[My August entry is the second chapter of Guns of the Border Region. Readers new to this blog will need to scroll down to a previous entry for the Prologue and Chapter One. Twilight's Last Gleaming offers a short history of the fictional universe in which this is set. Copyright 2008 by Charles Hoffman.]
CHAPTER TWO -- THE ROAD TO WESTSYLVANIA
The following morning found Shadow on the road once more, having been told to get out of Wheeling by sunrise. She was making her way north astride a large black and white pinto stallion, her duster tightly fastened against the morning chill.
After the fun with Laughing Boy, she had been hauled over to the Sheriff’s office to explain herself.
“Honest, Mike,” she told him, “I did not draw a weapon until he did.” She knew the Sheriff, Mike Lytton, well enough that she felt comfortable seating herself on the edge of his desk. She wore a Go-Go Lounge tank top in place of her missing bra. “At least I tried to keep him alive,” she added, “That was a risky move on my part. It would have been easier and safer for me to sheath the blade in his black little heart.”
“Everyone knows you play by the rules here, Tamar,” the Sheriff replied, “Plus there were scores of witnesses and this little toy.” He indicated the derringer the deputies had brought in. “Still, I think it best if you stay out of Wheeling for awhile.”
“Okay. What about Laughing Boy?” she asked, not really giving a shit but figuring it might make her look better.
“Well,” the Sheriff replied, “I know most folks down in the Confederacy don’t think much of Border Region hospitals, but there’s a good chance they can reattach his hand.” Then he added, “Either way he’s doing some serious time over this. His little `accident’ is not some `get out of jail free’ card.”
Shadow nodded soberly. Packing heat in town, much less using it, was Wheeling’s one big taboo. Let one person get away with flouting it, and the streets in the rougher sections would soon be strewn with bullet-riddled corpses. So there was no way the law here could let that shit slide.
“Well then, I guess I’ll be on my merry way,” she said, “You got my piece?”
The Sheriff went to a long row of lockers and returned with Shadow’s sidearm. Shadow slipped it from its nylon holster. Hefting its familiar weight in her hand, she couldn’t help but smile. It was her gun of choice, a Glock model 22. Though boasting a fifteen-round magazine, the Glock 22 was fairly compact. Chambered for .40 caliber ammunition, it provided considerably more stopping power than any 9 millimeter pistol, but with a still manageable recoil.
Shadow re-holstered the weapon and then attached the holster to her belt in its accustomed place. After pulling on her duster, she said, “Adios Sheriff,” and took her leave.
Now Shadow was headed up old State Route 2 on horseback. So far traffic was light; just a few people on horses or bicycles. The old-fashioned horse and buggy was not an unusual sight in these parts, but more modern horse-drawn and pedal-powered fiberglass conveyances were the norm. Motor vehicles were few and far between in the Border Region.
Probably just as well, Shadow mused, You couldn’t really go racing from town to town anyway, what with the roads and all. Most of the main thoroughfares of the Border Region were, in whole or part, impassable. The eastern half of the Old Union had come under extensive bombardment by the Islamic Federation of Europe during the War. The IFE’s strategy involved crippling America and forcing it into a defensive posture. To that end, the destruction of the Interstate Highway system and other major highways became a tactical priority. Making matters worse, sleeper cells had been activated to sow additional destruction; bridges blown, tunnels collapsed. The hand of sabotage had struck everywhere, disrupting the flow of water, electricity, and telecommunications. The integrity of civilization’s infrastructure had been erased, blotted out by the Third World War.
The War had been waged years before Shadow was even born, but she had heard harrowing tales about it since infancy. They didn’t quite bomb us back to the Stone Age, she reflected, just back to the turn of the 20th Century. Other afflicted parts of the Old Union had recovered after a fashion; not so the area now known as the Border Region.
After the War, America was required by treaty to hold special elections in states with large Muslim populations to determine if Islamic law would be adopted as the highest legal authority. The affected states were located in the Northeast and Midwest of the Old Union. This development did not go over well in non-Muslim regions of those states. The western counties of Pennsylvania erupted in rioting and rebellion which quickly spread to the southern counties of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. An attempt by the governor of Pennsylvania to call out the National Guard had resulted in mutiny. The president realized that any attempt to impose martial law might well result in disaster. However, he could and did cut off Federal aid to those regions in rebellion. Even after they seceded from their parent states by mutual agreement, areas like Westsylvania remained left to their own devices as they recovered from the ravages of war.
The name “Westsylvania” referred to the western counties of the old state of Pennsylvania that were located south of Meadville. Before the War, even since colonial times, the third of Pennsylvania located west of the Alleghenies had been a culturally distinct region from the eastern part of the state. The inhabitants there had more in common with the hardy West Virginians to the south. As the Old Union fell to pieces, the area that included Westsylvania and West Virginia, as well as the Ohio River Valley, came to be increasingly referred to as “the Border Region.”
When West Virginia failed to ratify the constitution of the New American Confederacy, it became firmly and officially part of the Border Region. It was the only former state of the Old Union to lie entirely within the Region. This made for some interesting political ramifications. In most of the Region, government authority resided at the local level. West Virginia, however, was still governed from the old state capital of Charleston. The governor’s actual authority did not extend beyond the state’s boundaries, but in practice he could wield influence throughout the Region. The only other figures that could be said to possess anywhere near that kind of clout were the mayors of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Therefore, the governor of West Virginia was the closest thing the Border Region had to a president.
West Virginia had come through the War with its infrastructure mostly intact, but it remained one of the poorer states of the Old Union; mostly rural and sparsely populated. In post-US America, however, it became a source of goods and resources used throughout the Border Region. The city of Wheeling evolved into a thriving crossroads, much as Samarkand had been along the old Silk Road. It was now a colorful marketplace by day and a raucous party town by night. A lot of money passed through Wheeling, a good bit of it trickling southward through the state. The governor and local officials were eager to keep that cash flow running. In the Border Region, the line between legitimate and illicit enterprise was often blurred. Wheeling had waxed prosperous catering to a new breed of traders. These consisted of entrepreneurs or outlaws, depending on one’s point of view. It was the job of men like Sheriff Mike Lytton to maintain a modicum of order, without driving away the free-spirited element that had made Wheeling a boomtown.
Quite a tightrope walk, Shadow thought. She certainly didn’t envy guys like Mike their job. But that wasn’t her problem. Right now, she needed a place to crash. A sleepless night, hard drinking, pigging out, dancing, stripping, and two bar fights were beginning to take their toll on even her iron constitution. Her plan was to get into Weirton before noon and get a room there. There was only one thing wrong. She suspected she was being followed.
Awhile back she had spotted a guy on a bicycle some distance behind her. She took advantage of curves in the road to check him out. He appeared to be deliberately hanging back, lagging behind when he could have overtaken her. Blessed with hawk-like vision, she placed him as one of the crowd in a couple of the Wheeling joints last night, including the Go-Go Lounge. So what was his story? Shadow had enemies; was this a minion of one of them? Probably not; he was an amateur or she never would have spotted him so easily. Maybe he was some boob who had caught her act and was stalking her now. In which case, he was pretty ballsy, because he would have seen what she’d done to Laughing Boy. Or maybe it was just a coincidence, and he wasn’t actually following her after all.
Finding out for sure would involve a change of plans. Steubenville, Ohio, lay a few miles southwest of Weirton, on the other side of the river. Shadow would take the ferry over and find lodging there instead of Weirton. If she spotted her newfound friend in Steubenville, then she’d know he was on her trail.
Crossing over on the ferry, Shadow reflected that if the guy was indeed following her, he’d better have his shit wired tight. Steubenville, like Weirton, was no place for a tenderfoot. They were a little pair of twin sin cities; mini-Sodom and mini-Gomorrah. A swell could go slumming in the wild parts of Wheeling and not come to harm if he didn’t get stupid. Not so the rough sections of Weirton and Steubenville. Those were for hardcore types only. Like her.
After she disembarked from the ferry, Shadow headed up old Route 7. She reigned in the pinto at a motel just past Mingo Junction on the outskirts of Steubenville. She corralled the pinto with a few other horses behind the motel, got a room and moved her gear in. She locked the door and threw the bolt. Then she stripped and showered.
Shadow tossed her belt under the bed before entering the bathroom, but took her gun and knife with her. She left both weapons on the toilet tank within easy reach before stepping into the shower. The place had plenty of hot water, thank god. She let the spraying water run over her; hot, cold, then hot again. As she lathered her body with one of those little bars of soap, she felt the aches and tension seep out of her.
After a relaxing shower, she toweled off. Exiting the bathroom, Shadow seated herself at a rickety wooden desk and began cleaning her weapons. First she dried them, wiping away any moisture from the steamy bathroom. After cleaning the gun, she honed the blade of the bowie with a whetstone. She placed the knife on the nightstand and the Glock underneath a pillow. Reclining naked on the bed, she stretched out catlike and was soon asleep.
Shadow slept soundly but lightly. The slightest noise made by anyone attempting to enter the room would instantly rouse her to full wakefulness. She also had the knack for awakening precisely when she wished to. Almost eight hours to the minute later, she woke up fully refreshed.
After dressing and checking out, Shadow got on the pinto and rode the last mile or so into Steubenville. It was only an hour after sunset, but already most of the honest working people were off the streets.
She stabled the pinto at an old bus station that had been converted for horses. After stowing her gear in a locker, she bought feed for the horse. Then she headed into town on foot. No need to worry about her ride; anyone attempting to molest the great stallion would end up mashed to pulp under its stamping hooves.
The horse had something to eat; now what about her? Since leaving Wheeling early that morning she had snacked on foodpaste while in the saddle. Hungry again, Shadow went straight to one of the greasy spoon diners she knew of. At Ike’s Café, she enjoyed a platter of pork chops smothered in chili and an ice cold bottle of 33. She ate heartily, consuming her fill but not enough to slow her down if there was action later.
When she finished she made her way to the town’s main drag. Most of the bars were off on side streets leading away from Market Street, but they were all contained within a fairly small area easily traversed on foot. Her plan was to hit as many as possible in order to spot her pursuer or allow herself to be spotted by him. If he didn’t turn up she would find another back room card game --something she had planned to do in Weirton-- then get a room and call it a night.
The streets were quiet. There were no boisterous crowds milling in the open, as in
Wheeling. Here all the action was inside. Even the main drag wasn’t that crowded. Old buildings of crumbling brick surrounded Shadow, for Steubenville was an old town. Two hundred years ago, this part of the Old Union had been that nation’s industrial heartland. But slowly the industry had died out, and the surrounding region came to be disparaged as the “Rust Belt.” Many cities and towns lost half their populations. The restless young drifted away in search of better prospects elsewhere. Others hung on grimly through depression and strife, anchored by deep roots. Their people had dwelt there since time immemorial, or so it seemed, and so they remained. After the War, the area went from being part of the Rust Belt to part of the Border Region. Many localities made a comeback. Then there were towns like Weirton and Steubenville, brooding in the hills and along the rivers, waiting out the centuries.
Shadow chose a side street at random and went down it. She walked with her duster open, allowing easy access to her weapons. Yellowish light pouring from a large window indicated a tavern up ahead. Shadow headed for it. As she neared the entrance, she heard none of the sounds of a lively crowd. Inside, there were just a few hard-bitten men drinking in sullen silence. Heads turned her way as she walked in. A woman abroad by herself was an unexpected sight. But no one bothered her. Shadow had the warrior’s mark. Anyone with an ounce of street sense could see that she could handle herself. She had one drink and left.
After the first place, Shadow hit several more. Some were more lively. She witnessed a few drinking contests and bar fights, gambling, guys picking up hookers; in general the sorts of things rogue males have always done to let off steam. She went to half a dozen joints before spotting her quarry. As she had throughout the evening, she slipped in quietly and seated herself at the bar. Her dark hair and duster concealed her in the dim tavern lighting as she used the mirror to look the place over. Lo and behold, there he was; the guy who had been following her that morning.
He hadn’t made her yet, so Shadow took the opportunity to study his reflected image. Shadow could see like a cat in the dark. Despite the tavern gloom, she was able to size him up fairly quickly.
The guy looked to be about 24 or 25, or a year or so younger than Shadow. He was well-groomed, with sandy hair, and his unlined face was rather handsome. His clothing was designed for travel, but the garments didn’t look cheap. Definitely from the Confederacy, he appeared to be a member of the professional class --a “suit” as opposed to one of the working “peons.” Right now he was seated by himself at a table, nursing a beer. He seemed jittery, like he didn’t know what he had gotten himself into.
Shadow swiveled about on the barstool to face him. His stunned look of recognition was priceless. An enigmatic smile playing on her lips, Shadow rose abruptly and exited the bar. She had reached the end of the block when she heard the patter of footsteps as the guy came out after her. Shadow then turned, entering an alley. She could hear his footsteps quicken as she concealed herself besides a dumpster. A moment later, he appeared at the entrance of the alleyway. Not seeing her, he hesitated a moment before heading in the direction she had presumably taken. He had just passed the dumpster when he froze at the sudden sound of a voice in the dark: “You’ll never get to Sea World that way.”
He turned and found himself looking down the barrel of Shadow’s Glock. The woman stepped into the ghostly lamplight that seeped into the alley from the street beyond. “Okay Joy-boy,” she said, “Why the hell have you been following me?”
“Yes, I have been following you,” he admitted, raising his hands, “I was hoping to hire you.”
Even through her annoyance, Shadow was a little impressed. He had come clean immediately, raised his hands so she could see them, and mentioned money --all of which made her trigger finger slightly less twitchy. He might not be a player, but he could keep his wits about him.
“Hire me for what?” she asked, not lowering her weapon.
“I’m a stranger to these parts,” he told her, “I don’t know my way around. To be honest, I could use a guide.”
Shadow cut him off. “We’ll talk about it somewhere else. Let’s get out of this alley.” She holstered her pistol. “Walk ahead of me and don’t try anything funny unless you want my knife in your guts.”
She took him to a well-lighted coffee shop that was open all night. They had coffee and pie; apple for him and pecan for her. Shadow listened as he told his story.
“My name is Christian Foster. I’m from Mount Olive, North Carolina, and I’m an accountant. I was engaged to be married, but my fiancée ran away from her parents’ home about a month ago. I’m pretty sure she headed into the Border Region.”
“Why?” Shadow asked.
“It’s where people go.”
“Sounds like she doesn’t want to get found.”
“I just want to talk to her.”
“The Border Region’s a pretty big place.”
“I’m reasonably sure she went north instead of west. Her ancestors were from Pennsylvania.”
“But still…” Shadow didn’t finish the thought, suddenly intrigued by a new notion, “I don’t suppose you have a picture of your runaway sweetheart.”
Christian fished around in one of the many pockets on the jacket he wore for traveling. He produced a photograph and passed it across the table.
Shadow studied the photo, scarcely able to conceal her distaste. The girl in the picture had a smiling, sickeningly sweet face. She wore no make-up, and her hair was combed straight back from her forehead and held in place with some sort of clip. Her modest blouse was buttoned up clear to her throat. Shadow thought she looked like some well-scrubbed eight-year-old the day they take the school pictures.
“Do you think she’s good looking?” Christian asked eagerly.
“How am I supposed to tell if she’s good looking?” Shadow replied tartly as she flipped the picture back to him. “So what’s Sweetie Pie’s name?”
Christian. Angel. What was it with these dicks and their religion? Shadow frowned. A simpering little frail like the one in the picture could not have taken off into the wilds of the Border Region on her own. Obviously, she had run off with some guy. But looking into Christian’s boyish face, Shadow didn’t have the heart to tell him that. “So what do you want me to do?” she asked instead.
“I made my way up West Virginia on my own okay. But in Wheeling I started to feel like I was out of my depth. Then I saw you handle that guy in that topless bar.”
“It was a nudie bar, actually,” she corrected, “but go on.”
“Anyway, it occurred to me that here’s someone that knows the Region and can handle trouble. But then you had to go off with the cops. I slipped some money to people around the sheriff’s station and at the stable, and found out that you had left town headed north. So I followed you, but didn’t know how to approach you about something like this. I’m not all that great when it comes to talking to women.”
“So I gathered.”
“You were headed north, which was the way I wanted to go. I lost you when you crossed over on the ferry. The ferry guy told me that your probable destination was Steubenville. I got a room here, got some sleep, then went out looking for you. I hoped to spot you on the street or in a bar or something. You showed up at that last place. I was going to come over, but then you took off.”
“I just wanted to get you alone with a gun in my hand. A woman can’t be too careful around here.”
Christian looked abashed. “I’m sorry to be such a bother. So do you think you’ll be heading east, into Pennsylvania?”
“That’s Westsylvania,” she told him, “And yes.”
“And then what? North or east or south?”
“Nosy, aren’t we? Well it just so happens that I am headed up north, but I’m in no great hurry to get there.” Shadow wasn’t particularly wary about giving Christian so much information because she thought he was a puddin’.
“Well, that’s perfect. Would it be okay if I tagged along? Like I said, I can pay you.”
“Ah, those magic words. How much?”
“A thousand dollars a week.”
It didn’t take Shadow long to think it over. She suspected that he wasn’t telling her everything, but that was okay. He didn’t give off any sort of dangerous vibe. And if he did try any funny business, he’d be fuckin’-A sorry.
“Then I guess we’ll be traveling together,” she told him, “My name is Tamar Lane, but most people call me Shadow.”
“Tamar Lane? By any chance named after the conqueror, Tamerlane?”
“You’re quick, and a man who knows his history. Yes, but my dad actually got it from Poe. It’s a Border Region thing. Some parents like to give their kids names with weird associations. I have two little nieces named Lois and Margo.”
“Margo? Shouldn’t she be called Shadow?”
Shadow couldn’t help but crack a smile. “Knows the classics too,” she said, liking him but not trusting him or anyone else. Right now, though, she was more concerned with the three knuckle-draggers who had come in during their conversation.
They had seated themselves at a table on the other side of the coffee shop. Shadow had been keeping an eye on them. They were outlaw types, clad in leather vests or jackets. Possibly they were members of one of the old biker gangs like the Pagans that had taken to horseback, but Shadow didn’t notice any insignia. The least of them was bigger than she was, and tell-tale bulges in their clothes indicated that they were armed.
The trio had noticed Shadow as well. A troop of baboons in heat could have made it no more obvious. Salacious grins, coarse laughter, elbow pokes to each others’ ribs and other such juvenile antics all made the plan growing in their dim little brains all too plain. Shadow decided to see just how stupid they were.
“All done with your pie, Sweetie?” she asked Christian, “Then we should be off.”
After leaving the coffee shop, Shadow led Christian across the street and started down the sidewalk. That way a slight turn of her head could bring the coffee shop entrance within range of her peripheral vision. Sure enough, the Stooges came spilling out mere moments later. There hadn’t even been time for their orders to arrive. This left no doubt as to their intentions.
“Don’t look back,” Shadow told her companion, “But there are three guys following us. I said don’t look back!”
Christian instantly checked his hasty instinctive motion. “Wh-what do they want?” he stammered.
“Nuthin’ much. Just to rape me and kill you.”
“My God! What do we do?”
“Just put your arm around me like we’re a couple.” As Christian did so, Shadow informed him, “I’m going to lead them into an alley and get the drop on them. Worked on you.”
Shadow led the trio down a dark street. The three men’s heavy footsteps clearly announced their presence to anyone within earshot. The normal reaction of a woman being followed by strange men would be to seek refuge in a crowded place. Instead she was headed into a more deserted area. This should have roused the trio’s suspicions. To Shadow, the fact that it didn’t was further indication that these three knuckle-draggers didn’t have four brain cells to share amongst them.
The trio hung back, curious to see where the man and woman were going. Shadow surprised them by ducking into an alley, leading Christian by the hand. One of the
Stooges actually let out a hoot, like he couldn’t believe their luck.
In the alley, Shadow flattened herself against a building in the first dark cranny she could find. She told Christian to keep going, “Run! I’ll catch up in a minute.” Christian took off, dashing fleetly down the alley.
Momentarily, the three pursuers came rounding the corner. They spotted Christian in his light clothes running away and assumed that Shadow, clad in black, was lost in the gloom ahead of him. They quickened their pace to overtake him. As they rushed past Shadow’s position, she called out to them.
The three halted abruptly, almost stumbling into one another. They turned. Shadow had them covered with her Glock. It would have been far safer for her to have just bushwhacked them, but shooting guys in the back always made her feel icky. If they were smart, they would raise their hands and keep them high in the air as she made them face the wall while she disarmed them. Shadow hoped they were stupid.
They were. Asshole number one went for his own gun as soon as he saw her. Good, Shadow thought as she shot him in the face. He clutched at his ruined features as he pitched backwards, dead before he hit the ground. Shadow was already pumping bullets into the chest of a second asshole fumbling for his weapons. He toppled into some garbage cans, knocking them over with a loud crash. The third one almost had his gun leveled at Shadow when he felt her hot lead tearing through his body. The impact of the slugs spun him about as he reeled and fell headlong to pavement.
Up ahead in the darkness, Christian stopped running when he heard the shots. He slumped back against a wall, gulping air. The echo of the gunshots reverberated down the narrow alleyway. Somewhere, a couple of dogs started howling. As the gunshot echoes died away, Christian felt an icy jolt of fear at the sound of approaching footsteps. Then, with relief, he realized that it was just one pair of footsteps.
Squinting into the inky blackness, Christian was able to make out the silhouette of a tall figure as it drew near. Another second and Shadow stood before him. Unexpectedly, he found himself struck by her loveliness as she stepped into the patch of soft moonlight that revealed her. Her strange pale beauty was like nothing he had ever seen. The wan moonlight bathed her in its glow. For a brief moment she seemed like some ethereal being, unearthly if not exactly angelic.
“Praise the Lord!” Christian gasped. Then the scent of gunpowder that clung to her jostled him from his reverie. “What happened back there?”
“Played `em a deadly song on the Glockenspiel,” Shadow said coldly.
“Was it necessary?”
“Yeah,” she snapped, “They were fuckin’ armed to the teeth.” It was true. The first guy she’d shot had been pulling a Heckler and Koch machine pistol from a shoulder rig. He’d also had a Beretta 9 mm. clipped to his belt for backup. The last guy to go down had been leveling a SIG Sauer .40 at her. The Stooge in the middle was the only one who hadn’t had a chance to draw on her. Gazing coldly down on his corpse, Shadow discovered that he wore a pair of .45 automatics. All three piles of fresh worm food had been carrying a lot more firepower than she had
“Look,” she told Christian, “This is nothing to worry about, but we really shouldn’t hang around town. Where’s your bike?”
“It’s at the hotel.”
Shadow and Christian headed back to the town’s main drag, where a few pub-crawlers were still abroad. For appearances’ sake they played the cute couple. They made an odd pair, to be sure, but opposites do sometimes attract. No one gave them a second glance.
There they caught a pedi-cab. This was essentially a bicycle towing a backseat big enough for two people. A few of these were still about despite the lateness of the hour. The cab-drivers all went armed, and there was money to made picking up drunks.
At the hotel, Christian retrieved his bicycle and backpack. The old bus station where Shadow had stabled her pinto was not far from there. Before long they were headed north out of town. After a few miles they came to an intact bridge and crossed over the Ohio River back into West Virginia. Now Shadow could breathe a little easier.
Surely by this time the Steubenville cops had decided that it was safe to investigate the mess Shadow had left for them in the alley. Law enforcement officials in these parts were notoriously corrupt, not to mention lazy. They were perfectly willing to let the “undesirable” elements thin out their own ranks. This time they would find three heavily-armed thugs that had been out-gunned by a single foe, with the entry wounds in their fronts and the exit wounds in their backs. Nobody would be doing much hand-wringing over them. Right now they were probably being loaded onto the horse-drawn meat wagon. Next stop, the morgue. Final destination, potter’s field.
Shadow took comfort in the certainty that no Steubenville officers would come knocking on the doors of their Weirton counterparts any time soon. There was little love lost between the two agencies. If some troublemaker cleared out of Steubenville headed for Weirton, it was Weirton’s problem.
Weirton authorities, like those in Steubenville, were content to let the various outlaw factions settle their own disputes, cracking down only if some innocent civilian got caught in the crossfire. If things got too out of hand, they could give a yell for help to the Wheeling authorities or the West Virginia State Police. The arrangement suited just about everyone. The hardcore badasses could drink, drug, fight and screw to their hearts’ content. With the very worst elements “contained” in Weirton, Wheeling was able to thrive as a boomtown. This made its mayor and the governor very happy.
There were others, however, who were not so pleased. The Weirton riffraff inevitably spilled over into neighboring Steubenville. In a dying community, there were many purveyors of food, drink, sex, drugs, and other basics willing to profit by catering to the outlaw trade. The fact that the Weirton hot zone had almost immediately spread to encompass Steubenville was the source of the animosity that Steubenville officials felt for Weirton and West Virginians in general.
Shadow and Christian got into Weirton late in the wee morning hours. A fog had rolled in. The streets were all but deserted. The town’s revelers had mostly concluded their various debaucheries and had bedded down to sleep it off. The fog enveloped the deserted streets like a shroud. Visibility was poor, but Shadow knew Weirton of old. She guided the pinto unerringly through the mist, Christian walking his bike alongside. They soon reached the center of town.
They checked into an old hotel called the Gilman. After corralling the horse in a courtyard to the rear of the building, Shadow returned to the street. She and Christian entered the lobby through the front door, trailed by a few clinging tendrils of fog. Shadow banged on the bell on the worn front desk to summon the night manager, who had been sleeping in a back room. The concierge escorted them up three flights of creaking stairs to a pair of adjoining rooms. Christian awkwardly bid Shadow goodnight, and they retired to their separate quarters.
Shadow was pleased to find that her room was reasonably clean and free from vermin. She began to undress for bed. She was clad only in her thong panties and Go-Go Lounge tank top when her finely-honed survival instincts alerted her to some faint noise that seemed out of place. She froze, her keen ears straining to catch and identify the barely audible sound. The concierge had said that the other rooms on this floor were all vacant. Yet the distinct sound of a human voice in a neighboring room was unmistakable. She realized with alarm that it was coming from the room Christian had taken.
That little shit! Who was he talking to? She recalled earlier warning signs: him stalking her, that lame story about the girl. Was she being set up after all? But how? They had seen no one else. No one could have followed…
Shadow wrestled her racing mind under control. She’d know soon enough, by god. She unholstered the Glock and glided towards the connecting door. She pressed her ear to it. It was his voice alright, but she couldn’t tell what he was saying.
Slowly, taking care not to make any noise, Shadow released the deadbolt on her side of the door. The door itself was pretty flimsy. One good shove would bust it right open. Shadow braced herself and butted hard with her shoulder.
The door turned out to be neither locked nor bolted on Christian’s side. Shadow was through it in an instant. She had expected more resistance, and her momentum carried her stumbling into the middle of Christian’s room.
Jolted by the crash of the door as it was flung open, an astonished Christian looked up to behold a half-naked Shadow, gun in hand, as she came reeling into his room. But Shadow was no less surprised by what she saw there.
Christian was by himself. He was kneeling by the bed in his dorky-looking underwear, hands clasped in front of him. Shadow was taken aback for a second, not knowing what to make of what she saw. Then it came to her: Oh yeah, right…he was saying his prayers.
“Uh, sorry,” she said, lowering the gun, “I thought you were talking to someone.”
“I was,” he said.
For a second Shadow looked as though she were poised to deliver some caustic remark, but she didn’t. Her expression softened. “Get some sleep, Church-boy,” she told him.
That said, Shadow turned abruptly on her heel and headed back towards the connecting door like she was striding down a runway. She indulged a sudden temptation to flaunt her ass as she walked. Pausing at the threshold, she looked back over her shoulder at Christian and was gratified to see him gawking at her. “Pleasant dreams,” she added with a sly smile before disappearing back into her room.
Shadow closed the door behind her. The hinges were a little loose from her shoving through it, but nothing was broken. She locked and bolted it.
She stretched out on her bed and sighed contentedly, thinking about Christian in the next room, certain he was thinking about her. She wasn’t normally such a dick-tease, but he’d really bugged her with that praying shit. If he spent the night tossing and turning, it served him right. For her part, she’d be glad just to get some sleep. After having to hightail it out of a different town two nights in a row, she was more than happy to spend what was left of the night here in this room.
By the time the first gray light of dawn began to dispel the darkness and the fog outside, Shadow was fast asleep.
Next: Indian Summer