Authors: Christine DeSmet
by Christine DeSmet
Copyright ©2000 Christine DeSmet
2000 Hard Shell Word Factory
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Many thanks to my critique group in Madison, Wisconsin,
who allow me to write creatively and try new things all the time.
Thanks to my family for their support
and for always asking how the writing is going.
Most important, thanks to Bob,
who's been my rock and gourmet chef since Day One when I said I wanted to write fiction and I disappeared into the computer room, never to be seen again.
BOARDING A TRAIN was going to be difficult for Cole Wescott. Especially since he didn't have a ticket. Then there were the guys shooting at him.
Cole hauled fast through the railyard's main gate, his boots sliding on the cinders and gravel. The June fog rolled its gray plumes around the boxcars and Cole like hot breath from a relentless hunting dog. With a backpack slapping up and down against his shoulder blades, Cole raced on, slipping deeper into the murky maze of steel tracks and trains crisscrossing Miami's downtown past Biscayne Boulevard just after midnight.
A dry desperation overwhelmed him. Find an open car. Hop on. Get out of here without detection.
Little over a week ago he was diving off the sunny Keys, pulling up encrusted treasure from a sunken World War II ship, and looking forward to a weekend speedboat race. Normal, relaxing danger. Now, he looked forward to an illegal trainride cross-country to ditch hitmen in order to dig up the truth behind his brother's death. A simple midnight run.
Cole sweated just thinking about his brother's final missive. Mike's letter from the bank's safety box said he'd hidden crucial information in the one place nobody would think of and Cole never wanted to see again—a whistlestop called Dresden, Wisconsin. Or was it
he never wanted to see again? Love can be messy sometimes, like a Pandora's box better left behind with the lid slammed shut.
Stumbling on the cinders, Cole quickly scrambled up, shoving the backpack in place. The mementos inside included the papers and a map Mike had left him in the bank. Cole was loathe to return to Dresden, a patch of northwoods filled with bears ... and
She'd be a woman now, past innocence. Probably married to the richest man in town, with the big house and kids, volunteering in the church and school. Not involved with trouble anymore.
A muffled click echoed through the fog. A gun being cocked? Or was it only tons of metal adjusting its own weight on the tracks?
If the hitmen didn't splice him, the trains might.
Perspiration trickled down the back of his neck.
Footsteps crunched nearby, planted step by step in the cinders.
Cole felt his way along the boxcar, fingers feverishly scrabbling along dew-studded steel. He found the front corner of the car, straddled the coupling, then leaped across two sets of rails.
Sweat bathed him now, dripping off an eyebrow. His thoughts mutated strangely, back to glimpses of a sun-drenched meadow—anything but this railyard—and him and her, laughing, wearing nothing but the sunshine's sheen, glorying in that limbo between adolescence and adulthood.
How would she look and sound after fifteen years?
He'd changed a lot. People never picked him out of his old yearbooks. He liked it that way, scars and all. Helped him keep that Pandora's box shut.
Groping alongside a boxcar, he discovered the lettering CSXT, sighed with relief, then prayed for an open door. Cole knew from his research that this line headed through Tallahassee, Pensacola, then Mobile to New Orleans. From there he'd pick up the Southern Pacific to Phoenix. He'd head for Sacramento, maybe stay a day or two there to catch a newspaper's sports page and see if anyone missed him, then double back on the northern route, loop through Chicago and up to Oshkosh riding on the Wisconsin Central.
Nobody wanting to kill him could follow that route, could they? Mike—the level-headed brother and detail man of the two Wescotts—had warned Cole constantly about hopping trains for fun. Now, instead of an adventure, this would be the ride of Cole's life.
Picking up his pace, he inspected tons of murky brown and red steel beside him on the tracks but failed to find an open cavity big enough to hide a man. The rail companies had learned to foil hobos and vandals by redesigning and enclosing train cars. He'd be lucky to find an open auto carrier where he could break in and snuggle down for a ride in a backseat.
He stopped, holding his labored breath again to listen to the night. The metallic clanks of a rail car rumbled some distance away. Sweating, he fingered Mike's hunting knife sheathed in his pocket.
Voices drifted to him through the fog.
Running again, he slipped on a wet rail but refused to fall. He clutched his chest pocket, crinkling the photo of the mysterious man who might help him avenge Mike's death. The photo had been in the lock box, right on top but with no note, as if Mike had hastily deposited it there. As if he'd been watched.
Quaking from a thousand thoughts, Cole almost slammed into a huge boxcar oozing past from out of the white soup.
“Jesus,” he whispered, feet pedaling backward, his stomach churning. He swiped at the sweat collecting on his chin stubble.
Several cars slid by. Cole adjusted the backpack to one shoulder.
Voices came from the other side of the slow-moving train. It would pull away like a curtain, revealing what? A gun in his face?
Cole spun in the opposite direction and sprinted until another line of boxcars halted him. They moved laboriously. Rumbling. No open doors. No holes. Nothing to grab onto. Nothing to leap into.
The cinders exploded at his feet.
He catapulted across the track, then tossed his body and backpack under a resting grain car, forcing himself to roll under and out.
Another shot split the railyard rhythms of rocking, creaking steel.
He dashed into a narrow cinder alley between two trains.
A whistle blew. Then air whooshed from brakes up ahead, and the cars next to him jerked with a deafening bang and began grinding forward.
Running hard, in time with the cranking train axles, he barely felt the bullet.
It grazed him from the left side and hit his chest pocket and right upper arm. Warmth seeped onto his skin under his shirt. He kept running.
Then a second “pop” ripped his eardrums.
A sting erupted in the calf of his right leg.
He flung himself at the side of the next car, digging his fingers into a slit in the steel to hold on, knowing he could no longer run. The moving train would have to save him.
The stench of cattle manure curled into his nostrils. The boxcar flinched, threatening to shake him off. He grabbed for any bolt, board or strap, calling on every muscle in his shoulders and forearms to drag him upward one slat at a time, despite the smarting pain making his leg feel like a cement block.
He heard a shout, and then, “Get him!"
With adrenaline engorging his arms, Cole surged up to the top edge of the moving car and then an arm dipped into hollow air. An open hatch!
To get his bearings, he clung for a moment on the top slat, squinting over the edge to see beneath him. Seeing....
Bulls. Used-up bulls, huge beasts on their way from Florida ranches to who knows where and what, their graying muzzles adding steam to the fog, their pointed horns decidedly uninviting.
Another gunblast chinked the steel near his butt.
Cole swung up and over, diving through the hatch and into the fray of hide and horns ... and yet one more Cole Wescott adventure.
* * * *
LAUREL HASTINGS gloried in the peacefulness of her surroundings. She'd lived all her life in the woodland of northern Wisconsin and it never ceased to please her sensibilities.
She stood in the screened breezeway behind her cabin proper, drawing in a lungful of crisp night air, and listening, holding tight to a wiggling bundle in her arms.
Years ago, the piney smells of night, the maple leaves rattling on a breeze and the low call of nighthawks had been her healing salve. Now, she simply counted them as part of her home decor. Some people's houses sported designer wallpaper and sound systems. Her ambiance came from merely opening windows or walking outdoors.
Laurel watched a June bug walk down the outside of her breezeway screen. A breeze off Spirit Lake caught tendrils of her waist-length hair, tickling her sweater sleeves and fluttering about the little one she cradled, reminding her that June was hurrying on and wild animals needed time to run, time to mate and time to raise a family before autumn's howl set in.
It was late, maybe midnight, maybe more morning. She never kept track of time in conscious ways anymore. She rarely turned on a light in the dark. To check the sun's position against a watch, or to scar the night with high wattages seemed rude to the natural course she'd allowed her life to take. The darkness meted out protectiveness, and a world that followed a slow, meandering pace she enjoyed immensely. Her animals needed that peace, too.
As a wildlife animal rehabilitator, she was often rousted from bed at odd hours. Time and lamplight didn't matter when her heart quickly hurried her into the outdoors to tend to animals in need. Wounded animals needed darkness and quiet in order to heal.
Tonight, Sheriff John Petski had called and asked her to check out a possible trapped and hurt animal, reported to him by tourists on a late-night nature walk who heard horrible screechings at the old mansion across the bay. Laurel thought of herself as brave and strong, but the idea of going near that abandoned three-story Victorian always brought a shiver over her.
She glanced at the eyesore across the bay. Moonlight glinted in her eyes, but it reflected off the round, porthole window in the third story of the clapboard and shuttered hulk.
She would never have moved out here, right across from it, except that her father had built this cabin years ago and it remained perfect for her needs in sheltering wild animals away from people noises. The breezeway connected her cabin to the animal shed, a busy place full of life in comparison to what stood across the bay.
The boarded up mansion had been abandoned for years. Most of the windows were broken, save the round one at the top. Moonlight played off the round window like the eerie, watchful beam of a lighthouse. Behind the old glass, though, her imagination always saw eyes looking at her from the past, reminding her that under the cloak of contentment, Laurel Hastings was as much an empty shell as the old house.
Tonight she put on a defiant, wicked grin and thrust her chin at the old place. She'd finally convinced the town board and sheriff to have it officially condemned and then razed. Still, a bone-chilling loneliness, a sense of loss, washed across her when she imagined the old place wiped away. She had been inside that sprawling house years ago, when it thrived with cookie smells and rhyming ditties, sounds of dishes clattering in the big kitchen, and laughter.
. She forced her gaze away.
She peered down at the ball of red fur in her arms and hugged it.
“You're coming along just fine, Rusty. Soon I'll let you go live where you belong."
The young fox seemed to sense it and burrowed his nose into her heavy sweater.
Laurel laughed. “None of that, Rusty. I admit you may have gotten a little soft living here these past weeks, but you'll do fine. Just don't go getting caught in a trap again. Lucky for you, old Slater Johnsrud found you when he was out looking for that loose cow of his."
For close to eight years Laurel had operated the wildlife rehab center from this base in the northern Wisconsin forest. The profession proved to be a savior. After losing too many loved ones in a short span of years, she needed a bright spot of hope, a respite from relationships with men.
Laurel's heart still recalled the sense of betrayal, but she wasn't one to dwell on the negatives. She even smiled now, her cheekbone sensing the rapid heartbeat of the baby animal in her arms. It needed her. She was continually awed by the definition of love. At times love demanded so little, like simply a cuddle. And now, even scientists confirmed that the sense of touch, of being close physically held magic to prolong lives and cure illnesses.
Weekends were her busiest time for administering her special sense of touch. Those special days bustled in a tourist area like northern Wisconsin. Road traffic increased, and she'd invariably receive from some good samaritan a dog or raccoon that had been hit. Her Saturdays and Sundays often found her setting broken bones while other people lazed about in fishing boats or went water skiing, hiking or tracking the area's burgeoning but small wolf and elk populations.