Friday December 5, 2014
Kate Brice trudged along a little-traveled northern California country road. The sun had set and in the gathering darkness, clouds spit drops of cold rain giving her a preview of the storm to come. Her large backpack seemed more than she could carry as she simply put one foot in front of the other, resisting the terrible urge to lie down. A bitter wind from the north buffeted her. The illness which she had felt coming for days had reached the full-blown stage and her body cried out for rest and shelter.
Fat chance of that, she thought despondently.
The trucker had dropped her off at the truck stop off Interstate 5, just outside the town of Lodi in the central valley of northern California. He’d given her a twenty and wished her luck. She’d hated to leave the warmth and relative security of the big cab with the affable older trucker who regaled her with stories of his life on the road for the last 900 miles. He had picked her up outside a frigid truck stop near Rawlins, Wyoming. But he was headed north; away from the mental picture she carried of the sunny, southern California beaches which were her goal. He was a talker, but that also meant she didn’t have to disclose much about herself. The less anyone knew, the better off she was and certainly safer from the trained hounds she was sure her uncle had looking for her.
Even in her fevered state, she winced as she thought about that abusive muscle-bound Neanderthal. How had her life come to this? She brushed a tear with a gloved-covered hand. No sense dwelling on it – God knows she’d done quite enough of that. She just had to face the fact she was an orphan with an unfortunate past and no prospects for her future.
Kate wished she could have stayed in the truck stop a little while longer, but she had taken up the spot in the red vinyl booth and had stretched the young waitress’ good nature far enough. The developing flu had quashed her appetite, however she had forced down most of the bread and chicken soup simply because she knew she needed the food. Even the food and several cups of hot tea had done nothing to restore her fever-wracked body and now she felt despair wash over her.
Why had she chosen this desolate road?
She had walked out the front door of the café as the daylight faded and simply turned left onto the feeder road to the freeway then left again onto the nearest road. There had been few trucks at the truck stop and she just didn’t have the energy to again approach strangers about a lift. Even though most of these men on the road were honest and harmless just like her last driver, but a single woman on her own could also become a victim.
Kate did everything to hide her natural beauty. She had cut her long, blonde hair very short, darkened it to an auburn color and never took off her baseball cap. She also wore a cheap pair of non-prescription glasses. Her clothing mostly consisted of baggy cargo pants, wool men’s shirts, hiking boots and an oversized parka.
Her disguise wasn’t the only thing that she relied on for security. She was reassured by the fact she carried an S&W Airweight 642 in the inside pocket of her jacket. The pistol was a gift from her last employer, a restaurant owner in Cheyenne, and he had taught her to use it. Rob was a fine man who asked few questions, but recognized someone in trouble and he paid her in cash. It saddened her when she had to leave, but staying in one place too long was not healthy.
A heavy drop of rain hit her shoulder. She had a poncho in her pack but she simply couldn’t summon the strength to stop and dig it out. She hadn’t seen any lights since she left the truck stop so she started eying the trees along the road; unfortunately, they would afford little shelter since their leaves were long gone, blown away by the winter storms that slam into northern California in late fall and winter.
Why had she left the truck stop?
Maybe in her fevered state she thought that down this quiet road, she could find shelter. She had hoped that in this rural-looking area she would find a barn or some other place where she could ride out the storm, but there was nothing.
Did she care?
She knew she didn’t want to get wet and spend the night shivering under her poncho in some field, but her strength was gone and the fever that gripped her still had to run its course.
A few more fat drops landed on her. The storm was closer now. The wind hit her with its icy blast. She just continued to walk. In the last of the twilight she noticed what looked like grape vines in the fields near the road. They were without foliage of course, waiting for spring and new life.
“That’s what I need ... a new life,” she mused aloud, her voice coming out in a rasp.
Was this nomadic life — always on the move and always looking over her shoulder — better than what her uncle had in mind for her? She shuddered as she thought of his cruel face and his massive bulk.
She knew she would rather die in some field in the winter rain then ever return to that bleak house in Philadelphia.
Kate stopped suddenly just short of walking into a large rural mailbox at the side of the road. In her feverish state, it took her a few moments to comprehend the fact that with the mailbox there might be a house nearby. She couldn’t make out the writing on the box in the darkness, but she slowly moved her head to the left and saw a long gravel drive which contrasted with the blackness that had descended.
A light ... yes, there’s a light!
It wasn’t very big, perhaps a porch light. Without conscious thought, she turned that direction, her hopes rising. She would knock and beg anyone who answered to allow her in and let her sleep. If they had a barn or shed, she would gladly sleep there. She had slept in barns and sheds before on her journey across the country the last three years.
Kate wished she could will her feet to move faster, but to no avail. More fat drops hit her, signaling the beginning of what would certainly be a downpour. She was just too sick and she walked like she was wading in molasses. It seemed forever before the light came into focus. It was a porch light over a side door of a brick ranch-style home, or at least that was what it appeared to be since there were no other lights in evidence.
Her heart sank. Was there no one at home? She desperately wanted to lie down.
As she got closer, she saw the porch light was under a covered breezeway that connected the house to a tall structure which appeared to be a large garage with an apartment above. There was no evidence of occupants there either.
She stepped onto the concrete path of the breezeway just as the skies opened. The rain was deafening on the tin roof that covered the walk. Numbly, she stood, her brain addled by illness and the noise of the rain.
Finally, she forced herself to the door of the house. She found the plastic button for the bell and pushed it, barely hearing the very faint chime inside.
Please, please, let there be someone ... someone has to be home. But there was no response.
Kate pressed her face against one of the panes of glass that made up the upper part of the door. She held her hands near her face to block the light as she peered into what she thought might be the kitchen. Her heart sank. From her vantage point, the kitchen appeared to be empty — that is, it was devoid of the usual clutter that made up a kitchen that was occupied. There were no utensils or cookware or dishes. The tile countertops gleamed in the faint light from the porch. The place was empty. She slumped against the door, barely holding back tears.
She tried the door knob. It turned, but there was also a deadbolt lock above it which was firmly secured. She knew she had to get inside. In desperation, she looked around for something to break the glass. The window was an insulated double-paned model so she scanned the area for a rock which might do the trick. There was nothing and it was idiotic to even consider going out into the rain to search the darkness for something that might do. Finally, her eyes lighted on a large, white ceramic flowerpot next to the step to the door. It had the remnants of some kind of plant in it.
Yes, that should do the trick.
Kate easily removed the dead plant and tossed it aside. She picked up the pot. It was heavy and her flu-impaired muscles protested as she raised it to her shoulders. Just as she was ready to strike the glass, she heard the tinkle of metal in the pot. She lowered it and peered inside – the metal key that lay in the bottom of the pot reflecting the light brought a smile. Quickly she set the pot in its original place and scooped the key from its hiding place.
Her hand trembled as she put the key in the lock and she exhaled as the bolt gave way.
The first thing she noticed as she stepped across the threshold was warmth. The occupants may have left, but the heat was still functioning. Lowering her pack to the white tile floor she called out tentatively, “Is anyone there?”
There was only silence. She called out again as she moved through the narrow kitchen. Again, no response.
The light from the porch didn’t help much. The kitchen opened into a wood-floored dining room, but it was also devoid of furniture or any signs of life. Kate sighed and unzipped her jacket, the warmth breaking through her chill.
She retraced her steps into the kitchen and found the light switch just inside the door to the outside. Bright kitchen lights almost blinded her. She knew she couldn’t keep them on very long, but it gave her an idea of the layout and told her that the electricity inside the house was still connected. She also discovered a bath off the kitchen which contained a small shower. When had she showered last? It was too hard to think.
Kate retrieved the key from the outside lock, closed and locked the door from the inside then extinguished the light in the kitchen, moved into the windowless bathroom and turned on the light.
The bathroom was spotless, but also empty. She did discover the water was also still working. She bent over the sink and drank from the faucet. She had become terribly thirsty. She pulled some aspirin from the side pocket of her cargo pants and swallowed four of them as her raw throat protested.
An ideal place for the night. Divine providence had sent her down this road. That certainly would have been the opinion of Sister Mary Katherine, one of her twelfth grade teachers. Kate shook her head. She didn’t think she believed in God any longer.
After availing herself of the facilities, she used the light from the porch to get her flashlight from her pack and went exploring. Just past the dining room was a large living room that was thickly carpeted – perhaps that was where she would bed down. A quick scan of the rest of the house showed three modest-sized bedrooms without carpet, two more bathrooms and a laundry off the entrance to the garage. The place was so clean and in such good repair it looked as if it had never been lived in.
Kate dragged her pack into the living room and pulled out her thick foam pad and sleeping bag, stripped down to T-shirt and panties, and climbed in. She barely had a moment to consider her good fortune before she was asleep.
When she awoke, the first thing she realized was that her fever had broken. She felt weak, but without the terrible symptoms of the flu. It was still dark.
Still dark? She felt like she had slept for hours and vaguely remembered getting up sometime to drink more water, take more aspirin and visit the bathroom. Had it been daylight then? She didn’t recall, but she did remember the sound of the rain and wind.
She snapped on her battery-powered lantern as she gingerly sat up. This disturbed a large orange tabby cat which was draped across the sleeping bag at her ankles. The cat gave her one of those inscrutable cat looks and yawned.
“Where did you come from my handsome friend?”
The cat moved off her legs, gave a large cat stretch and moved to her outstretched hand. It welcomed her touch with a gentle purr.
“Are you another orphan like me, looking for a safe place out of the storm?” she said as she stroked his sleek coat. “And how’d you get in here anyway?” She also took note of the fact from the sound of it, the storm had not abated.
The cat left her and walked toward the kitchen. In moments he was back, looking at her as if he expected her to produce his dinner. Her stomach growled, reminding her that it had been a while since she had eaten. She didn’t have much in her pack and was not optimistic that she would find anything in the house.
Resting her back against the wall, she wondered about the place on the other side of the breezeway. Kate pulled a packet of beef jerky and an apple from her pack along with a small bar of hotel soap, a small bottle of shampoo and her microfiber towel. The cat sniffed the piece of jerky she put on the floor just briefly before bolting it down. Another piece quickly followed with the same result. She ate the apple and munched the remaining piece as she gathered her strength and willpower to move to the bathroom.
The shower helped restore her body and did wonders for her soul. Being clean and somewhat rested and having a roof over her head, albeit temporarily, got her brain working again. She wondered how long it would be before someone came to check on the house. It was warm and clean and comfortable and if she only had some food she might never want to leave.
The problem was that she couldn’t risk police involvement. When the owners showed up, she could be arrested for trespassing. She couldn’t risk having her fingerprints show up on any database. She was quite sure her uncle had friends in the police department in Philadelphia and he would be notified as soon as she showed up on their computers.
She rationalized that at least a couple of days couldn’t hurt. It was probably Saturday night by now so there was little chance someone would be around until Monday. The biggest problem was food. She could walk the mile or so to the truck stop, but in this weather that seemed out of the question. She needed to husband her limited funds anyway.
Kate shared the last piece of jerky with the cat as she pulled out her last clean underwear and put on jeans, a heavy woolen sweater and wool socks. Still not comfortable with having lights on, she explored the kitchen with just the light spilling from the open bathroom door.
Drawer after drawer proved as empty as the cupboards; only by chance had she found the set of keys hanging on the wall inside the pantry. They were in a place that was easy to overlook and she would not have found them in the dim light had her friend the cat almost tripped her with his affectionate begging. She put her hand out to brace herself from falling and it came in contact with the keys.
Taking them off the hook in the pantry, she moved into the lighted bathroom to examine them. There were two keys which looked like house keys and one which was a key fob for a Ford. There was also a smaller gold-colored key. The key chain was weighted by an enameled Eiffel Tower which said ‘Paris’ on it.
“Well, my friend, are you going to join me?” she asked the cat as she pulled on her boots. She sensed some skepticism from the animal as if he was asking why on earth he should join her out in the dark and wet.
Kate laughed as she put on her parka and baseball hat.
“Okay, but if there’s food I’m not sharing!”
She opened the door and held it against the wind. For the first time she noticed a cat door in the lower corner. Ah ha, mystery solved.
The cat darted by her and ran the twenty or so feet down the breezeway to the door that led into the large garage-looking structure. There was a set of uncovered wooden steps on the outside that led to a landing above which only had a small roof to keep out the elements. She decided to try the lower door first.
The second key unlocked the door. It was a sturdy steel door with no windows. She also saw the windows flanking it were barred with wrought iron.
Certainly no breaking in here.
She reached around inside the door and found the switches. The overhead fluorescents illuminated a large garage. As she stepped down the two concrete steps, the cat followed her. The building’s white-painted interior held two Ford F-150 pickup trucks parked facing two garage doors. Beyond them along the far wall was a long metal bench which held numerous tools and implements. Against the back wall she saw another washer and dryer, but this time she was happy to see there was detergent on the shelves above. Next to them was a large hot water tank. The remainder of the space was taken by floor-to-ceiling cabinets.
The closest of the trucks was white and maybe ten years old. It was well-kept but showing its age with scars from lots of field duty. It was like a million others which populated the American countryside. In contrast, the other F150 was black and looked new. It gleamed under the overhead lights – obviously someone’s pride and joy. Experimentally Kate pushed the unlock button on the key fob on the key ring she held. The lights flashed on the white truck.
Just my luck, she sighed with a smile.
As she turned back toward the door, she discovered a large upright freezer in the back corner. Her heart leaped.
Kate moved quickly to the freezer and flung open both doors. Her eyes filled as she surveyed the bonanza it contained. There were loaves of bread, several pounds of butter, many cuts of meat, some chicken, frozen orange juice and some other odds and ends which looked like frozen berries and vegetables. The cat surveyed the contents also and with a look of disdain, walked to the door. Kate smiled at the cat as she removed a loaf of bread and a pound of butter.
She carried them with her as she climbed the steps to the outside door. She hung onto the rail as the wind threatened to blow her off before reaching the ill-covered landing. In the darkness with only the feeble porch light from below to help her, Kate fumbled for the lock. Fortunately, the second key was indeed the key to this door.
The cat preceded her, shaking off the rain like an old dog. She walked into a large carpeted apartment illuminated only by the nightlight over the stove. It smelled faintly of pipe smoke. Not an unpleasant smell, but a comforting one, it brought back happy memories of her paternal grandfather who smoked a pipe all his life.
The light was bright enough for her to see a granite counter that separated the tidy kitchen which ran the width of the room from the living area or great room. She set the bread and butter on the counter. It seemed a good twenty feet from the kitchen counter to the windows, which had their shades down. The furnishings had a masculine, lived-in look. In Kate’s brief look, there seemed to be few feminine influences.
She took her flashlight and explored the area behind the kitchen. She discovered a large bedroom with a queen bed and bedding plus a generous bath off the bedroom complete with towels and toiletries.
Her stomach growled so she cut short her exploration and returned to the kitchen.
The cat sat in front of the large double door pantry that was next to the refrigerator. He mewed.
“That where they keep the cat food?”
He mewed again.
The pantry was not full, but to her eyes there was an abundance of food in boxes, jars and cans. There was also cat food in both cans and bags. She grabbed a can and pulled the top; finding a bowl in the cupboard, she put half the can in the dish. The cat ignored her rummaging in the pantry as he ate like a cat that hadn’t eaten in a while, although his sleek coat and prosperous figure made her doubt he was neglected.
Kate grabbed a can of hearty beef soup, found the utensil drawer, the can opener and a spoon and moments later began spooning the soup into her mouth. Even unheated and right from the can it seemed the best soup she’d ever eaten. She didn’t stop until the can was empty. She smiled at the cat.
“Nice to have something in our stomachs again, right?” He seemed to agree.
“I guess you belong here. So where’s your master?”
The cat rubbed her leg and purred loudly. There wasn’t a speck left in his dish. She opened a bag of the dry cat food, put it in the dish then filled a bowl with water. The cat had a long drink before turning to the dry food.
Kate turned to the refrigerator. Other than a few condiments, it was empty and spotless. Someone had cleaned it out. Likewise, the freezer compartment was empty. She wondered if whoever had done the cleaning had simply forgotten about the freezer downstairs or it was being left for another day.
She pulled a box of Triscuits from the pantry and a jar of some kind of cheese spread, then sat on one of the tall stools that fronted the counter and had cheese and crackers accompanied by a large glass of water.
Kate surveyed the room, her eyes adjusting to the minimal light as she saw a big leather sofa which faced the windows. Flanking it on the right was a well-used recliner. Opposite the recliner against the wall was a large antique-looking rolltop desk, next to a free-standing fireplace which occupied the corner. There was art on the walls and what looked like a western carbine mounted over the desk.
Kate yawned. She put the remaining cat food and the jar in the refrigerator and went to the back to use the bathroom. As she walked out, she yawned again.
The bed looked inviting. Maybe a short nap, she thought. Nobody’s going to come out in this weather at night anyway so might as well have a nap.
She took off her parka and boots and lay on the bed. It was amazingly comfortable. As she drifted off she felt the cat join her and she fell asleep to his gentle purring as he curled up against her side.