The Tambinder Engine (part seven)
The Tambinder Engine
A McAlley Story
She woke next morning, and would have wondered at the raw throat, the ill feeling…
But her bedroom air was hazy with smoke. Kitten Bobbo’s claws tickled her ankle as she toed below the spread for slippers.
As often, in these days of solitude, she wore the teeshirt and joggers she’d slept in. The pup Jyff was at the foot of the stairs. Deenie switched on the TV; the 24hr news was running an interview show. She opened cans of pet food. The screen crawl said wildfire, burning in the brushlands ten miles outside the commune of Ringsec D24. The towns of Rosonui and Wojoina ordered evacuated.
She checked phone alerts. None were new.
She spoke to the pets: “Well, guys, we’ve done this before. The smoke is from fifty miles off, no danger. Don’t call reports in, that’s what they say. But be on the lookout for signs of fire. You see how it is, in this world we have now. Smoke is not a sign of fire.”
Breakfast was cereal, tasting bad. Deenie felt a fury build over the days she would breathe and be harmed by this pall. What did Victor’s firm, far off where rain and flood seemed more the menace…
What did the Tambinder Engine do, that was of use?
Jyff scampered to the door, didn’t bark at sight of Matthew’s car, but held near Deenie’s leg. Matthew had another man with him. They were absorbed in talk, and again from her hilltop she watched a pantomime. The man had the look of the track about him…she began to believe him Matthew’s detective, who hadn’t heard of McAlley.
Will you come up for coffee? Have you come to evict me? Did I offend you so much we aren’t friends now? Have I gone backwards so much I can only stand on my porch, not call down a greeting, not introduce myself to a stranger?
And so she did call it, her first choice. “Matthew! Will you come up for coffee?”
And not ignoring Matthew’s friend, she called the last: “Hello! I’m Deenie!”
The man aimed his phone at things.
Matthew climbed, huffing breath. “That’s Jared Railsback. He won’t have coffee. He’s after the lay of the land.”
“You mean figuratively. He’s finding out…where Lynn is?”
“I don’t I like this manner I see you having about my daughter.” He was in her kitchen, pouring himself coffee. “By the way.”
Deenie stood silent, shocked.
“I’m taking the horses. Having them trailered off. You won’t be any good if the fires arrive, managing four. You haven’t even got the means…”
“That’s wise of you,” she cut him short. “When do you want me out?”
“Have I said anything like it?”
Oh, enough, she thought. But, colder: “I’m sorry, Matthew. How I persecute you!”
At this he gulped coffee, motioning exasperation with his shoulders. “You’re being a child. No, I won’t put you out of your home, you with no job, none you’ll keep. That much is understood. As I told…”
The break, this time, was his own.
It had taken mastering the habit of tears, too costly, and long seconds passed before her voice betrayed her misery. “What do you want from me, then?”
“Stay on until you change your mind. Don’t fail to let me know when you make off to your next stop.”
“Won’t you please leave Ondine? She’s my saddle horse. I care for her most. But no…take her too if you want.”
“Have her,” he said.
Deenie stood at the window, raw eyes on the activities of Railsback, who photographed, calculated; was halfway up the hill and closing on the stables. She whispered, “The lay of the land.”
“I’ll have a look upstairs,” Matthew said. “Retrieve a couple of things.”
She lingered washed in the echoes of their conversation.
As I told…
A couple of things.
Shoes on the porch, the screen door pulling back. “Deeann Carmadge.”
So she was. “Have coffee if you like,” she told Railsback.
Not a sound filtered from the hallway, or the bedrooms.
“I’d stand a cup of tea.”
Soon she had him alone in the kitchen, shrugging at her apology it could be only a mug, and microwaved. “I don’t have a kettle. What’s gone wrong with him?”
“I hardly know Mr. Gilgan. Doesn’t strike me as having a better side.”
“But I took it for charm, once. Irascible old medico…well, medico of a kind. I must watch too much TV. I thought there was a heart-of-gold Matthew underneath.”
Railsback smiled at her. He put his elbows on the countertop and faced the living room. “Wants to know if you’ve been tampering. Going against the arrangement. Having tenants in.”
“Oh. Does he trust you? You can tell him…”
Matthew was heard rustling, descending steps. He entered the kitchen with a face strongly peeved. “Oh, there you are, Jared.”
“I still get paid, you know. Tirza and Rory still give me work.”
“Of course they do, Deenie. Ondine’s the yellow mare?”
“In the grazing pen, with Kanga and Tomadon. Sparrow’s in his stall.”
“Really, I can’t grasp it, what’s brought this on, this…petulance, I want to say. I’ve been generous with you.” Speaking, he met the eye of Railsback.
He had characterized her to his companion, driving over. Feckless woman, half-witted, fey…
Who knew? Hopeless at caring for herself, needing charity. Her voice had been petulant, naming the beloved friends he was taking from her. She could not say, “What possible manner with Lynn? Who I’ve spoken once in life, when she was a schoolgirl stopping at your surgery…to take your credit card, if I remember. You’re inventing, Matthew.”
Because if Railsback believed her off in some way, if Matthew bridled…styled himself as bridling…at the mention of his daughter’s name, Deenie was fixed. She could say nothing at all.
She did, taking thought, choose a sane thing. A reasonable thing.
“At any rate. You’re right about the horses. I doubt I’d manage on my own in an emergency. And I do thank you for Ondine.”
Railsback left with a tap to her elbow. Matthew, sheepish a bit, finding no fight in her, no further proofs to nod at, left with his duffle—its contents nothing Deenie would search to find missing.
That tap had meant, confide in me.
The Tambinder Engine
(2023, Stephanie Foster)