"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. I had Joe check it out," she told her passenger with the characteristic wave of her hand, "My own partner?just like in the movies, right?"
The tone of voice did not sound mournful or for that matter like it really was of any real consequence, so she obviously had dealt with it and had moved on, her friend reasoned.
"Uhh, uh," her friend responded, pushing her glasses back up her nose and looking worried for her friend. "Jealousy or?didn't you and he once?.?"
"What? Get it on? No!" the indignant response was followed by a laugh, indicating it was not even going to happen in the wilds of her imagination.
"Well?so?why do you think he's doing this?"
"Greed. He knows I start companies and then sell them after about a year. So," she shrugged her shoulder and again waved a hand, "siphoning off profits is not really stealing to him since he's part owner." She peered over at her passenger. "This is the first time I've taken on a partner and it will be the last."
"Gail, you took me on as a partner," Marti reminded her in a dry voice.
"You were a silent one?besides it was your money," her friend pointed out, grinning. "You helped start my roll. Girl, you started it all," she laughed, sounding relieved as if talking about it was letting go of something.
"Hmmm." Marti studied the profile of her friend, catching all the nuances that she had learned to read in the last two years of her living on the streets.
They had met in college and kept in touch with each other through the years via internet chat rooms. Obviously that kind of correspondence left out something important that an eye-to-eye contact filled in. For example, Gail looked a lot more tired than she had ever remembered her looking in college?and she had a rough schedule as scholar and star athlete.
Gail reached for her wallet, leaned out the window to pay the parking lot attendant to the busy bus station, and then pulled out onto the traffic cutting over to the lane that would take them to the freeway. Gail had picked her up at the bus station and treated them both to lunch and started catching up on news?light and not quite serious until lunch was finished.
"Maybe you need a new challenge," Marti said, agreeing with the underlying tone in Gail's voice. "I never thought you would stick to one business for so long?what? Two years?" she admitted, further encouraging Gail to reveal her business plans.
"Yeah, well, I surprised myself?" Gail muttered. "I did hold onto this one longer than I did the others, didn't I?" Her voice picked up with that observation, sounding pleased with herself.
Marti pushed her glasses back up her nose. "Uh, huh. So what's the problem? Just sell your share to Ben and let him steal from himself."
If she were talking to her street friends she would have used rougher language?it did not escape her that when she did speak with the people she knew when she had a respectable fifty to sixty-hour work week job, she had to leave her street persona behind. If she had more faces to wear she would think she was a multiple personality, like Joyce. Now Joyce was an interesting street friend because each time she met up with her she was now able to guess who Joyce was?Greg, Jamie, Alec?short for smart Alec, who was the brains of the five?
Gail's voice interrupted her thoughts.
"He won't give me what it's worth. Plus, if he knows I'm serious about selling?he'll sabotage something?he's waiting for me to sell?cheap?to him."
She paused a moment, a triumphant grin was on her face. "In fact?I'm going to meet someone that I've sold my part of the business to," she admitted. "And that's where you come in. You still get a week's paid vacation ?but if you accept this assignment?" she grinned and then continued, "I'll pay you what I would an agent. It'll be a working vacation. You can write if off on your income tax," she joked.
"It's not against the law is it?"
"No! I just need someone to pose as me at the hotel for a couple of days while I meet with my buyer in San Fran. I've already signed the papers but his lawyer wants us to meet one more time?like a polite turning over the keys to the executive washroom or something. However, I'm expected to be out on the lake in Tahoe resting, and if Ben gets wind of this deal, no telling what he'll do before the new partner gets there." Gail glanced over at Marti and reading discomfort over something not being on the up-and-up, in her expression. "Our working contract allows me to sell by share without conferring with him but he can't with his. I have controlling vote?hell, it was the only way I was going to take on a partner. Since the papers have been signed, he can't write any more checks against the company?the independent auditor has cleared the books and as controlling vote?I put a lock on the business's accounts."
Marti's anta for danger was doing more than twitch. "Are you sure I'm not going to get shot at, kidnapped, blown up or be involved in anything that is going to hurt?"
Gail took a quick glance at her friend horrified. "You have an active imagination! This isn't something that warrants corporate espionage?or I hope not! This is a small business with only ten full-time employees in four offices!"
"Does Ben suspect something is up?"
"I haven't spoken with him since our last argument. I've been doing my work from home. For all I know, he's striped the offices of anything of value?well, not necessarily. My business manger would have told me?he's verrrry anal retentive about business property and the likes. But Ben does keep tabs on me?which is another reason I want out of that bizz."
"Hmm. He does suspect something. So who's the buyer?"
Gail started to giggle. "He's Australian. Benny Clark."
Marti laughed with her. "Woman, what is with you and Bens?"
"Ben number two, that's BC, wants a business office in America so he can have a write-off to visit the states. He also wants to move the headquarters to another country to avoid American and Australian taxes?he has so many plans?just like Ben numero uno."
"I gotta keep the two separate. It confuses my business agent."
"You've slept with him!" she accused, finally figuring out what was so familiar about the little smile that curled up the corners of her mouth and made it look like she was the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary.
"Well, it had to look like a date or Ben number one would have been suspicious! And he was?interesting?though, for a brief time. I liked him the moment we were introduced ? it was a 'no strings attached' and it's not like it was planned?on my part anyway," she explained plaintively.
"You don't have to explain to me your sex partners and why you go back and forth between women and men," Marti guiltily and hurriedly assured her friend. This was not her business, she reminded herself firmly. "I have no problems with bisexuality. So, what about your employees?" Marti decided it was time to change the subject?sort of.
"I used to know them?but in a year of turn-overs and Ben's idea to hire cheap labor?Hell, I can't understand my own employees! I have to go through a damn interpreter. Then that deal he wants to sign with a sweat factory in another country that pays less than ten cents a week! That is?" She took a few deep breaths and then continued calmer, "Even the meetings are a pain. They've become a stupid soap opera with more talk about the three mangers' sordid sex lives than how to improve the employee's conditions or do all the things I feel are part of a responsible corporation. I have let myself become a figure head rather than a participant." Gail started to laugh. "Sorry. I'm preaching to the choir."
"You don't feel like you're being manipulated into selling?" Marti asked slowly, wondering why she was suddenly getting a feeling Gail left something out, like why she couldn't override his decisions if she had the controlling interest.
"Partnerships are like a marriage and ours is in the gutter," Gail explained simply. "I'm not interested in this business anymore? I pushed the envelope on this one and stayed passed the year and that's all I did?just stayed?I didn't have any interest in it really. I've got to do something new."
"Ahh." Gail, admit it, this is just like your personal life. One day woman, someone is going to spark your interest and you are going to willingly let him or her lead you into something longer than a year.
"What about you?" Gail changed the entire subject. "Geeze, Marti when you said you were going to give up that job and be a vagabond artist?you weren't kidding! I thought six months and you'd be back into a regular paying job." She took her eyes off the road for a moment, glancing at Marti and then back to the road. To her eyes, Marti was too thin and beginning to get the hard edges around her eyes that people who lead harsh lives have.
Marti was the only female friend she had that she had not shared some time in bed with, and the odd thing was, she had no desire. In the four years they roomed together at college, neither made a pass at the other. It wasn't that Marti was ugly or that she was unappealing, or so she thought, it was that they liked each other as roommates and did not want to mess up the relationship.
Marti laughed. "Yeah. From college right into a mucho paying job?only one big problem? I hated the competitive mentality and the deadlines?and everything that goes with working in an office. Like you, my sanity maxes out with too many people in small spaces that are always snipping at each other. I think in high school they should spend time comparing animal experiments on over crowding to how they arrange human working spaces and living spaces today."
"Why? All you need is a drug of some kind to keep Mother Nature's preventive measures of over population and overcrowding to sleep. In fact, just put it in the food and it's pumped into the citizens."
The problem with this conversation was they both agreed with each other on social awareness issues so Marti did not pursue it, instead she brought up the real reason she quit. "I just don't want to go back to that type of intense pressure to produce?and to produce something I wouldn't want to put my name on."
"Well, isn't there something that you can do for a living and then paint when you get home?"
Marti snorted, unconsciously wiping a tear away. "I pick up a pencil, a brush, even a pen just to sketch?and there is nothing. Oh, sure?I can copy a tree, do a still setting, even sketch a profile?but it looks dead to me and somewhere in the sketch I just stop?" she shrugged her shoulders.
Silence went on for a while as each thought on their needs to move on with their lives into something new.
"Where you staying these days? Marianne said hadn't heard from you for a month," Gail's voice disturbed Marti's thoughts on plans to travel up the coast after her working vacation, looking for someone. "I told her I hear from you weekly, and you sounded fine."
"Marianne won't be seeing me if I can help it," Marti informed Gail. "And how do you know her?"
"She called the office. Said she needed to speak with you. How did she get my office number?"
"Damn. Long story made short, she probably got it from my address book. My purse disappeared when I spent the night at her place. The stupid thing was, I didn't have to spend the night there. I couldn't get any sleep because she had some real spooky people dropping in at all hours. I think she deals. I was so scared that I locked myself in her spare bathroom and slept in the bathtub. Did she say why she was looking for me?"
"Nope." Gail looked towards Marti then back to the road.
"I think my life needs to take an upward course change," Marti informed Gail.
"Sounds like my vacation offer came at a good time," Gail told her with a smile.
"It will be a nice break. Just how much are you paying me for this? I don't want to be caught carrying more than a hundred. I'd get picked up for robbing someone," she half joked. "Or end up getting robbed myself."
"Maybe the break will give you some inspiration in your painting," Gail suggested. "You got a bank account?'
"I don't think spending a few days in a posh hotel is going to reinspire me to paint, but that's not to say I won't enjoy imaging such things. And no, I don't have a bank account. It costs money."
"Look, Marti?" Gail started?
"Gail, I'm fine. Really. Besides, I'm on a paid vacation right now?right?"
"Hmm. Well, I have a roll of cash in my purse?unmarked bills," she joked. "You can use that until I meet back with you at the hotel. It should be just one or two days. How many days of clothes do you have in your backpack?"
"Two sets of underwear?why?"
Gail laughed. By the weight she knew there was more than clothes. Maybe books or some art equipment. "If you're going to pose as me, you'll need at least a weeks worth of wardrobe?and a hair cut?no, I'll get a haircut like yours. Hey, just like old times when we would confuse our dates, huh?"
"I don't see how they could have confused us. We don't look that much alike and you always wore contacts and I wore glasses. Do I get a manicure and pedicure with this make over?" Marti teased.
"Sure! You know money is no object for me. And I don't wear contacts anymore. I had the laser eye surgery thing. Hey! That reminds me?that joint account we started for my first business, when you had money to loan friends?it's still open. I got credit cards for you and I in the mail a couple of months ago."
"Oh, shit! That's been what, ten years? Ahh. My fault. I forgot all about going over and closing it. Damn! I'm really sorry, Gail. Now, if I was like you and had the money to hire a social secretary?I would not have forgotten," she joked. "Hey, that means we're earning interest on it and I have to fill out an income tax form," Marti complained.
Gail laughed. "Believe me, if it was that much, my accountant sans tax consultant and income tax preparer, would have said something. So, you do still have an account. Your card should be in my wallet somewhere. That time we met at the coffee shop I was going to mention it and give you the card, but hell we got to yakking about everything else. Damn if it didn't slip my mind."
"You didn't write it in your organizer," Marti told her. She remembered the visit warmly. She had been feeling depressed that week, as well as low on funds. Gail kept them both laughing with stories of her business associates and her shortcomings of staying in one business for longer than a year. It was a 'feel good' visit for them both. "You multitask too much. Unless your secretary writes it down for you?you're too busy with your 'to do' list and you forget other things. I don't want to go back to that busy shit. I bet you don't even take the time to smell the roses?huh?" she goaded her workaholic friend. She thought back about the account. "I thought you cut me a return check and moved most of the money out when you finally had enough to open a small business account?right?"
"That was so long ago. I don't remember. But I think my 'business manger'," she emphasized, "has been keeping the account active, otherwise we wouldn't be getting ATM cards. Come to think of it?I don't remember ever getting cards for this account?must be a new bank policy. I'll ask him how much is in there so the IRS doesn't come looking for ya. And the visit to see you that day was purely a spur of the moment decision, so there," she told her and then stuck her tongue out at her. She grinned at the returned face of bugged out eyes and flapping hands over ears.
As a matter of fact, the ATM cards were handed to her by her secretary instead of being put in the pile that her business manager would normally handle. It was because of the reminder that she lengthened her stop over in L.A., rented a car, and met Marti at a coffee shop in town, leaving on a flight two hours later to Chicago, and feeling better about taking time out to renew their friendship?but completely forgetting about the cards.
"Heh. Okay. But one moment of spontaneous living," Marti laughed, "is not taking time to enjoy what you've been earning."
"You have to give me some credit for the effort. And I grew up spending someone else's earnings with no proper respect for money. It got boring and so did the people. I like working. It's a whole new different type of mind-set, you know? So, how's your courier part time jobber? Is that riding around on a bike and doing all those crazy things between cars?" Gail asked interested.
"No, no. No crazy city driving. I work only during the day and make sure during winter my hours don't go into the night. I have a vespa that I putter around on. Right now it's down for repairs so I've been taking metro. You want to know the bus routes in my city and I'll tell ya."
Gail nodded. "We use a courier service?some guy in an old Toyota truck. Cheaper and faster than snail mail."
"Hmm." Marti wondered how much she should tell her about her part time job. "What?" Marti suddenly realized that Gail was asking her something.
"Have you heard from 'Blue Dog' lately?"
"Hmm. No, can't say I have, but I remember the last time I logged on she said she was going on a business trip on another continent. Why?"
"I thought she would be back by now. She has some information for me. You know, I logged on last night and could not recognize anyone in our favorite chat room, not even the one you've been sniffing after."
"Uhh, sniffing? Paaaaleeease," she dramatically dragged out the denial. "I'm not that into the chats these days. I just logon the days we set up meeting and chat until you drop in."
"Right. Yeah," Gail's voice did not sound like she believed her.
Marti glanced at the silhouette of her friend and waited. Something was bothering Gail and now maybe she would say something. Thoughtfully she pushed her glasses again up the bridge of her nose. Unconsciously she felt where the tape was, holding the arm secure to the frame.
"By the way, I did call your friend, Cari, to get in touch with you and got her lover, Marge. I wanted to find out more on that person that called my office. Marge said they hadn't heard from you for over two weeks, but I should try the internet. What's up with that?"
Marti raised her eyebrows at her friend. She was curious just what Marianne had said to provoke Gail to worry about her. "Hey, what's with the mothering mood? I move around so I don't wear out my welcome with my few friends. You may not know it, but when you quit your job, suddenly your working class 'friends' get worried about inviting you over."
"Ahh. Like when someone becomes a couple and they no longer want to have their single friends over. Are you making enough to eat?"
"Courier work doesn't pay enough for me to have my own place?but I don't starve. With all this worrying?you sound like you're pregnant?or something."
"Hmm. How's your social life? Are you interested in anyone?" Gail persisted, ignoring the messages from her friend to change the subject. She was close to getting Marti to tell her what was going on, or she would not have thrown out the 'pregnant' remark that in the past would have her going off on a tangent about human over-population of Southern California that was technically a desert?thus knocking her off track. But not this time.
"Naw. Not someone you would know. Not someone I would know," Marti smiled remembering the few conversations she had with 'IYD', short for 'In Your Dreams'. IYD did not say much about herself, but Marti knew it was a woman. She also did not show up much in the chats, but if she was going to see someone, that would be who she would like to see?if for no other reason than to satisfy her curiosity. She wondered if that was whom Gail was referring to as her 'sniffing' someone out. All she knew of her was that she lived somewhere between L. A. and San Francisco.
"Yeah? So, what's her name?"
"I don't know. No one gives up real names and addresses, ya know? I'm gonna do some coast traveling after this paid vacation. Maybe that will inspire me," Marti mentioned to change the subject.
Gail nodded but persisted with her hunting for information, but in a different direction, going after what she really was interested in now that Marti would be defensive about her love interests and willingly get sidetracked. "Margie said your supervisor from the courier service called them also, asking where you were."
Marti studied Gail's expression in the passing lights. So, this is what you're really worried about. Doggone, Gail. Sometimes your big sister attitude is going to get us both hurt. She was surprised Gail took this long to get to what she really was worried about.
"You know, I only work for Same Day Delivery service and I don't deliver any drugs or anything illegal. I get paid under the table, yes, but hell I don't make enough to get taxed. I don't do anything illegal. Damn it! What else did she say?" Marti could feel panic setting in and she needed to breathe her way out of the feeling. She needed to think clearly about this.
"Just that Carlo, your supervisor, sounded worried about you. She also mentioned the police were asking about you too. Margie said some of your street friends said the PD found your ID where some dead bodies were found?"
"Shit! Shit! Shit! Gail?you need to stay out of this?whatever it is. Damn! Margie and Cari should know better than to get involved with?" she let out a puff of air. Margie, a nurse, donated time to a free clinic. Margie would know a lot of her street friends because she sent them to the clinic if they looked ill, knowing they would be taken care of.
"What? What? Damn! Marti, tell me! We're like sisters! Did Carlo do something?"
"Gail?" Marti pushed her glasses back up her nose and put her hands on the dashboard. For a moment she worried about Gail's sudden aggressive move to get into another lane before a truck. She decided speaking to her about it would only make both of them twitchier and it would not change Gail's driving habits.
"Carlo?sent me to an address that took me about an hour of metro travel to get to. It was in a neighborhood that felt really creepy," she finally admitted. It seemed like a hasty decision to share her secret with?but in actuality, she had been thinking about it since she had witnessed an execution a few months earlier?another sticky situation.
"What kind of neighborhood is that?"
"I didn't see anyone on the streets? The only reason why I went through with it was because it was daylight and there were no alleys." She paused a moment, going back in her minds eye to the place she was describing?seeing it with crisp detail down to the shadows that crissed-crossed the sidewalks from old trees lining the street. It was late afternoon but still would give her time to get back without having to travel back in the dark.
"I delivered a flat envelope that felt like nothing was in it?the guy asked me for my ID. The only one I have was the courier ID?and before the guy can give it back to me we hear pops?like packets of firecrackers going off?" Marti looked down at her hands, wrapped around her hat so tightly that it no longer looked recognizable. She forced herself to relax. "Next thing I know, I'm being dragged out into the front of the house where a gun battle at the OK Corral is being replayed and I am NOT into that. Pandemonium going on everywhere. Glass breaking?things flying around and screaming?someone was screaming," she paused again?wondering if had been her screaming.
"I don't know how I escaped from being shot, but I ended up behind the building. A motorcycle was parked?with keys left in the ignition?can you believe that?" she could hear her voice shaking, probably from the cold that gripped her insides. "So, I hopped on and took off. Shit! I was so scared I was going to get shot! Then once I'm out of the neighborhood, I keep thinking this is NOT my bike and I don't have my ID with me and then I started worrying about the coincidence about where the motorcycle was placed. I was getting real paranoid. I left the bike in a parking lot near a bus stop after I wiped my finger prints off it. I caught the first bus that passed, took it to my locker at the bus station, grabbed my backpack and then left town. I get paid up front for each job, in cash, and kept some money in my pack in case of emergencies, so I had a little over five hundred dollars on me. I've been lying low and spending as little as possible till I can think of what to do." Well, partial truth is okay. She couldn't tell Gail everything because she did not know everything. Right now who was the good guys and who was the bad was too unclear for her and until then?she would lay low.
Shakily she pushed her glasses back up her nose.
"Marti! Hell! And you're worried about my little ruse. Why didn't you call me! Alright! Alright. I'm cool," she reassured Marti who nervously snapped her cap against the dashboard. "So, how long have you been on the run?" Gail demanded concerned.
Marti laughed at the phrase of 'on the run' not feeling the humor. "About two weeks, I think. I lost track of time," and then frowned. "Shit. Am I a wanted person by the police?"
Gail shrugged her shoulders. "They haven't contacted me. Maybe you can give your friends a call and find out. If you are, the police would have spoken to them by now." She glanced at her friend worriedly. She decided not to share with her what else she had found out from her private investigator, and that being the reason why she frantically contacted her friend about the one week vacation out of town.
Gail pushed in the CD that would play a selection of Chopin piano pieces, something that usually soothed her soul. Marti fell into an uneasy sleep.
"Hey, Marti. Need a potty break?"
Marti opened one bleary eye and then the other. Carefully she pushed the warm ski jacket Gail must have dropped over her down. She picked up her broken glasses from her lap and pieced the parts together by feel out of habit. Peering out the window, it was dark with only the lights on the rest stop showing it was not desolate. Semi-trucks were parked haphazardly along with a dozen RVs, cars and pick-up trucks. Marti was still deciding if it was safe for two women to be wandering around when Gail hit the side of the door with the flat of her hand.
"Come-on! I gotta go!"
"Oh, right," she mumbled as she unlocked her door. The blast of cold air had her sliding her arms into the ski coat's sleeves.
"Grab my wallet, will ya? I got some change for the junk food machines. Hungry?"
"I don't know. Give my brain time to decide. It's just waking up," she yawned feeling like she was too groggy to be walking around at night.
While Gail used the toilet, Marti locked the door and then went to use one herself. Before they opened the door again, they both listened outside the door to make sure no one was waiting.
"Hi, Ron!...No we're at the rest stop outside of Tahoe?well, there are some truckers and cads about but so far no fuss?"
Marti bent over trying not to laugh loudly. She leaned back to listen outside the door and then unlocked it. Both women could see three men hanging around too close to be comfortable. Gail continued to act as if she were actually speaking to someone on her cell while Marti quickly grabbed some snacks and both women hurried back to their car.
"Damn!" Marti shouted when they had the car started and back on the road. "We are not doing that again! That is not the type of rush I want for excitement!" her voice was shaking as much as her insides.
"We're being followed."
"I don't know. But those two lights have been behind us since we pulled out of that place. One light is stronger than the other. I think I've seen it earlier, but I can't be sure."
"Can you go faster?"
The car leaped forward and both women prayed they were not going to run into anything that hurt.
"The next off-ramp shut your lights off and get off!"
"They'll see my brake lights!"
"Well, think of something?turn around when the next car passes on the other side! They can't turn around that fast! Then the next car we see going?shit!"
Gail was already doing something. She braked pumped the pedal at the next off ramp pulled off, made a U-turn and turned all the lights off. Marti's glasses flew off but she was too busy bracing herself with her hands flat on the dash.
Nothing happened. Cautiously, with her lights off, she drove along the other side of the off ramp to get back on, heading in the direction they were intending. She waited until she saw lights approaching. She then headed back onto the freeway, hoping by driving with another car in sight would give them some protection.
"Damn idiots probably have a CB and think this is fun!"
"The highway patrol listen in on some of the channels?they wouldn't dare!"
"We're way out in the boonies! The cops probably?"
"Don't scare the shit out of me any more than I am now!"
For a while they were following the lights a head of them when suddenly the driver made a U turn and headed back towards them.
"Oh, shit! I just hope this person isn't who was?fuck! It's that damn truck."
"Where's your cell phone?!"
"You won't be able to get a signal with these mountains all around us!"
The truck did another U-turn in front of them with Gail barely able to keep the truck from smashing into them. As Gail picked up speed she frantically prayed for an off ramp that had a gas station that was open.
The crash behind them sent the BMW sliding sideways and then rolling. It came to stop right side up and Gail's foot still on the accelerator sent the car shooting forward, fish tailing on the dirt and broad-sided the truck that was coming in for another bump. The BMW managed to right itself but the air bags were engaged pinning both women in the car as it blindly ran into a gully and came to a stop in a drainage ditch.
Darcy McLagh drove her vehicle, a jeep well camouflaged in mud and dirt, over the highway, distracted momentarily when some of the cakes of mud hit the windshield as the first of the storm pattered on her canvas roof top to her Jeep Wrangler, and hood, loosening up the dirt clumps. This was not her favorite mode of transportation. Her working truck was stolen from outside of the bank by a successful bank robbery. Later that night she was contacted by the highway patrol who found her truck totaled outside of Tahoe, with three very dead bodies trapped inside.
"Mandy, stop whining! If I wanted a whiner I would have a roommate," she grumbled in ill humor. The dampness was causing her body to stiffen up and that led to achy joints. She had the vehicle's heat cranked up as high as it could go with the warmth on her legs but quickly dissipating as it rose above her waist.
Mandy let out a sharp bark and again pushed against the canvas to see what was going on outside, though Darcy knew she would not want to know. Thunder storms made Mandy nervous?it made her nervous too.
Darcy started a string of curses under her breath as she peered out at the road ahead of her that was beginning to be impossible to see clearly as the sprinkles turned into a downpour. Normally she stayed home with bad weather in the forecast. However, her insurance agent, cousin to her twin sister's husband, was on vacation out of the country, so she ended up with an agent that insisted she be in person when he looked over the remains of her truck. He thought a few months in the car repair shop would bring it's squashed condition back to some sort of life. It would have taken more than reconstructive surgery to give it the appearance of being drivable. Since the entire truck looked like it had already spent time in the compacter, she suspected he was planning on having everything welded on from another truck. His wife's family owned the only repair shop in town, which Darcy was warned about by the friendly highway patrol officer?a very nice looking woman in her uniform and out of it. She pointed out to the insurance agent that the chassis was cracked in too many places, to make it safe to drive.
Darcy started to slow down as the off ramp to Farmsdale whipped by. Her pull-off was the one right after. There was no name for her off-ramp, long ago removed because the graffiti made it unreadable, and it was never replaced. It was just a bumpy short cut through the mountains that would allow her to bypass the gusty winds that would send her jeep flying, and she just happened to have left the jeep wings at home. A drip hit her nose as the rag top finally reached it's saturation point.
"There's an abandoned building that has an attached garage along here. I just hope I'm not going to have to share with someone I have to watch my back from," she muttered.
A sharp bark reminded her that she was not alone.
"Sorry. Of course?you'll protect me," she told the dog who quivered from fear in lightening storms.
As she maneuvered along the rutted muddy road she could see someone slowly walking towards the same place she was heading towards.
"Damn. I guess we're gonna have to share, Mandy," she muttered disgusted, as she hurriedly rolled her window down. "Hey!" she yelled as she came alongside of the soaked figure. Rain spattered in her face and she wiped her eyes. What could have been a warm ski jacket was now a wet blanket draped over a figure that was too slim to be a threat. But then again?
The figure backed up a bit and slowly turned to face her, the head tilted up slightly with the rain pelting the dark face. Darcy wondered why the stranded pedestrian had not noticed her lights and attempted to hail her.
"Get in!" she ordered with authority. For some reason she felt she needed to be forcible about it. Maybe Ellen was right and she was around animals too much, though, she reminded herself, she did not speak to her charges in that tone of voice.
The lightning, flashing across the sky, gave both figures a brief glimpse of the other. The figure moved slowly towards the front of the jeep, touching the jeep and moving towards the passenger side. Darcy leaned over and pushed the door open a crack. The stranger paused as the German Sheppard that rested her nose on top of the passenger seat, whined. However the cold wind and wet weather pushed her into the seat. She closed the door, shutting out the worst of the weather.
A thin hand reached up and pulled the wet hood down. Dark hair clung to the woman's head. From under the wet coat she pulled out a hat, remarkably dry, which she put on her dripping head. Darcy thought that was showing good sense. Leaking much needed body heat out through the head was not a good thing since her feet sounded like they were swimming in her shoes.
"There's a shed I was heading towards to park under until the worst of this passes over!" Darcy shouted over the crashing of thunder. "Do you want to get out of that wet coat? There's a blanket right behind your seat."
She need not tell her it probably had sand in it because it was recently used as part of her seduction of a tall dark-haired highway patrol officer?off-duty of course, and the sand was not from the beach as she romantically envisioned, but it got the job done. It's not like she was in a position to take the time to put in the chase and sweet build up of need?hell. To be honest, she seldom was in the position to not only see something nice?but to get a chance at touching it. This was one of those spontaneous things that people talk about and?it was not bad.
Darcy's attention was abruptly pulled back to the present. The steering wheel jerked in her hands as she hit a rut on what used to be a driveway that would lead to the remains of the garage that she was hoping was still standing. Normally when she drove by it, it was so recessed away from the road she had not bothered to study it. She was sure it had a bit of a roof left, the walls did not matter as she could sit in the jeep with the doors closed.
She looked closely before her not seeing very much in front of the jeep. As the rain increased it's down pour both women were leaning forward looking for something that looked like a building.
Mandy was resting her muzzle on the passenger seat also looking.
"Stop!" the woman's voice shouted just as Darcy also saw the sudden appearance of a wall. The only reason they saw it was because they had rolled into the remains of the expected building that in another life was a garage, lifting the veil of water in front of them with the jeep lights reflecting back at them.
"Hold on, I'm gonna back up in here. Mandy, sit down. You're being a back seat driver again."
"My name's Darcy," she spoke in the dark to the shivering woman.
"Hi. Ahh, thanks for the lift," a hoarse voice quavered.
"It wasn't very far. Your car break down?" Darcy turned on the small lamp in the jeep so they could see each other.
Eyes darkened by the night, blinked back at her and then the woman nodded. The old blanket was wrapped tightly around her shivering figure.
"Well, there aren't any gas stations out this way. Not much of anything out this way?"
"Except this shed?and you two," the hoarse voice whispered. The woman then gave a small smile.
"Yeah." She wondered what she was going to do with this woman any further than giving her some respite from the weather. Her clothes were too wet for health reasons to let her wander around. The woman's teeth were chattering, making enough noise to be heard over the rain.
Hells bells, Darc. Give her a change of rags. "I've got some clothes in the back. They're not clean but they are dry," she offered. "I can loan you some tennis shoes too."
"Great," the stranger chattered, and then clamped her jaws shut.
Darcy leaned back and rummaged around the brief case that held absolutely nothing of value and found her bag. "Mandy, move over." She sat the bag on her lap and with Mandy's nose buried in the bag as well as her hands, she shinned her flashlight into it's depths. She pulled out a flannel shirt that she usually wore over her T-shirt, so it was not too ripe from wear. Her jeans did have dirt on them from having to change her jeep tire on the way into the city. The socks were thick and clean. Compliments of her always carrying an extra pair. Her tennis shoes were okay?what can you really say about used tennis shoes?
"Looks okay?" she glanced at the silent woman who nodded, blowing on her fingers.
"Anything dry is welcomed," she replied. "Thanks."
"Here take this flashlight," Darcy handed her the heavy emergency flashlight.
"Thanks," the woman chattered, taking the flashlight and the bag that Darcy restuffed the change of clothes in.
While the woman changed Darcy resettled in the jeep and tried to get comfortable. She moved the mirror just a little to keep an eye on the woman. She did not want to be too trusting. Darcy's eyes occasionally glanced up at the stark landscape whenever lightning ripped the darkness. In those flashes she could see the sleeting rain and hoped this part of the flat land did not experience flash floods; and then shrugged her shoulders remembering that this old building had been standing for ages.
Mandy did not like the weather and small growls rumbled in her throat with an occasional whine at the lightening and the ripping booms that followed.
Darcy turned her head a little when the door next to her opened and the woman again slowly climbed up into the seat. She had the long sleeves pulled over her hands as if to keep them warm. A growling stomach had her tilting her head towards the woman.
"That hungry huh?"
She leaned back and pulled her backpack out. She always carried snacks. Further in the back she had three boxes full of food supplies and other small things for other residents of LC. Since LC was in the middle of nowhere it was the duty of any resident that was heading into the city to take 'requests'.
"Here, try a few of these," she handed three of her favorite trail bars to the woman who eagerly took them and finished them in no time. Darcy remembered a sandwich she was saving for the road?until it was more important to concentrate on driving than eating. "Egg salad sandwich and an apple?" she handed over the sandwich and apple?found a napkin and passed that over.
From the bag of apples that she purchased in the city, she pulled one out for herself. Baking apples were in the second bag. The few trees on her property were winter bare so she broke down and purchased fruit and vegetables from a corporation run grocery store. She also handed over an unopened bottle of water.
"Hmm. Good. An apple, hmm. Thanks for the water, too." The stranger's voice was getting stronger, but it still sounded hoarse.
Okay. That's something I know about her. She hasn't eaten for a while?she also is thin?too thin to be healthy.
Darcy munched on a trail bar, each silent in their thoughts, watching the storm continue. Darcy was wishing she had not finished the coffee. Leaning back, relaxed with the stranger's silence, she glanced over towards her passenger and found her head tilted to the side as if asleep, with the blanket pulled over her for added warmth.
That's a neck-ache angle. Well, now would be a good time to relieve my bladder. Mandy probably could use a break too.
The car's engine woke the stranger who nearly jumped out of the jeep when she did not recognize where she was. Darcy remained silent, letting the engine warm up and her passenger calm down.
The rain was still coming down but it was lighter and unless she wanted them to both be sharing Mandy's warmth in the back seat, she was going to have to get the engine started to get the heater going and so as not to run out of gas start back on the road. Also, the thought of home where there was a dry house and a soft bed waiting her was incentive to make another try to get home.
"Sorry, I?forgot where I was," the soft voice apologized.
Darcy glanced at the stranger who was peering out the window as if trying to find something. The woman looked frightened.
"No problem. Look, what do you want to do about your car? This storm is going to last a few days and going back for it now?"
"It's okay. I?do you have a phone at your place?"
"No. There's a CB at the community store." Darcy pulled out from under their cover, driving slowly over what was left of a paved driveway, and then onto the service road that would wind through the mountains and home.
"Where do you live?" the voice startled Darcy who had not heard anything from her silent passenger for about an hour.
Darcy did not remove her eyes from the road. Total darkness pushed against the bouncing light beams that showed the slanting rain fall and a rough road with a lot of pot holes. Overhead the dark clouds cut off any light from the night sky, so her unwavering attention to the roadway was called for.
"Not completely out in the middle of nowhere, but close enough."
"Oh. Is there a name?"
"LC, for Last Chance."
The silhouetted head of the stranger turned towards Darcy for a moment and then looked back out at the shadows of mountain peaks that appeared when distant lightening flashes gave hints of what was beyond their vehicle's light beams.
Heavy rains had abated for a moment, but Darcy knew it was because they were taking one route and the storm was taking another, but it would catch up with them. She was hoping she would beat it. She glanced up at the corner of the rag top that she imagined looked like it would not take another heavy deluge of rain.
Her lights flashed on the road sign as she turned. The sign post was actually still standing.
"You want to share your name?" Darcy finally asked, down shifting around another sharp turn on the road that would take them into what the scattered residents of LC called town.
"Hmm? Oh?ah, yeah, it's ahh, Miles...Celine Miles," she offered, looking out the passenger's side window which Darcy knew had no visibility. However, before them was the big white moon, sometimes hidden by moving clouds.
"Celine?Okay. I have a spare room. You can stay until the weather lifts." Darcy pulled her vehicle to a stop near another ragged vehicle that appeared suddenly out of the darkness. "I'm dropping off some of these supplies?" She glanced inside the jeep at her passenger who was absentmindedly stroking Mandy's head. "In this weather?it's not wise to use a CB, cell or phone for that matter."
"Is it late?" the hoarse voice asked not seeming to be bothered by the lack of a phone.
Darcy reached for her watch dangling from the turn signal. "It's only nine-thirty. Why don't you wait here with Mandy? It's warm." She did not want to introduce her to the other residents just yet. They would ask too many questions and Darcy had a feeling the woman would panic.
Celine nodded and then looked down at the purse that she had draped over her shoulder and chest.
"You going to be alright?"
Celine nodded giving a smile that Darcy felt was not genuine.
"Okay, well, Mandy stay." Darcy slid out of her seat and opened up the back, unloading the three boxes of supplies onto the porch. Darcy was perturbed by her passenger. Something was scarring the woman?that much she knew. And the name? Who was she kidding?
Darcy pushed opened the general store's door with her shoulder, lugging in the first box of supplies. The warm room was filled with noisy people she only saw occasionally. She shook her head at the offered help, letting them finish their game. After dropping the third box off she waved Jack over. To him she explained her guest and asked him to send a message to Doc to see if she could meet her at her place.
Celine rested her head back against the seat and felt tears sliding down her face. A pointed nose prodded her arm. Celine stifled a groan. Her body felt like she had been battered.
Was she in a car accident? She shook her head. She did not drive a car.
How did she know that?
She was exhausted. Maybe she would get a chance to take a nice hot bath?and see why her body hurt all over.
Suddenly Celine's eyes popped open. She felt cold damp air waft by her. She pushed the blanket that was lying over her onto her lap.
"We're here," a voice informed her.
Celine looked towards the blurry form of a woman who was leaning back into the jeep. Her hand reached to her temple as if in habit, and then dropped.
"You can stay out here but it's really cold and will get colder by morning."
Celine remembered?this was?
"Darcy! Damn, girl! It's colder than a witch's tit! Get in here before we lose heat!" an old voice hollered from the porch.
"Darcy," she whispered.
"Mandy, get in the house," Darcy ordered. "Can you carry this, Celine?"
Celine nodded her head not realizing she appeared dazed to Darcy. Celine took one of the boxes that was handed to her and moved with the gentle push in the direction of where the only bright light was coming from. Her feet climbed the three stairs and a hand patted her shoulder.
"Come on, girl. You look tired. I got a warm bath all ready for you. And then a nice clean bed with warm covers will fix you up good," the older woman told her confidently. Celine followed her, easily giving up the box she was holding to older warm hands.
"You look exhausted, Darcy. Didn't you get any sleep last night?" Ellen, always an early riser was sipping her coffee when Darcy strolled into her kitchen the next morning. Ellen spent most of the night at Celine's bedside, napping in an old reading chair that looked like a padded Roman couch made comfortable with pillows and a comforter. She had heard Darcy working out earlier in her private gym, which inspired her to get up to make coffee.
She no longer worried that Darcy used her workouts to run away from problems rather than face them squarely. She now understood that Darcy took that time to assess what was bothering her and figure out what she could do?or took that time to adjust to the fact that she could do nothing. She felt Darcy had come a long way since she first arrived in Last Chance both physically and mentally.
"I gotta get out there and feed them blasted free loaders," Darcy gripped. "What did they do before we came along?"
"Well, first of all they didn't live on a place that is mostly desert. If you bring animals to a habitat that is not their natural environment, you have to expect to take care of them. Second of all, it's raining out there. Put on your boots and coat?I don't want to be treating you for a cold," she scolded like a mother.
"Doc, what happened to the old times when it was 'take an aspirin and call me if it gets worse'?"
"I never heard of that one. I was an emergency room surgeon," she reminded her. "The only ones I saw were unconscious," she told her with a short laugh.
"How was it last night with?Celine?" Darcy drew a chair across from Ellen, trying to ignore the fact that Ellen had her new crossword book, and before she had even a chance to put her name in it.
"She was in a daze?like she was sleep walking. She was in a car accident is my guess. There are bruises about her body, not like someone who had been beaten, yet her face was spared. Could possibly be an air bag prevented a lot of damage. Whatever happened, she was the passenger and the car wasn't going too fast. Happened maybe a few days ago, by the way the bruises are looking."
"Did she say that?"
"Nope. She has bruise marks left by a seat belt that was pulled tight on her right side instead of left. Some bruising on her abdomen but my touching her around the area didn't elicit pain. Most seat belt injuries are to the spleen and retroperitoneum?she would not be walking upright," she added when Darcy frowned. "She also had small cuts on the right side of her neck?probably the passenger side of the window broke."
"Hmm. I'm making pancakes for breakfast if you and George wanna stay. And leave me some of those puzzles!" she finally got to what was bothering her, as Ellen filled in another row of words.
"I'll leave ya some," she told the younger woman that was looking fit to be tied at her puzzle book being found before she could peruse it and do the ones she liked. "Ya got fresh fruit I noticed. How 'bout strawberries? I'll get George to pull some from the pots. Gwan and get to those animals. I want to hear about your trip. Gives me something to talk about with the gang over bingo."
"What is so damn interesting about my visit to the city? I met with the insurance agent, ordered a new truck as soon as the insurance money comes in, bought some food?and a new puzzle book?" Darcy glared at Ellen who was working probably one that she would like to do herself.
"?and picked up a stray in the rain," Ellen reminded her as she filled in another row of words?in ink.
Darcy got up from the table and stomped out of the kitchen, and into the mudroom where she bundled up. The slamming of the front door announced her progress to the barn to feed the animals.
Ellen chuckled. "Damn woman spends too much time alone with the animals. They always let her have her way." She hoped that all the animals were in the barn because she did not want to have to face Darcy's temper if she had to go out looking for any of them in this weather. Darcy worried about them as if they were her children.
After penning in two more words she rose from the table, grabbing her coat and climbed up the stairs to the widow's walk that sat above the second floor of Darcy's home. Darcy closed the second floor off since she had no need for the second floor unless her sister's family came for a visit. Ellen turned on the small light and made her way to the signal lamp. Learning to signal was her greatest accomplishment because that was how the scattered residents that had no phones, a few CB radios, and no working cell phones, communicated. It was like a party line?she never knew who would respond.
She thumbed the latch a few times and waited. George after about five minutes, the time it would take him to get up from his easy chair that faced in this direction and power up their signaler, gave two flaps in reply. Ellen thumbed the offer from Darcy. George loved her walnut pancakes though he was not suppose to be eating the nuts since they were hard on his stomach?but he managed to get Darcy to make two to stick between his regular ones.
After finishing her second cup of coffee, Ellen knocked on the spare bedroom's door. She heard movement and then the door opened. Blue eyes blinked back at her.
"Mornin'! Coffee's ready, and we've been promised pancakes when Darcy's finished feeding the critters. I signaled George to bring over some strawberries, if you would rather that on your pancakes. Come on, girl! Oh, my name's Ellen but everyone calls me Doc. We met last night, but I doubt you remember much, huh?"
"Good morning," the woman told her softly. The hoarse voice had cleared. But then, Ellen had her drink enough of that honey concoction John raved about and that Darcy kept on hand. Celene had put Darcy's old cloths from last night back on and her hair looked like she had stuck her finger in a socket.
"Celine, is it?"
Blue eyes blinked at her for a moment and then nodded. "Yeah, Celine."
"You look like a nice bath or shower would give you that almost civilized feeling. I know there's no soap or towels in your shower room. Gwan and use Darcy's. Our water is tanked in, so use it sparingly. Even with all this rain feeding into the cisterns, it's a good habit to develop out here. Her bedroom is right that way. She's got a comb and brush you can use too. I'll dig up some other clothes than what you're wearing. I'll put them on her bed. Kitchen and dinning room is off that way, when you're finished."
Celine nodded and then headed towards the room Ellen pointed out to her. Hesitantly she peered into the dark room and then stepped into Darcy's room. Finding the light switch by feel, she turned the knob until the room was in a soft glow. Her eyes rested on the bed that was rumpled and smiled when two sets of luminous eyes from different parts of the bed blinked back at her. One emerged from the covers and gingerly walked over the comforter and leaped onto an elaborate cat pole that stood in front of a window. The other withdrew further into the covers.
Ellen moved beside her. In her arms were a set of towels and clothing, including thick socks.
The bathroom had more mirrors than a health spa, Celine thought as she stepped in. After staring at herself and not seeing anything that looked familiar to her, she started to undress, not interested in the bruises that covered her body. She dropped her dirty cloths into the hamper, not wondering where her own cloths were.
Ellen was sitting at the dinning room table working on something. The steaming coffee near her smelled good.
"'Morning, Doc," Celine greeted.
Ellen looked up and nodded. "You're looking better. Feeling better?" she pushed a coffee mug in her direction. "Milk's over there in the pitcher if you use it, and sugar's in the bowl."
Celine found the pitcher?cold to the touch. She poured herself some milk and then added coffee.
"Do you do cross-words puzzles? This one is a real stinker. I think Darcy got this book because it's full of hard ones and she doesn't like anyone to do them," Doc Ellen smirked at the figure she could see in her peripheral, coming in from the mud room, quieter than when she left.
"You're right. I didn't buy that book for you to do the easy ones and leave me with just the hard ones." Darcy appeared in the kitchen doorway with her wet weather gear already removed.
A wet German Sheppard started to bound towards them.
"Mandy! Get over here! You not only stink but you're wet," she added in a softer tone.
Mandy quickly changed direction and playfully grabbed the towel Darcy was holding to dry her off. After a few moments of tugging, Darcy managed to wrap the towel around her and dried her off as much as possible.
"Go over there by the heater and lie down on your blanket," Darcy directed.
Darcy collected a coffee mug, added milk and poured coffee in it, content to just wrap her cold hands around the cup. "Good morning, Celine. How did you sleep?" Wow. She looks nice all cleaned up. Darc, behave yourself.
"Good morning, Darcy. Fine."
A noise that had Celine jumping to her feet, announced someone's arrival.
There she goes again?I wonder what she's so frightened about? Probably won't know for a while?even if she is a missing person?takes about a week to hit the lists unless she's someone important. The idea of her leaving so soon had a stab of anxiety hit her. Darcy impatiently shrugged of the feeling to examine it later.
"That should be George." Ellen rose from her seat and Mandy joined her, dancing towards the door, her tail going in full gear.
Darcy studied Celine as the woman stood with a look on her face as if she were ready to flee but did not know where to go.
Footsteps stomping on the porch and then after a few moments, Celine heard the deep voice laughing about pancakes being ruined with all the fruit on it. Celine heard Ellen's voice but not what she was saying. However her tone of voice was soft and tender. She rentered the room tugging an older man with her.
"Celine, this is George, George-Celine. Strawberries and sauce." Ellen took the Tupperware bowls into the kitchen.
They all gathered in the kitchen and watched Darcy create pancakes with bananas and another stack with strawberry sauce topped with strawberries. The chatter was about the weather, problems the rain may cause, and then on to comparing windmills that supplied their homes with power. Darcy had a new AIR-X that handled high winds well and would shut itself down if needed. It also would not over charge the batteries. George was excited by this because he was too old to be going out in the bad weather to shut the four he had down. They also spoke of setting a larger one up further away from the house, where they had measured the wind speeds for a year with an anemometer and checked wind temperatures even in the summer to give them an idea where they would be able to get the most for wind power.
Celine silently listened to the conversations but then drifted off somewhere. The scraping of a chair had her eyes blinking and then sitting back in her chair, wondering where the time went. Glancing up, the others were walking into the kitchen with their dishes. Celine collected her plate and coffee mug and followed.
"?compost," finished George.
"You want to borrow Billy Goat?" Darcy offered, smiling over her shoulder as she finished drying the last dish.
"I don't want that goat over. Then I gotta feed him and where am I gonna put him in this weather?" Ellen grumbled good naturedly.
"In the frontroom. If you want room heat, that's the place."
"That goat is not coming into my house," Ellen waggled a finger at her husband. "You can come over here for the manure?and not in my car."
"I'll bring it over," Darcy grinned. "How much are you going to need?"
The trio, with Celine trailing politely, walked out to the mudroom where coats and boots were waiting.
"Right now, none. Not a good time to be fertilizing," George told them over his shoulder as he lifted Ellen's coat and scarf from the coat rack. "I was just givin' her a hard time."
Ellen turned and poked him as he helped her with her coat.
"We're doing fine with what we produce in the composter in the utility room and washroom."
"We can use some help with sealing the mobile. We're getting a draft from somewhere we can't reach," Ellen mentioned.
"Do you want me to look at it today?" Darcy asked, helping George into his coat. She noticed he was not as agile as he was a few weeks ago. She guessed it was the weather.
"No, no. No rush," George reassured her.
"Tomorrow, if you're not busy," Ellen told her. "I hate drafty places in the winter. I'm not that willing to put up with it in my older years."
George made a disagreeing sound but did not add any more to his noise. The couple stepped out with the wind blowing in cold and damp weather. Celine retreated to the frontroom, shivering.
"Do you want to go into town to use the CB?"
Celine turned to face Darcy, again caught thinking about nothing. Her cheeks reddened, and she cleared her throat. "I?ah?can't think of anyone to call."
Darcy watched her for a few moments, waiting and studying the woman who was offering her a myriad of expressions from confusion to embarrassment.
Celine looked down at her hands and then back up at Darcy. "I looked in the purse I had?" She swallowed and tried not to cry. "I didn't find an ID. No keys, nothing written in the notepad that's translatable?it was wet. I guess I had dropped it in the water or something. I had a Chap Stick, and a wad of bills. I?don't even know if it's my purse." Celine took a deep sobbing breath and turned away from Darcy, frightened by the sudden outburst of emotion that pushed it's way up her chest and out of her mouth, accompanied by tears she could not stop.
Uncertain of what to do, Darcy stepped near Celine and awkwardly wrapped her arms around the distraught woman. As Celine cried, Darcy pulled her in closer, responding to a need to console the woman so she would stop crying, rocking her to soothe both of them. It was a struggle for her to not withdraw from the prolonged contact.
After an indeterminate amount of time, when sobs had longer spaces between them, Darcy relaxed enough to notice the warmth the body she was hugging radiated. Somehow in that time of her giving comfort, Celine had turned around in her arms. Their body contact was not like that of friends. However, Darcy surprised herself by not wanting to put distance between their embrace and that realization made Darcy question her motives.
Darcy stepped back to lead Celine to the couch, letting her fingers slide down her arm and intertwine fingers. Reluctantly she let the hand go when she gently pushed her down into the corner of the couch. She pulled the comforter from the couch back and tugged it around the shivering Celine. Celine had drawn her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The thick socks were all that was peeking out from under the comforter. Darcy remembered that her own shoes were still wet and the tennis shoes she had loaned her were also wet. Celine would be needing something to wear on her feet besides socks.
"I'm frightened," a soft voice whispered from the corner of her couch.
Darcy nodded, giving the appearance of quietly waiting for Celine to decide whether she wanted to elaborate on what she feared, but mentally her thoughts had moved onto making a list all the things a person could be running from?including marriage. Her brain then took a dogleg turn to listing marriage to someone in the mob and that ludicrous idea immediately halted her train of thoughts. She was needed to be silent and get distracted.
"I?" the small voice interrupted Darcy's silent admonishments. She heard a cough, a clearing of a voice thick with tears.
"I don't know if I've done anything wrong?but," light blue eyes looked up at her and then embarrassed looked down at her hands gripping the ends of the comforter. "I?uh?" she shook her head helplessly. "I need a place to stay?just for a while to figure out what's going on with me." She looked up at Darcy pleading with her eyes.
Oh, damn. That's what it is. Those eyes. Geeze, Darcy! "You're welcome to stay until you get things straightened out." Darcy groaned inwardly, thinking it was her libido that spoke up. It was that time of the month where her hormones were on the march. Obviously a one night tryst with the highway patrol officer was not enough.
Well, Celine was her responsibility, another part of her reasoned. If you save someone's life, Judhith would say, you're responsible for her. It was not a feeling everyone in their small community shared, but what was, is the rule that 'whomever you bring into the community, you are responsible for her and whatever mischief she causes'.
Celine shook her head dismally and a few more tears slid down her cheeks. "I?I don't know if ?" she shuddered again and shook her head, "I just don't know anything." She wiped a continuing steam of tears from her cheek. Her nose was plugged and her eyes felt puffy. Nothing was clear to her. She could also feel a headache coming on, to say nothing of the backache she was beginning to notice. She felt miserable. Her fingers wrapped around the Kleenex Darcy handed her.
"Do you want to continue using Celine for a name?"
Celine shrugged her shoulders, "It's alright, unless someone takes issue with my using it."
Darcy stood up. "I have some chores to finish up with?"
"Can I help?" she rose quickly, letting the comforter fall back on the couch.
"You have any experience mucking stalls?"
"Mucking stalls?" she then looked down at her clothes. "No. But, I can guess it's dirty work. I keep using up your clothes?and I'll need shoes."
"No problem. Your clothes are hanging in the back porch. They're still wet. Later we'll go over to the store and pick up some stuff for you. We recycle stuff around here? things people get tired of or can't fit in anymore."
"Like a thrift store," Celine nodded. "I have no problem with that."
So, she's familiar with thrift stores. "Okay." Darcy stored that remark for future mulling over?like maybe she was jumping to conclusions. Who was not aware of what a thrift store was?
"How can you stand this stink!" Celine groaned as she pulled the scarf around her face that Darcy had given her, for warmth rather than what she was using it for. "Even with my nose stuffed, I can smell it."
Darcy said nothing but nodded to acknowledge she heard her. Once she explained to Celine what needed to be done, she was quiet except with occasional remarks she made to the animals.
Mandy was sitting in the corner watching her playmate, Clementine, keep the mix of horses, llamas, and two goats at one end of the barn. None of them wanted to go out into the rain while their stalls were being cleaned.
As each area was cleaned and bedding was thrown down, the two moved smoothly to the next, working well together. Finally Darcy gave a hand signal and Clementine encouraged the critters to move into their respective areas, with crouches and standing up and then lying down again, inching her way this way and that, until everyone was in their own stalls.
"She sure is well-trained," Celine marveled. "And they are all so well behaved."
"Just remember they butt or bite and it hurts. They're all here for bad behavior," she told Celine with a warning. She gave Clementine an affectionate rub and then the dog took off to play tag with Mandy.
"What do you mean?"
"Most of them developed bad habits so no one else will have them." Darcy cleaned her hands under the rain spout, then grabbed up her coat spreading it above her head like an umbrella, inviting Celine to join her under it.
Celine followed suit and washed her hands then stepped next to Darcy, who pulled her closer so they both would be covered. Celine wrapped her arm around Darcy's waist, running with her across the yard that was being washed with another deluge of rain. The wind blew against them, pulling the coat so that it offered no cover. Darcy had a time holding onto it. Mandy ran in front of them and stepped through her door into the mud room, not wanting to be left behind?even if it was to play with Clementine.
"I'm so cold!" Celine mentioned, shivering as she shucked the waterproofed boots off and hurried into the warmer frontroom.
Darcy draped her coat on the coat rack, idly noting that the water catcher was draining properly, removed her boots that she kept for such dirty work as mucking stalls, and slowly walked into the front room. Her thoughts were on what she was going to do with Celine and her 'condition' or for how long.
Celine was standing near the heater while she stared out at the rain.
From the porch lights still lit, Darcy could see the rain from the window, slanting across the yard, with the wind blowing it in swirls and interesting patterns.
Celine turned to face Darcy, who stood inside the doorframe watching her.
"So?" they both started.
Darcy nodded towards Celine, stepping into the room and sitting on the couch, intentionally taking a nonthreatening position.
Celine wanted to sit next to her, taking comfort in her near presence, but she was cold and it was a cold that started in the pit of her stomach and radiated out to her limbs, so she remained near the heater soaking up warmth and hoping it would seep down to her bones. Her hands were tucked under her arms more out of nervousness than for warmth. She worried about what went on in her life that would cause her to forget who she was.
"I want to find out who I am but?" and there she stopped as if trying to find a way to not sound suspicious to her hostess. While cleaning the stalls she had gone over a lot of ways to bring this up but had not settled on any since she did not know Darcy, but guessed if she lived this far from anyone, it was because she liked to live alone; so, her asking to stay a while may not be met with much enthusiasm, even if she had offered.
Darcy nodded. "You don't want to find yourself in a sticky situation and not able to defend yourself. We can start with the missing person's board on the internet and then go from there." Darcy made up her mind to trust her instincts that Celine was not a mass murder or a terrorist. It was more than likely that she was being terrorized? but then, she was making that particular decision based on personal reasons. She could feel her internal critic winding up for a long blast of reasons why she should not get involved, and she shut it down. She was learning to do that much better.
"Where can we do that?" Celine smiled at the 'we', feeling a glimmer of hope.
"Well, the community's general store has a PC that's hooked up to the internet?when the weather lets up?we'll go into town." She looked down at her hands, hiding the flush that heated her cheeks when she saw hope on Celine's face. Was she up to the task of not letting this stranger down? And how long was she going to be civil before her need for space and privacy drove the woman away. The thought that she actually did not want Celine to leave?at the moment, had her thoughts jumping uncomfortably from further exploring that realization.
"So?besides taking a shower to clean off this smell?is there anything else I can help with?"
Darcy went over in her head the mundane chores of turning the toilet compost and the kitchen compost, checking the batteries and then the wind generator and she needed to go over her list for seeding the garden boxes in her hot-house, and then turn over the mulch in the side boxes?.the list went on.
"I do my exercises about now?you can join me if you like." She smiled as she thought about watching someone else workout. She had not seen another body working out?that she did not mind looking at?for a long time.
"I?sure," Celine nearly giggled and that took her by surprise. She did not know why that struck her as funny.
"I'll get ya something to wear. What would you prefer?sweats?shorts? long shirt ?no spandex?" she turned slightly to look at the woman that was close behind her as she headed to her bedroom. Celine nearly bumped into her when she stopped.
"Ahhh, I?well?I don't know. What do you suggest?" Celine pushed her short brown hair back, a nervous gesture, squinting up at Darcy who was uncomfortably close.
Darcy, you don't want to go there. Hmmm. Well, not unless she's interested. "What do you like to work out in? Long pants, like sweats or something less constricting like shorts?"
Celine looked confused, then impatient and then just shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. That's why I asked you. What kind of a work out are you suggesting?outdoors ?running in the mud or what?"
Darcy switched directions and led her to her basement where she had a miniature gym set up. It had been geared for her recovery, which took two long years of grueling hard work. Now that she was back to moving around without looking like she was in pain, she found comfort in the rigorous physical routine.
"It's warm down here. I think shorts would be better than sweat pants."
"Okay. I'll get you a pair. There's a stack of towels right there. I keep bottles of water next to the towels. I use a towel to clean up the equipment after my use."
Celine nodded. "Right. Okay."
The clanking of weights dropping and the whirling of a treadmill was heard along with heaving breathing. Two women, intent on their workouts?paying little attention to the other? or so it would seem. However, each studied the other when she thought the other was not looking.
Darcy noticed that Celine had strong legs but that was it. Her body was out of proportion. She was thinking about how to encourage Celine to balance her body strength without insulting her. This was an interesting predicament, because she was either blunt with people or she said nothing because she did not care.
Celine's attention went from her workout to Darcy's body that was showing more skin than clothes.
Well, I can say one thing for sure?I'm a lesbian. Celine smiled at that one positive thing she knew about herself.
After thirty minutes Celine shut the treadmill off and stepped down. "Would you mind if I interrupted you?"
"Ooooff!" Darcy was so engrossed in her images of Celine that she was taken by surprise at the voice near her and nearly hit herself in the head with the barbell, except Celine quickly jumped to help her set it on the Y-bar above her head, giving Darcy a good view of her breasts from below. In the sweat dampened T-shirt, wearing no bra, her nipples looked good enough to tweak.
"Ahh, thanks. Well, what would you like to work on?" Hmmm. Ask me. I've got lots of ideas.
"You look well balanced and all, how did you do it?"
"It's taken a while. I'll get you started if you're interested." Darcy, keep focused on exercises that are not X-rated. Geeze and she's squinting like hell. I like seeing her eyes?gonna have to do something about that.
"Well, yeah. I have nothing to do right now..." Celine frowned for a moment and then shook her head, looking disappointed. "I?thought there was something there ?something about me that I almost remembered."
"Have you heard of PTSD?"
"No. Is it one of those sex diseases?" she wondered what Darcy was thinking as she caught her eyes returning to her breasts. If her nipples were as erect as they felt then she knew exactly what she was thinking about. The thought almost had her licking her lips.
"That's STDs. Sexually Transmitted Diseases. PTSD is post traumatic stress disorder."
"Post traumatic stress," Celine said slowly, as if tasting each word. "You think that's what I have?" She looked thoughtful and then nodded. "Maybe. Don't they have flash backs, nightmares, things like that?"
"Uh, huh. Among other things."
"Well, I slept fine," she lied.
"Okay. Just a thought. On this body building thing. Your legs are strong, that's good. You must do a lot of walking or running," Darcy appraised. She noted that Celine nodded at this, though she did not know if she did that because it was true or Celine was just responding to what she was hearing. "But your arms and upper body?" Darcy touched the back of Celine's arm with her finger and flicked the skin back there. "My mother calls it 'school marm's arms'. She was a school teacher herself, and an avid tennis player, but she also had that loose muscle there. Looks funny to have firm arms but for there."
Celine finally giggled from the tickling and then grabbed Darcy's hand and held it away from her, Darcy reacted by twisting out of her grip, grabbing the hand, not knowing why she did that, and was surprised when Celine responded by pulling her off balance and tossing her over her hip. It all happened quicker than each consciously registered?until their dance stopped.
Darcy flat on her back looked up into the horrified face of Celine's, feeling herself shocked.
"Well?another thing we know?you know how to defend yourself." Darcy rolled to her feet, feeling the combined effects of weather and the jolt to her system from being dropped on the thinly padded concrete floor?and another jolt of something else that she did not bother to stifle. This was going to be an interesting guest, she thought as she regarded Celine with a hint of a smile.
Celine was shaking her head in disagreement. "No. No. I?don't know where that came from. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you." She looked frightened and confused.
"Well, I was looking for a partner to work out with?we can train?and see what you know." Darcy watched the worried face of Celine. "You did that out of reflex, so you would have to have some training and it would be better for your sake to keep up your training until we find out why you needed it." Darcy could feel Celine's anxiety as a small knott of concern in the pit of her stomach. It was annoying. However, the mystery surrounding her was appealing. Damn! I really must be bored.
Celine nodded, following Darcy's reasoning, but right now, she could not see herself tossing anyone and she did not know how she dumped Darcy.
"Let's start with arm workouts. Reps, light weights," Darcy decided firmly, thinking this was going to be like a voyeur's dream. Hopefully she could survive it.
Celine nodded and then moved to where Darcy gently tugged her to, who then handed her a five pound barbell. At first it was so light Celine thought it was a joke, but by the end of the second set, she was feeling a strain in her arms and elbows.
That night Celine fell into a heavy exhausted sleep. Even though she soaked in a Jacuzzi her body felt as tired as her brain. She woke several times at night worried about something but all she could sense was the rain beating on the roof, wall and window.
Continued in Chapter 4