It was a long afternoon, mostly filled with thoughts about the strange woman wearing the handcuffs. They'd only spoken briefly, in passing, but she seemed friendly and personable, if intent on her jogging. One thing did seem pretty clear, though – if Brenda approached her as a reporter, she wasn't going to get a story, just a superficial excuse. If she wanted to find out more, she was going to have to get closer than that, somehow. But, there was no rush; she knew she could give it time.
It was colder and spitting rain by the time the afternoon dragged to a close. Going jogging didn't appeal to her on an afternoon like this, but Brenda had recognized from the beginning that if her exercise program was going to work, it was going to have to be an everyday thing – a day off could lead to two, to three, and to its end. The exercise was going to have to turn into an obsession if she even intended to lose the weight and keep it off. Besides, the thought of obsession quickly led back to the thoughts of Carole Carter, whatever her obsession was. Although Brenda had only seen her once in three weeks of jogging, that meant nothing; she certainly wouldn't spot her again if she was sitting up at the computer in her apartment, so she pulled on a sweat suit and headed down Lakeshore Drive again.
It was, in fact, a lousy day for jogging – wet and nasty, and it looked like it would get worse before it got better. The sweats became wet, grubby, and uncomfortable quickly. People drove by in cars, but she didn't see anyone else out on foot. She was about halfway between where Lakeshore Drive left the lake to the burned-out house when she saw a figure coming her way, and as they drew closer, she could see it was Carole Carter, wearing a dark-blue jogging suit, and still clearly wearing the handcuffs. Well, OK, she'd seen her again, Brenda thought as they quickly drew nearer, but what did that count for anything? How could she get to talk to this mystery woman? An idea came to her quickly, but there was no time to think about it. Hoping she wouldn't hurt herself, as her right foot came forward, she let it bounce off her left one, stumbled a little bit, fell to the wet ground, coming to rest on her belly, breathing hard.
"Are you all right?" she heard a concerned voice ask.
Brenda looked up, to discover Carole looking down at her, hands on her knees. '"Yeah, I think so," she said. "Tripped over my own damn feet."
"Here, let me help you up," Carole said, extending both hands.
Brenda put out a hand, getting a good look at the handcuffs in the process – they were obviously steel, and heavy, not the sort cops carried, apparently the same ones as in the picture in the bound volume from several years ago. Slowly, with Carole's help, Brenda got to her feet, still puffing hard – that was real, not a fake like the fall had been. "Thanks," she said.
"You sure you're OK?" Carole said, looking concerned as Brenda stood, hands on knees, trying to get her breath.
"Yeah, I think so," she replied. "I haven't been doing this too long. I think maybe I'll head back."
"How far do you have to go?"
"Just back to downtown," Brenda said.
"Probably you ought to get moving," Carole said. "If you let yourself stiffen up after a fall like that, you're going to be hurting. I'll go with you for a ways."
"It'll probably have to be pretty slow," Brenda replied. "I really don't want to slow you down." Like hell, but she wanted to be casual.
"Oh, it's no bother," Carole smiled. She started jogging slowly up the street, and as Brenda followed along, she picked up the pace a little. "It's a little disheartening to be out on a day like this by myself."
"Yeah," Brenda puffed as they built up to about her normal pace, obviously an easy lope for Carole. "I don't know what I'm going to do when winter gets here."
"I get out some in the winter," she heard Carole say conversationally. "Not as much as I'd like to. You said you haven't been doing this long?"
"Only a few weeks," Brenda replied, breathing heavily. "I'm only going to be up here for a few months, so I thought it would be a good time to try and get into shape."
"Well, welcome to Spearfish Lake. I'm Carole Carter."
"Brenda Hodunk. I'm at the Record-Herald."
"Oh, yes, I remember reading about you," Carole smiled. "I take it they're working you as hard as all the other junior reporters."
"Yeah, I guess," Brenda puffed. "I don't know much of anyone around here, so I'd rather be busy than bored."
"It's got to be pretty lonely," Carole agreed. "So how are you liking our little town?"
"Pretty decent," Brenda replied. "I've learned there are some interesting people here."
"We do have a few," Carole laughed. "I suppose there are those who would say I'm one of them."
No fooling, Brenda thought. But, let's play dumb and see what happens. "Why's that?"
"Are you sure you're a reporter?" Carole laughed again. "You don't seem nosy enough."
"I can be nosy as hell when I want to be," Brenda laughed.
"Then aren't you going to ask about my handcuffs?" Carole smiled.
"Well, I saw you were wearing handcuffs," Brenda replied. "I thought they were some sort of training thing, like weights, like maybe you don't want your arms flopping around."
"Hey, I like that!" Carole laughed. "I've never heard that one before. I'll have to remember it."
"You mean you wear them when you're not running?" Brenda asked, still acting dumb.
"I've worn them continuously for over five years," Carole said seriously. "I get the damnedest reactions out of people, too. Either people ignore them entirely, or ask the stupidest questions."
"What kind of stupid questions?" Brenda asked, knowing that she had a bunch of her own, probably questions that Carole had heard a million times over.
"Oh, things like, 'Are they real?' or 'Do you really wear them all the time?' or 'Could you take them off if you wanted to?' Yes, yes, and yes."
"I'll bet you hear that a lot," Brenda said obliquely.
"Oh, not around Spearfish Lake much, anymore," Carole laughed. "People here are used to it."
"All right," Brenda puffed. "I've got a stupid question."
"Why am I doing it, right?"
"Let's just say that I'm still learning what they have to teach me," Carole said. "Look, let me ask you a stupid question."
"What are you doing out here running on a day like this?"
"I want to lose some weight, get in shape," Brenda said.
"Sounds good, but why? What made you make that decision?"
It wasn't an easy question to answer, and parts of it Brenda had barely admitted to herself. She thought about it for a few seconds as they ran along before she answered. "Long story," she said. "I can't sum it up easily. The short answer, I guess, is that I realized I didn't like the way I was going, and figured I'd better change things."
"Good answer," Carole smiled. "I guess I could say that, too. How's it going?"
"So far, so good," Brenda said. "As of last weekend, I've lost six pounds. I weigh in again tomorrow."
"Hang in there," Carole counseled. "You're going to be hitting a plateau, and it'll seem like nothing's happening. Trust me, something is, it just takes time to show, so don't let it be a setback. You just have to learn to discipline yourself to stay with it, just like I had to learn to discipline myself to stay with it."
"Yeah," Brenda said, filing the remark away for further thought and inquiry. Something was telling her she'd pushed the subject about as far as she wanted to at this time; Carole had told her just enough to make her realize there was a lot more to the subject than her casual answer. She changed the course a little. "It's gonna be hard with the weather going sour, though."
"Get out and run when you can," Carole smiled. "Running's good for legs and cardiovascular, and gets the heart rate up pretty good, but you need to work on other areas. Check out the Women's Fitness Center, over on Third Street. If you want to stay with it, Connie can help you a lot, and it is warmer than going out and running in a driving rain or a snow storm."
"Thought about that," Brenda admitted. "The price is a little steep, though."
"If you're serious, it's the best move you can make in this town," Carole said. "I go there a lot. Maybe I'll see you there sometime."
Brenda thought about it for a moment. They were getting close to downtown now, and she'd learned just enough about Carole to affirm that yes, this was an interesting person she wanted to know more about. They weren't going to be able to talk like this much longer, anyway, but Carole had sort of opened the door to further discussion. "You just might," she said. "Seems to me, I recall an introductory special coupon in the Record-Herald."
"Great," Carole smiled. "I think you'll enjoy it."
Brenda was tired as she staggered up the outside stairs to her apartment a couple minutes after waving goodbye to Carole who then jogged on up the street. And, she was aching a little; her fall, fake though it may have been, hadn't been good, and she could feel a bruise forming on her hip. At that point, her main intent was to get out of the grubby, wet sweats, take a shower, have something to drink, and just pull herself together. In a minute or two, she had her clothes off, and the water was warming in the shower. She inspected herself – yes, she was going to have a bruise. The shower felt good, though, and it was a good place to think.
Although a conversation while jogging may have not been the deepest and most intensive discussion possible, Brenda realized she'd learned a lot about Carole, but she was left with more questions than she'd gotten answers.
One of the things Brenda had known about journalism even before her first college class was the basic premise of a story – who, what, where, when, how, why. In a very superficial way, she could give answers to each of those questions, but they were limited indeed. She knew Carole's name, of course, but that didn't give much of a clue to who she was. A lot of it could be learned, but most of the questions seemed to hover around "how" and "why". How did she manage? And why? Most importantly, why? On thinking about it, she realized that Carole had given her two thin, oblique answers to that question, and part of a third; the newspaper story from years before gave another one, and the discussion at the lunch table had given several more. That told her, if nothing else, that there was more to it than anything she'd heard so far.
The impressions of other descriptions she'd gotten from the lunch table were that Carole was a really nice person, friendly and intelligent, and nothing said in the few minutes they'd jogged together led her to think any different. But what in the hell was she doing with her wrists locked in handcuffs – for over five years? It was not a very long chain on the handcuffs – five or six inches, Brenda remembered from the brief look she'd had of them. Good grief, Carole hadn't had her wrists more than six inches apart for over five years! As the hot water poured out of the shower nozzle, Brenda held her wrists up, about six inches apart, and looked at them. A cold chill went up her spine, and she got an uncomfortable feeling in her belly. She couldn't imagine having her wrists encased in steel, chained together like that. Not for a minute, not for five minutes, let alone five years. Questions filled her mind, one after another, all unanswerable. What in hell must that feel like? How did she manage to get along? Why in hell was she doing it? A huge mystery, one that didn't make a touch of sense.
Eventually, feeling clean, Brenda shut down the shower, toweled off, and put on some grubbies. It was time for a good supper, and a relaxing evening.
What to have for supper? A decent meal would taste good. Say, a couple burgers, some fries, a milkshake – but no, that wouldn't help with her diet, not one bit. What was it Carole had said about having to learn self-discipline? Brenda scrolled her memory back. "You just have to learn to discipline yourself to stay with it, just like I had to learn to discipline myself to stay with it," Carole had said. On thinking about it a bit, she remembered Carole also commenting that she could take the handcuffs off if she wanted to. Interesting thought . . . the mystery woman must have had plenty of temptations to take them off, but had overcome the temptations. But good grief . . . again, why?
Thoughts of supper gone, Brenda turned on her personal computer and waited for it to boot up. She brought up a word processing program, stared at the blank page for a moment, then began to take notes, and everything of the conversation she could remember. Her memory was good.
Brenda stared at the computer screen for a long time, going over her record of the brief meeting with Carole Carter, the conversation in the lunchroom, and some of her speculations. She was obsessing about this, she realized. She needed to get her mind off it. At least there was one thing she could do for a diversion in this lonely place: Dragonslayer.
Dragonslayer was an online game that was a little hard to explain to the uninitiated. Set in a fanciful medieval kingdom, it was very complicated, made more so by the fact that the players themselves designed the complexities and added them to the monster of a game. Much of it involved logic puzzles, and there was an equally complex system of gaining points in various categories, with buying, selling, and trading going on. It was possible to spend hours at a time thrashing around in the various ins and outs, or just log on occasionally and make a few moves. It was a text-based game, and was getting to be a little technically archaic, but the real enthusiasts liked it the way it was.
Brenda had played Dragonslayer pretty steadily for nearly three years, and had been one of the more serious players for much of it, to the point where she had been the top scorer for nearly a year. She had finally realized that it was more fun to battle her way up the points ladder than to try to fight off people who were trying to knock her out of the top spot, so finally she had retired the character and started over again as a beginner. It had been easy to do since all the action took place under mystical assumed names, and anonymity was the general rule. She had retired her old game ID and now was playing under the name "Mithrian." It had taken most of a year to hack her way back up to fifth place.
But, as soon as she logged onto the game, she discovered she was now in sixth place. Under her old game name of "Wolfling" she'd had several epic battles with another player, "Falconswing." Now that she was back near the top of the game, she was having more battles with him/her/it, and Falconswing had been a lot tougher to deal with this time around. Not being on the game in several days hadn't helped.
Despite dropping a place, she still felt she was the by-God master of Dragonslayer, and it was time to put Falconswing back where he belonged, which was below her in the rankings. A furious half hour of moves in several areas followed. She thought about designing a new maze, one that would be tempting to Falconswing, and where she could set a few traps her opponent would be likely to step into. Designing a new maze would take hours of coding, and right at the moment, tired from the exercise and mentally tired from the thoughts about the woman in handcuffs, she didn't feel like she had a few hours. Maybe on the weekend she could pull something together, but what she'd done would have to hold things for now.
Although the chat room was supposed to be as anonymous as the game, Brenda did know quite a bit about some of the regular players, mostly from the things they let slip. One player was Australian, she was pretty sure, from the occasional word she/he/it let drop. Another was pretty clearly German, from the way they constructed sentences. She'd pretty well figured out that Falconswing was a high school student, and probably though not definitely male, but she didn't know much more than that. High school kid or not, Falconswing was a sharp player, and had a skewed sense of humor. A worthy opponent, in any case.
She logged into the chat room, planning not to stay very long. It turned out that there were only four other players in the room, Cadence, Manga, Thunder, and, as luck would have it, Falconswing. That was all right; when it got crowded, sometimes it was difficult to follow the threads of conversation, since several lines of conversation on various threads could pop up between the time you sent a message and someone on the other end replied. To add to that, the chat room was text-based, and looked sort of like a DOS screen on a very old PC.
[MITHRIAN JOINS GROUP] appeared on the screen.
[MANGA] Anyway, I told him where he could take his health points and shove them.
[CADENCE] Hey, Mithrian, long time, no see. What U been doing?
The conversation went on as Brenda typed a reply.
[FALCONSWING] Health points aren't worth that much, anyway. I can give you a better deal than that.
[THUNDER] I suppose three times what they were worth he wanted.
Brenda finished her brief reply and sent it off.
[MITHRIAN] Been busy. Started an exercise program, and that took time. Then, I met someone really interesting today and I've been wondering about her a lot.
[CADENCE] Not that Falconsarse is planning on giving you fair dinkum either.
[MANGA] Interesting? How?
[FALCONSWING] Hey!!! I resemble that!
[THUNDER] I wouldn't trust him as far as I could a fit throw.
[MITHRIAN] Real neat woman, but a little nutty. She's spent the last five years wearing handcuffs.
[MANGA] I know, I've dealt with him before.
[CADENCE] Some kind of kink, eh?
[FALCONSWING] Come on, a trade is a trade.
[MANGA] Yeah, and you took me for a ride, too.
[MITHRIAN] Apparently not, from what little I've been able to find out. Very nice lady, just weird.
Although she'd already sent the message, Brenda stopped and thought for a moment. This was off topic, and people were supposed to stay on game issues, but sometimes things wandered. Anything to do with sex was way the hell off limits; there were a bunch of kids on this game. Cadence had been pushing it with his comment. Worse, she might be giving a hint about her real identity, which wasn't considered kosher. On the other hand, these were friends, even Falconswing, sort of, and right now she needed friends. Meanwhile, the conversation continued.
[FALCONSWING] You needed those points and were glad to get them.
[CADENCE] He'll give you a fair deal. Not to say that it might not bite your arse.
[MANGA] That's pretty strange, all right. Otherwise normal?
[THUNDER] Thunder hard thinks. How bad the points do you need?
[CADENCE] Yeah, really.
Oh, what the hell. I won't say much.
[MITHRIAN] Far as I can tell. I'm looking forward to finding out more.
[FALCONSWING] The more you whine the more expensive the health points are going to be.
[MANGA REQUESTS PRIVATE SESSION WITH THUNDER]
[THUNDER LEAVES PUBLIC AREA]
[FALCONSWING] Chickened out, I guess.
[MANGA LEAVES PUBLIC AREA]
[CADENCE] Mystery woman, eh, mate? Best of luck.
[FALCONSWING REQUESTS PRIVATE SESSION WITH MITHRIAN]
What the hell? Oh, it probably had something to do with points. Brenda still had her mind on Carole, and really wasn't into Dragonslayer right now, anyway.
[MITHRIAN] OK, back in a few.
[FALCONSWING LEAVES PUBLIC AREA]
[MITHRIAN LEAVES PUBLIC AREA]
[PRIVATE CHAT SESSION WITH FALCONSWING]
[FALCONSWING] You're talking about Carole Carter, right?
Brenda started to type a reply, then it hit her. How in the hell would Falconswing know Carole Carter? God, the kid just about had to be from Spearfish Lake! It was a major identity screw-up – and worse, Falconswing would have known it. What the hell was the sneaky little shit up to? If she said anything – even if she said nothing – it would be a major identity screw-up for her, too. Well, there was one thing she could say, and it wouldn't necessarily pin her down.
[MITHRIAN] Identity issue. Look, Falconsbutt, I'm tired and I'm not up for playing mind games with you tonight.
The response was quick – whoever Falconswing was, he could type pretty fast.
[FALCONSWING] Come on Mithrian, I already know who you are.
[MITHRIAN] Then who the hell are you?
[FALCONSWING] Look, I'm not going to spread it around the board. I just wanted to be sure you were who I think you are. You work at the Record-Herald, right? Keep your eye on the high school. Someone's gotten screwed over big time, and it's big trouble.
[MITHRIAN] What kind of trouble?
[FALCONSWING] Don't want to say. I'm just giving you a heads up. You got an anonymous e-mail, like a hotmail?
[MITHRIAN] Yeah, it's mostly a spam trap. Haven't used it in a while. firstname.lastname@example.org.
[FALCONSWING] Keep checking it the next few days.
[MITHRIAN] What the hell?
[FALCONSWING LEAVES PRIVATE CHAT SESSION]
Brenda sat and stared at the screen for a moment. She wasn't sure what that meant. Maybe nothing. Hell, she was pretty sure Falconswing was a high school student, and at Spearfish Lake High School, she was sure, now. But the message really told her nothing useful. Her sources weren't real good over at the high school; she didn't really know anyone there, although it was on her beat. It was one of those areas she really needed to spend some time nosing around, to try and get a feeling for what happened there.
[MITHRIAN LEAVES PRIVATE CHAT SESSION]
[MITHRIAN ENTERS PUBLIC SESSION PRESENT CADENCE, MANGA, THUNDER, FALCONSWING, MITHRIAN]
[CADENCE] Welcome back, Mithrian. Did you see what Falconsarse did to you?
[FALCONSWING] Order is restored
[MITHRIAN] Not for long. Mithrian rules. But Mirthrian is tired and needs to do some stuff. Looks like tomorrow is going to be a long day. CYA
[FALCONSWING] So you think. Good luck and CYA.
[MITHRIAN LEAVES GROUP]
Brenda stared at the screen some more. What the hell was going on? Obviously, something was going on at the school, something important, at least according to Falconswing, whoever he was, and it was important enough to do a major identity break, and, even worse, to announce that he'd broken her identity. Knowing that could cause a lot of problems, maybe enough that she'd just have to give up Dragonslayer entirely. It had given her a lot of fun over three years, but she was having trouble staying up with the game, as busy as she was, though still, she didn't want to be run off. But maybe there was something there, too, and he was trying to play Deep Throat, although what little he said was awful cryptic. Brenda had read All The President's Men just like any good journalism student for the last twenty years, and on thinking about it realized there wasn't much there in Falconswing's words when you got right down to it. One thing though was clear: tomorrow, she'd have to spend a little time poking around the school, just getting to know some people.