Okay – so not the best danish I’ve ever eaten, but the dollop of raspberry jam is always delicious! And helped chase away the bitter taste left in my mouth…
I cracked the code!
Range Lade will not be receiving a slightly disappointing batch of apologetic maple bacon scones from me.
Instead, I will give Ranger Lade first crack at excising The Pink Lady from her mountain. Solving a twenty-year-old mystery while literally coming to terms with your own personal demon? That should cover all abominable behavior.
Making my excuses, I left my friends to their bridge game. Since I was coated with powdered sugar and raspberry jam, they didn’t protest my exit too much. Especially since a grand time was being had by all. Beatrice and Sarah decided to make up their own “better” rules to bridge – claiming theirs was a little-known variant. Laney and the kid (who did score one of Wood’s danishes) were actively working against Wood – completely disregarding the fact that he was on their team. While Wood attempted to keep the entire game from sinking into complete chaos. Leaving them to their fun, I exited the game room, my head awhirl.
Strictly speaking my experience with this sort of thing is remarkably limited. I rarely run across Errants, i.e., people inhumed outside sanctified ground. While nearly (but not quite) all possess a criminal genesis point, usually that detail doesn’t matter by the time I encounter them. Either they’ve reconciled to what happened, or they’ve burned out – the former I meet when they are transplanted to Nevermore.
I’ve never seen anyone like this particular Woman In White.
So dealing with her means I’m treading over new ground. The one universal wish of the transplanted Errants I’m acquainted with? Unsurprisingly, that the deeds of the guilty party were known to the world before they went toes-up themselves. Unhappily for them (and ambivalently for me), I never needed to fulfill this particular desire.
I’m starting to regret this lack of experience.
How on earth am I going to get her off the mountain without compromising my secret, jeopardizing my friend’s anonymity or exposing Nevermore to corrosive influences? And alert authorities to the crime?
While sipping my coffee, I’d toyed with the ideas of creating a macabre treasure map, an unfortunately placed geocache, a tactless campsite sign, distressing the trailhead marker (i.e., carving the coordinates to the cairn on it) or putting an ominously worded note on the map in the hotel lobby. But each idea featured more cons than pros.
Which is how I landed on my master plan, an old chestnut, the anonymous letter.
It would direct the attention of the authorities onto the contents of the cairn and the crime while misdirecting their attention from me. Hopefully, my grand design wouldn’t turn cliche and allow Miss Marple (or the police) to suss me out.
Not able to rest upon my laurels with a plan of action devised, I headed to the front desk (after going outside to deposit my shirt crumbs for the birds) and found Sam still at his post, “Hey! Does the hotel have a computer I can use?” My head so filled with my plans I went straight to the point of the conversation. His answer wasn’t entirely unexpected (after I thought about it for a second), “No, sorry. Hilltop’s unplugged from technology, it’s why people come here.”
“Crap. Okay. Thanks anyways.” Trying to smile I turned away from the desk, deflated, not wanting to wait to enact my Misdirection Scheme.
“What did you need to do?”
Turning back, “Honestly, all I need is a wireless printer and a quiet corner.”
Clearly torn between Hilltop’s mission statement and a generous tip he knew would come his way (or perhaps sensing a damsel in distress vibe), “Is it important?”
“Yes.” Holding my breath.
“Grab your stuff and meet me back here.” Elation and relief warred inside me while I scurried to my room.
Quicker than a rabbit can steal a carrot, I found myself following Sam through the warren of utilitarian corridors used by the staff (the cheap linoleum and beige walls were a dead giveaway). When we stopped, I figured we were somewhere in the back of the hotel, Sam used a key to open a door. He ushered me into the dark room where my nose detected the scents of old fries, dog, and Douglas fir.
“Wasn’t expecting company.” Sam started tidying up, which wasn’t really needed – it looked lived in – not sloven.
“Seriously, don’t worry about it. You are doing me a huge favor.” And he was – because just to the left of the cracked open window stood a computer with a rather lovely printer.
He turned on the printer, made sure my tablet paired off with it and headed towards the door, “Extra printer paper is under the desk. Ink is in the top left drawer. My shift ends in four hours. I’ll come and get you then. If you could wait for me to lead you out, I would appreciate it.”
“Trust me, that will be perfect.” I waited for him close and lock the door before turning towards the desk.
Sarah and Laney (and the boys) were sitting outside on the veranda sipping coffee when we returned. The three of us (and an amused plus two) headed straight into the dining room to snag our favorite flavor of danish before the breakfast bar closed.
On the walk back to the hotel our conversation devolved from the apologetic maple bacon scones to our general favorites among the pantheon of baked goods – cakes, cookies, pies – we covered them all. So when reached the hotel we were more than ready for second breakfast (which completely undid all the health benefits of our morning walk).
The fog continued to cling to the treetops, and from the small specks of sky we could occasionally glimpse, rain looked likely. So instead of heading back outside for another hike, we trooped to the game room with plates of danishes in our hands.
Unfortunately, we weren’t the first ones with this diversion in mind, the room was filled to the brim with people putting together puzzles and playing games (with a very few were reading books). Claiming a table nearest the window Wood went in search of an unclaimed board game which still possessed all its pieces.
Which, at this point, was as likely as finding the Marx Brothers’ missing first film next to the Yahtzee box (containing four of its’ five dice) on the top shelf.
Never one to give up, Wood won the day when he ferreted out a full deck of cards wedged in the back of the games closet and decided to teach the others (plus one kid who was hanging around our table hoping to score a danish) how to play bridge. (Wood and I acquired a taste for bridge from my Aunt Pearl and her cronies – our love of pastries rose from his Gran’s kitchen).
Since only four can play at a time, I sat the first rubber out – which as much as I love playing – worked for me. Pulling the armchair closer to to the fireplace I propped my feet up on the hearth and took stock of all the good things surrounding me – a raspberry danish & coffee at my elbow, a warm fire toasting my toes and my friend’s laughter ringing in my ears.
My Stalker is The Pink Lady who is a Woman In White.
Despite the denting my calm took under this progression, I forced myself aboard this uncomfortable train of thought.
After a few moments of watching the flames dance, I closed my eyes and threw my head back, rhythmically bouncing it against the top cushion of the chair. All the while making a concerted effort not to let loose a string of profanities (there were kids around after all) when I figured out exactly where I stood.
My quandary placed me directly on the corner of Bitter & Sweet.
They say all roads lead to Rome. Perhaps that’s true. But I am starting to suspect some masochistic engineer figured out a way to steer travelers repeatedly thru this junction on the way to the heart of the empire. Or maybe these crossroads are scattered at alternating intervals along the road, so you don’t realize where you stand until you look up and read the sign. Either way, I find myself here with disturbing regularity, a corner I do not want to frequent.
This damned corner with its’ loathsome words is where Romeo and Juliet find love but are forever separated by a name. Where dreamers can follow their dreams but are required to make money. This is where my opposition to the Woman In White has placed me.
No one would ever know if I just left her on the mountain.
Even with her increased vita, chances are she didn’t possess enough energy to actually kill Mr. Grindle (and didn’t he deserve a broken leg every now and again?). Clearly, the locals know about the Woman In White and have taken measures against her. So the odds of her coaxing anyone else off the path are pretty low. And the salt will render the cairn inert eventually. Probably.
Walking away would allow me to avoid all risk of discovery.
So much easier to let sleeping dogs lie.
But it’s not the right thing to do.
Fortunately, I still had my raspberry danish and a lukewarm cup of coffee to remove the bitter taste from my tongue.
Found this guy on our after breakfast hike! Which reminds me, I should Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again…
(I make rectangular scones with bacon in the batter – when I make them.)
Fortunately Wood and Beatrice didn’t require any conversational contributions from me when we left the Ranger Station.
The Pink Lady is a Woman In White.
Beatrice (holding the maps against her chest): “How did you figure out Ranger Rick followed the Pink Lady?”
I’d mislead myself by focusing on the silliness of Sam’s story and the color pink while ignoring the deeds he’d attributed to her.
Wood (laughed): “He reminded me of Gertrude from Hamlet.”
Merging what I knew of Women In White with Sam’s tale and my first-hand encounter a chill snaked down my spine.
Beatrice: “The Ranger doth protests too much?”
I recalled what lead me to my initial conclusion of Stalker, her extreme focus, constant shadowing, and formulaic recitation.
Wood (smiling): “Yup, his derision seemed out of proportion for an urban legend.”
Instead of taking her claim of injuring Mr. Grindle seriously, I’d dismissed it as a sign of her descent into madness. Something which, in the end, always engulfs Stalkers.
Beatrice (nodding): “People do tend to ridicule others for things that scare the pants off them. And the leg?”
She merely stated a fact.
Wood (counting the reasons on his hand): “Speaking from experience Bee? Anyways. The leg didn’t appear to bother him until we mentioned The Pink Lady. If you noticed his boots, they showed distinctly uneven wear – so his limp’s been around for a while. However his screen saver featured pictures of him mountain climbing – so the leg hasn’t always been a problem.”
I hadn’t place enough importance on her ability to shift focus.
Wood (continuing on, never knowing I’d interrupted him): “Then there’s his face, it lacks any kind of color – even in November a summer tan should still linger. So what would keep a ranger from working or playing outside when the weathers nice? A cast. If it were his knee or ankle he’d still managed to get some sun, but a broken femur – he’d get out very little, so six months in a cast. It takes another six to lose a limp, his was noticeable but not sever – so I placed his injury occurring sometime last winter – when there’s plenty of fog around here…”
A Woman In White pursues power and vengeance above all else.
Beatrice (summing up): “Add the bit about Hamlet in and you guessed he broke his leg following The Pink Lady.”
Knowing what she was cleared up one troubling detail, why her cairn susurrated so strongly under my hand.
Wood (smiling): “I took a shot in the dark. I suppose it isn’t nice to use my doctor powers like that – but he called Morticia stupid, roundaboutly.”
It also asked and answered a question I hadn’t occurred to me earlier, ‘How was she able to wander so far from her genesis point?’.
Beatrice: “What an odious little man. But he did give me some new maps…”
She’d done exactly what Sam and his friends feared, she’d stripped the vita from all those men, to fuel her vengeance.
Wood (turning to me): “Why did you wind Ranger Rick up Morticia?”
What will happen when her revenge on Mr. Grindle is complete? The vita she’s stolen makes her too powerful to merely evanesce, it will take years for her to fade. How much havoc could she wreak in the meantime?
Me (dread settling in my bones): “Salting the cairn won’t work fast enough.”
Wood (standing stalk still studying me): “Why?”
Me (meeting his eyes): “She can probably wait out the salt until it melts away then replace the leeched vita and start the cycle all over again.”
Beatrice just stood and watched our exchange, her forehead creased in concentration.
Wood (eyes narrowing): “You know what you need to do then?”
Me (shaking myself): “Yes.”
Beatrice: “Umm…what are you guys talking about?”
Wood (shrugging): “Morticia wool gathers out loud sometimes – I help her focus.”
Me (laughing, feeling a touch better): “Other times he completely derails me.”
Wood (rolling his eyes at me): “So why did you wind up Ranger Rick?”
Me (trying to keep things light): “An idea sparked, and I needed to grab hold of it before it went away again. I’ll figure out a correct apology; Dear Abby must cover this situation somewhere.”
Beatrice: “Does etiquette really cover the situation when strangers are simultaneously rude to each other? Honestly? I think overall you canceled each other out.”
Me (walking down the trail again, channeling my fretting into something silly): “Muffins? Cookies? Scones. Maple bacon scones – simultaneously savory and sweet, while being ever so slightly disappointing.”
Wood: “Apology thru baked goods?”
Beatrice (dissecting my answer): “Why would a scone be disappointing?”
Me: “Because it’s not a maple bacon doughnut, of course.”
Beatrice: “And why would you not send those instead?”
Me: “Because he was rude too.”
Ranger Lade did not appear to appreciate the interruption (which was a bit rich since I’d bet my eye teeth he’d been eavesdropping). With an eye roll, “Urban legend.”
Beatrice looked up from her maps, cocking her head to one side, “Pink Lady? Worried about some wild woman living in the mountains attacking you Wood? Don’t worry Phoebe and I will keep you safe.”
I laughed, “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Wood, shaking his head and smiling, agreed that we were fierce indeed when riled. He then went on and gave Beatrice the shorthand version of the Pink Lady Legend. With Ranger Lade contributing his own opinions by huffing at every feature of interest.
Deciding to poke the bear I asked the grumpiest Ranger a question, “What about the two local kids who went over the cliff? They grew up here and knew the area. You don’t think they followed her?”
Ranger Lade’s lip curled up, “No I don’t. They’d been drinking, and the weather was bad. That’s all that happened.” After answering he immediately started typing again on his computer again. But the niggling feeling I’d had when Sam told us his tall tale begun bothering me.
Ignoring his hint, I pressed a bit harder, “Do you know how her legend started?”
Trying to put me off, he answered dismissively, “She’s just a story locals tell to scare tourists.”
He seriously thought a pat explanation like that would stop me? Especially when I was so close to catching hold of the idiot idea earworm?
“But really, did a woman ever go missing up here?”
He endeavored to ignore me for a moment, rubbing his leg, but I moved to stand directly across the counter from him (channeling my inner Morticia Addams – no one ignored her). Realizing I wouldn’t let him off the hook he opted for condescension when finally answered. Glancing between Wood and Beatrice, trying to enlist their support, he finally responded, “No female has ever been reported missing from the Pumpkin Mountain area. The Pink Lady is just an urban legend that refuses to die. Locals use it to scare the tourists. Tourists use it to look less stupid when they get lost, ‘ It’s not our fault. We were following the woman wearing the white dress.’ They don’t even recount the story correctly. That should tell you all you need to know about its validity.” Viewing my stunned silence as confirmation of his verbal victory, he aimed a celebratory sneer at me – in his crowing he forgot about his potential recruits.
“Well, isn’t it nice that you’re here to set us straight Ranger Lade,” Beatrice replied while gathering her carefully sorted stacks into a single pile in front of her, “I’ll take these off your hands.” With the entire set of old maps in hand, she turned and marched out the door leaving the Ranger gaping in her wake.
He started to say something when Wood cut him off, “Try sitting with a heating pad on your thigh, should help the aching left over from that break.” With that sensible bit of advice Wood and I headed towards the door when Ranger Lade’s suspicious voice stopped us, “How did you know, I’d broken my leg?” A small smile played over Wood’s face, “I made an educated guess.” (I’d already walked thru the door but turned back to watch)
Ranger Lade nodded, uncertainty written on his face (since Wood’s helpful tone diametrically opposed Beatrice’s), “Thanks for the advice. I’ll try it.”
Wood nodded, “No problem. But tell me exactly how far did you follow The Pink Lady last year before you broke your leg?”
Ranger Lade turned beet red and got the word “How” out before he shut up and channeled his inner thundercloud.
“Never mind. You followed her just far enough.” With Wood’s parting shot hanging in the air he closed the door, and we started retracing our earlier rambling route back towards the hotel.
I was grateful they’d lept into the conversational fray since Ranger Lade’s answer had sucked the breath from my lungs. Not due to the rudeness of it, though that was breathtaking (I wasn’t exactly blameless I know), it was his actual words which caused my brain to combust.
A woman in a white dress….a Woman In White….oh god.
The manager, deciding we’d lingered at the front desk too long talking to Sam, swung by to make sure everything was copasetic (the way Sam clammed up, perhaps making sure he wasn’t telling inappropriate tales?). Not wanting to get him in hot water, Wood and I headed into the dining room to relieve the complimentary breakfast bar of some bacon.
“Did you really want to go back up Pumpkin Mountain?” Wood asked while we surveyed the offerings.
Really I was just covering my bases. Last night I’d perused the pictures the others had taken on the hike, which made me feel confident that I’d salted the correct spot. But the cairn’s unsettling strong vita still bugged me, so I thought I might take a second look until Sam nixed the plan with his disturbing tale.
“Thought about it, but it seems out of the question now. No big deal.”
Our conversation sputtered out when we observed what lay underneath the serving domes. Runny eggs, limp bacon, burnt hash browns and sweaty sausages put me off every warm food offering. I opted instead for lime yogurt, a tiny box of children’s cereal, a bowl of fruit and the largest cup of coffee I could finagle. Wood, who’d replaced his intestinal tract with that of a goat’s in med school, piled his plate high with every item I deemed too dubious to venture even a nibble of. Beatrice joined us in line while Wood was making pancakes at the griddle station. I thought she ignored our ‘Good Mornings’ until I watched her double down on coffee then grab two sticky strawberry danishes.
If Beatrice’s breakfast was any indication, I wasn’t the only one the Party Of Much Yelling rudely woke up this morning.
After making a respectable dent in our chosen breakfasts (with only Beatrice feeling the need to lick her plate, we didn’t judge) we grabbed yet more coffee and headed to the lobby. Wood wandered over to the large map next to the front counter, “Morticia, Bee want to walk breakfast off? We have a couple of hours before Laney wakes up.”
Beatrice stood next to Wood, tracing a line with her finger, “What about Sarah?”
Replying, “Probably about the same.” The hot toddies we drank last night were stiff, and she has zero tolerance.
Wood left a note for Laney in their room (Bert and Ernie refused to budge from the bed), and I left another at the front desk for Sarah while letting Sam know where we were hiking to this morning (safety first after all). He seemed relieved we’d decided to head in the exact opposite direction of The Pink Lady and her mountain. In fairness, our muscles (I say our, it might only have been mine) were sore from yesterday’s hike.
The walk to the ranger station was a relaxed two-mile ramble, due mainly to the efforts of an Eagle Scout who did an excellent job restoring the path. About an hour later our leisurely stroll deposited us in front of a sizable rustic building featuring friendly but official sign proclaiming it as the Ross Lake Ranger Station.
“Do you think they sell any maps inside?” Beatrice wondered out loud.
“Better question. Are they open?” Spying several banks of illuminated lights thru the windows, we decided to try the doors. When the opened easily under our hands, we headed inside.
The ranger seated at the counter did not seem overly pleased to see us (people don’t generally tend to frown with happiness). “Can I help you?”, he queried.
“Hi. I was looking to see if you had any other maps of the area I could purchase. I own all the current Forest Service…..” It seemed Beatrice found a kindred spirit. The Ranger perked right up when she started her inquiry.
Asking her to wait a moment, he limped away from the counter, past a desk piled high with papers, to a row of filing cabinets lining the back wall. Instead of opening a drawer he slipped something off the top and returned the counter, “We’ve had these hanging around forever, to new for collectors, not accurate enough for hikers and regulations say I can’t toss them. You can take any you like.” With the amount of dust Beatrice blew off the two-inch stack, I was willing to believe they’d been sitting there since the sixties.
Wood and I wandered around the large airy room, but other than maps, hiking licenses, and other official paperwork there wasn’t much for the nontechnical tourists. However, the happy noises issuing from Beatrice while she sorted thru the dusty stack provided more than enough entertainment.
Leaning against the counter, trying to figure out the method behind Beatrice’s choices (without crowding her) – I turned to idle speculation “I wonder if Sam believed his tall tale.”
Wood looked up from the drawer of maps he was thumbing thru, “Hard to say. But I think he just might.” Closing the drawer, he joined me at the counter and eyed the Ranger working between Beatrice and us. “Hey, Ranger Lade, what do you think of The Pink Lady? Fact or fiction?”