||AU, Adventure, Romance
(Mac/Harm . . . sort of)
words; 228 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
||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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"I don't know what to call it," Annabel replied. "Do you know what today
"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
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
"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
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."
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
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
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'
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.