I mentioned with the last batch of chapters you can start to feel the book go off the rails. That’s maybe not the right way to describe it. There are really two books to this one, the travel novel, which is… eh, fine, I guess. And then there was the story-within-a-story, the garbage half. You can feel how little that half impacted the story I found I really wanted to tell with this chapter.
Also, Lethbridge and Vulcan are both real places and sound tremendously cool. I can’t wait to visit them for myself someday.
Blinking as if she were just waking up, Brianna grabbed his arm as Garrett hopped off the back of the Durango. “Wait. You can’t stop there.”
As he stretched, he turned and grinned. “Sure I can.”
“But… did you get caught again? What was so important about the book?”
Garrett yawned. “Don’t quite remember right offhand. Maybe some poutine would refresh my memory.”
Brianna slid off the back end and shut the hatch. “Oh, you jerk face.”
“Yeah, but it’s an adorable jerk face.” He leaned in for a kiss, and after she cracked a hint of a smile, she obliged.
* * *
They cruised down the main streets of Lethbridge, windows down and gawping like the tourists they were. It was a pretty city, sitting mostly flat with a few rolling hills and the distant Rockies as picturesque backdrops. Garrett was driving now, and Brianna snapped a few pictures.
Around the man-made Henderson Lake, the waters churning from the winds and several watercraft, was a beautiful park cut here and there by walking trails. Brianna snapped away, catching a gaggle of ducks as they erupted from the lake and took flight. She followed them with the lens until they were hidden behind a grove of elms. She fell back in her chair, grinning like a loon. At a red light, Garrett glanced over. “Happy?” he asked.
Quick as a bird, she leaned across and pecked his cheek. “Happy.”
Just a block away, they found the Japanese gardens Garrett had seen mentioned online. A tour would start in a few hours, so they decided to travel out to Fort Whoop-Up first. Out of the city and near the Oldman River in Indian Battle Park, the fort – or a replica, as they later found out – sat at the base of a sharp hill among the coulees. It looked as rustic as if it had come from the 19th century. A thick wall made of rough-looking dark timber walled it in, and several wooden buildings within seemed straight from some of the pictures they’d seen in Western lifestyle museums in Montana.
Once an illicit whiskey trading post founded by Montanans looking to trade in the area, the Fort had evolved into a legitimate stop for travelers coming through the area in the late 19th and early parts of the 20th century. Brianna and Garrett took in the exhibits inside, and bullshitted a bit with the curators, most of whom were posted near old equipment from the Fort’s storied history, and although neither of them were particular Western history buffs, they found themselves amused and entertained by the staff, so much so that they almost didn’t notice the time slipping away. After buying a few souvenirs, most notably a beautiful hand-carved miniature of a buffalo that Brianna adored, they took selfies together in front of a sign warning, “Keep Out, Ya Varmits.” A kindly Canadian couple from Grande Prairie offered to take their picture together, and as Brianna squinted one eye shut and gave her best Popeye snarl, Garrett mused to himself silently just how strangely normal his life was for the moment. She didn’t understand why he pulled her in for a hug before they left, but that was okay. It was all okay that day.
They headed back for the Japanese gardens, both of them ready for something relaxing. The gardens were as peaceful as they hoped, and they walked hand in hand while the tour guide, a cheerful young woman dressed in traditional Japanese garb, explained the aesthetic designs of the park as related to the human soul. Brianna was entranced by it, but Garrett felt like an intruder amongst the quiet, his own soul never very much at ease those days. In a gazebo, as Garrett held Brianna from behind, he nestled his head on her shoulder and stared out at the stream slicing its way gently through the greenery, wishing for all the world he could feel a part of the calm, but what lay within his heart could not so easily slip away.
* * *
“Oh. My God,” Brianna moaned, eyes closed in rapt ecstasy.
Gravy-topped cheese curds sat atop mountains of fries between them. Their mistake was ordering two different kinds – the servings weren’t just large, but massive. There was no way they could eat all the food before them. No way.
But they were sure going to try.
Brianna couldn’t make up her mind as to what kind to order – she’d tried authentic poutine in Rankin Flats, but she had to know if there were any differences, just to make sure. Another kind on the menu was topped by several types of bacon and ham. The cogs in Brianna’s brain nearly exploded until Garrett suggested they try both, since they hadn’t eaten anything solid since breakfast early that morning.
“Can we spend the next thirty days here? Like in this booth?” she asked Garrett as she speared a chunk of maple sausage.
“Sure. We’ll probably have to arrange something bathroom wise with the owners, but what the hell.”
There were no more words, not for a long time, just the noises of two very hungry people enjoying the goofy things in life gorging themselves on pure heavenly heart-attack inducing bliss. Eventually the feeding frenzy slowed to a semi-normal swing of their forks, and they managed to start something approaching a conversation.
A quick call to the golf course confirmed that there were going to be plenty of people looking to fill out a team. From there, still absently picking at the pork-infused poutine, Garrett browsed hotels. They mulled a few over, and found a very decently rated one just a few blocks away from a little park and only a few blocks from the restaurant.
But they were in no rush, and sat and talked for a while. Good talk of nothing at all – a movie Brianna wanted to see when it came out in a week and the best bits about a Jess Mountifield novel she was reading, Garrett mostly listening, letting the food lull him into a near-stupor. Soon they realized they were the last ones left in the restaurant, and their waiter was hanging by the kitchen door waiting for them to leave and casting infrequent glances at his watch. They left a large tip to make up for keeping him late, and left hand in hand.
Though they were pleasantly tired, once they were checked into their hotel, they decided on a walk in the dusk. The park, whose name they never caught, was almost unoccupied at that hour. For no reason, one of Garrett’s depressed moods started to attack the edges of his consciousness, and when a jogger turned a corner ahead of them, it wasn’t the face of a willowy man he saw, but one of his hallucinations. Without thinking about it, Garrett leapt in front of Brianna, and the jogger, thinking he was crazy, stopped, slowly backed away, and turned around to run the other way, casting glances back over his shoulder.
As Garrett bent over nearly double, trying to will the phantoms of his past away, Brianna took his hand. She said nothing, just letting him find his way back to peace with her presence, and soon they headed to the hotel.
When they returned to their room, Brianna flopped on the bed, pulling him down with her. They lay together, just looking at one another, his smile finally returning, and for a while they just touched each other gently. It was as though they were teenagers, awkward and trying to determine what the other wanted, and soon she was giggling quietly, and he just rubbed her arm, smiling too.
“What do you want to do tonight?” she asked. “Loved that poutine, but it left me feeling wildly unsexy. Sorry.”
“I know what you mean,” he said, and rolled over onto his back, feeling like a listing ship as full as he was. She scooted towards him and rested her head on his arm. It was an uncomfortable position and he’d have to move soon, but for a while, he let it be.
After a few minutes, she sat up and glanced at their luggage. “Hey, you want to watch our wedding video? I don’t remember a damn thing about it except you. It’d be nice to see what actually happened.”
Garrett laughed. “You were pretty out of it up there.”
She punched him lightly in the leg. “Hey now. I was distracted by all the hot groomsmen.”
“August will be incredibly pleased to hear you say that.”
Brianna laughed and pushed herself up to fetch her laptop and the external drive her mother had sent along. As she set things up, Garrett meandered into the bathroom to get a drink of water. He stared into the swirling maze of colors forming in the mirror and closed his eyes. “You’re not taking this trip from me,” he whispered to the demons that haunted him.
When he returned, Brianna was sitting at the head of the bed, her tongue jabbed out of the corner of her mouth as she started up the video. Excitedly, she patted the bed beside her without looking up, and he felt the unspoken tension in his mind ease up just a hair. It would be all right, he thought.
Yeah, right, the voice in the back of his skull whispered.
* * *
Brianna golfed terribly, Garrett even worse, they both were mildly sunburned despite their sunblock, and the tournament was delayed halfway through due to a torrential burst of rain that ended as quickly as it came on.
And they had a riot.
Their partners were a tall, nearly unintelligible French Canadian, a local transplant from Ontario – or that was what little they understood, anyways. His speech sounded slurred and their conversations with him were peppered with a lot of blank stares and misunderstood phrases. At one point, he threw up his hands and just started writing his side of the conversation on a notepad, along with little doodles that were, surprisingly enough, quite good. In just three holes, he’d managed to draw a rough approximation of a cityscape, and once the tournament was over, he gave it to Brianna with a pat on the shoulder. She made absolutely sure that made it into a photo album later.
Their other golfing partner was a plump young local college girl who reminded Brianna a bit of Marnie, her second-in-charge at the Hammerdown Gym. Her accent was almost nonexistent save for a few vowel lifts. She explained that most everyone from Alberta, or at least that neck of the woods, anyways, generally spoke much like their American counterparts south of the border. At most they sounded like North Dakotans, she said, adding a “you betcha” and a “dontcha know” to Brianna’s delight.
They came second to last, but the golf course was so beautiful they didn’t mind. It wove around the river and the coulees, in full sight of the gorgeous trestle bridge. The girl explained its history and of the need to have a bridge that crossed the various rivers and streams in the area. Each of them outplayed Garrett, who couldn’t hit a fairway shot if his life depended on it, but the girl obviously had a little crush on him, giggling and asking bunches of questions directed right at him alone. More than once, Garrett glanced apologetically at Brianna when the girl lined up a swing. Brianna just shook her head and grinned.
Brianna did take second in a “closest to the hole” challenge, and for her effort, won a gift package including a shirt, sports towel, and an umbrella. After the tournament, at a barbeque back at the club house, they ran into their swinging friends from the boat, though this time, thankfully, no one tried to convince Garrett or Brianna to swap partners.
As they ate Andouille sausages and burgers together, Garrett’s cell phone went off. He glanced at it – Monica. He shook his head and shut off his phone. Within a minute, Brianna’s went off, and he glanced sideways at her. “Oh that can’t be good,” she murmured, and excused herself.
She headed for a quiet corner, and called Monica back. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Brianna, hey.” Monica cleared her throat. “Ah, there’s something you and Garrett should know.”
“Did something happen with Sloan and you?” Brianna’s eyes went wide. “Wait, you two didn’t get hitched or anything, did you?”
“What? No. Listen. It’s not anything that should alarm you two, but they found Chloe Iver. And… it’s kinda fucked up.”
Brianna caught Garrett’s eyes across the way, and made a come-on gesture. He gave their friends a quick smile and hurried over. “What is it?” he asked, as Monica was filling her in.
“Chloe Iver. She’s been murdered.”
“Fuck me,” he muttered. “How?”
A motorist had been walking his dog on a deer trail near a rest stop between Great Falls and Rankin Flats. The landscape was hilly and covered in brush, so no one noticed the body until the guy’s dog jerked on the leash so hard that the dog managed to get free and rush to the corpse. The guy who discovered her told the Highway Patrol it was like she’d been mummified. Her corpse looked as though it had been in the brush for weeks, not a matter of days, so much was she dried out. Her skin was as hard and tough as shoe leather, and her innards had shriveled into hard little nubbins, almost raisin-like. All of this was incredibly strange. Monica had seen her the night of the fight between Garrett and Dash Pendleton, and that had only been days ago.
“Whatever this was, guys, it was definitely more your neck of the woods than us regular police know about,” Monica said. “Cause of death was a knife wound. And we spotted one more thing – you know that smiley face on the cocaine we found with Dash Pendleton?” They remembered. “Well, whoever did this left a smiley carved on her hand. Same exact kind, like a parenthetical mark and a short, rounded slash.”
“Fuck,” Brianna muttered.”
“If her ghost was still around,” Garrett said, “it’d be long gone by now, especially given what happened to her in that city. Besides, I’m not sure… I’m pretty certain she wouldn’t be sticking around in the afterlife.”
“Hell?” Monica asked. “I can’t believe I just asked that.”
“I don’t know. She was willing to help Maddox do a lot of crazy shit, even before he started to tool her up. I’d guess so, but I have no idea. Have you contacted Annalise?” Annalise Fox was an FBI contact, and one of the very few people who knew about the weird shit in the world.
“She was my first call.”
“Do you need us back there?” Brianna asked. Garrett wasn’t sure whether to kiss her or be disappointed, but she had a point. They had an obligation to help out if they could.
“No. If you don’t think the ghost is around, then there’s not much we can follow up on.”
“Leave a note back at the condo,” Garrett said. “On our wall in the War Room. I’ve got a couple of friends in the city, they’ll get the word out. If she’s around in the Flats, they’ll find me up here.” He gave her their vague travel plans for the next few days since they were now headed north instead of making a westerly circuit. They agreed to come up with a few firm meeting points for their ghostly contacts to meet them, and Monica hung up.
For a while, neither of them said anything, just taking in the barbeque and the laughing, happy golfers around them. “None of them have a clue,” Brianna said.
“It’s kind of nice that way,” Garrett said, picking up on what she was saying. “You think about the pandemonium it would cause and it’s just… nightmarish. The Salem witch trials, but on a worldwide scale.”
Brianna nodded. “Yup. And you think about how many monsters just Hamber alone created, and you wonder… how many are out there? How much shit do we just not know about yet?”
“Hey, not all of us are monsters,” Garrett said lightly.
“You know what I mean.” She took his hand. “You suppose there are any other good ones out there? People with sight or power or whatever?”
“Yeah, but her power came from Desmond, and he made her into a monster. And now she’s just one of the rest of us.”
“A catalyst is what she called herself. I guess that works for me too.” Garrett sighed. “I don’t know. I’d hope that there are people better than me out there with these kinds of curses, because if I’m the best we have… we’re fucked.”
“I don’t believe that for a second. You’re the best man I’ve ever known.”
He shook his head. “I’ve murdered. In cold blood. And I’ve let people die so that my hands weren’t stained. There have to be better ways than that. There just…”
Garrett trailed off, and she let the conversation die. Sometimes he needed his moods, needed to wrap himself up in his emotions so he could cast them off later.
When they headed to their SUV later, she finally added, “For what it’s worth, I’m glad.”
“That it’s you making those decisions. If someone else had your kind of power, your training… what would they do with it? You think you’re evil, but you’re not. Think about all the hard decisions the people in the military have to make every day. Are they evil? Are they wrong?”
“I trust you way more than I trust them. And I think they’re heroes.”
He pondered that for a long while to come.
* * *
It was still relatively early in the afternoon, and they agreed they’d seen what they wanted to from Lethbridge, so they headed northwest. Their plan was to explore Alberta and British Columbia during their honeymoon, then maybe explore the eastern half of the nation during another vacation sometime in the coming years. With the Band of Princes case still fresh in their minds, they needed the time to recover. A month away from their city, no matter how much they loved it, gave them an opportunity to recharge their batteries. They were not superheroes. Their minds had been battered and nearly broken by the last year and a half, and both of them were grateful Monica hadn’t asked them to come home.
Annalise Fox called them on the road to Vulcan, a town Brianna particularly wanted to visit on their way to Calgary, and gave them much the same report as Monica had. “If either one of you two is thinking about coming back to the city,” she said icily, “don’t. The police and the FBI existed before you, and they’ll exist after you’ve kicked the bucket. We can do this the old-fashioned way while you two are gone.” Despite her tone, Brianna and Garrett weren’t fooled. Though Annalise was as warm as a milkshake, her clinical nature came from a lifetime of professionalism, not dislike. They were not friends, but they made for excellent business partners of a sort, and a deep mutual respect had been formed by all three.
Roughly halfway between Lethbridge and Calgary, Vulcan was, by outward appearances, an unassuming little plains town, Huge combines rolled through wheat fields, kicking up a fresh-cut scent that they slowed to enjoy with the windows down. There was a reason Brianna had Garrett drive that stretch. In the last fifteen miles to the city, she tested lens after lens on her camera, unable to sit still even for a minute.
And there it was – first the edge of the town, then a small park and Brianna shouted a wordless yip of glee while Garrett, amused, gaped at it. On a stone platform was a Star Trek starship (he made the mistake of calling it a spaceship, and Brianna’s exaggerated huff of irritation reminded him of a cartoon nerd he remembered from his childhood but couldn’t quite place). She was taking photos even before the SUV came to a stop.
The woman Garrett saw on a day-to-day basis was generally a slow-boiling stew of emotions and quirks, but Brianna at her most adorable was when she was able to fully geek out. He knew that wasn’t always possible with him – she tried to teach him patiently the ways of Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica, and the dozen other science fiction and fantasy movies, books, and shows she loved, but he was a slow learner and didn’t quite sometimes get the appeal of the genres.
But he loved that she loved things with such innocent purity, such absolute untainted joy. It delighted him when she shoved the camera at him for her to pose in front of the starship. He even laid down flat on his back to take a great forced perspective shot that made it look like Brianna was lifting the ship above her head. Within a short distance was a neat solar tree, and they grabbed a few pictures of that as well.
When they’d finally tired of the little park, Garrett and Brianna headed to a spaceship-shaped tourism center. Inside were shelves lined with Star Trek memorabilia, and Brianna grabbed Garrett’s hand as she pointed out stuff she recognized. Throughout the rest of the building, there were life-sized cardboard cutouts of many of the show’s stars along with various costumes they could try on. With Garrett’s sister August on speakerphone, she was an endless stream of enthusiasm as Garrett took pictures upon pictures.
When August had to get back to work and they’d hung up, Brianna stopped for a moment and glanced at Garrett, suddenly shy and uncertain. “I know this isn’t your thing,” she said.
“Stop,” Garrett said, reaching out and holding her shoulder. “It’s not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not having fun. You know how much I love seeing you happy. That’s all I need.”
“You know what would make me really, really happy?” she asked, moving closer, a shirt in one hand. She stood just inches away, a little smile spreading slowly across her face.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“You could…” Brianna said, leaning in to whisper into his ear. “…put this on.” She shoved the shirt at him and stepped back, grinning.
“Uh uh. I’m not playing dress-up.”
“Oh come on.”
“You’re not breakin’ me, Bri.”
She batted her eyelashes. “You’re really, really certain there’s nothing I can do to change your mind?”
He sighed. “I’m not wearing the ears, though.” Three minutes later, as another tourist snapped their picture together, Garrett growled, “Can I take these ears off now?”