RETRIBUTION - PART 6
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, Redemption. You really will want to read that 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. Not as much of either as in Redemption (Im saving that up for "Restitution"), but there is some of each 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 offend anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: There are so many people to thank for this effort. First is Candace, who once again was there to read this novel in its entirety all in little AIM blocks of 50 characters or less. Her nightly feedback was sorely needed and gratefully received. Thanks also to MaryD and Lunacy for providing much needed and invaluable beta assistance. And, finally, a huge debt thanks to the self-proclaimed "Quillies" for reading the beta version of this and giving insightful feedback as well as putting up with and calming a bards emotional roller-coaster of emotions. 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 Thought: Retribution is the second in what will eventually become a trilogy. Redemption, obviously, was first. Then Retribution, and finally Restitution. Thanks to everyone who gives up a little of their time to come along on this journey with me. I can only hope that Ill never let you down.
Final Disclaimer: As with Redemption, 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 Promise.
Winter took its own sweet time stepping aside for spring, but it finally did and seemingly before I knew it, a year had passed since we first set foot upon Canadian soil. So many things had happened in my life since then. A year seemed much too short a time span for them all to have taken place.
And yet, there I was, standing on my own porch, looking out of my own window, down across my own land, watching sailboats promenade across a vast expanse of deep blue lake.
I pinched myself, just once, and when it hurt, I was convinced that what I was seeing was truly real and not the fevered dreamings of a sad young girl or a prison inmate desperate for freedom.
I was totally alone in the house, but the solitude was welcome and comforting after the bustle of the holiday season and the long, gray winter that followed. Ice had left sometime before sunrise, intending to get in a nice long run over grass newly sprung from the once frozen earth. Corinne, for her part, had announced her cabin fever quite loudly to one and all, both of which were me, and had left an hour before to do some exploring. She departed with the look I imagine a fox gets when hes contemplating the chicken coop across the barnyard, and I spared a moment of pity for whomever her explorations pitted her against that day.
I suddenly felt the urge to get outside myself, and after donning a light jacketyet another gift from CorinneI stepped out into the warmth and sunshine of the newly born spring, taking in a deep breath of fresh air and smiling for all I was worth.
Walking down the small hill that separated the house from the lake, I stepped out onto the tiny green dock which Id painted the day before, continuing to watch the sailboats as they fought both gravity and wind to remain upright in the water.
I spared a moment for wistful longing before remembering that I too knew how to sail.
My decision quickly made, I stepped back onto the shore and walked to the small cove where Ice and I had placed the Hobie after making it once again ready for sailing that past weekend. After readying the rigging, unfurling and hoisting the sails, and attaching the sling, I gently pushed the boat out into the shallows, then stepped aboard, my boot momentarily sinking into the icy water and causing my whole body to tense up in chilled reaction.
Still, Id made up my mind and wasnt about to let a little cold water dampen my enthusiasm, and so, with a healthy shove that chilled my body even more, I managed to catch the wind and started off toward the center of the lake, icy spray piercing my face with its needled drops.
The freedom I felt was incredible as I carved out a line and stuck to it, battling the wind and the water for my right to fly.
And fly I did, over the glassy blue lake, like a colorful bird just skimming over the water with one eye open for breakfast, controlling nature with a flick of my hand or a twist of my body, my smile, Im sure, fierce and proud and wild and free.
When my soaked clothes and icy skin began to get the better of my endorphins, I turned for home. As I drew closer, I noticed that someone had taken up residence on the green dock. Still closer, I noted that someone as Corinne, whod appropriated a deck chair and her dark shawl, and was sitting quite comfortably, watching me as I approached, a grin on her face.
I resistedonly justcutting sharply to the left and spraying her with a nice fan of icy water. Instead, I behaved myself and brought the Hobie in for a gentle landing against the sandy shore, then hopped from the boat and tugged it partly onto the beach, lowering the sails so it wouldnt decide to take off again, preferring the water to a land-bound existence.
As I turned toward my friend, I suddenly found myself with a face full of towel. Grabbing it before it fell to the sand, I vigorously rubbed my chilled cheeks and icy hair, restoring circulation as best I could while I walked toward the dock. "Thanks."
"More than welcome, my dear. Youre quite the sailor. Im impressed."
"Thanks," I said again, stepping on to the dock and draping the towel over one of the posts to dry in the warm spring sun. "Just another little something I picked up from Ice. Shes a great teacher."
"Indeed she is. But the best teacher in the world cant help someone who doesnt have at least a bit of natural ability. You, Angel, looked as if youd been sailing all your life."
Feeling another blush coming on, I hid it by turning back toward the lake, watching the sailboats as they continued to make their way around the lake in endless circles.
Corinne chuckled, then reached under her chair and came up with a thermos, from which she poured a steaming cup of tea and handed to me. Taking the warm drink gratefully, I inhaled the wonderful scent and took a bracing sip, feeling the heat warm my insides in a most pleasant way. "God, thats good." I took another sip, then turned back to look at her. "So, did you have fun exploring?"
Her teeth flashed white in a predators grin. "Oh yes. A great deal of fun. Its amazing what sorts of rocks one can turn over when one has the right tools for the job."
Snorting, I finished the rest of my tea and handed the cup back to her. "Its good to know you love your work."
She laughed. " Oh, I do indeed. Small towns like this have such juicy little secrets. The people hold to them so tightly, as if in giving them up, theyd somehow lose an important part of themselves." Her delighted laughter sounded again. "I do so enjoy poking holes in balloons of contention."
Shaking my head, I lowered myself to the sun-warmed wood of the dock, enjoying the feel of the gentle breeze against my slowly drying body. "So," I said after a moment, "what balloons did you manage to pop today?"
Corinnes eyes went wide in mock surprise. "Am I hearing correctly? My little Angel actually wants to hear gossip? And here I thought that was beneath you."
I scowled at her, then closed my eyes and tipped my face toward the sun. "Fine. If you dont want to tell me . . . ."
Never one to resist a challenge, even if it was being made at her expense, Corinne remained silent for two whole seconds before beginning to tell her tale. "Were you aware that theres a bit of a feud between a certain rather rotund and fashion-challenged innkeeper and a gentleman of your acquaintance who just happens to own the business establishment across the street?"
My head lowered, my eyes opened, and I found myself suddenly very much interested in her words. "What kind of feud?"
Her expression was one of a fisherman when he knows that his prey has been caught, hook, line and sinker. "Well," she said after a moment, "it seems that your friend Millicent . . . ."
"Shes hardly my friend, Corinne."
"In any event," she said, her tone telling me exactly what she thought of my untimely interruption, "it seems that Millicent filed suit against Pop for having what she called an unzoned eyesore. She demanded that the old cars be removed post haste and the lot tidied up so that her guests would not have to be forced to look at lumps of rusted metal every time they peered out of their windows."
"And Pop refused, right?"
"Correct. He told her in no uncertain terms that both he and his eyesorewhich is correctly zoned, by the waywere here to stay, and if she didnt like that fact, she was free to . . . well, Im sure you can get the appropriate picture without my having to paint it for you, no?"
"Good for him! What did the courts say?"
"What could they say? He has a permit and the ability to do with the land what he wishes, short of putting up a waste treatment plant or a topless bar, of course. She lost. And so, of course, she simply filed again."
"Damn. She obviously doesnt know the meaning of the phrase graceful loser. How long has this been going on?"
"Ever since she first took over the Silver Pine from her deceased aunt, I believe."
"Wow. I wonder why he never told us about it." I looked up at her. "How did you manage to pry it out of him?"
She contrived to look pious. "A lady never boasts about her sexual prowess, my dear."
I almost choked on my own saliva. "Yeah. Right."
She laughed. "Actually, that little tidbit didnt come from Pop. Doreen Symmonds gave it up quite easily after I stopped by and was conned into reading a few chapters of those torridly awful romance novels that warm her house with their tawdry splendor."
The mental picture of Corinne reading such stories to a raptly listening, and no doubt intently sewing, Mrs. Symmonds almost dumped me into the lake as I collapsed against the floor of the dock in laughter. She waited out my small storm with tolerant amusement, and when my gales of laughter finally wound down to isolated chuckles, she continued. "Doreen has a great deal of interesting knowledgedirt, I believe its called these days. Shes lived here far longer than anyone else, and because of her blindness, I think people believe her deaf as well."
Serious again, I sat back upright, resting my arms atop my crossed legs. "Did she have anything else interesting to say?"
"More than can be told in one sitting, to be sure. Shes a veritable fountain of information just waiting for a coin to be tossed her way."
"Anything else on Millicent and Pop?"
"Well, it appears that Millicents hatred of Pop doesnt extend to owners of gas stations, and their attendant eyesores, in general. From what Ive heard, shes been seen courting a rather repulsive gentleman by the name of Conrad who just happens to own the station in the next town to the north."
I could feel my face drawing up in a grimace. "Yeah. Ive seen him a few times. Hes been trying his damndest to get Ice away from Pop and work for him. Ice has come very close to rearranging his face for him more than once. Not that youd be able to tell if she did, though. That man looks like a truck ran over him, stopped, backed up, and ran over him again for good measure. Millicents probably the only woman on this planet whod look at him twice."
"I hear hes as rich as sin."
"Thatd do it."
"Trying to take Ice away would make sense," Corinne mused. "He managed to sway Pops original mechanic into his fold. I imagine he feels that if he lured Ice away as well, especially as good and popular as she is, Pop would be forced to shut down and Millicents problems would be solved."
"Thats not gonna happen," I replied with some heat. "That bitch is gonna have to try a whole lot harder than that." I could feel my muscles tense as my clenched fists beat a tattoo on my thighs. "God damn her! What gives her the right to act like such an ass?"
Corinne laughed. "Since when did someone need a right to act like an malicious fool, Angel? Dear God woman, youve been dealing with people of her ilk for five full years! Did you just think them confined to prison?"
"Of course not, Corinne. Its just that . . . ." I sighed, then looked up at her again. "Pop is my friend. And I dont like to see my friends screwed with. Especially not by the likes of her." I came to my feet. "I think that woman needs to be knocked down a few pegs."
Corinne held out an arm. "Relax, Angel. Act in haste, repent in leisure, and all that. The best way to teach someone like dear Millicent a lesson is to use her own tactics against her."
Stopping as Corinnes sage advice reached my ears, I resolutely let go my anger, knowing she was right on that count. I turned back to her. "Fine. As long as I get a part in whatever play youre putting on."
She smiled enigmatically. "Oh, I think I might be able to come up with a role for you, sweet Angel."
As someone has been known to say however, the best laid plans of mice and men . . . .
Late that very same night, I was awakened from a deep, dreamless sleep by the incongruous sound of a bell ringing. Immediately thinking of midnight phone calls and the bad omens they portended, I shot straight up in bed, looking around wildly. "Ice?"
"Right here," came a voice to my left. Turning my head in that direction, I saw her shadowed form bent over at the waist and apparently tugging her pants on.
"Whats going on? Whats that ringing?"
"Fire bell," she bit off as she stood once again to her full height and dragged a T-shirt over her head, settling her hair outside of the collar.
That got me up and moving. The town didnt have a fire-station. In fact, the nearest one was almost forty miles away. So when the fire bell sounded, everyone ran to pitch in. It was either that or sit back and watch the entire town and half the surrounding forest go up in a puff of smoke.
"Hang on a minute, I just need to find my . . . ah, there they are." I stepped over to the railing to retrieve jeans that had been flung there in the heat of the moment. My shirt, thankfully whole though a bit worse for wear, lay on the floor nearby and I pulled it on quickly, running my fingers through my hair. I slipped my feet into my ratty sneakers and turned to face my waiting lover. "Ready."
"Lets go, then."
After pausing briefly to reassure a concerned Corinne, we stepped outside into the chilly spring night. The thick scent of smoke was heavy in the still air. I sniffed. "Smells like burning rubber."
"Its Pops place," Ice retorted, pointing over the treeline toward the town. A thick plume of oily black smoke could be seen rising above it, alive and malicious in the light of a waxing moon.
My body came alive with tension. "Shit! The gas pumps!"
"I know. Lets get moving."
We jumped into the truck, and Ice floored it, leaving me to hang on for dear life as we flew down the cracked and pitted street that connected our small neighborhood to the town itself. The stench of burning rubber became thicker and more cloying the closer we got, and as the truck came around the last bend, the sight of hungry flames licking upwards filled the windshield.
It seemed that almost half the town was already in attendance, with more arriving every minute. Several bucket brigades had already been formed, and men and women were busily spraying water from hoses attached to the businesses to the left and right of Pops garage.
Thankfully, the fire appeared, for the moment, to be contained to the junkyard, which was perhaps fifty yards away from the islands that held the gas pumps.
"Promise me something, Ice," I said as we jumped from the truck and ran to join the helpers.
"No running into burning buildings to save a litter of kittens, alright? Ive already been through that once with you. I dont think I could bear going through it again."
Her teeth flashed in the light of the fire. "No promises, Angel, but Ill try my best."
She moved off into the line of fire, as it were, while I stepped up to Mary Lynch, who was directing the helpers to keep everyone organized and focused on their tasks. Mary pointed me in the direction of another rapidly forming bucket brigade and I gladly pitched in, grabbing and passing on each water-filled bucket that came my way.
As I became engrossed in the rather mindless work, I spared a moment to look around at the beehive of frantic, yet controlled, activity, feeling a surge of pride for a town which had, over the course of a year, become mine. There was no arguing or jostling or trying for glory. Everyone did their jobs without fuss or complaint, their entire focus on one goal and one goal only. To help out a friend in need.
After five years in jail, it felt good to be part of something like that.
Millicent, however, was conspicuous by her absence.
Turning my head, I looked at the darkened inn across the street, swearing that I could see a curtain flutter in one of the upper rooms. The anger which had left me hours before returned in full force. Ill bet my last dollar that bitch has something to do with this.
Still watching the Inn, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and shifted my gaze downward toward the row of hedges which bordered her property. My eyes were past the point of burning tears from the smoke, but as I continued to watch, I saw again what had attracted my attention.
The bushes moved.
Then they moved again.
"Son of a bitch. Here, hold this." Blindly thrusting the bucket I was holding into the hands of the next person in line, I broke free from the bucket brigade and started off across the street.
Whoever was watching the fire obviously saw me and tried to bolt. The bushes moved violently again, and I broke into a sprint. "Oh no ya dont!"
Running as fast as I could, I launched myself in a flying tackle, managing to wrap my arms around the ankles of the person trying to flee, and bring us both hard to the unforgiving ground. Getting quickly to my knees, I rolled the person Id tackled over and saw the snarling face of a young manno more than a boy, reallyhot-spots of adolescent acne clear on his face.
Gritting his teeth, he began to struggle, but I held him rather easily, straddling his heaving chest and placing my knees squarely on his biceps, effectively pinning him. "Get offa me!" he yelled in a high, cracked voice.
"Not until you tell me what you were doing in those bushes."
"What the hell do ya think, I was doin, lady? Jerkin off?? I was watchin the fire!" He renewed his struggle to escape, becoming more red-faced with the effort. "Come on, lady! Get offa me. I wasnt doin nothin wrong!"
"I think youre lying," I replied, staring down at him and adjusting to the frantic movements of his body beneath me. I inhaled deeply and tried not to choke on the smoke which filled the air. "You smell like gasoline. I think you started that fire."
"I didnt start nothin, bitch." Seeing his struggles were fruitless, he opted for staring sullenly at me. "Maybe you started it and are lookin for someone ta blame."
I smiled coolly. "I think we both know thats not the truth." Then I tried another tactic. "If you didnt start the fire, maybe you saw who did? After all, you had a front row seat over there, didnt you?"
"I didnt see nothin." His face was closed, walled off. That expression wasnt exactly something I was unfamiliar with.
I sighed. "Fine." Then I moved off of him, coming to my feet and offering him a hand.
Swatting it away, he jumped to his own feet, smirking at me. "Bitch."
I allowed him to turn, and as he did so, I grabbed his wrist and wrenched it up high and hard behind his back. He came to his toes immediately, squeaking in pain. "What the fuck are ya doin?"
"Youre a witness to a crime. You didnt think I was just gonna let you go, did you?"
"I told ya, bitch, I didnt see nothin!"
"Yeah, I know. You didnt see anything, you didnt hear anything, you didnt do anything. A regular Casper Milquetoast, you are."
"Never mind. Just move."
And move we did, right back toward the still burning fire, with my reluctant captive struggling every step of the way. Though he was a good five inches taller and fifty or so pounds heavier than I was, I had little trouble marching him back the way wed come. After all, it was I move Id practiced on Ice more times than I cared to count, and if I could to it with her, I had no doubt that I could immobilize Mr. Universe if I had to.
For a second, anyway.
We passed the first line of helpers, most of whom gave us curious glances as we walked through the area of controlled chaos. They returned quickly to their tasks, though, and we moved forward pretty much unmolested.
When the smoke became too thick for breathing, I stopped, eyes darting around, trying to find my partner through the haze of oily smoke. Which was, of course, trying to find a needle in a mountain of haystacks.
"Ice!" I shouted, trying mightily to be heard over the din of the fire and the shouts of the helpers. When there was no answer, I tried again. "Ice!! I need to see you for a second, please!!"
After a long moment, the smoke seemed to coalesce and take on human form. Then my lover stepped through the fumes, her hair drenched with sweat, her face black with soot from which two icy sapphire chips sparkled, her clothes dirty and pasted to her body, and a large axe gripped surely in one hand.
If a Hollywood casting director had been there looking for someone to play a demon from hell, he would have hired her on the spot, no questions asked.
The young man standing in front of me stiffened, and I could feel his pulse-rate double beneath my hand. He renewed his efforts to break free, but I held him easily, watching as my partner approached, a no-nonsense look on what could be seen of her face. "Whats going on?" she asked, still holding the axe, her voice harsh from the smoke shed inhaled.
"I found my friend here hiding in the bushes across the street," I replied, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Pop, almost equally soot-covered and sweating, moved out of the smoke to join us. "He seems to have been affected with a sudden case of stupidity, so I figured Id bring him over here and let you wise him up."
Reaching out with her free hand, Ice grabbed the young man by the front of his T-shirt and jerked him forward until their faces were scarcely an inch apart. I quickly let his arm go, fearing that the sudden pressure would tear it free from its socket.
"Did you start this fire?" Ice growled, the harshness of her voice only magnifying the malevolent effect.
Stepping to one side, I looked up, noticing that the surly youngsters eyes were now wide as saucers while his face paled to the color of curdled cream, unfortunate acne standing out in spots of high color on his cheeks, forehead and chin.
"Answer me!" Ice growled again, shaking him as a terrier might shake a chew toy.
I knew he was past the point of forming coherent words, and was just about to step in when Pop, apparently having the same idea, put a blackened hand on Ices arm and stepped closer to the pair, peering up into the face of the unfortunate boy. "Youre Duke Johnsons boy from up-country, aint ya? I seen you around a few times when Ive been up that way."
As if desperate to ingratiate himself to one who wasnt about to rip his head off and chop up what was left into tiny pieces, the boy nodded frantically, his Adams Apple bobbing as he gulped past the pressure Ice was putting on his throat.
Pop nodded. "Thought so. What you doin so far from home, boy? Aint you got school in the mornin?"
He nodded again, which, of course, didnt come close to answering either question.
"Ease up on him a little, Morgan. Boy looks like hes gonna pass out and piss himself all at the same time. Lets see what hes got ta say."
Ice relaxed her grip just slightly, allowing the boy to stand comfortably on both feet once again, but didnt release him entirely, in case he thought about doing something stupid. Like running, for instance.
The way she was staring at him, I thought breathing might be another example in the doing something stupid department, unless she got the answers she was looking for.
Pops eyes were compassionate. "Who put you up to this, boy? Just gimme a name, and youre free to go."
"I didnt do nothin!" Instead of surliness, the young mans tone had changed to one of petulance, with a dose of good, old fashioned fright thrown in for good measure.
"I know your father, boy. Hes a good man. Dont think hes got it in him to raise stupid sons. Just tell me who set you up for this and he wont have ta visit you in the jail."
At the mention of jail, the boys lip trembled slightly, but he remained stubbornly silent.
Pop took off his cap, slapping it against his thigh. "God damn it, boy! Dont you realize just what a shitpile you got yourself into? If I hadnt been nearby when you threw your damn cocktail in there, you wouldnt just be lookin at arson. Youd be lookin at murder, a dozen times over."
"What are you talkin about?"
"I was wrong. Your old man did manage ta raise a stupid kid. Cant you see how close you came to explodin my gas tanks?!? This whole town coulda gone up, and most of the people too! Yourself included, ya shit-fer-brains idiot!"
The boys legs buckled at that, and the only thing that kept him on his feet was Ices firm grip to his shirt. Pop brought his face up close, much as Ice had done the moment prior. "Who done this, boy. Who put you up to it. A names all I need. You gimme that and youre free to go."
There was a long moment of silence, punctuated only by the shouts of the people still fighting the slowly diminishing fire. Then the boy looked up, his eyes bright with tears I knew werent caused by the smoke. "I didnt do nothin. I didnt see nothin. I told ya that already. Can I please go home now?"
Pop sighed, then placed his cap back on his head. "Let im go, Morgan." He nodded at her look to him. "Its alright. Let im go. I think hes learned his lesson for the night. Aint that right, boy."
The boy nodded, then turned to leave as Ice released her grip on his shirt. Pop stopped him with one hand on his arm. "One more thing, son. If, when yer walkin home, yer good sense does return to ya, Id suggest going up to the coward who put ya up to this and tellin him next time not ta send a boy to do a mans work. Tell him next time he wants ta fight, do it himself. Got that?"
"Yeah. I got it."
"Good. Now get yer ass outta here before I change my mind and let my big friend with the axe here chop ya up fer firewood."
As if shot from a cannon, he took off, not pausing even once to look back, and disappeared quickly into the woods, leaving only the stench of his fear behind.
Snorting in disgust, Ice hefted her axe and, without a word to either of us, went back to fighting the fire.
"Whyd you let him go like that?" I asked Pop, disbelief plain in the tone of my voice.
"Wasnt worth the hassle of keepin him around, Angel. Hes just a little fish in an even littler pond."
"Yeah, but that little fish almost destroyed this entire town."
"And he knows it, too." He turned to me, his eyes wise even beyond their advanced years. "He had the fear o God scared into him tonight, Angel. Somethin a whole lifetime in prison wouldnt do. And when he comes ta realize just how close he came ta endin it all, hell go right up to the idiot that set him up and give him my message. Killin two birds with one stone, and all that."
"Screw the two birds, Pop. You know who set him up as much as I do," I replied, gritting my teeth in anger.
His eyes went wide for a second, then narrowed. "So, ya heard about that, huh?"
"Yeah. I heard. And Im not gonna let her get away with it."
"Dont go doin nothin rash, Tyler. Dont wanna go visitin you in the pen any more than I wanted ta put that boy in there."
"Oh, Im not planning on doing anything rash. Unless you count ripping her fat little head off and shoving it up her ass as being rash."
He laughed. "Morgans rubbin off on ya, I see."
"No. I come by this naturally, Pop." I crossed my arms over my chest. "Im mad as hell at that witch for what shes doing to you. Why do I seem to be the only one?"
He smiled, the tender expression at odds with the definite blaze of anger in his eyes. "Youre not the only one, sweetheart, though I gotta say you win the prize for originality."
"Then why dont you do something about her? Why just let her get off scot free? Does someone have to die before justice is served here?"
"Naw. No ones gonna die, Tyler. Shell get whats comin to her alright. We all just gotta wait a little." His eyes glittered. "Ya know what they say about revenge, right?"
I sighed. "Yeah. It likes to be refrigerated."
He grinned. "Somethin like that, yeah." Then he threw a companionable arm around my shoulders. "Cmon, then. Lets get back to fightin this fire before Morgan there gets all the glory fer puttin it out single-handed, eh?"
Sighing again for effect, I caved in to his gentle entreaty. There wasnt much else I could do about it, after all. But as I walked back toward the fire, I entertained myself with visions of my fingers wrapping around Millicents bejeweled and fleshy neck as her beady brown eyes popped out like a couple of over-ripe grapes.
Oh yes, revenge might be a dish best served cold, but even the best ice cream in the world didnt have so sweet a taste.
Dawn began to lighten the sky to the east when the last of the fire was finally laid to rest. Only those overcome by the heat and smoke had left. The rest stayed and fought side by side until finally the battle was won.
Beyond exhausted, I gratefully dropped the last water-filled bucket to the ground at my feet, wiping sweaty, blistered and raw hands uselessly against an equally sweaty, not to mention black with soot, shirt. I took in a deep breath before realizing my mistake, then almost collapsed when spasms of coughing shook my already weakened body. Spots flashed before my eyes and I fought to regain my breathing before I passed out on the muddy ground.
Feeling a cool hand to the back of my sweat-sticky neck, I looked up into the concerned eyes of Corinne. Coughing a few more times, then gratefully feeling my lungs begin to accept the gift of fresh air, I slowly straightened, every muscle in my body tight and aching. Smiling, she handed me a tall glass which was filled to the brim with her special sweet tea that I adored.
I held the glass up to my brow for a moment, relishing the chill against my flesh. Then I gulped down the entire offering, almost moaning in pleasure as it hit my belly and cooled me instantly. "Youre a goddess, Corinne. Thanks."
Rescuing the glass from my hand, she poured another tall drink from her thermos and handed it back to me. "Think nothing of it, Angel. Drink up, now. Youre about to fall right over."
"You dont know the half of it," I replied, gulping down the second drink as quickly as I had the first and feeling the icy needles of too much cold too quickly spiking into my brain. "Owww."
Laughing gently, Corinne took back her glass as I rubbed at my forehead, willing the sharp pain to recede.
It calmed gradually, disappearing completely just as a warm, and very welcome presence made itself known at my side. Feeling a grin surface, I looked up at a soot-covered partner who looked nearly as exhausted as I felt, her eyes red rimmed and puffy. "Hey, stranger," I said, bumping her thigh with my hip.
"Hey." She cocked a questioning eyebrow at me. "You alright?"
"Nothing a years worth of sleep wont cure. You?"
She shrugged. "Im fine."
I looked at her, assessing the truth of her words. She bore several fresh scrapes to the left side of her face, and peeking beneath the ruins of a once pristine T-shirt, an ugly red burn stood out angrily on the smooth skin of her muscled belly. "What happened?"
She looked down as if noticing the burn for the first time. "Got a little too close to the fire, I guess. Doesnt hurt."
Corinne pressed the glass of tea into her hand and she quaffed it quickly, then handed the glass back and lifted the half-filled bucket laying at my feet and dumping its contents over her head. Groaning, she shook her head, spraying us all with the droplets that flew out from her hair.
As my skin greedily took in the precious moisture offered, I turned to look at the charred remains of Pops automobile graveyard. There wasnt much left. "At least we kept the tanks from going up."
"True enough," Ice replied, gliding an arm around my shoulders and hugging me into her side.
Tearing my gaze away from the carnage, I looked toward the Inn. Once again, I could swear I saw the curtains twitch just a little, as if released by a hidden hand. I turned back to Ice. "She did this, you know. She might not have been the one to start the fire, but shes just as guilty."
Ice nodded. "I know."
"Well, if you know, and I know, and Pop knows, and everybody in this whole damn town knows, why isnt anybody doing anything about it?"
She squeezed me tighter for a minute. "You know why, Angel. This is Pops show. And as much as I want to rearrange the bitchs arms and legs for her, we need to let Pop take the lead on this one."
"But for how much longer? Damnit, Ice, hes already been beaten to a bloody pulp, had his shop trashed, and now this! I know hes an adult and this is his life, but when is it going to end? When is that bitch going to stop getting away with it?"
She looked down at me, her eyes steel-gray in the light of a new dawn. "Pop or no Pop, Angel, she will not get away with this. That I promise you."
After a moment, I let go my anger and relaxed against her. After all, who knew better than I that when Morgan Steele made a promise, you went to the bank with it.
Released from the false energy of both my anger and Corinnes caffeine-and-sugar laden tea, I slumped wearily against Ices side. "Can we go home now? I think I can hear the bed calling from here, and if I dont get there quick, Ill just fall asleep in this nice juicy mud-puddle instead."
She hugged me tight. "Sure. This mess will still be around to clean up later. Lets go."
Saying our goodbyes to Pop and the other firefighters, we then collected Corinne, squeezed into the truck, and headed for home, weary to the bone.
And after three successive showers finally managed to clean the soot and smoke from my body, I climbed into my big, soft, clean and oh so wonderful bed and fell asleep before my head hit the pillow, leaving my angers and my worries to wait for another day, when I was more equipped, not to mention awake, to deal with them.
The next several days passed quietly, though not without activity. The fire had left behind huge clumps of twisted, charred metal only vaguely resembling the cars they once were. Shattered bits of safety glass lay glittering under the mid-day sun like a tiny galaxy being viewed from above by an omnipotent god. Charred upholstery, tires, and hundreds of other items rendered unidentifiable by the conflagration waited patiently to be cleared away.
I lobbied hard against such a clean up, reasoningquite logically, I thoughtthat it would be just desserts of the highest order to have Millicent and her guests be forced to look down upon the true eyesore her efforts had wrought.
Pop, however, was a better person than I that day, and lobbied just as hard to clean the mess up. His reasoning that other people would have to look at it too couldnt be argued with, and finally I put away my snit for the day and pitched in, though not without a few half-muttered curses that even had Corinne looking at me with newfound respect.
Then one morning, while coming downstairs after changing the sheets on our bed, I spied Corinne standing before the mirror on the back of the bathroom door, putting the finishing touches on the outfit shed chosen for the day.
And a fine outfit it was. A simple black dress and matching shoes were complimented by tastefuland obviously expensivejewelry. Her hair and makeup were done to perfection, and when she turned to face me, I suddenly saw just what it was that attracted so many to her, both in the days of her youth, and now, when that youth was a far away thing, never to be seen again.
She was, in a word, beautiful.
"Wow!" I commented, giving her my best wolf whistle. "Dont you clean up nice."
"One does ones best with what one has," she replied, her twinkling eyes and smug grin belying the false modesty of her words.
"Whos the lucky guy?" I grinned. "Or girl."
"Getting a bit nosey are we?"
"What can I say? I learned from the best," I replied, reaching out to straighten her collar.
"Well, if you must know, Im about to pay Millicent a visit."
I could feel my nose wrinkling. "I thought your standards were higher than that, Corinne."
She laughed. "Oh, you can be sure that they most definitely are. Im considering this a little fact finding mission. That stubborn mule of a gas station owner wont let even the tiniest hair springing from Millicents moles be harmed. He wants irrefutable proof that she was behind the attacks against him. I intend to give him that proof."
"Ahh," I said, nodding. "Would you like some company?"
She looked at me critically. "I dont know if thats wise, Angel. Millicent doesnt seem predisposed toward having warm feelings for you, especially given recent events and the part youve played in them."
"True. But I hardly think thats an obstacle the great Corinne Weaver cant overcome." Playing to her ego was a sure-fire way to get myself a seat of honor at the main event. Besides, it was only the truth, and we both knew it.
Her eyes softened and she acknowledged my tactic with a slight tilt of her head, causing me to display my triumph with a toothy grin. Still, she couldnt help putting a touch of the martyr in her voice. "Oh, very well. If you feel you must come along, hurry up and change. Im not getting any younger, you know."
"But youre aging beautifully," I said, dodging in and giving her a teasing kiss before darting away and running up the stairs to change into something more presentable. From the floor below, I heard her muttering something about impertinent brats and their need of a good strapping, and I couldnt help but laugh.
After changing into a pair of clean, pressed shorts and a simple green top, I slipped a pair of sandals on and walked back downstairs to join Corinne, bearing her scrutiny stoically.
"The innocent little girl look. I like it." Her dark eyes twinkled. "I like it a great deal, in fact."
"Down, Fido," I joked. "Lets just get this show on the road, ok?"
Her laugh sounded its music behind me as I made for the door.
God I had missed her!
Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves standing outside the open door to the Silver Pine. The bustle of workers busily readying the Inn for its upcoming season filled the space around us. Looking around, I wasnt surprised to find many of the same people who had fought the fire were there, sprucing up the arsonists business establishment.
Though it looked to all the world like Millicent had gotten off without a hitch, in reality, she was being watched like a hawk by those working for her. With so many townspeople in and around her home, she couldnt blow her nose without it becoming town gossip within seconds.
The men and women up on ladders, or raking the grounds, or bearing buckets and scrub brushes gave me little grins or covert winks as our gazes met, as if to assure me that they were on the job and ready for action.
Millicent came to the door then, wearing a dress the exact shade, not to mention size, of a huge wad of bubblegum in a teenaged girls mouth. Her lipstick, a frosted pink that had last been popular during the disco era, tried its best to match, but failed miserably. Even the ribbons entangled in poor Puddles fur couldnt come close to the true atrocity that was Millicents dress. Her feet were adorned with dainty slippers more suited to the ballet, and which were straining at the seams from being forced to carry a weight far heavier than their maker no-doubt intended. And, of course, the jewels were out in full bloom, covering what seemed to be every inch of exposed skin.
Since I was closest to the door, she spied me first and her face took on that sour lemon look Id come to associate with her. I gave her my best smile, then stepped aside as the great Corinne moved forward to take center stage in the play she was directing.
Her lips hinted at a somewhat regal half-smile as she assessed Millicent from head to toe, looking at her as if she might just be a rival for a cherished mates affections. "Ms. Harding-Post, I presume?"
Millicent reacted immediately, her carriage becoming more erect, as befitting one meeting a social peer for the first time and not wanting it to get back to the powers that be that one was slacking off in ones duties. "Yes. And you are?"
"Corinne LaPointe. Of the LaPointes of North Hampton. Perhaps you recognize the name?"
Like the biggest large-mouth ever landed, Millicent took the bait, her face breaking into a beaming smile. "Indeed I do, Mrs. LaPointe. Indeed I do! Its so wonderful to meet a fellow Islander. Wont you please come in?"
"Id be delighted. My wonderful niece has told me so much about you, Ms. Harding-Post. It was all I could do just to wait the respectable amount of time before coming to pay you a visit."
Millicent tittered coyly, her broad face dimpling. "Oh please, Mrs. LaPointe. Millicent, if you dont mind. Such formality is for those beneath ones station, dont you agree?"
"Oh, I do indeed, Millicent. Perhaps youll return the favor and call me Corinne, yes?"
"It would be a great honor, Corinne. Wont you please come in?"
"Your invitation is most welcome, Millicent. Thank you."
One of my fathers many down-home sayings chose that moment to pop into my mind. When a shit storms blowin your way, Tyler, best thing you can do is get out of the way and plug up your nose.
And so I did, stepping aside so that Corinne could pass in front of me. Though this time, instead of plugging my nose, I held tight to the laughter that was threatening to erupt as I watched the genius that was my friend.
Following close behind, I couldnt help but watch as Corinne took in the interior of the Bed and Breakfast with what seemed to be wide-eyed, and appreciative, wonder.
"What a beautiful home you have, Millicent! You simply must give me the name of your designer."
Millicents eyes narrowed just a touch. "Why? Are you thinking of opening up a business here?"
"Me?" Corinnes hand came up to her chest and she laughed. "Oh no, my dear. My dabbling days are long over, Im afraid. Ill leave the fine art of business to those much younger and more beautiful than I."
If I hadnt seen it with my own eyes, I would have found it impossible to believe that Millicent Harding Post could become even larger than she already was, yet there it was, plain as day, her body seeming to puff up with the praise shed received, much as a peacocks will when spreading his plumage.
I wondered if asking for quick directions to the bathroom was out.
Millicent uttered that queer tittering laugh again, flapping her hand at Corinne. "Nonsense, dear. Youre absolutely charming, and I mean that in only the best of ways!"
"How kind of you to say, Millicent."
"I only speak the truth, Corinne." Bustling us into the lobby, she indicated a rather uncomfortable looking couch which sat catty-corner to the overdone fireplace monopolizing one wall. "Wont you please sit down? Id offer you the grand tour, but Im afraid the horrid winter has done just dreadful things to the rooms upstairs. They wont be fit for man nor beast for a month, at least!"
Corinne nodded in commiseration. "I understand perfectly, Millicent. Your hospitality is a gift beyond measure." She sat down on the couch, the very essence of regality. I stood next to her, wondering if it was proper to sit next to such royalty, or if it was more proper that I kneel by her side, a footman bearing scepter and crown. She looked at me, the faintest hint of amusement in her eyes. "Please sit, Tyler. Youre offending our hostess."
Even though said in jest, the mock rebuke stung and, true to my childhood programming, I sat down quickly, eyes cast to the floor. "Yes, Maam."
"Theres a good girl," she replied, patting my hand.
I looked up, first at Corrine, then at Millicent.
Oh, how I ached to wipe that look of smug condescension from her face.
With an axe.
Not that anyone would notice the difference if I did.
Corinne must have caught my tension, because she squeezed my hand briefly before releasing it and clasping her hands primly in her lap.
"Would you like some tea?" Millicent asked.
"Only if it isnt too much trouble, dear."
"Oh, no trouble at all. I was just about to fix myself a cup when you came calling. Be back in a flash."
I maintained my silence for all of a second after she left, taking her stench and her oh-so-refined air with her. Then I did a slow head turn until Corinne was fully in my sights. "Is it permissible to vomit in the potted palm, my Lady?"
Corinne laughed, her whole body shaking with mirth. "Patience, dear Angel. In order to grow a proper garden, one needs to visit the cow pasture first."
"Yeah, but Im only wearing sandals."
"Just relax and follow my lead."
I sighed. "Ill try. Its not gonna be easy, though."
She smiled. "I have all the faith in the world in you, Angel."
Though it should have, her statement didnt make me feel any better.
Millicent returned after a short time, rolling in a silver tea-cart upon which various tea accouterments were tinkling when they jostled together as the wheels rolled along from rug to hideous rug.
Stopping the cart nearby, she then proceeded to pour out the tea and hand us delicate china cups brimming with the dark, steaming brew.
Corinne sipped hers, smiling in appreciation. On cue, I sipped my own tea, not really tasting it for the bile still in my throat.
Apparently satisfied with Corinnes tacit approval, Millicent poured her own tea, then sat down in the armchair on the other side of the fireplace. Puddles promptly jumped into her somewhat more than generous lap and helped herself to a long drink, her entire body shuddering in what looked to be the throes of ecstasy.
"So," Millicent said after rescuing her tea from Puddles and drinking down the rest of it without a thought to how it must look, "what brings you here, Corinne? Surely it isnt the scenery. Or the populace." She said the last with a visible shudder.
"My niece," Corinne answered succinctly.
Millicents eyebrows raised. Mine almost went up as well. "Oh?"
"Yes. Tyler is very much loved by her family, but Im afraid shes become a bit much even for them lately." She leaned closer to Millicent, as if imparting a dark secret. "Left her poor fiancée at the altar. My brother is heartbroken about it. Simply heartbroken."
"Oh, how truly sad," Millicent replied, shaking her head in sympathy and looking at me as if Id suddenly grown Vampire teeth and might bite. "However is he coping?"
"Not very well, Im afraid. Her mother took ill, as one might expect, and its all he can to just to coax the poor dear out of bed in the morning. They had such high hopes for this marriage. It was the perfect match. Hand picked, you know."
"Is there any other kind?"
"Not for us, no." She turned to me and smiled. "Tylers always been a bit headstrong. Many children are these days, no matter how much love and guidance their parents give them."
"I think its in the water," Millicent pronounced with God-like authority.
"It may well be at that. She announced, bold as you please, that she wanted to see a bit of the world first before settling down and becoming the proper wife to a prosperous young man. Being young once myself, I could empathize with her passions. Little did I know, however, just what sort of passions they were."
Looking in my direction once again, Millicents face screwed up in that sour expression I so detested.
Corinne smiled. "I see youve met her."
"Not to talk to, certainly," Millicent said in a haughty tone. "But in passing, yes. Utterly base and without any hint of a redeeming quality whatsoever."
"Yes, but with a sort of magnetism that a young woman like Tyler cant help but be attracted to. Even I felt myself drawn, if only for a moment."
Millicents eyes went round. "You did?"
"Oh yes. She has a power. Demon-given, Im sure, but a power nonetheless. And without the benefit of experience which you and I have in spades, poor Tyler was powerless against her attentions. It happens to the best of us, sometimes."
"They recruit, you know," Millicent said, her voice once again full of authority. Then she looked at me once more, scanning me intently from head to toe. "And your niece is exactly the type they like to prey on. Young. Innocent. Mildly attractive."
Corinnes quick hand on my wrist was the only thing that stopped me from ripping the womans tongue out and feeding it to her.
"Really? I find her quite attractive. She reminds me a little of myself when I was younger."
"Oh, no offense meant, Corinne," Millicent said hastily, to cover her faux pas, no doubt. "The family resemblance is quite striking, if I may say so. Quite striking. Why, in the right light, you look as if you could almost be sisters."
I resisted the urge to look around for the cow I just knew had to be hiding somewhere.
Corinne smiled as if the compliment was nothing but the utter truth as she saw things. "Youre very kind to say so, Millicent." She sighed. "One of the unfortunate truths of life is that age does catch up with a body. I try my best to stave off its effects for as long as possible."
"And youre doing a magnificent job of it, Corinne. Simply magnificent. Why, Im surprised you dont have suitors surrounding you like birds to a fountain. Even in this corner of Gods hell."
"Oh, theres been some interest, to be sure. But honestly, I hardly see myself as pairing up with an elderly gas-station attendant, do you?"
"Oh, not him. Hes a perfectly dreadful little man. And a bit of a pervert as well, if you dont mind such base language. I simply cant think of a better way to describe him."
"I dont mind at all." Which wasnt, of course, near to being the truth. Though she didnt show it outwardly, I could feel Corinnes temper click up a notch based on the sudden, if imperceptible to anyone but me, stiffness in her body. "Has he made improper advances toward you, Millicent?"
"No. Well, not exactly. But every time I see him, its as if hes undressing me with his eyes." She shuddered.
I almost swallowed my tongue at the mental image.
I could tell by the silent tremor next to me that Corinne was trying desperately to hold back a laugh. It was a very close call.
"How simply dreadful for you, poor dear," she said finally in a voice which was not quite her own. Then, because she was about a millisecond away from losing her composure, she turned her head to look out of the window, a broad grin cracking the staid plains of her face as she did so.
I almost hated her for a moment, jealous of her ability to take such a needed escape while I had to sit still and proper, playing the part of a lost little girl whos finally seen the light. A quick vision of Pops face as he surveyed the damage Millicent had caused sobered me quickly and sent a warm, welcome flush of anger through limbs made stiff with inactivity. I kept my eyes glued to the tea-cup, studying the dainty pattern of trailing roses so as not to betray my emotions.
After a long moment, Corinne finally turned back, her face fully settled once again. "Unfortunate view," she commented, not bothering to point out the picture of Pops burned out junkyard that stared in through the large window. "Does it effect your business any?"
Millicents lips thinned and a very real anger sparked in her eyes. "You dont know the half of it. Why, when I first learned this place had befallen me, I had such high hopes. An entire society of wealthy friends have a taste for slumming, provided the proper accommodations are available, of course. Why, my volunteer circle alone could feed and house this entire backwater hellhole for years! Not to mention my friends at the country club. My only thoughts were to do right by this place, backward though it is. To show its people a touch of class, to help the needy, to be a good neighbor." Fat, crocodile tears beaded in the corners of her eyes, their very presence turning my stomach. "And what was I given in return? Hatred. Suspicion. Cruelty."
Pulling out a lace handkerchief as large as a tablecloth, she dabbed her eyes as her gelatinous body quivered with imagined grief.
It was one of the hardest things Ive ever done, not giving into the almost insane urge to rip that handkerchief out of her hands and knot it around her neck like a noose. The tea sat sour and curdled in my belly and I had to swallow a few times just to make sure the joking threat Id made to Corinne about baptizing a houseplant didnt become a reality.
For her part, Corinne sat still and quiet as a churchmouse, a smile frozen on her face as she watched Millicent play out the part of well-meaning but horribly mistreated philanthropist.
It might not have been so bad, even for all that, had Millicent not kept peeking up at Corinne, a flat sheen of cool calculation in eyes filled with false tears, to judge the effect her mournful display was having.
After a few more heartbroken sobs were manufactured for good measure, she wiped her face, then replaced the handkerchief in a hidden pocket somewhere on her person. I mourned the loss of so fine a weapon.
"So you can see that this hasnt been an easy road to travel. Out here, all alone, without one friend to call my own." She affected a deep sigh, swelling her already huge bosom to truly astounding proportions. "But, as always, I shall persevere, despite whatever these cretins try to throw at me."
"Have you tried to fight back?" Corinne asked in as compassionate a tone as she could manage under the circumstances.
"Indeed I have. I filed suits, I called in the police, I did everything I could think of. Nothing. No help for the inconvenienced." She laughed bitterly. "Justice, they say. Ha! They wouldnt know justice if they tripped over it."
"I cant say Im a bit surprised," Corinne replied. "These Canadians have a way of protecting their own when it comes to outsiders. You simply wouldnt believe all the hoops I was forced to jump through just to rescue my beloved niece." She smiled; one that was hard with knowing. "Sometimes, Ive found that its best just to take matters into ones own hands."
Millicents face then took on a cast of a young girl with a very deep secret and I knew the moment was at hand. I felt myself lean forward as adrenaline rushed its way through my body, speeding my heart. "Do you?" she asked in a very small voice.
"I do indeed. Sad as it is to say, gone are the days when ones station in life guaranteed one good service, Millicent. Now its every person for himself. There are no free rides anymore."
I could almost feel the internal debate that was raging inside Millicent. Her eyes seemed far away as she nervously chewed on her bottom lip. Then she looked up, her eyes filled with something Id never seen in them before: trepidation. "Have you ever done something like that?" she asked finally.
Corinne grinned. "Im here, arent I?"
Millicents entire body relaxed with the statement and a huge smile of relief came over her face, making her look, for just a second, mildly attractive. Still, she didnt spill the beans, and so Corinne decided to nudge the boat just a little. "Surely there is someone in this tiny little town who detests the man as much as you do. There simply must be. Towns this size have entire graveyards of skeletons hanging in closets and a veritable mountain of rocks waiting to be turned over."
"Oh no, not here. Believe me, Ive looked." Then she stopped, aware that shed just given much too much away. She looked at me, then over to Corinne.
"Dont worry about Tyler, Millicent. Shes learned her lessons well. Havent you, Tyler."
I contrived to look the part of the successfully reprogrammed. "Yes, Maam," I replied, twisting my hands a little and lowering my eyes for good measure.
Millicent seemed satisfied with the gesture. "I have been speaking with a few good gentlemen outside of this town, however. Men with a some bones to pick with a certain Mr. Willamette. Large bones. Old bones."
"And are they willing to help you with your problem?"
Millicents answering smile was coy. "Oh, they already have. Accidents have a way of happening, you know. Quite without warning. His place is a deathtrap anyway."
Corinne nodded sagely. "And has this helped any?"
"Its much too soon to tell, of course. Im confident that it will, eventually. I want this badly, and I always get what I want. Always."
"I can see that you are a person who does, yes."
Then, like a message from Providence, the phone rang, and Millicent heaved herself up to her feet to answer it.
A long, meaningful look passed between Corinne and I. Wed come for answers, and wed gotten them. In spades.
Neither of us was sad to see the conversation come to an end when Millicent rushed back into the room, her face flushed with some unidentifiable emotion, and tell us that an emergency had occurred and she needed to be elsewhere.
We excused ourselves gracefully and left, filled with a knowledge neither of us particularly wanted to have.
It made for an interesting walk home.
"You wanted proof? Now youve got it. Question is, what are you going to do with it?" Corinne sat back in her chair, fingers running relentlessly over the polished wood of the dining room table, and pinning Pop to his seat with her eyes.
He seemed to shrink a little before coming back into himself and mirroring her position in his own chair. "Dont know yet. Didnt expect you to come up with it quite so fast."
She smiled. "Thats just because you dont know me well enough. Youre not the only person in this little town who can get what he wants, when he wants it."
"Sppose youre right." He lapsed into silence once again.
"Corinne . . . ." I interjected softly, reaching across the table to lay a hand on her constantly moving wrist.
Turning her head, she shot me the same look she was using on Pop, but when I didnt shrink from it, she gradually relaxed and huffed out a dramatic sigh. "Fine. If he doesnt want to act on the information, theres not much more I can do, is there."
"Didnt say I wasnt gonna act on it, Corinne. Only that ya didnt give me any time to think on it."
She turned back to him. "Time? Dear god, man! Youve had time to think about this since Millicent sent over those thugs to beat you within an inch of your life!"
"Now dont go sayin that, Corinne. No one knows for sure she was behind what happened there. Them guys are scum, pure and simple. No needin to think any harder on that."
Corinne slowly shook her head, disbelief plain as day on her face. "For a man who supposedly knows it all, youre painfully naïve at times, Willamette."
Pop narrowed his eyes at her. "Whatre you sayin, woman?"
"Just what it sounds like. I find it hard to believe that you dont know that that pump jockey Millicents been seen around just happens to be the brother-in-law of the owner of the Rusted Nut. From what Ive heard, those two men are thick as thieves."
"I knew that."
"You knew that and . . .what? You put two and two together and came up with seventeen? Twenty? What?"
I tried again, alarmed at the plum cast that was taking over Corinnes face. "Corinne, please calm down, ok? This isnt getting us anywhere."
She looked from me, to Pop, and back again. Then she pushed herself up from the table. "I need some air."
And with that, she left.
I began to stand up to follow her, when a slow shake of Ices head sat me right back down again. Sighing myself, I looked around the table. Pop, Ice and I werent the only ones who had been treated to Corinnes somewhat uncharacteristic outburst. Tom Drew and Mary Lynch had both come calling, curious as to what had gone on behind Millicents closed doors earlier in the afternoon. Because they were both on the front lines, so to speak, by virtue of their professions and the work they were doing on the Inn, theyd both been invited to the impromptu strategy session.
"Why dont we just call the police?" Mary said, logically. I couldnt help my heart rate as it sped up at the mention of that particular word. I looked over at Ice, who returned my look steadily. "I mean, if we spelled it out for them, with Corinne telling what she knew, wouldnt they at least investigate?"
Pop shook his head. "No. No cops. Ive had my fair share of dealins with them in the past and I dont want em in here, investigatin all over everything. Cause more trouble than its worth, getting them involved."
"But . . . ."
"No cops. I aint gonna say it again."
Tom Drew spoke up next. "Well, if you wont let us beat her up or burn her down, why dont we just squeeze her out? She wont be able to run that Inn without us there, fixing what breaks."
"Sure she will," Pop said. "Shell just call fer help up-country, like she been doin all along. Then well have even more strangers tied up in this mess."
"But . . . ."
"Hes right," Ice commented softly, speaking for the first time since the meeting started. "If you try to shut her down by withholding needed services, shell only go somewhere else for them and youll lose the only excuse you have to keep an eye on her from up close."
"Then what do we do?" Mary asked her.
The entire table looked at Ice. Myself included. Even without knowing anything of her past, all you had to do was stand in her presence for more than a second to know, with absolute certainty, that this was a woman who got things done. A woman who had the answers, even if you didnt want to hear them. Even if you didnt know what the question was to begin with.
She met each of our gazes in turn, long fingers trailing over the tabletop. After a long moment, she spoke. "If it were up to me, Id teach Millicent Harding Post exactly what it means to mess with one of my friends." Her voice got that dark and dangerous edge that never failed to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. I could see the same reaction in my friends around the table as well. "But it isnt up to me. Its up to Pop. And until he cant speak for himself anymore, I, for one, am gonna abide by what he says." Then she met Pops gaze squarely, her expression unmistakable. "For now."
Nodding his understanding, Pop turned to look at the rest of us. "Look. I didnt say I was rulin out any one of your ideas. Just need some time ta think on em is all. Things aint the way they used ta be when I was some younger." He paused for a very long stretch of time, then continued, his gaze fixed on the table. "I killed a man once. I killed men in the War, yeah, but this was the first one I did just cause I was angry. The first one I looked in the eyes when I done it." He shook his head, his eyes long ago and far away.
"He was thinkin ta force his attentions on Maggie, my wife. And when he wouldnt take no for an answer, he said hed show er." He laughed. "Well, I showed him. I showed im just what it means to a man ta see his wife in danger. Bout damn near ripped his head of his shoulders. I meant ta kill him, and thats just what I did."
When he looked up again, his eyes were ancient seers of a distant past. "Learned a lot about myself between then and now. And one of the things I learned is that I cn take a lot more when its comin at me than when its comin at someone I care about. So all I can ask of ya is ta let me do some thinkin. She aint goin nowhere, an neither am I. Deal?"
Nods around the table.
He nodded right back. "Alright then. Guess its about time we busted up this little shindig. Tomorrows chores aint gonna wait for us."
And that ended the meeting. Chairs scraped against the wooden floor as seats were pushed out and people rose to their feet, stretching out weary bodies. There was very little talk as our guests excused themselves and walked out into the cool darkness of the late spring night. As I waved to them, I searched the darkness for a glimpse of Corinne, but she was nowhere within my sight.
Ice came up behind me and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Go ahead and hunt her down. Shes probably by the water. Ill stay here and clean up."
"Are you sure? I could . . . ."
"Nah. Gwan down. I think she needs someone to talk to, and youre better at that than I am."
Grinning, I squeezed the hand that still lay on my shoulder. "I dunno. You seem to be softening up just a little in your advancing years." Then winced as the hand became a vice on my flesh, fingers digging in just enough to give me a glimpse of the somewhat astounding physical strength I knew was there but didnt always see. "Uncle!" I cried, though she wasnt hurting me.
The grip relaxed, but didnt release, and the next thing I knew, I was being spun around, held firmly, and kissed so soundly that the room around me also began to spin.
And then I was alone as my lover retreated back within the depths of the cabin.
Never in a million years.
Corinne was exactly where Ice had said she would be. Sitting on the dock, her back propped against one of the tall wooden supports, staring out over the night-dark water. It was still a little too early in the season for the frogs to be singing chorus, and the only sounds were the gentle lapping of waves against the wood of the dock and the gentle, but somehow mournful, wind as it blew through the pines and sent ropes hitting against aluminum boat masts.
What little moon there was highlighted the silver in her hair. She turned slightly as she heard me coming and gave me a wan little smile, suddenly looking far older than her stated age. My heart squeezed a little at that. It hurt to see her looking frail, this strong woman I so loved.
"Did Ice send you out to find me?"
Smiling, I walked out onto the dock and lowered myself to sit cross-legged next to her. "Nah. She just gave me a likely starting point. I came here on my own." I laid a hand on her arm. "Did the fresh air help?"
"Not as much as you might think."
"Im sorry, Corinne."
"Nothing to be sorry for, Angel. I dont normally lose my temper like that, as you well know." She turned her head to look over the water again. "I was incarcerated for so long that I think I forgot what it was like to fight for justice on the outside." Her voice was soft, and a touch sad. "In prison, meting out justice was a simple thing. Do unto others. And if that doing got you some time in solitary, well, that was only the accepted manner of things. Out here," she held out an arm, encompassing everything, "things arent so simply undertaken. Meetings by committee. Democracy. Strategy sessions." She laughed, softly. "Sometimes I wonder whether I wasnt happier in the Bog."
She must have felt my reaction to that statement, because she turned to me and held my face in her hands. "I didnt mean that the way it sounded, Angel. I love you. I love Ice. And I love the life youre allowing me to share with the two of you." She smiled. "Dont be bothered by the crazed ramblings of an old woman. Were not known for making sense in the best of times."
Returning her gentle smile, I caressed the backs of her hands with my own. "I love you Corinne. We both do. Youve made such a difference in our lives and I dont know what either one of us would have done without you. So please dont put yourself down or call yourself old and crazy. To me, youll always be one of the most wonderful women Ive ever known. Bad temper and all."
Leaning in, she kissed me softly on the lips, then pulled away, smiling. "If Ice didnt already have your heart, Angel . . . ."
Not letting her get away with it, I pulled her into a tight hug and kissed a still-smooth cheek. Then, releasing her, I stood up. "You gonna come back to the house?"
"In a bit. Its a nice night out. I think Ill watch the water and do some thinking."
"Alright. Goodnight, Corinne."
"Goodnight, sweet Angel. Sleep well."
On my way back to the cabin, I could hear the soft, soothing strains of music as it filtered through the speakers Ice had set up outside the house. Which was at definite odds with the sounds of flesh hitting canvas and a chain squealing out its anger over the abuse.
Rounding the corner, I took in the sight of Ice working off the days frustrations on the heavy-bag which hung from beneath the roof. She had on a pair of gray shorts which clung to her body like a snakes second skin and a matching sweatshirt cut off at the midriff and shoulders, displaying her sculpted body wonderfully to my appreciative eyes.
Her movements were tight, precise, controlled, yet also had an almost balletic, wild and free air to them, somewhat akin to a big cats stealthy stalking of a potential meal.
A quick double-kick, first low, then almost impossibly high, was immediately followed by a fist, and then an elbow to the middle of the canvas bag, rocking it wildly on its chain anchor.
A spinning kick, a flurry of punches too quick and too numerous to count, and a final thundering kick that almost blew the cabin off its foundation, and she came to absolute stillness, her body covered with a fine sheen of sweat, but her lungs heaving not at all.
Opening her eyes, she saw me and smiled, then reached down and grabbed a towel that was lying on the ground beyond my sight, wiping her face and neck with it. "Corinne alright?"
"Yeah," I replied, coming closer and feeling the charged energy still flowing through her. "Shes still a little upset, and maybe a little confused, but shes calmed down a lot from earlier. Shes gonna be fine."
"Good to hear." Putting the towel back down, she lowered herself to the ground and leaned back against the house, closing her eyes again and tilting her head, allowing the gentle breeze to dry the sweat from her body.
I sat down next to her, close, so that our shoulders were just touching and enjoyed the quiet spring evening.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Are you happy?"
Blue eyes opened and she turned her head toward me, surprise written clearly on her features. "What brought that on?"
"I dont know, really. Ive been meaning to ask you for awhile now, but things just keep coming up and it gets shuffled back behind other stuff. But I want to know. Are you?" I swallowed. "Happy, I mean?"
Turning away and once again resting her head against the foundation, she was silent for a long moment before she finally spoke. "For a very long time, Angel, I would have told you that I didnt even know what the meaning of that word was."
"Not even when you were young? With your parents?"
"When I was young, yes, I remember being happy. But those memories are faded; almost as if that happiness belonged to another person entirely and I was simply hearing their story. And then, after the killings and my incarceration, I didnt feel anything at all."
"And after prison? When you had a family again?"
"The Briaccis were very good to me. They treated me as a member of their own family, its true. But by then, given everything that had happened before, any thoughts of happiness had already been pretty much burned out of me. Oh, I could still feel. Satisfaction, mostly. Pride in my work and my abilities. Anger. Rage."
"How about with your lovers?" I couldnt help smiling, though I know she couldnt see me. "You said you had a few."
She laughed softly. "Oh, I had more than a few, Angel. But I wasnt with them for happiness. Physical release, yes. Not happiness."
"Not even with Donita?"
"No. Though she lasted the longest of any of them. We were much too different, and the life I lived with her was based on a lie. She never knew, until the end, exactly what I did for a living. And when she found out, she was very hurt."
"But she still cared enough for you to want to defend you in court."
Ice nodded slowly, her eyes still closed. "Yes. And I cared enough for her not to let her."
Which meant that Ice cared for her a great deal indeed. My estimation of the beautiful lawyer, already impossibly high, went up another few notches.
"And after?" I asked, surprised at how small my voice sounded.
She smiled then, a grudging one that battled hard for its right to take its place on her lips. "I met you," she said simply. "And everything changed."
"How did it change?" I asked, honestly curious. We had never really spoken of this. I knew Ices feelings, her love for me, ran very deep. But how they came to be, I had really no idea. At least, not one that could be confirmed. Or denied.
"Its hard to put into words," she replied after a moment. She still had her eyes closed, her face turned partially away, and so was even harder to read than normal. "It was as if, in looking at you, I was given a window through which to see something I didnt think I needed anymore. Goodness. Innocence. A kind of strength that comes from giving and not taking. I felt myself attracted to it even though, deep inside myself, I didnt want to be. Overcoming that part of myself, the one that wanted to keep things as they were, was one of the hardest things Ive ever done." She sighed. "I still struggle with it. Every day. But I do know this."
Opening her eyes, she turned once again to face me, her eyes penetrating, intense, looking through the person I was and laying claim to the soul beneath. "Now that Ive found these feelings, found you, I know that I never want to be without them again. I want to grow old with you, Angel. I want the feel of you in my arms, the taste of you on my lips, to be what I take with me when I die. And if thats what happiness means, Angel, then yes, Im happy. Im very, very happy."
And then I found myself wrapped in a hug that smelled of clean sweat and exotic spices, and let it carry me away in that one perfect moment into the place from which all good things come.
Several weeks went by without much action on any front. The opening of tourist season for another year came and went with the usual fanfare and (mostly) goodwill. With so many more strangers coming into and leaving town, it was difficult to keep track of Millicent and her minions, but it appeared, for the moment at least, that our efficient bush telegraph was in fine working order.
One day, about mid-season or so, Ice came home for lunch, which was, in and of itself, unusual for her. Normally, she would skip lunch altogether, too wrapped up in helping Pop to grab more than a quick drink at the station. I harped on her about that a time or ten, but she always answered the same way, with a mock scowl and a shooing motion, and I finally accepted the fact that on this, I would never change her.
Not that I really minded. Of all the things we could be at loggerheads over, given our differences, lunch was a pretty insignificant thing in the grand scheme of it all.
Didnt stop me from shoving the massive sandwich Id made for myself into her hands as she stepped through the door though, along with a kiss to seal the deal. She accepted both gracefully, though she tore the sandwich in half and presented it back to me with another kiss.
The kiss, of course, kept me from grumping.
It also kept me from thinking for a couple seconds, but thats neither here nor there.
"So," I began once I was again fully capable of speech, "to what do I owe the honor of this unexpected, but wonderful, visit?"
Before answering, she finished her meal, wiped her mouth with the extra napkin Id brought, and pegged the used tissue in the wastebasket near the door. "Pops sister-in-law died."
"Oh, God, Im sorry to hear that. Is he alright?"
"Yeah, hes doing ok. It was the one who got sick when those punks came around and beat the crap outta him. She got better, but her death wasnt exactly unexpected. At least, not to him." She turned fully to face me. "Hes asked me to go with him to the funeral."
I grew somewhat alarmed. "Is something the matter?"
Sensing my fear, she put a warm hand on my arm. "No, nothing like that. Its just that hes been having some trouble with his arm since its been broken, and he doesnt feel comfortable driving for six or eight hours straight."
I breathed out a sigh of relief. "Im glad it wasnt something else."
"Nope. Thats it."
"How long will you be gone?"
Ice shrugged. "Four days. Maybe a week, tops. If I decide to go."
I could feel my eyebrows raise. "If you decide to go? Why wouldnt you?"
"Once word gets out that Pops gonna be out of the way for a while, I wouldnt put it past Millicent to do something stupid."
"Stupider you mean, right?"
She chuckled. "Yeah. So I dont know if its wise that I leave as well. Im sure we can find someone else who wont mind driving."
I looked up at her. "Ice, Pop asked you to do this for a reason. He likes you and he trusts you. You know this. The town can take care of itself for awhile. And besides," I couldnt help grinning, "I dont think I make a half-bad Ice stand-in." Then I flexed my muscles like some steroid-hyped bodybuilder. "Strong like bull."
And looked up to find six feet of lust incarnate staring back at me, her eyes dark and hooded, her nostrils flaring just slightly.
Everything inside my skin simultaneously tightened and turned to water. You may know the feeling Im talking about if youve ever had someone look at you like theyre the desert and youre the rain. "Ice?"
She smiled, slow and dark. Her voice echoed her smile; deep, sexy, smoky. "If I didnt need to get back and tell Pop its a go, Id take you right here on the dining room table, Angel."
"Oh. . . Jesus." I tried to swallow, but my mouth had turned to dust. "D-do you think you could just tell him over the phone?"
"And spare us both the anticipation of waiting?" Her smile grew. "Oh, no. I dont think so, Angel."
"I . . .dont need to remind you that we waited more than six months, do I?"
That damnable eyebrow again, poised and ready to fire. "At whose insistence?"
I looked down. "Mine," I whispered.
"Exactly." Stepping closer, the trailed one long finger just barely against my jaw. "Goodbye, Angel."
After a long moment, I broke free of my sudden paralysis. "Ice! Wait! You cant . . . !"
The closing of the screen door told me just how much she could.
It was going to be a long, long day.
Continued - Part 7
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