Revenant Chapter 1, first draft
*When I started on the rough draft of Revenant–then called “Bone Churches”–I wanted to deal with Harper’s family and her ferret, so this was what I wrote. Later, this version was abandoned and it took two more tries to get the First Chapter right. You can see the second abandoned draft version here and the final, published version here.
It was five days after the phone call that I drove out of the pass at Livingston about ten in the morning, heading down toward Big Timber and beyond. Now I remembered why they call Montana “big sky country.” The eastern high plains spread out from the western mountains like an endless, rumpled sheet of summer-gilded brown and green and the sky seemed to meet the earth ahead as if there was nothing left in the world but dirt below and heaven above. I had the eerie impression that if I got out of the truck and looked straight up, I’d find myself staring into the unblinking azure eye of God Himself—or some god, anyway. It’s enough to make anyone feel tiny and insignificant.
It made me a little breathless—and slightly creeped out. I’m a city girl and all that omnipotent emptiness left me with a desire for cover. I didn’t pull to the side of I-90 and stare into the infinite; I kept driving right on through the blazing streaks of ghosts and magic that were barely visible through the filter of the truck’s window glass. I’d left Anaconda at seven thirty and wanted to get to my uncle’s ranch out near Deadman’s Canyon by noon, if possible. It was nothing but county roads and gravel tracks once I got off the highway and even with four wheel drive and dry weather, it was a long, slow drive by the route I’d chosen. The aging International pickup I’d bought in Spokane was more than up to the trip, so long as I didn’t expect it to go too fast.
Chaos, the ferret, riding along in her carrier belted into the passenger side of big bench seat, concurred on the speed issue. She had let out disgruntled noises every time I took a bump or dip a little too fast. She also didn’t appreciate the old truck’s lack of air conditioning. The International was certainly not as comfortable as the Land Rover I’d had to leave back in Seattle, but it was tough, cheap, and—at least out here in cattle country—anonymous. My recent-model Land Rover wouldn’t have stood out too much, but it would have marked me as “city folk,” and even though I was from the city, I didn’t want that fact to be too obvious—and memorable—from a distance. Someone would be looking for me soon, if they weren’t already, and I didn’t want to make their job easy.
This headlong dash of mine had been precipitated by events of the previous July back in Seattle, when a case of mine had turned out to have links to a rather nasty project my boyfriend, Quinton, had been sucked into by his father, the spy. Eventually Quinton had taken off for Europe to shadow his thoroughly unpleasant parent and ruin whatever he was planning. At first, I’d intended to go along, but I’d agreed—reluctantly—to wait until he sent word. That word had finally come in the form of a phone call on Tuesday morning followed by a meeting with a guy named Jeremy Lynch at the IRS office in Seattle’s Federal Building.
Lynch was a tall, thin man in his thirties with a shaven head and a suit that didn’t fit. He had a wide, easy grin under sparkling eyes, an aura that was effervescent blue, and the first thing he had said, once we were both locked in the tiny, sound-deadened conference room, was, “Let me get the file from my briefcase.”
I’d had no idea what file he was talking about, since he hadn’t exactly specified what he wanted to discuss with me, but most people don’t ignore a summons from the IRS and I hadn’t either.
I had stood where I was and watched Lynch put his briefcase on the table and open it so I could see the complicated electronic device inside. He had pushed a button and turned a knob until there was a faint, high-pitched squeal that he then tuned back down to a mere thread of sound that made the walls flush a momentary bright yellow in my Grey-adapted sight before they went dull again.
“The nice thing about these rooms is that, although they normally record everything in here, it’s fairly easy to use that against them, once you know about it,” Lynch had said and offered me another of his grins. “They can’t see or hear us now, and I’m not actually with the IRS.”
I’d just raised an eyebrow and remained standing beside the small table.
“Let me start by saying, Ms. Quinn’s son has remarkable taste in women.” Quinn was the maiden name of my lover’s mother and his nickname, “Quinton,” was actually a pun on “Quinn’s son.” His real name was James Jason Purlis—and you’d change it too, if you had a father like his.
“Really,” I had replied. “What else would you like to say?”
His expression had grown serious and his energy corona darkened. “It appears that a friend of mine has come back from the dead only to put himself right in the way of a metric shit-ton of trouble. The first I heard that he was still walking around was by a message that came through a discreet channel that should have been inoperable—a joke really, something we’d set up when we were new at the game and still thought it was all a lot of fun. Before anyone got shipped home in a box. But anyhow, this message turned out to be the real thing and now I have a message to pass on to you because my ghostly friend says I should. He says it started in Prague with the shrine and he’s now heading for the country your unpleasant friend comes from. He will meet you in the capitol, where sick toys go to get well.”
I had scowled. “That’s an odd message.”
“It’s what he gave me. I need to get going and I don’t have any other answers for you, just what he said. He seemed to think you’d puzzle it out. Also, he said, you need to leave quickly, but without seeming to leave.”
“That I understand. Do you have any way to get back in touch with him?”
“No. It was a limited contact and it’s no longer available. I’ll just have to wait for one of you to let me know how it all works out.”
He had reached for his case, but I stopped him with a hand on his. “How did you know him?” I asked.
“You could say we went to graduate school together under Professor Purlis. I washed out, but we remained friends, and I think that makes me the lucky one. Good luck to you, too.”
He had closed his briefcase then and walked out, giving me another of his twinkling smiles.
I had followed him out a few seconds later, but I saw no sign of him.
As soon as I was clear of the Federal Building, I had started making my preparations to slip out of Seattle. Three days ago, I’d taken the train to Spokane with a backpack and a carrier full of ferret, since security on Amtrak is still far more lax than any air flight and the restored King Street station in Seattle has very few security cameras, yet. Everything else about my life stayed behind, looking like I’d just stepped away for a moment.
In Spokane, I bought the International with cash and started driving into Idaho until it was too dark to see. That night, I’d stayed in an anonymous hotel beside the highway in a steep-sided stretch of the Idaho panhandle. In the morning, I’d continued until I’d stopped the night before in Anaconda—a town better known for the towering remains of its former copper-smelting works than anything else. It’s rustic and just busy enough that a lone woman driving a beater pickup doesn’t stand out.
Five days later I was about to turn off I-90 at Big Timber, Montana, and take the winding, rugged back route to my Uncle Ron’s ranch—my last stop in familiar country.
I hadn’t seen my father’s brother in almost twenty years, but aside from growing grayer and more leathery, he hadn’t changed. He was tall and lean like my father had been, but there the similarity ended. Uncle Ron was pure cowboy where my dad had been bespectacled and a bit of a geek. Where Dad had read Isaac Asimov and Alan Bester, Uncle Ron read Louis L’Amour and Craig Johnson. Dad had never worn a hat in all the time I’d known him, but his brother had a permanent tan line on his forehead and a wave in his thinning hair where his honest-to-God Stetson had crimped the strands day in and day out.
As I brought the old pickup to a stop in the circular driveway in front of the rambling house, he was already walking out of the barn on my left, taking off his hat and spanking dust off his jeans. I hopped down from the cab, my boots raising little dust devils as they hit the ground and Uncle Ron stopped dead.
He stood a moment and stared at me, his mouth slightly open as he blinked. His energy corona flickered from yellow to green to orange and back again. Then he squinted and thrust his head forward. “Harper? What the hell you doing out here, baby girl? And why didn’t you call me? I coulda been out with the cattle for all you knew.”
“No, you couldn’t,” I replied. “It’s almost September and you never move the herd before the end of summer unless it’s unseasonably cold.”
He had closed the distance between us while I spoke and dragged me into a bear hug. “I can’t believe you remember that after all this time.” He pushed me back and looked me over, stooping a bit and squeezing my shoulders in his massive hands. “Look at you. You put some muscle on there! You used to stringy as a half-starved colt.”
“I used to be half-starved, if you must know.”
“That damned mother of yours and her crazy ideas. She still living on rabbit food and mineral water?”
“She was the last time I saw her. She’s remarried again.”
Uncle Ron straightened up and let go of my shoulders. “When did that go down? And what is this now… seven husbands?”
“Only five, but she very nearly married someone else and then changed her mind at the last minute.”
Uncle Ron snorted. “That’s Verry for you. Think I got lucky when she decided on your father, instead of me.”
My turn to blink in disbelief. “You dated my mother?”
He coughed a laugh that was edged with the sticky sound of a long-time smoker’s lungs. “Come on inside and I’ll dig up all the old times you can stand, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to dredge that up standing in the driveway like a cast iron jockey.”
I turned and started to reach back into the truck cab.
“Oh, don’t worry about your bags—we’ll get ’em later.”
I hefted the ferret’s carrier out of the front seat and turned back to face him. “It’s not the bag I’m worried about.
Uncle Ron peered at the cage. “What is that… a cat?”
“It’s a ferret.”
“Oh! One of them stinky little stretch-rats! Emily is crazy for those little critters.” He shrugged and started for the house. “Well, can’t leave it out in the truck to roast, I guess. Bring it on in.”
I followed him, running the name through my memory as fast as I could and came up with nothing. “Who’s Emily?”
“Granddaughter,” he replied over his shoulder as he opened the side door into the mud room. “Hard to believe, isn’t it? Grandkids. I got five of ’em now. Grant and Pauline have three kids, and Georgia and Todd have two. Emily’s their oldest.”
A chill of shock crawled over my skin as I realized how badly out of touch I’d been and how much danger I might be dragging to my family’s doorstep. I hadn’t checked on my cousins, assuming that they didn’t live close enough to the ranch to be touched by my presence. But I should have realized that Uncle Ron and his side—my father’s side—of the family had always been close, even when separated by great distances. They’d always been welcoming, even when my mother hadn’t really wanted them to be. I felt something vibrating in my chest, like a harp string brushed by wind.
Inside, Uncle Ron took the ferret carrier from my hand and held it up to his face so he could examine Chaos up close. “Well, aren’t you a sleek little ball of fur? Gonna set you right in here where the dogs can’t get at you, OK? OK.” He nodded an answer to his own question and put the carrier down, carefully sliding it all the way back on top of the washing machine so it rested securely without overhanging the edge. He glanced at me over his shoulder. “This all right?”
“Yeah, it’s great,” I said. “I should get her some fresh water, but otherwise, I’m sure she’ll be fine there.”
Uncle Ron let me fuss about for a minute before he led me into the kitchen and pointed me to a chair.
“Let me get you a cup of coffee—you look like you’ve been driving since dawn.”
“Pretty close to it,” I replied as I pulled one of the old steel-tube-and-vinyl chairs out from under the kitchen table and sat in it. It was like something out of the Donna Reed show and I felt I should be wearing a plaid shirt and rolled jeans with my hair in braided pigtails.
My uncle nodded and went about the business of getting the promised cup of coffee. He poured one for himself as well and put both the filled mugs on the table before he sat down across from me. He was frowning a little and he wrapped both his hands around his drink and leaned his forearms on the table; it creaked slightly. He coughed again before speaking, his aura momentarily flashing a deep olive color as he stared into his coffee.
“Now, Harper, I’m damned pleased to see you, no mistake, but I do wonder what brings you on out here. Haven’t seen you in… almost twenty years, I think. And you got a look to you like something’s riding your shoulder.” He looked up and skewered me with his gaze. “So I assume you didn’t just happen to be passing through.”
I hadn’t touched my coffee except to wrap my hands around it. It took an effort not to play with the mug and avoid the question.
“Well,” I started, letting the words assemble themselves before I spoke them. “The most direct answer I can give is ‘yes, I’m not just passing through.’ I need a favor but there’s a lot more to it. And I didn’t chose to come to you just because you’re convenient or just because you’re family. Actually the fact that you’re family makes this much harder. I don’t want to bring any trouble to your door, but just my being here could cause you problems.” He issued another coughing laugh.
“Baby girl, whatever trouble you have on your tail can’t hold a candle to lung cancer and hoof-and-mouth. What could anyone do to me that disease, weather, and the obstinance of 500 bone-headed cattle hasn’t tried already? Now, spit it out. And make it the short version, ’cause I have to get on back to the barn before it gets dark.”
I had to swallow down the cataract of questions that had suddenly flooded into my mind before I could say, “I’m running. But toward something, not away. I need to walk away from my life—and I have—but I can’t leave a defenseless animal to starve to death. I was hoping you’d take care of my ferret until I can come back.”
Uncle Ron pursed his mouth thoughtfully and nodded. “And you don’t want to leave it with one of your friends in Seattle, because those folks don’t know you’re gone, either.”
“Well, that, and I don’t want to put them in harm’s way. There are people who will try to find me once they realize I’m missing and they are the sort who bring pressure to bear in ways that are difficult to shrug off.”
He chuckled and said, “And you figure I’m too tough an old bird to let them break me. Is that it?”
“Actually I figured you were the least-likely person for them to go after—if they even know you exist. And you’re too tough to break.”
“Well, yeah… you can break a horse and you can break a bronco, but it’s a lot harder to break an old cowhand. We just bend a bit and spring right back on ya’.”
“Like old leather.”
“Pretty much.” He stopped and thought about what I hadn’t said as much as what I had. “I suppose I could just send you on your way, but I don’t think I will. I’m kind of liking this idea of defying The Man again after all this time—I assume you are talking about some passel of capital letters doing government dirty work with too much money and not enough oversight.”
I nodded. “That would be a very good guess, but I doubt I could tell you which capital letters, exactly.”
“Probably not relevant anyhow. But I do like a challenge, so… I’ll take care of your fur Slinky in there until you come back. And I’ll expect a more detailed story over supper—and no argument about staying for chow, ’cause that’s my price. We OK on that?”
“Yes, sir,” I responded without thinking, just like I had as a kid whenever my uncle had handed down his orders. He might have been a cowboy, but he could have given any hard-ass Army sergeant a run for his money.
Uncle Ron grunted his approval and pushed himself up from the table. He swigged down his coffee in a few hard gulps and put the cup on the drainboard. “We’re all set then. You do what you have to. I gotta get back into the barn. Come out if you’ve a mind to, or not. Can always use an extra pair of hands around here.”
He left the kitchen with the unconscious rolling swagger of a man who’d spent most of his life on horseback. I sat still for a moment, on the fence about whether I was relieved or more worried than ever. I had what I’d come for, but I wasn’t happy I’d had to ask.
I went to fetch my bag and grab an old button-down to throw over my t-shirt before I went to join my uncle in the barn.
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