Monday, February 15, 2010

Land of Shadows: Chapter V - Dotty

By noon Dee and the twins were struggling to get the Volvo unloaded, they had long since given up trying to extricate it from mud. They were getting the last crate of gear from the back when a thick cable landed in front of Dee, splattering her in the face with mud. There was a double click as the twins swung around their rifles and disengaged the safeties.

An elderly woman looked down at them from the edge of the pavement. They had been so absorbed in their tasks they had not heard her approach. The dogs had been awake all night and were currently asleep in the tent. Beyond the old woman, a massive Hummer H1 still bearing it's military markings was parked idling.

"If you kids hook that on your bumper I can pull you out. Unless of course you'd rather just play in the mud there all day. Wouldn't recommend it though, that water's a might chilly."

She stood at the edge of the pavement looking down at them waiting for them to make up their minds. She nodded and turned back to the Hummer when Dee picked up the hook and connected it to the "D" ring on the rear bumper. The winch in the hummer was powerful, fully capable of pulling the massive vehicle straight up a tree if needed. But the Volvo was no lightweight either and was stuck good. There were several tense moments when it bogged down and the cable pulled as taught as a giant guitar string. Dee had to bite her tongue in order not to jump all over her brother as he stood over the cable. Had it snapped he would have been cut in two by the recoil of the heavy cable. But the old woman warned him away from it for her. Little by little the Volvo was pulled free. The muddy water drained out of the interior and it stood on the broken pavement covered from door sills to roof in black muck. A perfect match for the three of them.

"Name is Dorothy McBee, but you can call me Dotty. I saw your fire this morning and I thought ya'll might need help. And I reckon I was right. Ya'll are goin to come home with me till you get your rig running again." Dee started to protest but realized just in time how foolish it would be to refuse.

"But none of ya'll are riding with me till you get cleaned up a bit."

So they drew straws to see who would steer the Volvo. James lost. Dee and Allison toweled off the best they could and changed clothes. James and the two dogs rode in the Volvo as it was towed behind he Hummer.

"How did you know that we wouldn't just kill you and steal your truck?" Dee asked once in the cab of the Hummer.

"I'm a pretty good judge of human character usually. You looked like you could be trusted. A young woman and a couple of kids are genrally speakin not goin to be a big threat, unless givin reason. Now iffin you'd been a man alone I'da been a tad more cautious in approachin ya. Besides you see that keypad under the radio there?" Dee looked at the indicated area and nodded before the old woman continued. "Well iffin I had'na punched in a ten digit code or thumbed the screen the explosive charge under your seat would have blown the rig sky high the moment the key was turned. Ya might kill me but you wouldn't steal my rig."

"Well don't you think it might be a good idea to tell people that in the first place?" Allison asked from the back.

"Now that's a helluva way to start a conversation now ain't it? Howdy folks, my rig is wired to blow up iffin you try to steal it. Pretty weather we're havin! Kinda starts things off on the wrong foot don't it?"

"Did you rig this up yourself?" Dee asked, impressed by the seamless installation in the Hummer's dash and simultaneously uncomfortable by the indicated placement of the explosive charge.

"Yep. Been livin on my own for the last fifteen years. Didn't know nothin about electronics before, but I know how to use a card catalog at the local library. Good thing for me the librarian was old school and didn't trust computers."

She slowed the Hummer almost to a halt at the northernmost marina entrance on the east side of town and turned right into the parking lot.

"You live at the marina?" Dee asked.

"Not exactly." she said as she continued on through the parking lot and started out across the breakwater. There were signs up warning "Unauthorized Entry Prohibited - Protected Species Habitat" but the old woman paid no heed to the signs. In this day and age it was sink or swim anyway. What concerned Dee was the condition of the breakwater. Nearly two decades of unchecked erosion had narrowed it severely in places. But it was just wide enough to accommodate the Hummer and thankfully narrower Volvo. Dee glanced back at James to see how he was doing. He looked tense but not panicked.

"Now let's hope the batteries in this thing are still good." she said holding up a what looked like a garage door opener and shaking it, "Damn rechargeable batteries don't hold a charge like they used to. I guess we'll know soon enough."

"What do you mean?" Dee asked feeling a little uneasy about their hostess.

"Got this breakwater mined to keep to black beasts away. This remote deactivates them. Well most of the time." She pointed to a particularly narrow section of the breakwater. "Missed one a month back and blew a trailer load of firewood out into the harbor."

Dee assumed that she was pulling her leg until she saw the submerged remains of a trailer and a few pieces of wood scattered around the rocks. She kept her mouth shut about it though so as not to panic Allison.

They travelled around the artificial wetlands that had been created almost by accident by the dredges dumping mud and debris cleared from the harbor. She saw several goats on the little island and a couple bread trucks parked out in the grass they were using for shelter. When they came to the breakwater leading to the lighthouse it became apparent that they would have to do something different. There was just enough room at the base of the lighthouse to park one of the vehicles. If the Hummer towed the Volvo in that would leave the Hummer blocked in. Nobody wanted the one running vehicle, probably the only running vehicle in town, blocked if they needed it. So they used the Hummer to push the Volvo in and parked the Hummer behind it.

The lighthouse was of course a very utilitarian building, but numerous potted plants gave the whitewashed concrete and steel structure some color and some patio furniture made the concrete platform look less like a military installation and more like a home. A wall on the left side of concrete slab in front of the lighthouse entrance provided partial protection from the wind. There was a heavy steel door just under stairs that led up to the second floor. There was a heavy steel lock securing the door that was probably as old as the lighthouse itself. A large pontoon boat was moored at the far end of the concrete platform the lighthouse had been built on. The old woman pulled out an old style skeleton key and rattled it around in the lock till it popped open swung the door out with a rusty squeal. They had been expecting a cold and damp, almost cave like environment inside but were surprised to enter a warm, dry and pleasant dwelling. When the lighthouse had been closed all the equipment had been removed leaving bare cement walls and steel supports. But Dotty had gone to great lengths to make the lighthouse a home. Area rugs covered the bare cement floor and it was furnished in early American decor. Wood partitions separated the living room from the kitchen, bedrooms and bathroom. At least half a dozen bookcases were visible from where they stood, all filled with old hardcover books. A large woodstove dominated one corner of the living room. A large antique chest was decorated with what were obviously treasured family photos. The sole pieces of modern technology visible were a CD player and strangely enough a cell phone, both plugged into a UPS running off a power outlet affixed to one of the steel structural supports. A generator could be heard from somewhere inside.

But what really drew one's eye were the dozens if not hundred of wildlife sketches and watercolors. They adorned every wall and brought color to even the darkest corners of the former lighthouse. They were the best that Dee had ever seen. Most of them were local birds and waterfowl, some deer and elk. But one of them just chilled her to the core to look at. It was a wraith stalking a great blue heron. It was a pencil sketch done with near photo quality and the moment was captured perfectly. The wraith was crouched low in the grass as the heron stood in seeming ignorance of its impending doom, but you could see that the eye had just flicked back and seen the otherworldly predator. It was like a frozen image on a TV and you expected that the next frame would be a violent flurry of activity as the heron took flight while the wraith lunged. Whether or not the heron got away remained to be seen.

Dotty crossed the room to the stove, opened the cast iron stove door and threw in a "Pine Mountain" fire starter log and a couple pieces of natural wood. Soon the woodstove was radiating a toasty warmth as Dotty bustled about setting up a pot of coffee for them before disappearing into the kitchen. She cheerfully cooked them a supper of roast duck, wild carrots and onions and bread with butter and cheese made from goat's milk.

Over dinner Dee told Dotty of the mission they were on, hoping that the old woman might have seen something from atop her light tower, but she had not.

The old woman was a bit peculiar, but Dee thought she would have fared far worse on her own for so many years. She pulled a couple of cots out and several blankets for them to use and left it up to the three of them to decide who would get the couch and who would get the cots. She even brought some blankets out for Bo and Duke.

Dee protested that they really had to get going, that they could not afford to tarry any longer than necessary.

"Nonsense!" the old woman proclaimed, "It's gonna get cold tonight and the old man you're after ain't gonna go too far tonight. You get some rest and in the morning we'll fix your rig up and set you on your way proper. No goin out half assed and gettin yourselves killed cause you wasn't properly set." She left no room for argument.

© 2010 R. Keith McBride

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