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Authors: Hilary Fields

Last Chance Llama Ranch

BOOK: Last Chance Llama Ranch
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I
t was a dark and stormy night…

Outside the cave, anyway.

Inside the cave it was actually darker and stormier. Because it was inhabited by one very grumpy troll.

“Goddamn it! Of all the rookie mistakes, this has to take the biscuit.”

Mm, biscuits…
One of Dolly's famously fattening, gravy-smothered, pillow-sized breakfast biscuits would definitely not go amiss right now.

“Your phone have any juice left?”

“Seriously? You guys barely even get service in the middle of town, let alone halfway up a mount—”

“I don't need service,” the troll cut in savagely. “I just need enough light to find my ass with both hands and a map.”

“Ah.”

She depressed the “Start” button on her smartphone, and it gave a wan, nearly-out-of-battery glow.

The troll snatched it from her freezing-cold fingers. “Scrape up some of that dry moss and those dead leaves for tinder while I see about making sure we're still alive come morning,” he snarled.

She didn't tell him where to stick the smartphone. Because the troll would, she hoped, be so kind as to save her life tonight. It just happened that, in addition to being outstandingly bossy, he was also quite handy at building shelters and starting fires out of practically anything.

And Merry Manning was a huge fan of shelter and fire at the moment. She had never been so cold in her life.

That's what happens when you give a baby alpaca your only sweater
, she thought, shivering and chattering fit to crack her teeth. But she kind of thought it was worth it.

She hadn't felt so alive in years.

Though how I explain this one to my readers, I cannot remotely imagine…

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
Two months earlier

F
atimah was not having a good day.

This much became obvious as my ponderous host led me deeper into the steamy bowels of her domain. Her discontent was a miasma that seethed about her, oozing ominously from every pore.

Perhaps it was the worn and unlovely daisy-patterned swimsuit that wrapped less than graciously about Fatimah's sturdy figure, or the nubbly sea anemone bathing cap that strained to contain her bushy black hair. I really couldn't say. But whatever the source of her existential dyspepsia, it was causing her to stomp like a brontosaurus down the mildew-spotted hallway in her squish-squashing Crocs, muttering dire nothings beneath her breath.

I began to suspect my first spa treatment might also be my last.

The Topkapi Hamam caters primarily to tourists. And since that's what I am these days, it seemed like a reasonable place to try out this most traditional of Turkish experiences. But Fatimah, as cultural ambassador, was clearly less than thrilled with her day's task: take my ungainly carcass and give it the full “Sultana Treatment.”

My guide pushed open a door marked “Tepidarium.” My high school Latin told me to expect tepidness, and I was not disappointed. It was tepid. Pitch black, empty, and tepid. I peered in with trepidation.

“Five minute!” bellowed Fatimah, shoving me inside.

She slammed the door behind me, and it clanged shut with a boom like the gates of hell. When my shoulders finally felt safe to abandon their perch above my ears, I looked around. I was alone in utter darkness…with no idea where the door was. Five minutes of panting, slightly chilly terror later, I had yet to find the egress on my own when the portal was flung open and my glowering, pear-shaped Virgil was once again silhouetted in the doorway.

“You hot!” she snarled.

“Well, ah…that's nice of you to say,” I began, but Fatimah had me by the scruff now—no easy feat considering I topped her by at least ten inches—and was marching me down the dim, grungy hall.

“Caldarium,” read the sign above the next chamber.

And Fatimah tossed me in the oven.

“Five minute!”

Five minutes later I had a lot of sympathy for baked potatoes. My face flaming, my sweat-drenched hair plastered to my skull, I gasped and pitched forward woozily when my tormentor finally freed me, but Fatimah had no patience for fainting foreigners.

“Now wash!” And she goose-stepped me to the far side of the seemingly endless hall.

We entered the grand chamber. And indeed, it had once been grand—maybe two or three centuries earlier. A vaulted dome soared above us, little hexagonal skylights letting light slant in like something out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Everything was marble, from the walls with their burbling fountains splashing into foot basins to the cool, blue-veined floor and, in the chamber's center, a circular, raised marble platform roughly the size of a handball court. Intricate mosaic work patterned the walls and floors. Steam curled in tendrils about the room, coiling around pillars and masking my fellow bathers from close inspection.

It did a less thorough job of hiding the disrepair of the place. Cracks in the floor were black with mold. Whole chunks of mosaic were missing in spots, leaving the fanciful figures on the walls without eyes, arms, or legs. The air was redolent with eau de BO and attar of foot fungus.

Fatimah shoved me toward the altar of sacrifice and ripped the towel from my body with one violent, magician-whipping-a-tablecloth-off-a-laden-table move. “Yiiiiiiiikes!” I (quite naturally) howled. Before I could so much as figure out which of my bits to cover first, Fatimah was on me.

“Down!” she barked.

I ducked, then grinned sheepishly when I realized she wanted me to lay upon the central platform. Other female tourists were arrayed on the rim of the stone circle in a loose ring, similarly guarded by smoldering bath attendants in fifties-style swimwear. The head of one to the foot of another, the tourists made a daisy chain of naked flesh…and now I was to complete the chain.

Except, of course, I'm the tallest freaking daisy in the world. While I eyeballed the gap in the ring of soon-to-be-washed women, wondering if I would be able to wedge myself in without getting or giving a snootful of foot to the face, Fatimah disappeared into the mist.
Thank goodness,
I thought, hoping she might have gone on lunch break or Australian walkabout. But no. All too soon Fatimah was back…with a bucket.

An instant later, I stood agape as sudsy (thankfully warm) water sluiced down my body from where Fatimah had hurled it with some gusto (and a hint of a sadistic smile) all over my shocked form. As soon as I was suitably lubricated, my human loofah muscled me down onto the marble platform, muttering something I'm guessing meant “I oughta get paid double for this behemoth.”

And friends, Fatimah proceeded to scrub me.

You might imagine this involved washcloths, and shampoo, and the occasional sliver of soap. You wouldn't be wrong. However, the remarkable part of this supersonic scrub-down was how vividly it reminded one of a WWF wrestling match. As Fatimah attacked me with scrub brush and soap, my ungainly form skidded and slid on the slick marble with a distinct lack of dignity, forcing my attendant to grab for whatever portion of my anatomy was handiest—an ankle, a shoulder, my hair, and once, breathtakingly, a boob—to haul me back to my assigned slot. Around me, other tourists shrieked, slipped, and cursed as they were spun about like the famous dervishes I told you about in my last dispatch.

Ten minutes this went on, friends. Ten. Freaking. Minutes.

When at last the slapping, slopping, and sliding wound down, I was dizzy, half-drowned, and pretty sure I could pen a treatise on waterboarding.

And was I clean? In a word: not so much.

To sum up: My impression of the Topkapi Hamam was less one of luxury than a subtle form of vengeance. I was lovelessly hustled through a series of less-than-relaxing “traditional” treatments, performed by bath attendants with all the delicacy of a herd of wildebeests. The murky water, the musty environs, and the general aura of despair cloak the visitor in an ineffable coat of…well, there's no better way to put it than “bleh.” But my true issue with the Topkapi wasn't the rough,
Silkwood
-style shower or the fear of flesh-eating bacteria. Honestly, the entire time I was undergoing my “hamam experience,” all I could think was that the only thing worse than getting the Sultana Treatment must be
giving
it. What sins had these women committed to consign them to a purgatory of scrubbing overprivileged, culturally clueless foreigners seven hours a day? To sitting in soggy swimsuits and sweaty bathing caps in this steaming fungus-farm, soaping up women who undoubtedly earned astronomically more than their hourly wage,
and were surely capable of taking care of their own basic hygiene? A little sullenness was to be expected, if not enjoyed.

Moral of the story, kids: When in Istanbul (not Constantinople), if you're gonna try the baths, bring sufficient Purell for a full-body dip. And don't forget to tip Fatimah and her friends.

'Til next time, I'll be…

—On My Merry Way

*  *  *

Merry scanned the screen, nibbling on a hangnail as she reread her article. She debated giving it another run-through, but after four rounds of rewrites she knew it was as good as it was likely to get. “Save…and…send!” she murmured, clicking the appropriate keys. She glanced at her Gmail and saw her boss was on chat. It didn't surprise her—Joel was
never
offline. As far as she knew, he showered with his iPhone and used his iPad for a pillow. She clicked on his name and started typing.

Just posted the last of my Turkey series. You ought to get a kick out of this one. I practically got waterboarded.

The answer was instantaneous.

Another clusterfuck? Can't wait.

Merry smiled wryly, even as she sent Joel a scowly emoji. Her editor seemed to have a particular fondness for anything that involved Merry's near drowning. (The waterfall incident during the Milford Sound cruise last month had given him quite the chuckle.) As usual, she'd filed her story with time to spare, not that
Pulse
seemed to believe in anything as pedantic as journalistic deadlines. With constant competition from
Slate
, the
HuffPo
, and
BuzzFeed
, all the online mag Merry worked for demanded was a steady diet of snark, slapdash, and sizzle.

Well, mission accomplished, she hoped. Her job for the past year had been to act as part tourist, part cautionary tale, and her column “On My Merry Way” explored some of the best and worst of high-end travel worldwide. It was, she reflected, a hell of a one-eighty from what she'd been doing before, and the learning curve had been steep, to say the least.

So glad you're looking out for me
, she typed to her boss. She paused, her fingers hovering over the keyboard.
Um, Joel?


…
” typed Joel.

Merry knew her boss well enough to know she was quickly losing his attention, but she still hesitated. At last she put her fingers to the keys, half afraid they might bite.
Joel, do you think I'm finally getting the hang of this gig?

There was a pause that went on longer than Merry liked. Then…

You're doing fine, kid. Just remember, you're not penning the great American novel.
The words appeared on her screen in a flurry despite the many time zones between his office in downtown Chicago and her hotel room in Istanbul.
I know you're the product of seventeen Swiss boarding schools, but you don't hafta write like you're gunning for an MFA in comparative literature. Like I told you: This is a light, breezy magazine column. Who are we writing for?

Merry rolled her eyes.
Five-Second Sally.

And what does Sally want?
Joel prompted.

To be entertained. I remember, boss.

Entertained but not *challenged,* kid. You try to compete with her Facebook feed or her Pumpkin Spice Latte, and you're gonna lose.

Joel's criticism stung a bit, but honestly Merry couldn't blame the mythical Sally, quintessence of
Pulse
readership. She liked a good seasonally spiced latte herself.
Maybe I
should
tone it down
, she thought, but she hoped she wouldn't have to—she was finding she had quite the taste for linguistic acrobatics. But she
also
had a taste for gainful employment.
Understood
, she typed.

What's our watchword?

Merry's lips quirked.
“Fluff.”

Damn skippy
, he wrote.
Now get your ass on the next flight home. We ain't paying you to loaf around.

You got it, boss.

Merry clicked out of the chat and sighed, shaking her head in wonderment.

I write “fluff” for a living.

She was even starting to have fun with it—when she wasn't being pummeled by ballistic babushkas in bathing caps. Who
wouldn't
want to span the globe, tasting amazing food, meeting unusual people, and having exotic adventures? Most people would have looked at the gig as a dream come true.

But most people hadn't been Merry Manning, world champion downhill skier, five-time world-record breaker, and, until two years ago, the odds-on favorite to bring home Olympic gold for the good old US of A.

Yeah, Mer
,
her inner voice reminded her.
And most people
didn't wrap all six feet, three inches of themselves around an eighty-foot spruce at Olympic trials.

Merry slapped her laptop shut and sighed, leaning back on her hotel pillow. Thoughts like this weren't getting her anywhere. She had a good job—hell, a
great
job—and, even if it paid peanuts and was nothing to compare with the rush of competing against the best athletes on the planet, things could have been a lot worse.

Like,
dead
worse.

Probably the hamam from hell had just rattled her. Standing naked in that cavernous steam room, scars exposed in front of dozens of strangers, had left Merry incredibly off balance. She'd seen no reason to share as much with her readers, however. She rarely let her fans see her vulnerable side—a holdover from her days as a professional athlete.

Rub some dirt on it.

Walk it off.

Tough it out.

If she hadn't been the sort of woman who could slap some tape over a sprain, shrug off a concussion, and still crush her competition's best times, she wouldn't have deserved all those endorsements, the little girls with stars in their eyes holding out tiny ski boots for her to autograph…

BOOK: Last Chance Llama Ranch
8.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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