Multiple Finalist — Lambda Literary Award; Golden Crown Literary Award.
Alice B. Readers Medalist for her Body of Work
Verde Valley, Arizona
Just a hair to the right and the Jeep would’ve spun out, careened over the embankment and plunged into the Verde River. Fortunately, Parnelli “Nellie” Rafferty had learned from prior experience. She pulled the wheel ever so slightly, avoided the river and kept pace with the car in front of her.
Her prey was hard to miss: a black-and-white-spotted Toyota prototype, a vehicle not yet green-lighted for manufacturing. First it had to pass hot weather testing. Similar to the Chrysler Prowler, its rear was boxier, but she could see the sleek lines of a hot sports car beneath the camouflage. The engineers had taped pieces of Styrofoam to the car’s frame before applying the black-and-white shell. The camouflage often distorted photos taken by industrial auto spies like Nellie.
She snapped the pictures car fanatics longed to see. As a freelance photographer, her goal was to scoop her competitors and sell the photos to the highest bidder, who would publish them prior to the manufacturer’s planned launch. She didn’t care which magazine bought the photos so long as someone did. Those in her line of work were referred to as the carparazzi.
Much like the paparazzi, the carparazzi had a love-hate relationship with the automakers. They hated when auto spies undermined months of their PR department’s work, but at the same time, they loved them—when it was someone else being scooped. If consumers didn’t like what the carparazzi revealed, they’d buy a different model from a competitor. In Nellie’s mind, it all balanced out for each company’s profit and loss column.
She checked the speedometer. Ninety-five in a fifty-five. That would be a hefty ticket if a highway patrolman happened to be parked behind the stand of chokecherry trees ahead. If she was going to get the shot, it needed to be in the next seven miles. When they hit Camp Verde, the speed limit dropped to twenty-five and a clear shot would be nearly impossible amidst the townspeople, other cars and buildings.
“Go big or go home,” she said as she accelerated to one hundred.
The prototype’s bumper was so close she could see the seams of the boxy hatchback. It was fake, another common trick of the manufacturers: add falsies to make the proto look like a different model or different brand. Normally she wouldn’t chase a car to get a shot. It was too dangerous. But as she’d followed the vehicle, the diaper, the trade name for a back camouflage, had fallen off, exposing some interesting taillights that looked like fins. It was too tempting not to pursue.
And she loved to drive fast. Her Jeep’s soft top had long ago been discarded after someone sliced it to ribbons. She assumed the vandal was an automotive engineer, angry that she’d exposed a model before it hit production. The vandal had done her a favor. She’d never known such freedom until she sailed down the road without the confines of a roof and windows.
Finally in position, she readied her camera around the windshield. This was the most suspenseful moment of the chase. The hot August wind blasted in her face. The desert landscape rushed past her. She held the camera and steered the Jeep with her knee, ignoring the pain in her back. It was a tricky and dangerous thrill ride not found in any amusement park.
There was a rumble and the prototype pulled away. She clicked madly, swearing all the while. She knew the photos would be fuzzy at best. She shook her head. She should’ve guessed a sports coupe would be designed for power.
“That’s certainly impressive pickup,” she said dejectedly.
She slowed to a legal speed and smacked the steering wheel. She hated missing the shot, but the first rule of spying was to know when to call it a day. She wondered if she’d get another chance to photograph the prototype. She’d heard through her sources that Toyota wanted a showstopper in next year’s line, and the car leaving her in the dust would certainly qualify. Perhaps there would be a need for more hot weather endurance tests, and the prototype would brave the sweltering August sun again before it returned to the proving ground in little Wittman, Arizona, the place Nellie called home.
She winced and shifted painfully in the Jeep’s custom-made bucket seat. She’d avoided back surgery despite an MRI that indicated two vertebrae needed to be fused together. At forty-eight, the last thing she wanted to do was go under the knife. Instead she’d had a friend who worked on Lamborghinis make special seats for her Jeep. The lumbar support guaranteed she’d be able to walk after a five-hour drive to Palm Springs or Nevada, two of the other hot weather testing sites.
Up ahead she noticed the prototype had also decelerated. She sighed and made a plan for the rest of her day. She’d stop at the Verde Brewing Company for lunch, and then she’d traverse the length of Maricopa County to a press conference in Mesa. The old proving ground formerly owned by Chrysler had been sold to the French carmaker, Argent. Nellie had a short but colorful history with Argent and its strong-arm security team. She wondered if they knew Phoenix was her home. In the space of a year it was customary for her to travel throughout the world to get the money shots. Another proving ground in the immediate area would afford her some easy money without the airfare and hotel bills.
Far ahead the prototype was a mere dot against the expansive desert landscape. Suddenly a helicopter appeared from behind the neighboring mountains and set down in the brush, its nose pointed toward the highway. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought it had landed in front of the car and was waiting for it to pass.
“Okay, this is interesting.” She gunned the engine and reached for her binoculars. “C’mon, c’mon,” she mumbled as the road dipped and her long-range view momentarily disappeared. The road leveled out again and she raised the binoculars for a quick look. The prototype had pulled off the road. The driver exited the car and headed across the highway, probably concerned that something was wrong. He suddenly stopped on the blacktop and ran back to the prototype. He sped away just as Nellie pulled up.
Sitting next to the pilot was a woman with a camera. Her head was down and she was studying the images through the viewfinder, oblivious to Nellie’s arrival amidst the noise from the swirling blades of the chopper.
“Shit,” Nellie said with a scowl.
It was Jos Grant, a newbie member of the carparazzi who also worked as a photographer for a trade rag. She tended to stay in the Arizona area, unlike Nellie who’d hop on a plane and fly halfway around the world at a moment’s notice. They’d never been formally introduced, and she’d only seen her from a distance at some of the carparazzi hangouts, like the Circle K in Wittman. She was certainly a looker, but Nellie had never seen her as serious competition since she refused to travel.
Only when the pilot tapped Jos’s shoulder and pointed did she glance up and see Nellie in her Jeep. Surprise quickly shifted to amusement when Nellie held up her camera and smiled. Jos laughed and pointed at her own camera, almost sheepishly. Hers was a Nikon 8008 with a large zoom, probably a five hundred millimeter mirror lens. Not a bad choice for a beginner. Nellie heard she was around thirty-five, but from her looks she probably got carded every time she bought alcohol. She wore a pink tank top and white walking shorts that made her skin look coppery from exposure to the sun. Her blond hair was pulled back in a tight bun. She looked like she was ready for a set of tennis, not a ride in a helicopter.
Many of the other auto spies would be gloating and puffing up their chests at staging such a coup. But Jos adopted a look of concern and pointed at her own camera and then at Nellie, as if to say, “Did you get a good shot?”
Nellie shook her head, and Jos mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
Nellie waved her off and pointed at the chopper’s blades before offering thumbs-up. It was a great idea and it proved she’d done her homework. She knew the car would be too fast to tail, so she’d found faster transportation. Today it was Jos who deserved the money shot.
Jos replied to Nellie’s thumbs-up with a smile that, despite the August heat, warmed Nellie in a very different way. If they’d been somewhere else, like a bar or a coffeehouse, Nellie would’ve attempted conversation and turned on her charm. But they were pantomiming across a state highway while a male helicopter pilot watched. Clearly not meant to be.
She set her camera on the passenger’s seat and grabbed her shades from the visor. Although the possibility of a money shot was gone, she’d look cool as she drove away.
She turned to wave goodbye, but Jos was bounding toward her. Nellie immediately noticed her long, muscular legs and the freshly pressed shorts with their razor-sharp crease. Nellie couldn’t picture her crawling across the desert floor to hide from engineers, at least not in those clothes.
Jos held out her business card. “I’m Jos. Jos Grant. I thought we should at least know each other’s name since there aren’t many women who do this—at least I haven’t met them.”
“Nellie Rafferty. Um, hold on. I know I have a card in here…” She scanned the console, tossing aside gum wrappers and old receipts.
“You don’t need to find it. I know who you are.”
Surprised, Nellie dropped the collection of trash. “Oh, really? And how is it that we haven’t met before?” she said seductively. She leaned out the window, invading Jos’s personal space. A hint of lavender surrounded her.
Jos didn’t move or flinch. “Actually, we’ve sorta met. You cut me off on I-17 a few months ago when that Volvo go-out team headed to downtown Phoenix.”
Nellie attempted to look penitent. “Sorry, I cut off a lot of people to get the shot.” It was true. She remembered the morning. She’d waited for a week for the car to leave the proving ground. There was a lot of traffic, and Volvo had surrounded their new model of the xc90 with other cars to keep the carparazzi away. It hadn’t worked. She’d been determined and Car and Driver magazine had been happy to give her a payday.
“I’m still a rookie. I haven’t developed your cutthroat tactics,” Jos said with a wink and a smile.
Nellie gasped. “Me?” She threw her chin in the direction of the chopper. “That certainly wasn’t a rookie move. That was brilliant. Wish I’d thought of it.”
Jos blushed and leaned against the Jeep. She gazed at the twin storage lockers behind the seats. “Wow. You’ve totally customized this baby. Look at all that room for your gear.”
She smiled broadly, showing the dimples on her cheeks. Nellie’s gaze strayed from Jos’s light blue eyes to the crease between her large breasts. A bead of sweat had trickled from her neck downward past the scoop of the tank top. She suddenly yearned to see its destination. She blinked, realizing she hadn’t responded to Jos’s statement. “Yeah, they’re bulletproof, hammer proof, you name it. My stuff fits and I still get great power. But it’s not as fast as a helicopter,” she added.
“He’s a friend.” Jos nodded over her shoulder at the pilot, who was tapping his wrist. She held up her index finger and turned back to Nellie. “I know we’re competitors, but I’d really like to talk to you sometime since we’re both based in Arizona. Are you on social media?” Before Nellie could answer, Jos’s cell phone rang. “Hold on a sec,” she said, pulling the phone from her pocket. “What is it, honey?”
Nellie leaned forward. She wanted to know who Jos was calling “honey.” Boyfriend? Girlfriend?
Jos listened for another ten seconds and said, “No, you tell Grandma that cookies are not lunch, even if they have oatmeal in them.”
Her child. She glanced at Nellie and mouthed, “Sorry.” Nellie shrugged, as if this happened all the time.
“Bridget, I don’t have time to argue. I’ve got a helicopter waiting for me. Cookies are not for lunch, not even if they’re stuffed with broccoli, blueberries and all the other super foods. Even if you’ve done an ingredient analysis. Are we clear?”
Nellie couldn’t help but chuckle as Jos signed off. “Ingredient analysis?”
Jos shook her head. “I’m sorry. My daughter has learned persuasive arguments need evidence.”
“How old is she?” Nellie asked, impressed.
“Nine.” Jos glanced at the helicopter and folded her hands as if begging. The pilot waved her off and she turned back to Nellie. “We were talking about social media.”
“Uh, yeah. I don’t do a lot with it.”
“Well, maybe we could work an exchange. I’ll show you how to make social media your friend and moneymaker, and you can give me some tips on using my camera. I’m still not great with the action shots and choosing the best settings. I’ll be lucky if one of these pictures turns out.”
“Hmm. That would be a shame. Uh, sure, we could get together.” Nellie tried to sound enthusiastic, but learning how to use Facebook wasn’t what she wanted to do with a woman like Jos.
“Great,” Jos said. “Now that you have my card, feel free to call.”
Nellie watched her return to the chopper. The back pockets of her shorts shifted left and right with the gentle sway of her hips. Nice ass. Great legs. As she stepped into the cabin, Nellie got a profile view of her chest. Tank tops were definitely an excellent wardrobe choice.
“The two of you have ten seconds to get your butts down here for breakfast!” Jos shouted up the stairs in the general direction of her children. The swift clonk of feet above her indicated Myles and Bridget were finally moving into overdrive.
She shook her head. They were so much like her ex-partner Colleen that it was hard to believe they’d both been adopted. As she finished topping off the cereal bowls, they barreled down the stairs and each took a bowl to the table.
Ten-year-old Myles was the oldest and walked with a limp, a result of neglect during his time in a Vietnamese orphanage. He’d contracted rickets and no one had treated it. Bridget was Cambodian and had been born with a cleft palate. Three surgeries later it was barely noticeable except for the tiny scars around her nose and mouth. At nine she was just starting to pay attention to her appearance and regularly asked Jos about concealer colors.
“What’s the plan, Mom?” Myles asked.
It was his usual question. He loved structure and they reviewed the Plan of the Day each morning. He was fine if he knew what to expect, but he came unglued if the schedule deviated, as it often did with Jos’s career. She tried to prepare Myles for the possibility that she could get a call any time and have to go to work. Still, it was impossible for a ten year old to expect the unexpected, and it was difficult for him to understand that if she missed the shot, she didn’t get paid. Of course, Colleen had never understood, so how could Jos expect that of Myles?
“No, honey, tonight Mama C has you.” She reminded him gently and used the term of endearment they had chosen for Colleen.
His gaze fell to the table and he sighed heavily, causing a small wave of milk to spill over the bowl’s edge. “I don’t want to go to her house.”
She didn’t need to ask why. Colleen had a new girlfriend, Kelly, whom she’d met at her law firm. Colleen was a senior partner and Kelly was a new associate. Kelly didn’t seem to like kids and she didn’t bother to hide her feelings. Myles was incredibly perceptive and knew where he stood with her. Colleen thought it was just a phase that would pass, but Jos worried Colleen was rationalizing the problem because she wanted the relationship with Kelly to work. Colleen was a mater, not a dater, and after their relationship had fallen apart eleven months before, she’d quickly gone hunting for the next love of her life. So far there had been three potentials who hadn’t worked out.
The breakup had devastated Jos, and she’d pleaded with Colleen to keep the family together. Colleen hated Jos’s constant absenteeism and had given her an ultimatum: quit gallivanting around the desert snapping pictures and get a regular job or find a new partner. She’d had an affair with one of their best friends to drive home the point. When Jos suggested they stay together but have an open relationship to quell Colleen’s loneliness, Colleen had stared at her, slack-jawed, and told her she just didn’t get it.
That was true. She probably didn’t. Whereas Colleen was incredibly traditional, Jos was not. It most likely had something to do with her mother, who’d never married Jos’s father and viewed raising her only child as an ongoing sociology project. Her avant-garde style of parenting trickled down to her grandchildren. Myles and Bridget already had attended a pro-choice rally, campaigned for their liberal state senator and learned to cook. Whenever Jos left them at her mother’s house, she wondered if she’d be getting a call to bail them out of jail.
So it was no surprise to anyone that Jos was the exact opposite of Colleen when it came to dating. She wasn’t looking, partly because her heart still carried a sliver of desire for them to reunite, but her brain told her they were done after nine years together, and that her desire was based on a need for parenting help. She hoped when she learned to parent alone, the idea of reviving her relationship with Colleen would finally be extinguished.
The image of Nellie Rafferty sitting in her Jeep came to mind. She was cute, with a pleasant face and warm brown eyes. When she’d put on her sunglasses, Jos’s stomach had somersaulted. She’d changed from cute to sexy in two seconds.
Two weeks had passed since her helicopter ride, but she frequently replayed her exchange with Nellie. Her employer, Auto Monthly, had appreciated the pictures of the Toyota prototype and the helicopter story, but they’d loved the part where she bested Nellie Rafferty. Jos knew Nellie had been pissed. She got scooped and that didn’t happen very often to the infamous Parnelli Rafferty.
Nellie was legendary in the auto spy industry. There were many stories of her risking her life to get the shot. It was rumored she’d paid off a window washing crew and been lowered from the roof of a ten-story building to snap a photo of a mini version of a Renault car sitting on an executive’s desk. Another story claimed she’d once donned a nun’s habit and gained entry to a convent that sat over an Italian proving ground. And supposedly she’d stolen the keys from another carparazzi’s vehicle so he couldn’t escape, causing him to receive a beating from several angry engineers. Jos imagined some stories were true and others urban legends. She’d been the only woman for a long time, an enigma who refused to work for one magazine. She had questionable ethics as Jos had personally witnessed, and she sold her photos to the highest bidder.
Jos smiled. Nellie wasn’t what she’d expected. She seemed to admire Jos’s ingenuity and didn’t hesitate to flirt. Jos had liked it. Colleagues at Auto Monthly talked of Nellie’s lesbianism. Apparently she’d bedded most of the top auto models. While Jos certainly wouldn’t want a relationship with someone like Nellie, she appreciated the attention—and she wouldn’t mind having a little fun.
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