A Change in Pace, Northern Lights, Book Three
Once a man who lived by the letter of the law.
Newt Tobias will do anything for his little girl. Even take early retirement, sell his city home, and move to cottage country, hoping that the simpler life will provide a better balance for his troubled teenage daughter.
Yet, not long after they’ve settled, he finds himself toe-to-toe with a stubborn, fiery tempered woman with pretty brown eyes.
Once a recluse preferring to live alone.
Working with troubled adolescents, Frederique Marchand doesn’t suffer fools and won’t put up with bullies. Especially handsome strangers like Newt who think they can run roughshod over her. She loves her work, but on her own time she much prefers the company of her menagerie of animals.
But with the welfare of a teenager at stake, she must put aside rocky first impressions and work with a man who needs her as much as she’ll come to need him.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I tell Millie, who is pouting in the passenger seat.
It probably would’ve been easier to let her finish out her year in Kanata if she’d been thriving there, but she hadn’t. When I had the opportunity to close on the house earlier, I jumped at it.
Millie used to be an outgoing kid, but especially in the last year she’d dropped just about every friend she had. It was a concern. After the incident three months ago, I knew something had to change, and soon. Since I had my twenty-five years in, I was able to take early retirement from the Ottawa Police Service, and the house sold after only two weeks. Being the largest suburb of Ottawa, there’s always a market for the slightly better priced properties in Kanata.
I’d only seen the cottage once, when Millie and I drove up for a weekend, but I fell in love with it right away. My girl tried to hide it, but I could tell by the way she eyed the paddleboat tied to the dock; she didn’t hate it either. I put in an offer, and by the end of the weekend we had a new home. All that was left to do was pack up the old house and move all the shit here.
It’s been a crazy busy couple of months, but I hope it’ll be worth it. The fresh start will do us both good, although, Millie begs to differ. Especially on her first day at the new school.
I tried to explain a few times that by catching the last weeks of this school year in Parry Sound; she’d have a chance to make friends before the start of summer. Only problem is—Millie has no interest in new friends. She has shown no interest in anything much since we got here last week.
“It’s only three weeks of school, one week of exams, and then you’ll be off for the summer. Lots of stuff for us to do here.”
“Whatever.” Her new favourite word, and I bite my lip not to react. At fourteen years old, she can cop quite the attitude as of late. I can feel the grey on my head taking over.
The rest of the fifteen-minute drive to her school is quiet, and I do my best to ignore the silent protest being waged beside me. I don’t mind the drive; most of the route runs along Lake Shebeshekong, and occasionally I can see the water glistening through the trees. I plan to explore it by water one of these days, but I’ll first have to get something motorized. The previous owners left the paddleboat behind, and although I’m not averse to doing a few circles in the water off our dock, I’m not about to traverse the lake with that thing. A simple aluminum fishing boat with an outboard motor is on my wish list. Don’t need the speed; I’ve had enough of that during my twenty-five years with the Ottawa Police Service. The whole idea of pulling up stakes and moving here was to slow life down. A change of pace and a speedboat does not fit into that picture.
A deer darts out, right in front of my car, and disappears into the brush on the other side of the road. I have to slam my brakes to avoid it. Risking a glance at my daughter, I see her follow the animal with sharp eyes. I had hoped the wildlife would eventually perk her interest, but so far I haven’t been able to get her out of the house to go animal spotting. At dusk and dawn, in May and June, it’s easier to see deer and moose, because they often feed off the new growth along the roads after the harsh winters. Maybe this encounter will motivate her to come next time I suggest a drive.
I pull in behind the school bus, which Millie will be taking starting the next school year, and turn to my daughter.
“I’m going to run some errands in town, pick up a few things. Need anything from the grocery store?”
“I need some hair gel,” she mumbles. “Make sure to get the yellow tube, the other one is not strong enough.”
To my distress, my daughter insisted cutting off her gorgeous long blonde hair in favour of a pixie cut about a month ago. She likes to manipulate the short hair into a spiky mess with gallons of gel. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still my beautiful girl, and the hair does look cute on her when it’s not sticking out all over the place. I didn’t argue her decision, figuring hair can grow back and there are more important battles to be fought. If I believed she really prefers this, I wouldn’t care, but the truth is—not so long ago—her long hair was her pride and joy. I suspect this latest radical change is more an expression of her struggles than it is a preference.
“Done,” I respond. “Anything else?”
My only answer is a sharp shake of her head before she opens the door and gets out. She looks so fucking forlorn. I would like nothing more than to pull her back in the car and wrap her in my arms, but that ultimately won’t help her.
I’m not sure what will, but I do know coddling her is not going to fix anything.
I watch her navigate the clusters of students gathered outside of the school, carefully keeping her head down and avoiding any possible eye contact. Almost unnoticed, she slips through the front doors. My heart aches and I wonder if she’s slipping through my fingers.
My trip to The Beer Store is a bust—the sign on the door indicating open hours from ten to six on weekdays—so I’ll have to swing by later before I pick Millie back up. Not like I have a full day planned, other than getting materials for a few repairs on the dock and the outdoor grill I’m hoping to build before the summer. Just one of the many little projects I envision myself doing to keep me busy these coming months, but my focus will be Millie and helping her adjust.
The building supply store on the far side of town has most of what I need, except for some water shoes I wanted to pick up for Millie, the shore by our house is rocky. Those I pick up at Home Hardware on my way to the grocery store.
Once the summer holidays start, I imagine the mostly empty parking lot at the No Frills store will be packed, even this early in the morning on a Monday; but for now it’s quiet. Same thing inside the store, it takes me just a couple of minutes to grab what I need, including Millie’s gel—the yellow tube—and make for the cash register.
My eyes are drawn to the back of a woman with striking hair. Shiny and hanging down to the middle of her back, but what is remarkable is some very distinct streaks of nearly white grey bisecting the deep brown hair. She disappears through the doors and I turn to the smiling cashier.
When I walk up to my Cherokee, I notice the same woman loading groceries into her car. The large head of a dog of undetermined origin sticks out of the back window, tongue lolling from his mouth. I hope for the sake of the dog that’s not a habit of hers, leaving it locked in the car while she goes shopping. I’ve seen too many animals perish that way, through sheer stupidity of their owners.
I get in behind the wheel and start the car, when suddenly I see the same woman running away from her car, heading toward the other side of the parking lot. Curious, and because I spot a Tim Hortons and could use a coffee, I drive in the same direction. I lose sight of her when she disappears behind a parked truck, but when I pull around, I see what she is running toward; my blood runs cold.
I swing my head around at the high-pitched scream. I don’t see anything, but I hear an angry man’s voice coming from the near the Laundromat. On that side of the parking lot, tractor-trailers often park overnight. Local law enforcement turns a blind eye, as long as they stay on that side and don’t find a spot in front of the No Frills. It’s preferable to having them drive while tired and kill innocent people on the roads. The truckers are usually gone by the time the store opens, but this morning a single truck remains. And it blocks my view of whatever argument is going on.
I can’t quite make out all the guy says, but ‘fucking whiny cunt’ is clear enough, as are the yelps of a woman in distress.
Slamming the hatch on the groceries I just loaded in there, I take off running in the direction of the scuffle.
“Hey!” I yell, as I round the back of the trailer and see a man pinning a woman to the side of a pickup truck, his forearm pressed against her throat. “Hey, you! Let her go!”
The guy swings his head around and I notice he is much younger than I had thought. A teenager still, and one I recognize. I should, I’ve seen his face at the school, and at the clinic, often enough. The little punk has kept me in business since he hit puberty, but I’m not scared of him. Not even a little bit. Bullies are pathetic, inherently weak, and I am well beyond bowing to one. Been there, done that, returned the T-shirt.
I don’t even slow my stride as I run to the pickup, but before I get there, the coward grabs the girl by the hair, tosses her to the ground, and scrambles behind the wheel. I’m just in time to drag the girl out of the way of the oversized front wheel as he tears out of the parking lot.
Billy Baldwin: bully, juvenile delinquent, pain in my ass, and adopted son of Staff Sergeant Jim Baldwin of our local Ontario Provincial Police detachment. Wonderful.
“Are you out of your mind?” An authoritative voice sounds behind me as I help up the unfamiliar girl, who looks to be no more than fourteen years old. I turn around to see a tall man jogging toward me.
“I said, are you out of your mind? Jumping into a volatile situation like that blind,” he continues as he approaches me. “That punk could’ve hurt you; could’ve had a weapon. Were you hoping to hit him over the head with your purse?
Damn fool woman, getting into a situation without thinking about the potential danger.” He mutters something more about ‘half-witted vigilante feminists’ as he bends over with his hands on his knees, gasping for air. The poor girl shrinks as far away from him as she can get. Poor kid is already terrified.
“Pardon?” I pop the ‘p’ in an attempt to convey my outrage at his entirely uncalled for tirade. Sadly, it’s a poor substitute for jamming a knee in his clearly inflated gonads, which would’ve been far more gratifying. He’s got some nerve. Sure, he looks good with the salt-and-pepper hair, and the handsome face made rugged with a two or three day scruff, but he’s a bully, like the snot-nosed punk I just chased off.
“You don’t know the faintest thing about me, so you can crawl back under that rock you slid out from under.” I snort, looking him up and down, trying not to enjoy the view too much. “Just what we need, some vacationing city boy thinking he can throw his weight around in cottage country.” I put my arm around the girl’s narrow shoulders and guide her toward my car at the other end of the lot. After taking a few steps, I pause and glance back over my shoulder.
“And for the record; you can kiss my vigilante feminist keester.”
Not a single muscle moves in his face. No reaction whatsoever. This one is a cool customer. I throw him one last glare and resume the trek to my car when I hear him behind me.
“I live here.”
That stops me in my tracks and without looking I toss back, “Even worse.”
I was late to begin with, and it looks like I’ll be even later, but I have to get this girl looked after and give our local law a call. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out it won’t likely go anywhere.
“Come on, honey,” I coax the sniffling girl inside the passenger side of my car, pushing my dog, Boulder, a giant mutt, to the back seat. “Let me grab a bottle of water from the back, and then we’ll have to make some calls.”
“Please don’t tell my parents.”
Her voice is tiny, like she is, and I’m fast rethinking the age I pegged her at.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“Rachel, how old are you?”
“I’ll be fifteen next month.”
“How come you’re not in school?” She turns her face away and I know enough. I quickly grab a bottle and get behind the wheel, handing it to her. “Where do you go to school? Where’s home?” I watch as fat tears start rolling down her face.
It takes me ten more minutes to finagle the name of her school from her, after trying to get the full account of what I stumbled into. Sleazy Billy Baldwin apparently has a new sport, turning good girls bad. He’s been hanging out at St. Peter’s Catholic School, playing hotshot to the Catholic girls. Convincing them to take off with him in the modified truck his momma spoiled him with. Not an ounce of common sense to that woman. Rachel, from a home divided by a pending divorce, was an easy target for the much older boy. He convinced her to skip school with him and was waiting at her bus stop this morning. She panicked when he showed her a key for the empty store, a few doors down from the Laundromat, and tried to get her to go inside. God only knows where he got the key. Not having heard the word ‘no’ enough in his life, Billy didn’t take the rejection well and dragged her from his truck. That’s where I came in.
It takes me another ten minutes to give her a stern talking to about staying away from the likes of Billy and drive her back to St. Peter’s.
“Rachel.” I stop her when she gets out of the car. “Take my card, and call me, day or night, if you ever need to talk.”
My heart is conflicted watching her walk inside the school, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my line of work—the harder you push teens in one direction—the faster they’ll run in the other. I’m satisfied this experience alone was enough of a deterrent for Rachel never to get near Billy again. I will, however, give my old friend, Jim Baldwin, a call when I get to the office.
Forty-five minutes late, and with my groceries wilting in the back of my car because I won’t have time to drop them home, I pull into my parking spot outside the family health clinic. I missed the morning meeting, and our office manager is behind her desk, watching me come in with a stern look on her face.
“Sorry, Jess, I ran into some trouble. I’ll explain later.” I’m a little out of breath as I try to scoot with Boulder past her.
“Nicholas and his mother are waiting in your office,” she warns when I reach for the door. “Have been for ten minutes. You had a family emergency this morning, which is why you’re late.”
“Thanks, Jess. You’re the best.” I throw my most grateful smile in her direction, which earns me a raised eyebrow. This isn’t the first time Jess has had to make excuses for me.
It’s probably high time I get her another Tim Hortons gift certificate and maybe I’ll throw in a pedicure at Perfectly Pampered.
“Hey, Nick, Mrs. George, sorry to keep you waiting,” I apologize as I walk in the door and dump my purse in the bottom drawer of my desk. Boulder immediately heads for his bed underneath as I sit down across from the family.
“Of course.” I smile at the timid-looking woman sitting next to the far too large for his age sixteen year old beside her. “Tilly, I asked you to come in with your son today to discuss some of the things that have come up in our sessions over the past few months.”
By the time a teary-eyed Tilly and her very troubled son leave my office, my next appointment is waiting for me already. The day continues much in that same trend, and I barely have time to take my dog out for a pee at lunchtime. I finally say goodbye to my last patient of the day and take Boulder home to his buds. When I open my hatch to grab the groceries from the car—which has been baking in the sun all day long—my lettuce is leaking and my milk has grown lumps.
Dammit, that’ll be powdered creamer in my coffee again tomorrow.