During a bumpy flight back to Washington, Steve was just catching on some lost sleep when the pilot’s voice came over the intercom to inform the passengers of their final descend on Andrews Air Force Base.
Once they landed, Steve was offered a ride home by a young cadet whose passion for space travel led him to talk the weary man’s ears off. Steve strived to stifle his yawn for fear to insult the galvanized man.
No sooner had Steve crossed the front door of his home that he dropped both suitcases on the floor and slouched over to his bedroom to plump himself down on the bed. He was asleep before his head hit the pillows.
Following a rejuvenating two-hour nap, he roused to shower and eat before settling down to work on his report with a hot cup of coffee.
The following morning, he drove to the OSI with the firm intention to old his ground with Oscar regarding the matter of his long overdue vacation.
“Good morning!” Steve greeted Oscar’s secretary.
“Good morning Colonel,” she reciprocated with a warm smile.
“Is he here?”
“Yes. He’s waiting for you. Go right in.”
He entered Oscar’s office to find him fixing himself a cup of coffee at the bar.
“Steve! Good to see you back, pal! Coffee?”
“No thanks,” Steve answered peevishly, sensing Oscar’s all too familiar gambit to get him to drop his guard.
“I want to commend you on your work. It not only led to the arrest of the mastermind behind the operation but the microfilm you retrieved allowed the FBI to dismantled the entire spy ring.” He took a sip of coffee and returned to his desk.
Steve tossed his report onto the desk. “It’s all in there.”
“No. Pretty much routine,” Steve sighed his annoyance at Oscar who feigned a deaf ear.
Oscar sat behind his desk and began skimming over Steve’s neatly typed report. “Everything seems to be in order, as usual.”
“Then I bid your farewell my friend.” Steve saluted before crossing to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“As far away from here as I possibly can.”
“You can’t,” Oscar informed as he closed the folder. “Not yet.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed in contempt. “What do you mean by ‘not yet’?” He stomped over to the desk. “Oscar, you promised after this mission was over I would be allowed some time off.”
“Last-minute change of plans.”
“Don’t tell me that!” Steve spat, his seething eyes pouring out the vials of his wrath on the remorseful Oscar. “Oscar, I need a break or I’m gonna lose it completely,” the veins in his neck stood out in livid ridges as he grinded out the words between clenched teeth.
Oscar rose up from his chair and after heaving a rueful sigh, stared into Steve’s smoldering eyes and said, “I’m sorry, pal. This concerns national security and it requires our immediate attention.”
“You’ve played that same old broken record for the last eight months.”
“What do you want me to do?” Oscar lashed out, his temper flaring up at Steve’s petulance.
“Just tell them no!” Steve ranted.
“I can’t do that and you know it.”
“Then send someone else.”
“This is a delicate situation that calls for your special powers.”
“Why not ask Barney Hiller?”
“Steve, be serious! You know Barney’s bionic parts have been deactivated.”
“Then reactivate them!”
“Even if it were possible, Barney would have to undergo a special training, one of which could take weeks, time we don’t have.”
Steve clamped his eyes shut in a fury and clawed at his pounding head. He sucked in a deep breath through his gritted teeth. “I’m on the brink, Oscar. I can’t do this anymore.” He huffed and puffed, foaming at the mouth, striving to dam up the flow of lava simmering beneath the surface. “I need a break.”
Oscar rounded the corner of the desk to stand by Steve. “And you will.” He laid a comforting hand on the overwrought man’s shoulder.
“I need it now, Oscar.” Steve stared pleadingly at Oscar hoping to appeal to his inner soul. “The last five consecutive missions drained me. They took their toll on my physical and emotional health. I witnessed the death of two of my best agent friends and nearly wound out six feet under myself on two occasions. I’m worn out. Please Oscar, I never begged you before.”
“It’s out of my hands, Steve,” Oscar replied on a compassionate tone, wanting to allay Steve’s torment. “Besides you don’t even know what this next mission entails.”
“I don’t care!” Steve angrily flung his arms in the air and stormed out of the office.
In the shadow of the evening, I was in my kitchen cussing at a stubborn jar of pickles, veins throbbing at my temples as I struggled to twist the lid open. “I hate it when this happens. Dammit! Come on!” I sucked in a deep breath to summon my last ounce of strength to give it one more attempt. “Open dammit! I want a pickle so badly,” I vituperated between clenched teeth, my hands shaking from the strain.
I puffed out the breath I’d been holding when I heard a knock at the door. With the jar in hand, I went to greet my visitor. I looked into the peephole and whooped with joy at Steve’s face.
“Steve! You’re heaven sent!” I held out the jar of pickles in front of him. “Would you open this for me, please?”
“Sure.” Steve took the jar and with one easy twist of his bionic arm, he opened the lid. “Here you go.” He handed the jar back to me with an amused smile.
“Thanks a million! Come on in!” I beckoned him inside. “You’re quite handy to have around the house.”
I returned to the open kitchen to set the jar on the counter and indulge my craving.
“Electronic jar opener at your service,” he teased with a bow of his head.
“Want a pickle?”
“What brings you to my door? I thought you’d be in a coma by now from all the traveling you’ve done in the last months?”
“I was driving around and saw your light. I’m sorry for dropping by unannounced.”
“Steve, look into my eyes. What are they doing?”
“Right. And what does that usually signify?” I asked with a glare.
“That I committed a blunder?” he replied embarrassingly.
“Bingo! How many times have I told you you’re welcomed here anytime you want?” I scolded.
“I know but I’m ill-at-ease coming by without having called first, afraid you might be in the middle of entertaining a gentleman friend,” he chaffed with an elfish wink.
“If that were so, I’d say: Steve you’re under foot. Vamoose!
A small chuckle escaped Steve’s lips.
“Feel better now?”
“Come, sit yourself down. Take off your shoes and make yourself comfortable. Coffee’s already brewing.”
“I can’t stay long on account that I’m leaving,” he informed me while he removed his shoes and bent his knees to sit on his legs.
“Leaving? Don’t tell me Oscar’s assigned you on a new mission already?”
“No, the right word is ‘escaping’. I’m fed up, Cassie. I’ve been on five consecutive missions in the last eight months with no respite. The physical and psychological strain’s just too much. I need some time off to replenish my energy.”
“I fully understand. Any particular destination, or should I ask?”
“Not yet. I plan to drive where the wind takes me as far away from the OSI and Oscar as possible.”
“I think I now the perfect place,” I said as I poured the coffee into cups.
“You do? Where?”
“My parents own a lodge off the coast of New England. It’s by a lake in the woods, very remote. It’s their favorite hideaway whenever they want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and flee the daily routine of their jobs. It has all the commodities: phone, TV, VCR, fully equipped bathroom and kitchen and all, but it’s so deeply embedded in the forest that only deers can find it. Believe me, Oscar will never think of looking for you there.”
“Sounds like the perfect spot. But are you sure your parents will accept to rent it to me for a few days?”
I handed him his cup of coffee and sat next to him on the couch with my legs tucked under me. “What do mean rent? Ain’t no way my folks will charge you for it. And yes, they won’t mind you borrowing the lodge for a few days that is if they’re not using it at the moment. I’ll call them later tonight to see if the lodge’s available. If it is, then it’ll be all yours to enjoy.”
As I took a sip of coffee, I peered over the rim of my cup to note the change from drawn features to a serene smile on Steve’s face.
“I really appreciate this, Cassie.”
“Think nothing of it, Blue Eyes,” I said with a clap on his knee.
“Say, why don’t you join me?”
“I thought you said you wanted to be alone?”
“No, what I said was I wished to get away from Oscar, but I wouldn’t mind the pleasure of your company. You could show me around the area.”
“Ummmmm, I do have a few days off.” I swiveled my eyes back and forth as I pondered Steve’s request. “Why not! It’ll be fun! It’ll give me an opportunity to show you my fishing skills. I reel in the big ones.”
Steve broke into a guffaw, nearly choking on his coffee. “That may be true when you’re all alone, but now you’ll be competing with Ojai’s trout fishing champion,” he boasted teasingly.
“Trout, heh? Too bad, Sugar. The lake’s full of bass,” I ribbed with a sly grin.
I invited Steve to sleep over on my living room sofa for he feared Oscar might have staked out his house.
In the morning, we chartered a hydroplane that Steve landed smoothly on the lake and maneuvered to the dock. After chivalrously assisting me out of the aircraft, we each grabbed our luggage and walked the trodden path up to the lodge.
While Steve unpacked his belongings in his bedroom, I ran a quick inventory of the cupboard and refrigerator to make a list of items I needed to buy for a week’s stay. I then called the local grocery store and had the produces delivered to the lodge.
After a short tour of the premises, Steve and I enjoyed a country-style dinner, after which we slipped into our jammies for a night of watching movies.
I set the VCR and slid in the tape of “Casablanca” before I crawled into Steve’s bed. I fluffed up the pillows that I tucked behind my back against the headboard. I wiggled my toes in anticipation of seeing the classic movie for the very first time. I snapped open a bag of chips and snacked on the crisps as I waited for Steve to finish primping himself up in the bathroom.
“Steve, what’s taking you so long back there?” I asked with an edge of annoyance.
“I’m brushing my teeth,” he replied in a mumble.
“Don’t do that! I brought chips.”
Steve removed the brush out of his mouth and let his fist drop heavily against the sink. “I wish you could have told that before.” He rinsed out his mouth and turned off the light.
“What did you think we were going to do while watching the movie?”
He appeared in the doorway in his bathrobe, wearing a come-hither look. “I could think of something,” he said sultrily.
I threw a smirk at his suggestion and tapped the bed beside me. “Come on Romeo, park your butt right here.”
Once he propped his back comfortably against the heap of pillows, I handed him his bag of chips. As he tried to stifle a yawn, he winced in pain.
“Just a whiplash, courtesy of all that built-up tension,” he said while rubbing the back of his neck.
“I stretched out my arm to grope his trapezius muscle. “Steve, you’re in knots!”
“Nothing a goodnight sleep won’t cure.”
“I seriously doubt that. It might be worse in the morning. Okay, roll over.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Roll over and lie on your stomach. I’m going to give you the Cassie Miller special.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Not really,” he teased.
“Wise man. I promise, I’ll be gentle.”
Once in a prone position, I straddled his hips and pulled his arms out of his bathrobe and placed them alongside his body. I undressed him to his lower back and began my kneading in the small of his neck, feeling for the tender spots. Stumbling upon a knot, I applied pressure, which made Steve’s body stiffen.
“Ouch, ouch, ouch! That hurt! Steve complained.
“That’s good! It means I’ve found the source of the problem.“ As I continued my treatment, Steve kept wriggling underneath. “Will you stop squirming!”
“I can’t help it, you’re hurting me!”
“Easy for you to say.”
As my hands traveled down his back, his groans of pain melted into moans of pleasure.
“How does that feel?”
“Hummmmmmmmmmmm much better,” he purred. “Where did you learn how to do that?”
“In Taiwan. I met a master who agreed to teach me the secrets of good healing massages in exchange for my chicken cacciatore recipe.”
A small chuckle escaped between Steve’s lips as he felt himself drifting off. “I wanna marry you so badly,” he drawled.
“So you can have your personal masseuse?”
“And you your own jar opener.”
“Ummmm not a bad deal,” I chaffed. “But I told you before, you couldn’t handle me as a wife.”
“I’m willing to try for those hands.”
“34, those hands are available to you anytime you want without a marriage contract.”
“You’re so good for me.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I boasted teasingly.
I continued my kneading until a sustained sigh broke the silence. “How does that feel now? When I failed to get an answer to my question, I leaned closer to Steve’s face. “Steve? Hey, are you asleep?” I ask in a gentle whisper. I smiled when I realized he was slumbering peacefully. “My mother always told me I had magic hands,” I bragged to myself.
I swung my left leg off his hips, heedful not to jar the mattress, then pulled the bed sheets and blanket up to his shoulders. I bend forward and dropped a kiss on his forehead. “Sweet dreams, Blue Eyes.” I turned off the TV and lights and left the room.
Early next morning, I was roused by the tantalizing aroma of freshly cooked bacon wafting from the kitchen. My nostrils were the first part of my body I was able to move at 5:00AM. Next, I tried prying apart my leaden eyelids. I managed to open my eyes a slit and cocked my ear at the splutter of bacon and sausages in the pan. With a yawn and stretch, I rubbed my sleep-swollen eyes and heaved myself out of bed. Once I donned my bathrobe and shoved my feet into my slippers, I shuffled to the kitchen where Steve had been slaving a hot stove to prepare a hearty breakfast.
“Good morning,” he greeted jocundly.
“Good morning,” I mumbled sullenly, rubbing my fist in my left eye.
“Oh! I forgot. You’re not a morning person.”
“Definitely not. My brain doesn’t fire up before eight,” I explained before yawning my head off. I slouched over to the kitchen table and flumped myself down in a chair. Elbow on the table, I propped my head against my fist and closed my eyes in hopes to catch some more Zs. I jolted awake when my head slowly began to bob forward. Instead I pillowed my head on my folded arms.
Steve poured a cup of coffee and waved it in from of my face, making my nose waggle at the inviting aroma. My eyes shot open and I eagerly grabbed the cup with both hands to take a sip. “Thanks, I needed that.”
“There’s nothing like a cup of freshly brewed coffee to wake the dead in the morning.”
“You’ve got that right.”
“What would you like for breakfast?” he asked as he returned to the stove.
“What have you got?” I hauled myself out of the chair and moved over next to him.
“Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, ham. Unless you’d prefer some pancakes or French toasts?”
“A jar opened AND a cook? Hummm, Blue Eyes that’s two more feathers in your cap.”
“I also have fresh blueberries and raspberries and of course, freshly squeezed orange juice.” What’s your fancy?”
“I’m brave enough to try a little bit of each,” I said teasingly with a devilish grin and a tap on his shoulder. “By the way, how’s the whiplash this morning?” I asked while groping the back of his neck.
“Ah! The Cassie Miller special strikes again!”
“Though I don’t remember much of it.”
“No wonder! You fell like a log shortly after I started. You looked so peaceful with that smirk on your face. I turned off the lights and crept out of the room.”
“What? You didn’t take advantage of me?” he bantered with a brush of his shoulder against mine.
“You wish,” I jibed back.
He gripped my shoulders and steered me to the table where he gallantly pulled up my chair. “You sit your pretty self over here and I will serve you breakfast.”
“Aren’t you sweet. By the way, did you leave enough ham for the fish?”
Steve knitted his eyebrows in puzzlement. “What fish?”
“We’re going fishing after breakfast or have you forgotten it? Why do you think I hauled my weary carcass out of bed this early?”
“No, I didn’t forget, but why do you need ham? I have my tackle box.”
I wagged a finger at him. “Ha, ha, no, no, sorry my dear space monkey friend, the fish in that lake are very finicky. They are willing to bite only if we offer them live bait. Failing that, some fresh ham.”
Steve broke into a guffaw. “That’s before Steve Austin arrived on the premises. Those fish won’t know what hit them. Remember, you and I made a bet.”
“I remember. Don’t you let me catch you harpooning them with your bionic arm,” I warned with an unyielding jaw.
Steve raised his arms in the air, palms outward. “I won’t. I promise,” he said with a sly smile.
“I know that smug, Steve Austin. You’d better play fair or I’ll drown you. Got it?”
“Got it. Now, may I serve breakfast?”
“Well yes you may, Sir. Impress me.”
Shortly after having feasted on Steve’s delectable breakfast, we grabbed our fishing gear and headed down to the dock. Dawn was barely mantling in the horizon, the first sunbeams shimmering on the mist-swathed water as we chose the perfect spot to engage in our friendly competition.
Busy hooking the bait, I didn’t notice Steve frowning at a small boat on the lake. He zoomed in on a man dropping a woman’s corpse overboard.
Steve bolted upright. “Oh my God, Cassie! That man just dropped a body into the water.”
“What?” I exclaimed in shock, springing to my feet. “Where?”
Steve pointed to the man steering back his boat to shore. “Over there.”
“Are you sure? I mean, did you see the body?”
“Yes! I’m positive it was a woman. Do you have a boat?”
“To go over there. She may still be alive.”
“It’s at the dock.”
We dropped our poles on the ground and sprinted to the boat that we drove at full throttle to the spot. Steve removed his shoes and dove into the water to scour the depth in search of the body. While Steve was under, I was heedful to scan the surroundings for anything that might appear dubious. Steve emerged twice to catch his breath before he was successful at locating the corpse. He lopped his left arm around her chest and swam back to the surface with his right.
“Steve, you got her!” I gushed ecstatically. I then helped him haul the dead weight aboard the boat. Quickly he turned the woman over to start CPR.
“Oh my God!” I squeaked in horror, clamping both hands over my mouth.
“That’s Emily,” I quavered as I tried to regulate my breathing.
“You know her?”
I nodded. “Emily Van Dusen. We’re best friends. She owns the lodge next to ours.”
I snapped out of my numbness to assist Steve with the resuscitation. Our efforts were in naught for it was obvious the beautiful thirty-two-year-old blond had been long deceased. I stood over her, prostrated with grief.
Ste put his hand on my shoulder. “Cassie, I’m so sorry.”
“We need to catch the guy who did this to her.”
“I got a good look at him. I’ve memorized his features.”
“That’s good. Now, let’s get her back to the lodge and notify the sheriff.”
Barely an hour trickled down that Sheriff «Hanley and two men from the coroner’s office showed up to claim the body. As the hurst drove away, the lawman remained behind in order to take down our deposition. We answered every question truthfully to the best of our knowledge but in spite of it all, I could sense that Hanley entertained serious doubt as to the veracity of our statements. Much to my astonishment, it dawned on me that perhaps he was suspecting us of having committed the crime.
“Thanks for your deposition, folks. We’ll be in touch. How long do you plan to stay in town?”
“At least a week,” I said, somewhat disturbed by his implying tone of voice.
Once he left, I sank into the couch in utter despair. “ I still can’t believe what’s happened.”
Steve came to sit next to me. “I left out something very important, which is the fact that I was able to identify the man this far away. It might have raised suspicions.”
I tapped him on the knee. “And you did right. We don’t need any more trouble. I have a feeling the sheriff thinks we did it and that we’re trying to cover it up by having returned to body.”
“Are you serious?”
“I know that look.” I buried my head in my hands in total despair. “I still can’t believe she’s dead. This isn’t real.”
Steve ran a comforting hand over my shoulders as I felt tears threatening. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” I sniffled, “yeah I’m fine. I’m usually not this emotional. You’re seeing a side of me that I seldom show.”
“Hey!” He leaned in and cupped my chin to will my bleary eyes to meet his stare. “I like it. It means you’re human,” he said smilingly.
I returned his smile before I heaved a shuddering breath “She was a great girl. You would have liked her, I’m sure. She was bright, beautiful, had an infectious laugh and a great sense of humor. The fact that she was loaded didn’t hurt either,” I finished on a small chuckle.
“She was rich?” Steve asked quizzically, his brows knitted in suspicion.
“Yeah.” I frowned at his wary expression. “Steve, what are you thinking?”
“Money is often a strong motive for murder.”
“That girl was generous to a fault. She had no enemy.”
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be an enemy,” Steve hinted to me with an arched eyebrow. “What’s her story anyway?”
“She inherited a sizeable fortune when he parents died two years ago. Her older brother, Peter, got nothing but a small monthly allowance. When I say small…fifty thousand a month.”
“Did she trust him?”
“Not really. She told me he had hired a lawyer to try to contest the will, but lost in court. Afterwards he began cajoling her into selling some of the properties she owned. She was advised not to and that’s when the threats started.” My eyes shot wide open in alarm. “Steve, what did this man in the boat look like?”
“Caucasian, brown hair. Your typical guy next door.”
“That just may be. You said you memorized his features?”
“That means you’d have no problem identifying him if you saw him?”
“Emily kept family pictures at the lodge.”
I turned to Steve with a mischievous grin.
“Cassie I hate that look on your face.”
“What look?” I asked innocently.
“The one that usually lands us in a heap of trouble. You want us to break in, don’t you?”
“Don’t be silly. I have a key.”
“I don’t know about this,” he sighed in despair.
“Don’t you want to solve this mystery?”
“Not at the risk of landing us in jail under the suspicion of murder!”
“It never stopped you before” I pointed out sarcastically.
“You’re right. Let’s go!”
We treaded circumspectly around Emily’s lodge to make certain no one was loitering about before we entered inside. With gloves on, I went straight for the library where my friend kept her family albums. I opened one and thumbed through the pages in search of a recent picture of Emily’s brother, Clayton, while Steve was casting an eye out the window for any unwanted visitors.
“I’ve got one.” I moved over to him to show him the photograph. “Is that the man you saw in the boat?” I asked, pointing to the man.
“Yes, that’s him. Definitely. That face is unmistakable”
“I can’t believe it. I never held him dear in my heart but I never figured him for a murderer.”
“What happens to the family fortune now that your friend is dead?”
“It goes to her next of kin.”
Steve and I both stared at each other with knowing look.
“There’s your motive, girl.”
“Why of all the…”
“Watch it! There’s a gentleman present,” he teased at the cusses that were about to gush out of my foul mouth. “You know, he can’t touch any of that money while the circumstances of his sister’s death are under investigation.”
“Yeah, for a week, maybe. Then they’ll turn on the faucet in his garden once the police dismiss her death as an accident or a suicide,” I stated spitefully. “You mark my words. There were no sign of a struggle, no marks on her body or neck that might indicate she was strangled. No blood under her fingernails, evidence that she scratched her assailant. Her hands and feet weren’t bound…”
“That’s an impressive observation” Steve remarked in astonishment as he sat next to me. “Well, the way I see it we have nothing to prove he committed the homicide other than my having recognized him hundreds of feet away, which, you’ll agree, we can rule out.”
I swiveled my eyes back and forth as my mind viewed possible alternatives. “I see only one way to pin him with the murder; remember the Carson case two years ago?”
“Do you recall how we got him to confess to the crime?”
“You mean how YOU got him to confess.”
“Hey, I couldn’t have done it without you, partner.”
“It could be risky.” He turned to me with a mischievous grin.
“Blue Eyes I love that look on your face,” I said, reciprocating his sly smile.
“Just think I came here to escape the routine and here I am thrown right, smack, dab in the middle of it. It’s true what they say: What goes around comes around.”
“I’ll make it up to you, somehow.”
“With a lobster and a Cassie Miller Special?”
“Consider it done.” We shook hands on our friendly deal, then I stood up and put the album back in its original place.
Steve surveyed the surroundings to insure the coast was clear before we exited the lodge.
Back at our humble abode, I got on the phone to the sheriff to ask if Emily’s brother had been notified of her death. He informed me that Clayton was already on his way to the station.
“Ready to slay the dragon, 34?”
“Right behind you, 35.”
We drove to the sheriff’s office where we arrived simultaneously with our killer. Our plan to get Clayton to confess hit a snag when Sheriff Hanson handcuffed Steve for suspicion of murder.
“What? That’s ridiculous, Sheriff!”
“How else did he know where to dive for the body if he hadn’t put it there in the first place?”
“Because he witnessed the man who threw the body overboard.” I turned to Clayton standing in the background and motioned to him. “That’s your murderer over there.”
Although he tried to conceal it behind a laugh, Clayton’s edginess was transparent from clear across the room. “What? What are you talking about, lady?”
“Don’t play innocent with me. You killed your sister for her money.”
“That’s a very serious accusation, missy,” Clayton said scathingly with a smoldering glare.
“Sheriff, why don’t you ask him where he was this morning between the hours of six and seven?”
“I was in town, in my hotel room.”
“Anyone can vouch for that?” I asked on a crushing tone.
“The hotel manager I guess.”
“No doubt you already slipped him a few green bills to make him sway the vote your way,” I said sarcastically.
“Look, I don’t know you.”
“Yes you do! Cassie Miller, Emily’s BEST pal. She bares her soul to me. She confided her fear at your threats of freak accidents if she didn’t accede to your request of sharing her inheritance.”
The sheriff arched an eyebrow in suspicion at Clayton.
“My friend and I were by the riverbank doing some fishing when we saw you in that boat dumping your sister’s body into the water.”
“That’s ridiculous. And may I point out impossible.”
“Why is that?”
“The bank is what? Four hundred feet away? Even with a twenty-twenty vision, no one can clearly see the face of a man.”
“How did you know it was four hundred feet away,” I asked innocently, watching the blood drained from the murderer’s face. I turned to the sheriff. “Sheriff, did you tell this man where exactly we found Emily’s body?”
“No, I haven’t yet”
“That’s strange. Then how did he know where the boat was standing?” I asked on a cynical tone.
The sheriff removed the cuffs off Steve’s wrists and walked toward Clayton. “Mister, you have some serious explaining to do.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“Not yet. But it doesn’t look good. It appears to me as though you just confessed indirectly to your sister’s murder.”
“It was just a guess.”
“Maybe, but that was darn good one,” I chimed in.
“Are I free to go?” Steve asked.
“Yes. Sorry about that, son.”
“That’s okay,” Steve sighed.
The sheriff stepped over to Clayton with a menacing look. “If you’ll come with me, Mister Van Dusen. I have a few questions to ask you.”
“Sure sheriff. I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said confidently as he threw me a mocking look.
“That was fast! We didn’t get to play our word game.”
“I prefer that scenario to the alternative. Now, can we go back to the lodge? I’ve famished!”
“Men! What is it with them and food?” I shook my head in disbelief before joining Steve in a good chuckle.
“Come on my Brown-Eyed Girl. I will impress you some more with my cooking skills.”
Before we left the station, I went to the desk to give the clerk my phone number.
Later at the lodge, I was helping Steve in the kitchen when the phone rang.
“Are you expecting any calls?” Steve asked apprehensively.
“That’s probably the sheriff,” I answered detachedly to allay his qualms. I picked up the handset. “Hello.”
“Oscar?” I exclaimed in shock. I turned to Steve who was standing stock-still with a terrorized expression etched on his face. “How did you get this number,” I asked on a biting tone.
“Never mind how I got the number. Is Steve with you?”
“Why Would Steve be with me?” I replied innocently.
“He’s disappeared and we haven’t been able to locate him anywhere. I thought since you two were close friends he might have mentioned to you where he was going.”
“Believe it or not, he doesn’t tell me everything. No, I haven’t seen him. Wasn’t he due for a vacation?” I asked with a tinge of sarcasm.
“Something came up at the last minute.”
“Oscar, can’t you cut him some slack? If he vanished without a trace as you say he did, doesn’t that tell you something?”
Miffed, Oscar rose from his desk chair. “Listen to me, Agent 35. They gave me five days to locate Steve. Failing that, they will send the heavy artillery after him.”
“Heavy artillery, what does that mean?”
“Let just say it might not be pretty.”
I heaved a silent sigh of frustration mixed with fear. “Alright Oscar. I’ll call the minute I hear anything.”
I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers at the huge fib I was feeding my boss. “Promise.” I hung up the receiver and turned to Steve with a dejected expression.
“They want me back.”
“You have five days. After that, the big guns are coming after you.”
In a fury, Steve pounded the counter with his right fist, accidentally gouging a great hole in the wood. “Dammit! I’m sorry. I’ll repair it.” He chuffed out a heavy sigh and started giggling.
“What so funny?”
“That Oscar. Even if I’d escape to the moon he’d find a way to find me.” He continued to laugh uncontrollably as I approached him to wrap a comforting arm around his shoulders.
“Hey, you okay?” I asked with great concern.
“Sure. I have to laugh about it or I’ll go mad.” He tapped my hand and flashed a strained smile.
“I’m sorry about this. I was so sure he’d never find you here.”
“Well technically he hasn’t. And didn’t he say I had five more days before I needed to report back?”
“Yeah, that’s what he told me.”
“In that case,” he took me by the waist, “I shall make the best of that carefree time before they thrust me back into the dragon’s lair,” he said airily, dropping a kiss on my forehead.
“What’s that for?” I asked with an amused smile, somewhat taken aback by his sudden gesture.
“That’s for looking out for me. And to remind you that you promised me a lobster dinner and a Cassie Miller special afterwards.”
“You got it, Blue Eyes.”