Written to @DaHob’s commissioned continuation; part II of a longer story. This comes after Fox Hunt(Saturday) and The Hunt Continues (Wednesday) and Chase the Fox Part I (Wednesday – the following Saturday).
Hitchhiking had gotten old pretty quickly. George hadn’t thumbed a ride in years, not since his college days, and he found that all the things that had made it so unpleasant back in Maine were almost identical in California — the road splashing and the traffic noise, the hours you’d go by with nobody picking you up, the odd juts out of your way when you did get a ride, the talking. The endless uncomfortable chatter.
Add to it that in California, the chatter was likely to veer into topics he knew nothing about. Politics was a land mine. Even the weather could be tricky. And then there was his accent, which didn’t exactly sound Down Home Californian not matter how much time he’d spent scrubbing the salt water and lobster out of his vowels. Every ride was an exercise in tension, and the time spent watching for rides wasn’t much better.
After his third ride spent far too long asking prying questions about his marriage plans and potential children, George decided walking was the better plan. He could stay away from the road, he wouldn’t have to deal with prying questions, and he wouldn’t have to worry about the police having his picture, for any number of reasons including $517 Californian he’d stolen over the past few days.
Half an hour after the prying man (who’d also had bad taste in road music) dropped George off, a rainstorm blew in and dumped something like eight thousand gallons of water directly on George. He sloshed his way to the nearest stop — a diner, as it turned out — and splashed into a booth away from both doors and windows.
“Aw, sweetie.” The waitress bustled over with a double handful of bar towels. “Here, here, do you have anything dry to change into?” She was patting him down with both hands, toweling his hair, her uniformed breasts nearly in George’s nose.
Well, it was one way to earn a good tip, he supposed. “I should.” He glanced at the backpack. “Well, if everything in there isn’t wet, too. Should have sprung for the extra waterproofing.”
“Oh, you’re hiking?” She clucked. “All right, tell you what. I’m gonna go grab a spare Joe’s T-shirt for you, on the house, all right? And then when I get off shift – just about an hour from now – Mannie and me, he’s the day cook, we drive together. We’ll drop you off at this motel I know. Not too expensive but no roaches, either. Mannie’s mum runs it.”
“Do I really look that much like a drowned rat?” George asked wryly. He was dripping on the table, despite all of — the name tag said Anna, right below the Joe’s — Anna’s efforts.
“Oh, darling, a drowned rat would probably stop and hand you a towel. You just sit tight and drink some coffee, and I’ll be back with that shirt.”
True to her word, Anna returned with a shirt that was, while blazing green with the word Joe’s written across the chest, dry, comfortable, and a relatively good fit. And then she added extra bacon to his plate of hashed brown and eggs and snuck him a piece of pie.
It was all too good to be true. She was going to remember him, no matter what he did. She was going to be able to tell people which way he’d gone and where he’d stayed.
He twisted enough to be able to see a window. It was still raining. He really should drop a decent tip and leave, but it was hard to pry himself out of the chair when it looked like the bottom of a waterfall outside.
George didn’t jump, although he did twitch. He turned back very slowly to look at the woman sitting across from him.
It was, of course, her. The noblewoman who had tracked him down. Tracked him down three times now, all while he was doing his level best to cover his trail.
“Clearly not good enough.” He picked at his pie; if she let him go again, he was going to need the calories. “Did the waitress call me in?”
“Her? No. Besides, that’s practically cheating.” She smirked at him. Only one of her hands was visible. George didn’t bother to look under the table to see if there was a gun. Lord knew what would happen to the nice people here if he made a scene.
“My ride, then.” The nosy guy.
“She was very concerned that you were hiking without proper equipment, and that perhaps someone ought to have a talk with you about proper shoes. The local police thought it was very funny.”
“I bet they did.” The motherly one, then. George sighed. “So now what?”
“Well, you clearly need to dry off and get a nice night’s sleep, and you definitely need better shoes if you’re going to be hiking. It’s lovely weather for it — in between the rain.” She leaned back and steepled her fingers. George tensed. Both hands visible.
“I mean-” his voice rose up; he dropped it down to a conversational murmur. “Are you going to bring me in?”
“Wouldn’t that be a fight?” She licked her lips. “Quite a fun fight, too, I imagine. Have you managed to steal a gun yet?”
George didn’t respond. There really was no safe answer.
She shook her head, clearly taking that as an answer. “No, I’m not going to bring you in. I figure I’ll pay for your taxi to a nice hotel, drop a good pair of shoes off at the desk, and cover your tab here.” She smiled over her fingers at him. “That was quite a chase. Were you in the service, back home?”
He contemplated lying. He contemplated continuing to take refuge in the defense of silence, just staring at her. He contemplated running for the door.
He hadn’t been able to shake her yet, and she was offering a place to stay again. And shoes. George wiggled his feet — blistered in three places — in his cheap tourist-trap sneakers. “Yeah.”
“I was, too.” She twitched her shoulder in something like a shrug. “All of us are, for two years. I stayed until my Lady Mother called me home.”
“I was on leave.” He’d never looked up the regs on being sold into slavery, whether that counted as going AWOL or as being captured by the enemy. When he got home, he’d have to check that out.
“It shows. The way you move. The way you assess threats.” She made a gesture that took in his whole body. “The way you run.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you had a friend comin—” Anna, balancing another piece of pie on her tray, trailed off nervously. “Your Ladyship.”
The woman flapped her hand negligently. “I’m just passing through, but I’ll take a piece of the pie if you’ve got more.”
“Yes, yes, your Ladyship.” Anna slid the pie onto the table and hurried off. George watched her go ruefully. There went his only ally in this place.
“You can trust me exactly this far,” the woman began. Her voice was low and serious. She drew a line in the condensation on the table. “I won’t involve other people. I won’t injure you if you don’t attack me. And if I give you a place to stay for a night, you will be as safe as I can make you that night. No trackers. No cheating.”
She really was insane. “Why?” George stared at the line, already beginning to blur. “Why not just haul me in?”
Her smile was bright and, if George was being honest, a little bit terrifying. “This way is far more fun.”
Today was Ariana’s down-time day. She’d paid for the taxi and delivered the shoes; her prey would be spending a night in the nicest hotel in the area.
She sat at another of her mother’s interminable garden parties, flirting lightly with the poor young man her mother wanted to attach to her. Kevin, his name was Kevin, an O Imogen from a good line. She flagged down a slave to pour him another drink and to refresh her own.
He studied his drink for a little bit, then brought it to his lips. She noticed he had developed a talent for appearing to sip while in actuality taking in a great deal of fluid. Herself, she’d learned to do the opposite while undercover in bars.
“I’d run.” He looked at her over the glass. “You asked what would happen, if I told you to run. The day we met… your Ladyship.”
“I did.” She spoke carefully, not wanting to spook him. “And…?”
“And I think it could be fun, for a little while. To be chased. To feel that sensation of someone running you down.” He finished his drink in two decorous sips. “Because you’d know, eventually, you’d be caught. And then it would be over.”
Ariana sipped her own drink and watched this strange young man, suddenly quite thoughtful.Want more?