Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cat's Claw by Jude Mason

"What do you mean, he doesn't have a phone? Everyone in this day and age has a phone for Christ sakes." The words exploded from Morgan's mouth before she could stop them.

Standing with her hands planted firmly on the scarred, wooden countertop of the town's General Store, she scowled at the man in front of her. The ancient clerk stared back at her, a look of total disregard for her dilemma on his wizened old face, as if he didn't have a care in the world and couldn't have cared less that she was upset. Why would he care that she had to take time off from her busy accounting job? What would he care that her clients were waiting for her, chomping at the bit for her to get their month ends done? After all, it wasn't like he was the one who didn't have a phone.

The old man was delicate, small boned, and shorter than her five foot four inches. He acted as if he knew something she didn't, which under the circumstances, he probably did. He nudged his large, round, silver-rimmed spectacles a little higher on his nose and blinked, giving himself the look of a wise owl. It wouldn't have surprised her if he'd pursed his skinny old man lips and said, "Who."

Instead, he squared his narrow shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. "Ms. Field, Joshua Lansing has no phone. He never has. He also has no electricity, and no running water, unless he's put it in himself."

Morgan tossed her hands in the air. "Great, I'm going to visit a throwback to the eighteenth century. Is there at least a road to his ... uh, house? Tell me, he does live in a house at least, right?" She cocked her head, and for a moment, wondered what she'd gotten herself into.

Six months ago, when she'd agreed to be long-time friend Frank Lansing's executor, she had no idea that he was ill, or that he was going to die in a matter of weeks. A tumor, the doctors had told her--a tumor that had appeared suddenly and grown rampantly, giving them no time to find a treatment that would do any good. Frank died peacefully, thank heaven, but he'd left her holding the proverbial bag. He also had money, bags of it. And, up until two days ago, she'd thought he was alone in the world. All she'd have to do was pay off his debts and take care of where he wanted the remainder of his assets to go. He never told her he had a son, or that he planned to leave it all to him.

"Yes, Joshua lives in a house, and there's a road that goes to it, or very close to it," answered the annoyingly civil clerk. "He doesn't have a car, though, so the last mile or so you'll have to walk down a path he's made to the house." He smiled at her then, and she wanted to slap him. Walk--in these shoes--through the bush?

Morgan had dressed for business, not a hike in the woods. The light chocolate colored skirt and matching jacket hugged her curves beautifully, the bright orange tank top showed off both her lightly tanned flesh as well as a hint of cleavage. Her shoes, although practical for office wear, with a heel that was just over two inches high, would be ankle breakers if she had to go tramping though the forest--which was exactly what it looked like she'd be doing.

Her quick visit to tactfully dish out the bad news was rapidly turning into a major event in her life. She took a couple of deep breaths to calm herself. "Okay," she said in as even a voice as she could manage. After all, it wasn't the clerk's fault that Joshua lived like a pioneer. Under other circumstances, she might have actually enjoyed a walk in the forest. Tossing her long, nearly white hair over her shoulder, she said, "I'm sorry for being so snarky. I just wasn't expecting this." She tried on a smile and found that it felt good. The elderly man returned it.

"No problem, little lady," he said, coming around the counter. Taking her by the arm, he guided her to the large window at the front of the shop and peered up the street. "See that billboard just after the Lazy Diner?" He glanced at her, and she nodded. "Well, keep going up that road until you come to a huge boulder on the left. It's got graffiti from the kids, you can't miss it." He stood aside to let her see where he was pointing; when she again nodded, he went on. "Keep going for about another hundred feet or so. On the same side as the big rock, you'll see a sign with a picture of a wolf on it, that'll be Joshua's place."

He took her by the arm again and guided her slowly towards the door. He was surprisingly strong for an old fellow, so when he opened the door and ushered her out into the fading sunlight, she let herself be led. "There's a place you can park your car where it won't be seen. We might be in the back country, but kids being kids, sometimes get into trouble if the temptation's is starin' them in the face." He walked her right to her car, even opened the door for her--the perfect gentleman. She settled into the silver-gray Mustang's comfort and dug the key out of her purse.

"Thanks for your help," she said, as she started the engine. The purr of the motor turned into a rumble of power when she revved it up. "Is there some kind of hotel or motel in town?"

"Yep, we have a motel." He nodded in the opposite direction from the one she'd be traveling in and said, "It's small, only four units, but it's clean and won't break your wallet. Sleeping Pines Motel, it's right on the highway, you can't miss it."

Pulling her door closed, she rolled down the window and leaned out. "Thanks again. You've been a huge help."

She put the car in gear and pulled away. In the rearview mirror, she watched him wave, then turn and go back into his shop. It was the dinner hour, so she wasn't surprised that there were few people around as she left the tiny town of Huntsbury.

When she passed the boulder the old man had told her about, the pavement ended and she found herself driving on gravel. She slowed the Mustang, not wanting to stir up any more dust than necessary.

She spotted the sign just as the sun dropped behind the hills. A wolf, black and beautifully carved on what looked like the butt of an enormous Fir log, with the name Lansing painted across the lower edge. Morgan pulled into the overgrown drive, slowly easing the car ahead. It was like driving into a mottled green tunnel. The sunlight was fading fast and the shadows seemed to be reaching for her. About thirty feet into the driveway, the pathway widened out on one side. She pulled the Mustang into the little pullout that appeared to her right and rolled to a stop.

She sat watching the sky darken and her apprehension grew. She'd hoped to get to Joshua's place before dark, but it looked like that wasn't going to happen and wondered if perhaps she should return to town and get a room for the night. Coming out again in the morning might be a better plan.

"Come on, girl, just get moving." Pushing the door open, she grabbed the bag that held all the paperwork concerning Frank's death and climbed out. Locking the car door, she headed down the pathway.

Shoulder-high salmon berry bushes leaned towards the center of the trail. Long willowy grasses brushed her calves and the taller Maple trees with their large leaves hurried the path into darkness half an hour earlier than the open roadway she'd just left. An abundance of rotting leaves softened each footfall and swallowed her heels at every step.

Morgan tried to stay in the middle of the pathway as she walked. A mile, the old man had said. She shivered. Crickets chirped from somewhere to her left. The silence behind that soft chirp was deeper, more welcoming than she remembered, which eased her anxiety. Even the ominous shadows somehow seemed soft and warm.

The evening was warm, her jacket stifling. After only a couple of hundred feet, she slipped it off and draped it over her arm. Tiny biting insects buzzed around her, but for some reason didn't land or bite. The meandering twists and turns in the path were like a snake coiling its way around large rocks or the trunks of trees. She smelled Cedar, and stopped for a moment. Closing her eyes, she inhaled the tangy sweetness of it. Her heels sank into soft loam and stuck. She cursed when her foot slid free of its shoe. "Damn!" She hopped on one foot, but it was no use, she had to put it down to free her shoe. The soft ground was cool against her sole as she bent and pulled the offending shoe out of its trap.

To her left, something snarled.

Morgan froze. She wanted to scream, but her lungs were as frozen as the rest of her. Only her eyes moved. Frantically searching the dark underbrush, afraid she'd see what made the noise--more afraid that she wouldn't--that whatever it was, would simply attack.

Movement--the soft sound of leaves or branches being moved aside grew louder--closer. Breathing--raspy, harsh, came from close by. She inhaled, but not to scream, instead to flee.

Shoe in one hand, her bag and jacket clasped firmly in the other; she raced flat out down the path. Branches tore at her shoulders and arms but didn't slow her. The long grass fought to trip her, grabbing at her legs, her ankles. Beside her just out of sight, she heard heavy breathing and branches breaking as something paced her. Adrenaline surged through her. Desperately, she increased her speed. Finally, when she was sure her heart was going to burst, she saw light through the trees ahead.

With newfound strength, she ran towards it. Coming around a bend, she spotted a cabin. In the blink of an eye, she identified the beauty of a fair-sized cabin, nestled in amongst the evergreens. A window to the right of the door spilled light onto the lush grass, beckoned her. Joshua's, it had to be. She skidded to a stop at the door, and immediately banged her forgotten shoe against the rough wood.

Nothing happened, no answer, no noise from inside, nothing. Morgan's anxiety grew. What if Joshua wasn't home? What if whatever had snarled and paced her attacked?

She looked over her shoulder seeking the comfort of the moon. She saw it, just peeking from behind a tall Cedar. Its presence eased her and she took a deep, shuddering breath. She dropped her shoe and pounded on the door with her fist.

Still nothing. She turned, surveying the brush near the cabin and peered into the darker shadows beneath the trees. The night was silent again. She opened her mouth and cocked her head, listening for the animal that had followed her. She was alone as far as she could tell. Sniffing, she thought she smelled feline but couldn't be sure.

"Can I help you?"

Spinning, Morgan dropped her bag and jacket, lashing out with a fist. She swung instinctively at the voice.

Her heart raced.

Adrenaline surged.

As she struck out, her mind registered a male voice, deep and soft, at a height some foot above her head. Everything happened in slow motion. A large man, tall and incredibly muscular, stood not five feet away. He had a white towel wrapped around his lean hips that was barely long enough to be decent and threatened to fall off if he moved the wrong way or too fast. Another draped over his shoulder. Longish, dark hair clung to his skull in thick waves and curls that shone as if wet.

A square jaw gave him a stern look, but his full lips and the short blunt-tipped nose softened it. He had beautifully defined cheekbones and a high forehead that was half covered by his hair. He needed a shave--that just added to his appeal.

He took a step back holding his hands up, his palms facing her, protecting himself from her sudden outburst. Eyes, the color of honey, regarded her. "Whoa! Sorry I startled you. This is my place, honest."

Morgan felt herself flush with embarrassment. If he'd been a step or two closer, she'd have hit him squarely in the jaw.

"Joshua?" she asked tentatively, lowering her hand. "Joshua Lansing?"

"Yes. But who are you? And, what are you doing out here at this time of night?" He dropped his hands and walked around her to the door. "Can we take this inside? These no-see'ums are going to eat me alive if I stand around out here much longer." Pushing the door open, he stood aside. With an obvious flair for the melodramatic, he bowed low and made a sweeping gesture with his free hand, indicating she should enter.