Deer Meadow Shuffle

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

It was while Arish’ka was reminiscing one day about her previous exploits that the coded message arrived from Kira. An order for a shipment of deviled ham from one of the Protector’s fronts, with a lot number that was actually a zip code disguised with random numbers before and after.

Diaboli? She knew who they were, how in ages past they had posed as sorcerers on this world. But they hadn’t been active for centuries, she had been given to understand, and that had been primarily in the Old World, not in the State of Washington – which hadn’t existed then, of course.

Orders from Kira Jahr'ling were rare, so when Arish'ka got the message, she was taken aback. She was taken further aback by its content. What she knew of the Diaboli was mainly from history classes back on Velor – about the ancient war between the Galen and the Elders, who had created the Diaboli as their surrogates. So why was she being sent on this assignment?

Arish’ka had rarely met Kira. That was the drill. Just coded messages back and forth to a dummy office in the city where the world's Protector worked under a cover identity. She’d actually been in the Denver area herself a while back, but avoided any contact. Earth was supposed to have only one Protector, after all, and ordinary humans weren’t even supposed to know about her

Not that the Aureans were fooled, but as long as the Velorians remained discreet, they’d pretend they were. Their Near Earth Command was violating all sorts of protocols, and the Aureans were nervous about that, always looking over their shoulders as if the Galen might show up – but so far they never had.

It was a war of shadows here, with the masses and even most of the world’s rulers kept in the dark. The President and key trusted military personnel knew what was going on, but even their role was largely damage control – finding plausible explanations for implausible events.

“Plausible,” in this case, meant feeding the tabloids with stories about the Grays, Area 51, angels and demons – anything but the truth.  In return, Kira offered technological advice and, in some cases, herself for weapons testing – which did not, of course, take place anywhere near Nevada.

Being relatively new to Earth, Arish’ka kept an especially low profile, even for a Velorian. The fighting was left to Kira, sometimes to Xara if a tset’lar showed up. That fighting usually took place in space, where it could be explained away as Star Wars experiments – although the cover story was wearing rather thin.

Arish’ka was still a probationer, still getting her Earth legs, so to speak. She was sent out on certain assignments that didn’t call for Kira’s experience and expertise. And sometimes she just lucked onto something, like that business with Senator London.

She'd informed Kira, of course. Kira doubtless already knew all about the woman who'd been used to bait the honey trap, but she had to make sure. That too was the drill. But she never heard back on that matter, although she could take some pride in the fact that London's political star was rising.

People were fed up with the major parties, locked as they were into rigid ideologies and beholden as they were to contributors expecting favors. But only London had realized just how fed up the voters were. And now he was a serious contender for President – a recent poll gave him 38%. It was like Ross Perot, but more so. Like Jesse Ventura or Arnold Schwarzenegger but, unlike those others, he had his head screwed on tight; he was the real thing.

Best of all, London didn't have a clue what had actually happened, or who she really was. She was supposed to avoid exposure if at all possible, just like the Aureans -- who often worked through cut-outs: those hired guns who'd come looking for Martin Roberson never had a clue who they were working for.

She’d exposed herself then, out of necessity, but she’d known she could trust Martin to keep his mouth shut, even without the special reward she’d given him. Same later with Bjorn – the memory evoked a tinge of sadness, but she knew she’d done the right thing. The message from Kira was a rude interruption to her reveries, but she knew she had to follow orders.

She logged on to her account at Travelocity. Sure enough, plane, rental car and motel reservations had been made in her name. Next stop, Spokane. There’d be a message waiting there, she knew, recorded on a videotape that would self-destruct as she’d watched it. They got the idea from some old Terran TV show. Before her time.

***

This was the man the self-destructing video had led her to. A former FBI regional bureau chief named Gordon Cole.

He was middle-aged, with thick brown hair going to gray. He wore a very conspicuous hearing aid. He talked in a very loud voice, as if he thought she was the one hard of hearing. Arish’ka quickly disabused him of that notion.

“I lost three agents to these people,” he told her. “Then I lost my job over it. I was really pissed. Then your people showed up and told me to keep quiet. I told them to shove it, but they were – very persuasive.  Only now these same people seem to be working with some other people that your people don’t like.”

“These people?”

“Diaboli, I hear you call them, I never knew what to call them. But they were playing with ordinary people’s minds, making them do terrible things. Taking them… somewhere, I never knew. Out of this world, I think. And jumping from one place to another in this world, like magic, some sort of portals. They said I was crazy, talking this stuff. And my agents were the only witnesses – the only ones who ever saw anything, the only ones who ever knew anything. But two disappeared, and the third, he ended up in the rubber room. Won’t help, can’t even talk.”

So what’s the point? Arish’ka wondered. Why did they send me clear across the country to meet this man?

He was droning on about cases that he thought were related to the Black Lodge. That was what the Diaboli called themselves out here. Some of them anyway. They seemed to pick on wayward girls, like garden variety serial killers, only they worked through proxies – one of those had raped and murdered his own daughter.

It didn’t sound like a threat to the security of Earth, which was supposed to be her business here. If these people were indeed Diaboli, they were a pretty sorry bunch, reduced to psychic scavenging to satisfy their degraded appetites. Again, Arish’ka wondered what the point was. The man finally got around to it.

“There’s one guy might know something. Might not. Acted kinda funny when one of my soon-to-be-missing agents talked to him. That was more than 15 years ago. But I have information he hasn’t budged since.  Name of Carl Rodd. Runs a trailer park in a place called Deer Meadow.”

There were more details of what Cole called one of his “blue rose cases,” but it was mostly mundane stuff, plus his own theories of what lay behind it. It didn’t seem as if Kira had shared any Velorian knowledge of the Diaboli with him. How had they come into contact? Why had Kira paid any attention to him? And why was she sending a probationer on this mission?

***

Arish’ka was about 15 miles short of her destination when the right front tire went. The rental car started swerving off the road, but she got it back under control. Good thing, too; otherwise she’d have ended up at the bottom of Little White Salmon River. Be hard to explain totaling the car without suffering any damage herself.

She got out the jack and began changing the tire, acting as if it were a tough job for her, just in case anybody happened along. The tire in the trunk was one of those mini-spares, meaning she’d have to get the full-size tire fixed. Big waste of time, although driving all the way from Spokane had been a bigger waste.

Most of the way had been through the central valley – dullsville as far as the scenery was concerned, but things were looking interesting again along the lower Columbia Gorge. There were the basalt cliffs, and then trees again, and fields of wildflowers. Stare Highway 14 cut through six tunnels east of Lyle, and she emerged from each with a breathtaking view of the river on one side and the trees – mostly pines – streaking the jagged ridges with veins of green and gold.

The river was still there, as were the trees; but she was otherwise occupied now. It was just after she’d gotten the mini-spare mounted that she spotted the tow truck headed east towards her. She figured the guy was on an errand, but he did a 180 and pulled up behind her. The sign on the truck read Beasley & Sons.

“May I help a damsel in distress?” the driver asked.

He looked like the rugged outdoor type. Wavy hair, light brown. Face tanned, and probably the rest of him too. Arish’ka gave him a quick checkout. He definitely checked out, especially under the hood.

“Already helped myself,” she said, rolling the flat before her. “But this tire needs help.”

“Well, help is what the Beasleys are all about.”

He looked at her really close for the first time, and did a double take. A shadow seemed to pass over his face. He must have caught her reaction.

“Sorry, ma’am. It’s just you remind me of somebody I used to know.”

Lost love, Arish’ka guessed. She wasn’t about to pursue the matter.

“Marian Adams,” she introduced herself. “Out from New Jersey, seeing the other side of the country.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place. Though I have to admit it’s more spectacular further north. I’m Chad Beasley. Just follow me into town and I’ll take care of that tire for you.”

Beasley & Sons turned out to be a rather ramshackle affair, but very orderly inside – all the tires and batteries and fan belts and radiator hoses and other parts carefully organized, the lifts clean as a whistle. There wasn’t even the usual accumulation of oil and grease in the pits.

Not that there wasn’t any on Chad’s brothers Lance and Travis – one was doing an oil change, the other pounding out a bent fender. Lance had black hair, Travis was blond. Otherwise they checked out pretty much like Chad. And they gave her the same look Chad had.

Curious, Arish’ka thought. And strange genetics, too.

Another thing: they seemed devoted to their work, but otherwise subdued, as if something were weighing on their minds,

“Would you believe this?” Chad said presently. “You got that flat from a chicken bone.”

In case she had any doubts, he showed her the bone. It was the size of a very small nail. She looked at it curiously.

"Yeah, I know what you're thinking. You'd need a rifle like that Rimfire over there to take out one of those radials. Of course, heavy ammo wouldn't leave a hole small enough to plug, and you'd need a new tire."

Actually, she hadn't been thinking about guns and flat tires. She'd noticed the Remington, but hadn't wanted to mention it -- back East, such things weren't fashionable, but this was gun country, she supposed.

"Well, I saved the price of a new tire," she said. "Thanks a bunch."

“Nothing to it….So where are you heading?”

“Portland,” she lied. “But it’s getting late and I’m a bit tired,” she further lied.

“Well, there’s a motel half a mile down the road. Run by this Indian couple.”

“Aren’t they all?”

“No, American Indians. Yakima.”

The Yakima Reservation was up there to the north, she knew, between Mount Adams and the Yakima River. She'd never been to a reservation before. No time now.

Chad was giving her that look again. So were Lance and Travis. She'd better get out of here before she started something she'd love to finish but didn't really have time for right now.

***

The Wind River motel flew the American flag out front. Also the Yakima nation flag. It wasn't the usual kind of motel, rather a collection of cabins. Quaint but neat.

The manager, identified as Allen Rabanal by a sign on the counter at the office, showed his Native American heritage in his face, but wore an ordinary plaid shirt and jeans.

"Got a room for the night?"

"Got several. Business isn’t exactly booming right now."

Allen appraised her frankly.

"You might attract some, though. If you stayed a while."

She couldn't complain about his reaction. She'd walked up to the office wearing low-rider jeans and a leather top with buttons that looked as if they'd pop right off if she inhaled.

"Don't expect to. Just finish my sightseeing and get back to New Jersey."

"New Jersey? Hope you're not one of those folks who wonders why we don't have totem poles around the place."

"Why would you? There aren't any Tlingits or Kwakiutls for hundreds of miles."

Allen’s face lit up.

"You a scholar?"

"No, just a librarian."

"Well, here's the book."

"A registration book for a motel?"

"No, a guestbook for special people. You still fill in the form and use your credit card just like everywhere else."

Arish'ka signed the book, right under somebody named Thomas "Hawk" Hill, and got out her driver's license and VISA card.

Allen was still appraising her when she finished.

"Aren't you married?"

"Just 'cause I'm on a diet doesn't mean I can't look at the menu…. Speaking of which, Angela makes a terrific salmon bake. Also a terrific apple pie. From Yakama streams and orchards."

"Your wife, I presume."

Allen nodded.

"And co-manager. She's also an advisor on economic development to the Yakama Nation Council."

"Yakama?"

"They changed the name a while back. More in line with correct pronunciation of 150 years ago. Or so the majority said. Never got around to changing the flag, though. Not even for the Sesquicentennial of the treaty."

Allen took a while telling her more about the Treaty of 1855, and how it was invoked in salmon fishing disputes back in 60s and 70s. There was still a lot of bitterness over that.

"They blamed us for depleting the stocks, but the white people below the locks took 10, 20 times as many fish. But now we're working with white people upstream on the Fish and Wildlife Planning Board, putting together a recovery program. Go figure."

They were getting along well enough that Arish'ka asked for directions to the Fat Trout.

Allen was startled.

"Why would you want to go there? Nothing but trailer trash."

"I have… kind of a relation there."

"Sorry to hear it."

And then he invited her to share a late lunch.

Angela turned out to be a redhead, hardly a Native American type, Yakama or otherwise. But Allen was right about her cooking, which he insisted “Marian” sample. And the salmon for the bake and the apples for the pie really did come from the Yakama Nation, which had a thriving business from its orchards.

Allen having looked at the "menu" when she registered had been par for the course. But Angela had looked her over, too. Arish'ka had the feeling that the woman was even looking into her. Could this be…. No, it was too subtle. And there wasn't a hint of anything sinister in Angela's look.

"Now you be careful out there," Allen said when she was ready to take her leave.

She’d noticed Allen had a rifle in a glass cabinet in the hall. Was there any cause to be careful out here, aside from the hypothetical Diaboli? More likely, it was the gun culture: you just had to have one, like ghetto kids back East just had to have designer sneakers. Sad.

***

It was near dusk when she reached the Fat Trout. The place was just as godforsaken as Rabanal had described it. It wasn't hard to find Rodd's trailer. It wasn't hard to find Rodd, either. He was sitting on the front stoop, watching the sun go down.

"Charmin?" he suddenly shouted, before she could get a word out. "Charmin?"

The figure before her might have been a man once, but he was just a wreck now. His face was unshaven, and his clothes were as ratty as his home. He stared at Arish'ka in seeming recognition; then, after shielding his eyes, in seeming disappointment.

"No, you're not her," he said, but now in a near-whisper. "She was our light. It’s all dark now. All dark."

What was this man talking about? Nothing to do with why she was here. She'd better get things on track.

"Mr. Rodd, a man named Gordon Cole sent me. He said you could help me. Something you said to one of his agents, back in 1988. About having gone places."

Rodd's face suddenly became a mask of terror. He couldn't speak for several moments, and when he did speak, his voice quavered and yet seemed an emotionless monotone..

"Don't go there. I've been there, and I don't want to go back. No, don't take me back…"

After that, he just mumbled incoherently, lost in some terrible memory that he couldn't articulate.

Arish'ka was still considering her next move when some of the neighbors showed up. They were led by a stout middle-aged woman with a rat -- yes, a rat -- sitting on her shoulder.

The woman took a look at her, then practically shrank.

"What's the matter with you Carl? This ain't Charmin."

The woman spat at the manager. Actually spat. Rodd took no notice.

"And here I even called the boys. They're going to be royally pissed, coming out here for nothing."

"I'm sorry, Ingrid," Rodd finally responded. "It was just the sun. Couldn't see right."

"You can't do anything right. What about those brownouts we're getting?"

Arish'ka suddenly felt as if she'd walked into the middle of some Dogpatch soap opera. She didn't have the faintest idea what was going on here, whether it had to do with Charmin or the utilities.

It was actually Ingrid who finally said something to her. The others had milled around for a few minutes and then gone back wherever they'd come from. Show over.

"Don't you mind Carl. He ain't quite right in the head. Should have retired years ago, but where else is he going to go?"

Rodd was within earshot, but couldn't seem to hear.

Ingrid looked her over.

"You two are the same type. Like one of those supermodels. What brings you out here?"

"I wanted to talk to Carl about something. Something that happened a long time ago."

"How long?"

"Seventeen years."

"Had a murder here back then. But what's it to you? You can't hardly have been born much before that."

"A… favor to… a friend."

"Some kin to that Banks girl?"

Arish'ka shook her head.

"Can't imagine who else would be interested. The FBI solved the case a year later. Some lawyer from the other end of the state who'd been tomcatting around. Figure you must know all that."

Arish'ka nodded. Yes, I know all that. It had been part of the video briefing.

"Well, I don't think you'll get much out of Carl. I always thought the Chalfonts must have known something. They took off right after that agent went missing."

Ingrid started talking about this old lady and her grandson, who liked to do magic tricks.

"Made one of my rats disappear," she said. "Brought him back a few minutes later, but he was never the same. Kinda nervous. And I don't mean just around cats."

"You've been raising rats all your life?" Arish'ka asked, to make conversation, to draw the woman out, but not expecting much, hoping Rodd might still come around, hoping he might finally say something useful.

"Just about. Since I was a teenager, anyway. Never could see why girls should be afraid of rats. Charmin took to them too. She and Bimbo here got along famously. I think the poor dear misses her.”

“Who’s this Charmin? Your daughter?”

“Adopted daughter. Took by those sky people, not without some help from the bad kind of rats – the ones with two legs.”

What was this woman talking about?

Before she could say anything more, there was the sound of an engine. Around the corner came a pickup. Not just any pickup: some restored classic from ages ago, but bright and shiny as new. And in that pickup…

“We finished it for you Charmin,” Chad said as he jumped out.

“Kept it good as new,” Lance added.

“Just waiting for you,” Travis chimed it. “And now…”

It was only now that they really looked at Arish’ka, and their faces fell.

“Ingrid?” Chad asked.

“Wasn’t my mistake. That stupid Carl. Sorry to waste you a trip.”

“Well, I met this lady before. Had a flat tire east of town. Really nice, as Lance and Travis agreed. But what’s she doing up here?”

“Something to do with that old murder. She’d never even heard of Charmin ‘till I told her.”

Arish’ka looked at the Beasleys again. They must have really loved her, she thought. And then, they?

Her heart went out to them. And they were such hunks that something else began going out to them.

She looked at the Beasleys, and the Beasleys looked at her.

Skietra, she was getting horny. They must have caught her scent; and from the looks of them, they must recognize that scent. Their expressions changed, their faces began to fill with wonder and, perhaps even hope. But it was Ingrid who first gave voice to what the boys must be thinking. Must be.

“You some kind of kin to Charmin? Is that what this is all about? You better tell us plain. We’ve been hurt enough.”

"I've never heard of Charmin," she told them. "But I think I know what you mean. Only we can't talk about it here."

There was only one place to get together, so they all headed for other side of the trailer court. The alleys were deserted except for an old woman – or was it an old man? – leaning on a cane, next to a utility pole that brought in the outside power,

Was there a strange sound coming from there, or was it just the wind? Arish’ka didn’t have time to investigate. It didn’t seem important, anyway, compared to this mystery about – another Vel?

***

It was cramped in Ingrid's trailer. Also embarrassing -- the rat lady and the Beasley boys, both here to tell their versions of the Charmin story.

The Beasley boys were looking as if they wanted to be anywhere else. Not that they minded the rats, or the rats' minder. But Ingrid had known Charmin longer than they had, and Arish'ka wanted to hear from her first. So they had to wait their turn. And she knew they wanted a turn with her, but that too had to wait. She had to hear the whole story before she made her next move.

It was a crazy story, and yet it had to be true: a foundling discovered out in the hills, taken in by Ingrid and raised as her own. She was a beautiful child, but there were strange things about her -- for starters, the gold mesh outfit nobody could take off and that stretched as she grew.

Ingrid had figured it was some kind of alien device, that was what made her stronger than anyone else, why she never got hurt. But when Charmin reached puberty and started giving it away to the local swains, one of the local girls got so jealous she'd thrown a jar of aqua regia at her. There was a blinding flash as the gold dissolved, and then…

Then was when they found out the gold had limited Charmin's powers. She could fly now, she could lift houses off their foundations. The one thing Ingrid assumed she couldn't do any more was give it away, on account of no man being able to get into her -- but Charmin was smart, she and the Beasleys had figured out a way around that.

The Beasleys blushed at the account, but still eyed Arish'ka.

"I was real sore at the boys back then, when I found out what they'd been up to with her," Ingrid said. "But it wasn't their fault what happened. We'd pretty much kept her secret among ourselves, until those low-lifes from Kalama showed up."

Ingrid went on with that part of the story, how these guys had come out to Deer Meadow, and found out what Charmin was -- somebody had shot at her while she was standing in front of their car -- and wanted to make a video of her doing various stunts, told her they could sell it on the Internet and make enough money to put her through college.

"But that city fella, he was the worst. Somehow called your cops on her. I heard he later ran his car off a bridge. Good riddance, I say."

Arish'ka didn't know what cops Ingrid was talking about. Kryp'terrans? They were sometimes sent to retrieve Protectors who'd gone rogue, but this wasn't that kind of case -- she didn't know what kind of case it was.  And how would a Terran know how to contact them? Could be a security breach.

Why hadn't Kira told her about this? Surely she must know something. But before she or Ingrid could continue the conversation, Lance Beasley got a call on his cell phone.

"Some BNSF engine got loose near the Wind River bridge, and it's picking up speed."

Chad and Travis tore their eyes from Arish'ka.

"Got to go, just in case we're needed," Chad told Arish'ka before he headed out with the others. In seconds, they'd started up their truck and roared off.

"They're volunteer paramedics," Ingrid explained. "Hope that engine doesn't hit anybody. We already had a derailment last spring."

"Is anyone in danger?"

"Well, the tracks are fairly straight through Stevenson, but there's a big turn at Ashes Lake and there's some lover's lanes down that way and--"

"Mrs. Lynch, there's somewhere I've got to be."

Ingrid nodded in apparent understanding.

"Yeah, I expect there is."

She didn’t question Arish’ka leaving her handbag behind.

***

It was dark out, so nobody could see her. Arish'ka scanned along the tracks as she flew a quarter of a mile overhead. No lights on the engine, most likely, if it was a runaway, and that was indeed the case.

It was below Stevenson now, headed southwest at a pretty good clip, maybe 30 miles an hour. That didn't sound like a lot, but it meant a lot of momentum -- the thing weighed many times what she did. It wasn't like in a Supergirl comic; she couldn’t just jump in front of it and stop it cold. Spiderman II was closer to reality, but not enough.

If this had been broad daylight, it wouldn't have mattered. No way to avoid mass exposure, therefore no way she could intervene. But Ingrid and the boys had already figured out the truth, and with any luck nobody else would know. She had her own idea about how to proceed, and she'd be out of sight.

There were a few cars on State 14, their headlights giving them away. She hovered at a hundred feet, waiting for a break in the traffic, and then zoomed in. She approached from the rear -- it was easier that way, what with a vestigial cowcatcher reducing clearance at the front -- and dove under.

Hovering an inch or two over the roadbed and keeping pace with the engine, she finalized her plan. First the wheel assemblies -- zap those with her heat vision, back and forth, back and forth, hoping they'd seize up on the left and right at the same moment, thus evening the braking pressure. She had to be careful not to touch the ties while changing position to shift her aim; otherwise, she'd go off target -- maybe shoot right out the back.

The deafening screech of locked wheels signaled her success, but it wasn't over yet. She had to add her own braking power. Taking a firm grip on the front undercarriage, she let her body drop to the roadbed.

First came the shock that would have ripped a frail's arms out of his sockets, had he been able to hold on in the first place. Then friction took over, ripping the clothes off her back as the rough ties and rougher ballast assailed her body. Sparks flew, setting the rest of her clothes on fire, but she ignored that, ignored the rush of what felt to her like caresses from the flames and the roadbed.

There was a lot of history behind that roadbed, a succession of railways that had merged and merged again to form the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. But the BNSF had never before encountered the invulnerable body of a Velorian. As she gradually won her battle, as the runaway slowed and came to a stop, she was able to revel in the moment, give in to the rush and come gloriously.

By the time the emergency services arrived, there was no one to be found. The fused wheel assemblies and the line of scorched ties would forever remain a mystery -- except to a few….

The only downside was that her bags and the rest of her clothes were at the motel, whereas her car was up at the Fat Trout. Nobody seemed to be up and about at the motel, so she chanced landing behind her cabin and jimmying the window.

With a change of clothes, she stepped out the front door and walked briskly towards the street. Allen Rabanal chose that moment to step out of his office. She waved to him, as if nothing were untoward, then continued on her way, taking flight only when she was out of sight.

There were flashing lights of police and emergency vehicles around Carl Rodd’s trailer. It turned out that he was dead. Some tenant had gone to complain about the water, and called 911 when there was no response. Nobody noticed Arish’ka alight outside the fence and then walk around to the entrance.

She’d accomplished her mission – but not the one she’d come here for.

***

“This your car, ma’am?”

The Skamania County vehicles had Arish’ka’s rental boxed in, seeing as how she’d left it parked in front of Rodd’s trailer. She nodded to the deputy.

“Were you visiting Carl? Do you know what happened?”

Did the deputy know anything? Arish’ka couldn’t think what to say, but Ingrid stepped in before her silence could arouse any suspicion.

“She’s visiting me. Niece from back East. Only stopped by at the office beforehand for directions. Just came out here now to see what the commotion was about.”

Taking Ingrid’s cue, Arish’ka added, “It was getting late anyway. I was about to head back to the motel.”

“Well, let me get Biff to move his cruiser,” the deputy said helpfully.

Within a few minutes, Arish’ka was free to leave, but Ingrid had some parting words.

“We ain’t done yet,” she said quietly through the driver’s side window..

“I know. I’ll be back. You can call me at the Wind River Motel.

The runaway BNSF engine made it to the late news on KATU, she saw when she got back to the motel. The BNSF was blaming vandals for having set it loose, and said that it was a lucky break it had developed a hotbox. Did they really believe that, or was it a cover story? Anyway, the KATU people were saying that the runaway might have gone off the rails at the Ashes Lake viaduct, and into the path of traffic. No mention of lovers’ lanes.

There was a knock on the door at dawn, which happened to be a Saturday morning. It was the Beasley boys, all three of them.

They looked at her with wonder in their eyes, but also pleading.

“You’ve got to tell us about Charmin,” Chad said. “After last night, there’s no use pretending.”

“She was very special to us,” added Lance. “Surely you can see that.”

“We never had anyone else to ask,” explained Travis. “It was no use talking to the cops. They thought it was all a hoax. But she was real, and the people who took her were real.”

The hurt in their eyes cut her to the quick, Best to be frank, Arish’ka thought.

“I’m here on… other business,” she said. “I don’t know about Charmin, I swear it. But I’ll try to find out about her, I promise. Can I count on your discretion?”

“You’ve already got it,” said Chad. “We were at the scene last night, We saw your handiwork.”

 “Those wheels looked like they’d been welded by a laser,” added Lance

“There was nothing dragging from the engine to scorch those ties,” finished Lance.

“But we’re not saying anything,” resumed Chad. “Let the NTSB sort it out,”

“Still, we can’t help wondering,” mused Lance.

“Why this kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time. Why you can’t…. you know….”

Yes, why not, they must wonder. All the disasters – the accidents, the fires, the floods. Again, she chose to be frank.

“Because that’s not what we’re here for,” Arish’ka said. “There is war in the heavens, as there is on Earth, and we are part of that war, defending innocent planets like your own. But nobody’s supposed to known, and we can’t get involved in… local matters. That’s all I can tell you. But we do care about Earth, about humanity.”

“The Prime Directive,” said Chad, and the others nodded.

How could they know….. Oh, of course, Star Trek.

“Something like,” she demurred.

“But you want to,” Lance said. “You really want to help – like last night. Only you have to be careful, or – would they come for you? We tried to keep them from taking Charmin. Oh God, how we tried.”

Suddenly there were tears in his eyes. Chad and Travis began crying too.

And then Arish’ka was crying herself.

She could hardly believe it; these men were strangers to her, their only connection a mysterious woman of her kind who had gifted them with her love and then been torn from them. For some reason, she was reminded of the concert Bjorn had taken her to, the overwhelming power of the music.

These Earthmen were such fragile things, their lives so short compared to hers, and often filled with pain; and yet they had such greatness in them, in their dreams and in their love and in the things they fashioned from them. That old pickup truck they’d restored; it might not be in the same league as Beethoven’s Ninth, and yet it too was a labor of love – a love they had shared with Charmin. These were the kind of people she was sworn to defend, and yet she could do nothing for them.

Only, as she reached out to comfort them in their sobbing, she knew there was one thing she could do.

“O friends, no more of these sounds,” she said, “Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy,”

***

She soared above the meadow like a falcon.

To the south, the Columbia River, and beyond it, partially clouded, Mt Hood. To the northeast, Mt. Adams, its peak still snow-capped even in high summer, and to the  left Mt. St. Helens – a nice place for a Vel to visit, but hardly a frail.

The successive ridges jutting toward the river were like something from a Japanese watercolor, patches of interspersed forests and fields and even old lava beds

It was a lovely day for a picnic.

“Just pick out a lovely spot,” she’d told them. “I’ll find you.”

Like a falcon, she would find them, her eyes alert to movement, as if she were spotting prey, and then diving down to seize it.

There weren’t any falcons on Velor, but she knew how to do a fast dive, then pull out of it. Part of her training on Erin’dor, and mostly wasted here. If this had been a disclosed world….

She’d suddenly appear before the Beasley boys, as if by magic. That would be the first part of her surprise. The second part – well, Terran clothes weren’t well suited to flying anyway.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time a naked woman had shown up at a picnic, on the evidence of Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe. She'd seen that once scandalous painting in an art book, and wondered why the fully-clothed men seemed oblivious to the woman sitting next to them -- who seemed rather bored herself.

Well, that wouldn't be the case today….

She'd stopped by the Fat Trout again this morning, to tell Ingrid pretty much the same thing she'd told the Beasleys.

"If I can find out what happened to Charmin, you'll be the first to know," she'd promised her.

Conversation had turned to the late Carl Rodd.

"Didn't have any family that I know of," Ingrid had said. "Guess the county court will have to do a search, appoint an administrator. Got to have somebody to pay the rent to, I guess."

For some reason, she mentioned the Chalfonts again, and a crooked sheriff who'd had the run of things when that murder had taken place -- even moved his office to a sub-station, perhaps to keep whatever he was doing out of the public eye in Stevenson. But a new broom had swept clean at the next election, after the feds had busted Cable on drug charges. He'd died in prison.

Arish'ka had known about Cable from her briefing, but listened politely. She had to give the Beasleys time to get to the picnic spot and lay out the stuff, so she wasn't in a big hurry. And when she did leave, she had to be careful to find an out of the way spot to park her car before she took off.

As she pulled out of the Fat Trout, she noticed that old man with the cane – yes, she was sure it was a man this time -- again standing next to the utility pole. He seemed to be glaring at her, but she couldn’t imagine why.

Flying under white gold -- a trick one of the early Companions discovered, or so she had been told in training – was definitely not recommended for Protectors. If you ran into a Prime, you needed speed and power and plenty of it. Many battles, here and on other worlds, were fought at mach numbers. But for today, all she needed to do was fly lazily – and then take a quick dive….

Arish’ka made wide circles back and forth across the Wind River and the tracks and trails that paralleled and sometimes crossed it. She had to use her tachyon vision to probe wooded areas, just in case the Beasleys had picked a spot under the pines. But when she finally spotted them, they were laying out the picnic near a ridge with a field of wildflowers.

Perfect!

***

The surprise was perfect, too.

Arish’ka’s descent was too swift for the human eye to follow. All the Beasleys knew that she was a sudden shadow over them – and then a goddess in all her naked glory.

They had already set out a blanket, paper plates and containers of the usual picnic items – Italian bread, cold cuts, potato salad, fresh melon, the works. They had even brought a bottle of champagne and four wine glasses – plastic, to be sure, but it was the thought that counted.

When they saw her, the Beasleys blushed for a moment, then beamed with delight. Yet they didn’t make any moves on her. Instead, they shared the food – ordinary but tasty. And when it came to toasts, Lance took the lead, with one he said he’d lifted from a science fiction writer named Edgar Pangborn.

“Oh -- let us be happy. I give you the wine itself and the earth that made it. I give you birth and death and the journey of our days and nights between them, the shining of green fields, the patience of the forest, the little stars, the great stars, the love and the thought, the labor and the laughter, the good morning sky.”

There were more toasts, and things began to loosen up. Chad began to undress, looking towards Arish’ka to gauge her reaction. She smiled and nodded.

“We came here to share joy, and joy we shall share.”

Taking another glass of champagne, she deliberately spilled some of it, letting it run down between her breasts, across her belly and into the entrance to heaven, teasing a clitoris that was already erect. The she began singing – an outrageous parody of Three Coins in the Fountain:

 

Three cocks in the meadow

Each one seeking happiness

Raised by three hopeful lovers

Which one will Arish’ka bless?

 

Three cocks in the meadow

Each one longing for its home

There they stand at attention,

Under Mt. St. Helens dome.

 

Which one will Arish’ka bless?

Which one will Arish’ka bless?

 

The rest of the Beasleys’ clothes came off as she was singing, and without the slightest embarrassment, they gathered around her, each showing off his manhood. Somehow, they also knew their musical cues.

 

“Make it mine,” sang Travis.

“Make it mine,” crooned Chad.

“Make it mine,” sighed Lance.

 

She picked Lance. And not just for his toast.

With his curly black hair, around his cock as well as on his head and the rest of his body, he appealed to one of her own fantasies: seducing and converting an Aurean Prime. Primes used sex as a weapon, to overcome Vels; but two could play at the same game,

Oh yes, she thought as his cock slid into her pussy. You think you can take me, but I’m going to take you. Take you places you’ve never been before. You’re going to come and come, and when I’m done with you, you’re going to come over….

Lance had already been oozing cum when she staked herself on him, and now he exploded inside her, crying for joy, crying her name. Arish’ka moaned with pleasure, reveling in the power of her cunt, and began giving voice to her fantasy,

“Mmmm. You think it’s over? You think you’ve lost it? Nobody goes soft in my pussy, not until I’ve had my fill.”

She began grinding him, squeezing him tight to keep him from coming again too soon, leaned over him to brush her breasts against his chest, smiling at him to show how much she was enjoying it.

Lance couldn’t resist reaching for her breasts, squeezing and mauling them with all his might, overwhelmed by his own fantasy come true.

Her skin was like the rarest silk, the flesh beneath it like flexible steel. Her nipples were like diamonds, and yet they responded eagerly to his touch. No weapon on Earth could harm her, and yet she thrilled to his caresses. He thought of what she’d done last night, stopping that runaway engine, as his hands moved to her back and ass, confirming that the roadbed hadn’t left a mark on her body. He envisioned her walking through a hail of bullets or a sea of flames to rescue innocent victims of crime or disaster, and all the while running through his head were the words, She’s fucking me. Oh, God, this incredible creature is fucking me.

It was even better than with Charmin, if that were possible.

Oh yes, Aurean, I’m fucking your brains out, Arish’ka was fantasizing at the same moment, And you love it, you can’t resist it. You can’t take your hands off me any more than you can take your cock out of me. You want to come so bad, I can feel it. You want to come inside your Velorian goddess, You want to feel good, you want to join the Good side, and you can do it –

She took his head and kissed him passionately, thrust against him once more, then relaxed her vaginal muscles just enough for him to release his own passion, to fill her with his cum as he screamed in ecstasy.

“You’re such a good boy,” she said, as she tousled his hair. Letting him withdraw from her at last, she moved downward to tease his pubic hair, then lovingly licked his cockhead for every remaining drop of his cum.

Chad and Travis must have been made of stone to have witnessed it all and not joined in. Perhaps they didn’t know how Arish’ka felt about foursomes. But they were about to learn: the picnic turned into an orgy that lasted for hours. Three sets of hands, three pairs of lips, three tongues all over her body. Not to mention the parts that were made of stone at the outset. It was heavenly!

***

Arish’ka was a bit careless returning to her car. She wasn’t drunk from the champagne, of course; Velorians can’t get drunk. But she was high from the day’s loving, proud of what she had done for the Beasley boys. Without thinking, she started doing loop-de-loops in the air.

Not long after that, a hunter who’d had a few – well, more than a few – came home to his slatternly wife with a story about having seen a flying woman.

“She was way in the middle of the air, and she was nekkid,” he insisted.

“You been drinking too much beer,” was her response. “And you can damn well fix your own dinner tonight, too.”

The hunter wasn’t in any mood to fix dinner for himself, so he headed for Hap’s Diner, where he ran into a couple of woodsmen – really weird types with long beards – and told them his story, between gulps of greasy hamburger and greasier fries.

Suddenly the lights began to flicker, which seemed to be a common occurrence at Hap’s.

“They ought to call the Electrician,” the first woodsman said.

The second did just that.

Nobody at the Fat Trout knew him as the Electrician. As far as they knew, he was a veteran named Russell who survived on disability checks. He had a sister -- at least they assumed she was his sister -- who showed up once in a while. She was a filthy old woman, who also used a cane.

Oddly, nobody could recall having seen them together, but they were seen entering and leaving the same trailer -- the closest one to the utility pole. The only other people ever seen there were a couple of woodsmen, assumed to work for one of the lumber mills down the river.

One of the woodsmen came tonight.

There were words exchanged, thoughts exchanged.

There was a humming in the air, and the whisper, "ee-lec-tri-ci-tee."

At that moment, Angela Rabanal sensed a disturbance in the air.

"Going to be trouble," she told Allen. "They're on to her somehow, and she's going to need us. Better get the boys, too."

Allen nodded, and got on the phone.

***

Arish'ka didn't wonder why she was going back to the Fat Trout; her car just seemed to steer itself. She had business there, she thought, but she couldn't quite remember what it was.

No matter, it will come to me. Something to do with Ingrid. Only she'd already told Ingrid all she knew, hadn't she?

She didn't notice the bearded woodsman near where she'd retrieved her car, nor the second woodsman up the road towards the trailer park. And when she reached the Fat Trout, she didn't pull up in front of Ingrid's, but next to another trailer. There was a dark-skinned man there, leaning on a cane.

"We are descended from pure air," the man said, without introduction. "Going up and down. Intercourse between two worlds."

Part of Arish'ka realized: Diaboli!

But the man looked so pathetic. Diaboli were supposed to be -- awesome. That was what they'd taught her. Only, there had been few contacts between Velor and the children of the Elders. So….

She was suddenly aware of his green eyes boring at her, trying to take her in. Part of her was drawn to him, part of her fought back. As if by reflex, she lashed out at him with her heat vision. Nothing happened; he was protected by some sort of aura. Worse, that aura seemed to be feeding on her energy. His own attack had been disrupted, she was back in control of herself, but….

The duel took place in near silence; everyone else seemed to be inside their trailers, watching TV or whatever.

She began walking towards the Diabol, slowly and deliberately. He stood his ground, his aura still absorbing her radiation. Perhaps if she could touch him… But his eyes were glaring green again; she felt his mind pressing against her. There was an eerie wailing from the utility pole, the very power lines seemed to be drawing her in….

"Boneless," the man was saying. "And everything will proceed cyclically."

Did this mean anything, or was he only trying to confuse her?

And then another voice, which Arish'ka dimly recognized.

"She is not yours to take," Angela warned the man. "I am placing her under our protection."

The man turned to confront the interloper.

"Fell a victim," he intoned, and unleashed his silent fury against her.

Arish'ka, standing close to the strange man, felt paralyzed again; it was as if he was still capable of defending himself, even as he assailed Angela. Could he be that powerful, this man with the cane? It was a Mexican standoff so far, but….

At the other end of the alley, apparently unseen by the old man, Allen and the Beasleys had gathered. Arish’ka spotted them out of the corner of her eye but, determined not to betray them, masked her thoughts, stared at the old man and resumed her own attack. He ignored her heat vision, as before, concentrating his energies on Angela.

The Beasleys carried repeater rifles with 10-round magazines.

"It's like I told you," Allen whispered to them. "We've got to hit him from both sides. Arish'ka's doing the right thing, bless her heart, even if she doesn't know why."

The Beasleys nodded, raised their rifles. They'd been briefed on the way up; they already knew that would be the signal for Angela to hit the Electrician with all she had, challenging him to direct all his own energies at her.

Angela's eyes blazed green, and the Beasleys opened fire -- Lance on their quarry, Chad and Travis a moment later on Arish'ka.

As the Electrician felt Lance's slugs impact him from the rear, as he realized what was happening, he quickly moved to strengthen his aura there -- but then the bullets that ricocheted from Arish'ka got him in the chest. His aura began to fade from the trauma, then collapsed. A head shot finished him off.

"That spell he cast won't last long," Allen reminded the Beasleys. "You better police that brass."

And, speaking to Arish'ka for the first time, "We've got a body to dispose of. It's a nasty job, but somebody's got to do it, and flying it out of here's the best way."

She looked at him in disbelief.

“I'll tell you all about it when you come back," he promised. "God knows, you're entitled."

***

"He didn't look like much," Allen explained when they got back to the motel. "But he was one of the worst of them. Somehow he came up with a spell that could snatch people up, send them through the power lines to -- wherever he wanted. Maybe oblivion. That was what happened to Cole's man, I suspect."

"You know all about that?" Arish'ka asked.

"We know a lot more than we let on," Allen said. "Just like you. Mostly, we just watch. But sometimes we have to get involved. When I heard you were coming, I figured you could draw them out, give us a chance to really set them back. It'll be harder for them to get around now, harder for them to take people -- that's for sure."

"But you're not--"

"Angela is. But on the good side. White Lodge. I'd appreciate it if that doesn’t get out. Had to tell the Beasleys on a need-to-know basis, but that's as far as it goes."

"But how did you get involved?"

"My cousin Tom Hill worked for the sheriff's department in Twin Peaks when they had that trouble with the Black Lodge up there, and he knew it had something to do with the Banks case and assorted mayhem down here. They got hit bad up there, and part of it was they thought these people could come and go only through certain portals. Didn't know about the Electrician. Maybe Carl could've told them, but he was too scared -- can't blame him, either; I think they used him as an experiment."

"And Angela?"

"She appeared here as if by magic. We needed her, and there she was. But she won't talk about the others of her kind. Even with me. I haven’t got the need to know.”

“I know the feeling.”

“Anyway, Tom gave me the idea of recruiting the boys when he was out here last year. They had something similar where he worked, kind of a neighborhood watch, only sometimes they’d do more than watch. I’d helped look out for them after their father died, steered them through probate and stuff, and they’d recommend my place whenever they got the chance. And then he got word from Gordon… I suspected who you were when you signed in, but Angela was sure of it – she has the gift.”

“And you never let on?”

“We were supposed to let things follow their natural course. Safer that way.”

“I wasn’t prepared.”

“No way you could have been. But we were. I was sure we could come through for you, and you made it through okay.”

“Thanks to the Beasleys.”

“They couldn’t have done it without you. And Angela couldn’t have faced the Electrician alone – he was that old, that powerful. Though not a warrior, no combat skills, even if he had been up to it physically; that would have been a real problem.”

***

Later, Arish’ka would learn that Kira had chosen to send her here as a training exercise, to test her ability to improvise in a surprise situation – Charmin and the rest. She hadn’t really expected her to have a close encounter with the Lodge.

Later, she would learn that Charmin had been left for dead by her abductors, but had surfaced in another star system far, far away. That was all they would tell her; it would have to do for the Beasleys. It would have to do for Ingrid Lynch.

Later, she would report on what had happened with the Electrician, somehow leaving Angela out of it. That would be a toughie. But Allen had promised to help her work out a story that would convince Kira – and Gordon Cole, though the latter wouldn’t be satisfied that his missing agent was still missing.

“You’ve done a good job here, even if Kira doesn’t agree,” Allen told her. “You’ve made us all a bit safer. And of course, you helped the Beasleys in more ways than one. They got back their joy yesterday in the meadow. They got back their pride at the Fat Trout last night. It took skill and split-second timing to get the ricochets just right, to make sure the bullets bounced off you at just the right angle. They’d blamed themselves for losing Charmin, even though there was nothing they could have done. But this time they could; this time they could count.”

Arish’ka had figured as much, and she was grateful to the boys. She was eager to show it. But what was she going to tell the Beasleys? She wasn’t Charmin, she couldn’t stay here. Anyway, she wasn’t their kind of girl. She could appreciate that they loved working on cars and trucks, but that wasn’t her thing. They’d wanted her to come with them next week to a monster truck rally in Portland. Ugh! She’d managed to beg off, without hurting their feelings, saying she’d love to but….

But how could she help them now? She couldn’t leave them pining for her, pining for Charmin. That wasn’t healthy, and the Beasleys were too good to go to waste. They ought to find a nice Earth girl, or girls. Somebody they could relate to. Maybe in NASCAR, she suddenly thought. More women were getting into racing, That kind of woman would need expert mechanics, but the Beasleys were also the kind of men who could appreciate her as a woman.

It made her hot just to think of the joy they might share with women like that, on and off the track. She’d have to broach the idea, after they finished giving her their promised send-off.

A knock on the cabin door. Here they were now!