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The Alternate

Fiction - 8 minute read

The Alternate

by Carl Innes

Invariably embarrassing and frequently tedious was how Sarah characterized her life, existing as she did on the fringes of literary excellence. Sarah knew full well that she was not considered in the same vein as the guest visitors who attended the university where she taught. Seeing successfully published authors wander the halls, flanked by fawning literary hopefuls was a constant reminder that she was not up to par, not only in the eyes of own her students, but also in the eyes of supervising faculty who seemed to be infuriatingly aware about every aspect of her life.

Now, Sarah had enjoyed a degree of success during her early twenties. Enough success in fact to fool her tutors, family, friends and even herself into thinking that she would indeed have a career as a professional writer. A handful of published short stories, a collection of irrelevant sonnets, a formulaic stage play that almost came to fruition. And of course, the novel, that was so often touted but never completed.

In all fairness, last year, Sarah had successfully produced a reasonable biographical account of a prolific entrepreneur. Unfortunately, the individual in question had passed away without a will. The anticipated sale of the book was placed on hold, seemingly wallowing forever in a quagmire of litigation. So it was that Sarah knew that not one solitary body of work over the last twenty years pointed to anything other than her own creative blandness and failing.

It had been the Dean’s forceful suggestion that Sarah take a yearlong personal developmental sabbatical. Perhaps he thought that the failure of her childless marriage might act as a catalyst for change. It did not.

Three months into the leave of absence and Sarah was at her desk, staring blankly at her computer screen, nursing an over-priced coffee, as she periodically scanned the room searching for inspiration. The phone ringing was a pleasant diversion.

It was Suzanne, her agent. That might have been a stretch. Suzanne was a friend who happened to be a literary agent. But Suzanne’s very existence allowed Sarah to lay claim to at least this one professional veil.

After the inevitable small talk Suzanne broke the news. She had heard of writing position and had instantly thought of Sarah. The position was in fact another opportunity to act as a biographer for a previously very private individual, Raine Whitlock, who wished to immortalize his achievements and family history.

The position called for an initial month residency on Mr. Whitlock’s estate to establish a professional rapport. Suzanne confessed that, if truth be told, Sarah hadn’t been the first choice as biographer. The proposed author in question had dropped out after a hastily planned book tour had been scheduled. Suzanne had tentatively forwarded Sarah’s resume and the client had readily accepted her.

Sarah’s initial response certainly wasn’t that of gratitude. Sarah thought the whole thing sounded a little too Bram Stokerish. Working for a mysterious client? In what? A secluded windswept Gothic mansion? Suzanne was cognizant that Sarah’s initial reticence was based on her diminished confidence levels. But she knew she would not have to sell the idea too hard when she played her trump card. The fee. A year’s teaching salary just for the initial month residency alone. A bonus upon completion of the book, and residuals should it go to press.

A mere minute later Sarah had accepted the offer and had the address written down. Sarah began sifting through all the snippets of information she could find on the internet that would tell her about the small northern Californian town of Alturas.

Sarah also took time to scour the internet for any information on her perspective employer but could find nothing. Nothing at all about the man, his achievements, or his family. Sarah was aware of the trend of certain wealthy individuals to secure the services of companies who could pretty much eliminate an individual’s online presence, but still she was baffled by the lack of even the smallest shred of information.

A week later Sarah had left behind the dreary autumn Michigan weather in exchange for the invigorating warmth of northern California. The taxi ride from the train terminal was uneventful aside from the pleasant scenery. Her Armenian driver was not given over to frivolous conversation, due to his attention being permanently diverted to the live soccer coverage on the radio.

The house, whilst not Gothic, was remote and did speak of money. A good half mile off the main 395 highway the property was an elevated, extremely large, city-slickers ranch with a few well-maintained outbuildings. Situated on the highest peak in the area the ranch’s only curious element was the inclusion of a crude looking stone building two hundred feet or so from the main structure.

Sarah received her bags and paid the still distracted cab driver before turning in time to see Mr. Whitlock step from the porch. Raine Whitlock strode purposefully over towards Sarah. He was a vigorous looking man with broad shoulders and confident gait who could have been anywhere from forty to fifty-five depending on your viewpoint. His graying short-cropped hair suited him and his deep brown eyes exuded charm. He wore well fitting, causal but expensive jeans, and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt that showed off his workman-like, sinewy muscles.

Raine had an easy smile that he used first on Sarah and then on the cab driver who barely acknowledged him in return. Overall, Raine reminded Sarah of the old cowboys she had seen years ago in the Marlborough cigarette commercials.

Extending his hand Raine closed the remaining distance on Sarah who was struggling with her bags. Sarah gave up as he drew near and dumped everything on the ground in front of herself as she accepted his hand.

“Mr. Whitlock.”

“Sarah, I’m so glad you accepted the offer. Call me Raine.”

Sarah could normally dissect accents but was at a loss with Raine’s cadence and inflection which seemed to be a hybrid of sorts.

“Thank you for the wonderful travel arrangements and for selecting me.”

“Rest assured had I seen your resume ahead of the other candidates I would have chosen you first.”

He was off to a good start, thought Sarah. He had quickly slayed the proverbial elephant and had set the tone for their relationship nicely.

Raine then proceeded to miraculously gather up Sarah’s bags and began to make his way to the stone building where Sarah would apparently be residing. As they walked, Raine inquired as to the train journey and seemed genuinely interested in the fiasco concerning the train’s poorly run dining car.

Raine had to stoop somewhat to enter the dwelling and once inside placed all the bags in the middle of the floor. Sarah joined him and marvelled at the internal transformation.

Although snug in dimensions no hint of the building's baser outside elements continued inside. The white-washed walls were completely smoothed over and the floor itself was intricately decorated with Italian tile. The center room benefited from subtle recessed lighting, air conditioning and from what Sarah could see from her vantage point, access to a well-appointed bathroom. There was a small kitchenette built into the back of the main room and a bedroom next to the bathroom.

Raine made his way toward the bedroom looking back over his shoulder as he smiled again.

“You’ve got to see this” he said proudly.

Sarah followed Raine into the small bedroom and instantly saw what Raine was so proud of. The large bedroom window framed a remarkable view of the valley and beyond. It was simply spectacular.

Sarah moved towards the window. “Wow!”

“Pretty special huh?”

Sarah nodded appreciatively.

“I’ll leave you to it. Please rest and freshen up after your journey. Would you join me at the main house at seven for dinner? I’ve stocked your fridge until you shop tomorrow, but I insist that you join me this and every evening for dinner. I’m a bit of a chef and not adverse to showing off.”

Sarah was still in awe at the view but as she turned to Raine she instantly became aware of the enforced proximity within the small bedroom and began to feel slightly self-conscious.

“That would be marvellous. See you at seven.”

Raine grinned as he stooped under the doorway to leave.

“Make yourself at home.”

Sarah took a further moment to marvel at the view before she began to explore her new temporary abode. The decor was minimalist to say the least. There was a shelf that boasted a few small antique urns and the tapestry that hung on the far wall was a very realistic sectional reproduction of the Map of Maundy. Finally, there was a small bookshelf that housed some first edition prints in various languages. Despite her extensive literary knowledge, the only work Sarah recognized was a copy of “The Saint”, by Leslie Charteris.

Sarah checked the fridge. Green olives, Brie cheese, Carr’s water biscuits and in the small freezer section she discovered Rum and Raisin ice cream. All her favourites. Raine must have spoken in detail with Suzanne. Sarah was impressed.

Sarah returned to the bedroom and began to unpack; her attention being constantly drawn back to the view. What a way to start each day. The setting, the hospitality, and of course, Raine.

A sublime shower prompted Sarah to take a quick power nap. Even before her alarm sounded Sarah awoke feeling thoroughly refreshed. Having carefully chosen her attire she then selected her favourite notebook and pen for the evening ahead.

Sarah left her cabin just before seven. She lingered near the corral area taking long deep breaths of the fresh night air and realized that she did not hear or smell any animals whatsoever.

The outside of the property was tastefully lit with a swathe of strategically placed lamps which highlighted the ranch in quite a different perspective. Sarah stood on the large, enclosed decking and knocked formally at the door.

Seconds later, Raine opened the large oak door allowing an instant view of the open plan ground floor. Sarah was immediately aware of the most incredible aroma that wafted towards her. Raine greeted her warmly and beckoned her in before darting back towards the kitchen to ward off a potential culinary disaster.

The ranch décor was pretty much what Sarah had imagined. Solid rustic wooden furniture, a moose head, snowshoes, and some Indigenous artwork. The kitchen though was a different affair. No ranch basics here. Ample granite-top work surfaces and top of the range appliances were the order of the day.

Raine ushered Sarah to sit at one of the bar stools and immediately served her a suitably chilled glass of white wine. A cornucopia of predominantly Asian ingredients covered the counters in various degrees of preparedness. As he worked Raine spoke quickly and listened intelligently, coaxing and encouraging detail after detail from Sarah about her life. Sarah was completely at ease and was relishing the experience. Although she mentally acknowledged to herself that the copious Chardonnay was helping fuel her narrative.

Raine cooked with a great deal of panache, telling Sarah that what she would be experiencing was basically a culinary tour of Thailand’s provinces. Sarah was enthralled by the gastronomic and cultural knowledge Raine displayed and found his worldly wisdom far exceeded hers in every facet.

After a splendid extended dinner Raine took Sarah out onto the rear decking that commanded yet another wonderful view of the valley. A mile or so away the occasional car headlight broke the early evening gloom along the main highway along which Sarah had traveled.

As she waited for her coffee Sarah realized that Raine had led the conversation all night. She hadn’t gleaned one fact of specific personal information from her new employer. She felt remiss. After all, isn’t that why she was supposed to be here? As Raine sauntered out with the coffee Sarah waded in.

“So, what’s your story?”

Instantly Sarah mentally chastised herself. It was a clumsy attempt to garner information.

Raine threw back his head laughing, almost spilling the coffees in the process which he quickly placed on the rail. Sarah reddened. Raine sensed her embarrassment.

“Sorry, not you, Sarah. Me.”

Sarah appreciated his sensitivity and felt instantly relaxed once more.

“Where to start? Small town boy makes good. How does that grab you?”

He laughed again. Sarah loved his laughter already. Totally self-depreciating. Honest and infectious.

‘So, California born and bred?”

“Not at all. I was actually born the other side of the globe.” Grinning widely Raine rubbed his forearm. “This isn’t a healthy tan. It’s real.”

Again, the laugh.