Hood River Swan
©2007, Kier Salmon
This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Kier Salmon in 2007, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
March 1999, CY 2
Hood River, Oregon.
Sleet feather-stroked Tina’s face with dots of sparkling cold as she walked up the dark, wet street to her cafeteria. She paused outside, in spite of the cold. In the post-dawn gloom of a late winter morning the bright murals she had been working on a year ago were barely visible. She had morphed the “Pink Floyd” bomber planes that her mother had painted almost two decades before to her beloved trumpeter swans. Their mournful hoots and honks had followed her in this morning, but she hadn’t seen them in the clouded dawn sky.
The rifles with the flowers dangling out of their barrels had been changing to branches of apple and plum blossom à la Van Gogh when the Change hit. After that she’d had no time to change the protest crowds or the peace symbols.
Tina sniffed; the cold weather made her nose drip, but five days on the run had her weepy, as well. I want my life back, she thought angrily. I want my world back! I hate this world. She shivered. Hard as the past year had been, the last five days had driven home her helpless vulnerability without law and order just a phone call away.
“Tina!” She jumped and throttled a scream as a hand touched her shoulder. Concha’s copper face and wide smile reassured her. “Madre!” exclaimed the Hispanic girl. “What is the matter, chica?”
Tina swallowed her heart. “What are you doing here?” she countered.
“Papá brought a steer in to slaughter this morning. Mamá has agreed to let me stay and work with you.”
Tina gasped and then groaned, her happiness quenched by the last five days of fear. She unlocked the old Café Dépêche door and motioned Concha in.
Shortly after the change she had taken over the abandoned shops on either side, to the end of the block. She’d removed inner walls and the café had morphed into a cafeteria. Cooking was too energy intensive to do in homes anymore and she fed most of the people still living in Hood River.
“Locked?” asked her friend. “What, were you out for an early morning walk?” She waved at the piles of dirty snow, the dark dawn, and the hissing sleet.
“You’ve been at your aunt’s farm for two weeks. Taggert tried to snatch me last Friday.”
“Snatch? He what!?”
Tina lit the kerosene lamp with hands that shook. “Started to pull me out the door, hand over my mouth when Olivares and Mason walked by and he pretended it was just a joke. It’s too easy to break in here; I’ve been hiding every night. Camping out in abandoned houses, up in their crawl spaces or attics, skulking, making sure he can’t find me… I’m so tired! It’s hard to sleep breathing dust and mouse turds and listening for rats, two and four footed and shivering in a sleeping bag.”
Concha gaped at her as she stripped off her gloves, quilted coat and knitted cap and scarf. “Let’s get the bread going and you explain to me why Sheriff Gresham isn’t putting Taggert under arrest!”
Tina locked the door. “Right. The bread. It should be well risen.” The old café with it’s banked cook fires felt warm to her chilled self. She hung their coats, sparkling with sleet on the swan coat rack. Stuffed swans ringed the old café’s walls. She tied a bandana over her braided hair and passed one to Concha.
Concha began slicing the large lump of dough while Tina stirred up the banked fire in the ovens. They worked in silence until the loaves were formed and rising for the last time.
Tina let down the platform that kept the supplies out of the way. She sorted through them for the troop’s mid-day meal.
“Sheriff Gresham, yes, well, Taggert is his deputy, no? He depends on him and there’s nobody else he trusts like Taggert, no? So I tell him what…? Just like I told him about Winona and Jenny and Sally, and he tells me he needs proof, just like before.
“And the thing is, Concha, you shouldn’t get in his way. He’s dangerous.”
“Porqué?” demanded Concha. “He backed off for Olivares and Mason; he’ll back off if I’m here!”
“Concha, I know I am the only one who thinks he had anything to do with Jenny and Winona’s disappearing… except for Malcolm… and Malcolm turned up dead in the river the day after they vanished and everybody said it was suicide.”
“Well, a lot of people have suicided! I didn’t understand then why you didn’t believe it. I don’t understand, now.”
“Winona worked here. I saw Taggert pushing her — harassing her. It was awful and she was really scared. She and Jenny made plans to flee to Portland.”
“And they went…” Concha looked at her.
“I don’t think so. All their clothes and things were still in the room Winona had next door. Malcolm told me he was going to take them there, and they never came to pick him up. He went to find Taggert and beat the truth out of him. Malcolm was found drowned the next day. Sheriff Gresham just laughed when I told him and called it a good story.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Concha. “I was still with Aunt Julia last September. You never said.”
Tina snorted. “When the Sheriff told me I should be careful about who I accused? And told me it was cute how interested Taggert was in Sally! Sally is gone, too.”
Concha drew hot water from the boilers, a thoughtful frown on her face. “Winona and Jenny went away in early September and Sally in late January. You blame Taggert, and now he’s coming for you. And certainly tried something very physical. Huh.”
Tina set up several large pots and began a stew of dried peas, beans and jerky that didn’t quite smell off. She looked at the old cuckoo clock on the wall and sighed. “Yes. Look, I’m filthy. I’ve been sleeping in awful places. Hold the fort? I’ll go upstairs and wash and dress in really truly clean clothes on a really truly clean body.”
Tina pumped the “hot” water from the reservoir behind the stove up to the tank in the bathroom. “If Taggert comes alone, don’t open. Go upstairs to the house and out into the back alley. Hopefully he’ll come with Sheriff Gresham. He behaves around him.”
“This feels like the plot of a B class spy movie,” observed her friend, dubiously.
Tina snorted. “No more movies. This is for real.” She finished the pumping and went upstairs up to the house perched above and behind the shop. The stairs opened out into the living room of the house she and her mother had lived in.
The bedrooms were above the kitchen and living room. Her bedroom had been searched. The word, “tossed,” came to her mind. Tidying it was beyond her; she lit one of the oil lamps, thankful it hadn’t been knocked over, soaking her clothes and bed with lamp oil. Fire was the kind of hazard that left people dead or homeless these days.
Thank goodness Concha is here! I feel so much better with an ally, and that’s plain stupid. Concha is in danger now, too! She pushed the rummaged boxes of yarn and canvas and art supplies to one side… It wasn’t supposed to be like this! I was going to graduate high school in four more months, make Mom close the Café and turn it into a cute swan-themed shop that sold painting supplies and my paintings and crewel work! Crying really didn’t help. She cried anyway; five days of fatigue, watchfulness, and running had left her drained. Then she pressed a cold washcloth over her swollen eyelids. She bathed, washed her soft brown hair and put on clean clothes. The water was lukewarm, but she’d gotten used to that. She soaked the dirty, smelly sleeping bag, wrung it out and took it downstairs to dry by the oven, grateful the sewers still worked.
Concha had the tables clean, the floor swept and the bread ready to go into the huge oven. The stew still smelt a little off and they dumped handfuls of chile serrano peppers into it.
❀ ❁ ❀
People came for their bread and pots of stew and the refried beans Concha made. It was a day like any day over the past year. The sleet gave way to wind tossed clouds. Sporadic shafts of sunshine gleamed on the wet street and melting snow mounds. At midmorning Sheriff Phil Gresham and Deputy Taggert Ekhart came for the troop food. She handed over sacks of fresh bread, meat, cheese and sealed pots of stew to the troopers.
Concha continued to serve the other people coming in as Tina moved over to speak with Sheriff Gresham.
She gave him his bill and a three month detailed statement she’d made up the night before. “Sheriff Gresham, Deputy Ekhart,” she said formally. “The patrol is behind schedule on their contracted share of calories.”
Gresham took the green-bar papers and read them carefully. Taggert pulled five crumpled receipts out of his pocket. “Here you are; you didn’t put these on the account.”
Tina froze. There is no law, you know this… finagle…
“I don’t understand, Deputy,” she said. “You haven’t checked my numbers yet.”
She felt Taggert’s banked anger radiate like an oven. Sheriff Gresham said, “Yup, looks like we’re behind, quite a bit. What are those, Tag?”
Tina held her breath. Taggert clenched the papers in his fist as Gresham reached; reluctantly, he let go. Gresham mumbled a bit as he read the receipts. “Olive oil — two drums, three propane tanks, 2 pallets rice… Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm… Is that your signature, Tina? It doesn’t look right.”
Tina craned over as he showed her the receipts and shook her head. “Not my signature, and not my receipts. I always give a proper yellow slip carbon back. These are just lists on ordinary ruled paper. Also, my ‘t’ slants the other way and my last name is spelled B-l-e-u-e-t; the second ‘e’ is missing.
“I haven’t received anything like that list of goods. It’s easy to check, just go down to the basement and read the log book of what I’ve received and check it against the stuff on the shelves.”
“Where’d you get these?” Sheriff Gresham asked his deputy.
Taggert shrugged. “Jimmy had them. Found them in his back-pack. He’s dead; found the body yesterday, on the branch to Odell. I didn’t want a panic to start, so I didn’t mention it; he’s got no people, anyway. Looked like he fell and broke his fool neck — not bandits or anything. I kind’a pushed the body down the ravine.”
Tina heard the lie in his voice. She kept a poker face when she saw that Sheriff Gresham didn’t hear it.
“Jimmy? Why would Jimmy have forged receipts?”
“He was supposed to deliver the stuff to her Friday. He said he had.”
Gresham fanned the forged receipts. Tina frowned. They seemed to cover enough supplies for the whole 20-man troop to deliver. “Ah,” said Gresham, unenlightened. “Well, that’s a pain. We’ve lost a lot of goods, then. It certainly didn’t get here and Miss Bleuet cannot feed us without supplies or make up our losses.
“We need to talk about this later, Taggert.
“What do you really need, right now?” he asked, turning to Tina.
She clamped down on her frustration at his weakness and focused on the problem at hand. “Oil and salt, and meat. It’s late winter, coming up early spring; none of the game has any fat. Most of my stores of lard, tallow, chicken fat and goose grease are gone. We’re all starting to crave rich fat stuff. We’ll be plowing and planting and pruning soon and it will make all of us ravenous. I also need to process as much meat as possible, all the jerky I made last year is almost gone.”
“Oil and salt don’t wander the lower slopes,” sneered Taggert.
“I know. Maybe we could trade with Portland. I heard they have salt works at Cannon Beach.”
Taggert blew a raspberry. “Them! Those stupid wussies, all dressed up, playing games when the world’s gone to hell… why bother with them? Precious little help they’ve been to us!”
Tina sighed. She couldn’t get into Portland by herself, it was a hard two day slog on foot or one on a bicycle, through dangerous un-patrolled territory. Are there any shops left? WinCo or WalGreens? News from west of the gorge was scarce.
Sheriff Gresham turned away. “Well, time to get the show on the road. You’ve got Tucker, Portland and Barrett roads to patrol, Tag. I’ll take I-84, west. Tilotson and Donatello mentioned that bandits are chipping away at the sheep and Mansberger lost a milk cow yesterday.”
“Hey! I’m sweet-talking the lady! Give me a minute.”
How he can think a raspberry is sweet talking! wondered Tina. She took a deep breath. “Well, don’t! I don’t like it, Deputy Ekhart. You’re my Mom’s age and it bothers me.”
“Your Mom isn’t any age at all, anymore, and you could do a lot worse for a sweetheart, Tiny!”
Tina scowled at the nickname and thought furiously. Her mother, Sheriff Jarvis and Mayor Bradely had left for Portland with a group last April. They’d planned on going to Salem also, to talk with Governor Kitzhaber. They had vanished. Taggert said he’d gone in June to ask the Portland Protective Association and they hadn’t been seen; he hadn’t said they were dead…
Sheriff Gresham shook Taggert’s shoulder, “There’s bandits to hunt, Taggert! Flirt on your off hours!”
Tina tensed. Taggert is getting more aggressive. The troopers standing outside turned restlessly, watching through the little windows.
The ting-ting of a bicycle bell broke the confrontation. Young Mike Stein came racing up the street and skidded in among the patrol. Hands steadied him as the four ran out the cafeteria door. “They’re people coming up 84 west!” the watch boy blurted out. “They’ve got that flag from Portland; you know, the Red Eye!”
Gresham’s “That’s the Lidless Eye, you doofus,” almost completely obliterated Taggert’s muttered, “They’re early, damn it! I’m not ready!” Tina snatched coat and cap, pretending she hadn’t heard. She and Concha followed the patrol on their bikes to the 2nd street highway intersection.
Tina pushed her way through the crowd to the railing. Overhead a sonorous honking made her to look up. Swans! My Trumpeter swans! I didn’t get to see them last year, we were so busy right after the change! They’re a little early, I’ve been hearing them at dawn. Swans going north and… she looked down — knights? coming east?
What are they playing at in those costumes? That’s cap-a-piéd armor! Four sets of them!
Play? Or, protection… armor is better than those leather vests or bullet proof jackets the troops use, but we don’t know how to make it! The armored men were on horses, but most of the troop were on bicycles and wearing chain mail shirts, in ordered ranks. Tina counted. That’s just over two hundred men!
The lead knight’s horse paced gravely up the off ramp and halted just in front of the sheriff. The horse snorted into Gresham’s face as he gazed six feet up into the faceless iron mask of the helm.
“Greetings! I’m Sir Conrad Renfrew from the Portland Protective Association. Sorry to drop in on you like this. We’re having trouble with bandits hitting our eastern farms. We’re going to try to pinch them between Clackamas County and Hood River and eliminate them altogether.
“If you’ll host us, we’ll gladly pay. I’m sure our bandit hunting will help you, too.”
“Ahhh, yeah, yeah, yeah… that sounds good!” Gresham, caught flatfooted, stuttered a bit and came to a helpless stop.
The faceless knight waited a courteous minute and then said, “We could use accommodations; maybe a hotel? And some help feeding the men.”
Taggert stepped in to the breach. “There’s the Inn By The River over on Marina, by the bridge. Gresham has the keys! And I’m sure little Valentine will have no trouble adding you to her calorie counters!” He brayed out a laugh. “And sucking your blood out with it!”
Tina had been appreciating the intimidation factor of the closed helm. Now she spluttered indignantly. “Thanks for volunteering me! You could have asked!” she snapped at Taggert.
“Well, Tiny, honey, just come on to my house and serve me, and only me! Then you wouldn’t have to work so hard, and you could beg me for food with your little puppy dog eyes!”
Tina gasped. Taggert had never pushed her so hard or so publicly. Concha grabbed her arm, little indignant snorts escaping her. Tina patted her hand. Concha’s Mexican politeness was shot through with the fiery tempers of her indian and spanish genes. Be still, my friend, be still. Now is not the time! she thought.
Conrad Renfrew took off his helm and Tina heard Taggert and Gresham gasp. The scars marring the square-jawed face were shocking. She met his pale eyes defiantly, refusing to show her emotions.
“Mistress… Valentine?” he asked.
She wrinkled her brow for an instant… “Valentine Lucinda Bleuet… Sir Renfrew?” she questioned in her turn.
“Sir Conrad, Mistress Bleuet. Do I understand you have experience in providing food for large numbers of people?”
“Ahhhh, yes. My mother and I ran a café before the Change. I’ve been running a bakery/cafeteria since.”
“And boy! Did she take advantage of the Change! Charged us calories from the very first day!” Taggert’s sour comment made her smile bitterly. Taggert had tried to get her mother, Martine, to feed him in exchange for protection that first day. Not on my watch!
Conrad nodded thoughtfully and met her eyes. Tina took heart at the understanding look as he shared her bitter humor.
“Well,” said the knight to Gresham, “we have a lot to discuss. Don’t let me keep your patrol here. My men will behave or face serious consequences. Where can we sit?”
“The cafeteria will do,” Taggert said.
Sheriff Gresham suddenly shook himself. “Yes, Tina’s cafeteria will do fine. Deputy Ekhart, I suggest you get the men on the roads, and delegate one of the sub-deputies to take out my column.
“Mike, lead these guys off to the Inn, ok?”
“Sir!” The boy saluted and moved over to one of the knights.
Tina bit her tongue. Taggert’s start of anger showed a clear change in his attitude. She wondered again at the half-heard mutter about the knights arriving too early.
Sir Conrad caught her eye, a twinkle lurking in his. She smiled reluctantly, and left as Conrad spoke with his knights. The troop biked up the ramp to the left, following Mike Stein to the Inn By The River.
Renfrew, five men and the boy with the banner followed Taggert and Gresham up the street. Tina could hear the angry tones of Taggert and Gresham’s argument, but not the words.
“Concha, can you hurry and start water for tea? I think all we’ve got is chamomile and mints. Make a mixture.” Concha shot off pumping the pedals. Tina caught up with the others at her cafeteria.
Renfrew dismounted and stripped off his armor. The mounted knights stood guard. Helped by the boy he filled several large canvas bags with his helm, gauntlets, vambraces and hardware Tina had no name for. He was not a tall man and very broad. She could see hideous, worm-like scars ride up his arms and down his chest.
He studied the gaily painted facade. “Café Dépêche, a relaxing place to eat and hang out.” Conrad read out. “Cafe Hurry-up, a relaxing…! Is that deliberate?”
He got the joke! “Mom thought it sounded cool. Even though she and Dad had French names, they didn’t know any French at all. So, no, not deliberate.”
“When did you get the joke?”
“Sophomore French. I laughed so hard my teacher nearly kicked me out of class.”
Conrad smiled, the scars near his mouth and on his cheek writhing.
“It’s not really hot in there,” said Tina, looking at the mail shirt. “It just feels like it because it’s so cold outside.”
“It’ll be a welcome change,” said Conrad, as the boy tied the canvas bags to the loops on the horse’s… barding! thought Tina, suddenly remembering the word. With the boy’s help he wriggled into the mail shirt and belted it. He hung his sword on the belt. “Ah! Much more comfortable, but not as much protection.” Conrad bowed courteously and opened the door. Inside they sat with Gresham and Taggert. Concha brought mugs and a pot of tea.
“Now… business. We, the PPA, are suffering from bandits hitting our outlying farms and ranches from Troutdale towards Hood River and south to Sandy and Estacada. We have to secure our eastern, your western front. I’ve got enough men for patrols and to set up strong points here in the Hood River Valley. Those hills and Mt. Hood between us are prime bandit hideouts. We’ll concentrate our efforts on the isolated farmsteads and orchards. They’re the most likely to be hit.
“Do you have population maps?”
Tina pointed; by the register a very large map of the Hood River valley from White Salmon down to the Tygh Valley, westward to Bonneville and east to the Dalles covered the wall. Red, green and black drawing pins were scattered on it and handwritten lists were pinned up on either side. She’d need to add Jimmy’s black pin.
“Black for dead, red for hit and green for OK?”
Taggert brayed, “She just makes it up from gossip. It’s hardly accurate.”
Conrad nodded. “Accurate information; proper intelligence is essential. Show me your accurate maps.”
Taggert shoved his chair back, fist clenching, as Sheriff Gresham said, “That’s the best we’ve got. When I became sheriff, Tina’s maps were more current than the ones Sheriff Withney had. His were pre-change and he died in April.”
“Defending the White Salmon bridge from the Seattle hordes.”
“No, sorry. How did you become sheriff?”
“Well,” Gresham sounded puzzled. “After Jarvis disappeared going to Portland in late April there wasn’t anybody else in the line of command.”
Taggert left with two of Renfrew’s chain-mailed men added to his troop. Gresham went to find the keys for the hotel and Tina walked Conrad and his reduced retinue down to the Inn.
“Why the knight stuff?”
“Well, it works, you know. Without guns it takes more work and it’s harder to keep the peace.”
Sir Conrad shrugged. “People have to change, and accept really different ways of social interaction. It helps to give them new names and words and definitions. It makes acceptance easier.”
Tina looked dubiously at him… “But then you are a knight, you can do what you want, but the others are vassals… slaves.”
“No!” Sir Conrad looked upset. “Serfs, some of them, but not slaves. And I can’t do ‘what I want,’ I have to do what is needed to protect the ones who plant and spin… Or there is nothing for me, either. It’s stupid to think like that.”
Tina heard some reservation in his voice and decided to drop the small talk. Gresham caught up with them in the hotel parking lot where the men waited quietly, standing in ranks.
“Here, Jarvis and Bradely kept the keys that people gave them. I have keys for all the hotels.”
Conrad’s gargoyle grin made Sheriff Gresham gulp. Tina hid her smile as he retreated, blabbing about “supervising the men,” and “accurate intelligence.”
“Not that he’d know a fact if it bit him in the butt,” said Renfrew, caustically as he opened the hotel office and his sergeants sorted out keys and room assignments, using the hotel’s register.
The men left their bikes in neat rows, covered with tarps against the threatening sky. The sergeants distributed keys and orders. The men grabbed their kits and dispersed to their rooms.
“Mistress Bleuet, could I have a word?”
He’s not as old as Taggert, but he’s more… lived in. decided Tina, following him up to the wedding suite. The boy, Buzz, was unpacking with two men.
“Why here?” asked Tina. “I expected you to take over the Gorge Hotel; it’s larger and more luxurious.”
“And perched on a 30 foot cliff over a river… fatal in a fight. I prefer more options.
“These two men are my sutlers. They’ll be helping you as well as looking after me. Owens, Gregorio.” The two men looked up. “Men, Mistress Bleuet is our most valuable contact in Hood River. You are to give her your full support.”
Tina looked at Conrad in surprise. There was steel in his voice and reluctance on Owens’ face. Gregorio nodded and said, “Sí, patrón.”
“Buzz will be your liaison with me at any time. Got that, Buzz?”
“Yes, my Lord,” said the boy.
“Good, then you can all take a hike and find other things to do, like checking the hotel and bikes. Gregorio, Owens, you’ll attend Mistress Bleuet assisting as she directs. I want more for supper than two day old bread and jerky.”
Tina shook her head at Renfrew. “You’re pretty autocratic, aren’t you?”
He snorted. “I’m a Knight Associate of the Portland Protective Association. That makes me these men’s Lord High Mucky Muck.”
“I understand; I’m not sure I like the implications.”
“Later. Right now, would you explain your calorie system to me? That Taggert fellow mentioned it.”
“I really need my books. It’s complicated.”
“Try me. I was an accountant until the lights went out… then I tracked people’s lives in terms of minimum caloric requirements. I’ve been doing this a while.” He reached for a briefcase and pulled out a handful of green accounting pads.
Tina took them and filled out some columns and rows… “See, it’s not just that a man will eat 3000 calories of food in a day when doing heavy labor. It’s also the calories that it takes to produce and cook that food. So a meal of 1500 calories, lunch, for instance, includes…”
Tina had been making up spreadsheets and calculating operating costs for nearly seven years; for four of them with the expert advice of a good accountant. This guy really understands what I am saying and diagraming. Why certain foods are more costly than others, even though they render less calories per weight.
“So, that’s how… very neat. How long did it take you to come up with it?”
“Well, I had most of the pieces ready. I was doing a project for my senior year; it was supposed to count towards math and accounting and science credits at the Community College.
“I lost all the information on my computer when the Change hit, but I had most of the stuff on paper. My teachers always graded hard copy.”
“So you were preparing to follow in your mother’s footsteps?”
“Heck, no!” she replied inelegantly. “I hated the hard work. I love cooking, for me! I hate numbers… I’m good at them, but only because I had good teachers and a roof to keep right over my head. Mom drank. I had to find ways to keep the money from her and make sure the tax man got his share, especially after he threatened an audit.
“I,” with dignity, “am an artist. I was going to have a lovely little shop called The Hood River Swan that sold painting supplies, my paintings, and my tapestries and needlework and needlework supplies, and pretties and frills and furbelows…” Aghast at threatened tears she turned hurriedly to the window… “Darn! Look at the time, I’ve got to go get supper going!”
Renfrew looked out the window and sighed… “I do have a good watch and some nice clocks, but I miss electronics.
“Take Owens and Gregorio with you and put them to work. They’ll bring dinner here. I’ll send them down at dawn tomorrow to you and the men will breakfast at the cafeteria. We’ll use that nice banquet facility here for the men’s supper; that can be cold stuff.
“Those two will give you the wheat, corn, butter and eggs and whatnot we brought. Start us an account; I’ll check your figures once or twice a week to make sure we’re on the same page.”
Going out the door, Tina paused… “Butter’s good, but I need vegetable oil and salt most of all.”
“I’ll see to it that you get it.”
❀ ❁ ❀
Tina went back to her cafeteria with Gregorio and Owens. They worked hard; one professionally and the other resentfully. Concha joked with Gregorio in Spanish and he teased them both back.
Arriving she found Taggert had sent two boar, a sow and three deer.
“Wow, that was quick,” she said as she entered the estimated calories on the sheets.
“Sheriff came by to make sure he’d done that. I guess they had words. He wasn’t looking happy.”
“Oh?” asked Tina, “And how happy did Deputy Ekhart look when he made the delivery?”
“He didn’t, one of the men made it,” said Concha.
Gregorio butchered them, bundled the hides, neatly salted, for processing in the tannery across the Hood River, ordered Owens to see to the grinding of organ meats, bone and gristle; it fed the remaining dogs in town. The livers and kidneys Tina rescued and added to the stew pot for the knight’s men. She, Gregorio and Concha spent an hour flensing the lard from the flesh and skins, arguing and laughing as they found the best position for left-handed Gregorio at the crowded counter.
What a relief, to have people with me, to laugh and joke, again.
Gregorio is good, but Owens is resentful. I’ll bet Owens hated things before the change, too. These Portland people seem to have come out on top, although those guys who came up highway 20 a few months ago told us it was a royal mess, emphasis on the royal. I wonder what it’s like to live there? OK if you’re a noble, but…
Gregorio ordered Owens to render the lard and deer fat after he swore at Tina. He resisted, but the older Gregorio stared him down. They left with the men’s dinner on hand carts just past dusk.
“I like that Gregorio, he’s a nice guy, and strong,” said Concha, swinging into the bicycle saddle. Tina nodded as she carefully sniffed at the yeast and water and honey mixture in the bottom of the great bowl. “It’s ready. Slow and steady, she goes now, Concha.”
“I remember.” The two women worked in silence setting up the second batch of dough; Tina sifting the flour into the 20 gallon bowl and Concha pedaling evenly so the mixers kept a constant movement as the bread dough thickened and worked. Finally Tina lifted it out and they kneaded it until the satiny feel told them it was ready. Tina covered it and banked the fire in the oven and sent Concha to stay with her Aunt Socorro, but refused to go herself.
“I don’t care if you think we’ll be safe… You are going to be as safe as I can make you. Taggert is out in Odell, and I have accounting to do. But, if he wanted to take me from your Aunt Socorro’s, she and you might end up as dead as Malcolm did. And I know you don’t believe it, but I do.”
Fifteen minutes later Taggert walked in, the draft nearly snuffing her lamp. “Well, Tina the talented, how did your day go? Stiff the good knight associate for hands as well as calories? Bat your puppy eyes at him?”
Tina froze. It was the same tone he had used that morning, the one she’d heard him use on Sally and Winona. Fear made her voice stilted. “Mr. Ekhart, it’s been a long day, and I’m still not done. I’m glad Sir Conrad gave me two men; with Concha, it’s just enough. Since Sally left, I haven’t had any help. So, if you don’t mind initialing for the pigs and deer, I’ll be going home and working late over the books.”
She held her breath, but Taggert scowled, grabbed the receipts and initialed them.
“That better wipe out a lot of our ‘debt!’” he snarled and stomped out. Tina locked up, scolding herself for not doing it earlier. She checked the three cauldrons of pork’s head stewing, the slow cooking oats in the other two and banked the fires. The men of the PPA wanted breakfast and lunch and dinner. Then she sat back down to the sheaf of papers, ledgers, and filing. There were bills to make up, too.
Much later she walked through three former shops to the corner and climbed the stairs. Picking up her duffle and sleeping bag she peeked out the side window. Taggert wasn’t in sight. She waited, feeling like a fox smelling a dog.
What did I hear…? she wondered. What did Taggert mean this morning… It’s like Taggert has a plan for Sir Conrad and other plans, too… And how did he know he was coming? She hesitated and peered into the deep gloom of a windy, cloudy night. The moon was playing cloud-tag and suddenly shafted Taggert behind an old dumpster near “her” front door. Just like a dog, watching a fox’s earth. Maybe he’s decided it’s time to make me disappear before he deals with Renfrew.
Ignoring her screaming panic, Tina ghosted down the stairs and let herself out the basement door of the shop at the far east end of the block. The ground sloped heavily and this basement was at street level. She walked east to the Hood River; an abandoned warehouse was her goal. I hope breaking my pattern will confuse Taggert.
She slept uneasily, chilled in her thin sleeping bag. In the deepest pre-dawn cold she finally sat up and brushed and braided her dusty hair. She gathered her gear and hiked into town. The sky was clear and the sun rising in all the glory of gold and silver as she passed the gray clapboard Inn on the River, now surrounded by an odd, but effective looking fence made out of rebar and barb-wire.
The Portland men were drilling in the yard and parking lot. The freezing cold didn’t seem to bother them. Gregorio and Owens were talking by the banquet room. Sir Conrad was drilling, too. He called a halt to walk over and greet Tina, halted by the sentries. “Mistress Valentine, are you out for a morning constitutional? It’s a tad early and a tad chilly.”
His visor was up and she could see the lurking twinkle in his ice blue eyes. Why do I want to trust this perfect stranger who knows more than he’s saying and isn’t coming clean with me? Tina wondered.
“No,” she said baldly. “I have hiding places to sleep. During the day there are people around and the stalker can’t get me. But at night I hide, a different earth each time.”
The knight sucked in a breath and seemed ready to say something, then shook his head. “I hope we can help return law and protection to your people. A little training might help your Sheriff and his deputy.”
“I doubt it,” said Tina, bitterly. “So many people have been lost this last year, but I’m sure that not all died from cold or hunger or loss of spirit. Three women I knew I am sure were kidnapped. But Sheriff Gresham wants proof before he’ll look into it. What proof can I find? I’m nervous because I think the same man is after me.” Or I could say, ‘I’m scared witless.’ She looked away, startled that she’d shared her fears.
His gauntleted hand gently tilted her head up. “So. I wondered yesterday. How long have you been afraid?”
Tina swallowed, the cold metal gently pressing her jaw. Conrad’s eyes were kind and concerned. “Since the Change?” she asked, her voice cracking. “It’s been worse since Sally went missing in January. Taggert says bandits got them. But, he never brought their bodies back.”
“Bandits? Which one of the black pins? From which farm?”
Tina shook her head and Renfrew dropped his hand. “Town pins. Winona and Jenny lived in town; they used to help me, just like Sally… and Sally was so afraid. She said she was going back to her family in Bonneville but she never turned up.” Tears threatened and Tina bit her lip. Why am I telling him this? He can’t help. He’s here on his own agenda. And I can too deal. To distract herself, she said, “We need to get the oatmeal that’s been cooking all night for your men.”
To her relief Sir Conrad let it go. “Gregorio, set up in Mistress Bleuet’s for the men. I’ll send them up in squads of fifty starting in 40 minutes. Find her a bike. This isn’t the place to be giving her a lift on the handlebars.”
The rest of the day vanished in a sea of work. There were ten times the troops to feed, and they still had to deliver the townsfolk’s food. Sir Conrad sent a town crier asking for chambermaids and cook’s helpers. Tina’s experienced cooks, Gregorio and Concha were joined by Rosalio, Wendy and Angela. Sullen Owens did the scrub-boy work. Angela’s mother, once the nightshift housekeeper at the Inn, recruited eleven matronly women for housekeeping.
Sir Conrad met the women at the cafeteria and Tina saw the twinkle in his eyes as he interviewed them. “Well done, Mrs. Riojas. Just what we need. Here are your keys. I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to do your job.”
Socorro Riojas marched her little troop out the door and Sir Conrad turned to Tina. “I can’t decide whether to laugh my socks off at the look of complete satisfaction on the lady’s face or the chagrin of my men. She’s sure she put one over on me.”
Tina laughed with him. “Did you want young and lovely girls?” she teased.
“Not me, but half my troops are single young men sure that all they have to do is look at a woman for her to begin a strip-tease. Unfortunately, enough of them will force the issue if given a chance. I’d rather not give them a chance to crash and burn. Mrs. Riojas is very wise. If my boys want to marry, all well and good, but we’re guests here and have a mission.”
Tina frowned. That’s it! When he lies I can feel it… something changes in the timber of his voice. Maybe it’s not lying but he’s hiding something and I can hear him do it.
“Mistress Bleuet? Where are you?”
Tina started and lied, herself. “Thinking of the bread. I need to make two batches… your men…” She turned and gasped. Owens was peddling away on the bicycle frame hooked up to the kneeding machine. “Oh, no! What are you doing?”
“Getting ahead with the work. Gregorio told me you’d be doing this next. I want to go back to the hotel sometime today!”
“But, but, but…” Tina rushed over to the stainless steel basin. “You just dumped the flour in! All the flour. I hadn’t added in the yeast! And you’re pedaling too hard and too fast. Bread is delicate and needs to be treated with respect!”
Owens blew up. He screamed explosive swear-words, spitting in her face; his shaking fists punched the air near her, punctuating his sentences. Tina stood aghast and everybody froze. The door banged open startling everyone and Taggert swaggered in.
“Getting your own again, little bichee?” he asked, putting an odd twist on the word. Tina turned, feeling like none of this could be happening. Owens screamed a long stream of obscenities. A fist shot over her shoulder, hitting him with a meaty thunk and he fell off the saddle. Tina screamed, “The bike! The bike! Don’t break the bike!” Angela, Gregorio, Concha and Rosalio rushed over to help him and check the bike.
Only Tina heard Sir Conrad confront Taggert, his solid stocky body at ease, his pale eyes deadly. “It’s biché, not bichee. Or just use plain English… and call her a bitch.
“You know, Taggert, your courting style leaves a lot to be desired. Even a heart throb like DiCaprio wouldn’t get very far with a technique like yours. I suggest you lay off Mistress Bleuet. Permanently.”
Taggert seemed to swell, looming over the shorter, younger man. “Guest,” spat Taggert. “You’re a guest and you can stop being a guest whenever I say!”
“I don’t think so,” said Sir Conrad mildly. “I think you are a deputy who failed his exams two days before the change. I think you folks don’t have an elected mayor, or an elected sheriff. Maybe a town meeting or county meeting is needed to hold elections. Or would you like to declare yourself overlord of Hood River, Taggert?”
“He promised me…” Taggert suddenly snapped his mouth shut and glared.
Renfrew bent closer to him, “All he said, Taggert, was that you could keep what you could hold. And I have my sources here on what you are actually holding!”
Taggert made a sudden move, hesitated, and slammed out of the cafeteria. Tina gasped and caught her breath. She felt dizzy and heard her voice remark, “Sources? Really? I knew he’d failed the tests, because Sheriff Jarvis told my mother.” Did I say that? Who is controlling my voice? What is wrong? Why do I feel so floaty? I’m trembling, but I don’t care. She staggered to the door. “And I was right,” she said, lowering her voice and looking Conrad Renfrew in the eye. “You know Taggert and he knows you and you each have a plan the other doesn’t know about and you aren’t telling anybody. Games! Little boy games, just like your dress up!
“It doesn’t matter that I know this, you know. There’s nobody to tell or anybody who’d believe me or do anything, anyway.” I wonder why I feel so… detached? Like this isn’t for real? “And I like you a lot better than Taggert. Maybe you’re all lies, in which case it doesn’t matter to the rabbit whether the wolf or the cur dog eats it.”
Tina walked out. The sky was a clear cold winter blue, with puffy clouds high up in the east. She stood aimlessly on the sidewalk, her mind blank, watching a bicycle weave down the street. Even as the door to the cafeteria opened she moved to grab the bike. “Julian, Julian, what’s wrong?”
“Muertos, they died, they died and I didn’t do anything, nada!”
Sir Conrad brushed past her and caught the boy up. Owens was propped against the door jamb of the cafeteria looking dazed and bruised.
“Owens, go get Sir Jordan, now!”
The man grabbed his bike and wobbled off as Sir Conrad carried Julian in. Tina pushed his bike into the rack and followed. “Here, bring him to my apartment,” she commanded, heading up the stairs and leading Sir Conrad to her bright little home. “Gregorio!” she hollered down the stairs, “Hot tea for this child and a cup of hot soup and some bread! Send it with one of his cousins!”
“Voy, señito, voy!” he yelled back. Sir Conrad put Julian down on the papasan chair, wrapping him in the afghans Tina gave him. Concha made Julian sip tea and then soup. His blanched face tightened and he greedily slurped the soup and dunked bread in it. With a shuddering sob he began to cry.
“Boy. Julian! You can cry after you tell me what happened. I’m a knight and I’m going to help.”
Tina and Concha took the bowl and mug and left when he waved them away.
“Concha, what does that word Gregorio calls me, mean?”
“Señito? It’s… ah… like boss, or mistress, or I respect you and like you… It’s sort’a slangy, but still respectful.”
Tina and Gregorio restarted the bread dough. When Owens returned with Sir Jordan, they made him watch and listen. Then Tina went to the map and removed eight green tipped pins and replaced them with black. The lone green pin left on the Donatello farm mocked her. She took down the list for that part of the county and carefully wrote next to each name, “Dead, Bandits, March 25, 1999.” Next to Julian’s she wrote, “Survived, bandits, March 25, 1999.”
When she turned, Sir Conrad was studying the map and chewing his lip. The scars writhed and Tina realized that she hadn’t even noticed them all day.
“I don’t like this pattern, Mistress.”
“What I don’t like is that Taggert gave me three pigs and three deer yesterday. So he hunted instead of patrolling this area. And eight people are horribly dead.”
“Ummm,” Sir Conrad turned to her. “Took a shock to break you out of your shock, I see.”
Tina shook her head, confused by the non-sequitur.
“You were in shock,” he explained. “You told me you had no more reason to trust me than Taggert. When…” He lifted her chin with a callused finger and wiped the tears from her cheekbone with one rough thumb. Her face tingled; he was very close, close enough she could feel his body heat. “When was the last time you told somebody to their face that you didn’t trust them?”
“Never,” blurted Tina. “How could I? Accuse somebody without proof? They could…” She couldn’t think of anything somebody could do.
“You’ve never trusted anybody to keep their temper with you?”
“Mom was a happy drunk, as long as I didn’t…” She looked into Sir Conrad’s pale eyes, confused. “How are you doing this? I never told anybody that.”
“It’s called trust, and for some reason you trust me. Mistress Bleuet, you’re partly right. I’m hiding things and I do know Taggert. He’s a bad man. I think he’s your bad man, too. If so, I’m going to keep him way too busy to bother you. As soon as I take care of this — proof — as your Sheriff Gresham calls it, I’ll explain. And probably take care of your problem permanently, but that’s an incidental, this time.”
Tina frowned, trying to work out what he’d just implied. She felt his rough thumb rub over her forehead. A strong desire to relax against his chest made her jerk back. “You frown too much, little Mistress.”
Reluctantly, Tina nodded. Sir Conrad stroked his thumb down her cheek and stood lost in thought, gazing at the map. He turned abruptly and walked outside to the waiting Sir Jordan.
❀ ❁ ❀
Tina went over to Gregorio and Owens. Owens looked up at her, his face swelling and bruising. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t ever do it again!”
Tina nodded, her frown returning. There was real fear in the man’s voice. “OK. I’ll leave it at that. Tomorrow we’ll teach you to make bread by hand. You need to feel the yeast in the dough first before you can mix it with a machine.
“Gregorio, I want the troops to have fresh hot bread for breakfast tomorrow, but I don’t want to get up at 3am to make it. Our fresh bread isn’t ready until noon.” Tina saw, but ignored the wince from Owens. “Let’s set up quick bread dry ingredients and make it first thing tomorrow, instead of oatmeal. You brought butter and that will taste good on the bread.
“Owens, this dough is ready. Any more and it will over-kneed and bake tough. Get down and feel it. You and Concha take it out and you will kneed it by hand a little and set it to rise.
“Gregorio, let’s make the quick bread mix…”
“Señito, of course, but what is quick bread?”
“Oh, un-yeasted bread, with baking powder…”
“Pan dulce!” exclaimed Gregorio, nodding as he followed her down the stairs.
In the basement she picked up a sack of flour and put it next to the stairs. “Did Sir Conrad make all the bruises on Owens’ face?”
“No, señito, Sir Conrad gave him the left side and ear… I get him on the right, because I am zurdo.” He waggled his left hand. “After Sir Conrad goes outside to you, Owens asks me to join him and run from Sir Conrad. So he has a right ear to match the left ear.
“You have a kind heart, little Mistress, but do not waste it on Owens. You don’t know! You people, you suffered and sweated, and made it through the bad times! But I, I lived near Salem-Keizer, and when the lights go out, also does…” Gregorio waved his hands around his head, “good thoughts go away from people,” he finally said. “People, they go mad. I hear that there are people keeping laws in Portland and my wife, my kids and I — we leave and walk up 99W to Portland. There they give me work. And my wife and kids also. We eat and we live. It is an odd thing they do, this knight thing, like the caciques of my homeland, but it has saved many lives. This Owens, he lived in Portland, but he is a man… ha! A boy! who cannot be at peace. Always he looks to make things easier for himself, but nothing is easier. All work is hard, now. Maybe Owens learns this lesson, but I don’t think so. It is the labor gangs if he cannot obey Sir Conrad. Do not pity him; he is a mad dog.”
Tina sighed. “No, not mad, angry, perhaps, but whipped dogs will bite, too.”
Gregorio sighed with her as he picked up the bags. Cooking and feeding 300, even with more help, was tiring and by the time they were done and Tina had sent everybody home and locked up it was well past dark.
Even though Renfrew thought Taggert too busy to bother her, she didn’t relax her care. Taggert had not returned to the cafeteria and Tina could not see him anywhere around as she ghosted through the alley where the little houses above the shops opened out. She regretted not taking Angela’s offer of a bed with her and Concha at her mother’s for the night, but she still worried about their safety. She walked east, upslope to the first house she’d hidden in. She saw no sign that she was being followed as she crept along the dark streets. Stars glowed overhead and the moon floated serenely, half way to the horizon. When she reached her target house she froze. The front door was open and a red billcap hung on the door knob; one of Taggert’s.
Heart in her throat, Tina hurried to the next. Two hours later she stood at the corner of Marin and 8th, tears threatening, again! Every one of her safe houses was open and Taggert had left a token on each one. Now what do I do? If I go back to the cafeteria… That’s what he is doing… treating me like a fox, driving me to my earth!
Setting her jaw stubbornly, Tina walked past the WalMart along Belmont to an isolated house she’d been eyeing. When she reached it there was no sign of Taggert. She worked her way into the basement through a window. There was an odd smell and something squished underfoot. Tina pulled out a votive candle and matches.
The light flared; the basement was loaded with loot. Tina gulped. Foodstuffs, some of it rotting; the squishy tomatoes were smeared all over her right shoe. Cans, a lot of cans, two boar, she sniffed, probably taken at the same time as the three Taggert gave her, which made this hoard of food Taggert’s or one of his men’s. After a long moments thought Tina decided that if this was a stash they had either already put stuff in it or taken stuff out or would do it another day, so it might be safe.
Sheltering the flame she went upstairs, wiping her shoe as best she could on the stair treads. The first bedroom was littered with more loot; furs and fine clothes, tossed on the bed, pooled on the floor. The nightstand and dresser were littered with jewelry and watches, coins and bills. Tina leaned closer to look at a severed finger on top of the pile. For a moment she thought it was an old Hallowe’en thing, but the smell and scabbed blood were real, and fresh. The ring was Julian’s Tía Lula’s fine diamond ring. A crunch underfoot made Tina look down; a pearl in a cage of worked gold, trailing a broken chain rolled away and she gasped and blew out the candle. Sally’s necklace! I have to tell… She paused. Tell who? Gresham? For all I know, he’s in it, too! Sir Conrad? Will he believe me? Or care? I think he cares. I want him to care…
Those pigs! Jarringly she remembered the pigs and venison Taggert had brought and the ones in the basement. Those were Adán Donatello’s prize pigs; that he was so proud of! Renfrew… will he care? I don’t know, I just don’t know. He talks of peace and protection! But I can’t stay here! Where, where? I’m so tired!
For a long moment she thought longingly of the Inn by the River, of Conrad’s solid presence, but his troops were there and she didn’t know anyone but the sutlers, and she didn’t know if Conrad was there or somewhere else. And do I want to give everything up to a stranger? Cast myself on his manly chest? Just like a stupid romance novel?
In the end only one place seemed to be safe to her; the old County Courthouse near her cafeteria. If Taggert was stockpiling stuff and chasing after her, she was going to have to go to a place he’d never think about, his own earth, so to speak. Forty minutes brisk walk later she slipped inside the city hall. She planned to hole up in the basement offices, but bolted into an office near the stairs. Taggert and Gresham were walking down the hall.
She held the door ajar, listening. “What are you doing?” she heard Gresham ask.
“Fuck you, Phil,” boomed Taggert, “Everybody is a stupid little pussy! You, too, Philly! I can do anything I want. And I want to take that man down, hard. His boss promised me the land I could hold and I’ve been holding all the way to Sandy and Boring.
“And then I’m going to take Tiny Tina for my little toy… just like the other girlies I took… Maybe I’ll just chain you up so you can see what I am doing!”
Tina gulped. What is Taggert doing? She heard a scuffle and Gresham made a gasping, moaning sound.
“Naw, I think I’ll just kill you now, stupid Philly boy!”
“You… won’t… get away with this…”
“Yes, I will.” said Taggert. “We got away with making you Sheriff and you were fired two days before the Change… And I flunked my deputy exam! But we scratched each other’s back and there you are!”
“Why not? Been doing it for years. But my count was one a year before the Change. I got me forty notches on my tally stick since last March. And six rapes, yessir!
“But they didn’t last, none of them. Whiney Winny lasted the most, almost a week. Silly Sally only lasted coupl’a days. I wonder how long Tiny Tina will go. But she’ll be happy to see what’s left of her little friends in my basement.”
“…evil…” Gresham’s voice was fading. Tina was shaken, and shaking. Her tears were held in check through sheer terror, but her nose was going to drip and she couldn’t breath. The doors to the outside creaked open and under the cover of a dragging noise she frantically opened drawers until she found tissues… her stomach gave up the fight and she vomited sharp bile into the wastebasket. Wiping her mouth with shaking hands she smelled the acrid odor just as she heard the doors close and Taggert say, “And good riddance to you, too, Mr. Gresham. I’m ready for the end game.”
Frantically Tina pulled the year old plastic bag out of the garbage can and twisted it shut. She pushed the window up and then hid in the closet. The room door slammed opened, covering the closet door next to it. The steady light of a kerosene lamp glowed through the edges of the door. Tina fought to stay still, very still and Taggert spoke, “So, who is spying??? Who are you?” The window slammed all the way up and Taggert’s voice floated in as he caroled out to the night, “Tina, Tina! Tiny Tina, com’er girl, here girl, here girl, com’on Tina!”
His coarse laugh as he pulled back into the room and slammed down the window nearly overset Tina. She heard the double doors boom again, and faintly, Taggert’s whistle as he walked down the block. She spent the night curled in a ball in the closet, dozing fitfully.
❀ ❁ ❀
When Tina hobbled out of the Town hall in the morning she stumbled over Gresham’s dead body, lying on the steps, stabbed in the stomach. Given the blood on the corridor floor, she had expected it, but it still shocked her. She walked the three blocks to her cafeteria, stiff as an old woman. Gregorio, Owens and the others were waiting for her. “Overslept?” asked Concha. “You should have come with me and Angela.”
Gregorio looked at her sharply and put out a hand. “Señito, what is it?”
Tina shook her head, nodded her head, and then shook as they crowded around her. Somebody took the keys from her and she was inside, sitting and sipping hot tea and looking into Gregorio’s eyes without knowing how. “It’s Gresham,” she said, feeling her stomach heave. “He’s dead. Taggert killed him last night. I spent the night hiding in the Courthouse, scared out of my wits.”
“Sir Conrad must know. I will go to tell him,” said Gregorio.
“Sir Conrad sent Julian to the Tamayo’s last night. He told us he was afraid the bandits would try to kill the boy since he saw everything.” Concha pinched her lips together. “And you were right, it was Taggert!”
Tina looked at Concha and Angela. “So, Renfrew knows, knew yesterday. And…”
“Si, I know.” Angela pulled the door shut. “The bandits aren’t bandits. They are part of our troops.”
“Put a wolf to herd the sheep,” said Wendy, sourly. “And we accepted him and gave him money and food.”
So, Conrad knew, but he expected Taggert to be somewhere else last night. Where?
Shock hit her then; the memories of the night, her terror, her fear growing over the last months, spilled over her control. Tina rubbed her face roughly on her sleeve and burst out, “I hate this! I hate this! I want my world back!”
She lurched up from the chair, desperate for the old world of warmth, sunshine, carefree… and stopped dead. Carefree? With Mama drinking like a fish? Having to do all the accounting and the constant fear of foreclosure? Working eight and ten hours a day and school, seven days a week to make the Café pay? I had different problems back then, but I wasn’t carefree! All I had was a plan to make it go my way once I graduated. She turned back. The others were watching her gravely. How many went mad and started like this? They’re waiting to see if I am going mad. She shook her head at them. “I hate this world, I hate the lawlessness, I hate the hard work, I hate not having cars and being tied down… I just hate it!”
Gregorio nodded. “But the people of Portland, they give us protection.”
Tina hesitated. “Yes, but… it’s at a cost. The cost of liberty, freedom.”
Gregorio’s laugh was sharp and sardonic. “For you, maybe. For us? The poor, the day laborers? What liberty and freedom? Only that to starve or sell our hands to somebody who wouldn’t pay us well in the first place. Everything has a cost. Are you willing to pay the price to not have protection?”
Tina chewed her lip, facing the reality of the knights and the re-created medieval kingdom 60 miles down the road. They started the quick bread as she searched for an answer. Gregorio left to tell Renfrew.
Work steadied her. Three pig loins stewed in a red chili sauce, and the rest waited to be processed into sausages.
Sir Conrad came with all his men for breakfast. Gregorio slid in next to him and signed a thumbs up at Tina. Ten Hood River troops were with them. “OK, men, and all of you Hood River men, chow down fast. We now know that Taggert and ten of the Hood River men have been working as bandits when they should have been protecting the people here. He doesn’t know we know and he’s setting up an ambush for us. I’ve got my sources. We’re going to have to make tracks to trap the trapper. We’ll catching these bandits in their own ambush tomorrow morning.
“We’ll be going up Tucker Road, past Dee, towards Parkdale. It’s fifteen miles. Loaded down as we’ll be, it’ll take us anywhere from three to five hours to get there. We’ll camp and I’ll give you your orders for mouse-trapping these bloody criminals.”
Sir Conrad smiled at her as he shoveled great bites of quick bread and eggs into his mouth. He gulped it down with a glass of beer and put a hand on her shoulder. “Got to go. I was so sure he was setting up that ambush, I never thought he’d be playing games with you. Stay here and safe. By tomorrow, it will be over.”
One quick pat on her shoulder, a brush of his lips on her hair and the whole crew filed out. Tina found Gregorio at her elbow.
“There,” said the hispanic man, “goes the man who will be Lord of Hood River.”
Tina frowned. “And us?” she asked.
“His people of life and limb… The ones he protects and will support him and his knights in return.”
Tina remembered a quote, but not where it came from, “‘It’s good to be King.’ For him I guess, but for us… I dunno. It hasn’t been good to have a deputy who thinks murdering the people he’s payed to protect is his privilege.”
She turned her attention to the cafeteria. “This place is filthy… Let’s get it clean and make sausages.” They were well into their work when a boy popped in.
“Hi! I’m Buzz. Actually, I’m Brian, but me and my Dad, we’re both Buzz.”
“Yes, I remember you. You’re Sir Conrad’s page, right?”
“Yup. He asked me to stick by you today. I’m his liaison. As soon as he knows what we need for food, he’ll send one of the guys back to me and I’ll help you!”
Tina found herself grinning. “How old are you?”
“I’m going to be fourteen soon.”
“OK, so you’ve started your hollow leg. Come in and have breakfast. You can help me with the books or Owens with the cleaning.”
Buzz made a face at Owens. “I’ll help with the books.”
The day was busy. Vegetables were brought in from the hothouses to be pickled. Gregorio and Concha led the effort to get all they could out of the meat. Sausage making, jerking, jellying, smoking, and drying smells filled the cafeteria. At mid-afternoon Tina sent everybody off to get a rest and left Buzz in charge of the cafeteria. She retreated to her desk in the apartment and wrestled with double entry book keeping and caloric conversions. The sunlight was going when the front door dead bolt clicked. Heart in her mouth she stood. Taggert walked in jingling a set of keys and calling, “Tina! Tiny Tina!”
She ran for the stairs and he blocked her, grinning. “It’s time, little, little, little lady. You’re mine and I’m taking you.”
Tina ducked, looking for an out. “You’re crazy! Sir Conrad told you to stay away from me!”
“And I should care? Stupid bichee — bitch! He came to take over the valley, and it’s mine. The Protector himself gave me the valley when I gave him Bradely and your Mom.”
“Fuck, NO! I killed them and tossed them into Multnomah Falls. Don’t you get metamorycal?” Taggert grabbed Tina by the shoulder, yanking her around and covering her mouth. She tried to bite him, but it didn’t work. The ripping sound of duct tape unrolling filled her ears and she kicked. Something was stuffed into her mouth and the duct tape strapped over it and wrapped twice around her head. Her feet and hands were taped, and a pillowcase put over her head. I should have screamed! Damn!
“Bide now, Tiny Tina. I’ll be back as soon as I finish taking out Mr. High and Mighty Knight Renfrew. We’ve got a lovely ambush set up for him at Dee. Then you can join Silly Sally, Jumpy Jenny, and Whiney Winny in my basement.”
The front door slammed and Taggert’s steps faded down the street.
Once he was gone, she flopped over, spinning slowly on her hip. Her feet touched something and she inched closer. It was her desk, piled with books, a desk lamp she’d never removed, and her lunch dishes. Buzz must be napping, the boy! I have to make a real ruckus! With an inward sigh for the mess, she shifted onto her back, set her feet against the back of the desk and shoved forward and upward.
The drawers crashed out, something hit the window and it shattered. The lamp crashed past her and into the table and shattered, showering her with shards of glass. Buzz yelled, “Mistress Bleuet? Mistress Bleuet!”
Tina spun again and found the side table with her mother’s Lladro knock-off figurines on it. Glass ground into her hip and waist as she flopped like a fish on dry land. Kick! The pottery flew across the room, shattering in individual little crashes. Buzz pounded up the stairs. “Mistress, Mistress! What happened?”
He fumbled with her wrists. She tossed her head and jerked them away. Buzz yanked the pillow cover off her head. She glared at him and he pulled his knife out and then looked more closely at what was holding the gag in place. “Duct tape? If I cut that, I’ll cut you! It’s got to be peeled off! It’ll hurt!”
Tina nodded vigorously, her eyes glaring at him. She wanted to scream at Buzz to hurry. She watched him bite his lip, take a deep breath and then ask, “Are you sure?”
Scream, scream, scream, do it Buzz, get this dammed thing OFF me! she thought desperately. Some of her urgency got through and he carefully sliced the duct tape where it went over her hair. Then he yanked the part stuck to her face. The pull yanked a hank of her hair out, as well. Tina did scream, “Go, go, go! Taggert knows about the ambush! He’s going to turn the tables on Renfrew at Dee. You have to get there in time to warn them! He knew what Conrad was doing, go!”
Buzz sliced the duct tape on her wrists. “Don’t wait! Gregorio will be back, or Concha, or somebody, just go! Renfrew has to know, quickly, quickly!”
Buzz jumped up and ran out of the room. She groaned; he’d taken the knife with him. With a sigh she used a fragment of glass and carefully sliced her ankles and knees free. She left the tape stuck to her leggings and socks and levered herself up on the broken desk, what felt like a million slices beginning to burn.
In the bathroom she stripped. Blood dripped onto the bath mat from dozens of cuts. Her face was bruised and bleeding; it looked like Taggert had clawed her when he was gagging her. She found bottles of hydrogen peroxide and alcohol. Feet pounded up the stairs and Gregorio and Concha raced in, shouting her name. She grabbed a towel as Gregorio burst into the bathroom. He grabbed it away, his eyes clinical as he saw the damage the shattered glass pieces had done to her back and side. The next thing she knew she was laying on towels, chewing on a washcloth as they pulled fragments of glass and doctored the cuts.
“This hydrogen peroxide doesn’t work! It isn’t bubbling at all!” exclaimed Concha.
“It’s useless. It gets old and the oxygen goes away. Find a razor and shave her head where the hair was pulled. We can’t have hair in the wound and it will stop the tape from sticking.”
“How bad is it?” mumbled Tina around her washcloth.
“About the size of three quarters laid together behind your left ear and below. Don’t worry, chica, it should grow back.”
“Where’s that tape?” asked Gregorio. Concha used the razor to cut it from her hair. Tina turned her eyes away from the scalp, blood and brown hair tangled on the sticky side. After a moment Concha shook her head. “No, I think you’ll scar. That’s a lot of scalp. It’s going to hurt when we clean it.”
Tina bit down on the washcloth. Concha was right. The pain burst into red and grey streaks and shattered into stars and merciful darkness.
❀ ❁ ❀
Flickering candlelight woke Tina. She sighed and blinked. Little sparkles danced on her disco ball. She felt more rested than she had in weeks. I’m in my own bed; my bedroom! What happened? She turned her head and gasped as the wound pulled.
The looming shadow was Sir Conrad, a little votive light playing over his scarred face and head. “How are you?”
“Buzz got to you in time!”
“Well, yes and no. Buzz is a smart kid. I hadn’t told him anything, but his Dad and I used a… well, a turned spy to feed Taggert the wrong information. I told Buzz to stay here and obey you. When he came out to me, he was careful and realized I already knew about the double trap. So he waited until we got him.”
“Dad? I didn’t know his Dad was here.”
“He wasn’t. Sir Buzz came up 26 through Timberline and Government camp, slogging through the snow. I had to wait for him, and for my spy to get Taggert’s plans. Owens is my spy. He did good pretending to be disaffected. Taggert recruited him the day he yelled at you.”
My brain isn’t working very well. “Owens? That was dangerous… he could have turned double traitor.”
“So he could. It was a risk I took. I just didn’t think you’d be at risk, too. I thought Taggert would wait until after he got rid of us to take you. Like a prize, you know. But that’s thinking like us. Taggert was all about getting the prize without doing the deed.”
Tina sat up. The new scab broke and something leaked onto her bandage. “I’ll have scars, too,” she said. “Where did you get your scars?”
Conrad lit more candles and Tina saw his twinkle. “Car accident, going to Pensic, an SCA event, back in 1991. The doors stuck and I burned before some of my fellow SCAdians managed to take a can-opener to the car.”
“Is that why you shave your head?”
“Actually, no. There was a mess up with the skin transplants. So the scars have white hair, the grafts curl, and my own hair is sleek black. Do you really want to talk about me? I thought you’d be angry as a wet cat that I misjudged Taggert twice and let him scare you so bad.”
Tina sighed and snuggled up under her favorite quilt. “Well, I want to know. But last night, Taggert left signs at all my hidey-holes. So I went to a house I thought about using and found it stuffed with food, so I knew Taggert was getting it from somewhere and the only place would have been the farms that had been stripped by bandits, including the Donatello’s. I found Tía Lula’s diamond ring, still on her finger.” Tina gulped a minute before continuing, “and Sally’s pearl and… I was so scared. But I knew you weren’t as dangerous as Taggert.”
Conrad took her hand and kissed it. “Actually, I’m more dangerous. He’s an unthinking beast. I think! And he’s in chains right now. I’m so sorry you couldn’t tell me. I was trying to protect you by not talking to you. I left Gregorio and Buzz with you, too. Did he kill your friends?”
Tina felt her gorge rise. “Yes, and their bodies are still in his basement. He told Sheriff Gresham; I was hiding in the Town Hall, hoping that Taggert wouldn’t think to look there.”
“And he was already there? Did he find you?”
“Nope. He thought I had gotten out the window. What now?”
“Now, you sleep and recover. Tomorrow I’ll try Deputy Ekhart in open court. For murder and banditry. And then, I’ll offer the people of Hood River a chance to become my vassals of life and limb and protect them and make this place prosperous again, and a place where people need not fear.”
Feudalism… Tina sighed and looked up at the gargoyle face, at a man she trusted and who had just saved her community from an evil predator and fell asleep.
❀ ❁ ❀
“Look, I know it isn’t what we had, but for heaven’s sake! Look at what we’ve lost! Do you want to keep on living like this? Harried by wolves? Deputy Ekhart’s been caught; we’ve got the bodies he killed. So who’s the next psycho who’ll come and sweet talk you?
“I’m offering you a completely different system, but one that will leave you protected and able to live with dignity. Vote on it! With your feet. Anybody who agrees to me becoming your overlord and swearing to your protection… over here. If you want to keep on like you’ve been, or have another solution… over there!”
Tina watched the crowd surge and roil. She wondered how many people understood why they were reluctant. It boiled down to accountability; how do you make an armed knight accountable? You trust to his sense of honor. Trust’s a bit sparse on the ground after learning Gresham failed to realize Taggert was a murderer.
Taggert Ekhart’s body swayed a little on the gallows. Three other bodies, the only ones who had survived the ambush, swayed with him. They had been strung up yesterday after the trial. And people had come into town, summoned from the outlaying farms by Renfrew’s biking heralds to see the trial and vote. Tina had rented out all the rooms in her set of houses above the shops she’d taken over.
“What do you think, chica?” asked Concha, standing behind her with her family.
“I think I trust him,” said Tina. “But, what happens if that Lord Protector guy decides to change our overlord? Can we trust the next guy?”
Concha’s father and mother nodded. “But we couldn’t trust the ones we picked, and we didn’t even know it. I’ll go with this new way and see how it works out.”
“I’ll be able to keep the cafeteria and support myself,” sighed Tina. “And I’ll never have my little ‘Hood River Swan,’ shop.”
Concha pressed her arm as they moved to the right. “Do you think your plan would have worked? I know you had all the papers that you made your mother sign, but she could fight a mean fight… And…”
Tina shook her head. “All I needed was four more months, just to turn eighteen and graduate and everything would have clicked into place. Now, I’m going to become a vassal before I’m twenty…”
She looked at the crowd… the holdouts on the left were thinning out, more and more came over to the right side… it swelled over the centerline until only a few people were left crowded on the left edge. They broke apart, two leaving, and three joining.
It’s done. Now we see how good the choice is.
❀ ❁ ❀
Tina stood on the steps of the old Courthouse, where four months ago she’d found the corpse of Sheriff Gresham. The blood had been scrubbed away, but there was still an impressive stain. Directly across the street stood the sturdy gallows, erected to hang murderers.
Count Renfrew did not allow the gallows fruit to hang till ripe enough to fall on it’s own. They were taken down shortly after death and buried. After the four men hung in March he’d tried and convicted many more, but most to the labor battalions. Only three men in the months since had been deemed “a present and constant danger to the subjects of Hood County.” The wooden structure looked innocuous, framing a view of the river, but Tina could see the men who’d swung from it with little effort of memory. The August sun was warm and the breezes no more than pleasant as she stood there. People walked back and forth on errands. The new health of the county could be seen in the cheerful, well-fed and dressed crowds moving around the inner town.
The cold and fear of the previous year had receded as summer crept over the land under the stern rule of Sir Conrad, Count Renfrew. The doors behind her opened and swung shut again. Conrad came to stand beside her, lifting his face also to the sunny sky. The playful breeze from the Gorge ruffled her light brown hair, down and loose in the summer warmth.
She could feel him, that solid presence that made her want to let things go, rest her burdens in his hands. A small spurt of laughter escaped her. Far from easing her burden, Renfrew had made her his comptroller for the past hectic four months. The cafeteria had fallen into Gregorio’s hands. She sighed and turned to the Lord, her Lord. “Sir?”
Conrad hummed a minute. “Satisfied?”
“Yes, I think so. Gregorio and his family are hard workers and love to do the work. And they accepted Concha as part owner, which she deserves.”
“Well, my guess is that Concha will marry young Santiago and it will all end up in the family. My hope is for you to be happy. I know it meant a lot to you, but I badly need your help in so many other fields, right now… and forever.”
Tina heard the low-voiced rider and swallowed with a suddenly tight throat. She managed a smile at Conrad. “I like it that you aren’t so much taller than me that I have to crane to see your eyes.” She thought for a moment. “Yes, I’m very happy. Food was what my mother did and, I guess she liked it…”
“Well, I did most of the work for years before the Change.”
Conrad made a noncommittal sound. “The day we took out Taggert I was in your room for hours. I found the papers you had created. The ones to let you take over the property from your mother. Do you think it would have worked?”
“Concha didn’t. She was the only one who knew… But, damn it! I slaved in that place for years. After the IRS guy threatened Mom with an audit if she didn’t shape up, I began to do the books, too.”
“Funny, why didn’t he put her into receivership?”
“He said that was the next step; that and call child services on her. I did the fixing, not Mom; she didn’t care.”
“Weird,” commented Conrad. “Most IRS guys wouldn’t have cared or flexed like that.” He draped an arm around her shoulder. Tina stiffened, reflexively. People turned and grinned or hid their smiles.
“You keep doing that! I’m in love with you!” He turned and pulled her around to look in her eyes. “Why do you keep pulling away? I know you care; it shows up in so many ways!”
Tina gulped. “I… I… cream pot love?” she said weakly.
“Oh, nonsense! You fell in love with me when you thought I was going to walk out and leave you after I got our bandits! You fell in love in spite of hating our medieval setup! Is that all?”
“Ahh, well… Norman Arminger and the Lady Sandra… I’m not much like the people you hang with.”
“Thank God fasting!” Conrad laughed. “If I’d wanted to marry a hard as nails harridan or a weak as milk submissive, I could have done it easily any time the last 18 months. I want you.”
“Well, I don’t like most of them!”
“You don’t have to. Think about it. As my wife you will be my natural regent and Norman has named me his Grand Constable. I’ll be traveling a lot and you’ll be staying right here and running things. You’ll probably only see most of the PPA people at places like Winter Court. And feudalism is working!”
“I guess,” Tina mumbled. “For now. I’m afraid of what will happen with the next Lord or if …”
“Well, help me raise the next Lord right… Be his mother.” Tina swallowed and looked into the ice-blue eyes. Conrad was radiating sincerity and love; his scars, even, were still.
It’s good to be a King, she thought. I’m not getting what I worked so hard for, but, Countess… I could live with that, and take care of things that are important.
Something of her acceptance must have shown. Conrad tighten his arms, pulling her close and bending to kiss her gently on the lips. The kiss flamed and Tina gasped, feeling Conrad’s hands clutch and move. “We’ll have to get a priest here pretty quick,” he murmured. “I’m not sure how long I can limit myself to only kissing you.”
Tina pulled back, trying to understand the sound beating in her ears. The townspeople were cheering and she felt her eyes tear up. On a choke of laughter, she kissed Conrad back. “Now I don’t have a choice, do I?”
❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀