“You know about the festival this weekend?” Cort asked as they turned and began to follow the tracks of the tow truck, Onyx plodding behind them. His tone was light and almost boyish.
“The wine festival?”
“Yeah, wine. Not something I know much about. That’s all Tina’s, Siobhan’s, and both Maxes kit and caboodle. But they’ve got something good to show off,” he added.
“I was told it’s going to help with something you’re doing. A retreat of some sort? I happened to be in on the last meeting of the plans,” Chloe replied. “I can’t even imagine what it takes to put something like that together.”
“It’s been a lot of work. And people have been awful generous.”
“They only told me a little bit about the retreat. What’s it like?”
“Just finished the big hall. Its got a huge fireplace and lots of comfy chairs to sit in. A kitchen. Bunkhouses for groups. Hiking trails, sports. We thought about putting in some smaller cabins for families but we’re having to wait on that. All of it sits on the river that goes through the Point. Everyone will get to see it tomorrow evening. You’ll still be here, right?”
“I think so. I kind of left my stay here open-ended.”
Abruptly, Cort brought Onyx to a halt and cocked his head at her.
“Get on up,” he challenged and indicated the stirrup. “You can ride while I lead.”
Chloe shook her head, emphatic.
No. I’ve never…no, don’t…”
“He’s feisty, but not unruly.”
Chloe’s comfort level warred with admiration of the beast (or was it of the man?) and a desire to not look like a total idiot. “I told you, I’ve never been on a horse before.”
“You wanna be, though. I can tell,” Cort teased.
“Oh, really?” Chloe asked, astonished and amused at the same time. “And how’s that?”
He rolled his eyes. “Horse sense.”
When she stammered something incomprehensible, the eyebrows rose and he gave her a look. “C’mon…”
“Fine, but you make him walk, ok? No galloping.”
“No galloping. I promise. Of course,” he added, seconds after she had gathered the nerve to try, “in order to make sure that doesn’t happen, you should let me ride with you.” He winked at her.
“Are you trying to blackmail me?”
“Truth be told? Yes. I’m awful tired and I think you are, too. If we walk, it’ll be dark before we get back,” he replied with perfect logic.
“And I have a date tonight,” he reminded her, the grin spreading into a very charming smile. “You don’t want me to keep her waiting, do you?”
Before she could think of a counter-argument, he swung up into the saddle, left the stirrup free, and held out his hand.
Damn, he made it look so easy.
“It’s too high,” she said, in misery.
He pointed to a nearby stump that would give her easier access and she dutifully stepped up onto it, took his outstretched hand, and fumbled with putting her left foot into the u-shaped brace. Just as she gave a little hop to push herself upwards, he pulled and to her surprise, she found herself astride the horse behind him. She was just figuring out a way to hold onto him by way of the belt loops of his jeans when Onyx whinnied and hopped forward, impatient with the burden of two people on his back. Terrified, Chloe gave a small shriek and threw her arms around Cort’s middle.
“Settle down, settle down!” He commanded the horse, and Onyx stamped a foot as if to say ‘get on with it!’ Cort would have none of it. “Don’t make a liar out of me!”
“He doesn’t like me on here,” Chloe gasped, hoping he’d let her slide off. To her dismay, Cort laid his free arm on top of hers and held it to his torso.
“I told you he was feisty,” he replied. “But he’s not gonna toss you. He likes you fine.”
“Maybe it’s the two of us, then,” she argued, wondering if she should pull her arm free. She tried and his grip remained firm. When he leaned forward to pat the horse’s neck, she had to lean forward wiht him and she felt the muscles in his back.
I don’t need this…I don’t need this…but I LIKE this…
“Nah, you’re like a leaf to him. He’s just being a little opinionated,” he assured, but his stage whisper to Onyx was unmistakeable. “Good boy!”
Once she felt acclimated enough, he let go of her arm and her hands fell to the belt loops anyway. The electricity that always sparked at touch became a new temptation: to lean against his back and feel the way he settled into the rhythm of the horse’s pace. It made her hold her breath until he asked what was wrong, so she distracted herself by bringing up the subject of the events leading to the discovery of her arrival.
“So that’s what brought everyone out so far? A bunch of freedom-happy horses?”
“Something let them out,” Cort replied. In spite of his argument to hurry back, he took his time guiding Onyx through the shade of the trees along the way. Along the way, he took a gravel path that meandered a different way than they had come. “Don’t care to speculate on why it came to be, but it’s a God-send Jack found you.”
Chloe fell quiet. She’d completely forgotten about Jack Aubrey. How thoughtless! She owed him and Cort and several others a BIG ‘thank you.’
“You still back there?” she heard Cort ask.
“Yes, I am,” she answered. “I guess I’m still shocked that I was found, too.”
“If he hadn’t seen that flash, don’t know that we’d have ever found you.”
“Yeah, like someone using a signal mirror. Kind of like in his movie…”
“You mean, that moment in the fog when he saw the ghost ship fire on them?”
“Yeah, like that…I saw it, too, and then…” Cort’s voice trailed off and she could feel him laugh. “Then it got weird.”
“They weren’t random flashes. Leadin’ us, in a direction away from the valley where the horses had stopped…and I could tell Jack was gettin’ kinda angry about it…but then, we saw you. I get the feelin’ that if somethin’ hadn’t caught our attention, we’d have rounded the horses up and never known you were there.”
Chloe didn’t know how to reply to that, so she chose a simpler question, one that had been on her mind all morning.
“I wanted to ask you…everyone calls you ‘Preacher.’ Is that what you are?”
To her surprise, it was several moments before Cort replied.
“I can be. I married Tina and John, so I guess that makes me a preacher. At the Point, at any rate. I hold prayer meetings at the chapel as regular as I can. But if I were in the Outside world, it’d be some kind of title I’d not be able to hold up as official.”
“Are you saying you’re not ordained? Or licensed or what have you?”
“Nope. Not now, at any rate.”
“What were you before…in the movie?”
Chloe felt his shoulders droop slightly.
“Well, by the end of it all,” he hedged, a sad tone coloring his voice, “you might say I was a deputy of the law instead of a preacher. I was given the star and left to believe I had the reins of justice in my hands.”
“And did you?” she asked, curiosity piqued.
It took even longer for him to answer that question.
“Never found out. That was when I came here.”
She changed the subject once more, asking about the retreat and the plans in the works for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. His cheerfulness and humor soon had her laughing. Cort was so self-assured and steady and calm, it was clear he wasn’t the sort of making a braggart of himself, in spite of the impending honors to his efforts. However, she felt the reluctance to answer the earlier questions about his movie role had nothing to do with his natural humility. That in itself was a bit disconcerting, considering the way everyone’s eyes and expression lit up around him when he spoke, passed by, or just entered the room. Any self-respecting Texan would be a straight shooter, and by all appearances, Cort was that…but his response had her setting a mental note to find and watch his movie before she made any decisions about him.
At the stables, Cort gave her an apple to feed Onyx, who lifted it from her hand with a delicacy that rivaled fine table manners, and asked to meet her in the hotel lobby at seven. Chloe looked at her watch as she made her way down the path towards the main complex: it was only one o’clock. She had time to kill. One of the little decorative signs where the path split into three ways pointed toward the library, and before she allowed herself to think twice, Chloe turned toward the Gothic-inspired building. Maybe she’d only dash through to get a glimpse of what it contained, maybe she’d spend an hour or two.
When she pushed through the heavy wooden doors, the smell of old books greeted her like a forgotten friend, a musty, dusty, slightly corrupt fragrance of old paper and aging leather. Chloe stood in the foyer for several moments, drinking it all in. She’d have to regulate herself very carefully in the next hour or so, or Cort would get stood up.
“Good afternoon,” said the young woman at the front desk in the designated rotunda of the hall, her voice low but clear. She was as young as Chloe, fashionably dressed, with a beautiful oval face, slightly tilted gray eyes and a pouting mouth. Her dark hair fell past her shoulders. “I’m Laurie Drake, the librarian. You must be new here.”
“I am,” Chloe replied, and introduced herself. She looked about expecting to see the tables filled with people, but apart from herself and Laurie, the place was empty.
How sad! She thought.
“Is the library closed on certain days?” She felt silly for asking, but for a place like the Point and its inhabitants, a place like the library was the last place she expected to see signs of apathy. “Should I leave?”
“Not at all! It’s just a slow day. It’s always open, so people come in at different times. I, on the other hand, will be leaving in an hour,” Laurie replied, glancing at a silver watch on her wrist. “So, if you have any questions, I’d be glad to help until then. And then Dr. Nash is always around. He’s not too bad about answering questions, although it sometimes depends on what mood he’s in. He’s temperamental but not unkind. I wouldn’t get into a mathematical debate with him, though,” Laurie added with a pretty laugh. “If you’re not good at it yourself, it’s best to just avoid the subject.”
“I remember discussing him at school,” Chloe replied. “He had some interesting ideas that applied to anthropology.” When Laurie just looked at her blankly, as if she didn’t know what to say to that, Chloe went on, sheepishly, “I won’t be here long myself. I need to get back to the hotel soon. But I’d love to look at any maps you might have…?”
Laurie led her out of the foyer into a long gallery lined on either side with bookshelves as high as the tall windows encased between them. Study tables were in every nook and lane. At the end of the gallery they turned another corner and Laurie pointed to an archway labeled “Maps” in a decorative brass marker. Laurie excused herself back to the front desk and Chloe hurried into the room. In every space available were tall cabinets with thin drawers containing maps, books of maps, and archives of maps. Several globes took up space between and on top of the cabinets and the ceiling itself was an antiqued Robinson, with lights shining from various capitals and coasts.
“Easy, luv, you’re spinning like a kid in a candy shop,” she heard someone drawl and turned to find a man standing in the doorway of a smaller side room. He wore khakis and a polo shirt, but his hair was slightly rumpled and his eyes had an old spirit in them, as if he’d seen far too much for one human to handle. What really set him apart was the Australian accent.
“Don’t overdose,” he added, with a grin.
“You’re Terry, right?” she breathed, recalling his background. His movie she had seen, thankfully before she was aware of the backstage story. A warm smile made him utterly approachable.
“Newcomer, eh? G’day,” he replied as he nodded the affirmative to her question. “Hope you’re liking the place. Could stand a few more ladies around here.”
“I’m loving it so far, especially the library. Is it alright if I take a look for a moment?” She indicated the room behind him.
“Sure, luv. Have a go,” he said, and stepped aside for her to enter the room. It was smaller and more contained than the large vault, and it was lined with more map cabinets, the long thin drawers labeled with designations from around the world. She came to one small wooden map cabinet set upon a larger metal one,
“What maps are in here?”
“Just diagrams, bits and bobs about the place. You’ve an interest in cartography, too?” Terry gestured to wide sheets of paper on the table. Each one had a hand-drawn image of familiar buildings, or segment of topography; but each were in the middle of the sheet, with edges that drifted off into the corners or edges, not really connected to any other point of geography.
“I like maps. These are of the Point?” she asked eagerly. Jackpot! “I was hoping to find some!”
“Don’t know if they’d do you any good, luv,” Terry warned.
“Sometimes they change, sometimes there’s a new map,” he replied. “I don’t know why I keep coming back to them. Keep hoping for something different, I reckon.”
“Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Chloe asked, more to herself than at Terry. She hesitated to tell him about the experience earlier in the day.
“Don’t look for any organization to them, either,” Terry suggested. “The only constant you’ll find is the Tavern and the Hotel.”
“Oh.” Chloe sat down in one of the chairs, deflated. The sheet in front of her was an incomplete layout of the stables and paddocks. The detail of the pen and ink was amazingly fine, but the only thing that indicated it was a map was its legend and label of the people with which the stables were associated. One or two had a compass rose, but she could see with a quick glance, there was something off about matching up. In a word, they didnt. One sheet revealed a hilly area outlined by sea level lines, but no building associated with it.
“Oh, don’t let me dishearten you. I’m just frustrated,” Terry added, grinning his apology. “I’m also curious. What are you looking for?”
“I was hoping to get a sense of history about this place. Something to do with archaeology. I’m an archaeologist. At least, part-time. Whenever I can find work,” she stammered, wondering if she should reveal that much. Sometimes people didn’t like archaeologists poking around. “I thought I might see if there were any relief maps or record of property. Anything that might show remnants of some place…”
“There are some relief maps, and topography of various spots,” Terry said, turning back to the cabinets to pull open another drawer and take out the pile of sheets in there. These were much more complete, but Terry pulled her up short once more with the enigmatic explanation: “Same problem with the orientation, though.It’s like Russian roulette.”
“What do you mean?”
“See, right now, the hills are here…see the Tavern and Hotel? But next time you come in or with the next Brother we receive, the hills might be over there. And the North varies accordingly or not at all. The only reason I can figure we have this consistency with the main complex is because of what Jack Aubrey and I have been doing.”
“And that is…?”
“Setting geographical markers, surveying the area around the main complex. We’ve also been taking soundings off the protected bay, when Jack is willing to let us use his ship. Until we get more readings, the maps change with the Point, and the Point has its ways.”
“So I’ve heard,” Chloe said ruefully.
“Haven’t seen any maps of potential sites, though. Sorry luv,” Terry concluded. “Doesn’t mean there isn’t something here,” he added at her crestfallen expression. “I don’t look for these kinds of things, so I’m the last person to say definitively. What did Tina tell you?”
“Oh…um…well, I haven’t had a chance to talk with her about it, really.”
“She’d be able to tell you, if anyone,” Terry told her, kindly.
Laurie appeared at the door.
“I’m on my way out, now,” she announced. “Anything I can do for you guys?”
“That pom, Skinner, waiting for you?” Terry asked.
“Yes,” Laurie replied with a shy grin. “Any message you want me to pass on?”
“Yeah. Tell him he doesn’t deserve you!” Terry replied with a laugh. Then to Chloe when she rose from the table, “are you abandoning me, too?”
“I have to,” Chloe said. “I have a date myself.”
“That’s always the way,” Terry sighed dramatically and then waved her off with a laugh. “Blokes like me getting left behind…and they laugh as they go! No, go on! Raise a glass for me in memoriam.”