I'm Just a Girl
Napoleon Solo sighed. There were days when all it seemed he did was move paper from one side of his desk to another. He knew there had been more to his job with UNCLE, but at the moment, paperwork was the only thing he could actively recall. The holes in his past still bothered him a little. It helped that Illya was now in the same condition and seemed to be okay with it. Napoleon could tell some days were better than others though.
That was in days past. Now Napoleon was a successful businessman. He had more money than he'd ever dreamed of having, a fabulous business—two in fact, a loving marriage, a satisfying stage career, so why was he still pushing paper?
The door to his office opened and his significant other, lover, confidant, friend, and business partner trudged in. Illya's hair was matted to his head and he was wearing an extremely unflattering bright yellow raincoat and a look of dejection. Napoleon decided that maybe the paperwork wasn't so bad after all.
"Still raining out?" It had been for a week now. It was amazing to him that Jackson hadn't floated away. Their restaurant sat in a lower part of town and it was beginning to suffer.
"Still raining." Illya's voice was deadpan, much like his expression.
"Basement still flooded?" Taste wasn't weathering the storm well.
"I'm thinking of adding something to the menu tonight, a swimming course in between the intermezzo and entrée."
"Put it after the entrée and you'll probably sell more desserts."
"Ha, ha." Illya sank to a chair and slumped, sighing. "I've never seen it this bad."
"What about the pumps?" Napoleon let his voice grow softer.
"Lost the last one an hour ago." Illya held up his grease-stained hands, staring at them as he flipped them over. "I don't think the patient is going to make it."
"Have we lost a lot of inventory?"
"No, we managed to get nearly everything perishable upstairs, but the fact still remains that I have a basement full of water, a restaurant due to be full of patrons most of the weekend, plus that wedding..."
"Is it going to be a mess?"
"Considering Millie was going to have an outdoor wedding and reception, just a bit. Who would know it would kick up like this? Of course, better rain than snow, I suppose, and I'm hopeful that it remains rain."
"Wouldn't have a flooded basement with snow." Napoleon stood and moved around to stand behind his lover.
"But I also don't have to worry about anyone wrapping themselves around a tree coming to or leaving work, or of patrons killing themselves or of them slipping and falling in the skating rink that the parking lot becomes." Illya sounded so discouraged that Napoleon could resist no longer.
"Do you know what you need right now?" he whispered into a hair-fringed ear.
Napoleon slid the yellow slicker off Illya's shoulders and rested his hands on them. He began to squeeze the stress-tightened muscles, gently at first. He could feel the heat of Illya's skin through the thin damp material of the tee shirt. He kneaded a bit harder and was rewarded with a soft groan.
"You need to stop thinking you are the only one who can do this. You need to go take a hot bath and a fast nap before service tonight." There was a soft tap to the door of Napoleon's office. "Yes?"
"Ah, cara, I am to assume Chef is with you?"
"I thought I recognized that moaning. I don't mean to interrupt."
"But the world, it seems, can't exist without you, my love." Napoleon kissed the damp hair. "It's fine, Matt, come in."
A moment later, a head of shocking red hair stuck itself around the corner.
"I was worried you might be... amore di fabbricazione."
"I should be so lucky. What's wrong, Matt?"
"Abbiamo un problema."
"Another problem? What now?"
"The roof, she is leaking... over the cash register. It's.... how do you say?" Matt waggled his fingers in the air.
"Si, si! Shorted. It's has rinunciato al fantasma."
"Renounced it to the phantom?" Napoleon translated Matt's comment literally.
"Given up the ghost, I think he means," Illya muttered, using the collar of his tee shirt to wipe his face. "More good news."
Matt pointed to the ceiling with a long slender finger. "We need someone to go to the roof, someone who is small and not so heavy, like you, Chef." Matt withdrew and closed the door.
Illya turned tired eyes to his partner and sighed. "Is it too soon to wish for a merciful death?"
"That was the exit before last, partner." Napoleon stood up and reached for Illya, kissing him and touching foreheads. "Buck up, little buckaroo. It can always be worse..."
There was a sharp pop and all the lights in the office went off.
"Thank you, Napoleon... a power outage makes everything so much easier."
"I live but to serve." He knew Illya couldn't see him grin, but he did it anyway.
In another town, down the hill...
Del blew a breath out and up to push away the lock of chestnut hair that insisted on falling across one eye as she bent once more over the pile of terra cotta pots under one table in her workspace. Finally finding the one she was looking for, she straightened and sighed over it, placing it on the table with a solid thump. "Whoever imagined that the end of winter in a greenhouse would be quiet was an idiot. Oh wait, that would be me. And on top of that, I'm talking to myself as well. I need a vacation." As she talked she placed broken bits of crockery in the bottom of the pot and then started adding soft moist potting soil until she had a well of it in the bottom of the new pot. She gently tugged the plant from the too small pot and transferred it into its new home, then added more soil and pressed it into place, humming now as she worked.
The door opened and closed. Del continued to hum along with the soft music as she put the finishing touches on the freshly repotted plant. The song came to an end and still there was no sound or movement from the doorway.
"Okay, what fresh hell have you planned for me?" Del wiped her hands on her apron as she rounded the worktable to get a clear view of the door and her partner.
"How did you know it was me?"
"You are the only person who walks in unannounced, you always hesitate when you have bad news and you radiate a kind of bruised color when you are worried. So spill." Del smiled to take some of the sting from her words, walking toward the door now, joining her partner by the table of orchids.
"Do you have a house planned this weekend? And what do you mean, bruised? I thought I radiated hearts and flowers?"
"You glow hearts and flowers when you talk about Stevie, you get all bruised when you have to deal with conflict. So come on and tell me why you are all conflicted. I'll spot you a cup of coffee?"
Del led the way toward her little office and she watched Carlene sit before moving to the coffee maker to pour two cups and add cream and sugar just the way Carlene liked it. She sat next to her on the little loveseat and sipped her drink as she waited.
"We have three weddings this weekend."
"We have two weddings this weekend."
"No. It's three."
"Yeah. That's kind of what I said."
"No, you probably said 'well darn' and left it at that."
"Well, yes. And there's more."
"More weddings?" Del could feel actual panic starting to creep into her voice.
"Oh, no!" Carlene looked up from her coffee, wide-eyed. "No. Only three, thank heaven for small favors."
"Very small," Del muttered into her own coffee.
"I, ah, well. I kinda fired Misty." Carlene hunched over her coffee cup, then looked up in alarm again when Del burst out laughing.
"And I am guessing," Del said when she stopped laughing, "that Misty has something to do with the mystery wedding?"
"Yes, but I also caught her hiding plants in the grow room."
"Hiding plants? Why, she didn't want to sell them? She has some fetish for Spring annuals all of a sudden?"
"Not that kind of plant."
"She was hiding a tray of weed in the grow room. She even used our own bedding boxes so we wouldn't see something different and suspect. Kind of clever, actually."
"She planted weeds? What sort, some are good for medicinal..." The look on Carlene's face was enough for Del to finally figure it out and that sent her into another peal of laughter. Her eyes were streaming with tears when she finally got a hold of herself again. "Oh dear gods above, Misty does know that your father is the sheriff, right?"
Carlene only shrugged and nodded and finished her coffee.
"Carlie, honey, I think you made the right executive decision. Though I really wish I could have been there to see her face when you caught her. Damn, that would have been funny. So did your dad come and haul the evidence away along with our former employee?"
"Not yet. He's talking to whoever he has to talk to to make sure that our real stock isn't confiscated, and I came to get you. You will have to at least be there to sign the complaint."
"Oh, fantastic." Del's voice dripped with her signature sarcasm as she rose from the couch and took Carlene's empty cup and sat both it and her own unfinished cup on the desk. "Well, let's get this over with so we can move on to emergency number two, or is it three by now? Almost having contraband take up residence in our greenhouse," she ticked them off on her fingers, "a surprise wedding and being down one employee. Yes, three. And it's only Wednesday! Think what we can get up to before the weekend really gets here!" Carlene looked a little sick, so Del put an arm around her shoulders. "It's going to be okay, you know."
"How do you know?"
"The Gods watch out for fools and small children, and I have been kicking myself for a fool ever since I bought into this outfit, sweets." Del gave Carlene a half a hug. "Really, it will be okay, Carlie. Let's go see how loudly your dad is laughing and then we'll try to sort out where we can get more flowers before Saturday morning. How big a wedding are we talking?"
"It's big, Del. It's very big and very white." Carlene sighed then straightened up to look Del in the eye. "It's five thousand dollars of very big and very white. Lilies, carnations, roses, absolutely no baby's breath and the mother-in-law-to-be of the bride is very, um, determined that this be the social event of the year."
"And the mother of the bride?"
"Wants her daughter to be happy."
"Well, at least one of them has their head in the right place." Del led her business partner out the door and toward the front of the property where she could see the sheriff truck parked. "We'll handle it. Just let Stevie know that it is his turn to show up with the pizza and the beer. We're going to have to do some fancy dancing and some all night magi:c we'll need fuel."
"Right, and then he'll stay to help."
"Now you understand my plan, yes."
"You are kind of sneaky."
"As if asking me to bring you pizza when you and Stevie were painting your living room wasn't?"
Carlie smiled. "There is some good news. One of the weddings is up the hill and I am betting you would be happy to deliver."
"It's in Jackson?"
"Yes. Which is why I was hoping you would be free this weekend. I can get the two here in town if you take the out of town one. And I know you like the company in Jackson."
"Yeah." Del rolled her eyes. "I love to be surrounded by delicious beefcake I can't have a bite of, yes, and my cousin, don't forget him."
"Sure, I won't throw you in the briar patch, Brer Rabbit, I surely won't."
"Who's sneaky now, Carlie?"
"I'm learning from the best, Del."
In the Foothills...
The delivery man carefully lowered the last load of wine cartons to the dock area of Vinea and glanced over at the clipboard-holding Napoleon.
"Where's the Terre Rouge?" Napoleon glanced at the boxes to make sure he hadn't missed it. "I need it for a wedding this weekend. I ordered fourteen cases."
"I only loaded what was there, boss." Duncan looked over Napoleon's shoulder at the list and shrugged his shoulders. The lack of interest rippled off the man the way heat rose from a desert. "Guess they didn't make it."
"I can't believe that. I need that wine, Duncan."
"What do you want me to do?"
It was a fair question, but Napoleon was doing a slow burn. This was not the first time something had gone missing on Duncan's watch. Usually he was able to over look a case or two. But he knew the owner of this winery and Bill would not do this without giving Napoleon a heads up first. Rocky walked up to Napoleon, a questioning expression on his face.
"Hold on for five minutes and let me call the winery."
"Can't do that, Boss. Unlike other people, I'm on a schedule and I stick to it." The young man started to load the hand truck back into the truck. Another minute and the man would have pulled free from the delivery dock at the back of the shop and that would be it.
"Hold on a sec, Mr. S." Rocky winked and trotted out to the parking lot. He climbed into a car and pulled it forward, straight into the path of the truck and turned off the engine.
Instantly, Duncan was leaning out the window. "Hey, what gives? Get out of my way, yokel!"
"It just died... I don't understand it. " Rocky climbed out of the car and lifted the hood. "You know anything about engines?" Rocky ignored the cursing delivery man and looked over at Napoleon, winking. "Maybe Chef could help."
"I'll go find him." Napoleon saluted and walked back into Vinea. He reached for the phone sitting behind the tasting bar and quickly dialed a number.
"Terra Rouge, how may I help you?"
"Bill, it's Napoleon."
"How's life in the big city?" A standard joke between them, since the population of the town nearest to the winery was forty two.
"Fast and furious. Listen, did you not make it to the dock with my order?"
"Sure did, even watched it being loaded, why do you ask?"
"It never made it here."
"Let me guess—Duncan?"
"Got it in one." One problem solved. "Bill, I need that wine for a wedding. Can you make up a replacement shipment?"
"I can, but I can't get it to you. My driver's out with a broken leg. Stupid cat."
"I know his pain intimately." A sprained knee, a fox, and polka dot pajamas flashed through Napoleon's mind, but he wasn't exactly sure why. "I'll get something together here, even if I have to drive there myself.
"It'll be ready by this afternoon." A pause. "What about...?"
"I'll take care of him. Thanks, Bill, I owe you."
Napoleon hung up laughing and dialed a second number.
"Jackson police station."
"This is Napoleon Solo from Vinea. I'd like to report a robbery in progress. Could you send an officer please?"
Napoleon grinned, knowing that the Jackson police force, all three of them, itched for something to do most days.
He walked back out into the parking lot. Duncan was screaming at Rocky now, who seemed blissfully ignorant of the man's displeasure. Instead, he poked around the engine, hemming and hawing.
"Now, the spark plug is this pointy thing right?" He grinned as Napoleon joined him. "Find Chef, Mr. S?"
"No, but I found a wine thief. Bill said he watched you load that wine."
Duncan paled a little and choked on his last obscenity. "He's wrong."
"I don't think so. Let me tell you what I think happened. You just pick a box randomly and stash it someplace. Then you grumble that someone didn't make the delivery or whatnot. That's worked up until now, but you got greedy and kept an entire shipment for yourself. You see, I may be old, but I've been watching and keeping a tally for a while now." He smiled tightly. "I've called the police. When they arrive, I intend file to charges against you for grand larceny."
"That wine was only retailing for $300 a case."
"And there were fourteen of them. As I said before, I've been keeping a list. I think we have far exceeded the minimum for that charge to stick." At that, the young man turned and sprinted out of the parking lot. Rocky started to give chase, but Napoleon called him back. "Let him go, my friend. We have everything we need to file that charge."
Rocky stopped and trotted back. "If that's what you want."
"And thank you for the intervention."
"Always my pleasure." Rocky winced as a drop of rain hit his head. "Oh good, it's raining again. Listen, I can hear Chef screaming from here..."
Meanwhile at the Greenhouse...
They had reached the truck now and found the sheriff and a man in a sharp suit leaning over some papers spread on the hood of the vehicle. The men both turned as the girls walked up the flagstone path, one with a closed but welcoming manner and the other grinning broadly as he greeted his daughter and the woman who had recently helped him find a lost child before it was too late. He hadn't been a believer, still didn't think he was, but he trusted his experience, so he trusted his daughter's friend.
Del could clearly see the bright colors that the sheriff maintained, solid reds and yellows, secure in his place and understanding of his world. The other man was a little harder to read, as if he was suppressing a lot of his views, he had spikes of powerful yellow but also a solid base of deep blue. And that blue could hide so much more, Del knew. She smiled as the sheriff made introductions, putting aside her musings on the auras of the men before her, concentrating on the business at hand.
"Madeline, good of you to join us. I think you know Nathaniel Dixon from the County Attorney's office. Nathaniel, this is my daughter's business partner, Madeline Sullivan." The Sheriff grinned as the two shook hands. "We've been discussing how to best keep the pair of you in business."
"Yes, Sheriff, we've met once before." She shook hands with the man and continued, "If you clean out the grow room all you will get is several hundred pansies of various colors, a best seller to be certain but probably not enough of a loss to break us. We'll just have to find someone who has a surplus they want to unload. Now, if it had been the petunias in there, that might be another story. And geraniums would have killed us for sure."
"We in the Attorney's office are not in the business of killing local shopkeepers, and Misty is singing like a canary right now so I don't think we will have to come burn your stock. We might like to do some surprise inspections for a few months."
"Oh, joy," Del mumbled, then "Ow!" as Carlene elbowed her in the ribs. "What I meant to say is thank you so much." When Nathaniel raised a brow she smiled, "No really, thank you, it is very nice of you to go out of your way to help us. Sincerely," Del said, taking a sideways step away from her friend and partner in case the elbow attack would resume. "Nobody can ever tell I really mean it. Honestly, maybe I could get some cue cards or something."
"That would take all the fun out of it, Madeline."
"But Sheriff, you are the loudest complainant."
The big man just shrugged and grinned at her and Del got the distinct impression that he had something up his sleeve. His aura held no dark spots that would indicate malice or a hidden and less than kind agenda, so she let it slide with an answering shrug. He did seem too pleased with himself though, so he might bear watching. Of course, she had known him for years, and so trusted that whatever he was planning would be relatively harmless.
A beat up Karmann Ghia hummed to a halt in the tiny parking lot and interrupted whatever else might have been discussed. Del smiled as she watched Steven climb from the car and Carlie run the few steps to his side. She felt completely vindicated as she watched the bruise color drain from her friend's aura and the palest of pink tendrils reach out for Stevie, meeting and meshing with matching feelers from his aura. It wasn't exactly the hearts and flowers she teased Carlie with, but it was the same effect of love and joyfulness.
Napoleon made soothing sounds as the voice on the other end of the phone rose in pitch and distress. "It's going to be fine, Millie, everything is going to be fine," he said when he finally got a word in edgewise. "I picked the wine up myself and it is perfectly safe. I know for a fact that Chef has the supplies he needs and a generator to run the kitchen. You really don't need to worry about the catering, I am sure there are plenty of other things needing your attention." When the caller again seemed to spiral into agitation Napoleon spoke again. "Would you like me to talk to Chef? He is very resourceful and you can trust that he will create a one of a kind and unforgettable dining experience for your wedding guests no matter what the limits of the venue might be."
"Are you sure, Napoleon?"
"You can trust me, my sweet. We won't let you down."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you."
"No problems, Millie, you just deal with everything else and leave the food and drink to us."
As Napoleon hung up the phone, Illya looked up from the menu he was redesigning and raised a brow at his partner. "Writing checks my skills can't cash, Napoleon?"
"Not at all, my friend. I am merely reassuring her that we are capable, willing, and God willing and the dam doesn't break, able to deliver. "
"What about the location?"
"It's now going to be at the bride's home and the reception will be at the community center."
"Good thing the place is huge. I shudder at the thought of trying to fit three hundred in Taste."
"Keep in mind that the electricity has been spotty on that side of town. They can't seem to get the lines rerouted around the failed transformer. I think we are going to need to take Taste's generator there."
"Beautiful. And I'll just turn the water into wine while I am at it, shall I?"
"No worries. I've got plenty of wine. I took care of that already."
Illya rolled his eyes and went back to the menu. "At least the kitchen has gas stoves. We'll be able to keep things hot... hot... I wonder."
"If am I, you know I am."
"Blockhead." Illya reached for the phone and called the kitchen. "Mattie, is Rocky there?"
"What's going on?"
"Hopefully an epiphany." As Rocky's voice answered, Illya held up a hand to his partner. "Rocky, your cousin is catering the flowers for Millie's do, am I correct? Excellent, do you think she'd be willing to make a pickup in Sacramento for me? Great, I'll make the arrangements."
Illya hung up the phone and glanced over at Napoleon.
"Are you sharing or do I have to wait?"
"I'm going to call the restaurant supply place on K Street and order up some votive lights. Enough candles and no one will notice there's no electricity, if indeed the electricity is still out by then."
"That's brilliant, Kuryakin."
Illya smiled and bowed his head in Napoleon's direction as the phone rang again. "Remind me of that in a couple of minutes."
Back at the Greenhouse...
"I think we did it."
"If you only think you did, you likely didn't." Del smiled at her partner with a wicked glint in her eye.
"Oh, if I weren't so tired I would have a brilliant comeback."
"No doubt. Why don't you guys head home, I'll clean up here." Del climbed off the stool at the work table and stretched her arms over her head and then tried to get the kink out of her back.
"That's hardly fair, you have to be up earlier than I do."
"Why don't you girls both go home and I will clear this mess and lock up. I don't have to get up at all."
Del smirked at Steven. "Now you're just giving me lines, but I'm not taking the bait. Thanks though."
Steven grinned and Carlie blushed as Del started to clean the table. They all pitched in and shortly had the work space tidy and ready for the next day.
"Your cousin has a place for you to stay, right? It might be nice for you to have a little break."
"You worry too much Carlie, but yes, I have a place to stay. And I even have a dinner invitation." Carlie gave Del a hopeful look. "With Rocky and his friends, sorry. No romance. Why is everyone convinced I need romance?"
"It's a hazard of having happily paired off friends. We get so blissful we just think everyone should have someone to love them." Carlie looked to Steven for confirmation and he shrugged.
"I'm not denying that I am blissful, but I refuse to take a side here, either way I will lose. You girls fight it out amongst yourselves."
"You are a wise man, Stevie." Del smiled and hugged them both as she went out the door. "G'night!"
Napoleon opened the door to find Del on the other side. She was still dressed for her job, delivering and setting up flowers for the wedding, in serviceable black pants and a t-shirt that advertised the greenhouse. He grinned at the outfit.
"I hope I'm not too early?" She ran a hand over her hair and smiled hopefully.
Napoleon waggled his finger at her outfit. "Is this what all the well dressed gardeners are wearing this year?"
"Only if they are lucky."
"Well, your luck is holding. Illya is about to serve a late lunch."
"Do I have time to change? I have my suitcase in the car."
"If you're quick and truly feel the need. I think you are quite comely just like that."
"Rocky is right, you are the master of the silver tongue."
"So Illya frequently tells me. The guest room is the first door to the left past the living room. You'll know if you are in the right place if there's a bed in it. I'll put your suitcase in there for you."
"I'll be fast." Del smiled as she handed him the car keys. "Oh, and I unloaded and they were setting up Chef's votives as I speak. The place is going to look great."
"Take your time, I'll have some wine for you when you come out?" Napoleon made it a question since Del hadn't had alcohol on her last visit.
"That would be most welcome, thank you. And thank you again for the hospitality as well."
"Always our pleasure. You know your way around, join us when you're ready."
Napoleon went back to the kitchen to find another glass and let Illya know that Del had arrived. He stood in the doorway for just a moment and enjoyed the laughter he found there. Illya and Matt were moving around the kitchen, operating liked a well-oiled machine and Rocky walked over to him. "It's safer to watch from a distance when they get like that, Mr. S. Was that Del at the door?"
"Yes, she's changing out of her work clothes at the moment. She looks tired, Rocky. What's been going on with her, or do you know?"
"It's starting to be a busy season at the greenhouse, and I think she's been doing a few too many house cleansings, if you ask me, which she hasn't. There seems to be a lot more activity lately. Or maybe people talk a lot and so she's been getting more calls, it's hard to say. Wrong time of year for it, but there ya go, right?"
"Wrong time of year for what, Cousin?"
"For so much rai... wow, look at you." Rocky let out a whistle. "All grown up."
Del gave him a frown, looked down at her clothes, back up to him. "What?"
"Perhaps that was Rocky's not subtle enough way of saying that you look lovely." Illya patted her arm as he passed her on his way to the table set up in the living room.
"Yeah, you look fantastic." Rocky hugged Del and then danced away from her as she tried to take a swipe at his head. He disappeared into the kitchen to help Matt and Illya serve.
"I was hoping to get to go out for dinner at a certain restaurant I know of and so I planned to pack something nice, but when you told me that there was flooding and I wouldn't get to, I packed it anyway. Mom went a little crazy with her spring shopping and I haven't had a chance to wear it yet. And I didn't think you'd mind." Del smoothed the skirt of the sundress, its flowery pattern rippling under her hands.
"You do look lovely, and you brighten up our grey day quite nicely." Napoleon joined her at the door of the kitchen and gave her a glass of wine, taking her other hand and tucking it under his arm. "Come sit and tell me what you have been up to since we saw you last."
Illya came out carrying a large casserole dish and Matt followed with a platter of steaming bread. Illya placed the platter down and held out a hand. Rocky set down a stack of warmed plates and passed the top one to him. "I thought because it was so cold a nice Shepherd's Pie would hit the spot."
"Mm, smells lovely." She watched him ladle the thick stew-like entree onto a plate and Rocky took it from him, settling it in front of her. He repeated the process until everyone was served. The bread was passed and for a few minutes, eating occupied everybody's attention.
"This is really, really good, Illya." Del dipped her fork into the potato crust. "And the potatoes... you've added something to them."
"Romano cheese, butter and cream," Illya said, glancing around. "Rocky, more?"
"You bet, boss man. I hate eating on an empty stomach."
They were just finishing up when there was a knock on the door. Illya and Napoleon shrugged at one another and Illya hoisted himself to his feet, carefully stepping over the cats. One took took a hopeful step towards the kitchen, but Illya shook his head.
"Sorry, you've already had your dinner." He opened the door and gestured in. "Milt, come in before you drown out there."
"Thank you, Illya, I appreciate it." The sheriff stepped inside the door and dripped onto the hall rug as Illya took a look outside and then closed the door again.
"It looks like we may need to build an ark out there."
"We might. It's raining even worse up the hill and flash flood warnings are in effect."
Napoleon came into the little entryway with a towel and handed it over. "Here, try this on for size and come in. Can I get you some coffee? Something stronger? I'm pouring a very respectable Sangiovese tonight." He took the man's jacket and shook it before hanging it on the closet's doorknob.
"Coffee would be great." Milt nodded his thanks as he took the towel, then walked into the small living room to stand in front of the fire. He looked around and saw the others still at the table. "I'm sorry to interrupt..."
"No need for apologies, Sheriff. We've just been eating up the surplus since we can't open tonight with the leaking and the raining and désastre," Matt said. "There's plenty if you are hungry."
Milt looked at the remains of the Shepherd's Pie and slowly shook his head. "Better not, or else the wife will get after me. She's on me all the time about my cholesterol. It's the shits getting... pardon me, ma'am. I didn't see you there."
Del laughed and waved her hand. "Don't worry, Sheriff, I suspect you couldn't come up with something I haven't already heard."
Illya came in with a tray of coffee and cups from the kitchen. "Have a seat and some coffee and tell us what has brought you to our door."
"No infractions that I know about. I was hoping you had a generator next door that we could use." Milt sipped his coffee with a grateful look and wrapped his hands around the warm ceramic. "Or is the fact that you are eating by candlelight a harbinger of bad tidings?"
"We do," Illya said. "We are conserving energy and having a candlelit meal. But we do have one; why do you ask?"
"There's a team of Search and Rescue on the way up the hill. If they get here before the bridge washes out, I need a space to set them up for the night because my office..." His shoulders slumped for a moment . He heaved a great sigh as his resolve restablish itself. "The generator for the police and sheriff's office has been on its last legs for a while now and this storm has stressed it right into complete failure. We've got guys working on it, but there is no way it will be ready in the next hour. I heard you closed the restaurant tonight and thought maybe you'd let us use your place. We'll be clear before you open for business tomorrow.."
"It's Niagara Falls in the restaurant right now, but I would never refuse to help where I can." Illya poured more coffee as he spoke. Milt chuckled and Illya cocked an eyebrow. "What did you do, Milt?"
"The boys who aren't struggling to fix the generator are tarping your roof."
"Che?" Matt ran to the door and flung it open to see that there were indeed men on the roof of Taste with tarps and tie-downs. "Cara, there are people all over our restaurant."
"I told them to wait until I got inside before they started." Milt sipped his coffee.
"Rather sure of yourself, aren't you Milt?" Illya tried to look annoyed. "Or were you going to commandeer the place if we said no?"
"I was instead counting on that overinflated sense of duty to the community that you two have." Milt stood and put down his again empty cup. "I figured if you resisted my charm I'd give you a sob story about a lost little girl and you'd have to give in and help." The look in his eyes did not match the humor in his voice. There was weariness there underneath the determination.
"Is that why Search and Rescue is on the way?" Del asked, rising from the table. "Is there someone lost in the storm?"
"Yes, ma'am. And you aren't from around here, are you?"
"Sorry, Milt, my manners are slipping. This is my cousin Del," Rocky jumped in, "Del this is Milt, our sheriff extraordinaire."
"Nice to meet you, sir." Del took his offered hand. "I'm sorry to hear that someone is lost."
"We'll find her. I don't know how or when, but we will find her." He winked wearily at Napoleon. "You know what I'm like when one of our own is missing."
"Indeed I do, sir."
Milt stood and walked slowly to the door, Illya following close on his heels. He took the ring with the extra key to Taste and handed it to him. ""Give us a chance to clean up and we'll be over."
"Thanks, Chef." He punched Illya lightly in the shoulder and looked over at Matt. "Both of you, we appreciate it."
"Nessun problema," Matt said and waved goodbye.
"He's really worried," Del murmured as they watched the door close behind the sheriff. "The worry was making his aura murky and dull. He's talking a good story, but he's pretty much resigned himself to her loss."
"Then let's see what we can do about fixing it." Napoleon slapped his hands together and looked around at the others. "I sense an adventure!"
The moment they hit the restaurant, Illya and Matt headed to the kitchen. Illya looked over at his business partner, crossed his fingers and walked into the store room where the generator was housed. Illya set down the flashlight he was carrying. He opened the choke and twisted the key. The motor sputtered and then caught. A second later, the overhead light pulsed on and he heard a shout from the kitchen. Taste was back in business.
Napoleon and Rocky were out front helping to rearrange the tables and clear as much space as possible. Finished with that, Rocky went into the dish room and began to gather up cups and saucers, while Del stood and watched them.
"I'm feeling a little silly just watching you guys work, you know," she muttered.
"Why don't you go and start a fire in the fireplace? The kindling and starter is just to the right of it. Later, you can help serve coffee. No doubt they will enjoy your company somewhat better than ours." Napoleon smiled at her.
"Are they awful to you?" She glanced through the window as one of the men outside made a gesture towards the restaurant.
"What do you mean?" Napoleon looked at her and then chuckled. "You mean because we're... us?"
"Well," she paused. "Yeah."
"No, one of the nice things about Jackson is that most of the locals don't care. And if they do, they go someplace else," Rocky answered. "That's one of the advantages of living up here. Lots of places to go if you don't want to be where you are. Move one town over and it's another planet. Besides, we are low key. It's not as if we flaunt it on Main Street, after all."
Del went to the back door and looked out. "They can't use a dog team in all this rain, can they? The scent will be washed away."
Rocky walked up and stood behind her, slipping his arms around her waist. "I can hear you thinking, Cousin."
"I can't just walk out there and offer some fantastic story to some guy I just met; he has no reason to believe me. And I'm not going to come off like some traveling carnival sideshow and regale him with tales either. Maybe I can just give a little help on the sidelines."
"And kick yourself the whole time for not getting out on the front lines." Rocky kissed the side of her head.
"If I had any idea what you are talking about, I'd offer to help," Napoleon said, trying not to pry. Then again, Taste wasn't so big that it was hard not to overhear.
"Del is multitalented. She is very good at finding what's lost," Rocky answered, looking over at Napoleon. "And I'm not taking about the odd sock or missing puppy. She finds people."
"So it's not just the dearly departed you have communication with, I take it?"
"I've helped in a few searches," she admitted as the kitchen door swung open.
"The coffee is ready. You are ready too?"
"Yes indeed." Napoleon smiled at Matt. "Del is going to serve our boys in blue and brown out here." He turned back to her. "And you might just hear something helpful."
"I would consider it my sworn duty." Del gave him a mock salute as Illya came in the kitchen.
He walked over to Napoleon and gestured with his head. Napoleon grinned. "Excuse me, my lord and chef calls." Crossing to Illya, he asked. "What's going on?"
"The tarp has the leaks down to a trickle and they even brought their own buckets to catch the rain. According to Milt, the Search and Rescue volunteer team just arrived. Shall we see what we can do to help besides provide shelter from the storm?"
The front door to the restaurant interrupted him as it opened and a young man came in carrying an armload of rolled up maps. Immediately, Rocky was there to lend a hand and Matt followed.
"Where do you want these?" Rocky asked, catching one of the rolls as it fell.
"Um, they're maps of the area so on a couple of tables would be great," He replied, then sniffed and asked hopefully, "Is that fresh coffee I smell?"
"And sustenance to go with it will soon follow," Matt promised as he settled his armful. He headed back to the kitchen and Illya watched him.
"I need to help Matt, will you be all right out here?"
"Coffee, wine, I live to pour," Napoleon said.
"Just try not to dribble any coffee into the laps of anyone important and I shall die a happy man."
"Don't die at all and I'll be the happy one."
A dozen people had joined all the uniformed officers, they spoke in small groups. Some were by the fire place, drying off from the rain. Others stood at the bar, drinking coffee, sampling pastries and consulting maps.
They all turned when the front door swung open and the Sacramento search and rescue team arrived.
Del recognized a few of the men and sighed. "So much for having to worry about being taken as a kook." Del whispered to her cousin as one of the men saw her and waved. "I'm about to be outed, Rocky."
"Join the club, Cousin." He chuckled. "It's much nicer out here than stuffed into that closet."
"Not like that, idiot. Some of those guys were involved in the search I helped Carlie's dad with a while back."
The sheriff and another man approached and Del felt her stomach do a little flip when she recognized the man walking toward her.
"Fancy meeting you here, Del," Nathaniel Dixon said.
"I attend all the finest crime scenes, didn't you know? Coffee?"
Nathaniel smiled a thousand kilowatts at her. "Not yet, thanks. I need to have a word if you have a moment."
She sat the tray down and followed Nathaniel and the Sheriff to a quiet corner of the bar away from where people crowded around, setting up newly arrived equipment.
"Mr. Dixon here tells me that you have excellent references," Milt said, studying her with new eyes.
"Does he now? Imagine that."
"Wayne and I were having coffee when the call came in about a girl missing up Jackson way. And I find out you're in town 'working' a wedding." He used his fingers to air quote the word. "Now I find you in the thick of things. Imagine my surprise."
"In, oh, so many ways, no doubt." Del just shook her head.
"He gave me a phone number for some guy named Rocky and told me to call him to find you first thing."
"Rocky is my cousin and Wayne didn't lie. I'm here to work on a local wedding. That's all I'm here for," she shook her head.
"You won't help us?" Milt sounded both alarmed and relieved at the same time.
"Oh, no, Sheriff, not that, I'm just reflecting upon the impossibility of serendipity. Of course I will help. I don't advertise my brand of crazy but it finds me every time." She smiled ruefully. "But I am always willing to help if I can. This isn't a guarantee of anything, you understand."
"Of course." Milt seemed at a bit of a loss for words. "I'm not sure how these things work. Do you need, um, what? An Ouija board or something of hers to pick up on her vibe?"
A look of distaste crossed Del's features. "Gods, no! I hate the things. I just need to hang around for a while and get a feel for things. Sheriff, I'd appreciate it if you'd keep this between us for now. I saw some guys I know from another search; they know how I work, but I don't need the distraction of trying to explain myself to a whole group of strangers. I'm sure that word will spread, but if we could, let's start out quiet first, shall we?"
Milt exchanged a look with Nathaniel and nodded. "We can do that, sure." He walked away, shouting for one of his men.
Nathaniel's voice was soft. "Thank you, Del. Wayne said you'd do it."
"He knows I'm a sucker, but he's supposed to keep it to himself."
She smiled at Nathaniel. "If you will excuse me, I need a word with my cousin and my hosts. Could you find someone who can tell me what happened?"
"Not a problem, Del."
"And you might as well meet my cousin while we're at it, he'll be running interference for me whether I ask him to or not. Come on. Let's get this going."
Napoleon watched Del walk away with the Sheriff and the other man, "Rocky, what exactly do you mean by 'finds' people?"
"I'm not sure how it works exactly, but she can sort of hone in on people, whether it's their stress level or what, I'm not really sure."
"Is there any danger to her?" Memories of Del's last visit came back to Napoleon in a flash and he wondered what might be in store. He had a fatherly instinct towards the young woman. While he was certain she would laugh away his concern and reassure him that she could handle whatever came her way, he preferred to be prepared just in case.
"It wasn't only haunted houses we got dragged to by her dad when we were kids. We worked missing persons as well, murder scenes, and whatever else he thought would get him fame and fortune. The sad thing was that we were good at what we did. If my uncle hadn't been such a bastard about it, we could have helped more people who needed it."
"And you walked away from it?" Napoleon's voice was kind, without accusation.
For a long minute, Rocky didn't answer. "I, uh, grew out of the talent I guess." Then he stopped and smiled. "That's not exactly right, but it's a bit like a muscle. If you don't use it every day, it gets flabby and soft. It wasn't what I wanted, Mr. S, so I made sure it wasn't what I was. After a while, I just stopped being able to sense things."
"But you and Matt—"
"No more than you and Chef. Our connection is out of love and familiarity, not merely the psychic."
Napoleon looked puzzled and opened his mouth to say more, but Del and a stranger approached.
"Rocky, Napoleon, I'd like you to meet Nathaniel. He's from Sacramento and is here with the Search and Rescue team. Nathaniel, this is my cousin, Rocky. Napoleon owns the wine shop next door. Rocky runs this place, don't let him tell you otherwise."
"I'm the head waiter." Rocky corrected, as he shook Nathaniel's hand.
"And I'm head bottle washer and jack of all trades." Napoleon shook hands with Nathaniel next, noticing as he did that the man seemed to never take his eyes off Del unless he had to. He wondered if Del knew she had made a conquest. "It's nice to meet you. The real brilliance at Taste is those two over there," Napoleon nodded toward Illya and Matt, who were looking at maps and conferring with the Sheriff.
Del poured some coffee and handed it to Nathaniel. "Your promised coffee. And now I think I want to change into some more appropriate attire. Napoleon, could you let me back into the house?"
Napoleon knew that Del knew that the house had not been locked when they left so he merely went along with her request. "Certainly. Rocky, let Illya know, will you?"
"Sure thing, Mr. S."
Napoleon took Del's arm and they made a run through the rain. Even though their sprint across the parking lot was short, they were dripping wet when they got to the house. Napoleon opened the door and Del preceded him in. From their resting spot on the couch, the cats gave both of them disapproving looks. Moutard rolled over onto his back and stretched, chirping. Buerre Noire merely yawned and returned to her cat nap.
"Would you care to tell me what's going on, Del? I feel that I'm a bit in the dark here." Napoleon shut the door behind him and flicked on a light. It took him a second to realize there was no power in here. He used the illumination provided by the fireplace to light a small kerosene lantern.
"You seem to have a lot of these. Does the power go off a lot around here?"
"It can and you are avoiding the question, Del." Napoleon set the lantern on the coffee table and returned to the entry hall.
"I'm sorry, Napoleon, I wanted to talk to you where we wouldn't be overheard." She walked over to the fireplace and squatted in front of it. For a long time, she stared into the flames while Napoleon shook the rain from his hair and coat. When she started speaking again, her words came slowly and they were carefully chosen. "I need you and Illya to keep Rocky from going out on this search. He'll want to go wherever I go and I love him for it but I don't feel good about him being involved with this. Things happened when we were kids. Things he still doesn't talk about, even with me. He's an empath and he feels what other people feel. I think to some extent he still has the ability, if only subconsciously."
"That's what makes him such a great waiter," Napoleon said, pausing to stroke Moutard's stomach. "He always seems to know what the customers need, sometimes before they do. But, Del, Rocky's a—"
"Big boy and takes care of himself just fine, but I don't want him overwhelmed by this. He's out of practice and it might be more than he can handle. I love him too much to want to see him hurt in any way."
"I can't promise anything. As you say, he is used to taking care of himself, but I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you." She pulled away from the heat of the fire. "I need to put on something warmer if we are going out into the night."
"You can borrow one of Illya's sweatshirts if you need to." Napoleon lit another lamp. "Take this with you."
"Thanks. I'll let you know."
Del came out of the guest bedroom to hear Napoleon clumping down the stairs. He'd pulled on jeans, a heavy sweater, hiking boots and threw on a windbreaker over the top of it all. He was carrying a lantern with his free hand and had a towel over one shoulder.
He gave her a questioning look. "Wow? Wow what?"
"Sorry, I just never would have imagined that you owned jeans, let alone ever wore them," she said, then more softly as if to herself. "Or looked so damn good in them."
Napoleon laughed, set down the lantern he was carrying and bowed. "I thank you, milady. I do dress down every once in a while, although I usually blame it on Illya's more casual attitude towards fashion. Do you think I do my gardening in a three piece suit? This is not to say I couldn't, of course."
The visual made Del laugh as well. "Of course, but it would be hysterical to watch."
The front door opened and Illya blew in with the rain.
"Napoleon, I've volunteered us to help search and put Rocky and Matt in charge at the restaurant. Milt is going to want teams ready to go in thirty. Could you grab me a ...?"
Wordless, Napoleon held out the towel to him and Illya started to towel dry his hair. "And I see you've anticipated me." Illya looked Napoleon up and down from within the depths of terry cloth.
"Anticipating you is one of my favorite games, partner. Go change into something dry and we'll wait down here by the fire."
Illya grabbed the lantern and disappeared up the stairs.
Del turned to Napoleon. "So that's one problem solved. Is it always like this? I tell you and Illya just knows by osmosis or something?"
"It seems like it sometimes, doesn't it?" Napoleon said as he moved the lantern closer to the hall closet and pulled a battered backpack from the top shelf. He pawed around in it and then took it and the lantern into the kitchen. Del could hear cupboards open and close as she stroked Buerre Noire's side. The little cat yawned and stretched.
"You've got it right, puss," Del said, trailing her fingers along the soft purring surface. "When I come back, I want to come back as you."
A light bobbed above her head and she caught her breath, then realized it was Illya coming down the stairs.
"I'm sorry, were you saying something?"
"It's thought that when we reincarnate, we return in another form. If we have been good, it will be a higher life form. I want to come back as a cat."
"You're going for a lower form then?"
Del laughed and leaned close to the cat. "Pay no attention to the heretic; he's coming back as a dog."
"That's more appropriate that you could ever know." Illya pulled his sweater over his head and joined his partner in the kitchen.
Del stayed seated by the fire. She couldn't make out their words and didn't try to. She could hear their quiet murmured conversation and then water running drowned that out. She settled against the arm of the couch and shut her eyes, letting her mind drift.
It was cold and rainy and she was very confused. Nothing looked right, nothing said home. The air was heavy and oppressive, stinking of dead things. Hopelessness, the stifling, crushing burden of hopelessness, crushed her against the ground.
Del's eyes opened and she sat up, confused and disoriented.
Illya was squatting by the fire, adjusting a log deeper into the grate of the inner hearth. "I didn't mean to wake you. Did you have a nice nap?"
"I was sleeping?"
"You were, for about fifteen minutes." He smiled at her frown as he straightened and returned the poker to its stand. "What's wrong?"
"I don't usually nap during the day and rarely do I dream."
"It's the weather. I'd sleep the day away if given half the chance." Illya had donned a windbreaker and was pushing a flashlight into the backpack and zipping it shut.
She glanced over to where Napoleon was pulling bright yellow rain slickers out of the closet. He tossed one to her.
"One for each of us, it won't do for us to get lost as well, right? And the cut of this so says Fifth Avenue."
"We surely can't be missed in these, no." Illya muttered, pulling it on. "It would go well with my checked pants."
"That's you, my love, the cutting edge of haute couture." Napoleon fastened the front of his and opened the door. "Shall we?"
The three of them ran back through the rain to Taste and Del noticed that when they took off the slickers, the men did not remove the windbreakers they wore. It was a little chilly still in the restaurant, but it struck her as odd.
"Hey, Del, over here! We are just about to start!" Rocky called to her and she joined him at one of the tables. Napoleon and Illya stood as Milt took the floor.
"Okay, this is what we know so far. A woman identified as Sue Stafford, out of Sutter Creek, lost control of her car just outside of Drytown. She had her headlights on because of the heavy rain and another passing motorist saw the taillights of the wrecked car. The Samaritan called it in and waited with her. The paramedics were surprised when Mrs. Stafford came to and asked about her daughter. There was no sign around the car of the little girl." He stopped to hold up a grainy copy of a photo. "This is Molly, she is five years old and while she's familiar with the area, it is safe to assume that she is very lost." He paused and waved to one of his men. "Here, Huston, pass these around. We're going to lose the light pretty fast, so let's get out there and find this little girl. Be thorough, but be careful, folks. Stay in contact with each other." Milt held up a walkie talkie. "Each group has or is going to be issued one of these. Use it. Don't try to be a hero. These radios have a pretty short range but we won't be far enough from town for that to be a problem. I want each team to check in with our base here every twenty minutes or so."
Illya was checking something in the pack as the officer handed Napoleon the photo and moved on. Napoleon stared at it and sighed. Instantly, Illya was beside him.
"She's so young." Then softly he added, "So many Innocents."
"We helped them, we'll help her." Illya looked over at Del and smiled tightly. "Besides, we have a secret weapon. Come on."
Del watched them talk together. There was something... she couldn't put her finger on it. There was a sense of loss, something that was misplaced or perhaps taken from them. They seemed somehow... incomplete now.
Shaking her head to clear it, she studied the map while the teams were gearing up, waiting for something, anything to spark some information to help. She could feel someone approach and turned to see another of the Search and Rescue men she knew. "Martin, how have you been?"
"Good Del, but we have to stop meeting like this."
"That would be nice, right?"
"It would. You'll come as far as the crash site with us?"
"I plan to, and stay as out of the way as much as possible."
"You weren't in the way at all last time we went out. You can join my team if you want to, we know you're good for it."
"Well thank you..." She shot a look at Illya as he approached.
"Sorry to interrupt, but this young lady has already been spoken for," Illya said.
"Sorry, Martin, maybe next time." She willingly left with Illya, but called over her shoulder. "I'll see you when we come back in, okay?"
"Do your thing, Del." He kept his voice low and she smiled at that.
"I'll do my best."
She wasn't surprised to see that the team she was assigned to included Napoleon, Illya, and Nathaniel. There was also a uniformed officer with them.
"Del, this is Calvin," Napoleon introduced the young man. "He's one of our local finest."
"I will do my best and try not to get us lost."
"Good luck," Illya muttered. "Napoleon gets lost coming across the parking lot some nights."
"I do not and it was only once..." Laughter rippled through the group, a much needed catharsis for the moment.
"What do you need to do this, Del?" Napoleon asked.
"Right now I need to get to the crash site and take a look around."
"So do we, let's go," Napoleon said , leading the way out the door, shrugging into his rain gear as he went. The rest followed, but not before Rocky hurried up and caught Del's arm.
"Is this," Rocky started, then stopped and started again, "do you think this..."
"Wise? Probably not, but when has that stopped me before, Rocky?" He pulled her into a rough hug and she sighed. "Everything will be fine. And I have big tough guys by my side. It's not like when we were kids. These guys, they're not here for the glory or fame. They are here to help. Don't worry." She kissed his cheek and slipped out the door and into the rain to join the others.
There was an uneasy silence in the vehicle as they drove toward the wreck site. Del could feel tension and couldn't tell if it was the situation or the uncertainty or the fact that she was involved. Napoleon, Illya and Nathaniel were all crammed into the back seat, none of them looking very happy about it. She was in the front seat and she tried to relax enough to get some kind of reading. The silence was broken by Calvin.
"I know you don't recognize me, Miss Sullivan, but I was at that search down in Sacramento. Most folks see my uniform and never see me, you know?"
"You're right, I didn't recognize you at all, officer, I'm so sorry."
"It's okay, really. I'm Calvin. It's good to see you again, well, not like this I mean..."
"I understand," Del said, laughing, glad to feel the tension release a little. "It's a hazard of the trade, only showing up when someone has trouble, I know."
"Is that why you got into the flower business, to get to see people on happier occasions?" Napoleon sat forward, resting his arms between the front seats' headrests.
"You could be right, Napoleon. I hadn't thought of it like that. But, yes, I do like that part of my job. There's something very nurturing about taking a seed and watching it grow into a healthy plant. Or of watching a person's face when they receive flowers."
"I wouldn't know." Napoleon's voice lowered, as if he was speaking confidentially. "I'm married to an unsentimental old coot."
"I beg your pardon? I gave you a dozen flats of primroses for your birthday." Illya poked Napoleon in the leg. "Would you care to rephrase that, Mr. Solo?"
"Yes, Alex, I'll take 'Just joking' for $200." Laughter rippled through the care and the rest of the short drive was blessedly more relaxed.
The road was temporarily reduced to one lane and yellow tape was strung around some trees. Uniformed officers were stopping all the cars and trucks that were using the road to ask if anyone had seen any sign of the missing girl.
Calvin parked alongside the others and they gathered with the rest of the teams assembled at the wrecked car.
Milt motioned them aside and spread out the map under the cover of a pine tree. "Okay, you five are Team Green. We need you to take this area." He indicated a region colored in green. "The experts reckon that is going to be the most likely area that we'll find her in."
"Milt, that's over 3200 acres," Illya protested. "She couldn't have travelled that far even in good weather. And at best we've got two hours of day light left."
"Frequently when kids wander off, it's not usually very far. We're hoping that she'll turn up now that we are out in force. Just do your best and keep in contact with us. The rest of us are going to go along the bank of the river and a group is heading for the mine."
"She's not there," Del said softly and Napoleon glanced over at her. "I know that she's in the forest... or at least by trees. I had a dream... earlier."
"You just keep telling us when we get hot, Del." Napoleon folded his grid map into a small square. "Let's move out."
The trees blocked some of the rain, but the ground was still saturated and the roar of the rising creek in the distance was nearly as loud as the wind carrying the rain into their faces. There was no conversation as they concentrated upon keeping their footing. Napoleon had attempted a few cries, but the wind had snatched away the words as quickly as he shouted them.
They were walking along a narrow trail when part of water-saturated ground gave way. Napoleon's hand shot out and snatched Calvin before he could slide down the hill.
"Thanks, Mr. Solo," the young man puffed as he struggled to find his own footing. "This stuff is like trying to walk on grease."
"It's the clay in the soil." Napoleon waited until he was sure the man was in control and then let go. "Every time I dig, I hit a clay bed. The place is lousy with it. That's why we have those landslides."
"We're losing our light," Illya muttered, raising a hand to keep a bush from whacking him in the face.
"This is the wrong way," Del suddenly said.
Napoleon was closest to her and stopped as well. "Do we need to be closer to the car? Down further?"
"She went uphill. She was following someone. We're on the wrong side of the road." Del's voice was hard to hear, so she gestured. "We need to go back."
Nathaniel frowned and stared off into the dense underbrush of the encroaching forest. "Are you sure? I'd head for the shelter of the trees."
"Sorry guys, that's all I have for now. Up and across the road."
"I'll need to call it in if we turn back." Calvin glanced from one to the other.
"Call in and let them know we are splitting up," Illya said. "I agree with Nathaniel. The trees seem likely, especially since she is a child of the area. Napoleon can take Del across the road while the three of us finish and then we can join them."
"Do you think it wise to split up?"
"No, but that's never stopped us before. With Napoleon's luck and Del's talent, they stand a pretty good chance."
Calvin stepped away to report the change in plans.
"How are we going to catch up to them?" Nathaniel argued. "It's going to be dark in another thirty minutes."
"Once Napoleon found me in the middle of the Sahara Desert with no clue as to where I was and I found him in the middle of Nevada without any idea of where to look. No matter what you want to call it, when we need to, we can always find the other. Besides, he will blaze a trail for us to follow. We will not lose them."
"Then you had better take the radio with you, just in case," Calvin said as he rejoined the group. He held it out and Napoleon took it with a nod. "Good luck."
"Take care of yourself, partner," Napoleon murmured as he passed Illya.
"Damn straight, you still owe me a back rub. Watch out for her. She talks a big story..."
With that, the group split and resumed their trek in the rain.
The search proved to be an exercise in uselessness for them and finally all three men admitted defeat and headed back to the base camp that had been set up by the car.
"Any sign of her?" came the hopeful cry as they neared. The weary headshakes that answered told the story.
"No, even if she's managed to leave a trail, the rain washed it away." Nathaniel didn't bother to hide the disappointment in his voice as they entered the tent that had been hastily erected on site. "Did you find anything?"
"Blue team found a shoe, but we have no way of knowing whether it's hers or not. We don't even know what she was wearing." Milt passed over a stack of towels to them
"We got a call from Fiddletown. Their bridge is gone."
"That means ours will be history soon."
"I called the men back in from the river. It's too dangerous. I'm not losing anyone to it."
"Have we heard anything from Napoleon?" Illya used a towel to wipe off his face and Jesus shook his head. The man had five children and it wasn't a surprise that he was here. This is what locals did for each other.
"Milt wants you to have another radio when you go back out." Jesus handed it over to Illya. It wasn't a question, it was a statement. Illya took it with a nod. "But you should eat before you go back out."
Illya glanced over and grinned at his friend, partner, and fellow chef. Matt was scooping soup from a huge pot into bowls and Rocky was handing them out.
"Just couldn't stay away, could you two?" he asked as the approached them.
Matt grinned and held out a bowl to him. "A mali estremi, estremi rimedi."
"Desperate times indeed, my friend." Illya took the bowl and inhaled. "Beef?"
"We had those steaks that were not going to weather the storm, so I used them."
"Filet mignon soup. I'd say we were eating high on the hog, but that seems not right."
"Chef, how is Del holding up?"
"Okay; she and Napoleon headed in a different direction than us. I'm counting on those two to have better luck."
"Mr. Kuryakin, you sound so certain." Nathaniel accepted a bowl of soup, as did Calvin. He balanced a thick chunk of bread on the edge of the bowl as they carried them to a small card table.
Jesus grinned at Milt and the out-of-towner. "Just call him Chef like the rest of us. It's easier to remember."
Hurriedly, the three sat and ate, keeping the conversation to a minimum.
"You sure you can pick up Solo's tracks?"
"Fairly sure. He can run, but he can't hide."
"You two have been together for a while?" Calvin asked, smearing honey butter on his bread.
"Yes, for nearly four decades." Illya paused at that. Had it really been that long?
Calvin's radio crackled to life and Illya's eyes closed at the sound of his lover's voice. "Just checking in to let you know we're still in the game."
"We're coming to you, Napoleon. Have you found anything?"
Napoleon watched Del as she paused again. "We are hopeful. Solo out."
He recognized the pattern now, if it could be called that. She would head as straight as she could through the trees and then slow, coming to a stop and listening. She would start again, sometimes in the same direction and sometimes making a course adjustment.
Occasionally Napoleon would see broken twigs or signs of someone or thing having passed by recently, all low to the ground, but never a footprint. The steady rain was washing away even the footprints he and Del left behind.
As they started off again he took a flask from his pocket and put it in Del's hand. She startled a bit, then looked at him wide-eyed.
"It's just water. Scout's honor."
Del took a sip then handed it back. "Were you a scout?"
Napoleon smiled and shrugged in his usual charming way, incongruous in the rain drenched woods. He capped the flask, returning it to his pocket. "Something like it, once upon a time and a long time ago."
"I think we're close." Del turned her face up into the rain and took a deep breath. Then she started walking. Napoleon marked the direction and followed. She shifted directions a couple more times and then suddenly stopped.
"Over there, something under..." Del's voice was soft and Napoleon had the idea that she wasn't talking to him. "It's not her. It's... Where is she? Do you know? Can you help?"
"Del? What's going on?" In the darkness, it was impossible to tell where her voice came from. A beam from her flashlight beckoned him.
"Sorry, Napoleon. I just came across someone else who's a little lost."
He took a few steps and on the other side of a fallen tree and some small brush. She was standing, staring down. That's when he saw rocks piled above the line of bushes. They almost looked as if they were marking a grave and he noted the spot so he could come back to it later.
He waited and watched. After a long moment, she resumed her trek. Napoleon marked their change of direction and followed.
Illya led the way up the hill and through thickening trees and darkness. He set a quick pace, but made sure that the men were within sight of his flashlight as he followed each sign left by his partner.
"Can you see anything at all that looks like a trail marking?" he heard Nathanial murmur to Calvin.
"Not really, but he seems to know where he's headed. Milt says he and his partner were some kind of super cops once. They've always been the go-to guys when things like this happen. Milt won't say much, but he really respects them. And that's enough for me."
Illya smiled at that, glad that he'd voted to keep Milt in office. He paused and handed around the canteen again.
"It seems weird to be thirsty with all this rain." Nathanial drank and offered it to Calvin. "We could just drink from the stream."
"Not unless you want a nice case of Giardia to go with your blisters," Illya said, taking back the canteen. "Only tourists and fools drink from the streams around here and you strike me as neither."
Del stopped one more time and held up her hand, though Napoleon had said nothing. Suddenly there were a break in the wind and he heard the soft voice that Del must have been drawing his attention toward.
"LissAnn, do you have to go? It's so dark and I'm scared." There was a pause and then the quiet little girl voice continued. "You can come back with me, my mommy will be awake soon and she will help you find your Mommy, I know she will." Another pause and then, "I wish you would stay."
Del waited a few more moments and then called out, "Molly? Molly Stafford? My name is Del and I'd like to take you back to your Mommy now."
Napoleon played the flashlight around the area they were standing in and saw that ahead of them and just beyond the range of the light was a structure of some kind, old and wooden and dark. A small pale face appeared at the edge of the light and came forward, resolving into the tiny girl they had been trying to find.
Napoleon closed his eyes in thanks and reached for his radio.
"Base camp, this is Green Team. We've found her."
"Say again, Green?"
Napoleon watched as Del knelt down in front of the little girl and put her rain slicker over her narrow shoulders. Trying to seem unthreatening and gain her trust, Del spoke gently. "My name is Del. Are you Molly?" The little girl nodded but remained where she was.
"Repeat, we have found Molly and she's fine. We're coming home."
"Your mommy has been asking for you. Would you like to go see her now?" Del asked.
Molly shrugged and then nodded, but didn't move forward. Instead, she looked back over her shoulder.
"Does your friend want to come with us?" Del asked her.
"LissAnn went away again. She said she had to find her mommy."
Del and Napoleon exchanged a look.
"Maybe we should wait for her?" Del asked the girl, who shook her head.
"She said she had to go away now. She said that she couldn't come home with me. That she lives here."
"Then maybe we had better go too," Napoleon said, smiling. "I bet you are getting hungry and would like some dinner. I know I am and I know a place where you can have dinner and it will be nice and warm. Then we can go see your mommy. Does that sound good to you?"
"Yes, please." The little girl nodded again and this time she came forward, stumbling a little over the uneven ground. Del reached out and caught her before she could fall in the mud.
"Maybe I could carry you, Molly; it's pretty dark out here. And Mr. Napoleon will carry the light and lead us back out of here. Does that sound okay with you?"
Molly simply held out her arms and Del picked her up, standing and turning back down the way they came. Napoleon took the rain slicker and draped it over around the two of them. She smiled her thanks as he fastened the belt to hold it closed.
"All snug?" he asked. At the two nods, he gave them a grin. "Then let's get out of here. Just follow me and watch your footing."
They inched slowly along, the going more unsure as the saturated ground shifted and slid beneath their feet. They came to a wide meadow and Napoleon took a cautious step. Almost instantly his boot sunk into the marshy ground and he shook his head.
"We are going to need to skirt this. Are you two doing okay?"
"Yes, but I think we should sing to pass the time," Del said, brightly. "What's your favorite song, Molly?"
"Living laVida Loca."
Del giggled. "Hmm, that's a little out of my range, sweetie. How about this one...?"
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
A moment later, Napoleon joined in and then Mollie. They were halfway back over the mountain when they saw a light bounce in the distance.
"I do believe Illya has found us." He waved the beam in the air and waited.
"Do you see that?" Calvin shouted, pointing. "Napoleon? Del?"
Illya signaled with his light and then shut it off. The light in the darkness signaled back and Illya sighed.
It seemed mere minutes before they were together.
"Any trouble back home?"
"None that one wouldn't expect." Illya turned his face to the sky. "At least it's stopped raining. Now if Milt will leave the tarp in place, we might not actually have to wear life jackets tomorrow while preparing the food for the wedding."
"I forgot all about that." Napoleon shined the flashlight on his watch. "It's only nine p.m. How could so much have happened in such a short time?"
"Del, would you like me to carry Molly for a while?" Nathaniel volunteered.
The little girl's arms tightening around Del's neck decided for her and she answered, "No, we're okay, right Molly?"
A tiny little 'yes' was all they got for an answer. Napoleon and Illya passed the water around again and Napoleon drew Calvin aside.
"There's a something I think you need to see back up the trail a little ways."
"What did you find, Napoleon?" Illya asked.
"I don't know for certain, but I think we need to look at it. Have you got something in your pack that might keep Molly distracted for a moment with Del and Nathaniel?"
Illya went over to Del and Nathaniel and gave them a chocolate bar to share with Molly and told them that they'd be ready to go in a few more minutes. The three sat on a log and Nathaniel started to split up the candy. He made a chunk 'magically' appear from Molly's ear and the girl's giggles followed them back up the path.
Napoleon set a fast pace back to the rock pile, then stood back as Calvin examined the pile of rocks in the light of the two flashlights. "It looks like a cairn, doesn't it?"
"Maybe an old gravesite from settler times or an old mining camp?"
Calvin pushed some of the stones away and dug around for a moment. He pulled the remains of a hand bag out and the thing practically disintegrated in his hands. "Not unless settlers and miners had drivers license cards dated in the 1950s." He held up a card that identified Melissa Ann Redmond as having passed her driver's test in 1957 and allowed to drive without renewal until 1962.
"Back up the trail, there is a ramshackle shed. Molly was there, with a friend, apparently."
"Neither of us saw anything, but we could hear Molly talking with her. I'm going to hazard a guess that this woman has some connection with it. Molly said LissAnn couldn't leave. Melissa Ann Redmond. LissAnn?"
Calvin made a face and pulled out his radio again. "I'm going to call it in and get the sheriff working on it. Maybe be some record of it at the county seat. We will send a team back out once things have dried off a little."
Illya pulled the belt of his yellow rain slicker out of the loops and tied it around a nearby sapling. "It can't be missed now. I suggest we get the rest of this party moved down the hill and indoors before any more excitement comes our way. We've got a big day ahead of us."
"I like that plan, partner. Calvin, are you set?"
The younger man was returning the radio to his belt. "Yes. Not much to do here until morning, the Sheriff says to come in."
"Best plan I've heard all day."
Illya tilted his head to rest it on the back of the chair. The storm had finally blown through by midnight. At seven, he'd reluctantly dragged himself out of bed and headed to Taste.
The first surprise had come when he opened the kitchen door and saw his staff bent to the task of prepping for the wedding and for service that night.
The next surprise came in that Milt's boys had reassembled the dining room and very nearly got it right. A few shifts and all was right in Illya's work world again.
The best surprise of all came from the fact that the tarp had kept out the rest of the storm and the morning arrived sunny and dry. He opened the doors and windows and let the chilly morning air into the restaurant.
Even with the sun, the wedding had stayed at the community center. The electricity had come on as they were just starting to load in, but the candles added a soft welcoming glow to the new couple's guests.
Only stragglers and the clean up remained. The wedding band had packed up an hour earlier, but that hadn't stopped Rocky and Matt. They were dancing slowly to a record on the jukebox. Some of Taste's staff and the additional help that the bride's mother had hired were collecting dishes.
"Penny for your thoughts." Napoleon sat down beside him and held out a rose to him. Illya took it and sniffed.
"If I had the energy, I'd put it between my lips and take you away on a mad tango." He smiled tiredly at his partner.
Napoleon stood and held out a hand. "Then how about a slow shuffle and I'll hold you up?"
Rocky pulled away from Matt and brought a hand to his face. "It looks like Mr. S has made good his promise to distract Chef. This is our window of opportunity."
"And I don't even get one dance?"
Rocky looked over his shoulder to his cousin and smiled. "Well..."
"Dance with her, mia vita." Matt kissed him and walked slowly towards the kitchen.
"Quite the weekend," Rocky murmured as Del settled against him.
"You do know how to show a girl a good time." They danced for a moment. "Rocky, has something happened with Napoleon and Chef?"
"What do you mean?"
"They seemed a bit... different? That's not the right word, but changed somehow."
"We had a bit of excitement with Winston's new boyfriend."
"Is that why I haven't seen him?"
"They had this weekend planned long ago and we decided we could make do with just a few more hired hands." He dipped her and brought her back up, laughing all the way. "I got a call from Calvin this morning just as we were getting ready to leave for here. They excavated the grave and found a body to go with the license he found. They checked missing persons and she was a cold case from the 60s. Her mother is still alive and will see that the body gets a proper burial. She has waited a long time for her daughter LissAnn to come home. And the hospital called to say that both Molly and her mother were released this morning."
"Now they can all rest easy."
The music ended and Rocky spun her. "Us too. Well, in another hour or so."
"Something I can do to help before I head down the hill?" The flowers she'd delivered were long gone.
"Do you have to go so soon?"
"I have to be to work in the morning. Unlike you, who now has two days to crash, I have work to do."
"Crash? We have just an hour to get all of this back to Taste before we open. We have a full restaurant tonight. I won't see bed until midnight, if I'm lucky."
"Chef invited everyone who worked on the Search and Rescue in for a free dinner. Napoleon paid extra to get a shipment of fresh produce in just for tonight."
"That man's energy and Napoleon's generosity amaze me." She looked over at the pair, still moving together in spite of a lack of music. "You have incredible friends, Rocky."
"Yeah, and my relatives are a bit of the okay too."
Del glanced up and saw Nathanial approaching. "Hey, stranger."
"I wondered where you'd gotten off to and then someone remembered the wedding. I was wondering if I could catch a ride back to Sacramento with you."
"Sure, as long as you don't mind the smell of mold. The back of the van's a bit fragrant today."
"Not a problem. So, ah, are you going to the dinner tonight?"
"You mean at Taste? I wasn't planning on it."
"I wish you'd reconsider. It would give us a chance to talk about things."
Del looked over to where Rocky was standing and he gave her a thumb's up and she decided that she could live with that.