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Friday, January 23, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Six


Stumbling in the dark, she bumped into Ace and would have fallen if not for his solid bulk. “Thanks, buddy,” she muttered, voice rough with exhaustion.  God, what a freaking long day and night it had been, bouncing from one adrenaline-spiked moment to the next.  Scrubbing her face with cold hands, she leaned into the nearest tree and took her bearings.

They stood at the edge of an alpine meadow, one last climb to the old forest service cabin and she’d be warm and safe.  With a yawn that almost cracked her jaw, she surveyed the meadow in the waning moonlight.  Hungry, beyond tired, she needed food and a long, dead-to-the-damn-world sleep to recharge.

“’Member last time we were here, Ace?”  She smiled when he looked up at her.  “The meadow was full of flowers.”  Scratching behind one of his ears, she chuckled.  “And butterflies.  You ran like a goofy puppy, jumping and pouncing, chasing them all over the field.”  They leaned into each other in companionable silence, his heat warming her thigh.  When she lifted her hand, he nudged her for more and she obliged for a moment, then said softly, “Time to go, boy.  We both need a time out.”

Instead of taking the shorter route—straight across the meadow—she skirted the large, circular clearing, staying beneath the shelter of towering Ponderosa pines.  She didn’t expect Mitch to be following her now, but he’d surprised her twice already. Besides, crossing the meadow would leave traces of their passing and she was all about staying under the radar.

As they made their way around the perimeter, she wondered about that radar. Unless Mitch had super powers or talents beyond mortal man, how had he unearthed the information on her false identities, tracked her to this wilderness?  Her gaze settled on Ace, walking at a steady pace slightly in front of her.  Frowning, her eyes skimmed over his large body as a thought began to niggle. Two thoughts actually, and both were troubling.

First, how had he located her cabin?  It’s not like it was right next to the road, or in the middle of some mountain hamlet with nosy neighbors and busy-bodies.  She purposely lived in seclusion, shopped in different towns miles removed from the one closest to home, never talked to people unless it was absolutely necessary, paid cash for everything.  She'd made cautious an art form.

But most worrying was the relationship between Mitch and Ace.  He's trained Ace and clearly they had a bond, a history. When Ace had become hers, she’d had him micro-chipped and always made sure his immunizations were up to date. There wasn’t a way to track a dog through that little chip, was there?  No, it required the dog’s presence and a gadget for scanning the chip.  It wasn’t a homing beacon or tracking device.  Damn it.  Maybe she should have questioned Mitch before leaving in such a hurry.

Or not. Getting as far away from him as possible was the only way to stay safe.  Not only was he a threat, but he messed with her head, something she really didn’t need.  So what if he could kiss like nobody’s business, and really, what did that mean except he was a man very adept at manipulation. Her cheeks flushed just thinking how easily she’d been taken in, barely putting up a token resistance to his charms. Still, was it her fault his lips were as soft as velvet, or that his scent was a narcotic blend of leather and spice and hot male?

Making their way around the clearing, she tried to forget his mouth, ignore the way his blue eyes had darkened when he pressed himself into her belly, erase how he sounded moaning over her cookies.  She shook her head, hard, angry at herself for letting even the memory of him seduce her.  Breathing deep to clear her head, she stopped for a minute, tired eyes narrowing to quickly scan the trees before heading up to the cabin.  It was more difficult to see now, the moon edging slowly behind one of the mountain peaks, bringing the eerie shadows that grew between dark and dawn.

Nudging Ace, they moved deeper into the forest, coming to an intersection where a network of trails converged, the wildlife leaving dusty furrows in crushed pine needles like the worn tread on an old carpet. Unerringly, Ace took the third left and began to climb.  On their many hikes, they’d taken each trail at one time or another to see where they led and if Mitch managed to get this far, it would take him too long to find the right route; by the time he figured it out, she and Ace would be long gone. 

     Except...there was his uncanny ability to find her.  Had he slipped a device into one of the packs at her house?  She liked that idea until she remembered he'd found her cabin before ever coming inside.  Her stomach churned with the need to know if Ace was the source, which meant she had to get to Maggie, the local veterinarian, as quickly as possible.  Because as much as she understood Mitch had the skills and experience needed for a bounty hunter, there was no way he was that good.  Unless he had an Ace up his sleeve.  She didn’t appreciate the irony.

And deep down it hurt that he'd used her dog as a means to an end.  Didn't he understand what being found would mean for her?  But maybe that worked for him.  He delivers on the contract and not only gets paid, but has his dog back too.  Win-win for him.  Dead for her.

With a low woof, Ace dashed through a small opening in a jungle of undergrowth and tangled shrubbery that covered the majority of a little dwelling. When she’d first set eyes on the place, she’d been fairly certain that vegetation was the only thing saving the house from collapse. Two massive rhododendrons nearly enveloped the entire structure.  Someone long ago must have planted them beside the house, but over the years they’d grown into trees with broad, tough branches that hugged the sides and snaked over the roof.  A climbing rose at the back had gone feral, crawling up and over the walls, razor-sharp thorns merging with the rhododendrons, burying the cabin like a well-kept secret.

After another glance down the trail and around the perimeter, she sidled between two branches that had grown together into a thick, twisted arch, guarding the front door like wooden sentinels, and followed Ace onto the dilapidated porch.  Months ago when she’d found the cabin and managed to push the door open, screeching over the warped threshold, she’d been surprised and charmed by the place.

Just one room, cozy and dry, with a narrow window beside the door, another next to the platform bed built into the wall on the right, both with glass so thick it was impossible to see anything outside except distorted shapes.  A rough stone fireplace was directly opposite the door, and an ancient pot-bellied stove, three makeshift shelves and a stained, cast iron sink set into a handmade wooden frame made up the kitchen area to the left.  A small, scarred table was pushed against the wall near the stove where she'd found a handful of faded forest service maps and an old calendar that went back nearly 70 years.

After several visits, she had also discovered the remnants of an outhouse, a dilapidated shed and the jagged, rocky outline of what might have once been a garden enclosure.  She thought perhaps a trapper had originally built the house before the forest service had claimed it, but even their presence was long gone, the cabin forgotten.  And she was very grateful for that, because right now she desperately needed a place to stop and catch her breath where no one could find her.

Dropping her pack, she knelt to dig out the small LED lantern and set it on the table, then rolled her shoulders and heaved a deep sigh of relief to be rid of the weight and the worry.  She hung her jacket on a nail beside the door and bent to unfasten Ace’s saddlebags, laughing when he immediately threw himself on the floor, rolled to his back and with legs flailing in the air, wiggled back and forth like he had a serious itch between his shoulder blades.  “I know just how you feel, big guy.”  Flopping to his belly, tongue lolling, he beamed a big toothy grin at her.

She filled bowls with bottled water and food for him and as Ace dug in, she pulled the small camp stove and more water from her pack.  Several times, when they'd hiked up here to stay overnight or for a long weekend, she’d cooked on the old wood stove, enjoying the primitive feel of being alone in the true wilderness.  Over time the place began to feel like a haven, a safe place away from home, so whenever she and Ace made trips to the cabin, she’d brought a few extra things to leave behind. Now there was a spare sleeping bag, some ready-to-eat meals, cans of soup, old towels and blankets, a few dishes, a dented second-hand tea kettle and a large plastic container filled with a variety of tea bags and sugar packets.  She would be okay here, at least long enough to eat and sleep.

 Firing up the camp stove, she poured water into the kettle and had tea made in no time.  Folding one of the blankets into a thick pad, she sat on the floor and leaned against the wall, Ace tucked next to her munching on a dog biscuit. Taking a sip of the hot brew, she sighed with a mixture of relief and utter exhaustion.  She was hungry, but for the moment all she wanted was to sit with her dog and not move again until sometime next week. Then her stomach rumbled, loud enough to make Ace cock his head at the noise.

Smiling at his curious look, she scratched under his chin, set her mug on the floor and with a groan got to her feet to snag his saddlebags. Settled back on the blanket, she opened one side, pushing Ace’s inquisitive nose out of the way as she burrowed for the bag of cookies.

She ate two, sharing chocolate-free pieces with Ace while the night began edging toward dawn.  Dusting off the crumbs, she was taking a last swallow of tea, her body finally starting to unwind, when an overwhelming lassitude washed over her.  Suddenly weak and trembling, she knew this was a reaction to adrenalin overload; to a fear and panic she hadn't felt since her early days on the run; to belated sorrow at losing her cabin, and the conflict in her mind from those blasted kisses. Her body was letting her know in no uncertain terms that she was on borrowed time and ready to drop.  If her eyes closed right now, she’d be dead asleep on the floor in an instant, and far too vulnerable.

Fighting the urge to just give in to the enervating weakness, she forced herself to stand, grabbed the lantern and went outside with Ace.  As he made a circuit of the cabin, she searched the back near the trees until she found a thick, sturdy branch lying on the ground.  Back inside, she jammed it between the rusty door handle and the floor, wedging it tight. She knew this wouldn’t actually keep anyone out—certainly not someone like Mitch—but another layer of security never hurt. 

Picking the blanket up off the floor where she’d been sitting, she refolded it for Ace and laid it by the front door.  She spent a few quiet minutes with him, murmuring nonsense words as he settled, until her eyelids began to droop.  Weaving toward the bed, she spread a blanket on the wooden platform, folded another for a pillow and sat to take off her boots. Falling back onto the makeshift mattress, she covered herself with a sleeping bag, but just as exhaustion began to drag her down, the Ruger bit into her back.  With a soft sound, too close to a whimper to be comfortable, she shifted to one side, pulled the gun out of her waistband and slid it under her pillow.  She had a vague thought about removing her knife and sheath, but the maneuver just seemed far too complicated at the moment.

     Weary to her bones, she was asleep between one breath and the next, too deep to hear the soft scrape of a boot on the porch or the low growl rumbling from Ace's throat.

2 comments:

  1. Now begs the question, will it be a pleasant or ugly surprise?

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    Replies
    1. Suppose it depends on who you ask... ;D

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