It's Halloween week and here's one of maybe a couple stories, in its first of two parts. Hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading. The events take place not long before "Glimmer of Twilight"
The cool air which rattled through the tree branches signaled the coming of winter to the valley. It soared over like a flock of geese over the frigid lake that would freeze over soon enough. Nestled in the shelter of the Rockies, were a cluster of ranches, many owned by families for generations. They raised cattle and horses; they grew crops of alfalfa, wheat and some years, corn which stretched all the way to the base of the foothills that jutted up from the ground in front of the mountain range.
On every ranch, the men, women and even the children during summer months and vacation times toiled over their acreage and together the myriad of families knitted a fabric together that created a community. Sewing together its residents who were by nature rugged individualists into a cohesive family. Necessary for survival of their ancestors during the harsh winter months even though modern technology had offered them many advantages, the people who lived in this valley still relied on each other during times of crisis and during moments of celebration as well.
When the barn had caught on fire, breaking the still of nightfall with the crackling sounds of wood and the screams of horses trapped inside, it had galvanized everyone in the valley into action. Wives had rousted husbands out of bed and sisters had helped brothers saddle up their horses and head through the icy rain towards the glowering horizon.
The sounds of the horses screaming had waked her up as well from an even deeper sleep. She had blindly reached for anything that might give her protection over her flannel pajamas. She absently tied her hair back in a ponytail, slung on a hat and made her way to the born. The others had left already and so no one noticed her until she rode up to the group of ranchers in various attire standing in front of the burning building while others rushed into the flames and the falling timber to get as many horses out as could be saved.
The fire had been stealth, smoldering from some unknown source for a while the families had been eating dinner, helping their children with their homework and getting ready for bed. The woman had been asleep too, as she so often had been since she arrived in the valley a little more than a month earlier. But instinct drove her to the barn to tack up the buckskin mare that stood waiting in her stall and to get aboard and duck her head as she nudged the mare with her legs out of the barn. If the mare cared that she carried a stranger on her back, she gave no notice flowing easily enough from a canter into a gallop as the woman leaned forward urging her on across the icy meadow, the bonfire in her sights.
"What is she doing here," a wizened rancher had asked when she appeared out of the foggy mist that had cloaked the valley.
Another man shrugged.
"We need all the help we can get or we're going to lose some mares."
The woman dismounted, struggling a bit with her wrist encased in a heavy wrap. The brisk air had nipped at her face the entire ride but she still didn't notice as she took in the action around her before loosely tying the mare that she had ridden to a nearby tree and headed silently into the collapsing barn, a halo of fire surrounding the remnants of its entrance.
"Slim, we need you over here," an older rancher said.
Slim ran on over there but kept his eyes on the entrance to see if the woman would return or if she too would be swallowed up by the dripping embers and the thick black smoke.
"I think something's happened to her," Slim said finally.
Other eyes turned towards the barn and nothing happened, except that another rancher pulled out one mare that had been blindfolded with a jacket.
"You'd better go find her," he said, "It's that Reade girl."
An older man started towards the barn when suddenly he saw a figure emerge, an outline really through the thick wall of smoke illuminated by the fire.
A woman with soot on her face and in one of her hands, a make shift lead rope attached to a chestnut mare that she had led into the clearing.
The barn had been a complete loss but every mare had been led out of it alive and the ranchers had moved them to a pasture closer to the main barn to spend the night outside. The mares had already begun growing their coats so they would be fine until the morning.
Many of the ranchers had gathered at the home of the woman who owned that ranch and ran it since the death of her husband and the departure of her son to a life he had built for himself off of the ranch. So she and several of the other women started mixing up a batch of beef stew to fill the stomachs of the others and plenty of hot coffee as well.
But not before Thea made sure to look after the woman who had saved three horses only minutes after getting out of her bed and heading out into the night on horseback. After the third mare rescued, the woman had just stood there, motionless like a statue holding the mare's halter until someone took the mare. Thea had gone up and had gestured to her top hand, Jed and he had taken off his own coat and wrapped it around the woman who had suddenly began to feel the cold permeate her body. Her breathing quickened and her legs weakened, someone stepped forward to keep her from falling onto the frozen ground.
Somehow she had returned to the ranch though how she hadn't remembered; in fact the whole night to her had become a blur of sharp images which had slowly faded as the warmth of the fire began to stroke her body.
She now sat in the living room, wrapped up in blankets while the fire crackled in front of her. Someone had handed her a warm damp cloth to wipe the soot off of her face and she did that, her eyes still mesmerized by the flames.
"Here, this will help warm you up…"
Someone put a mug of something warm in her hand and tasting it, she found it to be hot chocolate, its creamy sweetness warming her throat.
Thea smiled and crowfeet appeared around her eyes.
"That was quite some work you did tonight," she said, "I should be thanking you for saving those mares Kelly."
The other woman shrugged.
"I grew up on a ranch and we always helped each other when it was needed," she said, "Everyone pitched in no matter what."
Thea sat on the couch next to her.
"You want some stew?"
Kelly thought about it, not knowing if her stomach could hold any food. She looked indecisive and the older woman nodded.
"It's okay," she said, "You've been so sick, we'll keep you on the simpler foods."
Kelly nodded and wrapped the blankets tighter around her. Thea touched her on the shoulder and then stood up.
"I'll bring you some warm cereal," she said, "You've got to have something to fill you up after what you did."
The woman left and Kelly kept staring into the fire, her mind miles away from where she sat. Someplace far enough away where no one could follow.
Matt tossed his duffel bag onto the small bed, a cot really inside a musty room in a motel on the outskirts of a small town in Germany. Outside were narrow cobble streets which wove like ribbons between taller buildings, some quite old and the noises he heard now were honking cars and loud music. The month of October meant partying throughout Germany as part of Oktoberfest. He had hitched a ride to Bonn after taking an overnight train to Lausanne, Switzerland from southern France.
He still had a day's worth of traveling on his clothes so he shed them and hit the shower inside a bathroom that more resembled a closet. But the water had been warm and he left a few minutes feeling much more refreshed. He looked in the mirror at the growth of his beard, not having shaved in a couple of weeks. He kept it from growing too much but in most places, he had been lucky enough to find a mirror to use and he hated shaving blind.
He cleaned his face and then headed to look out the window of the two story building into the crowded street. The throngs of people celebrating the holiday had overwhelmed the flow of traffic but no one seemed to mind. The mood appeared festive though that could change the more people became liquored up. He changed into fresh clothes over his money belt and after looking around the room a final time, he left to find a place to pick up some food and drink.
The street that met him as he left the building was filled with groups of people talking and laughing as they walked by where he stood. A couple of bars were open with more people spilling into the street. A couple guys slapped him on the back as they passed him, and he looked around to see if any of the places also served food.
"What you looking for handsome," a woman said.
She clearly spoke English but quite a few Germans did and she looked in the partying mood decked out in a dress covered with a colorful sweater.
"A place to eat actually."
She considered that carefully, and then pointed straight ahead.
"There's a place that serves a side menu of American food," she said, "alongside the more traditional dishes of course."
She seemed friendly and most importantly, she didn't look like she recognized him or his face. During his travels, he had come upon newsstands on city streets, inside stores and airports which included magazines with his picture on the cover and a headline with some speculation about why one of the world's most renowned business men had suddenly dropped out of sight several months ago. But he hadn't read the articles, choosing to forget that part of his life for as long as possible, until the restlessness inside him had subsided.
"I'm Clarissa by the way," she said, "I'm from the United States originally myself just like you."
Maybe she did recognize him.
"How did you…"
She smiled brightly.
"Your accent of course," she said, "I'd guess Texan."
He smiled back.
"You guessed right," He said, "I grew up outside of Houston. My name's Matt."
"I'm from Boston myself," she said, "I even went to Harvard Business School."
That piqued his interest.
"Did you know a…"
She waited for him to finish but he didn't, realizing it was silly to think that she could possibly had known his best friend who had attended law school there years ago. A flash of her appeared in front of him, of her smiling face framed by her dark hair, her eyes pensive. Next came the stab of guilt.
He hadn't even talked to C.J. since he left her standing alone in his beach house that night after she had tried to talk him out of leaving. No, running away he admitted to himself, after all that's what he had been doing. He guessed she was running the investigative firm in L.A. with Roy and that she might be worrying about him, wondering how he was doing. But every time he thought about calling her, something stopped him from picking up the phone. Never mind that much of the time during his travels he had been far away from a phone line. But then that had been part of the plan to get away from everyone and everything he knew.
"Did I know who," she prompted.
He blinked his eyes and looked at the woman in front of him.
"No one really…would you like to get something to eat?"
"Are you buying?"
"I think I can handle that," he said, "I've been traveling a lot and I just got to Germany today."
"I've been traveling mostly on work," she said, "I work for a financial consulting firm in London but I'm using up my vacation time and doing some traveling."
She slipped her arm in his and tugged at him.
"Come on, you buy, I promise you I'll order up something good," she said, "The cuisine here can be a little tricky."
"I was stationed at a base in Frankfort for a couple of months when I was in the military," Matt said, "but it's changed since then."
"This town used to be a lot smaller," Clarissa said, "but the commercial business district has been very busy."
"Let's not talk about business," he said as they neared the small eatery.
"Fine with me handsome," she said as they followed a crowd of people inside.
Matt looked around and his brow rose at the décor. She noticed his glances around the room filled with people chatting and eating at tables while waiters delivered trays heaping with plates of food and glasses of beer.
"It's Halloween soon," she said, "You remember celebrating that in the States don't you?"
He nodded, remembering when he had been a kid growing up on a ranch and he and other ranch kids had dressed up in costumes and held parties, then gone to a nearby abandoned barn dimly lit to sit on dried out bales of hay to shine flashlights at each other and tell ghost stories. Invariably, they wound up scaring each other silly.
"I didn't know what day it was," he admitted, "I don't really keep track of the calendar."
She led him to a table in the corner, with two chairs waiting for them.
"Really," she said, "I envy you that. I live by the calendar like I know in two weeks and one day I'm due at a board of directors meeting in Milan to give a presentation."
"Sounds like you're not looking forward to it."
They ordered some beers from a waitress.
"Well I get paid good money so I can fake it."
He leaned forward.
"Do you like your work?"
She seemed to think about it.
"The money certainly and the company I keep," she said, "I don't feel challenged enough all the time…what about you?"
"I loved it for a while," he said, "Making some of the business deals was more like high stakes poker but after a while, it got stale so I turned to something else…"
She digested that.
"What about a personal life," she asked, "You married?"
He sighed, as the waitress delivered their beers and took their orders but the question stood between them even as she did order for them both, telling him to trust her judgment.
Then she picked up where they had left off.
"Because I don't see you wearing a ring, of course many guys still don't…"
He sipped his beer thoughtfully.
"I was engaged…it didn't work out."
"Oh, well what does one say about that but there's more fish in the big sea?"
"Something like that but I really loved her," he said, "or so I thought but now I think I just wanted a wife."
She sipped her own drink carefully.
"Oh really…so you were ready to settle down and you had it all planned out and she bailed on you?"
He shook his head.
"No…it was mutual," he said, "It just wasn't going to work out."
"I almost got married once," she said, "but I got smart and decided to take the London job instead. I was too young to be tied down to that kind of life."
Matt could understand that having been footloose and fancy free himself but he had been so ready to settle down with one woman or so he thought when he had been back in L.A.. Then again maybe not, because during his travels, he had already hooked up with several women in different cities or towns in different countries though most of that had been in the first month. It hadn't taken him very long to lose interest in that lifestyle.
"I used to be like that," he said, "I even tried it again when I took off but it gets old awfully quick."
She looked at him in surprise.
"Really, a great looking man like yourself," she said, "I would think you'd be making up for lost time."
"I'd already lost too much time for what mattered."
She sat in the living room, while the ranchers begun to leave to return to their own homes in the dead of night. The warmth of the fire still blanketed her body which had begun to relax beneath the covers. Thea had brought her some warm cereal which she had eaten once she realized she had been hungry after all. It had just been so long since she had been out of bed and someplace else. She had vague memories of this living room with its huge stone fireplace and furniture designed for comfort rather than appearance. Photographs lined the walls opposite from the fireplace and a couple paintings of landscapes hung also.
She had tried closing her eyes but it had been too early for that. The adrenalin that had rushed through when she had heard the horses still kept her from sleeping. And until exhaustion again overtook her, she would only see him. Out in the world somewhere looking for her, sending his men to every corner of the earth to find her and bring her back. She knew by now he had that reach.
Her body shivered then despite the warmth and she tried to bundle even deeper under the wraps. Thea walked in with one of the hands that she knew to be Jed. He had stood tall over her bed a few times, his hair peppered with grey, his face lined and his voice gravely. But when he sat down, his eyes had been softer and his touch, gentle.
They sat in chairs nearby with cups of coffee.
"Well we'll go out and check what's left in the morning," Jed said, "but there's not much left."
Thea nodded as if she had been used to bad news and Kelly knew that as a rancher's wife and then his widow, she had a lot of experience in this area.
"All the ranchers have agreed to pitch in to stable some of the mares that need to be inside," she said, "We wouldn't want old Diablo to drop by and steal some of them."
Jed shook his head.
"No body's seen the stallion lately," he said, "and it's already started to get really cold for October which means a rough winter ahead."
Thea nodded thoughtfully and then she smiled.
"Did you get some pumpkins at the market today?"
"I picked up a half dozen," he said, "The biggest I could fine. The kids should like them at the party."
"What I think they like most of all is listening to your ghost stories around the fire place."
Kelly watched them speak from where she sat, wondering what they were talking about and then she remembered.
Thea looked over at her.
"Why yes it is," she said, "and every year we invite all the ranchers' kids to come here and have a party. They dress up and come here to eat plenty of food, we have contests and it's a whole lot of fun for the adults as much as the children."
"You see, this time of year we're looking at a stretch of months when it's going to be snowing a lot and really too cold to be outside unless we have to and we have get togethers like this to keep from going stir crazy."
Kelly smiled slightly.
"It sounds nice…"
Thea sipped her coffee, looking at the young woman with the patchwork of healing injuries on her face and her eyes…that seemed most of the time to be looking somewhere that others couldn't see. When the young woman had first been brought into her home by the men who had found her miles away, she had barely been conscious. Of course she had been filled with questions but one look her way by her son Jonathan kept her quiet. She had known this woman under a different name at a different time when she had visited the ranch years ago as her son's girlfriend and she had liked her friendly nature and her spirited side, how she didn't let herself be dominated by anyone.
A sharp contrast to the woman who had been hiding out at her ranch under as many layers of protection as the federal government could afford her while it sought the individuals who had kidnapped her and held her captive for over a month. The woman hadn't been much help there, telling them very little about what had happened to her.
Her eyes held so much as did the rigid posture of her body and the feeling that Thea had that she could take off running any moment if her legs would carry her. The doctor whom Jonathan had brought with him had watched over her after stitching up her face and her hands, which bore jagged cuts on them that had dried shut. An infected wound on her shoulder had seized hold of her body sending her into septic shock. They had medicated her as best they could and Thea had spent hours sitting behind the comatose woman she had only met once, wondering if behind her closed eyes she dreamed.
But Kelly had rallied and had gotten stronger after waking up one morning, still her body remained weakened, her injuries in the process of healing including a broken wrist. The least of the damage done to her, Thea suspected.
"You can come the party if you want," Thea said, "if you feel up to it."
"That'd be nice," she said, "When I grew up, we used to turn this barn that had been left abandoned into a haunted house and we'd tell stories trying to outdo each other."
She had remembered being there, sitting on a bale of hay wrapped up in the jacket belonging to her best friend. He had given it to her when he had noticed her rubbing her arms when the air had suddenly turned chilly.
Those days and the people who shared them seemed a million miles away right now.
Thea prepared to get up.
"Well it's getting late and I think I'll turn in," she said, "Kelly, you need to get up to bed and get some sleep, okay?"
Kelly sighed, feeling that all she had done was sleep for as long as she could remember, her memories of being awake had faded. And most of them she hadn't wanted to revisit anyway. She hesitated, looking at the angry reddish lines on her fingers, from wounds she hadn't remembered.
Thea looked closer at her.
"It'll be okay," she said, "I'm down the hall if you need you and I think I saw the cat settling on your comforter. He'll keep you company."
She stood up awkwardly and Thea went to put her arm around her, understanding that the younger woman feared being alone in the darkness.
"We'll get you changed into some other pajamas and get you settled into bed and I'll sit with you until you fall asleep."
Kelly just nodded as they walked up the staircase to the upper floor and she went into her bedroom where Thea found her some fresh bedclothes to wear. She just looked at them for a while, and slowly began to take off the pajamas covered in soot, gingerly to protect her wrapped wrist with her eyes closed tightly. Most of the pain from her injuries and the exertion of fleeing the man who had held her captivity had faded along with the bruising and when she pulled the pajama top of her, she looked at the thick bandage covering her shoulder and the injury which had almost killed her. But the rest of her body felt like a stranger to her, because it now belonged to someone else. She couldn't even look at herself now because she still felt his hands there, all over her skin, his breath on her face and the cold floor against her back. The man who had been her nightmare as long as she could remember, who right now had sent his best men out in the world looking for her.
And she knew he would find her and take it from her again.
Matt lay back on the bed, as the woman next to him slept beside him. She curled underneath the covers with her arm wrapped around the pillow beneath her halo of hair. They had eaten the delicious food and some tall glass mugs of beer and then they had walked with the crowds of other people to check out some of the different parties at other bars on the street. Even a Halloween party for American military personnel and tourists, where pumpkins glowed on the window sills and plastic skeletons hung from the ceiling, along with ghosts and a witch riding on a broom.
Clarissa had grabbed his hand and had taken him on the cramped dance floor and they had held onto each other as the music played both thinking about someone else far away.
When they finally returned to his motel, it had been natural to ask her in for a nightcap, to start kissing in the dimly lit room and not even necessary to ask her to spend the night.
But now looking out into the shadows dancing on the walls from the street lights shining through the blinds, he listened to the celebration still taking place outside. His bag remained packed by the door, in case he decided to leave quickly. He had never unpacked it during the three months he had been moving on from one country to the next. Never knowing how long he would be staying in one place just knowing it wouldn't be for very long until the wanderlust that owned him now nudged him forward once again.
Clarissa had been one of different women who had shared his bed since he left L.A. but he hadn't thought that she would be the next one until the small band inside that last bar had played a familiar song, the one he had hoped to play at the wedding reception while he danced with his bride, their first dance of their marriage.
But now wrapped up in a bed sheet, he thought of another woman, far away probably sitting in the office at the penthouse suite in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city that he had left. On the phone with a client perhaps, or sifting through files that filled her desk most of the time and entirely capable of handling even the heaviest workload anyone could throw at her.
She might have plans for Halloween for working with Roy to host a party at the office for the employees to close out another busy work day by doing something fun for several hours. He could just see her decorating the office before the other employees even showed up for work that morning.
He sighed and closed his eyes. Life no doubt continued on in L.A. in his absence, the hole in the fabric mending itself shut with the passage of time. He had no idea where he was going and when L.A. would be on the horizon again.
The woman stirred next to him, moving closer to his warmth. He tried to close his eyes to go to sleep, wanting to keep reality at bay a while longer and for the dream world to sweep in and take him there instead.
C.J. woke up, drenched in sweat and shivering despite the warmth of the comforter. Her heart pounded in her chest and her breathing roared in her ears. She pushed out with her arms to ward but they only sliced through the emptiness in front of her. She forced herself into a sitting position, trying to push the panic way, the sudden wave of disorientation and disassociation which would send her adrenalin spinning out of control. The latter, she knew all too well because whenever he came into her bed at night or had the guards bring her into his, she learned how to keep some small part of who she had been locked up tight inside her, some place he couldn't invade, outside of his reach.
This hadn't been a dream. The smell of his cologne which sickened her, the calluses on the fingers that stroked her skin and the weight of his body against hers, while she closed her eyes and willed her mind to find its own way to the garden, the one with the endless rows of beautiful flowers, where the sounds of crickets chirping soothed her. Where the man who she loved had been waiting to counter the man she despised.
But neither of them was inside the bedroom now. She only saw the ranch cat lying on the foot of her bed curled up asleep. Her breathing began to slow, her heartbeat feel less intense against the walls of her chest and her vision less blurred, the tingling that overwhelmed her extremities began to ebb.
She put her hand over her face, as thought returned of the place she lived now. The people who had been taking care of her and the last several hours spent out saving the mares trapped inside the burning barn. The soft singing that had greeted her when she first awoke in this safe place. Thea had sat in the familiar chair beside her bed telling her a story about when she had first married her husband inside the living room of this same house when Kelly had finally drifted off.
Her last thoughts had been of Matt actually, wondering where he had gone and if he had found the peace he sought. Was he still running away or had he began running towards something? She had seen through photographs that he had been many different places, met many different people and the snapshots of his journey had showed him being happy. She had seen each and every one, a new photo each time the man who held her came to take from her, reminding her in carefully chosen words how easily a man traveling on his own could suddenly disappear in most countries in the world.
She finally settled back into bed, pulling the covers back over her, gently as not to awake the sleeping feline and stared at the ceiling most the rest of the night, unwilling to let either man get close to her. The man she despised turned her into someone she hated. The woman that Matt had known burnt to ashes. She knew she never wanted him to see her and remember what had been.
Miles away, a half a world away, another man lay in his bed, inside a hotel room on the Asian continent. He had flown in on business, the kind that could only be conducted in person, face to face in a world where transactions had become more electronic and less personal. The trade off for technology was a loss of humanity in those who used it.
The men he had sent looking for the woman who had escaped had come back with the news that their searches had been fruitless. But there were only few places to hide, and they would search each and every one, they would find her and bring her back to him.
The man thought he needed to stretch the net of his search to his contacts inside high places, including the government of his adopted country. He knew of only a handful of agencies that could successfully drop someone off the face of the earth because that's where they focused their expertise and he had people planted all of these places, hiding in plain sight.
He reached across the bed to pick up his phone, his eyes falling on a worn photo of a young woman with striking eyes and long dark hair around her elegant shoulders, her arms around a young boy about six with dark eyes that traveled across time and space to stare back at themselves.