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Oct 19 2000

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HARD TO BEAR (excerpt)

 

PROLOGUE

 

Pain.

As Solana Capella came to, she groaned, her head pounding like a jackhammer.

What happened to my head? Ouch, my arm. Where …?

Her eyes fluttered open and slowly focused on the feral eyes of a swamp monster staring back. Pain was joined by its old friend, fear.

But wait. Not a swamp thing.

The hollow-cheeked face wasn’t really green. It was smeared with camouflage muck. The stranger was pushed up against her and seemed to be spreading the same green and brown ooze on her face.

Panic.

She yelped and began biting and scratching at Camo Man’s hands. She inhaled the breath she needed for a championship scream, but his enormous hand clamped down over her mouth and pinched her nose, shutting down the air passages. She fought, but he tightened the grip. “Shhh,” he hissed low as a whisper. “They’re coming. You must be very still. Do you understand?”

They’re coming? Oh, God.

Now she remembered. She tried to control her fear of this new captor. She did her best to nod and, failing at that, blinked her eyes rapidly. Maybe he’d take that as, “Yes, I understand.” He may hurt her, but at least he wasn’t one of them.

Any old port in the storm, right?

She felt a hysterical bubble of laughter behind the hand over her mouth as it eased up, letting air rush into her lungs. He glowered a warning at her, then slithered down prone, pressing hard against her. That shoved her backside up to a damp cold wall of earth. The kind with spiders and centipedes and worms. She shivered, pressing back against him in hopes of moving her ass off the wall.

Solana was afraid she would suffocate as her face squashed into his slender chest. But some deep instinct of a small cornered animal told her to be ever so quiet, to freeze in place. Playing dead, she took inventory. From the little she could see pressed against him, it appeared they were in a shallow, low cave. Roots from a million plants laced through the dirt and clay, holding its walls in place. It smelled of mold and rotten vegetation, overcoming even the fetid odor of filthy clothes and man sweat crushed against her nose. She could hear the sound of rushing water, and through the mouth of the cave, she was aware of only deep grey light. It must be nearly dark.

The pain reasserted itself. They had not marked her body. The scrapes, bruises and sprained wrist were from her wild flight. The real ache was buried deep within, raw and torn, from the rape. She shuddered against this stranger who now held her fate in his control.

Fear had been her companion since she’d been taken. It rose and fell like swells on the ocean. Now it was ebbing, as she accepted that Camo Man was helping her hide from them. When she felt his muscles tense, hers followed in lock step. Then she heard the sounds he was hearing.

Movement in the underbrush above. More than one hunter. Footsteps overhead, coming to a halt. Shuffling feet. Men swearing.

Flashlight beams crisscrossed the grayness in front of the cavern’s opening. Then she heard in a voice she knew, “It’s too dark. We’ll miss her again. She’ll be easier to track in the morning. Killing this bitch will be more fun than most.”

They left. It was still. A minute, five, maybe a year. Then the man next to her moved back just enough for her to see his face. “They call me Ghost,” he said. “You knocked yourself out trying to run under a tree limb. I brought you here. But we have to move on.”

She considered his ragged military jacket as well as the face paint. “Are you a soldier?” she whispered.

“Was. Can you walk?”

She nodded, although she was unsure how far she could go. Her stolen sandals were no more than shreds now, one sole flapping loose against the bottom of her foot. She’d run so far, so fast that vine maple whips and blackberry thorns had cut her feet and her legs. The cowboy shirt she’d taken was so big it had caught on snags, and now shreds flapped like home made fringe. Same with the basketball shorts. But she was a fighter, and she would not give up. Her sister’s life depended on it.

Ghost turned and slid on his butt out of the cave. “Follow,” he said and she did, mimicking his action. As she slid out and down, he caught her just as her feet entered the freezing water of a fast moving creek. She gasped.

“We’ll walk in the creek for a while. No tracks to follow. No detectable odors unless they bring dogs tomorrow.” Ghost headed upstream.

Solana looked back at the cave but could not see the mouth. It was hidden in the dusk behind the grasses on the bank. Her instinct was to go back there and hide forever. But she told herself it would not be so hard to see in the daylight. She had to swallow her exhaustion and fear.

Her baggy shorts rode so low on her hips that they dragged in the water. Holding them up with one hand, she followed Ghost. He seemed to sense where he was as the darkness became absolute, the journey only lit in patches where pale blue moonlight soaked through the forest canopy. He grabbed her uninjured wrist to lead her, and in time the freezing water dulled the pain in her feet. It seemed like a thousand miles until he stopped and pointed up the bank.

“There,” he said. The massive root system of an ancient Sitka spruce looked like clutching fingers in the moonlight. The tree must have crashed to earth many decades before. Now other trees were growing from the nurse log which was at least twelve feet across near the base. The massive old roots swept out into an impenetrable arch of tendrils that intertwined with boulders rising above the muddy bank.

Ghost left the creek and pulled her up the bank to the far side of the roots where they jammed against a casket-sized chunk of volcanic rock. “Kneel here and crawl forward.”

She did as she was told. On her knees she could see that there was room for her to shimmy between two tangled roots. She crawled through and found herself in a hollowed out cavern inside the fallen tree.

Ghost followed her in. He reached for a flashlight tucked inside the entrance and turned it on. “This is one of my hidey holes,” he said to her. “Nobody knows it. We’re safe. For now.”

Solana watched him open the padlock of a battered foot locker with a key that hung on the chain with his dog tags. He lifted the lid of the locker and handed the flashlight to her. “You can leave it on for a little bit.”

While he removed fur pelts from the locker and spread them over the bottom of the cavern, Solana flashed the light around her. She could see the space was a circle with maybe an eight foot diameter. “How did you do this?” She asked. “It’s awesome.”

“Burned it. Like some tribes hollowed out trees to make canoes.” Next he rummaged out several strips of jerky. “Venison,” he said, handing some of the dark, smoky slices to her. “Eat then sleep. We’ll leave at daylight.”

Solana took two of the pelts and crawled under them. If he meant her any harm, there was little she could do about it. She tried to chew the tough meat, but she was so tired. Too tired. The last thing she remembered was Ghost pulling out a satellite phone and calling somebody named Vinny. They made plans to meet. Solana was asleep before she heard where or when.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Case Notes

September 16, 2 p.m.

            Society places certain expectations on Italians like Frankie Sapienza. Maybe his family puts horse heads in each others’ beds. Maybe they use car trunks as portable caskets. A person can be forgiven for thoughts like these if you’ve seen enough movies.

The rest of us residents at Latin’s Ranch Adult Family Home are fascinated with the Sicilian octogenarian. After all, gossip is our numero uno group activity. We like to speculate that he’s a don of the highest order. But, alas, Frankie pretty much keeps his trap shut no matter how much the rest of us bump our gums. Oh, he’s a smoothy all right, with a fine line of patter when it serves his purpose. But about his past he reveals zip, zilch, nada. And we don’t push it, not as long as Frankie’s goomba Vinny Tononi hangs around looking threatening as a hawk in a henhouse.

Maybe my roommate Eunice Taylor could make some inroads now that she’s what Frankie calls his little dove, which is apparently somewhere between first date and betrothed. But she doesn’t ask him awkward questions. She likes him and the gifts he bestows, but she isn’t actually interested in sleeping with any fishes. Eunice is smart that way.

Anyhoo, imagine my surprise when Frankie up and asked Bear Jacobs to handle a private investigation. That’s right. The could-be capo, who should have a lot of young hot shots on his payroll, chose a cane wielding, overweight, grouch of a has-been shamus to trust. I take it as a show of respect for Bear’s brain. Bear takes it as nothing less than his due.

Of course, when he elicited Bear’s help, the secretive Sicilian didn’t mention that the rest of us would soon be hiding a terrified young woman. Or that murderers might climb right over us to get to her.

                                                – Lily Gilbert, Curious Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs

 

Lily Gilbert shut down her laptop, sat up and swung her leg over the side of the bed. Ever since she had become the eWatson to retired private investigator Bear Jacobs she’d kept her version of case notes. They weren’t official files, of course, in the sense of admissible court documents. There were no “pursuant tos” or “time of the incidents.” But they were the kind of notes that appealed to Lily, and if Bear needed something else, he could go find another assistant who worked for goose eggs. He could do that right after he pounded sand.

She fluffed up her cloud of light gray hair, pinched a little more pink into her cheeks, and hopped down from the bed on her one remaining foot. With the help of her walker she traveled out to the Latin’s Ranch kitchen in search of a cup of tea. Lily actually knew that Bear was grateful for her case notes and even more so for her help. But everyone had been a little edgy since Frankie had consulted with Bear. What the hell was up?

Bear Jacobs, Lily Gilbert, Eunice Taylor and Charlie Barker had all come to the adult family home together, after departing a nursing home. Frankie Sapienza was the only resident who had arrived from points unknown. Latin’s Ranch was a lot smaller, friendlier, and homier than a nursing home. And usually safer, too, from things like communicable illness.

But safer from gangland warfare? Well, that wasn’t the kind of thing most care facilities worried about. It hadn’t been an issue at Latin’s Ranch either until Bear gathered the rest of the residents together to tell them what Frankie wanted him to do.

“He’s honorable by crook standards,” Bear had begun. “His family made their living in the traditional rackets of gambling, protection and prostitution.”

Eunice’s feathers ruffled. “A friendly card game or two, maybe helping a few storekeepers out with security, but prostitutes? Not my Frankie.” Her lips compressed into a tight little pout as she crossed her arms over her kaftan-covered chest. With that orange spiky hair she looked like an irritated pin cushion.

Bear rolled his beady black eyes. “Right. Not that. What was I thinking?” He crossed his own arms over a chest covered in an ancient flannel shirt that must have been an XXL.

Lily the Peacemaker quickly intervened. “Keep going, Bear. I’m sure there’s more you want to tell us.”

“Okay, but only if you’re interested,” Bear grumped.

Lily knew the big man could pout every bit as well as Eunice. Based on his mass, Alvin Jacobs might have been a retired lumberjack instead of a sleuth. He was in his seventies with silvertip hair and beard surrounding his massive head. Size and hair together provided his nickname. But Lily knew that Bear described his personality, too. He could fool you into thinking he was a big ambling dope, slow and easy to underestimate. You’d be wrong. Bear was steely sharp. It was never wise to underestimate him.

“We’re all interested, Bear,” Charlie said, glancing up from the hand of solitaire spread on the living room game table. He was tall enough that his voice should be in the basso profundo range, but instead, it was sort of a squeak. “Really. Tell us.”

“Okay. As I was saying, the Sapienza family made its nut in traditional cri- , um, pursuits. Frankie has his standards.” He tipped a metaphorical hat to Eunice.

She brightened and returned the nod vigorously, moussed spikes bobbing with her. “Thank you, Bear. Of course he does.”

“He says he never condoned things like street drugs or kiddie porn or the slave trade. All the seamy shit that newer gangs are into. To an old Italian like Frankie, newer gangs mean Latin or Asian or Russian.” Bear paused, momentarily pushing out his lower lip before saying, “And, to be honest, I’ve never heard about anything like that in Frankie’s past.”

Bear should know, Lily thought. He’d had a long career as a private investigator before bad health ended it. If the cops had dirt on Frankie Sapienza, he’d have heard about it. As far as she could tell, Bear’s noggin was a bulging filing cabinet of all his past adventures.

“He’s heard rumors of a business one of those gangs has started. Innocent people dying in a bizarre way. In Frankie’s system of ethics, it’s bound to bring the wrong kind of attention to mob activity, and that’s bad. He wants it stopped. He doesn’t want organized crime under a spotlight. I imagine none of the families really want one going rogue.”

“Why did Frankie come to you with this, Bear?” Lily asked.

“You think I’m not capable?”

“Oh, quit it.” Lily took just so much guff from her old friend. “You know I mean instead of going to one of his own people.”

“He wants to know exactly what’s happening, and which gang is behind it. He can hardly go to the cops. And someone in his own family would be recognized by the others.” Bear leaned forward in his easy chair and looked from one to the next. “I’m telling you about it because you all have a decision to make.”

Our ears cocked like bird dogs sighting quail.

“A frightened girl was found out in the woods by one of Vinny’s pals. She’s involved in this somehow. Thugs were chasing her and are still trying to hunt her down. She needs a place to hide until I can hear her story and work this all out. A place nobody would guess.”

“A place like Latin’s Ranch?” Charlie piped up.

Bear nodded. “You guys willing to hide her here? Could be dangerous.”

Invite murderers into our little safety zone just to help a girl we don’t know?

Even as she thought it, Lily said, “Of course.”

“Of course,” said Charlie still slapping red cards on black.

“Of course,” said Eunice, giving Bear a why-would-you-even-ask shrug.

Bear nodded at his little band of operatives. “Good thing we all see eye to eye. Because she’ll be here tomorrow.”

“But Bear, you need to ask Jessica about this first,” Lily cautioned. Jessica Winslow was the owner and caretaker of Latin’s Ranch as well as Lily’s closest friend. Jessica believed the seniors in her care needed a certain amount of freedom and control over their own lives, that being old didn’t make them a bunch of big babies. But would she allow them to put each other in danger?

Fat chance.

“No, Lily,” Bear said. “We’ll get the girl here first, then you’ll tell Jessica.”

“Me?”

“Sure. That’s what BFFs are for.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Case Notes

September 16, 4 p.m.

            The girl arrives tomorrow. Frankie told Bear she was found in the woods by a former special ops buddy of his bodyguard, Vinny Tononi. Just being that goomba’s pal makes him one spooky dude in my book. It really ups the stakes when you know the guy’s name. It’s Ghost. Yeah, normal people walk around with a name like that. Ghost.

            After a lunch of our cook’s homemade enchiladas – with the best kick ass salsa in todo el mundo – Bear and I figured out what to do with the girl when she arrives. First, we considered the layout of Latin’s Ranch. It’s a rambling affair that was a farmhouse at the beginning of its life. After Jessica decided to take us in, the upstairs was expanded and a wing added, a porch was built across the front and a patio across the back. A lot of it was done with my daughter Sylvia’s money. More about her later. She’s on my list of worries, too.

Anyhoo, Jessica lives here along with the five of us residents, plus Ben Stassen’s daughter, Rachael, and her baby. Ben is Jessica’s hunka hunka but he’s not a live-in, at least not yet. We also house a fat cat, a dog with a limp and two canaries. The staff includes three aides, Aurora the cook, and a youngster who swing-shifts as Aurora’s kitchen slave and housekeeper.

It’s a full house. There’s certainly no room to hide another person. Outdoors, there are the sheds, riding ring, and horse barn. Fertile pastures are surrounded by woods, a mix of deciduous trees, cedar and fir typical of the Pacific Northwest. It’s all owned by Jessica who splits her time between caring for us and caring for horses. She boards them for other people, gives riding lessons, and raises a breed called Paso Finos. The Latin’s Ranch name came from her stallion, Latin Lover.

            “There’s only one place on this property that Jessica doesn’t feel free to go uninvited,” I said to Bear. There was little chance Jess would agree to this plan, and until we sprang it on her, we needed a place to hide the girl even from her.

            Bear was ahead of me. “Sam’s trailer.”

Sam Hart is Jessica’s barn manager and handyman. He lives in an old Airstream between our house and the barn. “Bingo. But we can hardly put a girl in there until we get Sam out.”

            “I imagine he would notice a thing like that.”

            We sat on the patio in the sun. The days are still long enough for a breezy warm afternoon. It makes me think of my garden, the one that was sold along with my house when I went into the nursing home. I loved that garden, even the autumn chores that coaxed it into glorious bloom the following springs. But I’ve come to love Latin’s Ranch about as much. In some ways maybe even more. Proof that there’s at least some gold in the golden years.

            “We could talk Sam into taking a vacation. Frankie would probably pay for one.”

I was pretty sure Bear knew that was hopeless when he said it. “He wouldn’t leave the horses with no notice to Jessica.” Sam loves those hay burners almost as much as she does. If horses can have bodyguards, they have one in Sam.

            We sat and rocked and thought and rocked. Bear hummed Come Fly with Me. He always hums old standards while he thinks.

            “I’ve got it,” Bear said. “The dogs.”

            It took me a sec before I caught on. “Yes, of course!”

            Other than Folly, the cocker/dachshund mix that Jessica calls her cockadock, pooches are canis non-gratis around the ranch these days. A pack of feral dogs had attacked her colt, Latin Dancer. They had severely damaged him in the flesh and in the spirit. He would never make a show horse or command a stud fee as high as his sire. It was a heartbreaking loss to Jessica’s emotions and financial plans, even though her lover, Ben Stassen, bought the colt. Jess trained Dancer for him, and Ben now uses him as a trail horse.

            The night it happened, Sam shot one of the dogs, a Rottweiler. It was tearing off a piece of the colt’s hide at the time. The rest of the pack took off unmolested. Nobody knows for sure if they were wild marauders or local dogs banded together for sport. Either way Animal Control hasn’t been able to catch them, and that’s a big worry for stock owners. Now, just lately, Sam has heard them again, howling in the night. They may be coming back around. His rifle sits next to his trailer door, loaded and ready.

            “I think he’d move to the tack room in the barn to be closer to the horses,” Bear said. “Leave the trailer for a few days. That’s all it should take.”

            “He’ll do it if you ask. But if Jessica probes for more of an explanation, he’ll never lie to her,” I said. And then I just had to add, “I won’t either. I made a promise.”

            “Yeah, I know what you mean. After we get the girl here so Jessica can see it’s really okay, we’ll tell her.”

            “You mean the she-followed-me-home-can-I-keep-her defense?”

            “Sure. Jessica would never turn down an animal in need. And old farts like you and me prove she’s a marshmallow when it comes to people in need, too.”

                                                                        – Lily Gilbert, Needy Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs

The residents were in the living room, staring through the big front window at the long driveway. Lily figured they looked like meerkats with mobility equipment. Bear had asked Frankie to have the girl delivered in the afternoon because Jessica would be away at a Paso Fino show with her stallion, Latin Lover.

Lily agreed. “The timing is serendipitous.”

“It’s what?” asked Charlie. “Isn’t Serendipitous that group from the sixties?”

“That was the Serendipity Singers, Charlie.” Eunice focused a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses on the road which was barely visible at the end of the drive.

“Whatever. Nice young people. Those boys had short hair and ties. The girls wore skirts and curled their hair.”

“Well, here comes Serendipitous now,” Lily said, always eagle-eyed. They rushed outside as fast as a wheelchair, two walkers and a quad cane could rush. Only Eunice sailed along under her own power, even helping Frankie move forward.

It was the first time any of them had ever seen Vinny Tononi’s Cadillac look anything but sleek as a black panther. Now its hood was littered with twigs stuck in every crevice. Small fir branches clung to its mirrors, wipers and grill. The polish was scratched, and when Lily touched the hood, it felt sticky with tree sap. At least the car smelled fresh as a cedar chest.

Vinny Tononi was a hulking big guy who preferred dark glasses and darker suits. Lily maintained that if you really listened, you could hear his weaponry clank as he walked. With no more than a nod at the five oldsters and a baleful glance at the front of his car, he opened the Caddy’s back door.

A waif stepped out and faced them. Little, fragile, with eyes that rivaled those old Keane paintings.

Lily thought she was one of the sweetest looking girls she’d ever seen. Seventeen or eighteen, maybe. Her slight build might make her look younger than she was, but the wounded look in her eyes aged her. Her brown hair hung straight to her shoulders as though it had been washed but not styled. She wore a new pair of jeans that were rolled at the ankle, and her blouse had fold marks. Even her athletic shoes were bright with newness. A bandage around her left wrist looked clean and newly applied.

As Vinny unloaded shopping bags from Fred Meyer, Lily moved forward. “Hello, my dear. We’re so glad you are here. My name is Lily.”

“This is Solana,” Vinny said, handing the shopping bags to the girl and going back to his stricken car. “She is for your care now.”

“This is Eunice, Charlie, Frankie and Bear. Once you’re settled, Bear will want to speak with you. He’s a private investigator. And a good one. Whatever is going on, he will fix it.” Lily gave the girl an encouraging smile but received no such gesture in reply.

Bear bowed slightly, a nod of the head but not of the body. “We’ll find the bastards, miss.”

The girl eyed the old PI then seemed to back away from someone his size. Lily thought a frightened child might find his gruff manner intimidating.

“Please,” whispered the girl looking back at Lily. “Can I talk with you instead?”

“Well, but …”

“That will work fine, Miss Capella. You tell Lily and Eunice your story,” said Bear. “In the meantime, Vinny will take me to meet Ghost.”

“Why didn’t he come here?” Charlie asked.

Vinny, who’d been mourning over the hood of his car, said, “Ghost almost never talks with people. And even more almost never, he does not leave the woods.”

* * *

Solana Capella didn’t know whether to be charmed or scared shitless by these geriatric weirdoes. She was sitting next to Lily in an old trailer’s tiny banquette, watching Eunice search from one cabinet to the next. “Lily believes in the restorative powers of tea. I myself believe the same about whisky. Ah! Here we go. Apparently, Sam Hart believes in both.” Eunice assembled the ingredients, along with the honey and lemon she’d already found.

Lily looked at Solana and smiled before she spoke. “Sam vacated the premises earlier today before you arrived. Set up a cot for himself in the barn’s tack room. We’re sure that will be okay with Jessica, our caregiver.”

Solana noticed Eunice roll her eyes.

What’s that about? Maybe I won’t be staying here after all.

Lily looked calmer and smarter than the other one, maybe because she wasn’t tinkling with jewelry and adrift on a sea of perfume. Too bad she only had the one leg. Solana wondered what it would be like, not being able to run.

Fucking scary, that’s what.

She herself would be dead if she hadn’t been able to race like a gazelle. Both old women were kind enough at least. Of course, Solana’s experience with geezers was limited, but she knew they usually weren’t scary. Maybe she’d be safe here until she could get to her sister. Surely the bastards wouldn’t think to look for her in this place.

“You’ll be snug as a bug until Bear can figure all this out,” said Eunice as she fussed with the drinks. “You’re just a child, but this much whiskey won’t hurt you a bit. Warm you right up.” She set the beverages down in front of them. One teacup had lost its handle and the others were mismatched mugs from Reggie’s Tavern and the Black Sheep Diner. “The pickings are sparse in Sam’s dinnerware department.” Eunice seated herself on the other side of the table.

Meanwhile, Lily had booted up a laptop and looked ready to take notes, bony fingers poised above the keys. “Take your time now. And tell me what happened. But first, I guess we should call the authorities. Will you do that, Eunice?”

Eunice looked like a little kid told to go to her room. “I want to hear – ”

“No,” said Solana, sharply. “Nobody calls the authorities. It’s too dangerous for Rosie.”

It was the first thing she’d said since they came into the trailer. Lily and Eunice both stared at her. Solana looked from Lily’s old face to Eunice’s older one, making her decision. She needed to talk with somebody, and these two dinosaurs were all she had. Maybe it would be okay even if they were old. They didn’t smell bad or anything, and a couple kids she knew actually liked their grams. She’d never met her own.

At least these two wrinklies are women. I’m sick of men. She thought about the ones she’d met outside, Frankie and Charlie and Bear. Bear, right. How can that toothless old grizzly figure this out if I can’t?

She looked into Lily’s clear eyes and saw the intelligence there. Slowly, awkwardly, she began to speak. “I don’t trust the authorities for good reason. You know about homeless camps in the woods, don’t you?”

“I know what I’ve read,” Lily answered. “As the economy keeps tanking, many families reach the end of the line. They’re living rough.” She began to tap notes into the computer.

Solana nodded. “We lived with a family like that, my little sister Rosie and I. She’s just fifteen. They were good people. Let us stay with them as long as they could pay the fee out at the county park.” Solana glanced around Sam’s comfortable but utilitarian mobile home. “This place is a palace compared to theirs.”

“Sam’s loaning it to you for as long as you need to hide.”

Solana cringed with a shiver of fear. “Sam. He won’t … come for me, will he?”

“Sam?” Eunice and Lily asked looking surprised. “Sam would never hurt you,” they continued in unison.

“He’s a very good man,” Eunice’s earrings tinkled to punctuate her emphatic nod.

“I haven’t met many good men,” Solana said. “It’s not been easy keeping Rosie away from pimps and sex slavers.”

“No, I’m sure it hasn’t,” Lily concurred. Solana saw a warm shade of scarlet work its way up the old woman’s neck and into her cheeks. “This country went to war against slavery over a hundred years ago. Now it’s back, just in a different form. It’s an outrage.”

The old girl took a deep breath while her sidekick Eunice said, “The men you meet here have nothing but your safety in mind.”

The men I’ve met here so far are too old to have anything else in mind.

Solana, slightly ashamed of that thought, continued. “The family we stayed with fed us and let us sleep in their pickup in return for cooking and cleaning. But the park kicked them out once they stayed the maximum amount of days. When they hit the road, they left Rosie and me behind. So we had to join eight other families living in the forest not far from the park. It’s safer for us to band together. And when you stay near a park, it’s not such a long walk to get to clean water.”

“But … but that’s horrible for two young women,” Eunice gasped.

“These camps are today’s answer to the hobo jungles of the Depression,” Lily said, one old hand leaving the keyboard to pat the hand of her friend. “Only instead of men on their own, these are families.”

“Isn’t it dangerous?” Eunice asked Solana.

“Duh,” Solana said, instantly ashamed of her snotty tone. The old lady was probably just naïve, that’s all. Most were. She softened her voice. “We only have tents and tarps, so we’re pretty vulnerable to everything. Including each other. The camp managers, they’re real careful about who they let stay.”

“Can’t you get help? Are you totally out of resources?” Lily asked.

“Where are your parents?” Eunice said at the same time.

Solana tightened her jaw to control her emotion. She’d learned tears rarely helped anything. But it had been such a long time since anyone had seemed to give a rat’s ass about her. And now these old ladies acted really distressed. “For most people in the camp, public aid is long gone. Rosie won’t go to children’s services because she wants to stay with me. I’m her only family since we both had to get away from mom’s boyfriend. I get some food stamps. And we go into town to look for work when we have the bus money. But that’s a fuck-, um, joke. Even if we find jobs, nobody will rent to us without a deposit, and nobody at the camp has enough for that. So we’re stuck.”

“How long have you been there?” Eunice asked.

“Mmm. Maybe two months? The camp isn’t supposed to be there, but unless someone complains, it’s easier for rangers not to roust us. Or cops for that matter.”

“Can you tell us about your kidnapping?” Lily asked, keyboarding away once again.

“The bastards are like invaders or something. Last time, they swept through screaming and knocking heads. This time it was a sneak attack. Either way, they take people away with them.”

“You mean it’s happened before?” Eunice took a big slug of her spiked tea.

“Twice that I know of. To an older guy and a boy about my age. But this is the first time they showed any interest in me.” Solana’s control abandoned her, and she began to weep. “What if they come for Rosie before I get back? And what will they do to her if I talk to the cops? I can’t do that. And you can’t either.”

Lily leaned toward her. At first Solana stiffened, but then she allowed the old arms to close around her. They stayed that way for a long time, the girl expelling her fear and misery into the woman’s circle of comfort.

Finally, Solana could continue. When she began again, the tale she told was like a horror story. Not just scary but brutal. Sick. It wasn’t long before they all needed more whiskey, this time without the tea.

* * *

Bear wasn’t surprised when his roommate chose not to go with him to interview Ghost. Charlie had perpetual sores on his nuts from sitting in a wheelchair all day. The home care nurse who paid particular attention to that delicate situation was scheduled to visit Latin’s Ranch late that afternoon. Charlie wouldn’t miss the appointment for any amount of wealth or wishes.

Vinny drove the Caddy away from town and east toward Washington’s Cascade Mountains. He left the highway on a two lane paved road that plunged into national forest land. It narrowed even more when Vinny maneuvered the huge vehicle onto a dirt track, punching a tunnel through cedar and fir. Bear presumed this had been a logging road many years ago. As branches slapped against the car, he understood why Vinny’s prized possession was covered with twigs and pitch. He must have driven this way before when he picked up the girl, Solana.

Bear, in the backseat, listened when Vinny placed a call. “We are near,” Bear heard him say. The dirt track petered out on the edge of a small meadow where there was just enough room for Vinny to turn the hulk around between volcanic boulders and enormous stumps from fallen giants.

“You okay, Signore Bear? We wait here.”

Bear rolled down his window after Vinny shut off the Cadillac’s powerful engine. It was impossibly quiet, as though every living forest thing knew humans as threatening interlopers. A breeze produced the only rustle through the leaves. Then, one brave bird began to sing again. Others joined until they crescendoed in a merry racket. Bear never paid much attention to such things himself, but he knew Lily could have identified each singer, along with the wildflower remains that dotted the meadow. Now in September, the Indian paint brush, lupine and glacier lilies were brown or gone altogether, replaced by wild daisies. The breeze blew a chill through Bear’s window. For a while he hummed Autumn Leaves.

Minutes passed without a word from Vinny. Finally, Bear said, “Time for you to tell me just who this Ghost is, don’t you think? Now that I’ve joined the Sapienza family as Frankie’s personal PI?”

Vinny turned sideways in the driver’s seat and glanced back at his passenger. Bear could see the sharp planes of his chiseled face and the hawk nose. “You are not a member of the famiglia, Signore Bear. A friend, yes. Like Ghost. He es specialist, resource we trust. Same with you. But famiglia? No.”

Well, that settles that. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Bear snorted to himself, glad not to be part of this tight knit mob. Fine by him. He still valued his rickety old carcass, and it would stay a damn sight safer out of the direct line of fire.

Vinny glanced at Bear again with eyes cold and grey as stone. Then he stared off into the woods. “Was year 1991. Ghost and me, we do, ah, special ops in Iraq. What they call counter-terrorism. Capiche? He move with such stealth, unseen as a ghost. Got his name that way.”

“Good name. Ghost,” Bear said. He’d been rather fond of his own nickname ever since a crazy old crock at the nursing home had thought he was one. He was a lot fatter and meaner back then. Now he liked to think of himself as merely big, as well as pleasant.

Vinny squared his jaw and continued to face down the past. “We placed an explosive in enemy camp late one night. We could not know they had prisoners. Families. Families we were there to save. That night, they died by our hand.

“We left, silent as we came. But not Ghost. He stay behind. Frozen, you see, numb with guilt. The terrorists, they caught him. It went bad for him until our team got him back. Very bad. They ship him home and patch him together. But he still sees bodies of children who died that night. He keeps to himself now, wild in these woods for ten years. More. I bring him supplies time to time. We each have satellite phone. He has solar battery packs.”

Bear rumbled a disgusted sigh deep in his throat. So many war stories with damaged veterans who do what their country asks. He shook his head and looked back out his window.

A wild man, in the green and brown of a woodland camo jacket, was staring in.

 

 

END OF EXCERPT

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