Authors: Julie Anne Long
ritt burst out her front door, stag-leaped her sagging front step, scattered three deer and that blue jay whose hobby was harassing her cat, and finished yanking her blue camisole down over her head before she hit the ground.
“Don’t eat my roses!” she implored the deer over her shoulder. In vain, probably.
She was going to have to run to make it to work on time, and the merciful morning cool was already beginning to give way to merciless summer heat.
A half mile down the dirt road Roy and Willa Boyd’s dog Jet exploded off his porch to chase her,
and out of his head with excitement, but then he felt that way about nearly every moving creature. He was the love child of a basset hound and a standard poodle and frankly looked more like a caterpillar than a dog. Britt slowed down a little just to give him hope that he might one day catch up to her on his four-inch legs and bite an ankle. Because everyone needed hope.
He gave up after about a hundred yards, satisfied he’d acquitted himself well in defense of his porch.
Which was her cue to pause and catch her breath.
She tilted her head back and rested her hands on her hips as she gulped in air. A red-tailed hawk was circling lazily above in the empty, dazzling blue sky, looking for breakfast.
Behind her the hills rose up and up in a glorious tangle of every kind of green: pines, redwoods, oaks, manzanita, Indian paintbrush. Off to the east, scattered along the canyon’s edge and overlooking the Hellcat River, the windows of the rustic palaces belonging to tech billionaires and other people who had money up the wazoo glinted like diamonds in the rising morning sun.
She got moving again.
A few feet later the tamped dirt road turned into pavement and became the main road into town.
She jogged down the gently winding main street, past long rows of Victorian storefronts faded to muted butter mint shades by weather, time, and dust. She held her hand up to her face like a horse blinder when she passed Kayla Benoit’s boutique so she wouldn’t have to see that white dress in the window. Kayla was opening up and thought she was waving, so she waved gaily back.
The Misty Cat Cavern looked like a saloon because it had always been a saloon, and its placement at the end of Main Street was strategic, or so legend had it: inebriated miners who stumbled (or were thrown) out the door only had a short distance to roll right back down to the main gold mining camp. Some of its long, lurid history lingered in the décor and the alleged ghost of a prostitute named Nimble Nellie, shot by a jealous miner. She was the
Hellcat, or so it was said. Britt was grateful she hadn’t yet met Nellie. She certainly sympathized with her, though.
She swung around back and jabbed her key into the lock in the back door, and wove her way through the kitchen into the main restaurant.
A row of windows set high in the wall showed the tops of pines and fragments of blue sky. A kindly, dusty, golden, tree-filtered light poured through them early in the morning, but by late afternoon the summer sun was as brutal as an X-ray. A collective howl of torment rose in the Cavern if anyone dared crack the blinds then.
The spinning blades of the ceiling fan casually slaughtered flies, which plummeted to the floor and tables below to be swept up or wiped away by bar rags, to be replaced by intrepid new flies slipping in the door with customers. It was the circle of life in the Misty Cat Cavern. Britt pulled all the chairs down and grabbed a soapy rag and pushed a few little carcasses off tables, then grabbed a broom to do a quick sweep, called “Hey Giorgio!” when she heard rustling in the back room, and got a grunt in reply.
Giorgio was dragging the cover off the pool table and plugging in Glenn’s prized vintage beer signs, which lent a luridly cheery glow to the murk. When the sheriff was in for lunch Giorgio surreptitiously disconnected the old Hamm’s sign, a signal to put the kibosh on any obvious betting. Britt was positive the sheriff wasn’t that unobservant. He probably just picked his battles. There were plenty to choose from in Hellcat Canyon.
Giorgio hailed from way up in the hills in the Coyote Creek settlement, which is where any trouble seemed to originate, and he was small and wiry and dark, as if he’d been grown in the shade and in secret. His mother had named him for perfume she’d shoplifted from a Walgreens back in the eighties. She was in jail, along with nearly his entire family for crimes ranging from petty to grand, and everyone had decided that only sheer contrariness had kept Giorgio out of it. He possessed a certain charisma, if you liked your men saturnine and taciturn (two of Britt’s favorite words, because they sounded exactly like what they were, and two words Giorgio had never uttered in his life). But he was a veritable savant with the grill.
“It’s gonna be a hot one,” she called, mostly for the pleasure of hearing her voice echo in the place, because she knew Giorgio wouldn’t honor such obviousness with even a grunt. The acoustics were close to magical, thanks to some alchemy involving the height of the ceiling and the aged redwood floors and walls, and it was the reason touring college bands occasionally detoured here as they made their way through to big California cities or up to Oregon or Nevada. The tiny stage was tucked all the way in the back and flanked the single restroom. There was a small round window up high in the bathroom door, and if a drummer was tall enough, they could gaily wave to anyone sitting on the toilet. Fortunately most drummers never figured this out.
The various locks on the back clunked open and Sherrie at last rushed through the kitchen, her red hair a torch in the soft light. She and her husband, Glenn, the owners of the Misty Cat, were, if Britt had to guess, well north of fifty years old, gone soft in some parts, harder in others, their complexions cured identically brown by decades of scorching mountain summers.
“Sorry, hon. Glenn and I got a late start this morning. I ended up in emergency room last night in Black Oak.” She held up a splinted wrist. “We were doing mermaid and fisherman and I fell off the bed.”
“I’m sor . . . you were . . . mer . . .
Talking to Sherrie was often like taking a stroll along the edge of a cliff—one minute everything was peaceful and easy, even dull, the next you could be hurtling into space, scrambling for a handhold on reality. Sherrie had no filter. Whereas Britt had become someone who filtered nearly everything.
“I dress up as a mermaid and he dresses up like a fisherman, and we pretend the bed is a rock and I’m stranded on it, and then a fisherman comes along to rescue me. But I have to do ‘favors’ ”—she performed air quotes with her good hand—“for him in return.”
She said this as matter-of-factly as some people might recite the ingredients for banana bread.
Britt froze, assaulted by questions. Did Glenn wear hip waders? Was a net involved?
Then again, knowing might be worse than not knowing.
“How did you make the tail?” Britt finally whispered. She couldn’t help it. Both she and Sherrie loved crafts.
Sherrie leaned in and laid a hand on Britt’s arm confidingly. “Listen, hon, there was nothing to it. I cut up an old pair of leggings and sewed them back to—”
The front door swung open, and in came a gust of hot air and a whoosh of that early-morning, pine-and-sage-and-crushed-leaves perfume of the California foothills.
And a man.
They all went silent.
He was lean and tall—his head brushed the top of the door frame—and something about his posture made Britt glance at his hips. She wouldn’t have been surprised to see a holster slung there, as if they’d all been transported back to the Wild West and he was the fastest gun. He had that sort of presence.
He stood in the doorway a moment, adjusting to the cool dark.
“Any chance you folks serving lunch yet?”
His boots echoed on the floor as he slowly stepped forward into the light. Longish dark hair, nearly to his shoulders, pushed back behind his ears. Pale blue chambray shirt open at the throat and rolled to his elbows, worn loose over faded jeans. Something about the way his clothes fit his body told her he hadn’t bought any of them at Walmart. His stubble-darkened jaw could have been drawn with a protractor, so precise and severe were its lines. It was a face straight out of a daguerreotype. He had a sort of elemental beauty that smacked her in the solar plexus the way her first glimpse of Hellcat Canyon had.
“Maybe.” Giorgio had sized him up as
not one of us, and better-looking than me
defaulted to surly.
Britt shot Giorgio a quelling look.
A crashing sound and an oath in the kitchen heralded Glenn’s arrival.
“We serve it all day,” Britt corrected, as Sherrie slipped into the kitchen to see what her husband had knocked over.
The stranger came closer, tilting his head back to study the menu chalked on the board hanging horizontally behind Giorgio.
TRY THE GLENNBURGER!
the sign always said.
EIGHT SECRET INGREDIENTS!
She and Giorgio watched him in uncertain silence, as if a bear had wandered in. Weeks could go by before someone they didn’t know by at least their first name crossed the threshold of the Misty Cat.
“Can you give me just a hint about the secret ingredients in a Glennburger?”
Giorgio slowly mopped beneath his armpit with a handkerchief. Britt had never seen anyone mop an armpit threateningly before, but it was happening before her eyes.
“Sweat,” he finally answered.
The stranger was regarding Giorgio with mild but unblinking curiosity that made the hair prickle on the back of Britt’s neck. As if nothing anyone did could surprise him, but if they tried, boy, would he be ready.
“That’s funny,” he said. “I was going to guess ‘love.’ ”
It was a masterpiece of irony.
“It has onions,” Britt volunteered hurriedly. “Spices. Nothing . . . bodily.”
“Guess it’s one of those things where you have to know the Masonic handshake to get the recipe.”
It was meant to be a joke, but it fell into the vacuum of Giorgio’s hostility.
She suspected the stranger anticipated that it would. And didn’t care.
Britt shot Giorgio another look. She mostly understood his instinct to attempt to drive off interlopers, the way Jet the dog did. Most of the people who lived in Hellcat Canyon liked it the way it was, and strangers were reminders that if things were different elsewhere, they could change here, too.
But unkindness always got her back up.
Sherrie emerged from the kitchen—Glenn behind her—accurately assessed the situation and the stranger with wide, appreciative eyes, and then gave him a little pat, part pity, part motherliness.
“Why don’t you have a seat right over here, hon, and we’ll get the grill going. Britt will bring you something cold or something hot, whatever you need. If you try the Glennburger, you’ll never forget it.”