TIME SPIKE – snippet 26:
Lieutenant Hulbert stood at the door to the cafeteria waiting for Marie Keehn to finish briefing the kitchen staff on food preparation and storage. He felt foolish, but didn’t care. He figured the woman would probably laugh at what he was going to say, think he was paranoid, but he was going to say it anyway. He had to.
She was amazing.
She was also as far from his so-called type as any woman could get. He preferred athletic looking women. Usually light complexioned blondes. Sometimes redheads. But they were always slim and muscular. She was none of these things. Instead, she was dark haired and dark eyed. Tiny but curvy. Almost, but not quite, chubby. Buxom. Voluptuous in miniature. He smiled at the thought then frowned. She was damn good with a gun. She worked well under pressure, didn’t lose her head. And when instincts counted, hers were right on the money.
And she could smile. And laugh.
That’s what it was. The other stuff was just gravy on the potatoes. It was that laugh. She had a dry humor and knew how to take a joke. And she was smart. He hoped she was very smart. She was staying behind with Joe. And Collins.
He didn’t like that. He wanted her with them. But Andy had been stubborn about it. He insisted Joe might need her. She was the only sharpshooter besides Hulbert the prison had. And since Hulbert was going, she had to stay.
Andy was probably right, although that hadn’t stopped Rod from arguing. Instead of sending half their force, Hulbert wanted only a handful to go. He wanted to just make contact and begin the negotiations for peace.
But Andy had shot that down. No negotiating. There wasn’t time. With De Soto roaming around loose out there, not to mention dinosaurs, the Cherokees needed to be behind the walls of the prison. They were already worn out from the trials they’d undergone in the course of the Trail of Tears.
The same went for the Mounds people. Once everyone was inside, then they would figure out what to do about the animals and about the Spaniards.
Rod hadn’t bothered to point out that the prison, with over two thousand prisoners, was not exactly “safe.” Everyone knew that. But everyone also knew there were Utahraptors beyond the walls, and Spanish conquistadores, and who knew what else. Hulbert had argued a smaller group could travel faster, which meant safer. He had pointed out that emptying the prison of well over half its guards might be for nothing. They might not be able to find Watkins or the Mounds people. Or, both groups might refuse to join them. Or, once Andy met with them, he might not want them to join the guards inside the walls.
But the bottom line was, there always had to be someone in charge, someone calling the shots, and that someone was Andy. So that meant Hulbert was leaving and Marie was staying behind.
And also meant Jenny went with them.
Andy hadn’t wanted the R.N. to leave the facility. He believed the prison was the safest place for the women. But Jenny insisted she was the only nurse in good enough physical shape to make the trip. And a nurse had to go. Even though Jenny had explained how risky the trip could be, Stephen McQuade was refusing to give them directions to the Cherokee camp. He was going with them, or they would have to find the camp on their own.
McQuade was still in guarded condition and there was too much that could go wrong. So, a team of six guards had been assigned to carry his stretcher. Three teams of two. And Jenny was going and Marie was staying and Hulbert and Andy both wished like hell it was the other way around.
“What’s up?” Marie said, exiting the lunchroom.
“We need to talk. I’m leaving with Andy and you’re being left here with Joe.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.” The look she gave him was different than the one Jenny had given Andy when they had argued over who was going and who was staying. Marie wasn’t mad. She was disappointed. Disappointed in him.
“I tried to get him to let you come along, but he wants you here. Joe has to have someone with sharpshooter status.”
He watched as she thought about what he said. He could see the war of emotions going on below the surface, and he could see when that war ended. She accepted the logic in Andy’s decision faster and easier than he had.
“Marie,” he looked at the wall behind her, not at her face. He couldn’t look her in the eye. “I don’t want you to turn everything in. Hold back a little something you can carry with you at all times. Even in the showers.”
She didn’t ask why or what. Instead, she said, “That’s against the rules.”
“And you’ve never broken one?”
“Okay, break one more.” There was so much he wanted to say, but settled on, “If you get caught, and they dock your pay, I’ll make it up to you.”
“You bet you will. You’ll be out the dough for a steak dinner, drinks and dancing at the swankiest place in town.”
“You got it.” His voice became gruff. “And anything else you want.”
“Hulbert, you have no idea what this is going to cost you.” She smiled that easy going smile of hers, then grew serious. “You’re not asking me to do anything I didn’t want to do anyway. Things aren’t right. The tension in this place can be cut with a knife. Something happened while we were hunting.”
“Yeah, that’s why I want you to be real careful. Don’t get caught up in anything. If things start to look a little iffy, bail. If you guess wrong and wind up in a tub of hot water, I’ll tell Andy I told you to do it.”
“When do you leave?” she asked.
“In about an hour.”
“Walk me to the armory. I have a rifle to turn in; you can distract Stacy while I get something easier to conceal.”
“And get enough ammo to hold off an army.”
She looked him in the face and this time he returned the look, letting his eyes meet hers. “Marie, I’m serious, dead serious about this. I have this gut level feeling, and it’s a bad one.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it. But you tell Joe you transferred me to the field, and I’m not assigned to a post. Scratch me off the shift roster altogether. That will give me the ability to be anyplace I feel the need to be. But when you get back you have to tell me why.”
She shook her head. “No. Not Collins. I want to know why you warned me. Why you felt you wanted to protect me.”
He touched her hair. “That’s an easy one.”
“No. Don’t tell me now. It’ll jinx it.” She stood on her toes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “Luck, for us,” she whispered. She then turned toward the armory, all business.
The men who had been so eager to join Hernando de Soto on his expedition into the interior of the New World were now desperate to go back to Spain. The gold and silver they’d sought were nowhere to be found in this land of demons. The plantations, worked by slaves taken from native villages, were nothing more than a dream either. There weren’t enough of them. They’d found hardly any more than the Tula slaves they’d brought with them, before the great river disappeared and the dragon’s sulfur breath began rising from cracks and fissures in the ground.
So many Spaniards had died—so many Spaniards, and so many of their horses. Most of the pigs were gone too. Not from dying but from running way.
The only creatures doing well were the dogs. They had not lost one dog.