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Helen Harper was tiny and cute, and she did not want a bodyguard.
Gina Mallory, who was supposed to be that bodyguard, was used to sizing people up on first meeting them. She often didn’t have time to decide on more than threat or not threat, but she was able to make a fuller appraisal of her potential client. Helen was maybe five feet tall and a hundred pounds. Golden blond hair that curled a little as it reached her shoulder, brown eyes, no glasses. Dark pants, fitted green blouse, a pendant that looked like it was made of carved wood, and shoes that were more hiking boots than anything, slightly messy with dried mud.
Helen was an investigative reporter, a muckraker. There were a lot of powerful people angry with her, and her newspaper had tried multiple times to hire protection for her. The latest in the series was Gina. But they’d warned her that Helen would not welcome her help.
“Helen, be reasonable,” said the editor, John Estes, a tall, heavyset man. “You’re getting hate mail again.”
“I live on hate mail,” Helen declared. “It means I’m onto something.”
The newsroom was loud, with phones chirping, the sound of typing, and multiple people talking. Helen seemed quite at home in the chaos, uplifted instead of smothered. She was standing at her desk, flipping through files, but she threw another glance over her shoulder at Gina, a little look-flush-look-away dance that she’d performed a couple of times since Gina walked in. It had Gina quite curious.
“Remember the fire in the abandoned building,” Estes said.
“It wasn’t abandoned, there were people in there,” Helen said. “And we were all fine.”
“Remember the plane!”
“I was on the ground at the airport.”
“You were on the grass where the plane would have crashed if it hadn’t landed safely. You’re reckless, Helen.”
Gina raised an eyebrow. “What exactly were you planning to do with a plane crash?” she asked in a sharp tone. “Interview survivors?”
Helen shot Gina a look, the first full look she’d given her, and Gina was surprised to see something strong in her expression, not anger, but something sharper. “Make sure there were survivors,” she said.
Estes gave Gina a helpless look. “You see?”
Gina was not terribly impressed with what she could see. She’d been hired as protection for unwilling clients before, as well as reckless ones, and she wasn’t keen on attempting to work with someone who was clearly both.
“Helen,” Estes argued, “think of the paper. You know we’ll lose subscribers if you kick off.”
Helen gave a little snort of a laugh. “I love you too, John. But no. No bodyguard.” Helen grabbed a camo-green jacket from the back of her chair and slipped it on.
“Your luck is going to run out one of these days!” Estes protested.
Helen gave him a curt wave and left through the door to the stairs, without giving Gina any kind of last look, be it annoyance or that odd blushing.
Estes turned to Gina with pleading in his eyes. Gina was always a bit of a sucker for that look. And, well— maybe for that blushing thing Helen was doing too.
Gina jogged across the newsroom and out the door Helen had used. The stairwell was empty, but the door at the bottom was swinging closed. Gina trotted down the stairs at a quick pace and pushed the door open a few seconds later. The parking lot for the paper was small and sparsely occupied, and the street beyond had a few little shops and a gas station. There was absolutely no one there. Not a single tiny, angry sprite in a green jacket.
Estes looked disappointed when Gina came back into the newsroom. But at this point, Gina was rather intrigued.
When Gina walked into the office of the Coral Lake Fishing Club twenty minutes later, she very much relished the look of surprise on Helen’s face. Helen’s pretty brown eyes grew wide and her little bow mouth dropped open. She stopped resembling a sweet little sprite quite so much when she said, “What the fuck?”
Gina shrugged her shoulders, not terribly surprised to find she enjoyed the saltier version of Helen as much as the cute. “Just doing my job.”
“It’s not your job. I fired you.”
“You can’t, you’re not the one who hired me.”
Helen turned her back on Gina in a very expressive manner, the last word in the argument given through body language. “Is Mr. Larson in?” she asked a woman behind a desk.
“Do you have an appointment?” the woman asked.
“It’s in his best interest to speak to me.”
The woman’s hands were fluttering near the desk, as if they’d rather be getting on with their work, typing on the outdated computer in front of her. “He’s already spoken to you, Miss Harper.”
“And he lived through it, didn’t he? He can do it again.”
The woman looked unamused, but she got up and knocked on the door behind her. “It’s the reporter again,” she announced.
After a moment, the door opened, and Helen walked around the woman’s desk and strode right in. Gina attempted to follow, but the woman blocked her path. “Oh, I’m with her,” Gina said, widening her eyes and pitching up her voice. “I’m a new reporter, shadowing her. Isn’t she just amazing?”
The woman moved aside, and Gina strolled up to Helen, who looked no more welcoming than she’d been before. Gina tilted her head close. “It’s far too easy to get within reach of you.”
“I don’t see anyone else trying,” Helen snapped. She turned her back on Gina once again, which was a more admirable feat this time, as the room they were in was quite small and mostly filled with an enormous desk.
Behind this desk sat a portly man with an obvious hairpiece. “Yes, Miss Harper?” he asked, sounding weary.
Helen spoke brightly. “Mr. Larson. Just following up. I’ve had conversations with a couple of the members of the Coral Lake Fishing Club, and they were kind enough to share with me the entrance fees that they pay to join the club. They’re quite sizable.”
Mr. Larson was clearly not pleased to hear that. “It is their prerogative to give you that information,” he said. “But I still am unable to share any lists of members or financial data with you.”
“When you started this club,” Helen said, “you had three members: yourself and two other wealthy men. You owned the land, and the other two put up the money to clear it and build the dam over the river to make your lake. Then other men of means built houses along the shore, and you had yourself a whole private club. It was a brilliant idea, really. But I’d like to know— how long did it take you three to make a profit on it?”
“Far too long,” Mr. Larson said, with a bit of a smile aimed mostly at Gina. When she failed to be a supportive audience, his frown returned.
“And at this point, how much of your generous member fees go to upkeep of the dam?” Helen asked. She spoke a little more slowly now; this was clearly the question she’d been building up to.
Mr. Larson did not answer it. “As much as is needed.”
“But not so much that you don’t still make a profit.”
Mr. Larson seemed to take that as an insult. “I know how to operate a business,” he said snootily.
“Oh, of course,” Helen said. “So you have no trouble paying your bills then. Keeping the dam in working order, stocking the fish, the soil surveys before new construction. Because you know, you built your dam on a little offshoot of the Rock River, and the Rock River provides all the water and a great deal of the power for the city downstream. Where those of us who don’t own lake houses live.”
“Our dam was constructed with full permissions and inspections,” Mr. Larson said. “Everything was filed with the state—”
“Oh, I know,” Helen said. “The dam construction was totally above board. But that was the last of the documentation I could find on it.”
“Because no other paperwork needed to be filed with the state.” Mr. Larson had picked up a pen and was squeezing it hard enough that his fingers turned white.
“You don’t feel like you need to be transparent with your members as to where their money is going?” Helen asked.
“If my members have a problem with it, they can bring it up with me. You have no reason to need that information. Now I’ve answered your questions, and I need to get back to work.”
There was a small slump to Helen’s shoulders, so slight that Gina was not sure she would have noticed it if she hadn’t been looking at Helen from this precise angle. Helen’s voice betrayed no such disappointment, though. “Always nice to talk with you, Mr. Larson.”
Helen grasped Gina’s arm as they left, tugging her through the outer office and then the door to the parking lot. It was a stronger grip than Gina was expecting from a woman who was so much smaller than her. The office was next to the dam and gave an expansive view of it: one side a tall, serene lake reflecting the sky, the other a slope of gravel rocks, dirty and looking out of place in the middle of such natural beauty.
“All right,” Helen said. “How did you find me?” She had her arms crossed and her face tilted up so that she could glare at Gina properly.
“There were a couple of stories on cities with dams on your computer.”
“On my computer,” Helen said. “That’s password-protected.”
Gina shrugged. “Not well enough. There are two dams near here— the little one out here on this offshoot, and the big one on the Rock River itself within the city. You had mud on your boots, so I figured you were visiting the country one.” She couldn’t help smirking a little at Helen’s stunned expression. And that slight flush on Helen’s cheeks had also reappeared. “So what’s up with the dam here?” Gina asked. “Is it going to fail?”
“Why would I tell you that?”
Gina sighed. “Look, Ms. Harper, you’re probably one of the brighter clients I’ve had, which only makes this whole thing more stupid. Everybody is aware of what you write. Mr. Larson is a powerful man, and he knows exactly what you’re looking for with all your questions. But you’re taking no precautions at all.”
The wind was blowing Helen’s blond hair into her face. Helen pushed it out of her way with a scowl, and the wind, which had been blowing strongly, died off immediately, as if it were afraid to anger her. It was an odd effect, with an even odder effect on Gina: making her equally surprised, confused, and somehow aroused, as if part of her, for some absurd reason, thought that Helen Harper could actually control the wind.
“I can help you,” Gina said, in a breathier voice than she’d meant to use. “I’m good at what I do. I can keep you safe and assist you with your investigation.”
Helen was unimpressed. “I don’t need help. I’m lucky, remember?”
“Fine,” Gina said. “Have it your way.” Despite her better instincts, she turned and left the tiny sprite of a woman alone on the top of the dam.
Helen Harper did not need a bodyguard.
In fact, it would be a terribly problematic thing for her to have a bodyguard. Helen had her own way of doing things that was far easier for her, including cutting through the woods to the dam rather than driving down the road, and just now, hovering in the air to inspect the state of the dam’s gravel surface. It was dawn, Helen was alone at the dam, and she certainly would not have been able to do her job if she wasn’t.
Nothing had changed in the week since Helen had last looked at the dam— no slumping or sliding of the gravel, so she flew higher until she had a good view of the whole place. Coral Lake, formed on a tributary of the larger Rock River, as a playground for the wealthy. There were enormous, decadent houses all along the lakeshore, lazing there as if they couldn’t be troubled to stand up straight the way buildings did in the city below. These houses stretched out greedily along the ground, taking up a great deal of space for a very few people.
Helen could see the office building at the top of the dam as well, empty at this early hour. Yesterday, somehow, Gina Mallory had managed to find Helen there.
The paper had hired three bodyguards before Gina, two men and a woman, and Helen had lost them all easily. None of them were able to properly follow a woman who could fly. Gina was the only one who’d somehow ended up at the right place anyway. It made her seem especially competent, and that was not good, because the reason that Gina was still on Helen’s mind had less to do with protection or even annoyance, and more to do with a ridiculous level of attraction. Because if Helen had a type, it was exactly that: competent.
And, oh, Gina looked the part. Tall and fit, with dark hair in a french braid. Helen could see the casual strength in Gina’s movements, could sense the trim muscle tone that must be there under her dark clothes. Gina had a pretty face too, and her eyes were striking, green and sharp in a way that made her look— yes— competent.
Helen honestly did not need a bodyguard. It was just a little unnerving that she’d had to remind herself of that five times already this morning.
Helen came down again, landing at the bottom of the dam, her fingers rubbing absently at the wooden pendant she wore around her neck. The dam’s drain was here, low to the ground, and the water coming through it was muddy and dark, staining the gravel around it.
Around lunchtime, Helen walked into her favorite cafe, expecting to see someone waiting for her. And there she was— Helen’s best friend Melody, waving from a table for two. But two tables away, with her head down, scrolling on her phone, was Gina Mallory. Her dark hair was down around her shoulders today, and though she didn’t look up, Helen suspected that Gina was well aware of Helen’s arrival, and probably, in a casually competent way, of everything else that was going on in the restaurant.
“Oh, I’ve got a problem,” Helen said faintly.
“You have several problems,” said Melody, once she’d heard the story. Melody was very tall and slender, with long blond hair that fell in waves down her back. She was beaming now with amusement, in that obnoxious way that sunshiny people did.
“I know,” Helen admitted. She had somehow ended up sitting in just the right place to be able to see Gina, who still hadn’t overtly acknowledged her presence. “Oh, shit,” Helen said. “She’s taking off her jacket.”
Gina was now in a dark red shirt with no sleeves, and Helen could see that her arms were quite shapely. Melody made a delighted snorting noise.
“I’m sorry,” Helen hissed. “I’m gay.”
“You can lift a car,” Melody said.
“I know. But she looks like she can lift a car.”
“I’m fairly certain she can’t.”
“You never know,” Helen said. Melody snorted again and Helen frowned at her. “You don’t understand.”
Melody sighed. “No, no, I do. My husband does this thing where he sits on the balls of his feet. He can crouch there for hours. His thighs never get tired.” When Helen just stared at her, Melody looked displeased. “I thought we were bonding over our weird body-part attractions.”
“Yeah, that’s valid.” Helen realized she needed to actually look at her own table to find her glass of iced tea, and frowned at the injustice of it. “Thighs,” she said faintly.
“Okay.” Melody tapped on the table with her impeccable pink fingernails. “How did she know to be here?”
“I have no idea. But if she followed me from my house this morning, she may have seen— things.”
“Oh, that’s all you need.”
“Well, I mean— she’d know I don’t need a bodyguard.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Melody said. “But you want a bodyguard.”
“Nonsense,” said Helen, absently checking if her lipstick was rubbing off on the environmentally-friendly metal straw she carried in her purse. “It would be a complete disaster.”
“Go ask her how she knew to be here,” Melody said, still sounding greatly amused. When Helen gave her an appalled look, Melody shrugged. “You’ve got to have some excuse to talk to her.”
Helen, both with and against her better judgement, stood up on slightly shaky legs and crossed over to Gina’s table. A sandwich had been delivered there, a BLT, Helen could see. Gina hadn’t touched it yet.
Helen summoned her inner bitch. “Well?” she asked.
For the first time, Gina looked up at her. “I asked somebody at the paper where you go for lunch.”
“Oh, for— seriously?”
“Well, I’m not giving up my lunches with my friend.”
There was a hint of a smile on Gina’s lips. “You do realize that’s an argument in favor of having a bodyguard.”
Helen crossed her arms. It did not make her feel better. Behind her she heard the squeak of a chair moving and looked over to see that Melody had pulled a third chair up to their table.
There were introductions: Gina the bodyguard, Melody, who was a bartender and saxophonist in the house band at a local bar.
“Melody who’s a musician?” Gina asked.
“Worked out well,” Melody said, smiling at Gina as if they were all friends now.
“So how do you know Helen?” Gina asked. For some reason, Helen thought, the question sounded a little false, as if perhaps Gina had already made it her business to know the answer.
“We’ve been friends since kindergarten, if you can believe that.” Melody leaned closer, in obvious enjoyment. “So what’s your backstory?”
Gina wiped a crumb from her mouth with a napkin. Helen was busy trying to stare-but-not-stare at Gina, and the action unhelpfully drew her attention to Gina’s lips.
“I was in the army,” Gina said. “So was my sister. She was injured, and I left with her. She’s okay now, but in the beginning, she needed a lot of help. After that I became a bodyguard.”
“Is that safer than being in the army?” Melody asked.
“My mom thinks so.” This was said with a pointed glance at Helen, who suddenly found her own sandwich— a turkey club— very interesting.
“So have you had any notable clients?” Melody asked.
“Nothing I can talk about. We’re in the presence of a reporter, in case you forgot.”
“Oh, no, Helen would never—” Melody broke off, and both women watched Helen make a vain attempt to straighten her sandwich now that she’d removed the little frilled toothpick. “Actually, yeah, she would,” Melody said.
“Excuse me!” Helen objected, but it was said rather faintly.
“Well, I have to get back to work,” Melody announced, although Helen knew full well that Melody’s lunch break was not over. “Catch you later, Helen. Nice to meet you, Gina.”
Gina waved. Helen wiped her hands on her napkin, a little too hard.
“Antagonized any more fishing club owners today?” Gina asked.
Helen was surprised not to find a snappy retort on her lips. “Is your sister doing all right now?”
Gina got a rather touched expression on her face. “Yeah, she’s good. She lost her right leg below the knee, but she’s come to love being the bionic woman.”
“Older or younger?”
“She’s younger by three minutes. Fraternal twins. She’ll tell you those three minutes don’t matter, but believe me, they do. What doesn’t matter is that she’s an inch taller than me.”
Helen laughed. “So what’s it like to be a twin?”
“Writing an article?” Gina asked, quirking her eyebrow.
“You never know.”
“Well, I don’t know what it’s like not to be a twin, so I can’t help you there. Do you have siblings?”
Helen snorted. “Heaven forbid, as my mother always says. One of me is apparently enough.”
Gina smiled, and it was a real smile now, without the snark and bite. Gina was definitely attractive, but with a real smile, she was lovely in a way that reminded Helen of quiet things— the forest on a hot afternoon, the still of a lake behind a dam. There was a faint flush to Gina’s skin that wasn’t makeup, and wasn’t alcohol, since she was drinking water. Helen very much wanted to know what was causing it.
“Helen,” Gina said, “I’m going to level with you. You put on a good act as a bitch. But I’ve gone over your articles, and nobody who works so hard for the disenfranchised is a bitch at heart. So that’s not why you’re pushing me away.” She smiled sweetly. “You have a secret.”
Helen only now realized that she’d leaned toward Gina a little, because she pulled back sharply enough to almost knock over her iced tea. The metal straw clinked loudly against the glass as she steadied it.
“It’s something you’re protecting,” Gina said, her eyes flicking from the tea to Helen’s face. “Now I don’t know if it’s a source or a less-than-legal research method or just a nose for news, but whatever it is, it’s safe with me. I don’t care how you do your job. I care that you continue to be able to do that job.”
“You do?” Helen asked faintly.
“Yes. Because then I’ll get paid.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt,” Helen said.
Gina blinked a couple of times, apparently confused. “Well, that’s— not one I’ve heard before, I’ll admit. See? You’re not a bitch.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Helen said, trying to stifle a laugh. “I don’t need a bodyguard.”
Gina crossed her arms, looking as unimpressed as usual with this opinion. “Are you getting hate mail?”
“Are you invulnerable?”
That one got her a bit of a strange look. “Then you can use a bodyguard,” Gina said. “Just for a week, all right? A trial period. And if you’re not dead by then, maybe you’ll keep me on.”
Helen did not allow herself to think too much about all of the ways she wanted to keep Gina. But it did no good, because Helen found herself saying, “Fine. But just for one week.”
Gina thought it would be a good idea if they spoke in some random public place, rather than the restaurant or newspaper office.
Helen clearly didn’t think such measures were necessary, but she acquiesced.
That agreement had come as a partial surprise to Gina. There was clearly a war within Helen between thinking Gina was annoying and thinking she was appealing. Unfortunately, Gina was now facing her own war between remembering that Helen was a client whom Gina needed to treat with her usual dispassionate attitude and acknowledging that Helen was the most distractingly attractive little sprite of a woman that Gina had ever seen.
They took their internal struggles to the park, where Gina sat Helen with her back to a retaining wall with good proximity to escape routes. There was a tree above them and it dropped a couple of leaves on Helen’s shoulder, which Helen removed with an oddly gentle motion.
If Gina had expected Helen to suddenly share all relevant details of her work, she was disappointed.
“So it’s the dam?” Gina asked.
“What does that mean?”
Helen looked very pleased with herself for being irritating. “Melody’s bar is the closest one to that edge of town, where the Coral Lake club is. The club is often doing construction on new houses, so they have regular workers, and they sometimes stop at the bar on the way home. Lately, a few of them have been working on the dam.”
There was a sudden movement to their right, a kid on a bike, and Gina thought it was quite odd that both she and Helen reacted to it. It was almost like Helen was also keeping watch on everyone around them. But Gina supposed it did make sense that Helen had needed to develop that habit, having to keep herself safe without help.
“So what have the workers been saying?” Gina asked. “Is the dam in bad shape?”
“Possibly. It’s hard to tell. I inspected the dam pretty closely this morning—”
“You inspected the dam this morning,” Gina repeated.
“Before anyone got there,” Helen informed her snippily, as if her intelligence had been insulted.
“No, I just mean, how? There’s no way for you to get up and down without equipment.”
Helen had stopped looking at her. Her mouth worked a little, as if practicing. “Binoculars,” she said finally.
It was clearly a lie. The problem was, Gina had no idea what it might conceivably be covering up. “What did you find?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing serious. Everything looks fine.”
“So there’s no story.”
“Well, I think there’s quite a possibility for issues with the dam, but nothing too dangerous at the moment.” Helen again looked amused at Gina’s clear impatience.
“Then why threaten you?” Gina prodded.
“Well, I don’t think it’s about the dam itself—” Helen began, finally coming to the point she should have started with, but there was a shout and they both turned.
Gina took in the scene at a glance: a young man with a hand pressed against his own shoulder, his fingers turning red with blood. Another man, holding a knife, looking shocked by his own actions. By the time Gina was on her feet, the assailant had darted forward again to grab the injured man’s backpack. When he yanked it off the man’s shoulder, the man crumpled to his knees. Bystanders stood frozen in their tracks.
Gina put out an arm and caught Helen as she was about to rush forward. “What the hell are you doing?” she demanded.
But there was something different in Helen’s eyes just then, something that made Gina stop still, while the rest of the world seemed to spin off.
Helen seemed like a different person, or maybe— maybe a whole person, not missing whatever odd pieces she seemed to be missing most of the time; without the subterfuge, the lies, the unanswered questions. Helen looked powerful in a way that Gina could not completely grasp, like a mountain, unmoving in a storm, or a river cutting a new path. Endless, changeless, impossibly large.
But it was still just Helen in Gina’s arms, tiny and slight, and by her own admission, not invulnerable.
“No,” Gina said.
Helen’s eyes moved from Gina to the man on the pavement, to the fleeing assailant with the knife and stolen backpack. “Do you know first aid?” Helen asked.
“Then let’s go. I’ll stay right beside you.”
This one actually did not seem to be a lie, and so Gina allowed it, bending to the will of someone else, only, she told herself, because it was safe to do so. Helen did stick by her as Gina came down on her knees near the bleeding man— he was barely older than a kid— and took a jacket offered by a suddenly active bystander to press against the wound. Someone was dialing 911 and Gina gave them her assessment to pass along to Emergency Services. Helen spent the time looking around, apparently trying to see where the assailant had run off to.
Gina only fully took her eyes off of Helen once, to reassure the kid on the ground. Eye contact was important for keeping him calm. But Gina knew in her heart that when she did stop looking at Helen that something was going to happen. She knew it like she had known in the army that there was a person around a dark corner ahead of her, like anyone knew that when the sky turned dark at midday there would be a storm. The only thing Gina wasn’t certain of was whether Helen was going to take off running after the assailant. If she did, Gina was going to have to abandon the kid to give chase.
Helen did not leave. She was on her knees next to Gina and she remained there. But as Gina turned away, the wind came up.
Gina had assumed that the man with the knife was long gone. He’d be a fool to stay around with blood on the ground and someone on the phone to 911. But nature itself seemed to be against him, because a sudden strong and quite targeted wind rushed by, and then he was back, stumbling into their midst. With him was the backpack. And the knife.
Gina focused on the knife first, of course, but she needn’t have worried, because it wasn’t in anyone’s hand anymore. It skittered along the sidewalk with a scraping sound and buried itself in a bush, disappearing as neatly as if it had been placed in a drawer.
The backpack landed by its owner. But the assailant was far too close to Helen for Gina’s liking. Gina jumped to her feet and folded him down to the ground with one arm twisted behind his back, disposing of him as neatly, she thought, as the knife had been.
When Gina looked up, Helen was still kneeling by the injured man, pressing the jacket into his wound. He was smiling at her, a soft, kind of goofy thing, and Helen was speaking to him quietly. But Helen’s eyes were on Gina, staring at her there on the sidewalk with her knee in a man’s back, and there was a flush to Helen’s face that was unmistakable.
It was getting late by the time the police had come and gone, the sky turning pinkish-gray. “So where to now?” Gina asked.
“Oh, it’s Wednesday,” Helen said. “I always have dinner with my mom on Wednesday.”
“All right, let’s go.”
Helen made an annoyed little huffing sound. “I’m in no danger at my mom’s house.”
“That’s not how this works, Helen. Where you go, I go, until the threat has passed.”
Helen’s pretty brown eyes widened a bit, and she looked away. “Fine.” They walked in silence a moment, until Helen fell back into the questions again. “So, you’re new in town?”
“Relatively. I don’t really have roots anywhere.”
Helen seemed to find that funny. “Roots. Yeah. I definitely have those.”
“So you’ve lived here your whole life?”
“Oh, I could never leave. This is my place.” Helen’s voice had grown soft, and though the setting sun was weakening behind clouds, it set Helen’s blond hair aglow all the same.
“You feel very protective of the people here,” Gina said.
“Well— that’s why I became a reporter. It’s the most important thing I do, more than anything else. Telling the truth. Catching the villains.”
“So we have that in common.”
Helen considered that a moment. “I guess we do.”
“So it’s just you and your mom? No dad in the picture?”
“Oh,” Helen said, sounding as if Gina had just opened up a huge can of trouble. “Uh— it’s complicated.”
“Are they divorced?”
“No, never married. Not legally, at least.”
“But you know who your dad is.”
For all Helen advocated telling the truth, she was rather terrible at it. “You haven’t met him?” Gina asked.
“That’s— uh. Possibly?”
“Do you know where he is?”
“You know, not everything has to be a huge secret,” Gina complained. But she was also fighting a ridiculous smile.
“Well to be fair, it’s sort of my mom’s secret,” Helen said.
“Oh, your mom’s got secrets too? Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?”
For some reason, this put Helen into a nervous sort of giggling. “I guess not.”
Raindrops chased them the last few feet to Gina’s car, but obligingly, the clouds waited until they had the doors shut before they really opened up and it began to pour.
“I heard we’ve got a few days of this coming,” Gina said, giving Helen a sort of suspicious sideways glance.
Helen was looking away, though, to the stream that ran beside the park, watching the rain add to the flow.
Helen pushed open the door to her mother’s house, letting the aroma of sweet potatoes and lentils escape onto the front porch.
Inside, the kitchen was warm and bright against the rain hitting the windows.
Helen’s mother, Eliza, looked warm and bright herself, as she always did, dressed in colorful clothes. Eliza was of average height, so far taller than Helen, and with a more solid build. But they had the same blond hair and brown eyes. Eliza looked puzzled to see someone walk into the kitchen behind Helen.
“Hey, Mom,” Helen said. “This is Gina. She’s my, ah— bodyguard.”
This revelation made Eliza stop short with a large spoon of lentils in her hand. “She’s your what, dear?”
“Uh, you know, the paper hires them. Bodyguards.”
“Oh, I thought you always got rid of those. But you’ve kept this one.” And now came what Helen had been dreading— the Mom Look, unabashed and frank, sizing up both Helen and their guest, with no effort made to conceal it. Or to conceal the smile that went with it.
“Let’s set the table,” Helen said hastily. “Oh, Mom, you’ve got leaves in your hair.” She rushed to pick them out.
“Oh, yes, I was in the woods.”
Helen cleared her throat, glancing at Gina. “Mom likes to take long walks. In the woods.”
Gina looked as if she felt she’d missed a punchline somewhere. “Okay.”
It was actually very nice to have a third person at the table for dinner, even though Gina didn’t seem to quite fit in with Helen and her mother. Gina was a dark figure, dressed in black and muted colors, her movements strong in their restrained power, and her eyes sharp on everything she could see. But she felt smoothly protective, not in a harsh way like Helen had always assumed a bodyguard would be, but softer, like she cared about her client and not just her targets.
“So how’s the dam story coming?” Eliza asked, pouring agave nectar on her potatoes, although they were already, by definition, sweet.
“You told your mother what you’re working on?” Gina asked, with her eyebrows raised.
“Oh, yes,” Eliza said. “And Melody. The two of us, we know all the secrets.”
“Mom,” Helen whispered, her tone unmistakably reproachful. Eliza ignored it with the type of smile that let Helen know she was purposefully ignoring it.
“You know, that really isn’t safe,” Gina said. “Your mom and your friend knowing the details of your research.”
“Melody knows because the dam workers come into her bar,” Helen said. “She brought me the story in the first place. And I tell my mother everything. But it’s fine, she’s— she’s got her own luck.”
“As long as I stay near the woods,” Eliza said, as if that were the sort of thing a normal person who did not want to embarrass their daughter would say.
“What?” Gina asked, at the same time that Helen hissed, “Mom.”
Helen tried a bit of a laugh to cover things. It wasn’t terribly effective. “Let me start at the beginning,” she said. “About the dam, I mean.” Fortunately, this offer seemed to catch Gina’s attention.
“So the big dam,” Helen said, “the one inside the city on the Rock River— we just call it the city dam— was built thirty years ago. It provides water and energy to the city, and we’ve never had any trouble with it. Then about fifteen years ago, Don Larson and his friends put in the dam over the Coral River, which is a tributary of the Rock. They built the dam a little ways upstream of where the rivers join, which reduced the Coral’s flow into the Rock by quite a bit, but it doesn’t make much of a difference, since the Rock is such a big river. They were above-board about the construction. Engineers signed off on it, and everything had proper permits. So the existence of the smaller dam— we call it the country dam— has never been a problem.
“But then a few weeks ago, some of the construction workers in Melody’s bar were saying that they’d begun doing some maintenance on the dam, and they’d discovered that it needed quite a bit of work to get it back into top shape. Not unusual for a dam of its age. But when they told Larson about it, he said there was no money.”
“Except that we know Larson charges very high entrance fees to his members,” Gina said.
Helen smiled at her. “Exactly. It’s all private land up there around the lake, and wealthy people pay for a plot to build a house on, or sometimes a place to park their camper, or they rent one of the luxury cabins— which are nicer than most houses in the city— and then they can hunt and fish and hang out with other wealthy people. Which is the point of the high fees, really. Larson’s never allowed property management in to build condos or hotels or anything that would bring less affluent people up there, and the enormous membership fees are supposed to offset that. They’re paying for privacy as much as anything.”
“But if there’s nothing left to repair the dam— where is the money going?” Gina asked.
“That’s the story I’m trying to write,” Helen said.
“Is the dam in danger of failing?” Eliza asked, sounding concerned.
“I looked around,” Helen said, avoiding Gina’s gaze, “and I don’t think so. And if it does spring a leak, it really hurts the wealthy people the most. They’ll lose their lake and their land will be worth much less. It will flood downstream, of course, but almost no one lives there. It’s state land and they use it for campgrounds mostly, and those are on pretty high ground.”
“So,” Gina said, “what’s got Larson so upset that you need a bodyguard?”
“I think Larson is embezzling the funds from his members. And that can mean jail time.”
“Money and freedom,” Gina said quietly. “It usually does come down to those. So what’s the plan? Are you going to go sneak in and get a look at their files?”
Helen had to fight a smile off her face. “Had crossed my mind.”
Gina nodded. “Fine,” she said, around a bite of sweet potato.
“But I go with you.”
“Oh, that’s really not— no one will be there.”
Gina was wearing her unimpressed look again. “Helen, sneaking into that office is the most dangerous thing you have done so far. I have to go with you.”
“But if I get caught, we could go to jail. Both of us.”
“You know,” Gina said, gathering the rest of her lentils onto a spoon, “despite your being lucky, it does seem logical to me that you would rely very little on luck. In fact, I’m sure you have some system set up to get you out of legal trouble.”
“What, like a note from a high-placed politician that says please excuse Helen from prosecution today?” Helen sighed. “Fine. Maybe. It’s still going to be harder for two people to sneak in than one.”
“Not a chance. If we’re alone, it won’t be any harder, and if we’re not alone, you’ll be glad I was there.”
When Helen failed to respond, Gina turned to Eliza. “Come on, you want her safe, right?”
Eliza had been openly enjoying the banter up to this point, and now she smiled. “You know, I think this is, ah— personal. Between the two of you.”
Gina drove them to the dam office. It was around nine p.m. and the parking lot was empty. Gina still parked among the trees, hiding the car. The rain had dwindled to a light shower, and the sound of it hitting the lake was almost musical. Gina was clearly on alert anyway, her steps careful and quiet as she escorted Helen to the door.
On the way over, Helen had tried to come up with various ideas about how they might get into the building, before finally deciding to do what she would normally do with a locked door, except to pretend that she hadn’t done it. So Helen made sure to get to the door first, and she gave it a good yank. When the lock broke, it made a loud metallic noise, which Helen blithely ignored. “After you,” she said to Gina, with a smile.
Gina looked from Helen’s hand on the door handle to her face with clear surprise. But she also said nothing about it. Mr. Larson’s office was locked too, but it didn’t make as much noise when Helen broke through that one.
A few minutes later, Helen realized that she was actually quite lucky to have Gina with her, because normally it would have taken Helen a great deal of work to get into the files on Mr. Larson’s computer. Gina did a couple of things that Helen didn’t quite follow, and the files appeared like magic. Helen became aware she was staring (and probably blushing) when Gina raised an eyebrow at her.
“Right,” Helen said. She produced a thumb drive from her pocket. “Let’s download what we can.”
While Helen worked with the computer, Gina paced quietly, stealing looks out into the parking lot. “Do the members really not notice this kind of thing?” she asked. “That their funds are being misused?”
“They don’t care,” Helen said. “These people always land on their feet. Even if they lose their lake, they’ll just sue and then build elsewhere.”
There was silence for a second, and then Gina was right beside Helen, closing the laptop and pulling Helen down onto her knees in one smooth motion. Only then did Helen hear a car engine in the parking lot. The engine turned off and there was the slam of a door.
That was certainly concerning. What was immediately more concerning to Helen was that she was kneeling on the floor in Gina’s arms. Gina was wearing her jacket now, but her arms were warm and unmistakably strong. Her head was also leaned close to Helen’s, which naturally meant that her mouth was near Helen’s mouth, and neither of them was saying anything anymore, and Helen was not sure either of them was listening to anything anymore either. They should be, of course, there was a person right outside.
But there was also Gina here inside. Her eyes were still sharply green in the darkness, but her gaze no longer sought out the window and its view of the lot. Instead, Gina was looking at Helen’s mouth. Helen should not have leaned closer. Obviously, she did.
It took the creak of a broken door and a surprised exclamation to jolt them out of it. Helen’s brain rebooted and she grasped for the wooden pendant she wore. She didn’t need to touch it to call up the wind, but it helped her to focus. There was a sudden noise in the other direction, away from the building and the parking lot, the clattering of loose gravel and random trash caught in the wind. The person cursed and their footsteps moved rapidly in that direction.
Gina was looking only into Helen’s eyes now. “You really are lucky,” she said softly.
The next morning, there was a security review at the newspaper.
Gina had organized it, and Helen had grumpily accepted it. It was standard for the most part, a look at screening procedures for employees and visitors wanting to enter the building. But Gina still felt out of sorts and on the wrong foot. She had never made a mistake like she had last night.
The day before, Gina would have found it amusing to watch Helen’s co-workers goad Helen about finally accepting a bodyguard— the knowing looks, the personal questions, everyone finding excuses to come over and watch Helen watch Gina. Not that Helen was doing much of that. She seemed to find the whole thing a bit overwhelming, which surprised Gina and made her feel just that much more guilty.
Gina had nearly kissed Helen last night, which was bad enough, but she’d also done it during an active security situation. She’d only lost a few seconds to it, but no amount of time was acceptable. Helen was her client, her priority, her charge. Not her love interest.
Gina had called a colleague to watch over Helen’s house last night while Gina took a much-needed break. She’d gone for a long run and then made her mother’s cranberry scones, her ultimate comfort food. She’d ignored how much she wanted to reach out to Helen instead, for comfort or anything else.
In the light of morning, Gina had finally been able to go over the previous night in an analytical manner, and that let a few other things belatedly come to her attention. The locked doors that were both broken. The convenient noise that lured their visitor away long enough for them to sneak back to their car. If there really was just luck on Helen’s side, then Helen would have won the lottery by now.
It wasn’t luck. Gina just wasn’t sure what it was.
When the security review was finished, Helen wanted to go see a source, and Gina drove them. She didn’t look at Helen sitting beside her, and Helen mostly looked out the window. Gina couldn’t tell if Helen was uncomfortable because of the near-kiss or the safety lapse. But it didn’t matter, really, as neither of those things was going to happen again.
Helen’s source was a forensic accountant named Eric Cane. He was clearly a friend of Helen’s, because they shared a couple of nonsensical phrases and laughed, which meant they were probably running jokes. Gina just concentrated on watching the exits.
Helen gave Eric the files from Mr. Larson’s computer, and Eric seemed intrigued enough that he shooed them out of his office. Helen suggested lunch, and Gina took her to a cafe where they sat with their backs to the wall, near the rear door.
At that point, Gina realized that she needed to add one other item to her growing list of Odd Things about Helen Harper. Normally when a client accepted a bodyguard, their emotional state was affected. The potential danger always seemed much more real when they were shadowed by protection. Helen, though, was still acting unconcerned.
But of course, so far, there had been nothing concerning happening to them in broad daylight in places where they were allowed to be. So Gina supposed it was all right. Until Helen took a drink of her strawberry smoothie and a few seconds later, began to cough.
Gina could tell what had happened almost before Helen gasped out, “Damn it. Peanuts.”
“I have an epi-pen.” Helen was drawing it out of her purse as she spoke. Her fingers fumbled with it before untangling themselves.
“Have you injected yourself before?” Gina asked. Helen nodded, and Gina watched tensely as Helen administered the shot.
But when Gina began to call for an ambulance, Helen put her hand over Gina’s phone. She was breathing more clearly already. “No need.”
“Yes, there is, Helen.”
“No. I heal quickly.”
“You what?” But Helen was right, her color was back and she was putting away her epi-pen with steady hands. “I’m supposed to protect you,” Gina said.
Helen smiled at her, completely calm now, as if nothing had gone wrong. “From assassins, not peanuts,” she said. “If assassins use peanuts, I will defer to you, okay?”
“Who does know about your allergy?” Gina asked, letting her displeasure color her tone.
Helen seemed unimpressed, as usual. “Well, the whole restaurant now.”
They finished their lunch at a fast food place instead, and then dropped in on Eric again. He was very excited, grinning at them. “This is clearly embezzlement,” he said, as if he might have found gold among gravel. “The money is all going to one source: whoever’s controlling these funds. There’s no evidence that once it goes into these other supposed investments that it ever comes back, or can come back.”
“So do they have the money for dam repairs?” Helen asked.
Eric gave the files on his computer a dubious look. “How extensive are the repairs needed?”
Now Helen looked like a child who’d been promised a trip to the fair. “Let’s go take a look.”
On the now-familiar drive to the dam, Gina decided it was time for a little investigating of her own. “Tell me about the other near-misses you’ve had,” she said. When Helen gave her a blank look, Gina prompted, “There was a fire, right?”
Helen twisted her hands in her lap. “Oh. Yeah, so people had been burning down buildings for insurance money. It was all abandoned buildings at first, and that was attracting a lot of attention, because it didn’t really seem like a coincidence. So I guess they thought if they did one with people in it, they’d be less suspicious.”
“But everyone got out okay?”
“Yep. Even the house cats.”
“And you were there for that.”
Predictably, this caused Helen to start talking to the window instead of Gina. Sunlight and shadow striped over her face as they passed a line of trees. “Yeah, I was interviewing people. Good timing, I guess.”
“Mmm-hmm. And the airplane?”
“That was an investigation into faulty plane parts. I traced them to a plane that unfortunately was in flight. They started having mechanical problems on landing.”
“But they landed fine.”
“And you were at the airport for that.”
“Nose for news, you know,” Helen told the dashboard.
“So that’s your secret, the nose for news.”
“I thought you said you didn’t care what my secret is.” Helen looked at Gina with clear suspicion in her eyes.
“I said it was safe with me. Not that I didn’t want to know what it was.”
“Well, now you know,” Helen said. “Reporter’s intuition. Don’t discount it.”
“Oh, I would never discount you, Helen.”
Helen looked displeased, but she pointed out the window to the right. “Cut in here. We can walk up through the woods so they don’t see us.”
Gina had been in the woods before. She liked being outdoors, and had gone hiking with friends. But being in the forest had never felt quite like this before. And the farther into the woods they got, the weirder it became.
It had started pouring again, but they found some protection under the cover of trees, so the rain was mostly noise at that point. It should have been gray and damp, but if Gina had to describe the natural setting around them in one word, it would have been friendly. Maybe even affectionate.
Their footing was sure even on slippery leaves, and no burrs or brickles caught at Gina’s pant legs. There was a great deal of animal noise, a surprising variety of calls, but all quiet and sort of gentle. Like maybe the animals were talking to each other and for once, not bothering to fall silent in the presence of human beings.
Helen picked out a path with easy competence, taking turns that avoided holes and exposed roots before they appeared. And yet there was no trail to follow.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever gotten lost doing this,” Gina said.
“Oh, I never get lost in the woods.” Helen turned back a little to smile at Gina, passing easily under a branch that Gina had to duck for.
The animal noises around them began to get louder, and Gina started to be able to pick out squirrels and birds in the trees they passed by. “There are, um, a lot of animals right here,” she said. “Aren’t they scared of people?”
Helen stopped, looking up into a tree at a fuzzy ball that was probably some kind of owl. “Doesn’t seem like it.”
“Oh geez,” Gina said. “There’s a deer. Like a full-ass deer. Like three deer.” They were standing a few feet away, just looking at them, a whole family, stag, doe, and fawn, dark eyes steady on Gina. “Are they ill?”
To Gina’s growing lack of surprise, Helen came back to approach the deer. The stag was taller than she was. “Doesn’t look like it,” she said, reaching out to put a hand on the stag’s nose, stroking it softly.
“You’re petting a wild deer,” Gina said, just as a squirrel dropped down onto a branch near Helen’s shoulder. It made a chittering sound and looked at Gina with some suspicion. Gina could not decide whether Helen looked like she understood what it was saying or not.
“Dam’s this way,” Helen said, heading out again.
“This is the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Gina said.
Helen just made a snorting noise that sounded rather condescending.
The rain lessened as they came out of the woods to approach the dam.
Helen couldn’t control the rain very well, but she tried to keep it to a light mist, at least where they were standing. They were downstream from the dam, and it rose up tall and solid in front of them, looking like nothing could ever move it.
“Do you know what you’re looking for?” Gina asked, sounding calm and analytical as she surveyed their surroundings. She’d been a bit distant since last night. Probably, Helen assumed, a woman like Gina would feel guilty about having let her guard down, even for a moment. She didn’t know that Helen didn’t need her help.
“I’m looking for problems,” Helen said. “That kind of sums up my job.”
“Hey, mine too.” Gina smiled then, and it made the world look warmer. She was wearing a black rain jacket but she’d left the hood down, probably so she could see their surroundings better. Helen had done the same thing. The rain and mist made tendrils of Gina’s dark hair stick to her forehead in intricate curls, like reverse frost against her pale skin. “So what problems specifically?” Gina asked.
“Well, this is an embankment dam. It’s made up of rock and dirt, with a layer of clay in the middle to stop the water coming through. But of course, no dam can completely withstand the water, so they have to give in a little bit, let the water through. They do that with drains.”
Helen pointed to the glut of muddy water flowing through a pipe near the bottom of the dam. “Drains allow water to pass through the dam to lessen the pressure on it. But the drains have to be kept up.”
“And you’ve heard they aren’t,” Gina said.
“Well, you can see that the water coming through is very muddy.”
“What does that mean?”
“That the water has picked up a good source of soil somewhere. Now, that could be because somebody was doing construction on their lake-front house. Or the soil could be coming from inside the dam, which is a dangerous sign.”
“Oh right, like the St. Francis dam,” Gina said. She smiled at Helen’s surprise. “I did some reading. The St. Francis dam, 1926. It was supposed to provide water for Los Angeles, but the foundation was probably faulty. When the dam collapsed, the wave of water was 140 feet high to start and running near 18 miles an hour. By the time it reached the Pacific, the wave was two miles wide. It killed 431 people. Of course, the area below the dam was heavily populated, not like here.”
Helen was feeling a little flushed, and hoped it didn’t show. “Do you always remember what you read so well?”
Gina just smiled at her. “So what now?”
“Well— the surface looks good otherwise. I’ve been checking it out often, and you can see, it’s got a good shape to it, no collapses anywhere.”
“So it’s not a problem.”
“As far as I can tell. But of course, the longer it goes without maintenance, the more chance it has of eventual failure. I need to get the whistleblower construction worker on the record. He’s skittish, but Melody’s working on him. And then we publish. Public outrage will demand an investigation, and the dam will be saved.”
“And Mr. Larson’s embezzlement will come to light and he’ll go to jail.”
“Well, he’s an old white man, so maybe he won’t. But we can try.”
“You know,” Gina said, still eyeing the dam with suspicion, “there have been cases where upstream dam collapses have caused the collapse of downstream dams. And there are a lot of people living below the city dam downstream from this one. Just like there were below the St. Francis dam.”
“I know. But the lake up here is small and low compared to the larger dam height. And the water can’t go over the edge and collapse it, because of the spillway.”
“And that’s the spillway?” Gina pointed up to a wide channel of concrete that began just below the top of the dam and ran between two concrete berms, snaking its way down the hill beside the dam until it reached the drainage channel at their feet.
“It’s like a huge emergency drain,” Helen said. “When the water gets to the level of the spillway, it comes through that channel, rather than overtop the dam. If that happens, it would flood downstream, of course. But the city dam is well-maintained. They’d make use of their own spillway if they had to, and it would be okay.”
Whatever Gina was going to say next was lost as a sharp crack sounded. The noise was buffeted on the wind, muffled by the rain, but they both recognized it for what it was.
Gina immediately grasped Helen’s arm, pulling her underneath her own body, pressed against the gravel of the dam surface. Helen was so small that Gina had her almost completely covered.
“That was a gunshot,” Gina said. When a second shot didn’t immediately follow, Gina stood up long enough to pull Helen behind the spillway berm. Gina pressed Helen down again, but this time Helen refused to go. She gently pushed Gina up just enough that she could see over the berm. Helen had to be able to see, or she’d never be able to protect Gina.
“There are lots of hunters around here,” Helen said.
Gina was not swayed. “Just because you can talk to deer doesn’t mean you look like one.”
“We’d be safer in the woods.”
“Absolutely not. We’re not getting pinned down in the woods where they can come at us from all sides.” Gina pulled a gun from a holster just behind her hip.
“You’re armed!” Helen exclaimed. Gina’s loose blue shirt had covered the gun completely.
Gina seemed oblivious to the effect she was having on Helen, from the flash of her bare waist to the easy handling of the weapon, and of the situation. “Yeah, not with a rifle, so it’s not going to do us much good,” Gina said.
Helen’s hand crept toward her wooden pendant, and she forced her attention away from her overly distracting bodyguard and onto the world around them. The wind came up, and Helen closed her eyes.
The world fell quiet except for the wind, and Helen let her mind go with it as it wound through the trees and skimmed over the lake. The wind was blind but it had hands and fingers, cold and sensitive. Helen could feel the pieces that didn’t belong to their surroundings, the harsh and unnatural shape of a car in the dam parking lot, the angular, unmoving offices, the dam itself. And there on a hill above them, the long, deadly shape of a rifle.
Helen opened her eyes to find that Gina was focused on the exact same spot.
“There,” Helen said quietly.
Gina glanced at her, inquisitive, but for once she didn’t push. “Stay here,” she ordered.
“What? No! I can help you.”
“Helen.” Gina spoke in a sharper tone than Helen had ever heard her use. “Let me do my job.”
Helen nodded, stiffly. Gina started climbing the hill behind them, disappearing into the tree cover. She went with a wind that trailed her steps.
When Helen could feel that Gina was deep into the woods, she took to the sky, climbing within the tree cover, hidden from the ground. From the canopy Helen could pick out Gina moving quietly through the woods, as well as her quarry, a man in a camouflage jacket with a rifle.
But Helen was having a harder time paying attention to him than she was to Gina. Gina had seemed sort of out of place with Helen so far, in her mother’s house, the newsroom, the woods. Gina dressed in dark colors and looked at everything with suspicion, constantly calculating details in her mind.
But now— now Gina looked like something else entirely. She moved through the woods with a grace Helen had not seen an hour before as they’d made their way to the dam. And Helen was struck with the realization that it wasn’t the place that Gina was suddenly fitting into, but the job. Gina hadn’t needed to move silently through the woods before, and so Helen had foolishly assumed she couldn’t.
Gina’s rain jacket had been left behind, and she moved carefully enough that her blue shirt was nearly impossible to see behind the foliage. Helen watched, entranced, as Gina successfully surprised the man with the rifle, appearing from behind him to put the muzzle of her gun to his head. Startled, he let go of the rifle, and there was perhaps a little extra bit of wind that scattered the rifle away, letting it slip down the hill on wet leaves. But everything else was Gina: the ambush, the attack, the victory.
Helen came back down to the spillway and then climbed the hill to reach Gina, who was calling the police with one hand while she kept her gun pointed at the shooter. He was thin and pale, except for his face, red with anger and probably embarrassment. He sat on the ground with his hands on his head and glared at Helen when she appeared.
“Are you okay?” Gina asked.
Helen nodded. “Let’s find out who put him up to this.”
Gina managed to talk her way past the police station lobby to the hallway outside the interrogation rooms, and she brought Helen with her.
They looked through the two-way mirror at the man Gina had caught in the woods. He was middle aged, and the flush had faded from his face, leaving him with an easy smile and a carefree attitude with the police officers in the room. But Gina could see how the man’s hands tangled together, over and over, the fingers bleached white with tension.
“I got lost,” the man said. His voice came through a speaker into the hallway, sounding slightly staticky. “Couldn’t find a deer all day and I got off the path. It was so stupid. I didn’t have my orange coat, I didn’t have water with me—”
One of the cops in the hallway with them had the man’s phone, but he wasn’t having much luck with it.
“Gina can get into it for you, I bet,” Helen spoke up. She looked odd in this hallway, pale in the artificial lights, as tiny and fragile as a doll next to the men in uniform with weapons on their belts. But Gina wasn’t fooled by Helen’s appearance. Not anymore.
Gina took the phone and worked through a few strategies before she managed to get it open.
“Sounds like you were having a real bad day,” said the cop in the room with the shooter.
The man nodded eagerly. “All my own fault, of course. The only thing I could think of was to fire my gun for help. I guess that girl heard it, but she got all upset. I wasn’t shooting at her! I didn’t even know she was there! Where the hell was her orange jacket? And then she freaks out on me, pulls a handgun—”
“Must have scared you,” the cop said.
“Scared the shit out of me,” the man said, laughing. “I dropped my rifle and put my hands up! Didn’t want trouble with a girl like her! She’s nuts. Doesn’t belong in the woods with that attitude. We’re supposed to help each other. Separates us from the animals, you know.”
Gina was scrolling through the contacts on the phone and she laughed abruptly. It echoed a little down the hallway. “Larson’s in here,” Gina said. “They’ve been texting.”
Helen looked around Gina’s shoulder (she was too short to look over it) as they read through the messages. “These people think they can afford to be stupid,” Helen said.
Gina passed the phone to the cop beside them. “Lost hunter, my ass. He’s a hired hitman. Just a really dumb one.”
As they left the police station, Helen said quietly, “I guess that’s that.”
“Well,” Gina said immediately. “We can’t assume that they won’t try again.”
Helen brightened, ridiculously, and Gina liked it far too much. Gina ushered her outside, and when the natural light fell on Helen again, she seemed more herself.
Gina Mallory had thought she understood how the world worked. But now everything was strange and new. The world did work, but it worked by a different mechanism than Gina had thought. The world was not just people and their buildings and ambitions, it was wind and rain and woods. It was Helen.
“Dinner?” Helen asked. “You should—” She squared her shoulders, looking brave. “You should come to my place. And you should probably spend the night.”
Helen lived in a house that was, of course, on the edge of the woods. When Gina stepped out of the car, the first thing she noticed was the smell of plant life, green and vibrant, washed by rain. There were plants everywhere: towering trees, bushes, and flowers, vegetables in plots in the yard, ivy climbing the house.
Inside it was the same. Potted plants in a surprising array of colors lined the rooms, crowding the windows, flowering and producing vegetables and fruit. Every one of the plants Gina could see were healthy, despite Gina being fairly certain that it was the wrong season for some of them to be so prosperous. “You have a hell of a green thumb,” Gina said.
Helen laughed. “Oh, they think this is their house too. I just let them do as they please.”
Helen’s mother had served vegan food, and that seemed to be Helen’s preference as well. Helen picked fresh tomatoes and chives from the yard, as well as a couple of apples from a tree that should not have been producing apples this early in the year. She put them into a salad with chickpeas and it was fantastic.
“So,” Helen asked, “what do you do when you’re not protecting irritating reporters? Do you like to camp? Fish? Hike?”
“Well, I’m not sure I’m as in tune with nature as you are, but yeah, I like to be outdoors. When it’s not raining.” The rain had picked up again, and thunder sounded occasionally. The sky was growing dark early as the sun began to set behind heavy clouds. Still, Gina was quite certain that if Helen decided to step outside again that the rain would let up.
After dinner, Helen took Gina upstairs. She hung back and let Gina go first, and Gina could not help her gasp of surprise.
The top floor of Helen’s house was comprised of a bedroom tucked away under a section of roof, while the other half of the floor was an open deck built among the trees. The rain fell softly, hitting the layers of leaves above them. Plants were as plentiful here as everywhere, stretching and shading, flowering and flourishing.
“My god,” Gina said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t suppose your dad built you this treehouse.”
Predictably, Helen flushed. “Um—”
“Right,” Gina said with a smile. “No questions about the dad.”
“I’m not used to being the one who’s asked questions,” Helen protested. “But— I feel like I want to answer you.”
“Will you?” Gina asked.
“I shouldn’t.” Helen looked a little lost. “There are a lot of things that we shouldn’t do.” And then she stretched up and caught Gina’s face between her hands, pulling her into a kiss.
Gina groaned with desire, opening her mouth above Helen’s, and finally drawing her into a full embrace. Helen was so tiny in Gina’s arms, a wisp of a thing, a sprite with blond hair and bright eyes, so fragile. And yet Helen also felt unimaginably large, endless, and powerful.
Kissing Helen was immediately intoxicating for Gina, enough that she willingly stepped around all the barricades she’d put up against this unwise action and delighted in losing herself. Helen tasted like apples and her hands were cool against Gina’s skin. She was kissing back as much as Gina was kissing, and it was all too tempting to press Helen against the wall and try to contain her there.
But Helen could not be contained. She was a force of nature, and Gina wanted nothing more than to set her free.
Gina’s hands worked on the buttons of Helen’s shirt, and Helen let her, making a little gasping noise against Gina’s mouth.
Gina pulled away to open the shirt, to push aside the fabric and reveal Helen’s bra, sky blue, holding small, round breasts. Gina leaned down to press gentle kisses against Helen’s skin, mouthing over the lace of the bra, feeling Helen’s nipples pebble against her tongue.
Helen moaned softly and sank her fingers into Gina’s hair as Gina paid worship and it was far too perfect, until Helen’s cell phone buzzed in her pocket.
Gina stilled her hands, her mouth, meeting Helen’s eyes and seeing dark desire and sharp heartbreak. The phone had startled them. But it wasn’t why they pulled away.
Gina was unable to look at Helen, at what she’d almost had and should not have tried for. She heard Helen answer the call and then start asking questions, slightly out of breath. Then she must have hit speaker, because Gina could hear the voice of Eric Cane, the CPA who was helping them decipher Larson’s records.
“He’s liquidating his assets,” Eric said, sounding far too loud against the gentle rain. “He’s selling his houses, disbanding two companies, and it’s all going overseas, to untraceable accounts.”
“Why?” Gina asked, in a shaky voice. “Because Helen is about to catch him? Or is there something worse?”
Outside, the rain fell harder.
Helen dialed Melody’s number with shaking hands.
A moment ago, Gina had been holding Helen in her arms, kissing her, wanting her. Now Gina was faced away, her posture full of tension. It was obvious why. Gina was Helen’s bodyguard. And even here, safe in Helen’s house, Gina was on duty.
They’d crossed a line, and Helen had initiated it. She’d let her attraction to Gina overwhelm her good sense, and now Gina was suffering for it.
“Melody,” Helen said into the phone, “I need to meet with your source on the dam repairs. Tonight. Now. I know he’s reluctant, but we’re running out of time.”
Melody’s source was a man named Jerod Brown. He sat on a stool in the bar where Melody worked, bouncing his knee in an agitated way. Gina had positioned the three of them with their backs to a wall, where she could see the main entrance and easily reach the back entrance. Melody worked behind the bar and paid them no more attention than she did everyone else.
Jerod didn’t seem to be too reassured by their precautions. “I can’t afford to lose my job,” he said.
“I won’t use your name,” Helen assured him. “You’ll be an anonymous source. But I need you to tell me your story.”
Jerod looked around the room, his gaze flitting from person to person. “I’ve worked for Larson for two years,” he said. “Construction. We do whatever’s needed up there, which is mostly building new houses. But the dam needs maintenance, so I got put on that. I didn’t think anything of it at first. It hadn’t been serviced in a while, you could tell that, but I figured it was just neglect, you know. Private owners don’t always understand how much upkeep something is, they don’t know the schedule of what to do. But the closer I looked at it, the more I realized— I don’t know if Larson has ever done maintenance on that thing. It’s been there fifteen years, and I don’t think they’ve done a thing to it. So I went to Larson, and I told him what was needed: drain repair, some foundation work at the minimum. Really they need to do an overhaul, examine everything.”
“But Mr. Larson said no?” Helen asked.
Jerod shook his head, his lips pressed tightly together. “He said there’s no money for that. No money for any of it. Money for new houses, yeah, things he can sell, but not the dam. Just make it look nice, he said.”
“Wait,” Helen said, her voice growing sharp with concern. “What do you mean, look nice?”
“I mean— I mean the dam is bad. There’s a lot of erosion. The drains aren’t water tight anymore, there’s soil getting into them from the dam itself. We—” Jerod’s voice fell soft. “We made it look like it’s supposed to on the outside. More gravel. Shored up some stuff. But it’s just cosmetic.”
“So— the dam looks good, we were just there. But—”
“Cosmetic,” Jerod said again.
“Do you mean the dam could fail?” Helen asked.
Jerod finally looked at her. “It’s solid. But when a dam erodes like this, it gets shorter. Everything settles and slumps. That makes it more likely to overtop. That’s when the water in the lake overflows the dam, like a bathtub when it gets too full. Except the wall of the bathtub is made of dirt and the water might be able to wash it away.”
“What about the spillway?” Gina asked. She’d also been keeping a close eye on the crowd, but apparently following the conversation as well.
In response, Jerod put up his hands, held flat, parallel with the table. “Here’s the dam,” he said, indicating his right hand. “And the spillway,” which was his left. He put the left slightly below the right. “The spillway is a drainage channel that provides an emergency release of water before it can manage to overtop the dam. So of course, the spillway sits lower than the dam, just a little, so the water reaches the spillway first.” Now he began to lower his right hand, down below his left. “But the dam is settling, shrinking. And the hill under the spillway is not. And if the spillway is higher than the dam—”
“It’s useless,” Helen said. “The water will never reach it. It will go over the dam instead.”
“Exactly.” Jerod put his hands down.
“Will the dam survive an overtopping?” Helen asked.
“The way it’s eroded already,” Jerod said, “there’s not a chance.”
“So what’s our time frame here?” Helen asked. “How long do we have?”
“I don’t know,” Jerod said. “We disguised it. Put useless gravel and earth up to make the dam look taller. I don’t know how tall it really is.” He looked at a window near them, where rain was still falling heavily. “But as soon as we get too much water in that lake, we’re going to find out.”
Jerod left for home as soon as he could.
“He may need a bodyguard himself after this,” Gina remarked.
“He’s very brave,” Helen said. She was pulling on her jacket. “I need to get back to the dam and do some measurements.” Unfortunately, they were the kind she couldn’t do without flying.
“Absolutely not,” Gina said. “You got shot at last time.”
Helen grasped Gina’s wrist, gently. “Listen to me. I don’t need a bodyguard. I can’t explain—”
“You won’t explain.”
“Fine. I won’t. But I’m in no danger.”
Gina pulled her arm away, and her mouth twisted itself into a frown. “So why have me around at all?”
“It was a mistake.” The words were cold in Helen’s mouth, despite the truth of them. “The only one at the dam who was in danger was you, and I can’t do that to you again. I have things I need to do and I can’t protect you.”
“I can take care of myself,” Gina said forcefully.
“I won’t tell the paper,” Helen said, as if that would help. “You’ll still get paid.”
“Helen, no. I can’t let you take that risk.”
“Then you know how I feel,” Helen said quietly, “about everyone in this community. This is my place, Gina. This is my calling.” Helen put up her hood as they stepped outside. The rain continued to fall in sheets, and Helen didn’t bother to try to lessen it this time.
“If that dam goes,” Gina said, “what does it mean for the one downstream? The one with thousands of buildings below it, including this bar?”
Helen started walking away, and raised her voice so she could be heard. “It means you have to let me do my job.”
The rain was so heavy when Helen reached the dam that the noise of it hitting the lake was deafening. Helen took off her shoes in her car, and her rain jacket, leaving the jacket protected from the rain while she stepped out into it. She was soaked immediately as she rose into the air toward the top of the dam. It was fully dark now, but there were security lights outside the office. Helen didn’t land there, or anywhere. Instead, she dived into the lake.
The water was cold, but it was far more quiet below the surface. Helen let her body sink toward the bottom, pulling a waterproof flashlight from her pocket. When she switched it on, she found herself in a crowd of fish, silvery flashes in the dark. They went with her as she swam toward the bottom of the dam.
Cold water never affected Helen much, and while she did need to breathe air, it was easy for her to hold her breath for long periods of time. You’re like a dolphin, her mother always said. Helen wasn’t quite that graceful in the water, but she did love to swim. It was becoming apparent that Helen should have done some swimming in this lake before now.
Below the surface, without the need for cosmetic repair, the dam was in trouble. Large areas of fill had sloughed off, and the water was cloudy with silt. Helen found the drainpipes, her flashlight catching on the metal like it was sunken treasure. The pipes were rusted, even partially blocked by mud and debris.
Helen resurfaced a few minutes later, in the same crowd of fish. They flitted around her, agitated. Helen swam toward the top of the dam, as the rain fell around her. There wasn’t much room now between the lake and the top of the dam. And at this angle, Helen could see it well: the spillway channel, clearly above the top of the dam.
Helen took to the air again, looking downstream, toward the larger dam and beyond it, the lights of the city.
The morning that Gina met Helen, Helen had ditched her, escaping from the newsroom with ease. Gina hadn’t given up then.
And now, after Gina had watched Helen drive off in the rain, she was still not ready to give up. Back inside the bar, the band had started playing, and Melody was on stage with her saxophone. But she didn’t miss Gina’s pointed look. After the song ended, Melody came down and ushered Gina into a back room.
“I was told,” Gina said, “that you know all the secrets.”
Melody was unhooking her saxophone from its neck strap. Her blond hair was in a ponytail tonight, tied with a band that matched her pink fingernails. She frowned.
“So you’ve known her since kindergarten.” Gina prodded. She took a seat beside a folding table. “Is that when you found out she was different?”
Melody said nothing, looking away.
“All I want to do is help her,” Gina said. “She told me she’s not invulnerable, and I think that was the truth.”
Melody sighed, taking a chair on the other side of the table. “We were both different,” she said. “I was assigned male at birth.”
“That makes sense,” Gina said. “Your name is so perfect, I wondered if you picked it yourself. Melody the musician.”
Melody laughed. “Yeah, I picked the name at the age of six. So now it’s a little on the nose. Of course, my parents wouldn’t use it anyway. But Helen— her mom is great. And the teacher we had in kindergarten just explained to us that some girls look like boys on the outside, but they’re still girls.”
Gina spoke gently. “Is Helen something else on the inside?”
“I don’t know how she’d feel about me telling you this.”
“Is she invulnerable?”
“Other than peanuts?” Melody asked. “I’m not sure. It might depend on how far she is from the woods. But yeah, I’ve seen her get hurt.”
“Then please tell me.”
Melody groaned. “Okay, I’m only going to do this because Helen likes you.”
Gina made a disbelieving noise.
“You complicate things for her,” Melody said. “Any bodyguard would. Any person would, really. There’s so much about Helen that no one knows about. But she wanted you around, and you clearly like her as well. So I’m going to trust you.” Melody leaned a little closer, folding her hands on the table. “But this does not leave this room.”
Gina nodded. “I promise.”
Melody looked amused now, maybe even excited to share the secret. “Okay, so Helen’s mom— Well, let me warn you first. I’ve gotten this second-hand and sort of piecemeal because Helen doesn’t like to talk about it, and her mom takes some weird delight in speaking in riddles.”
“She seems like a free spirit,” Gina said.
“Oh yeah. Always was.”
“And the nature type?” Gina asked.
Melody snorted. “You could say that. So from what I put together, Helen’s mom was out in the woods one day and got lost. She would have been like twenty-five at the time. She was on a solo hike and got disoriented. Then she tripped trying to cross a stream, and got wet. Soaked her shoes right though, and she lost her water bottle in the leaf cover somewhere, and scratched up her legs. It was a disaster. And then she— met someone.”
“What kind of someone?”
Melody made an abstract pattern in the air with her hands. “Like— like the spirit of the woods. If that makes sense. Maybe a nature god sort of thing. But like, with a body.”
“Well, he must have had one, because Helen came along nine months later.”
“Oh.” Gina said. “Okay. So she’s not human.”
“Right, half. So is her dad, like— ah, in the picture?”
Melody spread her hands in a gesture of uncertainty. “Well, her mom takes long walks in the woods every day and comes back with leaves in her hair. So make what you will of that. But for Helen, sort of. I think she experiences him more as the spirit type.”
The table they were sitting at was faux-wood, and Gina tapped a finger against its surface. “The wooden pendant she wears.”
“Yeah, that helps her focus her powers.”
“And what are those?”
“I don’t really have a list. She just does things. Um—” Melody looked around the room, as if the answers were stashed around them. “She can swim for a long time without needing to breathe.”
“Can she talk to animals?”
Melody laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Um, there’s super strength. The flying is cool.”
“Helen can fly?”
Melody smiled now. “Yeah. It’s amazing. I’ve been up with her a few times. You kind of go where the wind goes. The wind is a whole thing with her, actually. She can summon it to move things. Um, what else? She heals fast.”
“But she can be hurt?”
“I mean, I’ve seen her with a skinned knee on the playground.” Melody stopped looking amused now, her mouth turned down with worry. “Look, Gina— she’s had close calls before. But this— if the dam does go, that’s more than any one person can handle. And if something goes wrong, Helen will never forgive herself. She’s not just some person with powers. She feels like she’s a guardian of this whole area. Kind of like her dad is for the woods. And I think maybe you are the guardian of Helen. So she needs you, whether she believes it or not.”
Gina drove up to the dam, forgoing the trek through the woods in the dark, especially without Helen there. Helen’s car was the only other one in the parking lot, and when Gina checked it with her flashlight, she could see Helen’s shoes and jacket inside.
There were security lights around the office, so Gina could see the top of the dam. The water level was very high, and the rain continued to fall in sheets. Gina left the dam and walked the shore of the lake for a ways. The beaches were being swallowed, and nearby trees were trailing their lowest branches in the water. A couple of wooden beach chairs were bobbing in the shallows, slowly making their way out into the lake.
Gina trudged back up toward the dam, her feet sinking in mud and gravel. And then Helen was there beside her. She was soaked through and shoeless. Gina immediately took off her rain jacket and put it over Helen’s shoulders, a useless gesture that just let Gina get drenched. Helen looked up at her with a kind of baffled fondness.
“Don’t tell me not to be here,” Gina said.
Helen shook her head. “I’m glad you are. We have a problem.”
“Is the dam going to go?”
“It’s below the level of the spillway now.”
“There’s all kinds of debris in the lake,” Gina said. “Sand from the beaches, furniture.”
“Tree branches and even docks too, I think,” Helen said. “So even if the water gets near the spillway, the debris could clog it.” She looked up at Gina from underneath the hood of the jacket. “Gina, I need you to warn people. There are campers downstream, there might be hikers. Then let Larson know there’s a problem, he might be able to do something. He’s a rich white man, I doubt they’ve picked him up yet for questioning in the shooting. And then you need to tell the city. If this dam goes, the whole thing, plus all the debris in the lake—”
“It could take out the city dam,” Gina said.
“There are thousands of people down there.” Helen’s voice was sharp and full of pain. “They’ve got to be evacuated. Get Melody to help you. Get everybody.”
“What about you?”
“I’m— I’m going to try to keep this one from going.”
“I talked to Melody about you,” Gina said.
Helen blinked, surprised for a second, and then that emotion sank back down beneath her worry and determination. “Okay,” she said.
“Be safe,” Gina told her.
The day dawned very gray amid all the rain, but Helen was glad for the light.
Of course, it only showed a growing disaster. The lake was high and full of debris that had been swept along with the rains and rising water: chairs and tables, beach umbrellas, pieces of decking. There were a couple of unmanned boats bobbing around, ghost ships whose owners were asleep in their beds beside a lake that might not exist much longer. The people in the luxury homes would only wake up to find their playground gone. The people below— they might not wake up at all.
In 1889, a dam had failed above a city called Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The South Fork Dam had provided a lake just like this for the rich and idle to spend their days in privacy. But they’d mismanaged the dam, lowering the top and selling off the emergency relief pipes for scrap, not in the least concerned for those who could never buy their way into the private lake resort.
What they had been concerned about was fishing. The South Fork Dam had a spillway cut along its border, and the wealthy men had placed screens there to block fish from ever leaving the lake. That had only made it easier for debris to be caught there when heavy rains raised the level of the lake to dangerous heights.
The South Fork Dam catastrophically failed one afternoon in May. The flood wave hit several small towns, including Johnstown, where a 60-foot wall of water and debris roared through at 40 miles an hour. The debris, including entire houses, piled up against a stone bridge, and later caught fire. The flood killed over 2000 people.
Helen had never imagined such a thing happening here. The dam where she stood now was much smaller, the lake more shallow. But if this dam failed— there was no stone bridge downstream to catch the water and debris, the broken pieces of this dam. Instead there was another dam, the city dam, larger even than the dam had been above Johnstown. If that dam should give in to the pressure— the destruction would be unimaginable.
Helen wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She’d sent Gina to warn people, to evacuate the city, to find the owner of this private resort and dam, Don Larson, to alert him to the danger. So far, Larson had not arrived, but Helen was pleasantly surprised to see a pickup truck pull into the parking lot, with a bunch of men inside. Jerod Brown, the whistleblower on the dam maintenance, was driving. He joined Helen at the edge of the dam. It was too dangerous to walk out onto its surface anymore.
“I was afraid of this,” Jerod said. “Look how far the dam has sunk. The water will never reach the spillway now. The only thing that can happen is an overtopping. The water will come right over the dam and tear it to pieces.”
“Is there anything you can do?” Helen asked.
“Some of the guys went to get the heavy machinery. Maybe we could dig another spillway, or try to raise the level of the dam.”
“That sounds very dangerous.”
“We need Larson’s permission,” Jerod said.
“No, you don’t. Trust me. You’re trying to save the dam. He’ll just take credit for it later. Where would you cut the new spillway?”
Jerod pointed. “Off to the eastern side. It’s the least likely place to collapse and make things worse. If we can cut a channel there, lower than the dam height, the water could drain out at a controlled speed while leaving the dam intact.”
The rain kept falling as Helen watched the yellow construction vehicles approach the dam. She’d flown up above it all now, hidden in the gray mist, and from that height it looked like children might be playing in the mud, damming a stream and driving their toys around it, trying to prevent its breach.
Helen had some localized power over the rain, but none at all over earth or bodies of water. She could not bring her hands together and build a dam like a child might, shoring up layers of mud. She could not repel the lake, backing it up onto the luxury estates that surrounded it, an invisible dam lessening the pressure on the real one.
What Helen could do was to use the wind. But she’d never tried something quite like this before. So far, the heavy machinery had been focused on shoring up the dam itself. But now there were a couple of men in yellow excavators starting to cut a channel on the eastern side of the dam, a second spillway.
Helen came back down, landing beside the dam in the parking lot. She put her hand over the wooden pendant she wore, focusing her powers, and called up the wind. Whenever the excavator took a chunk of earth out, the wind followed close behind it, scouring the earth, deepening the trench, and for a while, Helen thought they were making good progress. But then two sounds caught her attention.
The first was a car pulling into the parking lot. Helen recognized it, an expensive black sedan. Larson. The second sound was far more concerning: shouts and screams from the men in the bulldozers on top of the dam. The water was nearly overtopping the edge, and the ground beneath the vehicles was beginning to give way.
Helen elected to ignore Larson and focused on the men on top of the dam. She grasped her pendant tighter and attempted to push the wind against the top of the dam, trying to hold it steady as the men began to drive toward safety.
It took Helen a moment to realize that Larson had come up beside her, but he soon made his presence clear. “This is private property,” Larson growled. “You need to leave.”
Helen didn’t spare the time to talk to him. There were two bulldozers left on the dam and she tried to keep the wind pressing evenly at the ground beneath their wheels.
But Larson would not be put off. “Miss Harper! I will call security.”
Helen almost laughed. “The dam is going to go. It’s your fault, the least you can do is let me try to help.”
“You can’t help,” Larson said. “All you can do is get in the way.”
“I can tell the truth about what happened here,” Helen said.
“Oh, believe me, I know.”
Perhaps it was understandable that in the excitement of the moment that Helen had forgotten that this was a man who had hired a hitman with a rifle to kill her. And Gina was not here to save her this time.
Larson grabbed Helen’s arm just as the next bulldozer reached safe ground, leaving one at risk. Helen was pulled off balance and she lost her grip on the wind. The dam began to crumble.
Larson was a foot taller than Helen and heavyset, but Helen was incredibly strong. She pushed him off successfully, but in the struggle, Larson’s fingers pressed against her mouth, sticky with something he must have had for breakfast.
Helen crumpled to the ground, feeling like someone had a hand on her throat, slowly squeezing it shut. Larson stood above her, looking confused but triumphant.
Helen lay on her side, watching the dam, as both of them struggled to survive. She could hold her breath for a long time, but she’d been surprised and she didn’t have much left.
The man from the last bulldozer climbed out of his machine and started to run toward safety. Helen called up a bit of wind to push him along, her hand squeezing against her pendant. By the time he made it, the world around Helen was growing dark. But she could see that the emergency spillway was not finished.
“Help me,” Helen gasped to Larson. “I can still save this.”
“One woman can’t stand in the way of disaster,” Larson said. “And without you, no one will know what part I played in it.”
“People will die,” Helen said. But she wasn’t sure Larson heard her. If he did, he didn’t care. Helen felt the rain falling onto her face, cold and harsh, felt her body move as it struggled for breath. She reached out but couldn’t find anything to grab onto, just rain that ran through her hands.
When things around her had grown completely dark, Helen felt the vibrations shake the parking lot beneath her, and heard the roar of water. She knew what it meant. The dam had failed.
Gina was having mixed success in carrying out her part of the plan.
She’d alerted everyone she could think of, including Helen’s newspaper, who called all of the TV stations to get the word out about the possibility of the smaller dam failure. Then the paper started hounding Larson’s office for comment, so at least Larson knew what was going on. The park service was rounding up any campers downstream of the smaller dam, and the workers on the larger dam were all alerted, standing by in case the worst happened at the smaller dam upstream. It was dawn, and the city was a buzz of activity, which left Gina feeling sort of unnecessary.
Or perhaps it was just that Gina knew she could be of more use elsewhere, back with Helen on the dam. Perhaps Gina was worried. After all, if Larson knew, he’d head to the dam immediately. He’d no doubt encounter Helen, and he’d already tried to have her killed once.
But Helen was stronger than he was. She was a literal forest sprite with magical powers.
Gina still worried. If she really was the guardian of Helen, then she needed to be with her.
The rain had not lessened at all. Inside Gina’s car, the noise was so loud that Gina could barely hear anything else. She marveled that there was that much water in all the world. She drove slowly toward the smaller dam, joining a line of people headed to higher ground.
Gina had seen a video or movie once, about a dam failure. She couldn’t recall what it was now, but the image of a flood sixty feet high bearing down on a helpless city was all too memorable. The sound of it alone had been terrifying: like a train or a roaring beast.
But watching a movie could never really prepare you for the reality of something terrible happening.
The rain could not quite drown out the sound of the dam failure, a low rumbling that did sound like something alive and angry. Gina could feel the vibration of it traveling through the earth. The car shook, along with the trees around them. Birds took off into the misty air in vast crowds. Traffic stopped, and then restarted with new vigor before quickly coming to a standstill.
Gina had made it almost all the way to the dam, up to the hillside above the river, high enough to be safe. She climbed out of her car along with fellow travelers, and they made their way toward the river, which cut through the valley below them. You could still hear it above the rain, the roar of the coming water. It sounded like the scream of something in great fear. Perhaps it was just that Gina was filled with a greater fear than she’d ever known.
The dam had failed. The only way that could have happened was if Helen were injured, or if she was dead.
Gina left her car behind and ran toward the dam. The roar of the water grew louder until it was almost deafening, and then it came into view below Gina. And it wasn’t just water. It was debris: pieces of things Gina couldn’t recognize, but had probably once been docks and boats, and of course, the dam. The smaller dam was full of soil and rocks, with a clay core, Helen had said, and Gina could see huge pieces of earth tumbling by in the water. She had no idea if the larger dam downstream would be able to withstand the battering ram rushing toward it.
Gina got to the parking lot, finding it deserted. Everyone was gathered on the rapidly emptying lakeshore, safely upstream from the dam. Larson was there, Gina could see him staring at the disaster with wide eyes. But no Helen.
Then Gina’s eyes fell on a bit of green lying on the ground that didn’t match the grass around it. A woman’s shirt.
Gina came down to her knees in the soaking grass beside Helen’s body and put her fingers to Helen’s throat. There was no pulse. Helen’s head was facing away, toward the dam, and as Gina tilted it up, she found a sticky smear along Helen’s mouth. Peanut butter.
Gina had taken the precaution of getting an epi-pen and keeping it in a pocket. But she could see now that it was too late for that. Helen was not breathing and Gina couldn’t feel a heartbeat. There was only one thing she could think of to do.
Gina gathered Helen into her arms. It was easy, Helen weighed almost nothing, even soaking wet. Gina could even run with her clutched close to her chest. Gina tore across the parking lot and into the woods that bordered it, rushing past trees, slipping on wet leaves. She ran until she could no longer see the dam and buildings behind her, the human world. Gina stood still, holding Helen’s body, which was still warm but starting to cool in the endless rain.
But here, the rain was lessened, hitting the leaves of the trees before the ground. Gina knelt and put Helen’s body down on the forest soil.
Gina had no idea whether or not this was madness. And at the first few signs, she still had her doubts, as desperate as she was for a miracle, afraid she was imagining things. But soon enough Gina could hear animal noises, gradually getting louder. A fox darted close, investigating. Gina didn’t move, and it paid her little attention.
Then the rain dropped off completely. In the sudden quiet Gina could hear the rush of the flood from the broken dam. But she could also hear birds and squirrels, and a low sort of snorting noise that made her shiver. Gina turned carefully to see a bear, large and dark, ambling toward them. Beside it, in apparent lack of fear, were four deer.
Gina reached down and took Helen’s hand, tiny in her own. “Come on,” she whispered. “Your work’s not done. We need you.”
There was no response, but above Gina, the very sky seemed to be in motion as the tops of trees began swaying, sending cascades of leaves and leftover rain drops falling down on them in a sort of shower. The forest seemed to grow light, as if it were the golden hour, when everything glowed from sideways sunlight, although there was no break in the rainclouds.
“Helen, please,” Gina said. And Helen squeezed her hand.
Gina gave out a sob and pulled Helen onto her lap, clearing her airway, watching her first shaky breaths. “You reckless idiot,” Gina said. “The assassins used peanuts.”
“Oh, fuck off, “ Helen managed to say, smiling faintly.
“How is this your weakness?” Gina demanded. “You’re a forest spirit. Peanuts grow on trees!”
Helen coughed a little and began to sit up. “Common misconception. They grow on the ground, actually. Beneath it, even.”
“They’re still a plant!”
“I don’t know, I don’t make the rules. My mom’s allergic to peanuts, I had to get something from her.” Helen pushed at her hair, soaked and sticking to her face.
Gina hugged her close. “I should never have left you.”
“I needed you to warn everyone.”
“But you—” Gina pressed a kiss against Helen’s forehead. “I think I just met your dad.”
“Yeah,” Helen said. “Me, too.” She looked in the direction of the roaring noise undercutting their conversation. “The dam failed.”
Gina helped Helen to her feet, supporting her carefully. “Everyone’s been warned, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with the city dam.”
“Well,” Helen said, “let’s go find out.”
To Gina’s utter surprise, Helen reached down and picked her up in a bridal carry, as if Gina did not have six inches and fifty pounds on her, as if Helen had not recently been more or less dead.
“Holy shit,” Gina said.
“Hope you don’t mind flying,” Helen said as they lifted off the ground.
“Love to fly,” Gina managed to say.
Helen smiled at her. “It’s not too weird?”
“I mean, it’s weird. But it’s not too—” Gina cleared her throat. “We’re in the middle of a disaster here.”
“Probably not the time for our own personal disaster then,” Helen conceded.
They crested the trees and looked down at the scene below. The flood was still emptying the lake. One section of the dam remained standing, but the rest was missing, gone with the flood.
“I don’t know if I could have stopped it,” Helen said.
“At this point, it only matters whether or not you can stop the next one from going.”
It was much faster flying than it would have been by car, and they drew near to the city dam within a few minutes. People had fled the area as the flood from the failed country dam began to hit the water of the city reservoir. Waves were crashing against the tall concrete dam with every bit of debris the flood had dragged with it: wood and rocks, cars and boats, uprooted trees. The water level had climbed high enough to reach the spillway, but the passage was already choked with rocks and rubble.
“What can you do?” Gina asked.
Helen looked grave. “We’re about to find out.”
Helen landed them near the top of the dam, hidden in a stand of trees.
Of course, everyone was so focused on the dam that they probably wouldn’t have noticed two women flying through the air. They found a vantage point above the dam in a deserted area and watched as the water level of the city’s reservoir climbed steadily higher, and debris dragged along by the flood hammered against the concrete surface of the dam.
“Will it hold?” Gina asked.
“No idea.” Helen frowned. “I don’t know if I can fix this. If the wind could even hold all this back.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Gina said. She sounded amazingly relaxed for someone who was watching a disaster unfold. “I think a tornado could.”
Helen’s mouth fell open. “A tornado.”
“Like a waterspout, you know.” Gina spun her hand around in the air.
“I— I don’t know if I’m strong enough to make a tornado.”
But Gina was just smiling at her. “Come on, Helen. Pick up those rich men’s trash and throw it back on their lawn.”
Helen found herself laughing. “Well— sure. Okay. Tornado.” She felt for the wooden pendant she wore, rubbing the smooth surface, concentrating her powers.
“They spin,” Helen said, partly to herself. “They spin. What direction?”
Gina looked as if she felt the question was rather silly. “Pick one.”
“Counter-clockwise then.” Helen normally didn’t move her hands to use her powers, but it felt right this time to extend her fingers and start to move them in a circle, like stirring a pot, like directing a dance. The wind obeyed fitfully at first, buffeting them from different directions, once hard enough to make them stumble.
“Sorry,” Helen said. But the wind began to catch a rhythm then, and below, lighter debris on top of the water started to spin.
Helen spread her feet apart for balance and pushed the wind harder, broader, out to the edges of the flood, to the top of the dam. Everything began to spin, and Helen felt dizzy with it, but there was a hand on her waist. Gina was keeping her steady.
The roar of the flood began to die down, and there rose up a deeper but more whispery sound of wind that gradually grew in volume. Helen’s dizziness faded, as if she were at the center of the whirlwind, the eye of the hurricane.
Helen stopped spinning her hands and flattened them, giving a push, and everything below them seemed to move all at once, the flood, the rocks and mud, the bits of man-made debris. Most of the reservoir’s water was caught up in it too, but so long as it fit well enough in the space between the hillsides, Helen let it go. The last pieces to shake loose and follow were the huge blocks of compacted clay and rock from the smaller dam.
Helen had to go back into the air to steer it now, the whirlwind reversing the flood like it was turning back time. It rose slightly above the level of the river, and then back down, wobbling. Helen was scared to let it rise too far, in case she lost hold of it and everything came down onto the high ground where people had sought refuge.
It was a painstaking journey, and the whirlwind seemed to grow less steady as Helen went on. She began to feel achy and tired, her breath a little raspy, her vision spotty. Finally, the site of the old dam came into view.
Most of the dam was gone, but there was a section to the west still standing. The lake was still emptying here, and as the water returned to its old home, the reversed waves began to swamp the lakeshore. There were people there, and Helen watched them run for safety, even as the roofs of the luxury houses caught in the wind and lifted up and down like the covers of books.
Helen was not sure what was going to happen when the wind subsided. There was probably more water in and above the lake now then there had been before. But luckily, the heavier bits of debris had started to settle toward the bottom of the whirlwind. In any case, Helen didn’t think she had the strength to hold on much longer.
Helen spread her hands and let go.
The heavy pieces crashed down first, followed by the water, and then all the lighter bits. It was a clear disaster in the making, and Helen had lost count of how many disasters the day had witnessed so far. The water seemed confused at first about where to go, but when it figured it out, it ran into obstacles that slowed its course. There was not one solid dam now, but many disjointed pieces spread out along the lake and river bed. Lumps of the old dam, boulders and bulldozers, boats and docks. The water eventually found its way back to the river bed, but slower now, and without dragging so much junk along with it.
Helen let the wind, soft and gentle, carry her back toward the city dam, watching the water move below her. It reentered the reservoir and hit the larger dam again, but without nearly as much force. Exhausted, Helen dropped down to the ground where she’d started, at Gina’s side.
Helen slept most of the day, and woke to the smell of food cooking in her kitchen. She padded down the stairs in her socks to see Gina at the stove, also in her socks. It was still raining outside, but quietly now, and the sky was lighter.
“You’ve made the world news,” Gina said, above the sizzling of vegetables in a pan. “The tornado has. Meteorologists are fascinated. I hope they come up with some explanation. We don’t really want an investigation.”
“Investigations are for people who do things wrong,” Helen said. “At least, mine are.”
“Reporting is even more important than superpowers, isn’t it?” Gina asked with a smile. “At least, most of the time.”
“Any word on Larson?”
“In custody for questioning about the dam upkeep. I imagine the police are waiting on your article.”
“I will get to that tomorrow,” Helen said, with a sigh, sitting down at the table.
Gina brought her a plate of noodles and vegetables, a colorful tangle that smelled wonderful. “So,” Gina said, sitting across from Helen at the table. “Your mom fucked a tree.”
“Okay, listen,” Helen said, “because we’re only going to do this once. Do you want to know the details of your parents having sex?”
“Now imagine that your parents only have sex outdoors in the forest, sometimes in broad daylight. Would you like to know about it then?”
“Then we’re done talking about this. Okay?”
Gina nodded, partially successful at smothering her laughter. “So what’s next for the city’s most valuable reporter?” she asked. “Got another scandal in the pipeline?”
“A few,” Helen said. “What’s next for you?”
Gina pushed her fork around her plate without picking anything up. “Well, I think I might have found steady employment. What do you think? Could you use a bodyguard?”
Helen frowned. “The thing is— I honestly don’t need a bodyguard any more than you do.”
Gina was quiet a moment, watching Helen, who was staring off into the distance. “But maybe,” Helen said, “I could use a partner. Someone who’s good at getting into computers and phones, who has an amazing memory and knows her way around weapons. I don’t want a bodyguard-client relationship with you. I want— I want something else.”
Gina had a bit of a smile on her face now. “So do I.”
Helen broke into a smile herself. “Partners, then?”
“Friends,” Gina said.
“Friends.” Helen’s smile grew a little shy. “And maybe more.”
Gina didn’t say Definitely more, but Helen could see the words on her lips. Instead, Gina leaned across the table and pulled Helen into a kiss.
It took about a week for maybe to become definitely.
It wasn’t anything grand or planned, just Helen in her garden, barefoot, in pajama pants and a t-shirt, cutting chives with the insistent assistance of the neighbor’s cat. He was a big brown-striped tom, and he liked the chives as well as Helen did. Helen told him about the recipe she was making for breakfast, and he occasionally made some soft grunts.
Gina had just arrived for breakfast, and Helen heard her come out onto the porch behind her. “Are you talking to the cat?” Gina asked.
“Of course. Lots of people talk to cats.”
“Right. Fine. I mean, is she talking back to you?”
“He,” Helen corrected. “And sure. You can hear him.” The tom meowed in Gina’s direction at just that moment. Helen gave him a wink.
“But can you understand him?” Gina asked, slowly, and with clear impatience.
Helen gave the cat a scratch behind his ears and left him to it. “Lots of people can understand cats,” she said, walking up the porch steps. “Cats have different calls for different—”
Gina made an exasperated noise and pushed Helen against the wall of the house beside the front door. “You are infuriating,” Gina said, and kissed her.
Helen reached up on tiptoe and wound her arms around Gina’s neck, and Gina showed that they at least had very good communication between the two of them, because she picked Helen up entirely, with Helen’s legs wrapped around her waist, and carried her into the house.
The kiss continued sort of carefully as Gina walked, but very ardently on Helen’s part, and she wove her fingers into Gina’s dark hair, tugging it out of its braid.
Gina made it into the kitchen and sat Helen down on the table. “What was all that?” Gina asked, slightly out of breath, and flushed a pretty pink.
Helen unwound her arms and put the chives down, not caring in the least about breakfast anymore. “I may possibly have a strength kink,” she said.
Gina raised her eyebrows. “You, the strongest woman in the world, have a strength kink. You know, it doesn’t even take anything to pick you up, you don’t weigh more than that cat in the first place.”
Helen gave a little pleased shudder, and Gina looked like she wanted to go on with the banter, but thankfully, she gave it up in favor of more kissing. Helen spread her legs and Gina pressed close in between them, with her hand behind Helen’s head, kissing her with growing passion. She slid her other hand between them, against Helen’s stomach, and then beneath her t-shirt.
Helen leaned back and Gina broke the kiss to pull Helen’s shirt off over her head. Gina had apparently not realized that Helen was not wearing a bra beneath her pj’s, because she made a little murmuring sound of surprised hunger. Slowly, Gina trailed her hand from Helen’s stomach up to her small breasts, her palms rubbing the nipples to hardness. Gina’s hands were slightly cool, and Helen gave a very encouraging moan.
“Strength kink, huh?” Gina asked, breathless. “Well, then.” She put her hands on Helen’s hips and pulled her forward, until Helen’s rear was off the table, with her legs wrapped around Gina’s waist for balance. This caused Helen to lean back against the table, and put Gina in the right position to mouth at Helen’s breasts, tugging at her nipples with her teeth.
“Oh fuck, oh, fuck,” Helen said, arching her back up to meet Gina’s mouth. Gina groaned, taking her time, working Helen almost to oversensitivity, until Helen’s hips began to move against Gina in a rhythm.
Gina pushed Helen back on the table until her rear rested there again, and then she let go of her, hurriedly pulling her own shirt off over her head and removing her bra as well.
Gina’s breasts were heavier, with dark nipples and a freckle on the left one that Helen desperately needed to kiss. Helen pulled Gina close, and they kissed with clear intent, their bodies sliding against each other, skin to skin. Helen cupped Gina’s breasts in her hands, weighing them, teasing at the nipples with the barest touches.
Gina groaned into Helen’s mouth, and abruptly pushed her back to lie on the table again. She caught the waistband of Gina’s pajama pants and pulled them off. Helen was bare beneath those too, and Gina spread Helen’s thighs wide, moving in between them, parting her pussy lips with gentle touches. Helen was so wet that her body welcomed Gina’s fingers readily, and then Gina’s mouth.
Helen lay on top of her own kitchen table, moaning in pleasure as Gina knelt on the floor and ate her out, Helen’s thighs against her cheeks. Gina was skilled, working Helen’s body slowly, flicking her fingers over Helen’s clit, and following it with her tongue. Helen’s cries became louder as the climax built in her, until she came with a gasp, arching her back and clutching at the table. Gina saw her through it, until the spasms had ended and Helen’s legs fell limp.
Gina stood, out of breath and grinning. Her dark hair was loose and clung to her neck. Helen watched as Gina slid down the zipper of her jeans and stepped out of them, leaving her in a pair of black panties.
“Oh, those too,” Helen said. “Come on, you’re killing me here.”
Gina hooked her thumbs into the waistband of the panties, and then paused, with a smirk on her face. “Can you talk to cats?”
Helen’s mouth fell open in surprise, and then she huffed. “Lots of people can talk to—”
“Helen Annette Harper.”
“I’m never telling,” Helen declared with a laugh. “You’ll never get it out of me.”
Gina made a fondly exasperated noise and stepped out of her panties as well. She picked Helen up once again, and they kissed as Gina walked into the living room. She sat down on the couch with Helen in her lap, and Helen slid a thigh in between Gina’s legs.
Gina hissed in pleasure immediately, and raised her own leg a little so that Helen could ride it. They rocked against each other, kissing with increasing heat, tangling tongues. Gina grasped Helen’s ass, grinding them together. Helen could feel their peaked nipples rubbing against each other’s bodies, and she moaned, close again already.
It seemed that Gina was no better off, grinding her pussy against Helen’s leg in short, desperate thrusts. Gina’s head fell back as she came, gasping, and Helen pressed sucking kisses against Gina’s throat, riding her leg until her thighs burned, and then she was coming again too.
Spent and sweaty, they collapsed against each other. Helen luxuriated in the feeling of Gina’s smooth skin, pressed against her everywhere.
“Breakfast,” Helen said, distantly. “I was going to make breakfast.”
“You should do that,” Gina said, not moving an inch.
Helen shifted them until Gina was lying on her back on the couch, with Helen on top of her. Helen began to lazily kiss her way down Gina’s body, starting at the neck.
Eventually Helen just made lunch.
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Image credit: Dannye