Change in Plans
Greg Barks’ POV
Outside Wadena, MN
I drove west out of Wadena as Heather huddled down in her seat. “What happened in there?”
She kept looking at her hands. “I came out of the bathroom and was looking around. There was this couple over to the left, she was in her forties, graying brown hair and glasses. She was staring at me. When I looked at her, her eyes got wide. She recognized me, I’m sure of it.” She banged the door with her hand. “I told you we had to leave, and when she pulled out her phone I tried to keep her from getting a good photo of me.”
Shit. I quickly relayed the information to Charlie and Bonnie. They were also eating at the restaurant, so I gave them the description of the woman and asked them to find out what they could.
“You did well to get us out of there, and to prevent a good photo,” I told her as I moved my hand over the top of hers. She was starting to cry, and that tore my heart out. “It’s not your fault, Heather. It’s mine. I thought your hairstyle change was enough and I was wrong. I shouldn’t have brought you there.”
“I just wanted to relax and eat lunch,” she said. “I’m ruining everything.” She lifted the armrest and storage between our seats, then took off her seatbelt. She laid down across the bench seat with her head resting on my right thigh; I ran my fingers over her hair and left my hand on her shoulder. “What do we do now?”
I checked my navigation system and turned left on County 75 south. “I need to make sure no one is following us, and we can’t go to Fargo. If anyone knew we were in the Duluth area and tracked us to here, they would see Fargo is the next large city.” I drove a half-mile down the road, then pulled into a driveway and waited. No one came down the road after me, so after a minute, I pulled back out and kept driving. “We’re heading south towards Alexandria,” I finally said.
“If word of you being alive gets out, they’ll look for us to the west,” I said. “East puts us too close to Rori’s home, and there isn’t much to the north. I don’t want to go to a big city, because if you can be recognized in this little town, imagine being in a city! The cities also have more cameras. We can’t afford pictures.”
“I don’t know, baby,” I said as I stroked her hair. “Get some sleep.” She settled down as I turned onto Highway 29. “Guys, I’m heading south, I’ll be out of range soon. What’s going on back there?”
Charlie answered. “The woman is on the phone with her sister, and she swears she just saw Harleigh Ryder alive. I’d say she was met with skepticism until she texted her the photo. Bonnie pretended to overhear and asked to see the picture on her phone. Her hand didn’t get up in time to block the shot. The photo shows a clear profile of her left side. The good news is that without the full face, facial recognition software won’t be able to use it. Half your face is cut off or blocked, so you can’t be recognized.”
“And the bad news?”
“She’s already texted it to a bunch of her friends. It’s out there, Greg, no stopping it now. All we can do is deal with the damage.”
In one moment, everything had gone to shit, and it was all my fault. If the picture clear enough, it would make it to the television stations eventually. “I need you guys to stay there and make sure no security camera footage from the restaurant gets out,” I told them.
“How are we supposed to do that?”
“I don’t know. Get it done before it gets out to the cops or the press. We might be able to cast doubt on a single photo, but if there is footage of Harleigh walking in with me…”
“The whole ‘fake her death’ thing is over for sure.”
“Yes.” It was sinking in for both of us; our old plans wouldn’t work.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going deep,” I told him. “Hotels have cleaners and staff, and we can’t stay in a hotel room forever. I’ll think of something.”
“You’re almost out of range.”
“Tell the Alphas I will protect her with my life,” I said as I drove further away. “Return to the Pack when you’ve destroyed the video. Thank you.”
“May Luna protect you both,” he said. He was faint, and then he was gone.
We were on our own. The drive was easy; the weather was good, and the roads were clear. This area of the state depended a lot on summer tourism, so there wasn’t much traffic. I passed the miles thinking of what we needed. I couldn’t risk her being seen again, especially if it got out that she was still alive. That meant keeping her inside, maybe for months. That ruled out hotels or resorts, which had cleaning staff and others who might see her.
I thought about driving a long way, but being on the road had its dangers. We would have to stop for gas and bathrooms, all a risk for her to be spotted. Add in passing cars and trucks, drive-throughs and the chance to get pulled over, and it was too much. What I needed was a house; something big enough she wouldn’t get claustrophobic. I wanted a place that we could train, preferably in the woods and away from others, with a kitchen and a big bed.
The thought of Mrs. Barks being able to scream her pleasure without neighbors hearing had me hardening instantly. Her constant teasing wasn’t making it any easier to resist. I ran my hand down her arm, causing her to moan and snuggle into the seat a little more. The unzipped jacket exposed the tight sweater that hugged her firm breasts. They taunted me, just begging to be squeezed.
I reached for the radio instead, finding my Classic Rock station on Sirius.
It took almost an hour to reach Alexandria. I saw a realtor’s office and parked off the main drag where there wasn’t anyone else around. “Where are we,” she asked sleepily.
“Alexandria. I need to talk to a realtor, so I’ll leave the car running and heat on for you.” I reached back into my bag and pulled out two burner phones, putting the batteries in and turning them on. I called her phone with mine, then hung up. “Call me if you need anything. There is a pistol in here; you should sit up and have it ready just in case.” I helped her up and folded the center storage compartment down.
She leaned in and kissed me, and I liked it. A lot. “I love you, Mr. Barks.”
I smiled at her playful look. “And I love you, Mrs. Barks.” I made sure I had plenty of cash, then got out into the ten-degree weather. Walking the two blocks back towards the main drag, I entered the realtor’s office. It was a small office, a single realtor. “Good afternoon,” I said to the middle-aged woman at the desk.
“Welcome to Lakes Realty, sir! I’m Jennifer Johnson, how may I help you?”
I shook her proferred hand. “Greg Barks. My work is moving me up here for three months, and my wife and I don’t like apartments. I was hoping you might be able to help me find a short-term rental home.”
She smiled. “This is a good time to be looking for rentals; there is a surplus on the market now. What are you looking for?”
“It doesn’t have to be huge, at least two bedrooms, preferably with a finished basement. I’d prefer something in the country, quiet, with acreage if I can get it.”
“Not many want the country rentals,” she said.
“My wife is a writer; she needs solitude. I don’t mind driving a little more if it keeps her happy,” I said with a smile.
“Let’s see what we can find.” She got on the computer, and twenty minutes later, we had identified two possibilities. Both homes were looking for yearly leases at two thousand a month, but one was my favorite. “When did you wish to move in?”
“If this one is what it looks to be, I’ll sign the lease today and move in immediately,” I said. “I’d be willing to pay the three months plus damage deposit upfront in exchange for the shorter lease, with an option for month-to-month. I only have a few days until my wife arrives, and I start work.”
“I hope the owners are as motivated as you are,” she said. She got on the phone, and a few minutes later we had an appointment for the home I preferred.
While she called around, I called Heather. “How are you doing?”
“Bored. Do you know what torture it is, my only fun is reading books?”
“I love books,” I said.
“Real books, that are heavy and aren’t backlit for night reading! What is your next torture? A rotary phone and board games?” I could feel her snark. “It’s like those stories of the seventies my Grandma used to scare me with.”
I just laughed a little. “I’ve got to go look at properties. I don’t want to leave you, but I don’t want anyone to see you either.”
“I’ll just nap in the back seat,” she said. I told her I’d be back out in a few minutes.
“Do you want to ride with me,” she asked.
“No, I’ll follow,” I said. She handed me the listing with the address and other information. I walked back to my SUV, then pulled out behind her. The property was north of town, in woods that adjoined Lake Carlos State Park. It was a three-bedroom, two-bath rambler with a full basement on ten acres of land. All this was pretty standard, but it was the extras that caught my eye in the photos. The basement of this property had a shower and exercise room, and the four-season porch addition had a Finnish sauna and a small hot tub.
The drive from town wasn’t bad; it would take about twenty minutes to get to Walmart or the shops. The roads were quiet; many of the homes along the lake were seasonal cabins and stayed empty all winter. I pulled into the long driveway, which curved through the woods until the home came into view. A woman in her fifties got out of her F-150 as we pulled up, and we took a short tour. The property was furnished, isolated, and perfect for my needs. “I prefer a year-to-year lease,” the landlord said as we sat at the kitchen table.
“I’m sure you would, and that is why this property has been on the market for five months,” I responded. “Look, I like it, but I’m only scheduled to be in town through the end of March.” I pulled out a stack of cash. “I’ll lease it for four months at $2000 per month plus the $1000 damage deposit, all upfront. You pay utilities and cable, so I don’t have to transfer everything in and out of my name.” I looked at the realtor, then back to her. “I’m in a hurry to find something before my wife arrives. If you don’t want to deal, we’ll be on our way to the next home.”
It’s amazing how motivational a stack of cash is. She would have been stupid to turn it down. “Fine, I’ll just have to modify the standard lease contract with those terms.” She wrote down my Provincial Driver’s License and passport numbers; somehow, being Canadian gave me street cred with her. Thirty minutes later, I had the key to the doors, and Jennifer and the landlord were pulling out.
I watched them disappear, then went to get Heather out of the SUV. She was bundled up in the back and shivering. “Thank God they’re gone, I need to pee,” she said.
I helped her out, scooping her into my arms. “Let’s go check out our new home, Mrs. Barks.”
“Please tell me they at least have basic cable,” she moaned as I carried her across the threshold.
She used the bathroom before I left her on the couch, under a blanket with the remote. I drove back into Alexandria to the Wal-Mart. I bought just the necessities: two weeks worth of groceries, a 40” LCD television, a PS4 with some of my favorite games, and a big box of condoms. Then I drove through Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner.
It was just the two of us for the next few months, and I wasn’t strong enough to hold out forever.