Hunting Season by Helen Smith

Hunting Season
by Helen Smith

Summary: North America, 2050. Ariel Pedersen, controversial prize winning author, has survived one assassination attempt, thanks to her lover, security consultant Quinn Thanatos. But in a world where guns have proliferated, public executions are commonplace and Christianity has migrated far afield from what it’s founder intended, writers who speak their minds on thorny issues must be prepared to pay the price. Someone wants Ariel dead, and Quinn is determined to catch the would-be killer before the unthinkable happens.

 

Chapter 1

Somewhere in the Eastern half of North America, 2050
Quinn checked herself in the mirror beside the front door. “Lookin’ good” she told her tall, dark-haired reflection. “Lessee now. Keys, Yup. Wallet. Uh huh. Gun.”

She reached through the slit in the pocket of her leather coat, pulled the Glock from its quick release holster on her thigh, checked the load. Satisfied, she returned it to its home. One last look in the mirror and she was ready.

Neighbourhood kid, pretending to take a bead on her as she slipped through the outer door, almost got his head blown off, but she suppressed her reaction just in time. Damn gun laws. Everybody carried guns nowadays it seemed, even infants. Of course, if you believed the politicians, it was their GAWD-GIVEN right.

A Sulu Nebula Mark 5 sat at the curb. Quinn wasted no time jumping in and issuing instructions. “Ariel’s, best possible speed.” The car’s computer-generated voice responded, with a faint Japanese accent, “1420 Rochester, by way of” There was a brief pause as the silicon brain consulted Traffic Master Control “The Michael Callaghan Parkway.”

“Just drive, Asshole!”

The first generation of voice activated cars, confused by the words accompanying “drive,” would have announced, in a sing-song fashion, “I’m sorry, I do not understand that command.” The hundreds of times that vehicles had been severely damaged by high calibre rounds pumped into their dashboards, not to mention the 15 instances when car sellers themselves had borne the brunt of customers’ ire, convinced the designer geeks they should vastly increase the car’s vocabulary; the Mark 5 was quite conversant with several four letter words. And also “you mother.”

The car pulled away from the curb and Quinn got comfortable, then flipped on the info feed. A digitized, manipulated image of a long-dead Canadian singer flashed by, extolling Elegance™, a vibrator for the modern woman. Remembering that she’d also seen the singer’s image used to promote Soybeef™ Quinn reflected that the two products were likely more consistent with the woman’s life than some of the other things she’d seen dead celebrities promote. The commercial ended and a grim-looking, trenchcoat-wearing news anchor appeared, backed by a temporary scaffold, outlined in red, white and blue bunting, with the city skyline in the distance.

“We’re back with you live at the execution of Walter Jones for the brutal rape and murder of little, nine-year-old Amanda Sue Gibson. We’re just waiting for the doctor to pronounce the prisoner dead. While we wait for that, let’s run some tape from just a few moments ago.”

The view abruptly cut to the scaffold, shot from a slightly elevated position, where a masked human sat strapped into a chair in the center of the platform. On the man’s left, Quinn could see a group of guards and officials, one of them reading aloud from an open book. She saw no signal but suddenly the seated man arced against the chair’s heavy leather straps. A few seconds later smoke rose from his leather-masked head. “Two jolts of 2640 volts, one minute each in duration, were administered” intoned the anchor “with a ten-second interval in between …”

Quinn switched channels. “So that’s why the Expressway is closed. Damn outdoor executions.”
——————————————————————————–

The Parkway route only added about 10 minutes to the ride and the Mark 5 was soon pulling onto Rochester. Quinn directed it to a parking spot across the street from Ariel’s tall, narrow brownstone. After a quick check of her immediate surroundings she stepped from the vehicle, armed it and crossed the street, dodging an ancient Cadillac SUV on the way. Taking the steps to the door two at a time, she paused again to look around. Then, placing herself in front of the key pad to frustrate interested eyes, punched in Ariel’s code.

Inside was cool, quiet, serene. The off white walls and oak paneling along with the colourful touches added by Ariel, combined to create a welcoming atmosphere. Quinn always found herself relaxing as she stepped through that door.

“Ariel.” No answer. “Ariel?”

“Out here.” Following the direction from which she’d heard the faint response, Quinn walked through the house to the back door. A previous owner had torn out the original opening and installed a sliding patio door leading onto a deck. Quinn could see Ariel sitting at her outside table, typing furiously on her laptop. The fingers ceased and one hand grasped Quinn’s biceps as the dark-haired woman stepped through the door and bent to kiss her.

“Umm. That’s nice. Do it again.” The request was quickly complied with.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“No problem. It gave me time to finish this chapter. Just have to send it to my editor then I’m all yours.”

Quinn flashed her a sexy grin. “Never doubted it.”

“Full of yourself, aren’t you.”

Quinn made a noncommittal sound, widened the grin and responded “Except when I’m full of you.”

Ariel, who had been on her way inside the house, paused, stepped close, slid her arms tightly around Quinn’s waist under the coat, and murmured provocatively “All in good time, Babe. All in good time.” Before the taller woman could respond the honey blonde disengaged and left Quinn marveling, yet again, at how this woman could make her so wet so fast.

Ariel returned in five minutes to find Quinn lounging on the outdoor couch on which they’d often spent quality time.

“Ok, I’m ready.”

“Ooh, so am I!” the dark-haired woman, enthused.

“That I don’t doubt, but what I meant was, I’m ready for you to take me to dinner.”

“Dinner?”

“Uh huh.”

“C’mere a minute.” Said with a growl.

Ariel smiled angelically, but stood her ground. “Quinn, honey,” she purred, “feed me.”

“We could order in.”

“The last time I let you talk me into that, we never heard the door bell.”

“Hey! It wasn’t me doing the yelling”

“But you were most definitely the cause.”

The grin returned. “Or you could cook. You’re such a good cook.”

“True, but I don’t seem to get much cooking done when you’re in this mood.”

“Well, the apron distracts me.”

Ariel snorted. “Uh huh. Considering that’s all I was wearing last night, I remember your distraction well. Come on, let’s go.”

Quinn, realizing she wasn’t going to get her way, bounced to her feet and made a quick grab for the shorter woman, just on general principles. She came up empty.

“Hah! Those self defense lessons you’ve been giving me really panned out,” the honey blonde laughed, from a safe distance away. “Always be ready for the unexpected.”

“My words have come back to haunt me,” grumbled Quinn.

“Hey,” responded Ariel, slipping an arm around the taller woman’s waist, “if you behave, I’ll let you catch me later.”

“Promise?” asked Quinn as she enfolded the honey blonde.

“Yup. But only if you’re good now.”

“Oh, I’m not just good,” the taller woman breathed, as her lips descended, “I’m the best.”

A breathless Ariel eventually tore her mouth away. “Quinn”

“You’re right, we better get going. Just look at the time,” responded Quinn as she stepped back and sauntered up the hall, chuckling.

“Quinn” Ariel, paused to get herself under control.

“Paybacks, Ariel, Paybacks,” laughed the dark-haired woman from the front door.
——————————————————————————–

The restaurant was just a few blocks away, so they walked. Quinn slipped her left arm around Ariel’s waist, which kept her right side clear in case she had to go for her gun. The restaurant was full when they got there so they went to the dimly lit bar to wait for a table. A couple of ceiling mounted info feeds kept them up to date on the latest news.

“Jones was pronounced dead at 6:10, Eastern Standard Time.” The voice went on to describe last ditch legal maneuvers to save the condemned man as shots of the recently concluded execution were replayed. Abruptly, the screen switched to a man, holding a book, speaking at a microphone-laden podium. “Vengeance is MINE saith the LORD!” he intoned. “And vengeance HE has taken TODAY.” The man paused, looked down, wiped the corner of his eye with a snowy white handkerchief, looked up and continued “And I know, I KNOW, that little Amanda Sue has looked down from her place at GAWD’S RIGHT HAND and has seen JUSTICE SERVED. PRAISE THE LORD. I SAY AGAIN, PRA-A-A-ISE THE LORD!”

The camera lingered on the man, who by now was holding the book high above his head, as the unseen anchor cut in: “That was fiery preacher Ephraim Mather speaking just moments ago from the Everlasting Temple of God On High about the execution of Walter Jones for the brutal rape and murder of Amanda Sue Gibson. In other news . . .”

“I thought that was Jesus’ spot.”

“What?” Ariel turned to look at Quinn.

“I said, I thought at god’s right hand was Jesus’ spot. Then again, maybe he got up to go to the can or something and she sat down to keep it warm for him.” Quinn picked up her dark ale and took a sip.

Ariel raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment on her lover’s heresy, saying instead “I have to say, if I were Amanda’s parents I…” She paused, then shook her head, “I’d feel as if that person had just…” She paused again while searching for words.

“Tell me about it,” murmured Quinn, as she gave her lover’s hand a quick sympathetic squeeze then reached for some chips. “That shit head will probably get a ton of donations out of that, and he didn’t even have to pay for the air time. The rich get rich and the stupid help ’em do it.”

“Amen, sister.”

Quinn grinned. “Ok, Ok. I’ll get off my soap box, now.” She offered the chips to Ariel. “Hey, I thought you were hungry. Have some.”

Ariel grinned, accepted the bowl and proceeded to finish it. They chatted about inconsequentials until their table was ready.
——————————————————————————–

Quinn checked outside then held the door for her lover. The streetlights hadn’t yet come on and the dark-haired woman was especially vigilant at this time of the evening. She once had to shoot a mugger on the way back to Ariel’s and she wasn’t anxious to have that happen again. Too damn much paperwork! It wouldn’t get her out of the mood but it would sure put a damper on the evening from Ariel’s point of view, and that was not to be contemplated.

Although a single gunshot ringing out in the distance caused them to pause for a moment as they turned up Ariel’s street, they reached the house and entered without incident.

“C’mere.” Quinn found herself, back pressed to the door, with an armful of sweet smelling, aggressive, honey blonde.

“Ummm-m–ah! What got your engines revved?” gasped Quinn, holding off the voracious woman while she caught her breath.

“You. And dinner, of course.” Ariel smiled, while she slid her hands under Quinn’s leather coat. “Take this off” she growled.

Not sure whether her lover meant her coat or her shirt Quinn shed the coat immediately and started in on the buttons of the shirt.

“Oh, damn,” said the honey blonde. “I’ll just go take care of locking up the back. Be right back.” They had dropped the bar lock for the patio door into place before leaving for the restaurant but had neglected to slide across and lock the inner, metallic, blast proof doors. It would be a very agile burglar who could scale the 12-foot walls topped by razor wire that enclosed Ariel’s back yard, but why take chances?

“Now where were we? Oh yeah. You were getting naked.” The honey blonde stepped in again and slid her arms around Quinn’s bare torso. She loved the feel of hard muscles under the silky skin of Quinn’s back. Come to think of it, she loved the different textures, the combination of hard and soft all over her lover’s body. “Hey,” she said, indicating the jeans that still clung to Quinn’s hips. “Why are these still on?”

“Well, I didn’t know where we were going to continue this, and with this,” gesturing at the holstered gun strapped to one long, luscious thigh, “I thought I’d wait.”

“Ah, good point. Hmmm.” Ariel glanced around as if in deep thought. “On the couch? On the kitchen table? On my desk?”

Strong arms encircled her and she found herself sandwiched between unyielding wall and warm bronze skin while a voice close to her ear chuckled “Against the wall? On the floor? In the shower? On the bed?”

“Ah! The bed!” beamed Ariel. “Good choice!”

A sardonic eyebrow lifted, then Quinn released her and stepped back, making a small bow and gesturing to the stairs. “Lead the way.”

Ariel started up the stairs while Quinn paused at the foot, admiring the view.

“Quinn.” Ariel didn’t look back as she continued to climb the stairs.

“Uh huh?”

“Quit looking at my ass and get yours up here!”

“Found out,” muttered the taller woman as she started up the stairs after her lover.

“Found out, nothing. More like know-you-too-well.”
Chapter 2
Quinn toed off her boots beside the bed, then pulled the Glock free of its clip, checked the load once more, and set it on the bedside table. As she started to unbuckle her gun belt a hand forestalled her.

“Nuh uh. My job.” Ariel crouched, unfastened the holster’s strap then completed unfastening the buckle. She laid the holster aside, smiled up at her lover, then took her time unfastening Quinn’s jeans. Using both hands she slid jeans and underwear off her lover’s hips and down impossibly long legs to the floor.

“C’mere.” Quinn lifted her lover and enfolded her. Ariel in turn slipped her arms around the now naked woman and pulled her close, sliding her hands up, and then down Quinn’s sides until they came to rest on the taller woman’s waist, at her back.

“Ummm. Hey,” murmured Quinn, breaking a long, deep kiss, to look into Ariel’s eyes. The honey blonde smiled and leaned up again to continue the contact, sliding her arms around the taller woman’s neck as she did so.

Quinn dimly felt the edge of the bed behind her knees, and shortly after found herself stretched out with Ariel on top of her. The honey blonde was kissing and sucking the taller woman everywhere from her neck to her collarbones, while running her hands over her breasts.

Before Ariel could slide further down to give some oral attention to her breasts as well, Quinn slipped her hands up under Ariel’s T-shirt and pulled it off. As her lover went to work with her mouth on the dark-haired woman’s nipples (Oh Goddess!) Quinn caught her breath, then found and unfastened the waistband of the smaller woman’s long skirt. Ariel paused briefly to divest herself of the skirt and her underwear then returned to stoking Quinn’s fire to fever pitch.

The taller woman was awash in sensation. Her lover’s hands, lips, teeth and tongue were everywhere, touching, biting, stroking her body to higher and higher levels. Quinn’s whole world was compressed into the here and now as her lover made her forget anything beyond that room, that bed. Then at last she reached the summit, and slid over, weightless.

“Wow.” Quinn took a breath. She wasn’t sure her heart was going to stay in her chest, it seemed to be jumping all over. “You are something.” Ariel lifted her head from where it was pillowed on Quinn’s breast and flashed her a dazzling smile.

The writer laid her head back down and Quinn concentrated on breathing. The heavy scent of sex permeated the air, mixed with sweat and a faint hint of the shampoo her lover used. She was aware of their sweat-slicked bodies pressed closely together, the quiet hum of the air-conditioning system and the wail of a siren in the distance.

Lips brushed her nipple, making it spring to acute attention.

“Hey,” exclaimed Quinn. “My turn to lead.”
——————————————————————————–

The dark haired woman opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling as the first rays of the morning sun found their way into the bedroom. She glanced at the clock. 6:15. Kinda early, but then again, they had gone to bed early. But not to sleep, a little voice noted in her mind. That was true. They did everything but sleep for at least the first two hours. Quinn wondered idly who the first person was to use “sleep with” as a euphemism for sex.

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

“You’re quoting Lewis Carroll?” a muffled voice asked.

Quinn glanced to her left. Ariel was looking at her through sleepy eyes. Her lover lay partly on her side and partly on her stomach, with one leg pulled up slightly. Quinn liked the way it raised her ass.

The dark-haired woman turned on her side to face the honey blonde. “Yeah, well. Stream of consciousness, ya know. I was thinking about what we did last night and pretty soon I was onto rabbit holes. Point A to point B. It’s really quite easy.”

The green eyes looked thoughtful. “We fucked like rabbits.”

“Got it in one.”

A small hand slid lightly across her stomach, only the tips of the fingers touching, making Quinn’s muscles jump. Ariel smiled lazily. “Speaking of rabbits …”

Quinn caught the straying hand and brought it to her lips. “Love to, but places to go, people to see. Besides, didn’t you tell me at dinner you’ve got an 8:30 appointment with Edward and you wanted to make some notes ahead of time. Remember?”

“Ungh. I don’t know why we can’t do a conference call. Then I wouldn’t have to go all the way down there, and I could sleep long …” Ariel burrowed back into her pillow.

Whack!

“Ow!” Accusatory green eyes glared at her.

“C’mon sleepyhead. You know you love the old goat, and besides, you said yourself you’ve got a lot of business to discuss. If you go back to sleep you really won’t have much time to spare.”

The eyes softened a bit and considered her thoughtfully. “Alright, on one condition. Shower with me.”

“Hmmm.” Quinn rubbed her chin. “It’ll have to be a quickie.”

“I can work with that.”

Quinn grinned. “Alright rabbit. Lead on.”
——————————————————————————–

7:15 found them in the kitchen getting breakfast. Quinn busied herself with the coffee maker while Ariel pulled various things out of the fridge. The smaller woman hummed to herself, swaying her hips in time to music from the info feed as she assembled the meal. She was pleasantly sated and it was still early (no, make that very early), she was with the woman she adored, and she had managed to pay Quinn back with a strategically snapped wet towel in the bathroom when the other woman hadn’t been looking. All in all, not a bad start to the day.

Quinn clicked the info feed to the video setting and surfed rapidly through the channels. “Cartoon, cartoons, cartoons. Movie star. Weather. Shit, its over. Idiots overjoyed to be on the info feed for the first time. Sports figures. More sports figures. More idiots. Writer promoting tell-all book. Musicians. Ah. Finally, something interesting.” She adjusted the sound and straddled a chair, rested her arms across the back and settled down to watch.

“Tell me Senator,” said a perfectly coifed, exceedingly well-dressed, extremely handsome anchor, “realistically, how much support can you count on in your bid to get lethal injection re-instated as the execution method of choice?”

“A good question, John, a very good question.” A gray-haired man with movie star looks and a million dollar wardrobe relaxed comfortably in front of the camera. “We believe that we have support on all sides of the political spectrum, but we have to mobilize it, and that’s what we’re working on right now.”

The anchor turned to a monitor next to his guest. “Reverend, what do you say to that?” The screen was filled with the image of a man who couldn’t compete with the other two in looks and, although well dressed, wasn’t trying to in apparel. “Well, John, unlike my friend the Senator, I’m a plain old-fashioned boy. The GOOD BOOK says that GAWD will smite his enemies DO-O-WN. Now, what is a murderer or a rapist or a drug dealer if not an Enemy of GAWD? And it seems to me that ‘lectricity makes a pretty good weapon, else why does GA-A-WD toss so much of it around on hot summer nights?” The man sat back with a self-satisfied smirk.

The camera once again focused on the face of the handsome anchor. “Why indeed. Thank you gentlemen. We’d love to continue this but we’re out of time. If you want your say on the method of execution used, be sure to go to our web site …”

“Shit.” Quinn turned down the sound as the anchor wrapped up that segment and the network shifted to a commercial for Erect,™ a penile implant. A fading movie star, veteran of two dozen high action dramas and two ugly divorces, spoke earnestly about his inability to satisfy his much younger wife until surgical implantation of the device saved his marriage. The commercial concluded with her sitting on his lap while the two of them beamed at each other.

“Think he’s got a chance?”

“The senator? Not likely.” Quinn turned her chair around and sat down to eat the omelet and toast that Ariel set before her. “Electrocution is too visually satisfying. Body straining against straps for seconds at a time. Or better yet, feet and hands beating a tattoo on the floor and the arms of the chair. And the smoke curling slowly up from under the mask. Works for me,” she added sarcastically.

“I understand that some of his supporters would be satisfied with a firing squad as the approved method. You think that might fly?”

“Nope. I grant you it has a bit more visual impact than an injection, but shooting, judicial shooting that is, is just over too quickly. Bang. Body slumps. Blood pools.”

Ariel sipped her coffee, thoughtfully. “I remember, when I was a little girl, that the debate wasn’t about what method but whether or not to do it at all. How the hell did we get to this point?!”

The smaller woman stood suddenly and began to pace back and forth, waving her hands for emphasis. “I mean, at one time we had a moratorium on executions. Now we have public ones. Then there’s people shooting each other in the streets, or better yet, office buildings and schools! Of course, there’s ‘righteous shoots.'” Ariel paused to sneer the phrase. “Someone’s trying to shoot you or your loved ones, then you’re at liberty to shoot back. But if it’s not ‘righteous,'” again the sneer, “what’s our answer? Fry ’em. And do it publicly.” She turned to Quinn, who was watching quietly from her chair. “Did you hear that the court turned down the Pearson boy’s appeal? They’re going to kill him today. He’s 14 years old. HE’S 14 YEARS OLD! What the HELL is WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY?”

Quinn jumped up and wrapped her arms around her lover, rubbing her back and murmuring soothing words. After a minute Ariel calmed.

“I’m ok. Just … it was just too much there for a minute.”

“I’m sorry I turned that on, Love, I…”

“No.” Ariel placed a finger over Quinn’s lips. “It’s everywhere. I can’t avoid it, short of retiring to a mountain top and never coming down.”

Quinn kissed her softly. “Um, why don’t I clear this stuff away and you go make your notes for your meeting? I’ll give you a ride when you’re ready.”

Ariel smiled slightly, and caressed Quinn’s cheek. “Thanks. Shouldn’t take me long.”

One final kiss and Ariel left the room. Quinn emptied the coffee maker, put away the bread, butter, jam and juice, then picked up the dirty dishes and began placing them in the dishwasher. The ride down to Ariel’s publisher’s office should be reasonably quick, she thought, since the Expressway should be open this morning. But she’d have to keep that execution in mind later in the day if she were going in that general direction. “Damn public executions,” she muttered.
Chapter 3
At 8:00 am Quinn left the house and crossed the street. After carefully checking the car for tampering she waved over Ariel, who had remained in the entranceway, waiting. Quinn saw the shorter woman in safely before walking swiftly around to get in the other side. Ariel, lost in thought in one corner of the Mark 5’s functional interior, was disinclined to talk, so the ride downtown was quiet. Quinn considered trying to distract her, but after discretely observing for a few minutes decided to leave things as they were. Instead she checked her messages and began to plan her day. Twenty minutes later found them entering the financial district where Edward McQuarry’s publishing firm was located. Ariel roused herself from her reverie and gave Quinn a small smile.

“Sorry I’m such rotten company.”

“No problem. You can’t be a sparkling conversationalist all the time.”

“Hmm. Considering it wasn’t my conversational abilities that attracted you in the first place, I guess that’s ok then,” Ariel said as she squeezed Quinn’s hand.

“True, but I soon developed an appreciation of your oral skills.”

Ariel grinned, squeezed Quinn’s hand again but declined to continue the banter, asking instead, “So how’s your day shaping up?”

“Looks as if I’ll be pretty busy, actually. A grateful client has recommended me to a couple of friends of his, both of whom want me to check over their business premises for security lapses. That should take a few hours. I’ve got a couple of residential homes to check on, make sure all the changes I recommended have been done right, so all in all it’s looking to be a long day.”

“Any idea when I’ll see you this evening?”

“I don’t know. I’ll give you a call about mid-afternoon to let you know where I’m at, OK?”

“Ok.” Ariel brushed her lips over Quinn’s, then pulled back. “Oh, looks as if we’re almost there.” The car glided slowly down the street while it searched for a place to stop safely. Quinn let it do its thing and turned again to Ariel.

“So what about you? What do you have planned?”

“Well, the meeting with Edward should take about an hour and a half, then I might as well see how Jan’s doing with the stuff I’ve sent her recently. Then I thought I’d go shopping for stuff to wear on the upcoming book tour,” she poked her tall companion who was making a face at the word ‘shopping,’ “Sorry you can’t come with me.”

“I’d come with you anytime but I draw the line at shopping,” Quinn smirked.

” Anyway,” Ariel resumed, “I thought I’d check back with Jan to see if I could take her to lunch, and after lunch I’ll go home and try to get some writing done.”

“Hmm, sounds as if your day is equally full. Oh, ok, here we are.” The car drew to a halt, double parked. Quinn checked outside before jumping out and jogging around to Ariel’s side, checked the vicinity again, then opened the door for Ariel to exit and escorted her to the curb.

“Ok. Be careful, give the old buzzard my love, and remember that if you play footsie with Jan at lunch, I Will Know!”

“Always. Yes indeed. After you gave her “the Look” she’s too scared to step out of line.”

“Good, good and excellent.” Quinn quickly kissed her companion, glared at a man watching them with disgust, then ushered Ariel through the doors of the building.

Back in the Mark 5 she gave it the address of her first call then settled back to get some paperwork done as the car picked up speed.
——————————————————————————–

While Ariel waited for the elevator she thought back a year before to her first meeting with Quinn, in the very office toward which she was heading. She had received a death threat, by itself nothing new, but this one seemed to be from someone a bit more organized, and therefore a bit more scary than the usual.

“Edward, I’ll be careful. I don’t need a nursemaid.”

“My dear, I’d rather be safe than sorry. You mean a lot to me,” replied the snowy-haired man.

“But how am I supposed to work with some big oaf of a bodyguard hanging around?” exclaimed Ariel.

“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And I’ve been assured by all I’ve spoken with that she is excellent at her job.”

“Humph. Quinn Thanatos. What kind of made up name is that?” sniffed Ariel as she fingered a business card on Edward’s desk.

“I have no idea, my dear but with your winning ways I’m sure you’ll soon find out,” twinkled the man.

Startled, Ariel looked at him. “I am being a bitch, aren’t I.” She heaved a sigh. “Alright, I’ll try this but if I don’t like her or she gets in my way she’s gone, ok?”

“We’ll talk about it if and when, my dear. Right now, Ms. Thanatos is in the outer office and I ‘d like to bring her in to introduce you.”

Ariel ran her hand through her hair in exasperation. “Alright Edward. Bring her on.”

The elderly man picked up the phone. “Julia, please ask Ms. Thanatos to step in now.”

Within seconds the door behind Ariel opened and Edward moved past her to greet the new arrival.

“Ms. Thanatos, a pleasure. Sorry to keep you waiting. I’d like you to meet Ariel Pedersen, whom you’ll be looking after for the next few days until we can clear up this unpleasantness.”

Ariel turned. Whatever she had intended to say, fled.Yowza! shrieked a very loud voice, and for a second she thought she’d said it aloud. The woman who’d entered the office was Wow! offered her voice, unhelpfully. Six feet tall if she was an inch, with long dark hair, aristocratic features and riveting blue eyes. Judging by what Ariel could see of her body under a black leather coat, blue silk shirt, black jeans and boots, the woman also worked out.Um umm! Drool alert! Shut Up! she told herself mentally, then wondered again if she’d spoken out loud.

“Hi.” Say something else you idiot! “Uh, just call me Ariel.” Oh, that’ll impress her.

“Ariel.” The woman’s handshake was brief but strong. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please call me Quinn.”

Oh Goddess! Ariel had hoped at least the voice would be, just, well, ordinary, so she could regain some of her equilibrium. I could listen to that the rest of my life, she thought, then abruptly realized Edward was saying something.

“so Ariel, don’t you think that would be a good idea?” Edward beamed.

“Uh, oh, uh, sure. Yes indeed.”

“Alright then. It’s settled. Quinn or her deputy will be at your side day and night until the police catch this person. I’m sure that will happen any day now.” Edward had turned to the door and was opening it.

Ariel hurriedly interjected “Uh, excuse me a moment, uh, Quinn. There’s just one other thing I must check with Edward. I won’t be a moment. You go ahead.”

The dark-haired woman glanced from one to the other. “I’m right out here,” she said. “Please leave the door open,” she added.

Ariel dragged Edward to the far side of the office away from the door. She was aware of Quinn’s eyes on them as she swung him around so she made sure she was between him and the door when she started to talk. The Valkyrie can probably read lips, she thought. “Are you crazy?” she hissed. “You think I can work with that around?”

“I thought you might enjoy her company” murmured Edward.

Ariel glared. She was not always sure when Edward was joking.

“Relax, my dear, if you aren’t able to work, well, no harm done.” The old man’s face became serious. “I want you safe, my dear. Please. Do this for me.” He squeezed her shoulders.

Ariel, stared at him a moment longer. “Alright.” She thought of a half dozen other things to say but in the end simply repeated “Alright.”

And it had been alright. In fact many orders of magnitude better than alright!

“Ariel! Good morning. He’s all ready for you,” Julia, Edward McQuarry’s secretary of thirty years, welcomed her as she stepped off the elevator.

Ariel greeted Julia in turn and allowed herself to be shepherded through the inner office door. As it closed behind her, she saw Edward’s smiling face.

“Ariel, my dear. So nice to see you!” He hugged her quickly and then stood back, keeping his hands on her shoulders. “How are you. And how is Tall Dark and Sexy?”

Ariel grinned. “I’m fine and so is Quinn. She asked me to give you her love.”

“Did she! Did she now. She’s wonderful, you know. I’m so happy for you.” He guided her to the couch. “Please, sit. Sarah and I were just saying we hadn’t seen you two in a while and how much we’d like you to come over for dinner some night. Would that be alright? Can Sarah give you a call to see what night would suit?”

“That would be wonderful, Edward. Thank you.” Ariel thoroughly liked Edward and Sarah, his wife, and she was delighted that Quinn seemed to enjoy their company every bit as much as she did.

“Good! Well then, the most important thing on the agenda for today has been settled. Now for the other items …”
——————————————————————————–

Quinn pinched the bridge of her nose and then looked out the window. The Mark 5 was cruising at 70 mph down the Expressway toward an outlying industrial suburb. Quinn estimated she still had a few minutes before she reached her destination but decided to put away her paperwork and just kick back for the remaining travel time. With nothing to focus on, her mind wandered. The trip down to Edward McQuarry’s publishing firm that morning made her recall her first meeting with Ariel.

She’d arrived on time but had to wait. Putting the delay to good use, she’d occupied herself looking at copies of some of the books the firm had published. McQuarry’s was a small company but well thought of. She’d had other clients in the book trade and she’d heard nothing but good things about the company and its head.

Quinn picked up a copy of Ariel Pedersen’s Midnight Madness and leafed through it. She’d read the author’s first book and enjoyed it very much but hadn’t yet had a chance to check this one out. Actually, looking at the black and white photo of the author on the dust jacket, she decided she wouldn’t at all mind checking her out too. Blonde, she thought. Wonder if it’s real. Too bad I can’t see the colour of her eyes–that would help.

The information provided on the cover about the woman was almost non-existent: “Ariel Pedersen lives and works in a 150-year old brownstone in the Northeast.” Hmm, she thought. Keeps to herself. Probably a mouse. All day, every day, tappety tap on the ‘ol keyboard. Bed at 9:00pm after a glass of warm milk. Well, she’ll probably be easy to guard, then.

“Ms. Thanatos? Mr. McQuarry will see you now.” The secretary showed her through the publisher’s office door, shutting it behind her. Quinn shook hands with the publisher then turned to meet the woman she’d been hired to guard. Her first thought was that black and white photos would never do this woman justice. The green eyes, although they looked a little distracted at that moment, were the focal point of her face. Quinn looked closely to see if they were helped out by green contacts but could detect none. Honey blonde hair, cut short and kinda wind-blown, cute nose, nice mouth, looked kissable too. Hold it right there! This is a client. We keep our hands off the clients, don’t we, Quinn. The dark-haired woman made a quick and, she hoped, discrete survey of the rest of the body she was hired to protect, and decided that she wished she’d never made that rule.Then again, a little voice whispered in her mind,the client is actually the publishing company … Stop that! This is business!

“and Ariel is like my own daughter. I wanted to ensure she had the best protection possible. I’ve told her you’ve been highly recommended. So Ariel, my dear,” he turned to the shorter woman “Put your trust in Ms. Thanatos and do as she directs you.” Edward McQuarry was saying.

Oh yeah! There’s definitely some direction I’d love to give you “Either I or a member of my team will be with her 24 hours a day.”

The publisher addressed some final words to the writer and then began guiding them out of his office, certain that everything had been taken care of, when the shorter woman suddenly requested that Quinn wait outside while she just attended to one last detail. Quinn looked at both, and agreed to the request, but since she was now on duty she asked that they leave the door open. The blonde hustled the old man to the far side of the office, turned her back, and engaged in a short but animated conversation. Quinn hoped she’d be able to lip read at least part of what transpired but since the two were of similar height, she was unable to see the publisher’s lips. Then she saw the blond nodding and McQuarry give her a quick hug. Seconds later she and the woman were in the elevator on the way to the street.

Quinn checked outside again. Almost there, but not quite. She settled back once more and let her mind pick up where it had left off.

The author was adamant. She wanted to go shopping. She didn’t get downtown that often so when she did, she wanted to make it worth her while, and no hopped up religious wingnut threatening her life was going to stop her. Quinn resisted at first but realized it was like trying to hold back the tide. So they went shopping.

Quinn stood guard patiently, surveying the other shoppers, while Ariel selected clothes to try on. In the changing area the security consultant stood outside the small cubicle while Ariel tried on a variety of outfits, occasionally stepping out to get Quinn’s opinion. From Quinn’s viewpoint it was tiring and boring, although, since it did give her a chance to spend some time legitimately checking out her charge, the boredom was mitigated. She’d definitely come to the conclusion that the woman followed some kind of athletic program. Those legs were shapely. And when the honey blonde tried on a sleeveless top she could see nicely defined deltoids and biceps. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The crunch came after more than an hour of this routine.

“Hey, swim suits. I need a new one. Actually, maybe I should get a couple,” the smaller woman said.

Quinn looked at the suits. Bikinis. Oh Goddess. Her imagination was already in first gear. It didn’t need anything to goose the gas pedal.

“Uh, I believe we should be moving along …”

“I won’t be a minute, I promise. C’mon.”

Quinn gloomily followed her charge back to the changing area.

“So what do you think?”

Quinn abandoned her faithful watchdog routine with a sense of doom, and looked at Ariel. The smaller woman was dressed, if one could use that word for scraps of cloth that probably didn’t amount to more than nine square inches, all told, in a maroon bikini with a bronze diagonal slash.

“So? How does it look??” Ariel asked, a little impatiently.

Spectacular! Fabulous! Phenomenal! I could bounce quarters off those abs! “Uh, fine.”

“How about from the back?”

Oh, Goddess! I think I’m having a heart attack! I know where else I could bounce quarters! “Uh, very nice.”

“Hmm, well. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but I guess it will have to do. I’ll just try the aquamarine one on now.”

They’d finally left the store sometime later, with Quinn feeling as if she’d been run over by a truck.

Quinn chuckled to herself. And that was her introduction to the most wonderful woman in the world.

Chapter 4
Ariel returned to the publishing firm shortly after 12:30. Jan, her editor, had not been at her desk when she’d dropped by earlier, so she’d written a message on a sticky note and stuck it on Jan’s chair, since she doubted that any message left on the overflowing desk would ever be seen again. Well, the sticky was gone so presumably Jan had seen it.

“Hi there, pretty lady. Come here often?” a seductively pitched voice enquired.

Ariel turned and engulfed the speaker in a bear hug. “Only when attractive editors ask me to come up ‘n see their corrections,” she laughed. “Jan! good to see you. In person is much better than telephones or e-mail.”

The other woman grinned and hugged Ariel in return. “It’s been awhile. You look great, as usual. Tall Dark and Scary treating you well?”

“Very well. She sends her best.”

“Uh huh, you always were a great bullshitter, m’dear.” The tall editor noticed Ariel’s shopping bags. ” I see you haven’t been wasting the morning.”

“Well, I like to take advantage of any trips downtown. And with the book tour coming up …”

“Uh huh. Any excuse to shop. Well, since you like spending money, and since you asked me, yes, I’d love to let you buy me lunch. Park your bags in here and we can go now, if you want.”

“Great, I am getting a little hungry,” admitted Ariel.

“Gee, what a surprise,” smiled her friend, as she locked her office door.

Further conversation was shelved until they got out of the crowded elevator at street level. The two friends consulted, then decided on a small Indian restaurant in the next block. Although Jan wasn’t as tall as Quinn, Ariel still had to hustle to keep up with her as they made their way there.

Drink and food orders placed, they took a moment just to catch their breaths and grin at each other.

“So. I can’t find too much to query or correct in the stuff you’ve been sending me recently. Pretty soon I’ll have to take up playing computer games to look busy.”

“Either that or making paper airplanes from the rare pieces of paper on your desk.” responded Ariel.

“There’s a thought!” Jan was quiet for a few seconds, then became more serious. “So everything really is going well? With Quinn, I mean. I haven’t seen you in three months, and, well, I just hoped you were happy.”

Ariel reached across the table and laid her hand on Jan’s. The other woman had always used a joking manner to cloak her attraction to Ariel, but the writer wasn’t fooled. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, Jan. Truly. Quinn is like no one I’ve ever known before.”

“Can’t argue with that.” said Jan, a touch sarcastically, then quickly added “Well good. If you’re happy, I’m happy. She looked down at the table, sighed, then smiled across at Ariel and switched gears again. “Well, you’ve got me hooked on your latest. I sometimes forget I’m supposed to be editing the damned thing and just want to read it for the sheer joy of it. So what’s going to happen next? Girl has gotten girl, so presumably girl will lose girl but eventually true love will triumph.”

“Just about,” Ariel grinned, then suddenly struck a dramatic pose and declaimed, “and all against a backdrop of a time of great change, as the world struggles to cope with the idea of women loving, gasp, women!

Jan laughed, then said, “So tell me, what’s gonna happen?”

Ariel made her face very serious, leaned forward and responded, “Believe me, my friend, as soon as I know, you’ll know!”
——————————————————————————–

Quinn got into the Mark 5 and gave it the address of the first of the two residential jobs she wanted to check before her day was done. The warehouses had been time consuming but she could see a lot of improvements that could and should be made. As the car pulled away she plugged her handheld recorder into the computer so it could transcribe the notes she’d just dictated. Time to give Ariel a call.

One ring. Two rings, Three rings.

“Hello?”

“Hey. Did I bring you from far away?”

“Oh, hi. No, I just got in, as a matter of fact, and heard the phone ringing.

“Yeah? Long lunch.”

“No, I … Stop that Harry! Just a sec, Love.”

Harry? Quinn waited impatiently as she listened to Ariel speaking to someone.

“Sorry about that …”

“Harry?” Quinn cut her off.

“No, no. Hairy. H-a-i-r-y. Uh, it’s a long story.”

“I got time.”

“Ok, well, I took a cab home from Edward’s about 2:00 o’clock. We’d just been stopped at a light and started up again when the cab lurched and stopped. I didn’t know if it had broken down or if the sensors had detected something in the way, but when I looked out I couldn’t see anything wrong. Then I heard a faint cry.”

“A cry,” said Quinn, resigned.

“Yeah. I looked again and could just see a kitten looking like he was trying to decide if he’d cross in front of the car or not.”

“Where was this?”

“Right downtown. I could see other cats in the alley.”

“Alley! You were in an alley!?”

“Just the entrance, I didn’t go in it. Anyway I’m pretty sure he’s feral. While he thought about whether to cross or not I nabbed him. He’s adorable! He’s black, kind of a long hair, and his fur sticks up in all directions.”

“Hence the name Hairy,” Quinn interjected.

“Right! Oh you’re going to love him Quinn. The vet says he’s about 7 weeks old. She thinks he’s probably weaned. He’s healthy, or seems to be, so I had them give him a flea bath, and his first shots and I brought him home.

Quinn checked outside, as the Mark 5 swung off the Expressway and onto city streets. Still a few minutes. She knew Ariel had had a cat before. Her ancient Persian, Beelzebub, the survivor of a brother and sister pair, had expired of heart failure just a month or so before they met. Ariel had expressed a desire to get another cat but since she’d always acquired her cats in unplanned circumstances, she’d come to half believe that she ought to give fate a chance to take a hand. I guess it has, thought Quinn.

“Can’t wait to make his acquaintance,” she murmured.

“Oh good, I’m so glad.” Quinn could hear the warmth mixed with relief in her lover’s voice. Then Ariel picked up the conversation again. “Speaking of which, any idea when you’ll get here?”

“At least another three hours. Um, maybe by 8:00 p.m.?”

“Ok, I’ll have dinner ready when you get here. How’s that?”

“Sounds good. almost at my next stop so I better go.”

“Ok. Um, Quinn? I was going to give the animal rescue volunteers a call about the other cats. If they find any kittens, what would you think if I got Hairy a sister or brother?”

Quinn grinned. Ariel never liked to think of anyone or anything being lonely, or in trouble. “I think that would be a great idea.”

“Yeah? Cool! Well I better let you go. See you in a bit. Love you.”

“Love you too.” Quinn folded the phone and put it back on her belt. Ariel had sounded like a little kid. A sophisticated, successful young author, reduced to the level of little kid by a small bundle of fluff. Quinn smiled. Ain’t the world grand.

But that still didn’t mean that she should be wandering into alleys, for Goddess’ sake!
——————————————————————————–

“When asked if he had any last words Pearson simply shook his head. He was pronounced dead at 6:08pm, Eastern Standard Time.”

Quinn zapped the info feed off, stretched her legs and checked outside. The Mark 5 had managed to secure parking very near the spot it had occupied overnight. She got out, locked up and armed it, and walked across the street.

The wonderful smells inside Ariel’s house, and the closed kitchen door, gave her a clue where she would find her lover.

“Ok, ready to try that again?” Ariel asked, as she tossed a toy mouse out into the middle of the floor. Something that looked like an animated dustmop with a bad case of static dashed across the floor and pounced. Then, sensing a new presence, it whirled and ran to hide behind a cardboard box near one wall.

“Ummm. Hi.” Ariel slid her arms around Quinn’s neck and brushed the dark-haired woman’s lips with her own. Quinn, in turn, wrapped her arms around the smaller woman’s waist. Ariel’s clothing — a sports bra and tight blue jeans – gave lots of scope for hands-on contact, and she made good use of it, eventually sliding her hands down for a double handful of tight butt.

“Hmm. That’s interesting.”

“What?” Ariel pulled her head back and looked in Quinn’s eyes.

“I was just thinking that I could describe you as having a nice ass and a tight butt, both of which you would correctly interpret as compliments.”

Ariel grinned and kissed the tip of Quinn’s nose. “And don’t forget, it’s the truth,” she said.

“But if I described you as tight assed you mightn’t be nearly so likely to feed me any of that delicious food you’re preparing.”

“Ya got that right, Sport,” said the honey blonde as she stepped back and playfully backhanded her taller lover’s stomach. “And speaking of food, I assume that means you’re hungry, which is good because we got plenty. Sit.”

Quinn complied and started to happily chow down on vat-grown roast pork, couscous, green beans with slivered almonds and a spinach salad.

“Wine or beer?”

“Wine, please.” Quinn grinned. “Surprised you didn’t I?”

Ariel smiled as she poured a glass and placed it in front of her lover. “A bit, but it’s just one more reason why I love you.”

“‘Cause I’ll drink wine?”

“Because I can’t predict what you’ll do. Keeps me on my toes.”

“Hmm. Interesting position.” Quinn wiggled her eyebrows.

“You are insatiable.”

“And you’re glad of it.”

Ariel grinned, and looked down and then up to meet Quinn’s eyes. “Yeah. I am.”

Quinn leaned over, slipped her hand behind Ariel’s head and pulled her in for a long, deep kiss.

“Wow!”

“Left you speechless, did I?”

“Oh yeah. Hey, I have an idea, let’s take the wine and continue this up in that big bathtub upstairs.”

“Sounds good to me. What about Hairy?”

“Harry?

“Yeah, Hairy, the little ball of fluff that’s currently sniffing my boot.”

Ariel looked down then picked the kitten up, which caused him to purr. “I’m confining him to the kitchen for the moment. I’ll get him settled and be right up. You go ahead and get the bath started and I’ll be there before you know it.”

“Will do. Quinn pulled her in for a final kiss that was interrupted by a loud squeak from Hairy, still in Ariel’s arms, who suddenly found himself in danger of being squashed.
——————————————————————————–

“Um umm! A playboy pose! Just for me? A naked Quinn, who had one knee resting on the edge of the large, claw-footed bathtub as she reached diagonally over it for the body wash, turned her head and flashed a seductive smile.

“I think this sort of pose is usually assumed on a bearskin rug, but whatever turns you on,” she murmured, as she reached for the writer.

“Oh, bare skin definitely turns me on!” said Ariel, dragging her nails lightly down over the taller woman’s taut belly.

“Me too, and there’s not enough of it yet,” responded Quinn, nuzzling the honey blonde’s neck while she relieved her of the sports bra. Then, dropping to her knees, she playfully attacked Ariel’s abs with her teeth, dipped her tongue in her navel and licked, bit and kissed her way down the smaller woman’s body as she pealed off jeans and underwear. Quinn’s return trip was so prolonged and leisurely that Ariel was ready to scream by the time her smiling lover once again stood to her full height and bent to kiss her mouth.

“Quinn! You make me crazy sometimes!” panted the smaller woman.

“Ummm,” her lover agreed with a smile, quickly picking up the honey blonde and stepping into the water. They settled in with Ariel snuggled between Quinn’s legs, leaning back against her breasts. Quinn slipped her arms around the shorter woman’s waist, and leaned back.

“This is nice.”

“Uh huh,” the honey blonde agreed as she slid her hands slowly up Quinn’s long, muscular thighs on either side of her own.

A voice chuckled in her ear, “If you keep that up you’ll never get a chance to finish your wine.”

“Oh, by all means, let’s have the wine.”

Quinn picked up the glasses and handed one to her lover. Ariel leaned back and sipped, loving the feel of Quinn’s hardened nipples pressing into her back. The other woman’s free hand slowly stroked her breasts and occasionally slid down to the blond curls at the apex of Ariel’s legs. The third time the hand slipped south, tantalized, then started back up, Ariel grabbed it and held on. “Quinn, honey,” she asked innocently, “do you like this hand?”

“Umm. I’m kinda attached to it.”

“How about the fingers? Think you could do with one, maybe two less? Possibly three, or even four?”

“Hmm. I’d have to say that might slow me down a tad.”

Ariel turned her head and smiled brightly at Quinn. “Well then, stop teasing me or suffer the consequences.”

The taller woman furrowed her brow, seemingly in deep thought.

“Lost fingers versus stop teasing. Fingers, teasing. Teasing fingers.” As if to underline the phrase, she started to wiggle them but Ariel clamped down hard.

“Quinn” she said warningly, still smiling although it was beginning to get a bit ragged around the edges.

Quinn looked at her solemnly “What about your wine?”

“TO HELL WITH THE WINE!”

“Yes Ma’am,” The taller woman grinned.
Chapter 5
Early morning sunlight streamed across the kitchen floor and into the hall behind Quinn as she stepped through the kitchen door. The sun also illuminated a furry little being running for cover behind his box.

“Good morning Hairy. How are you today?” The dark-haired woman walked over to the coffee maker and began assembling the ingredients for the first cup of the day. The kitten ventured out from behind his box and sat down to gaze at her. “I’ll bet you’re hungry.”

“Eeek” he squeaked, seemingly in agreement. A few seconds later she heard “Eeeeek,” from a little closer, and then almost immediately “EEEEEK!” from right at her feet.

“Ok, ok. Ariel will be here any second and she can show me where your food is.”

“I’ll take care of it, Love,” Ariel said as she walked in the door. “But for future reference, I keep it down in this cupboard.” The writer bent to get the food out and Quinn took a second to admire the view. Since the shorter woman was wearing a bikini, it was sensational.

“I now have a new appreciation for kitten food,” grinned Quinn.

Ariel rolled her eyes and then turned to put some food in a dish for the kitten, who by now had set up a steady clamour.

“I’ll set out breakfast while you do your laps,” said Quinn.

“Ok, thanks Babe, responded Ariel as she opened the doors to the backyard.

The sun was shining brightly, but the long narrow pool Ariel maintained in her backyard had not yet heated up. The writer gritted her teeth, dived in and started a smooth crawl up and down its length. Theoretically, since her fence was 12 feet high and impervious to passersby in the lane behind her house, Ariel could have swum naked. However, two elderly sisters, who lived next door, had a perfect view of her pool from their second floor windows, and in deference to their sensibilities, Ariel wore a bikini. “Bet they’d enjoy it,” Quinn had said. Ariel had replied, smiling, “Quinn, I think there’s a little transference going on in that statement. They are not you. You are not them.” “Bet they’d still enjoy it,” Quinn muttered, “You’d have to be dead not to enjoy it.” Ariel had just smiled, kissed her and murmured “Thanks.”

While Ariel did laps Quinn flipped on the info feed. She was about to search for a news program but, remembering what had happened the previous day, decided that an audio music channel was probably a safer bet. “In fact,” she glanced at the time, grinned and said to herself, “I know just which one.”

” Come on people now, smile on your brother,

Everybody get together, try to love one another right now…

right now… right now…”

“That was the Youngbloods with “Get Together,” one of the anthems of the 1960s. The time is coming up on 7:30, and you are listening to The Classics, on W 101.3. Are you sure your sun block is really …” Quinn zoned out through the commercials and set about getting breakfast. Lessee. Bagels. Butter. Cheese. Juice? Naw. “I think there’s some fruit in the freezer, Hairy, let’s see if I can find it.”

The kitten, wrapped up in chasing his toy mouse, paid no attention to the human making meaningless noise. Quinn scanned the freezer contents. “Yup. Strawberries.” She pulled them out, popped the top and put them in the microwave. A glance outside assured her that Ariel was still swimming. The commercials ended, and the announcer came back on.

“And now, a song often requested. The Jefferson Airplane’s …” the announcer’s voice dropped an octave, “White Rabbit.”

The hypnotic opening bars followed immediately, bass combining with snare drum, joined by guitar.

“One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small,”

Quinn, singing along with Grace Slick, danced around the room as she popped the bagels in the toaster and took the now defrosted fruit out of the micro.

“And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all.
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.

And if you go chasing rabbits”

She pointed a finger at Hairy, who had given up playing with his toy mouse to watch the human’s strange antics.

“And you know you’re going to fall,
Tell ’em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call.
Call Alice
When she was just small.”

Quinn stuck a finger in the fruit and tasted it thoughtfully. “Yup, needs sugar.”

“When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go”

The bagels popped up and she retrieved and buttered them while singing

“And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low.
Go ask Alice I think she’ll know.”

Quinn found the sugar, dusted some on the berries, tasted, nodded her head and went for the big finish:

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead,
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s ‘off with her head!’
Remember what the dormouse said:
‘Feed your head.
Feed your head.
Feed your head.'”

Quinn took a second to enjoy the orgiastic conclusion, then bowed deeply to Hairy who didn’t know whether to run and hide or get ready to defend himself. “Thank yuh, thank yuh. Thank yuh v’ry much,” she said. A giggle behind her made her turn as Ariel stepped through the patio door.

“I think that was The King you were quoting.”

“Hey, it fits,” grinned Quinn, then added, “You look cold.”

“A little. I can take it.”

“Uh huh. Mental note – add ice cubes to the bedroom toys.”

Ariel laughed, then suddenly stepped up to Quinn and embraced her tightly, and murmured “only if I get to use them on you, Sport.”

“Aagghh, you’re freezing, woman. Not to mention wet, and not in a nice way.”

Ariel giggled again, stepped back quickly and disappeared through the doorway on her way upstairs to change.

“One of these days Alice,” Quinn yelled after her, “One of these days!”

The dark haired woman chuckled, poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down. Hairy came over to look at her more closely, and was picked up for his pains. An initial squirm, as he felt her wet shirt, was soon replaced by purring as she pulled her T-shirt up and held him against her warm skin.

As Quinn listened to the music she reflected that one of the things she and Ariel had in common was an interest in history. But whereas Ariel’s main interest was political history, hers was cultural. Ok, ok, cheesy pop culture.

She remembered her grandmother, whom she’d loved dearly, would play songs from the previous century. Some of it had sounded like current stuff, but other things were like nothing she’d ever encountered before. Doing a little investigating, she learned that popular mainstream music had begun to change around the middle of the previous century, when rock ‘n roll was introduced. Quinn discovered she liked it. The corny, the bubble gum, the acid, the whole spectrum. When her grandmother died, the family was going to throw out her collection, but Quinn, who was 11 at the time, persuaded them to let her keep it. It was a link with her grandmother, true, but it was also music that spoke to her. She still had the collection, and had substantially added to it by browsing in second hand music shops.

Her interest in music from the previous century had led naturally to an interest in the television programs and films of that era. Her collection ran from TV shows of the ’50s, when television was really just beginning to find a mass market, right up to the end of the century. Often complete sets. “Complete runs of almost 100 shows, Hairy. It takes up a fair chunk of space, I’ll tell ya. If I brought it all over here instead of leaving it at my apartment we’d have to add a room.”

“What’s that?” Ariel asked as she returned, dressed, Quinn noted, in a sweater, jeans, socks and shoes. Must have been colder than she let on, she thought.

Quinn put the kitten down and poured Ariel some coffee. “I was just telling Hairy about my popular culture collection,” she said. “He seemed very interested.”

“‘Cause you’re a fascinating conversationalist.”

“Umm. Never been called that before.”

“So,” she asked, after a few minutes of music only, while they ate, “what’s on your agenda for the day?”

“Corrections and queries from Jan. Continue writing. Check over my mail I picked up yesterday. Not necessarily in that order.” Ariel answered her own fan mail. If it came electronically, the publishing company forwarded it to her. If it was snail mail, they either sent it periodically by messenger or she picked it up.

“How about you?”

“Well, I’m gonna take it a bit easier than yesterday. What I can’t hand on to Kris, I’ll postpone ’til tomorrow. Getting in some exercise is my number one priority for today and other than that I’ll just clear up some paper work.” Quinn pushed back from the table, yawned and got up to start clearing it.

“You go ahead, Love. I’ll handle this,” said Ariel.”

“Ok. If you need me, just shout.”
——————————————————————————–

Quinn was walking by Ariel’s office door an hour later when the writer called to her.

“What do you make of this?” said Ariel as she handed a sheet of paper to the taller woman.

Quinn noted the expression on the other woman’s face. “Hold it.” She grabbed a tissue before accepting the sheet, using it to keep from touching the paper. She saw immediately that it was a photocopy of a review of Midnight Madness, with two sentences struck out with red ink: “But interwoven throughout this sexy tale of two young women who can’t keep their hands off each other is a serious message–society’s current trends have a dehumanizing effect. The author makes it clear that, in her view, the gun culture, expanding at warp speed through a loosening of licensing requirements, combined with ever more draconian crime and punishment legislation, is greasing the proverbial slippery slope.” A photo of Ariel that had been run with the review was defaced with a large red “X”. Block letters above it proclaimed, “You must be silenced.”

“I think we have another loony to contend with,” said Quinn.

“You think it’s that serious?”

“When did the reviews of Midnight Madness come out”?

Ariel thought. “Um, a little over a year ago.”

“Over how long a period?”

“I don’t know, two, three months. Why?”

Quinn ignored the question. “So there hasn’t been a review recently?”

“No. Besides, I think I recognize this one. It came out in the local paper, shortly after the book was published. So you think it’s serious?” the shorter woman asked again.

“The message is terse. Your photo is defaced. Whoever sent it took the trouble to look up a review and photocopy it. Hell yes, I think it’s serious.” Quinn ran her free hand through her hair and set the sheet down.

“What should we do?”

“Report it to the police. God knows, they can’t do much, but at least it’s on record. And if I’m forced to shoot someone over this we got that covered.”

Ariel nodded grimly. Explaining after the fact without a threat on file could take hours, if not days, while Quinn languished in detention. Even though everyone was encouraged to carry guns, the authorities were still expected to look closely at anyone firing one. As a result, it could be a while before an overworked police officer got to your case.

“Ok. Do you want to phone the police or should I?”

“I’ll do it. I’ll call Hank, since he handled the last one.” Quinn knelt in front of Ariel, who was now slumped in her chair. Clasping the writer’s hands in her own, she asked, “Hey. You ok? We’ll get this guy, don’t worry.”

“I know. I know. It’s just … why, Quinn? For expressing an opinion, for being who I am. I …”

Quinn leaned over and tenderly brushed Ariel’s lips. “I know, Love. I know. I’ll go call Hank.”
——————————————————————————–

“Yeah, I got a call into Hank right now.”

“Well, if you need any help on this thing, let me know.”

“Will do, Kris, but right now you can help just by running the company for me. As soon as we hang up I’m going to forward my business number to you. Call me on my personal number if you need to consult, and check with me once a day to bring me up to speed, but for all intents and purposes, until this is over you are Thanatos Security.”

“Got ya Quinn,” responded Kris, her second-in-command. “What about the paper, do you need …”

Quinn cut her off. “Already thought of it. A messenger has just taken it to the lab for analysis. But that reminds me, have Joe call me. I’ve got some other stuff I want checked ASAP.”

“Ok. If that’s all, I’ll get going.” There was a pause, then, “Keep her safe.”

“I’m planning on it. Thanks Kris. Talk to you later.”

Quinn had no sooner disconnected than the phone buzzed again.

“Thanatos.”

“You called?” the baritone voice of Det. 2nd Grade Hank Walsh responded.

“Yeah, Hank. Ariel has received another threat and I don’t think it’s one we should ignore.”

“I was afraid this wasn’t a social call. Ok, we can analyze …”

“Got it covered.” She heard the detective inhale to lecture her on proper procedure but she kept talking. “You know the police labs are hopelessly backed up. I’ll have results back by the end of the day. I called you to officially register the threat and because you might be able to help me find the guy.”

“Or girl,” interjected the detective laconically.

“Yeah. Or girl. I’ve got a copy of the note for you. Can you drop by and we can discuss it?

“Ok. How about in an hour?”

“Good. See you then.”

Quinn closed the connection then took a second to think back a year ago. On the face of it, the threats were similar. Each was made on a review of Midnight Madness, newly published at that time. But whereas this one was a photocopy, that one had been neatly cut from a newspaper and scotchtaped to a sheet of plain paper. This one was terse. That one included Biblical quotations. Both were made in block letters. Just then her phone buzzed.

“Thanatos.”

“Hi Boss. I hear you got something that needs doing ASAP.”

“Yeah, Joe. Ariel got a threatening note. It may be just a loony, but on the other hand it may not. I’d like you to dig up whatever you can on the following …”
Chapter 6
Quinn paused at the door of Ariel’s office. Normally she didn’t disturb the author when she was working, but this wasn’t a normal day. The smaller woman looked up from her monitor as Quinn knocked quietly and entered.

“Hi. You writing?”

“Only answering fan mail. I figured I’d get that out of the way, at least, and try writing later. Did you talk to Hank?”

“Yeah. He’s coming by in an hour. He’ll want to see you. In the meantime, I think we better go over your schedule for the next few days.”

“Why? I’m not changing anything.”

“Ariel…”

“No Quinn! I refuse to creep around afraid of my own shadow.” The smaller woman leaped to her feet and started to pace. “I realize that makes it difficult for you, and I’m really sorry. But I won’t compromise on this.”

“Ariel, appearing in public is risky, no matter how well I have you guarded.”

“I understand that. I also understand that I could curtail my activities for days, weeks, months, even. No. I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

Quinn pinched the bridge of her nose. Ok, this battle was lost but she could still win the war. She’d just have to lengthen the campaign a bit.

“Ok. When you start paraphrasing Spanish revolutionaries I know when to quit.”

Ariel looked at her, startled. “Spanish revolutionaries?”

“Yeah. The dying on your feet bit. Dolores Ibárruri, also known as ‘La Pasionaria.'”

Ariel stared at her for a few seconds. “You continually amaze me.”

“Ah, shucks ma’am,” said Quinn, “T’weren’t nothin’. She was a strong woman. And you know me and my interest in strong women.”

Ariel laughed, then hugged Quinn tightly. “Thanks. I needed that.”

“Hey, if that bit of trivia got me a hug, what does knowing all the words from ‘The Bubblegum Song’ get me?

“Quinn…” the honey blonde said warningly.

“Chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy…”

“Quinn!!”

“…chewy Baby!” Quinn punctuated the line with a light kiss on the end of Ariel’s nose, and a hug of her own. “Ok. I can take a hint. You don’t need to draw me a diagram. I’ll let you know when Hank gets here. Ok?”

“Ok.” A pause. “I love you.”

“I know, Babe. I love you too.” It took only a millisecond for Quinn to consider and reject the emotional blackmail route. She wasn’t going to guilt Ariel into doing what she asked, even if would make it easier to keep her safe. She’d just have to deal with this situation by situation. Yeah.
——————————————————————————–

“Have a seat, Hank. Ariel will be down in a minute.”

The big man grunted non-committally and sank into a chair.

“Here’s a copy of the note.”

“Hmm. Not much of a talker. I checked on McNaughton, to see if he was on the loose, or had been, and he’s not. But then again, you knew that, didn’t you. They said mine was the second inquiry they’d had that day.”

“Umm. He’s the first person that crossed my mind.” Quinn sat down on the couch across from the chair occupied by the detective. Willy McNaughton, the smooth-faced religious fanatic who had threatened and then tried to attack Ariel the previous year, was in jail for 40 years, minimum. And good riddance, thought Quinn.

“I suppose he might have persuaded some misguided shit to mail this for him,” the detective continued, “but this just doesn’t look like his style. He wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to throw in a few sentences from Leviticus.”

“I agree. The emphasis looks different. This guy isn’t objecting to the sex, he’s objecting to her stand on guns and hard line legislation.”

Hank looked across at Quinn. “Still doesn’t mean it isn’t a religious fanatic behind it. The gun lobby and the holding-the-line-on-crime guys have got a lot of support from the evangelicals, like Ephraim Mather. He might think this is a holy mission or something. Wipe out everyone who disagrees with what he knows is right.”

Before Quinn could respond, she heard footsteps behind her as Ariel entered. The detective leaped to his feet and stuck out his hand. “Ms. Pedersen. Nice to see you again. I wish it was under better circumstances.”

“Thank you Detective. So do I.” Ariel shook hands then found herself a seat next to Quinn, who noted that Hank waited for Ariel to seat herself before he sat down again. The man was definitely from the old school, she thought.

“Quinn and I were just discussing this note you received. You picked it up at your publisher’s, she tells me. Any idea when they got it?

“None at all. They send on mail when some has accumulated. I think I answered another batch earlier this month but I’m not sure of the day, if that helps, at all.”

“Have you had any altercation with anyone recently? At a reading, or something? In the grocery store? With one of your neighbours? Anything at all?”

“None that I can remember.”

“That’s what she keeps me around for,” rumbled Quinn.

Walsh ignored the interruption and asked “What about at your publisher’s? Problems with anyone?

“No. Not at all. They’re like family.”

“Speaking of family…”

“No.”

Quinn was a bit startled at Ariel’s short answer, but she knew that her family was a painful subject for the writer, so put it down to that.

The detective’s eyes flickered from one woman to the other, but he made no comment. “Well, I guess that does it for the moment, then,” he said as he rose to his feet. “I’ll go make some inquiries at your publisher’s.”

“Which you’ll share with me,” interjected Quinn.

“In exchange for a copy of the analysis of the note and the envelope it came in,” Walsh shot back.

“Deal. I’ll see you out.”

Quinn returned in a few minutes to find Ariel still seated on the couch.

“Hey. You still here?”

“Yeah. Quinn …” Ariel paused.

“What is it Love?” When Ariel made no move to continue, the dark-haired woman sat down next to her and took her hand in both her own. “Hey, you can tell me. What’s wrong? Aside from the obvious, that is.”

“Detective Walsh asked about my family …”

“Yeah. That’s standard operating procedure.” Quinn wondered where this was leading. Ariel had had no contact with her family in years.

“Well, I didn’t tell you, but I got an e-mail a few days ago. It was from my nephew, Scott. Out of the blue. He said … Well, why don’t you come up to my office and read it.”
——————————————————————————–

“Dear Aunt Ariel,” the message began. “I know you and my mom haven’t spoken in years, and I know why.” Quinn could feel an atavistic muscle reflex beginning, but she consciously clamped down on it. “I didn’t understand at the time, but I know now that it was mom’s fault.” Oh. Maybe this kid was ok after all. “Anyway, I’m going to be moving to your neck of the woods soon ’cause I’ve been accepted for grad school there, and I hoped I could maybe drop by? I’d understand if you didn’t want to. Mom treated you pretty badly, but I hoped you’d be interested in re-establishing contact with at least one member of the Johnson family. We’re not all pig headed. Anyway, I hope to hear from you. Thanks for reading this far. Love, Scott.” Quinn checked the headers. The message had been forwarded from McQuarry’s.

“I thought about it a couple of days,” Ariel was saying. “Then I wrote him back.”

“And you said?”

“Call me when you get into town and we’d talk.”

Quinn thought about that, then nodded. At least she hadn’t invited him over right off the bat.

“I just couldn’t tell Detective Walsh that. I didn’t want him all over Scott just because he happened to get in touch a few days before.” Ariel paused. Quinn waited. The smaller woman got up and began to pace.

“I never told you about my family,” she said finally. Quinn made a supportive noise.

“I have one sister. At least, I assume the present tense is correct. I haven’t spoken with her since I was 17. Donna was 12 years older than I. Our parents were killed in a plane crash when I was 14 and so I went to live with Donna and her husband, Blake. They had two children, Scott, who was the older, and Katie. Donna and Blake were pillars of the community. If something needed organizing or if children had to be driven somewhere or if the morals of the community needed shoring up, Donna and Blake were right in the thick of it.”

Quinn could see a muscle jumping in Ariel’s jaw. “Oh, and they were upstanding members of their church too. You bet. Every Sunday, we went to GAWD’s house.” Coming from Ariel’s mouth, the word sounded even more alien than usual. “It was as if he was taking attendance, or something–you needed a perfect record to get into ‘The Kingdom.'” Quinn winced to hear the unaccustomed sarcasm, but Ariel didn’t notice. “My parents had been church goers but their god was nothing like Donna and Blake’s. Mom and Dad’s god was loving, and forgiving. Donna and Blake’s was vindictive and dictatorial. One wrong move and you were doomed to Hellfire for all eternity. Amen Brother! So …” Ariel stopped, leaned against her desk and looked down at her feet. Then she straightened her shoulders and looked at Quinn. “So when she found me kissing my best friend one afternoon she had to take steps quickly to root this evil out of her house. I was on the street with a suitcase and $40 in no time flat, and was told never to darken her door again.”

Quinn made a move to enfold Ariel in her arms but the smaller woman put up a hand. “No Quinn, I’ll never get this out if I stop now.”

“Ok.” Quinn leaned back against the wall. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t know what to do. I sat in a park a mile or so away ’til it was almost dusk. High school would be over in a month. I had a really good average and had already got a scholarship to go on. I just had to make it from then until September. No big deal. So why was I crying? Anyway, I don’t know what I would have done if Ms. Jameson hadn’t seen me there.”

“Ms. Jameson?”

“Yeah. My English teacher. I didn’t even know she lived around there. Anyway, she was out with her little boy walking their dog. She saw there was something wrong right away so she had Tim go play with Rusty while she talked to me. It only took one kind word and it all came pouring out. Anyway, she made me come home with them, and I stayed with her and her son until September.” Ariel looked at Quinn again.

“Thank god for teachers. Can I hold you yet?”

Ariel gave a small cry and rushed into Quinn’s arms. The crying jag was brief but intense. Quinn occupied herself thinking of several things she’d like to do to Donna Johnson, should she ever be so lucky as to be in a position to do them. She’d just settled on staking her naked out in the hot sun and skinning her with a dull knife when Ariel pulled back.

“I’m getting you all wet,” she sniffed.

“Ah, you get me wet all the time so don’t worry about it,” responded Quinn.

Ariel giggled. “yeah, but some times are more enjoyable than others.”

“True. But yuh take the good with the not so good. And take it from me, the good is sensational.”

Ariel, sniffed again and grinned up at Quinn. “You sweet talker, you.”

“Hey, I work on it all the time. Lessee, if Ariel says this, I’ll say that. You think when I leave here I go to work? Ha. I’m just parked around the corner practicing sparkling
comebacks.”

Ariel giggled, hugged her lover, then sobered. “The best day of my life was the day you came into it,” she said.

“Likewise, Babe. Likewise,” responded Quinn and hugged her harder.
——————————————————————————–

“One, two …” The buzz of the phone made the security consultant pause in her workout and grab for it. “Thanatos.”

“Hi Boss, got something for you.”

Quinn snatched up a towel and mopped her face, then reached over to a nearby table and snagged a bottle of water. “Go ahead,” she said, as she drained half the bottle and poured the rest over her head. After Ariel had calmed, Quinn had gone downstairs to Ariel’s state-of-the-art basement gym. She had to work some energy off or she was going to go crazy. There was no action she could take until some info began to come back, and realistically, maybe not even then. She’d been here for more than an hour and the physical activity was finally starting to take the edge off.

“Ok. I checked all the stuff you told me. The only thing that came up was an insurance policy on Ariel, and it’s a biggie.”

“Yeah? Who’s the beneficiary?” Quinn had known of no insurance policies on her lover but it didn’t stop her from including that as something to look for when she’s sent Joe out on the hunt. If someone held a policy, that someone might want Ariel dead, and what better way to cover it than with a crazy threat.

“McQuarry’s.”

“What? For how much?”

“Two million five.”

“Holy shit.”

“That’s not all. They lost an appeal on a libel suit the other day, and I understand the company might be hurting after they pay up.”

Quinn was lost in thought. Edward? Nah. But what if …? Nah. Could he?

“Quinn, you still there?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m still here. Ok Joe. Thanks for this. I’ve got one other line of inquiry for you. Got a pen and paper? I want you to check out a Scott Johnson, parents’ names are Donna and Blake. Sister is Katie …”
Chapter 7
Ariel heard the shower running then some more noise from the bathroom. It sounded as if Quinn was in a hurry. Leaving her desk she wandered across the hall to see.

Quinn, a towel tied around her, was rubbing her hair dry with another.

“What’s up?”

“Huh? Oh, hi Love. I’ve got to go downtown to follow up on something. Kris will be by to keep you company while I’m gone.” Quinn absently mindedly dropped the towel she’d been using on her hair and grabbed the dryer.

Ariel picked the discarded towel off the floor and dropped it in the clothes hamper, making a mental note to take everything down to be washed later in the day. Whatever Quinn was following up, it must be something important to distract her this much–she was usually pretty tidy.

Judging that her hair was dry enough, Quinn switched off the dryer, left it on the counter and ran her hands through her mane a couple of times. Satisfied, she stepped around Ariel and walked into their bedroom. The writer followed. Absentmindedly dropping the second towel, Quinn pulled on underwear then added a pair of faded blue jeans. Ariel snatched up the towel while she watched Quinn slip on socks and boots and then contemplate her shirts.

“So what’s the big hurry?” Ariel enjoyed watching the muscles ripple and shift under the bronze skin of Quinn’s back, arms and shoulders as she selected a black shirt and slid it on.

“Just something that might lead somewhere. Gotta run things down as they come up, ya know.” Quinn strapped on the holster, checked the Glock and shoved it home. The doorbell rang. “Oh, must be Kris.” She left the room and hurried down the stairs, with Ariel following. Using the video monitor, Quinn checked first, but still drew her gun before opening the door and letting in the compact, brown-haired woman.

“Ok.” she said as she slipped on her coat, “I’ll probably be gone a couple of hours. We’re not expecting anyone so there shouldn’t be any reason to go to the door. Ariel, do what Kris says. Kris, look after her.”

“Yes ma’am,” they chorused as the door closed behind the security consultant.

“Well,” Ariel said turning to the other woman. “I was just thinking of making some tea. Would you like some?”

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

As the Mark 5 headed out into traffic Quinn thought about the first time she and Kris had guarded Ariel. After the shopping mission that almost did her in, she and the author had gone back to Ariel’s house. While the honey blonde made some tea, Quinn checked in with her assistant, giving her instructions for the evening shift .

“Ok, I got all that. So tell me, how have things gone so far? Does she do what she’s told?”
“Ah, well, pretty much.” Quinn walked into the hall away from Ariel’s hearing.

“Pretty much?”

“She wanted to go shopping today and wouldn’t let me argue her out of it so we went shopping. Other than that she’s been fine.”

“Ok.” There was a pause. “So is she as cute as her dust jacket photos?”

Quinn looked around, didn’t see Ariel but moved further into the house, just to be sure. “Better.” She didn’t like discussing clients (but she’s not the client, said her voice) except for necessary information such as if they would obey without question in an emergency.

“Real-ly,” drawled the woman at the other end of the call. “This might be fun.”

“Look but don’t touch,” said Quinn.

“You gonna try to stop me?”

“No, I’ll leave that to Michelle.”

“Hmm, good point. Guess I’ll be good.” Kris’ lover, Michelle, was known as a woman not to be trifled with. “So, can you get a read on her?”
“A read on her?”

“Yeah. How does she like being guarded by a living, breathing, lesbian wet dream?”

“Kris…”

The woman at the other end of the call burst into laughter. “Hey. Don’t try to deny it. I know you’ve used it often enough.”

Quinn felt a silly grin form, but she kept her voice serious. “Kris, I expect you here at 8:00pm sharp.”

The other woman, undaunted by her boss’ manner, replied “Ja wohl, mein commandant.”

“Hey!” exclaimed Quinn. “Have you been watching my copies of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ again?”

“Well if you leave them around the office, how can I help it?”

“That office also happens to be my apartment.”

“Oh. Is that why they were all lined up on that shelf?” asked the other woman innocently.

“Don’t ever try to use that act in front of a judge, Kris. She’ll tack on another 20 years on general principles.”

Loud laughter was the response. “Okay. You got me. I’ll be there at 8:00.”
——————————————————————————–

Quinn leaned back in the seat and checked outside. Almost there. She’d called ahead to make sure Edward would be in, but she hadn’t indicated why she wanted to see him.

The Mark 5 entered the street on which McQuarry’s was located, but found no parking, which didn’t surprise Quinn. She directed it to take a right and then instructed it to enter the first underground lot she saw. Since the parking area served three adjacent buildings, including the one occupied by the publishing company, Quinn was able to locate an elevator and ride to the publisher’s floor in short order.

“Ms. Thanatos, Mr. McQuarry said to go right in.”

Quinn nodded at the woman and stepped through the office door, shutting it behind her. Edward, who was at his desk, looked up and smiled. “Quinn, my dear. Come in. Have a seat. May I ask Julia to bring you some coffee?”

“Edward.” Quinn acknowledged. Although she’d been ready to dispense with all civilities before entering the office, she reminded herself that Edward deserved a chance to explain. At least before she hung him, that is. “Let’s forget the coffee, Edward, and cut to the chase. Why the life insurance policy?”

The snowy-haired man on the other side of the desk looked at her for a second, then said, “I take it this is related to the threat Ariel received. That’s pretty good leg work, my dear. But then again it doesn’t surprise me.”

“Quit stalling, Edward.”

“Not at all. Not at all.” Edward took off his glasses, laid them on his desk and looked at her again. “The policy covers us in case anything happens to Ariel. Particularly since she is about to publish another book that will certainly do very well, and is working on a new one that I expect will do even better.”

“So you expect you’ll make $2.5 million out of her latest one?”

“Actually, my dear, I believe that estimate is somewhat low. The policy was taken out some months ago while she was still working on the one about to be published. Based on prepublication reviews, I’d say that were I to do it today I’d go $3 million. By the way, I can show you memos to support the figures.”

“Memos can be faked.”

“Yes they can. I’m not denying it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.”

Quinn studied his face. He seemed to be telling the truth. Of course, at his age he’d had plenty of time to learn how to lie convincingly.

“So what about this libel case you lost. Seems to me that could compromise your financial position.”

“It will certainly hurt us, but my answer is to publish a bestseller as soon as humanly possible. I think Ariel’s latest will help a great deal. We’ll go through a rough patch, certainly. We’re a small company. But I think this time next year we’ll be back on a firm path.” The publisher stood up from behind his desk. “So Quinn, in answer to your unasked, but very obvious question, did I send or arrange to have sent that threatening note as part of a complicated plot to kill Ariel and collect much needed cash? No. Speaking from a business viewpoint, she’s much more valuable to me alive. And speaking personally, I would never contemplate such a thing, even if I didn’t love her like a daughter.”

Quinn stood up. She could feel the tips of her ears turn red with embarrassment. She believed him, and she’d hurt the old buzzard by suspecting him. Shit! “I’m sorry Edward.”

The old man smiled. “It’s alright. I have to admit I was taken aback when I first realized what you were suggesting, but on reflection, I’m glad you’re looking out for Ariel yet again. If anyone can stop this person, I believe you can.” He held out his hand. “Still friends?”

Quinn gave him a small smile and took the proffered hand. “Still friends.”

“Good.” Now would you like some coffee?”

She grinned then, but said “Sorry, but I have to get back. I took someone off something else to come down here and I want to free her up as soon as possible. Thanks for seeing me.”

“Any time, my dear. Any time.”
Chapter 8
“Freeze.”

The middle-aged man on the front step stopped with his hand poised over the doorbell.

“Now, very slowly, put the box down.” Quinn circled to her right to get a better view, all the while keeping the Glock trained on the stranger as he set a cardboard box on the step. “Now hands behind your neck, and turn around slowly. Who are you and what do you want?”

The man gulped. She could see his adam’s apple move convulsively. “I’m from the Animal Rescue Volunteer League.” I spoke with Ms. Pedersen about an hour ago. About the cats? The cats in the alley?” Quinn nodded and, encouraged, he went on. “Anyway, we were able to catch five adults and found two more kittens. She had said that if we found any more kittens she’d like a companion for the little guy she’d already rescued. We’ve had them checked by a vet and given their shots so I was bringing them over so she could choose. Honest.”

“Pick up the box and bring it down here. Ok, back away from it. That’s far enough. Now stand still.” Keeping her eyes on the man, Quinn squatted, then quickly surveyed the box. She noticed some air holes in it. So it could contain the kittens. Or a cobra. Keeping track of the man in her peripheral vision she eased the cover off with the muzzle of the Glock and took a quick look. Two sleepy little faces looked back. One black and white, the other a dark grey. They looked enough like Hairy to be his siblings.

Quinn stood and stepped back. “Ok. Sorry about that. Can’t be too careful. Please put the top back on and come with me.” She no longer held the gun on the man but she didn’t holster it either. Just then the door opened and Kris looked out, gun in hand.

“Everything under control? I saw you from inside.”

“Yup. This guy was just delivering some kittens.”

“Yeah. Ariel told me they’d be around but we didn’t expect them until later.”

“The vet looked at them right away,” volunteered the man nervously. Both women looked at him and he swallowed convulsively again.

“Bring them in,” said Quinn. “Ariel,” she called once they were inside. A faint response from upstairs signalled her lover’s imminent arrival. Ariel appeared a few seconds later.

“Oh, the kittens!” she said. Quinn figured she was going by the box with the airholes in it. “Please bring them in here.”

Everyone followed the writer into the kitchen. Quinn and Kris stood back watchfully as the man set the box on the floor and he and Ariel bent over it to open it up. The two were soon deep in conversation as they watched the antics of the kittens who had discovered a familiar face. Ariel watched them become reacquainted with Hairy, explore, and play with Hairy’s toy mice. And, as Quinn knew would happen, the writer soon declared that she couldn’t make a choice so she had decided to take both of them. Ariel took her chequebook out of a drawer and wrote out a donation to the league that made the man’s eyes bulge and him thank her profusely. Kris saw him out immediately after, his earlier nervousness all but gone in the face of such a windfall.

“Must have been some donation,” grinned Quinn.

“Well they need the money. They may never be able to place the adults so they’ve got to be able to house them …”

Quinn cut her off with a hug. “You’re terrific,” she said brushing her lips over Ariel’s hair.

“It’s only money,” responded her lover as she returned the hug with equal fervour.

“Hey, am I interrupting something hot ‘n heavy?” asked Kris as she returned.

“Nope,” grinned Quinn.

“Aw damn! Just my luck.” Kris picked up her jacket from the back of a chair. “I better get going. Still got a couple of things to attend to before my day is done. You need me again, you holler.”

“Will do, Kris. And thanks.” Quinn followed her to the front to see her out.

When she returned Ariel was sitting contemplating the cats.

“Got names for them yet?”

“No, but I’m working on it. They’ll come to me, eventually.”

“In the meantime, can I interest you in dinner?”

“Are you cooking?”

“Only in desperate circumstances.”

Ariel chuckled. “Well I haven’t got that desperate yet. Tell you what, I’ll cook if you tell me why you had to rush off downtown.”

“Oh. Well I had Joe do some investigating, and he turned up this insurance policy …”
——————————————————————————–

Quinn stood out in the yard, her back to the pool as Ariel stroked up and down its length. The weather was warmer today so the author wasn’t swimming quite as fast to keep warm. Quinn watched the windows of the elderly sisters next door. It was a long shot that they had sent the note but why take chances. She noticed some movement near the glass and could just discern a figure there, but since it made no threatening moves, she left her gun in its holster. Maybe she was right–maybe the old girls did enjoy the daily swim. The dark-haired woman smiled to herself at the thought. Her mind wandered aimlessly while waiting and she was soon recalling when she’d first been introduced to Ariel’s swim routine.

The second day she’d been employed to guard the writer she’d arrived at the house just before 8:00am. Kris had let her in.

“Any problems?”

“None whatsoever. We ate popcorn and watched a movie and then she went to bed about 11:00pm. I read down in the living room and checked the house periodically but didn’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary. Haven’t seen her so far today but I know she’s up since I’ve heard her moving around.”

Both women turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Ariel came into view with towel in hand, wearing the aquamarine bikini from the day before.

“Oh, hi. I guess you’re on your way, Kris. See you tonight. Good morning Quinn. I was just going to go do my laps. If you haven’t eaten I’ll get us breakfast when I come back in the house.” Ariel went toward the kitchen, leaving the two women standing in the hall, staring after her.

“Speaking of eating …”

Quinn cut her off. “Kris!”

The other woman tossed her a knowing grin, mouthed “Enjoy,” and left.

Quinn checked over her shoulder. Ariel was just getting out of the pool, water sheeting off that glorious skin. She reflected that the other woman might be small, but boy, was she strong. The muscles in her shoulders and arms bunched then relaxed as she effortlessly pulled herself out to sit on the edge where she toweled off. Quinn then found herself distracted by the flexing of the writer’s powerful thigh and calf muscles as she got to her feet, and had to mentally slap herself upside the head. Some guard you are, she lectured herself, and took a quick look at the windows she’d been watching. She was pretty certain someone was still there but back from the glass.

“So what would you like for breakfast?” Ariel asked, as she approached Quinn on her way into the house.

“Short answer? You.” Quinn followed her in the door, and relaxed slightly. It was good to be inside a secure place once again.

Ariel turned and grinned in a very sexy, and distracting way. “Um. Not on the menu, I’m afraid. I have to get a lot of writing done this morning, to make up for yesterday.” A frown fleetingly crossed her face, but then she smiled. “Maybe later. I might knock off early if things go well.” She closed on Quinn like a heat-seeking missile, sliding her arms around the other woman’s waist, and nibbled her neck. “And if you’re good …”

Quinn caught her chin with one hand and tipped it up so she could indulge in a long and deep kiss. When they broke apart she said “You are a tease,” and punctuated it with a slap on Ariel’s butt.

“Ooh. Maybe so, but you’re so fun to tease.” Then, as a thought struck her she giggled.

“What’s so funny?” asked Quinn.

“Oh, just thinking.”

“About?”

Ariel wriggled in Quinn’s arms but the other woman held her fast.

“About?” she repeated in the writer’s ear, and licked her neck while she was there.

“Just thinking back to your face that day I made you go shopping and I bought the bikinis. It was priceless.”

“Are you telling me that was planned?” she asked, as the shorter woman finally wriggled loose.

“Not so much planned as taking advantage of circumstances. You’d been so proper and by-the-book. I thought you could use some shaking up, and the bikinis gave me the prefect opportunity.”

“Did they now,” said Quinn, and took a menacing step toward the writer.

Ariel’s eyes grew big and she turned and sprinted out of the kitchen, hurdling kittens in the process. “Nice form” Quinn shouted after her, then following her to the bottom of the stairs to yell up them in her best imitation of Kenneth Branagh in Dead Again, “This is all fa-a-r-r from over!”

“Promises. Promises” she heard from somewhere upstairs.

Chuckling, the dark-haired woman returned to the kitchen, just in time to forestall three intrepid adventurers off to see the wide world, or at least the rest of the house. Once the kittens were under control she flipped on the info feed, dialed in her favourite music channel and started to make coffee.

“Listen children to a story that was written long ago
’bout a kingdom on a mountain and the valley folk below.”

“Hey, bonus” said Quinn, recognizing the music, just as she realized the adventurers wanted breakfast and they wanted it NOW!

“On the mountain was a treasure buried deep beneath a stone,
and the valley people swore they’d have it for their very own.”

Quinn found the kitten food and put some out in bowls, gave them fresh water, then went into the alcove that held the kittens’ litter pan, just outside the main floor powder room. While she cleaned the litter she reflected that she had made little progress since hearing about the note the previous morning.

The lab report was inconclusive. Nothing distinctive about the photocopy and no finger prints on it but Ariel’s. The envelope had plenty of prints but it would be useless to try to track them. Other than that there was nothing distinctive about it. Even the postmark was blurred. Computer enhancement seemed to indicate that it had been mailed in the city two weeks before, which would fit with what Hank had told her when she’d spoken with him the previous evening. All indications were that the threat had been delivered to McQuarry’s via the postal service. But Quinn wasn’t willing to rule out the possibility that someone on staff had just retrieved an envelope from the trash and put the note in, leaving it to be placed into the mail for Ariel. Since the writer’s mail was slit open at McQuarry’s before she got it, Ariel wouldn’t have noted any difference. And, not surprisingly, the mail room people had no memory of that particular envelope.

Quinn returned to the kitchen and went to the sink to wash her hands.

“and they killed the mountain people, so they won their just reward.
Now they stood beside the treasure on the mountain, dark and red,
turned the stone and looked beneath it. ‘Peace on earth’ was all it said.”

“Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven, justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowin’ come the judgment day
on the bloody morning after one tin soldier rides away.”

“Ain’t it the truth,” she muttered.
Chapter 9
Quinn was bored. It was the fifth day of waiting for something to happen. She was tired of reading. She was tired of watching movies. She was tired and sore from exercising. The only thing she wasn’t tired of was sex but that was only because Ariel said she had to work during the day. Scratch that–she doubted she’d ever get tired of sex with Ariel, since with Ariel it was more than just sex. She gave the heavy bag a particularly vicious one-two combination. Damn it! Surely Ariel’s insistence on following her usual routine had given whoever this was a chance to try his luck, but nothing, no go, nada! Mind you, if the threat had been mailed two weeks or so ago he had already had some time before Ariel got the note, and didn’t try anything. Maybe he was all talk and no action. That just didn’t fit, however, with the tone of the note. Thinking about it was making her head ache. Might as well go do some laps in the pool, she decided, and give the old girls next door a thrill.

Quinn had just started up the stairs to change into a swimsuit when Ariel opened the door at the top.

“Oh, there you are. I’ve just been talking with Scott.”

“He in town already?”

“Yes. He got in a couple of days ago and has been getting settled in. He was wondering if he could come over to visit. What do you think?”

“Sure. I guess. When were you thinking of?”

“Well, why not this afternoon, say, about 4:00pm. I have to admit, I’m curious, and he sounds like a nice guy.”

“Ok. I’ll let him in when he arrives.”
——————————————————————————–

The antique grandfather clock in the hall was chiming 4:00pm when the doorbell rang.

“Well he’s punctual,” said Quinn. “You stay back here and I’ll let him in.” She went to the door, drew her gun and checked the video monitor. A handsome young man in a short-sleeved light coloured shirt was facing the door. She couldn’t say definitively from the black and white image, but she’d bet his hair was blond. Wonder if he has green eyes too, she thought.

They were grey. And looking a little nervous when greeted at the door by a six foot, competent looking woman carrying a gun.

“Uh, hi. I’m Scott.”

“I’m Quinn. Ariel’s inside. Come on in.” She shut and locked the door after him. “Sorry for the welcome,” she continued, indicating the Glock as she holstered it, “but we’ve had some trouble so we’re not taking chances.”

“Scott.” The young man turned around.

“Aunt Ariel?” He extended his hand. “I’m Scott. Um, but I guess you already knew that.” A faint pink tinged his cheeks.

Ariel smiled and took his hand in both of hers. “Scott, it’s good to see you. “Please,” indicating a doorway, “come in.” Ariel saw him settled in a chair in the living room, ascertained what he’d like to drink, then went to the kitchen.

“Um, nice house.”

“Yes it is,’ responded Quinn from where she lounged on the arm of the couch.

“It’s about 150 years old, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Has Aunt Ariel lived here long?”

“As long as I’ve known her.” Quinn watched him. He seemed what he appeared, a genuinely nice young man, but appearances could be deceiving. Still, the preliminary report she’d got from Joe didn’t indicate anything out of the ordinary. Good grades in school, starting an MBA program in the fall, a summer research job with a professor at the university, girlfriend at home.

Ariel returned at that moment, much to Scott’s relief, distributed the drinks and sat down on the couch.

“I don’t know whether I would have known you,” she said. You’re all grown up.”

“Yeah, well, it’s been 13 years. You look different too.”

“Well, I’m wearing my hair shorter now. That makes a difference, I suppose.”

“Um, well, um, I remember you taller.”

Quinn stifled a laugh and Scott turned pink again, as Ariel glared at her lover. “Five feet six inches is not short, I’ll have you know,” she said to Quinn, who was desperately fighting to maintain her game face.

“Gee, Aunt Ariel, I’m sorry, it’s just I was eight the last time I saw you and you were taller than me then.”

“That’s alright Scott. I was addressing the Valkyrie at the end of the couch who thinks anything under 5’10” is tiny.”

“Hey, just like the police department I’ve relaxed my standards a bit. Now it’s anything under 5’8″.”

Scott looked from one woman to the other. The dark-haired one had the ghost of a twinkle in her eye and his aunt didn’t look too ticked off. He relaxed a little, and tried a small grin. His aunt smiled back at him.

“So tell me, Scott, what’s happened with your family since I left?”

“Uh, well…”

For the next hour, Scott caught Ariel up on thirteen years of life back home. The family had moved to a new neighbourhood, but they went to the same church. His father still worked for the same marketing company. His mother had become a lay preacher and her life revolved around the church community. Scott had shone at school, and participated in a lot of church activities. His sister, Katie, however, always rebellious, had run away from home when she was 16, two years before. They hadn’t heard from her since and his mother forbade either her husband or her son to mention her. She also refused to admit that best-selling author Ariel Pedersen was her sister.

“I love her Aunt Ariel. I mean, she’s my mother. But I just don’t understand her. She wouldn’t explain why you left, and one day a month or so later we were on the bus and I saw you and tried to get your attention and she pulled me back down and told me that I no longer had an Aunt Ariel.”

He stopped and gulped. “It wasn’t until two or three years ago that I discovered you were an author.” A pause as Scott examined his well-worn sneakers. “I was at my girlfriend’s house and there was a book open on the arm of a chair. I was just moving it to sit down when I noticed the picture on the back. At first I didn’t know it was you, I just knew you looked familiar. I can’t describe the feeling when I realized the author was you, my Aunt Ariel. It was wow and oh boy all mixed up together, you know? And, uh, when my girlfriend told me what the book was about everything fell into place, about why you’d left so suddenly, and Mom and everything. I…” Scott, paused, cleared his throat and started again. “Everybody’s life is their own business. Nobody has the right to make judgements about anybody else. I’d like us to be friends.” He looked at Ariel hesitantly.

Ariel felt her vision blur. “Thank you, Scott. That means more than I can ever say.” She stood up, leaned forward and embraced him, hugging him tightly. After several seconds she sat back down and wiped her eyes.

“So Scott, if you don’t have any other plans would you like to stay for dinner?”

“I’d love to Aunt Ariel but the prof. I’m working for wants the three of us who are on the project to come to his place tonight for beer and pizza so he can brief us on the research he wants us to do. Could I have a rain check?”

Ariel grinned. “Sure. Just let us know when you’re free.”

Scott cocked an ear to the grandfather clock as it chimed, signalling 5:15pm, and checked his watch. “In fact, I better get going.” He stood up, as did Ariel and Quinn.

While they walked toward the front entrance, Ariel slipped her arm around his waist and Scott, in turn, laid his arm across her shoulders. Quinn went ahead, checked the video display of the front step, pulled her gun and opened the door. Ariel and Scott followed her out and turned to each other.

“I’m really glad you got in touch, Scott. I hope we’ll see you often.”

“Count on it,” he replied with a grin and embraced her.

Ariel hugged him in return and stepped back saying “Now don’t hesitate to call or…”

“DOWN!”

A flying body took Ariel to the ground and knocked the feet out from under Scott as shots rang out from a dark car roaring by. Quinn was on her feet in an instant, sighting and firing. With a grunt of satisfaction she saw the back window explode, but the car kept going and hung a hard right at the end of the block. That was the fastest way to the Expressway, she knew.

“Shit! I didn’t even get the fucker’s plate.” Turning quickly she checked Ariel. “You ok?”

“Yeah, just shaken up a bit. I’m glad you spotted him so quickly.”

“Well if I’d spotted him as quickly as I should have, it would all be over, by now.”

“Uh, Aunt Ariel? I think I need a doctor.”

“Scott! Oh Scott where are you hurt?” Scott was still sitting on the step where he’d fallen and Ariel was at his side immediately, simultaneously noticing how pale he was and the arm he was holding.

“Let me see,” said Quinn, taking his arm gently. She peeled off his fingers and checked a wound underneath, that oozed blood.

“Looks as if you were either grazed or” glancing at the pockmarked stones of the house, “hit by a stone or bullet fragment. Come on, you two. Back inside. We’ve got to call this in.”

“But my prof…”

“Save it. You can call him from inside and explain. That’s got to be looked at and the police will want to talk to you too.”

“Police?”

“Yeah. They take a dim view of attempted murder.”
Chapter 10
“It makes no sense.” Quinn paced back toward Hank, who was seated in the large comfortable chair he always seemed to choose.

“Ariel has been out of the house but you’re always with her. Maybe he or they just didn’t think they could get through you to her before.”

“Nah, I don’t buy it. I can’t be on all sides of her in a store and we’ve been to two stores since I last saw you. We’ve even been to a park, for Goddess’ sake. But does this guy do something? No! Instead he takes a shot from a moving vehicle. Not only that but because the step is raised, he’s got to aim up at an angle. There’s something I’m missing.”

“He’s got a job. Can’t follow her all the time. So on his day off he sits outside her house. When he saw her come out he decided to take a chance.”

Quinn shook her head, but said “Maybe, but it still bothers me. It doesn’t fit with the note.”

Hank tapped his pen against his teeth. “Ok, but you won’t like this.”

Quinn glanced at him. “What?”

“What if this is somebody new? Somebody not connected to the note at all?”

“Make my day, why don’tcha,” Quinn snarled. She was about to add more when Ariel walked in from the kitchen. Hank did his usual and jumped to his feet.

“No, please Detective. Sit down. I was just wondering if you needed Scott for anything else. The paramedics are ready to take him to the hospital for stitches.

“Nope. I’ve got his address if I need to talk to him again. How are you?”

“I’m ok. Quinn kept me safe. Do you think you can track down whoever this is?”

“From this? Doubtful. Without a plate it will be next to impossible. Even then, the car was likely stolen. We’ve got a bulletin out to all repair shops about the back window but, truthfully, I don’t think it will yield much. Of course, I’ve been wrong before.” Nodding to them both he added, “I’ll be in touch.”

Quinn showed him out and when she didn’t find her lover in the living room on her return, went to the kitchen. Right into a heated discussion.

“Aunt Ariel I’ll be fine. I don’t want to put you in more danger.”

“Scott, I’m not going to argue. We’re coming to the hospital too. Whoever did this didn’t hang around. When the hospital staff have got you fixed up we’ll drop you at home. And don’t you start,” she said to Quinn, who was about to side with Scott.

Quinn shelved what she was going to say and turned to the young man, whom the paramedics were helping out the door. “We’re outvoted. See you at the hospital.”
——————————————————————————–

Quinn stared at the ceiling. Why the hell didn’t she get that plate. Shit! Ok, Ok, it might have been stolen. But what if it hadn’t been. Damn it! Grumpily, she rolled onto her side to face Ariel, who appeared to be asleep.

The clock had been chiming 9:00pm when they had finally returned home after dropping off Scott. Neither had been hungry but they’d forced themselves to eat some soup. Then, because it was still early, they’d watched one of Quinn’s old movies – a comedy she couldn’t even remember the name of now – and gone to bed. But not to sleep. At least, not Quinn.

Green eyes opened. “Stop beating yourself up.”

“You awake? I thought you were asleep. And what makes you think I’m beating myself up?”

Ariel shifted closer so that she could lay her head on Quinn’s shoulder, within the circle of the dark-haired woman’s arm. She slid her hand onto Quinn’s stomach, caressing the bronze skin in slow circles. “Because I know you. You have to be perfect. You’re probably thinking that you should have batted away the bullets, flipped onto the car roof, grabbed the gun and wrapped it around the bad guy’s neck. All before the car reached the corner.”

Quinn chuckled. “Damn straight. But the wrapping around the neck part sounds too strenuous. I’d just go for stuffing it down his throat. Gotta save my strength to fight another day.”

“My mistake,” Ariel murmured, as she gently kissed Quinn’s cheek.

“I like that.”

“I thought you might,” Ariel said, as she moved slightly and caught Quinn’s lips. The kiss was wet, warm, deep and long. By the end of it, Quinn was breathless, and again on her back, with Ariel lying on her.

“If I woke you up, I’m glad I did.”

Ariel smiled, and traced Quinn’s lips with one finger. “Perhaps a little…therapy, will help you sleep.”

“Therapy, yeah.” The dark haired woman lifted her head to bring her mouth up to meet Ariel’s, but the writer pulled her head back.

“Nuh uh,” she said. “I’m in charge. Understood?”

“Oh. alright.”

The honey blonde grinned then shifted her body to slide her thigh between the dark-haired woman’s legs. Quinn’s body was soon rocking rhythmically. The writer’s hand, which had returned to making slow circles on the taller woman’s belly, shifted up to stroke her breast.

“Ooh, I like that too.”

“Um. If you liked that, how’s this.”

An intake of breath. “A nine, a definite nine on a scale of ten.”

A chuckle. “Just a nine?” I must be losing my touch. Let’s try that again.

“Oh Goddess! A ten! A ten!”

The honey blonde smiled against her lover’s skin, and moved lower, her lips leaving a trail of fire wherever they touched. Overcome by sensation, the dark-haired woman ran her hands feverishly through the writer’s hair and down to her shoulders.

Ariel stopped and lifted her head. “No. I’m doing the driving. Hands at your sides or on the headboard.”

“Aw…”

“You want some?”

“Oh, Goddess yes!”

Ariel grinned lasciviously, then ran her tongue slowly up the valley between Quinn’s breasts. She could feel the other woman’s heart pounding as she took a shuddering breath. “Then?”

“Yes Ma’am.” Quinn said reluctantly, and shifted her hands up to grip the headboard. Ariel rewarded her by running her tongue slowly over her breasts, circling each nipple before lightly biting and sucking on them. Quinn moaned incoherently.

“Oh Babe. You’re torturing me,” she gasped.

“Yup,” the writer admitted cheerfully. “And there’s more where that came from.”

Quinn’s response was a groan, followed by the headboard squeaking in protest as fingers gripped it harder.

Shifting lower, Ariel replaced her thigh with her hand, sliding it past damp black curls into a warm wet space of its own, where she used her fingers to escalate the delicious sensations already aroused. Then, with her tongue, she took her own sweet time to paint Quinn’s abdominal muscles, and then kiss her way back up to the taller woman’s breasts where she nibbled and sucked again on painfully erect nipples. By now, Quinn was moaning deep in her throat, as her body sought its elusive goal. And then, finally, hips pumping, heart pounding, muscles clenching, she reached ecstasy.

Quinn lay gasping, and waited for her heart rate to drop below 200. “I swear, sex is the gateway to religious insight.”

Ariel lifted her head and smiled quizzically. “It is?”

“At the end there, I swear I saw the entire pantheon.”

“Well, I’m not sure, but I think you were on a first name basis with at least some of them.”

Quinn grinned and slid her arms around her lover, then slipped her hands slowly down over Ariel’s hips to give her buttocks a firm squeeze. “Your turn,” she murmured.

“Um.” A soft kiss was dropped on the skin over her collarbone. “I’m going to hold you to that, but tomorrow.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive. I’m nicely settled here.” As if to emphasize the point, Ariel fitted herself more closely to Quinn’s long body, wrapping her arm just under the dark-haired woman’s breasts, and throwing her leg negligently over Quinn’s thighs.

“Ok. tomorrow.” Soft lips brushed the honey blonde hair. “I love you.”

“Love you too” murmured Ariel, sleepily.

Silence, broken only by gentle sighs. “Thanks, Love,” Quinn breathed. But there was no answer. Ariel was already fast asleep.
Chapter 11
Three days later, they were in Edward’s office, arguing.

“I don’t like it.” Quinn folded her arms, and stood her ground.

“Where have I heard that before.” Ariel ran her hands through her short blond hair.

“C’mon Ariel, listen to reason. After what happened the other day, attending the book launch is just too dangerous.”

“Look, Quinn. if I don’t go, the bastards have won. Well, they’re not going to.”

“Quinn, are there measures you can take to reduce the danger?” Edward asked, tentatively.

“Oh hell, yes. By the time I was through it would look like an armed camp, between the extra security personnel, the blastproof glass shields, the semi-automatics. Is that what you want?

“No it’s not,” the writer said before Edward could reply. Ariel walked over to her lover who was leaning against the wall. “Quinn, please understand. I’ve got to do this.”

“No you don’t.”

“Yes. I do.” Ariel wanted to take Quinn’s hands but the other woman stubbornly kept her arms folded. “The security must be as unobtrusive as possible. I understand the problem”

“No you don’t. You don’t at all.” She locked eyes with Ariel, trying to make her understand what she herself was unable to say out loud, but the writer’s expression told her that Ariel was determined to go ahead anyway. Quinn finally gave up and squared her shoulders. “But hey, that’s ok, that’s my job.” Then, including Edward in her glance she said, “Now if you’ll both excuse me I have some calls to make while you conclude your meeting.”

“Quinn…”

But the dark-haired woman was already through the door and down the hall.

Quinn strode away, unaware of her direction. Damn it! Didn’t Ariel understand? This could cost her her life, the miserable stubborn bitch! She knew that, intellectually, Ariel realized that Quinn wasn’t infallible. That the security consultant might make a mistake, and that she, Ariel, could pay a high price for her error. But she also knew that, emotionally, her lover had a little-girl faith that Quinn would solve every problem, make it all go away. “Yeah,” she muttered, “if only I could.”

“Quinn? Quinn!?”

The dark-haired woman suddenly became aware of someone speaking to her. Focusing, she saw that it was Jan, Ariel’s editor, who was standing in the hall, holding a coffee mug. “You ok?” the other woman said, hesitantly, as she was swept by an icy glare.

“Just peachy. why?’ Quinn could see the other woman recoil slightly at her abrupt rejoinder .

“Uh, well you looked a little upset. There’s nothing wrong with Ariel is there?”
“No.” Quinn made to brush by her.

“Is it the launch?”

Glacial blue eyes swung back to skewer her, and their owner took a step closer.

“What about the launch?”

“Well, we heard about the trouble the other day…”

“What do you know about it?” Quinn was suddenly inches away from Jan, who found herself backed up against a wall.

“Nothing! Not a thing. But the police were here, and asking questions, so it’s not too difficult to figure out that she got some kind of threatening message.”

Quinn studied the editor. Ok, she was talking about the note, not the shooting. They’d been able to keep the incident out of the media so not many knew about it. Quinn stepped back and decided to test her.

“Yeah, that’s right. And after that, waiting for something to happen is a bitch.” Was that a flicker? Did she know that wasn’t the truth?

“How’s Ariel taking it?”

The question appeared to be open and sincere. “Oh, you know Ariel.” Let her make whatever she wanted out of that statement, Quinn wasn’t going to help.

Jan gave a crooked smile. “Got her back up I’ll bet.”

“Um.”

“Well.” Jan looked around, searching for a graceful way to end the conversation. “I’d better not keep you. If I don’t see her today, tell her I said ‘hi.'”

“Will do.” Quinn strolled away thoughtfully, her pace much slower than before. As she turned the corner at the end of the hall, she was aware that the editor was still standing in the corridor, watching her.

Quinn’s steps led her to the company cafeteria, where she got a large mug of coffee and sat down to place her calls.

The first was to Tyrone Williams, head of security at the museum where the launch was to be held. Quinn was familiar with the facility but wanted to refresh her memory and at the same time touch base with Williams, someone she’d worked with before. The call was brief and to the point. As she disconnected, after arranging a meeting time with him at the museum, she mused that at least she was working with good people on this. Her next call was to Kris.

“Thanatos security, Kris Cavendish speaking.”

“Hey Kris, how’s it going.”

“Boss lady. Not bad, how are things with you?”

Quinn made a non-committal noise. “I want to meet with you on the launch.”

“You mean it’s going ahead?”

“Yeah. I’m going to see the place again tomorrow morning before it opens, just to refresh my memory, then I’d like to meet with you at the office after that, so could you get John or Vanessa to spell me as bodyguard from, say, 8:30 on?”

“Sure thing.” There was a pause. “The office, eh. That isn’t exactly in a direct line home. I could meet you…”

“No. I don’t know what we might need to look up and the office is better equipped for that.”

“Uh huh. And I’m a shoo-in to win the Miss Universe pageant. Trouble in paradise?”

“A slight misunderstanding.”

“Uh huh.” There was a pause. “Civilians.”

Quinn grinned for the first time since leaving Edward’s office. Kris was ex-military. That word held a lot of meaning for her. “I’ll see you tomorrow Kris. About 11:00am, I think, but I’ll call you when I’ve got a better idea.”

“Ok. Hang in there, Quinn.”

“Thanks. Oh, and have Joe give me a call, would ya, please. There’s something I’d like him to look into.”

“Will do. See ya.”

Quinn tapped her fingers on the table for a minute then headed back to Edward’s office.
——————————————————————————–

Kris pushed back from the table, stretched and yawned.

“Am I keeping you up?”

“Hey, its been no picnic being Thanatos Security” making quotation marks in the air with her fingers “these last few days. Ya do that job, ya gotta work!”

“Now you know how the other half lives,” said Quinn.

“Yeah. The rich half!” Kris ducked away from the pretend punch that Quinn threw at her.

They were sitting in what used to be Quinn’s dining room. Well, actually it was difficult to tell where the dining room began and the living room left off in the apartment’s open concept layout. Until Quinn met Ariel, she’d lived here and used the apartment as a base of operations for her security business. Now she just maintained it as an office and stored her 20th century entertainment media here.

“Wanta drink?” asked Kris as she got up and walked past the counter to the refrigerator.

“Sure. Soda water if ya got it.”

Kris tossed a bottle at Quinn and selected a coke for herself. Rejoining the dark-haired woman, she sat down, popped the top on her drink, tilted her chair back and put her feet up on the table. “So what’s up with you and Ariel?” she asked.

“Right to the point, as always,” said Quinn, twisting the top off the bottle.

“I don’t believe in wasting time. And if you didn’t want to talk about it you would have told me to shut up already.”

Quinn contemplated the label on the bottle. “She wants to do it. I don’t want her to do it. That’s what it comes down to.”

Kris grunted. “No way you can stop her? Tie her up maybe. Might be fun. Ok, ok, bad joke,” she said, reacting to a look from Quinn. “Have you thought about setting up a schedule for the rest of us to guard Ariel and you go back to your regular work?”

“Yeah. I’ve thought about it.” Quinn picked at the label on her bottle with a thumbnail. “No conclusions yet.”

“Might be easier. The launch is the next logical chance.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“But you got that covered pretty good. As long as she stays in until then, things should be ok. You could get back to thinking about things other than Ariel’s safety. If she wants to go out, well, I know you–you wouldn’t be happy unless you were the one with her, but other than that, we could handle guarding her during the day.”

Quinn looked at her second-in-command. “And you could get back to what you like to do.”

“Right! I knew I had a reason for suggesting this,” grinned Kris.

“Alright, I’ll think about it.” Quinn stood up. “I better be going.”

“Yeah. I got some people to see across town. I really hope you make up your mind soon. I might have to ask for a raise, otherwise.”

Quinn glanced at her but declined to rise to the bait. “I’ll let you know.”

“Fair nuff. Call if you need me.”

“Will do.”
Chapter 12
Quinn waited on the step, facing the door. She knew Vanessa was checking to see who it was and if she was alone. Even though she had the door code, it was smarter to ring the bell and wait for the person on guard duty to respond, rather than appearing inside unannounced. The door swung open a few seconds later.

The woman who greeted her was even taller than Quinn. That, combined with the drop dead body, classic facial structure, long red hair and sea green eyes always made Quinn think that Vanessa had missed her era and her calling. She should have been an actor in old-time Hollywood. In fact, Quinn mused, she would have made a perfect Bond girl–not the kind that got used up and thrown away, but the ones that gave Bond a run for his money.

“Everything ok?” she asked.

“No problems. Ariel’s in her office.”

“You eaten?”

“Yeah. She insisted I join her for lunch a little while ago.”

“Good, good.”

“I better get going. Kris called and gave me an assignment for this afternoon.”

“Ok. Sure. And thanks.”

Vanessa shrugged on her jacket, grinned and said “Anytime. Just let me know.”

Quinn nodded, checked the video monitor and let her out. Then went in search of Ariel.
——————————————————————————–

Ariel stared at the sentence on her computer screen without seeing it. Her mind was on Quinn, who had been distant since the meeting in Edward’s office the day before. Damn it! Why couldn’t she understand. Ariel didn’t want to go to the launch, she had to go. If she let them scare her into avoiding that, soon they might scare her out of doing other things until she was too terrified to carry on a normal life. The alternative was to stop writing. To stop thinking. To stop speaking out about things she believed in. The only difference between that and being dead was that she’d still be breathing.

“Can I bother you a minute?” Quinn stood in the doorway.

“Sure. I didn’t hear you get home. What’s up?”

Quinn walked in slowly, her hands stuffed into the pockets of her jeans. “Just wanted you to know I’ve got the security for the launch sorted out. I’ve already told Edward.”

“Good, and thank you.”

Quinn nodded and turned to leave.

“Quinn.”

The dark-haired woman stopped and looked back enquiringly.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m being difficult.”

Blue eyes considered her thoughtfully, then Quinn gave a little nod. “S’ok,” and continued out of the room and down the stairs.

Ariel turned back to her monitor and stared at it some more.
——————————————————————————–

Water coursed over her. For several minutes she’d run it ice cold but eventually brought it back to barely warm. The freezing temperature had given her a certain perverse pleasure, but after she started to shiver, common sense dictated an organized retreat. At least the water was beginning to help her mood. She had stared at the monitor for another half-hour after Quinn’s departure, then finally shut down the computer and gone to the basement gym for a two-hour workout. She’d pay for it tomorrow but it had helped stop her thinking today, and that was all that mattered.

The door of the shower stall opened and closed as a large, warm, naked body joined her.

“Holy shit, woman! You trying to turn into a popsicle?” A long arm reached over hers and adjusted the temperature control.

“What?”

“Don’t talk. Better put your hands on the wall for support. You’re going to need it.”

Ariel complied as Quinn’s hungry mouth descended on her neck and the dark-haired woman’s arms slipped around her body.

Quinn nudged Ariel’s feet farther apart, then took her time, sliding her hands leisurely over the woman’s wet skin while she kissed and nibbled the writer’s neck and ears, all the while holding Ariel close. Then, as the smaller woman’s temperature climbed, Quinn began to move down, tracing a path with her tongue over Ariel’s shoulders and down her spine, moving her hands lightly in tandem down her lover’s body, feeling the muscles jump as nerves reacted to her touch. Resting one hand on the writer’s hip, while the other teased the slick skin on the insides of her thighs, Quinn grinned to herself as she lightly bit Ariel’s buttock.

“Quinn…”

“Um.”

“Aah. Please…”

“You’re pleased?” Quinn swirled her tongue around the two dimples above Ariel’s buttocks and then gently probed the top of the crack between. Her hand was now grazing the sensitive outer layers at the apex of the writer’s legs. Ariel shifted her weight to bring more pressure to bear from the elusive fingers but Quinn pulled back.

“Oh please, Quinn. I need it.”

Normally the dark-haired woman would have prolonged the delicious torture but the tone of the writer’s voice told her that today was not the day for that.

“Alright,” she said as she stood to her full height. “Turn around.”

Ariel complied and found herself straddling a thigh, with Quinn’s hands clamped on her hips, pulling her in tightly. In response, the writer’s hands locked around Quinn’s lower back. The noise of the water beating down on them served as counterpoint to Ariel’s panting and the sounds of their bodies softly slapping together.

Sensing that the writer could wait no longer, Quinn picked up the speed and shifted her hands to Ariel’s ass to increase the pressure. The writer’s head was bent in concentration and Quinn saw, with a quick sideways glance, that her eyes were tightly shut.

The smaller woman’s ragged breathing next to Quinn’s ear was practically hypnotic. When Ariel caught and held her breath as she rested her head against Quinn’s shoulder, the dark-haired woman was almost taken by surprise, but she was ready to enfold the writer as the woman’s muscles tightened convulsively, then went slack.

They stood, not moving, the water still pouring over them until Quinn finally reached behind Ariel and flipped it off.

“You ok?”

“Oh Goddess, Quinn. I’m so sorry!” Ariel looked up and Quinn realized she’d been crying.

“Hey. You have nothing to apologize for.”

“Yes I do! I wouldn’t listen to you. I insisted on my own way and now,” she gulped. “Now, here, I’ve treated you like an object.”

“An object?” Quinn was momentarily mystified, then understanding dawned. “Well,” she chuckled, “I’ll bet I’m the best damned six-foot vibrator you’ll ever see.”

Ariel giggled but then became serious again. She seemed to make a decision, then looked up into Quinn’s eyes. “I-I haven’t been very good company the last few days.”

“Shh. It’s ok.”

“No it’s not. I have to explain this. About the launch, I mean.” Ariel paused and looked away for a moment. “The truth is, I’m scared witless, but if I give in to that, it’ll just get worse until I’m a prisoner in my own house. I have to do it, Quinn. I know it’s selfish of me. I know I’m making things very difficult for you and putting you and a lot of other people in danger.” Ariel’s voice cracked and Quinn tangled a hand in her hair and pulled her closer.

“Hey. It’s alright..”

“No..”

“Yes it is, ’cause I figured that out.”

Ariel pulled her head back to see Quinn’s face. “You did?”

“Uh-huh. Took me a while but it finally penetrated. You were so insistent about doing everything like usual, I wasn’t sure you understood the danger. But this afternoon I suddenly realized that it was the only way you could cope with the situation without losing it entirely.”

The writer gazed into Quinn’s blue eyes for a brief moment then slipped her arms around the taller woman’s neck and kissed her. “I love you,” she said when they stopped to breathe.

“I love you too,” Quinn responded, and dipped her head to find her lover’s lips again. The kiss was longer this time, less an affirmation of shared love and more an erotic invitation. Ariel thought she was sated until Quinn went to work again with lips, teeth, tongue and hands. It didn’t take her long to prove her assumption wrong.

“Oh Goddess, Quinn!” Ariel slumped against the wall of the shower stall, her hands twisted in Quinn’s long, wet hair.

The taller woman tilted her head back and grinned up at her, from the level of Ariel’s hips. She leaned in to swirl her tongue around Ariel’s navel then rose to her feet.

“Feeling better?”

Ariel smiled shyly. “Yeah. You’re terrific, you know.”

“As always. And it was my pleasure.”

“Speaking of pleasure,” Ariel leaned over and lightly bit Quinn’s nipple, then looked up with a smile. “Good idea?” she asked.

“Um. Very. But on the bed.” Quinn raised a questioning eyebrow. At Ariel’s nod, the taller woman scooped her up and carried her out of the bathroom to the large bed they shared. Once there, Ariel took control and Quinn was soon blissfully exhausted, with Ariel half draped over her. They lay, Quinn contemplating the ceiling, Ariel, head pillowed on Quinn’s left breast, idly experimenting with how many ways she could induce Quinn’s right nipple to contract into erection. Quinn had just placed a restraining hand over Ariel’s and told her sternly to stop it or face the consequences when they both heard what sounded like a giant mosquito. A second later, a small furry black beast struggled up onto the end of the bed, purring triumphantly.

“Hairy!” exclaimed Ariel.

“Damn. I guess I didn’t shut the door tightly.”

“Don’t worry about it. I was planning to let him and his siblings out to roam soon anyway.”

As if they heard their cue, the other two kittens pulled themselves up to join the party. Charlotte, the black and white, waded right in, but Grise, short for Éminence Grise, the dark grey kitten, sat back as if observing how well his plans had come to fruition. Ariel had watched them for a few days before the names came to her. Charlotte reminded her of a character in a nineteenth century novel–conventional, never questioning, hearty–but Grise was a different personality altogether. Whereas Charlotte and Hairy often stirred up trouble by getting into things they weren’t supposed to, Grise was never seen doing anything untoward. But he was usually in the general vicinity when something was knocked over, or an object, such as a pen, disappeared from the desk in the kitchen only seconds after someone had set it down.

“Want me to put them outside the door?” asked Quinn.

“Yeah, but it’s about time I started getting dinner.”

“No need. All taken care of.”

“It is? Ariel asked quizzically. “Um. Pizza?”

“Nope.”

“Chinese?”

“Nuh uh.”

“Greek?”

“Guess again.”

“I give up.”

“A four-course meal from Parmesan’s, with silverware, dishes, tablecloth and napkins provided, and a couple of bottles of their finest wine.”

“Wow! What’s the occasion?”

“Nothing. Other than the fact that I love you and I haven’t been the best of company either.”

Ariel leaned in with a smile and brushed her lips over Quinn’s. “And that you’re a closet romantic who I love dearly.”

“Umm.” Quinn returned the kiss. “And the best thing is,” she paused to glide her tongue over Ariel’s bottom lip. “they aren’t due to deliver it for an hour.”

“Well then, I think we have some time to kill. Don’t you?”

“Yup. Just as soon as I put the trio here outside the bedroom door.”

And she did.
Chapter 13
“You about ready?”

“Not quite. Just a minute longer.”

Quinn curbed her impatience and went downstairs. Kris, dressed in a dark suit the cut of which didn’t quite hide the shoulder holster she was wearing, met her at the bottom.

“Well?”

“A few more minutes.”

“Umph.” She relayed the information to Vanessa and John who were waiting with the two cars at the curb.

Quinn paced, and mentally reviewed the launch again. Almost three weeks had come and gone since she and Kris had put together the security plans. She’d been over them time and time again searching for holes. As far as she could see, given the constraints imposed by Ariel, there were none, barring a suicidal attack. And she hadn’t ruled that out.

Ariel was curiously calm about the whole thing. On the one hand, that was good, because Quinn had no idea what to do for her if she wasn’t. On the other, it made Quinn worry that the writer was beginning to think it was all a hoax. After all, there had been no other incidents since the drive-by. The leads that she and the police had pursued had hit brick walls. The car used in the shooting attempt had been found the next day, wiped clean of fingerprints. Quinn’s suspicions of Jan, Ariel’s editor, had led nowhere; by hacking into McQuarry’s computer system, Thanatos Security’s computer expert, Joe, had found that Jan had been editing a document up to a few minutes before the attack. True, someone could have been working at her desk but Jan always locked her office when she was gone more than a few moments, so chances were, the person using her computer up to 5:10 pm had been Jan herself. Of course, she could have paid someone to do the drive-by, but to what end? Quinn had racked her brain to think of a motive and sent Kris off to look for one, without success.

Quinn watched Kris idly flip through a magazine. Shortly after her conversation at the office with her second-in-command, Quinn had decided to act on Kris’s suggestion to involve the other members of Thanatos Security in guarding Ariel during the day. They were all good at their jobs and once Quinn thought it over, she had to admit it had merit: it got Kris out from under the administrative work, which Quinn knew she disliked, and it got Quinn back outside, and not cooped up in the house, day after day. Since no one had been forced to defend Ariel since then, it appeared to have been a win-win situation.

But damn it! She wished whoever this prick was would show his hand. The waiting was wearing her down, big time. Speaking of waiting, Quinn checked her watch. Five minutes had come and gone and still no sign of Ariel. Par for the course. She remembered the last book launch, a little over a year before. It had been much the same situation, although the previous year the threatening note arrived just days before the launch. Ariel had kept them waiting that day too. Mind you, when she finally put in an appearance it had been spectacular–the mid-thigh, dark green dress she wore had ensured that. Quinn remembered thinking she’d wished Ariel were less attractive since it tended to make guarding her distracting.

Quinn let her mind wander some more.

Following the lead car carrying John and Vanessa, the bulletproof limousine, rented for the occasion, pulled away from the curb. Kris and Quinn watched the traffic outside, the latter always seeming to find the writer’s legs in her peripheral vision. That, of course, led her mind up avenues of fantasy she struggled to close off. She was just thinking how good it would feel to have Ariel’s legs wrapped around her naked body when she became aware that the writer was speaking to her.

“Sorry. What?”

“I was just wondering whether you thought he’d make an attempt tonight.”

“Difficult to say. If he’s a complete loony, yes. If, however, he has a sense of self preservation, I’d say no, since with the amount of security we’ve got on this thing it would be very difficult to try something and then get away.”

The writer sat back, seemingly in deep thought. Quinn took the opportunity to sneak a quick peek at her legs. Get your mind back on the job, Quinn, she sternly told herself. And while you’re at it, better reassure her. “Hey, don’t worry. We’ve handled lots of these situations.”

Ariel gave her a small smile. “I have complete confidence in you. I just don’t want anyone hurt on my behalf.”

“Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to get hurt.” As if you can guarantee it, Quinn. Yeah. Sure.

The rest of the ride was quiet as Ariel went over some speaking notes while Quinn and Kris watched the traffic, checking for unwanted followers. They pulled up in front of the museum at 4:55pm, and Kris got out first to survey the people on the sidewalk–not a crowd, exactly, but enough people curious about what was going on that an attacker might use them to get close enough to try his chances. Two police officers were keeping people back from the entrance to the building. John and Vanessa joined Kris as she checked the crowd once more before giving Quinn a nod, the signal for the security consultant to get out and hold the door for Ariel. Once everyone was on the sidewalk, the contingent started for the entrance, with Vanessa taking point, Quinn and Kris flanking the writer, and John bringing up the rear.

The attack came just as they were entering the building. Quinn’s first indication was a shout from John, causing her to half turn. She was in time to grab the assailant’s arm as he tried to go behind her and in front of John to get at the writer. Unfortunately, the arm she grabbed was not the one carrying the knife, but she didn’t register the lancing pain along her ribs until the man had been subdued, with John and Vanessa’s help. Vanessa quickly slapped on cuffs then knelt holding a gun to the stranger’s head. Quinn felt sure that one wrong move from her prisoner and she’d pull the trigger.
“Quinn, you’re bleeding!” exclaimed Ariel, who had been hustled to one side by Kris.

“Huh? Oh, it’s nothing,” said Quinn, trying to shrug it off.

“Yeah, nothing that a stitch or thirty won’t fix, said Kris. “Your side is saturated.” She looked around. One cop had just finished calling for backup and emergency medical help while the other took charge of the prisoner, who by now was protesting loudly about the treatment the perverts had subjected him to when he was simply on GAWD’s mission of vengeance.

Ariel took her silk wrap, which she had brought to guard against the cool of the evening, and pressed it to Quinn’s side. “EMTs are coming so just relax,” she said.

“I am relaxed. Kris, you and Vanessa take Ariel inside. John will stay with me. Tell Tyrone what’s happened. You’re in charge of security until I can get back on the scene.”

“Hey! I’m not going anywhere, other than with you to the hospital,” said Ariel.

Quinn nodded at Vanessa who cheerfully muttered a “Sorry about this” then picked the writer up over her shoulder and carried her, loudly protesting, through the door. The howl of an approaching siren drowned out the epithets being hurled Quinn’s way by both the writer and the assailant.

Quinn sent John off to buy her another shirt and then managed to intimidate the EMTs into applying a temporary dressing so that she could get back to the launch. Her jacket hid the worst of the blood stains on her dress pants, and their dark colour made the rest difficult to see. Ariel had glared at her for most of the event and at the conclusion has seen her dragged off by Kris and Vanessa to the Emergency Room of the closest hospital where the wound was properly stitched.

Quinn reflected that they had been incredibly lucky that McNaughton had felt he had to resort to a good old fashioned weapon to remove the evil from their midst, rather than an AK-90. But, she reflected ruefully, she still missed that shirt.

Further reflections were cut off when Ariel descended the stairway. This time she’d chosen to wear a plain black dress, again cut to mid thigh, accented with a thin gold necklace and bracelet, and small gold earrings. With her short blond hair, green eyes and golden tan, she looked spectacular. Of course, thought Quinn, what else is new. Once again the writer carried a silk wrap, although not the same one she’d had last year, which had been ruined by Quinn’s blood.

“Sorry to keep everyone waiting.”

Quinn walked over to her lover, rested her hands lightly on her shoulders and kissed her. “Worth the wait. You look good enough to eat,” she murmured.

Ariel gave her a small smile. “That comes later.”

“Um. I’ll hold you to it.”

“Sorry to interrupt you lovebirds,” said Kris, “but we’d better leave if we’re going to get there on time.”

Quinn nodded. and turned to Ariel. “Ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Quinn stifled the impulse to tell her not to worry, recalling the previous launch.

Kris radioed John and Vanessa that they were on their way so that they were ready when the three women emerged from the house. Vanessa and John got into the first vehicle and the others in the second. A moment later both pulled out into traffic. Quinn and Kris checked for followers, Ariel reviewed notes. So far, thought Quinn, it’s a carbon copy of last year. Same people. Maybe even the same limo. She hoped that that was as far as it went.

Thirty minutes later found them pulling up to the door of the museum. This time there was more of a police presence outside, although in keeping with Ariel’s request, it was discrete. Quinn had also seen to it that some of Tyrone’s security personnel were mingling with the people watching. Although she was on edge and hyper aware of everyone around her, she detected no hostile intent from the small crowd. Getting through the museum entrance without incident was a relief, but the security consultant sternly reminded herself that the event was just beginning. A quick check of the crowd inside showed Edward making his way over to welcome Ariel.

“Ok everyone. Stay sharp and keep your eyes and ears open.”

Nods greeted her reminder.

“Ariel, my dear. You look wonderful.” Edward gave the writer a quick kiss on the cheek then took her arm. Nodding at Quinn he continued to address the shorter woman: “We have a place for you over here,” and began to guide her through the mass of people. Quinn stuck close behind, while the others formed a cordon around the writer.

Ariel spotted Scott in the crowd and slowed the procession long enough to draw him into the circle. She greeted him with a hug and a quick kiss. “Scott! So you found the place. Great! Any trouble finding parking?”

“No problems Aunt Ariel. Glad to be here.”

Ariel quickly introduced him to Edward who had heard that the writer’s nephew had made contact with her. As she was completing that introduction Jan came up to greet her and Ariel turned to her happily, giving her a quick hug and exchanging a few words.

Quinn’s eyes were everywhere, as were the eyes of the other security personnel. Spotting Tyrone, who was over near the tables holding the refreshments, she gave him a quick nod. They had spoken earlier in the day, reviewing the security plans. One thing Quinn had insisted upon from the start was metal detectors at all entrances. Tyrone had assured her they had discrete ones. She heard his voice now in the small radio link she wore in her ear, indicating no concealed weapons made of metal had been found. Of course, the detectors couldn’t draw attention to those made of high impact plastic, nor were they any help when it came to impromptu weapons, available on the premises, such as smashed wine glasses, but at least they might eliminate some measure of threat.

Attendance was by invitation only, but that didn’t mean that enemies might not be found among the guests. Ariel had made no secret of her views, and in her latest book, After Dark, had expanded upon them as a counter point to the main story, which was a steamy same sex thriller. So, Quinn, thought, if she didn’t get to the ultra conservatives with her left wing views on weapons and capital punishment, she’d undoubtedly rile them with her unabashed views on sexuality. An equal opportunity shit disturber, that was her Ariel.

Edward stepped to the podium to make a few opening remarks and the crowd quieted. He quickly summed up Ariel’s professional career, noted the success of her award-winning previous books, announced that a contract had already been signed to bring out After Dark in paperback as well as hard cover, and that Midnight Madness had been optioned for a movie deal.

An influential book critic followed him to the microphone and extolled the new book, as did another of McQuarry’s bestselling writers.

Edward, who was acting as the master of ceremonies, returned to the microphone and said, “You’ve heard what others have to say about this important new work. Now, let’s hear from the author, herself. It is, therefore, my very great pleasure to introduce to you Ms. Ariel Pedersen.”

Quinn kept her eyes on the applauding crowd, although she was aware of Ariel in her peripheral vision. Despite being out in front of the group, the writer was still relatively safe–although the podium appeared to be etched glass, it was actually a high impact plastic, able to withstand point blank gunfire.

Ariel, Quinn knew, intended to keep her remarks brief. She thanked Edward for originally giving her the opportunity to write for a living, and for his continued support. She paid special attention to Jan, who had edited her books from the first and whose attention to detail was top notch. Finally, she concluded by thanking those gathered at the launch and invited them to help themselves to the food and drink laid out in celebration.

The audience rose to its feet and loudly applauded Ariel as she left the podium to return to her seat.

Quinn wasn’t sure afterward if she consciously heard the loud crash and then reacted, or if her actions were simply visceral. All she knew was she suddenly had her gun in her hand and was scanning the room. Kris, also with gun drawn, had leaped in front of Ariel, who had been caught out in the no man’s land between her seat and the podium. Vanessa and John, watching the crowd from either side of the room, were also ready for whatever was to come, as were the museum security personnel, scattered around the edge of the room.

Then she heard Tyrone’s voice in her ear. “A clumsy waiter, everyone, but keep alert in case it wasn’t an accident.”

Quinn stepped to the side to get a clear view, past the crowd, of the refreshment tables. She could see that Tyrone and two of his people were supervising the wait staff as they cleaned up. The noise had been made by a laden silver tray, which had fallen onto the marble floor. Ok, was it a diversion? She took a quick look around but could see nothing out of the ordinary.

Edward was at the microphone by this time, reassuring the crowd and again inviting them to sample the food and wine, and promising that Ariel would be signing copies of her new book in just a few minutes. Conversation gradually picked up and by the time the small disaster was tidied away, the crowd was again relaxed and in a celebratory mood. Quinn moved back to the group that held Ariel.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, although I either lost 10 years or gained them, I’m not sure which.”

“Hang in there, Babe. It’ll soon be over.”

Ariel gave her a small, strained smile. “You too.”

Quinn ached to take her in her arms but knew that vigilance was more necessary than comfort at that moment. She’d love just five minutes with the prick who was threatening her Ariel. In fact, she’d love to take on the whole ultra conservative faction… Quinn brought herself back to reality. She saw that Scott was talking with the writer and it seemed to have a calming effect. He’d become a frequent visitor to the house since his first memorable call. He and Ariel seemed to find plenty of things to chat about, over and above family. He’d even asked for her autograph on a copy of Midnight Madness that he’d brought with him one day. Quinn was glad that Ariel had been able to connect with the young man, and she was willing to concede that that might have helped her lover get through the last weeks before the launch.

Quinn saw Edward join the two of them and shortly after the small group began to move to the refreshment tables. Quinn and her immediate staff closed in around them again and followed along. Ariel accepted a glass of wine but declined Scott’s offer to get her some food, indicating to Quinn just how really tied in knots she was. Normally the writer had a voracious appetite. Still, looks were everything here, and Ariel looked relaxed as she chatted with several of the guests.

In a few minutes, Edward moved back to the microphone to announce that Ariel would begin signing books. The writer, with Quinn and her staff still grouped loosely around her, moved to a table to one side, which was discretely draped to hide the bullet proof plastic underneath, affording Ariel some protection as she signed autographs. Quinn had wanted to add additional high impact plastic screens, but Ariel had vetoed them.

The guests began forming up and were soon moving in a steady line by the table, with Ariel saying a few words to each and writing a personal note in their copies of her book. Quinn sternly ordered her inner voice to be quiet as it noted that all they had to do was make it to the end of this and then they could go home. Don’t jinx it stupid, she told herself. Several of the guests wanted to conduct a conversation with the author but she skillfully moved each one along quickly and politely.

The line was more than three quarters through when Quinn caught Vanessa’s eye. As the tall red head made her way to Quinn’s side, she was aware of listening to the same opening line for the 250thtime: “Oh Ms. Pedersen! It’s such a pleasure to meet you.”

As Quinn watched the woman in front of her enthuse over Ariel’s writing, she gave Vanessa instructions to go check out the vehicles for their departure. Although both had been guarded during the launch, Quinn believed in leaving nothing to chance. Vanessa exited just as Quinn heard the woman in front of her say “And the spanking scene in Midnight Madness was so-o-o hot!” Well that’s a new one, thought Quinn, as the writer thanked her for the compliment and moved her along. Most people were more restrained in their praise. If anyone did single out the sexual aspects of Ariel’s writing it was usually expressed in terms more evocative of scholarly tomes than outright pleasure. Quinn grinned to herself and thought it was nice to see someone who appreciated the parts she liked.

Two more autograph seekers moved by before Vanessa suddenly materialized again at her elbow.

“Trouble, Quinn.”

The security consultant quickly called John forward to take her place then stepped back to confer. “What?”

“The cops were distracted by a disturbance around the corner just before I got outside. They were gone about two minutes and when they got back someone had written “SOON” in block letters on the windshield with what looks like lipstick. They were just about to call it in when I got there. I can’t tell if anything else has been done but I had them call the bomb squad.”

“Good idea.” Quinn glanced at Ariel. The writer didn’t need this! “Tell them to put in a call for Hank Walsh too. He ought to be here as well.”

Vanessa nodded and left again. Kris watched from the other side of the desk as Quinn stepped back to her place. Her second in command and John knew they’d be informed when it was necessary. Right now their job was to concentrate on keeping Ariel safe. Damn it! Why couldn’t he have just left her alone, this one time!
Chapter 14
Quinn sat at the kitchen table making notes. Everyone else she knew made notes on a computer, but to Quinn, when you really wanted to think, nothing beat a notepad and pen.

As she re-read what she had written she noticed, in her peripheral vision, a small gray paw moving warily toward the pen, unattended on the table top.

“Ah ha! Caught you! She exclaimed, as she slapped a hand down on the object in question. “So you are the pen and pencil thief.”

A solemn, gray face contemplated her. “Mew,” it said.

“Mew to you too. What did you do with my brand new highlighter last week?”

“Mew.”

“Well that’s informative. I need more detail. Where’d you put it?”

“Probably under the refrigerator or the stove,” suggested a voice behind her.

Quinn turned to see Ariel in T-shirt, shorts and bare feet.

“Hi, Love. How are you?” She got up quickly, gave the smaller a woman a quick hug and kiss and said “Sit down and I’ll get you breakfast.”

The writer did as Quinn suggested, without comment. Bad sign, thought the dark-haired woman, as she sliced, then popped a bagel into the toaster, and poured juice and a cup of coffee to set in front of the smaller woman. Scooping up the kitten, Grise, she sat down again.

“Not swimming today?”

“Don’t feel like it right now. Maybe later,” responded Ariel, “after I wake up a bit more. And speaking of that, did you sleep at all?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” said Quinn, trying to dodge the question. In truth, she’d only slept about two hours before finally giving up all further attempts and moving downstairs to the kitchen to think, play some music, and finally go for a swim, au naturel, at about 5:00 am. The toaster popped up at that moment and Ariel retrieved and spread peanut butter on the warm bagel. Quinn noted her lover didn’t pursue the sleep thing, which was also a bad sign.

“What’cha working on?” asked Ariel, as she added jam.

“Just going over this thing again in my mind. Trying to eliminate some possibilities. See where there’s holes we need more information on. That kind of thing.”

The writer nodded, and played with her coffee mug. “Quinn, do you ever think we’ll find him? I mean, really? I can’t help but think I’ll be going on like this for years. And I just don’t want to think about that.”

Quinn stretched out a hand and placed it gently on her lover’s wrist. “Yes. I believe we’ll find him and it won’t be far off, if only because he will keep doing things like writing on car windshields–sooner or later someone will get a good enough look that we’ll be able to identify him. In the meantime we keep you safe.”

“Safe.” Ariel fell silent and drew designs on the table top with her finger.

When Quinn was sure she wasn’t going to continue she stood up, moved behind the writer’s chair and slipped her arms around the woman. “Yeah. Safe,” she murmured in her ear, “no matter what it takes.”

Ariel turned her head to meet Quinn’s gaze and gave her a wan smile.

Quinn gave her another squeeze and then returned to her place and picked up her coffee cup. Ariel’s listlessness worried her. She ached to see the writer’s usual damn-the-torpedoes attitude, but it had been missing since last night, after the message had been scrawled on the limo.

Hank Walsh had got there in minutes, which was a good thing because Quinn was getting frustrated, having been stonewalled by the police. Hank, however, had quickly determined that the rookie cop, who’d been left with the vehicles while the older, experienced cops had gone to check out the gunshots that seemed to come from the front of the museum, had abandoned his post, thinking he could help. The kid had already been reamed out by the sergeant on duty so Hank didn’t add anything. The problem was, it left them back at square one.

Quinn consoled herself that at least there had been no bomb, and that they’d been able to leave after only an additional hour of police procedure. But now that the book had been launched Ariel had to leave almost immediately on a book tour that included the talk show circuit. A few days before, Quinn had suggested that perhaps she could do the talk shows from the local studios of the networks, which would shorten the tour by three days. Ariel had vetoed the idea but maybe she might reconsider. Of course, the possibility existed that Ariel might actually be safer outside the city, on tour, if whoever was after her was not able to follow. That, however, was cancelled out, at least in Quinn’s mind, by the possibility that there might be other nutcases in the cities they would visit who might like to take a shot at the dyke writer. And she, Quinn, would be working with security personnel that, in the main, she had never worked with before. Shit! She had a bad feeling all around about this.

Ariel finished her breakfast and got up to clear her dishes away into the dishwasher. Quinn momentarily thought about telling her to leave them, that she’d take care of them, but stopped herself–she didn’t want Ariel to think that she thought she was an invalid. Keep things as normal as possible, she told herself. Habit is the best way to get her back to her take-no-prisoners ways.

“I think I’ll go read for a while,” the writer said.

“Ok, Babe, see you later,” responded Quinn. After the writer left the room, the security consultant picked up Grise, who was playing at her feet with the pen he’d somehow managed to make off with. Quinn held him in front of her face and said “Ok, little guy, you’re good at planning things. How about some suggestions to make Ariel feel better.”

“Mew.”

“Mew. Yeah, right.”
Chapter 15
An hour later, Quinn threw down her pen in disgust. She had gone at the problem of who was threatening Ariel from every angle but nothing leaped into focus. She’d also drunk an entire pot of coffee and felt the need to do something about it immediately. Returning to the kitchen from the small powder room around the corner, she found Hairy sitting on the table next to her phone. Just as she sat down, the device squealed for attention, causing the kitten to shoot into the air. Calming him with one hand, she flipped the phone on with the other.

“Thanatos Security.”

“Quinn, my dear. Good morning. How is Ariel today?”

“Good morning Edward. About as well as can be expected.”

“That bad, eh? I didn’t like the way she was looking last night after that incident.”

“Me neither. And you’re right–she’s no better.”

“Hmm.” There was a pause. “A month or more ago, she and I talked about you two coming over for dinner. We were unable to arrange it then, but perhaps we should now.”

“Oh, Edward, I don’t know…”

“Quinn, listen to me. A horse throws you, you get back on it. Ariel needs to do something. The longer she sits there and thinks about it, the more paralyzed she’ll get. You know I’m right. She should continue, as well as she can, her regular routine. It will show her that that was a special case – he knew the limo would be there, he smartly hired someone to create a diversion at the front of the museum, and the bonus came when that young idiot decided to play superhero and left his post. That’s a bit different from getting to her in everyday life. You know I’m right.”

Quinn chuckled. “Well, you’re certainly persuasive. Tell you what. I’ll check with her and see if I can persuade her, but I’m not dragging her over to your house.”

“Fair enough. Give me a call back when you’ve got a yes answer and I’ll call Sarah.”

“Edward…”

“Hop to it dear. Time’s a-wasting.”

Quinn made a face at the phone, then flipped it shut. “Ok guys,” she said, addressing the kittens who were playing with her pen, which was once again on the floor, “you may be dining alone tonight since we have a date. At least I hope so.”

She found Ariel reading in the lazyboy in the living room. “Edward just called. He’s invited us for dinner tonight.”

“Oh Quinn, I don’t know…”

Quinn cut her off with a kiss, then handed her the phone. “If you don’t want to, you’ve got to call him.” Ariel glared at her as she let the phone slide out of her hand into her lap. Quinn leaned over and kissed her again then murmured “You know, you’re beautiful when you’re angry.” That produced a small smile. “Hey-y-y! Teeth!” which wasn’t quite true at first but was soon borne out as the smile widened. “So tell me,” the dark-haired woman breathed, “is there, by any chance, a…tongue…in there too?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Ariel murmured as she looked Quinn up and down suggestively. As leers went, it was a pale reflection of Ariel’s usual lascivious, off-the-scale, if-you-weren’t-wet-before-you-sure-are-now gaze, but, Quinn reflected, ruefully, it would do nicely.

“Well then,” Quinn whispered, inches from Ariel’s lips, “you’d better” she ran her tongue languidly over Ariel’s bottom lip, “call him and say yes.” So saying she picked up the phone from Ariel’s lap, placed it in her hands and left, chuckling.

“Quinn, you bitch!”

“That’s butch, sweet thang. Butch.”

Quinn sauntered back to the kitchen. “Mission accomplished, Charlotte,” she said to the black and white kitten tearing across the terra cotta floor in pursuit of Hairy. Locating her pen, which Grise was about to launch into the black hole under the stove, she sat again at the table, and stared at her notes. She became so wrapped up in her thoughts that when Ariel walked through the doorway a few minutes later, and dropped the phone into Quinn’s lap, she actually jumped.

“So?”

“They’re expecting us at 7:00 o’clock.”

“Hey-y-y, that’s my girl.”

“Yeah, well Edward thinks you should give up security and go into negotiating, you talked me into it so fast. But I told him I wouldn’t let you use those tactics on anyone else.”

Quinn’s grin was cut off as Ariel suddenly straddled the taller woman’s lap and rested her arms over her shoulders. The security consultant was uncomfortably aware of the cell phone in her crotch. Ariel shifted her hips slightly to emphasize its presence, and said “I told him that I, on the other hand, was even better at those tactics so if he hired anyone to negotiate, it ought to be me. Don’t you agree?” she asked, while again giving Quinn a small thrust with her hips.

“Oh Goddess!” gasped Quinn.

“True, but on earth I prefer to go incognito. So you can just call me Ariel,” she smiled, a smile that had the side effect of drenching Quinn’s shorts yet again, then leaned over and gave the dark-haired woman the longest, deepest kiss they’d shared in more than a week.

Quinn was gasping for air when they broke apart. Ariel gave her another small thrust then leaned over and murmured in her ear, “And you know what I’d like to do right…(lick) about (nibble) now (bite)?”

“What?!” Goddess, this woman was hot!

“Go swimming!”

“Wha…”

Ariel surged up off Quinn’s lap with a laugh, bent over one more time to kiss her now damp forehead, and said “Paybacks, Sweet Pea.” then left the room. Quinn sagged in her chair. From halfway upstairs she heard Ariel call “I’ll be down in a minute to do my laps. Gives you time to wipe down that phone!”
——————————————————————————–

As the taxi turned up Edward and Sarah’s street and slowed, Quinn observed Ariel from the corner of her eye. Although not as subdued as she had been earlier that morning, her lover was still not herself. She’d done her laps. They’d even made love, but something had been missing. It was as if Ariel had used up all her energy teasing Quinn and had nothing left. That was quite unlike her Ariel. Quinn very much hoped that a visit with Edward and Sarah would cheer her up.

The car pulled into the curb and they got out. After Quinn used plastic to pay the charge, the uninhabited vehicle pulled out into the street and departed. They had opted to use a taxi for safety’s sake, since the message left on the limo might be construed as an intention to use a bomb or otherwise tamper with Quinn’s Mark 5. Although Quinn had been checking it carefully each time she’d used it since the arrival of the first threatening message, she decided that the safest course would be to have it towed to a garage to be gone over minutely. For emergency use only, Kris and John had dropped a car off in the neighbourhood–Quinn had the key but the would-be assailant had never seen her in or near it so there was nothing to link her with it. Until the person threatening Ariel was caught, therefore, they’d have to get along with taxis for daily trips. Quinn hoped they’d get the fucker soon because she’d already had enough of this taxi nonsense.

The security consultant kept an eye on their surroundings while Ariel rang the bell. Edward opened the door almost immediately.

“Ariel, my dear. And Quinn. Please come in.”

“Edward. Thank you for inviting us.”

“Not at all, Not at all. We’re always glad to see you two.”

“Indeed we are,” said a small white-haired woman just coming into the hall. She quickly kissed both women in greeting and paused to give Ariel a quick hug of support.

Edward ushered all into the family room and took drink orders. As he was filling the requests, Sarah excused herself to return to the kitchen to put the final touches on dinner. Although she and Edward could easily afford help around the house, Sarah would not hear of it, believing that home-cooked meals for loved ones, which was what Ariel, and later Quinn, were to her and her husband, needed much tender loving care in their preparation.

Edward set the drinks on the coffee table and then distributed them. “The media got wind of the incident at the launch,” he said. “They called me this morning.”

“And?”

“I told them it was nothing. Hooligans only, out for a good time. Have you been disturbed?”

Quinn shook her head and looked at Ariel with a raised eyebrow.

“Not me. Good. I guess they believed you then. I don’t think I could cope with media prying into that too.”

Edward nodded. “Save your energies to concentrate on the task at hand.” Then he smiled beatifically and continued “which is making lots of lovely, lovely money.”

Ariel gave him a small smile but declined to comment.

The publisher turned to Quinn, casting about for another topic. “What about you, Quinn. What have you been working on in addition to keeping the lovely Ms. Pedersen here safe?”

Quinn stretched her legs out in front of her and crossed them at the ankle. She knew Edward was trying to change the topic now that he had found out that he’d been successful with the media. “Well, like usual, a little of this and a little of that. Warehouses are big these days. Home security. As I say, the usual. Which reminds me, it’s time to pester you again about an alarm system.” This was a running debate between them. Edward insisting they didn’t need one, Quinn equally adamant that safe was better than sorry.

“You know, I’m glad you brought that up. A house just one over from us was burglarized the other night and Sarah chewed me out for not getting one installed before this.”

“I hardly did that, dear,” said Sarah who had just returned. “I merely pointed out to you that the extra safety afforded would be worth the cost.”

“Which from Sarah, is the strongest possible reprimand,” smiled Edward.

The white-haired woman laughed. “Oh you. Well, speaking of chewing, dinner is ready if you’d like to come this way.”
Everyone got to their feet and Ariel followed Sarah out. Edward stopped Quinn just as she was about to follow. “Anything further on the incident, Quinn? I know the police were conducting inquiries to see if anyone saw anything.”

“Nothing from them, Edward. I had the substance on the windshield analyzed and as we thought, it was lipstick. Very likely a shade called Passion, from Rubinstein-Factor-Disney.”

“Well, if you hear anything else, please let me know. Now, shall we join the ladies?”
——————————————————————————–

Dinner, as usual, was delicious. A vat-grown sirloin tip roast, the focal point of the main course, was accompanied by potatoes, carrots, green beans and a salad, and two bottles of a very dry, red wine. By the time they got to dessert, a cake that Ariel had contributed, she was a little more her old self. Quinn was sure that the wine had helped relax her, but it was the good conversation that really made her forget the uncertainty of the future and just enjoy the present. Edward was in his element, telling stories about his experiences in the publishing business. Although he was very much a modern publisher, his management style often harked back to the days when publishers were gentlemen first and entrepreneurs second. Sarah, his wife of 40-some years, contributed her own stories of the early days of the business, when she had worked beside her husband to build it into the well-respected publishing firm it now was.

As they lingered over coffee and liqueurs in the family room, Quinn reflected that Edward had indeed been right: this evening was just what Ariel needed to give her some respite from worry. Goddess knew she’d have plenty of worrying to do in the coming three weeks as they crisscrossed the continent.

Quinn suddenly became aware that Ariel was saying they should leave since it was getting late. After Quinn phoned for a taxi, Sarah extracted a promise from her that she’d be around in the latter part of the morning, her last day before accompanying Ariel on tour, to appraise the security needs of their home. Within five minutes the car pulled into the lane and Edward and Sarah hugged both women in farewell. The publisher also took the opportunity to assure them that he was reachable 24 hours a day while they were traveling if there was anything at all they were concerned about. The two were still in the doorway waving as the taxi pulled out into the street.

Ariel snuggled close. “Quinn?”

“Uh huh?”

“Do you think we’ll be like Sarah and Edward in 40 years? I mean, they’re still so much in love.”

Quinn kissed the top of Ariel’s head, which was just under the taller woman’s chin. “I’m sure of it,” she said.

“Good.” Ariel settled down and seemed to go to sleep.

Forty years eh? thought Quinn. At least she’s taking the long view again. Quinn smiled, and relaxed for the rest of the trip home.
Chapter 16
“Good evening. Tonight we are conversing with Ariel Pedersen, best selling author of Midnight Madness, who is here to talk about her new book, After Dark.”

Quinn watched the interview intently. Sixth day on the road. Fourth city. Umpty-umpth talk show. When Ariel wasn’t doing interviews, she was signing books, although Quinn insisted on personally checking out the security arrangements very carefully before the book signings went ahead. That was the only part of the tour on which Ariel had allowed Quinn the final say. In all other instances, she’d listen carefully to Quinn’s opinions then make her decision, sometimes agreeing with her lover, sometimes not. Quinn wished Ariel would just take her opinions as law but knew her well enough to know she never would.

Glancing at the monitor, Quinn noted that the camera had discovered Ariel’s legs and was sharing them with the audience, via a medium shot from close to the floor. On the one hand, she mentally congratulated the remote control camera operator on his good taste. On the other she didn’t like him objectifying the writer, and she knew Ariel would be pissed since this show was a literary showcase where she hoped to convince people to read her book, not for the steamy sex scenes but for her exploration of prevailing societal attitudes.

Quinn looked up as Vanessa tapped her on the shoulder. The other woman smiled then moved to the back of the set where the camera operator sat. Quinn had noticed him chatting up Vanessa before the taping, although the tall, statuesque operative had not seemed to be showing much interest. The security consultant noted that in less than a minute the camera abruptly switched to the writer’s face and stayed there, except when the host was asking a question. Good, Quinn thought, and nodded at Vanessa when she returned. The other woman winked and went back to watching the interview and the surrounding studio.

There had never been any question that Quinn had to take along at least one operative on the tour. She couldn’t keep tabs on Ariel all by herself. The question was, which one. Kris was the most experienced. But then again, she also had the administrative experience to run Thanatos Security while Quinn was away, which neither John nor Vanessa had. Well, by the time the tour was over, John would have a lot more knowledge since Quinn decided it was time for him to learn. Kris wasn’t so happy having to teach him, but she’d adapt.

The security consultant had been momentarily surprised at Ariel’s reaction when she’d told her which one was accompanying them on tour. “Oh, why Vanessa?” she’d asked, causing Quinn to respond dangerously, “Why not Vanessa? Is there a problem I don’t know about?” Ariel, recognizing the tone of Quinn’s voice, hastily replied “No! Not at all. But Quinn, she’s so tall! Between the two of you I’ll look like a midget!” The security consultant had pointed out that John was tall too, so what was her point. “Well sweet thing,” responded Ariel, “in case you hadn’t noticed this tiny detail, John is male. I wouldn’t look short in comparison to him, since women are usually shorter than men. But with you two, people will wonder which one of you brought your kid sister along.” Quinn had hugged her then and pointed out that it was a good thing that the fourth member of the group, Kelly Sanchez, the PR liaison from McQuarry’s, was even shorter than Ariel.

Kelly had been the liaison on the tour the previous year, and Quinn had been very glad of it: in addition to handling the PR she’d looked after all the extraneous details as well. Right now she was concentrating on the interviewer who was winding up his chat with Ariel. Once the all clear was given, she strode purposely across to the writer, who was shaking hands with her host, and got ready to update Ariel on the rest of her schedule for that day.

“She’s cute,” said a voice in her ear.

Quinn looked over her shoulder at Vanessa, who grinned at her. “She is indeed. I didn’t know you were interested.”

“Feisty disposition. Smart. Funny. Short dark hair and blue eyes. Sure I’m interested. Who wouldn’t be.”

“So the camera guy isn’t in the running? He sure did what you asked him to quickly enough.”

Vanessa snorted. “Quinn, it’s true I like women and men, but Camera Guy was obnoxious from word one so even though we’re here over night there was no way in hell I was going out with him. As far as the leg shots go, you can persuade people of all sorts of things if you’re 6’2,” have a black belt in karate and tell them you know how to cause them extreme pain if they don’t do what you want right away.”

Quinn only had time to grin at this response when Ariel and Kelly re-joined them.

“What did you think?” asked Ariel.

“I think it went well, but see for yourself this evening when it’s broadcast,” replied Quinn.

“Yeah, I have it in my day planner.” Ariel’s stomach suddenly rumbled. “Oh, boy, I’m starved and it’s only 4:00 pm.”

“Well, why don’t we go have a drink and some munchies in the hotel bar? I’ve already checked the place out and it looks pretty secure,” volunteered Vanessa.

“Sounds good to me,” said Quinn. “What’s the rest of today’s schedule like?”

Kelly replied “the last appointment is postponed until tomorrow at 10:00 am. As far as eating goes, I could eat something too, but I’d better check in with the office first.”

“Yeah, it’s about time to call home,” agreed Quinn. “We can call while we’re on the move.”

The four women left the broadcast studios and headed out into a large interior mall area, at one end of which was their hotel. Quinn and Kelly pulled out phones and punched in numbers as they walked.

“Thanatos Security, Kris Cavendish speaking.”

“Hi Kris. It’s Quinn. How are things going?”
“Ah, the prodigal phones home. We are honoured.”

“So you should be. Anything to report?”

“Not much. New clients today. John is doing administrative stuff, as we speak, that is helping him gain a new appreciation of what an evil taskmaster you are. Other than that it’s pretty much business as usual.”

“Good to hear. And are things still ok at the house?”

“Still no problems, you’ll be glad to know. And Michelle loves the pool more every day and adores the kitties. I’ll have a hard time persuading her to go home when this is over.”

“Start working on it. Only two more weeks and we’ll be back to stay. Anything new from the police?”

“You have to ask? A big zero. By the way, Hank Walsh dropped by yesterday after you called just to see how things were going, but he had nothing to tell me. Whoever your perp is, he seems to have gone on vacation.”

“Yeah, well, let’s just hope it’s not a whirlwind tour of 16 cities in 21 days.”

“Amen to that. And speaking of which, how is everyone holding up today?”

“Not bad. Ariel just finished an interview that’ll be broadcast nationally tonight–“Book Talk” is the name of the show. Her last appointment for today has been rescheduled to tomorrow morning so we’re off for some r&r in the hotel bar.”

“Humph! Must be nice! I, on the other hand, am looking at about two hours overtime.”

“Well, you know what they say–no rest for the wicked.”

“Oh yeah, I’m bad!”

“Talk to you tomorrow, Kris.”

“Right-o fearless leader.”

Quinn closed her phone, just as they got to the end of the long indoor mall. Kelly was completing her call too.

“Anything new?” asked Ariel.

“Nope,” said Quinn. The kittens are still entertaining, the pool is popular and John and Kris hate me.

“That’s all to be expected. How about you, Kelly?”

“No, things have settled down a bit,” replied Kelly.

“Good. Wow! You mean we’re free until tomorrow morning? Don’t know how I’m going to cope,” exclaimed Ariel.

“Why not a night out?” asked Vanessa, as she held the door open to the bar. “I used to live here and I’d be happy to show you the sights.”

“Um, what do you think Quinn?”

Quinn looked at Ariel. She could see lines of stress in her lover’s face. “I’m a little tired, myself,” she replied. “Would you mind staying in?”
“Actually I wouldn’t. Sorry Vanessa, but Quinn and I will have to take you up on that some other trip. Maybe Kelly has more energy.”

“Yeah, Actually, I’d like to.”

“Ok!” Vanessa grinned. “There’s a small Italian restaurant not far from here. Why don’t I call for reservations, for, say, about 7:00 pm?

“Sounds good,” said Kelly. “Perhaps we’ll bring you guys back some cannoli.”

“Italian pastries! What a lovely thought,” said Ariel. “Indulge yourselves. We’ll be having a quiet evening in, for a change.”
——————————————————————————–

Ariel rolled off Quinn and checked the time on the bedside clock. “Almost time for the broadcast.”

“Umm. One question.”

“Yes?”

“This is your idea of a quiet evening in?”

“I’m lying down.”

“True.”

“And so are you.”

“After what we just did I don’t think I could stand.”

“Nitpicker.”

Rather than answer, Quinn grinned and leaned over to brush her lips over her lover’s. “Glad you’re back to your feisty self, even if you do call me names at times.”

Ariel sobered and stroked Quinn’s cheek. “You know, I forget about the danger for hours at a time. And then it suddenly comes roaring back, when I least expect it. I feel a lot better than I did, but I won’t really be able to relax until he’s caught.”

Quinn slipped an arm around the shorter woman and hugged her. “I know, Love, I know.” Then, catching sight of the clock, she said “Hey, time to turn on the tube.”

“Oh! Ok.” Ariel picked up the remote and clicked it at the info feed. She rapidly went through the channels until reaching the one she knew would carry “Book Talk.”

“…Talk is brought to you tonight by Shumizu-Ford-Daimler. We know what you want.”

“I want you to shut up and get to the program,” said Ariel.

“Shush. I hear they’re interviewing some cute dyke writer tonight. I want to listen,” responded Quinn. “Ow!” she added as Ariel gave her an elbow in the ribs.

“Good evening. Tonight we are conversing with Ariel Pedersen, best selling author of Midnight Madness, who is here to talk about her new book, After Dark.”

Quinn glanced at Ariel frequently through the next half hour. The writer was a picture of total concentration. At the end of the program she turned to Quinn and said, “So, now you’ve seen it twice, how do you think it went?”

“Pretty good, I think. He seemed to ask all the right questions, to which you gave the right answers. What about you? Did you think it went ok?”

“I think so. I’m glad they didn’t continue with the low angle shots for very long. They made me look like I was getting ready to model in some sleazy men’s magazine.”

“Umm.” Quinn nuzzled her neck. “With you in it, it would no longer qualify as sleazy. Actually, though, they might have continued with those if Vanessa hadn’t had a pointed chat with the remote camera operator.”

“Really? I’ll have to think of something nice to do for her.”

“You already have.”

Ariel pulled back and looked at Quinn, with one eyebrow raised. “And that would be?”

“You introduced her to Kelly.”
Chapter 17
“Quinn Thanatos.”

“Quinn, it’s Edward.”

“Edward. This doesn’t sound like a courtesy call. What’s up?”

“Ariel has received another note.”

Quinn looked around. Ariel was stroking down the pool of yet another hotel. The security consultant turned back to the phone. “When?”

“Just this morning. We’ve been very careful with her mail. Julia has been checking it and she’s just brought me a new note. It’s another photocopy of a review. On this one he’s written ‘Enjoy the tour. It’s your last.'”

“Ok Edward, here’s what you do. I’m going to call Kris Cavendish at my office. She’s going to come down there to get the note for analysis. Has Julia been wearing gloves when she’s been opening the mail?”

“Yes. Just like you said to do. I am too.”

“That’s good. The second thing I’m going to have Kris do is call the detective we’ve been keeping up to date on this, Hank Walsh, and have him come by to ask some questions. As soon as I know anything from Kris about the analysis, I’ll get back to you.”

“Alright. Quinn, are you going to tell Ariel?

Quinn glanced again at her lover who was now stroking her way back up the pool. Vanessa, who had been keeping tabs from the water on what Quinn was doing, pulled herself effortlessly out of the pool and walked over to join Quinn, who was keeping her voice low.

“Don’t know yet. Talk to you later, Edward. ‘Bye.”

“Trouble?”

“Another note.”

“You going to tell Ariel?”

“Whatever that conference is about, you’d better tell me,” said Ariel from the pool’s edge.

Quinn grabbed up a towel and walked over to the writer. “Give me your hand.” Ariel reached up and Quinn lifted her from the water. Vanessa did the same for Kelly, who by this point had joined the group. Quinn draped the towel around Ariel’s shoulders and drew her over to some of the chairs around the pool’s edge. Vanessa signalled Kelly to give them some privacy.

“You received another letter. Appears to be the same guy.”

Ariel flinched, then looked down at her hands. After a few seconds she said “I don’t know which is worse–when he leaves me alone, but I know he’s there, or when he does something like this.” Raising her eyes she asked, “Can you tell anything from this one?”

“It hasn’t gone to the lab yet. Edward only phoned me minutes after Julia opened it. I was just going to call Kris to tell her to go get it.”

“Oh, ok. You’ll tell me when there’s a report? Even if it doesn’t tell you anything?”

“I promise.”

Ariel, looking down again, simply nodded. Quinn leaned over and enfolded her. “We’re going to get him, Ariel. We aren’t going to stop until we do.”

“I know. But this waiting is so hard!”

Quinn held her and rubbed her back. When the shorter woman was again composed Quinn said “We’d better get back to our room. You want to cancel the lunch hour book signing?”

“Have you any reason to believe he might be in this city?”

“No. The note was pretty non-specific, but I’d say he’s not anywhere in the vicinity.”

“Then No! This prick is not going to stop me. I’ll see him in Hell first!”

“That’s my girl,” Quinn said cheerfully as they rose to their feet.

“Well, well. What do I see. Four pretty girls and all different so a man can pick and chose.” The loud male voice belonged to one of two men, dressed in bathing suits, who had just entered the pool area. To Quinn’s eye they were reasonably good looking, and both at some time had followed a fairly strict exercise regimen. That, combined with the attitude they were displaying made Quinn immediately peg them for ex-athletes who missed being the center of adoring female attention and the recipients of unlimited free tail. Then again, reasoned Quinn, having guarded one or two professional male athletes in her career, maybe she’d come to that conclusion because she couldn’t stand loudmouths or male athletes of any stripe, whether they were college, professional, or little league, for that matter.

Vanessa stepped in front of Kelly, who was the focus of Big Mouth’s attention. “We were just leaving, gentlemen, so stand aside.”

“Plenty of me to go around, Stretch. I’ll get to you sooner or later,” he said as he started to reach around Vanessa to grab Kelly’s arm.

Vanessa gave him a dazzling smile, which seemed to freeze him, (Quinn had seen that smile a time or two and knew its power) then, before the man realized what was happening, had him down on his knees, one hand on the floor with the other up behind his back. She bent one finger and prepared to break it.

The other man, realizing too late that his friend was in trouble, made a move to help, but was brought up sharply by Quinn’s cold voice saying “Freeze,” as she calmly leveled the Glock at him.

Vanessa, keeping her victim incapacitated, smiled even more widely and responded to his taunt, saying “Well, I’m sure you’d be the cat’s ass, Sugar Plum, but I just can’t wait around to find out the rest of your talents, so we’ll be leaving now.”

“Shit! Let me up you bitch! You’re hurting me! I’ll have the law on you.”

“Well sweetie, I haven’t done anything but defend a friend when you tried to attack her. I’m sure the law will be very interested in that.”

“That’s right,” said Ariel. “He definitely made the first move.”

“I can corroborate that,” said Quinn.

“Me too,” added Kelly. “I was terrified when he tired to grab me.”

Quinn shot a quick look at Kelly, wondering if she had really been that frightened. The security consultant was relieved to catch a wink from her, which she was careful to hide from either of the men.

“Come on Jason, leave it be. We’ll go somewhere’s else where we’re appreciated, ” said the second man, who was plainly wondering what trouble they’d be in if the cops were indeed called.”

“Alright, you castrating bitch. Let me up and I won’t call the cops.”

“Very considerate of you, Jason.” Then leaning closer as she pulled him to his feet, said in his ear, “but it’s not particularly bright to call me names that give me ideas.” So saying, she gave him a slight push that caused him to stumble a few feet away.

“Bitch!”

Vanessa refrained from responding, and merely smiled as she took her things from Kelly, who had retrieved them from where the operative had dropped them on arrival. As the four women filed out, however, she couldn’t resist a parting shot, saying “Y’all have a nice day, now, yuh hear!”

“Vanessa” said Quinn, warningly.

“Sorry, Boss, but that guy got to me.”

“Umm. And you handled him with aplomb. I particularly liked the smile maneuver.”

“Thanks. It comes in handy from time to time.”

“I’m sure. And not just in hand to hand combat.”

“Wel-l-l,” drawled Vanessa, “what can I say? If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

Quinn laughed and slapped her on the back.
Chapter 18
The light behind the seat belt sign died as the Ilyushin-McDonnell-Douglas 1201B finally leveled off. Quinn unfastened her belt with a sigh, and looked out the window. The late afternoon sun, glinting golden on the city below, seemed to swing around the plane as the big jet pivoted on one wing to head east, and home. Quinn stretched her legs out in front of her and thanked the powers that be, in this case, Edward, that they were in the first class section. She didn’t think she could take the cramped quarters of economy. Goddess, she was glad this trip was almost over! Three weeks of rushing from one city to another, living out of suitcases and garment bags and eating restaurant meals, unfamiliar territory all around and a nutcase who had decided that Ariel should be silenced. If all went well, in a little over two hours they’d be landing. In four at most, they’d be home. Quinn could visualize the big bathtub that she intended to soak in until she turned into a prune. Of course, she rather hoped she’d have company while she did it.

Thinking of Ariel again brought to mind the state of their current problem. A frown crossed the security consultant’s face as she thought about what they knew about the person–man, presumably–threatening Ariel. Nada. Bupkiss. Zip. Zilch. Absofuckinglutely nothing, period. That just about summarized the situation. The new note had been no more useful than the first one. No fingerprints inside. Nothing distinctive about the paper or the envelope or even the marking pen he’d used to print the threat in block letters. The only thing odd was, why had he photocopied the review from a newspaper. After all, this time the review was recent–he could have just bought a paper, couldn’t he, for Goddess’ sake?

At least there’d been no more threats since that last one. Of course, that seemed to be his pattern–threaten, then back off. Other than the drive-by there’d been no incident where physical harm to Ariel was even a possibility. So, did that mean he was just getting his nerve up, or what? When she and Kris had discussed the lab findings on the latest note, Kris had suggested that maybe Hank’s theory was right: whoever the perp was, he had to work for a living so he had only limited opportunities to try to attack her. In other words, her schedule and his just hadn’t coincided enough so that he felt he could make a stab at it. Quinn winced. Great! Now you’re making puns about this.

“You’re doing it again,” a quiet voice murmured.

Quinn turned her head to look at her companion. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And here I believed all the books that said you could do Kegels without anyone being the wiser.”

Ariel backhanded the taller woman across her stomach. “Wiseass!”

“One of my more loveable qualities,” said Quinn as she caught the writer’s hand and lifted it to her lips.

“In your mind, maybe.” Ariel placed her other hand over Quinn’s, which still held hers, and looked into the dark-haired woman’s eyes. “It’ll be alright, Quinn. Some way or another, it will be alright.”

“Isn’t that my line?”

“So, I can’t use it now and then?”

Quinn gazed into her lover’s eyes. Despite getting herself psyched up for the book signing on the day she’d gotten the latest threat, and rising to the occasion numerous times since, Ariel had once again become quiet, always an indication that she was feeling down. Phone calls from both Edward and Scott had buoyed her spirits somewhat but she still had a way to go to get back to the Ariel of old. Quinn grinned slowly and brushed the writer’s lips with her own. “I guess you can.”

“Good.” Ariel sat back, but still kept her hand on Quinn’s. She sat quietly for a moment, then turned again to the taller woman and said, “Now that that’s settled, do you think Vanessa and Kelly have joined the mile high club, yet?”

“Mile… Oh! Well, I don’t know. They’ve been pretty discrete, if they have. Are you sure they’re even…” Quinn’s voice trailed off as she raised an eyebrow.

“Do you mean to tell me that you don’t think they’re…” Ariel raised an eyebrow in return.

“Well, I haven’t seen any excessive touching, heard any terms of endearment or seen any public displays of affection.”

“Well, My Sweet, you’ve got to start using those beautiful blue eyes more skillfully then, because I’ve observed all of the above.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“PDAs?”

“Damn right.”

“Give me examples.”
“Little things. A friendly touch on a shoulder that turns into a hand lingering longer than necessary, looks I’ve seen pass between them–I’m positive that Kelly even blew her a kiss the other day when she thought no one was looking. I repeat, little things.”

Quinn snorted. “Microscopic things, you mean. When I say PDA I mean a big ol’ wet kiss or a hand on an ass.”

“Um. Subtlety thy name is Quinn,” teased Ariel.

“If memory serves me correctly you are not exactly the queen of subtle yourself.”

“Just because I sometimes eschew” Ariel grinned to underline the ten dollar word, “the subtle approach, doesn’t mean I’m not the soul of subtlety at other times.”

“Really.”

“Uh huh.”

“That must explain it then.”

“What?”

“The very unsubtle way you approached me.”

Ariel smiled and leaned closer. “I choose my approach to fit the person. Sometimes feather-like subtlety is all it takes. Other times, a jackhammer.”

“And I needed a jackhammer?”

“Actually, I don’t think you would have noticed a jackhammer. You were more in the steam roller class.

Quinn grinned. “So you rolled over all opposition.”

“Well, somebody had to since you hadn’t a clue.”

“I was just maintaining a professional attitude.”

“Is that what they’re calling it these days.”

Quinn grinned and leaned in to kiss the shorter woman. Ariel might be a creature of habit in some ways, but the security consultant had learned that she could also be quite unpredictable. Quinn remembered being taken by surprise after the book launch for Midnight Madness had concluded.

It didn’t take much to know that Ariel was angry. Quinn had seen the writer glaring at her all through the launch. Afterward, even though the woman had mobilized Kris and Vanessa to drag the security consultant to the closest hospital emergency department, the tender loving care she half expected from the writer, given her personality, didn’t materialize. Right now, seeing her in the illumination cast by the streetlights they passed, she looked like she wanted nothing to do with Quinn at all.

The security consultant put it down to her ordering Vanessa to pick Ariel up and take her into the launch, even though the writer had expressed a desire to go to the hospital with Quinn. Well, that was too bad, but the show had to go on, or at least it couldn’t stop just because the hired help was inconvenienced. And after all, they’d gotten the guy, hadn’t they? All in all, she felt pretty good. If this wacko could be proven to be the guy who had sent the crazy threat, then chalk up another job completed satisfactorily. Of course, that would mean she’d have no further excuse to spend time with Ariel, but, well, Quinn chewed her lip. Ok, yes, there was a down side to this, too. A very big down side.

She couldn’t deny that at their first meeting she had felt a powerful physical attraction to the writer. But she soon learned that Ariel was far more than just a beautiful woman. In a very short time Quinn had to admit to herself that she was as attracted to the person Ariel was, as she had originally been to the body that Ariel inhabited.Well, said a little voice, that was too bad, wasn’t it, since you don’t mix pleasure with business. Shut up! She told the voice. But it went blithely on, adding, then you’re shit out of luck, Honey. Oh, will you SHUT UP! She stormed internally.

“Did you say something?”

“What? Oh, uh, no.” Quinn was very afraid she’d had some of that last conversation out loud.Great. Now she’ll think you’re loony tunes too, smirked the voice.Way to go. Of course, what does it matter? In a day or so you’ll never see her again. Quinn gritted her teeth, hard, and tried to think of something else, but the images were all of Ariel, laughing, smiling, looking serious while she discussed the significant stuff beneath the surface of her work, concentrating as she watched political commentary on the info feed, or wiping away a tear as she listened to more horrors from the evening news.

Quinn was saved further reverie by the Mark 5 turning onto Ariel’s street. It slowed and pulled into a parking spot just a couple of doors down from the writer’s house. Quinn went into her automatic security routine, pausing only to look for Kris’s car, which should have pulled in almost immediately after them. As they climbed the steps and punched in the code, she concluded that the other operative must have been held up by traffic.

Once inside, Ariel excused herself to go change. Quinn returned to the front door and checked the monitor. No Kris. Hmm. After the third check she pulled out her phone to give the other operative a call. It would be a pain if she’d had a breakdown.

“Put it away.” Ariel had returned, dressed in jeans and a tight T-shirt that was short enough for Quinn to catch glimpses of the writer’s taut belly.

“What?” Great, said her voice, nice view . SHUT UP ALREADY!

“The phone. Put it away.”

“I was just going to call Kris…”

“I know. You don’t need to. She isn’t coming.”

“She called? Why didn’t she call me?”

“She didn’t call. I told her she wasn’t needed tonight.”

Before Quinn could get out more than an indignant “Wha..?” Ariel’s arms were around her neck and Ariel’s lips were occupying Quinn’s, totally.

The taller woman tore her mouth away. “Ariel! Stop this. I can’t.”

“No? You seemed to be carrying out your end of that last exchange remarkably well.”

“I’m working,” gasped Quinn as she unsuccessfully tried to disengage herself.

“Yeah, so am I, to get you to chill out,” Ariel grinned, “or heat up, as the case may be.”

“Look, I have a rule…”

“Oh, I know all about it. Don’t mess with the client. Kris told me. Well, that’s good because otherwise Edward might die of a heart attack, although I’d bet he’d die happy. Mind you, Sarah, his wife, wouldn’t be. Happy that is.”

“The point is…”
“No Quinn, the point is I’m NOT the client. Even if I were, I would say the HELL with your rules, I like you a lot and I’m pretty sure you like me. I want to pursue this, see where it goes. I am NOT willing to say, well bad guy’s caught, so ‘bye, ‘bye.”

Ariel’s face was only inches away. Quinn could clearly see the shifting emotions–exasperation, affection, uncertainty and arousal–in her eyes. The dark haired woman took a breath to argue, but what came out was “Ok.”

Ariel’s face lit up and Quinn found herself in a serious liplock a nanosecond later. At its conclusion, the writer slid her arms from around the taller woman’s neck and slipped them around her waist, forgetting the knife wound the security consultant had suffered earlier. Quinn winced, and inhaled sharply.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” said Ariel, as she dropped her arms to rest on the taller woman’s hips.

“S’ok. I’d forgotten about it.”

“Ohh! Beautiful and tough too. Too bad. I was going to offer to kiss it and make it better.”

“Yeah? Well the tough thing is just an act. I need all the help I can get. So if you want to kiss it…”

Ariel pulled Quinn’s head down for one more lingering kiss before taking her hand and leading her to the stairs. “I’m sure I’ll get there, eventually,” she smiled.

And she had, thought Quinn. She just took the scenic route.
——————————————————————————–

The taxi pulled to a stop under the street light. Quinn had sent Vanessa home, or presumably home since she’d last seen her with Kelly, from the airport, her duty done. From that point forward, additional security would be handled by Kris, whom Quinn had phoned to alert that they would arrive home soon. A second call just moments before had let Kris know they were almost there. The vehicle had scarcely stopped when the brown-haired woman appeared to guard Ariel while Quinn quickly unloaded the bags and took them into the house.

Inside, Kris and Michelle’s things were piled ready to go. Michelle, a striking woman of Eurasian background, was just inside the door, holding one of the kittens. She and Ariel exchanged quick kisses while the kitten, Grise, squirmed to be put down.

“Wow! Have they grown!” exclaimed Ariel.

“Yes indeed, and are even more mischievous. I found this one rooting around in my bag the other day, looking for things he could play with.” The kitten in question had finally managed to convince Michelle that he would be happier on the floor, and was currently sniffing the newly returned luggage. “But even so, I’m going to miss them,” she said.

“Oh, I know what you mean. I missed them while we were gone. Well then, you’ll just have to come back soon for dinner and a swim,” smiled Ariel, much to the other woman’s delight.

“Honey, I think we’d better get going,” said Kris from the door, as she grabbed an armful of bags, “so these two can get settled.”

“I agree,” responded her lover. “Just let me get my bag and my jacket.”

While Michelle collected her things, Kris and Quinn took the luggage out to the waiting taxi. When Kris and Michelle had moved in for the duration of the book launch trip, Quinn and Kris had decided that it was safer for them to use taxis in case the perp couldn’t tell, or didn’t care, that there was a difference among them.

“Glad you’re back.” said Kris as she lifted suitcases into the car’s trunk. “I assume we go back to guarding Ariel in shifts like before?”

“Yeah, I think that’s best,” responded Quinn while she kept an eye on the street.

“Ok. You want me here tomorrow or will you take a day off?”

“I think we’ll take a rest. You too, for that matter. John can handle the regular stuff for one more day. I’ll call him to let him know. I’ll give him a long weekend in exchange.”

“Ok. Thanks. I could use a breather. By the way, a media reporter has been trying to get hold of Ariel today. It seems that there’s renewed interest in the museum incident. From what the woman said, it sounds as if they’re going on an anonymous phone call.”

“Yeah? Who could have talked?”

“Who knows. Maybe your perp is just trying to stir things up,” responded Kris, as she shut the trunk.

“Maybe. Ok, thanks for the warning. I’ll let Ariel know so she can screen her calls.”

“Are we ready?” asked Michelle, who had just joined them.

“Yup. Hop in,” responded Kris.

Quinn bent over to speak to the two of them after Kris joined her lover in the vehicle. “Thanks, guys. It took a load off both our minds to know the place and the cats were well looked after while we were gone. We owe you.”

“Just invite us over to use the pool once in a while and to visit the kittens and that will be sufficient,” said Michelle.

“Shit, I was going to hit her up for a raise while she was all mellow and all,” complained Kris. Then to Quinn she added “Yuh got off easy!”

Quinn grinned, tapped the roof of the car and retreated to the step as the taxi pulled out into the street and disappeared from sight around the corner.

When she returned inside she discovered that Ariel had already carried half the luggage to the bedroom. Grabbing the rest she climbed the stairs to the second floor. The sound of a tub being filled greeted her as she reached the master bedroom suite. Ariel entered the bedroom almost immediately from the adjoining bathroom.

“Oh, hi. I want a long, long soak in a bathtub big enough for two. Care to join me?”

Quinn dropped the luggage where she stood. Time enough to sort it out tomorrow. “I’ve been dreaming about that for the last four hours,” she said, as she slipped her arms around Ariel’s waist.

Ariel smiled. “Well then, welcome to dreamland,” she said, as she started unbuttoning Quinn’s shirt.

Oh yeah.
Chapter 19
Quinn finished feeding the kittens and rapidly checked video channels on the info feed. Once she found a likely source for the information that she was seeking, she waited to see if her guess was correct.

“We’ll be right back with more news from the world of entertainment,” smiled the suave anchor, as the screen changed to a picture of a smiling family gathered around the breakfast table.

“Good,” said Quinn and flipped on the power to the coffee making machine. While the smiling family discussed the nutrients in their cereal, and agreed that it didn’t taste like it was good for them, Quinn pulled the same cereal out of the cupboard and poured some into two bowls. Turning to the fridge, she discovered Hairy on top, peering over the edge at Charlotte, who was oblivious to his presence. The dark-haired woman watched in amusement as he leaped down, first to the counter then to the floor, swatted Charlotte, then turned and ran out of the room with her in hot pursuit. Grise stopped to watch them streak by, then went back to trying to get into the kitchen cupboards.

The security consultant’s attention was drawn back to the info feed by the suave voice of the anchor saying “Good morning. It is 7:40 am and you are watching Entertainment-dot-com. In other entertainment news, EDC has learned that Ariel Pedersen, the sexy, reclusive author of Midnight Madness and After Dark, has been getting death threats. Our sources say she has received at least two letters that police are investigating. They were also called to a disturbance at the Museum of Modern Art on June 9 when someone wrote a threatening message in lipstick on the windshield of the author’s limousine. Ms. Pedersen was there for the launch of her latest book, After Dark, a steamy, lesbian thriller. The author was attacked last year by a deranged man at the same location during the launch of Midnight Madness. A bodyguard suffered minor injuries. Willy McNaughton, an unemployed, self proclaimed prophet, is currently serving 40 years without parole at Randolph Maximum Security Institution for the offence.”

Electing to leave the channel on while she set out breakfast, Quinn poured herself a cup of coffee and crossed back to the fridge to rummage in it for milk and fruit to go with the cereal. The reporter had tried three times yesterday, the day after they arrived back from the book promotion trip, to contact Ariel. On her last call, Quinn had played the part of the writer’s secretary to see if she could glean more information about the reporter’s source, but the woman had stonewalled her. It had been a long shot anyway.

Glancing at the info feed, she noted they were now playing a clip of Bobby Biro, a comic on whose late night talk show Ariel had recently appeared. The extract seemed to be from his opening monologue, for he was standing and seemed to be addressing an audience.

“I was just checking some stats,” he said, and paused. The unseen audience giggled appreciatively.

“Morons,” mumbled Quinn.

“Anyway, yeah, I was just checking some stats and discovered that we haven’t executed anyone in over a month.” Louder giggles from the audience. “It’s true. No one has sat in the hot seat for four weeks.” The audience was really starting to get into it by now, and cameras picked up the reactions of individual audience members. “And I ask you, now,” Biro paused again. “I ask you, yes you sir, you must be from the midwest.” That elicited some guffaws as the camera focused on a crewcut mouth breather in the front row, who nevertheless grinned when he was centred out, while the woman at his side leaned close and pointed offcamera at a monitor. “I ask you,” again a pause, punctuated by more giggles, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY?!” Cameras swept the audience, which was convulsed with laughter. One camera returned to the mouth breather and his girlfriend/wife, both of whom thought the joke was a real kneeslapper.

“Ah, that Bobby Biro,” said the handsome news anchor, with a grin, “What a guy.”

Quinn grimaced, swiftly punched up her favourite classics program on the audio station and poured herself more coffee, then looked up as Ariel entered, ready to do her laps.

“Hi Love. All ready.” Quinn picked up her gun and followed Ariel out to the pool and took up her guard stance. It was a gray, wet day and Quinn was pretty certain the writer wouldn’t linger longer than necessary.

Since returning home, Ariel was focused but still subdued. She’d spent the previous day reading, and Quinn assumed she’d do the same today. Well, she deserved a break. Now if only this guy would make a mistake Her reverie was interrupted by the writer finishing her laps and pulling herself quickly out of the pool.

Back in the kitchen, Quinn said “I’ll make some toast while you change, if you like.”

“Ok. I’ll be down in a minute, ” said Ariel, as she sprinted through the door and up the stairs.

Before Quinn could act on that promise, however, she heard cutlery rattling and turned to discover that Grise had finally worked out how to pull the cutlery drawer open an inch or two, and was now happily fishing around inside to see what he could find to play with. Picking him up, she deposited him on the floor with a toy mouse that he sniffed, then abandoned with disdain.

“Your loss,” she said as she removed the items that she assumed he’d been playing with and put them in the dishwasher. Grabbing a sheet of notepaper from a handy pad on the desk she folded it over a couple of times and wedged it in at the top of the drawer. “Ha! Betcha can’t get that open!” But the kitten paid her no attention as he strolled over to his dish to finish the remains of his breakfast.

“Matching wits with Grise?” asked Ariel, as she returned.

“Yeah. And I have to say that at the moment it’s neck ‘n neck.”

Ariel grinned, checked the toaster, discovered that Quinn had been otherwise engaged and dropped in a couple of slices of bread. “Would you mind if I invited Scott over tonight?” she asked as she sat down at the table.

“Not at all. Go ahead.”

“Ok. Good.” Quinn poured the writer a cup of coffee and conversation lapsed as they ate, accompanied only by the music on the info feed. Quinn, recognizing every selection, grinned to herself.

Picking up her coffee cup as she finished breakfast, Ariel asked “You going to go to work today?”

“Yeah. I think I’d better see how Kris and John got along in my absence. Vanessa will stay with you today, unless you want to go out?”

“No, I’ll be fine. I just want to relax and recharge my batteries. I’ll get some more reading done. The only thing I’m planning today is cooking dinner this evening.”

“Good.” Quinn got up but before she could start to clear the table Ariel stopped her.

“I’ll do that.”

“Ok, Love. Vanessa should be here…” The sound of the doorbell interrupted her. “Right about now. See you tonight. About six or a little earlier if I can.” She bent to kiss the shorter woman.

“Umm. Have a good day.”

“You too.”
——————————————————————————–

Quinn stretched and yawned as the taxi pulled up to the curb opposite Ariel’s door. Not too bad a day, all things considered. The office had not been in too much disarray–in fact Kris and John had done a very good job while she was gone. Now if only they could catch this guy, she thought, she’d be happy. Not only would Ariel feel a lot better, but she, personally, could stop taking taxis. They really sucked.

Quinn grabbed her computer, paid the fare and got out into a fitful rain. Dodging the spray from a puddle as the taxi roared off, she climbed the steps and rang the doorbell. The door opened after a moment and Vanessa let her in.

“Hi,” said Quinn. “How are things?”

“Fine, Quinn. Scott is already here and he and Ariel are in the kitchen.”

“Ok, thanks. You probably want to get going,” said Quinn as she put her computer on the seat of the antique hall tree, a combination bench and coat rack in the front hall, noting idly that a jacket she didn’t recognize was tossed carelessly over one of its arms.

“Yeah, if you don’t need me any longer.”

“Ok. Give Kelly my best.”

Vanessa grinned, grabbed her own jacket from the hall tree and said “Will do,” as Quinn showed her out.

After locking the door, Quinn went down the hall to the kitchen from which she heard laughter.

“Oh, hi Love. We thought it might be you,” Ariel greeted her from the oven where she was checking to see if a pan of lasagna was ready. “Vanessa gone?”

Nodding at Scott, Quinn walked over to the writer and gave her a quick kiss. “Umm. Hi there” she murmured. Yeah. Vanessa is gone. I have a feeling she had a hot date. Can I give you a hand with anything?”

“Just pour some beer. Everything’s ready except for desert, which should be delivered shortly.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. When I ordered groceries yesterday, somehow I overlooked ice cream. The store promised to deliver it and some other goodies within the hour.”

“Yeah,” said Scott. “Aunt Ariel says it’s make-your-own-sundae night.”

“Sounds good,” said Quinn and got some bottles out of the fridge. “Scott, which will you have–dark ale or honey brown beer.”

“The honey brown, please” responded the young man, who was handing Ariel plates.

“Quinn opened and expertly poured the beer, dark for her and honey brown for the other two, into steins that she took from a cupboard.

Ariel pulled garlic bread from the microwave, put it into a basket draped with a cloth, folded over the edges to keep it warm, and put it on the table next to a tossed salad. “Ok all. Let’s eat.”

The lasagna was gooey, meaty, spinachy and just all round good. The bread was crusty, soaked in melted butter and pungent with garlic, the salad was light and crisp, and the beer was cold and biting. Quinn enjoyed sophisticated fare, but she concluded, you’d have to go a long way to beat this menu.

Ariel and Scott kept up a conversation all through the meal, joking, laughing, taking turns telling funny stories. Quinn sat back, listened and chuckled. She preferred to let Ariel carry the conversational ball in company. And besides, she liked to listen to her anyway. Quinn drained the last of her beer and got up to get another.

“Either of you like a beer while I’m up?”

“No thanks, Love. One’s my limit.”

“Sure. Please,” said Scott.

As Quinn opened the bottles she listened to Ariel recount a glitch early in their trip.

“Thanks to a tail wind, we arrived earlier than expected at the airport where we had to transfer to another flight. There was a flight leaving in 20 minutes, rather than the hour and 10 minutes that we were expecting to wait. So naturally we thought, why not take the earlier flight out. We’ll get in sooner, get settled sooner, relax a bit before the interview.”

“Not a good idea?” prompted Scott.

“Well, everything was fine until we got to where we were going. Then we discovered that the luggage hadn’t followed us. And it didn’t follow us on the next plane either. Meanwhile, I have nothing to wear to the interview that is creeping ever closer…”

“Except jeans, a T-shirt and hiking boots,” said Quinn, recalling the panic. “Oh, and a baseball cap.”

“Yeah. Don’t forget the cap. Anyway, I might have been able to get away with it on a late night talk show where anything goes, but not on a daytime show where you have to look halfway glamourous.”

“Not hard for you,” interjected Quinn.

Ariel smiled and said “Thank you Sweetie.”

“So what did you do?” asked Scott.

“Went into the first women’s clothing store we saw and bought out the store,” offered Quinn with a grin.

Ariel slapped her arm. “Now, now, it wasn’t quite that bad.” Turning back to Scott, she said “Since I didn’t know when the luggage would catch up with us I decided I better buy a couple of outfits…”

“More like four…” interjected Quinn, again.

“Just to make sure I had something to wear,” concluded Ariel, doing her best to ignore her lover.

“And the luggage caught up to us the next morning,” added Quinn.

“And I had even more outfits to chose from for the rest of the trip,” said Ariel.

“A bonus for sure!” grinned Quinn and rolled her eyes.

Scott laughed. “So it turned out ok.”

“Yup,” Quinn said, “although for a while there, Dr. Jeckyl here,” indicating Ariel “was definitely in the running for the role of Sister Hyde.”

“Sister Hyde?” asked a puzzled Scott.

“An old movie of Quinn’s. A re-telling of the Jeckyl and Hyde story with a twist–the doctor, a man, turned into a female nurse, Sister Hyde. And I was no such thing, I’ll have you know,” said Ariel, addressing the last part to Quinn.

“No? What about…” The ringing of the door bell interrupted the dark-haired woman. “Ah. Dessert. I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Good,” said Ariel. “I’ll make coffee.”

Quinn went down the hall to the front door. Checking the monitor, she saw a stranger standing outside carrying a plastic bag with the name of the grocery store where she and Ariel shopped. Good. Ice cream with lots of gooey, sticky, sweet stuff on top would just about hit the spot after that main course. Extracting a couple of bills from her wallet, she tucked them in the change pocket of her jeans, checked the monitor one more time, pulled her gun and opened the door.

“Delivery,” said the man as his eyes dropped to the gun. “Um, really,” he added, and swallowed.

“Where’s the usual guy?” asked Quinn.

“Ronnie?” He’s studying for an exam. Correspondence course or somethin’,” he added helpfully, eyes still on the gun.

Quinn took the bag, letting go of one handle so that she could give the contents a quick once over and still keep her gun trained on him. Satisfied, she put down the bag, pulled out the bills and handed them over saying “Keep the change.”

“Hey thanks!” he responded, gun forgotten, and jogged down the steps to his waiting car.

Quinn shut and locked the door, holstered her gun, checked the contents of the bag more thoroughly, and, satisfied, turned to go back down the hall to the kitchen. It was then she noticed Grise on the seat of the hall tree, fishing around in the pocket of Scott’s jacket.

“Hey you little menace. Stop that!” said Quinn.

The kitten didn’t look up, just worked all the harder and triumphantly fished what he’d been playing with out of the pocket and onto the floor.

Quinn made an unsuccessful grab then chased him down the hall, as he batted whatever he had found toward the kitchen. Just as he shot it in the kitchen door Quinn finally caught up with him, scooping him up with one hand. Transferring him to the arm that already held the plastic bag, she picked up the object he’d been playing with, just inside the kitchen door, and discovered it was a tube of lipstick. Her first thought–what’s Scott doing with lipstick–was replaced in an instant by a sudden, terrible suspicion. Rolling it back and forth in her hand made the Rubinstein-Factor-Disney logo appear. A quick check of the colour–‘Passion’–printed on the bottom, confirmed it to be the same as the lipstick used to write the message on the limo’s windshield.

Before she could formulate what to do next, she heard a scuffle, an intake of breath and then a cold voice saying “Been going through my pockets, Quinn?”

The security consultant looked up, and was momentarily shocked into immobility. Scott had an arm around Ariel’s waist, and was holding a knife from the knife safe on the counter at her throat. The writer’s eyes were huge.

Think, Quinn! she told herself. “Why?” she said, and carefully put both kitten and bag of groceries on the floor, then pushed the lipstick into a jeans pocket. “Why did you do it?”

“Money, why else.”

“Money?”

“Sure. Dear Aunt Ariel’s money.”

Quinn took a step toward him.

“Stay right there or I’ll cut her.”

Quinn stopped. Had to keep him talking while she figured a way out of this. There had to be a way out of this. No two-bit son of a bitch was going to hurt her Ariel!

“These last few weeks must have been really fun, watching us run around chasing our tails.” As she spoke, she noticed the coffee maker, just to Ariel’s left, had finished its cycle. Could she, or Ariel, use it in some way?

Scott snickered, and hugged Ariel tighter, caressing her neck with the knife. “Oh yeah. That was great. Even the part where I got hurt.”

“Yeah. What happened there?” She shifted her eyes to the coffee maker and back to Ariel.

“I hired a couple of bozos in a bar. Just drive by at this time, take a couple of shots, but make sure you miss. Got a little out of hand but it got me in even tighter with you guys, so all in all, not bad.”

“And at the museum?” Ariel seemed to get the message. At least Quinn hoped so.

“I slipped out the side while she was signing books. Didn’t take me more than a couple of minutes before I found some kids who’d fire off some shots around the corner.”

“And you did the writing yourself.”

“Yeah.”

“What were you going to do if the young cop hadn’t gone too?

“I dunno. I’d have figured something out.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you would,” said Quinn, and shivered inwardly. “But not a smart move, keeping the lipstick.”

“Hey, well, you can’t think of everything. I’ve hardly worn that jacket since.”

“I see,” said Quinn. “So why were the reviews photocopied? I got stuck on that, and couldn’t get by it.” Think! she told herself. How can you distract him, to give Ariel a chance to make a move.

“Oh easy. I was reading them in the school library. Why buy the paper if you can get what you want for the cost of a photocopy, ya know?”

“Ok. That tidies up some loose ends. So what was the plan?”

“Simple, really. Drive her nuts with notes and shit, so that she’d kill herself.”

“And you, as the only relative she had any ties to, would inherit it all.”

Scott smiled unpleasantly. “That’s about right.”

“Oh, Scott, Scott, Scott,” said Quinn, with her eyes on Ariel, “there’s got to be more to it than that. You’re too smart to think anyone would buy that. What were you going to do about me, for example. I’m her heir.”

“She was going to make a new will,” said Scott, who had just realized that Ariel’s hand was inching toward the coffee pot. “Oh no. You’re not going to throw that stuff at me, bitch,” he said as he pulled her away, roughly.

“Let go of me you prick,” grated Ariel, while conveying apologies to Quinn with her eyes.

Don’t apologize for trying, Quinn sent back. Aloud, she said “Wills have to be properly written and witnessed. A forgery would be spotted immediately.”

“Why do you think I got her to autograph a book for me? I’ve been practicing her signature ever since.”

“Hmm,” said Quinn, as she folded her arms and stroked her chin, the picture of quiet contemplation. “No,” she said slowly, “I don’t buy it and no halfway competent cop would either. Were you going to forge the witnesses’ names too? And what about the legal language? No, that would be too hard, and I don’t think that’s your style. I think you had something else in mind.” Quinn noted that Ariel was clearly sending her mute signals not to give him ideas.

“You’re smart, Quinn,” said Scott, realizing that Quinn had seen through the plan. That was ok, since he already had a better one. “So tell me, what was I going to do?”

“Oh, I think that was probably your plan to start with, but you improved on it a lot.” The security consultant noted an involuntary nod from Scott confirming this. Good, she thought, keep him thinking about how smart he is and maybe you can catch a break. “I think you decided that Ariel would not only kill herself, but me too. In fact, she kills herself in part because she’s overcome with remorse. Uh, let’s see. I don’t think there’s any convincing knife scenario, it would have to be my gun. She’s hears a noise, my gun is handy, she fires and discovers too late that it’s good old Quinn.”

By this time Ariel was clearly sending Quinn signals asking what she thought she was doing. Quinn ignored her, and said “Am I close?”

“Not bad,” responded Scott. “Not bad at all.”

“Now,” said Quinn slowly, “being able to forge Ariel’s signature would come in handy here, because you could type up a quick note on the computer saying that she had killed me and that she now left everything she owned to you. It might not stand up in a court of law, particularly if your parents decided to get into it too, but even if it didn’t, and you had to split with mom and dad, you still stood to come out of this with a fair chunk of change.”

“Hey, you’re good!” said Scott, admiringly. “I’m really sorry I’ve got to kill you.”

“Oh, Scott,” said Quinn, her voice full of pity, “who writes your dialogue? Don’t you know by now that you’re screwed?”

He looked petulant. “Yeah? Why?”

“Think about it. We’re at an impasse here. You’ve got to get my gun from me so you can shoot me, right?” At his nod, she continued “So, how you going to get the gun?”

Scott grinned nastily. “I’m going to cut her, until you give me your gun.”

Quinn noted that at these words Ariel’s eyes became wider than ever but the security consultant could tell she was following the conversation and seemed to see where Quinn was headed.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m not going to give you the gun. But if somehow you manage to get it and kill me, and if Ariel is found with a bunch of cuts on her throat or elsewhere, the coroner is going to get suspicious immediately.”

“Well, there’s hesitation cuts, or whatever they’re called,” argued Scott.

“True, but there’s never many. More importantly, if the scenario you’ve dreamed up is that she’s shot me, why would she then kill herself with a knife?”

That one seemed to sink in, thought Quinn. Scott’s eyes were darting around as he tried to think of a plausible answer. He never got the chance. Ariel and Quinn made eye contact, and a message was sent and received. Ariel’s right foot rose slowly against his leg but he was unaware of it until it came crashing down on his instep.

“UNNGHH!” Scott yelled. Simultaneously, Ariel threw herself to the left away from the knife in his right hand, while Quinn drew and fired the Glock in a blur of motion. The sound of the shot echoed around the room. One was all it took. Scott was on the floor writhing, his left hand clasping his shoulder as blood pooled under it. Quinn walked over to him, slide the knife well away with the toe of her boot, then pulled her foot back and kicked him hard in the ribs. His scream didn’t quite distract her from the satisfying feel of bone breaking. She looked at him a second longer then went to over to Ariel, who was huddled 10 feet away.

“Oh Goddess, Quinn…”

“It’s alright. It’s alright now.” Quinn lifted the other woman and wrapped her arms around her, holding Ariel tight without ever taking her eyes from the figure on the floor. Keeping one arm around the writer, she took her phone from her belt and punched in Hank Walsh’s number, praying that he was reachable quickly.

“Walsh.”

Oh, thank the Goddess. “Hank. Quinn Thanatos. I need you to bring some EMTs and come over to Ariel’s house. I’ve got some garbage for you to take out.”
——————————————————————————–

Epilogue

Quinn jumped in the car. “Ariel’s, best possible speed.”

“1420 Rochester, by way of…the Michael Callaghan Parkway.”

“Oh. Another execution in process in our fair city?”

“I’m sorry. I do not understand that command. Please restate the command using vocabulary to which I may respond. If you are having difficulty, please press the help button to the right of the monitor in the dashboard.”

“Forget it and just drive, asshole.”

The Mark 5 picked up on the word “drive” and pulled out into traffic. Quinn leaned back in her seat but she was hardly relaxed, as she reviewed the conversation she’d just had with Hank Walsh.

“He’s denying everything,” said Hank. “I hope we’ve got enough to tie him to it. His fingerprints on the inner lipstick tube casing certainly count for something.”

“Not to mention the knife he held at Ariel’s throat.”
“Yeah, but a good lawyer can cast doubt on anything, as you should know.” Hank tilted his chair back as he put his feet up on his desk. “It would be nice to find the two he hired to do the drive-by.”

Quinn nodded grimly. “What about bail?”

“He may get it, since on the surface he seems pretty clean. Depends on the judge. If he gets it let’s hope it’s set so high it’s as good as no bail. By the way, what do you know about his sister?”

Quinn, wondering at the change of topic, said, “Ran away when she was 16, why?”

“Well, looking for stuff, I talked to a cop in his hometown today. Seems that when she disappeared, the parents actually filed a missing persons report, although they later claimed that they had changed their minds and were now convinced she had run away. It’s just that several girls were reported missing at that time. A couple of bodies turned up that were identified as two of those missing. Never got the perp. Scott Johnson was down as someone interviewed by the cops since he was a relative of one of the missing girls.”

Quinn stared at Hank. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“Anything is possible. At the moment, there’s nothing more known.”

Quinn nodded and stood up. “Thanks Hank, I owe you.”

“No problem. I should warn you to back off and let the police look into this.”

“Yes, you should. I promise we’ll stay out of everyone’s way.”

Hank grunted. “I guess that’s all I can reasonably expect. By the way, if anybody else’s ribs get broken by falling over kitchen chairs you’d better not be anywhere in the vicinity, or I might have to take a second look.”

Quinn looked at him. The EMTs had advanced the ribs-broken-by-a-kitchen-chair-as-he-fell theory when they’d arrived on the scene, three days ago. Quinn had said nothing to disabuse them of it, nor had Scott, who’d been screaming in pain, and Hank hadn’t mentioned it before this. “I don’t think that’s likely to happen again,” she said.

“Good. Keep in touch.”

Quinn nodded and left.
——————————————————————————–

The Mark 5 pulled up across the street from Ariel’s house and a knot of people surrounding the step immediately rushed across to the car. Hank had tried to keep the story from the media but was unsuccessful–they were already gathering by early the next morning. As Quinn made her way across the street, responding “No comment” to any and all questions, she noted that the crowd was a bit thinner than it had been the day before. Good. Maybe in another day or two they’d be gone.

Reaching the step, she swept the crowd pressing in on her with an icy glance, forcing them back momentarily, and pushed the button for admittance. Although Ariel no longer needed guarding, Quinn hadn’t wanted to leave her alone. In a few seconds the door swung open and Vanessa, with gun drawn, admitted her.

Inside, the security consultant breathed a sigh of relief. “Everything ok?” she asked.

“Yeah. Ariel’s on the deck. She said she needed some air.”

Quinn nodded. “That crowd isn’t going to get any better. I’m afraid you’ll have to run the gauntlet, no matter when you leave.”

“Yeah, I know. I might as well go now unless there’s something else you need?”

“No. we’ll be fine. Thanks Vanessa.”

“No problem.” The tall woman started toward the door then turned around. “She’s really hurting, Quinn.” Suddenly she added “Damn it but I wished we’d figured that one out! He seemed so normal. I thought of him as a nice kid! Shit!”

Quinn patted her on the back. “Hey. You and me both. I thought it was really nice that at least one member of Ariel’s family wanted to be friends. So don’t beat yourself up, since you’re not in this boat alone.”

“Yeah. Ok,” said Vanessa, and sighed. “Alright. You need me again you just have to holler. Ok?”

Quinn nodded and looked up into the other woman’s eyes. “Count on it.”

“Ok. Good. See you.”

Quinn let her out and shut the door behind her as the media charged up the steps. Quinn took a breath, locked the door and went down the quiet hall.

The sun, playing hide and seek with the clouds, produced a warm light that came and went on the deck and in the backyard. Ariel was sitting on the outdoor couch watching the kittens, who were experiencing the yard for the first time. Hairy and Charlotte stalked each other through the flower garden, which Ariel could now get back to spending time in, while Grise had discovered the fun of chasing flying insects.

“Hi,” said Ariel in a small voice.

Quinn bent and kissed her. “Enjoying the sun?” she said as she sat down next to the writer and put an arm around her shoulders.

“Yeah. It’s nice.”

The writer fell silent. Quinn gave her an encouraging squeeze but said nothing.

“Quinn?”

“Uh huh?”

“How is it possible that I didn’t know? I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty good judge of character. He just seemed so nice. I’ve been sitting here going over everything, looking for things that should have told me. And there’s nothing.”

The dark-haired woman’s calm façade betrayed nothing of the rage in her mind. Since the shooting, she’d gone over the scene many times. She acknowledged to herself that she’d been trying for a chest shot, but got his shoulder instead–a combination of not wanting to hit Ariel and snapping off the shot quickly. If she’d put it where she’d meant to, this would be over, she thought, but a part of her knew that Ariel would then have been agonizing over being the cause of Scott’s death, and that would have been equally hard. Goddess damn that son of a bitch for all eternity! Aloud, she said “I don’t think you could have possibly known. I think people like Scott learn very quickly how to appear like everyone else. He’s had 22 years of practice.

Ariel nodded but remained silent. Then, “Was it his upbringing, genetic makeup or what?”

Quinn rubbed her nose and said, “As much as I’d like to blame this entirely on your sister, I don’t think I can. From what I’ve read, they aren’t sure why people like Scott happen, they just know they do. I’d bet it’s a combination of factors. Whatever it is, sometimes people just turn out…hollow.”

Ariel nodded and snuggled a bit closer. After a moment she asked “What did Hank say?”

Uh oh. Quinn mentally prepared herself. “Well, Scott’s denying everything, so the fingerprints on the interior lipstick casing are crucial.”

“‘Cause most everything else is circumstantial,” finished Ariel.

Quinn nodded. “He did say that finding the two who did the drive-by would help a lot.”

Ariel nodded, but remained silent. Quinn took a breath–now or never she thought–“Ariel, there’s something else.”

The writer, picking up on the tension in the dark-haired woman’s voice, turned her head and looked in her eyes. “Yes? What?”

“Well,” Quinn looked down as she scuffed the toe of her boot on the deck, then looked back at Ariel’s face. Ok, hotshot, spit it out. “Scott…Scott may have had something to do with the disappearance of his sister.”

Ariel looked at her blankly. “What do you mean? Katie ran away.” Then a change came over her face. “Or so Scott said.”

Quinn nodded. “Your sister and her husband reported her missing, although later they said they were sure she’d just run away. Apparently other girls went missing at that time. A couple of them turned up dead. Scott was interviewed as a member of a missing girl’s family. Standard procedure.” Quinn fell silent, wishing that the check she’d had Joe perform had turned that up. It might have saved a lot of heartache, but since Scott hadn’t been arrested or charged with anything, Joe hadn’t found it out.

Ariel was silent. Please say something, thought Quinn.

“That son of a bitch.” It was said quietly, with an undercurrent of emotion that only Quinn could have detected. Quinn waited, and said nothing.

“But they don’t know, do they?”

“No.”

Ariel nodded and lapsed again into silence. Quinn kept her arm tightly around the shorter woman, and watched Hairy, tail slashing back and forth, as he planned his next attack on an oblivious Charlotte, who was entranced by a butterfly that had just floated into view.

“Is that all Hank told you?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“I want to know more.”

“Ariel…”

“Forget it Quinn. Don’t bother arguing with me. I want to know more.”

Quinn blew out a breath. “Ok. I kinda told Hank we’d be looking into it.”

Ariel looked at the security consultant for a long moment. “You know me pretty well.”

“Yeah, well, when I’m interested in a subject , I study up, ya know?”

Ariel put her head on Quinn’s shoulder and slid an arm around her lover’s stomach. Quinn tightened her hold and the two sat quietly looking at, but not really seeing, the garden. “I love you,” murmured the writer, “more than I can ever say.”

“Likewise, Love.” Quinn brushed the honey blond hair with her lips, and said again, putting all the feeling she could never express otherwise into that one word, “Likewise.”

 

 

The End

Continued in Family Values

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