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Classification AU, Adventure, Romance (Mac/Harm . . . sort of)
Length Approximately 111,000 words; 228 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers None
Rating GS
Author's Notes A little something that's been tickling my brain. Events in my itty-bitty corner of the universe have just about caught up with this season (stopping short of Ice Queen). There's been a little trouble in paradise but hey, it's H & M - so what else is new? Anyway, this is a tad different (providing I can make this work... ) and it all goes back to that old cliché: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10 Part 11

 

 

Chapter 1

Palos
Shenandoah Valley
Northern Virginia
1740 Local

 

Mac opened the back door of the government sedan she was driving and heaved her briefcase in. It would have been better to have placed it on the passenger side of the front seat, but she felt like throwing something and this was going to have to hold her until she had a bit more privacy to vent. Later, when she found some place to spend the night, she could blow off a little verbal steam at not being able to easily reach the recalcitrant case. Climbing into the front seat, she shifted the map she'd bought earlier out of her way and contemplated what to do next. This was all Harm's fault... Well, actually it wasn't, but in her current mood, she was willing to blame him anyway. If he hadn't been someone that Admiral Boone thought so highly of, he wouldn't be out of the country right now, they wouldn't be so short-handed at JAG - and she wouldn't be here. Damn, she missed him!

It had been six months since the Bacovian 'incident' - to use the SecNav's (former SecNav, Mac amended) term. In that six months, life had gone from what Mac had cautiously considered pretty damn good to what she, in her darker moments, thought of as f---ing normal. The two weeks in La Jolla with Trish and Frank Burnett had been amazing. It could hardly have been anything less. Harm's parents were as determined to like her as she was to like them. It would have been blasphemous if all that effort had failed. She and Trish had bonded over their shared interest in Harm and several obligatory and spectacular shopping trips. Surprisingly, it was with Frank that she had felt a real connection. The scientific basis of their interests - hers, paleontology; his, astronomy - had led to some rather freewheeling discussions. He reminded her of Uncle Matt. He was someone she could depend on.

As she had recovered, her normal nocturnal habits had reasserted themselves and she would wind up on the patio at odd hours of the night, listening to the pounding of the surf and watching the phosphorescence of the waves breaking on shore. The third night of her wanderings had found Frank up as well, immersed in his study of the universe. It became a habit for the two of them. Sometimes they talked, sometimes they didn't. Conversations ranged from the serious (the current, crazy condition of the world) to the silly (Frank had stumbled on an Internet conversation about an alternate energy source called BCA - Buttered Cat Array. The premise was that toast always lands butter side down and cats always land on their feet. Attach toast, butter side up on the back of a cat and drop from a suitable height - the opposing forces would result in a perpetual spin just above ground level. They had kept each other in stitches with a multitude of theories for harnessing BCA for the benefit of mankind and the military.) Add that to all the blissful hours spent with Harm and it was hard to decide who was more disappointed that the leave had ended, she and Harm or the Burnetts.

Now, six months later, Mac was pretty sure she had the disappointment ball firmly in her court. Irritatingly, it wasn't some big blow-up that was causing her current funk, but a series of incidents - some big and some small. The first had been her little foray with Webb into Afghanistan. It hadn't been the knife attack that rattled her so much as having Gunny shoot the Taliban soldier who had been about to blow holes in her. That she had turned her back on an enemy without making sure he was neutralized had been incredibly stupid. Clay had been more than willing to keep the whole incident from Harm but her aviator had found out anyway. He'd been more hurt than angry that she hadn't said anything to him. Harm was fixating on the danger of the initial attack but she was dwelling on what would have been, except for Gunny's reflexes, a fatal error in judgment.

In their next foray into Afghanistan, she'd followed that lapse up with an attempt to kill Harm by dumping him in a minefield. Rabb luck had cancelled out her inattention to driving (their own version of BCA, she thought dryly). Although she was the one who ultimately had figured out how to get him out in one piece, the fact remained that she had also put him there in the first place. What the hell was the matter with her? Thank God their choice to camp where air strikes had been called in was a mutual decision. She didn't know if she could stand one more blunder from herself. Webb had pegged it - it was embarrassing. The next few days had actually seemed... well, if not normal, then at least par for the course, up to and including Harm playing 'Catch Me If You Can' with a dirty nuke. Saving the day was what he did best and, face it, doing it while strapped into a Tomcat was what he loved best.

And then there was Bud. Things like that weren't supposed to happen to guys like him. It had been a school dedication ceremony for god sakes! Things had changed slightly after that. They had changed. Helplessness was a part of it. There was no way to ride in and save the day with something like this. That had rankled and then exacerbated the survivor guilt they were both feeling. They had waltzed out of a minefield with a movie gimmick and a few flippant remarks. All without a scratch and it wasn't fair that Bud had paid the price. Initially, they had drawn together for support as they waited for word outside sickbay. It was after Bud had started on his long road to recovery that they'd somehow withdrawn from each other.

Irrational and stupid, Mac thought bitterly to herself, rubbing her forehead as she stared absently out the window. That pretty much described both of them. What had happened to Bud had hit way too close to home. It wasn't like either one of them was unfamiliar with death. What she hadn't thought about was being maimed and she was willing to bet that Harm hadn't either. There was no way she could face what Bud was facing and she felt like the worst kind of coward and hypocrite. The stress had made them both short-tempered. They had scurried in opposite directions, opting for space to buffer any harsh words.

That chink in their bond had been widened by what Mac could only consider as pettiness. They were equally to blame. Harm had tanked one of his cases and gotten pulled off by Chegwidden. The blow to his pride had him skirting the borders of Willful Disobedience but, in the end, he had ferreted out the truth. And so had she, coming at it from another angle entirely. They never actually broached the fact that his quest had been superfluous and that, just possibly, he didn't have a corner on the market for justice. Doing so would have only made her angry that he had such little faith in her commitment to the truth. She knew him well enough to realize that he had never considered it from that particular angle. His focus had been entirely on finding the truth - and vindicating himself. For the sake of peace, Mac was willing to let it slide. Unfortunately, it was an entirely different fallout from that case that had turned the widening chink into a chasm.

Chegwidden had appointed her to the bench and her first case had been to preside over Harm and Sturgis. Normally supportive, Harm had seen red. He'd been passed over and he took it personally. She'd been hard-pressed not to find him in contempt. It was a side of him she hadn't enjoyed seeing and she'd been somewhat shocked when he broke one of his own rules about leaving it in the courtroom. His biting remarks at Bud and Harriet's Open House had stung.

Well, when it was his turn on the bench, she had fired back with some pettiness of her own. In her own defense, she really did think Harm was indulging in a little payback. Never, in her years of litigation, had the judge objected to her opening statement. It was downhill from there. It had also proved to be the low-water mark. Now, things were slowly on the mend.

Unfortunately, they'd hit a plateau of sorts. She was finding herself more on the bench and less with the investigation of cases. While it was flattering to find she had an aptitude for the judiciary, it also meant that she saw considerably less of Harm. She was beginning to think the fates were conspiring against them. The one investigation they had finally been partnered on had resulted with her replacing a pregnant Loren Singer on board the Patrick Henry for three weeks. That the Lieutenant was pregnant at all had been a helluva shock. That hadn't made her investigation into whether Loren had gotten pregnant during the cruise any easier. There was also the annoying fact that Harm knew something and had decided not to share. There was nothing she could do about it - he'd had gone off to Naples on a case with Manetti.

When she got back to JAG, finding time to spend together hadn't gotten any easier. Tom Boone had snagged Harm to help deal with the Chinese and he'd barely made it back for the Roberts' Christmas party. It seemed that when he wasn't out of town on various cases then she was so busy that, by the time she finally stumbled home, all she could think about was sleeping. None of which was conducive to working on their relationship. Now Harm was off again. Admiral Boone wanted him for some assignment or other, for who knew how long. With Singer on maternity leave, Manetti at Pearl and Bud restricted from field investigations, she had found herself in tiny, little Palos, Virginia on a Thursday night. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley up against the George Washington National Forest, the drive had been beautiful. She would have enjoyed it more had it been on her own time and in her own car. Unfortunately, time was what she was pressed for. That fact had entirely escaped the main reason she was out here.

Master Chief Branson Bedford Bollings, retired/disabled. (He had smiled and told her that she could call him Tribby if she liked, most folks in these parts did. Not that there was anything wrong with his name, mind you, it was all them 'Bs' in a row and, well, people had just naturally started calling him that since oh... way back when. Now his brother... ) It had taken Mac 12 minutes and 34 seconds to get the man back on track. It had taken him only 2 minutes and 17 seconds to veer off on another tangent. The entire interview had gone that way. What should have taken, at most, 90 minutes or so had dragged out to 3 hours and 42 minutes. She had planned on being back in DC tonight but that was before the interview from hell. Now she was exhausted and pissed and driving back right now didn't seem like the wisest move. Part of the problem was construction on the Interstate. She had passed a massive jam on 64/81 on her way out and now, being rush hour, it was probably ten times as bad. The three hour trip could easily turn into five.

She rubbed the back of her neck and then dug into her purse for her cell phone. First things first, she'd call JAG and let them know that she wouldn't be back tonight. Ten minutes later, she ended the call and swore vehemently to herself. She'd wound up talking to Admiral Chegwidden. Major Hardesty had had an appendicitis attack and they needed her back sooner rather than later. She had to be on the bench by 0900 and that meant that she had very little time to get caught up on the case. It also meant she needed to get to JAG tonight to pick up the paperwork. Mac grabbed the map. The Interstate was out of the question so she'd have to find an alternate route. It looked like going by way of Harrisonburg would be her best bet. She could get through the mountains on the state highway and come up through Culpepper. Throwing the car into gear, she headed out.

As she drove down the little country roads on her way to Harrisonburg, she kept half an eye on the dark clouds beginning to gather over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Perfect, Mac thought to herself, with the luck she'd been having today, she'd hit the mountains at the same time the storm did. Mother Nature, however, was operating on her own timetable and Mac wasn't much past Harrisonburg before the heavens opened up. Slowed to a crawl as visibility dropped, she finally gave it up when a neon sign proclaiming 'White Horse Grill' slowly loomed out of the mist and rain. Pulling into the nearly empty parking lot, she maneuvered as close as she could to the front door. Shutting off the car, Mac sat there for a moment watching the rain pound down without any indication of easing. Even with the short distance she had to go, she was going to get soaked. Briefly, she berated herself for not transferring her duffel to the trunk of this car before she left. She'd been in a hurry, though. This trip had become necessary at the last minute and she spent the morning, rushing around, delegating what she could to the staff. Mac sighed and eyed the rain that was now whipping sideways. It was only water, she would dry while she ate and, hopefully, the storm would blow through.

Taking a deep breath, she grabbed her purse and threw open the car door. The strength of the wind surprised her as she forced the car door shut. Heavy gusts swirled and battered her as she made it to the building and wrestled the front door open. The abrupt lack of resistance made Mac stagger as she stepped inside and then the wind curled around the door, yanking it out of her hand and slamming it shut. Straightening up, she took a moment to orient herself and then shivered.

"My lands, child, you're soaked to the bone. You'll catch your death." Mac took a swipe at the water dripping down her face and turned in the direction of the voice. Coming towards her was a small, gray-haired woman, wiping her hands on her apron. Without giving Mac a chance to reply, she called over her shoulder, "Anthony Wade! Bring some towels out here, please!" Moments later, she was herding the Marine Colonel towards the 'ladies' powder room' with all the efficiency of a Gunnery Sergeant. Anthony Wade met them in the hallway, his arms full of towels. He was a handsome young man, Mac noted, late teens or early twenties with skin the color of dark, roasted coffee. He'd stopped dead in the hall, his eyes widening, making Mac uncomfortably aware of just how her wet uniform was clinging.

The small woman was having none of it, "Anthony Wade Davis! Close your mouth and put your eyes back in your head. I know your Mama raised you better than that. Give me those towels and see if you can find something dry for this poor woman to wear before she winds up with pneumonia."

"Ma'am, really, that's not necessary," Mac interrupted, "The towels will be fine, thank you. I'm sure you both have more important things to do."

The woman turned bright, dark eyes towards her, "Nonsense. I'm not so old that I don't remember how uncomfortable wet clothing can be." She sent a pointed look at Anthony Wade who beat a hasty retreat. Looking back at Mac she gestured towards the ladies' room, "Go get out of those wet things. We'll hang them up in the kitchen and see how fast they'll dry."

Mac tried one more time to dissuade the woman, "Please, Mrs. ... "

The woman smiled, "Annabel Avis Payne Simpson and you would be?"

"Sarah MacKenzie, Mrs. Simpson. Honestly, ma'am, I'll be fine. I don't want to keep you or Anthony Wade from your work."

Annabel waved a hand, "You're not keeping us from anything. I sent our cook home about half an hour ago. We're closed, I just hadn't locked the front doors yet."

Mac tried not to let her dismay show on her face. Dammit, she hadn't had anything since breakfast this morning. This day just kept getting better and better. She started handing towels back to Mrs. Simpson, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize. I'll find another place to stop along the way."

Annabel pushed the towels back at her, "If you're heading through the mountains, you won't find another place for quite a spell. Storm took the power out up that way. That's one of the reasons I sent Ridley home; his wife's one of the Huntingtons from down Tidewater way. Flatlanders tend to get a tad panicky during these mountain storms." She cocked her head to one side, "Truth to tell, Anthony Wade and I haven't had supper yet, either. I can rustle up food for three just as easily as two. I believe Ridley left us pot roast." Thunder crashed overhead, making the building vibrate. Annabel glanced up towards the ceiling. "It's not safe to be on the road right now anyway. Now, go on and get dried off, I'm going to see if that boy has found something for you to put on."

Fifteen minutes later, she was sitting in the kitchen with Anthony Wade in what she suspected were his sweats. They were close in size. She sat and watched Annabel bustle about the kitchen and Anthony Wade watched her.

The little woman hummed happily to herself as she lifted lids and stirred. Abruptly, she turned around and shook her spoon at Anthony Wade, causing both him and Mac to jump. "Mr. Davis! If you have a question for Ms. MacKenzie, I suggest you ask. Staring at her like that without speaking is a mite rude."

Anthony Wade's mouth open and shut soundlessly as his eyes darted nervously between the two women. Annabel took pity on him and decided to get the conversational ball rolling. She looked over the dark-haired woman sitting at the table. "We don't get many military folks out this way - not in the last hundred and forty years or so, anyway. Are you in the Army?"

Mac tried not to cringe, "Marine Corps, ma'am. I'm an attorney with the Navy's Judge Advocate General's office in Falls Church." She caught Anthony Wade stifling a smile out of the corner of her eye and gave him a companionable grin. He, at least, seemed to be aware of the tender regard the Corps held for their dog-faced brothers-in-arms.

Annabel absently stirred another pot, "Do tell. Does that mean you're an officer?"

"Yes, ma'am," Mac nodded, "I'm a Lieutenant Colonel and the Chief of Staff for Admiral Chegwidden."

"I declare, that's pretty high up the pecking order, isn't it? What are you doing out this way - if you don't mind my asking?" This came from over Annabel's shoulder as her activity around the stove increased.

"I needed to interview a potential witness. He's unable to travel, so here I am." Mac's eyes lit up when plates piled high with food appeared in front of her and Anthony Wade. A platter of biscuits and a pitcher of iced tea followed.

A moment later, Annabel sat down with her own plate. She fluttered a hand at them, "Go on now, don't let it get cold." The next few minutes were devoted strictly to eating.

As the first edge was taken off her hunger, Mac looked from Anthony Wade to Annabel. "How long have you owned this place?"

Annabel leaned back a bit and sipped at her iced tea, "My husband, God rest his soul, and I have had it for thirty-five years but it's been in the family since about 1874. It was a tavern right up 'til Prohibition. We never got back to selling liquor, so it became the 'White Horse Grill'." She smiled at Anthony Wade, "It'll be this young man's place next. His momma, Eula Mae, and I have been friends since we were knee-high to a grasshopper. Of all our children, Anthony Wade's the only one who's been interested in staying here and keeping the family business." She shook her head, "Young people these days seem to want to have more and more things - need a high-paying city job to pay for it all. Can't imagine being that closed in with concrete and glass all the time; all that noise and the air so thick you can see it. No thank you. My girls keep after me to move in with them but I don't think I'd last long away from the Valley."

Mac nodded thoughtfully, "You're probably right." She felt a little twinge of envy, wondering what it would be like to have roots so deep in one place. She glanced around the kitchen, "So this place has been here since 1874? I had no idea it was that old."

"It's been here longer than that. Old Jessup McNair built it originally back around 1808. He'd come to this country from Ireland as an indentured servant. Once he worked off his debt, he crossed the Blue Ridge into the Valley. Story is he was headed for Kentucky but once he got here, he couldn't bring himself to leave. He wasn't much on farming, so he opened a general store. Later, he added a tavern. Once he got himself settled, he headed back east and found himself a bride. Brought her back here and raised up a fine family. The McNairs were good people." Annabel's voice drifted off and she sighed a little.

There was silence for a few minutes as everyone quietly continued to eat. Finally, her curiosity piqued, Mac asked, "What happened to them?"

"War." For a moment, Annabel's face grew hard and then it softened, "It was tragic, really. Of course, everything about that war was a tragedy. The Yankees couldn't defeat Lee in the field so they took the war to the civilians. First it was General Hunter, destroying the homes of helpless women and children. That was out of pure spite, but then Phil Sheridan came. The Shenandoah Valley was the granary of the South but when Sheridan was done, we couldn't even feed ourselves. Just about all of the men were gone, the ones that came back were mostly crippled. People were starving to death and all we heard from the North were cries of vengeance and hate. Lots of Northern folk thought the whole lot of us should have been hanged." She flashed a quick, apologetic smile at Mac, "Sorry, you were asking about the McNairs." She took another sip of tea, "Well, I suppose their story is tied to the war in the Valley. Axel McNair's two sons were killed in a skirmish down Port Republic way; war had only been going on for a few months. Only eighteen and twenty, they'd never been away from home before. Broke his wife, Mary Patrick's, heart and affected her mind as well. She would sit looking out the window all day and practically all night, talking to herself. Only thing that roused her was the sight of a blue uniform, then she'd pitch a fit. One night, around 1868 I believe, Axel came in late and she snapped. Started screaming about the Yankees and her two babies dying. Grabbed a butcher knife and buried it in Axel's chest and then ran out of the house still screaming. They never did find her."

Mac sat back, amazed, "Wow, that's quite a story. So that was the end of the McNair family?"

Annabel shook her head, "Almost. There was a daughter, Sophia Pike McNair, but nobody talked about her much. She'd fallen in love with a Yankee officer and ran off to marry him. After what had happened to Mary Patrick, folks around here were pretty aghast. Axel McNair up and disowned her. After the killing, my great-great-grandmother took it upon herself to let Sophie know what had happened to her parents. She and her husband moved back here but they were ostracized by the rest of neighborhood. Feelings were still bitter on both sides. One day they hitched up their buggy and headed over the mountains. Going to Stanardsville to meet her husband's cousins was what they told Granny Payne, but they never got there and they were never heard from again. Five years later, they were declared dead. When the probate court went through their papers, it turned out that Sophie had left the White Horse Tavern to my great-great-grandparents. We've had it ever since."

Anthony Wade spoke up at last, "You're leaving out the best part, Miss Annabel." He turned to Mac and smiled, "The story is that Mary Patrick is still up there in the mountains, waiting for her revenge on the Yankees. They say that she met up with Sophie and her husband and spooked the horses right off the side of Massanutten Mountain." He lowered his voice, "Every year, since then, at least one car manages to go flying off the mountain... and it's always folks from up North."

"Anthony Wade!" Annabel chided him, "Don't go mixing ghost stories in with the facts." She looked at Mac, "It's usually tourists who fall off the mountain and that's because they're driving too fast." She raised an eyebrow at Anthony Wade, "It's got nothing to do with ghosts."

He grinned back, unrepentant, "But you have to admit, it's a good story for a stormy night."

Mac laughed, "He's got you there, Miss Annabel."

"So he does," Annabel smiled as well and then stood up, "Anyone interested in dessert? There's key lime pie."

Mac stood up as well, shaking her head regretfully, "No thank you, ma'am. I'm afraid I need to get going. I have to be back in DC tonight." She started gathering plates.

Annabel stared at her, "Tonight? Child, it's not safe on the roads just yet. This storm's not finished with us, I can feel it in my bones."

"I don't have much choice, Miss Annabel," Mac replied as she stacked dishes in one of the sinks. "One of our judges had a medical emergency. I have to take his place and court is scheduled to begin at 0900 tomorrow. It doesn't give me much time to prepare." She moved over to where her uniform was hanging. Checking it, she grimaced slightly, still damp but better than it was.

"Couldn't you get an early start in the morning?" Annabel persisted. "I'd be happy to put you up for the night."

Mac noticed that the old woman was slowly twisting her apron into a knot. She frowned slightly and glanced over at Anthony Wade. He was watching them both with a solemn expression. Mac folded her arms, "What's going on, Miss Annabel?"

"It's not safe, Sarah," Annabel said and then sighed as Mac continued to stare at her, "I don't think you're going to believe me."

Mac raised an eyebrow and smiled slightly, "Is this another ghost story?"

"I don't know what to call it," Annabel replied. "Do you know what today is?"

"Thursday," Mac answered, perplexed at the change of subject.

Annabel shook her head. "It's also the night of a second full moon. Strange things happen on Massanutten during a blue moon. Folks disappear and that's the God's honest truth." She stared at Mac, "Please stay until morning."

Mac fought the urge to grin because it was obvious that Annabel was quite serious. She shook her head, "I can't, I have my orders." She gathered her uniform up, walking over to the old woman and patting her shoulder. "I'll be fine, really. I've driven through mountains before and I know to be careful." She headed for the ladies' room to change back into her uniform.

Ten minutes later, standing by the front door, Mac shook Anthony Wade's hand and gave Annabel a hug, "Thank you for everything. Meeting you both has been a pleasure. I'd like to come back and visit, if that'd be all right."

"I wish you would," Annabel looked like she was about to say something and then changed her mind. Instead, she reached up and unfastened her necklace and handed it to a startled Mac, "Come back and bring this with you."

Mac tried to return it, "I can't take this, Annabel. You don't even know me. We only met a couple of hours ago."

Annabel held up a hand, "It's a loan. I'm not a bad judge of character and you seem like an honorable person. I want you to bring it back. It's special, it's been in the family for nigh on four generations."

Eyes widening, Mac redoubled her efforts to give it back, "All the more reason that I shouldn't take it, Miss Annabel. It's an heirloom. I'd never forgive myself if something happened to it. Besides, I don't know when I'll be able to get back here. With the current state of the military, I could find myself in Kuwait next week. You really don't want to do this."

"You need to take it with you, Sarah. I want you to wear it. Now." Mac was even more puzzled by Annabel's vehemence.

"Miss Annabel, I can't wear it. I'll be out of uniform. Please take it back." She smiled a little to try and lighten the mood. This conversation was beginning to make her... twitchy. The last thing she needed was that damned psychic whatever-it-was popping up and distracting her while she drove. "I don't need an excuse to come back and visit. I like you both."

"And we like you. Now, please, put it on. Take it off when you get to DC. You'll make me feel a lot better if I know you're wearing it while you're traveling. I know it sounds silly but just humor an old woman. What could it hurt?" Annabel stared at Mac intently.

Mac sighed. This was obviously an argument she wasn't going to win. "Fine." She fastened it around her neck and tucked it inside her shirt. "Now I really do have to get going." A few minutes later, she was back on the road, the White Horse Grill receding into the darkness.

Anthony Wade put a hand on Annabel's shoulder as they watched the taillights disappear. "It'll probably be okay, Miss Annabel."

She reached up and patted his hand absently, "I hope so."

 

Chapter 2

Massanutten Mountain
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
2050 Local

 

Forty-three minutes into the drive and Mac was still a little dumfounded by Annabel's bizarre request. The rain was down to a drizzle but it was easy to track the path of the storm. More than once, she had to veer around downed tree limbs. The road had been steadily climbing as it wound around the knees of the mountain. She kept the speed down as much for the curves that were beginning to appear as for the debris littering the road. The back of her mind was busily toting up the extra time it was going to take getting through the mountains if she wasn't able to pick up speed soon. This trip was getting depressingly longer all the time.

It was blacker than pitch out this way. The power lines must be down all over the mountain, there's wasn't a light to be seen anywhere. Feeling the hair begin to rise on the back of her neck, Mac angrily told herself to get a grip. It was just her overactive imagination that made it seem like the darkness was swallowing the feeble swath projected by her headlights. A mist began to rise from the pavement, growing progressively thicker. Swearing under her breath, Mac slowed even more as the visibility dropped. If this kept up, she was going to be at a standstill.

It wasn't long before Mac felt she was driving in a tunnel. With a start, she realized that at some point, the lines on the road had disappeared. The road felt rougher, too. What the hell was going on? Had she somehow managed to leave the main highway? For the life of her, she couldn't remember any sort of a turn-off. She shot a quick glance at the map lying on the passenger seat. There couldn't have been any turn-off if she was in the area she thought she was.

She was still trying to figure it out when a figure suddenly appeared out of the mist. Shocked, she threw the wheel over as she stomped on the brakes. Her heart was in her throat as she felt the back end of the car slide out. Desperately, Mac spun the wheel to compensate when the right front tire dropped off the edge of the road. Her last coherent thought as the rest of car followed was 'What the hell happened to the guardrails?"

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac slowly opened her eyes and took stock of her situation. She blinked once or twice but it did nothing to relieve the unremitting darkness surrounding her. The car's engine had stopped and neither the headlights nor the dash lights seemed to be working. According to her internal clock, only a few minutes had passed so she was pretty sure she hadn't lost consciousness, although her impressions of what had happened were pretty chaotic. She groaned a little as she gingerly moved arms and legs. Having the airbag deploy was infinitely better than smacking into the steering wheel but it still felt like she'd been clobbered by a giant fist. She felt the side of her head and winced. There'd probably be a knot there soon from bouncing her head off the driver's side window. Aside from a slight headache, there didn't seem to be any major damage. She'd been damn lucky.

The car was wedged sideways against some trees at close to a forty-five degree angle. Judging by the fact that she and the door were more or less in one piece, the actual impact had to have been on the front end. The car must have slid sideways afterwards. Mac unfastened her seatbelt and worked her way to the passenger side. Grabbing the door handle, she braced herself as well as she could and pushed. Nothing. Muttering to herself, she maneuvered around to try and get a little more leverage and shoved again. Still nothing. Letting go, she half-slid back to the driver's side. With the electrical system out, there was no way to get the windows down. She would have to find some way to break the glass.

Mac peered out of the driver's side window and shook her head slightly. Even if she broke the glass on this side, she didn't think she could squeeze past the trees. That left the passenger side. If it came down to it, she supposed she could kick the window out. It would be awkward as hell. She'd be practically upside down and there'd be no way to keep the glass from landing on her when the window did break. At least the safety glass would ensure that she didn't cut her leg off when she tried it. First, though, she'd see if there was anything else she could use. Mac smiled ruefully to herself, 'see' was a relative term. She could barely 'see' anything. Her search would be mostly by feel.

She went at it methodically, checking around the driver's side and then moving to the passenger seat. When her hand touched her purse, she resisted the urge to smack herself in the forehead. Her cell phone! With a little luck, maybe she could just sit tight and wait for a rescue squad to come get her. Fumbling inside, her hand made contact with the hard plastic case. Pulling it out, she flipped it open and was rewarded with the soft glow of the keypad. Her smile of success faded as she looked at the message on the LCD screen. 'Searching for Service'. Damn! As she stared at the traitorous piece of electronic equipment, her puzzlement grew. Searching for service? She was on a global satellite system. The only times she couldn't get some sort of signal was when she was unfortunate enough to be stuck underwater in a sub or if she was deep in the bowels of a Navy ship with tons of steel above her head.

Mac heaved a sigh, she'd think about it later. Right now, she needed to get back on the hunt for something to help her get out of this car. She crawled into the backseat and half-landed on her briefcase. Picking it up, she hefted it in her hands for a moment. Maybe... if she couldn't find anything else. The rest of the car was depressingly empty. She sat for a few seconds, drumming her fingers on the briefcase and then turned towards the back of the car. A lot of vehicles were made so it was possible to access the trunk from the inside. Hopefully, this was one of them. She started running her hands around the backrest of the seat. There should be a catch or loop of some sort... Hah! There it was. Mac gave it a good yank and was rewarded with the backrest folding down. She smiled in triumph, there had to be a tire iron of some sort in there.

Right about then, the first fat raindrop hit the back windshield. Great, just great, Mac thought sourly as she began her search of the trunk. A couple of minutes later, not even the steadily increasing tattoo of rain could wipe the smile off her face. Not only had she found the tire iron but also an emergency kit. With a great deal of satisfaction, she clicked on the flashlight and inspected the rest of the contents. Flares, a first aid kit, tow rope, one of those compact, foil-like emergency blankets, collapsible water container, waterproof matches, food bars and even one of those Leatherman multi-tool gadgets. This was practically Nirvana for a Marine. Quickly and efficiently, she began divvying up the supplies. She knew better than to keep everything in one place. Driving off the road had been completely unexpected, she would not be so sanguine about hanging onto the emergency bag. Some of the waterproof matches, a food bar, the blanket and a roll of aspirin went into her pockets. The Leatherman tool she attached to her belt. She paused for a moment in thought and then grabbed her cell phone, shoving it in a pocket as well.

Satisfied that she was as prepared as possible, Mac picked up the tire iron. Shielding her face and eyes, she began hammering at the window. It broke through on the third try and she quickly used the iron to clear the rest of the glass. She squinted as she worked, rain was pouring into the opening. Making a quick decision, she grabbed her briefcase and purse and shoved them into the trunk. Hopefully, that would keep them dry. She would get everything back once they pulled the car back up on the road. Picking up the emergency bag, she swung it through the opening and then followed.

Mac landed on all fours outside the car and then cautiously stood up. The angle of the slope and the rain were making the footing more than a little treacherous. Bracing against the car, she started to wipe her hands off and then gave up in disgust. Odds were that she would be on her hands and knees more often than not anyway, as she climbed back to the road. Lightning flashed and a few seconds later, thunder rolled through the sky. Mac cast a jaundiced eye upward and then pulled out the flashlight, slinging the bag onto her shoulder. Deciding on her route, she began the uphill climb.

Fifteen minutes later, she braced herself on a shrub and took a breather. She was soaked through and mud-covered as well. Mac glanced up the slope. She had no idea how far down she was but surely, the road couldn't that much further. With a sigh, she started climbing again. It was the sound that first caught her attention but with the thunder rumbling constantly, it was hard to decide just what it was she was hearing. A few seconds later, a torrent of water hit her square in the chest, knocking her backwards off her feet. Then she was tumbling downhill, out of control and unable to stop. Terrified, she tried to protect herself, expecting at any moment, a fatal impact with a tree or boulder.

Dizzy and disoriented, Mac barely registered the lurch that told her she was airborne. Then, with a splash, icy water closed over her. Blind instinct got her head above water. Arms flailing, she coughed and sputtered as she was swept downstream at an alarming rate. It had to be a small creek that she was in, she realized, as the current bounced her into a steep bank and then swirled her away. Desperately, she tried to find a way out. A low-hanging branch appeared and she threw herself at it, only to miss and disappear underwater. Struggling back up, Mac was already beginning to feel numb with cold.

Moments later, she slammed into the bank again. This time, she managed to latch onto a gnarled tree root. With an effort, she dragged her other hand up to consolidate her grip. The force of the water was staggering and now she was getting pelted with debris as well. Try as she might, she couldn't pull herself out. She glanced helplessly over her shoulder and then her eyes widened. A large hunk of wood was hurtling at her. In despair, she let go and a few seconds later, felt the impact as the log hit. Even with the force dissipated, it was enough to push her underwater again where she bounced along the creek bed.

Mac broke the surface once more, wondering how much longer she was going to be able to hang on. She swept around a bend and came to a jarring halt as she was slammed into a tangle of logs and debris. Grabbing at branches, she fought against the force that was trying to drag her underneath. Frantic at being so close to escaping, she redoubled her efforts and succeeded in inching away from the brunt of the current. A minute later, she was standing in water only a foot deep. Mac staggered up the bank and sank to her hands and knees, trembling with cold and exhaustion.

She fought the urge to collapse, some stubborn little voice was telling her it would be the last thing she did. Struggling to her feet, she braced herself against a tree trunk and looked around. The rain continued unabated. She needed to find some sort of shelter and she had absolutely no idea where she was. In a way, that simplified things, one direction was as good as another. Mac pushed herself upright and started walking.

She kept to the path of least resistance, shifting away whenever the sound of water grew too loud. The land was gradually flattening out. She kept moving, only marginally aware of where she was going. At least the exertion from walking was beginning to warm her up. Unfortunately, it was exacerbating the exhaustion. Her legs felt leaden and she wondered vaguely if it were truly possible to walk and sleep at the same time.

She was in the middle of the clearing before she realized that the trees were gone. Coming to a halt, Mac slowly turned in a circle. Visibility was problematic with the rain and darkness but there seemed to be a larger, deeper shadow off to her left. Giving a mental shrug, she started plodding towards it. Chances were, it was just a particularly dense cluster of trees. Still, even that might offer a little protection. She was just about at the point where stopping wasn't going to be a choice. Her heart started beating a little faster as the shadow began to take on a box-like shape. A few moments later, she was staring at the remains of a small log cabin.

It was fairly well wrecked; even in the darkness, that was pretty apparent, but Mac wasn't feeling all that picky. She cautiously stepped inside and turned to the right, where there seemed to be a bit of roof left. Gingerly moving through the debris, she stopped and picked up a slender piece of lumber. As anxious as she was to get out of the elements, she didn't want to share space with any snakes. Reaching the corner, she began clearing an area. Satisfied that there were no uninvited guests, she finally allowed herself to collapse. It was somewhat damp and there were drips but, on the whole, being out of the downpour was practically heaven.

Stretching her legs out, she began checking pockets. It wasn't quite as bad as she feared, the blanket, a packet of the matches and a badly crumpled food bar were still there. The Leatherman holster was still attached but the tool itself was gone. She was too tired to eat so she would save the food bar for the morning. Wearily, she began undressing. Now that she was stationary, she didn't need wet clothes leaching away body heat, nor did she want to encourage trenchfoot. Wringing everything out, she draped the clothes as best she could on whatever was handy. Then, opening up the packet, she shook out the blanket and rolled herself up in it. She was asleep almost immediately.

 

Massanutten Mountain
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
1040 Local

 

Gradually, Mac came awake. Groaning, she pried open an eye and then promptly shut it again as brightness assaulted it. She groaned again as she shifted. Sleeping on the ground after taking a header down a mountain led to more aches than she thought her body was capable of. Middle age sucked. Her time sense, apparently annoyed with her procrastination about rising, administered its own sharp kick. Mac bolted upright, stifling a gasp as bruised and sore muscles protested the sudden move. She buried her face in her hands. Goddammit! She was an hour and forty minutes late for court! Chegwidden and Morris would be having apoplexy.

Well, for the first thirty minutes or so, they would, she amended to herself. That would give way to worry when they couldn't find her. Mac lifted her head and looked around. She was in the same boat, she couldn't find her either. Grimly, she forced herself up and then gave it a minute, waiting for the spinning to stop. She didn't think she had a concussion; her head wasn't pounding that badly. It was probably just an aftereffect of exhaustion. She glanced down at herself, there were any number of bruises and scrapes but nothing incapacitating. Despite everything that had happened since she slid off the road, her original assessment still stood. She'd been damn lucky.

Moving stiffly, she gathered up her uniform. It was still damp and definitely becoming the worse for wear. Mac grinned wryly to herself, if she'd had any idea yesterday would be so eventful, she would have worn cammies to the interview. As it was, she was just happy she hadn't opted to wear a skirt. Slowly, she began to dress and her hand came in contact with Annabel's necklace. She stopped for a moment to finger it. Thank God she hadn't lost that. That delicate chain must be stronger than it looked. For some reason, it made her feel a little better and she finished getting dressed. She began to feel a bit more confident; she was bound to run into someone. This area wasn't some remote third-world country. All she needed was someone with a phone.

She stepped out into the sunshine and looked around. Massanutten loomed up before her, the sun just peeking over its right shoulder. She called up the map in her mind - that put her south-southwest. She turned to her right, yup, there were the Blue Ridge mountains. Mac turned back and squinted at the mountain. If she kept the sun just at her right shoulder, that would keep her moving roughly north-northwest - back to the White Horse Grill. She'd have to remember to compensate as the sun traveled across the sky. She didn't think she could find her car again and wasn't going to waste time trying. Chances were, she'd run into civilization sooner or later. She scrubbed at her face, feeling the grit underneath her hands and then ran her fingers through her hair. Hopefully, she wouldn't frighten the natives too badly. She probably looked like hell. Resolutely, she began walking.

Two hours later, she got a break. Pushing through the underbrush, she found herself on a dirt road. With all the rain, it looked more like a quagmire but she thought she could stay on the edge without getting too muddy. Finally, things were looking up. Forty-five minutes later, a clearing appeared with another log cabin in it. This one looked like it was lived in, there was smoke curling lazily from the chimney. As Mac walked closer, two small children appeared from around the side. They stopped dead at the sight of her. She smiled at them, "Hi, is your mom or dad home? I ... " Mac broke off in surprise as the oldest child, a boy, screeched 'Momma! They're back!' and dragged his sister into the cabin at a run.

A few moments later, a gaunt-looking woman in a long dress appeared in the doorway with a double-barreled shotgun. She waved it at Mac, who stepped back in alarm, raising her hands, "Please, ma'am. I just need to use your phone."

"Get out! Get offa mah land! I got nothin' left for y'all to steal, y' hear? Git!"

Mac backed another step, "I don't know what you're talking about! I don't want to steal anything! I'm lost - I just want to use your phone!" Her eyes widened as the woman threw the shotgun to her shoulder and fired. She dove for the ground and then started scrambling away. What the hell was the matter with that crazy woman?! Gaining her feet, she bolted for the underbrush, ducking as another blast riddled the leaves above her. She kept on moving, putting as much distance as possible between her and the cabin. Finally, she couldn't go any further and sank down on the ground, panting. Mac didn't think that the nutcase would actually pursue her - not with two children anyway. On the other hand, the woman was clearly deranged.

As Mac got her breathing under control, she rested her head on her hand. This was a setback she hadn't been expecting. The whole thing was bizarre. She went over what had just happened and stopped short, frowning. There was more wrong with the entire incident than one homicidal woman. Both the kids and the woman had been wearing clothes that could have come right off the set of one of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. And there hadn't been any sort of lines leading to the cabin... Amish? Nah, no way. Last she checked, the Amish didn't shoot first and ask questions later... Damn, maybe they were making drugs and what she'd run across was 'Little Meth Lab on the Prairie'. That might explain the woman's paranoia. She was lucky that 'Pa' wasn't home - he probably wouldn't have missed.

Wearily, she climbed to her feet. The road should be somewhere to her right. She ran her tongue over dry lips and sighed, that was another problem. Water. It was somewhat ironic, considering the damn stuff had tried to kill her but she would need to find potable water soon. She'd crossed any number of streams and rivulets but without any way to purify the water, she was more than a little leery about drinking. God only knew what kind of bacteria was floating around in there. Mac had no desire to experience dysentery, typhus or cholera. Firmly, she suppressed the thought that it might already be too late. She'd certainly ingested enough water in that damn creek. And probably breathed enough water to give herself pneumonia.

Mac shook her head angrily, that whole line of the thought was unproductive. Focus on the here and now, she told herself firmly. It was time to get out of the wilderness.

 

 

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