by D Jordan Redhawk
Warning: This story contains a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women.
Author's Note: A couple of years ago, I was bored and flipping through the channels on television. I landed on a movie with Kate Jackson about a single mom who ran a kennel in Alaska. The whole thing piqued my interest, so I did some research about the Iditarod dog sled race and came up with the tale.
Keep in mind that this is a first draft. While my beta readers are quite good, there are bound to be some errors and the like. Take them with a grain of salt and read on.
Many thanks go to my initial beta readers - Kim, Shawn, and tlc along with a host of others. They kept me on my toes, filled in the blanks that needed filling, and gave me the needed boot in the butt to continue writing. You guys ROCK!
This story currently has no title. I'm open to suggestions! Drop me a line by hitting the contact link on the menu bar to the left for that, or comments about this story.
Contact me via my website with criticques, suggestions, or praise.
"Alaska?" Lainey Hughes' voice rang off the pale green concrete walls. Internally wincing at the abrupt silence in the room, she peered over her shoulder at her fellow travelers awaiting the next bus out of the small African village. She gave the neatly uniformed customs agent and his well-armed guards an apologetic wave, not caring for their sour attention, and turned back to the cracked plastic pay phone.
"It's March, Ben. Do you know what that means?" She swiped at a trickle of sweat running along her temple. Even with a rudimentary fan, the tiny building could not battle the heat here along the equator. Truth be told, she would not have it any other way.
Benjamin Strauss, editor of the acclaimed cultural magazine, Cognizance, said, "It means that the Iditarod is in full swing, and the second best photo journalist in the world is in the Providence Medical Center with a compound fracture."
"No," Lainey said, closing hazel eyes. She took on a lecturing tone. "It means that it's fucking cold, with huge snow drifts, frozen lakes, and hibernating bears. I don't do cold. The only ice I want to see is floating in my scotch. And I don't drink, you follow?"
"I need you, Lainey."
She leaned her forehead against the wall. "Why should I do this?"
"Because you love me?"
Her lips thinned as she did a passable impression of Marge Simpson's growl.
Apparently, Strauss understood the fine tightrope he balanced upon. "Look, it's not like Henry planned to slip off that bluff. The piece isn't done; I need at least a dozen more shots of racers crossing the finish line, and some coverage at the awards banquet an Sunday."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"All right, you want the truth?"
His tone became grim, and Lainey fought the desire to wince again. When he asked a question like that, it was best not to hear the answer. Still, she dreaded the thought of making it easy for him. She was freelance, not free labor. "Yeah."
"One, I need someone of the same caliber as Henry. Two, you're the best in the business. Three, you've just finished up a piece for me, and are already in transit, making your travel plans easier to alter. Four, it's only for two days, and you know I'll compensate you damned well for your trouble. And five-"
Lainey flinched in anticipation, knowing what he was going to say before it left his lips a half a world away.
"-You owe me."
She thumped her head once against the wall. It had to be a pretty important layout for him to remind her of that. Behind her, she heard the motor of an approaching bus. Only one was due today and, if she missed it, she would be stuck in the bush for another week.
"You'll never be able to use that ace again," she said with a sigh.
"I know, and I didn't want to use it at all." Strauss' voice lightened. "What's your itinerary?"
"Providing things go well, I'll be leaving out of Nairobi tomorrow, arrive at London International the following day, and then on to New York." She looked over her shoulder to see the bus idling in the dirt road. Most of those who had been waiting were already outside, passing their bags and parcels to a several men balanced on top.
"Go ahead and fly into London. I'll leave a ticket for Anchorage at the British Airways desk. You can find a connecting flight into Nome when you get there."
Lainey scrabbled for a pencil and pad, jotting down the directions.
"Henry's in Anchorage, but I'll get him to make arrangements to give you his hotel room in Nome. Just go to the Polaris when you get to Nome."
"I'll be there," she said, stashing the pad, and grabbing her gear.
"Thank you, Lainey. I promise I'll make it worth your while."
The last of the passengers were boarding, and the customs agent glared pointedly in her direction. "Yeah?" she asked Strauss. "Next time I pitch an idea, buy it and we'll call it even." She did not hear his response as she hung up. Checking her camera bag was still secure across her shoulder, she grabbed her duffel, and ran into the hot Ugandan sun.
Delegated by her late arrival to the back floor of the bus, Lainey sat on the duffel bag and cradled her precious camera bag. At least she was not riding on the roof with some of the other passengers. She leaned her elbows on her knees, and her head on her folded arms. The constant sway of the transport coupled with a number of conversations in the native Swahili and Ganda languages allowed her to focus on her phone call to Strauss.
She had only wanted him to know she was finished with the assignment, not that she was available for another. To goad her into the job meant he was under a lot of pressure to get it completed. It was a sure bet he had nothing to take its place in time for the next issue to hit the stands. What he said was true, though. Lainey owed him her life. If it had not been for Strauss, she would have died in a bottle years ago, taking along anyone misfortunate enough to give her the keys to a vehicle. She had been sober for four years, three months, and nine days because of his friendship. The least she could do was brave arctic weather for him; he had braved her anger and despair to return her to the living.
When she arrived in London, she would have to call her mother, and let her know their visit would be delayed. She would miss her lunch date with Carol, too. Damn. Lainey had so wanted to get laid. Being in the African bush, hunting small colorful birds for an upcoming spread left little opportunity for such matters. The only thing they grew in Alaska were sled dogs and polar bears; the women had to be beyond butch to survive the wilds and weather, and Lainey preferred women who looked like women.
Grumpily, she pondered what exciting and very tropical idea to pitch when she next met with Strauss.
For the hundredth time, Lainey felt thankful for the tripod stand she packed on her travels around the globe. The thing was worth its weight in gold on this assignment, what with all the shivering she did. Taking pictures without it would have resulted in nothing but one blur after another. She trembled again, and stamped around in a futile attempt to get warm, ignoring the vague ache in her side. Her snowsuit, rated for forty below, did not seem to work as well as advertised, and she toyed with the idea of writing a letter of complaint to the manufacturer.
A slight gust of wind brushed the edges of the fake fur ruff about her face, the frigid temperature at odds with the brilliant sunlight reflecting off snow. She entertained herself with thoughts of demanding Strauss send her somewhere in Mexico for a year long assignment. Burrowing her hands in her pockets, she wondered why the hell people wanted to live in a place like this. Granted, most of them were not in as much pain as she was, her old 'football injury' putting her in need of occasional medication, which probably had something to do with it.
An air raid siren went off, the second blast in the last ten minutes, and her attention diverted to the far end of Front Street. The incoming racer would soon make an appearance. As she watched, the sleepy street began to fill, doors opening to spill out people who happily awaited the new arrivals. When not outside to cheer the mushers on, the spectators sat around the bars and restaurants, visiting. It was one big, happy party, a town-wide celebration that lasted a week or more.
Lainey reluctantly removed her hands from her pockets, taking off the thick Gore-Tex mittens. She tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to ignore the stabs of pain as her fingers began to freeze, adjusting her camera for the upcoming shot. She consoled herself with visions of a tropical beach, half naked women, and fruity drinks with little umbrellas sticking out of coconuts. Glancing through the viewfinder, she saw the flashing police lights of the escort nearing her position. Rather than lose her appendages to frostbite, she thrust her hands back into her pockets until she could get a decent shot. The gathering crowd began to cheer the new arrival, an excited swell of sound. It seemed louder than normal, however, compared to Lainey's admittedly rudimentary experience. It took a moment for her to realize why.
Two dog sleds approached the fenced in run, both drivers hollering instructions at their animals for all they were worth. In a race that lasted two weeks or more, seeing more than one musher headed for the finish line at the same time was an exciting event. The police cars stopped where the fence began so as not to impede the racers who continued toward the finish line. Lainey zoomed in on the dogs, her pleasure of being in the right place at the right time over shadowing her irritability. Though she could not hear them above the noise of the spectators, the animals barked and grinned as they ran for the finish line, tongues lolling out in excitement. Lainey took a series of photos, pulling back her focus as they neared and passed. For variety, she turned her camera on the audience across the way to capture their emotions.
As quick as that it was over. They reached the race's end, a wooden arch spanning the street, and several volunteers grabbed the dogs to halt their progress. An announcer called out who won the miniature race as well as a reminder that the awards banquet was that evening. The crowd dissipated, faded away, returning to the warmth of houses, bars, and hotel rooms until the call of the siren urged them to the street once more.
Lainey knew from race reports that the next mushers were not expected for three or four hours. Her elation faded, the bad temper reasserting itself. With chattering teeth and numb fingers she collected her gear, stashing her camera inside her jacket to better protect it from the elements. There was a hot tub in her hotel, and she planned on making full use of it before the awards ceremony. Hopefully that would soak the ache out of her ribs for a time. Tomorrow, she would be on her way to New York, allowing Strauss an opportunity to show his thanks by buying her a monster bottle of ibuprofen, and dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town.
A few people remained outside to enjoy the bright yet insubstantial sunlight. Lainey slung her camera bag over her shoulder, musing about the shots she had gotten, deciding that there might be four or five good ones in the lot. Hands deep in her pockets, she trundled off toward her hotel. She had to upload the digital data to her laptop, fine tune the photos, research the Iditarod public relations folder for the names of the new arrivals, write a proper blurb, and email the entire mess to her editor. All of that had to be done before she could reach her ultimate destination of the hotel hot tub.
Pondering her to do list, Lainey did not pay much attention to the sidewalk. One minute she was walking on the slush created by salt and sand used to aid traction. Then her foot hit a patch of solid ice. She yanked her hands from her pockets as she slid about, making a comedic attempt to remain upright, flailing her arms to keep balance. Gravity was ever victorious, and she barely had time to clutch her precious camera against her chest before landing on her rump. She grunted as her ribs jarred with the impact, sharply jabbing at her chest.
"Whoa! You okay?"
"I'm fine!" Lainey snapped. It was bad enough performing the perfect pratfall. Having witnesses only made matters worse. She unsuccessfully tried to stand, only to return to the ice with a thump, and another grimace. Hands grabbed her upper arms, and she was hauled to her feet like a sack of potatoes.
"Those shoes aren't made for this weather."
Exasperated, Lainey said, "Well, thank you for that shrewd observation." She pulled away from the hands still holding her, double-checking the camera through her jacket before belatedly looking at the woman standing before her. Lainey's mind stuttered to a halt.
She was taller than Lainey by about four inches, her build hidden under a bulky pullover parka that was as blue as her eyes. The fur-lined hood was pushed back, revealing a rust brown baseball cap with tawny golden curls sticking out from beneath. Her skin was tan and slightly weathered, an incongruity to Lainey who assumed women in the north would have pasty complexions from being inside all winter. The friendly smile on her lips faded in light of Lainey's acerbic attitude and rude stare.
For Lainey was staring. She could not seem to help herself; something about the woman's stance, subtly confident in ways most women did not possess, was so intriguing. "I'm . . . I'm sorry," Lainey said, yet again wishing she had developed the habit of thinking before opening her mouth. "Thank you for the help."
The woman seemed mollified, but the smile was gone. She nodded politely and stepped away, returning to whatever errand she had been on prior to running into a klutzy photo journalist with no manners. Only then did Lainey realize the woman was not alone; a younger version of her was with her, a teenager with a hint of peach fuzz on his upper lip.
Not knowing what to say, Lainey watched helplessly as they walked away.
Shivering, her side reminded her that she was in Alaska, where the men were tough, and the women were tougher. As she headed toward the hotel, she wondered why God would be so cruel as to taunt her admittedly overactive libido with a gorgeous woman like that.
Lainey sipped a club soda at one of the press tables. She had struck up a rudimentary friendship with the other journalists here, pleased that no one recognized her name. They were enthusiastic supporters of the Iditarod, unlike herself, inclined to focus more on local or sporting news than global. Many came out every year to slog through the snow, and brave blizzards to reach distant checkpoints and that elusive interview. Most were newspaper reporters with steady jobs in the northern states or Canada. It did not leave much common ground between them.
There was also the natural level of animosity between the regular joes and free lancers, and Lainey expected the gentle cold shoulder she received. She supposed it would have been more rabid had this not been Alaska. One thing she had noticed was the care everybody had for one another; it gave a small town feel to the air, though there were several thousand people in Nome. The only other free lancers following the race were a pair from Norway, and a half dozen Japanese seated at other tables. In both cases, the language barrier and level of interest in their subject were reasons enough to keep them apart.
Her attitude had not changed much from the afternoon, regardless of her ability to breathe easier after her soak at the hotel. This was yet another reason for her peers to keep their distance, as her decided lack of enthusiasm clouded the area around her. She consoled herself with the weather report she had received from the front desk. Tomorrow was going to be bright and sunny, her plane leaving out of the airport in the morning, on time. That would be worth a drink if she were still drinking. She silently toasted her good fortune with the last of her soda, then ordered another from a passing waitress.
The other cause for her attitude was the woman. Lainey had tried everything she could think of, but the vision helping her to her feet remained firmly lodged in her brain. Unable to pry loose the thoughts of her, Lainey had chalked it up to an under active sex life, but it still nibbled at the back of her mind.
The meal nearly finished, it looked like things were picking up on the stage. In response, the diners became quieter, and the reporters more active. Lainey took the camera hanging at her neck, and gave it a final once over. She left her table with a handful of other photographers as they all jockeyed for position on the floor. Rather than fight for the prime real estate, she remained to one side, giving her a clear shot of the audience and a profile of the current Iditarod president as he began his speech. She had a fifty-fifty shot of catching the award winners as they came past her to the stage or, if they chose the other side, a full frontal shot as they approached the dais. Later, there would be a posed photo shoot while the scheduled dancing began.
The winner of this year's race, a ramshackle man with a droopy blond mustache, chose to head to the opposite side, pleasing Lainey. No doubt everyone else would follow his lead. This afforded her an advantageous position, and she used it well as her camera shutter clicked away.
Mentally, she filed the names and awards as they passed through. The big winner won the grand prize, a check for sixty-nine grand, and a new diesel truck from a local dealership. She knew there were monetary prizes for the next thirty finishers, ranging from sixty-three thousand to eighteen. Rather than bore her editor with all of them, Lainey stopped photographing after the fifth place winner went through, checking her digital readouts and readjusting for the next round of prizes.
"Tenth place, Scotch Fuller of Fuller Kennels! Twenty-eight thousand dollars!"
Scotch? Who would name their kid Scotch? Intrigued despite herself, Lainey searched the audience for the owner of such a moniker. One table burst into rowdy cheering at the announcement, several standing as they clapped the mysterious Scotch on the back. Lainey half expected the man to be as drunk as his friends or family appeared to be. It was a couple of moments before she realized the tenth place winner was a woman, not a sloppy drunkard. When she got to the base of the stairs and into the lights of the stage wash, Lainey's mouth dropped open.
It was the woman who had helped her to her feet that afternoon.
Without the parka, she looked better than Lainey remembered. She wore jeans and a rose-colored turtleneck sweater, revealing a lanky form that held more than a hint of femininity Her hair was short and curly, like Lainey's, but the lights sparked it into golden fire. Her smile was brilliant as she accepted her winnings, and a handshake from the Iditarod president. Then she spoke into the microphone, thanking her family and sponsors.
With a start, Lainey aimed and shot, allowing the automatic shutter to keep collecting data as Scotch finished her speech. Completely enamored, it was not until the digital camera ceased that Lainey returned to the present. With a curse, she examined the readout to discover she had used up the entire data storage disk. She fumbled another from her pocket, but did not replace it quick enough to get a close up of Scotch leaving the stage.
The rest of the night passed in a blur of photo ops and reveling. Knowing the job came first did little to console Lainey as she got the required interview with the top three placers. Her mind simply would not allow her to focus, constantly dragging her attention to one particular table. Disgusted at her lack of control, and at her inability to get more photos of that intriguing woman, Lainey was almost relieved when she saw the Fuller celebrants leaving the banquet. At the same time, however, she had an abrupt urge to follow them, properly introduce herself and thank Scotch again for her assistance that afternoon.
Late that night, after her final installment had been sent to Strauss, she sat in the dark of her hotel room. The only illumination was her laptop display. Lainey had taken the consecutive photos of Scotch Fuller, stringing them together to create a movie of sorts. She sat at the desk, chin in her hands as the impromptu movie played on a continuous loop.
What kind of person was she? Was her name real or a nickname? Did she have a boyfriend? A husband? She had to be a strong individual. Winning tenth place in a thousand mile dog sled race was not something to sneeze at. She was the highest placing woman this year, too.
An Internet search had turned up some interesting facts. Scotch was twenty-three, and this was her third Iditarod, her best time overall. This year she had also won the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for the care she had given her dogs. Would she make another Iditarod attempt next year? Did she have what it took to win? And why the hell would a beautiful woman want to torture herself by racing dogs?
Most importantly, where had she acquired such self-assurance and poise? She was a kid, born and raised in the boonies. Yet, she carried herself with a level of confidence Lainey had only seen in ancient matriarchs of various cultures around the world. Sure, a lot of women in America held themselves the same way, what with the advent of the women's liberation movement. If feminism had made such great strides in the Alaskan bush, however, then why was Lainey routinely referred to as ‘little missy' by the front desk clerk? Scotch seemed to carry a lot of weight with the men around her, more of an equal than as a woman. It was only natural Lainey found the subtle authority . . . exciting.
She closed her eyes, the light of the display flickering against her lids. Regardless of her blindness, she still saw Scotch, sharing a smile with her. Her thoughts took her to other, more intimate questions, as her fingers began to stray along her body.
What did she taste like?
"Alaska?" Benjamin Strauss asked. To give him credit, he did not sound nearly as confused as his expression indicated. "You're kidding."
Lainey leaned back in her chair, and sipped her espresso. "Nope. I'm dead serious."
They sat in a small coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. Through the window, Lainey watched the wildlife of New York rush about on the corner of 57th Street and Sixth Avenue, every one of them bundled against the chill of a late winter rain. Even with the cold, she only felt a twinge from her injury, a relief after her sojourn north.
Strauss' tan was incongruent with his business suit and well-trimmed salt and pepper hair. Ruddy features proclaimed an outdoorsman, though his clothes and demeanor screamed corporate executive. Lainey knew him to be more the former than the latter, having spent several months in the Australian outback on a shoot with him. They had met and become fast friends, the intervening years tightening their bond. He had been her sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, and remained a staunch supporter of her through her abrupt shift from war correspondent to nature photographer.
He scrubbed his worn face, and peered closely at her. "Who are you and what have you done with Lainey Hughes?"
"Ha ha," she said, her face stony though the humor flashed in her eyes. "You did say you would agree to the next story I pitched."
"No, I didn't," he said, waving a finger at her. "You hung up on me."
Lainey made a rude noise. "We both know you would have said yes."
A grin crossed his face. "Maybe," he allowed.
She waved his objections away, and returned to the subject. "Well? What do you think? Is it feasible?"
He mirrored her seriousness. "Considering we just published an Iditarod story this issue," he said, tapping the current copy of Cognizance on the table between them, "why should I do it again in a year?"
"Because this spread was a one time article about the race." Lainey set down her cup, and leaned forward to convey her enthusiasm. "I propose following one musher from sign up in June, through training, and the race itself. We could pull it off as an in-depth expose of an up and comer; either a full cover to cover issue next year, or quarterly installments beginning this July."
Strauss' fingers drummed upon the table. "Which up and comer?"
She casually relaxed in an effort to disguise her true interest. "Scotch Fuller, tenth place winner this year."
"What makes this guy so special?"
"The fact that she's a woman," Lainey said. "This was her third Iditarod, and she's consistently improved over the years. Talk is that she has a good shot at winning next year' all things being equal."
"Yeah." Lainey felt her hackles rise at his tone. She forced herself to not respond to her defensiveness. In this case, Strauss had every right to be on his guard. She did not understand this bizarre instinct calling her back to a snow locked hinterland; she doubted he would either, even if she tried to explain it to him. In any case, this was still a potentially lucrative idea.
"A good looker, no doubt."
"She's not bad on the eyes," she said. Before he could go any further, she sat up, thrusting out her chin. "It's not about that."
Strauss feigned innocence. "About what, exactly?"
Scoffing, she said, "It's not about a roll in the hay, Ben. I really think there's a story here." Lainey attempted to appear earnest. That her idea involved her spending more time in the presence of Scotch Fuller only sweetened the pot.
He frowned at her. "What about the cold? I know how it messes with your ribs. You're not going to do either of us any good if you're too racked with pain to get out in the field."
She dismissed his fears with a scornful expression. "Come on, it's been years since I've been anywhere that was below forty-five degrees. I admit I ached some on this trip, but it wasn't as bad as I expected," she lied.
His examination remained focused, as if he sensed her falsehood.
"Oh, please," Lainey said. "Besides, no piece of ass is worth that amount of aggravation. And she's straight."
She seemed to have pacified him, his suspicious expression fading. "All right. Say I go for it. What are you looking at for compensation?"
Lainey grinned. If he was talking money, the gig was a sure bet. "Put me on the payroll from June through March of next year. I'll have to pay living expenses, and you know how much photojournalists make in a year. My savings account ain't going to cut it for that long."
Ever the journalist despite being the editor of a magazine these days, Strauss pulled a leather bound notepad from his breast pocket. As he scribbled a note, he asked, "What about copyright?"
"It stays with me."
He looked at her from beneath his brows. "As much as I understand your end of the business, Lainey, my bosses aren't going to let that fly. I'm putting my neck on the line to hire you, as temporary as that will be, and with little immediate payoff. I need something to bargain with, or you peddle this story someplace else."
She narrowed her eyes in thought, staring at the street. The rain had stopped, though the sun remained muted by the clouds overhead. After a long pause, she said, "Okay. You retain copyright of what I send you. But I reserve the right to not send you everything. The salary pays for three full pictorial and written articles."
Strauss pursed his lips, and then nodded. "Sounds fair. I know you won't stint on the articles at the magazine's expense." He wrote the agreement down. "Let's get back to my office, and have the legal department draw up a contract. As of this afternoon, you'll be an official temporary employee of Cognizance."
Grinning, Lainey stood, and donned her jacket. She could not wait to get started. Her heart filled with enthusiasm, even though this was only the first step. There were still so many things she needed to get done, so many plans to make.
She supposed now would be a good time to call Scotch Fuller and pitch the idea to her.
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