“End a’ th’ line,” Deputy Abel Randall said curtly stopping the cruiser on the steepest grade yet. He popped the trunk, unlocked the back doors from his armrest.
Rain pattered on the roof, but it was over eighty. The women couldn’t see anything but trees. Toné put an athletic shoe down, it sunk to her ankle then scooted, causing her to grab the cruiser’s door pillar to keep from falling as mud sucked it off. “Ooh! My…shoe…Brandy Sue, don’t get out yet.”
Abel just sat. He could’ve been a wood carving.
Wrestling her unrecognizable footwear free coated Toné’s legs and tee shirt with viscous red mud. They slithered and slipped around the rear of the cruiser, hanging on to it. Rain turned mud into itchy blood-colored streaks on Brandy Sue’s legs.
Behind the raised trunk, Toné whispered to her friend, “Is he just gonna leave us here?”
Toné almost burned her ankle on the tailpipe when Abel hit the lights, turning everything red. She peered over the cruiser’s roof, being tall enough, and saw a crooked shack in the glare of the headlights and a spotlight. “Oh, mercy,” she muttered.
Shouldering their heavy duffles, they inched their way back up, gradient working with mud to impede much forward progress.
Toné, on the cruiser’s left side, hooked her fingers in the driver’s window. “Sir…ummm…are you going…” If she let go she’d slide back to Florida.
Looking down at something Toné couldn’t see, Abel said, “Back latah. Tomarra, prob’ly.”
Taking a deep breath, Toné scrambled, slid onto all fours, determined to reach the shack. The helpful lights shrunk, the cruiser’s engine grew quieter as it backed out of the slanted clearing. Brandy Sue had scrambled to the tree line and was working her way from pine to pine. Without the cruiser’s lights the shack was merely a lopsided shadow.
Toné made it to stairs that creaked ominously from her weight. “Watch out, girlfriend, there’s rusty nails,” she made it onto a porch. “Wait, getting a flashlight.” Frank had insisted she practice getting a hold of one of three ultrabright led flashlights in her bag in the dark. Operating her pistol in the dark. Changing mags. Toné thanked him silently as Brandy Sue’s flashlight wavered up a patchwork wall without window, a padlocked door that looked like it had been dragged through the constricting bands of pines.
“Ah don’t see a power line,” Brandy Sue said.
Over the whisper of rain, bumping sounded from inside. “I don’t like this.” Toné put her hand to the rusty padlock, the hasp fell off on her foot, rusty screws bounced and caught in the seams of the porch’s warped planking. “Oww!” She didn’t know how her Smith got in her hand, with her flashlight over it. Eyes gleamed near the floor, scents of fetid mold with and undertone of sewage wafted out. The raccoon had something that looked like a mangled one of Abel’s beef stix in its tiny hands. Securing its prize with a fringe of teeth, it scurried into the malodorous shadows. Toné heard Brandy Sue throwing up. She swept the space with her light. It had a single bed, a table, a chair, a shelf over a rust stained country sink. The pedestal of a toilet extended below a tattered curtain in one corner. Cobwebs shifted. Rain dripped on the floor in half a dozen places.
“Must be power, or water lines, there’s plumbing. If we could find some buckets…”
“Oh, Toné,” Brandy Sue moaned. “This place is jus’ awful.”
“I know.” Rummaging beneath the sink, Toné held up a kerosene lantern and a bottle hand-labeled “K-ro-cene”.
“Ah know how to use that,” Brandy Sue said, taking the lantern.
Toné eyed a pot-bellied stove in the opposite corner from the sink. “There was some split logs on the porch. Let’s fire it up.”
Brandy Sue found a child’s pair of yellow rubber boots, one wrapped around the arch with duct tape. Shaking them out, she said, “Do you think they got scorpions in Alabama?” Shining her flashlight inside, she shook them again. “Thank you Jesus, they fit. Ah’ll go look for more wood.”
“You doing better, now?”
“Where’s your rifle?”
With a nod, Brandy Sue opened her duffle. In half a minute she’d assembled a Ruger 10/22 Takedown, and strapped on night vision goggles which made her look like a redneck hunting elf.
“Mercy! You’ve been…ah…practicing.”
“Yas. Gonna go look for more wood. An’ buckets, an’ anything else.”
Toné found a bottle of vinegar, a tin teakettle. When Brandy Sue reappeared with two buckets on one arm, she had water collecting in three pots, the skillet and the teakettle. The stove only smoked a little, Toné opened a door next to the smelly commode to create a cross-draft. “I got hand sanitizer, but we better go easy on it.”
“…and Max’s special tee-pee…” they said together.
“If I never see another square of that…” Toné lamented.
“Ah think we lucky to have it an’ you should see wat Ah found, but your shoes…”
Toné sighed. “Toast.” She’d rainwashed her feet and put them into smart wool socks and hiking boots. Her tennies were getting rained on outside. Maybe if it rained hard enough…
“You really need rubbers.”
“We’re like pioneer women.” They high-fived.
“OK, what do you want me to see, ‘cuz we shouldn’t go together, you need to dry out and watch the stove.”
“Wear your pistol an’ go roun’ th’ back. There’s stone steps leading up, but…” Brandy Sue reached into her pack, took out a handheld VHF Motorola radio. “Ralphie tol’ me it works up to mebbe a mile.” She handed Toné another radio. “Okay, say sumpthin’…”
Toné looked at hers, pushed a button at the top. “Er…something…whoah…” Her radio squealed like a stuck pig.
“Maybe you gotta go outside?”
Toné did. “Testing one…two…”
“Ah hear you great!”
Toné came back in, holstered up, clipped three mags and the radio to her belt, put two flashlights on lanyards.
“You bet, girlfriend.” Toné carefully negotiated slanting stairs off the uphill side of the porch. Daylight was vanishing, there were so many pines, it was like being a flea on a hairbrush. A chain stretched between two of them. Shining her flashlight on the ground revealed two ruts without fresh tread tracks. Jagged stone steps gleamed wetly on the uphill side. She stepped over the chain to see it was attached to two mossy concrete pillars.
“I’m going up the stairs now,” Toné said. They were steep and slippery. Amazingly, her feet were still dry. She knocked some of the gluey red mud off her boots, intersecting double ruts three times, clearing a slight ridge. Going down took more concentration. A chain sided the stairs, she pulled on latex gloves to hold on and descended past three more switchbacks. Her light caught logs. Windows. A wraparound porch. A real cabin. “Umm…Brandy…Sue…can you hear me?”
“I found a cabin.” And a barn. And two other outbuildings. The porch was wide, wooden rocking chairs were tipped against split log walls. All the windows had heavy shutters held fast with wooden catches. The front door was massive with tiny high up bottle-bottom glass inserts. She tried a shutter, it was fastened solid with hinges on the inside. As twilight fell, she walked around the porch, a sturdy barn, what looked like a workshop with barred windows. She checked over doors, under the steps. On a nudge, she checked a carport. It had a metal box with a combination mounted on a support post. “It’s all locked up,” Toné told Brandy Sue. “I don’t know if we’re even supposed to be here.”
“Ah think we’ll git sick stayin’ in this nasty ol’ shack,” Brandy Sue objected.
“There’s this lock box with a four number combination…I so wish Frank was here, he’s too good at getting into…stuff that’s locked up.”
“Wasn’t Deputy Randall wearing a badge with a number on it?”
“Add anotha oh.”
The box opened after some judicious jiggling. It had one key. By the time Toné had tried every lock, and found more keys tucked away in a tool box in the workshop, she’d also found a switch for outdoor floodlights and they worked! Telling Brandy Sue, she took all her keys to the cabin’s front door, and opened it. The lights worked. While slightly musty, the cabin’s Spartan furnishings looked like heaven…lights, two wooden davenports with plaid cushions, a Franklin stove, a fireplace, a kitchen with a combo wood burning and propane stove, a big sink, fans on the ceiling (they worked). One wall had twenty feet of bookshelves with books. The refrigerator was propped open and unplugged, but the pantry was stocked with cans of beanie-weenies, cut green beans, peaches, tuna, even Boston brown bread. Two bedrooms were downstairs, two were in a loft. The bathroom had a claw-foot tub with a shower above, a sign on the toilet explaining how to start the well pump in the workshop. Toné got the propane turned on, too, checked the hot water heater, and radioed Brandy Sue. After dousing the coals in the shack’s potbellied stove with collected rainwater, they slogged along the switchbacked road, their duffles feeling like they were filled with plutonium.
They took turns preparing food and showering and elected to only have a fire in the efficient Franklin stove. Picking bedrooms, they hung up their clothes. The canned food tasted salty, but filling. Satiated, they stretched their feet toward the warmth, listening to rain on the tin roof and fire crackling.
“If you’re little red riding hood, what does that make me?” Toné asked her friend.
Worried, Brandy Sue said, “This is sure a real forest. Think there’s bears?”
“I barred the doors. We sleep with our guns.”
“All a twenny-two’s gonna do is make ‘em mad.”
“Hope Abel doesn’t get mad ‘cuz we’re here. Think he wanted us in the shack?”
“Ah hope not, Ah ain’t goin’ back there. The beds ain’t made…Ah’m too tired…”
Toné had never heard Brandy Sue say she was too anything to do something before. Giving her a hug, she said, “I’ll bring blankets and pillows, let’s sleep in here.”
Abel could move quietly when he wanted. Nothing creaked, no one built things as solid as that cabin anymore. Wood smoke tinged the air. A few sunbeams stabbed through gaps in the shutters. Deep in exhausted sleep wearing clean clothes, the tall black girl had a semi-auto pistol, radio, and flashlight laying by her hip, the little blond, a .22 rifle. Maybe they were dreaming about their men. The dishes were washed, their duffles were stowed out of sight, they’d kicked their blankets on the floor. No booze had been drunk, no cigarettes smoked, the blond had a tattered bible by her, the black girl, a dog-eared copy of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain.
Abel soft-footed out, made three trips with grocery bags so as not to disturb the angels. There was no law against looking at them, thank the Lord. They were beautiful, with a kind of resonance like a soothing radio station with violins. Eleanor had it once, then she spent her goodness on users.
He recalled a voice from three days ago;
“What do you want, Randall?” The clipped tones spelled someone in a command position.
Simple question. Wasn’t simple to answer, though. “Whaddayew want?”
“Absolute safe house.”
Hearing the cold note of suggestion, he knew he was being bribed and threatened all at once. “Fer who?”
“Two young women…witnesses. Married, no records. You’ve met them.”
“Hide ‘em from who?”
“Everybody. For as long as it takes.”
“Want th’ family lan’ back. An’ th’ cabin onnit.”
“Done. It’ll be in escrow until this is over. Expenses are covered.”
So they’d discovered his price and how isolated the cabin was. “One mo’ thang.”