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Calling up my board and three suit, I started to head for a buffet restaurant in Brooksville, but a couple of shouts at a car wash below caught my attention. A woman was waving at two blacks and a white guy standing next to a highly customized mid-seventies Buick Wildcat sedan two bays from hers.
Showing a lot of 'I'm-so-bad' attitude, the two black guys struttingly ambled over to her bay, where she appeared to be frustratedly fussing with the timer box. The bigger black guy moved in close to study the problem. She produced a gun and shoved it into the guy's gut. Swatting his right hand away from his left side, she pulled a snub revolver out of his belt and backed him up against the SUV.
Standing a bit to one side of him and keeping her gun tight against him, she back-pocketed the revolver and said something, but I was still too far away to hear her well. The other guy joined his friend at the SUV. Both men turned around and put their hands on the vehicle and she quickly and carefully frisked them, then ordered them into the SUV.
As the second guy was getting in, the white guy who'd been by the Wildcat came into the bay, stopped cold, and then turned to run. The woman spoke sharply. He froze, then reluctantly approached. She frisked him and sent him to the driver's seat, then retrieved a pair of big black zip-tie handcuffs from the sliding door's panel pocket.
After ordering the black guys to take the front and rear passenger seats, she gave both of them handcuffs. Once they'd connected the ends and put their hands through the loops, she pulled the cuffs tight and tossed the driver some keys.
The SUV pulled out of the bay and rolled as far as the baycontaining the Wildcat, where the woman tossed another set of keys to the ground by the sedan's driver's door. The guy on the rear seat started yelling. The woman knocked him cold with her gun, then ordered the driver to get them moving.
I shelved the matter of lunch and followed the SUV as it headed north on US-19. They turned right on Hudson Avenue and continued a few miles to the Shady Hills area, then again headed north on one of the few unpaved lime rock roads.
After another few miles, the SUV stopped between two low hills. The woman opened the side door and got out, then ordered the men to exit the vehicle through the same door. They argued a bit and the white guy actually pleaded with her, but she aimed her gun at him and ordered him to shut up.
Once they'd wakened the sleeper and all three were out of the vehicle, she had them walk toward a gate in a fence along the road. She ordered them to climb over the gate and rather adroitly vaulted over it herself, then they followed a winding dirt driveway for what seemed like a bit more than a hundred yards. The group stopped in a small clearing in a thickly overgrown area, where she had each of them back up to a tree. Once they'd reached backward and around their trees, she quickly re-cuffed them with more plastic zip-ties.
Standing well away from them as she kept them covered, she briefly pointed her gun at each man as she spoke his first and last name, then she said, "You boys conned a woman aboard a boat last month, raped her for two days, and traded her for coke."
One black guy's face became a mask of shock and terror and he started some kind of protest. She shoved the gun in his mouth and raised her voice a notch to snap, "One more word and you die! Right here, right now!"
I drifted down behind a big tree, turned off my board and three suit, and peeked around the tree to ask, "Can you prove that, ma'am?"
She instantly aimed the gun--a black Beretta 92F, I noted--at me and shouted, "Get out here and get down! On the ground! Now!"
"First I have a question, ma'am."
"Fuck your questions! Get out here!"
The guys started yelling for me to call the cops and such. Gesturing to point at the guys behind her, I stunned them. The sudden cessation of noise made the woman glance back, then turn slightly to stare briefly at the limp guys hanging from their cuffs, but she kept the gun on me the whole time.
She straightened and asked, "What the hell did you do to them?! And what the hell are you doing here?!"
"I've been watching you, ma'am. I heard what you said to them, too. What're you gonna do with these guys?"
Ignoring my question, she nodded at the guys and asked, "How long will they be out?"
Shrugging, I replied, "Fifteen minutes or so. I can zap them again if necessary. How long do you need them to be out?"
She coldly replied, "I don't. I'd rather they be awake."
Stepping out from behind the tree, I said, "Just wait one, okay? How could they have done all you said they did and not be in a jail cell? Didn't the woman press charges? If not, why? Are you absolutely sure you have the right guys here?"
Her frustration morphed to rage in an instant. "What the fuck do you want?! Pictures?!"
I just met her gaze in silence for a few moments. Some of the heat left her eyes and she swore again as she turned slightly sideways, still keeping the gun pointed at me. "Okay," she snapped, "I'll tell you what happened."
Pointing at the white guy, she said, "She said he invited her to a party on his daddy's boat. When she got there, he said some people would be late." Her voice turned harsh and her tone became bitter. "He made her a drink and when she woke up, she found this guy"--she pointed at the bigger black guy--"On top of her." Pointing at the guy who'd tried to run, she said, "Then him. Then combinations." Her voice turned to acid as she asked, "You want all the juicy details?"
"No. What happened then? How'd she get loose?"
After a moment, she said, "They kept her on that boat for two days." Pointing at the big black guy again, she said, "Then she heard this one suggest dumping her at sea. That one"--she indicated the smaller black guy--"Came up with the idea of trading her to a Cuban dealer for some coke. He made a call and another boat met them. She spent the next week chained to a tree stump on an island and can't remember how she got away from him."
Taking a breath, she added, "The Cuban's the one who beat her. These assholes are going to tell me who he is and where to find him. Now, what the hell do I do about you?"
I shrugged. "Nothing. I'd be doing about the same thing. But like I asked before, got any proof?"
With deep sarcasm in her voice, she replied, "Not with me. I didn't think I'd run into some nosy bastard in the woods."
"In that case, would you mind if I talk to them?"
She looked at me as if I was crazy, yelped, "Hell, yes, I mind! I ... " Pausing to glare at me, she then stepped to one side and snidely laughed, "No! Sure! Go for it! Knock yourself out!"
That told me something, too. Either she didn't want to kill someone who--in her eyes, at least--didn't deserve it, or letting me talk to them was a way to buy some time to try to figure out what to do about me.
Stepping forward, I nonetheless didn't quite turn my back to her as I flicked open my belt knife and woke the white guy. Holding my knife near the side of his face and linking to the flitter to monitor what he might say, I asked, "Did you guys take a woman for a boat ride and rape her?"
Giving the woman a panicky glance, he whispered, "It don't matter what I say, that crazy bitch is gonna kill me!"
"Maybe. Right now, I'm the one you have to worry about. Yes or no. Did you guys do what she says you did?"
In an intense whisper, he hissed, "No! Hell, no! She was already all fucked up when she got there! We left her on the dock to sleep it off!"
I silently asked the flitter if he'd told the truth. Nope. I stunned him again, stood up, and put my knife away as I stepped back. "He lied. They're all yours, ma'am."
Unzipping my fly, I said, "Hang on a minute," as I stepped behind his tree. I called up my board, quickly lifted away from the tree, and rezipped a hundred feet up. The woman had moved to her right to keep me in sight and realized I was getting away. She dashed forward swearing mightily and aimed the gun, but she didn't shoot at me.
Did I want to stick around or interfere? No. As I said, I'd likely be doing the same if it had been my friend. Besides, I didn't want to be a witness if it became known I'd been there. I followed the road north until I came to an old convenience store at a crossroads. Their coffee was good and the place was full of mementos of other decades, so I had a good look around. Pictures on the wall showed the place as a gas station surrounded by groves back in the twenties and thirties, but there were no longer pumps outside.
The woman behind the counter said, "Back then this was the only paved north-south road between nineteen and Orlando. This place was built in 1921. Nothin' but groves and woods for fifty miles in any direction. Well, 'cept to the west, that is. It ain't but about twenty miles to the Gulf."
Looking at her, I nodded. "Be nice if it was like that now."
She shrugged. "Sometimes I think that, too, but more traffic means more money for me."
Nodding again, I continued browsing the walls. Interesting stuff, some of it. Old tools and kitchen gear. Some old toys and more pictures of the old Florida. I topped up my coffee again and started to hand her a buck, but she shook her head slightly and said, "Forget it. Most people buy sodas and water. I'll end up dumping most of that pot at closing time."
I thanked her and stepped outside just as a small herd of motorcycles arrived. It was a 'ride to find restaurants' group. They dismounted to check out the store and I meandered around the bikes. One of the guys eyed my hat and said, "I've seen you at some of the bike nights. Where's your bike?"
"At home." To redirect him, I asked a few questions about his bike. He happily recited a litany of bolt-on modifications he'd made until a woman in the store called him from the doorway. Excusing himself, he headed toward her.
The sun was about an hour from setting, which made it about seven in the evening. I called up my board and headed for a buffet restaurant in Brooksville. After dinner, I really couldn't think of anything to do or a place to go that seemed particularly interesting, so I cruised home and checked the TV schedule. Rats. Not a damned thing worth watching. A movie, maybe? Nah. Didn't feel like sitting around that long. Pool? Nah. Didn't feel like drinking, and beer seemed to go hand in hand with pool.
Tiger wasn't home. I pinged him and found him at his friend Annabelle's house. After greetings and a brief chat, I dropped the link and considered what had me so unsettled. Heh. Easy answer; I was bored and it was getting harder to entertain myself. But that wasn't the real answer. My mind kept tossing up pictures of the woman in the woods. Late-thirties. Brunette. Fairly attractive, but I hadn't paid much attention to that aspect of her while she'd aimed her gun at me.
Anticipating the kind of trouble she was likely to get into, I hadn't even made a serious effort to get her name. On the other hand, her image wouldn't go away. Her face kept popping up in my mind's eye and I re-heard bits of what she'd said. Something about her had definitely caught my attention.
I checked email and other messages, then thought about editing my latest book and soon closed the file. Later for edits. Taking my coffee mug to the kitchen, I made another coffee and took a sip just as a dark-colored SUV rolled slowly past my house. It stopped near the corner, backed up, and pulled into the drive behind my old Mercury Marquis. A few moments passed, then the driver got out and came to the front door. My visitor was the lady gunslinger.
Linking to the flitter, I sent probes to the woods where we'd talked and found the three guys naked, but alive. Each was still handcuffed around a tree, his back to the trunk and his front exposed to the environment. They weren't struggling very much. Probably already exhausted from contending with bugs. The flies, sweat bees, no-see-um bites, ants, and mosquitoes would drive them crazy.
I adjusted a probe to check the woman. No gun in hand or in sight. Sending a probe to the car wash, I saw the Wildcat was gone, as she'd undoubtedly intended. Canceling the probes, I opened the front door with a grin and said, "What a coincidence. I was just thinking about you, ma'am."
Damn, she looked tired as hell. Washed out tired.
Giving me a fisheye, she said, "Great. Mind if I come in?"
Gesturing her into the house, I said, "The door's open. Want a coffee? Tea? Beer? A cot in a corner? Mi casa su casa."
She stopped in the alcove and turned to study my face as she asked, "Why do you seem so happy to see me?"
Closing the door, I shrugged and answered, "Hell, I don't know, but you've been bugging me for hours, ma'am. Couldn't stop thinking about you."
As I moved past her to the kitchen, she asked, "How hard did you try?"
As if confessing something, I replied, "Well, not very, I guess. Unless you're here to kill me, why shouldn't I be happy? Again, ma'am; coffee, tea, or beer?"
"Coffee, I think. You haven't asked how I found you."
Getting her a cup and a spoon, I set them by the instant coffee and said, "Nope. I figure you're bright enough to use Google. Here y'go."
As she opened the coffee jar, she said, "That's exactly what I did. I stopped at a coffee shop and searched for 'flying board' and 'Hernando County'. You popped up in a dozen articles. Then I found your websites and an order form with your address."
Once her coffee was ready and she'd sipped it, she turned around and said, "You haven't asked why I'm here, either."
I chuckled, "Nope. I'm just glad to see you."
Her gaze narrowed. "Obviously. Again ... why?"
"Well, I figure it's because you impressed me. You seemed to be a bit more than a pretty face with a gun out there. And maybe because you didn't panic and shoot at me. Some people would have, y'know."
Taking a seat at the kitchen table, I gestured at the seat across from mine. After a moment, she pulled the chair out and sat down. She sipped in silence for a time, then said quietly, "I didn't kill them."
Shrugging, I replied, "Okay."
Looking up sharply, she asked, "That's it? Just 'okay'?"
"Yup. I asked if they did what you said and he lied. At that point, I didn't give a rat's ass what you'd do to them. Did you find out what you needed to know about the Cuban?"
Her pupils tightened and she seemed to retreat without moving in the slightest. I took that as a probable 'yes', but said nothing and waited. After a moment, she said, "Let's talk about something else."
"Okay. What's on your mind, ma'am?"
She just stared at me for a moment, then set her cup down firmly and snapped softly, "I'm more concerned about what's on your mind, damn it. That's why I'm here."
I chuckled, "I thought we covered that already. You're what's on my mind, ma'am."
With a show of irritation, she snapped, "Why?"
"Didn't I mention you're kinda cute?" Her gaze narrowed to a glare, her left hand clenched, and she looked as if she might dive across the table at me. I sipped coffee and prepared to stun her if I'd misjudged her. After a moment, she took a breath and seemed to force herself to relax.
With her second deep breath, she sighed, "You can be more than a little irritating."
"Yeah, I've heard that before, but I'm not trying to be irritating. You asked and I answered."
"Yup. You're an exciting, attractive woman. Something about you got stuck in my brain, lady. I wasn't kidding, I've been thinking about you off and on all evening."
She just stared at me for a moment, set her cup down, and stood up. I thumbed south and said, "End of the hall on the right. The towel on the right-hand side of the rack is fresh."
Giving me an odd look, she said, "Back in a minute."
When she left the room, I had the flitter scan her cup for fingerprints. Her info came up as Rhonda Lynn Steiner, 33, of Miami Beach, current employer the Ocean Township police department. Detective third for two years, worked her way up over almost twelve years in four cop shops in two states. Up for promotion to Detective second. Only administrative demerits on her sheet, most due to attitude issues. One note said she called her boss an 'old-school chauvinist prick' to his face. Her reason: he pulled her off street duty to work in his office after she busted four guys for dealing.
I read that bit again. It didn't look right the second time, either. She seemed superbly competent and cops are supposed to bust drug dealers, aren't they? Something wasn't being mentioned in the reports. I checked to see if anyone was looking for her. Nope, no wants or warrants.
I heard soft footsteps in the hall. She'd come back to check up on me. Sipping coffee, I continued reviewing files through my flitter link. The footsteps retreated and I heard the faint creak as she put her weight on the toilet seat, but I never heard the door close. Some moments later the toilet flushed and water ran in the bathroom sink for quite a while.
Maybe two full minutes after the water stopped, Rhonda came back into the kitchen, saw me apparently gazing into space, and waved a hand in front of me.
I met her gaze and said, "Hi, there. Just thinking."
"You, of course." As she stiffened, I added, "And don't get tense, lady. If I hadn't been thinking about you, you'd wonder why the hell not. That's how it always works."
After a moment, she snorted a short laugh. "Yeah. I guess it does." Dropping herself tiredly into her chair, she sighed, "Never mind. I'll just finish my coffee and go."
"No hurry. You're interesting company."
Shaking her head slightly, she said, "No. I have things to do," and sipped her coffee.
"Where are you staying tonight?"
Her gaze narrowed again. "What?"
"You heard me. Want to use my couch?"
"Why would I want to use your couch?"
"You've obviously been up quite a while already. You came here on a very illegal mission and you wouldn't want a paper trail, so motels are out. Camping in an SUV would be risky anywhere if you don't want to be noticed. Cops check out vehicles with out-of-county plates."
Pausing to sip, I added, "I'll bet you even pull up to gas pumps nose-first, pay cash, and back out instead of driving on through. Wouldn't want cameras to see your plate. There might even be a wig and a hat in your car for use in gas stations and stores. If you have a cell phone, it's probably a disposable with prepaid minutes. No GPS toys. Nothing traceable, especially not your gun. The SUV's probably not yours; you'd have rented or borrowed it without any paperwork."
She simply stared at me. I could almost hear the wheels of thought turning in her head. I said, "So I'll ask again; would you like a place to crash tonight?"
Her gaze turned studious and a moment passed before she replied, "You don't even know me, but you're offering to let me stay in your home?"
"Yup. Got everything you need?"
Still looking at me oddly, she said, "Yes."
"Good. By the way, if something moves in the dark, make sure it isn't a cat before you shoot. Or me, for that matter."
"You have a cat?"
"Sometimes two cats when she comes home with him."
Rhonda sipped her coffee, then asked, "What's your affiliation with 3rd World Products?"
"Trade you for a name, ma'am. You already know I'm Ed."
"Call me ... Rhonda. What's your affiliation?"
Interesting that she'd given me her real name. I said, "I'm on their payroll for spot jobs and errands."
"That doesn't tell me much."
"You haven't told me much, either."
"Maybe staying here isn't such a good idea."
Shrugging, I said, "That's your call, Rhonda, but if I thought you oughta be busted, it would have happened already. Should I get you some sheets and a pillow?"
Another of those long, studious pauses occurred, then she sighed, "Yes. And thanks. I think."
I got up and went to the linen closet, then set up the couch. Glancing into the kitchen as I cased her pillow, I saw Rhonda resting her head on her folded arms.
"Don't fall asleep in there. I'll help you bring your stuff in."
She raised her head and shook it. "There's only one bag."
Standing up, she went outside and returned a few minutes later with a small suitcase, which she set by the coffee table as she sat down on the couch. I moved some stuff on the table and laid her suitcase on it.
"It's your dressing table, ma'am. Don't get gun oil on my sheets and remember what I said about cats. In fact, no shooting in the house at all, okay?"
She snorted a chuckle. "Yeah. Okay. I know it's early, but would you mind if I turned in? I've had a really long day."
'More like two or three days,' I thought, but I said, "No problem. I'll keep the noise down for you."
Calling up a field screen, I pinged Tiger. Rhonda recoiled against the couch and hissed, "What the hell..?!"
Tiger answered, "Hello, Ed."
"Hi, Tiger. We have a visitor. The lady will sleep on the couch tonight. If you come home, please don't wake her. She's very, very tired."
"Okay. May I see her?"
I turned the screen and said, "Rhonda, this is Tiger."
Tiger bellowed, "Hello, Rhonda!"
Rhonda stared hard and managed, "A ... a talking cat?!"
"You got it on the first guess, ma'am. Say hello."
Looking up at me, she asked, "You're serious?"
"Yup. Tiger, try her again."
He happily bellowed, "Okay! Hello, Rhonda!"
Rhonda stared at the screen for a moment, then replied, "Uh ... Hello ... Tiger?"
I said, "Close enough. Tiger, remember not to wake her."
"Thank you. Bye, Tiger."
"Bye, Ed! Bye, Rhonda!"
Looking slightly troubled, Rhonda stared at him and answered, "Uh ... yes. Bye, Tiger."
He dropped the link and I let the screen dissipate. Rhonda muttered, "What just happened to ... to that thing?!"
"I turned it off. Relax. It's just a communications gadget."
"Was I really talking to a cat?"
"Yup, and if you stick around tomorrow morning, you'll probably meet him." Rhonda noticed her left hand trembling and clasped her hands together. When she looked up, I asked, "Have you had dinner yet?"
"Uh ... no. Nothing since an early lunch."
"People sleep better when they aren't hungry. We'll fix you something after your shower."
She looked hard at me for a moment, then asked, "Why are you doing all this? Really? No games."
Meeting her gaze, I replied, "Like I said, I'd have done the same thing. Putting them in prison wouldn't work for me."
She quietly asked, "What would?"
I thought a moment about how to answer, then said, "Extremely personal crimes call for settlements in kind."
Rhonda studied me for another moment, then picked up her suitcase and headed for the bathroom. While she took her bath, I took another look at her info and found nothing more on record as a reason she'd been pulled off the streets. Well, history is written by those with power to decide what's history. On the other hand, she was up for promotion, so she couldn't have screwed up too badly.
Sending a probe to the woods, I checked on the guys. They looked truly miserable, of course, shaking and twitching to try to keep the bugs off. The white guy was crying, but he choked on bugs and had to coughingly spit them out. I almost felt sorry for them. Only almost. Then I noticed his feet seemed smeared in the faint moonlight. I zoomed the probe on the guy's feet and saw they were bloody, but saw no injuries.
Following the blood up his legs, I soon realized Rhonda hadn't just tied him to a tree to feed bugs all night. She'd castrated him. A tight little line of stitches ... no, not stitches. Zooming in a bit closer, I saw she'd used plain ol' staples. Damn. I checked the other guys and found they'd had the same treatment. Although as a male I shared an empathetic discomfort, I discovered I felt no great sentiment about their fate. Sexual predators are generally incurable by any other means short of killing them.
Speaking of killing them ... the bugs, a cold night, hungry animals, or some odd health problem could cause one or more of them to die. If she'd wanted them dead, she wouldn't have stapled them shut after gelding them. If caught, she'd be in enough trouble without murder charges.
Using the probe, I sent a cutting beam at the nearest guy's plastic handcuffs. When they parted, he toppled forward to land on his face. The others became excited and urged him to get up and help them get loose. After some moments, he only managed to roll onto his back and lay clutching his crotch.
I sent cutting beams at the other handcuffs and soon all three of them were on the ground. At the big black guy's urgings, it wasn't too long before they began staggering toward the road, shielding their new sensitivities with their hands. A car approached and the smaller black guy tried to run a few steps, but tripped and fell. His companions bulled past him and eased themselves over and through the gate as the guy got to his feet and staggered after them.
They tore small branches off bushes to cover themselves and began hobbling south on the road. Another car appeared and swerved around them, but didn't stop. I continued watching their progress from a distance, concerned only that one might fall and not get up. It seemed likely to me that the other two would leave him behind. They might go so far as to roll or drag him off the road, but that would likely be all.
Maybe five minutes passed before yet another car coming north slowed to a stop in front of them. Two sheriff's deputies got out of the car and both cops covered the men with their pistols as one used his radio. Good enough.
After using the probe to incinerate the plastic cuffs, I went to have a look in the kitchen cabinets. Rhonda would have her choice of several 'heat 'n eat' dinners and veggies. Leaving the cabinets open, I went outside to her SUV. Casting a leveling field pad under it, I pushed the right front fender until the car was facing down the driveway and canceled the pad. Her Dade County license plate now faced toward the house.
When I turned around, I saw Rhonda staring out the kitchen window, but she backed away as I approached the front door. When I opened the door, she stood staring at me from the far side of the kitchen table. Moving the SUV must have made her nervous. Oh, well.
Thumbing out the kitchen window, I said, "I turned it so the license plate faces the house. If anyone's curious, they'll have to get out of a vehicle to check it," then I went to the living room to get my coffee mug. She followed me at a distance and came no closer as I sipped coffee.
"Uh ... How did you do that?"
Walking past her to the kitchen, I said, "I used a field to lift the car, then I pushed it. Pick out some food and put it in the micro. You're wearing clean clothes. That means you have dirty ones. Do you want to do some laundry?"
"Uh ... yeah. Okay." Rhonda eased past me to choose a dinner, prepped it for the microwave, and set the timer. She eased past me again to go to the coffee table and gather her laundry. I had the flitter field-clean her clothes. Rhonda watched the grey ball absorb her clothes, then disappear as her clothes floated to the couch. When the micro's timer bell sounded, she startled hard, then appeared to use the food as an excuse to move away from what had just happened.
As she fussed with packaging, I opened the silverware drawer and grabbed a fork. Leaving the drawer open for her, I took down a can of green beans and used a thin field to open the top. After forking some of the beans into a bowl, I drank the juice from the can as the microwave zapped the bowl of beans for twenty seconds.
Handing Rhonda the warm bowl, I said, "For you, milady. Zap 'em again if you like 'em hotter."
Rhonda said a soft, "Thanks," then brought her food to the table. When she glanced around, I asked, "Drink?"
Looking up, she nodded. "Yes. You said you have tea?"
I took a can of tea from the fridge and opened it, rinsed her cup and put it back on the table, and then filled it from her can. Rhonda said, "Thanks," again, then dug into her food. I munched green beans and watched her eat for a time. She glanced up now and then, but said nothing.
"Rhonda." She looked up. I said, "Take it easy, okay? You're safe here. Eat. Put your laundry away. Then sleep."
She met my gaze for a moment, then nodded slightly and continued eating. That only lasted a few minutes before she looked up again and eyed me quietly.
Canting her head slightly, she said, "You might not be okay with having me here if you knew what I did to those men."
I shrugged. "You might not be okay with staying here if you knew some of the things I've done."
"In a war, you mean?"
Thinking of two guys fed to crocodiles, I shook my head. "No, but not here in the US, either."
That lifted her left eyebrow a bit. "Where?"
Forking up some green beans, I said, "Africa. It wouldn't bother me if you'd killed those guys, but cops coming to my door because you'd killed them would definitely bother me."
It was as if a mask fell into place. Her expression changed to one of feigned understanding and she took another bite as she asked, "You don't like cops, huh?"
Shaking my head, I said, "That's not it. Cops are just front-line troops who operate according to evidence and procedures and I've seen them put themselves in the line of fire to protect people. I'm talking about the rest of the system, ma'am. The parts that can turn into a long, messy, ugly ordeal for victims and can let vicious criminals walk away on a technicality."
She didn't look up, but she didn't take another bite right away, either. I finished my green beans and got up to put the can in the recycle bin, then checked my coffee. I was ready for a refill, so I set about making one and adjusted the angle of the toaster slightly to keep an eye on Rhonda. She turned her head to glance at me once and I quickly moved the coffee jar to block the toaster-view until her head turned away.
Once I had a fresh coffee and had returned to my seat, she stopped eating again and said, "I'll be leaving early. Maybe before you get up."
I nodded and kept my doubts about that to myself. It seemed likely to me she'd sleep 'til noon.
Sipping her tea, she said, "I just want to say thanks now."
A moment passed, then she said, "I may be getting into something that's ... Never mind. I have to do it."
"You mean going after the Cuban?"
She nodded. "Yes. He has serious connections to be able to trade so much coke for a woman. He couldn't have let her go, either. He'd have killed her at some point."
I didn't ask how much coke he'd traded. Didn't matter.
"How'd she get away from him?"
"She says she can't remember anything about that day before she ... she said she sort of 'came out of it' ... in a small boat, heading south along the coastline in the middle of the afternoon. She went back to the marina and drove home."
"Home? Why didn't she call the cops from the marina?"
"She was still running on automatic. I think she's blanked a lot of what happened while she was on the island."
"But she remembers stuff from before the trade?"
Nodding emphatically, Rhonda replied, "Yes. She says all that is crystal clear."
"Prob'ly has to do with the level of violence involved. Was the Cuban alone?"
"There'd be a good reason for that, even if he was meeting old customers at sea. Could be his drug associates wouldn't have approved. Are you looking for some contact ideas?"
Giving me a somewhat wary look, she hesitated, then said, "I suppose so."
I pretended to give that some thought, then said, "You're good looking and you'd fill a bikini pretty well, which means you'd make good bait. It's just a matter of catching him when he's alone."
Rhonda chuckled, "That could be damned near impossible," then chuckled again as if she couldn't believe the conversation had taken this turn.
Shaking my head, "Not at all, ma'am. Watch him for a few days or a week. Learn which way he goes when he leaves port. Are you any good on the water?"
"I can handle a small boat, if that's what you mean."
"How about a canoe? Or even better, a kayak?"
"Yup. Something that won't sink and would get you offshore a ways with a dry place inside it to carry or stash your gear. Something that will work with or without a small motor. Some of 'em even have sail mounts. It would also be something you can afford to buy, then get rid of. I could haul you out and back to meet up with him."
Eyeing me intently, Rhonda asked, "What reason would I have for being in a damned kayak miles away from shore?"
"Only a few miles. People do it all the time. Doesn't mean it's a good idea, but they do it. A few years ago the Coast Guard found a guy in a kayak over ninety miles out. He said he went too far and didn't have the strength to fight the wind and current back to shore. You could play a stupid tourist damsel in distress. The Cuban would probably buy that."
Rolling her eyes, Rhonda said, "Oh, no doubt. T..." She eyed me for a moment and continued, "My sister said he kept calling her 'stupid whore' and 'stupid bitch'. Between punches and kicks, that is. She said he didn't regard women very highly."
I shrugged. "He's very mistaken, then. I've found a number of them to be pretty wonderful."
She gave me a fisheye for a moment, chuckled and sipped her tea, then asked, "A number of them, huh?"
"Yup. I discovered most women just need an occasional laugh and some sincere attention. No sweat, I can do that. Otherwise they're pretty self-sufficient and everything else is pretty much just the usual day-to-day stuff. Job, money..."
Rhonda interrupted me with a laugh and another fisheye, then laughed again and reached to pat my hand. "You just keep on believing that."
"You think I'm wrong? Aren't you pretty self-sufficient?"
"And don't you need a good laugh now and then?"
"What about attention? You know, the extremely messy and meticulous kind that leaves you clinging to a bedpost, trying to catch your breath?"
Both her eyes briefly got big at that, then she settled back in her chair and said, "I knew you'd get around to it. All men do, sooner or later."
I shrugged. "What a surprise, ma'am. You're a hottie and you know it. You also know some men aren't shy about showing interest, so you keep your guard up. More tea?"
Glancing at her cup, Rhonda shook her head. With a sigh, she got up and put her disposable dishware in the trash, set her fork in the sink, and turned to face me.
"I won't have to fight you off tonight, will I?"
I grinned. "I prefer willing victims, ma'am."
Canting her head, she eyed me briefly, then nodded and said, "Thanks for dinner," before she went to the living room. Picking up her suitcase, she headed for the bathroom.
Calling up a screen, I checked email and messages in the motorcycle and ebook discussion groups. Someone in an ebook group said my name had appeared in a message at Salon.com and provided a link. I clicked it and found that someone had used words I'd spoken in 1971 at University of Texas at Arlington as sig lines, complete with attribution to me.
The sig quote was, 'There are four boxes to be used in defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury, and ammo. Please use in that order.'--Ed Howdershelt (Author) Hm. I wasn't an author way back then. Maybe someone had been browsing antique issues of 'The Brownshirt' or one of the other veterans newsletters, liked the quote, and looked up my info? Without signing up at the site, I couldn't reply to say thanks or email the messager. Oh, well. Maybe later.
Wondering where else on the net the quote might appear, I searched using 'Howdershelt' and 'liberty' on the same line. Woo, damn! Over 200,000 hits? Maybe I ought to put it on a t-shirt? Hm. Not a bad idea.
An unidentifiable presence approached the doorway behind me from the living room. I said, "Hi, there," and Rhonda asked, "How'd you know I was here?"
"Your feet squeak, ma'am."
She came to stand on my right and replied, "Crap," then she tried to touch the field screen. Her fingertips sank through it and she pulled them back as she hissed, "What...?!"
Putting a finger on the lower right corner, I turned the screen slightly. "Gotta hit the right spots."
Rhonda touched the spot and moved the screen, then put her finger through the image again. After a moment, she went to her chair and sat down. "What else can you do?"
"Watch TV or a movie. Look people up. You're Detective Steiner, for instance." She froze in the midst of toweling her hair. I said, "You're extremely cute and rather exciting in an armed and dangerous sort of way, ma'am, but I'm not altogether stupid. The last time I saw you, you were waving a gun, had three guys in cuffs in the woods, and you were talking about revenge. It seemed reasonable to check you out."
She'd lowered her arms to place her hands on the table. A few moments passed as she studied me, then she said, "So you know who I am. Now what?"
Posted July 16, 2010
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