Southern Stars

Part 11 (End)

The helicopter settled to the ground and they gazed out the window as the rotors spun down and several of the staff from the river operation ran forward to meet them.

There were police cars gathered near the gate, and men with guns standing by.

“Mm.” Kerry grunted softly. 

Thaaat doesn’t look good.” Rich said, from the webbed seat next to her.

“They probably heard about Josh.” Sally said, briefly. 

Josh.  Dar inched forward as the door slid open and she hopped out, keeping her head down as she moved away from the helicopter.  She’d almost forgotten about Josh, the kid’s death now seemingly part of a foggy past where so many other things had happened.

“Okay folks, come on this way. We’ve got a table set up in the lodge for you.” It was Tamara, the girl who had first greeted them at the check in desk, now in a ragged hoodie and jeans with a somewhat overwhelmed expression.

Dar looked speculatively at her, then she paused. “I’m going to get our phones out of the RV.” She stated, turning and heading towards the parking lot.

Kerry stayed with the group, who waited for Tamara to move off.  “Relax.” She said, after seeing the girl’s expression. “She’s not leaving.”

“Okay.” Tamara nodded. “They want to talk to all of you.”

“I figured.” Kerry motioned her forward. “So let’s get it over with.”

Looking slightly reassured, Tamara led them through the gates over to the lodge, only now barely remembered by her after the past week.  They went up onto the porch and into the lodge, around the side of the desk to the restaurant and bar area where they’d first met.

Seemed like a year ago.  Kerry settled at one end of the biggest table, while the rest of them picked chairs around it and the staff hurried over with platters of sandwiches and pitchers.

Against the wall was another table, with piles of paper on it and three police officers, who were grabbing pads and pencils and preparing to stand up.  

Kerry took a sandwich and inspected it, then took a bite of the simpleness of turkey and swiss cheese, and chased it with a sip of plain hot coffee, turning her head slightly as Tamara came in, washing her hands together

“Okay, thanks everyone. So these officers just want to talk to you for a few minutes, then you can get on your way if you want to, or absolutely you can stay overnight here until you sort out your travel.” She hesitated. “Absolutely free, of course.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Rich said, with a wry, brief smile. “Along with our refunds for the trip, right?”

Tamara hesitated then nodded. “Yes of course.” She said. “We’re getting the paperwork all together.”  She hurried out and they all exchanged looks, as the police came over to them, flipping through their pads.  “Richard?”

Rich held up his hand.

“Could you come with us please? We’re just going to interview you, in that room there.” The officer pointed and Rich got up to follow him. “We appreciate you folks cooperating.”

Kerry watched them disappear into the small office off the bar and close the door. “As if there was choice involved?” She commented in a conversational tone.

“Yeah right?” Dave leaned on his elbows and grabbed another sandwich. “Just hope it doesn’t take too long.” He glanced at Kerry. “You all going to stay over or take off?”

Kerry smiled. “If I had to bet, I’d bet on taking off.”

**

Dar unlocked the RV and stepped inside, greeted with the smell of leather and new carpet. She glanced around, but the interior seemed untouched and as they’d left it, and she went over to the cabinet near the driver’s seat and unlocked that too.

Inside were both of their Handsprings and she took them out and turned hers on, waiting for the device to boot up and activate.

It was quiet in the RV, and she sat down in the driver’s seat feeling a sense of relief and comfort to be back here in their own space.  Even if it was temporary, she’d gotten used to the sedate interior and she looked around, at the two dog beds in one corner, and the scattering of toys on the floor.

After a moment she got up again and went to the refrigerator, which the campsite connection had kept running. She opened it and removed a milk chug, setting down the phone to open it with a smile of anticipation.

The phone’s message light started fluttering, as she watched it, gulping down the cold milk in long swallows as she picked up the phone and thumbed the speed dial, calling up her office’s number and dialing it.

It rang once, then picked up. “Roberts Automation, how can I help you?”

“Hey Christy. It’s Dar.” Dar said. “Is my.. “ She paused as the receptionist let out a scream and then started yelling, muffling the receiver. “Ah.” She pulled the device away from her head and studied it. “I hope that means they missed me.”

Probably they did. She was generally well regarded by their staff though most usually went first to Kerry for anything but the nerdiest matters.

She had just time to finish the last swallow of milk when the receiver was grabbed and a male, breathless voice emerged. “Dar! Dar! That you? Holy crap! Are you okay? What the hell happened!?”

“It’s me.” Dar agreed. “Back in civilization.” She paused. “Hi Mark.”

“Holy crap.” Mark repeated. “They found you? Dude your dad went bananashit and started calling all these people I do not know who in the hell he was talking to.” He said. “After I got that blip from you I mean.” He clarified. “So I called him about it, y’know?”

Ah. “Yup, I get it. Good call.”  Dar smiled to herself.  “They found us.”  She agreed. “Some army unit with a craptastic attitude but who cares.” She opened the refrigerator and removed another chug.  “Thanks for calling them in.  What a clusterfuck.”

“Dude.”  Mark said. “Like no shit I had military people crawling all over my ass for that one squilch of GPS info.”  He exhaled in relief.  “So glad you’re okay. You are okay right?”

“Just fine.” Dar put the chug between her knees and unscrewed the top with her free hand. “We’ll be heading out of here in a little while to go get the dogs.  All good.”

“Oh, phew.” Mark exhaled again.  “Wow after what we heard I’m glad you made it out okay.” He paused. “What in the hell really happened?”

Dar sipped her milk.  “What didn’t?” She sighed.  “Tell you all about it when we get home.”   She added. “Typical vacation for us.”

“Oh boy.”

Dar smiled. “Tell everyone we say hi, and everything’s fine.  I’ll call my parents.”

“Will do boss.” Mark said. “Glad it all worked out.”  He said. “Bye – talk to you later.”

“Talk to you later.” Dar agreed, before hanging up the phone.  Then she dialed another number and waited, this one going to voice mail.  “Hi dad, it’s Dar.  Just wanted to let you know they found us, and we’re fine.  Call me back when you get a chance.”

She stood up and slid both devices into her pocket then exited the RV, heading across the still muddy ground towards the lodge as the helicopter landed again and the remaining crew emerged from it.

Ira was with them and he started to head off, then paused as he spotted Dar and waited for her to catch up as they walked towards the lodge.  “So hey.”

“Hey” Dar responded.  “They going to let those guys loose or what?” She indicated the crew. “Lot of cops here.”

Ira nodded. “Not sure what the deal is.” He admitted. “They told me to take off and mind my own y’know?  But I wanted to say hey.”  He offered a hand. “Glad I met ya.”

Dar paused and they both stopped walking and she returned the clasp. “If you ever decide to come to Florida, look me up.” She said. “You showed me your place, I’ll return the favor.”

Ira smiled. “You got it.” He released her and turned on his heel, heading back down the road leaving her to walk on alone. 

The crew had already disappeared. The police cars were parked haphazardly and past the lodge she could see the corral where two of the horses were idly grazing and one of the staff was standing near one, hugging it’s neck in a woebegone kind of way.

It made Dar a little sad. They’d had fun, right up until they hadn’t.   She continued along the path and up onto the porch, pushing the door open and going inside.

**

Kerry caught sight of the milk chug and had to chuckle.  She watched Dar come over and take a seat next to her, reaching over to hand Kerry her phone. “Thank you honey.”

“I called the office.” Dar said. “And my folks.”

“Sure.” Kerry was checking the texts on hers. “Oh, Dar.  We got that contract from Monroe county.” She felt almost a sense of relief at this return to a familiar world. “Great.”

“Great, because we finally will be able to get decent internet at our cabin.” Dar remarked, reaching out to take the last of the sandwiches. “I figured at some point I’d have to do that myself.”

Kerry chuckled.  Then she looked up. “What did the office say?”

“Lots of expletives.” Her partner replied. “Mark told my dad, who made a bunch of calls and apparently resulted in this.” She circled her hand over her head.  “So my stupid climbing heroics were not in vain.”

“Nice.”

It didn’t even seem strange, for that to be true. Kerry continued inspecting her texts. They had been so involved with so many different bizarre experiences in the past that if Martians had landed in their backyard and knocked on the door asking for Dar to debug one of their engine scripts she would not have even blinked.

Well. Maybe blinked.

“Okay folks, please come with us.”

Dar and Kerry both looked up to find the police there, pads in hand, waiting. They got up and followed the officers into the small room, taking seats opposite a paper filled table, as one officer sat down behind it and the other closed the door behind them.

“Okay.” The officer behind the desk pulled over a folder. “You are Dar and Kerry Roberts.”

“Yup.” Kerry responded. “That’s us.”

“We’re here to discuss the finding of Josh Albert’s body.” The officer said, glancing up at them. “So tell me about that.”

Obligingly, Dar did, since she was the one who had.  “So I came up over the little rise in the path and I saw a bundle of debris, with a lot of flies around it.”

The officer nodded.

“It really wasn’t.. “ Dar hesitated. “It was hard to tell what it was until we moved it around and saw the bones.”

The officer nodded again. “That’s what the rest of them said.” He agreed. “What made you think it was that missing kid?”

“We found his backpack earlier.” Kerry spoke up. “And the scraps of cloth in it.. he was wearing khaki shorts.”

“That’s really circumstantial.” The officer said, in a mild tone.

“We’re not police officers.” Dar said. “But we knew he was on the path, we knew it was his backpack and we knew there were mountain lions around so it wasn’t out of the question.”

The man across the desk leaned forward. “What made you burn the body?”

Both Dar and Kerry were silent for a few minutes. “Just respect, I guess.” Kerry said. “I don’t really know.”

“Who suggested that?”

“I did.” Kerry said. “I guess just the thought of animals eating at him bothered me.”

The officer scribbled down some notes.  “And the rest of the group agreed?’

“Some did.” Dar said. “I did, Don, the crew.. Todd wanted to save the wood for cooking.” She cleared her throat a little. “I decided it was the right thing to do and we did it.”

The officer looked up at her. “You did.”

“I did.”

“Did it occur to you that you were destroying evidence?”

Dar shook her head.  “No.” 

“No?” The officer queried.  “Really, Ms. Roberts? You find a body in a canyon and you never considered it might have been foul play?” He asked. “Never thought some other member of the group, or some vagabond out there might have done him in?”

“Really, no.” Dar responded, with another shake of her head. “The bones were chewed.”

“Could have been after he was killed, you know.” The officer said. “Doesn’t mean he was killed by what was chewing on them.”

“Do you really think that happened?” Kerry asked. “Josh headed off before the rest of us to try and hike out. No one followed him.” She fell silent.  Was she sure? It had been dark and raining. “I don’t think.” She finally admitted. “There was a lot going on.”

“We don’t know.” The officer said, with a faint shrug. “And now we can’t know, because you all burned the evidence.”

“But there wouldn’t have been any left even if we hadn’t.” Kerry said.  “By the time you found us, between the rain and everything it would have been gone.”

The officer eyed her. 

“She’s right.” Dar said, with a faint smile. “Wasn’t a lot left even then.”

Kerry took a breath, then she paused, and just released it instead of speaking.

There was a knock at the door, and the officer leaning against it opened it up. A tall man in green entered, glancing around, “There you two are.” He said, briefly.  “Jackson, I need these people.” He stared at the officer behind the desk, who then just shrugged and pushed the folder aside.  “Are you done?”

“I guess I am.” Jackson said. “Everyone has the same basic story. Not much else I can do.” He stood up. “All yours.”

Dar and Kerry got up and filed out, as the man in green held the door open, and he followed them closing the door on the two officers. 

“Sorry about that.” The man said as they went across the porch area and into the restaurant, where a number of the Army staff were seated, having some coffee.  “They don’t like us stomping in here. Gives them a hive.”  He offered them a seat at one table, which had a coffee pot and cups on it “I won’t keep you long.”

“Do they really think someone killed Josh?” Kerry asked .

“Who?” The officer sat down and poured himself some coffee. “Oh, that kid? Who knows?” He took a sip. “We don’t think so. I heard the story. Sometimes a pickle is just a pickle, you know what I mean?”

‘Yeah.” Dar said, taking some coffee and pouring a cup for Kerry.  “Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, probably not a raccoon.”

The Army man chuckled.  “Okay, so now.” The man said, resting his elbows on the table. “You people who have friends in high places who bum rushed my butt from the beaches of San Diego to this hole in the ground, tell me.” He eyed them. “This all just a series of unlikely coincidences or what?”

Kerry and Dar looked at each other.

“That’s what I care about, and my bosses.” The man continued. “Seems like an awful lot of trouble to happen in one place to one group without there being some evil intent somewhere.“ He cocked his head, crewcutted and covered in a ragged gray cap.  “You are smart, smart people according to what I’m told. What do you think?”

Dar merely stared benignly at him.  Kerry folded her hands on the table and produced a wry smile. “Have you ever heard about a vacation curse?” She asked.

“What?”

“Like a WTF vortex?”

**

“I think the Army thinks we’re weird, Dar.” Kerry commented, as they walked out of the lodge and down the steps. Outside, three of the four cop cars were gone, only one was left, and a vehicle from the local reservation was pulled up next to it covered in mud.

“Yeah probably.” Dar said. “Or monumentally unlucky.”

“Mm.” Kerry cleared her throat a little. “I was going to tell those cops, you know, that I think I have some pictures of Josh’s body in my camera.”

Dar stopped, and turned to look at her. “What?”

“I took pictures.” Kerry said in a mild tone. “But I was afraid they would just confiscate my camera or the card, and you know Dar, I’ve got a lot of other pictures in there I don’t want to lose.”

Dar blinked.

“So I’ll send them to the police department, after I copy it.” Kerry continued, putting her arm through Dar’s. “C’mon. Let’s skedaddle.”

“Isn’t withholding evidence illegal?”

“Isn’t burning evidence illegal?”

Dar frowned.

Kerry smiled. “You’d have made a lousy politician sweetheart.”  She tugged her forward.  “They never asked me about pictures, so I never had the opportunity to say I didn’t have any.”  She said. “I could have forgotten I took them. A lot of stuff happened between then and now.”

“Hm.” Dar grunted. “All true.” She conceded.  “Besides, it wouldn’t tell them a damn thing anyway.”

“Nope, but it might convince them it wouldn’t.” Kerry exhaled a little. 

The sun had come out, and it was painting the area in warmth they walked through across the ground, a light wind blowing the scent of sagebrush and pinon over them.  The rest of the group they’d been in was standing around a picnic table, listening to a tall man in khakis holding a clipboard.

Todd and Marcia and Petey were long gone to the hospital, Amy and Don with them.  “Sorry we won’t get to say goodbye to Don and his wife.” Dar said. ‘They were nice.”

“They were.” Kerry agreed. “I liked them.  And Petey.”

“Mm.”

They paused in range of the table, and the man motioned them over.  “Over here.” He called. “We need to get a record of your lost gear so we can reimburse you.”  He added. “I’m David Scintah.  I own the operation.”

He was tall, and spare, with gray hair cut close to his scalp and a clean shaven face.  He had clear gray eyes and was dressed in a company polo shirt and jeans.

The others were busy filling out forms, but they looked up and waved as Dar and Kerry came over.  “Do we want to be reimbursed for a bunch of clothes?” Dar mused. “Really?”

“Meh.” Kerry waved off the form. “We’re okay.” She said. “Nothing there of much value.”

Hey don’t make us all look bad!” Rich protested “C’mon!”

“Sorry.” Kerry said. “We knew we were going to go on a river so we packed our oldest and rattiest stuff.” She said. “And we didn’t have the fancy camping stuff you all had.” She paused and eyed Rich. “Right?”

He grinned. “Right.” He went back to filling out the paperwork.

David put the rejected form back on his clipboard with a snap, without any sign of regret. “We’ve already put a credit back on your credit cards for the trip, and the night you stayed before we left.” He said. “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

“What I say is it’s a lucky thing Dudley Douchebag isn’t here or this would never end.”  Rich scribbled another line on his form.

“Say that.” Dave agreed. “I don’t wish bad stuff on anyone, but he got what he deserved.”

The owner perched on the edge of the table. “Is that Todd Evangeline you mean? The fellow with the dislocated shoulder?”

“That’s him.”  Rich stood up and handed over his form. “I’m sure you’ll be hearing from his father the famous lawyer.”

“Hm.” The man seemed thoughtful. “How did he get hurt?”

“Trying to climb up the wall out of the canyon.” Rich informed him.  “After abandoning the rest of us.”

Dar put her hands in her pockets. “What really went wrong?” She asked. “Were your people just that unprepared, or we just that unlucky?”

The man put the clipboard down and folded his arms over his chest. “That team was very experienced.” He said. “Real river veterans.  I talked to them, and I think I can defend most of their decisions. Though not all of them.” He conceded. “Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes.”

“True.” Dar agreed.

“And the weather is the weather.” The owner concluded. “Not sure they told you all, but we found Doug. He had hauled out and was making his way down an old riverbed and ended up in a washout. One of the guys from the reservation found him.”

“That’s great.” Kerry said, sincerely.  “I was hoping he was okay.  It was a really brave thing he did, trying to get help for us.”

 “I’m just really glad that Army group was doing their training exercise and spotted you all.  Now that was a bit of luck.” The man said, with a faint smile.  “What with them having all that gear, and the helicopters and all and in the right place to see you coming out of rapids.”

“No kidding, was I glad to see em.” Sally agreed. “Never say a bad thing about the military ever again.”

David was smiling still and nodding gently. “Yes.” He looked over at Dar and Kerry. “I hear you ladies did some brave things too.”

Dar shrugged.

Kerry shrugged.   

“We did our part.” Kerry finally said.. “Anyway we’re taking off so we wanted to say goodbye you all.” She could feel the tug of the RV, and privacy and somewhere down the road, a cheeseburger.  “I think you all gave me your email addresses for copies of pictures?”

“You got mine for sure.” Rich said. “And I have Don’s in case you don’t.”

“Here’s mine.” Sally handed over a folded slip of paper.  “I’ll share with the college kids, they’re at the hospital with PJ.”

They stood up and hugged awkwardly.   “Won’t say it was fun, but it was an adventure.”  Rich said, wrinkling his nose. “Give me plenty of stories for next time.”

“Yeah, enjoy your drive back home.“ Sally added, stepping back.  “Nice to have met you.”

“Okay, see you all.” Kerry lifted her hand in a wave.  “Bye.”

“Bye!” Sally and Rich said together, and the rest waved back. “If the rest of them come back from the hospital we’ll say goodbye for you.”

 They turned and walked away from the table, along the rock lined path that led to the road and the RV parking, somewhat aware that they were being watched by the group, by the owner, probably by the staff lingering on the grounds.

Dar put her arm around Kerry’s shoulders, and pulled her closer, giving her a kiss on the head.  “Glad the Army didn’t out us.”

“Me too. Didn’t really want to have to explain all that.” Kerry said. “Lets get out of here before someone changes their mind.”

“Booyah.”

**

The RV was right where Dar had left it.   She went around to the side and disconnected the connections, sliding the hoses inside the hatch on the side and closing it up.  

There were two other campers near them, and as she came around to the front again a new RV was pulling into the lot and trundling past them, heading for an open spot nearby.  Dar looked at her cell phone and grunted. “Is tomorrow really Sunday?”

She opened the door and entered, closing it behind her and going to sit down in the driver’s seat to start up the engine. “Ker?”

“Yes?” Kerry arrived at her side, sans shirt.  “Want to take a shower before we move this thing?”

“No.” Dar started up the engine. “I want to get away from this place before our vacation curse hits the next set of people who want to have an innocent ride down the Colorado River.”  She glanced aside. “But go ahead if you want to.”

“I will.” Kerry winked at her, then retreated back into the body of the camper, to resume removing her clothing as Dar started to back out of the lot. 

It felt amazing to be back in their little temporary world, without anyone else around.   She opened the door to the small bathroom and slid inside, turning on the shower and ducking under the lukewarm water with an appreciation even for the slightly chlorinated scent of it.

She picked up the natural sponge scrubbie and added some soap to it, enjoying the scrape of it against her skin.  Even though they had spent most of the week wet, the shower felt warm and good and she spent a moment shampooing her hair, sure she could still feel sand from the canyon in it.

Ah.  She stepped out of the shower and pulled a towel around her body, tucking the end in under one arm as she picked up a brush from the tiny sink and glanced in the mirror.

The RV rocked gently as she met her own eyes in the reflection facing her.  “That could have gone a lot worse than it did.” She pronounced. “Our guardian angels must have been fist fighting with our WTF vortex and they won.”

Because really, that was true.  Through all the chaos and danger, she and Dar, unusually, had come through without a scratch.

Literally.  Where others had gotten cut, and hit poison oak, suffered back injuries, arm injuries, terrible colds… despite Dar climbing walls and her wrangling mountain sheep here they were, having suffered no more than hunger and in Dar’s case, milk deprivation.

Pretty amazing, actually. 

She shook the brush at the mirror then she slid out of the bathroom and into the back section of the RV which had a slide out and contained the queen size bed and small closet.   She changed into clean clothes and gave the bed a wistful look, before she went out into the main area and over to the galley.  “Feel like coffee, hon?”

“Feel like a steak and a baked potato.” Dar responded.  “Want to find a restaurant for us to stop at?”

Kerry came over and sat down in the seat next to her partner in the cockpit, relaxing into the comfort of the soft leather as she regarded the road ahead of them, a mostly empty trek. 

Mostly empty, because there were two cars coming towards them at a good clip, and as they passed them they felt the RV rock a little from the air displacement.  One was a sleek looking Mercedes and she considered the possibility that it was Todd’s father zooming to his rescue.

She was glad they were heading the opposite direction.   “Let me see what the Handspring can find.” She started tapping on the device as Dar shifted a little in the driver’s seat, leaning forward as another pair of cars came up over the horizon and sped past them.

They were both momentarily silent, then they looked at each other.  “Anything at the end of that road but the ranch?”  Dar asked. “Anything past that?”

Kerry shrugged a little. “I don’t think so.”

“Hm.”

Kerry went back to her searching. “Hon.” She said, after another moment’s silence. “Are you thinking about turning around?”

Dar cleared her throat and tapped her thumbs against the steering wheel.  “I was.” She admitted. “But honestly Ker? What the hell are we going to do?  Whatever it is – not a problem we can solve.”

“True.”

“Besides, the Army is there, and they have my phone number.”  Dar concluded. “Find me some spuds.”

“How about Big E Steakhouse and Saloon?” Kerry suggested, with a grin.  “I think they’ve got us both covered and we can bring a doggie bag for the doggies since it’s about ten minutes from their spa.”

“Now that’s a damn plan.”

**

Kerry kicked back and crossed one knee over the other as she regarded the sparsely seated patio around her, and the pretty scenery in the distance around them.  It was dry and sunny, but a nice breeze fluttered past and she gave the waitress a benign smile as she set a frosty mug down in front of her. “Thank you.”

“Anytime. You ready to order?” The woman asked. “Or should we wait for your friend to come back.”

“We can get started. Since your patio is pet friendly she went to go get our pets.”  Kerry said. “So let’s go with two of the ribeyes, with baked potato and mushrooms, medium rare” She said. “And we’ll need a porterhouse cooked rare and cut up in pieces.”

The woman was scribbling. “For the pets?”

“For the dogs.” Kerry confirmed. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”  The woman took the menus and disappeared, and Kerry settled back in her seat with her mug of local amber.

Her phone rang, and she lifted it. “Hello.”

“Oh, Kerrisita! Are you and Jefa okay?”

“We’re fine, Maria.” Kerry reassured their office manager.  “Dar just went to pick up the dogs, and I’m about to start on a beer.” She said. “We’re on our way back out of the canyon area.”

“Thank goodness!” Maria said. “We were all so worried!  Especially since we saw that place you were going to on the television this morning!”

Kerry took a sip of her beer.  “Yeah, I guess the rescue got some press.”   She responded. “Anyway how are things there? Everything okay?”  She paused, then frowned. “Wait, you saw it on television in Miami?”

“Si, on the CNN.” Maria said. “Things are very good here, yes.  Two of the new contracts have signed the legal, and Mark has put in some more bandwidth.” She said.  “So you will be coming home now?”

“Yep we will.” Kerry agreed. “We’ll probably stop at some swanky camping place tonight and then get a full day drive in tomorrow.  I know Dar’s looking forward to getting back.” She spotted the RV approaching the front parking lot. “And here come the dogs. Let me call you back, okay Maria?”

“Si, no problem Kerry. I am glad you are not with the dangerous people anymore.” Maria said. “I will talk with you later, bye bye.”

The call ended, and Kerry leaned back and took another sip of her beer. “CNN? Wow it must have been a really slow news day, huh?” She mused, then frowned. “Wait, the dangerous people?”

**

Dar scribbled her name on the release forms, handing them back to the smiling attendant behind the desk. “Were they good kids for you?”

“Oh, Ms. Roberts, they’re wonderful.” The girl said, with sincere enthusiasm.  “Everyone loved them and I think they had a great time.”

The inner door opened, letting a cacophony of pet sounds to emerge and a man appeared dressed in dark purple scrubs with two dogs on leashes. 

“Hey guys.” Dar smiled as the dogs spotted her and let out howls of happiness, making the attendant lunge forward as they bolted towards her.  She knelt quickly and then was freight trained by Chino, as half grown Mocha galumped in her wake. “Hey girl.”

Both dogs started a tail wagging, foot dancing lickfest of her as the two spa workers stood there with indulgent smiles.   They had new, woven, desert themed collars on and smelled like sage, and Dar was glad to hug them both.

“Hope you had as much fun as they did.”  The male attendant said. “You went rafting, right?”

“Right.” Dar took possession of the leashes.  “Now we’re heading home.  Ready kids?”

Grouf.” Chino sat down next to her and barked, her tail sweeping the floor.

Hey,  you weren’t by any chance in that whole thing on the news, were you?” The girl asked as she walked around Dar to open the door for her. “That sounded crazy!”

Dar put her sunglasses back on and got herself sorted out with her two pets. “Haven’t seen the news, so I have no idea.” She said. “Gotta go. Thanks for taking care of them.”

“No problem anytime!” The two waved as Dar got down the steps and headed for the RV.  “Come back soon!”

“Nope, sorry.”  Dar glanced down at the bouncing dogs. “Glad to see you guys, you know that? We missed you.”

“Yap!” Mocha hopped along and stood up, his paws now almost reaching to her hips.  She gave him a pat on the head and opened the RV door, waiting for the dogs to rush up the steps and then following them.  Lets go find your other mom, and some steak. How about that?”

Growf!” Chino hopped up onto the couch and sat down.

Dar started up the RV and backed out, pausing when her cell phone rang.   She glanced at it, then hit the button to answer. “Hey Dad.” She said.  “Thanks for sending in help I…“ She paused.  “What?”

Growf.”  Chino repeated, tongue hanging out.

“What??”

**

Kerry had to smile at the sight of the two Labradors, full sized Chino and half sized Mocha bounding towards her with ears flapping and tails wagging so hard they were just a blur.  “C’mere kids!” She held out her hands to them and wiggled her fingers in welcome.

Dar was jogging behind them, leashes over her shoulder and she hauled up as Mocha hurtled through the air and landed in Kerry’s lap.  “Mocha!”

Kerry just had time to squawk as she ended up with an armful of brown puppy, rocking her back in her seat as Mocha eagerly licked her face. “Hey little man!” She spluttered. “Aw, I missed you too!”

Dar dropped into the seat across from her and patted Chino’s back, as the cream colored lab waited her turn for attention with far more decorum. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Kerry reached past Mocha and gave Chino a scratch behind her ears. “Hey Cheebles! Did you miss us?”  She glanced at Dar. “That rescue they did ended up on the news, I hear. I talked to Maria.”

“It did.” Dar regarded her. “Mostly because CNN’s reporting the op was full of suspected terrorists.”

Kerry went still. “What?”

“Remember Janet said her family was Iranian?”

Kerry blinked. “What?” She repeated. “How does that mean they’re terrorists?”

“Mom and dad just landed at a nearby airstrip.” Dar soldiered on. “They got Alastair to fly them here.  We’re going to hear all about it in about fifteen minutes.”

“What?”

Dar gave her a commiserating look. “Just go with it, hon.  We’re lucky we kept going.”

The waitress appeared. “Oh, you’re back.” She greeted Dar. “What cute dogs!”

Dar leaned her elbow on the table.  “I’m back and bringing more friends. We’re going to need a bunch of steaks and a bunch of vegetables and a gallon of beer.”

“Great!” The waitress didn’t miss a beat. “Are the friends people or more dogs? I need to know for the dishes.”

“People.” Dar said.

“No problem.” She whisked off and headed for the kitchen.

Kerry managed to wrangle Mocha down to the ground. “Terrorists?”

Dar sighed.

“Dar those guys weren’t terrorists.” Kerry said. “Janet? C’mon.”

Her partner shrugged. “We don’t know everything. But apparently my dad has some intel so I guess we’ll find out soon as they get here.”  She looked up as the waitress returned, with another young man behind her, carrying a tray with a mug of beer on it, which he put down in front of her.  “Thanks.”

“No problem. Can I pet your dogs?”

“Sure.” Dar picked up her mug and drank from it, her eyes fastened on Kerry’s across the table as the two servers made much of their pets.

After a moment, Kerry just started laughing, covering her eyes with one hand.

**

Dar sectioned her steak into neatly cut squares and forked up one of them, putting it into her mouth and chewing it.  She watched Kerry leaving her own plate aside for a minute, as she took the two plastic dishes the restaurant had given them and portioned the dog’s lunch out first. 

Mocha and Chino were standing next to her, eyes glued on the plates, tails wagging in unison.  “They know.” Dar commented, after swallowing.

“Of course they know.” Kerry put the plates down and got out of the way.  Then she went back to her plate and dove in herself, really glad to be eating something of her own choice for the first time in a week.  “I can’t believe they dragged Alastair out here.”

Dar chuckled. “I think retirement is boring him.” She said. “He sent me a bunch of cat videos before we left and an animated gif of a pony.”

Kerry paused in mid cut and stared at her.  Dar merely looked back at her as she chewed her steak.

After a moment, Kerry just shook her head. “This is good.” She indicated the steak.

“Anything would be good after what we went through the last few days.”  Dar said. “But yeah, it is.”  She glanced up at the television on the wall, which was now showing a basketball game. ‘Wish they’d get here already. I want to know what the hell’s going on.”

“Want me to call Maria and ask what’s on CNN?” Kerry offered.

“No I don’t want to freak her out.”

“Mm.”

A taxi drew up, and disgorged three people who advanced towards the patio. Chino, seated on a chair next to Kerry sat up on seeing them and barked.

“Ah.” Kerry lifted a hand and waved. “There they are.”

Dar turned and then stood, as the three marched up the steps and came over to the table. “Hi mom.” Dar greeted the first of the new arrivals, a short silver blond woman in a colorful patchwork jacket.

“Hey kid.” Ceci Roberts responded, as she stepped aside to let her tall husband sidle beside her.  “Hey Kerry.”

“Hallo there Dardar.” Andrew said. “Kumquat.”  He winked at Kerry.

“Hey Alastair.” Kerry had stood as well, holding firmly onto the dog’s leashes as she extended a hand out to their former boss. “Nice to see you.”

“Have a seat.” Dar gestured. “They’re bringing out chow.” She sat back down as Andrew picked up Mocha and set him on his lap.   “So. What’s going on?”

“What isn’t?” Ceci eyed her. “I gotta say, you kids are trouble magnets.”

“You all do get into the damndest things.” Andrew said. “Ah swear.”

Alastair McLean sat back and smiled. “This time, I’m just along for the ride.” He said to Kerry, who was sitting next to him. “Can’t wait to hear what’s going on.” He added. “But it was nice to be able to take the plane out something longer than just to Galveston.”

The wait staff returned, with a cart.  “Welcome.” The girl said.  “So we have steaks, and vegetables and beer.” She said. “You have anyone else coming?”  She looked at all of them. “More people? Or dogs?”

“Maybe a pony?” Her male counterpart suggested. “We have carrots.”

“That’s all for now.” Dar said, as they put the platters down.  “Thanks.”

The servers left.  There was a brief lack of conversation as the three newcomers took plates and sorted out their edibles, then Ceci sat down with a plate of vegetables and cleared her throat. “Okay.”

Growf.” Chino barked at her.

“Shh.” Kerry tweaked the tail of their pet.

“We were in the office, just doing a few things when Mark comes running in, looking for Andy.” Ceci said. “Wanted to know how to geolocate someone using a sat phone.”

“Lord.” Andy cut his steak up into squares just like Dar’s. 

“So of course your father asked him what he was looking for.” Ceci said. “And turned him upside down and shook him until he coughed it up when he didn’t want to tell us.”

Dar could easily imagine the scene.  “Glad we have health insurance.” She commented mildly.  “I’m sure he just didn’t want you to freak out.”

“Ah swear.“ Andy said. “So then I done called some feller I knew back in the service, and he plugged in them numbers and told us where you were.”

Kerry took a sip of her beer. “That sounds pretty simple actually.”

“Oh it was.” Ceci agreed. “What wasn’t simple was by the time we got that, and we were figuring out what to do with it, a spook arrived.”

Dar blinked. “A spook?”

“Somebody from the Miami office of the NSA.” Her mother said.  “Who was super interested in the coordinates Mark gave Andy because they were apparently running an operation in the area.” She munched on a sweet potato fry. “Unfortunately he wasn’t willing to share any of his information so your father boxed him on the ear and sent him on his way.”

“Jackass.”

Dar rested her chin on her fist. “So then what?”

“So then we called Gerry.” Her mother said. “Because what is the point of having a family friend who’s a general if you don’t call him when you need the army?” She shrugged seeing the wince on her daughter’s face. “There wasn’t anyone else really to call, Dar.  You were lost in a national park, and the bimbos you were with weren’t answering their phone.”

“I see.” Dar sighed.  “Yeah I guess they were probably running around trying to help.”

“They were stonewalling ev’rbody.” Andy said. “Wouldn’t tell no one nothing.”

“They probably didn’t know anything.”  Kerry said, in a mild tone.  “Except that we missed the check in call. It’s not like we were sending text messages out there.”

“Anyhow somebody out there tipped off them spooks that them folks that ran that place were from the middle east.” Andrew said. “And they were investigating.”

“A lot of people are from other places, dad.” Dar said. “It’s not against the law.”

“No.” Ceci said. “It’s not. But the man who owns that rafting operation was housing three of the guys who hijacked those planes on 9/11.”

Everyone sat in silence for a long minute.

“Jesus Christ.”  Alastair finally said. “Is that really true?”

“That’s what they done told us.” Andy looked at his daughter.  “Gerry called us and done told us they were taking care of all that business and to just keep still and wait.”

Dar was blinking, her eyes wide.  “Son of a bitch.” She said after a long pause. “That totally was never in the picture.” She added. “No one said anything about that to us.”

“Not at all.” Kerry was shaking her head. “Never would have even crossed my mind.“

“Wow.” Alastair commented. “What are the odds, huh? What made you pick them?” He asked.  “You get a recommendation from someone or what?”

Dar sat back and thought about it.  How had they come to her notice?  She shook her head a few times. “It was just random.”  She said. “I went through the travel agency on the island. They had brochures for a bunch of things and I picked that one.” She paused. “Because it had a picture of a horse on it.”

Kerry looked over at her, eyebrows hiking slightly.

Dar shrugged apologetically.  “Really nothing more than that.  Just that they were a full service outfitter and it looked like fun.”

“They seemed legit.” Kerry said. “Some of the people we were with had heard of them, had picked them because they’d been around a while and had a good rep.” She paused thoughtfully. “Most of the crew were kids. Kids from the area, matter of fact.”

Ceci seemed pleased at the response to her news. “And.” She added.  “How it came to light, apparently is some of the people who worked for them got stopped crossing the border from Canada. They were on some list.”

Dar’s jaw dropped a little, and she and Kerry exchanged looks. “Didn’t they say that jackass’s raft team was from Toronto?”

“They did.” Kerry agreed in surprise. “There was this couple who were supposed to take a trip down alone so they could climb cliffs and things that weren’t on the usual program.” She explained. “But the team that was supposed to take them couldn’t make it so they ended up on our raft.”

“Uh huh.” Andy grunted.

“Some rich kid and his fiancé.” Dar said.  “Father’s a big shot lawyer or something.”

“Yeah.” Kerry nodded.  “He ended up dislocating his shoulder. Dar had to rescue him.”   She added, almost as an afterthought. “But that was after the raft flipped, and the flash flood and the collapsed arch.”

“And the mountain lion.”  Dar looked up at the abrupt silence, to find three sets of eyes staring at her.  “There was a lot going on.”

The waitress appeared. “Anything else right now for you folks?”

Alastair folded his arms. “I think we’re going to need another round of beer.”

“Coming right up.”

**

“So anyway, the first couple of days were fine.” Kerry related. “It was nice, we got some good pictures.”

“it was getting boring.” Dar added.  “But there were fun parts too, we got to see waterfalls, and do some slides and we saw a bobcat.”

“And mountain goats, and there was an owl that landed on Dar’s arm, and all that.” Kerry went on. “But then they started to get worried about the weather.”

“Uh huh.” Andrew grunted. “Wonder if that was all they was worried about.”

“It started raining when we got to shelter that night, and it was pretty bad.” Kerry said.  “But it was weather, you know?”   She sat back in her chair. “But the next day, it got crazy.”

“The raft flipped and we got thrown off.” Dar said. “They got everyone out, but the boat got damaged and one of the crew took a kayak to try and get help and supplies.”

“That’s when they lost the phone.” Kerry said. “And a lot of what they brought with them.”

There was a little silence, as the waitress brought around a platter of assorted cookies. “On the house.” She smiled and put it down. “Let me know when you want more drinks.” She added, and left.

“So you went from a posh river tour to an episode of Gililgans Island.” Ceci said, taking a cookie and nibbling on it. “Is that what I’m hearing?”

“It was getting that way.” Kerry admitted. “But then it got a lot worse.”

 “Dar, at any time did you think any of this was deliberate?” Alastair asked, after being silent for a long while. “You get the feeling you were being taken?”

“No.” Dar shook her head. “Lightning storms, floods, wild animals..  no one had time to rig that. Some of the stuff at the beginning? The glass and all that? Eh.”  She lifted her hands up and let them back down.  “We actually thought it was the punk who joined us making trouble for everyone he could.”

“Right.” Kerry agreed. “So after Doug didn’t come back, and we ended up getting the raft to the pull out near the cabin, and Josh had started up to the ranger station, we decided to go follow Josh because with all the rain and people getting hurt right and left it didn’t seem like a good idea to stay.”

“As it turned out, would have been better if we’d stayed.” Dar commented. “But we didn’t know that.”

“No.  So we grabbed all the stuff we could carry and started to hike out.” Kerry continued. “We realized there was a big cat around after we found Josh’s body.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. “Wow.” Alastair finally muttered. “Poor fella.”

“Yeah, there wasn’t much left.” Dar acknowledged. “Went downhill pretty fast from that point.”

“We were scared.” Kerry said. “And it was raining, we were cold, and we were running out of supplies pretty fast.”

“So at this point were you deciding all future vacations would be in a tent in the backyard?” Ceci asked.

“A tent?” Dar eyed her. “How about inside our bedroom?”

“Lord.” Andrew chuckled briefly.

Ceci shook her head. “So then what?” She asked Kerry.

“The cat was tracking us, I guess, because it came after us that night, in the storm.” Kerry paused.  “We were under a little rock shelter and it jumped down and came at us.” She glanced over at her partner. “So Dar jumped on it and started stabbing it with her pocket knife.”

Another short silence. “See Dar?” Kerry turned to her partner. “No one at this table even looked surprised when I said that.”  She lifted her hands in some small exasperation. “Not even your parents.”

Ceci  leaned forward. “Especially her parents, kiddo.  We’ve known her longer than you have.”

Alastair covered his eyes and shook his head.

“You’re the one who told me we were the kind of people who would jump on a mountain lion and not let it eat us.” Dar complained.  “What in the hell was I supposed to do?”

Xactly what you done.” Andrew stated. “Ah woulda done it. Something looking to kill you can not be run from.” He smiled a little at Dar.  “And you all do come from me.”

Dar smiled back, and her body relaxed as she sat back, taking a moment to acknowledge the truth of all of that.  She’d been fighting with herself for a month over the instinct to put herself out there, to get into scraps and defend others because it seldom ended to her advantage.

And yet, it was part of the person she was. Part of the heritage of the lineage she came from, inbuilt and instilled and unquestioned from a long line of people like her father who regardless of moral compass had been uncompromising scrappers.

A long line of warriors for their own particular and often peculiar causes that weren’t always right or wrong but often graded and shaded and personal.

She carried no weapon and served in no service but nonetheless she stood up for things she judged to be right.

Crusader.  Dar smiled self deprecatingly.  Yeah, maybe.  Idiotically. She imagined she could hear the echo of a rich, deep, knowing laugh back in the shadows of her own psyche. “I do.” She answered Andrew.  “Thanks dad.”

Andy smiled again and winked a little bit at her. “G’wan, kumquat.”

“So then came the avalanche.”  Kerry soldiered on. ‘And talk about going downhill from there.”

**

Ya’ll want me to drive this here, Kerry?”

Kerry settled into the driver’s seat on the RV. “Nah, I got this dad.” She fastened the seat belt and started up the engine.  “Time to get going.”

Behind her, Dar was filling the water dishes for the dogs, and Alastair and Ceci had settled onto the small couch across from the galley for the short drive back to the regional airport.

Andrew seated himself next to her in the cockpit, and extended his long legs out. “Ah do not think you all should drive all the way back home.” He said. “All sorts of things might happen.”

Kerry chuckled wryly.  “We had an uneventful trip out.” She reminded him. “It only got bad when we actually started the vacation part of our vacation.”

“Hm.” Andy gave her a squinty eyed look, his rugged, scarred face with all its intense character displaying extreme skepticism.

Kerry smiled, though she kept her eyes on the road.  “Thanks, dad.”  She felt Chino’s breath on her elbow as the dog came forward to peer through the window.  “I’m really glad you knew what to do to help us.”

Andy chuckled, a little. “Get a lot of practice.” He said. “Ah did not think I would have to do this near as much as ah do now after coming out of the service.”

“We just get in a lot of trouble.” Kerry agreed, mournfully.  “I don’t know why. We even picked the most sedate rafting trip we could. They even had some Barcaloungers on there.”

Andy folded his arms over his broad chest. “Ah do wonder if that there bunch wasn’t looking out for well off folks.” He said. “For other reasons.”

Kerry drew in a breath, then paused. “No one brought valuable stuff on the trip. Only thing I had was my camera.”

“Coulda kidnapped you.” Her father in law suggested.

Kerry considered it.  “Boy would they have been in trouble.” She grinned a little.  “But really, a lot of those guys weren’t super rich I don’t think. Except Todd maybe. We had some college kids who saved up, and some yuppies. No one was the silver spoon type.”

“Could just kept their yap shut about it.” Andy said.  Nevah know, with people.”

“Eh.”  Kerry looked both ways, and pulled out onto the road. “I don’t think so.”  She thought about Sally and her sister, and PJ and the gang, and Rich and Dave, none of them seemed like anyone who might be a target. “They all seemed pretty mundane.”

“Didn’t mean them. Meant you.” Andy remarked. “You all kids might be interesting to bad guys.”

Kerry blinked, then she checked the road ahead and looked quickly to her right. “Us?”

Andy looked surprised at her surprise.  Gov’mint.” He said, as though that would explain everything.

Oh.  The idea was not appealing.  “Oh I don’t think so dad.”  Kerry’s brows twitched.  “I’d rather think it was just our WTF vortex.”

Scuse me?”

**

They watched the plane take off from the airport, lifting quickly up into the sky and banking away, heading southeast into a clear, and cloudless sky. 

“That took a lot of convincing.” Dar remarked. “Thought they’d never take off.”

“Well.” Kerry slid her hand into Dar’s hip pocket, her fingers unexpectedly encountering the smooth roundness of a stone inside.  “They’re your parents, hon.” She drew out the rock and inspected it.  “That’s pretty.”

“That’s why I kept it.” Dar said. “I know they’re my parents but we’re both grown-ups, Ker.”

“Grown-ups who get into tons of trouble.”

Dar sighed.

“So they’re stopping in Birmingham?” Kerry changed the subject, as they watched the speck in the sky disappear.

“Yeah.” Dar was leaning against the front of the RV.  “Dad promised mom some real fried green tomatoes.”  She stifled a yawn. “I told them we’d keep in regular touch until we got back.”

Kerry smiled, and patted her on the side. “They’re cute.”  She said. “And your dad did get us saved, remember.”

“I know.” Dar pushed off and went to the door, opening it carefully to prevent the whining dogs from escaping. “I shouldn’t sound so damn ungrateful especially since they flew out here to make sure we were okay.”

Kerry followed her inside and they both sat down on the couch on the RV together.  “So now what?” Kerry asked.
“Get driving?”

Dar was petting Chino’s soft head. “Yeah.  Don’t want to stay around here. Let’s get some distance.” She decided. “We can stop someplace tonight, and then go all day tomorrow.”

“Okay.”  Kerry got up and went to the counter, opening the laptop sitting there. “Want to fire up the sat? Let me find us some nice anonymous place to sleep.”

Dar went to the console and flipped the switches, then sat down and started up the engine.  The air outside was starting to turn golden and she put the sun behind her as she started down the two lane road away from the small regional airport.

She felt a little discomfited.  “I don’t like all that stuff about terrorists.” She commented. “I don’t really think those people were doing anything, Ker.”

“No, me either.” Kerry had her eyes fastened on the screen.  “It was kind of like when you told me about those pilots that flew you and Alastair back? They got taken away by the spooks but it turned out okay?”

“One of them went to the same flight school as the terrorists.” Dar recalled. “And he was from India. Not the Middle East. That what you meant?” She asked. “Turned out to be nothing.”

“Right. So maybe it’s the same with these guys. Maybe they didn’t know who those people were and they were just part time help.” Kerry scrolled. “I found a campground. How about we just park and plug.” She looked up at Dar. “I’d rather stay in here with the dogs.”

“Sounds good to me.”

They drove for three hours down the highway, then turned off onto a smaller two lane road that had wooden post fencing on either side of it and by that time the sun was setting in earnest.  They passed between a pair of impressive saguaro cactus and spotted the campground just past it.

It was gated. They pulled up to the gate and Kerry opened the window. “Hello.”

“Hello there young lady.” The guard returned the greeting.  “Looking for a hook up?” He smiled blandly at her. “We got that.”

“Yep.” Kerry ignored the smarmy comment.  “Just overnight.”

He studied a clipboard. “We only have two Class A slots, they’re in the back, last row.”  He glanced up at her. “Need a credit card to activate the power.”

Kerry handed hers over, and they waited for him to process it, catching the hint of wood smoke on the air. “What else is back there?”

He handed the paperwork over for her to sign. “Mini’s place.” He took the clipboard back.  “She runs a little café and bar.” He handed Kerry her receipt. “Have a nice night.”

“Thanks.” Kerry closed the window and they moved slowly on, down a boulder lined path interspersed with weathered wooden posts.    At the end of the campground, as promised there were two larger parking spots and she picked the second one, with a nice view of the mountains.

The campsite was about half full, and there were a few people walking around, more gathered near a round, weathered fire pit with bottles and cups in their hands.  There was music playing, vaguely new age sounding from someone’s rig and various scents of barbeque were evident.

“I’ll hook us up.” Dar remarked. “Watch the dogs.”  She opened the door and hopped out, going around to the side of the RV.

Kerry got up and went to the RV’s control panel, pressing the keys that would activate the slide outs and going over to the galley to ponder what to do about some dinner.   Chino followed her and sat down next to her feet, tail sweeping the floor.

After the week they’d had, it was a stunning bit of normality.  It was hard for her to comprehend that less than twenty four hours earlier she was in a cold river, at the mercy of the rapids, not knowing what in the hell was going to happen to her.

In danger, feeling the chill start to grip her, Dar’s arms around her and both of them knowing bad things could easily happen any moment.

Now? She reviewed what was in the pantry and decided on gyros, taking out a package of sliced lamb from the tiny freezer and putting it on the counter to start thawing.

Outside, she could hear the sounds of Dar connecting the RV; the thumps and bumps of the hoses and electrical and she pushed the window over the galley open to let the fresh air in.

Now it was almost as if it all had never happened.  She shook her head a little and put some coffee on, hearing the ventilation kick on and seeing the flicker of the lights as they switched over from the RV’s batteries to the campground connection.

 

Gyros, and coffee, and after that she had some easy bake cookies to make they could share with each other.

“Hey kids.” She turned and regarded their two pets.  “We can go for a walk, how about that?”  She saw both tails start to wag faster, and Chino stood up, looking at the door in anticipation.   With a smile she got the leashes from their hook on the wall and fastened them to the dog’s collars as the door opened and Dar’s head appeared. “Hey hon.  Kids want to go walk.  We set?”

“All set.” Dar took Mocha’s leash and waited for Kerry to join her outside.  “Nice and quiet.” She closed the door and they started along the path that lead to the edge of the campground where people were gathered, watching the setting sun’s pattern on the far canyon walls.

Their approach made some heads turn, but as they walked past Kerry could see the eyes focused on the two dogs, and she smiled a little, returning the brief waves. 

On a small side path, they spotted the café, which had a patio that had a little crowd also watching the sunset with glasses in their hands and they could hear a soft buzz of conversation drifting over from it and the sound of a softly playing guitar.

The air was cool and dry and they found a weathered picnic table to perch on at the far edge of the property to watch the sun go down from.  Kerry exhaled, stifling a yawn.  “This is an unusually quiet end to our little adventure, Dardar.”

“Yeah.” Dar agreed. “I will be damn glad to sleep in a bed tonight, with no rain, no snarky jackasses, and nothing to worry about.”  She shifted Chino’s leash from her left hand to her right as the dog sat down on the concrete pad the table was set into.

“Me too.” Kerry observed the sliding light, melding and changing and painting every surface it touched. “I’m glad we decided to drive home.  Get a few days to decompress.”

“Let’s find some hot springs.” Dar suggested. “I’m sure there have to be some between here and Miami.”

“Mm.” Kerry could feel the heat in her imagination soaking into her bones. “I’m sure there are. I’ll check when we get back to the bus.” She paused a moment. “Wonder what the rest of them ending up doing?”

“Leaving. If they’re smart.” Dar concluded.  “You could send them an email.”

“Meh.” Kerry grunted softly.  “Now that I said that I’m not sure that I want to know.”

Dar watched the horizon benignly, content to leave the past in the past as well.  She drew in a breath of the dry air and blinked a few times, suddenly wishing for the damp moisture of home, and the sound of the waves rolling up the shore; so different than the Colorado River they’d so recently left.

The last of the sun disappeared, leaving the air tinged with coral and lavender as behind them someone stirred the fire in the fire pit and the wood let out several solid pops as it cracked.

Life had gotten better again.  Kerry took Dar’s hand and squeezed it.  “Maybe we can see stars again tonight.”

Bet we can.”

**

After dinner, Kerry settled down in the comfortable chair in the RVs’ little workspace and hooked her camera up to her laptop, watching the two devices sync up and her photo program open to ingest the contents of her solid state memory cards.

As they popped up on the screen she propped her chin on her fist, watching Dar in her peripheral vision as her partner sprawled on the couch, in a t-shirt and sweatpants, her bare feet extending past the edge of the furniture. 

Inside the RV she could still smell a hint of the stir fried lamb from their dinner and a bit of the woodsmoke from outside drifting through the screens of the open windows all around them.

She could hear voices, soft and indistinct and far off, a dog barking.  Beside her, Chino’s ears twitched and the Labrador lifted her head to listen, while Mocha jerked and whimpered in a doggy dream curled up in his bed.

She turned her attention back to the screen, and started scrolling through the pictures.  “Oh!” She zoomed into one, the picture of the owl landing on Dar’s arm, her partner’s eyes widened and vivid blue watching it. 

“Oh, what?” Dar put down her book and rolled to her feet, coming over to where Kerry was seated and looking over her shoulder. “Ah. My owl whispering moment.”

Kerry flipped through the photos, pretty sunsets and rocks, and a bobcat’s paw.  “Glad I got that one.”

“Me too.” Dar smiled.

The river, and their companions and the rapids, the pools and slides and everyone enjoying themselves.   Dar in her swimsuit stretched out fully in a dive from the cliff side, then one of her pushing herself up out of the water to go for another round, surrounded by a halo of sun splatted droplets.  

Then the stars, outlined against the outline of the canyon walls.  “That’s nice.” Dar commented.  “You can really see the Milky Way.”

“You can.” Kerry agreed.  “But heres the rain, so… “

“Downhill we go.”

Then the caves.  Dar’s hand against the rock, outlined in sun.

Then more rain.

Then the somber outline of wet stone around tatters of cloth and bone.   “So here we are.” Kerry studied the photo, remembering the horror in her guts and how sick she’d felt on seeing this bundle of refuse that was once a person she’d known.

Sad and horrible.  “He was so nice.”

“He was.” Dar said. “Good kid.”   She studied the screen. “You going to send these back to the cops?”

“When we get home, yeah.”  Kerry set the computer up to send the pictures to their storage system at the condo and leaned back, as Dar put her arms around her and gently nibbled at the nape of her neck. “Well, we can show our friends half our vacation, Dar.”

Dar chuckled.  “Better than our last one.” She said. “I think that was what… one day good?”

“Maybe two.”

“No one, because we ran into the asshole after our first dive, remember?” Dar reminded her. “We got a few good days on this one.”

Kerry went back to the beginning of the pictures and had to agree.   She expanded one she’d taken with them halfway through a rapids, a curl of river water in beautiful clear green coming over the pontoons of the raft, sun blasting through it.   “We did.”

“Done for the day?” Dar bit the edge of her ear. “Looking forward to a good night’s sleep.”

The luxury of that sounded awesome and Kerry was happy to get up and join Dar as they walked over to the cozy bedroom area of the RV, picking up the remote and turning off the lights except for the bedside ones that allowed a low level of amber glow.

Dar pulled her t-shirt off and Kerry came over and untied the strings holding up her sweatpants, as the buttons on her own shirt were undone one at a time.

She looked up and saw Dar’s smile.  She leaned forward and planted a kiss on her collarbone, allowing her shirt to be pulled off and tossed gently onto the narrow dresser.  She put her arms around her partner and they pressed together, skin on skin warmth contrasting the cool breeze from the windows in a pleasant way.

She could taste a bit of the chocolate from the chocolate chip cookies they’d shared on Dar’s lips and they paused long enough to fall down sideways on the bed and roll into it’s center.

The covers were soft and from home, and it smelled like their laundry soap comfortingly familiar and Kerry felt her body relax as Dar stretched out next to her and ran her fingertips along Kerry’s ribcage.

She was tired, and not. The familiar burn started and she felt her attention sharpen as Dar’s lips nuzzled her and a warm flush came over her skin.   

Dar’s long arm reached out and the lamps dimmed and they were in the dark together, knowing each other’s body and needing no light to explore familiar sensitive spots as their breathing quickened in unison.

Far off, a coyote howled and they paused for a moment to listen.

Chino barked softly, a gruff, chuffing sound.

Then there was just the faint music from nearby and they went back to each other, secure in the safety of their rolling home.

**

The sound of footsteps outside made them both jerk awake in the same moment, and look at each other in the dim light. “Did you lock the door?”  Kerry whispered.

“Yeah, I think so.” Dar lifted herself out of bed as the dogs woke up and looked at her. “Let me check.”

Kerry slipped out of the other side of the bed and went to the slimline closet nearby to  open it and reach inside for the shotgun she’d stored there.

Chino shook herself and trotted over to the front of the RV, sniffing the air.  Then she barked, a loud and commanding sound that echoed inside the cabin and a moment later Mocha scrambled past her to the door and started yapping excitedly.

Dar reached the control panel and checked, then relaxed. “It’s locked.”  She said, glancing back to see her partner standing next to the bed, naked, holding her shotgun.  “Hey, you know we could sell calendars for the NRA if this whole tech thing doesn’t work out for us.”

“What?” Kerry stared at her, then looked down, and laughed. “Oh for Christ’s sake, Dar.”

They both turned as a knock came at the door to the RV and the chuckles ended.  Dar grabbed her shirt and slipped it over her head then went over to the door, nudging aside the two Labradors and opening the small window it. “Yes?”

There were two men outside in police uniforms and jackets. “Sorry to bother you ma’am.” The nearest one said. “We’re from the local police department.”

Dar studied them. “And?”

“We’re looking for some folks that was seen around here, and the gate said you folks were the last ones in.”  The man said. “We’d like to ask you some questions.”

Dar blinked at them. “At 2 am?”

“These folks are supposed to be dangerous.”

Dar could see them outlined against the soft glow of the lamp post near the edge of the road and she watched their body language intently for a moment.  “They’re not in our camper.” She stated flatly. “I don’t know anything about any dangerous people around here.”

Kerry had come up behind her and Dar glanced back briefly.  She had the shotgun cradled in her hands and she’d taken the precaution of putting her shirt and jeans on. 

“Ma’am, please.” The nearer man said. “We just want to ask a few questions.”

Dar took a step back and lifted her hands in question. Kerry shrugged, and went back to the bedroom, returning with Dar’s shorts and handing them to her. 

“Yap!” Mocha sat down and barked at the door.  Chino was already standing between the living area and the cockpit, head a little down, tail straight.

Dar slid her shorts on and buttoned them, then got in front of the dogs and triggered the lock, waiting for it to retract.  She stepped down out of the camper and stood in the way, as Kerry slid into the passenger seat behind her in the cockpit, the gun visible in her hands. 

The man took a step back. “You want to go inside? I know we woke you ladies up.”

“No.” Dar responded calmly.  “Ask your questions.”

The second man stepped forward, extending two squares. “These are the people we’re looking for.”

Dar took the pictures and studied them, then she passed them back to Kerry.  “I don’t know them.”

“Not seen them on the road, in a restaurant, nothing?” The man asked. “We know you came from the Canyon Rim. They told us.”

“Nothing here.” Kerry handed them back.  “We only stopped at one place, there wasn’t anyone like that there.”

“Mind telling us where that was?”

“Big E Steakhouse.” Kerry supplied.  “We had lunch. They’ll remember us for the dogs.”

Dar looked at the pictures again, two men with dark skin and beards, wearing knit caps, walking past the camera that had taken the shots with sideways, furtive looks.  “No.”  She gave the pictures back. “They don’t ring any bells.”  She regarded them. “What are you looking for them for?”

“An active investigation.” The first man said, with a tone of finality.  “Here’s my card. If you do see either of these men, will you call me and let me know?”  He handed her a square of cardboard. “Which way are you ladies headed?”

“Florida.” Dar said, noticing then that there were others in the campground, milling around the fire pit, watching the two men from afar. “You ask everyone else yet?”

“We did.” The man agreed. “Sorry to wake everyone up. We just can’t be too careful.” He stepped back. “Thank you. Have a good rest of your night.”  He and his partner turned and walked away, going past the fire pit and back towards the gate.

“Dar, that was weird.” Kerry concluded, as she climbed back onboard and shut the door.

“Meh.” Dar locked the door and went back to the bed. “All relative when it comes to weird Ker. All relative.”

**

Dar idly watched Chino and Mocha sniff around some scrub grass as she stood in a pool of early morning sunlight in the now very quiet campground.

The area was painted in the coral and pink light and she could smell sage on the light breeze that was ruffling her hair and fluttering the shirt against her skin.

The half filled campground around her had mostly smaller campers, two of them pulled by a car, one a tiny teardrop model that looked very old and weathered.

Two silver airstreams, and the nearest one’s door opened and a middle aged woman got out, putting down a step and looking around with a yawn.   She saw Dar, and gave a friendly wave which Dar returned.

 On the road leading from the gates there was a small pickup truck trundling towards them, turning off to where the café was and parking behind it.  Two men got out, one of them holding a cup of coffee and they went into the café and started to open it.

Dar headed back to their RV and as she reached the side of it the door opened and Kerry emerged.  “Hey.”

“Hey.” Kerry pushed the door open to let the dogs enter.  “Get some grub and on our way?”

Her partner turned and pointed. “That joints opening up. Want to grab something there?”

Kerry shrugged. “Sure.” She closed the door and joined Dar as they walked down the gravel road towards the café side by side.  “Want to do me a favor?” She asked. “Drive for the morning? I did not want to wake up today.” Her voice was a little husky.

“All day if you want.” Dar herself was feeling relatively fine, she had woken refreshed and now she was looking forward to getting on their way home. “Snooze all you like.”   She added as they walked up to the small café window where two women were putting out some muffins. “Morning.”

The nearest looked up and smiled. “Morning.” She pushed the tray with the muffins forward. “Got fresh boysenberry today.”

“Two, and coffee.” Dar said.

“Right up.” The woman agreed. “Coming or going?”

“Going.” Kerry looked at the muffin with interest.  “We were on a.. um.  Tour.”

The other woman was making them their coffee. “Yeah? Did you enjoy yourselves ladies?”

Dar and Kerry exchanged looks. “Sure.” Dar said after a brief pause. “Scenery is gorgeous.”

The first woman beamed. “It is pretty here isn’t it?”  She said, proudly. “I love it here.  Where you headed back to?”

“Miami.” Kerry took both of their cups of coffee while Dar picked up the plate with two muffins and pushed a ten dollar bill over the counter.   

“Oh! Miami!” The coffee maker came to the counter. “I hear it’s really crazy there!”

“Has it’s moments.” Dar shook her head at the proffered change. 

“Thanks for the tip!” The woman smiled at her. “Good thing you ladies weren’t on that rafting trip that’s all in the news. My goodness I heard everyone got arrested and they’re in jail!”

“That’s right.” The other woman agreed. “It’s crazy!”

Dar and Kerry exchanged another look, as they walked backwards away from the café.  “Yep, glad we missed that one.” Kerry said. “Bye!”

The two women at the café waved, then turned to another customer who had stepped up.

“Ho boy.” Kerry exhaled. “Let’s get outta here.”  She hustled Dar back to the RV and they climbed inside.  “We unhooked?”

“Yep.” Dar put the muffins down and got into the driver’s seat. “I’m going to get us rolling.”  She started the engine. “Before someone decides to try and chase us down.”

Kerry settled a cup of the coffee in the holder next to Dar’s seat and took a muffin, going back into the RV and taking a seat on the couch as Chino jumped up to join her.  “Yeah.  Be glad to get home.”

Dar pulled out of the campground and back onto the road, pointing the vehicle southeast and settling into her seat for a long drive.

**

Kerry hadn’t noticed it.  She picked up her cup from the holder and took a sip, glancing to either side of the RV as Dar came up and sat down next to her, with a faint grin on her face. “What?”

“We’re home.” Dar said.

“No we’re not.” Kerry gave her partner a perplexed look.  “What are you talking about?”

“You can tell by the trees.” Dar folded her hands over her stomach. “We just went from sub-tropical to tropical.” 

Kerry looked around at their surroundings, which seemed identical to the tree laden scenery they’d been subject to since hopping on the Turnpike. “What?”

Dar chuckled, then cleared her throat a little. “Florida is mostly sub-tropical climate right up until our end of it, when it turns tropical.  More palm trees, more sawgrass, more open space, less orange groves and deciduous.”

Kerry’s brows contracted as she looked at the lines of pine trees on either side of the road.

“Australian pines. Imported to hide the turnpike.” Dar correctly interpreted the look.  “We’re in Palm Beach county now. Give it a few miles.”

“Okay.” Kerry eyed her with profound, if loving skepticism.  

But as they drove she realized Dar was right, and that the land she was driving through was changing to familiar outlines and from one moment to the next their trip was over and it was a matter of steering the RV to the rental center and picking up Dar’s truck.

It was weird, yet definite and she increased their speed a little, sending an end, finally to their journey.  Her mind was making that change, and while she’d been thinking of their adventures just a short while ago now she was thinking about getting home, and going to work, and all the things she had to do.

It felt like a relief, to be just thinking about meeting with new customers, and … “Hey Dar, can you check my phone? See if we got a text from the real estate agent?”

“Sure.”  Dar got back up and retrieved the device.  “Think they found something?”

“Be nice if they did.”

Dar paged through the texts. “Nothing yet.” She announced. “I’m going to call the folks so they’re know we’re back and have the concierge service check the house.”  She wandered back into the body of the RV.  “Want some coffee?”

“Tea.” Kerry said, glancing briefly aside as Mocha came up and sat next to her knee. “Hey little man. We’re almost home.”

“Yap.” Mocha stood up and put his paws on the console, gazing out at the road. “Yap yap!”

“Yap yap yap.” Kerry echoed him. ‘Bet you’ll be glad to get back to our garden, wont you?”

Mocha’s tongue emerged, vivid and pink against his dark fur and he lifted one paw up and waved it, making Kerry laugh, as she saw the exit that would take them seaward and already she imagined she could smell salt in the air and hear the rolling rush of the ocean.

“Next time, Moch, absolutely we just stay home.”

“Yap!”

**

“Ahh.”  Kerry flexed her bare toes, looking around with new appreciation at their high ceilinged, peaceful condo. From the sea foam walls to the large windows that let in piles of South Florida sunshine, to the wrap around patio with it’s view of the sea it was good to have that familiar comfort around them.

Dar was seated outside with both dogs attendant, having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a tall glass of milk and she smiled indulgently at the white milk mustache she could just see on Dar’s face.

With nothing more than dinner and some tv to look forward to, she climbed up the stairs and went into her home office, sitting down behind her desk and giving her trackball a spin to bring up the image on the large screen monitor.

She glanced at her mail, finding nothing more than what she’d seen on her device and shifted her attention to their joint cloud storage, opening up the folder she’d stored the trip’s pictures in.  After a few more clicks the pictures started to load and she sat back to wait, leaning back in her leather chair and propping her knee up against the desk edge.

The spare room they’d converted for her office was painted in a light lavender gray, and the big bay window that looked out over the interior of the island had white wooden plantation shutters that were admitting the late afternoon sun in sedate stripes.

Aside from her desk, there was a book case against one wall and a leather couch along the long wall that occasionally hosted her tall partner’s form reading a book, or sometimes just the two of them just talking together as she worked.

The floors were covered in Berber carpet in a mixed pattern motif that rather effectively hid dog hair and Kerry wondered briefly how that would all translate when they moved.

To wherever it was they found to move.  She glanced at the screen, which was about half full of pictures, painting slowly as they downloaded.   She scooted her chair closer and started to review them, smiling a little as she clicked.

She sorted some of them, making copies and putting them in a folder to send to the group and another set to send to her family.   There was one where Dar was standing next to the horse she’d ridden and was tickling his nose, the big animal regarding her with benign affection.

They had been in the corral, and she went to edit it, cropping out some of the background that was just some random people walking behind the rails, heading towards the barn.

Then she paused, and zoomed the image.  Two men were in the group, that she didn’t remember walking between Janet and Doug and there was something familiar about them. 

She heard the sliding door open and close downstairs. “Hey Dar?”  She called out. “C’mon up here a minute.”

Dar’s bare footsteps on the carpeted stairs followed and then the doorway was filled with her tall form.  She came over and leaned on Kerry’s desk, bringing the faint scent of salt air and peanut butter with her. “What’s up?”

“Look at these guys in this picture.” Kerry moved her monitor so Dar could see it.  “Dar, are they the guys those cops were looking for?”

Dar leaned over her and peered at the screen for a long moment in silence. Then she shook her head. “Can’t tell. It could be, but it could also just be some of the workers there.” She zoomed in a little more. “But they’ve got guns.”

Kerry got her head next to Dar’s.  “In the back of their pants there?”

“Yeah.”

Kerry was silent for a moment. “Dar, didn’t they say they didn’t like guns at that company? Did I imagine hearing that?”

“No you didn’t.” Dar sat down on the edge of the desk. “I remember that too.”

They sat in silence for a minute. “Should we send this to those cops? I kept their card.” Kerry suggested. “Let me look through the rest of these shots and see if I caught them again.”

Dar frowned. “I’m not sure it’ll do any good.”  She said. “That was at the beginning of our trip. If they already knew they were there that wouldn’t tell them anything new.”

“True.” Kerry admitted. “What the hell was really going on there, Dar?”

Dar leaned closer to the screen again. “I don’t know.” She admitted. “There’s a lot of stories there we’ll probably never know the end of. But yeah. Send it. You never know.”

“You never know.”

**

Dar dropped into her chair in her office, the soft sounds of activity floating through her door and the faintest sound of a lawnmower from the open central space in the middle of their office building.  She was in jeans and a polo shirt, and actually glad to be back at work.

Chino was curled up in her bed in the corner, and her tail wagged as Dar looked over at her.   She could hear Kerry in her office next door, laughing into the phone.

Back to their normal world.

Maria entered, with a folder. “Good morning Dar.” She came over and handed it over. “Here is the bank report for you.”

“Thanks.” Dar put the folder down.  “I need to order more space at the datacenter and more bandwidth.” She said. “I just checked the metrics those guys are chewing it up like cookies.”

“I will call and get the proposal for you.” Maria said. “I am glad you and Kerrisita are back.”

Dar smiled. “Yeah, us too.” She admitted. “No more vacations for us, Maria. We’re just going to take weekends down at the cabin from now on.”

“Terrible.” Maria said, in a sympathetic tone. “But you did not get hurt, and those horrible people are in the jail, so it is good, no?”

Was it?  Dar shrugged a little. “They weren’t bad to us, Maria.  We were all just stuck on the river together, helping each other.”

Maria shook her head. “Terrible.” She repeated, then waggled her fingers and danced out, to the faint Latin music coming from across the hall.

Dar sat back and rested her hands on her thighs, thinking for a moment back to their last night on the river, when it had all gone so terribly wrong and she had dove into the water and would it have mattered if some of the crew had been bad guys?

They hadn’t done anything to either her or Kerry.

No.  Dar decided as she opened the folder, and reviewed the statement. It wouldn’t have mattered. She looked up and smiled briefly. She was who she was.

Mocha came running in with something in his mouth.

“Hey, kiddo.”  Dar turned around to grab him. “Whatcha got there?”  She removed the item from his teeth and held it up.  “Where did you get this feather, huh?”  She twirled the long, black feather in her fingertips, it’s blued sheen reflecting the light. “Did you catch a crow?”

“Yap!” Mocha scrabbled up onto her lap, reaching for the feather. “Yap yap!”

Kerry entered, and came over to the desk. “Whats that?”

“Present from Mocha.” Dar handed it to her. “Pity the poor bird he got it from.”

Kerry twirled it in her fingers, and smiled. “Hey, maybe I’ll write a poem with it.” She winked, and sauntered back to her office. 

**

The End.