by: Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Retribution, which, in turn is a sequel to my novel Redemption. (Thats right! Its a trilogy!) You really will want to read those first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. And quite a lot of each, to be truthful. Were dealing with a bunch of ex-cons and assorted other nasty type people here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love, between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not avoid anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: Well, its that time again, to thank everyone who made the writing of this work a pleasure. Its a bit sad, as well, since this will likely be the last we hear of Ice and Angel, but heck, its been a fun ride, huh? So, deep debts of gratitude go out from me to the following people: Carol "youd just better have a happy ending!" Stephens; Elizabeth "Four" Baldwin, Linda "Lola" Lynch, Lisa "Sulli" Sullivan, and the rest of the Angry Beavers; Judi "you just better have a happy ending part deux" Mair, Mary "is the Pope Catholic" D, Candace "Theodyke" Chellew, the members of my SwordnQuil list for their wonderful support and feedback, my dogs Kricket and Pudderbear, and a host of other people Im going to kick myself in the morning for not mentioning. Thanks guys!!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Disclaimer: As with my previous two novels, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J
The morning of the forth day of our journey found us headed down a nearly deserted highway as the panoramic vista of the New Mexico desert unfurled itself, like a carpet preparing for the tread of a king, before us.
Never having been to this area of the country, my interpretation of the word "desert" ran along the lines of a Lawrence of Arabia type; vast, empty, lifeless, with a cloudless sky and rolling sand dunes. A beach in search of an ocean, in other words.
What peered back at me through the cars lightly tinted windows was, however, as different and as foreign to me as a Martian landscape would have been. Where I had expected a vast, empty wasteland, the deserta definite misnomer, in my opinionwas instead literally teeming with life. Strange, stunted plants dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. Cacti stood like silent sentinels guarding all who lived in their domain. Hawks and other birds-of-prey circled endlessly in the vast expanse of deep blue sky while beneath them, all sorts of animals moved with quick assurancehunter and hunted each fulfilling its destined role.
The wild, untamed beauty, untouched and untouchable, struck a chord deep within me. It was a land which promised, by its very nature, to give up its secrets reluctantly, if at all. Danger lurked everywhere, not in the least camouflaged by the true and undeniable beauty of the land.
Proud and remote, it seemed to issue a challenge I was helpless to ignore.
Come within. If you dare.
As I continued to stare out as the rising sun revealed more of the deserts treasures, a smile creased the plains of my face. A curious sense of coming home filled my soul, lightening the heavy burden there immeasurably.
"What?" Corinne asked, looking at me with eyebrows raised.
"Ice," was my simple reply.
Brown eyes narrowed as Corinne peered out my window. After a long moment, she looked at me the way one might look at a friend showing the first signs of absolute lunacy. "I dont think this is the right type of desert to support mirages, Angel."
I glared at her, then turned my attention to the window once again. "Thats not what Im talking about and you know it."
After a long moment, Corinnes voice came softly to my ear. "I believe I can understand the connection. Undeniably beautiful, mysteriously remote, and tangibly dangerous. An intoxicating combination."
I could see my broad smile reflected on the glass of the window. Though it wasnt a necessity, it felt good to know she understood.
A flash of light caught itself in the periphery of my vision, and when I turned to look forward through the windshield, I saw the sun sparking off the gleaming metal of a tanker truck still some distance away and chasing the sun as it rose to the east.
As I often did while on such journeys, I wondered where the driver was from, and where he was going. Was he heading for home, or was he leaving it? Where would the setting sun find him? Home with his family? Alone in a hotel room with only a television for company? In some nameless bar, searching for easy companionship for the price of a beer?
Beside me, Corinne stiffened; an action which quickly brought me out of my nonsensical musings. The truck was a good deal closer now, and barreling down upon a red Jeep trundling along the one eastbound lane. "Jesus," I breathed. "Is he drunk??"
"I dont think thats the greatest of our worries right now, Angel," Corinne replied, her voice beyond tight.
I turned slightly to look at her, then followed her frozen stare back to the view presented us through the somewhat dusty windshield just in time to see the onrushing truck try to pass the slow-moving jeep by pulling oncoming trafficwhich, at the time, consisted of only one thing.
"Rio!!" I screamed, as if she couldnt see the three tons of polished death screaming toward us like some great white shark on an intercept course with a piece of plankton.
At the very last moment, she jerked the wheel sharply to the right, veering off the road and onto the desert hardpan beyond. The sedan fishtailed wildly, the tires smoking and spinning in a useless attempt to gain traction on the loose sandy gravel of the desert floor.
For a split second, I thought we were going to flip over when the backwash of air from the narrowly missed truck blasted against us with the strength of a passing tornado. It was probably the only time in my life I actually thanked God for Detroits one-time propensity for making cars the size of small housing developments.
Somehow, Rio managed to keep us level, if not actually controlled. As she wrestled with the wheel clamped between white-knuckled hands, I heard a loud noise which heralded the explosive death of one of our tires just as Rio managed to get us off the desert and onto the road.
Once again unbalanced, the car did a slow looping skid onto the opposing lanes before stopping, with a sharp jolt which pulled the seatbelt tight against my hips, against a low bolder lying partially exposed on the other side of the highway.
"Jesus," I whispered again when the air finally reentered my lungs, the quietly ticking engine the only other sound to be heard.
Looking to my left, I saw a Corinne who sat stiff and still as a marble statue, her face drained of all color, her eyes wide and staring behind glasses which sat askew on her face, her jaw slack.
In short, she looked like a corpse.
"Corinne? Are you alright?"
After a moment, the corpse came back to life as her head slowly turned to face me. "Its amazing how short ones life really is when its flashing before ones eyes."
Barking out relieved laughter, I pulled her as close to me as our seatbelts would allow, hugging her tight against my chest, beyond joyful that she was still among the living.
A moan from the front seat cut short our reunion, and when I looked forward, I saw the windshield sprinkled with droplets of blood, looking as if a grisly rain had somehow fallen from the cloudless sky.
Reaching into one of Corinnes pockets, I pulled out one of her ever-present handkerchiefs and vaulted myself over the front seat like I used to do when I was a child. Of course, since there was a good deal more of me as an adult, the vaulting didnt go as smoothly, nor as easily, as Id planned.
Flopping gracelessly into the front seat, I rearranged my limbs into their proper places and then took a long, assessing look at Rio. Her face was literally painted in blood from the combined forces of a gash over her left eyebrow and an obviously broken nose.
"Ill need another handkerchief, Corinne," I said, pressing the one already in my hand against Rios forehead in an attempt to staunch the heavy bleeding.
As another square of cloth was handed over, I tilted Rios head back against the headrest and brought one of her own hands up. "Hold this," I ordered, clamping the second handkerchief over her nose and melding her hand to it.
A mumbled phrase sounding suspiciously like "fuck you" floated out from beneath the cloth.
"Not on your best day, sweetheart," I replied, grinning fiercely into her blazing, pain-shiny eyes. "Now just hold that cloth tight and keep quiet. Ive got some other business to attend to."
Grabbing the keys from the ignition and unlocking the passengers side door, I stepped out onto the road and walked around to the rear of the car. The rear drivers side tire was a shredded mess well beyond even the faintest hope of redemption.
Sighing, I went over to the trunk and popped it open, reaching in and hauling out all the baggage stored there. The bright, warm and unrelenting sunshine provided ample light as I fumbled around in the compartment for the jack and spare tire.
I heard one of the doors open and close as I set about dragging the items I needed from the trunk and setting them down on the hard-packed sand on the side of the road. As I watched, Corinne did a slow circle while taking in the sights through slightly widened eyes, her half glasses once again in their customary perch atop her nose. "I dont suppose Triple-A comes out this far into the middle of nowhere."
Laughing, I hefted tire and jack, manhandling them around to the correct side of the car. "Ive got it covered."
She leveled me look of pure speculation. "Yes, I believe you do." She continued to watch as I loosened the lugs holding the wheel on slightly before readying the jack. "Another of Ices lessons learned?"
"Exactly. My father thought Id have a husband to do these things for me, so he never bothered to teach them to me. When Ice found out . . .well, lets just say she made sure that Id never be at the mercy of some friendly trucker with a tire iron and less than charitable thoughts."
"Smart woman, that Ice."
"You know it."
As I crouched down to set the jack beneath the car, I heard the door open and looked up just in time to see Rio emerge from the sedan, the makeshift bandages still pressed against her injuries. Her eyes flashing something other than pain, she took what appeared to be a menacing step toward me, either to pummel me senseless in payment for what Id had the audacity to say to her, or to take the job of changing the tire into her own hands.
What little remained of my good humor snapped and I found myself slowly rising to my feet, lug wrench in hand. "If I need your help, Rio, Ill ask for it. So just . . .go bleed somewhere else, will you? Youre blocking my light."
To my utter surprise, the standoff was over almost before it began. Lowering her eyes for a split second, Rio took several steps backward until she was even with the cars hood. When she finally raised her head back up, I saw somethingperhaps the tiniest shard of respectglimmering there. While we werent suddenly best buddies by any means, I had the definite feeling that the playing field had been leveled, if only just a little.
The look of amused pride Corinne gave me caused a flush to heat my face and I crouched back down to hide it, fiddling with the jack and lug wrench I still had in my hand, and cursing her under my breath.
A short time later, it was done. After putting the tools and remains of the shredded tire back into the trunk and packing our belongings in there as well, I strolled around to the front of the car, taking a close look at the bumper, which was sitting snuggly against the bolder which stopped us.
Aside from a tiny scratch in the dusty chrome, the bumper was none the worse for the wearing. The same could not be said, however, for the bolder, which was sporting a very large fissure at the point of impact.
"They sure dont make em like this anymore," I said, shaking my head in amazement.
"Thats a fact," Corinne agreed from beside me.
After a moment, I turned to find Rio looking silently at us both. Taking a chance, I stepped over to her, stopping just outside her comfort zone. "I . . .um . . .Would you mind if I took a turn behind the wheel for awhile? Give your cuts some more time to stop bleeding?"
Her eyes narrowed, then, just as quickly, relaxed as she nodded, somewhat reluctantly, I thought. Still, a nod was a nod, and I practically jumped at the chance, quickly opening the drivers side door and sliding into the seat. Because Rio was twice my size, my feet didnt come anywhere near to the pedals on the floor. Reaching down, I pulled a hidden lever and eased the heavy bench seat forward to accommodate my smaller frame.
Hands on the wheel and feet easily reaching the gas and brake pedals, I grinned with pleasure, no longer feeling like a small child behind the wheel of Daddys sedan. "All aboard! Next stop . . . um . . .where is our next stop, anyway?"
"Tucson," Corinne answered as she slid into the back seat, groaning with relief. "Angel, my varicose veins thank you for the extra leg room back here. My bunions sing your praises as well."
"As long as they dont ask me to kiss them."
"You should be so lucky."
The passenger side door opened then, and Rio made as if to sit beside me. Halfway down, however, she got well and truly stuck, obviously not expecting that I would have pulled the seat so far up in the interim.
As her fanny hovered a good five inches above the seat, unable to move up or down, I tasted the blood which came from literally biting back my hysterical laughter. Looking at Corinne through the rearview mirror was quite possibly the worst thing I could have done. The speculative, totally evil look on her face almost sent me into convulsions.
When her fingers moved in a deliberate, exaggerated pinching motion, I lost all control, doubling over the steering wheel and choking on my laughter so hard I thought my lungs were going to fly clear out of my chest and land on the dashboard like a pair of glistening, overstressed balloons.
With a titanic grunt and a mighty heave, Rio freed herself from the car, then spun around quickly to glare at us both; her blood-caked face, blackening eyes and massively swollen nose only serving to make her look more menacing.
"Asthma!" I wheezed, fanning my heated and tear-streaked face as I tried desperately to gain some control over my hysteria.
"Horrible case," Corinne deadpanned from her seat behind me. "Were just hoping the desert air does the poor dear some good."
Falling into the role Id begun, I gave Rio my best impersonation of a woman trying desperately to breathe.
It was a pretty damn good impersonation, if I do say so myself. Especially given the fact that at that particular moment in time, I was a woman trying desperately to breathe.
"Perhaps it would be best, Rio, if you consented to share the back seat with me. Let the diminutive one sit all crouched up in front while you and I recline in luxury back here."
Had I the breath for it, I would have shot Corinne a look hot enough to curl her hair. Since breathing was still a priority, however, I settled for a nice mental fantasy of tying her down and beating her senseless with her own teakettle.
I didnt even bother to turn my head when an imperious finger tapped me on the shoulder.
"Drive on, Jeeves. Tucson awaits."
Adding a fireplace poker to my little fantasy, I grinned as I started up the car and pulled back onto the highway.
"Stop here," came the imperious command from the backseat as I tried to navigate the spaghetti-snarl of intersecting freeways that marked the entrance to Tucson.
"Where here? Do you have a particular exit in mind, Corinne, or will the overpass do? Im sure the trucks behind us would be more than happy to turn this car into an accordion, if thats the look youre after." Ill freely admit to sounding a bit snappish, but I believe you would have too, had you spent the past five hours in vehicular hell, listening to two overgrown children sniping back and forth behind you. I spared a brief moment to wonder if it was some sort of cosmic payback for my own childhood spent doing much the same thing during long road trips with my parents.
"Keep driving," came the expected countermand from Rio, whos voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a very deep, very full well.
"Get off at the next exit, Angel. I refuse to bled upon any more by this overgrown, pig-headed, sorry excuse for an adult."
"Keep driving. Im fine."
Gritting my teeth against the overwhelming urge to just pull over and boot both of them out onto the middle of the crowded highway, I instead arrowed the car to the next exit and followed the long, curving ramp until it led me out onto a wide, nearly deserted street. Pulling off to the side of the road, I turned the engine off, left the keys in the ignition, opened the door, and stepped out onto the pavement, intending to put as much distance between myself and the "battling Bickersons" as possible before my head exploded.
It didnt matter that I seemed to be walking into some modern-dress version of an Old West ghost town, where bars and chains adorned the dusty, empty windows and doors. It didnt matter that most of the signs were in Spanish and therefore incomprehensible to me. It didnt even matter that I could literally feel the unseen eyes assessing me and making my flesh go tight against my bones.
All that mattered was the blessed silence which surrounded me, all the more dear for bringing with it warm sunshine and fresh air. Closing my eyes and tilting my face up to the sun, I let its warm rays bathe the tension from my body.
"Angel?" came a voice from behind me. "What are you doing out there?"
When I didnt answer, the car door opened and I heard the sound of sensible shoes hitting the pavement. A moment later, Corinne was by my side. "Angel? Are you alright?"
"As soon as this headache goes away, Ill be just peachy."
"How . . . ? Oh, because of the discussion?"
I turned to look at her. "That wasnt a discussion, Corinne. I know discussions. Ive had discussions. That wasnt one of them. It was a war. Between two grown adults. In a car. For five hours."
"I get the point."
"Good. Because I dont think I could summon up the energy to explain it again." I rubbed at my temples, trying to force the headache back down.
It wasnt working.
"Shes bleeding pretty badly, Angel."
"Yes, Corinne, Im aware of that. Im very aware of that. The problem is, however, that the both of you seem to be much more interested in arguing about it than actually doing something about it. So, just go back in the car and beat each other senseless over it. Ill be back later to take whomevers left to the hospital, alright?"
"Angel . . . ."
"No, Corinne." I sighed, forcefully cooling down my temper. "Look. I know Rios bleeding badly, and Id love to be able to do something about it. I really would. But, as you can see, Im in a town Ive never been in before and whose signs I cant even read. So I hope youll excuse me if Im not quite at my best in this situation."
"Youre right. And I do apologize for my part in all this, if it helps any. Rio is as pig-headed as they come, but she comes by her hatred of hospitals honestly. Her mother was murdered in one."
"What happened?" I asked, eyes wide.
"Her mother was an ER nurse at the time. A man came in demanding drugs and shot her for the narcotic key in her hand. Rio hasnt gone near a hospital since."
"God . . .thats horrible!"
"Yes, it is."
Turning my head for a moment, I chanced to see a squat, low-slung and windowless building which looked more like a bomb-shelter than a business establishment. Attached to the roof was a huge billboard, pockmarked by bullet holes and weathered almost to splinters courtesy of the constantly beating sun, which simply read: La Clinica.
"Will that do? As a compromise, I mean?"
As Corinne followed my pointing finger, a smile broke out over her face. "It will do nicely, I think. And if not, I believe I have the fireplace poker stashed in the trunk somewhere."
"Youll have to wait in line behind me," I said, grinning. "I think theres a tire iron back there with her name on it."
Laughing, she slapped me gently on the shoulder, then made her way back to the car. I stayed where I was, enjoying the last bit of quiet and sunshine for as long as I possibly could.
The resolution was surprisingly anti-climactic.
After a brief, nearly silent conversation, Rio exited the car and brushed by me on her way to the clinic, still holding a crimson handkerchief against her bleeding nose. After a brief, sharp knock, the clinic door opened and the building seemed to swallow her whole, as if she never was, and never would be again.
Her smirk truly insufferable, Corinne waggled her fingers at me as she passed by, leaving me to play the caboose on this dysfunctional little train upon which I found myself. Shaking my head and biting back a smile, lest it somehow be misinterpreted as admiration (which it was, but she didnt need to know that), I followed her into the clinic.
While austere in the extreme from the outside, when viewed from the interior, the clinic was a marvel of modern design. Shining and spotless, it was filled to the rafters with enough medical equipment to ensure quick and accurate treatment for any who came through its doors seeking aid.
I stepped inside just in time to see Rios broad form being ushered through a set of interior doors by a pair orderlies clad in blue scrubs. The receptionist smiled as I entered, gesturing with a wave of her hand toward the bank of immaculate, if not very comfortable, chairs lined up in rows along two of the walls. Corinne was already seated and flipping idly through one of the many magazines sitting on several tables near the center of the room.
"Do we need to fill out some forms or something?" I asked, sitting down next to her. Except for us, the waiting area was empty of human habitation.
"Im sure well find out soon enough," Corinne replied, turning another page with a wetted finger and examining intently the ad displayed there. "Advertisings become quite the fictional enterprise of late. To look at this ad, simply drinking the beverage in question seems to promise that not only will one feel truly refreshed, but that a makeover, tummy tuck and breast enhancement comes free as part of the package. Almost makes me want to try a sip. My body could use a bit of a tune-up."
I laughed gently, appreciating her attempt to get my mind off my current surroundings. I hated hospitals, clinics, medical offices of all kinds. Having a lover unfortunately prone to spontaneous bullet holes made my hatred an honest one, I believe.
"Here," Corinne snapped, slipping a slightly tattered magazine in my hands. "Read this and stop fidgeting. Youre making me seasick."
"You know I cant read Spanish, Corinne," I replied, leafing through the magazine.
"Then learn. Ive no doubt that Rios treatment will take quite awhile and theres really very little else to do."
"Yes, mother," I sighed, slumping back into my chair and flipping through the magazines glossy pages trying to make sense of what I was seeing and failing miserably.
At least my headache was gone.
Several hours, and a whole rack of magazines, later, a heavily drugged Rio was wheeled out into the waiting room looking like the last survivor of a really intense Mardi Gras. Her face was a scattered sunburst of colors which complimented the metallic splint which tented itself over her newly set nose.
A dapper young man wearing a long white labcoat over his scrubs, his name embroidered in red thread over the breast, gave us both a pleasant smile as he stopped and locked the wheelchair a couple feet away from us. "Are you here for Rio?"
"Yes," I answered. "Is she gonna be alright?"
"Well, shell have a pretty big headache after the happy pills wear off, but yeah, she should be fine in a week or two. Speaking of which . . . ." His smile became even more broad as he slipped a prescription into my hand. "More happy pills. She can have one every four hours or so, but theyll make her very sleepy, so make sure she isnt driving or doing anything else that requires concentration."
Corinne took the slip of paper from my hand and slid it into her purse as I looked from Rio to the doctor. "Is there anything special we should do for her?"
"Well, her nose is splinted and packed pretty tight, so make sure she doesnt have any trouble breathing, especially when shes asleep. Shes probably swallowed a good deal of blood as well, so try and keep her head tilted to the side in case any of it decides to come back up the hard way."
I nodded my understanding of his instructions. "Anything else?"
"Other than keeping a close eye on her, not really. Like I said, it wont be too long before shes back to her old self again." Catching my grimace, he grinned. "Afraid Id say that, werent you."
"Well . . . ."
Laughing, he clapped me briefly on my shoulder, then stepped back. "Good luck."
"Well need it." Reaching out, I grasped his proffered hand in gratitude. "Thanks."
"De nada. Carlos will escort Rio to your car."
"Its the beige sedan parked across the street," Corrine remarked, handing the buff orderly the keys.
Taking them, he smiled and nodded, then wheeled Rio out of the clinic.
As the doctor walked back through the doors and into the treatment rooms beyond, I accompanied Corinne up to the receptionists desk. "The damages?" she asked, taking out her wallet.
"None, senora. This is a free clinic set up for those who cant afford to pay for medical services."
"We can afford to pay," Corrine replied, undeterred. "A nice round figure, if you please."
"But . . . ."
Ignoring the woman, she pulled out ten crisp one-hundred-dollar bills, laid them out one by one atop the cluttered desk, and smirked as the receptionists dark, almond eyes grew quite wide. "Round enough?"
"But . . . ."
"Round enough," Corinne answered for her, obviously not taking "but" for an answer. "Thank you for your most gracious hospitality." And with that, she closed her purse, turned on her heel, and left the clinic without so much as a glance behind, leaving me to helplessly shrug at the round-eyed receptionist who stared in disbelief at the small mountain of money lying in front of her.
After a long moment, she looked up at me. I grinned. "Its just her way."
I chuckled. "You might be tempted to think so." A thought popped into my head. "Can I ask you a favor?"
"Anything, senora! Anything!"
"I . . .just need some directions. See, Rios our guide here. Ive never been this far south before. Is there a place nearby where we could stop over for the night? Its probably best if we continue our journey when shes awake enough to help."
"Oh, si. Si. I know of a nice little place not too far from here, senora. Just outside of town and easy to get to. Let me write the directions down for you."
A short time later, armed with wonderfully explicit directions, I made my way through the crawling after-work traffic toward the place where we would stay the night.
"Nice place," I remarked as Corinne and I navigated a very drunken and half asleep Rio into the large room and onto one of the king-sized beds.
As soon as she hit the mattress, Rio turned onto her side and began to snore, long and loud, through her widely opened mouth.
"I still say we should have gotten two rooms," Corinne remarked, making as if to put her hands over her ears. "Elderly librarians with short tempers arent known to be at their best without the requisite eight hours of sleep per night."
"Angels arent either," I replied, wincing as a particularly loud snore nearly broke the windows.
"We could always smother her with a pillow," Corinne observed.
"I didnt think suffocation was your style."
"For this, Im willing to change my M.O."
"Perhaps. But where would we hide the body?"
She laughed. "You have a point. Id say we could just leave her outside, but someone would likely just toss her back in again."
Chuckling, I walked through the large suite and pulled back the heavy curtains protecting the interior from the harsh desert sun. A sun which was just beginning to set behind the low mesa to the west of the hotel. A need gripped me, and I turned to my friend. "Can you watch her for a few minutes?"
"Of course. Running out on me already, are you?"
"No. I just . . . ." I could feel myself blushing. "Id like to see the sun set."
Her eyes held nothing but honest love and deep compassion. "I understand, Angel. Take your time. Just realize that in payment, Ill expect you to clean up whatever mess she might make in the night."
I grinned. "Deal."
"Then be off with you, before I decide to make you share her bed as well."
And so I did.
Though the mesa wasnt very tall, the trail was steep enough, and my legs burned pleasantly as I made it to the top. I faced away from the city, and the view of the desert from the summit was breathtaking; nothing but open land as far as the eye could see, free from any form of human habitation.
The view of the sky as the sun set was even more spectacular. Deep, blood red swirled and mixed with royal purple to form a gorgeous vista I couldnt quite keep my eyes away from. It was better by far than any sunset Id ever seen.
After making sure that the boulder at my feet wasnt sheltering a snake or other venomous creature, I slowly sat down on it, watching as the sun made its triumphal march behind the mountains still further to the west.
"Youd like it here, Ice," I whispered to my absent partner. "So wild and free. No walls. No bars. Nothing but . . .peace. And beauty." A sudden chill came over me, at odds with the still-gentle warmth of the evening, and I wrapped my arms around my body. "I miss you, you know. So much. I keep telling myself that its for the best, and well see each other soon. My brain listens, but my heart . . . well, its got a mind of its own, you know?"
I felt the warm trickle of tears on my cheeks as the sky became a beautiful prism for my teary eyes alone. "I think Id give anything just to feel your arms around me." I laughed a little. "I know that cant happen right now, but you cant blame a girl for wishing, huh?"
Wiping my eyes, I stood as the sun made its final descent behind the mountain. "Ill be patient, my love. Just . . .dont wait too long, ok?"
And as the sun finally set, casting the world below in shadow, a warm desert breeze enveloped me like a hug from my absent lover, chasing the chill away and leaving me with a profound sense of stillness and peace.
I could feel a smile form even as the tears dried gently on my cheeks.
"I love you, Ice. Hurry home."
The next morning, Rio was back to her old self. She awoke snarling, refused any of the pain medication wed picked up from a pharmacy on our way to the hotel, pulled the packing and splint from her nose, and barked out orders at us, a right proper Drill Instructor to a squad of completely inept recruits.
Though her surly mood should have bothered me, it didnt. That gift of peace Id received the night before proved itself tenacious, and I hugged it to me as one would a blanket on a cold winters night, refusing to allow her poor temper and bad manners to take it from me.
Besides, within five hours--hopefully much less--our journey would come to an end, and God willing, Id never have to put up with her again in such close and inescapable quarters.
Corinne wasnt nearly so gracious, but a look from me held her tongue.
We were quickly on the road, with Rio once again in her accustomed space behind the wheel. The miles fairly flew by as within me a keen sense of anticipation grew from a small seedling to full, blooming life.
We headed south, and south again, taking progressively smaller and smaller roads, passing nothing but desert vegetation and the very occasional car coming north. Just when I felt sure that the Mexican border was to be our destination, we took a turn to the west on a very narrow road that the desert did its level best to reclaim, washing it over with sand which heralded the roads infrequent usage. We drove west for several miles, threading our way through the foothills of several small mesas which stood like sawed-off chess pieces on the worlds largest board.
Another slow, meandering curve brought us out into open land again, and I saw something I never expected in a desert.
Row upon row of perfectly manicured trees. Trees whose abundant greenery stood in stark contrast to the sun-washed brown of the surrounding desert. Trees whose sweet scent came to me through the cars open windows and brought with it the images of . . . .
"Oranges? Are those orange trees?"
"None other," Corinne replied, taking a healthy breath herself, and grinning.
"I didnt know you could grow oranges in Arizona!"
"Ahh, Angel. I daresay you havent truly lived until youve tasted an Arizona orange. Sweet. Succulent. Simply bursting with juices. Rather like . . . ."
"Dont say it, Corinne. Just . . .dont say it. Please."
Choosing to ignore her teasing, I instead took in another deep breath, noticing that the scent of orange blossoms became heaviercloying almostthe closer we came to the grove. It reminded me of the truth in the maxim: "Too much of a good thing isnt always a good thing" and I put a hand up to my nose to stifle a threatened sneeze.
A wide path cut through the grove at a right angle, and when we came out on the other side, desert reigned supreme once again. Off to my right, I saw the low, barbed wire fence of a corral, and beyond that, dust being kicked up as a herd of horses came our way, led by a beautiful stallionor what I took to be a stallion, my knowledge of horses minimal at bestwith a coat the color of freshly spilled blood and a mane and tail black as printers ink.
He reared up high, displaying powerful, slashing hooves and shining, sweat drenched muscles, and I found myself falling in love with him at first glance. The entire herd raced us toward the breast of a small hillock, then stopped as their enclosure ended. We, of course, continued on, down into a valley which signaled the end of our journey.
A huge house sprung up from the desert floor as if birthed from the very sand upon which it rested. It was bone white adobe with a red Spanish-tiled roof and heavily tinted hexagonal windows. Though only a single story, it was very long and sported three front doors, each framed by a long, fluid arch.
Other, smaller houses formed a rough square behind the main house, with the stables off to the right and, beyond that, what looked to be a row of greenhouses which would require further exploration in the very near future.
As we pulled onto the long, circular driveway, I began to notice groups of people walking calmly, or purposefully, around the grounds. Though of all shapes, sizes, and ethnic origins, these people all had one thing very evidently in common.
"Where are the men?"
A sharp bark of laughter was heard from the peanut gallery, who currently took up residence in the drivers seat.
"This is a womens ranch, Angel," Corinne explained, shooting a glare toward the back of Rios head. "Men arent welcome."
Instead of saying anything aloud and giving Rio further ammunition to use against me in this personal war of hers, I settled for a simple nod, watching the women as they went about their day.
"My, my, my," came Corinnes soft, awed voice to my left. "And me without my camera."
Curious, I gazed at the view from her window. And what a view it was.
A large, in-ground pool shimmered clear blue in the brilliant sunlight. In and around the pool lay almost a dozen courageous (it was warm outside, but not that warm) souls all dressed in the exact same costume.
Their birthday suits.
If my eyes werent so firmly attached to the back of my skull, they might surely have popped out of my head at the vision.
"Remind me to give the good Mr. Cavallo a nice big kiss when Ice finally drags him back this way, Angel. I think I may have found heaven."
Ill admit it was heavenly for me as well, at first. While looking at the women, I pictured Ices long, naked body cutting through the sparkling water with the ease of a born athlete.
I pictured her climbing the ladder with sinuous grace, water rolling off her in sparkling sheets.
I pictured the smile that would cross her face as she saw me standing by the edge of the pool, waiting.
I pictured three dozen other naked women clustering around the bronze-limbed goddess who was my lover, blocking her from my view and touching her in all the places currently denied to me.
Amazing how one womans heaven could so easily become anothers private hell.
As the car completed its entrance onto the ranch, the poolside view was mercifully cut off from my line of vision and I let out a deep breath of relief with the loss of it. After pulling to a complete stop, Rio turned off the engine and was out of the car so fast, I wondered briefly if shed been sitting on a hornets nest, or something equally unpleasant.
Probably just the company she was forced to keep, I told myself with a mental shrug. I could hardly fault her for it, after all, since I was feeling the same way myself.
I got out of the car just in time to see her all but swallowed up by a group of cooing women. Watching her back straighten and her shoulders broaden under all the compassionate attention she was receiving, Iquite uncharitablywondered what tale of her injuries she was conjuring to earn such fawning responses.
Enough, Angel. Bitterness isnt one of your more charming assets, so just stick it back in the festering pit it came from and leave it there, alright?
My jaw set with newfound resolution, I reached behind the front seat and popped the trunk, then went around to the back to retrieve my luggage, setting each piece carefully down on the immaculate driveway, then doing the same for Corinnes bags.
Having lost what passed for our hostess, I was at a loss for what to do next.
"Think itd be considered impolite if we just burst right in and announced ourselves?" I asked Corinne as I continued to stare after Rio and her admirers.
"I dont think that will be necessary, Angel."
I looked up just in time to see a woman come out from the house. She was dressed in faded jeans, a white shirt and dark leather vest, her face shaded by the wide brim of a white Stetson perched comfortably over her long, dark hair.
Squinting into the bright sunlight, I put a hand above my eyes, trying to see her more clearly and place the feeling of familiarity that washed over me as she walked toward the two of us.
"Welcome to Akalan, Angel."
It was the voice that did it. Even more than the respectful touch to the brim of the hat, or the smile which made the womans features suddenly recognizable.
"Montana?" I asked, so far beyond stunned that I couldnt even see it from where I was standing. "Is that really you?"
"In the flesh," she said, grinning. "Its good to see you again. Youve changed since I saw you last."
Feeling tears well up in my eyes, I reached out and embraced her tightly, pleased when she didnt stiffen or pull away. In my joy, Id forgotten about her natural reserve, so much like my lovers that it almost hurt to hug her.
"God, its good to see you," I said, finally pulling away and wiping my eyes with the heel of my hand. "Why are you here?"
At her laughter, I blushed, realizing a bit belatedly exactly how my question sounded.
"I mean . . .I thought you were in Montana?"
"I was, until three weeks ago," she replied, sharing a warm embrace with Corinne.
"What happened three weeks ago?"
"I received a call from a lawyer who expounded on the joys of wintering in the warmth and sunshine of Arizona."
"None other. And, since the alternative was another winter spent up to my neck in snow, I allowed myself to see the wisdom of her words, and here I am."
"You came here for me, didnt you," I said, as another piece of the puzzle fell neatly into place.
"I wont deny that was a factor in my decision."
"But your home . . . ."
Smiling, she held up a hand. "Akalan is as much my home as the ranch in Montana, Angel. Or even the one in the hills of western Pennsylvania. Where I am at any given point in time doesnt much matter. What I can do and who I can help, however, does."
"But . . . ."
Her smile broadened. "Look around you, Angel. What do you see?"
Following her gentle request, I looked around, then back to her, eyebrows raised, not sure exactly where she was leading.
"No answer? Ill tell you what I see, then." I watched, fascinated, as her dark eyes scanned the grounds, missing nothing. "Where some might look and see only empty, arid desert and . . .yes, beautiful women . . . ."
"Beautiful naked women," Corinne corrected from beside me.
"Point taken," Montana replied, smirking slightly. "I see hope, Angel. Simple as that."
"Hope for what?" I asked, honestly curious. While I liked and very much respected Montana, I knew her far less than the other Amazons who had befriended me. Part of the reason, of course, was that she was released so soon into my own sentence. And the rest, as I believe Ive already mentioned, was due to her own reserved, quiet nature.
"Hope for the future. Hope for the community. Hope for safety, security, friendship." Her broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "Hope as individual as the woman who wields it." When her gaze returned to me, it was soft with compassion and caring, yet bright with the passion of her convictions. "Above all else, Angel, this ranch is a place where hope is born and nurtured. Women come here from all walks of life. Many are bruised and battered, either emotionally or physically. Sometimes both. They arent as much running to us as they are running away from the lives theyve lived before. Communities like this offer a sense of safety, of protection, and belonging that can help to start healing in women with nowhere else to turn."
"It sounds wonderful," I said, completely taken with her vision.
"It can be. It can also be rough, dirty and thankless. But its a job I wouldnt trade for any in the world."
"With these perks, I dont see why you ever would," Corinne remarked, frankly ogling a pair of scantily dressed women as they strolled past, arm in arm. They grinned back at her, waggling their fingers in invitation. "Oh yes, Im going to love it here."
Montana laughed, something Id never heard her do before, and I found myself charmed by the musical sweetness of it. "Its good to see you again, Corinne. Youll certainly liven this place up." Laying a hand on each of our shoulders, she gently guided us toward the house, our bags in hand. "Lets get you settled in and then we can talk more, alright?"
"You can talk," Corinne said. "I find myself in sudden and dire need of a refreshing swim."
"Or a cold shower, " I joked.
"Just you wait, you sorry excuse for an angel. One day, sooner than you might expect, youll reach my age. And believe you me, I intend to be around long enough to see just what happens when you do."
Throwing back my head, I laughed, feeling better than I had in months. Was this what you had in mind when you set this up, Ice?
Then I laughed harder, though at myself.
Of course it was. Ice never did anything without a reason.
While I might have been safe in any one of several places, it was here where I could truly feel the beauty of hope once again.
Thank you, my love.
In direct and no-doubt deliberate contrast to the sunny warmth of the outside world, the interior of the house was cool, quiet and dim, courtesy of the heavy blinds which hung over the tinted windows and seemed to possess the added benefit of muting sound as well as light.
The living-room was huge and sunken, with heavily varnished bare wood floors and several large, comfortable-looking couches set up around a spectacular entertainment center which would have looked comfortable even in a movie theater.
Behind the living-room, bordered by an open rail, the kitchen stood. Its chrome appliances gleamed in the mellow, recessed lighting; appliances which looked large enough to hold and cook food enough to feed the hungry stomachs of an entire army and then some.
The dining room was to the left of the kitchen, dominated by a truly mammoth table with more than a dozen chairs drawn up tight against it, gently pressing against the shining, dark wood.
Long, dark hallways branched off to the left and right of the living-room, and it was to the right that we were directed by Montana, following her into the cool dimness and passing by quite a number of closed doors on our way. My room was last on the left, Corinnes directly across from it on the right. The bathroom finished out the hall and had within it several stalls and at least two large showers that I could see, rather like a bathroom one would see in a college dormitory, I imagined.
While Corinne made a beeline for said bathroom, I entered the room that was to be mine for the duration of this newest adventure, taking in the neat, simple furnishings and pleasing earth tones with a satisfied eye. "This is wonderful, Montana. Thank you."
"My pleasure, Angel. Im glad you like it." She watched quietly as I placed my luggage at the foot of the neatly made double bed. "I can leave you alone to unpack and get settled, or we can go back into the living-room and talk a little more. Its your choice."
"The unpacking can wait," I announced, grinning. "My million and one questions cant."
She returned my smile. "Talk it is. Cmon. Im sure Corinne will catch up to us when shes ready."
"If she doesnt make good on her threat to start an orgy at the pool," I replied, only half in jest. The look on Corinnes face as she took in the sights reminded me of nothing so much as a young child with his face pressed tight against a candy-store window.
"Without a doubt, Corinne is a treasure. Shell likely have more admirers than even she can handle by the end of the day."
"Thatd be a first."
Laughing, she looped a casual arm around my own and guided me back down the long, cool hallway until it broadened out into the main living area of the house. "Make yourself comfortable on one of the couches. Ill get us something to drink."
Slipping into the cool comfort of one of the long couches, I leaned back against the soft fabric and closed my eyes, enjoying a brief moment of respite in an otherwise hectic day. When I opened them again, Montana was standing before me, hands wrapped around two tall glasses filled with liquid, lemons and lots of ice.
She handed one of the drinks down to me, then joined me on the couch, taking a sip of her own beverage and looking inquiringly at me. "Lemon water," she explained. "Its the drink of choice down here. And pretty refreshing, as well."
As I took a tentative sip, I could feel my eyes widen in surprise. Montana wasnt kidding. "Its delicious!"
"Just lemons in water, huh? Whatll they think of next?"
"Well, theyve already thought of lemonade."
After a brief moment of silence, I looked over at her. "So, this ranch is a sort of shelter for battered women?"
"It serves that purpose on occasion, yes. But it serves several others as well."
"Such as?" I hoped I wasnt sounding too interrogatory with my questions. My curiosity has the oddest way of showing itself sometimes.
She didnt appear to be offended, though. "Some women use this ranch as a retreat; a temporary refuge, if you will, from the stresses of their everyday lives. For others, its a permanent home; a separatist community where they can live their lives mostly free from the influence of males."
She smiled. "Were pretty self sufficient here, as you may have already guessed. The house is on Reservation land, deeded to us by the Yaqui. We grow our own produce and sell the surplus either to the Reservation or to the surrounding towns, which in turn gives us enough money to pay our utility bills, food, sundries, and the like. Every woman who comes here, no matter the reason, is expected to lend her aid to the community in the best way she can. In return, she receives free lodging and food, and, if needed, help with other expenses as they occur."
"Are children allowed?"
"No. If we hear of a woman in need who has children, we help her find assistance elsewhere. All the ranches are for adult women only."
I nodded, sipping my water and listening to the quiet hum of the air conditioner as it cycled on. "Are there any other Amazons here?" I asked softly, somehow loathe to disturb the tranquility of the silent house.
"Besides us, you mean?" she asked, grinning.
Looking down, I blushed a little. In all truth, Id forgotten I was, in fact, an Amazon. It wasnt really something which came up in daily conversation outside of prison, and as that part of my life started to slip away into the past, some of my memories apparently had as well. "Yeah, besides us."
"Well . . .theres Rio, who youve already met . . . ."
I turned to her, eyes wide. "Rio? Rios an Amazon?"
"You say that like its a bad thing . . . ?"
"Oh! No! No, not at all. Really. I was just . . .surprised."
Her expression turned serious. "Is there a problem, Angel?"
"No problem. Really." I tried a broad smile on for size, then winced at how poorly it fit.
Montanas eyes narrowed. "Angel . . . ."
"Really. Its just .a difference of opinion, thats all. Nothing to worry about."
"A difference of opinion about what." It wasnt a question, and I knew it.
I sighed, slumping into the seat. "I wish I knew."
"Did she say something? Do something?"
"Honestly, Montana, its nothing to worry about. Im sorry I said what I did. Im sure Rios an excellent Amazon. We just . . .we just didnt hit it off, I suppose. But thats alright. Not everyone has to like one another. Im ok with that. Honestly." I held my free hand up to show my sincerity.
"Ill have a talk with her."
"No! Please! Please, dont do that. She didnt do anything wrong, and Im sure everything will work itself out, eventually."
"Are you sure?"
After a long, assessing moment, she finally nodded, albeit reluctantly, I thought. "Alright. But if I see anything out of order, I will speak to her."
"Okay. Thank you."
As we lapsed into silence once again, I found myself looking around the houses interior, admiring the southwestern color scheme and the simple wall hangings which added color to the bone-white walls. "You must have to sell a lot of oranges to pay the mortgage on this place," I said in an attempt to steer the conversation into other, safer waters.
Her gentle laugh told me Id succeeded. "I dont think the entire state of Arizona could produce that much citrus, Angel. No, this house was willed to me by the mother of a young woman I helped while in the Bog."
"Mm hm. The girl was very sweet, and kind. And quite beautiful as well." A melancholy smile spread itself over Montanas features. "She was such an innocent when she first arrived, like so many of them are."
"Like I was."
"Yes. You remind me of her, somewhat. She was arrested for possession. A short sentence, but as you know, in the Bog, even a month can seem like an eternity, especially if spent in the ill graces of some of the women there."
I nodded, not quite managing to suppress the shudder that came with my own memories of my first weeks in prison.
"When we finally managed to get in and pick up the pieces, I wasnt really sure how much was left. But she surprised me." Her smile was now proud. "She surprised all of us. The adversity made her stronger, and by the time she left us, it was as if a new woman had stepped out of the shell of the old."
"Where is she now?" I asked, sensing a sad ending, but needing to know.
"Dead. She returned here to be with her mother, and they were both killed in a car accident some years ago."
"Im so sorry to hear that," I said, laying a hand atop hers.
"So was I." The sad smile returned.
"You loved her."
After a long moment, she nodded. "Yes I did. Very much."
"Im sorry," I said again, at a loss. I wanted to hug her, but wasnt sure if shed accept such a gesture from me. Instead, I settled for squeezing her hand harder, pleased when she looked at me, thanks in her eyes.
"Im sorry for your loss as well, Angel," she said, finally. "I was quite pleased when I heard that you and Ice had made it into Canada. I had hoped that you had finally found your dreams."
It was my turn to smile sadly. "We did. For awhile. Before Cavallo came in and started the whole avalanche." I sighed as the pain, a constant companion, settled itself on my shoulders once again, all the more heavy for the temporary respite. "I know its been three months, but it still feels so unreal, you know? Like a dream, almost. Or a nightmare." I shook my head. "Most mornings, I still find myself waking up expecting to still be in the cabin, Ice sleeping next to me. And its like I lose her all over again every time I do wake up. It makes me not want to go to sleep."
"I can understand that."
"Yeah. I guess you can." I absently wiped the tear rolling down my cheek.
"What happened to the woman who turned her in?"
"Ruby?" I laughed mirthlessly. "God, what a screw up. I find myself wanting to hate her. But I cant. No matter how much I try, I just cant. She acted out of love for me." I felt my fist curl and slam down on the forgiving cushion. "If I had only told her the truth in the beginning, none of this would ever have happened."
"You dont know that, Angel. For all you know, telling the truth would only have meant a sooner ending. Sometimes people see with their eyes and not with their hearts. Your friend might have meant well, but she didnt take the time to look beyond what she thought was the surface. You cant take all the blame for this upon yourself. It does no good."
"Maybe not," I replied, looking down at my lap.
"So what happened to her?"
"Im not sure. I guess shes still in Canada. I doubt thered be any reason for her to leave. Especially now." I closed my eyes against the memory of that horrible night, but it came anyway, mocking me with its stealth.
Corinne had gotten to me just as the last of the police cars pulled away into the night. I remembered screaming at the top of my lungs as she pulled me into a crushing embrace, holding me so tightly that I felt smothered against her body, unable to breathe.
I remembered trying desperately to pull free, but she held me with a strength I hadnt known she possessed, refusing to let me slip away. Knowing, I think, what Id do if I did.
After a period of timea moment, a day, a centuryshe loosened her hold, and I pulled away, as if scalded by her very presence. I turned, and she was there.
The one who betrayed me.
The one who tore my heart out and held it bleeding in her hands.
The one who drilled a great, gaping rent into my very soul.
And then I just . . .blacked out is the only way I can think to put it.
I didnt come back into myself until quite some time later.
Corinne was holding me once again. Of Ruby, there was no sign.
My right hand ached. When I looked at it, it was scraped, raw, bleeding, and swollen.
I knew Id punched her. And part of me rejoiced.
Reading my mind as she always had, Corinne gently shook her head, then turned me to face the wall near the front windows. A wall which now bore a fist-sized hole in the plaster. A hole which was head-height on a person like Ruby. "You didnt hurt her, Angel. You wanted to, I know. But you didnt."
And that was all that was ever said on the subject.
And though I never saw Ruby again, to this day, my hand still aches when it rains, forever a reminder of the night I lost my soul and the woman, however unwittingly, who took it from me.
I wasnt sure how I wound up in Montanas strong arms, crying as if my very life depended upon this shedding of tears, but after a brief second of tense wonder, I simply surrendered to the inevitability of it and let the tears fall where they might.
Which, at the moment, happened to be all over Montanas neatly starched shirt.
She didnt seem to mind, however.
I hadnt spoken of the events of that night since that night. With Corinne and I, it was almost balletic, the way we would adroitly maneuver so as to avoid the issue. And who else, really, had there been to discuss it with? Donita likely already knew the whole storyalbeit a vastly shortened version, considering her source was Ice. The only other person Id spent recent time with was Rio, and quite frankly, I would have rather bitten through a high-tension wire than to cry on that particular shoulder.
Montana, however, was somehow safe. At least, I assumed as much, since my body was telling me something my mind didnt already know.
She reacted exactly right, simply holding me and stroking my hair until my cathartic release played itself out and left me empty, but in a good way. A way, I suppose, I had been unconsciously craving for the past three months.
Several moments passed before I finally pulled away and gave her a watery, half embarrassed smile as I wiped the remaining tears from my burning eyes. "Im sorry for getting your shirt wet."
Her smile was kind. "Dont be. Youve been needing to get that out for a long time, havent you."
"Yeah. I suppose I have." I took in a deep, shuddering breath, then let it out, amazed with the lightness I felt deep inside, as if a festering wound had finally been lanced, the poison flowing out with my tears. "Thank you."
She shrugged. "Thats what friends are for, right?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Thanks. Friend."
"Youre welcome. Friend." Chuckling softly, she stretched. "Better now?"
"You dont know how much."
"Good. How about if I let you free to go exploring? Poke around a little, get a feel for the place. After all, its gonna be your home for awhile."
I nodded again, smiling this time. "Id like that."
"Alright then. Dinners in about four hours or so. Youll hear the bell when its ready." Getting up off the couch, she escorted me to one of the front doors and ushered me out. "Have fun."
"Thanks. I plan to."
To Be Continued.. Part 3
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