The curtains on the farmhouse windows were all calico patterns.
That was oddly disconcerting.
Fitting for a hundred-and-fifty-year-old farmhouse, I suppose. But it didn’t match what I knew about my targets at all.
I tried to find that node, that calm space that I’d trained so many to find, but it just wasn’t there. I’d waited so long for this moment, for this peace, that I just couldn’t settle down and enjoy the process.
Lying in that tall dry grass with the gentle breeze to cover any motions I might make should have been settling, calming. I was in a perfect position, perfectly comfortable. It would have been nice to have a spotter along, but other than that it all felt flawless. Except that I couldn’t settle into the calm.
My mind flickered over the reason I was in that tall grass and an overwhelming wave of loss surged over me.
I couldn’t even remember Gabby’s laugh anymore.
I was sure I could remember it just a couple weeks ago, but it was all fading, even Tricia’s smile. Maybe I was the only one who remembered them at all. Sometimes I thought, if I could just get some sleep, some real sleep, I might get it all back.
The front door opened and a lone figure stepped out onto the broad wooden porch.
She was elegant, even in faded, stained blue jeans and an oversized, worn man’s Carhart farm jacket. One of the tan canvas ones. The wind toyed with her long silver hair for a moment, until she pushed it back behind her ears with a curiously girlish impatience. I hadn’t expected her to be at the house yet – she and the others were all due to arrive in an hour or two from a Thanksgiving vacation.
She glanced around for a moment then looked up – right at me. I could see her clear blue eyes through my scope as they settled on my position.
I tried to tell myself it was a fluke, but it was soon very clear, all too clear. She knew. She couldn’t see me, but she knew I was there. She seemed to resign herself and began to walk slowly toward my hummock.
It was a long walk – almost 700 meters by my scope - through the slowly waving sea of grass, and I watched her pick her way through it. She’d left the jacket unzipped and I could see she wasn’t wearing a vest, just a flannel shirt.
That was probably deliberate. The breeze caught her every now and then, and she’d clutch the tan canvas jacket closed reflexively for a few second to shield herself from the chill of the late November day. Then let it go to hang open, just as reflexively.
She wanted me to see she had no weapon, no vest.
A vest wouldn’t have helped any against the heavy rifle trained on her anyway, but it was clear she wanted to talk and wanted me not to feel threatened.
I scanned around me. There simply wasn’t anyone else. I had a clear view across the rolling fields in practical range, and except for this one, all of them had been cut for hay late in the summer, leaving them almost bare.
My puzzlement and curiosity had allowed her get to the bottom of the small hill and I watched her pause there. She carefully stepped over a dry creek where a sometimes-rivulet had dug a shallow trench. Her light blue boots were traced with colorful embroidery and sparkled with rhinestones, strangely at odds with her practical, worn farm clothes.
As she picked her way up the low hillock, I rolled up into a sitting position, leaving the rifle to rest, and drew my revolver. It’s pretty old school; nobody carries a revolver anymore, but this one was special. The Colt Pythons had always been among the finest revolvers ever made; they were works of art and I’d always wanted to have mine with me at the end.
And this was probably it.
I pushed the hood of my ghillie suit back and pulled the mask down.
She just glanced at me with a polite, distant, smile and a nod, then sat down a few feet away, looking over the farmhouse, with her arms around her knees.
We just sat there for an eternity.
“They won’t be coming, you know. It’s just me.”
Her voice was cultured, finishing school perfect, but almost lyrical despite the training.
“I figured that.”
We sat silent for another eternity, just watching the grass sway like ocean waves until the wind kicked up a bit as if it needed to do something to fill the void.
“I have coffee down at the house if you want some.”
She was so calm and centered. I suddenly felt like a kid playing soldier.
I holstered my revolver, stood up and picked the rifle up, folding the bipod as I slung it behind me.
She sat, slightly huddled in the oversize jacket, looking up at me with impossibly blue eyes.
I reached down to help her to her feet. She took my hand and slid up as gracefully and graciously as she seemed to do everything.
It was hard to believe that this was the demon that had killed my family.
The demon that I had hunted for so long and sold so much of my soul to reach.
We walked carefully down the small hill. She grasped my forearm to help herself over the small dry cut at the bottom, as if it were perfectly natural to do that.
I had a moment of concern as we stepped into the house, but it was empty. A battered military saber hung over the fireplace under a painting of some mostly-forgotten 17th century battle.
“We can sit in the kitchen or take a service to the parlour.”
“The kitchen would be fine.”
I leaned the rifle in the corner of the huge kitchen. The rubberized pad on the butt of the big M24A3 sniper rifle wouldn’t let it slip and fall, and I always had the Python if anyone showed unexpectedly. I’d only really need one bullet for her anyway. Now that the rest of the targets were out of reach, I didn’t really care what happened after that.
She hung her jacket on a set of hooks near the side door out of the kitchen and I hung my Ghillie poncho next to it, then sat on one of the high stools at the tall rough-cut table.
No point in being uncivilized.
She carefully poured rich black coffee into a couple of honest-to-God John Deere tractor mugs. I’d always figured her for fine bone china, but she seemed perfectly content with these as she slid on to a stool opposite me. She didn’t bother to put out cream or sugar.
She sipped a bit and closed her eyes for a second to enjoy it.
It was damn good coffee.
“Do you prefer Ken or Kenneth, or should I call you Colonel Howard?”
“Ken is fine.” I paused awkwardly, a bit off my game. “And you?”
“It’s usually Evelyn, but I’d rather be called Evie here if you don’t mind.”
I glanced around at the dried peppers and garlic hanging in strings along doorframes and off cabinets. Evie did seem more appropriate here.
“So how did you know?”
“Maria contacted us last night. She’s been watching you since the incident in Macao. The one with all those poor girls.”
I caught myself before I responded to that. She’d been at least partly responsible for what happened to “all those poor girls”.
As to Maria ... Deputy Director Maria Hawthorne of the FBI. I was hoping I hadn’t caught her attention.
Hope is not, as they say, a course of action; it was all I had though, I couldn’t be certain either way, and digging to find out would almost certainly have drawn her attention.
Depending on how deeply involved she was, there might be an HRT parked in the basement right now. Actually, even if she wasn’t involved, there might be a team waiting. Not that it could possibly reach Evie in time.
She continued on. “She was trying to figure out your angle, why an organization like yours would even be interested, and want to be in on that raid. She appreciated the help, but she started wondering about why after a while.”
“I needed the papers, shipping manifests, the contact lists, everything. She and her people were so tied up with getting all those girls to safe places, my guys on the ground had plenty of time to photograph all that.”
“She guessed that. She said a couple of people disappeared before she got to them.”
I nodded. “I needed more answers.”
Evie sipped a bit more.
“She finally figured it out. And guessed what you were planning on doing today. She had Homeland tracking your travel. They saw the plane ticket to BWI.”
I’d left too many clues over the years. It was impossible to avoid. I’d had to take chances, risks to get the information I needed and had the bad luck to trigger the interest of one of the few people that could have figured it all out.
I didn’t understand why Hawthorne hadn’t simply had me rolled up. If she’d figured out this much, she had to have known I wouldn’t be a risk to her agents.
“Who told you I’d be on that hill?”
“Maria’s ... friend, Michael. Said it was the only sane place a real sniper would choose. He seemed to know more about your organization than anyone else.” She stopped for a second. “Given your reasons for this, I asked Maria to let me handle it.”
I closed my eyes against a surge of unwanted, nightmare images.
She drove on, unknowing. “I asked her not to interfere. Just to keep Emma and her family out of it. She didn’t like it, but she honored my request. Personal promises mean a lot to her. She really cares about Emma. Sometimes I think Maria is more her mother than I am.” Her voice faded at the last of that – reflective, saddened.
I wasn’t sure what she intended; maybe she sought pity, maybe nothing. It didn’t matter, nothing could help her in my eyes. If she’d failed as mother somehow, it was her choice – at least her daughter was alive. I hadn’t had a choice. I’d have given anything to get Tricia and Gabby back. To be a husband and father again. All I’d wanted was to be the best Dad ever.
I’d settle for vengeance, though.
If it was all I could have, then I’d take vengeance.
She looked down for a moment, studying the floor. “Your plan won’t work. You can’t hurt him through us. I know why you want to, but he simply doesn’t care about us at all. Not that way. We never emotionally mattered to him, and we really ceased to matter once he understood that Emma would rather die than be involved with him. With Reinhardt IG. My death might even make things easier for him.”
She closed her eyes and held her hand up.
“Sorry, that sounded kind of pathetic. I’m not trying to dodge responsibility. Or the consequences. My name, my family name, was on those companies, on those bank transfers. They were my responsibility and I just wasn’t looking. It’s inexcusable, really.”
I’d wondered if it was something like that. The pattern of death stretched much further back on his side, Reinhardt IG, than hers. But she was right, it was inexcusable.
Unforgiveable might be a better word.
“Emma and her family have a right to be out of this. She isn’t part of it.”
“If she’s not working for him, why has she infiltrated the FBI?”
She looked genuinely shocked at that.
“Oh. I never thought how that would look...” she gazed into her coffee for a second, watching the steam scud across the black surface, then swirl up and off. “She didn’t infiltrate the FBI, that’s where she was hiding. From him. From us, really. Where the money couldn’t really reach her. She hated us, hated the money. Hated the power. I don’t think she’ll ever completely forgive me for how she was raised. What we did to try to prepare her.”
She gave a wry smile “I’m lucky she lets me into the children’s lives at all.” She gestured down at her clothes “She thinks this is some kind of penance for me, like sackcloth and ashes.”
I raised an eyebrow. “It isn’t? Everything I’ve found makes it pretty clear that denim and flannel aren’t exactly what you’re used to.”
She shook her head, an honest smile lighting her face. “Not what I’m used to, but I’ve found out it’s what I want. Everything else seems so superficial.”
I soaked that in. It all rang true. I’ve been lied to by the best, at their most desperate. Not for very long.
And never twice.
If it was all true, and if I did survive this, I would have to figure out another way to hurt him.
She took my silence as a signal to keep talking. She shouldn’t have.
It very nearly killed her.
“I’m sorry about Patricia and Gabriella...”
“STOP.” I stood, slamming my hand on the table, an eruption, an almost uncontrollable surge of hate and anger welling up. Screams echoed in my head. The screams of my wife and little girl. Images of wreckage floating on the ocean flashed through my mind.
There had been a throw away comment in a news story that the passengers were “probably conscious for all of the ten minutes it took the struggling airliner to finally make impact after the bomb had gone off”; it was burned permanently into my brain, and it ripped into my sanity again. I had a vivid image of Tricia huddled protectively over Gabby, waiting, praying, for the salvation that wouldn’t come.
She flinched, stunned. Then stayed very, very still.
“You don’t get to say ‘sorry’ about them. You don’t get to do that. Not about Tricia and Gabby!”
For a second I felt the checkered wood grips of the Python against my fingertips.
She faced me, raising her chin slightly as if giving me permission. She didn’t look angry or scared. She just looked resigned.
It took all my strength to pull my hand from the grips.
Even she, as composed as she was, breathed a small sigh of relief at that.
I forced myself to sit back down, the screams in my mind fading slowly.
We just sat, rigidly staring across the table past each other.
She spoke first. Certainly couldn’t fault her for courage.
“Apologizing was a reflex Ken, I don’t expect you to accept one or even acknowledge it. You’re right, for some things there is no forgiveness.”
I closed my eyes for a second and breathed deep, the rich coffee scent calming me a little.
She started again. The woman was relentless. “It took me a long time to figure out even some of what was happening, and even longer to accept that Erich was that inhuman. Even when Maria explained it, I had trouble believing it. Because it meant I helped him, enabled him. Even if I didn’t know it”
Inhuman was an excellent word. Somewhere along the way, The Reinhardt, of Reinhardt Interessengemeinschaft - Reinhardt IG - had realized that the stock markets could be manipulated with a few small engineered ‘incidents’. The massive conglomerate that was Reinhardt IG was so large that different companies could exploit sudden changes in the stock market from different angles. A fire in an oil refinery, a mechanical failure at a pharmaceutical plant. An ethnic uprising in Africa.
Or the terrorist bombing of an airliner.
After I’d worked my way into position as the head of a Special Mission Unit that had always been more rumor than anything, I’d first used it to exterminate the terrorist group that had been tagged with the crime – only to discover that they’d merely been puppets.
But I’d still had that unit.
The convenient thing about a “Black” unit is that nobody looks too closely at it. Nobody wants to really know what it’s doing as long as certain lines aren’t crossed.
Because what you don’t know, you won’t have to testify to in front of Congress.
Once I’d confirmed the existence of the unit, I’d done everything necessary to become what was needed to lead it. Then it had found me. I’d reshaped the unit to suit my needs.
The unit still filled the niche it already had, but it grew more capabilities. Capabilities I needed. And I’d used those capabilities to pursue my agenda. If anyone ever figured out what I’d done, I’d likely be in prison for the rest of my life. Kidnapping, extortion, illegal surveillance. Theft on a particularly grand scale. The “extra-judicial” executions alone would ensure my permanent incarceration – although every one of those killed deserved it. I wouldn’t have innocent blood on my hands. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t be accused of treason, although that admittedly depended on who defined it.
I’d recruited carefully. When the unit needed a new Senior Non-commissioned Officer, I recruited Sergeant Major Godek. It always struck me as odd that we actually became good friends. He’s pretty much the only one I’d had in the last three decades. I hadn’t sought him out solely for his obvious abilities, but because it had given me an informal link into the CUMULOUS programs through his sister, Donna. Ironically, it ended up allowing me to keep an eye on Emma Reinhardt and her progress at the FBI when Emma had married a CUMULOUS operative.
I’d decided on “an Eye for an Eye” for The Reinhardt – he’d lose his wife and daughter too. Before I killed him.
It’d taken me a while to track down Emma Reinhardt, and when I did, I found out that a terrorist cell in Turkey had nearly beat me to her.
Ironic. No other word for it.
She interrupted my reverie. “The only things he cares about are money and power. If you kill me, he’ll suffer a little, when the stock market fluctuates. I can’t really offer more than that.”
She left it at that, standing up to refill both our cups without saying a word.
“I assume Maria looked into my background. Did she tell you what I did before I applied for OCS and joined Special Forces?”
“She said something ... Enlisted, I think, a Sergeant or something.”
“I was in Finance; a numbers guy. I enlisted to pay for my degree in Accounting. That’s how I know your death won’t really hurt him.”
She shook her head, then frowned pensively. “It’d be temporary; he’d recover everything and then some in a just a few weeks.”
“Reinhardt might even make money off it; big companies, financial institutions, can make money off good news or bad news.” I felt a grim smile start as a thought struck me. “If you live or die, Reinhardt will be fine, they’ll still make money. As long as they know.”
I sipped the last of my coffee.
“Its uncertainty, the “not knowing” that they can’t handle.”
I allowed Evie to write a note to her daughter, reminding her that Maria had promised not to interfere in any capacity.
When I told her to find some clothes to take with her, she was confused at first – unsure If I was really going to let her live. “I don’t have any clothes here – they’re at my house” She gestured to toward the east where I knew a small cottage sat.
“No, find something here.”
She pulled a box of tie dye skirts, blouses, T-shirts, shoes and beads from the closet of what was obviously a spare bedroom.
I must have looked baffled, and she just gave a sort of odd smile and said “Monica left these when Cat took that Fellowship in England. It’ll be another six months before she misses them.”
“Tie dye should be banned.”
“Believe me, nobody who knows me and sees me in this will believe it’s me.”
From what I’d learned of Evelyn Cabot, that was probably true.
I pulled a pair of jeans with rainbow colored peace signs on the back pockets, a mostly bright-blue tie dye blouse, a pair of little cloth dock shoes, and a heavily beaded denim jacket and tossed them on the bed.
“Strip to your underwear and throw the clothes over there in the corner.”
She shrugged and began to pull off a boot. “I’m not wearing underwear.”
If she thought I was willing to accept risk to save her modesty, she had another thing coming. “I’m not leering; I just need to be sure you don’t have any weapons.”
Or radios, or phones, or whatever.
She shot me a look from under her sculptured eyebrows as she took off her second boot. “I don’t get a lot of leers these days. But you should’ve seen me twenty years ago.”
She peeled her jeans off, then pulled her flannel shirt off over her head and pirouetted slowly, arms raised like a ballerina. Her slender form had aged extremely well – she was still certainly worthy of a few leers.
She didn’t have any weapons either.
“That’s fine, you can get dressed.”
The only thing she seemed to regret was leaving her fancy boots behind.
“So what now?”
I led her across the fields. It was a bit of a walk to the sedan I’d borrowed, but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant – the wind was warming just a bit.
Once in the sedan, she just sat quietly, staring at the passing farmland as we headed south.
I explained to her that if she caused me any trouble at all, someone would go back for her daughter. And grandchildren. I might not be able to hurt The Reinhardt that way, but I could hurt her. She sank into her seat a bit, but nodded her agreement.
I needed to switch vehicles, but I’d made arrangements. They just needed adjusting.
It was nearly a hundred and forty miles to Needle’s salvage yard.
He’d been a team medic once upon a time, and I’d shielded him as much as I could from the fallout of a pill habit he’d fallen into after an ugly divorce. I’d made arrangements with him for the car we were in. He’d drop it into a car crusher as soon as we left. I’d also dropped my bags with him before heading up to the farm.
He opened the door as we pulled up; his mustache had exploded to the point it was almost taking over his face under his faded “Coors Lite” fishing hat.
He looked puzzled when Evie got out of the car on the other side. But he knew better than to ask questions. It wasn’t the payment he’d gotten from me, although that was probably enough for any amount of inconvenience, it was that residual loyalty that comes with serving together.
He just waved us into his office trailer.
“I need something we can live in for a few weeks, a van or a big car. Transportation just got a lot harder and I need to give my travel agent a bit of time to work it.”
He pulled his hat off, and scratched his balding head for a second, then glanced at Evie with a smirk.
“Got just the thing, Boss. Papers are flawless, nobody’s looking for it and ... damn, it’s perfect. Wait here, might be an hour.”
It was just about 50 minutes before he pulled it around front. We walked out to meet him and I brought my stored bags with me.
The engine sounded beautiful. But that was about it. An aging used-to-be mostly-white RV, half-covered in Deadhead stickers, and a flowery hand painted sign that proclaimed the warning “If the Camper’s a-Rockin Don’t Come Knockin” on the back. The sides were painted with enormous fading murals of the 1978 “Blue Rose” Winterland poster. Even the curtains looked to be blue-and-black tie dyed.
Needles swung out of the driver’s seat with a huge shit-eating grin. “It’s in better condition than it looks. 1970 Ford Econoline 300 Shasta RV. Class C. Everything inside is in great shape. Stove, toilet and shower all work. Maybe a little out of style, but it all works. Filled the water and charged the LP gas for you. Even filled the tank. Bought it at auction for practically nothing six months ago. It was in barn storage for about 20 years, but fired right up when I started it.”
He waved toward the giant mural. “I figure you and your lady friend can ride in a style she appears to be accustomed to.”
I glanced over at Evie. At first I thought she was crying, then I realized she was desperately trying not to laugh.
We needed to get out of here before Needles actually learned something that could be bad for him. Still, anyone who tried to get anything from him would quickly learn that my Medics weren’t harmless pacifists.
And to be honest, a couple of aging hippies in an outdated RV weren’t exactly going to register on the radar of anyone I was worried about.
“You search it?”
“Yeah, a couple kilos of really, really old weed were stashed under the wheel well, but that’s all.”
I didn’t ask what he did with the weed. Not my problem anymore. And from his description it likely would have been about as strong as oregano by now.
Evie looked to me and then at the side door of the monstrosity, silently waiting for my permission, I nodded her on in. She knew the penalty for doing anything stupid.
She opened the door and pulled herself up into the camper with her bag of clothes while Needles and I circled the battered vehicle.
The tires looked surprisingly good, and everything else looked ... functional, at least.
As I rounded the behind the camper, she slid the back window open.
“Honey, it’s perfect, got a queen-size back here, plenty of room to stretch out and, well, everything.”
The lyrical trained voice was gone, her accent was pure Southern Belle.
But it was the wink and the slight teasing tone really caught me out.
Needles grinned. “See? Perfect.” He paused. “Let me get that spare set of keys for you two lovebirds.”
As he slipped into the office, I glanced up at Evie.
She gave a half smile. “Maggie the Cat from ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. I minored in Drama.”
Keeping one eye on the door, she continued. “He doesn’t know anything does he?”
“Not much. Just paying back a favor or two.”
Her mouth twisted. “What happens if Erich’s men find him?”
“More than likely The Reinhardt loses a couple men, and Needles pops smoke.”
“Shouldn’t you warn him?”
“Me just being here is a warning. He knows.”
She looked a little unconvinced, but I knew. When we’d initially gone into his office I’d seen him glance at his hides. I’d guess 3 handguns and probably a shotgun or carbine – the salvage yard was no place for a rifle. And he probably had a dozen more weapons stashed around the yard.
He came back out the door with a battered surplus backpack.
“I cross loaded a Unit One Medical pack and some extra antibiotics and meds in this.”
As he handed it to me, he quietly added “There’s a clean 1911 Gold Cup Match with four mags and an extra 200 rounds in the bottom. I know you love that damn flintlock of yours, and it truly is a thing of beauty.” He grinned under his ridiculous mustache. “But, Jesus, Boss, six rounds, no rapid reload?”
Like I said, he knew.
I nodded my appreciation. At least it wasn’t a Glock. God, I hate those things.
We were on the road a half hour later heading south, and she seemed far too relaxed for my comfort. She’d dug an old hardbound Cram’s Easy Reference Business-Man’s Atlas out of somewhere in the camper and started perusing it.
“You know, I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon.”
“I’m not sure you understand the whole ‘kidnap victim’ thing.”
She shrugged and kept on tracing out routes with a fingertip, her nails were trimmed rather shorter than I’d have expected. “You said this would take weeks, maybe months. There’s no point in being miserable the whole time. I already promised to see this through, so you don’t have to worry about me. Besides, sooner or later Stockholm Syndrome should set in, right?”
“That’s fine, but this isn’t a sight-seeing tour. And I don’t plan on going anywhere snow might hang us up.”
I thought I saw her give a slight, secretive smile, but I couldn’t be sure.
Blue Highways. That was the book. By a guy named Least Heat Moon. A rambling account of the back roads of America. I’d stumbled across a tattered copy while crossing the Pacific in a C-141 that felt like it wanted to come apart at the seams.
Least Heat Moon had traveled thousands of miles by backroads and secondary highways. I’d pretty much decided that was my plan.
If a road had the word “Interstate” by it I intended to avoid it if at all possible. Stay out of any major cities. We’d head south to Florida from Virginia, then west on a crooked path until I reached my “travel agent”.
Which Evie pointed out, was a pretty odd idea, given that “my plan” had been on the New York Times Bestseller list for nearly a year.
She arched one eyebrow. “So are we stopping at all the little diners too? I’ve read the book, you know.
I always wondered what it would be like to just ‘go’ like he did. No destination, no deadlines, no pressure.”
I shrugged with one shoulder, watching the road. “I don’t know. I’ve always had a destination. An ending.”
She was quiet for a while after that.
The only electronic device I had was an absolutely clean tablet, purchased months ago at a random Walmart – I’d never even unboxed it, much less turned it on until we stopped at a McDonalds in Catawba County, North Carolina where I set up a Yahoo account, and did a “Buy-it Now” on a ten-dollar battered vintage friction-drive toy plane on ebay.
I bought two of them and had them shipped together.
By the time we’d finished our meals - well, I had anyway, since it turned out that Evie wasn’t a fan of McDonalds - I had a response. In three months I could get two planes of the same type. It’d be three times the original price.
Evie had watched the whole process wordlessly. Strictly speaking you shouldn’t let your captive watch you do this kind of thing, but I was certain she wouldn’t risk her grandchildren. I’d seen her eyes when she talked about them.
“Since this is an odd item to be picking up collectables, I’d guess this has something to do with our journey.”
“It’s thirty thousand dollars for quiet passage for two from California to Fiji, and it will be three months. I have connections to get to our final destination from there without passing any customs.”
“May I ask, where is our final destination?”
“You may not. It’s part of that whole ‘kidnap victim’ thing. I can just abort the Fiji link if I have to.”
“Oh. I guess that makes sense. Not wanting to be met at the airport by the police if I run away.”
I considered reiterating my threat, but it seemed unnecessary. “Yeah, that.”
Actually I wasn’t too worried about that. Once we got to the islands, I was more than a little certain that local law enforcement there wouldn’t take kindly to FBI or Reinhardt interference. Chief, Frank Rotuma, owed me a favor or two, and he really disliked outsiders throwing their weight around.
The idea of someone trying to arrest me at The Shack with Pogo, his feral little wife, and Monster around induced a grin. They’d better send someone they didn’t want back.
“Mildly. Just pondering the difficulties of law enforcement.”
I didn’t bother explaining further than that.
She was uncertain that first night. We laagered down in a Walmart parking lot. She changed into a t-shirt and shorts in the camper’s tiny bathroom. I could sense her steeling herself in case I turned out to have expectations.
The only expectation I had was rest. I hadn’t slept well for over thirty years... “Light sleeper” didn’t even begin to cover it. I wasn’t too concerned she would get the drop on me.
I tossed a blanket and a pillow on her side of the bed, and another set on mine. She might get skittish, so I decided that comment I’d skipped earlier might be a good idea.
“Just a reminder, I have friends. Sooner or later, if something happens, they will get around to dealing with your daughter and grandkids.”
I wasn’t actually sure about that. The grandchildren, anyway. Monster seemed a little odd about children. If he saw Emma Reinhardt as a threat, she was as good as dead, but her children, maybe not. If what Finn had told me was true, they were probably safe. But she didn’t need to know that.
“I made a promise, I’ll keep it.” Cold, lawyer-like.
She slept with her back to me, wrapped tight in her blanket.
I put a line of pillows between us.
She was almost rigidly courteous the next morning, probably because it felt less like an adventure and she’d had more time to dwell on the consequences.
As I watched her put herself together as much as much as she could, I thought about the logistics of the next three months. We’d need food, more clothes. Soap and shampoo, another toothbrush. Some toiletries.
“We need to do some shopping. Groceries, some clothes.”
She looked over at me “Can we pick up a hair brush?”
Her hair had fallen back into near perfect order without her doing much more than running her fingers through it. It seemed to be as determined to put up a graceful appearance as she.
Still. “Sure, if you need make up, or anything, we’ll get it. Probably not exactly the quality you are used to, but it’ll work.”
She brightened just a little. “I don’t need much in the way of make-up.”
“Much” appears to be a relative term. I hadn’t actually lived with a woman in so long, I’d forgotten how much make-up it takes to look like no make-up at all. It was easier to buy it than make a scene, though. And it seemed to do wonders for her mood. All we ended up picking up were the toiletries, make-up and some underwear. Didn’t need make ourselves too memorable by making a large cash purchase.
We had to spread the purchases out, hitting a Goodwill store a few towns over and a grocery store in another one.
At the Goodwill store, I picked up cooking utensils and silverware. Evie ended up picking out several more outfits – sticking with the “aging Woodstock refugee” theme. Frankly, she seemed to be enjoying the whole thing a lot more than she should. She still didn’t seem to completely understand the whole kidnap victim dynamic.
In public, she used a toned down version of her southern accent. She also apparently decided to use the name “Libby” and called me “K”.
One we’d loaded her treasures up and were back in the rolling Summer-of-Love shack, I had to ask.
“Libby? I get ‘K’, it’s easy to remember, makes sense. But why ‘Libby’?”
“It’s short for Liberty Moonflower. When I was a teenager, I decided that if I’d been a hippy that would’ve been my name. ‘Liberty Moonflower’ just sounds ... free. I’d have had tie-dye dresses, love beads...” she held up her clunky rosewood bead necklace –one of the milder ones from Monica’s collection “and a fur-person companion named ‘Spindrift’.”
That sounded entirely too thought out. And too earnest. The last bit of that had been more to herself than to me. I glanced over out of the corner of my eye. She was just distantly looking out the widow, lost in some kind of reverie.
The Bird in a Gilded Cage. We all want whatever is on the other side of the fence. For the poor it’s wealth. For her it was freedom. Freedom from her life, freedom from the responsibilities that had held her.
I let her sit for a while until she started to come out of the dream she was lost in. I pretended not to notice.
“So exactly what the hell is a ‘fur-person companion’?”
She smiled “A dog. I think. Maybe a cat, but probably a dog. I never had a dog.”
The grocery store was another revelation. She had no idea how to cook. At all. She’d had people for that her whole life.
Thirty years of bachelor living had made me a passable cook.
Besides, on the darker fringes of the Army when you show up at a remote jungle camp or safe house far from normal facilities, nobody asks if you can shoot or fight. Everybody assumes you can do that or you wouldn’t be there in the first place. They want to know if you can cook something other than ramen noodles or cut hair without leaving someone looking like they have the mange.
She looked on in frank puzzlement as I put together all the basic ingredients to cook. I swear she had no idea what cooking oil was used for. Much less why anyone would need both shortening and cooking oil.
As we moved on, we tried to be obvious. The best way to hide is to get people to see you as something else. Other people in the campgrounds just saw a couple of ex-hippies who’d pulled the old camper out and hit the highway on a retirement tour. Evie kept her word about cooperating, to all appearances whenever we were out of the camper, she was “Libby”.
By the time we reached the panhandle of Florida, we had a rhythm established.
I drove four or five hours each day, stopping at either a campground that took cash, or a Walmart parking lot if necessary, seeking a fairly dark corner of the area. I was as random about routes as I could be. Humans aren’t actually very good at random, but I did my best.
We’d typically fix breakfast and dinner in the camper. Or rather I would fix breakfast and dinner. But we ate lunch on the road, stopping at some restaurant or other.
Evie never chose a regular chain restaurant when it was her turn to choose where to eat, always a local place, usually with some kind of specialty. Foot-high pies, emu, gator stew, deep-fried-damn-near-anything.
I wasn’t even sure how that had happened in the first place. I was more than a little certain that kidnap victims typically don’t “get turns”, but somehow it’d just happened.
She really seemed to relish the strange stuff. Somewhere in Louisiana, I finally asked her about it.
She smiled over her plate of alligator sausage jambalaya. “I was raised on French cooking. Calf’s head, pancreas, escargot. I just like to try food that is a little beyond McDonald’s. You certainly don’t seem to have a problem with it.”
“Jungle survival school. Nothing like living on grilled tarantulas, steamed paddy bugs and fried crickets to burn the food aversions out of you.”
She wrinkled her nose impishly. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how she’d managed to so completely drop her Swiss boarding school upbringing and be so normal.
She delicately speared a bit of sausage and chewed it. “A lobster is really just a giant water bug with good public relations, I guess.”
“I think the definition of ‘good’ depends on whether or not you’re the lobster.”
“That’s certainly true.”
She picked up another cayenne cornbread biscuit and smeared extra butter on it.
I couldn’t help myself “It’s nice to see a woman who actually eats like she means it.”