The oak doors swiveled on their hinges with a squeak and a grown that caused all eyes in the saloon to turn and look, and keep looking, at Petra Morlan.
With her grey penetrating eyes ,and her lavender hair laying in a wave until just past her shoulders, and dressed in jeans, with knee high leather boots and a leather cloak that almost touched the floor, they all knew her, and those that knew her well, knew that gun strapped to her side was not one they wanted to see used.
This saloon didn't attract most women, other than the poor gals that were currently still sleeping in the upstairs rooms. Recovering from a busy night of entertaining the regulars, and last night, fur trappers, that made their annual trip down the mountain and into town yesterday.
Normally Petra wouldn't have stepped one well-heeled boot-clad foot on these dusty, spit laden, whiskey-soaked floors, but today she has no choice.
Denton didn't come home last night.
Petra, although she hated it, knew her brother would stop in at the Rucksack after entering town upon his return from the mountain.
The annual Rendezvous, as it was called, was a time when the mountain men would bring all the furs they had collected into town to sell and trade, and to buy their supplies. After living in nearly complete isolation high on the mountain for a year, it was Denton‘s custom to stop by the Rucksack and drink a few beers with his comrades, exchange a few stories, then head out to the ranch, The Colonnade.
But he never came in last night.
Petra watched and waited. Until she couldn't anymore.
That is when she hopped on her Skeerbike, the crotch rocket, as Denton liked to call it, that hovered several feet off the ground and could race at speeds of 200 mph when pushed, and came straight to the last place her brother would have been seen.
”Petra! If you ain't a sight for sore eyes girl!” this came from Laney Mae, the unofficial leader, and protector of each young woman who found herself working here.
It wasn't an honorable profession, but Laney Mae Prescott was as honorable a person as one would find in a worn-out town like Bender. Laney did what she could to help these girls survive. She had protected Petra herself when at 16 years old Petra showed up one day looking for work and a place that she and her brother could stay. Laney took one look at the beautiful girl and her heart sank. There was no doubt in her mind Josh would hire her. So Laney put Petra to work in the laundry. Hidden away down in the basement where Josh never went. It worked for 2 years. Then little Denton wandered upstairs. Once Josh saw Petra he wanted her for himself. After using her, he offered her to the highest bidder. Fortunately for Petra, an older gentleman named Blake Morlan happened to be in the saloon that night and needed a housekeeper out at his ranch, The Colonnade. Seeing the fear in Petra's eyes, and how young she was, he knew he had to help her. He paid the price and brought her and Denton to his home. A year later he married her. Unfortunately, Blake died of heart failure less than 5 years after they married Leaving Petra and Denton the ranch They were not rich, but Petra knew they were not going to be homeless again. Blake made sure of that. Yet, even 11 years after leaving here, Petra could still feel the hollowness of this place, she hated the Rucksack, and all it stood for, the use of these young women's bodies for the pleasure of drunken men being her chief most complaint, but she loved Laney for her compassion and bravery. More than once she’d pulled a mean drunk away from one of ”her girls ” and threw his ass down the stairs. It was one thing to pay for a romp in the sheets, Laney would say, but it was quite another to physically assault them. Laney wouldn't stand for it. At 6’3” and 200+lbs., very few men would argue with her. The ones that did learned not to.
Laney also did what she could to stop girls from even starting a job here. The problem was, there just were not too many options. Most of these girls came to the Rucksack because they had nowhere else to go. In the year 3090, life in many ways wasn't much better than it was in 1890. It was the wild west all over again, here in Bender anyway.
Laney doesn't hide her concern. She knows Petra holds a special hatred for this place and the man who owns it. Josh Crowley. Only something dire would bring her here.
”You are the last person I thought I'd see walk through those doors.”
”Denton didn't come home last night. Have you seen him?”
Just saying those words out loud made them feel more real.
”No darlin’ I have not.I noticed he wasn't here last night but I assumed that meant he went straight to the ranch. ”
Petra exhaled the breath she didn't realize she had been holding since she left home to find Denton.
Her mind scolded her.
She knew he wouldn't be here.
Her gut warned her, even as her heart hoped.
”I'm worried Laney, It's not like him to not come home after the Rendezvous. I'm afraid something happened.”
Something, that was the closest she could get to naming her biggest fear. That Denton would never come down from the mountain. That he was dead. Or up there hurt and alone. Petra couldn't stand the thought of it!
” I'm sure he just decided not come to the rendezvous this year that's all! The Benevorites are getting harder to find and trap. Could be he just doesn't have enough pelts yet The other trappers talked of getting less pelts this year. ” Laney didn't sound convincing.
Benvorites are a small animal related to Beavers, but a mutated version of them. Like most animals found on earth after the humans returned and defeated the Kalifar, these animals were the result of mating with the animals the Kalifar had brought with them after taking over the earth and repopulating it. Since returning to earth humans had to learn to accept these new life forms. Some were easier to accept than others. Especially the Benevorites, who’s fur was highly valued.
Petra saw Laney stiffen.
She felt her own skin crawl and knew without looking that Josh Crowley was behind her.
That man was the one person Petra had hoped to avoid when coming here. Slowly she turned to face him.
”Petra, long time no see. Are you here to apply for a job? I'm sure Laney here can help you find a more suitable outfit. All that leather you have on hides a body I still think about...” The end of Petras's gun stuck into his crotch succeeded in putting an end to his sentence.
”You slimy piece of shit!” Petra hissed. ”The day I left here was the last time I ever expected to see the inside of this hell hole again. But my reason for being here better not have anything to do with you or so help me, I'll kill you, Josh.I'd like nothing more and you know it! Denton didn’t come home last night. Have you seen him? ”
Petra dug her barrel in a little deeper when she asked that question.
Josh winced slightly and then slowly shook his head
”No Petra, I haven't seen your little brother in about a year, since the last Rendezvous. ”
Petra removed the gun from his groin and stepped away. Josh breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn't sure if he was telling the truth or not but she knew she had to get out of the Rucksack before she actually did kill Josh Crowley.
The sun was shining exceptionally bright now, standing on the sidewalk outside of the Rucksack, Petra turned to walk down to the general store. She intended to see if Denton came by there and sold his pelts. The wind had picked up too and it was blowing the dry dusty road dirt in a swirl around her as she walked towards the store.
When the earth was invaded by the Kalifar back in early 3001, only the lucky were able to buy their passage out.
The Kalifar killed the remaining humans and took what they wanted from the land, but left structures pretty much where they were. Leaving earth like one giant ghost town. Tumbleweeds and all. The buildings in Bender were mostly brick or made out of concrete. The store was in what was once called Bender Pharmacy, you can still see the tracing of those letters on the sign out front. Over which was painted Nottly’s Merchantile.
Petra entered Nottly’s and noticed a couple of women shopping. She could feel the ladies' eyes raking her body up and down as if in an effort to convince themselves that it was indeed Petra Morlan standing inside their store.
She knew all too well what they thought of her. Facts notwithstanding, Petra was tainted from her time at the Rucksack.
Ruby Lansford, who's husband was a repeat customer at the Rucksack, grabbed her purchase and brushed past Petra in a huff. Tina Mallord, Mr. Nottly’s other customer could not stop staring at Petra, finally, she realized she was expected to take the change Mr. Nottly was handing back to her, she turned away, grabbed her bag, and practically ran out the door.
”It's good to see you Petra, but I can't say you are good for business! ”
He smiled when he said that but Petra, still feeling the sting of rejection, didn’t return it.
”What brings you to town anyway? Usually, you avoid it and send one the hands to fetch your necessities, is there something wrong at The Collonade? ”
”I'm looking for Denton, have have you seen him?”
”Not since he sold me his pelts yesterday.”
”So he was here? ” Petra felt a spark of hope.
”Well yeah, he looked like he just came from the mountain. Hadn't yet cleaned up. Even though he knows my rule. I don't like the trappers stinking up my store. But he said he didn't have time to get cleaned up. He had to hurry, he said. I got to tell you Petra, he looked scared. Like he was trying to hide or something. He kept looking out of that window. ”
”Did he say anything else?”
”Just that he needed top dollar for his pelts. Of course, I always give Denton top dollar, his pelts are always perfect. Except for this one. It isn't like anything I've ever seen before. ”
Nottly reached under the counter and pulled out a pelt that was the color of the deepest blackest sky on the most cloudless moonless night. Then Nottly placed that pelt over his ledger and it was as though the pelt and the ledger disappeared!
Petra jumped back and yelled
”What in the hell did I just see?”
”That's what I’d like to know! Denton plopped his pelts down on my counter yesterday, asked me for top dollar, while I was looking through the stack he must have seen something out if that window that spooked him. He tells me just to guess what I should pay him. Says he didn't have time for me to look at each one individually. If it were anyone else I would have told them to shove off, but it was Denton. He is a good kid you know? So I gave him a good price. He took the money and asked if he could leave out the back. It wasn't until later last night that I discovered this thing. What do you think it is Petra? Some kind of magic or something from those aliens? I don't want anything from those Aliens! Would you take it with you Petra? Give it back to Denton. I don't even want any money back. Just get it away from me!”
Petra didn't know what this thing was either, but it might be a clue to where Denton is.
”I'll take it. Thank you Nottly. Sorry for any trouble my being here may have caused your business. ”
”Don't you worry about those women Petra.”
”I don't expect I’m missing too much by not having them in my life.” Petra said sounding resigned.
”No Petra, I don't expect you are. I hope you find Denton and he is ok. ”
”Thanks, Nottly. I do too. ”
Petra walked over and looked out the same window Denton had looked through yesterday. She wondered what he saw that made him leave in such a hurry and scared him enough that he snuck out the back door? At that moment she saw the dark-clad figure of a man standing on the corner across the street from where she stood. Whoever he was, Petra was sure he wasn't there a moment ago, and he was staring at the Mercantile.
”Nottly? Have you ever seen this guy before?” Petra turned to Nottly behind her and asked him to come over and take a look. But when she turned back the man was vanishing before her eyes. Just like Lottly’s ledger!
”He was just there!”
”Hmmm, well he ain't now. ”
Petra thanked him again and left. The strange pelt, the size of a small dog, rested in her pouch she had strapped across her chest.
”I'm not sure what this is or who that man was but something tells me they are both connected to Denton. I just have to figure out how.” Petra whispered to herself as she walked out.
Walking back to her bike she saw that man again through the window of the Rucksack talking to Josh. Slipping beside the building Petra withdrew her gun from her holster and waited for the man to come outside. When he did she followed him. He turned at the corner and as Petra came around he was waiting there to grab her. His strong arm pushed her against the wall of the Rucksack and held her up off of the ground.
”You following me for a reason little lady? ”He said this while deftly removing her gun from her hand.
”Yes! I saw you talking to Josh Crowley and earlier I saw you watching the Mercantile, then just disappear! Who are you and what are you doing here?
The man released his hold and gently lowered Petra.
”Not sure yet that I owe you any explanation, but since I can't resist a pretty face, especially one that is willing to shoot me, ”.. he winked and handed her gun back to her, minus the bullets he’d just removed. He was smiling. And very handsome. Amber eyes and brown hair that reached the collar of his black coat. Petra noticed he had a small scar on his left cheekbone too. He had the look of a man that could take a life. Hopefully not hers!
After a moment of eye contact he said, ”What am I doing here? I'm working. Why are you following me? ”
”I'm looking for my brother. I thought you may know where he is. ”
”And why would you think I would know where your brother is?”
”Because of this!” Petra removed the pelt and showed it to him.
”I saw this pelt disappear along with the book it was covering, then I see you vanish before my eyes exactly the same way! My brother, Denton, brought this pelt to town, he was scared. I want to know what in the hell this thing is and what you know about it.” Petra was breathing hard at this point.
Scared but determined.
He nodded his head in an understanding way before answering.
”My name is Sam Howard. A special agent for the Alliance. I was supposed to meet Denton Morlan here last night. He works with me. Denton was the trapper I used to get these pelts. ”
”Wait. Denton works for you?”
”Sub-contracted actually. When he first discovered the vanishing qualities of certain breeds of weasels, he brought them to us. We have been using them for our stealth technology in our fight against the Kalifa. Denton had sent me a message last week, worried that someone else wanted pelts. I told him we would meet at the Rucksack, but I never saw him. ”
”And Josh? Why were you talking to him?”
”Because Josh Crowley is a traitor and I believe he knows what happened to Denton. ”
”I'm going to need those bullets back if Josh has anything to do with hurting Denton. ” said Petra.
At that moment Laney and Denton came out of the cellar door of the Rucksack.
”Miss Prescott, good work!” Sam exclaimed.
Petra was shocked but was so thankful Denton was ok.
”Laney, you had Denton all along? ”
”I didn't! Josh did! I had to wait for the right moment to get him out. Josh is the snake that's been telling the Kalifa what Denton found. ”
Sam had already gone inside to arrest Josh, who was later convicted and sentenced to death.
Denton was safe and continued to help the Alliance by providing the vanishing fur for its stealth technology.
Laney would eventually turn the Rucksack into a respectable restaurant, putting her girls to work in a different way.
She and Sam fell in love and they live in peace at The Collonade.