While I normally put in a lot of internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.
The realization is setting in that this is not a sprint, but a marathon. Good thing I’ve got a little bit of experience there. Getting into that frame of mind will be critical to getting this job done. On the other hand, I’m very pleased to see that I’m averaging over 3,000 words per day, well in excess of the 1,667 word average needed to “win” NaNoWriMo and complete 50,000 words by December 1st. In my head I see this story as 80K to 90K in the zeroth draft to begin with, probably being edited down to 70K or so in the final form, sp it’s good to see that I’m on a solid pace. At least so far. Let’s hope that it’s not like a marathon where I take off and do the first three or four miles at an 8:00 pace when I should be at a 12:00 pace, leaving me to die a horrible, painful death leaving my body to be picked apart by vultures at about mile thirteen. (Stop it! Bad analogy! BAD analogy!)
So, we found out last night that Jason isn’t just a wimpy customer service rep. Instead he’s resourceful and has some unexpected skills. Who knew? Not me. I find when writing that the characters really do come to life and take on characteristics that as the author you didn’t necessarily plan for in advance. But as long as the changes are “right”, it’s all for the good. However, once the first draft is done and you have a good idea of what happens when and who does what and why they did it, then you have to smooth out the differences in how characters act in different scenes so that they’re believable and consistent. That, however, is a problem to be dealt with in the next pass through the manuscript. Now it’s just word-herding, slinging it hot and fast to see what sticks.
When Tom checked the flight schedules he found that it was a tossup between competing evils. He could go at a truly uncivilized hour out of LAX on a regular airliner, or he could sleep in more than an hour and go out of Burbank, but on a tiny, regional jet. Or he could leave from either about once an hour if he was willing to change planes in Phoenix or Salt Lake City. His loathing of the wee dark hours and his hatred of the crowds at LAX overcame his distrust of small aircraft. By 7:00 AM he was checking in at Burbank.
In the middle of the night he had woken up wondering if he should even be flying instead of driving. His initial concern was that one of those invisible holes could open up in the plane with unforeseen and probably horrible consequences. After rousing himself enough to worry about it, he realized that logically it didn’t figure that it was a huge danger.
It was extremely unlikely that this was a phenomenon that had just occurred for the very first time, only to be observed by accident. The universe was a big place, so even if the invisible holes were something very recent, there must be more of them occurring, even if Tom and Jason didn’t know how common their appearances were. The holes apparently hadn’t caused any air crashes so far, or any other major disasters. Otherwise they would be in the news, or at least that’s what Tom told himself.
Furthermore, if the holes’ appearances were a common but unknown event, it was even less likely that they would be dangerous to a plane and its passengers. For that matter, Tom didn’t even know if the holes were dangerous at all. The cat had knocked his arm away before he could touch it, but that could have been a complete coincidence. For all Tom knew, there could be fifteen of the holes in his room right now with the only possible clue to their existence being the cat’s mood.
Since they knew nothing good, bad, or otherwise, the best course was to just plow ahead and try to get some facts. Freaking out over every boogie man that his subconscious could come up with wasn’t going to be useful.
The flight to Denver was full but on time. With his last minute booking Tom had been stuck with an aisle seat of course. However, the emergency exit row seats were occupied by an elderly couple who would not have been able to open the door if needed, so Tom was swapped with one of them and scored not only the window but two additional precious inches of legroom.
The two-hour trip to Denver was uneventful. The weather was calm enough so that the seat belt sign was off, although there was no room in the small plane to really get up and move around. As they flew over the Grand Canyon the pilot told them how spectacular it looked, but it was below them on the right and Tom was looking out at the left wing. When they came into Denver and turned north into the landing approach, Tom’s view of the Front Range was magnificent. All of the mountains were completely covered with snow with the snow line almost down to the city already.
Mindful of Jason’s worries about possible surveillance, Tom at first tried to keep an eye open for anyone who might be watching or following him. He sheepishly realized how unlikely it was that those extreme measures would be necessary at this point. If some cop bot system had tagged them, a surveillance routine would be following him from one security camera to another. Since he wasn’t going to dodge the cameras, and it would only serve to really set of some red flags if he tried, he just relaxed and acted the part of a nephew trying to track down a long lost aunt for the holidays. It wasn’t a hard role to play.
On the ground, Tom checked his phone for messages but found nothing from Jason. He hoped that was good. Tom double checked the phone to make sure that the security software was working before sending a text message to his pet sitter to let her know that he had arrived safely in Denver. His upgraded home system would see that Jason got a copy of the message on the side.
Tom picked up his rental car, set the GPS, and followed its instructions onto Route 470 around the city. It was getting near noon and breakfast had gotten skipped in his rush to the airport, so he got off the freeway to find food as soon as he got to I-25. He was impatient to get on the trail of Auntie Annie but it wouldn’t do to show that, so he took his time before setting off to the south again.
It was an enjoyable drive, the air clear and cool, the mountains towering up out of nowhere on his right, the plains stretching off as flat as a pool table for two thousand miles to his left. After an hour the Air Force Academy and its iconic chapel appeared between the freeway and the mountains. After passing through Colorado Springs a turn into the mountains for five miles brought him to Manitou Springs at the base of Pikes Peak.
Manitou Springs was obviously a tourist town on the cusp of two tourist seasons. The big summer crowds going up to the Pikes Peak summit were long gone, but the more modest crowds coming to ski and take the holiday trips up the mountain hadn’t yet started. Everywhere in town were directional signs sending drivers to parking for the historic cog railroad station, but Tom ignored them.
Getting off of the highway he followed the main road through town, taking in all of the shops and restaurants. The buildings were a mixture of old brick and timber buildings that might have been a hundred years old and little strip mall style buildings that were much more recent. The older buildings tended to be occupied by antique stores, craft stores, and restaurants that catered to tourists, while the strip malls were full of the convenience stores, fast food restaurants, and small businesses that every town needed to function. The store windows in the older buildings were full of all manner of knickknacks and bits aimed toward tourists, but at least they looked like reasonably upscale knickknacks. Christmas themes were dominating the decorations, although there weren’t yet any decorations hung on the street lights.
As he approached the turnoff to the train station Tom spotted a pair of small motels. Neither looked likely to win any awards other than those given out by the local chamber of commerce, but they both looked reasonably clean and comfortable. Both had signs advertising “Free Wi-Fi” and “Free HBO & Cable”. Both had their “Vacancy” lights lit over their almost empty parking lots. Tom picked the one on the right for no particular reason.
Tom had never considered himself to be a gregarious man or even a particularly social and outgoing one, but for this trip he was working hard on playing a different role. Trying hard to not go over the top, he made an effort to be chatty and friendly with the hotel desk clerk, letting her know the gist of why he was in town and who he was looking for. The clerk had never heard of Annie of course, but she was more than happy to give Tom directions back to the police station. It was about a quarter-mile walk, back about half way to the exit from the highway, right where Tom had seen it on his way to the hotel.
Tom checked into his room and found it to be pretty much as expected for a low-budget motel room built three blocks from a tourist trap. He checked the wi-fi connection and found it to be functional if not particularly strong, worth just what he had paid for it. After sending another text message to his pet sitter to give her his overnight location, he headed down the street toward the police station.
The Manitou Springs police station was a newer building sharing a lot with the fire department and city hall. Tom went in, expecting to find a lobby walled off from the main station by a bullet-proof partition, but this wasn’t Los Angeles, or even Denver. A uniformed officer looked up from the counter as he entered.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“I hope so. My name is Tom Tiernan and I’m trying to track down an aunt of mine. No one in the family has heard from her for several years, but I have reason to believe that she was in this area about two years ago, so I’m hoping that someone here might be able to help me find her.”
“Do you need to file a missing persons report, sir?”
“No, no. Nothing like that,” Tom said. “I don’t really know if she still lives around here or even if she’s still alive. I’m here because I found a record of her being arrested and charged with trespassing two summers ago, something about a commune that was being evicted off of someone else’s land.”
“I see. Yeah, I remember that situation, a guy up in one of the canyons wanted to subdivide and sell the lots for pricey vacation homes. Who is this you’re looking for? What’s her name?”
“She’s my aunt, her name is Anne Tiernan. She would have been about eighty-one at the time, so she would be eighty-three now. She’s sort of the ‘free spirit’ of the family, if you know what I mean, but with the holidays coming up her brothers and sister, my mother, would like to make sure that she’s all right.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean, we get more than our fair share of that kind of person around here.” He made a note, apparently writing down Annie’s name. “Do you have some ID, sir?”
“Of course.” Tom pulled out his wallet and handed over his driver’s license. The officer ran it through a scanner and handed it back to Tom. Tom assumed that some information based on his license was showing up on a monitor, but it was set at an angle so that he couldn’t read it. The officer scanned the information, then started typing.
“Is your aunt’s last name spelled the same as yours, Mr. Tiernan?” the officer asked.
“Yes, it’s T-I-E-R-N-A-N.”
“Uh-huh. It looks like she was booked here in the summer of ’16 like you said. She spent one night with us, saw the judge, paid a fine, and left. I don’t show anything other than that. Sorry.”
“I see. You don’t happen to know her or have a picture, do you? There wasn’t a booking photo that I could find online, but that should be public. If I could get that it would at least let me know what she looked like then. It’s been over ten years since I’ve seen her, so a more current picture would help.” Tom hoped that using a selective subset of the truth wouldn’t come back to haunt him.
“No, I don’t know her, but there is a picture here. You’re supposed to fill out the forms and submit a request to get a copy mailed to you,” the officer said as he hit a couple of keys on the keyboard, causing a printer to come to life and kick out a page, “but if you do that you’ll find out that she looked a lot like this. Will that do?”
“That would be perfect, thank you. I very much appreciate your help. Do you know anyone else who’s still around who might have been associated with the commune that got evicted? Someone who might have known Auntie Annie when she was here?”
“Not directly, no. Once the commune was shut down everyone scattered and I don’t recall seeing any of them in this area. There are plenty of other small towns up in the mountains out west that get these small groups and cults setting up shop, but nothing around here.
“There is one person you might check with though. Ellen Summers runs the chocolate and candy boutique down about three blocks on the other side of the street. She wasn’t a part of the commune, at least not any time near the end when they got the boot, but her mother was there and had some sort of leadership position. Ellen had left the group years before, I guess because she preferred indoor plumbing, electricity, and Bobby Summers, but she hung around here after her and Bobby got married, in part so that she could be near her mom. She might know something, or she might not.”
“Thank you, officer, you’ve been very helpful,” said Tom, turning and walking back out to the street, making sure that he had the photo tucked away securely in his coat pocket.
Tom crossed the street, mindful to do so at the corner in a crosswalk, and casually strolled along the shops there. It was getting chilly and the wind was picking up, so he was glad to see the sign in the window for “Coffee & Hot Chocolate Available” at the Pikes Peak Fine Chocolate & Confectionery Emporium.
He was alone inside the store as the door closed behind him, ringing an old fashioned bell attached to the top of the door. He started to look around at the candies and chocolate displays. From a back room he could hear someone moving around and soon a middle-aged woman came out, followed by a large tomcat. The cat slunk along behind the counter to the window at the front of the store where it took up its sentry position on a chair cushion.
“Can I help you with something?” the woman asked. “Some candy or chocolate? Anything in particular that you’re looking for?”
“A hot chocolate would be great, thanks. Are you Ellen Summers?” Tom asked.
“I am,” she replied as she turned to fill a mug from a pot of hot cocoa that had been sitting on a hot plate. “May I ask who you are and why you need to know?”
“I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I’m Tom Tiernan. It was suggested by the police officer at the station that I talk to you. I’m trying to track down an aunt who I haven’t seen in quite a while. She apparently was here when the commune was shut down two years ago. The guy at the station said that you might still have connections to other people who had been in the commune and they might be able to help me find my aunt.”
Ellen picked up the mug of chocolate and motioned toward a table near the front of the store. She set it down in front of Tom and took the seat opposite him as he sat down.
“You mean my mother, of course. No need to beat around the bush. Tell me about your aunt.”
“Her name was Anne Tiernan and the family has pretty much lost touch with her for years. I was talking to her brothers and sisters the other day about getting together for the holidays and I decided to try to get in touch with Annie if I could to invite her to join us. The last information I could find on her led me here.” Tom took a sip of the chocolate to test the temperature, expecting it to be too hot to drink right away. He was pleasantly surprised to find that it was perfect.
“What was your aunt like?” Ellen asked.
“In a word, weird. She was always a bit off, the classic one in the crowd who was marching to a different drummer. I remember her from when I was a kid and I liked her, but she didn’t get along with my parents or her brothers, so she went her own way. She would be about 82 now and I don’t even know if she’s still alive, but if she is I would sure like to re-connect with her. This is really good chocolate, by the way.”
“Thanks. It’s my special recipe, has a lot of pot in it. That’s legal here in Colorado, you know.”
Tom stopped drinking in mid-sip and looked at Ellen over the top of the mug, keeping it at his lips. After a second he raised his eyebrows a bit in a silent inquiry. Ellen let the moment drag out, maintaining eye contact, looking nonchalant, before smiling and looking down at the table.
“Go ahead, it’s fine. A local joke, there’s not any pot in it, just chocolate and cream and lots of sugar. You really should see the look on your face though.”
Tom’s attention was no longer on Ellen and her joke however. Looking past Ellen toward the windows on the other side of the front door, he could see her tomcat. He was now sitting up at attention, tail twitching, staring up at something in midair. Tom couldn’t see anything there.
His heart starting to race, Tom asked as calmly as he could, “Is your cat all right over there? He’s acting like he’s about to attack something.”
Ellen turned and glanced back at the cat. She looked up in the air where the cat was looking before turning back to face Tom. “He does that. He’s a cat. It’s like they’re an alien species, who knows what they’re seeing or thinking. He probably got into some catnip or something.”
“Do you have any catnip here for him to get into?” Tom asked.
“Maybe. I don’t know. There used to be some in the back but I haven’t seen it in forever. He’s probably got it stashed away. Whatever. Do you want a refill on that hot chocolate?” she asked, starting to rise.
“No!” Tom said, grabbing at Ellen’s wrist and then immediately letting go. “I’m sorry, that startled me. No, I’m fine. Please, just sit for a minute. I just want to find out about my aunt if I can.”
Taken aback, Ellen sat but leaned back away from Tom and the table, now cautious.
“My mother doesn’t talk much about her work and her friends at the commune,” she said with a chill in her voice. ”I’ve never met anyone named Anne or Annie when I’ve visited, so I don’t think I can help you.”
Keeping one eye on the tom at and the location where he was still staring, Tom pulled out the picture that the policeman at the station had given to him. He unfolded it and handed it to Ellen.
“Here’s what she looked like two years ago,” Tom said. “Does she look familiar at all? You’re really my only lead right now.”
Ellen looked down at the picture. In a flash, recognition was written all over her face. She held the paper for a moment, pondering. She looked up at Tom as if some disparate puzzle pieces had fallen together.
“This is Dahlia. She was in the commune, wandered in and out, but I knew her when I lived there and I saw her every now and then after I left. You’re right, she was weird, a real whack-a-doodle. But at other times she could be…I don’t even know how to say it.” Ellen paused, as if she wasn’t sure she should say her next thought. “Your name is Tom Tiernan? You’re Tee-tee, right?”
Tom felt as if the chair had been kicked out from under him. He could not remember being called that for over fifty years, but in an instant he remembered when his Auntie Annie had given him that nickname while she was teaching him his alphabet at a very young age.
“Yes, she called me that. I’m Tee-tee. But how did you know?”
“Dahlia had told everyone that she never wanted to talk to anyone in her family again, except for you. We were always told what she wanted if you ever showed up looking for her.”
As Ellen spoke, the tomcat growled and leapt from the chair up onto the counter by the cash register. Landing smoothly, he trotted the length of the counter before hopping down and disappearing into the back room. The motion caused both Ellen and Tom to turn and watch him.
Ellen turned back to Tom and handed Annie’s picture back to him. “Stupid cat. There must be catnip involved. Anyway, I don’t know where you aunt is now, but I’m sure that we need to have you meet my mother.”