From time to time Ray went to a bar. It was down a back road, where the tourists never went. He would go to the bar and drink beer and think about his daughter that he hadn't seen for ten years, think about all the things he'd seen over the years, all the people who he'd grown up with and all who were gone, and he'd listen. You learned a lot, listening. Folks talked in bars, and in a county with as few people as his, the grapevine worked fast.
He noticed the woman when he came in. Women did come to this bar. Hard-scrabble women, woman miners who'd gathered their share of scars, weathered women who drank as hard as the men and were almost as ornery. This woman wasn't like them. She was a small woman, blond, dressed in khaki pants and a dusty t-shirt with sweat stains under its armpits, sturdily built with her arms showing sleek muscle but she was too small and quiet to be one of the lady miners who sometimes swept in like a force of nature. This woman didn't talk loud or curse or join in any conversations. She simply sat there, and drank, and stared at nothing at all.
Ray had seen stares like that before. Plenty of young men and women from the county entered the military, the only real job left to young people other than catering to tourists now that the mines were worked out and the factories gone overseas. Some of them didn't come back. And some came back... changed. He wondered where she'd seen combat, which one of her comrades had died. But all his attempts to talk to her had always gotten nothing more than one-word answers, at best.
He'd asked around, and she was set up on an old mining stake up Copper Canyon. There was nothing back there. You needed a Jeep just to get there. But no one was quite sure what she was doing back there. Some folks had noticed that the mine seemed to be being worked again. But that didn't make any sense, because the copper ore left in that mine was so low grade that it wasn't worth carrying off to be milled, even if the woman re-built the road so that trucks could make it to the mine again.
He sat down beside her.
"Another," the woman said to the bartender, pointing to her glass. The bartender came around and filled up her glass out of a can of lemon-lime soda.
"Drinking the hard stuff I see," Ray commented.
The woman turned and stared at him. "Some of us don't want to forget," she said quietly.
Ray blinked, surprised. This was more words than she'd said the entire last time he'd tried talking to her. "Way I see it, if God hadn't wanted us to forget from time to time, He wouldn't have invented beer," Ray said.
"There is no God," the woman said, and turned back to her lemon-lime, and stared deep into its depths.
"Bleak philosophy," Ray observed.
"Reality usually is."
Ray ordered his beer from the bartender, thinking about that. "So why bother coming here?" he asked.
The woman stared at her lemon-lime for a few minutes. Ray waited. He was in no hurry. The bartender brought his beer, and Ray slurped the foam off the top. The place was a dive, but the beer was good. The owner was some yuppie from San Francisco who'd cashed out, dropped out, and decided to open a beer pub somewhere. Nobody quite knew how he ended up here though. But when he'd bought the dive, he'd installed his beer making gear in the back, and now... it was good beer. The best beer in the county, certainly. Not that this was saying much, when the only other beer in the county was Milwaukee horse piss.
"Weakness," the woman said. "I listen."
"Listening isn't weakness," Ray pointed out. "Listening is the only way to learn."
"I shouldn't need it. It's dangerous."
Ray perked up. "Dangerous?"
"Needing anything. If you need, they can hurt you."
The woman waved her hand, looked disgusted, and took a sip from her drink.
There were a number of reasons why a woman might want to live alone in the desert. Ray had been out here all his life, and the usual stories blurred together after a while. Abusive boyfriends, abusive spouses, horrible abuses in the past that the woman was trying to forget, or just plain post-traumatic stress disorder where they wanted a quiet life that wouldn't set off an incident. Ray had read her as a combat veteran. The thousand yard stare and all that. But "they?" Perhaps domestic violence?
Ray tried again. "Anyone in particular that the Sheriff's department ought to notice poking around looking for your place?"
The woman shook her head. "All dead, or in prison."
"Sounds like a story you have there."
"Yeah," the woman said. That was all she said. She sipped her drink, then stared into it again. She had, apparently, said all she was going to say. Ray knew better than to press a desert rat further once a desert rat was ready to be alone again, even if said desert rat was a tiny blond woman staring into a lemon-lime rather than a whiskey. The desert was full of stories. Some of them, unfortunately, would never be told.
A few minutes later, the woman looked at him again. "You're the Sheriff?"
"That I am," Ray admitted.
"There's someone poking around outside my place. Just watching from the rocks."
"Want a deputy to come out there and check it out?"
The woman considered. "I don't know. I never got a good look. Just a glimpse. Don't think he or she means me any harm. At least, they could have shot me in the back a couple times and didn't. But skulking around like that doesn't sound good."
The woman snorted. "Not bloody well likely. They'd be more prone to throwing themselves at my feet and begging me to come back to the city."
Ray smiled. "Sounds like you broke a lot of hearts in your day. So what happened? How'd you end up out here?"
The woman smiled back, and hopped off her bar stool. "You're cute when you do that cop thing," she said, and reached up and touched his cheek. "Just send someone over tomorrow, okay?" She stared up at his eyes for a few seconds that seemed like minutes, still smiling, then turned away and walked out of the bar.
Ray stared at the door for a minute or so. His heart was thumping.
"She's too young for you," the bartender said.
"Yeah." Ray turned back to his beer.
"Awe shit. She stiffed me again." The bartender stared forlornly at the near-empty glass of lemon-lime soda sitting on the counter.
"You want me to go arrest her or something?"
The bartender considered for a few seconds. "Naw. I'll just add it to her tab, and remember not to serve her next time until she pays up."
"She probably just forgot."
"I don't think she forgets," the bartender said. "Maybe that's the problem. Too much remembering. Clutters the mind."
"I wonder what she's remembering?"
"I don't think I want to know," the bartender said. "Damned shame, whatever it is. Purty thing like that, too."
"Yeah, a damned shame," Ray agreed. He decided he'd been amiss in not finding out more about his new taxpayer. He had her application for a concealed carry permit on file, he'd pretty much rubber-stamped it once the FBI check came back clean because a little lady like that needed some heat for protection, but that was all he knew about her. There was something strange about this whole affair, not the least the notion that someone was poking around her place. He wondered if that was so, or if she was simply imagining things, having flashbacks. Either way, he decided, he was going to run a couple of checks on her when he got back to the office in the morning, then run out there to see about her mystery guest.
That resolved, he drank his beer, and listened, and thought about a daughter he hadn't seen in ten years, and people he'd known, and people gone. And about a small blond woman who had smiled at him and touched him, touched him in more ways than one, and he wasn't quite sure what to think about that.