After writing professional letters and sales copy for customers and friends in my too long career in the paint and industrial coatings industry, and thanks to my beautiful wife, I decided to leap into the unknown and become a full time writer. I made several attempts at various novels. After investing countless hours writing and questioning my very worth, I chalked up these metaphorical endless staircases to nowhere as practice for my latest work, Let Flowers be Flowers. A few kicks in the teeth later, based on reader feedback I reworked Flowers, added 13 chapters and once again feel it is ready for publishing. Since I had an interest in screen writing at the time, Flowers started as a screen play, and once again at the encouragement of my wife (I'm sensing a developing pattern), I decided to turn it into a novel. Doing so allowed me to explore writing descriptive text of various landscapes I know very well - from the coulee area of western Wisconsin to the boreal forest of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I have enjoyed writing Flowers because I was able to explore both character development and bringing to life the various relationships among men and their families. Exploring the sociopathic nature of a killer was an interesting twist, a character who was inspired by a deep imagination of what it is like to be a killer - what motivates a killer, what haunts a killer, and what purpose that killer believes he has in his life. In addition to pursuing my passion for writing, I work with several clients in areas of speech writing, political opinion pieces, and business or technical papers. I enjoy working with clients by taking in what their needs are and turning it into a product that has their voice, while bringing their message to their audience with interest.

“Why detective, so good to see you,” I said sarcastically.

“I’m sure it is, Ms. Maximine, I’m sure it is. What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into this time?” Tom asked.

“Are you a major yet? You guys have captains, lieutenants, foot soldiers, I think you should be a major. Major Tom, can you hear me major Tom? Can you hear me major Tom?” I sang.

Detective Tom Czerneski was clearly not amused. He never was. Tom always had an angle. The kind of cop who assumes to know every answer before he asks the question. The kind of man who spends too much time in the bathroom slogging on all matters of alchemy designed to keep women 29 until they’re 69. This guy would arrest his own mirror.

“That’s twice in a week, Philippine. I think it’s time you let me in on it don’t ya think?” he asked.

“There’s nothing to let you in on, Tom,” I said.

“Really? Let’s just recap for a second shall we? A mountain lion just happened to pick the lock on your office door for what? Because he was tired? Because he wanted a cup of coffee?” Tom asked.

“Oh hey good idea. You want a cup?” I asked.

“Cut the crap Maximine. I’m on your side here. Someone is trying to kill you and it’s my job to find out who and why,” he said.

A miscellaneous officer walked in and handed Tom a plastic bag.

“We have the bullet sir,” the officer said.

Detective Tom held the bullet up to the light in front of both of us.

“I imagine that would have hurt a bit,” he said.

“I’ll bet you’re the kind of class act who would hold up a baby and say that same thing to the mother,” I said.

“Let’s face it, you’re no kind of mother Maximine,” he said.

“Let’s just say I like to have the option. After all, you never know when a post middle aged tin star one forgotten birthday away from forced retirement might wander in and sweep a girl off her feet, you know that cop pension and all,” I said.

“You know I ought to run you in,” he said angrily.

“On what charge?” I asked.

Eight knuckles down on my desk he leaned in close and turned the tone dial up to serious.

“I’ll think of something,” he said quietly.

In poker terms, sometimes a dog bluffs, growling even though it’s afraid. It’s hoping you’ll fold and get the hell out of the game. Other times a growl can be its tell, it’s going all-in and attack is imminent. A dog person can tell the difference. As it turns out, I’m neither a dog nor a cat person, but I sure can tell when a cop is serious. I guess that makes me a cop person although I will refrain from taking one as a pet.

“Alright, alright, you win. Because you and I both know I’m going to need those ballistics…have a seat. Have you ever heard of the AAPT?” I asked.

I handed him a full cup of coffee and he took a seat in the old precinct chair.

“Rings a bell, something to do with the drug dogs downtown,” he said.

“Animals Are People Too,” I said.

Major Tom nearly spit his joe in my face, flinging himself forward in his chair in order to give his mouth a head start on catching it. He swallowed hard, clearing his throat to more effectively state his disbelief.

“In a nutshell, I have a woman cheating on her husband with an executive of the company. Not only is her husband completely aware of the situation, he’s busy whoring around with the all too young trophy wife of the father of the executive, head of the aforementioned AAPT. This guy, the husband is also the real estate broker for the company that is currently expanding. The wife knows the husband is cheating but doesn’t know with whom. That’s where I come in. I have an ex-client who recommended me to the executive, who in turn tells the cheating wife to hire me to prove the husband is unfaithful so she can take him for all he’s worth in the pending divorce. No sooner does she hit the bricks, when the husband walks in, tells me he knows what his wife wants me to do, that I shouldn’t trust her, and as long as I’m at it, he’ll double my fee to prove she’s cheating on him,” I explain.

“That’s a pretty big nutshell,” Tom said.

“Wait, it gets better. While I’m tailing the husband and the trophy wife, I see they are being tailed by a guy who appears to be a hired thug, likely put in motion by the father, i.e., the husband, founder, and CEO of AAPT, none other than Sir Alfred Meltone, renowned philanthropist and rabid animal rights activist. After my window was shot out, I saw what appeared to be the same car the guy was driving ripping down the alley,” I said.

“You get a plate?” he asked.

“I did not, I was too busy watching my cat escape.”

“That explains the smell,” he said.

“Yeah, well, anyways I don’t really think it was him. I think I’m just supposed to think it was him. Whoever took the shot couldn’t have been that bad at their job. And why shoot once? Why let me see the car after you missed? Something, besides this office just doesn’t smell right,” I said.

I couldn’t tell if I lost him, or if the gears were just turning all too slowly.

“So, the cat. That wasn’t the cat that…”

“No,” I laughed.

“Totally different cat. That was Dick. I acquired Dick, formerly Richard from the AAPT as a means of getting me in the door. Actually, that reminds me of something I need to do,” I said.

I grabbed a can of disinfectant and a handful of napkins from the credenza in my office.

“If you’ll excuse me,” I said.

“So what, that’s it? I’m just supposed to go on my merry way after that convoluted explanation?” Tom asked.

“Listen, I’ll keep you in the loop and if I need you, I’ll call you. You want an attempted murder rap, and I want to get the guy who’s attempting to murder me, so trust me, we’ll be in touch. Just let me know what you find out about that bullet,” I said.

“You’re going to have to give me more than that Maximine. For instance, where you going with that?” he asked.

“Um, there’s something on my car that desperately needs to be cleaned off,” I said.

“What’d you, or should I say who did you hit? You know destroying evidence will get you locked-up quicker than…” 

“Oh trust me, if I could have hit him I would have, and I would have been proud of the stain,” I said.

“Why not just take it in for a wash then?” he asked.

I fully intended on lumping Major Tom and all men together during my eloquently planned explanation detailing their disgusting tendencies and hence the need for an industrial disinfectant. Instead, he gave me an idea.

“First of all, car washes cost money, and anyways, they closed the only one on this side of town,” I said walking out the door.

I staked-out the car for more than an hour before the driver came out of the building. To accentuate the beauty of my mock filthy face I pulled my hair back and tied it under a floral print handkerchief. The ripped material over the toes of my old blue tennis shoes complimented the stained jeans I kept around for chores. My sweatshirt embarrassingly straight off the hanger in my closet completed my bum ensemble all too well.

“Wash your window? Wash your windshield?” I asked.

I came from the street side. Approaching from the sidewalk would have given the chauffeur a chance to thwart my advance. Although his window was open, his attention was given to the front doors of the AAPT office building, presumably waiting for his client. I sprayed the cleaner and started to smear it with a dirty rag immediately triggering an incensed reaction.

“Hey, what the, what the hell are you doing? I’m gonna, why you, get the hell…” 

The chauffeur flung the car door open and slammed it closed hard enough to pop the glass out of the mirror housing. It bounced once, providing us both with that split second of relief, that feeling you get when disaster is averted. At least until the rug is pulled out and it hits the ground a second time shattering on the concrete.

We both just stood there staring at the broken pieces glistening in the sun. Slowly he turned his gaze towards me. I could tell by the look on his face he blamed me.

Sure I could have apologized, most people would in that situation. I also could have ran away and based on his angry eyes that would have been understandable. Instead, I offered an alternative.

“Tell you what, let me clean that up for you, no charge,” I said.

Enraged, he grabbed me by my neck and threw me onto the hood of the car. As he was in the process of offering me a close-up look at the back of his knuckles, a man came from nowhere and grabbed his wrist.

“That’s enough!” 

Detective Tom spun the chauffeur around and slammed him onto the hood next to me. The man rolled off the car and faced off with Tom. He said nothing, even when Tom dangled his gold shield in the man’s face.

“Like I said, that’s enough,” Tom said.

Tom looked at me like a disappointed father would look at a daughter who got caught coming home late with her prom dress on backwards.

“You. Get the hell out of here,” Tom said.

I slid off the hood, wiped my mouth and slowly walked away, looking the limo over as carefully as I could. Having sort of found what I was looking for, I went back to my car and waited. It didn’t take long. Tom opened up the passenger door and slid into the seat.

“What the hell were you thinking Philippine? Had I not come along that guy would have…”

“I know, I know. And thank you. I never thought I’d be grateful for being followed,” I said.

“What did you hope to gain by that little stunt?” Tom asked.

“Cat tracks,” I said

I was holding a napkin to my bloody lip and presumably I was difficult to understand.

“What?” he asked.

“Cat tracks, claw marks, anything. Dick, the damn cat landed on the car that left the scene. The way my office was trashed with litter, he would have left a mark, something, anything,” I explained.

“Well?” Tom asked.

“Nothing, not a damn thing. The car was clean,” I said.

“Maybe he had it washed,” Tom said.

“I doubt it, there was no time. I mean, I would have asked him, but…”

“Yeah I know, you were too busy being an asshole,” he said.

“Yeah funny. Did you get anything, ask him anything?” I asked.

“I did. He told me he was getting coffee. He still had the cup in his center council. Hell, it was still warm,” Tom said.

“Still warm? That would have been hours ago,” I exclaimed.

“Let’s just say he went to the kind of place where you get a cup, you stay awhile, and then you get another cup to go. As a matter of fact, I’m going to head over there now, see if I can’t collaborate his story,” he said.

“Head over where?” I asked.

“Starboinks,” Tom said.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” I said.

I’m not much of a fan of literature in any form, but some time ago a bartender who I’d become familiar with rattled one off that struck a chord with me. So much so that I committed it to memory.

It was a year ago September, a day I well remember. I was walking down the street in drunken pride. When my knees began to flutter, I fell down in the gutter and a pig came by and lay down by my side. As I lay there in the gutter thinking thoughts I could not utter, a lady passing by was heard to say, ‘You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses,’ and the pig got up and slowly walked away.*

Starboinks may not have had the best coffee in town, but it didn’t matter, pigs who go to strip clubs generally don’t care what they serve.

“I’m coming, I’ll drive,” I said.

*An Irish Poem of Unknown Origin

A regretful loser, a person who makes poor and uninformed decisions, feeling like a complete and utter failure and the back-burner fear that you will be seen, judged, and labeled as all of the above. Step one onto the end of the return line at the department store. An admirable alternative such as giving whatever it was you wanted to return to someone raises questions as to why. Why don’t you like it, why doesn’t it fit, why doesn’t it work and why would you even buy it then? See step one. I would rather throw it away. What happens then when you buy a liar’s load of crap?

The shiny coating on his embossed and colorful business card bounced a ray of sun from my dirty office window onto the wall across from my desk. Richard was enamored with it and even the slightest movement of the card made the ray wiggle and shake. His compounding disappointment of multiple failed captures was potentially only eclipsed by its complete disappearance.

Owens Real Estate Holdings LLC., his name was written in cursive.

“Hello Mr. Owens? Philippine Maximine, yes, well, thank you, and yourself? Sure, sure, well, I won’t take too much of your time. Let’s just say I think based on our conversation yesterday that your concerns may yield some interesting validity. Yes, absolutely I think we should move ahead. Okay, great, I’ll touch base with you in a few days. Yes of course, feel free to contact me with anything you may think pertinent. Very good then, I look forward to working with you,” I hung up the phone.

Something about having to say goodbye on the phone felt necessary and forced. In person, a hug, a wave, or in certain circumstances a kiss says it all. Even certain phrases like ‘Okay well see ya later,’ or ‘Talk to you tomorrow’ have to be followed by a prerequisite goodbye where if I were to pin that tail to an in person meeting it would just feel palpably uncomfortable.

“Hello Mrs. Owens? This is Philippine Maximine. I’ve had a chance to go over the evidence and I feel like this should be a pretty routine case. If you could give me a call at the office, I just have to know more particularly what you are looking for along the lines of hard evidence, my fees, etcetera. My number is 744-5629,” I hung up the phone.

“Hello? Missy? Hi, yes this is Philippine Maximine. Remember me? Yes, great we are getting along famously as a matter of fact. Hmm yes, oh yes I agree, it is really great. Um, hey Missy, I’ve been thinking about it and you know, ‘Joining the club’ as Mr. Melton would say just feels like the right thing to do. Yeah, yeah, yes, that is really super extra great. I was wondering if you could help me set up a meeting with Mr. Meltone. As a volunteer I possess a highly particular skill set that may prove to be quite beneficial to the AAPT cause. Yes of course Wesley, is there another? Oh, well I wasn’t aware of that, or should I say him? Wesley and I have already met so…Sure, secretary, I’ll give her a call and set it up. Thank you, you’ve been, yeah, yeah, great to hear from you too, yeah great, great, bye now,” it was uncomfortable anyways.

At first glance the address didn’t ring a bell. It wasn’t until I was on my way that I knew where I was going and that’s how a simple office visit can become a metaphor for the rest of my life. It was the first place she stopped after the spa.

Through the glass doors I had three options. To the right, through another glass door, this one marked AAPT, I could see a similar reception desk to the uptown location that was happily staffed by a strikingly similar version of Missy. To the left, a law office level professional, solid wood office door also marked AAPT. Straight ahead, the multiple gates and doors of the world’s oldest looking elevator staye partially open as an official invitation to manic claustrophobia. Door two please.

Just inside, a typical secretarial desk and credenza staffed by a non-typical secretary answered at least one pressing question.

“Well hello Ms. Maximine, It’s so nice to see you again,” she said.

“Marnie Fankowski, you too, you too! I had no idea you worked here,” I said.

It had been weeks since I had spoken with Marnie. The death of a sibling is never easy, especially when the body is never found, and extra especially when investigating that death nearly gets you killed.

“Yeah, well this is it, welcome to my office. Can I get you a cup of coffee?” she asked.

“No thanks, I’m actually here for an appointment,” I said.

“Yes, I know, I was the one who scheduled you yesterday,” she said.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize your voice over the phone,” I said.

“Oh that’s okay, people sound different on phones. Then you just hung up, so I assumed you had some kind of emergency or something. I hope everything is okay,” Marnie said.

“No, no, everything is great, thanks for asking,” I said.

She hung there for a second in midair, chin up, presumably waiting for an answer as to why I hung up. Leaving people to wonder why you do certain things keeps you in their thoughts.

“Say Marnie, did you recommend me to anyone recently?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact I did. I overheard Mr. Meltone speaking with um, well I heard him inquire as to maybe hiring a private investigator and I had no choice but to interrupt and let him know all about you. About everything that happened, everything you did for us, me and Gage that is, Ross too, I mean, going into the wilderness, finding those people, nearly not making it out yourself,” Marnie gushed.

“I’m just glad I could find you some answers. Thanks so much for the recommendation. Sometimes word of mouth is the best advertising,” I said.

“Oh for sure, for sure, no problem. I’m just going to let Mr. Meltone know you’re here,” she said.

“He’ll see you now,” Marnie said.

“Why Ms. Maximine it’s a pleasure to see you again. I understand you’re interested in joining the club, possibly volunteering,” Wesley said.

After a short pause while claiming the seat to which he motioned I threw him the first curve.

“What’s odd Mr. Meltone is I didn’t tell Marnie why I needed to meet with you,” I said.

“Wesley please, and well, I assumed of course. I mean why else would you want to meet with me?” he asked laughingly.

“Maybe joining the club, but volunteering is pretty specific, that wouldn’t be assumed. I’m guessing you spoke with Missy,” I said.

“Yes, that’s entirely possible, I office from both locations,” he said.

“Fair enough. You’re right though. You may not know it, but as it would happen, I am a private investigator. I’m sure that in your line of business, you know, working for your father, you could possibly use someone like me for, I don’t know, to help the animals somehow,” I said cryptically.

Wesley just sat there faking paying attention, both elbows on the desk pushing his fingertips into a tent.

“That’s one hell of a boat right there,” I said.

Behind Wesley on the bookshelf was a picture of him next to an obvious couple on the deck of a monster sailing yacht. It was obvious by other pictures in the office that the older man was his father, but the young girl he was wearing wreaked of interesting.

“Yes, yes it is,” he said.

He reached back, picked up the framed photo and handed it to me.

“It’s my father’s latest toy, Buffy,” Wesley said.

I focused for a moment on the picture while deciding exactly how to respond to that statement.

“There’s definitely a high degree of beauty there,” I said.

“Nice try, Ms. Maximine,” he said.

Wesley leaned forward and snatched the photo from my hands, giving me the same kind of look you get when you get caught lying about your age.

“The boat, the boat is named Buffy. It just so happens he named it after the girl, his girl, that girl,” he said.

“My, there’s quite a significant age difference is there not?” I asked.

“Yes, Ms. Maximine, there is indeed. What do you say we just get right down to it then shall we? The jig was up when you walked into this office. You of course know Marnie don’t you Ms. Maximine? And as you are a private dick, presumably worth half your salt, you didn’t happen in here by accident did you Ms. Maximine? So might I ask exactly what, or who you are looking for?” Wesley asked.

“Let’s just say that I wouldn’t be worth my salt if I were to breach my client’s trust by revealing too many details but…she interests me, Mr. Meltone, very much,” I said.

Previous to me walking into that office I had never heard of Buffy. Hell, I didn’t even know her last name, but I knew she played a role in this thing somehow, I could smell it. I just didn’t know how meaningful of a cog she was. A wise man said to me years ago, ‘The guys that put cogs in machines do it for a reason. Even a cog on a sign is for lookin’ at.’”

Wesley’s intercom buzzed like a messenger who loved to deliver bad news.

“Yes, what is it Ms. Fankowski?” Wesley asked into the box.

“Your father wanted me to let you know he was leaving now,” Marnie said.

“Very good, I’ll be right out,” he said.

He stood up and assembled the bottom buttons of his suit coat.

“Well, Ms. Maximine, I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you today but I think it’s safe to assume this meeting is adjourned,” Wesley said.

“Your father huh? Wow, I’d love to meet him,” I said.

I made a quick move out the door. Standing impatiently in front of Marnie’s desk was the man himself, Sir Alfred Meltone, millionaire philanthropist, recluse, and animal right’s activist among other things. Portly, gray haired, with thin stick legs he leaned on a cane to compensate for being top-heavy. Behind him was Buffy, also top-heavy in her own right but for different reasons. Absolutely every single aspect of The Muffy Rule was in play with Buffy. The man obviously had a type.

Although I had the opportunity to meet him before Wesley could catch me, I decided to hang back. That way, it would be much easier to tail them.

I skipped a formal goodbye with Wesley and caught the door just before they did. After a repulsive kiss between the two, they each entered different limousines. Once Sir Alfred was out of sight, Buffy hailed a taxi. What I doubt Buffy was capable of noticing was the limo followed her anyways. The driver had a hard-plastic face. A face that would never show fear, or anger, or love and happiness. I had known the type. What neither of them knew was I was following them both.

Had she worn clothes that provided a function beyond that of a lingerie store mannequin, she would have been able to walk the three blocks to her destination, Owens Real Estate Holdings, LLC.

I watched outside until they left together, Buffy and Mason. The limo waited as well, further down the block out of line of sight. Three more steps and he would have seen them. I put the pedal to the floor, even squeaked a tire. I slid to a stop in front of them, leaned over and flung the passenger door open.

“Hello Mr. Owens. If I was you, I would get in this car before you take another step. You too Buffy, now hurry, get in before he sees,” I said.

They both bent down and stared into the car.

“Now dammit!” I yelled.

Mason opened up the back door and they both slid inside.

“Duck, duck down,” I said.

“What’s this all about?” Mason asked.

“Someone’s always watching the watcher, sound familiar?” I asked.

The inside of my office smelled like some kind of spoiled food marinated in a bath of ammonia and feces. The corner of my desk was scratched into splinters. Every single piece of paper on my desk was now on the floor, some of them wet. Slowly, I pulled my pistol from the back of my belt.

“Oh no please you can’t! Not the poor kitty!” Buffy pleaded.

She grabbed my arm to stop me. I probably wouldn’t have done it, but it may have made me feel better to have the option for a minute. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that long, the bullet blew my old dirty window into a million pieces, passed by us all and wedged into the opposite wall of the hallway outside my office.

Richard, or Dick as I now call him, seized his opportunity to escape into the alleyway below. He bounced off the roof of a passing limousine headed full speed away from the scene, landed on his feet, and disappeared into the city.

“Well, at least I don’t have to return him,” I said.

“Hi Carl,” I said casually.

I was doing my best to make it seem like I wasn’t carrying an institutional sized bag of kitty litter. Carl and the window lettering guy were having the sort of conversation that stops when the person they are talking about walks into the room.

“Um, hello. Please, allow me,” Carl replied.

He held my office door open, carefully peaking inside, closing it rather quickly after I passed through.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed.

Every single time that I have opened and closed that office door during my tenure here, the glass rattled. I was aware that it was most likely due to age, but it always made me feel as if it were rickety and that it was only a matter of time before it was going to shatter upon closing.

“Carl!”

I yelled his name for no other reason than I was inside the office and he was not. I flung the door open, excited that it worked so well.

“Carl?”

Carl and the lettering guy were nearly to the end of the hallway.

“I just wanted to…”

There was no point, they were outside before I could finish the sentence. I understood, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around Carl being faster than, well frankly, anyone.

“Poor lettering guy,” I mused.

I decided I would wait for him to come back and finish before I brought in the food bag, but in the meantime, I had an errand to run.

“Hi! Welcome to AAPT! How can we help you today?” McBubbly asked.

According to the cat-shaped tag on her blouse her name was Missy, but McBubbly seemed to fit more accurately. I had never met a Missy whom I could recall, but I felt like this particular one was governed by the Muffy Rule. Far from a universal constant, the Muffy Rule was a theory I stumbled onto after a bottomless glass of wine in a bar too close to the college campus. It very simply states that all Muffys, as well as corresponding friends including but not limited to Buffys, Bunnys, Sissys, Missys, and sometimes Heathers must have blonde hair, be annoyingly bubbly, wear heels with nearly any outfit, and attract men like moths to a flame.

“Hello Mc, um, Missy. I was hoping you could introduce me to the newest and furriest love of my life,” I said somewhat sarcastically.

“Aww? Really? Like, that’s so sweet! I would love to be a part of this day in your life today! I have to tell you, the way you asked was like the most awesomest thing you could have ever said! And I know, you’d probably like take them all, but are you looking for a sweet, cute, and super-duper cuddly kitty or a big, soft, huggable and playful puppy to share your world with?” Bubbly asked.

There were few things I had not gotten around to doing that morning including eating breakfast. Had I, thanks entirely to McBubbly, I would have just tasted it for a second time. I forgot something else though, far more destructive to my psyche and personal well-being. Not only did I drive to the office, picking up cat supplies along the way, but I was in the parking lot of the shelter before I remembered the dick smudge on my window. Granted I had a lot going on, but a window stain of this magnitude should have demanded my utmost attention. Faced again with only my sleeve to wipe it off, I reached down and scraped up a handful of dust and gravel from the parking lot. The rocks clinked off the glass, but the white dust stuck the way cops leave visible fingerprints on a drinking glass after dusting. Great.

“I was thinking cat,” I said.

“Aww, we have so many adorable kitties who I’m sure would just love to share your life with you. We just need to start with a few like, you know, questions?”

She just sat there looking at me with her face.

“Um, sure. Glad to, happy to,” I said.

“Great! How did you hear about us? What I mean is what made you pick AAPT?” she asked.

“I saw your sign, animal adoptions,” I said.

“Great! Are you familiar with AAPT and our adoption services?” she asked.

“No, I’ve been thinking about it for awhile and like I said, I saw the sign and decided, ‘Today’s the day’. I’m not even sure what the acronym on your sign stands for,” I said.

“Great! I can help you! I’ll have to ask about the acronym thingy, but our sign says AAPT and that stands for Animals Are People Too! Isn’t that great?” she asked enthusiastically.

“Wow, that is,” I said.

I scorn things in my life I find ludicrous although I’ve done a great job over the years not letting others in the room know how ridiculous I think they are. All of my skills to that extent were on the table now as I was immersed hip-deep in a dank pool of crazy.

“I know right? We just have a few forms for you to fill out today, you can have a seat in one of our super comfy chairs and enjoy a cup of our super scrumptious fair-trade coffee,” McBubbly said.

I’ll admit the coffee was good. I filled out the litany of forms, somewhat surprised that my blood type was not in question. An informational pamphlet rack formed an unavoidable wall between the coffee and the only writing table available. I collected a handful for the road including why leather was bad, where I should buy my coffee from, why eating meat will kill me, and how the fur industry is in fact a metaphor for world domination by capitalists.

“You guys really ask a lot of questions,” I said.

“Great! You’re all done! We do our best to make sure your friend of choice is the best overall fit for both of you going forward. Isn’t that just something?” she asked.

“Yeah, great,” I said.

“I know, right? Well if you’ll just step this way into our amazing living quarters we can find you the best friend your looking for,” she said walking.

The bright white room was lined with cages, some quite large with bars thick enough to house anything large. The new, gray paint still shined on the concrete floor. The smell of it mixed with bleach imposed on my senses. I felt sorry for the beasts that had to breathe it in all day. Bubbly chattered on and on, something about never putting an animal down and the good folks at AAPT going the extra mile.  

“So, how long have you guys been around? The AAPT I mean,” I asked.

“Ooh, you know what? I’m not really sure about that. We are currently expanding in the area though to really try and help every last animal we can,” she said.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Oh I’ve been here since we opened,” she said.

“I take it that’s recently?” I asked.

“Oh yes, like I said, we are expanding,” she said.

A dinging bell sent Missy back to the front entry, presumably to irritate a different victim.

“Oh my, well, duty calls! Feel free to look around and get to know some of our guests. You never know who’s going to pick you! And remember. Let’s not open any cages without an official representative from AAPT present to assist you okay? Okay great!” she sang.

I wandered the rows half expecting one of them to bang a tin cup against the bars. Dogs were front and center, wagging their tails and air licking me through the tiny holes. Most cats were evasive, staying against the back walls of their cells, trusting nothing. There was one cat however who’s eyes appeared to lock onto my soul as I passed. He was gray with black stripes and most definitely troubled. I don’t think he was abused. I felt like instead his troubles were more self-imposed, like he laid awake at night questioning every decision he’s ever made while bouncing a ball of yarn off the wall over and over again until the wine was gone.

“Richard,” I said reading off the tag.

The penmanship was all Muffy, but he clearly came with the name. I heard the double doors leading to the front entrance bang open. Heavy heels pounded the new paint, the pitch was soprano, a woman, aggressive and in some sort of hurry.

“Of course Mrs. Owens, of course. I’m sure he’s expecting you, but I’ll just have to let him know that you are here. Mrs. Owens? Mrs.?”

Mary Owens charged through the animal living quarters presumably en route to the heavily reinforced steel door in the back of the room. Finding it locked, her tiny fists lacked the necessary meat to make a significant enough boom on the heavy metal to be noticed. I decided it best to remain anonymous among the natives.

“I know you’re in there,” Owens yelled as she banged.

She continued to rave for minutes while McBubbles did what she could to thwart her aggression. Eventually the door swung open. A large man bulging at the seams of his cheap suit stood in most of the frame blocking her way.

“He will see you now,” the large man said.

He stepped aside and let her pass. He glanced momentarily at Bubbles but turned his full gaze to the cage I hid behind as he closed the door. I had been noticed. My instinct to look up confirmed the many cameras that lived in the room. McMuffy noticed me as well.

“Well, how did we do?” she asked.

“I’ll take this one. Richard,” I said.

“Great! I do have to tell you that Richard is one of our older residents and sometimes it’s a little bit harder for them to get accustomed to a new home, but they sure are easy to love!” she exclaimed.

I bent down to get a better look into the cage.

“Are you sure about him?” she asked.

“Yup, he’s the one. I feel like we can relate somehow,” I said.

“Great! That’s awesome! Let me go ahead and put one of our special notes on his house, that way everybody will know he’s spoken for,” she said.

“I have a collar and leash in the car, I’ll just go out and…”

“Oh! You know that’s great that your so extra prepared to love him but I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to take him home today. You see we have to approve your application. I’m afraid not everyone is, you know, just right for like, sharing their lives with some of our guests,” she said.

“Just right?” I asked.

Buffy leaned in close and whispered into one hand to block those who might be figuratively listening, “Some people are just big meanies.”

“I thought the idea was to adopt them out. You know, find them homes?” I asked.

“It’s quite simple actually,” the man said.

I never heard him coming. All of a sudden he was just ‘there’. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the steel doors were now open and there was no sign of Mrs. Owens or the immense man.

“You see, we don’t know anything about you Ms. Maximine. For all we know, you could be moving these animals into shall we say, a less desirable situation,” he said.

“Less desirable than a cage? And apparently you do know something about me seeing as how you just used my name,” I said.

“Why it’s on your paperwork of course Ms. Maximine. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Wesley Meltone, I’m the President of AAPT,” Wesley said offering his hand.

“Nice to meet you. Philippine Maximine,” I said.

“Ms. Maximine I will tell you that in order for us to get to know you better, you might want to consider joining the club so to speak,” he said.

“The club?”

“Yes, well you see AAPT is much more than just adopting cats and dogs. We do our best to use our resources to do what’s right for our communities. We donate time and money to organizations that may otherwise lack funding opportunities, maybe even help to affect policy. We even rescue and home exotic animals that otherwise would undoubtedly have to be euthanized. Becoming a member of the club just means you’ve donated. It’s all on the up and up I can assure you,” Wesley explained.

“If I do, can I take the cat home today?” I asked.

“Well of course, of course you can,” he said.

“Excuse me Mr. Meltone but,” Bubbles tried to interject.

“I’m sure it will be fine Missy, everything is going to be just fine. Missy here will make sure you get what you need. A pleasure Miss Maximine,” he said.

He motioned his hand and the big man appeared. He whispered something in his ear and he promptly left the building. Wesley returned to the room with steel doors. Looking inside I could see now it was an office, warm and comfortable with castle topped chairs and a large ornate desk, affectionately adorned with a ready and waiting Mrs. Mary Owens.

On the way home Richard sat in the front seat fully panicked, maniacally meowing at the passenger window like he was calling for God himself to come down and rescue him. Undoubtedly he noticed the smudge and was only echoing the sentiment of every other cat he’s ever known.

Two for one sales have never been a good deal for me. Standing in the snack aisle because I went to the store hungry, the steel cage, double elimination, winner take all the cookies match inside my head had me frozen in place until the shelf-stocking guy started looking at me funny. Offering me two bags should have been a deterrent. Either way, I lose. I never had to endure an inner struggle over lettuce. 

Tailing the black jag was only one bag of cookies. I deemed it in my best interest to learn more. I have never been much of a spa girl. I always felt a touch of the round peg syndrome, and there was always some woman sitting in the square hole with that certain look in her eye telegraphing the idea that people like me weren’t welcome. 

I had no way of knowing what she knew of me, what I drove, where I lived. I was counting on the anonymity of my saddle tan four door sedan to be just another mostly invisible bandage on the skin of one of the ladies in the square hole.

“Excuse me, excuse me ma’am? Is everything okay?” asked the miscellaneous man in the parking lot.

“I’m just fine, thanks,” I replied.

“You know I just sort of wondered, I saw you sitting here. I was just inside the laundromat and like I said you’ve been sitting here for some time,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, I’m fine,” I said shortly.

“I know, but like I said,” he prattled on.

This was the sort of person almost guaranteed to be killed in a monster movie. The last thing the viewer would see would be his legs going straight up as presumably he was in the process of being eaten, maybe a splatter of blood for good measure and an R rating. 

“Look! I said I’m fine!” I told him. “Now have a nice day,” I added.

“Oh, well, then what do you think about this?” he asked.

The man was wearing an older and somewhat tattered pair of dark gray sweatpants, so it was easy for him to pull out his penis. He touched it onto the glass of my passenger window. 

I would like to visit the word mentality. Generally when we think of it, or bring it up in general conversation, some person or group’s actions or words are being brought into question by those of us who believe we have a comparatively much better grip on sanity. We can’t quite wrap our heads around the ‘mentality’ of said group or individual. Does potential proof that God is indeed a woman lie in the fact that the root of mentality is mental, and the root of mental, is men?

A shroud of anger and shame covered me. I wanted to scream but I uttered no sound. I wanted to move away, run, anything, but I couldn’t move. My mind raced to process the attack. I wondered what I had done to deserve this, why was this happening? If he would have laid his hands on me, if he had physically assaulted me, I would like to believe that my reaction would have been more immediate, and I would have killed him where he stood.

“You son-of a,” the only words I could finally manage to mutter in the heat of the moment.

I leaned towards him and popped open the glove compartment. This seemed to excite him even more, at least until I was pointing a pistol directly at his penis. He tucked it back in his pants and ran. I got out of the car as quickly as I could, still shocked and angry, I had every intention of running him down and causing him as much bodily harm as I could muster. The black Jag backing out may have saved his life.

I had officially lost all focus on the case. My tailing method was becoming questionable. Every time I checked my passenger mirror I could see a little mark on the window, like a fingerprint but not so much. It was like an accident I couldn’t look away from. I was having difficulty keeping up with her.

She had little choice but slow her roll once she happened into the warehouse district. The old brick buildings and roads were laid out to accommodate wood spoked trucks and rail cars, neither one of which moved quickly back in the day. The current trend in construction was up-cycle and re-use. New businesses were popping into ground level units like wildfire.

The corner unit with old-timey yet brand new AAPT lettering on the windows wouldn’t have been my first guess as a sketchy destination. It sported a wrought iron staircase that wound around the corner into what might have been the only worthy grass for blocks. The small green area was planted in the footprint of a long gone building between two others that survived the ages. A tin roof lean-to protected a heavily fenced area and another staircase ascending to a side entry. 

A young woman leashed to a pack of dogs came out the side door, unleashed them all and let them run. 

“Hell of an alarm,” I thought.

I stayed in the tan sedan, watching as she watched the dogs. The Tan Sedan was my car, my girl. It was plain, even a little rusty but it ran great, good power, good heat, air and always started in the winter. I had never heard of AAPT, but then again I never heard of a lot of things, until I had.

The dogs went inside and a few moments later Mrs. Owens came out. We headed into the post WWII housing west of downtown. Main streets were plain, with useful businesses and the occasional small grocer. The next stop looked to be an old gas station with a plain square addition and fenced area on the side. This time there was a sign. AAPT Specialty Animal Adoption Services. With double barbed wire topped fencing it looked more like a prison exercise yard than a dog park. Plastic privacy slats in the outside fence protected the privacy of the dogs. 

Mrs. Owens stayed roughly the same amount of time as she had at the last location and filled her gas tank on the way home. I headed back to my office, intent on contacting Mr. Owens, billing him for my time and impolitely declining his case, then contacting her and asking for more information. 

“Maybe she’s looking for a dog or something, a cat, like an office cat,” I said to myself, chuckling.

Looking at the mirror, at the spot, reminded me of the laundromat again, and how in the world I could have forgotten to clean my window. Outside my office I approached the spot but suddenly using my sleeve repulsed me. Inside I was sure there was glass cleaner in the cabinet. The idea of using some sort of chemical seemed like the proper course of action.

As I put the key into the lock, my office door opened just a little too easily. It was unlocked, and as sure as I need coffee in the morning, I don’t leave my office door unlocked. Looking both ways in the hallway I took my pistol from the back of my belt and slowly pushed open the door. I swung left, then right, eyes level behind the gun. Where the barrel looked, I looked. I moved into the room. I heard it before I saw it, growling lightly in the lower left corner of my peripheral. It lunged at me throwing paws with wild and amazing speed. I fired as it hit my arm, blowing the glass in my door into a million pieces, sending my pistol flying across the room. 

I felt its claws cut through my shirt and skin as the attack flung me onto and over my desk. I gained my bearings to face it, the gears in my head slowly clicking in order to process what I was seeing. Her teeth were flared, she was dipped on her front haunches, crawling in my direction, ready to strike again. I pulled my top drawer out of the desk and bounced it off her rock-hard head. She let out the kind of noise that told me it hurt, but now she was pissed. I made for the door. 

Usually when you shoot a gun inside of an office building, even an old, broken down and crooked office building, during daylight hours, someone is going to hear.

“You okay in there Ms. Maximine?” asked Carl, the building superintendent.

He was outside my office door, leaning in my direction, hiding behind the safety of a large cart of cleaning supplies, brandishing a mop with a brand-new head. I can be sure he never expected me to come out headfirst through the window hole.

“Run!” I screamed.

I barely made it to my feet before the puma followed me through the window. 

“Go, go, she’s coming!” I yelled.

I could hear her claws scratching for purchase on the wood floor. I was gaining on Carl to the point where I thought he might very well be a dead man. Just as we made it to the door leading outside at the end of the hallway, he fell. Determined not to trip over another old man, I flung myself into the wall, hoping to carom off into the push handle of the door. Just as I had, the lion apparently jumped, at least that’s what Carl told me. What nobody could have predicted was as Carl fell, instead of playing dead, or even trying to get back up, he stuck the mop in the air like a medieval knight hoping the dragon would fall onto his sword. 

Because mops don’t pierce the bellies of mountain lions, it instead acted like a catapult. Coupled with my keen timing and a little bit of luck we were fortunate enough to send her flying right out the door.

“What the hell was that?” Carl yelled.

“That? That was a mountain lion, or puma I guess, depends on where your from,” I said, panting like the lion that just attacked me.

“What the hell was it doing… Hey, are you ok?” he asked.

I was clutching the claw cuts on my arm, my shirt sleeve soaked in blood. 

“Um, no, I don’t think so. I’m getting a little woozy,” I said.

I leaned back against the wall and let myself slide down into a seated position on the floor.

“I’m going to call for help,” Carl said.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said as Carl hurried down the hall.

“Hey Carl! My office door is open,” I yelled to him jokingly.

“By the way, how’d you know it was a girl? And where the hell did it come from?” Carl asked.

“Because she had a pink collar, and I wish I knew, I wish I knew,” I said.

Those were the last words I could remember. I passed out a few moments later and woke up in the hospital, again. For a moment, when I opened my eyes I was back in Ely, I felt the relief of finally being safe from the grasp of Darlene. Then I remembered the lion, and relief turned into anger.

“Nurse? Nurse?” I yelled.

“Hello Ms. Maximine,” he said as he walked into the room.

“Hey flatfoot, get me the nurse would ya?” I said.

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that,” he said.

“Call you what? Flatfoot? How about the fuzz? The man? Here piggy, piggy,” I taunted.

“How about detective, or maybe even Tom, and let’s not do this whole act like you don’t know me thing, I have a lot to do,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, okay Mr. Tom, what can I do for you?” I asked.

“For starters you can tell me about the lion, you know the one you shot at? When you could have killed somebody?” he said.

“Gimme a break Mr. Tom, what the hell was I supposed to do? It was a friggin’ lion, ya know? You got it?” I asked.

“Got what?”

“You know what, now hand it over please?” I said sitting up in bed.

Detective Tom took in a deep sigh, reached into his inside coat pocket and slapped my semi auto pistol into my outstretched hand.

“Here. Now, about the lion,” he said.

“I don’t know Tom, I don’t know. But I can promise you I’m going to find out,” I said.

Back at my office the window had already been replaced, lettering would have to wait.

Looking at the carnage that once was my office, two thoughts occurred to me. The first was I was most definitely going to take Mason Owens up on his offer just as soon as I could put my phone back together and parlay a dial tone. Secondly, after this last experience, I was thinking I might just need an office cat after all, and I had a pretty good idea of where I could get one. That, and another bag of cookies.

“I’m usually not the sort of person who has flowers on her desk, but these, I might keep some around once in a while,” I said.

“Alright,” Mary said slowly, dismissively.

Without further ado I’d like to open the bidding on not blaming the husband.

“Um yeah, look, to be honest, I’m not really here about the flowers. I kind of said that to you know, get the conversation going? Maybe you don’t like, deal with certain people a lot, but that’s how it is usually,” Mary explained.

“Well Mrs. Owens, I actually have quite a bit of experience with self-entitled assholes and usually I like, you know, tend to end those conversations as soon as possible.”

My coffee cup had never been officially washed in soap and water for the entirety of the time it has lived in this office. I sometimes think that ancient coffee has permeated the pores of the ceramic so deeply that it acts as some sort of glue that keeps it from breaking when I slam it onto the desk to accentuate my point. Mary just stared at the cup with a fake, fallen smile on her face.

“Um, yeah, well now that you have that out of your system, lets discuss what I want you to do,” Mary said.

“Wait, wait, hold it right there. I have not even said I was going to take your case. In fact, after meeting you I doubt very highly that there’s anything you could say that would convince me to,” I said.

She mumbled something inaudible and was shaking her head in disgust as she fumbled with something in her designer bag. I kicked back in my strangely comfortable chair and dropped both feet firmly on my desk, the same desk where she slammed down a stack of fresh, bank banded greenbacks.

“What about now?” she asked.

“You have my attention,” I told her.

“Of course I do. Money is everything to you people,” she said.

I swallowed ‘you people’ as if it were two, whole, unchewed grapes that I had every intention of spitting back into her face.

“I mean, why else would you be in business? I’ve done a little research and private eyes aren’t cheap,” she said.

Okay, she can live.

“If you’re wondering why I chose you, believe it or not, you come highly recommended,” she said.

“Believe it or not? Look,” my feet came back to the ground as I was about to stand and let her have it once and for all but once again, her mouth got to the finish line first.

“Now before you go slamming your grimy mug on the desk again you have to admit you haven’t been very welcoming. Furthermore, I don’t understand how someone in your line of work could be so easily offended.”

In the race for life, my anger was only second due to the overwhelming desire to pay rent, but not by much. Utter disbelief that this stereotypical bitch really existed was a very close third.

“What do you say we get down to business, hmm?” she said.

“The man you’re going to be proving is cheating is Mason Owens. Of course he’s my husband,” she said.

“What makes you so sure but not sure enough that you need to hire me?” I asked.

“A woman knows, wouldn’t you agree? I’ll tell you right now Mason is not a stupid man, however, he is careless. I’m counting on his carelessness to be his undoing,” she said.

“Who did you say recommended me?” I asked.

“I didn’t. I didn’t say. But the fact that you are a woman may in fact pay dividends in this case. I’ll assume you can blend-in? You see I’m not quite the type of person who, I don’t know, stands out in a room shall we say?”

“So it was a woman?” I asked.

“You really like, have to get off that already. Think about it Philippine, if I wanted you to know, I would have told you by now. Let’s just say the person who recommended you wishes to remain anonymous,” she said.

“You know what I think Mrs. Owens? I think you’re full of shit. I don’t think there was any recommendation whatsoever. I think you did not want to hire a man because you’re afraid they would have laughed in your face if they haven’t already. I think I’m your last resort, your only place left to turn to prove your husband is cheating on you, which may or may not even be true. And for what? Why do you want this to be true so badly? Why ever would you want rain to fall in your perfectly little plastered, pasty-white life?”

“Consider the cash an advance,” she said through half of a smile.

“And you’ll be needing this as well,” she added while dropping a file folder on my desk.

She shouldered her purse, turned, and headed for the door.

“Good day Ms. Maximine, I expect I’ll be hearing from you.”

“Wait, there’s paperwork, I’m not sure what this is but it may not be enough, excuse me? Mary! Mrs. Owens!”

She raised her left hand and either offered me a backwards half-hearted parade wave, or a poorly constructed bird as she walked out the door.

One of the problems with making fresh coffee, is the lack of water in my office. Sure, I could get a water cooler but then there’s the water bottle guy who is always going to be bringing me too much water. Plus, how often does the company change guys? Unknown, access granted, random individuals aren’t welcome in my line of work.

Water is available from the building’s communal bathroom down the hall. I say bathroom because after the wall-hugging hike down the Alice in Wonderland hallway you come to a room with a toilet, a sink borne of plumbing antiquity, and a broken lock. The room is most definitely not in the least bit restful.

I still wasn’t sure about Mary or if I was going to take the case. On the other hand these sorts of cases are generally pretty easy. You tail a guy, snap some pics, maybe take a closer listen if necessary, simple stuff. He’s either up to no good or he’s not. The only thing close to camping that will take place is spending a few hours staked-out in the car. At least for the time-being, I didn’t want to be outside any more than I had to.

With my empty mineral-stained coffee pot, I strolled past a man who I pegged as being anything but a random visitor to this building. I would bet he spent more time grooming himself than every similar aged man within a two-block radius. Each of his hairs appeared to be sprayed and laid individually into place and his scent, though not overwhelming seemed as if it knew how to float around intelligently, how to find my senses at just the right moment.

He was sitting in my old precinct chair, legs effeminately crossed, perfectly comfortable and composed.

“Hello Ms. Maximine. My name is Mason, Mason Owens. I believe you’ve just met my wife Mary. Enchanting woman isn’t she?” he said, I believe sarcastically.

“Actually I thought she was kind of a bitch,” I said.

I had every intention of offering him a normal, socially acceptable greeting. Even to the point where I could feel myself looking for a place to set down the decanter so I could shake his hand. Mid neural synapse, unabashed truth took over regardless of consequence.

Mason Owens’ smile was made of trash. Stark raving white dumpsters filled with absolute garbage. Notably missing were any recognizable genuine human attributes that ought constitute such a treasured emotional response.

“And I have no doubt that if I were a woman you might feel the same about me, but as you can plainly see, I am not. No, instead I’m a man on a mission. You see Ms. Maximine there are two things I would like to know. One is how much is she paying you, and two, what will she do when she finds out,” he said.

“I’m sorry but what she wants to pay me, and for that matter, what she hired me for is none of your damn business,” I said.

“Of course it is. Please don’t be ridiculous Ms. Maximine. We both know it’s my money anyways. She did little more to earn it other than to hold the sheets down with her bare back. Secondly, like any spoiled little girl, she throws a little accusatory temper tantrum every time she shakes her moneymaker and I’d rather be doing almost anything else rather than having one more broken chip from the bottom of the bag. So you see what she is paying you, I am paying you.”

He stood up and extended his hands, offering to take over the coffee making procedure. He poured the water into my Mr. Life Blood while I sprinkled new grounds over the old ones, filling the filter to capacity, wholly determined to get every last usable drip out of the beans.

“Considering who’s money we are speaking of, knowing, for peace of mind of course, that Mary’s and my relationship issues could be potentially amicably solved to be mutually beneficial, I am prepared to offer you the opportunity to double your pay. I promise, you’ll have no more to do than during any other routine case. In fact, you’ll most likely have less,” he said.

“Go on,” I said as I took a seat behind my desk.

“It’s very simple really, whatever she’s paying you with my money to follow me, double it. Picture if you will, the ease of your task if you happened to know exactly where I was, when I would get there, and what I was doing,” he said.

“I see, you go out and lead a fake life so I can let her know what a fine and upstanding husband and citizen you are. You know Mr. Owens, I wasn’t even going to take your wife’s case but now, after meeting you, after this, shit. The hell I won’t. Now you can just take your—”

“Just wait a minute! Clearly, you don’t understand,” he interrupted.

“Oh I understand. You’re afraid to get caught. Clearly, she’s right, isn’t she?”

“Maybe she is. Maybe she isn’t. You’ll find out if you just simply do your job. What you don’t understand is I don’t care if she finds out. I might even prefer that she does. Finding out from you might somehow give closure. God knows she’ll never leave by my word. Do you really think I’m going to grow old with her? Do you really think I want that painted whore to be the mother of my children? And for shit’s sake, do you really think she needs to hire a private detective to tell her if I’ve been cheating? And why you?” he asked.

“She said I came highly recommended,” I said.

“Yes, but did she tell you by who?” he asked.

“No, no she didn’t. In fact, she made it a point to not tell me, said I didn’t need to know,” I said.

“You have to ask yourself why. And then you have to ask yourself why not. As in, why not take this man’s money, why not pay my rent in advance for once? Maybe put a few bucks in the bank, buy yourself something nice, whatever,” he said.

Mason grabbed himself a mug from inside the credenza where Mr. Coffee lived. He spent a few seconds looking inside.

“Do you ever clean these?” he asked.

“No, ruins the flavor,” I said.

Mason took the pot out before it was done brewing and poured some into the dirty mug.

“What you have to understand Ms. Maximine is yes, there may have been a few marital discrepancies. And if Mary were to find out, let’s just say it might not be the worst thing for me. Not that I really want to see her go, deep down we had something at one point. But dead, that most definitely would be the worst thing for me. Her dead, me dead, and now that you’re involved, you dead, would be the worst thing for everybody,” he said.

“Wait, dead? Who’s talking about dead? And I am most definitely not involved,” I stated defensively.

“Oh, you are definitely involved Ms. Maximine, most definitely. You see whoever recommended you to her in all likelihood also wants to know something and using her to use you to find the answers they seek is just the sort of thing these people excel at,” he said.

“Correct me if I’m wrong but if the people you’re thinking of are the same people I’m thinking of, don’t they have their own people for this sort of thing?”

“You’d recognize the Grim Reaper on your doorstep, so instead, send an angel to do the dirty work,” he said. “My card Ms. Maximine, the number on the back is my personal service, they’ll be able to get a hold of me anytime day or night. Mary is at her weekly spa treatment as we speak, uptown on Rosemount just past the lake. She’s not hard to find, she drives a black Jag convertible. If you don’t trust me, why not see where she goes next. You can bill me,” he said.

He took two steps to the window, looked up and out.

“Be careful Ms. Maximine, someone is always bound to be watching the watcher in this game. Maybe this time, that’s you.”

Shifting shadows can play mean tricks on a person. When I was little, I’d never go outside before the sun was high. A person can get used to the falling dark, as the sun sets your mind and body become accustomed to the descent into blackness. Waking in the dark of early morning is something else entirely. There’s a different sort of feel to it. Anyone or anything I might trust has long been sleeping. Creatures on the prowl, scavengers and thieves are nefarious. Nothing, not man nor beast was to be feared more than the Rougarou.

He was shaped as the strongest of men, covered in hair with the head of a snarling wolf. His purpose was to no longer be what he was. Through your blood he might find redemption, and then it will be your turn to live out the curse. 

My eyes occasionally closed as Ross paddled. Somewhere in a distant and better place, where it was bright and warm I could feel myself tipping. My body feared falling when my mind didn’t seem to care. Sharp, stabbing pains woke me, reminding me who and where I was. My eyes surged open, reintroducing me to fear over and over again.

She was every rock and boulder along the shoreline. Creeping as the Rougarou in the dark, waiting. Jumping fish attacked my anxiety, feeding on my fear. Common Loons sang macabre ditties, recording my demise in the folklore of their songs. A cold and unexpected splash across my back took part of my life as it passed.

“Sorry, getting pretty tired I guess,” Ross said.

He caught a little water on his forward stroke, sending it cascading in all of its coldness across my back and shoulders. It wasn’t coffee, but close. If only he could have seen my face, he might have jumped.

“We should probably find a place to hole-up once it gets light, just in case,” Ross said.

“Do you really think she’ll come after us? I mean, do you have any idea of where we are?” I asked.

“I have a general idea, sort of,” he said.

“That’s reassuring.”

“We could get back up in the woods a little, no way she’d see us. On the other hand, it would be good if we could find some other campers, maybe get a look at a map, some matches, something. What do you all have in that bag?” Ross asked.

“Yeah and warn them that there’s a maniac, crazy killer woman out there with a gun and a possibly dead husband,” I said.

“Yeah, there’s that too. Anything useful in that bag?” he asked.

“Gage’s knife, we could try and start a fire again. Some jerky left, other than that, squat. You know I wouldn’t mind if we could find a regular campsite,” I said.

“Not sure that’s the best idea. It would be one of the easiest ways to find us,” Ross said.

“I know but they have certain amenities, you know?” I said.

“Amenities?” 

“Um yeah. Do I really have to spell it out for you?” I asked him.

I could tell by his silence that he didn’t know what I was talking about. It must have been ten minutes later before he said anything at all.

“The John.”

I clapped twice. My insides were trying to tell me something important, and It was becoming more and more imperative that I listen.

“Pretty soon would be good,” I said.

A deadhead, in canoeist lingo, is a log or rock that lives just below the surface of the water. Wind driven waves breaking over their shallow existence is oftentimes the only indication of their presence. They are incredibly difficult to see on any given day, and completely invisible at night. A canoe, especially an aluminum canoe can easily become wedged on a dead head, and if it’s windy very well might cause it to flip. At this hour, just as light breaks over the eastern horizon, the urgency of my situation was greatly accelerated when the very first thing that crossed my mind was we just ran into floating Bob. Wump!

“Just a log, good thing,” Ross said.

There was nothing good about it, nothing.

“Now, we need to get to shore now,” I said.

“Really?” he asked with a chuckle.

“I swear Ross, get us to the frickin shore right frickin now,” I demanded.

“Okay, okay, I got ya, headed in,” he said. 

By the time I returned from the woods Ross had the canoe pulled well up away from the water out of sight. 

“You don’t look so good. You okay?” he asked.

As much as I wanted to say that I was, the feeling of an encroaching fever, coupled with twisting intestinal pain made it impossible to hide my condition.

“You think?” I said sarcastically.

“Try and get some sleep, maybe you’ll feel better. I’ll watch for a while,” he said.

I laid down inside the canoe and hoped for remission. Sleep was fleeting. I slept hours but it felt like minutes. Once I woke the minutes felt like hours. 

“Holy crap, you’re white as a ghost,” Ross said.

I’ve heard the phrase before, but no human being has ever spoken those words directly to me. It made me admittedly unhappy. For some reason, between the sickness and Ross’ choice of phrase, I felt as if I was being put on stage to receive an award for being a negligent sub-human. As the day wore on, I felt worse and worse. I was dizzy, and to further complicate the situation, my body was denying water. 

“You think you can travel?” Ross asked.

So much of me wanted to say yes. Through dry, cracked lips I cleared my throat to speak. I wondered for a moment where Ross was running off to, but he hadn’t moved. The earth took him, along with the rocks, trees, and the water. Everything spun to the left as my body fought to counter. I could hear Ross as if he were in another room, muffled and hard to decipher. He mentioned something about beavers as I looked towards the sky and fell into a nightmare.

I remember running across the treetops, towering pines became mere stepping stones. I jumped across rivers and small lakes. Darlene was hot on my heels. Whenever I looked back I would see her, the woman, unlike me, her feet barely touching the treetops, almost as if she was flying. But whenever I turned to run, when my attention was focused forwards, she was the Rougarou, snapping her jaws, calling my name through gravel and fangs, letting me know she was coming, that she was always going to be coming.

“Philippine? Philippine? Are you hearing me Philippine?”

I didn’t recognize the voice. I didn’t even realize that for the first time in what seemed like forever I rested comfortably. The blinding light in my eyes was apparently to help them work.

“Yes, yes,” I said, barely.

“You’ve had quite the adventure young lady. You’re in Ely Memorial Hospital. My name is Dr. Christiansen. I’ve been your attending physician for the last few days,” he said.

“What? Last few days? How? I, I…,”

“Ross Parent brought you in a few days ago. Extremely ill and severely dehydrated. You got to meet one of our local bugs. It’s called Giardia, otherwise known as,” 

“Yeah I know, beaver fever,” I said.

“You got it,” He chuckled.

“Even though I laugh, it can be quite serious, even life threatening, as in your case. Sounds as if you drank some infested water, quite a bit of it from what I gathered,” he said.

“Where’s Ross?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s around here somewhere. I’ll see if I can find him. He’s been in and out but generally he’s been here with you the whole time,” he said.

After a few minutes Ross peaked sheepishly through the hospital door.

“How you feeling?” he asked.

“Not too bad considering. Flowers? Really?” I said.

“A rare smile, nice. Of course flowers. Wild ones too, kind of like you,” he said.

“And why wouldn’t I smile at the man who saved me? Look Ross, I’m not really sure how to say this.”

“Then don’t. I wouldn’t have had the chance without you doing what you did out there. And just for the record, we’ll never be even,” Ross laughed.

“What about her? We need the police,” I said.

“I told them everything. The Forest Service, the State Patrol, I called everybody. There was even talk about getting the feds involved seeing as how it happened in a federal area. The thing is, they checked the permits, there’s no record. Nothing. They’ve even been paging back through the years but so far, nothing. Part of me thinks they’re not even believing me,” Ross said.

“What? I want to see them, now,” I said.

“I called the sheriff the second I heard you were awake. He should be here in a few. I also called Marnie,” Ross said.

“What did you tell her?” I asked.

“Well, I told her we were okay, or going to be anyways, and I told her we found Gage’s knife,” he said.

“That’s it? No Darlene, no pitching lifeless Fred over your back?” I asked.

“Nope, I figure she hired you for all that stuff,” he said.

“She didn’t ask for details?” I asked.

“Oh she did, but like I said, I’ll leave that up to you,” he said.

“Knock, knock,” said a voice in the hallway.

“Come on in sheriff. Let me introduce you to Ms. Philippine Maximine. Phil, this is sheriff Sam Schmidt.”

“Hello there little lady, I heard you got quite the little yarn to spin,” he said.

“Little lady? Yarn? Look…sheriff…”

If you knew me, you would know that anytime I start my sentence with ‘Look’ I’m bound to be far less than cordial. It has been said that you can catch more bees with honey, but sweetness wasn’t going to be an option this day.

I was released from the hospital in the afternoon. It took another two days after that before I could get a key made for my car and shipped up from the nearest city large enough to have a functional dealership. I spent those two days with Ross, eating, drinking, sleeping, and of course, playing. 

I told Marnie that Ross and I, through diligent research and a bit of luck were able to locate some people who happened to be camping on the same lake as Gage when he disappeared. I told her a kindly old woman and her husband had flipped their boat in a late season thunderstorm. Gage dropped everything and paddled out from his campsite in the face of huge swells and hurricane force winds to save them. He towed them to safety and the last time they saw him he was headed back to his site. All indications are that he never made it and likely died a hero.

The US Forest Service and sheriff’s department turned out to be completely useless. There was no record of, or permit issued for Darlene or Bob for legal entry into the Boundary Waters. Nor was there a record of them paddling down from Canada, through The Quetico. There were no reports of abandoned cars, no couples matching their description, and nobody had ever heard of them. They were ghosts, or as law enforcement suggested, a figment of my imagination, or a fever-based hallucination. They even made sure to get in on the record that the Dr. deemed it to be a distinct possibility. 

As far as Ross was concerned, he was incensed. The consensus was he went along with my hallucination to cover his tracks. As a good old boy on a romantic tryst with an older woman of color, well, let’s just say nobody would have known about us if I hadn’t gotten sick. This was a way for him to save face. He promised me he would get to the bottom of it, one way or another. He even signed up for police science courses at the local college with the feeling that law enforcement needs to do a better job of helping people, and he could be part of the solution.

Me, I took the long, winding road home, back to the city. My office smelled damp the next morning, the result of having been closed up for so long. Imagine the smell if I’d have locked up a cat in there. The coffee was brilliant, and still ranks among the best I ever had. 

Deja Vu is always welcome, as much as the woman walking down the hall, slamming her heels into the floor, knocking lightly on the door.

“Come in,” I said.

“Philipine Maximine?”

“At your service,” I said.

“Hello, my name is Mary, Mary Owens. My jerk of a husband is cheating on me and I need proof so I can…Oh my, those are gorgeous flowers,” she said.

“Oh thank you, they’re wildflowers. Black-eyed Susans, my favorite.”

Sound travels exceptionally well at night. All the little noises of the daytime combine to make a sort of white noise that blocks other, more prodigious sounds. Picture it like dropping a stone in a calm pond. The ripples seem to carry on forever. Now drop the same stone in the same pond while it is raining. All of a sudden the big ripples get washed out by all the little ones. Everybody who can hear whether they were taught basic principles or not, knows something about sound. For instance, have you ever heard of the Doppler effect? Without getting overly scientific, when a train goes by blowing its whistle, the sound changes for you if you’re standing still. That’s the nutshell version. But what if you’re falling? What if somehow, running through the woods at night you fall over another human being, and then another human being falls over you? That’s the domino effect. Far less interesting unless the sound of the gun being fired at you is changing also. Then it becomes some sort of weird, twisted, pseudo-scientific combination.

When I felt his blood, when I heard him fall, I fell too. Sure, it may have seemed like I tripped over him, but in reality my heart instantly weighed a thousand pounds more than the rest of my body. Unable to carry the sheer and instant weight it dragged me down. When I hit the ground my heart broke in two. Half remained heavy and buried itself under feelings it didn’t have time to identify. The other half flew away, looking for answers in order to explain to the other half why it broke. Everything happened so fast.

“God Dammit Darlene! You shot me!” he screamed.

I couldn’t see old Bob but seeing as how I just tripped over him I was pretty sure it was him. That would make the lummox that tripped over me, yup you guessed it, Ross.

“My God are you Ok?” Ross asked me.

“Yeah, I’m good. She shot Bob,” I said.

“Yeah, I heard, let’s go,” he exclaimed.

“Dammit to hell Darlene!” Bob continued to yell and moan.

I was on my feet and in the process of getting the hell out of Dodge in a heartbeat, my once again one-pieced heartbeat, when I stopped in my tracks.

“No, no not this time,” I said to Ross.

“Wait! What? C’mon Phil, let’s go. What are you doing?” Ross asked.

I’ll assume for lack of asking him that Ross must have thought I lost my mind. Another victim of Stockholm Syndrome, going back to the arms and embrace of her captor. Bob was still moaning loud enough that I could have found him blind folded. Navigating the dark forest at night isn’t really that much different.

“You shut the fuck up,” I forcibly whispered.

I had one hand over his mouth and with the other I searched his body for my gun. It felt empowering to have it in my hand again. I popped the clip out, but it was impossible to see if it was loaded. I snapped it back in and put the gun under his chin.

“The clip, where’s the other clip?” I asked Bob.

Once again my rage was muted in whisper, but no less understandable. I could barely see his eyes in the thin slivers of moonlight that managed to break through the treetops. I could read his pain and fear like directions. He motioned towards his back pocket.

“Bob? You Ok out there?” Darlene yelled.

“Hell no he ain’t Ok,” I yelled back.

I fired a shot in the direction of her voice. I never really expected to hit her, but a person should always have hope.

“I got Bob now bitch, and I got my gun,” I yelled.

“Jesus, Jesus,” I heard Ross whispering.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here,” he said.

“Uh uh, no way, we’re taking this fucker with us,” I told him.

“That’s right Bob, you’re coming along, let’s see how you like it. Let’s see if you can swim with a rock around your legs Bob. Huh? Let’s see. On your feet Bob,” I demanded.

I grabbed him by the shoulder, which consequently is where the bullet must have hit him based on his new and improved pain scream. My whole heart was suddenly black. Compassion was thinned out and washed away with the same river water that cleansed the blood from my wounds.

“Now, now Missy, you just hold on to your chair for a minute,” Darlene said.

“Ima comin’ over there.”

I fired again in her general direction. The bullet struck something hard enough to ping away into the distance.

“Don’t even think about it. He’s mine now, take another step and I’ll put one right through the side of his ugly ass head. I swear to God. Sound familiar bitch?” I screamed.

“I ain’t gonna let you skate honey, you know that right?” Darlene said.

“Get me a gag, anything, your sock if you have to,” I whispered to Ross.

“Where’s the boat Bob?” I asked in the same whisper.

He motioned down stream with his head.

“Ok, you first.”

We walked down the rocky, dark shoreline using Bob as a shield. The moon was bright enough that a person with Darlene’s careful consideration for human life just might decide she had enough light to take a shot at us. Just a few rods ahead I could see moonlight on the water reflect off the canoes.

“That’ll be far enough,” Darlene said as she cocked her rifle.

“You Ok there Bob? You bleedin’ out?” she asked.

Bob was only able to mumble through his sock gag. I was perfectly content doing his talking for him.

“As a matter of fact he’s not. You shot him, remember?” I said.

“Like I said, we gonna do this a different way,” she said.

Darlene fired her rifle. I could feel the impact of the bullet striking Bob. His muscles and skin reverberated in waves from the impact point somewhere in the center of his body. Temporarily blinded by the muzzle flash from her rifle, I fired wildly at my mind’s recollection of where she stood while holding Bob by the back of his collar.

My human shield carved from the flesh and bone of his ancestors all at once became too heavy to hold. His weight pulled loose from my grip and fell unceremoniously at our feet. I could hear the hollowness of his skull clunk against the many stones. After the melee, Darlene was gone.

“Did you get her?” Ross asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so, no, I don’t know,” I said, panicky.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” Ross said.

Ross pushed our canoe into the water and held it still for me.

“Get in. Let’s go,” he said.

“No, wait,” I said.

I picked Bob up by his armpits and started dragging him to the boat.

“What are you doing? Leave him,” Ross pleaded.

“No, no, we’re not. Help me,” I said.

“Screw him, forget him. He tried to kill us! To hell with him,” Ross said.

“No, we’re bringing him,” I demanded.

“Oh for, fine, whatever, hurry up,” Ross said.

He helped me pick Bob up and load him in the middle of the canoe. I stepped into the bow and took my seat. Whenever we pushed off from shore, Ross, with both hands on the stern would push forward and hop in after his momentum took us out of the shallow water. This time, he was mid hop when I told him to wait.

“What? For what? There’s no paddle!” Ross said.

Darlene’s canoe was pulled up on shore nearly completely out of the water besides the tip. As we passed I leaned out and grabbed a hold of it, pulling the empty boat out into the water. It ghost sailed straight out from shore as we hurried downstream.

“Under him, under, roll him look,” I told Ross.

I turned in my bow seat and rolled Bob on his side while Ross slid the only paddle in the boat from under him and put it to work. I might have felt better had I seen a Bigfoot, or at least a giant bear behind us. Instead, I watched Darlene charging through the water, rifle in-hand, attempting to catch the canoe. As the water became too deep to effectively stride, she dove forward and in short order had a hold of her boat. She was swimming it back to shallow water as the darkness and the shoreline combined to remove her from my sight.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“What? What now?” Ross asked.

“It’s her, it’s her, she swam out and got the damn boat,” I told him.

“Is she behind us? Is she following us?” he asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I can’t see her anymore,” I said.

I slid the clip out of my gun and found it unsatisfactorily empty.

“Damn,” I said.

“Out?” Ross asked.

“Yeah, wait,” I said.

I checked the clip I slid in my back pocket earlier when I first found Bob. The three rounds it carried were better than nothing, but far from ideal.

“Three, three left,” I said.

Ross paddled hard, doing his best to create max distance between us and Darlene but the forward combined weight of me and Bob coupled with the increasing velocity of the water was making it difficult.

“Shit, I think I see her,” I said.

I hadn’t seen her just yet, what I saw was the moonlight reflecting off her paddle with every stroke. Although she wasn’t close, as the minutes passed it was apparent that she was clearly gaining on us. Soon, her silhouette became divisible from the darkness, and catching us was only going to be a matter of time.

“She’s getting closer,” I said.

“How close?” Ross asked.

We were nearly yelling at each other over the sound of the boat cutting through standing waves.

“Close enough that she can probably hear us,” I said.

Ross tried to turn and see for himself but as he shifted his weight the canoe tipped dangerously towards swamping.

“Stop, never mind that, we gotta dump him,” I yelled

“What? Dump her?” Ross asked.

“No, dump him, dump him, we gotta dump him overboard,” I said pointing at Bob.

“It’s the only way!” I screamed.

Without any argument Ross set his paddle at his side and helped me with Bob. As we tried to wrestle him out, it became obvious that we were not going to be able to push him out without dumping.

“Gimme his legs,” Ross said. “Gimme his legs, push them up towards me, like he’s having a, yeah, like that.”

Ross grabbed each one of Bob’s ankles until he could get a hold of his crotch. Ross pulled him into a backward somersault with his left hand until he could get a decent grasp on Bob’s shirt tightly around his chest. In one fluid and dare I say heroic motion, he picked Bob up off the floor of the canoe and held him up over his head.

It was one of those moments that will be shadow boxed in my mind forever, a video memory that plays over and over and always pauses in the same place.

“Don’t! No! Don’t do it!” Darlene screamed.

While this whole Bob dumping process was taking place, Darlene threw her paddle down into the bottom of the boat in front of her and at the same time picked up her rifle and quickly fired. She was as close as two boats in a city yard. At nearly the same moment her bullet claimed a dime-sized piece of our aluminum gunwale and ricocheted off into oblivion, Ross, with one mighty grunt pitched Bob into the water behind us. Darlene’s boat hit him hard, riding up on Bob on a slight angle like a ramp set up for crashing cars in a television show. I saw her headed overboard as the whole of the canoe pitched towards the sky.

The sudden shift in the balance of our own boat sent us weaving on a tangent against the will of the river. By the time Ross straightened the canoe, by the time I regained my bearings and got eyes on their boat, the shiny bottom was all I could see. No sign of either Bob or Darlene.

The feeling of relief was palpable. It permeated our senses. It was wet and cold but not uncomfortable. It smelled like nighttime, a combination of cool dust and water and the taste was oh so sweet at the same time as fulfilling as a holiday meal. The water slowed before we spoke again.

“Do you think he was still alive?” Ross asked.

I thought about it for a few moments, running through the timeline of Bob’s demise in my head, scene by scene in order to give an accurate answer.

“Maybe, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. He was dead before we ever met him.”

How long does it take for a person to realize they are in a nightmare? I used to have a recurring dream where a huge crawfish, huge as in destroying a Japanese city, would slowly rise from the depths of a lake and for some reason it was focused solely on me. As hard as I tried, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t run away. Frustration would mount exponentially as my feet felt mired in deep mud on dry ground. I could see my mouth move yet my voice was muted as if glued closed. Screams for help went unheard. We never really accept the fate of the monster actually catching us. Some say when we do, when we are killed in a nightmare, we die in real life. For the moment, I was alive.

I wasn’t sure if it was a fading reflection or a bend in the river that made Darlene and her canoe disappear. I didn’t know how close they were if they made it to shore or if Ross was still with them. I only knew I had to get away. I wasn’t thinking straight. I hurried into the woods, panicked, and stricken with fear. I tripped after only a few steps and fell hard striking the right side of my face against a tree. I was dazed and dizzy. I tried to get back up and run but fell back to the ground. I felt myself spinning like a dog chasing its tail while turning inside out, retching foul yellow bile.

“Gotta, gotta go, gotta go.” My through-drool inspirational chant.

I was foolish to try and run through the woods in the dark. I realized as much after a self-inflicted tree punch to the face set my mind on level ground. I crawled back to the river. I could not see anyone, nor could I hear anything besides the water. The river sang songs, her water told intrepid tales of shaping rock, toppling trees, and scouring the very earth. No matter who, no matter when, all who have passed this way before have bowed to her will.

I worked my way upstream along the bank. Occasionally I could get to my feet and cover more ground, other times I would stumble and crawl until I could muster the power to gain my footing again. Eventually the river widened and slowed. Its song grew distant as the last of all I had was gone. I dragged myself into a stand of dense cedars along the shoreline to hide from a sliver of light in the sky. I wondered if I chose to die, if I gave up right then and there if I would be found. Would I be just another story, another missing person like Gage or the vaguely counted others who had come before us? The river knew. She was still singing her song, although more distantly, mocking me with the refrain. I wanted her to just shut up, to go away and take my memory with her. But she couldn’t be quieted as long as she had her water. If I took her water, I’d take her life. As I drifted off to sleep, I knew what needed to be done. I thanked her for the answer. Somehow, some way, I was going to have to take Darlene’s water.

For the first few seconds after I woke, I focused only on the bright green branches hovering over my face. I had forgotten everything. There was no Darlene, no Bob, not even Ross, just me and the branch. A large black bee hovered close, checking me out, apparently wondering what the hell I was doing under his tree.

“Just hangin’ out buddy, just hangin’ out,” I told him.

I braced my rib cage and sat upright. Everything came rushing back to me at double speed, powered by a revenge engine running on high octane anger. I did my best to recall every last moment of pain and misery she inflicted on me. I wanted all of it at my disposal when the time came to settle the debt.

Mentally, if I wavered, if I doubted, I would be letting the specter of failure inside. Everything needed to become an achievable goal. Standing, walking, even planning to stand and walk became goals for which I would demand self-congratulation.

My direction of travel was never in doubt. I would go where she went, downstream. A straight, bark less branch as tall as me and as big around as my wrist became my staff. Whenever I rested I ground the end on hard rock, shaping it to a sharp point. Not only did it help me negotiate the rocky shoreline, I would eventually be able to push it through Darlene’s heart.

Progress was steady. I had no idea what time I woke up. It felt like afternoon. My thirst was easily quenched by the river with a pair of cupped hands. A knot tied in my undershirt helped to wrap my injured rib. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises were just absorbed as fuel. My heart skipped as if I had just fallen in love when I spotted it, Bob’s green bag. Just a short distance offshore, washed onto a sun-bleached boulder twice its size it lay precariously, tempting me with contents unknown. I backed up into the brushy wooded cover near shore and sat perfectly still.

If it was cheese, I was going to have to be a careful mouse. If it was cheese, had they seen me yet? If it was cheese, how did they know I didn’t drown? But if it wasn’t cheese, there was food in the bag, maybe more. If it wasn’t cheese, Bob’s canoe went over as well. If it wasn’t cheese, Ross could have gotten away. As much as I didn’t want to sacrifice the daylight, I waited for the cover of darkness to take the bait. I never thought I would be so happy to find brown, dried meat. What could be better? Gage’s knife to cut it with.

Slowly I worked my way back into the dark woods out of sight of the shoreline. I chopped dry pine needles until they were no more than dashes in a small print romance novel. Throughout the day I practiced throwing rocks, hoping that maybe if I got close enough, I could kill something to eat. The blackest rocks were the hardest. I struck the back of the blade against the stone with the hopes of generating a spark. After a thousand tries, I had generated nothing but fatigue and frustration.

“Damn!” I tossed the knife down, angry.

“You might find it easier with one of these,” a lighter out of the darkness lit up Ross’ face.

“Holy shit! You made it!” I cried.

I sprung to my feet and embraced him.

“Was there ever a doubt?” he said sarcastically.

“Ow, oh, not too hard, bitch broke my rib,” I said pulling out of the hug.

“How did you find me? What happened?” I asked.

“I just followed the sound. I wasn’t too far away. I didn’t know if it was going to be you, but I hoped it was anyways. Hell of a job dumping the boat, I thought you were done for,” he said.

“What happened to you? To them? Last I saw I thought maybe you were spinning or something and then I was under,” I said.

“Yeah, well, Darlene was screaming, and Bob reached out his paddle to try and pull her in. Once we got sideways it was just a matter of time till we dumped. They tied me to a rock, but it didn’t hold in the rapids. They were both on the backs of the canoes headed down stream last I saw. After I got my wits about me, I started back up to hopefully find you,” he said.

“You hurt?” I asked.

“The jackass hit me when he had me tied, bashed me with the gun, knocked me out a few times, lost some blood, swelled-up eye but other than that…he never did search me all that well. I always have extra lighters on me, never know when you’re going to need one. I think when he found my knife he must have figured that was it,” Ross said.

“Well he lost his bag, I thought they were baiting me, so I waited to grab it,” I told him.

“I’ve got a small fire going, a decent place to sleep, c’mon,” Ross said.

The fire felt like life itself. Hot jerky on a stick was as close to five stars as I may have ever been.

“I don’t suppose there any kind of container in that bag was there?” Ross asked.

“For what? No, nothing,” I said.

“I wanted to boil some water, I’m thirsty as hell,” he said.

“I’ve just been scooping water up out of the river. Tastes fine,” I said.

“Hmm, taking a hell of a chance. It’s not the taste that concerns me. See that stick you’re carrying?” he asked.

“My walking spear?” I said in jest.

“Yeah, what do you think took the bark off it?” he asked.

“Beavers I would guess,” I said.

“Exactly, beavers. Where there’s beavers. There’s beaver fever,” he said.

“Beaver fever, whatever,” I said, half laughing.

“No, I’m serious, beaver fever is a nickname. It’s real name is Giardiasis, it’s a parasite and it’s no joke, stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever, it’s definitely a rough ride,” he said.

“Great. Way to tell me about it before,” I said.

“Well, hopefully we can get out of here before it sets in, if you have it anyways. I might have to chance it myself,” he said.

“Depends on how long it takes to kill that bitch,” I said.

“What? No, no, we have to get out, get back to town,” Ross pleaded.

“My ass. Look, I hate to tell you this, but I wasn’t headed downstream looking for you. I mean if I found you, great, but I didn’t really think you got away. Actually I was thinking I was going to have to rescue you. No way, uh uh, bitch has got to pay,” I said.

“And just what are you going to do? She’s got a rifle, remember? Not to mention your gun,” Ross said.

“Ain’t shit if she don’t hear me comin’. I’ll jamb this stick in her ass if I have to. One way or another, she’s gonna pay. And, I’m doing it with or without you,” I said convincingly.

Maybe it was the reflection of the fire in my eyes, or maybe it was the inflection in my voice, but either way he bought what I was selling.

“What the hell are you doing now?” I asked.

“We’ll stay warmer if we huddle together,” he said.

“Right, you better save your energy, we’re going to need it,” I said.

For a moment, warm in his embrace, I was as content as I had been since any time in recent memory.

“Awww, ain’t you two cute,” she said.

Of course it was her. The voice was unmistakable. I made a move for the spear.

“Ah, ah, ahh. No, no, no honey, I don’t think so,” she said as she moved closer to the dwindling flame making it apparent that she had a rifle pointed at my head.

“You two done caused me and ole Bob a lot a grief. Specially you girl. Took some doin’ to find ya too. Now we gonna do it a different way,” she said as she cocked the rifle.

Darlene raised the gun to her shoulder.

“No, maybe I’ll peg your boyfriend here first, make you watch,” Darlene said.

My clenched fists concealed a rage unknown to many and seen by few. As fate would have it, my right fist was cliched just a little bit tighter than the left. Partly because I was so damn mad that she came back and caught us flat footed, but mostly because it was wrapped around the black stone.

As she aimed at Ross I let it fly with everything my ribs and shoulder could muster. The crack of the stone hitting her face sounded like somebody hit a raw meat with a hammer. I kicked the fire at her, showering her in sparks and burning debris as Ross and I got up and ran.

“Goddam little whore!” Darlene screamed!

Ross and I were merely yards away when she fired her rifle. I couldn’t see him in the dark of the woods. Whether he was next to me, behind me, or even in front of me, I wasn’t sure. Between the second and third shot I heard the deep gasp of air that leaves a man. The kind of noise you hear when an athlete hits hard and loses their wind. I felt a warm mist of blood graze my face followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground. He took out my legs as I too fell forward, close enough to the river where I could see moonlight reflecting off the water.

The first few heavy drops pinging into a steel pan are the most satisfying. Once it has enough water to dull the ring it only sounds like dripping water again. You forget about it unless it’s one of many containers that must be attended to, and even then, it just gets tossed out with the other rain. Reunited after a short detour with a leaky roof.

I must have blacked-out, or somebody hit me. I was wet and cold laying in the woods bound at the wrists to my ankles behind my back. The position alone made breathing difficult. The gag didn’t help. I lunged forward only to discover my neck was tied with thin cord to the base of tree. The water that dripped off the limbs above was part of chorus that echoed deep into the forest. It just kept going and going and I so desperately wanted to follow it to its source. I wanted to meet the conductor, with black tails, flailing his little wand over an endless stage of obsessive compulsively seated rocks and trees. Next to me drops struck the broad leaves of forest plants that sounded plastic and fake. I wished they were. I wished I were playing a part all too convincingly in a shitty Off-Broadway play. Then I wished I could act, so that my previous wish could be possible. Critics would universally applaud my realistic tears and bottomless distress.

It was starting to get dark, mosquitoes bit my face and hummed in my ears. I was so angry I forgot to be scared. I screamed under my gag which I’m sure sounded like nothing more than a throaty moan. When the cord around my neck pulled tight, I remembered fear.

“Lemme get ya loose here honey,” Darlene said as she untied the rope around my neck.

“You know what? I was thinkin’. You got to be the rudest girl out here in these woods do you know that?”

Darlene rolled me onto my stomach, grabbed a hold of the rope between my ankles and dragged me. My shirt rode up to my armpits as rocks and forest debris scratched and cut my face and body. I twisted and wormed forcing her to use two hands to control me.

“You see? You see right there is what I was just talkin’ about ya little,” Darlene said as she dropped me.

The crack of a baseball bat follows the hit you see depending on the cheapness of the seats. Darlene cocked her leg back, I guess as far as it could go before she fired the kick. I heard the rib crack before I felt it.

“You didn’t even shake my hand honey. I mean, at least be cordial. Didn’t your mama teach you any damn thing?” Darlene asked.

Darlene leaned against a tree to catch her breath. Apparently masochistic abuse is tiring. I was getting dizzy, and for all of a three count I was glad I wasn’t standing. Counting up to an ironic catch 22 I began to wretch. I discovered there’s only so much room in the brain for pain which begets more pain. Everything went black.

I saw a little girl, dirty dress, no shoes, belligerent as to the wishes of her mother. She sure did teach me things though. For instance, she taught me to make myself scarce when she had a friend coming to the house. I was afraid to leave at first, especially in the dark. Everything under the sun became something to fear in the absence of light. As much as I thought she hated me I would come to realize the real darkness to fear was in the hearts of men. Some would just stare, some would touch me, others did much more. Intense rain and thunder chased me home early one night. The filthy man on my mother became enraged as I struck him with both fists, screaming, demanding he get off her. He jumped up and stood in front of me, balls out naked. He reared back and suffered unto me through his fist all the power of a man who didn’t mind cracking the rib of a little girl. Officially, I fell off a bike I never had.

Mercifully, a splash of cold water on my face brought me back to my current agony.

“I had to take the gag off honey, I didn’t want you chokin’. Now you ain’t gonna give me no trouble huh? If you start screamin’ and such I’ll put it back on sure as I’m standin’ here,” Darlene said.

I scraped a handful of tattered words from the floor of my throat.

“Water. Please, can I have some water?” I asked.

“Now see? That there’s manners honey. That right there. Too bad really it took all that,” Darlene said.

She gently lifted my head to pour water into my mouth but stopped.

“You know what? This getting’ hard on my old bones. Be a hell of a lot easier if you’d walk. You walk and I’ll give you water, deal?” she said.

I nodded my approval. As much as my mind raced for ways to break the deal, I worried I may not have been physically capable, and any further discretion would only result in further punishment.

“Alright then,” Darlene said as she cut the rope binding my ankles.

“Here, lemme give ya a hand,” she said.

Darlene grabbed me by the back of my arm and helped me to my feet. I lost my breath from the sudden surge of pain and nearly collapsed back to the forest floor.

“That’ll learn ya,” she said. “Now suck it up and walk.”

Every step became a personal goal. If I could make one, then I could make another, at least until the narrator of my life introduced a hero. I was back in the play again, desperately needing that hero.

“Hold it honey,” Darlene said grabbing my arm.

Arriving at the edge of an unknown body of water, Bob waited in the other canoe, floating in the calm water just offshore. There was no sign of Ross.

“Stand still, feet together,” Darlene said.

“But I walked,” I humbly answered.

“Don’t matter, we’re headed out on the water now. Still I said.”

“No, no,” I cried quietly.

I made an ill-advised and half-hearted attempt at escape. Darlene swung her paddle to the back of my knees. I went down hard, like a bag of sand. My wind left me long enough for her to tie my ankles together again. She helped me to my feet and pushed me down into the bow of the boat. I was doing my best not to cry as she disappeared momentarily from view. She returned in short order carrying a large, long stone. She placed it in the canoe and lashed it to my ankles.

“This here’s in case y’all thinkin’ about taking me down with ya. We go over, you drown sure,” Darlene said.

“Alright, let’s go,” Bob said.

“Yeah, yeah, just keep your pants on. Keep your old damn ears open too. I don’t expect nobody’s gonna be travlin’ this time of year but ya never know. Two ears are better than one, or four ears. You know what I mean,” Darlene said.

“How’s him?” Darlene asked Bob.

“He ain’t been too much trouble. Bleeds a lot though,” Bob said.

They spoke to each other in muted whispers, paddling close together. Ross was alive. With all the potential of the world’s worst and most untimely pun, it occurred to me that he was probably in the same boat as I was. I questioned my sanity for thinking anything about this event was even remotely funny.

From my position in the bow I could see so many beautiful stars emerging. It was the first time since this adventure began that I was able to notice and appreciate the night sky. I wondered how such a horrid event could spawn any sort of humor or awe-inspiring beauty.

My only gauge of time was the level of darkness. At some point, dark is dark and every minute past that moment is only a guess. Two solo paddlers seemed to cover a lot of water but progress in a loaded boat is slow. I could hear what I thought was wind blowing through tall pines and surmised we were getting closer to shore.

“Tighten up,” Darlene said.

“Me?” I asked.

“You shut your damn mouth or Ima gag ya again, soon as I can. I swear to God above if you call out or start screamin’ so help me I’ll make ya hurt,” Darlene said.

“Shoulda’ tied her mouth before we pushed off,” Bob said.

Her threat struck me as odd. This is a woman who has not hesitated to inflict pain. She took no chances. What did she mean, ‘tighten up’? The sound of the wind became more intense. Maybe it was the pain, but it didn’t add up to what I was feeling. The boat began to pitch with every one of her paddle strokes and now I could feel our speed was clearly increasing.

“We’re a couple of damn fools,” Bob said.

“We can’t risk no trails with these two, even at night,” Darlene said, forgoing any more whispering.

“That’s why you don’t take two,” Bob said.

“Shut up! Just shut up! We been through here plenty enough times, whoa,” Darlene said as the speed and roar of the water increased.

“Hey! Hey!” I yelled at Darlene.

“Little girl if y’all know what’s good for ya,” Darlene said before I cut her off mid-threat.

“You’ll what? Break my ribs? Stop the boat? You can’t even look at me right now,” I yelled.

Darlene needed every last drop of focus to keep us from running aground on the rocks. I sat up, scraping the rock tied to me along the bottom of the boat.

“Ross! Ross! Get up! They can’t do shit!” I yelled at the other canoe.

“Damnit Darlene, we got trouble,” Bob said.

“Ross! Ross! Ross get up!” I screamed.

I saw the top of Ross’ head as he too pulled himself upright in the boat. In the dim starlight it was difficult to determine where the blood on his face stopped, and his gag began. I was momentarily struck by the whiteness of his eyes.

“I’m doin’ it!” I yelled to Ross.

“You gonna die! Stay down!” Darlene yelled.

Ross looked at me shaking his head as if to say ‘no’. Maybe it had something to do with the intensity in my eyes, but something made him take stock. He looked back at Bob, then at Darlene and finally again at me before begrudgingly nodding his approval. My focus turned back to Darlene.

“Don’t even think about it honey,” Darlene threatened again.

It had been many years since I spoke to God. We were no longer on speaking terms. Back before we met, I didn’t know He was available to help me. When I was much older, I thought He should have anyways. I was told as I cried to look to Him next time, that He was the way and the light. I heard those words as a little girl and figured He was the one who could take away my fear of the dark, my fear of the darkness in men. Turns out He was never light. He was life. The way, the truth, and the life. I guess I heard it wrong. Maybe that’s why when I really needed Him again He never came. When He didn’t take the man away I begged Him to take me to heaven instead, but again, He was life. He left me lying in a pool of piss, blood and He knew what else. You owe me.

“You owe me! God Damnit! You fuckin’ owe me!” I screamed at heaven with all my might.

“You shut the hell up!” Darlene yelled as she desperately tried to control the canoe.

“Hell?” I yelled at Darlene and then I looked away towards Ross.

“See you there,” I said softly.

Rolling to my knees I threw all my weight against the side of the canoe. We tipped hard to the side but didn’t go over. I was able to catch a glimpse of Ross as I countered to the other side. He was guiding me with his eyes, helpless but emotionally involved. It was Ross who taught me the first one throws you off balance, but it’s the second one that tips the boat.

The cold water felt like redemption. Instantly the stone I was bound to hit the bottom. My body caught the lion’s share of the current and like a sail, pulled both the stone and I downstream. It toppled and turned. I felt the cord tighten around my ankles as it twisted. In a matter of moments the weight of the stone was gone. I sprung to the surface. The water wasn’t nearly as deep as I feared. I could see Darlene downstream struggling for purchase on the bottom of her upturned canoe. I saw the other boat sideways in the current before I was spun around by the river.

Flailing backwards, kicking like a wounded mermaid my bound arms hooked around a jam of slimy logs jutting out from the shoreline. Repeated kicking had freed my ankles. Methodically I used the logs as a brace to keep me from being swept downstream and made my way to the rocky shore.

“I suppose you want me to thank you now.” He was life.