Deep shadows across the yard stretched from the clusters of trees- painting the lawn with cool patches of dark green. Low sunset had cooled the heat of the day, lifting a rare haze with the encroaching twilight.
Two figures crept through the neatly trimmed brush, heads covered with plastic batting caps. One held a large flashlight- beam pointed to the ground, while the other kept a small baseball bat close to his chest.
Together they stared at the long indentations sunk into the ground.
“See! I told you Gus, Bigfoot lives in my backyard!”
Eyeing his friend warily, a firm believer in the possibility of undiscovered plants, animals, and hairy monsters, Gus couldn’t say the same about his faith in his best buddy. In all honesty, the last thing he wanted to do on a school night was crawl through moderately manicured property behind Shawn’s house. Yes, he’d finished his math homework… and Shawn’s… but did that make up for the mosquitoes?
“Gus, come on!”
Dragging across the dew saturated grass, Gus could say with certainty he’d rather be doing long division.
Working their way along the side of the house, following his flighty partner, Gus gripped his mini bat a little bit tighter. Just because he thought his friend was blowing this all out of proportion didn’t mean he was certain there wasn’t a Bigfoot at the end of that trail. He did know, however, that if a drooling furry nightmare was waiting for them around the corner, he was more than willing to sacrifice friendship in the name of a clean getaway.
And this whole thing had been Shawn’s idea anyhow.
Slither slide, breaths loud, attempt at covert tactics a complete wash- Gus nearly lost control of his bladder when a hulking form suddenly lurched into view.
Joint screams likely having close neighbors reaching for phones, Gus covered his head while Shawn turned to dart back the way they had come. Traitor!
Unfortunately for him, the monster had a long grasp, and halted his progress with one hand around the departing arm- the watch face enclosing a hairy wrist reflecting in the ambient light.
Wait, watch face?
Gus let his high-pitched pleading fizzle as he noted that the monster was wearing a familiar yellow and green high-collared number and a pair of worn jeans.
And by his dying shrieks, Shawn had obviously noted this as well.
Just one word in that scary tone, and Gus was pretty sure his friend would rather be facing Bigfoot.
The man had released his son at this point, crossing his arms in a way that drew sighs from both boys.
“What are you two doing out here? And is that my good flashlight?”
Shawn looked his way, but Gus had already accepted the loss of his friend to parental doom, so he merely raised an eyebrow. The whispered “sell out” wasn’t lost on him either. Gus wasn’t worried. After all- who was trying to ditch whom?
“Me and Gus were hunting Bigfoot!”
Cringing at the sentence structure, Gus wasn’t certain he wanted to be lumped into this particular adventure- especially not when Mr. Spencer turned down his lips at both of them. Great.
“Okay kid, why do you think Bigfoot is nearby?”
Shawn pointed at the ground. “We found footprints! And they’re huge! They have to be from Bigfoot!”
Gus nodded at that- the footprints had actually worried him a little.
A smile then, and Shawn’s dad crouched down at eye level.
“Okay kid. Why do you think they belong to Bigfoot?”
Shawn shrugged. “Cause they’re big?”
Experience told Gus this wouldn’t be the end of it- and sure enough, Mr. Spencer made the two boys crouch beside him while he pointed at the ground.
“Alright- they’re big. But what else do you see?”
Looking more intently, Shawn tilted his head. “They’re long?”
Henry’s finger tapped at the deep print before them. “Come on Shawn, look at the pattern. What does it look like?”
Really paying attention, Shawn sighed. “Theeeey… look like shoe prints.”
Henry smiled. “What kind of shoe prints?”
Straightening, Shawn pointed to his father’s feet. “Your shoe prints.”
Finally standing as well, Henry patted his son on the back. “Remember Shawn, the clues will tell you what you need to know. What’s important, is to not let your own imagination get in the way of what’s actually there. Do you understand?”
Slightly wilted, Shawn nodded. “Yes sir.”
One more head rub, and Henry turned towards the house. “You two should come inside soon, Mom is making a Jell-O cake, and it should be ready in about ten minutes.”
And then he walked away.
Gus punched his friend in the arm as soon as Henry disappeared around the corner.
“You knew those were your dad’s prints the whole time!”
Rubbing his arm, Shawn grinned. “Well duh! I would have had you too if he hadn’t ruined it!”
Gus’s hand tightened around his bat.
“Shawn, you’ve got two seconds to run.”
His grip tightened a little more. “One…”
Shawn took off. “Come on- it was funny!”
Gus darted after a second later. “You better run faster Shawn!”
He was never going on another monster hunt with that idiot again!
Shawn was convinced his guardian angel, whom he’d named Rufus- a sunglasses and trenchcoat wearing protector with a gift for the steel guitar, was working overtime that morning because finding last night’s strawberry rhubarb crumble dessert still resting unmolested in its Styrofoam leftovers box was the Holy Grail of rare occurrences. Clearly Burton Snack Snatcher Guster was off his game to a monumental degree to allow such tart succulence to remain in unchewed form when Shawn wasn’t there to guard it.
Of course, given that he obviously hadn’t stopped in for his weekend janitorial duties might have been somewhat influential in the consultant still having munchables for breakfast. Hey, it was fruit and some form of bread-like substance. Darn near wholesome if one disregarded the half cup of sugar baked into its delicious depths. Although, with the overripe stenchiness of garbage lingering from the past week’s discarded banana peel and coffee filters floating past the desks- enjoying this morsel became a highly questionable undertaking.
But then, that was why God invented the outdoors.
And hey look, the sun was shining!
Settling lightly on a bench outside the building, Shawn dropped his shades over his eyes and flipped back the cover on his dessert/breakfast- stabbing his fork into crumbly goodness and shoveling an oversized bite between his teeth.
Beyond his toe tips, the distant beach glimmered, ocean lapping just past the sandy ridge of low level dunes. Patrons of relaxation had arrived on the scene hours before his gung ho alarm clock suggested he drag his ass from bed seconds before snooze was smacked for the third time. Skimpy clothing a requirement, they offered entertainment for the time it took to polish off the last delectable crumb.
Then, a flash of his watch face leading to a pocket search for his phone, he pushed out his lower lip when he confirmed, again, that Gus hadn’t called yet. Of course, the fact that his cell had neither rung nor vibrated or a combination of the two tipped him off to that fact fairly glaringly. Damn, and he’d thought things were square between them after Gus’s little brother visit.
Unfortunately, around the same time that the Chief had retaken control of her station, Gus had drifted back into his green trashcan monster mode. Not only that, but he’d also been spending a lot more time at his other, slash ‘more important’, job. And even when he was around he spent half the time with his ear plastered to his phone- though attempts at eavesdropping only earned physical pain.
Which all boiled down to the fact that nobody was around to take out the trash.
Sooo… Indoors was out. As long as that throat choking odor continued to circulate a noxious path around the room. Maybe an outdoor office could be the new hip thing. After all, they did live in California- and peddling their wares in open view of the public was certain to bring them foot traffic. Heck, it worked great for street cons.
Not that he was…
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t his best idea to date.
Unfortunately, his other option was going back inside. The thing was, though he didn’t have Gus’s olfactory gift, he was no slouch in sniffing. And death by stink was not the way he’d pictured himself kicking it.
He checked his phone again.
“Oh, come on dude!”
Alright, fine. Dialing, as his father had reminded him quite frequently, went both ways.
Two buttons managed to get punched before a shadow dropped the temperature a degree and cut off essential tanning rays from his exposed musculature.
Slow turn of his head brought into view denim, denim, and yet more denim. Craning until he was nearly looking straight up, he finally found a head floating among the seagulls above. Okay, was there a rodeo going on that he didn’t know about? Who wore overalls these days?
“May I be of assistance to you?”
Stretchy LongPants bent down from his eye-level examination of the trim to study the man resting near his ankles.
“Yes sir, could you point me in the direction of a Mr. Shawn Spencer?”
Shawn stood quickly, unfolding to his maximum height. Well hello Mr. Beltbuckle, glad to make your acquaintance. Hmm- metal in the shape of Porky, and glance at well beyond their shine leather boots confirmed that wasn’t mud in those heavy creases. Seemed not nice smells were the theme of the day.
Time to establish credibility. Crooked fingertips hovered at his temples, the mildest expression of pain to enhance effect, and his gaze snapped skyward. “I think I can help you. Tell me. Would you, by chance, happen to raise pigs for a living?”
That familiar raised eyebrow stare. Yes, we have a winner!
“Wow! As it just so happens! Man, that is something else!” Dinner plate hand shoved forward, nearly clipping his chin. “Ruger McDonald!”
Completion of handshake carried out with the tiniest wince, because indeed- that grip was as tight as it appeared to be- the consultant manfully kept his squeak to the lowest decibel before tugging his rumpled digits free. One afternoon visit to the ER and a few splints- he’d be just fine. “Shawn Spencer, psychic.”
“I sure am glad to meet you. Can we go inside to talk?”
Holding his hand behind his back as he shook out the tingles, Shawn advanced the other quickly to block forward motion. “Please, I must ask for your patience. It seems a rouge spirit has taken residence in my office. He’s demanding Oreos and Bubblegum Kool-Aid, and has left an ectoplasmic trail on most of the furniture.” Actually, it was good that Gus wasn’t around at the moment as he’d certainly have received an elbow in his sternum by now.
The large hand resting on the doorknob lifted away again cautiously.
“This sort off thing happen a lot?”
That was easy. Apparently the guy wasn’t much of an Ivan Reitman fan. He turned the tall fellow towards the beach- though the guy couldn’t have stood out more amongst the swimsuited flock moving back and forth across the sand than Hulk Hogan at a Baby Gap.
Choosing to stick to the sidewalk instead of finding a bench, the two men wandered alongside the inviting shoreline- Shawn needing to put an extra stretch in his stride just to keep up with his long-legged companion. Seriously, if the guy traded in the farm gear for gym shorts he could slam dunk a basketball without even leaving the floor.
“So, Mr. McDonald…”
Shawn smiled easily. “And you may call me Magnum.”
Grunting, the humor somehow rising high enough to pass over his head, the large man slowed to a stop, jamming hands into his pockets and staring out at the water beyond.
Shading his eyes, Shawn looked on appreciatively as two bikinied ladies jogged past, still wet from a recent swim. To think Gus had ever complained about renting an office next to the beach. The man must have been drinking pepper spray that morning.
At his side, he noticed one large paw lift to rub at a bearded chin, followed by a somewhat congested throat clearing as the other man readied himself to speak once more.
“Son, I have a problem.”
She should have worn sneakers. That’s what most people slipped on when the weekend hit, right? Sneakers, jeans, and a ratty yet comfortable T shirt emblazoned with something either mildly crude or obnoxiously sparkled. The fact that Juliet actually owned such garments wasn’t completely surprising. That she automatically donned station-wear was as strong an indicator as any that she really did need a day or two off. It was a little sad actually. Granted the enforced weekend break was more for her partner’s benefit than her own, him delving even deeper into his Dirty Harry personality traits since the Chief’s recent absence while recovering from her injuries. Now that Vick was back behind her desk with only the occasional headache to contend with, her request that they take a few days to themselves was being obediently carried out. Actually, it hadn’t really been a request as much as a demand that they ‘get the hell out of the station before I call security’.
Vacation in was then.
Driving her Volkswagen past tree-lined streets with kids playing amongst the spinning sprinklers in their yards, she found herself smiling with the barest nostalgia. Okay, yeah, Miami was more Baywatch babes than wives both Stepford and Desperate. Still, she felt a bit of a tug seeing lawns neat and manicured, dotted with the random flower garden with nary a pink flamingo or ceramic gnome in sight. One would never expect to find a certain Head detective frequenting such a locale unless some ballsy tot had dared set up an illicit lemonade stand without procuring the proper forms and paperwork for schlepping refreshment on the side of the road.
And yet, fifth house in, fronted by a lawn perhaps a tad less cropped than the ones around and bracketed by two driveways, one sporting a tan corvette and the other a somewhat battered truck and trailer- Juliet O’Hara finally parked her little green machine. Not a great deal different than his previous residence, though supposedly off the radar of Santa Barbara’s not-so-finest citizens- and she’d done her time in purgatory regarding the Birthday snafu of 2006, so he could just quit with the guilt trips- the house sat back from the street with a decent enough clearance to spot any approach from friend or foe. Design chosen more for tactical advantage than homey appeal, he’d still done quite nicely in the architectural department.
Hefting a paper bag in one arm and a box of soda in the other, Juliet wrestled her load from the car and nudged the door shut with one hip. The sidewalk was dotted with drying drops, Carlton’s automatic sprinkler system having recently finished its daily work on the slowly evolving ecosystem fronting his property. For a guy that held himself so tightly together at work, he sure seemed to be embracing the bachelor’s existence.
One heeled foot wobbling unsteadily as she mounted the three steps to the door, she used the toe of that same foot to knock against the wooden barrier, hoping her partner wouldn’t require her to show her badge at the peephole before allowing entrance into his sanctuary. Come on, by now the whole bi-weekly ritual thing should have clued him in that a loud rap at his door on a Saturday afternoon was more than likely his partner and not a hitman- though suspicions suggested he liked to make her suffer because he was still carrying that vindictive torch. It was a simple mistake! Who keeps America’s Most Wanted in their contact book, honestly!?
Still no response, and were she able to rotate her wrist she’d be checking her watch.
Another bout of toe kicking- little piggies protesting the mashing against the solid barrier- and jumping up and down on one foot was a guaranteed way of spreading sandwich making ingredients across the stoop. Though really, he’d deserve it to have a combination of mustard and avocado spread decorate the eggshell hue of his domicile.
Nearly growling, she pondered the possibility he might be in the bathroom, certainly not capable of digging for her own copy of his house key while loaded down, she was preparing to drop the groceries into his pot of dying geraniums when a whisper-light and muffled response carried back. Only it wasn’t from inside.
Pivoting, she looked behind and to the side, still not seeing the lanky form that had to be close by… somewhere.
“O’Hara…” Hushed, and with the second summons, it offered a direction.
Curious- though irritation would take some time to ease- she made for the driveway to the left, suspicion lowering her brows with every step.
Don’t even tell me he’s…
“Ooo- I hope there’s olive chutney in that bag.”
She wanted to rub her forehead. She really wanted to punch him in the shin. What she could only manage considering her victuals holding status was to glare heatedly.
“What are you doing- you call this taking a break!?”
Heavy rubber sheeting pushed aside to allow the upper half of his body to peek out, blandly ignoring her query, Lassiter hunched down from the back of the trailer compartment and easily relieved her of her baggage. “Make sure you don some gloves before hopping up here.” He tossed over his shoulder as he disappeared once again.
Mouth open, head shaking, O’Hara didn’t move as her partner’s body vanished inside.
“You know, if you’re wanting to play lookout, the fuchsia blouse sort of makes a bold statement… A bit along the lines of ‘hey, look at me, I’m standing guard while my partner digs through your truck’.”
Arms folded, eyes making a powerful effort to scorch through the heavy drape hiding the man from sight, she finally turned, giving the immediate area a scan. Then, confirming they were still alone, she swiveled back in time to snag the spare latex coverings popping into sight from the edge of the enclosure. Banking on an explanation for the sudden cloak and dagger, she followed his suggestion and snapped the thin gloves in place before gripping the tailgate and lifting her foot.
“You know, normal people might consider this overly suspicious trait of yours to be unhealthy.” Muffling a dust induced cough, she levered herself into the truck. “What ever happened to search warrants anyhow?”
Snort from the darkness followed by muttered response. "My driveway, my trailer."
Juliet blinked as imprinted sunlight lit hazy afterimages against her vision. "I thought this was a shared driveway." Her hand went out to brace against one plastic wrapped tower. Ahead of her, she heard her partner sigh.
"Fine, I'll only search half of it." He grumbled. “Besides, I’m planning on securing one once I confirm I actually need one.”
Dark and appropriately filthy, poor light offered an estimated view of about twenty pallets clustered about the interior. A snick, and light bathed a narrow path towards one of the boxes standing open at the top of a short stack. Inside, a somewhat ugly porcelain frog ogled up from a bed of bubble wrap in seeming mid-croak.
Mouth opening to comment on the mutated Kermit, Juliet gasped instead when her partner abruptly smashed the web-footed statuette with the butt of his flashlight.
Lambasting startlement wasted away as gloom adjusted eyes took in the powder-filled baggie nestled amongst the muddy green shards.
Looking back up at the triumphant expression on her partner’s face, O’Hara’s brow furrowed in bafflement. “How did you…?”
Nearly giddy grin as he lifted the substance a little higher into his beam.
“I’ve had my eye on these guys for about a month. Finally got a bead on their little import export operation two nights ago when I tailed them to their warehouse.” His smile was all gloat as he returned his prize back into the box before closing the lid once more. “One little traffic stop and they’re mine.”
Okay, possessive just a bit?
“You stakeout your neighbors?”
Blue eyes pivoted to take in her own, and nonchalant shrug answered where knowledge of her partner should have sufficed.
“Of course! What, you’re saying you don’t?”
She was pretty sure the unblinking evaluation was lost on him when he abruptly killed their light source.
Though huffy, she still silenced the question as a heartbeat after him she too caught the sound that had prompted his hand on her lips.
Walking steps clipping against the cement, and two voices speaking.
“…diot! Next time don’t leave the back open!”
“Sorry, I thought we were only supposed to be a few minutes! And besides, what difference does it make- like someone’s gonna mess with it here…”
A hand wrapping around her arm tugged Juliet back behind one of the standing pillars of cargo- pressing her against the side of the truck just as a cut of bright sunlight filled the rear of the vehicle.
“Hurry up; we need to get this thing moved!”
Lassiter tensing at her side- instinct having her feeling for her own weapon as something heavy slid across the floor- one foot was just rising for the forward lunge when the door covering abruptly fell in place one more, almost instantly followed by a clattering drop as the metal closure slammed down- clicking to lock in its shallow groove.
Blacker than Washington black, the interior was suddenly an unseeable maze as her partner shoved past and instantly collided with something solid and unmoving- a loud curse swallowed up by the sound of an engine galvanizing to life.
Hand smacked against the side of the truck while Lassiter swore quite proficiently- all of it a complete waste as the shuddering jolt signaled the trailer backing out of the parking space.
“Damn!!” Another sound of flesh striking metal, and the momentum of the vehicle changed course- taking them forward- and onward- and away.
Could she see, her expression would be reducing her partner to flash fried critter. As it was, a well placed and lucky kick did nicely for offering her opinion. And if anyone asked, she was aiming for a box.
A sharp turn, even taken at street speeds, still threw them both sideways- dang it she better not get flattened by collectibles!
And this was truly surpassing ridiculous.
"Where's your phone?"
Okay, that long and soundless pause was not earning brownie points. "... In my jacket... in my house.”
“And what do you mean where's MY phone- where's YOUR phone?"
Juliet chewed her lip, because there was a reason she’d asked first. "In my purse... in my car..."
There had to be punchline because this was seriously a joke- evidenced by Lassiter’s immediate bluster.
"I can't believe you don't have your phone! I thought a proximity alert would sound if it was further than three feet from you!"
"Well I wasn't expecting lunch at your place would involve a scene from Breakdown!"
"Well maybe next time you'll be better prepared!" Petulant and muttered, he was lucky he’d moved because her second kick in his direction would have mutilated.
“Carlton- my hands were full! YOU try juggling ten pounds of groceries and a twelve pack of Lime-a-licious- while in heels- and see how well you manage!”
And argument ended that quickly as the truck made another turn before picking up speed, outside traffic becoming moderately louder as they obviously moved onto the freeway.
Throat clearing sounds were soon followed by her emotionless observation and unnecessary statement of fact. “We’re trapped in here, aren’t we.”
Long long sigh as her partner clearly could be heard settling down on the floor.
And yeah, there really wasn’t anything else to say.
Murder would leave her to deal with a corpse slowly escalating in stink, and they tended to pass over detectives for head of department jobs that slaughtered their partners.
And yet, somehow, she still managed a comment.
“You get to explain this to the Chief.”
Whomever scheduled appointments on a weekend, Shawn didn’t know. But he’d been waiting outside the office for half an hour before Gus finally appeared. Bags were already loaded in the car and allergy pills at the ready should the man attempt to be difficult. Dirty player, thy name is Shawn.
“Great, you’re done, let’s go!”
Wrinkled brow curl smudging the perfect dome of smooth cocoa, Gus dropped a glance towards his toe-tip bouncing buddy.
“Go where Shawn? I told you, I don’t have time for outside cases this weekend.”
“No case- just good clean air and water and fun! Clean being a relative term…”
Already Gus was brushing past him, new briefcase in hand as he made for his car… and then stopped as he apparently spotted the additional elements resting in the backseat.
“Is that my suitcase?”
Shawn smiled, gliding around the side of the vehicle and popping open the driver’s side door. “It is indeed. Come on, I got you all packed and ready- all you need to do is say yay.”
“Wait a minute… Did you steal my car keys again?”
Why was it so hard to stay on subject? “Steal would imply the intent not to return- apparently a universal misunderstanding.”
“And you broke into my house!”
Shawn tipped his head. “I’m sorry, did I slide into some alternate Earth where the Kromaggs are in control and this is suddenly a new thing? Besides, you’re missing the point. Tell me- does the word kayak have any meaning for you?”
That had Hershey hued eyeballs looking back with interest.
“Kayaking? As in extreme rapids, water in your face, proving your manhood meddle kayaking?”
Shawn flipped the car keys back and forth in his hand. “Maybe not so extreme or rapid-y, but there definitely will be water involved. The meddling manhood is a given.” Then he paused with his other hand still wrapped around the door frame. “Did that sound dirty to you, or is it just me?”
Gus glared but didn’t answer as he glanced back at the office behind him. One hand clenched around the handle of his briefcase, he pushed out his lower jaw in that familiar, almost surrendering stance.
While the debate raged, a familiar figure walked towards the door, briefcase in a clamp-tight grip. Seeing the two of them, he raised his hand in greeting. “Guster, Jer- uh- Shawn?”
Leaning against the car in their best ‘casual look’, the two of them nodded back. “Zenk.” they responded together. Tight, industry approved grin, and the neat-as-a-pin salesman pushed through the doors.
Shawn immediately spun back to Gus.
“Dude- daylight’s burning man! I promise, I’ll have you home by Sunday night.” Perhaps a bit more wheedling pleading than he’d intended had slipped in his tone- likely brought on by the relatively startling blow-up between them a little over a month ago. He’d seen his friend furious before- but never before had his anger been so lasting. Gus could outgrudge the Grudge, but he always filed his irritations away someplace where he could access them in times of need. He didn’t typically carry them out in the open like this.
Still hesitant. Always nice to know he could count of the famed Guster stubborn streak. Drumming fingertips against the top of the car, Shawn rolled his eyes. “Look, I’ll even sign a waver! Not to mention you owe me for Connecticut!”
And there went that odd little guilty look again that appeared every time he brought up his friend’s recent abandonment. Then it was gone once more as the conceding glare resurfaced.
“Fine- but you’re writing it in ink.”
“I was thinking blood, but sure, it’ll be ironclad- now let’s go! I’d like to get there before the sun goes down.”
Tugging open the passenger side door, sliding in just after Shawn settled himself behind the wheel, Gus adjusted the seat and buckled his belt before the words seemed to take on a significant meaning.
“Wait… Shawn, it’s only two thirty. Exactly how far are we driving anyhow?”
His friend shrugged, starting the engine and easing back out of his off-center parking job.
“Not to worry, we won’t be crossing any state lines- unless you count the small detour I need to take through Carson City- but that’s merely to avoid the toll booths.”
Gus really needed to stop glaring before he developed some serious eyestrain.
“You’re not going to tell me- are you.”
The other man took the next exit for the interstate.
“No, I am not.” He answered airily.
Pouting again, Gus slouched back into his seat, arms crossing tightly over his chest while the car picked up speed as it merged into the fast lane.
Flipping on the radio with a quick turn of the knob, Shawn began bobbing his head as Kevin DuBrow’s powerful vocals screamed through the vehicle. Keeping with the jerking motion, he grinned widely as he turned to the man at his side.
“It’s gonna be fun!”
Lips tight together, Gus adjusted the volume down several decibels before returning to his arm crossed state.
“I bought Queso chips.”
Still not looking, his friend snatched the bag- nearly taking fingers as he tugged the top open with a sharp jerk, hand burying into the depths.
Cramming a seasoned chip into his mouth, he finally pivoted towards the still grinning man at the helm.
“You’re paying for the gas too.”
Shawn turned back to the freeway, settling in comfortably with one wrist dangling on the wheel.
“Trust me Gus, you are going to have the time of your life.”
God, he hoped so.
Gus fell asleep about two hours into the drive. The smooth rocking motion and his friend’s inane chatter blended to background as his early morning and full belly finally took its toll.
The car was off and engine cooling by the time he reemerged from his impromptu hibernation. Blinking gummy lashes as he sat up achingly from his crampy bed, he glanced left and took in the fact that Shawn was no longer in the vehicle.
Examining more than his immediate surroundings, he realized the car was parked in front of a mock log cabin decked out as a small square convenience store and gas station combo. Considering its size he figured Spam and marshmallows would be the most exotic items available from their grocery section.
Slightly less aggravated with the rejuvenation of sleep, glancing at his watch- seven twenty-five?? he realized both his stomach and bladder demanded expedient attention. Door shoving open, he dragged his joint popping length upright with a helpful push against the seat back.
Pine struck against his nostrils the moment he was free of the odorous vehicle with its blended scents of Cheetos and Twizzlers. Far removed from the city, the only sound of note was the airy shish of trees rocking their leaves and branches. Vague with distance, he could just make out the rumble hum of a miles-off generator. Then he huffed out in irritation. This was no time to get suckered in by postcard surroundings. After all, it wasn’t like any of this was really for his benefit anyhow.
Crunching across the short span of gravel, he eased to the right when an unleashed canine trotted around the side of the building. Plopping its misleadingly innocent self onto a patch of smooth dirt, it scratched at a crooked ear- jaws showing every tooth in its head when it yawned widely. The thing probably had rabies. No doubt Shawn would want to pet it. Making it to the stairs, Gus remembered that he was angry with the man. After all, that’s who this trip was really for. And of course Shawn wouldn’t bother waking him to see if he needed a bathroom break either. Typical. But then, why expect the man to change after all these years? As always, Gus was left to his own devices to deal with whatever was most important to him.
The cheery bell jingle above the door was a colorful offset to the interior of the dingy station. He spotted Shawn immediately as he wandered towards the back. His friend was idly contemplating the single pathetic hotdog rotating slowly in the interior of a battered rotisserie cooker that seemed to have been salvaged from the early nineties… the cooker and the wiener given its somewhat pruny appearance. Next to him was a Styrofoam cup most likely containing flavored coffee. Generally not a big fan of station brew, Gus had to admit that a cup sounded pretty good right then. But first things first.
The hard smack against the other man’s bicep helped to alert him that he was no longer alone.
“Five hours Shawn? And where the heck are we? And did you drug me again?”
Rubbing his arm, Shawn tipped his head towards the counter Gus had passed on his way in. “First of all, this fine establishment belongs to Dave and Janice Zerkal, those two lovely people behind the register.
"Zerkal? For real?" Gus turned automatically, offering a small and unreturned wave to the silent couple that eerily resembled American Gothic sans pitchfork- though he wouldn’t be overly startled if there wasn’t one of those pointy farm tools hiding beneath the counter.
“And second of all, there was no need for dosage- you were full blown grizzly bear cub dude.” Tapping a few times at the plastic housing of the hotdog heater, Shawn lowered his hands to play invisible piano on the edge of the counter. "You hungry?”
Tolerating, barely, the excessive energy burning beside him, Gus nodded at the only hot food within eyesight. “Do they have meat that doesn’t contain ground snout?”
Shawn grinned. “Well it is one hundred percent pork.”
Rubbing his eyes, still trying to work his sleep soggy brain back to life, Gus squinting at the picked over rack of condiments next to the heating wiener. “I think I’ll pass.” He yawned.
Grabbing his coffee, Shawn took a long swallow before leaning his shoulders into the plastic rack filled with fairly dried out looking pastries. “According to Big Dave over there, the town used to be the best place in three states to get 'damn good eatin’ ckicken'- his words, not mine I might add."
Gus grunted. "That a fact." He offered without interest.
"Yup. Guess business took a nosedive when the processing plant burned down about a year ago. Kinda puts a damper on that whole picnic I had planned."
“Hm.” Glancing around himself, searching for the much needed door to relief, Gus abandoned his friend to his hotdog perusal and approached the unblinking double gaze still staring him down from beyond the rack of mini horoscopes.
“Excuse me, do you have a restroom available?”
Wordlessly, the man slid a hubcap across the scuffed wood surface; a small tarnished key attached by a knotted length of cord.
The woman jerked her chin.
“Toilet’s outside- round to the left.”
His smile weak as the two continued to look on expressionlessly, Gus grabbed the clunky disk- glancing once more at his distracted friend before finally exiting back out of the building.
Following the simple instructions offered to him in accented monotone, he strode steadily around the corner of the station. There was only one door on this side; metal, with a peeling coat of whitewash that only accentuated its battered attributes. Sighing, Gus unlocked the door, reached inside to flip on the light… and nearly gagged.
Oh no. Oh HELL no.
Unfortunately for him- his bladder had hit the any port in a storm stage. And there was no other choice.
Sucking in one last clean breath, one hand clamping on his nostrils, Gus eased inside the tiny odorous room and shut the door.
“Explain to me why I shouldn’t punch you again?”
Shawn slid a little further from his friend as they walked up the gravel driveway towards the cluster of buildings just ahead.
“How was I to know you’d be willing to risk botulism because you had to take a leak?”
“How was I to know I’d be beating your ass Shawn? And you could have told me our cabin was on the same property. That way I could have used a bathroom that’s seen a can of Lysol more than once this millennium!” Then his nose wrinkled. “God, speaking of smells!” His hand immediately rose to cap his nostrils while the other waved back and forth in front of him.
Rubbing at the elbow shaped bruise forming on his ribs, Shawn pushed open the squeaky metal gate blocking the rest of the driveway. At this point, Gus had postponed his complaints long enough to actually lift his head and take it the structures just ahead.
“Shawn- this is a farm!”
Tipping back his chin, Shawn appeared vaguely baffled. “Huh, so it is.” He picked up his pace.
Gus sped as well, keeping alongside his friend as they neared the small farmhouse behind its hedge of lilac bushes.
“I thought you said we were going to the kayak rental place!”
They’d reached the cement steps leading to the front door by now, and without hesitation, Shawn rapped his knuckles against the wood surface.
“Don’t be a frozen cherry popsicle Gus, I just need to check something out really quick. Besides dude, the rental place is just down the road.”
Another double rap, and clomping steps could be heard striding towards to door.
“I’m comin’, hold yer horses!”
Gus was still watching him closely, eyes half-lidded in that evaluating way that usually meant the man was nursing a grudge. It was also an unspoken promise of further physical assault. In light of this, Shawn took another sideways step away from his glowering friend.
“Shawn, are we here for a job?”
“You think so little of me. I’m hurt. Shame on you Gus. Shame.” Doable insult; about a five for indignation, but he’d have to give himself a three for committed glare follow through.
As it was, Gus didn’t appear ashamed. Actually, Gus appeared to be busy pulverizing his molars into a fine pearly-white powder. And he was so proud of his teeth…
Clomping feet inside interrupted the mini stare down, door opening with a sharp tug to reveal…
“Mr. Spencer- thank you so much for coming!”
Andre the Giant’s older, grizzlier, and taller brother once more engulfed the consultant’s tiny and delicate hand in his own baseball mitt palms, shaking vigorously and surely dislocating a few key joints.
The gleeful eyes twinkling down at him turned to the man at his side- eyebrows rising in the obvious question.
Ripping his crushed hand free, Shawn gestured with the other towards his silent buddy.
“Ruger, this is my associate, Edger Slip an’ Slide Jones.”
No chance to evade, Gus also had his palm bear-trapped for several seconds until he was finally able to wrench it away- shaking his fingers while returning his heat-seeking missile eyeballs to his best friend.
“I’m so glad you made it! I lost another one last night!” Ruger shook his head sadly. “Poor Penny, she was one of my better sows.”
Gus turned quickly, looking up at the tall man. “Did you say sows? As in pigs?”
Ruger nodded. “You don’t smell it? Sweet perfume!” He closed his eyes and sniffed deep.
Shawn was actually quite proud of his friend for not vomiting on the welcome mat. Meanwhile, the older man had dropped his head again and begun scratching at his beard. “I can’t afford to lose any more of my herd. You gotta promise me you’ll do everything you can to catch this thing.”
Gus went from green to dusky pale. “Wait a minute- what thing?”
“Hang on, I’ll show ya!” Said Ruger before Shawn could drop his mouth.
Leaving the door hanging open as he darted back inside with more grasshopper agility than a man of his age and stature should manage, the old man vanished into his house.
Which left only one victim for the Guster glare of death.
“Dude, I’m starting to get two little burn marks in the side of my neck!”
“I can’t believe you’d do this Shawn! So all this- the whole weekend getaway was just a big ruse!?”
Shawn massaged his fingers as he hunched his shoulders in agitation. “Okay, first of all, who says ruse anymore? Who are you, Doctor No?”
The second argument in five minutes was again broken by the return of Mr. McDonald, this time with something clutched in his hands.
“Here, the issue just came out today!”
Black and white pages were thrust between the duo, and Shawn took in the cover just before Gus snatched the newspaper from Ruger’s grasp.
One long look, and his friend shook his head- shoving the paper into Shawn’s hands.
“Uh uh!! No chance Shawn!” And pivoting he started walking at a fast clip away from the house, arms swinging little-soldier-like at his sides.
“No Shawn!!” Emerged distantly from beyond the gate, followed by the very clear sound of a small blue car roaring awake… and roaring away.
One finger tapping against the paper, Shawn chewed half a lower lip between his teeth.
Beneath his index was a photo of a blurred and shapeless form floating on open water. To the side of the image, in bold, capital print, was the shock inducing headline;
Local Lake-Monster Strikes Again! Sassy Snatches Another Sow!
“He’ll be back…”
After all, his buddy would never ditch him… right? Of course not. Just like Henry had fully understood his choice to borrow the neighbor's car to impress little miss hot and gothy.
This was going to be a long walk.