This humorous, adult romance belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me, though they may remind you of someone.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
This story depicts a romantic and sexual relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.
This story contains some profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: August 1st - 16th, 2013.
As always, thank you for your help, Wendy Arthur - this time, you really saved my bacon ;D
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: Do opposites really attract? It's not something self-confessed hippie Daisy-Belle Cosmick has ever given much thought until she and her folk band the Butterflies get stuck in Cape Whitnell on their way to a music festival. The sheer presence of clean-cut, by-the-book Sheriff Erica Wayne gives the folk singer plenty to think about - including an intriguing possibility of finding love in the unlikeliest of places...
Daisy-Belle Cosmick, the guitarist and lead vocalist of the folk band Daisy-Belle's Butterflies, brought their '66 Volkswagen Microbus to a gliding halt in the middle of the road and stared out of the windscreen with eyes that were already too tired to see much of anything - her fatigue wasn't exactly helped by the gloomy, rainy conditions they found themselves in. The inside of the windscreen had misted up in places, but she did what she could to keep it clear with a sponge on a makeshift stick.
The left-hand side wing mirror wasn't any help, either, as it was completely covered in droplets from the shower that had swept over them as they drove into the small hamlet on the coastal road that snaked its way between the hilly, densely forested terrain to the west and the vast, foreboding Atlantic Ocean to the east.
Making a snap decision, Belle, as she was known in the band, activated the turning signal and drove up a narrow, steep road that soon turned so muddy the wheels began to lose traction.
"I don't think ya shoulda turned there, dude," Packard Summer said from his spot on the back seat.
The words had barely left his mouth when the Microbus got stuck hubcap-deep in mud a mere fifty-five yards up the steep, deserted trail.
"Shut up, Pack," Belle mumbled, trying to fish through the gearbox to find anything that could drag the old, multi-colored vehicle out of there. Unfortunately, even after finding reverse, all she could do was to make the rear wheels spin furiously on the muddy trail. "Oh fuck that, we're stuck..." she said and looked to her right at the pale, short-haired woman who was sitting next to her: Autumn Leaf, the band's harmony vocalist - Leaf among friends.
The slack, feel-no-pain look on Leaf's face said it all, and Belle didn't even bother to try waking her up.
"Ya shouldn't ha' turned there, dude," Packard said and leaned back in his seat.
"You said that already," Belle said and shot her percussionist a scathing glare in the rear-view mirror. "How about gettin' out an' push instead of mouthing off?"
Packard briefly glanced out of the window, but the rain that streamed down from the roof made him shake his head and cross his arms over his chest. "Push?! In this feckin' weather? It's raining cats and dogs out there, dude. No way, dude."
"What's the Walrus doing?" Belle said, looking over her shoulder at the fourth member of the band, the fiddler Oswald 'Walrus' Jones.
"Sleeping it off," Packard said and watched with amusement as Oswald's impressive mustache - that had obviously earned him his nickname - fluttered in and out each time he breathed.
"Uh-huh. Shit," Belle said and began to toy with the many leather wristbands on her arms while she pondered what to do. Finally arriving at the conclusion that they needed help, she reached across the bench seat and opened the glove compartment into Leaf's lap. "Naw, we gotta call for help," she said, finding her iPhone.
"Not the fuzz, dude, not the fuzz! Call the fire boys! Don't forget, we got grass and shit back here," Packard said, leaning forward to underscore his words.
Belle stared intently at the iPhone but soon shook her head. "Doesn't matter anyhow, Pack. No signal."
"Aw, shit... we're stuck here!"
"Yeah... hey, there's a house with a light on maybe... uh... seventy yards to our right. D'ya think you could run over there and-"
"Yeah, Pack. Run. Between the raindrops, ya know."
"Keep dreamin', dude," Packard said surly and crossed his arms over his chest all over again.
Sighing, Belle put away the iPhone and went back to fishing in the gearbox. "I ain't givin' up! Ain't givin' up! We didn't come all this way just... just... to... get... stuck... here... shit. We really are stuck."
"Told ya ya shouldn't ha' turned there, dude."
"No, you didn't!"
"No, you didn't, Pack. You probably just imagined you did in that purple haze of yours," Belle said and turned off the engine with a sour huff.
"I'm not hazy..."
"What's the name of the town we're in, Pack?"
"Close, Pack. Real close," Belle said and rolled her eyes repeatedly.
"Oh... ah, who gives a stuffed turkey."
The heavy drumbeat of raindrops on the roof of the Microbus and the heated chitter-chatter between Belle and Packard made Leaf stir from her grass-induced slumber, but what really made her come back to the real world was the mention of...
"Turkey? We got turkey? It's time to eat? I got the munchies... man, I could raid a bakery right about now... oh, Gawd I need some food... we got any food?" she mumbled, looking around in a daze at the other members of the band.
Belle chuckled and looked over her shoulder. "Pack, you got something back there? We're all out up here."
"Yeah, I got a... uh... I thought I had a..." Packard said while he rummaged around in the heap of spent wrappers and torn plastic bags on the seat and in the footwell. "Oh yeah, I got some... some... naw, it's empty... shit. Oh yeah, here's a brand new roll of chocolate cookies, dude," he continued, handing the roll to Belle.
Quickly opening the roll, Belle took the top cookie and stuck it into Leaf's yap. "Here you go, hon. Don't choke on it."
"I won't!" Leaf mumbled and began to munch on the cookie with a wide grin on her face. Unfortunately she couldn't quite make the connection that if she had her mouth open while eating, some of the food would fall out and end up in her lap - and it did.
Belle chuckled and put the roll on the dashboard so Leaf could reach it if she wanted another cookie. "Pack," she said, looking out of the window, "I think we need to sit out the rain. Once it's dried up a little, we're probably gonna need to shift the instruments out there so we can lighten the load. Else we're stuck here for good."
"Shit, dude... that's hard work at this time of the evening..."
In the middle of her second cookie, Autumn Leaf went into a giggle-fit that came from nowhere but rapidly engulfed her entire being. Chuckling, giggling, snickering and hiccuping like a mental schoolgirl, she soon had the other bandmembers going as well, creating quite the spectacle in the narrow confines of the Microbus.
Some time later a short mile further up the coastal road, the thirty-eight year old Sheriff Erica Wayne hurried along the smooth floor of her office to get to the ringing telephone on her desk, holding a mug of coffee in one hand and a small plate with a bite-molested bagel with a thick slice of cheese in the other.
"This is Sheriff Wayne, go ahead," she said into the receiver once she had deposited her load on the desk and sat down on her swivel-chair.
'Oh good evenin', Sheriff, this is Marcia Willems,' a mature female voice said at the other end of the line. 'There's a car stuck on the trail next to my house... the muddy one that goes up into the forest, you know? They've been there for nearly half an hour now.'
"I see. Go on, Marcia," Erica said and tapped the information into the computer to log the date, time and type of incident.
'It's a minibus of some kind. It's definitely stuck in the mud. I can see some people moving around in it, so you better come take a look, Sheriff.'
"All right. Noted. I'm on my way," Erica said and made to hang up.
"Thank you for calling." - Hanging up, Erica took a last bite out of her evening snack and a couple of gulping swigs from her coffee before she donned her foul-weather gear - a plastic bag over her Sheriff's hat and a waterproof cape over her charcoal gray uniform.
As she came to the glass double doors of the Sheriff's office, she cast a sideways glance at the pouring rain and let out a dark grunt that betrayed she would have preferred to stay indoors. The last thing she did before running to her Chevrolet Tahoe was to hang a small sign on the door that said 'Back soon!'
In the Microbus, the interior lights gradually grew fainter, a result of the battery running flat from keeping the lights, the wipers and the heater going in the gloomy, wet and chilly darkness on the muddy trail.
"Aw great," Belle said, looking at the dim bulb above her. A random chuckle from the hazy, drowsy Autumn Leaf made her look at the dim bulb next to her with a knowing grin on her face. "Hey Pack, we gotta remember to stop at that booth again some time. They had some great shit, man."
"Yeah... if I could only remember where it was," Packard mumbled from the back seat.
"Yeah... oh... oh, shit!" Belle suddenly exclaimed, looking in the rear-view mirror at the huge, dark shadow that rolled up behind them.
There was no mistaking the brief stab of the siren and the flashing of the emergency lights, and Packard jumped in his seat when he realized they had been spotted by a police car. "Feck, dude, I gotta get rid of the grass... I gotta get rid- the windows won't open, dude! The feckin' windows won't open, dude! The Walrus is in my way... I can't get to the side door, dude! We're fecked, dude!"
"Calm down, Pack... they're probably just here to help us. Act natural!" Belle said and rolled down the driver's side window. Looking out to a chorus of 'Whaddaya mean act natural? I am acting natural!' she could see the outline of a tall, square-built officer in a waterproof cape attaching a towrope to the tail of the Microbus.
The rain was still pouring down, and the musky scent from the wet forest floor around them was almost strong enough to drown out the leftover smoke from the doobie they had shared earlier - Belle hoped the officer didn't have time to check for something like that.
Moments later, the tall, dark figure went up to the open window and waved a flashlight around in Belle's face. "Put it in neutral!" the officer said, and Belle nodded and smiled and nodded and smiled some more. Only when she had released the handbrake and put the stick into neutral did she realize it had been a female voice doing the commanding, but by then, the officer had already moved back to the other car.
The powerful SUV was able to pull the relatively light-weight Microbus out of the worst of the mud without any dramas, but when Belle tried to start the engine, all she could get out of it were a couple of muted coughs. "Damn... the battery's dead," she mumbled, tapping her fingers on the rim of the thin, white steering wheel.
Grunting, she waved out of the window to catch the attention of the officer who soon came to the door. "Uh, hi. Uh, thanks for the help... I'm afraid we're gonna need a tow... the battery's flat. You got a mechanic in that nice, little town of yours?"
Erica was about to open her mouth to reply when she caught a glimpse of the woman she had been sent to help. The driver of the Microbus was cute, no doubt about that, with a pair of sparkly green eyes, dimpled cheeks and braided, blonde hair - and a purple and silver batik outfit fit for a hippie, Erica noted - but what really caught her eye was the fact the driver appeared to be in her late fifties, if not older.
That surprising observation soon had to yield for a deep, professional sniff as the air inside the Volkswagen seemed to hold a certain, highly recognizable scent best known as cannabis smoke. Erica narrowed her eyes and reached in under her waterproof cape to put her hand on the holster of her sidearm. "Driver's license and vehicle registration, ma'am," she said in a steely voice.
"Just for the record, Officer," Belle said as she reached for her wallet that was in the glove compartment, "I have only had one hit of the dutchie tonight. My companions here shared the rest."
"Mmmm," Erica said as she pointed the flashlight at the plastic card. "Daisy-Belle Cosmick, born 2-26-1951... Daisy-Belle? Decibel?" the Sheriff continued incredulously.
"Yup! That's my name all right, Officer. Daisy-Belle Cosmick. With a C-K. Yup. Bought and paid for in, oh... June 1974 I think it was. We're Daisy-Belle's Butterflies, the best folk group in the country," Belle said with a broad grin that she hoped was enough to make the tall, imposing Officer relax and forget about sniffing the pot. "The friendly people with me are Autumn Leaf, Packard Summer and Oswald 'the Walrus' Jones. And this here beauty is our tour bus," she continued, patting the doorframe of the Microbus.
Erica took a step back and looked at the highly colorful bus. Apart from the windows, there wasn't a single spot on the left flank of the vehicle that wasn't covered in psychedelic paint, and she surmised the right flank was dressed up similarly. The hubcaps were painted like multi-colored spirals that no doubt created a hypnotic effect when they moved, and the Volkswagen logo that should have been prominently placed on the front had been replaced by a chrome peace symbol. "Uh-huh," she said, handing back the driver's license and refusing the vehicle registration.
The rain was coming down harder than ever and Erica was fed up with having fat drops running down her neck where the waterproof cape was gaping. "Tell you what we're gonna do," she said and leaned into the window to check up on the other passengers, especially a bombed-out woman in the front and a highly jittery man who was trying to hold a plastic bag out of sight in the back seat - she had to suppress a chuckle when she realized they were both as old as her parents. "I'm gonna tow you down to the parking lot at the Sheriff's Office. Once there, we're gonna have a little talk. Okay?"
"No, hang on, Officer," Belle said and sat up straight, "we're actually going to the Lyndonville Folk Festival, but we've booked an overnight stay at the Catalina Beach Hotel here in Cape Whitnell. I thought it was up here, that's why I turned up this road, but-"
"The Catalina Beach Hotel?"
"Uh... yes, Officer."
"It burned down last weekend in a lightning storm," Erica said flatly, pushing her bag-covered hat back from her eyes.
Belle ground her jaw and slapped her hand down onto the rim of the steering wheel. "Shit! They fuckin' well coulda given me a call! Uh, pardon my French, Officer."
"Mmmm. Stay in the bus while I fix up the towrope... and you, Sir, don't throw that bag out of the window while you're being towed," Erica said, tapping a knuckle on the window where Packard was sitting. "Or else I'm gonna have to write you a ticket for littering. Yeah?"
"Yeah, okay," Packard said sheepishly, earning himself a chuckle from Belle.
Once they were alone, Packard let out a sigh as he looked down at the first-class pot they had bought in the larger city they had gone through earlier in the day. "Dude, what's the world coming to... now they let girls be traffic fuzz, too," he mumbled, shaking his head over the unfairness of it all.
"Oh, she was no girl, Pack... she was all woman. And kinda sexy, too... for a fuzz, I mean," Belle mumbled and looked in the rear-view mirror at the activity behind the Microbus.
It didn't take long for Erica to tow the colorful Microbus into town and bring it to a halt in the parking lot next to the Sheriff's Office. In the mirror, she had been able to track that the old vehicle had been wobbling quite badly once they got up to speed, almost like something had broken underneath in the rough treatment it had received in the mud.
Grunting, she stepped out of the Tahoe, unhooked the towrope and threw it into the back of the SUV. Just as she wiped her dirty hands on a rag she had in there, the heavy rainstorm came to a reluctant end that left only scattered drops falling from the leaden sky, though the breeze was still hard enough to make her waterproof cape flap about.
The four light posts - standing in each corner of the parking lot - shone orange light down onto the drenched pavement where large puddles that had been unable to escape through the many cracks in the surface proved how hard it had rained.
"So," Erica said as she walked up to the driver's side window of the Microbus.
"Yeah?" Belle replied with the most angelic smile she could muster.
"It looks like you've got a problem with your vehicle. The right front is wobbling. I can't allow you to drive on like that, even after you've changed the battery," Erica said sternly, earning herself a muted series of groans, curses and utterances of 'Fuck!' from the passengers.
"Look, Officer," Belle said and put her arm on the windowsill, "we're eight hours out from our last overnight stay and we still got five hours left on the road before we reach the festival. With the hotel gone... and since we can't go on... would you mind telling us what we should do?"
Erica pushed the covered hat back from her forehead and scratched her brow. "Well... the garage isn't open this time of night so I suppose you need to leave the bus here until the morning. Then we can tow it down to Wylie Donaldson's and get him to take a look at it. Uh... we got a couple of Bed & Breakfasts here but not another hotel, so, uh... I suppose I could offer you a bed in the jail while you wait."
The proverbial dropped pin could be heard quite clearly, although it was in fact closer to a muted knocking sound: Packard thumping his head against the window.
"The jail?" Belle parroted, gazing at the tall officer's sky blue eyes, dark hair and pale ocher complexion - a curious combination she couldn't recall seeing before.
"Just to sleep, ma'am. I'm not arresting you," Erica said with a grin.
Grinning back in relief, Belle turned around in the seat and patted Autumn Leaf's thigh. "Whassup, guys? You wanna spend the night in the slammer or...?"
"Feck that, dude," Packard said with vehemence. "I wanna sleep right here with our instruments. You know these small towns... all conservative and hippie-hatin' and when the darkness falls, the freaks come out, dude."
"Yeah, huh? And the rest of you?"
For the first time since they got stuck on the muddy trail, Oswald 'the Walrus' Jones sat up straight and looked at the world with his pale gray eyes. "I'm with Pack," he said in a deep, rumbling voice that was a good match for his impressive mustache. "I'd rather risk my neck out here. I've been in enough jails to know the metal bars themselves ain't the worst things 'bout 'em, the minds of the people running 'em are. Ain't that right?"
"So feckin' right," Packard said, nodding.
"So my gal and I are gonna snuggle up out here like in the good old days," the Walrus continued, reaching forward to caress his wife's neck and short hair.
Snickering, Leaf leaned into the touch and let out a contented sigh that settled the deal.
"You can have the back seat, I'll take the front, dudes," Packard said.
"That's a deal, Pack," the Walrus said and slapped his old friend a high-five.
Up front, Belle opened the door and shuffled around on the warm, uncomfortable seat. "Fine by me, guys... but I can't say no to a real bed. My back's killin' me as it is. Hey, it's a great night now... c'mon out and get some fresh air while we can," she said, climbing down from the old Microbus to stretch her legs and fill her lungs with the crisp evening air.
Her fellow bandmembers groaned but eventually came out of the doors on the other side of the vehicle. They promptly leaned against the multi-colored bus and began to mumble amongst themselves, almost like they were afraid of straying too far from the safety of their rolling home in case the embodiment of the law didn't stick to her word of not arresting them.
Stifling a chuckle, Erica walked around the Microbus to take a closer look at the band calling themselves Daisy-Belle's Butterflies. The three musicians were soon joined by Belle, and together, the four chatting people provided a splash of psychedelic colors in the otherwise dreary Cape Whitnell.
The man with the impressive mustache looked to be the eldest of the bunch and it was obvious he wasn't as spry as he had once been, but he still wore his faded blue jeans and his Bruce Springsteen T-shirt with pride. While Erica was observing him, he plopped a battered leather cowboy hat down onto his gray locks and began to chew on his cheek. The man next to him had a furrowed face and the typically slouchy appearance of a pothead, but he knew to keep his chin high and his denim straight. The first of the two women was underweight for her height and she appeared frail, like she was or had recently been ill - her baggy dress, short hair and pasty hue seemed to correlate the observation.
The final bandmember was Daisy-Belle herself. Erica noted that the woman could easily pass for being a decade younger than her sixty-two years; her fit, slender frame, her dimpled cheeks and the unmistakable sparkling eyes of a mischievous soul saw to that. Erica subconsciously found herself checking out the woman who was dressed in ankle boots, a silver skirt and an oversized, purple t-shirt with a hand-painted peace symbol on the front, but when she realized that Daisy-Belle was in fact her mother's senior by three years, she shook her head and let out an embarrassed chuckle.
What Erica didn't know was that Belle was giving the tall, square-built Sheriff a healthy dose of The Roaming Eye as well: 'Well, well, well... I'll bet she's got plenty to offer under that shapeless cape. Man, the fuzz sure do look different from the old days... thank Gawd! I wonder if she's a Native A with that coloring? Hey, can't hurt to ask.' - "Pardon me, Officer-"
"I'm the Sheriff here, actually," Erica said and moved closer to the folk singer. "Sheriff Erica Wayne. Hi."
"Oh Gawd, dude!" Packard exclaimed loudly, "It's John Wayne back from the dead to haunt us, dude!"
While Leaf and the Walrus quickly shushed the confused stoner, Belle stepped forward with a cheesy grin gracing her features. "Oh wow, a lady Sheriff? Hi, Miss lady Sheriff. May I ask you a question?"
"Do you have Native American blood? I mean... with your skin tone...?"
Erica put her hands on her hips and gave Belle an amused stare. After a few seconds, she offered the singer a half-shrug. "Yeah. One half Abenaki of ten generations on my mother's side, one half Caucasian. My dad gave me my eyes and my height, my mom gave me my color, my hair, my blood and my pride."
"Wow, that's so cool, dude!" Packard exclaimed loudly. "Peace, sister! What's your name?"
Erica narrowed her eyes and shot the pothead a scathing glare. "Erica Wayne. Like I told you ten seconds ago."
"No, no, dude... what's your tribal name? You gotta have a tribal name, dude?"
"My... tribal... name...?" Erica said, narrowing her eyes even more.
"Okay, never mind, but tell me, why the feck are you wearin' the White Man's clothes, dude? You should be out there with us! Singing your ancient songs and carrying on the age-old traditions, dude!"
"Mister Summer, may I suggest that you get a bit more up to speed on current Native American affairs?" Erica said flatly.
"Uh... buh... whut? Okay..." Packard said and shuffled back and forth on the pavement.
Belle chuckled and reached into the back of the Microbus to get her travel bag that was resting on top of the hard packing cases containing their instruments. "Aw, he don't mean no harm, Sheriff. Guys, are you okay with me sleeping in the slammer?"
Autumn Leaf finally seemed to wake up from her haze and leaned in towards the lead singer. "What if she... you know... wears two faces or something? You could be in real trouble in there..."
"Naw, it's gonna be just fine, Leaf," Belle said and patted her friend's hand. "Don't you worry 'bout me. I'm a big girl. Hey, are you okay? You're a little pale tonight."
"I'm dead tired, but I'm fine, Belle... thanks," Leaf said, nodding slowly.
"Great," Belle said and reached up to caress the frail woman's cheek. "Now, Sheriff Wayne, you said something about a bed?" she continued as she turned back towards the tall Sheriff.
"Yes. Come with me, please," Erica said and began to walk towards the building housing the Sheriff's Office. When she reached the double glass doors, she turned around and looked at the other members of the band. "The rest of you, are you sure you'd rather spend the night out here?"
"Sure we're sure. Peace, sister!" Packard said and held up his fingers in a V.
"Uh-huh." - Turning back around, Erica opened the double doors and ushered Belle inside.
Many hours later, Daisy-Belle Cosmick stirred and rolled over onto her back. It took her a few moments to get her bearings, but when she caught a glimpse of the sterile environment of the borrowed jail cell, she remembered everything, including where she was and why.
A brief look at her wristwatch proved that it was morning, so she rubbed her face to get rid of the sleepies to prepare for the new day.
The night had been chilly so she had decided to keep her batik t-shirt on, with the inevitable result that it had become even more creased than it already was. Ignoring the fashion faux-pas, she snuggled down under the surprisingly comfortable quilted blanket and tried to put her hands behind her head, but her old shoulders gave her so much grief she had to give up the attempt.
Instead, she swung her legs over the side of the jail bunk and sat up. Yawning and scratching her scalp, she looked around the cold, hostile room and felt glad she wasn't there on a permanent basis. She had seen plenty of jail cells in her life, though it had been a fair while since the last time. This one wasn't any different from the majority, except the mirror above the wash basin wasn't cracked and the toilet facilities consisted of an actual aluminum bowl instead of a hole in the floor.
She needed a little bit of effort to get out of bed - her bones let her know she wasn't twenty-five anymore - but when she was up, she only walked with a light limp on her way to the wash basin to get the medicine case she had put there when she had gone to bed. The next problem presented itself immediately: there was no tumbler for her to drink out of, not even a plastic one.
Unable to take her pills or brush her teeth without water, she groaned and decided to skip ahead in the process instead - first stop, bladder relief.
A few minutes later, Belle knocked on every door she could find so whomever was on duty wouldn't get spooked by a supposed prisoner walking around freely. "Hello? Hello? Hello, Miss Sheriff Lady? Hello?" she said, looking up and down the seemingly deserted white corridors. "Huh... I can definitely use this in a song... lemme see... I walked alone in the empty halls, feelin' the chill and hearin' the calls- oh!"
The swinging double doors at the end of the corridor swung open, and suddenly, Belle found herself in the Sheriff's Office itself. Slightly busier than the night before - though not exactly bustling with activity - the room was occupied by a mid-thirty-something male Deputy and two younger female secretaries who were sitting at three metal desks, all appearing to be hard at work.
Belle was about to open her mouth to ask the Deputy about the Sheriff when she noticed two white cables going from a matchbox-sized electronic thingamajig on the desk to the man's ears. "Earphones," she mumbled, shuffling over to the two secretaries to try her luck with them instead.
"Hi," she said with her most winning smile once she had reached the first desk. "You lovely ladies wouldn't perchance be able to tell me where the equally lovely Sheriff is at, would you?"
The first of the two secretaries - a bubblegum chewing early-twenty-something blonde with mismatched pigtails and a Hello Kitty t-shirt - looked up at the woman in the funny clothes who was old enough to be her grandmother. "Sorry?" she said, shoving the wad of strawberry-flavored gum to her other cheek.
"The Sheriff, hon? Where's the Sheriff?"
"Oh, she's still upstairs in her apartment. She's not on duty now."
"Upstairs?" Belle said and turned around to look for a door that could take her to the striking Sheriff. After a brief while, her eyes stopped at a well-camouflaged door in the far wall that had a row of brass letters on it that spelled 'Private'. "Never mind, I got it. Thanks."
"Oh, but wait... nobody's allowed up there without permission, Ma'am. I need to call ahead first," the gum-chewing secretary said while pointing at an old-fashioned telephone on her desk.
"Well, you have my blessing to do that right now, hon."
"I can't, Ma'am. The Sheriff didn't say anything about visitors, and... well, we need her permission."
"Wow, you need permission to ask for permission!? Holy shit!" Belle exclaimed loudly, clapping her hands together, "And I thought the music industry was bureaucratic! Man! Wotshe got up there, anyhow? The missing twenty minutes?"
"Ah... the what?"
"From the Nixon tapes... you know... Watergate... never mind," Belle said and turned away from the secretary who was far too young to understand what the older woman was talking about.
A sudden commotion at the glass double doors made everyone look, and it made the male Deputy take out his earphones and throw his hands in the air in a disgusted gesture. "Jeez, Edgar... what did you do today?" he said and rose from his desk.
An elderly man in a dark blue business suit that had known better days walked into the office on shaky legs, supporting himself by holding onto the backrests of the chairs he went past. "Deputy Rogers, I've come to turn myself in," the elderly man said in a weak voice.
"I have committed a terrible crime."
"I coveted another man's wife."
"Uh-huh. When was this, Mr. Judson?"
"In 1977... and it was the preacher's wife. Uh... would it be possible to get a cup of coffee before you slap the cuffs on me, Deputy?"
Deputy Rogers looked towards the heavens to seek guidance but nothing came to him. With a grunt, he turned around and walked over to a table at the far wall where a coffee machine was blubbering merrily.
The twenty-something secretary with the strawberry-flavored bubblegum suddenly realized the old woman in the funny clothes had left the office without anyone noticing. She briefly looked around, but soon shrugged and returned to her paperwork that was driving her nuts.
The staircase up to Erica's apartment on the first floor of the Sheriff's Office nearly proved to be Belle's undoing, and she had to lean against the cool wall as she reached the landing at the top of the stairs before she could knock on the inner door. "Bah, this is pathetic... I hate mornings..." she mumbled as she rubbed her aching right hip.
Swallowing down her contempt for her frailty, she reached up to knock on the inner door. When she didn't get an answer, she opened it very quietly and peeked inside. "Hello? Miss Sheriff?" she asked, but didn't get an answer. Soft music was playing from somewhere further into the apartment, but it was hard to tell where it came from. Since no reply was forthcoming, she walked into the room and closed the door behind her.
Belle found herself in a living room that was held in earthy tones and dominated by book cases and terracotta pots with various species of cacti. The apartment only had windows in the wall facing Main Street down below, the opposite wall was tastefully decorated with picture frames displaying colorful posters of vast, sweeping landscapes like Monument Valley and the great plains.
The cheap, brown polyester rug on the floor seemed out of place compared to the rest of the more classy furniture - a microfiber couch arrangement and a deep brown coffee table among them - and it looked so much like Government Issue that Belle couldn't suppress a girlish chuckle.
'Goddammit, Wanda!' Erica suddenly barked from one of the rooms further into the apartment, making Belle snap to attention. 'How many times have I told you to call ahead? I'm in my undies here! Jesus, what is it this time?' the strong voice continued, moving closer and closer until the tall woman finally came out into the connecting hallway wrapping a dark red kimono around her long torso.
Belle smirked over the unexpected show, having just caught a fleeting glimpse of a pair of black sports panties and two dark nipples sitting proudly on full breasts before the kimono was closed for good. "Uh... hi. It's me, Daisy-Belle Cosmick. Remember me?"
"How could I forget?" Erica said and put her hands on her hips. "Since you're already here, I won't throw you out, but for future reference... please call ahead. I'm quite fond of my privacy."
"Yeah, uh, okay. Noted. I'm really sorry, Sheriff, but the reason I'm here is that," - Belle moved closer to the tall woman who looked quite exquisite with her black hair down, she mused - "I couldn't get water for my morning pills. I hate sounding like a sick old woman, but I kinda need them... may I leech a glass of water, please?" she said and reached into her travel bag to take the medicine case that she held up with a cute smile on her aged lips.
"But of course," Erica said and returned the smile. "I know all about having to take pills... PMS," she said, touching her stomach.
"Ouch. Yeah, there's one of the things I don't miss one little bit," Belle said and moved past the taller woman.
"The kitchen's off to the right... yeah, right there," Erica said and smiled at the whimsical older woman who had already claimed the kitchen as her own. Walking up to stand in the doorway, Erica wondered if Belle was really sixty-two as her driver's license said, as she seemed more alive than most of the thirty-something women who lived in and around Cape Whitnell - and she should know since she had tried quite hard to get to know a select few of them better over the years she had spent in the sleepy hamlet. "You need to let the cold faucet run for a little while in the mornings... the water tastes metallic if we don't."
"Gotcha," Belle said and opened the cold faucet. While the water ran, she took a tumbler and opened her medicine case to prepare her daily intake of chemicals. "Gawd, look at this... five different pills each and every morning. Indigestion, my allergies, something that's far too private to tell a sprouncy young gal as yourself, and finally two painkillers to take away the pain in my old bones and the nausea brought on by the anti-indigestion gunk. And they wonder why we smoke dutchies," she said out loud as she put the tumbler under the faucet and filled it.
After sipping it to check for any metallic taste, she downed the first of the pills and chased it away with several swigs.
"While we're on the subject, Miss Cosmick-"
"Oh, the hell you don't! I'm Belle!" Belle said, shooting Erica such a dark glare that the taller woman had to hold up her hands in capitulation.
"Belle. While we're on the subject of illness, what's wrong with the other woman in your band, uh... Autumn Leaf? She didn't look too well last night," Erica said and moved up to lean against the kitchen table. The kimono slipped apart to reveal an ocher thigh, but it was soon closed again.
"Leaf is a breast cancer survivor," Belle said and chucked down the last of her painkillers. "She spent most of last winter in hospital. Mastectomy, chemo, the works. At several points, they didn't think she'd pull through, but... Leaf is a tough old bird. Yeah."
"I get the impression you've known each other long...?"
"I've known her for over forty years! The guys came a year or two later," Belle said and rinsed the tumbler she had used before taking a tea-towel and wiping it clean. "Yeah. All of us have played together, toured together and generally shared the same space since 1974 or so. Of course, the only touring we do these days is to selected retro fairs and folk festivals... that sort of thing. The rest of the year, we're good, little, picture perfect grandmommas and daddies... well, some of us, anyhow."
"Mmmm, I gotta admit that you don't strike me as a 'grandmomma' at all. So you really are sixty-two?" Erica said with a great deal of amusement.
"Huh, is that how a come-on sounds these days?" Belle said and let out a loud chuckle. " 'Hey, hottie, you're no granny!' No wonder the world's falling apart. Hon, you gotta work on your technique. Show a little tenderness, ya know!"
"So they keep tellin' me," Erica said with a dark chuckle that revealed far more about the sorry state of her love life than she had intended to, especially to a complete stranger. Sobering, she pushed herself off the kitchen table and wrapped the kimono extra-tightly. "Listen, I need to hit the shower. You can wait in the living room if you want. Afterwards, how about I drove you down to the bakery for some breakfast?"
The mere mention of breakfast made Belle's stomach growl, and she patted it with reverence, like she kept a caged beast in there. "Breakfast? Oh, I hear ya, Miss Sheriff lady. I could chow down an organic donut or two and I guess the rest of the Butterflies could too. Do you know if they have herbal tea there?"
"No idea, I'm afraid. See you in a little while," Erica said and closed the bathroom door behind her.
Chuckling, Belle let out a low wolf call before she picked up her travel bag and shuffled into the living room. "Now that was a mighty fine piece of thigh right there... man, just like the good ol' days... I'm old enough to be her mother, but damn girl!"
Back in the living room, one of the fully loaded book cases caught her eye, and she walked over to it to peruse the shelves. "Like I've always said," she mumbled to herself as she checked out the spines of the colorful tomes, "the best way to get to know a gal is to take a gander at her book case. It says more about her than- holy shit, Claire McNab... Ellen Hart... Val McDermid... maybe there is a God!"
Belle reached for a paperback she'd had herself years earlier, but watched in horror as a large wad of newspaper clippings fell out of the book case and landed on the polyester carpet with a plopp! "Oh, shit! Shit, shit, shit..." she mumbled as she got down on her aching knees and began to gather the unruly pile back together.
She couldn't help but look at some of the headlines that talked of an incident in the slums of the State's major city three years previously, but she didn't start reading them closely until she spotted Erica's name in one of the articles.
'Yesterday, on the second day of the tribunal stemming from the fatal shooting of drug dealer Elhone 'Mista Rockz' Jackson in Grosvenor Park in October of last year, Police Sergeant Erica Wayne (on the left) gave the panel her version of the events leading up to her decision to use deadly force...'
'A Police Department spokesperson has revealed that Sergeant Erica Wayne has received severe homophobic threats from multiple undisclosed sources after her involvement in the fatal shooting of...'
'The Police Department has confirmed that Sergeant Erica Wayne has transferred out of the City Police in the wake of a series of increasingly aggressive threats against her and her partner of nine years following her acquittal of using excessive force in the Elhone 'Mista Rockz' Jackson shooting last October...'
"Oh, no... that great gal..." Belle said again, looking up to make sure Erica didn't see her go through the obviously very personal articles. Once the pile was in good order, she got up - on protesting legs - and put the newspaper clippings in between the paperback she had wanted to look at and the next one. "Those fuckers... buncha worthless, dickless cowards," she mumbled on her way over to the microfiber couch.
Belle sat down next to her travel bag at the coffee table and crossed her arms over her chest in a rare fit of pique. Looking around, she couldn't see any evidence of Erica living with someone, and she came to the grudging conclusion that the tribunal and all the nastiness that had gone with it had probably ended her relationship. "It's not my business... but dammit, this sucks!"
A short fifteen minutes later, the flushing of the toilet and the subsequent opening and closing of the bathroom door made Belle sit up straight and assume a neutral expression.
"Oh, you're still here," Erica said as she stepped into the living room while brushing her blow-dried hair with one hand and straightening her favorite off-duty V-neck blouse with the other.
"I'm still here, yep."
"Listen, ah... would you like to grab a quick shower or something...? I got plenty of-"
"Oh, no, that's not necessary... thank you. I'm used to roughing it," Belle said and gazed at the Sheriff's dark blue jeans that seemed tailor-made for the tall woman. "Uh... you mentioned something about breakfast?"
Erica chuckled and twirled the brush between her long fingers. "I did."
Downstairs in the Sheriff's Office, the two women were met by interested looks and sneaky glances the moment they stepped out of the door labeled 'Private'.
Wanda, the bubblegum-chewing secretary, rose from her chair with an apology written all over her face for not stopping the older woman, but Erica waved her off.
"Belle, I need to speak with my Deputy before we can go for breakfast. Why don't you go outside to your tour bus and see how your friends are doing?" Erica said and put a warm hand on Belle's batik shoulder.
"That's a great idea. It's before noon so I know they're still sleeping, tho... see ya in a few," Belle said and shuffled through the office, still walking with a slight limp.
Erica furrowed her brow at the sight and made a mental note of asking the colorful woman about it later. First, though, she had more pressing matters to deal with - Edgar Judson, the elderly man who had come in every other morning the entire time she had been in Cape Whitnell with a new hair-raising tale of murder, theft or indecent thoughts. "Deputy, I need a word. Good morning, Mr. Judson," she said and sat down on the corner of the desk she shared with her Deputy Sheriff, Patrick Rogers.
"Good morning, Sheriff," Edgar said, ducking his head from knowing his coffee hour would soon be over for another day.
Outside, Belle dropped her travel bag and spread out her arms like the wings of a butterfly. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath of the crisp, cool morning air that carried a distinct - though far from unpleasant - smell of the wet forest and the salty ocean.
Overnight, three other cars had joined their Microbus on the parking lot, but the psychedelic colors shone so brightly in the morning sun that everything else faded into obscurity.
The custom-fitted vanity curtains were closed all the way around the bus, but Belle could see by the fogged up windows that her friends were still in there. "They've probably had a good time," she mumbled, grinning to herself at the thought of the many nights she had spent with her companions in the tour bus, jamming, smoking pot and drinking beer.
Belle's good mood evaporated instantly when she took a closer look at the right front wheel. The camber was all wrong, and although she didn't know a lot about the technical aspects of the vehicle, a wheel pretending to be a tilting layer cake couldn't be particularly good for the safety of the passengers.
Grimacing about the cost of getting the wheel fixed, she picked up her travel bag and knocked softly on the window of the passenger side door. "Pack? Hey, Pack, are you awake in there? Leaf? Walrus, anybody still alive?"
The vanity curtains covering the center door fluttered aside in the lower-right corner, and Leaf's eye soon checked out what the commotion was about. When she spotted Belle, the curtain fluttered down and the door was unlocked and opened. "Hey," Leaf said in a thin, croaky voice, waving her old friend inside.
The Walrus was still sleeping on the back seat under a blanket, but Leaf sat on the floor between the rows of seats, slipping on a thin t-shirt that wouldn't really give her much protection from the morning chill, especially not as her lower half was still bare.
Belle had seen Autumn Leaf naked so many times over the years she had lost count, but she looked with sadness at the harmony vocalist's pronounced bone structure that seemed to protrude through her fair skin, a legacy of her long bout with cancer. Once upon a time, she'd had a body to rival anyone's, even that of the striking Sheriff, Belle thought, but now she was but half a woman.
'Fortunately, it's the most important half that's left, her heart... her soul,' Belle thought as she stepped up into the Microbus and closed the door behind her. Once she was in, she put her travel bag back on top of the instruments and shuffled down onto a corner of the back seat so she wouldn't disturb the Walrus.
As Leaf put on her panties and a pair of jogging pants, Belle remembered how she, the Walrus and Packard had decided to make a spontaneous nude-in celebration when Leaf returned from her mastectomy just to make her less conscious about her missing left breast.
With the specter of her mortality breathing down her neck, Leaf had been distraught and an emotional wreck after the surgery, but the four naked people had bunched up closely and had laughed, tickled each other and showed off their many imperfections, proving without a doubt that the perfect body simply didn't exist. Then the tests showed Leaf needed to go through chemotherapy as well, and her life and health fell to pieces.
Snapping out of the dark thoughts, Belle grinned at Leaf trying to get her husband to wake up by sneaking her hand under the blanket and tickling his family jewels - it worked, as his face cracked open in a yawn which was immediately followed by a cheesy grin.
"Guys," Belle said once she had everyone's attention, even Packard's who was sitting up on the front seat looking like a haystack after a storm. "I got good news and bad news. The good news is that the Sheriff Lady has promised to take me down to a bakery to get some breakfast for us..."
"Dude!" Packard exclaimed and slapped his hands against his forehead. "You call that the good news?! Dude! Messin' with the fuzz... our asses are toast, man! C'mon, let's get dressed an' get the feck outta here while we still can!"
At once, Packard jumped up and tried to locate his pants and his indispensable bag of weed. Once he had found the weed, he gave up looking for his pants and turned around to get ready to drive away.
"Pack, no... hey... wait a min- Pack! Will ya calm the fuck down, man!" Belle said in a groan. "The Sheriff Lady is just fine. She's cool. Nothing's gonna get toasted."
"What's the bad news, Belle?" Leaf said and put a frail hand on Belle's knee.
"The bad news is that our car is busted, guys! Something's wrong with the right front. Dunno what, but it doesn't look good. We ain't gonna drive anywhere before we can get it fixed. And don't forget our battery is fucked, too!"
"Aw, shit..." the Walrus said and rubbed his face.
Leaf furrowed her brow and began to chew on her already short fingernails. "But the festival is tomorrow afternoon, Belle... and we only have... uh... something like five hundred dollars between us," she said with a worried expression on her face. "Do you think that's gonna be enough?"
"I don't know, Leaf... it has to be. I mean... we can't stay here forever, can we?"
"We sure as shit can't!" Packard mumbled from behind the steering wheel.
"No," Belle said and reached for her travel bag. "So... first of all, I'm gonna change into something fresher and then I'm gonna go with the very nice Sheriff Lady to get some breakfast," she continued, already in the process of whipping off her purple T-shirt.
Ten minutes later, Erica stepped out onto the parking lot with a smile on her lips at the sight of the colorful Microbus. Clearing her throat, she walked up to it and knocked on the door, moving back slightly when the door was opened from the inside. "Hi, everybody. Good morning," she said to the four members of Daisy-Belle's Butterflies who were still in varying stages of getting dressed.
"Hi," Belle said with a grin. "I don't think you can fit in here, or else I woulda invited you in."
"Thanks," Erica said and returned the grin.
Belle realized her friends weren't exactly rushing to shake Erica's hand, so she leaned in towards Leaf and gave her shoulder a little nudge. "This isn't the Sheriff Lady, guys, this is Erica. She's cool and really friendly so we should slap her palms, ya know?"
"Hi, Erica," Leaf said and put out her hand. "My name is Autumn Leaf. Sorry for the frosty treatment but we're just not used to the fuzz being this kind to us."
"No worries. Hi," Erica said and shook first Leaf's hand, then that of the Walrus.
Packard still wasn't convinced about Erica's friendliness - although he did gawk at her long legs - so he just waved at her with a mumbled "Hiya."
After waving back at the percussionist, Erica put a hand on the top railing of the opened door and leaned into the Microbus, eagerly looking at the worn but rustic interior of the classic vehicle. "I've called the only mechanic in town, Wylie Donaldson, and he said he'd swing by as soon as his tow truck is available. It should be here within the hour."
"That's great," Oswald 'the Walrus' said, mussing his wife's neck and running his fingers through her short hair. "We're gonna stay with our instruments while he works on it. It's not that we don't trust him, o' course, but they're old and kinda unique."
"Sure, sure," Erica said, looking at the hard packing cases that were placed in orderly rows on top of the engine behind the back seat. "Listen, if you need to go to the bathroom or anything, I've told my Deputy that you can use the one in the jail."
The Walrus chuckled into his impressive mustache with a cheeky gleam in his pale gray eyes. "Thanks, but the flower beds have already been watered and I ain't talkin' 'bout the rain."
Erica chewed on her lips and moved a step back to look at the four concrete flower beds that lined the parking lot. "Okay, I didn't hear that," she said, smoothing down an eyebrow.
A thunderous growl from the beast in Belle's stomach put an end to the conversation, and she took the orders of her friends and promised she'd get back to them as quickly as possible with the goodies.
Upon their return from the sugar-run a brief while later, Erica and Belle drove back into the parking lot in Erica's private car, a smoke blue Chevrolet Cruze, and handed the starving Butterflies warm cinnamon buns, donuts, bagels, puffy pastries, coffee-to-go mugs and cartons of milk out of the car window like a latter-day soup kitchen.
Once the plastic bags were empty save for Belle's own breakfast, she looked at the profile of the Native American woman next to her and suddenly found herself wanting to spend some time with her before they would leave everything behind and drive onto the festival in Lyndonville - car problems permitting, of course. Belle tried to come up with something funny and charming to endear herself to the striking woman, but for once, her legendary wit and sharp mind deserted her.
Erica felt her older guest's eyes on her, and she turned her head and offered her a kind smile. "So... aren't you going to eat your breakfast?"
"Uh... yeah. Wait, aren't you gonna eat?"
"Yeah, but I was planning on driving up to Judy's Diner to get a hot plate," Erica said and put her arm across the backrest of Belle's seat.
"What, like bacon and eggs or something?"
"Close... scrambled eggs on dry-fried dark rye and a couple of hot wholegrain buns with melted gouda cheese. And chilled pineapple juice."
"Oh... that sounds pretty good, actu-" - The interrupting growl that came from Belle's stomach was unmistakable and made Erica laugh out loud and put the shifter in Drive - there was no reason to debate a moot point.
The parking lot outside the diner that was held in a style reminiscent of the early 1960s - shiny aluminum, large windows and a colorful marquee that said Welcome To Judy's! - was only half-full, but the trucks and SUVs that were there had all parked in the first row, so Erica had to drive down to the second row to find a free spot.
Unbuckling her seat belt, Belle opened the door and climbed out of the car. It took her a little while to get her hip going once she had closed the door behind her, but it came around eventually. "Do you think Judy will object to me eating the buns and stuff in there? I mean, I bought it elsewhere."
"Nah. Not when you're with me," Erica said and pressed the little button on her key fob to lock the car doors. She waited for the car to respond, and when it had flashed its turning signals twice, she walked over to the diner's swinging doors and held them open for her guest.
"Okay. Hey, I gotta admit... looking at the store front, I get a flashback to my wild youth. I spent a lotta time in diners such as this one in my teens."
"Oh yeah, that's where I started performing in public. I was in high school at the time. Nickel and dime stuff, but still," Belle said and squeezed past her tall hostess.
"Man, I got another flashback just now!" Belle continued, looking at the long counter, the round barstools and the row of tables and red benches along the windows overlooking Main Street. Her eyes drifted to the nearest end of the counter to look for the hand-written sign that would say 'Tonight at eight: Valerie Clark & Her Guitar' - but, of course, it wasn't there.
Some of the patrons who were eating breakfast or brunch looked up from their newspapers and coffee mugs to shoot curious glances at the two women. Belle's new outfit - a pair of well-worn blue jeans and a tan T-shirt with the words 'No More Death Stop The War!' on the front next to a blood-red handprint - seemed to be their primary object of interest.
"Whoa... and another flashback," Belle mumbled, looking back at the patrons and their army green T-shirts, their facial hair and their baseball caps flashing names of hunting equipment, eighteen-wheelers and what appeared to be the local gun shop.
The patrons seemed to come to the collective conclusion that a woman at Belle's age wouldn't pose a threat - hippie clothes or not - and turned their attention back to their newspapers.
Erica had noticed the silent interaction but chose not to make a comment. "Belle, why don't you sit down and start to eat? I'll post my order and join you in a moment," she said, putting her hand on the small of the older woman's back almost like she wanted to guide her along.
"Okie-dokie. I'll be right here... like a perfectly good li'l old lady. I promise I won't start any riots while you're away, Sheriff," Belle said with a wide grin as she slipped down onto the first red bench and scooted over to sit by the window.
It didn't take long before Erica returned with a tray heavily laden with a tumbler of pale yellow juice, a plate with two steaming hot wholegrain buns with cheese shreds that were draped down the sides, and a larger plate with a whole slice of dark rye completely covered by a huge lump of scrambled eggs that was picturesquely decorated with fresh, green chives.
"Oh wow, that looks great," Belle said as she dug into her last remaining Danish.
"Yep! I don't eat this every morning, but I had a jones for it today," Erica said and grabbed her eating utensils.
Belle chuckled and dabbed her lips and chin with a napkin. "Hey, do you think a hippie bird like me can order a mug of coffee without being looked at queerly?"
"If you want, I could order it for you?"
"Oh, no. No, no, no. What do you think I am... old or something?" Belle said with a wink as she scooted out of the bench seat. She needed a very brief moment to get her hip to work, but when it did, she moved smoothly over to the counter.
Once she was back with a steaming mug of black coffee, she put it down on the table and scooted back to her favored window seat.
"Does your hip hurt much?" Erica said quietly.
"Not usually but today it kinda does. I think it's the wet and cold climate here. It never gives me this much grief back home. We all live in Coulson, that's a small town just off Interstate Eighty north of Sacramento. That's in California," Belle said with a wink.
"Huh, you're a long way from home, then. Did you drive all the way over here?"
Belle nodded proudly and took another sip of her coffee. "We sure did. We hopped onto the I-Eighty and trucked all the way here. Yeah. We're on a month-long festival tour, actually. Lyndonville is the last stop and then it's back home before it gets too cold. Late September is about the latest we can tour these days. Old bones, you know."
"My hip... well, it's been like this for many, many years, though. I hurt it when I fell off a motorbike back in... oh... 1983 I think it was. Yeah, eighty-three."
"You really were a wild child," Erica said with a gleam in her eye.
Guffawing, Belle leaned forward and wiggled both her eyebrows up and down for several seconds. "Oh, you ain't heard nothin' yet, kiddo," she said in a throaty voice.
The next few minutes went by with both women concentrating on enjoying their breakfast, but a nagging feeling in Belle's gut - called her conscience - eventually made her put down the mug and lean closer to the tall Sheriff. "Erica, I feel there's something I need to come clean about. Earlier, when you were showering, I had a look at your book case. I picked out one of the paperbacks and accidentally dropped a wad of newspaper clippings on the floor."
"Oh..." Erica said darkly and put down her fork with a clang.
"Yeah. I think I put the book back in the wrong order, and the moment you would see it, you would know I had been there. Man, I can't tell you how sorry I am reading about the things that happened to you... I thought we had left that kind of shit behind us in the '70s and '80s, but I guess some people still have trouble accepting us."
"Oh... so you're a..."
"Yeah. One who's seen it all... the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. I have a lifetime membership card back home that Leaf made for me many years ago, actually... just for fun, o' course. All that's missing from it is my Gold Star. I guess I wanted to see what the fuss was about, so... yeah," Belle said with a crooked grin. "Uh, but that was just a little experiment."
"Huh," Erica said in surprise. "Maybe that's why we can connect so easily...?"
"Maybe it is," Belle said and zoomed in on the Sheriff's open face.
"Anyway, did you read the articles?"
"Yeah. Well, I skimmed them, but I read enough."
"Oh. Well... okay. I guess they aren't secrets or anything..." - Sighing, Erica pushed the empty plates away and looked out of the large windows with a thousand-mile stare.
"Were you transferred here... you know, after the incident?"
"Not at first. I was... I spent three months at home doing nothing, and by the end of that period, I was bouncing off the walls. At the drop of a hat, I would fly into a rage at myself, at the world in general, and... well, at my partner. She split. I can't blame her... I can't blame her one little bit," Erica said quietly and began to rearrange the napkins. "I was a raging bitch then. I never got drunk or hit her or anything... I loved her. I was just a raging bitch with nothing to pour her energy into."
"How did you end up here?" - Subconsciously, Belle reached out and took Erica's strong hands into her own to give them a little squeeze. When she noticed what she was doing, she pulled back like she had been bitten by a snake, afraid to overstep the boundaries with the younger woman.
"A position opened as the Sheriff here in Cape Whitnell. I used to be a Sergeant in the City Police, and although the two jobs aren't exactly identical, I had enough credentials to slide in without too many problems. It took a while before the locals warmed up to a female, lesbian, Native American Sheriff, though... but now that I've worked here for close to three years, I've been accepted into the circle... so to speak."
"That's something at least. I can't imagine Cape Whitnell being a hive of crime, though?"
"Well, it's not, but there's always something that needs to be done... like when the Catalina hotel burned down, we worked for twenty-six hours straight from the first call to the final signature on the case log."
"And then we have stuff like rescuing a bus full of colorfully dressed folk singers who couldn't see through the clouds of pot to find the right stretch of road," Erica said with an impossibly wide grin on her face.
"Oh haw, haw, haw," Belle said and swatted at the Sheriff's hands. "Just so you know, I got my first driver's license in 1967! And I've only had, like, five or six accidents since, including a fender-bender that wasn't my fault!"
Erica smiled broadly at the revelation and leaned back in the seat to take a closer look at the colorful, older woman sitting opposite her. 'Wow, who knew I had to look to my Mom's generation to find someone I could actually have a nice, fun conversation with... unlike most of the women my own age around here... sheesh, even with the talk of the shooting, this breakfast thing has blown most of my recent dates clean out of the water.'
Belle locked eyes with Erica and sensed she was being scrutinized, but for once, she didn't mind being put under the microscope by an Officer of the Law. "What's on your mind, Sheriff Lady?" she said and cocked her head which made some of her gray-blonde braids cascade down over her right shoulder.
"Oh, nothing, Belle. Listen, I have an idea," Erica said and moved forward to get more intimate. "Just in case you can't get your tour bus fixed today, I think we should drive around Cape Whitnell and find some place where you can spend the night."
"Uh... yeah, okay..."
"I guess the people who run the local Bed & Breakfasts are typically sort of conservative, but I do have one lady in mind whom I'm sure wouldn't hesitate if we asked her to shack you guys up for the night... she might not have room for you all, though."
"A kindred spirit?"
"Yes, and then some. And even more so, she went to the original Woodstock festival," Erica said with a wink as she scooted out of the bench seat.
"No way!" Belle said with a gobsmacked look on her face.
The early morning sunshine and blue skies had been chased away by a front of gray clouds that seemed to creep in from the Atlantic Ocean. The wind had picked up, too, and the first light spots of rain fell on the two women as they crossed the parking lot in front of Judy's Diner.
After unlocking her Cruze with the key fob, Erica looked up at the sky with a trained eye and judged by the color of the clouds that those nearest to them would only deliver a drizzle; however, the next front which was still suspended over the ocean some distance away would evolve into a major downpour.
"Looks like we got a lot of rain coming," she said as she opened the door for Belle and helped her into the comfortable seat by holding her hand and guiding her down.
Grinning, Belle looked at the helping hand and decided to get the most out of it by giving Erica a good, strong squeeze as a thank you once she was sitting down. "Gee, thanks for the support, kiddo. If I drool, do you have a bib for me, too?"
"Shit, I'm sorry, Belle," Erica said with an embarrassed chuckle. "I'm just so used to being polite and helpful around the town's elderly."
"And that's a great way to conduct your business... tell you what, the moment I spot an 'elderly' " - Belle waved her fingers in the air to form silent quotation marks - "who needs help, you'll be the first to know... okay?"
"Okay," Erica said and closed the door with a soft phlum.
Cruising up Main Street, Erica had the windshield wipers going at their slowest setting to fend off the scattered drops that came down from above. She glanced to her right at her passenger and once again chuckled inwardly at the inappropriateness of her supposedly good deed - she might as well have offered Belle a wheelchair.
Another glance at Belle's profile proved that while her braided hair was a mix of pale gray and the blonde hue it had been originally, and that the skin on her face and hands was aged and lined, she was still a knockout. 'Well, sixty-two is nothing these days, but when I think of how so many other elder- uh, older gals behave, it's quite astounding. Hell, I find her sexy! Even if it does feel odd to use that word to describe someone older than my Mom...'
"Erica?" Belle suddenly said, breaking the silence.
Erica's eyes snapped back ahead where she kept them firmly glued onto the slightly damp Main Street. "Uh... yeah?"
"Do I have a booger on my cheek?"
"Ah, that would be a no," Erica said with a chuckle. "Sorry for staring at you."
"That's okay, but I could feel your eyes trying to burn a hole in my skin, you know..."
"Oh look," Belle said and pointed at the parking lot in front of the Sheriff's Office where Packard, Leaf and the Walrus were talking to the mechanic whose Ford F450 Dually tow truck had already hooked up the front of the Microbus. "He got there early... shit, I hope he'll be able to get it fixed easily and for next to nothin'... we don't have that much money between us."
"Oh... you're not vagrants, are you? There's still a law against that in this State..."
"No, Sheriff Lady, we're not," Belle said and patted the long, jeans-clad thigh reassuringly just because she could - not to mention wanted to. "We got money. We just don't have unlimited funds. The gig in Lyndonville should give us eight hundred bucks, but there's kinda low tide in the community chest right now, especially after gassing up the tour bus the other day."
Moments later, the stars aligned and the woman they were driving to see stepped out on Main Street to get to her truck that was parked in front of an electronic amusement arcade. Erica quickly honked the horn twice and pulled over to the curb in front of the bright red Chevrolet S10. "Belle, sit tight for a moment... I'm just gonna have a word with Marcia."
"No problem," Belle said and turned around in the seat to see better.
Erica quickly stepped out of the Cruze and went over to the other woman who was dressed in workboots, sturdy blue jeans held up by suspenders, and a green-and-red checkered flannel shirt with the top two buttons undone to allow a peek at a golden chain she had around her neck. The woman appeared to be in her mid-sixties and she was close to being a foot shorter than the tall Sheriff, though she was considerably bulkier.
When both women looked back at Belle, she waved at them and decided she had been sitting tight for long enough. "Hi," she said once she had stepped out of the smoke blue car and had joined the conversation, "I'm Daisy-Belle Cosmick."
"Peace, Sister," the woman said and held up her right hand in the age-old V symbol. "I'm Marcia Willems... groovy shirt."
"Erica here tells me you've got a little problem?"
"That's right. And the Sheriff Lady told me you may be the woman to solve it."
"That's right," Marcia said with a broad grin. "Hey, I think I already helped ya a little bit if you were the ones in the stuck Microbus last night...?"
"We are... and we were, yeah. Well, thanks, Sister," Belle said and returned the V.
"No worries. Sisters need to stick together."
"That's a big ten-four, Sister!"
Erica chuckled under her breath at the interaction between the two older women. She could easily picture Belle and Marcia discussing the old days until the break of dawn, and she felt great for establishing the contact between them.
"Anyhow," Marcia said and stuck her hands down her jeans pockets, "I got room for you guys no sweat. And with the Sisterhood running so deep here, I'll let you have it free of charge, too. In exchange for that, you're gonna hafta organize your own dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow morning, depending on how long you need to stay. How's them apples?"
"Sounds like one hell of a sweet deal, Marcia. You're on," Belle said and put out her hand.
The two women gave each other a thorough shake and an even more thorough hug to settle the deal.
Not long after the deal was signed with the Sisterly hug, Erica hopped into the Sheriff's Office to let her Deputy know that she would be using the large-capacity Tahoe for an hour.
Belle kept standing outside by the police car and looked at the clouds that were still gathering high above. Like Erica had predicted, the first drizzle had stopped fairly quickly, but the heavier clouds were still looming just off to the east.
"Huh," she mumbled to herself as she kept the double doors to the Sheriff's Office under observation so Erica wouldn't catch her talking to herself, "if anyone had told me yesterday before we left our last stop that I'd find what's practically a suburb of P-Town... not to mention a blue-eyed Native American babe-with-a-six-foot-B, I'd never ha' believed them. Never! And Pack nearly didn't want to continue the tour... Man!"
Right on cue, Erica came out of the double doors and crossed the parking lot with long, purposeful strides. The striking Sheriff waved at Belle and dangled a set of shiny keys from her long fingers to show the plan was still on.
A few minutes later. Packard Summer shook his head vehemently and stomped his cowboy boot on the pavement. "No! No, no, no, no! No! And that means no, dude!"
The small forecourt in front of the mechanic's garage saw the entire travel gear of Daisy-Belle's Butterflies stacked up in a single pile, ready to be transferred to the huge, gaping luggage space of the black-and-white Tahoe.
Oswald 'the Walrus' and Leaf cast worried glances at the leaden skies, afraid the rain would come down hard before they could pack away their old, beloved instruments.
"Pack..." Belle tried, putting a hand on her reluctant friend's shoulder. "Listen, Leaf and the Walrus don't have a problem with it..."
"Well, they feckin' should!"
"My word is final, Belle. No way... no WAY you're gettin' me to set foot in a fuzzmobile without a gun to my head. No way," Packard said and crossed his arms over his slightly creased Grateful Dead T-shirt in an obvious huff.
Behind them, Erica chewed on her cheek as she looked from Belle to the irate percussionist. "I could organize a pair of handcuffs in no time," she mumbled under her breath.
"Pack, you're misbehavin'," Belle said and signaled the Walrus to start stowing the gear so they could get a move on. "For cryin' out loud, we're only gonna go something like eight hundred yards..."
"Yeah? I can walk eight hundred yards."
"You sure? It's gonna be pissing down any minute now, buddy," Belle said and pointed her thumb at the gray clouds.
"I'll take my chances," Packard said and - true to his word - began to walk away from the forecourt.
"I ain't listenin'!"
"You're going the wrong way, fuddyhead! It's thattaway," Belle said and pointed the other way down Main Street.
Packard stopped between one step and the next, turned around and headed off in the new direction, still obviously in something of a huff.
"Shit," Belle said and rubbed her brow. "Erica, I'm sorry... old hang-ups are hard to break. He got beat up real badly once by a couple of shitkicker Deputies further down south for having long hair... I'll bet you know the drill."
Closing the Tahoe's rear hatches, Erica dusted off her hands and turned back to the older woman. "Yeah, I do. Eh, it's not a big town. It's not like he can get lost."
Hearing that, the Walrus let out a loud guffaw that made Leaf pull him into a sideways hug. "Oh-hoh, I wouldn't bet on that, Sheriff Lady! Pack got lost on his way to the crapper once. Yeah... it took the three of us... what was it? Two hours?"
"Two hours, yeah," Belle said sporting a cheesy grin.
"-Two hours to find him, so... trust me, he can get lost here," the Walrus continued, pulling Leaf in for a kiss as a reward for the strenuous packing.
"Well, in that case," Erica said and walked up to the driver's side door, "we better get goin' so we have time for a search and rescue party afterwards. Hop in, everybody."
"Hey..." Leaf said and gawked out of the back window at the very familiar stretch of road they were driving on, "isn't this close to where we got stuck last night?"
"Yeah, it's apparently right around the corner... literally. I'm amazed you even remember it, Leaf. You were kinda wigged out, ya know," Belle said and shot her old friend a cheeky wink from her spot on the front seat.
"I thought I had dreamt it all, but I definitely recognize it... naw, maybe I did dream it all," Leaf said and took her husband's hand.
Erica chuckled merrily at the exchange as she activated the turning signal and drove through a gap in the hedge along the outer part of Main Street and up into Marcia's gently inclining, gravelly driveway.
The black-and-white Tahoe trickled past Marcia's bright red truck and soon came to a stop in front of a two-story mansion held mainly in white, though the window frames were all black, as was the majestic entrance with three stone steps in front of a hardwood door. The rooms on the first floor all had black cast iron French windows and picturesque wooden flower boxes, and there appeared to be elegant, heavy curtains behind every window.
"Wow, this is really nice... looks like a damn five-star hotel from down here," the Walrus said as he craned his neck to take in the entire mansion.
Erica nodded and tried to look at the classy mansion with the eyes of a stranger. "Yeah, it's great. Marcia won the Best Bed & Breakfast In Cape Whitnell Award so often the city council decided to can the whole thing and just give her the ribbon from the start. Saved 'em a lot of money."
"Get the fuck out... really?"
"Really! Cross my heart!" Erica said and tapped her chest.
"Huh," the Walrus said and opened his door.
Belle beat him out of the Tahoe and quickly shuffled over to the grand entrance, greatly fascinated by a large, brass knocker that was prominently placed at the center of the door. Snickering, she simply had to use it, so she reached for the heavy tool and knocked three times.
A brief moment later, Marcia opened the door and gave Belle a dark glare. "Ya didn't scratch my paint job, did ya?" she said, studying the door closely.
"Nope! Hi again, we're Daisy-Belle's Butterflies... well, most of the Butterflies, anyway. We're a man short at the moment but he'll be here soon... we drove past him, oh, seven hundred fifty yards back," Belle said and once again shook hands with Marcia Willems.
"Okay..." - Marcia's eyes fell on Leaf and recognized her frailty at once. With a smile, she moved down the stairs and took both of Leaf's hands between her own and gave her a warm, tender squeeze. "Hello, I'm Marcia Willems."
"I'm Autumn Leaf... hello."
"Oh, I love your name! I got the fireplace going in the den if you need to get warm, and there's plenty of cold water on tap if you need to cool off. The den is just inside on the left... let me show you there. Watch your step," she continued and guided Leaf up the short flight of stairs.
While Belle followed Leaf and Marcia inside to find the bathroom - the water she'd had to her pills and the mug of coffee were itching to get out - Erica and the Walrus hauled all the gear back out of the Tahoe and began to put it into the entry hall and the den.
The interior of Marcia's Bed & Breakfast was as classy as the exterior with thick carpets and white walls everywhere. The den with the crackling fireplace was just to the left of the entry hall, protected from the elements by a wide sliding door that Marcia had opened fully. The far wall of the den was also a sliding door that connected it to the grand dining room at the back of the mansion.
A large staircase lit by picturesque brass lanterns went upstairs to the top floor and out of sight, and on the right of the entry hall came the kitchen, Marcia's office and one of the bathrooms. Belle's face lit up in a smile when she recognized the sign on the door, and she steered over there like a woman on a mission.
Once Belle had done her business, she stepped back out into the entry hall and looked around. Her nose started itching but she didn't think anything of it. "Guys?" she said when she realized the Tahoe had already been emptied.
'In here, Belle!' the Walrus said from the den.
Now Belle's eyes started itching too, and she was worried she was running into a full-blown allergy attack. "But why... I took my pills... I know I did-" she mumbled, shuffling down the hall.
'...the house rules,' Belle heard Marcia say before she made it to the opened sliding doors. 'Smoking pot in the bedrooms is a no-no 'cos the law says we need to have smoke detectors now. Not in rooms with fireplaces though, so when you feel a need to burn some loco weed, just come down here and everything's hunky-dory. Okay? Also, if ya got some high grade shit, you're bound by contractual agreement to share it with the house owner, which is me. If you're smokin' boiled old rags, you can keep it.'
The moment Belle set her foot down on the thick carpet in the den, her mucous membranes and sinuses clogged up like rarely before - and she was looking directly at the cause: three tabby cats stretching and playing at Marcia's feet. "Oh no... you got cats," she said with a runny nose, a croaky throat and eyes that had already begun to sting.
"Yeah..." Marcia said, rising from one of the comfortable armchairs that had been put up in a horseshoe with a café table at the center, "and you got cat allergies..."
"You're tellin' me?" Belle said with a stuffed nose. "Have the cats been everywhere? Upstairs too? In the bedrooms?"
"My cats go where I go," Marcia said with an apologetic shrug.
"Oh, nuckh," Belle said, rapidly losing the ability to speak. "No, Ah gotta... Ah gotta have mah med'cin... where's... where's mah travel bag?"
"Here... I got it, Belle," Erica said and hurried over to the suffering woman holding the medicine case.
Ten minutes later, Belle bumped down on the front seat of the Tahoe and crossed her arms over her chest. Though the heavier rain had arrived and obscured the view, the dark look on her face told the story in great detail, and the assembled Butterflies knew it was best not to speak to her when she was in that kind of mood - even Packard who had arrived late, dripping wet, and presently in the process of noisily emptying a can of Coca-Cola to quench his thirst.
After thanking Marcia and shaking hands with the rest of the Butterflies, Erica stored Belle's guitar and her travel bag in the back of the Tahoe and slipped behind the wheel.
"Oh man, I'm so sorry, Belle... you told me this morning you had allergies, but I never stopped to consider that... that Marcia's cats would be a problem. I'm really sorry," the Sheriff said and put a warm hand on Belle's jeans-clad thigh.
After a few seconds, Belle turned to the driver with a weak smile and sporting eyes that were as red as strawberries in June. "That's okay, Erica. You couldn't know. If it had only been one cat, I think I would have been okay... but not three."
Looking down, Belle realized it actually felt pretty good to have the younger woman's hand on her thigh - 'a while' didn't even begin to describe how long it had been since she'd had another woman's hands on her body, even if the present touch was as innocent as a prayer book.
"To make it up to you, I'm gonna take you back to my pad," Erica said and started the engine. "And no, I won't take 'no' for an answer."
"All right, that's settled, then. But I need to go to work soon so I can't be there all the time. Is that okay?"
While Erica expertly backed the cumbersome vehicle back out of the gravelly parking lot, Belle waved at Marcia and her Butterflies who had decided to stay behind.
"Sure it's okay," Belle said once they made it out on Main Street. "I feel better already. And I have my guitar and stuff... I think I'll jam a little bit to loosen up. Maybe write a song about my experiences, I dunno..."
Back in Erica's apartment, the red-eyed Belle was carefully placed on the couch and given a whole mountain of pillows to lean on. "You okay?" Erica said, putting a glass of water down on the table and looking with a degree of worry at her guest who suddenly seemed several years older than she had been earlier.
"Yeah, I'm fine... thanks so much for all the stuff you've done for me. I know it must be a real hassle for ya," Belle said and took a tissue from a box Erica had put on the coffee table to blow her nose.
"Of course it's not. Listen, I need to change for work now... my shift starts real soon and it doesn't look good to have the Sheriff show up late."
"Sure," Belle said just before a yawn cracked her face wide open. "Shit... excuse the hell outta me. I always get so damn tired after an allergy attack... drains me of every drop of energy," she continued, wiping her nose again and shaking her head. After stuffing the tissue in her pocket, she took a long swig from the water.
"Belle, you're very welcome to take a nap in my bed once I'm done in there. In fact, I insist you do. After all, it was my fault you had the attack."
Belle opened her mouth to complain, but a wave of fatigue swept over her and rendered her incapable of doing anything but accepting the offer - and besides, she could always use the fact that she had been invited into the striking Sheriff Lady's bed to tease the other Butterflies, she thought. "You got a deal, Erica. Much obliged."
After freshing up and changing her clothes, Erica stepped back into the living room in her full uniform that consisted of black ankle boots, charcoal gray pants with razor-sharp creases, and a paler gray, long-sleeved shirt with charcoal highlights on the breast pockets and the shoulder straps. She wore a brass bar with her surname on the right side of her chest, and the left side bore a shiny star with the State flag in the center and the letters S-h-e-r-i-f-f spaced out following the circle.
Belle stared wide-eyed at the shiny star, at the rest of the uniform, and at the chilling sight of Erica having put on her game face which was a stoic, closed mask of steely decisiveness. Shivering, she looked back down at the box of tissues.
"Whoa, did the temperature drop by a couple of degrees or what?" Erica said as she finished off doing the buttons on her sleeves.
"Yeah, I know. Sorry," Belle said and tried another look at the woman she had spent the entire morning with - it still wasn't better; she simply couldn't look past the colors. "I guess the clothes do speak louder than the woman. It's not you, it's the damn uniform. Well, that and the look on your face, to be honest."
"I understand. I'll bet you've had plenty of run-ins with the law over the years?" Erica said and leaned down to put a kind hand on Belle's back just to show that she hadn't changed her personality just because she had changed her outfit.
"Oh, you could say that. You could definitely say that... Like a riot cop playing a nightstick fandango across my shoulders in a campus sit-in in, uh... '69. Yeah."
"Have those people ever needed a reason?" Belle said and turned to look the Sheriff in the eye.
"I'm glad you said 'those people' and not 'you people', Belle."
Belle shrugged and looked back ahead.
Behind them, Erica's cell phone started ringing and she walked over to a small sideboard under the posters of the colorful landscapes to pick it up. "It's the Sheriff ... Yeah, I'll be right down, Wanda. Thanks for calling ahead like I've asked you to ... Okay."
Once Erica had closed the connection, she put the phone in her pocket and moved back to her guest. "Belle, I gotta go to work but I can come up and check up on you once in a while if you want...?"
"Oh, that's not necessary, Erica. Nah, I'm just fine... thanks, anyway."
"Oh yeah, yeah. No sweat, hon."
Erica kept standing in the doorway to her apartment almost like she wasn't entirely sure about Belle's reply, but when the older woman grabbed her guitar case and took out a well-worn and clearly cherished acoustic guitar, she smiled and closed the door behind her.
Belle put the guitar across her right knee and looked at the closed door almost like she wasn't entirely sure if the tall Sheriff had really gone or if she was merely waiting outside, eavesdropping. When nothing happened, she leaned forward and grabbed a chord, feeling the last echoes of the shiver that had run down her spine from seeing the uniform disappear like the morning dew.
Humming to herself, she played a few bars of a sad song she had written years earlier that was still used as their regular parting number at folk festivals - occasionally, she'd save it for the encore in case the Butterflies were asked to play one. Another yawn overpowered her just as she was about to reach the chorus, so she took that as a sign and moved the guitar back in the case before getting up from the couch.
Erica's bedroom was a nice, spacious affair - though perhaps a bit on the Spartan side - with a white closet equipped with a full-sized mirror on one of the wings, a bedside table with a lamp, and a wide single bed covered by a pale brown bedspread sporting a Native American motif. The head of the bed was up against the wall to Main Street, next to a door with a French window that served as the only source of natural light in the room, though it was presently covered by closed Venetian blinds.
The location of the bedside table on the side of the bed closest to the French window proved which side Erica preferred to sleep on, underscored by a pair of comfy slippers lined up in perfect order on a dark blue rug under the bed.
A paperback was opened on the bedside table and Belle simply couldn't stay away from it: "Wa-hey! After The Storm! Erica's definitely got great taste in books. I've been wantin' to read that for- Oh!"
Grinning out loud, Belle spotted a life-sized poster of Melissa Etheridge behind the bedroom door - a signed poster by the looks of it.
"Uh-huh, like I said... maybe there is a God," she said and swept aside the Native American bedspread. The bed was nice and comfortable to sit on, and she quickly took off her boots and threw them on the floor. After a few seconds, she shrugged and sent her socks and jeans the same way.
Smiling from feeling the cool, squeaky clean sheets on her bare legs, she snuggled down in the bed and pulled the blanket over her.
Belle's nap had only just begun when an infernal ringing coming from somewhere down on the floor disturbed her peaceful slumber. Once, twice, three times the shrill ringing ran through the otherwise silent bedroom before Belle opened her eyes and looked around in a daze - then she realized she had put her right arm behind her head in her sleep.
"Ohh... ouch, ouch, owwwch," she groaned as she had to move the dead weight down with her other hand. Her shoulder protested loudly, sending sharp pains across her neck and down her back, and all in all, she'd had better experiences waking up.
"Oh, that damn phone," she mumbled as she swung her bare legs over the side of the comfortable bed and reached for her jeans. With a little luck, she found her iPhone at the first attempt and held the noisy beast to her ear. "It's Belle... this better be good."
'Belle, where the hell are ya, man? And where the hell have ya been?' Oswald 'the Walrus' said at the other end of the connection.
"Where I am? I'm right here for cryin' out loud..."
'It's four in the afternoon, man!'
"What? No way, I only just... no way..." Belle took the telephone away from her ear and found an alarm clock on the nightstand - three minutes past four. "Shit..." she mumbled, rubbing her eyes.
"Yeah, yeah... where are you?"
'Just outside, man! We're settin' up for a jam!'
"You're what? Where?"
'The parking lot outside the Sheriff's Office, Belle. We figured Cape Whitnell could use with a little shot in the arm. The sun's out and the colors are so beautiful here, babe... everything's so beautiful!'
"Are you high?" Belle said and tried to put her socks back on using only one hand.
'Maybe a little,' the Walrus said with a snicker. The conversation was suddenly interrupted by Leaf who shouted 'We're goooooood!' into the telephone followed by a series of snickers and giggles.
"Uh-huh... I'll be down in, like, ten seconds... if I could only get my damn pants back on," Belle said and struggled with the socks, the iPhone and the jeans. "See ya," she continued and closed the connection. Her right arm still felt like lead and her neck hurt, but she knew there wouldn't be any time to take a painkiller - she needed to get down to the Butterflies before Erica would have to bust them on a Stoned and Disorderly charge.
Two minutes later, Belle strode out of the Sheriff's Office with her Stop The War t-shirt tucked poorly into her jeans and her laces undone on her right boot.
Her three friends had only taken a few of their instruments, but it was enough for them to set up a real outdoor jam session: The Walrus had his fiddle going and was shuffling around in circles, no doubt trying to chase the colorful rainbows he had in his mind. Leaf was playing a tambourine and singing beautiful harmonies while swaying gently from side to side, and Packard was providing the background by banging away on a pair of congas - and remarkably, they were all roughly following the same song, one of Loreena McKennitt's old standards that they had used as an intro to their gigs for close to twenty years.
When Belle realized she was the only one of the Butterflies who wasn't floating in a purple haze, she laughed out loud and shook her head slowly.
To the right of the band, a group of interested spectators had lined up to see what the commotion was, though not all seemed to appreciate the 'shot in the arm' like the Walrus had called it. Some of them were the men in army green t-shirts and baseball caps Belle and Erica had met in the diner at breakfast, and they all wore expressions that said they wanted to go home and find their shotguns so they could drive the damn hippies out of town.
"C'mon, Belle!" the Walrus shouted once he spotted her. "C'mon, we gonna fly!"
"Oh, I don't think you oughtta be flyin' anymore than you already are, Walrus," Belle said but still moved into her circle of friends. The mood came over her and she found herself wishing she had brought her guitar down with her. "Hey, Pack, Leaf... we got an audience dontcha know... let's do, uh... oh yeah, let's do Bidin' My Time. Okay?"
"Okay, Belle," Leaf said with a nod, though her eyes never really focused on anything as she spoke.
The Walrus laid down the groundwork on the fiddle, and soon, Leaf and Packard joined him for the popular blue collar protest song from the 1970s. Finding her cue, Belle let herself go with a strong, throaty, edgy voice that completely belied her petite frame.
Erica, alerted by the singing - she had missed Belle hurrying past her desk because she had been in the archives - came out of the Sheriff's Office and stared wide-eyed at the colorful display. Her eyes zoomed in on Belle who was really getting into the performance: swaying, clapping to the beat and belting out the song like the seasoned professional she was, claiming the powerful lyrics about a man slaving away at an assembly line before going home to an empty house like they were her own.
Hearing the huge voice that emanated from the petite woman sent a tickling thrill down Erica's spine; a thrill that was soon followed by a very similar one that trickled down her front, taking its time going past all the right places until it pooled in a spot due south that hadn't had any reason to wake up for years.
Her body's reactions surprised her, and it wasn't long before a tiny voice at the back of her mind sent her messages that there were things - and people - someone in her position shouldn't be fooling around with. Her grin was real, though, and she began to secretly bop along to the rhythm.
While the Walrus was playing a long instrumental part close to the final chorus of the song, Belle could suddenly smell the familiar whiff of weed, and she opened her eyes to stare at her Butterflies to figure out which of them hadn't been able to live without lighting up - predictably, it was Packard.
"Pack," she whispered out of the corner of her mouth. "Cut it out... we got cops and shit watching us... they're gonna bust ya, man!"
"Whut?" Packard said, not seeing, hearing or sensing a thing beyond his congas and his joint.
"Jesus," Belle mumbled, but her cue came up and she had to finish Bidin' My Time.
Once the Walrus had played the last few notes on his fiddle, the parking lot fell silent save for an odd conga-slap by Packard who was a little slow in the uptake.
Knowing that it had been a great performance, Erica narrowed her eyes and looked at the spectators who still didn't know how to respond to the colorful, visibly stoned hippies. To show how they should react, she put her fingers in her mouth and let out a loud whistle before clapping politely at the band.
A few of the spectators started clapping as well, and soon, most of them were applauding the musicians, though most seemed more than a little reluctant.
"Sheriff," Deputy Rogers said quietly out of the corner of his mouth as he leaned in towards his superior, "the man with the congas is smoking a marijuana cigarette..."
"I know," Erica whispered back.
"Not right now."
"Okay," Patrick Rogers said and shuffled a bit back and forth on the pavement outside the office building. "Uh, if that's all, I'll go back to my paperwork, Sheriff."
"Sure thing, Patrick," Erica said and offered him a very, very rare smile that the young Deputy knew meant she was in a great mood.
Unfortunately, the serenity couldn't last. As Erica watched Belle assist a floating Leaf over to one of the flower beds for a well-earned rest, one of the spectators - one of Cape Whitnell's notorious busybodies - pushed his baseball cap back from his forehead and strode over to the Sheriff.
"Sheriff Wayne, I want to report a criminal act," Jeff Tobin said, stamping his right boot down on the parking lot's asphalt.
Erica assumed her official game face and offered the busybody a steely glare, moving up from his boots, past his jeans that were purposely too tight, his shiny belt buckle the size of Texas, his beer gut that was hanging over said belt buckle under a t-shirt in camouflage colors - with the words 'We Have A Constitutional Right To Hunt!' stenciled on the front - up to his slightly ruddy face where he tried unsuccessfully to grow a mustache, and finally up to his Pontiac baseball cap.
"Mr. Tobin?" Erica said coolly.
"That man," - Jeff turned around and pointed at Packard who was still standing at his congas, unaware the gig had ended - "that man right there is smoking marijuana in public. That's against the state, county and city laws. I expect you to do something about it right now."
Grudgingly, Erica had to admit that Jeff Tobin was right. She had hoped it would have gone unnoticed, but Packard simply stood out too much for the ploy to work. "I know what I have to do, Mr. Tobin. Did you fix your taillight clusters like I told you to last Wednesday?"
"Uh... no... not yet, Sheriff," Jeff said with a smirk. "Wylie didn't have the parts. He told me they'd come in by the end of the week, tho..."
"Well, that's good. Then I won't have to slap a temporary driving ban on your truck. We're moving into fall, can't have trucks without rear lights on the road, can we?"
"Uh... no we can't, Sheriff," Jeff said and looked like he wished he hadn't said anything at all. "Uh... I gotta go."
"And I have a job to do, so... good day, Mr. Tobin," Erica said and strode over to Packard and Belle who was standing next to the hazy percussionist with a dark look on her face.
Once there, Erica sighed deeply and dug into her left breast pocket for her ticket pad and a ball point pen. Only then did Packard realize what was about to happen, and she could see by the red tide that swept over his furrowed face that he wasn't happy about it. "Mr. Summer, I'm writing you a seventy dollar fine for the consumption of an illegal substance in public, namely smoking marijuana, which is a violation of section nine, paragraph four of the Cape Whitnell laws. If you wish to complain about the fine, or the size of the fine, you and-or your attorney need to send the complaint in triplicate to the County Police Commissioner who will take appropriate measures. Do you understand what I have told you?"
Erica could see by the look on Packard's face that he was but one heartbeat away from calling her names, but she dearly hoped they could avoid that. She sent a silent plea to Belle who had put her hands on Packard's shoulders, but even the lead singer of the Butterflies seemed to be torn between lighting up a dutchie of her own to spite the fuzz, and respecting the fact that Erica was caught between a rock and a hard place.
In the end, Belle let out the breath she had been holding and nodded at Erica. "He understands, Sheriff," the singer said coolly. "Give him the fine and I'll come over in five minutes and pay it. Will that be satisfactory, Sheriff?"
"It would, Miss Cosmick," Erica said, deflating like a leaky balloon on the inside when she realized the uniform had come between them after all.
On their long, burdensome trek back to Marcia's Bed & Breakfast, the four aging folk singers who shuffled along Main Street with their instruments over their shoulders attracted more attention than their jamming had done. More than once, younger men in trucks drove slowly past them, shouting less-than-subtle comments about their long hair and their colorful clothes.
Belle was at the head of the group with her travel bag over her shoulder, her guitar case under her arm and the look of a minor summer thunderstorm on her face. The Walrus and Leaf were walking a short distance behind the lead singer with their arms around each other, and Packard came slouching along on his own at the end, carrying his congas and smoking a regular cigarette.
"Love," Leaf said and leaned in to her husband as they walked past a radio and tv store whose clean-cut owner stood in the door and stared at them. "Why is Belle so upset? She did really great with the song and everything..."
"I think it's because she had the hots for the tall cop, but now she's discovered the Sheriff is just another piece of fuzz, hon."
"What? Belle wanted to get into the cop's pants? But that's immoral!"
"Hush, hon, she might hear ya," the Walrus said and ran a couple of fingers across Leaf's thin lips in the age-old gesture of Keep Quiet Or Regret It For The Rest Of The Day.
Silence fell over the small group for another hundred yards, but then Packard just couldn't keep it inside any longer. Grabbing his congas, he began to play a staccato set while belting out a slightly stoned - and completely off-key - rendition of I Fought The Law.
Up front, Belle tried to ignore the percussionist, but the way he mangled the legendary lyrics made it hard for her. When he started over for the third time, she slowed down and finally came to a halt.
Behind her, the Walrus and Leaf came to a stop as well and awaited the inevitable explosion. The married couple looked from Belle to Packard and back with worried expressions on their faces.
"Pack," Belle growled from somewhere deep in her throat as she put her guitar case and her travel bag down on the sidewalk, "I swear to the old guy above if you don't quit that fuckin' mouth-diarrhea right now, I'm gonna... I'm gonna... shove those fuckin' congas down your throat and make you shit splinters for a week!"
Packard stopped playing with a jerk and stared daggers at the woman he had been playing with for forty years but who now seemed like a complete stranger to him. "Oh yeah? What the feck for, dude? I'm doin' what I've always been doin' but you... you're like someone else, dude! Like, you've been in my face the whole trip, dude! Who the feck are you really 'cos my old friend Belle you sure as shit ain't!"
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Belle said and stomped over to stand right in front of Packard.
Knowing a meltdown was imminent, Leaf hurried over to Belle and put her hands on the irate woman's shoulders to try to calm her down, but Belle merely shrugged her off and went nose to nose with Packard - well, nose to jaw, but her fire canceled out the difference in height.
"Go on, Pack," Belle continued, "I'd like to know what you meant by that?"
"You're... you just ain't the same anymore. And on top of that, you're lettin' your feckin' clit run off with ya, dude. Sure she's hot, but she's fuzz, dude! Those feckers will feck you over and upside down each and every feckin' time... you know that as well as I do, so what the feck are ya doin' lusting after someone with a badge and a gun?!"
Belle stood completely still and let Packard's words sink in. She was breathing heavily and her heart was hammering away in her chest as a result of the heated exchange. She wanted to yell in his face and kick his rear end to kingdom come, but the worst part was that she knew deep down inside that he was right on so many levels: For starters, she had only agreed to go on the festival tour for Leaf's sake - they all knew it could be the last for the frail woman as she wouldn't have the strength to fight back if she had a relapse - but once on the road, everything had been so much more difficult than it used to be. Erica's kindness and supportiveness had been an eye-opener for her, but even that had gone from sweet to sour in the span of a few hours.
'Man, it's gonna be a while before I can forget the disappointment etched into her beautiful face when I paid Pack's fine and got my stuff... Jesus, why did it have to end that way...?' Belle thought, chewing on her cheek. "Erica's done a lot of good for us. She called the mechanic, she hooked us up with Marcia," she tried, but even before the words had left her lips, she knew they were just poor excuses for what was really at the core of the situation - the fact that a spark had been ignited inside her for the first time in ages.
"Oh, sure she has, dude," Packard said and dug into his pocket to find the fine that he proceeded to wave in the air.
"Oh, no, Pack, you can't blame her for that. You brought that upon yourself, my friend," Belle said strongly to steer the discussion away from the striking Sheriff. "If ya wanted to get weedy, why didntcha light up beforehand like Leaf and the Walrus? 'Cos ya wanted to show the world you're such a big fuckin' rebel, right?"
"Naw, I ain't gonna wait 'cos I'm right, Pack. Hey, would you ha' done it back in the day?" Belle said and stepped away from Packard so she wouldn't have to smell his smoke-laced breath. "No ya wouldn't 'cos back then, the cops woulda just beat the snot outta ya with their riot clubs, right? Ain't that right, guys?"
Oswald 'the Walrus' and Leaf both nodded solemnly, remembering incidents from the '60s and '70s - and even into the 1980s for Leaf - where the police had been opponents instead of helpers.
"But did the Sheriff do that now? No she didn't 'cos she tried to respect us, but then ya had to fuck all that up with your little act of defiance," Belle said and grabbed her guitar case and her bag. "Tell ya what, Pack... and I hate to say it... but you're living in the past, man. Why dontcha wake up from the haze and smell the present? It's a great place here, you'd love it."
With that, Belle spun around and stomped further up Main Street without waiting for a reply. She had only made it fifteen steps before a horn honking behind her made her look over her shoulder in the hope that it would be Erica. Unfortunately it wasn't - it was the mechanic who was working on the Microbus.
Groaning out loud, Belle reluctantly turned around and went back to her friends who had already started speaking to the mechanic. "What's up, Mr. Donaldson? Did you get our tour bus fixed?" she asked as she leaned her guitar case against her legs.
"No," Wylie Donaldson said with his elbow resting on the windowsill of his Ford tow truck. Studying the motley crew of folk singers, he pushed his baseball cap up his forehead and spit his tobacco sauce into a tin cup. "But I found the parts on an old Vee-Dub Bug junker I had in the back. They used the same upright and track rod on the Type Two Microbus."
"Including a new battery, the parts, the hours and the environmental tax, it's gonna cost ya, oh, four hundred and eighty bucks or so. And I want 'em up front. In cash."
The news hit the Butterflies like a lightning bolt. Leaf knew they didn't have that much money after paying Packard's fine, and she let out a tiny sob and pressed herself against her husband's shoulder; Packard just looked like he didn't understand a word, and the Walrus looked like he didn't want to understand.
Belle wet her lips and pulled up her guitar case to have something comforting to cling onto. For the second time that day, the words failed her, but even while she tried to come up with an answer, the mechanic spit in his tin cup again and drove away from the curb with the hoist at the back of the tow truck creaking and groaning in sympathy with the plight of the Butterflies.
"We're fucked," the Walrus said after a little while, stating the obvious.
"And if we don't make it to the Lyndonville festival tomorrow afternoon, we're really fucked," Leaf continued. "We don't have money to rent a car either... but nobody would lend us a ride, anyway, so..."
Belle finally snapped out of the black zone she had fallen into and took a tight grip on her guitar case. "I'm going back to Erica. I need to apologize to her. She'll know what to do... hell, she's the only one who can help us," she said vehemently, stomping back down Main Street.
"The feck she is!" Packard said loudly.
"Shut up, Pack! You've had your say and you blew it!" Belle shouted over her shoulder.
Behind her, the other Butterflies shrugged, picked up their instruments and shuffled onward to Marcia's Bed & Breakfast.
Back at the Sheriff's Office, Erica's face wore the kind of expression that told her Deputy and the secretaries they would need to don a bulletproof vest and protective goggles in order to speak with her. Staring at the computer monitor with a steely blue glare and a firm jaw, her fingers thumped down on the keys just a little too hard and the mouse was thrown around just a little too much for any of it to be effective.
A collective gasp suddenly seemed to run through the Sheriff's Office like a cold beer on a warm evening, but Erica was reluctant to tear her eyes away from the monitor in case it was something she needed to respond to - a gentle harrumph made her look anyway.
Looking up from her paperwork, Erica let her eyes glide up the familiar well-worn blue jeans, the guitar case, the travel bag, the 'No More Death Stop The War' t-shirt and the bloody hand-print that went with it, and finally up to the honest, no-BS look of sincerity on Daisy-Belle Cosmick's aged but still pretty face.
Instead of making a comment, Erica leaned back in her swivel-chair and scrutinized Belle so closely the aging folk singer eventually had to look down at her boots.
"Hi," Belle said a few moments later, nudging her calves with the tips of her boots. "I've come to apologize. We were behaving like spoiled little dickheads before. I'm really, really sorry, Sheriff... Erica."
The tall, striking Sheriff was still quiet as a tomb.
Belle grimaced at the silence but understood that it was their own fault.
An eon later - perhaps it was only ten seconds - Erica nodded and began to tap her fingernails on the desktop next to the mouse. "Thank you for the apology, Belle. I accept it."
The silence returned and all Belle could do was to nod at the Sheriff's words.
Erica picked up a ball point pen and toyed with it for two seconds, then she threw it back down on the desk. "Hell," she said in a far quieter voice that made Belle lean down towards her to get it all. "I was fully prepared to turn a blind eye to Packard smoking weed but a man came up to me and pointed it out. After that, there was no way I could have avoided giving your friend that fine, Belle... it would have made me look soft.... hell, liberal, and that's a four-letter word here. It would have undermined my authority." - Sighing, Erica let her fist thump down onto the desktop.
Belle furrowed her brow and thought back to the jam session. She had done most of her performance with her eyes closed, but she'd had them open long enough to spot a man in the local garb who had been speaking to Erica. "Oh... I... I didn't know that... I understand, Erica. I understand why you had to do it. I won't say we weren't, uh... upset when it happened, but I understand."
"Thank you. It's one of the downsides of being a woman in this uniform," Erica said and tapped her shirt. "We're under constant scrutiny. The predators are always circling, waiting for us to screw up... then they can say a woman isn't physically or mentally strong enough for the job."
Belle didn't know what to say to that so she settled for shrugging.
"Hey," Erica said and rose from her chair, "aren't you feeling well? You're sorta pale."
"I'm... I haven't had anything to eat since breakfast. The day has just sort of gone by in a rapid blur. And there's something I need to talk to-"
"Shit, you're actually really pale. Okay, hang on. Don't go anywhere," Erica said and quickly moved over to her Deputy's desk where she gave him a quick update on where she'd be in the immediate future.
Once she got back to Belle, she put a hand on the older woman's elbow and guided her over to the door labeled 'Private'. "Belle, I think we should go upstairs. I'll call for some food and then you can rest again. Okay?"
"Uh... okay, but there's something really urgent I need to spe-"
Behind them, the telephone on Erica's desk sent out a shrill electronic ring, and she cursed and hurried back to it. Looking up, she smiled at the older woman and pointed at the private door while nodding her head.
Smirking, Belle found it most prudent to follow the Sheriff's request and walked over to the door, remembering to wave at Wanda, the bubblegum-chewing secretary who was staring at her with eyes as wide as saucers.
Belle found the inner door to Erica's apartment locked, but it wasn't long before she was joined at the landing by the long-legged Sheriff who bounded up the stairs two steps at a time.
While Erica was fumbling with her keys, Belle looked her over and was happy to see the traces of a smile on the ocher skin. "So, the call... that wasn't Marcia who had been forced to knock off one of my Butterflies, was it?"
"Uh... no, it was something else," Erica said and swept the door open. "Well, I guess you know your way in by now."
"Yeah. Sorry I didn't have time to make the bed after my nap..." Belle said sheepishly.
"Ah. It only took me a minute. Don't worry 'bout it. So, what kind of food would you like? We don't have a pizza place in town, actually, but we've got a really great steak house. They got *the* best barbecue sauce for their fries, let me tell you."
Belle chuckled as she stepped into the living room and put her guitar case and the travel bag on the couch where they had already spent a lot of time earlier in the day. She quickly kicked off her boots and pulled up in her jeans that had become loose - that's how hungry she was. "Okay, that's good," she said as she watched Erica take her cell phone and dial the number for the steak house. "But do they have a vegetarian menu?"
"Uh... no idea," Erica said and lowered the phone while it was ringing at the other end. Belle's pale face had her a little worried but the lead singer seemed to be spry enough otherwise so it couldn't be too bad, she thought.
The line kept being busy so she stuck the phone into her breast pocket and went into the kitchen to pour her guest a glass of water while she waited to try again. "Here, Belle. Cool water. It doesn't taste metallic this time of day. I thought you might need it... maybe for a pill or two?"
"Thank you. Ugh, don't remind me," Belle said and took her medicine case from her bag. She looked at the anti-indigestion pill with disgust before swallowing it and chasing it down with a healthy swig of water. After that, she took two painkillers to offset the nausea brought on by the first pill.
With her intake of chemicals over and done with, she sat down on the couch and crossed her legs which revealed that her jeans had fashionable holes near her knees - though hers were through years of use and not a fake design feature. "Hey, can you just leave your desk like this, Erica?"
"Yeah, that's not a problem," Erica said and fished her phone out of her pocket to try the steak house again. "But I have to go on a patrol at six. We got plenty of time to eat first, though... I hope," she continued, pressing the button.
This time, she was able to get through in one, and she offered Belle a big thumbs-up at the good news. "Hi, this is Sheriff Wayne. Listen, do you have a vegetarian menu? ... Yeah, I know I said vegetarian..."
At that, Belle stifled a girlish snicker.
"You do? Great. So... hang on. Belle? Is there anything particular you're interested in?" Erica said and put her hand over the microphone.
'Well, I wouldn't say no to a little Native American tenderloin!' - ran through Belle's mind, but thought better of saying it out loud. "Oh, I'm not picky. If it don't got meat, I'm happy."
Erica grinned and went back to the phone. "What's your most popular vegetarian dish? ... Uh-huh, I kinda reckoned you only sell like two a year. Beef Celery?" she said, looking at her guest.
Belle crinkled her nose but eventually shrugged at the suggestion. "Oh hell, they're stuck in a 1980s time warp here... shoulda expected that. Eh. Never mind," she mumbled in a monotone.
"I guess we'll take the Beef Celery, then," Erica said into the phone. "Oh, and a Texas Badlands with fries and barbecue sauce ... No, this doesn't go on the tab ... No ... Okay ... Fifteen minutes? Great! ... Yeah, bye."
"Holy shit, a Texas Badlands?" Belle said around a chuckle once Erica had closed the connection. "Tell me, is it carved from the bedrock of the Lone Star State?"
"Don't laugh! They have a Texas Badlands, a California Redwood, a Florida Gator, an... uh... a Hawaii Tropical, a New York Skyscraper, a Chicago... something. And those are just my favorites," Erica said and sat down next to Belle.
The two women looked at each other and shared a grin at the silly names. After a few seconds, Erica reached over and put a gentle hand on Belle's worn blue jeans. "As you know, I'm... uh, one of the fuzz, and I've deduced you wanted to talk to me about something important?"
The smile faded from Belle's face and she leaned forward to put her elbows on her knees. "Yeah. We're in real trouble, time-wise and money-wise. We have a signed contract that says Daisy-Belle's Butterflies must appear tomorrow afternoon for the Forty-Second Annual Folk Festival in Lyndonville... but we spoke to the mechanic... shit, I forgot his name-"
"Yeah, and he wants nearly five hundred bucks up front and in cash for fixing the Microbus."
"A huge pile of bull manure, hon. If we're not at the festival tomorrow afternoon, we're gonna be in a heap of trouble with that damn contract. Well, Sheriff, we don't got five hundred bucks to fix the tour bus to get there. I was hoping you had a bright idea or two...?"
Erica sighed and leaned forward to once again sit face to face with the older woman. "Jesus, Belle," she mumbled and rubbed her chin. "I don't have that much money either. Not in cash."
"No wait, hold it," Belle said and looked up in a hurry, "I didn't mean that you should lend us that money personally... hell, we hardly know each other on a grander scale. Besides, we're too proud to accept handouts. No thanks! No, I was hoping you could maybe squeeze a bank to give us a temporary loan or something...? Or failing that, a loan shark..."
"There aren't any loan sharks here, I can assure you," Erica said and really started rubbing her chin. "How much of the five hundred do you need to find?"
"Well, it's four hundred and eighty bucks to be exact. I guess we have something like... oh, three-seventy or so between us. We need money for gas and supplies, though... uh, I guess we'll need a cool two hundred fifty bucks."
"Hmmm," Erica said and fell into a hard-working silence where the cogs were churning so hard in her head steam nearly came out of her ears. She opened her mouth to speak a couple of times but closed it again before she had uttered a peep. "Hmmm... do you have anything you can put up as collateral?" she finally said in a hesitant drawl.
"Not much. Our instruments... they're precious to us but I doubt they're really worth anything in the harsh light of day."
Erica fell back into the stony silence but suddenly narrowed her eyes and stared at the folk singer with a look on her face that hinted at a revolutionary thought being processed somewhere deep inside her gray matter - "Your voice."
"Huh? Uh, I don't think I'll be putting up my vocal cords as colla-"
"No, no, you have one hell of a sexy voice. How about-"
The compliment was the best Belle had had for years - even more so since it came from a kindred spirit - and it created a reddish tide that swept over her slightly pale cheeks. Giggling, she broke out in a shit-eating grin that was reluctant to move from its comfortable home. 'Yikes, thirty years ago... even twenty years ago, that would have been all the foreplay I needed for an entire night o' fun,' she thought and looked at the Sheriff's gorgeous face that kept talking even if Belle didn't hear a thing.
"-don't you think that would work?" Erica said and put both hands on Belle's knees.
'Oh, you have no idea,' Belle thought and wet her lips. "I'm sorry, I zoned out just after you said I had a sexy voice," she said with a grin.
Erica shot her a puzzled stare but it only lasted for a few seconds. Then she flashed the folk singer a crooked grin in return. "I said, how about organizing a street concert like the one this afternoon? You could sell tickets. You'd only need twenty-five or so paying customers if the tickets were ten bucks each."
"A concert? Daisy-Belle's Butterflies holding a street concert in Cape Whitnell? Even though I get flashbacks to the days of Richard Nixon every time I look around?"
"Yeah! Listen to me, Belle, it could work," Erica said, adding a clear emphasis on the last three words. "It all depends on selling it right. You said you wouldn't accept handouts, so... I thought of a concert. Isn't it what you do? Sing at festivals and stuff?"
"Erica, it's a five hour drive to Lyndonville and we have to be there no later than three p.m. We're old people, we can't rush like teenagers on acid anymore," Belle said in a voice that had suddenly grown weary. "And that means the concert would need to be tonight... in a couple of hours time!"
"But would you need to rehearse or anything?"
"It's not how many songs you play but how many tickets you sell, right?"
"Well, yeah... but the regular festival audience comes to hear us, not to run us outta town sittin' on a rail dipped in tar and feathers like I know they'll do here!"
"Oh, I'll step in before it gets to that," Erica said in a voice so rich that it made Belle's heart practically skip a beat.
"Uh-huh?" Belle squeaked, quickly drawing a mental picture of how the Sheriff's voice would sound in the throes of passion.
Once again Erica didn't notice that Belle had zoned out - or at least didn't mind. "Believe it or not, there's a stronger community here than you think, and I know those gals will gladly buy at least a couple of tickets each to support you. Hell, Marcia will probably buy five on her own!"
"Well... I'd need to call Leaf and the others, but... huh, it would be kinda excitin', that's for sure... a guerilla concert? Huh... too bad we can't do it on a rooftop," Belle said dreamily.
"Oh, nothing. Something from the old days..."
Behind them, Erica's phone rang again, and she rose from the couch and moved swiftly over to the sideboard. "This is the Sheriff ... thanks, Wanda. Please send him right up ... Yeah, bye. Hey, Belle... great news, the food's here!"
"Ah, the infamous Texas Badlands," Belle said as she leaned back on the couch to think hard about Erica's suggestion - she had to admit it was an attractive prospect, in more ways than one.
By the time Erica's last French fry had been happily drenched in the last of the barbecue sauce, and the last bite of the Beef Celery had been devoured with considerably less pleasure on the whole, the planning for the concert was well underway.
Belle was sitting at the coffee table with a stack of papers in front of her and a very excited Sheriff next to her. She had her iPhone to her ear and a pencil in her hand, working out their set list which had blossomed from a modest five song introductory show to a real ten song gig at the behest of Erica.
"No, Walrus," Belle said into the phone, "I don't think The Law Is For Protection Of The People is gonna work here. Uh, no ... No, I'm quite sure it's not gonna work here ... Yeah, I know it would whip up one hell of a storm with some of the locals, but it would be a shitstorm, Walrus ... Stand By Your Man? Oh, that's definitely on the short list." - Belle turned away from the phone and sent Erica a big wink.
While the Walrus kept suggesting songs at the other end of the line, Erica leaned in and glanced at the lists Belle had compiled, enjoying the clear, proper handwriting. She recognized most of the titles as being folk and rock classics, but there were a few that were new to her - all in all, she couldn't wait to hear the set performed by the little old lady with the huge voice.
"Mendocino?" Belle said, "Naw, won't work with the facial hair crowd ... Naw, California Dreaming is out too ... Yeah, I know I'm a hard old bird tonight. Gotta make it a good one, Walrus! This is a one-shot deal, ya know ... Wings Of An Eagle? Yeah, that's gonna be fine. Okay, I think we got all the pop songs we need. I'll think of a couple more folksy songs to fill out the set ... Yeah ... Yeah, bye."
After Belle had put down the telephone, she turned towards the highly excited Sheriff and offered her a shy, yet broad smile. She had another spark inside her now, one that gave her the impression her Halcyon days were returning. "Man, I feel like Monterey '76 all over again," she said dreamily as she wrote 'Easy: Help Me Make It Through The Night' on a piece of paper and drew a box around the title of the old, romantic song.
"I was one year old at the time, I'm afraid," Erica and returned the smile.
"Gawd, you're such a kid," Belle said and slapped playfully at Erica's knee. "That was the closest the Butterflies ever got to being a headlining act. We were third on the bill behind the star names and a big local band. It was the bi-centennial celebration, you know? 1776 to 1976 and all that, and there was a vast folk and rock festival at the Laguna Seca racetrack. I don't know how big the crowd was in numbers, but it was flippin' huge from where we were standing, lemme tell ya. And you know what?"
"No?" Erica said and moved even closer.
"We got 'em but good. We had 'em eatin' outta our hands. It was orgasmic... hell, it was better than orgasmic. We were truckin' so hard we couldn't stop. At that time, the Butterflies had six members not four... we had Packard's cousin on a real drum set... and, uh, a girl who could play a mean flute. And she and I flirted on that stage... Jesus, did we flirt. You should have seen us... it was sex with clothes on. Just the best thing ever. And the crowd loved it," Belle said with a voice that slowly trailed off as she revisited the beautiful pictures in her mind - beautiful pictures that slowly turned tragic when she remembered the flutist succumbing to the illness she had contracted from using a contaminated injection needle two years on from the big event.
"I'll bet you were the prettiest, sexiest twenty-five year old in the history of womankind," Erica said and ran her hand up and down Belle's back.
Belle chuckled and shook her head slowly to get away from the dark images. The friction created by Erica's hand warmed her to the core - and deeper. "Oh, I don't know about that. I'll bet you gave me a run for my money a couple of years later."
"Eh," Erica said with an embarrassed chuckle.
When the Sheriff suddenly uttered a sound that was a cross between a groan and a snort, Belle turned her head to see what was going on.
"It's twenty past six!" Erica said and shot up from the couch. "I was supposed to go out on the evening patrol at six! Awww, hell's bells!" she howled and stormed into the bedroom.
Moments later, she stormed back with an unlaced boot in her hand, her uniform jacket draped haphazardly over her arm and a look of pure confusion on her face. "You'll need a permit, too! Gawd, I'm so confused today... I'll, uh... I'll sign it on my way out and, uh... give it to you once I get back. Uh-huh," she said and stormed back into the bedroom to put on the boot instead of just looking at it.
Belle chuckled out loud at the tall Sheriff's confused state and leaned forward to think about further folk songs they could use for the gig - but then she got an update from the bedroom: 'Oh, and the weather's gonna be sunny and pleasant for the rest of the evening!'
"That's great, Erica! Thanks!" Belle said, waiting to hear if the Sheriff wanted to tell her the Powerball numbers as well. When nothing else came apart from a muted curse when a bootlace didn't cooperate, she smiled broadly and concentrated on the set list.
The weather was nice, Daisy-Belle's Butterflies were getting ready, a makeshift box office had been set up using old wooden crates and a red marquee, and fourteen spectators were lined up in a clump in the farthest corner of the parking lot that had been cordoned off with red-and-white demarcation tape and a backdrop consisting of three red towels tied together with clothespins.
The spectators - nine women of all shapes, types and ages, three men who looked like they wanted to be anywhere else, and finally two young teenage girls wearing skinny jeans, Justin Bieber T-shirts and purple headbands in their pigtails - looked with a mixture of excitement and puzzlement at the four aging bandmembers who were talking amongst themselves, partially hidden behind the red towels.
"Thanks for coming, guys," Belle said while she walked around and took several deep breaths to calm herself down and to get her lungs ready to perform. "I know we left each other on a bum note before, so... I appreciate it."
Leaf smiled and put out her arms to invite Belle into a hug. Once the lead singer was leaned against her, the harmony vocalist gave her old friend a squeeze and reached up to muss her neck. "Hey, we're cool. I still can't believe this idea came from a fuzz, though..."
"Times have changed, Leaf," Belle said dead-seriously, looking deeply into the frail woman's eyes and wishing she would one day regain all her spirit and strength.
"I guess they have," Leaf said with a shrug. "Wow, who'd ha' thunk it, huh? C'mon, a kiss on the lips for good luck."
Belle was only happy to comply and she gave Autumn Leaf a big smooch right on her thin lips to compensate for the many opportunities they had lost when she had been ill the year before.
"Awwww. Do I get a kissy too?" the Walrus said, puckering up his lips under his impressive mustache and aiming them at Belle.
"Yeah, she's all yours," Belle said with a grin as she gave Leaf a gentle push over to her husband. The Walrus grinned back and proceeded to give his wife a nice series of pecks on the cheeks, the nose and finally the lips.
Sobering slightly, Belle walked over to Packard who was standing off to the side with his congas. Upon her approach, the percussionist looked like he didn't know if he wanted to have the conversation or not, so Belle decided to cut to the chase by extending her hand. "Packard, I'm sorry for yelling at you before, man. I was outta line."
A few seconds went by without contact, but then Packard put down the congas and gave Belle a real downtown greeting where he grabbed her hand and shook it in roughly five different ways. "Things needed to be said, dude. I'm sorry I got pissed and yelled back atcha, but I ain't sorry them things got said. After the gig tomorrow, I think we need to siddown and have a long talk about where we're at and where we're going with this thing. Yeah?"
"I agree, Pack," Belle said with a somber nod.
Behind them, the crowd security - all of two people, in the shape of Erica and Deputy Rogers - arrived and quickly got the spectators to move over to the makeshift box office to get their tickets. "Listen up, folks, the event is officially underway!" Erica said in her authoritarian voice.
Soon, the assembled crowd shuffled over to the booth and lined up in an orderly row. One after the other, the spectators put twenty or even thirty dollars in cash down on the wooden board in exchange for two or three tickets, and most of the women winked at Erica when they briefly made contact to take the hastily scribbled pieces of paper. Marcia came at the end and put down a one hundred dollar note. When Erica just stared at her with a wide-open face, the mature woman - nobody dared call her old to her face - tapped her knuckles on the board and held out her hand. "Woodstock it ain't but the spirit's the same, Sheriff. You're too young to really understand, but this is what our Sisterhood is all about."
"Uh-huh? I'll have to take your word for it," Erica said and tore off ten pieces of signed paper from the notepad she had been using.
Belle had witnessed the exchange from around the corner of the towel though she had been too far away to hear what had been said. Rolling her shoulders to loosen up, she turned back to her band and held out a clenched fist. "Let's kick some asses, Butterflies!" she said and thumped fists with her three old friends.
To a stirring applause from the fourteen spectators plus the two police officers, Daisy-Belle's Butterflies came out from behind the red towels and lined up in their regular order: the Walrus furthest stage-right, Leaf next to him, Belle a step ahead in the center, and Packard on his own on stage-left.
Belle wanted to pull out all the stops for the special gig so she had asked the Butterflies to wear their best clothes. She had chosen a clean, almost new pair of jeans and a deep purple t-shirt that sported a print of a daisy sticking out of the barrel of a rifle; Leaf wore a long, white, sleeveless dress in a straight cut that swept around her slender body before it opened out into a bell-bottom; the Walrus performed in a pair of green jeans, a neutral t-shirt and his old, leather cowboy hat, and Packard had donned his forty-year old Wrangler denim jacket that had dozens of flounces hanging down from the arms.
Without further ado, Belle counted off with her hand and went to work belting out a powerful version of Melissa Etheridge's Like The Way I Do that sent a ripple of appreciative murmurs through the spectators who were all very familiar with the song - not the least of which Erica who stood at the box office booth with her jaw suspended down near her chest.
When the four musicians really started rocking, it didn't take long before their infectious enthusiasm had the crowd clapping to the beat and performing wiggling dance moves that at least tried to follow the rhythm and tempo.
The first song segued into Wings Of An Eagle where Leaf and Belle circled around each other and traded the lyrics, with Leaf's much fairer voice acting as the perfect counterbalance to Belle's stronger and throatier pipes.
Once the duet was over, Leaf stepped back with her tambourine and Belle moved up to the front of the area. Clapping to keep time, she let rip in another uptempo protest song called My Life My Choice where the pro-feminist message seemed to go down well with the mostly female crowd.
As the song came to an end, the applause drowned out the last notes of Belle's singing, and the aging lead singer took a bow with flushed cheeks and a luminous sparkle in her green eyes. "Thank you! Thank you so much, you're a great audience. Let's hear it for Autumn Leaf, Walrus Jones and Packard Summer, ev'rybody... the Butterflies!" - wild cheer - "Thank you! Okay, now we're gonna get a bit slower and more intimate. If ya-"
"Watch out for the brown acid!" Marcia hollered from her position at the very front of the crowd, making everybody laugh - well, except the young teenagers who had to have the joke explained to them by their mother.
"Thanks, Marcia. Wow, this is far out... I'm gettin' flashbacks from concerts I didden even go to, man!" Belle said and took a bow. "Okay, like I said, now we're gettin' intimate. If ya got a sweetheart here, now's a good time to slip that arm around her waist, dontcha know."
Pulling the carrier strap of her guitar over her shoulder, Belle accompanied her Butterflies in a stirring rendition of Stand By Your Man, though she changed all the instances of 'man' in the lyrics to 'gal', giving her and the band yet another large round of applause. Once the 1968 hit was over and done with, she softened up her voice and segued into Help Me Make It Through The Night.
All through the song, Belle locked eyes with Erica who was standing at the back of the group with an inscrutable expression on her face and the metal box containing the money firmly pressed to her uniformed bosom. Belle didn't want to undermine Erica's authority, like she had called it, so she didn't adjust the lyrics like she had initially wanted to, but even so, it was clear to everyone present what was going on - save perhaps the four men in the crowd.
The crisp, melancholy notes of the guitar ended the segment, and Belle closed her eyes and blew the crowd a kiss. Panting and with flushed cheeks, she pulled back from the front as she was showered in applause. "Thanks, everybody. Love ya! Now, please give a big hand to Autumn Leaf who'll sing y'all a few romantic favorites that I'm sure you can hum along to," Belle said and took off her guitar.
Breathing heavily, Belle went behind the three red towels and took a bottle of water she had put there earlier. When she tried to get the lid off, she found it to be wound so tightly there was nothing she could do to unscrew the damn thing. "Oh, fuck that," she growled when even jamming the bottle between her legs and giving it a two-handed wrestling job couldn't get the lid off.
"Wait... don't pull a muscle, Belle. I got it," Erica said as she popped behind the towels. Taking the bottle, she unscrewed it with all the ease in the world and handed it back to the flushed singer. "Here ya go."
Belle was too thirsty to moan about it; instead, she simply put the bottle to her mouth and drained half of it in a single gulp. "Thanks," she said after wiping her mouth on the back of her hand. "How do you think it's been goin' so far?"
Studying the flushed cheeks and the sparkling eyes of the folk singer, Erica couldn't stop a warm, genuine smile from spreading over her features. "Great!" she said with a big, toothy grin stuck on her face. "Oh, goodness me, your opening act... or the last one when you looked at me! You're a dangerous woman, Daisy-Belle Cosmick... I mean, stealing hearts with a wink and a smile... and one hell of a sexy voice, too, of course. Just great."
"Yeah, huh?" Belle said and offered the striking Sheriff just what she had been worried about - a wink and a smile.
On the stage, Leaf's set of two Loreena McKennitt songs came to a close, and her dreamy performance was awarded with a rock-solid applause by the spectators.
Behind the towels, Belle grunted and emptied the rest of the bottle of water in a hurry. "Gotta go back out, Erica," she said and wiped her damp, flushed brow.
"Break a leg!"
"Gee, thanks, kiddo!"
As Erica turned around and ran back out into the spectator area, Belle studied the Sheriff's tall, graceful figure with an expert eye, thinking that it had to break at least half a dozen laws of nature to have a fuzz looking so great - not to mention the fact she got a definite thrill in her bones from looking at said fuzz.
Chuckling, she put down the empty bottle and stepped back around the towels where she garnered instant applause. "Thanks a lot, people," she said with her hands in the air. "You're an amazing audience. Leaf has been through a lot of shit the past year... oh, can I say shit in public, Sheriff?"
The question earned Belle another round of cheers, even from Erica. "I'll let it pass this time," the Sheriff shouted back using her hands as a funnel to enhance the sound.
"Great! Anyway, Leaf deserves every last clap an' cheer you have, so... how about puttin' 'em together for Autumn Leaf, the best damn friend any girl could ever have!" Belle said strongly, pulling her old, frail friend into a big but gentle hug.
The audience responded with a storm of whistles, cheers and various shouts that left the harmony vocalist flushed and quite embarrassed. Snickering, she ducked her head down into the nook of Belle's shoulder, but that only made the cheers louder.
"All right, all right, let's get on with the program, gang," Belle said and mussed Leaf's neck while she moved back to her regular spot. "I do believe we got a couple-a more songs to play ya, so a-one, a-two, a-one-two-three-four..."
The Walrus played the opening notes of Bidin' My Time, and soon, Belle fell into her cue with gusto and began belting out the blue collar protest song where she clapped, wiggled her hips and occasionally kicked out at certain parts of the lyrics - much to the delight of the spectators.
The song segued directly into a heartfelt, slightly uptempo version of Sunday Morning Comin' Down where Belle's raw, authentic voice left no doubt whatsoever that she had personally experienced every single thing mentioned in the lyrics, the Saturday night highs as well as the Sunday morning lows where her entire world was gray and focused on getting back on the train to the sky.
As she sang the final chorus, she picked up her guitar and used it expertly to add a soulful touch to the bridge between that song and the final one of the evening, the song the Butterflies always used to wrap up their appearances. "Ev'rybody... I know I speak for the Walrus, Pack and Leaf when I say we truly, honestly appreciate that you've all come here tonight to support a buncha crusty old hippies. I know this probably wasn't in your plans for the evenin', but we thank you. And with that, here's our final song, a little piece I wrote many years ago about a fabulous gal who left us far too young. It's simply called Stephanie."
Like always when she sang the hymn-like song, Belle closed her eyes and left the ordinary world behind, preferring to stay in an ethereal place where she and Stephanie Lorenz were both young, healthy and very much into each other. The lyrics made her think of the many times they had danced and loved, and the pretty pictures in her mind crept into her performance that gained a spiritual depth it hadn't had before.
Behind Belle, her band members kept out of the limelight and toned down their playing to show respect for the singer who was swaying to the sad song.
The song came to an end and Belle kept the final, raw note going for a few seconds after the band had stopped playing - only then did she open her eyes and looked at the spectators. "Stephanie, ev'rybody," she said in a voice that had gained a husky edge after the performances.
Predictably, the crowd went wild at the end of the mini-concert with so many cheers, whistles and wild outbursts that traffic stopped out on Main Street to see what was going on. To keep with the grassroots approach, the spectators invaded the stage and hugged, shook, patted and squeezed every single one of Daisy-Belle's Butterflies.
At the back of the unruly crowd, Marcia Willems stood with both index fingers pointed at the corners of her forehead. Erica was next to her, wondering what on earth the older woman was doing. "Major flashback, man! *That's* how music is supposed to be! *That's* how it was like back in the old days... not that plastic craptastic playback canned goods computer shit we have now! I'm going to Lyndonville for that folk festival tomorrow if it kills me and I'm gonna email all the gals I know and make 'em come too!"
"Well, uh... okay, Marcia. Don't blow a gasket," Erica said and patted the agitated woman's shoulder.
From somewhere behind them, a man cleared his throat and said: "Excuse me, Sheriff?"
While Marcia stormed through the spectators to let Daisy-Belle and the Butterflies in on her plans, Erica quickly assumed her role as the town's authority and turned around to greet the man. "Yes? Oh, good evening, Mr. Donaldson. Is there a problem?"
"Oh, no, Sheriff," the mechanic said. "I just wanted to see if the, uh, the band had managed to collect the money I need to fix their, uh, bus. The word got around that they'd thrown a concert or something down here."
Grunting, Erica sent the mechanic a stone cold glare that made him look down at his filthy boots. "It just so happens they have, Mr. Donaldson. How much did you say it took?"
"Ah... uh, four hundred eighty dollars, Sheriff."
"You sure about that?"
"Uh... well... uh..."
"Mmmm?" Erica said and cocked her head in a no-nonsense gesture.
"Well, I guess it's a used part, but, uh... I still got the environmental taxes and, uh... and it needed a new battery, too, and... four hund- uh, three-fifty?"
"Sounds fair, Mr. Donaldson," Erica said as she counted three hundred and fifty dollars from the metal box and handed the bills to the slightly grubby mechanic. "Here you go."
"Uh... thank you, Sheriff. I'll get started on it right away," Wylie Donaldson said and spun around on his heel to get away from the massive amounts of aggressive estrogen that permeated the parking lot.
Once the money matters had been taken care of, Erica shuffled her way to the front of the stage to look for Belle and the others. Most of the spectators had calmed down in the intervening minutes, though Marcia was still going at the speed of sound, and Belle and Leaf were surrounded by the two highly excited teenage girls who were snapping photos of the aging folk singers and talking about the craziness of singing live *and* without the aid of Autotune.
"Hey, Daisy-Belle," Erica said and handed Belle the metal box with the money, "I do believe what's in the lunch box belongs to you. You deserve every cent... that was a sensational concert."
"Thanks, Erica. We had a blast," Belle said with a beaming smile as she pulled the tall Sheriff into a warm hug. Stepping back, she opened the lid of the metal box - and promptly lost the smile when she realized there still wasn't enough to pay the mechanic. "But... but... there's only like... maybe a hundred bucks and change in here... what the hell? Who's had their fingers in the cookie jar? I know for a fact it can't be you..." she mumbled, looking at the meager fortune.
"Oh, I think it was Wylie Donaldson, actually," Erica said drolly. "No, don't have a heart attack, Belle. The mechanic's already been here and I've already paid him. Three hundred fifty bucks as agreed."
"No, it was four- yeah... yeah, it was three-fifty. C'mere... you big sneak, you!" Belle said with a smile that grew ever wider. She had barely put out her arms before the tall Sheriff moved into her hug. "Ohhhh yeah. An old bird could nest here," Belle said up against Erica's soft yet strong chest.
Separating, Erica matched Belle's wide grin with one of her own. "He said he'd get to work on it right away."
"Oh... oh, I don't-" Belle said and looked at Leaf whose face was lined and ashen. "No, we can't drive tonight, Erica. I guess I could after a nap and an extra-caff Coke or something, but it would hurt Leaf. No, we'll drive tomorrow at dawn... or maybe a little later."
"Belle Cosmick, you are something else, you know that?" Erica said and pulled the folk singer into another hug. "Listen, you're more than welcome to spend the night at my place. I can sleep on the couch so you can have the bed all to yourself."
"Oh, uh... ummm... no, uh... no thank you," Belle said with a smirk gracing her lips at the mere thought of being in the same space as the Sheriff for an entire night. "I mean, I really appreciate the offer, but... you know how people would talk."
"I guess... but you can't sleep out at Marcia's."
"No, you're right. The cats would flat out kill me. Woe is me, I'm the only lesbian in the world who's allergic to puss-" - deep, wet, faked snort! - "-sycats."
"Aw, Jesus!" Erica said and rolled her eyes repeatedly at the risqué joke.
Belle just grinned and slapped the Sheriff playfully across her flat stomach. "Naw, I'm hoping the mechanic will have the Microbus ready before bedtime. If he does, I'll drive it out to the Bed & Breakfast, park it in the driveway and sleep in it."
"No, no, hang on. I've done that a hundred times, so... yeah. But if he can't get it fixed tonight, I'll give you a call and you can pick me up, and uh... that didn't come out right," Belle said with another wink and another cheeky smile.
"Well... okay. But you gotta promise me you'll call if things don't work out at Wylie's," Erica said and put an arm around the shorter woman's shoulder.
Belle sobered again as she looked back at Leaf who was visibly dead tired from the gig and the attention from the spectators. To support her, the Walrus held an arm around her waist in a gesture echoing the one the two women were in, but it was clear to see the vocalist had had all she could take. "I will, Erica. I promise. I gotta go... my friend needs me," Belle said with a smile as she patted the Sheriff's hand and moved over to the frail woman.
"You betcha," Erica said, watching Belle and the Walrus help a pale Leaf over to Marcia's bright red truck that was parked at the other side of the parking lot.
The new day turned out to be anything but bright. The sky was awash with heavy, steel gray clouds that sent a constant drizzle down on the ground, and the raindrops performed a slow tap dance on the colorful roof of the fully repaired Volkswagen Microbus.
Belle was splayed across the back seat under no less than two blankets. Her night had been fitful, but sleep had eventually claimed her after an extra painkiller to help her come down from her natural high. In her sleep, dreams of Stephanie Lorenz dancing with her had been plentiful, and in some of them, the women had been joined by someone who bore a striking resemblance to Erica, though the pitch black hair of the woman in the dream had been so long it had nearly reached her rear.
Cracking open an eyelid, Belle observed the gray morning and promptly came to the conclusion that she wouldn't mind grabbing another three, four or five hours of sleep - alas, she knew she couldn't.
With a slight grunt from the pain that shot up from her hip and the rest of her old bones, she shuffled over onto her back and pulled the two blankets up under her nose. Even though she had closed the vanity curtains, she could tell it was gray and dull outside from the lack of sunlight that shone through the fabric. She could also tell she needed to pee, which was worse since the only toilet anywhere near her was inside the mansion where it crawled with cats and Butterflies who were no doubt grumpy from a lack of sleep after their eventful evening.
"Aw, hell," she mumbled when it registered that she needed to do it sooner rather than later. Sweeping the blankets aside, she swung her bare legs over the side of the back seat and sat up. A wave of fatigue and dizziness struck her, and she needed to grab hold of the backrest of the seat in front of her until it receded. "Whoa... man, I'm getting too old for concerts that late in the day... I mean, how pathetic is that? Way pathetic!" she mumbled as she grappled for the well-worn pair of jeans she had prepared for the long drive - the preparation had basically consisted of throwing them down on the floor between the seats with the right side up so she could reach them.
After heeding Mother Nature's call and realizing she had forgotten her travel bag with her medicine case and her toothbrush in the Microbus, she shuffled back out with eyes that were glued shut - and then she shuffled back inside the bathroom to brush her teeth and to take her first chemicals of the day.
For a little while, she stood in front of the mirror and studied the old, gray-haired, tired-looking woman who was staring back at her. The woman whose aged skin was lined and pale, whose eyes were dull and slightly bloodshot and whose hair was graying and thinning was a stranger, and a terrifying one at that - at the very least, it wasn't the image she saw in her mind's eye when she thought of herself. "But I guess I am old and gray. Today, I really do look like a granny. All that's missin' is a pair of slippers, a rockin' chair and a crossword puzzle. Man, I'm glad Erica isn't here to see that old bird right there," she mumbled as she ducked her head and stepped away from the mirror.
With a grunt, she kicked off her boots and began to undress for a quick splash in Marcia's extravagant shower stall.
Fifteen minutes later, the painkillers she had taken began to kick in, bringing a welcome return of her spunk - or at least some of it. As she dried herself with a fluffy towel that was almost bigger than she was, her thoughts wandered back to the dreams she'd had where she danced with Stephanie and Erica. The pleasant thoughts sent a heated thrill racing over her skin, leaving a line of excited, little goosebumps in its wake.
As the thrill ran across her breasts and left her nipples delightfully erect, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to briefly enter a colorful, warm fantasy world where she was with her old lover *and* her striking new friend. They were dancing, they had their lips and their hands all over each other, they were breathing hard, they were on the floor, they were making sweet love to each other...
Belle snickered at the deliciously naughty images that played in her mind before she finished drying herself and stepped into her panties like the prim and proper little old lady she was.
Once she was fully dressed in the outfit she had chosen to drive in - the well-worn blue jeans that had the perfect cut for a day spent sitting down, and a red t-shirt with the rainbow standard flying proudly on the front - she stepped out into the connecting hallway.
Packard Summer was leaning against the wall to the bathroom in a bathrobe, appearing to be in a half-sleeping, half-awake state that told Belle he was feeling the aftereffects of the long night, too. As she went past him, she patted his shoulder which seemed to wake him up.
Just as Belle walked up to the staircase to look for Autumn Leaf and the Walrus, her eye caught Marcia who was toiling in the kitchen to prepare the breakfast. Two of the tabby cats were playing around her legs, so Belle didn't dare go out there. Instead, she knocked on the doorframe and waved at their landlady when she turned around. "Mornin', Marcia. That's funny, I coulda sworn you said we needed to organize our own breakfast...?"
"I did... but that was before I heard you gals and guys play last night. Mornin' Belle," Marcia said and waved back at her guest. "Hey, lemme tell you, that concert was a sight for... uh... uh... a tonic for my ears, man. Eargasm, man!"
"Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it." Belle's nose and eyes were already reacting to the presence of the two cats, and when her throat began acting up, too, she let out a sad chuckle. "Sorry, Marcia... I gotta go. The cats..."
"Sure thing, Belle. I'm makin' some herbal tea and some French toast, and I'm gonna slap some good, strong cheese on it that'll grow hairs on yer titties. I'll be out with a slice and a mug for ya in a couple-a minutes' time. Okay?"
"Okay. Uh, and maybe a little strawberry jam on the cheese as well?"
"Woo-hoo, nobody but us old birds likes that anymore," Marcia said and punched the air in delight. "You betcha."
At much the same time in Erica's apartment above the Sheriff's Office, an infernal electronic sound echoed through the silent, dark rooms. The cell phone kept ringing and ringing and ringing, but just as Erica swept her blanket aside and sat up with hair that stuck out in all directions and a violent curse on her lips, it stopped.
Erica stopped, too, with her rear end suspended ten inches above the bed - that's how far she had made it. Groaning, she bumped back down on the soft, warm bed and began to grapple for the blanket.
And then the phone started ringing again.
"Oh, to hell with that miserable piece of shit!" she barked and shot up from the bed. On her way out of the bedroom, she snatched her dark red kimono and wrapped it tightly around her sleeping shirt-clad body.
In the living room, she made a beeline for the telephone that she had left on the sideboard by the posters. "This is the Sheriff and it better be good 'cos it's supposed to be my day off!" she growled.
'Uh, good morning, Sheriff Wayne. It's Deputy Rogers. I'm really sorry but I need to call in sick today. My wife-'
"Call in sick? On my day off?" Erica parroted, staring straight out into the living room without seeing anything at all.
'Yeah, I'm really sorry, Sheriff. My wife's been ill all night and she's barfed all over the place... the couch, the carpet, into the bathtub-'
"Spare me the details, Patrick!"
'Sorry. Anyway, we called her mother but she can't come over 'til later. I need to take care of my baby until then. I hope you understand...?'
"Yeah, of course I understand," Erica said and rubbed her eyes with her free hand. "Uh... don't worry about it. Just take care of your honey. Okay?"
'I will, Sheriff.'
"Call me with an update at, say... three p.m., and we'll take it from there."
'Yes, Sheriff Wayne. Thank you... and goodbye.'
"Bye, Patrick," Erica said and closed the connection. "Uh-huh. And it had to happen on my day off," she mumbled. After trying to get her hair settled down and scratching her bare skin under her kimono and sleeping t-shirt, she shrugged and shuffled into the bathroom to grab a wake-up shower.
With the Sheriff's uniform firmly in place and her boots polished to within an inch of their life, she walked down the stairs to get started on her day. She quickly waved at Wanda and the other secretary who had come in at their regular time.
"Good morning, Sheriff Wayne," Wanda said with her ever-present bubblegum creating a big bulge in her right cheek. "I thought this was your day off?"
" 'Morning, Wanda. Well it was supposed to be, but Deputy Rogers called in sick. Or his wife, anyway," Erica said on her way over to the table where the coffee machine was blubbering merrily.
"Oh... I better make a note of that in the statistics we do on the timesheets."
"He didn't call you?"
"No he didn't, Sheriff."
While Erica waited for the dark brown liquid to drip into the glass coffee pot so she could pour it into her favorite mug - a gray one with the Sheriff's Office logo printed on the drinking side - she zoned out and began to think about the success of the spontaneously arranged mini-concert the night before.
She had never been one who went to rock concerts. Her experiences with live music were limited to visiting chamber music matinees or the Philharmonics with her former partner when a famous conductor came to the concert hall, or suffering through riot guard duty at inner-city hip-hop 'rap slams,' but the energy, the passion and the authenticity of the performances of Daisy-Belle's Butterflies made her interested in discovering more about the folk rock scene. 'Or perhaps just one folk rock singer in particular,' she thought, chuckling inside.
Thinking about Belle made her look at her watch: she still had plenty of time to drink her coffee and get out to Marcia's Bed & Breakfast before the band would leave. She smiled and poured herself a healthy mug of the dark brown liquid from the machine that had finally finished blubbering.
On her way back to her desk, her meticulously timed agenda faced a sudden disruption in the slightly frazzled shape of Edgar Judson, the elderly man in the well-worn dark blue business suit who regularly came to confess his involvement with any crime of any kind since the dawn of time. Opening the glass double doors, Mr. Judson shuffled into the Sheriff's Office, as always holding onto the backrests of the other chairs for support.
Erica groaned long and hard on the inside but kept a straight face on her exterior. Putting down her mug on her own side of the desk, she pulled out the chair used for the guests and helped the elderly man sit down. "Good morning, Mr. Judson. What can I do for you today?"
"I have come to turn myself in, Sheriff," Edgar said and looked down at his scuffed shoes.
"I have been part of something so heinous that... that I cannot fathom how I could have gotten involved. But it seemed exciting at the time," he mumbled.
"Uh-huh." Leaning forward, Erica studied the man closely, knowing most of his tall tales by now. For some reason - maybe it was the rude awakening - she couldn't say for sure whether or not Edgar Judson was spinning a yarn so she decided to err on the side of caution just in case he really had been involved in something bad.
She briefly tapped her fingers on the desk top and glanced at her watch that showed that she still had some time, though less than before. "All right, Mr. Judson. Talk to me."
"May I have a cup of coffee before I spill my awful crimes, Sheriff?"
"Of course. Wanda, would you mind getting Mr. Judson some coffee?" Erica said loudly to the bubblegum-chewing secretary who rose from her chair at once. "Cream, no sugar like always, right?"
"Wanda, cream, no sugar!" Erica shouted, but the secretary's waved gesture proved that she already knew. "Right. When you're ready, Mr. Judson."
Edgar Judson cleared his throat and shuffled around on the chair. He mumbled a few words, but soon decided to speak up and tell his story. "It began with a phone call. I should have hung up on him when I heard what he wanted, but... but..."
"Go on, Mr. Judson."
"It appealed to my dark side. I'm a thrill-seeker, Sheriff."
"Uh-huh?" Erica said with a furrowed brow, wondering just what on earth it was the elderly man was going to confess.
Once the Butterflies had stowed their gear in the Microbus, and strong hugs and handshakes had been given to Marcia who headed into town to buy groceries, they were fully ready to go.
Well, everyone except Belle who kept stalling their departure from Marcia's Bed & Breakfast in the hope they'd get a not-so-surprise visitor before they left. She continuously glanced at the clock on her iPhone to keep track of time that marched on relentlessly, but even that didn't conjure up the person she wanted to see.
"Now what's she doing?" the Walrus said from his position on the back seat, holding his wife in a firm, loving grip around her waist.
"Well, what do you think?" Leaf said, turning around in the seat to watch Belle who was checking something at the rear of the Microbus that apparently was important enough to warrant a three-minute inspection.
"Ohhhh. Okay. Hey, didn't you say it was immoral that she wanted to get into the tall cop's pants?" the Walrus teased, pulling Leaf closer for a kiss.
Leaf snickered and gave her husband a smooch before she snuggled up into his arms. "Yeah. But that was before I got to know Erica. She's one of the good fuzzes."
Sitting on the bench seat up front, Packard pulled his denim jacket closer and let out a mocking sound that was a cross between a grunt and a groan. "A fuzz is a fuzz, dude. I never have and I ain't never gonna trust anyone with a badge and a gun for as long as I'm breathin', dude. Never! They're snakes, dude! I hope Belle finds that out before that tall fuzz reveals her true colors. It's gonna end shitty, dude. I just know it will. It's gonna end with the fuzz smackin' Belle around for talkin' back to her, and there's gonna be tears and angry words, dude... I'll betcha' hundred bucks it will," he mumbled, staring out of the windshield at nothing in particular.
"Pack, man..." the Walrus said and pulled Leaf close again. "Will you lighten up? It's too early in the day for all those negative waves."
"Crap," Packard said, snuggling down into his jacket.
Outside, Belle gave up pretending that she had found something really, really exciting near the exhaust of the Microbus. Standing up straight and checking her iPhone again, she sighed deeply when she realized it was already five minutes past the time they had set as their deadline for leaving Cape Whitnell behind.
They were in the middle of a brief, sunny break in the inclement weather and she knew it would be best for all involved if they exploited it - and yet, she had a hard time tearing herself away from the gravelly courtyard in front of Marcia's Bed & Breakfast. With a sinking feeling, she finally came to the conclusion that Erica wouldn't show, and she shuffled back to the driver's side door to get in.
After she had adjusted the mirrors that Wylie Donaldson had fiddled with for some inexplicable reason, she reached for the ignition key. "You guys ready back there? Leaf?"
"We're ready, dude," Packard mumbled into his jacket, "we were ready, like, five feckin' minutes ago, for feck's sake."
"What the fuck crawled down your throat and died, Brother Sunshine?"
Leaf leaned forward and put a hand on Belle's shoulder. "I think the Walrus and me woke Pack up kinda early this morning. I had a good night's sleep and I wanted to celebrate it," she whispered, adding a telling snicker.
"I see, I see," Belle said and sent Leaf a saucy wink in the rear-view mirror that earned her a little kiss on the cheek. "Well. I guess we better be going, then... if it can't be helped. I'd just hoped that... aw, fuck it. She musta been detained somehow."
Belle turned the key and listened to the old engine's regular morning routine. Not unlike her own where she needed to wait for a little while before she could get her hip and knees to co-operate fully, the engine needed a few seconds to run on all four cylinders.
At first it coughed, spluttered and belched out a combination of black soot and pale blue smoke, but then the fourth cylinder showed up to work and the engine note became much smoother.
Finding reverse somewhere in the murky depth of the gearbox, Belle put her arm over the backrest and began to crawl backwards so she could get to the wider area near the entry where she could turn the colorful Microbus around.
Mixed emotions ran through her as they reached the white utility shed at the far end of the driveway where Marcia's bright red Chevrolet truck was usually parked. After pointing the bus in the right direction and fishing for first gear so they could get underway, she was glad the wheel and the battery had been fixed so they could carry on with their little festival tour, but at the same time, an immense disappointment over Erica's strange absence hung heavily inside her and soured the experience.
'Oh well,' she thought as she finally found a gear. 'I guess I misread her signals. Hell, I'm old enough to be her mother. Some things just aren't meant to-'
"Dude, are we goin' or what? Crap, we coulda been halfway there by now!" Packard grumbled.
Just as Belle turned around in the seat to give the percussionist several large, jagged pieces of her mind, a very familiar sound approached fast from somewhere in the middle distance.
Leaf leaned forward and whispered: "Is that what I think it is?" into Belle's ear.
"Uh-huh!" Belle said and moved the gearstick back from first.
Out on Main Street, a black-and-white Chevrolet Tahoe came thundering up the road with full lights and sirens, making so much racket it could have awoken the dead.
At the very last moment, the driver stood on the brakes and slotted the huge SUV into the gap in the hedge. The large vehicle seemed to take the corner on two wheels and banked dangerously first one way, then the other as it turned sharp right, then left and went further up the driveway to safely clear the colorful Microbus that was still idling at Marcia's white utility shed. In oh-point-two of a second, the driver turned off the siren and the emergency lights and jumped out of the truck.
Belle's heart swelled with happiness over the sight of the tall, striking Erica bounding out of the police truck and running around the back of it, carrying a single red rose in a cellophane wrapping and a cute little teddy bear wearing a Native American outfit including a headband with a feather.
Grappling for the lever for the door, Belle simply couldn't pry the smile off her face as she mirrored the Sheriff by hopping down from the Microbus and hurrying across the gravelly driveway.
"Aw, feck that, dude..." Packard groaned, but his negativity was countered instantly by Leaf whacking him over the back of his head.
"You shut up, asswipe!" she barked in a surprisingly strong voice. "I've had it with your fuckin' grumpiness! Can't you see Belle is happy?"
"That's a fuzz for feck's sake, dude," Packard mumbled, but by then, nobody listened to him.
Belle and Erica hurriedly closed the distance between them and didn't stop until they were at arm's length from each other. The two women were engaged in a competition to see who could wear the biggest, warmest smile, but it ended in a predictable tie.
"Well, hello there, Sheriff Lady," Belle said and briefly touched the Sheriff's arms.
"Oh, I'm so sorry I'm late, Belle... I thought I'd never get here..." - Erica groaned and rolled her eyes - "Would you believe that today of all days, Patrick called in sick 'cos his wife had upchucked all night...? And then old Mr. Judson detained me for nearly twenty minutes with a demand that I arrested him for being a co-conspirator in the assassination of President Kennedy!"
"Poor you," Belle said with a grin.
"I know! Luckily, I had already bought you these," Erica said and held up the rose and the teddy bear. "But I stormed out the door without 'em! So I had to go back for 'em and, ugh... anyway, I know it'll probably seem goofy or silly to you, but I... I wanted to give you something funny. So... uh... thank you for giving me a reason to smile yesterday, Daisy-Belle. Uh, and today, too, of course. Lord knows it's been a long time coming."
"Awww!" Belle said and took the wrapped rose from Erica's hand. After sniffing it, she held it against her heart as she took the buckskin-clad teddy. "Thank you so much, Erica. It's been my pleasure. And thank you for allowing an old bird like me the opportunity to show what she's got. The concert was good for my self-esteem, lemme tell you. We haven't been applauded like that for years. Hell, decades."
"Oh, that's great."
"Yeah. Say, this little fella, is he wearing the colors of the Nation you're a part of?" Belle continued, tickling the teddy bear's stomach.
"Nah, he's with the Kitsch Nation... they're big out west," Erica said with a cheesy grin.
"Yeah, huh?" Belle replied and suddenly knew she and Erica were going to kiss. Licking her lips as a slight jitter swept over her being, she glanced back at the Microbus and realized they were standing in full view of the rest of the Butterflies. "Erica... walk with me," she said and put her free hand on Erica's elbow.
The two women moved behind the Tahoe that acted as a huge and highly effective shield against any peeping Toms that happened to be in the area. Once there, Belle carefully put her two gifts on the hood of the truck and licked her lips again. She looked up at the tall Sheriff with an expression on her face that spelled out pretty clearly that the ball was back in Erica's court.
Luckily for both of them, Erica knew how to play ball. With a smile, she let her eyes glide down Belle's aged but pretty - and highly expectant - face until they landed on the lips. Moving a hand up to caress the back of Belle's head, she leaned down and claimed those very lips in a warm, romantic kiss.
A myriad of sweet sensations fell over Erica like a comfortable blanket on a cold winter night. As she kissed the older woman, her mind was filled with a sense of happiness she hadn't felt in years; one that started at the simple, physical connection she had with Belle's lips and ended in a shower of golden tingles that created a shortness of breath and a strong threat to set fire to her nerve-ends.
Unknown to the tall Sheriff, the exact same emotions flooded Belle's heart and soul. She had been worried Erica would let her down easy after the not-so-subtle setup, but the kiss that followed swept away all her fears. A tell-tale thrill ran down her body until it pooled in a spot she hadn't had any use for for far too long.
Her growing need scared her a little and sent a niggle of worry down her back over the possible implications of the kiss, but the physical touch and the heat created by the sweet contact far outweighed any uncertainty she had.
Finally separating. Belle nibbled at Erica's succulent lips with a flushed face that shone with pleasure at being kissed in a way she hadn't experienced for many a year. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for not being afraid to kiss an old girl like me."
"You're not old... you're beautiful," Erica whispered back; her blue eyes sparkling from a surge of emotions that coursed through her system.
"You're the beautiful one here, Erica. I'm just an old, gray, wrinkled girl," Belle said with a chuckle as she ran her thumb across the Sheriff's prominent cheekbone. "Hey, I dreamt about you last night."
"Yeah. We had a great time. We danced. Stephanie was there too."
Erica briefly furrowed her brow but the smile was soon back on her face. "Oh, I'd love to dance with you someday, Belle."
"Thanks... but my old bones don't dance as well as they used to, I'm afraid," Belle said with an apologetic shrug.
"Perhaps if we just stood in one place and swayed to the music?"
"Perhaps," Belle said with a wistful smile playing on her lips. Reaching out, she put a hand on Erica's side and gave her a little rub. "Anyway, thank you once again. I better get going. The gang will probably think I've either killed ya or had my way with ya."
"Of the two, I'd rather choose the second option if ya don't mind," Erica husked. The need to connect with Belle suddenly became too strong to ignore, and she leaned in again to reclaim the older woman's supremely kissable lips.
The second kiss was more rushed and intense than the first, but Erica and Belle both put their backs into it, as proved by the moan of longing that suddenly escaped Belle's lips.
Shocked by her response, the flushed Belle gasped and took a step back. "Wow, I... we gotta stop now, Erica," she said and held up her hands. "If we don't, we're gonna... Jesus, that felt so good. But I gotta go," she continued quietly, touching her lips that still tingled after the intense kiss.
Erica looked with worry at the trepidation and confusion that were written all over Belle's face, mentally slapping herself black and blue for coming on far too strongly. When she tried a simpler approach by reaching out to shake hands with the older woman, she found herself pulled into a hug instead, much to her relief. "Sorry, Belle... I don't know what came over me," she whispered into the gray-blonde hair.
"I do!" Belle said cheekily as she took a half-step back but kept a firm grip on Erica's arms. "Don't apologize for having a heart, kiddo. You know what I say? I say, the world would be a far better place if more people used their hearts to communicate instead of their smartphones."
"I guess. So... have a safe trip to Lyndonville, Belle. No speeding and no smoking dutchies while you drive, please."
"Yes, ma'am, Sheriff, ma'am!" Belle said and saluted the taller woman.
"Oh, ha-ha," Erica said, playfully slapping at Belle's arm. "Have a fabulous concert... and please say goodbye to the others for me, okay? Especially to Leaf. She's a great gal."
"She is. She really is... bye, Erica. It's been a whole lotta fun," Belle said and pulled her new friend into a strong though perfectly platonic hug. "Wow, can you believe it? A fuzz and a hippie this close and they ain't even wrestlin' but huggin' and stealin' kisses! Huh! Someone musta spiked the coffee!"
Three days later.
It was cold, wet and windy, and Erica was miserable. Not only for being stuck in the Tahoe on speed control duty in the cold, wet and windy conditions, but just as much because she was missing the colorful, spunky older woman who had gone by the name Daisy-Belle Cosmick.
The only speed radar they had was an old model that was designed to be used on a tripod, but when Erica had put it up in a good location going into a tricky, blind bend on the coastal road, it had blown off the tripod twice in five minutes two hundred yards from where she had parked the Tahoe, and she'd had to slog through the awful conditions twice to get it back up.
In the end, Erica simply held the unwieldy radar in her hands on the other side of the tricky bend, keeping it balanced on the windowsill. Unfortunately, it meant she needed to have the window open which sent every last drop of the horizontal rain directly into the cabin of the Tahoe. To counter that, she was wearing her full rain gear - gloves, the waterproof cape and the plastic bag on her hat - but they restricted her movements and pinned her down in the seat.
In short, she was miserable.
When the radar's speed sensor pinged, she looked up, but it was only one of Cape Whitnell's locals driving very sensibly in the inclement weather.
Sighing, she went back to thinking about the colorful woman she had known for so little time it already seemed like a dream. The wonderful kisses they had shared hadn't been a dream, of that Erica was a hundred percent certain, but even so, the experience had already entered that strange zone of the mind where it was hard to tell what was real and what was fantasy.
A double ping from the radar, meaning someone was speeding on the dangerous stretch of road, made Erica snap out of her golden memories and look out of the window at a green truck that was screeching around the tricky bend. "Fifty-eight miles an hour 'round a blind bend in driving rain... irresponsible dickhead," she said and promptly turned on the police lights on the roof.
When the truck came to a halt just after where the Tahoe was parked, Erica could see that it belonged to Jeff Tobin, the Cape Whitnell busybody who had reported Packard Summer for smoking marijuana at their little jam session on the parking lot. With a grunt, she put away the radar, took her ticket pad and stepped out of her vehicular shelter.
Assuming her game face and authoritarian posture, she put her hand on her sidearm under the dripping wet waterproof cape and went up to the window that Jeff had opened in the meantime. "Turn off your engine, Sir. I need your driver's license and the vehicle registration."
"Sheriff, is this really necessary?" Jeff said and turned off the engine before he raised himself off the seat to get to his wallet that was in the back pocket of his tight jeans. Once he had found it, he handed the plastic card to Erica and began to rummage around for the truck's papers.
"Are you aware of why you have been pulled over, Sir?" Erica said as she studied the driver's license. There wasn't anything she could put a finger on, so she handed it back to Jeff.
"Maybe I was goin' a little too fast, but... eh..."
"You were going eighteen miles over the recommended speed limit and you crossed the double yellow lines through a blind turn, so that's reckless driving."
"Now look here, Sheriff!" Jeff said and pushed his Pontiac cap back from his ruddy face.
Erica's steely glare made the driver shut up at once, and she used the silence to walk back to the rear of the truck and check the taillight clusters. Fortunately for Jeff's sake - but unfortunately for Erica - the lights had been fixed since their last encounter. "All right," she said as she walked back up to the window and made a few notes on her ticket pad that the rain turned into a spotted woodpecker almost immediately. "Mr. Tobin, I'm presenting you with a $125 fine for reckless driving and speeding on a dangerous stretch of road. That's a violation of section two, paragraph one of the Cape Whitnell laws. If you-"
"I know the town laws by heart, Sheriff!" Jeff barked, but Erica kept her cool.
"If you wish to complain about the fine," she continued as she tore the top piece of paper off her ticket pad and held it up by the window, "or the size of the fine, you and-or your attorney will need to send the complaint in triplicate to the County Police Commissioner who will take appropriate measures. Do you understand what I have told you?"
"Yeah, yeah," Jeff said and stuffed the piece of paper down into the center console without even looking at it. "Can I go or what?"
"You are free to leave, Mr. Tobin. The radar is now pointing this way so if you speed into town, I'll know."
"I won't," Jeff growled and started the truck's engine. With the road clear behind him, he hit the gas and continued towards Cape Whitnell at a more sedate pace.
Erica shook her head - which sent a cascade of droplets down from the plastic bag protecting her hat - and shuffled back to the Tahoe where she sat down and wished time would hurry up so she could get back to the office and a mug of steaming hot coffee.
Twenty minutes later, the mind-numbing monotony was interrupted by the near-ancient CB radio crackling to life.
'Base to Sheriff Wayne. Base to Sheriff Wayne. Sheriff, it's Wanda. Are you there?' the secretary said through a storm of crackles.
Erica sighed and reached for the black microphone that was stuck to the top of the elderly radio box with a strip of Velcro. "I'm here, Wanda. What's up?" she said, working the little button on the mic. As she released it, the old-fashioned sound of radio static filled the Tahoe and made her adjust one of the many blank knobs - blank because the embossed labels had been wiped clean by the hundreds of fingers that had used the equipment over the years.
'Base to Sheriff Wayne. This is Wanda. Do you read me?'
"Yes, for cryin' out loud! I read you loud and clear, Wanda. What's up?"
'Oh, sorry. I just had a call from Judy out at the diner. She said she had a little issue she needed you to take a look at.'
"What kind of issue?"
'Say again, please.'
"What kind of issue, for cryin' out loud!" - Erica let go of the button and rolled her eyes repeatedly. "Jesus, if we don't get better gear soon, we won't be able to do anything... like I told the city council in my report from the hotel fire. But did they listen? Hell no they didn't!"
'Ooops, sorry. She didn't say, but I got the impression it was kinda urgent.'
Erica could practically hear the bubblegum being turned over and chewed on some more in Wanda's mouth, and she wondered how anyone could stomach chewing on it twenty-four-seven like the young woman did. Groaning, she folded back her waterproof cape and took a look at her wristwatch that read ten minutes to four in the afternoon. "But I only got ten more minutes to go and then my shift is over!" she whined into the microphone. "I need some coffee so badly... it's wet, windy and stinking cold out here..."
'Say again, please...?'
"Never mind, never mind, Wanda! Call Judy back and tell her I'm on my way. Sheriff Wayne over and out," Erica said and put the microphone back on the strip of Velcro.
'Will do, Sheriff. Base out.'
Two good things did come out of the unexpected call - not only could she put away the cumbersome speed radar, she could close the window and turn on the heater.
The traffic was still non-existent, so she was able to roll out onto the coastal road at once and set off down towards Judy's Diner. On her way there, she began fantasizing about bribing the owner of the diner into making her a grilled cheese sandwich and a gallon of coffee to go with it.
It didn't take long for Erica to drive across town and into the diner's parking lot. The place was pretty full with trucks, SUVs and family sedans - including a spring green Kia Rio that Erica thought seemed oddly out of place - and she knew the diner itself would be just as crowded with people stopping for coffee and Judy's famed afternoon snack on their way home from work, pancakes with ice cream and blackcurrant jam.
In the end, she parked the Tahoe in a no-parking zone and turned on half the emergency lights so that no one would get bent out of shape over the apparent abuse of power by the local law enforcement.
Erica ran between the heavy drops on her way to the doors and quickly hopped into the small foyer that led to the diner itself. Shaking her waterproof cape, she folded down the collar and cast a brief glance at the flyers and posters Judy had put up to advertise local events. One of the flyers was for the folk festival in Lyndonville, but when Erica looked at it, she had to go down into the very, very fine print in the list of attractions to find Daisy-Belle's Butterflies. "Their loss," she mumbled as she put the flyer back in the rack.
Stepping into the diner itself, she unbuttoned her waterproof cape so she could slide onto one of the barstools if she needed to. As expected, the diner was bustling with scores of people sitting at the rows of red benches and the barstools. Most people were drinking coffee and eating pancakes or other types of sweet pastry, but there were one or two guests who simply read a newspaper or tried to talk to each other over the din of the crowd.
"I got your call, Judy. What's going on?" Erica said as she stepped up to the counter where the owner of the diner was slapping together a Club Sandwich.
"Hi, Sheriff," Judy said and rinsed her hands under a faucet. In her late forties, Judy Shaheen had gained a haggard, gray complexion from spending too many hours behind the counter, and her wiry, Greyhound-slim figure proved that she hadn't spent too many of those hours sitting down. "What's goin' on? Well, I got a bunion on my right foot and it's killing me... but I imagine that's not what you meant," she said and put the completed Club Sandwich onto a plate that she proceeded to put on the counter.
"Ah, that would be a no," Erica drawled, already sensing that she had been set up somehow.
"Didn't think so," Judy continued and dinged a small, silver bell. "Number forty-two! Club Sandwich, hold the tomatoes!" she yelled, and soon, a man came up to the counter to get the plate.
"Judy," Erica said flatly, pushing her wrapped, dripping wet hat back from her forehead. "I've just spent three hours gettin' pelted with rain in a friggin' freezer box... I'd like to know what's going on, if ya don't mind..."
"Yeah, okay. I had a customer who was kinda mouthy and stuff."
"I see. Go on," Erica said and put on her game face as she dug into her breast pocket to find her notepad.
"Yeah. And she's still here, right behind you."
"Right beh-" Erica said and spun around so fast her waterproof cape fluttered out like a Musketeer's cloak of yore. When the identity of the mouthy customer was revealed, the dark, no-nonsense look on the Sheriff's face melted away and was replaced by a warm grin that only grew wider.
"Surprise!" Daisy-Belle said with a beaming smile on her face, slowly lowering the newspaper she had been hiding behind. "Whoa, lemme tell you... you got that tough fuzz look down pat. When you spun around, I nearly peed my pants at the glare in your eyes!"
Erica wanted to let out a resounding whoop but knew she had to restrain herself while they were in such a public place. She was unable to hold back the warm grin, though, and it stayed on her face the entire way from the counter and over to Belle's booth.
The folk singer was wearing dark blue jeans and a remarkably restrained pale gray long-sleeved cotton shirt that didn't sport any pro- or anti-messages at all, but Erica thought she had rarely looked lovelier.
Before she took off her waterproof cape and her hat and slipped onto the bench seat, she turned back to Judy who was pulling her very best - or worst - 'Who Me?' look. "Judy," Erica said, reaching down into her lowest, most dangerous register, "that stunt is gonna cost you a huge mug o' coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich... put it on the tab."
"You betcha, Sheriff," Judy said with a wink.
Listening to the Sheriff's deep, dark voice had sent yet another thrill down Belle's spine, and she couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to spend a few wild days in the company of the striking woman. "I'm sorry for the deception, Erica, but I didn't want to barge into your apartment like the last time," Belle said and put her hands on the tabletop in an open invitation for contact.
Erica gladly accepted the invitation and briefly put her own, larger hands on top of Belle's to give them a little squeeze - then she moved back to her own side of the table. "Oh, that's all right, all things considered. I hoped you'd swing by again but I didn't dare count on it."
"Boy, are you kiddin'... after those kisses? There was never any doubt in my mind. I'd be back come hell or high water," Belle husked and pulled her hands back as well, accepting that while Erica was in uniform, the scope for showing their affection would be narrower in the conservative town.
"Oh, what have you been up to the past few days, Belle? Did the concert go okay? I tried to look for reviews or reports on the websites of the local media but I couldn't find anything..."
"Nah, the folk festival turned out to be less than we thought it was gonna be. It didn't attract a huge crowd... couple-a hundred people at the most. They were primarily there for the beer and barbecue and stuff, so..." Belle said with a half-shrug. "Though I'm pleased to say that Daisy-Belle's Butterflies got the biggest reception of all the bands when we got on stage!"
"Yeah? Wow, that's great!"
"Yep. Of course, ninety percent of it was generated by Marcia and her gang of uninhibited friends. Man, those gals were crazy! One of them... she was older than me, I think... stripped down to her bare essentials and danced around only wearing panties and red, white and blue paint slapped onto on her upper body. I'm not sure she should have smoked the last doobie, if you know what I mean," Belle said with a huge, saucy grin playing on her lips.
"Oh, Jeez... But did the Microbus break down again? I didn't see it out in the parking lot?"
Before Belle had time to answer apart from gaining a slightly sad look on her face, Judy came down to the table with a steaming hot grilled cheese sandwich, a huge mug of coffee and a smaller mug with a murky liquid that smelled like camomile tea. "Here you go, ladies. A GCS and a barrel of coffee... and I made you another herbal tea, Belle. I'll put it on the Sheriff's tab," she said with a wink.
"Thanks, Judy!" Erica and Belle said as one before the Sheriff dug into her sandwich with gusto.
Getting back to the question, Belle's face once again gained a dark look, and she rubbed her chin like she had a hard time believing the truth herself.
"Is something wrong, Belle? You look really... I don't know... depressed?"
"Oh no, I'm fine. Well... you didn't see the Microbus 'cos it isn't there. Leaf and the guys still got it up in Lyndonville. They decided to spend a week there camping, but I wanted to come back here to see you. I rented a car, the green Kia."
"Oh, I thought it looked out of place," Erica said around a mouthful of sandwich, mindful to keep the nuked cheese with the texture and temperature of molten lava away from her lips.
Chewing on her cheek, Belle looked up at the Sheriff and wondered how the next bit of news would go down. "Erica, we've split up. The Butterflies are no more."
"Whut?!" Erica said, nearly choking on a bite.
"Yeah, we've split up. Pack and me had a long heart to heart after the festival gig and we agreed there wasn't any point to it anymore. No fun. And... well... yeah," Belle said, tracing the artificial patterns on the melamine surface of the tabletop.
"Wow... of all the things you could have said, that wasn't one I expected... you've been together for forty years! But you've got such a wonderful voice... will you keep singing? And what about Leaf? Isn't she your best friend?"
"Whoa, barrage, man!" Belle said with a snicker, holding up her hands to show that she had been overloaded. "Yeah, I'll keep singing, though I have no idea where, how or with whom. And I can still see Leaf when we get back home, thank God. We only live, like, two blocks apart. No, I'd rather die than live without her. I owe her so much I can't even repay half of it in this lifetime."
Erica furrowed her brow, surprised at hearing such a strong statement from the otherwise easy-going Belle. She knew a part of the outburst stemmed from the fact that Leaf had been gravely ill, but she sensed there was more to it than that. Storing the information for later, she took a sip of her coffee and nodded at the rich taste. "What was the last straw, Belle? I mean, for the Butterflies."
"Oh, that... well, I guess it was ultimately because Packard has become such a..." - deep sigh - "such a grumpy old misanthrope. On this tour, him and me have done nothing but bitch and moan at each other. From dawn to dusk, over and over and fuckin' over again... it takes the edge off the magic, you know?"
"I know exactly what you're saying. That's what happened between my partner and I after the threats forced me away from my job in the big city," Erica said quietly, studying Belle's green eyes.
"Oh... shit, I'm sorry for bringing it up, Erica."
"Nah, don't worry. Old news. You want a bite of my sandwich?"
"No thank you. I don't eat cheese."
"Huh... I thought you were a vegetarian, not a vegan?"
"Two words. Lactose is one. Intolerance is the other," Belle said, leaning so far forward her long, braided hair was nearly dripping onto the plate.
"Ohhhh. Well, that would take the edge off the magic, too, huh?"
Belle nodded wearing an expression that told the whole world - and Erica in particular - that it was very much a case of been there, done that. "It would. Believe me, Erica, it would."
After finishing their meals and saying goodbye to Judy - who was only too happy to have moonlighted as Cupid - they went out into the foyer and looked at the raindrops that were still coming down as hard as ever.
"Tell me, have you guys ever heard of the sun?" Belle said and prodded Erica in the side. "It's a big, yellow-orange thing in the sky that provides bright light and wonderful warmth... 'cos, quite frankly, your weather sucks."
"We do have sunshine now and then, you know. The sun was out yesterday... for nearly an hour."
"Oh, whoop-di-do. For an old California girl like me, this is awful."
Erica grinned and promptly took off her waterproof cape. "Here you go, Valley Girl. This'll keep you warm and dry."
"Oh, tubular! Like, thanks a whole bunch, sweetcakes!" Belle said in an exaggerated accent as she swept the huge waterproof cape around her petite body. "Look at me, I'm Lawrence of Arabia!"
"Or something to that effect, anyhow," Erica said and held the door open for the older woman. "Belle, I'm going back to the Sheriff's Office, so you can just follow me there and park in-"
"Hell, no. I've already asked and Judy said the rental car could stay here no problem. I'm hopping in with you, Sheriff!"
"Oh... okay. We can do that," Erica said with another wide grin - she was beginning to get worried her cheeks would never get rest for as long as the folk singer was visiting her.
The two of them quickly ran across the parking lot and - as promised - hopped into the Tahoe, shaking the hat and waterproof cape free of the rain that had ganged up on them even in the few seconds it took to get from the diner to the huge SUV.
"So... what's on your schedule for the rest of the day, Sheriff?" Belle said, wiping off a drop of rain that had somehow made it through her defenses and landed on her nose.
Erica couldn't answer at once. The simple fact that the folk singer was back in her car - and her life - and looking so darn cute blew her mind to an extent where she was unable to string enough syllables together to create even the simplest of words.
"I haven't picked my nose all day, so I *know* I don't got no booger stuck anywhere," Belle whispered conspiratorially, trying to pat her face down for anything that could prompt the Sheriff into giving her such a heated stare the windows nearly misted up.
Erica chuckled and shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry, Belle. I'm just... I just can't believe you're actually here. Man, this is so crazy... you were only here for a day and two nights... and yet, I feel like I've known you forever."
"Awwww. Thank you. I've been told I make good first impressions."
"You make good lasting impressions!" Erica said and started the Tahoe. "Uh... and my schedule had nothing on it apart from a hot shower and some teevee. But now you're here, I think we should call for some food if you want and we could listen to some music and- ... Oh, Jeez, I'm sorry, Belle. Listen to me make plans for you, huh?"
"Oh but that's okay, Erica. I was kinda hopin' you wouldn't mind having some company tonight. I mean, your couch is really soft."
"I guess I could try to call Marcia and see if she's recovered from her adventure, but... the pussycats, you know."
"The pussycats, yeah," Erica said with a cheesy grin. "Naw, I think we're good."
"Cool!" Belle said, leaning back in the seat with a grin on her face that matched Erica's cheesy expression every bit of the way.
After their dinner had been decided, delivered and devoured, they threw the Styrofoam trays in the trash and quickly did the dishes - Erica had sprung for a Chicago Waterfront steak with baked potatoes and a mountain of coleslaw, and Belle had chewed her way through a slightly dry meatless spring roll they had opted to try instead of the dreary Beef Celery.
"You want another Miller Lite, Belle?" Erica said from somewhere out in the kitchen.
"Don't mind if I do!" Belle said, having kicked off her ankle boots and put her legs up on the microfiber couch.
"From the can or in a tumbler?"
"Can will do just nicely, thanks!"
After finding two more cans of beer in the refrigerator, Erica turned off the lights with her elbow and padded back into the living room on her socked feet. Wearing a loose, pale gray sweatsuit that she had put on before dinner - it was far more handy than her uniform when it came to the fine art of snuggling up tightly - she offered the other beer to Belle and sat down at a respectful distance.
"Thanks, Sheriff," Belle said and cracked it open to take a swig. After discreetly wiping a foam mustache off her upper lip, she eyed the lanky frame of the woman next to her with but a single thought on her mind - 'Why in the world did she sit down way over there? Man, I have to make all the first moves around here.' -- "Erica, may I?" she said out loud and pointed at Erica's lap.
"Uh, sure. I just didn't want you to think that I-"
Erica didn't have time to finish the sentence before Belle had claimed the Sheriff's left side as her own, getting cozy with her head resting on Erica's left shoulder and her legs pulled over to the right to entwine them with the far longer timberlogs of the taller woman.
"Oh, this is nice... you'd make a fab pillow," Belle said, seeking out one of Erica's hands that she had a very special assignment for. Once she had located the left hand, she moved it around herself and placed it firmly on the outside of her thigh before pulling it up so high that it was resting squarely on her buttock. "Mmmm. Really nice."
Erica chuckled and took the opportunity to run her long fingers across Belle's rear. "Aren't we the lucky ones? Here we are, you and me..."
"Yeah, we definitely are," Belle said and snuggled even further down into her living cushion.
More than a minute went by with their breathing and a faint plop-plop-plop from the rain beating down on the windows the only sounds heard in the apartment. Erica glanced down at the gray-blonde woman who was far closer to her than any woman had been in the three years she had been working in Cape Whitnell - physically as well as metaphorically. She hadn't had intimate relations with anyone since her ex had made it quite clear she was leaving, three agonizing, heart-numbing years earlier.
Being so close to a female body, and especially one that shared her views on life, made a warm wave roll around inside her; a wave that made her cry out for a kiss, a tender touch, a bold caress, a night of heated passion... and it didn't matter a damn thing the female body belonged to someone twenty-four years her senior.
"Hey, are you asleep up there?" Belle suddenly whispered.
"No. Are you?"
"No. I was listening to your heartbeat. So powerful... like you. Then it kinda picked up the pace."
"That's when I started thinking about you."
"Awwwww! Get outta here," Belle said and playfully slapped Erica across the stomach.
"I will not! I live here!" Erica countered, squeezing Belle's buttock that she still had in a firm grip, thus earning herself a wiggle and a little squeal.
Belle snickered for a few seconds, but then she let out a quiet, pained hiss. "Shit, I gotta sit up straight for a while... not because I wanna, but because my neck is... ouch... creakin' and groanin'... damn these old bones." - Sitting up, she rubbed her neck a couple of times before grabbing her beer to drown her sorrows brought on by the unexpected separation.
Erica felt it as well - that strange, lingering sensation of loss even though her other half had only moved ten inches away. The moment was right to try something new, so after taking a sip of her own beer, she got up from the couch and moved over to her stereo. "Wanna listen to a little mood music while we talk?"
"Sure. Wotcha got?"
"Oh, a little of everything. I have about three hundred albums," Erica said and tapped her knuckles on the front of three drawers each filled to the brim with CDs.
"Huh, you certainly know how to impress a date! Got any instrumentals? They're so relaxing."
"Sure do," Erica said and reached into the third drawer to find an album called Quiet Moments By The Fire. She put it into the player, and soon, soft, crisp lounge music filled the room from four speakers that were camouflaged so perfectly they were invisible unless you knew where they were.
"Neato! That's, ummm... Valentine's Day Serenade by Anton Dorchy... right?"
"Right," Erica said and put the CD cover on the tabletop so Belle could reach it if she wanted to. On her way back to the couch, she suddenly put a hand in the air like she needed to be excused. "Hey, I got an idea... scoot up to the other end of the couch and I'll rest my head in your lap. Okay?"
"Wo-hoo, you betcha!" - After taking a couple of healthy swigs of her beer, Belle quickly hopped up to the far end of the couch and took a fluffy pillow that she put on her lap. Grinning at Erica, she patted the pillow and got ready to accommodate her rather large cuddly toy.
Erica smiled back, turned around and scooted up to rest her head across the pillow and her new friend's jeans-clad legs. "O-yeah. Good idea."
"Very good idea," Belle said and immediately went to work running her fingers through Erica's dark mane. "Gawd, your hair is... is... is... so soft and thick and... and so gorgeous."
"Oh, thank you. That all came from my mother's side. My Dad's bald now!"
"I could do this forever and ever," Belle said absentmindedly, gently mussing Erica's scalp.
The sweet sensations made Erica close her eyes and allow herself to drift off into a hazy zone, but she suddenly remembered that she wanted to ask her guest about one of the songs she had sung at the mini-concert down in the parking lot. "Belle, there's something that's been on my mind ever since I heard you sing the closing song the other day... it was called Stephanie, wasn't it?"
"She was obviously very important to you... who was she?"
"Oh gosh..." Belle said and drew a deep breath. She held it for a while and then let it out slowly, thinking about Stephanie Lorenz while she ran her fingers through Erica's hair. "That's a short question, but it's gonna be one hell of a long answer, hon," she said to the very appropriate Strangers In The Night playing on the stereo.
"Belle, I'm sorry for making you feel uncomf-"
"No, no, I... no sweat, Sugar. I just need to compose my thoughts. Okay. Who was she? She was the woman I loved... and my lover. My first time with a woman was with her. I was her first, too. Oh, you already know a little bit about her, she was the flutist I mentioned the other night while we were sitting right here."
"Oh, really? Okay... she was the one at the Monterey festival?"
"Yeah, exactly. Hey, you're a good listener, Sheriff!"
"Thanks. It's my job."
"I better be more careful. Next thing I know, you're gonna bust me on some dope charge for something I said out on the muddy trail the first night we met!" Belle said and reached down to give Erica's nose a playful, little tweak that was quickly swatted away by an equally playful hand.
"Nah. Go on."
"Stephanie and I, well, we met in college. We were so good together, but we were stuck in a time where women weren't allowed to be together at all. Many of the positive stories I'm sure you've heard about the early to mid-1970s have been romanticized, Erica. The truth was that we were spat on, cursed at, promised beatings, threatened with rape... everything. Being a couple of free-spirited hippie chicks in homemade tunics and with love beads in our long hair only made it worse. It wasn't really that much better within the music industry. There were drugs everywhere... and I do mean everywhere. And we all dipped in the white pool, if you know what I mean."
"Stephanie took to smack like a Canadian to a hockey stick. I begged, pleaded with her to stay off that shit and just stick to the grass or even the skunk. Hell, weed laced with acid can give you a rush like there's no tomorrow... uh... not that I've ever tried that, ma'am, Sheriff, ma'am..."
"No evidence, no case, Belle," Erica said with a wink.
"Okay... but anyway, one day, it all came crashing down for her. She had used a contaminated needle and she contracted Hepatitis-B. The doctors... those of 'em who wanted to talk to a couple-a dykes, mind you... told me she'd pull through it all right, that ninety-five percent of the patients struck by that disease pulled through... only she didn't. One night I went home from the hospital and she was fine... the next morning, her bed was empty. She was dead. And those fuckers hadn't even bothered to call me. They called Stephanie's parents, but not me... 'cos, you know, we were just a pair of fuckin' dykes."
"Jesus, Belle... I'm so sorry to hear that," Erica said and looked up to lock eyes with the woman she was splayed across. She only needed a single glance at the misty, green eyes and the quivering chin to know that Belle was in dire need of a hug, so she sat up at once, turned around and wrapped her arms around the older woman to offer her some comfort and support.
"Thank you, hon," Belle whispered into Erica's strong touch. "Well. If I had thought my personal hell ended with Stephanie dying, I was wrong. I got hit by a depression that just sucked me dry. I was a shadow of myself for... hell, months. Years."
Belle motioned that she needed a bit of air, so Erica pulled back but kept lingering so she could provide help if it was needed.
"Back then," Belle continued, wiping her eyes, "you'd only go to a shrink if you were seriously fucked up in the head so that wasn't... I threw myself at the drugs instead. If it had a name, I tried it. Tried some that didn't have names, come to think of it."
"How did you get out of it, Belle?" Erica whispered, stroking the older woman's hands.
"I got out of it the easy way. I died," Belle said and held Erica's hands tight when she heard the Sheriff gasp loudly. "Yeah, that's right. That's where Autumn Leaf came through for me. She saved my life... twice. The first time, that would be the, uh... the late summer of '79. The first anniversary of Stephanie's passing. I was so down I didn't know what was left or right. I took my car and drove out to the railroad tracks at the outskirts of the town we lived in at the time. I hid in the shrubbery and waited for the evening freight train."
"I know. It gets even worse from here on, Erica... so... so I'll understand if you don't-"
"No!" Erica said and moved closer to the older woman. "No, Belle, I very much want to hear you tell your story. If you don't mind an audience, of course," she continued in a whisper, reaching up to caress Belle's cheek and brow.
Leaning into the strong, warm touch, Belle closed her eyes and drew a deep sigh. "I don't. I'm glad I have someone I can talk to. It's been too long."
Erica smiled wistfully and leaned in to put a gentle kiss on Belle's forehead. "Go on. I'm right here for you."
"Thank you. Well, Leaf had watched me drive away but couldn't fathom where I'd be going at that time of the evening so she followed me. Just before she found me, a gigantic freight train had just entered the stretch where I was hiding, but... we talked and talked, and in the end, she talked me out of the madness."
"That's why she's so important to you..."
"Yeah, I love her with all my heart. Not like that, but it's just as strong. Yeah. Anyway, my mood got better after that, but on a tour the following year, everything fell apart. We had released an album that wasn't selling well. Folk rock was long gone in 1980, disco was king. We were touring Pennsylvania with some anti-nuclear protesters... this was after Three-Mile Island, remember that?"
"Well, I've heard about it, sure."
"Yeah, and the second anniversary of Stephanie's death was coming up. We spent a night in an old, run-down motel somewhere in Bunghole, PA and I was miserable. Our album sucked, the tour sucked, the protesters we were with were freaks or just bat shit crazy and everyone pulled at us from all sides, bitchin' at us for not getting with the times and all kinds of shit. Well, the desk clerk told me when we checked in that he could get any drugs known to man, so I went to him after midnight and ordered a speedball. I'll bet you know what that is, Erica?"
"Yeah. Mix of cocaine and heroin. I've bagged and tagged a few youngsters in a few filthy alleys who overdosed on that."
"Huh... well, I guess I shoulda expected that," Belle said and looked at her new friend. "Anyway, he delivered it, I paid him, I prepared it. The full dose, I took every last fuckin' grain from that bag. I figured he'd tricked me somehow so if I used it all, it didn't matter if half of it was baking powder. Jeez, this is gonna sound so weird, but I took off my clothes and made myself comfortable on the motel bed. By doing that, I thought... I thought that I'd find Stephanie faster... you know, on the other side. I took the speedball, and... well, I OD'ed. Respiratory seizure, cardiac arrest, the works. But Leaf found me. She found me and busted down the window to get to me. She also called the ambulance. And would you believe it, that and a paramedic unit were just around the corner. They got to me in time... but it was Leaf who really saved me."
"God almighty, I'm glad she did," Erica said and pulled Belle into another strong hug.
Sitting on the couch, the two women held each other tight and began to sway gently from side to side. The soothing motion allowed Belle's emotional pain to be shared evenly among them, and the old wounds that had been ripped up soon began to heal with the help of Erica's warm hands that caressed Belle's back, and her warm heart that merged with that of her new, dear friend.
"I'm glad she found me, too," Belle whispered and ran a thumb across Erica's prominent cheekbone. "If she hadn't, I would never have met you. I would never have kissed you. I would never have dreamt about how it would be like to make love to you."
The profound words rendered Erica incapable of replying verbally. Instead, she let her actions speak louder than any word ever could and leaned in to claim Belle's lips in a kiss that started romantic but that soon grew in intensity.
Their mouths were suddenly locked in a sweet combat and it wasn't long before Belle traced Erica's lips with her tongue. She was let inside at once and continued the heated contact by letting the powerful muscle explore Erica's warm cave and dance against the tongue that was just as insistent as her own. A low, passionate moan was heard, though she was too preoccupied with the exploration to figure out if it had come from herself or her lover-to-be.
They eventually had to separate to breathe, but they kept their heads together, nibbling on each other's lips and stealing little kisses. At the same time, Erica's hands dove under Belle's shirt and began to raise it, caressing the aged - but still smooth - skin she found there. Her hands crept higher and higher until they reached the underside of Belle's bra.
Belle's hands were on an exotic trek, too. Sliding down Erica's sides, they paused briefly at her full bosom but continued downward until they reached the waistband of her sweatpants.
Just as Belle inched her hand past the waistband and into unexplored territory, Erica's cell phone started ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
"Oh Gawd, no! Not now!" Erica groaned, panting hard from the passion that was blasting through her veins, setting fire to every fiber of her being it went past. Her nipples were achingly erect and her center was already throbbing so hard she was afraid she'd come from the foreplay alone.
And the phone kept ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
"Oh Gawd, I gotta take it..." she croaked and pulled back from her playmate.
Belle groaned and clapped her hands over her eyes. She shook her head slowly, making her long hair whisk back and forth on the backrest of the couch. Her soul was on fire and she had to close her legs and lean forward to wrestle her libido to the ground.
Erica sighed like the weight of the world was suspended on her shoulders. She quickly got up from the couch and hurried over to the sideboard by the posters. "Shit... it's not from downstairs, it's the Chief of Police from the next town south of us," she said when she saw the caller ID.
"Shit," Belle echoed in a shaky voice. As she ran a hand through her hair, she noticed that it trembled, though it was a good tremble - one that had her nerve-ends standing on edge in a way they hadn't for so long she couldn't even remember which decade it had been.
"This is Sheriff Wayne, Chief Bochner ... yes, I apologize, I couldn't get to the phone ... okay ... mmmm, sounds nasty ... okay ... mmmm ... yes, I'll alert Deputy Rogers and call in extra personnel ... ETA a short fifteen minutes ... that's right. See you there."
Closing the connection with another deep sigh, she turned to Belle and raised her shoulders in a despondent shrug. "I'm so, so sorry, Belle. There's been a bad accident south of Cape Whitnell. An SUV with three passengers, a mother and her two young sons, aquaplaned off the road and hit some trees. The woman only has a few facial injuries from the airbags, but one of her sons was thrown from the car as it crashed and has disappeared into the undergrowth. The Chief needs all hands on deck to look for him before it's too late. It's pitch black and friggin' freezing out there."
"Gawd that sounds bad," Belle said and hurried over to Erica whose face had assumed her steely, official expression. "Do you want me to help you call around or something?"
"Uh... yeah, would you mind calling Patrick Rogers while I jump into my clothes? The number is in the registry," Erica said and pulled Belle in for a quick consolatory hug before she stormed off into the bedroom to change into dry underwear and a fresh uniform.
"You betcha," Belle said and clicked through the list. She had found the number and had begun the call even before Erica cursed out loud for having stubbed her toes on her boots in the semi-darkness.
Three hours later, Belle stirred from her slumber on the couch and cracked open an eyelid. Peering into the darkened living room, she found her iPhone which told her it was just after a quarter past ten in the evening. She shuffled over onto her back and pulled up the plaid she had found to get some protection from the chill that had started to creep in after Erica had left.
Erica. The mere thought of the tall, statuesque woman provoked a warm smile on Belle's lips that only grew wider when she let her mind's eye revisit the heated kisses they had shared - not to mention the things they had been oh-so-close to doing.
Underneath the plaid, Belle's hand slipped up under her cotton shirt and came to rest on her stomach where she began caressing her skin with her thumb. What they had done was special and went far beyond anything she had done with anyone else for a very long time, but there were so many things she wanted to do, to taste, to try with the gorgeous Native American.
As her yearning grew, her fingers crept lower until they were resting under the waist of her jeans. Before she had time to do anything, an odd metallic clink was heard from somewhere in the apartment.
Glancing around with a furrowed brow, she sensed the rain still slapping against the windows though she had pulled the curtains shut when she had decided to take a nap - quite simply so she didn't have to look out at the miserable gray clouds that hung low outside, seemingly reaching so far down they were almost touching Main Street.
The metallic, clinking noise was repeated, and this time, it was followed by a meaty curse uttered by a voice Belle knew all too well.
"Shit, she can't get the door unlocked," she said and swung her legs over the side of the couch. After lying down for so long, she needed a moment to regain her balance, but once it was all there, she got up and hurried across the polyester carpet on socked feet.
"Erica! Hang on, I got it!" she said loudly to make sure her hostess would hear her. The door was quickly unlocked and swooshed open, but Belle wasn't prepared for the sight of the completely drenched woman who was standing outside on the landing with a set of dripping wet keys in her dripping wet hand, water streaming down from her waterproof cape and her plastic-wrapped hat - that had lost its shape - and a bedraggled look on her face that told a story of being pelted with ice water for three straight hours.
"Holy shit!" Belle exclaimed, clapping a hand over her mouth so she wouldn't laugh out loud at Erica's predicament. "Gawd, come in... come in and take those wet clothes off... you'll get pneumonia!" she continued, dragging the seemingly unresponsive Erica through the apartment and into the bathroom.
There, she helped the tall Sheriff take off the hat that had turned as soft as paper mache, the waterproof cape that had left a long line of drips on the carpet, and her boots that were practically plopping with water. "Uh... okay... towel... need a towel... there," Belle said and grabbed a fluffy, blue bath towel. "I'll be outside while you, uh, take off the rest. Okay?"
"Okay," Erica croaked, already beginning to unbutton her soaked uniform shirt. "Thank you. Need a hot shower..."
"A hot shower? That's a good idea, hon. Okay, move over to the can over there and I'll get the water ready for you," Belle said and reached into the shower stall to regulate the heater.
Before Belle had time to pull out of the bathroom, Erica took off her shirt and dropped it on the tiles with a wet plopp . Belle pressed her lips together, unable to stop her eyes from zeroing in on the Sheriff's heaving, sportsbra-covered chest that she had so nearly been intimately introduced to earlier. The two women locked eyes, but Belle knew it wasn't the right time for hanky-panky so she said nothing.
"It was a good night," Erica croaked, nodding as she began unbuckling her belt. "We found the little guy in one piece."
"Oh, that's fantastic news, Erica," Belle said and reached out to put her fingers on the Sheriff's ice cold arm.
"Yes. He was wet, cold and frightened, and he had a gash on his forehead and one on his right arm, but other than that, he was all right. He had only been thrown twenty-five feet into the undergrowth but it might as well have been twenty-five miles. It was pitch black out there. We couldn't even see him with our flashlights."
"Was it you-"
"No, it was Patrick. He made me proud. He did one hell of a good job tonight," Erica said with a thoughtful nod.
"That's great. Okay, I think the water's good now. I'll let you get soaked... ha, ha..."
"Belle... don't go," Erica said in a husky whisper that belied her bedraggled appearance.
The words went straight into Belle's heart where they exploded and sent fiery shrapnel through her entire system. Struck speechless, she looked into the shower stall and back to the tall woman who pushed down her soaked uniform pants to reveal the same pair of black sports-underpants Belle had seen her in the very first time she had visited the apartment.
The prospects that her lusty thoughts from earlier could turn into reality created a niggling worry that she wouldn't be good enough for the young, agile woman - that she had been a fool for even thinking so. The worry blossomed into a real fear that she would only let Erica and herself down if she as much as considered stepping into the shower with the far younger woman.
"Erica, I'm... I'm an old, old woman," she said, taking a sliding step backwards and feeling the passion that had built up inside her deflating until it had been snuffed out completely.
"You're a beautiful, beautiful woman."
"Thank you, but... I'm old... and gray. I'm wrinkled, saggy... and my body changed so much after my menopause th- that I... and- and the allergy medicine I have to take also influences m- my... ability to..."
"Allergy medicine?" Erica said, furrowing her brow as she began to fiddle with the clasp for her sportsbra.
"I'm as dry as Death Valley down there! I can't even do myself properly anymore!" Belle croaked, shrugging wildly.
Erica gave up the unequal struggle with the bra-clasp and moved over to the older woman. "Belle," she said and put a hand that was still slightly cold on Belle's cheek, "I promise I'll be as gentle as I possibly can. I'll follow your every wish, your every desire. Please come in with me. Please make love to me."
"Oh, Erica, it's not that simple. I don't even know if I can still do it," Belle whispered and wrapped her arms around Erica's upper body. The Sheriff's chilled bosom against her own upper chest was a stark reminder of who they were, where they were and what they were about to do, and it created a physical need in her that didn't care one little bit about her mind's niggling worries and fears of not being good enough.
In the end, everything stacked up in favor of her desire for Erica, and Belle decided to tell her fears to go to hell. Stepping back, she reached down to take off her socks before she slipped the cotton shirt over her head. The jeans soon followed and left her standing in her bra and undies just like Erica - well, almost like Erica, she thought, as she glanced down at her own, modest chest that was only where it was because it was held up by the bra.
Though she tried to ignore it, she was painfully aware of her body's perceived inadequacy compared to the picture of womanhood she shared the bathroom with. She thought she could feel Erica's eyes on the discolored bruising on her thigh and hip that had been there since her motorcycle accident, on the slight roll of fat she had around her waist, on the flabbiness that used to be her toned upper arms and on the many other age-related imperfections on her skin - but when she looked up, all she could see in Erica's sky blue eyes was love and warmth.
"Like I said," Erica said and tried her bra again, "you are a very beautiful woman. Every last part of you. You hear me?"
"Eh," Belle said with a shrug, but deep down inside, it did warm her soul to hear herself talked about in such a fashion.
"Good. Now... uh... would you mind giving me a helping hand with this damn thing? I think it's rusted shut!" Erica said and pointed over her shoulder at her bra clasp.
Belle couldn't react fast enough to stop a loud laugh from escaping her lips, but she was at Erica's back in a heartbeat and unhooked the clasp like there was nothing to it. "Easy-peasy," she said, lifting the black fabric off Erica's back.
As the bra fell onto the floor, Belle kept standing behind her lover-to-be and ran her hands up the long torso. Further and further she went until she cupped Erica's full breasts in her hands, earning herself a husky purr. Smiling into the broad back in front of her, she squeezed and kneaded the breasts very tenderly, finishing off by stroking the nipples that were already growing hard.
Erica's skin was still cold to the touch, but there was a distinct flush moving down from her throat to her chest, and it didn't take long for her to let out a sensual sigh that proved she was ready for more. "Now it's my turn," she whispered and turned around.
Before she started fiddling with Belle's bra, she leaned down and claimed her lips in a sweet kiss. Moving further down, she kissed her way along Belle's chin until she reached the pulse point that was already beating quite fast. Rewarded with several sighs and just the tiniest moan, she slid down to the hollow of Belle's throat and further down onto the top of her cleavage.
Reaching the swell of Belle's breasts, she looked up to gauge the older woman's reactions. It wasn't hard to read from her closed eyes and parted lips that she enjoyed what had been done so far, but just to be on the safe side, Erica decided to ask before it was too late. "Belle, please let me know at once if I do something you don't like... okay?" she whispered, gently running her fingers across the bare midriff in front of her.
"Uh-huh... so far so good!"
"Lovely," Erica whispered and quickly threw the fluffy towel on the white tiles so she could kneel in front of her older lover. Once she was at eye level with Belle's breasts, she finally put her hands on the bra's clasp and unhitched it. The breasts that became visible as the fabric was pulled away weren't eighteen anymore, but to Erica, they were still beautiful and deserving of every bit of the loving she was about to bestow upon them.
As the cool air in the bathroom swept around the flushed skin on her highly sensitive breasts, Belle gasped and she took a firm hold on Erica's shoulders. Once her partner was kissing and nibbling her way around the rounded peaks, Belle's hands slid up to Erica's long, graceful neck and returned the earlier favor by caressing the smooth skin she found there.
Belle's knees nearly buckled as Erica closed her mouth on the right breast and let her tongue play across the hardened nipple. The sensations that flowed through her in unstoppable waves made her gasp over and over as her breast and nipple were tended to so softly, so gently that it was almost like in a dream.
Moving on from the right breast, Erica briefly crawled up to offer Belle an intense kiss on the lips before she slid down to the left, neglected mound. Once again she played with the breast, cupping it, kneading it gently, nibbling at it and finally closing her mouth on the nipple so she could turn her full attention to it. Holding it carefully between her lips, she let her tongue slide across the tip which made Belle gasp loudly and her nipple grow even more rigid than it already was. Deciding on the spot to exploit the hardness, Erica let her tongue slide down it from the tip to the base, and gave her journey a finishing touch by hardening her tongue and drawing a wet trail around the areola.
The finishing touch was more than Belle could bear. Gripping onto Erica's neck, she leaned her head back and let out a long, husky groan that left her panting. "Oh, baby..." she whispered, pulling at Erica to get her to come back up.
Belle briefly looked at the flushed Erica and thought her to be the most beautiful woman in the world - but then her ability to think was rudely cut off by the searing kiss that followed. Almost at once, she traced her tongue on Erica's lips and was let in without drama. Their tongues danced against each other, struggling for supremacy but ultimately deciding that both had an equal right to be there.
Wordlessly, Erica took Belle's hand and guided it down her own front, not bothering to stop at all until it reached the destination.
By the time Belle's fingers reached the elastic band of the black underwear, she knew they had arrived at a crossroads - once the final shreds of modesty were shed, they would be past the point of no return. Licking her lips, she decided she had waited long enough and that she would be a fool to throw away such an opportunity.
With a crooked grin, she moved her fingers further down and under the elastic band. She couldn't believe the heat she found there, but the groan that emanated from Erica proved that it was real. Instead of fumbling along under the panties, she pulled her hand back up - much to Erica's consternation - and slipped the underwear down over the sculpted hips.
The garment was quickly disposed of and Erica's black curls and glistening folds came into sight, both simply begging for a friendly soul to caress and stroke them, to pleasure them into achieving the giddy heights of orgasm.
Belle wasn't slow in responding. As she stood up on tip-toes and claimed Erica's lips in a strong kiss, she ran her fingers across the slick folds down below and just dipped the tip of her index finger inside on one of the passes.
The simple gesture was enough for Erica to moan into Belle's mouth in a cry for more - a cry that was heeded by a few more dips and teases into the wet, warm cavern.
Even as Belle administered the sweet touches to her lover, she realized that her own condition hadn't improved. Despite all they had done, she was still as dry as a lizard; dry and burning hot, a combination she knew would cause her pain from even the simplest of sexual touches, no matter how gentle or loving her partner would be. Her spirits fell, disappointed that she had turned into an old bat who couldn't even enjoy making love to such a magnificent woman anymore.
"Hey," Erica whispered, sensing the change immediately. "What's wrong...? Are you all right?"
"I..." Belle said, lowering her eyes so she didn't have to look at her lover. "I'm in a little bit of discomfort here. It... well, it stings like hell. Fuck that vaginal dryness crap... it sucks!" she said, mumbling the final words.
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that," Erica said and leaned down to offer Belle a kiss in sympathy. To do that, she needed to get her to look up, and an easy kiss on the forehead did the trick. "Do you think the water would help? Maybe we could shower together?"
Belle looked into the shower stall where the heater was still set for a hot shower. "Well... I'm gonna explode if we don't try..."
"Oh, I wouldn't want that," Erica whispered and kissed Belle's lips. "It's so difficult to get you scraped off the tiles..."
"Oh, you!" Belle said and returned the kiss, hoping that the cooling water would indeed help her with her problems.
Erica stepped into the shower and turned on the water, choosing the eight massage jets that were built into the sides instead of the large, fixed showerhead that hung above them. When the temperature was right, she put out her hand to invite her older lover inside.
Belle only hesitated for a second - the second it took her to push her panties down and get rid of them. As she stepped into the shower stall and pulled Erica into a hug, she sensed relief almost at once, brought on by the coolness of the initial water and the incredible sensation of being so close to another woman they almost melted into each other.
"Belle, I have something in mind," Erica said and briefly opened the door to the shower stall to get a plastic stool for the older woman. "Now... okay... I have an idea. I don't know if it'll work, and if you feel the slightest pain, speak up."
"Oh, I'll speak up all right," Belle said, looking with excitement at her lover's actions.
"Right," Erica said and took the opportunity to give Belle a kiss, "what I have in mind is you sitting on this thing..."
"...with your legs parted..."
"Love it already," Belle said and let out a snicker.
"And me kneeling at your center with the loose showerhead set to Massage to cool you down," Erica whispered, tapping her knuckles against the stainless steel head that hung silently on a hook next to them. "And my tongue to heat you up," she continued, once again claiming Belle's lips in a deep kiss.
Separating, Belle felt her eyes sparkle as she looked at the striking woman she held in her arms. She didn't quite believe that anyone could be that good to her, but she wasn't about to complain. Sighing sensually, she lowered herself down onto the plastic stool and parted her legs like her lover-to-be had suggested. One foot went into the soap dish and the other rested on the lower dials for the shower, revealing every last bit of her graying pubic hair and her burning hot center to her lover. She had expected to feel awkward at being in such an exposed position, but the look of pure lust on Erica's glistening face made her feel safe and desirable.
"Promise me you'll say at once if it hurts," Erica whispered, taking the showerhead and kneeling down on the white tiles.
"I will. I know you won't hurt me," Belle whispered back, tenderly running her fingers across her super-heated flesh just to prepare it.
After brushing her silky, wet hair out of her eyes, Erica reached up to switch to the loose head and to turn the water back on. Setting it to the lowest level, she checked how hard the jets were on her hand before she let the warm water stream down over Belle's stomach from where it trickled through the patch of hair and further down. The long moan of pleasure emanating from Belle gave her an impetus to carry on, and once the heated flesh was sufficiently soaked, she leaned in and introduced herself to the swollen lips and the hooded nodule.
Softening her lips and tongue, she went from the lowest part and up to the top, relishing her older lover's unique taste. When all she heard were moans of delight, she hardened her tongue and began circling the hood, hoping to make the prize behind it come out to play.
A sudden hiss from Belle made Erica pull back at once, but when she looked up, the big goofy smile on Belle's lips eased her fears.
"Pleasure... not pain," Belle croaked, putting her hands behind Erica's head to make her go on.
Not one to waste her time, Erica resumed her duties and let her tongue play around the tender flesh, alternating between softer strokes and harder, more insistent exploration.
While Erica's tongue continued to send tendrils of pleasure shooting up from her center, Belle was ready to take it to the next level, so she wetted her fingers and began stroking her breasts, running around in circles on top of and below the mounds. Whimpering with pleasure, she began to feel the very beginnings of a release as she gently kneaded her peaks that had always been her most sensitive zones. Her hardened nipples received the same, loving treatment by getting stroked, pinched and pulled until she was teetering on the edge of what she knew would be a strong, liberating orgasm.
"Baby... just a little more... just a little more," she whispered, reaching down to caress the back of Erica's head. A look down her front at the woman who was still working hard at pleasuring her center sent a jolt through her that turned into an involuntary, whimpering gasp. Sensing the imminent release inside her, she thrust out her pelvis to make it even easier for Erica to reach the sweetest spots.
Down below, Erica recognized the body language and went in for the trick she knew would be the undoing of the older woman. Hardening her tongue, she traced Belle's folds the entire way up until she reached the throbbing nodule - then she closed her mouth around it and sucked very, very gently while running her tongue around it, marveling at the rich texture.
"Oh, Gawd," Belle cried and grabbed hold of Erica's head in ecstasy. Her orgasm started somewhere deep in her core but soon exploded through her every fiber, blasting through her tender insides and setting fire to zones she had thought she had lost forever. "Oh, Gawd! Oh... Gawd..."
The lustful pang was quickly followed by another, and then another. As she leaned her head back against the cool tiles and cried out her releases, she was floating, ecstatic and dazed all at once. Slowly, her grip on Erica's head was reduced so the younger woman could get free.
Erica first used her newfound freedom to turn off the water and help Belle move her legs down into positions that were more comfortable for her. Then, she slid up the trembling body and wrapped her strong arms around the panting older woman to take her into a firm, loving embrace. "Are you all right?" she whispered, moving away a few wet strands of hair from Belle's flushed face.
"Gawd, that was so good... that was... oh, so good..." Belle mumbled, out of breath.
"Beautiful," Erica said and leaned in for a kiss that was accepted with equal measures greed and lust. "If you need to lie down, I can carry you into the bedro-"
"No, I... I want to repay the favor. Please let me do that, Erica. I just need a moment to get back down... Gawd, sex was always the best natural high," she said and rubbed her eyes. "Thank you. Thank you so much... I was so worried I couldn't do it anymore, b- but..."
"Only because it was you, Erica. Gawd, I... a girl could fall in love with someone like you, you know..."
Erica shrugged modestly and chose to let a kiss do the talking.
"After all you've done for me," Belle whispered around a string of nibbles to Erica's lips and throat, "I want to show you that we old birds have learned a thing or two over the years..."
The only answer she got was a husky sigh, and she took that as an invitation to start a sensual exploration of Erica's glistening body. Not wanting to waste a moment, she rose from the plastic stool and pushed the younger woman gently up against one of the walls of the shower stall where she began to kiss, nibble and claw her way down the long torso, whispering compliments and sweet words of nonsense to keep up her lover's heat.
Stopping at the hollow of Erica's throat, her collarbones, the swell of her breasts, her hardened nipples, the tender underside of her breasts, and even her ribs that showed a little when she leaned back against the wall, she made sure that every last inch of the pale ocher body in front of her was well-loved before she moved on to the next sweet spot.
Erica's stomach, her sides and her V's leading into the dark patch of curls were next to be treated to Belle's ministrations that were still a combination of clawing the flesh gently while kissing and nibbling it to make it feel better at once.
The heat and the musky scent of arousal that met Belle when she knelt at Erica's glistening center almost made her skip ahead in her plans, but she steeled her resolve and carried on down the taller woman's right thigh, despite an insistent, whining groan and an effort to push the abdomen towards the explorer.
"No, no, love... this is my game now, remember?" Belle said, holding onto Erica's thigh as she looked up and locked eyes with her lover, reeling from the sight of pure, unbridled lust that shone brightly from the blue eyes.
Belle didn't wait for an answer; instead, she began running her fingers up the inside of the long, shapely thigh, stroking the silky smooth skin and adding little nibbles on the tender flesh. For each pass, her fingers went a little higher until they just touched the edge of the super-sensitive skin at Erica's center.
For Erica, each nibble and stroke created a fiery inferno in her body and soul, and she struggled to even stay on her legs. The expert touch of the older woman had turned her entire body into an erogenous zone that was threatening to burst into flames at any moment. As Belle's fingers touched the burning hot skin on her center for the first time, she had to lean her head back against the cool tiles and let out a throaty groan. The groan slowly dissolved into a moan where she spoke Belle's name in crude syllables. "Gawd, I need relief," she croaked, involuntarily fondling her breasts and thrusting her hips towards the woman between her legs.
"And you'll get it," Belle whispered, pausing briefly from her task of kissing her way up the inside of the thigh. "In a while," she continued as she went back to the flesh.
"I need it now...!"
"Oh, you young people... but all right," Belle said with a chuckle. She moved away from the thigh and climbed back up the body, letting her fingers sweep up the smooth skin until they landed squarely on the heated, throbbing flesh at the juncture of Erica's long legs.
A few strokes up and down seemed to create even more need in the younger woman, and Belle decided to be a friendly little lover and skip to the chase. "I love you, Erica Wayne," she whispered as she slipped first two, then three fingers deep inside the hot, dripping wet cavern. Once she had allowed Erica's inner walls and muscles to adjust to the foreign objects, she began a slow, persistent cadence that was meant to please, not to rush to the climax.
Erica's insides exploded at the penetration, and she had to grab onto the shower's dials as the gentle cadence inside her created a strong wave of lust that blasted through her. "Faster..." she groaned, pushing her throbbing center against Belle's hand. "Faster... I need it... faster..."
Belle chuckled huskily and followed her lover's request. Faster and faster she moved her hand, adding pressure to the swollen bundle of nerves at each pass, manipulating it, loving it, sending its owner into a panting frenzy of lust - and then Erica bucked hard and let out a throaty scream.
The orgasm that tore through Erica's body was one of the best she had ever experienced. Although she slammed her eyes shut, for a brief second, she thought she could see the shower invaded by bright bands of color that swept around and even through her and her new lover. By the time she opened her eyes and looked at Belle, the colors were gone, but it had been a magical ride while it lasted. A strong aftershock rippled over her and made her close her eyes again, but as it receded, a warm blanket fell upon her and made her smile goofily.
"Gawd... thank you... thank you so much," Erica croaked, pulling Belle in for a strong hug while another aftershock trickled through her body.
"You're welcome, Erica. And thank you for making me feel like a woman again," Belle husked, nibbling and kissing the collarbones that were in front of her face.
The two women locked eyes again and decided it was time for a real kiss. Leaning down, Erica claimed Belle's lips in a searing kiss that grew heated in a matter of seconds. A pair of snickers that turned to moans, and two pairs of sparkling eyes proved they were ready for round three.
Naked under the cool sheets, Erica and Belle snuggled up tightly, lying face to face at eye level with each other so they were equal. They spent the time gazing into the other woman's pools of azure blue or emerald green, entwining their legs and fingers, and feeling so safe and loved they didn't need to speak a word.
A broad smile spread over Belle's face as she realized just what had taken place in the shower. That she of all people, an old bird with more wrinkles and problems than her younger lover had had hot dinners, had been allowed to get a new shot at intimacy - and not only that, that she had managed to bring the gorgeous woman in her arms to such a high that she could still hear the groans and cries of pleasure ringing in her ears. Her own releases were icing on the cake, but it was Erica's responses to her touch that really made her proud.
"What are you grinning at?" Erica whispered, leaning in to give Belle a tiny kiss on the lips.
"Icing on the cake."
"Nah, I'm thinking about you and me. Can you believe it?"
"Not really, no," Erica said and returned the grin. "But I'm glad we took the chance. You are a beautiful, wonderful, sexy woman-"
"I'm just an old bird, Erica," Belle said and shook her head into the pillow.
"Oh, hush when I'm giving you compliments!"
"Yes, ma'am, Sheriff ma'am!"
The cheeky answer could only have one response and Erica decided to go ahead with it at once: leaning in, she claimed Belle's lips in a deep, romantic kiss that made the older woman close her eyes and forget all about her inherent cheekiness. "Now, where were we," Erica said once they separated. "Oh yeah, sometimes things are meant to happen and people are meant to meet. Perhaps we've been searching for each other for a long time... perhaps we were destined to end up here, naked and in ecstasy."
Belle pulled back slightly and looked at her younger lover with a puzzled expression on her face. "Wow, that's deep, hon. I thought I was the great esoteric here... it's certainly something to ponder."
Erica nodded and kissed Belle again to show that she agreed. "My Native American heritage doesn't really have much of an influence on my daily life, but I do like to read about the old legends. One of my favorite stories of the Abenaki people is a tale of the Two Wandering Spirits who roam the Earth seeking each other. Once they find each other, they will never be apart again. Most of the ancient tales have been altered or modernized over the years, but this one has remained unchanged since the birth of our people. It can't be improved upon because the tale is quite simply about love in its purest form."
"Wow... and you think... that we could be...?"
"I don't know. It's fascinating, though, don't you think?"
"Oh, definitely," Belle said thoughtfully, suddenly gaining a new and even deeper appreciation of her younger lover.
Almost as if Erica could hear Belle's thoughts, she chuckled and settled down into the pillow, still gazing lovingly into the older woman's eyes. "Do you want to hear something funny?"
"Remember when Packard asked if I had a tribal name?"
"Believe it or not, I actually have one."
"No way!" Belle said, staring at Erica with wide open eyes.
Erica nodded and let out a girlish snicker. Her cheeks grew slightly flushed and she had to lean in to offer Belle a kiss before she could go on. "Sure do. But we only use it for ceremonial purposes now."
"Well? Oh, spill it, girl!"
"Rikka Walking Bear."
"Wow...! It fits you... it fits you perfectly!" Belle exclaimed loudly, quickly moving forward to steal a kiss and a little nibble to underline just how perfect a fit she found the name. "Huh, that's one hell of a title for a band, too... Daisy-Belle and Her Walking Bear. No... Daisy-Belle and Her Big Bad Bear. Yeah! Wow, man... we're gonna hit the big time, man! Watch out, American Bandstand!"
"Noooo, silly," Erica said and broke out in an embarrassed snicker.
Belle didn't have time to comment on that. Instead, she put her hands on Erica's shoulders and gently turned her over onto her back. The next second, she climbed up on the tall, sculpted body and straddled her hips.
The blanket fell off her own shoulders, revealing their naked bodies. The sight of the long, bare torso and the round, full breasts readily available at her fingertips made her lick her lips and begin to caress the younger woman's smooth skin. "Erica," she said pensively, drawing little patterns across the stomach. "You have already given me so much, but I'm about to ask for even more."
"Anything... if it's mine, it's yours. And even if it isn't, we'll find a way to get it," Erica replied, offering Belle a look that left no doubt as to her sincerity.
"Will you make love to me again?" - When Erica's only reply was a slightly confused furrowing of her brow, Belle smiled wistfully and took a deep breath - "You see... I've discovered that life is so fragile... that... that even if our souls are strong, our bodies aren't. We need to take everything we can when it's there 'cos nothing lasts forever."
When Belle didn't continue, Erica moved her hands up from Belle's hips to seek her touch. Entwining their fingers, she smiled sweetly to let the older woman know she had all the time in the world to say what was on her mind.
"I'm thinking about Leaf," Belle said quietly after a few seconds. "And her illness. One day, she was her old self. The next... she was dying. They saved her, but that fuckin' cancer can always return. If it does, she won't be able to fight it. She's too weak. But even for you and me... in five minutes, it could be all over. We never know."
Sighing, Belle let herself glide down on top of Erica's body until she rested her head near the sculpted collarbone. "I'm an old girl. Being reminded of my mortality scares the shit outta me," she whispered, slipping her hands under Erica's strong back.
"I've been in a few frightening situations, too," Erica said, turning her head to the side so she was closer to her lover. "Though, of course, they were related to my job. I've been shot at twice, and both times, it happened so fast I could only act on instinct. My training helped too, but..."
Belle, remembering the things she had read in the newspaper clippings, looked up and was reunited with the azure pools that were looking back at her. "The drug dealer?"
"Yeah. That time, it was a drug bust at a crack house. He was a guard and his first shot was a wild one that came out of nowhere. It went past me and hit a fellow officer who was standing behind me. I whipped out my gun, but before I could fire at the guard, he had already taken another shot, and that time, it came so close to me I could almost feel an angel tapping on my shoulder. Then I took him out with two shots."
Belle chewed on her cheeks a couple of times, but then she nodded decisively. "Serves him right, the asshole. Nobody shoots at my big bad bear and gets away with it."
Erica chuckled and leaned in to give Belle a little kiss. "Enough with the bad old days. You said something about making love again?"
The mere suggestion sent a wave of heat coursing through Belle and she couldn't stop a sensual gasp from escaping her lips. "I believe I did," she whispered and slipped her hands out from underneath her wonderfully soft pillow. Slowly sliding down the tall, graceful body, she kissed her way down to the pot of honey that was waiting for her at the end of the rainbow.
At a quarter to eight the next morning, Belle peeked through the curtains in the living room, certain the wonderful adventures they had shared during the evening and night would ensure a nice, warm and sunny day - but the rain was still coming down as she looked out onto Main Street. "Aw hell," she mumbled, pulling apart the curtains to let in the gray hue that passed for daylight in the small hamlet at the coast.
She had awoken early because her hip was giving her a little trouble after all the unusual positions she had put it through during the magic hours in the shower and in bed, and she knew she had to get up to make it better.
Now that she was up, she had nothing to do until her lover would stir, so after she had taken her morning pills, she had gone into the living room to see the new day.
Back in the present, Belle sat down on the couch and snuggled down into Erica's pale gray sweatshirt that she had found when she had gone into the bathroom to heed the call of nature - and to find her panties.
She took a deep sniff into the sweatshirt, breathing in her lover's scent that somehow reminded her of herbs and spices. Since it was too large for her, it reached far below her rear and her hands were completely covered by the sleeves, but the soothing nature of the warm piece of clothing was undeniable and just what the doctor had ordered.
A loud, unbridled yawn from the bedroom made her break out in a little "Yippie!" and hurry back in there to greet her new lover. "Good morning, honey," she said, sitting down at Erica's side of the bed.
Erica's first yawn was quickly followed by another, one just as deep and insistent. " 'Morning," she said, scratching her long hair. Sitting up, she swept the blanket around her naked body and eyed the pale gray sweatshirt. " 's funny, I have one just like it."
"No kiddin'? Do you want your kimono? It's kinda chilly in the living room."
"What's the point?" Erica said and let go of the blanket. While her lover's eyes were fixated on the breasts that became visible, she grabbed hold of the older woman and pulled her in for a tender hug. "Thank you for last night. You were wonderful."
"We were wonderful together, Erica," Belle said and reached behind the naked woman to caress her broad, silky smooth back.
"Can't argue with that. Hey... you're not pale this morning. You have a great color!"
Belle grinned cheesily and swept her hand down until it landed squarely on Erica's rear. "There's a reason for that, honey," she whispered before she leaned in to offer her new lover a proper good morning kiss.
After they had showered - separately, because Erica needed to be at work at half past eight - they met in the living room fully dressed and ready to get on with their programs.
While Erica buttoned her uniform shirt, she looked at Belle with a cheesy smile on her lips that clashed severely with the drabness of the gray outfit. "You know," she said as she tucked the shirt into her charcoal gray pants and worked the zipper and the belt buckle, "I'm not sure this particular situation is described in any of the manuals we're given on proper conduct and interaction with the public."
Belle snickered and moved closer to the tall woman who was slowly turning into her imposing Sheriff-self. "And it sure as shit wasn't included in any of the conversations I've had with hippie friends on how to avoid the fuzz. Hell, I'm glad we met now and not back then... now we don't have to keep it at the back of the closet. Well... maybe we do, considering the town you work in."
"Nah, the people here are actually okay once you get to know them," Erica said and tightened her belt. "Apart from one or two, of course... but I'll bet that not all, uh, hippies back then were friends of yours, either."
"Hell, no!" Belle said and shook her head as she put her hands on Erica's sides, mindful not to crease the uniform. "No, some of the men were sons o' bitches towards us gals. They thought we were their property and they couldn't fathom there were some of us who loved women instead of them."
"All in all... we're here... and they're not," Erica said and took the opportunity of Belle's closeness to deliver a strong, romantic kiss that made the older woman sigh into her mouth.
With breakfast at Judy's Diner over and done with, Erica and Belle walked out to the spring green Kia Rio in a rare break in the rain, trying not to get to the point where they had to say goodbye to each other.
The exercise in not ending the conversation had to be suspended when Belle's telephone rang. With a smile - and happy for the reprieve - she fished it out of her pocket and took a look at it. "Oh... it's Leaf," she said and pressed the button. "Hi, Leaf. What's up?"
'Oh, we're doing just fiiiine here, Belle. How are things down your end? Well-loved I hope?' - The lewd innuendo was followed by a slightly lazy snicker that proved that Leaf had enjoyed a doobie for breakfast.
"Ah, yes. You could say that."
'Should we expect to see you today or are you too busy feasting on the fuzz?'
"No, I... hmmm. No, I'll swing by at noon or so. It's a three hour drive from here in the rental car."
'Great, Belle! Oh, I can't wait for you to come back. I mean, all these guys here... I mean, I love 'em, but you know...'
'Anyway, did you want anything?'
"Do I want anything? Leaf, you called me, girl."
'I did? Oh. that's right... there was something I wanted to say to you... but now I can't remember. I guess it wasn't impor- Oh! Hell yeah it was important! The Walrus told me we need to gas up the Microbus at the gas station that's on the fairgrounds here before we start for home.'
"Okay? Well, since I'm the only one of you potheads who can drive, I guess we'll gas it up when I get there, then... huh?"
'Uh... yeah.' - snicker.
"And didn't you guys just decide yesterday that you wanted to camp out for a week?"
"Yeah, you did. That's why I left for Cape Whitnell, remember?"
'Rings a bell.... but... nah, there's nothing there. Anyway, it was great to hear your voice. Great to hear you still have a voice." - snicker - 'Bye, Belle. Love you. Mmmmua!'
"Love you too, Leaf," Belle said and closed the connection.
Throughout the conversation, Belle's face had lost its natural cheeriness. As she put her iPhone in her pocket, a silence fell over her that was joined by a dark, gloomy expression.
"Is something wrong with Leaf or the guys, Belle?" Erica said, furrowing her brow at the sudden change in the older woman's demeanor.
Offering Erica a slow shake of the head and a mumbled "No, they're fine," so she wouldn't get worried, Belle had all kinds of thoughts racing around in her mind. She thought several times that she had them lined up only to be confounded by further obstacles and unanswerable questions. At the heart of the conflict was the fact that she was torn between two women - her best friend and her new lover. Both needed her; she needed both. There was no way she could choose between them, but a hard choice was exactly was she was forced to make.
"Erica, I don't know what to do," she said in a tone that got the Sheriff's attention in a hurry. "I really need your help with something. Something very important to me..."
"Anything, Belle... anything," Erica said and took her new lover's hands in her own, not caring in the least who happened to see them.
"Like I told you yesterday, I owe Leaf so much... and she needs me more than ever. She smokes too much pot and she gets confused so easily now... I want to be near her for as long as whatever higher power that rules over us allows me to."
"She would want that too," Erica said, nodding.
"Yes, but I want to be near *you*, dammit! We've... we've only just met, and... and look at what we've shared already! I can't tell you how much it means to me that you look at me with desire and not pity for being such an old, wrinkled... fuckin' bone dry old bird! It doesn't happen often!"
"I look at you like that because you are desirable, Belle."
"Yeah? Tell that to all the gals you meet, 'cos, frankly, nobody else seems to worthy me a second glance. And beyond that, how can I go back to pissing around in my house all alone... eat frozen dinners and watch daytime soaps and... Jesus, after this... after what we've done now, I can't go back to that, day-in, day-out. Growing old alone sucks monkey nuts, lemme tell you! But I can't abandon Leaf and I can't ask you to leave your world and your career behind again..." - Burying her face in her hands, Belle let out such a deep sigh that her shoulders rose, then fell dramatically. "Oh, hell, I don't know what to do. With this kind of shit going on, I gotta be the world's oldest teenager..."
The sigh that came from Erica's chest mirrored the one Belle had just produced. She shook her head, desperately unsure of what to do or even what to say. All she knew was that she hated seeing the spunky older woman this upset. "Belle... I... I don't have any answers either," she said and pulled Belle into a hug. "But I do have a feeling in my heart... a strong feeling that says you should go home and help Leaf now. I have a lot of vacation time logged, and... and although I won't be able to get it at once 'cos I need to apply for it up the chain of command... well, that's irrelevant now... but how about I came to visit you over in... uh-?"
"Coulson, right. Maybe for a couple of weeks? I mean, it might not work out at all between us. Who knows, we may end up rubbing each other the wrong way if we have to spend the entire day together...?"
"Would you do that for me? Spend your hard-earned vacation on me?" Belle said into Erica's uniform, talking so quietly Erica had to strain her hearing to understand everything.
"But of course I would, Belle. And something else, too... and this is the Sheriff of Cape Whitnell talking, mind you..."
"What?" Belle said, furrowing her brow and moving a bit back so she could look up at the beautiful, pale ocher face and the bright blue eyes.
"As the Sheriff, it's my professional opinion that you are not in any condition to command a motor vehicle. Therefore, I have to inform you that I will drive you up to Autumn Leaf and the others in Lyndonville. I will need to call it in first, but that's just a formality. After all, I run the show here."
Surprised, Belle took a half-step back but kept a firm grip on Erica's arms. She looked at the Sheriff with an expression on her face that showed she didn't know whether to laugh, cheer or weep - all in all, her jaw was a rather slack affair. "Gawd... no, I can't ask that."
"Belle, I'm not kidding... I'm not letting you drive. You're too preoccupied with all this, and you are far, far too precious to me to risk anything. I know the horrors a second's inattention can cause. No. I'm driving... and that's final."
Belle thought she had been hit by a hammer, but it was only her heart responding to the underlying message of Erica's words. For so many years, she had longed for a woman who would whisper the right things in her ear, who would do the right things to and for her - now, it seemed she had found that woman in the unlikeliest of places, a Sheriff's Office in a quiet hamlet by the coast. 'Maybe the old story about the Two Wandering Spirits is true... hell, it must be true, look at us... we are those spirits... it took me thirty-five years to find Erica after Stephanie... but here we are,' she thought, biting her lips in an attempt at stopping the tears from coming.
"Well, who am I to argue with the fuzz? I'll be a good li'l passenger, Off'cer. You... you can strip search me anytime you like," she said out loud with a wink, though the emotional state she was in prevented her joy from fully bubbling up to the surface.
"Oh, we don't do that anymore. We have X-Ray machines for that now," Erica said casually, using her sleeve to buff the brass-like bar with her surname that she wore on her chest.
"Erica..." Belle started to say but put a hand across her mouth before she could go on.
It looked like the folk singer had finally decided on crying, so Erica pulled her in for a pre-emptive hug just to show that she actually meant every word she had said until then.
"Erica," Belle tried again, "I think I love you."
"I think I love you too, Belle."
"Wow... just... wow. This is so scary..."
"I know. It's scary and crazy, isn't it?"
"Crazy doesn't even begin to describe it, Erica. Do... do you think we could...?"
"Do you think we could get Judy to make us a couple of sandwiches? It's an awfully long drive to Lyndonville..."
The Sheriff's reaction was immediate - she leaned her head back and let out a loud, warm laugh. "I'll ask," she said with a smile as she gave the woman she loved a little crush and a big kiss. A warm wave swept over her at the thought of what the future might bring for her; for her and the beautiful, witty, smart and sensual older woman she held in her arms.
"Thank you. For everything," Belle whispered.
"You're welcome. For everything."
With that, Erica guided Belle over to the passenger door of the Kia and helped her down into the comfortable seat - their journey had only just begun.
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