked as she stepped in sight. Kenny was behind her.
Claire was feeling the smallness of the van. "Hi, Charlotte, how are you?" she asked in concern of the bandages on her wrist.
"Okay." Charlotte stood back, letting Kenny move further in.
"Hey, Kenny," Claire nodded.
"Hey girl. You got quite a nasty there," he commented with a shake of his head.
"Why do you have to run?" Charlotte asked again.
"I'm not. Just some old stuff that may be, and I stress 'maybe,' related to this raid."
Kenny hooted and then stopped when everyone looked at him. "Sorry. But I think they were after those jerks on the beach. They had so much shit I thought for sure they were dirty cops or idiot donkey's that stole from their dealer."
"Must have had you soiling your pants when that copter lit up the sky," Rey remarked.
"Not me. I was entertaining a babe at the nearest bar ten minutes from here?if you want to call it that. When I heard the copter overhead I just thought they were after them and glad I had an alibi."
"Were they there when you got back?"
"Gone when I got back this morning. I found the gang sifting through the sand like they knew what they were doing. Gil said he had been watching them for the park ranger."
"They buried some of their stash under the trash bin," Charlotte offered.
"We're not going to have another raid are we?" Claire moaned.
"No, we're going to give it to the local PD," Rey told Kenny firmly.
"Why? They can't sell it or make any money on it?"
"Kenny," Rey told him warningly.
Kenny held his hands up. "Just kidding! Hell. You think I want ta lose my visiting rights up here?"
"Good to hear it means a lot to you," Sandra mentioned.
"Yeah. It does. I'm going to go on up and talk to Becky and her unworthy husband," he told them.
When he left Rey looked at Charlotte. "So, where is the stuff?"
"Under the bin waiting for the local PD to pick it up. Kenny called it in from the store phone."
Rey nodded and smiled at Sandy. "Well, you about ready to go? We got a card game to get ready for." He looked over at Claire. "Strip poker is out?wanna join us?"
"NO!" Claire replied quickly. "You'll empty my pockets!"
"I hear you have a lot in them since you won the office pot?what's up with that? You never gamble, not even when it's match sticks at stake."
Sandy pulled his arm. "I'll tell ya on the way down. She looks exhausted and those pills are going to knock her out?take those too." She pointed to what was on the small table with a bottle of water. "Believe me when I say, you'll feel so much better to sleep for one more day."
Claire nodded. Her head, jaw and neck were aching more than her back and shoulders. She felt like she had been in a car wreck without her seat belt on.
Continued in Part 2