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The Trail

 
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A L Bertand
Old Wyrm
Old Wyrm


Joined: 22 Oct 2009
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PostPosted: Mon May 07, 2012 12:32 am    Post subject: The Trail Reply with quote

He picked her up around seven, as requested. Getting him to let her drive his truck was a debate, however, of no short duration. The Dodge was twelve years old and had its fair share of dents, dings, and scrapes (character marks, Colt called them) but he remained so emotionally attached to it that the list of people allowed to drive it other than him was short. Allowed to drive it with him in the passenger seat? Well, there had to be extenuating circumstances. And he hadn’t had a drink yet.

By the time she gave up, it was after eight before they left her house on the lake and started for the North Road out of town, the bed of the pickup loaded down with her canoe and the other equipment they'd need for the day.

"Uh. You missed the turn. Slow down." They'd veered off the main road several miles back and were winding up into the hills on a dirt switchback used by loggers, hunters, gods knew who else. She was frighteningly familiar with it, but the turnoffs weren't easy to see coming, and there was no clear space most of the time to turn around. "You're going to have to back up again."

He huffed at her directions but slowed the rumbling truck. These were the sorts of roads he'd grown up on, that he'd learn to drive on. He had no trouble navigating them. He didn't bother to attempt to turn around. It was an easy way to end up with a dent in a chrome bumper. Instead, he threw the truck into reverse and twisted back to back up. "How long ago were you here? If I go slowly enough I can just follow your trail if you're not sure."

"Yesterday. The day before. The day before that. The week before that." She held on her lap a messenger bag containing the file they were working. She hadn't shared anything from it yet, because she didn't want to distract him from the trail, and because she needed to pay attention, herself. It was a gray, chilly afternoon, and the woods twisted and cracked back and forth against the sky with the wind, which was coming in from the coast today. "Off and on over the last two years," she added offhandedly.

They would have to bear with the chill. He cranked down the window and let the truck idle for a moment with his foot on the brake at the turn-off, drawing in a deep breath and watching her energy bounce absently. He felt it more than saw it. Harper was that free feeling of curling up in a sleeping bag after a good long hike with the stars laid out above. Exhausting, mysterious, pleasant. None of which he would tell her. With their destination confirmed, he eased his foot off the brake and let the natural movement of the truck guide them forward.

Two years was a very long time. That sort of commitment suggested something personal. His hands tightened around the steering wheel and his eyes jumped towards Harper before moving back on the road... or lack thereof. His voice tightened. He'd been drawn into a personal hunt before for a woman. It hadn't ended well. "I'm not sure I'll be able to find anything after all that time. People's trails fade over time. And it's harder to find one I'm not familiar with."

When she realized what he was doing, she watched, fascinated, shifting a bit on the seat and fighting the seatbelt to turn toward him. Guessing at some of his assumptions, she clarified, quietly. Harper wasn't big into sharing personal information, much, anymore. "I've only been working this case for about three months. But I like it up here. It's quiet. I can breathe. When I saw the file, it took me a couple of days before things clicked and I made the connection; but I think I'm right." She didn’t offer an explanation about the other months.

Colt released the tension he had gathered up and his grip on the steering wheel relaxed. His eyes didn't dip to her as much anymore. The truck proceeded more slowly but this time its course was true. Eyes narrowed and brow slightly furrowed in concentration, the combination of scent and energy trail guided him on. "About what?"

"About the scene of the crime. Maybe the place where her body is, still." That's what he got for relaxing. "Do you want me to give you the file briefing, or will it distract you right now?"

"Go ahead. Your trail is fresh and I know you well enough." He encouraged her to go ahead with a nod without looking away from the trail he was following. The truck's pace remained steady but he slowed to eye the rock formations that were popping up as the trees gave way to less hospitable terrain. Neither of them saw the yellow eyes that watched the growling monster pass by. They weren’t even glimmers in the shadows between rocks and a tangled mass of thorns.

She flipped open the flap of her satchel and drew out a thick file folder, resting it on her lap and letting the bag drop to the floor. She started talking, the file still closed in her lap. "There was solid evidence in this case, but the Watch had a consult who botched things; the victim's family hired SPI when the prosecutor was forced to drop the case because of the c*ck up. Her name is Victoria Cankell. She's listed as presumed dead because there was no body recovered. Lots of blood in her house. They were able to confirm it was hers. Her purse still in the bedroom, her things all in her closet. Her wedding band on the kitchen sink. Things a woman wouldn't normally go off and leave.”

The thorn bushes rustled and then settled back to stillness. Birds that had been singing a mid-morning chorus stilled. That could have been the intrusion of the truck into the forest, though. She glanced out the window, back to him. "Husband claimed to be at work. Came home and found the mess. No idea what happened to her. Didn't call the Watch for three days."

"The consulting psych got real friendly with him while he was in the City Gaol. They had to release him while they were collecting evidence because they didn't have enough to charge him without a body, but he hadn't been to work the day he reported she disappeared, and the neighbors all said they fought loudly and frequently." She still hadn't opened the file. "Karsten Bryce was the consult. Eventually, during a warrant search, the Watch investigators found letters she sent him, very detailed, sexual letters, along with some vids. She claimed she was trying to draw him out into admitting he'd killed his wife and gotten off doing it. The prosecutor had to throw out the case..."

The tension began gathering back up in his form long before it became a conscious thought. Had he not been concentrating on the road and not been listening to her, maybe he'd have paid a little more attention. The uneasiness was never even noted. He slowed the truck as they reached the edge of the ridge. "Sounds like a winner. What makes you think he dumped her here?"

"Man liked to draw. When he was in lockup, he had a sketchbook." Her hand finally moved to open the file in her lap. She took out two pieces of paper in plastic evidence sheathes. They were labeled and barcoded, with a date on each. She turned them face down. "I'll show you as soon as we park. Should be around the next stand of trees."

"You don't trust me to drive and look? I'm pretty talented." The truck was guided around that last stand to where the smell of her jeep's exhaust came to an end. Clearly, here's where she had been proceeding without it. He eased his foot onto the brake and drew the truck into park, freeing himself from his seat belt to turn to face her. "All right. Show me."

She gestured toward the windshield. "Look, first." They were in a clearing on the side of a hill, with a travelled footpath leading down from the hillside to the water. The river was wide at this point, with rocky outcrops like fingers reaching into the calm surface of the water.

The southeast was known for a lot of things but big, wide rivers was not one of them. The sight drew a short laugh and, for the moment, those photos were forgotten. He needed to see it without the glass separating them. He swung open the truck door, stepping onto the step bar before his hiking boots hit the rock beneath. The energy flows with animal and human signatures were background noise, giving the space more texture. There was one little twist in the background energy signatures, still animal but... a little off, out of place. Of course it was so hard to tell what really belonged in a world like this. He didn’t pick it up, not with that view in front of him.

"This place is insane."

She set the file on the middle section of the front seat and climbed out on her side, still holding the two plastic-encased pieces of paper while she followed him closer to the edge of the overlook. The wind was gusty, and caught at her coat, her hair, the papers. She had to pinch them tight to keep from losing them to it. "I told you. I love it up here."

Harper watched the river with him for a minute or two, then glanced at the sheets and offered him one of them. It was done in colored pencil that had been smudged to look almost like watercolor. Whatever else you said about Colin Cankell, he had a hell of an eye for lines and colors. The angle was a little different, the spot not exactly right, but it was close.

Art wasn't his thing. He couldn't admire the lines or colors; however, the likeness he could see. He reached to take the drawing of their location for a closer look after flipping up the collar of his coat to protect his neck against the wind. His eyes bounced between the picture in hand and their surroundings. "Yeah. Definitely looks like this place."

She traded him. The other was a simple pencil drawing, but the ominous turn the artist had taken was unmistakable. "The canyon starts narrowing over the river about three miles down. Starts looking like this. I've tried hiking the bank with my dogs a few times. They won't go much farther downstream than maybe a half-mile, mile. Won't budge past the bend where the caves start." There was a little delay. "The big guy there looks a lot like our husband, by the way."

It was the mention of the dogs refusing to go further that made him note the vague anxiety bubbling in his stomach. He twisted to glance over his shoulder, taking in the brush and the shadows cast by the rock formations for a moment before turning back to Harper, extending the one in hand back to her. "Any idea why the dogs won't go further?"

She shook her head slowly, hanging on tight to the pictures. "No. I haven't seen anything wrong, you know? Doesn't mean there's not some bad juju in the air or a predator I haven't seen. Lot of ground, both sides of the river, in a mile. I've focused on poking around close here. Been reluctant to go much further myself, alone." She seemed sheepishly hesitant to admit that. Whatever scared the dogs had her edgy, too.

He could smell the anxiety slipping off of her and it did nothing to make that feeling go away. Usually he'd tease her for admitting a weakness but it never came. Instead, he gave a nod but didn't let his eyes linger on her for long. "That was smart. Maybe it's just a bear. Dogs aren't big fans of bears." Clearly, though, he wasn't convinced of it himself. "Do you want to start on foot then?"

"Can. Maybe a ways, anyway... see what you think when you get there. We could take the canoe down and scout along the water, but it's going to be a b*tch paddling back upstream, and not sure I want to hike that bank portaging the canoe if we aren't sure of the country."

"Let's give it a try. I'd like to see where they're balking. Maybe it's related. Won't know until I smell it myself." He dropped the keys to the truck into his pocket, leaving the vehicle unlocked. It wasn't like this was the sort of place where someone would walk up and roll off with it. Taking the lead towards the trail, he glanced over his shoulder at her, trying for a reassuring tone once more. "My aunt had a dog one time that was afraid of water. Terrified. Wouldn't go near a pool. My dog loved water but wouldn't go near a pond, creek, or pool if that dog was around. It was an infectious fear. Maybe that's all there is here."

"Maybe. Hang on." Despite his reassurances, she trotted back to the truck to put the pictures back in the folder and slid the whole file back into the satchel. Slamming the door, she stepped up on the rail and reached into the bed of the truck. The long equipment case she'd packed didn't have fishing gear in it.

When she came back, the shotgun was slung by its strap over her shoulder, and she was stuffing a box of shells into the utility pocket of her coat. Reassurance. "All right." Her words drew him out of his thoughts and he gave a nod before letting a brisk pace draw him forward. He needed to get a lay of the land. Then they'd come back for the rest of the supplies. The portage trail leading to the water cut downhill, but aimed upstream. It was dirt, mainly, with some rock, and the underbrush encroached along the edges.

He should have gone back for his bag, he told himself silently. There was extra ammunition, water, insect repellent, and, of course, an extra pair of socks. However, the odd energy trail that was present in this place had drawn his attention and he let his eyes linger on it, trying to place it. Not cougar, bobcat, bear. He knew all of those. This was different. There was a faintly acidic overtone to the energy trail, something like a feline spray, and a dusty hint of scales. The notes of the scent, the energy, didn't quite fit together smoothly. It didn't smell quite like anything he'd scented before.

He’d encountered lots of unusual beasts he hadn't run across before in RhyDin. That's what he reassured himself of silently as he pressed onward. It was hard to filter out that scent, to ignore the twisting of uneasiness. The urge to give a plaintive dog-like whine at the tension gathered up in him but he strangled it down. Instead, he tried to focus on the smell of death. It was a scent he knew well. After all, this wasn't his first rodeo... or corpse-hunting trip, as the case might be.

Gravel crunched under their boots until the rock gave way to dirt and mud toward the bottom. The bank eased gently to the water: it was an ideal place to stage a transition into the river. The bank continued to be fairly wide and flat as one turned with the water downstream. The tree cover was less substantive, but there was still plenty of brush, and the hill itself overshadowed the path. Not a lot of close places for something to hide. Up above was another story.

No birds. There were still no birds calling. Just the rush of the river rolling along, drowning out little scrapes and faint whispers in the rock above.

Colt's pace faltered for a moment at the river bank, glancing briefly to the mud clinging to his boots. Yet, the dogs refusing to go further had interested him so he pressed on, following the trail of Harper's St. Bernard and mutt. The birds, the unusual scents, the dogs' clearly skittish path -- none of it was helping his overall mood. "Do we know if he had a canoe?"

"No," she was getting edgier by the step. She kept looking across the water, up, down, ahead, back. The wind that had been brisk above scoured the surface of the water below, sending it lapping with odd glurps and slaps against the rock. "The drawings are the only things connecting him here. If I hadn't been here before I saw the file..."

Had his hearing been as sensitive as his sense of smell maybe he'd have been able to place it. However, that was one dog-like trait that he'd unfortunately never had. Still, what he had was more than enough to tell him something about this place just wasn't right. He tried to keep Harper talking for her own benefit as well as his, lifting his voice over the sound of running water. "Had they been fighting?"

"The neighbors said they fought a lot. About the time she went missing, they said that there had been an argument, but no one interfered and no one called the Watch. They were used to it, one of the reports said. One of the neighbors thought they heard 'someone' scream, but they recanted later, said they couldn't be certain they were recalling correctly."

He tried to keep his tone causal, scuffing up a rock in the path in stride because walking alone wasn't enough of an outlet for his restless energy. "Where's he now?"

Her mouth twisted a little. "Have you ever been to that butcher shop in the Marketplace, next to the bakery that does the crossed buns?"

"Nah. I'm more the kill my own meat sort of guy, you know? But I think I know the place." His accent remained a light hint. It always faded when he wasn't trying to charm and around Harper...? Well, for some reason, he never bothered trying to charm her.

"His place. He's still there." She said this grimly.

The intruders continued down the path. They ventured onto its territory. There was another faint clatter and whisper of rock on rock from above. The scent intensified abruptly.

Her dogs never went any further than this spot, by this rock. Without paying attention to their trail, Colt had ended up coming to a sudden halt in nearly the exact same place. A hand was outstretched to motion for her to stop as his eyes moved upwards, searching what he could. But his eyesight was pathetically useless. A breath was drawn in through his nose and exhaled slowly. Whatever was up there had the higher ground and that made him want to escape.

Harper eased the shotgun from her shoulder when his hand went out. Pure reflex. She couldn't see anything out of the ordinary, never did, but that itchy feeling between her shoulder blades intensified.

"You've spent a lot of time here? You ever seen any interesting animals?" His tone was low and the hand dropped as she came to a stop. His own slipped beneath his jacket to grow closer to the Sig P228 in the shoulder holster beneath it.

"Deer, hawks, eagles, something that looks a little like a muskrat on steroids. But not down this way..." She kept her voice hushed.

He was well on his way to turning tail like the pair of dogs but he figured Harper would tell Yeardley and Yeardley would tease him mercilessly and, unfortunately, as one of three brothers many of his life decisions were made taking into consideration what would get him teased and what wouldn't. Unhappily and with his hand still lingering beneath the jacket, he began forward once again.

She followed, just as reluctantly as he moved, the gun held loosely at the ready and the hair on the back of her neck electric. "What's the biggest thing you ever ran into, in the woods?"

"An elephant. In Kenya. They were playin' in the mud." It was his turn to respond in a hushed tone. "I don't know if I'd call it woods, though. If that doesn't count, I'd say a bear."

"When were you in Kenya?" He'd managed to divert her attention from the knot in her stomach for a minute there.

The next sound wasn't a faint clatter. It was a rush and the dry slither of heavy scales rasping across stone. A roar that echoed off the closing cliff walls preceded the slam of a large body hitting the ground. It was behind them. Kenya and elephants were forgotten instantly. Colt pulled his gun free and trained on the creature as he turned take it in.

The thing was a nightmare of fangs and claws, scales and madness-raging yellow eyes. It had a muzzle like a saber-toothed tiger at twice the size, forearms and chest to match - but from the ribs down it was a serpent, larger than any python that had lived on earth. Rearing up, the top of its head was some ten feet off the dirt path. The whole thing was covered with blue-violet scales, and its tongue was forked when it roared again.

"What the hell is that?" It was all he could manage to sputter out.

The snap of the action release on her shotgun answered him with a clack of No freaking idea, and she sighted down the barrel at it. Drawing a breath, she held it and squeezed the trigger.

He'd held his fire. After all, they were friendly to giant lizards that hung out in the Inn and lapped water from bowls like dogs. It was hard to tell the difference in this town between pet and threat. But when Harper fired, he did as well.

The shotgun stung it, but didn't do much actual damage to the tough scales of the beast. Still, it was enough to make the creature roar again, and Colt's bullets struck against the back of the thing's throat. The next cataclysmic burst of sound was splashed and splattered with blood. The crimson liquid mixed with a clear substance oozing from its fangs. That was all the time they had to look and shoot - it charged them, impossibly fast for its size.

Fangs. Ohcrapohcrapohcrap. That was about as lucid as she managed to be. Harper turned and ran downstream, deeper into the monster's no-fly zone. She hit the action on the shotgun again as she ran, casting a frantic look over her shoulder.... and slipped on the loose rocks. Her hip and shoulder hit hard enough to make light flash in her head. Lifting the barrel of the gun, she fired off one more blast into the thing's face, this time hoping for the eyes.

How fast the beast managed to move was proof that they weren't going to out run it. He drew back against a niche in the cavern wall instinctively as it came forward. However, catching sight of Harper's hard hit, he hesitated in pressing his back against the high rock wall and instead lifted the gun to get off a couple more shots. Hopefully, he'd be able to get her a bit more time to regain her wits.

Harper'd been heading for the water, willing to bet it couldn't swim. She got off the shot, scrambling back in a crabwalk toward the river's edge. The shotgun had scored a blinding shot that had the beast rearing back, swiping at the air in front of it while its tail lashed madly, smashing into rock and sending huge chunks flying into the river. Venom sprayed with the blood from its mouth in a semi-circle when it tossed its head. The shards of rock flew like shrapnel, sharp as flint. One or two connected with Harper, but her adrenaline was flowing too freely to feel the damage. She wrested the knife free of its sheath, flinching, and missing a faceful of venom and blood coincidentally. If she lived through this, her spinning mind sparked, she was abandoning the shotgun in favor of a rifle. The extra ammo weighed heavy in her pocket, but there wouldn't be time to reload. She fumbled for the hunting knife at her belt.

Colt's shots glanced off its scales - but, like with some dragons, there was a soft spot in its armor: a smooth patch of skin along its belly, spotted with odd tufts of fur where the join between cat and snake hadn't been complete. He wasn't as lucky as Harper. The sharp rocks that rained down were avoided by pulling back into the groove in the rock wall but the quick, rushed movement to avoid them sliced open his jacket along his right bicep on a protruding rock. It tore into his skin, immediately bringing blood to the surface but in the face of the continued threat, it barely even registered. He pulled out again as the storm passed to fire off the last of what he had left, trying to give Harper enough cover to get in close. The downpour of venom was never even noticed.

There was no time to think. The ka-nicts' training must have imprinted itself on some molecular level that she wasn't aware it had touched. When Harper saw the empty clip drop and the beast rear up again, she charged the animal's exposed belly, bringing the hunting knife up in an angled stab intended to disembowel.

The creature was maddened, enraged, in pain, and blinded. Then - a claw dug into its stomach and ripped upwards, freeing its organs to tumble down in a gory mess. It thrashed again, screaming now, an unholy and unnatural sound, flailing with paws, claws and tails at its diminutive attacker. That only lasted so long, however, before the knife wedged up and into one of its lungs. The thump when the thing fell to the ground shook the earth. With Harper’s arm halfway up into its chest, it fell on top of her.

The gun was quickly holstered as Colt clambered across the rocks towards the creature and Harper, scrambling around limbs and tails to try to reach her. "You alright, Harper?"

Under the ribcage, she just managed not to be crushed, but she was wedged in tight. "Get it off?" It felt like her arm was halfway to the thing's brains. She couldn’t budge it.

Colt eyed the beast while his right arm thrummed with pain. The intensity of it was growing by the moment. But, in a way, the pain was a beautiful thing. It suggested a hemotoxic bite rather than a more lethal neurotoxic. It hurt like hell but he'd prefer that to seizures and death. Trying to push the pain from his mind for the moment, he dropped to a crouch to take a hold on the animal. "Alright, pull yourself out as soon as you can." The years of weight training for football helped him power through as he rose shakily trying to pull up a portion of the creature. Hopefully, enough for Harper to slip out from beneath it.

She had to let go of the knife, and her fingers didn't want to... but they only had one shot. She yanked her arm free and rolled and prayed.

Just as she emerged, he lost his grip. The corpse thudded back and he gave a pained noise as a hand reached up to cradle his throbbing arm. "Everythin' in workin' order?" His tone was tight and words were clipped as he leaned up against the beast, letting the giant dead thing support some of his weight.

She was panting and coughing, drenched in slime and blood, squinting at him from the ground through a pink haze. "Still breathing. You don't sound so good."

His eyes swept over her form to confirm her assessment of her health before straightening from his lean. She was definitely sitting on towels on the way back because that was not a scent that was going to be lingering in his truck. "Yeah. My fingers are startin' to get a lil' numb. That might've been venom. I think it'd be best if we go get checked out."

She rolled onto her knees, coughing up bile and the creature's blood, spitting at the dirt. Her hip, knee and shoulder screamed, but she didn't think anything was broken. By the time she was done, she was panting. Get on your feet! The knight-commander's unheard voice shouted in her ear. In her pocket, St. Augustine mumbled something dotty about the sins of the flesh.

"Think you're right. Gonna let me drive?" She hacked a laugh and spat again.

His grin was warm even if it was a bit gritty from the force needed to keep it on his face through the pain. "Yeah, I'd call not being able to move my right arm extenuatin' circumstances. Revel in it 'cause it won't happen again."

"Yeah, yeah. Come on." Pushing her worry out of her voice with an effort, she staggered to her feet and reached for him. The gun was left where it lay on the rocks. "Let's get you back up that hill before you pass out and I have to leave you for the squirrels."

((Based on live play with the talents behind Colt Daniels and The Monster))
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A L Bertand
Old Wyrm
Old Wyrm


Joined: 22 Oct 2009
Posts: 316
See this user's pet
Jobs: City Guard, Gumshoe
Can Be Found: RhyDin, Teobern, Sainte-Ouen or the great outdoors
15882.26 Silver Crowns

Items

PostPosted: Thu Jun 21, 2012 8:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The second trip out was easier than the first, since Colt had driven the route once before. As the wheels of his truck crunched over rocks and dirt clods, easing to a stop at the overlook, Annie-Love took one last sip of her latte and sighed happily. It was a brighter day, the sun dappling everything it touched in its early morning angle, and rain the night before had left everything smelling fresh, clean. For a minute, Harper almost forgot everything. A RhyDinian version of a blue jay flashed across her line of sight, dipping on the current into the valley the river cut through the rock. She let one hand fall onto her camo'd knee and watched it go.

Harper had grown on Colt. Like a fungus or something, he would claim. But the truth of the matter was that he cared for her now. There was a comfortable silence with her that he could get with few others. He rarely bothered to attempt to charm her unless attempting to worm himself out of trouble and it freed him up for his own thoughts. Breakfast at the greasy (but wonderful) diner that DeeDee had worked at until recently had been quiet. The stretched between bites filled only with conversation about the weather and the ride to this spot had been gloriously silent with the windows down and fresh air rushing in. He watched the same bird fleet by as he threw the truck into park and finally found his voice. "We goin' by sea or by land, Harper?"

She didn't answer until the bird was completely out of sight. It was a good sign, that bird. Something alive, making itself known. "Well, we have the canoe. And I brought a field radio, so we can call if we get downstream and there are more of those things in the caves, so I vote for the water, unless you have other ideas?"

"Water's fine." Bird dogs make excellent swimmers. The air is what made his stomach clench up in horrible knots. He opened the door and stepped out, slamming the truck door shut behind him. He walked to the bed of the truck to start pulling out their gear, waiting for her to open the door before continuing. "That thing was awfully large. I would think it would have to eat a lot which means it would need a pretty big hunting territory so I'm hopin' we're safe." But considering he brought back the old hunting shotgun he used to use to take down wild hogs, it seemed that he wasn't entirely banking on his own logic.

She hopped out and joined Colt from the other side of the truck. She too had come better equipped, and had made good on her decision to buy a rifle to replace the shotgun. She pulled on her vest, first - one less thing she'd need her hands for - and nudged his toward him. Once they were kitted out, they could carry the canoe down the trail to the launch. "It's a pretty day for it." she ventured slowly, trying to decide how to say what her gut was telling her. "I'm hoping we are, too," came close. "It just feels better, doesn't it?"

He rolled his eyes at the vest but he put it on. Sometimes all it took was a nudge. His pack and his gun in place, he slid free the bungee cords holding the canoe in place and began to pull it free of the bed. He let her words settle around him. He felt those words in more ways than just their intended meaning. After a night of hiding at Ten's, the tension had drained. He still felt a heavy weight on his shoulders but the fear, the concern, the frustration had been left behind. "Yeah. The rain should have helped. Wash out other scents. The one we're looking for should be just as strong."

"Maybe."

When the other end of the canoe was closer, she reached for it and took up her end. The paddles were clamped inside. "If you can grab the cooler, I can close the tailgate."

He obliged, reaching for the handle of the cooler to pull it out as he slowly began towards the lake with the canoe held up by hand and shoulder. "Man, I'm glad for the fresh air today... and to be out of cell range."

"It's good to get away from the city," she pushed the tailgate up a few inches with her hand and the shoved it up and closed the rest of the way with her body. "Your family call you a lot?" Guessing.

The cooler banged against his knee as he concentrated on his footing down the decline towards the river. Her question caused a heavier exhale than he would have liked. "They text, they call, they stop over whenever they feel like it."

"I always wanted a big family," she sounded surprisingly wistful as she said that. "But it's always just been us - my mama, my daddy and me. And the dogs." Sunlight dappled the rock and dirt embankment as they followed the trail down to the stony beach and the water. Birdsong heralded their approach.

Every time they had returned since the day with the beast, he'd always kept a careful watch. Well, not a literal watch. But at least a careful sniff. He drew in a deep breath and found it free of that awful scent. Boots hit sand and he dropped the cooler to begin transitioning the canoe over and into the water. “Always were surrounded by dogs?"

"Oh, no... we travelled too much. Daddy never wanted animals in the house on base. But mama she had a charity every base we set down at. When I was in high school, it was an animal shelter, so guess who got to help clean cages?" She helped him flip the canoe and lower it to the edge of the bank as she spoke. "Anyway, that's how we ended up with the General. No one wanted him, because he'd lost an eye. He was just a puppy then. They were going to put him down."

Their childhoods had been pretty opposite. Harper had moved around a lot with just her parents. Colt had rarely left Georgia as a kid and was surrounded by family. There were parts of her childhood that caused a jealous twinge. Everything she had seen. Having her parents' attention. But he recognized the parts he would have missed. He nodded towards the canoe to indicate she should get in first after setting down the cooler in the center. "Every kid should have a dog. I got Hunter when I was fourteen."

"General Grant's a good old boy," she agreed fondly. "Mama said we couldn't name him General Lee because he wasn't a Southern gentleman." She'd have traded childhoods with him in a heartbeat, ironically. "Why'd you pick Hunter?"

His hands came to rest on his hips as he turned back to her with a slight grin. A hand motioned to the canoe with a gentlemanly like flourish since the nod along didn't do it. "Why'd I pick the name or why'd I pick the dog?"

Oh! She shot him an almost apologetic look and climbed into the canoe, maneuvering carefully until she reached the front bench. "Both, I guess." The canoe rocked and she sat, a hand on either side to keep steady.

He pushed them off from the rocky bank. The canoe projected forward and he carefully took the stern man's seat. This dance of hiking and canoeing with her was becoming second nature and so the conversation still flowed easily even among the movement. "Hunter was one of seven puppies. And all of them were chocolate. I knew the owner. He owned a farm not far from where I grew up. I worked around the place for a lil' bit of money." He reached for one of the paddles in the center of the canoe, nudging hers closer with the toe of his boot. "He started trainin' the puppies. But Hunter was the only one not interested. He wouldn't even get in the boat, ignored the decoys. He named him 'Hunter' to be ironic. I thought he just got lost in the shuffle. Maybe I could relate. Anyway, I convinced the guy to give him for a very reduced price. He thought I was just gonna get a companion dog. Hunter became one of the best bird dogs in the county."

She unclasped the fore clamp and extracted her paddle as he nudged it toward her. It was a routine they were getting good at. The water today was surreally clear over the shallow rock bed until they drifted away from the back where the water was deeper, dark and mysterious. Sunlight dazzled over the waves, and flashed on the end of her paddle as she dipped it into the water. "Because you didn't give up on him."

The cooler was also nudged closer towards Harper to offset his weight, keeping it trim. Then he dipped his paddle into the water to send them forward. "Sometimes all it takes is someone believin' in him, y'know?"

"Lot of people believe in you," she commented casually to the tune of flowing water, cardinal and starling-chatter, the splash of fish and frog. "But, yeah, I know what you mean." Despite the general splendor of the day, her thoughts wheeled back to the man sprawled out on her den's couch.

Her comment caused a hesitation in the rhythm of his paddle but, after a brief moment, he caught up and smoothly slid back into place. "I know. I just sometimes wished they didn't." The subject brought his thoughts back around to the man on Harper's couch. "You promised to call if somethin' goes wrong. You haven't forgotten, right?"

A sigh spilled from her, and she stopped paddling for a minute, twisting to look over her shoulder at him, the paddle held poised above the water, dripping. If she died, he had said, he would. Harper still wasn't entirely sure what that meant, exactly. "I haven't forgotten." She hesitated.
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 21, 2012 9:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The mere thought made his palms sweaty. Reminded him of Yaya. Yaya. He exhaled a ragged breath and sunk in her words for relief. "Is he any better?" He tried to inject empathy into his tone towards Jo when all he felt was frustration and anger.

She started paddling again, a desultory effort at best. "He will be. He's... it's a long story."

"Well, we're sort of stuck in this canoe for a while." A touch of humor quickly smoothed over any of the anger that had seeped into it. "There was a cave I wanted to check out but it's a ways." He didn't say why he wanted to check it out. He didn't have to because Harper would understand. He'd caught the scent. Death. Decay. It was hard to mistake. However, one dead living thing that had spent years decaying smelled just like another. It might be a dead bear or it might be the dead women they were looking for.

She was silent for a little span, trying to collect her thoughts, trying to organize them and trying to justify to herself why she'd burden him with knowledge he didn't need to carry. It was a hard thing. At last she began this way. "Do you ever feel like you've fallen asleep and all of this is some dream you've been sucked into?"

There was a huff of laughter as the canoe cut through the serene water. Even as soft as it was, it seemed to echo off the canyon walls. "I'm in RhyDin where there are elves, dragons, and gnomes. And a couple weeks ago I got attacked around here by a rather large snake-like thing."

All right, well. He got a crack of a smile from her at that. It faded back into serious business soon enough. "I'm going to tell you things that may skirt around promises I made not to say anything. I may outright break one or two. We both of us'll die if the wrong people find out."

"That's the good thing 'bout talkin' to me, Harper. It's like talkin' to your dog." His tone was easy, comfortable, reassuring. His stokes weren't rapid. They were strong but relaxed.

"You know I was a Navy psych, right? Before I came here?" Laying some foundation for the rest of the effed up building, was all.

"I'd heard that, yeah." He wasn't the gossiping sort but he listened. He always listened.

"Had a PTSD consult there for a Marine. Guy broke one night. Beat up his girlfriend, and then came to my house for a repeat performance. Tried to burn the house down around me. I got out..." It was a surreal thing to talk about in such a beautiful setting. She skirted past the details. "City recruiter talked me into coming here… oh, October of 2009?" She thought a moment and nodded. The date jived. "One of the first people I met was the new city ME, John Benandanti. He's gone into private research, now. Doesn't work for the city anymore," closing off that idea in case he thought about checking him out. "I fell hard. He moved in with me. We spent time visiting his family - he had a big one, like you - Italian, New York... He actually talked my folks into moving here from Chicago."

"So like mine... but, you know, opposite of mine." He was the type of Southerner who couldn't help but wrinkle his nose in distaste at places like New York, Boston. "So you're not with him anymore but somehow he matters... I'm guessin' it didn't end well."

"Oh, it didn't. Jo tried warning me so many times." She glanced back over her shoulder at that. "Met him about the same time. He was my blind date at that first Valentine's dance after I moved here." She was keeping something back there; Harper wasn't good at subterfuge on a personal level.

He didn't push for details. This had to be hard for her because he knew it would be for him. "What did he warn you about?"

"Just... John. The situation. He knew some of it. But I didn't take him seriously because I knew Jo was jealous of him." Just as well she wasn't facing Colton right then. The backs of her ears were as pink as her cheeks. "Jo... he wanted it to be me and him, this whole time. But he never said I told you so, never tried to pull me away from John when we were together. He was just always there, every time I was hurting. He didn't ever give up on me and I put him through some hard, hard times."

"Anyway…he left me when we'd been together for more than a year and his family was expecting a wedding invitation. He left and ran off to marry a demon named Morana."

She paused pensively. "He got her pregnant. I think they must have had the baby by now."

Colt listened. Closely. The words were repeated in his mind, trying to commit them to memory. He wasn't the best at research but not only had she made it clear that no one else should know but he was pretty sure this was the type of thing he wanted Ten to have no part on. He would be on his own. But he had to know. "Christ. But... they're there. You're with Jo. You're movin' on with your life... right?"

He got a longer silence from her then. She thought through what she'd said, considered what he was likely to do, very carefully. "You don't want to try to find out anything about her." she warned him slowly. "Don't look her up. Don't talk about her. If you think you have to know, I'll pull you in at the Tower and show you some files. But you have to pass your field test first and get your clearance level." That shoebox, to begin with. "She's why I'm working for Alain, Colt. I'm... you know how you say you're faithful as your dog? It’s sort of the same for me. I love Jo, and I'd like a life with him, yes. But I can't just abandon John to... that creature... either. She's killed people. Horribly."

She forced the rest out, compelled by a truthful nature. "She's probably going to kill me, to be honest. I think I've known it for a long time, since he left me, maybe. If you want out, I'll figure out a way, but I think you deserve to know what you've signed up for."

His paddling slowed to a very gradual stop as the words continued to tumble their way out of her mouth. Not only was he not helping anymore but the way that her had the paddle slightly striking the water created drag. "It's too late, Harper. It doesn't work like that." He huffed a heavy exhale. "You know Soph, right? You know how I know her, right?"

"You worked for her, tracking people until you had a disagreement about your contracts," she knew what he'd told her, that night in her jeep in front of the inn. He'd not been an especially willing partner in that conversation.

Her repeating those words back to him reminded him of the conversation. He remained an unhelpful canoeing partner. "I worked for her and her sister. Sonja. Everybody called her Yaya. She's the one that showed me my file. She's the one that always stuck her neck out for me. Despite Soph and my... relationship, it was Yaya that I bonded to." He couldn't look at her. Not even the back of her head. His eyes lifted up. Way up to the sun and he let them linger there despite the pain of its brightness. "Soph showed up at my door one day. Yaya was missin'. She wanted me to find her.... but I couldn't. Then when she died... well, I knew the minute Yaya died. Nobody had to tell me. A team showed up before I could do anythin', though. Guess their personality tests and all the brain scans had predicted it. Took them months to... turn me back into a functionin' human being. Still, though... It still stings."

Every word out of his mouth sucked a little more of the air out of her lungs. She dropped her paddle, and if it hadn't fallen across her knees, she would have lost it in the river. She jerked to catch at it, as it was, and the motion rocked them precariously for a tense second or two.

"Whoa there." The miserable tone in his voice snapped just that quickly and he shifted his weight slightly to balance. "Do you want to head to dry land?"

"Yeah," it came out of her in a choked croak. She rubbed her palms on the knees of her trousers and gripped the paddle like she meant to choke it. Alain knew all of this when he'd let her bargain for his life, bringing him back in. The photos of Yaya's flayed body flooded the space behind her eyes, bile stinging her throat. Dry land sounded great.

Colt let the paddle sink back into the water, propelling them towards the bank. They weren't far from the cave he wanted to check out but he'd forgotten even why they were here. The depression was a deep dark cloud that crept up on him. Telling the story made him feel no better. He hopped out as soon as they grew in close. His boots would be soggy the rest of the day but he hardly cared. Even though surrounded by nothing but the wilderness, he felt closed in within the canoe. He knew why the feeling was in the pit of his stomach. But why did it upset her so badly? A hand wrapped around the canoe to tug it up the bank. "What's goin' on, Harper?" He grunted through the effort.

She dropped the paddle into the canoe as she hopped out to help him. It was a lot easier to pull in without her in it, and it gave her something to do with her hands, let her avoid answering just a little longer. "It's all connected." she rasped. "All of it."

No. Nope, it couldn't be connected to Yaya. He couldn't take that. The canoe wasn't up far enough to be completely safe but wasn't in any immediate danger. He dropped to the rocky banks, his legs giving out at her words. "What? How?" There was a sense of desperation in his voice.

She wasn't sure that she wasn't still going to retch there on the rocks. Her stomach clenched; she hugged her arms around herself, scuffing boots across the space separating them until she was sitting beside and facing him, her hip against his thigh. The contact helped, for her anyway. Did she have to say it out loud? It was right there in her eyes, stark and horrified, when she raised them to meet his.

"No, no, no, no." The word was repeated rapid fire. His own stomach suddenly flip-flopped nauseously. It seemed that she was going to have to because he was entrenched firmly in denial, shaking his head emphatically at her.

"She killed her." She made herself say it. "It was one of the first files he had me working on, part of the bigger case. Reading through them all, looking for patterns ..."

"No." This time the word only came once because the truth came crashing down on him. Although he wanted to push himself up and walk, his legs wouldn't move. Both hands reached up to rub his face as his natural instincts to find the demon-woman and attack battled the months of behavioral training... and whatever else that Rhovniks had done to save him as a resource.

"I didn't know." His panic threaded through her chest, dragging her with him toward a pit that would swallow them both if she gave in. It had taken her so long, had taken Jo so long, to pull her away from the same brink last year. "Colton. Please. You have to stay with me, I didn't know."

"I know you didn't. I know." The words were whispered breathless as if the blow of the news had robbed him of air. Birds still sang. The sun still shone. The wind still kicked up a nice breeze. It should be raining. A hard, stormy rain. But her words were a reminder. Of the new bond. If he launched himself into some sort of suicidal attack on this demon, he wouldn't be at Harper's side any longer. "So... what? We just do this? We just work on these cases and wait?"

Her eyes welled and she nodded, dislodging one or two fat tears that fell on the camo covering her thigh like the rain he'd been waiting for. She pressed the backs of her fingers to her mouth and concentrated on breathing for a few seconds before she answered. "Yeah. Yeah, we do. It's more than her. There are three of them; she's just one. And something else is directing them." Screw protocols. Alain had forced them into an impossible situation; she wasn't going to leave Colt blind in this. "He's the one that has to come down, or none of them do."

"And no one can know we're working on this... She can't find out. You understand? We have to keep our heads down or we don't have a chance of making it out."

A thought struck and his head immediately snapped towards Harper. "What about Ten? Is she safe?"

"They don't know about you,” she answered. “I don't think. Or if they do, they don't realize the connection. She's safer than Jo is. But no one is safe if this falls down around us. I think they want to take out everything."

"She's the daughter of a rock star. She knows how to navigate the shark-infested waters of celebrity but disappearin' 'cause demons are nippin' at her heels..." He was talking out loud but it was questionable as to whether or not he was actually talking to her. After all, it wasn't often that he talked seriously about Ten to someone else.

She closed a hand over his knee, warmth and pressure offered to steady him. "She'll be okay, Colt. She'll be safer if she knows nothing about this and you don't give off that you know anything."

His eyes fell to the hand. The rises and falls of his chest weren't so deep or rapid anymore and his voice had become gravelly and tired. "So I should keep things from her and then when they fall down all I'll have to fall back on is that I did it for her own good? You know Ten, Harper. How do you think that will go over?" He shook his head, forcing his eyes away from the hand and back to the canoe. His own hand lifted to rub the back of his neck. "There's nothin' that can be done. This is what it is. We just have to move forward."

"Jo doesn't know either," her voice barely cracked above a whisper. "I haven't told him either." She'd been carrying the secret of this around like the weight that was going to drag her to the bottom of the ocean when the hurricane finally hit. She took her hand back to clasp both in her lap like she wanted to pray.

His eyes slipped from the boat over to her face. The one place he'd been avoiding. He didn't know Jo all that well but from what he knew, he didn't think the man would be any more pleased than Ten to be told that he was kept out of the loop for his own good. The arm between them lifted to toss around her shoulders, trying to draw her in for a hug. He could tell her it was okay, that they would survive, that Jo and Ten would forgive them... but he didn't know it to be true. "We'll concentrate on what we can control. No point in anythin' else, right?"

Jo would be nine hundred shades of pissed, probably. All the little chinks and cracks in the public facade Harper'd built showed in the remote sunlight of that moment. No way she was going to resist that hug, not when she wasn't sure of any of it herself. Her head bobbed emphatically as she nodded her agreement to his assurances, returning the embrace. "He's been my best friend, all this time, and I can't tell him, even to warn him. And he's in so much trouble himself..." Harper commenced to clinging, staring at the rock face beyond his shoulder and trying to pull her act together. All she could see was Yaya on the ground in that picture.

He leaned his head in towards her, rubbing her opposite arm with his hand as if she were chilled. Because he certainly felt chilled despite the weather. "He knows enough, Harper. He knows enough to know he's in danger. You think it would change anything? You think he'd leave you? You think Ten would walk away if she knew how many bad people I've pissed off over the years?"

"No," she was near tears, and she shook her head snuffling a breath. "No. He'd try to take them on himself. The big idiot." She had to laugh or she would cry. So she did. "And Ten adores you. She's not going anywhere."

"I love that girl." It seemed to be the time for confessions so he confessed. But he made it one-sided. He didn't dare break Ten's confidence. It was only that he loved her. The fact that she returned the sentiment would never be expressed, not for someone who gave out that word as difficultly as Ten did.

"C'mon. Concentrate on what we can control. Let's find Victoria and make sure he pays for it, alright?" The bond that drove him to keeping Harper together kept him together. Had he heard the same news -- that Yaya's killer had been identified, that she was still alive and able to kill more -- several months ago, all of the Rhovniks hard work would have failed.

We're going to get this one," certainty seeped through her again, flowing from him. "She's out here, somewhere." Harper’s voice grew stronger as her resolve shored up.

He rose to his feet, ignoring the aches of muscles complaining at being held still for so long. A hand reached down to offer her assistance. His smile came slowly and didn't expand very far but it held steady. "And we're gonna find her so she can rest in peace."
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