Family Values by Helen Smith

Family Values
by Helen Smith

Summary: The year is 2050, a little over a month after the events of Hunting Season. Quinn and Ariel, ably assisted by the staff of Thanatos Security, set out to learn the fate of Ariel’s niece, missing and presumed dead at the hands of a serial killer, who just may be her brother, Scott. Join the hunt, through strip joints, cafes, churches and bars, as they painstakingly assemble evidence that leads unerringly to a murderer. Part 2 in the Hunting Season Series

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Chapter 1

I need love, love
To ease my mind
I need to find, find someone to call mine
But mama said

You can’t hurry love
No, you just have to wait
She said love don’t come easy
It’s a game of give and take . . .

Ariel walked into the kitchen on bare feet, the sounds of her entrance masked by music from the info feed. The tall, dark haired woman on the other side of the room was dancing to the music as she prepared breakfast. Ariel took a moment just to enjoy the sight. The broad shoulders and muscularity perfectly complemented the swell of hips and the impossibly long, shapely legs, currently unobscured by the short shorts that encased what Ariel thought of as a perfect ass. Then again, she reminded herself with a grin, she was biased.

When she’d first met Quinn Thanatos, who’d been hired by Ariel’s publisher to protect her after a death threat, she’d mentally summed up the security consultant’s physical appearance in one word—Valkyrie. She soon learned that Quinn was much, much more than a strong, beautiful body. Smart, funny, fiercely loyal, a closet romantic, brave, compassionate, and passionate. All those things and a whole lot more. Ariel thanked the Goddess ever day of her life for bringing the two of them together, even if the circumstances had involved great danger. Considering we’ve just gone through it again, maybe that’s my karma, she thought wryly: I’m threatened, Quinn comes to the rescue. Down through the millennia. Aagghh! What a thought! Can we cool it with the death threats and dire situations now, please, she addressed the Goddess, only semi-humourously. Two attempts on my life should be enough for any lifetime.

The music ended and Ariel padded across to Quinn, locking her arms around the other woman’s waist and leaning her cheek against her back.

“Oh, hi Love. I didn’t hear you come in,” Quinn said over her shoulder as she put down the juice container.

“Um. Well, you were temporarily in the sway of . . . ” Ariel cudgeled her memory “Diana Ross and the Supremes,” she said triumphantly.

“Hey! I’m impressed!”

“Nothing to it,” said Ariel as she lifted and tilted her head to make eye contact with her lover who was grinning over her shoulder at the smaller woman. “It was the dance routine that really clued me in. I could practically see the Supremes in synchronized step with you.”

Quinn turned around in her lover’s arms, brushed her lips over Ariel’s and murmured “You know, I’m really good at other synchronized activities too . . .”

Ariel grinned. “If memory serves me correctly, you were just proving that a short time ago.”

“Well, just in case you need a reminder . . . ” Quinn’s lips found the honey blonde’s and for a while all conversation ceased.

“Mmmm,” said Ariel, when she got her breath back. “I’m impressed! However . . . ” she turned her head to the side to continue speaking without interference from a nuzzling Quinn, “Just hold that thought until this evening since both of us have things to do today.”

“We do?” said Quinn as she lightly nipped Ariel’s earlobe.

“We do. Starting with me doing my laps.”

Quinn reluctantly pulled her head back and smiled into Ariel’s green eyes. “Laps? Think I could persuade you to—”

“No Quinn. I’m not doing them naked. I get along very well with the Rankins. I don’t want to scandalize them.”

“Humph,” said Quinn, recalling the shadowy figure who had often watched Ariel from the upstairs window of the neighbouring house, during the time, not so long ago, that Quinn had been on guard again against an attempt on Ariel’s life. “Somehow, I think that’s a non-issue. In fact I’ll bet it would even improve your relationship with the old girls. But if you don’t see it my way, I guess I’ll just have to bear up under the strain.” She planted a small kiss on the end of Ariel’s nose. “In fact, if you’d like, I’ll even scramble some eggs for breakfast while you do your laps.”

“You’re on! Back in a few.” Ariel picked up her towel, which she had slung over a kitchen chair on entering, and disappeared out the door to the enclosed back garden and the pool.

Quinn watched her leave, then went back to her self-appointed task with a smile on her face. For a while, the terrible shock of learning that Ariel’s nephew, Scott, had hatched a plot to get his hands on her money, had led the smaller woman to abandon her usual routine and wander about the house and garden like a pale, blond ghost, her isolation increased by the media, which had camped on her doorstep. Quinn was thankful that in a few days the fourth estate abruptly dropped Ariel as a potential story to concentrate on ferreting out the gruesome details of a local mobster’s murder.

About two weeks after Scott’s betrayal, as she worked through it in her own mind, Ariel gradually began to pick up her daily activities again. Today, over a month later was the fourth day in a row she’d done her laps, which Quinn considered a good sign. Of course, the security consultant acknowledged to herself wryly, she still worried about Ariel constantly. Her lover had been estranged from her family for many years until Scott had appeared out of the blue, a seemingly friendly face. Ariel had given him her trust, and her love, discovering too late that his professions of friendship were all a sham.

Quinn’s nose told her the coffee was ready to be poured, so she continued down her mental checklist and got out the eggs and bread. “Now all I’ve got to do is find something to keep that son of a bitch in jail for the rest of his life, ” she muttered, as she broke the eggs into a bowl.

“Mew!” echoed a voice from the vicinity of her ankles.

Quinn looked down to see Charlotte pacing at her feet. The black and white kitten had eaten moments before, but had taken to demanding more food whenever the level in her bowl was reduced. Quinn took a moment off to scoop her up, and hold her close.

“The thing is, Charlotte,” she said, “most of the evidence against Scott is circumstantial.”

As she stroked the cat, she reflected that there was a real possibility he might be able to wiggle free of the charges unless the prosecution could find something to nail him. “If we could just find the guys Scott hired to take a shot at Ariel, I’d feel a whole lot happier.” So far, neither she nor the police had been successful in tracking them down, even though Quinn had provided a description of the shooter. In the meantime, Scott’s lawyer had been able to get his client out on $100,000 bail. Hank Walsh, the detective on the case, had told Quinn that he’d been told that the members of the church Scott had attended in his home town were raising money to help his parents, Donna and Blake Johnson, pay off the loan they’d taken out to spring him.

Quinn gave Charlotte a final hug and put her back down on the floor. As she thought, the attention had side tracked the cat from her dissatisfaction with her food bowl, and she wandered out of the room in search of her littermates, Hairy and Eminence Grise, known as just ‘Grise’ for short.

“I’ll be down in a moment, Love,” said Ariel, as she returned from the pool, on her way upstairs to dress.

“No hurry,” said Quinn, “I’m just starting the eggs.” Turning back to the counter she reflected that she didn’t care what rocks she had to turn over or how long it took, she was going to make sure Ariel was safe.
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The added complication, thought Quinn, as she ordered the Sulu Nebula Mark Five to take her to her first call of the day, was that Scott might also be an actual murderer, not just an attempted one. As the computer-controlled, voice-activated car pulled smoothly out of the parking spot, Quinn let her mind focus on that thought, leaving the driving to the Mark Five’s silicone brain.

There was no doubt about it—what Detective Walsh had told her, just a few days after Scott’s arrest for attempted murder, was nothing less than a bomb shell. An inquiry to the police in Scott’s home town had revealed that some years before he’d been one of those questioned about the disappearances of several young women, including his own sister. Since nothing further had turned up linking him to the missing women, the police interview had somehow not made it into the main data folder on the case. Consequently it hadn’t been uncovered by Joe, Thanatos Security’s computer research expert, when he had checked Scott’s background for Quinn on Scott’s initial contact with Ariel.

Quinn leaned back in her seat and stretched her long legs. Detective Walsh had told her that Donna and Blake Johnson had told the police that Katie was missing, then changed their minds and stated that they believed she had run away. A phone call Quinn had placed to the cop who’d spoken to Walsh hadn’t elicited much more information, except to add that a security guard at the bus station claimed he’d seen a teenager matching Katie’s description the night she disappeared. The cops had been at a standstill when the body of one of the missing women was found on the outskirts of a neighbouring town, a couple of days later. That apparently had sent the investigation veering in a new direction and away from Scott Johnson. Even though the murderer was never found, Scott was not interviewed again.

Quinn blew out her breath. “And that’s it. End of story.” Actually, though, she mused, that’s not so much the end of the story, as an outline of an introduction. Now to fill in the blanks, and finish it.
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“Well hi there, boss lady. You look like you’ve been run through a ringer.”

“Thanks, and the same to you,” said Quinn as she collapsed into a chair.

Kris Cavendish got up from behind her desk, walked to the refrigerator and extracted a bottle of water that she tossed to Quinn. The security consultant caught it in one hand, twisted off the top and downed it in two gulps. “Thanks. Got any more?”

“Coming right atcha” said Kris as she fired two more bottles Quinn’s way. Extracting a beer for herself she returned to her seat. Her boss quickly downed the second bottle, slowing her down fractionally, and started on the third.

“That feels good,” said Quinn, as she took a gulp, then rubbed the bottle’s cold exterior over her forehead. “Air conditioning conked out on me this morning and today would be the day that I had to check warehouses that didn’t have air conditioning. It’s been a preview of hell.”

“Poor baby. It is summer you know,” said Kris with a grin.

“Get stuffed.” responded Quinn, gulping the last of her water.

Before Kris could speak, a new voice said “Oh, hi Quinn. I thought I heard you arrive.”

The security consultant glanced over her shoulder and nodded hello at the tall man who had just walked into the office and was now lounging against the wall.

“John, our leader has had a hard day. Grab her another water, get yourself something and have a seat.”

“No more for me, thanks, John. Three’s my limit. But get yourself a drink and pull up a chair. I wanted to talk with both of you.”

“Yeah? This isn’t just a social call, then,” said Kris, leaning forward. “How is it I think this is going to mean more work?”

“Just your finely tuned intuition,” responded Quinn as she leaned back in her chair and took a moment to enjoy the soft movement of air from the ceiling fan.

John selected a beer and went next door to pull in his wheeled office chair. When he returned, Quinn waited for him to sit and take a gulp before she continued. “As you both know, Ariel wants, no—needs—to find out more about Scott’s background. Between the added investigations here and in his hometown, my time will be pretty well taken up. I’ll also need another operative from the agency. So, I’ve decided to bring more people on board.”

Kris leaned back, sipped her beer and eyed Quinn. “Uh huh. And the downside would be. . . ?”

“You’ll have to train them.”

“Shit! Quinn you know I hate. . .” The compact woman came to a stop and eyed her tall boss sitting quietly on the other side of the desk. “Go on.” she said, finally.

Quinn glanced down at her bottle of water, ran a thumbnail over the edge of the label, then looked up. “I don’t know how long it’s gonna take, but while I’m looking into this I want to know good people are holding the fort at home. As you know, Vanessa and I have been working on the drive-by angle and checking on Scott here in town. So far we’ve come up with nothing. We need to keep looking here and start checking his early background. To do that with our current staff would stretch our resources to the breaking point. We need more people but I don’t have the time to train them and run the investigations too. I need your help on this, Kris.”

Kris looked at her a few seconds more, then said, “I must be a soft touch. Ok, I’ll do it, but it’s only because of Ariel, ya know.”

Quinn grinned at her with relief. She figured Kris would agree but had discovered over the six years of their working relationship never to take the shorter woman for granted. “Thank you.”

“So how can I help?” John asked.

Quinn turned to him. “John, you did a good job on the admin stuff while we were gone last time. If you’d continue that, it would free up Kris.”

The tall man leaned forward, and said “No problem. That creep had me fooled too. I’d like to see you nail his ass. Count me in.”

“Good, and thank you too. We’re going to need all the help we can get on this and I’m glad I can depend on you guys.”

“So I suppose I should advertise . . .”

“Already done. The first interview is at 9:00 am tomorrow morning. If all goes well, I hope that Ariel and I, and maybe Vanessa, can head out of town by the weekend.”

Kris sat back. “Why is it I feel like I was just faked out of my socks?” she asked rhetorically. “Ok, Quinn. Bring ‘em on. But get this thing wrapped up as quick as you can, ’cause I just might start to like being the boss lady!”

“Yes Ma’am!” said Quinn.
——————————————————————————–

“Ariel Pedersen.”

“You the lady what writes all them dirty books?” Quinn tried to inject a nasal, whining quality into her voice to disguise it.

“That would be me. What’s it to ya?”

Shit! Recognized already. Ah well, play it out. “Well, I wondered where yuh got yur ideas. Seems to me they’re ’gainst the laws of GAWD and MAN.”

“Really? You’ve read my books?”

“Damn straight! Ah mean . . . yeah, and what them girls get up to, well, no self respectin’ law-abidin’ good girl would never do nothing like that. I think yur under an evil influence.

“You may be right. Seems to me I saw one around here this morning. She had long dark hair, cold blue eyes, and was too tall and muscular to be a Real Woman. Oh my, oh my! Is it hot out here or what?”

“You’re outside?” exclaimed Quinn, forgetting to stay in character. ” Trying to fry your brain?”

“Oh, hi Quinn. Your friend wander away? I decided to get some sun, so yes, I’m outside working on my tan. What’s turned you against the great outdoors suddenly?

“Hours and hours of hot muggy summer and car air conditioning that’s been out of commission since just after I left this morning.” Quinn paused while Ariel commiserated with her, then she continued, “so you’re working on your tan, eh? Wearing . . . ?”

Ariel chuckled sensually and dropped her voice an octave. “What do you think I’m wearing?”

“Oh Goddess! I’m already overheated! I should have thought twice before starting this game. Who knows what could happen if I let my imagination completely off its leash!”

“Ooh, we can’t have that. I’ll be ready to take corrective action when you get here.”

“Corrective action?”

“Yeah. Something to restore your fluid levels and cool you down. Then, to make sure we got you help in time, we’ll do a test of the system . . .” The writer’s voice trailed off suggestively.

Quinn caught her breath. “Ariel, Love, my body temperature just shot up another 50 degrees. You’ll regret saying that when you have to drag my lifeless body from the car.”

Laughter greeted this statement. “See you shortly Quinn?”

“You bet! In about 10 minutes.”

“I’ll be ready,” crooned the writer.
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The security consultant leaned back in the big tub, and sighed.

“You ok?” murmured the honey blonde, who was currently nestled in her arms.

“Mmm. Peachy. Just thinking about that system test. Went off without a hitch. I’m back in full operational order.”

The body in her arms shook with mirth. “I’ll testify to that.”

They lapsed into silence, both luxuriating in the closeness. Feline feet pounded by the door and a siren wailed in the distance. The low hum of the air conditioning was the only other sound to disturb the silence. Quinn dropped a kiss on Ariel’s hair and said “We’re interviewing for the new people over the next couple of days. If everything goes well we should be able to head out of town on Saturday or Sunday. ”

“Ok. I’ll make the reservations.”

“Good. Make them for three.”

“Three? Who are you bringing with us?”

“Vanessa. We’re heading into hostile territory. I want to make sure you’re well guarded.”

“Ok.”

Quinn leaned forward and studied the smaller woman’s profile. “Ok? No argument?”

“No. You know what you’re doing. And I like Vanessa, even if, beside the two of you, I’ll look like a munchkin.”

“And a more delectable munchkin I’ve never seen,” said Quinn, as she nibbled an earlobe.

Ariel smiled but declined to comment. Quinn slide her hands slowly and sensuously over the writer’s skin, noting idly that her time in the sun had turned it slightly pink, then grinned to herself as she thought that it was either that, or their recent shared activity. Ariel had come a long way since the day she learned of Scott’s betrayal but, despite appearances to the contrary, Quinn knew that the writer still wasn’t her usual, feisty self. That she hadn’t objected to Quinn bringing a bodyguard for her along on the trip spoke volumes. The dark haired woman slide her arms around the honey blonde, engulfing her in a tight, fierce hug, and made a silent promise to keep her safe from harm.
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Chapter 2
“Welcome to Parsonville, the Friendly Town,” Vanessa said, reading the large roadside sign as their car slowed for the town limits.

“Let’s just hope that means the inhabitants like to chat,” said Quinn, as she glanced at Ariel. The writer was looking out the window, at landscape she’d only seen a handful of times in the previous 14 years.

Parsonville, population 15,560, had been Ariel’s world until she was 17. Her mother and father had had tenure at the small, local university, so she’d lived comfortably in a quiet, middle class neighbourhood until the age of 14, when her parents had died in a commuter plane crash. That forced her to move in with her sister, Donna, and her family, where she’d stayed until her sister had thrown her out just a month before she finished high school, when Donna had found her kissing her best friend. With help from Dawn Jameson, her English teacher, Ariel had survived, but the experience had scarred her. Quinn wondered what thoughts were now going through her mind.

The rental car that they had picked up at the airport 50 miles away pulled to the side of the road, having reached its destination. “Awaiting directions,” it intoned. “I am currently in multi-user mode,” it added helpfully.

Quinn glanced at Ariel, as the writer said “continue down this street then turn right at the first intersection. Proceed along the street until I give you further instructions.”

“Noted,” responded the vehicle and pulled out again. The outskirts—remnants of farms mixed indiscriminately with new houses and a variety of businesses—slid by. Still, the scent of freshly mown grass suffused the air and Quinn noted a field of hay, cut and ready to be stored for the winter, right beside a large modern mall that looked to be only a few years old.

“So much has changed,” murmured her lover. “Oh, pull into the parking lot of the Good Night Inn coming up on the right.” The car did as requested and Ariel directed it to a parking space near the main entrance. “Might as well stay here,” said Ariel. “It’s pretty central.”

Within a half hour they were settled in two rooms looking out over the parking lot next to the street. Not bad, thought Quinn, as she glanced idly through the blinds at the traffic. The room appeared comfortable and they were here early enough to begin their investigative work the same day.

Ariel, who had been on the phone behind her, concluded the call and stood up, just as a knock sounded on the door. “Come in Vanessa,” said Quinn, recognizing the cadence. “It’s not locked.”

“Hi,” said the red head, as she stepped through the doorway. “All set?”

Quinn looked at Ariel and raised an eyebrow.

“Yup. Dawn Jameson says she’s thrilled we’re here and we should come right over.”

“Ok then,” said Quinn. “Let’s do it.”
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As they waited at the door of the small brick house, Ariel reflected that the Jameson home had changed little in almost 14 years. The wooden porch was still freshly painted, the flowers in the planters that were scattered artfully about were still in full bloom, and the virginia creeper that obscured part of the porch provided as much of a haven from the summer sun as it ever had. That train of thought was cut off as the door opened and she was engulfed in an enthusiastic hug.

“Ariel! It’s so good to see you! Please, all of you come in!” The middle-aged woman ushered them in and shut the door. “I take it you just got into town? How was your flight? Where are you staying?”

Ariel answered the rapid fire questions, made introductions and then she and Dawn Jameson led the group through the house to a large solarium at the back that had been furnished with both comfy loungers and a table and chairs. Quinn brought up the rear watching the interaction between the two women. Based on what Ariel had told her, she had been prepared to like Dawn before she met her. After being fooled so badly by Scott, however, Quinn, who was never very trusting, was reluctant to take anyone at face value. In preparation for their trip to Parsonville, she’d had Joe find out everything he could about Dawn and her son, Tim. Along the way, she’d discovered that Ariel had been helping Dawn put Tim through school, something the writer had never mentioned. Now Quinn watched them talking enthusiastically, face-to-face for the first time in two years.

“Ariel, you look wonderful!” exclaimed the older woman as she patted the writer’s arm. “I’m so glad you’re here. Tim will be delighted to see you too! He’s out playing basketball right now but he should be back shortly.”

“I’ll be glad to see him too. He’s home for the summer?”

“Yes. A friend of his owns a small landscaping company so she hired him to help out.”

“Hard work,” interjected Vanessa.

“Yes, but he seems to be enjoying it.”

Just then the solarium door to the outside opened to admit a tall, muscular young man who wouldn’t have been out of place in the backfield of a football team. He was accompanied by a big shaggy brown dog of no discernable heritage that rushed up to the guests and greeted them enthusiastically.

“Sorry Mom,” apologized Tim as he collared the dog. “I saw the car and knew you had company so thought I’d sneak in the back way to get cleaned up. Didn’t think you’d be out here.”

“It’s ok Tim. Look who’s here!”

Tim turned to the visitors and then exclaimed “Ariel!” and immediately engulfed her in a bear hug. “We didn’t know when you were going to get here.”

Quinn watched carefully, but Ariel seemed ok with the second rib-cracking hug she’d received within 15 minutes of arriving at the Jameson home. In fact, she was doing her best to return it.

“They just got in a while ago,” said his mother. “We haven’t even begun to get caught up.” Glancing around the circle, she said, “It’s just about lunch time. I’ll get us something and then maybe we can fill you in a little on what people are saying about your nephew.”

“Sounds like a good idea, don’t you think, Quinn?” asked Ariel.

“Yeah, I do. Get an idea of what we’re up against.”

“Ok! I’ll go get something ready. You folks just relax here. Tim, are you staying for lunch or are you off somewhere?”

“With Ariel here? Of course I’ll stay! ”

“Good,” interjected Quinn, as Dawn smiled, nodded and left for the kitchen. “We’d like to hear your views on Scott too.”

“Sure thing, but first I better go get cleaned up. ’Scuse me. Come on Dusty!” he said and disappeared through the doorway to the front of the house, the dog at his heels.
“Dawn said to relax, but I think I’ll just go see if she needs a hand,” said Ariel, and followed him.
——————————————————————————–

“Wow, that was good!” exclaimed Vanessa, as she leaned back in her chair.

“Dawn’s a great cook,” agreed Ariel. “That lunch sure takes me back in time.”

Dawn Jameson smiled. “It’s been quite a while since you last sat at this table.” She placed her hand on the writer’s, and squeezed it. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” smiled Ariel. “It’s been too long. Phone calls, e-mail and vidchat can’t beat this. I’m sorry that I haven’t visited more often. I just wish this time it was a happier occasion,” she concluded wistfully.

Dawn patted her hand and smiled in response, the fine lines around her eyes crinkling. “Well, we’ll just make the most of it. Now, how can we help with your investigation?”

Quinn leaned forward. “Tell us anything you can about Scott and his family. What you’ve seen, what you’ve heard, what you’ve read. Anything may give us a lead.”

“Well,” Dawn said thoughtfully, “I never taught Scott so I can’t relate any first hand information. Marta Willis had him in her English classes two years in a row, however, and I think he was a better than average student. I’ll call her for you, if you’d like, and see if she can tell you something a bit more concrete. I can’t recall any teacher talking about him much in the teachers’ lounge, so no one else comes to mind that might be able to help you. His parents, of course, are quite well known in the community. There was an article in the ’net news about the church members holding bake sales, auctions and car washes to raise money to help his parents pay back the loan they took out to pay his bail.”

“Yeah,” said Tim. “Made it sound like everyone who wasn’t from here was against him.”

Dawn nodded. “Yes, it quoted some of the people raising money. They were full of praise for him and his parents, and they said that they thought that when the whole truth came out apologies to Scott would be in order. Not to mention a large cash settlement.”

Quinn snorted. “Apologies! When this thing is over that little shit will be lucky if a life sentence in prison is the worst thing that happens to him.”

Dawn glanced questioningly at each of the women in turn. “Something more than life in prison for attempted murder?”

Ariel leaned forward. “My niece, Katie, disappeared two years ago. She may have run away, but then again, maybe not. She went missing at a time when some other young women disappeared and then turned up dead. We’re looking into that too.”

“Oh Ariel, I’m sorry!” exclaimed Dawn, and gave her a quick hug. “I remember those murders. They weren’t solved. And they think Scott might have had something to do with Katie’s disappearance, and the others too? When did you discover this?”

“A day or so after Scott was arrested. Apparently the police interviewed him but for some reason the interview never made it into the main data folder.”

Tim, who had been watching the exchange, asked “so are they gonna re-open the case?”

“It wouldn’t have been closed, since the murders weren’t solved,” interjected Vanessa, who had been listening quietly. “But unless new evidence is uncovered there’s probably no one assigned to work on it.”

“But you’re gonna look for some?”

“If we turn something up, we’ll take it to the authorities for sure,” responded the tall red head.

“Ok! I wanta help.”

“Tim . . . ”

“Mom, I could give them a hand. Show them where stuff is around town, help them find people to talk to they probably won’t get through the cops. Ally—” He paused and looked at Ariel then Quinn and Vanessa—”Alyson Ridgeway, one of the victims, was a friend of mine.”

Ariel glanced at both Jamesons, then looked quickly at Vanessa and Quinn. “What do you think?”

Quinn, leaned forward. “I won’t kid you,” she said. “Hometown boy accused of a crime in the big city, then outsiders come to town and start asking questions. We won’t be popular, and neither will you.” She looked from Tim to his mother and back. “It could be dangerous.”

Dawn swallowed. “Tim, I don’t want you hurt.”

“Mom, don’t worry. I won’t do anything stupid. Just tell them some stuff and show them around a bit.”

Dawn gazed at him thoughtfully for a few seconds then squared her shoulders. “Alright. But you be careful!” The middle-aged woman pointed a finger at her son to emphasize her point.

“I will, Mom. I promise.”

His mother nodded but said no more. After a moment’s silence, Quinn announced, “Ok, it’s time to get started.”

Dawn looked around the circle then said, “well, I’ll go call Marta to see if you can talk to her today.”

“Fine,” said Quinn. “I don’t know if we’ll find anyone in at the cop shop who might have any useful information, this being the weekend and all, but it’s also worth paying a visit there today, on the off chance.”

“Boss, you don’t really need me tagging after you right now since no one knows we’re here, agreed?” questioned Vanessa.

Quinn nodded.

“So to maximize time, maybe I could go interview the teacher, if she’s in, and you guys could see what the cops have to say.”

“May be a good idea at that. Tim could go with you to show you where she lives.”

“105 Spruce Street,” said Dawn, as she returned to the room. “Marta’s there now but is going out to her daughter’s place in about an hour.”

“We can take my mom’s car,” said Tim as he held the door for Vanessa.

“Everyone meet back here for dinner!” exclaimed Dawn, as Quinn and Ariel followed the others through the door. As the sound of the cars receded Dawn sighed. “Ok, Dusty. No use worrying until there’s something to worry about. Let’s go to the freezer to see what we can defrost to feed this bunch.” The big dog, hearing his name, scrambled to his feet and followed her out of the room.
——————————————————————————–

“Tim. Come in.” The tall, thin, grey-haired woman stood to one side of the door and directed her visitors into a living room that smelled of gardenias. “Can I get you anything?”
Tim glanced questioningly at his companion who shook her head. “No, thanks Mrs Willis. We just finished lunch. This is Vanessa . . . ” Tim paused in confusion.

“Alighieri, Mrs Willis. Vanessa Alighieri,” said the tall operative, as she shook the older woman’s hand.

“As in Dante?”

“Yes.” Vanessa smiled. “Most people don’t know that.”

“Most people haven’t taught high school. You pick things up, useful or not, along the way,” smiled the older woman as she indicated the couch and chairs.

“It’s nice of you to talk with us.”

“Well, Dawn gave me a quick summary of who you are and what you’re doing here. If she says you’re Ok and asks me to tell you what I know ’cause it might help, then you’re Ok and I’ll tell you everything I can, although that might not be much.” At Vanessa’s questioning look, she added “You’re looking for background on Scott Johnson? I taught him for two years, but I’m not sure what I can say.”

“How’s that?” said Vanessa as she pulled out a pad, perched on the edge of a convenient armchair and began making notes. Tim folded his length into a low adjoining chair and waited quietly.

The older woman sat down on the sofa and took a moment to collect her thoughts. “I never got to know him at all. He got good grades, with very little work, I think. He expressed himself well when called upon in class. He was always courteous. He was never a discipline problem. Yet,” she paused, searching for words, “I never thought that I really got to see what was below the surface.”

Vanessa cocked her head. “Would you explain that?”

“Well, kids, they like to show off in a group. Scott might be in the group but he was never boisterous. He was never the one grabbing someone’s lunch or books or whatever and running with it. He was never the one talking loudly about what he was going to do that night or that weekend. But,” she paused to think, “I don’t know, he wasn’t quiet because he was shy, or because he wasn’t very high in the pecking order. He was quiet because . . . he didn’t feel he had to interact with them. I’m afraid I can’t think of any better way to say it.”

Vanessa sat back and thought, then asked “did you ever talk with him outside of class, or have any conversation with him that might give you any inkling what was going on in his head?”

“No. Never. I spoke with him a few times outside of the classroom but he was always the same.”

“Ok. What about the rest of the family?”

“The few times I talked with anyone from his family it was his mother. His father stayed pretty much in the background. In fact, he answered the phone once and when he found out it was me, he handed the phone to her.”

“And what was your impression of her?”

“I didn’t talk to her much but I got the impression that she ran the household. Whatever she wanted, the family did. As far as I know, Scott was an obedient child who never gave her a moment’s worry. But even though we never had harsh words over Scott, I can’t say I ever liked her.”

“Oh?”

The grey-haired woman made an affirmative sound. “Whenever I spoke with her, she was always . . . unctuously sweet.”

“Unctuously sweet?”

“Oh, you know, rather condescending but fervent. As if she knew something no one else was privy to.”

“Oh, Ok.” Vanessa thought for a few seconds then said, “turning for a moment to Scott’s sister, Katie, did you know her?”

“No, she wasn’t in any of my classes. Dawn tells me that she might have been murdered.” The older woman shivered slightly. “Poor child. I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about her.”

“Ok. Is there anything else you think might be helpful?”

“No. I really can’t think of anything.” The older woman sat forward as if she intended to get up, then paused. “Well, now that I think of it, you might want to talk with Bob Gerhardt.”

Vanessa glanced at Tim who quickly supplied “shop teacher. He lives just a few streets over from us.”

“You think he got to know him?”

“Well, I know they had some kind of run-in, which was rather unusual because I’d bet that the rest of Scott’s teachers never heard anything from him but sweetness and light.”

“Ok. Thanks very much Mrs. Willis. If you happen to think of anything else, would you mind calling Tim’s mom to let her know and we’ll get in touch with you?”

“Oh, certainly. I wish I could have been more help.”

Vanessa smiled at the older woman as she shook her hand again. “Believe me, every little bit helps.”
——————————————————————————–

The big cop hooked his thumbs in his belt and tilted back in his chair. “I understand one of my officers spoke to you by phone.”

“Yeah.” Quinn leaned back in her chair, mirroring the man across the desk. They’d found the chief at his desk but he was making it plain he wasn’t glad to see them. “We wondered about a few things. Wanted to clarify them.”

“Such as?” The man pulled out the lower drawer of the desk with the toe of his cowboy boot and propped his foot on it.

“Well, for starters, why did the interview with Scott Johnson never make it to the main file?”

“Don’t know. You’d have to ask Elwood.” He folded his arms and stared at the two women.

“Elwood?” Quinn stared back.

“Chas Elwood. The guy who interviewed him.”

“So where can I find him?”

“Don’t know.” A small smile.

“Don’t know?” Quinn kept a hold on her temper with difficulty.

“He’s retired. Retired about two years now. Takes trips. May be on a trip now for all I know.”

“Alright,” gritted Quinn, “where might I find him if he’s at home?”

“I’ll look it up.” The big man rooted around in the detritus on his desk and unearthed a telephone directory. After flipping a few pages, he announced, “lives at 48 Elm.”

“Ok, Thanks.”

“Next question?”

“Why wasn’t Scott interviewed again? You had a total of five women go missing and only three bodies eventually turn up.”

“Same answer.”

“Same answer? Ah. I’ll have to ask Elwood.”

“You got it.” The big man was starting to enjoy taunting his questioner.

“Scott Johnson ever in any other trouble?” she paused, “or should I ask Elwood that too?” Ariel shifted her foot slightly to tap Quinn’s ankle, at which the taller woman tried and failed to look less combative and more conciliatory.

“Don’t know. Our systems are down for maintenance today, this being the weekend, so I can’t check ‘em. Come back Monday.”

“I’ll do that. Quinn stood. “And thanks for all your cooperation.”

The big man gazed at her for a second in stony silence then nodded once. In lieu of words, Ariel opted to flash him a smile as she slipped out of the office.

“What were you smiling at that asshole for?” grumbled Quinn as she held the door for Ariel to step onto the street.

“I figured we might catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Quinn glanced sideways at her companion as they walked back to their car. “If we wanted flies,” she groused. “I figure we’re going to be up to our necks in flies before this thing is through. And they’ll all be hovering around something smelly.”

“Mmm,” murmured Ariel as she got into their rented vehicle. “So you think there’s some sort of corruption in the ranks? You know, it’s possible that the chief might just have been pissed that a bunch of outsiders was in his town asking questions about people he’s sworn to protect. And on a Sunday too, when things should be a bit more relaxed.”

Quinn, gave the car directions to Chas Elwood’s address then turned to the writer. “Not necessarily the chief. I think you’re right about why he was pissed. No, I mean Elwood. I’m getting vibes I don’t like.”

“Maybe we’ll get a clearer picture once we meet him.”

“Yeah. Let’s go see if he’s in.”
——————————————————————————–

“Mr. Gerhardt?”

“Who wants to know?” The middle-aged crewcut man stood up and dusted off his jeans at the knees, leaving his tools neatly laid out on the floor of the garage next to a partially disassembled bicycle. Vanessa couldn’t help but notice that from the highest shelf of the storage shelves at one side of the door to the freshly painted concrete floor, the building was spotless with not an item out of place.

“I’m Vanessa Alighieri, and this is Tim Jameson. Marta Willis suggested that you might be able to tell us something about Scott Johnson. You may have heard that he’s facing a serious charge.”

The man glanced from one to the other, then said, “You’re Dawn’s boy aren’t you?”

“Yes sir, I am,” agreed Tim.

“Unhuh, unhuh. You look like her.” He ran his hand through short grey hair then nodded, as if he’d made a decision. “Yeah, I heard about it and the only thing I wondered about was why it took this long.” At the look of surprise on his visitors’ faces he said, “Come and sit down and I’ll tell you why.”
——————————————————————————–

“So they had a big bust up over a chisel?” Quinn leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. She and Ariel had just related their lack of success, either with the police or Chas Elwood, whose neighbours told them that he was away for the weekend.

“Yeah. Gerhardt had brought one in from home to show them the difference between cheap and quality tools. Sometime later it went missing. He did his demonstration then put the chisel away while the kids collected the tools they’d need before they started work on their projects. Gerhardt always walked around the room during the class but kept his eye on the front where all the tools were stored and where he kept his briefcase. The only person he noticed near his desk during class was Scott, who, when Gerhardt asked him what he was after, said he had to get another screwdriver. The next time Gerhardt opened his briefcase, which was in the next class, the chisel was missing.”

“So what happened?” asked Ariel.

“He confronted the kid first chance he got. Scott denied it angrily, the school administration got involved, Scott’s parents were called and his mother swept in, as Gerhardt put it, “like the wrath of God” claiming she was going to sue the principal, the school board and Gerhardt for every penny they could collectively dig up. They finally settled her down, and since Gerhardt couldn’t conclusively prove that Scott took the chisel, he was forced to apologize.”

“Oh man,” said Quinn.

“Yeah, and she told them that if they ever repeated the accusation publicly, she’d definitely sue them all.”

“That must be why I’ve never heard about it,” said Dawn. “How did Marta know?”

“Apparently she was in the school office when Donna Johnson arrived and began raining brimstone on everyone. The principal rushed Marta out and she heard no more about it.”

Quinn rubbed her chin. “Well, if Gerhardt just had circumstantial evidence, it might, indeed, have been some other kid.”

“You haven’t heard the biggest piece of circumstantial evidence,” said Vanessa, pausing to gulp some beer.

“So? What is it?!” demanded Quinn, as Vanessa took her time with the beer she’d been nursing along.

“This happened on a Monday. The following Saturday morning, Gerhardt goes out to get into his car to run some errands and someone has taken something sharp to the car body, dragging it down the vehicle from headlight to taillight on both sides.”

Quinn winced. “Ow, big bucks! Not just a key, but something sharp. Like a chisel.”

“You got it.” Vanessa drained the rest of her beer. “He thought about going to the police, but after weighing up the pros and cons, decided to bite the bullet, get the body fixed and get on with life.”

“As if,” said Tim, speaking up for the first time. “I think he’s going over that decision every day in his mind, wishing he’d had the cojones to go to the cops and let the chips fly.”

“Yeah, Tim’s right. His mind made the decision, but his heart wasn’t in it.”

“Hmm,” grunted Quinn as she mulled over what she had heard. “So Scott might have been involved in other bad stuff but if it came to light, chances are Donna would have found some way to make it go away too.

“Yeah. But you know, I can’t reconcile the image of her threatening everyone with the way Marta Willis described her. What was the phrase again, Tim?”

“Unctuously sweet.”

“That’s it, unctuously sweet.”

“Church lady,” said Quinn.

“What?” chorused Tim, Vanessa and Dawn, who added, “well yes, she is deeply involved in her church—”

“What Quinn meant, at least, what I think she meant,” Ariel cast a quick glance at the dark-haired woman, who nodded in agreement, “was that the phrase conjured up a character from a TV comedy show from the last century.” Then, because the Jamesons continued to look mystified, she added, “20th century movies, TV shows and music are Quinn’s hobbies. And yes, I can see Donna being both unctuously sweet and an avenging angel. Or devil.”

“Ok, Quinn. Since you’ve categorized her, how do you categorize him?” Vanessa’s slight grin challenged the security consultant to come up with a good one.

“Well, I don’t need to go to old movies or TV to do it,” said Quinn slowly. “You said that Marta Willis told you he didn’t interact with the other kids although he hung around with them?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Well then, I think it’s obvious.”

“Well at the moment it isn’t to me!” exclaimed Ariel, leaning forward.

“I know,” said Dawn, quietly. At Quinn’s raised eyebrow, she added, “Wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“You got it,” Quinn nodded, grimly.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 3
A rainy Monday, reflected Quinn, as she, Ariel and Vanessa entered the Jameson home for breakfast. The security consultant really hoped that their investigations would prove better than the weather. The smell of fresh coffee and newly cooked bacon promised that at least something good would come out of the day.

“So what’s on the agenda for today?” asked Dawn, as she poured mugs for all three in the solarium. The previous night, the older woman had suggested they make her house their strategic headquarters while conducting their investigations, a proposal that was quickly accepted.

“Well, the cops to start with, a trip to Scott’s neighbourhood, and then we’ll just play it by ear from there,” responded Quinn, as she glanced at raindrops trickling down the windows. The security consultant could hear an infofeed in the kitchen playing ‘Devil or Angel,’ and she made a mental note to find out which oldies station Dawn had tuned in. The music was a welcome mood lifter, considering the weather. Just then, she spotted Tim through the window as he jogged around the corner of the house and up to the door, Dusty at his heels.

“Hi all,” he said, as he entered, kicked off his muddy runners on the boot tray, then started across the room followed by the dog.

“Tim! Hold it right there!” exclaimed Dawn. “Have you noticed it’s wet outside?”

“Yeah, so?”

The older woman folded her arms and waited. “Muddy feet!” she finally exclaimed.

“Mom, I took off my runners—”

She cut him off: “The dog’s! Use one of the old towels in the washstand and wipe them clean.”

“Oh, well why didn’t you say so,” he grumbled, as he extracted a towel from an antique washstand by the door, then crouched to dry Dusty’s coat and get the mud off his paws. Then, brightening, he said to the women watching “Did Mom tell you that I called Pam to see if I could take a few days off so I could help you guys?”

“We just got here,” responded Ariel, as she buttered a slice of wholewheat toast from a plate in the centre of the table. “What did she say?” Quinn watched the writer heap strawberry preserves on the thick slice and reflected that Ariel’s appetite for food was almost back to normal.

“She says that she can spare me for a couple of days anyway, and if the weather stays rainy, maybe longer.”

“Good,” said Quinn. “If you go with Vanessa, we’ll be able to cover more territory in less time, although once we get known around town we may not be able to split up often.” Seeing Dawn’s questioning look she added, “better security in numbers.”

“So Boss, as Dawn says, what’s on tap for today?” reiterated Vanessa, as she added cream to her mug.

“Well, Ariel and I will go back to the cop shop to see if the chief can, or will, check for anything else on Scott. I’d bet there isn’t anything on file, since Joe did a second and more detailed scan of their files and came up with nothing, but it doesn’t hurt to see. At some point we’ll have to check on whether Elwood is back home, although his neighbours didn’t expect to see him until after lunch, so before we go there we’ll likely mosey through Scott’s neighbourhood just to . . . take it’s temperature. I guess you two should go over to . . . where was it they found one of the bodies? Anyway, go over there and see if you can get anything from the cops there. They might be a bit more willing to cooperate, seeing as how over there he’s not a hometown boy.”

“Give me 10 minutes to shower, shave and eat something and I’ll be ready to go!” exclaimed Tim.

“Take your time,” said Quinn, as she eyed the two-egg omelet, hash browns and crisp bacon gently steaming on the plate that Dawn had just set before Ariel. “We’ll be here a while yet.”
——————————————————————————–

“Well that was a waste of time,” growled Quinn an hour later, as she and Ariel left the police station. Popping open an umbrella that she held over the writer, she looked up and down the street and continued, “that guy is beginning to get on my nerves.”

“Beginning to?” Ariel glanced up at her lover’s face, which was currently set in a scowl. “I think the two of you were competing to see who could irritate the other more.”

“Hey! I merely asked him what kind of rinky-dink operation he was running here. On the evidence it was a perfectly valid question!” responded Quinn hotly. Privately, however, she ruefully reviewed the previous few moments and acknowledged that it could have gone better. “And damn this rain anyway!” she continued as she surveyed the wind-whipped sheets of water that seemed to come from every direction.

“Ariel? Is that you?”

Both women turned around at the voice behind them. Quinn sized up the man with one glance who had addressed her lover. Late twenties to early thirties, she judged, compact body, short dark hair, well-trimmed mustache, and windbreaker with the collar turned up. That and the fact that they were right outside the police station indicated that he was likely a cop.

“Ariel! It is you!” he exclaimed, and continued “I thought so but you left so quickly I didn’t get a chance to speak to you in the station.”

“Andy? Andy Billings? You work here now?” responded Ariel as they hugged each other. “Oh, Quinn,” continued Ariel as she turned to the taller woman, “this is Andy Billings, a good friend of mine from high school. And, I guess, he’s on the Parsonville force. Andy, this is my partner, Quinn Thanatos.”

“Yeah, I’m a detective,” grinned the man. “You said partner? As in . . .”

“As in the love of my life,” responded Ariel with a smile, but Quinn detected the underlying steel.

Andy grinned. “Ok. Pleased to meet you, Quinn,” he said, and stuck out a hand.

Good handshake, thought Quinn as she returned the grin and the greeting.

“So what are you doing in town?” asked Andy. “I mean, I heard about your nephew and after what happened, I’m kind of surprised to see you back here. But I’m really glad to see you, and by the way, you look great!”

Quinn eyed the man but said nothing as Ariel smiled and responded “Thanks. You’re not too bad yourself, and I love the moustache.” Then sobering she continued, “It’s because of him we’re here. Have you’ve got a minute or two? Maybe we could talk . . . ”

“I was just going to suggest we get in out of this rain. “Why don’t we all go get some coffee across the street. They’ve got great double chocolate muffins too!” he added, grinning slyly at Ariel.

“You remember my weakness,” she smiled ruefully. “Sure, why not. Quinn?”

“Lead the way.”
——————————————————————————–

Except for a couple of uniformed cops with styrofoam cups at a table near the entry, the Jiffy Home Cookin’ was empty.

“So you’re looking into this because the police are at a standstill.” At Ariel’s nod, Andy continued, “When’d you get into town?” The detective pulled a chair out and gallantly gestured at Ariel to seat herself.

Quinn glanced around the Jiffy Home Cookin’ as she took a chair beside her lover. A rack of freshly baked double chocolate muffins – apparently a Jiffy Home Cookin’ specialty – gave off the seductive scent of chocolate, which easily competed with the mingled odours of fresh coffee and fried food. The security consultant’s mouth quirked as she glanced casually at her lover, who was happily nibbling a fresh muffin that she had bought at the front counter.

“Mm, these are good!” mumbled Ariel, around a mouthful. “Yesterday,” she added. “We came over to see your chief yesterday afternoon.”

“To ask about Scott’s background? Let me guess. It didn’t go well?”

“That would be an understatement,” agreed Ariel, as she helped herself to a paper napkin from the dispenser on the faux wood grain tabletop. “And it wasn’t any better this morning, although we did get out of him that he had checked and there was nothing on file about Scott. At least, nothing other than the interview notes from the murder investigation of a couple of years ago. ”

“Murder?”

“The young women who were murdered. Scott was interviewed.”

The detective leaned forward: “What’s your nephew got to do with that?”

“He was interviewed after his sister went missing, but the interview notes weren’t in the main data folder and they only turned up recently,” supplied Ariel. “We were checking with the chief to see if there were any other . . . discrepancies . . . like that. He wasn’t pleased.”

“Yeah, well, you’ve got to cut the chief some slack. He resents outsiders coming in and nosing around,” said Andy, propping his elbows on the table. “But he’s not a bad guy really.”

“Yeah? grated Quinn, as she eyed the man. “If he ran a tighter ship maybe nobody from outside would have to poke around.” She couldn’t make up her mind about this guy. Ariel liked him, that was obvious, and Ariel’s relationship with her hadn’t seemed to bother him, so he got brownie points for that, but still . . .
“Yeah, he’s not a bad guy,” responded Andy quietly. “He wasn’t here when the murders happened. Came from Wallaceburg . . . ”

“Where at least one of the bodies was found,” interjected Ariel.

“Right. So although he knows about them, he wasn’t here at the time. He replaced the old chief who retired shortly after the last body was found. Things had been a bit slack before but they sure tightened up under him.”

Ariel glanced from face to face. “Do you think he knows something he’s not telling us, because we’re outsiders?” she asked quickly, before Quinn could say anything else.

“Hard to say for sure, but I think not. He’s a hardcase but I think he’s fair and honest. I’ve worked for them both, him and the old chief, and I’d take this one any day.”

“You saying the old chief wasn’t on the up and up?” said Quinn, eyeing the man intently.

Andy gazed into his coffee cup for a few seconds, then glanced around the restaurant. The cops at the front were just going out the door. “No, not exactly. But he did tend to push some things and not others.”

“Such as?” said Quinn, resting her chin on her steepled fingers.

“People with money, or from so-called good families who were accused of a crime were less likely to go to trial for it. Insufficient evidence, witnesses changed their stories. That sort of thing. I’m not saying any pressure was brought to bear, but still, that happens less often now.”

Quinn nodded slowly. “I’d like to talk to your old chief. It sounds like he had some interesting connections. Where can I find him?”

“You can’t. He died about six months ago.” At their questioning looks, he added, “He had a heart condition. And a young girlfriend, who’s a dancer out in one of the places along the highway. Add some medication to make him get it up, and, well, I guess he died happy.

“And you know all this how?” asked Quinn, skeptically.

“You can’t sweep a suspicious death under the rug. Even in hicksville. She tried to dress him and claim she found him dead when she came over to visit in the morning, but the guys from the funeral home have a few smarts. They called us. It so happens I investigated. She thought she’d be blamed because they were in the act when it happened, so she tried to cover it up, but I couldn’t find anything to indicate it was anything but an old guy with a bum ticker trying to keep up with a woman less than half his age.”

“Ok,” said Quinn, as she traced the wood grain in the table top with a long index finger. “That leaves us with Chas Elwood, then.”

“Elwood? Oh yeah, he was the lead investigator on the murders. He’d be the guy to ask about the interview notes.”

Quinn looked up from the wood grain and nodded. “Which is why he’s next on our list of people to see. So Andy,” she smiled lazily, “what can you tell us about Elwood?”
——————————————————————————–

“So you went to high school together?” Quinn adjusted the car’s info feed to decrease the interference on the oldies station she had tuned it to. What the hell was wrong with this thing, anyway; static was supposed to be a thing of the past. Looking out the window she didn’t see anything on the street they were currently driving down that would cause the problem. Damn this continual rain!

“Yeah. We were in a couple of classes so we started to hang around together. We lost track of each other after graduation ’cause he went to university here, and I took up my scholarship.” Ariel smiled. “He was my first trainer.” Quinn glanced sharply at her and raised an eyebrow. “Andy was a fitness nut,” continued Ariel, seemingly oblivious. “Running, weightlifting, swimming, eating right, getting enough rest. Andy preached the gospel of health and lived it every day. Saturdays, we used to take early morning runs. He’d be at my door at 6:00 and we’d jog to the town centre and back to my house. Hardly anyone was around. It was nice.” Ariel smiled again.

“So you were friends.”

“Yeah.” Ariel paused and glanced at Quinn, who had gone back to trying to adjust the infofeed. “And of course,” she added, matter of factly, while watching her lover out of the corner of her eye, “there were the Saturday night orgies, when I’d do him and a half dozen of his pals. Relax Quinn!” she added, as the taller woman inhaled sharply and snapped her head toward the writer. “I’m kidding. To answer your unasked question, yes we went out a few times, but I soon realized that friends were all I ever wanted to be. And then Kim transferred to my school, and it finally hit me that I was not cut out to be het.” The writer paused. “Anyway, after Donna kicked me out I needed friends, and he was there. But he was always a gentleman. He had no hidden agenda.”

“I’m sorry,” mumbled Quinn, shame-faced. “A little insecurity there. I was just being stupid.”

“No you weren’t. Silly maybe, but never stupid.” Ariel caressed her cheek and looked into the other woman’s eyes. “As far as I’m concerned, you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to feel insecure about.” Lips made contact, and conversation ceased.

“Mmm.” Quinn pulled away reluctantly. “You do know how to raise my self esteem.”

Ariel smiled and traced Quinn’s lips with a finger. “And I enjoyed doing it, too. But I think we better get back to work, especially since we’ve arrived.”

Quinn glanced out the window and found that the car had parked on the street not quite opposite Elwood’s house. The rain seemed to have slacked off a bit, although it was far from over. There was still no car in Elwood’s driveway, but looking on the bright side, the interference on the info feed seemed to have cleared up. Quinn chuckled.

“What’s so amusing?” asked Ariel, as she looked across the street.

“Listen to the song,” said Quinn, and began singing along in a rich alto.

“When you’re in love with a beautiful woman it’s hard.
When you’re in love with a beautiful woman you know it’s hard.
Everybody wants her, everybody loves her
Everybody wants to take your baby home.”

Ariel rolled her eyes. “Come on, Sport. Time’s a wastin’. I don’t think he’s home yet but we might as well go ring his bell.”

“You ring my bell all the time” purred Quinn as she opened the door and prepared to get out into the rain.

“Quinn!”

“Rrowl!
——————————————————————————–

“Give it up Quinn. He’s not home.”

“Yeah, I guess not.” Quinn gave the door a final pounding but was greeted only by silence from within. “Well, I guess the next step is go to Scott’s neighbourhood to see what we can see.”

“Looks that way. This is frustrating. I hope Vanessa and Tim are having better luck.”

“Yeah, you and m-”

“Girls! Hey girls! Over here.”

The women turned to look at the house next door. A small, pot-bellied man wearing suspenders and carpet slippers was waving at them from the doorway.

“Hi,” said Ariel as she closed the distance that separated her from his front porch. “We’re looking for Mr. Elwood. Have you seen him today?”

“You the two that was looking for him yesterday? You talked to the wife I think.”

“Yeah,” rumbled Quinn as she joined the writer at the foot of the stairs. We did talk to a woman here yesterday afternoon. She told us she thought he’d be back today. Maybe we’re too early.”

“Nope. Nope. He was back long enough to drop off his suitcase then he took off again. Not more than a half hour ago.”

Quinn thought an obscenity but kept her face neutral as she said, “Any idea where he might have gone?”

The man ran a hand through his sparse white hair. “Well, the wife don’t know this, seeing as how she don’t approve, but I bet my last dollar he’s at Rita’s.”

“Rita’s?” said Ariel. “Is that a girl friend or a family member?”

“No! No! Rita’s Bar and Grill. Out on the highway. The wife don’t like it cause they got . . . ” he sneaked a quick look over his shoulder and lowered his voice “nude dancers. He goes there a lot, although he tries to keep it quiet, being a good church member and all, just like us. I told him I wouldn’t breathe a word. Miz Johnson would for sure have a thing or two to say to him if she knew. Yessireebob!” The old man nodded vigorously for emphasis.

“Miz Johnson? That wouldn’t be Donna Johnson, by any chance, would it?” said Quinn, climbing the stairs.

“Why yes, it would! Do you know her? A finer woman never walked the earth. Except of course my Connie. And she preaches a damn fine sermon-’scuse-my-french. Miz Johnson, that is.”

“I used to know her some years ago,” said Ariel, joining Quinn and the man on the porch. “It’s a shame about her son.”

“Yeah! A damn-shame-’scuse-my-french. He shoulda stayed right here in Parsonville, ’steada traipsing off east. And lookit what it got him. They was just waitin’ for him. ’Course his aunt that says he tried to kill her is a disgustin’ thing I won’t say the name of. And writes about it too! We all hope she gets what’s comin’ to her. It’s a shame what she’s puttin’ her sister through. What we need is a little justice in this country!”

Quinn tensed, then turned eyes like blue lasers on the man’s face. Holding him transfixed by her gaze she smiled her widest, most malevolent smile and purred: “Oh, I’m sure once the dust settles we’ll have justice. Thank you so much for telling us where we might find Mr. Elwood. We won’t keep you any longer.”

Adam’s apple bobbing, a look of uncertainty flickered across the man’s face. “Ok, right enough. Hope you find him,” he mumbled, as he hurriedly backed up and closed the door.

Quinn waited until they were back in the car before she turned to Ariel and asked: “Are you alright?”

Ariel was staring straight ahead through the windshield. For a few seconds Quinn didn’t think she was going to respond, but then the blond woman turned to her and said “Actually, yeah. I’m ok. Y’know . . .” Ariel lapsed into silence again and Quinn wondered if she was going to recant her words. The security consultant was about to ask her again, when Ariel said “I guess what I’m feeling mostly is relief. Finally we’ve met the enemy, or at least one of his minions, and now it’s real, what we’re facing here. And we’re going to win. I know it.”

Quinn let go of the breath that she didn’t know she was holding, smiled, and gently kissed Ariel’s lips. “That’s my girl. Now . . .” she said as she winked at her lover, “let’s go to Rita’s to kick butt and take names. And maybe ogle the nude dancers too!”
——————————————————————————–

“Hey Mom! You here?” Tim led the way into the house, with Dusty doing an ungainly dance around him and Vanessa. “Mom! M-”

“You bellowed?” Dawn emerged from the basement. “I was cleaning. Is it just the two of you? Would you like some lunch? Did you find out anything interesting?”

“Well we found out some more details about the murders but the cops there really couldn’t help much. Lunch sounds good, and yeah, it’s just us. You haven’t heard fro-” The ringing of Vanessa’s telephone interrupted. “Maybe that’s them now.”

The tall red head cast him an amused glance and said “Almost certainly” as she flipped open the phone. “Alighieri,” she said. “Unhuh. Yeah. Ok. And where is that? Ok. See you in a few.” Turning to Tim and his mother, the operative snapped her phone closed and clipped it back on her belt. “Quinn says they may have a lead on Elwood. They think he’s at some place called Rita’s Bar and Grill, which I take it is quite the place. She says for Tim and me to come over.”

“Ok, hold the lunch Mom. I’ll get a burger there.”

“Yes,” grinned Vanessa, “and likely an eyeful at the same time.”

“Hurry back,” said Dawn, as they disappeared through the outer door. “And don’t stare!”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 4
Ariel watched the naked woman with the long platinum hair grind her hips and then bend backward until her mane touched the ground. “These women have to be in terrific shape to do this stuff. I never realized that before, ” she shouted over the music as she jotted a note in a small book.

“Mm,” responded Quinn, sipping a bottled beer and glancing around. They had been sitting in the dark, dingy, smoky bar for 10 minutes trying to figure out which was their quarry. Music, heavy on the bass, reverberated all around them from a sound system set on max. Thanks to Joe, Thanatos Security’s computer expert, Quinn knew from the plate number that Elwood’s car was in the parking lot. Now, three possible candidates presented themselves but she was unsure which, and didn’t want to make a move without further study.

“You could do that,” said Ariel suddenly, in Quinn’s ear, indicating the dancer whose current movements to a driving beat left little to the imagination. The writer grinned impishly at her lover. “It might be fun.”

“Quinn glanced up, then raised an eyebrow at her lover . “Yeah?” the dark woman responded, leaning over and returning the favour. “Tell you what, I’ll go buy the six-inch heels if you get the pole installed.”

“Ooh, Deal!” said Ariel, inches from Quinn’s lips. “I could probably write it off on my taxes as a research expense.”

Quinn grinned, and ran a finger lightly up the writer’s arm. “I’d like to be there when you explain that purchase to the tax people.”

Ariel smirked at her lover. “Hmm. come to think of it, explaining it to George is probably excitement enough. He always turns such interesting shades of red after he questions an expense and I give him the line that if I’m gonna write about it, I’ve gotta try it, so I gotta buy it.”

“Do you really?” chuckled Quinn.

“Give him the line? Sure. If I have to spend the time keeping good tax records I might as well get some fun out of it. What better way than to torment my accountant, once in a while. He always disallows it anyway.” Ariel made a quick note, sucked on the end of her pen, then leaned forward again. “If he ever approved one of those I might be so startled that I’d be the one who ended up blushing.”

Quinn chuckled again. “This probably explains why every time he sees me he turns red. I just thought he had high blood pressure, or something.”

“Well now,” said a voice at her elbow. “I can’t let you two out of my sight.” Ariel and Quinn turned as one.

“Hi Vanessa. Hi Tim,” shouted Ariel, over the music. “We were just discussing the necessity of keeping good tax records.”

“Unhuh,” responded Vanessa, skeptically. Tapping Tim on the shoulder she said, “Sit down, Tim. You’re drawing attention to yourself.

“Oh! Um, sorry Vanessa,” said Tim as he fumbled a chair out and sat in it, while keeping his eyes on the stage. The music came to an end and the dancer scooped up her g-string off the floor and disappeared into the wings. Only then did Tim’s eyes swivel to his companions, and he blushed. “Sorry guys. You’re probably offended. It’s just, I’ve been in topless bars but I’ve never been anywhere where they took . . . everything off before.”

“Well, now that you’ve been here, don’t make a habit of it or your mom is going to be pretty pissed at us,” said Quinn.

“No ma’am. I mean, no Quinn, I wouldn’t do that,” said Tim, as his head swung back to the stage where a new dancer, heralded by loud drumming from the sound system, was just beginning her routine.

“So much for him,” said Vanessa with a shrug. “Can we get something to eat here?”

“Yeah, I could eat something,” agreed Ariel. “What?!” she added, catching a smirk on Quinn’s face.

“Nothing! Nothing at all,” responded Quinn. “I’m just glad to see your appetite is back, that’s all.”

“It was the chocolate muffin, wasn’t it? Well Quinn. I think of food the way soldiers view sleep,” proclaimed Ariel, as she signaled a server.

Quinn raised a quizzical eyebrow. “And that is?”

“Soldiers sleep any chance they get in case they’ll have to go without for an extended period of time. Same principle.”

“Hmm. Ok, I concede your point. What’s the special?” she asked the server, who strolled up to the table, more interested in chewing gum than serving customers.

“What it is every day. Hamburgers and fries.” The woman responded in a bored manner.

“Ok, hamburgers and fries all around. And a pot of coffee. Anybody want anything else?” After taking Vanessa’s and Tim’s orders for beer, the woman departed.

Vanessa looked around, then leaned forward and spoke to Quinn, pitching her voice loud emough for the security consultant to hear over the music, but not loud enough to be over heard. “Since we haven’t made a move on anyone yet, I assume we’re not sure who’s who.”

“You assume right,” responded Quinn, letting her gaze pass over her three possibles. “The white haired guy on the far side, the bald coot with his hand in his crotch at 10 o’clock and the nondescript man a table behind him to his right. They’re the only ones I can see who fit the age bracket.”

“Yeah, but there might be others in the private booths at the back,” responded Vanessa, idly chewing some bar peanuts while watching the current dancer cupping and lifting her breasts in invitation to her audience.

“True, but unless you can think of a convincing excuse to use while checking those booths out we’re just gonna have to wait around here for a while. They gotta come out sometime,” responded Quinn.

“Think so?” Vanessa smiled in a world-weary way. “We may be here a while.”

“Well I thought of bribing the bartender to point him out, but figured that would likely get me nowhere but face to face with a bouncer. They watch the staff like hawks in these places.”

“Oh, I agree. Don’t ask, ‘cause they won’t tell. Ok,” the tall red head continued thoughtfully, “so that’s why you told me to bring Tim.”

The two women looked at their male companion, who was still mesmerized by what was going on, on stage, and then looked at each other. “Protective cover” they said simultaneously.

Quinn nodded. “I don’t want to corrupt him, but on the other hand he’s a big boy. And three women sitting together here for a prolonged period without a man present would likely look a little strange. And he did say he wanted to help.”

“That he did,” agreed Vanessa. Ok, well, I guess we just wait for whatever opportunity presents itself. Once we figure out which one is your perp, what’s the plan?”

“Once we think we can get him by himself, in here or outside, you be the muscle and I’ll ask the questions. Ariel and Tim will wait for us at the cars.”

Vanessa nodded. “Ok, I’ll be ready.”

“Right, Quinn responded. “And in the meantime, I think I’ll go to the washroom.” The security consultant stood, winked at Ariel, who looked up from her note book, and strolled slowly toward the back of the room, glancing at the stage and each of her possibles in succession, in as disinterested a manner as possible.

Ignoring Quinn’s departure, Vanessa turned to the server who was just returning with the beer they had ordered. After accepting the bottles, she tapped Tim on the shoulder. “Hey.”

“What? Oh, thanks Vanessa,” he said as he took the bottle she offered him. Then he glanced around, noticing Ariel, who had been watching the dancers and making occasional notes. “Where’s Quinn?” he asked.

“Exploring. She’ll be back in a while.”

“Cool. So what’s the plan?”

“You sit here and ogle the dancers, and keep Ariel company. When Quinn or I give you the signal, you and Ariel make your exit together as discreetly as possible and wait for us at the cars.”

“The cars? That’s all? What are you guys going to be doing? I thought you wanted help with this guy?”

“What I’m asking you to do will be helpful. We may have to hang around here for awhile, but when Quinn and I see an opportunity we’re going to react and fast. We don’t want to be worrying about Ariel when that happens. We’re depending on you.”

Tim slumped in his chair. “Ok. If that’s what you want, you got it.”

The red head patted him lightly on the shoulder and smiled. “Cheer up, and relax.” Then noticing the server, she added, “And dig in, ’cause here’s our food.”
——————————————————————————–

The dancers were taking a brief hiatus, and the two women and Tim were almost done their lunches when Quinn slipped back into her chair. “Loo-cee, I’m home,” she said.

“You got some ‘splainin’ to do,” responded Ariel, smiling.

‘Hey! Good one!” chuckled Quinn.

Tim looked at each of them in turn then asked “What was that about. What did I miss?”

Vanessa grinned, and replied. “Don’t try to understand. Obviously Quinn’s obsession with 20th century culture has converted yet another to ‘the dark side.’” At her words, the security consultant and the writer stopped eating and turned startled eyes on the red head, then burst out laughing.

“Well done,” complimented the dark haired woman, “but you needed a bit less Boris Karloff and a bit more James Earl Jones in the delivery.”

“I can’t help it if my voice isn’t deep enough,” said Vanessa, ruefully.

“Now I’m really confused,” admitted Tim.

“More 20th century culture Tim. Don’t worry about it,” advised Ariel. “And speaking about ’splainin,’ start talking,” she said, turning back to Quinn.

“Yeah, well, I had a look around. Must be a slow day because I don’t think there’s anyone back in the private booths right now, but I can’t get in there alone, to make sure. I see our three suspects haven’t taken advantage of any offers to go back there.”

“Nope,” said Vanessa. The guy on the far side has brushed off a couple of dancers since you left. The other two are just sitting there, watching the stage.”

“Ok. Well to continue, there’s a rear exit down the hall past the washrooms, which, by the way, are labeled ‘pointers and ‘setters.’ Ariel rolled her eyes. “Hey, these folks probably think they’re being original. I checked out the women’s. If the men’s is the same, it’s one room. Period. Tim, here’s an assignment for you. Check out the washroom and tell us what you find.” The young man started to get to his feet quickly, but slowed down when Quinn growled “not so fast. Make your exit look natural.” Watching the young man stroll toward the back, Quinn turned to Ariel and said “so, getting lots of research done?”

“Yeah, actually, if nothing else comes of this, I’ve gotten some ideas for my next book. I’d like to talk to some of these women. A couple have walked by and I really wished this was just a straight research trip.”

“You and me both, Sweetie. I’ll take you to a place back home if you want, but it’s too dangerous to talk to anyone here.” Quinn lifted the coffeepot, raised her eyebrows at her companions, who both nodded, and poured coffee into three mugs. “Now that we know pretty much what’s where, all we have to do is figure out who’s who.” The three sipped the hot liquid and turned their attention to the action on stage, which was now occupied by two women, one of whom was stripping the clothes off the other. After a few minutes, Tim slipped into his seat just as the performance reached its conclusion.

Quinn waited for the women to leave the stage before turning to him. “So Tim, what’s the story?” she asked.

The young man tore his eyes from the stage, swallowed, but responded gamely, “must be like the women’s. It’s one room. And it hasn’t been cleaned in a while. God it stinks! I saw a couple of guys avoid it altogether and just go down the hall to the outside. ”

Quinn nodded. “Boys will be boys. Ok, well, now we wait and see if we can figure out who’s our quarry. So sit back and relax everyone. It could be a long afternoon.” As she spoke, her eyes followed one of the two dancers, who had just been performing on stage, wending her way through the tables to sit with the white-haired suspect on the far side of the room. Their conversation was brief and ended with the two of them rising and leaving for the private booths at the back.

“Shit,” said Quinn, disgustedly. “Well, if it’s him we’ll be here a while. Unless he runs out of money or she has to dance again soon.”

“Was Joe able to find out anything about him through a database search?” questioned Vanessa, as she glanced casually at the remaining two prospects.

“Not much. We learned from a friend of Ariel’s we encountered this morning that the trips he takes are sometimes out of the country. Or at least they used to be. Joe found out he’s still doing it, going to southeast Asia within the last two months.”

“The Asian sex trade,” responded Vanessa.

“Right. That was our thought,” said Quinn, sipping coffee and noting another dancer circulating close to suspect number two, whom the security consultant had mentally labeled ‘the bald coot.’”

“Wait a sec, you found someone who knows him? Did you get a description?” asked Tim, excitedly.

“Way ahead of you. Unfortunately, it could be any of them. They’re all about the same size and build, and although two are balding, and ‘white hair’ appears to have a full head of hair, it could be a toupee or he might have had hair implants. Andy hasn’t worked with the guy in two years and so he couldn’t give us an up-to-date verbal snapshot.”

Tim looked thoughtful. “Oh, Ok.” Then: “Hey, if this guy Joe got into the DMV to get his plate number, what about the photo from his driver’s licence.”

Quinn glanced at him. “Does your license photo resemble you at all?

“Yeah. Why?”

“Ok, so you’re among the two percent of the population whose license photo doesn’t make you look like either a moron or an axe murderer. His photo was taken three years ago and he was wearing glasses, and none of our suspects are. We couldn’t make a definitive match from it.”

“Oh. Sorry, ” responded a somewhat crestfallen Tim. Quinn grinned in reply and patted his shoulder as she watched the second dancer from the pair that had just performed close in on suspect number two. The woman sat down next to him and exclaimed, loud enough to be heard over the music, “Chas baby! You’re back!”

“Bingo,” mouthed Quinn.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 5
The security consultant leaned back and sipped another beer. When that woman had so conveniently identified their quarry 45 minutes before, she had hoped they’d be able to blow the place in short order. Ew! The dark haired woman mentally winced. Not blow! Depart hastily, maybe, but not blow. However, identifying was only the first step; next, they’d have to find the opportunity to question him. Elwood wasn’t making it easy for them. Fortunately, however, he had only chatted with the dancer, and did not accompany her to the private booths. The woman had moved on to easier pickings, leaving him watching the action on stage. Quinn glanced at the three beer bottles on his table. Their best bet would be when he finally had to pee. She hoped it would be soon, since this waiting was beginning to get on her nerves. Glancing at Ariel she murmured, ‘how ya doin’?”

The writer looked up from her notes. “Fine,” she replied. “You know, I’m going to have to do some research into why all these women feel compelled to get their breasts enhanced. There isn’t a natural pair in the bunch.”

Quinn shrugged. “Beats me. Men are infants?” Then, noticing movement at Elwood’s table, she added “Hey, Vanessa, heads up. We may have some action here.”

The red head glanced casually in Elwood’s direction. The beer seemed to be doing the trick because the man had left his table and had begun to thread his way among the tables and other patrons toward the washroom in the back corridor. Quinn looked at Ariel and Tim and said quickly “Ok, time to make yourselves scarce. We’ll see you at the vehicles.” Then to Vanessa she added “Let’s go.”

The two women stood and strolled toward the back. Ariel and Tim were to take their time about leaving in case Quinn and Vanessa had to abort, but if the two women didn’t return to the table after a couple of minutes they were to leave.

“Ok Tim. I’ve reached 120 counting slowly and they haven’t reappeared. Time to go.” Ariel stood, dropped some bills on the table and then she and Tim made their way in a leisurely manner to the exit. Quinn and Vanessa were nowhere to be seen. “I only hope this works,” muttered the writer.
——————————————————————————–

Quinn and Vanessa watched Elwood saunter toward the washroom. She and Vanessa intended to catch up with him just as he got to the door and hustle him inside before any of the staff noticed. There were a number of ways this could go wrong but Quinn couldn’t think of anything better, so, she figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Elwood was ahead of them and about 10 feet from the washroom’s door when a man emerged, zipping his fly. Thank you Goddess, thought Quinn, for timing that exit just right. Increasing her speed, matched step for step by Vanessa, she closed in on Elwood’s left side, while the red head moved to his right. “Chas, baby, it’s so good to see you!” purred Quinn at her most sultry, as Vanessa grasped his right arm and applied heavy pressure to a nerve centre on his elbow. Elwood gasped, disoriented by the greeting on the one hand and the pain on the other. Quinn wasted no time opening the door then straight-arming a bleary-eyed drunk who tried to follow Vanessa and Elwood inside.

“Down the hall, Buddy,” she said as she slammed the door in his face, throwing her weight against the surface when she found the lock was broken.

“Hey! Hey you! You’re not supposed to do that in there. Go to the private booths,” yelled the man. “Shit!” he added, and staggered away when beating on the door got him no response.

“What’s goin’ on? Who are ya?” grated Elwood from behind her.

Quinn turned. Vanessa had the man well-controlled, and she was ready to apply more pressure if needed. The security consultant took a breath to speak, then wished she hadn’t; Tim was right, the smell was nauseating. Ok, she told her self, the sooner you get this guy to talk, the sooner you can get out into some fresh air. Putting the smell out of her mind, she said, “That’s not important. What is, is you tell us what we want to know and we’re outta here.”

“Fuck you,” spat the man. “You got the wrong guy.” His next breath was a gasp as Vanessa acted.

“Answer the questions, and that won’t happen again. It’ll be like we were never even here. Stonewall us, and your arm and hand will be outta commission for days. You decide.” Quinn held her breath waiting for his response, as seconds ticked by.

“Bitch. You got the wrong guy, I tell ya. I’m a retired cop.” Vanessa had forced Elwood to bend forward slightly. Quinn saw the man’s eyes sweep the filthy room looking for something he could use to turn the tables on his captors. Good luck, she thought, noting the smeared walls and the pooled urine and dried remains of other substances on the floor. I wouldn’t touch a thing in this place.

The security consultant stepped in and grabbed the man’s chin, forcing it up. “I know what you are and I’m still waiting for an answer,” she snarled. The man glared, then inhaled quickly. “And don’t even think of yelling for help,” she added, shifting her hand to his throat. Vanessa underlined Quinn’s point. Still, despite his eyes closing tightly against the pain, he didn’t seem to be close to breaking. Quinn knew she better do something fast or they were going to lose the ballgame right there. Then, as a thought struck her, she smiled wickedly and suddenly closed her fingers around Elwood’s crotch, causing him to gasp. “Well now, if imminent damage to your elbow doesn’t persuade you, maybe this will. It’s simple: you want to keep this in working order, you’ll talk. If not . . . For the first time she saw fear in the man’s eyes.

“Awright! Awright! Ask your fuckin’ questions.”

“Good decision. You were the chief investigator on the murders a couple of years ago. Right?”

“The girls? Yeah, so what?” The man seemed surprised by the question.

“Why did your interview with Scott Johnson not make it into the data folder?”

“Is that what this’s about? Whaddaya want t’know that for? Owww!”

“Answer the question,” said Vanessa in his ear.

“Yeah, ok. So it didn’t make it into the folder. So what. Scott didn’t do anything. I only interviewed him ‘cause the chief said to.”

This was interesting, thought Quinn. “How do you know he didn’t do anything? Do you know something that you didn’t record in the interview?”

“Scott’s a good boy. Goes to church regular. He wouldn’t do anything like that.”

Quinn stared at the man. “Let me get this straight,” she said, slowly. “Because Scott goes to church regularly, he couldn’t have had anything to do with the murders of those young women.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” The man’s eyes slid away from Quinn’s.

Quinn stared at the man. “No,” she said, thoughtfully. “Somehow, I don’t think you really think that. I think you’re just saying that because the Johnsons bribed you. Well, at least you stay bought,” she added with disgust.

“Nobody bribed me!” exclaimed Elwood indignantly. “Maybe I looked the other way a couple of times but I never took a bribe. Thirty-five years on the force and you won’t find nobody can say I took a bribe!”

“Well if they didn’t bribe you, they must have something on you to get you to pull a stupid trick like that.” Quinn stood back and eyed the man. “You go to the Johnsons’ church, don’t you.”

“So what? A lot of people go there.”

Quinn ran a hand through her hair while she considered that. “But you’re a member in very good standing, right?” she said. “Respected, retired police officer, whose whole working life has been dedicated to upholding the morals of the community. I bet people look up to you, don’t they. I bet Donna Johnson doesn’t know what you spend your time doing, does she.”

A self-satisfied look flickered across Elwood’s face. Uh oh, thought Quinn, that shot wasn’t even on the dart board, let alone near the target.

“Miz Johnson has prayed with me about my addiction,” he responded piously. “She understands a man’s urges can get out of control. She wants to help me.”

A knock sounded on the door. “You coming out soon? I gotta go, man.”

Quinn glanced quickly at the door, shifted her stance to lean her weight against it, then lowered her voice to its lowest register and snarled, “Do it outside.”

“Oh man, I can’t! You gotta let me in man. Please!” the voice wailed.

Damn it, Quinn thought. We’ve got maybe only a couple of minutes left to wrap this up. “Go away” she yelled again, toward the door.

Turning back to Elwood, she lowered her voice and said: “So Donna Johnson is loving and forgiving. A shepherd to her flock.”

The man nodded, but Quinn thought she caught an uneasy look in his eyes, for just an instant. Wish that guy outside would go away, she thought, forcing herself to focus. That look, fleeting though it was, gave her the feeling that she was zeroing in on target. Too bad she didn’t know what that target was.

“And what the shepherd says, the flock does.” The man nodded again, but now she was sure that something was making him uneasy. “So . . .” Inspiration struck. “So if she told the flock to turn against one of her lambs, because he could not be . . . saved, they would.” Bingo. Elwood was saying nothing, but he didn’t have to, since his face said it all.

“So she tells you to keep the interview out of the data folder, ’cause if you don’t you’ll be expelled from the church, and shunned by all its members. And you couldn’t stand that, could you. No one would look up to you anymore and you’d just be like all the other losers.” She leaned on the door, ignored the knocking, and looked at the man. “But you’re a smart guy, and it didn’t take you long to see that now you had something on her as well. Neat. She goes on praying for your soul, and letting you stay a church member, or you tell the authorities. I like it.”

Grabbing the man’s chin again, she growled “So what else have you done for her? With a kid like Scott, there’s gotta be something.”

“Nothing! I swear. That’s the only thing I ever did! Honest!”

Quinn shifted her hand down again to his crotch and squeezed slightly, causing the man’s eyes to open wide as he shouted “It’s the truth! S’help me GAWD!”

Bringing her face close to his, Quinn snarled quietly, “that better be the case, ’cause if it isn’t, we’ll see each other again. And I can promise you, you won’t enjoy it.” Underlining her words with a final savage squeeze and twist, that dropped Elwood to the floor with a moan, the security consultant straightened and turned. Quickly pulling the door open, she stepped around the anxious man outside and, with Vanessa at her shoulder, strode down the hall toward the exit.
——————————————————————————–

Tim kicked a stone in the gravel-covered parking lot. “Dammit! What’s taking so long? They shoulda been out here by now.”

“Calm down, Tim,” responded Ariel, casting a worried glance at the building they had just left. “Getting information out of someone takes time, especially if that someone doesn’t want to talk.” To herself, however, the writer was addressing the same question.

In their haste to leave the strip joint, she hadn’t noted the time. When she finally remembered to check her watch she had no idea how long it had been since Quinn had told her and Tim to go outside and wait. Now, they were standing in the parking lot next to the cars, trying to look inconspicuous. It crossed her mind that they probably should each get a car started, but she realized that her mind rebelled against getting into a vehicle and patiently waiting. Just as she was beginning to think that she should go back inside to find out what was going on, Ariel spotted two familiar figures rounding the building’s back corner. Quinn and Vanessa were covering the ground quickly, but weren’t running. Likely a good sign, thought the writer.

“Let’s go,” said Quinn, as they reached the vehicles. “We’ll talk back at Dawn’s.” She and Ariel slid into the rented car, while Tim and Vanessa jumped into the Jameson family vehicle.

“322 Westway Road. Best possible speed,” said Quinn, surveying the parking lot one last time to check for anyone following.

“322 Westway Road,” intoned the vehicle as it pulled out ahead of the Jameson car.

Ariel took the opportunity to lean over and hug the taller woman. “I was beginning to worry back there,” she said. “I had just begun to imagine all sorts of things that could go wrong, and then you appeared.”

Quinn smiled and returned the hug. “Well it was dicey but it could have been worse.”

Ariel gave her lover another squeeze and a quick kiss and then straightened up again. “So, do I have to wait ‘til we get to Dawn’s to find out what you learned?”

“Well, not to disappoint, but we didn’t learn as much as I’d hoped.”

“No? Damn! I thought that . . . ” But the rest of what the writer intended to say was left unspoken as the car lurched to a halt.

“Shit! What’s wrong now,” grumbled Quinn, as she noted in the rearview mirror that the vehicle in which Tim and Vanessa were riding had also halted.

“Fuckyouhaha,” said the car.

“W-what?” exclaimed Ariel.

“Fuckyouhaha,” answered the car.

“Damn it!” growled Quinn. “It’s a computer virus. It must have gotten into the central traffic system.”

“Fuckyouhaha,” commented the car.

“A virus? But aren’t those things impossible now? I can’t remember the last time we heard about one . . .”

“Fuckyouhaha,” said the car.

“Ariel, switch off the speakers. The switch is on your side.”

“Fuckyouhaha,” responded the car.

“Which one is it? They all have pictograms on them. Doesn’t anyone use words anymore for the Goddess’s sake!

“Fuckyouhaha,” answered the car.

“Apparently hackers with juvenile senses of humour,” responded the dark-haired woman as she reached past the writer to flip a switch on the instrument panel. Pausing a moment she waited to see if that had solved the immediate problem. “Ah, silence. Computer viruses don’t disrupt city traffic anymore because our traffic control has state of the art virus-killing protection. Apparently traffic control in the boonies is a little lacking.”

“Ok, so now what?” asked the writer.

“I drive. These things all have manual controls,” responded Quinn, oozing confidence.

“I know that, but . . . you drive? When was the last time you drove one of these things?” queried the writer, skeptically.

“It’s like a bicycle. Once you learn, you never forget.”

“Unhuh,” groused the writer. “Why doesn’t that fill me with confidence.”

“Just relax and enjoy it. We’ll be there in no time.”
——————————————————————————–

Dawn checked the driveway again, hoping that this time she’d be lucky. The afternoon was almost gone and she’d had no word at all. About two hours before, she’d started to feel uneasy. That had slowly progressed to outright worry.

Just as she concluded that something must have gone wrong, the two cars pulled into the driveway, although there seemed to be something different about them. Dawn hurried to the door, to greet the occupants as they filed up the walkway.

“Hey Quinn,” Tim was saying as she opened the door, “didn’t you see that truck?”

“Of course I saw him! I just didn’t know he was going to end up on my side of the road!”

“That wasn’t your side of the road, that was a turn lane,” interjected Ariel, who looked both peeved and shaken. “After this, if there’s any driving to be done, I’m doing it.” Then, turning to Dawn she smiled wanly. “Hi. Sorry we weren’t back sooner but we had a few hitches along the way.”

“I was beginning to worry!” responded the middle-aged woman. “Come on in and relax. It sounds as if you need it. Can I get anyone something to drink?”

“Ooh, no Mom. I think we all gotta pee since the bathrooms were so disgusting,” said Tim, as he greeted Dusty and his mother, in that order. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

The others grunted agreement and shuffled off to the main floor powder room, while Dawn went to the living room to await their return. Ariel was the first back. “So,” Dawn said, “were you successful? And what is this I hear about driving?”

The writer sat down on the couch, and stretched her legs out. “I don’t know everything yet. Quinn said she’d fill us in once we got back. As far as the driving part goes, we were barely out of the parking lot when traffic control was hit by a computer virus, and we had to drive home manually.”

“Yeah, Mom,” grinned Tim, as he vaulted over the couch to land next to the writer, earning him a frown from his mother. “That Quinn, what a maniac! It was something to see!”

“Made me glad I was with Tim,” agreed Vanessa as she returned and collapsed into an easy chair. “Did your life flash before your eyes, Ariel?” asked the red head, smirking.

“Just about. When she said we’d be there in no time I didn’t realize she meant that time would stand still.”

“I heard that,” said the object of the discussion as she entered the room and slouched in another easy chair. “You just don’t appreciate skill when you see it!”

“Likely because I was too busy praying to the Goddess to get us here alive!” snapped Ariel.

“Whoa! Wait a sec!” exclaimed Dawn, making time out motions with her hands. “You’re here and that’s what matters. Now, someone please tell me what you found out.”

Quinn, still irritated, gave them the bare bones of what they had learned, with Vanessa fleshing out the details.

“So,” said Dawn thoughtfully, “Donna Johnson blackmailed Elwood to keep the record of his interview with Scott out of the data folder. And, apparently, Elwood doesn’t know anything more about what Scott may or may not have done while he was growing up here.”

“That about sums it up,” responded Quinn, disgustedly. “As close to a big fat zero as you can get.”

“Well, you did find out why the interview wasn’t included, you know what Elwood looks like, now, and he’ll likely be more forthcoming if you need to ask him any more questions,” said Dawn, trying to put the best face on things.

Quinn looked up, then finally nodded, her mouth twisting slightly. “I suppose.”

“Good! Now that that’s settled, I’m going to start dinner. Tim, you’re on KP duty for jumping on the couch,” said Dawn, and left for the kitchen.

“Aw Mom!” exclaimed Tim, but Quinn noted that he did get to his feet to follow her. Mothers, mused Quinn. Sometimes you can’t live with ‘em, but other times you sure couldn’t live without ‘em. Donna Johnson, she was sure, was a good example of both.
——————————————————————————–

The pretty young anchor smiled and said: “Brad, what can you tell us about how traffic is moving now?” The info screen split to add a trenchcoat-wearing reporter standing in front of the Parsonville police station.” Quinn, who was sprawled on the bed in the motel room, looked up from her notes, as she flipped off her cell phone.

“Thank you Mia,” responded Mr Trenchcoat. “All is calm now, but it was sheer chaos across the quad-county area a few hours ago when a computer virus brought traffic to a standstill.” The screen dissolved into scenes of cars sitting motionless in the middle of streets, angry men kicking vehicles, and children waving from the windows of a bus that bore the logo, Kamp Ketchacalla.

“The traffic snarl up is the lead story on the news?” asked a towel-clad Ariel as she sank onto the edge of the bed and began to dry her hair with a second towel.

“You bet. It affected a wide area,” yawned Quinn. “Probably the biggest story they’ve covered in a while.”

” . . . officials were quick to reassure the driving public that they were taking measures to prevent the stoppage from happening again.”

“Let’s hope,” said Ariel. Then changing the topic: “How are things back home?”

The news segued to a commercial break touting morning-after pills. Quinn stretched, laid her notebook on the night table, then rolled over and slipped her arms around Ariel’s towel-clad body. “Mmm. Fine. Michelle and the kittens are getting along fabulously, the new people are working out without Kris quitting or having a coronary, and the company got a bodyguarding job today for an actor coming to town for a shoot early next month.”

“Good,” said the writer. “I’m glad things are going well.”

Discovering that she was lying on the infofeed’s remote unit, Quinn fished it out and zapped off a commercial pitching build-it-yourself panic rooms, on special at your local home centre, today. “Sorry I didn’t finish that call sooner. Otherwise, I would have joined you in the shower. Mmmm,” she added, as she took the edge of the towel in her teeth and pulled it back, exposing a tanned muscular thigh.

The writer grinned down into laughing blue eyes but continued drying her hair. “Sound carries in showers,” she observed.

“True,” responded the dark-haired woman, as she braced her hands on either side of the writer’s thighs and pushed up so that she could use her teeth on the knot keeping the towel together. “But given that this is a motel room, I doubt that the sound proofing in here is anything to write home about. There, much better,” she added, as her efforts proved successful, causing the bath towel to settle around the writer’s hips.

“We might scandalize Vanessa,” responded Ariel, abandoning her intention to continue drying her hair and beginning to unfasten the buttons on Quinn’s shirt.

“Hmm. Somehow I doubt there’s much would scandalize Vanessa,” the dark-haired woman responded, as she sucked on Ariel’s left nipple, then moved south.

“Ooh,” breathed the writer. “You may be right. In any case,” she paused, adjusted her position to accommodate her lover, and inhaled sharply as sheer sensation overtook her, “this . . . conversation . . . is rapidly . . . becoming . . . academic . . . QUINN!

The dark-haired woman raised her head from between the writer’s thighs and grinned wickedly. “Yup,” she agreed. “It sure is.”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 6
“So what’s on tap for today? asked Vanessa, as the car pulled out of the motel parking lot. Quinn glanced over her shoulder at the tall red head lounging in the back seat. She was still trying to decide if the woman’s good morning smile had been wider than usual. Other than that, there’d been no indication from the security operative that she’d heard anything of their late night activities.

Quinn cleared her throat. “Well, we still have to take a swing through Scott’s neighbourhood and I’d also like to talk to the security guard who may have seen Katie at the bus station on the night she vanished.”

“Ok. Why don’t you two take the neighbourhood, for obvious reasons, while Tim and I, if he’s still available, go see the security guard?” suggested the red head.

“Sounds like a plan,” agreed Quinn, checking the skies outside the car window. “It’s cleared a bit since yesterday. With any luck we won’t have to put up with any more bad weather.”

Forty-five minutes later found them setting out from Dawn’s house, Quinn and Ariel in the rented car, and Vanessa and Tim in the Jameson vehicle. “I don’t know about you,” said the writer, “but I sure hope that after this fact-finding trip is over the highlight is something other than the fabulous food Dawn has been serving us.”

“Yeah,” Quinn agreed ruefully. “Maybe our luck’ll change today.” Both fell silent as the car drove down Main Street for about a mile before branching off to make a series of turns until it eventually settled on a tree-lined street, down which it cruised.

“The house Donna lives in now should be just down that street there,” said Ariel, as they glided across an intersection, “and the church is just up here,” she added, a muscle jumping in her cheek. Quinn’s glance lingered on her for a few seconds then moved to the large white building at the end of a long sloping lawn on their right.

“Well,” said the security consultant as she took in the prefabricated, plastic ugliness of the most prominent part of the structure, “I see they bought their steeple off the shelf.”

“Yeah. In my mind there’s something grotesque about a prefabricated church, but that’s the way it was built. I remember when the steeple was trucked in here on a trailer truck, after months of fundraising.”

“Speaking of fundraising, check that out,” responded the dark-haired woman, indicating a temporary sign on wheels that occupied the corner of the parking lot closest to the street.

“Help GOD conquer Satan!! Support the Johnson family” read Ariel. “Yeah, well I guess it goes along with the message over there.”

Quinn looked at the sign the church used to convey pithy or inspirational sayings and read: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. Leviticus 18:22. Well,” she observed, giving Ariel an amused look, “I’m with them – lying with mankind is abomination. Womankind suits me just fine.”

A small smile came and went on the writer’s face, but she made no comment, saying instead: “Ok, so now we’ve seen the church, what next? You don’t intend to go in, do you?

“No, there’s no reason to,” responded the dark-haired woman, serious again. “What we’ll do is . . . start right over there.” ‘There’ was a mom n’ pop grocery across the street and about half way down the block.

As they opened the door, a bell rang in the back. No one was visible, but next to the cash, an infofeed was murmuring: “. . . For a limited time only, order one Gamester ‘Execution City’ and get a Gamester ‘Axe Murderer’ too, for just $40 more. Don’t miss out on the fun! Order yours today!!”

“G’morning,” said a grey-haired man who stepped through a doorway behind the counter. Quinn, who had started browsing in the drinks cooler, turned and responded “G’morning. Looks as if it might clear.”

“By golly I hope so. We needed rain but nobody asked for a flood!” chuckled the man. “What can I do for you folks this morning?”

“Oh, just picking up some odds and ends,” said Quinn as she pulled a couple of bottles of water out of the cooler. “I saw the sign back at the church,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder, then adding a bag of chips and a couple of candy bars to the pile on the counter. “About supporting the Johnson family? Is that where Donna Johnson is a lay preacher?”

“That would be the place, alright. She’s been there a few years, now,” responded the man as he rang up the security consultant’s purchases.

“Bet you do a good business around here, with the church, being so close,” ventured Quinn, handing over a bill.

“Not bad. Not bad.” The man paused. “You thinking of buying me out?” then grinned to show that he was joking, as he handed her the change.

Quinn shook her head and smiled, quickly weighing her options. “Ok, I’ll cut the chitchat,” she said. “I’m a private investigator interested in Scott Johnson. Do you know him?”

“The kid? He’s been in here a few times, but know him? No. And I’m just as glad.”

“Really?” said Quinn. “Why do you say that?”

The man rubbed his chin. “I don’t like two-faced people. He’s polite to grown ups, but he was in here a couple of times with a girl and treated her like dirt.”

“A girl,” interjected Ariel, who had been standing back. “As in, a girlfriend or maybe a sister?”

“Sister, for sure,” the man answered promptly. She wasn’t hanging on him or anything. In fact, the way he was talking to her, calling her stupid an’ such like, I think she would have been damn glad to get free of him. In fact, one time, after they left the store, I saw him trip her up so she almost fell.”

“So he wasn’t a problem in here, just not a particularly nice kid, said Quinn.

“Yeah, that about sums it up.” The man paused for a moment, then said: “Can’t think of anything else I can tell you.”

“Ok. Thanks for your help.”
——————————————————————————–

“Bobby Sandoz on duty today?”

The man in the bus station’s security office turned slowly then took his time sizing up his questioner. “So who wants to know, foxy lady?” he leered, then licked his lips theatrically. Vanessa mentally rolled her eyes as she noted his shaved head, sculpted goatee, and flexed biceps. Tim, she knew, was bristling behind her. Better cut this short, she concluded, before the kid did something stupid. “Private investigator,” she said crisply. “So is he here or not?”

“Hey, baby,” drawled the man, once again letting his eyes travel up and down the red head’s body in frank assessment, “What’s your hurry? You can investigate my privates anytime! What say you ditch the kid and you and me—” Whatever else he planned to say was forgotten, as he suddenly found himself jerked out of his chair and pressed against the wall, the security operative’s face inches from his own.

“Apparently you’re having trouble understanding me, so I’ll say this one more time, real slow and in words of one syllable. Is. He. Here. Or. Not?” Each word was accompanied by a strong shake that rocked his head hard against the wall.

“Yeah! Yeah! He’s here! That’s him down at the end of the platform!” Objective achieved, Vanessa shoved the man back into his chair, at which he added, aggrievedly, “Jesus! I was only trying to be friendly!”

The angry red head clamped a hand hard on the man’s chin, rocking his head once more into the wall, and snarled with quiet menace, inches from his face, “Better work on your technique. C’mon Tim.”

“Wow! That was great!” burbled Tim as he hurried to catch up with Vanessa who was striding down the platform. “Bet that guy thinks twice before acting like that again!”

“Think so?” responded the red head. “Jerks like that never learn. I shouldn’t have wasted the energy but I’m tired of spinning my wheels on this case. Hey you,” she yelled, addressing a rail thin man in a security guard uniform at the end of the platform who was jiggling pocket change. “The jerkwad in the office says you’re Bobby Sandoz. That true or do I have to go back and bounce his ass all around the platform to get some straight answers? ”

The man jingled even faster as he darted a quick glance at her, then all over the landscape. As a variation on a theme, he chewed bubblegum furiously, popping it several times. Just as Vanessa reached him, patience all but lost, he hurriedly responded, “yeah, yeah I’m Sandoz. Whata ya want?”

“Conversation,” she said, as she held up some money.

“Yeah, ok. About what?” he said as he tried, and failed, to snag the money from her hand.

“Nuh uh. Answers first,” she responded, as she easily evaded his attempt. “You were interviewed by the police a couple of years ago. About a missing girl. During the time somebody was murdering women. You remember?”

“Maybe. Yeah,” he said, nodding his head for emphasis.

“So tell me about her.”

“Tell you what about her?”

” Whatever you remember.”

“Jesus! She was a girl, she was here, End of story. Now gimme the money!”

“No, see,” the tall red head shoved him back sharply with one hand while pushing the money into her jeans pocket with the other. “You talk. Get it? Move the mouth, sounds come out and maybe they make sense. Now, you’ve just wasted my time so you’ve run up against a time penalty. And you know what that means? It means you’ve lost out on some of that money I was going to give you. Better get started talking before you waste any more.”

“Ok, ok! Uh, lessee. Um, ok, like I told the police, there was a little blond here for a while one night and it turned out she was missing from home. The cops showed me her picture and it was the girl who was here.”

“Ok, so what was she acting like? Bored, tired, pissed off. What?”

“She was jumpy, y’know? Like every little thing made her look around quick. You know?”

“Had you ever seen her before? You didn’t recognize her from around town?”

“No.” The man’s eyes darted some more, and he popped his gum.

“How long was she here? Did she have any luggage – a backpack or something? Did she get on a bus??”

“Hell, I don’t know!” I can’t be watching everything at once! I helped you! Now give me the money!” a command he attempted to make good on by reaching quickly toward the pocket in which the tall operative had stuffed the bills.

Vanessa slapped his hand away contemptuously. “No description, no money.” The red head stated simply. Resting her hands on her hips, she glared down at the man.

“Ok Ok Ok! Alright?!” The little man finally seemed to realize the only way to be paid was to talk. “Um, let see, no, no backpack. Nothin’. Uh, it was kinda cool that night and she didn’t have a jacket or nothin’ and she kept rubbin’ her arms.”

“What was she wearing?”

“Uh, uh, jeans and uh, a t-shirt. It was, whatayacall it, aqua. Yeah. Aqua.”

“The police showed you a photo and you identified her from that?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’d never seen her before? On the street? Here? At church?” The red head extracted the bills from her pocket and held them just out of reach.

“How many times I gotta tell ya bitch! I ain’t never seen her nowhere. And I ain’t never seen her since, neither.” Sohelpmegod. Now gimme my money!” The tall operative tossed a bill at his feet and he bent quickly to scoop it up. “Hey! That’s only $10!”

“Yeah. You lost out on another $20 when you called me a bitch. C’mon Tim.”
——————————————————————————–

“Where to now?” the writer asked, as she followed the taller woman out to the street.

The security consultant looked back the way they had come, then up the street. “What else is around here? Where we might find some people, that is?”

“Um, well,” Ariel glanced quickly around, as she thought. “There’s a school about a block ahead. Now that the rain finally seems to be gone, there might be some kids playing in the schoolyard. But even if they knew something useful, how would you get them to tell you anything?”

“I’ll think of something, ” assured Quinn. The two set off at a fast walk, the writer hurrying to keep up with her tall companion, the smell of wet earth and green grass all around. “Yeah, I think I see it now,” said Quinn, after a few seconds. The two crossed the street and a couple of minutes later walked through a chain link gateway into an asphalt-covered schoolyard. Rain had left a large puddle in one low-lying corner. Quinn looked around for someone to question. Two girls about six or seven bounced a ball against the school’s brick wall. A boy of about 10 circled the yard on a bike, getting ready to ride up a sheet of plywood propped up on a couple of bricks, forming a makeshift ramp. The only person paying them any attention was a tall thin girl of about 12, who paused on the climbing equipment and watched suspiciously as they approached.

“Hey, I need some information.” Quinn pulled a bill out of her jeans pocket and waved it in the air, glancing at the two older children.

“You talkin’ t’me lady?” the boy asked, as he slid to a halt several feet away. “Whatta ya want?”

“Mikey you’re not supposed to talk to strangers,” said the girl primly.

“Shut up, Roz. Whatta ya want?” he reiterated to Quinn, as she walked forward slowly.

“Mikey, you’re not—”

“SHUT UP,” he yelled over his shoulder. Turning to Quinn again he snarled “Put up or shut up lady.”

“I’M TELLING!” the girl exclaimed, as she jumped down and ran across the street.

“Make it quick lady. She’s gone to get our mom.”

“Tough guy,” said Quinn as she came to a halt. “Ok. Quick it is. You know the church up the street?”

“Yeah. My mom drags us there every Sunday. Everybody ‘cept my dad. He watches football.”

“You know who Scott Johnson is?”

“Yeah, sure. Who doesn’t? Why?”

“You’ve seen him around lots?”

“Yeah, I seen him. Not for a while, but yeah.”

You know he’s in big trouble?”

“What about it? He’ll get off, least ways, that’s what Miz Johnson says. My mom’s baked stuff for sales they been having.”

“A guy down the street told me Scott’s not very nice. That he’s a bully, but that he sucks up to grownups. That so?”

The boy shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. I never thought much about it.”

“You’ve seen him bully kids?”

“Yeah, sure. All the time when no grownup’s around.”

“He ever do that to you?”

“Nah, I stayed outta his way. Seen him push other kids around though. He shoved Sara Jeffers down the stairs once. She broke her arm. I seen it happen. It was really gross!” he added with a grin.

“Yeah? You were there?” The boy nodded. Quinn met Ariel’s eye, then looked beyond her to the thin girl now accompanied by a woman pulling on a sweater as she hurried down the steps of a small house across the street. “This was at the church?” Another nod. “You saw him push her? Had she done anything to make him mad?”

“Nah. She and Beth Watson were climbing the stairs and talking, ya know? He was going down and she didn’t see him, to get out of his way, ya know? Boy did she yell!”

“He must have got into trouble over that,” said Quinn, eyeing the woman storming through the gate.

“Nah. He told everyone she was playing on the stairs and that he tried to keep her from falling.”

“Didn’t she tell anybody what really happened?”

“Sure. Beth told too. Her father swatted her for lying. Didn’t matter who they told. Who’s going to believe a kid?” the boy said matter of factly. “That’s all I know, lady. Gimme the money before my mom gets here.”

Time’s up, Quinn agreed. “Right you are, Mikey. Thanks for your help.” Handing him the bill, she smoothly stepped between Ariel and the angry woman who had just arrived. Mikey stuffed the money in his jeans and pedaled off furiously. As his mother turned to shout at her son, Quinn sidestepped her, grasped Ariel’s arm and muttered “c’mon.”

One quarry out of reach and the other rapidly escaping, the woman whirled and shouted, “Hey! Hey you! Why were you talking to my son? What were you doing? You’ve got no right! Hey! Hey, I’m talking to you!” The woman pursued them to the gate but stopped as they turned and walked briskly down the street.

“Ok, we can slow down a bit, she’s not following.”

“Think she’ll call the police? asked Ariel, as they spotted their rented car. “With the way people are nowadays about pedophiles, you might have some explaining to do as to why you gave that boy money.”

“Maybe, which was why I didn’t want to hang around and chat with her. I think now might be a good time to shift operations elsewhere. Or at least a street or two away. Let’s drive around a bit to see if anything else looks promising,” said Quinn as they reached the car. “Random cruising, 6-block grid” she said as they settled in.

“Acknowledged. My sensors indicate that it is cool outside today. Would you like the heat adjusted?”

“Yeah, bring the temperature up to 22 degrees celsius and hold it there.”

“Acknowledged,” responded the car as it pulled away from the curb.

“I think we should have a little music too,” said Quinn, switching on the infofeed and setting it to audio.

“–stand him, ’cause he rides the rodeo

“Ah, good,” she added, as the soothing sounds of Judy Collins filled the vehicle. Cuddling up to Ariel she sang along quietly as the car moved slowly off on its mission.

My father says that he will leave me crying
I would follow him right down the toughest road I know
Some day soon, going with him, some day soon

And when he comes to call my Pa ain’t got a good word to say
I guess it’s ’cause he was just as wild in the younger days

So blow you Old Blue Northern, blow my love to me
He’s driving in tonight from California
He loves his damned old rodeo as much as he loves me
Some day soon, going with him, some day soon
——————————————————————————–

Vanessa grimaced as she took another sip of bus station coffee. “Ok, Tim, unless you’ve got some other suggestions on people to talk to, I vote we start running through the names Quinn gave us yesterday.”

“Well, said Tim thoughtfully, as he gazed through the windshield, “Didn’t Quinn and Ariel say that the old police chief died having sex with a dancer from Rita’s, so maybe we could go back there to see if we could find her and ask . . . . ” Tim faltered to a halt as he glanced at Vanessa’s face.

“Hormones,” she finally murmured, shaking her head. “I meant, someone you know who might have some knowledge of either Scott or Katie. Like, are there any names you recognize on any of the lists of interviewees that Joe was able to get when he hacked into the police departments’ files?”

“Uh, let me see,” said Tim as she handed him a copy of the documents sent to Quinn by Joe, her computer expert cum hacker, the previous morning. Since the Parsonville police chief had been uncooperative, Quinn had decided to get her information the unconventional way, and asked Joe to see what names he could get of people interviewed by the quad-county police forces at the time of the murders. “Um, well, there’s a couple of people on the list I know from high school and some other names I recognize. Trouble is, not everybody is still around.”

Vanessa shot him a sharp glance. “You’re sure about that?”

“Positive. This guy’s in jail for burglary – he got sent up just a couple of months ago. Mom sent me the link from the ‘net news. And this one hung around a bit after school then finally joined the merchant marine. He hasn’t been seen here since.”

“Alright. We go to plan B. What names do you recognize, and can we find them to talk to them?”

“Ok. Well . . . there’s Brandy Sampson. I was never in a class with her but I saw her around the school. She’s got a summer job at a diner in town. I’m not too sure where to find the others, but maybe we could ask her that too. And maybe Mom would know some others.”

“Ok. You got a point. First stop, Brandy Sampson.”
——————————————————————————–

“Alighieri, as in Dante?”

Surprised, the tall security operative responded, “Yes. How did you know?”

“Literature major,” smiled Brandy. “As far as what I can tell you, I’d like to help but really don’t know much, if anything. The police talked to me because I was a friend of Alyson’s but I didn’t see her the day she disappeared so I couldn’t tell them anything useful.” Noticing Vanessa’s coffee was half gone, she added: “Hey, can I at least freshen your coffee for you?”

Vanessa pushed her cup forward with a smile. “Yes, please. The coffee here is a heck of a lot better than what they sell at the bus station.”

Brandy smiled in response as she topped up the security operative’s cup. “That’s because it’s 100 percent Colombian, made fresh every 20 minutes.”

“Mmm,” said Vanessa, inhaling appreciatively before taking a sip. “Smells good.”

“Brandy, have you any idea where some of these other people are?” Tim handed over the papers, then sipped his own cup as the young woman glanced over them. They’d been fortunate to find Brandy alone in the restaurant when they had arrived so they had slipped onto stools at the counter that ran down one side of the room.

“Hmm. Well, I don’t know about Marly Bennett — she might be working at the hardware store — but Jill Murray is just down the street at Smart n’ Sassy.”

“Jill Murray?” asked Vanessa.

“Yeah. She used to pal around with Katie Johnson. Maybe that’s why she’s on the list.”

“Maybe why, indeed. Thanks Brandy,” said Vanessa as she gulped the last of her coffee, dropped some bills on the counter and slid off her stool. “C’mon, Tim.”

“Yeah, thanks Brandy,” said the young man as he hurriedly stuffed the papers in his pocket and followed the red head out.

“No problem,” she replied, and added wistfully to the empty restaurant, “and I get off at 7:00, in case either of you is interested.”
Chapter 7
“Pull over and stop.”

“What gives? The church?” Quinn looked out at the small, stone structure they were just approaching. A teenaged boy was assisting an elderly man with weeding a garden at the side of the building. Another teen was carefully trimming grass around the signboard that all churches seemed to maintain. Unlike it’s neighbour a couple of streets over, however, this church seemed to be trying for tolerance. At least, the message read, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD . . . Isaiah 1:18.” Quinn looked up to find the church’s name. “Hmm, she said, “St Constantine’s.”

Ariel slipped out of the car as soon as it rolled to a stop, then walked hesitantly over to the old man who was issuing some final instructions before getting slowly to his feet. “Dr Ferris?” She said, quietly.

“Eh?” His head came up, as he straightened slowly and painfully to his full height. “Oh, hello. I must confess, although you look familiar I can’t quite come up with your name. I’m afraid it’s a failing of mine.”

“There’s no reason why you would remember me, actually, since I haven’t been here in many many years. I used to attend this church with my parents. James and Alys Pedersen. I’m—”

“Ariel Pedersen,” he exclaimed, extending his hands to shake hers in a two-handed grip. “Ariel, of course! Silly of me to forget. Come in, come in! I was just going to get us all something to drink. Come in. And your friend too,” he added as he noticed Quinn in the background.

“Truth be told,” he said, as he escorted them in through the arched doorway and down the hall to his study, “these days I often have a better memory for names, places and events of days past than days present. Old age, I expect, but I’ve always had trouble when I encounter someone out of context. My mind just seems to go on holiday. Here we are. I’ll just get the boys their drinks and be right back. Please,” he said, as he gestured to a couple of chairs in front of his desk, “have a seat.”

The leather armchairs were old but serviceable and smelled faintly of leather conditioner. As Ariel sat down, she took in the rows of books on the overstuffed bookshelves, noting in surprise the works of several modern writers mixed in with the religious texts. Further visual explorations, however, were soon cut short by their host returning with a tray bearing a pitcher and three glasses.

“Lemonade,” he said. “I hope you’ll join me?” glancing at each in turn. Receiving assent, he quickly filled three glasses, handed the women theirs and sank into the worn upholstered chair behind his desk. “So tell me,” he said, “to what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning?” adding, “I imagine you being in Parsonville has something to do with Scott Johnson’s attempt on your life, Ariel.”

“I guess it’s no secret, what happened. I understand the local ’net news gave it quite a bit of coverage,” the writer replied, as she sipped the tart-sweet liquid.

“Oh yes, but you have to admit, it was covered pretty extensively in the city ’net news too.” At their look of inquiry, he smiled and said “I love reading. Can’t get enough of it. Books,” gesturing at the shelves, “’net news, cereal boxes, you name it. And the names of former parishioners tend to catch my eye. You’d be surprised what I’ve read over the years.” Turning to Quinn he continued “And I take it you’re the young woman who kept him from achieving his objective.”

“Oh, excuse me, Dr. Ferris. This is Quinn Thanatos. My partner.” Ariel steeled herself for rejection, however politely framed, but the old man didn’t bat an eye as he reached across the desk to shake Quinn’s hand.

“Ms Thanatos. A pleasure. I’m beginning to recall some of the coverage, now, and I believe you’re in . . . security?”

“Yes sir. That’s correct.”

“Good. It was fortunate you were able to turn the tables on him. I hate to think what might have happened, otherwise . . . ” The old man shivered slightly. “But on to other matters. I’m delighted you’ve dropped by, but I assume it wasn’t just to renew old acquaintances, hmmmm?”

“No, you’re right, it wasn’t.” Ariel paused to organize what she was going to say next. “We’re here, in Parsonville that is, well, I guess because I have to know why he did it, what made him the way he is. And we’re also here because my niece disappeared a couple of years ago when other young women were going missing, and although they say she ran away there’s been some question about it and, well . . .”

“We’re trying to find out all we can,” interjected Quinn, “because if Katie was murdered, we want to see whoever killed her brought to justice.”

“A tall order. A tall order indeed,” rumbled the old man. “But what made you come by here? Although the churches in Parsonville talk to each other and pretty much get along, we’ve never had any meaningful dialogue with the Johnsons’ church. The congregation is polite to the rest of us but they pretty much keep to themselves, unless they’re proselytizing that is.”

“But you’re just a couple of blocks apart,” exclaimed Quinn. “No joint church suppers? No picnics on that great front lawn of theirs? No mutual fundraising efforts?”

The old man chuckled. “Forgive me, Ms. Thanatos, but that’s not the culture of churches. We’re polite to each other but that’s usually where it stops. Not that I wouldn’t mind some joint efforts. They know how to raise funds! They’re working night and day to clear the Johnsons’ debt incurred to get Scott out on bail, and my sources tell me that they’re well on the way after only a few weeks.”

“Do you know Donna Johnson?” asked Quinn, curious. “I mean, you can’t not know who she is, living in this town and all, but since she and her congregation keep to themselves so much, have you talked with her?”

“You mean, since she was a parishioner here?” At the look of surprise on the security consultant’s face, he added. “Oh yes, when the world was young and I was younger, she also accompanied her parents to St Constantine’s. Truth be told, the only thing I remember about her now was the disapproving look that she wore most of the time when I would look out at the congregation from the pulpit. I’m afraid that my messages met with some resistance in that quarter. ”

“Most of the time? Surely you’d say something she would agree with.”

“Well,” the old man rubbed his cheek, “I believe God wants us to love one another. Martin Luther King Jr. said ‘Everyone is somebody because they are a child of God.’ God created us all, and therefore we are all brothers and sisters. I don’t think Donna Johnson either subscribes to, or has ever believed the second part of that. And since I usually get around to that pretty frequently in my little talks to the congregation, I don’t think she found much to take away from here. She had left the congregation by the time she married Blake Johnson so I haven’t discussed it with her in recent memory, if at all, but I would say that her mind hasn’t changed.”

Quinn was about to ask another question when a knock on the open door interrupted them. All turned to discover one of the teenagers, who had been working on the grounds, shifting from foot to foot. “Uh ’scuse me. We’ve got the weeding done and Ms Arthur’s car’s not working right again so she asked me if I’d drive her around to deliver the food, so if it’s alright with you, we’ll go now.”

“Ok, fine Malcolm, and thank you and Jack for your help.” Then, as the young man was turning to leave, added. “Oh, one final thing, did you check the buckets? I haven’t had a chance yet today.”

“Yessir. We emptied them all and put ‘em back, but unless it rains again I don’t think we’ll get any more water in ‘em.”

“Ok. Right enough and thank you again.” Turning back to his visitors, he said, “Those boys pitch in and help, when they can, thank goodness. And they’re just two of many. We may have a small congregation but we’ve got some good volunteers.”

“Buckets? What’s this about buckets?” said Ariel.

“Oh, when we have a heavy rain, as we did yesterday, we tend to get some water leaking in. We’re raising funds for a new roof, but it takes time.”

“What’s the food for? Meals on Wheels?” asked Quinn.

“Yup. We’re one of the participating churches.”

“Does Donna’s church participate too?” asked Ariel.

“They used to, but it’s supposed to be non-denominational. They were slipping pamphlets and so forth about their beliefs in with the food and they wouldn’t stop, so eventually they were dropped from the list of providers.”

“They use ever opportunity to proselytize?”

“Every single one. And it’s worked. They are the fastest growing congregation around.”

“I suppose,” mused Ariel, “that in times of trouble people want to blame their problems on someone else, and you can’t very well do that in a church that says, no matter how different our cultures, we are all just brothers and sisters.”
“I’m afraid there is a large element of truth in that,” rumbled the old man. “But if we lose potential members to Donna’s congregation because of xenophobia, well, then we’ll just have to work harder at breaking down those prejudices.” Then he smiled at his visitors and added, “Luckily, I love a challenge.”
——————————————————————————–

Vanessa grinned and set her coffee cup back in its saucer. “He sounds like quite a guy.”

“He impressed me, I have to say,” said Quinn, as she slouched in her chair and stretched her legs out under the table. They were in the dining room, had just finished another Dawn Jameson lunch extraordinaire, and were recounting the morning’s highs and lows.

“Did he have a chance to tell you about their literacy program?” asked Dawn? “They’ve helped a lot of people to improve their reading and writing skills.”

“That’s my mom. Always the English teacher,” interjected Tim, with a grin.

“Hush you!” she exclaimed and pretended to hit him with a soup spoon. “That way they can get better jobs.”

“He mentioned it briefly,” responded Quinn, “but he seemed to be much more interested in getting Ariel’s autograph on a copy of Midnight Madness.”

“A copy! He owns a copy!? Has he read it??” sputtered Dawn, after hastily swallowing a mouthful of coffee.

“Actually,” said the writer, “I was so startled that I asked him that very question. He said that yes he had, although he found some parts were far too ‘racy’ – his word, not mine. But he added that in his opinion it was an important addition to modern literature.” Quinn noted that the tips of Ariel’s ears turned pink as she added, with what Quinn considered a goofy but loveable grin, “that was nice.”

“Yeah, it was,” agreed the security consultant, warmly.

“So what’s next boss?” queried Vanessa. “If you want us to talk to other people the police interviewed, Tim and I can continue with that. Or is there something else you’ve got in mind?”

“Let’s see if we can identify some more people on the list and then maybe split them up between us,” said Quinn. “Have you got it there?”

“Sure thing,” the red head said as she dug into her jeans pocket then handed the paper over. Turning to Dawn, she added, “Dawn, Tim said you might be able to help with this too.”

“Oh, sure,” said the middle-aged woman, who stood up from the table then leaned over Quinn’s shoulder. “Let me see. Oh, yes, I do see some people here I recognize. Tim, please get the telephone book, because I’m pretty sure not all the addresses are correct . . . ”
——————————————————————————–

“You ok?” Quinn asked concerned.

Ariel glanced over her shoulder from her position in front of a transparent solarium wall. “Oh yeah. Just needed a breather.” The writer had slipped out when the others began working on the list, and after a few seconds Quinn had excused herself to follow.

The security consultant moved over behind her lover, slipped her arms around her and gently kissed her neck. The smaller woman was quiet, but Quinn sensed a sadness there. After a few seconds she said, “I wish the motel had a pool. You haven’t done your laps since you got here. Maybe we should go running tomorrow.”

Ariel smiled. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Yeah. We could enlist your friend, Andy. Just as long as he doesn’t show up at our motel room door at 6:00 am. No sooner than 6:30, I’d say.”

The writer smiled again briefly but said nothing.

Quinn tightened her hold while she racked her brain for some other conversational gambit. She suspected that Ariel had had high hopes they would uncover something useful on this trip. What they had learned so far was interesting, but basically background. Oh sure, they had answered some questions, filled in some holes, but really knew very little more than what they had started out with. Mind you, that was the way investigations usually went. Plain old tedious foot work. You worked a thread loose here and there, until you could stand back and see how they played a part in the whole.

The writer stirred in her arms. “I’m ok, Quinn, really. Just every so often . . . I just want it all over.”

“Yup. Me too.” The security consultant could see birds fluttering in the trees outside. It occurred to her that living in the city you forgot that birds didn’t just come in four types: pigeon, sparrow, crow and gull.

“We should get back to work.”

“Uh huh.” Neither moved.

“We’re never going to find out more if we don’t get started.”

“Oh,” said Quinn, as she pressed small kisses to the writer’s neck and temple. “On that I beg to differ. It stands to reason that if Vanessa and Tim go out and ask more questions, they’ll turn up more. In fact, I bet if we just stood here long enough, they’d solve the whole thing. You up for that?”

The writer chuckled wryly. “Yeah, until I fell down from exhaustion.”

Quinn grinned and pressed a final kiss to Ariel’s neck. “Hey, it was a plan. I never said it was a good plan.”

“Speaking of plans, I think the planning session is finished. We’d better go get our half of the list,” said the writer as she turned in Quinn’s arms.

“Umm, yeah. It does sound as if it’s breaking up in there. Ok, time to go back to work,” said Quinn, and planted a quick kiss on the end of Ariel’s nose.

“Do that again, but slightly lower.”

The security consultant gave her lover a sexy grin then complied in a leisurely fashion.

“Umm. On second thought, maybe we should forget the plan and just go back to the motel.”

“Just as soon as we talk to a few people first.”

“Slavedriver,” but said with a grin. Ariel slipped her arm around Quinn’s waist as they strolled back into the house proper. “Have I told you recently how much I love you?”

“Not in the last five minutes, no.”

“Then I better fix that. I love you.”

Quinn smiled down at the smaller woman. “Likewise.”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 8
“Jill? Uh, Jill Murray?”

“Yes? You’re Tim Jameson, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, that’s right. This is my friend Vanessa Alighieri. Could we talk to you for a couple of minutes? It’s about Katie Johnson.”

“Katie? Has someone heard from her?” The young woman looked eagerly from Tim to Vanessa and back again.

“Uh, No. Um, is there somewhere we can go to talk?” asked Tim, as he and Vanessa noted the young woman’s shoulders slump in disappointment.

“Sure. Um,” she said, looking around. “I get a break in about 10 or 15 minutes. Why don’t you go over to the Jiffy Home Cookin’ and I’ll see you there shortly?”
——————————————————————————–

Vanessa settled into a chair against the wall, sipped her coffee and watched the door. The café currently held a uniformed cop eating a sandwich at a table nearby, a young couple with a toddler in a high chair, and two elderly ladies taking a break from shopping – the bags piled around their chairs irrefutable evidence – to share a pot of tea. While she waited for Tim to join her, Vanessa listened to the ubiquitous piped in music, realizing, when it was interrupted for a commercial break, that it was broadcast from the local radio station.

“I hope she can tell us something,” said Tim, as he slid into an adjoining chair. “Wanta donut?” he said, as he proffered a brown bag.

“Thanks, but I’m still stuffed from that fabulous lunch. As far as Jill Murray goes, don’t get your hopes up. She looked pretty disappointed that we had nothing to tell her.”

“Yeah.” Tim’s head was bent as he stirred his coffee. “It would be nice if we could break this case wide open.”

Vanessa smiled tolerantly. “Unfortunately, that usually only happens in movies.”

Tim lifted his head and chuckled wryly. “Yeah, I know. But I’d still like it.” Biting into an apple fritter he said, “I think I see her crossing the street. I’ll go see if I can get her a coffee.”

“Buttering up the witnesses?”

“Can’t hurt.”

Vanessa smiled as Tim made his way across the café to the door and opened it for their latest informant. If Jill and Katie had been the same age, that would make her about 17 or 18, about two years younger than Tim. By the way Tim was chatting with her as he paid for her coffee, he evidently found her appealing. Maybe cute brunettes were his type. The two crossed the floor and Tim pulled out a chair for Jill. Vanessa chuckled to herself as she smiled at their witness. Tim was obviously trying to impress.

“I just filled Jill in about what we’re doing, Vanessa.” Turning to the younger woman he added “we were in the store this morning looking for you.”

“I wondered. Sherry said some people came in to see me and would come back this afternoon. I don’t work the morning shift,” she said, glancing sideways at Tim.

“So Jill,” said Vanessa, taking over the questioning, “you were a friend of Katie Johnson?”

“Yes. I am.”

“Am? So you don’t believe she’s dead.” The security operative hunched forward over her coffee cup.

“No! How could she be? She ran away!”

The red head glanced at her notes. “The police interviewed you on the day she was reported missing. They thought she was the latest victim of the person killing young women in the area, and you hadn’t talked to her since before she was reported missing. There’s only the one interview on record with you, Jill, and in it you didn’t sound nearly so positive that she was alive as you do now, so what’s changed?”

“Because I did talk to her a day later! She’s not dead! She’s not!”

In her peripheral vision, Vanessa saw Tim lean forward, but she ignored him as she continued: “You talked to her? After the police talked to you?”

“Yeah. She called me—”

“When?” interrupted the security operative.

“The next day. I’d heard some girls at school saying that the police thought at first that she’d been killed but then decided that she’d run away. And she called me just after I got home from school, so I know she’s ok.”

“What can you tell us about the call? How did she sound? Where was she calling from? And what did she say?”

“Um, well, it was really quick. She said she couldn’t talk long. She didn’t tell me much really. She just said that something bad had happened and she had to get away from home really fast. And that she’d call me again. But she never did.” Jill’s face reflected her unhappiness.

“Where was she calling from, Jill. Do you know?” asked Tim, repeating Vanessa’s earlier question.

“I don’t know, but it sounded like she was somewhere public.”

“What made you think so?” asked Vanessa.

“Well, you know, when people call you from public places there’s background noise. I had to ask her to repeat stuff a couple of times because it drowned her out.”

“What – a lot of people talking, cars, loud machinery – what?”

“Uh, I heard a siren, it was far away though, and there was some talking that was pretty loud, but it was the announcements that kept drowning her out, although I couldn’t tell what they were saying.”

“Announcements? Like on a PA in an airport or a bus or train station?”

“Yeah, it could’ve been.”

“Ok. Good. Now, can you remember what she said?” Vanessa held her breath and was conscious that Tim seemed to be holding his as well.

The young woman wrinkled her brow in thought. “She just said that something bad happened, that no one at home would have believed her, and that she had to get away because she was afraid if she didn’t she’d be killed.”

“She didn’t give any more details?” The security operative leaned over further and looked directly into the young woman’s eyes. “This is very important, Jill. You’re probably the last person who spoke with her before she actually disappeared. Can you remember anything else that she said, or anything about the announcements you heard? Anything at all?”

“Oh, the announcements weren’t clear at all, so I got no idea what they were about. She said she had only a minute or so to talk but told me not to worry and said that she was in the city and she’d call again. But she never did.”

“The city?”

“Yeah.” Jill seemed very young as she twisted her cup and stared down into its depths. “We had this, well, fantasy, I guess.” She paused and then looked up at Vanessa. “We’d go to the city, break into show biz, be discovered, you know,” she added, self-consciously.

“Was Katie active in the drama club or was she a musician or something? What would she have tried to get into if she went to the city?” asked Vanessa, hoping for a lead.

“Active in the drama club? Are you kidding? With a mother like hers she wasn’t allowed to do anything like that. She just wanted to, you know? She could do accents and stuff like that. But her mother didn’t like her doing it and she would never have let her do anything in public.”

“What was her relationship with her mother?” probed Vanessa.

“Katie couldn’t do anything to please her, no matter how hard she tried. Yeah, and Scott, who did all sorts of things, couldn’t do anything wrong. With him it was always somebody else’s fault.”

“She told you about things that Scott did?” interjected Tim again.

A nod. “Yeah. The stuff she knew about. She didn’t know much, but from the stuff she told me, I don’t know how he got away with it. I mean, I know his mother runs interference for him, but I just don’t understand how he does it.”

“Good actor,” said Vanessa, grimly. “Plus people want to believe you are what you appear to be.”

“Yeah, I guess. But he’s got so many people so completely fooled! Katie said even his girlfriend didn’t seem to know what he was like.”

“He has a girlfriend? Do you know who she is?” asked Vanessa.

“Yeah. Jan . . . Jan . . . . I can’t remember her last name.” Looking hopefully at Tim, she added: “Tall, long blonde hair. She was a cheerleader.”

Tim frowned in concentration, then his face cleared as he said “Jan Haygood. I know where she lives, Vanessa.”

“I think that she’s likely our next witness,” she responded, then added “Is there anything else you can tell us, Jill? Any little thing at all might help us find her.”

“No.” The young woman slowly shook her head. “I can’t think of anything else.”

“Ok. Thanks, Jill. If you think of anything else, give Tim or his mom a call. Tim . . . ”

“Here’s the number,” said Tim as he proffered a paper napkin on which he had hastily scribbled his home number. “Call any time.”

“Ok,” Jill whispered. “Find her, ok?”

“We’ll be in touch if we learn anything,” assured Vanessa.
——————————————————————————–

Quinn and Ariel headed up Main Street at a brisk walk. Well, actually, Quinn was walking, Ariel was hurrying to keep up with her.

“The hardware store is up here?”

“It is if they haven’t moved it. Hey Quinn, slow down a little.”

“What? Oh, sorry Love.” The tall woman turned to look at her companion as they continued walking, adding, “Just want to get our half of the interview list completed so we can get on to other activities. Get my drift?” The question was accompanied by a leer and an exaggerated wink.

“I’m sure half of Main Street gets it too. What—”

“Oops, sorry!” said Quinn, whipping her head around. But the woman coming out of the bakery, and with whom Quinn had just collided, was not looking at her, but staring at her blond companion. Who was staring back.

“Donna,” breathed Ariel, while Quinn did a doubletake, looking from one woman to the other.

“Ariel. You have your nerve coming back here.”

“You think so? I guess when people try to murder me I get intensely curious why.”

Donna drew breath to frame a rejoinder, but what she said didn’t interest Quinn nearly as much as how she said it. At first glance Donna Johnson seemed nothing like Ariel Pedersen. Yet, there was a . . . similarity . . . that screamed blood relationship. Donna was paler, older, skinnier, and sharper featured than Ariel, but she was indisputably her sister. Quinn noted the false smile and concerned tone that Donna switched on as she began to speak. But Goddess! Take away the preachy quality in Donna’s voice and they even sounded alike.

“I pray for you, Ariel. Everyday. I ask God to lead you back to the ways of the righteous, and away from the perversions that you’ve embraced.”

“Still the sparkling conversationalist, Donna.”

The other woman ignored the sarcastic response as if Ariel hadn’t said a word. “All you need to do, Ariel, is repent. It’s not too late to come to God. Let yourself feel his love. Once you do, you’ll never look back. I guarantee it!”

“Yeah, and, if I ‘repented,’ said Ariel, stressing the word, “Scott would see to it that I had no time to backslide!”

Now pity tinged the reply. “Oh Ariel, you wrong him so! How can you continue to believe these terrible things about Scott? He befriended you! He wanted the best for you. But, like Judas, you turned on him!”

“Wow,” said Ariel, “a new definition of betrayal – calling the police after I’ve just been threatened with death in my own home.”

“The only one who came to harm that day was Scott! Between you and your . . . your whore!”

“You must be talking about me,” smiled Quinn, engagingly, as she slipped her arm around Ariel’s waist, “but I have to clarify that she only pays for security services. The rest of it she gets for free. And my undivided attention.”

Revulsion flashed across Donna Johnson’s face as she drew breath to respond but just then a new voice cut in from behind her.

“Afternoon Miz Johnson. Need a hand?”
Quinn noted the speaker, dressed in grease stained jeans and t-shirt, who stepped up to Donna’s side from the growing crowd of bystanders. He was around 40 and looked reasonably fit. Could be trouble, she concluded.

“Thank you, Earl. These are the two causing all the trouble for my dear son, Scott. Not satisfied with telling false tales about him there, they had to come here and spread their hate.”

“Looks maybe like they need a little help decidin’ to go back where they come from,” the man said in a menacing tone, and took a step toward the two women.

“This is a private conversation,” said Quinn, moving in front of Ariel. “No need for anyone else to get involved.”

“The lady wants you to leave town, and By GAWD you’re gonna do it,” the man responded, as he suddenly swung at Quinn.

Earl might have survived a few bar brawls, Quinn decided, but he was strictly amateur. Easily slipping under the fist, the security consultant countered with a hard boot to the crotch and, as the man bent over clutching himself in shock and pain, a blow to the nose that left him bleeding badly. Quinn could see that, for now at least, Earl was out of the picture. Glancing quickly from side to side she readied herself for more.

“Ow! You bitch!”

Quinn whirled at the exclamation, but Ariel had already taken care of another man, who, she guessed, had tried to grab the writer. Quinn noted with approval that Ariel now had her back to the shop’s outer wall, as the would be attacker hunched over holding his ribs and attempted to melt back into the crowd.

The blond woman flashed her lover a look that was equal parts surprise and glee and said, “Sharp elbows!”

Quinn had no time to comment because another local, figuring she was distracted, tried to land a kidney blow. Quinn caught a flash of movement in her peripheral vision and trained reflexes took over. Her attacker quickly found himself heading toward the shop wall, with which he collided at considerable speed. Quinn didn’t think he’d prove a further problem for at least a few minutes. She was looking out for the next attack when a new voice cut through the increasing crowd noise.

“All right folks, show’s over. Break it up. Come on, break it up now and move along.” The police chief emerged from behind Donna, who had stepped back, and shouldered his way through the growing crowd, which was slow to disperse. “Move along now or I’m going to have to start arresting people.”

“If you’re gonna ’rest people, Chief, start with them two perverts. Look what they did to me and Earl and Tyler,” snarled the man who had tried to attack Ariel.

“You got what you deserved, Jimmy. And the same with Earl and Tyler. If these two were of a mind to, they could bring charges against you all.” Then, glancing at Quinn and Ariel in turn, he continued, “but I’d like to think they’d spare me the paperwork.”

“Suits,” said Quinn. “Ariel?”

“Fine by me, ” the other woman said, stepping forward.

“Good. Get moving Jimmy. And take Tyler and Earl with you. You might want to have Earl’s nose seen to. And maybe his nuts as well.”

Watching the three men stagger off down the street, holding each other up, Quinn commented “If you were here long enough to know that Earl threw the first punch, you sure took your time reacting, Chief.”

“Figured you could handle them,” rumbled the chief. “At least that’s what your pal Hank Walsh said. Said you could take just about anything that came at you. Thought I’d see if he was right.”

Quinn rounded on him. “Listen to me, you asshole,” she hissed, “if it’s only me, fine. Stand back and enjoy the show. But if Ariel’s involved, you’d better get your ass in gear pretty damn fast mister, or I will PERSONALLY feed it too you, piece by piece! You got me!?”

The police chief returned her glare calmly. “I got you.”

Quinn, just inches from his face, held his eyes for a moment longer, then stepped back. “Alright. Fine. Now Ariel and I are going up the street to the hardware store to talk to the nice people inside. If you got an objection to that you’d better say it now.”

“Nope. None whatsoever,” he responded, mildly. Turning to Donna Johnston, he nodded and said “Ma’am, can I escort you to your car?”

“Thank you Chief,” said the older woman, “but I can manage,” and, with a swift parting glance at Ariel, she turned and walked down the street.

Glancing at Ariel the chief smiled and said, “have a nice day,” then turning to Quinn he added, “and stay out of trouble,” as he, too, set off down the street.

Quinn watched him go. “Asshole,” she muttered.
——————————————————————————–

“So show me what you did,” said Dawn, after Ariel finished describing their encounter with Donna, and her minions.

“Ok. Well, he had his arms all over me, like this,” said Ariel, pretending to engulf someone with her arms, “and he was trying to drag me away,” she continued, as she backed up a couple of steps. “However, Quinn has dinned into me how an elbow fast and hard can hurt a surprising amount. So I did it.” Ariel, now playing her own part, drove her elbow backward with considerable force. “And he just crumpled. It HAD to hurt. I almost felt sorry for him.”

“Save your pity,” said Quinn, entering the solarium. “That meatball deserved a lot worse than that, and would have gotten it, if I’d got my hands on him.”

“Did you talk to Hank?” asked Ariel, as she took a seat.

Quinn sat down next to her. “Yeah, I talked to Hank. Apparently, he and the chief had quite a conversation about us after our visit to the cop shop on Monday. From what Hank said, he and the chief got along like old buddies.”

“What’s his take on him? Does Hank think he’s trying to snow us?” asked Ariel.

“No. He thinks he’s on the up and up, or at least that’s what he says,” responded Quinn, as she snagged a leaf, dropped by one of the solarium’s many plants, off the floor and proceeded to shred it.

“What about Marly Bennett, after all that? And why was she on the list again? I’ve lost track,” admitted Dawn.

“Well, she works at the hardware store alright, and she was there when we finally got there, but she couldn’t tell us anything.” At Dawn’s questioning glance she added: “She had been the last person one of the other murdered girls had talked to before she disappeared, but she couldn’t remember anything different about that day, or in general, for that matter, so she’s pretty much a dead end.” Quinn dumped the remains of the leaf on the floor and suddenly stood up.” Damn it!” she exclaimed, beginning to pace, “I really wish we’d get a break in this case!”

“Maybe we just did.”

The three women looked up, startled, to see Vanessa and Tim entering from the door into the house proper.

“Jill Murray had a call from Katie after she was reported missing,” continued Vanessa, as they walked in and pulled up seats at the table.

“You mean she’s not dead?!” exclaimed Ariel, hunching forward on her chair. “Then where is she?”

“Slow down, Babe. Let them tell it,” said Quinn, patting Ariel’s shoulder as she too leaned forward. “What did you find out?” she added, to Vanessa.

“The call came the day after Katie was reported missing. From the background sounds, she was likely in a bus station. She said that something really bad had happened, no one at home would have believed her, and she was in fear for her life so she had gone to the city. Apparently she and Jill had fantasized about hitting it big in showbiz. She said she’d call again, but she never did. Murray never told the police because by the time she got the call she had heard that Katie was officially considered a runaway.”

“But this means she’s alive?” said Ariel, hopefully.

“She was then,” responded Vanessa, carefully.

Quinn mentally filled in what Vanessa had left unsaid: 16-year-old female from a strict family alone in the big city. If she were still alive . . . Quinn didn’t want to think about how she would survive, mentally or physically.

“We have to get home,” said Ariel, standing.

“Sweetheart. . . ” began Quinn.

“No Quinn, I know what you’re thinking. I can connect the dots too and I don’t like the picture any more than you do. But if there’s a chance in a million that if we get home today and begin searching for her it could make a difference, I’m taking that chance.

Quinn nodded, acknowledging her lover’s desire to take immediate action, but turned to Vanessa and Tim. “You guys talk to everyone on your list?”

“All we could find,” said Vanessa. Some of them are no longer in town.”

“Yeah, and we even talked to Scott’s girlfriend,” added Tim. “And she wasn’t on the list. Jill told us about her.”

“She wasn’t much help, though,” said Vanessa. “I got the feeling he sometimes hurt her physically, but I also got the feeling she would never admit to that in public.”

“Yeah, Quinn,” added Tim. “She was spooked but she wasn’t saying anything.”

Quinn blew out a breath. And came to a decision. “Ok then. We’re getting background on Scott here, but nothing we couldn’t get later. So, let’s do it. It will take us a couple of hours to get cleared up here and to the airport . . . ”

“I’ll call for reservations,” said Ariel, checking her watch. Then, turning to Dawn: “When this is over, we’ll be back for a visit, I promise,” she said.

The older woman smiled and hugged the writer. “I’m counting on it. Now go do your best to make it all turn out right.”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 9
Kris Cavendish pushed back from the table, the picture of skepticism. Quinn looked at the other faces in the group and decided that her second in command was not the only one who thought they were grasping at straws. The early morning sunshine streaming in the windows of the offices of Thanatos Security did nothing to lighten the mood “I don’t know, guys,” said Kris. “With what you’ve got to go on, you might as well be searching for . . . I don’t know . . . the Easter Bunny.” Kris shrugged expressively. “And as far as that goes, old EB has distinctive ears. You can’t even say that for this girl. And if she did arrive here, it was two years ago!”

Quinn mentally winced, but she agreed with Kris’s assessment. But rather than turn to Ariel to see what effect Kris’s blunt statement had had on her, the security consultant concentrated on finding words to frame a rejoinder. Before she could, however, the writer took that opportunity away from her.

“I realize that this is a very difficult thing that I’m asking you all to do,” Ariel said, quietly, watching her fingertip draw patterns on the table as she spoke. “I also realize it will take a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money.” She looked up then, at each of them in turn around the table, but ending with Kris. “I also recognize that the chance of success is infinitesimal. But . . . ” she paused, then continued, her voice gaining in volume until it filled the room. ‘This girl’ is not just anybody to me. She is my niece, Katie, and I will do everything in my power, and spend whatever money is necessary, either to find her, or find out what happened to her. Are we clear on that?”

“Yes ma’am!” said Kris. “Ariel I didn’t mean—”

“I know you didn’t, Kris. I know you were just trying to be realistic. Believe me, if we had anything else, we’d be doing it. But this is the only lead we’ve found so far, so we’re going to follow it. Ok?”

At the nods around the table Quinn decided it was time to step in.

“We three discussed how to go about this on the plane trip back last night. Vanessa contacted Jill Murray, the friend that Katie called after she disappeared, and she confirmed that she had a few photos of Katie. She’s taking those to a photo store in Parsonville as we speak and having them scanned and sent here. Hopefully, some will be good enough so that we can pick the best from them. If not, well, we’ll just have to get a graphic artist involved to see if they can be cleaned up. Jill said that if we have to go that route we should e-mail her the pics and she’ll tell us if the artist has got it right. Once we have photos, we hit the streets. I hope that that happens sometime this afternoon. In addition to all the regular spots – youth agencies and so forth – I’m getting information on where homeless kids currently hang out. We’ll split the city into sectors and we’ll go in pairs to check out each and every one of those locations. And any others anybody tells us about. I want us to talk to as many people as we can and hand out as many photos as we can. I’ve also got a company ready to put up photos on every telephone pole and community billboard in the city, if necessary. We’re gonna get out there and get this thing done. Ok?”

Nods and mumbled agreement greeted this. “Alright, I’ve got a brief bio here. Nothing fancy, just her age, place and date of birth, likes and dislikes. That sort of stuff. You know the drill.” Quinn took a big breath. “Ok. Any questions or suggestions?”

“Since she came to the city to get into show business we also maybe should check talent agents, amateur theatre groups too, no?” said John.

“Good point, John. You’re elected to assemble that list. I’ll let you know how to break it down into sectors as soon as we see where the other places we’ll be checking are located.”

“Since it sounds as if hitting the streets won’t happen for a few hours, I assume if we’ve got other assignments we should get on with them?” asked Jamie, one of the two new employees, and an ex-cop.

“Check with Kris on how she wants to run that, but, yeah, we should be working on our other contracts as much as we can while we do this.

“Yeah Jamie, you can go ahead, but keep in touch because we’ll call you as soon as we have the photos and info ready,” said Kris. Then she continued thoughtfully, “we’ve got some wiggle room now, but we’ll have to have some bodies to guard the movie star starting . . . ” she paused as she consulted a wall calendar, “Tuesday of next week.”

“Tuesday? I thought it was next month,” said Quinn.

“Monday is the first.”

“Oh. Ok. We want this blitz completed before we have to get into that, so if the current assignment means you work extra time, you’ll be paid accordingly. Just everybody keep track on your time sheets. Ok? That’s it? Alright, then let’s get to work.”
——————————————————————————–

But as Quin had warned, just because they caught a break, it didn’t mean everything would now go their way. After what seemed like eons later, an exhaustive search had little to show for it.

Ariel slumped over the kitchen table, her head pillowed on folded arms. She was so-o-o tired! She had insisted on participating in the blitz, and so, with Quinn as her partner, they had spent two long days talking to every last person in their sector. At least it seemed that way. Social workers, street kids, pimps, talent agents, cops, and likely some robbers too. The thought made Ariel giggle.

“Boy, Hairy, I must really be tired if that makes me laugh,” she said, as she lifted and cuddled the kitten who had thought it a good idea to stroll across her bowed shoulders.

She only hoped all the talking would bear fruit. Surely, surely somebody would have seen Katie? Would have noticed her? Quinn had warned the writer that even with the blitz they were mounting, it might all be for nothing. After two days in which no one had reported talking to anyone who was sure they’d seen her, Ariel was beginning to wonder. Please, she thought, please let me find her. She’s only a kid! She shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of others. The sudden ringing of her cellphone interrupted this train of thought.

“Hello.”

“Ariel?”

The voice was familiar but she just couldn’t place it. “Yes, speaking.”

“Ariel, its Roger Ferris.”

“Oh! Dr. Ferris! How nice to hear from you.”

The voice at the other end of the phone chuckled. “Well, I had to phone as soon as I received your very generous gift.”

“Gift?”

“Don’t try to snow me my dear. You’re the only person I’ve spoken to recently about our leaky roof, at least, who has the money to help out. So, when a bank draft for enough to fix the roof AND purchase some new computers for our literacy program was delivered late this afternoon by courier, I put two and two together. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“Ah, well, Dr. Ferris, I’m glad you received a donation,” responded Ariel, uncomfortable with being thanked for her generosity.

The voice chuckled again. “Like that is it? Well, I won’t embarrass you any more, my dear, except to say that you’ve just made a lot of people very happy, and we won’t forget it. I hope that the next time you’re in Parsonville you’ll drop by. I’d like to have another chat, and there’ll be no mention of roofs. Not a one. I can guarantee it!”

Ariel smiled. “Thanks Dr. Ferris. I’d like that. I hope that Quinn and I will be able to visit again soon.”

“Alright then, I’ll hold you to it.” The old man chuckled. “Good bye.”

“Good bye,” responded Ariel, as she hung up.

“Dr. Ferris?” said Quinn, who had entered the room quietly.

“Huh! Oh, Quinn. You startled me. Uh, yeah, Dr. Ferris.”

“Uh huh. Phoning about his bank draft, I’ll bet.”

“How did you . . . I mean, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Uh huh. A cool thing to do, Sweetie.”

“I repeat, I don’t know—” Quinn joined with her to complete the denial, “—what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, yeah I know. I know NOTHING,” Quinn added.

“Exactly, Sgt. Shultz.,” chuckled Ariel. “Boy, I am really tired,” she added, yawning hugely.

“Stand up,” responded Quinn. When Ariel complied she scooped her up in her arms and started for the doorway.

“Carrying me up to bed?” asked the writer, as she laid her head on the security consultant’s broad shoulder.

“Yup, with a side trip to the bathtub to relax some of those aching muscles,” responded Quinn, starting up the stairs and reflecting, as her thigh muscles protested, that she could use a good soak too.

“My hero.”

“Knight errantry my specialty, Milady,” said Quinn as she sidled her way into the bathroom, stopping next to the slowly filling tub. “Stand here for a sec while I take your clothes off.”

“Oh, ok.” Ariel obediently raised her arms as Quinn slipped off her t-shirt and then unfastened her bra. “Quinn?”

“Uh huh?” said Quinn, removing Ariel’s boots and starting to unbutton her jeans.

“I gave the money to St. Constantine’s because they needed it, you know. Not . . . not as some kind of a trade for Katie.”

Quinn looked up, stood, then solemnly kissed Ariel’s forehead. Tilting the writer’s chin up so that they were eye to eye, a few inches apart, she said, “I know. You’re far more spiritually evolved than the kind of people who think they can make deals with gods.”

Ariel stared at her for a few seconds, then said, “Spiritually evolved. That’s a very nice compliment. Thank you.”

Quinn smiled, and gently kissed her lover. “You’re welcome. Ready for your bath?”

“Yeah.”

“Ok, just give me a sec,” responded Quinn as she quickly shed her clothes, turned off the tap water, scooped up Ariel and stepped into the big old-fashioned tub.

“Ok,” said Ariel, who leaned back against Quinn and promptly fell asleep.

The dark-haired woman chuckled softly as she enfolded the writer in her arms. “Sweet dreams, Babe,” she murmured.
——————————————————————————–

Day three back home, reflected Quinn, staring at the ceiling, while listening to the gentle whisper of the air conditioning. Would they get some kind of break today? Just do your job, hotshot, she admonished herself quickly. You know enough not to put all your eggs in one basket. While you’re waiting for a break on the search for Katie, look at what else you found out in Parsonville to see if there’s something you can pick at, and maybe unravel.

Her mind made up, Quinn checked the time. 6:15 am. Hmm. Pretty early. She drummed her fingers on the bed and thought about that. A lot of people were up and at ’em at 6:15. Firefighters, cops, to name two. Farmers, Nurses, Doctors. Hey, I’m on a roll here, she thought. Hell, half the country is already at the breakfast table and here I’m wondering if I should call them this early. Quinn checked the clock again: 6:20 glowed back at her. “Oh shit,” she muttered, “time they were up anyway.” Picking up the phone from the bedside table, she checked the number index and hit the speed dial.

One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four . . . “Hello?” The voice sounded a little out of breath.

“Kelly? Hi, sorry to wake you but is Vanessa there?”

“Just a sec, Quinn.”

Quinn curbed her impatience. While she waited, she congratulated herself that she had guessed right. Rather than call Vanessa’s cell, which the red head might have turned off, or ignored, she’d played a hunch and dialed Kelly Sanchez, the PR liaison from McQuarry’s, whom Vanessa had met on a whirlwind crosscountry tour promoting Ariel’s latest book, a couple of months previous. Kelly, she knew, would have to be at death’s door before she would let a phone go unanswered.

“This better be good, Quinn.”

“Vanessa. Sorry I woke you—”

“I wasn’t sleeping.”

“Oh,” said Quinn, and then “Oh!” as the penny dropped.

“So I repeat, this better be good.”

“Yeah. Ok, well I want to meet with you this morning to go over everything we learned in Parsonville, to see if there’s something else we can follow up.”

“What time?”

“8:30.”

“Where?”

“The office.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Good, then I’ll see you . . . then,” said Quinn as she realized she was talking to a dial tone.”

“Interrupt something?” asked a sleepy voice behind her.

“Apparently,” said Quinn, turning around. Ariel was just rolling onto her back, stretching. Quinn noted with interest that this made the sheet, her only covering, slip downward, exposing nipples that contracted tantalizingly in the cool air.

“Quinn? Quinn! My eyes are up here Quinn!” said Ariel, as Quinn tore her gaze away from the entrancing sight. “Good morning,” the writer continued. “Sleep well?” punctuating the inquiry with a noisy yawn.

“Can’t complain. You?”

“Like a log. I can’t remember much after you carried me out of the kitchen.”

“Oh, well I had my way with you on every horizontal and some vertical surfaces between there and here. And then, of course there was the orgy in the bedroom . . .”

Ariel smiled sleepily. “In other words it was a typical evening.”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“What’s on tap for today?” The writer’s eyes were suddenly more watchful, as reality reasserted itself.

“Well, while I was running the bath last night, Kris called to say that everyone had reported in that they had completed their sectors. There were two or three possibles reported but nothing more definite. We’ll have to analyze it all today and then decide our next moves.”

“And you’re meeting with Vanessa about other possible leads.”

“That’s about the size of it, yeah.” After a pause, she added reassuringly, “There’s still stuff to pursue, Babe.”

“Yeah.” The writer fell silent, eyes focused in the middle distance. “Ok,” she said after several long seconds, “None of that is getting accomplished if we stay here so it’s time to get moving.” Suiting the action to the word, Ariel sat up on the edge of the bed, adding “I’ll do my laps then get breakfast, ok?”

“Sounds good,” said Quinn. “Today I think I’ll join you in the pool,” she added, as she watched Ariel get out of bed and pad, naked, toward the bathroom. I sure hope something comes of this, she said, but only to herself. I sure hope something does.
——————————————————————————–

Ariel picked up a copy of the poster and read it again as she listened to Quinn and Vanessa. The two were painstakingly reviewing all the notes taken during the trip to Parsonville, assessing the value of what they’d been told, looking for discrepancies, and noting information that needed to be followed up.

As the writer listened, her eyes again reviewed the details of Katie’s disappearance, outlined on the poster. She’d lost track of how many times she’d read it, but she knew she could recite it by heart. “HAVE YOU SEEN HER?” it asked. “Kathryn Christina Johnson, D.O.B. 08/01/32. Missing since 20/08/48. REWARD FOR INFORMATION.” The rest of it detailed what Katie had been wearing when last seen, and where, given her likes and dislikes, she might be found. A life summed up in a poster, thought Ariel. It just wasn’t fair.

Oh crap! she chastized herself in the next instant. Katie isn’t dead until she’s proven dead so get off this depressing train of thought! Think of something cheerful. Yeah, what? she responded, sarcastically. I don’t know! Just something else. Well, thought Ariel, casting around for a subject, and finding one across the table, if Vanessa is still irritated by Quinn’s early morning phone call, she isn’t showing it. As always, the security operative was the picture of professionalism. Ariel, smiling to herself, concluded that Kelly had probably played a major role in helping the tall red head forget her irritation.

“Alright. Who’s on the list we never got to interview?” said Quinn, flipping a page in her notebook, and glancing up.

With an exasperated shake of her head the writer chided herself for her momentary lack of attention. At this discussion she had elected to remain in the background, but had still tried to follow everything closely. Normally, when Thanatos Security did a job that concerned her, she let Quinn take care of the details, asking only that the security consultant give her a run down after the fact. This time, however, she just couldn’t carry on with everyday life while the investigation took its course. It was illogical, she knew, since Quinn and her people were trained investigators, but if, Goddess forbid, something were to be missed and she, by being on the spot, had the tiniest chance of catching it, she’d take that chance. The alternative was unthinkable. A little like staying sober on a plane, she’d admitted to herself wryly, in case she, who’d never flown a plane in her life, was suddenly called upon to take the controls.

“Ok, so that makes eight people from the cops’ list of interviewees that we still need to track down,” Quinn was saying, after comparing notes with Vanessa. “So, do you have an idea where the ones from your list are?”

“A general idea,” responded the red head, leaning back in her chair and reviewing her notes.

The three women were gathered around Quinn’s former kitchen table in her apartment turned office. Ariel reflected that the vinyl-covered chairs weren’t exactly standard meeting room furniture, and she suddenly realized that it had never occurred to her before what Quinn did about formal meetings. I guess she just goes to their offices, she thought, glancing around at the room that was a weird hybrid of home and office. And Damn it all! Here I’m off on a tangent again! Focus, Ariel! Focus. Luckily, when she tuned back in she discovered she hadn’t missed much.

“—moved to the west coast to work for a software developer, although which one I don’t know. Uh, Paula McBean also moved to the west coast and is living in some womym only space. Brendan Bartley is currently serving time for burglary but I’m not sure which institution. Jefferson Bennett joined the merchant marine and hasn’t been seen in Parsonville since. And Tom Tolliver stole a car and scattered it, and himself, all across the transcontinental freeway about a year after the disappearances stopped.”

“Um, who was the first one again?” asked Ariel, somewhat shamefaced.

“Mike Davis.”

“Thanks,” responded the writer, who subsided into silence.

“Ok,” said Quinn, anxious to pick up the pace. “Fill in the details on the ones you’re unsure of. Joe can help you. You’re doing better than I am, anyway. I have three on my list, and they are . . . ” she consulted her notes, ” Jessie Martinez, John Wilson and Amelia Bluestein. And I haven’t got a freakin’ clue about any of them.”

Vanessa smiled, and said, “Looks as if Joe is going to be busy.”

“Yeah. Ok, lessee what else—”

“Did I miss anything important?” asked Kris, as she slid into a seat.

“Yeah, we needed someone to go undercover at the jail so we elected you,” said Quinn, without missing a beat. “What kept you?”

“Well someone has to make sure this place keeps ticking over,” responded Kris, rolling her eyes theatrically.” Becoming serious, she continued, “Potential new client wanted to discuss our defensive workplace strategy training.”

“Good. Does he want a follow up?”

“She sounded reasonably sold, but she’d like to observe a class first before booking her employees in for a session, so I invited her to attend the next one, which is Monday.”

“Ok, good. So you’ll handle it?”

“I’ll have a contract ready and waiting for her signature as soon as she’s persuaded.”

“Good. Ok. Now, about the search for Katie. Can you give us an update?”

Kris flipped open her notebook. “Yeah, although there’s not much to report. We had two possibles but so far we have no positive follow ups. The first was a social worker in John’s sector who said the photo looked familiar. She didn’t know the girl’s name, however, since the kid came into the youth shelter but didn’t stick around long enough to tell anybody who she was. The worker talked to her for a couple of minutes, and told her to stay right there because she was going to get her something to eat, since the girl looked like she could use a good meal. Unfortunately, the worker got waylaid for a few minutes and when she got back, the kid was gone. She hasn’t seen her since. The second sighting was reported to Jamie and Owen. A street kid, name of . . . ” Kris flipped a page and quickly scanned her notes, “Jade, said it looked like a girl she knew named Casey, but the kid she told them might be able to give them more info was killed in a gun fight about six months ago and they couldn’t find anyone who knew where Casey might be now.”

“Hmm,” said Quinn. “Ok, it’s not as much as we hoped but it’s not a complete dead end either. What about the postering company?”

“Postering.” Responded Kris. “I ordered more posters yesterday just before they ran out and they’re hitting the streets with the new batch now. I talked to them before I came in here and they have their whole workforce on it. They expect to have a total of 10,000 up by the end of the day.”

“OK. Thanks, Kris.” Quinn blew out a breath, and looked around. “Any other questions? Comments? Ideas? Things we missed?”

“When did the social worker see this girl, Kris, do you know?” asked Ariel.

The other woman consulted her notebook. “John says she couldn’t pin it down, but she judged it to be at least a year and a half ago.”

“She must see a lot of homeless kids. Why did she remember this one?”

“John asked her that same question. Apparently she was pretty new on the job – newly minted degree, out to save the world – you know how it is. According to John, the worker said that what struck her about the kid was how lost and alone she looked. I guess this was the first one that really got to her.” Kris shrugged apologetically, glanced quickly at her notes and up again. “That’s all I know, Ariel. Sorry.”

“No, that’s Ok. Thanks,” responded the writer, lapsing into silence and lowering her head to scan the poster again.

“Anything else?” said Quinn, looking around. Receiving head shakes she continued “Ok, let’s get on with it. I’m going to phone Joe now and get him looking for Jessie, John and Amelia. Vanessa if you’re stuck, you might as well give him your list at the same time. Kris —”

“Wait a minute! There is something else!” the writer interrupted. “I just realized . . . ” she paused, eyes on the poster.

The three women looked at the writer. “Ok, Sweetie,” said Quinn, “what is it?”

“Follow up on Casey.”

“Yeah, Ok. We were going to anyway . . . ” said Quinn, raising an eyebrow as she waited for Ariel to continue.

“Kathryn Christina.”

“Kathryn Christina,” parrotted Quinn, and then as comprehension dawned, “K . . . C . . . She’s going by her initials! Ok! I want as many bodies out on the street following this up as we’ve got available, Kris. Right now!”

“I’m on it, but we’ll have to do some shifting around. Come on and I’ll show ya . . . ” Kris continued talking as she and Quinn moved off to Kris’ office to consult the job schedule.

“Good catch,” said Vanessa with a grin as she picked up a telephone to call Joe.

“Thanks,” said Ariel, smiling slightly, as her eyes dropped again to the poster lying on the table. Two photos of Katie looked back: one smiling, the other of the teenager in an introspective mood. Ok, she thought. Now we’ve got something! Hang on Katie, or KC or whatever the hell you’re calling yourself these days. Just hang on until we find you! Please.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 10
“Ok Hank, thanks for the update.” Quinn waited for the detective’s rejoinder. “Yeah, I know. Thanks anyway.” Quinn clicked off the phone, disgruntled. In the background, the infofeed chattered on about the latest reality show: Death Row Survivor. Quinn had tried working with, and without, the infofeed on and decided it didn’t seem to matter.

“Mew.”

Quinn looked down into a solemn, grey, furry face. “Hi Grise. Got any rabbits you can pull out of your hat on this one?”

“Mew,” he responded, rubbing against her ankles, while looking up hopefully.

“It would be nice if you did,” added the dark haired woman, immersed again in her notes on the kitchen table, “because I sure don’t seem to be getting anywhere.”

“MEW!” repeated the kitten, impatient at the human’s stupidity.

“What!” yelled Quinn, at the half-grown cat now twining his way around her legs. “Do you want to go out?”

“MEW!”

Responding to imperial feline command, she stood up, whereupon Grise immediately hurried over to the door that led to the deck and the garden beyond.

“Mew! Mew! Mew!” he added, while he waited for the slow-witted human to slide the door open.

“And good day to you too!” she replied, as he strolled through the door and sat down in a sunny patch on the deck. She could see that Hairy and Charlotte were already occupying choice sunny spots: Hairy in a lawn chair and Charlotte curled up in a flower pot nearby. Neither deigned to look at her, although both twitched ears her way.

“Cats!” muttered Quinn as she went back to her notes on the table. Today, she envied them. Free to nap all day, lots of food, pleasant surroundings, no responsibilities . . . Yeah, she admitted, it’s the no responsibilities part of it that’s really getting to me today. Twenty-four hours and we’re no closer to KC than we were when Ariel figured out she was going by her initials.

It was like the kid had dropped off the face of the planet, mused Quinn. They found people who had seen Casey, or KC, if indeed they were one and the same, and Quinn was pretty sure they were, but no one had seen her recently. When the second blitz turned up nothing after several hours of pavement pounding, the thought arose again, unwelcome though it was, that they were too late, that although Katie had made it to the city, they hadn’t found her in time, and that, somehow, she was now dead.

That had always been a possibility, although one that none of them wanted to dwell on. Yet, somewhere along the way it had to be faced and steps taken to determine if that were the case. Given the lack of success in finding Katie, Quinn was glad, in a perverse sort of way, that she had faced the necessity of checking this out early on, and had called Hank on Wednesday, the first day of the search. He had pulled strings to obtain files on all the unidentified female corpses found in the previous two years, and sent them to her. With a record of Ariel’s DNA, which Quinn kept on file, the private lab that Quinn used made comparisons between that and the DNA of the nameless victims.

Quinn had finally gotten a call from the lab on Friday afternoon, several hours after they had mounted the all out search for KC There were sighs of relief all around when the lab work showed that none of the nameless was related to Ariel.

But although these results brought some closure, at the same time they deepened the mystery. Quinn didn’t want to think about one obvious explanation as to why no one had seen KC recently: she was dead but no one had yet found her body.

“Hi Babe,” said Ariel as she entered the kitchen. “I was just going to make some tea. Join me?”

“Yeah, thanks Sweetie. It might jar something loose up here,” said Quinn, thumping her knuckles on her temple, “so I could figure out some other way to go about this.”

The security consultant tossed down her pen, slouched in her chair while stretching her legs out under the table, and folded her arms. “I just heard from Hank again, by the way. They have no record of Katie or KC or Casey anywhere in their system.”

Ariel switched on the gas under the kettle, and crossed the kitchen to the table. “She hasn’t been charged with anything?”

“Neither charged, nor convicted. Not even questioned on anything!” Quinn had picked up her pen, but threw it down again. “Crap! Where the hell is she? Why couldn’t she shoplift or something, or pick a fight with another kid and get arrested for disturbing the peace? Why does this kid have to be so damned law abiding for Goddess’ sake!”

Ariel moved swiftly behind her and began to knead her shoulders. “Quinn, you’ve been at that without a break for hours. It’s time to rest and recharge.”

“But Ariel we have to keep picking at it if we’re going to get anywhere, we’ve—”

Ariel leaned over and kissed Quinn into silence. “I know,” she said, when she broke contact, “but it’s time to stand back for a bit. Get some rest. Do something different. You can take it up again tomorrow.”

Quinn searched the writer’s eyes for a moment, then nodded. “Ok. You’re probably right. I’ll take a breather.”

“So,” she continued as she swung around in her chair to watch Ariel cross back to the now whistling kettle, “you got something in mind instead?”

The writer was silent as she poured water over tea leaves. “Well,” she said slowly, as she turned around and leaned back against the counter, “if I could trust you not to discuss the search for Katie all evening, I was thinking of asking over Kris and Michelle and Vanessa and Kelly for a barbecue. If you thought it was a good idea, that is. Kris and Vanessa wouldn’t feel it was a ‘command performance’ would they?” asked Ariel, making quotation marks in the air with her fingers. “Or Kelly either, for that matter. I don’t want them to think that just because we invited them, they have to come. They may have other plans already, since it is short notice.” The writer was frowning in thought as she poured two mugs, added milk and honey to hers, then brought both to the table and sat down. “I just thought, well we like them all, and since Michelle enjoys the pool and the kittens so much and neither Vanessa nor Kelly lives in a building with a pool, they might enjoy it too. So what do you say?”

Quinn sipped her tea, the hot liquid helping to focus her thoughts. ” I think,” she said slowly, “we ought to call them to see. If they could come over, I’d like that.”

“Ok, good. So who’s going to call whom?” queried the writer.

Quinn dug a hand in a pocket of her jeans and came up with a quarter. “Flip ya?” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“You’re on,” grinned the writer.
——————————————————————————–

“Vanessa?”

“Well at least your timing has improved, Quinn.” The red head sounded amused. “What can I do ya for?”

“Well, Ariel and I wondered if you and Kelly would like to join us for a barbecue and a swim in the pool this evening. Maybe Michelle and Kris too if they’re available. It’s short notice, I know. If you’ve got other plans or just want to relax at home don’t worry, we’re fine with that.”

“Sounds good Quinn, but let me check with Kelly.” The writer only had time to cap her pen and resolutely avoid re-reading her notes as she gathered them up and paperclipped the bunch together before the red head returned. “Kelly says we’re free and clear and we’d love to join you. What time should we turn up?”

“How about 5:30? Gives us some time to swim before we get to dinner?”

“Ok, Quinn. See you then.”

Quinn was just putting the phone down when Ariel walked in. “Any luck?” she said.

“Vanessa and Kelly will be here at 5:30.”

“Good! So will Kris and Michelle. So,” she said, glancing around, mentally reviewing the menu, “I better start getting ready then.”

“Can I help?”

Ariel turned and gave her a big sexy grin. “This is your lucky day, Sweetheart. Remember last week I said the barbecue could do with a good cleaning?”

“Me and my big mouth,” said Quinn, in a resigned tone of voice. “Ok. Anything after that? Gotta keep me occupied or I’m gonna start thinking again!” she added, only half humourously.

“Um, well get ready to tend bar outside, and then I guess . . . just stand around and look beautiful.”

“Now that I can do,” responded Quinn with a smirk, giving the writer a hug.

“Don’t I know it!” chuckled Ariel.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 11
“It was a book on wildlife, you know, globally.” Kelly got more comfortable, cuddled up to Vanessa, as she settled into her story with a grin. “A huge, beautiful coffee table book. Photos every page. Full color. Expensive. Anyway, it had gone through every stage getting signed off. Editing and copy editing, fact checking and proof reading. Matching photos with credits and making sure they had clearances for them all. Everything you can imagine. All the “I’s” dotted and “T’s” crossed. They ordered up a print run of 300,000. It was ticking along like clockwork until someone finally checked the cover proof. As an afterthought, really, since everybody and their uncle had approved the project all the way down the line.” Kelly’s grin broadened. “The title was supposed to be “the Wildlife of Our World,” but somehow it had become “The Wild life of Our Lord.”

“Oh boy,” said Ariel, laughing. “I’ll bet there was hell to pay.”

“You bet! agreed Kelly. “Heads rolled on that, I can assure you.”

“And just how did you to come work for McQuarry’s again?” asked Vanessa, with an arched eyebrow, while giving her lover a friendly nudge.

Kelly’s mirth-filled voice rose over the ensuing laughter. “I had nothing to do with it! Honest!” and she good naturedly shoved Vanessa in return.

“The devil is in the details,” said Michelle, with a smile. “Old editing expression,” she added at the look of incomprehension that crossed Kris’ face.

“Oh,” the other woman immediately responded, with a broad grin: “and did it come from that old editor you used to date?”

Michelle looked down, smiling, as she ran an elegant finger around the rim of her wine glass. “Deirdre wasn’t old, but she was certainly more . . . mature . . . . than my current inamorata,” she added, widening the smile and turning it on Kris to deprive the words of their sting.

“Ooh! Mature! I think I’ve just been insulted!” responded Kris, hoisting her beer bottle and taking a healthy gulp.

“Not at all Chèrie! There’s a time for fine wine and a time for hearty ale. From time to time I enjoy a delightful vintage,” here she raised her wine glass to Quinn and Ariel, who were curled up in the loveseat across the deck, “but I definitely know how to appreciate the more . . . robust . . . pleasures.” This last was addressed directly to Kris, whom she leaned over and kissed lingeringly.

“Speaking of drinking,” said Quinn when the two finally broke apart, after some good natured ribbing, “can I get anyone something?”

“None for me Quinn,” responded Kris. Turning to Michelle she added, “I hate to say it, Babe, but I think it’s time we were going.”

“To get a room?” inquired Vanessa, innocently, tipping her glass to her lips and draining it, as the others chuckled.

Kris eyed her by the warm glow of the deck lighting. The moon, currently a sliver in the night sky, contributed to the ambience, but made not a whit of difference to the light level. “Vanessa, try to remember who hands out the dirty jobs at Thanatos Security, these days,” she said meaningfully.

“Oops,” responded an unrepentant, grinning red head.

“And speaking of jobs,” said Kris, turning to Quinn. “Who do you want on the detail tomorrow?”

“Detail?” said Quinn, mystified.

“Tomorrow?” echoed Vanessa.

“Oh!” exclaimed Ariel. “I forgot to tell you!” All eyes swiveled to her, as she continued: “Sorry! I got a call about a month ago from the cat people.”

“Call of the Cat People” mused Quinn. “Sounds like a movie title.”

“Oh, be serious!” said Ariel with a grin, backhanding her lover across her belly. “You know who I mean! The people who rescued Charlotte and Grise.”

“And they wanted . . . ?”

“They were having a fund raising thing in McEwen Park and asked if I’d like to participate. Say a few words, you know, about the joy that rescued animals have brought to me, sign a few autographs. I couldn’t see why not, and I was feeling a bit better after Scott . . . so anyway, I said yes. One of their members is an animal photographer. He came over one day . . . ”

At Quinn’s narrowing eyes, the writer added, “You were busy so I just asked John to bodyguard me while he was here. Anyway, he took some photos of me with the terrible trio. They turned out pretty well too, although Grise was trying to struggle out of my arms at the time. It had slipped my mind that it was this Sunday, although I would have remembered when I checked my day timer.”

“And how is it Kris knows and I don’t?” asked Quinn.

“Ariel got the original call while she was in our office. I noted it on our calendar but forgot to mention it to you. Sorry, Boss.”

“Me too, Quinn. I’m sorry.”

“Ok, well, no harm done, but after this, people, tell me stuff, ok?” Receiving contrite nods, she continued, “I’ll escort you myself, obviously. And one more would be a good idea,” looking inquiringly at her two operatives.

“Vanessa would be perfect,” supplied Kris, helpfully, as she stood up.

“Me!”

“Yeah, you. Tall. Rangy. Far more intimidating than little old me,” grinned Kris, mouthing silently, for Vanessa’s benefit only, “paybacks.”

“You’re right,” said Quinn.

“I am?” exclaimed Kris.

“Yeah. Tall is scarier. Might be more likely to keep off the opportunistic attacker. Particularly while this other thing is up in the air. Ok. Sorry Vanessa,” said Quinn addressing her and Kelly, “but anything you’ve got planned tomorrow is going to have to be interrupted at . . . ?”

“Two to four o’clock,” supplied Ariel.

“No problem,” said Kelly. “Vanessa and I will be there. I might even be able to arrange some publicity.”

“At this late date?” exclaimed Quinn in awe. “If you do, you’re the best P.R. liaison I’ve ever met.”

“Stand back and give me some room!” responded the small woman.

“Well Quinn,” said Vanessa, slipping an arm around Kelly’s shoulders, “since we’re both going to be working tomorrow, I think I’d better take the dynamo home now so she’s ready to come out swinging tomorrow.”

“Ok. Sorry again to break into your weekend.”

“No problem. Ariel’s public appearances are usually entertaining,” the red head replied with a grin at the writer, as she and Kelly stood to leave.

“They are?” said Kris, slipping an arm around Michelle, as they started to head inside so they could exit by the front entrance.

“Yeah. You know, most of them get around to the subject of sex sooner or later.”

“I never noticed that, before,” said Kris, feigning a serious demeanor. “Have you noticed that, Michelle?”

“Don’t ask me, Chèrie. I’ve only been to a few. But I must admit, with some of her fans, it’s a difficult subject to stay away from.”

“In that case,” replied Kris, “maybe Ariel needs to be guarded tomorrow by someone older and more experienced than Vanessa . . . ”

“Older, maybe . . . ” grinned Vanessa, roguishly.

“Hey!” the other woman exclaimed, “I think I’ve just been insulted! Again!”
——————————————————————————–

Quinn strolled around the back garden one more time, then locked, bolted and shuttered the deck door. Inside, she took a final tour of the downstairs, checking all the windows and switching off all the lights. Deciding to complete the security check, she made her way to the front door and assured herself that it was also secure, despite shutting and locking it less than ten minutes before. A street light outside showed her the time on the grandfather clock in the hall as she retraced her steps to the stairs.

Ariel was wrestling with sheets when Quinn entered the bedroom, the warm glow of the bedside lamps the only illumination. The security consultant noted with approval that the writer had tuned the info feed to the oldies program on the audio channel, and it was quietly playing one of her favourites.

I want, want you to kno-o-ow
I love, I love you so
Please hold, hold me so tight
All through, all through the night.

Quinn added her rich alto to the group’s perfectly balanced harmony.

“Oh! Quinn, you startled me,” exclaimed the writer, who glanced at her lover then continued spreading out the king sized sheet.

“Sorry, thought you heard me,” remarked the dark haired woman as she reached over the bed to help.

“Normally I would have, I guess, but. . .” Ariel trailed off, absorbed in her task.

I’ve waited, waited so long
For your kisses and your love
Please come, come to me
From up, from up above

“Deep in thought?” asked Quinn as she snagged the sheet and shoved it down around a corner of the waterbed mattress.

“Yeah, I guess I was.” Ariel pulled the sheet taut and pushed it down on her side of the bed.

“About anything in particular, or everything in general?” asked Quinn as she spread the top sheet.

“Oh, in general,” responded Ariel, stuffing pillows into pillowcases. “I’m glad everyone was able to make it here today. It took my mind off things too, for a while.” Suddenly she straightened and exclaimed, “Oh, damn it! The kittens! I forgot to make sure they were all in!”

The writer started toward the door, but Quinn quickly reassured her. “All done. Grise was the only one still out, and I let him in just before I locked up the back. I checked on the other two before I came up and they’re curled up together in the lazyboy.”

“Oh, thank you! Whew! I can’t believe I didn’t think of them sooner,” exclaimed Ariel, trying and failing to stifle a yawn.

“Yeah, well, it’s way past 1:00 a.m.” responded Quinn with a smile, as the song came to an end.

“And that was the Fleetwoods,” the night dj whispered, “with ‘Come Softly to Me.’ It’s coming up on 1:30,” she continued, “but the night is young, my friends, so don’t go ’way, ’cause we’ll be right back with a rare recording by We Five.”

“1:30?” said Ariel. “I had no idea. I guess everybody had a good time then, since they stayed this late.”

“Well, the pool, the kittens, your world famous marinated steak and grilled veggies, my free hand with the booze, what’s not to like?” grinned Quinn, who finished by straightening the comforter and turning the sheet down. As she moved around the bed toward her lover, she was dimly aware that a public service announcement for a needle exchange program had ended, giving way to a woman’s powerful voice singing the haunting opening bars of the next selection.

There were hills,
I couldn’t climb,
When I was young.

The writer smiled lazily, as the taller woman wrapped her up in her arms and slid a teasing hand inside the unbuttoned shirt that Ariel had donned over her bikini. “Then I guess the question really is,” said Ariel, looking up into Quinn’s eyes, “did you have a good time?”

“Yeah, I sure did. But I have to say, I’m having an even better one now,” murmured Quinn, nuzzling Ariel, while tugging one of the fastenings loose that kept the bottom half of the writer’s bikini in place. On the info feed, the vocalist was pleading,

Love me, not tomorrow,
But today.

“Ummm,” Ariel agreed, feeling a shock of cool air. A second later it was followed by Quinn’s hands sliding teasingly over her skin.

“Like that?”

“Mmm, yeah.”

The dark haired woman sprinkled light kisses over her lover’s neck and confided, “Fresh sheets make me horny.”

“Yeah. I know,” responded the writer with a chuckle, as she surrendered herself to the other woman’s insistent stroking.

In the background, Quinn was dimly aware of the vocalist imploring,

I’m askin’ you please,
Don’t go away,
But say the things that I could never say, and
Love me not tomorrow

As the song wound down, Quinn purred: “that bed is calling my name,” and lifted Ariel up.

The momentary interruption briefly snapped the writer back to the here and now, but within seconds she had surrendered again to a haze of pleasure. Although Quinn was highly skilled at building tension, making every second an exquisite, delicious torture, this night, sensing Ariel’s need for release, she chose the direct approach, and soon, the writer lay panting, held securely in the arms of her dark lover.

While Quinn waited for Ariel to get her breathing under control, she listened idly to Tina Turner, promising,

I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour
That’s when my love comes tumbling down
I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour
When there is no one else around
I’m gonna take and I’m gonna hold
Do all the things I’ve told
In the midnight hour, in the midnight hour.

When Ariel’s breathing settled, Quinn returned to their interrupted conversation. “You knew? About the sheets, I mean.” she added.

“What?” the writer replayed the exchange in her mind. “Oh. Why do you think I changed the bed tonight?” she inquired, snuggling closer.

Quinn watched headlights splash the back wall of the bedroom as she thought about that. On the info feed, Tina had given way to some instrumental thing she couldn’t identify. “Ok. So the sheet thing was . . . foreplay?” she asked, as a newly energized Ariel rolled her onto her back and began unbuttoning her shorts.

The blond woman grinned. “Up,” she said.

Quinn obediently raised her hips allowing her lover to slip shorts and underwear down her legs.

But when she, in turn, reached for Ariel’s open shirt, the writer murmured, “Leave it on.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. And yours too.” The writer spared a quick glance up. “You gave me the idea,” she added then started blazing a trail of vivid sensation down Quinn’s belly, with her lips tongue and teeth.

Quinn caught her breath. “Ummm. This mean I’m your muse? I kinda like that,” she added.

“I know,” chuckled the writer as her tongue probed Quinn’s navel.

The night dj was promising that this was a night for opening the vaults, and the next one would be no exception. Her whispered tones were followed immediately by a show stopper from a cult film.

Our love is an old love baby, it’s older than all our years.
I have seen in strange young eyes familiar tears.
We’re old souls in a new life baby,
They gave us a new life to live and learn,
Some time to touch old friends and still return.

Ariel’s warm breath on wet skin made Quinn’s abdominal muscles contract, and sent lightning surging through her nerve endings. The taller woman let her eyes close, giving herself over to pure pleasure. She wanted this, needed it. But when her lover paused, moved back up her body and pushed her t-shirt up over her breasts, Quinn’s eyes opened in surprise.

Ariel straddled her, her hips continuing to move ever so little, teasing her lover as she surveyed her hungrily. The dark haired woman caught her breath as their eyes met and something passed between them, equal parts carnal and sacred. In the background the vocalist’s smoky alto wove a compelling counterpoint:

Our paths have crossed and parted,
This love affair was started long, long ago.
This love survives the ages, in its story lives are pages,
Fill them up, may ours turn slow.

Quinn tore her gaze from Ariel’s, glanced down at her exposed breasts, then slowly up, and said with a small smirk, “You changing the rules on me?”

Ariel, breathing suspended by how erotic she found the sight, replied, “Bending them, maybe, but in a good cause,” and leaned over to attack Quinn’s erect nipples.

Our love is a strong love baby we give it all and still receive
And so with empty arms we must still believe

“Ooh, Babe,” moaned the dark haired woman, “You’re so right.”

She felt Ariel smile against her right breast, then release her nipple long enough to respond, “Oh yeah. I know that too.”

All souls last forever so we need never fear goodbye
A kiss when I must go . . . no tears . . . in time . . . we kiss . . . hello.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 12
Sun filtered through the trees, bathing all in a soft, late summer afternoon glow. From what Quinn could tell, the fundraiser for . . . she glanced again at the sign . . . The Animal Rescue Volunteer League . . . was on the way to being a huge success. The crowds had come early, given generously (from what Quinn could tell) and stayed for the activities. In addition to the speeches – in Quinn’s mind, Ariel’s had been a standout – there had been face painting, games, food, and a chance to meet some of the rescued animals, including a pony and a small herd of goats. And there’d been music.

Quinn didn’t know where the band came from, but she was amused by their choices. Predictably, animals were the theme around which they had built their repertoire, so it didn’t surprise her to hear snatches of songs such as that ancient standard, ‘How Much is that Doggy,’ or ‘What’s New Pussycat.’ She also identified ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,’ ‘Yellow Bird,’ and dipped deep into her memory to peg ‘Bird Dog,’ but was mystified as to why they also included ‘The House of the Rising Sun,’ until she remembered that it had been a major hit for The Animals. Right now the four musicians were playing their rendition of ‘Allycat,’ which had been a favourite of her grandmother’s. Come to think of it, she mused, she still had the woman’s vinyl album somewhere in her collection, and made a mental note to dig it out.

“Hey Quinn.”

Quinn pulled herself away from her plans to transfer the song to more modern media, and spared Kelly a glance, as she continued to survey the crowd. It was a mixture, alright: traditional families—mom and dad and one or more children; untraditional families – mom and mom or dad and dad and one or more children; single parents and their kids; singles; couples of all genders and sometimes groups. All ages, all colours. The one thing, seemingly, they had in common was a love of animals.

Quinn had been watching the passersby and Ariel simultaneously, while loitering near the ice cream stand at a little distance from the writer, who was talking to some TV people. Two of the local stations had apparently almost decided not to assign someone to get film of the event, on the theory that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all, until Kelly had called that morning to tell them about Ariel’s presence. Film of, and a sound bite from the reclusive celebrity, Ariel Pedersen, was worth sending a news team to cover.

“Hiya Kelly. How’d it go?” Ariel had not wanted to present a picture of a celebrity under siege, so she had asked that only one bodyguard remain with her during the brief interviews. Quinn had flipped Vanessa for the duty, and lost.

“Like clockwork, as I expected. Ariel is just so good at them! She’s certainly one of the best on McQuarry’s roster.”

“That so?” said Quinn, glancing quickly at Kelly as she watched a couple of men under the trees across the way looking in Ariel’s direction. The two were dressed in long sleeved white shirts, ties, baggy, unpressed suit pants and each carried a black, leather bound book.

Kelly picked up on the men who had attracted Quinn’s attention and watched them as she continued: “Yeah. Some people, if they’re not talking about their work, tend to freeze up. Makes my job difficult. That’s not so with Ariel.”

“Yeah?” said Quinn, who, followed by Kelly, began to walk casually toward Ariel, now chatting with two of the group organizers. Vanessa, next to her, was watching the crowd and Quinn could see that she, too, was aware of the men.

Quinn picked up the pace and cut the men off neatly, a few meters from the writer. Neither was more than 25, the security consultant judged, as she planted herself in front of Ariel, but both had the fire of fundamentalism in their eyes. They tried to dodge around her but a long arm shot out and blocked the man who appeared to be the leader. “You. Leave. Now.” Quinn rumbled, in her deepest and most threatening voice, while she stared the man down.

“Out of my way, woman. We are here on a mission of salvation,” then raising his voice he intoned, while trying to catch sight of the writer over Quinn’s shoulder, “Ariel Pedersen! Repent your sinful ways. Ask GAWD for forgiveness. It is not too late to cleave to him!”

“She’s not cleaving to anyone today so take your show on the road. Now!” said Quinn, turning up the volume. Quinn wasn’t sure where the TV people were. She hoped they had gone back to their trucks and were not filming this, but if they were, well, so be it. She had to get these guys to back off, at least long enough for Vanessa to hustle Ariel to the car, which, she knew without turning around, was exactly what was happening.

“Thou harlot! Thou Jezebel!” Repent! Repent I say, for the good of your soul!” the man pontificated. A part of Quinn’s mind noted the badly ironed over-starched shirt and the bubbles of spit forming at the corners of his mouth, while she continued to keep herself between the men and Ariel.

“Oh stuff a so—” but the retort was lost in the sudden roar of a heavy engine directly behind her, interspersed with a fusillade of what sounded like firecrackers. Quinn crouched and pivoted all in one motion, and then leaped aside, barely in time to escape being run down by a motorcycle thundering up behind her. The man in the saddle, if man it were, wore a helmet with a reflective surface, making him faceless. Quinn jumped to her feet, pulled her Glock from its quick release clip, and tried to draw a bead on him as he weaved his way through the crowd and then roared off across the lawn to the street beyond. But with all the people between them, she didn’t dare squeeze off a shot. Seconds later he was out of sight. Quinn stared after him for a second, then her brain re-engaged. “Ariel!” she shouted, and turned to find her lover.
——————————————————————————–

The Mark Five had been parked on a narrow park road about 15 meters behind the central stage. By the time the event got underway, a handful of vehicles that belonged to event organizers had been left along the same stretch of roadway.

“Ariel! Ariel!” Quinn yelled, as she advanced toward the car, checking in a 360 degree arc every few steps for more attackers. She could hear shouting and some screams from the crowd behind her, but no sounds came from the car, ahead. Goddess, please, she thought. Reaching the line of vehicles, Quinn crouched and proceeded carefully. As she made her way along, from car to car, the tang of gun powder teased her nose briefly, then dissipated. Soon she was at the last car before hers, a very old Suzuki-Volvo with an empty animal cage in the back. Still no sound. Quinn made one more brief visual sweep of the area while keeping her gun trained ahead, then crept noiselessly forward.

Looking along the length of the vehicle, she noted bullet holes toward the rear end, and could see shards of broken tail lights on the ground. Just as she was wondering what to do next, a faint sound caught her ear. A whisper of cloth.

“If somebody’s there,” she said, “you better come out now with your hands up while you still can.”

There was a pause as brief as a second but as long as time, and then “Quinn?”

Oh thank you Goddess! “Yeah, it’s me. Don’t shoot, I’m coming around.” Moving carefully, the dark haired woman stepped around the end of the Volvo, keeping the Glock trained where she could reasonably expect attackers to be.

“Oh Goddess, Quinn! Am I glad to see you!” said the writer, scrambling to her feet and rushing into the dark haired woman’s arms.

“Shusssh, its Ok. Its all over,” she said, holding Ariel tightly. “Are you Ok?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. Vanessa got me undercover just in time. Are you Ok?”

“Yeah, he tried to run me down but missed me.” Quinn turned to the tall red head, who was holstering her gun as she uncoiled from the ground between the two vehicles. “How about you Vanessa?”

“Nothing I know of.”

“Thank the Goddess,” exclaimed Kelly who had arrived on the scene just as Vanessa started to get to her feet, and was currently holding her tight while checking feverishly for injuries.
“What happened?” asked Quinn.

“He came out of nowhere. Had he waited a second longer we wouldn’t have had the cars to duck between. As it was, I just caught sight of him in time. Thank the Goddess he was a lousy shot! Although he did manage to do a number on both cars.” She patted the hood of the Mark Five grimly. “I’m afraid you’ll have to ride home with us and get this beast towed.”

Quinn ran a finger over the damage. Several punctures marked the passage of bullets into the Mark Five’s front end. “I think you’re right,” she said, “but before we can do that —”

Ariel joined her in completing the sentence: “We have to call Hank.”
——————————————————————————–

“It had to be Scott,” rumbled Quinn pacing up and down the living room.

The big man in the easy chair shrugged. “The m.o. has similarities to the message on the car at the museum. Cause a diversion, then strike. We did check on his location.”

“And?”

“And supposedly he was in the school library all afternoon. At least, we can’t find anyone who can definitely say he wasn’t there at the time of the attack.”

“It’s an easy alibi to set up,” contributed Vanessa, leaning against the doorway. “Drop your books on a table, sit down for a while, leave, go in and out a couple of times, and you’re a fixture. No one knows when you’re actually there. Does he own a motorcycle?”

“Yup. Second hand Suzuki-Honda 1280. Supposedly it was stolen a couple of days ago. He’s been pestering the theft division about it ever since. And no, before you ask, no one at the park could positively identify the bike one way or the other. Two were convinced it was an S-H, but I had a couple of other guys swear it was a Harley. How about any of you?” Head shakes greeted the question. Walsh grunted.

“What about the two guys I was dealing with?” asked Quinn, leveling a glare at the detective. “Surely you got something out of them!”

“Brother Matthew and Brother Clifford,” said Walsh, consulting his notes. “They go out proselytizing every weekend. They got a telephone call from someone claiming to be Brother Joshua, a member of their church —”

“Which is?” interjected Quinn.

“The Church of the Holy Brethren.”

“Figures,” muttered Quinn. “Go on.”

“Brother Joshua told them that the evil Jezebel, Ariel Pedersen, sorry Ms. Pedersen,” he added, nodding at Ariel, who was seated on the couch beside Kelly.

“No problem, Detective. I’ve been called a lot worse. Please go on.”

“Ok. Uh, Ariel Pedersen was going to be speaking to a group in the park today, and that it would be a good opportunity to bring her back to God. So of course they went to the park.”

“Of course,” said Quinn testily. “And Brother Joshua says . . .?”

“Who is Ariel Pedersen?” Glancing at Ariel again, Walsh added, “he says he’s never heard of you, and he didn’t make that call, and I tend to believe him.”

“So did you show him a photo of Scott? And what about the other two wingnuts?” snapped Quinn. “Did you show them a photo too? He must have gone to their church at least once to get their names and their telephone number.”

“Yes to all, and no, none of the three can identify him. As for the telephone number, it’s posted on a bulletin board so that you can phone to report people who you think should have a visitation.”

“Oh Dear Goddess!” exclaimed Quinn, running a hand through her hair, and pacing to the other end of the room.

“He likely used a disguise at the church,” contributed Vanessa. “What about the other church members? Are you going to show the photo to them too?”

“We’re getting a list of the members and we’ll talk to them all. But don’t hold your breath,” responded Walsh, as he rubbed his eyes. “By the way,” he added, “the event organizers told me that they announced Ms. Pedersen’s participation on the ’net news, so there’s no leads we can follow there.”

“Right,” said Ariel. “if he was trying to find out about my public appearances, at least those that make the ’net news ahead of time, all he’d have to do would be to use the search function every day or so to check for my name.”

“Does he own a gun?” asked Kelly.

“None registered. I didn’t expect any different,” added the detective. “The gun used was small calibre, by the way.”
“Ok,” said Quinn, pacing back toward the detective. “At the moment we can’t prove it was Scott. So maybe we can work back to him. What was the shooter’s intent? Ok, I know there were shots flying around, but was it the same as last time? Just to hell raise, or what?”

“I’d say no, not this time,” said Walsh, tapping his pen against his teeth. “I think he really intended to hurt people this time. We haven’t found all the bullets yet, but it would appear that he was deadly serious about injuring or killing Ms. Petersen. The number fired, the pattern, which was concentrated on about an 18-inch wide area, all point to him firing with intent.

“I agree,” said Vanessa from the doorway. “He fired off several as he approached, then he slowed the machine a bit. Get a better shot, I guess. I threw Ariel down and covered her, then pulled my gun and fired a couple back. I might have hit the bike but I can’t be sure. But whether I hit him or not, I think it kinda discouraged him because he took off again and fired a couple more shots as he passed the gap between the cars, but they came nowhere near us, probably because he was already riding like a bat out of hell. The whole thing probably didn’t take more than . . . . Six to eight seconds, I’d say.”

“And he didn’t fire at you,” said Walsh, addressing Quinn.

“No. Not that I’m aware of. He just seemed intent on running me down.”

“Yeah.” Tap, tap, tap. “Although we haven’t found them all yet, he seems to have fired the whole clip near the cars, which makes me think Ms. Pedersen was the target. Add in his haste, and it points to an amateur, not a professional hit, so that does point to Scott doing his own dirty work.

“Ok,” said Quinn, “why now?” She turned and paced, head down, in the opposite direction, but suddenly paused and looked up. “Unless . . . ” Turning quickly she met Ariel’s eyes. “The poster,” they said together.

“Poster?” queried Hank Walsh.

Quinn made a ‘go ahead’ gesture at Ariel, so the writer continued: “As you know, Detective, we’ve been looking for my niece. A postering company has just put 10,000 posters up on lampposts across the city.”

Walsh sat forward and spoke before Ariel could continue. “Oh, yeah, now that you mention it, I’ve seen it.” He looked around at the circle of faces. “He’s afraid.” He said. “She knows something that could harm him and he doesn’t want her to have the chance to tell you.”

“But isn’t that kind of backward thinking?” asked Kelly. “Why would killing Ariel stop Katie from telling somebody else?”

“It’s not necessarily backward,” said Vanessa, brow wrinkled in thought. “He thinks that Ariel is the driving force behind the hunt for Katie, which she is. So he thinks that if he eliminates Ariel, the hunt for Katie will die too. And the alternative is to kill Katie, which he can’t, because he’d have to find her first.”

“Sorry, but I don’t follow,” replied Kelly. “Why should Ariel’s death bring the hunt for Katie to an end?”

“Because, like usual, he hasn’t thought far enough ahead,” said Quinn. “He doesn’t give us credit for adding two and two and making four.” At Kelly’s continued expression of confusion, she went on: “He doesn’t realize that we have a lot of the big picture already. He may not even know that Thanatos Security is involved in the poster thing. He may just think Ariel hired a poster company and had them put them up. If he kills her he thinks he’s broken the link and that the hunt for Katie will fizzle out.”

“You see, Ms. Sanchez,” added Hank Walsh, “we’re dealing with someone who doesn’t share his thoughts and feelings with anyone else, so he can’t conceive of anyone who does. He only interacts with other people to manipulate them, so he doesn’t understand that people can work together to get something done.”

“Oh. Ok, I think I see.” She looked around. “What a screwed up way of thinking.”

“Tell me about it,” said Quinn, disgustedly. Turning to Walsh, she said: “So what now? Other than guarding Ariel night and day, that is.”

The big man shrugged. “We’ll keep pursuing leads, talk to the church members, that sort of thing. But unless we find the guys involved in the original drive-by, or your niece, Ms. Pedersen, we’re no closer to putting this thing to bed. Sorry, but that’s about it.”

“It’s about what we expected. Isn’t it Quinn?” said Ariel.

“Yeah, unfortunately.” Quinn ran a hand through her hair again.

Walsh stood up. “I’ll let you know if anything turns up.”

“Alright,” Quinn responded, distractedly, as she continued to chew the problem over. “I’ll show you out.”

“Ok,” she said when she returned a minute later, “First things first. We’ll have to set a schedule to give you round the clock protection again, Love.”

“Don’t forget the movie star we’re bodyguarding starting the day after tomorrow,” interjected Vanessa.

“Damn! You’re right. Ok, I’ll have to work with Kris to see what she’s already done on that front. Has she assigned you anything for Monday morning, Vanessa?”

“Not yet.”

“Ok. I’ve got a couple of clients to see so I’ll need you here at 8:30. Call Kris tomorrow and let her know what you’re doing and why. I’ll call her as soon as my meetings are done so we can go over the schedule.”

“Will do.”

“Ok, I guess that wraps it up,” said Quinn. “Sorry guys,” she added, addressing both Vanessa and Kelly, “I didn’t mean for a two-hour assignment to drag on for six hours.”

“No problem, Quinn. I wish . . .” Vanessa paused and shook her head a little. “Ah, you know what I wish,” she said, quietly.

“Quinn patted her shoulder. “You and me both, Vanessa. If one of us had even just nicked him. . . Didn’t happen, so we move on. And blow the son of a bitch to hell, next time.”

“Your lips to the Goddess’ ear,” said Kelly fiercely, as she and Vanessa departed.
Chapter 13
Quinn settled back into the taxi seat and hit speed dial. The weather might have turned cooler, but that hadn’t affected her mood. So far the day was going ok. Ariel had been surprisingly upbeat about being guarded 24/7 again. That could change, Quinn admitted, if the situation dragged on, but for the moment she was doing ok.

Quinn checked her watch as she listened to the phone ring at the other end. She had originally expected to be at the office by now, but an old client had begged her to drop by so she decided to shoehorn in a visit with him before proceeding to her meeting with Kris.

California Girl, California Girl
You’re the best thing that I’ve seen in a while.

The security consultant stared at the phone, then put it to her ear again. “Kris?”

“Yo, fearless leader.”

“What gives with the music?”

“Getting into the mood for the movie star tomorrow.”

“Ah. What if it had been someone other than me on the phone?”

“Mute button. Besides, I checked call display before I picked it up.”

“Glad to see you’ve got things covered.”

“Always. And speaking of covered, Vanessa filled me in. I’ve got a schedule worked out, and a few other things for your attention if you’re coming this way any time soon.”

“I’ll be there around 1:00 o’clock, or so.”

“Alright. We ought to be done watching Charlie’s Angels by then.”

“Original episode or one of the movies?”

“Original. Take no substitutes – that’s me.”

“Uh huh. I thought you’d be more into VIP,” said Quinn, enjoying the banter as she watched the landscape fly by the car window.

“That’s for after you’ve gone and you think we’re actually back to work. I thought I might throw in a few episodes of She Spies as well, and maybe John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars to top it off. Can’t get too much of that Natasha Henstridge! Woo hoo!”

“Mmm. I just might stay around for that.”

“And spoil our fun?”

“Hmm. Ok, point taken. Oh, looks like I’m at my next stop. See ya later.”

“Ok, Boss Lady. Later.”

Quinn disconnected, punched in her code to pay the tab and exited the taxi. Just as she turned toward the building’s entrance, the phone on her right hip vibrated. “Quinn Thanatos.”

“Hey Boss. Kris tells me you’re just going into another meeting, but do you have a minute?”

“Hi Joe. I do, but I’m running late so its only until I reach the sixth floor.”

“Ok. Well, I got something on Katie Johnson. Or at least I think it’s about her.”

“Yeah?” said Quinn, as she punched the elevator ‘up’ button.

“I checked all the hospitals and clinics like you asked. A clinic out on Salewski Blvd has a record of a Kathryn Johnson being prescribed both the morning after pill and birth control pills. The description fits her.”

“When was this?” said Quinn as she stepped through the sliding door and pushed the button for the 6th floor.”

“September 20 of ’48.”

Quinn grunted. “Almost two years ago.”

“Yeah, but the birth control prescription was renewed. Plus, I have another entry for her on December 16, same year. This time for contusions and a possible fractured arm. The fracture was negative.”

Quinn stood still, hand on the door of the office where her next appointment was scheduled. “Anything else in the doctor’s notes?” she asked quietly.

“The doc noted she was there with her boyfriend. Or someone she thought was her boyfriend. It looked like domestic violence to her but she couldn’t get the kid to tell her anything.”

“Ok.” Quinn fell silent. “Ok,” she said again. “Send me what you’ve got. I’ll get it after my meeting.”

“Will do, Boss. And I’ll keep looking.”

“Yeah,” mumbled Quinn abstractedly as she disconnected. “Thanks, Joe.” Standing in the silent hall, the security consultant was unaware of tapping the top of her phone against her lips, as she thought about what she’d just learned. Katie, what have you got yourself into?
——————————————————————————–

“—signed the death warrant for Karl Rohl today. Barring appeals, Rohl will die for the rape and murder of ten women on Wednesday. Rohl has expressed no remorse, telling authorities that he wished he could do it all over again. After this news update we’ll talk with a specialist keeping track of serial murderers. What he has to say you won’t believe! But before we get to that, police are warning that the anti-techno group, On Foot, has struck again. At least ten taxis were vandalized overnight and calls are still coming in. The group, which is opposed to self-drive cars, has wrecked the control mechanisms on dozens of taxis and several private vehicles over the past six months. Police Chief Be—” Quinn grunted and switched off the info feed, punched in her code to pay the taxi, and got out. Four long strides brought her to the door of Thanatos Security, where she quickly keyed in her lock code. As she stepped in, she could hear ‘Dream a Little Dream’ playing quietly.

“Cass Elliott. Nice choice.”

“Glad you approve. Here’s the info from Joe on the clinic visit,” Kris said, holding a printout in the air for Quinn to retrieve, without lifting her eyes from her monitor.

The security consultant tossed her jacket on the meeting table and walked over to take the papers. “Thanks” she said abstractly, and leaned against the table to review the material. Everything Joe had told her was there. “Did you read this?” she asked Kris, who was focused on her monitor.

“Huh? Oh yeah. I guess the morning after pill worked,” responded the brown haired woman as she consulted a scribbled note.

“Presumably, since there’s no mention of pregnancy at the second visit.” Quinn paced slowly around the table, re-reading the report. “We still have about an 18-month gap, from then to the present.” Throwing the papers down in disgust, she strode to the window and stood looking out.

Kris looked up, but said nothing, as she watched Quinn. The dark haired woman put her hands on her hips and starred out, not seeing. Where was Katie? she asked herself. Why did the trail go cold? Was she dead? No! she hastily told herself. I refuse to believe that without irrefutable proof. Alright then, hot shot, her mental voice immediately challenged, get off your ass and go find her! Quinn ran a hand through her hair and turned to Kris. “Ok. What else have you got for me?”

“The schedule for the next 10 days, a couple of contracts, bunch of cheques that need signing, and some partial findings from Joe on the people you didn’t get to talk to in Parsonville, since they weren’t there.”

Quinn nodded, accepted the sheaf of papers and pulled out a chair. Tilting it back against the wall, she propped her feet on the table and began to read. The personnel schedule, contracts and cheques she covered quickly, signing or initially where necessary. There. Now she was free to read the report on the people they hadn’t been able to talk to during their aborted visit to Ariel’s hometown.

Joe, she saw, had been able to supply addresses and telephone numbers for most. She noted that neither Paula McBean nor Jefferson Bennett had numbers. In Paula’s case Joe speculated that it was because she lived in a back-to-the-land group that likely didn’t maintain a landline. Jefferson Bennett, the merchant marine sailor, likely didn’t find it very useful to maintain a landline either since he was probably at sea for months at a time. In the case of McBean, Joe had provided the telephone number of the closest police department, while for Bennett he had supplied the name of his employer.

Ok, she said to herself, so now we can contact them if we want to. So where does that leave us? With a bunch of questions and, so far, no answers. Uh huh. And just how, her inner voice asked, sarcastically, does that differ from what we knew before? Oh Shut up! If you’re so smart make some useful suggestions!

Quinn gave herself a mental shake. “Any takers on the poster reward?” she asked.

Kris looked up. “We’ve had some calls. I’ve got a list of names of people who have called with info, but none of it’s recent. It all ends about 18 months ago. We may have caught a break on a call I took just before you arrived, though. I think we got the name of her boyfriend, or whatever. Hopefully the guy who took her to the clinic.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Name of Mickey D.”

“At Quinn’s incredulous look, Kris added “I’m not kidding. That’s what he’s called. Real name Michael Dionne. And apparently, he loves fast food.”

“Do we have a description?”

“We have better than that,” said Kris, as she waited for her printer to spit out a sheet then gathered several and held them out to Quinn. “Hot off the press by way of the police department files.”

“You turning into a hacker?” said Quinn with a small grin as she took the papers.

“Just a little sideline of mine. Can’t let Joe have all the fun.”

“No indeed. Hmm. Boosted a few things, and got caught. Kited a few cheques. Small time grifter, and similar stuff, looks like.”

“Un huh,” responded Kris.

“No violent crimes on his record.”

“No. I noticed that too.”

“Lessee. He was picked up in December of ’48, but let go, and hasn’t come to the department’s notice since. That’s kinda long.

“Un huh. I thought so.”

“Hmm. Date of birth . . . ” Quinn did some mental calculations. “So he’s 28.” She turned a page. “Looks younger.”

“Yeah.”

Quinn stood, staring at the pages for a few moments longer, but she was thinking, not reading. Looking up finally, she said: “You got the name of the person who called this in?”

“Well a nickname, and a number where I can leave a message for him. I thought you might want to pay the reward in person.”

“You were right, as usual. Leave a message that I want to meet today. Lessee, I want to see if I can talk to the doctor . . .”

“Clinic closes at 5:00 pm. And the doc is in.”

Quinn grinned at that. “More hacking?” she asked.

“Nope,” said Kris. “Traditional method. Telephone.”

“Good. Ok. Leave a message with the guy that I want to meet, say, any time after an hour, and he picks the spot. Somewhere public.” As Quinn talked she pawed over papers in a safe next to Kris’ desk, grabbed one fat envelope and her jacket and headed for the door. “Call me when it’s set up.”

“Will do.”

“Oh, and Kris,” said Quinn, as she paused at the door, “I owe you.”

“G’wan,” said the other woman with a wave of her hand. “Get outta here and let me get back to work.”

Quinn flashed her an answering smile and was gone.

“Good luck,” said Kris softly, to the empty room, then turned back to her computer.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 14
“You can’t go in without an appointm—”

“Emergency police matter,” said Quinn to the receptionist while flashing her P.I. license, and hoping the receptionist would not look closely, as she stepped quickly around the desk and through the door of the doctor’s office.

“Doctor Esperanza, I tried to stop her. I—”

“It’s a matter of life and death,” said Quinn interrupting her. “I just need answers to a few questions and then I’ll be gone. Promise.”

The doctor looked up from the notes she was making. She was a handsome middle-aged woman with dark hair just starting to go grey at the temples. To Quinn’s eye she looked tired but competent, and far from a pushover.

“Of course,” said Quinn, “you could always wait for Detective Hank Walsh to pay you a visit, which will happen not long after you turn me away, and then you’d have two interruptions in your schedule today, and not just one.” She saw the woman’s mouth quirk slightly, and an amused look appear in her eye.

“It’s ok, Marina. I’ll be five minutes, only,” she said to the receptionist as her eyes swiveled to Quinn’s. “Alright,” she said, as the woman closed the office door, “talk fast, starting with your name, and go on from there.”

“Ok. I’m Quinn Thanatos of Thanatos Security. Here’s my card.” Quinn handed a business card to the doctor who took it and examined it as Quinn continued. “You treated a teenager in September and December of ’48 who gave her name as Kathryn Johnson. Is this her?” said Quinn, as she passed over a copy of the poster.

The doctor looked at the photo, then compared the telephone number on the poster to the office number on Quinn’s card, and looked up. “Why?” she said.

“Her aunt is trying to find her. Katie left home under unexplained circumstances but it appears she was in fear for her life, possibly from immediate family members. Her aunt is estranged from Katie’s family. She only heard recently that her niece had run away from home and she wants to help her.”

The doctor folded her arms. “What’s in it for you? You’re not a police detective.”

“Her aunt is my partner,” said Quinn, quietly.

The doctor sat still for a moment, thinking, then reached out a hand and picked up the phone. Quinn thought about asking whom she was calling, but decided to wait and see.

“Hello? Yes, this is Doctor Elena Esperanza at the free clinic on Salewski Boulevard. Please connect me with . . . What was his name again?”

“Detective Hank Walsh.”

The doctor repeated the name and then said, “Yes, I’ll hold.” Activating the speakerphone, she went back to writing up the notes she was working on when Quinn had barged into her office. Muzak, or the telephone equivalent, played quietly, and Quinn forced herself to sit still. Just when she felt she couldn’t re-read the doctor’s certificates on the wall without screaming, the music cut off.

“Walsh,” growled a voice.

“Detective Walsh, my name is Doctor Elena Esperanza. I have someone in my office named Quinn Thanatos, who says she is investigating a missing person.”

“Yeah, I know Quinn. What gives?”

“Hi Hank. The doctor has you on speakerphone. I’m here because she may have treated Katie back in the fall of ’48.”

“And just how would you know that?”

“I’m omniscent? Seriously, give me the lecture another day, would ya? Katie, if it’s Katie that is, came here with a man. We have a line on him, at least I hope so, and all I want Doctor Esperanza to do is to look at the photos I have of Katie and of this guy and tell me if she recognizes anybody.”

There was silence, and Quinn held her breath. She knew Hank would be ticked at the way she got the lead, but that was just too bad.

A sigh issued from the speaker, then: “Dr. Esperanza, ordinarily I would obtain a warrant and serve it on you, and I will if you insist, but if Quinn says all she needs is an identification, I would appreciate it if you would look at the photos and tell us if the people in them are who we think they are.”

The doctor sat silently for a moment, then said, “thank you, Detective,” and disconnected.

Quinn waited. The doctor sat looking at her notes for a few seconds then looked up and said: “Yes, that is the girl who came to see me.” She added, “I see so many people in the course of a day, or a week, or a year, but I’ve trained myself to remember faces. It helps to establish a rapport with the patient, you understand.”

Quinn found herself nodding, but said only: “How about him?” and pushed over the photo from the police files.

Doctor Esperanza contemplated it for so long that Quinn thought she was going to reply in the negative, but when she spoke it was to say “I only got brief glimpses of him, you understand, but I’m pretty sure that was the man who accompanied her on both occasions. At the second visit he seemed pretty anxious to hurry her out of the office. And so he would if he had done the damage. But she wouldn’t say. She fell down the stairs, she said.” The woman looked up. “That’s what they all say, you know. Or some variation thereof.” She shook her head, and added, “sometimes I wonder why I bother.”

Quinn nodded sympathetically, reached for the photos and slipped them into her pocket. “Thanks,” she said as she stood up. “I appreciate what you just did.”

The doctor smiled. “If this ever comes back to bite me in the ass,” she said, “you’ll want your policeman friend out front to run interference. I can guarantee it.”

“It won’t. I can guarantee that.”

The doctor smiled again, this time with more warmth, and leaned back in her office chair. “This is about more than domestic battering isn’t it,” she said.

A statement, Quinn noted, not a question. Quinn smiled in turn, hand now on the doorknob. “Thank you doctor,” was all she replied as she pulled open the door and stepped through, closing it quietly behind her.

Out in the taxi, which she had directed to wait, Quinn flipped on the info feed. She thought about switching to an audio channel but decided to phone Kris first. She had just unclipped the phone from her belt when it started to vibrate.

“Shit! Ah, Quinn Thanatos,” she said as she juggled, then regained control of the instrument.

“I take a lot of orders from you in any one day, Boss Lady, but there I draw the line.”

“Ok, Kris. You’ve had your laugh. Now, have you got something for me?”

“You bet. The guy just phoned back. Name of Jimmy, by the way. There’s a tavern at the corner of Wallace and MacArthur. Dalwhinney’s. You know it?”

“I know the area. I can find the place.”

“Ok. He says go there, sit at the back and order a drink that comes with a paper umbrella.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Scout’s honour.”

“You were never a scout.”

“You’re right. My orientation is one the top brass wouldn’t exactly approve of. But I had fun with some girl guides once.”

“No more about your lurid past Kris, my heart couldn’t stand it. When is this guy going to show?”

“Likely as soon as he thinks you’re alone. If I were you I think I’d go buy a book to pass the time.”

“Thanks for the suggestion. See you soon, I hope.”

“Righty-ho.”

“Corner of Wallace and MacArthur” she told the taxi. “Best possible speed.”

“Wallace and MacArthur by way of—”

“No need to give me the specifics. Just drive.” Detecting the word “drive,” the vehicle’s silicon brain cut short the reply and pulled out into the street.

Quinn settled back. Her mind on the coming interview, she didn’t bother to switch to an audio channel on the info feed, and soon realized that the interview with the expert on serial murderers, which she had heard being promised earlier, was being replayed, and was, in fact, well along.

“In your report you estimate that there are more than 450 serial murderers currently active on the North American continent?

“Yes, 462 actually,” responded a sandy-haired young man, identified across the bottom of the screen as Dr. Stanley Hollis, of Statistical Probabilities Inc., otherwise known as the government’s statistical office.

“How can you be so sure?” asked the female interviewer.

“Well, we gather data from a number of sources. Uh, police reports, missing persons. Since serial murderers are often active over a number of years, we look at historical data too. Then everything is fed into a very complex computer program . . .”

“Let me interrupt you there. The name of the program is MORBID?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“And that stands for . . .?”

“Murder: Organizational Report-Based Idiosyncratic Database.”

“Murder . . .”

“. . . Organizational Report-Based Idiosyncratic Database.”

“Quite a mouthful.”

“Yes it is.”

“Please continue, Doctor Hollis.”

“Ok. Well, this program was only rolled out a year ago, but it’s already exceeding our expectations. It generates statistical probabilities from which we can produce schematics.”

“Yes, we have one of those to put up now.”

“Here’s the central part of the continent, for example, over the course of the last 10 years,” continued Dr. Hollis, offscreen. “As you can see, more serial murderers are active in urban areas, but some of the less populated regions are represented as well.”

Quinn looked at the schematic as the interviewer asked: “What do the colours and patterns indicate?”

“Oh, well, each represents the territory of one serial murderer. Or at least as closely as we can determine.”

“And how do you do that?”

“Similarities in how the murders are committed, and geographical location, in relation to each other I mean, is also taken into consideration.”

“Right now, it looks like a very beautiful abstract.”

“Yes, but this is a time sequenced schematic. If your technicians could run it, starting at 2040 . . . Yes, as you can see, it’s a bit easier to understand as you run it year by year. Karl Rohl, for example is that bit of cross-hatched blue in the northeast section . . .”

“Yes! I see, starting in 2045. Are the others equally identifiable?”

“Our data indicates yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, we can take schematics that represent the historical data and match them against murderers who have been caught.

“So, Dr. Hollis, if there were a series of murders spread over an area, you could feed the details into MORBID and it would link them?”

“If we had all the details, and a high degree of accuracy interpreting the evidence, there is a 92 percent chance that MORBID would project an overlap.”

“And in layman’s terms. . .?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you Doctor,” said the interviewer, adding, as the camera closed on her, “There you have it. MORBID. Back to you Worthington.”

Quinn stared at the screen for a minute or two, turning this over in her mind. Abruptly she reached for her phone again and speed dialed.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, Joe. it’s Quinn again. I have another job for you.

“Shoot.”

“Ok. The feds have a statistical database called MORBID. It tracks serial murderers.

“Called what?”

“MORBID. M as in mother, O as in . . . operations, R as in ruler—”

“Morbid, you said?”

“Yeah. Morbid. Anyway, I want you to get into that and see what comes up.”

“That’s it?”

“You’ll see when you access it. I’m not completely sure what I’m looking for but check it out. One thing I want to know is if the program suggests that the guy active at Parsonville has done stuff elsewhere. Ok?”

“Sure thing Quinn. You think Scott continued having fun when he got here?”

“It’s a possibility that had occurred to me.”

“Ok. I’ll get right on it and call you as soon as I’ve checked it out.”

“Thanks Joe,” said Quinn and disconnected. Checking to see how close she was to her destination, she decided that she had time to make a very quick call to Ariel, and speed dialed her number.

“Ariel Pedersen.”

“You have the sexiest voice.”

A chuckle. “Why thank you. You’re pretty good in that department yourself, you know.”
“Umm. How are you doing?”

“Ok. I worked this morning. It seems strange to have someone in the house during the day, since I’d gotten used to being by myself again, unless I’m expecting someone of course, but I’m managing. Vanessa has been as unobtrusive as she can, and that helps.”

“Good.”

“On the other hand, however, she’s likely bored out of her mind.”

“She’ll be even more bored at the film location, I expect, so this is a good dress rehearsal for her.”

“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. And speaking of looking, I hear that you’ve been busy.”

“You do? Vanessa hasn’t been as unobtrusive as you’ve led me to believe.”

“Well, we had lunch together and she got a call from Kris so, at my request, she asked for any developments.”

“Ah. That’s alright then,” Quinn said with a smile.

“So when are you going to get home and tell me all about it?”

“Well, there’ve been a few other interesting developments since then, and I’m about to meet a guy who I hope can provide some other useful details. But I’m not sure when he’s going to show, so I might not be home for a while.”

“Sounds intriguing.”

“Certainly interesting. But if I had my druthers, I’d be there with you rather than here with . . . whatever his name is. And speaking of him, I see the cross street coming up so I better end this.”

“Ok. Be careful.”

“Always.”

A chuckle greeted this, but all Ariel added was “I love you.”

“And I love you back.” Just then, the taxi came to a halt, double-parked, so Quinn added “Oh, gotta go. See you soon, Love,” and disconnected.

Punching in her pay code, she exited quickly, the taxi roaring off as soon as its sensors detected that she was clear of the vehicle. Quinn stepped over to the sidewalk and surveyed the area. The corner of Wallace and MacArthur was in an older section of the downtown that the push for redevelopment of a few years back had passed by. It wasn’t quite a slum, but it was definitely seedy. Rapidly scanning the intersection, she spotted her destination on the opposite side of the street. A few quick strides, and an unplanned two-step to avoid being run down by a bicycle courier, brought her to the stairs leading down to Dalwhinney’s door. Quinn eyed it for a second, then muttered “Well, it’s not ‘Cheers,’ but I guess it’ll do.”

Quinn paused in the doorway. The interior was pretty much what she expected: dim and smoky. Heaving a sigh, she continued inside, the door cutting off sunlight and fresh air as it closed behind her. Two men sat isolated from each other at either ends of the bar. Both were drinking something amber-coloured in shot glasses, and neither paid her any attention as she stepped up to order. Quinn mentally reviewed the drinks she could reasonably expect to get with an umbrella in them, and made her decision. “Give me a scotch and rocks in one of those fancy glasses,” indicating the glasses used for mixed drinks that were hanging in a rack above the bar, “and put an umbrella in it.”

The bartender stared at her. Quinn held up a $20 bill and said “Give it to me without argument, and you keep the change.”

A faint smile touched his lips as he reached for a glass, dropped in some ice, floated it in scotch and dropped in an umbrella that he brought out from somewhere under the bar. “You’re the boss,” he said, placing the drink on the dark surface and extracting the bill from Quinn’s fingers.

Quinn nodded, picked up the glass and strolled toward the back of the room. To her relief, other than the two men at the bar, it was empty. Setting the glass down on the table in the last booth, she slid in and decided to get something done while she waited, so she extracted her notebook from a pocket of her jacket and flipped it open. Rapidly scanning her list of things to do, she took satisfaction in striking off several, then added some notes, sipping her scotch from time to time, enjoying the slight burn of the smoky liquid as she swallowed.

Quinn had gone over the list once and was thinking of reviewing it again when a trio of young men entered noisily, ordered pitchers of beer, and seated themselves in a booth across the room. Quinn ignored them, although that was hard since the noise level picked up considerably. In her peripheral vision, she noticed some glances her way, but it would likely take some alcohol laced with peer pressure before anyone had the nerve to approach her. Just stay in your seats and leave me alone, she thought at them, ’cause if any of you try hitting on me and it scares off my contact, I’m gonna get mad.

Taking another sip of the scotch, she decided to turn her mind to the problem of Katie’s disappearance.

Ok, she admitted up front, as she doodled on her notepad, she could be dead. That has always been a possibility. Just because we don’t have a body doesn’t mean it isn’t so. Quinn glanced at her notepad and discovered she had written DEAD??

Don’t get in a rut here, she cautioned herself. Dropping down a line she added, IF NOT??

If not indeed, she thought. If people don’t see you for a while, they don’t assume you’ve died. They think you’ve gone on a trip, moved to another part of town or don’t want to associate with them anymore. Thinking about Mickey D, Katie’s supposed boyfriend, she admitted, that or they assume you’ve gone to jail to do another stretch for something. Ok, she said to herself, that might be, but Mickey hasn’t come into contact with the law, let alone done a stretch in almost two years, which is damned peculiar.

Rolling the pen in her fingers she stared at the page, and mentally reviewed his record. Mickey was the sort of petty criminal who couldn’t stay out of sight. Up to two years ago, he had been picked up every few months, sometimes sentenced to something, but most of the time not. Quinn stared at the page some more. So what this says is that you think Katie’s disappearance is tied in with Mickey D’s, since he seems to have disappeared.

“You the broad with the cash?”

Quinn looked up and sized up her interrogator. He was mid-thirties, about 5’10,” with dark hair worn long, and was dressed in a medium grey suit and a black shirt with the collar worn open showing off a gold chain. A heavy gold bracelet encircled one wrist, a flashy, chunky-looking watch the other. His fingers, she noted, were covered in rings. The better to mark you with, my dear, she thought. “If you’re the guy with the information,” she replied. “Siddown.”

“Where’s the money?”

“Safe. Answers first.”

“Show it to me or I walk.”

Without breaking eye contact, Quinn reached inside her jacket and extracted the envelope she had taken from the safe and slid out a thick sheaf of bills. Holding it so that just a corner of the stack was visible, she waited for a few seconds to ensure that her companion was satisfied, then slid it back into the pocket. “Now. Answers,” she said.

The man opposite her shrugged. “So ask,” he said.

“You know Mickey D?”

“Seen him around, but not lately,” he said, with an unpleasant smile.

“Oh? And why’s that?”

“Health reasons.”

“Such as?”

“Terminal stupidity.”

Enough of this shit, she said to herself. “You saying he’s dead?”

“No, leastwise, not that I heard.”

“And what did you hear?”

“That he made Big Augie mad, so decided that life would be healthier some place else.

“Big Augie? The gangster? The guy that ended up dead in his hot tub a couple of months ago?” said Quinn, referring to the news story that had knocked the attempt on Ariel’s life out of the lead-off spot on all the info feed channels.

“The one and only. I don’t know what he did, but the story I heard was that Mickey had to leave town because of it.”

“So what I’m hearing you say is that you’ve never heard Mickey’s actually dead out in a swamp somewhere.”

“Could have happened, I suppose, but I heard he left town.”

Quinn eyed him as she sipped her scotch. “So where does Katie Johnson fit in?” she asked.

“The chick you’re lookin’ for?” At her nod, he shrugged. “Girlfriend, I guess. They were together for quite a while and I haven’t seen her around since Mickey disappeared.”

Quinn contemplated her next question. “Do you ever remember seeing her before you saw her with Mickey?” she asked.

“You mean on her own?”

“Yeah.”

“Nah. One day she was just with him.”

“You ever see her with anyone else?”

“Never.”

“You’re awfully sure.”

He shrugged. “There was something about her. Hard to forget.”

“And you’re absolutely sure it was Katie. This girl in the photos?” she said, as she laid the poster on the table then slid it under the man’s nose.

He smiled nastily. “I swear it on my mother’s grave.”

“Look at the photos first,” she said, keeping her eyes focused on his face.

He glanced down and she noted that he did look at both, although quickly, before looking up again. “So what’s to see?” he said. “I looked at the photos when I got your number off the poster. Yeah, it’s her. It’s her a few years younger, but it’s her.”

Quinn maintained eye contact for a few seconds, then slid the wad of cash out of the pocket and handed it over. “You hear anything else, give me a call.”

The man fanned the money quickly, then tucked it inside his jacket. “Pleasure doin’ business with ya,” he said, before easing out of the booth and sauntering out of the bar.

Quinn watched him leave, then tossed down the rest of her scotch and headed out herself.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 15
“But wouldn’t a check of the regional police files turn him up, even if he went to another city?” queried Ariel, as she forked in a mouthful of spaghetti, slurping up a couple of strands that strayed at the last second.

“Maybe,” said Quinn, applying herself to her own plate, “but the problem is, if he went to another city and also changed his name to keep from being found by Augie, it’s going to be that much harder to track him down.”

“You’re saying that you’d have to check by finger prints or DNA or something,” said Ariel, reaching for her beer.

“Exactly. And that’s only if he’s been arrested wherever he is now. I’ve already called Hank to see if he can have a search done. But you see, there’s another problem on top of that.”

“Which is?” queried Ariel, intently.

Quinn frowned. “We can’t be sure how far he’d run. If it was right across the continent, well . . . ” She let her voice trail off.

“That would put us back to square one looking for Katie.”

Quinn reached across the table and squeezed Ariel’s hand. “Not quite, but it does slow us down.”

Ariel nodded slowly, but said nothing.

Quinn lifted and gently kissed the back of the writer’s hand before relinquishing it.

“So tell me,” said Ariel, making an obvious effort to change the subject, “what do you expect this MORBID database to show?”

“Well, if there are any murders in this area that appear to have the same m.o. as those around Parsonville, it could give the police something else to dig into, to bolster the case against Scott.”

“And it can do that? Show connections, I mean.” said Ariel, as she opened a tin foil package of garlic bread, releasing the pungent fragance into the air. “No Charlotte,” she added sternly to the kitten who, knowing good food when she smelled it, prepared to leap onto the kitchen table.

“Mrrraow!”

“No! You can’t have any.” repeated Ariel as the kitten paced back and forth looking for a way up.

“I’ll get her, Love,” said Quinn, “I’m just gonna get another beer. Want one?”

“No thanks.”

“Ok. Come on guys. Out in the hall until we’ve finished eating,” she said, as she scooped up Charlotte and Hairy, who had been attracted by Charlotte’s protest. Grise was nowhere to be seen but as she straightened from setting the other two down outside the kitchen door, she spotted him strolling out of the living room. “Sorry guys. Find something else to do until we’re done.” Shutting the door, she crossed to the fridge to select a beer before returning to the topic, and the table. “Supposedly. At least that’s what the guy on TV seemed to indicate. Joe is supposed to phone me when he’s got something to report.”

As though to underline her words, her phone beeped. Quinn checked the caller ID, winked at Ariel and flipped it open. “Hi Joe,” she said.

“Boss this is some database you sent me to,” said Joe, without preamble.

“Hello to you too,” said Quinn with a grin. “So it’s as good as advertised?”

“At least. I’ve been playing with it for the last hour. They’ve got all the known serial murderers in it and you can run the schematics to show their crimes. It’s wild, I tell ’ya. They’ve used it to link the known guys to other murders that were considered unsolvable. Solved a whole bunch in the past year.”

“Yeah? Did they get those guys to cop to them, to support their conclusions?”

“Yup. They have details on sixteen of them that they got the murderers to confess to, and they say they are going to put up details of several others over the next few months.”

“Sounds promising. So. Did you find out anything that helps us?” said Quinn, leaning forward unconsciously.

“Well, it’s the weirest thing, Boss . . .”

“What is?”

“There’s nothing like the Parsonville crimes in this area . . .”

“Shit,” muttered Quinn.

“No, wait. Like I said, there’s nothing in this area, but there are some small odd pockets on the west coast. They’re pretty sure it’s the same guy but for the moment they’re marked inconclusive. Because of the distance, you see.”

“The coast?” said Quinn. “And you’re sure there’s nothing in this area?”

“Not a thing. But I’ve put in a call to the head honcho . . .”

“Dr. Stanley Hollis.”

“That’s the one. Maybe he can tell me more, but I won’t be able to talk to him until tomorrow.”

“Ok, Joe,” said Quinn, distracted. “Call when you’ve got more.”

“Will do,” said Joe, and disconnected.

Quinn sat back, dinner forgotten.

“What is it?” asked Ariel, watching Quinn’s face.

“Huh? Oh, something that I never thought of before. And dammit, I should have! Just a sec. I want to check something.” Quinn picked up her phone again, activated the pda function and logged into her office’s secure server. As she hunted for a file, Ariel watched with ill-concealed impatience.

“Ok, yeah. Here it is. Vanessa said two of the people questioned by the police moved to the west coast. And they are . . . ” Quinn rapidly scanned the document “Mike Davis and Paula McBean.” At Ariel’s questioning look, she added, “Joe just told me that although nothing like the Parsonville murders has been seen around here, some murders that bear a resemblance to them have shown up on the west coast. Has Scott been anywhere near the west coast?”

“I don’t know,” said Ariel. “I don’t think so.”

“Ok, Hank may have to see if he can track his movements. If he hasn’t, I’m not too sure what to make of this.”

“It creates an enormous hole in our theory about Scott.”

“Unhuh. And I don’t like it,” said Quinn, with a frown.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 16
Quinn had puzzled over this glitch in her theory far into the night. If Scott hadn’t ever visited the west coast, he couldn’t have done the murders. But the murders bore a resemblance to the Parsonville murders in which Scott possibly was implicated. Was the MORBID database accurate? Where was Katie and why did Scott not want her to be found, supposing, of course, that she was why he had tried to kill Ariel in the park. If in fact it was him who had tried to kill Ariel in the park. And if not Scott, who? The idea that someone else might be out there intent on killing her lover was frightening, but had to be examined since, given Ariel’s well known views, it might, in fact, be true. Sleep finally claimed Quinn about 4:00 am, without her solving any part of her problem. Maybe in the cold light of day, she decided, something would jump out at her that she had missed the night before. With that in mind she laid the problem before Kris.

“How many murders, all told?”

“Five,” said Quinn, staring over Kris’ shoulder at the computer screen.

“Ok. Well, other than a colourful pattern, what do you think we should be seeing?”

“I don’t know! Something!” exclaimed Quinn, throwing her hands in the air. “I was so sure that Scott was the killer I didn’t look beyond him. Now everything’s up for grabs again and we’re still no closer to finding Katie or nailing her no good brother!”

“Easy Boss Lady! Easy! Let’s take a step back.” Quinn glared at Kris, but the other woman didn’t back down.

“Ok,” said Quinn, dropping into a chair. “You’ve got the floor.”

“Alright.” Kris stood up and paced slowly back and forth. “There were other people besides the two who moved to the coast, uh, Paula McBean and Mike Davis, that you were unable to interview because they moved out of town. Right?”

“True.”

“And the fact that the police originally interviewed them because they had some connection to the missing girls, they moved out of town, and then these west coast murders come to light looking like they might have been done by the same person, bump the folks you couldn’t talk to higher up your list of probable suspects, right?”

“Your point?” growled Quinn.

“Were you able to track them all down?”

“Joe located them. No one else lives on or near the west coast.”

“Ok, but do they travel to the coast on business? Have they been there on vacation? Do any of them live close enough to nip over and back on an airline shuttle on a day off?”

Quinn contemplated Kris with an unreadable expression that finally resolved into a small grin. “Nip over and back?” she said, and started to chuckle. “Nip over and back?”

“Hey! Ariel’s the wordsmith around here, not me! And you know what I mean!”

“Yeah, I do.” Quinn sobered and looked rueful. “You mean we’ve got our work cut out for us evaluating the likelihood that any of these people committed the murders.”

“That’s exactly right.”

“Nip over and back.”

“Bite me. And while you’re at it, I assume that you’ve included in this number the people who were on your list that you had no idea where they’d got to. Joshua, Julius and whatshername, Emily.”

“I assume you’re referring to Jessie, John and Amelia.”

“Whatever.”

“Joe tracked ‘em all down, so we’ve got starting points for all of them.” Quinn sat immobile for a few seconds then slapped her hands down on the arms of her chair. “Ok. Kris, I want to get this resolved as quickly as possible, so in addition to Joe working on this I think it’s time to give your hacker skills another outing.”

“Be still my heart. Now get out of my office.”

“That’s what I like,” said Quinn as she grinned and got to her feet. “Loyal, obedient, polite staff.”

“That’s me,” said Kris, settling down once more in front of her computer, adding sarcastically as Quinn turned to leave, “Tell him I’m taking credit cards and airline records. Those always put me in a carefree mood.”

“You got it,” said Quinn as she left the room.
——————————————————————————–

Quinn’s phone buzzed as she strode back to her office, or, more accurately, her closet. When she’d moved in with Ariel she had revamped the layout of the office in her two-bedroom bungalow to give her employees more office space. With her out of the office most of the time, either on the road visiting clients or protecting Ariel, which, she acknowledged ruefully, had become a full-time proposition, she didn’t need much space herself. Now, since Kris and John seemed to have taken over most of the administrative load of running the business, they had the only areas that could properly be called offices, while she and the rest of the operatives shared a couple of desks tucked into odd corners. The one that she was currently using was located in a closet in the bedroom considered John’s office. He was on the phone as she threaded her way around filing cabinets, silenced the buzzing of her own phone by opening the connection and dropped into a chair. “Thanatos,” she barked.

“Mmm. I’d say you should have taken me up on my offer this morning,” purred a velvet voice.

Quinn grinned in reflex. “Sorry, Love. Just a bit of frustration showing there.”

A sexy chuckle greeted this. “That’s exactly what I mean. If you’d stayed in bed a while longer I would have taken care of all, and I mean all, your frustrations.”

“Oh, Baby, I wish I had! But since Jamie was arriving at 8:00, and we’d overslept, I didn’t think the new hire should find her boss and the client getting it on. Didn’t seem to set the right tone, somehow.”

A chuckle greeted this, but Ariel elected not to pursue it, saying instead “Actually, the reason I phoned was not to remind you of what might have been, but to tell you that Edward just phoned with some good news that I wanted to share.”

“Oh yeah? How is the old buzzard and what did he have to say?” said Quinn, who found herself doodling a caricature of Ariel’s publisher on the desk blotter.

“He just got the word that After Dark has sold three million hardcover copies world wide and the same film company that optioned Midnight Madness is interested in optioning it. We made a date to discuss that and future projects at his office on Wednesday.”

“Hey! Congratulations! That’s great news!” exclaimed Quinn. “Knowing Edward, I’ll bet he was absolutely bubbling.”

Ariel chuckled. “He told me that after he heard that, he rushed right out to Julia’s desk and waltzed her around the office before he could calm down enough to call me.”

“Sounds like you’re his favourite author, as if there were any doubt.”

“Yeah, well he’s my favourite publisher, so I guess we’re even,” said Ariel, with a smile in her voice. Then changing the subject she asked: “How are things going there?”

Quinn blew out a breath. “Well, if I told you that we’d made progress, I’d be lying.”

“Oh Love, I wish I could help!”

“Thanks. I wish I could do more than what I’m doing, but Kris and I have decided that we have to investigate all the people we couldn’t talk to, to see if any of them could be responsible for those west coast murders.”

“Oh no.” commiserated Ariel.

“Yeah, which means hacking into credit card info, bank accounts, airline records, employment records. That sort of thing. Which means that Joe and Kris are going to have to bear the brunt of the work on this.”

“Has Joe got through to Dr. Hollis yet?”

“I haven’t heard from him, so I assume the answer is no, but I’m just about to call him with this latest assignment, so I’ll ask him. Speaking of assignments, how’s Jamie doing?”

“Fine! No problems at all.”

“Good. The way things are working out . . . well,” Quinn paused, “you may be seeing more of her.”

“Quinn, Honey, it will all work out. It will.”

Quinn smiled ruefully. “Thanks for your confidence, Love. Now I’d better get back to doing whatever it is I should be doing.”

“Ok. Me too. I love you.”

“And I love you too. See you later.”

After disconnecting, Quinn thought for a second then decided it would be smarter to review the file they had compiled on the people they’d missed, before calling Joe. She was comparing conflicting stories from two witnesses to the same event, making her marvel at the subjectiveness of human memory, when she heard voices from Kris’ office. After a moment’s eavesdropping she concluded it was Owen, the firm’s other new operative, back from the film shoot, and she decided to go get an update.

“It’s like watching grass grow. Twenty-two takes! And one of the camera techs told me they were on schedule.”

“Welcome to the world of movie making,” she heard Kris respond, dryly. “Don’t get so bored that you forget what you’re there for.”

“Yes mom,” he was saying with a grin, as Quinn came around the corner.

“So, no sign of the deranged fan?” asked Quinn, leaning in the doorway. Carson Oliver, the star they’d been engaged to protect, had been followed around the country by a man convinced that she really was Honor Harrington, a role she had played in a sci-fi film some years before.

Two heads swivelled toward Quinn. “Not so far,” responded Owen.

“Yes, but if he holds true to form, he’ll turn up sooner or later,” interjected Kris. “He’s been arrested at every film shoot she’s done on this continent since the release of Death before Dishonor, three years ago. So I repeat, don’t get distracted.”

“Vanessa’s guarding her now?” asked Quinn.

“Yeah. They don’t need Carson now ‘til later in the day so Van’s with her in her hotel suite and she told me to come back here in case there’s anything else you need done.”

Quinn raised an eyebrow at Kris, who grinned evilly in return. “You betcha, sonny boy! I’ve got some filing over here that’s just waiting for someone like you.”

“Oh boy,” mumbled Owen resignedly as he followed her out of the office.

Quinn smirked and went back to her desk to dial Joe.

Fifteen minutes later, the phone was picked up on the second ring. Finally! said Quinn to herself, leaning forward, pen poised over her notebook. She’d punched in his number and then hit redial twice but got his voice mail each time on the first ring. And she hated waiting! “Have you got through to Dr. Hollis yet?” she barked, before he had time to speak.

“Quinn! Hi. Yeah I just got off the phone with him. This is real interesting stuff!”

“Tell me.”

“Well, he says that they’ve got some other murders out there on the coast that they haven’t put up yet, but they’re pretty sure it’s the same guy.”

“How many?”

“Six. Spread out geographically, which has been making it hard to link them. But if they’re all the same guy, it’s eleven in all.”

“Eleven? Goddess!”

“Yeah. He’s sending me info. I ought to have it within the hour and I’ll send it on immediately.”

“Good, although if they are the same guy, it’s really beginning to look as if Scott’s not our man,” said Quinn with a frown. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess. Anyway, ’nother topic. Because those murders occurred there, we’ve got to take a closer look at the people we couldn’t talk to. Kris is taking credit cards and airlines. Can you handle the rest?”

“I’ll get right on it.”

“Good. Call me.”

“You bet.”

Quinn tapped her lips with the phone as she considered what to do next. She felt so useless. Hacking was a skill that she’d never taken the time to develop well enough so that she could contribute significantly at times like these. Of course, she conceded ruefully, times like these were few and far between, and usually handled by Joe quickly, and with no problem. Alright, she told herself, as soon as this is over, a hacking 101refresher and further instruction is at the top of your list of new and useful things to do. Mind made up, she was just setting the phone down on the desk when it buzzed.

“Quinn Thanatos.”

“Quinn, it’s Hank Walsh. We think we’ve got a line on the guys who did the driveby.”

“Yeeeehawwww!” shouted Quinn as she pumped her fist in the air. John looked up, startled. “Where are they?” asked Quinn, ignoring John, and then Kris and Owen who arrived seconds later.

“We went to their last known addresses but neither was home. We’ve got APBs out on both.

“How’d you get onto them?” she asked, curious.

“The usual way. They bragged about being paid to take a shot at a celebrity. The guy they told needed something to get out of a three-time loser rap. The story sounds pretty solid. We just have to confirm it.”

“Great. Keep me posted. I want to see the interrogation.”

“I’ll let you know,” said the detective and disconnected.

“Good news,” said Kris, laconically.

“The best. The driveby shooters. They know who they are. Now they just have to catch them.”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 17
As it turned out, the good news about the driveby shooters was the high point of Quinn’s day, and she arrived home in a very bad mood.

Although Joe had expected to receive material from Dr. Hollis momentarily, it was hours before the hacker phoned her back to report that a computer crash at the government facility had effectively stalled that line of inquiry until the next morning, at the earliest.

Quinn hoped that at least the electronic search by Kris and Joe would turn up something, but as the hours went by and nothing out of the ordinary materialized, it became apparent that it was going to take many more tedious hours of hard work to unearth anything, although both contended that it was just a matter of time before something surfaced.

Hank had not called back with further news about the shooters so that too was at a standstill. And to top it all off, the automated controller of the taxi she took to go home had been vandalized by the anti-techno group she’d heard about on the news, causing the vehicle to wander aimlessly along city streets unless given specific instructions at every street corner. This proved to be less than safe and Quinn arrived home still recovering from a close encounter she’d had before getting the hang of controlling the vehicle: she’d told it to proceed straight along the street she was on, and it had, crossing an intersection against the lights and narrowly avoiding clipping the tail end of a moving van. Thank the Goddess that the automated controllers on the vehicles around her had been operational!

“Hunk of junk!” she snarled as she got out. “Park yourself and wait for Central Traffic to come get you.”

“Thank you for taking Central Traffic Transportation,” intoned the car. “We hope you enjoyed your ride, and will travel with us again soon. Have a nice day.”

“Park it, you accident-waiting-to-happen!” she roared, slamming the door. While dialing CTT’s customer service line, she was somewhat mollified to see it pull over to the side of the road and shut itself down. Assured that a crew would be around soon to repair the damage, she started across the street.

Just as she reached the sidewalk, with her thoughts beginning to turn from murderous mayhem involving people who sabotaged taxis, to Ariel, cold beer, and a much neglected workout schedule, the door of the Rankin sisters’ home opened, and Jemma Rankin looked out. “Quinn!” she called. “Quinn do you have a moment?”

The security consultant arranged her face into what she hoped was a cordial expression. “Ms. Rankin. What can I do for you?” she said, stopping at the bottom of their front porch. She’d spoken to the Rankins less than a half dozen times and usually it was just hello and goodbye, so she wondered why one of them would be flagging her down.

“Oh you!” the other woman exclaimed. “So formal! You really must start calling me Jemma .”

Quinn controlled herself – no reason to take her mood out on innocent bystanders – “Ok Jemma. What’s on your mind?” she inquired.

The elderly woman glanced up and down the street theatrically, and Quinn began to rethink her decision not to inflict her mood on others, when she continued: “Well, Maggie and I know about Ariel’s nephew. . . I mean, it was all over the ‘netnews for days after all, and the media hanging around Ariel’s front door. . .” Sensing something in Quinn’s demeanour she hurried on: “Well, I thought you should know, I saw him out here this afternoon.”

What? “You saw who out here this afternoon?” she barked.

“Scott,” said a new voice from behind Jemma. “It was Scott,” said the voice’s owner, Jemma’s older sister, Maggie. “Jemma called me and I saw him too,” the other woman continued as she edged past her sister out onto the porch.

“When? Give me the details,” Quinn snapped, hanging onto her patience by only strength of will, although intuition told her that getting the story from Maggie would be a lot quicker than from Jemma.

“About two hours ago. He was only here for a few minutes. Jemma looked out the front window. We were expecting a grocery delivery and when she heard a motorcycle she thought it was the delivery boy.”

“Yes, they promised us the boy would be right over with some of those wonderful cinnamon buns. . .” Two sets of eyes bored into her. “Um – ” she said, hurriedly. “Well, anyway, he just sat out there on his motorcycle, watching the house.

“You’re sure it was Scott? He took his helmet off and you got a look at his face?”

“No,” responded Maggie, uncompromisingly. “He didn’t take it off.”

“Then how can you be sure it was Scott?” snapped Quinn, losing patience. “I mean if he was still wearing a helmet what –”

“It was the way he sat, dear,” interjected Jemma triumphantly before Maggie could reply.

“The way he SAT!” exclaimed Quinn, voice rising in volume.

“YES!” shouted Maggie, temporarily silencing the security consultant.” He has a way of sitting, when he’s not sitting in a chair with a back,” she continued, “leaning a bit to his right and resting his elbow on his thigh. It was Scott. No doubt about it!” She folded her arms and stared challengingly at Quinn.

And Quinn had a sudden flashback to Scott on many occasions talking and laughing with Ariel in the garden, seated on the backless bench and resting his right elbow on his thigh. Looking at the two faces gazing back at her she was suddenly thankful that they apparently spent a lot of time observing Ariel’s back garden.

“Ok,” she responded carefully. “What happened?”

“Nothing. He sat there for about five minutes, then he gunned the motor, did a wheelie down the street and disappeared,” answered Maggie.

“That’s right. We watched him the whole time and that’s what he did,” agreed Jemma. “Personally, I was surprised he was able to do a wheelie on a Suzuki-Honda 1280 so easily, because of the torque and the centre of gravity, you know, but there you are,” she added, offhandedly.

Quinn closed her mouth, which had dropped open, and tried to collect her thoughts. Several ideas tried to push to the fore, but what came out was: “A Suzuki-Honda?” she asked, weakly. “He was riding a 1280?”

“Yes,” interposed Maggie. “But all the chrome was painted black. Probably to disguise the make. As if!” she added, disdainfully.

“Yeah. Ok,” said Quinn, mind at sea. “I’ll have to call the police . . .”

“Oh, that’s already taken care of dear,” responded Jemma, pleasantly. We called Ariel right away and that nice woman you have staying with her now – Jamie? – she called that lovely man Mr. Walsh and he came right over. We served him the cinnamon buns with tea – the boy had delivered them by that time – and we told him everything. We just wanted you to know so that you’d be extra vigilant, dear. We know how protective you are!”

“Oh.” Quinn gave herself a mental kick, as the two gazed at her. Collecting her wits, she added, “Thanks. Uh, yes, I am pretty protective. Thanks again for, uh, speaking up,” she added, lamely.

“Our pleasure dear. We’d hate to have anything happen to Ariel,” said Jemma, brightly. “She’s such a lovely neighbour. Bye now,” she added, as Maggie steered her into the house.

“Yes,” added the second Rankin, pausing for a moment before closing the door. “Keep her safe.”

“Count on it,” responded Quinn, thoughts in a whirl.
——————————————————————————–

“You’re telling me that those two old biddies are motorcycle experts?”

The voice at the other end of the phone chuckled for several seconds while Quinn’s blood pressure rose. Just as she was about to lose it, Hank Walsh’s baritone replaced the laughter, but only just. “Yup. In their day, between them, they held a good half dozen national motorcycle records. And they operated a cycle shop that was famous throughout the north east. Custom jobs, refurbishments, you name it, they did it. If anybody qualifies as a cycle expert, it’s Maggie and Jemma Rankin. And if they say it was a Suzuki-Honda 1280, it was a Suzuki-Honda 1280. They still contribute occasionally to some of the cycle ’zines, so they’re up on the latest, trust me.”

“Ok,” responded Quinn, weakly.

“What I’m wondering about,” Hank continued, his voice considerably more serious, “is their identification of Scott. What’s your take on that?”

“Well,” Quinn paused. “It’s not an identification that would hold up in court, but he does sit like that. And it sounds as if they’ve seen him often.”

“Yeah.” There was a pause. “When we went looking for him he was in his room and claiming to have been there studying all afternoon. We couldn’t find anyone who could or would say anything different. And of course, he’s still claiming the bike was stolen, and still periodically pesters the theft detail about it. ”

“Ok, but what I’m wondering,” said Quinn, slowly “is what does he get out of this? I mean, it seems pretty pointless.”

“I don’t know. So he can claim police harassment when it finally comes to trial? Maybe he thought he could get into the house. Or perhaps because he’s keeps eluding us he thinks he can get away with anything. Your guess is as good as mine.” Hank paused, then continued. “Just to be safe, I’ve asked that patrols on your street be upped.”

“Thanks.” Quinn cudgeled her brain, but nothing else came to mind. “Ok, Hank, thanks. I suppose there’s no sign of the driveby shooters yet.”

“Nope. I’ll let you know.”

“Alright. Talk to you soon,” said Quinn as she disconnected.

“Believe it now?” asked Ariel, uncapping a bottle of Hobgoblin Ale, and crossing the kitchen to Quinn’s side.

“Huh? Oh. Yeah. Who knew. Little old ladies on hogs. What is this world coming to,” replied Quinn, weakly, as she accepted the bottle and took a long pull of the malt flavoured brew.

“Well, Darlin’,” said Ariel with a grin, slipping her arms around her lover’s neck as she seated herself in her lap, “they aren’t little, in fact, Maggie is almost your height, and Jemma’s not that much shorter, they haven’t always been old, and they’d have to have a bit of money tucked away to live in this area, so running, and then retiring from a successful business sounds quite plausible to me.” The blond woman concluded by intercepting the bottle and languidly gulping down the tawny liquid. Quinn watched, entranced, as beads of moisture rolled off the chilled bottle over Ariel’s bottom lip and chin, to run down her tanned throat toward the valley between her breasts.

“Ummm. . .” Quinn shook herself mentally and raised her eyes, only to meet Ariel’s amused glance. “Oh! Uh, yeah, but. . . Well, I guess I just thought they must have inherited a bundle from Daddy, or somebody,” responded Quinn lamely, as she relieved her lover of the now half empty bottle and poured more of the crisp brew down her own throat.

“Jumping to conclusions, were we?” asked Ariel, with a smile, as she leaned closer.

“Yeah, you’re right. I was,” said Quinn, shamefaced.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” murmured the blond woman as she brushed her lover’s lips with her own. “Just improve.”

Quinn grinned lopsidedly, hearing a variation of the advice she’d given on more than one occasion, coming back to her. “yes Ma’am,” she whispered, inches from Ariel’s face.

The blond woman shifted fractionally and Quinn felt a surge of heat to her groin. “Perhaps you need some positive reinforcement?” inquired Ariel, between kisses.

“Oh, yes Ma’am!” responded Quinn, eagerly, leaning forward.

Ariel paused and contemplated Quinn, a small smile playing around her lips. “Call me Ma’am too many times and I’ll think you want this to go in a somewhat different direction than what I planned,” she breathed.

Quinn caught her breath. “Well, you in tight black leather always turns me on—”

“Jacket? Pants?”

“Oh yeah . . .”

“And . . . ?”

“Surprise me?”

“Well then,” murmured Ariel, amused. “What are you waiting for? Take me to bed.”

“Yes Ma’am!” agreed Quinn, enthusiastically.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 18
The fog of sleep was suddenly dissipated by a small sound. The dark haired woman ran a quick auditory check of her immediate surroundings before determining that whatever she had heard, it wasn’t in the room with them. Turning over carefully she lifted the gun from the bedside table and sat up noiselessly on the side of the bed. The clock glowed 3:00 am.

Quinn listened. Ariel’s slow, deep breaths told her that her lover was still sound asleep behind her. The security consultant concentrated, to isolate what had wakened her. Outside the house, a car drove down the street, not slowly, but not fast either. Someone on the way home, or one of the police patrols Hank had promised. Quinn was ridiculously comforted by the thought, for she wryly acknowledged that the patrol car could be miles away before anything went down, if anything was going down. Still, she was glad they were near, even if near was relative.

There it was again! Quinn rose and walked quietly across the room to listen at the closed door. Whatever it was, was right outside in the hall.

Suddenly a series of unearthly shrieks, hisses, thumps and spitting erupted, followed immediately by two sets of pounding feline feet heading downstairs at breakneck speed, followed a few seconds later by a third set, moving more sedately.

Quinn, aware of her racing pulse, concentrated on breathing evenly. Just the cats or something else? Glancing back at the bed, she saw that other than turning onto her side, Ariel, a very heavy sleeper, seemed to be undisturbed. Good. She didn’t want to wake her if she could avoid it. Putting her ear to the door and listening for another minute, the security consultant was pretty sure she had the answer to her question, since she heard nothing. However. Satisfied that no one was immediately outside, and holding the Glock at the ready, she eased the door open. Nightlights, which she had installed as a security device, provided enough illumination that Quinn could see the hall was empty of intruders. Sliding through the entrance, she closed the door behind her.

Moving carefully, Quinn drifted silently down the hall to the first room next to the master suite. She was pretty sure the noise had just been the cats, but didn’t intend to leave anything to chance. One thing is sure, she thought, if I run into anyone I’ll have a split second advantage since no home invader would expect to encounter a six-foot tall naked woman with a heavy duty gun, in the middle of the night. Smiling grimly, she checked each room in succession, and found nothing.

Back again at the head of the stairs, she moved down slowly, one step at a time, pausing to listen and assess her surroundings on each step. Nothing. At the bottom she waited and listened, then headed for the front door. All secure. The videocamera that allowed her to check who was at the front door showed only the street at night. Retracing her steps from the front entry, she began methodically checking the downstairs rooms, moving toward the kitchen at the back of the house. No one anywhere, and all windows secure. So far, so good.

Pausing at the doorway to the kitchen, she could hear something inside, but a moment of concentration told her it was more of the feline fracas that had wakened her, although not nearly so noisy. Easing through the doorway she listened, and determined that whichever cats were involved would be found in the back alcove outside the powder room. Nightlights again provided enough illumination that she could determine that the back door was still barred against intruders, as was the door to the basement. Moving silently around the edge of the room, she took enough time to determine that she was the only human there.

In the back alcove, she found Charlotte, back to the wall, protecting herself against Hairy, while Grise looked on interestedly.

“Hey! Stop it you little monster!” she said, as she pushed Hairy aside with her foot and bent down to pick up Charlotte.

“Roworrghh!” said Hairy indignantly, but backed off hurriedly when Quinn growled at him.

“Hey Sweetie,” she said to Charlotte, scooping her up, and setting the Glock down on the powder room counter, “You ok?”

“Yeorrow!” was the reply, although under Quinn’s soothing hands it soon turned to purring.

“Hey, I see a little blood on your ear. No, no. No wiggling. I have to look. Ok. I think you need a little peroxide on that.” Holding the cat with one hand, Quinn opened the cabinet over the sink and lifted out the liquid. Working quickly she applied some to a cotton ball she extracted from a bag under the counter and then wiped it on Charlotte’s ear. “Yes it smells bad, I agree,” she told the struggling cat. “There now. I think you’re ok.” Charlotte’s response was to leap down and disappear. Nevertheless, Quinn fervently hoped that she’d heard the last of the feline follies for the night.

Collecting the Glock, she padded back into the kitchen proper and manually checked the back and basement doors and the windows, just to be sure. Again all was secure. Breathing a sigh of relief, now that her security check was complete, she pulled out a chair and slumped in it. Might as well rest here for a minute or two, she told herself, because I’m still too hyper to go back to bed right now.

Especially since she had to admit that the first thing she’d thought when she heard the noise outside the door was that Scott had found some way to get in.

Curiously enough, thinking back to earlier in the evening, Ariel had not been particularly alarmed at news that Scott had been spotted outside their home. Later, after Quinn outlined the reasons that Hank had come up with, Ariel had said that setting up a case for police harassment might be the reason, but she was far more willing to believe that Scott was just scared and frustrated and was trying anything that he thought might achieve his purpose, which, as they both knew, was to get rid of her, even though the logic for such an act escaped them both. And, Quinn acknowledged, she might be right. Certainly, if the McEwan Park attacker had been Scott, he had failed dismally. All he’d managed to do was cause Quinn some inconvenience since the car was still being repaired, although its return was promised by Friday, thank the Goddess.

So, she had been 100 percent wrong about Ariel’s anticipated reaction. And that’s not the only thing you’ve been wrong about, she told herself. Yeah, that’s true, she acknowledged. Look at how far off you were regarding the Rankins. She winced. Yeah. Things aren’t always what they seem. She stopped and thought for a minute, trying to tease a memory out of her subconcious. Suddenly it came to her. Her grandmother used to sing a snippet of song with words like those. “Things are seldom as they seem,” she sang, under her breath, remembering, then paused. “Dah, dah dah, dah dah, dah dah. Whatever,” she said acknowledging that the rest was lost. The important thing was that the lesson remained.

Yeah, so here you are, it’s the middle of the night, you’ve just had the shit scared out of you, so you won’t sleep for hours. . . So what are you waiting for? Get to work!

A quick scan of the kitchen revealed Ariel’s laptop at the end of the kitchen counter, where the writer often left it. Scooping it up, she turned on the pendant light over the table, sank into her chair again and flipped the machine open. In seconds she had established a secure connection to her office. Maybe all of them had been guilty of looking for what they expected, not what was there. Ok. She had some hours to kill, since she was now wide awake, might as well see what she could see.

“Mew.”

Quinn glanced to her left at the half-grown dark gray cat who had materialized on the table next to her, and who was now eyeing her solemnly. “Hi Grise.”

“Mew.”

“Keeping me company, or do you have some insidious motive of your own?” she asked as her eyes swung back to the screen.

“Mew,” he responded, and stood up to rub against her shoulder.

Quinn spared him a brief glance and then reached out to stroke him, causing him to purr happily. “Ok, little guy, I’ve got work to do, so settle down or take a hike. Or make some coffee. Your choice.”

The cat responded by stepping down onto her bare thighs, and preparing to knead. “Hey! Hey wait a minute!” she exclaimed, snatching him up. “Wait ’til I’ve got something on, for the Goddess’ sake!” Glancing around, she noted one of her sweatshirts slung across the back of another kitchen chair. Snagging it she quickly arranged it one handed in her lap then gently deposited Grise. Quinn watched with approval as he kneaded for a moment, then settled down and closed his eyes. “Ok, we’ve established I’m good furniture. Let’s see if I’m good for anything else,” she said, leaning forward to review the files Kris and Joe had compiled.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 19
7:00 am. Hugely pleased with herself, Quinn leaned back in her chair, stretching and yawning. She’d done it! Or at least part of it. She still didn’t know how Scott fitted into the overall scheme, but she was more sure than ever that he did, and it was only a matter of time until she figured it out and nailed his ass to the wall. Her activity, after hours of minimal movement, woke the cat on her lap and he promptly leaped down, mirrored her actions in catly fashion, then strolled over to his dish. Charlotte trotted in, seconds later, seemingly none the worse for the battle the night before, but Hairy was nowhere to be seen.

“Hey guys,” said Quinn, as she got up to switch on the coffeemaker, and put out kitten food. “Where’s Hairy?’ As if in answer, the third feline member of the family walked in, but with little of his usual joie de vivre.

“Hi Hairy. You look as if you’ve been through the wars. Did Charlotte hurt you last night?” Picking up the feline she checked him over, finding a swollen and painful area on his leg near his hip that surrounded a puncture mark. She put the struggling animal down, unwilling to cause him more pain, and watched him retreat to the other side of the kitchen. “Yeah, I think we should get that checked out,” she said, thoughtfully.

“Get what checked out?” said Ariel, newly arrived on the scene. Walking over to slip an arm around the taller woman’s waist she murmured: “Love the outfit,” and slid her hand down over sensitive skin to give Quinn’s buttock a quick squeeze.

Quinn grinned, but elected not to respond, saying instead, “Hairy’s right back leg. I think Charlotte bit him last night in their battle royal.”

“Oh? They had a fight?” said the writer, crossing the kitchen to the cat in question and picking him up to check out the injury.

“Yeah. Right outside our door. I was pretty sure you slept through it, although how, I don’t know. Glad you did, though.”

“Hmm. Must explain why I dreamed I was attending a Klingon Opera,” said Ariel, bemused while she slid her hands lightly over Hairy.

“Klingon opera? That would have been worse than being wakened by the fight!”

“Um, well it had it’s compensations,” Ariel replied, sparing Quinn a quick grin before redirecting her eyes to Hairy as she returned him to the floor. “I attended with Jadzia Dax.”

“Really!” said Quinn, amused. “So, how far down do her spots go?” she leered.

Ariel looked up from watching Hairy pick at his food, and flashed Quinn a lecherous smile in return. “I’m not the kind to kiss and tell,” she responded. Then more seriously: “Yes, he should go to the vet ASAP. They had a fight a couple of days ago before you got home. I didn’t find any marks on either of them at the time. But I think it’s an infected bite, and more likely he got it then, rather than last night. Anyway, both of them should be checked over. What about Grise?”

“He just seemed to be a bystander.”

“Hmm. Yeah, just like the other day, although he has had a couple of scraps with Hairy recently.” Ariel observed a listless Hairy for a few seconds more then said: “I think it’s time to get the boys neutered.”

Mind made up she looked up at her lover and added: “At any rate, first things first. I’ll make an appointment for Hairy with the vet right after my laps, which gives me . . .” Ariel glanced over Quinn’s shoulder at the wall clock “. . . 20 minutes until they open.”

“Ok,” said Quinn, picking up the Glock from the table and preparing to follow the writer out. “Let’s go.”

Ariel regarded her with an amused smile. “As much as I love what you’re wearing, or more properly, not wearing, Sweetheart, I’m not letting you go outside in daylight like that. I’ll wait right here while you go get some clothes on.”

“What? Oh, yeah. I wasn’t thinking. Be right back,” said her lover, and sprinted out the kitchen door toward the stairs.

Ariel, enjoying the last glimpse she had had of Quinn’s tanned, muscular body, grinned and said, “World, eat your heart out. She’s all mine!”

Her lover soon returned in hastily dawned shorts and t-shirt. A few minutes later, laps accomplished, Ariel was back upstairs, stripping off her wet bikini while simultaneously punching in the vet’s telephone number.

In response to her enquiry, the receptionist said: “Yes, Ariel. We can fit you in at 4:00 pm.”

“No chance it could be earlier Beth? The little guy’s in pain.”

“Aw, poor Hairy! I wish we could, but Dr. Connor has a very tight schedule today, and that’s the earliest time we have.”

“Ok then,” said the writer, accepting defeat. “We’ll see you at 4:00.”

Ariel disconnected, dressed and hurried downstairs. Quinn, who was just serving omelets, looked up as the writer walked into the kitchen.

“4:00 pm. Dr. Connor is booked solid.” Ariel crouched and stroked Hairy, adding directly to him: “I’m sorry, Sweetie, but you’ll feel better soon.”

“Ok. I’ll go with you,” said Quinn, as she carried the plates to the table. “By the way, what time is your appointment with Edward?”

“11:00. Jamie can go with me—”

“I’ll be back here at 10:30. She’s good but I’d still rather do the honors. Until we have this squared away.”

“Ok.”

“Mmm,” said Quinn giving Ariel a quick kiss as she handed her a plate. “A female who does what she’s told. I like that in a woman.”

“No you don’t,” rejoined the writer, playfully, as she sat down at the table.

“Ok. Point taken. Let me amend that. I like that in a woman I’m guarding.”

“Better,” smiled Ariel, as she poured Quinn some coffee. Sniffing the fragrant brew’s aroma, she added “I expect you’ll need this, since I assume you were up most of the night?”

Quinn made a face. “Yeah. I decided after the ‘cat – astrophe’ it was pointless to go back to bed, so decided to do some work.”

“Cat – astrophe – nice one,” grinned the writer. Then, looking closer, she added: “Come to think of it, you ‘re pretty perky for someone awake half the night, not to mention the sleep deficit from the night before. What gives?”

“Well, I have to check some things at the office first, but if I’m right we got part of the puzzle solved, although how it fits into the whole, I still haven’t a clue,” concluded Quinn, buttering toast. Then glancing up and noting Ariel’s hopeful look she added, quickly: “Sorry, Love, it’s not anything to do with where Katie is. But that will come in time. I’m sure of it.”

“Ariel smiled, and laid a hand gently on Quinn’s wrist. “With you working at it, it’s sure to be a slam dunk,” she murmured.

Just then, the doorbell sounded, signalling Jamie’s arrival, cutting off further conversation.
——————————————————————————–

“’Morning Boss Lady,” said Kris, simultaneously checking faxes received overnight and nodding at Quinn who was just letting herself in the front door.

“’Morning Kris. Anything happening I should know about?” said Quinn as she dropped her jacket on a chair. All the way down to the office she had tried to snatch a few minutes of mental rest, putting what she thought of as the Scott problem out of her mind so that she could return to it refreshed and ready to look for new ways to tackle it. But her subconscious was having none of that, worrying at it like a dog with a bone. She hoped the normal office activity, frantic though it could be, might help.

“Just got here myself, but no one’s called me about anything, so presumably it’s all under control,” said Kris as she glanced quickly over a fax, adding “here’s something for you from a company called Asia Marine. It gives you the ports of call of one of their ships, uh . . . .” Kris paused to consult the paper she held, “the Sea Dragon, over the last two years. What gives?”

“That was fast,” said Quinn, taking the paper. Scanning it quickly she said “I only called them a couple of hours ago and the guy I talked to didn’t seem too interested. But, if I’m right, we are about to identify the Parsonville, and presumably, the west coast killer.”

“Yeah?” said Kris, taking the paper back.

“Pull up MORBID. If you plot when the ship was in port against when the murder victims went missing, we’ll soon find out,” responded Quinn.

“You got it!” said the shorter woman as she slid into her chair and opened the MORBID database.

While Kris was occupied, Quinn phoned Vanessa.

“Alighieri,”

“How’s it going?”

“Fine, Quinn, although I wish we were through this street scene.”

“Would it be better if you had another body there?”

“Yeah. Right now I feel we don’t have her well enough covered.”

“Ok. Someone will be down there soon. Likely me.”

“Good. We could use the help.”

“You got it,” said Quinn, and disconnected. “Well? she added to Kris, who was waiting for a chance to speak.

“It fits. I’ve only had time to check the first two but they dovetail perfectly. Jefferson Bennett’s our guy.”

“Yeah. Quinn replied. “After about the sixth time over the facts it jumped out at me that after he left Parsonville to join the merchant marine, there were no more disappearances. And then that helped to explain the scattered nature of the west coast murders. Join the merchant marine and slay a girl in every port,” she added, savagely. “Call Hank for me, will you? But before you do, check the rest of the data and make sure it matches up. I don’t want to be premature on this.”

“Of course, oh Cautious Leader.” Kris slid into her chair again, then looked up. “By the way, Boss, good call.

Quinn grinned. “Thanks. A wise woman cautioned me on jumping to conclusions and that made me rethink what we thought we knew. If you need me,” she added, collecting her jacket and heading for the door, “I’ll be at the movie set.”

“You got it.”
——————————————————————————–

“And . . . action.”

Unlike almost everyone else on the set, Quinn directed her attention to the onlookers, not the actors, as the scene was played yet again. And that was a pretty tall order, considering that the action covered the length of a city block.

She had arrived at the set twenty minutes before, but just seconds before the crew signaled that a take was about to begin. Quinn had positioned herself so that Vanessa could see and acknowledge her presence. After that take was complete, and while everyone waited for the crew to get ready for another attempt, the security consultant had occupied herself looking over the spectators and assuring herself that no one in the immediate vicinity was a danger to their client.

For this take, she could see that both her operatives were again in position. Vanessa was up the street, as close to Carson Oliver, the woman they had been hired to protect, as she could be under the circumstances, while Owen stood about halfway down, trying to keep an eye on the onlookers and stay out of the crew’s way at the same time. Oliver, Quinn could see, was strolling down the street with a fellow actor, playing out the scene surrounded by cameras, crew and many extras. It was no wonder, thought Quinn, that Vanessa had felt that a little help in this situation was in order.

The main group of actors and crew stopped advancing down the street, while extras continued to mill about the edge, as Oliver and the other actor faced each other and exchanged several lines of heated dialogue. Quinn and her staff tuned out the scene that everyone else was focused upon and kept their eyes moving constantly, checking all the possibilities. Filming on a street with only barricades holding back passersby was chancy. Most people cooperated cheerfully, but a few, well, they were the ones to watch out for.

“And . . . cut. Good one, everybody. Ok, that’s it for here,” Quinn heard the director say. An assistant with a megaphone repeated the words up and down the street. As she threaded her way through the throng, she noted with approval that Vanessa and Owen moved in swiftly on either side of Carson, after the scene came to its conclusion. A crew member had just completed a brief conversation with their client when Quinn reached Vanessa. “What’s happening?” she asked. The tall red head turned to greet her, as Owen escorted Carson to a waiting car.

“Hi Boss. They finished here earlier than expected. Carson isn’t needed again until the afternoon so Owen and I will see her back to her hotel, and I’ll stay with her.”

“You need anyone later?” she asked, mentally juggling operatives.

“No, I don’t think so. The scenes to be shot this afternoon are interiors.”

“Ok, but call for it if necessary,” said Quinn.

Vanessa nodded then followed Owen and the client. Quinn watched until she was sure they were safely into a waiting car and off to the hotel. Then, looking around, she assessed her chances of quickly finding transportation herself. The barricades at either end of the block had been lifted and traffic was beginning to build to normal levels. Dodging around some crew members disassembling their equipment, the security consultant spotted and hailed a passing cab.

“Thank you for choosing Central Traffic Authority to fulfill your transportation needs,” intoned the taxi, as she got in. “We aim to give you the best in swift, courteous and SAFE service. There is no need to be concerned about recent incidents of taxi vandalism. This cab is tamper-proof and certified safe, clean and suitable for the whole family! If you are travelling with little ones, child seats are available and can be accessed at the touch of the red button on the console! Please follow the instructions to ensure a safe and enjoyable ride. Now, it is our very great pleasure to assist you to reach your destination. Where may we take you today?”

Quinn, who had stolen an impatient look at her watch during the taxi promo responded: “1420 Rochester and cut the chatter.”

“I do not recognize –”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know already! Just drive!”

Settling back into the taxi’s upholstery, albeit hesitantly, given her experience the day before, Quinn dialed in an info feed audio channel.

Keep your motor runnin’,
Head out on the highway,

The dark haired woman smiled wryly as she got comfortable and closed her eyes. Who would have believed that the old girls next door would turn out to be motorcycle experts. Goes to show you, she said to herself, Margaret Thatcher was right: it’s a funny old world.

Her phone chose that moment to buzz, interrupting her reverie. “Quinn Thanatos,” she said.

“We got them Quinn. The driveby shooters. We’ve just started the interrogation.”

Quinn bolted upright. “On my way!” she responded and then a split second after disconnecting growled “Oh shit!” as she remembered where she was supposed to be at 10:30.

“Excuse me,” queried the car, “I did not understand that instruction.” Please repeat, speaking slowly and clearly.”

“Cancel your last instruction and take me directly to central police booking.”

Thumbing the speed dial on her phone while the taxi acknowledged the change in destination, Quinn impatiently waited for Ariel to pick up. “Hi Love,” she said, without waiting for Ariel to speak. “There’s been a change in plans. Hank just phoned to say they got the driveby shooters so Jamie will accompany you to Edward’s after all, and I hope to meet you there.”

“Finally! That’s great news!”

“Yeah. I’m hoping the interrogation will nail Scott to the wall. Would you let me speak to Jamie, please?”

“Sure thing, Love. Here she is.”

Seconds later, a new voice said: “Yes, Quinn.”

“Jamie. Normally I’d relieve you at the house but the police have finally caught the driveby shooters and I want to see the interrogation so you’ll have to accompany Ariel to her publishers. I’ll meet you there. Don’t let her out of your sight and don’t let Scott anywhere near her. If you do, you’ll deal with me. Understand?”

“Loud and clear, Quinn.”

“Ok. Good. See you in a while.” Quinn disconnected, musing that so far Jamie, who had an impressive resume, had proved to be a good addition to the staff of Thanatos Security.

Her immediate problem taken care of, the security consultant discovered that she’d arrived at her destination. As Quinn punched in her pay code and exited the vehicle, she surveyed the building entrance, taking in the half dozen police cars parked outside, and officers coming and going through the doors, with and without handcuffed prisoners. Every time she saw the police HQ’s gray façade, the security consultant found herself wondering how something that looked so Stalinist had wound up on the opposite side of the globe. “Damned institutional architects,” she muttered, as she strode to the entrance.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 20
Although Quinn could hardly curb her impatience, in reality it was only a matter of moments before she was logged in, issued a visitor’s badge and waved down the hall to the interrogation section, which smelled faintly of disinfectant. Hank met her there.

“Well?” she barked.

“They’re not talking. I think they’ll fold, but they’ll want something for it. It may take a while.”

“I got time,” she said, hoping she’d bought herself enough.

“Ok. You can watch through here,” said the detective, ushering Quinn into a small dim room with one-way mirrors on two of the four walls. Through each she could see a youth seated at a table. One was alone, but two police officers were questioning the other. “They’re talking to Ronnie Whalen,” said Hank, gesturing at the interrogation. “The one by himself is Marcus Colby. Ronnie is the weak link.”

Quinn nodded, but before turning to the interrogation of Whalen, took a moment to focus intently on the kid lounging indolently in a chair in the other interrogation room. She knew without a doubt that here was the gunman who had fired multiple rounds at Ariel, Scott and herself, so many months ago. His face still haunted the occasional nightmare in which she found herself powerless to prevent Ariel’s murder.

Turning to Hank Walsh, who was watching, she pointed at Colby and mouthed “shooter.” Hank nodded, and softly said “That’s what we were told.” Then, both focused their attention on the interrogation in the other room.

“So Ronnie,” one of the plainclothes officers was saying, “Attempted murder. Wouldn’t want to be in your shoes! That’s pretty big, isn’t it Danny?” he added, addressing his partner, who was lounging against the wall.

Taking his cue, the other man, who was taller, younger and more fashionably dressed, agreed. “Twenty to life,” he said. “That’s practically all she wrote. Only one more stop on that sin-bound train before they cancel your ticket,” he added, leaning over the table to face the prisoner.

“Attempted murder! What are you guys talking about? I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no attempted murder!” scoffed the seated prisoner.

“Sure you do. Your prints tie you to a car from which hollow point rounds were sprayed at three people at almost point blank range. The car was ID’ed at the scene. You’re going down bro’. That’s all there is to it.”

“And the ammo used is going to get you a special circumstance – no parole consideration ‘til you’ve served 30 years. Minimum,” added Danny, again leaning against the wall.

Quinn, who knew that when found, the car had been wiped clean of prints and the rounds fired were standard, held her breath to see what Whalen would say.

“Aw, you don’t got shit,” the prisoner sneered.

“Nice big fat thumbprint on the steering wheel. You didn’t get ‘em all, Ronnie,” said the older detective moving back into the picture again. Quinn, noting a fleeting look of worry cross the kid’s face, glanced at Hank, who had been watching the scene as intently as she.

Sensing an unvoiced question he met her eyes and shook his head, whispering, “They’re just softening him up. Criminals aren’t usually the brightest people, and they’re hoping he’ll contradict them. It’s been known to happen.”

Quinn nodded and went back to observing the dance.

“So Ronnie,” continued the older detective, “with the evidence we got, it’s gonna be next to impossible to disprove. Course, with a good lawyer you might be able to wiggle out of it.” He sat down, smiled and added: “If Marcus doesn’t talk, that is.”

“Marcus ain’t sayin’ nothin’, ’cause there’s nothin’ to say, ” said the prisoner, confidently.

“That’s my cue,” said Hank. “Excuse me. Back in a moment,” and he left by the door through which he and Quinn had entered. In a few seconds Quinn heard a knock on the door to the interrogation room, followed almost immediately by Hank stepping in to motion the older detective out.

The two men entered the observation room seconds later. “Quinn, John. John, Quinn,” Hank muttered by way of introduction. Quinn and the older detective nodded at each other and then turned their attention to the action on the other side of the glass.

Danny, the officer left in the room with the prisoner, relaxed against the wall, and then after a couple of minutes began to pace slowly around the perimeter, whistling softly. After about five minutes, Ronnie, whose calm exterior was beginning to show cracks, suddenly asked: “So what’s happening?”

“Huh?” said Danny, portraying a man wrapped up in his own thoughts who had been suddenly pulled back to the present. “Oh, he’ll be back soon.”

“Fuckin’ cops” mumbled the prisoner, slouching down in the hard plastic chair and folding his arms.

The older detective grinned. “We’ll give him another minute or two then I’ll go back in and see if the wait has helped things along.”

The younger detective came to rest at a section of wall slightly behind and to the left of the prisoner, leaning against it, hands in his pockets and whistling almost soundlessly to himself. After a couple of minutes, Ronnie craned his head around and complained: “Hey, how long you gonna keep me here? I got rights!”

“Oh, we got lots of time yet, man. Don’t worry,” responded Danny, smiling pleasantly.

“Ok. Showtime again,” said the older detective as he turned and stepped out of the viewing room, pulling the door soundlessly closed behind him. Seconds later he re-entered the interrogation room. “Well, Ronnie,” he greeted the prisoner, “you’ve been a very bad boy.”

“Whatcha talking about? I ain’t done nothin’.”

“Your word against Marcus’s, Ronnie, and remember whose thumb print we found,” continued the older officer with glee. “We didn’t find any of Marcus’s prints so that supports what he’s been telling the officers in the other room.”

“Whata yuh mean?” the kid blurted. “What’s he been saying?”

“You should have just kept your mouth shut, but you had to boast to him about the job you did.”

“I never told him nothing about nothing!” exclaimed the prisoner, becoming agitated.

“Sure you did,” said John, the older officer, leaning over the table. “You were supposed to hang out with him at Jack’s Bar and Grill, but when he got there you were gone. It wasn’t until he saw you the next day that you told him about the easy money you made taking pot shots at a celebrity. He’s writing it all down now, and he’ll testify at your trial.”

“I didn’t take no shots! He – ” Ronnie, realizing he was about to give the game away, clamped his mouth tight and made an effort to compose himself. Quinn was aware of total silence both in the viewing room and in the interrogation room, and realized she was holding her breath.

John pulled out a chair and sat down opposite the prisoner. “Are you telling us that Marcus is lying, Ronnie? See, he’s got the evidence on his side, seeing as how we didn’t find anything to tie him to the car, and if you can’t shake his story, you’re going down and he’s gonna walk.”

Quinn watched. Hank watched. The two detectives watched, but the prisoner remained stubbornly mute.

John, the older officer, leaned across the table. “So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?” he said. “I guess Marcus is right.” He stopped, and smiled pleasantly at the prisoner.

“Marcus is right ’bout what?” snarled the prisoner.

“Think about it, Ronnie. Why do you think he did the job with you? ’Cause he knows you’re so stupid you wouldn’t know how to get off and he could leave you twisting in the wind. But Marcus knows how, doesn’t he, Ronnie?” Turning to the younger detective he added “Danny, go see if Marcus is finished writing his statement yet.”

“Will do,” acknowledged the other man, and stepped out the door. Seconds later he appeared in the observation room.

“Quinn, Danny. Danny, Quinn,” said Hank. The younger detective nodded at Quinn, then, as before when John had entered, all three focused on the action on the other side of the glass.

“You see, Ronnie. It’s like this,” the older detective was saying as he tilted his chair back and locked his hands behind his neck, the picture of relaxation. “Whoever talks first, gets our attention. There’s still a chance, of course, to change our minds, but if someone hands us a perp tied up with a bow, why should we bust ours balls to prove their story wrong? Personally, the city doesn’t pay me enough.”

“My cue, whispered the young detective, picking up some papers from a filing cabinet next to the door before slipping out. Quinn raised an eyebrow at Hank, who quietly said “it’s a confession alright, but one we got on another case, a day or so ago.” The security consultant nodded and turned back to the room on the other side of the glass.

Quinn expected to see Danny appear immediately in the interrogation room, but all she saw was the door open slightly, and heard his voice as if he was finishing a conversation with someone outside the room before re-entering it.

“Ok, thanks, man. Yeah. Yeah, we’ll need you at the trial. We’ll let you know. ’Bye.”

“Get it?” asked the older detective, as Danny reentered the room with the papers.

‘Uh huh,” was the response, as the younger officer handed them to his partner.

“Has Marcus gone now?”

“Yup. But he’ll testify.”

“Good. Good. Well I guess that wraps it u—”

“Whaddaya mean has Marcus gone?” interrupted the prisoner, clearly listening to the conversation, and not at all liking what he heard.

The older detective looked up, as if he’d forgotten that the prisoner was there. “Marcus finished his statement,” he said, lifting the papers by one corner. “You’ll see him again at the trial.”

“You let him go? Just like that? And you’re keeping me here!?” Ronnie exclaimed.

“Well, it’s like I tried to tell you,” said the older officer, in a reasonable tone. “Whoever talks first, gets first crack at selling his story.” He stopped to riffle the pages, pausing as if reading a line here or there. “What he’s given us here is plausible. I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do for you.” Turning to the younger officer he added, “Danny, would you get a uniform to take him back – ”

“Ok! I’ll talk, ” he snarled.

“Finally!” Quinn muttered, then immediately spluttered “what?” when John, the older officer said, “Well, we’ve got Marcus’s sta—”

“Fuck his statement! It’s a pack of lies! He was the shooter, All I did was drive the fuckin’ car. I’m not taking a fall for him!”

John looked at him, brow furrowed. Then, he slowly pushed a writing pad and pencil across the table. “Ok,” he said. “But you’ve got to write it, so we got it down in your own words. Start with how the whole thing came about. Somebody paid you to do it, didn’t they, Ronnie. Hell, if they paid you, even if you did do it, it’s their responsibility, see? You could turn state’s evidence and walk away laughing.”

The prisoner was nodding through this, and grabbed the pencil and paper. But before he could begin writing, the detective added: “But remember, Ronnie, if somebody paid you, we’ve got to be able to find him, otherwise, you’re still stuck. See what I mean? So you’ve got to give us a good description, and pick him out of a lineup, too.”

“That’s easy!” exclaimed the prisoner, now the picture of cooperation. “We saw the dude two or three times before he offered us cash to do a little job for him . . . ”

Turning away from the scene on the other side of the glass, Quinn exhaled, and looked at Hank. “You guys do good work,” she said.

The big man smiled. “Like tickling fish,” he said.

“What?” Quinn said, clearly not following.

“Tickling fish. It’s a fishing technique. You take the hook and . . .” The big man trailed off, seeing his listener’s face “Forget it,” he said with a wave of his hand. Then added. “By the way, nice call regarding the serial murderer.”

“Kris called you?” said Quinn, as she opened the door and stepped out into the hall.

“Called me and faxed and emailed me the info. Time matches on all the murders. We sent out notification immediately. He’s currently at sea, but he’ll be picked up at his next port of call.”

“Good!”

“Yeah.” The big man rubbed the back of his neck, then added, “Would you like the pleasure of telling the police chief in Parsonville?”

Would she!? Quinn had to admit that she’d love it. However. “Naw, I’ll leave that to you, but tell him that I sent him a big ’ol wet kiss, Ok?”

“It’ll be my pleasure,” he replied with a grin. Then, switching gears, he added, “You leaving now? Don’t want to stay to see them crack the other guy?”

“Wish I could,” responded Quinn, ruefully, “but I don’t have the time. Got to meet Ariel over at her publisher’s, about . . .” checking her watch, “twenty-five minutes ago.”

“Ok. The other guy will take a while but we should have this wrapped up in a couple of hours.”

“You’ll make him the same deal? If you identify Scott you’re laughing?” Quinn asked as she and Hank walked down the hall.

“Yeah. I know, that sucks, but, yeah. That’ll be the deal.” They stopped at double doors to the entry lobby, cops, robbers and bystanders streaming by on all sides. “And remember, we still have to get them to identify Scott.”

“They will,” said Quinn with certainty.

“Sure about that?” asked Hank. “They might not be able to identify him after all these months.”

Quinn looked at him with a small smile. She was as tall as most men, but she still had to tilt her head back to look Hank in the eye. “I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in this case, but that’s not one of them. They’ll identify him and make it stick. Count on it.”

The big man smiled slowly, and then nodded. “It’s about time something went our way on this thing,” he agreed. “I’ll call you when I’ve got anything else to say.”

“Likewise, ” she agreed, then joined the sea of humanity streaming past, and was gone.
Chapter 21
Quinn checked her watch impatiently. At this rate, Ariel’s meeting with Edward would be over and done before she even got there.

She had caught a taxi immediately outside the police station and expected she’d make it to Edward’s office in about 20 minutes, but a collision on a downtown street corner had reduced traffic to a crawl. Quinn had been on the point of getting out several times and jogging to the first street over to see if she could catch a taxi there, but every time she decided to do it, traffic would speed up, leading her to think it would be faster to stay put.

So much for that theory, she acknowledged wryly, as her cab continued to crawl down the street in fits and starts. Up ahead she could see whirling red lights and an assortment of rescue vehicles and police cars. Making a decision, the security consultant pulled out her phone and dialed Ariel’s number. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four. “Hello. The person at 555-3953 is unavailable right now. Please leave a message at the beep.” Quinn disconnected, deciding that Ariel must have turned off her phone for the meeting. Ok, she thought, go to plan B. Quickly running through her number index she found and dialed Julia, Edward’s secretary, asking her to let Ariel know that she’d been held up in traffic but would be there ASAP.

In less that five minutes, which felt like 20, Quinn’s cab finally crossed the intersection, where two vehicles – both taxis – were crumpled together. “I guess they haven’t got around to making all the cabs tamper proof,” she mused, as the accident, and the acrid smell of fire retardant, slipped by. Once past the crash, traffic began to open up again and a few minutes later Quinn found herself pulling up to the building that housed McQuarry’s, Ariel’s publisher.

Julia greeted her warmly as she got off the elevator. “Quinn! How nice to see you! I gave Ariel your message. Please – go right in,” she said, opening the door to Edward’s office, and standing to one side.

Quinn smiled her thanks and stepped through.

“So Ariel, I’ll send it over to Roberta so that she can go over it for you before we go any furth– Quinn! Good to see you.” said Edward, breaking off what he was saying to greet the security consultant.

“Edward. It’s good to see you too,” she replied smiling.

“Hi Love,” grinned Ariel, from the comfortable leather couch near Edward’s desk, as the publisher pumped Quinn’s hand. “We’re just wrapping up here.”

Quinn finished shaking hands and, stepping past Edward, bent and gave Ariel a quick kiss. “Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner,” she murmured.

“Not to worry. I’ve been quite safe with Jamie.”

Quinn looked over at the security operative perched unobtrusively in a corner of the room, on the arm of an upholstered chair. “Thanks Jamie. I appreciate it.”

The woman nodded. “No problem, Quinn. Should I report back to Kris now?”

“I—” began Quinn but was interrupted by the buzz of her phone.

Holding up a finger, she said, “Thanatos.”

“Quinn we may have a problem at the hotel.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Vanessa called. She just got off the phone with hotel security. They say that a man matching the deranged fan’s description was asking questions about the client. He left before they could detain him. She thinks another body in addition to Owen would be a good idea when they leave for the afternoon shoot, and thereafter. Is Jamie available yet or should I send John? Or go myself?”

“Ok, Kris. Jamie’s freed up now. I’ll send her over to help out.”

“Alright. I’ll let Van know. Catch you later.”

“Right,” said Quinn as she disconnected. “Jamie, Vanessa will need some help this afternoon, so go directly to the hotel. She’ll be expecting you.”

“Ok, Quinn. I’ll check in with the office later,” she said, and slipped out.

“A very conscientious bodyguard, that one,” observed Edward, who was standing behind his desk. “Insisted on staying in the meeting, but apologized for it. Said that she’d promised you she wouldn’t let Ariel out of her sight. And she didn’t.”

“Good. That’s what I like to hear.”

The publisher smiled. “I know, and I’m glad of it. Right now, however, what I’d like to hear is the popping of champagne corks. We were just about to have a celebratory lunch on the roof garden, Quinn. I hope that’s still on?” He added hopefully

Quinn looked at Ariel, realizing with a start that they hadn’t been out to eat, either in a restaurant or with friends, in ages. Not since shortly after they got back from the trip to Parsonville, and it became apparent that Scott had decided to pull out all the stops to prevent Ariel learning . . . whatever he thought she’d learn from Katie. “I think that would be an excellent idea,” she replied, and was glad to see the sparkle of anticipation in the writer’s eyes. Quinn chuckled to herself, observing wryly: Edward’s company and good food! – two of Ariel’s favourite things.

“Wonderful! The caterers should have everything set up by now,” said Edward as he escorted them out into the outer office. “Julia, is everything ready?” he asked his secretary.

“Yes, they’ve just left,” she answered, smiling. “Are you sure you don’t want me to get one of the girls in here to pour drinks and serve?”

“We’ll be fine, Julia. Don’t worry. I’ll see you later,” the elderly publisher assured her.

“Alright then, but if you change your mind there are always a few—”

“Don’t worry. We can shift for ourselves,” he assured her.

“Alright, then,” she said with a small frown. Switching gears, and smiling warmly she said “It was lovely to see you Ariel, and you Quinn. Do enjoy your lunch. And don’t let him,” motioning to Edward, “drink too much champagne! I’ll never get any work out of him this afternoon, if you do!” she finished, jokingly.

“Begone woman!” exclaimed Edward with a grin. “If you won’t help us drink it, you’ll have to accept the consequences!”

“Ta ta,” smiled Julia, and stepped into the elevator as the doors closed.

Edward watched her leave, with a fond expression on his face. Turning to Ariel and Quinn he said, “She’s worked for me for thirty years and organized hundreds of lunches for me like this, with writers she’s come to love like her own children, and I’ve never, in all that time, managed to persuade her to stay for lunch herself. Tells me it wouldn’t be right.” He shook his head with a smile. ‘Anyway, as you’ll remember, Ariel, the roof garden is right through here.” Edward accompanied his words with a gesture, indicating an unobtrusive door in a corner of Julia’s office.

“I do indeed. Wait ‘til you see this Quinn – it’s gorgeous!”

As the security consultant followed the other two through the doorway, she could understand why Ariel had described it as she had. The building that housed McQuarry’s had been constructed early in the last century, before the gods of architectural trends decreed that all office buildings must resemble boxes. Beginning on the 15th floor, and every few floors thereafter, some of the building’s walls were set back slightly, leaving nooks and crannies that could be exploited for recreation or entertainment. Quinn doubted, however, that any of the other tenants had bothered to create anything rivaling the floral explosion surrounding them, from the parapet lushly accented by flowing greenery, to the planters grouped around the terrace that were full to bursting with shapes and colours, to the two small trees that provided a lightly shaded space for a laden table and several comfortable chairs. For a moment, she felt as if she were back in Ariel’s garden. In fact, she realized, the place induced the same feelings of serenity and peace that she often felt while sitting in Ariel’s personal oasis away from the world.

“Isn’t this impressive?” asked Ariel. “Edward did it,” she said with a hint of pride.

“I can only take some credit for the design, my dear, since I wouldn’t tackle it without Sarah’s help,” he said, with a smile, referring to his wife and soulmate. “In the early years she and I would potter about at lunch time, when she worked in McQuarry’s with me, but now we just sketch what we want, chose the plants, and let the gardeners we contract with make it happen. And occasionally I water things to keep them happy,” he added. “It’s really a lot like book publishing.”
Quinn chuckled. “A nice analogy, Edward, but doesn’t tell quite the whole story, I think.”

The publisher beamed. “Well, perhaps that is a touch simplistic, but it conveys the general idea. Now,” he said, pulling out a chair for Ariel, “I love talking gardening, but not before we start in on what Julia assures me is a wonderful spread. Ariel?” he said, indicating the chair.

“I’ll open the champagne,” continued the publisher after they were all seated, “while you two go ahead and uncover the dishes and find out what we’re having. I leave the menu choices up to Julia, you see.” Removing the lids and other coverings revealed an array of salads, cold cuts, and breads, with a tray of pastries for dessert.

The next few minutes were occupied with filling plates and pouring glasses. Eventually, Edward raised his and said, “Before we eat, we must toast the reason why we’re here.” Clearing his throat, he intoned: “To Ariel. Who speaks her mind and writes a damned entertaining story at the same time.”

“Wait! Wait!” said Ariel, as the other two prepared to drink. “I can’t drink to myself but I can drink to McQuarry’s, and to Edward, it’s guiding force, for having the courage to publish an unknown writer, not so many years ago, and for allowing her to say what she wants.”

“To Ariel –Edward.”

“Alright! I’ll just top up everyone’s glass, and we can eat!” exclaimed Edward after the toasts. The next few minutes were fully occupied.
——————————————————————————–

“But Edward, have you tried that system out yet? Don’t you think that in a really dry summer it would be inadequate?”

Quinn chuckled to herself as she leaned back in her chair, replete. Ariel and Edward had returned to the subject of gardening, arguing about the merits of self-watering systems, after ranging through everything – it seemed to Quinn – from politics to religion, with other writers, changing weather patterns, and the best way to marinate steaks for grilling, thrown in. Quinn had managed to updated them on her findings about the Parsonville killer and the driveby shooters, and Edward had insisted they drink a toast to enigmas revealed and gordian knots yet to be unraveled. Along the way, they’d managed to kill two of the three bottles of champagne originally set out to chill. Although Quinn hadn’t had anything close to a half bottle by the time they got to dessert and coffee, she had begun to feel a little fuzzy around the edges. Lack of sleep, she grumbled to herself, and decided right there that she had had enough. Her companions, on the other hand, continued to sip champagne long after lunch was done. Edward did not look any the worse for the amount that she knew he’d consumed, but Ariel, she could tell, wasn’t quite as focused as usual. Quinn privately decided that a nap for two would be the main activity undertaken that afternoon before the trip to the vet.

Her phone chose that minute to buzz. Quinn noted it was Kris’s number before she opened the connection. “Yes Kris.”

“Quinn we’ve got trouble.”

“Shoot.”

“Owen is on his way to the hospital and Vanessa and Jamie are about to go to police HQ, just as soon as John and I arrive to take over guarding Oliver who is insisting that she’s going to this afternoon’s shoot.”

“What happened?” the security consultant said, hunching forward. In her peripheral vision she noted that Edward and Ariel had stopped talking to listen.

“Vanessa says that as they escorted Oliver through the lobby on their way to the shoot, the deranged fan suddenly burst out from behind a pillar yelling he was going to save her. He had a pistol and started firing. Vanessa got Oliver down pronto. She’s not sure what went down right then because she was concentrating on covering the client. A couple of shots went wild, but two more hit Owen, who was returning fire. Luckily he was wearing his flack jacket or it could have been a lot worse.”

“Where was Jamie?”

“Van says Jamie told her she couldn’t get her gun out fast enough, and so when she saw him taking a bead on Van, decided to charge the guy.”

“She what?”

“Said, the way she saw it, it was her only option. Anyway, I guess the perp’s attention really was on Van, who was supposedly holding Oliver prisoner. Van says she got her head up in time to see Jamie take him down with a flying tackle. Knocked him on his ass, but she still had to work hard to subdue him. Finally clubbed him with her cell phone.”

“Ok.” Quinn rubbed her forehead, trying to think. “So how is it that Oliver is going to the shoot this afternoon? Surely the police want to talk to her.”

“My question, exactly, but Van says the woman can sweet talk anything alive – she’s an actor – right? Anyway, she promised the police that she would talk to them this afternoon between takes. She assured them that she wasn’t hurt and that she didn’t want to let the film crew down. Apparently they were hoping to finish with the afternoon location today. I don’t know the particulars but they’re already over budget and every little bit counts. Oliver apparently has some money invested in the film too so . . .”

“Ok. Alright. I assume the police don’t want to talk to me.”

“You’d assume wrong. They want you there ASAP for the usual rigmarole.”

“What!? Surely the fact that my people were shot at first, and one of them got shot shows it was a legit shoot.”

“The guy handling this is apparently by-the-book. Without the paperwork, he’s ready to arrest Owen unless you, as his employer, can prove that he was justified in firing his weapon. I’ve left the Oliver contract on my desk, and Owen’s employment file is in the filing cabinet to the left of my office door. You’re to talk to a Detective Watkins.”

“Damn new fangled gun laws,” muttered Quinn. “Anything else?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“Ok. If it’s gotta be done I better get at it. Keep in touch,” said Quinn, as she thumbed her phone off.

“What is it?” questioned Ariel, as soon as her lover disconnected.

“There’s been an incident. The nutcase turned up at the hotel, and shots were fired. I’ve got to go see the police and there’s no one to take you back to the house so you’ll have to come with me.”

“Of course,” Ariel said, turning to Edward.

Before she could speak, however, he said “I understand. It was wonderful to see you both,” giving Ariel a quick hug and a kiss on her cheek. Turning to Quinn, he grasped her hand and shook it.

“Sorry Edward,” said Quinn. “If I had someone else available . . .”

“Not to worry, Quinn. A hazard of the profession, I would think.”

“Sometimes, yeah.”

The old man nodded. “About the only hazard in mine is boredom. And getting sued, of course.” he added with a grin. “Still, I think I’ll stick to mine. Less fatiguing.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said Quinn, as she held the door for the writer.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 22
Police HQ was swarming. Quinn noted a number of those under arrest appeared to be union members from the t-shirts and caps they were wearing, but couldn’t think of any strikes or work stoppages she had heard about, so decided not to try puzzling it out. Following directions she obtained from the front desk, she and Ariel soon located Detective Watkins’ office, and found Vanessa sitting in an area for visitors nearby.

“Where’s Jamie?” asked Quinn, without preamble.

“Talking to Watkins. She’s been there about 20 minutes,” said the tall red head, gesturing toward a cluster of desks about 20 feet away.

Quinn glanced in the direction Vanessa was pointing and spotted her employee seated opposite a man at a computer several feet away. “Ok,” she said, leaning against the wall. “We have a few minutes. I’ve heard what you told Kris. Now tell me.”

“Alright.” And Vanessa gave her boss a quick rundown of what had occurred, deviating little from what Quinn already knew.

“So Owen fired back?”

“From what I could tell, yes. I was concentrating on protecting Carson.”

“How much time elapsed from when the guy appeared to when Owen went down?”

The other woman frowned, then said: “Up to that point it was . . . no more than five seconds.”

Quinn nodded. “Go on.”

“As I said, once Owen was down, there was nobody firing back at the nutcase so the guy decided to close in. I had my gun out by then but before I could fire I saw Jamie up on all fours and taking off like she was an Olympic sprinter. She hit him and kept going. He hit the floor, her on top. He managed to keep his gun but she kept him from firing any more rounds and finally subdued him by hitting him with her cell phone.”

Quinn nodded. “Why didn’t she have her gun out sooner?”

“’Cause the damn thing snagged,” said a new voice, causing Quinn and Ariel to turn around.

It was Jamie, her usually impeccable French braid looking as if it was about to come loose. “Goddamn new holster. I couldn’t get my gun free and then decided I better forget it.”

Quinn nodded. She could see several emotions crossing the woman’s face but self disgust predominated. Ignoring this for the moment she said only “You OK with the police?”

“Yeah. They want to talk to Van next.”

Quinn redirected her gaze to Vanessa, who was still sitting down. “Go ahead.” The tall red head nodded, then rose and walked across the hall. Shifting her eyes back to Jamie, who by now had ripped off the elastic that had been keeping her braid intact, Quinn said: “so you beat him into submission with your cell phone?”

A rueful expression crossed the other woman’s face. “Well, it was the only thing I had handy. Don’t carry a flashlight any more.”

The corner of Quinn’s mouth quirked at the comment, acknowledging Jamie’s former career as a cop. “Cell phone still work?”

In answer, the other woman pulled it from her belt holster and flipped it open. It glowed comfortingly in response. She held it up to show Quinn, who noted that everything that should be on the display was present and accounted for. Even the digital clock showed the correct time.

Quinn nodded, and murmured: “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

“What?”

The security consultant waved her hand and replied: “Nothing. Just a comment. How about you? How do you feel?”

“Me?” the woman looked at her in genuine bewilderment. “I feel fine.”

“Not shaky? You weren’t hurt in the fight? Or got shot?”

“Shot? No! The paramedics checked us all over.” Jamie rubbed the bridge of her nose, then looked up again into Quinn’s crystal blue gaze. “I felt a little shaky right afterwards for a few minutes, but that’s worn off. As far as bumps and bruises, I’ll likely be a bit stiff tomorrow but there’s nothing to keep me from going back to work now.”

Quinn held her eyes with her own for a few more seconds. Jamie, she knew, was the kind to minimize injury. Sometimes that was good, but sometimes it wasn’t. However, she seemed to be telling the truth. Ok. Quinn took a deep breath and made a decision. “Alright. I don’t know how long I’m going to be stuck down here, and then I want to check on Owen after that, so someone needs to take Ariel home and stay with her. I may send Vanessa over to relieve you later. It depends how it all goes. Ok?”

“Thanks, Quinn.”

Turning to Ariel she murmured; “Sorry, Love. I’ll try to get home in time but Jamie may be accompanying you to the vet’s after all.”

The writer laid a hand on Quinn’s wrist. “Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.”

Quinn nodded, decision implemented, then kissed Ariel quickly. Turning to Jamie she said, “Not out of your sight until you get into the house and all the doors locked. Got me? And tuck your gun inside your waistband at your back until you can do something about that holster.”

“Got ya, Quinn,” replied Jamie and took a step back, waiting for Ariel.

The writer smiled, a little fuzzily, Quinn noted, and then turned to leave. Quinn watched them through the double fire doors at the end of the hall, then sat down to wait.
——————————————————————————–

Vanessa, as the team leader, got more of a grilling than Jamie. Eventually, however, Watkins let her go and she returned to the seated Quinn. “Your turn Quinn,” then lowering her voice, she added: “This guy’s an unbelievable asshole. I hope you’ve got all the paperwork you need, otherwise it’s gonna take a while.”

“Thanks for the tip,” replied Quinn, adding, as she turned to cross the hall, “wait for me here.”

Detective Watkins was busy making notes when Quinn arrived at his desk, so busy he didn’t look up. Quinn contemplated sitting down but, mindful of Vanessa’s comment, decided that that might slow things further. Instead, she opted to put her hands on her hips and observe the activity around her. She had just finished counting the number of handcuffed people in union t-shirts sitting in front of other desks when Watkins looked up and mumbled “Siddown, Miss, ah, Thanatos.”

Miss?! What century is this guy living in? Honey, I ain’t missed nearly as much as you seem to think. Out loud, she merely replied “Detective” in acknowledgement, as she sat down on his plastic visitor’s chair.

The man had gone back to his notes, then, still without looking at her, put his hand out, and muttered “contract.”

Oh, we’re gonna play it like that, are we, thought Quinn, and handed him the contract with Carson Oliver.

The man took it without comment, continuing to make notes. Finally glancing at the sheaf of papers in his hand, he exclaimed, “What is this shit?!” and glared across the desk at Quinn.

“Contract,” replied the security consultant, smiling pleasantly.

“I asked you for the employment contract with Owen Andrews! I thought you were his employer.”

“Actually, detective, you simply said ‘contract’ so, since you’ll want to see the contract my company has with Ms. Oliver, that’s the one I handed you,” said Quinn, enjoying herself. “Here’s the employment contract of Mr. Andrews.” The man glared at her, looking as if he badly wanted to say something, but after a moment of indecision settled down and started to read.

Quinn leaned back in her chair and looked around. Watkins appeared to be determined to read the contract from cover to cover, so, she reasoned, she might as well get comfortable.

The detective’s desk was part of a cluster of desks at one end of a large room, which held several such groupings. Quinn spent a moment or two wondering if they were all part of the same department or if the clusters indicated robbery, fraud, homicide and other police subdivisions. As Quinn watched, people came and went, with and without shackles. A young woman – a teenager, really – in handcuffs had just been led to a desk about 10 feet away when Watkins muttered something. Quinn turned to him politely and inquired; “I’m sorry, Detective. Were you speaking to me?”

“I said,” he replied, with an edge to his voice, “the dates are wrong,” and shoved the contract across the desk.

Quinn caught the document before it could slide onto the floor, and flipped to the back page. Next to her signature was the date of signing: August 19, 2050. Glancing down the page, she saw that Owen had used the shortcut method and written it 08/19/50. Quinn glanced up. “What’s wrong? ” she said, genuinely puzzled.

“The dates! The dates!” Watkins sneered, as if talking to an idiot. “You signed it in August, he signed it on October 8th, which isn’t even here yet!” The detective sat back in triumph.

Quinn looked again at how Owen had dated the document. Yes, the nine was not tightly closed, but only a by-the-book bureaucrat or someone with strong anal tendencies would call that nine a zero. And then to insist that the number represented the month, and not the day? Quinn gritted her teeth, but kept her temper and plastered a pleasant expression on her face. If she lost it over this, the pinhead was capable of throwing her in jail alongside Owen. “Detective, what say we get a third opinion?” she said helpfully, and before he could react she stood up and strode to the next desk where the young woman was quietly protesting her innocence to another officer.

“Excuse me,” Quinn said, and when the officer looked up, she mustered her most engaging smile and said, “Would you mind reading this out loud for me?” and pointed to the date next to Owen’s signature.

“The man looked at her, then at the document, and said “August 19th, this year. Why? What’s the problem?”

“She didn’t show you the right date! That’s the problem!” exclaimed Watkins, who by this time was right behind her.

The officer, who, Quinn saw by the name plate on his desk, was Detective Ricci, looked at the page again and said, “August 19th, and . . . August 19th. Where’s the difficulty, Dave?”

Quinn looked at Watkins, and waited. The man stood, turning a dull shade of red. Finally: “Siddown! And quit wasting my time!” he grated and gestured violently at the chair that Quinn had so recently vacated.

Quinn smiled at Detective Ricci, murmured, “thanks for clearing that up,” and re-took her seat.

Bested, at least momentarily, Watkins pulled over the Oliver contract that he had previously discarded on his desk, and began to read. Quinn smiled to herself and went back to observing the world around her. By now, she could see that most of the union people had moved on, to where, she wasn’t sure. Quinn’s gaze swung idly, and eventually again brushed by the young woman at the next desk, who was still talking quietly to Detective Ricci. That officer, between typing pertinent details into his computer, seemed to be listening, and responding. Probably due as much to the blond hair and tight sleeveless top she’s wearing as the story she’s telling, thought Quinn, cynically. I’d love to see someone try that technique on ol’ bureaucracy-is-next-to-godliness here.

“Look, Ms. Johansen,” she heard him say, “I understand all that, but you’ve got to tell it to a lawyer, not to me.”

The teenager leaned forward and said: “Detective Ricci, I swear, I don’t know what that man told you, but we’ve done nothing wrong. He owed my boyfriend some money. And then he refused to pay! And now he claims we tried to blackmail him into paying? It’s just not fair!”

Quinn listened with one ear as she kept an eye on Watkins, who was knee deep in the Oliver contract. Judging by how slowly he was reading, she doubted she’d be out of there soon. Revenge of the Pissants! she thought to herself. Soon to be a major motion picture!

“Look Casey,” said Detective Ricci, “take it up with your lawyer. If you don’t have one, the judge will appoint one for you.”

“But what am I going to tell my parents!” wailed the young woman, suddenly bursting into tears. “I’ve never been in trouble with the law before!”

Poor kid, thought Quinn, ruminating that sometimes the innocent got swept up with the guilty. Before this was over she knew that the Johansen family would have to dig deep to try to prove their daughter innocent.

Detective Ricci wordlessly offered the young woman a box of facial tissues. Quinn, watching her take one and dab her eyes and nose, noted that she was one of those people who could cry without getting red in the face. Which was rare. In fact, Quinn couldn’t think of a single instance when she had seen someone that seemingly overcome whose complexion did not show the results. Which meant, the kid was putting on a show. She wondered if Detective Ricci was taken in.

The security consultant glanced at Watkins, noting that he was still plodding along with a scowl on his face, and returned her attention to the tableau at Detective Ricci’s desk.

“Look, you can call your parents when you get downstairs,” he was saying, soothingly.

Yup, Quinn concluded, she’s hooked him. Nice job, Ms. Casey Johansen.

At that moment, the machinery that Quinn had relied on for over thirty years for generating useful thought, impaired though it was by lack of sleep and too much lunchtime wine, finally ground into action.

Casey . . . Johansen, she mused. Johan . . . son. Sounds like Joh . . .n . . . son. HOLY SHIT!! Her mind screamed. KC Johnson! Without conscious thought intervening, Quinn found herself at Detective Ricci’s desk, crouched down next to the kid and looking into her face, or as much as she could see since the girl was holding the kleenex to her mouth. “Katie?” she whispered.

“HEY!” A bellow from behind her. “What the Hell are you doing! Get back here!!” The heavy hand of Detective Watkins closed on her shoulder, but Quinn shrugged out of his grasp with negligent ease.

“Katie! It is you!” she said, as the girl tried to turn away, but not before Quinn saw the face she’d long hoped to see in person, not just on a poster. “Oh Sweetie you have no idea how long we’ve looked for you!”

“What’s going on—”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! Leave me alone—”

“Katie, your Aunt Ariel has been searching for you—”

“Hey, who the Hell is Katie?”

“I’ve had just about enough out of you—”

“Katie, we’ll get you help— GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME YOU ASSHOLE! SHE’S A MATERIAL WITNESS IN A MURDER INVESTIGATION!”

Quinn snarled at the two detectives from a half crouch – Ricci still behind his desk, Watkins pulling his hand back as if he’d just realized he’d put it in a blast furnace. She was aware of others in the area watching the scene, and of footsteps rapidly approaching.

“Quinn? You need some help? What’s. . .Goddess!”

Quinn uncoiled to her full height and turned to Vanessa. “Vanessa,” she said quietly, “meet Katie, or as she likes to be known these days, KC, Ariel’s niece.”

The tall red head slowly smiled, as she looked at the teenager huddled in the chair. “Nice Going, Boss. Very nice going.”

“Ok, what the Hell’s happening here? Talk fast and make sense!” The speaker was a middle-aged man with a bristling brush cut and very short temper, who had just reached the scene.

“Captain she’s a crazy woman—”

“Shut up Watkins. What’s the story Ricci?”

“Well, I was interviewing this kid we picked up and suddenly this woman seemed to recognize her. Says she’s a material witness—”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard that. You!” His eyes fixed on Quinn. “My office, now! Ricci, Watkins, stay here with the kid.”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 23
“Uh huh. Uh huh. Ok. Good.” Police Captain Spengler disconnected and looked across the desk at Quinn. “Walsh confirms your story,” he said.

“So what happens now?” said Quinn.

“She’s been charged, and has to answer to that. You could likely get her out on bail tomorrow, or the next day. But in the meantime we have to interview her about the Parsonville thing. You really think she’s got some information?”

“We don’t know what she’s got, but she’s got something.”

“Ok,” he nodded. Then a thought occurred. “You done with Watkins?”

Quinn shrugged. “He was half way through the contract with our client when I came in here. As far as I know, everything’s in order.”

The man picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Yeah. Bring in the contracts that Thanatos gave you,” he said, and hung up again. Seconds later Watkins bustled in.

“Everything Ok with those?” said Captain Spengler.

“Absolutely not! Look at this!” Watkins said, radiating self importance as he laid the Oliver contract in front of his boss.

Spengler grunted, and read the text pointed out to him. Abruptly, he slapped the file shut, almost catching Watkins’ finger, and handed the contract across the desk to Quinn. “Here. Dave, give her the other file. And what about your findings at the scene? I assume it’s a clean shoot?”

The other man looked daggers at Quinn, but finally, under the influence of a glower from his boss, muttered, “it’s clean.”

“Good. Go write it up and have it on my desk by 5:00 pm.” Quinn and Spengler watched the man leave.

“Thanks for that,” said Quinn.

“Little pissant was foisted on me. Anyway,” he said, changing the subject, “good luck with the Johnson girl. From what you tell me, you’re going to need it.”

“Yeah,” said Quinn, looking through the glass wall of the captain’s office at the small group clustered around Katie Johnson. “I think you’re right.”
——————————————————————————–

“So Quinn,” said Vanessa, as the two of them stepped to the curb to flag down a cab, “what’s next?”

“Call Ariel,” said Quinn, with her telephone to her ear. “She’s going to be ecstatic! Did you find out anything from KC while you waited out there?”

“Watkins tried to keep me from talking to her so I didn’t get much,” replied the tall red head, thoughtfully, “but I think she’s terrified that she’ll be sent back to Parsonville.”

Quinn raised an eyebrow. “Sure it wasn’t an act?” she said, redialing Ariel’s number.

“I know what you mean,” responded Vanessa, “but I got the feeling it was genuine. Of course,” she added, “Scott had me pretty thoroughly fooled.”

Quinn made a face. “Yeah. My thought exactly. Acting talent seems to run in the family. She was certainly putting on a good show for Ricci. And he was buying it.” Quinn disconnected the number she had been dialing and said with a frown, “I’m going to try Jamie. Ariel’s not picking up. Hey you! That’s our cab!”

The man trying to cut in front of the two women found himself expertly restrained and pushed aside without ceremony. As they climbed into the vehicle, Vanessa directed it to Ariel’s house, then, noting Quinn’s deepening frown, said, “no luck?”

“No, dammit! What the Hell is going on? I’ll try the house. They shouldn’t have left for the vet yet.”

That didn’t elicit any more response than the other two numbers. “Where are you!?” she muttered through gritted teeth. “I’ll try the cell again.” Before she could dial, however, her phone buzzed. “Ah, good,” she said, thumbing the connection open. “Thanatos.”

“Quinn, it’s Maggie Rankin. Ariel gave us your number the other day. You should know, Scott’s here again.”

For Quinn, who was expecting Ariel or Jamie, time stopped. As she put two and two together, the colour drained from her face. “What?” she whispered. “When?”

“He rode down the street a few minutes ago, and then we heard a motorcycle in the back lane. Jemma thinks he’s still here. We’ve already called the police. They said they’d send someone immediately.”

“Good! Good. Ok.” Quinn massaged her forehead, trying to think. “Stay inside, he’s dangerous. I’ll be there as quick as I can.”

“Alright,” said Maggie. Just before disconnecting, she added, “We’ll keep an eye open for the police.”

“Thanks,” murmured Quinn to dead air.

“Quinn! You’re white as a sheet! What is it?”

The security consultant’s mind whirled. No one answered at the house, where they were supposed to be, and neither of them had picked up their personal phones. Sure, Ariel might have turned her’s off when she got home, but Jamie’s should be on and receiving calls. Cursing herself for not having had the other woman test whether it really was still functioning, she made a decision.

“Quinn! Talk to me! What are you doing?!”

“What’s it look like!?” said the security consultant as she dove over the seat and swung her legs into the foot well at the driver’s seat. “Scott’s at the house!”

“Wha . . . . Oh!” responded the red head, as she processed the news and arrived at the same conclusion as her boss.

“Ow! Watch your feet!” exclaimed Quinn, ducking quickly, as Vanessa re-oriented her six foot plus frame into the front passenger seat. “Here. Take my phone and keep trying to call. Dial one of them on my phone and the other on yours. And try the house every now and then too. Now where are those controls again . . . .”

“Attention! Attention! You are interfering with the automatic operation of this vehicle. If you continue, the police will be summoned. Anyone convicted of tampering with this vehicle is liable for up to—”

The voice abruptly cut off, as Vanessa found and flipped the right switch.

“Ok,” muttered Quinn, fumbling around under the steering column, and then: “There! Got it!” and she stomped down hard on the accelerator.

“Thanks, Van. I couldn’t think with that noise. GET OUT OF THE WAY!” she added at a hapless pedestrian, who had intended to cross against the light. Careening through an intersection, the taxi picked up speed as it roared down the street.

“The fastest way from here is to cut around Market Square, and up onto the Freeway,” continued Quinn as she spun them around a turn that balanced the cab precariously on two wheels before it thumped back down and kept accelerating.

Vanessa, with phones to both ears, grunted, then, remembering the news she had heard that morning said: “Wait, Quinn! No! There’s an execution today. Market Square will be . . . blocked . . . off. Oh-h-h-h SH-I-I-I-T!!”

The light turned red just as the taxi reached the intersection leading to Market Square. “Too late!” growled Quinn, and they rocketed across to the sound of squealing tires as the cross traffic screeched to a halt. On the other side of the intersection, a sawhorse barrier flew into the air, no match for the speeding cab. Through the rear window Vanessa saw the cross piece, with its ‘Execution: Official Personnel Only’ sign, sail out of sight, and the two police officers guarding the entrance grabbing for their walkie-talkies. The street curved sharply to the right, and then, suddenly, dead ahead were the folding metal chairs set up for those invited to view the execution in person. Quinn swung the wheel hard over but still took out a half dozen.

“Goddamned public executions!” she howled, and then: “Hang on!” Swerving wildly, they managed to fishtail around a small group of reporters already on site, despite the execution being three hours away.

“Jesu Maria!” exclaimed Vanessa, glancing again through the rear window. “I think you got a network camera.”

“Coulda been worse,” grunted Quinn. “Coulda been the operator.”

Weaving around the raised platform with its patriotic bunting, through an assortment of media vehicles, tires squealing and smoking, they thundered up the ramp to the Freeway, followed a few seconds later by two cop cars with sirens screaming.

“Hold tight,” growled Quinn, accelerating past a Burger King-McDonald’s transport truck to merge with traffic, then moving rapidly across the highway to the outer passing lane. Far back, she could see whirling red lights and could just detect the sirens’ howl.

“Ok,” she said, a moment later, pausing to skirt a slow moving RV the size of Buckingham Palace with an elderly tourist at the wheel, “I estimate we’ll get there in less than five minutes. If you can’t get through to Ariel or Jamie, get Hank Walsh for me.”

“Coming right up,” said Vanessa, finding his number in the index and speed dialing it. “Here, it’s ringing.”

Quinn grabbed the phone and held it to her ear as she maneuvered around a car towing a trailer. “Hello Hank? Scott’s at the house. Meet us there.”

“Already on my way. Maggie Rankin called me right after she talked to you. I’ll be there in less than five.”

“Us too.”

“Ok. Watch yourself. Somebody’s stolen a taxi and is speeding down the Freeway. They think it’s the On Foot people who’ve been tampering with cabs. There’s three black and whites in pursuit.”

Quinn glanced in the rearview mirror. “Um, four.”

“What?”

“I said, make that four. Another one just joined in.”

There was a pause. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“I don’t know. What do you think I’m saying?” she hedged, swerving around another remote controlled vehicle to put some distance between herself and the black and white posse.

“Quinn, I’m gonna kill you.”

“Only after I kill Scott.” Then on a serious note she added, “Hank we’ve been trying to get through to Ariel for the last 10 minutes without luck. Neither she nor her bodyguard is picking up. The house phone just rings and rings. What would you have done?”

There was a pause. “Ok. You’re still in trouble but I’ll tell the guys to make it an escort, not a pursuit.”

“Thanks. I owe you big time.”

“You sure do.”

Quinn disconnected, tossed the phone to Vanessa who snatched it out of the air, then leaned hard on the horn. “WATCH IT BUSTER!” she yelled at a sports car, apparently manually controlled, that had tried to cut her off. The smoked side window rolled down enough to allow the driver to extend a hand with the middle finger held rigidly aloft. “IN YOUR DREAMS ASSHOLE!” she screamed.

Just then, an information sign flashed by: Willoughby Avenue, 1 mi. “Oh! We’re closer than I thought,” she said. Willoughby was the exit that led to Rochester.

Vanessa, still trying to get through by phone, glanced up. “Uh huh,” she agreed. “I make it two minutes tops.”

“Let’s hope,” said Quinn as she began moving across the lanes to the exit ramp, coming up fast on her right. In the rearview mirror she could see that the police cars had dropped back a bit and were moving that way too.

They took the exit ramp fast, and for a few seconds Quinn had a dicey time keeping all four wheels on the road. It seemed only a matter of seconds before they were at the intersection with Rochester, and she was relieved to see the light turn green just as they reached it. Quinn hung a left in front of an on-coming car, and, tires screaming, roared down the street. Her plan was to get to the lane that ran behind all the houses on Ariel’s block. Quinn didn’t know how Scott could get in the back gate – the fence was steel, lined with wood inside the backyard, and the gate was triple locked , and barred – but if that was his point of entry, then that was where she was going to start.

Another left, and then a quick right and they were in the lane. Quinn slowed marginally, to accommodate the overhanging bushes and trash cans that lined it. “There’s the cycle,” said Vanessa, suddenly.

“Yeah, and look who’s at the gate,” growled Quinn, who had just caught sight of a helmeted figure beyond.

The man saw the taxi almost at the same instant the women saw him. Abandoning what he was doing, he jumped on the bike, kick-started the powerful machine and roared off down the lane.

“Not this time, Buddy,” muttered Quinn, who stamped on the accelerator.

The bike reached the first street, and the rider paused, then the big machine leaped ahead with a roar down the next lane. “Wonder why he didn’t head to the Freeway,” mused Vanessa.

“I think our black and white buddies helped to make up his mind,” said Quinn as they shot across the street and plunged into the next lane, but not before they caught sight of police cars on Rochester and Warwick, driving parallel to their path.

At the next lane the cyclist didn’t hesitate, but shot straight ahead, with Quinn in hot pursuit. “Where does he think he’s going?” mused Vanessa. “Uh oh,” she added. “End of the line,” as they spotted a police car coming straight toward them, and the biker.

“Yeehaw! We got him now!” exulted Quinn, then added “Shit!!” as the cyclist put on a burst of speed and flashed down an intersecting lane, just before Quinn or the police car could cut him off.

“No way, you bastard!” yelled the security consultant, narrowly avoiding a collision with the other car as they careened into the new lane. Up ahead the bike burst onto a city street and without slowing turned left toward the Freeway on ramp.

“If he gets onto the Freeway we’ve lost him,’ murmured Vanessa.

“He’s not getting onto the Freeway,” said Quinn with quiet menace, as she spun the wheel and fishtailed into the turn. As they crossed the first intersection they caught a quick glimpse of one of their police shadows who had been caught out of position making a sliding turn to get back into the chase.

The end came suddenly. Up ahead, Quinn could see a car turning onto the street they were flying down. The biker saw it too and turned sharply to his right at the next intersection, thinking he would avoid it by taking the road that ran in the shadow of the Freeway. But the sharp turn, plus the speed at which he took it, caused the back wheel to slip out from under him, and bike and rider slid across the intersection, a hurtling mass of metal components, sparks and human being.

Quinn stomped on the brake and the taxi swerved to a halt. One, two, three, four, five police cars screeched up within seconds, and as each stopped, the siren died away. Quinn leaped from the cab and ran across the intersection, pulling her gun and taking aim. “Freeze!” she yelled, and heard a baritone voice echo her and add “Police!” Quinn took a quick peek; Hank Walsh was standing a few feet away, gun leveled just as uncompromisingly at the man on the ground.

Quinn was suddenly aware of how still everything was. The noise of the chase had silenced the birds and the neighbourhood’s other normal summer sounds. Then the man on the ground groaned, and cursed. Two officers moved in quickly and forced him down, roughly pulled his hands behind his back to cuff him, then began frisking him.

“Wanta bet that that’s the gun used in the McEwen Park incident?” murmured Hank Walsh, as one officer handed a pistol to another holding an evidence bag.

“No bet,” said Quinn, watching the officers pull the now helmetless man to his feet. “Where’s Ariel, you sonofabitch?!” she said to him, when he was upright.

“Why? You lost her?” Scott sneered, then moved his face toward his shoulder in a fruitless effort to wipe away blood dribbling from his newly broken nose.

Pure rage overwhelmed her. “Don’t FUCK with me you—” Hands: Vanessa’s, a police officer’s, and other’s – smaller, but just as strong – restrained her, but only just.

“Quinn! Quinn!! Stop it! I’m right here!!”

Quinn shook her head. Wha–?

“It’s ok. I’m here.”

“Ariel? Ariel?!”

Arms encircled her. “Yeah, Baby. It’s me. Everything’s ok. It’s ok.”

“But you didn’t answer, and then Maggie said Scott was here and I thought—” Quinn gulped, trying to force the emotion back under control. “It really is you! Oh, Goddess, Ariel!” she said, and hung on as if her life depended on it.

A new voice intruded. “Quinn. I know where to find you when I need you. Go on home, get some rest and I’ll come see you in a hour or so. Ok?” A hand patted her on the shoulder.

“Yeah. Ok.” Quinn gathered herself with an effort. “Thanks, Hank. I’ll see you later.”

The big man nodded and stood back as Ariel steered Quinn to the car that Scott had been trying to avoid when he went down. “Come on, Love, we’ll go in Jamie’s car.”

“But I don’t understand—”

“I know, but I’ll explain it when we get home. After you have some hot, sweet tea and a nap.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 24
“Mew.” Quinn made an effort to open her eyes. A dark grey face gazed back. “Mew,” it said again.

Quinn pulled an arm out from under the blanket with which someone had covered her, and scrubbed her face with her hand. Something warm and furry rubbed against the side of her head, and purred. Opening her eyes again, she discovered that Grise had changed his base of operations to the back of the lazyboy she was currently lying in, and was now observing her from a new angle.

“Mm. ’Lo Grise,” she said and stroked his head, to the accompaniment of a gentle rumble. “Where’s Ariel?”

“Right here.” Quinn heard soft footsteps, and then lips brushed her forehead. Ariel moved around to sit down on the arm of the chair, then reached out and gently pushed some strands of dark hair back from her lover’s face. “How are you feeling?” she said, gazing into Quinn’s face.

“Um. Better.” Quinn stretched, which caused Grise to jump down with an injured look on his face. “Sorry Grise,” she said. “I’ll warn you next time.” With a flip of his tail, the cat stalked through the doorway. The humans watched him leave, then Quinn turned her attention again to Ariel. “How are you?”

“Me? I’m fine. Of course, I didn’t have the exciting afternoon you had.”

“Why didn’t you answer? When I called, that is. I called your cell and the house. Nobody picked up.”

Ariel winced. “I’m sorry, Love. That was my fault.” At Quinn’s questioning look she continued, “Just after we got here, the vet’s office called to say they had had a cancellation, and did I want to bring Hairy in right away. We rushed over there and I forgot my phone here.”

“Hmm. And I hadn’t made Jamie test hers before she left with you.”

“I know, and when she found out what had happened she felt awful.”

Quinn nodded, and went silent for a few seconds, then: “Well, live and learn. None of us will make that mistake again.” Decision taken, she looked around. Where’s Jamie now? And what about Vanessa? Have you heard from Hank? I better get up—”

Ariel pushed her back into the chair. “Sit. Relax. I sent Jamie home just a while ago. Vanessa went to check on Owen, and called a bit later to say that they were releasing him from hospital with strict instructions to stay home for a week. He’s got three cracked ribs. Hank dropped by to say the driveby shooter gave up Scott so the original case against him is a lot stronger than it was before. Oh, and the pistol they found in Scott’s possession is a match to the one used in the McEwen Park shooting, so that’s evidence for another two charges of attempted murder. And when they caught him today he was riding the motorcycle that was supposed to have been stolen, so they’re nailing him on that too.

“Good. The bastard doesn’t deserve any better.” Quinn relaxed back in her chair. “I owe Hank big time,” she added

Ariel smiled. “Yeah. We both do. He’s managed to minimize the fallout from this afternoon, but there’ll still be some legal consequences.”

Quinn grimaced. “I know. I just hope it doesn’t jeopardize the business. For myself, I don’t care, but the others are depending on me—”

“And that, My Sweet, is why I just got off the phone with a criminal lawyer from Roberta’s firm.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I figured you’d need a lawyer. Nobody disrupts preparations for an execution with impunity.”

Quinn winced.

“Particularly,” said Ariel, continuing with a small smile, “when most of it is caught on film by a network helicopter that happened to be over Market Square at the time.

Quinn covered her face. “Oh Goddess,” she moaned.

“Anyway,” continued Ariel, “I figured if I wanted a good criminal lawyer in a hurry, phone a lawyer I already knew and trusted. I did a search on him before I called him. He’s won some tough cases.”

“Good, ’cause this one is sounding worse and worse.”

“Actually,” responded Ariel, thoughtfully, “he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to clear it up if we promise restitution for all damages, agree to a hefty fine, and accept you being banned from driving for a yet to be determined period.”

Quinn eyed her. “Spread money around and it’ll all go away?”

“Isn’t that what it’s for?” said Ariel, giving Quinn a wide-eyed innocent look.

“Ariel—”

“No, Quinn. Listen to me. What you did, you did for me. I’m paying. Case closed.” Then an impish look spread across her face. “Besides, I get a nifty commemorative video of the whole thing. Can’t argue with that. Right?”

Quinn exhaled. “C’mere,” she said, finally, reaching out with both hands. Ariel leaned forward, and they kissed, a long deep and sweet kiss.

“Goddess, I love you,” said Quinn gazing into Ariel’s eyes when they finally broke apart.

“And I love you.” Ariel snuggled close. Feline feet could be heard approaching, and a few seconds later Charlotte appeared on the arm of the chair.

“Hi Charlotte,” said Quinn, freeing a hand to stroke her head. “How’s Hairy?” Then turning to Ariel, she said “How is Hairy?”

“He’s fine,” said Ariel, snuggling closer. “Right now he’s asleep in one of the cat beds in the kitchen. It was an abscess,” she went on. “We left him at the vet’s for a few hours because they had to sedate him to lance it, But I talked to Dr. Connor and she said he was fine. Jamie went back to pick him up just before she went home. I’ve made an appointment for the boys to be neutered but that can’t happen until Hairy’s off the antibiotic he’s been prescribed.”

“Just as long as they don’t have another go ’round in the meantime.”

“Yeah. I’m working on that.”

They settled into companionable silence. And then: “KC—” “Katie—”

Both stopped speaking, then Ariel gestured, and said: “You go first.”

“Ok. Well, the reason I first tried to call you this afternoon was to say that we finally found KC.”

“Yes. Vanessa told me. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said Ariel quietly, and kissed her lover.

“Ariel, she’s got problems—”

“I know. Van told me that too. Will Gentry, the criminal lawyer I hired, is also taking her case. I want him to represent her on the charges laid against her and to deal with whatever she knows about Scott that had her so scared she ran away from home. And at some point in there, I’m gonna get her counselling to deal with what she’s been living with for the last several years. Yeah. She needs help and she’s gonna get all the help I can give her.” Ariel looked up into Quinn’s face. “Something good has gotta come out of all of this. It just has to.”

Quinn gazed into Ariel’s eyes for a few seconds, then gently kissed her lover’s forehead. “You go grrl,” she whispered.

They settled back together, in silence for a while, until Ariel finally said, softly; “Hey, you hungry?”

Up to then, Quinn would have thought that hunger was the last thing on her mind, but the mere act of being asked, suddenly made her realize she was ravenous. “Truthfully? I could eat a whole steer.”

The writer smiled. ‘Good thing then that I’m cooking a roast of beef. And it should be done just about now. Come on, Sport. Let’s go.”

Quinn reached over and pushed the lever that returned the chair to an upright position. Surveying Ariel, who was still comfortably ensconced in her lap, she said: “Normally, standing up with you in my arms from a sitting position is a piece of cake. However, today I think you’re going to have to cut me some slack.”

Ariel smiled and got gracefully to her feet. Turning, she offered her hand to Quinn, saying: “Well, ok. But just this once, you understand.”

“Yes Ma’am,” responded Quinn. “Now lead me to that meat. The way I feel today, you may have to fight me for your share.”

Ariel poked her playfully as they walked down the hall to the kitchen. “Yeah, but the way you feel today, I’d likely win.”

“Don’t bet on it,” rumbled her lover.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 25
“Well, well, if it isn’t the media star.”

“Don’t start with me, Kris,” growled Quinn, as she closed the door. “I’m not in the mood.”

“Not your usual sweet self?” responded her unrepentant second in command, with a grin. “There’s coffee if you want some,” she added.

“Thanks,” mumbled Quinn, dropping the contracts from the previous day on Kris’s desk then getting a cup and pouring herself a slug. Ariel had tried to get her to stay away from work today, and it had been tempting, but with one operative on sick leave, in her mind it was out of the question. And, privately, she thought that her out of sorts mood was more likely to dissipate if she got back into her regular routine. Considering that she and Ariel hoped to see KC later in the day, she figured something familiar and reassuring now would be a good thing. Quinn snorted to herself. Your daily routine is reassuring – yeah, sure, her inner voice snickered. Out loud she said “What’s up today?” and dropped into a chair, sipping the strong brew.

“Well, lessee,” said Kris, “Owen, as you know by now, is on a week’s sick leave, if not longer, Vanessa’s back guarding Oliver, and I sent Jamie along too, in case the attempt on her yesterday put a bee in some other nutcase’s bonnet—”

“What about Jamie’s cell phone?” interrupted Quinn, putting her feet up and getting comfortable.

“Purchased new. And tested more times than any cell phone in the history of cell phone technology,” responded Kris.

Quinn nodded. “Good. And her holster?”

“She’s a regular Quickdraw McGraw.”

Quinn’s mouth quirked. “What else is happening?”

“Hmmm, what else . . . . John is currently teaching a defensive workplace strategy training class, so he’ll be tied up until noon. And,” Kris rummaged in a pile on her desk, “someone has got to do the security checks we promised these people last week,” she said, handing over a document. “I guess that about covers it. Oh, and the phone is ringing off the hook.”

“What for?” said Quinn in genuine puzzlement.

“It’s about 50—50.” As the bewilderment on Quinn’s face remained, Kris added: “Half the calls are reporters wanting to interview the famous Quinn Thanatos, and the other half are people wanting to hire the firm.”

At that moment the phone rang. “See what I mean?” said Kris, as she picked it up.

Quinn sipped her coffee while listening with half an ear as Kris fielded the latest call from a reporter. She herself had seen Carson Oliver interviewed on the evening news about the hotel incident and a reporter had squeezed in a question about the car chase. Oliver’s answer made Quinn think that if she decided to give up acting she could easily enter politics. Skirting the question – “What did you think when you heard that the head of Thanatos Security had been involved in a dangerous car chase?” – Oliver replied “Thantos Security has proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that every member of the firm is a skilled professional willing to go above and beyond the call of duty.” Quinn chuckled to herself. As far as lines went, it hadn’t been great material, but with Oliver’s looks, presence, and delivery, the effect had been electric. Likely that accounted for most of the potential client calls, she mused. At that point Kris hung up the phone.

“Where were we? Oh yeah, you’re in demand, Baby.” She grinned. “Do you want to talk to reporters or should I keep putting them off?”

“I don’t want to talk to anybody. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Ok. So, if you don’t want to talk, I take it you’re going to do the security checks and leave the potential clients to me?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Ok, well then—” The phone rang again. “More of your fans, I expect,” she said as she lifted the handset.

Quinn picked up the security check document, waved at Kris, who was assuring the caller – a personal assistant for another actor – that, yes, Thanatos Security would be able to accommodate their needs, grabbed her jacket and exited.
——————————————————————————–

The security consultant was barely settled in a taxi when her phone buzzed. Eyeing it suspiciously, she was relieved to see that the caller was Edward McQuarry.

“Good morning Edward.”

“Quinn! Good to hear you. My, that was quite an exciting time you had yesterday.”

The security consultant chuckled ruefully. “You could say that. What can I do for you today?”

“Well, it’s occurred to me that someone should be putting out a press release on your activities of the last couple of days.”

“Say what?”

“Not just yet, mind you. Not until you’ve uncovered the whole picture.”
“Whole picture? Edward, I’m not following you.”

“Come on Quinn, you know!” he said. “The serial murderer! You tracked him down when the police were stumped. You managed to catch this young hooligan who’s been terrorizing Ariel – again despite the police. You found Ariel’s niece, and mark my words, if she doesn’t have a tale to tell my name’s not Edward McQuarry!

“Oh, Edward, I don’t know . . . ”

“All I’m asking is that you think about it. If you leave it too late we’ll have to endure all the bigwigs in police departments across the country patting themselves on the back publicly, and never giving credit to the people who really deserve it.”

Quinn realized she was grinning. “Now, Edward. They aren’t that bad.”

“No? Can you remember one police press conference after a major bust that differs one iota from that? In fact, I believe it’s in the handbook for chiefs.”

Quinn burst into laughter.

“At least think about it. It could help to convince people in high places to go easy on you for yesterday, and would certainly give your firm a higher profile. Say the word and Kelly Sanchez will start on it immediately. She agrees with me, by the way.”

“Well of course she does,” Quinn chuckled. “You’re her boss.”

“Boss, yes. Tyrant, never.”

“True. Ok, Edward, I’ll think about it, but nothing happens until I say so. Ok?”

“Ok. Good. Might even lead to a book somewhere down the road.”

“Edward, you’re incorrigible.”

A laugh echoed down the line. “No my dear. I’m a publisher.” Then, before Quinn could respond he added: “Well, Julia’s making hand signals at me so I must go. Sarah sends her best. We were watching that footage last night and she turned to me and said that she had never realized before just how dangerous your job can be. So, from the both of us, take care.”

“I will, Edward. You too.”

Quinn disconnected with a smile on her face. As if on cue, the phone sounded again.

Checking the caller I.D. she opened the connection. “Hi, Hank. What’s up?”

“Just calling to update you. Both driveby clowns picked Scott out of a line up. Broken nose and all.”

“Great!”

“There’s more. Will Gentry was here this morning to see KC and shortly after had a chat with Virginia Barris, the prosecutor.”

Quinn gripped the phone. “And?”

“It appears KC can nail Scott and Jefferson Bennett.”

“Yes! I knew there was a connection, ” said Quinn, pumping her arm in the air. Then a thought struck her. “Um, Hank? Uh, KC has proven herself quite talented in the acting department . . .”

“Yeah, I know. That’s what she was doing for that guy, Mickey D. We’ve thought of that. She’ll be polygraphed every step of the way. Gentry has a shrink in talking to her now and the departmental shrink can hardly wait. I expect the two of them will be looking for the same things – sociopathic tendencies, among other things. The prosecutor wants to interview her as soon as possible. Anyway, the upshot is, Gentry says she’ll talk if offered a good deal. Barris is willing to deal if the info she provides is sound, so Scott isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

“Thanks. That’s good to know. Quinn paused And Hank? While I’ve got you on the phone, thank you from both of us for yesterday. I know you pulled some strings—”

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” he brushed it off. “A little excitement is good for me every now and then.”

“Ok. But thanks just the same. We won’t forget it.”

“Talk to you later,” he said and disconnected.

As she concluded the call, Quinn looked out the window to check where she was. Still a few minutes from her destination. Usually at times like these, she caught up on the news on the info feed, but since, for the moment, she was the news, that was a non-starter. Ok, lessee. Oh! I know. Picking up her phone she checked the index then punched in a number. Two rings then: “Andrews.”

“Hi Owen, it’s Quinn. How’s it going?” In the background at his end she could hear a repeat of the info feed footage of the car chase, which was being broadcast over and over on every channel. Disrupt one lousy execution and you’re suddenly a media darling.

“Hey-y-y Quinn!! Hi! I’m doing fine. I guess Vanessa told you I’d be off a few days?”

“Yeah. Take whatever time you need.”

“Ah, a few days and I’ll be good as new.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“No thanks. My girlfriend’s looking after me pretty good. Oh, and Carson sent me over a big basket of fruit and candy and stuff with a note she autographed! And all my friends are calling. They think it’s cool I work for you.”

“Uh—” Quinn tried to think of something to say, but Owen unwittingly came to her rescue.

“Oh! Hey Quinn, my girlfriend’s calling me on the other line so I gotta run. See ya soon, Ok?”

“Ok, Owen. See ya soon,” and Quinn hung up, marvelling at the resilience of youth.

Checking outside to see how close she was to her destination, she concluded: Hmm. Almost there. But maybe I can squeeze in a call to Ariel about KC first. Punching in the speed dial code, she waited only seconds before it was picked up.

“Hey, I was just thinking about you.”

“Makes two of us,” said Quinn, with a smile. “Anyway, I called to say Hank let me know that Gentry told the prosecutor this morning KC could nail Scott and Jefferson Bennett.”

“Yes, Will and I just got off the phone. He says what KC has to say is ‘interesting.’”

“Interesting?”

“What she knows about Scott and Bennett. That kind of interesting. But he didn’t go into detail. Said we should hear it from her, maybe at the same time the prosecutor does. They’re going to meet to try to reach a deal on the charges against her.”

“Would the prosecutor allow it? You, or both of us, sitting in, that is. Would KC go for that? For that matter, does she even know about you?”

“Will told her I was picking up the tab for her defence and suggested that we meet.

“And?”

“She’s skittish. He gets the feeling that she thinks I’m actually an agent for Donna.”

“Did she say that?”

” Not in so many words, but reading between the lines and the body language . . . .
“Hmmm.”

“I know, Quinn. She’s got a lot of natural acting ability. I’ve thought of that, and after Scott, well . . .

“Uh huh.”

“Anyway, she’s agreed that we can meet before she talks to the prosecutor, whose name is . . .” Quinn could hear paper being shuffled. “Virginia Barris. We could meet her at 3:00 pm. Are you free?”

“I’ll pick you up at 2:30.”

“Ok, Love. See you then.”

After disconnecting, Quinn took a moment or two to think about the upcoming meeting. The last time she’d seen KC, the kid had been lying her head off. The security consultant swore a fervent oath that she’d see her in hell before she’d let her get away with any lies to Ariel.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 26
The hours dragged by, but perversely, now that they were finally on their way to a meeting with the troubled teen they had been hunting for so long, Quinn wished she was still back at the warehouse complex she had been assessing for most of the day.

“She told Will that she met Mickey soon after she got to the city,” Ariel was saying. “She had nothing. She was begging for money on the street. He seemed nice and gave her a place to stay. It didn’t hurt that he was good looking and paid attention to her, too.”

Quinn nodded. “So she told him her life story, and became emotionally attached to him?”

“Yeah. As far as Will can determine. She glossed over some things, he says. He hopes to build her trust in him and get more details.”

“I take it she was helping Mickey in his scams?”

“It would appear so. At least, she seemed to be more than just an onlooker yesterday when the police arrested her.”

Quinn rubbed her bottom lip, thoughtful. “From what I heard, and putting two and two together after the fact, it sounded like an extortion racket.”

“Right. She would approach a man at a bar, or whatever, get him interested, take him to a room she and Mickey D had rented, then at the critical moment, Mickey would burst in and accuse the man of trying to rape his underage sister.”

“At which point the man would pay up.”

“And they’d move on to new pickings.”

Quinn sat back and stared out the cab’s window. Before they met KC, Ariel wanted to fill the security consultant in on everything she had learned from her conversation with Gentry that morning. From what Quinn had heard so far it was hard to put the pieces together and make them fit.

Quinn turned again to Ariel. “Did Gentry say where she and Mickey had been for the last 18 months or so?”

“Down south. They tried to put the squeeze on some mobster’s nephew—”

“Ah! That’s what happened.! Remember what that wiseguy in the bar told me? It must have been Big Augie Schmerling’s nephew.”

“Yes. It fits. Anyway, apparently Mickey didn’t know about the family connection until after the fact. It didn’t go well and they had to run for it. They barely escaped with their lives. Fortunately for them, Schmerling’s connections down south weren’t good. Rival family territory or something. They only came back recently, after hearing about Big Augie’s death.”

Quinn nodded. “Ok,” she said, eyes focused on her hands, then looking up she glanced out and said, “Well, we’re here. No time like the present to learn more.”

Once again, signing in and obtaining visitor’s badges seemed to take forever, but they were soon being escorted down a less traveled corridor than on the previous day, and suddenly found themselves in front of a thick grey metal door. The uniformed guard who had led them there, opened it, waved them through while saying “You got a half hour,” then pulled the door closed behind them.

Except for a table and some chairs, the room was unfurnished. Natural light, admitted grudgingly by a narrow window high up filled with glass block, was no match for the overhead fluorescents, and any colour in the room appeared washed out. Except for the addition of a small transparent panel set at eye level, a metal door on the other side of the room was twin to the one by which they had come in. That door now opened and another uniformed guard stood back to allow entry of a girl in an orange prison jumpsuit. The door clanged shut behind her.

The teenager Quinn had first seen the day before stood just inside the room. Not even the fluorescent lighting could wash all the garish colour out of the ugly jumpsuit, which stood out like a neon sign on a drizzly afternoon.

“Hello, KC,” said the writer, as she advanced slowly to the table and sat down. “I’m Ariel. Your aunt. I’d really like it if you’d come over here and sit down with me to talk.”

The teenager seemed to consider that, then reluctantly walked to one of the chairs, and sat.

Ariel smiled. “Thank you,” She paused. “The last time I saw you, you were called Katie. But that was a long time ago. Do you prefer KC?”

A quick duck of the head and a murmured “yeah.”

“Ok.” Ariel gestured in Quinn’s direction. “KC, I think you met Quinn yesterday.”

The girl’s mouth quirked as the security consultant pulled out a chair and dropped into it. “Yeah. You’re the one that was making that detective crazy yesterday. Then I saw you later on the news. They said you caught Scott. Are you some kind of undercover cop?”

“No.” Quinn cleared her throat, and tried again. “No. I’m in private security. Scott tried to kill your aunt and I’ve been protecting her.”

“Quinn has been helping me search for you.” Ariel stopped and looked at her hands, which were laid flat on the table, then lifted her gaze to the teenager across from her. “KC, had I known you had left home, I would have begun looking for you a long time ago, but I only learned it recently. Now that we’ve found you, I want to help.”

The girl looked at Quinn and Ariel in quick succession. “Mr Gentry said you’re paying his bill.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Why?” she said, simply.

Ariel took her time answering. Finally she said, “KC, the last time I saw you, you were an energetic four-year old. Scott was seven, practically eight, and smarter than his years, and your mother and I . . . we had a falling out—”

“Because you’re a lesbian,” the teenager said, and shot another glance at Quinn.

I think this kid knows we’re involved, thought the security consultant. That’s interesting.

“Yeah.” Ariel exhaled. “Your mother threw me out of the house and told me never to come back. And I didn’t.” Ariel leaned forward, and looked directly into the younger woman’s eyes. “And every day I’ve known you were missing, I’ve wished that I had gone against her wishes and tried to stay in touch with you, so that you would have known that there was somewhere to turn.”

“So it’s guilt?”

Ariel chuckled humourlessly. “Some, yeah. But mainly, it’s because I’m cursed with an imagination, and sometimes it shows me things I’d rather not think about.”

The teenager glanced from one to the other. “So the posters? That was you? Not my mother?”

Ariel nodded. “That was us. We got the photos from Jill Murray.”

The teenager’s face lit up for an instant. “You talked to Jill?”

“We talked to a lot of people about you, KC, but Jill’s the one who gave us the pictures because she very much wanted us to find you,” responded Ariel, quietly.

“Mickey said it was my mother. Bastard!” the girl muttered.

Hmm. Sounds like a falling out with Mickey. But I wonder if that’s only since she was arrested, thought Quinn, but remained silent, and observant.

The teenager had ducked her head, and sat staring at the table. After a few more seconds she folded her arms, and darted more glances at Ariel and Quinn. The security consultant thought that she looked as if there was something she wanted to ask, but at the same time didn’t want to know the answer.

After more than a minute of silence, she finally said: “So, you don’t have anything to do with my mother.” Not quite a question. More a hopeful statement.

“No, Sweetie we don’t. I give you my word,” said Ariel, quietly.

The teenager looked quickly at both again, as if trying to catch them at an unguarded moment. Privately, Quinn thought that in the history of conversation there had never been a dialogue that was more guarded; the tension in the room was almost palpable.

“Mr. Gentry thinks he’ll be able to make the charges go away if I tell the police what I know about Scott. And Jefferson Bennett.” Again, not quite a question but not quite a statement either.

Ariel nodded. “That’s what he told me, too.”

“What happens after that?”

“Well,” Ariel leaned forward, “You’d have to testify at their trials. That won’t be for a few months—”

“No. I mean, what happens to me. Can I . . . disappear? After everything is over, that is.”

Ariel glanced quickly Quinn’s way, at a loss for words. “Well, after it’s over you can do anything you want,” she extemporized. “But I hope you’ll stay in touch, no matter where you decide to go.”

The teenager was quiet for a moment, then said: “Whatever happens, I won’t go back to Parsonville.” A statement, with an undertone of . . . desperation?

Quinn leaned forward. “KC,” she said, “no one can make you go back to Parsonville if you don’t want to.”

“Mickey said . . .”

There was silence, as the teenager seemed to search for words. “Go on, KC,” murmured Ariel. “What did Mickey say?”

“He . . . before I turned 18 . . . he told me that if we were caught, the police would send me back there.”

Quinn noted the kid’s voice sounded tight, as if she were fighting for emotional control. A surreptitious glance at the teenager’s hands, now clasped in her lap, confirmed for Quinn they were trembling. Either this kid’s for real or she ought to win an Oscar, concluded the security consultant.

“But you’re an adult now. Nobody can send you anywhere,” responded Ariel, puzzled.

The teenager nodded several times, anxious to speak. “I know. I know. But Mickey said . . .” Her hands were shaking now, quite visibly. “He said that if I tried to leave him he’d sell me to my mother!”

“What?” said the writer, stunned.

“It’s true! Last Christmas, he said that I probably thought I’d be free of him once I turned 18. But . . .” she gulped, “he said he’d contacted them, and they were willing to pay money to get me back. So if I tried to leave him he’d just find me and tell my mother.” Before either of the other women could speak, she continued: “The . . . the first time he got arrested when I was with him, I thought I could get away. But he found me. Just like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “I knew he could again.”

Quinn noted the tension in the young woman’s shoulders, as she sat hunched on the other side of the table, staring at her hands in her lap. If this was an act, she was damn good, the security consultant concluded.

“KC. KC, listen to me,” said Ariel, urgently, as the teenager kept her gaze resolutely directed at her lap. “I don’t know if he did talk with her, but we’ll find out, OK? And Quinn and I will see that no one sends or takes you anywhere against your will.”

The teenager looked at both of them in turn. Quinn noted her eyes seemed a bit watery but otherwise she was in control. “So I won’t have to go back to Parsonville?” she murmured, with what appeared to be a sense of wonder.

“No. Never,” responded Ariel, solemnly.

“Good,” she murmured. It was almost a prayer of thanks. Then, smiling fully for the first time since entering the room, she repeated, “good!”

The expression transformed her features. Before, they had been stiff and pale. But the smile animated her face, giving it mobility and a touch of colour, and Quinn suddenly saw a resemblance to Ariel that, until then, had been missing. With a start she realized that, given a chance, KC had the potential to become a very attractive woman.

Ariel, however, was preoccupied. “KC,” she said with a frown, “it was Scott who frightened you, wasn’t it?” At a nod from the girl, Ariel continued: “then why is it that returning to your mother scares you so much?”

The teenager looked at both of them disbelievingly, then fixed her eyes on Ariel. “Don’t you get it? If she can’t get at me, she can’t do anything to make me change my story about Scott. He’ll be put away! And that Jeff Bennett! And I won’t have to be afraid anymore!”

Ariel cast a quick glance at Quinn, who met her eyes with a look that spoke volumes, but when the writer turned back to KC, she said, simply, and quietly, “Ok. I understand now,” and was rewarded with a heartfelt smile and an almost inaudible “Thank you.”

Quinn leaned forward. “KC,” she said, “what do you want to do after the trials are over?”

The smile, so newly reacquired, faltered as the girl looked at the security consultant blankly, then her eyes slid downward again. “I don’t know,” she mumbled.

“You must have sometimes daydreamed about getting away from Mickey and being on your own. What did you think about?” she urged.

The teenager shot her a sideways glance, then quickly looked away. “You’ll think it’s stupid,” she murmured.

“Try me,” said Quinn.

The girl looked up again, then said, with a touch of defiance, “I’d go to acting school. I always wanted to act. So that’s what I’d do. I told you you’d think it was stupid,” she concluded, with something approaching a glare.

“I don’t think it’s stupid at all. If you want to try it, by all means, do it. I think you might be good at it.”

“You think so? Really?” the teenager said, her face once again animated, this time with pleasure.

“Yeah. Really. It sounds as if Mickey’s schemes depended on your acting ability.”

The teenager looked down again. “Sometimes,” she murmured, “that was the only way I could do it. Tell myself I was playing a part. That it wasn’t really me.”

Ariel covered the girl’s hand with her own and gave it a quick squeeze. “It’s alright now,” she murmured. “You won’t have to do that again.”

Just then, the door through which KC had entered, opened, and the guard stood back respectfully as a painfully thin woman in a power suit, followed by a well-dressed bearded man walked in. “Ms. Pedersen,” he said, and held out a hand. “Have you met Virginia Barris?”

Introductions quickly performed, the new arrivals claimed the remaining chairs at the table, Virginia Barris seating herself at the head, while Will Gentry, the bearded man, slid into a seat next to KC, neatly placing himself between her and the prosecutor.

“Well Mr. Gentry,” said Virginia Barris with a no-nonsense air, “we have a lot of ground to cover.”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 27
The sun was casting long shadows by the time the meeting was finished and Quinn and Ariel were back out on the street. KC had earned her get-out-of-jail-free card, provided she told the same story on the stand that she had just told the prosecutor. For the moment, however, she was still in custody, pending everything checking out. One thing was for sure: if it did, Jefferson Bennett’s one-way trip to the chair was assured. As far as Scott’s ultimate fate, it was as Quinn had predicted so many weeks before: he’d be lucky to escape with his life.

They’d been walking for what seemed like hours, although Quinn knew that, in reality, it was only about 45 minutes. Ariel’s only comment since they had stepped out of police HQ was “I’d like to walk for a bit.” The writer had been silent and internally focused as she worked through the things she’d heard that afternoon. Now, although their route had been unplanned, they found themselves in an area well supplied with bars, bistros and ethnic restaurants. Ariel suddenly paused outside a restaurant that had expanded into an adjoining courtyard, from which delicious, spicy odors were wafting, and inquired, “Hungry?”

“Sure,” said Quinn, after doing a split second risk assessment of the layout. The maitre’d speedily seated them at one of the outside tables, shaded from the late-day sun, and far enough from the street to keep Ariel incognito to the casual passerby.

Quinn waited patiently until after a waiter had taken their orders and hurried off. The writer was still deep in thought when Quinn lifted one of her hands, gently kissed it, and clasped it between hers. “Conclusions?” she murmured.

“Oh! I’m sorry, Quinn. I didn’t mean to ignore you.”

The dark haired woman smiled. “I know. So,” she continued after a pause, “what do you think?”

Ariel took a breath and held it, then said: “All sorts of thoughts are jumbled in my head.” She fell silent for a few seconds, then clenched her jaw and spat out: “How could Donna be so stupid and self-deceiving, for starters?! And lend herself, either knowingly or unknowingly, to covering Scott’s tracks all these years? And why didn’t she realize she was ruining her daughter’s life? Not to mention putting her in unbelievable danger because KC knew that, of all the adults in her life, Donna was the last person who would believe and support her. It just makes me so angry!”

“I know,” said Quinn, quietly, gently stroking Ariel’s hand, while she thought back on the story the teenager had told them.

“And she will never be brought to account for those things. A part of me wants to hire the best lawyer I can find and bring civil actions against her on every subject I can think of, with child endangerment at the top of the list . . .” Ariel paused, took a breath, then gave Quinn a small, deprecating smile, and continued, “but that wouldn’t achieve anything but keeping her in the forefront of all our minds, and frankly, forgetting her and moving on with our lives is the best revenge.”

Quinn kept up the massage of Ariel’s hand. “Agreed,” she murmured.

“I just . . .” she paused. “It’s just going to take a while for that part of me to calm down and agree with the logical part of me.”

Quinn lifted the writer’s hand again to her lips, then smiled understandingly and said, “I know.”

At that moment the waiter reappeared at their table with their drinks. Ariel lifted the double scotch she had ordered, took a gulp, and shivered as the liquor burned its way to her stomach. Quinn hoisted her dark ale, sipped, and watched her lover over the rim of the mug, and thought about the teenager’s tale, which had been simple but damning.

Although Scott did pretty much what he wanted, Donna had strict rules for KC, one of them being: “Come home right after school and do your homework. No ifs, ands or buts, young lady!” Quinn had only heard Donna say a few sentences in their brief encounter in Parsonville, but her daughter’s imitation was uncanny. Failure to abide by Donna’s rules could lead to loss of privileges, more chores, or even physical punishment.

A few young women had disappeared in and around Parsonville, but it wasn’t until discovery of the first body that the hopes of finding the others alive plummeted, and people began to realize that something evil was loose in their community.

Quinn sipped her beer, and recalled the teenager’s description of what happened the day that she, too, had disappeared. “Home by four, Katie. I’ll be calling from the church at 4:01, and if you’re not here. You’ll regret it,” her mother had said, as KC had left for school that day. And so she had made sure she was home and close to the phone when her mother had called. After the brief conversation, in which Donna gave her instructions on what to prepare for dinner, KC went to her room to do her homework, since she knew her mother would check that as soon as she got home.

It was while she was in her room that she heard Scott come into the house with someone. “You wanna drink?” she heard him say, and then a voice that she knew belonged to Jefferson Bennett responded: “Gimme a beer.” There was a bark of laughter from Scott. “With my bitch of a mother? Forget it. Here’s a coke,” and the two of them went out to the back porch.

Quinn’s reverie was interrupted momentarily by Ariel signalling the waiter for another scotch. The writer would probably regret it later, since she didn’t drink much hard liquor, but right now Quinn knew that the last thing Ariel needed was someone cautioning her about her liquor intake. Nursing her ale, the security consultant’s mind returned to KC’s last day in Parsonville.

KC’s room looked out over the back porch. She had always been a bit wary of that, dreaming on more than one occasion of intruders getting in when she was asleep. Once young women started disappearing, she didn’t leave her window open at night, no matter how hot and muggy it was.

This afternoon, she’d opened it when she got home to allow a slight breeze to cool her room down, countering the summer heat. And so it was that she heard the rest of Scott’s conversation with Jefferson Bennett.

“So, you do her?”

“Oh yeah man, and it was sweet!”

KC froze. She avoided her brother as much as possible, and his friends. She knew Scott had been hanging around with Jeff Bennett for a while. At least, she’d seen them together from time to time around town, and at the gas station where Bennett worked part time. She’d never known Scott to bring him to the house before. No matter, KC always had and intended to stay as far away from him as possible because he creeped her out. It wasn’t anything he said, but he had a way of watching her that made her very uncomfortable. And so, KC’s first reaction to the conversation she was overhearing was to shut the window. She stood up from her desk to do so, but before she could move, she heard Bennett say: “What’s that?”

“What’s what?” her brother’s voice.

“I thought I heard something.”

“Relax. I didn’t hear anything. You’re just jumpy.”

KC stood very still, sweat popping out on her forehead. She realized that Bennett had heard her desk chair squeak as she got up. She knew, now, that she couldn’t sit down and she most certainly couldn’t go to the window and close it because the sound of that would draw even more attention to herself. Her only option was to stand still and hope they left soon.

Silence from the porch, and then “Yeah, maybe.”

“Told you.” There was silence for a few seconds, and then her brother added “So it was fun, huh?”

“Oh, yeah,” Bennett’s voice again. KC could swear he was smiling.

“Don’t know about you, Jeff,” said her brother, with a chuckle. “What a hobby. Someday you’re going to get caught.”

“In Hicksville? No way. Cops can’t find their own asses with a flashlight, a roadmap, and satellite tracking.” Young male laughter followed this statement.

“Ok, hotshot. Put your money where your mouth is. Who’s next?”

“Want to make some quick cash huh?”

“You know how it is. Easy come. Easy go.”

“Yeah.” Silence. KC gripped the desk in terror and willed her knees not to fold as she listened. The teenager had realized almost immediately that this was not just a conversation about some adolescent sexual encounter. “OHMYGODOHMYGOD OHMYGODOHMYGOD” her mind screamed

“So who’s next?” her brother persisted. I could get you that little red headed bimbo from the varsity cheering squad, easy. She’s got the hots for me.”

“Yeah? How much?.”

“Only $500.00.”

“Five hundred! Man, I don’t get paid ‘til next Saturday. I don’t have that much right now!”

“Ok, so what do you have?”

“I could probably dig up $100.00.”

“A hundred! You into dogs or something? I’m not going after any cunt for less than $200.00.”

More silence, and then; “I need something to take the edge off.”

“Not for less than $200.00.”

“How about something you really don’t have to do any work for. Just get her to the right place and I’ll do the rest.”

‘Oh yeah. And who would that be?” Scott replied, sarcastically.

“Your sister.”

“My sister!?” Scott’s rejoinder covered KC’s sharp intake of breath as a dagger of pure terror slammed into her chest. OHGOD OHGOD OHGOD OHGOD OHGOD! reverberated in her brain, as she staggered to stay upright. She was dimly aware that one of her hands, which had been gripping the desk, was now clamped over her mouth.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Why not? Because it’ll shine some light my way, dummy! Don’t you know anything?”

“Ah, come on. Donna Johnson’s little boy? The cops’ll treat you with kid gloves.”

“Hmm.” There was silence. KC was aware of her heart thumping in triple time, so loudly that she almost didn’t hear the rest of what Scott said: “I’d have to look for a chance. I can’t just drag her out of the house.”

“You do that. It’s an easy hundred bucks.” A pause, then, a change of subject: “Hey you got the time?”

“Yeah. It’s 4:35.”

“Shit, I’m overdue at the station.” KC heard Bennett stand up. “Think about what I said. I’d even let you watch.”

Scott snorted, but declined to answer, saying instead: “I’ll walk down the street with you. I’m going over to see Jan.”

“Get your rocks off?” said Bennett’s voice receding into the distance.

“If I’m lucky.”

There was a shout of laughter. “As if there was any doubt.”

KC forced herself to stand still while she counted under her breath to 100. Then she counted to 100 again before she took a step. And stopped and listened. And took another step. And stopped, and listened again. What was she going to do! She needed money! She needed to get out of there! She needed money! Where was she going to get money! Stop and think! Where was she going to get money! Her savings account at the bank! Her mother wouldn’t let her have a bank card but the counter didn’t close until 5:00. If she got on her bike she could make it. Where was her bank book! The desk drawer! No! The chest of drawers! Ok, got the bank book. What was the time. 4:47!

OHMYGODOHMYGOD!

Stop it! If you’re going to get out of this alive. Just stop it! You’ve got to act natural at the bank or someone’s sure to notice. Ok,Ok,Ok. Alright. I’m alright now. You’re just going to the bank to make a withdrawal. Your mother wants you to buy some new shoes for school. That’s all. She wants you to buy good shoes, so you’ll have to take most of the money in the account. You’re just doing what your mother told you to do. Ok. Anything else? I don’t think so. Ok. It’s show time.

Quinn watched Ariel sip the scotch. At least she’s no longer tossing it down her throat, thought the dark haired woman. Dinner had been served and eaten in silence, the only accompaniment the soft instrumental music issuing from several hidden speakers around the courtyard.

“Feel better?”

Ariel looked up and smiled slightly. “Yeah, a little. Who knew I liked scotch this much,” she said, the smile becoming disparaging as she slowly swirled the amber liquid. “Virginia Barris will turn Scott. In exchange for his life, he’ll confirm everything KC said.”

“I know.”

“And he’ll never get out again.”

“I know that too.”

“And if I had a chance I’d kill him myself.” Ariel smiled again. “How’s that for an anti-death penalty attitude, huh?”

Quinn looked at her lover. “I’d say it was human,” she said quietly.

“Don’t you mean hypocritical?”

“No.”

Ariel studied Quinn’s face. “How do you say so much saying so little?” she finally asked.

Quinn shrugged, and smiled. “I have many skills.”

“Indeed you do,” Ariel agreed. “And right now I’d just like you to take me home and hold me, which you’re extremely good at.”

“I can do that,” Quinn said getting to her feet. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” And she strode over to the bar to pay their bill.

Ariel watched the tall woman. Goddess, what did I ever do to deserve her, she thought. I have no idea what’s going to happen next but I know that whatever it is, Quinn will be there for me.

Quinn was soon on her way back. Ariel took a moment to enjoy the long legged, almost arrogant walk, the trim muscular body, the shining mane of black hair that was currently being ruffled by a small breeze, the classically beautiful face and the crystal blue eyes. The tall woman reached the table and held out a hand. “My Lady,” she said.

Ariel smiled and accepted, rising gracefully to her feet. Quinn slipped an arm around her and they walked out to the street. Ariel noticed that Quinn was singing along under her breath to the music currently playing. “What’s that?” she said.

“What’s what,” said Quinn, signalling a cab.

“That song.”

“Oh. That?” Quinn opened the door of the taxi that pulled to the curb, helped Ariel in, followed her, and ordered the cab to 1420 Rochester.

“Yeah, that,” said Ariel snuggling up. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s called ‘Imagine.’”

Ariel’s eyes lost focus for a second, then she hazarded “The Beatles?”

Quinn kissed the tip of her nose. “Good guess. After the break up. John wrote it. I’ve got a copy of the original recording. I’ll look it up when we get home.

“Tomorrow, Ok?” said the writer, snuggling even closer.

Quinn smiled, as her arms encircled her lover. “Tomorrow it is,” she whispered.

“Yeah, murmured the blond head, currently tucked under her chin. “Let’s just go home.”

Quinn kissed the blond hair. “Yeah. Let’s.”
——————————————————————————–

Imagine

Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today . . .

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace . . .

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world . . .

You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.
——————————————————————————–
THE END

Afterword – I have no plans to write a sequel. It took so long to write this that I’m afraid I’d be receiving an old age pension before it was done. <g> I may, however, write some short stories because, damn it, I like these people.

Since I’m not going to write a full-fledged sequel, here’s what happened:

KC, with lots of emotional, professional and financial help from Ariel and Quinn managed to get her life back together and eventually launched a successful acting career.

Once the whole story about Scott came to light, Donna Johnson’s following waned dramatically, although she maintained a core of followers who believed that it was all a lie. Donna became more bitter and hard line, convinced that Ariel was the reason for her downfall. Some of the people of Parsonville pitied her. Most just ignored her.

Ariel continued to write best sellers that were made into movies, making her so wealthy that she set up a foundation to handle dispensing the funds. Edward, her publisher, beamed, both with pride and at all the money her books made for McQuarry’s.

Thanatos Security got tons of contracts out of Quinn’s escapades, had to hire still more operatives, and finally had to move into a real office. It’s staff members still maintained their joie de vivre and managed to kick ass with spectacular results whenever called upon to do so.

Ariel and Quinn were spotted occasionally at celebrity functions, once Ariel was no longer under siege, but mostly they kept to themselves, enjoying their friends, furry family, home, and, most importantly, each other.

That’s all. Thanks for reading.
——————————————–

Continued in Perfect Gift

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