Max, my floppy-eared cocker spaniel, stood on his hind legs and scratched excitedly at the trailer door, his blond stump of a tail wagging back and forth behind him—antics meant to remind me that I hadn't let him out for his morning walk–as if I needed another reminder of how late I was running.
I grabbed the FedEx box from my tiny kitchen table with a sigh and rushed to the door. As I reached for the doorknob, I glanced longingly at the cold coffeemaker on the counter. Time was not on my side and my longing for my morning fix of the hot brew would have to wait until we reached the café.
I had only opened the door a slight few inches when Max squeezed past me and made a mad dash down the metal steps. He ran, zigzagging across the yard in front of the trailer with his nose to the ground.
"Hurry up, Max," I said, walking to my car. If I didn't push him along, he would spend the whole day investigating the scents left by the animals that had scurried past during the night.
Preoccupied, I almost dropped the box on the hood of my burgundy '68 Ford Mustang. I managed to stop myself in time to avoid scratching the newly refurbished paint job, laying it on the ground instead before digging into my jeans pocket for my keys.
I jerked my head around as a sudden movement caught my attention from the corner of my eye. Two squirrels chased each other down a tree and darted across Max's path. I cursed under my breath, anticipating his reaction.
Several high-pitched barks later and the chase was on.
"Max, HEEL!" I shouted with no real hope my words would penetrate his thick skull. Frustrated, I continued yelling as if he could understand my words. "Mrs. Krauss will freak if we don't get to the café soon."
I ran after him, dreading the chewing out in store for me from the café's proprietor when I didn't keep my promise to fix her dishwasher before the morning rush. It had been bad enough when I told her I had to order a part to complete the repair.
The cocker spaniel sprinted too fast for me to catch him, but I wanted to stay close enough to regain control when the squirrels inevitably lost him.
The squirrels dashed across the dilapidated road in front of the trailer with Max close behind. I reached the near side of the road just in time to see them scurry up a tree twenty yards or so away. Max circled the tree, barking wildly, as if trying to figure out how to climb it himself, but his prey had disappeared.
"They're gone, ya silly dog. Now come!" He let out a few more yaps before staring in my direction, his pink tongue lolling out of his mouth. "Come on! We gotta go!"
He darted toward me, tail wagging.
The noise of a fast approaching engine flew to me on the wind. No one in their right mind would drive down this road at that speed. It was suicidal—the curves were too sharp, and a deer could jump in front of you at any time.
Or a dog, I thought as Max placed a paw on the road.
"Max, STAY," I screamed. "Go back!"
The driver didn't brake, hesitate, or otherwise acknowledge that he had noticed either Max or me. I leapt back in horror as a pickup truck sped between us creating a blast of wind so strong that, although it wouldn't have troubled a human, it nearly lifted me into it, causing me to flit away to some unknown destination. Even worse, the cloud of dust it kicked up blocked my view of Max.
My breath shook with fear, terrified of what I might see when the dust settled. I picked up a rock and flung it at the truck, but it missed, and the stone fell to the ground with a thud.
I glared at the pickup as it sped away, too scared of looking over and seeing Max splattered across the road, I watched as the truck's front tire hit a deep pothole as it rounded the next curve, tossing the loosely packed junk in the bed of the truck. A bag spilled off the top and rolled down the bank. The driver didn't seem to notice as he squealed out of sight.
A wet nose and a warm, wiggling body rubbed against my legs. Relief burst through me. I took a few deep breaths to calm my pounding heart.
"Max, how many times do I have to tell you? The squirrels will be the death of you one of these days!" I scolded as I scooped up the cocker spaniel and held him close to my thumping heart.
My ire rose again as my eyes landed on the bag that had fallen from the truck. I put the dog down and stomped over to it, Max trotting beside me. He nearly kills us, then just leaves his junk on the road. Some nerve!
I lifted the black bag, surprised by its weight. It was an old scuffed up backpack with two main compartments and a couple of side pockets. A long zipper ran along the top of the bag and a second secured the compartment on the bottom. I partially unzipped the top and glanced inside to discover a jumble of strange bright orange envelopes. Curious, I lifted one out and opened it to find a bunch of printed photographs and strips of negatives inside. The photographs were old and worn, showing the effects of being handled, shuffled around and shown off.
Photographs never looked sharply focused to my Sidhe eyes, but it was easy to assess that the images were family photos focused mainly on a small boy of four or five.
A plastic label dangled from the lower zipper. A quick glance identified the bag's owner: Walter Strum. Good; I would go tell Mr. Strum exactly what I thought of his driving.
On closer inspection I noticed the address listed on the tag as well, a place in town not that far from the Apple Dumpling Café.
"Shit," I said under my breath as I remembered how late I was. I should have been at the café half an hour ago. I tossed the backpack over my shoulder and sprinted back to my car. Max, for once, followed obediently at my heels.