Meg's trust has been shattered by past events when she rescues three dogs from dogfighters
|Meg hunched further down in the darkness, as she crept closer to the light source she had spotted from her campsite. She had been commissioned to photograph the desert at night, and so far things had gone well, until this evening when her peace had been disturbed by the deep base thump of music, and loud yells and whoops coming from the top of the next ridge. As darkness fell, the sounds continued, eating away at the feeling of deep serenity she had found in her solitude. The music was joined by intermittent firecrackers and even the occasional bang and whoosh of fireworks, rendering her carefully set up and timed shots ruined.
Annoyed, she had packed up her camp and prepared to head back towards civilisation, but on a sudden whim, had chucked a small camera into a pocket, donned her night vision goggles and headed towards the disturbance. Now, she was only yards from the other campsite, and what she saw appalled her.
Two large vans were parked in a rough v-shape, with a campfire away from them, creating an enclosed area. In the middle of the space, a honey coloured dog with a dark face and big, pointed ears was tied to a stake. Some sort of Alsatian she guessed, and it was the dog that the firecrackers were aimed at.
“Hey Pa, give me another one, l wanna see how close l can get to it.” Shouted a boy above the music. Meg guessed he was no more than fifteen. He would grow into a good-looking man she thought, if the sneer on his face didn't become a permanent feature. The man he had yelled at took something from a bag at his side, lit it with his cigarette, but instead of passing it to the boy, he tossed it at his feet. He threw back his head and laughed as the boy scrambled away, swearing.
“That nearly got me that time pa, no fair.”
Another man appeared from behind the fire, pulling up his fly as he joined in the laughter. He had a gun slung casually over one shoulder, and a bottle of beer clamped under an arm.
“Let's get this show on the road”, he hollered.
The first man glared at the boy, and swung his chin towards one of the vans. The boy slouched over, causing Meg to melt further into the shadows. She reached into her pocket, pulled out the camera, and began to take shots of the men's faces, and as much background detail as she could see from where she crouched. The photographer in her recognised the opportunity to capture some candid shots of whatever was about to happen. Inwardly, she thanked her stars that she had decided to pack up before heading over. She had a bad feeling she wasn't going to like what she was about to see.
The boy dumped a crate next to his father, and Meg caught her breath. In it were two small dogs. At least, she thought they were, they were so filthy and matted looking.
The music faded to a bearable level as one of the men turned the stereo down, and the three turned their attention to the dog tied in the centre of the space.
“Right, this is how it's going to go. That there is a military mutt. Highly trained in something or other. It's not gonna want to do what we're gonna to make it do, but once it gets the idea, l reckon we'll have a prize-winning dog to hand over to the boss.” He grinned broadly at the other two, and they laughed dutifully.
“Joey,” he said, turning to the boy. “It's your job to keep it disorientated. That's what the firecrackers are for.”
“Aww, Pa, Mom said l could bait it this time,” he whined.
“Shut your trap, you do what l tell you out here, not your Mam.” He seemed to soften a bit, and placed his hand on the boy's shoulder. “You do a good job and l'll let you put her in the pit when we get home.” The boy brightened up at that.
Meg felt herself grow cold, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. They were dog fighters about to test a new dog, the big Alsatian. She felt bile rise in the back of her throat. Slowly, she pocketed her camera as a deep rage began to form. She was not going to let this happen. From a long pocket in the leg of her trousers, she pulled a collapsible baton, the cool smoothness in her hand triggering the familiar pre-fight focus. She began to work her way around behind them as they continued to talk.
“It don't matter which one you chuck in first Travis,” he said, turning to the man with the gun. “Just make sure it makes plenty of noise. Break one of it's legs first or something, they're so small, they'll snap like chicken legs. We'll pick up something bigger on the way home, and test her out in the pit, see how she gets on.” He rubbed his hands together in excitement and made to stand up.
It was at that moment that all hell broke loose. He never made it to a standing position. One moment he was pushing himself up, the next he fell to his knees with a howl as Meg drove the baton into the back of his right knee, then pulled back and hit him first in the kidney, then a blow to the head that pole-axed him. The second man, slowed by alcohol and surprise, barely had time to reach for his shotgun when Meg pivoted and drove the baton into his crotch. He gave a grunt as he doubled over, and Meg's next blow was an uppercut to his chin that sent him tilting to one side. Meg swung around to the boy, to find herself within swinging distance of a hunting knife. Distantly, she heard all three dogs barking, but her attention was wholly focused on the boy.
“Put it down,” she said, her voice measured and calm. “Or I'll break your arm.”
The boy's eyes widened as he jabbed and swung wildly at her in response, but she ducked easily and stepped forward into his attack, coming up on the other side of him. A single swipe of the baton, and his arm broke. The hunting knife fell to the floor as the boy stumbled back, screaming as he clutched his arm.
A single glance at the two men on the floor told her that she had some time, but not long. She wished she had something to tie them up with to give her more time to get away, but grabbing the knife off the ground, she made do with slashing their tyres. The boy was huddled on the other side of the fire, his face wet with tears as he clutched his arm. She had no sympathy for him. Act like an adult, get treated like one, she thought. In a few steps, she was at the side of the Alsatian. She had no idea how it would react, but it sat there, regarding her intently.
“Well,” she said softly. “You've got yourself in a bit of a pickle, haven't you?” She took the knife, sliced cleanly through the leash, and wrapped it around her hand. When she tugged it, the dog came with her without protest. Inwardly she sent a short prayer of thanks, tucked the knife in her belt and picked up the small dog crate with her free hand. Without a backwards look, she took off at a run.
In the dark, she knew which way to go, and she could read the stars for direction, but let the dog guide them around the smaller obstacles. With the extra weight and awkwardness of the crate, it took longer than she'd hoped to get back to her pickup. She opened the door and the Alsatian jumped straight in. She slid the crate in next to it, and looked back towards the ridge. The little dogs were whining, so she couldn't hear if anyone was following, but she doubted it. The men didn't look like running would be their first choice. Allowing herself a small grin of triumph, she pulled herself into the cab, and seconds later, was speeding down the dirt track and into the night.
Joe bounded out of his chair at the sound of whooping.
“What's going on, has she been found?” He asked, but the question was redundant as soon as he saw his friend's face. Blue was grinning from ear to ear. It was the first smile Joe had seen on his friend's face in a week.
“She's safe. Sadie's been found.” He crowed. Joe punched him on the shoulder, happy for his friend.
“Told you she'd be fine. There was no way she'd go through everything that's happened to her, just to be dog-napped.” They both turned towards the door as two other men walked into the office. Both men immediately guessed the news, and they joined in the congratulations.
'What did the boss tell you?' asked Jax. He stood nearly as tall as Blue, and although he was two years younger, his dark beard and hair were already shot through with silver.
“Only that she was picked up by some woman out in the desert, and she's dropping her off tomorrow morning. It was the veterinary centre that treated Sadie that called, they got our number from the WDMS database. They didn't give much information, other than that they're treating her for dehydration and an infected cut. Damn, it's going to be good to get her back.”
The others agreed. Sadie had been retired ws a working dag the previous year, and was now regarded by the team as something of a mascot, though she was Blue's dog through and through. She would go with the others willingly enough, if necessary, but given a chance, she stuck to Blue like a shadow.
A little while later, Blue pushed back his chair, and put his hands behind his neck, stretching out the knots in his muscular back. He was trying to concentrate, but having a hard time of it.
Sadie had been his companion through two tours in the military. Trained as an IED detection dog, she had saved countless lives through her training, and Blue, as her handler, couldn't be more proud of her.
When Sadie had gone missing, snatched from his car, he had been convinced she had been stolen to order. There were people out there who liked the idea of owning a 'military dog', though few knew the reality of what caring for one actually meant. He couldn't imagine the stress she had to have been under the last week, and was eternally grateful that someone had taken the trouble to see that she got home again. Tomorrow morning couldn't come soon enough.
Two days later, and Blue was seriously pissed, and frustrated. There had been no sign of the woman who was supposed to return his dog, and no word from her either. A call to the veterinary clinic had yielded a phone number and first name, but the phone was permanently turned off. He'd run a quick check on the number, but it was a pay-as-you-go and hadn't been registered. All sorts of theories had been going through his head, none of them with a happy ending. The most likely one was that the woman had decided to keep Sadie. In some respects, he couldn't blame her, she was a special dog, loving, loyal, and highly trained. On the other hand, Sadie was his, and as soon as the weekend came round and he could get away from work, he was jumping in his car and driving straight to the veterinarian who had treated her to begin tracking the woman down. He knew Beau wouldn't stop him if he decided to leave now, but his work was too important to leave, even for Sadie.
That was his best case scenario. Other possibilities, that she had sold Sadie, or lost interest and dropped her off at a shelter, made his blood boil just at the thought.
As his thoughts went round again, he pushed his powerful six foot three frame out of his chair and gazed out of the window. He'd go for a run at lunchtime he decided, blow off some of his negativity. There would be good reason for the delay he decided. There was still time for Sadie to come home.
A knock at the door caused him to turn round. It was Jax. His white teeth gleamed through his dark stubble.
“She's here'” was all he needed to say, then pushed the door open further and stood back as Blue charged through.
“She's by the entrance.” He called out after Blue and laughed, shaking his head. The woman who returned Sadie had no idea what she was about to face.
Meg stood next to her pickup feeling tired and sore. She pushed a greasy lank of hair off her face, wishing she'd tied it back. The three men striding towards her were making her feel more inadequate the closer they came. They were all tall, powerfully built, and drop-dead gorgeous, especially the one in the middle, though his brows were drawn down in an intense frown. She knew he was Sadie's owner because his gaze was focused on her pickup, not on her. He was a shade taller than the other two, but not as built as the guy on his right, who looked like his muscles had muscles. Unlike the man on his other side, he was clean shaven, and there was a deeply etched worry line between his brows. She knew she had probably caused that, though she hadn't been able to help the delay. Her line of thought was interrupted. “That's my dog, l want her back. You've got no right to keep hold of her.” Blue snapped at the woman. He shrugged Jax's hand off his arm. All his worry and frustration bubbled to the surface. He knew he was being unreasonable, but the woman was standing there, making no effort to get Sadie out of the truck.
She regarded him calmly. If she felt surprise or resentment at how he had spoken to her, she didn't show it. “I want to make sure you actually are Pickle's owner before l gave her back.” There was no trace of humour in her voice. “But you seem more angry than pleased to see her back, so make no mistake, if Pickle doesn't want to go to you, we're out of here.” She reached over and opened the door, giving a little tilt of her head to the dog. Sadie jumped out, stretched lazily, then sat demurely next to the woman.
Blue was floored. Firstly, did she just call Sadie 'Pickle'? That was a ridiculous name for a decorated military dog. Secondly, why was Sadie sitting next to her, like she was meant to be there. The woman's hand rested lightly on Sadie's head. “Right, sure, and how exactly would you stop me getting my dog back?” He snarled. Max stepped in front of Blue, forcing him to snap his glare from Meg to Max. “Hey Dude, what's the matter with you? She's brought Sadie back, and she's making sure she's going back to a good home. You're acting a little crazy.” Blue took a breath. Max was right, what was going on? He never reacted like this. Stressful situations made him crazy calm, not... plain crazy.
Meg tilted her head, eyes narrowing, her body tensing in anticipation. Next to her, Sadie picked up on her tension, and a low rumble escaped her throat. That more than anything Max said cleared Blue's head. He didn't know what his dog had been through the last few days, but this was not the way to welcome her back. He put his hand on his friend's shoulder, and gave a tight smile. “Thanks Max. I needed to hear that.” He stepped past his friend, and spread his hands out. “I'm sorry, I've been going a little stir crazy imagining all the things that might have happened to my dog. We've been through a lot together and when you didn't show when we were expecting you, l didn't know what to think. Please forgive me. Believe it or not, l am so happy to see you here.”
Meg nodded, but remained guarded, and crouched down, feeling a sudden wave of sadness. They'd been through a lot the past few days, and she had quickly become attached to her. At least she knew that Pickle was going back to a good owner. That was clear from the devastated look on the man's face when she'd threatened to take the dog away again. She guessed he'd expected Pickle to go straight to him.
“OK sweetheart, be a good girl now, I'm going to miss you,” she murmured sadly into the dog's ear, nuzzling against Pickle's face. The dog turned her head, and licked Meg's chin. Meg stood and took a deep breath. “I'm sorry it took longer than expected. My phone broke, and we had to visit another vets. I've pretty much driven here on fumes.”
She looked down at Pickle and with a single command, released the dog. Sadie began to walk towards the men, her tail sweeping hugely from side to side, whining her pleasure deep in her throat. Blue sank to his knees and grabbed hold of Sadie's ruff, pulling her into his embrace. As he did so, the knot deep inside him started to unravel. They'd been through so much together, during his time in Iraq, working with Sadie to seek out and diffuse IEDs. They'd both been injured, both came out the other side and came home, always together, and Sadie's retirement had come at the same time as Blue was discharged, so there was never any doubt that Sadie would come home with him.
Meg also relaxed as she watched the big man melt at the welcome his dog gave him. Both looked like they could happily spend the rest of the afternoon saying hello to each other, and the men to either side of him both looked happy to wait indefinitely. Meg wasn't in a hurry. She hadn't been joking when she said she'd driven there on fumes. In addition to Sadie's vet bills – Meg realised she'd have to get used to Pickle's real name – the little Papillon had suffered a fractured leg, and all three had needed a visit to a grooming parlour, as well as all the endless essential accessories it seemed three dogs needed. From new collars, beds, leads, food, bowls, the list was exhaustive, and had pretty much drained her bank account dry. The last two nights she'd slept in the back of the pickup rather than pay for a motel. The result was a crick in her neck that was giving her a tension headache. She knew she smelt, and she had a cut on her stomach that needed looking at. Normally she wouldn't care about any of that. When she was out in some remote place for weeks on end, how she looked was the least of her concerns, but faced with three men she could only describe as incredibly fit as well as good looking, all her girly instincts were rising to the surface.
Eventually Blue climbed back to his feet. He was suddenly aware that he had been less than appreciative to the woman who had returned Sadie to him. He put on his best smile and stepped forward, holding out his hand.
“Thank you. I'm sorry l was so abrupt, I've not taken Sadie's absence well, and when you didn't turn up the other day, I've been in a bit of a funk ever since.”
Jax snorted. “Just a bit.” He laughed as Meg shook Blue's hand. “If you hadn't arrived today, we were seriously thinking of relegating him to a stock check in the basement or something, just so we didn't have to see his sad-sack face slouching around all day. I'm Jax, and this gentleman on the other side of Blue is Joe.' Meg shook hands with both.
“I'm Meg, and I'm happy I've managed to return Sadie to you. It's a shame l can't say the same for the other two in the cab,” she said, gesturing to the two small dogs sat patiently on the dashboard, watching them all intently.
“They weren't micro-chipped, and the area l found them all in didn't have either reported as missing, so goodness knows who their owners are. I guess that's me now. Not that l mind, I've kind of gotten used to having them around the last few days.” She pushed her dark hair off her face and smiled fondly at the little dogs.
“Wait, you found all three together?” asked Blue in confusion. “I thought you found Sadie wandering in the desert?”
Meg frowned. “There's a bit more to it than that. I didn't give the veterinary centre the full story. I guess l need to tell you all about it before l leave, but, no offence, this isn't really the place.”
Blue took a closer look at the woman standing in front of him. She looked exhausted. Dark circles underlined her eyes, her greasy hair was clearly bothering her, the way she kept pushing it away from her face. Her clothes were dusty and stained, and as he took a proper look at her, he realised that some of the stains were probably blood. There was definitely more of a story behind her appearance than she had let on, and Blue realised he wanted to know what it was. Not just to put his mind at rest about what had happened to Sadie in the past week, but also because the woman intrigued him.
“Pull up in a parking place, we've got a bedsit at the top of the building you can use tonight. Bring your things in, there's a washing machine, you can wash anything that needs it, have a shower and chill for a while, then tonight dinner's on me, the rest of the team will be back, and you can give us all the full story.”
Meg considered his offer. He hadn't yet mentioned reimbursing her for Sadie's vet bills, and without that money, she wasn't going anywhere until her next check. Added to that, she was tired, in a bone-deep way. She needed a good night's sleep in a clean bed in clean clothes after a long hot shower. It was the thought of the shower that swayed her.
Blue watched the woman closely, wondering what she would decide. He liked how she considered her answer before she spoke, how she took her time instead of gabbling out her first thought.
Meg smiled, and Blue let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. “That would be great, thank you.”
Blue watched as Meg pulled the pickup into a space next to the entrance, then helped her pull a large backpack from the back of her pickup. She didn't protest when he took it from her and slipped it over his shoulder. She picked a dog up in each arm, and kicked the door shut.
“What's up with your truck?” He asked conversationally as they walked into the team's offices, Sadie leading the way as if she had never left.
“Oh, l have no idea. It's been making that clanking noise intermittently the last fifty miles, I've been driving with my fingers crossed hoping it would make it here.”
“You should have got it into a mechanics straight away. You've probably made whatever's wrong with it ten times worse.”
“No shit,” she replied without rancour. “Of course, then I'd not be here now and you'd be even more pissed than you were ten minutes ago.”
Blue took the reprimand, knowing he deserved it. He had some serious making up to do to prove to her that his hissy fit had been a one-off . He decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and work on her truck, it was the least he could do.
He led her up to the top floor, where they'd made a small bedsit. It was there for anyone who needed to work late or overnight. Sometimes it was used by the people they rescued as part of their operations. The main room had a queen size bed in the corner, a galley kitchen along one wall, fully equipped with a fridge, cooker and washer/ dryer, and a bathroom which had been created by taking a corner out of the room. In an alcove was a comfortable settee and small television. They'd all used it from time to time, when work had kept them there late, or the offices had needed someone on hand at all times. The offices were functional and cluttered, but the bedsit, and the snug in the basement, were havens away from the bustle of their working life.
He dumped her rucksack by the washer. “Feel free to use all the facilities, everything's fully stocked. Any problems, there's an intercom by the door, just buzz down and someone – probably me to be honest – can sort it out. Come down about six, or I'll ring up and let you know when the others have arrived. We'll get pizza in and you can tell us Sadie's adventures.” He was hoping for a smile, but she just nodded gravely and thanked him.
The sun was low in the sky when Meg woke up. She felt so relaxed she wished she could stay in bed until she went back to sleep again. Instead, she turned her head to see what time it was, but a cool box by the bed caught her eye. She propped herself up on one elbow, wincing as the cut on her stomach pulled. There was a note on top of the cooler. “Mollie and Stan are with Sadie, come down when you're ready”. Meg smiled, and opened the crate. Inside, on a bed of freezer blocks was a glass of orange juice and a peanut butter sandwich. “Oh my word,” she murmured. It was like someone had reached into her mind and seen her perfect breakfast. The orange juice had bits in it, and the peanut butter was crunchy, both just the way she liked them. She sat up in bed and enjoyed the mini feast. She still had a headache, and she felt a little shivery, as if she was coming down with something, but she figured she was still tired and stressed from the last couple of days.
When she had finished, she clambered out of bed, stretched lazily and padded over to the window. In the late afternoon sunlight, six vehicles gleamed in a neat line in the car park. They weren't new cars on the whole, or particularly fancy, except for the classic Impala at the end of the row. If anything, the cars tended towards the nondescript, but they all looked well cared for. She noticed that the gates had been closed. She wondered for a brief minute whether she had made the wisest choice. After all, she was in a strange building, with at least six strangers judging by the number of cars, but the veterinary receptionist had checked out the company Blue worked for, or at least as much as he'd been able to find out, which hadn't been a lot, but they did seem to have been around for a number of years. The few news articles she had brought up on the screen seemed to portray the company as one held in high regard by the people who had used their services. Everyone from a single mother who had had her children returned to her when her estranged husband had snatched her children and taken them abroad, to a large multinational who had engaged their services to find out who had been making death threats to their employees. There were hints in the articles of other dealings, women and children rescued from sex trafficking, and a drug cartel taken down with their help. They seemed like the good guys, and Meg hadn't met many who would fit that description.
The gates opened, and Meg watched as Blue and Sadie jogged into the car park. He wore only trainers and jogging bottoms, and he had clearly been for a long run judging by the sheen on his torso, but he still seemed full of energy. Stopping inside the entrance, he looked up, saw her, and waved. Oh God, she thought, had he noticed she'd been staring at him? She lifted a hand to wave back, mortified. He grinned and headed into the building, and Meg let out the breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding. She'd seen well built men before, and she couldn't say they affected her much. In her experience, the bigger the muscles, the more preoccupied with himself the man tended to be. But there was something about Blue that she liked, a lot. Maybe it was because he hadn't made an issue of his physique or looks. In fact, none of the men she'd met that afternoon had. Still, she reflected, it wasn't as if she was the type of woman men went out of their way to impress, and she had developed a persona to ensure she went under most people's radar.
Meg noticed that someone, probably whoever had left her sandwich, had also transferred her clothes to the tumble dryer. It wasn't like her to sleep so deeply, and it bothered her that she hadn't been woken by the sound of someone moving around in the room. Had Blue come back in again? Or one of the others? Or maybe he had knocked, and she hadn't heard that either. Shrugging to herself, she put it to one side and dumped her clothes onto the floor. Well, at least now she had clean clothes to wear downstairs. With a small pang of regret, she stripped off the comfortable vest top and boxers she'd been wearing and picked out her usual outfit, combat trousers, long sleeved top and baggy plaid shirt. They were rumpled and old, but at least they were clean and smelled fresh. From under her pillow she pulled her baton, and stashed it in a trouser pocket.
Wandering back over to the window, she looked out over the car park. There was no sign of her truck. Maybe she'd lost her bearings slightly and she was on a different side of the building than she'd thought. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone knocking on the door. Blue waited for her to call out before he entered. One look at her standing in the light of the late afternoon sun, and he felt a sucker punch to his stomach. She was gorgeous. He'd had a passing thought that under the muck and dirt was an attractive woman, but she was so much more than that. Her still damp hair was tied in a soft plait and fell over one shoulder. The combination of auburn hair, pale skin and dark blue eyes was arresting, especially the way she was gazing at him, waiting for him to speak. He realised that he was staring, and cleared his throat.
“Are you ready to meet everyone?” He asked.
“I guess so,” she replied with a shrug. He had said that he wanted her to tell his friends how she'd found Sadie, but she'd been hoping the two of them could sit on the couch in the bedsit, and she could just tell him how she had found Sadie, then go back to bed. She wasn't sure she wanted to meet a group of big, loud men who would probably have more questions for her than she wanted to answer. Instead, she let Blue guide her to the stairs.
“Tell me about your work colleagues, they seem interesting.” She asked as they walked downstairs, wanting to know what she was about to let herself in for.
“They're not just work colleagues, they're family. We started this business together, originally the four of us, me, Beau, Maxim and Joe. Jax joined us a few years ago, and Rum's our latest addition. Every now and again we'll work with other people, or organisations, but this group of ours, we're family, that's the only way l can describe us.”
Blue stopped on the stairs, turned back to Meg and and leaned against the wall, his hands in his pockets. Meg had been right behind, and nearly bumped into him. She found herself closer to him than she was comfortable with. Not because she was intimidated by him, more down to an overwhelming desire to breath in his mixed scent of aftershave and bodywash. Clearly he had showered after his run, his hair was damp, and he had taken the time to shave. He smelled fresh and clean. She fought down her instinct to back away, and leaned a shoulder against the wall too, watching his face in profile as he spoke.
“So, where to begin,” he said, gathering his thoughts. He needed to tread a fine line between telling her enough that she would see how much he valued his friends, what an incredible group of men he worked with, and revealing too much about what they did, and how they did it. While she'd been asleep, he'd checked her truck and belongings for electronic bugs and hidden cameras. He felt a little bad about going through her things, especially as all he'd found was that all her belongings were old and well-worn, except for her camera equipment, which was seriously impressive. He liked what he'd seen of her so far. She was gutsy and took incredible photographs, and he was pretty sure she was on the level, but she was still largely an unknown quantity at the moment. It was possible that she was a ringer – someone sent in to infiltrate their business for any number of reasons. In his gut, he believed she was simply someone who'd found his dog, but his natural caution made him more guarded than he wanted to be. The background check he had carried out that afternoon, based on her truck's number-plate hadn't revealed a lot, and there were gaping holes some years where she had seemed to simply disappear, with no transactions or tax returns. It was clear she had an interesting past of some sort.
Blue pulled his thoughts together. “Beau is our boss, though he hates us calling him that. He's the one who decides what cases we're going to take on. His wife's Debbie, you'll meet her tonight. She does admin a few hours a week. He doesn't tend to do field work so much any more, but he coordinates and organises us.
Maxim's Beau's oldest friend, you met him this afternoon. He's the quietest, and he misses nothing. He can be a bit pedantic about details, but he's the ladies favourite. Seriously, we go to a bar, he'd the one they all gravitate to. Probably because he's not interested in just picking up a woman for the night.
Jax is the only other one of us who's married. They're childhood sweethearts, you'll meet Sue tonight as well if they can find a babysitter. Sue's sweet, a real gentle soul. What Jax doesn't know about weaponry and explosives and shit isn't worth knowing. He's a bit outspoken. If you annoy him, you'll know about it.
Rum joined us last year. He's the baby of the group, only 24. He was medically discharged from the army when he lost part of one hand. It hasn't slowed him down, but the army's loss is our gain, he's been invaluable to us.”
“I feel like you've just given me their work CVs.” She joked. “I really wanted to know what they're like. Are they funny, kind, serious? Do they notice if you're having a bad day? If you borrow a twenty off one of them, are they on your doorstep in the morning for it, or do they never mention it again because they know you'll be the first to offer when they need something?”
Blue smiled, lines crinkling around his eyes as he turned his head towards her. “All of the above, except for the doorstep bit.”
“I'm glad. It's great that you've got people you can rely on.” She said. She loved the way he looked when he talked about his friends. The way his face opened up and relaxed, the hint of a dimple when he smiled, it made him look younger, less careworn. She forced herself to break eye contact. Oh man, she had been single way too long, she was in danger of developing a major crush.
“What about you?” Blue asked. “Have you got people you can rely on? Friends, family?” He hoped to hell she had, though she hadn't mentioned once about phoning or contacting anyone. She had said that her phone had broken, but he hadn't see a replacement phone on charge in the room to suggest she'd made any calls while he'd been gone.
“Oh sure, I've got some family, though they live a fair distance away, so l don't get back as much as I'd like. I've got like, uh, friends l can call on if l need them.” She replied.
He turned fully towards her. “Why are you lying to me Meg?”
She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment. Somehow she wasn't surprised that he'd seen straight through her bullshit. She wavered between sticking to her story, and daring him to prove her wrong, and brutal honesty. To her own surprise, she chose the latter. “Because you seem like the protective type, and a bit too inquisitive, and if l tell you l have no friends or family, that probably makes me both sad and lonely in your eyes, when you're surrounded by such great people, and I'm neither sad nor lonely. It also makes me vulnerable to being exploited if people find out I'm alone, and that's just annoying having to prove l can stand up for myself. And mainly because l don't want you feeling sorry for me, because that'll just make me feel crappy about myself. I'm not some charity case that needs rescuing.” And l don't want to see pity in your eyes when you look at me, she thought to herself.
He regarded her for such a long time, Meg felt herself beginning to blush under his scrutiny.
“I don't think you feel sad, but l do think you're lonely Meg, you've just been on your own so long you probably don't even recognise it. I think you're so determined not to admit you're lonely that you don't let yourself get close to people just to prove that you didn't need them anyway.” Meg had no reply to that, and thankfully Blue didn't seem to expect one. He turned back, and carried on down the stairs, with Meg trailing behind.
The snug wasn't particularly large, and looked smaller as three sides of it consisted of deep, comfortable looking couches and over sized armchairs, with a big coffee table filling the area in the middle. There was a slight smell of old cigar smoke which evoked a memory in Meg of her grandparent's house, and her grandfather smoking a cigar on his porch in the evenings. With the low ceiling and subdued lighting, the effect was, as it was intended to be, calming. Most of the seats were filled with four men and two women. They all looked like strong, confident, and their combined bulk made the room seem even more crowded. In a seat at the far end sat a man with a woman curled up on his lap, and another woman sat with her head resting on the shoulder of the man next to her. She remembered from seeing him earlier that day that his name was Jax. Blue took Meg's hand and guided her into the room, but she tried to hang back. She'd never been great at fitting in, or being at parties where she didn't know anyone, and that reticence had gotten worse over the last few years as she'd spent more time on her own.
The situation was resolved for her, when she was nudged in the back by a stack of pizzas.
“Can you take these for me please, and stick them on the table, I'm going back for the rest.” Said the man holding them. There seemed like a lot of pizza for nine people, but Meg extricated her hand from Blue's, and took them dutifully. When she turned back, all eyes were on her.
“She comes bearing pizza.” Said one voice.
“Now that's the way to enter a room.” Said another.
“Well, clear a space so the poor girl can put them down.” This time it was a woman's voice.
“Here, let me take them for you, and come sit yourself down down next to me,” rumbled Blue. She smiled shyly, glad he was momentarily blocking everyone's view.
“There's a lot of people here.” She murmured.
“I promise they're all friendly. Well, once they're fed anyway, and once you get to know them, it won't seem so many.” He took the pizzas from her, set them down on the table, then before she could move, turned back and took her hand. He led her over to the couch nearest the door, and settled her down, before sitting next to her. He kept hold of her hand, and though she knew she should take it back, she found it steadying in the roomful of strangers. She realised too that he had sat her in a position where she could easily get to the door, and where he was effectively sat between her and his friends. He must have known she'd find the situation a little overwhelming, and felt herself relax against him, realising he was looking out for her.
“Thank you.” She said quietly. He turned his face a fraction towards her and dropped her the slightest wink.
Soon the room was full of quiet conversation and the chink of glasses as the stack of pizzas and soft drinks were demolished. Meg was hungry too, but the anticipation of having to talk to a roomful of strangers drove her appetite away, and she contented herself with picking the toppings off a slice of pizza and quietly observing the men around her.
She had met Jax and Maxim earlier that day, so she guessed that the woman sat with Jax was his wife, Sue. The petite woman smiled shyly at Meg whenever they made eye contact. Maxim sat opposite them, his huge bulk filling one of the oversized sofa chairs. His big, bristly beard made him look older than Meg thought he actually was, and that combined with the tattoos and mucscles made him look a little intimidating. Except that he was feeding Mollie, the little papillion curled up on his lap, scraps of pepperoni off his pizza.
On the couch next to Maxim was a couple Meg guessed was the boss Beau, and his wife Debbie. Blue had said Beau was the oldest of the group. He was the only one wearing a suit and tie, although the tie had been loosened, and the jacket was thrown over the back of the couch. His shirt strained against his pecs each time he leaned forward. He had salt-and pepper hair and a neatly trimmed beard set him apart from the others.
She guessed the man who had part of one hand missing was Rum, as Blue had said he had been medically discarged from the army. She noticed he tended to keep the hand out of sight, although he did it so naturally, she doubted even he was aware of it. The other man, Joe, sat with his cell phone on the arm of the couch, his eyes drawn periodically to it. Whatever messages he was receiving he didn't look happy with them, and after a time, he turned it off and slipped the cell phone into a pocket with a sigh.
After a while, as the rate of eating slowed, Blue raised his glass and cleared his throat. The quiet flow of conversation ebbed.
“So guys, l know you're all as happy to have Sadie back as l am, thanks to Meg.” There were a few appreciative nods, and a general lifting of glasses in mini salutes. From under the coffee table, Sadie sleepily thumped her tail twice at hearing her name, then settled again. The little dog Stan curled up against Sadie's chest didn't move at all. “It turns out there's more to the story of how that happened than we first thought, so Meg is going to tell us exactly what happened, then we can talk about what we're going to do about it.” All eyes turned to Meg, but she was looking at Blue, a stubborn set to her jaw that he was starting to recognise.
“I haven't said much about what happened. How do you there's more to it than a long drive?”
“I'm observant.” He replied succintly.
“Don't miss a detail out about returning Sadie. If Blue's right, and there's more to this than we thought, every detail, while it's still fresh, will be important.” Said Beau. He placed his cell phone on the coffee table, started it recording, and nodded to Meg to begin.
The mood settled, and Meg took a deep breath, composing her thoughts.
“I was out at Sheephole Valley Wilderness Park, it's about a day's drive west of here.” A few of the men nodded. They'd done some training exercises out that way a couple of years back. “I'd been commissioned to take night photographs for a book about the place. I took the opportunity to stay there a while, really get to know it, and find good locations for shots. Anyway, I'd been there about a month, I'd got all the photos the publisher had asked for signed off from them, so l was pretty much finished, but l decided to stay another night or two. There were some shots l wanted to try for myself, a few things I'd had in mind.”
“Hold on. “Interrupted Jax. “Are you saying you'd been staying out in the desert for a month. On your own? Alone?”
Meg shrugged. “I didn't say anything, one way or the other, but yes, l was on my own.”
“That seems a bit risky. In fact, it seems a lot risky. What were you doing to protect yourself?”
Meg met his intense gaze coolly “Various things. Can l carry on?”
“Sure do, and we'll carry this conversation on another time.” He took a swig from his bottle and settled back, but he was clearly riled.
Meg watched him for a few seconds more, biting back a retort, then inwardly shrugged. What did she care? When she was done with the story, she'd be leaving in the morning anyway, so she was unlikely to have to listen to a lecture on personal safety she really didn't need.
“That last night, I'd got my shot setup, it was a dark, clear night, no moon, ideal for a long exposure star shot.
“I had everything packed away. I was going to sleep in the cab so l could just up and leave in the morning. I'd decided to celebrate the end of the commission with some time at a hotel a few hours away in Parker.
“Then l heard the bass of music playing somewhere to the east, and l could see a fire. It was fine, it wasn't ideal for my shot, but l didn't think it would affect things - until they set off some fireworks. I could hear shouting, firecrackers going off. It's surprising how far sound carries out there, it's fairly flat. With the light interference from the fireworks, the shot was useless. I packed up and was just deciding between driving away or settling down for the night, but on an impulse, l decided to try for some candid shots at whatever was going on.”
“Stupid move.” Jax muttered. His wife Sue placed a hand on his arm and shot him a warning look.
“Fuck you.” Said Meg distinctly. “If you want to hear what happened, keep your opinions to yourself, or the only other part of this story you hear will be the sound of the door closing as l walk out.”
They locked stares until Blue leaned forward between them. “Let's cool it a little. Jax, let's hear what she's got to say. Please.” He added. Jax nodded and Blue sat back. Meg broke the stare. God, she was not used to this much male over-protectiveness, and she wasn't sure she could take much more of it. She wasn't used to her decisions being questioned and criticised so openly.
She took a steadying breath, and carried on. “The camp was a little under a mile off l guess. It took a while to get there, l was trying to be careful. They were on a bit of a rise, which was helpful for staying out of sight, but l needn't have worried. They had two trucks parked in a v-shape, and a big fire going a little way in front of them. I've got a load of photos btw, l'll download them for you if you want them. They might help in identifying the men.”
“There were two men, early forties l guess, and kid about fifteenish. They were drinking, and throwing firecrackers at this dog. At Sadie as l know now, tied up in the middle of the space. They thought it was funny she wasn't reacting to the noise, so they were trying to see how close they could get the firecrackers before she did something. I took a more few photos and started listening in. It was pretty apparent they were dog fighters and they were there to 'train' Sadie.”
“Bastards.” Swore Joe. The others joined in with similar words of disgust.
“They were casual about it, l don't think it was their usual place to do it, if you get what l mean. I think it was a sort of men's weekend away with a bit of dog fighting throw in.
“One of the men, he was sitting on this crate with two little dogs in it. Stan and Mollie that is. The idea was to terrorise Sadie until she went a bit crazy, then throw the little dogs at her, give her a taste of killing, then gradually work up to bigger dogs. They were confident they could make her a winner.” Meg hesitated. “This is the thing though. I don't think they actually took part in the organised dog fights. From what they were saying, they got the dogs, trained them, weeded out the ones that couldn't hack it, and sold them on. They said Sadie had a week to get trained before her new owner wanted her ready to fight.
“Well, l couldn't let any of that happen, obviously. When one of them stood up, l stood up too, knocked him out, incapacitated the other, then disarmed the boy. I...”
Meg was drowned out by the others.
“What do you mean, knocked him out?”
“Fuck, you took down all three?”
Meg waited for the fuss to die down, inwardly smiling to herself. She'd deliberately kept that part short. She'd show them she was no delicate flower, to be sheltered and protected for her own good. She was certain that in a fight with any of these men, she wouldn't win, but she'd put up a decent fight, no matter their size.
When the noise died down, she carried on.
“The first man, l took him down as he stood up.” She reached into her leg pocket and drew out her baton, and with a quick flick of her wrist extended it out. There were appreciative sounds from several of the men, and Blue held out a hand for Meg to hand it to him for a closer look. “Back of the knees to drive him down, then a strike to the head knocked him out.” Blue handed her the baton back. She contracted it down, and put it back in her pocket.
“The second man was just unslinging his shotgun.” She heard Blue's sharp intake of breath. “One hit in the balls and the second to the stomach winded him, then l broke his nose and knocked him out.”
“The boy.” She hesitated “I genuinely didn't want to hurt him. I warned him to drop the knife, some big-ass hunting blade he was waving around like a light sabre. Ironically, he was the only one to do any damage. If he'd actually known what he was doing with it, l could have disarmed him easier, but the way he was waving it around I'm surprised he didn't poke his own eye out. I broke his arm, that was enough. He'll be fine.”
“I needed to get out of there, and fast, so l untied Sadie. I wasn't sure how she'd react, but l figured even if she just took off into the night, that was still a better fate than what they'd had planned for her, but she came willingly enough. I grabbed the crate with the two dogs in it, and high-tailed it out of there. Got back to the truck, threw them all in the cab and didn't look back.”
“That was well done, if insanely risky.” Said Blue.
“Not really.” She replied. “I had the element of surprise for starters. l knew they weren't expecting anything to happen, certainly not someone appearing out of the dark and hitting them in the balls.” She looked over at Jax, then swept her gaze around the room. “I've taken on harder fights, and been less certain of coming out on top. I'm not reckless, or impulsive. I weighed the odds and had a plan. Believe it or not, you're not the only ones in this room who can handle themselves.” She spoke with complete conviction, and the room fell silent.