Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Seasons Series and the Murder Mystery Series are the creation of the author.
Thanks to Lisa, Inga and Susan for their help as beta readers. You are super!
Note: The Seasons Series and the stories in the Murder Mystery Series all interrelate. It is best to start at the beginning.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Special Warning: These stories deal with the practice of forensics in a fairly accurate manner; more sensitive readers might find some of the scenes upsetting.
Visit Anne Azel's World at < http://www.jes.com.au/~azel/ > or write Anne at <firstname.lastname@example.org> The Anne Azel Murder Mysteries Book 1 can be ordered through Amazon.com or Openbookltd.
Robbie and Aliki walked down the lane towards the lodge slowly. They had walked, sat, and talked for hours. Robbie sharing her prison experience and how that had changed her and Aliki trying, in her stilted way, to explain why she had not made a commitment to Dawn.
Now in the pink shades of dawn, their conversation once again turned to the missing box of bones.
"I've got to find those bones, Robbie. They are primary evidence in a possible murder case." Aliki sighed wearily.
Robbie nodded sadly, reaching out to give her worried sister's shoulder a squeeze. "We'll find them. I know who took them."
"What?!" exclaimed Aliki, stopping dead and looking at her sister in surprise.
"It had to be Ryan. The kid's an olive if ever there was one," Robbie explained confidently. "I don't know where she gets that from, but she just can't leave well enough alone."
Aliki's eyes widened as she looked at the serious face of her sister. Then she snorted in disbelief, and Robbie's face broke into a guilty smile. "What you mean is, if you were Ryan's age, that's what you would have done if the adults had left you out of all the fun!" Aliki laughed.
Robbie shrugged and laughed. "Wouldn't you?"
A sharp bark caused the two sisters to start and turn to look down the road. There stood Rufus looking particularly smug with a large dirty bone at his feet. Aliki looked at Robbie. Robbie looked at Aliki. A message of horror ran between the two of them with no words needed. Rufus had found the bones! "Oh shit!" Robbie whispered, and took off down the road with Aliki right after her.
Rufus was delighted. Not only had he a fine bone to chew on but now the humans wanted to play! With a ruff, Rufus picked up his bone and took off with Robbie and Aliki in hot pursuit!
Robbie darted for the dog and Rufus side stepped, circling his owner in a hippity-hop lope, a happy grin on his face. Aliki, arms and legs spread wide, tried to herd Rufus back towards Robbie who was regrouping for a second attempt at catching the disobedient dog.
"Rufus, you come here!" Robbie demanded, as the dog did figure eights around the two women.
"Trust you to have a dog with no training,"Aliki complained, as she tried to grab a wagging, crooked tail as it flashed by.
"Rufus is one of Mother Nature's free spirts," Robbie defended. "I found him in the woods."
"You found him in the centre of the road and put your car into a snowbank trying to avoid him." corrected Aliki, waiting to bounce as the dog galloped past once again. She almost got him this time, but at the last second, the dog jumped clear.
"Damn!" snapped Aliki. Rufus was having a great time.
Janet kicked the stone wall in frustration. "Damn! Where the hell are Robbie and Aliki?! God, I hope the kids are alright!"
Dawn didn't answer. She was still trying to work a piece of wire between the frame and door to see if she could pull back the dead bolt. The problem was the piece of scrap wire she had found was thin enough to get through the crack but was too soft to pull the bolt back without bending. Neverthe, she kept trying. Someone was out there with the children and that person had already murdered.
Janet went back to trying to pry some loose field stones out from beside the door with an old, rusty ice pick. The two women had been working for hours and had not made much head way but stopping was not an option. They had to escape to help the others. With skinned and bleeding knuckles and grim faces, they continued their attempts at escape.
The old man had led them east through the bush towards Saw Mill Road along a barely visible trail that looked like little more than a deer run. They arrived on the north end of Saw Mill Road muddy, cold, and soaked from their difficult night walk through the bush. The old man's breath came now in whistling, raspy gasps. The noise was driving Ryan crazy. "Head north," the man instructed.
Ryan hesitated, considering throwing the box at the man and trying to make a run for it through the woods. The man tightened his hold on the rifle. Not a good idea. She needed to warn Mac so that she would be ready. Otherwise, one of them might take a bullet to the back. She saw Mac's tight face and smiled. The younger girl smiled back. "You want me to carry the box for awhile?" Mac asked, through chattering teeth.
"Nah, it's okay," Ryan shrugged, as the two of them headed down Saw Mill Road side by side, the old man following a rifle length behind. A half mile farther on, the dirt road ended abruptly in swamp. The two girls stopped, waiting to see what the crazy old coot would say next.
"Keep on a goin'. The road goes on, it just done flooded over some years back. It's them damn beavers. One of these days, when I get around to it, I'm goin' to shoot every damn one of them!"
The girls looked in distaste at the black swampy water in the moonlight. "Get going, I said!" the man grumbled impatiently, and Dawn took Ryan's arm to balance her and stepped out into the water. It was icy cold but the bottom was relatively firm. Beneath Mac's running shoes, she could feel the gravel of an old road bed. The watery path took a sharp turn east some six meters farther on, and they now found themselves on an overgrown driveway. Carefully, they made their way on, the deep shadows of the woods once again making their walk slow and difficult.
Mac did her best to clear things out of Ryan's way as the older girl could not see her feet for the reeking box she carried, or protect her face from branches. An hour later, just as the first grey of the morning light was lightening the night sky, they stumbled into a clearing in which sat a run down cabin. The girls lips and fingers were now blue and painful blisters were forming on their heels from walking in wet running shoes.
"We're going to stop here fur tea," the old man explained. "No use you two complain'. I'm going to have me tea. Always do in the mornin'." Mac gave Ryan a poke and gestured with her head towards the shack. Cats seemed to be everywhere, sleeping on the porch flat out on their sides like road kill, or stretching lazily at the intrusion on their sleep, or sitting alertly, eyes shining and tongues licking muzzles contentedly.
"I think we have discovered the source of the old guy's smell," Ryan whispered to Mac, as they pushed on through the tall grass to the sagging porch. Of that there was no doubt; the smell of cat waste hung heavily in the air, and now even more cats could be seen up in the porch rafters and sitting on the window ledges.
"Cats," the old man explained, as if they were stupid. "You can open the door. It aren't locked. No one ever comes here since the road done flood over, except Larry, and he aren't comin' no more."
Gingerly, Mac opened the door and gasped as several cats brushed past her legs on the way out. "Go on, get in there!" came the gruff voice from behind them. It was dark inside, the small window offering little light. The two girls edged their way forward, their wet shoes squelching and squeaking as they went. Their eyes adjusted enough that they could make out a small table and a few chairs in a room cluttered with all manner of junk. "Put Larry on the table and sit," the old man ordered. The girls willingly complied, feeling worn out with the difficult walk and the tension.
The man throw a rope at Mac. "Tie up your friend real good to the chair. Then sit down with your hands folded in yur lap so as I kin tie you up too. Hurry up now 'cause I want to pee."
The growing stain on the old man's pants indicated it might already be too late. Mac followed the instructions and held her breath when the filthy man came up behind her and started to wrap the rope around her body. The smell of stale sweat and urine, as he moved his arms about her, was nauseating.
The two girls sat quietly while the crazy old man, stoked the fire in the box-stove, pumped water into a kettle, and left it on the box-stove to heat while he disappeared outside. Once the door was shut their eyes met. "I think, he has gone a bit strange," Mac observed in a whisper.
Ryan snorted. "He's a certified nut case! There were dodo birds with more sense than this guy! Would you believe this! We are having a tea party, in the middle of a swamp surrounded by a 101 Damncats!"
"When he gives us the shovels to dig a hole for...him," Mac stated, "that's our best time to get the jump on him."
"It will also be our last time, in that we are scheduled to keep old Larry here company. I think we should move at the first opportunity. Be ready to run for the bush if I get a chance to heave these bones at him."
Mac nodded. "Okay, but remember this guy can shoot. Make sure it is a good opportunity!"
Janet and Dawn, continued to work on their tasks stubbornly. To relieve their fears that seemed to magnify in the dark silence around them, they talked in random, disjointed way.
"Aliki will find Robbie and bring her back. I'm sure they'll show up at anytime,""Dawn said, as she had done several times during the course of the last few hours.
Janet sighed. "I hope so. Robbie is not good at dealing with her emotions. She thinks she has to be stoic and brave so she represses her feelings. Then they explode suddenly when we all least expect it. The price of her intelligence and creativity is a boiling cauldron of strong emotions. It doesn't help that she is stubborn too."
Dawn sighed. "Stubborn, pig-headedness seems to be a strong family trait. Aliki can't seem to get passed the fact that I have met with some fame and financial success with my writing. We love each other, Mac and her get on wonderfully, and we enjoy living together, but she hasn't asked me to marry her or even made a commitment to a future together."
"It meant a lot to me that Robbie married me, but you know, it is not the ceremony that really matters, it is knowing that you both recognize in each other the other half of yourself. It is knowing that this is the one you want to spend your life with. I don't think it is really a conscious decision, it is a decision your heart makes sometimes against all the odds.
Dawn snorted, "Logic over passion, that's Aliki's creed. She is really down on herself at the moment because she feels she worked so hard for success, and yet she feels she is the least successful of her family."
"I got it!" Janet interrupted as she pushed a small rock out into the darkness. It landed with a dull thud outside. Dawn came up to have a look. They were down to one flashlight now and its beam was growing dull and yellow. The hole made by the missing rock was the size of a bowling ball. There was no way they could get through and it would take hours, maybe days, to dislodge more stones.
"Let's see if I can double this wire over to make it stronger and reach through the hole to pull the bolt back," Dawn suggested.
Janet nodded and got out of her friend's way. Dawn reached her arm through as far as she could and then tried to imagine where the bolt was in relation to the wire in her hand. It took almost an hour. Dawn's arm ached with fatigue and her fingers were cramped with cold. Finally, the wire caught on the bolt tight enough for her to lift it up and pull it back slowly and gently. "I've got it," she whispered cautiously to Janet. The two women held their breath. The latch pulled clear and the door was open. The two weary women stepped out into early morning light and blinked.
Rufus had run around and around in circles. Each time one of the women got close, the big orange dog would tuck his tail in and bolt out of harm's way. Finally, Robbie saw her chance and dived, grabbing the dog by the back end. The wet, muddy dog slipped out of her arms like toothpaste from a tube. Robbie went face first into the mud like a baseball player trying to steal home plate.
She had slowed Rufus down enough for Aliki to make a grab for the bone and wrestle it from the shaggy dog's mouth as she fell back splat into a puddle on the path. Rufus was a good sport about the loss and came over to sit beside Aliki and pant happily.
"Oh shit!" groaned Aliki, looking at the bone.
"What?" asked Robbie, trying to wipe the mud from her face with a dirty hand.
"It's not human," growled Aliki, throwing the bone in frustration into the bush. Rufus gave a delighted bark and charged after his prize.
"Not human! You told me the bones where human!" yelled Robbie in frustration.
Aliki stood up and attempted to flick the mud from the back of her jeans and jacket. "They were, but that bone isn't. It looks like deer. Rufus must have found it in the woods. Come on, lets get back to the lodge and get changed. The girls are going to be pissed enough with us as it is." Two very disheartened and muddy sisters trudged the rest of the way up the road as the sky lightened.
Janet and Dawn charged up the path and into the house. Dawn ran to check on Ryan and Mac and Janet went on to Reb's room. To her relief, Reb slept silently in her bed. Smiling with relief, she turned to see the look of absolute horror in Dawn's face as she came through the door.
"They're gone," Dawn managed to choke out, the tears welling in her eyes. She saw her curt message hit Janet like a physical blow.
For a minute, both mothers fought for control. "I'll get Reb up and dressed. You make us some coffee and breakfast for Reb, and we'll decide what to do," organized Janet.
"We have to call the police!" Dawn argued.
"Not and get Robbie and Aliki in trouble. Besides, I'm not sure the girls are in danger. Ryan took the bones, I'm sure of it."
"Someone locked us in the ice house and it wouldn't have been the girls," Dawn countered.
"Mommy?" came a voice from behind them. Janet turned and smiled. "Hi, Reb! Come on sweetheart, we have a big day ahead of us. You need to get up."
Aunt Bethy and Uncle Davey are getting married!" Reb announced proudly. Janet stared at the small child in shock for a second. She had forgotten completely about the wedding today!
Janet had only just made it to the kitchen when Aliki and Robbie walked in. There was understandably tension in the air. It was Robbie who spoke first. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry..."
"Robbie, we have a problem," Janet cut in seriously. "The girls are gone and someone locked us in the ice house. It has taken us most of the night to get out." Her jaw worked for control as she focused on wrapping her bruised hand with a bandage.
Robbie strode down the hall to the girl's bedroom and returned looking stressed and worried. "They didn't dress."
"Their coats and shoes are gone," Dawn added.
"Ryan took the bones and there is a chance she knew who buried them. Whoever it was came back for them and either Ryan and Mac were kidnaped or they followed the kil..." Janet looked down at Reb seriously taking in the conversation and changed her wording, "the person."
"Janet, the bones belonged to a person who had a very recessive chin line. White, small in stature, and probably in his early thirtie," Aliki stated.
"Lawrence Lawrence," came the immediate reply. "I went to school with him. He, aaah, wasn't very quick. He went to the vocational school in Helingone and trained as a cook. I heard Larry was doing alright out west working as an assistant in a kitchen of one of the hotels."
"It is quite possible he never made it out west," Aliki observed. "Is there family?"
"Lars Lawrence and his wife, Faye. They live over the south side of town," responded Janet now safely under Robbie's arm.
Robbie took her hand and kissed her bruised fingers. "They are alright, Janet, I know they are."
Aliki moved over to place her hands on Dawn's shoulder's and then, feeling her lover's taut muscles, pulled her into a close embrace. "We need to start there then. Get these people up and find out when they last saw Larry. The key to finding the girls is to find...the person."
"Let's go," stated Dawn, pulling back from Aliki. "We don't have anytime to waste."
"What time is it?" asked Janet as she watched Robbie swing Reb up into her arms.
"Five thirty," Aliki reported, as they trooped out of the lodge to pile into Aliki's van.
"If we haven't found them by seven thirty, we go to the police," Janet stated as she took Reb from Robbie's arms and fastened the child's safety belt. No one disagreed.
The drive over to Lars and Faye's house was silent, the air cracking with stress. Reb, still sleepy and disorientated by the unusual turn of events, snuggled closely into Robbie's side. The house that sat beside the driveway they had pulled into was a two story clapboard farmhouse. It stood still and dark in the early morning light.
Janet and Dawn were out first with Robbie and Aliki close behind. Robbie swung Reb up into her arms to make faster time. It was Janet who pounded loudly on the door. No answer. Again she rapped on the old wood door, louder this time, and more persistent. No answer. Robbie, impatient to the point of anger, reached over Janet's shoulder and banged on the door without stop.
A window upstairs was pushed open with some force and a sleep tousled head of an older man appeared. "Who's there? What's the matter?"came a worried voice.
Janet backed up onto the sidewalk so that Lars Lawrence could see her. "Mr. Lawrence, it's Janet Williams. I'm sorry to bother you so early in the morning, but it is really important."
The white head disappeared into the room for a second to respond to a woman's worried voice from inside. They could hear Lars explaining things to his wife and then the mumble of instructions being given. The head reappeared. "How many are there of you?"
"Five," Janet responded, "Robbie Williams, our daughter, Rebecca, Robbie's sister, Aliki, and her friend, Dawn."
The old man's head once again vanished into the darkness of the room. Voices could be heard. Then Lars was back. "We're getting dressed and will be down as soon as we can. You woman, just hold on now. My wife's getting the tea on."
Robbie banged her head against the door, her eyes tightly shut in frustration. She knew exactly what was going to happen and it was taking every ounce of her being not to break down the door and start screaming. Reb laughed and tried to stop her adopted mom from acting so silly. It was a good quarter of an hour's wait before the door opened with a flourish and there stood Lars Lawrence, freshly shaved and sporting a bandaid on his jaw line. His white hair was damp and combed within an inch of its life. "Come in, please. Well, this is an honour. My wife said to bring you to the parlour and she'll be right in with tea."
"Mr. Lawrence, we don't want to seem rude but we are in a real hurry." Janet explained tactfully, as they all trooped down the hall.
"Oh, it won't take a minute. We always have tea when we get up, anyway. A few more cups won't matter. Come in now and sit down. I can't tell you how tickled we are to have a famous actor visit us. I'll just get the fire on. I always leave it made up and just as well too."
Aliki leaned over and whispered into her sister's ear, "We should have left you at home." Robbie rolled her eyes but said nothing. This was Janet's turf and she trusted her partner to get the information they needed while she did her thing and kept the Lawrences happy.
Just then, Faye Lawrence bustled in wearing her best housecoat, her grey hair a mass of tight curls from a recent perm. She carried a large tray of tea and fancy biscuits. Robbie passed Reb to Aliki, gritted her teeth, smiled broadly, and started acting. "Hey, let me take that," she smiled, relieving the small woman of the oversized serving tray. "It's the least I could do after getting you people up at this ungodly time of the morning. Do you know, I actually saw your rooster sleeping on the way in here!"
"Oh, aren't you wonderful and so entertaining! I told my sister, Elsie, she's married and lives out west, he's with the railroad you know, that folks said that you were ever so down to earth, but she didn't believe me! And now here you are, Robbie Williams, in my very own living room!" babbled Faye excitedly.
Aliki was ready to make some rather pointed remarks about missing children, murderers on the loose, weddings to attend, and other rather forgotten incidentals, when Dawn gave her a look and with a jerk of her head indicated that Janet had already button holed Lars and was talking to him quietly in the corner. Robbie and Janet worked so well together. They were a partnership that seemed to share a single soul. She envied them that and hoped that some day she and Aliki would be as close.
"Please call me Robbie," the director smiled, helping hand out tea as Faye Lawrence poured. "Let me introduce you to my family. This is our daughter, Rebecca, and this is my sister, Doctor Aliki Pateas and her friend, Dawn Freeman."
"Oh, it is so nice to meet you all!" Faye said, giving them a cursory look before her eyes returned with adoration to Robbie Williams. "Of course, I have seen you around town Ms.....Robbie, but I would never have presumed to have talked to you as I've seen others do. I figured that you had come to our town to get away from that sort of fan adoration, and I wasn't going to be a party to it!"
"That is so thoughtful of you. You have a nice place here. Are these pictures of your family?" Robbie asked, used to showing interest, and yet deflecting topics about herself. Out the corner of her eye, she watched Janet talking quietly to Lars. Then she checked to see if Reb was behaving herself. Reb had crawled up into Aliki's lap and was playing with a silver pin that Aliki wore on the collar of her jacket to indicate she was an RCMP officer. Reb loved anything shiny.
"Yes, that's our Landon, all the Lawrence men have first names that start with the letter "L". It's a tradition, and I like to think a little bit of creativity that runs in the family." Faye smiled proudly. "Landon is such a good boy. Never caused us a moment's worry. He is studying to be a hairdresser. He was always good with his hands, it's that creative streak in the family," Faye explained again, in case anyone had missed the information the first time around.
Aliki gave Reb a sip of tea from her cup and then drank the rest in three gulps. She then sat moodily while Dawn watched with interest as Robbie played her role. As she had heard Ryan say, it looks like her, it talks like her, but it is not her.
"Ms...Robbie, I wonder if you wouldn't mind, I know it is asking a lot but...could you give me your autograph? Not for me, of course!" Faye explained quickly, "It's for Landon. He would be so impressed. He thinks your hair is beautiful...and maybe one for my sister..."
"Why, I would be delighted," Robbie laughed. "Actors never get enough of signing their autographs. But let me send you an autographed picture and if you give me the addresses of your sister and son, I'll send them autographed pictures too, and let them know what a delightful morning cup of tea you provided for us."
"Oh, that would be wonderful! They would be so thrilled!" beamed Faye, getting up to root in a small side table for a piece of stationery and pencil.
Robbie smiled at Aliki, goading her because she knew Aliki could not make a sarcastic remark.
Dawn grinned and winked at Robbie. Aliki's arm immediately went over the back of the couch protectively shielding Dawn from the wolf eyes of her egomaniac sister. Dawn bit her lip trying not to laugh at the silly rivalry between the two half sisters.
In due course, the paper, a pink sheet of stationery with a rose motif in the corner, and a stub of a pencil, clearly sharpened with a penknife, appeared, and in neat, careful writing, Faye recorded the addresses for Robbie.
Janet walked over with Lars trailing. "All set?" Robbie asked, taking the addresses with a smile from the delighted housewife.
"All set," Janet reassured.
"They are looking for Larry Lawrence, Mother," Lars explained, over Janet's shoulder. " I said I figured he'd be back out west by now, but he had been around at the beginning of summer visiting his granddad. I gave her instructions on how to get out to Lenny's place."
Faye visible paled. "Oh dear, please don't judge the family by Lenny. They say something happened to him in the war."
"Yeah, the bottle," muttered Lars, and was rewarded with a warning look from his wife.
"He's never been right since. Lives like a filthy hermit out past the swamp on Saw Mill Road. I know Larry has been trying to get him into a home. Larry's doing alright out west. He was a bit slow with reading and sums, but right enough to do a good day's work. He got himself a trade and I understand he is making good money working in the kitchen at the Grizzly Mountain Ski Resort in Golden."
"Well, we must be going," said Janet, lifting Reb up into her arms. "I'm sorry to have to be in such a rush but we are very anxious to talk to Larry or his grandfather. Thank you for making us welcome. We'll see yourselves out. Good bye, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence," Janet rushed on, before Faye could get wound up again.
The women made a beeline for the door, but Robbie, bringing up the rear, turned and shook Lars hand briefly and gave Fay a hug before bounding off the porch and catching up with the others at the van. "I don't believe you," Aliki muttered, rolling her eyes as she got into the driver's seat.
"Just drive," responded Robbie, the worry and stress now etched again across her face as she dropped her facade.
Janet reached out and took Robbie's hand. "It will be okay, hon. Thanks for your help. Aliki turn right here and go up highway #11 about eight miles. I'm sure you'll recognize the road, it's on the north side and there is a sign identifying it as the Saw Mill Road.
Aliki nodded, surprised to see how drained her sister looked now, and realizing belatedly that Robbie had been keeping Faye busy while Janet got the information. The group drove along in silence. Tension filled the van. Aliki's jaw was white with worry. The bones could very well be those of Larry Lawrence and that meant that the most likely suspect was his grandfather, Lenny. "Do you know if Lenny can shoot, Janet?" she asked suddenly, and the other three women started.
"He was a marksmen during the war. Since then, he has made any money he needs from trapping. You see him in town once every few years. He looks like a derelict. David hated when he came into the store because the smell of him scared the other customers away."
Robbie pulled out her cell phone and punched in the numbers for information. "Could I have the phone number for the Grizzly Mountain Ski Resort in Golden, Alberta, please." A half minute went by while Robbie squirmed with impatience. "Thanks." Once again Robbie dialed, "Hello, I'm anxious to contact a friend of mine who works with you, Larry Lawrence...that's right, he works in the kitchen...I see, thank you. Good bye."
Robbie snapped the phone shut, and looked around at the others. "Larry never returned from his trip out east a few months ago,"she announced.
David had made breakfast for Elizabeth and then left her to her studies. She was preparing a paper for the biannual international physics convention in Geneva and need to concentrate. As always, Elizabeth had been very grateful for David's support and most definitely loving in her own quiet way. David was immeasurably happy as he drove from the cabin to Bartlett. He parked behind the grocery store that he owned and once ran for many years. It had been a good living and pleasant enough, but he had to admit he loved city living more. For the life of him, he could not understand why Elizabeth's sister, Robbie, chose to bury herself and her family in Barlett when she could live in Toronto.
He and Elizabeth were fond of going to the Royal Ontario Museum on a Sunday afternoon and wandering through the displays before going out somewhere nice for dinner. Or, if there was a good show in town, or a concert at the Roy Thomson Hall, they would make a Saturday night of it, and then have a lazy Sunday with the papers in their living room. In the summer, they had sometimes packed a picnic lunch and taken the ferry over to Toronto Island. David thought he might buy a boat this year at the Boat Show that was held at the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds each January. Then he and Elizabeth could have some lovely weekends together out on Lake Ontario. He still had to shake himself to believe his good fortune in finding a wonderful women like Elizabeth.
He entered through the back door to find his brother Ted already sweeping the floor in preparation for opening. Ted had broken his back almost two years ago in a trucking accident and now ran the store for David.
"Good morning, Ted!" David said, automatically lifting an apron off the hook and putting it on.
"What are you doing? You don't mean to work on your wedding day!" said his brother, laughing and batting David on the shoulder good-naturedly with the straw broom.
"Elizabeth needs to work this morning and the wedding is not until two. I thought I would come in here and make your life miserable until you close the store at noon. Then I'll have lunch with Bethy and come back here to get dressed before you and me head out to the Lodge. I'm not to see Elizabeth again until the wedding. Robbie is going over after lunch to help Bethy dress and take her to the lodge."
Ted shook his head. "Aren't you at all nervous? I think I'd be a basket case!"
David thought about this and found himself rather surprised. He had changed a lot since meeting Elizabeth. "There was a time, Ted, when I would have been terrified. But you know, Elizabeth has given me a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities. I wasn't the one for the ladies as you know, Ted, and I'm glad of that now; by waiting, I managed to get one of the very best," David bragged proudly, as he went behind the counter to unlock the till.
"You're a lucky man, David," Ted agreed, although to be truthful he found the Williams pretty intimidating. Of course, David always was the one with the brains and the initiative. You could see that well enough. David had bought this store, married rich, and here he was working for David. There was no doubt that David had done well.
David nodded, as he picked up a form from behind the counter. "Is this the new registration form for firearms?" he asked.
"That's it. You have a few hunters all up in arms about the cost of the new registrations, but most people feel the more the restrictions on guns the safer the country is going to be. You read that pamphlet there and it tells you that over 85% of all gun-related murders are by family members not criminals. They lose their temper and if there is a gun handy they grab it up in the heat of the moment. People say they're going to be responsible, but the evidence is a lot of kids manage to get to the family guns."
"Elizabeth and I certainly support strict gun control. A person might want a hunting rifle but, you don't buy a handgun to protect yourself, you buy one to kill. Thank God, the majority of Canadians don't support that wild west mentality."
"I think most hunters are responsible people, but there are kooks out there. You take that Lenny Lawrence for one. He never was a steady ship in the water and with age and drink, I got to tell you, David, he's listing to port badly!" sighed Ted, unlocking the door and turning the cardboard sign to "Open".
"Lenny!" shuddered David, choosing an apple from the barrel and biting into it with pleasure. "The smell of him would be enough to kill a horse!"
"I sold him a box of cartridges last year, but I got so many complaints about him shooting up the bush that I refused to sell him a hunting licence this year. Did sell him the bullets though, 'cause I thought it best that I did and not some one else!" chuckled Ted with a shake of his head.
"Do you think that was wise?" David asked in concern. Ted leaned over and whispered something into his brother's ear and the two of them laughed together.
It was a little past nine when Faye Lawrence bustled into the store. She usually did her shopping at eleven but with Robbie Williams and her friends visiting the house this morning, she had got a bit of a head start on her day. Besides, she was anxious to spread the news of her surprise guests to anyone who would listen. She thought it might be a good idea to have lunch at Maria's today although Lars and her did not usually bother. There were always lots of people at Maria's on a Saturday. Not that she was one to brag or gossip, but people would want to know. It was a matter of courtesy.
"David Potts! What a pleasant surprise. I was just entertaining your future sister-in-law this morning. She is such a lovely person. You would never know she was a famous actor and director. She helped me serve tea to her sister and friends. Of course, she is unbelievably beautiful and poised but not a bit stuck-up."
David blinked twice, trying to imagine what in the world Robbie was up to. Then he remembered his manners. "Why, isn't that nice. They are indeed very nice people....Aaah, had they come out for a reason?"
"Well, you know that is the darnedest," admitted Faye as she wheeled her cart expertly down the aisles. "Janet told Lars some story about the kids going out to Lenny's place to find out where Larry Lawrence was. Janet and Robbie wanted to go and pick them up and needed directions. I can't see why anyone would want to talk to that foul creature. I don't think he has washed in years and Lars thinks he is going a bit strange. It was the war of course. It affected a lot of men that way in their older years. The terrible things they must have seen!"
David looked at his brother, who widened his eyes in concern. David nodded, the message understood between the two brothers without words being necessary. "Well, I must be moving along. Nice seeing you again, Faye. Say hi to Lars for me. I'll see you later, Ted," David said more quietly to his brother.
Ted leaned forward and whispered. "You'd better get out there. There is no saying what that old coot will do when all those women show up!"
David removed his apron and hung it up neatly and headed out to his car as quickly as possible. He would need to stop at the cabin first and let Elizabeth know that he might be late for lunch. He hesitated to disturb when she was deep in mathematical equations, although she never said that she minded. Still, he would have to this times as Ted had really rather made him worry. He liked and respected Robbie Williams very much but there was no denying that she could be a very difficult woman. If she got aggressive with old Lenny she might end up on the wrong end of a rifle!
He turned off the highway and headed down the side road that curved around the south end of Long Lake. It passed Janet's cabin, now theirs, and wound on to the lodge and then on still further until it met up with Lakefront Road. There was not much out that way now since the fire last summer.
David pulled to a stop outside of the cabin and was surprised to find Elizabeth waiting at the door for him. They shared a kiss and then pulled back to smile at each other. "I thought you would be working."
Bethy's smile got bigger and she blushed. "I couldn't concentrate," she admitted. "I'm very much looking forward to being your wife, David Potts."
It was David's turn to blush with pride. He was a lucky man. "Elizabeth," David frowned, "I very much fear that your sister is up to no good. She and Janet, and Aliki and Dawn were over at Lars and Faye Lawrence's this morning asking about Larry Lawrence. They have now gone out to see Lenny Lawrence who is Larry's grandfather on his father's side." Elizabeth listened to David's information with admiration. David's knowledge of local family genealogy was amazing. He really should write a book.
David went on eventually, getting to the point. "Old Lenny lives out beyond the beaver swamp at the end of Saw Mill Road. He was always a bit strange but over the years, I'm afraid, he has got worse. I am concerned, and I'm going out just to make sure the family is alright."
Elizabeth gave David a big hug for worrying about the family he was marrying into. "I'm going too," she stated.
"Elizabeth you have to wade through swamp, the road has been flooded for years. Old Lenny is very unkempt and I hesitate to imagine what his place must look like."
"I'm going too," Elizabeth repeated firmly but politely. David knew he had lost the argument. Instead of trying to change her mind, he helped Bethy into her cardigan.
Old Lenny came back from relieving himself looking anything but relieved. "Can't go," he announced to the girls, although the growing stain on his pants indicated otherwise. "Damn cats go all over, and them just dumb animals, it aren't right," Lenny grumbled, as he prepared his tea in a battered billy can. "Larry said it was 'cause I was going funny. Said me livin' with a bunch of cats proved it! Wanted to put me in a home. Had no choice but to put him down just like I do the problem cats."
Mac looked at Ryan, her eyes filled with alarm. Ryan worked furiously on trying to get out of the ropes that bound her to the chair. The old man seemed to have forgotten them. He mumbled away more to himself than to them as he stood looking out the window while his tea leaves boiled in the pot.
"Young people don't listen and mind their elders anymore. Look at all the problems Larry has caused me! And now I'm stuck with them two! Gotta go and lock up Larry's bones in that shed! Young people got no respect for the dead."
Ryan freed one hand and started frantically pulling on the bindings on the other. She froze. There was a rifle barrel at her head. She looked up to see Mac staring in terror. " I'm old,"the man beside her snarled, "but there aren't nothin' wrong with me. Told Larry that. I told him I don't live with the cats. Had to move out. Couldn't stand all the howling and hissin'. Got me a cave up on the ridge that does me nicely. Larry wouldn't listen, said I'd freeze to death in the winter. Been there since spring and not much has happened to me yet!" As Old Lenny talked, he kept banging the end of the barrel against Ryan's head. Ryan was starting to feel sick and dizzy.
"Stop that!" Mac exploded. "You're hurting her!" The barrel of the gun swung around, pointing right at Mac's forehead. The old man's face was brilliant red and anger distorted his features. Mac imagined that she would have been dead right then if the pot of tea had not boiled over at that point.
"Damn it!"the old man roared, and kicking cats out of the way he hurried over to the wood stove to lift the pot off with a rolled up dirty towel. Ryan lowered her head to the table, feeling like she was going to pass out with fear. Mac had been that close to dying.
Mac let the tears roll down her face. She couldn't believe that she was still alive! "You okay?" she whispered softly to Ryan, her voice choked with emotion.
Ryan forced herself to lift her head and square her shoulders before answering. The effort caused a sharp pain to her temple. Why did it always have to be her head that got hit? Already in her short life, she had been in a coma from an explosion that had knocked her head first into a wall and had been tripped in a hockey game and knocked out. "Yeah. Thanks. I owe you one,"she smiled back at the worried girl across from her.
The old man continued to mumble to himself as he poured the hot tea and leaves that remained into a chipped metal cup. Then he poured some cold water on top to settle the leaves to the bottom. Walking to the other side of the room, he scattered cats in all directions as he settled on a sagging, battered couch to sup his drink noisily. The rifle remained leaning against the kitchen cabinet.
Ryan considered wiggling out of the rest of her bindings and going for the rifle, then rejected the idea. The crazy old coot was observant and could move very quickly for an old man. She too had seen the sudden rage as he had brought the rifle barrel around to Mac's face. They would have to be patient. One wrong move was going to cost them their lives.
A sharp gasp from Mac made Ryan jump from her thoughts. A mangy cat had leapt on Mac's shoulder and scratches now marred her neck. They beaded with fresh blood. The cats had quickly returned. One was on Ryan's lap and others curled around her feet. Several were again on the table, observing the prisoners with curious but cold eyes. Some sniffed at the box distastefully. The girls sat shivering, partly out of cold and partly from fear.
"Time ta go,"announced the old man suddenly, and the two girls jumped. Lenny left his cup overturned on the dirty couch and got up to pick up his rifle. He walked over and carefully undid Ryan's hands. "Untangle yourself slowly," he instructed, stepping back with the rifle ready. "Then go untie your friend."
Ryan did exactly what she was told with fingers stiff with cold. A small cabin filled with cats was not a good place to try to make a get away. Once they were outside again, she'd look for an opportunity. Instinctively, she drew Mac in for a quick hug, liking the feel of the warm body close to hers. She should be having fun preparing for the wedding with Mac and their families, not stuck out in a swamp with a creepy old guy and a bunch of cats! She felt bad because she suspected that her convincing Mac to play a practical joke on their parents had now resulted in the two of them facing death. Life could really suck at times.
Ryan was ordered once again to carry the box of bones. The two girls were herded out and around the back of the cabin and led over to a burnt patch amongst the tall grass. "I couldn't bury him 'cause of me bad back. I tried to burn him here instead, but I had a hell of a job. He kept a sizzlin'and crackin' like a Sunday roast on the spit." The two girls stared at the spot in horror as the old man justified his actions.
"I kept a good fire goin' all day and there was still lots of him left. I thought the animals would get him but they didn't much bother. Don't like burnt meat, I guess bein used to it raw and all. He started to smell real bad so I gathered him up and took him out to that there new school and buried him in the foundations. Made it look like an Injun burial in case anyone dug him up. But then you damn women had to get in on it! Think I'm going have to kill you all before this is over. It's done ruined the duck huntin' season for me, wastin' my time with you lot."
Having complained about the situation to the girls to his satisfaction, he pointed with his rifle. "Over there in the grass, you're going to find a pick axe and shovel. Put Larry down, get the tools and start diggin'"
Ryan gratefully put the smelly box on the ground. The girls reluctantly went and got the tools. Neither one of them wanted to dig into the blackened earth where they knew a body had burnt but not to do so was going to mean death. Ryan gritted her teeth and swung the pick axe. It hit with a thud, burying deep into the soil. Little bits of charred debris sprayed up, hitting Ryan's bare legs. She shuddered, not from cold but the sheer horror of the moment. Swallowing down her stomach she muttered to Mac, "I'll break up the earth and you shovel it clear." Then softer she added, "Be ready."
The two girls worked for a few minutes, Ryan keeping one eye on Lenny, waiting for her chance and Mac watching Ryan waiting for her move. It came suddenly. Robbie's voice, off in the bush, called Ryan's name. Lenny turned in surprise and quick as lightening, Ryan hooked the rifle clear of Lenny's hand with the end of the pick axe. Both girls ran as Lenny went for his rifle that had landed some feet away in the tall grass. The girls almost made it to the bush, when two shots rang out, one after the other. Ryan fell first, then Mac.
The van had brought the women to the end of Saw Mill Road and they had piled out to stand looking at the flooded road in disgust. "Let's go," said Dawn and stepped out into the water.
Robbie swung the dazed Reb over her shoulders and followed Janet, who had been second into the swamp. Aliki locked the van and followed close behind.
"We get frogs, Obby?" Reb asked, trying to make sense of the strange events of the morning.
"Nope, we are going to get, Ryan and Mac. It's too cold for frogs now. They are all sleeping in their little mud houses at the bottom of the pond," Robbie explained, economically, her thoughts on her other daughter. Reb fell silent again sensing, as children often do, the tension in the air.
The women were soon on dry land again and were following a clear trail of trodden grass along an overgrown driveway. Robbie was forced to let little Reb walk because of the low branches and this slowed them down a bit. Eventually, they came to a clearing. On the far side sat a run down cabin and beyond, close to the edge of the field, they could see the two girls digging while an old man stood by watching.
"Ryan!" Robbie called out, spontaneously, and then watched in shock as her daughter tugged a rifle from the old man's arms with her pick axe and the two girls turned and ran as fast as they could towards them.
The old man bent over picked up the rifle and aimed at the fleeing figures. There was a sharp crack and Ryan fell, then another almost immediately, and Mac tumbled to the ground. The sound of the gunfire echoed eerily through the trees.
"No!" screamed Robbie, letting go of Reb's hand and breaking into a run. Dawn was already ahead of her by a few steps and Aliki was one step behind. Janet grabbed up Reb and headed for the cover of the trees, first to protect her daughter from gun fire, and second to circle around and come up behind if the women's frontal assault failed.
Dawn fell to her knees beside her daughter. Mac didn't move. "MacKenzie!" Dawn whispered, in fear.
Robbie skidded in beside Ryan and saw with horror that blood was seeping through the back of her light jacket. "Kid?" she asked, her voice choked with emotion.
"Mom? Mac it's okay, it's our moms." Ryan said, lifting her head.
"Don't move," Robbie said, through tears. "You've been shot."
"I don't feel shot," Ryan responded stubbornly.
"It's the shock. You are not feeling the pain," Robbie explained, stroking her daughter's hair. "Don't move. We'll get you help."
"I'm okay, Mom," Mac reassured, Dawn. "Something hit me in the back and knocked me over and Ryan told me to play dead. "
Dawn looked at the mark on the pale blue ski jacket. There was a round sooty area of dirt but she could not see a bullet hole. "Don't move until we know you are alright, okay, Honey," Dawn cautioned soothingly.
"Sure, Mom. Ryan, are you okay?" Mac asked, turning her head to look at her friend who lay in the grass nearby, her mother at her side. Aunt Robbie looked awful and tears rolled down her face as she held a hand to her daughter's back. Ryan looked okay.
"Yeah, Mom thinks I've been shot, but I feel alright. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I think he missed me."
Aliki had checked to make sure the gunman had disappeared while this exchange took place. She now knelt by Ryan and lifted her sister's shaking hand to look at the wound through the ripped coat. Aliki nodded when what she saw there did not seem to be an entry wound. Just some superficial bleeding and bruising. She plucked a tiny bit of twisted plastic from the edge of the traumatized area.
"She'll be fine, Robbie. There is some bruising but no entrance wound. She wasn't shot with a regular bullet."
"What? What then?" Robbie asked, fear for her daughter making it hard for her to think straight.
Aliki held up the piece of grey twisted plastic. "Plastic tipped blank. They're used on some ranges instead of conventional bullets. It is still quite capable of punching an entry wound but not at this distance. The plastic tips are much lighter in flight and wind resistance slows them down. They were both hit alright, but by then the projectile didn't embed. Excellent shooting."
"Can I get up now?" Ryan asked a bit sarcastically.
Robbie looked around. "Where is the son of a bitch?"
It was Janet who answered, coming up beside Robbie and rubbing her shoulder affectionately with one hand. "He went back and got the box and headed into the woods at the back of the cabin. Ryan, Mac, are you two okay?"
"I'm fine, Mom."
"I'm okay, Aunt Janet," Mac responded, although her voice was teary and she clung to Dawn tightly.
Reb, temporarily freed from parental grasp, knelt down beside Ryan. "Ryan, are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine, kid," Ryan smiled, sitting up slowly and for the first time becoming aware of the soreness in her back.
"You can't catch frogs now, Ryan. They go to sleep in mud houses when it's cold," Reb explained seriously to her sister.
Ryan nodded and for some reason that she couldn't really explain sobs broke out from deep in her chest and she reached out to her Mom to be sheltered in her arms.
"Come on, let's get back to the lodge, " said Robbie softly, kissing the top of Ryan's head.
"You lot of trouble makers aren't goin' anywhere," came a confident voice. They turned to see Old Lenny standing behind them with his rifle aimed at them.
Aliki's eyebrow went up. "He's good. He's very, very good," she acknowledged.
Ryan mumbled a curse word into Robbie's shoulder. "Nice rescue, Mom," she added.
David and Elizabeth got out of their car which they had parked beside the van. "This way, Bethy," David indicated, and the two of them stepped out into the swampy water, David taking Elizabeth's elbow in case she slipped. They waded to the other side and turned into the now well trodden driveway.
After a few minutes of ducking branches and wading through the tall grass, they came to a clearing. Cautiously, staying close to the tree line, they worked their way towards the cabin.
There, in the shadow of the trees, they stood in amazement and watched cats of every imaginable shape, colour and size sitting n the porch or window ledge, hunting in the grass or sunning themselves on the sagging roof.
"How extraordinary!" exclaimed Elizabeth softly. "Do you think they are in there, David?"
"Someone had a fire going in there recently. There is still a wisp of smoke coming out of the chimney pipes. If they are in there, it most be very crowded. Dear me, I shall have to let Erving know about this. He's the animal control officer, Elizabeth, as well as working for the village council cutting and maintaining the lawns at the park and our cemetery. These poor cats need taking care of!" David finished indignantly being an animal lover.
"I quite agree, David, but we must worry about the family first and make sure they are safe," Elizabeth stated, patting David's arm, for she knew how upset he would be at the thought of these poor pets suffering neglect.
David nodded. "I am going to have a look in the window. Now, Bethy, I need you to stay here. If there is any trouble I will need you to go for help."
"Yes, David," Elizabeth agreed. David always knew how to handle life's emergencies. He was just like Robbie that way.
David moved cautiously towards the cabin, keeping low in the grass and stopping now and again to look about like he had seen soldiers do in the war movies. It did cross his mind, that since having met the Williams family, his life had become rather unpredictable and exciting. Here it was, his wedding day, and he should be spending the morning talking to his brother before getting ready for the service. Instead, he was advancing through the grass towards a cat filled cabin to perhaps confront a sharpshooter, admittedly an old one, but still a dangerous character.
Carefully, he eased along the side of the cabin and looked into the window cautiously. It was empty. He moved around and got up on the porch and tried the door. It wasn't locked. The inside smelt foul and was stacked with all manner of junk that the old man had hoarded over the years. The place was filthy and shocked David deeply. He was glad he had left Elizabeth on guard. He would not want her to see how low a person could sink. Noting everything carefully, he went back to report to Elizabeth.
"The cabin is empty, darling. But the ropes around two of the kitchen chairs, indicates to me that
two people have been tied up there recently."
"Ryan and Mac?" Elizabeth asked in concern.
"I imagine so. I am going to look for footprints. I think it is safe enough for you to come with me. No one seems to be around at the moment."
"Oh good. I feel better being with you. Can you read footprints, David, like they do in the movies?" asked Elizabeth with pride, as she followed the man she was to marry across the clearing.
David blushed. "Well, in my younger days, Ted and I did do some hunting. But I am hoping I'll be able to find a trail of flattened grass like we saw on the path in."
Elizabeth followed quietly then, leaving David to concentrate on what he was doing. He circled the house first, moving farther out with each swing. On the third trip around, he stooped and picked up two spent shells, sniffed the casings and frowned. "I think, Elizabeth, that things might be more serious than we thought."
Old Lenny herded the growing group of woman across the field, grumbling to himself as he walked along behind them. Aliki fell to the back, and impatiently waited for a break in Lenny's monologue. "Where are the bones?" she demanded.
"We're going to get them, aren't we? Now you just shut up about them bones. You women have been nothin' but trouble," complained Lenny.
Aliki sighed and picked up her pace to join Dawn and Mac. Dawn smiled sympathetically at Aliki, and then turned her attention back to her daughter who she held close. "Don't worry, Honey. We'll come out of this okay." Mac nodded, too cold to talk.
Ahead of them walked Ryan and Robbie. "Have you noticed, Mom, how often this seems to happen to us," Ryan muttered, through teeth that chattered with the cold even though she was snuggled close to her mom.
"I like to look at it as unfortunate coincidence," Robbie responded.
Janet now followed at the end, finding Reb a heavy weight to carry. Reb said nothing. She knew something was not right but she wasn't sure just what it was. She snuggled deeper into her Mom's shoulder. She didn't like the man who was with them. He smelled bad like, Rufus after he'd got wet.
"Where are you taking us?" Janet asked the old man, as she adjusted Reb's weight on her hip.
"Can't bury the lot of you, now can I? It would take a week to dig a hole that big. I'm goin' ta have to shoot you up at the cave and leave ya there to rot. Now I gotta find me another place to live and with winter comin' on too!" whined Old Lenny.
Robbie snorted and added bitterly, "Well, we had planned on a family gathering this weekend anyway."
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