Resa by Journs

resa

Resa
by Journs

 

PROLOGUE

 

Beginnings, she decided with a heartfelt sigh, were a pain in the ass.

After all, her fingers had held poised over the keyboard for nearly an hour now and she was no closer to finding her starting point than when she arrived yesterday in this God-forsaken desert motel perched on the edge of forever.

Well, okay, more like Indio, California but, really, the effect was the same. She was tucked away with a solitary purpose in mind and failing abominably in her efforts.

The words of Professor Hendrix reverberated through her ears: “Be sure to show the story not tell it. Let the reader experience the events first-hand as if they’re right there as they unfold so they’ll have an emotional investment in the characters.”

The problem was, as she well knew, the characters here were not mere malleable creations to do her bidding; they were much, much more. And narrating their story, no matter how cleverly obscured, meant exposing herself to the exploration of emotions that were still painfully raw to the touch.

So Jennifer Logan sighed yet again, stepped away from her laptop, and paced the confines of the motel room in abject frustration. Perhaps she was trying too hard to convey all that she knew, all that she felt, in the first sentences of a story that held for her a wealth of meaning, the ultimate depth of which she could barely comprehend.

The walls around her grew oppressive and she opened the motel door to wander outside in hope of escape. The desert air had cooled remarkably from earlier that day, leaving the night a perfect 70+ degrees.

Jennifer strolled down the stairs and somehow ended up by the surprisingly clean and utterly deserted motel pool. There weren’t many other residents in this wayside hideaway so her solitude wasn’t unexpected. Heck, it was one of the reasons she’d chosen this particular location in the first place, to keep distractions to a minimum.

Without a second thought, she slipped off her sandals, plopped to the ground, and dipped her feet into the warm water. Heavenly! It served to relax her and she leaned back onto the cold, concrete surface, hands linked behind her head. Above her lay a blanket of stars the likes of which she could never begin to glimpse unaided in Los Angeles and it brought home to her, as times such as these always did, the randomness of life.

It also brought with it the memory of Resa.

She felt the swell of countless emotions rise up in her chest and tried to sort through them all but, as always, could not. Instead she closed her eyes and after several moments of silence broken only by the occasional splash of the water, her mind drifted on the wave of recollection as it took her back…to the beginning…

CHAPTER ONE

Oh. My. God.

Professor Hendrix’s words reverberated in her ears and she felt her heart slam against her chest.

A novel.

A complete novel, no fewer than 300 pages, by the end of the Spring Semester…or fail the class…and ultimately her major…and, while we’re at it, destroy all the best laid plans for the future which she had been crafting for herself since the early stages of her childhood. Shit! Mentally she calculated whether it was too late to switch out of this class and into something easier, say, molecular biology or advanced quantum physics, then remembered this specific course was required for graduation and tried not to panic.

She failed.

I’m doomed, she thought as she gathered her books to her chest and filed out of the classroom with the other twenty students. A novel? What did she know about writing a novel? It was as foreign to her as Greek or Latin. She wanted to be a journalist for Heaven’s sake. Short, concise articles that dealt with the importance of real-life issues were her specialty. Make believe held no interest for her but as a writing major she was often forced to take courses to which she was not personally attracted. It was the sort of bureaucracy that controlled all academic institutions no matter how vast or — in the case of St. Mary’s Catholic College neatly tucked away in a corner of Santa Monica, California — how modest.

Uhg!

She rubbed the crease between her eyebrows in an effort to ease the tension coursing through her and grew so caught up in the exaggerated mental gymnastics of her own self-pity she lost track of where she was going until —

WHAM!

She walked into a brick wall and was thrown unceremoniously backwards onto her butt. Dazed she glanced up…and up…and realized it hadn’t been a wall that she’d run into, but rather a man. A very tall man. A very strong man.

“Goddammit!” she muttered in frustration as she scurried to gather her stray papers floating about.

“Are you all right?” he asked as he quickly knelt down to help her.

She squinted into his face, no longer back-lighted by the afternoon sun, and blinked. He was absolutely, positively drop-dead gorgeous. Sandy brown hair cropped close to his head in a fashionless style did nothing to diminish his impossibly blue eyes or the square nature of his jaw line. Yet none of these aspects captured her attention quite like the clean, white cube in the center of his otherwise black collar.

This man was a priest.

“Oh, shit,” she breathed, stricken by her profanity. “I’m sorry!”

The Priest’s grin was lop-sided as he handed her papers to her. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, his voice a rich baritone. He extended a large, strong hand. “I’m Father Hector.”

She slipped her considerably smaller one into his palm and marveled at how his fingers engulfed her own. “I’m — mortified, nice to meet you.”

He laughed and helped her to her feet. “Hello, Mortified. Don’t suppose you go by anything more mundane, like Anne or Kate or Megan or — ?”

“Jennifer.”

“Jennifer. I have a niece named Jennifer. Never get to see her often enough.” Father Hector briefly glanced at her papers, then did a double take. “You take writing courses?” he asked, suddenly quite interested.

“Yes. I’m a writing major actually.”

“Really?” Blue eyes swept over her in contemplation. “What year are you?”

“I’m a Senior.”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “A Senior? I’d have said Freshman for sure, maybe Sophomore at the most.”

“I know, I know. I look young for my age and one of these days I’ll actually appreciate that. Or so I’m told. Right now it’s kind of a pain in the — ummm, it’s difficult.”

“Especially when you go to bars,” he added with a wry pull to his lips.

She felt a blush creep over her cheeks. “Well…”

“Please. I’m Irish. I know.” He cocked his head to one side. “You wouldn’t happen to be in Ian Hendrix’s class this Semester, would you?”

“Yeah. In fact, I just came from there.” She twisted to point to a specific window in the red brick building behind her. “That’s his classroom right there.”

“I know. I was just on my way to meet with him.” He continued to watch her closely. “I guess you’re participating in the course on The Novel then.”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Why ‘unfortunately?’”

“Because I don’t know the first thing about writing a novel. It’s so…” she struggled to think of the proper word and finally settled with a sigh on: “Fake.”

He considered that for a moment. “Do you have an idea what subject you’re going to write on?”

She scoffed. “Hardly. I only just found out I had to write it at all. I thought we would be studying aspects of several novels, not actually writing one ourselves. They seem to have left that little part out in the course syllabus.”

“Hmmmm,” was his reply but she could practically see the wheels spinning in his mind. “What’s your last name, Jennifer Mortified?”

“Logan. Why?”

He crossed his arms and stroked his chin in contemplation. “Because I have a dilemma, Ms. Logan…and I think you just might be able to help me with it.”

 

* * * *

“Okay, one herbal tea, right here. Watch it, ‘s hot.” The waitress set the wide, mustard colored mug in front of Father Hector and turned to set the steaming white cup before Jennifer. “And one black coffee with no sugar, no milk, and extra caffeine for you.”

“Cool. Thanks,” Jennifer said.

The waitress clapped her hands together. “’K, then. Can I get you guys anything else?”

“No, thank you,” Father Hector replied with a smile and Jennifer noted the last curious look the waitress threw in their direction before she departed. Clearly, they were an odd pair to be sitting in such an ultra-hip coffee shop like The Existentialist Mecca — a priest and a Mid-Western girl wearing nary a stitch of black — but it had been the first place they ducked into where they could talk. Add to the mix Father Hector looked like no priest she’d ever before seen, and frankly Jennifer couldn’t help but agree with the other woman’s silent yet blatant assessment. Peculiar indeed.

Father Hector cupped both broad hands around the hot mug and focused his attention on Jennifer.

“Thanks for coming here with me like this. I know it’s a little — odd, and probably not how you prefer to spend an afternoon.”

“Don’t worry.” She waved off his words. “I have to admit to being more than a little curious about this dilemma of yours. Well, actually I’m ‘more than a little curious’ about practically everything, but this has really piqued my interest. I don’t often get to talk with a guy who has a direct line to God.”

He grinned. “Well, I don’t know about that. It’s more like I do most of the talking.”

“And does He or She ever answer?”

“Absolutely. You just have to know how to listen. For instance, today, here, with you. This could very well be an answer to a question I posed not too long ago.”

“Me?” she asked, incredulous.

“Yep.”

“The answer to a question you posed to God?”

“Yep.” She gave him the strangest look and he laughed. “I’ll explain.” He paused and she could tell by his expression that, for whatever reason, what he was about to say was important to him. Very important. He drew a breath and plunged forward.

“I’ve been a parish priest in Los Angeles for about fifteen years now,” he began. “It’s been one of the most amazing, positive, rewarding experiences of my entire life, mainly because of the people with whom I’ve been able to interact. I’ve been assigned to the Santa Monica area for the last four years but I started my time here in the various parts of the Latino hood of East L.A.. The bario.”

She raised her eyebrows a fraction at this. East L.A. had garnered its reputation for a reason and the idea of living there sent shivers through the heart of many Anglos, especially the transplanted ones who’d grown up in the Mid West, such as she.

Father Hector noted her reaction and nodded. “It wasn’t always the easiest place to live, I’ll admit. But, once I settled in and met the people, I realized that everywhere around me was this remarkable community filled with people who could teach me more than I’d ever dreamed to teach them. And even though I was eventually reassigned to Santa Monica as part of the Church’s practice — ” She frowned a little and he paused. “Do you know about that?”

She shook her head.

“Oh, see, the Roman Catholic Church reassigns their parish priests to different communities on a regular basis. It’s their way of keeping parishioner’s attention on the liturgy and not on one priest in particular. Anyhow, I’m getting off track here. The point is, even though I left East Los Angeles, I couldn’t begin to leave the people there, too. They were my friends, my family to an extent, and I couldn’t just drop these relationships simply because I had to move. I cared for these people, still care for them, and have a responsibility toward them that I feel deep within my soul.” He paused here for a long moment, blue eyes a million miles away as some distant memory danced across his mind. “There is one person in particular…who I feel…needs my help. More than even she realizes.” He returned his attention to Jennifer with a surprising intensity. “Have you ever heard of a woman named Resa Gustavez?”

She frowned. “No. Who is she?”

“Resa Gustavez is, or rather was, the leader of the Vartan Bloods, a Cuban street gang that emerged about thirteen, fourteen years ago and waged a war for total domination against all other Latino gangs. For a very long while there it wasn’t safe to go outside during the day and the nights were pure terror. Gunshots were as common as the crickets chirps, sometimes more so.” He shook his head sadly at the memory.

“You said she was their leader. Not anymore?”

“No.”

“What happened? Is she dead?”

“No. She left the Vartans.”

“But, I thought it was impossible to get out of a gang once you were inside.”

“Practically is. ‘Blood in, blood out’ is how the saying goes. And it’s quite true. But Resa…Resa is different.”

It looked as if he was about to get lost in his thoughts again so Jennifer pressed forward. “How?”

“Let’s just say she can be a very determined individual when she makes her mind up to do something.”

“Like get out of a gang?”

“Like get out of a gang, exactly. But, as determined and strong-willed as she is, she’s not invulnerable to the persuasions of her former life. Especially when she doesn’t have anything positive on which to focus her energy. Right now I fear she could be in danger of slipping back into her old ways. She hasn’t done anything yet, but –”

“You’re afraid she might.”

“Yes. You see, I’ve played something of a roll in her reform. I’ve helped her to come to understand that violence begets violence, to see the destruction in which her life was headed and its inevitable end. The decision to change was and is wholly hers but for the last few years I’ve been there for her when she’s had her doubts and questions. I don’t feel it prideful to say I’ve helped her through some extraordinarily difficult times since our first meeting…But that’s about to change.”

“Why?”

“The Church has reassigned me again. To Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Jennifer leaned back in surprise. She had grown up in Lawrence, Kansas so she was aware more than most just how dramatic a change this would be compared to Los Angeles. Aside from the physical distance, the cultural discrepancy was vast. “Wow. That’s so…wow.”

“Yeah. Quite a change. But more than that, I simply won’t be here anymore and that really worries me. You see, Resa doesn’t have close friends and her relationship with her family…is bad. To put it mildly. She’s a strong person but not even she has her limits. I’m afraid she may become susceptible to temptation with no one here to support her, with nothing positive on which she can focus her new life.”

They were both silent a moment, then Jennifer leaned back to assess the priest before her. “This is all very interesting, Father, but…”

“But what does she have to do with you?” he finished, nodding his head knowingly.

“Well…yes. I mean, I see the dilemma you mentioned, but I can’t imagine what I could possibly do to help. I mean, I would if I could, of course — ”

“Do you mean that?”

Jennifer looked at him a moment, realizing that proclamation had been more of an off-hand statement than anything approaching a conscious pledge. Unfortunately she’d said it to a priest and even though the last time she’d entered a church of any denomination was a distant memory, a wave of guilt forced her to stutter,

“S-sure.”

“Good. I was hoping you’d say that…” A fierce determination glimmered behind his eyes as Father Hector leaned forward to deliver the one simple sentence that would forever change her life. “…because I want you to help her to write her life story.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

Ahhhh, guilt. Always such a remarkable tool for persuasion. And Jennifer wasn’t even Catholic. Just sensitive. One look into the gentle blue of Father Hector’s eyes as he pleaded his case pretty much cemented her fate, at least for the time being. So, three days and two hours after their coffeehouse chat young Jennifer Logan, blonde-haired, green-eyed daughter of the Middle of America, found herself driving alone into the bosom of East Los Angeles.

What would her mother say?

Jennifer grinned to herself. Dear Mrs. Logan would freak. Her daughter’s mere decision to transfer her college to Los Angeles from Kansas University in the first place had created a maelstrom of controversy in the family which lasted to this day and that was with her living in Santa Monica! Home of the beach-bound movie stars and the crass Third Street Promenade. The mere whiff of a hint of a possibility that Jennifer was in the remote vicinity of East L.A. would send her mother into a tantrum the likes of which Jennifer had no desire to endure.

So, she decided not to tell her. Often this was the best way to handle Mrs. Logan…and most parents for that matter.

Besides, Jennifer had already made up her mind that this was to be a one-time event, never to be repeated. She’d go to the location decided upon by the infamous Resa Gustavez (with whom she had yet to have any direct communication as the arrangements had been made through Father Hector) to chat just long enough to assuage her conscience and head back to the balmy beaches of her home. After all, this really wasn’t a good idea, no matter what Father Hector might say to the contrary. The pressure was too intense. What? Was she expected to ‘save’ the life of this woman (whom she did not know) through her writing? Ha! Hardly. She was a good writer, but not that good. Furthermore, what could she say about this woman that wouldn’t come across like so many other stories of ex-gang members who fought to leave their pasts behind? And all this was poised to be a huge waste of time if Professor Hendrix (with whom Father Hector claimed to be longtime, childhood pals) refused to allow her to write a non-fiction story for her grade, which would be just his style.

Still, here she was, driving down Figueroa Boulevard in the late afternoon on a Sunday when she had class first thing in the morning (and hadn’t even begun to prepare for the quiz), on her way to meet with a woman who had done God-only-knows how many horrible things in her life, in hopes they could…chat. Right. Brilliant idea, Jennifer. Simply brilliant.

She looked up at the sign checked the address again. 12667 Figueroa. Yep, this was the place. She pulled her pine green, ’98 Land Rover into the parking lot, swerved to avoid a mammoth pothole, and parked.

The sign read ‘Bar.’ That was it, just ‘Bar.’ Actually, it more closely resembled ‘Par’ since part of the lower ‘B’ was missing from the black and white sign, but the point was made. This was a no-frills establishment where the concept of ‘Happy Hour’ surely had a completely different meaning than the one with which she was familiar and chances were so, too, did ‘hot wings.’

Oh, boy, she thought with a sigh and wished she’d remembered to pack a baseball cap into which she could tuck her long locks. Being a life-long blonde, she knew exactly the sort of reception that awaited her.

Sucking in a deep breath to shore up her withering determination, Jennifer exited her car and headed into the bar called ‘Bar.’

The interior was practically pitch and it left her momentarily blind as her eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden shift. However, her ears worked just fine and the half-dozen or so catcalls she received upon entering came through loud and clear. She knew enough Spanish to want to turn on her heel and hightail it right on outta there but some deeper part of her was infuriated enough by their demeaning behavior to forge ahead, if only to spite them.

She blinked twice and could vaguely discern the outline of the actual bar to the left. The surprisingly convoluted interior was fitted with booths around the perimeter and various stand-alone tables in the center but was ultimately too deep for her to see all the way to the back.

The only inhabitants that she could make out at this still relatively early hour were a group of about eight men who took up a booth and a couple tables toward the center. All of whom had their attention focused on her.

Greeeeeat.

Ignoring the blatant stares, Jennifer walked an almost self-assured path to stand before the bartender. He was a large, heavy-set man in his 40’s, with pockmarked skin and an unhurried yet watchful quality behind his brown eyes.

“Hi, there,” she began with a hearty cheerfulness she didn’t remotely feel. “I, uh, I’m here to, um meet someone an-”

“I’m right here, baby!” someone shouted from across the room and was followed by a chorus of raucous laughter.

“Someone specific,” she added, inserting an edge to her cheer. “I’ve never met this person before but she can’t be that difficult to spot around here now can she?” She chuckled a little at that but no one else did so Jennifer cleared her throat and nervously continued. “I’m a little late, seeing as this is my first time to, um, this are-, ahem, place and I had a tiny degree of difficulty finding it here so it’s entirely possible she’s already been and gone by now which, I think, is understandable…since I’m late, of course, no other reason — ”

“Who you wanna find, Miss?” the bartender asked before she could babble on any further.

“Do you know a Resa Gustavez?” she asked.

The background murmuring grew silent and a prickle of unease washed over her.

“Who did you say?” asked an incredulous voice to her right. She turned to find a wiry man in his early 20’s with a shaved head and small, devil tattoo on his upper right cheek staring at her as if she’d just called his mother a whore.

Was it too late to fall back on that ‘hightail it right on outta there’ option?

“Resa Gustavez,” she repeated and was proud that her voice didn’t quiver.

He spat at her feet and she jumped away in disgust. The look of hatred in his eyes backed her into the bar.

“Puta!” he snarled then went off in Spanish that was far too rapid for her to fully comprehend. Nonetheless, the hostile inflection conveyed the meaning clearly enough. Finally he stopped and stared at her with expectation. She cast a hopeless glance at the bartender.

“He asks if you are a friend of Resa’s,” the bartender translated.

“No. I was just, I’m supposed to, um, meet her here is all –”

“Bullshit!” the angry young man said, stepping closer until she could smell the alcohol and cigarettes on his breath. “You’re lying.”

Jennifer drew herself up in indignation. “I am not.”

He took another step closer in a move designed to intimidate. It worked. But she’d never let him know it.

“Resa Gustavez doesn’t have the cojones to show her face here,” he sneered.

“Oh, really?” came a voice behind him.

All eyes in the bar whipped around in the direction of a shadowy booth in the corner by the glowing green ‘Exit’ sign. From the darkness a figure arose from its seated position and slowly stepped into the light.

She was tall, broad-shouldered, and even from this distance and in this poor lighting, Jennifer could sense the strength in her presence. She wore black pants of some nature and a tight, dark tank top that emphasized every curve of her body. Black hair fell long down her back and she wore it with a loose impracticality. Such a style served to enhance the fullness of her cheekbones that sat high and proud within her round face and gave her an imperial bearing which belied her impecunious heritage.

Then a shaft of clear light reached her face and the piercing blue of her eyes shoved all other impressions to the background. Even without the benefit of a formal introduction, Jennifer knew without a doubt she had just gotten her first glimpse of Resa Gustavez.

And, boy, does she know how to make an impression, she thought.

“Hello, Manuel,” Resa said, carrying herself with a confident, almost feline grace as she moved toward them, her eyes never leaving those of the man with the devil tattoo.

“I don’t believe it,” he whispered in Spanish.

“Believe,” she drawled. “And let’s stick to English, so we can all understand, don’t you agree? It’s only polite and I know how you hate to be rude.” Her smile was clearly mocking and Jennifer subconsciously noted only the slightest trace of an accent in the other woman’s speech.

Manuel spun away from Jennifer to focus solely on Resa.

“Are you suicidal?”

“Not especially. Why d’ya ask?”

“For you to come here like this, you must have a death wish after the shit you pulled.”

Resa stared at him for a long moment. “I only gave as good as I got, Manny. You know that.”

“I tell ya what I know. I know you deserve to die.”

“Maybe. But there’s no one here man enough to do the job.”

Manuel’s eyes flared at the insult and he reached into his jacket to draw out a pistol. But before he could even raise it to her level, none other than the watchful bartender pressed the barrel of a shotgun against his temple. Resa never even flinched.

“Not here, Manny,” the bartender said and the steel glint to his eyes showed he meant it. “I just cleaned the place.”

Manny stood a long moment, contemplating his next move. He looked from Resa to the bartender and back. Finally, reluctantly he returned the gun to his jacket pocket but his hatred for Resa never dimmed.

“You watch yourself, puta. I’ll kill you and everyone will thank me. I’ll be a hero.”

“Yeah. You’ll be a big man, Manny. Just like Vincent.”

He flinched at that last remark, then turned to signal to a table filled with five of his buddies and all headed out the door.

“Say hi to Alfons for me,” Resa called after him.

Once they were gone, the bartender set the shotgun atop the wooden bar and Jennifer let out the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

Resa nodded to the man. “Gracias, Palo.”

The bartender nodded gravely and turned away.

Jennifer watched the much taller woman a moment longer, then shook her head in wry amusement.

“Resa Gustavez, I presume,” she said.

Suddenly sky blue eyes were focused exclusively on her and she felt an almost physical jolt run through her, down to her toes. For a long moment the other woman didn’t reply, just stared at her, then:

“Yeah,” she said, then looked Jennifer up and down. “And you gotta be Jennifer.”

“What gave me away?” she asked with a grin.

“Oh, call it a hunch,” she said, then turned on her heel to return to the booth by the ‘Exit’ sign. Jennifer followed and sat opposite the former gang leader. A ray of light cut across the darkness and drew her attention to where she noted the back door propped slightly adjar by the handle of a broom. Must be how Resa entered the bar without being noticed, she realized. Tricky.

She glanced around briefly at the shadowy ambiance. “Guess they call this mood lighting, huh?” she commented.

“Depends on what mood you’re goin’ for.”

“Pre-Edison.”

Resa snorted and leaned back against the vinyl booth. “You know, you’re almost exactly like what I imagined the Padre would send.”

“Well, I feel vaguely insulted,” Jennifer said lightly, then frowned. “Why the ‘almost?’”

“I figured you’d never make it out of your car, let alone come through the front

doors.”

Comprehension dawned on Jennifer. “Oh, now I get it. You deliberately chose this place to freak me out.” Resa gave no reply. “Why?”

Resa shrugged one broad shoulder.

“Don’t you want me to write your life story?” Jennifer continued.

“Not especially.”

“But I thought – ”

“Look, the Padre is a good man with good intentions. But he and I don’t always see eye to eye. This is one of those times.”

Jennifer was thrown a little by this revelation. She had assumed this notion to write Resa’s life story was one upon which the ex-gang leader had agreed. It never occurred to her that the opposition might be mutual. Now that it did, however, she felt herself grow

slightly defensive.

“What’s your objection?”

“Let’s just say, I’ve never been good at sharing,” she murmured dryly, her hand absently toying with an empty ashtray.

Jennifer cocked a brow. “Didn’t your Mamma ever teach you it’s good to share?”

Resa’s hand stilled and her eyes grew narrow. “My ‘Mamma’ never taught me much of anything.”

The quiet loathing in her tone only served to heighten Jennifer’s curiosity. “Really? She didn’t teach you anything?”

Cold eyes met hers. “She taught me to mind my own business.”

Jennifer’s eyebrows shot up at the none-too-subtle rebuke. “Ouch.” She drummed her fingers on the tabletop and chewed on the corner of her mouth in contemplation. This defiance on Resa’s part should have made Jennifer’s earlier decision that much easier…yet it didn’t. Rather the opposite effect was taking hold as her infinite curiosity — a source of much consternation in her youth — stirred to life. Was this woman hiding something and if so, what? What about her past did she want to protect? It could be so many things, with her history…but…

Resa leaned forward, her eyes narrow and her silky voice low with warning.

“I see all sorts of thoughts running through your brain over there, college girl, so let me make myself perfectly clear: I am not going to let you or anyone else tell my life story, no matter how positive the Padre may think it will be for me. Get it?”

After a long pause, Jennifer murmured, “Got it.”

“Good.”

Jennifer inclined her head to one side in contemplation. “You’re not much for small talk, are you?”

“No.”

“Uh-huh…” A long, awkward pause hung between them, then Jennifer tugged on her ear and shrugged. “Well…I guess there’s really no reason for me to stay here and bother you anymore, now is there?”

She received silence for her response. Jennifer nodded once to herself but deep down still struggled to come to terms with this nebulous sense of frustration. After all, hadn’t she just been telling herself this entire concept was foolish not twenty minutes earlier? That this was a one-time situation? So why now this feeling of disappointment?

“Okay,” she said at last. “Sorry to waste your time.” She stuck out a hand across the table to the ex-gang leader. “Good-bye.”

Resa glanced at Jennifer’s outstretched hand a long moment before taking it in her own, much larger one. Her fingers dwarfed Jennifer’s and even though she applied little pressure, the astounding strength was evident. Jennifer glanced up and caught Resa’s intense blue stare. For a moment, they remained unmoving as an unexpected current impossible to define passed between them. Then Resa withdrew her hand and sat back, her cryptic expression made unfathomable in the dim lighting.

Jennifer swallowed hard, strangely disturbed by the moment…Then she stood and, forcing herself not to glance back, headed across the bar. She would leave this place and, in all likelihood, never again encounter the enigmatic ex-gangster. And all would return to normal…

She was almost to the front doors when she heard a voice call out:

“Wait!”

She turned as Resa appeared by her side and for a moment she felt an unexpected trill of pleasure. She had changed her mind. She did want to work on the story. She did want —

“You shouldn’t go out the front,” Resa said brusquely. “Manny and his crew are probably waiting.”

“For me?”

“He thinks you’re my friend. That puts you in danger.”

Jennifer rolled her eyes. “Oh, thanks,” she said. “Next time you decide you don’t want to do something, promise to just call ahead first instead of working this whole ‘intimidation’ angle, okay?”

Resa was not amused. She moved past Jennifer in the direction of the bar.

“Palo, I need your help again.”

The large man looked up, his face still impassive, but there appeared a trace of displeasure behind brown eyes.

“Once today is enough. I don’t wanna think how much trouble Manny is gonna cause me later ‘cause a you.”

“This isn’t about me, Palo. It’s about her,” she nodded in Jennifer’s direction. “It’s not safe for her to leave this bar to go to her car right now. Manny and the others could be waiting for her.”

“She shoulda thought of that in the first place, ‘fore she came here.”

“She came here because I asked her to.”
“Then you shoulda thought of that ‘fore you asked her. I owe you, Resa, but even I gotta draw the line somewheres.”

“Palo, look at her. She’s a white kid from Santa Monica. She gets killed here at your bar, what kind of heat do you think that’ll bring down on you, huh? Blonde haired kid like her? Cops’ll be all over the place, press too. Some idiot will probably put up a plaque, line the parking lot with flowers, or hold an all night, candle-light vigil.” She cocked a single brow. “You wanna talk about bad for business…”

Resa leveled a long, hard stare in Palo’s direction until the older man dropped his shoulders in defeat.

“You don’t play fair.”

“You got that right.”

He rubbed a meaty paw over his deeply lined face then let out a deep sigh. “What do you want me to do?”

“Get her car and drive it ‘round to the alley out back. Park it outside the ‘Exit’ sign and we’ll come out to get in. If you see Manny or any of his posse, don’t stop. Just keep going and we’ll figure out something else.”

Jennifer took special note of her choice of ‘we’ instead of ‘she’ and it made her wonder. What did Resa have in mind?

Palo considered this for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. But then we’re even, ya hear?”

“I saved your life, Palo. We’re closer to even but ya ain’t there yet.”

Jennifer noted Palo’s grudging acceptance of those terms. Resa turned to her and held out her hand.

“Gimme your keys.”

The demanding tone drew Jennifer’s indignation. “Try please.”

Resa’s lips thinned. “Try now.”

Smart enough to know when to let an issue slide, Jennifer reached into her pocket and placed her keys in Resa’s outstretched palm. Resa, in turn, handed them to Palo.

“It’s the green Land Rover,” she told him. “You can’t miss it.”

Jennifer was mildly surprised the other woman knew the specific identity of her car. Had she watched her arrive? Clearly. But only with the hopes the younger woman wouldn’t have the gall to enter the bar. For a brief moment, the image of Resa watching her unnoticed came to her mind and Jennifer couldn’t help wondering what sort of first impression she created on the former gangster. She could probably guess. Silly college girl, never been east of Hollywood during her entire stay in Los Angeles and way out of her league right now. It was an accurate portrait, of course, but one that still irked her to consider. Then she promptly chided herself. What did it matter to her what the former gangster noted or didn’t note about her?

Palo exited through the front door, clearly displeased by his task but still going along. Jennifer wondered what it was exactly that Resa did to save Palo? What debt did this large man have to her? Yet another question about a woman who had no inclination to share any answers. Which was a shame, really, since she evidently had lead quite an intriguing life thus far and it would have been interesting to learn more about her.

As if sensing Jennifer’s thoughts, Resa looked up and locked eyes with the college senior.

“C’mon.” Resa headed back toward the ‘exit’ sign once again, naturally assuming Jennifer would follow and, despite feeling like a dog trailing its master, follow her she did.

Resa stopped outside the partially open doorway, still propped ajar. She set the broom to one side and pushed the door open a fraction to listen. Moments later they heard the sound of a car approach. Resa glanced back at Jennifer.

“Stay close behind me.”

For the first time a trickle of fear went down Jennifer’s spine. As odd as it may seem, she hadn’t felt a sense of danger in her situation until this very instant. The entire scene with Manny had felt surreal to her, as if the events had happened to someone else and she was a mere observer. But this here, this moment, felt frighteningly real. “Now.”

Jennifer moved close enough behind the ex-gang leader to feel the heat emanating from her body. Resa reached behind her to grab Jennifer’s elbow in strong fingers and tug her after as she stepped into the alley.

Jennifer saw the Land Rover only a few feet away with Palo standing by the driver’s door and started to relax — until she caught the look in the bartender’s eyes and a bolt of dread shot through her. Something was terribly wrong…

Then everything happened at once and Jennifer’s brain could barely comprehend it all.

Blurred figures came out from all sides of the alley, from behind trash dumpsters and shaded doorways.

Resa reacted with a speed impossible to define. She pushed Jennifer back through the bar alley door, then spun to deliver two swift kicks to the face of the nearest attacker. It was as if she anticipated their actions before they could get off a single blow. Two figures were on the ground — dropped by quick shots to the throat — before Jennifer even saw them approach. Two more lunged at her with flashes of metal in their hands. One held a knife, the other a gun.

Resa easily disarmed the first one, then threw his knife into the chest of the second. He dropped his gun and fell to the pavement, blood already flowing. She then flipped the former knife-wielding attacker over her shoulder and stepped with all her weight onto the center of his throat. The gagging noise he made was sickening.

Suddenly Jennifer saw another figure — Manny — come from a darkened doorway, gun in hand. Later she would wonder at the origin of her instinctive actions but she was grateful they chose that moment to materialize. Her hand fell upon the nearby broom handle. Without a moment’s hesitation, she clutched it, raised it above her head, and brought it down on Manny’s wrist, knocking the gun from his hand…but not before he got off one round.

The crack reverberated through the alleyway and Resa gasped, clutching the curve from her left shoulder into her neck.

Manny turned an incredulous face toward Jennifer right as she brought the broom handle hard across the bridge of his nose. She heard the snap of the bone and saw him clutch his face in pain before he collapsed.

She didn’t wait. Instead she dropped the broom, picked up the gun, and ran to Resa. The older woman seemed slightly dazed, still holding the dip of her shoulder. Jennifer shoved her through the open driver’s side door and quickly followed. Fortunately the car was still running and she had only to slip it into reverse before peeling out. A hard bump told her she’d run over something in her haste but she didn’t have time to think about that now.

Now she had only time to drive like hell.

And she did.

A series of shots rang out after them, one hitting the rear windshield. The glass splintered and Jennifer screamed but neither woman was hit. Within seconds, they were out of range and speeding down another block.

Jennifer’s adrenaline flooded her ears. She could feel it wash over her like a tidal wave, reducing her breaths to quick, shallow intakes and sending her body into uncontrollable shaking. Tears burned the backs of her eyes and spilled over onto her cheeks. Oh, dear God, what the hell just happened?

A hand fell gently upon her shoulder and startled her. She jerked away with a cry and almost crashed into a parked car before righting her direction.

It was only Resa.

For a split second she’d been so caught up in her own panic she’d forgotten the other woman. Then she saw the blood seeping through Resa’s fingers where she held the curve of her neck and gasped.

“Ohmygod! You’ve been shot!”

“I’m okay –”

“Okay? You’ve been shot!”

“Yeah, I’m aware. Take a right up here at this light.”

“We have to get you to a hospital.”

“Don’t argue with me. Take this right –” She let out a grunt of irritation and started to turn the wheel herself until Jennifer grudgingly complied.

“Is this the way to a hospital?”

“No.”

“Why not?” she demanded, incredulous.

“Because we’re not going to a hospital. Turn left at Cabarras Street.”

Jennifer did as instructed but her irritation still showed. “You’re bleeding. You need help.’

“It’s not that bad.”

“Not that — !”

“Didn’t hit anything major and went out the other side.” She glanced in the rear view mirror to see if they were being followed.

“How the hell do you know that? It’s by your neck. You can’t see anything.”

“I’ve a lot of experience in these things. Turn down this alley here, by the pink apartment complex.”

“You can tell all that — ?”

“– by the feel alone, yeah, I can. Now pull up by that Honda,” she pointed ahead, “and park.”

Jennifer did just that, turned off the ignition, and turned to Resa who was already looking quite pale beneath her natural tan.

“This is insane,” she said.

“I’m going to need your help for a bit.” Resa said.

“You should be at a hospital.”

“People like me don’t go to hospitals.”

“Is this about insurance, because — ”

“Look,” her voice was firm. “I am not going to a hospital. I can’t. Now, are you going to help me with this or not because if you aren’t — ”

“Of course I’ll help you,” Jennifer said with irritation, then sighed as she raised her eyes to meet Resa’s. “What do you need me to do?”

 

CHAPTER THREE

Jennifer gleaned only a fleeting impression of Resa’s apartment as she first stepped inside, with the main focus of her attention being on the bleeding woman by her side. The stain of blood that soaked her shoulder was rapidly growing larger and it sent a shiver of concern through Jennifer. They should be in a hospital. It was as simple as that. But the look in Resa’s eyes brokered no discussion on the subject.

Resa closed the door behind them and set the five locks into place with a quick familiarity born from routine. They were secure.

Jennifer flicked a glance around the living area.

There was sparse and then there was Resa’s apartment. Granted, it appeared to be a one bedroom which made it larger than many living spaces in Los Angeles, but the distinct lack of furniture created a bare-bones atmosphere in which only a monk would feel at home.

“Bathroom’s this way,” Resa said as she made her way down the short, narrow hall. Jennifer watched after her with concern for a moment, then followed.

The bathroom was barely big enough for one, let alone two. A shower, toilet, and sink were all packed in a space half the size of Jennifer’s own walk-in closet.

Resa examined her wound in the mirror and frowned. Jennifer wasn’t sure, but she got the feeling it was somewhat worse than the other woman had first thought. Lord knew the amount of blood pouring forth was enough to make Jennifer a tad nauseous.

“Bastard musta had a .22mm,” Resa muttered, then sighed and sat on the closed toilet lid. She glanced at Jennifer standing in the doorway. “In the cabinet in the hall is a white box. Says MLK, Jr. Hospital on the lid. Get it for me.”

Jennifer didn’t think twice. She stepped back into the hall, found the cabinet, and opened it. Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. Before her was a veritable smorgasbord of medical paraphernalia. Shots. Bottles of medicines and disinfectants. Wraps. And a whole host of other things she couldn’t identify but knew she must have seen used in an episode of ‘ER.’

This was the sort of thing no normal person would have in their home…well, no normal person from her world at least. Who knew what people from Resa’s way of life had or didn’t have? No wonder she didn’t want to go to a hospital, Jennifer thought. She has one right here.

On the lower right shelf she noticed the box as Resa described. She grabbed it and went back to the bathroom. The other woman didn’t hear her return and for a moment she caught the weakened Resa with her defenses down. She looked shockingly vulnerable. The pain she was experiencing was plainly greater than she’d let on. It surprised Jennifer a little and caused her to draw a quickened breath. Resa heard her and immediately the walls came up again. She straightened without meeting Jennifer’s eyes and pointed to the sink.

“Open the box and take out a needle.”

Jennifer set the box on the sink, flipped open the lid, and glanced through the various sealed packages until she found one that contained a needle. It looked like a regular sewing needle, except larger.

“Now find the synthetic thread. Should be on the left.” Jennifer found it. “I’m gonna need you to thread the needle with the synthetic.”

She did as instructed and moments later handed the threaded needle to Resa. She stepped out of the way as the tall woman stood and faced her reflection in the mirror.

Jennifer averted her eyes as she realized what the ex-gangsta was about to do. This was getting waaay beyond what she felt capable of dealing with. As a kid she couldn’t stand the sight of blood and got the closest she’d ever come to fainting when she was seven and saw her own badly scraped up knee after a terrible fall from her bike.

This situation before her was a whole ‘nother league of gross.

And it was about to get worse.

She heard Resa let out a deep grunt of irritation and peeked up. The woman’s hand was shaking to such a degree she couldn’t hold it still enough to begin the process. Sky blue eyes met hers in the reflection of the mirror and a feeling of dread took hold. She knew what was needed of her without a single word spoken between them but the idea made her head reel. Still, somewhere deep within her a strength she didn’t know she possessed assumed control and she took the needle from Resa’s unsteady fingers. With a gentle hand on the other woman’s good shoulder, she guided her back to the toilet seat and eased her down. She knelt before her and wiped the wound with a sanitized towel until she could see it clearly. Not that she had a great deal of experience in these things, but it seemed like a fairly clean hole.

“I don’t have HIV,” Resa said. “But you should put on some gloves just the same. They’re in the box.”

Jennifer met her gaze with a steady one of her own. “Thanks.” She found and put on the green rubber gloves.

“You know how to sew?” Resa asked.

“I can sew buttons back on my shirts. It’s the same principle, right?”

“Sorta. For what we gotta do here, yeah. That’ll work for the time being.”

Jennifer paused, feeling the faint tickle of sweat form on her lip and brow.

“Shouldn’t you take a sedative or aspirin or, or something?” she asked nervously.

“No. I’m numb enough already. Getting shot’ll do that you.” Amazingly, the corner of her lip curled up in a slightly bemused smile.

Jennifer shook her head. “I’ll take your word for it.” She took a deep breath to calm her nerves. “Okay.” And she inserted the needle into Resa’s skin.

After the initial, almost overwhelming sense of disbelief washed over her, Jennifer was able to focus solely on the task at hand. So much so she nearly forgot she was sewing up a person. It was the only way she could function. In, out, in out. Draw with a slow and steady hand. Pull firm, but not too tight and make sure the loops are close. Then tie it off at the end. It was quite similar to sewing buttons or rips in her shirts, really, only the fabric here was a human being and the ‘rip’ a gunshot wound.

Through it all, Resa never made a sound even though she had to have been in unbelievable pain. The only indication Jennifer had that there was anything amiss was the deep, forced rhythm of her breathing and the clench of her jaw. She could practically feel the other woman willing herself not to react, not to let the pain grow too much for her to bear.

After several minutes of silence, Jennifer sat back.

“I’m done,” she said softly and wiped her damp brow with her forearm.

“Wrap me up.” The voice was barely above a whisper.

Jennifer took gauze and adhesive tape and covered both the entrance and exit wounds. Next she spooled a long, ace bandage around the shoulder and fastened it with a butterfly clip until the wound was firmly bound. She knew the bandages would have to be changed on a regular basis and for the first time wondered who would do that for the injured woman.

Then an unexpected weight sank on her right shoulder and she realized with surprise Resa had laid her head down upon her. Exhaustion had apparently won out and she could no longer hold herself upright. The simple act by one as strong as she affected Jennifer deeply. She quickly drew off her gloves and placed her arms around the other woman’s upper body in an effort to comfort her.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. We’re done,” she murmured as if to a small child, stroking her back and noting the hard, sinewy muscles that rippled beneath her touch. She could feel the intense pounding of the other woman’s heart vibrate against her breast and seep into her own as if, for a fraction of a second, they were one. She closed her eyes against the sensation and marveled at the urge to cry that suddenly seized her.

After a moment, Resa drew away but her weakened condition was obvious.

“I need to lie down,” she whispered in a graveled voice, then swallowed hard. Jennifer dabbed the sweat from the other woman’s face and tried to fight down the sense of distress that gripped her chest. Resa looked terrible.

“Lean on me.”

Together they stood but Resa’s weight was more than Jennifer anticipated and they fell back against the wall. It took a fraction of a second for Jennifer to recover (she was much stronger physically than she initially appeared) and force them both upright. Jennifer held the other woman tight around the waist and led her into the hall.

At a time like this the cramped size of the apartment worked to their advantage with only a few steps required for them to reach the bedroom. Jennifer lowered the much larger woman to the bed, careful to angle her so the wounded shoulder received no weight. She shoved pillows behind her to prop her up, then drew the plain blue comforter up to her waist.

Resa’s eyes were closed from exhaustion, as they should be. Getting shot in the movies was one thing; heroes received countless bullets and acted as if they were mere mosquito bites. But getting shot in real life was like being hit by a car; no matter how tough the person may be, they wouldn’t just shake it off.

Jennifer glanced around the bedroom that, if possible, was even more Spartan than the living room. There was just the bed and a closet, the door of which was open, affording her a clear view of a series of shelves that held a few scraps of clothing. Minimalism apparently applied to every aspect of Resa’s life, attire included. Jennifer noted the bloody tank-top the older woman still wore and fought the desire to have her change into something clean. Right now it was more important that she get some sleep.

She then noticed the bars on the window for the first time and it puzzled her. They were on the second floor of the apartment and bars of this nature were usually reserved for first floor only. But, in a neighborhood such as this…in a world such as this…it would seem bars were a necessity at all levels.

“I’m going to sleep for a while,” Resa murmured, though her eyes remained closed. “Recover.”

“For how long?” Jennifer asked softly.

“Few hours. Maybe more. Call Father Hector, tell him what happened.”
“All right.”

“Make sure he knows I’m gonna be okay.” When Jennifer didn’t answer this, Resa slowly opened her eyes. “I am gonna be okay.”

“You’ve lost a lot of blood — ”

“I’ve had worse.”

“That doesn’t mean your condition isn’t serious this time. How will I know if you’re just sleeping and not in a coma or something?”

“That won’t concern you ‘cause you won’t be here.”

Jennifer was incredulous. “I can’t leave.”

“You’re leaving.”

“What – what – ”

“Don’t argue with me.” There was no ignoring the edge to her voice. “You’re leaving here to call Father Hector and that’s the end of your involvement. Kid like you shouldn’t be messed up in this.”

Jennifer stood there, anger and frustration rendering her immobile. Resa stared hard at her.

“Go.”

Jennifer backed away from the bed, a thousand arguments on the tip of her tongue but one look at Resa’s haggard face silenced her completely. Jennifer sighed but, in her heart, didn’t give in. After all, there were many ways to win a battle…

She turned to go.

“Jennifer.”

She stopped, surprised to hear her name softly spoken by the other woman. She glanced back to find Resa with eyes closed yet again, on the brink of a deep repose but still with strength enough to murmur:

“Thanks.”

* * * *

Thanks.

For two hours after Jennifer rolled the memory of that single word over and over in her mind. It was merely one word. Just thanks. That was it. Yet, coming from Resa, that one word meant a great deal. Even Jennifer who had met the woman but a few hours earlier could recognize this and it warmed her inside.

She liked her. As strange as it was, as little as she knew about the other woman, she, nonetheless, found the former gang leader intriguing. And she liked her. Though, frankly, she didn’t quite know why. It wasn’t as if the dark-haired woman had gone out of her way to be nice to her. In fact, she’d been downright rude for the most part. But there was an undeniable intelligence that lay behind those extraordinary blue eyes that gave Jennifer pause. What this woman might have been under different circumstances…

Jennifer stood in the fresh produce aisle of the East Los Angeles Lucky’s Supermarket, plastic basket draped over her arm, fingers resting lightly on a smooth, white egg and wondered what it would have been like if her life had been reversed with Resa’s. Would she have been able to avoid the pull of the street gangs? Or would she, too, have been drawn into their cycle of violence? What was it that made Resa, a woman who now lived her life in apparent isolation, join a gang in the first place? And what was it within her that made her ultimately leave?

Jennifer had to know.

She quickly checked the rest of the eggs in the carton to make sure none were broken then placed the package into the basket and headed toward the checkout line.

Yes, it was really that simple. Resa may have told her to leave her, but that wasn’t an option now. Curiosity had taken hold of her and, well, Jennifer never could resist the pull of a good riddle which was exactly how she saw Resa — as a conundrum waiting to be broken. A mystery waiting to be explored.

Jennifer practically tingled at the thought. The fact that Resa clearly wanted to be left alone was easily brushed aside. The ex-gansta just needed to get to know her first, that was all. Resa was obviously not a people person so it would take a bit of time but a little voice deep down told her the effort would be worth it.

Then that same little voice reminded her that she was a student in college whose time was not yet her own and she paused. Damn. This might prove to be a problem. And what if Professor Hendricks failed to allow her to use this for her grade? Now such a possibility brought a sinking feeling of dread to her stomach where before it had been a way out. Except now she didn’t want a way out. She wanted a way in.

She chewed on the corner of her mouth in contemplation. What to do, what to do…? She drew in a deep breath and expelled it in a determined huff. Well, we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it, she told herself. Right now she had to deal with more immediate matters. Like the English Lit quiz for which she was no closer to being prepared for than she was that morning when she promised herself she’d study for it that night. Hmmmmm… Still, she had a solid ‘A’ in the class, one missed quiz wouldn’t devastate her grade and once she told the professor the reason behind her absence, surely she’d be able to make it up. After all, the excuse of ‘I-was-helping-a -former-gang-member-recover-from-a-gunshot-wound-she-received- while-helping-me’ was significantly less common than ‘the-dog-ate-my-homework’ to warrant believability…right?

She certainly hoped so.

Jennifer exited the supermarket and headed for her car, which wasn’t difficult to spot in this parking lot. Her green Land Rover stood out like a beacon on a moonless night amidst the significantly less upscale modes of transportation. It was probably the only one of its kind for a couple square miles.

As she headed toward the car, she was gripped by the strangest sensation of being watched. She glanced around her and noted several pairs of eyes upon her but quickly dismissed it. She was, after all, a blonde woman getting into a luxury car in the middle of East Los Angeles, of course there were going to be looks. It was to be expected. It didn’t make her feel any less uncomfortable, however.

She deactivated the alarm from several feet away and hopped inside, making sure to lock the doors behind her before she started the engine and pulled away.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Sleep was a dark, swirling curtain that enveloped Resa in its folds and bound her tight. She did not dream on this occasion, which was likely for the best. Too often her dreams evolved into nightmares that chased away the solace of rest and tonight she needed as much comfort as she could get.

In the end, she was out a long time. And she might have been out of it even longer had her senses not been awakened by the tantalizing aroma of food. Warm food. Good food.

Like a swimmer struggling to make it to the surface, she pulled herself out of her slumber and opened her eyes. For a moment or two she didn’t recognize the bare, white walls of her surroundings. Was she back at — ? But then her memory returned and she sat up.

The pain on her right side hit her like an electric jolt and the slightest hint of grogginess instantly evaporated. Motherfuckthathurt! But she said nothing aloud. She’d learned long ago to make no noise when pain was being inflicted. It was second nature to her now.

She let out a slow, steady breath, swung her long legs over the side of the bed and glanced about her room. She could tell by the way the sun streamed through the window it was already well past noon. She must have slept a long time, longer than she realized but she felt refreshed and surprisingly good, given her condition.

Her hand fell upon a the soft fabric of a white T-shirt left folded for her and she glanced down at the bloody tank top she still wore. She could definitely do for a change. As gingerly as possible, she removed the ruined garment and tossed it across the room, then grabbed the new shirt and slipped it over her head. Someone had left her the T-shirt to change into and that someone was probably in the kitchen, right now. Cooking.

The Padre.

It had to be. The kid must have gotten him for her…

She paused.

The kid. Jennifer Somethingoranother. Nice gringa she turned out to be. Not at all what she’d expected. Sweet. And brave. Really brave. Stupid brave. But a good kid. Talked a lot, that was for sure. She smiled a little as she remembered the Kid’s expression when she first walked into the bar. Priceless. But, to her credit, she hadn’t backed out when she realized what sort of establishment she was entering. ‘Course, that was what caused all the problems to begin with. Resa hadn’t considered for a second that some nice, pretty, white kid from Santa Monica would even make it into the parking lot of a place like Palo’s bar, let alone have balls enough to walk on in. Yet that’s exactly what The Kid had done.

And blew Resa’s plans all to hell. Now Manny knew she was back in the neighborhood and if Manny knew, that meant Alfons and the other Vartans knew, too. It was an invitation to trouble. No two ways about it. She was fucked.

What you get for underestimating that kid, she chided herself. You’re getting out of practice. Gotta think of every angle.

She stood up and had to wait a second to regain her equilibrium. No matter how many times she’d been shot or stabbed or whacked around — which was more times than she could remember — it never felt good the day after. And it’d been a while since she’d had to go through anything like this.

She stepped out into the hallway and made her way towards the kitchen. Whatever the Padre was scrapin’ together smelled mighty good. Huh. Who knew the big guy could cook? He was full of surprises that one.

Then she turned the corner to enter the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks.

It wasn’t the Padre who was cooking up a storm.

It was the Kid.

She had apparently stayed the night.

Resa frowned.

“I thought I told you to leave?” she said harshly.

Jennifer jumped at the sound of her voice and turned around from the stove.

“Oh,” she said, breathless, her hand instinctively coming to her chest. “You startled me.” She looked Resa over in concern. “How do you feel?”

“Better. What are you still doing here?”

Jennifer turned back to the stove to take a skillet off the open fire. “Making an egg-white omelet.” She scraped out the eggs onto a dish, set the skillet aside, then brought the dish over to the card table on which Resa ate her meals. “Here, sit down. You have to be hungry. You’ve been asleep for hours.”

Resa hesitated but the Kid was right. She was hungry. Starved was more like it. And what she was making would have smelled amazing even if she’d just eaten a full meal, which she hadn’t. She wanted to force the Kid to answer her question, find out what was she still doing there…however hunger won out.

Without a word, she sat, grabbed a fork, and took a bite of the eggs. Mio Dios…

Jennifer took a seat in the folding chair opposite Resa, her eyes watching the other woman closely. She frowned at Resa’s expression.

“What? Does it taste bad? Is it overcooked? Under? You don’t like mushrooms or the cheese — ?”

“It’s good.”

Light green eyes widened with pleasure. “Yeah?” Her face beamed. “You like it?”

“I just said it was good.”

Jennifer sighed. “I know, but there are other adjectives in the English language that can be used to expound on the idea of ‘good.’ I just thought you might want to try one out.” Resa just stared at her. “Or, not.”

“What did you call this?” She held up a fork full of egg.

“An egg-white omelet?”

“Yeah. I’ve never had one before.”

“Are you serious?” Her tone was incredulous. “But it’s such a basic breakfast dish.”

“Basic where you come from.”

“Well, what do you consider basic?” Resa stared at her hard and Jennifer rolled her eyes. “This isn’t a trick to needle info about your quote-unquote ‘past.’ It’s just polite conversation between friends.” Off Resa’s look, “Or friendly acquaintances in our case.” Resa arched a brow. “Or just acquaintances of a non-hostile nature, if that makes you feel better.”

“Where’s the Padre?” Resa ignored Jennifer’s question with one of her own and shoveled another bite into her mouth. “I thought I told you to call him for me.”

“I tried. But he’s in Tijuana with a group from his church rebuilding some homes. He won’t return until tomorrow or the next day. I left word for him to contact you as soon as he gets back.” She stood and grabbed a plate from the kitchen counter. “Do you like biscuits?” A tiny grin pulled on the corner of her mouth. “You do know what those are, don’t you?”

She proffered the plate of piping hot biscuits before Resa’s nose and wiggled her eyebrows. The older woman pushed the dish away and shot Jennifer another look.

“Yeah. We Latinos have heard the term. Even had a few.” Then her hunger got the better of her and she peered over the plate. God, they smelled amazing and she was soooooo hungry. As nonchalantly as possible, she grabbed three and put them on her plate.

“Do you want honey? Or marmalade?” Jennifer asked.

Resa shook her head. “Did you knock over a grocery store while I was asleep?”

Jennifer laughed. “No. I went shopping. You had no food whatsoever so I picked up some basics.”

“Like marmalade?” she asked, her voice dry.

“Okay, basics where I come from. What you consider basics I have no idea. So which do you want?”

“Honey.”

Jennifer plopped a plastic honey bear container in front of the former gangster then sat back down.

“You know, when I was young, my brothers and I would grab the bear and make our Dad pour the honey right into our mouths until we practically got sick on the stuff.” Jennifer laughed. “We’d stand there with our mouths open just like little birds waiting for their Mamma to give us a worm until the honey was almost all over our faces and we’d laugh and laugh…That’s one of my favorite memories from growing up.” She looked at Resa. “Did you ever do anything like that?”

Resa swallowed a bite. “No.”

Jennifer was silent a moment. “Guess we kind of had different childhoods, huh?”

Resa met her gaze. “Yeah.” Then took a bite of the biscuit. They definitely had had different childhoods, with Resa’s devoid of such things as egg white omelets and marmalade and a Father who poured honey into the mouths of his laughing children.

Resa polished off the biscuit and reached for another.

“How does your shoulder feel?” Jennifer asked.

“You already asked me that.”

“Yes, but think of this as an opportunity to elaborate on ‘better.’ Do you feel light headed?”

“No.”

“Is the pain in you shoulder sharp or a dull throb.”

“Sharp when I move and a dull throb when I don’t.”

“And the stitches feel all right?”

“Yeah. You did a good job.”

Her face brightened. “Really?”

Resa held back a grin. This kid reminded her of a little puppy, eager for attention. “Yeah. For a beginner.”

“Thanks. Hopefully I won’t have much opportunity to perfect my craft.” They lapsed into a brief silence. “Resa?”

“Yeah?” she drawled, knowing the quiet couldn’t have lasted too long with this one.

“How many times have you been shot?”

She figured that one was coming. But, to be fair, it was a natural question for a kid like her to ask. Someone like Resa, an ex-gangsta from the bario, must be pretty foreign to a kid living in Santa Monica. They may share the same sales tax rates but their lives were worlds apart.

Resa scooped up the rest of her omelet before answering. “Three times.”

“Including this latest one?’

“Uh-huh.”

“Was this the worst?”

Resa almost smiled again and shook her head. “Not even close.”

“What was – ”

“You’re asking a lot of questions.”

“It’s called a conversation. People who don’t know each other very well often engage in this ritual known as ‘conversation’ as a means of getting to know one another better. You obviously are unfamiliar with the concept.”

“I’m familiar with it. Just don’t like it much.”

“Why?”

Resa rolled her eyes. “I’m going to call you ‘Jeopardy’ because everything you say comes out like a question.”

Jennifer laughed. “Hey, that was funny.”

Resa just shook her head and started to plop the last bite of biscuit in her mouth when she heard it. It was faint at first, far too faint for the untrained ear but Resa had learned long ago the ignoring the most insignificant of noises could have deadly consequences and thus attuned herself to everything. She cocked her head to one side to listen.

“What – ?” Jennifer began but Resa swiftly put up a hand to silence her and, to the college student’s credit she didn’t need to be told twice.

There it was again. Stronger this time and more distinct. Footsteps. Many footsteps. Coming down the cavernous hallway outside her apartment, headed in their direction. She quickly determined there were at least five. Likely all men. She could tell that by the distinctly heavy and aggressive sound of their footfall despite the fact they were all wearing rubber souled shoes. The Vartans. She was certain of it. Oh, this was bad. Very, very bad indeed.

She vaulted out of her chair and opened the cabinet under the sink. In less than two seconds she located the automatic pistol she’d taped against the far wall and ripped it free. It was loaded, with a bullet already chambered and ready to go.

She barely had time to register the look of shock that crossed Jennifer’s face upon seeing the gun before she heard the first knock come from the front door. She grabbed the younger woman’s wrist and hauled her after her as she ran down the hallway to the bedroom.

Resa’s apartment was located in the back of the low-rent building, on the second floor. It had been the only thing she’d insisted upon when Father Hector and she had gone looking. It had to be the second floor, for just this occasion. Most people would have asked for the first floor, but Resa knew better. You live on the first floor, problem like this comes along and you’re a sitting duck. Second floor you don’t have to worry about people waiting for you below because they figure you’re trapped.

She shoved Jennifer into the room and bolted the door, then turned to see Jennifer standing clear as day in front of the window. She instantly tackled her, hearing the girl’s ‘umph’ as they hit the floor together.

“Stay down!” she hissed in the smaller woman’s ear before reaching up to grasp the handle embedded in the wall. It was the emergency release lever for the security bars, created in case of a fire so the occupants wouldn’t be trapped.

“What is it?” Jennifer whispered in fear.

The knock on the front door came again, harder this time. Demanding.

“They found us.”

“Who?”

“The Vartans. I don’t know how – ” She looked down at the blonde woman whose face was only inches away. “Of course! You went shopping!”

“What?”

The knocks turned to pounds, then the sounds of men’s raised voices.

“Never mind. We don’t have time. I’m gonna pull this here lever and it’ll release the bars. Then I’ll lower you as much as I can before you jump.”

“What?! Are you out of your mind?”

“Just do it!”

‘I’ll break my legs!”

Resa stared hard at her. “Bend your knees and roll when you hit the ground.”

She heard the distinct sounds of the front door being kicked.

“But – ”

“Look, you can either go out that window and risk breaking something or stay here and have the guarantee you’ll get shot. You decide.” With that she pulled down hard on the lever, releasing the bars drilled into the outer wall. They came free with a tremendous ripping sound and dropped to the ground in a resounding thud. Resa sat up and peered over the edge of the window but saw no signs of any of her former homeboys laying in wait. Good. The Vartans were a merciless group, of that she was all too aware, but they weren’t always the most organized. At least since she left their ranks. When she had been with them, it was a whole different story.

She glanced down at Jennifer whose green eyes stared back at her with a mixture of fear and determination. “Are you coming?” Resa asked and even as the words crossed her lips she somehow knew the answer.

Jennifer reached up her hand and Resa pulled her to her feet. The blonde glanced over the edge, then back at Resa.

“Bend my knees, huh?”

“And roll. It’s important.”

Jennifer nodded. “Riiiiiight.”

“Once your down, don’t go to your car. It’s possible they have someone there waiting for us.”

“Then where – ?”

“St. Agatha’s Church is just around the corner. To the right. Go there, you’ll be safe. I’ll find you. Trust – ”

“You,” Jennifer finished. “I know, I know.” The two women locked eyes and Resa allowed herself to grin, even if it was only a little. The Kid did have spirit.

They heard the sound of wood splintering and men’s voices growing nearer. Jennifer quickly hoisted one leg over the ledge, then the other. Resa reached down to grab her by the wrist and helped lower her another couple of feet. She was careful to keep as much strain off her wounded shoulder as possible, but the pain was nonetheless excruciating. Behind her she heard the men pound on her bedroom door. She held Jennifer’s eyes an extra moment before letting go and watched as if in slow motion the younger woman fall away from her to the ground, angling herself so she fell in the opposite direction from where the security bars had landed. Per instructions, Jennifer bent her knees and rolled upon impact with the earth and though it wasn’t pretty, it got the job done. Seconds later she was on her feet, wobbly but moving. She glanced up at Resa who waved her on before turning back to the door and the shouts of the men behind it. Instinctively her grip tightened on the gun in her hand…

* * * *

 

* * * *

Jennifer liked to work out. She made getting up early to head to the gym a part of her almost daily routine and running was a very important part of that workout. She liked to think she was good at all of it, too, but especially the running. It was always her favorite part. She’d throw on the tiny headset for her Sony Walkman, click play to listen to her favorite tunes to get her in the mood, and the next thing she’d know an hour would have passed and she’d be drenched in sweat. That’s how she’d know if the run had been worth it, by how soaked her T-shirt would get and it was almost always dripping by the time she was done.

But never in all her exercises, in the untold hours on the treadmill or jogging down at the beach had she ever, ever run as hard or fast as did seconds after dropping from Resa’s apartment window. If she’d been in a more jovial mood she would have hummed the theme from Chariots of Fire but all levity had vanished the moment she heard the front door being broken down and the sounds of several men enter the apartment.

Her senses detected no evidence of anyone following her after she landed but still she ran as if being chased by the hounds of hell.

Oh, God, I hope Resa’s all right, she thought. Part of her wanted to stay to help the other woman fight, but she knew she’d do more harm than good. She’d never used a gun in her entire life and now was not the time to get in a little practice. No, in this she truly did have to trust Resa. She’d said she’d find her and somehow Jennifer knew instinctively that she would.

She rounded the corner and spotted the top of what had to be a church steeple. St. Agatha’s. Her heart leaped at the sight and she managed to run even faster to make it to the gates of what her mind identified as sanctuary merely on the basis of Resa’s words alone. She was nearly to the front doors of the gates when she heard the first sound of gunfire. For a second or two her untrained ears mistook the series of pops for firecrackers but then she quickly recognized the sounds for what they really were and stopped in her tracks. Resa. It had to be coming from her apartment.

Jennifer’s heart caught in her throat and as if of their own free will, her feet were suddenly taking her back in the direction of the gunfight. She hadn’t the slightest idea what she would do when she got there, only that she had to go.

She was in the middle of rounding a street corner when out of the side of her eye she caught the briefest glimpse of a shape coming at her. She didn’t have time to react before a hand clamped down her over mouth and arms of incredible strength pulled her down into a cluster of nearby bushes. She struggled immediately until she heard a harsh yet familiar voice whisper:

“Shhhhh!”

Resa.

Jennifer instantly stilled. The other woman wrapped one arm around her waist and the other still over her mouth, pulling Jennifer’s back into her own chest and holding her secure within their impromptu hiding place. Thin branches scraped against their faces and tangled in their hair but the leaves were dense enough to provide ample coverage. Which was crucial. Mere seconds passed before Jennifer heard the pounding footsteps of several people running past where they lay. She could hear the men’s angry, guttural shouts in Spanish as they passed and her heart was slamming so hard against the walls of her chest she was convinced that it would give them away. But the men continued on, completely unaware of how close they were to their prey.

Resa didn’t relax her hold on Jennifer for some time after the men were gone. Once she was certain they wouldn’t return, however, she let her hand drop away from the younger woman’s mouth and leaned back. Jennifer immediately twisted her body to face Resa, pushing aside some of the branches to get a clear look at the other woman’s drawn expression. Jennifer was at once concerned. The stitches had clearly opened up as a fresh and sizable bloodstain appeared over Resa’s shoulder but a quick glance over the rest of her revealed no new injuries.

She met Resa’s pale blue eyes. “I heard gunfire. Did you get hit?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper. The Vartans may not be right there, but they could come back and she would take no chances.

Resa shook her head. “No.”

Jennifer accepted this. “How did you get out of there?”

“Hid in the closet until they broke in, then jumped out the window before the geniuses could figure out where I was.” She grinned a little to herself. “Made sure to take one of them with me to break the fall.”

Jennifer almost laughed. “Good thinking, though I bet he wouldn’t agree.”

“Probably not. If he was he conscious, which he isn’t.”

Jennifer reached her fingers to lightly brushed aside the T-shirt and get a glimpse of the ace bandage that was seeping blood. She frowned in consternation. “It looks like the stitches have ripped.”

Resa sighed. “Yeah, I figured.”

“Are you in a lot of pain?”

Resa shrugged slightly. “I’ll live.” She nodded to Jennifer. “You okay?”

Jennifer’s eyebrows shot up somewhat before she could stop herself. A question of concern from the ex-gangsta? How novel. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m fine.” Then, with a wry grin, “The rolling part helped.”

A corner of Resa mouth twitched upward. “Told ya.”

Jennifer found herself smiling in return and for an instant neither women moved. It was a strange moment for the first tenuous bonds of a friendship to form — hiding in the bushes after being chased by a group of gangsters bent on killing them — but when Jennifer looked back on her time with Resa as a whole, she would come to this moment and know it was here that their journey together truly began.

“Are all your days like this?” Jennifer asked finally, shaking her head in wonder.

“No…Some are worse.”

“Greeeat,” she drawled, then glanced down at the bloody T-shirt and she grew serious. “We have to get you bound up again. By a professional this time. No arguments.”

Resa’s eyes widened a bit at her tone. “All right,” she said at last.

Now it was Jennifer’s turn to be surprised. “Did you just agree with me?”

Blue eyes narrowed. “Yeah, but don’t get cocky. We’re still gonna do it my way.”

“Really? And what way is that?”
CHAPTER FIVE

The two women turned the corner into the alleyway and Jennifer tried to ignore the pungent odor emanating from the dumpster as they passed. They were making their way down the back of one of the ubiquitous strip malls that seemed to clutter Los Angeles like a plague of bad taste with the scenery even less pleasant than usual. And this was a fairly decent section of the neighborhood. Jennifer had to quicken her pace in an effort to keep up with Resa’s considerably longer stride before she tripped a little on a raised portion of the broken cement and frowned. God, this place was in dire need of repair.

“How much further?” Jennifer asked.

“Couple blocks,” was the terse reply.

Jennifer accepted this, then wondered for the hundredth time in the past twenty minutes since they’d left the refuge of the bushes just where the heck they were headed. Resa, of course, wouldn’t say and although it irritated her, Jennifer didn’t want to push the wounded woman on the subject. They’d be there soon enough she supposed and she didn’t want to tire the former gang leader. Though she seemed in fairly good shape, considering. Clearly Resa was a strong person both physically and mentally. How had Father Hector described her? Ah, yes. A very determined individual. This brought a slight grin. She was that indeed or, as Patrick, her friend back home, liked to say, “All that and a bag of chips.” Watching the confident sway of the taller woman’s back as they walked, she’d have to agree. There was just something about her…She couldn’t put her finger on it but there was something compelling about Resa Gustavez that made Jennifer want to follow her even if it was down a back alley in the middle of the worst part of a major metropolis like Los Angeles knowing they were being hunted like wild animals by an angry and violent street gang. Even still, she felt…almost safe. It made no sense. But then again nothing about the past 24 hours had made much sense. Well, at least it’d make for an interesting entry in her journal.

Another thought popped into her mind and she chewed on the corner of her mouth. Lord only knew what the Vartans were doing to her Land Rover, if anything at all. Resa seemed pretty confident the gangsters wouldn’t just let it sit there. When she’d asked Resa if she’d seen any sign of the car or new damage to it, the former gang leader had said no, but then asked if Jennifer had insurance. The younger woman groaned inwardly at the thought. Sure, she had insurance but she hadn’t the first clue how she’d go about explaining…whatever she needed to explain…to her agent about…whatever may have happened to her car. And the thought of telling her parents… Lordy. . .

She sighed and rubbed a hand across her tired face. “How long do you suppose before the cops catch those guys?”

Resa glanced briefly back at Jennifer. “They won’t.”

“Wha-how-why not?” she, sputtered.

“Because no one will cooperate them and they won’t learn anything.”

“Well, that’s just stupid,” scoffed the younger woman.

“It’s survival.”

“Yeah, survival for the gang-bangers.”

Resa stopped and spun to face Jennifer, placing a hand on the college student’s shoulder and looking at her with a surprising intensity.

“This isn’t like your world, Jennifer. The rules that you’re used to don’t apply here and what may seem stupid to you is to many a necessary evil which keeps us alive.”

A sudden realization dawned upon her. “You’re not going to talk to the police either, are you?” she asked, incredulous.

Resa paused a moment before answering: “No.”

“Why? Those guys broke into your apartment. They shot at you, tried to kill you. You have every right–”

“I can’t talk to the police.”

“But why?”

Resa looked at her for a long moment and Jennifer sensed the other woman was on the verge of telling her…something…but then she dropped her gaze and stood back a step.

“I just can’t.”

“Well I can.”

Resa regarded her. “And what will you tell them?”

“Well, I –”

“No. You won’t tell them anything either because you didn’t see anything. You heard voices, men shouting, that’s all. You can’t identify anyone from a lineup, you can’t say for sure who was there.”

“But we both know–”

“I know. You know only what I’ve told you.”

A thought popped into her mind that sent a chill down her spine. “You weren’t lying to me, were you?”

“Of course not. It was the Vartans.”

“So–”

“So it’s not that simple.”

“Why?”

“Because this is a gang we’re talking about. It’s–it’s like a hydra. You cut off one head and before you know it two more appear. You talk to the police, tell them what you know and they go off to arrest, what? Three guys? Four? How do you think the rest of the Vartans are gonna feel about that, huh? Having four of their homeboys arrested? I’ll tell ya: pissed as hell. And they won’t just sit back and do nothing about it either. They’ll come after you just as sure as you’re standing here.” A strange look came over Resa’s face. “If they haven’t already,” she murmured under her breath.

Jennifer frowned. “What do you mean?

“Where’s your purse?”

“Well, it’s back at your — ” She stopped as a cold shiver of realization hit her.

“Which means the Vartans have it by now…Do you live with anyone? Roommate, boyfriend, family?”

Jennifer shook her head slowly, a numbness creeping over her. “No.”

“Any pets you need to worry about?”

“No. Just plants and they’re half dead already.” Jennifer swallowed hard. “My God…they know where I live.”

Resa nodded. “Count on it. You’re going to need to cancel your credit cards as soon as possible. How much money do you have on you right now?”

Jennifer fished around in her pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. “Forty four dollars and seventy three cents. And a stamp.” She managed a wry grin. “Maybe I’ll send my folks a post card from East LA. ‘Hi. Wish you were here.’” Then sighed as if the weight of the world was suddenly placed upon her shoulders.

Resa tipped her head to one side, her expression not unkind. “Now do you understand? You go to the police and it’ll just get worse. And they wouldn’t let up. Ever.”

“Then what do I do? Live in fear? Change my name? Move? What?” Jennifer asked in desperation.

Resa regarded her for a long moment, then murmured in a low voice “I’ll take care of it.”

“How?”

“My way.”

Jennifer sighed. “Your way. Just like that?”

“Yes.”

The college student ran an exasperated hand through her hair. God, would this nightmare ever end? All she’d wanted was to fulfill a promise made in haste to a priest…and now she found herself broke, homeless, and possibly the target for ruthless gang members. Suddenly taking a pop quiz held a whole new appeal.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Resa said softly.

Jennifer looked up to meet her gaze and its sincerity took her by surprise. Somehow she’d grown quickly accustomed to seeing either an expressionless mask or striking intensity from the ex-gangsta but this earnestness was something else entirely. As if by magic, Jennifer’s frustration eased away until she was left with a peculiar sense of calm.

“It’s not your fault,” she replied equally soft.

“Of course it is. I misjudged you, didn’t think for a second you’d go into Palo’s. That’s why I picked the place. I almost left when I saw Manny was in there but…you’d already gone in.” She shrugged. “I couldn’t leave you.”

Jennifer was silent a moment. “I’m glad you didn’t,” she murmured.

Blue eyes locked with hers. “Yeah?” Her voice sounded slightly surprised.

“Yeah.” She shifted her feet, a little self-conscious under the scrutiny. “Who knows if I’d have made it out of there at all without your help. That Manny guy was pretty hostile.” She subconsciously tugged on her ear. “He sure doesn’t like you much.”

Resa’s eyes grew hooded. “He shouldn’t…I killed his brother,” she said, her voice low, her tone guarded.

Jennifer sucked in a breath at the disclosure and noted Resa’s deliberately impassive expression, as if braced for Jennifer’s response.

The blonde woman didn’t quite know how to take this news. Any revelation at all to her by the former gangster was unexpected…but one of this magnitude was a particular surprise . She instinctively felt she was being tested somehow and wasn’t sure what to say. So she dropped her eyes and uttered a simple,

“Oh.” Resa was silent a beat longer and Jennifer raised her head to meet the other woman’s gaze. “Did he deserve it?”

“He was trying to shoot me,” came the quiet reply.

Jennifer cocked her head to one side, contemplative. “Then I guess he deserved it.”

Resa’s jaw shifted to one side and Jennifer caught a fleeting glimpse of naked remorse wash over the other woman’s face.

“It’s not for me to decide who deserves what,” she said. “Yeah, I defended myself and yeah, he lost…But, I let myself get into that situation. I’m to blame for that.”

Jennifer had no rebuttal to that argument and she felt certain Resa wouldn’t have accepted one anyhow. She seemed to have a solid grip on her own sense of guilt and nothing the younger woman would say right now would loosen that hold so, wisely, she chose not to make the effort. Rather she filed away the information with the intention to deal with this issue at a later time.

Jennifer gently touched Resa’s upper arm. “Come on,” she murmured. “We need to get you taken care of.”

Resa didn’t move, her enigmatic expression impossible to read.

“We’re here,” she said at last.

Jennifer reacted with surprise. “We are?” She glanced around the alley, noting all the signs until her eyes fell upon the words: Marcus Vet Hospital.

Jennifer turned dubious eyes back on Resa. “A vet clinic?” she said in disbelief.

“Yeah.”

Jennifer rolled her eyes. “You know, when I said you needed a professional, I was referring to the kind that works on humans.”

“I know, but sewing is sewing and I know someone who works here.”

“What do you have against regular hospitals?”

Resa sighed. “It’s a long story and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m bleeding, so…” she nodded toward the back door of the vet clinic.

Jennifer was instantly contrite at making the other woman wait for treatment…no matter how odd the source…and quickly opened the door for her.

“Sorry,” she murmured as Resa passed within, then turned to follow.

The rear hallway of the vet clinic was brightly lighted and narrow. The sounds of barking dogs and distinct aroma of ammonia filled her senses as she traipsed along behind Resa. It was, of course, ludicrous that they would come to such a place as this for aid, but clearly the former gangster had ‘issues’ with going to a regular hospital so who was she to argue? She just wished she better understood what those ‘issues’ were.

“Resa?” a deep voice called and Jennifer glanced around the taller woman to spy a tall, handsome African American man in a white lab coat at the top of the hallway, watching their approach sans the slightest trace of surprise. Evidently this was not the former gang leader’s first visit to the Marcus Vet Clinic.

“Hello, Tony,” Resa said.

He noted her bloodstained T-shirt, shook his head with a sigh and, without a word, pointed to the nearest examination room. Resa entered, followed by Jennifer with the man called Tony close behind. Jennifer heard him tell one of the nurses not to bother him for a while, that he had a special patient to deal with.

“And she can be a nasty bitch, too,” he’d added loud enough for Resa’s benefit, then winked at the former gang leader. “Can’t ya?”

“So they say,” was Resa’s reply, clearly no offense taken.

Tony closed the door and moved over to where Resa leaned against the examination table. The man was well over six feet and his hulking frame served to dominate the already tiny room. Jennifer quickly picked up on the air of easy familiarity between these two and surmised they had been at least friends for some time.

She glanced up to meet curious brown eyes focused upon her.

“Who do we have here?” he asked. She could tell by his expression she wasn’t at all the sort of person he expected to be hanging out with the infamous Resa Gustavez and she had half a mind to tell him he was right. Instead she stuck out her hand, her naturally friendly personality happy to have a receptive outlet after the past twenty-four hours.

“Jennifer Logan, nice to meet you.”

He accepted her hand politely. “A pleasure, Ms. Logan. I’m Tony Marcus, but feel free to call me Tony. I’m an old friend of Resa’s.” His smile was warm.

Resa cleared her throat. “When you’re done there…”

Tony grinned, then turned his attention back to the dark-haired woman, peered at her wound and frowned.

“Damn, sister,” he muttered at what he saw. “Who sewed you up? Dr. Frankenstein?”

“Hey,” Jennifer protested. “It was my first time, okay? I was under duress.”

“Her dress?” Tony repeated innocently.

“Stress. I was stressed,” Jennifer said, enunciating each word. Then she caught the wink behind Tony’s brown eyes and knew she was being baited. Fortunately, she’d been raised with brothers so she was fluent in the language of smart-ass. “Ha, ha. Very funny,” she said and bit back a grin.

Tony’s smile widened. “Actually, you did just fine. For a beginner. Looks like shit now, though.” He frowned at a slightly pale Resa. “What have you been up to, huh?”

“Oh, the usual,” Resa replied mildly but Tony apparently knew her rather well.

“Uh-huh. I can see that. Thought you gave that up…or was that just rumor?”

“No,” she said softly, her glance dropping to her hands. “I gave it up. This is just…” Her words trailed off as her eyes rose to meet Jennifer’s. “A miscalculation on my part.”

Tony glanced between them and snorted. “Miscalculation, huh? Pretty deadly miscalculation if you ask me.”

“Almost,” she acknowledged.

“Well, let’s see what we can do here with the consequences of your ‘miscalculation.’”

He reached over to take hold a pair of scissors and snipped along the seam of the T-shirt and Ace bandage until Resa’s wound was exposed. Jennifer winced involuntarily at the sight and dropped her eyes. Now that she didn’t have to be so brave, her intense dislike for all things bloody resurfaced, as did the weakness in her knees. Yowza, didn’t we just go through this?

As if sensing the younger woman’s unease, Resa lightly tapped her on the arm to get her attention.

“Maybe you should go make some of those calls,” she suggested, her eyes closely watching Jennifer’s face. “Cancel those credit cards.”

Jennifer felt eternally grateful to the other woman. “Yeah. That’s…a good idea.” And quickly left the room in search of a free phone line.

* * * *

Resa watched the door click closed behind Jennifer as the younger woman exited and felt a strong, protective rush deep in her gut. This was a damnable situation all around and Jennifer was smack dab in the middle of it all because of her. Because of her…Christ, how many times would that refrain continue to haunt her?

“Nice kid,” Tony murmured.

“Yes. She is.” She could feel his strong fingers work with impressive care on her wound. It had always surprised her that a man as strong as Tony could also be so amazingly gentle.

“How’d she hook up with a hard ass like you?” he asked amiably before dabbing an alcohol soaked cotton square around the perimeter of her wound. She flinched a little before he carefully snipped the previous stitches to remove them.

“It was Father Hector’s idea,” she said through gritted teeth.

Dark eyes met hers. “Some sort of ‘Adopt a White Kid’ program?” he asked with a crooked grin which she shared after the initial throe died down.

“She’s a college kid he wants to write my life story. Thinks it’ll help keep me away from the Vartans.”

Tony snorted. “Doin’ a bang up job so far I see.”

“Well, at least I’m running from them and not trying to rejoin them,” she said wryly.

“Like that’s possible after. . .” His voice trailed off and the room grew thick with unspoken, painful memories.

“Yeah,” she agreed softly and for several moments neither spoke.

“So…you really give it all up?” he asked.

She met his eyes with an unflinching gaze. “Absolutely.”

He seemed to accept this after a moment, his attention returning to her wound. “Glad to hear it,” he murmured.

“Yeah?”

He nodded. “You deserve better. You always did.”

She shook her head gravely. “I don’t know about that.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do but, then again, you were always a stubborn one. I can tell you’re holding onto your guilt as hard you used to hold onto your hatred and that’s not gonna get you where you need to go either. You’re gonna have to forgive yourself eventually, Resa. It’s the only way.”

She felt a little uncomfortable and tried to dispel this sudden turn in the discussion with a teasing, “Marriage make you philosophical, Tony?”

He chuckled but never broke his concentration on his task.

“Maybe. Or maybe just bein’ happy is enough. Makes me want to see those I care about be happy, too.” He glanced up now, his expression sincere. “I got out. Made a new life for myself when everyone ‘round me was sayin’ it was impossible, that I’d never change. Now most of them are dead or in prison and here I am. A legitimate doctor. I did it, Resa and you can too. As long as you believe you can, believe you deserve it.”

She couldn’t look away from the candor in his eyes and it felt as if a vice had closed around her heart. “I don’t know what I believe in anymore,” she said. “I feel…” Her eyes closed against the ache. “…hollow.” The word came out on a whisper.

He gently brushed the bangs off her forehead. “Then you need to find something to fill your heart.”

Her short laugh was devoid of humor. “How?”

“That’s for each of us to figure out on our own. It’s different for everybody…But I do know this. You’re such a stubborn son of a bitch it’s gonna take someone pretty damn extraordinary to get past all the barriers you have up.”

Her sigh was laden with doubt. “You think there really is such a someone?”

“Yeah. I do…but you’re the one who has to be willing to see…”

* * * *

In all it took Jennifer nearly forty five minutes to cancel three credit cards and report her drivers license stolen which, given the nature of modern, automated phone systems, was pretty darn good.

Then she phoned her landlady to tell her about her stolen purse and to ask her to watch over her apartment the next few days. Mrs. Goldman was a well-meaning crone whose annoying tendency to pay extraordinary attention to anything and everything that transpired in her complex now, ironically, came in handy. The nosey widow naturally insisted Jennifer give her every detail about the ‘crime’ — “You poor girl! You must have been terrified!” — which left the college student to quickly spin a fanciful tale about purse snatchers and friends from The Valley with whom she’d decided to spend some time…Okay, it was a lie, but she had no intention of telling the chatterbox about her little sojourn to East Los Angeles…nor about Resa. She didn’t know how, but she felt certain dear Mrs. Goldman would find a way to mention it next time her parents were in town and that was to be avoided at all costs…In the end Mrs. Goldman promised to pay extra attention to apartment 7B and be on the lookout for any ‘nefarious characters.’

One of the clinic’s nurses had brought her to Dr. Marcus’ office where she had placed the calls. It didn’t escape her notice when the nurse had made a bit of a show about leaving the door open behind her, as if to say she didn’t fully trust her but was still following Dr. Marcus’ wishes. Oh, well. Who could blame her? The nurse didn’t know her from Adam, she could have been anyone, especially in this city. Still, it irked the Mid Western girl inside her a little, this lack of trust she found so often on display around her, irrational though those feelings may be. Perhaps because her first instinct was always to look for the good within the other person, not the suspicion, she would never truly understand this distrustful attitude. It was a terribly naïve outlook, of that she was aware, but it was an intrinsic part of who she was and she never wanted to lose that. Never wanted to grow too callused to the emotions of those around her like so many others.

Jennifer was just starting to rise from her chair when the sounds of nearby voices coming from the nurses’ break room caught her attention. Well, it wasn’t so much the voices that pricked up her ears as the mention of a familiar name. Resa Gustavez. Jennifer stopped in her tracks, knowing it wasn’t right to eavesdrop but powerless to prevent herself from doing just that.

“What’s she doin’ back?” the first female voice asked in a tone that fairly oozed malice.

“I dunno. Looks like she done got herse’f in a heap a trouble,” replied the second. “Again.”

“And Dr. Marcus is supposed to just fix it all, huh? Sheeeet, That one has no cares for nobody but herself, I’m telling you.”

“You got that right. She scares me what with all she’s done.”

“I guess she musta just come out, eh?”

“Yeah, and already back at it.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

Suddenly Jennifer heard the sound of footsteps as a third person must have entered the break room. “Ya’ll better hush up,” said a third, deliberately quiet voice that was more difficult to hear. “I can hear ya all the way down the hall and Resa’s friend is just in the next room.”

“Shit!” Voice Number One.

“Resa Gustavez has a friend?” Voice Number Two.

“I don’t know what she is but she’s with Resa so shut up.” Voice Number Three.

Jennifer flushed with embarrassment. Even though technically she hadn’t been caught listening in, she felt as if she had. She quickly exited the room, careful to avoid glancing through the break area door as she passed, and made it back to the examination room. She stopped directly outside and drew in a deep breath.

I guess she musta just got out, eh? one of the women had said of Resa and Jennifer felt a prickling of unease. Given Resa’s background she had a pretty good idea what the women were referring to…and she wasn’t entirely certain how she felt about that.

She knocked twice before opening the door. Resa and Tony were seated across from each other, talking, the sewing procedure already completed. She noted Resa had changed into a fresh, dark blue T-shirt that bore the vet hospital’s insignia — a cartoon rendering of a happy dog and cat — on the left breast pocket. It looked totally out of place on the former gangster. Jennifer also noted the color was already returning to the other woman’s cheeks and felt mildly relieved about that at least.

Both Resa and Tony glanced up from their conversation as she entered and closed the door behind her.

“How’d it go?” Resa asked.

Jennifer crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. “Well, they can’t get to my credit…of course, now neither can I so that kind of leaves us in a bind.”

Tony scratched his chin. “You guys are broke, huh?”

“I have forty four dollars and seventy three cents…And a stamp,” Jennifer said ruefully, her eyes drawn back to Resa as a dozen questions immediately leapt to the forefront of her mind.

“You have a stamp?” Tony said with great interest.

“Uh, yeah.” she answered, dragging her eyes away from the other woman.

He stuck out his hand. “That just happens to be the exact amount this little procedure cost. Fork it over.” Jennifer laughed as she reached into her jeans to extract the piece of postage and hand it to the vet. “Excellent. I am so late with this cable bill they’re gonna turn me off and it’s not like I don’t have the money, I’m just too damn busy to buy damn postage.”

Jennifer chuckled and Resa grinned. Then Tony grew a bit more serious.

“So, what are you going to do, huh?” he asked. “Not much money between you and the Vartans on your tail. You know I’d take you in, but — ”

“I wouldn’t let you…and I don’t think Karen would be too happy about that either.” Tony grinned, then nodded his head sheepishly. “Besides, I have a plan,” Resa continued smoothly.

“You do?” Jennifer and Tony echoed in union, earning an arched dark eyebrow in response.

“Yeeeees, I do.” Resa drawled and Jennifer fought down the wave of impatience that swelled inside her chest as Resa failed to elaborate on what her ‘said plan’ might be. Would she have to pry every piece of information out of the other woman every single time? Apparently so.

“Care to share?” the college senior prompted at last, deliberately keeping her tone light.

Resa just gave her a look…eyes slightly narrowed and lips somewhat pursed with a restrained smile…

* * * *

“A convent?” Jennifer repeated incredulous. “Did you say convent?”

“Yes.” Resa said.

“With nuns?”

“Yes.”

Pause. “And, you want us to hide out there?”

“That’s the idea.”

Jennifer searched the dark-haired woman’s inscrutable face, then shook her head. “Wow.” She sat in silence for a long moment, her gaze drifting out the bus’ window as they rode past the infamous Echo Park Lake.

The late afternoon sun shimmered across the water’s surface, casting into shadow the casual fishermen and mothers pushing their children’s carriages around cement pathways. It was a small lake that somehow managed to maintain its considerable repute despite the dangers of the area in which it existed. In the center there was a small island with numerous palm trees that stretched high into the cloudless sky and couples could be seen cuddling on blankets beneath the green branches. In its own way, Echo Park was a man-made oasis in this desert of concrete and graffiti, providing a much needed haven…but you sure as hell didn’t want to be anywhere near it after dark.

Which was fast approaching.

Jennifer glanced out the corner of her eye at her traveling companion. Resa’s body was tense and alert to any sign of potential danger as her eyes continued to dart around the mostly empty bus, wary of every passenger. They had left the Marcus Vet Clinic to board the inner-city bus nearly a half hour earlier and it had taken this long for Jennifer to pry their destination from the dark-haired woman. Needless to say, it wasn’t quite what she’d anticipated.

“What makes you think they’ll even take us in?” Jennifer asked.

Resa didn’t respond for a long moment. “They might not,” she said with a slight seemingly unconcerned shrug but Jennifer sensed there was more going on beneath the surface.

Jennifer threw frustrated hands in the air. “Why do I get the feeling you’re not telling me something? Oh. That’s right. Because you never tell me anything.”

Resa glanced down at the smaller woman, then said simply, “I used to live there.” This caught Jennifer totally off guard and it must have shown as a hint of a smile flirted around Resa’s blue eyes. “Not recently.”

“You lived in a convent?” Resa nodded and Jennifer somehow managed not to laugh in astonishment. “Well, you’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

Resa merely inclined her head to one side as if to say, perhaps…

“How long ago were you there?”

Blue eyes took on a faraway expression. “It feels like a lifetime ago…I was ten when I first entered Sacred Heart and left not long after my fourteenth birthday.”

“Four years? You had four years of convent life? And you still joined a gang?”

“I was a student, not one of the nuns,” she said dryly.

“Hmmm…You have a point…Do they know about your, um, you know…”

“My past?”

“Yeah. That.”

“I imagine they do. They were always well informed.”

Jennifer felt the bus slow to a stop and Resa stood, her hand on the torn vinyl seat in front of them.

“We get off here. C’mon.” And she headed with distinct purpose to the back door of the bus. Jennifer swallowed back the tart retort to the innately commanding attitude the older woman exuded, grabbed the bag of medical supplies Dr. Marcus had provided for them and followed her off the bus into the fading sunlight of the approaching evening.

They walked for a couple blocks and Jennifer noted the distinct tenseness to Resa’s posture as they forged ahead out in the open. This hiding and looking over the shoulder business was all new to the college student, but Resa handled it as one who’d already made such behavior routine. What would it be like to have that paranoia be a constant part of your daily life? To have no haven in which to retreat? To trust no one?

Resa stopped abruptly and Jennifer had to pull up quickly not to slam into the tall woman’s back.

“Here,” Resa said.

Jennifer took a step back and noticed for the first time the high, white brick wall that wrapped around half the block. Impressive though it was, the wall was still not enough to obscure the view of the majestic, six story house that stood behind it. Actually, it was more a mansion than a mere house, the sort that when buffed and polished would easily command millions were it but in a different neighborhood rather than this area of the acutely poor and easily dismissed.

Standing before the imposing, ten foot solid oak doorway, Jennifer vaguely felt like Dorothy as she first attempted to enter the magic kingdom of Oz, only here her companion was a six-foot, ebony haired Amazon of a woman with a piercing, blue eyed stare. Hardly Toto…

A small intercom was situated next to the imposing entrance and Resa pressed the button. It took a few moments before a gentle, soothing voice answered from within.

“Welcome to St. Ruth’s of the Sacred Heart. This is Sister Therase, how may I help you?”

Resa tipped her head up and Jennifer followed the direction of her gaze to a small security camera tucked in the corner of the doorway. It appeared the sisters were high-tech.

“I need to speak with the Mother Superior,” Resa said.

“And whom may I say is inquiring?” came back the disembodied voice, still as sweet as molasses.

Resa cocked her head to one side, as if considering something for a moment, then said simply, “Resa Gustavez.”

 

CHAPTER SIX

So this is what the inside of a convent looked like, Jennifer mused as her eyes darted around every nook and cranny of the surprisingly exquisite marbled and wooden foyer. Given her most prominent paradigm of such an institution came from The Sound of Music, the Convent of St. Ruth’s of the Sacred Heart wasn’t at all what she’d expected. A former mansion from the early part of the 20th century, the interior and exterior of the estate projected an image of understated opulence that she couldn’t have begun to anticipate. She’d always thought of a convent as a plain, stark environment and while the décor was certainly understated and modest, there was just no disguising the classic beauty of the interior design. This place was conceived to inspire and no amount of simplification on the part of the sisters could alter that fact.

As they passed through the foyer, Jennifer noticed a set of double doors to her right that, though closed, gave the impression of being the gateway to something extraordinary.

“That’s our South Parlor,” Sister Therase said helpfully, having noticed the direction of Jennifer’s gaze. “We rent that out for weddings or conferences or for movie people as a way to help the upkeep around here. It can get most overwhelming at times, what with having to buy new school supplies and books for so many of the little ones.” She smiled warmly.

Jennifer found herself smiling back. At least this young nun was closer to what she’d expected. Sister Therase was a diminutive woman who made Jennifer’s average 5’4″ frame seem statuesque by comparison and who carried about her an air of gentle enthusiasm that her traditional white habit and wimple could not contain. Jennifer had a vague memory that nuns didn’t have to wear the whole kit-n-kaboodle outfit anymore since Vatican II, but apparently some orders opted to go with it and this Sacred Heart appeared to be one. She was glad they did. Somehow to her a nun wasn’t as impressive dressed in everyday clothes. Perhaps that had more to do with the type of attire chosen by most sisters which, because of their humble nature, always left them looking frumpish rather than inspiring deep feelings of religious devotion. Even to a non-Catholic, there was something kinda groovy about seeing a nun in full regalia. It may have had to do with the Hollywood depiction she’d seen as a child but whenever she saw a nun in her habit she couldn’t help thinking they were one good, stiff breeze away from taking flight.

She decided not to mention this to Sister Therase.

Jennifer briefly glanced at the lithe lines of Resa’s back evident through the T-shirt as they followed the diminutive sister through the foyer. Try as she might, she simply couldn’t conjure the image of the imposing former gang leader as a young school-girl innocently running through these hallowed halls. Such an attempt would have been difficult even if she hadn’t known about the other woman’s ruthless past for Resa gave the impression of having never been young. Rather it was as if she’d sprouted fully armed from Zeus’ forehead, ready to do battle, only without Athena’s intrinsic sense of justice.

All three rounded a corner that took them down a long, narrow hallway with high ceilings and nearly collided with another nun.

“Oh, excuse me, Sister,” exclaimed a startled Sister Therase. “I did not see you there.”

“It’s all right, Therase,” the second nun replied smoothly but her eyes were fastened exclusively on Resa. “The Reverend Mother has asked me to retrieve our guest. She is most anxious to see her.” The young nun addressed Resa directly. “You are Resa Gustavez?”

Ice blue eyes returned the stare with equal intensity and Jennifer could tell the dark-haired woman’s defenses were up in full. She paused a long moment before replying. “Yes,” she said, her tone guarded. “And you are?”

“You may call me Sister Stephanie.”

A dark brow arched wryly. “Oh, may I?”

Brown eyes narrowed at the overtly sarcastic tone.

“Actually, there are two guests,” Therase interjected quickly in an effort to dispel the sudden tension. “Sister Stephanie, I’d like to introduce you to Jennifer — ” She paused, as if suddenly aware she hadn’t been told the younger woman’s last name.

Jennifer quickly stepped up, extending her hand. “Logan. Jennifer Logan. Hi, nice to meet you.”

Sister Stephanie’s dark eyes turned upon her with a reserve that bordered on hostile before glancing at the outstretched hand and taking it in a stern though brief shake.

“Hello,” she murmured without conviction.

Sister Stephanie was young, perhaps close to Jennifer’s own age, and possessed a natural beauty that was striking even through the restrictions of her wimple. Whereas Sister Therase gave the initial impression of a nun to the point of cliche — plain, cheerful, and overtly kind — Sister Stephanie most certainly did not. Wide brown eyes framed with thick lashes flicked over Jennifer’s figure before returning to Resa, having apparently found the younger woman’s presence easily dismissable.

Sister Stephanie addressed Resa. “Come this way, please.” Then glanced over at Sister Therase. “Sister, why don’t you show Miss Logan the gardens.”

Jennifer stiffened at the younger nun’s tone. She was being brushed aside, and none-too-subtly either. Okay, nun or no nun, this really pissed Jennifer off. She drew in a breath to speak when she caught Resa’s eyes on her. The dark-haired woman shook her head almost imperceptibly but it was enough for Jennifer to understand and hold her tongue. Fine. She’d play along, bide her time in the gardens. But the former gang leader had better tell her everything later. There was only so much of this following blindly she could tolerate.

Jennifer smiled brilliantly at Sister Therase. “As it happens, I’m a sucker for a good garden. Lead on.”

* * * *

Resa watched Jennifer trail after the smaller nun and felt a smile creep up on her unbidden. Clearly the college Senior knew she was being foisted off on the unsuspecting sister and didn’t like the notion one bit. But she recognized the necessity of it and went along. She was a good kid in that way and Resa liked that about her. Truth be told, there were several things she liked about the Kid. She was so different from any of the other gringas she’d met before. Smart. Strong. Even funny. If she’d been initiated into the Vartans, they’d have given her a nickname to match her eyes and the way they lit up when she smiled…but a kid like Jennifer would never let herself get mixed up in a gang. She was too good for that. Too pure of heart. Gangs were for the weak…

“Miss Gusatvez,” a voice to her left said.

Resa glanced over at the brown-eyed nun and the slight smile hovering over her lips dissipated.

Sister Stephanie silently indicated the way down the long hallway to her right and Resa started on, very aware of the other woman’s presence by her side. She didn’t know the exact reason the nun had taken such an instantaneous and obvious disliking to her but she had long since grown accustomed to such behavior from others. It seldom garnered more than amusement from her and now was no exception.

She could feel the young nun’s eyes fasten on her with a boldness that had long since passed being impolite. Without turning, she murmured, “Something about me you find fascinating?”

“Yes,” Sister Stephanie said without hesitation. “I’ve never met a murderer before.”

The word felt like a physical blow to her midsection and, oddly, her first thought was she was glad Jennifer hadn’t been present to hear it. Resa stopped and turned narrow eyes on the other woman.

“I’m so honored to be your first,” she said, her voice dangerously low.

The two women locked eyes in a silent battle of wills and the thin veil of courtesy now completely dropped away.

“How do you live with yourself?” the nun asked harshly.

“By not dying,” came the terse reply, belying the self-animus that raged beneath her breast.

Brown eyes raked her over in blatant disgust. “It doesn’t bother you at all, does it? All the pain you’ve caused others. The lives you’ve ruined.”

“Have we ever met before, Sister?”

A slight pause…”No.”

Eyes bore into hers with a flash of icy fierceness. “Then don’t ever presume to know how I feel or don’t feel.”

Anger had apparently gotten hold of Sister Stephanie as she continued, heedless of the warning in the taller woman’s tone.

“I’ve heard about you, Resa Gustavez of the Vartan Bloods. And I know what you’ve done.” Her lips curled in distaste. “How you abide facing yourself in the morning knowing what you’re responsible for is beyond me.”

Resa bit back on the rage that threatened to consume her. No, no, no…She had to control herself. It was imperative. Besides, she wouldn’t give the other woman the satisfaction of knowing just how damn hard it was, every minute of every hour of every day, to endure the guilt of her past actions without giving up. And there were so many days when she’d felt like doing exactly that. But somehow she didn’t…though she couldn’t say for certain why.

“I’ve long since confessed my sins, Sister,” she said once she’d disciplined herself. “So why don’t you just lead me to the Mother Superior like a good little nun and check that holier than thou attitude at the door. ‘kay?”

The look she received in response was withering yet the other woman spun on heel to silently lead her the rest of the way down the hall to stop in front of a set of closed, oak doors which were slightly more elaborate than the others they’d passed.

“Stay,” Sister Stephanie said in a clipped tone as if to a dog, then ducked inside. Only a few moments passed before the doors were thrown open to allow Resa’s entrance.

“Come,” the young nun said and stepped aside.

Resa took a step forward and leaned in close enough so that only Sister Stephanie could hear.

“I’m not your pet. It’d be wise for you to remember that.”

Without waiting for a response she brushed past the nun to enter the Mother Superior’s office.

It was almost exactly as she remembered. The distinct waxy odor from the dozen or so unlighted candles brought back a rush of memories from her childhood that hadn’t been touched upon since she’d left Sacred Heart. It was a fairly large room with three enormous, full-length windows dominating the wall to her right. But their wooden blinds were drawn closed, casting the area in growing shadows broken only by the light from the lamp perched atop the wide oak desk. She’d been here so many times in the past and it held so many memories, some good, some painful and one… She swallowed. It was in this room that she’d first learned about Luis…

“Well, well, well,” came a voice from across the room. “The prodigal has returned.”

Resa froze in her tracks, her blood chilled. She didn’t need to see to know the identity of the speaker; she recognized the voice quite well. Sister Mary Elizabeth…better known as ‘The Gorgon.’ In an instant a dozen different emotions coursed through her and she was surprised, with as much as she’d been through since their last meeting, that the mere sound of the other woman’s sharp timbre could raise within her such undeniable dread…yet it did. Funny how childhood anxieties never truly leave us as we grow older. They just get transmuted into something else until they are unexpectedly brought screaming back in a flash. But why did it have to be here and why now?

She slowly turned her eyes to meet those of her youthful nemesis and managed to cover her surprise at seeing how much the other woman before her had aged in the ensuing years. Which was only natural, of course. Yet she held in her mind’s eye a mental snapshot of a harsh woman with hawkish features and taut skin that always seemed to glisten. Now those features had begun to sag and droop and lines of Middle Age had long since deepened with more advanced years…But the greatest surprise of all — and not a happy one at that — was Sister Mary Elizabeth now wore the habit of the Mother Superior.

Resa frowned. “Where’s Mother Gloria?” she asked, referring to the Mother Superior from her childhood. Mother Gloria had been Resa’s one salvation from her time with the nuns, the salve to her childish wounds and the closest thing she’d come to having a loving maternal figure in her life.

“Retired a year ago. I’m the Mother Superior now,” Sister Mary Elizabeth said with a glimmer of satisfaction in her faded hazel eyes and Resa felt the older woman was enjoying her discomfort in this situation. Of all the nuns from her childhood, it would have to be Sister Mary Elizabeth who got put in charge of the Sacred Heart.

“Have a seat.” Sister Mary Elizabeth indicated the simple chair opposite her desk then glanced over Resa’s shoulder to where Sister Stephanie lingered. “That will be all, Sister. Thank you for your assistance.”

Through the glass reflection off the oil rendering of the Virgin Mary Resa could see Sister Stephanie visibly hesitate before exiting the room at last and closing the door behind her.

“What brings you here, Resa?” Sister Mary Elizabeth asked, attempting to keep her tone neutral and were she addressing one less perceptive, she’d have been successful. But Resa knew her too well. Still, she had to proceed forward. It was important, and not just to her anymore. There was another whose concern was at stake.

She took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “I need some help.”

The corner of the Mother Superior’s mouth twitched. “In trouble again.” It was not a question and Resa used all her still developing self-control not to say something she’d regret.

“Yes,” she replied simply. Her instincts told her it was wise to be completely honest with the woman before her; now was not the time to manipulate.

“But, it’s not your fault, of course” the nun said, her sarcasm now undisguised.

“No…” The Mother Superior’s face twisted with disdain. “…It’s my fault.” The hazel eyes opposite her widened slightly in surprise; this was clearly not the reply the nun anticipated from the former gang leader. Resa sighed. “It’s a long story but the Vartans are after us. I need a place to stay for a few days and I wondered –”

“Absolutely not.” Resa paused. “You were going to ask if you could stay here, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” the raven-haired woman confirmed.

“Then the answer is no,” the Reverend Mother stated sharply. “If that abominable gang of thugs with whom you used to associate is after you, then having you here can only mean danger to the sisters and the children and I will not bring such peril under my roof. I will not invite the serpent into Eden.”

Resa cocked a dark brow. “How poetic,” she said dryly.

“You have no one to blame but yourself for your situation, Resa Gustavez. It would be wise of you to accept that.”

Resa dropped her eyes to the top of the Mother Superior’s desk and was quiet for a long moment before she murmured, ” I have accepted it.” She met Sister Mary Elizabeth’s critical stare. “And you’re right to be careful. The last thing I want is to bring danger here… But I’m not the only one involved.”

“Oh, yes. You have a friend. Sister Stephanie mentioned you hadn’t come alone. Another gang member?”

The manner in which the Mother Superior referred to Jennifer, with such open contempt, instantly brought forth Resa’s protective instinct. She straightened in her chair. “No. She’s not like that at all. She’s…she’s good.”

“Really?” The nun clearly didn’t believe such an idea possible, that anyone of any worth would deign to be near a monster such as she.

“Yes. Really,” Resa said tightly. Maintaining a grip on her temper was more difficult than she’d anticipated under this barrage. “She just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Around you.”

“Yes,” she acknowledged.

“Is there ever a right time to be around you?”

With that, Resa’s tenuous hold on her ire snapped. She shook her head in disgust. “You know, I thought this was supposed to be s House of God. A place of welcome to all sorts of people, sinners as well as saints.” She stood abruptly. “I guess I was wrong.”

She made it across the room in three long strides and had the doorknob in hand before something within her, a voice she barely recognized, made her stop. It would be sooo easy to let her pride propel her onward, to chalk up this experience as a mistake and try to figure out an alternate plan. But there was no alternate plan. None of any viable nature. Resa had come to the Sacred Heart under the impression that Mother Gloria was still in charge and despite the unfortunate change of leadership, she knew without question staying here was still their best bet. The idea of Jennifer enduring some fleabag, rent by the hour hotel made her stomach turn. She couldn’t do that to the young college student. She was Resa’s charge now and she had to take care of her, even if it was at the expense of Resa’s pride.

The hand on the doorknob dropped to her side and she turned to face the Mother Superior who watched her every move. The air between them grew thick with a gravid silence and Resa recognized these next few seconds would determine everything; she had to be careful.

Then her eyes fell upon the shutters and an idea came to mind. Without a word, Resa crossed the distance to the full-length windows and flicked open each of the blinds, allowing a flood of the remaining golden sunlight to pour into the room. But, more important, she knew from experience these windows overlooked the impressive gardens of the Sacred Heart.

Resa turned to a Sister Mary Elizabeth forced to squint into the lingering remnants of the fading sun and pointed out the window.

“Her name is Jennifer Logan. She’s a college student who Father Hector Kulvane from the Santa Monica Parish asked to meet with me yesterday hoping that we could work together to try to…” she hesitated, then sighed a little. “Do something positive, I dunno. But what I do know is she’s not guilty of anything except trying to be a good and decent person. You don’t consider me worthy of your help…and I can’t say you’re wrong. But look at her, Sister. Look. She’s a nice kid and she is worthy. As worthy as any person you’ll ever hope to find. You feel it the moment you meet her.”

She ran a hand through her long dark hair and glanced back out the window to where she watched Jennifer and Sister Therase’s figures walk through the tall, green hedgerows. She noted Jennifer’s face alight at something the diminutive nun said and felt a brief, sharp twinge in her breast.

“She’s my responsibility,” she said quietly, unaware at how her expression softened as she beheld the younger woman through the glass. “I just want to make sure she’s all right until I can get her out of this mess, you have my word. And that’s why I want her to stay here, where she’ll be protected for a few days.” She turned her attention back to the ever-watchful Mother Superior. “Just her. That way you can keep this place safe and my presence won’t invite trouble.”
Sister Mary Elizabeth observed her closely for what felt an eternity, then stood. With small, studied steps she moved beside Resa and looked out the window. Her expression revealed neither clue nor suggestion as to what she might be contemplating as she gazed out over the gardens, her clasped hands hidden within the enormous sleeves of her habit. After a moment she tipped her head at an angle and narrowed her eyes.

“I have a responsibility, too,” she said thoughtfully but her voice no longer held as severe a tone. “To the sisters of the Sacred Heart and to the students who come here every day of the week. Parents trust their children to my care and I do not take their trust lightly. It would be sinfully remiss of me to bring even a hint of danger into our midst.” She flicked a brief glance at Resa, the returned her attention out the window. “That said, you’re quite right. This is indeed a House of God, where all people are welcome, sinners and saints…though I find the former to be in far greater abundance and have yet to meet any of the latter.” A lilt of irony floated about her words before she paused again as if to choose carefully what next she said. “How much time do you think you’ll need?”

Resa fought down the swell of hope that arose within her. “Four days,” she said evenly.

The Mother Superior pursed her lips. “I’ll give you two.”

“Done,” Resa agreed and turned to hide her dumfounded grin.

* * * *

Jennifer leaned in to inhale the sweet aroma of the gardenia then glanced over to where Sister Therase sat on a bench made of white marble.

“It’s so beautiful here,” Jennifer said in wonder, her eyes taking in the unexpected lushness of her surroundings.

The gardens were truly amazing. While the house projected an awe-inspiring marbled majesty, she felt the gardens invited a more intoxicating visual splendor. Standing in the heart of it all, Jennifer’s senses were filled with the fragrances of over a hundred different types of flowers and plants and East Los Angeles faded into the background as if it were no more than a bad dream. It was astonishing how, in the middle of all the violence and deterioration that lay just beyond the imposing walls, this group of nuns had managed to carve out so remarkable a sanctuary. Hedgerows that stood at least ten feet tall; a modest pond that held a small school of bright orange and gold Koei fish; a white, pillared gazebo tucked off in a far corner together united to create the effect of another time and place.

“How big is all this,” Jennifer asked, glancing down another row of hedges as the dimness of the early evening now served to cast everything in shadow. “It feels like it goes on forever.”

Sister Therase smiled. “Not quite. All in all the Sacred heart takes up about half of a city block but the gardens are designed to twist and curve to make it seem even larger.”

“Who designed them?”

“Oh, the gardens have been essentially unchanged since Sister Beatrice arranged them back when the house was first donated to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart by a Xavier O’Malley.”

“So it was donated. I wondered about that.”

It only made sense that a place as wonderfully extravagant as this would not have been the original design of an institution as conservative as the Catholic Church. True the Catholics had the gaudy spectacle of the Vatican as well as countless gothic churches scattered around the world to their credit, but the house of the Sacred Heart projected a decidedly more secular aura of affluence.

“Oh, yes. And it’s quite a romantic story, too.”

Jennifer smiled as the other woman fairly twittered with excitement at the prospect of relating the tale and, well, Jennifer was hardly one to prevent the telling of a good story…

“How so?”

Sister Therase needed no further prompting. “Well,” she began, clasping her hands together. “At the turn of the Century a young peasant girl named Marianna Ramirez lived in a poor village down in Mexico. Marianna worked her father’s farm with her brothers and sisters but from her early years knew in her heart of hearts that she would become a nun. She was by all accounts a lovely young girl with a pure and kind heart and she was beloved by many. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for her to enter the Church.

“Then one day an American man from California by the name of Xavier O’Malley stumbled into the village and collapsed, apparently suffering from influenza (which had seized the country with abandon at that time). No one in the village would help him, all being too afraid of going anywhere near one who carried what was then considered tantamount to a death sentence. Only young Marianna would risk infection as she helped nurse the strange man back to health. And as she nursed him she learned about his life and what had brought him so far from home.

“Apparently Mr. O’Malley was a boxer who killed a man and left his country over the matter (he was acquitted of any wrongdoing as I understand it). His travels brought him to Mexico and ultimately to Marianna’s village. It was to no one’s surprise that the two fell deeply in love. Xavier stayed in the village for several months, by all accounts blissfully happy… until word reached him of American involvement in what was then known as The Great War.”

“World War I,” Jennifer acknowledged as she moved to sit beside the young nun on the bench.

“Exactly. Now, Xavier felt compelled, as did many of the young men at the time, to join his fellow Americans in the fight so he returned to his homeland to sign up, reluctantly leaving Marianna behind. It wasn’t long before he was overseas and in the center of battle. He was a gifted warrior and quickly rose through the ranks with his courage and cunning. He wrote daily to Marianna and his letters were the only joy she knew as the months stretched on and on…until one day they suddenly stopped coming. She grew fearful but could find no reason for this to be so other than that Xavier was dead. She held out hope until after the signing of the Treaty at Versailles which brought about the end of the war; but Xavier did not return with the other veterans. Marianna wanted to go to America to find out what became of him but didn’t have the first clue where to begin nor did she have enough money for her search. And she felt, deep down, that were Xavier alive, he would have returned to her. So, two years after the end of WWI, Marianna did the only thing she could — she entered the convent.

“For the next few years or so she served her people as a Sister of the Sacred Heart, changing her name to Sister Beatrice. But she never forgot Xavier. Eventually she came to America and ended up in the city of the Angels working for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in the poor, run-down area. It was dangerous then much as it is now so it was hardly surprising when one day Sister Beatrice was accosted by a roughian not far from where the convent of the Sacred Heart was then situated. But the criminal was frightened away by a stranger who came to her aid from out of nowhere… just like in the movies…and that stranger turned out to be Xavier.”

Jennifer’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “He was alive?”

“Yes. Sister Beatrice was stunned to learn that he had not died in the war as she thought but was instead gravely wounded and deeply scarred both physically and emotionally. He wasn’t the same man she once knew and he felt it was better for her to believe him dead than to see him in such a broken-down condition.”

“What was wrong with him?” asked Jennifer, utterly entranced.

“I don’t know exactly. Something to do with his legs. I think they were horribly broken and left him with a terrible limp. Either that, or he may have even lost one in the battle. I just know it devastated him and left him feeling as if he couldn’t inflict himself on one as sweet and good as Marianna.”

“He didn’t trust that she would love him no matter what?” Jennifer said, vaguely aware of a peculiar anger swelling in her chest.

Sister Therase shrugged. “Romantic love is strange from what I understand.”

Jennifer had no response for such a statement as she had no greater insight to the notion than the nun before her. Romantic love was not now nor had it ever been an active participant in her life so she could not personally vouch for its ‘strangeness.’

“Where had Xavier been this whole time?” she asked instead.

“Living in America. Apparently he had used his winnings from his boxing days and his family’s wealth to build a house of breathtaking grandeur.”

“Here?” She waved her hand to indicate the Sacred Heart.

Sister Therase nodded. “Yes. And it was here that he’d been hiding the whole time.”

“What did Marianna do when she realized Xavier was alive? Did they get together.”

Sister Therase shook her head. “No. Naturally when Marianna learned her love was alive she contemplated leaving the convent, but Xavier refused to allow it. Too much of her life and soul were tied up in her work with the Sisters and he felt too much had transpired for them to ever get together so Marianna remained Sister Beatrice.”

Jennifer frowned. In her heart she felt instinctively that was not how the story should have ended; Xavier and Marianna were in love, they should have ended up together…but she also knew herself to be something of a romantic despite her own lack of experience in such regards and she was keen enough to know real life seldom ended up as it should.

“So they parted?”

“For a while…But Xavier couldn’t stand not having Marianna near him so he donated his house and the surrounding land to the Convent of the Sacred Heart with the stipulation that it be turned into a school and that Sister Beatrice be a part of that school. Xavier stayed on as the head gardener, choosing to live in a small room in the back of the house and never speaking to Sister Beatrice again until the night of his death three years later. No one knows what he said to her before he passed on as his death took place in private, with just the two of them.

“Not long after Sister Beatrice took a vow of silence and turned all of her attention to the construction of this glorious garden. Xavier O’Malley was buried in a tomb at the back of the property, built over, in fact, the place where he lived out his final days. Sister Beatrice died sometime later and was buried in the tomb alongside Xavier where they remain to this day.”

Jennifer’s eyes widened. “They’re both buried here?” Sister Therase nodded. “Can I see them?” she asked anxiously.

Sister Therase considered the possibility then smiled. “I don’t see why not.” And stood abruptly.

But the suddenness of her movement had a strange effect on the young nun. Her expression grew unexpectedly slack and she reached out in near desperation to grasp Jennifer’s hand. The college student quickly moved to steady the swaying woman and help her back to the bench where she resumed sitting.

“Are you all right?” Jennifer asked with concern as she knelt looking up into the nun’s wan face.

Sister Therase nodded but Jennifer wasn’t convinced. She could see tiny beads of sweat break out along the woman’s brow and tightened her hold on the nun’s thin fingers.

“I’m going to go get help,” she said firmly and started to stand but Sister Therase hastily took hold of Jennifer’s other hand.

“No. Please. You’ll just worry the others.” She drew in a deep, stabilizing breath. “I’ll be all right in a moment. I must have arisen too fast.”

“What’s wrong with you?” the younger woman asked.

Sister Therase smiled wryly. “My heart. It has always been weak.”
Jennifer gasped a bit in surprise. The nun seemed so vivacious, so effortlessly energetic that such a malady as dire as this seemed impossible.

“Are you in pain?”

“No, no. Just dizzy. I’ll be fine. Really.” Sister Therase looked slightly worried. “Please don’t tell the others. They’ll just get needlessly bothered by it, especially Sister Stephanie. She gets worried about me so easily.”

Jennifer found that idea difficult to believe, given what little she’d seen of the peevish nun but refrained from comment out of respect.

“All right,” she said after a moment and against her better judgment. “But if this happens again, I won’t stay silent.”

Sister Therase smiled and patted Jennifer’s cheek. “Of course. Thank you dear.”

Jennifer was about to answer when she suddenly felt an odd tingling crawl up the back of her neck and knew before she turned that Resa would be there. As, indeed, she was. Having just arrived to stand at the end of the hedgerow, quietly watching. And it was the fact that such awareness didn’t surprise her in the slightest that genuinely gave her pause…

Blue eyes stared at her with their characteristic intensity before they turned to Sister Therase. Jennifer noted the slight frown that flickered across her brow before the expression turned once again impassive and she knew Resa had instinctively sensed something was wrong even if she didn’t quite know what.

“Everything okay?” the dark-haired woman asked, a light wariness to her tone.

Sister Therase answered before Jennifer could even drawn a breath. “Of course. I was just telling Jennifer here how the gardens came to be. Are you familiar with the story?”

A tiny smile pulled at the corner of Resa’s mouth. “Yeah, I’ve heard it before.”

“Didn’t you think it was sad?” Jennifer asked.

“I suppose.” Resa shrugged, clearly disinterested.

Jennifer made a little tsk of annoyance. “But Xavier and Sister Beatrice’s love was thwarted by the horrors of a war that left them forever parted.”

Resa rolled her eyes at the younger woman’s melodrama. “Maybe it was their destiny never to be together,” she said dismissively.

“That is so wrong.” Jennifer fairly pouted at the thought.

“Look, I need to talk to you.” She glanced at Sister Therase. “Excuse us a second.” Resa placed a hand on Jennifer’s upper arm to lead her off to one side, out of Sister Therase’s earshot.

Jennifer immediately picked up on a vague unease in her companion’s behavior and frowned. “What’s up?”

“I spoke with the Mother Superior and she’s agreed to let you stay here for a couple nights so you’ll be safe from the Vartans. Now, I – ”

“Wait, wait, wait.” She held up her hand and Resa paused. “You mean she’s agreed to let both of us stay, right?”

Resa stiffened a little. “No. It’ll just be you here.”

Jennifer’s frown deepened. “Why?”

“There are a lot of reasons. Now — ”

“Such as?”

Resa sighed in frustration. “It’s not important right now. Right now we just need to make sure you’re safe.”

“What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“Well, that’s just not an option. Of course I’m going to worry about you; we’re in this together and either we both stay here or we both find someplace else to camp out for the night.”

Resa set her jaw to one side in a look of barely suppressed irritation. “Such as where? The street? An abandoned building? A shelter?”

“Look, I have over forty dollars; we can get a room in a hotel or, or something but I’m not staying here without you. End of discussion.”

“You have no idea what you’re saying. This is the only sensible option for you -”

“For us.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t stay here,” she blurted harshly.

“Why?”

Resa sighed and her eyes fell. She hesitated before murmuring, “The Mother Superior won’t allow it.”

“Wha–?” Jennifer cried indignantly. “On what grounds?”

Resa clenched her jaw. “On the grounds that violence follows me…you know that by now.” The admission was one that clearly did not come easily for the dark-haired woman.

“But it’s not like you start it.”
“Doesn’t matter. The Mother Superior doesn’t want to tempt fate and I don’t blame her. She has other people to look out for and I…I can be a dangerous woman to be around.”

Jennifer observed Resa’s lowered gaze, the unconscious clenching of her fists, the way her voice dropped an octave as she spoke…and was deeply touched. Here before her now was a woman of surprising vulnerability and hidden sorrows, a woman with the capacity for great violence striving to perform what she felt was the right and noble action. To leave her at such a moment was simply not an option. It would be cruel and inhuman and, more than that, it would be a betrayal of one who had risked her very life to save Jennifer’s.

She reached out to gently cup Resa’s upper right shoulder, ducking her head a little until blue eyes rose reluctantly to meet her own.

“I won’t argue that violence follows you,” the younger woman said softly. “Obviously it does…but so do good things.”

“How can you say that?” Resa said, shaking her head incredulously. “You’re in this situation because of me. You’re in danger because I lead you to a bar I had no business bringing you to.”

Jennifer interrupted her. “Other people not only could have just left me there, but would have. Without a second thought…You didn’t.”

“That doesn’t make me a saint.”

“No. It makes you a good person.” She took a step closer, compassion churning within her. “I know you must have done some terrible things in your past —”

“You have no idea.” Her hushed voice came precariously close to trembling.

“No. I don’t. And I wouldn’t even try to guess…but that’s history now.”

“No.” Resa shook her head as a look of untold regret played over her face. “It’s with me every day. It’s who I am.”

“It’s who you were.”

“It’s who I will always be. Jennifer…you don’t know what I’m capable of doing.”

Jennifer swallowed hard against the catch of pain and regret she heard in the other woman’s voice and reached without forethought to clasp long fingers in her own. “I know you saved my life,” she said simply.

“After I endangered it.”

“Resa, I chose of my own free will to enter that bar. I’m not so naïve as to be clueless about what kind of place that was. I knew. And I went in regardless. You didn’t force me…just like you’re not forcing me now. This decision is mine to make and either we stay together or we leave together but no matter what, I am not remaining here without you. It’s that simple.”

Blue eyes held hers for what seemed like an eternity and within them Jennifer saw a flicker of…something. Hope? Hesitation? A yearning to believe…mingled with the fear of what believing brings…defenselessness and emotional exposure…Or perhaps all of the above.

But it was just a flicker, then Resa sighed, shook her head and lightly squeezed Jennifer’s fingers once before letting them drop.

“This is just crazy…” she murmured half to herself. “But all right.”

Jennifer gave her a look, half-surprised, half-teasing. “Did you just agree with me?”

Resa slowly smiled in return. “Yeah. But don’t get cocky,” she said, echoing their earlier exchange. “I have no idea what we’re gonna do from this point on.”

“What you will both do, of course, is stay here,” proclaimed a voice from the side and Jennifer and Resa turned in unison to see Sister Mary Elizabeth, the Mother Superior of the Sacred Heart, step forward from the shadows.

It was Jennifer’s first glimpse of the imposing older woman and she could not deny the slight shiver of intimidation the austere visage evoked within her. Visions of Dame Judi Dench danced in her head and she took an unconscious step closer to Resa.

“I insist,” the Reverend Mother continued as if her word was to be taken as law, then turned her attention exclusively to Jennifer. “You must be Jennifer. I am the Mother Superior.”

Jennifer was suddenly seized by the urge to curtsey but caught herself and instead managed to eke out a simple, “Hi.”

“I’d like to extend to you a sincere welcome.”

“To– to both of us,” Jennifer said cautiously and it was as much a statement as a question.

The Mother Superior nodded. “Of course.”

At this Resa seemed utterly perplexed. “But I thought —”

“The only real constant is change, Resa,” the Mother Superior interrupted smoothly before she could go any further. “And I changed my mind.”

“Why?”

“That’s not important right now; just be glad I did.” The two women locked eyes for several heartbeats until at last Resa silently acquiesced. The Mother Superior seemed satisfied and continued. “Sister Stephanie will escort you to your room. I’m afraid it’s not much. We are no longer a boarding school and most of the bedchambers have been converted into additional classes. But there’s a small apartment just outside the chapel which we keep for visitors and I think that applies here.”

A surge of joy and relief washed over Jennifer as she realized their most pressing dilemma was no more.

“Thank you,” she said, unable to keep the happy grin from her face. She glanced over at Resa where she saw the remnants of a doubt still lingered…until blue eyes slowly turned to catch her own and a look crept over her face as if to say, ‘I don’t understand this at all but what the heck.’ Jennifer laughed a little.

“Yes,” the former gang leader said, turning back to direct her words to the Reverend Mother. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Resa,” came the reply yet Jennifer received the distinct impression there was a wealth of meaning in the words not being spoken between these two. “Sister Stephanie is waiting for you just inside.”
CHAPTER SEVEN

In the bedroom of the guest apartment, Jennifer sat bent at the waist on the edge of her narrow cot and vigorously toweled dry her damp hair.

The shower had been pure bliss. It hadn’t occurred to her how much she’d been craving just such a refresher until the first blast of hot water had rolled across her face and she’d felt nearly weak in the knees at the glorious sensation. It had also served to bring home how utterly exhausted she was. She’d been running on instinct and adrenaline for darn near 48 hours now and with this opportunity to fully relax came, too, the recognition that she was drained. She wasn’t used to any of this. What did she know of Latino gangs and dropping from two story windows and hanging out in random convents for safekeeping? Good grief. If anyone had told her beforehand the events of these past two days she would have…would have…what? Not come? Called Father Hector to tell him he’d made a mistake? Left Resa alone in the apartment to fend for herself as she’d been instructed?

She paused. No. Being totally honest with herself she realized, in fact, if the Fates granted her the gift of definitive foresight about these two days past she would have changed nothing…okay, maybe the getting shot at part she would have eliminated, but really nothing other than that. The truth of the matter was these past two days had been the most exciting of her life and, as crazy as it seemed, a part of her was having…fun. So much so that deep within her sparked a quiet yet irrefutable voice that longed for more.

She sat up quickly and flipped her long hair back, fitting the towel between her shoulders and the slightly wet tresses. Oh, God, that was just nuts. She was running for her life; by all rights she should be a bundle of distress and neuroses.

Yet she wasn’t.

And she knew the lion’s share of responsibility for this lay with her companion throughout these misadventures. Resa Gustavez made her feel protected. Safe. When Jennifer reflected on the events in the abstract, she wondered at herself for this bit of outlandish confidence she placed in a woman about whom she knew so little. Yet still it felt like the most natural course of action. Logically she knew she should have gone to the police long ago but Resa’s reasoning was grounded in common street sense and to that she would defer. Many would not understand and indeed even she had to admit her behavior since her meeting with the charismatic Father Hector had been highly unusual. Perhaps that’s why I’m having such a good time, she reflected with a perverted sense of self-awareness. It made her smile.

Through the closed bathroom door linked to the bedroom she heard the muffled sound of the shower shut off and the faint click of the shower door opening. Resa was done.

Upon being escorted to the visitor quarters by the ever hostile Sister Stephanie, the first thing both women did was flip a coin for dibs on the shower. Even though Jennifer was almost dead certain she’d lost the toss, Resa insisted otherwise, thus allowing the younger woman to go ahead of her. It was behavior such as this that made her admiration for the former gang leader grow. Yesterday she told herself she’d liked Resa even though she didn’t quite know why; now she knew what before she’d sensed and was pleased she’d decided to stay with the injured woman when reason dictated — no, screamed — she should have left without a look back.

The bathroom door opened and Resa emerged. Jennifer tossed a glance over at her then did a double-take which she probably would have found amusing had she even been aware she’d done it.

The former gang leader wore the same type of shapeless, wheat-colored linen nightgown that the nuns had provided for her but somehow it didn’t look nearly as frumpy on the taller woman as did Jennifer’s own. And with Resa’s wet ebony hair slicked back from her face in a casual fashion she looked — even sans makeup — thoroughly stunning. Which caught the college student completely off guard.

Jennifer must have inadvertently gasped for Resa stopped to regard her warily.

“What?”

“You,” she answered with complete sincerity. “Have you ever considered being a model?” Even as the words tripped over her lips she realized how ludicrous they sounded and inwardly cringed. What the –?

A wry smile pulled at Resa’s mouth as she continued further into the room. “Yeah, sure. It was a tough decision…Gangsta, international model, gangsta, international model…” She sat on the bed opposite Jennifer’s cot and started to towel dry her own wet hair. “But then I realized as a model I’d probably have to do all those George Michael videos so I went with gangsta.” She favored the college student with a full, teasing smile that rolled into a laugh and somehow left her even more unbelievably gorgeous.

Jennifer joined her in the laughter even as she felt the heat of a blush steal over her face at her own faux pas. She suddenly felt like the High School nerd who had unexpectedly garnered the favor of the Prom Queen and shook her head at the notion. She’d been many things back in the day — over-achiever, class valedictorian, editor for the school paper — and while she’d never describe herself as ‘Most Popular,’ she most definitely had never been ‘The Nerd.’ So why did she suddenly feel this sense of awkwardness? This sudden, disconcerted rush?

“You never fail to surprise me,” Jennifer murmured, working to recover.

Resa gave her a bemused look. “Why do you say that?”

“Just when I think I have you figured out you do something like that, you say something…well, funny.”

The other woman cocked a dark brow. “You figured I didn’t have a sense of humor?”

“No. Just…you seem so incredibly serious. So…focused most of the time.”

Resa considered this for a moment, then nodded faintly. “I’m focused when I need to be, which,” she acknowledged with a grin. “. . is most of the time. But you gotta have a good sense of the ridiculous with the kinda life I’ve lead.”

“And what kind of life is that?” Jennifer asked with a genuine curiosity and was surprised at how quickly the light of humor was extinguished from Resa’s face. Blue eyes that had seconds ago radiated the warmth of common mirth now seemed as cold as December snow and Jennifer hurried to clarify. “Look, I didn’t ask the question because I plan to write about you; I got the message on that loud and clear. I just–” She paused as she fumbled over her words. “I only asked because I wanted to know more about you. That’s all.”

Slowly but unmistakably Resa’s walls of protection lowered again though her jovial mood did not return with equal speed. Instead she sighed, her own exhaustion naked in her every aspect.

“I know,” she said softly. “I…I’m just used to being defensive.”

“And I’m used to being totally open,” the college student replied.

The two women faced each other for a long moment, each equally aware of the disparate nature of their pairing. Truly they could not be more different, in both appearance and disposition, yet there was still the draw of fascination between them. And Jennifer felt with a certainty, it was something of which Resa was also cognizant.

Resa tossed her towel over the bedpost and leaned back on one elbow. Jennifer saw the faint flicker of pain dart across her eyes and immediately moved to the nearby chair where she’d set the small, plastic bag of supplies that Dr. Marcus had earlier given them.

“We need to change the bandages before you go to bed,” she said and was pleased when the other woman didn’t argue.

She removed the supplies and returned to kneel before Resa. The former gang leader unbuttoned the dainty two buttons at the top of her demure nightgown and pulled the opening over in an attempt to provide ample access to her wound, only to realize it wasn’t sufficient. Jennifer drew a breath with the idea of offering an alternative when strong hands reached up to rip the fabric along the shoulder’s seam.

“Or, we could just do that…” she said instead.

Resa glanced at her. “I’ll sew it up later.”

Jennifer blinked twice in astonishment. “You sew?”

The twinkle returned to her eyes. “I can do many things.”

“Of course you can,” the younger woman countered drolly then concentrated on the careful removal of the old, slightly damp gauze. With gentle fingers she slowly pulled off the thin white medical tape that held the gauze dressing in place and peered at the wound.

“Wow,” she said in surprise.

“What?”

Jennifer tipped her head to meet Resa’s eyes. “It looks so much better. The swelling is all but gone.”

Resa shrugged a little. “I heal quickly. Always have.”

“Convenient.” Off Resa’s look, “Given your past and all. Not that I’m asking you about your past,” she hastened to add. “Because I’m not. Does it still hurt?”
“Not much,” the dark-haired woman answered.

Jennifer eased the tip of her index finger around the edge of the tightly sewn wound where the fiery red distention from last night had already replaced itself with the healing darkening of a bruise which, by all rights, shouldn’t have happened for days after the initial injury.

She accidentally pressed a degree too hard and heard a quick intake of breath before strong fingers suddenly snatched back her hand with the speed of a cobra strike.

“That hurt,” Resa hissed. The grip was punishing and Jennifer cringed a little whereupon Resa instantly released her, almost contrite. “Sorry…It’s instinct.”

Jennifer rubbed her knuckles and wiggled her fingers. “No problem. I have two hands,” she said dryly. She pointed to the bullet wound. “Going back to work now, okay?” Resa nodded, a little sheepish. “But I promise to warn you before I press anything,” Jennifer added, just to be on the safe side.

They were both silent for a long moment after as Jennifer removed the used gauze, stained with blotches of old blood, and tossed it in the nearby trashcan. She soaked a cotton square in the hydrogen peroxide provided by Dr. Marcus then held it up for Resa to see.

“This is going to sting.”

Resa nodded and Jennifer applied the cold hydrogen compress to the edge of the wound, which produced not even a flinch from the other woman. Ahhhhh, forewarned is forearmed. Jennifer tore two fresh gauze squares from their sterile packages and was in the middle of adhering them to Resa’s skin when a lock of her hair fell across her eyes. She groaned in frustration, hands too busy to deal with the irritation, when unexpected fingers reached up to tuck the errant strand behind her ear. She glanced up to find Resa watching her.

“Thanks,” Jennifer said, referring to the hair.

Blue eyes regarded her with more warmth than before. “I should be thanking you. For helping me like this.”

Jennifer smiled. “Well, it’s the least I can do since you got shot trying to help me.” She resumed her task but continued speaking. “Actually, this sort of reminds me of when I was growing up. I used to have this indoor/outdoor tomcat named Noodles who was always getting into scrapes. He’d come home with nicks in his ears or scratches or once without a tooth! But it was always the bite marks that were the worst. They’d get infected if I didn’t clean them up so I quickly learned how to keep him calm while I cleaned his little wounds. My Mom always thought I’d end up being a vet.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Too soft hearted. I can’t walk past a pet store without wanting to cry. Can you imagine what I’d be like having to put an animal to sleep? Huh-uh. Couldn’t take it.”

“It’s too bad,” Resa murmured. “You have a great touch…previous pressing aside.”

“Thanks,” she said, a wave of shyness blushing her skin.

A bit of a pause followed and, oddly, Resa was the first to break it with, of all things, a question. “So what made you want to be a writer?”

“I don’t. I want to be a journalist. But I have to take this class in ‘The Novel,’” she said the words in a deep, mocking voice. “As part of my degree and part of that includes the actual writing of one. A big part, which I didn’t clue into until, oh, last week.”

“When you met Father Hector.”

“Yep.” She sat back and smiled. “All done.”

Resa reached up to investigate Jennifer’s handiwork. “Feels good,” she said with satisfaction.

“Nothing like learning on the go.” She collected the paraphernalia back into the bag to use for the morning, then glanced at Resa. “Can I ask you a question? A simple one. No strings. Just because I’m curious?”

“Jennifer, you can ask me questions. It’s only fair; I’ve asked about you.”

“I just don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“I’ll let you know if you do.”

“Okay. Did you grow up in East L.A.? I wondered because you don’t have much of an accent.”

Resa pulled her torn gown back up her shoulder. “Yeah. I was raised here but I’ve always been good with languages.”

“One of your skills?” Jennifer offered, lightly teasing and handed her a tiny safety pin.

Resa took the pin. “You could say that.” She turned her head at an awkward angle as she attempted to fasten closed the gaping fabric until Jennifer automatically took it from her fingers and did the job herself.

“Perhaps you should try your hand at acting,” the younger woman said as she slid the pin closed and sat back again on the floor. “This is the town after all.”

“Maybe. After my stint on the catwalk,” Resa lightly gibed.

“Ha, ha,” Jennifer said in a dry voice but both women grinned.

“Actually,” Resa offered after a few beats, her tone a bit more serious. “I’ve been thinking of taking some classes at a Junior College.”

Jennifer read the slight hesitation in the other woman and proceeded with a feigned casual attitude. “Really? On what?”

Resa suddenly became fascinated with drawing her finger along the simple pattern that adorned the bedspread beneath her. “Astronomy.”

Now, with the possible exception of couples therapy or circus performing, this was the last area in which Jennifer would have anticipated the former gang leader to express an interest. But her natural reaction was one of excitement. Here, at last, they had something in common.

“I love astronomy!” Jennifer exclaimed.

Resa’s blue eyes brightened a bit. “You do?”

“Yeah. My parents gave me a telescope for my birthday two years ago. I haven’t used it much since coming to LA due to the light pollution but I used to use it all the time back home. Hey, have you ever been to the planetarium up in Griffith Park?”

Resa nodded with a smile. “Used to go every chance I’d get when I was a kid.” She paused for a moment, her expression a tad wistful. “I always wanted a telescope growing up. I used to climb up on the roof of the apartment building and fall asleep trying to look at the stars and imagine…” Her words trailed off and her eyes grew suddenly sad.

“What?” Jennifer gently prodded.

The other woman was silent a moment before finishing, “I was somewhere far away…”

Jennifer felt a melancholy mood start to descend over her companion and reached out to take her hand in a gentle but firm hold of support.

“I think everyone with imagination wishes for that at some point,” she said. “I know I did.” Blue eyes locked with hers and prompted her to continue. “Growing up in the Bible Belt can be a pain in the ass when you have a liberal heart. I used to get into arguments all the time with people who’d tell me I was going to Hell because I hadn’t been ‘saved’ into their religion or want to subvert my life to be a dutiful wife and mother. But I just couldn’t imagine doing that. Not when there’s a whole world to see.”

“So you got out,” Resa finished, more than a trace of admiration in her voice.

“Yeah.”

“That was brave of you.”
“Not at all. Staying would have killed me.”
A distant expression stole across Resa’s face. “I know what you mean,” she said softly and Jennifer instinctively knew she was thinking about her situation with the Vartans. But before Jennifer could press her any further — as she soooo wanted to do — Resa abruptly changed the subject. “You hungry?”

Jennifer blinked twice. “Uh, yeah. Sure.” Then actually thought about the notion and realized, “I’m starving.”

“One of the Sisters brought us some of the leftovers from dinner while you were in the shower. They’re in the kitchen. C’mon.”

Resa held down her right hand to offer Jennifer assistance to her feet, which the younger woman accepted, and both headed out of the bedroom.

As the Mother Superior had warned, the visitor apartment was small, essentially the size of a typical bachelor. There was a living room and what could technically be referred to as a kitchen though it had little more than a hot plate, microwave, and cube-shaped refrigerator. One person could stand in the space with a lesser degree of claustrophobia; two people could fit only if they were doing the Lambada, so Jennifer hung back a bit while Resa stepped within.

Jennifer leaned her forearms against the corner of the counter and noted a bowl of fruit, a loaf of wheat bread, and a plate of herb roasted chicken covered by saran wrap had already been laid out. It was to the latter she immediately went, grabbing a drumstick and nibbling away, not bothering with a plate. How the fact that she was this hungry had escaped her notice these past hours was beyond her but now that she had food, she could think of little else.

“Catch,” Resa said and Jennifer had a split-second to react as she grabbed whatever it was the other woman had tossed to her. She glanced down to find an apple, big and red and juicy. Jennifer swallowed her bite of chicken before she took a big one out of the fruit.

“Franx,” she mumbled with her mouth full and Resa laughed at the site of her standing there, drumstick in one hand and apple in the other.

“When was the last time you ate?” she asked, mildly incredulous.

Jennifer considered this for a moment. “This morning. I had a hardboiled egg.” She had to laugh as Resa’s eyes widened a bit in horror. “Well, I had planned to go get something more for lunch but…”

“But the Vartans arrived,” Resa finished, her voice tinged with irony.

She took up a handful of grapes and leaned against the counter opposite Jennifer, her blue eyes now rich with contemplation and curiosity. “How much did Father Hector tell you about my involvement with the Vartans?”

Jennifer felt her heart skip but knew it was best to remain neutral in her response, almost as if dealing with a skittish colt, though the statuesque woman before her displayed no outward signs of agitation.

“Not much, really,” she replied with a casual shrug. “Just that they’re a Cuban street gang and you were their leader for a while until you decided to leave.”

“That’s it?” She sounded surprised.

“Essentially. He probably expected you to tell me the rest.”

“Hmmm…probably…There’s a little more to it, of course.”

“I figured.”

The dark-haired woman was quiet for a few more beats, as if weighing her options before coming to a conclusion. She folded her arms across her chest and her features relaxed into a more reflective expression, eyes slightly hooded.

“I joined the Vartans when I was fourteen,” she said evenly. “Until then I’d always sworn I didn’t want to have anything to do with gangs.” She chuckled a little. “Believe it or not, I was something of a goody-goody when I was young. I made straight ‘A’s’ and I’d even planned to go to college.”

“What happened?” Jennifer asked.

Resa sighed. “A war of sorts. Between the Vartans and the 12th Street Paidas. They used to be one of the Mexican gangs,” she clarified.

“Used to be?”

“They’re not around anymore,” she said succinctly and Jennifer picked up on the underlying implication. They weren’t ‘around anymore’ because of Resa and though the idea was not the least bit surprising, it still chilled her. “Nobody knows how it started for sure. Some say a Paidas vatos went after one of the Vartans’ girls, some say it was the other way around. Doesn’t matter, really. End result is the same; lotta people dead for no good reason.” She reached for a grape and plopped it in her mouth as memories pushed inexorably forward. “I never really thought about what was going on much. A gang war seemed so far away to me then. I was here, in the Sacred Heart and I felt isolated…invulnerable…Until they killed Luis.”

“Who — ?”

“My younger brother,” she said her voice strangely matter-of-fact.

Jennifer sucked in her breath and took an unconscious step forward into the kitchen. “Oh, Resa,” she murmured with heartfelt empathy but Resa didn’t respond. Instead, her eyes were dispassionate and distant as one who’d managed to disassociate oneself from an unimaginable pain only after considerable effort.

“The irony was,” she continued. “Luis wasn’t even a member of the Vartans. He was only twelve. But he was hanging out with a Vartan when a Paidas gang saw them and just started shooting. Witnesses say it didn’t last more than ten seconds. And then he was dead.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jennifer said, desperately wanting to offer comfort in some way but without the slightest inkling how. Resa projected such an unapproachable air, despite the slow warming she sensed occurring between them, she feared her attempts would surely be rebuffed…wouldn’t they? After all, it was one thing to casually grab the other person’s hand in a show of support but to chance a more overt gesture would be more than she was willing to risk. So she chose a safer route and asked, “Were you close?”

Were they close?

“Resa! I’m gonna kill you!” Luis says furiously, his pre-adolescent voice still high pitched but crackling just enough to know puberty is just around the corner. It is noon and they are in his bedroom. She is home on break from the Sacred Heart and, as usual, only she and Luis are present in the apartment.

She laughs at Luis and holds the small, stuffed bear high above her head, well out of the younger boy’s reach. She is fourteen but already closing in on five foot ten. Eventually Luis will be even taller than she, but while she has the advantage, she is darn well going to use it. And does.

She watches his face flush with anger and embarrassment as she taunts him with the potentially humiliating object. He is twelve. He is a boy. He is not supposed to still sleep with an old, stuffed bear named ‘Mr. Goyo.’ Not if he is going to still hold his head up when he goes out in the neighborhood that is.

“Resa! Cut it out!!” He futilely jumps up one last time, his ebony curls falling in front of dark eyes framed with eyelashes that would be the envy of every woman. Then he stops, his lips pursed in fury, and proceeds to draw back one fist to strike his sister in her exposed midsection. She lets out a rush of air and drops her arm out of pure reflex. Luis grabs hold of the bear in a death grip, desperate to pry loose the incriminating object from his sister’s fingers before she shows it to all his friends and destroys his reputation. But Resa is stronger than he and is now more than a little pissed. She refuses to release the bear and, in fact, holds onto it even tighter, knowing she has the physical upper hand.

Suddenly their struggles cause them to lose their balance and crash to the bedroom floor, with Luis falling across her stomach more of an irritation than a source of pain. But what stills them both is the distinct sound of old fabric ripping and the unexpected appearance of cotton stuffing across her cheek. She glances at Luis and meets dark eyes round with shock. Her younger brother holds up the severed arm of Mr. Goyo.

“Oh, Luis,” she whispers, her hand to her mouth. Luis cannot help it. He knows he is a man, he knows he must be strong and that this is only a silly stuffed bear…but he cannot control himself. His brown eyes brim with tears as he beholds the ruination of the one object he has carried with him throughout his childhood. The one link he has with his Grandpoppy.

Immediately she forgets all about their fighting and feels nothing but shame. “Luis, don’t cry. I-I can fix this. ”

“Shut up!” he wails.

“No, no, really. I can sew this back together, good as new.”

“I hate you!!” He hurls the tattered bit of fabric at her and runs from the room.

She sits up, more than a little stung but also aware she has brought this on herself. She only meant to tease him a bit. She didn’t mean for it to come to this. But it has and she feels a growing queasiness in her stomach. She knows too well how much this simple toy means to her younger brother. Her glance falls to the torn bear in her hand and she reaches for the bit of arm. Determination replaces her anxiety. She loves her brother. She has caused him pain. She will make this better.

That night when Luis gets ready for bed, still wracked with a sorrow he can share with no one, he pulls back the sheets and stops. There before him is Mr. Goyo, his arm stitched back, not exactly good as new, but close enough. And in a sweet touch, he even wears a little blue sling as one would get from the hospital to denote his injury. Delight, unreasonable and glorious, alights his smooth, round features as he takes hold of the silly, stupid bear that to him means the world. He spins around to find his older sister peering through the crack of the doorway, watching him with penitent blue eyes. He knows she is sorry; he can see it and he accepts her silent apology with a wide, beautiful smile that she cannot help but return.

Were they close?

The question hung in the air long enough that Jennifer wasn’t certain the other woman intended to answer. But when she did, Jennifer detected the first real crack of emotion since the account began. “He was the only real family I had.”

Jennifer felt a stab in her heart as she unconsciously absorbed some of the other woman’s unspoken pain. “God,” she whispered. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like,” she said, shaking her head. “What did your parents do?” Then a thought occurred to her. “Or are you an orphan?”
Resa’s chuckle was flat and devoid of humor. “Not technically.” Her jaw clenched and her face grew hard. “My mother’s a whore and the best guess is my father was one of her johns. Some white guy is the general consensus.” She gestured to her sky blue eyes and Jennifer felt a little piece of the puzzle fall into place. So that was why she looked so different, almost exotic. And the bitterness in her voice in describing her mother did not escape Jennifer’s notice. Father Hector had mentioned Resa’s relationship with her family was less than ideal but she hadn’t pictured something quite this dramatic. She should have known better.

“I have an older brother. Tarquin. He was in a Junior College at the time and went right back after the funeral. I remember overhearing him tell someone that seeing Luis in the casket like that just made him that much more determined to leave this Hell hole for good…and he succeeded. I haven’t spoken to him since.”

“Since the funeral?” Resa nodded. “But that’s — ”

“Thirteen years.”

“Jesus,” she breathed in shock. “Do you have any idea where he is?”

“Last I heard he was in Reno, Nevada, working at a car dealership. But that was a while ago.”

“Are you in contact with…anyone else?”

“There is no one else. Just the three of us.”

“Have you –”

“No,” she cut her off sharply. “I haven’t spoken to her. I don’t know where to find her and I wouldn’t even if I could.” Her harsh demeanor and tone left no room for discussion on the subject of her mother and perhaps that was best for now.

“I see,” she murmured, hesitant to push forward knowing how the other woman could be on the subject of her past but unable to deny the powerful urge to know more. She gambled and asked, “So, did you join the Vartans right after…?” Her voice trailed off but Resa knew what she meant and much to her relief, she wasn’t moved to anger. Instead she seemed remarkably inclined to talk.

“No. That didn’t come until later. After Luis’ death…everything changed.” She stopped and focused on Jennifer for the first time since she’d begun talking. Her eyes narrowed as if deciding upon something — how much to tell perhaps? — before she nodded once to herself and continued. “I’d gotten an academic scholarship to the Sacred Heart when I was just in Elementary School and even though I lived in the bario, I honestly never paid much attention to what the gangs were doing. Until this…And then…then I felt a rage come over my soul that…blinded me to everything but this need for revenge. I hated, truly hated, for the first time in my life. And I became convinced the only way to relieve this feeling that was eating me alive was to kill the Paidas bastard responsible for taking Luis from me. I knew there wouldn’t be justice otherwise. The police didn’t care. They marked my brother’s death as yet another Latino boy in the wrong place at the wrong time and even if he hadn’t done anything illegal yet, it didn’t mean he probably wouldn’t in the future. Saved them the trouble of having to arrest him later was how they looked at it.”

“Do you really believe that?” Jennifer asked.

Resa’s expression was hard with conviction. “I know it.”

They locked eyes and Jennifer backed down. She’d always been raised to respect authority like the police but she came from a completely different perspective than Resa. She was white, she was upper middle class, and when it came to the law she had never had more than a parking ticket with which to contend. Resa’s experiences with the justice system were so totally foreign from her own as to be from another planet. And once again the dissimilarity of their upbringings was made glaringly apparent. But the contrast only served to heighten Jennifer’s desire to learn more.

“So what did you do?” she pressed forward but with care.

“I did what I thought I had to do. I got my revenge. It wasn’t hard to find out the name of the Paidas responsible for killing Luis. Pedro Cajigas.” The name rolled off her tongue as if it was vile to the taste and Jennifer wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d spat. Thankfully, she refrained. “He was the younger brother of the gang’s leader and a ruthless son of a bitch. Most of the Vartans were too scared to go against him…so I did it myself.” Her voice was smooth as honey but Jennifer noted how flinty and cold the other woman’s eyes had grown as she continued and she felt as if she were being given a glimpse into the ruthless creature of Resa’s past. “I got a gun, found out where Cajigas lived, and called him out.”

Getting the gun is never difficult. In fact not having a gun is far more unusual. Her mother keeps an automatic pistol under her mattress in case things get dicey which is not uncommon. She takes the gun even as her mother sleeps in the bed. She is not worried about waking the unconscious woman; the stench of gin fills the stale bedroom air and she knows not even a heard of buffalo can wake her when she gets like this.

She checks to make sure the gun is loaded then, once assured, sets the safety and tucks it into the top of her plaid skirt. She takes a moment to regard her mother’s sleeping form and is disappointed with herself when she feels a twinge of sorrow. This is likely the last time she will see this woman and even though she has never been anything close to resembling a good parent, she, in the end, is still her mother. How she wishes otherwise, how she wishes that even this tiny emotion did not exist within her for this woman but obstinately it does. If she thought she had more time she would resolve to make a stone of her heart but she knows that today will in all likelihood be her last upon this earth. The aberrant sentiment she is experiencing compels her to impulsiveness and she leans forward to lightly kiss her unconscious mother upon the temple, almost as if she loved her. Then she straightens and exits the room without a backward look.

She leaves the apartment and zips up her thin cotton jacket to cover the butt of the gun. It is not cold but she shivers nonetheless as she stands at the corner, waiting for the bus. She wills her mind clear. She must not be distracted by anything on her way to achieving her objective. She will complete it or die trying. Perhaps both. Likely both.

Pedro Cajigas lives thirty blocks from her neighborhood in a low rent house with only his older brother, Diego. Her neighbor and Vartan Blood gang member, Ricardo Estaban, has told her that Pedro and Diego often have homeboys over to stay with them so she knows the chances of finding Pedro alone are slim. That does not concern her. She is not embarking on this with hopes of survival. Indeed, she has no vision of what will take place beyond the act itself.

When she arrives at Cajigas’ house there are three Paidas homeboys hanging out on the steps, smoking and playing the radio at a deafening level. She receives only a cursory glance from one of the men as she approaches and it annoys her. She knows they do not perceive her as a threat but a perverse part of her wishes they did. With steady fingers she reaches up to unzip her jacket as she stands a few feet in front of the nearest Paidas.

“Where’s Pedro,” she shouts, her young voice barely carrying above the deep base beat of the Latin rap song.

“What?” the shortest guy asks, not even bothering to turn down the music.

“I said, I’m here to talk to Pedro Cajigas. Is he here?”

“What do you want with him?” one of the others asks, crushing out his cigarette beneath the heel of his brand new Nikes.

“That’s between him and me. I suggest you get him.”

The three Paidas exchange looks at her tone and start to laugh. She can see what they are thinking; bossy thing, ain’t she? And she is. She takes a deep breath, about to reiterate her demand when the front screen door opens and a young man with squat features and close cropped hair steps out. She instinctively knows he is her target and a rush of satisfaction races up her spine.

“Pedro Cajigas?” she asks, just to be certain.

“Yeah? Who the fuck are you?” he asks, brown eyes regarding her with scorn.

She draws in a deep breath and meets his gaze with a steady one of her own. There is no going back; it is here and it is now. “My name is Resa Gustavez. Two weeks ago you killed my brother Luis and now I’ve come here to kill you.” With that she reaches to pull out her pistol from the band of her skirt, flips off the safety and points it directly at Cajigas. The other three Paidas on the porch immediately scurry like cockroaches out of her line of fire but Pedro just starts to laugh.

Resa shook her head. “I’ll never forget the way he just stood there…looking at me…laughing. The last thing he said was:

“Who the fuck does this kid think she is?” Pedro says, holding his sides from his uncontrollable mirth, tears starting to run down his cheeks. His buddies stop their retreat and glance back at him, each suddenly embarrassed for having run so quickly from a girl, despite the fact it is a girl with a gun. The three glance at each other and one starts to giggle, as if he is not scared even if the others are. Then the remaining two join in and soon all four are convulsed with laughter at the sight of this girl in her plaid Catholic uniform and gun. It is too funny.

Resa’s gaze does not deviate from Pedro’s face. She hears the laughter of his friends and knows that they do not believe her capable of going through with her threat. They think she is bluffing. And perhaps there has been a tiny part of her doing just that. But now, in the face of their derision, she commits herself fully and that final ember of her humanity at last dies out.

Resa aims carefully between Pedro’s eyes and…

“…I shot him. Point blank…He was dead before he hit the ground…”

The crack of the single shot echoes throughout the air, frightening birds from nearby trees and inducing rabid barking from several neighboring dogs. Blood and bone explode from his forehead. Pedro’s three buddies are shocked as they watch the body of their former homeboy pitch face forward off the porch and collapse into a lifeless heap.

They are also scared. She can see it in their eyes as they look at her. They do not know what she will do…but she does. If any of them go for their guns, she will shoot them, too, without hesitation. And maybe they realize this for none of them are foolish enough to dis’ her twice. Rather they quickly turn to scatter to the far winds while she stands her ground, suddenly infused with a sense of power the likes of which she has never before experienced…

“…but there was also this feeling of emptiness…it was like…” She struggled to find the right words. “…a part of me…evaporated…just left…and I was suddenly empty. Just this shell… I remember looking at Cajigas’ body, lying there and feeling nothing. Not even hatred.”

She swallowed hard and lowered her eyes to the ground. The drop of a pin would have sounded like thunder in the silence that followed as Jennifer watched a somberness descend across the other woman’s strong features.

“Cops came. Arrested me. I got hauled downtown, booked, printed, and thrown in a cell just like an adult. But I wasn’t an adult. I was a fourteen-year old kid with an unblemished record and, in the words of the court-appointed psychiatrist, ‘grief stricken.’ I didn’t know what I was doing at the time.” Blue eyes met hers. “But of course I knew; I just didn’t care.”

“Did you go to jail?” Jennifer asked softly.

Resa’s lips twisted in derisive grin. “No. I plead ‘temporary insanity’ which, because I was a minor, landed me a year’s worth of intense counseling for, among other things, ‘anger management.’” She rolled her eyes and had to laugh at that. “I only went twice. Scared the shit outta my counselor and never went back. I figured I already knew how to manage my anger pretty well. I channeled it into ripping the heart outta every last Paidas that I could find. It became my mission. And I used the Vartans to accomplish it.”

“So that’s why you joined them.” Jennifer was beginning to feel as if she better understood this mysterious woman before her.

“Actually, it was more like they came after me.” Contempt stole across her face. “Or, I should say, Alfons came after me.”

Alfons. Jennifer remembered Resa mentioning the name yesterday — was it only yesterday? — in Palo’s bar. She’d said it to Manny as he was leaving. ‘Say hello to Alfons.’ Or something like that.

“Who’s Alfons?” she asked.

An odd look passed through Resa’s eyes, not quite a grimace but something less than a sneer.
She trails her mother as they enter their apartment complex. It is over. She has been punished in the eyes of the judicial system that does not hold her fully responsible for her actions. The truth of the matter is the police have wanted to get rid of Pedro Cajigas for years; she just helped them accomplish their goal and they do not consider her a threat.

How her mother has convinced the judge she is a fit parent still boggles the mind of her only daughter but they typically do not discuss this. The door closes behind her and her mother heads up the flight of stairs to their second story apartment. She does not bother to glance back at her daughter who suddenly stops in her tracks.

Resa senses his presence before she sees him and allows her mother to continue out of sight before she looks down to the ground floor.

He steps out of the shadows from beneath the stairwell, his eyes already on hers. She takes him in with one glance. Tall. Strong. Handsome. His hair reaches his shoulders in a wave of dark, thick curls and his brown eyes fairly twinkle when he smiles. As he does now.

Her back stiffens and she instinctively knows this man is trouble but finds she is captivated nonetheless. It is as if she is a snake looking into the eyes of a charmer.

“Hello, Resa,” he says and she does not question that he knows her name. It seems wholly appropriate that he should.

“Hello,” she says, watching in hypnotic fascination as he places one large yet graceful hand on the banister’s edge and tilts his head to one side to regard her.

“Do you know who I am?” he asks in a manner almost courtly. She shakes her head, not trusting her voice. “My name is Alfons. Alfons Vega and I owe you a debt of thanks.”

“You do?”

He nods, his eyes not leaving hers. He does not even blink. “You took out my enemy when all others around me whimpered in the corner like dogs. You’re brave and strong. I like that. I like that a great deal.” He turns the corner and is now at the base of the stairs. “I see in you a great potential.” He starts up the stairs. “You’re quick.” She watches his approach. “And determined.” She feels a strange heat wash over her body. “And you have the heart of a warrior.” He stops before her and reaches up one hand to gently stroke the long, dark hair that spills over her shoulder. He is close enough for her to feel the warmth of his body and smell the leather of his jacket. She is tall and he stands two steps below her but, in a way, they still meet eye to eye. “And – ”

“And,” she interrupts at last as she takes a step away in an attempt to break the spell. “I’m fourteen years old.” But she is unaware how her eyes flash at him or how her cheeks have flushed. Yet he sees this. Quite clearly.

He smiles, completely unfazed. “Yes, I know. But that will change…with time.”

 

“Alfonso Esteban Vega is a Cuban immigrant and all around bastard. He was an officer in Castro’s army who left because Fidel wouldn’t cut him in on enough of the profits for their, shall we say, less than legal enterprises. He slipped into America through the backdoor, immediately got into business doing what he does best and flourished.”

“Drugs?”

“Among other things. He never really discriminated. If it was illegal and made money, he’d do it.”

Jennifer shuddered. “He sounds despicable.”

“He is.” She met Jennifer’s gaze with an unflinching one of her own. “He was also my lover for years.”

Jennifer felt her eyebrows shoot up in surprise before she had a chance to stop herself. “Oh,” she said in a small voice and cringed a little. “Whoops.”

Resa shrugged. “No whoops. He was no less evil but he was also the leader and to be by his side had…advantages I wasn’t about to pass up at the time. I learned a great deal from him about power and how to control people. He nurtured me every step of the way and helped make me…inhuman.”

 

She stands behind him and silently faces the two South American men seated on the opposite couch. She is seventeen now and stands just below six feet tall. An air of detached danger and composed strength surround her but so, too, does a remarkable degree of feminine sensuality. And though every man in the room may want her, she allows herself to belong to only one. For now.

He makes certain she is beside him during business transactions because he trusts her. He also enjoys her presence. She brings with her a certain air of unpredictability that excites him as no one else he has ever known. They have been together for three years now and lovers for almost two. In the end it had been Resa’s decision to move their relationship beyond the mentor stage, as, indeed, Alfons had predicted and he has taught her well in this regard, too. Together they make an indomitable team and have taken the Vartans beyond the street gang realm. They are on the pathway to an empire.

Alfons leans forward to examine the briefcase laid open before him on the mahogany coffee table. She glances at the contents and sees that the case is filled with thirty bricks of Columbia’s finest. She cannot see his face, but she knows by the manner in which he holds his shoulders that he is pleased.

“It’s top grade,” Miguel, the bigger South American, says and Resa notes how he seems to shift each time he speaks. It puts her instantly on the alert and her gaze shifts over to Miguel’s silent, younger partner whose name she does not know. He is as still as a stone but she notices the white of his knuckles and her gut instinct tells her that something is amiss. Then the younger man peers up at her through thick, dark lashes and her breath catches in her throat. He looks like Luis. It is only for a fraction of a second and then the younger man looks away but the impression is startling. She releases her breath. It is the first time she has been reminded of her brother in longer than she can recall and it leaves her shaken.

Alfons cuts open a plastic brick and dips the tip of his pinkie into the white powder. This is not something he would normally do but he knows there is no way these two would be so foolish as to poison the cocaine when they are so decidedly surrounded. He tastes the cocaine and leans back in his chair, thoroughly relaxed.

“Excellent,” he says, pleasure evident in the timbre of his voice.

Miguel smiles, a little too broadly perhaps, and nods. “Carlos brings only the best,” he says and shifts yet again.

Alfons raises his right hand and flicks his fingers. Within seconds one of the Vartans brings in a second, identical briefcase and gives it to Miguel’s young companion.

“As promised,” Alfons says. “Feel free to check to make certain it’s all there.”

“No, no,” Miguel says. “Carlos trusts your name as if it were his own…I assume there is no more business to which we should attend?” Alfons shrugs and both of the South American men stand. “Well, then, Senor Vega, I must say it has been a pleasure doing negotiations with you.”

“Send Carlos my regards,” Alfons says.

“Of course.” And with that both men start to leave.

“Hold it,” Resa says in a voice low with command and all eyes turn to her. She steps past Alfons to the briefcase still open on the table and proceeds to remove the first two rows of bricks. She can feel the two South American men tense.

“What is the meaning of this?” Miguel asks in an impressive display of indignation as she moves to the third layer, buried deep in the briefcase, and extracts a brick. “Senor Vega, would you have this bitch insult us in this way?”

“Shut up,” Alfons says in his most polite voice but turns eyes more curious than reproving to her. “Resa?” he says but she ignores him. Instead she removes a small knife from the side of her boot to split open the plastic and scoops out a sample.

“Senor…!” Miguel’s voice cracks.

She tastes it and immediately spits it back out as she meets Alfons’ inquiring gaze.

“Worthless,” she says simply. He nods and before either of the two men can utter more than a syllable he withdraws his snub-nosed pistol from his jacket pocket and shoots Miguel square in the face. His body crumples to the floor.

Alfons frowns at the blood. “That’ll be hell to get out of the carpet,” he murmurs, then glances up at Miguel’s terrified young companion.

“This,” the young man says in a shaky voice. “This was his idea!” He suddenly throws the briefcase at Alfons and runs like hell for the door. He does not reach it.

Resa is on him in less than four steps and cuts his legs out from beneath him with a simple kick. He trips, falls and immediately cowers into a ball as she stands over him in total domination.

“Oh, God,” he whimpers, his voice tenuous with fear and he suddenly seems very young indeed, not much older than she.

“Here,” Alfons says and gently tosses her his pistol. “Smaller caliber so he won’t bleed as much.”

She stares at the gun then meets the young man’s dark eyes as he looks up at her in pure terror and is seized by an unexpected wave of hesitation. The image of Luis flashes across her mind and her mouth goes dry. Alfons senses something awry within her and though he does not know the cause, he will not allow for it to stand.

“Do it, Resa,” he says. “Now.” There is no mistaking the direct order in his tone and Resa feels a grim weight upon her shoulders. Alfons rarely gives her a command, especially not in front of any other Vartans, but she knows he is right. She must not be perceived as hesitant or weak, especially because she is female. Sentiment is the death of someone like her. Before she can think twice, she closes off her mind and her soul and shoots the defenseless young man.

She turns away without bothering to look at what she has done and meets Alfons’ dark, approving eyes. Two other Vartans rush past her to attend to the slain body before the blood does too much damage to Alfons’ den but to them she pays no heed. She sees only Alfons and the warmth of his smile. Her gaze does not waver as she moves to enter her lover’s outstretched arms and is enfolded into his embrace.

 

Jennifer could not speak for a long moment. Realistically, she had known Resa’s background must surely contain many stories of this brutal nature yet hearing the specifics from Resa’s own lips left her a bit nonplussed. This woman standing less than two feet from her had killed a person. Had likely killed several people. Without provocation and in cold blood…and yet such a concept was still difficult for her to wrap her mind around. Of course she remembered yesterday’s encounter with Manny and the other Vartans and the magnificent manner in which Resa had handled herself and, yes, it all fit with what she’d heard. But still…that was not the woman into whose eyes she now peered. That was not the Resa Gustavez who stood before her, emotionally naked and vulnerable despite her best efforts to appear otherwise.

My God, what she has gone through, what she has had to overcome, she thought and it took every ounce of restraint Jennifer possessed not to cross the tiny space that separated them to draw her into a comforting hug.

“I suppose you think I’m pretty despicable, too,” Resa said and Jennifer frowned.

“Not at all,” she responded at once. “I think you’re very brave.”

Blue eyes flashed with surprise. “Brave?”

Jennifer nodded, utterly sincere. “Yes. Brave. You’ve been through things I couldn’t even imagine and yet you still have the strength to overcome it all.” She inclined her head in admiration. “I may have left my home to come here but I still have ties to my family. I will always have the comfort of knowing that no matter where I go or what I do, if I fail, I have something to fall back on, somewhere to go. But you…you’ve left everything you’ve ever known for an uncertain future. You’ve acted with no safety net and that makes you far braver than I’ll ever be.”

Resa regarded her with incredulity. “I just told you I’ve killed people.”

“I know.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Yes,” she answered. “I cheated on a couple of my algebra tests my freshman year in high school; does that bother you?”

“It’s hardly the same thing.”

“Only by degree. Both are wrong and we can’t change them, no matter how bad they may make us feel about ourselves. But all that happened a long time ago and I know if I continue to berate myself over my past mistakes then I’ll have missed the opportunity to learn from them and to grow.” She reached out to entwine her fingers with Resa’s, comfortable, at least, that the other woman wouldn’t totally reject such a simple gesture. Which she didn’t. “It can be the same for you, if you’ll let it.”

Resa just stared at her for a long time, then shook her head in amazement. “Do you see the good in everything?” she asked, only in partial jest.

“I try,” Jennifer replied.

“Yes,” Resa said in a voice soft with wonder. “I believe you do.”

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Exhaustion claimed both early and they fell asleep with remarkable ease. But somewhere around three o’clock in the morning Resa was awakened (by what she did not know) and found she could not so easily return to her slumbers. Instead she lay in the darkness and tried to allow her mind to relax but instead found herself distracted by the soft, even breathing of her companion. It wasn’t that the young woman was loud — on the contrary, she was barely audible — but it had been quite some time since Resa had slept in the vicinity of another human being and she found it mildly disconcerting.

She propped herself up on her right elbow, careful to keep all pressure off her left side, and glanced across the scant distance between their two beds to where Jennifer lay sleeping. Moonlight flooded through the high, unadorned window and cast the college senior’s serene features in variations of pale blues and grays. For a long moment, Resa was content to just examine the young woman, to really see her for perhaps the first time.

Jennifer astonished her. She had felt for certain that when she revealed details from her past the warm glow would dim from the college senior’s eyes and yet the exact opposite had happened. It had been a long time since she’d been given this level of acceptance. Not even Father Hector had made her feel this way but, perhaps, that had more to do with the nature of his calling. He was a professed man of God; the care for others was his responsibility. But Jennifer had no such duty to fulfill. Her compassion was freely given and consequently had greater meaning. At least for Resa.

Ahhhh, but the niggling question remained whether she would feel the same degree of compassion when she heard the truth in its entirety…how then would she react?

The younger woman stirred in her bed, her lips parting slightly and Resa was reminded of the slightly stupefied look that had crossed the college senior’s expressive face when she had emerged from the shower. It was terribly cute and more than a little flattering and she had only just caught herself from reaching over to ruffle the girl’s long, blonde hair.

She decided she really liked the kid. Liked her more than she’d liked anyone in a very long time and that realization confounded her. This inexplicable fondness for the college senior not only made her lower her defenses but it made her want to lower her defenses and that was unheard of. Trust had never come easy for her. It had always been something to be earned over time and given after careful consideration to a chosen few. Yet here she was, having known this girl for less than two days and she was already revealing some of the most closely guarded, private moments of her life. Without hesitancy or regret. Why? What had possessed her to talk as she had last night, to tell her about Luis? About Alfons? Even Father Hector didn’t know that much about Alfons.

Maybe it was the way the kid listened. It seemed as if she truly cared and wasn’t faking a bunch of bullshit. She couldn’t put her finger on it…perhaps there was no explanation…but this kid was definitely getting under her skin in record time. And she couldn’t detect even an inkling of hesitation within herself at the notion.

Jennifer stretched in her sleep and caused part of the blanket to fall off her shoulder. Her hand made two clumsy, unconscious attempts to find it again before falling back to the mattress. Resa smiled to herself and reached over to set it straight again with the ease of one who’d done such things a thousand times before. She let her hand linger lightly on the girl’s arm for a fraction of a second, absorbing the warmth and surprising strength, before withdrawing it back to her side and then wondered to herself not why she’d done that, but why it had felt so natural.

Her reverie was broken by a muffled noise from outside and she instantly stilled to listen, her senses on full alert. For several long moments no other sound reached her ears and she was starting to think she had imagined it when a woman’s high pitched scream sliced through the night.

Resa was out of the bed and across the room in a second, vaguely aware of Jennifer’s sleepy start of confusion but knowing there wasn’t enough time to explain. In a flash she was through the front door and into the small, stone courtyard that separated the visitor apartment from the chapel. She quickly determined the sounds had come from the house of worship and headed there without a second thought, the flagstone cold beneath her bare feet and her breath visible in the night air.

Resa reached the chapel’s outer doors and gritted her teeth in frustration when she discovered they were locked. But she knew this place well and remembered there was more than one entrance. Another set of doors was located in the back, behind the altar, and she hastened there. On her way she noticed a sizable hole in the lower part of one of the stained glass windows, big enough for a person to fit through but there were shards of glass on the ground and she had no protection on her feet. Entering from there was impossible for her. Instead she picked up her speed and rounded the corner to reach the chapel’s back doors. Which were also locked. But Resa had been a mischievous child and finding ways to sneak into the chapel as a student had been one of her specialties. Now such a dubious talent would come in handy.

She reached her hand through the small hole located under the porch steps, hoping against hope that it was still there after all these years, that no one had discovered her little stash. And luck was on her side that night for indeed it was still there. Tucked under one of the step’s brick outcroppings, coated with rust and who knows what else. But there.

Resa’s fingers curled around the flat-head screwdriver, withdrew it and wasted no time shoving it in the tiny space between the double doors. Three agonizing seconds later, the lock clicked open and she was plunging into the short, narrow hallway behind the altar.

She heard the sounds of men’s angry whispers but could not make out what they were saying or their specific location. She crouched down in the darkness as she edged around a corner and found herself behind the tall, wooden pulpit that traditionally stood on the left of the Catholic altar. She glanced into the darkness of the chapel’s interior and immediately saw two sets of flashlights held by two shadowy figures standing in the center aisle between the rows of pews. She also heard the rattle of metal clanging against metal. The voices, while still hushed, were more distinct and she could tell both were men.

“Dude, leave her the fuck alone,” one whispered.

“She’s un-fucking-conscious,” came the raspy reply.

“I don’t fucking care! We gotta get the fuck outta here now!”

“She’s a fuckin’ nun for Christ’s sake!”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“Yeah? Well I do. There’s such a thing as fuckin’ Karma, man, and leavin’ a nun unconscious gets you all kinds of bad.”

“Oh, and robbin’ from nuns gets you all kinds of good?”

“Fuck you, Joey.”

“Fuck you, too. I’m outta here.”

The first figure moved away from the second and scurried in the direction of the broken stained glass window.

Resa still had the screwdriver in her hand and briefly considered using it, then stopped herself. Only if there was no other choice. Such a weapon could easily be lethal and she had vowed to herself never to use such measures again unless there was no alternative which, in this case, there was.

She set the tool aside and took hold of a nearby tall, wrought iron candelabrum. It felt heavy in her hands and that was just what she needed. With the stealth of a cat she moved off the altar and approached the unsuspecting figure as he hefted a large shape – a bag? – through the hole in the stained glass.

She was a few feet away from him when suddenly the front doors of the chapel were thrown open and the overhead lights flooded the interior.

Resa blinked against the unexpected illumination and glanced at the front of the chapel just as Sister Stephanie entered, followed closely by Jennifer. The sight of the two women entering such a dangerous situation greatly alarmed Resa and her first instinct was to protect them from possible harm by the second thief. But the former gang leader was also left exposed by the unforeseen light and found herself face to face with the hulking, ski-masked first thief.

Who was greatly displeased.

He got in the first blow, a right cross that connected with the left side of her face and immediately produced the metallic taste of blood in her mouth. But she’d been punched before, by stronger men than he and recovered in an instant. She felt a dangerous smile creep across her face and made a slight tsking sound.

“Now, now. . don’t you know it’s not nice to hit girls?”

With that, she spun around behind him and brought the wrought iron bar down hard against his lower back, aiming specifically for the kidney area. He shrieked in extreme pain and arched backwards even as he stumbled forward. Evidently she found her mark.

But, big strong guy that he was, he immediately scrambled back to his feet and turned for her. She was ready. She jabbed the candelabrum into his diaphragm, knocking out his breath and, before he could react, brought the heavy, iron base up against the lower part of his jaw. His head snapped back and he crashed to the ground, the sound of his skull striking the marble floor leaving no doubt he’d have a big ol’ bruise in the morning. She watched him a second until she determined he was truly out cold then, ignoring the flare of pain in her upper left shoulder, spun back in Jennifer’s direction.

Both the college senior and Sister Stephanie were engaged in a struggle with the lanky second thief as he struggled to escape. Resa leapt onto a pew, still holding the candelabrum, and dashed across the wooden surface in their direction.

The ski-masked Second Thief saw her coming and doubled his efforts at escaping. He shrugged off Sister Stephanie but had a more difficult time freeing himself from Jennifer’s strong hold. He glanced again at Resa, now less than twenty feet away, and, in a panic, head butted Jennifer to secure his freedom.

The dazed young woman fell backwards and the Second Thief ran through the open chapel front doors. Resa had a choice: Go after him or check Jennifer.

There was no hesitation.

She tossed aside the candelabrum and leapt down beside the college senior who lay sprawled in the center aisle, her head smack against the end of a pew.

“Are you all right?” she asked with concern, brushing blonde bangs from the younger woman’s forehead.

Jennifer nodded, then cringed. “He’s getting away,” she said even as she cupped the back of her head.

“Let him. We have the other one and he isn’t going anywhere.” Resa searched the younger woman’s face and immediately noted the red welt above her right eye. 100% future bruise. She cringed a little at the thought.

“Oh dear God!”

Resa and Jennifer both immediately turned in the direction of Sister Stephanie’s distraught cry and saw the young nun kneeling behind the back of the pews, though the nature of what exactly had upset her was unknown.

Resa sprung from Jennifer’s side and raced over to see what it was had distressed the woman so and was startled at what she beheld; before her Sister Therase lay unconscious upon the ground, her face a pale mask of death.

Sister Stephanie glanced at Resa. “Her heart…” but she could say no more as emotion choked her words and tears filled her brown eyes.

Jennifer reached their side and gasped at Sister Therase, shock rippling across her young face.

Resa knew there wasn’t much time. She grasped Sister Stephanie by the shoulders and firmly, but not without sensitivity, moved her out of the way. “Call the paramedics,” she commanded to Jennifer then, as the college student dashed off, focused her attention on Sister Therase.

She put her ear first to the smaller woman’s mouth then chest and determined quickly that she was not breathing. And, worse, that her heart was not beating or beating so faint as to be beyond detection.

Resa at once began to perform CPR, as the very same nuns of the Sacred Heart had taught her long ago. She placed crossed hands over Sister Therase’s heart and, keeping her arms stiff, began pumping with all her might despite the intense pain it caused her own injured shoulder. One, two, three…pause…one, two, three…pause…one….and so on for how long she did not know. She glanced back at a stunned Sister Stephanie whose attention was riveted on Sister Therase’s still face.

“Do you know mouth to mouth?” she barked the question at the nun.

Blank brown eyes met hers but then comprehension dawned and Sister Stephanie jumped forward. She took Sister Therase’s head — now unadorned by the wimple and somehow seemingly more vulnerable — in her hands, arched it back, and opened her mouth. She checked to be certain the unconscious nun had not swallowed her tongue, which was a step many forgot when performing this procedure, then pinched closed Sister Therase’s nose, covered her mouth with her own and with all her might blew air into her dying friend’s lungs.

* * * *

Their efforts failed.

The head paramedic pronounced Sister Therase Maria Montoya, only thirty four years old, dead at the scene and as her body was removed a solemn silence descended over all now assembled in the chapel.

Resa stood apart from the cluster, near the pew closest to the altar, and watched the proceedings with a stranger’s perspective. There were at least thirty people gathered between the police, paramedics, and dazed knot of sisters. Resa had already given one statement to a young police officer whom, when he didn’t react at her name or question her presence in a place such as this, she wryly determined to be a rookie. Time would tell if talking with the police would have repercussions but, given the circumstances, she had no real choice. At least in this situation she was secure in the knowledge she’d committed no offense for which she could be questioned. Unlike earlier.

The Mother Superior was speaking with Sister Stephanie and a large, balding man in a bad tan sports coat who appeared to be the lead detective on the case. The police had already surmised that Sister Therase had likely died of a heart attack brought on by the fright at encountering the two thieves in the middle of robbing the chapel. Sister Stephanie had explained that it was not uncommon for her late friend to visit the house of worship in the middle of the night when she had difficulty sleeping, which, apparently, had been the case this night.

The First Thief, awake but still groggy, had been hauled away by a couple of blue clad patrol officers but not before Resa got a good, clean view of his face. She’d never seen him before and the confirmation brought an inner sigh of relief. In the back of her mind she couldn’t help wondering if all this was somehow connected to her presence here and a part of her half expected the men to be Vartans. But they weren’t. They were strangers who’d come to rob the chapel and the events would have transpired unimpeded had she not been here. It brought some measure of comfort on this somber occasion.

Resa unconsciously searched the crowd for some sign of Jennifer. The college student had gone with a detective into another room to give her statement and had yet to return. She hadn’t had the opportunity to speak with her since Jennifer had left to call for help and she was a bit worried for how the young woman would react to the news of the nun’s sudden, shocking death. She could tell the kid was given to strong emotions and something of this nature would not fail to affect her.

Out of the corner of her eye a bit of motion caught her attention and she glanced over just as Jennifer re-entered the chapel. She watched her scan the room until she locked on her and immediately headed in Resa’s direction. As the younger woman approached, she could see she was close to crying but valiantly struggling to keep herself in check. That all fell apart, however, as she neared and tears welled uncontrollably in her green eyes. Resa drew in a breath to speak but didn’t have the opportunity as Jennifer suddenly wrapped her arms around her waist, planted her face squarely in the corner of Resa’s right shoulder and began to quietly cry.

At first the former gang leader didn’t quite know what to do. She stood there, stiff, arms at her side, a bit befuddled at the situation and glanced around self-consciously. To say she wasn’t a ‘touchy-feely’ person was something of an understatement but she’d sensed already that Jennifer was and she tried to accept this. Still, this was something of a first for her, being someone’s source of comfort and all and she feared she was handling it badly. So she awkwardly raised one hand to pat the center of Jennifer’s back and, with a mental self-chide, forced herself to relax. After several moments, a strange sense of compassion seeped into her body as she slowly absorbed the younger woman’s anguish and, much to her surprise, found herself naturally easing into the act of soothing another person’s grief. By the time the younger woman drew slightly back, Resa had shed her awkwardness entirely and used the cuff of her nightgown’s sleeve to wipe the tears from Jennifer’s cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” Jennifer mumbled and sniffed.

“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” Resa replied with a tender smile.

“It’s just…so senseless, you know?” She raised red-rimmed and swollen green eyes to meet Resa’s and the former gang leader felt as if a knife had been plunged into her chest. The sight of such overwhelming sadness in Jennifer was suddenly intolerable and without a second thought she pulled her back into a strong, comforting hug which the younger woman welcomed with appreciation.

“I know,” she murmured as she stroked the back of the younger woman’s blonde head and like that another well-crafted, seemingly indomitable defense fell.

*

Jennifer hugged her arms around Resa’s lithe waist, sighed, and felt every muscle in her body wail in exhaustion. But at least now she knew she was safe. Being awakened by Resa’s dash from the room had left her disconcerted yet that was nothing compared to the shock of what was to follow. She wondered again why she was allowing this to agonize her so. Unexpected death was always traumatic, to be sure, but she had only just met Sister Therase; she shouldn’t be this upset…and yet she was…terribly, terribly upset and sad and angry and confused at the pointless loss of life.

But seeing Resa again helped. Merely spotting her unmistakably dominant figure across the chapel had brought a powerful surge of relief and she couldn’t make her way to the other woman’s side fast enough. The hug had been spontaneous and, for her part, greatly needed. She’d been too emotional to take into full account Resa’s normal air of reserve or the discomfort her actions might bring the other woman and instead had been consumed by her own desperate need for a safe haven in which to retreat. Now as composure returned with it came the clarity of mind to marvel a bit at Resa’s receptive response and at her own lack of embarrassment at her actions. But Resa hadn’t rejected her, had even seemed to willingly accept her weepy embrace, which she would never have anticipated.

Her head throbbed and she drew back enough to touch the sore area above her eye where the escaped thief had struck her.

“You’re gonna bruise,” Resa said, squinting a little as she inspected the injury.

Jennifer glanced at the other woman and noticed the red blotch on the left corner of her mouth.

“You, too,” she said as she gently touched an index finger to the small, dried flecks of what could only be blood on the edge of her lower lip. “You should put some ice on that before you go to bed.”

“Yes, Mom,” Resa murmured wryly.

A hint of amusement pushed past Jennifer’s depression. “How’s the shoulder?”

Resa shrugged a little. “Fine.” Off Jennifer’s look: “Yes, it’s a little sore but nothing ripped.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Okay,” Jennifer said and sighed as she finally disengaged herself from the other woman’s hold. “God, what a day.” She sank down in the near-by pew and rubbed a hand over tired eyes.

“You gonna be all right?” Resa asked.

Jennifer nodded, appreciating the other woman’s concern. “Yeah. I’m just sad and exhausted.”

“I hear ya,” Resa said, leaning against the pew’s edge and watching the younger woman closely. “That was some kind of crazy you did, taking on the thief like that.”

Jennifer met her blue eyes. “You did it, too. Alone. At least I had some help.”

“Yeah, but I’ve been in sticky situations before. I’m used to it.”

“Well, I appear to be getting used to it,” she answered dryly.

“Hopefully not,” came a firm voice behind Resa. “Violence is never the answer.”

The former gang leader turned to see the typically stern Mother Superior approaching them with Sister Stephanie trailing not far behind. Both women wore modest, cotton robes over their plain sleepwear which were quite different from the formality of their vestments and cast them in a different light; they seemed suddenly quite human. The Reverend Mother’s hair was a dull gray and cut in a short, simple style that, while not even remotely attractive, was suitable for a woman of her age and vocation.

Sister Stephanie, on the other hand, was beautiful. Jennifer, of course, had seen her without her habit when they met outside the front doors of the chapel before entering the fray but had been too caught up in the excitement of the events to pay attention to the younger nun’s appearance. Now, however, she did. She noted Sister Stephanie’s hair was an unexpected wheat blonde and fell in soft curls around her chin level. Jennifer also noted the younger nun’s emotionally ravaged but presently composed countenance and felt a swell of compassion for the woman who had been nothing less than acrimonious at every turn.

Jennifer stood and focused her attention on Sister Stephanie. “I’m so sorry about Sister Therase,” she said with deep feeling.

Pained brown eyes rose to meet her own and there was a flicker of recognition at the heartfelt sincerity of the young woman’s condolence. She silently acknowledged the words of solace with a faint nod, then again lowered her eyes and tightened her lips.

“Thank you, Jennifer,” The Mother Superior said, her voice crisp as she took control of the situation. “Tonight has indeed been a tragedy. Sister Therase was beloved by many and her presence will be missed.” She turned her attention to Resa. “It’s my understanding, Resa, that you played an active role in all this.”

Jennifer’s defenses immediately went up. She didn’t understand a whit of the underlying animosity between these two women but she wasn’t about to allow the Mother Superior to infer Resa was anything but innocent in these events.

She took a step forward.

“She broke up the robbery,” Jennifer said swiftly. “And captured the First Thief single handed. She was very brave.”

Jennifer felt all eyes turn to her and a minor twinge of embarrassment warmed her skin but she held firm her ground.

The Reverend Mother’s gaze swept over her with a trace of amusement. “Yes, I am aware. Sister Stephanie has filled me in on both your actions and your efforts to save Sister Therase. I wanted to express my appreciation. It was, indeed, very brave.”

It was only because she was already growing adept at being able to read Resa’s cryptic expression that she noticed the trace of bewilderment but the former gang leader conceded the praise with,

“I only wish we could have saved Sister Therase.”

“Yes…If only…” The Mother Superior nodded gravely. “But I have come to learn over the years that there are often events which make no sense at the time yet much later become clear as we mature enough to gain a better perspective. Sister Therase’s death will be one such event.”

Sister Stephanie clenched her hands and though she did not speak up, the Mother Superior picked up on the tension.

“Do you disagree, Sister?”

Sister Stephanie raised her head to meet the Mother Superior’s gaze. “Therase’s death is pointless,” she said in a hard voice. “Now, a month from now, a year it will still be pointless.”

The Mother Superior stiffened. “You’re upset. It is to be expected.”

“Of course I’m upset. My friend is dead for no reason and no amount of platitudes or worldly wisdom will conjure one up,” Sister Stephanie exploded.

“Sister,” the Mother Superior spoke sternly. “We will discuss this later.”

There was no mistaking the underlying mandate in the older woman’s tone and Sister Stephanie visibly struggled to comply, her jaw clenched, her eyes lowered…but not before Jennifer caught a glimpse of lingering defiance in their brown depths.

Jennifer glanced at Resa who watched the two women through hooded eyes. She caught Jennifer’s gaze and sent her a look as if to say Isn’t this interesting.

With unflappable composure, the Mother Superior faced them. “I came to thank you and as your need to have a place to stay may last longer than the allotted time we discussed, I would like to extend to you both the offer to stay here as long as you find necessary.”

Now Resa’s eyes widened in visible surprise. “That’s — very generous,” she said. “But we shouldn’t be here too long.”

“We accept, though,” Jennifer piped up with a small smile. “Thanks.” She glanced at Resa to see if her taking up the offer for both of them produced a reaction and was relieved when the former gang leader showed no objection.

“You’re quite welcome,” the Reverend Mother replied then, with a glance at Sister Stephanie, “I believe we are all suffering from shock and exhaustion and should try to get in a little rest. Tomorrow will be a trying day for everyone.” She targeted her last point to the young nun by her side who didn’t bother to look at any of them before she turned to head out of the chapel. The Mother Superior watched her depart, hazel eyes unable to fully mask her concern, then she nodded to Jennifer and Resa, said, “Good night,” and followed after her subordinate.

 

CHAPTER NINE

By all rights Resa should have slept in until noon. But nature had long ago decreed her to be an early riser and, despite the traumatic events of only a few hours earlier, she nonetheless awoke the moment the rays of the morning sun kissed her skin. This time she didn’t even bother trying to fool herself back to sleep. Instead she tossed aside her covers, sat up in bed, and swung her legs over the side. Bare feet touched the chilly, hardwood floors and she curled her toes into little fists, a habit of hers since childhood, then determined herself to be ravenously hungry.

She glanced at Jennifer who was still peacefully cradled in the arms of deep repose and decided to let the kid sleep. She needed it. Maybe even more than she needed breakfast. Resa, however, needed food more. After that she would get to work on her plan to get them out of this place and to safely return Jennifer to her normal life.

She stood and quietly exited the bedroom, careful not to make a noise that might accidentally awaken her companion. In the living room she found the two piles of clothes the nuns had delivered the night before along with the plates of food. While the outfits both Resa and Jennifer had worn yesterday were being cleaned, the nuns had offered up some of the clothes donated to them for charitable purposes. The Sisters had guessed an approximation of their respective sizes and brought several selections from which the women could determine what to wear. Due to her height, Resa had only men’s clothes from which to choose but that didn’t bother her; she had often been forced to wear her older brother’s hand-me-downs while growing up due to budgetary restraints and her mother’s laziness about shopping for her children.

She picked out a long sleeved denim dress shirt — front pocket torn off — and a pair of black jeans. With the barest glance at her reflection she decided the ensemble would do, then brushed her teeth and hair, acknowledged her lower lip was indeed a bit puffier from the punch she sustained (though the ice pack Jennifer had made her put on her jaw before going back to bed had clearly helped to keep the overall swelling down) and, with a final peek at the still unconscious college senior, slipped out the front door in search of the convent’s kitchen.

She never even got close. Instead she made it ten feet outside the visitor quarters and was rounding the corner of the chapel when she nearly collided with a fast walking and intensely focused figure. The woman barely acknowledged her with a curt, “Excuse me,” before continuing forward on her path around the other side of the visitor apartment.

It took Resa a second to recognize the woman before she passed out of sight and her brows rose in surprise. Sister Stephanie. Dressed in civilian clothes. And looking angry enough to do battle.

Now Resa was not nearly as inquisitive by nature as her young collegiate companion however this scenario intrigued even her. Her gut instinct told her something was either already wrong or on the verge of becoming wrong and so she shelved the idea of an early breakfast to instead follow after the young nun.

Resa turned the corner around the visitor apartment in time to see Sister Stephanie quite some distance away in the middle of opening a side door located in the outer wall that surrounded the estate. Without a glance back, the nun exited through the vine-covered boundary.

Resa frowned. Curiouser and curiouser.

Resa jogged up to the door right before it closed and slipped out onto the street where the real world, with its aggressive sights, smells, and sounds — juxtaposed to the relative peace of the convent — hit her like a slap in the face.

She caught sight of Sister Stephanie at the street corner, entering into the crosswalk with a group of other pedestrians. Resa quickened her step after the young woman, just making it across the street before the light turned red. The small crowd of people with whom Sister Stephanie had traversed the intersection dissipated and Resa suddenly found herself face to face with none other than the young nun herself. Who was, naturally, pissed off.

“What are you doing?” Sister Stephanie demanded.

“Following you.” Resa replied bluntly, seeing no need to lie.

“Well stop it.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think — ?”

“When was the last time you were outside the convent?

“That is none of your business.”

Resa deftly chose to ignore that. “I’m guessing it’s been a while. Maybe longer than even you can remember…And I’m also guessing it would take something pretty important to get you to break the Order’s rules like this.” Sister Stephanie’s only response was to stare daggers at Resa who continued in measured tones. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Sister Stephanie was silent a long moment, every muscle in her face clenched with tension and hostility. But beneath the surface there was something else, too. Something greater that Resa sensed and Sister Stephanie would be loath to admit to…and that something was vulnerability. Fundamental, human vulnerability. And with it came the need to unburden and connect with another person…even if that person was Resa Gustavez.

Sister Stephanie exhaled sharply in exasperation. “Fine,” she said curtly. “The police called this morning. They identified the man in custody as a Joseph Randolf but they still don’t know the identity of the Second Thief who got away. Mr. Randolf, apparently, has a history of petty theft and burglary and they think his accomplice might be someone he met while in prison or through his present job.” Sister Stephanie indicated to the half-completed apartment building to her right. “Which just happens to be as a worker with Teague Construction.”

On the chain-link fence that surrounded the building’s site a sign read in big, bold letters: RENOVATIONS COMPLETED BY SPRING OF 1999. BROUGHT TO YOU BY J.P. TEAGUE & SONS; HELPING BUILD A BETTER L.A. SINCE 1974.

The building itself was at least seven stories tall and wasn’t far enough along in its construction to fully determine the final architectural style but at least one thing was for certain – there was a great deal of activity taking place within the site itself. Trucks, cranes, dozens of workers all buzzed about like bees around a hive.

Sister Stephanie pointed to the top story that was completely exposed. “From the higher floors anyone can see right into our yards, see almost every part of the Sacred Heart which has been a problem ever since construction started a couple months ago,” she continued. “Some of their workers have been grossly obnoxious, particularly when the older, female students have been around. The Reverend Mother eventually had to call up J.P. Teague himself to demand they keep a tighter reign on his employees.”

“Did it work?”

“Mostly. The lewd remarks and whistles have stopped. But they still watch. It feels like this constant presence anytime any of us venture outside during the day. We try to ignore it and some have greater success than others. But, you always know they’re there.” She paused. “It just can’t be a coincidence. Mr. Randolf working here and then getting caught stealing from our chapel. He must have gotten the idea from looking in on us all this time.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Resa agreed. “But what are you planning to do? Go in there and ask every man you see if he helped rob a convent last night?”

“Of course not. I’m going to talk with the Foreman, ask him some questions and see what I can find out.”

“How very Laura Holt of you,” Resa said drolly. “But don’t you think that’s something better left for the detectives?”

Sister Stephanie furrowed her brow. “I don’t know who this Laura Holt is but I think I have the right to make inquiries into Mr. Randolf’s behavior. He is, after all, responsible for my friend’s death.” There was a catch in her voice as she spoke the last words, evidence that her grief was still raw.

Resa didn’t feel she could argue with her on this point but also instinctively knew having the young nun plow alone into a male bastion such as this was, perhaps, not the greatest of strategies.

“When was the last time you were on a construction site?” Resa asked even though she already knew the answer.

Sister Stephanie shifted her feet and twitched her mouth. “Well, never,” she had to admit. “I’ve never been.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Have you been on one?”

Resa had to laugh. “Sister, I’ve been practically everywhere.” Then she sighed and moved forward toward the gap in the fence that acted as the site’s front entrance. “C’mon.”

Sister Stephanie didn’t move. “What do you mean?”

Resa looked back at her. “I mean come on, we might as well get this over with.”

“We?”

“We,” she said with distinct emphasis. “No offense, Sister, but this isn’t exactly a good place for someone like you to go into all alone.”

Sister Stephanie looked for a moment as if she were about to argue the point when a loud bang of something immensely heavy dropping to the ground made her jump. A second later from within the site a man’s disembodied voice boomed out,

“Goddammit all to Hell, Lefty! Why don’t ya look where you’re droppin’ things, you stupid sonuvabitch!”

Which was followed by, “’Ey, fuck youz!”

To which the first voice replied, “No thanks, yer not my type.” And after this brief bit of witty repartee came a round of deep, self-satisfied laughter.

Sister Stephanie cleared her throat and avoided Resa’s eyes. “Fine.”

Resa hid her grin and headed for the opening in the gate.

An aura of organized chaos greeted them as they entered the heart of the construction area where the air was thick with the smells of powdered cement and hot tar. Resa lead the way across the heavy wooden planks that covered the deep plumbing trench running across the front of the site. She spied a silver trailer that no doubt acted as the main office and headed in that direction.

Her instinctive reaction was to ignore the strange looks they received upon passing through the entrance but then remembered who she was escorting and glanced back. Sister Stephanie was only a couple feet behind her, her eyes darting around and taking in everything she saw, almost like a tourist torn by a sense of curiosity at her new surroundings and anxiety at the potentially hostile environment.

“This way,” Resa said to her, pointing to the trailer.

Sister Stephanie nodded tensely and followed. For a moment Resa thought they might actually make it across the site without overt acknowledgement from any of the crew. But such was not to be. The first whistle reached her ears as they were mid-way to their destination and she rolled her eyes. After that, the rest of the guys got into the act until a cacophony of catcalls filled the air. Resa looked over at Sister Stephanie and saw the young woman was rigid with discomfort. She’d clearly never been in such a situation before.

Resa felt sorry for her. Oh, she hadn’t forgotten all the brutal things the young nun had said to her — after all, it was just yesterday — but she derived no pleasure from seeing her like this. Still, she hadn’t the first idea how to reassure her.

What would Jennifer do? she wondered then caught herself. What an odd thought…and yet, extraordinarily enough, just asking that question brought about the answer as if the workings of Jennifer Logan’s mind were eternally familiar to her. She would drape an arm around the other woman’s shoulder to let her know she wasn’t alone.

Which, of course, was something Resa would never do.

Instead, she gave the nun a look of support.

“Don’t let ‘em know it bothers you,” she said. “It just encourages them.”

Sister Stephanie stared at her a moment, then nodded and struggled to comply.

Resa moved forward and was within twenty feet of the trailer when the door opened and two men stepped out. It was obvious at a glance they were brothers. The similarity — light gray eyes, square jaws, hawk shaped noses — was too great to be coincidence and Resa determined the one closest to them to be the elder of the two. She guessed both men’s ages hovered somewhere around the late twenties, early thirties mark.

She noticed something else as well; the moment the two men appeared the heckling ceased and the construction crew immediately returned to their tasks at hand.

The older of the two men glanced back at the younger and said something just out of Resa’s earshot before moving forward to greet them. The younger man hung back to scrutinize the two women for a beat or two longer, then headed in the opposite direction.

The first man smiled as he reached them and Resa noticed that his glance darted appreciatively in Sister Stephanie’s direction.

“Hi there, ladies. How may I help you?” he asked in a most pleasant manner.

Resa took charge. “Are you the Foreman here?” she asked.

“No, this is my brother’s site but I run the company that’s doing the building. My name’s Phillip Teague of Teague Construction.” He extended his hand and Resa accepted it, noting the restrained strength and relative lack of calluses on his palm.

“Resa Gustavez,” she said. “And this is Sister Stephanie of the Convent of the Sacred Heart.”

In that moment, Resa decided that coming along had been worth it just to see the dumfounded start on Phillip Teague’s face. Gray eyes swept over Sister Stephanie’s slender frame again and the smile disappeared.

“You’re a nun?” he asked incredulously.

Sister Stephanie couldn’t hide the blush that colored her fair cheeks as she nodded.

“Oh.” He frowned, blinked twice then glanced back at Resa. “You?”

“Not hardly.”

“Oh…Well, um, how can I help you?” He asked the question of Resa but she noticed his eyes continued to dart in Sister Stephanie’s direction.

“Do you have a Joseph Randolf working for you here?” Resa asked.

Phillip Teague looked blank. “I honestly don’t know. As I said, this is my brother’s site. I’m here this morning for a monthly inspection. Jude’s in charge of hiring all personnel.”

“He should find some men with manners,” Sister Stephanie bristled, annoyance helping her to find her voice at last.

Phillip regarded her again and his eyes warmed. “You’re absolutely right. I apologize for all that,” he said waving his hand in the direction of the building to indicate the catcalls. “I hope it didn’t bother you too much.”

Sister Stephanie shook her head. “I can handle it.”

He smiled. “I’m sure you can.”

Sister Stephanie blushed again and very nearly smiled and Resa cocked an eyebrow. If she didn’t know any better she’d swear there was some significant chemistry taking place before her eyes. Curiouser and curiouser indeed…

“May we speak with Jude?” Resa asked.

Phillip shrugged. “Sure. He’s around the other side of the complex right now checking on some things but he’ll be back here in about fifteen minutes.” He paused and frowned a little. “Is something wrong?”

“Yes. But I don’t think we should discuss it out here in the open.”

Phillip’s frown deepened. “I see…Then let’s find some privacy.” He stepped back and indicated the trailer behind him. “After you.”
****
Jennifer was not a morning person. In fact, she always considered herself more of a mid-to late afternoon kind of gal who really came to life at around ten o’clock in the evening when her mind was at its most creative. School had forced her to alter her natural biological sleep patterns but, left to her own devices, she could coast through the entire morning on a semi-unconscious wave.

So this made her act of waking up at a quarter past eight a bit of a surprise. She slowly peeled her eyelids open and squinted against the glare of the sun beating through the windowpane. Momentarily disoriented, she tried to focus her clouded mind on the unfamiliar surroundings that included a sizable wooden crucifix and a reproduction of a random Italian Renaissance painting of the Madonna and Child.

Blink, blink…

Oooooookay…

Then she remembered where she was and immediately glanced over at Resa’s bed. Which was empty.

She sat up swiftly then stopped as a sharp pain shot across her head. Gingerly she touched the bruise above her eye and cringed. Ice pack or no ice pack, the residual swelling made her eye a wee bit puffy.

Jennifer glanced back at Resa’s unmade bed and paused to determine if she could sense Resa elsewhere in the visitor apartment. She quickly realized Resa was definitely gone.

She was alone.

Dread hit deep in her gut. Had the other woman abandoned her? Left her in the care of the sisters until other plans could be made? Oh, it would be so like her to do that, she thought, then paused. Now how would I possibly know what she would or would not do? Hmmm…

She decided she was being needlessly silly. Merely because Resa wasn’t there when she woke up didn’t mean she was gone for good. Only last night she’d said they would get through this together…or words to that effect. But what if she had said what Jennifer wanted to hear as a way to humor her, all the while planning to leave at the first available moment?

Jennifer, calm down, she told herself. Even if she did leave, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, right? It’s not like you’ve known her your whole life. .right?

Right…

And yet…

She chewed her lower lip. And yet a vague question tickled the deep recesses of her thoughts, one she couldn’t fully articulate and wasn’t certain if she wanted to. One that had far reaching implications she found strangely disquieting…about her and Resa and the sense of connection between them.

She shook her head, stood and tidied both beds before entering the living room. In the back of her mind she thought there might be a note of some nature from the former gang leader telling of her whereabouts. But of course there was not and she chastised herself at the disappointment she experienced. Resa was probably out getting breakfast, which was the most logical thing for her to do at this time. Jennifer was being irrational and she knew it. But the nebulous sense of abandonment persisted.

She glanced at the once tidy piles of clothes and saw by the mess that Resa had already chosen her items. Jennifer located a pair of jeans that were almost the correct size, albeit slightly larger, then found a cotton, black faux turtleneck and hastily dressed. After taking care of her basic toiletries, she pulled her long, blonde hair back into a ponytail, and tried not to cringe at the swelling above her right eyebrow.

She decided she’d go in search of Resa. Before exiting the apartment, she scribbled a hasty message in case Resa returned during her absence. Not that she’d wonder if she’d left permanently, of course, but it was, after all, the polite thing to do.

Once outside she felt instantly alert and awake. It was a beautiful morning. There was enough of a breeze to blow away the smog, leaving the sky above a rich, cobalt and the air was rather crisp, though the mid-morning sun would soon burn that off.

“Can I help you?”

The polite voice came from off to her right and startled her. Jennifer blinked twice and, shielding her eyes with the flat of her hand, glanced in the direction of the speaker.

A middle-aged nun was smiling at her and clearly had no idea who she was or what she was doing in the private section of the convent. Which was fair since Jennifer had been too distraught during the events with Sister Therase to register any of the faces of the other sisters. It had been too chaotic.

“Hi,” she said. “My name’s Jennifer. I stayed in the guest quarters last night.” She pointed over her shoulder.

Recognition dawned on the sister’s face and Jennifer noted that the other woman’s smile dimmed just a little. “Oh, yes. Of course. I’m sorry…Last night was something of a blur.”

“I understand. For me, too. It was all so…” Her words trailed off as she could find no expression that didn’t sound painfully trite. It was all so…what? Horrible? Tragic? Unjust? Nothing sounded appropriate and she felt a discomforting twinge often associated with outsiders in grievous situations.

But the woman opposite her nodded as though she recognized what she was attempting to convey and Jennifer felt relieved. She also considered for the first time that perhaps there were no words to neatly describe grief, that it was by its very nature a messy emotion.

“I am Sister Clodagh,” the woman said. “Have you eaten breakfast?”

“No. Not yet. Actually, that’s what I was just thinking about. I don’t suppose you could point me in the direction of the kitchen?”

“I would be happy to take you there.” Sister Clodagh swept her hand in the direction of a stone pathway leading around the chapel and Jennifer fell in step beside her.

Silence descended upon them and Jennifer seized the opportunity to glance around. She was slowly starting to get a better grasp of the layout of the place. The west half she knew contained the guest apartment and chapel and was primarily devoted to the private area of the convent while the east appeared to be where most of the school’s activities occurred. The main building was several stories tall and each floor was dedicated to the education of a certain grade. It was her understanding the sisters’ personal quarters were in a separate wing on the western side and the elaborate gardens dominated the north of the grounds but also bled into some of the residential side as well.

“Your convent is beautiful,” Jennifer commented.

Sister Clodagh smiled. “Thank you.”

“The kids must love it here.”

This produced a chuckle from the sister. “I think environmental aesthetics tend to be lost on small children, especially when it’s their school. They’re too busy running and playing to notice the architecture and whatnot.”

Jennifer smiled realizing the nun probably had a point. Then she noticed something as they neared the main building.

“You know, it’s funny. I can’t hear them. I would have thought so many kids would make more noise.”

Sadness entered Sister Clodagh’s eyes. “Classes have been cancelled today. After what happened.”

“Oh…of course,” the college student said quietly then decided a change of subject was probably in order. “I, um, don’t suppose you’ve seen anyone else loitering about recently?”

Sister Clodagh frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.”

“Well, specifically I’m looking for a woman about yay tall.” She motioned with her hand to an approximation of Resa’s height. “Long dark hair, blue eyes, very striking looking.”

“Your friend?”

Jennifer couldn’t help grinning. “We’re not quite at the friend stage yet, I think. Though I’m pretty sure we’ve moved up from acquaintances of a non-hostile nature, which is progress.” Sister Clodagh looked so blank that Jennifer had to stifle an outright laugh. “Her name’s Resa Gustavez. She used to be a student here.”

Sister Clodagh’s lips thinned but she made no other overt reaction to the name. “Yes, I remember Resa,” she said.

Jennifer’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You do? Were you a teacher here when she was a student?”

Sister Clodagh nodded. “I’ve taught at St. Ruth’s for almost twenty years.”

“Then I suppose you must have had Resa in some of your classes…”

Sister Clodagh’s expression was a study in noncommittal, as was her tone. “Yes. Resa was a student of mine.” A slight pause, then she admitted, “One of the most gifted students I’ve ever had.”

“Really?”

The nun stopped outside a doorway to the main building and faced Jennifer. “Have you known her long?”

She shook her head. “Couple days… but they’ve been pretty intense.”

“I see. Then you’ve probably already realized she’s extraordinarily intelligent.”

“I think that’s obvious from the word ‘go.’”

“Yes. It is obvious…Even as a child she was brilliant,” Sister Clodagh said, her voice matter of fact. “We all knew it. She could recall practically everything she ever read at a moment’s notice with near-photographic clarity.” The nun’s pale eyes grew wistful. “A teacher dreams of a student like her, one with an almost limitless potential and a hunger to succeed.” She sighed heavily and shook her head sadly. “Unfortunately a different hunger won out in the end.”

Jennifer stiffened and felt the blood rush to her face. “Her life isn’t over,” she respectfully objected. “She’s struggling right now to make her life better, to try to make up for what she did. She wants to change and with the right kind of support, I believe she can.”

Sister Clodagh regarded her for a long moment, absorbing her words…then she slowly nodded. “I hope so,” she said as she opened the door. “For the sake of her everlasting soul…I truly hope so.”

* * * *

“So, what are you saying? That the thief that got away may be a member of this crew as well?” Phillip Teague leaned back in his chair behind the desk and ignored the sharp squeak from the base that reverberated around the cramped confines of the trailer.

The space wasn’t so much tiny as overwhelmingly cluttered with countless books, binders, and rolls of architectural blueprints that were strewn about in surprising disarray. The pervasive smell of cigarettes mixed oddly with the distinct aroma of incense in the stale air and Resa’s glance quickly detected a handcrafted, wooden incense burner atop the metal credenza, wedged between two frayed paperback books: The Four Nobel Truths and Co-Dependency No More. She arched a single brow. Not the sort of reading material one would expect to find on a construction site.

She shifted her gaze back to Phillip Teague. “It’s certainly a possibility,” Resa said in answer to his question.

“Do you have any proof or is this merely conjecture on your part?” he countered, slightly defensive.

“Mr. Teague, we have no proof whatsoever,” Sister Stephanie spoke up. “But it is a tremendous coincidence wouldn’t you agree? People covet that which they see and Mr. Randolf saw the Sacred Heart on a daily basis. Is it not possible his accomplice did the same?”

He sidestepped the question. “Look, just because one of the men from this crew did something foolish doesn’t mean there’s some sort of conspiracy at work here.”

“Foolish?” Sister Stephanie said, sitting up even straighter (if possible) in the chair opposite Phillip. “What Mr. Randolf and his accomplice did last night was a great deal more than ‘foolish.’ Their actions resulted in the death of one of our Sisters…my friend. I wouldn’t call that foolish. I would call that murder.”

The last word hung heavy between them in the silence that followed and Phillip seemed disturbed by it. He raked a hand through his thick hair then dropped it to the messy desktop and unconsciously ran the tip of a finger alongside the corner of a wooden picture frame. From her vantage point Resa could just make out the image in the photograph of two sunburned men in colorful parkas standing on a snowy mountain, grinning for the camera. The Teague Brothers.

“This other thief…” Phillip spoke quietly. “Is he wanted for murder?”

“No.” Resa answered.

“Not yet,” Sister Stephanie interjected.

Resa glanced at her. “It likely wouldn’t be murder. He just came there to rob the place, not to kill anyone.”

“But he did kill someone.”

“It wasn’t intentional,” Resa pointed out.

“How do you know?” Sister Stephanie challenged. “Therase’s heart may have given out before they could have done anything but how do you know they wouldn’t have killed her to prevent getting caught? You saw how they fought us, how that one hit your friend before getting away.”

Phillip looked concerned. “Is your friend all right?”

Resa met his eyes. “She’ll have a bruise when she wakes up, but she’s fine.” A grin. “She’s tougher than she looks.”

Phillip nodded and Resa detected a wave of salient relief cross his face. Her eyes narrowed and the quiet din of alarm bells went off in her head. Sudden snippets of the thieves’ dialogue flashed across her memory…Dude, leave her the fuck alone…She’s un-fucking-conscious…I don’t fucking care…Well I do…

Dude, leave her the fuck alone…

Dude…

Or was it…?

Resa crossed her arms. “The second thief was actually quiet concerned about Sister Therase,” she said with studied deliberation.

Phillip’s eyes sharpened. “He was?”

Resa nodded.

“How do you know that?” Sister Stephanie demanded.

Resa’s eyes never deviated from Phillip’s. “Because he didn’t want to leave her unconscious.” She tipped her head to one side. “He said something about it being bad Karma.”

The last word produced the exact look of dismay she’d expected; the muscles in Phillip Teague’s face clenched, his jaw shifted to one side and his ruddy complexion grew almost pale.

“A thief worried about Karma?” Sister Stephanie scoffed. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Funny, Randolf said basically the same thing…right before he started to leave him there.”

Phillip leaned forward in his chair. “Are you saying the accomplice…”

“Didn’t want to abandon Sister Therase,” Resa finished for him. “Yes. I’m sure of it.”

Phillip sat back, this news evidently striking home with him. He linked his fingers in an unconscious, prayer-like gesture of contemplation as he mulled over Resa’s words.

Sister Stephanie stared at Resa. “You sound like you sympathize with this man.”

Resa met her angry brown eyes with a hard expression of her own. “I know what it’s like to be judged before all the evidence is in.”

Sister Stephanie’s eyes narrowed at the dig. “When there is such a preponderance of evidence already in the balance, waiting for additional proof one way or the other is really nothing more than a waste of time.”

And the gloves came off.

“So guilty of one crime makes you guilty of all, is that it? Hardly fair.”

“Life isn’t fair.”

“That’s not exactly the sentiment one expects from a nun.”

Sister Stephanie stiffened in indignation. “Do you question my calling?”

“No,” Resa replied calmly. “Do you?”

Sister Stephanie opened her mouth to respond…then closed it again and glanced away.

Resa turned back to Phillip Teague and noted his mild bewilderment at their verbal sparring.

Suddenly the door to the trailer opened and a wide shaft of bright sunlight fell across all three occupants. Both Resa and Sister Stephanie twisted in their chairs to squint at the new arrival directly behind them. Resa could only make out the darkened shape of a man standing with his hands braced on either side of the doorway but she recognized him just the same.

“Oh, sorry, Bro,” the man said. “Thought you were alone.”

He started to draw back.

Resa stood. “Are you Jude?” she asked and the man paused.

“Uh, yeah.” But there was a definite hesitation in his answer and his tension was almost palpable.

“We were wondering if we could ask you a few questions,” she said.

He didn’t move. “About what?”

“About your crew.”

His defenses were clearly up now. “What about ‘em?”

“How well do you know them?”

He shrugged one shoulder, non-committal. “You know, some better than others.”

Sister Stephanie stood as well. “Mr. Teague, we were just discussing with your brother a very grave situation that we were hoping you could perhaps help us with. I’m afraid there’s been a terrible incident that involves one of your construction crew employees.”

“You mean about the robbery.” It wasn’t exactly a question.

“How did you know about that?” Resa pressed sharply.

He shrugged again, casual. “It’s in the news,” he answered. “Channel 5 has a truck out in front of your convent right now.”

Resa nodded. “Riiiiight,” she drew the word out as she casually came around the other side of her chair. “…but how did you know we were from the convent?”

Jude Teague didn’t move for two whole beats, as the full implication seemed to strike everyone simultaneously.

Then, in a flash, he reacted. He reached one long leg into the trailer to violently kick the chair nearest him directly into Sister Stephanie’s shins, knocking her backwards against the desk then to the floor. In the same motion he pushed back out of the trailer threshold and slammed the door.

Resa instantly lunged forward, pausing briefly to glance at the fallen woman and to meet Phillip’s stunned eyes as he hurried around the desk.

“Help her,” she commanded before slamming through the doorway.

The sudden exposure to bright light left her momentarily blinded but that didn’t prevent her from dashing ahead. She quickly discerned Jude’s figure running into the half-completed apartment structure and ran after him, ignoring the perplexed looks several of the construction workers threw her way.

As she crossed through the front doorway, she knew she was at a disadvantage. This was his turf and thus his environment to control. She had to be doubly on alert.

A quick glance and she noted the exposed drywalls, the bags of dried cement and plaster stacked all around, and the two hulking construction workers, paused in mid-task, as they looked at her with confusion evident on their faces. She ignored them and instead grabbed hold of a nearby piece of rebar (long, heavy steel bar used to support internal construction), holding it before her like a weapon as she advanced. She concentrated through the discord of noise and detected the shuffling sound of quickened footsteps in the next room. They stopped abruptly and she heard a soft crunch as they slid up against the wall to her right. She clenched her jaw, her defenses up and knew what to expect as she proceeded ahead.

And sure enough, the moment she crossed through the doorway her alert peripheral vision caught sight of something coming down swiftly at her from her right.

But she was prepared.

She ducked away from the swing and turned to slam the rebar straight into Jude’s knee, eliciting a cry of pain as he pitched to the ground. The enormous wrench he’d been holding dropped from his hands and Resa moved to kick it out of his reach. But Jude was far from out. As she took a step toward him he suddenly pivoted and brought his good leg around to swipe her feet out from underneath her, dropping her awkwardly onto her left side. She sucked in her breath at the spasm of instant pain she felt from the impact to her gunshot wound but knew she had to quickly shake it off. There wasn’t time.

Jude scrambled to his feet and hurriedly limped across the room, his destination clearly being the yet to be completed far wall that lead directly to the outside. Resa spun to her knees, then leapt to her feet and went after him. She spied, then grabbed a heavy, wooden cable spool and, in a mighty hurl, threw it across the room and into the center of Jude’s back. Bullseye.

He arched in pain and stumbled off-balance to the floor. Resa was on him in a second, seizing the actual cable from the spool and using it to tie his ankles. Jude, however, wasn’t about to give in just yet. He sat up and simultaneously swung a powerful right hook straight at Resa’s jaw. And it would have been painful had it connected. But it didn’t. Instead Resa caught his fist in mid-swing and head-butted him on the bridge of his nose. She heard the crunch of bone and knew at once that it was broken.

He dropped back and brought his hands to his face as he almost cried in pain.

Resa grabbed both his wrists, pulled them to the ground, and brought her face within inches of his.

“That,” she said in a low snarl. “Was for Jennifer, you sonuvabitch.”

Tears poured down his cheeks, mixing with the blood already streaming from his nose and she could feel the fight go out of him. Nonetheless, she quickly brought the cable up to bind his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m so, so sorry…”

“Yeah? Well, you’d better be ‘cause you are in a helluva lot of trouble, Mr. Teague.”

“I didn’t mean…” His words trailed off and he slowly drew himself into a fetal position as he now wept openly.

She sat back on her heels and let her eyes travel over his young, ravaged face. She felt more than a twinge of pity for him for he was clearly a weak man. Not physically, to be sure, but weak in spirit, in character. She could tell that right away. But he wasn’t malicious, just scared and panicked. She’d seen it a hundred times before when she was with the Vartans, young boys in over their heads and wondering how the hell they’d ever gotten there in the first place. It had been a weakness she used to relish exploiting to her own advantage…but now it only made her sad.

“I swear I didn’t want anyone to die,” he said in a helpless voice. “It wasn’t supposed to…Joey said…Oh, God…” He was again wracked by sobs. “I just needed the money…just the money, that’s all…I never meant…”

“Jude!”

Resa whipped her head in the direction of the voice and saw Phillip Teague in the doorway, his gray eyes the picture of torment as he beheld his younger brother. With quick steps he advanced toward them and Resa stood, taking a step back to allow him access to Jude.

“Oh, Bro…” His voice cracked with anguish as he pulled the younger man into his embrace and buried his face in his hair. “What have you done this time…”

Jude curled closer to Phillip’s chest, looking remarkably more like a frightened little boy than grown man. “I’m so sorry, Philly,” he sobbed. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone…I swear.” He sniffed loudly and looked up at Phillip. “You gotta believe me, man.”

Tears glistened in the older man’s eyes and he swallowed hard. “I believe you, Jude” he whispered. “I believe you.” He wiped the moisture from his brother’s face with his bare hand.

Resa caught a glimpse of motion from the doorway and glanced up to see Sister Stephanie standing there, her eyes glued to the two devastated men. And surprisingly enough, the bitterness and anger of earlier were no longer evident in her expression. Instead she appeared deeply moved by the emotional display between the Teague brothers, her brown eyes ripe with pain and a mutual sorrow. Perhaps it was because she could too easily relate to the raw anguish laid bare before her…or perhaps there was something more…

Phillip raised his head and met Sister Stephanie’s eyes. For a long moment no words were spoken between them, then in a soft, sorrow-filled voice of resignation he said,

“Call the police,” and tightened his hold on his brother as he slowly began to rock him to and fro…

CHAPTER TEN

Jennifer sat at the end of the long mahogany table, alone in the cavernous dining hall and waited. She’d finished eating about ten minutes earlier but was uncertain whether she was supposed to linger until Sister Clodagh’s return or if wandering about in search of Resa was acceptable.

Sister Clodagh had been called away not long after Jennifer had finished collecting her plate of scrambled eggs, ham and toast and had said she would return shortly but that was well over twenty minutes ago and the college student was growing antsy. A curious, impatient soul, she was not naturally adept at waiting for prolonged periods and did not do so well.

Instead she drummed her fingers…

…and tapped her foot…

…and chewed her lip…

…and looked about in ever-increasing boredom.

Until sixty more seconds passed and she could take no more. She pushed back her chair and stood to go in search of Sister Clodagh.

As luck, circumstance or fate (take your pick) would have it, she found the sister with remarkable ease.

Actually, the fine sister found her.

Jennifer had wandered out the door to the eating hall and made it past several classrooms before she heard her name being called out. Immediately she stopped and poked her head back in through the doorway where she’d heard the voice and there she found Sister Clodagh seated in a bay by a window. Beside her sat an adorable young girl of no more than seven who clutched a well-worn ragdoll with red hair made of string in her dimpled hands.

“Hey there,” Jennifer said cheerfully. “I was just looking for you.”

“I’m so glad you came by,” the nun said as she motioned Jennifer to come all the way in the room. “Sister Helena had to leave to make a phone call a while ago and I didn’t want to leave Danielle here alone while I went to check on her progress.”

Jennifer glanced at the child and smiled. She appeared to be part Latino and part African American and, with her big brown eyes and wavy dark hair, was already well on her way to being heart-stoppingly beautiful.

“How can I help?” she asked easily.

“Could you sit with Danielle for a second? Her mother didn’t get the message that school was closed today and we need to notify her as quickly as possible.”

“Of course.” Jennifer crossed the room to pull up a chair beside the young child.

“Oh, thank you,” Sister Clodagh said, then turned to the little girl. “Now, Jennifer here is going to watch you for a few minutes while I phone your Mommy. You mind what she has to say, okay?”

Danielle nodded a little uncertain and clutched her doll tighter to her chest as she peered up at Jennifer through thick lashes.

Sister Clodagh patted Jennifer’s arm. “You’re a Godsend. I’ll only be gone a few minutes.” And with that she headed out the classroom door.

Jennifer took a seat beside the young child. Being the aunt to three nephews and two nieces left her fairly confident around children, the key being, she realized early on, not to treat them like children at all but rather as people. It was, to many, a peculiar concept.

“Hi,” Jennifer said casually.

The little girl just stared at her for a long moment before whispering, “Hi.”

“I’m Jennifer. What’s your name?”

Danielle blinked a couple times, then squirmed. “Danielle LaTrice Morrisey-Brown.”

“That’s a pretty name. What grade are you in?”

“Second.”

“Second? Really? I would have thought Third at least, you seem so mature.”

This brought about a hint of a smile from the little girl since every small child loved to believe they were grown up for their age.

“Is that your dolly?” Danielle nodded. “What’s her name?”

“Annabelle.”

“Annabelle? That’s a nice name. What made you call her that?”

“She was already named that,” the girl said matter-of-factly and drew the doll away from her chest to point to a spot of embroidery on the small jumpsuit that most distinctly said ‘Annabelle’.

Jennifer stifled a smile. “Of course.”

Danielle looked up at her. “Are you new here?” she asked, her comfort level with Jennifer already growing.

“Sort of. I’m staying here for a little while.”

“Like a hotel?”

Jennifer laughed. “A little.”

“Are you a teacher?”

“No. In fact, I’m a student, just like you.”

Dark brown eyes widened. “You are? What grade are you in?”

A slight grin. “Sixteenth. I’m a senior in college. I graduate in May.” Provided I live that long, she added wryly to herself.

“Wow. Are you old?”

“Well, I’m twenty three.”

Danielle’s expression clearly indicated she considered that to be very old indeed.

“You’re older than my Mommy. She just turned twenty-one,” she said guilelessly.

And it was Jennifer’s turn to blink. A twenty one-year old woman with a seven-year old child was just mind-boggling to her. It meant the woman had to have given birth when she was fourteen. Fourteen! When Jennifer had been fourteen she’d been concerned with getting braces and whether or not her parents would allow her to stay out at parties until eleven PM. Those were the ‘Big Issues’ in her life. The idea of having another person to look after, another child…She shook her head in wonder. Such responsibility for one so young seemed so incredibly awesome to her as to be incomprehensible.

Suddenly, as if deciding Jennifer was okay in her estimation, Danielle smiled brightly and reached out to grab her hand.

“Wanna see my school picture?” she asked in an abrupt change of subject that only a child could follow. “They put them up on the wall already.”

“Uh, sure,” Jennifer responded though in truth she hadn’t the first clue as to what the little girl was referring.

“C’mon.” Danielle pulled her to her feet and dragged her after her.

“Wait, wait, wait… Is it far? Because we have to wait for Sister Clo–”

“No, it’s just in the library.” She pointed through the doorway to the room directly across the hall. “Right there.”

“Okay.”

With the single-minded determination of a little dynamo, Danielle led her across the hall to the empty library. The room was fairly large, about four times the size of the classroom they’d just left, and there was a surprising amount of books tucked away in the dozens of wooden cases. Not surprising, however, was the subtle grandeur of the design that matched the rest of the estate.

Danielle brought her to the right side of the room and Jennifer noticed that all of the walls were covered with framed photographs. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs, all, apparently, of various classes of the Sacred Heart through the years.

“This is my class,” Danielle said, pointing to a particular picture frame of a group photo where about twenty little girls in green plaid skirts smiled for the camera. “That’s me over there by Margie Alvarez. See?”

Jennifer peered at the picture and easily found the smiling face of her young charge standing beside a tall, willowy girl with a gap-toothed grin.

“Yes.” She smiled at the little girl. “You look very pretty.”

Danielle beamed. “Thank you. Margie is my best friend in the whole world, you know. We do everything together. One time I fell down and hurt my knee and it was bleeding and she helped me get home and helped me clean it up and put a Band-Aid on it and didn’t make fun of me for crying or anything ‘cause that’s what best friends do, they help each other without making fun of them. Do you have a best friend like that?”

Jennifer paused. “Well…I have friends, of course…”

“But no best friend?”

Jennifer considered this question for a long moment then finally had to admit, “No. I don’t have a best friend like Margie Alvarez.”

“You should get one. A best friend I mean. They’re really nice. But you can’t have Margie ‘cause she’s mine.”

Jennifer laughed out loud. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Danielle nodded, satisfied.

Then a crazy little thought entered Jennifer’s mind, prompted though she had yet to realize it, by the simple talk of friendship.

“How far back do these school pictures go?” she wondered aloud.

Danielle looked blank then shrugged her tiny shoulders.

Jennifer nodded to herself, not really expecting an answer, and slowly moved further into the room, her eyes never leaving the wall of class photographs as she scanned the descending years printed on each. It was, of course, like looking for a needle in a haystack, but still her curiosity was aroused and her tenaciousness when that happened was always unwavering.

In all, it took her a little more than a minute before a tingle of awareness went up her spine, not unlike the sensation she’d felt in the garden the evening before when she’d knowingly turned to find Resa standing only a few feet away.

Jennifer stopped and leaned closer to one photograph in particular, her sharp eyes finding that for which she sought with amazing swiftness.

The class year read 1984 and though the face before her was that of a twelve year old girl there was absolutely no mistaking the striking visage of Resa Gustavez. The same long dark hair, the same high cheekbones, and the same extraordinary blue eyes. But what caught Jennifer’s attention most was the dazzling smile on the young girl’s face. Bright, beautiful, and full of innocent confidence, it was like getting a glimpse into the past, at the child she once was, and the burgeoning potential that never came to pass. Here before her was a girl that had no idea what her future held in store, how the fickle hand of fate would soon take from her her younger brother and with him that wonderful and ingenuous smile. She was, in that one moment captured for posterity, simply a young, twelve-year-old schoolgirl like any other, perhaps for one of the last times in her life.

“Who are you looking at?” Danielle asked from behind her.

Unbeknownst to her, a crooked smile tweaked her lips as she unconsciously thought Maybe my Margie Alvarez.

And then caught herself up short.

She frowned at the unexpected turn in her thoughts and took a step back, even as her eyes sought out the image yet again. Jennifer swallowed hard, aware of the sudden onslaught of emotion that overcame her but as yet unable to make sense of it all. Too much was happening too soon and she felt distinctly bewildered.

“Danielle? Jennifer?” a voice called from the hallway.

Danielle’s eyes grew wide. “That’s the Mother Superior!” she said in a tiny voice fraught with alarm. Instinctively she grabbed hold of Jennifer’s hand and squeezed it tightly. “She scares me.”

On this, Jennifer was not about to disagree and she squeezed the little girl’s hand in return.

“In here,” the college student called out and started to lead Danielle back to the front of the library.

“Kenisha Jones says she’s a witch!” Danielle said in a loud stage whisper.

Jennifer swallowed a grin, fully aware of the irrational quirkiness of children’s fears.

“I don’t think that’s quite true,” she whispered back.

They headed to the front of the room just as the Mother Superior, in all her regal bearing, entered with Sister Clodagh trailing. Jennifer couldn’t help noticing that behind the Reverend Mother’s calm demeanor was the unmistakable sign of exhaustion. Deep shadows beneath her eyes told of the little if any sleep the older woman had acquired since the trauma of the early morning hours and she felt a twinge of pathos for her.

“There you are.” The Mother Superior glanced back at Sister Clodagh. “I thought you said they were in the class across the hall.”

“We were,” Jennifer said quickly, not wanting to get the sister in trouble. “But Danielle wanted to show me her class photos.”

“They just got put up,” Danielle piped in, her voice squeaky as she leaned into Jennifer.

The Mother Superior’s lips thinned in barely disguised irritation. “When you’re told to wait somewhere, it is generally helpful to wait at the specified location,” she said a bit too harshly and Jennifer exchanged a guilty look with the young child by her side.

“Sorry,” they both said in unison and Jennifer was silently thankful her mother hadn’t put her in convent school as she’d once threatened years ago.

The Mother Superior sighed heavily and Sister Clodagh diplomatically stepped forward, her hand held out to Danielle. “Sweetheart, your Mommy is on her way. Let’s go meet her out front, okay?”

Danielle nodded but gave a quick hug around Jennifer’s waist first. “Thanks for watching me,” she said sweetly and Jennifer beamed.

“Thanks for showing me your photograph.” A smile. “I’ll let you know when I find my Margie Alvarez, okay?”

Danielle smiled in return. “Okay.”

Then the little girl skipped forward (giving the Mother Superior a wide birth) and took hold of Sister Clodagh’s hand. She waved to Jennifer one last time before she and the sister exited the room.

“What was that bit about Margie?” the Mother Superior asked.

“An inside joke between the two of us,” Jennifer answered, deliberately cryptic.

The Reverend Mother looked fully at Jennifer. “I see,” she said and, after a moment, sighed again. “I apologize for snapping at you earlier. I’m – it’s been a rather stressful morning, what with the school being closed and the reporters roaming about and – everything else. We are all of us a little on edge I think. Myself included.”

“I understand,” Jennifer said sincerely. “We should have waited in the other room instead of coming here and making you search for us.”

The faintest trace of a smile appeared across the older woman’s weary face. “Danielle can be most headstrong when she’s set upon something.”

“I picked up on that.” Jennifer grinned. “Honestly, she meant no harm. It just made her happy to show off her class picture.”

“I understand,” the Mother Superior nodded. “The children get quite a little thrill each year when we hang them. It’s evolved into quite the event.”

“That’s a nice tradition to have. Gives the place a real sense of history.”

“Yes it does. We’ve done it for as long as I can remember now.” Just then a curious expression stole across the Mother Superior’s face as she glanced from Jennifer to further into the room and back. She tipped her head to one side. “Resa has some of her pictures here you know.”

Jennifer felt a slight tingle of embarrassment. “Um, yeah…actually, I’ve already seen one of them.” Oddly the Mother Superior didn’t seem the least surprised and that only served to increase Jennifer’s discomfort. She shifted her feet and murmured, “She looked so young.”

“Yes, well, we’ve all changed a great deal since then…for the better I think in Resa’s case.”

Jennifer’s eyebrows rose. “Really?”

“Does that surprise you?”

“Only that you think it of her. I got the impression you and Resa had, well, a sort of negative history.”

To her amazement the Mother Superior laughed. “That’s a very tactful way of putting it, but the truth is we clashed bitterly at every turn during her entire stay at the Sacred Heart. I don’t think I’ve ever been frustrated more by a pupil in all my life.” The Mother Superior started walking out of the room and Jennifer dutifully followed her out into the hallway. “Resa was extraordinarily bright and stubborn,” the older woman continued. “…always a tumultuous combination in a child, and I must admit I didn’t have the first clue how to handle her.” Her eyes grew plaintive. “A part of me can’t help but wonder that if perhaps I had done a better job with her, if we all had, things would have turned out different…”

As they walked, they passed the dining hall and several classrooms, all conspicuously empty.

“I think Resa’s too much of her own woman to let anyone influence her,” Jennifer said.

“I don’t know about that. You seem to have a way with her.”

“Me?” she asked, startled to the quick.

“Yes.”

“How — how do you mean?”

They rounded the corner and Jennifer found herself once again in the impressive lobby.

“Yesterday, in my office, she and I slipped into our old roles of antagonists and I baited her shamefully (for which I have asked forgiveness from the Holy Father) until she very nearly stormed out. But something stopped her. And I think that something was you…You see, instead of leaving, as I expected she would, she came back and she did everything in her power to convince me to keep you here, to keep you safe, her own circumstances being of no concern. Quite extraordinary. In all the time I’ve known her, I have never seen her put the care of someone else before herself. Not once…until you.” She shook her head in amazement as they stepped outside into the front yard of the convent.

“I think she’s changed a lot in general,” Jennifer said.

The Reverend Mother smiled. “And I think you underestimate yourself. You’re a very strong person, Jennifer. You may yet be too young to recognize it, but it’s there. Others can see it…I can see it, and Resa can see it, too.”

Jennifer felt a hot blush creep up her neck and face and couldn’t find the words to respond. Instead she looked away…

…and found herself staring into a bright light, behind the glare of which she realized was the lens of a television news camera.

She started back in surprise. Wha-?

A tall, blonde female reporter, impeccably coifed and attired, stepped out from behind the cameraman and approached them both, holding her microphone before her almost as if it was a weapon.

“Sister Mary Elizabeth? Hi, Jackie Martin, Channel 5 News. We’re here to get your reaction to the arrest of one Jude Teague in connection to last night’s tragic death of your Order’s very own Sister Therase. How do you feel about this turn of events and do you think he should be prosecuted for what happened to Sister Therase?”

Jennifer deftly stepped away from the Mother Superior’s side. The Reverend Mother was clearly as startled as she but, as one whom had long ago accepted the reigns of leadership, she recovered quickly and with admirable aplomb.

“I’m afraid I was unaware of the arrest of a second person in connection to the death of our dear sister. Is this a recent development?” the older woman inquired.

Jennifer kept her eyes on the older nun even as she deliberately maneuvered behind the reporter and, more to the point, the cameraman with every intention to listen to any reply given…until something made her stop…and glance over her shoulder…and see none other than Resa turn the corner into the open doorway of the convent entrance.

She felt a heady rush of pleasure at seeing the ebony-haired woman followed closely by the unmistakable surge of an almost dizzying relief. She’s here…she didn’t abandon me…I’m not alone…

But a quick look at Resa’s intense expression as she took in the sight before her was enough to make Jennifer’s smile fade. The college student glanced from Resa to the camera crew then back and locked with a pair of familiar blue eyes. No words needed to pass between them for Jennifer to intuitively know Resa wanted her to come to her side. Which she did without hesitation even as the former gang leader ducked off to the left through some trees, well out of sight of the others.

Jennifer found Resa between the convent wall and an enormous eucalyptus tree, pacing in obvious irritation, her dark brows knitted and her body taut with tension. Yet none of that mattered a whit to Jennifer who knew only that she was near giddy at seeing her again.

“Hi,” she said, aware at how her face was beaming but powerless to stop.

Resa flicked a glance at her. “You’re awfully chipper,” she murmured wryly.

“I missed you.”

This revelation caught Resa off-guard and she stopped her pacing. “You what?”

“I missed you,” she repeated deliberately with a little shrug. “You weren’t here when I woke up and I had no idea where you were, since leaving a note when you go out somewhere was obviously not a courtesy you were taught as a child, and I got worried that you may have left me here on my own which, I’d like to go on record as saying would really suck if you’re even considering it because as nice as the sisters are and all, you and I are in this whole mess together and I refuse to be discarded at the first opportunity so if that’s what’s on your mind you can just forget it…”

She paused to draw in a deep breath, surprised at how her words had so quickly escaped from her lips to boil over into a veritable spew of emotion that left Resa staring at her in utter bemusement and herself with a blush so deep she felt the tips of her ears grow warm…But then a gradual hint of a smile appeared in the other woman’s eyes that was soon echoed in those of the younger woman.

“…okay?” Jennifer finished in a calmer voice.

Resa’s gaze swept over her face with a thoroughness that threatened to bring back the crimson to the younger woman’s cheeks and slowly nodded once. “Okay,” she agreed, then nodded to indicate Jennifer’s bruised eye. “The swelling’s not as bad as I thought it would be.”

Jennifer grinned and pointed briefly at Resa’s lip. “Neither’s yours.”

Resa arched a brow. “A wise woman made me put an ice compress on it before I went to bed.”

“A wise woman, huh? How true.”

Resa laughed and suddenly both women were smiling brightly at each other, all else — the death, the fear, the uncertainty — forgotten. And for the briefest moment Jennifer was absolutely, irrationally positive Resa was about to tell her she missed her, too. But the former gang leader remained silent on the subject and instead glanced over Jennifer’s shoulder.

“How long have the news crews been here?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I just walked out with the Mother Superior and there they were. She said something earlier about having to deal with the reporters wandering around so I suppose there’ve been others.”

The frown returned to Resa’s face. “If there haven’t been there soon will be.”

“What do you mean?”

Resa focused her attention on her. “The second thief has been caught.”

Jennifer’s brows shot up in surprise. “How? Who — ?” She paused mid-sentence then the realization dawned upon her. “You were involved weren’t you?”

Resa shrugged. “A little. Mostly it was Sister Stephanie’s persistence and a little luck.”

“Sister Stephanie?” she repeated incredulously.

“Yeah. She had a hunch and ended up at the construction site across the street.” Resa pointed in the direction of the events from earlier. “As it turns out, the second thief is the foreman there. Seems he has a history of drug abuse and other assorted problems and he got suckered into the robbery by the guy they captured last night, as a way to pay off some serious debts.”

“How did you find all this out?”

“He confessed.”

A single blonde brow arched knowingly. “And you wouldn’t possibly have had anything to do with getting that confession, would you?”

Resa pointed to her chest and made an innocent face as if to say, Who? Me? Jennifer smiled. “Uh-huh, I thought so…How bad did you hurt your shoulder

this time?”

“What makes you think I hurt my shoulder?”

“You winced when you pointed.”

Resa was clearly surprised and a little impressed by the observation. “It’s not really that bad. I just fell on it in the fight — ”

“Fight?”

“Yeah.”

“You were in another fight?”

“Only a little one.”

Jennifer shook her head in amusement. “Do you ever do anything the easy way?”

The corner of Resa’s mouth twitched. “Not often.”

Jennifer rolled her eyes and reached out to seize Resa’s right wrist to pull her after her in the direction of the guest quarters.

“Come on, let’s have a look.”
CHAPTER ELEVEN
“This is unnecessary,” Resa said in mild protest even as she allowed Jennifer to lead her through the apartment’s front door.

“Dr. Marcus said we had to change the bandages twice a day so just consider this part of that and take a seat,” she replied in a tone that refused to take no for an answer.

Now, Resa Gustavez was not someone who took instructions easily or well. Indeed she was far too accustomed to being the one to give orders for her own good…but in this instance, to her own amazement, she did as directed and sat on the living room sofa without another word. She silently watched Jennifer’s figure retreat into the other room as she went to retrieve the bag of medical supplies and couldn’t help the little smile that crept up on her face or deny the emotional reaction she had at being in the girl’s company once again. It was almost like…relief. Like she’d been holding her breath all morning and was finally able to release it. To exhale. And she felt a tremendous surge of contentment that left her almost light-headed. It was a sensation so foreign to her she almost didn’t recognize it but conceded it was ultimately too powerful to be ignored.

I missed you, Jennifer had said, no doubt impulsively.

Well I missed you, too, the former gang leader thought, even as she realized it was a foolish response. She had only been away from her for a few hours, nothing of consequence. And when this ridiculous situation was over it was their destiny to part company entirely, likely never to see each other again. After all, Jennifer was a college student who’d grown up in the Mid-West while she was a Latina gangsta from the bario…they had nothing in common, save an irrelevant interest in astronomy. Truly nothing.

And yet the mere idea of parting with Jennifer made her chest hurt and her fists clench in an instinctive reaction.

Resa sighed and ran a hand over her face in frustration. Oh, this was bad. She was growing attached, she could feel it, and she dreaded the implication. It didn’t do for someone like her; it wasn’t her way and it only led to pain. It always had. But what could she do? They were embroiled in this disastrous situation together and she’d promised not to leave her alone, a promise which she took quite seriously. Abandoning Jennifer was not a consideration… but to stay…ahhh, that, too, presented a dilemma, perhaps with even greater repercussions.

Hearing the sounds of Jennifer’s approach, she reached up to unbutton her shirt then gently eased out of the left half so the Kid could better reach the wound. Never having been uncomfortable with her body, it didn’t occur to her that she was half-clad in only her bra until she saw Jennifer’s face when she popped back in the room. The younger woman was on the verge of saying something when her eyes fell on Resa’s bared figure and she paused so abruptly that only a strangled little sound eked out. Startled green eyes met hers and Resa couldn’t help thinking the girl would never make a good poker player. Her every emotion was on display the moment it hit her and right now she was clearly disconcerted. Resa briefly considered putting her shirt at least partially back on but realized that was impractical…and besides, a rapscallion part of her nature rather enjoyed the tease.

Jennifer quickly cleared her throat and moved to sit beside the imposing other woman.

“Turn around,” she said tightly, twirling her finger to indicate Resa should present her back to her and the former gang leader complied. She drew her long, black hair over her right shoulder and felt Jennifer’s warm fingers carefully peel off the adhesive tape that bound the gauze to her until the wound was exposed to the cool air.

“How’s it look?” She automatically tried to glance back but her face was gently pushed forward again by Jennifer’s fingers against her jaw.

“Good. No tearing or bleeding from this angle.”

She couldn’t resist looking back again to meet Jennifer’s eyes. “Not bad for a vet, hmmmm?” she said with a smirk of self-satisfaction.

Jennifer returned the sarcastic grin with one of her own. “If ever I get shot, he’s my man. Now face forward, you’re twisting the skin,” she ordered in a low voice.

Resa did as she was told and found herself, in the ensuing interlude, growing increasingly conscious of the younger woman’s every move and of the acute quiet that descended over them both. A couple minutes more passed, broken only by the almost hypnotic sound of each other’s breathing and the distinctly elevated rhythm of her own heartbeat, when suddenly she felt the cold hydrogen peroxide compress press around the edge of the wound. She instinctively flinched whereupon Jennifer’s warm hand pressed against the curve of her back.

“Sorry,” the younger woman said, apologizing for the minor shock.

She then felt Jennifer’s thumb lightly brush over a raised bit of flesh on her lower shoulder blade, a scar from an old injury. One of many that adorned her body.

“How did you get this?” the younger woman asked quietly.

“Knife fight,” she explained in a matter-of-fact voice.

Resa heard the younger woman suck in her breath and then felt a shiver of warmth against her back as she released it again. “Was it bad?”

“Knicked a lung.”

“Jesus, Resa…Did you at least go to a hospital then?”

She shook her head. “We had our own doctors.”

A pause, then, “Dr. Marcus?” Jennifer said, her voice raised in realization.

“Yes. He was my personal physician. Saved my life more than once.”

“That — surprises me…How did he –?”

“Drugs. He was addicted and in debt and I used it against him.” She glanced back and met the other woman’s eyes with a frankness that bordered on challenge. “I did that a lot, Jennifer. Used people until I didn’t need them and then tossed them aside without a second thought…It was my specialty and I was damn good at it.” Her bluntness was deliberate. It was important to her to be absolutely truthful with this woman.

Jennifer’s answering gaze, however, was both firm and unwavering. “The key word is ‘did.’ You’re not that person anymore, Resa,” she said simply and she spoke with such conviction that even a part of Resa wanted to believe…

Desperately.

They remained still like that for a long moment, eyes locked, as a strong current passed between them, linking them, binding them on levels neither had before thought to consider and deeper than either could dare comprehend.

Then the corners of Jennifer’s eyes crinkled in a small smile.

“Face forward,” she said softly and once again Resa, with her own crooked grin, complied.

Jennifer said no more for a long moment and Resa heard the sound of the medical tape being unspooled and snipped as another clean gauze square was applied to her shoulder.

“Okay, now the other side.”

Resa shifted her position on the sofa to face the younger woman. “You’re getting pretty good at this,” she commented in a low murmur.

“Hmmmm,” was the non-committal reply and Resa noticed Jennifer’s intense eyes were focused exclusively on the wound, refusing to waver even a fraction, perhaps a little afraid to. It afforded Resa the opportunity to study her at close range, if only for a few minutes and she let her gaze roam freely.

God, she barely looks old enough to be out of high school, let alone about ready to graduate from college, Resa marveled. Wispy bangs fell softly over her brow as the rest of her thick, golden hair pulled into a ponytail only served to heighten her youthful appearance. Her complexion was nearly flawless, faintly tanned skin broken only by the faintest creases around her eyes that would some day form laugh lines and bespoke of the fact she would age well. At this close range, she could detect the fragrance of baby powder and the lavender soap from the bathroom mixed with her own personal scent that Resa had to admit she found pleasing. She also noticed the younger woman had a penchant for chewing on her full lower lip when vexed by some problem or in deep concentration, as she was now, and she found the habit adorable. Luis has done the same thing, especially when he was trying to paint something or draw or…

Resa suddenly experienced an almost violent spasm of emotional pain that slammed into her chest and left her nearly breathless. She gasped despite herself and briefly closed her eyes as she waited for the sharpness to slowly recede. Luis…

She felt Jennifer’s hand cup her upper arm and Resa looked to see the girl’s expression was one of great concern.

“Are you all right?”

Resa swallowed hard and nodded. “Yeah, it’s just…memories.” She sighed and raked her fingers through her hair before clarifying, “Of Luis.”

Jennifer nodded in understanding and gave Resa’s arm a light, supportive squeeze. “Do you think about him often?” she asked quietly.

“No…I make it a habit not to…It…” Her words trailed away as another, less intense wave of unexpected sorrow clutched at her.

“Hurts?” Jennifer finished.

Blue eyes met green. “Yeah,” she admitted in a low voice. “Too much.”

There followed a long pause during which she struggled to get her emotions under control. The Padre had told her someftime ago that she had never properly grieved for her younger brother, that she’d fooled herself into believing she’d shut off that part of her soul but he warned her not to believe the grief had simply left her. One day it would return, he said, and she would have to confront those emotions…she couldn’t ignore them forever. Yet the barriers had been up for such a very long time they seemed indomitable…

Now, for the first time, she wasn’t so sure.

She reached up to pat Jennifer’s hand and smiled weakly, certain that smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“I’ll be fine,” she assured the college student who was clearly doubtful. “I promise.”

Jennifer turned her hand to lace her fingers with Resa’s. “I know…but, if you ever want to talk about it…I’m here for you.”

Resa closed her eyes and let a fresh wave of emotion pour into her. Jennifer would never truly know how much that simple statement meant to the former gang leader, how it was only the second time in her life that she’d even been told those words. I’m here for you. Father Hector had professed a similar sentiment to her not long after they’d met but she hadn’t believed him then. He was a man of God; it was his duty to say such things. Or so she thought at the time. Now she knew him to be a good and decent person in his own right and had no doubt he meant what he said. But Jennifer saying this now…saying it because she was sincere…because she cared…it held a weight of meaning the likes of which Resa had never before experienced.

She cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she said, almost not recognizing the garroted sound of her own voice. What is happening to me, she wondered in amazement and she experienced the slightest tremor of fear. This was all too new to her, too sudden and raw. She felt, for the first time in longer than she could recall, the disturbing sensation of being very nearly overwhelmed and she didn’t care for it in the slightest. She was too long in complete control of her emotions to abdicate freely or without a fight, much like a junkie experiencing their first taste of withdrawal and wanting to return to the comfort of their addiction. No matter what the ultimate cost.

As if sensing Resa’s desperate desire to change the subject, Jennifer glanced down a fraction then back up again. “What does that say?” she asked.

Resa blinked twice in confusion, then followed the direction of her eyes to the area just above her left breast and saw the tattoo to which Jennifer referred. The emblem was of a small heart pierced by a broadsword around which the words ‘corazon guerrero’ were curved in elaborate script and as Resa reached up to touch it, unpleasant memories flooded back.

“It’s Spanish for ‘warrior heart,’” she explained, then clenched her jaw in bitterness. “It’s what Alfons once said to me…that I had the heart of a warrior. . .and the Vartans gave me the nickname ‘The Warrior’ from that.”

“Why don’t you get it removed?”

“No…If ever there does come a time when I should forget…” She patted her chest over the tattoo. “…it’s there to remind me.”

She watched Jennifer frown and she sensed the younger woman wanted to delve further into the subject, but was hesitant. She wants to know why I left the Vartans but she doesn’t know how to ask. Resa thought. She’s afraid of trespassing on a forbidden subject but her curiosity is great…She wants to know more about me. The realization came to her on a subconscious level and it left her feeling strangely exhilarated, as if she was privy to the other woman’s thoughts, as if she knew her with a sense of recognition that ran so deep it was near primal in its origin…

Green eyes slowly raised up to meet hers and she saw, much to her surprise, that the girl was feeling it, too.

A shudder went through her like a subtle shockwave of awareness.

Then Jennifer glanced at something over Resa’s shoulder and the former gang leader turned to see Sister Stephanie, still sans her habit, enter the room.

She stopped in her tracks.

What a sight they must have presented to the young nun if the bottomless silence that followed was any indication. Not that her proximity to Jennifer bothered Resa in the slightest since she was quite aware their situation was really quite innocent but she nonetheless released Jennifer’s hand and leaned away from her, vaguely aware of the grip disappointment had on her chest.

“I can come back,” Sister Stephanie blurted out awkwardly and this time Resa did take a degree of pleasure in seeing the flush of embarrassment come upon the other woman’s face.

But not upon seeing a similar flush stain Jennifer’s cheeks. That would not do.

“Jennifer is helping me change my bandages,” the former gang leader explained as she casually started to draw up the left of her shirt back over her injured shoulder.

Sister Stephanie’s brows drew together in perplexity. “Bandages for what?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Resa got shot a couple days ago while protecting me from the Vartans,” Jennifer chimed in with admirable succinctness and put her hand up to stop Resa from buttoning further.

Wry lip pursed in amusement. “Or, not that long a story,” Resa murmured and was momentarily distracted as Jennifer returned to finish wrapping up the entrance wound.

Brown eyes clearly reflected shock. “You never said anything,” the young nun said almost accusingly.

“Subject never came up. Besides, I’m fine now.”

“Shouldn’t you be in a hospital?”

“I’m taking care of her,” Jennifer said with a fair amount of pride in her voice as she sat back from her task, her eyes meeting Resa’s only briefly.

Resa smiled at her before turning back to Sister Stephanie.

“Did you want something?” she asked.

“I–” the young nun paused, suddenly seeming rather shy and a tad uncomfortable. She glanced at Jennifer and back at Resa and pressed her lips together as if she were debating how to continue.

Fortunately for her, however, Jennifer was a perceptive lass and quickly grasped that her presence was the cause of the nun’s hesitation.

She stood abruptly.

“I’m going to go outside and pretend to be terribly interested in the gardens again,” she said cheerfully. “Come find me when you’re done here.” And with that she headed out the front door, with Resa surreptitiously watching her every step.

Once they were alone, the former gang leader turned her attention back to the young nun and found brown eyes watching her with a degree of curiosity.

“How’s Phillip Teague?” Resa asked directly. When last she’d seen Sister Stephanie she was counseling the distraught man as his brother was being taken to jail for booking. Resa, having completed her second police statement in less than 24 hours, hadn’t felt it was her place to intrude on such a moment of obvious intimacy and thus decided to head back to the convent. And, a part of her realized, deep down she wanted to find Jennifer, too.

“Coping,” Sister Stephanie said as she moved to sit on the edge of the chair not far from Resa, the strain she was under readily apparent in her every movement. “He’s been through numerous ordeals with his younger brother before, but this, I gather, is the worst. I told him I’d be available to talk should he need to later and I think he appreciated that.”

“I’m sure he did,” Resa murmured, careful not to let sarcasm seep into her measured tones. She had no doubt Phillip Teague would appreciate just about anything from the young nun.

“I, um,” Sister Stephanie started again then paused, and dropped her gaze to her nervous fingers dancing in her lap. “I came by to apologize,” she said at last.

Dark brows shot up in surprise. “Oh?”

“Yes.” She bit her lip. “I realize I haven’t exactly been…amicable since you arrived here.” She shifted her position then conceded, “In fact, I’ve been very rude which I had no right to be and I-I…” She stopped, clearly embarrassed by her stammering, then glanced up. “I’m sorry.”

The brown eyes that met her own were sincere but for Resa sincerity was not something in which she easily trusted, especially when she didn’t understand the reason for its sudden appearance. The change in attitude confused her and, considering she was still experiencing the after-effects of the earlier emotional onslaught, being further put off-balance was not a state of mind she welcomed.

“What brings this about?” she asked not bothering to hide her wariness.

But Sister Stephanie’s look of complete candor remained steadfast. “You, today…You didn’t need to help me. I realize that. But you did and because of your actions, we will have answers about what happened to Therase that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. For that I’m thankful. You even put yourself at risk not just today but last night, too,” She sighed “…and all I’ve done is attack you since your return. I even quarreled with you in Phillip’s office when you were only trying to help. It’s very wrong of me.” Sister Stephanie stood unconsciously and began to pace. “I also wasn’t entirely honest with you yesterday,” she continued.

Resa’s eyes followed the nun’s movements. “How so?”

“When you asked before if we’d met, I said no and that’s…not entirely true.” She paused to let her gaze be drawn out the window. “You see, I grew up here in the Sacred Heart. I didn’t have any family of my own and the Sisters here raised me since I was nine years old. I was here the same time as you and even though we technically never met, I very much knew who you were.” A small smile. “All the students did.”

“Oh, really?”

“Of course. You were the most interesting thing to come to Sacred Heart in a very long time. Everyone knew Resa Gustavez.”

This bit of news surprised Resa. She’d never taken the time to consider her popularity in school, such musings were too trivial and inconsequential to her, but she vaguely recalled being secure in herself while at the Sacred Heart and such people were often looked upon favorably by others. Particularly by the others who had yet to get a good enough grasp on their own sense of identity.

“I don’t remember you,” Resa admitted.

“I’d be surprised if you did. I was four grades below you and we only spoke once the whole time you were here. You bumped into me and accidentally knocked my books to the ground. I remember you said you were sorry and helped me gather them together again and then went on your way…A week later you left the school and never returned. It wasn’t too long after we started hearing the stories…about you and the Vartans and…and…”

“Yeah, I know,” Resa waved her on, not in the mood to discuss that part of her life at the moment.

“It was difficult to reconcile the girl I used to see here at the Sacred Heart, the one who was always laughing and getting into silly trouble with the gang leader we heard about. It was shocking.”

Resa made no comment. She was fully aware of the reaction her past had brought to others and shocking was very often the least violent of the responses she received.

“I realize now, on some level, I felt…I think we all felt betrayed to a degree. That you rejected us and our values by embracing the world of violence and hatred…It’s illogical, I know, but when you turned back up here yesterday, I must confess I was particularly angry.”

“I noticed,” Resa commented dryly.

Sister Stephanie cringed a little. “My behavior was out of line, I know. Therase took me to task over it. She does that–” The nun paused abruptly, her cheeks paling, and turned back to the window as she quickly composed her emotions before quietly continuing. “She did that for me all the time. Helped me to see when I was allowing my naivete and–and arrogance to rule my conduct. She would often tell me that I hadn’t seen enough of the world to understand that, sometimes, good people are forced into the most grievous behavior that to the outside appears incomprehensible. But we must work to look beyond the surface in order to find the whole story.” Her fingers absently toyed with the window sash, the look in her eyes was a thousand miles away. “She said I am too quick to judge…and to condemn. It is not the right attitude for a woman in my calling. I know that…But…I don’t know if I can yet face the alternative…”

She stared out the window as several moments of silence passed before she seemed to come out of her reverie and look back at Resa. The former gang leader was certain the nun had practically forgotten she was there, her last words having been spoken more as an admission to herself than anything else.

Sister Stephanie blushed faintly. “Anyway, I wanted to apologize to you. It’s obvious you’re striving to change you life and that’s worthy of infinite admiration.”

Resa shrugged. “Yeah, well we’ll see how it goes,” she said noncommittally as she stood to tuck her shirt into her jeans.

The young nun frowned. “You’re not worried are you?”

She chuckled to herself, suddenly feeling as old as Methuselah. “Sister Stephanie, when you have seen and done as much as I have seen and done, you learn that you should always be worried.”

“But, you have Jennifer to help you,” Sister Stephanie said as if that would make all the difference and if Resa hadn’t been so thoroughly taken aback she would have marveled at the innocence behind that statement.

“No, it’s not like that. We–our situation together is temporary. When this is all over, we’ll part.” And even as she said the words she could feel the ache return at the mere concept alone; the reality was something she didn’t even want to consider.

Careful, Resa, she cautioned herself. Be very careful.

“I hope not,” the young nun said simply. “Friendships are important and it’s clear you both care about each other. That’s very precious, you know. You should cherish it while you still have it,” her voice grew low with her own pain, “because you never know when it will be taken away.”

* * * *

She noticed a wall of clouds had started to accumulate on the western horizon over the Malibu area and wondered if the forecast called for rain. It just might. LA, though ostensibly a desert community, was known to have its occasional cloudburst from time to time, particularly in the spring where the weather could change seemingly at will. Of course she hadn’t the first clue what the elements held in store or, for that matter, what was going on in the rest of the world since she hadn’t seen or heard a news report in three days. A hurricane could be threatening for all she knew. Or the country could be at war, once again; it was all a mystery. She felt so removed, so isolated, and it contributed to her growing though strangely blithe sense of disorientation. It’s a little like being tipsy on champagne, she thought pleasantly, realizing she hadn’t thought about school or her friends or much of anything else from her normal life in quite some time. It was as if they belonged to a whole other part of her and she was too interested in what was going on here and now to consider them. Reality will come soon enough, a little voice inside her whispered. Enjoy…

Yes, she thought. That’s good advice…I will do just that. I will enjoy…

Jennifer inhaled deeply the sweet, fertile air that she always associated with gardens and absently noted the beautiful way in which the milky vines dipped from the branches of the nearby rubbertrees. This section of the convent garden, tucked off in a far corner, was different than the one Sister Therase had shown her yesterday, less regimented, a little wilder. Here the pathway was half-hidden by dirt and stray leaves and as she walked further in, she noted how thick the overhead branches grew until the sky above was nearly obscured from view. Only the occasional prism of pure sunlight broke through and bathed her upturned face.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a congregation of pill bugs ambling along the ground beneath some bushes and she knelt to get a closer look. For some strange reason she always thought they were the cutest little bugs even as a child and, despite an otherwise aversion to all things insect-like, had been rather fascinated with them. Strange as that may seem.

The little creatures scurried around in what appeared to be haphazard chaos and their simplicity made her smile. On impulse she reached out to pick one up. It instinctively curled into a tight, protective ball at her touch but, after a moment as she just held it, the little bug slowly relaxed and opened up, as if sensing there was no longer any danger to be had. Comfortable now, it began to crawl across her open palm and up to the tip of her finger where it paused to get a good look at its surroundings. A few moments passed as bug and human amicably regarded each other, then Jennifer carefully placed it back on the ground where she’d found it and watched as the rollipolli hurried on its way.

Not surprisingly, it reminded her of Resa. As, she was finding, most things did of late.

The fascination she’d sensed at the beginning had only succeeded in growing deeper and more resolute and she decided she liked it. Liked being around Resa. Enjoyed her company. Enjoyed the feelings her company carried. Jennifer was by nature a fairly social creature and had a good nucleus of friends with whom she often hung out. But, as she’d admitted to Danielle, she had no ‘best friend’ in the traditional sense of the term…or even in the nontraditional sense. And she missed that. It was, she was only now realizing, something she’d longed for her entire life but had never come close to attaining. That feeling of connection, of infinite understanding that transcended even language and went straight into one’s own core being. She had never been able to look into someone’s eyes and think I know you, I know what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what you want…I know you…

Never…until Resa.

Jennifer was not a religious person. Not that she had problems with those who were or really most religions for that matter. But the following of a set of rules ascribed by others as a means of achieving spiritual enlightenment struck her almost as being too akin to a video game for her comfort level. The player — each of us — goes through a series of tests — life in general — with the hope of attaining a specific goal — being one with God, however that God was defined. To Jennifer, that was always too simplistic, too…man-made. She had yet to come up with a definition of ‘God’ or spirituality that satisfied even her own curiosity but it was a question she, like so many others, had been fascinated with for some time. She had investigated various religions, interested in their individual maxims, and curious about which aspects of the mythic stories and doctrines corresponded. Much to her surprise, there were many.

One of the most fascinating beliefs she found was that of reincarnation, an idea held by numerous religions around the world and one that persisted across eons of civilization. It was, she always thought, a terribly romantic, if wholly implausible, conceit, a way for human kind to say we go on, we do not die, our consciousness will continue to exist…a way to combat the paralyzing fear of the alternative. She read books and heard stories about how people recognized others as friends or family or lovers whom, they insisted, came from their past lives and spoke of the feeling of mutual connection that existed between them. But, as with most frustrated romantics, she had always had her doubts.

Until Resa.

How else could she define it? The cognizance that passed between them, the overpowering awareness that engulfed them both, for she knew with inexorable certainty the former gang leader had felt it, too. It was like nothing she’d ever before experienced and found it awakened within her an almost painful yearning. I know you, she’d thought. I know you…and you know me, too, don’t you?…But how? How is this that makes no sense even possible? How?

How, indeed.

It was then that her eyes alighted upon a peculiar stone structure swaddled in vines that seemed to rise up as if it were one with its natural milieu. So much so she’d practically overlooked it until she was virtually at its front door and then she wondered how she could have missed it at all.

She moved to get a closer look.

The white marble construction and iron latticework reminded her of some of the mausoleums she’d seen on her trips to New Orleans and Paris and she realized with a sudden wave of recognition that this was none other than the tomb of Xavier and Marianna. What else could it be?

She released the breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding and cautiously, with near reverence, moved up the two steps to the front of the burial vault to place her open hand upon the cool, heavy, and distinctly immovable door. She reached down to grip the handle and pulled with all her strength but it wouldn’t budge. It didn’t even come close. She had serious doubts if the vault had been opened since the time of its initial closing and she caught her lower lip between her teeth in frustration. What a disappointment. She had so wanted to go inside and then wondered why it was so important to her.

The moist earth behind her muffled the sounds of approaching footsteps but that didn’t stop her from recognizing the growing sensation of Resa’s approach.

“You know, it’s funny,” Jennifer said without turning around.

There was a slight pause before Resa’s warm voice answered, “What is?”

“How I just know when you’re there…I’ve never been able to do that before.” She glanced over her shoulder and locked gazes with a pair of blue eyes. “Weird, huh?”

Resa held her stare in silence, for how long she couldn’t say, but she felt precariously close to drowning before the other woman murmured, “Yeah,” in a soft voice that made her shiver.

Then Resa glanced away and nodded at the tomb. “You can’t get in,” she said. “It’s been shut up longer than anyone can remember.”

“Has no one been inside?”

Resa shook her head and moved up the two steps to stand beside her. “I used to come here all the time when I was a kid and would always push on that door until I was exhausted.” She leaned her good shoulder against the side of the crypt and patted the solid marble door. “But it never opened and I finally gave up.” She looked over at Jennifer with a wry glint in her eye. “Guess they want their privacy.”

A small smile. “Guess so.”

And for a brief moment, they just delighted in each other’s company.

Then Resa sighed. “Speaking of which,” she continued. “It looks like the Sacred Heart is going to be crawling with reporters for the rest of the day. Which is bad for us.”

“Yeah, I figured as much.” She rubbed her forehead in consternation. “What do we do?”

“We have two choices. We could stay here all day, locked up in the guest apartment with the blinds closed…” Jennifer cringed. “Exactly.”

“Or?”

“Or we can borrow the one and only car the sisters keep in residence and keep away until tonight. I imagine the reporters will all be gone by then and we should be safe.”

Jennifer frowned. “Do you think the sisters would allow us to borrow their car?”

“Sister Stephanie just offered it to me.”

She stiffened. “Oh…That was…nice of her.” And it was…Truly. So why did she feel a hot flame of jealousy flare up within her? And why did she suddenly have an earnest desire to know the content of the nun’s conversation with Resa? She cleared her throat. “Is she coming with?” she asked and then thought, Oh, please don’t let that have sounded as bitchy as it felt…

Unfortunately, if Resa’s slightly raised eyebrow was any indication, it had.

“No. It’ll just be us,” the raven-haired woman said evenly but Jennifer could have sworn she detected a smidgen of satisfaction in her eyes.

“Oh,” she muttered and felt thoroughly ridiculous which was often jealousy’s residual effect. What did she have to be jealous over anyway? She shook her head a little, to shed the vestiges of that pointless emotion.

“So, where will we go?” she asked with forced cheer.

“I dunno…just…” Resa tipped her head up, peered through the canopy of branches and said somewhat wistfully, “…somewhere far away.”
CHAPTER TWELVE
In another part of the city, tucked within a beautiful house that braved the decrepitude of its surrounding neighborhood, a tall man stood staring out a large window, his back to the opulent room and its only other occupant.

“A convent? Are you certain?” the man asked calmly.

Manny, his nose bandaged and face still rather swollen, nodded, trying to control his eagerness. “Yeah, Fat Boy watches TV, like, all fuckin’ day, you know, sometimes two at a fuckin’ time. He’s, like, always up to date on all sorts of shit, you know? Sees every-fuckin’-thing.”

The tall man truly could not have cared less about the viewing habits of Fat Boy or, in truth, much else besides attaining his one and only goal. He turned away from the window to face Manny.

“And he saw Resa?” he asked, dark eyes alight with impatience and a certain hunger.

“No, no. He saw the chick she’s with. Said he was, like, a hundred percent sure it was the same blonde bitch from Palo’s bar, the one that – ” He pointed to his nose. “Fat Boy said she was at the convent where that nun, like, fuckin’ died last night. Saw her plain as day.”

“Do you believe him?”

Manny shrugged, a little nervous. “Yeah. Fat Boy’s lazy as hell but he’s got a memory like a fuckin’…uh, I don’t know what but, you know, it’s good and shit. I used to copy off him from school all the fuckin’ time and did real good. He says it’s the same bitch, I believe him.”

Alfons Vega nodded, satisfied. If this Fat Boy was wrong he, and Manny, would be dealt with accordingly…But if he was right…

“It seems worth checking out,” he said smoothly and turned back to the window, the light playing off his long black hair in such a manner it created the momentary illusion of a halo of fire. “I’ll see to it personally.”
CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Their first stop was McDonalds. At Resa’s insistence. It appeared she was on the wrong side of starving and needed to eat as soon as they got safely outside the perimeters of East LA. They chose McDonalds for three reasons. First and foremost, it was cheap and given their present economic condition, cheap was good. No. Cheap was crucial. Second, McDonalds was the first fast-food restaurant they happened upon which worked almost as strongly its favor. And third, Resa liked McDonalds. Which became readily apparent.

Resa ordered a Double Quarter Pounder Value Meal, chocolate milk shake (both super sized), with an additional helping of a large Chicken McNuggets and rapidly consumed the food with a practiced technique that emphasized an economy of motion. It was an impressive sight. While driving, Jennifer managed to sneak peeks at the former gang leader as she put away, oh, about 1000 calories with the confidence of one who had long possessed a phenomenal metabolism. And one glance at Resa’s amazing body confirmed she did indeed have a phenomenal metabolism because there was nothing extra hanging around anywhere on that woman.

And I would know, Jennifer thought with self-directed amusement, then tried to suppress the blush that threatened to reappear as she recalled the first moment when she’d walked into the guest quarter’s living room to see Resa half-clad. She was flummoxed; it was the best word she could think of. Utterly, unequivocally, undeniably flummoxed. And she probably looked like a village idiot staring at the dark-haired woman with her mouth agape and her eyes wide as saucers but there was nothing she could do. It was like being blind-sided. Who knew she looked like that? To be sure she’d seen enough of Resa’s body to reason she was probably in good shape but this was well beyond ‘good;’ this was spectacular. This was the kind of body that stopped folks in the streets and made them go, damn! This was the kind of body that, under different circumstances, would grace the covers of magazines. This was not the kind of body gang leaders, reformed or otherwise, had…well, as far as she could suppose but then again what did she know? Perhaps they all looked like Sports Illustrated Models…She grinned to herself. Um, no…not likely…

Resa caught her expression “What?” she challenged lightly as she plopped another McNugget in her mouth.

Jennifer felt herself blush and quickly covered. “And people say I eat a lot,” she teased and was ridiculously pleased when she saw blue eyes twinkle in return.

“It’s proportional. I have a half a foot on you and probably twenty pounds at least.”

“Yeah, but where do you keep it?”

A saucy grin. “Well, now, that’s for me to know…” The words trailed off and she plopped in the last McNugget.

But Jennifer finished the sentence in her head…And for me to find out. The potential implication of which was not lost on her. She met hooded blue eyes that were watching her closely and felt her throat constrict even as her pulse started to hammer. Oh, boy…

Jennifer quickly focused her attention forward and reached over to turn on the radio.

Given the car the Sisters of the Sacred Heart had loaned them was a 1970 Oldsmobile (albeit in excellent condition, since it was probably used only a few times each year) her choice of station was restricted to the AM dial. But that worked out fine. Of course, the car didn’t have the modern convenience of the search feature, which meant she had to twist the dial as she hunted for something to listen to that was non-sports related…

“Let me,” Resa said softly.

Jennifer watched with interest as long, graceful fingers assumed control of the dial and decided that the woman by her side had surprisingly beautiful hands. A couple moments later and the dulcet tones of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ pushed through the natural AM static to fill the car with rich, almost seductive sound.

Resa sat back and closed her eyes as the music rolled over them both in a pleasurable wave and Jennifer risked another glance at her companion. She looked content, like a sated cat after a meal who wanted nothing more than to curl up to take a quick nap, and Jennifer thought this was the most at ease she had ever seen the woman. Certainly when Resa had been asleep two nights ago she had been in too much pain to relax completely and Jennifer had been the first to crash last night, both times, so that eliminated the chance to sneak a peak. Now that she did have the opportunity, however brief, she couldn’t help marveling at how young Resa appeared. Once the tension was removed from her strong features and the years of experience no longer radiated from her eyes, she looked remarkably closer to Jennifer’s own age than her actual 27 years. And undeniably beautiful.

She turned off LaBrea Avenue onto the Westbound 10 entrance ramp and eased the boat of a car into the swiftly moving traffic with the ease of a practiced Angeleno. Their destination, she determined, was to be the beach.

It was generally understood that Los Angeles wasn’t so much a city as a series of subdivisions strewn about with little to no discernible sense of order, where homes of the very rich often bordered gang-infested neighborhoods. Many well-to-do residents sought the illusion of security by moving as close to the beaches as humanly possible only to find dubious pocket communities waiting for them there, too, as the gang-bangers presence had in recent years seeped into the Venice area and homeless people flocked to Santa Monica. The key was being able to know which areas were safe and which ones were in the ‘no-fly’ zone.

The Palisades Park that ran adjacent to the steep, crumbling cliffs that overlooked the Pacific Coast Highway and the vast ocean itself was, for the most part, safe. At least during the day. At night, despite being well lighted, it ultimately became about as secure as most city parks, perhaps slightly more so due to the upscale nature of its surrounding Santa Monica community. But no matter what, it was still one of Jennifer’s favorite places in all of greater LA and she often found herself drawn there when in need of a good, contemplative retreat. Especially at the glorious time of sunset where the view became everything that outsiders associated with the city.

Often she would sit on one of the many park benches and quietly watch as the sun faded into the ocean and each passing jogger or elderly gossiper became more and more of a dark purple shadow cast in relief against the fiery orange rays. And she would somehow feel connected to something greater, invariably rejuvenated and alive. By either unconscious decision or mere happenstance, she had always gone there alone but this time she decided to make an exception.

This time she wanted to share it with Resa.

She wanted the former gang leader to know something of her life and her world before…She paused and frowned. Before what?…Silently she mulled over the question. Before… before… But after a moment she realized she had no answer, only a vague sense of approaching eventuality that she could neither define nor disregard and it frankly troubled her. Suddenly it was very important that she share a part of herself with Resa, as if deep down she recognized on some unconscious level that time was running out…

She exited the freeway onto 4th Street and in the back of her mind she noted how the incoming wall of thick clouds was already obscuring the sun that had moments earlier been so prominent in the area they’d just left.

She was in the middle of thinking it was a shame they wouldn’t be able to get a good view of the ocean when a faint noise over the song on the radio caught her attention and she paused to listen. After a few beats she realized with more than passing incredulity that it was the soft sound of humming…coming from none other than the seemingly asleep Resa Gustavez. For a moment she just held her breath as the sounds of the radio and the woman to her right gently blended together into a rich melody that left Jennifer utterly rapt. There were, in her estimation, few things as beautiful as a gifted human voice raised in song and it did not take long to realize that Resa’s was indeed a gifted voice. In fact it was excellent. So much so it gave Jennifer chills. Then, slowly, without opening her eyes and barely stirring, Resa began to sing. Softly at first, almost as an extension to her humming, but with each passing note, her voice grew stronger and more assured and Jennifer was impossibly entranced. The song was one she vaguely recognized as being entitled “At Last” and though she felt as if she had heard it a hundred different times, she couldn’t quite place the recorded singer. Etta James, perhaps? No matter. At this moment, her only interest was the voice at her side…

I found a dream…that I could speak to…

…a dream that I…can call my own…

I found a thrill…to press my…cheek to…

A thrill that I’ve…never known…

Oh…You smiled, you smiled…and then the spell was cast…

And here we are…in heaven…and you are mine…

…At last…

As the final notes faded away, Jennifer realized the car was stationary and that she had apparently at some point in the past few minutes succeeded in parking it in an open meter in front of the Palisades Park.

She didn’t remember a thing.

She glanced over at her companion and found her in mid-stretch, long arms extended over her head and a quirky grin upon her lips.

“I love that song,” Resa murmured happily as she slowly opened her eyes and glanced over at Jennifer with a look that brought back the memory of the school photograph and the young girl with the ingenuous smile…such a breath-taking, heart stopping smile. And at the moment it was directed at her.

Jennifer swallowed hard and turned off the car’s engine. “You have a beautiful voice,” she said after a moment and wondered at this new ripple of uncharacteristic shyness that befell her.

Blue eyes held their teasing gleam. “Yeah? Maybe I’ll go off to be a singer after I take up acting and modeling, eh?”

“Don’t forget seamstress,” Jennifer reminded as she opened her door.

“Oh, I’m saving that for my retirement years,” Resa rejoined and gathered the remains of her fast food excursion off the front seat before exiting her side, locking the doors behind her.

Jennifer deposited four quarters in the meter, giving them hours of time, and Resa deposited her trash in the wastebasket before following the college student across the emerald green grass to the curving pathway. For a moment they walked in companionable silence, both comfortable with the contemplation of their own thoughts and the newfound ease in their relationship. It was something wholly unexpected and yet mutually appreciated. The taste of friendship.

Jennifer noted the wind had started to pick up and the clouds looked heavy but she wasn’t concerned. They’d hang out in the serenity of the park if or until it started to rain, then drive off to somewhere else. Whatever the case, they would make it up as they went along and Jennifer decided there was a certain delight in the freedom of not having a plan, in playing everything by ear. It was a liberty she enjoyed.

Ahhh, that word again…Enjoy.

She hadn’t used it much in the past two years of her academic studies. Rather her time was often not her own, each day crammed with either classes or intervals set aside for the study of said classes or internships or the general preparation for her future. It didn’t allow much opportunity for moments such as this…moments to simply enjoy. For the first time she realized how much she missed them, how hard she’d been on herself and how thankful she was for this much needed break…even if it was one that came in such a circuitous fashion.

“You have that look on your face again,” Resa murmured even as she cast her eyes out over the gray ocean, hands shoved deep into the front pockets of her jeans.

“What look?”

“The one where you’re laughing at something in your head.”

“Oooooh, that look.”

The corner of Resa’s mouth quirked up in amusement and she leaned in to nudge Jennifer’s shoulder. “Soooo?” she prompted amicably.

The college student smiled. “Sooooo, what?” She lightly nudged her back and reveled in this feeling of happiness she was experiencing.

“What are ya thinkin’?”

She kicked a nearby pebble. “Well, believe it or not, I’m thinking about how glad I am that I didn’t blow off Father Hector.”

“Yeah?” Resa sounded pleased.

“Yeah.”

The older woman nodded, the satisfied smile still holding fast to her features and Jennifer felt a twinge of impatience in her silence.

“Feel free at any point to say you’re glad I didn’t blow him off too,” she said and Resa’s smile widened.

“I’ll do that,” she said with an impishness that was new and becoming.

Jennifer just shook her head and tried to contain the crooked grin of her own.

“You’re incorrigible,” she proclaimed with mock severity.

“I’ve been called worse.”

“I’ll bet.”

To this Resa just nudged her even harder and both women laughed.

The direction of their strolling took them closer to the cement railing that stretched along the miles of the park and provided a semblance of a barrier to the cliffs overlooking the highway. Without a moment’s hesitation, Jennifer hopped up to sit atop the wide railing and hooked the tips of her shoes between the space of the two lower rungs. She’d done it numerous times before and thought nothing of her actions…until the sudden appearance of Resa’s grip upon the back waistband of her jeans startled her.

“Wha–?” She twisted around and looked down a bit to find anxious blue eyes at about her shoulder level.

“You could fall,” Resa said, clearly disturbed by the younger woman’s position.

Jennifer glanced at the stretch of earth laid out before her. “There’s easily five feet of ground in front of me if I lose my balance, which I won’t,” she pointed out even as she let her left hand fall lightly upon Resa’s upper back…for stability.

She felt the woman’s other hand come up in contact with her abdomen to provide further steadiness and it took all her effort not to respond to the touch. “No, you won’t,” Resa said with supreme assurance and Jennifer felt a flush go over her face as she unconsciously reacted to the unexpected warmth of the other woman’s nearness.

Resa glanced around, craning her neck as if trying to take it all in. “You come here a lot?” she asked then closed her eyes as the cool wind gusted full in her face, lifting her ebony hair back in dramatic fashion. Jennifer watched in fascination, thinking she looked a bit like something out of an Impressionist’s painting…

…then somehow dragged her eyes away and glanced out at the white capped waves. “When I can,” she answered, her fingers toying with a small strand of coal black hair. “I love it here. I’ve always loved being near the ocean. I think it’s a big part of what drew me to LA from the landlocked Mid West.”

“So it wasn’t just the glamour of Hollywood,” Resa teased.

The younger woman shuddered in revulsion. “Not even close.”

“What? No screenplays in your future? No lunches with smarmy agents and producers?”

“Not if I can help it. All I want to be is a journalist, to write about what’s real and honest, without compromise.”

Resa grinned indulgently. “Spoken like a true idealist.”

The younger woman stiffened and drew herself up. “You’re mocking me.”

Pale eyes regarded her with sincerity. “Not at all…I just think you’re very young. As you get older you’ll realize that things are rarely black and white…and that it’s how we deal with the shades of gray that make us who we are.”

Jennifer was about to argue with her but then reconsidered. If there was one thing the past three days had taught her was how little she knew about the world outside the perimeters of her sheltered existence. And Resa had surely seen more than she ever would, had experienced more than she ever wanted to consider. There was wisdom in her words born of untold pain and that Jennifer had to respect.

“Maybe,” she conceded. “I just know I don’t care for fiction. There’s no truth in it.”

The dark-haired woman shrugged. “Who’s to say? Fiction is in the eye of the beholder and truth is sometimes easier for people to digest when they think it’s all part of a story, when they think it is fiction. You could write about everything that happened since you met Father Hector but change the names and present it as fiction and it would still carry more honesty than what you read about in the papers or see on the news. That crap presented as ‘truth.’” Her upper lip curled in disgust. “I know I learned more about how people think from authors like Hemmingway and Faulkner and Austen –”

“Austen?” Jennifer interrupted, incredulous.

“Yeah.”

“You read Jane Austen?”

“Not recently. I finished them all a while ago.” Resa frowned. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because you’re a reformed ‘ruthless gang leader.’” She made little quote motions with her fingers. “You’re not supposed to sew and read Jane Austen and be drop-dead gorgeous. It doesn’t fit.”

A slight grin. “I sound made up?”

“Well…yeah…”

“Then pretend I am and write about me like that.”

Jennifer blinked in shock and felt her chest constrict. Holy shit. . she didn’t…did she just…?

“Yes, I just gave you permission to write about me,” Resa confirmed the unspoken question, then frowned, a little uncertain. “That is, if you’re still interested.”

Jennifer’s eyes widened. “Of course I’m still interested.”

She relaxed. “Okay, then. All you have to do is change the names and muddy some of the specifics and you have your story and everyone will think it’s fiction.”

“But… I mean…are–are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said confidently.

Jennifer frowned, shaking her head. “I don’t understand. What made you change your mind?”

Blue eyes met hers, crystal clear and unequivocal. “I trust you.”

And Jennifer felt the breath go out of her lungs. It was the last thing she expected to hear from the former gang leader and it left her stunned. For a long moment they just stared at each other, the air between them charged and intense. Far more intense than Jennifer could have ever anticipated as she realized in that moment just how far they’d come over the past three days…and the potential for how far they could go…

Then the first plump raindrop splashed against Jennifer’s cheek.

She jumped back in surprise and felt Resa’s hold on her tighten. The heavens chose that particular moment to open up and seconds later both women found themselves drenched.

Resa jerked her head in the direction of the Oldsmobile. “Back to the car,” she shouted above the din of the downpour then helped Jennifer slide around and hop to the ground.

They ran as fast as they could through the rain, leaping over puddles that had already formed and Jennifer was amazed at how hard it was coming down. This was the sort of cloudburst one expected more from her homestate than from sunny Southern California.

As they neared the car, Jennifer quickly patted down her the front pockets of her jeans…then frowned and reached around to the back pockets…and officially started to panic.

“Oh, shit.”

Resa glanced back. “What?”

Jennifer dug her hands deep into the front of her jeans and searched frantically, but in vain. Dread hit her hard.

“Oh, shit!” She smacked one palm against her soaking wet forehead.

“Jennifer, what?”

The younger woman met her eyes over the roof of the car. “Do you ever have one of those moments when you just realize you’ve done something incredibly asinine and you can’t figure out how it happened because it’s so commonplace and you’re normally so careful that you probably wouldn’t even believe you’d done it were the evidence of your stupidity not staring you in the face?”

A wet, dark brow arched. “No.”

Jennifer stared at her a beat, then wiped the moisture from her face. “Uh-huh, yeah, well for those of us who are mortal, these things happen more often than we’d like…now, for instance.”

“Explain.”

Jennifer cringed. “I locked the keys in the car.”

Resa gave her a long look. “Not funny.”

“Not meant to be.”

Resa’s jaw shifted to one side and Jennifer realized she was annoyed. And why shouldn’t she be? After all, Jennifer was also annoyed with herself. Hell, she was pissed. Of all times to pull such an absolute bonehead move…what had she been thinking? Then she remembered exactly what she’d been thinking and chewed her lower lip. Oh, yeah…that…

The former gang leader took a step back from the Oldsmobile and eyed it with what could only be described as professional regard.

“Breaking the window’s outta the question,” she mused, then pursed her lips in contemplation. “Actually, this is such an old car all we really need is a good, old-fashioned coat hanger,” she said, then inspected her surroundings. “Question is, where can we find one around here?”

Jennifer sighed and cursed herself for her distraction. Oh, God, this sucked…where the hell are we going to get a coatha–…Then as she stopped and glanced around and realized their location… Hello? Of course!

“Follow me,” she said with a smile and quickly turned to jog across the street.

She heard the splash of Resa’s footsteps behind her as the two women turned to sprint up Montana Avenue.

When speaking of ‘safe areas’ in LA, it should be noted Montana Avenue would likely be on the top of anyone’s list. Located between Santa Monica and the infamous Brentwood, this street was known for its upscale shopping and trendy cafes, with most residents opting to sip their Starbucks half-caf/decaf lattés outside in order to better soak up the California rays through their Prada sunglasses with their perfectly groomed Labrador (typically named Maggie or Max) curled obediently at their feet. It was the type of neighborhood of which even Mrs. Logan – she of the Perpetual Panic – approved. It was, naturally, Jennifer’s ‘hood’ and about as “far away” from East LA as one could conceive.

Somehow the downpour managed to come down even harder and visibility was further reduced. Despite the fact the rain was fairly warm, Jennifer knew it wouldn’t take long for the shivering to set in. Man, how she hated to get caught the rain. It always looked so cool in movies but the reality was often a study in discomfort. The reality was there was no singin’ or dancin,’ no searching for a cat named Cat with George Peppard, and no last-second proposal by Hugh Grant. No. Rain just meant getting wet in unpleasant places. And blisters. Always blisters. Already she could feel the distinctly uncomfortable rub of her wet socks against her heel and she prayed she wouldn’t end up with the darned annoying little vesicles even though she knew it was inevitable.

Moments later Jennifer turned off Montana Avenue onto the tree-lined and very residential 7th Street, conscious of Resa behind her.

“Where are we headed?” her companion called out above the storm’s tumult.

She pointed to a building. “My apartment’s just up ahead there and –” Resa suddenly slammed Jennifer’s body along the side of a nearby tree and covered it with her own. Jennifer was shocked. “What–”

“We cannot be here,” Resa hissed in her ear and the younger woman was startled by how quickly the mood of camaraderie had vanished only to be replaced by one of instant alertness. Eyes darted about warily and Jennifer could feel the tension radiating off the hard body pressed against her own.

“Resa–”

“The Vartans know where you live. It’s too dangerous. You know that.”

Jennifer felt like an idiot. In the wake of the ease of the past few hours the threat of the Vartans had miraculously faded into the background and she’d instead thought only of the perfect place to get a hanger to extract them from their most recent predicament. It was careless and she knew it and more than anything she hated looking foolish in front of Resa.

“I forgot,” she admitted sheepishly and blue eyes focused on her in disbelief.

“You forgot?!”

“It’s just—”

“Jennifer, we don’t have the luxury for you to forget. These men can be dangerous. Believe me.”

Jennifer reached up to place her hands over Resa’s, her eyes entreating. “I do believe you, Resa. I swear. But you have to understand I’m not programmed like that. This, all of this, is new to me. My first instinct in a situation isn’t to look for the potential danger. It just isn’t.”

Resa’s eyes were hooded as she regarded the smaller woman and Jennifer could feel the walls start to go up again between them. “Yeah, well, hopefully it never will be,” she said then sighed and raked her dark, wet bangs off her forehead, her expression unreadable. Which was the greatest consternation for Jennifer. They’d come so far, she didn’t want to jeopardize that…it was too important…at least to her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Please don’t be mad.”

She received a conciliatory look in return. “Don’t worry about it,” Resa murmured, with a little squeeze on the shoulder for emphasis that made Jennifer feel slightly better.

The younger woman wiped the rain off her face. “Do you see any sign of them?”

Resa eased around the side of the tree, careful to keep herself as hidden as possible. Her eyes searched the street that was, per usual, lined bumper to bumper with parked cars on each side. Her face scrunched in frustration.

“I can’t see much of anything in this rain,” she confessed, then considered. “Of course, neither can they.” A beat then she glanced down at Jennifer. “Is your building secured?”

“Yes. You just need to know the code to get in.”

“Is there a back entran–” The words broke off abruptly as Jennifer felt the body against hers stiffen in alarm.

Jennifer, her back still pressed to the tree, twisted at the waist to glance over her shoulder, fingers lightly braced against Resa’s jean-clad hips for balance, and followed the direction of the other woman’s stare.

A young Latino man, perhaps 20 at the most, had just emerged from the front door of her building and was making a mad-dash for a black Toyota pickup truck parked across the street. She heard the sound of the vehicle start and watched the Latino man duck into the pickup as it pulled away from the curb.

Resa’s hand pressed firmly against the side of her ribs and guided her to skirt around to the back of the tree, effectively keeping them hidden as the car passed their point on the street. Never had Jennifer seen her more on alert, her eyes searing with a ferocious concentration that left no room for doubt about what an effective fighter she once had been, and could be again at a moment’s notice. Her gaze never left the car until it was well out of sight.

“Was he a Vartan?” Jennifer asked.

“Yeah. Name’s Jorge but we called him Tres cuz he was the third Jorge in his family…” She frowned. “Question is, why did he leave in such a hurry?” Resa scanned the street then proclaimed after a beat, “We look clear for the moment…C’mon.”

She pushed Jennifer around the tree and in the direction of her apartment. The younger woman sprinted across the street, conscious of the way in which Resa stayed a few steps behind as if to use her own body as a sort of shield…just in case. But it was unnecessary. They both made it up the front steps, to the door and Jennifer punched in the coded numbers on the keypad in a matter of seconds, then they were inside. Dripping and out of breath, but safely within the apartment’s entrance.

She felt Resa’s hand on her upper back, guiding her further into the lobby and away from the glass front door and a shiver went over her body that, in truth, had little to do with the chill from the rain.

“Jennifer!” A voice ahead of them declared and both women turned their attention on the rail-thin, white haired old woman in the loose, tropical print muumuu. It was none other than her nosy landlady, Mrs. Goldman in the (sagging) flesh.

“Boy am I glad to see you,” Jennifer said and for once actually meant it but before she could continue Mrs. Goldman shuffled forward to interrupt.

“Oh my Gawd, you would not believe! This little pissant was just snooping around your place! The nerve! I saw him looking around your apartment as bold as they come and so I says to him, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ and he ignores me! Pretends not to hear! Like I wasn’t just talking right to him in my loud voice! So I says to him, ‘Hey, look, Bub, you just get yourself away from there before I call the cops!’ And that gets his attention, let me tell you! He says to me, ‘I’m just seein’ if my friend is home!’ all innocent like but I remember what you told me about how you got your purse stolen and that I should be on the lookout for suspicious characters so I don’t believe a word of it! Not a word! So I says, ‘Hey! I’d know if you were a friend of that nice Jennifer’s and I never seen you before so you just go on!’ And he looks as if he wants to argue back (smart ass!) so I hold up my portable phone that my Lydia got me for my last birthday and I says, ‘I’m callin’ the cops on you!’ and I start to dial so he turns and hauls his keester back out the way he came faster than you can say Kalamazoo!” Mrs. Goldman finished and smiled widely, clearly proud of herself and expecting praise in return.

Which Jennifer obligingly, and genuinely, provided.

“I cannot thank you enough, Mrs. Goldman,” she said with just the right amount of gratitude in her voice.

“Did I do good?” the old woman asked, unabashed in her milking.

“You did great.”

“He wasn’t a friend of yours then?”

“No way.”

“I knew it!” She leaned closer, her voice conspiratorial and Jennifer caught a whiff of Ben Gay. “You could see it in his eyes! Beady! Like a possum!” And it was then Mrs. Goldman seemed to notice Resa. “Who are you?” she asked bluntly.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jennifer said quickly. “Mrs. Goldman, this is Resa.”

“Resa? What kind of name is that?”

“It’s short for Theresa,” the former gang leader supplied evenly.

“You Mexican?”

“Cuban.”

Mrs. Goldman’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You don’t support that Castro bastard do ya?”

“No.”

She nodded her approval. “Good! Man nearly got us killed back in ’61! Which was before you were born but I remember it like it was yesterday! We were all this close to being atomic dust! Thank God for Kennedy, even if he couldn’t keep it in his pants! Your people make great cigars, though! My Edgar used to smoke ‘em like they were going outta style, which is what killed him, God rest his soul! Cancer! Everybody I know says I should sue the damn tobacco industry but I figure Edgar knew the damn things were no good for him and he didn’t care so why should I blame the tobacco people? Folks nowadays act like anything goes wrong with ‘em and wham! Lawsuit! Like it’s a damn lottery or something! Well I say a person oughta take responsibility for their actions, don’t you agree? If you know something’s bad for you and you do it anyway and the bad thing happens to you, then what right do you got to blame anyone else, huh? None! Am I right?”

“Can’t disagree,” Resa said and Jennifer could detect a hint of amusement in her expression.

Jennifer sniffled and Mrs. Goldman took a good look at them.

“You’re wet! Don’t you know it’s raining out? Animals are practically pairing off! You should have sense enough to come in out of the storm! You’ll catch your death! Look at you! Already sniffling! You should get some warm clothes on!”

“Well, that’s the plan,” Jennifer quickly interjected when Mrs. Goldman paused to breathe and sniffled again.

“What’s stopping you?”

“Um, well, I don’t have the keys to my apartment and—”

“Good gravy! Of course you don’t have the keys! Your purse was stolen! That reminds me I’m going to have to change your locks! I hate that! But what can you do, huh?” Mrs. Goldman reached into a pocket on the front of her colorfully tacky frock and withdrew an enormous ring that held a wad of keys. “Keys, keys, keys! Bane of my existence! But I’m a landlady so I gotta have my keys!” In less than two seconds she located one silver key in particular out of the dozens of others that were virtually indistinguishable and held it up. “Vi-o-la!” She turned abruptly and practically scurried off down a partially covered hallway.

Jennifer glanced over at Resa and gave her a weak What are ya gonna do? grin, then followed.

Jennifer’s apartment building had only twenty units situated on two levels around a kidney shaped pool and was at least fifteen years old, giving it slightly more character than most of the just-put-up complexes in the area. During the 1994 earthquake, it had apparently been one of the few buildings to survive relatively unscathed, a point of pride with Mrs. Goldman when showing the unit to Jennifer a year earlier. In the end it was the size of the individual unit and the proximity to the beach that sold Jennifer on this complex and other than enduring the occasional quirks of her eccentric landlady the place was ideal. Even Mrs. Goldman had grown on her…eventually. ‘I’m like mold spores,’ the elderly lady told her once. ‘Everyone thinks I’m annoying then whamo! One day someone discovers I can make penicillin and everyone’s grateful I’m around!’

On this particular day, Jennifer decided as she entered her apartment that Mrs. Goldman was indeed penicillin.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Resa stepped over the threshold of Jennifer’s apartment and quickly took in the décor. Clearly an effort had been made to fix this place up, make it comfortable and it was unquestionably nice. Very nice. The ambiance held just the sort of warmth she’d expect Jennifer’s home to exude, the walls having been painted a pale yellow that reflected the younger woman’s innate sense of cheer. The hardwood floors were a surprise since most complexes built after the 60’s insisted on carpet and Resa’s senses detected the faint scent of a floral potpourri in the air. Her furniture was in excellent taste, straight out of designer catalogues with the right amount of knickknacks distributed about to create a distinctive personality. There was a plush, rust colored sofa and several plants were situated throughout. All in all classy and unique. Just like its tenant.

“Pretty, huh?” Mrs. Goldman prompted for the landlady had waltzed in ahead of the other two women and stood in the center of the living room as if her presence was perfectly acceptable.

“Very,” Resa agreed, her attention on Jennifer as she retreated into the back of the apartment.

“She’s worked her little rear end off to get this place as good as this! I tell all the other renters they should check out her place to get tips on what to do! A coat of paint’ll work wonders! And curtains! Never underestimate the value of curtains!”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Resa murmured, counting the seconds until Jennifer’s return.

“You decorate your place?”

Oh goody. Questions.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not really my thing.”

“You should try it!”

“Perhaps I will.”

“Have you known Jennifer a long time?”

“Not really.”

“Not really? What does that mean?”
“It means, I haven’t known her that long.”

“How long?”

“Three days.”

“Three days?” Mrs. Goldman looked her over suspiciously. “So you’re not even friends?”

Resa glanced down at the woman and thought, Well that’s a loaded question…then felt distinctly relieved as Jennifer reappeared with two fluffy white towels in hand.

“Okay, here we go,” the blonde said then tossed a towel to the former gang leader and turned an ever so charming smile to her landlady. “Thank you so much for everything, Mrs. Goldman. You’ve been invaluable.”

“You want me to call the cops on that punk kid? Because I will, in a heartbeat!” She held up her portable phone as if to prove her readiness.

“I don’t doubt it. But, no, that’s not necessary. Thank you though.”

Resa rubbed the towel against her wet hair and watched as Jennifer, with subtle firmness, maneuvered the older lady out the front door without making it look as if she was doing so. It was truly admirable. Had it been up to Resa, she’d have said something more blunt, like “Goodbye” or “Haul ass, grandma.” Or, more likely, never have allowed the older woman inside in the first place.

“I’ll be in my apartment if you need me! If you hear the TV real loud that means I’m watching Wheel of Fortune and you’ll just have to knock a little louder!”

“Gotcha. Thanks.”

“Don’t hesitate to call if that twerp comes back!”

“I won’t though I bet you scared him away.”

“Darned right I did! He’ll think twice about coming back here! And I’ll get your locks changed by tomorrow morning!”

“Excellent. Thank you.”

“Watch yourself!”

“Will do.”

Mrs. Goldman glanced around Jennifer to look at Resa. “You too!”

Resa gave a wan smile.

Then the loquacious Mrs. Goldman finally made it out the door and Jennifer shut it behind her. Locked it. And glanced back at Resa with an exaggerated sigh of relief.

“Too bad she wasn’t in a chatty mood,” she quipped dryly, leaning against the door and sniffling again.

Resa frowned. “Are you getting sick?” she asked, surprised by the protective instinct that caught hold of her.

But Jennifer shook her head and rubbed her nose a little. “No. I just get the sniffles in the rain.” She brushed the towel over her face then glanced up at Resa and back at herself with a smile. “Boy are we a couple of drowned rats,” she said with a giggle and Resa found herself smiling in return. Not, she was discovering, an uncommon reaction to the younger woman who somehow made her smile more in the past three days than she had in the past three months total. If not longer. But there was just something about the way her light green eyes lit up and shined that touched Resa, slipped past all of her defenses with disarming ease.

Jennifer pushed away from the door to move further into the room. “Follow me,” she said as she brushed past Resa and headed to the back of the apartment.

The former gang leader watched after her for a moment, aware of the sudden upswing in her pulse and working commendably to calm it before she followed down the hallway after her escort. She quickly counted four doors, which likely meant this was at least a two-bedroom apartment. Not cheap. In fact, there was little about this whole place that didn’t emanate a certain level of wealth and Resa wondered for the first time whether her compadre was actually rich or at least very well off. She’d assumed the college student had some money of which to speak — the Land Rover alone was a significant investment — but now it occurred to her that she might be a level above that…and then some. She wasn’t certain how that made her feel.

Resa entered the room Jennifer had ducked into but paused only a foot inside the doorway. Her eyes made an efficient sweep of the space, noting its impressive size and the beautiful, cherry wood furniture set that was clearly antique. The walls had also been painted but were here a variation of forest and avocado green with cream trim that created an instantly warm and relaxing environment. The atmosphere was definitely feminine without being too ‘girly’…which was perfectly in keeping with Jennifer herself.

Resa’s glance fell upon Jennifer who was standing before a well-crafted chest of drawers in which she was clearly searching for something. A moment later she withdrew a large, steel gray sweatshirt then tossed it on the bed along side a pair of white socks and a white T-shirt. She then pulled out a pair of black cut-off sweat pants that were obviously too big for her and held them up to the former gang leader as if to compare them to Resa then chewed her lower lip.

“I think these’ll work. Chris is about your size.” She squinted at her as if to make sure.

Resa ignored the curious little emotion that she felt rousing inside her breast at the mention of the name. “Chris?” she asked smoothly.

“Yeah, my middle brother. He left them here last time he visited and I keep forgetting to mail them back home.” She tossed them to Resa who caught the pants without altering her gaze from the blonde. “The sweatshirt, however, belongs to my oldest brother, Jason and I pretty much just stole that from him two Christmases ago when I forgot how cold it gets in Kansas and had to borrow half my wardrobe so I didn’t freeze my butt off. Which is another reason I came to Los Angeles — warmer winters.” There was that smile again and Resa, as if on cue, immediately mirrored it. “But my brothers’ loss is your gain. Let me know if these don’t fit.”

With that she grabbed a couple other items out of the drawer and headed past Resa into the adjoining bathroom, closing the door behind her to give her privacy while she changed.

The raven haired woman stood a couple beats and realized, to her surprise, that despite the inherent awkwardness of the situation in which she now found herself, she in fact felt completely at ease. A remarkable idea for one who guarded her privacy as closely as she.

She knew they should not be here. Jennifer’s apartment was off limits and sighting Tres only emphasized the danger their presence courted…but, when the moment had arisen on that rainy street, when she should have directed Jennifer back to the safety of the car, another temptation reared its head and that had overruled all rational objections.

Quite simply, she wanted to see Jennifer’s place.

To see where the college senior ate and slept and lived, at least once.

And they were so close…

Thus she’d done something completely foreign to her – she had acted on impulse without regard to the potential consequences for no other reason than she wanted to. It was rash and foolish and most unlike her. Always she had been the studied one, ruthless and calculated. Whim was for the insignificant and weak. Or so she’d thought. But now she found herself engaged in the exact type of action she’d once decried…and she found, much to her chagrin, she rather liked it.

But she also knew her actions would mean they’d have to be doubly on alert when they left for the danger they were in was very real and not to be taken lightly.

She untucked her shirt and stripped out of her soaking clothes, mildly aware that, for a moment, she was practically naked in the bedroom of a woman who was technically little more than a stranger.

But she knew better. Jennifer was no stranger to her; she never had been. Not even when they first met. Not from the moment her eyes fell upon the blonde head as it came bobbing out of the Land Rover in the middle of the impossibly cratered parking lot and strode with unwavering determination into the heart of Palo’s darkened bar. No, not even then.

And certainly not now…

She slipped on Chris’ cut-offs and tied the drawstring then pulled over the T-shirt and sweatshirt. She heard the muffled start of a hairdryer within the bathroom and used the opportunity to glance around. She wasn’t surprised by the display of books, just by their sheer abundance. Books were piled up in every conceivable nook and cranny, frequently two deep, and it gave the place a refreshingly scholastic air. There was no doubt an academic of some nature lived here. She glanced at some of the titles and found a few surprises (The Science of God, The Whole Shebang, Many Lives, Many Masters, People of the Lie) amongst the staples (Nabokov, Shakespeare, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, A.S. Bryant, Frank McCourt, Wharton, Toole, Salinger, Hemmingway, Hardy and Austen). The last one brought a smile.

Her eyes fell on one of the many picture frames scattered about and she moved to the bedside table to get a closer look.

It was a simple shot of a laughing Jennifer on a white sandy beach with a tow-headed little girl and boy piling on top of her like puppies in a litter but its was the sheer normalcy of the scene that gave Resa pause. This was Jennifer — a normal girl. Joyful, healthy, good-hearted. Beautiful inside and out. The kind of person who, under routine circumstances wouldn’t look twice at someone of Resa’s ilk…But a voice inside her knew that was unfair. Jennifer wasn’t like that; she didn’t prejudge. Resa’s eyes traveled over the image of the younger woman’s laughing face, alight from an inner radiance that few possessed and thought, No. She isn’t like that…She’s like no one I’ve ever known… . .I can trust her….

…Hmmmm….Trust…

It was a word Resa had barely used in her life but she had used it today.

And she’d meant it.

Now that had been a helluva surprise, even to Resa. She hadn’t realized she was going to suggest Jennifer should write about her until the words were sailing past her lips and it was only after she’d said them she realized it was a decision she’d unconsciously come to not long after they’d arrived in the guest apartment of the convent. And it was a decision born out of trust. Trust for a young woman whom she had only just met and about whom she knew relatively little but felt a confidence in nonetheless. A decision that she instantly knew to be the correct one and from which there was no turning back. Not that she wanted to. Who would have thought this little blonde girl with the motor-mouth that she met only three days ago would be someone in whom she would end up placing unqualified trust for the first time in her life?

Amazing.

She set the picture down, turned to sit on the edge of the Queen-sized bed and slipped on the pair of white ankle socks Jennifer had left out for her then laid back across the width of the bed with a sigh so deep it got her blood tingling. What a glorious sensation it was to relax! She couldn’t recall the last time she’d felt this at ease and she could well understand how someone as innocent as Jennifer could forget about the horrors of the Vartans…if only for a little while.

The hairdryer shut off and moments later there was a knock on the door.

“All clear,” Resa called out in answer.

The bathroom door opened and Jennifer emerged…

. . and Resa’s whole body tensed up from top to toe.

The younger woman was also clad in a pair of cut-off sweat pants though hers were a soft grayish-white and came to her mid-thigh revealing a significant amount of surprisingly tanned and finely sculpted leg. Her brick red T-shirt had some surf insignia written on both long sleeves and deliberately came up quite short at the waist to give more than a tantalizing glimpse of her midriff. It was an outfit that was slapdash and sporty and, on her taut body, carelessly sexy.

Resa closed her eyes and counted to ten then released her breath and was about to count to ten again when she felt the mattress beneath her sag at the presence of additional weight. She opened her eyes and saw Jennifer seated cross-legged at the top of the bed, leaning her back against the wooden headboard and smiling at her and she realized then and there that she could count to ten for eternity and it would still do no good. There were some things that were just basic and her response to this pair of light green eyes was one of them.

So she shifted her gaze to something ostensibly safer.

“Who are they?” she asked, nodding to the photograph she’d been studying earlier.

Jennifer glanced over at the picture on the end table and smiled bigger.

“That’s my niece Katelyn and my nephew Richard, also known as Katie Girl and Little Ricky. She’s six and he’ll turn four this upcoming May 9th.”

“They’re beautiful children.”

Jennifer beamed. “Aren’t they? See, I can say that ‘cause I’m just their aunt. There’s nooooo prejudice involved here.”

“Clearly,” Resa replied with a lopsided grin and she noticed the ends of Jennifer’s unbound blonde hair were still wet, giving her a marvelously tousled aura.

Jennifer flopped onto her stomach and retrieved a picture frame from the other bedside table. She rolled onto her back to lie parallel to Resa and held up the picture frame for her inspection.

“Here’s a shot of the whole Scooby gang from when we went to Belize this last Christmas,” she said angling it so Resa could see.

It was another photograph of Jennifer on the same sandy beach but this time there were three additional children in the heap. She pointed to each little head as she described.

“That’s Katie again and Ricky’s right here…They’re my brother Erik’s kids. Right here are Jason’s two, George, and Audrey. They’re twins.”

Resa pointed to the only dark-headed child in the mix. “And that one?”

Green eyes softened. “That’s my little man, Skyler. He’s Chris’ son and the oldest of the brood.” She sighed and a trace of sadness befell her. “Skyler’s mom died last year and he’s taken it pretty hard but fortunately Chris is a great Dad. He’s working so hard to make sure Skyler knows how much his Mom loved him.”

“How did she die?” Resa asked softly, her eyes missing nothing.

Jennifer’s lips twisted. “Car accident. Frannie was on her way to pick up Skyler from a Cub Scout Meeting when she was hit by a drunk driver.” She heaved another sigh that spoke volumes. “It’s all so commonplace it sometimes seems like a cliché…except it’s real. And Frannie isn’t coming home.”

The younger woman’s sadness was almost palpable and Resa turned to prop herself up on her right side to better face her companion. Without thinking she reached out to stroke Jennifer’s arm in an effort to soothe her pain.

“You must miss her very much,” she murmured.

“Yeah,” she said in a voice thick with quiet sorrow. “We all do. She was a good person. Kind and sweet…Her death was the first real tragedy in my family and it shook us all. But mostly we’re worried about Skyler. He’s incredibly sensitive, more so than the rest of the kids…I think it’s partly because he’s half American Indian. Choctaw. While the others are all so darned white. Makes him stand out and standing out can be hard when you’re young.”

Resa understood and agreed. As a young child her blue eyes and height had been qualities that had helped to set her apart from the rest of the neighborhood Latino kids and it sometimes made things difficult. But as life does so love its little ironies, the same pair of blue eyes and impressive height that had once been her bane, as an adult, were often pointed to as her most striking features. So she knew something of what it was like to be singled out and could empathize with this young boy whom she did not know. But he had something that Resa never did – the love of his family, his entire family and that would make all the difference.

“You must be a wonderful aunt,” she said, slowing the motion of her hand until just her thumb played with the crisp cotton fabric of the other woman’s sleeve.

Jennifer cocked her head to glance up at Resa. “I love them,” she said simply. “I find it fascinating to watch these little bitty blobs of cells mature into very distinct individuals with hopes and dreams and vivid personalities all their own. It’s the most basic aspect of being human and yet each time it happens I’m amazed, you know?”

Resa swallowed and felt the slow build of pressure form within her chest. “Yeah,” she said after a moment. “I know.”

“Do you ever want to have kids?” Jennifer asked.

And Resa’s heart stilled.

It was an innocent enough question and yet…

She rolled onto her back and stared sightlessly at the ceiling for a very long time. Through her peripheral vision she knew Jennifer had propped herself up on her side and was watching her closely as if she could sense her inner turmoil.

“What?” the younger woman whispered and she felt the warmth of her hand as the younger woman laid it gently upon her upper arm.

Resa had to make a decision. It was one thing to ruminate on the newfound trust she felt for this person at her side but it was another to give in to it. To reveal this part of herself that she kept closed off from the world. The prospect was terrifying; it left her vulnerable and exposed to a profound degree and she paused a moment to gage her own inner reaction to the idea…only to recognize its inevitability.

She drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly before saying, “I have a child.” She heard Jennifer gasp and turned her head to meet the other woman’s searching eyes. “A boy.”

Jennifer’s hand unconsciously gripped Resa’s sweatshirt and her visible concern was something that deeply affected the former gang leader.

“What happened?” she asked.

The pain is excruciating.

To Resa Gustavez who has been shot, stabbed, and in more fights than she can recall, nothing compares with the torture of childbirth. This is a whole new level of agony and she hates every fucking moment of it.

“Push!” Tony shouts to her from the foot of the operating table, his voice and manner intense.

She takes a deep breath and once again pushes with all her might in an effort to expel the child from her body. She can feel it move within her and there is a tiny corner of clarity in her mind somehow separate from all the pain that registers how remarkable it is to have this other living creature within her struggling to get out. But then, just as quickly, that corner closes off and she wants nothing more than to be rid of it as soon as possible.

Sweat rolls off her neck and soaks her pale yellow gown and she feels her hair stick to the side of her cheek. She wishes there could be someone to wipe clean her face but knows that is impossible. No one can know what is happening. No one can know anything at all.

“Once more. I can see the head.” She hears an excited lilt to Tony’s voice and feels a pang of optimism. Over. It is almost over.

She pushes one more time, harder than she has pushed before, and suddenly the pressure is gone. Like that. The baby slides out from within her and she nearly faints from the shock of relief. She breathes in sharp, quick gasps as she struggles to remain conscious and falls back onto the operating table.

For a moment she is too disoriented to recognize anything beyond the momentary numbness of her mind and body and she revels in the tranquillity of the surrounding silence. Then from deep within her an instinct she has never even remotely understood but is as old as time pushes to the surface and she suddenly realizes the silence is not right. She should have heard the baby’s cry by now.

Fear seizes her, fear for a child she does not want and she braces herself to a sitting position.

“Tony?” she calls out, her voice ragged and spent.

Tony stands with his back to her, looking down at something in his hands.

The baby.

Panic sets in. “Tony, what’s wrong?” she asks and winces as her dry throat constricts painfully.

He does not respond and she feels a mother’s terror grip her heart a moment before the first, faint sound reaches her desperate ears. For a fraction of a second her mind mistakes it for the mewling of a kitten then the noise increases tenfold into that of a primal and robust newborn scream.

And every muscle in her body relaxes as Tony turns to face her, in his arms the shrieking infant wrapped in a soft white blanket. She can see one tiny fist trembling in fury peek out and it makes her smile. A fighter from the beginning. How fitting.

She is told “It’s a boy,” and she nods. She must not know any more than this. Not its weight, its length, whether the fingers and toes are where they are supposed to be. Nothing. By all rights she should not even be informed of its gender but this is one fact she feels she must know.

And even still, with as little knowledge as she has, it is with unexpectedly mixed emotions that she watches as Tony turns to walk out of the room, the crying baby cradled in his arms…

*

Jennifer could hear the patter of rain as it hit her windowpane and was vaguely aware the storm outside had yet to let up. Inside the room there was a thick silence.

Resa lay on her side facing her, so close the younger woman could see the echo of sadness that laid behind eyes that were turned to a painful past. Jennifer wanted nothing more than to be able to alleviate the other woman’s grief but she was powerless. These events had transpired years ago; to be there for her in the here and now, to listen and support was all she could do.

Jennifer tucked her arm beneath her head. “Where was Alfons in all this?” she asked, her tone soft for she was loath to jar the other woman from her reflection.

“In prison. The police had managed to nail him on some trumped up charge.” Her laugh was caustic. “As much as he’d done and they couldn’t even get him for a legitimate reason.”

“What did they arrest him for?”

“Tax evasion.”

“Tax evasion?”

“Uh-huh. Just like Hoffa.”

“How long was he in prison?”

“Two years.” Her gaze roamed over the younger woman’s face. “Two years during which I controlled everything about the Vartans…and grew to love the power, to need it.”

Jennifer was increasingly accustomed to Resa’s blunt honesty when it came to discussing her history. She recognized the former gang leader’s determination to remove any potential romantic veneer to her past actions and she appreciated the candor. But she wasn’t about to let that scare her away.

“How old were you at the time?”

“Twenty.”

Dark blonde brows arched. “Must have been a lot of power for a twenty year old to wield.”

“Too much,” she quietly agreed.

There was a long moment of silence during which Jennifer was sure a thousand different horrors from long ago floated over her companion’s mind.

“I must admit I’m a little surprised you didn’t…well, opt…”

“For an abortion?” Resa finished knowingly.

“Yeah. I mean, having a baby in the middle of…everything must have been hard.”

“Nearly impossible…I wouldn’t have done it at all if it hadn’t been for Martin.”

Jennifer frowned inquisitively. “Who’s Martin?”

“The baby’s father.”

The downtown restaurant is discreet. The lighting is dark, moody, and, if one so desires, seductive. The prevalence of alcoves allows for privacy from prying eyes and it is the reason she chooses to transact her business here. That, and of course the excellent Peking Duck they have on the menu.

She has come here to cement an alliance between the Vartans and El Moralez gangs and she feels comfortable that the situation is in hand. It is understood that El Moralez are Puerto Rican and have no interest in treading on the Vartan turf…but Resa has wondered if more could be made of their mutual respect. A union of a sorts. Certainly she knows there is money to be made but there is also opportunity. By having them on her side she will have even greater control over the area and thus greater power. And she does like her power.

The man across the table from her is Martin Olazando and he is, by all accounts, the man to go to when dealing with El Moralez. He is also clearly attracted to her. This is nothing new. Men have long made their desire for her well known but in this one she sees a potential advantage. It would make their alliance complete.

And besides, she thinks as her eyes travel the sharp planes of his face, he is undeniably sexy.

She slowly reaches across the table to lightly run a finger over his knuckles, never breaking contact from his cinnamon brown eyes.

“When will Julio return from Mexico City?” she asks in a deliberately seductive voice and she revels in the manner in which his eyes travel over her. But he remains in complete control and she finds she likes this. Most men around her do not and that is always their downfall.

“Thursday,” he replies and she hears a distinct rolling in the way he pronounces his ‘r’s.’ She finds she likes this as well.

“Where will you keep the cargo?” She slips off her shoe and runs her foot along his leg. The response is instant. His eyes, already fairly dilated, go black and she can hear the elevation in his breathing. But still he does not make a move in her direction.

“Public storage.”

“Public storage?” she repeats, greatly surprised.

He nods. “My cousin owns a couple units and we move the stuff so fast there isn’t time to get busted.” She laughs at the outrageous simplicity of it all and he watches her closely a moment before reaching out to run the side of his hand across her cheek. “You have a beautiful smile,” he says with a sweetness that catches her by surprise.

She stills for she recognizes his expression and though she finds him intriguing there are certain things she cannot allow.

“Don’t fall in love with me,” she warns with a brutal frankness designed to squelch any feelings he may have brewing but to this Martin merely smiles.

“Is that what I’m doing?” he asks even as he leans across the table towards her.

“Yes,” she replies, her eyes never leaving his. “It’s a mistake.”

“Really? And why’s that?” he murmurs, his lips inches from her own.

She reaches her hand to cup the back of his head. “Because I will never love you in return.” With that she pulls him to her and captures his mouth with her own.

*

“Lust pretty much defined our relationship,” Resa explained and reached down for Jennifer’s hand. “At least for me.”

“And for Martin?” The younger woman’s voice was barely above a whisper.

Resa sighed. “Martin…was a romantic,” she said softly. “It was always his

undoing.”

“So, he fell in love with you?”

Resa’s eyes dropped down to where their hands were joined palm to palm and

marveled at how much bigger hers was compared to Jennifer’s. But there was vitality in the younger woman’s grasp that was as undeniable as it was intriguing and it was from there that Resa drew her strength.

“Yes.”

Jennifer shifted her hand a fraction of an inch and laced their fingers together in a

warm embrace. “And did you fall in love with him?” she asked quietly.

Resa slowly raised her eyes to meet a piercing green gaze. “I’ve never been in

love,” she admitted.

“Never?” She sounded surprised.

Resa shook her head. “I used to think it was because I was too strong for it…now

I know I wasn’t strong enough…It was something Martin couldn’t understand…You see, somewhere along the line he decided he’d had enough of living under a constant threat. He wanted out of the gang life and he wanted to take me with him…” She lightly squeezed Jennifer’s hand and reveled in the answering pressure. “…especially when he found out I was pregnant…”

Martin is distraught.

“This is our chance,” he tells her, his voice pleading. She looks away but he moves in front of her, his light brown eyes naked in their desperation. “It‘s a sign. You know it…You know it! Jesus Christ, Resa…” He grabs her face and brings it close to his own, reckless in his need to convince her. “We must get out of this before it kills us!”

But it is a mistake to touch her. She pulls her face away, grabs his thumb in a punishing grip and pulls it back against the natural curve of his hand. He cries out and drops to his knees. She squeezes harder but even as tears of pain from many a different level well up in his eyes he will not back down. “It’s my child, too,” he manages to say though his voice is wracked and nearly incoherent.

“Not for long,” she replies with a snarl and is surprised at how the look of anguish that crosses his face does not bring greater satisfaction. They have been lovers for almost six months and she has often derived pleasure in their sadistic interaction but always as a precursor to a vigorous bout of sex. This is different. This is serious and she knows they will not be making love after it is over. Indeed they will likely not make love ever again.

She abruptly releases his hand with a shove and strides toward the front door of his downtown loft, determined to leave, to never see him again. Then the ragged sounds of his breathing reach her ears, his pain so great she can almost taste it, and an inexplicable emotion causes her to slow down and to look back.

He is kneeling in the middle of the living room, bathed in a pool of white sunlight from the floor to ceiling windows, his head hung in utter defeat. She pauses. He is such a strong man, physically and emotionally, that to look upon him thus is disquieting. But, more significantly to her, it brings no pleasure.

“Aren’t you going to try to stop me?” she asks, deliberately taunting him more in an effort to stir up some antagonism within her own heart than in the desire to hurt him further.

Slowly he raises red-rimmed eyes to meet her own and he shakes his head. “No,” he says simply but not without emotion and his refusal to fight infuriates her. It is unlike him and she feels manipulated, something she detests.

Her grip on the doorknob tightens. “It is my body, Martin, and my choice and I will make it as I see fit!”

He does not break his eyes from hers and there is a lack of accusation in their depths she finds disturbing. “Yes. It is your choice,” he agrees. “But not just about the baby…it’s much more than that. It’s about staying here and dying a little more each day or coming with me to find a better way and believe me, Resa, any way is better than this. This child could mean a whole new life, for you and for me…How I wish you could see that.” He does not bother to wipe the tears from his cheeks and every ounce of her wants to loath him for his overt sentimentality but the calm certainty in his eyes will not allow for this.

And deep down, it terrifies her.

“You’re a fool.” Her eyes rake him over and her lip curls contemptuously. “I told you not to fall in love with me.”

Unexpectedly he laughs, though more out of bitterness than any sense of genuine amusement. “Yes, you did…” He drags himself to his feet and turns his back to her, broad shoulders slumped. “And I fucked up… ” He shakes his head at his own perceived stupidity. “I fell in love with the woman you could be…” He glances back at her. “. . and ignored the woman you are…My sincere apologies.” He smiles, his lips twisted with sorrow and regret. “Vaya con Dios, my darling,” he says lightly, then he salutes her in a gesture that is both self-mocking and tragically final before he turns his back on her forever…

*

“It was the last time I ever saw him…” Resa said with a sigh, her head now resting on the bed and close enough that Jennifer basked in the heat of her body that seemed to reach out and hold her in an embrace all its own.

She removed her hand from where it was tucked beneath her head and reached over to gently stroke Resa’s dark mane, threading her fingers through the ebony hair in a decidedly luxurious manner. The former gang leader’s eyes closed momentarily at the touch and tightened her hold on Jennifer’s other hand.

“What became of him?” the younger woman asked.

Resa ran her thumb over the pad of Jennifer’s palm, studying her actions as if they held some deeper meaning but the college student suspected she was, in truth, merely biding time to gain better control of her emotions.

“He died,” she said at last, confirming what Jennifer already suspected. There was a long pause before the she added darkly, “Because of me.”

Tony does not know how to perform an abortion so she has been forced to go to a free clinic. She finds the waiting area is not what she expects though she is uncertain as to the nature of her expectations. Perhaps something less officious and more sinister. But instead it is neat and impersonal and appropriately clinical. A nearby table even has a few outdated copies of People Magazine along side the usual pamphlets pertaining to birth control and contagious diseases.

Resa ignores these and instead opts to wait with only her thoughts to pass the time. It is a crucial decision, for her thoughts naturally turn to Martin and his expression as she walked out the door only last week. Why does it agitate her so? Why has she been unable to purge it from her mind as easily as she has been able to reject others? Is it more of what he said? The sense of remonstration in his words? Always it is she who does the rejecting and though she is the one who has walked out on him she cannot help but feel a sting in his response.

‘I fell in love with the woman you could be…and ignored the woman you are…’

Her jaw tightens at this memory and her fists clench until the nails digging into her palms draw blood. ‘What did he know?’ she inwardly fumes. ‘ Because he wants out, I have to suffer? Well, fuck him. Fuck him! Fuck him!!’

She repeats it like a mantra, drawing her anger around her like a protective cloak…and still she finds no fortification from the voice as yet unspoken, lingering within her, just beneath the surface, ever present.

She senses someone coming at her and glances up to see a nurse approaching. The smile on the older woman’s face is pleasant but carefully devoid of cheer for she knows this is seldom a happy time in the lives of those who cross through the clinic’s doors. She opens her mouth to speak…

…and Resa’s cell phone goes off. The gang leader quickly holds up a hand to the nurse.

“Just a second,” she commands and puts the phone to her ear. “Hello?” she says and before the caller even has a chance to do more than chuckle smoothly she feels every muscle in her body stiffen in recognition…

“It was Alfons,” Resa explained, then smirked. “He always did have impeccable timing.”

Jennifer frowned, confused. “But I thought he was in prison during all of this?”

Resa nodded. “He was. But you have to understand that prisons are some of the most corrupt places on earth and getting a cell phone is as easy as getting a vial of crack, if you have the right amount of money…and Alfons has always had the right amount of money.”

“Hello, Resa,” his voice purrs through the line and its mere timbre raises the hairs on the back of her neck.

“What do you want?” she instinctively challenges.

“So abrupt,” he says, a soft chuckle underlying his words. “And after the great lengths I’ve gone to help alleviate you of your latest…problem.”

There is something in his tone that brings with it a sickening suspicion. “What do you mean?”

The smile is evident in his voice. “Let’s just say today you have one less ‘choice’ to worry your precious mind than you did yesterday. Feel free to thank me at your leisure.”

Bile rises in her throat. “What have you done?” she whispers and the easy sound of laughter from the other end enrages her. “Goddammit, Alfons, what have you done?!”

The laughter stops and his voice becomes calm. “I’ve eliminated a threat to something that’s mine. It’s what I do, Resa. You know that by now, better than anyone.”

She closes her eyes and drapes her free hand over her face. “Why now?” she asks in a manner strangely composed. “I haven’t hidden him from you?”

“No. Nor should you. I don’t expect you to be faithful while I’m away. Lord knows, I’m not…” His tone grows ominously low. “But I won’t let you leave me, Resa. That, I will never allow. Do you understand?”

She is quiet a long moment before answering, “Yes.”

“Good. And now you go ahead with your plan there; get done what needs to be done. I want no trace left of him, do I make myself clear?”

“Perfectly.”

“Excellent! And with that, my love, I must go. You’d be surprised at how these long distance calls can add up. It’s criminal.” He chuckles again before deliberately adding, “Vaya con Dios, my darling.” And then she hears the click of the line as it goes dead.

Slowly she folds the receiver back into the phone and replaces it inside the inner pocket of her jacket with a calculation that, for her, is telling. Alfons may have her activities monitored but she knows his reach only extends so far. He cannot see the expression that darkens her face at that moment for if he could he would recognize it as a one of menacing defiance.

She glances up at the nurse and carefully transforms her face into a pleasant mask. “Thanks,” she says as she stands to leave. “But there’s been a change of plans…”

*

Jennifer’s hand stilled its motion. The pale eyes that searched her own remained dry but she heard the regret and self-recrimination in her companion’s voice and that was enough to evoke heartfelt empathy.

“What happened to Martin?” she breathed the question, a part of her not certain if she wanted to truly know but her curiosity was overpowering.

Resa looked pained before she dropped her eyes and softly explained, “They found his body in the trunk of his car in the Angeles Mountains…bound, gagged…and burned beyond recognition. They’re pretty sure the fire killed him, which meant he was alive in there. Alone. Terrified…And all because he loved me.” Her last words were barely above a whisper.

“God…” Her heart radiated sorrow for a man she had never met and indeed would never know. It was all so horribly unjust, so horrific and grievous as to be beyond her comprehension and yet before her was living proof that it was all so very real. The woman who had witnessed and endured it all…and ultimately survived.

Instinctively, Jennifer drew Resa to her and she felt the other woman’s body slide next to her own with exquisite ease. The dark head pressed against her, cheek to shoulder and strong arms wrapped around her waist. For a moment neither said a word, they just cherished the closeness and consolation derived from the other. It superseded anything either had ever known.

Jennifer cupped the back of Resa’s head and let her hand trail the length of the black tresses down her back, then back again in a repeated motion. In the span of a heartbeat she received a hundred different impressions. The dampness of her hair, the tangy, sensuous smell of her skin, the caged power in the arms that held her tight. It was nearly overwhelming.

She heard Resa inhale an uneven breath then slowly release it and nestle her

face deeper into Jennifer’s shoulder. Beneath the younger woman’s hands she felt hard muscles start to relax and unwind.

“You know,” Resa murmured, her voice faintly muffled. “Change is a funny thing.”

“How so?” Jennifer prompted softly.

“The way it happens so gradually you don’t even notice it. Until one day you stop and look back on your life…and realize you’re a different person than you once were.” Resa’s fingers toyed with the ends of Jennifer’s hair and the younger woman could feel the vibrations of her speech against her chest; it was an intensely intimate experience. “My change began with Martin, even though I didn’t recognize it at the time,” Resa continued, almost languidly. “He wasn’t enough to affect me on his own… but he sparked a chain of events that, in hindsight, make everything that followed seem somehow…” She paused as if searching for the right word.

“Destined?” Jennifer supplied and she felt Resa nod against her.

“Yes…” she breathed. “Destined…”

…it is with unexpectedly mixed emotions that she watches as Tony turns to walk out of the room, the crying baby cradled in his arms…

But suddenly she reaches out to him.

“Wait!” she orders and he stops to look back. Their eyes meet and despite knowing that it is the absolute worst thing she can possibly do in this given situation she says, “Bring him here.”

His brown eyes register surprise and no little hesitation but he is still quite aware who is boss. He walks slowly to the bed and her gaze falls from his to the shaking bundle in his arms with a hunger that she has never before experienced. With each step a little more becomes visible to her until Tony has stopped by her side and she looks down at the child she has just born.

He is very pink. Red even as blood pushes against his vivid skin and makes the tufts of his dark hair stand out all the more. He does not look like she thought he would, far more misshapen and alien. She frowns, perplexed.

“What’s wrong with his head?” she asks as she barely stops herself from reaching out to touch him.

“Nothing,” Tony reassures her. “It gets smushed in the birth canal and ends up lookin’ all pointy but that’s natural. Everything’ll shift around and he’ll have a regular shaped head in no time.”

“You sure?” she asks and leans in to get a closer look. “I don’t want these people to back out because he’s defective.”

Tony laughs at this. “Not gonna happen. They want him something fierce.”

She nods, distracted by the tiny bundle. “Good,” she says and moves to a better sitting position. The infant’s screams are deafening and yet, to her amazement, they do not bother her. Always she has hated the sound of a baby crying, likening it to nails on a chalkboard but it is not so with this one. Instead his cries reach out to her like invisible waves to seep into her very being and before even she is aware of what she is doing, she has taken the newborn from a startled Tony’s arms.

He is so light, she thinks then bounces him ever so slightly to test his weight. And so warm against her chest, much warmer than her own temperature. She can tell this even through his blanket.

“Does he have a fever?” she asks.

“All babies are on the hot side,” Tony tells her and she is relieved. But after a moment she hears him softly say, “Resa…” and she knows what he is about to tell her so she chooses not to acknowledge that he has spoken at all.

“Resa…” he says again, more insistent, and she closes her eyes a moment before raising them to meet his own. She knows her look is one of defiance. “The priest is waiting,” he says.

“Let him,” is her reply as she attempts to wiggle her pinkie finger into the tiny fist. His fingernails are so tiny. Just little specs. And yet his grip is strong.

Tony is concerned. “You’re just makin’ this harder on yourself,” he tells her.

She knows he is right but she cannot release her hold on the child — her child — at least not yet. Instead she leans down and lightly presses her lips to his head, silently amazed by the indescribable softness of his skin.

After a long moment, she hears the sound of motion at the front of the room, glances up…and pauses at what she sees. Or rather who. For in the doorway stands a man, very tall and very handsome, watching her with intuitive blue eyes and whose manner of dress defines his calling as that of a priest. She is curious and does not look away, a part of her instinctively sensing this is somehow an important moment in her life.

Tony follows her gaze and says. “Hello, Padre.”

The man smiles warmly. “Good morning, Dr. Marcus,” he replies then turns his blue eyes back to those of the gang leader. “And hello, Ms. Gustavez.”

She tips her head to one side. “Do I know you?” she asks, her manner, as always, direct.

“No. But I’ve heard a great deal about you.” He moves to stand by her bedside and looks down at her from an imposing height, though his presence does not intimidate. “My name is Father Hector Kulvane,” he says by way of introduction and extends his hand in greeting.

She hesitates. Looks from the tall man to Tony and then down at the hand before her. It is with a degree of indefinable uncertainty that she finally slips her hand into his and feels the strength in his grip. He shakes it with care then draws away and glances at the baby still in her arms.

“He’s beautiful,” the priest comments and his eyes crinkle as he smiles. “Feisty little guy.”

“Who are the people getting him?” she asks abruptly, pulling him closer to her chest.

“Resa, you know we can’t—”Tony starts but Father Hector politely holds up a hand before addressing her question with inherent honesty.

“They’re an older couple who haven’t been able to have children. They’ve been looking forward to this for a long time and they’re very excited.”

Resa swallows hard and is startled by the tension she feels in her chest that she attempts to ignore. “They’re good people?” she continues, her voice low and rough.

Father Hector nods, his eyes ever alert. “The very best.” And then he does something surprising. He reaches out and brushes the lock of hair that had earlier been bothering her from her cheek and tucks it behind her ear. She meets his eyes, bewildered…but not annoyed. He watches her as if he can sense the growing conflict within her. “Are you sure this is what you want?” he asks quietly and his rich voice has a surprisingly powerful affect on her. It is like a dagger to her chest.

“There’s no other way,” she says emotionally, her eyes brimming with tears that she obstinately holds at bay. “What kind of life could I give him?”

“You can change your life; it’s not too late,” he says and she stiffens, Martin’s last words to her echoing in her ears. An icy wave of resentment washes over her. She will hear none of this priest’s platitudes or pep talks. They hold no meaning for her and instead serve to ignite a surge of hostility within her breast. She looks away, closes her eyes and with every ounce of strength she possesses she pushes away the emotional onslaught that has taken hold of her. The eyes that open again to meet Father Hector’s are now cold and devoid of pathos.

“I don’t want to change my life,” she says defiantly and hands the baby to Tony who quickly accepts and takes the child from the room. Resa steels herself not to look after the retreating figure, not to feel anything at all. Rather she stares at the priest before her.

His expression is one of supreme compassion, as if he can see into her very soul and it prompts her to repeat, “I don’t want to change my life,” with even greater passion.

He smiles a gentle, knowing smile. “And I don’t believe you,” he says. She tenses at the reply and he folds his hands behind his back. “You’re a smart person, Resa Gustavez and there’s goodness in you yet. I don’t know what demons drive you but one of these days you’re going to regain control. When that day comes…” He gives her a meaningful look. “And I do mean ‘when’… just know, if you need someone to talk with, you can come find me.”

With that he turns to walk out of the room, leaving her to watch after him.

Resa’s body was lying heavily across her chest and Jennifer felt that the muscles of her back had totally relaxed beneath her touch. By the steady rhythm of her breathing Jennifer could tell she was either asleep or fast approaching sleep and the younger woman had no intention of moving her. Instead she slowly reached behind her to grab a pillow from the top of the bed, taking great care not to disturb the slumbering woman atop her and as gently as possible eased it beneath her own head for support. She adjusted her body a bit for comfort and Resa stirred at the motion but rather than awaken,

she pressed closer to Jennifer, unconsciously hugging her arms around the college student’s waist and then sighed deeply, contentedly.

She pulled Resa nearer, ever so slightly and closed her own eyes as she silently marveled at the bond that had developed between them. When exactly it had happened, she did not know, but develop it most certainly had and she treasured it with every fiber of her being.

Resa had said that change was a funny thing and she was inclined to agree. It didn’t happen in an instant (even though at times it might seem as if it did) but rather as a result of a series of baby steps that build over time to create an entire journey. Jennifer reflected on what she knew of Resa’s life and realized that if at any moment something had been different, one simple, seemingly inconsequential deviation — say, if Alfons hadn’t called Resa when he did and unwittingly stopped her plans for the abortion — she might never have met the former gang leader, might never have known her friendship…and that, she determined as she drifted into a peaceful sleep of her own, would have been a real tragedy…
CHAPTER FIFTEEN

It was the quiet that eventually awoke her. Somewhere in the far recesses of her awareness she became conscious that the incessant pittering of rain had ceased to hit the windowpane and the sunlight of late afternoon was streaming in through the half-closed slats of the shutters.

Resa stirred…and became aware of something else. Or, more specifically, of someone else. She kept her eyes shut even as her senses tingled to full scale alert and her exact sleeping position made itself known to her.

The dozing body beneath her was solid and warm and their limbs were in a definite tangle. She could feel the strong, steady heartbeat against her ear and the soft cotton fabric of Jennifer’s shirt as it gently rubbed against her cheek with each breath she took. Her mind reeled. How did I manage to fall asleep like this? she wondered in surprise. How did I manage to fall asleep at all? It was, for the former gang leader, an extraordinary position for her to be in but it didn’t disturb her or make her uneasy. Quite the opposite, really. She found she could stay like that for much longer if she allowed and the temptation to do so was great…

But a higher wisdom prevailed.

Resa gradually drew her left hand out from where it was pinned between Jennifer’s lower back and the bed and squeezed it into a fist to try to coax the blood back into her prickling fingertips. She ignored the light throb in her wounded shoulder from the awkward position in which she had slept and slowly pushed herself up to an arm’s distance in order to gaze down at the younger woman.

She looked beautiful. Long blonde hair was splayed out over the pillow in casual disarray and her blood red lips were slightly parted, giving her face a remarkably youthful aura. Even for her…and for a moment Resa’s chest hurt at the sight. Jennifer Logan was such a rarity in her world. A girl who projected normality and inspired wonderment, a caring person who was genuinely concerned about Resa’s well-being…

A friend.

To leave her would be one of the most difficult things she had ever done and yet what choice did she have? Her presence practically invited trouble and that was something she desperately did not want for the girl.

But oh, how she wished there was an alternative…

Resa disentangled her legs from Jennifer’s, then leaned further back on one elbow and gently nudged her companion a couple times to rouse her from her slumbers. She tilted her dark head to one side and watched as the younger woman blinked repeatedly, her grogginess clear, and swiveled her attention around until it locked onto her.

“Hey,” Jennifer mumbled in a thick voice and rubbed the base of her palm against a single heavy-lidded eye.

“Rain’s stopped,” Resa pointed out as she moved to a sitting position.

“Hmmmmm,” was the garbled reply as she stretched her body, legs straight and toes pointed with the bottom of her shirt riding up just enough to reveal that sit-ups were obviously an important part of her daily exercise routine. Resa’s eyebrow arched and she idly wondered if it would be possible to bounce a quarter off those abs…

“You hungry?” Jennifer asked, interrupting the course of Resa’s thoughts.

“What? Oh. Yeah, a little.”

The younger woman sat up and the shirt fell back to its natural position. “Good, because I’m an excellent cook and I am so freakin’ starving right now that I’m this close to eating the next thing that crosses my path.”

“Remind me to stay out of your way then,” Resa murmured dryly to which Jennifer wiggled her eyebrows in mock suggestion and hopped off the bed. She reached back a hand to help Resa and the former gang leader took it, though she really needed no assistance. “You’re strong,” she commented as she felt the firm grip and the power pulling her to her feet.

“It’s the Irish in me. We’re a tough old breed,” Jennifer replied as she bent down to pick up Resa’s damp clothes off the floor.

The former gang leader was slightly chagrined about her natural sloppiness but it was a habit of hers since childhood that was incredibly difficult to break.

“Sorry,” she murmured as she reached for them but Jennifer shook her head and held them away.

“Don’t worry about it. I pay someone to come clean my place and that’s the only reason it looks as tidy as it does. Though,” she continued with a teasing smirk as she headed out of the bedroom, Resa’s clothes still in hand. “I have a feeling you’d beat me on the messy meter.”

“Why’s that?” She followed Jennifer down the hall and through one of the doorways she’d earlier noticed. It was a laundry room complete with washer, dryer and folding area, which were rare accommodations to find in a LA apartment.

“You give off a decidedly ‘messy’ vibe,” she answered over her shoulder.

Dark brows knitted in a playfully indignant frown. “How so?”

“I can’t explain it. Cleaning just seems beneath you somehow. Like you get too focused on something to worry about anything as mundane as picking up after yourself.” Jennifer tossed the wet clothes into the dryer and fiddled with the settings.

“Such as?”

Jennifer’s grin turned impish. “Such as fighting bad guys and rescuing damsels like me from distress.” She turned on the dryer and the deep rumble immediately filled the confined space.

“I don’t do that very often.” Resa leaned against the side of the washing machine and crossed her arms. “Just for special damsels.”

“Well I’m sure glad I qualified,” she said cheerfully.

“So am I.”

Jennifer opened her mouth to say something further but then stopped and smiled brightly instead, her light green eyes vibrant and alive. She looked like a kid given an unexpected present as her gaze roved over Resa’s face.

“Really?” The top of her nose crinkled as a soft blush crept into her cheeks.

“Yeeees,” she drawled and watched as Jennifer’s blush blossomed into a deep pink.

“Thanks.” She sounded downright bashful and Resa found it unbelievably charming.

“You’re welcome.”

What followed was one of those long pauses where both women just looked at each other, smiling their individual and distinct smiles as uncounted seconds ticked away. By all rights it should have been very awkward but both were too caught up in the moment to do more than indulge themselves in this flourishing and mutual fascination. It was like receiving an unexpected present, Resa decided. And she’d had too few of those in her life not to respect the ones she was given.

The ring of the phone penetrated the loud hum of the dryer and like that, the spell was broken. Jennifer blinked a couple times, then pulled a comical face and hurried past Resa out into the living room to grab the phone before whoever was on the other end rang off.

A rather warm Resa stayed right where she was for a little longer, then shook her head and grinned to herself. Interesting. Verrry interesting.

She exited the laundry area and entered the living room to find Jennifer gabbing in mid-conversation.

“…So you’re back in town?” She heard the younger woman say into her black, portable phone before turning to glance at her briefly. “She’s right here…No, she wouldn’t go to the hospital but Dr. Marcus sewed her up and I’ve been taking care of her…It’s my pleasure…Sure, here, hold on a sec.” She covered the receiver and proffered the phone to Resa. “It’s Father Hector. He’s back from Tijuana.” Resa accepted the phone but Jennifer stopped her before she put it to her ear. “Real quick, I’m going to make some pasta and salad. That work for you?”

“Yes. Thanks.”

Jennifer’s chipper and off-hand grin was dazzling. “Welcome.” Then she patted the taller woman on the upper arm with casual affection before heading into the kitchen. Resa watched after her until she ducked out of sight then turned her attention back to the phone call.

“Don’t lecture me,” she said into the phone, bypassing the typical greeting phase.

Father Hector’s deep chuckle warmed her. “And hello to you, too.”

She grinned. “Hello, Padre,” she said with as much contrition as she was capable, which wasn’t much.

“I hear you’ve been busy while I’ve been gone.”

“You could say that.”

“Are you all right?” He sounded genuinely concerned and she had no doubt he was. It was his nature.

“I’m fine, Padre,” she assured him. “Sewed up and on the mend.” Then added, more for herself, “Jennifer’s been very helpful about changing the bandages for me.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. She struck me right off as a quality person.”

“Yeah,” she murmured and her eyes strayed to the kitchen where the sounds of cooking already echoed. She couldn’t agree more.

“Are you two getting along?” he asked, a slight hesitation in his tone and she had to fight to keep down the laugh that threatened.

“Um, yeah.”

He picked up on the verbal hiccup in her voice and misinterpreted. “I know she’s different from you but I really think you should keep an open mind about my suggestion. Ian says she’s the best student in his class and that he thinks she has genuine talent.”

She felt a little tickle of pride at the praise for Jennifer, however “She’s a bright kid,” was all she said.

“Yes, she is. So before you dismiss the idea out of hand, give yourself some time to get to know her better and see if you feel comfortable enough to at least consider having her help you write about your experiences. I know it may sound frivolous to you but you have a great deal to offer, Resa, in terms of your unique perspective on what amounts to a plague within our inner cities. It may be just the sort of thing to give hope to some other young person in a bad situation.”

“So you say.”

“It’s true. You’ve managed to do something extraordinary. You’ve been to the heart of evil and returned to tell about it.”

Resa cocked a brow. “I think you’re being a little over dramatic, Padre,” she said.

Father Hector laughed self-depreciatingly. “Okay, maybe. But that’s how I see it.”

“Then it’s a good thing Jennifer’s doing the writing.”

There was a slight pause on the other end. “Doing the writing?” And she could practically see his blue eyes widen in surprise.

“That’s what I said.” She did so like to tease the Big Guy.

“Are you saying–you’ve agreed to let her…”

“Yes,” she said.

Another silence then the rather astonished, “Huh,” brought a smile.

“Do I take that as a ‘huh’ of approval?” she asked.

“Absolutely. I’m merely amazed is all. Before I left you were so adamantly opposed to the idea. What changed your mind?”
Again Resa’s gaze drifted to the kitchen. “Kinda hard to explain in a nutshell, Padre. Let’s just say the last three days have been…interesting.”

“You’re being mysterious. I hate that.”

“Oh, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you next.”

“And when will that be? I’m worried about you, both of you.”

“Don’t be,” she assured him. “Everything’s under control.”

“I’m sure, but I do feel a certain accountability for all that’s happened and I would like to make sure you’re doing well.”

That was understandable. She could well imagine the amount of responsibility Father Hector must have felt when he heard about the events of the past few days and she instinctively wanted to alleviate any guilt he may be experiencing.

“How about tomorrow?” she suggested.

“Perfect. The morning is best. I have the fewest appointments then. You’ll bring Jennifer, too?”

“Oh, she’ll be there,” she assured him with a smile.

“Good. Tomorrow.”

“We’ll see you then,” she said and felt a little surge of pleasure at how easily the term ‘we’ tripped off her tongue.

They rang off. Resa replaced the receiver in the phone stand and then thought of how much she was going to miss him.

When he had told her of his future she hadn’t wanted to believe she was going to lose him and felt a bitter frustration at the Church for its blind regulations. How could they take from her her mentor and friend? And all because of some senseless, outdated policy. It was arbitrary and unjust. The Padre had assured her that the ways of God are often unknown but inevitably for the best. She didn’t want to argue with him but neither could she readily agree. Not with the life she’d lead. Still, she put up a good front when she was with him, not letting on how the impending loss already weighed heavily upon her heart. He had been there for her for so long, been the first person to place trust in her, even when no justification existed for his doing so. And he had given her so much. Dignity. Hope. Faith in herself, the possibility of faith in others…and, most recently, he had given her Jennifer. How could she ever hope to repay that?

She wandered into the kitchen to find the college senior in the middle of what looked to Resa to be a grand production. A big, stainless steel covered pot was heating up on the range as were a couple other saucepans. To one side she noticed a can of clams, a box of angel haired pasta and a clove of garlic.

The blonde chef was standing before an open refrigerator, searching for something. From her angle in the doorway Resa got a good look at the fridge’s contents and nearly choked. The thing was packed! Every shelf teaming with a bounty of produce and other perishables, which to one whom lived a meal at a time, was remarkable.

“Planning to feed a small army?” she asked, mildly incredulous.

Jennifer glanced over her shoulder and grinned. “Told you I like to cook.”

“Yeah, but that’s a whole lot of food for one person.”

Jennifer reached into the fridge to pull out a couple bags of different types of lettuce. “When I cook I usually invite over some friends. Makes it easier than having to store all the leftovers.” Next she retrieved a couple ripe tomatoes.

“You cook a lot?”

“At least once, sometimes twice a week. It relaxes me.” She grabbed a cucumber, a block of real Parmesan cheese and a variety of other things before shutting the door with her hip.

“Your friends are lucky,” Resa commented.

“Stick around,” she tossed out and Resa felt a pang deep in her gut as she thought how she would like to do nothing more… “What did Father Hector have to say?” Jennifer continued.

“He wants to see us tomorrow, make sure we’re all right.”

“That’s nice of him.” She removed the lid from the bigger pot and poured in the whole box of thin pasta, then added a couple shakes of salt.

“Uh-huh…I also think he wants to be sure he didn’t make a mistake putting us together.”

She noted the slight quirk at the corner of Jennifer’s mouth. “That we’re not killing each other,” the younger woman clarified knowingly, unable to contain her merriment at the thought.

“Something like that.”

“And what did you tell him?” She began to slice up a tomato.

“The truth. That I was doing my best to be patient with you,” Resa teased.

“Oh!” Jennifer scoffed in mock indignation and immediately threw a piece of tomato at Resa who, in turn, caught it before it could slap into her sweatshirt and plopped it into her mouth with a satisfied smirk.

Jennifer chuckled then began to tear up the lettuce as she casually asked, “So, what’s the story with Father Hector anyhow?”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine most Catholic priests look quite so Greek god gorgeous.” Resa had to grin. “So, what’s the deal? Is he just an anomaly or what?”

Resa hesitated, stroking her jaw in contemplation then decided that to tell would not be a breach of discretion, that Father Hector had always been very open about his past and the tragedy that brought him to his eventual calling.

“I suppose there are as many different reasons for a man to enter the priesthood as there are priests,” she said. “But I think Father Hector’s story is probably pretty unique.” She came a little further into the room. “For one thing, he used to be married.” Jennifer’s dark blonde brows rose in surprise at this revelation but she did not comment and Resa continued. “He had three young kids and…everything else that goes with it I suppose. He also used to play professional football up north, where he grew up. For the Vikings, I think. And the way he tells it, life was pretty good.” She unconsciously lowered her eyes a fraction. “But then one night, while driving his family home from a long weekend vacation, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed their car into a tree.” She glanced back up. “He was the only survivor.”

Jennifer gasped and put her hand to her chest. “Oh, my God. How awful!”

“His body was too injured for him to play football again but he told me he wouldn’t have even if he could. His heart wasn’t in it anymore.”

Green eyes shimmered with sorrow and dread. “So, what did he do?”

“According to him, he wandered around for a while. Lost. Bitter and angry. Hating the world. Until everything came to a head one night. He told me he went on a drinking binge that was probably a half-hearted attempt at suicide. Ended up falling into a lake, drunk outta his mind, and he drowned.”

Jennifer blinked. “Drowned?” Resa nodded. “As in dead?” Resa nodded again. “Whoa…”

“Yeah. He was clinically dead by the time he was found but got taken to a hospital right away. Somehow they brought him back to life. Everyone said it was a miracle.”

“And what did Father Hector say?”

“According to him, the miracle came before he was revived. He claims that during the time he was dead, he had an out of body experience that completely changed him. He swears he crossed over into the afterlife and met his wife and she was pissed as hell at the way he was behaving. Told him he was wasting precious time and that he needed to shape up, to make something of himself or else. Which, after he woke up, is exactly what he did.”

“By becoming a priest?”

Resa shrugged. “He told me the priesthood was the best way for him, that it was something that had been in the back of his mind for as long as he could remember and that once he gave it serious thought, he knew it was the only answer. For him, at least.”

Jennifer was quiet a moment, then gave a sad, little shake of her head. “What a tragic story.”

“Yeah, but good came out of it eventually. The Padre is one of the most giving people I’ve ever met. He’s helped hundreds, maybe even thousands since becoming a priest.” She felt a pang in her heart and let out a little sigh, which Jennifer did not fail to notice.

“You’re going to miss him, huh?” she prompted gently.

She nodded, not trusting her voice, and tried not to think about how everyone who ever mattered to her left eventually, in one way or another. It seemed to be her lot in life, to be alone. She glanced up at Jennifer and felt the sharp resonance of longing as she realized that this relationship, too, would come to an end. Soon. It was something she did not want to consider, at least night yet. Instead she straightened and deliberately glanced around the kitchen in a conscious quest to change the subject.

She noted that the room was as tastefully decorated as the rest of the apartment. It was a good sized area, if slightly narrow and long, with a full-length window in the back half, in front of which was a small breakfast table. She vaguely recalled such a thing being referred to as a ‘nook’ by people who did not live in the barrio.

“You have a nice place,” Resa said.

Jennifer cocked an eyebrow, aware of the none-too-subtle switch in subject matter to something less personal but perhaps unwilling to press the issue.

“Thanks,” she said. “I’m happy with it. I mean, eventually I’ll want to buy a house but I don’t want to deal with the hassle until after I graduate.” She turned back to her cooking.

Dark brows rose in surprise. “A house?”

“Yep. Heard of ‘em before?” she asked with a twinkle. She flipped the knife and used the flat end to scrape the diced tomatoes into a bowl then began to cut up a couple cloves of garlic.

“Yeah, I’ve heard of them,” Resa murmured quietly, mentally calculating how much it took to buy a home in LA. A place in a decent neighborhood was no less than a mid-six figure investment and that was a lot of money for a kid like her to have. Hell, that was a lot of money for anyone to have.

Jennifer glanced up from her preparations and frowned a little.

“You know, if you want to ask me any questions, you can. I won’t mind.”

Resa leaned against the edge of the counter. “What makes you think I’m not asking you something?”

“Just a feeling I get.” She tipped her head to one side, examining her. “Am I wrong?”

Resa was quiet a moment, then shook her head. “No, you’re not wrong…But, what if the question is…personal?”

“Resa, you’ve just told me some of the most incredibly personal parts of your life that my meager existence couldn’t possibly hold a candle to. Feel free to ask me anything. I insist.”

“Anything?”

“Anything.”

“Okay. Are you rich?”

“Yes.” Then she paused to consider. “Well, more like comfortably off for a long time.”

“How long?”

“If I plan everything right and don’t live in Las Vegas, thirty or forty years.” Resa stiffened a little and Jennifer picked up on her reaction. “That doesn’t bother you, does it?”

A single dark brow arched. “No.” But even to her ears there was the slightest catch in her tone that Jennifer didn’t fail to hear.

“It does bother you,” she commented, her brows knitting in confusion. “Why?”

Resa pressed her lips together and looked down. It did bother her, Jennifer was right but it was difficult to explain. Essentially her concern was rooted in the potential differences such contrasting backgrounds would have on their friendship but she wasn’t going to say that. That made her look insecure and she refused to allow such a thing, prideful though it was. She had always been conscious of the glaring disparity that lay between them yet in her mind that had been culturally based. It was one thing to be aware Jennifer was raised in the Mid-West to her own more urban upbringing, it was another thing entirely to find out she’d been raised in privilege. The distinction between the two was subtle yet important. At least to her.

She rubbed her jaw and tried to explain. “There’s a difference between being raised with money and being raised without. Perspectives and attitudes. Level of expectation. It’s just fundamental.”

Jennifer was still perplexed. “I totally agree,” she said. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“I may have known a little of what it’s like to have money but I wasn’t raised rich. Not by a long shot.”

“Okay but neither was I,” she replied and Resa’s brows rose in surprise. “My Dad was a dentist until he retired and my Mom was a homemaker the whole time my brothers and I were growing up. She’s only recently gone back to school to become a therapist but we definitely didn’t have a whole lot of money when I was a kid.”

“But, you just said–”

“I have money now, but I just came into it.” She turned back to her food preparations as she spoke, careful to keep primary attention on Resa. “My Nona, Mom’s Mom, was a notorious tightwad who kept a keen eye on the stock market and was, I might add, apparently a helluva savvy investor. She got into Microsoft and some other major stocks early on and cleaned up and when she passed away a little over two years ago, the shares were divvied up between her kids and grandkids. Voila! Rich. Actually, that partly contributed to my transferring to St. Mary’s. I could finally afford it. But before that it was Kansas Public Schools ‘R’ Us and working after school at the local Bennigan’s singing that god-awful ‘Happy, Happy Birthday’ song.” She shuddered at the memory.

Resa felt a surge of relief and it apparently showed. Jennifer’s lips twisted in a wry grin.

“Why, Ms. Gustavez, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were an anti-élitist.” Resa didn’t bother to deny it and Jennifer looked at her curiously. “Would it have bothered you if I had been raised with a lot of money?”

“A little,” she admitted.

“Why? I would still be the same person, the one you know now. I’d still be your friend.” She fastened a meaningful look on Resa. “And, for the record, we are friends. Not friendly acquaintances, not acquaintances of a non-hostile nature. Friends.”

Resa’s eyes widened, a little taken aback by the frankness of the statement. “Oh?”

“Yes.” Her voice was firm as her green eyes danced with merriment and Resa couldn’t help but smile in return. “You’re not going to disagree with me, are you?”

The dark-haired woman held up her hands in mock surrender. “I wouldn’t dare.”

“Good. I like that,” she said with a sassy grin.

Resa crossed her arms and leaned back a bit, eyeing her closely. “You’re a bossy little thing, aren’t you?” she said, but there was an underlying affection to her tone.

Jennifer laughed, her cheeks flushed more from embarrassment than the steam billowing out of the boiling pot of pasta. “Oh my God, that’s so weird.”

“What?”

“My brothers used to call me BLT when I was growing up ‘cause I was such a ‘Bossy Little Thing.’’’

“It suits you.”

“Thanks,” she shot back sardonically.

“No problem.” She glanced around. “Can I help with anything?” she asked.

“Don’t tell me you can cook, too?” Jennifer asked, her eyes narrowed skeptically.

A shrug. “Technically.”

“Technically?” She pulled a face. “Uh-huh. How are you at setting the table?”

Resa grinned. “Best in my class.”

Jennifer pointed to the pantry. “Third shelf has the placemats and the top drawer over there has the silverware. Glasses and plates,” she said while opening a cupboard. “Are up here.”

Resa followed instructions and soon had two spots set at the dining table, having decided the breakfast ‘nook’ by the floor to ceiling window was too exposed to the inner courtyard for them to sit there. She still had to keep Jennifer’s safety in the forefront of her awareness and make certain every precaution was taken to protect her, especially when the atmosphere around them was so affable and at ease. The desire had less to do with the feeling of guilt at having gotten the younger woman into this situation in the first place than it did with the newfound appreciation for who the kid was as a person…and what she had come to mean to Resa.

She sensed Jennifer behind her and turned just in time for the younger woman to hold a long, wooden spoon up to her mouth.

“Here. Try this,” the blonde said, fingertips lightly brushing Resa’s chin as she cupped her hand beneath the spoon so nothing would spill.

Resa’s eyes locked onto the smaller woman as she sampled the garlic smelling concoction then paused as her taste buds thrilled. It was a white wine based clam sauce with a variety of seasonings, including a healthy dose of garlic, which she simply loved.

“Well?” Jennifer prompted a bit anxiously.

“It’s good,” she said, then saw the ever so slight furrow of Jennifer’s brow and remembered from the omelet experience that the kid wasn’t satisfied with a simple ‘good’ as praise thus she expounded with, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Ahhh, that was better, she decided as she saw the manner in which Jennifer’s eyes sparkled at the approval.

“You don’t think there’s too much pepper?”

“No.”

Jennifer nodded with a satisfied smile and headed back into the kitchen as Resa returned to her task and tried to ignore how the imprint of fingertips lingered against her skin…

A few minutes later the food was on the table and both women were seated, Resa unconsciously taking the head with Jennifer to her direct right. Resa examined the spread of food and was a bit taken aback by its abundance. A large, pistachio green ceramic bowl held a generous portion of thin pasta with the delicious clam sauce already blended in. Jennifer had also prepared a mixed salad with several different types of lettuce along with a variety of other healthy produce and whatnot and somehow found time to toast some garlic bread. To Resa, it was amazing.

“If this is what you do when you throw something together, I can’t imagine what a carefully planned meal is like,” she said as she served herself a generous portion.

“Oh, then I go all out. Seven courses. Appetizers. Wines. Candles. The whole shebang.” Jennifer paused slightly, then dropped her eyes to her plate as she said, “I’ll show you when everything settles down, cook you a real feast.”

Resa’s hand twirling the pasta slowed down a fraction as yet another stab of longing went through her at the prospect. “I would like that,” she said sincerely and enjoyed the happy expression that crossed the younger woman’s face.

For a long moment they ate in silence during which Resa indulged in the brief yet beguiling fantasy that this was her normal life and all was as it should be, as it could be. As she desperately wished it was. But Resa was too long a cynic to allow such wishful thinking to go unchecked and a jaded voice whispered in her ear that this glimpse of normality was just a phantom temptation, seemingly within her grasp but as elusive as a mirage. In a matter of days this will all be a memory… .nothing more…and you will go back to your own life…you know that, don’t you…don’t you…?

She swallowed hard and searched for a distraction, any distraction, from her persistent inner demons when her eyes alighted upon a framed photograph of a slightly younger Jennifer and a handsome young man, both smiling into the camera and decked out in bright hiking clothes. Behind them lingered a stunning mountain panorama of pine trees and jagged cliffs that seemed so perfect as to be out of some postcard. But her attention was drawn more to Jennifer’s companion than the view. He was tall and far too dark to likely be a member of Jennifer’s fair family and she noted a subtle familiarity in the way they stood pressed against each other that denoted an intimacy in their relationship that was went beyond mere friendship.

Jennifer looked up and noted where Resa’s eyes were drawn.

“That’s Curtis,” she said a shade too evenly.

“Boyfriend?” Resa guessed, trying to make her question appear insouciant. She watched as a distance entered the pair of green eyes before her, the younger woman seeming to be momentarily taken over by her memories. “It’s none of my business,” she said tightly and tried to repress the tidal wave of emotion that threatened to crest over her and crush her beneath its mass.

Jennifer’s expression was deliberately low-key. “Actually, he’s my ex-fiancé.”

In retrospect Resa thought she did a commendable job of keeping her degree of surprise as well contained as she did because she was, in fact, thoroughly startled. Somehow she felt as if she should have already known a fact this significant about the younger woman which was, of course, utterly irrational. After all, they hadn’t known each other but a few days…

She cleared her throat. “What happened?”

Jennifer poked at her salad with her fork, her lower lip caught between her teeth and Resa immediately regretted her question, feeling as if she was intruding.

“Never mind.”

At this Jennifer looked up quickly and reached out to lay her hand on Resa’s wrist as if to prevent the other woman’s retreat.

“No, no. It’s–I…” She frowned a little. “I’m just trying to figure out how to start is all.” Her eyes dropped to the table for a beat then rose again to meet Resa’s. “I’ve known Curtis my whole life. Our parents were, or I should say ‘are’ best friends and as far back as I can remember it was sort of assumed that we’d date once we got old enough. Which we did. We ended up dating for over two years while we were both at the university and everything sort of moved forward with this…mechanical precision. Like our whole relationship was on a schedule and we were ticking off milestones as we reached them until the next thing we knew, we were twenty-one and engaged. Curtis was great. He did everything right. He was good to me and faithful and sweet and brought me my favorite coffee when I was studying late for mid-terms or finals and remembered all our anniversaries much better than I ever did and he loved me unconditionally…” Her voice trailed off and a brief, reflective silence followed before she continued, soft and melancholy. “And I never felt so trapped in my entire life. It was like this…enormous pressure was on my chest, slowly pressing down on me bit by bit by bit until I couldn’t breathe anymore. . .At some point I totally detached. He or my parents or his parents would be talking about our future and I could barely pay attention. It was like being a passenger in my own life… ” She shook her head, blond tresses shimmering in the fading sunlight. “Everything began to suffer. My grades, my relationships with my friends and my parents…and Curtis most of all. I was just a total bitch to him in the end. I look back now at my behavior then and I am so embarrassed. He was so nice and I was so dismissive and downright rude most of the time. I mean now I know it’s because I wasn’t in love with him and in a total panic but that’s really no excuse for my behavior at the time.”

It was difficult for Resa to picture Jennifer behaving in such a manner but repression had a funny effect on even the best of people and the memory of Martin and her own abominable treatment of him flickered briefly across her mind. She was torn between wanting to know more and her inclination not to pry, a byproduct of her natural avoidance of any sort of emotional intimacy which, she realized in the case of Jennifer Logan, was already a lost cause.

“How did it…” she began carefully.

“End?” Jennifer completed and Resa nodded. “With a whimper, not a bang. Which,” she added with a rueful grin. “Could pretty much sum up our relationship. No bangs. We just…were. Until one day I couldn’t take it anymore. I was so depressed and unpleasant to be around that even I didn’t like me. And I asked myself why…It was the most obvious question yet I couldn’t ask it until I’d made myself so fucking miserable there was no other choice. And the moment I asked it boom! I immediately had the answer. It was there the whole time, of course, but I’d been too afraid to acknowledge it because of the ramifications. The truth was I didn’t love Curtis and I desperately, desperately did not want to get married.” Her grip on Resa’s wrist unconsciously tightened.

“So you broke it off.”

“Yeah. Telling Curtis was easy.” She grinned wryly. “I think he was almost as relieved as I was and we’ve since become great friends. But telling my parents was a different story.”

“They were disappointed.”

Jennifer chuckled. “Disappointed to their reaction is like a firecracker to a nuclear explosion.” Resa cringed. “Yeah, exactly. Nona’s money came in reeeeal handy, let me tell you.”

“Is that why you came out here? Because of your breakup?”

“It’s part of it. Actually, it’s all sort of intertwined. Once I asked myself what my problem was and why I was being such a witch, I started asking myself all sorts of other questions too and I remembered that what I had always really wanted to do with my life was to move to Los Angeles to become a journalist. I wanted to see other parts of the world and expand my horizons beyond Lawrence. So, I stopped being a passenger, took over the controls of my life and here I am.”

Resa reached over to cover Jennifer’s hand. “Must have been hard.”

“I think it’s invariably hard to realize you’re on the wrong path in the middle of a journey and even harder to switch directions. But you have to do it, otherwise you’re just going to end up hopelessly lost.” She squeezed Resa’s wrist. “That’s what you did. You switched directions and your life was ten times more complicated than mine.”

Resa shook her head and when she spoke it was from the heart. “My outward complications just made the difference between right and wrong obvious. Your life may have been simpler on the outside but I bet that just made your decision to change all the more difficult. Here you had everyone around you telling you that you were doing the right thing, that everything was going ahead like it was supposed to and inside you were the only one who didn’t agree. That must have been frustrating and scary.” Resa smiled a bit, drinking up the wide-eyed face in front of her. “You know, yesterday you said I was braver than you because I didn’t have any family support when I left the Vartans…but I don’t agree. I think it must have been much harder to go against the expectations of your loved ones and carve out your own life in the face of their objections. That’s something I’ve never had to worry about since I’ve never risked losing love. But you have and you went ahead anyway because it was the right thing for you to do, no matter what anyone else said or thought. To me that takes real courage, much more than anything I’ve ever done,” she said sincerely and was caught off guard when she saw the beginnings of tears glisten like quicksilver in Jennifer’s eyes. “What?” she asked, her heartbeat thumping with concern as she came around the edge of the table to kneel before the younger woman, holding the smaller hand between the palms of both her own. “Tell me.”

Jennifer sniffled, then her face dissolved as if she could no longer prevent herself from crying. Resa immediately pulled Jennifer to her and held her tight as the quiet sobs wracked the girl’s body and the former gang leader thought for a second that her own heart would break. She closed her eyes and attempted to absorb the unknown sorrow from her companion, and friend, into her own body, willing to somehow bear the burden instead, were it remotely possible.

“Shhh,” she whispered and gently pressed the younger woman’s head against her shoulder. “Honey, it’s all right. It’s all right…”

After a few minutes Jennifer’s emotions calmed and her breathing steadied but her hold around Resa took longer to abate. When at last she pulled slightly back it was to rub her wet cheeks and eyes upon each of her T-shirt covered shoulders, then glance tentatively at Resa. The dark-haired woman was silent, asking no questions and only allowing herself to be there for the girl. The act of giving comfort was still new to her but she had always proven to be a fast learner and now was no exception. She reached up to run her hand along Jennifer’s cheek, damp and flushed, and pushed the wayward strands of hair off her face, drawing away unspoken pain and simultaneously providing support. Jennifer just stared, then slowly closed her eyes and sighed.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I don’t know where that came from.”

“Don’t apologize,” Resa said, letting her hand linger a fraction of a second on the girl’s face before dropping down to cup her shoulder. “Not to me.”

Jennifer opened her eyes and looked upon her with such an unbelievably trusting expression that for an instant it pained Resa to breathe.

“It’s just,” Jennifer began softly, demurely. “I’ve never had anyone understand before. Not like this. Not so completely.” She shook her head and lowered her gaze. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Resa placed her fingers along her face to guide Jennifer’s eyes back to meet her own.

“You don’t have to,” she told her. “I know.”

Swollen green eyes traveled over her face in a quiet wonder. “Yes…Yes, you do.” She then ducked her head a fraction, watching her fingers play with the end of her sleeves a moment before continuing. “Well,” she said with a sniff. “I finally found something we have in common other than astronomy.” Resa raised a questioning brow. “We both changed our lives, against the odds,” Jennifer explained with a tiny, hopeful look.

Resa was silent for a moment, then nodded with a warm smile. “Yes,” she agreed softly as she reached up to wipe aside a spot of moisture from Jennifer’s lower cheek. “So we did.”

And in that instant the thought of never seeing her again became utterly abhorrent to Resa. Even as common sense dictated that it was the only means to guarantee the other woman’s safety, her heart vowed to find another way. There had to be another way…

* * * *

Resa had decided they should leave the apartment under the cover of early evening lest any of the Vartans had returned and though Jennifer thought it unlikely, she wasn’t about to argue the point. Better safe than sorry. But a part of her didn’t want to return to the confines of the Sacred Heart. Not just yet. The brief bit of rain had compelled them inside when Jennifer had been hoping to explore a little more of the natural side of LA, something as a student she sometimes went weeks without experiencing and it had annoyed her. Finally here she was, forced to take some time off from her studies through no fault of her own and Mother Nature decided to make it rain. Totally unfair.

After dinner, Resa had insisted on doing the dishes and Jennifer was not one to protest. Point of order, the college senior positively hated dishwashing so this wasn’t exactly much of a sacrifice on her part. Instead she took the opportunity to retrieve Resa’s clothes from the dryer and to change into something more appropriate for their return to the Sacred Heart.

And, frankly, to put a little distance between herself and the charismatic Ms. Gustavez, at least until she got her wits about her again.

In the bathroom, Jennifer slipped into an old pair of blue jeans, a clean, white, short sleeved T-shirt, and a pair of brown Nike hiking shoes that she tended to wear whenever she wanted to be prepared for practically anything. And near as she could tell that was exactly what the next couple days had in store: practically anything. She had already stuffed a few essentials for both of them into a duffel bag and felt reasonably confident that she had covered most of the bases for what would likely be a few more days of displacement.

She caught sight of her reflection in the bathroom mirror and grimaced. True, the bruise from this morning was greatly diminished and mostly hidden beneath her bangs but the puffiness from her earlier emotional eruption remained beneath her eyes. Damn crying. Made her look like she’d just gone fifteen rounds with Evander Holyfield. She grabbed a wash cloth, soaked it in cold water, tipped her head back and laid it horizontally over her face, hoping to reduce the outer signs of her turmoil.

Inside, however, was a different matter. She felt as if she’d been shot with a dose of adrenaline and then given the impossible task of standing still. Inhaling deeply, she held her breath an extensive beat before releasing it via a long, drawn out sigh in a desperate attempt to get control of herself. It was somewhat successful and for the moment that was going to have to suffice. A part of her still didn’t quite understand the reason for her outburst, only that it had come over her in an uncontrollable surge that she had been powerless to prevent. And Resa had been there for her in a way she could never have anticipated even as it seemed, at the same time, so totally natural. The unconditional acceptance and understanding she saw in the depths of those blue eyes left Jennifer shaken to her core; it was something she had never before experienced, never thought a possibility. At least for her.

But what did it ultimately mean?

Alas, to that she had no answer. Not yet, at least.

She sighed and dropped the washcloth into the sink before moving back into her bedroom to stuff some final items in the duffel bag. A few minutes later Resa shuffled in, making use of her sock clad feet upon the wooden floor in a display of youthfulness that made Jennifer smile. Would this woman ever stop surprising her?

“All done,” Resa said, holding up her ‘dishpan hands’ as proof.

“Here,” she said, holding out the newly dried and folded black jeans and denim shirt. Resa took them from her and paused a moment, her eyes flickering around the room until Jennifer realized she was looking for a place to change. She pointed to the bathroom door. Resa smiled and winked and disappeared through the open doorway, leaving Jennifer to ponder their ability to hold an entire conversation with so few words spoken between them. It was almost like telepathy at this point. That and the fact Resa had the most amazingly expressive eyes. Whole paragraphs of meaning could be conveyed in a mere glimpse, the faintest lowering or lilt.

When Resa emerged from the bathroom she came out holding the sweatshirt and cutoffs in a tidy, folded pile with a pleased grin, as if this was something of an accomplishment.

Jennifer took the clothes and placed them inside the duffel bag.

“What’s the plan, Stan?” she asked, her eyes unconsciously traveling up and down her lean body and inwardly noting how the taller woman had tied the long, lower ends of the denim shirt together in a little knot at the waist. Somehow she managed to look sexy in whatever outfit she was wearing.

Resa glanced out the window where the remnants of twilight trickled in. “Does this place have a back entrance?”

“Yes. There’s a little alley you can drive down between this apartment and the one next door.”

“Perfect. I’ll go get the car—”

“Wait. Why don’t I go with you?”

“Because it’s safer if I go alone. If they’re out there, they’ll be looking for the two of us and I have a better chance of making it out of here unnoticed if I go alone.” Jennifer frowned and Resa apparently read her concern like an open book. “I’m not planning to ditch you if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Jennifer struggled to contain her grin because that was exactly what she’d been thinking. But she could tell the eyes into which she stared were being completely honest with her.

“Okay.”

“Now, once I get the car unlocked, I’ll drive it around back where you’ll get in.”

Jennifer grinned wryly. “You know, last time we tried that strategy we both almost got killed and you got shot.” Blue eyes glared at her. “Just a thought,” she said with a casual wave of her hand.

“Uh-huh. Now, I need that wire hanger.”

Jennifer went to her walk-in closet, retrieved the very item that had brought them to the apartment in the first place and as she gave it to her she joked, “Good thing Joan Crawford wasn’t my mom, huh?” Resa stared blankly and Jennifer nodded. “Okay, gonna have to work on your movie references. I can see that.”

Resa cocked an eyebrow. “You’re an odd person at times…” With that she lightly swatted Jennifer on the butt with the hanger, grinned at the younger girl’s ‘yip’ and walked out of the room.

Jennifer rubbed the spot on her backside and had to laugh. Maybe she did get the reference after all.

She moved into the living room as Resa was unlocking the front door and suddenly was gripped by an almost panicky feeling in her chest.

“Wait,” she called and Resa paused to glance back. Jennifer hesitated. Even though she was sure none of the Vartans were lying in wait (or whatever men like they were did), she still recognized the potential danger involved in having Resa go outside alone and it unnerved her. “Er, I just…wanted to say, um…” She began, then bit her lip and shrugged awkwardly before muttering, “Be safe.”

Resa had no reply for a couple heartbeats then reached out a hand around Jennifer’s shoulders and drew her into a tight hug that was as intense as it was unexpected. Jennifer instantly returned the embrace, burying her face into the crook of her neck and whispering almost to herself, “Oh, please be safe.” She felt Resa draw slightly back then felt a quick spot of warm pressure against her temple before the taller woman stepped completely away.

“Wait ten minutes,” Resa commanded. “Then go down to the back entrance. Don’t come out until you hear me call for you, okay?”

Jennifer nodded then Resa winked at her and headed out the door.

She felt her absence at once and the anxiety began to build as every possible scenario played across her imagination. It was the longest ten minutes Jennifer could remember as apprehension turned each second into a tiny eternity during which she did major damage to at least two fingernails.

She had absolutely no doubt Resa would be all right. If anyone could slip out of the apartment and through the neighborhood unseen it was she. But knowing that, having the intellectual capacity to reason away the endless possibilities had no effect on lessening the knot in her stomach or the sweat that streaked her palms.

Tick, tick, tick…She chewed her thumbnail and placed a calming hand over her abdomen. Good grief. She was starting to feel like she was waiting for a loved one to return from war.

And what would you do if something happened to Resa? The instant the thought entered her mind she felt a painful piercing to her heart that brought her up short. No, she could not conceive of such a prospect. It was just an exercise in brutal nonsense…and truly unbearable to imagine. Resa would be all right because she had to be all right; it was as simple as that.

She retrieved the duffel bag with the clothes and other essentials and was counting the last thirty seconds off when she was seized by a goofy little impulse. Oh, what the hell! They had to do something over the next couple days until whatever plan Resa had in store for them came to fruition, didn’t they? Why not something they both enjoyed? Jennifer dashed back down the hallway into the second bedroom which she used as an office area and quickly grabbed a long, black plastic case from the corner before turning to dash back to the front and out the door.

Fate, or more likely The Wheel of Fortune, was on her side as Mrs. Goldman was nowhere to be seen and Jennifer made it through the complex to the back entrance that lead directly to the alley unimpeded. The door itself was an intricate lace-like pattern of painted wrought iron and although it was most secure, it was possible to peer through the latticework design to see the alley.

There was no sign of the car.

Jennifer set the duffel and the case at her feet and chewed her lower lip. She’d said ten minutes and it was now twelve. No biggie, right? A difference of two…no, three minutes now. It meant nothing. Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Nothing.

She began to pace in the small space between the shrubs and door and tried to swallow but her throat was too dry.

Then thirteen minutes turned to fifteen which turned to twenty and Jennifer stopped trying to mollify her fears and instead went into full panic mode that would have made her mother proud. Should she go out in search of Resa? And if she did, then what? If she found her and the former gang leader was in trouble, what could she, Jennifer Logan, possibly bring to the table? She wasn’t a fighter…although she didn’t do too bad in the brawl with Manny and the other Vartans. But that was a fluke…

Oh, she was being silly. No, absurd. Nothing had happened. She was allowing her imagination to run wild. Just calm down. Calllllm dow–

Suddenly she stopped and paused to listen. Yes! Yes, there it was again. The faint rumble of a car as it turned into the alleyway. Please, oh, please, oh, please, she thought and breathed an enormous sigh of relief when her eyes made out the image of the gold Oldsmobile as it pulled to an abrupt stop.

Jennifer grabbed the duffel and black case, opened the door without waiting for the go-ahead and smiled at the pair of fierce blue eyes.

“I was getting worried,” she started but Resa interrupted her.

“Get in. Quick!”

Jennifer’s smile vanished and she did as she was told, hurrying around to the passenger side and desperately trying to control the alarm coursing through her body. She’d barely closed the car door before she felt Resa’s hand on her shoulders, forcing her to lie upon the vinyl seat, out of sight.

“Stay down until I say so,” she ordered, her voice harsh with agitation.

Again Jennifer did as instructed and tried in vain to control the rapid beating of her own thoroughly panicked heart. Resa’s hand remained upon her, holding her in place as Jennifer felt the car hurriedly pull out of the alley into the nearly pitch-dark evening.

She chanced a peek up at the former gang leader and saw Resa’s attention was attuned to everything around them. Jennifer felt a degree of relief when she detected no outward sign of injury to her friend but there was no mistaking the tenseness to her sharp features or the light gleam of perspiration around her hairline.

Something had happened.

It felt like another eternity before Resa looked one last time over her shoulder and finally glanced down at her.

“Okay,” she said and eased her hand off the younger woman’s shoulder. “We’re clear.”

Jennifer sat up and subconsciously noticed they were on the freeway, heading east. But that wasn’t what captured her attention.

“What happened?” she asked, her focus solely on the woman before her.

Resa’s face was set hard. “What I was afraid of. Tres and another Vartan I didn’t’ recognize were out there. Waiting.”

“Are you all right?” she asked, immediately concerned.

Resa nodded. “Yeah.” Then a little grin managed to escape her stern visage. “Don’t think they can say the same, though. They were waiting in the car across the street, in plain view. Idiots.” She shook her head in disbelief. “That would have never happened when I was in control.”

Jennifer scratched her chin and tried to think of the most tactful way to phrase what was on her mind. “Um, are they…you know, um…still…breathing?”

Resa shot her a sidelong glance. “Yeeees, they are.” A pleased grin. “Though in considerable pain.” Jennifer let out a sigh of relief and Resa cast her a more thoughtful look. “You know, Jennifer, I made myself a vow that I won’t kill unless I’m left no alternative,” she told her in total frankness. “And I mean to do just that.”

Jennifer took up Resa’s right hand between both of her own and felt the barest traces of swelling along the knuckles.

“I know you will,” she said quietly, then raised the hand to press it against her cheek and looked up. “I just wish you weren’t in this whole mess to begin with.”

Resa kept her eyes off the uncrowded road long enough to bring a blush to Jennifer’s cheeks with the depth of her regard.

“Me, too,” she said in a thick voice and squeezed the hand a little. “More than anything.”

She let her gaze remain a beat longer, then necessity dictated she look back at the road but neither woman made a move to release the other. And so they drove on for a while as they were, hand in hand into a quiet evening broken only by the faintest tunes drifting in from the radio.

After a while Resa spoke up.

“What’s in the black case?” She inclined her head in the direction of the backseat.

“Hmmm? Oh, that. It’s my telescope. I thought we might get a little stargazing in while we’re hanging out at ye ole convent.” She glanced out the window. “The sky’s always clearest after a good rain.”

Resa’s face lit up, apparently pleased by the prospect. “Sounds good. And I know just the place we can go.”

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Griffith Park was a treasure nestled in the heart of Los Angeles. Renowned for its observatory, which itself was immortalized in Rebel Without A Cause, the park was one of the largest natural spaces to be located in an urban area in all of America. With its zoo, golf courses, equestrian center and countless hiking trails, it was always a draw for Angelenos hungry to escape the grind of the city without dropping half a paycheck to do so.

It had also been one of Resa Gustavez’s favorite places to escape to as a child. She could well remember scrimping and scavenging and scrambling to find enough money for bus fare to get her to the park but knowing it was worth the effort for the overwhelming feeling of tranquillity it brought to her otherwise desolate childhood. For her it had always been an oasis.

Even now the winding drive up through the Hollywood Hills brought a sense of liberation as the smell of pine trees, wild grasses, and the woody remnants of someone’s barbecue awakened in her memories of some of the few happy times from her youth.

It seemed fitting that she was sharing this with Jennifer.

She tossed a look over at her companion to find her with her head resting lazily on the back of the seat and her attention focused out the passenger window. The shadows of night eliminated the possibility of seeing much but Resa guessed Jennifer was just as content to absorb the natural milieu and the wonderful sense of calm it brought over all who visited. She seemed like an outdoorsy kind of girl, one who understood the essence of nature and appreciated what it had to offer. At heart, so, too, was Resa, but her upbringing and the various deviations in her young life had prevented her from partaking in the non-urban environmental settings, as she would have liked.

She squinted at the road ahead, illuminated only by the twin beams of the Oldsmobile’s headlights, and tried to figure out if she was nearing her destination. After all, it had been a while and at that thought she had to inwardly chuckle. Yeah, that was an understatement. Years had passed and a lifetime of change had transpired since last she’d found herself up this way but she was confident every turn of the route was imprinted in her memory.

Sure enough, a few minutes later she caught sight of a picnic table tucked away in one of the bends in the road beneath the rugged, hilly terrain and she pulled the car off onto the sizable shoulder to park. Jennifer sat up and gave her a curious glance.

“We’re almost there,” she informed the college senior.

“And ‘there’ would be…?”

Resa grinned and opened the car door. “Can’t tell ya; it’d spoil the surprise.”

Jennifer popped out the other side and leaned her forearms across the roof of the car. “Would it do any good to tell you I don’t much care for surprises?”

“Nope.”

“I thought not.”

Resa reached into the backseat and grabbed the black case containing the telescope and started up towards the hiking trail that only she could discern from the variations of dark and darker. A few seconds later and Jennifer was trudging from behind to catch up. Resa considered slowing her much longer stride for the college senior’s benefit then impishly dismissed the idea. This was much more fun. There was just something about Jennifer Logan that brought out the long dormant mischievous side of her nature and it was a welcome change of pace. The feeling was more than a mere reminder of Luis and their relationship. No, it wasn’t that at all because the humor and fun Jennifer affected in her was of an entirely different and decidedly more visceral nature. And there was nothing remotely sibling oriented about it.

“Hey,” Jennifer called to her as she caught up, a trace winded. “Here.” Resa felt Jennifer smack something into her midsection and reached down to grab a cottony soft item. The sweatshirt from earlier. “It’s going to get chilly soon,” the younger woman explained and Resa noticed she was wearing a dark brown jacket over her T-shirt.

“Thanks,” she said and felt a tiny thrill that someone would take the time to remember such a detail as this for her. It was, of course, the sort of little consideration that people who cared for one another did and that only made it all the more special to Resa.

She tucked the item under her arm and then deliberately slowed her pace so Jennifer could keep up as they tramped through the branches and undergrowth. Frankly the path would have been difficult to maneuver during the day but at night it became downright ridiculous. When Jennifer stumbled for the third time in less than two minutes, Resa reached back to take her hand and guide her the rest of the way to the top of the hill. It was a simple act that had swiftly gone from awkward to commonplace over the past few days and such a transformation was welcome as far as Resa was concerned. She liked the contact, liked the feel of Jennifer’s warm, strong fingers wrapped around her own and for that reason alone didn’t release her hold right away when they reached the top. Jennifer didn’t seem to mind.

Resa glanced around and smiled. The clearing was, much to her amazement, exactly as she remembered it. Totally isolated with a stunning view of the metropolis but still far enough removed to afford them as clear a show of the night sky that was possible without going outside the city.

She heard Jennifer’s little gasp and saw her tip her blonde head all the way back in order to drink up the celestial panorama.

“Oh, Resa,” she breathed then turned a radiant smile on Resa. “It’s beautiful.”

As are you, she thought as a jolt seared through her body. The way you open yourself up like this, the manner in which you embrace every new venture and experience. God, how I wish I could do that again. Be that young and unafraid.

With an effort of almost superhuman proportions Resa Gustavez turned her attention onto the telescope case and away from her friend.

“How does this work?” she asked and hoped her voice sounded close to normal.

Jennifer didn’t seem to notice anything amiss as she took the case from her. “Here. Observe.”

And observe Resa did but though Jennifer took great pains to point out the intricate details of the instrument’s assembly, the former gang leader couldn’t recall the first thing about it once it was accomplished. Her attention was elsewhere throughout.

The tripod on which the telescope stood could raise the scope to as much as four and a half feet off the ground or bring it down to as little as a foot. For their comfort, Jennifer brought it to about two feet. It was enough that they wouldn’t have to perform any great contortionist movements to get a good view while they sat cross-legged on the earth, a large rock at their back for support. Jennifer looked at her expectantly once it was ready.

“Planets are always the most interesting. Any preferences?” she asked. “Jupiter? Saturn? Venus?”

“Saturn,” Resa said decisively.

“Really? Why Saturn?”

Resa gave a little shrug. “I like the rings.”

Jennifer nodded. “Saturn it is, then.” She glanced around the night sky, scrutinizing the various star formations until she found what she was looking for. She then swung the lens in a particular direction with a practiced hand and peered into the viewfinder to begin bringing the planet into focus. After a moment she looked up.

“Okay, put your eye right here.” She pointed to the proper spot and Resa closed one eye before leaning over to get her view.

It took a second for her sight to adjust but then the image of the planet came into focus and she nearly laughed in childish elation. There it was in all its ringed glory and what always amazed her was that it looked exactly like its pictures, which was a little silly, but true. Saturn was such an unique looking planet that to see it for herself seemed on the verge of surreal, as if nothing in nature could really look that extraordinary. But, then again, nature always had a way of coming up with surprises.

She glanced back to find Jennifer watching her and it was then that Resa realized she was leaning over the younger woman’s lap to get her view. But she didn’t pull away. After all, if Jennifer had objected to their situation, she would have moved yet she hadn’t and for that Resa was glad. She liked the sense of intimacy their proximity conveyed, the way she could see the moon’s pale light play across Jennifer’s features and how the gentle breeze carried with it the suede scent of her jacket.

“What do you like to look at most in the night sky?” she asked the girl, not moving from her position.

Jennifer mulled over the question a moment then said, “Jupiter.”

“Why Jupiter?”

“Because I’ve always thought it looked so much more colorful and grand than the other planets and,” she added, slightly sheepish. “It’s my ruling planet in the zodiac.”

“When’s your birthday?”

“December 20th.” She cocked her head. “When’s yours?”

“October 31st.”

“Ooooo. A Halloween baby. That must make for a lifetime of orange and black birthday cakes.”

“You’re presuming I had birthday cakes.”

Jennifer’s green eyes were made silver in the moon’s glow and fairly bugged out at the revelation. “You didn’t have birthday cakes?” Resa shook her head. “Ever?”

“My mother wasn’t exactly into cooking.”

“You have got to be kidding!”

“Not at all. Remember, we had very different upbringings.”

“I know, I know, but it’s birthday cakes we’re talking about. They’re an institution!” She threw up her hands in disgust. “That’s it. I’m making you the biggest, sugariest birthday cake known to man for your next birthday and you just try to stop me!”

“Like I could.”

“Exactly!”

Resa chuckled and shook her head in amazement at the fierce determination she saw written across Jennifer Logan’s features. And what truly amazed her was that this impassioned resolution, even about something as banal as a birthday cake, was for her. When and how did she get so fortunate?

“Show me Jupiter,” she said at last.

Jennifer glanced around the sky, then leaned forward and swung the direction of the telescope to a particular spot and again began the process of focusing the lens. Her actions brought her even closer to Resa who only moved slightly to the side and whose attention was not quite on the stars above. Instead it was on the energy she could feel passing between them, binding them. It took every bit of self control not to…

“There,” Jennifer said shifting to allow Resa access. “Jupiter and his many moons.”

But this time when Resa leaned in she was acutely conscious of how the younger woman sat back only a bit and how she was again forced to lean over her crossed legs to get her view. For a long moment she paid more attention to the jean-clad knee pressed against her abdomen than to the magnificence of the planet before her but then she willed herself to focus and, remarkably enough, it worked.

“I can see the colors,” she said, delighted. “How they wrap around.” She made a little twirling motion to illustrate what she meant, not wanting to break her concentration on the image.

Then a gust of wind blew several strands of hair across her eyes, blocking her sight but before she had time to react, she felt Jennifer’s fingers reach in to gather her long, dark mane away from her face. Her breath caught in her throat at the touch and a tiny shiver went through her.

“Are you cold?” Jennifer asked, apparently having felt the tremor.

No. “A little,” she said.

The college senior reached over to retrieve the sweatshirt and handed it to Resa who was in the middle of slipping it on when Jennifer suddenly asked,

“Why do you like astronomy?”

Resa drew her hair out from the collar and used the time she should be considering the question to get better control of her emotions. “I don’t know really,” she said after a moment. “It’s always drawn me in, made me wonder, sparked my imagination.” She looked at her friend. “Why do you like it?”

Jennifer leaned back at the waist, both hands behind her to brace her position as she regarded her.

“Because I’m trying to understand God,” she said matter-of-factly. “I read once where Walt Whitman said that he believed a blade of grass to be no less than the journeywork of the stars and he was absolutely right. Everything on this planet, from molecule to mountains, from the air to the seas to the cars we drive to our very skin and bones is made up of elements derived from exploding stars and they in turn come from the Big Bang that started the universe. And do you know what that means? It means that you and I and everyone we know are parts of the universe and we have evolved over the course of billions of years to be able to ponder our very existence. We are The Universe contemplating itself. And somewhere in all that, to me, is ‘God.’ I don’t understand it very well and I’m still learning by leaps and bounds but it makes much more sense to me than how various man-made religions use their idea of a Divine Being to promote their own agendas.” Her grin was wry. “But don’t tell the Mother Superior.”

Resa smiled in return. “I won’t.”

“Thanks. I don’t think she’d quite understand. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate religions; I think they can be very useful tools, but to say one religion has all the answers above all others is, to me, just wishful thinking.” She paused abruptly and Resa could practically see the stain of embarrassment on her cheeks despite the dim light. “Am I boring you to death?”

“No,” she replied truthfully. Nothing could be further from the case.

“Okay…But you’d tell me if I was, wouldn’t you?”

“I would. You’re not.”

“Thanks,” she said, pleased and a bit shy. “I don’t normally talk about this stuff. It’s too hard to explain. Heck, I don’t even understand it, how’s anyone else supposed to?”

“I doubt anyone truly understands ‘It,’” she said. “Even the so-called experts.”

“You may be right.” Jennifer gave a shrug. “I guess that’s where ‘faith’ comes in.”

“Ah, faith,” Resa said with a sigh and shifted her position to lay down on her side, her head propped up by her hand. “What a tricky word.”

Jennifer’s eyes flickered over her then she tipped her head to one side in curiosity. “Why? Don’t you have faith in anything?”

Resa could feel the hard ground press against her ribs and hips, and the coolness seep through her jeans. “I didn’t used to,” she said. “Not after what I’d seen, the life I’d lead. It was always a fantasy for other people.”

“And now?”
“Now…” she repeated and absently poked at tufts of grass. “I’ve learned a person can’t truly have faith until they’ve first been given it from someone else…and getting someone else to have faith in you when you don’t have it in yourself is…almost impossible.” She plucked a single blade and idly placed it in her mouth, the taste strangely sweet against her tongue. She looked up at Jennifer. “And yet, that’s what happened to me. Someone believed in me and helped me have enough faith in myself to leave the Vartans.”

“Father Hector,” Jennifer guessed and Resa nodded. “Was it very long after…”

“I had the baby? Yeah, longer than it should have been. Almost a year passed between then and Alfons’ release from prison and I’d convinced myself that nothing had changed, that I wasn’t different because of what had happened with Martin and everything else. But that wasn’t exactly true. Inside I was even more pissed off at anything and everyone. It was this blind rage with no direction…until Alfons got out of prison and tried to resume his control of the Vartans as if nothing was different since he’d been away. And then I had a direction. A very clear one. I’d grown to hate him for what he did to Martin but most of all I hated him for the control he tried to exert over me. I wouldn’t allow it, not after all I’d been through.”

“What happened?” she asked with as much concern as curiosity.

“War,” Resa’s voice was flat as a legion of faces long since dead paraded themselves across her memory. It had been years and yet they were as clear to her now as when they were under her authority, the burden of their deaths upon her hands. “The Vartans split in half, some on his side and some on mine and we went at it like the Yankees and Confederates.” A shudder went up her spine. “It got pretty bloody.”

The wind played through the trees above their heads, branches dipping and bowing like gentlemen before ladies at royal court. She could well picture what horrors the college senior was conjuring up in her vivid imagination and, truth be told, no matter how monstrous, they probably weren’t far off the mark.

“How did it all end?” Jennifer asked at length.

Resa reached out to languidly trace the waffle design on the bottom of one of the younger woman’s boots and thought, This is it. This was the moment she had been dreading but knew was inevitable. She would tell the girl everything, hold nothing back and let the consequences be what they may. It would not be pretty…but it would be the truth. She owed her no less.

Resa rolled onto her back and stared up at the firmament above long enough to lose herself to the darkness of her past. “It ended,” she said thoughtfully. “With betrayal…and death.”

They are in Echo Park, it is mid-afternoon and they await the arrival of Alfons’ Mercedes at a picnic table beneath the shade of a large elm tree. Some distance away a group of young children play, disregarded as so much landscape by the four gang members.

Word has come down that Alfons wants to talk peace and this location has been agreed upon due to its open space and neutral territory. That does not, however, mean she feels at ease. Not by a long shot. Her fingers rest lightly against the cool steel of the Glock handle protruding from the shoulder holster she wears beneath her soft leather jacket. It is, for her, an act of comfort.

She does not fidget nor does she bother to glance around for she knows where everyone is positioned through a sixth sense she has cultivated over the years. Eduardo and Rico stand by the car twenty feet behind her, armed and ever watchful. And by her left is the young man who has over the past months become one of the few upon whom she can almost depend.

“What time is it?” she asks.

“Nearly four,” comes the reply and she glances over, noting how her companion’s chocolate brown eyes betray his heightened energy. She smiles inwardly. He is still quite young but there is much hunger in him and from that much potential can be mined. As it was once mined from her.

“Don’t be too eager,” she tells him. “It gives away your edge. You gotta make a stone of your heart. Let nothing in.”

Vincent Gilberto nods mutely but his body continues to vibrate as adrenaline surges through his lean frame.

She turns away, her focus again on the street as she waits. What she is doing is, perhaps, a risk. Exposing herself like this. But she is curious what Alfons has to say and there is no reward without a risk of some nature. She knows her last attack on Alfons’ men has left him severely weakened and she cannot help but exult in the strength of her position. She is close to beating him and the glory of the thought sings through her veins. It has come full circle, she decides smugly. And she is quite right, it soon will… just not in the manner she thinks…

Then she spies the approaching black Mercedes with its tinted windows and subtle purr and she smiles. She would recognize it anywhere and pride swells within her.

Vincent stands with anticipation but Resa remains seated. Cool. Controlled. And when Vincent sees this he again sits to wait along side her, though nowhere near as composed.

The car comes to a stop. There is a pause. Then the back door opens and a young man she finds vaguely familiar steps out. He is wiry thin, with a shaved head and some sort of mark on his cheek, though she cannot discern what exactly. She frowns, glad her sunglasses conceal her bewilderment. Where before has she seen this young man, this uber boy? It confounds her, leaves her oddly disquieted. But then he moves aside to allow someone else to step out from the back and his existence plummets from the edge of her awareness.

Alfons. Tall, handsome, proud, as ever. And as keen on her as she is on him. It has been months since she has seen him and she is surprised at the effect he still manages to have on her. Her mind may hate him but her body tingles yet.

He smiles, his face creasing in an all-consuming charm, then bows a little and advances in her direction.

It begins.

She stands, Vincent beside her and together they start their approach. Before them stretches approximately twenty yards of grass, broken only by an illegitimate bike path carved into the ground by years of vagabond wheels. Through her peripheral vision she notes Eduardo and Rico are aware of the scene and are on guard, as instructed. Good, she thinks, and feels in control of the situation.

But then something not particularly remarkable happens that nevertheless sends a chill through her system. She remembers the boy behind Alfons. In an instant she knows where she has seen him before and what the implication means to he. He is Manuel Gilberto and he is the younger brother of the man at her side.

As this realization dawns, she feels Vincent fall back a couple paces and her internal warning goes off. Call it instinct, self-preservation, heightened perceptions, it does not matter. In the end, she just knows. She is being ambushed.

Abruptly she changes direction, pushing back so her sudden shift in momentum catches Vincent off-guard as he continues forward and ends up nearly by her side. She captures his arm in a punishing grip as it is in mid-swing toward her and she violently jerks it at an awkward angle until the gun in his hand is no longer pointed at her, but instead back at himself.

She pulls the trigger, sending the bullet deep into Vincent’s gut, and the first of many shots is fired.

Her superior strength and agility allows her to pivot and use a stunned Vincent as a human shield, his body catching a volley of bullets meant for her by the men with whom he has conspired. He jerks at the impact, at the moment more dazed than in pain. But that will soon change. From a distance the anguished voice of Manuel Gilberto calls out for his brother but there will be no response. Vincent is going to die.

Several cracks coming from Eduardo and Rico’s direction fill the air and she recognizes that they are not firing at her but at Manny and Alfons. Which means they are not in collusion with the others. This, at least, is a point in her favor.

She wrests Vincent’s gun from his dying hand, allowing his body to collapse to the ground as she draws her Glock from its holster and begins firing both guns, her rage giving her focus. Her eyes lock on Alfons and she sees that he is hit several times in the chest but she also knows he will inevitably be wearing a protective vest. It is not yet enough. Bullets swim by her and she can feel the vibrato of their passing as well as hear their zing. But, fortunately for her chaos and fear do not make for great accuracy.

Two more men emerge from the Mercedes, wildly discharging their weapons at her, Rico and Eduardo in a disorganized effort to give cover to the retreating Manny and Alfons, the latter of whom is clearly injured.

Gun smoke fills her senses. Someone somewhere is screaming. The situation is already dire for all involved but what happens next is something no one will have anticipated.

From the corner of her eye she catches the blurred image of motion as something approaches from her right and she swings to shoot yet somehow, somehow manages to pull up just short.

She will find out only later how the boy, no more than ten, could have ridden his bike into the middle of the conflict without hesitation or regard for the deadly events but at the moment there is not time to question. There is no time to cry out. There is not time to protect. She can only bear shocked witness.

Two bullets strike the innocent boy and for a moment everything stops. It is as if a higher power has hit the pause button on some grand VCR and a mere second is transformed into an endless moment of perfect, crystalline horror.

Her eyes lock with his, wide and brown and so terribly, terribly afraid. Then he tumbles off his bicycle to the grass and her entire body goes cold…though not numb. If anything it is years of numbness that finally wear off and she is hit for the first time in longer than she can possibly recall by a wave of utter repugnance at her actions.

And shame.

This is all because of her, because of her hatred and her greed and her desire for power above all else. Because of a war she has instigated and a senseless confrontation she has created. There is no one else to blame. There is nowhere else to look but at herself. It is devastating.

Slowly she becomes aware of voices calling to her. She shakes her head, trying to bring about a sense of clarity, of coherence and glances over her shoulder to see Rico and Eduardo calling to from the car. She frowns. Their mouths seem to form her name but she can hear no words come out. She can hear nothing above the beating of her own heart as it drowns out the surrounding world. They wave to her. ‘Come on! Hurry!’ they seem to say.

But she does neither. Instead she swivels back to see Manny haul Alfons into the back seat of the Mercedes. The younger Gilberto looks up and the eyes that fall upon her are filled with enough hatred for ten men. As the car pulls away from the curb she sees Manny’s hand raise and realizes in an instant the gleam in the sunlight is that of a gun pointed in her direction. She does not move. He gets off three rounds before the car’s forward motion throws him back but she does not move. Even when one of the bullets grazes her temple and opens an immediate stream of blood down her face, she still does not move.

Until her eyes drop and she sees the body of the young boy on the ground. He lies in a crumpled heap, his life ebbing away. And then she moves. With the speed of lightning, not pausing to consider the repercussions of her actions; there is not enough time. It is a split second decision but it will forever change her life.

She races forward and scoops up the boy’s limp body into her arms, then turns to head back to her car. But a freaked out Eduardo and Rico get one look at her and they, in their weak will, panic. They do not know what she intends but they are already amped on fear and see this as being in no way good for them. It is safer right now to leave her so Eduardo hits the gas and takes off. She stops, her eyes watching after them in cold loathing. They are cowards…

. . and she is on her own.

She acts quickly. Her eyes scan and locate a parked Honda nearby and she hastens to it. She does not bother to check if it is locked but instead uses her gun to shoot two rounds through the back window, then reaches in and automatically unlocks all the doors. As gently as she can she places the boy in the passenger seat and reclines it and it is then that she notices for the first time the plastic hearing devices in each of his ears.

The boy is hearing impaired…perhaps even deaf…No wonder he just…without a second thought…Oh, God…

She shakes her head, fighting back the bile rising in her throat and turns her attention to the steering wheel column. In less than twenty seconds she has the car hot-wired and moving. Her destination is the nearest hospital.

*

On a Saturday in urban Los Angeles, an emergency room is chaos beyond a reasonable person’s comprehension. A steady stream of victims is brought in with each bed accounted for and additional patients stacked up and waiting like planes at O’Hare airport at Christmas. It is this environment in which Resa arrives, the boy’s unconscious body cradled in her arms. There is much blood loss; she can feel it, warm and sticky, against her clothes and skin.

Her eyes travel around at the various hospital personnel, not sure what she should do beyond this point. This place is as foreign to her as Namibia and she feels helpless in the face of rules she does not begin to understand.

But she does understand how to get attention.

“You!” she bellows at a tall man in aquamarine scrubs. He whips around to her and she holds out the boy’s body. “He’s been shot.”

The tall man reacts instantly. He races forward to take the boy from her, the young body looking tiny and delicate as he is carried away. She follows after them until a female nurse with a mass of curly, orange hair prevents her from going any further. She wants to stay with the boy, to see what becomes of him. It is important to her. She is his protector. She should not leave him alone…

But this is not her world and, against her better judgment, she reluctantly allows herself to be guided to an examination area.

As the nurse tends to the wound on her temple she begins to ask her a series of questions. ‘What is your name? What is the boy’s name? What happened?’ But Resa is too distracted to answer. Please let the boy be all right, she prays. Please…please…please…

Then the white cloth partition is suddenly pulled aside and a man in a bloody white lab coat pops his head in, his face sweaty and his manner frenetic.

“This life or death?” he asks, nodding toward Resa. The nurse with the curly orange hair indicates that it is not and the man parts the curtain further. “Then follow me. We got a bus accident coming in as we speak. Two dead, fifteen injured, couple of ‘em critical. Clear the bed and let’s go!”

The nurse turns to Resa. “Can you go wait in the waiting area? We have a lot of questions for you.”

Resa nods and then both nurse and doctor are gone. She hops off the medical bed and steps through the curtains out into the main area. It is a sea of people and no one appears to be swimming in the same direction. Noises. People shouting. Loud beeping. Paramedics and doctors, fire personnel and victims. Everyone rushing about. And in the middle of this, she who is not a part of this particular emergency is all but invisible.

She makes a decision. She decides to go in search of the boy whose name she does not know but whose life hangs in the balance. Because of her. He is not easy to find and it takes some time but eventually she spies the tall man in the medical scrubs to whom she had given her charge. She approaches him, noting that while he may be relatively young, his face is already deeply lined with exhaustion. When she asks where the little boy is, he, in his distraction, points her in the direction of several partitioned areas. Second one from the end, he says then returns his attention to his more pressing task.

With a gnawing sense of dread she approaches the curtain, dodging hustling medical personnel along the way. But just as she is within a few steps, a woman who is deeply upset jostles her from behind. Resa stops to watch this woman confront the doctor emerging from behind the curtain.

“Where’s Malik?” she asks, tears running down her face. “Where is he? Oh, Jesus…”

The doctor, a woman in her mid-forties, is vaguely startled by this woman’s presence but quickly recovers with the poise of one who has seen everything before, in triplicate.

“Are you Malik Powell’s mother?” the doctor asks.

“Yes, yes. I’m Nina Powell and you all just called me. You said you got the information from his medical bracelet. I got here right away. Now where is he? Is he all right? Is he in there?” She points to the curtain and starts to advance.

But the doctor keeps herself between the mother and the curtain, gently taking the distraught woman by the arm to guide her away.

“Ms. Powell, why don’t you come with me,” the doctor says with infinite compassion written across her face.

At this Nina Powell freezes, her whole body going visibly stiff, then slack in a matter of seconds. “Oh, no,” she whispers, her voice shaky. “Please…please, no…”

But the doctor says nothing more and continues to lead the dazed woman from the location.

Resa watches them depart. In her ears is the wild pounding of her own heart and a voice from within cries out for her to turn and run. Just get the hell out of there as fast as she can. But she does not. Instead she resolves to complete her onus and she takes the last few steps up to the curtain. She has come this far; she cannot now fall short. No matter how much she would prefer to turn away, to pretend none of this ever happened.

She pauses, her hand quivering and her breath coming in shallow gulps. Her eyes close as she sends up one last prayer that the person she is about to see is not the boy she brought in. That she is somehow at the wrong partition or she has misinterpreted the underlying meaning of the doctor’s words. Anything else.

Then she opens the curtain and peers inside…and feels as if she has been stabbed in the stomach. For it is indeed the same boy and he is sadly, tragically, undeniably dead.

A nurse looks up and frowns angrily at her. “Hey!” he says but she does not hear. She steps back, her hand to her mouth and seized by a sudden, violent need to vomit. She cannot get to the bathroom fast enough and does not think twice when the first one she finds is designated ‘Men.’ She slams inside and into the nearest stall and pukes her guts up into the toilet bowl. She retches and retches until there is nothing else inside her, until she is empty. Then she leans her head down over her forearms and struggles not to pass out.

She does not immediately know how long she remains thus. It feels like hours but it could be less than a minute. She does not care. About anything.

Eventually she flushes the toilet and when the clear water returns and settles, she is caught by the reflection that shimmers back at her. In her own eyes she see the hideous truth that she can no longer deny.

She has become Pedro Cajigas.

It is a realization that hurts her heart and brings tears of guilt and shame to her eyes. What would Luis think of her now…?

Her ears detect the soft sound of footsteps and she senses the presence of someone standing behind where she kneels in the doorless stall. At first she has no interest in turning to see who is there; she is too weary and depleted to be bothered. But when the person does not move she feels a pang of curiosity and slowly raises her head to glance over her shoulder.

For a second she does not recognize him. It has as much to do with her addled state as the length of time since last they met but his identity does not immediately register. A part of her instinctively understands she knows him somehow…but… Then her eyes dip to his collar and the shock of surprise descends.

It is the priest from when she gave birth, the man Tony calls Padre.

She blinks a couple times, his presence catching her completely off guard. She is not sure what he is doing here at this moment…then she remembers that she is in the men’s bathroom of a major hospital and this man is a priest. Priests spend a great deal of time in hospitals, right? She is unsure, the concept being as alien to her as this entire situation.

She glances up again to meet his pale blue eyes and she is slightly bewildered when she sees no reproach directed at her. Only compassion. As if he understands her unspoken dilemma though, of course, he cannot. For the moment only she knows.

Then he reaches down his hand to her, palm up, and holds it there, all the while saying nothing. Both know he does not need to.

The symbolism in the helpful gesture is not lost on her and it is for several heartbeats that she stares at the outstretched hand. She knows by taking it now she will do much more than be literally helped to her feet; it will be indicative of a new way of life, one that will be radically different and far from easy. For a moment she entertains the thought of running. There is still time. No one knows anything, she is still in the clear…

But, deep down, she would know. And she is certain the guilt would destroy her.

She swallows hard then cautiously raises her hand to place it in his own. Strong fingers curl around hers and she is carefully drawn to a standing position. Her exhaustion leaves her momentarily weak and she automatically reaches out for balance only to have Father Hector take hold of her other hand as well and for a moment they just stare at one another. Then the Padre smiles and leads her to the nearest bathroom washbasin, heedless of the curious looks they receive from a couple of the interns also present.

She leans a hip against a porcelain sink and watches through sore eyes as he wets a paper towel and begins to gently wipe her face and mouth. The warm water is a balm against her clammy skin. Undoubtedly between the upheaval, both literal and emotional, she looks like hell…but that is of least importance right now. She only wants the ache to stop, to shed herself of the weight of this ugly guilt that threatens to rend her in two.

When he is done, he just waits with patient expectation. The decision to talk is her own and he will not force the issue. It must come from within. The two other men in the bathroom at last leave and when they are alone she whispers,

“There was a gang fight.” Her voice is raw. “Little boy got caught in the middle…and…he’s dead.” He absorbs this calmly, though she can see he is not devoid of empathy. He reaches out to gently touch a large spot of blood on her shirt, his eyes questioning. “It’s his. I brought him here…I…” She breaks off, not trusting herself to continue.

“Did you shoot him?” the Padre asks.

“No!” She shakes her head emphatically, then her shoulders slump. “But I might as well have. I started the fight. I created the rift in the Vartans in the first place. It’s my fault…I…don’t know what to do.” Her eyes look pleadingly up into his own. “Tell me.”

But he shakes his head. “I can’t do that,” he says. “That’s up to you.”

She frowns. “But…”

“This is your situation, Resa. You have to decide what you’re going to do next, not I.”

She looks him over incredulously. “But what if I decide to just walk outta here?”

“Then that’s the choice you’ve made.”

“You wouldn’t try to stop me? Tell the cops or the hospital?”

“No.”

She stares hard and him then shakes her head. “I don’t believe you.”

“That’s because you don’t believe in anything. Not even yourself. But you can change that. Here. Now.” Father Hector reaches out to cup her upper shoulder and the eyes that meet hers are completely sincere. “In your heart you know what the right thing to do is…and I have full faith that you have the courage to do it.”

*

Nina Powell is a tiny woman, slight of bone and short of stature. Her less than shoulder length hair is drawn into a clip at the base of her neck but several strands have already escaped to give a somewhat frenzied air to her otherwise librarian persona. In a crowded room she is neither the first nor the last person to catch your attention, her presence ranking somewhere in-between…but, through no fault of her own, she may very well be the most formidable individual Resa Gustavez has ever faced.

Nina Powell sits on a plastic chair in the specified waiting area, surrounded by several members of her family and a couple friends whom she has called because she did not know what else to do. The only thing she is certain of is that she does not yet want to leave the hospital. She cannot.

Resa sees one of the other people glance up as she approaches and tap Nina Powell on her shoulder. The grief stricken woman follows her friend’s direction to see Resa’s advance and frowns. Resa Gustavez knows she is the sort of person to draw attention even if her clothes are not stained with blood and her manner of one about to face a firing squad but behind the grieving mother’s eyes she sees a curious glimmer of recognition. Though Nina Powell cannot possibly know who she is and what she is about to say…she somehow instinctively does.

“Ms. Powell,” she begins.

“Yes?” The voice sounds strained but it also holds a distinguishable level of strength.

“Ms. Powell, my name is Theresa Gustavez,” she says. “I am the leader of the Vartan Bloods…which is the gang that was fighting when…your son…” Her voice breaks and she drops her eyes but after a moment regains her composure and continues. “When your son rode his bike into the middle of everything. He was shot by accident by members of my gang.” She raises her eyes to meet Nina Powell straight on. “I felt you should know who was responsible.”

There are several gasps from the family and friends but Nina Powell remains silent. At least a full minute passes as the woman stares at Resa, her dark eyes seeming to scan every inch of her face. But Resa does not shrink. Indeed she stands with her hands behind her back, her posture erect. She is prepared to accept her punishment for it is what she deserves and this woman has every right to do whatever she wishes. Resa will not protest. She of all people understands the hell this woman is just starting to go through, the rage, the hatred…all the emotions she, too, has experienced and knows far too well.

But the reaction that comes is not one she could have anticipated.

“You’re the one who brought Malik here, right?” Nina asks.

“Yes.”

Nina Powell stands and takes a step closer to a braced Resa, her dark eyes narrow but contain no hostility. “Why?” she asks with disarming simplicity.

Resa, startled by the question and the distinct lack of hostility, drops her defenses a fraction. “What?”

Intense dark brown eyes do not deviate from her own. “Why did you bring my son to the hospital? I’m guessin’ the others in your gang didn’t come here.” Resa indicates this is so. “And you gotta know you’re gonna get in a helluva lot of trouble for this.” Resa again indicates this is also so. “Then why did you bring Malik here when you could’ve left him where he was and been safe like the others?”

Resa does not reply for several moments. It is an answer that does not come easy for her but after struggling within herself she whispers almost helplessly, “Because it was the right thing to do.”

Nina Powell tips her head to one side, a little challenge in her attitude. “You always do the right thing?”

She shakes her head. “No.”

Nina Powell is again silent, then she nods and says, “Thank you.”

Resa stiffens in shock. She cannot have heard this correctly. “W-what?”

“I said thank you,” Nina Powell repeats and then her voice lowers an octave with barely controlled emotion. “For trying.”

With that Nina Powell turns and walks away, her family and friends each rising to follow.

A stunned Resa Gustavez does not understand. She begins to shake, her whole body becoming a mass of trembling and her eyes fill with tears. She looks after the mother in painful confusion. To her way of thinking, she should be hated, reviled, attacked…something…but not thanked. Anything but thanked. It is incomprehensible. How can this be her reaction? How can she…forgive…? It is impossible…impossible…

Knees buckle and she sinks to the cold, linoleum floor. Her hands cover her face as grief overwhelms and the emotional dam she has maintained since she was fourteen years old at long last crumbles.

* * * *

They drove in silence. By her side, Resa was (Jennifer suspected) pretending to doze as an excuse not to talk with her while they made their way back to the Sacred Heart.

Resa had said little after telling Jennifer of the events. Indeed, compared to the other times when the former gang leader had recounted her past, she had become moody and withdrawn. Jennifer didn’t want to push her. Lord only knew what dredging up those horrific memories must do to a person…So they’d descended the hill in silence, with Resa in her own world and Jennifer quietly if distantly attentive. It was by unspoken agreement that Jennifer would drive.

There was more to the story, of course; things hadn’t ended there in the hospital for the younger Resa Gustavez. Not by a long shot. The former gang leader had been given four to ten years in prison for her involvement in the Malik Powell death as well as the numerous other crimes to which she had freely confessed. She had given the police a full account of all the Vartan illegal activities and driven Alfons Vega into a state of deep hiding that lasted to this day. That had been the sweetest and most satisfactory part of the entire circumstances. Her cooperation with the authorities shaved several years off what could have been an weighty sentence and she got out early six months ago on good behavior after serving three and a half years in a federal penitentiary. Father Hector had arranged for her to help him out with several Catholic charities, thus meeting her employment obligation in the eyes of the State and she was ordered to never again come within a hundred yards of any gang members, Vartan or otherwise. To do so would bring swift punishment and it was for that reason Resa had avoided speaking with the police after the attack in her apartment.

None of this surprised Jennifer. It had been a likelihood that she had accepted not long after overhearing the gossipy nurses in Dr. Marcus’ clinic and having it confirmed altered nothing as far as she was concerned. It didn’t change who Resa was now and that was what she truly cared about. She would be lying if she said the fate of Malik Powell didn’t disturb her. It did. Greatly. As Resa described the events, the college senior could not help but cry. She could imagine nothing worse than that, than the loss of a child and to know you’re in part responsible…incomprehensible. But when she’d gone to comfort her friend, Resa had turned away. It had stung but Jennifer chose not to confront her on the point and had instead held her peace. It was not an easy thing for her to do, in general due to her personality but especially now, after the affinity that had developed between them. She considered that to be precious but like all things precious it was in constant danger of being lost.

That was not something she would allow to happen.

She turned onto Gennusa Avenue, the street where the Sacred Heart was located, and used the remote to open the garage door. A minute later the car was parked inside the confines, the light extinguishing around them as the entrance automatically closed. Jennifer shut off the engine and for a moment the only sound in the car was that of their breathing. She looked at Resa, barely visible in the low light of the moon streaming in from an overhead window, and waited.

The raven-haired woman stirred and slowly sat up. She took in her surroundings and flicked an expressionless glance over at Jennifer before reaching back to grab the telescope and then exit the vehicle. Jennifer didn’t move from where she was seated, instead remaining still as Resa stepped out the side door of the garage without a backward glance.

That hurt. She could practically see the walls going back up again between them and a pang of dread hit her. She hadn’t realized how high those emotional barriers had been until they were removed and Jennifer was at last allowed to peek into the other woman’s very soul. Only then did she realize the full extent of how vulnerable Resa could be. And how giving. She felt incredibly privileged and blessed to have been allowed inside those walls and though she did not know what she’d done to deserve such a gift, she damn well knew she wasn’t going to lose it. Not without a fight.

She reached back to retrieve the duffel bag, exited and locked the car (her hand on the keys to be 100% sure there were no repeat mistakes), then hustled out the side door after her friend.

Resa was already a hundred yards ahead of her, her long strides carrying her to just even with the back, marble courtyard that lead to the beginning of the convent gardens. There was enough lighting from the central building to brighten the pathway and it was here that Jennifer at last caught up with her.

“Hey,” she called, hurrying forward though Resa’s pace did not falter. “Hey!” She tried again, reaching up to grab hold of the taller woman’s solid upper arm in an effort to stop her physically and this tactic worked. But Resa continued to stare blankly ahead rather than face her. Jennifer set down her duffel bag and took the black telescope case from the former gang leader’s hands, placing it on the ground beside their feet. Then she moved around to stand in front of Resa, willing her to acknowledge her presence, not allowing herself to be ignored a moment longer. And whatever Resa was feeling was no match for such determination. Slowly pale eyes turned to meet her own and in their depths Jennifer saw resignation.

It annoyed the hell out of her.

“Don’t you dare shut me out,” she insisted, focused on the chiseled features of the face before her. Resa’s jaw shifted to one side, whether in irritation or embarrassment, Jennifer did not know. All she was certain of was her resolution to get to the bottom of this but fast. It was too vital to ignore. “You said you trusted me,” she continued doggedly, not releasing her hold on Resa’s arm. “Was that a lie?”

“No,” was the immediate answer but her voice was low and her gaze down-turned.

“Then look at me.” It took several seconds before Resa warily raised her eyes and Jennifer thought her heart might break. She stepped closer and said softly, “I’m not going to run away, because of what you just told me, or for any other reason. I have no doubt your past is filled with horrors that I will never fully comprehend…but each time you tell me about them only makes me want to know more about you, not less.” She reached up to place her hand along the side of Resa’s face, the words coming from her heart. “I care about you, Resa. Very much. You have to know that by now.”

The reaction was instantaneous. Resa closed her eyes, almost as if in pain, and her trembling lips parted. Then she reached up to press her hand to Jennifer’s against her cheek as if there was nothing more important in the world than this simple touch and the abundance of meaning it conveyed. When she looked down at the smaller woman, there were tears glistening in her eyes and her defenses had once again dropped until her very soul was laid bare for none but this one person to see.

Jennifer didn’t really know if Resa pulled her into an embrace or if she was the one to close the gap between them but in less than a second both were holding each other as if their very lives depended on it. She felt one of Resa’s hands on the back of her head and the pressure of the other upon her upper back, her own arms around the taller woman’s waist. And for several moments neither moved. To do so was unthinkable. All Jennifer knew was this was where she wanted to be, with this person, here and now. Holding her and comforting her and gathering from her an equal amount of strength in return.

Resa drew back only far enough to let her gaze pour over every aspect of her face and Jennifer never felt more cherished in her entire life. It was incredible. They were close enough for their breaths to mingle, for Jennifer to actually see the rapid pulse beat in the other woman’s throat as well as feel it beneath the palms of her hands. Then Resa reached out to lightly trace her fingertips from Jennifer’s temple down until she cupped her cheek and gently ran her thumb along her lower lip. And Jennifer forgot to breathe. She forgot most everything except the intimacy that had sprung up between them at that very moment. It enveloped both women in a blissful cocoon from which she never wanted to emerge. Her mouth parted and her lids lowered. The only clear thought to penetrate her clouded mind was, Yes…This is as it should be. And with that she leaned forward until their faces brushed, softly like a caress, and she tilted her head up as Resa bent down toward her…

“Well, well, well,” came the deep, mocking voice from close by. Resa immediately stiffened and whipped her head in the direction of the speaker. Jennifer followed her gaze and was shocked by who and what she saw.

At the top of the marble steps that lead from the courtyard to the gardens stood a tall, powerfully built man dressed solely in black watching them with wicked glee. That he was physically attractive was undeniable but there was a distinct coldness beneath his grin and a soulless quality to his twinkling black eyes that cancelled out the strength of his allure. Add to the picture that he stood poised with an automatic pistol in one hand and his other arm around a desperately frightened Sister Clodagh and Jennifer somehow didn’t need to be told that this was Alfons Vega.

He nodded in their direction, a broad, confident smile creased into his handsome face. “Please. Don’t let me stop you,” he continued smoothly. “After all, Resa, you know how much I love girl on girl action…”
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Resa immediately stepped in front of Jennifer, holding the smaller woman behind her back as an instinctive form of protection. She could feel her tremble beneath her touch and it only served to anger her further. Dammit, how had this happened! Alfons, here…It was the last thing she expected. After all, her connection to the Sacred Heart was so distant and obscure. It was something she had never discussed when she was with him so how…?

Seeing him hold a gun on the frightened sister stirred her further.

“You bastard,” she seethed. “Have you no shame? She’s a nun.”

“At the moment, she’s a hostage and no, I have no shame. Thought you knew that by now.” He nodded in Jennifer’s direction and Resa felt a chill run down her center. “This the little girl who gave Manny the broken nose?” he asked, then tipped his head to one side and smiled. “She’s cute.” Winked at Resa. “I see your taste has changed as well since last we spoke.”

She ignored that. “What do you want?” she demanded coldly.

“Three guesses and the first two don’t count.”

Resa didn’t need psychic abilities to understand his meaning; he always did have a one track mind, especially when it came to her. His obsession was something over which he had no control. She set her jaw to one side, willing to play ball…for now.

“Fine,” she said. “I’m yours—”

“Resa!” Jennifer said, wide-eyed, but she continued over the protest.

“Just let the others go.”

“She says as if she’s the one holding the gun on the nun.” He paused as if to savor his own words. “Oooo. ‘Gun on the nun’…Has a nice little ring to it, doncha think?” Her icy stare was the only reply. “Oh, come on, Resa. We haven’t seen each other in years. Didn’t absence make your heart grow just a teeny bit fonder for me? No? Well, no mind. We’ll have plenty of time to play catch up soon enough and from the looks of things, I get the idea you have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.”

“Are you going to let everyone go?” she demanded through clenched teeth.

Alfons made a show of considering the option, even scratching his bearded chin with the gun in his hand so it came alarmingly close to the side of the nun’s head then he arched a brow.

“Do we getta keep the blonde girl?” he asked, clearly enjoying his position of power.

“What do you think?” she shot back.

He mock pouted. “Too bad. I was hoping for a nice game of Parcheesi between the three of us.”

“You leave her out of this,” Resa warned quietly.

“Oh, possessive are we?” He shrugged. “No matter. She looks a little scrawny anyhow. And besides,” he continued, lowering his voice. “We never really needed help with our games, now did we?”

She cocked a single eyebrow and said nothing.

“Okay. You know you’re the only one I want anyway.” He jerked his head in the direction of the main building. “Bring Blondie this way.”

Resa stiffened. “Why?”

“So that I might ravage her,” he replied then couldn’t contain his laughter. “Just kidding. You should see your face right now. Brrrrr…” He pretended to shiver then drew the shaking nun a little closer. “Actually, I just want to put her with the rest of the flock, kinda keep everything tidy. You know how much I hate it when things get messy.”

Resa didn’t need further persuasion, she knew the bastard too well. Alfons may like to make light on the outside but he reveled in the chance to engage in pure, unmitigated violence and to challenge him when he clearly held all the cards would be foolish. Resa might have risked it were she the only one involved but not when there were other lives at stake.

Still, the qualms were out in full force as she slowly stepped aside and glanced over at Jennifer. The light green eyes that met hers were indeed filled with anxiety but there was her characteristic tenacity as well and it brought to Resa a tiny degree of relief. She drew comfort knowing the younger woman would remain strong in the given situation, though she expected no less. Jennifer had exhibited fearlessness at every given turn since they had met. It was part of what made her extraordinary and yet another reason why Resa cared about her so deeply.

She reached out to gently squeeze Jennifer’s shoulder and smiled a little, somehow aware she did not need to say aloud what she was feeling for the younger woman to understand.

Jennifer covered her hand with her own and gave a tiny smile in return. “Back atcha,” she said in a low voice.

Alfons rolled his eyes. “Okay, okay, break it up you two. This is nauseating.” He waved his gun toward the building. “Let’s go. We’re holding up the group activities.”

Resa and Jennifer walked side by side up the steps past Alfons and the terrified nun whom only now Resa recognized as her old history teacher, Sister Clodagh. The guilt cut deep as she met the older woman’s frightened eyes and realized all this fear was brought about because of her presence here. Just as Sister Mary Elizabeth had predicted. What had she actually said? I won’t allow the serpent into Eden, or something like that…well, as it turned out, that was exactly what she had done. And it cost them all.

Resa clenched her jaw and struggled to control her anger as they entered the main building of the convent/school with Alfons and Sister Clodagh following. She knew she needed to stay clear-headed, focused. She could not and would not act until she knew all the variables and that also meant making sure no one else was possibly at risk for getting hurt.

She shot a glance over at Jennifer and apprehension tightened its hold on her. Above all else, she had to keep her young companion safe. It was, to her, the paramount concern.

“Nice digs you got here, Sister,” Alfons said from behind them. “Take it you guys didn’t go for that vow of poverty crap, eh? I can appreciate that. Through those doors there, kids.”

Resa noticed that the doors to the South Parlor were open and headed in that direction. As she passed into the room she stiffened and heard Jennifer’s little gasp. They exchanged quick, startled glances.

The room itself was essentially as Resa remembered from her youth. Quite stunning. The ceilings were highly arched and beautiful oak wood moldings skirted along the walls. And in the back there was an elevated area that, if necessary, acted as a stage for school assemblies or plays.

It was also the natural location for Alfons to have gathered all twenty of the sisters of the Sacred Heart, with at least ten armed Vartan gang members surrounding them on all sides.

Resa made immediate eye contact with the Mother Superior and tensed further. She couldn’t read the older woman’s expression but she really didn’t need to. This was a nightmare. She would never have come to the convent if she thought for a second that her presence would endanger any of the sisters. Never. But such a prospect had seemed so unlikely at the time she hadn’t given it serious consideration. Clearly, that was a mistake.

And now all their lives were in danger.

She felt the piercing stare from across the room before she turned to find Manny Gilberto’s hate-filled eyes upon her. She blinked once and looked away…but kept him in her peripheral vision. He was too dangerous not to. In some ways Manny was more of a threat than Alfons because, where she was concerned, his hatred of her made him a loose cannon whereas Alfons could always be counted on to be ruled by his passions.

Alfons released his hold on Sister Clodagh and pushed her forward. The older nun immediately rushed to join the others.

He turned his attention to Jennifer and pointed. “Run along and join the others, Blondie,” he said. But Jennifer at first refused to move, instead glancing to Resa, which was an act Alfons did not appreciate. He grabbed her arm. “I’m the one in charge here, little girl, not her. Now fucking move!”

He shoved her hard, causing her to almost stumble to the floor and it took every ounce of self-control for Resa not to go medieval on his ass. Instead she clenched her fists and gritted her teeth and vowed to herself that she would make him pay for that at a later time. The idea assuaged her temper…but only just.

She met Jennifer’s look and sent a silent apology. She watched with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as the younger woman reluctantly crossed the approximate ten yards that separated the two groups to stand beside Sister Stephanie.

Alfons flashed Resa a wide smile before moving slightly away from her to address the well-armed Vartans. He spread his arms wide, like some sort of evangelical preacher who happened to be holding a gun.

“Guess what boys? Mamma’s home! And doesn’t she look great?” He glanced back at her. “Resa, say hello to the crew. About half of them are new to you. Between jail and the frequent skirmish, we’ve had a few losses here and there. You know how it goes. But there are some faces you may recall. Manny you know, of course. You killed his brother, remember?” A malevolent grin. “He certainly does. And Tres over there is still sporting the black eye you gave him earlier today. Tsk, tsk. Not nice. But I’m sure he forgives you. The rather aptly named Fat Boy towards the back there is how we found out where you were hiding. Gotta hand it to the press corps for hopping on a story with gusto, like flies on an open wound. Spotted Blondie on the afternoon news and zing, here we are.”

“Like flies.”

“Oooooo. Nice one. We’ll get to the ‘wound’ part of the metaphor a little later. Now, most of the fellas kiiiinda want to take your head off, what with the unburdening you did to the local law enforcement before they sent you away on your little prison sojourn. Really wish you hadn’t done that. It caused all sorts of problems for us. I mean, I know you were upset about the ambush and the dead kid and all, but, Resa, we’re your family. We have been here for you when no one else was there to lend you a hand. We gave you everything…and you completely betrayed us.” He moved back to stand before her, reaching up to brush the back of his hand along the side of her face and then leaning in to murmur, “You can imagine how hurt we were.” He was close enough for her to smell his expensive cologne and feel the heat of his breath against her skin.

She turned her head until there was less than an inch between their faces. “Get over it,” she murmured coolly. And suddenly all humor evaporated from his eyes, leaving only an ominous gleam.

“Never.”

He moved behind her and pressed his body against hers, his free arm coming up to cross her chest to grab her breast in a possessive clutch. She felt the hardness of him against her as well as the warmth and his beard scratched her skin as he rubbed it against her cheek.

She locked eyes with Jennifer as the younger woman watched this display from several yards away, her sickened expression plainly written across her face. Resa tried to silently impart to her friend that it was okay, she could deal with this but Jennifer was still thoroughly displeased.

“You smell good,” he murmured low in her ear. “I am so looking forward to getting reacquainted.”

She watched as Jennifer bit her cheek in barely suppressed anger and lowered her gaze for a second. Resa realized the younger woman was possibly mere moments from doing something they would both regret and that she would have to take action to prevent this.

She reached up to stroke Alfons’ hand and replied in a low purr, “Then let’s go someplace where we can talk in private.”

He pulled back, then leaned her around until they were looking right at each other. She could read the doubt in his expression, that was natural, but there was curiosity, too.

“You’re just saying that because you’re going to try something.”

She inclined her head to one side, her hooded eyes revealing nothing. “Perhaps.”

He continued to gaze upon her for several more seconds before he closed his eyes and buried his face in the corner of her neck, inhaling deeply as he tightened his hold.

“God, I’ve missed you,” he said almost despite himself as he nibbled along her neck.

From across the room she heard Manny hiss in disgust. She glanced up as he took several steps forward, his lips drawn thin across his white teeth.

“What the fuck is this?” he demanded, carelessly using his gun to point at them. “I came here to kill this fuckin’ bitch not to watch you hump her fuckin’ leg, man!”

She felt Alfons still against her and could see him look up at the young Vartan.

“Manny,” he said calmly in a tone she recognized as a precursor to his wrath. “Lower your gun right now.”

But the younger man took on an unexpectedly defiant air, keeping his arm straight out before him and the gun barrel pointed directly at Resa’s chest.

Alfons slowly pulled away from her. “You kill her…,” he said and Resa heard the distinctive click as he cocked the automatic pistol at his side. “…and I’ll kill you…understand?”

Manny’s jaw shifted, not accustomed to keeping his rage under control…but even he had to recognize that he was no match for the likes of Alfons Vega and, after several more tense moments, he reluctantly lowered his gun. But his open hostility did not diminish.

“I thought killing her was the whole fuckin’ reason we’re here, man,” Manny said in frustration. “Not this shit.”

Alfons stepped from behind Resa to stand beside her. “Don’t you worry about why we’re here. You just do as I say.”

“Actually I think he raises a very good question,” came the voice from a most unlikely source.

Resa whipped her glance over and saw her old nemesis, Sister Mary Elizabeth step forward with her steely gaze fastened on Alfons in a total lack of intimidation. “Why exactly are you here?”

There followed several seconds of shocked silence as no one was quite certain how to respond to this unexpected turn of events. This sudden confrontation by the Mother Superior was clearly not something Alfons had anticipated and frankly Resa could not blame him.

“Please,” the older woman continued boldly. “We would all very much like to know why you and your horde of criminals have taken all of us prisoner with no regard for the fact that you are in a sacred establishment.”

Of all people Manny was the first to react. He turned on the Mother Superior, his anger and frustration serving to heighten his natural aggression. “You shut the fuck up, bitch!” he shouted and went so far as to shove the Mother Superior.

Which, curiously, did not go over well with his fellow Vartans.

“Hey!” A couple of them shouted.

A burly guy came forward clearly displeased. “You cut that shit out, Manny!”

Manny turned on him, raising his gun menacingly. “Or what, Rafael? You gonna make me? Huh?”

Rafael scowled at the smaller man, not terribly threatened but not necessarily interested in having this get out of control either. He shrugged one massive shoulder.

“Just cool it, man, s’all I’m sayin’. She’s a nun.”

“Wake up, asshole. They’re all nuns. Wha’s your fuckin’ problem?”

“Manny,” Alfons said, his tone laced ever so slightly with irritation. “Take it down a notch.” The explosive young man was again forced to bite back on his anger as Alfons turned to Sister Mary Elizabeth, presenting her with an almost pleasant smile. “Well, now, Sister, it’s real simple. We’ve come here to get one of our own and bring her home with us.” He glanced at Resa. “After all, it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen each other and we have a whooooole lot of catching up to do.”

The Mother Superior took another step forward, undeterred by Manny’s hostile presence and addressed Alfons with a total lack of fear. “I can certainly understand your desire to, as you say, bring about the return of one of your own…but it seems to me that some sort of a mistake has been made.” The Mother Superior’s glance fell briefly but meaningfully upon her. “Resa Gustavez no longer engages in gang activity and is therefore no longer part of your so-called ‘family,’ thus making your presence here an unfortunate waste of all our time.”

Resa stared in open-mouthed wonder at the Mother Superior. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the woman was standing up for her! It was unfathomable. She desperately tried to reconcile The Gorgon from her youth, the nun who had made her young life an exercise in irritation, with this defiant woman before her now…and failed. She met Jennifer’s bright, equally astounded eyes.

Alfons, however, was less impressed. His smile was thin and cold. “Well, that’s very thoughtful of you, Sister, to be concerned with how we spend our time and all,” he said tightly. “But why don’t you just let us worry about those matters, okay?” He turned to grab Resa’s upper arm. “Let’s go.”

“No.” This new voice came from Sister Stephanie as she stepped forward away from the cluster of nuns to join the Mother Superior in defiance.

Alfons did a double take at this second challenge. “Excuse me?”

Sister Stephanie drew herself up to her full height. “Resa is not going with you,” the young nun said, her brown eyes as determined as those of the older woman by her side. “She stays here. Where she’ll be safe”

Resa wasn’t certain what was more predominant at that moment, her amazement or her growing concern. Her spirit felt nearly overwhelmed by this unforeseen show of support from both the sisters but the situation itself was far too volatile for her liking, with too many wildly unstable components in the mix. She absolutely had to get the Vartans out of that room and away from the Sisters of the Sacred Heart as soon as possible.

She raised a hand. “Thank you, both of you, but it’s all right,” she said. “I’ll go with them.”

“You most certainly will not,” Sister Clodagh said as she, too, came forward, the fear still present but it now came second to her desire to take a stand alongside her sisters. “You will not sacrifice yourself for us.”

Alfons was no longer amused. “What is this? A fucking revival meeting all of a sudden?” He held up his weapon. “This, gun. You, hostages. Get your asses back in the flock with the rest of the sheep before things get out of control.”

“No,” the Mother Superior said simply and linked her hands in front of her as if she was dealing with one of her more uncooperative students.

Alfons stared at her as if she had quite simply lost her mind. “What do you mean, ‘no?’ You can’t say ‘no.’”

“She just did,” Jennifer said with a smile of amazement at the sudden turn of events.

Dark eyes flashed. “Hey, you shut the fuck up,” he seethed at her. “You’re not a nun so you I can shoot.”

Sister Stephanie moved to stand between Alfons and Jennifer. “But will you shoot me?”

Alfons raised his gun and pointed it straight at her. “You wanna try me?”

Resa did not like the way this was going.

“Alfons,” she said in a soothing tone. “You don’t want to do this.” A beat, then near-black eyes met hers. “Think about it. You kill me and it’ll barely be a blip on the radar. People will just attribute it to more gang violence and go about their daily lives without a second thought…But if you kill a group of nuns it’ll be splashed all over every paper and newscast in the country and you won’t be able to find a rock big enough to crawl under.” She glanced over at the rest of the Vartans, who, as she hoped, were paying very close attention. “None of you will. And don’t think word of your involvement won’t get out. It will. It always does.”

She could tell by their expressions that the group of young men – none over twenty-one – recognized the truth in her words and were disturbed. She also knew these boys well enough to know that while the gang was the most important part of their lives, they had also been raised surrounded by reverence for the Catholic culture; no matter how bloody their hands may already be, taking down a group of nuns was, to them, verboten.

Or at least she hoped it was.

Slowly Alfons lowered his gun. “Whatever,” he said, his attitude changing to one of bored indifference. “I have what I came for.”

Alfons put his hand on her arm once again and started to roughly propel her back towards the door.

“Resa, you don’t have to do this,” the Mother Superior spoke up again and Alfons whipped around in combative aggravation.

“All right, I have about had enough of this shit!”

The Mother Superior ignored him and addressed herself directly to her former pupil with an intense authority and conviction. “He won’t shoot you and he won’t shoot us. He is bluffing.”

Alfons stared at her in total disbelief but before he could utter a word Resa spoke up.

“That may be,” she conceded to the Reverend Mother, grateful for her efforts. “But I can’t take the chance. I’m sorry…for everything.”

And her glance slid over to where Jennifer stood, observing the events unfold with open alarm. She watched helplessly as Jennifer’s eyes shimmered with tears and had to fight back on the emotion that choked in her own throat. She realized with a profound sorrow that this moment was in all likelihood the last in which she would ever see the young college student…her friend…and regret consumed her. Once she exited those doors with Alfons and the rest of the Vartans, her future was precarious at best and though she would fight with every ounce of her being to stay alive, there was always the chance… She could see the reality of the situation was not lost on Jennifer and the pain of dreadful uncertainty was reflected in the younger woman’s gaze. There was so much she wanted to say…but their time together had run out.

Jennifer’s expression revealed the younger woman was equally affected and so filled with emotion that she took an unconscious step in Resa’s direction…

…and inadvertently set off a chain of events that would have dire consequences she could not possibly have foreseen. It was only the slightest motion that, in and of itself, should have been no cause for alarm. But tensions were already high and tempers short, making an act as simple as that one step all the spark necessary to ignite a combustible situation.

Especially with Manny Gilberto involved.

The young gang member reacted abruptly and viciously, taking the butt of his pistol and striking Jennifer across her right temple with a savage blow that caught her off-guard and sent her flying several feet across the highly waxed floor. He then slid the cylinder across the frame of his automatic pistol, loading it in a swift, single action that made Resa’s soul turn cold.

“NO!” she screamed and instinctively leaped forward to protect the felled girl, covering most of the area separating them in less than a second.

But her movement drew Manny’s attention and he swung the gun directly at her.

Resa heard Alfons shout “Manny!” from behind her.

She stopped in her tracks. Only a few yards separated her from the angry, young Vartan with Jennifer lying directly in between. Senses were on full alert. Her heart pounded against her chest as she focused on Manny while keeping Jennifer in her lower peripheral vision. She could see the crazed look in his eyes, a mixture of hatred for her and adrenaline for the situation and she knew that he was mere seconds from pulling the trigger on her.

“Goddamit, Manny!” Alfons shouted in irritation.

Manny’s eyes shifted over Resa’s shoulder to where Alfons stood and his lips thinned in anger at what he saw.

“You draw a fuckin’ gun on me over this bitch?” he demanded in bitter disbelief.

“This isn’t about Resa,” she heard Alfons say. “This is about my authority. I told you before what will happen. Don’t doubt me. Now drop your gun.”

But Manny was growing increasingly emotional with each passing second, his body starting to shake and this deeply concerned her. It made him even more unstable than he already was.

“She killed my brother, man,” Manny insisted, sweat springing up across his forehead. “Vincent’s dead cuz a her and I want her to pay. To fuckin’ pay!”

“You let me handle–”
“No!” he interrupted passionately. “No, I don’t believe you gonna do nothin’ ‘cept try and fuck her again! You don’t give a shit what she’s done. How she’s fucked us all.” Tears of hatred were in the brown eyes that turned on her. “How my brother woulda been here if it ain’t been for this puta.”

Resa said nothing and he spat at her, his lips twisted in a rage that showed no signs of abating. Quite the opposite. A slight motion almost made her glance down but she somehow managed to keep her eyes locked on Manny instead. Still, she realized in panic that Jennifer was stirring to a sitting position and she silently pleaded for her friend to stay down. Just stay down…

“Manny, don’t make me kill you,” Alfons warned.

And at this Manny laughed scornfully. “You gonna kill me, huh? After all I done for you, you’d do that? Huh? You’d do that?” Silence was the reply and the young Vartan’s gaze hardened. “Yeah? Well, fuck you!”

It was in that instant she knew he was pulling the trigger. But she did not get hit. Indeed something far worse happened for Jennifer Logan did the unthinkable…she deliberately leaped up from her position between Manny and Resa to put herself in the bullet’s trajectory and was struck in the upper chest.

Blood flew. Her head bowed.

A millisecond after Resa heard the crack of Alfons’ gunshot and saw Manny’s head whip back.

Then the two bodies collapsed in unison.

And chaos once again reigned supreme.

Resa reached out and somehow managed to catch Jennifer’s blonde head before it struck the floor, drawing the limp body into her own in a singular motion as they dropped down together.

It all happened so quickly that even Resa’s lightning instincts felt slow as she tried to wrap her mind around the horror of it all. It was too much too fast and she couldn’t speak. She couldn’t think. She could do nothing but stare in utter shock at the bloody, unconscious form she held in her arms.

No, no, no, no, she thought as tears momentarily blinded her.

“Resa!” Aflons’ voice sounded very far away. “Resa!”

She did not acknowledge him or anything else for that matter.

Jennifer…

“Resa.”

Not Jennifer…

“Listen–”

“NO!!” she screamed in a guttural cry and began to openly weep, the tears streaming unhindered down her face as she hugged the younger woman’s body close to her chest. Not again…not again…

She felt Alfons’ hand on her shoulder and she jerked it away. Let him kill her if he wanted to, she didn’t care.

“Resa come with me now,” he demanded and she felt his grip tight upon her arm.

She reacted at once, grabbing his fingers and bending them painfully back as she looked up at him with pure loathing. He was stronger than she and jerked his hand away but she saw that she’d hurt him and that was all that mattered.

“I’m not going with you,” she said coldly, never despising him more than she did at this moment.

He responded by pointing the gun in her face but she didn’t flinch.

“Do it,” she whispered and a flicker of doubt crossed over his face as he realized she was serious.

He hesitated. Then he glanced up at something as Resa sensed an unexpected presence close around her.

She tore her eyes from him and felt a sudden awe pierce her grief as she witnessed every member of the convent of the Sacred Heart move quietly forward to surround her and Jennifer. And Alfons Vega, ruthless leader of a brutal gang of thugs with more death on his hands than Hades himself could handle, was forced to step back. He seemed nonplused by the turn of events, as were the rest of the Vartans who did not quite know what to do. They looked among each other, confused and more than a little anxious. After all, if they couldn’t shoot these people or beat them up, then what could they do?

The glaring answer, of course, was nothing.

Sister Stephanie knelt across from her, distressed brown eyes taking in the two women and their perilous situation. Resa looked to her.

“Call 911,” she ordered and Sister Stephanie stood immediately, slipping out of the group to make the phone call.

One of the Vartans pointed his gun at the young nun.

“Don’t move!” he warned.

But their threats no longer held meaning and Sister Stephanie looked him straight in the eyes without a trace of fear.

“There’s been enough death in this place already,” she said with steely resolve then turned to hurry out of the room.

The young Vartan glanced nervously at Alfons who, after a beat, motioned for him to lower his gun.

For several seconds he said nothing, then he shook his head in amazement at the unforeseen defeat. “Well, don’t that beat all…Boys, The Brides of Christ just kicked our asses.”

Then he started to laugh at the absurdity of the notion, holding his side as if the amusement was almost too much. When he calmed he shook his head again and glanced down at the slain figure of Manuel Gilberto. His expression was difficult to read but it almost looked like regret. It passed quickly.

He motioned to Tres and the Vartan named Rafael. “Grab Manny and let’s go,” he ordered.

The two men picked up the body and carried it out the open South Parlor doors, the others gladly following.

Before Alfons exited he locked on Resa one last time. “You know, of course, this isn’t over,” he said evenly.

Her jaw shifted to one side and she knew her hatred for him radiated from every pore.

“Not until you’re dead,” she promised.

He inclined his head, and smiled. “Or you are.”

And with that, he slipped out the door.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Jennifer Logan was in trouble. Serious trouble. Resa could feel it and it frightened her desperately. A part of her wanted to do nothing other than hold the blonde woman but she knew that every second was precious and instead slipped into her state of natural authority. Self-indulgent grief would have to wait.

“We need to elevate her legs and left arm,” she commanded, pointing to a couple of the nuns as she carefully lowered Jennifer to lie flat on the floor. This was to concentrate the blood circulation into the torso area where it was most needed and not burden the heart to pump into the extremities. “I need some towels or some cloth right away.”

“Here.” The Mother Superior was the first to strip off her white wimple and hand it to Resa. The former gang leader paused a second as she met the older woman’s hazel eyes.

“Thank you,” she said, those two words holding a far greater meaning that was not lost on her former nemesis.

“Of course.”

Resa took the white cloth and immediately used it to apply pressure to the entrance wound, which wasn’t bleeding too severely. Of course, that could be a bad sign, meaning the blood was possibly flowing internally and causing even greater damage. They would not know for certain until they got to the hospital and x-rays were taken.

As gently as possible, she lifted Jennifer’s right shoulder, worried about potential broken bones but knowing no other way to search for an exit wound.

As it turned out, the hole was higher up at an angle, close to the shoulder, which meant it was likely the bullet had ricocheted at some point. Lord only knew what the internal damage would be.

But she noted that here the blood was freely pooling beneath her and Resa used the second wimple she was given to press against the hemorrhaging injury, keeping her hand and arm beneath Jennifer’s back to do so.

It was then she noticed that Jennifer was having difficulty breathing, a sickening sucking sound coming from her right upper chest area, where the wound was located.

Resa frowned and quickly but gently removed the younger woman’s brown suede jacket and slipped off the bloodstained, white T-shirt to expose the wound.

The hole was less than an inch in diameter and a pinkish froth gurgled up. She placed the palm of her hand against the entrance wound and in effect sealed the chest once again. With sinking dread she realized a significant part of Jennifer’s airflow was occurring at the bullet hole with every inspiration rather than through the nose or mouth and it needed to be taken care of immediately.

While reapplying pressure with the wimple against the exit wound, Resa glanced up at one of the nuns.

“I need a square piece of plastic about so big or cellophane if you have it and I need some tape. Pronto.”

The nun dashed off, thankfully not asking any time-delaying questions.

“Where’s the ambulance?” Resa demanded after a moment, wiping one tear-filled eye across her shoulder so she could better see.

“On their way,” Sister Stephanie responded as she hurried to their side.

“How long?”

“The operator said three to five minutes.”

Resa absorbed the news and looked down at Jennifer’s pale, sweaty face. Three to five minutes felt like an awfully, awfully long time. She swallowed hard and glanced up when she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. Sister Stephanie’s expression was one of deep sympathy. And understanding. After all, hadn’t she just been through something like this?

“She’ll make it,” the young sister said with conviction.

Resa could only nod, blinking back the tears.

Oh, God, what had the girl been thinking? Why had she done something as reckless as this? Didn’t she know? Didn’t she know that this was a far worse fate in Resa’s estimation, that she’d rather be the one shot than to lose her…

No. No, she had to stop thinking like that. Jennifer was not going to die. Not while she was around. She wouldn’t let her. As long as there was breath in her body and blood in her veins she would not allow that to happen.

The nun on the errand ran back into the South Parlor, carrying a wide variety of things. Breathlessly she handed Resa several pieces of plastic, both hard and soft, cellophane, scotch and masking tape, and, most glorious of all, a basic first aid kit.

Resa opened the kit with one hand, keeping her other on the bullet entrance wound to block the airflow. She located a roll of white medical tape, a pair of scissors, and the plastic package off a roll of dressing.

“What do you need?” Sister Stephanie asked.

“Put your hand over the bullet hole like this.” She demonstrated. “We have to keep the air from escaping there.”

The young nun at once complied and if she felt queasy at the bloody task she never let on. Once Resa’s hands were both free, she began preparing the plastic, folding it into a square approximately 3 inches wide then set about snipping off four strips of tape and lining them up on her arm for quick access. She moved Sister Stephanie’s hand and wiped away the dark red blood from Jennifer’s skin before she placed the plastic over the wound against her chest.

“Hold that down,” she said, meaning the plastic, and then used the strips of tape to seal the plastic around the sides, leaving one corner open. “That’s so no air enters through the hole when she breathes in but can escape when she exhales,” she explained in anticipation of the question. “It’ll help her breathe.”

The Mother Superior, who had been standing behind her, knelt down beside them to look over her former pupil. “How do you know how to do this?” she asked with an almost awed appreciation.

Resa hesitated, then shrugged, keeping focused on her task. “I worked in the infirmary in prison.”

There was a brief pause before the Mother Superior murmured, “What an unexpected blessing.”

Resa glanced up to meet the sincere gaze. “Yeah,” she said softly. “I guess it was.”

She turned her attention back to Jennifer and was relieved to see the young woman’s breathing was already steadier. Good. Now she just had to concentrate on stemming the blood flow. She again reached her arm underneath Jennifer’s back to apply pressure to the exit wound, lowering herself to lie down on her side next to the half-dressed, unconscious younger woman in order to do so and ignoring the pain in her own shoulder. For a moment a part of her recognized that if she didn’t know better it would look for all intents as if they were almost cuddling.

But such was not to be.

Jennifer’s unconsciousness concerned her. The gunshot itself wasn’t cause enough for her to pass out so she attributed it to shock and mentally noted that she would pay extra attention to her breathing to make sure she didn’t accidentally somehow choke. She placed her lips against Jennifer’s bruised temple and felt the girl’s erratic pulse as well as the coolness of her skin.

“She needs a blanket,” she told the Mother Superior, now as worried about the shock as the gunshot wound.

The Reverend Mother turned to one of the other nuns and told her to find the nearest blanket, comforter, or cover and bring it to them as fast as possible.

“Hang on,” Resa whispered into Jennifer’s ear. “Baby, please hang on.” She left her face tucked close to the young woman’s head, breathed in her scent, and hugged her tight. She tried to swallow but her throat was too dry.

Where the hell was that ambulance?!

Moments later she felt a blanket being tucked around both she and Jennifer and she looked up as the Mother Superior reached out to place a calming hand over Resa’s own.

“They’ll be here soon,” she said reassuringly.

Resa didn’t trust herself to speak. All she could think was that Jennifer was her responsibility and she had failed her. Was supposed to keep her safe and yet here she was, clinging to the edge of life. She would never forgive herself if…

Fresh tears streamed down her face. It was the first time she had allowed herself to cry since getting out of prison and one of the very few times she had ever done so in her entire life, though not for lack of opportunity. She simply was not an overtly emotional person. Whether by nature or as a byproduct of her less than nurturing upbringing, she really could not say but crying was something she had generally managed to avoid, with a couple notable exceptions. And she hated the thought of crying in public. When Mother Gloria had called her into her office to tell her about Luis, Resa had managed to restrain herself until after the funeral and then had gone off alone to cry for maybe fifteen minutes, whereupon she vowed to never do so again.

But now, here with Jennifer, she didn’t care who saw her or what opinions they might have. She just knew she hurt. Deeply. Far deeper than she had ever hurt before in her life. Even more so than with Luis because now she knew more than she had then, understood better what it meant to care for another human being and be cared for by them in return and what a truly precious gift that was.

And what losing it would mean.

A sound reached her ears and she stilled until her mind registered that what she was hearing was indeed a siren. Hope fluttered within her chest.

Moments later she heard someone shout, “They’re in here!”

She twisted around and saw one of the most welcome sights of her young life: A navy blue uniformed EMT technician enter through the South Parlor doorway, followed by two more technicians pulling a wheeled stretcher and Resa Gustavez nearly cried out in relief.

The lead male technician was a big, broad shouldered white guy with close cropped curly brown hair and an intense, professional demeanor. Resa glanced at the tag across his shirt and saw his name was Bruce, a fact he confirmed seconds later when he introduced himself.

“She’s been shot,” she informed him as she sat up. “The men who did it are gone.”

She removed the blanket while still keeping her hand on the exit wound.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the plastic square affixed to Jennifer’s upper chest.

“She has a sucking chest wound,” Resa explained. “I rigged that to block the air intake.”

The EMT stopped a second to throw an impressed look in her direction. “Nice work,” he said, then turned to the other two EMTs, one an Asian male and the other a white female. “Will, get me the oxygen tank and an occlusive dressing, stat.” Then he turned back to Jennifer and frowned. “How long has she been unconscious?” he asked as he slipped on a pair of latex gloves.

“Since she was shot. I think she passed out from the shock.”

He nodded gravely. “What’s her name?”

“Jennifer Logan.”

He leaned closer to the supine young woman. “Jennifer,” he called out loudly. “Jennifer can you hear me?” No response. He tried again. “Jennifer?” Again nothing. Then the head EMT reached out to thump her once upon the sternum, a move that immediately elicited a frown and a groan from the college girl. He glanced back at the female EMT. “Note she’s a ‘P’ on the AVPU scale.”

“A ‘P’?” Sister Stephanie asked.

“She responds to the pain stimulus.”

“I’m holding down the exit wound,” Resa informed him. “It’s up here on her shoulder. Might have ricocheted off a rib.”

“You a doctor?” He lifted her shoulder to examine the wound then reached out to take Jennifer’s pulse.

“No. Just did a little…volunteer work at a hospital.”

“Lucky for her.” He frowned at the pulse reading. “Hmmm. Little too erratic for my liking. Dana, get me a saline drip ready, please and alert Good Samaritan that we’ll be coming in with a female, early 20’s, ‘gsw’ to the upper chest, open pneumothorax. Presently unconscious. Vitals are fairly stable but she’s gonna need trauma care on arrival.”

“On it.”

The female EMT dashed back toward the ambulance just as the Asian male EMT came running in with an oxygen duffel containing an O2 cylinder and mask. He dropped to a crouch and attached the tubing from the non-rebreather facemask to the cylinder’s regulator. A couple seconds later he slipped the mask over Jennifer’s face and fixed the clear, plastic straps so it would fit. Then he grabbed sterile gauze and politely took over for Resa to hold down the exit wound.

Resa scooted aside but reached out to take hold of Jennifer’s hand, unwilling to completely break contact.

“Ma’am,” the EMT named Will said. “I’m gonna need a little room here.”

Resa nodded and reluctantly started to release her hold when she suddenly felt Jennifer’s fingers tighten around hers. She looked up immediately and, with an almost dizzying thrill, saw the blonde woman’s eyes were blinking.

“She’s coming around,” Bruce said. “Jennifer, can you hear me?”

Jennifer slowly nodded, her expression one of understandable disorientation and pain.

“Okay, Jennifer do you know what happened to you?” Bruce asked.

“Shot,” she croaked out, her tremulous voice muffled by the oxygen mask. Her eyes opened and searched around. “Resa?”

Resa gripped Jennifer’s left hand and leaned forward until she was in her line of vision. “I’m here.”

Green eyes met hers and softened at once. The younger woman started to speak but Resa shook her head. “No, no. Don’t speak. Rest.”

Jennifer nodded ever so slightly, her eyes closing a fraction.

“We need to load her up and get going,” Bruce announced.

“I’m coming with,” Resa said firmly.

“Ma’am I don’t—”

“That wasn’t a request.” She fixed him with a hard look that drove home her point.

Bruce looked over both women with an assessing gaze. It was policy that family members were allowed to ride along during medical transportation and only if their presence would help calm the victim but it wasn’t something most EMT’s or paramedics particularly cared for. In the opinion of most, outsiders mostly just got in the way. But as he was the lead paramedic, it was his call.

“I need her.” The young woman’s voice was rough and she tightened her hold on Resa.

The head EMT looked at the girl’s expression and sighed, perhaps realizing the decision was a foregone conclusion.

 

* * * *

It was the steady beep of the heart monitor that had lulled Resa to sleep and it was that same beep that was the first sound to penetrate her consciousness as she stirred awake.

She lifted her head off the edge of the bed and saw the thin, orange fingers of early morning light reaching in through the slats of the recovery room blinds, stretching over the lower part of Jennifer’s sleeping body. A tiny surge of relief went through her as she recognized the color was returning to the girl’s cheeks and the grasp against her palm felt warmer, somehow stronger.

A saline bag hung on an IV pole and occasionally dripped into Jennifer’s right wrist. The doctors had inserted a tube between a couple of Jennifer’s right ribs to facilitate her breathing, pronouncing the girl to be ‘extremely lucky’ that the ricocheting bullet, with the exception of the right lung, had missed all the major organs and arteries. She did have a couple broken ribs and her right shoulder blade was fractured but there was no damage that couldn’t be repaired with time.

Resa would never forget the systematic anarchy that greeted them upon their arrival in the ER. One of the trauma nurses had proclaimed Jennifer a “Plan Blue” — which apparently meant she was to be taken straight to the OR without any prep time — and rushed her into an operating area whereupon she was swarmed by a bevy of trauma unit members, doctors, nurses, technicians, and interns.

Resa had stayed throughout which was completely against the rules but no one had the balls to make the intense Amazon leave. Only when she was certain Jennifer was going to be all right did she at last go to a designated area where two uniformed members of the LAPD greeted her.

A small part of her was mildly amused that she was giving her third legitimate police report in little more than a day but she kept that to herself and dealt with the officers with a gravity and exhaustion she did not need to feign.

She gave the police as much information as she could, holding nothing back, not even her own past criminal record. Since the Sisters of the Sacred Heart corroborated her account, talking with the cops was mostly procedural. She watched the weary expressions of the officers, saw the flicker of recognition and dread cross their faces as she told them of Alfons Vega’s involvement and she knew with utter certainty that there was nothing they could do to bring him to justice. They were hampered by the rules of justice, something with which Alfons never bothered. They would be no match for him and if she allowed them to go after the gang leader then only more innocent lives would be put at risk.

No, in the end she knew exactly where the responsibility for Alfons lay.

Two hours later, her exhaustion thoroughly exacerbated, she left the police officers and went to the trauma cubicle where they had wheeled Jennifer post-op to recover. Three hours after that they had been moved to a private room.

The Mother Superior and Sister Stephanie had come by at some point, she did not know the exact time, only that it had been quite late and she was touched by the diligence of their care. Apparently the Sacred Heart had become something of a zoo after their departure, which, upon reflection, wasn’t terribly surprising. Word of a second violent act at the convent in less than a day had created quite a stir, both with the police investigators and the salacious news media who had descended on the school like hungry locusts. The next few days would prove to be trying to say the least. But the sisters were taking the events in stride, which Resa probably would have found amazing if she hadn’t already come to expect the unexpected from them. She knew she owed the sisters a great deal, more than she could ever hope to repay. They had risked their lives for her, for both of them, and she felt momentary shame at how her antagonistic her relationship with both women had started out. But she had read only care and concern in their eyes as they regarded her and for that she was thankful.

Sensing her fatigue, the Mother Superior had offered to take her home but the invitation been only out of politeness and, as expected, Resa had graciously declined. Her place through all this was with Jennifer, a fact that the sisters seemed to tacitly understand.

Resa’s eyes now traveled over the girl’s face, taking in the gentle slope of her cheek, the way her eyelashes lay softly against her skin, the white glimpse of her teeth that peeked out between barely parted lips. It was a face she would never forget.

She raised the younger woman’s hand and brought it up to her lips, kissing it and resting the back of it against her own cheek. The skin felt warm and alive and that was what mattered to her, that she was alive.

Just then she sensed the door behind her opening and glanced over her shoulder, expecting it to be a nurse or police officer or perhaps even one of the sisters from the Sacred Heart.

It was, instead, Father Hector.

She vaguely remembered having asked Sister Stephanie to call the Padre at some point, somehow feeling the need to have the priest who had been the catalyst for her meeting Jennifer made fully aware of the situation at hand. He was also a friend and she wanted him near.

He stood in the doorway a moment, absorbing the scene with his brown eyebrows knitted in concern for both women. Then he crossed over to the bed and gazed down at the sleeping Jennifer. She could see the burden of guilt in his eyes as he reached out a hand to lightly touch the top of her head in a gesture of care and she once again felt the shame of failure.

He glanced over at Resa. “How is she?” he asked.

“Getting better,” she assured him. “She’ll make it.”

His handsome face relaxed at the welcome news, then he turned the focus of his attention fully on her. “And how are you?”

Resa was quiet a long moment, then murmured a bitter, “Better than I deserve to be.”

Father Hector watched her, seeing more than she knew she let on. Even though they had grown close over the years, the priest had always respected Resa’s natural barriers when it came to physical contact and now was no exception. Whereas with others who displayed such obvious signs of grief he would hug or make some overt endeavor at comfort, with Resa he did not. But that didn’t mean he didn’t care or would refrain from trying to help. Far from it.

“Come with me,” Father Hector said, stepping back from the bed.

“Where?”

“There’s a chapel not far from here.” He shot her a wry look. “It’s Episcopalian, but I won’t tell the Cardinal if you won’t.”

She favored him with the tiniest of smiles, appreciating the subtle lift in mood even if it did nothing to ultimately dispel the self-recriminations plaguing her heart. Together they exited the room, though she took one last glance back at Jennifer, which the Padre saw and took note.

The chapel was located on the fourth floor and was not particularly large, only big enough to hold at most twenty visitors in its four wooden pews. The compact altar was well lighted but the rest of the room was cast in half shadows best suited for somber soul searching. The chapel was not built for large gatherings but rather to act as refuge for those in need of a haven in which to retreat. In this early morning hour it was empty and theirs alone to inhabit.

They took their seats on the front pew and he regarded her closely.

“Sister Stephanie filled me in on most everything when she called,” he said, keeping his voice low in deference to their setting. “Sounds as if it was a pretty frightening ordeal.”

She had a sudden flash of Jennifer being shot and shuddered. “It was,” she murmured, shaking her head a little to clear herself of the image.

“She also said you handled yourself bravely.”

Resa swallowed hard. “They were the brave ones. The sisters stood up to the Vartans and they won…But they shouldn’t have had to. That was my fault.”

“Resa — ”

“No, it was. I brought those bastards there in the first place. That’s my failure.” She brushed a tired hand over her eyes then dropped it into her lap and looked off at the display of prayer candles, some still burning in their small, glass holders. She felt alone in her self-disgust. “I failed,” she said, her voice remote and flat. “I failed Jennifer, I failed the sisters, I failed you…and I failed myself.”

“You’re being unfair.”

“It’s how I feel.”

“Then I respectfully disagree.”

Resa waved her hands. “Look where we are, Padre,” she said in slight exasperation. “Look at why we’re here. Jennifer was made homeless these last few days because the Vartans saw me, Alfons came to the Sacred Heart because he wanted to get me, Manny was shooting at me.”

“And Jennifer is alive because of you.”

“After she got shot by mistake. Because of me. Do you see the pattern? Remove Resa Gustavez from the scenario and there is no scenario. People go about their daily lives as they should and they don’t hide out because they’re being chased by street gangs, they don’t get shot, they don’t wind up in emergency rooms. They go to school and they get good grades and they become journalists just as they always dreamed they would. They lead good, productive lives without fear of dying.” She shook her head. “I have no idea what that’s like.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t learn.”

“No, it doesn’t. But Jennifer can’t be a part of that, not if she’s going to remain safe.” Her eyes darkened considerably. “And she is going to remain safe. She has to.”

Father Hector paused at the intensity of her tone and tipped his head to one side, his eyes slightly narrowed. “I take it the two of you have grown close over the past few days.”

She met his eyes but said nothing. She didn’t need to. It was written all over her face and she couldn’t have hidden it from him even if she had made the effort, which she did not.

“Oh, I see.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, that does complicate things.”

“No. It simplifies them. I know what I have to do.”

He stiffened. “What does that mean?”

She shook her head. “I can’t tell you.”

“Resa, you can tell me anything.”

“Not this.”

“Resa- – ”

“No, Padre.” She shook her head again, determined. “No.”

He sat still, almost frozen in his seat, before saying with clear trepidation, “Resa, I don’t like the sound of this.”

She turned in the pew to meet him dead on and reached out to place a loving hand against the side of his strong, handsome face. “Padre, there’s only so much you can do for me. Over the years you have guided me, helped me, been my friend when others wouldn’t even look me in the eye and I can never express how much that has meant to me…but ultimately this is my life. And I have to do what I think is right.”

He took both of her hands in his, his brow drawn forward in a deep frown. “You’re scaring me,” he whispered.

She slid over to wrap her arms around his shoulders and hug him tightly in a display of emotion that would have been impossible for her before she’d met Jennifer. It was just one of the many things the college student had taught her.

“Thank you for everything,” she told him softly.

His strong arms held her close. “Please don’t do anything foolish,” he begged.

But instead of making a promise she was bound to break, Resa slowly drew away and looked at him. His blue eyes shimmered with concern and more than a little fear as only one who understood her well would know to feel. He was a good man and she would miss him more than he would ever know.

She leaned down to kiss him briefly on the lips before she stood and walked out of the chapel.

 

* * * *

Sleep was a mosaic of dreams. Countless bits and pieces of images that on their own made little sense and of which, when she awoke, she could recall the specifics of none but instead retained only their essence and the overwhelming impression that she was well and truly loved.

Jennifer opened her eyes. Gradually at first but then the warm rays of mid-morning sunlight struck her and she became aware that she was not at home. Nor at the convent for that matter. She was in a hospital. And in a world of discomfort. It wasn’t exactly pain (the medication mostly prevented that) as much as pronounced annoyance coming from her right side and a dull throb in her head, like having a sinus headache and taking the extra-drowsy medicine, the kind where operating heavy machinery was highly discouraged. A steady ‘beep’ finally penetrated her waning disorientation and she realized that the noise was for her. Her heart monitor. Rather disconcerting.

For obvious reasons last night was a blur in her memory. She remembered Manny pointing the gun at Resa and the terror that seized her at the thought of him pulling the trigger. But from that point on, everything was a jumble, though she did clearly recall Resa’s soft voice begging her to hang on, “Baby, please hang on.” That she would never forget.

She felt a by now familiar tingling sensation up her arm and warmth against her left hand. She knew before she slowly turned that Resa was there, by her side.

The former gang leader was asleep. Her head lay upon the bed close to Jennifer’s left hip and the college student’s hand was held firmly between long, graceful fingers. Jennifer studied the other woman’s sculpted face, her high cheekbones and the fierce aura she gave off even when she was asleep and she felt a burning sensation in the center of her chest that had absolutely nothing to do with the events of the previous evening. This was something else entirely.

She idly raised the index finger of her captured hand to lightly trace the outline of the dark-haired woman’s finely carved lips, the touch upon her skin feather-like. But it was enough. Resa’s blue eyes opened and immediately focused on her and the corner of Jennifer’s mouth quirked up in a smile.

“Hi,” she eked out in a gravely voice.

“How do you feel?” Resa asked, sitting up and leaning closer, her eyes radiating concern.

She considered the question. “I don’t know yet, I’m still waking up…But I think I feel like crap.”

Resa half-laughed despite herself, then quickly grew serious. “You could have been killed, you know. What were you thinking?”

“He was going to shoot you,” she said matter-of-factly, her voice still a little slurred from the medication.

“So you thought it would be better if he shot you instead?”

Jennifer frowned a little. “Don’t yell at me Resa,” she said, affecting a faux pout. “I’m wounded.”

The other woman immediately backed down. Now was not the time to scold the girl. Resa drew in a deep, steadying breath, trying to bring her erratic emotions better under control even as she recognized it was a futile endeavor.

“The doctors and police have been trying to get hold of your parents but there’s no answer at their house.”

“They’re on vacation. Sweden, Norway, couple other places.”

“Oh. What about your brothers? Would they know how to get in contact with them?”

“Chris’ll know. He’s in Atlanta. Call Information.”

Resa nodded, then was quiet a moment, her eyes lowered to where their fingers were linked. Jennifer removed her hand and lightly patted the space on the bed between herself and the metal railing, her meaning clear.

Resa shook her head. “I can’t. You have a tube in your chest. It could dislodge.”

“Oh, is that what that is? I thought I was just having a wicked cramp.”

“No. It’s to help you breath for a while. The bullet tore through you pretty good, hit your right lung, broke some ribs and your shoulder blade but missed everything else.”

“Oh.” She paused for a moment, then said, “Still, it’s on the other side.”

“Jennifer–”

But then the blonde woman said, “Please,” in such a way that the former gang leader was helpless to resist, no matter what her better judgment said to the contrary.

Resa sighed and with infinite caution and care, eased her long, strong build into the space on the bed between the railing and Jennifer, having to lay on her side and making certain she placed as much of her weight on her upper body as possible. It was cramped, uncomfortable, and utterly awkward and there was really nowhere else she wanted to be.

Jennifer gazed up at the crystal blue eyes staring down at her and smiled.

“Thank you,” she said.

“For what?”

“For riding with me to the hospital. For being here when I woke up.” Her voice softened as she reveled in their closeness. “For everything.”

Resa lowered her eyes and unconsciously took up Jennifer’s hand into her own, running her thumb over the younger woman’s knuckles. “I should be the one thanking you,” she answered after a long pause. “I’ve learned a lot from you these past few days. You are such a wonderful person. Kind. Caring.” She leaned forward until their foreheads touched. “I’m lucky to have known you.”

Jennifer frowned, wariness prickling up her spine. “That sounds almost …final.”

Resa hesitated, then pulled back to meet Jennifer’s eyes for a long, meaningful moment and the college student felt her already shaky breath leave her in a painful rush of awareness.

“Oh, Resa, no…”

“Shhhhhh,” Resa whispered and placed a finger over Jennifer’s mouth to still the protests.

“Res–” Tears blinded her vision and she felt her body start to tremble.

Resa leaned in again to kiss Jennifer’s brow, staying close so their faces remained mere inches apart, their bodies touching and their breaths mingling in an intimate union. Every second brought with it an indelible impression that both women would cherish for as long as they lived.

“Jennifer–”

“No,” she continued to protest in a hushed, anguished voice as tears spilled over her cheeks.

“Honey, listen.” Resa brushed blonde hair back off the girl’s face in sweet affection. “You have such incredible promise in your life and you’re still just getting started. A lifetime of possibility is ahead for you and no one should ever deprive you of that. No one. Least of all me. You are that special type of person who can make a difference in people’s lives.” A sad smile crossed her face. “You did with mine…What kind of person would I be if I didn’t do something to help you in return, to protect you?”

“Protect me by staying here.” She reached out to clutch at the other woman’s denim shirtfront. “Just don’t leave me,” she begged, her voice desperate and, she realized, more than a little pathetic but she didn’t care.

Resa drew in a deep, unsteady breath and wiped the tears from Jennifer’s face “I meant to leave while you were still sleeping,” she confessed softly. “But I couldn’t. It wouldn’t have been fair…” She smiled. “And I wanted to see your green eyes again. Just once.”

Jennifer tightened her hold on Resa’s shirt and battled valiantly to return the smile. “You just wanted to admonish me for getting shot.”

Resa grinned. “That, too.”

Jennifer closed her eyes and struggled to keep her breathing from getting out of hand. It was not easy. The sound of her increased heartbeat reached her ears from the monitor as dread started to clutch at her chest. She felt only the crushing weight of despair.

“Resa, if you leave me, I-I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Yes, Honey, you do.” She kissed a wet cheek and nuzzled the side of her face. “You’ll live,” she whispered.

Jennifer closed her eyes, sniffling back on the tears, her lips quivering beyond her control and her throat burning. Her mind desperately tried to wrap itself around the impossibility of what was happening but could not. Resa was leaving. Permanently. She felt dizzy, nauseous, panicked. She did not know what to do, how to make her change her mind. She was in no condition to chase her down, to physically restrain her long enough to convince her that she didn’t care about any supposed risk. All she wanted to do was be with her. That was it. But that was not possible. She was powerless.

Jennifer peered up at Resa and whispered a sincere, raw, “I love you,” before she was choked by a fresh set of tears.

Resa closed her eyes against the pain and fought back on her own longing. In her heart she knew this was the right thing to do, for Jennifer’s sake. It was the only alternative and truth be told she’d known that all along; she’d just fooled herself into wishing otherwise for a while. Into hoping. But then reality had abruptly reared its inevitable head and showed her here with the injury to her friend what the end result of such selfishness could be. She had told Jennifer that she was a dangerous woman to be around and that was no exaggeration. If she did not act here and now, if she did not follow through on what she knew she had to do, then Jennifer could possibly be placed further at risk and that would not stand.

Resa knew she had to go and go now, before the crying woman made her change her mind. But there was one thing more she had to do.

She leaned down and pressed her mouth against Jennifer’s in a kiss that conveyed a thousand different meanings, not the least of which was the regret of good-bye. It was warm, tender, lasted no more than five seconds and when it was over Resa quickly got off the bed and would have headed immediately for the door if Jennifer had but released her hold on the taller woman’s hand.

She stood there for a few moments more, eyes closed and her emotions in total upheaval. Who knows what she would have done if the door hadn’t opened and one of the Good Samaritan nurses hadn’t entered?

But Fate was already in motion and was not to be denied.

“You’re awake,” the nurse said as she hustled over to Jennifer’s bed. “I heard your monitor pick up all of a sudden and I figured I’d come in to have a look-see.”

It was the distraction Resa needed. She gently disengaged her hand from Jennifer’s and headed swiftly for the door.

“Girl, are you all right? You look upset?” the nurse said as she started to check the college student’s blood pressure.

Jennifer didn’t reply. She didn’t do anything but watch Resa’s retreating figure with a helplessness and hopelessness the likes of which she had never before known as the former gang leader strode out of the room, and her life, without a backward glance.
CHAPTER NINETEEN
Most gang leaders did not have homes as grand as the one that belonged to Alfons Vega, but, then again, Alfons always strove to be the exception in everything.

Latino street gangs were by their nature disorganized and desultory. Young boys joined around the onset of puberty and were lured by the need to belong to something greater, to be a part of a family when their own was so often lacking. The home life of the typical Latino gangsta was more often than not a dysfunctional nightmare, hence the irresistible allure of being ‘down’ with the ‘homeboyz.’ The thinking being that at least with a gang there was someone who cared about them or seemed like they did. If the gang member wasn’t killed or imprisoned by the time he or she made it through their early twenties, they usually grew out of this stage and would move on to make something more out of their lives. But that was a very big ‘if.’

The Vartan Bloods, naturally, were different.

Alfons had known from the beginning that he wanted to take the street gang to a new level, to use the desperation of these young footsoldiers, as he liked to call them, to his advantage as he carved out his own relatively modest, though non less lucrative, cartel deep in the heart of Los Angeles. And he had done just that. But the turning of Resa Gustavez had put a very large wrinkle in his plans and nearly brought about the ruination of all his accomplishments. Her disclosure to the police had forced him into hiding, but like a weed beneath the pavement he had inevitably found a way back to the surface. It involved some bribing of lower-level officials here and there (never too difficult) as well as using a scrupulously crafted alternate identity that was good enough to fool the best of judges but eventually he managed to ‘hide’ in plain sight. Over time he successfully reestablished his empire, which included the reacquisition of his estate after the authorities had claimed it when the warrants for his arrest were issued and he failed to appear. Ironically, he bought back his own home in an open-auction in an audacious move that, alas, only he could truly appreciate…that is, after he got over being pissed off he had to spend heaps of money for something he already owned.

In the end, Alfons Vega was unquestionably a wanted man but he still lived his life in full, mocking view of any who cared to look. None did…and he considered himself indomitable.

But that was before Resa Gustavez resolved to take him down.

She did not come to this decision lightly. It went against all the principles that she had fought so hard to achieve but ultimately she knew she had no choice. Violence was the only language Alfons understood and as long as he remained comfortably ensconced in his way of life, as long as he wanted her, then Jennifer would be in danger and that was completely unacceptable.

Alfons’ house was well fortified and none knew this better than she since she was the one responsible for installing the security measures in the first place. But if she knew these boys as well as she thought she did, it was a sure bet that most of those measures hadn’t changed much over the years. Aflons was a brilliant man, no question, but he tended to suffer from a God complex that led him to delusions of invincibility, which right now was a quality that she very much liked about him.

One could conceivably refer to Alfons’ home as a mansion but the surrounding neighborhood was decayed enough to frighten away the heartiest of criminals, thus cutting back on its overall value by a few million or so. Nonetheless, behind the towering walls was a far from humble abode. Twenty rooms. Tennis courts. Pools indoors and out. Game rooms, a movie theatre, two kitchens, separate guest quarters, helicopter-landing pad, and a basement devoted to the growing of marijuana. In short, your basic drug lord lair.

The good news in trying to find Alfons within such a labyrinth was that he was a creature of surprisingly stringent habit. Resa used to joke that she could set her watch by his routine. At present, it was eleven o’clock at night and that meant he would be in his study, reading tomorrow’s New York Times and sipping his herbal tea laced with a spot of rum. It was his favorite indulgence. Next to her, of course.

The scent of fresh cut lawn was sweet in the cool night air and she detected the distinct fragrance of honeysuckle coming from somewhere close by. If she’d had the time she would have paused to admire the absolute beauty of the night…but she did not.

With feline stealth she crept up to the gritty side of the tan brick wall that wrapped around the estate and made her way through the shadows. Her eyes were on the alert for signs of security cameras but caught sight of only the one, which was in the alcove by the side entrance where they kept the garbage…exactly where she had placed it in years ago. This was the weakest area in the entire would-be compound and she knew just how to exploit it to gain access.

She did not carry a gun. Not yet at least. Purchasing one wouldn’t have been difficult with regard to her felon status (government bureaucracy had made sure of that) but it was more a question of money. She just didn’t have the cash on such short notice and she didn’t want to waste precious time getting the necessary funds. But it wasn’t something about which she was too worried. When she needed one — and she would — then she’d take one.

A noise caught her attention and she glanced down at her watch. 11:05. She almost smiled. Time to take out the garbage.

Years earlier she had established a procedure that took place once a day and always cloaked by the cover of darkness since often what was being disposed of was not something to be seen by the uninitiated (i.e., drug making paraphernalia and the like). It was an unappealing but necessary operation that, under her command, had entailed the use of at least two guards in addition to the unfortunate flunky assigned to actually drive the refuse.

She ducked back around the corner of the wall and waited. A few minutes passed and she heard the distinct rumble of a medium-sized Peterbilt truck as it made its way down the alley behind the estate.

Two headlights appeared as it pulled into the alcove and maneuvered its back end up to the steel, double doors. From her vantagepoint she caught a glimpse of the driver’s face from the dashboard glow and did not recognize him. No matter.

She glanced up at the camera and noticed it was starting to swing back in the direction of the side doors and her stomach clenched. Three, two, one…

Now!

She sprang forward, dashed with blinding speed to the side of the truck, and jumped onto the metal sideboard. The young driver didn’t have time to react before she reached through the open window and caught him square in the throat in a brutal blow. His eyes bulged and his jaw dropped but no sound came out. She shoved the wadded up piece of cloth deep in his open mouth then she opened the door and shoved him aside so she was now in the driver’s seat.

She only had a few seconds in which to act and every one of them had to count.

She delivered two swift stomps to the young man’s sternum, further winding him to the point of temporary incapacity then she grabbed his baseball cap, shoved the tail of her long braid up into the back, and drew down the bill. It wouldn’t fool anyone in the long run, of course, but she didn’t need the long run. Only a second or two for her own advantage.

She then saw the other item she was looking for and reached down to retrieve the 45-caliber pistol tucked into the front waistband of his pants. Perfect.

A glance in the rearview mirror revealed the doors were open and she saw two armed Vartans on either side, waiting for the truck to be backed up inside the walls.

She gladly obliged by slipping the gear into reverse and driving the large truck back through the opening.

Apparently she went a little too fast for one of the Vartan guard’s liking. He shouted out, “Whoa, whoa!” and put his hand up to halt her progress as she drew the vehicle up alongside him. But he didn’t even have time to glance in her direction before she shot him in the right thigh, instantly dropping him to the dirt. She then spun and shot the Vartan on the corresponding side of the entrance, also striking him in the knee. Both men went down without getting off a single shot.

She didn’t wait around to hear them groan in pain.

Instead she hit the accelerator to back the truck further onto the grounds, spun the wheel, shifted back into drive and floored it.

Her destination was the main house. She knew her movements would attract attention but her plan wasn’t about secrecy; it was about getting inside and doing what she needed to do at all costs.

The estate’s layout was one she knew by heart. Eight acres of land with the main, two and a half story house located well in from the street. A circle-driveway lead from the primary gate to the ever-so-grand front door but that was not her point of entry. She knew a better way, one that would provide safe access through the entire house.

A slight movement to her right drew her attention. She pointed the barrel of the 45 at the dazed driver.

“Get out,” she said, her voice flat and deadly.

The young man just stared at her, frightened and confused. “But – ”

She cocked the hammer. “Now.”

He scrambled to the passenger door, hesitated a fraction of a second before he opened it and jumped out of the swiftly moving vehicle. The truck’s momentum closed the door behind him.

Resa didn’t bother to look at the side mirror to determine if the young man was all right. She was going forty miles an hour, the lawn was a thick grass that would cushion the impact of his fall and if he was smart, he rolled. If not…

The house came into view through the trees and she felt a surge of recollection. The style was traditional Tudor and had been built before the infamous Wall Street Crash when land was cheap and developers were feeding on the post-war economic boom. It was unquestionably beautiful, but she knew too well the rot that dwelled within. After all, she had once lived there, though she never considered it her home. In the truest sense of the word, she had never had a home and likely never would.

She drove faster.

The sounds of gunfire reached her ears and she heard bullets ping off the metal sides of the truck. The troops were coming. A quick peek in the driver’s side mirror and she saw at least six Vartans running across the lawn in her direction. They were closing fast. By her calculations, she had maybe fifteen seconds to get to her destination unseen…if she failed, well then she would have to improvise.

Angling the truck around the ‘West Wing’ (as Alfons so pretentiously called it), she gunned her way through an ineffective metal fence and threaded the vehicle between the outdoor pool and the house itself. She was aiming for one specific room. The game room, which provided a perfect way inside.

She slipped on her seatbelt, ducked her head and held on as the mighty truck plowed its way through the enormous window.

The collision was jarring and quite loud as two tons plus of pure American ingenuity let nothing stand in its way. Sounds of glass breaking then the sight of thousands of shards hitting the front windshield, which cracked but did not shatter. She was thrown forward at the moment of impact, her safety belt catching abruptly and holding her until she was then forced back against the seat. The truck roared across the room, ramming into and knocking sideways the mahogany pool table (made by the finest craftsmen and imported from Italy), before colliding into the far wall and settling with a final, impossibly violent jerk that knocked the baseball cap from her head.

Dust hadn’t even begun to settle before Resa unfastened her seatbelt, grabbed hold of the 45, opened the driver’s side door, and leapt out of the truck.

She didn’t have to look around to know where she was going.

Across the room was a full bar, thoroughly stocked and beautifully maintained and though it was located in the opposite direction of the room’s actual door (and one would presume also her escape) she headed straight for it.

Her ears detected the rapid approach of footsteps still outside and the sounds of men’s shouts.

She ran faster, crossing the fifty feet between the truck and the bar in the blink of an eye. In a single, deft move, she one-arm vaulted over the bar, landed in a crouch, and pulled down on the faux bottle of Château Pétrus 1989 that acted as a lever.

The whole back of the bar popped open and Resa quickly slipped through to the hidden space behind. In the dark of the hallway, she pulled the door back into position right as she heard the muffled sounds of the Vartans entering the destroyed game room, looking for her.

But though she was close, they would not see her.

Resa did not pause to wait for her eyes to adjust to the inky blackness. She would let her instincts be her guide.

The inner corridor was acutely narrow with a ceiling so low she had to duck her head as she made her way along but it still allowed her covert access across the expanse of the residence and that was what she needed.

The secret passageways were always her favorite features of the old house. It reminded her of some of the old movies she’d watched as a young girl at the Sacred Heart and she’d been irrationally delighted to learn that Alfons’ home was full of them. It was also an aspect of the house of which few were aware. Indeed, she doubted if anyone besides Alfons and she even knew of their existence.

Which worked out just fine.

Muted sounds penetrated the secret hallway and she paused a moment to listen in an effort to gauge her location. After a moment, she realized she was most likely in the back, toward the east corner of the house. Her destination was the nerve center of the defensive operations and from there one could ascertain the various goings on in and around the property.

Urgent, raised voices of several Vartans reached her ears as they searched in desperation to locate her. She continued on, her mind and body focused, her shoulders barely brushing the wall.

A minute later and she paused, her hearing quickly detecting a familiar ticking and whirl.

The security room.

She slid the flat of her hand along the smooth, old wood of the wall until she encountered a cold metal handle. She pulled it slowly to the side, creating a slight opening that also let in a blinding sliver of light. She placed her face close to the aperture and peered into the room.

There were two Vartans present, one scanning the bank of fifteen video camera monitors and one on his cell phone, speaking in hurried, flustered Spanish. Both had their backs to her.

She considered shooting them then and there, when the advantage was so clearly hers…but could not. The old Resa Gustavez wouldn’t have hesitated a second. But now the mere idea of essentially murdering these two men whom she did not know and had nothing against turned her stomach. They were little more than kids. Granted, big, well-armed kids who, given the chance, would shoot her without the slightest misgivings and then brag about it to all their friends, but she nonetheless refused to kill them in cold blood.

Now, if they were coming at her…well, that was another story.

She slipped out from the hidden passageway and into the room. The element of surprise was in her favor but she also knew quite well that it was far more difficult to knock someone into unconsciousness in real life than the movies would have one believe.

In the end, she accomplished it in five swift, punishing moves. One guy took three blows while the other went down with a single shot to the temple and a sleeper chokehold that quickly had him out.

She turned her eyes to the security monitors and scanned for some sign of Alfons but saw only a dozen Vartans scrambling about in every direction. She gritted her teeth in frustration. Damn. She’d been hoping to locate him from here but it didn’t look as if that was going to happen.

She grabbed one of the downed Vartan’s automatic pistols and an AK-47’s and let loose on all the machinery. It was deafening. Bullets ripped into the computers, monitors, and controlling devices, effectively crippling the running of the house in one fell swoop.

Fire broke out almost immediately from the shower of sparks and within seconds thick smoke and noxious fumes began to fill the room.

She heard the sounds of men approaching and turned back for the passageway…only to find her path blocked by newly formed flames. She frowned in annoyance. So much for that…now time to improvise.

She spun back around as three Vartans entered and here she did not hesitate. She shot and took down two before they even had a chance to pull the triggers on their weapons. The third got off a couple cracks and she felt a searing heat as a bullet skimmed off her left side. But that was as close as he got. A moment later and he was on the floor with the others.

Behind her the fire was growing.

She slipped the AK-47 strap over her shoulder, gripped hard on the pistol and made her way out of the room.

A single Vartan was approaching but at the sight of her he froze in surprise…and more than a little fear. She pointed the gun at him.

“Now would be a good time for a career change,” she told him calmly.

By the look on his face she could see he wholeheartedly agreed…even before he turned to run in the opposite direction as fast as his legs could carry him.

Resa turned away from him and proceeded on her course.

At the other end of the hallway was a back staircase that curved up. She moved fast, the rubber souls of her shoes silent upon the polished, hardwood floor. Her eyes remained on constant alert for movement and in the distance she heard voices coming from another part of the house.

She held the pistol with both hands in the ready position as she took the steps two at a time. As she came around a bend in the stairs, she was on high alert for anyone waiting for her at the second floor. A wall blocked off her visual field to the left of the top but she knew better than to trust only her eyes. All her senses were required and one absolutely did not peek around corners at such moments.

She slipped off the AK-47 and set it aside, then crouched down at the last step before the top, her whole body concentrating on receiving information. Her ears picked up on the faint but definite vibration of breathing and she knew she was not alone.

A beat, then she sprang forward, keeping her body low and parallel to the ground even as she twisted at the waist and swung her pistol in the direction of the two Vartans waiting for her against the wall. They were caught just a fraction off-guard by her surprise offensive but that was enough.

Boom, boom, boom.

She took out the first one and dropped the second with a shot to the stomach. Before he could react, she stopped her slide, spun around to her knees and came back for him, grabbing him by the shirt and tossing him down the stairs. His head smacked the far wall at the bottom and he slumped into unconsciousness.

She sensed someone behind her and without turning delivered a lightning back kick that landed hard against the soft of her would-be attacker’s abdomen. She heard the ‘whoosh’ as the air left his lungs and whirled around to unleash a barrage of blows to the young man’s face and neck. He tried to cover but she was too quick. A crunch as his nose broke and a squish as his lip split in two. Blood flowed. She did not let up until he dropped to the floor and it was then that she recognized him: Tres, the Vartan whom she had knocked unconscious outside of Jennifer’s apartment.

She paused, standing over the young man, her fists stained red.

“Well, hello, Tres,” she said pleasantly then reached down to grab him by the shirt front and drew him up, her lip curling in distaste. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“P-please…”

“Please, what?” Her voice was like velvet. “Please, kick my ass some more?”

“Please don’t kill me.”

“Yeah? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t.”

“I got a kid. I got a kid!” he insisted frantically.

She looked him over, her eyes narrowed into slits. Then she tipped her head to one side as if considering his plea. He could be lying. Hell, he probably was. But there was always the chance he had a child somewhere, perhaps even more than one, and it was enough reason for her. Besides, she had use for him.

She slammed him hard against the wall.

“Guess this is your lucky day,” she said as she leaned in close to his ear, her voice low and full of confident menace. “‘Cause I’m going to let you go. Not because I like you or anything, but because I’m feeling generous. Now, the second I release you, you’re gonna run out of here without so much as a look back as you haul ass to your home and to your kid, if there is one, and when you see him or her, you’re gonna fall to your knees and say a big, ol’ thank you to God for letting you live tonight. And then you’re going to tell that same God you’re prayin’ to that you are never, ever going to be a member of a gang again ‘cause deep down you know that’s not the life for you, am I right? All it leads to is a whole lotta bad and you want more for yourself and for your kid, don’t you? Oh, and one other thing, Tres, and I’m going to need you to listen up because this is important…Are ya listenin’?”
He nodded and she leveled him with a threatening look so pure he nearly wet himself. “I am holding you personally responsible for making sure no other member of the Vartans goes anywhere near Jennifer Logan ever again, ya got me? Because if something does happen to her, even the slightest infraction, the most mundane encounter, a paper cut…I will kill you, if I have to come back from the fucking grave to do so…Do you understand?” The wide-eyed young man nodded vigorously and Resa regarded him a moment longer, her lips drawn thin in a half-smile, half-sneer. “Good,” she murmured then whispered, “Now go.”

She released her hold on the terrified gang member who immediately stumbled away from her, bloody and visibly shaken. Resa pointed to the stairs and, without waiting to be told twice, he turned to lurch down the steps with the speed – if not grace – of a gazelle.

The acrid smell of smoke reached her and she knew it would not be long before the downstairs fire raged out of control. She had to get to Alfons’ study while he was still there, if he was still there. She estimated she had been in the house maybe five minutes, not much more, and Alfons undoubtedly knew of her presence. Time was running out.

She picked up her pistol from the floor, retrieved the AK-47 and ducked into the nearest room. It was a guest suite. Empty and quiet. She shut the door behind her and slid the lock into place.

For a moment she let the stillness wash over her and savored the feeling. It would likely be the last interval of peace she would know for a long time, perhaps ever, and that thought brought about an unexpected flash of melancholic reflection. She had never been one to dwell on the ‘what might have beens’ of her life but in that instant she could not hold at bay the near incredulous wonder at how she had gotten to this point. How she had come to be standing in a burning crime-lord’s mansion with automatic weapons in hand on her way to what could well be her final moments. She thought back to the time when she was fourteen years old and confronting Pedro Cajigas and a sad stab of longing went through her. She wished she could go back to stop the girl she used to be, to talk her out of the act that would ultimately doom her. But such supposition served no purpose and she squelched those thoughts, those feelings before they could paralyze her.

It was then she heard it. A roar. Faint at first, then quickly growing in intensity and a beat later she recognized what it was.

A helicopter.

Her body tensed and grew cold.

Alfons was trying to escape….Oh, but she was not going to let that happen.

She crossed to the French doors and kicked them open, then strode out onto the balcony, her movements brisk and methodical, almost robotic. A woman with a mission.

Flipping the safety, she slipped the pistol into the waistband of her jeans at the small of her back, slid the AK-47 strap diagonally across her shoulders and bent to remove both her shoes and socks. She hoisted herself up onto the balcony’s cement railing and rested the flats of her palms against the brick siding of the house for a degree of balance as she arched back to better survey the potential for ascendance.

The edge of the roof hung down low enough for her to grab hold of it and in a daring move that would have reduced even the boldest of daredevils to caution, sprang straight up like a cat, using the momentum of her leap and the assuredness of her feet to propel her onto, and scramble up, the side of the pitched roof.

She leaned forward, bare feet and palms pressed hard against the asphalt shingles as she hugged her body against the incline. The sound of revving engines came from her right, in the direction of the helicopter pad Alfons had had specially constructed at the other end of the house. (His only gripe at the time had been that it didn’t match the overall architectural décor but, alas, sometimes compromises simply had to be made.)

She gripped the top of the pitch and pulled herself up, crouching down low with feet balanced on either side of the arch as she scurried forward under the radiance of the ever-present moon.

The helicopter pad was a good half-story higher the second-story roof she was now on, by necessity raising it above the rest of the structure. As she reached it she heard the familiar whine of the engine as the copter prepared to lift off.

She ran the last few feet and leapt up, her feet landing flat against the brick wall and the tips of her fingers reaching out to grab the decorative lip of the roof that projected outward. She pulled herself up and rolled over the side of the house just as the yellow and white copter rose into the air. Rage filled her, blinded her. That bastard was not going to get away that easily! Not with her around.

She reached back to draw forward the AK-47 and didn’t bother to aim before she emptied the clip into the side of the rising aircraft, counting on at least one of the bullets to reach its mark.

One did.

A second later and the copter erupted into a blinding ball of fire.

The kaboom of the explosion was deafening and the intense repercussion knocked her off-balance, almost sending her back over the edge as flaming pieces of wreckage rained down all around her.

The burning body of the helicopter veered grotesquely back toward the ground and slammed into the side of the house with an impact so mighty that Resa felt all the way to the marrow of her bones.

A cacophony of noise and heat filled her senses as hot fragments of debris pelted her in her tightly coiled position. Several seconds passed before she dared to peer up over the shield of her arm to see an orange wall of flame shooting up above the house and for a moment she paused in sheer awe at the destruction.

But then a sound cut through her amazement. Nearly drowned out by the thunder of confusion yet distinct enough to make itself heard. It was the sound of clapping. Sharp, deliberate, and undeniably mocking.

Her stomach dropped in sickening dread as she realized there could be but one person who was the source.

“Good shot,” she heard him say as she turned to see a grinning Alfons standing off to one side by a hatchway, back-lighted by the orange glow of the fire and very much alive. He shook his head in feigned consolation. “Too bad you missed your mark though.” He tapped his own chest.

Comprehension dawned and chilled her. “That was a decoy, wasn’t it? To flush me out?”

“Ding, ding, ding. And she goes to the head of the class.” He approached her casually, clenching and unclenching the pistol in his grip. “The pilot was real, though,” he said with a smile. “Emphasis, of course, being on the ‘was’ part.”

For a fraction of a second her body slackened in bitter self-disgust but then she focused fully on the dangerous man standing only a dozen feet away.

“You killed someone just to get to me.”

“No, you killed him. I just put him in the right place at the right time, knowing you’d do the rest. Which you did.” He sighed in contentment. “I do so love being right.”

She sat back on the roof and watched him in amazement, wondering how she could have ever felt attracted to someone as twisted and dissolute as he. Had he always been like this or had she really changed that much? The answer, of course, was both.

“You’re sick,” she said quietly.

“I like to think of it as being dedicated.” His black eyes glimmered in the fiery glow as he casually moved closer to her, watching her every move. “I can see that bothers you.” He shook his head in disappointment. “Oh, Resa, Resa, Resa,” he said with a sigh.
“You have tried so hard to escape your destiny, to pretend you’re something you’ll never be…but there are some things that cannot be changed. Frankly, I don’t see why you even attempt to deny it. You’re a killer. It’s in your blood. Hell, you should be proud. It’s what separates people like us from the rest of these simians.” He waved a hand in disdain. “We have the balls to do what needs to done, no matter what the cost. No matter who gets hurt. We have power. We have tenacity. Chutzpah, even. We are miles beyond the rest of these drones who stumble about wondering if they’ll get that promotion they’ve cheated so hard for or if their hair is really thinning on top. These people who live half-lives because they’re too afraid to commit, to grab life by the throat and demand nothing less than everything. These people who are flies while we…” He knelt down only a few feet opposite her to look deep into her eyes and whisper, “We. Are. Gods…And we can kill them for our sport.”

But Resa shook her head, her heart and voice filled with hatred. “I don’t think like that anymore.”

He pointed over her shoulder in the direction of the burning helicopter. “Bob there would beg to differ, as would a few of my boys you encountered on your way in.”

“Self-defense.”

“Hey, tell yourself whatever gets you to sleep at night.” He tipped his head to one side, his eyes twinkling. “But we both know the truth.”

Her upper lip curled in distaste. “Alfons, you wouldn’t know the truth if it came up and shot you at point-blank range.”

“Which is what you were planning to do, yes?”

She lifted her jaw in defiance. “Yes.”

The corner of his mouth twitched up. “But you’re not a killer.”

She was silent a moment, her hardened gaze never breaking from his. “Only if necessity dictates,” she said at last.

“I couldn’t agree more. The tricky part is defining ‘necessity.’ I have, as you can imagine, a more liberal view than most on the subject.” He reached out to almost touch her cheek but she jerked away. “Time was, so did you.”

“Times change.”

“But people don’t.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. I did.”

“Is that what your cute little blonde friend told you? She seems like the type who’s really gung-ho about changing people for the better and all that crap.”

Every fiber of her being stiffened in alarm at having him invoke the mere idea of Jennifer and somewhere in the distance she heard the faint wail of an approaching siren.

“Leave her out of this,” she warned in a low voice.

His eyes flashed and she caught a glimpse of jealousy in their depths. “Why? She’s such an integral part of your being here, isn’t she? She’s the reason you’ve come charging once more unto the breech like some knight of old. So that you can protect her by eliminating danger. Eliminating me.” He shook his head, dark hair brushing over broad shoulders. “Don’t try to deny it. I won’t believe you. You’ve been out for, what? Six months? And no one hears a peep out of you. Blondie gets shot yesterday and suddenly here you are, guns blazin’ after my ass. Coincidence? I think not.” A grim smile. “Besides, I’ve seen how you look at her.”

She didn’t bother to dispute his point. It wouldn’t have worked anyhow because he was quite right. She just didn’t like that he knew her so fully, didn’t like the implications, the perils such knowledge could bring. If she harbored any doubts about her course of action, they now vanished.

He sat back on his haunches, his gaze traveling over her and his body tensed. “Well, well, well,” he murmured tightly. “I do believe I have at last uncovered the mighty Resa Gustavez’s Achilles Heel…And it turns out to be a little, blonde girl. Will wonders never cease?” Then all mocking dimmed from his eyes and a hint of anger, and even greater jealousy crept into his voice. “I find it rather amazing, really. Was her innocence the appeal? Her goodness make you feel all holy and clean inside? Was that it?”

Resa’s silence only served to heighten his growing ire, as she knew it would. “Tell me, I’m curious. How’d she do it? How did that scrawny little bitch get past all those barriers you built up all those years when I who groomed you, who knows you better than anyone else am kept on the outside?” She again refused to reply and his intensity grew with every word. “I’m the one who gave you everything you could ever want. Money, access to unlimited power. Everything. And all I’ve ever really wanted in exchange was you…but you’ve always known that, haven’t you? It’s always been the trump card you hold over me, teasing me that maybe, just maybe, someday you’ll be mine again and I don’t have to go through every fucking moment wanting to get back what we once had.” Black eyes burned into hers. “But that’s impossible, isn’t it? You’ve given yourself to someone else. To her.” He reached out suddenly to grip her jaw, his voice and manner brutal. “What the fuck did she say? Huh? What could that bitch possibly do to get to you like this? Tell me! What did she do?”

Resa didn’t hesitate. Instead in a calm, certain voice that held nothing back, that destroyed him in three irrevocable words, she said simply “She loved me.”

And then she took action.

In the blink of an eye she grabbed his leather jacket with both hands, rolled onto her back while simultaneously placing both feet on his abdomen and with every ounce of strength her legs possessed, heaved all 220 pounds of him over her head.

He went sailing across the side of the house.

But he did not go alone.

He took her with him.

As he fell, his hand clutched at her shirt and she was yanked across the edge, feeling powerless as gravity took over.

She reached out blindly and one hand found the leather belt of his pants. She grasped at it and with a sudden jarring jerk her plummet was arrested.

Her head snapped up and she saw Alfons holding onto the cement lip of the landing pad with both hands.

And she was holding on to him. Momentarily suspended…but it was then she looked down…and blanched.

Below her was the fire, raging out of control. She saw it growing with each gust of wind until it was eating up the side of the house and the ground between them and the nearby pool. She could feel the heat shoot up her bare feet, legs and back and she gritted her teeth against the pain.

Alfons struck out at her a couple times with the heels of his boots, hitting her chest with brutal desperation but she did not let go of her hold.

He ceased his efforts to kick her free and began to pull himself — and by default her — up, his powerful arms bulging against the restrictions of his jacket.

Her eyes shifted and fastened on the gun muzzle that just peeked over the side.

She reached behind her and drew out the automatic pistol she had earlier tucked into the back of her jeans and pointed it up at his head, her mind whirling as she assessed the situation from every angle.

If she allowed him to continue to pull himself upward he could, and likely would, go for the gun as soon as it was within his reach. And he would shoot her, of that she was certain. She didn’t care how much he professed to need her, to obsess about her, to want her back. This was about life and death. His life and his potential death, and in his mind she had no doubt that took precedence over all else. She was literally weighing him down, dragging at him and robbing from him the precious seconds required to escape.

But, if she shot him now, before they reached the top, then they would both fall and while the drop itself wouldn’t necessarily be enough to kill them outright, the fire below was another matter.

Either way, it did not look good for her.

But, then she realized with a sudden calmness and inner serenity, that it had long ago stopped being about her and her needs. It went beyond that. Well beyond anything she had ever before understood or thought possible of or for herself. This moment reached into the core of her soul and touched her heart and made her believe in something greater, something deeper. And with the purity of love, she knew what she had to do. To protect Jennifer, she would give everything.

Tears filled her eyes, tears for what might have been….

Alfons pulled his chest up over the side.

…what could have been…

He reached out for the gun.

…what should have been…

Grabbed it.

…yet was not.

And swung down in her direction.

Only one of them pulled the trigger.
CHAPTER TWENTY
As she stood at the edge of the gardens of the Sacred Heart, basking in the warm May sunshine, it occurred to Jennifer that the recent events in her life had truly come full circle. Here she was once again with Father Hector and they had been drawn together by the spirit of the inimitable Resa Gustavez. Only this time the purpose was to say good-bye.

She glanced over at the handsome priest and found a pair of contemplative blue eyes studying her. She smiled, though it was a more somber and reflective caliber of expression than she had projected upon their first meeting. Before she’d encountered Resa and had her life turned inside, outside, upside down.

Physically she was well on her way to being healed. Some therapy was needed to get her arm and shoulder functioning back at peak level but the pain had long since receded to a dull ache on the worst of days and nonexistent on the best. The scars would fade but never be gone. The doctors had repeatedly emphasized how lucky she was that the bullet hadn’t ricocheted in a different direction and that her damage could have easily been far worse. The puncture to her lung alone could have been enough to kill her had she not received immediate medical assistance. Fortunately she had and now her body would recover completely.

Her heart, however, was a very different matter.

She inhaled deeply and released a telling sigh.

Father Hector placed a gentle, strong hand upon her upper arm, his presence bringing a degree of comfort as she had hoped it would. It was indescribably important for her to be around even the smallest reminder of Resa since the other woman’s disappearance. When she had heard on the news about the fire and destruction to the house that had once belonged to Alfons Vega, she had been rendered numb. But try as she might, she never received official confirmation as to Resa’s involvement and exact identification had not been made on all of the charred bodies found at the scene. But the police assured her they were still working on it and they hoped to have everyone accounted for within the next several weeks. Perhaps a little longer.

Yet Jennifer didn’t need to be told from anyone else that Resa was involved. She knew.

And she knew why.

It was because of her and the guilt of that responsibility weighed heavily upon her shoulders. At times it felt like more than she could bear. And it was with her every day, from the moment she awoke to the last seconds before she was claimed by sleep and even there she was not immune for her dreams were both a solace and a hell. Solace because for a few hours each night she was with Resa again, no longer alone and hell because of the crushing disappointment she experienced each time she woke again to the harshness of reality, to the utter desolation of her beguiled and broken heart. Whoever had said that it was better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all had clearly never lost love. This, she decided, was true misery.

Her friends and family did not understand. Ah, but how could they? She told them nothing of her anguish, choosing to suffer in silence and blame her depression on her injuries. Only Father Hector had a chance at insight but she had fought against telling him everything if only because she wasn’t entirely certain she could endure the pain of dredging it all up again.

She wasn’t a martyr. She knew she had to move on, truly she did. Yet knowing and doing were two very different things and for too long she couldn’t quite bring herself to take that first step.

But then last week the Padre had unexpectedly stopped by her apartment to express his concern for her and something changed. Perhaps it was actually seeing him again for the first time that had done it for she broke down and cried for God knows how long as the sympathetic priest held her without comment. And when she was once again composed, or very nearly so, she discovered she felt a little better. Not much. No sudden transformation or the like had taken place. But just a tiny bit less… forsaken. And she experienced the first sliver of relief in longer than she could recall.

It had been Father Hector’s idea to perform some act of closure and then one of symbolic beginning. The moment he raised the idea Jennifer knew exactly where she must go: to the Sacred Heart and the gardens within. Indeed, on some level it felt almost preordained, or perhaps she felt that way due to her precarious state of being.

Coming back to the Sacred Heart had been an almost surreal experience. While on the surface everything appeared the same, significant change had occurred within the hallowed walls since last she was an unscheduled visitor.

Jennifer was stunned to learn that not long after the frightening events with the Vartans, Sister Stephanie had taken a leave of absence to reevaluate her vocation and her life and was in all likelihood going to attend a local college in the fall. The Mother Superior hadn’t seemed the least bit surprised as she told this to Jennifer and indeed the younger woman got the impression it was somewhat expected. Deep down, Jennifer instinctively guessed the young nun’s decision was motivated in some part on the presence of Resa, she just didn’t quite know how or why. But it seemed right. It seemed entirely appropriate that Resa should leave her imprint on all whom she encountered.

She sighed and rubbed the crease between her brow.

“Do you regret any of it?” Father Hector asked, the timber of his voice reaching out to wrap around her like an embrace.

She didn’t need to look at him to reply.

“No,” she said with quiet certainty. “No matter what the outcome, I’m glad you introduced us and that we got to be…close.” She shut her eyes and a flash of distinctive blue appeared before her. She almost smiled. “Having known her will only make me a better person…Or, at least, I hope it will.” Now she did glance at him and here her voice almost broke. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

He nodded and she saw him swallow hard, the slightest betrayal of emotion to crack his normally stoic facade. She realized then that this moment was difficult for him, too, that Resa had been an incredibly important part of his life as well and she felt suddenly selfish. She immediately turned to hug the priest around the waist and felt his arms come up tight about her shoulders. The two held each other for several moments in mutual consolation before Father Hector at last pulled back and smiled down at her, revealing the faintest glimmer of tears.

“She loved you,” he told her softly, a slight catch in his voice.

Jennifer could not speak for several seconds as she struggled to control her own sorrow, her cheeks already wet. “I hope so,” she whispered roughly.

“I know so,” he insisted. “Don’t ever doubt it.”

Oh, how she wanted nothing else but it wasn’t that simple. There were some days when it felt as if all she had was doubt. She had gone through all the natural stages of grief since Resa left her in the hospital room. Disbelief, anger, depression. Only now was she making her first attempt at the most difficult step of all: acceptance. She wasn’t entirely convinced she could do it but she knew she had to make the effort.

She broke away from Father Hector, wiping her face with both her hands and sniffling, then she drew in a calming breath.

“I’m going to go off for a little bit,” she said.

“You do what you have to,” he said. “I’ll be here when you get back.”

Impulsively she stood on her toes to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thank you,” she told him sincerely.

His smile was warm. “You’re welcome.”

Jennifer turned to walk down one of the garden pathways, her shoulders squared as she prepared to encounter the ghosts that haunted her without mercy.

She threaded through the bushes, past the bench where months earlier she had sat with Sister Therase, listening to the story of a love denied; past the tall, green hedgerows where Resa once stood, tall, proud, cautious, and watching her…To her left she caught a glimpse of the guest apartment peeking through some branches and felt the invariable ache at the memories such a sight evoked within her.

She closed her eyes for a beat, steadied herself, then continued on. After what she supposed was several minutes, though the passage of time was somewhat deceptive for her of late, she found the tree branches above her growing closer together and the sunlight dimming as it was blocked by the green leaves hanging high overhead. Absently she let her fingers lightly trail along the rough bark of several trees as she walked and she noted how much cooler the air felt in this area than it did elsewhere. It was strangely inviting.

Even though she had only wandered deep into the gardens that one time, it was as if her feet knew where to take her on instinct alone, making turns without forethought and leading her in a very clear direction. She couldn’t say for certain why this one location was where she felt she needed to be. After all she and Resa had only spent the briefest interval there in comparison to the rest of their time together, but something within her drew her to this spot like a magnet. She decided not to fight the urge, to just give in, quiet her questioning soul and allow herself to be led, just as Resa had led her oh those many weeks ago.

And the moment she stepped into the area, she had a better understanding as to why.

She stopped in her tracks, her heart catching in her throat and a tiny gasp escaping her lips as she stared in awe at the sight before her.

The door to Xavier and Marianna’s vault was open. Not by much, mind you, just about half a foot, give or take, but enough for a person to squeeze through. And most curious of all was that it looked as if it had been pushed open from the inside out and not from the outside in.

Her mouth went dry, her heart fluttered in her chest and a queasy sense of anticipation churned in her midsection. She knew beyond reason that something was waiting for her within. The question was, what?

With increasing expectation she moved up the steps and up to the entrance. Out of curiosity she attempted to pull at the stone door but it was outrageously heavy and impossible for one person to move. Which, of course, raised the issue of how the door had been opened at all but she hadn’t the patience to ponder that now.

Instead she took a deep breath and ducked inside the tomb.

The interior wasn’t very large, perhaps seven feet by seven feet. But the ceiling was tall, arching at least ten feet above, and at the top of which were two decorative rectangles cut opposite each other that allowed in enough sunlight to make it possible to see. Still, she took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the murkiness around her and she was instantly seized by a sneezing fit brought on by the abundance of dust. She rubbed her nose and blinked back the tears, sniffling and coughing a bit before she calmed down and looked around.

Her eyes took in everything, not the least of which was the plethora of spider webs that hung heavy in all directions but through which she detected a very distinct and clearly formed pathway that could not be too long established. It cut all the way from the door to the far wall and looked to be about as wide as a person, as if someone had trekked across the width of the tomb.

She frowned and noted how the twin pillars of light that poured down from the high openings seemed to be highlighting two things in particular on the far wall.

She moved forward, following the already established path, and as she neared noticed for the first time the items that were affixed to the wall. Two marble memorial inscriptions were placed about four feet off the ground and three feet apart and they held the names and dates for Xavier James O’Malley and Sister Beatrice of St. Ruth’s of the Sacred Heart. Above the matching plaques, carved into the stone itself was the inscription:

‘We are many things in many lives but always drawn together.’

Jennifer’s blonde brows knitted at the epitaph, finding it highly peculiar, especially given Sister Beatrice’s religious vocation. The words implied a reincarnation-type of relationship, which was most definitely not a belief held by the modern Roman Catholic Church and yet here it was on the tomb of one of its own devotees. It struck her as most odd.

Still, a part of her recognized it as a wonderfully romantic concept and one that held an instant appeal. Somehow it made her feel slightly better about the fact that though the Fates had conspired to keep these two people apart whilst they were alive, the duo had found a way to be together after death.

Then her attention was drawn further up to two pictures attached above the individual plaques. They were mostly covered by a thick layer of dust but each photograph had a single swipe across them as if having been freshly brushed aside. Probably by the same person who had made the trail in the spider webs, she decided.

Jennifer peered closely, squinting through the shafts of sunlight to get her first

look at the photos of the tomb’s occupants.

The portraits were from long ago, clearly taken in an early sepia-tone and later painted over with watercolor as was often the fashion back in the days of pre-color film but nonetheless it represented the subjects quite well.

In this portrait, Xavier was, if the likeness was accurate, a tow-headed, handsome Irish lad in his early twenties with laughing lips and a sparkle to his bright green eyes. Despite the fashion of the times, his face was bare of whiskers and it lent him a youthful countenance, one that would have probably taken him (as she could well relate to) years to grow beyond.

Sister Beatrice’s portrait had her mostly covered by her nun’s habit and wimple but enough of her appearance managed to peek through to reveal the woman also known as Marianna Ramirez had at least at one time been extraordinarily beautiful. Striking. Especially her eyes. Despite her Mexican heritage, whoever had decided to add color to the pictures had chosen to paint her eyes a shockingly bright shade of blue. Quite like someone else’s she knew.

It was disconcerting, to say the least.

She took a step back and her foot kicked something. She glanced down and it took a moment or two for her mind to register what her eyes beheld.

It was an envelope. Small and white and definitely not decades old. This had the appearance of being quite modern.

And it had her name written in bold, confident script across the front.

Palms broke out in a sweat and somehow her heart managed to flutter yet again. With fingers visibly shaking, she bent down to retrieve the item from the floor and for a few moments she just held it, savored it, before she turned the envelope over and saw additional writing on the back.

The tomb was open when I arrived. I hope it stays that way when you get here. I

think it will.

She drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes.

Inside her emotions were an utter tumult and she felt her body fairly vibrate with expectation. A hundred questions leapt to the forefront of her mind, each tumbling over the other in a headlong rush but she willed them back down again.

With a slow exhale she opened her eyes, carefully slid her finger along the envelope’s fold and withdrew the letter from within.

It was a single sheet of white stationery and her eyes took in the lone paragraph that dashed across the page. A part of her was disappointed there wasn’t more. But, then again, what else could she honestly expect? Her heart may crave endless pages of communication but that was not Resa Gustavez’s style.

She began to read.

Jennifer,

I remember you telling me once that a person ought to write a note before they went somewhere unannounced. You were adamant about that so I thought I would be sure to do so now. I wish I could say I was coming back, but that seems impossible. When I left you this morning it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I need you to know that. More than anything else I wanted to turn around and go back and stay with you for as long as I could but that’s impractical and unsafe. Besides, I have something else I have to do. By the time you get this, you’ll probably already know what happened, that I plan to go after Alfons. I know you won’t approve and for that I am so very sorry. But it has to be done and if I could do it in a less dangerous way then I would. Unfortunately, I can’t. Trust me. But this note isn’t about what I’m planning to do or what I’ve in all likelihood already done. This is to let you know how much you mean to me and how grateful I am to you for everything. I told you once that I’ve never had to risk losing love. Well, now I have. By leaving you. I know I’m not very good at communicating emotions but I hope you already know how I feel, that finding you was the best thing in my life and that I do love you. It may have only been a few days but it was enough. At least for me. One thing is for sure, you’ll have enough material for your book and I expect you to write it. Promise me that. Now I’m going to go before you stain this whole thing by crying over it (don’t deny it). I’m going to leave this for you at Xavier and Marianna’s tomb. I can’t mail it because I don’t know your exact address and I won’t go back to your apartment because of the danger. This is the right place and I’m not sure why but I know you’ll come here. Thank you…for everything.

Love,

Resa

Jennifer reread the note four more times while standing there, having the words consigned to memory by the time she was done. Then she pressed the paper against her heart and tipped her head back to stare sightlessly up at the ceiling. Tears rolled unhindered down her face, over her cheeks, to her arched neck where they either pooled in the hollow of her throat or were absorbed by the collar of her shirt. She did nothing to stop them. She barely moved at all, save the slight swaying of her body.

This was the good-bye she sought. Only it came from Resa to her and not the other way around. How perfectly ironic.

The letter did not provide ultimate closure…but she couldn’t help thinking it pointed her in the right direction and it was in that direction she would go. Per Resa’s request. Only time would tell if she could ever fully recover…

She straightened and looked back at the photographs. With a tentative hand she reached out to touch the likeness of first Xavier and then Sister Beatrice, her fingers holding over her extraordinary eyes for a couple extra beats as her heart sung out a silent thank you that she would never be able to explain to anyone else…except Resa of course. Resa would understand. Perhaps she already did, when she saw the portraits, recognized the brightness that radiated from these two people across decades of history. It was uncanny, but in a way Jennifer expected no less. So much of what had happened between she and Resa had felt destined at the time. Why not this, too? she wondered.

She dropped her hand and with one last glance, turned to walk back out of the tomb, this time realizing that the pathway through which she moved had been made by none other than the one she loved most in all the world.

When she was once again outside she paused to glance around at the trees, the magnificent branches teaming with buds and new leaves and felt the warm breeze as it drifted over her skin. The sounds of birds chirping filled the air, as did the scents of a dozen different flowers. Spring was preparing to give way to summer and the world was continuing its timeless spin, as it was wont to do, with or without her active participation. And for the first time in months Jennifer felt a glimmer of interest in resuming her part. Or at least making an effort. It would not be easy, of that she was acutely aware, but at least now she had a goal in mind, a purpose to get her through the countless agonizing moments that were yet to come.

Her hand clutched the letter.

After all, she thought as she walked down the steps and into her future, I have a book to write.
EPILOGUE

A year and a half later
“So, are they or aren’t they?”

Jennifer blinked at the question from the redheaded woman in the front row and a little frown furrowed along her blonde brow.

“Are they or aren’t they what?” she asked politely, though she had a pretty fair idea.

“Lovers,” confirmed the reply as the redhead watched her with intent amber eyes.

Jennifer just looked at her for a moment, then reached up to twirl a finger around a lock of her hair, now styled short, and sat back in her chair.

She let her glance steal over the surprisingly large crowd, noting there wasn’t an overabundance of room between the coffee counter and the wrap around second story window at her back but the lack of space just made the bodies pressed together seem all the more energetic and interesting.

Nearly a hundred people (mostly women but a significant number of men, as well) were gathered in the upstairs corner area of the Los Angeles Borders Books & Music to hear the small panel discussion on the role of women in literature, of which Jennifer was the fourth and youngest participant. Hers was the book representing modern fiction, its publication four months earlier having caused something of a titter. Oh, not so much in the staid literary world, of course (it was far too manifest to warrant their serious consideration), but rather amongst the book-buying public who embraced it with fervid enthusiasm. That the book was an unqualified success surprised none more than its young author who hadn’t given a thought to the possibility of publication once she began to spew out the words in a mad frenzy. That had come later. But once she had gotten started in her desert hideaway, Jennifer wrote as if she couldn’t capture the memories fast enough, almost as if afraid they, too, would disappear into the black void that had likewise swallowed up Resa, from and about whom she had had no word.

It had taken two weeks to get out the initial draft. Two weeks of near absolute solitude in that motel room where she did nothing but relive those few days, those extraordinary moments with Resa over and over and over until she was certain she was losing her mind, and then decided she didn’t care if she was. She only wanted to get it out, purge it from her soul and then maybe, just maybe, she would be able to get on with her life.

But it hadn’t worked out that way.

To her surprise, even though finishing the story had helped tremendously, it hadn’t completely eradicated the persistent sense of melancholy that haunted her. Eventually she grew to accept it as a natural part of the person she now was and while her sorrow had lessened, there was still a vacant aspect within her that made each day a little less engaging than it deserved to be and dulled the zest for life that had once been her defining characteristic.

She sighed and rubbed the crease between her brows but before she could answer the question posed to her, a tall, balding man in at the back spoke up in obvious irritation.

“Oh, come on, how can you even ask that?” he demanded hotly.

“Because it’s what everyone really wants to know,” came the redhead’s haughty reply.

“Not necessarily.”

“Right, just everyone with a pulse.”

An attractive African American woman bristled, an irritated look on her face. “Can’t two strong women be friends without folks assuming they’re having sex?”

“Of course they can but in this instance I think there’s plenty of insinuation they’re a heckuva lot more than just friends.”

“Such as?” This came from a matronly looking woman off to the side.

A young Asian woman in a green army jacket and several decorative piercings sat forward, her expression one of open incredulity. “Okay, hel-lo? Did we read the same book?”

The matronly woman crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “I don’t know what book you read, but I read about a devoted friendship between two women.”

“Who, like, kissed!”

“So? She kissed the priest, too. Are you going to tell me they were getting it on as well?”

“Oooo! Kinky,” an older woman said with a mischievous grin, then suggestively wiggled her gray eyebrows.

“What’s the big deal? I kiss my girl friends all the time,” the African American lady said.

“On the lips?” asked a tweedy gentleman in his late forties, suddenly quite interested.

A professional-looking woman scrutinized the Asian woman. “Thelma and Louise kissed on the lips, too, that doesn’t mean anything.”

The redheaded who had started the discussion in the first place turned in her chair to face the professional woman. “That’s subject for debate.”

“Oh, come on!” Matronly exclaimed in exasperation. “Women are far more affectionate than men. We kiss each other all the time.”

“Uh-huh. Have you ever kissed a ‘friend’ like those two did at the end there?” This came from a blonde woman off to one side.

“I’ve never had a friend go to their death for me.”

Tweedy Gentleman piped up. “We don’t know for sure she’s dead,” he pointed out. “They never found the body.”

“Okay, ‘probable’ death.” Tweedy smiled, satisfied, and the Professional Woman turned back to the Blonde. “Have you?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” the Blonde replied tartly and took a loud sip from her cappuccino.

“So you don’t know what you’d do, how you’d react. Don’t you see this question demeans everything about the journey these two characters went through?”

Redhead rolled her eyes. “How does asking a question about love demean anything? These two characters obviously loved each other. They were willing to sacrifice their lives so the other could live.”

“That doesn’t mean there was a sexual element.”

“That doesn’t mean there wasn’t.”

“Oh you are just being difficult.”

“And you’re just being narrow-minded and homophobic.”

“That’s right, play the ‘homophobe’ card. I’ll have you know some of my friends…”

It was about that time Jennifer’s attention reduced the bickering before her to the blessed drone of white noise, which she chose to ignore as a means of preserving her sanity. She swallowed a little sigh and glanced down at the other panelists who were watching the debate with varying degrees of interest. It took all her willpower not to roll her eyes at the absurdity of it all. What she really wanted to say was Who the hell cares? See what you want to see and move on already. It is not worth getting riled up over.

But she remained silent on the subject. Speaking up wouldn’t have helped anyway. She’d been to enough of these signings and discussions and been presented with that same question more times than she could recall. And if there was one thing she had learned along the way it was that people were myopic and would choose to see exactly what they wanted to, all else to the contrary be damned.

She leaned back in her chair…

…and her thoughts might very well have continued along that blasé path had not a rather interesting occurrence taken place…one that was on one hand rather peculiar and on the other stunningly, astonishingly, gloriously familiar. It wasn’t much, really. Nothing astounding, no bolt from the blue or Heavens opening up or anything so grand. Indeed, it was a rather innocuous event in its own right but to Jennifer Logan it was a moment she would never forget as long as she lived.

She tingled. Not just any tingle, mind you, but a very distinct needlelike sensation that went straight up her side, hard and sharp like a thousand pin-pricks of electricity scattered across her skin, leaving behind a hot and stirring trail that brought tears of recognition to her eyes.

She froze, not daring to so much as breathe lest the feeling should suddenly disappear.

But the tingling did not go away and with painstaking deliberation, almost afraid of moving at all, Jennifer slowly turned her head and looked down to her right, through the slightly tinted second story window, to the shadowed sidewalk below…

…where she saw a tall, darkened figure standing as a clear silhouette within the circle of a dim light from the nearby corner street lamp and quite possibly looking up in her direction. She really could not say.

Her heart may not have actually stopped, but it sure felt as if it did. Hell, everything stopped. The blood in her veins, the air being drawn into her lungs, the conversations not ten feet away…the world at large. It all came to a standstill as she stared down at the figure whose face she could not see…and yet…

Her pulse started again. Loud in her ears, like a locomotive.

And yet…did she need to?

She blinked back the teardrops and the figure started to turn away.

“No.” She was unaware she had spoken aloud.

It didn’t matter. The instant the figure turned, she instinctively reacted.

Jennifer shot out of her chair and ran straight through the center of the quarreling crowd, splitting through the startled ensemble with a single-minded determination. She barely registered they were even there. It took her about ten seconds to thread through the second story book shelves, fly down the angled stairs, and dash out the front glass doors into the well lighted exterior sidewalk. She was afraid it was too long.

Outside, she paused to suck in her ragged breath as she glanced to her right, toward the direction of the residential street that ran parallel to the bookstore. It was night and thus the area was cast in deep shadow, the rows of elm and birch trees blocking out most of the store’s powerful security lights in an effort to prevent annoying the home owners in close proximity. It was a quiet street despite being adjacent to a major thoroughfare and there was no one else about.

Save one.

She caught movement in her peripheral vision and she saw the outline of the Figure as it walked down the sidewalk, away from the bookstore. A powerful surge of awareness grabbed hold of her and left her thoroughly shaken.

She ran. Fast and hard, heedless of her inappropriate shoes and long skirt flapping in the breeze. Side-stepping a car as it attempted to pull into the store’s parking area, she turned the corner until she was on the shadowed sidewalk and the tall Figure only a half dozen feet away. But there. Most definitely, undeniably there.

And then the Figure abruptly stopped.

And Jennifer stopped too.

And her breathing came to her in giant gulps as she felt her heart slam against her chest so loud and hard she thought it might very well burst through. Darkness enshrouded both, though a single ray of pale moonlight slipped through the overhead branches to rest directly between them and provide more than ample illumination for her hungry eyes.

A dozen details flooded her mind at once. The long black coat. The height. The distinctive stance. The breadth of shoulders over which spilled a thick lock of long, glossy, indigo hair.

For the briefest moment, as crazy as it might seem, Jennifer actually wished the Figure would not turn around. What if she was wrong? What if…what if she wasn’t…? At least in this tiny instant, for this one perfect moment in time she again had hope and that was something she hadn’t experienced in a good, long while.

But the darkened Figure did turn around. Slowly. Hesitantly. As if uncertain. Perhaps afraid that to do so was an unwise idea…yet equally unable to resist the temptation.

And then there she was.

The breath left Jennifer’s lungs in a painful rush and she experienced an almost overwhelming, otherworldly sensation as she looked into an achingly familiar pair of sky blue eyes that stared down at her for the first time in well over a dozen months.

She felt faint, but held strong.

Resa.

Alive. Beautiful. And standing before her.

A deeply emotional Jennifer didn’t know what to say, didn’t know if she could even speak at all, and for a long moment she didn’t. Instead she tried in vain to blink back the tears and gazed in mute amazement, hoping against hope that this was not another one of her dreams from which she would awaken.

It wasn’t.

Resa took a small, uncertain step forward, then stopped, her gaze roaming over every aspect of Jennifer’s face in open longing, drinking in the minutest detail. It has been so long, she thought. In that moment, she was reminded of her first impression of the young woman before her, at how bright-eyed and lively she had been and at all the questions that had poured forth from her insatiable curiosity like a never-ending wellspring. But one look now and Resa could tell she was no longer that same girl. Though it had only been a year and a half since last they were together, she could see a difference in the face opposite her, recognized a depth born from maturity and experience. It would seem the former college student had grown up…and it only served to enhance her appeal.

Resa nearly reached out for her but kept her hands right where they were, stuffed deep into her pockets and instead nodded in her direction.

“You…cut your hair,” she said in quiet surprise and Jennifer’s hand self-consciously went up to the back of her neck. It was a gesture Resa instantly recognized, prompting her to add, “I like it. It looks good on you.”

“Really?” Jennifer asked with a sniff, wiping the back of her hand across one cheek. “You don’t think it makes me look like a boy?”
A single dark brow arched. “Not even close.”

Jennifer smiled a little at that. “Thanks,” she murmured shyly. “I know it was kind of a drastic step and practically everyone I know had an opinion about it but I was getting so down and really felt I needed a change and….” She suddenly paused and frowned in bemusement as a wry smile pulled at her lips. “You know,” she confessed as she tugged on her ear in keen embarrassment. “I have thought about this moment every day since you left…and I never, ever pictured it starting out like this.”

Resa laughed, then bit back on her own crushing emotion. No, it hadn’t started out like this in her innumerable suppositions either. But that was all right. She knew too well how real-life seldom went blithely along with the intricacies of imagination. Sometimes, however, though certainly not always, it did manage to exceed them. But only on the rarest of occasions.

Like now.

The feeling of magnificent exultation that sung through her veins could never have been accurately imagined if she’d had a millennium to make the attempt. It had to be experienced. And even then she knew she didn’t fully assimilate it all, wasn’t capable of totally processing the barrage on her senses at being once again in the company of the most important person in her life. Perhaps she never would.

Jennifer took a step toward her. “I miss you,” she said in a fine tribute to understatement, the tears glistening like silver in the moonlight as they laid poised in her expressive eyes, ready for their moment to spill over onto cheeks where the deep channels of sorrow had long since been formed.

It took every ounce of self-discipline Resa possessed not to show her just how much she desperately missed her as well. How she had thought of little else since their separation and how she had felt woefully diminished until this very moment, until she once again saw her and knew what it meant to be complete.

Instead she dropped her eyes a fraction, her rapid heartbeat thundering in her ears as a slightly panicked heat swept over her. This was not supposed to happen. She wasn’t supposed to actually meet Jennifer. Just come to the publicized discussion to catch a tantalizing glimpse from afar and then go away. Slink back into her personal oblivion with only the black and white author’s photograph on the back of Jennifer’s book as a reminder. That had been the plan…but, then again, when did anything with Jennifer Logan ever go according to plan?

She shook her head with a gentle sigh. “I should have known coming here was too great a risk,” Resa said, her voice rough and low, sending a shiver of urgency up Jennifer’s spine.

“Why did you?”

Resa paused for a brief eternity, then shrugged with an almost palpable helplessness. “I wanted to see you,” she said heartbreaking honesty.

Jennifer took another hopeful step forward and faced the dark-haired woman with an expression breathtakingly naked in its candor. “I’m so glad you did,” she whispered.

She was close enough now for Resa to feel her warmth, to smell the subtle, floral fragrance of her perfume and she started to shake, drawing the lapels of her coat closer with her left hand in an unconscious shoring up of her defenses. “I-I can’t…” she started but broke off in pain, the words lying stillborn on her lips.

Yet Jennifer knew too well what she meant. “Why?” she asked in an anguished plea.

“You know why.” Her voice were barely audible.

“I know why you think. But, Resa, those reasons don’t exist anymore.”

“They would if I returned.” Blue eyes implored her to understand but Jennifer raised her chin in defiance.

“I don’t believe that,” she said firmly.

“Well I do and I can’t take the risk. The Vartans may be destroyed but I have many enemies. Staying away is the only guarantee.”

Jennifer dropped her gaze, her stomach clenched so tight that shards of pain shot out all over her body as a sense of alarm started to seep into her heart.

“Don’t-don’t you want…”

“Of course.” Before she knew it, Resa took step toward the younger woman, her hand unwittingly reaching out at the unveiled insecurity she saw. “Of course I do.” She quickly balled her fingers into a fist before she actually made the mistake of touching Jennifer and dropped it to her side. “But it wouldn’t be safe for you.”

Jennifer laughed harshly, her voice and manner the furthest thing from amused. “You know, I can’t imagine a worse scenario than being ninety and looking back on my life and saying ‘Hey, at least I played it safe.’”

Resa’s lips lifted in a faint smile. “I just want you to get to ninety.”

Green eyes flashed. “Who’s to say I won’t if we’re together? Who’s to say you won’t either?”

“Given my past, I think it highly unlikely.”

Her jaw shifted in determination. “So then we’ll leave LA. I’m not really that crazy about the smog and bad drivers anyway. We’ll go someplace else to live. Anywhere.”

“That’s still no guarantee.”

“I don’t want a guarantee!”

“Well, I do. For you.”

“What about for you?”

“That’s not important.”

“It is to me. It means everything to me.”

Resa dropped her gaze. “I’m sorry…” she whispered.

Jennifer closed her eyes in frustration. Her throat burned and she swallowed reflexively as she fought back against the mounting sense of desperation and defeat that threatened to overtake her.

How could she convince her? What could she say or do? In her heart of hearts, she knew she could not take losing Resa again, could not live her life with the awareness that her sundered half was out there…somewhere…agonizingly beyond her reach. The mere thought submerged her in a morass of despair that threatened to overwhelm her altogether. There had to be a way to reach her, to make her understand…there simply had to be…Life too seldom presented second chances and she was not about to let this one pass her by, to leave anything unsaid.

Several seconds of silence ticked by before she opened her eyes and began to speak with quiet conviction born out of the purity of her feelings and the depth of her need.

“It’s funny but ever since you left, I’ve done a lot of thinking about Xavier and Marianna,” she said softly. “And it seems to me that they had their chance at happiness…and they let it slip through their fingers. Oh, I’m sure Xavier thought his reason for staying away was selfless and noble. But it wasn’t. It was just the opposite. And in the end they both lost out on so much. He should have trusted in Marianna and trusted in their love to overcome any obstacle and they should have been together in life…but they weren’t. They failed to fulfill their destiny as they were meant to do and that was their mistake.” Her voice gained strength as she continued.

“And I know that I don’t ever want to make a mistake like that with my life. I don’t want to look back on this moment and know that we were just as wrong as they were for all the supposedly right reasons.” She took one last step until only a foot separated them, then without the slightest hesitation she said in complete candor, “I love you, Resa. More than anything…more than everything and I always will.” She slowly reached up to cup her hand to Resa’s warm cheek and rapt blue eyes closed briefly to absorb the contact. “If I had a thousand lifetimes and an endless supply of words I still wouldn’t be able to tell you how much you mean to me, how much I need to be with you, how you make me feel.” Ebony fringed eyelids opened again and the eyes that gazed down at her were filled with a blatant passion that left Jennifer literally weak in the knees. “And if you try hard enough, you can come up with a dozen different reasons why we should be apart …but there’s only one reason why we should be together.” She shook her head and let the tears flow freely.

“Oh, Resa, don’t you see? So many people never even make it to this point. They never know what we have the opportunity to know. This is our chance. Right here, right now, and we either take it for all its worth or coast through the rest of our lives on regret.” She leaned a fraction closer. “Because, if you leave me again, Resa, that’s what will happen. I will not live…I’ll exist…And, I assure you that’s a far worse fate than anything any of your so-called enemies could ever do to me.” Her other hand came up to lovingly cradle the right side of Resa’s face, her eyes beseeching. “Please,” she implored in a whisper. “Please…Trust in me as I trust in you…Please…”

The seductive words washed over Resa and pulled at her like the tide pulling a swimmer into an unknown sea and deep in her heart, she knew she was afraid. Uncertain and afraid. Before her stood the embodiment of all she had ever wanted most out of life, so temptingly within reach. All she had to do was ask for it and it would be hers. All she had to do…but could she? It was not an easy notion to embrace, not for one who had lived a lifetime of dearth and denial. She had so little experience with happiness…What if she failed? What if she couldn’t be for Jennifer what she needed? What then?

But from somewhere within her a small voice rose up to softly whisper, You can always find a reason to say no, an excuse to deny…but that’s all it will ever be: an excuse. And you know that. You are like the parable about a man clinging to a rock in the middle of a raging river, being bashed about unmercifully but unwilling to let go for fear of the unknown that lies ahead. Only you have what he did not: a guide. In Jennifer.

The Vartans, she knew, were no more and while there were indeed others out there who hated her, who could say with anything approaching absolute certainty that any of them would make a move against her? Thus far, no one had. So why should I condemn us both to a life of loneliness when there is no virtue in it? When all it causes is pain? Why not embrace what will finally bring the happiness we both want? Why not?

Resa swayed, drawn in close until their foreheads were suddenly touching and before she knew it her hands were covering Jennifer’s own. Her body quietly trembled and throbbed with a need too long cast aside and she knew what she must do. She was so tired of being miserable…And yes, it was a risk, of that there was no doubt…but what worth having wasn’t? Jennifer said this was their chance…perhaps their last chance. And she was right. From every corner of her soul, Resa knew she was right.

Slowly she turned her head to place a kiss of infinite tenderness upon each of the younger woman’s palms. The contact sent a shock of fire traveling through the entirety of Jennifer’s body, leaving her to shiver at the awesome intensity she felt passing between them. Then crystal eyes locked onto green and all barriers permanently fell away.

Why not, indeed.

With a tiny groan that choked in her throat, Resa scooped Jennifer up against her heart and buried her face in the curve of the smaller woman’s neck as their arms wrapped around each other in an embrace of both passion and promise.

“I love you,” Resa avowed with the whole of her being and Jennifer nearly collapsed.

Who knows how long they held each other like that? They certainly didn’t. They were unaware of anything other than this impossible bliss in which they now found themselves enshrouded, the rapture thought hopeless only minutes ago.

Then Resa pulled back just enough and their mouths came together in a kiss unmistakable in its desire as bodies pressed hard and eager against each other and tongues intertwined in an erotic dance as old as time. They forgot everything but the other and the sweet yearning rapidly building within them. Hands slid over shoulders, down backs, along arms as breathing grew labored and heavy with each passing second, both almost swooning with exhilaration.

Resa was the first to remember that they were standing very much out in the open and she slowly eased away. Jennifer’s attention shifted to the tall woman’s neck and she began a new angle of assault with weapons of exquisite torture.

“Jen,” Resa murmured, her voice thick with sensuality as she allowed her hands to slide down the well-toned back and draw firm hips into her own. “If we don’t stop we’re going to have to charge for the view.”

She felt the warmth of lips and nip of teeth upon her collarbone. “So? We’ll split the profits,” came the muffled reply and Resa gasped as she felt the heat of Jennifer’s hand slide under her shirt to caress her abdomen and stroke her ribs. Senses thrummed on full alert.

“Jennifer,” she whispered again, this time in a tortured plea even as she rubbed her cheek against short hair that smelled of rosemary and a hint of sage.

Jennifer inwardly groaned but knew she was right. They had to put a halt to this…but only for the time being.

“All right,” she reluctantly acquiesced even as she leaned forward to place a defiant kiss on the sensitive skin above her right breast, tasting the light salt of sweat upon her tongue. “I have a lot of questions for you anyway.” She tightened her hold around the tall woman’s waist, laying her cheek against her shoulder and peering up into eyes dark with need. “For instance, what the heck happened and where have you been all this time?”

“Oh. That,” Resa teased dryly, unable to resist kissing the warm and vibrant skin of the younger woman’s exposed neck.

“Yes, that.” Lips found each other and for another wayward moment they were lost in the magnificent pleasure of kissing. This time it was Jennifer who first broke away. “C’mon. What happened?” The warmth of her breath and the vibrations of her voice sent an uncontrollable shiver throughout Resa’s already pulsating body and it took a moment for her to recognize what the younger woman had actually said.

“Long story…involves…” She kissed her ear. “Falling.” Took the lobe between her teeth. “Rolling.” Tugged a little, her voice a smooth rumble. “Fire, some broken bones and a nearby pool.”

“Sounds complicated,” she murmured, Resa’s warm breath tickling her until her back arched.

“Mmmm…It was,” came the throaty reply and another nip.

Jennifer drank in her scent and for a moment she had to concentrate on just standing. “Are–you all right?” The question came out in a breathy rush.

Resa ceased tormenting her ear and let out a little sigh as she held her close. “Yeah. Still have some scars, though. Some burns.”

Jennifer pulled back to gaze up at the face she held so infinitely dear. “Where?” she asked in concern.

Resa shrugged. “My feet mostly. But some other places, too.” She held up her right hand and for the first time Jennifer noticed the white pattern of discoloration that wrapped around the wrist and palm. She frowned and took hold of it.

“Oh, baby…” she whispered and then leaned close to kiss the scorched flesh. “I wish I could have been there for you.”

“You were.” Resa laid a sweet kiss upon her brow. “In my heart. Every time I thought about you.” She grinned. “Which was all the time.”

Jennifer’s eyes welled with a fresh set of tears. “As I thought of you.”

Resa smiled and leaned down to place a tender kiss on her lips then hug her close.

Jennifer shuddered, still not fully certain this was all really happening, that Resa was in actuality before her now and was not going to leave. That the running away had stopped and her greatest wish had in fact come true. It would take a while for everything to sink in and she had so many questions for her but they had time now…all the time in the world.

She smiled and said quietly, “Let’s go home.”

It was on the tip of Resa’s tongue to ask whose home but then she realized that it didn’t matter. Home wasn’t a location; it was a state of being. It was a sense of belonging and acceptance and a totality of love unconditional. And as dazzlingly incomprehensible as it right now seemed, it was something she had found at last.

With Jennifer.

No matter where they ended up, as long as they were together, by each other’s side then there their home would be.

She ran a finger along her companion’s cheek, down her neck and reached out to take hold of her hand.

“Yes,” she said with a smile and a quick kiss filled with wonder and tranquility. “I would like that. I would very much like to go home.”

And, hand in hand, that is precisely what they did…

 

The End

Continued in The Day After

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