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 40

About the only thing that Tiffany Langenderfer-McMahon didnít like about living in the country was the long bus ride to school. She and Henry were almost the first children to be picked up in the morning; for whatever reason, the bus driver ran the route backwards in the afternoon, so they were about the last ones off, too. That meant for a lot of riding the bus, almost two hours a day.

Some days, if her fatherís schedule worked out, heíd take the kids and drop them off at school, which helped a little, even though he left so early that they had to sit around school for a while.

It had been good to not have to get up early to make the bus for the two weeks of Christmas vacation, and it had been hard to get back to having to wait out alongside the road in the first light of day, before the sun came up. It could get cold and lonely out there.

Two days after school started, while they were getting around in the morning, they realized that their mother wasnít at home. "Whereís Mommy and Susan?" Henry asked.

"Mommy went to Camden this morning," her father offered. "She had some Christmas presents she wanted to exchange, and some other shopping to do. Iíve got to go to Warsaw, and Iíve got to leave pretty soon."

"Whatís in Warsaw, Daddy?" Tiffany asked.

"Thereís going to be a grand opening of the new paper plant," her father said. "Iíve got to go to it."

"Whatís it going to be like?"

Her father smiled at her. "Thereíll be a lot of men in business suits, standing around drinking coffee and making boring speeches about how wonderful it is," he said. "Itís one of those things I donít want to go to, but I have to. And, I have to leave pretty soon. Can I depend on you to get you and Henry on the bus?"

"Sure, Daddy," Tiffany said.

"Henry," Mike said, "No TV until youíre all the way ready to go, except for putting your snowmobile suit on. All right?"

"All right, Daddy," he said.

Mike nodded. "I know I can depend on you kids to get to school on time," he said. "Tiffany, make sure all the lights are out, the doors are closed, and that George is tied out before you leave. I hate to do this to you, but Iíve got to get to Warsaw."

It was a big responsibility for Tiffany, and she knew it. There had only been a couple of times that her parents had left it up to her to get herself and Henry out to the bus stop, and Henry could be a slowpoke about getting ready. She kept after him, though, and they actually got to watch cartoons for a few minutes before it was time to leave.

Because they were the only children living on Busted Axle Road, they had to wait out on the corner of the state road for the bus. It was a long walk in the cold morning air, but Tiffany and Henry were out by the corner in plenty of time.

Or so they thought. That morning, there was a substitute driver on the bus run, and in order to make the run on time, heíd left a few minutes early. Unknown to Tiffany and Henry, the taillights of the bus had disappeared around the corner just before they got to where they waited for the bus every morning.

It was cold and lonely waiting out there. Every few minutes, Tiffany or Henry would climb up on top of a snowdrift and look and see if the bus was coming. The bus had never been this late before.

After a while, Tiffany happened to glance back up the road to their house, and saw the sun coming up. "Itís getting late," she said. "I think we missed the bus."

"I think so, too," Henry said. "Iím getting c-c-cold."

They waited a couple more minutes, with Tiffany slowly coming to the realization that any more waiting was futile. "All right, letís go back home," she decided finally. "Iíll call Mrs. Gravengood, and see if she can take us to school."

It seemed like an even longer walk back to the house for Tiffany. Her father had depended on her to get Henry on the bus in time, and theyíd left the house in plenty of time, but still theyíd missed the bus. What would her father say?

It was warm and comfortable inside the house, as chilled as they were. Tiffany went right to the phone and called up to Mrs. Gravengood, but there wasnít any answer. Disappointed, she hung up the phone and turned to Henry. "Sheís not home," she told him. "I donít know what weíre going to do now."

"Watch more cartoons," Henry suggested, recognizing an opportunity when he saw one.

Now, Tiffany really felt down. "I can depend on you kids to get to school on time," her father had said, and sheíd blown it. Heíd be disappointed. Maybe theyíd get punished, something like no TV, or worse for her, not being able to run the dog team.

"Get your snowmobile suit back on, and turn the TV off," she told Henry. "Weíre going to school."

"How?" Henry asked.

"Weíre going to take the dogs."

It was a little scary to think about. Sheíd run the dog team several times, and had done everything that needed to be done to get them hooked up, but her father had always been there. To do it by herself, with only Henry helping, was a big step, but she knew she didnít have much time, and didnít have time to stop and think. She and Henry went back outside, took the sled out of the barn and tied it to a pole with a tieline. She laid out the gangline, and told Henry to get squares of straw out for the dogs to lay on while they were in school, and to get a big, heavy blanket to wrap up in while he was in the sled, while she went to get Ringo.

All the dogs were cooperative, lifting their legs up to help her put the harnesses on them. In only a few minutes, she had George harnessed into the wheel position, the last dog to be hooked up. She and Henry closed the barn door, then she got Henry into the sled and wrapped the blanket around him.

The only thing that worried her was the first mad rush that the dogs always went through until they got settled down, and she hoped she could handle them. "Please, Beatle Hounds, take it easy," she pleaded, hoping theyíd understand, then slipped the tieline and let up on the sled brake. "Up! Up!" she called, as quietly as she could, not trying to excite the dogs. "Hike!"

To her amazement, the dogs started down the driveway at a gentle pace. Giving Ringo credit where credit is due, he realized that this was not a time to get into a mad rush, and he held the team down to a reasonable pace. At the end of the driveway, Tiffany called "haw!" and the five dogs turned out onto Busted Axle Road.

"Daddyís going to be mad," Henry prophesied.

"No, heís not," Tiffany said. "He said he could depend on us to get to school, and weíre going to make it on time." She raised her voice. "Hike! Hike! Go!" she yelled to the dogs, to speed them up.

Only as they ran down the snow-covered Busted Axle Road did Tiffany realize that they couldnít follow the route the bus took to school; there were too many streets, too much traffic. So, when she got out to the state road, she "geeíd" them up onto the berm, and ran there for a ways, then looked and saw that there were no cars coming. "Haw!" she ordered finally, to send the team down a snow-covered road that led to the lake.

The sled skittered over the bare pavement, then settled back down in the snow. "Itís going to work!" Tiffany told Henry, and began to sing, "Dashing through the snow, in a five-dog open sleigh,"

"Over the fields we go, laughing all the way," Henry joined in. "Bells on Bobtail . . . "

"Ringo."

"Bells on Ringo ring, making spirits bright . . . "

They reached the lakeshore, and Tiffany turned the team to run up the lake parallel the shore, out in front of town. A couple of miles went by quickly; she hurried the team up again, since there was no reason they couldnít run fast. When they reached the south side of town, she cut through several large, open yards, across the playground, and brought the team to a "whoa!" in front of the school, just as children were getting off of the buses.

From her classroom, Linda Clark could see that some sort of commotion was going on outside. She grabbed her coat and headed for the door, joining the principal as he came from the other direction. They burst outside, to find Henry laying out squares of straw for the dogs to lay on, while Tiffany stretched a picket line between two small trees in front of the school.

"Tiffany!" Linda called. "Whatís going on, here?"

"We missed the bus," Tiffany said. "And Daddy said we had to get to school on time."

"Do you know what youíre doing?" the principal asked Tiffany, glancing at the circle of children that surrounded the sled and the dogs.

"Of course," Tiffany said, slipping George from his harness. "We do this all the time."

"The dogs just canít stay outside like that, all day," Linda protested.

"Sure they can," Tiffany said, taking George by the neckline to snap him to the picket line. "They stay outside most of the time, anyway. They all slept out all night in the open when Daddy went camping with them last weekend."

"Well, they act like they know what theyíre doing," the principal said, shaking his head. "But I guess weíd better call their parents."

Pat Varner answered the phone when it rang in the Record-Herald office. "She did what?" Varner asked the principal.

"She drove the dog team to school," the principal replied. "Right now, Iíve got a couple of hundred kids standing around outside, watching Henry and her tie the dogs up."

"Keep them there," Varner said. "Iíve got to get a picture of this."

The principal didnít get in a reply; the phone slammed in his ear. Within three minutes, just as Tiffany was snapping Ringo to the picket line, Varner roared up in his car, camera dangling from his neck. He snapped several pictures before the principal got his attention. "What are we going to do about this?" he asked.

"Not much, right now," Varner said. "Kirstenís in Camden, and I know she doesnít have much to do with the dogs. Mikeís in Warsaw, and wonít be back till late this afternoon. Iíll have him come over as soon as he returns."

"Will the dogs be all right like that?" Linda asked.

"Sure," Varner said. "They sometimes spend all night sleeping in the snow at home, Mike says. They like it cold."

"Well, I donít know," the principal said. "This better not get to be a habit."

"Let me get a couple more pictures," Varner said. "Tiffany, could you go over and pet one of the dogs, or something?"

*   *   *

"She did WHAT?" Mike said when he got into the office that afternoon.

"Missed the bus, and drove the dog team to school. She wasnít the only one who missed the bus Ė they had a real dodo of a driver, ran the whole route early," Varner said, laying an 8x10 in front of him. "Caused quite a commotion, too. The principal didnít know what to think, but I cooled him down. I went back over to check on them at lunch hour, and let me say, youíve got a bunch of well-fed dogs there. There must have been fifty kids giving them sandwiches from their lunches."

"I better go see," Mike said. He got back into his car and drove over to the school. The place was quiet, but near the schoolís front door, there were five places where there were plenty of dog footprints and scattered blades of straw. He smiled; sheíd even cleaned up after the dogs.

He got back in the car, and drove down Point Drive. There, out on the lake a ways, was a five-dog team, with a small someone riding in the basket. The musher standing on the runners was small, too, but to Mikeís eyes, she looked pretty big.

*   *   *

It was slow for a Thursday morning in the Record-Herald, so slow that Mike was working on his old dog musher stories when Heather Sanford and John Pacobel walked into his office. "Howís it going?" he asked.

"Pretty good," John said. "I heard your kid stirred things up at school a little bit yesterday."

"We really donít need a newspaper in this town," Mike laughed. "Things get around. Iíve got to give her credit, though. She didnít want to miss school. Can I get you some coffee?"

"Just had some," Heather said. "Did you get the notice from the attorney in Minneapolis?"

"Got it yesterday when I got back from Warsaw," Mike said. "I ran it right over to Chuck Blackbarn. Heís in Minneapolis today, talking to the Fish and Wildlife Service."

"It still grinds me a little," Heather said. "But ELAD and SIRRAH were worth it."

Mike frowned and shook his head. "I donít know what you mean," he said.

John suspected that Mike was lying, but was didnít want to press the issue, considering what it gave them. "More than worth it," he said. "But, thatís not what we came to talk to you about."

"Weíve figured out what we want to say in the mailing to the Defenders of Gaea members," Heather said. "Did you get the funding squared away?"

"Talked to the source last night," Mike said. "You can have what you need, but they still want to remain anonymous. Youíre to submit the actual bills to me, and theyíll be paid. Go ahead and spend what you need to. If it involves travel expenses, or things like that, go ahead and spend the money. If you have any questions, ask me. If this works, theyíd sort of like a receipt for tax purposes."

"All right," Heather said. "Itís going to have to be a big mailing, around thirty thousand pieces. Can you handle the printing and mailing? I have a disk with the addresses on it. They can go on peel-off labels, or something."

"We can handle it, probably," Mike said. "Iíll have to talk to the job shop foreman, but itís probably going to take a couple of weeks."

"A couple of weeks will be fine," Heather said, "But not any longer than that. The membership meeting is in Washington on the sixth, and we want to leave a little time to get the proxies in, but not so much time so those bastards have time to respond. We figure weíll mail them out of Washington about two weeks from Monday, and that ought to work out about right."

"Youíre looking at starting the campaign about the twentieth, then?" he said. "That wonít leave much time for my man, the guy I want you to talk to, but it ought to be enough if heís got his act together."

"The timing is tricky," Heather said. "Weíve got to leave enough time for the authorities to get their acts together, too."

"Well, weíd better get started, then," Mike said, picking up the phone. "Youíve got the goods, and are willing to talk, right?"

"Just about anything," Heather said. "There are a few personal things that Iíd just as soon leave out of it. And, Iíd just as soon not be seen around Los Angeles until this breaks. Iím still the Defenderís representative here. Thatís why we want to make the mailing out of Washington."

"Iíll take it up with him," Mike said, turning his Rolodex to the number for the L.A. Times. The phone call took a few seconds to get through. "Andy Bairnsfether, please," he asked.

"Andy?" Pacobel said. "Didnít he used to be a sportswriter here?"

"Once he was," Mike said. "Heís doing something else now."

"Bairnsfether," he heard in the phone.

"Andy, Mike McMahon," he said. "You remember back a couple weeks ago, we were talking about the Defenders of Gaea?"

"I saw those tear sheets you sent me. Thereís nothing new, there."

"Iíve got your source," he said. "Theyíre willing to lay out what they know, and they know most of it."

"How the hell did you come up with that?" he asked.

"It took some doing," Mike said. "Look, theyíve got a couple problems that you ought to be able to handle. Nothing major, but they want a hold on the story until the twentieth."

"I can do that," Andy said. "Itís a small price to pay."

"They also donít want to come to L.A. right now," Mike added. "Theyíve got a good reason. Howíd you like to experience a Spearfish Lake winter again?"

"Oh, God," Andy said. "I threw my parka away, but if itís everything you say . . . wait a minute." Mike heard the phone go on hold.

"Whatís Andy doing now?" John asked.

Mike smiled. "Heís picking up a great big brick for you to hit McMullen and Harris with. Heís an investigative reporter for the L.A. Times."

"Thatís a big brick," Heather agreed. "Heís the one who told you about the story you ran?"

"Pieces of it," Mike said. "Theyíd already been smelling a rat, but needed someone to talk. Youíre it. Itís not the only brick Iíve been able to come up with, but Iíll tell you about that one later."

Mike heard the phone go live again. "Donít let them get away," Andy said. "Iíll be in Spearfish Lake as soon as I can make the flights. See if you can find a parka for me to borrow."

"Theyíll be here," Mike said, and added, "Hey, Andy. While youíre here, maybe youíd like to take a dogsled ride?"

*   *   *

Freda, the city clerk, wasnít very happy about having to fill in for the city manager, and she had tried to put off what she could until the new one arrived, hopefully in the next month. Still there was business to take care of, and sometimes it couldnít be put off.

Since Kutzley had left, back at the end of November, Jack Musgrave had been dealing with most of the items to be done with the sewer system, and she let him have all of the mail unopened that looked like it might have something to do with it.

For a month and a half, Jack had come by the city office about the time the mail arrived to deal with it. He was standing at the counter in the clerkís office slicing open letters, when he came to one from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even the name made him flinch. The Defenders of Gaea lawsuit had been dropped a couple of weeks before, he knew, and all had been surprisingly quiet on that front. Still, that didnít mean that there couldnít be more trouble in the works.

There was no way to find out, except by opening the letter. He opened it, glanced at it, and a broad smile crossed his face.

"Good news?" Freda asked. Sheíd seen the envelope from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and had wondered what was in it, too.

"Darn good news," Jack replied, reading the letter. It was brief: "ĎThis letter is to notify you that intensive study having found no evidence of a colony of Gibsonís water snakes in the Spearfish Lake area, the Fish and Wildlife Service is downgrading the Critical Interest Area in Spearfish Lake to a Special Study Area. The Fish and Wildlife Service will accept requests for proposals for further searches in the area for evidence of the existence of the Gibsonís water snake, but does not intend to renew the Critical Interest Area until such evidence is found.í"

"That is good news," Freda said.

"What it says is that weíd better get rolling on the sewer separation before they find another snake," Jack replied.

"Council meets a week from tonight," Freda said. "Iíll call the engineers, and we can ask council to get the bid process rolling."

"Somebodyís going to have to work on that messed-up special assessment roll," Jack said. "Thatís still all weíve got to give íem, and Iím sure not the one to have to pull it together."

"Me, either," Freda said. "Maybe we could ask council to fund a consultant."

"Maybe the regional planning commission has someone," Jack suggested.

Freda reached for the phone. "Iíll just give them a call and see."

While she was dialing, Jack opened the next letter. It was from the Rural Development Agency, and he was sure heíd never heard of it before. Probably some conference announcement, he thought, then glanced at the letter. "Donít bother," he told Freda.

Freda furrowed her brow, and put the phone down. "What now?" she asked.

Jack began to read. "ĎThis agency has reviewed the application submitted last summer to the Farm Home Administration for a grant for development of a storm sewer separation system in Spearfish Lake, and passed along to us by that agency.

"ĎBe advised that this agency is prepared to fund the development of a storm sewer separation system in Spearfish Lake, on a ninety-percent matching-fund basis, up to a limit of five million dollars.í" Jack smiled. "It goes on to say that we have to resubmit an application, along with bids and a lot of other stuff, but they assure us that the money is ours after we jump through all the hoops."

Freda glanced at the clock, and started dialing the phone. "Who are you calling?" Jack asked.

"The Record-Herald," Freda replied. "I think thereís still time to make this weekís paper."

*   *   *

Later that afternoon, Mike was overseeing the way the paper came together. The big headline on the front page would make a lot of people happy, he knew, but he was still a little detached from the process. Tomorrow was going to be a big day, he knew, although not for him. He didnít know everything that would happen, but would be interested to see how it came out. He was still glancing at the headline, WAY CLEARED FOR SEWER PROJECT, when Sally came up to him.

"Mike," she said. "We still donít have your column."

"I know, Sally," he said. "Iíve been preoccupied with this sewer story." And, with something else, he thought, but there was no reason for her to know about it. "Drop in a filler, or something."

"You really should write something," she said. "You havenít missed a column in months."

"Iím burnt out on writing columns about the sewer project," he protested. "I havenít got anything else on tap."

"How about a puff piece on the Winter Festival?" Pat Varner suggested from where he was laying out the sports pages.

"Thatís still two weeks off," Mike said, "And weíve already filled up more space with it than we should have."

"Itíd still look good," Pat said.

"All right, I will," Mike said, "If youíll swap the Camden run with me tomorrow."

"Any special reason?" Pat asked.

"Yeah," Mike said. "I want to watch ĎGood Morning, America.í Thereís supposed to be someone on it I know."

"I suppose," Pat said.

"All right," Mike agreed, sitting down at the layout room computer. "Sally, how much space do I have to fill? Iíll write it to the hole."

She told him, and Mike set the guides up on the PageMaker screen and went to it:

I was a little dismayed when I realized that Ryan Clark had bullied Mark Gravengood and myself to a dogsled race to Warsaw and back during the upcoming Winter Festival, but the more I think about it, the more I think it sounds like fun.

Despite the picture on the front page of last weekís Record-Herald, the dog team everybody refers to as my daughterís dog team is really my dog team. At least, sheís letting me use her dogs for the race, or something like that.

Iíve had people ask me if running dogs in a race like weíre planning is cruel to the animals. I donít think so. Iíve put a lot of time, money, and love into those dogs in the past few months, and Iím not about to mistreat them if I can avoid it.

You have to stand on a pair of runners, watching tails wag in the air, feeling the snow and the cold wind blow in your face, and feel the eager rush of the dogs as they speed down a trail to realize the fact that they like to run as much as I do. If thereís any way Iím mistreating them, itís that Iím not able to get them out and run them as much as theyíd like.

After all, itís all in fun. Sure, thereís a six-pack of Bud riding on the race, and thatís close to a yearís supply for me, and maybe more than that for Mark.

And, to tell the truth, Mark and I both want to find out who has the faster dogs in a race of that distance. Weíre pretty sure about a couple of things. He has a little better lead dog than I do, but not very much better. I, on the other hand, have a dog team that we suspect is a little faster, but not much faster than Markís. At least, when weíve been out running together, and both teams take off after a rabbit thatís crossed the trail, my team seems to gain on his team a little.

But a hundred-mile race is not a hundred-yard sprint, as any runner can tell you, and there the lead dogs come into play. So, with that in mind, the race looks pretty even to us. At least, thatís what weíve been telling each other. Or, at least, thatís what Iíve been telling him, but Iím not sure if heís pulling my leg when he says the same thing to me.

So, weíre going to settle this thing once and for all, at the Winter Festival a week from Saturday, February sixth. Weíre going to start out from the festival headquarters at six in the evening, and run most of the night up the railroad grade. Probably about two or three in the morning, weíll pull into Warsaw, and rest the dogs and feed them at the fire station there. The dogs will get more rest than we will; we may have time for a couple of candy bars, and an hour or two of shuteye before we head back through the woods on the North Country Trail. With any kind of luck, we should get back to the festival site in the middle of the afternoon.

And, with any kind of luck at all, Iíll be back an hour or two before Mark, and will have to sit around the finish line, waiting for him to bring me that six-pack of beer. Iím not much of a beer drinker, but I do know that it tastes best when itís cold.

Mike paged back up through the story, changing a word here and there, looking over his spelling, and then ran the story off on the laser printer.

It took a couple of minutes for the printer to deal with it, then Mike got up and took the story to Sally. "What do you think?" he asked.

"Youíve written better columns," she said. "But it fills the hole."

*   *   *

"Where the hell did this shit come from?" McMullen raged to Harper. "How the hell did the L.A. Times come up with this stuff?"

"Hell, I donít know," Harper said, looking at the front page again. The headline read, SCAM OF THE EARTH.

"Thereís supposed to be nobody who knows some of that but you and me!" McMullen said, even more pissed. "I havenít talked to this Bairnsfether character. It must have been you."

"I didnít say anything," Harper said. "Dale, Iíve got just as much riding on this as you do. Some of that had to come from the confidential files."

"But how?"

"I donít know," Harper said. "The only thing I can I think of is that weíve been hacked."

"You mean, somebody got into the confidential files in the computer?"

"Hell, thatís not the worst of it," Harper said. "Iíve been getting calls from all over the country. Thereís a special mailing thatís gone out from somewhere. Itís got a copy of the L.A. Times story, and a letter, and a proxy form asking our members to give their proxies to someone named John Pacobel. I never heard of this Pacobel character, and the membership rolls show he joined the Defenders just two weeks ago."

"How the hell big is this mailing?"

"Big. Just as a guess, Iíd say that it went to every member we have."

"How the hell did someone do that? Who did it? And, for that matter, it takes time to get a mailing like that out. How the hell did they get a news story out a week or so ago that only ran in the Times today?"

"It beats the hell out of me," Harper said. "Itís got to be a setup, but Iíd sure like to know whoís behind it."

There was a ruckus outside Harperís office door. "You canít go in there," they heard Mollie yell. "Theyíre in conference."

"Get out of my way, lady," a manís voice said. "We got a search warrant."

The door flew open, and several men burst into the room, bearing guns and riot gear. "Freeze!" one of the men yelled. "Hands on the desk, no sudden movements. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?"

In moments, Harper and McMullen were lying on the floor, hands handcuffed behind them. One of the men wearing a jacket with "FBI" on it in big letters sat down at Harperís desk, and turned on the computer. He typed a few keystrokes, and the screen came alive with a menu.

"Itís all here," he said after a moment. "Just like they told us."

"Download the whole thing," one of the agents ordered.

The agent was wrong. Heíd never know it, but five minutes before they broke into the room, one of the files had been erased from Harris Harperís directory on the Defenders of Gaea mainframe, never to be recovered.

*   *   *

At just about the same time the agent was downloading the evidence onto disks, the phone rang thirty miles away in Malibu. "Iíll get it," Blake Walworth offered.

"No, Iíll get it," Jenny said. "I think I know what itís about." She picked up the phone, and replied, "Evachevski residence."

"Jenny, what the hell do you think youíre doing?" Knoxís voice was so loud that Blake could hear it across the room.

"Iím doing what I have to do, Fred," she replied calmly.

"First, you wonít do any interviews at all, and then I look up and youíre on Good Morning, America this morning, trashing the Defenders of Gaea. What the hell got into you?"

"Donít you read the paper, Fred?" Jenny asked. "I mean, the front page, not the entertainment section? Your buddy McMullen and your other buddy Harper are up to their asses in hot water. You were the one who put me up to doing that spot for them, and itís not the only thing youíve done for me thatís not been in my best interests."

"Thatís telling him, Jennifer," Blake said.

"But that interview on Good Morning, America! And I heard you shot an interview with Hollywood Tonight! You didnít have to say those things. Why not plug the picture you finished last summer, if you have to go on TV?"

"That picture was another piece of shit that you saddled me with," Jenny said. "That wasnít one of your better moments. Just consider it lucky for your kickbacks I didnít say anything at all about it. If Iíd told the truth about it, then youíd really have something to scream about."

"That was a good picture! A Richard Riley picture, for Godís sake."

"It was a miserable piece of exploitationist shit," she said. "Just gratuitous sex and violence. You wonít have to worry about selling me on trash like that again, Fred. Youíre fired!"

"You canít fire me!" he yelled into the phone. "Weíve got a contract."

"We had a contract," Jennifer said, quite calmly, Blake thought. He was proud of her for maintaining her cool the way she did. "Up till the first of the year. I know youíve been sending me contracts to sign for months, and Iíve been wiping my ass with them. Iíll honor existing commitments, but donít bother me with any new ones. The answer is no."

"Youíll never work in this town again," Knox said desperately. "Iíll get the word out."

"Ignoring the fact that I donít really ever want to work in this town again," Jenny said, "Arts Management Corporation doesnít agree with you, and we signed a contract last week. Iíve got no reason to ever want to hear from you again. And Fred?" she added sweetly.

"What?"

"If I ever see you around this place, Iíll have Blake break off both your arms and jam them up your fat ass." She slammed down the phone, and turned to Blake. "How was that?" she said.

"That was great," Blake said. "If youíd been on camera, youíd get an Oscar."

"That wasnít acting," she said calmly. "I really meant it. Take off your pants."

"What?"

"Take off your pants," she said. "Look, Blake, I know youíve got the equipment, even if you donít use it right. You can roll me over and make believe Iím a boy if you have to, but I want to celebrate being free of that scum, and itís better doing it with you than standing out on the street in a short skirt like a hooker."

"Jennifer Evachevski," Blake said, amazed, "Are you telling me youíre horny?"

"Never been more," she said, walking up to him and beginning to unbutton his shirt. "It feels a little strange, but itís kind of a nice feeling."

"Hey, look," he said. "If it takes you sticking the shiv to somebody to get you horny, Iím not all that sure I want to participate."

"It wasnít what I did to Knox," she said, not stopping her fingers. She peeled his shirt back, and reached for his belt. "Itís taking control of my life. I wouldnít have gotten into this mess if Iíd listened to you. Thank God, itís getting fixed."

Blake put one of his strong arms around her, and with the other hand, reached for her chin, tilting her face up to look into his. "All right," he said. "Iíll do what you want me to do."

"Thanks, Blake," she said quietly. "I know itís hard for you, but thanks."

He smiled at her. "Well, actually," he said, "Iím a little embarrassed to admit this, but I donít think Iím going to have to pretend youíre a boy."



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