It was time to go. It wasn't fun anymore, and if it wasn't fun, what else was there? Jeni pondered this a moment, pausing as she stuffed her meagre belongings into the worn and stained duffle.
Life was a once only ride and be damned if she was going to get bogged down in Hicksville, with a dead end office job slowly sucking all the life and light out of her to make some rich asshole even richer.
She wondered how "normal" people managed when it wasn't fun anymore. The people with jobs and mortgages and kids, how did they go on — especially the ones with kids — they couldn't just pack their stuff and walk out to thumb a ride. No wonder so many of them looked miserable all the time and bitched about their wives and husbands, their jobs, bosses and workmates when they gave her that lift away from not fun.
With that thought, she zipped the old bag closed and quietly left the room, hoisting the duffle on her shoulder as she crossed the cracked car park and headed for the highway.
Three weeks later Jeni was standing on the side of a different road, having hopped rides with truckers, a couple of businessmen on a road trip, and three girls in a beat up minibus heading cross country to a global warming rally. They'd offered her a permanent place on the bus and she was tempted, but decided she needed to do her own thing for a while — she'd been in a group or, more recently, one of a couple, and making group decisions for nearly two years.
She was enjoying the total freedom of solo life on the road. She didn't know where she was going; it didn't really matter right now. She had enough money to just float for bit longer before she needed to get work. She could waitress if she had to, but she planned to rejoin the picker and packer route of the seasonal fruit harvesters, which was how she usually kept herself alive when the weather was warm. The work was physical, but the rewards were good if you were. And she was good, really enjoying working in the fields and orchards. Besides, if the job became a drag, or the people gave her grief, she could walk out any time, getting paid for what she'd done so far and just moving on.
Right now she was drifting slowly west, towards California, staying in places as a long as the mood took her, keeping to minor highways when she moved on. There were fewer vehicles than on the interstates, but more chance of being picked up. It seemed the asshole quota was a bit lower too — on the major routes too many drivers thought they were buying something when they stopped. Jeni had forgotten that minor problem about travelling alone; it didn't come up as often when you were with someone.
Not that she hadn't been known to give a ride for a ride, if the mood took her. She just objected to it being expected of her, particularly from some overweight sweaty lump whose breath smelt like a grease pit. Some people had no respect for themselves. Was it any wonder they had no respect for anything else?
Jeni sat on her duffle, letting her mind drift as she waited for the sound of traffic. The day was perfect: sun warm, a gentle breeze wafting the aroma of nature — leaves, grasses and blossom — to her. She remembered trying to describe this smell to a tightass in a suit who'd given her a lift several years before. He just didn't get it. To him it was all cowshit and mud. He never saw the beauty all around him, he was too busy with the "real" world of business and getting ahead. "You seem like a smart girl, why don't you make something of yourself instead of throwing your life away?"
She smiled at the memory, shaking her head. As far as Jeni was concerned, the way she lived was far more "real" than his, and it was he who was throwing his life away. Sadly, she thought, he was probably helping throw the planet away too.
The rumble of a big diesel engine intruded on her reverie. She stood, thrusting out her tits and her thumb hopefully. She'd learned the tit trick years ago — her companions always laughed at how she could get the male drivers to stop and the females to accelerate. And most truckers were male, so she was fairly sure of a lift.
Hoisting her bag, she plastered a cheerfully grateful smile on her face as the truck pulled up beside her and chirped her thanks as she climbed aboard, sliding the duffle onto the seat between her and the driver.
After the initial chatter, she had settled into a companionable silence with the driver, Bobby he said his name was. He was a pleasant enough type — not sweaty, nor overweight. She wasn't sure about his breath yet. He was a couple of years older than her, but it seemed they agreed on a lot of things, shared a love of nature and hatred of office jobs and he was mildly envious of her footloose lifestyle. He'd agreed to take her as far along his route as she wanted.
Once she'd decided he was all right, she dragged the duffle onto the floor and rested her feet on it, scooting down in the seat to get more comfortable. Bobby grinned at the removal of the barrier between them. He knew he'd passed the test. She trusted him.
It wasn't until the sound of the door slamming woke her up that she realised she'd been asleep. She sat up, peering out the windows to figure out how long she'd been asleep and try to get an idea of where they were, to see if there was a name on the diner.
There was no diner. There was no gas station, no truck stop, nothing. There was a little cabin in the middle of nowhere. Bobby must've turned off somewhere down a lane. The truck was parked beside the cabin on a dirt track surrounded by trees. There was no sign of the main road. There was no sound. Even the CB was quiet. Jeni sat up very straight, very fast. What the hell was going on?
She reached for the door handle to climb out when Bobby pulled the door open from the outside. "I was hoping not to wake you up, but seeing as I did, you might as well enjoy the scenery."
Jeni climbed down, seething with questions. "Where the hell are we, Bobby? Why'd you stop?"
"Hey, simmer down, little lady. I was gonna tell you about this place, but you dozed off on me. I didn't have the heart to wake you, so I had to leave it as a bit of a surprise." He smiled and waved his hand around with more than a touch of pride.
"This is my small patch of paradise. The cabin and the hundred acres around it. It's where I come when I want to get back to nature, and that's what I plan on this weekend. I figured you'd like it too, being all environmentally friendly and all. You wanna take a look around?"
Jeni tried to hide her astonishment. This man, who she'd met only a few hours before, expected her to stay the weekend with him? He was so sure of it, in fact, that he hadn't even bothered to wait for her reaction and was already up the steps and unlocking the door, ready to give her the grand tour of the place. He looked mildly surprised that she hadn't moved to follow him.
"Ahh, Bobby? What happens if I say no?"
"That's where I come in to persuade you to stay."
Jeni jumped and whirled around at the sound of the voice behind her. Another man was nonchalantly leaning on the side of the truck, smiling at her. He was big and obviously strong, very fit, dark and creepy looking in a 'where the hell did you come from, you scared the crap out of me' kind of way.
Where the hell had he come from? She frowned, puzzling it out. He must have been in the sleeper cab — must have climbed in there to hide before Bobby stopped to pick her up. This had been planned and she could be in very deep trouble.
As she watched the new development, he heaved away from the truck and moved toward her, towering over her, herding her towards Bobby.
She backed away. She'd always had a rule about riding with more than one man unless, of course, they were her companions. Hoping to maintain a level of calm and ease that she no longer felt, Jeni shrugged. "Hey, it was just a hypothetical question."
Deliberately turning her back on Scary Dude, Jeni followed Bobby, who she might have to move out of 'Likable Almost Friend' category and into 'Treacherous Asshole'.
Inside the cabin was clean, spartan and small. The living area sported an old but comfy looking couch in front of an open fireplace and a pine table with four straight back chairs. No TV. The walls were bare, as was the floor, except for a worn and scorched rug in front of the fireplace. Tucked into one corner was a basic kitchenette. Two pots and a pan hung over the stove and a kettle sat on top of it. There was a small bench and a sink on one wall, a pantry and fridge on the other.
"Where's your freaky friend?"
Bobby smiled. "Don't worry about Frank. He'll be checking the firewood and starting the generator."
Right on cue, the front door burst open, Jeni jumped in fright, and Frank entered, carrying a box, which he took to the kitchen after kicking the door closed.
"Here's the supplies," he said to Bobby as he dumped the box on the bench. "The wood's still stacked by the back door. Fire's your problem, I'll get the generator going." Frank turned and, brushing past Jeni as if she didn't exist, went out the back door.
"Great, let's get that kettle ready." Bobby was totally at ease — he often had women here. He knew how it worked. They either settled down after the initial surprise or they didn't. If they settled, they both had fun; if they didn't, Bobby still got a weekend away from the road.
He filled the kettle and set it on the stove, ready for when he heard the generator kick in. While he waited he began to unpack the box of supplies into the pantry and fridge, tossing an old newspaper and a box of matches to Jeni.
"I'll grab some kindling if you can lay a fire for us for later. Just leave the matches on the mantel." He went out the back. Jeni thought, briefly, about making a run for it, but she had no idea which direction to run in, her gear was still in the truck and then there was Frank...
Bobby nodded and smiled at her back as he re-entered the room to see her on her knees, balling up newspaper and setting it in the grate. She might just be one of the ones that settled down. He hoped she would. It was always better when they enjoyed themselves too. He set the wood beside her as a cough and a deep throbbing rumble announced Frank's success with the generator.
Bobby made coffee for himself and Jeni and motioned her to sit at the table while they drank it. There was no mug for Frank, no sign he was intending to join them. She looked around her as she sipped her drink.
Three more doors led off the main room. One, heavily bolted, led out the back, the second, she guessed, led to a bathroom. The third was open and Jeni stared into the room beyond.
It was obviously the bedroom, dimly lit. Almost the entire room was taken up with an enormous iron framed bed, covered by a thick deep red satin quilt and a pile of black satin covered pillows. It was definitely not what she expected of a back to nature single man. But then again, how much of that story was true?
Without realising it, she moved toward the room, mesmerised. At the doorway, she realised the window was heavily shuttered, accounting for the darkness. The floor was covered in a thick Persian style rug but it was the wall adornment that caught her eye. Three large mirrors, one on each darkly painted wall, were focussed on the bed.
A large old timber and iron chest sat beside the bed. It reminded Jeni of pirates and treasure; it even had a big chunky padlock holding it closed.
The room was totally opulent and completely incongruous in the setting of the cabin. Jeni realised the tranquil out of the way location had nothing to do with love of nature and everything to do with this one room.
She back-pedalled away from this scene, bumping into Bobby who had followed her closely but unnoticed into the room. "I like to keep this room nice," his voice was a rough tickle in her ear. "I don't have much, but it's good to have one special place, don't you think?"
Jeni ricocheted away from him, coming to a stop in the middle of the main room, now completely unnerved. She looked wildly around her.
"Where's your friend?" She half expected him to materialise in the middle of the room.
"Frank's got some stuff he wants to check on the truck. That's his, like the cabin's mine. We're a team. He might even sleep in the truck." Bobby's smile had a knowing certainty about it. "Unless he's needed in here."
She shivered as he moved around her, not quite touching her, and sat at the table again, watching her, watching his words sink into her consciousness, watching their effect.
Any moment now, he was going to call out to Frank and together they would tackle her and drag her, screaming, into that room, that incredibly erotic room. They would tie her to the bed, tear her clothes off and make her their sex slave ... Frank would roll camera while Bobby did her every which way ... they would turn her into a porn queen ... Frank would hold her down while Bobby raped her ... did unspeakable things to her ... they would kill her and bury her out the back, with all the others...
"Don't let your coffee get cold."
The voice made her jump, almost scream, as the mundane sentence jarred with her thoughts. She stared at him. He looked so completely normal. She was now thoroughly confused, her thoughts chasing each other around her head, arguing with each other, throwing accusations and recriminations, warnings and bleats of caution at her.
Maybe she was imagining it and was seeing a threat where there was none. Maybe he was just a fellow nature lover with a penchant for exotic sleeping areas ... Maybe she'd been without for just long enough to think everything was about sex.
She sat, sipping her coffee so it wouldn't get cold, staring at nothing, while her mind argued with itself.
Bobby sat, sipping his coffee, watching her.
Jeni had reached the point of personal abuse — berating herself for her suspicious nature on one hand and cursing herself for her trusting nature on the other. She was in deep trouble; she was imagining things. She had to escape; she wasn't a captive.
Once again, it was Bobby who broke the silence and again the mundane ease of his query jarred with her furious imaginings.
"I'm gonna take a walk, see if any of my furry friends are about. I've gotten to know some of the local wildlife. But I haven't been here for a while, so I want to see how everyone's going. Wanna come?"
He hoped she'd agree. He liked this girl. She wasn't cute, she wasn't perky, and she wasn't plastic. She was real.
Somehow it began to matter that she ease up and enjoy her stay. It never had before. He'd had girls here before, sure. But they weren't real, like Jeni. He'd picked most of them up in bars, not on the road. She loved nature, like he did. And a walk in the forest would be a great way to start the weekend.
A walk? Sure, why not? Go straight to the burial site. Save him the effort of carrying the body later. Jeni shook her head at the pathetic groove her thoughts seemed stuck in and stood up.
"I'd love to. What do you normally see around here?"
He didn't answer directly. Just nodded, smiled and headed out the door.
She followed Bobby into the sun and across the yard to a track in the forest, feeling the need to babble rising within her, fuelled by her unease. Why had he nodded? What was he smiling about? Where were they going, exactly?
With an effort, she smothered the urge. If she yapped incessantly, it would annoy Bobby and she had a strong feeling that would be a very bad idea. Besides, it'd alert any animals and frighten them away.
She felt the temperature drop as she stepped out of the sun, the air became more dense, the smell of the forest enveloping her as she moved further away from the sun, the path became less distinct, the air cooler and fresher. Bobby held back branches so they wouldn't whip back into her as he passed.
The throbbing of the generator gradually softened behind them until the only sound was the noise of their boots crunching through the dead leaves along the track. The smells of the forest enveloped them — mostly pine, but the occasional pungent tang of animal and wafts of other, unidentifiable scents.
Jeni gradually relaxed as they moved among the trees. The peace of the place seeped into her. Off to one side she could hear a woodpecker, hammering after a meal. There were bird calls and the occasional rustle of underbrush. Bobby hadn't said a word since they left the cabin, and Jeni no longer felt the urge to pester him with questions. It didn't matter where they were going. They were already here.
Ahead, the forest was opening up and Bobby was slowing down, taking more care not to make noise. He moved to the right and stopped, just off the now almost invisible path. As Jeni approached he offered his hand and guided her through a group of boulders to a large flat rock that had been chocked up as a seat.
He waved her to sit beside him and indicated ahead, whispering in her ear: "Last time I was here, beavers had begun to work. If we're quiet they might not know we're here." Bobby's eyes gleamed.
Jeni peered through the bushes in front of her. A small clearing leading to a creek came into view. A dam of logs and branches blocked a narrow neck in the creek and a jumble of logs sat in the pond behind it. If Bobby hadn't said, she would have thought it was caused by a flood. She'd never seen a beaver lodge this close.
She studied the dam and the lodge, marvelling at the work put in by its builders. It was quite amazing what a great job they'd done of the dam, the branches carefully stacked and the gaps filled with stones and mud.
A head popped up in the water between the dam and the lodge. Bobby nudged her and pointed. Another beaver was ambling towards the water's edge on the other bank.
Jeni was totally captivated, watching the beavers as they frolicked in and around the water. She forgot where she was, who she was with and why that had previously worried her. Now she was grateful to him for bringing her here, and enjoying his companionship as she watched the animals go about their day.
They sat together through the afternoon, fascinated by the antics of the beavers, using signs and touches to draw each other's attention. Jeni lost track of time, sitting quietly on the rock with Bobby, feeling at peace with the world as they watched the beavers and, a little later, the deer that stepped daintily out of the woods across the stream and came down for a drink. A squirrel watched them watching him for a while from above and a chipmunk scolded them when they startled it by moving.
Just after the deer left, Bobby rose. The sun was low in the sky. He offered her his hand, pulling her to her feet.
"We'd better be getting back. It'll be dark soon and the bugs are mean when the sun goes down."
They were back at the edge of the forest just as it became too dark to see clearly. Bobby held her arm, guarding against falls as they stumbled the last few paces onto the back porch and took off their boots.
Light, warmth and a delicious aroma hit them as they stepped into the cabin. Bobby smiled, Jeni tensed: Frank. She'd forgotten all about big, dark, creepy Frank.
Only he didn't look so creepy now, stretched out on the old couch, warming his socked feet before the crackling fire and reading a book.
He looked up, grinning. That didn't look creepy either.
"Thought I was gonna have to mount a search party for you two. Dinner's nearly ready."
He waved his hand in the general direction of the table and the kitchen. Jeni gasped, astonished. The table was laid with a deep red cloth, white china plates, wine glasses, candles. It looked more like a fancy restaurant than a rustic cabin.
Frank's grin widened. "We're not total heathens. But don't expect too much from the menu. It'll be basic, but good." The smile suddenly faltered and he blurted: "Jeeze, I hope you're not vegetarian."
Jeni laughed. He looked like a little boy with flowers for mum suddenly worried that she'd be angry he picked them. First impressions could be deceiving.
"No, you're safe. I eat just about anything."
"Good." Frank rose and set to clattering about in the kitchen. "Get cleaned up and sit down."
She turned to the bathroom, missing the raised eyebrow from Frank and answering nod and smile from Bobby.
The meal was basic: a "goulash thing" of Frank's own devising. But it was delicious and came with thick bread and butter and red wine.
Conversation was confined to the odd "mmm" and "this is good" as the trio ate. Jeni was surprised at how hungry she was, and the meal was exactly what her body craved. There was also dessert — a supermarket bought apple pie with cream.
After Frank cleared away the dishes — he steadfastly refused assistance — and brought out another bottle, they sat at on the old couch, Jeni in the middle, sipping their wine.
The afternoon's nature watch had firmly placed Bobby back in the "Harmless and Friendly" category in Jeni's mind, and she was rapidly moving Frank into the same category. Her misgivings had all been misguided. Her aversion to Frank in particular she put down to surprise and not being properly awake.
There was nothing creepy about Frank at all. He was open and thoughtful, a little quiet maybe, but since when was that a crime?
He listened avidly as Jeni and Bobby, but mostly Jeni, spoke of their afternoon's excursion. Jeni had been entranced and was determined to share as much of what she had seen as she could. It had been a great afternoon; one which she knew would remain a treasured memory. Even with her footloose lifestyle, she rarely spent time in such lovely surroundings. Most of her nature watching was done on the side of the road, with one ear tuned for the sound of an approaching engine.
So she babbled on happily, describing all she'd seen in infinite detail, stopping frequently to sip her wine. Frank smiled indulgently at her as she grasped his hand in hers, exclaiming, "Oh, you really must see them."
Bobby, unnoticed, emptied the bottle, topping up her glass, again. He passed a significant look over the top of her head to Frank, who acknowledged it with a flicker of his eyes.
"Actually," Frank shifted forward on the couch, "I have seen them. I spent quite a while down there with my camera last time I was here. Maybe I can sell some of the pics to a magazine one day. You wanna see?"
Jeni quickly knocked back the last of her wine. "Oh yeah, I'd really like to see them."
He stood up, offering his hand to help Jeni to her feet. It wasn't needed as she scrambled upward, but he steadied her once she stood up and steered her around the table and into the bedroom. Bobby followed.
"I keep my albums in the big old chest in there. It's the only place guaranteed critter proof when we're not here."
He deposited Jeni on the edge of the bed, Bobby stayed leaning on the doorpost and Frank opened the chest. She couldn't see inside it, but Frank soon came over to her with a large photo album.
His photography was excellent, Jeni thought as she looked through the pictures of trees and beavers and squirrels. Frank sat with her, describing when and where each photo was taken, turning the pages for her, telling her about the difficulties in getting birds to cooperate and the frustration of blurred shots after hours of patient waiting.
She didn't notice Bobby moving about the room, lighting the many candles, until the flickering light caught her attention. Now the room looked like something from The Arabian Nights, the candlelit picking up gold highlights in the dark walls, reflecting in the mirrors and filling the room with sparkles of light.
Looking back to the photographs, she gasped. Frank had turned the page. It was filled with one picture — a cougar with its legs bound was being loaded into a cage. She turned to Frank, her furious eyes glinting in the light.
"Hey, I just took the photo," Frank held up his hands. "He was hassling stock and had to be moved to a new location; he wasn't hurt at all."
Jeni wasn't that easily placated. "Look at those ropes. Look at how tight the poor thing's tied up. How can you say he wasn't hurt?"
"Come on, they have to tie up a mountain lion. Those things are dangerous. Besides, they use special knots that hold tight but don't bite in."
Jeni snorted her disbelief.
"Really. They showed me how to tie them. I'll show you." He went to the chest and rummaged, returning with a length of thick cord. "This is even the stuff they used. I kept a bit of it so I could describe it better if I ever get to write an article to go with my pictures. Give me your arm."
Jeni recoiled. "What?"
"Give me your arm. How else am I going to prove to you the knots don't hurt? Give me your arm."