Many eyes watched the community; but in the dark of night, eyes were of little use to this group. Instead, sensitive noses scoured the air for every tidbit of information. They smelled wood smoke, food slowly being cooked, newly chopped wood, hot clay and hotter metals, and the unique scent of the most destructive of Earth's creatures.
There was a little dissent among the pack, as these scents became known to all. Most of the time, such smells were to be avoided; discovery meant death. Yet, the pack elders were not as alarmed as the youngsters were, for they knew these scents well. This particular community was known to them, and if played right, was not a danger.
The young ones did not agree, there HAD to be another way. Why take the chance?
Arguments flew back and forth as the pack tried to decide what to do. Never, in the younger members' memory at least, had the pack taken such a risk; was this the only option?
It was their leader that ended the discussion. He was not the oldest but he was the biggest and the strongest. He was also one of the few who had been this way before. He also knew that in the end they had no choice, recent events having forced them once again to abandon their solitary ways.
He made his views known and settled the dispute. They would wait and watch; and if all was as remembered, then they would move, the pack's survival depended on it.
Above them watched another pair of eyes, another nose. The solitary watcher shifted his attention between the group below and the community by the river. He had heard the stories, but was too young to know the truth behind them and he was curious.
He shifted slightly in the snow, constantly aware of the long cut along his side, a parting gift from the leader when he left the group, and settled in for a long wait.
Below him, aware of the loner and cursing his existence, the rest of
the group huddled together. Except for a solitary lookout, the watchers
prepared their own vigil.
There is no landscape in the world quieter than one covered in snow. Snow has a way of muffling things that nothing else in nature can duplicate. You can stand outside and almost hear the silence, even in the middle of a busy city that had just gotten its first six inches.
What sounds you can hear, seem farther away than they are. Snow blowers, snowplows, all appear to be working streets away rather than just down the block. In the wilderness it's the same, except that instead of snow blowers there are the sounds of nature herself, animals foraging for food under the white blanket, or water fighting its way downstream before it gets covered by an icy crust.
In the mountains though, it's a little different. Everything seems quieter, yet not. Sounds from miles away seem magnified, clearer than they ought to be despite the distance. Maybe it's because so much of the surrounding noise has been muffled by the snow, but in the rocky valleys between the great mountains, sound carries a long way.
The next morning, it was therefore not a surprise to the members of the community known simply as the Compound that someone from the town below was coming to see them.
The whine of the engine could be heard echoing off the valley walls and some who worked outside could even tell who was coming. To them, the sound of this motor was as individual and as well known as the forest itself.
A runner carried word of the approaching visitor inside, and soon a large man wrapped in winter furs emerged from one of the huge, half buried buildings that housed the community. He walked slowly toward the big south gate, which stood wide open, allowing passage through the tall log wall that circled the Compound, and he waited.
Soon the noise of the motor got louder, and over a ridge appeared a snowmobile. The driver was smart, he wasn't trying to set any speed records, and he covered the remaining distance carefully and safely. The vehicle pulled up close to the gate but did not enter. On his first trip up here a few years before, the driver made the mistake of driving through the gate; it had not been well received. He was welcome to walk through at any time, one of few outsiders accorded that privilege, but his machine was to stay outside.
Now stopped, the driver shut off the offending motor and began to remove his helmet. The silence of the winter wilderness returned, and others working outside could turn their attention back to their tasks.
Sheriff Kinkade of Carson County, Colorado, pulled his helmet off and got off his machine. His head had been encased in the muffling helmet, but even he could tell how much quieter it was with the engine shut off. He felt a little guilty at having to come up here, disturbing these good people with his noise pollution, but he needed to make the trip. He could have sent one of his deputies up, but they, like most of the rest of the townsfolk, were not that enamored of the community living in the Compound. He doubted that any respect would have been shown. Besides, it gave him a chance to see his good friend, Paul Anderson.
Paul Anderson, Guardian of the Compound, a role that translated into something like a combination Mayor and Sheriff, happened to be the big man who had come out to meet this visitor. Right now, he was walking toward Kinkade, and when the men met, they shook hands.
"It's good to see you," said Paul, his voice low and deep.
"Good to see you too, Paul," replied Kinkade.
"Come on in, we'll get something warm inside you; it's too cold to stand out here visiting right now," Paul said, and he turned to walk back through the gate.
Kinkade left his helmet on the snowmobile and followed. He wasn't cold in his one-piece snowsuit, but it was a long ride and he needed to sit for a while on something that wasn't vibrating. He also needed to use the head, and once inside, excused himself temporarily for that purpose.
After a few minutes of using the Compound's rather unique plumbing, he came out, and the two men went to the Great Hall.
The Great Hall was a community center for the Compound. Now that the weather had grown cold, all the community meals were eaten in here, so it had to be big enough to seat at the same time the over five hundred members who lived here, and it was certainly that. It also housed the only kitchen in the Compound; a huge area in itself, separated from the rest of the hall by a row of tables and a row of immense stone hearths capable of baking bread, roasting pigs and cooking pretty much anything else that you could think of. Beyond the hearths were the food prep areas, and the storerooms where all the foodstuffs lay.
Kinkade was always impressed by the place when he visited, although even he rarely made it inside. He knew that the whole building with its high ceiling and huge skylights had been built fifty years ago with no modern tools. It was a credit to its builders that it showed no sign of falling down.
Paul led him to a table, and took off his own hat and fur jacket. He would have removed all his furs at the entryway, but he figured that he would need them again soon when Kinkade left.
The two men sat down, and like a waitress, one of the women who was working the kitchen at this moment came to ask them if they needed anything. Paul ordered two mugs of hot coffee, and noticed with a smile that the Sheriff avoided looking at her. Paul knew that his friend from town was never really comfortable with the normal dress code of the women that worked the kitchen, for their usual attire was a simple loincloth tucked under a rope about their waist. It provided basic covering for their lower regions for sanitary reasons, and that was all. Nudity was not a taboo here in the Compound, and long ago, the women found out that they were a lot more comfortable working around the hot hearths with the minimum of clothing possible; plus it was a lot easier to clean themselves instead of their clothes when doing messy jobs.
Paul asked after Kinkade's family, and the Sheriff did likewise for Paul, and the two men chatted about family life until their coffees were served.
"So," said Paul, once they were alone again, "what brings you all the way up here?"
"It's not official," Kinkade replied, sipping at the harsh brew and wishing for some sugar, "but I thought it was important."
"Not official? Now I AM intrigued."
"It concerns Rhianna Anderson."
Paul blinked. "What's the matter?"
Kinkade looked down at his mug, fired here in the Compound he assumed. "I got a call this morning from a guy in the New York office of the FBI. Owen Johnson. I don't know if you remember him, but he was the agent that came up with Rhianna and your brother two years ago for the Weller case."
"I remember him," said Paul, and he also remembered Weller, a man now doing time for the murders of several young women from the Compound. He still dreamt about them sometimes, the citizens he couldn't protect. That Weller had lost the use of his legs due to a couple of well placed shots, fired from Rhianna's gun by his brother, only partially satisfied Paul's strong sense of justice.
"Agent Johnson had a message for Rhianna, and asked if I could pass it along for him. He knows that you and your people like to keep communication with the outside world to a minimum, but he felt this was important."
"And is it?" Paul asked him.
"I just drove all the way up here to give it to her. I could have waited until I had another excuse for coming up," Kinkade replied.
Paul understood the importance. "What is the message, or is it private?"
Kinkade thought for a moment, and then told him.
Paul frowned, then he stood up and waved toward the nearby kitchen area. "Catherine!" he called out. "Catherine, come over here a minute!"
A young woman working at a food prep table padded over, and again Kinkade averted his eyes. Yet, the image of the bright young soul, the same apparent age as his own kids, stuck in his head, and he chuckled silently at his own discomfort.
"Catherine," said Paul once the teenager arrived, "go to the school and fetch Rhianna, will you? I think she's there with a class right now. If not, track her down and have her come here; it's important."
"Yes, Sir," said young Catherine, and she ran back to the storerooms for her dress. In warmer weather, she would have gone as she was without a further thought, but in the winter, the public areas of the Compound's huge buildings were a little too cool to walk around in without at least one layer of clothing on.
"Do you want some more coffee while we wait?" Paul asked his friend.
"No, that's fine, thanks," said Kinkade.
"Okay. Then while we wait for my sister-in-law, let's talk about something else. How is young Kale's probation going?"
"Not bad, but the kid is still holding back. I wish he would tell
us who else helped him take all those photographs...."
Rhianna Anderson, formerly Rhianna Summer of the FBI before she got married, was not at the school. She was instead in her own home, doing some cleaning. She was working on the fireplace in the single room apartment she shared with her husband, Matthew.
Rhianna was crouched inside the brick fireplace itself, scrubbing at the top of the flue in an attempt to remove a few years worth of soot and grime. She was covered in dust and dirt, stuck to her skin with her own sweat, and looked a mess. The only good part was that she wasn't going to ruin any of her clothes doing this job, for she wasn't wearing any.
She had decided that for a job this messy, it would be a lot easier just cleaning herself up afterward. Besides, her husband usually preferred her to be completely nude when at home anyway, something she had come to adjust to doing for him. She was no longer bothered by the casual nudity in the Compound, but she didn't like being completely nude in front of people unless it couldn't be avoided. While on her last case for the FBI, her pubic hair had been permanently removed against her will, and her lack of covering was not really accepted by the community. They appreciated that Rhianna was discreet about it, but when some of the teenage girls of the Compound, Catherine being one of them, decided to copy the older woman's style, there was hell to pay. The girls all had to grow theirs back. So Rhianna kept her nudity private; undressing in public only in the bathhouse or when swimming during the summer.
At home, she was perfectly comfortable being nude; nude that is except for the wide leather bands around her wrists, bands that were sewn shut so she could not slip them off. The bands were the Compound's equivalent of wedding rings, and both husband and wife wore a band on each wrist, the bands identically carved with a unique design for that couple alone.
The bands also had a more practical purpose too, but that wasn't needed at the moment.
Rhianna heard someone knocking at the door and called out for them to come in. She didn't want to squeeze out of the fireplace alcove unless she had to.
"Rhianna?" said Catherine, not spotting the soot-covered woman for a moment.
"Over here!" Rhianna called out. "Hi, Catherine. What's up?"
"Paul wants to see you," said the teenager, stepping into the apartment. "He's waiting with that Sheriff from town in the Great Hall."
"Oh, just wonderful!" grumbled Rhianna. "Did he say what he wanted?"
"No, sorry. He just said to come get you."
"Look," said Rhianna, peering between her knees at the teenager, "as you can see, I'm pretty involved here, and I don't want to walk around the Compound until I get cleaned up. Go tell Paul that if he wants to see me, he can come here."
"Sure, Rhianna," said Catherine, admiring how Rhianna took command and assumed that the men would come to her. Catherine had been brought up with the idea that women normally did as men told them to, as long as they were told to do things that sounded reasonable and not dangerous. Rhianna seemed a little wild to many of the Compound's citizens, and she garnered some respect from Catherine's generation because some of the time Rhianna got what she wanted, the men bending to HER will.
Catherine also knew what it was like to clean a very messy fireplace.
She left to pass on the message, and Rhianna carefully extracted herself from the tight space she had put herself in. She padded across the warm floor of her apartment and found a towel to wipe herself down with. Her skin would still be stained by the soot until she had a bath, but at least she would look a bit more presentable.
By the time Paul and the Sheriff arrived, Rhianna had pulled on a loincloth and had tied a piece of cloth around her chest, covering her breasts. She knew that Sheriff Kinkade found the casual nudity here a little off putting, and to be honest, Rhianna wasn't that comfortable being naked in front of the man anyway. It was one thing to be nude among the men of the Compound; men who were so used to the female nudity around them that they thought nothing of it. But it was another thing entirely to be nude in front of someone from town, especially Sheriff Kinkade. She respected the lawman, and as a former FBI agent, she felt it was particularly inappropriate to be nude in front of a fellow law enforcement officer.
Of course there was the off chance that Kinkade had seen her naked already. She had been told about the stash of photos of her and the other women of the Compound; a stash kept by several of the high school boys in town, taken secretly during the warm summer months when most of the community thought nothing of walking all over this entire mountain nude.
The stash had been confiscated by Kinkade, and most of the boys punished, but there had also been an Internet site to be closed down.
For all Rhianna knew, there were electronic copies of those pictures still in existence all over the world, providing images for the masturbatory fantasies of geeks the world over.
Not exactly the way Rhianna would have wished to become famous.
But there was nothing Rhianna could do about that, so she cleaned herself
up, dressed, and waited for her visitors.
This was Kinkade's first visit to the residential section of the Compound, and as he followed Paul Anderson through the central hallways that ran through all the buildings, he had to admire what they had built here. Everything except for the barns and livestock pens was built partially underground to help insulate them from the cold. The huts were huge, and set out in an "H" pattern. From what he could tell, the central bar was the Great Hall and the bath house, while the two lower legs were both residential areas. The upper legs were where the construction shops were. It was quite amazing.
They stopped at a door, and Paul knocked.
"Come in!" they heard from inside, so Paul opened the door.
Kinkade was glad to see that Rhianna was dressed, but the normally beautiful woman was filthy.
"Excuse the mess," she said, pointing at herself and the area around the fireplace, "You caught me in the middle of some cleaning."
"That's okay; I can see why you didn't want to come to us," said Paul.
"Glad you approve my reasons!" Rhianna said to him, hands on her hips.
Paul chuckled. He and Rhianna often sparred over the position of women in the community. Women here did not hold as dominant a role as they did in the outside world, but they weren't slaves either. A closer comparison could be made to women of Victorian times, when men were most definitely the masters of their households and the favored sex in society.
For the most part, he and Rhianna argued in good humor, but there had been times when her frustration had been for real.
"So, what's up? Is there a problem you need my help with?" Rhianna asked the men. She had never forgotten that she used to be FBI, and to tell the truth, there were times when she missed the work. Living at the Compound was fine, but it didn't often give her opportunities to use her brain.
Paul's smile left him, and he gestured to Kinkade.
"Er..." said the Sheriff, "ma'am. I got a call from your former office this morning, from Agent Owen Johnson."
"Owen?" Rhianna had fond memories of her last FBI partner, but hearing from him now disturbed her. "What happened?"
"Agent Johnson related to me a call he got from your brother Geoff. Apparently there is a family matter in your home that he feels you need to know about."
"What?" asked Rhianna softly, fearing the worst.
"Your father, he was diagnosed with lung cancer just a short time ago. I was asked to tell you that it doesn't look good for him. I'm sorry." Kinkade hated passing on bad news, but it was a part of his job, like it or not. He stood silently while the woman absorbed his message.
"Was there anything else?" she eventually asked, her expression withdrawn and composed.
"No, sorry. That's all that Agent Johnson gave me."
"Thank you," said Rhianna, turning away slightly.
Kinkade looked over at Paul, who nodded toward the door. As the Sheriff left the apartment, Paul walked over to Rhianna.
"You going to be okay?" he asked her; he could see that her eyes were filled with tears, although she wasn't crying.
"Sir," she said, "I'd like...no, I NEED to call them." She looked up into her brother-in-law's eyes. "Please?"
Paul sighed. He knew she wanted to use the only phone in the Compound, a cell phone kept in the clinic that was only to be used in emergencies. He had never granted its use for anything else before, but he could see that Rhianna was in real pain over this news despite her attempt to hold it in.
"Okay," he said, nodding slowly. "I'm going to escort the Sheriff out of camp, then I'll take you to Gabe's, and we'll use his phone, okay?"
Rhianna nodded. "Thank you."
"Wait here for me. Gabe won't let you use it without my say-so."
"I know. I'll...wash up first or something."
Paul started to leave, but Rhianna stopped him. "Paul! Could you stop by the woodshop and collect Matthew on your way back?"
Paul nodded, and left the room.
Rhianna went and sat in the chair, something she sometimes did when alone. Women were not normally allowed to use chairs in the Compound, except in the Great Hall while eating at the tables. She put her face in her hands, and thought about her father.
The two of them had hardly been close. Rhianna had been the most adventurous of her siblings, and the only one to leave town to strike out on her own. She saw her family in Maine as often as she could, but as the years went by, those visits grew farther and farther apart.
She last saw her father almost two years ago, shortly after the case that first introduced her to the Compound. She had spent Christmas with her family, and had never gone back.
And now her father was dying!
Rhianna got up and padded over to the water jug and washbowl, hoping that when she called that she would find out it was all a mistake, a message taken down wrong.
Somehow, she doubted it.
"She took it well," Kinkade said to his friend as they made their way to the nearest building exit.
"You think so?" Paul asked him. "She's a strong woman, and not given to showing her deeper emotions. I expect she's more affected than you would think."
"Perhaps," said the Sheriff. "Are you going to..."
Not looking where he was going, Kinkade walked right into a young woman carrying a pile of folded clothes.
The woman almost lost her load, but managed to keep her balance.
"I'm sorry, miss!" said Kinkade, arms out as if to catch anything that might fall.
"That's okay," said the woman, examining her pile to see if anything was slipping. Then her smiling face looked over at who had run into her. Her smile faded and she froze.
Paul stepped between them. "Shawna, don't dawdle," he said calmly.
"Er...yes, Sir. I'd better be going," said Shawna Michaels. She edged her way past the two men and continued along the passageway.
Kinkade watched the retreating figure, almost naked in just a loincloth, with a frown on his face. "Have I met her before? She looks familiar to me," he said.
"No," Paul said in a very definite way, "you've never met her, and she doesn't look familiar to you."
Kinkade was still frowning, but when he looked at Paul Anderson, he felt he had caught on.
"Whoever that was," said the Sheriff, "she looked happy enough. A fine example of any one of your people. You take care of your people and make them feel...secure, don't you?"
"That's right," Paul said, inwardly relieved that Kinkade wasn't going to bring into the open an unspoken agreement that they had. "If there is one thing a girl like that feels right now, it's...secure. You won't find her going anywhere."
Kinkade nodded, an unspoken agreement confirmed, and they moved on.
Shawna's heart didn't start beating again until she rounded a corner and the men were out of sight. She stopped and leaned against a wall, hugging the warm laundry she carried to her bare chest.
She had just come from the indoor laundry room, where the community's clothes were cleaned during the winter months, and hadn't expected to bump into the police. She had been shocked to see his dark blue snowsuit with his police insignia plastered all over it, and she almost panicked, thinking that Paul was turning her over after all.
Shawna Michaels had a good reason for avoiding the police. A few months earlier, Shawna had been involved in a bank robbery on the other side of the mountains, and had crash-landed close by while trying to escape by plane. Her lover and partner in the robbery had died on impact, but she had survived to find the Compound, and was taken in by the good people here to treat both her injuries and a strong drug and alcohol addiction. How she had come there soon was discovered, but the fact that she had been forced into the robbery by her lover convinced the community that she was not a bad person. So, after Shawna expressed her desire to stay, she was allowed to do so. The community sense of law and order would not let her go completely unpunished, though. In return for their protection from discovery by the police, Shawna agreed to certain restrictions and punishments. Her first month had meant many hours in the stocks, a public form of punishment here. She was also told that she would not be allowed to leave the Compound unescorted, nor leave the mountain itself for two years.
As prisons went, this place was fine for Shawna; and as time went on, she thought less and less about leaving at all!
Still, running into the law when you are practically naked did shock the system a little. The only reason she wasn't in her dress was because the laundry area was very humid, and she had to go right back after delivering the clothes she carried. It had taken her a while to stop thinking about her nudity when out in public, but she had come to terms with it, and even found it more comfortable than being dressed a lot of the time.
With a sigh at her narrow escape, she picked herself up and continued
on her way.
A little later, Paul Anderson, his brother Matthew, and Dr. Gabe Miller IV waited in the clinic's waiting room for Rhianna to finish her call. The clinic was the one exception to the philosophy of rejected technology that the Compound practiced. While elsewhere things were done in a style more suited to centuries past, the clinic managed to keep up with the times in a rustic sort of way. The community founders were smart enough to realize that while Mankind's industry would probably destroy them, Mankind's medicine was still capable of saving lives. No philosophy was more important than a person's health. So Gabe was able to practice with modern tools and drugs. But that wasn't all. Over the seventy-year history of the Compound, a large collection of natural mountain remedies had been put together as well, and Gabe used these methods whenever he could, as long as the patient's life wasn't at stake.
It made for an interesting practice.
One of the pieces of technology only found here in the clinic was a cell phone used to call the nearby Ranger station for emergency airlifts in case of injuries too large for Gabe to handle. It was never used for personal calls, and Gabe had been surprised when Paul asked him to allow Rhianna to use it. But once Paul explained why, Gabe consented, and now the men waited for Rhianna to finish.
"Did you ever meet him?" Gabe asked Matthew. Rhianna was back in the storeroom where the phone was kept, so the men could speak freely.
"No. We didn't go up that way, not even after her last case. I did tell her that she should, but instead she just talked to her brother by phone." Matthew shrugged. "I would have liked to have met her family, but she doesn't talk about them much." His and Paul's eyes met for a moment, both men knowing a greater truth about family secrets.
"I wonder how her mother is taking the news?" Gabe said aloud.
"Her mother is already gone," Matthew replied. "Died when Rhianna was a teenager."
Matthew shook his head. "I can't recall."
Gabe nodded slowly. He now knew why Rhianna was having such a strong reaction to the news; her only surviving parent near death.
Rhianna chose that moment to enter the room, and Matthew went to her, taking her in his arms. "You okay?" he asked her. He could see her eyes were red; she had been crying.
"I...yes...I guess." Rhianna said.
"You talked to your brother then?"
"No, Geoff wasn't there, but his wife May was. She didn't have much more to tell me, except that the doctors only give Dad a few months. The cancer was detected way too late to do much, and what treatments are available, Dad is refusing to take."
"I'm sorry, Pet," said Matthew, and the other men added their sympathies too.
Rhianna glanced at Paul and Gabe for a second before focusing on her husband again. "Matthew, I want to go to Maine. I have to go see him before he's...gone. Can I go?"
"Of course you can, and I'm coming with you. I wanted you to visit your family before we came here; it's important you see them."
"No, Matt, I want to go alone. You stay here."
"Pet." Matthew took her chin in one hand and held her face still. "Rhianna, I'm your husband and you are the most precious thing in the world to me. I won't let you go alone, because while now you might think you don't need my support, later you will wish you had it. I'm going to be there for you, like it or not. Agreed?"
A little reluctantly, Rhianna nodded.
"Besides," said Matthew with a small smile, "I've always wanted to meet your family."
Rhianna sighed, thinking about how that meeting might go.
Matthew turned to his brother. "It IS alright that we go, isn't it?"
"It's fine, Matthew. A good idea," said Paul.
"Okay. Then we'll leave right now," said Matthew Anderson.
Rhianna faked a smile and took his hand.
End of Part 1.