Tuesday, after midnight
Fury had taken her halfway up the mountain, straight into a cold drizzle. Desperation forced her on.
The March mist turned into fat drops. The oil slick black line of highway threatened to spill her and her bike over the closest cliff.
If she couldn’t make this one last chance work, she might as well ride off that cliff.
Pumping the bike pedals from anger into exhaustion, Fiona pushed her endurance. She’d passed the sign that read HILLVALE SPIRITUAL HOME OF 325 LIVES AND COUNTLESS GHOSTS. How much farther could it be?
She remembered the sign from a dozen years ago or more. She didn’t remember the distance into town, but knowledge that she was close kept her motivated. She didn’t want to disappoint Peggy.
“Never again, Sukey,” she told the miniature Yorkie mix in her bike basket. “Never again will we have to serve rotten fish. You and me, we’re going to be free.” And safe from the low-life scum who’d made her life hell recently.
Please let Hillvale be safe—and accepting. And more understanding than human nature allowed.
Sukey yapped agreement. The perky scarf some dog groomer had tied around the mutt’s neck had almost come undone under rough handling, but with her silky hair blowing in the spring breeze, Sukey seemed unfazed by her ordeal. Her Pekingese curl of a tail wagged happily.
Dawn wasn’t ready to break yet on this west side of the Santa Cruz mountains. The dead battery in Fiona’s ancient bike light left visibility near zero.
“We just need a place to crash, kid,” she told the dog. “The town was full of empty old cabins last time I was here. Who will care if we hole up in one for a while?”
Of course, the last time she’d been here had been when she was around twelve, but that was one of those things she didn’t think about—especially in the rain.
“I can’t rely on Peggy to do more than introduce me,” she told the dog, who tried to lick her hand in sympathy.
Finally, she saw lights. Not many. That pinpoint way ahead in the distance might be a street lamp indicating civilization was not too far off. The closer ones behind trees and bushes might be night lights in occupied homes.
Street savvy, she knew how to locate shelter. She remembered poking around the abandoned cabins along this strip of road as a child. Discovering whether another vagrant like her had claimed them was more difficult. She hoped in this tourist resort there wouldn’t be as many homeless and druggies as down by the beach.
She got off the bike and walked it, looking for a weed-strewn drive, finding one almost immediately. It was perilously close to one of the houses with lights on, but the rain was coming down harder. Maybe she could just take shelter under a porch roof until it stopped. Exhaustion was winning.
Bushes grew across the drive, so she knew no vehicle had used it in recent memory. The overgrowth was so bad, she almost didn’t see the cabin until she pushed past a cluster of damp bushes. The porch roof had collapsed in splinters of rotten wood, but the steps appeared to be stone. Sukey leaped from her basket to take a wee before Fiona could lift her out.
Unhooking her backpack and bedroll, she climbed the stairs to inspect the damage. The porch appeared to be the same stone as the stairs. Sukey ran across it to the sagging front door, slipping through a crack formed by the buckled wood. Fiona hoped the Yorkie was a good mouser.
Dropping her few possessions, she tentatively tested the door. The panel had sagged off its hinges, making the lock moot. She lifted it aside. She might be small, but she’d lifted heavier weights.
The dog wasn’t yapping. She heard no one complaining about being licked to death. She rummaged for the small flashlight her roomie had given her for Christmas. It still functioned, although the beam was narrow. The floor looked solid. This was California, after all. It seldom rained—except when she didn’t need it to. Termites were the biggest problem.
The kitchen sink actually had a pump. Who the feck still used pumps? She worked it, priming it with water from her bottle as she’d been taught when she was a kid living in camps. Rusty water eventually poured into a metal basin. She could probably wash in it after it ran a while. Cool.
The front room and kitchen were all one room. She checked the back door. It was in better shape. She unlocked the knob and stepped onto another stone step. What looked like a tool shed sagged in dilapidation on the other side of the weed-strewn yard. She wouldn’t test it in this rain, but she bet it was an outhouse. Hillvale apparently wasn’t big on zoning.
Tickled that she had a dry roof over her head and water to wash in, she checked the two empty bedrooms. Someone had left the house stripped bare, but the windows were whole. She just needed to bar the front door, and she was in pretty good shape if she needed shelter for more than one night. Too tired to tackle the task now, she rolled out her sleeping bag and whistled for Sukey. The dog ran up, licked her face, and settled into the bag with her.
She’d never had a pet before. She didn’t know how she’d feed this one. But she figured she was one-thousand percent better than whoever Sukey’s former owner was.
Fiona Malcolm McDonald, dog thief. She’d start her new life of crime in the morning.