Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Busted Axle Road
a novel by
Wes Boyd
Copyright ©1993, ©2001, ©2007, ©2013

Chapter 18

As Jennifer had expected, it was a lot of fun to walk into the Record-Herald office the next morning with her hair pinned up, wearing a pair of cutoff blue jeans and a T-shirt advertising a rock concert ten years past. As expected, the mailroom crew was all smiles, and there was a lot of reminiscing and gossiping that went on all through the early hours, while the staff waited for Mike’s return from Camden.

Only Kirsten seemed out of sorts; and that wasn’t surprising, as heavily pregnant as she was, on a day that was already hot, and would get hotter before it was over with. Jennifer could remember how joyfully pregnant Kirsten had been with Tiffany, ten years before, and how out of sorts she’d gotten near the end.

It seemed that pregnancy wasn’t the only thing that had Kirsten out of sorts. "Nanook of the North and his buddy, Sergeant Preston, picked up another dog last night," she reported to Carrie. "This was a stray that someone had found. He looks like a husky, and his name was already King, so they didn’t even have to dream up a new name," she went on. "Any minute now, they’re going to be studying maps of Alaska."

Jennifer had heard about the dog team on a phone call with her mother a couple weeks before, but she was the only one who hadn’t heard about the latest adventures, so Kirsten had to fill her in. Mark had taken the tractor and mower and had cut a series of trails into the weedy, overgrown field across the road from Mike and Kirsten’s. It seemed like every evening, Mark or Mike was out being towed around the field on the ATV. Never for long in this heat; just long enough to give the dogs a little workout and work on their signals training. "At least usually they’ll come to a stop within a hundred yards of where you tell them to stop," she reported, "So, I guess that’s progress."

"I’ll have to come out and watch. It sounds like fun," Jennifer observed.

"It sounds like madness," Kirsten said. "And, the madness is catching. Last night, Tiffany made a real serious pitch to me. If little hemorrhoid-maker here is a girl, she wants to name her ‘Susan.’"

"That’s a nice name," Jennifer said.

"Not when she wants to name her after Susan Butcher," Kirsten snorted. "You know who Susan Butcher is? She’s the gal who won this thousand-mile sled dog race in Alaska the last two years."

"I can think of worse reasons to give kids names," Jennifer said. "In fact . . . "

"Don’t you dare," Carrie broke in, knowing that her daughter was about to needle her about Brandy’s name again, "we were a little goofy when we did that."

" . . . Susan is a nice name, and the fact that her namesake is such a strong, powerful person would be kind of nice. Can’t you just see the first woman president being named, oh, ‘Candy’ or, ‘Peaches?’"

They all laughed at that one. When the laughter died down a little, Jennifer asked, "Well, have you worked out a name?"

"If it’s a boy, it’s going to be ‘Mike, Jr.,’" Kirsten said. "That was settled a long time ago. We really haven’t come up with a name for a girl, though ‘Amanda’ seems to come up fairly often." She frowned, and gritted her teeth for a minute, then went on with a more serious tone in her voice, "And, if it’s a girl, we’re going to have to settle it pretty damn soon."

The tone in Kirsten’s voice alerted Carrie. "How soon?" she asked.

"Real soon," Kirsten said. "I mean, REAL soon."

"Are you saying . . . "

"Yeah," Kirsten said. "They’ve always come quick. I don’t think I’d better hang around waiting for Mike to get back."

"I’ll take you," Carrie offered.

"Somebody had better be sure that Mike gets over to the hospital as soon as he gets back," Kirsten said.

"I’ll go with you," Jennifer offered. The three went out to Carrie’s car. Kirsten told Jennifer that she’d been keeping a bag in the car with her for days, and Jennifer ran over to grab the bag. The drive to the hospital only took a few minutes, but Kirsten was glad to be there; things were happening quickly, now.

Carrie and Jennifer decided they’d better stick around until Mike arrived, just in case. It was a good decision, because as Kirsten had predicted, things did happen quickly. They couldn’t have been at the hospital twenty minutes before Kirsten was being rolled into one of the delivery rooms. "Come on along, you guys," Kirsten said. "If Mike’s not here, I want someone to hold my hand."

Jennifer wasn’t sure she wanted to, but knew enough not to argue. It turned out she knew the nurse who got gowns for her mother and herself, and there was a second of greeting of old friends, and a second of greeting of Dr. Brege, who had been her doctor when she’d been a kid. Beyond that, Jennifer didn’t know what to expect, but Jenny sort of helped out, right then; she realized that it might be something to remember, since there was no telling when something of this sort might come up in a movie role. Fortunately, Mike arrived a few minutes later, and she was able to stand back and watch a baby be born, a girl.

There was something to think about in what she saw; in fact, much to think about. "I think it’s time we left," Carrie whispered, and Jennifer agreed. Quietly, they snuck out into the hall, to leave the proud new parents to their privacy.

After their robes were off, they walked out into the parking lot. "That was quite an experience," Jennifer told her mother. "I’ve never seen that before."

"Well," Carrie smiled, "that’s the first time I’ve ever watched, rather than having been the center of the action. I could feel right along with Kirsten, but none of you kids were ever that easy."

"That’s really something to remember," Jennifer said, exhilarated. "It sort of makes me . . . what the hell?"

"What?" Carrie looked over at her daughter, who was staring at a dark green Dodge.

"Did you just see two guys duck behind that car?" Jennifer asked. "One of them looked like he had a video camera."

"I didn’t see anything," Carrie said. "We’d better get back. They’re really going to be shorthanded."

Jennifer was pretty sure about what she’d seen. What’s more, the video camera wasn’t a home camera; it was a big, professional job.

Two or three blocks up the street, Jennifer turned around and looked behind the car. There, well back, was the green Dodge, following them. All of a sudden, fear mixed with sadness hit her. Perhaps Jenny wasn’t in L.A. after all.

She looked again, and realized that she couldn’t see the car, now. Perhaps she was imagining things.

"What took you so long?" a sweating Webb said from the chair at the Addressograph machine when they walked into the mail room at the Record-Herald.

"A little baby girl," Carrie smiled. "Mike got there just in time. We got to watch.

"Well, that’s great," Webb smiled back. "Now we’ll have Mike down here passing out cigars tomorrow."

There was a minute while work came to a halt during the report to the mail room staff. "Well, I suppose we’d better get at it," Carrie said finally. Sally and Pat were just about ready to go out running the dealer route, but the inserters were already pulling ahead of Webb, who was running one of the two Addressographs they normally used.

"Do you think you could call Danny in to tie?" Webb asked.

"Danny’s out braking, but I can stamp," Carrie offered.

"Well, I haven’t forgotten how to run a Saxmayer," Jennifer said.

Webb nodded. "Good thing," he said. "There’s already a pile to get started on."

The next hour was out of a dream for Jennifer. It was like she was still in high school, working in the mail room on Wednesdays during summer break. It was hot and noisy in the mail room, and throwing the bundles around and all the machines running at once was noisy and dirty, but wonderful. Everybody there was a friend, and it was fun to talk, even though conversation had to be loud to be understood over the noise.

For that wonderful hour, she almost forgot about the two men in the green Dodge, but when she went to the front office to use the bathroom, the vehicle was sitting in the parking lot across the street, and the two men and the video camera were waiting in the shade of a tree.

She hadn’t been dreaming, then. Heart sinking, she went to the camera cabinet, pulled out a Canon body and a big telephoto lens. From the shadows in the office, the aimed the camera out the window and checked the situation through the lens.

There was no doubt. Though she could not quite read the lettering in the viewfinder of the camera, the logo on the side of the video camera read Hollywood Tonight; the men were that weasel-faced producer she’d talked to at the Defenders of Gaea shoot, and the same cameraman, a thin white guy with a greasy fifties haircut.

Carefully, Jennifer set the camera down on the nearest desk, then collapsed into the nearest chair, feeling like she was going to cry. "Blake, where are you, now that I need you?" she said aloud.

*   *   *

Eight years, Heather thought as she warmed water for instant coffee in her grubby little apartment. Eight years, and what have I got to show for it? A few crummy sticks of furniture that’s not worth hauling out for the garbage. Let the super do it after she left.

It wasn’t going to take her any five or six days to pack up and close the apartment, she realized; she could do it today, if she wanted to. She’d done some good in those eight years, but it seemed like the good hadn’t come very often. All too often, when something good had happened, it was something she hadn’t felt very good about.

It had been with such a flush of victory that she’d come to Los Angeles to work for the Defenders. They’d actually stopped construction on Old Brook, and it had never opened! Now that had been worth what she’d had to do to those police officers! McMullen had been right, after all, they’d been spies, but she’d converted them long enough to make it count. In fact, there hadn’t been a new nuclear plant opened since Old Brook was stopped, and that was a victory to feel good about on all the dark and lonely nights since.

But that had been a long time ago. There’d been a lot of pants to unzip since then, and never had there been anything quite close to that victory.

What really hurt was the way Harper and McMullen had brushed off her suggestion about doing something about the Japanese whaling fleet. She realized now that she’d started out all wrong, talking about torpedoes and kamikazes. It would work, sure, but nothing that extreme was needed. She’d thought it all out carefully. It was clear that whaling was economically nothing more than a pimple on the backside of the Japanese economy, and all the cars they imported were a heck of a lot more important. All it would have taken would have been a few demonstrations against importing Japanese cars, here on the coast where a lot of people both cared about whales and drove Japanese cars, and the whaling fleet would get sunk quicker than the U.S. Navy could manage. Why the hell hadn’t Greenpeace ever seen that? Bunch of babies.

She’d had it all worked out in her head, a good program, one that would help out a lot and would really make the Defenders look good, and not even cost much. But, they’d brushed her off again, and sent her off into the wilds of goddamn somewhere in the frozen north, over some snake that no one was sure even existed. Here’s a big program for you to run, it’s real important, make a name for yourself, and no, we’re not going to give you any help.

Big goddamn deal.

It wasn’t the first time that McMullen and Harper had brushed her off, sent her off on some pipsqueak thing, instead of something worthwhile. At least this time, they didn’t tell her to go down on somebody in the process. It was too bad that job with that conservancy in Pennsylvania hadn’t come through. It was nothing spectacular; probably no bigger deal than those snakes, but she’d have been her own operator, not a mouth-whore for McMullen and Harper.

At worst, it would only be a few months in that godforsaken town, wherever it was. They expected her to accomplish the impossible? Well, she’d do that. She’d done it before, but maybe this time it wouldn’t be McMullen taking all the credit. Do it right, and maybe she could get a staff job some place where what she did would count. She had resumés out all over the place; a success on her own, where McMullen would have a hard time stealing the credit, couldn’t hurt. And, by God, she’d do it without unzipping one single pair of pants, if for no other reason than to prove to herself that she could do it.

The water was boiling in the pan on the stove by now, but she realized she didn’t care. The bottle she’d killed last night was lying in the sink, and her head didn’t feel very good, but then, neither did she.

"Where did I go wrong?" she said aloud. Everything had seemed so wonderful after Old Brook; it seemed like she could have moved the earth. She’d wanted to save the earth for her children, and now, here she was, pushing thirty, with the old biological clock ticking away, and she’d never gotten near to even thinking about having children. Maybe I’d better just give it up, find some man who works in a factory somewhere, and sit at home and stay pregnant, she thought. Sit at home, and watch soap operas all day, and not give a damn anymore. I’ve given enough damn for a lifetime.

She laughed bitterly at the thought. That would be suicide, just as sure as if she took a razor blade to her wrists. Everything that she’d stood for, everything that she’d worked for, wasted.

Some good man, then. Some committed man. Someone she could share her life with, her vision of a better world. God, there had to be somebody out there, but all the good men were taken, or gay. She’d met two or three over the years who she felt something could have been done with, but she’d always been too busy, too preoccupied with doing something for the Defenders. For McMullen and Harper.

What I really ought to do is go home, go back to Walden Pond, and have a talk with Henry’s ghost, she thought. God knows, it’s been long enough since I’ve been back home.

The thought brightened her; it was the first good idea she’d had since she woke up with her head aching. She got up, turned off the heat, and poured hot water into a cup. It wouldn’t be any big trick to do it, she realized. She wouldn’t have to be up to that damn stupid little town until the end of next week, or maybe even later. McMullen and Harper wouldn’t know, and if they did, probably wouldn’t care, and if they did, the hell with them. A drive across the country, and halfway back, might be a good way to clear her head. Her Honda probably wouldn’t make the trip, but she didn’t want to drive a Japanese car anyway, not with those Japanese killing whales.

That was a thought. People in the Midwest didn’t care for people who drove Japanese cars, anyway. She’d get a lot of people mad eventually, anyway, but there was no sense in starting off on the wrong foot.

The coffee ate through her agony a little bit, a fresh, good idea coming on. Trade the Honda in on a decent American car, load it up, and get out of here, today.

She smiled with the rightness of it all. There wouldn’t be a lot to take, even if she took everything she owned. A few clothes, a few mementos, a few files, the laptop, so she could communicate with the L.A. computer over the phone if she had to. It wouldn’t be much of a load, even for a little car.

She drained her coffee, hot though it was, and got up. It was so much easier to do something when she had something to do. She went in, and turned on the hot water to run a tub for herself. While it was drawing, she went to the phone, and called the Defenders, and asked Mollie to put her through to Harper.

He was on the phone in seconds. "What’s up, Heather?" he asked.

"I got to thinking about it," she said. "There’s no sense in my flying out to this little town, then having to pay rent on a car for months. That’ll cost us a lot that could be used for other things. I’m going to drive out there, even if it takes another couple days. I still ought to be there by the middle of next week, so there’s really no time lost."

"Sounds like a good trip," Harper purred. "Everybody should drive across this country once in a while. It sort of makes you realize how big a job we’ve got."

"I knew you’d see it my way, Harris," she replied.

*   *   *

Mike was still all smiles when he walked into the office Thursday morning. He was late; after he’d taken the kids out to the club for the day, he’d come back and spent some time at the hospital with Kirsten and Susan. It looked like Kirsten would be there another day, but after the Tuesday and Wednesday push, Thursday and Friday weren’t often very busy around the Record-Herald, anyway.

It took Mike a while to work his way around the staff. It was, after all, his third kid and almost certainly his last, but there was still some obligatory backslapping and bull shooting that had to take place. Finally, he settled in behind his desk, and started on the stack of mail Webb had left there.

Gradually, he became aware of someone standing in the doorway. He looked up and said, "Jennifer! Sorry I didn’t get to say much more than ‘hi’ yesterday, but you know how it was. Thanks for helping."

"Thanks for letting me stay," Jennifer said quietly. "I know it wasn’t as exciting for me as it was for you, but congratulations."

"I didn’t mind," he said. "How’ve you been, anyway?"

"Mike," she replied, "can we talk?"

Mike could see that Jennifer had something on her mind. "Sure," he said.

She went in, closed the door, and sat down. "Look, Mike," she said, "I’ve got a problem, and I hate to come to you with it, but I don’t want my family to hear about this. I had a heck of a time acting through yesterday afternoon and last night, before I realized you were someone I could talk to."

"What’s the problem, Jennifer?"

"Mike, if you were to walk out in the front office and look across the street, you’d see a green Dodge and two guys with a video camera. They’re a field team from Hollywood Tonight, and I told them weeks ago that not only was I not going to give them an interview in Spearfish Lake, but I didn’t want them here at all."

"They came anyway, huh?"

"I don’t know what they want, Mike. An interview, maybe, but if I give them one to make them go away, it’ll be like paying blackmail. If I just let them hang around town and they find out about my parents, I’ll never be able to come home again without filling all the local motels with paparazzi." She seemed near tears.

"They might not find out," Mike said.

Jennifer shook her head. "They’re bound to be asking around about me, and sooner or later someone’s going to give them the connection."

"Yeah," Mike conceded. "It wouldn’t take more than a dirty smile on the right person to set them on the right track." He laughed. "Take them out there and give them an interview. It won’t get on the air."

"It wouldn’t work, Mike. I mean, what do I do when I want to come home again? I live in a goddamn media circus fish bowl as it is. I come home to get away from all of that shit, and as soon as anybody from that nuthouse finds out about it, whenever I come home, you wouldn’t be able to see the trees on the far side of the lake for all the camera lenses, trying to get a nude shot of me. That’s why I quit going out there." She shook her head and dropped her voice, seeming very vulnerable now. "Mike, I have to get away from that sometimes. Being able to come back to Spearfish Lake is the only thing that keeps me going. I can’t allow the only refuge I have to be taken away like that."

Back when Webb had sat in Mike’s chair as the editor, he’d kept a pack of cigarettes in the desk drawer for when it came time to think things out. "Greatest aid to concentration ever invented," Webb had said; it was the only time he smoked. Mike didn’t know about that; he didn’t smoke at all. Mostly he’d given away chocolate cigars this morning, except to people he knew who actually did smoke cigars, but right now, he ached for one of Webb’s cigarettes, or at least an aid to concentration. "Look, Jennifer," he said, "I know the last three or four years, every time we’ve talked, I’ve gotten hints that things could be going better for you," he said. "Is it that bad?"

"The career is going great," she sighed. "I could be working forty-eight hours a day if I wanted to, and stacking it up like the IRS. But when I get home at night, I’m so lonely and bummed out that there’s been times I’ve been surprised I haven’t tried to kill myself. Without being able to come home, and without Blake, I don’t know what I’d do."

"Blake is a little more than just your housekeeper, then?"

"I love Blake, I respect Blake, I adore Blake, I depend on Blake for my life sometimes," Jennifer admitted. "I couldn’t make it without him. But Blake and I aren’t in love, mostly because he’s gay."

That last word reverberated around in Mike’s skull for a second before he managed to say something. "I can see how that would put a different slant on things," he said finally.

"He’s a great big guy, kind of like Daddy," Jennifer said. "It got to the point where I needed a bodyguard, and I’d be lying to you if I told you that there aren’t women in that town who have been raped by their bodyguards, so I thought it was a neat way around the problem. I got more than I bargained for. God, he’s been so good to me. But, Mike, you see that’s even part of the problem, why I can’t take any of this to my parents. It would upset them too much. I was able to fake it last night. Since Brandy and Phil are home, my parents have been staying home out of courtesy to Phil, rather than out at the club, but Brandy and Phil are leaving tomorrow, so they’ll be going back out."

Mike knew that for Brandy’s sake, Phil had once been out to the cottage, but that once had been enough for him. Brandy and Phil had a very tight, but unofficial relationship, like he and Kirsten did. Brandy had reached the point where she could take the club or leave it, and Gil and Carrie had come to the point of accepting and accommodating the inevitable. "Yeah," he replied. "It’d be difficult to just pick up and leave."

"They’d know something was wrong," Jennifer agreed. "Mike, what the hell do I do?"

"Just ignore them," Mike said.

"I suppose," she sighed. It wasn’t the right answer, and she knew it, but if Mike couldn’t think of anything better, it was the only thing to do. "But it’s not going to be much of a vacation if I can’t see my folks, and have to be hiding out from those jokers all the time."

"Maybe the answer is to go out to the cottage," Mike suggested. "It might work, anyway. There are enough long-haired blondes running around out there that they’re not likely to be able to single you out from across the lake, even with a bigger telescope than they can carry in their car. Your folks’ cottage is pretty well back in the trees. But, your parents are going to have to learn sooner or later that everything isn’t sweetness and light."

"No point in just leading them out there," she said, resigned to the inevitable loss of her home. She’d never be able to come home again, and she knew it. "Is there anything we can do to make them work for it?"

"Any number of things," Mike said. "I think LeRoy is on days this week. You could lead those two up Main Street, and we could have LeRoy set up to stop them for speeding or no turn signal or something. While he’s running the file, you’re losing them."

"That would work," she agreed.

Mike picked up the phone and started to dial it. At this hour of the morning, the odds were just about perfect that LeRoy would be on his morning coffee break at the Donut Shop; that’s how Mike often got his police report. He got halfway through the number before he stopped and laughed. "Or, we could solve the problem, this time anyway, without wasting a perfectly good idea just to break contact."

There was a mischievous sparkle in Mike’s eye, and an evil grin on his face. "What have you got in mind?" she asked.

"Let’s see," Mike said, ignoring her as he dialed the phone furiously. "Mark’ll be out and around somewhere, but Jackie ought to be at the shop."

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