A Thousand Shades of Success
a continuation of
A Thousand Shades of Feeling
© by Taleweaver
Author’s Note: The Trading Post really does exist, and the last time I was there it looked as I’ve written it.
Merlin took a hot bath when she got back into the hotel room, while Zuke called Paul and brought him up to date. It would have been an understatement to say he was relieved. Merlin would have drifted off if it had not been for the phone ringing.
Zuke knocked at the bathroom door, “It’s for you, and they say it’s important.”
“So bring it in, I won’t turn ya to stone.” Merlin teased.
Zuke tried to avert her eyes when the door opened, but it was impossible to not see what lay beneath the water. Merlin chuckled as Zuke made a hasty retreat, and then brought the phone to her ear. “Yes?”
“I know who you’re looking for.” Said the whispery voice. “You’re looking in all the wrong places and talking to everyone but the culprit. You go to the Trading Post tonight at midnight and look behind the fish’s head.” The connection was severed abruptly.
“Zuke!” Merlin scrambled to get out of the bath without slipping. When Zuke again stuck her head in, Merlin asked, “What the hell is the Trading Post?”
“It’s a collection of tourist traps out on Highway 17. Why?”
“Because whoever that was just told me to look behind the fish’s head tonight at midnight. Does that mean anything to you?”
Zuke retreated back into the hotel room and went over to the window. “On the gas station there’s a huge carving of a guy that’s caught a fish. That must be the fish they referred to. There are no other fish carvings there. Lots of other things, but there is only one fish.”
“You can turn around now, I’m dressed. My adrenaline is pumped, now what do we do?”
“I’ll show you the Trading Post in daylight. Then we’ll grab a spot and stake the place out. But first I have an errand to run. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When Zuke came back to pick up Merlin, she arrived in a grungy pick-up truck that looked like it belonged in the wrecking yard.
“We’re going to do a stake-out in that?” Merlin’s tone bordered on disbelief.
“I want to look like we belong where we’re going to park. One of the first rules of stake-outs is to seem inconspicuous. Don’t let its looks fool you; it’s got the horsepower in case we need it.”
Merlin soon discovered that The Trading Post was everything Zuke said it was, and more. At first glance it seemed to be a two-sided series of shops, fronted by barn-board and a wooden boardwalk. At one end of the L stood a tall totem pole, the other end was hard to define. Where the shops ended, there was a green space, filled with large wooden carvings. There was a wooden man hanging from a noose, a carved pregnant woman watching him from a doorway, a large wooden moose, a timber pair of work horses pulling a flat wagon filled with logs, and so many more carvings that it was impossible to take them all in at once. At the back of all these was the carver’s workshop, and behind that, the rear of the gas station. The gas station was fronted with the same board the shops were, tying the whole promenade together. On the roof of the gas station sat a hefty wooden fisherman with a fishing rod clenched tightly in his hands. On the other end of his line was the biggest fish Merlin had ever seen. Even in wood, it looked as if it was putting up a terrific fight. It curved and twisted, and the head was directly beside the door that allowed entrance to the gas station. On their way inside to buy food for the night, Merlin noticed the sign that advertised the closing hour. The station closed at 11:30.
Zuke had parked the truck in a field across the road from the gas station, far enough back that they would not be easily spotted. They had a clear view of the fish, and as it got darker there was less traffic on the road in front of them. But for the illumination coming from the streetlights, they would have been swallowed by darkness. The lights lining Highway 17 were two hundred feet away, but Merlin had faith they would spot her mystery caller.
“Can I ask you a question?” Zuke handed her a bottle of water as she asked. When Merlin made an agreeable sound, Zuke continued. “What drove you to become a bodyguard?”
“Personal circumstances I suppose.” Merlin answered. “Not to mention the fact it’s the only thing I’m very good at.” Merlin unwrapped an egg salad sandwich as she turned the proverbial tables. “Can I ask you something?” Seeing Zuke nod in the darkness, Merlin continued. “Paul told me you were an investigator. What do you look into?”
“Missing persons, small time fraud of the personal sort, anything that I’m asked to do that won’t drain me personally. But before you get any ideas; there are some cases I won’t investigate.”
“Really? Such as?”
Zuke chewed a bite of a cucumber and tomato sandwich before answering. “There was a guy who came to my office once. He wanted me to find something that had been missing for a month. I asked him what it was, thinking it would be something simple like a car he’d forgotten at a strip joint.” Zuke waited a heartbeat or three before continuing. “He wanted me to find part of his penis.”
Merlin sprayed water all over the inside of the windshield, shaking with laughter. “His…what?”
“Yup. Apparently his ex-wife had tried to cut it off one night and had only taken a chunk. The doctors were able to do skin grafts, and he kept the flap of skin they had to remove to do the work properly. He kept it in a small jar of formaldehyde, but he had lost the jar. I declined to take the case, telling him that perhaps it was a sign from the universe that he didn’t need it any longer.”
Merlin was still laughing five minutes later.
“So what about you? Who’s the most famous client you’ve protected?” Zuke asked.
Merlin was silent for a minute before answering. “A movie star. After her, I swore I would never get close to another client.”
“And then you met Morrigan.” It was not a question, but a statement.
“I met Morrigan and my oath fell to pieces. I was hooked on her by the end of twenty-four hours together. I need to keep her safe, and not because I’m her bodyguard, but because I can’t stand to see her hurting. So fighting at the truck stop was pretty stupid.”
“But human.” Zuke looked through the binoculars at The Trading Post while she spoke her mind. “Merlin, we’re all human. We make mistakes, whether we like to admit to them or not. We say things without thinking, we allow ourselves to give in to jealousy, anger and pettiness. We regret those things later, but if we didn’t care about the ones we foolishly hurt, we wouldn’t feel guilty afterwards. I know that you regret your argument now, but I’ll bet you thought you were right. Just as Morrigan thought she was right. What matters most is that the two of you work through this, with your pride and your relationship intact.”
Merlin was silent as she studied the carved fish. She knew Zuke was right, but would Morrigan agree enough to still want her?
It was nearly midnight, and the two women in the dilapidated pick up had fallen quiet. They studied shadows intently, watching for signs of suspicious movement. Just when Merlin was about to make a comment, she saw a familiar form step into the pool of light that illuminated the carved fish. Both pairs of binoculars trained on the figure, and two pairs of eyes saw a slender arm reach out and tuck a piece of paper behind the fish’s head.
“Hang on.” Zuke said as she cranked the ignition key.
Merlin hung on to anything she could. She clutched the door handle, the door frame and the dash as they bounced across the dark field towards The Trading Post. Zuke was intent on catching someone who might be their only lead to Morrigan, but as much as Merlin wanted Morrigan back, she worried that her kidneys would be masses of goo by the time she would be able to see her girlfriend again. As they approached the highway at a suicidal speed, Merlin wondered when her somewhat maniacal companion would realize the headlights were still off. Just as they bounced onto the highway, Zuke hit the switch and flooded their potential witness with blinding light. The teenager was caught like a deer in headlights, and by the time she thought to bolt, it was too late. The truck swerved as Zuke braked, and one avenue of escape was cut off. The young woman stopped herself only in time to prevent her from smacking into the vehicle and Merlin shot an arm out the passenger window to grab a handful of sweatshirt. Zuke launched herself out the door to prevent the teen from running again, and Merlin released her grip only long enough to retrieve the paper from behind the wooden fish head.
“Tell me again, why not just come right out and tell us what you know?” Merlin was frustrated and touchy from a lack of nicotine.
Tammy shivered and looked at Zuke. “Is she always this demanding?”
“Only when her girlfriend is missing and she hasn’t had a cigarette in hours. If she’s not pissed at you any other time; you’re safe.”
“Would you please not say that word again?” Merlin moaned.
“What? Piss?” Zuke had an evil grin. “Go ahead, I’ll watch our friend here.” When Merlin had left to see if she could find a deserted spot to water, the private investigator turned to the teenager. “You better tell me right now if there’s something Merlin might hurt you for.”
Tammy shook her head from side to side. “There’s nothing.”
“Then why not just come to one of us after you had her number? Why play mind games when someone could be dying right now?”
“She was alive when I left, but I swear to you, I’m not in on it!”
“So what DO you know?”
Tammy looked away for a few moments, then back at Zuke. “I know where she is.”
Merlin froze on her way back to the truck. She was still behind a wall, but she could hear Tammy clearly. She took out a cigarette and quietly lit it, listening from behind the wall.
“Janie said to us in the auditorium…’Wouldn’t it be neat to just be able to take her and have her all to ourselves, talk to her or whatever?’ We told her she was nuts. Janie insisted that it was a cool idea. We saw Miss Artemis walking on the side of the road, and Janie said, ‘That’s her, I’m gonna do it!’ We tried to talk her out of it, honest!”
“Okay, I believe you. We know you didn’t do anything wrong, otherwise you wouldn’t be trying to help us, right? But where is she now Tammy? Where is Morrigan?” Zuke lifted her gaze to focus over Tammy’s shoulder, and looked right into Merlin’s worried eyes.
Merlin didn’t dare say a word, in case Tammy clammed up. She stayed right where she was, half way around the wall, looked into Zuke’s eyes, and prayed as fervently as she could to the Goddess.
“Tammy?” Zuke wanted to shake it out of her, but she forced herself to keep an even tone. “Where is Morrigan?”
Tammy purposely turned and looked Merlin straight in the eye. “Your girlfriend is being held in a house Janie is house-sitting. Janie is the only one with a key. Miss Artemis is hurt pretty bad. One whole side of her face looks black and blue, and bloody. It’s 1572 Manitou Drive.”
Part Six and Conclusion