by Sylvia Nickels
part 1 of 2
Celia Celeste ‘CC’ Benedict pushed her right turn signal lever up, checked her right side mirror, and steered the Winnebago into the next lane. She glimpsed another green and white Interstate sign. “Damn. Half-mile.”
The mirror showed the 18-wheeler running beside her drop back and a hole in the exit lane open up. She chanced a fractional glance at the somnolent occupant of the wide mesh, over-sized cage belted into the passenger seat.
“Guess we won’t have to go on to the next exit after all, eh, Ori?”
The cat’s eye slitted open for a brief moment. She stretched her back legs in the late afternoon sun slanting through the vehicle window. The muted yellows, browns, and pinkish orange colors of her calico coat glowed with the soft hue of a worn Oriental rug. Her colors and penchant for sleeping most of the time, lying stretched out like a small rug, accounted for her name.
CC pulled over and onto the exit ramp, leaving the crowded Interstate, and drove a dozen miles. She reached the little RV park a few minutes after five. A sign with the word ‘Office’ lettered in black hung above the door of a low-slung building. Trees crowded near the building and over the park, casting deep shadow over the few older looking recreational vehicles already there.
“Just the ambience we need for the next few scenes in the book, right, Ori?” CC unlatched her seatbelt and stepped down, glad to stretch after hours of highway driving.
The shaky frame of the screen door scraped as she pulled it open and she jumped as a loud ‘dong’ sounded above her head. Only then did she notice the rusted metal cowbell hooked to the eave of the frame building, connected by an equally rusty chain to the door. A deep growl sounded from the interior of the building.
“Shut up, Beau.” A woman’s voice shouted. She continued speaking in a lower tone. “Ain’t got no more hookups.”
Guessing the woman was talking to her, though unable to see her in the semidarkness, CC answered. “CC Benedict. I have a reservation.”
“Oh, yeah. The writer.” A dumpy woman swam into view, rounding the corner of a large dark desk, as CC’s eyes became adjusted to the gloomy interior. “Just sign the book. Have to do your own settin’ up, I ain’t got nobody here to help.”
“Not necessary.” CC signed the proffered book.
“Here’s a list of rules. No littering. No loud parties.”
“Eighty-five dollars per night, right?” CC took the list of rules without looking at it.
“How long you figure to be staying?” The woman demanded.
“A couple of nights, probably.” No longer CC decided on the spot. She dug the hundred seventy dollars from her bag and laid it on the desk.
She’d stayed at some unusual RV parks in the six months she’d been on the road. This one looked to take the prize. Her travels were part research for another book, but mostly part of her plan to retire early, and rich. An added bonus was being able to sleep in her own bed at night.
On this trip CC was following the itinerary of the protagonist in her book-in-progress. Insurance investigator Iris White was pursuing a couple who’d faked the woman’s death to collect on a sizable insurance policy.
“Name’s Matt Stabbert. Need anything, I ain’t got it. Convenience store up the road ‘bout three miles.” Matt Stabbert handed CC her receipt. “Your slot’s the last slab on the right side.” The woman followed her out and stood hands on substantial hips.
Ori lounged on the dash of the Winnebago. CC frowned. How had the cat escaped her latched cage? Ori’s yellow unwavering stare pierced the windshield and she leapt to her feet, every single hair on her body stood straight out, giving her the look of a calico porcupine.
The woman stared back, her thin lips pressed together almost to invisibility. “Better keep that cat inside alla time. Beau don’t like cats.”
Maybe Beau had followed them out. Then she remembered he’d been secured to a wrought-iron coat tree by a heavy lead. CC turned to look behind them. But there stood the huge black Rottweiler beside his mistress. Funny. She hadn’t seen Matt Stabbert reach to unhook his lead. Unwilling to display her unease, she tried not to jump into the RV.
Her attempts to avoid the deepest potholes in the rutted lane that bisected the RV park were only partially successful. Ori had jumped down from the dash and disappeared into the back. What had gotten into Ori, fuzzing up like that? And there was something familiar about Matt Stabbert. But she’d never been to this campsite, only driven through Chattanooga once before.
Night had almost settled in under the low-hanging trees though it was not yet six o’clock. Better get the electric hooked up. She could have run the motor home on power from the bank of batteries underneath the living area. The sunny day had fully charged them through the solar panels on the roof. But the last radio weather report she’d heard called for clouds the next few days.
She opened the cover on the electrical box attached to a two-by-four stuck in the ground and plugged the RV line to it. She switched on her outside flood light and with some difficulty hooked up to the water supply, though she had no intention of drinking the vile liquid which came from the corroded line. The sewer connection was even more resistant to her efforts, but using it postponed having to empty the sanitary storage tank.
She filled a gallon jug from her reserve water tank and poured some in Ori’s water dish, then opened a packet of cat food. Her own supper consisted of the roast beef sandwich she’d picked up at Arby’s and a bag of potato chips. She poured another cup of coffee, sat down at the built in desk, and turned on her computer.
She wouldn’t have taken the Interstate route, preferring more scenic state highways, but she’d wanted to reach Chattanooga today. She flipped through her directories to the last chapter she’d worked on in Staunton, Virginia last night. God, that was a long haul. Interstate 81 until it terminated at I-40 West a few miles north of Knoxville and joined I-75 South, remaining with I-75 when they split and on to Chattanooga. Iris White had chased the unsavory couple to Chattanooga. They were holed up at a fishing camp and Iris was sitting in her Chevy Tahoe nearby ...
She jerked back in her chair as recognition dawned. Matt Stabbert fit the description of the overweight female half of the pair of crooks down to the lank hair, loud voice, and sunken dark eyes. CC opened her desk drawer and fumbled for the descriptive dossier she always made for her characters. Yes, except for the husband, Matt was her twin. A shiver skittered down her back.
She shoved the sheet of paper back in the file. Coincidence. What else could it be?
The overhead light flickered and died. CC sat still for a moment, waiting to see if the power would come back. After a few seconds her emergency lights came on and she looked around for Ori.
Ori was standing in the middle of the floor, again giving her imitation of a porcupine, one with an equally spike-haired tail. A feline howl burst from her throat, lips stretched back from sharp teeth.
The interior shook as a loud banging shook the door of the Winnebago. CC jerked around. She and Ori stared.
Another knock rattled the door. A male voice shouted. “Mrs. Carstairs? Pat Stabbert, the owner here. You okay?”
CC slid the center drawer of her desk open and pulled out her 9 millimeter Glock, pulling the slide softly to make sure a shell was in the chamber. She held the gun pointed loosely toward the door and called through it. “I’m fine. Did the electrical service go out?”
“Yes. Does that out here in the country. Shouldn’t be out too long. We’re lettin’ everybody know.”
“Thank you. I have plenty of battery power.” She listened and after several minutes heard footsteps moving away toward the entrance of the park. So Matt had a husband named Pat, who did not help with hookups. She made patting motions and calming noises toward Ori. “It’s okay, girl. He’s gone.”
Still holding the gun, CC moved to the panel next to the refrigerator and flipped the breaker which switched her to all battery power. She turned off the overhead and wall light fixtures, leaving only the emergency lighting.
She opened the built-in cabinet next to her desk and punched on her specially installed security system. Four mini tv screens began to glow. Even in the deep shadow under the trees, the area around the RV sprang into view through the infra-red cameras artfully concealed in the walls. She saw no lurking figure in or around the vehicle. Her heart gradually slowed.
She looked toward the bedroom area beyond the kitchen. No getting into pj’s and bed tonight. Not in this place. She pulled a light blanket from the drawer beneath the couch and curled up in her clothes, gun nearby. She didn’t figure to sleep and would leave at first light. If she hadn’t hooked up the utilities, she could drive out right now. Remembering the rutted drive, though, probably better to wait for daylight anyway.
CC’s eyes flew open, apparently she had dozed after all, weak light came through the wide windshield glass. She turned her head quickly to check the security screens. Beau stood with lifted leg at the left rear tire. Son of a bitch. Then a thin, bearded man came into view, holding Beau’s lead. He stared at the RV for a minute, then man and dog moved off through the trees.
She secured the few items she’d used, checked the security screens again and looked out through all the windows of the RV. In her haste to release the utility hookups, she failed to turn the water cut-off valve and a couple of gallons splashed the slab and her sneakers. After stowing the cable and hoses, she eyeballed lights and tires and hurried back inside. Ori was settled in her cage. She was ready to leave this place, too.
Taking the drive a little faster than was prudent, she braked at the office and lowered the driver’s side window. When she gave a short honk, Matt Stabbert stepped outside.
“I have to leave, won’t be staying another night.”
“I don’t give no refunds. Couldn’t help the electric-”
“Not that. Keep the money. Goodbye.”
CC didn’t stop looking in the rear view mirror every few minutes until they were back on I-75, heading south. She crossed the Georgia state line, debating where to go. Signs announcing the exit which led to the Chickamauga Battlefield Cemetery came into view. She took the exit and drove a mile or so to the spacious parking area. She pulled into an RV space and cut the engine.
Since she hadn’t taken time for breakfast before quitting the RV park, she put on a pot of coffee. She refilled Ori’s food and water dishes, then heated an oatmeal breakfast bar for herself, washing it down with the hot coffee.
She felt rejuvenated by the food and a little foolish that she had let herself be spooked. Well, better get back to the writing she’d forsaken when the electricity went off last night. She scrolled to where Iris had staked out the fishing camp.
The camp was dark and quiet, nothing could be heard but owls and tree frogs along the river. Iris dozed. She jerked awake, not knowing what had wakened her. She realized she was looking out at an upward angle, but her seat was not tilted. She got out of the car and saw that both rear tires had been flattened. Damn. She ran to the fishing camp and saw that her quarry’s vehicle was gone. She called her auto club and an hour later sat, laptop open, in the customer service lounge of AutoZone, waiting for replacement tires to be installed.
“Hello, Iris. Fancy seeing you here.”
She jumped. “Bart. What ...?”
“After you got me fired, I had to leave town to find a job. What’s your excuse for being here?”
Iris narrowed her eyes. “None of your business. Some agency must be scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
“Well, now, I guess you’d know about that.” He gave a mean laugh.
Judging by the cheap sport jacket he wore, it wasn’t much of a job. She shrugged. “Good luck.”
“Oh, I guess you might be needing luck more than me.” He winked and walked away.
She stared after him for a minute, then sat back down and scrolled through the file on the couple who’d given her the slip. Here it was, the woman had relatives in Nashville. Iris pulled out her Tennessee map. She’d take I-24 over Monteagle. Maybe an hour later she’d be in the capital city. She checked the address for the woman’s relatives.
CC saved the file and leaned back, rolling her shoulders. She pulled her map from the desk drawer. She traced the blue lines of state highways with a fingernail. But Iris would take the fastest route to Nashville, the interstate. So she and Ori would have to take it also, this trip.
“We’ll come back and do this end of the state right, girl. Take in Lookout Mountain, Cumberland Gap, Gatlinburg.”
The sunlight slanting through the windshield told her that noon had come and gone. Nashville was a good two-hour drive from here, she’d better get going. Make a fast food stop when she was on the western side of Chattanooga.
A white car and a maroon van preceded her onto I-75, headed north. After twenty-five miles she took the I-24 exit and turned west, driving until she reached a McDonald’s on the edge of the city.
While she devoured their new walnut fruit salad and fries, she checked a Nashville city map to find a likely police precinct for Iris to check in with. So far from her home base in Virginia, she would want to make a courtesy call on local law enforcement.
Back on the highway again, they began the long climb over Monteagle Mountain. She blessed Tennessee and the federal highway system. Good road building, wide smooth curves, spectacular views over wide valleys. On the other side the 4% grades going down were not too bad, with the Winnebago in its lowest gear.
The wail of a siren reached her ears. Blue lights coming up behind her. Was she speeding? She didn’t think so. The THP cruiser flashed on by her and disappeared around the next bend in the road.
Copyright © 2006 by Sylvia Nickels