"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov


Thursday, December 18, 2014

No Place To Hide - Chapter Two

Mitch Cartwright stood under a large Ponderosa pine and silently watched the woman moving about the house.  She was preparing to leave.  He smiled to himself.  Good to know his instincts were still right on point.  Because even though she had an impressive poker face and appeared to have no tells that gave anything away, the fact she went stone cold whenever his words hit home was the tell.  He grinned outright, looking forward to how pissed she was going to be when he reappeared on her doorstep.

There was no way she was hightailing it out of these woods without him.  Whatever was driving her, whoever was after her, didn’t matter anymore because now that he’d gotten a good look at the mysterious woman that Mike had coerced him into finding, he would be keeping her safe, whether she liked it or not.  She might be tough, but from what his brother was hearing through his contacts, whoever was looking for her was deadly serious.  Emphasis on dead.  And he was way too intrigued to let that happen.

She was in the kitchen now, scraping what looked like burnt cookies into the garbage. Her rich, dark auburn hair was probably shoulder-length when it wasn’t piled in a messy heap on top of her head.  When she’d come out onto the porch earlier to confront him, the sunlight had shot sparks of fire off the strands, vivid and bright as the anger in her eyes.  Mitch grinned.  He thought her eyes were some shade of green, but hadn’t gotten close enough to see, although he’d had no trouble spotting those full, sweet lips.  She had a cleft in her chin that was tantalizing and yet for some odd reason also made her seem more vulnerable.  Slender but with nice curves, she’d been in jeans, a thermal tee and an oversized flannel shirt. With bare feet and painted toes.  His grin widened.  Red toes, red hair, and a red-hot temper.  Add in the weapons—because yeah, he knew she was carrying more than that rifle—and he’d just found the woman of his dreams.

He leaned against the tree trunk, eyes fastened on her movements: efficient, calm, precise.  She washed the cookie sheet and other dishes, straightened the kitchen then packaged up cookies she’d obviously baked before he’d shown up.  His mouth watered. He hoped they were chocolate chip, with the big chunks.  The cookies and other food items went into what looked like saddlebags, along with bottles of water and a large Ziploc bag of dog food.  She turned in a wide circle, like she was memorizing the space, then scrubbed her hands over her face a couple of times before shaking her head and walking out of sight.

Wanting to get closer, still trying to work out exactly how to approach her without losing body parts, he straightened away from the tree.  The low growl at his back made the hair on his nape rise in primitive awareness.  Slowly he turned, then braced as the dog padded silently toward him, head down, fangs bared, eyes filled with hungry promise.


 Thumbing through the handful of false identities, a sense of hopelessness swamped her.  She’d used them all.  Ella Bennett was her current alias, and her last.  Four years of running, hiding, endlessly starting over and yet she’d never imagined this moment, never thought there would come a time when she’d be out of options. She’d read once that—just in America alone—over a million people disappeared every year and were never heard from again.  How was it possible then that no matter what she did, how many names she’d used, places she’d left behind…here she stood, found in the middle of the freaking wilderness.

Sitting on the edge of her bed, she shuffled through the drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards, birth certificates.  Chloe had long blond hair—a wig that had itched like crazy—and blue eyes, contacts that also irritated by the end of each day.  Sara had been a brunette, with brown eyes, frumpy clothes and wire rim glasses.  Jane, blond again, hair short and spiky, blue-gray contacts.  Marissa, long black wig, brown eyes, lots of tats and piercings, all fake.  Ella had been as close to her real self as she’d been in years: her own auburn hair and hazel eyes.  She raised her head and stared across the bedroom into the mirror above the dresser.  Her face was leaner, eyes calculating and sharp, body honed.  There was nothing left of fashionable Katherine Lancaster, concierge extraordinaire for the exclusive Fordyce Hotel in Washington, D.C.  That woman was well and truly gone.

Stomach churning as she forced the memories away, she shoved her alter egos back into the small zippered pouch, then into the side pocket of a leather pack.  Grabbing underwear, socks, another pair of jeans, two sweaters and a thermal shirt, she crammed them into the bag as well, then walked into the bathroom.  She filled a small cloth make-up case with bathroom essentials, then grabbing a handful of hair ties, a brush and the first aid kit, she walked to the bed and stuffed everything into the pack with the other items.  After another long look around, her heart aching at having to leave a place she’d finally thought would be her home, she went back to the kitchen and dropped the pack next to the saddlebags.

The plan was to leave as soon as it got dark. She wasn’t leaving in her car, or going down the drive to the highway, just in case Scary Biker Dude was out there somewhere on the road waiting for her. In the nearly two years she’d lived in her cabin, she and Ace had hiked, camped and explored the area for miles in every direction.  She had an escape route in case of emergency, a safe passage through the forest that she’d never thought would be necessary, not after all this time.  So stupid.  And stupid would get her killed if she didn’t get her head back in the game.

Opening the hall closet, she punched in the code for the safe and took out three boxes of ammo for her pistol, two extra clips and a box of bullets for the rifle, stashing everything in the pockets of her winter parka along with a small gun cleaning kit she’d found in Montana at a military supply store. Her eyes closed as another glimpse into the past bubbled to the surface.

Missoula.  Running on empty, no idea where to go after leaving Wichita two days before, she’d been reading the local newspaper at a diner on the outskirts of town.  She always had a book or a paper when she was in a public place.  It kept people away and gave her a reason to keep her head down.  On that day, eating a piece of very tasty cherry pie, she read an ad for survival training being taught in the Rocky Mountains at a compound close to the Montana/Canadian border; an intensive three-week program, catering to body guards, security personnel and retrieval agents.  She finished her pie and drove north.

It had taken some serious convincing, but eventually Mike had let her take the course.  It had been a defining moment for her, changing everything.  Mike said she was a natural, Lisa argued that it was time women were included in their training program.  And she'd learned how to survive in almost any situation.  Against her better judgment she’d stayed on for a few weeks after the course finished because she really liked Mike and Lisa and it had been so long since she’d allowed herself to make friends.  She helped out around the compound, then one day discovered the kennels.  One look shared between her and a two-year-old Rottweiler named Menace and the rest was history.  Mike said the dog was promised to someone else, but when he saw the instant connection, he gave in.  It took a huge chunk of change, but she didn’t regret a penny.  He was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

When Mike and Lisa tried to get her to open up, made overtures that she could stay and work for them, she knew it was time to go.  It was hard, almost too hard.  She’d made her first friends in years, but she also realized her mistake.  Her life had been reduced to a few simple rules:  Head down, keep moving, no contact, but for a brief moment in time she'd forgotten all three.

Shaking her head to dislodge the thoughts, she lifted out the last bundle of cash.  The twenty thousand would have kept her safe in her forest hideaway for a long time, but now she had to move and with no destination in mind, no ID to cover her ass—which meant finding someone to make a new set—the money was going to be gone before she knew it.  With a sigh, she closed the safe and grabbed her jacket, gloves, wool scarf and hat.  Dumping them on the kitchen counter next to the rest of the gear, she glanced out the window at the gathering dusk.  Almost time to leave.  Going to the back door, she whistled for Ace, surprised he wasn’t already waiting on the porch.  With a frown when he didn’t come bounding into the house, she paused, trying to think how long it had been since she’s seen him.

Maybe twenty minutes?  While cleaning the kitchen she’d watched him chase a squirrel around the side of the house, then before going into the bedroom to pack, she’d seen him stalking something in the woods by the big Ponderosa pine.  Still, no matter the temptations, it wasn’t like him not to come running the minute she whistled or called.

She walked to the front door, opened it and pushed the screen.  Even in the forest gloom, the bright white card that Scary Biker Guy had flicked at her seemed to glow on the landing.  She bent to pick it up, then heard an odd snuffling noise to her right.  Her hand whipped to her back, the Ruger out and pointed before she had fully straightened.

The sight before her was so strange and inexplicable, she froze in jaw-dropping astonishment.

Her dog.  Her beloved partner was laying on his back, feet in the air, all one hundred and thirty pounds of lethal sprawled across Scary Biker Guy’s lap.  The guy who was currently sitting on the porch, lounging with his back against her house, rubbing Ace’s stomach while the dog's tongue hung nearly to the ground in rapturous joy.  But it was the man's wicked grin and his expression as he held her gaze that made her finger itch to shoot the smug right off the rat bastard's face.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

No Place To Hide - Chapter One

     As she started to pull the last cookie sheet out of the oven, the soft purr of a motorcycle in the distance sent ice down her spine while the blast of heat from the oven billowed around her.  The combination made her whole body shiver.  Closing her eyes, she focused, quickly estimating sound and location, judging how much time she had.  When the purr grew louder—Harley by the throaty rumble—she spun, tossed the cookie sheet into the sink and ran toward the hall, Menace on her heels, his deep growl announcing that someone was determined enough to ignore the No Trespassing signs, the double-locked steel gate and two miles of bad mountain road.

     Wrenching the knob to the hall closet door, she tapped a code into the key pad on the right-side wall.  Before the gun safe had opened completely, she had the Ruger in her hand and was reaching for the clip.  Menace was standing by the front windows, his growls deeper, hackles standing straight up like the Rottweiler version of a Mohawk.

     “Quiet,” she murmured, “stand down, Ace.”

     The glare as he looked over his shoulder at the command was so male, she wanted to laugh.  “No tearing a lost biker limb from limb, my man.  Let’s see who’s come calling first.”  She grinned at his low grumble of dissent, though Ace obeyed and sat facing the front door, no doubt hoping a tasty chew toy was headed his way.

     Slapping the clip in place, racking a bullet in the chamber, she tucked the pistol at the small of her back, then quickly unbuckled her belt and added a sheath with her favorite blade, re-buckled and covered both weapons with her long flannel shirt. Just as she reached for her rifle the motorcycle’s engine cut off in front of the house.  Ace stood, going rigid in the sudden silence, his intensity ramping up to ballistic.

     Stock tucked into her side, she held the rifle in a loose grip and walked to the door.  Laying a hand on the dog’s head, she bent and whispered in his ear, “Down, Ace.  If this goes bad, you’re my secret weapon.”  He held her gaze, refusing to move away from the door for a moment, then reluctantly dropped to the floor.

     Opening the thick oak door, she pushed on the screen and walked out onto the porch.  The afternoon sun had warmed the boards and felt good under her bare feet as she crossed the landing, her eyes on the man still sitting astride his bike, hands on the grips, long legs balancing the heavy weight with ease.  The Harley was old, a bit beat up, but it was easy to see there was history between the man and his ride.

     They stared at each other over the fifteen feet that separated them, though she was at a disadvantage: his mirrored aviators blocked any chance of seeing his eyes. That annoyed her.  She shifted the rifle, raising the barrel a few inches.  “You speak English?”

     He lifted a leg over the bike, hit the kickstand, then sat sideways on the seat and stretched out his legs, crossing one ankle over the other.  “Yeah, I speak English.  What kind of question is that?”  His voice was rough, rumbling from deep in his chest.

     “You understand English?”

     He scowled.  “What the—”

     She cut him off.  “Because I’m wondering what you’re doing on my property, two miles off a dirt road that’s ten miles off the highway, not reading a dozen No Trespassing signs, or understanding a locked gate means the difference between my privacy and you sitting on that bike in front of my house.”

     He stood, took a step toward her.  She raised the rifle higher, held her ground.  Standing, he was huge and every inch of his six and a half feet screamed dangerous.  Arms loose at his sides, he stopped and said softly, “Cut right to it then.  You know a Chloe Jones?”  When she didn’t respond, he began a litany.  “Sara Matthews?  Jane Franks?  Marissa Wilson?  Ella Bennett?” 

     Outwardly, she didn’t give herself away, but hearing each name conjured images of the past and fear rocked through her belly.  Chloe Chicago.  Sara Wichita.  Jane Missoula.  Marissa Portland.  Ella log cabin in northern California wilderness staring at a man who had no business knowing any of this.  She was only marginally relieved that the only name not flying out of his mouth was her real one.  “Nope, never heard of those women and if you’re looking to add to your harem, I’m not interested.”

     He took off his shades, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. She took the moment to study him.  Broad shoulders, dark brown hair tangled from riding with no helmet, long enough to touch the collar of his black leather jacket.  His tee shirt, faded jeans and scuffed boots were also black—his go-to color then.  And damn he was big.  If he got too close, she wouldn't stand a chance against his brute strength.  Then he raised his head and speared her with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.  Even from a distance the color was mesmerizing, vivid and intense, like falling into the heart of a sapphire.  He might be the poster boy for badass, and with those eyes, chiseled face and a body women probably worshiped on a regular basis, it was obvious he was a player.  A major one, with too much information about her and an unknown agenda.

     She opened her mouth to order him off her property, but he spoke first, low and serious. “You’re in danger here.”

     “Yeah,” she snorted, and I’m looking right at it.”

     He took a step.  She raised the rifle.  He cocked his head.  “You willing to shoot me?” he asked, a hint of laughter in his voice.

     “I learned a long time ago that if you point it, you’d best be prepared to follow through.”  She smiled through cold eyes, the rifle not wavering from a spot dead center on his chest.  “I don’t know you, you’re trespassing on my land, I’m a woman alone in the middle of nowhere.  You think I’m not willing?”

     “Fuck,” he growled under his breath, no longer amused.

     “Like I said,” she snapped, “don’t know those women or why you want them, so you need to saddle up and go before somebody gets hurt.”

     Turning his back, he walked a few paces then stopped and bowed his head, hands clasped over his nape.  She let her grip loosen and lowered the rifle for a moment to relieve some of the tension in her arms.  At her back Ace chuffed softly at the bottom of the screen door, growing agitated by the confrontation.  She knew how he felt.  While her stomach roiled and her mind played a continuous loop of bad memories, she kept her eyes locked on the man.  Goddamn it.  She loved her little cabin, her hard-earned safe life.  Now she had to run.  Again.  Goddamn it!

      “Hey mister,” she half shouted at his back, “I need you gone.  I’ve—”

     “Okay, here’s the deal,” the guy barked as he spun to face her.  “No bullshit now. I know it’s you, all of those names belong to you.  I’ve been tracking you for weeks.  I don’t know your reasons for playing hide and seek.  Yet.” He paused, nailed her with a look. “But I will.”

     Her eyes iced over, the rifle again aimed steadily in his direction. Raising both hands, palms out, he said quickly, “Hold on now, just hear me out.”  After a long stare she tipped her chin in the barest acquiescence.

     “My brother sent me to find you.”  Scowling, he lowered his arms.  “Though I’m beginning to wonder why he thought you needed help.” 

     “I don’t.”  She hesitated for a second, then asked sharply, “Who’s your brother?”  Her only mistake in four years might have just come back to bite her on the ass.

     “Two years ago you took a survival course in Montana.  My brother was your instructor.  He liked you, his wife liked you, hell, I heard even his damn dog liked you.  Mike knew you were in some kind of trouble, wanted to help, but you left before he could offer.”  He took a deep breath, then said evenly, “Month or so ago he hears questions are being asked about a certain woman.”  He took a step toward her.  “My brother had a hunch, called me, I did some poking around.  I followed a lead, worked my way back and forth across the country, took a photo off a security video at the bookstore where Sara Matthews worked in Portland, showed it to Mike.  That woman looked real familiar to him, even with the short, blond wig.”  His gaze swept over her, taking in the tumble of auburn hair, the alabaster skin.  She'd felt secure enough here to be herself.  After I left the military, I started my own business, but also do contract work, sometimes for my brother.  I’m good at surveillance, better at digging deep.”  His voice lowered, eyes locked with hers as he strode closer, paused a few feet from the bottom step and looked up at her.  “Best at finding things.” 

     Stalling for time, mind racing, she decided to drop the clueless act.  He knew who she was—or thought he did—so maybe admitting it would get rid of him faster, because if he could find her, they could too.  “I don’t remember hearing anything about a brother.”

     “Not around much, mostly on the road or out of the country.”

     She stiffened.  “So what, you’re some kind of bounty hunter?”  Her eyes narrowed as her grip tightened on the rifle. “You can claim to be Mike’s brother all day long and it still won’t mean a thing.  You’re trespassing.”  Her eyes blazed.  “Get off my property.” 

     Holding her gaze, he slowly reached into his jacket, pulled out a small white card and flicked it toward the porch. She didn’t move, didn’t try to catch it, didn’t break eye contact. The card bounced off her left leg and landed at her feet.

     A hint of respect flashed in his eyes for an instant before he muttered, “I’ve been all over the world, fought my share of battles, hung with some good men and bad, but I gotta say woman, you’re damn cool under pressure.”

     She shrugged.  “It really doesn’t matter what your little card says.  For one, anything can be faked, and for another,” she gestured with the rifle toward the Harley, “you’re leaving. Yesterday.”

     “Now honey, here’s the thing.  I promised my brother I’d find you.  I did.  I also promised him I would take care of you until he says it's safe.”  He took his last step before hitting the stairs.  “I intend to do just that.”

     “Well honey, here’s my thing.  Get on your ride, head back to wherever you came from and along the way tell your brother I appreciate his concern, but I don’t need anyone’s help.”

     “Okay, that’s it,” the man barked in frustration as he moved to climb the steps. “I’m only trying—”

     Before he could finish, there was a low, deeply serious growl from behind the screen door, followed immediately by a crash as it flew open and slammed into the side of the house.  A dog, huge, bristling, and way into the red zone stood solid beside the woman, vibrating with barely controlled aggression, dark lips curled back over sharp teeth.  The man stood frozen, one foot on the bottom step, held in place by the dog’s hard, unwavering focus.

     “I think that’s your cue to leave,” the woman said quietly.  He lifted his eyes, caught the smirk, knew she’d won this round.  One side of his mouth tipped up in grudging admiration, then he slowly backed away from the porch.  “If it will make things easier, tell Mike thanks, but like I said, I take care of myself.”  She gestured toward the Harley with her rifle.  “Please.  Go away.”

     He cocked his head, scanned her from head to toe, and stared intently at the dog for a long moment before turning on his heels.  Kicking the motorcycle to life, he adjusted his hands on the grips and slowly maneuvered the half-circle turn in her dirt and pine needle drive.  He stopped for a brief, taut moment, looking from her to the dog, then without another word slowly rode out of sight.  She listened to the low, unmistakable rumble of the Harley for several minutes until silence returned to the forest.

     “Good boy, Ace, good boy.”  She lowered the rifle and reached down to scratch behind one of the dog's ears.  “Extra treats for that dramatic entrance.”  Smiling, she turned and let them both into the house.  Heading toward the kitchen, the dog at her side, she began to laugh.  “You accomplished more in one minute than I did in ten with a loaded weapon.”  She propped the rifle near the back door and opened the pantry, grabbing two large dog biscuits.  “You eat these, then I’ll let you out while I pack things up.

       Menace, dangerous and lethal when necessary, sat with tongue lolling and tail twitching, waiting patiently for his treats.  Gently he took first one, then the other from her hand, crunching happily.  When the last crumb was gone, she opened the back door and ordered quietly, “Patrol.  He stood on the porch for a minute, head raised to sniff the air, then charged down the steps and began to circle the house, searching for something to chase, or better yet, something to catch.