Four Years Ago
They were back.
Display advertisements in the San Francisco papers seeking Calypso Swale, a missing heiress, preceded the watchers by two weeks. Only six months before, Calypso was sunning herself on the deck of a borrowed villa in Mustique when she noticed binoculars trained on her. She disappeared with the help of friends, landing in San Francisco clutching a passport bearing a new name and the take from her father’s safe. She rented a house and found a job at the Dolce and Gabbana store on Grant Street. She loved working, she hadn’t thought she would, but she did. She met the right people, many on the Social Register, wormed her way into their graces, and got paid for doing so.
Now, the watchers were back.
She spotted the first one gaping at her via her reflection in a store window as she passed. Every day since, she had been surveilled as she arrived for work and at the end of her shift as she trotted to catch the bus at the corner of Geary and Kearny. No matter which watcher it was, he wore casual dress clothes with sneakers. Who does that? Someone sent to return her to the East Coast to take her lumps, that’s who.
She was prepared to run if need be, her camping gear, hatchet, just-in-case knapsack, and parka, all from REI, were in the trunk of her silver Lexus sedan. What remained of her father’s cash and the envelope he handed her fourteen months ago were sewn in the lining of her purse. Not much of the money remained, she had wasted it on the feel of silk against her skin, cashmere over her shoulders, and chemicals which she kept dry in a tin lunchbox bearing a portrait of the young Captain James T. Kirk. The colorful box with the plastic handle was wrapped in lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, stuffed in a tote, and tucked behind the front seat of her car.
She scurried through her workdays. At night, she prepared to be a bridesmaid for a co-workers wedding at the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas. She had her favorite Gucci dress cleaned at a laundry specializing in haute couture. The dress and the matching slingback Jimmy Choo shoes were boxed and on the backseat of her sedan. She dreamed of watching the Bellagio water jets at the front of the casino dance to soaring music while holding her dream man’s hand, knowing it was a chimera. She would never make her friend’s wedding. The tall, dark, and handsome dream man with his well-cut jaw and broad shoulders might never be. Still, she kept up pretenses, meeting with friends, speed dating guys, planning for the wedding, and checking items off her get-out-of-town list.
The Thursday before the wedding, she hustled to her Muni stop, had her pass ready, then jammed herself up and into the bus before her watcher crossed Grant Street. She trotted from the bus stop to her rented home on Noe Street, changed into jeans, a heavy sweater, and hiking boots, grabbed her luggage, and rushed down the interior stairs to the street level garage.
A footstep, her name, her real name, a hand over her mouth. She spun kicking. The man stepped back. Her knee rammed home. The minute his hands lowered to his crotch; she slammed her elbow into the bridge of his nose. When his back met the garage wall, she climbed into her car and tore into the San Francisco night.
She drove as due east as she could, heading for a parcel of land bequeathed to her great-great-grandfather by his gold rush 49er mining father and so on down to her mother, Virginia Culhane. When her mother told her about the property, Calypso’s imagination was piqued by the girlish romance of owning a piece of California Gold Country. When she checked, she found the property taxes were paid by a private holding company, the land’s existence hidden in a folio of leases and mines that no longer produced.
Months ago, on a lark, she checked out the property. Thank heavens for Google maps, she had the GPS coordinates from the land records and nothing else. Google did the rest. Sending her through the town of Oakhurst in the foothills of the Sierra, then up one poorly maintained tarmac road after another before dumping her onto a deeded tire-track. A barbed-wire gate on rusty hinges marked the only entrance. Barbed wire fencing ringed the 2400-acre property. Red and white No Trespassing signs decorated the wire at thirty-foot intervals. Small tree branches, many with thorns, wove in and out of the wire, making the intent of the signs clear if bullet-riddled Trespassers Will Be Shot signs required clarification.
She ducked under the fence and hiked in a mile or so through heavy timber, fifteen minutes at a steady pace. A log cabin came into view. Reaching it, she stepped onto the covered porch and jiggled the wooden front door held closed by an oft-used padlock. She peered in the two front windows, for all she could see through the dust and grime there might have been six families of raccoons in residence. She sat on the porch, swung her legs, munched a sandwich bought in Oakhurst and hydrated on fancy sparkling water. The tall trees sang. Gusts of wind whipped the grassy meadow fronting the cabin into kaleidoscopic designs. There was magic in the place.
Having finished lunch, she inspected the area around the cabin. The property included a shed, a broken-down windmill, a rusting stamp mill, a bumptious year-round brook, and the entrance to a long-abandoned mine with signs warning would-be prospectors of its dangers. She had never camped, never used an outhouse, never been more than five miles from a grocery store, yet the freedom represented by the property beckoned her. A person could disappear off the grid here, set up a lab, work in peace. Inspired, she took basic survival classes at an REI store on Brannan Street in San Francisco. She made lists based on her courses: lanterns, propane stove, cooking gear, propane bottles, warm socks, whatever made sense to her and purchased the brands her instructors recommended.
Now, she pelted out of the garage onto Noe Street, then across the Bay Bridge, took Highway 580, then down 99 to Madera. According to the National Weather Service app on her smartphone, a winter storm warning was in effect with the snow level as low as two thousand feet. Exiting at Madera, she checked her rearview mirror for followers, no one exited or joined her at the stoplight.
She wound through Madera to Highway 41 then turned toward Yosemite National Park. Snowflakes appeared mixed with the rain at an abandoned bar appropriately named Snowline outside of Oakhurst. At first, the snow slid off the window, nearer rain than snow. Then the rain bounced, nearer ice than snow, finally settling into a wind-driven blizzard. The chain-in station at Big Cedar Springs, a broad curve in the road, was unmanned. She eased past, her windshield wipers smearing frozen snow. Her Lexus handled well on the plowed, sanded roads, but got progressively sloppy on each of the three roads to the property.
Between windshield wiper swipes, the window iced. Soon, only the bottom third of the window was clear. She dialed up the defroster then leaned forward to see. Nearly missing her turn, she skidded onto the rutted tire-track lane that swung through the neighboring parcel. The car slewed violently to the left. The passenger side slammed against the trunk of a tree. Glass shattered. The passenger door creaked inward. She kicked the driver’s side door open and scrambled out. Six inches away, a cliff plunged two-hundred feet to a rumbling, leaping river. She pounded on the hood of her Lexus.
Vented, she took stock of her circumstances. She had to act fast, slight depressions in the snow marked the path to the property, soon the narrow parallel lines that defined it would be hidden under the deepening snow. She snuggled into her REI parka then slid around the car to the trunk for her hatchet. Hatchet in hand, she built a crude cache of small branches chinked with pine needles to keep her suitcases and her party clothes dry, at least until the next thaw, possibly the next day. The weather was fickle at this altitude.
After approving her work, she shrugged into the straps of her green camouflage print knapsack and hung her shoulder purse around her neck. The pack was stocked with freeze-dried foods, a backpacking stove, utensils, and other essential gear. With a backward glance, she started up the snowy lane. A moment later, she stopped. If the Lexus were found, she’d be tracked down in a matter of days. She trotted back to her car. She pulled one of those tools that include a spoon, scissors, a screwdriver, and knives from a side pocket of the knapsack. She fingered open a blade and slit the palm of her left hand.
When the blood flowed, she dabbed it on any surface that seemed logical, including the broken window. Satisfied, she started the car, turned the wheels sharply away from the tree, threw it into gear, pushed, and jumped back. The car bounded down the cliff into the icy stream below dislodging snow-capped rocks and thundering into the hush of snowfall. The car didn’t explode. Instead, it nosed down into the water, its back wheels spinning. She wrapped a scarf around the cut in her hand and disappeared into the swirling wall of the storm, the wind wailing with her every step.
She awoke on a bed of pine boughs and gunny sacks, immobilized by hypothermia, bruised, and hungry, a man’s hand clamped across her mouth. When asked who she was, the name, Jessie Woods tumbled from her lips.