Authors: D Jordan Redhawk
D. Jordan Redhawk
P.D. Publishing, Inc. (2012)
Lainey Hughes, former war correspondent and current nature photo-journalist, has been given a challenge: head to the bush of Alaska to experience life as a rookie Iditarod musher from sign-up, through training, and on the trail itself. But Lainey has a secret, one that she’s kept even from herself – she’s broken, heart and soul, from her devastating days reporting from the front lines.
Scotch Fuller has been racing dogs all her life, and is considered a potential contender for first place in next year’s Iditarod. She loves her dogs, loves her family, and has loved so deeply in the past that it nearly ended her.
These two women end up together, each training and learning from one another, each beginning to understand that a broken trail can be mended, as can a broken heart.
"ALASKA?” LAINEY HUGHES' voice rang off the pale green concrete walls. Internally wincing at the abrupt silence in the room, she peered over her shoulder at her fellow travelers awaiting the next bus out of the small African village. She gave the neatly uniformed customs agent and his well-armed guards an apologetic wave, not caring for their sour attention, and turned back to the cracked plastic pay phone.
"It's March, Ben. Do you know what that means?” She swiped at a trickle of sweat running along her temple. Even with a rudimentary fan, the tiny building could not battle the heat here along the equator. Truth be told, she would not have it any other way.
Benjamin Strauss, editor of the acclaimed cultural magazine, Cognizance, said, "It means that the Iditarod is in full swing, and the second best photo journalist in the world is in the Providence Medical Center with a compound fracture.”
"No,” Lainey said, closing hazel eyes. She took on a lecturing tone. "It means that it's fucking cold, with huge snow drifts, frozen lakes, and hibernating bears. I don't do cold. The only ice I want to see is floating in my scotch. And I don't drink, you follow?”
"I need you, Lainey.”
She leaned her forehead against the wall. "Why should I do this?”
"Because you love me?”
Her lips thinned as she did a passable impression of Marge Simpson's growl.
Apparently, Strauss understood the fine tightrope he balanced upon. "Look, it's not like Henry planned to slip off that bluff. The piece isn't done; I need at least a dozen more shots of racers crossing the finish line, and some coverage at the awards banquet an Sunday.”
“That doesn't answer my question.”
"All right, you want the truth?”
His tone became grim, and Lainey fought the desire to wince again. When he asked a question like that, it was best not to hear the answer. Still, she dreaded the thought of making it easy for him. She was freelance, not free labor. "Yeah.”
"One, I need someone of the same caliber as Henry. Two, you're the best in the business. Three, you've just finished up a piece for me, and are already in transit, making your travel plans easier to alter. Four, it's only for two days, and you know I'll compensate you damned well for your trouble. And five-"
Lainey flinched in anticipation, knowing what he was going to say before it left his lips a half a world away.
"You owe me.”
She thumped her head once against the wall. It had to be a pretty important layout for him to remind her of that. Behind her, she heard the motor of an approaching bus. Only one was due today and, if she missed it, she would be stuck in the bush for another week.
"You'll never be able to use that ace again,” she said with a sigh.
"I know, and I didn't want to use it at all.” Strauss' voice lightened. "What's your itinerary?”
"Providing things go well, I'll be leaving out of Nairobi tomorrow, arrive at London International the following day, and then on to New York.” She looked over her shoulder to see the bus idling in the dirt road. Most of those who had been waiting were already outside, passing their bags and parcels to a several men balanced on top.
"Go ahead and fly into London. I'll leave a ticket for Anchorage at the British Airways desk. You can find a connecting flight into Nome when you get there.”
Lainey scrabbled for a pencil and pad, jotting down the directions.
"Henry's in Anchorage, but I'll get him to make arrangements to give you his hotel room in Nome. Just go to the Polaris when you get to Nome.”
"I'll be there,” she said, stashing the pad, and grabbing her gear.
“Thank you, Lainey. I promise I'll make it worth your while.”
The last of the passengers were boarding, and the customs agent glared pointedly in her direction. "Yeah?” she asked Strauss. "Next time I pitch an idea, buy it and we'll call it even.” She did not hear his response as she hung up. Checking her camera bag was still secure across her shoulder, she grabbed her duffel, and ran into the hot Ugandan sun.
Delegated by her late arrival to the back floor of the bus, Lainey sat on the duffel bag and cradled her precious camera bag. At least she was not riding on the roof with some of the other passengers. She leaned her elbows on her knees, and her head on her folded arms. The constant sway of the transport coupled with a number of conversations in the native Swahili and Ganda languages allowed her to focus on her phone call to Strauss.
She had only wanted him to know she was finished with the assignment, not that she was available for another. To goad her into the job meant he was under a lot of pressure to get it completed. It was a sure bet he had nothing to take its place in time for the next issue to hit the stands. What he said was true, though. Lainey owed him her life. If it had not been for Strauss, she would have died in a bottle years ago, taking along anyone misfortunate enough to give her the keys to a vehicle. She had been sober for four years, three months, and nine days because of his friendship. The least she could do was brave arctic weather for him; he had braved her anger and despair to return her to the living.
When she arrived in London, she would have to call her mother, and let her know their visit would be delayed. She would miss her lunch date with Carol, too. Damn. Lainey had so wanted to get laid. Being in the African bush, hunting small colorful birds for an upcoming spread left little opportunity for such matters. The only thing they grew in Alaska were sled dogs and polar bears; the women had to be beyond butch to survive the wilds and weather, and Lainey preferred women who looked like women.
Grumpily, she pondered what exciting and very tropical idea to pitch when she next met with Strauss.
For the hundredth time, Lainey felt thankful for the tripod stand she packed on her travels around the globe. The thing was worth its weight in gold on this assignment, what with all the shivering she did. Taking pictures without it would have resulted in nothing but one blur after another. She trembled again, and stamped around in a futile attempt to get warm, ignoring the vague ache in her side. Her snowsuit, rated for forty below, did not seem to work as well as advertised, and she toyed with the idea of writing a letter of complaint to the manufacturer.
A slight gust of wind brushed the edges of the fake fur ruff about her face, the frigid temperature at odds with the brilliant sunlight reflecting off snow. She entertained herself with thoughts of demanding Strauss send her somewhere in Mexico for a yearlong assignment. Burrowing her hands in her pockets, she wondered why the hell people wanted to live in a place like this. Granted, most of them were not in as much pain as she was, her old 'football injury' putting her in need of occasional medication, which probably had something to do with it.
An air raid siren went off, the second blast in the last ten minutes, and her attention diverted to the far end of Front Street. The incoming racer would soon make an appearance. As she watched, the sleepy street began to fill, doors opening to spill out people who happily awaited the new arrivals. When not outside to cheer the mushers on, the spectators sat around the bars and restaurants, visiting. It was one big, happy party, a town-wide celebration that lasted a week or more.
Lainey reluctantly removed her hands from her pockets, taking off the thick Gore-Tex mittens. She tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to ignore the stabs of pain as her fingers began to freeze, adjusting her camera for the upcoming shot. She consoled herself with visions of a tropical beach, half naked women, and fruity drinks with little umbrellas sticking out of coconuts. Glancing through the viewfinder, she saw the flashing police lights of the escort nearing her position. Rather than lose her appendages to frostbite, she thrust her hands back into her pockets until she could get a decent shot. The gathering crowd began to cheer the new arrival, an excited swell of sound. It seemed louder than normal, however, compared to Lainey's admittedly rudimentary experience. It took a moment for her to realize why.
Two dog sleds approached the fenced in run, both drivers hollering instructions at their animals for all they were worth. In a race that lasted two weeks or more, seeing more than one musher headed for the finish line at the same time was an exciting event. The police cars stopped where the fence began so as not to impede the racers who continued toward the finish line. Lainey zoomed in on the dogs, her pleasure of being in the right place at the right time over shadowing her irritability. Though she could not hear them above the noise of the spectators, the animals barked and grinned as they ran for the finish line, tongues lolling out in excitement. Lainey took a series of photos, pulling back her focus as they neared and passed. For variety, she turned her camera on the audience across the way to capture their emotions.
As quick as that it was over. They reached the race's end, a wooden arch spanning the street, and several volunteers grabbed the dogs to halt their progress. An announcer called out who won the miniature race as well as a reminder that the awards banquet was that evening. The crowd dissipated, faded away, returning to the warmth of houses, bars, and hotel rooms until the call of the siren urged them to the street once more.
Lainey knew from race reports that the next mushers were not expected for three or four hours. Her elation faded, the bad temper reasserting itself. With chattering teeth and numb fingers she collected her gear, stashing her camera inside her jacket to better protect it from the elements. There was a hot tub in her hotel, and she planned on making full use of it before the awards ceremony. Hopefully that would soak the ache out of her ribs for a time. Tomorrow, she would be on her way to New York, allowing Strauss an opportunity to show his thanks by buying her a monster bottle of ibuprofen, and dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town.
A few people remained outside to enjoy the bright yet insubstantial sunlight. Lainey slung her camera bag over her shoulder, musing about the shots she had gotten, deciding that there might be four or five good ones in the lot. Hands deep in her pockets, she trundled off toward her hotel. She had to upload the digital data to her laptop, fine tune the photos, research the Iditarod public relations folder for the names of the new arrivals, write a proper blurb, and email the entire mess to her editor. All of that had to be done before she could reach her ultimate destination of the hotel hot tub.
Pondering her to do list, Lainey did not pay much attention to the sidewalk. One minute she was walking on the slush created by salt and sand used to aid traction. Then her foot hit a patch of solid ice. She yanked her hands from her pockets as she slid about, making a comedic attempt to remain upright, flailing her arms to keep balance. Gravity was ever victorious, and she barely had time to clutch her precious camera against her chest before landing on her rump. She grunted as her ribs jarred with the impact, sharply jabbing at her chest.
"Whoa! You okay?”
"I'm fine!" Lainey snapped. It was bad enough performing the perfect pratfall. Having witnesses only made matters worse. She unsuccessfully tried to stand, only to return to the ice with a thump, and another grimace. Hands grabbed her upper arms, and she was hauled to her feet like a sack of potatoes.
“Those shoes aren't made for this weather.”
Exasperated, Lainey said, "Well, thank you for that shrewd observation.” She pulled away from the hands still holding her, double-checking the camera through her jacket before belatedly looking at the woman standing before her. Lainey's mind stuttered to a halt.
She was taller than Lainey by about four inches, her build hidden under a bulky pullover parka that was as blue as her eyes. The fur-lined hood was pushed back, revealing a rust brown baseball cap with tawny golden curls sticking out from beneath. Her skin was tan and slightly weathered, an incongruity to Lainey who assumed women in the north would have pasty complexions from being inside all winter. The friendly smile on her lips faded in light of Lainey's acerbic attitude and rude stare.