Will’s head was freezing even with the stocking cap on. He yanked it off, hoping that a bit of air—even blasted nippy air— might help it dry faster. At least the cab was fairly warm. He looked out at the snowy Denver streets, praying he’d be on a flight back to the godawful heat and humidity of Brazil as soon as possible.
There were snowy mountains in Australia too, but he had spent most of his time in the more arid areas of Oz. He could stand the heat a lot longer than the cold, and he was grateful for the gloves that Dani had insisted he buy at the airport. He’d picked a hell of a time to decide to take his beard nearly back to ground zero.
It had been a weird obsession that morning—a desire for Dani to see what he really looked like before saying goodbye. His hair was too long too—he had a real seventies vibe going on—but he hadn’t been brave enough to take the trimmers to his scalp.
As if the universe were privy to his thoughts, fingers ruffling the mess on his head had him turning and grabbing Dani’s slender wrist exposed below her coat. “What on earth are you doing, sheila?”
“Your hair needs to get dry,” she said with big, innocent eyes, “or you’ll end up with pneumonia.” Will gently pulled her hand down to the seat and gave it a pat, trying to pull words back into a brain that was stuck on the feel of her fingers in his hair.
“It’s all right, love, you’ll just get your hands cold. You made me buy gloves; where are yours?”
“In my rush, I left them in the room.”
She clutched her hands together in her lap and began to spin that big rock around her finger. She’d been spinning that thing for the last two days, having put it back on after their undercover work was done, bursting the little reverie he’d briefly entertained where she was free and available.
He turned back to the side window, watching the snowflakes start to fall and trying to slow his breathing. Dani was a big help on the plane, and God knows he’d miss her, but now he needed her gone. He rolled his head around, stretching out the tension in his neck. We’ll get Tiffany and take her home, and Dani can be on her way. The girl has to get off that bus somewhere.
He looked over to see Dani studying him. “Yeah.” He blew out a breath. “It’s been a hell of a few days, hasn’t it?” And it would be a hell of a few more until her sweet face faded from his memory.
The cab turned the corner and slowed again at another stop. They unbuckled again and leaned to see around the bus, but again, Tiffany was a no-show.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
They both sat back with an expelled breath and refastened their seat belts as the bus and their cab pulled forward again. He wondered how long they’d be mucking around with this little wild goose chase in a town he’d never been in before, and he pondered where Tiffany might be running to. Mates? Other rellies? She probably didn’t have a boyfriend, or she wouldn’t have been dating the creep who handed her off to Miranda.
His eyes were once again drawn to Dani’s nervous ring spinning. “When’s the wedding?” burst out of him before he could stop it.
Dani looked up with startled eyes blinking, cramming her hands into her coat pockets. “I. . . don’t really know. Keith is pretty mad at me right now, and I—”
The cab slowed, and they both went through their unbuckling routine. Will wondered how Dani was going to finish that sentence, but now wasn’t the time to pursue it. The snow was really starting to come down, adding a new layer to what had been scooped to the edges of the sidewalk.
“There!” Dani pointed. “Isn’t that her?”
Will slid toward her on the seat but couldn’t see everyone who had gotten off. He gave Dani a little push. “Go! The cabbie will wait for us one way or another.”
She opened the door and speedily exited the cab only to sink into the glacial mess at the curb, then fall forward when her feet refused to follow her upper body momentum. Will saw no fast way to extract her so slid back to his side to get out.
Dodging between the cab and the rear of the bus, he turned to survey the bus passengers who had gotten off, quickly catching sight of a long-haired redhead moving swiftly up the sidewalk in a short navy coat that matched what they’d bought Tiffany at the airport. He started forward, sending a “Sorry, love” back at Dani, who was still struggling to pull a lost shoe out of the snow drift. Turning to the fore, he broke into a jog to close the distance, shouting, “Tiffany!”
She spun in surprise, then turned and high-tailed it with a burst of speed to rival any wild hare he’d ever seen run in the outback. Will kicked into a higher gear himself, but he was no match for the little speed demon.
As they approached the end of the block, she cut across snow-covered church property to its parking lot. She ran through the few parked vehicles, and to Will’s surprise, stopped beside one, opened the door and jumped in.
Will could only watch as the silver Mazda spun its tires on the slick lot, and was pulling out onto the street a good five seconds before Will reached the spot where it had been parked. “Bloody oath!” he puffed out, his lungs feeling frozen clear to the middle of his chest. He hadn’t even been able to catch the license number.
He turned around, still breathing hard, to see Dani jogging his way. He slowly walked toward her, knowing he would not be heading back to Brazil today.
“What the heck!” Dani bellowed when they met, her bewilderment hanging in the air between them as thick as her foggy breath. “Who? How?”
Will shook his head, his breathing almost back to normal. “She must have borrowed someone’s phone on the bus and called in a ride.”
“Did you get the plate number?”
He started walking back toward the waiting cab. “No. At least not all of it. What wasn’t snow-covered looked like the bottom of a 2 and a 3, although the 3 could have been a 5.”
“Well, we know, whoever it was, they don’t live very far away.”
“Or they just happened to be in the neighborhood when she called.”
They walked back to the waiting cab, and he opened the back door for her. She paused a moment, looking up with concern, snowflakes catching on the fur around her hood. “So now what do we do? How do we find her?”
Will gave her a tight smile. “We don’t need to do anything. You should just go back home. This is my problem.”
She started to protest, but he left her to go around to the other side of the cab. Her stubborn streak was waiting for him inside. “I’m not bailing out on you, Will, when it’s totally my fault she got away from us.”
He’d been afraid she’d say something to that effect. He told the cab driver to take them back to the hotel, then faced Dani and saw his old girlfriend Renae in her determined expression. His heart clenched. “Let’s talk about it over breakfast.” He squeezed her knee then turned to look at the snow continuing to fall, not looking forward to the call he’d have to make to Tiffany’s oldies.
Or to his boss.
Tiffany tried to carry on a conversation with the woman driving while her mind raced. She wasn’t sure that Krista completely believed her about the sex slavery in Brazil. “I have been off my meds, but it’s all true. Aaron McCain drugged me and sold me.” She immediately regretted telling her that. It sounded too outrageous. When had the truth gotten more far out than her usual overdramatic life?
She looked at her reflection in the mirror on the visor for the ninth time but still didn’t see herself looking back. Her brain continued to cycle through stored images, refusing to let her see herself, mocking her with taunts of “it’ll be the next one, just wait.” Slamming the visor up, angry that the devil in Brazil had seemingly stolen her face, she looked to the friend who had come to her rescue. Would Krista help her defeat the evil dark lord who would steal her future?
She closed her eyes tight, squeezing the bloated creature in her mind—shrinking it into the real monster—a slick, smooth- talking man whose monster qualities were on the inside. Brazil had taught her that. The real monsters didn’t have spikes going down their backs or fangs or shaggy, matted fur. The real monsters wore a smile.
Her heart began to race, remembering how Owens had taken the memory stick with the evidence on it away from her—had physically fished it out of her jeans pocket while he held her trapped against him, insisting that he couldn’t let her leave with company secrets. She ground her teeth, feeling again his lips pressed to hers after he’d shoved her against a wall.
“So. . . do you want me to take you to Dr. Schmidt’s office?”
Tiffany blinked and shook her head, stroking her hair hanging over her chest, banishing the memory for the moment. “I can’t risk it. They’ll be watching.”
“Who? Who will be watching? Traffickers? Then why don’t I take you to your parents’ place?”
“No!” Tiffany said too loudly by the startled expression on Krista’s face. “Sorry,” she said quieter. “But no. I need the evidence from Pragnalysis first. About the embezzling.”
“Mm, yeah, you mentioned that.” Krista licked her lips and adjusted her hands on the wheel, and Tiffany knew what she was thinking. She sounded paranoid, and even she wouldn’t believe herself if she didn’t know better. There were just some things in the world that warranted paranoia.
“We all know about your paranoia, Tiff. Even your father.” Chase Owens was back in her head. “So reporting this supposed embezzling scheme to him will only ruin the man’s day.”
“I’m not afraid of traffickers.” She announced to Krista, striving to stay in the present. “Almost no one knows I’m back. My parents hired somebody, I think, to bring me home. The one who was chasing me this morning—he’s the one who will be watching.” She had almost not recognized him without the big beard.
“I really didn’t see anybody,” Krista said a bit hesitantly. “You just said to ‘go, go, go’ with such urgency, I went.” She paused a moment before giving her a small smile. “Makes me wish I’d done a better job cleaning off my back window.”
There was a tense silence before Krista continued. “So why run from the guy who brought you back? Maybe he can help you with. . . whatever you need help with.”
“They work for my parents, so no. Their job is just to get me home, and I can’t go home without the evidence.”
“About the embezzling.”
“Yeah. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to get it yet, but I will.”
“Are there meds in your dorm room?”
Tiffany checked the visor mirror again, scowling at the old woman looking back. “Probably, but they’ll be watching that too.”
“Do you have a key? I could go look for you.”
Tiffany turned the visor up. Her purse had been lost or stolen, and she had no idea if her spare key was still in her hiding place or not. “You could give me a couple of yours.”
Krista shot her a look. “You know a couple won’t do, and besides, we don’t take the same drugs, remember? You totally flipped out on mine.”
Tiffany had a hard time remembering those early days of her treatment, but she knew that much of that time had been a living nightmare that she had probably blocked out. That had been a useful technique in Brazil—the blocking out, the escape inside her head, the sweet fantasies of a better place, the out of the body experiences.
Reciting the numbers.
She had learned to use her illness to survive in Brazil. She had endured there without her meds. She could make it here.
“Just let me crash at your place for a couple of days while I work out my plans, then I promise, I’ll get out of your way.”
Krista reached over and gave her forearm a squeeze. “You’re welcome for more than a few days, but we have to figure out how to get word to your doctor. That’s my one condition.”
Tiffany nodded, even though she couldn’t shake the feeling that the good doctor’s phones were probably tapped. “I’ll come up with something.”
Krista drove in silence for a bit, then glanced her way with a reticent look on her face. “I hate to bring this up,” she started slowly, “but you know it’s possible that your mind invented the embezzlement scenario while you were off your meds. Especially if you were under duress.”
Tiffany pursed her lips. “Duress” was the sweetest little word for what she’d gone through, but she simply couldn’t believe she’d made it up.
“Remember everything you believed about your friends in high school,” Krista went on. “Some of that was reverse engineering of memories.”
Krista pulled into an apartment parking lot and parked.
“I know what you’re saying,” Tiffany confessed, “but this is different.” It had to be different—the numbers proved it. She’d kept the numbers from before. Or were they just “reverse engineered memories”? She got out and followed Krista to a nearby building and up two flights of stairs to apartment 23B, where two dragons awaited them flanking the door.
There had been a time when she would have been freaked out at the sight, but therapy had helped her separate out what was obviously not real in the playground of her mind. Her therapist had said it was a rare gift for a schizophrenic. Tiffany had considered it just another form of organizing—something she had always had a knack for. And it helped that her most frequent hallucinations were mythical beasts.
Tiffany hesitated for just a moment under their beady-eyed gaze, then charged past.
Jodi Bowersox has been an actress, seamstress, designer, business owner, homeschool teacher, kid’s choir director and artist. Her romance novels span genres from faith fiction to suspense to time travel to sci fi with small town and big city settings. Several have won awards from the Colorado Book Awards, the Colorado Authors League, and the Colorado Independent Publishers Association. As an award-winning watercolor artist, Jodi specializes in pet portraits. Find her at jodibowersox.com. She lives with her husband in Colorado Springs.