The Beautiful Lie by Curiositee

The Beautiful Lie
by Curiositee
Sequel to The Dangerous Truth

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
My myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths–and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
Robert Frost

Prologue – Chicago, Illinois – Sunday, August 23rd, 1998

After five miles, her stamina still felt boundless. Legs and arms pumping rhythmically, she felt an almost super-mortal surge of energy that propelled her forward at an even faster pace. Studiously ignoring the peculiar looks and disapproving stares she was receiving as she cleared an impromptu path down the mildly busy Chicago sidewalk, Alex Bryson was quite astounded at how she felt.

Alive.

There was just no other way to describe it. As she felt the easy strength flowing through her legs, her arms, her body, Alex mused at the sensations. After accepting, for so long, a deliberate indifference toward her existence, Alex felt as though she had been set free. Free from the prison of a weakened body and a mind overwhelmed by guilt, as though it had been a heavy weight pinning her to the ground. The guilt was still there, of course. But it was now balanced by a new, and almost wholly unfamiliar emotion. Hope.

It felt . . . Wonderful.

Intoxicating.

Orgasmic.

Well . . . she chuckled silently . . . maybe not orgasmic. But it was a fairly safe bet that she might have the pleasure of that particular sensation again in the near future, as well. A wistful smile crossed her face at the memory of soft lips and a firm, supple body in her arms.

Blue eyes, glittering with energy, caught sight of a quickly approaching intersection and full lips twitched into a crooked grin as Alex maintained her pace. A rush of adrenaline thrilled through her system at the thought of what she was about to do. Deliberately not checking the status of the lights, Alex hit the intersection without so much as a pause in her stride.

Horns and the squall of tires quickly assaulted her ears, but she concentrated only on the sight of the fast moving vehicles in her path. Darting between the speeding cars Alex was almost giddy the familiar luxury of unabashed freedom. Nearing the edge of the next sidewalk, she felt as much as saw the small car that rushed toward her. Driven by instinct, Alex launched herself high into the air, rolling forward in a lazy arc and feeling the rush of wind and metal below as the car sped by underneath her. She thought she caught a glimpse of a shocked expression on the driver’s face as she landed smoothly on the other side of the car with a low chuckle, driving her legs forward immediately to resume her quick pace.

It was, she ruefully admitted, silly, pointless, incredibly irresponsible and more than a little dangerous. And it felt so damn good.

During her long months of self-imposed exile from the world, Alex had been unwilling to let herself think of such things. Her body and her strength had been only reminders of the life she lead before, the one she wanted desperately to forget. She wondered, at times, why she hadn’t simply killed herself. But from somewhere inside of her, there was a voice that simply wouldn’t allow it. Maybe it was her conscience. Maybe it was something more. Either way, she had always obeyed. Apathetically content to merely live . . . and pray one day she would forget.

Knowing full well that she never would. Knowing also, that she never should.

Alex had woken up in the early afternoon with the echo of a half-remembered nightmare pounding through her head. She lay quietly for a time, caught between a compelling desire to remember the dream, and a fearful urge to let the memories fade once more into the shadowed recesses of her mind. Turning, she found Bridget sleeping soundly beside her and took the opportunity to study the young reporter’s profile as she slept. The almost childlike innocence of her face was belied by random, harshly discolored, patches of bruising and dark bluish circles, brought on by pain and stress, under her eyes.

With that, the memory of the previous day had spilled through her with a vengeance. Dominick, Victoria, and fresh blood spilt on hands already well covered with stains. Taking a deep breath, she had glanced down at her own body, her eyes drawn to the corded muscles and darkly tanned skin. It felt peculiar. Disturbingly familiar, and yet unfamiliar at the same time. She clenched her hands, watching the strong muscles of her forearms bunch and release. Yesterday there had simply been no time to allow herself to consider the ramifications of what had happened. But now . . . Alex felt an almost insatiable, unsettling curiosity. Her body no longer felt like her own. Brushing the covers aside, Alex slid carefully out of the bed, heading for the open door of the bathroom and deftly shedding her clothes along the way.

Once inside, clear blue eyes stared hard into the mirror, her hands moving slowly over her own skin, trailing over her stomach, up to squeeze lightly on her breasts, then up and over each arm. Her mind worked to identify familiarity in the textures, hard and soft. Long, slim fingers lightly traced faded scars, taking comfort in them, before moving down to her legs, prodding lightly at the well hardened muscles with near fascination.

After a moment’s thought, Alex shifted her weight onto her left leg, carefully bringing her right leg up into the air and clasping her right hand around the heel of her foot. Moving slowly, she straightened her leg upwards, until her knee locked and she felt the stretching of the muscles in her legs and back. Reaching her left hand up above her head as well, it joined the right in clasping around her the upraised foot and she tugged lightly, pulling her leg into longer stretch, until she felt the skin of her calf brush against the side of her head. She basked in the familiar strain and groan of muscles in protest.

“Well, now, there’s a sight you don’t wake up to every day.” A soft, teasing voice called from nearby.

Dropping her leg quickly, Alex turned to see Bridget laying on her stomach facing toward the bathroom with her chin resting on her palms and a grin that seemed, in turn, amused, confused and somewhat aroused. Unable to stop it, Alex felt a grin play across her face as she turned, crossing her arms and stepping forward to lean against the door frame. One dark eyebrow crept skyward as darkening green eyes roamed over exposed skin.

“Just . . . taking inventory.” Alex said softly with a slight shrug, as though it were nothing unusual.

The young reporter’s face grew serious as her eyes moved up quickly to meet Alex’s. “And?”

“And . . .” Alex sighed and moved forward, casually ignoring her state of undress, though Bridget certainly seemed to be taking notice. She settled on the bed, laying on her side next to her young friend and propping herself up with an elbow. “It feels like someone switched my body for the one I had a year ago.”

At any other time, and with any other person, it would have been a completely ridiculous thing to say, yet the young reporter’s face didn’t even register surprise. Bridget’s eyes merely moved away from her body, seeming lost in thought. A long silence stretched between them as each apparently wanted to avoid a discussion of how such a thing might be possible. Finally Bridget sighed, turning her head and glancing at the clock. The movement caused a groan as she rolled over onto her back, grimacing.

“How are you feeling?” Alex asked softly, laying a gentle touch on her friend’s arm. Seeing Bridget in pain caused a disconcerting, hollow ache in Alex’s chest. So much so that she had to suppress the urge to clutch at the pain.

“I feel . . .” Bridget sighed. “Like I’ve been beat half to death and run over by a car.” She tilted her head back and shot a wry, good natured grin toward Alex. “Can’t imagine why.”

Alex felt a sharp stab of guilt at the words, though she knew that Bridget didn’t seem to hold her responsible for the beating the reporter had taken at the hands of Victoria Carlyle. Thinking back on the previous day, Alex wondered how she had could have sent Bridget out there with a woman they both knew sadistically enjoyed inflicting pain. Everything had happened so fast, it had seemed like the only way. But was that the truth? Or had she just accepted the most convenient answer without considering the consequences to Bridget?

She sighed, dwelling on it wasn’t going to solve anything. Standing, Alex noted the easy strength in her legs at the motion and had felt another wave of curiosity overwhelm her. That had lead to a strong urge to test her rediscovered strength and endurance. Which had, in turn, lead to her the current pounding of her heart and strain on her body as she estimated, coming out from her reverie, that her run had now spanned a little over nine miles. Her body was tiring and she was glad to see Bridget’s apartment complex looming up ahead. She pulled up about a block away, letting her body cool down as she walked the remaining distance, feeling the sweat pouring down her back and along her face. The ache in her legs was comforting, and she smiled as she felt her breath steadily slowing. Ten miles would have been a somewhat longer than average run for her a year ago. At least it was consistent.

The sensations sparked a memory for Alex. Jaw clenching, she started to push the dark thoughts away, feeling the inexorable onrush of despair that accompanied the unwanted memories. . . No. She gritted her teeth against a powerful wave of almost habitual despondency. Enough, she chided herself. She’d been running for so long now. . . hiding from herself, from her enemies, from the world. That was a coward’s path.

No more.

If there were prices to be paid, then she would just have to pay them. The problem was, Alex felt herself on uncertain ground. Give me an enemy to face, a challenge to overcome. But this . . . struggling with herself and the dark memories, trying to figure out how to simply live. She didn’t even know where to begin.

For the first time in her life, Alexandra Bryson truly felt as though she had something to live for. Something worthwhile, she reminded herself, that had nothing to do with misplaced arrogance or blind ambition. And she had someone in her life now that made her unwilling to simply lie back and let the demons have their way. That realization blossomed in her heart like a lone rose in the desert, delicate and tenuous, yet stubbornly determined to survive.

Bridget, herself, was like a fascinating puzzle to Alex. The reporter seemed to presume a certain nobility to Alex’s actions, despite all protests to the contrary. Trust and caring just seemed to come so easily for her. And when she saw that trust in those soft, green eyes, it made Alex ache to feel worthy of it.

Suddenly, Alex stopped cold. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end.

She was being watched.

It couldn’t be . . .

Glancing up, Alex’s eyes easily found Bridget’s balcony, wondering if it was her young friend’s gaze she was feeling. But the small space was empty. Turning quickly, Alex scanned the area around her. People bustled about, here and there, but none seemed to look at her with anything more than mild interest. Eyes narrowing, she took a deep breath, trying to convince herself that it was all in her imagination. They couldn’t have found her this quickly.

Her skin still tingled in warning.

With another lingering glance around, Alex picked up her pace, jogging lightly through the courtyard and into Bridget’s building with a growing sense of unease.

And lonely as it is that loneliness

Will be more lonely ere it will be less–

A blanker whiteness of benighted snow

With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars–on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost

Chapter 1 – Yucca Valley, California – Saturday, January 12th, 1991

Gunnery Sergeant Alex Bryson was, for lack of a better word, trashed. Completely and thoroughly trashed. Of course, having a stronger constitution than most, she bore the outward appearance of only moderate intoxication. But Alex knew her body very well. And she was wasted.

The sure signs included her mercurial mood swings, flittering between a dark, moody melancholy, and a giddy, childlike amusement directed at nothing in particular. Not that she wasn’t prone to such swings while sober, of course. But as she collapsed into a fit of mirth at the playful antics of two cockroaches battling over an old pretzel on the floor, Alex knew she was gone.

A commotion from somewhere close by pulled her attention reluctantly away from dueling insects and she glanced up toward the dartboard across the room to see her companion, Lieutenant Jake Jennings, in a what looked to be a quickly escalating disagreement with a small group of the bar’s equally intoxicated patrons. Like her, Jake was dressed in jeans and simple shirt, hoping not to call attention to themselves with the locals, who tended to resent the inevitable military presence that came from having the Marine Core Air Ground Combat Center right down the road. He was tall, a few inches taller than Alex herself, putting him just slightly over six feet. His body was hardened and muscular. Rich, brown skin was smooth and his face handsome, all the more so because he was always quick to smile. But Jake wasn’t smiling at this moment, quite to the contrary. And the three surrounding him didn’t appear to be smiling, either.

Lurching to her feet and taking a deep breath to steady herself, Alex made her way over toward her the lieutenant, one of the very few people in her life that Alex had ever considered a friend. Any hopes of diffusing the situation quickly evaporated as a young man with long, scruffy brown hair and eerily protruding buck teeth turned to Jake and spit out the one word that Alex knew Jake hated beyond reason.

“You stupid nigger, get the fuck out of here!”

Jake’s entire body stiffened, his dark brown eyes went flat. Alex shook her head, trying to regain whatever hold on sober control she could and studied her friend for a moment. His eyes looked clear, he didn’t appear to be swaying where he stood. Good, maybe he was sober enough to handle this reasonably.

Pouncing forward, Jake grabbed the young man by the scruff of his collar and slammed him into the wall, losing his own balance in the process and falling forward on top of him.

Okay, well, maybe not.

With a muttered curse, Alex sprang forward clutching the back of two sweat-stained shirts to keep the men inside them away from Jake and the buck toothed kid as they collapsed onto the floor and began rolling around, trading punches and curses with abandon.

“Keep it fair, boys.” She warned in a low voice when the two turned back to see what had halted their progress. When they began to struggle, trying to break free from her grasp, Alex sucked in a breath and leveled her very best ‘screw with me and spend the night in the ER’ look at them. “What the fuck happened?” She called to Jake, who had taken the upper hand in the tussle, pinning the kid below him.

“Ignorant red necks tried to cheat me.” He grated out, sweat standing up on the chocolate brown skin of his forehead. “He took my father’s watch!” With that, Jake lashed a strong hand forward whipping the kid’s head to the side with the force of the blow.

“Fuckin’ jarhead! You lost it fair and square!” Buck teeth yelled, spitting blood.

Uh, oh. Jake was down right irrational about that watch, it being the only thing his father had left him when he died. This was going to get ugly. As if to prove the validity of that thought, both of the buck teeth’s friends were now struggling harder to get free. The bigger one broke free from her grasp and moved forward, tackling Jake and sending both to the ground with a heavy thud.

“HEY!” A loud voice from the bar called. “Take it outside!”

Yes, sir. Alex grinned, giving in to the moment. Her eyes quickly found the back door to the bar and hauled the guy she still had a hold of forward with purpose. Reaching around him, she whipped the door open, gleefully tossing the sputtering drunk outside before turning back, brushing her hands together, and looking around for more trouble. Moderately disappointed when she couldn’t find any. The two others were currently trying to pin Jake’s shoulders to the floor. Alex paused, watching the scene for a moment. Wondering how mad Jake was going to be if she tried to help.

Another commotion caught her attention and she turned to the door, where a group of four men, each easily falling into the category of white trash, had apparently noticed the fight and were moving forward to help. Ah, more of buck teeth’s friends. A broad grin broke across Alex’s face as she felt a surge of adrenaline heat her blood, burning away some of her intoxication. Playtime. She crossed the distance on quick feet, darting around tables and patrons along the way to intercept the would-be cavalry.

Foregoing the pleasantries, Alex dropped to a crouch as she neared them and rolled forward, stretching her body out and effectively taking out four sets of legs. As they crashed to the ground in surprise, Alex sprang to her feet, grabbing the nearest two by the hair and heading for the alley. The guy she had already booted out was staggering back inside. She slashed a leg forward, catching him in the chest and sending him sprawling back out the door, she paused to regain her momentarily shaky balance before whipping both of her arms forward as the two she’d been hauling fell face first onto the ground outside, side by side.

A strong arm grabbed her from behind and Alex jabbed her elbow back instinctively, feeling a sharp crack and hearing a hiss of pain as ribs gave way under the blow. She clasped the arm tightly, stepping slightly back with the same motion and flung her attacker forward, his feet cracking on the top of the doorframe as he flew out to join his dazed friends in the alley.

“Bry, move!” Recognizing Jake’s voice, Alex ducked out of the way without looking back just as two more, including buck teeth, himself, went flying out the doorway into an alley that was quickly growing crowded. Half turning, she saw the last of buck teeth’s friends, a skinny boy of around nineteen, staring at her with a bewildered expression.

With a devilish gleam in her eye, Alex stomped her foot toward him. “Boo!” The kid yelped and disappeared out the front door. Chuckling, Alex turned, catching the bartender’s eye and favoring him with wink before she trotted, unsteadily, out into the alley, shutting the door behind her.

Two of the locals had managed to grab hold of Jake’s arms, while a second was sending punches into his stomach. The other three were now advancing toward her with fury in their eyes. She sighed, six against two . . . it hardly seemed fair. But who am I to turn down a little bit of fun? White teeth appeared behind a broad grin as Alex launched her entire body forward with a sharp cry, twisting sideways, her body parallel to the ground, so that she caught all three high in the chest. Her momentum carried the small group to the ground with a loud crash. The unfortunate one nearest her feet caught a sharp kick in the nose, and promptly fell backward, unconscious. While the one near her head raised up just in time to receive a head butt that sent him back to the ground as well.

Buck teeth had been in the middle. Her grin never wavering, Alex pushed herself up on her knees, shifting until she was straddling his waist and settled there, enjoying the dumfounded surprise on his face. Her hands resting on her thighs, Alex merely stared down at him for a moment, a carefully noncommittal look on her face. Soon the kid was squirming underneath her, and she felt the evidence of his growing arousal. Smirking, she ground her hips into him, watching his eyelids flutter shut. She leaned carefully forward, until she was nose to nose with him. He was grinning dazedly now, oblivious to anything but her weight on top of him.

“Too bad I’m just a stupid jarhead, huh?” She asked in a soft growl, one eyebrow arching upward. The grin faded from his face and his eyes grew wide. He gulped.

Silence settled over the alley and she felt the presence of Jake near her shoulder.

“Now . . .” One hand slid upward slowly and curled around a narrow throat. Her eyes glinted dangerously and her voice was a low purr of menace. “You insulted my friend back there. I think you owe him an apology.”

Licking his lips, buck teeth’s eyes darted above her shoulder and then back to her eyes. His face twisted in anger. As he took a breath to retort, Alex favored his throat with a healthy squeeze. She could feel his heart pounding wildly under her fingers, and wondered, for a single, morbid moment, what it would feel like to continue the motion, squeezing until the pulse was gone. She let go, watching him gasp and some of the color drain from his face.

“I’m sorry.” He rasped.

Alex glanced up at Jake, who was glancing down with distaste. He nodded to Alex and held out a hand, lifting her easily to her feet. She blinked at a sudden wave of dizziness, but the sensation quickly passed. There were soft groans filtering from around them as the group struggled with consciousness. She clapped Jake on the shoulder, with a chuckle.

“Semper Fi.”

“Hooo Ahh.” He responded with a grin.

Alex glanced around at the vaguely moving bodies. “Well, never let it be said you don’t know how to show a lady a good time.”

Jake chuckled. “Yeah, yeah. Just don’t tell my wife.”

Alex laughed out loud as the two ambled slowly out of the alley. “Don’t worry, I won’t. Am I still invited over for dinner tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Jake nodded with an easy grin as they rounded the corner, “although why you want to put up with Clair’s cooking is beyond me, Bry.”

“Yeah, well, compared to me, she’s a master of the culinary arts.” They shared another grin. After a moment, Jake stopped suddenly.

“Shit!”

“What is it?” Alex asked with an innocent expression. She’d been wondering when he’d notice.

“My watch! I forgot it get it back from that little shit.” He had already turned, heading back to the alley when Alex latched on to his arm. When he turned to her with an irritated look, Alex held her other hand out in front of him, balled into a loose fist. With a grin, she opened her fingers, the watch in question, an old fashioned pocket watch, dangled in front of his shocked face.

After a moment of open mouth gaping, Jake turned to Alex with wry grin. “Why, Gunny Bryson, I never knew you were a pickpocket.”

Alex let out a self-deprecating snort. “A punk, even off the streets . . . is still a punk.” She informed him with a smirk as she dropped the watch into his hand. “Candy from a baby, Jake. Candy from a baby.”

The neared a black Jeep and Alex cast a serious look in Jake’s direction. “You okay to drive?”

“Yeah. I’m all right.” He unlocked the passenger door and moved around to the other side while Alex slid into the comfortable seat.

When he slid in, Jake paused for a moment before putting the key in the ignition, his expression growing serious. “Hey, listen, I’m sorry all that back there . . .”

With a chuckle, Alex held up a hand, effectively silencing her friend. “Don’t worry about it. I think I needed that anyway . . . after yesterday.” At the words, the smile died on Alex’s face.

Jake nodded, his face still somber. “You knew that was going to happen, though.”

“Maybe,” she hedged with a sigh, sliding further back into the seat. “I just don’t handle rejection very well.”

“I know. But you were setting yourself up for a fall, Bry. A lot of the old boys barely tolerate the idea of a woman in the uniform, let alone in the special forces.” He slid the key into the ignition, listening to the engine rev to life.

“That’s bullshit and you know it.” Alex growled, feeling the frustration build up inside her again, burning away more of the alcohol induced haze. “There isn’t a test they could give me that I couldn’t pass. Sons of bitches.” She muttered, remembering receiving her rejection letter the day before, and tearing up half her apartment in anger. That’s what you get, she reminded herself bitterly, for letting yourself want something that badly.

“Careful Bry,” Jake’s face was deadly serious. “Don’t forget that those sons of bitches still run the show around here. You don’t want to make that kind of enemy.”

Don’t I? Alex grumbled darkly to herself. I’d punch out Schwarzkopf, himself, if I thought it would help. She shook her head, trying to clear it, deciding a subject change was in order. “So when do you think we’ll be headin’ out?” Congress had, that very day, officially authorized the use of force against Iraq. Everyone was buzzing with the knowledge that they would soon be going to war.

“Don’t know.” Jake turned onto the 29 Palms Highway and headed north. “Probably less than a week.”

Alex suspected that Jake might know more than he was letting on. Hell, he might even know hour and minute they were going to touch down in the Middle East. But, even if he did, Alex knew he wouldn’t tell her. She didn’t push it. Jake was a scrupulously by the book soldier, always had been. The only exception seemed to be their friendship. Relations between commissioned and non-commissioned officers were generally frowned upon. But then, they didn’t indulge in those kinds of relations anyway.

“Maybe I’ll get the chance to distinguish myself while we’re there. Could give me the push I need.” She mused aloud, her mind refusing to let go of the idea.

“Just . . .” Jake sighed again. “Just don’t push too hard. This whole thing is going to wind up biting you in the ass if you’re not careful.” He half turned toward her, his eyes darting to her face for a moment and then back to the road. “I’m telling you this as a friend, Bry. I think you should just let it go.”

Alex bit her lip, fighting down a mild wave of irritation. “I can’t do that, Jake.” She told him quietly. “You don’t get shit in this world unless you’re willing to fight for it. And I want this.” She sighed. “I can be one of the best, Jake. I know I can . . . All I need is a fair shot at it.”

There was really no way to explain why the idea of joining the special forces had become so important to her. Maybe a large part of it was just because they kept telling her she couldn’t do it. The more she was told it was impossible, the more it had become like a personal challenge. Perhaps it was the peculiarities of her childhood, the nameless force in her life that gave Alex steadfast confidence in her ability to defy the notion of an insurmountable obstacle.

One way or the other, the constant rejection was beginning to carry the sting of a personal insult. And Alex didn’t suffer insults very well.

“Look, Bry. This isn’t about fair. It’s about power. Even if you don’t respect the people, you need to respect the power behind them.”

Alex remained silent, knowing that he wasn’t going to understand. It was nothing new. Very few people had actually been supportive of the idea, though Jake had been more positive than most. She wasn’t ever certain what it was, exactly, that seemed to scare everyone so much. It wasn’t as though she didn’t kick ass on a regular basis, anyway. There wasn’t a man in her company that would arm wrestle with her anymore. She was strong. She was smart. The finest marksman in her class. Feared when it came time to spar. She constantly worked on improving her skills, and by now they easily matched up against anyone she’d ever come across. One of the best of the best. She knew it, and she’d earned every damn bit of it the hard way. And by rights she should have earned the privileges that came along with it, as well. The thought simmered under her skin.

As she turned her head to glance out over the expanse of desert, Alex let her mind shift to the realization that she’d be trading this desert landscape in for another, much bigger one, very soon. A tingle of excitement coursed through her at the prospect.

Suddenly, a loud pop hit her ears and Jake cursed as the Jeep swerved dangerously, finally coming to a quick stop off the side of the road. Jumping out, Alex glanced at the blown tire, then down to her watch. One o’clock in the morning.

“Tell me you’ve got a spare.” Her voice was low and carried a dangerous tone that clearly indicated repercussions if the answer was negative. Jake shrugged sheepishly, with a small grin. The white of his teeth glowed in contrast to his dark skin. Her eyes narrowed. One brow arched. “You’d better be kidding.” She warned, taking a step toward him.

“Now, Bry . . .” He held up his hands complacently. “How was I supposed to know the thing would blow?” Alex took another step toward him. They’d made it almost half way back, which would mean a good ten mile hike in either direction. The air was certainly chilled, if not downright cold, and neither was wearing a coat.

Another step, and she was within a few feet now. Close enough to see the barely hidden mirth in his eyes. Alex let out a breath, knowing she was being teased. Cerulean eyes glinted mischievously. As she sucked in another breath, Alex launched forward, tackling the large man soundly into the cool desert sand.

“Oooof.” Jake suddenly found himself pinned to the ground by a deceptively strong, sleek body. “Damn, Bry . . . What are they feeding you these days?”

Alex smirked with a sarcastically raised brow and stuck her tongue out at him, rolling off his body to sit next to him on the sand as she casually brushed the grains off her hands. “Mighty Dog.” She dead panned, flexing an arm in front of him. “All the vitamins I need and I don’t have to cook.”

Jake laughed, sitting up and wrapping his arms around his knees. “Well, it probably would taste better than MREs.”

Tilting her head up to regard the wide expanse of stars, Alex wondered what Jake would think if he knew that she had indeed taken to eating dog food a time or two in her life. It beat the hell out of starving. Glancing sideways at him, she decided there was no point in going there. Many of the things a street kid was forced to do to survive were better left unsaid.

“Well, now you know why I’m always mooching off your table.” She leaned over and nudged him with her shoulder. “Just hope Clair doesn’t get sick of me.” Though she smiled, there was an note of uncertainty in her voice that Jake didn’t seem to pick up on. Sunday dinners with Jake and Clair were always a peculiar experience for Alex, but one she had come to relish. Their home was a warm, cheery place that smacked of picket fences and happy endings. All those things she had only dreamed about. It felt dishonest to her at times, as if she were greedily sponging off some of the love and happiness that permeated their lives.

“Nah,” he chuckled, “you’re the only one that has ever given her meatloaf a glowing review. She loves having you over.”

Alex released a long slow breath with relief.

“How’s she handling the news?” She asked quietly, her thoughts drifting inexorably back to their coming adventure.

“Not too well.” Jake sighed, laying back on the sand once again. “She’s putting up a good front and all, but I can tell it’s really getting to her.” He wiped a hand over his face, letting it rest over his eyes for a moment. “She looks at me all the time like she’s trying to memorize my face or something . . . capture every little bit she can in case . . . something happens to me.”

Alex watched him quietly for a moment, wondering what it would feel like to have someone care about her that much.

“I know she’s just worried and all, but it kind of gives me the creeps.” He admitted with a slight shiver. “It’s almost like she’s not expecting me to come back . . . Makes me wonder about that too . . .” Jake’s voice trailed off softly.

Shifting uncomfortably, Alex didn’t know quite what to say. Talks like this weren’t exactly within her realm of expertise. She settled for a firm clap on his knee and a reassuring squeeze. His dark eyes turned toward her grimly.

“Do you ever think about it? About not coming back?”

Alex took a breath to shoot back a teasing retort. But at the look in his eyes, she closed her own and lay back on the sand next to him. “Not a whole lot.” She admitted finally, almost regretfully. “I’m not like you, Jake. There isn’t anyone whose going to shed tears over my grave, believe me. Nothing that I really worry about leaving behind . . . It’s just me in this life, and it’ll be just me in whatever happens after.” The words were spoken with a matter-of-fact certainty that belied the sharp pang of sadness that tore through her heart. “But . . . I guess there are things I’d regret. Things I never got to see, or do. You know?”

“Yeah, I know.” He turned his head toward her and she opened her eyes to meet his. “But you’re wrong . . . about no one caring about you.”

“Am I?” She asked quietly, holding his gaze for a short while. Feeling an intensity begin to build. Wondering.

Jake took a deep breath and sat up, breaking the gaze abruptly. Alex watched his back for a long moment as his breath came heavily. He was trying to break the spell of the moment between them, she realized. She also realized, suddenly, that she didn’t want to let him.

“It’s a funny thing.” Her voice was low, almost a whisper. “One of those things I wonder about . . . things I never got to do. One of them would be . . . being with you.”

The back she was watching stiffened, and Alex let the silence fall between. “I . . . I can’t . . .” He began haltingly. “Clair . . .”

She sat up, letting a hand rest lightly on his shoulder, pleased when he didn’t move away from the touch. “I don’t want to hurt Clair . . . I know whose bed you want to be in at night.” She let her hand brush softly down his back, noting the shiver her touch caused with a small smile. “I just want to know how it would feel.”

He turned toward her with a furrowed brow.

She chuckled soundlessly. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m hardly a virgin or anything like that . . . I guess I just . . .” wonder what it would be like with someone I actually cared about. She flinched slightly at the thought, unaccustomed to the unyielding honesty. Alex let her voice trail off, wondering what the hell she thought she was doing.

Jake remained silent for another long moment, and Alex cringed slightly when he finally took a breath to speak, anticipating the pain of rejection. Hoping that she hadn’t ruined their friendship.

“Alex . . .” He began, turning toward her with misty eyes, one hand reaching up to stroke her cheek. She searched his face, seeing the uncertainty there, but the desire as well.

“Shhhhh.” She brought up a finger to his lips, letting it linger there for a moment. “Just this once . . .” Leaning forward, she brushed her lips against his, basking in the surrender she felt there. Nipping at his lower lip, Alex felt his strong arms reach toward her. The touch lacked the casual indifference she was accustomed to. He was holding her because he wanted her, not just her body, but all of her . . . if only for this one night. Shifting, she slid one thigh over him, straddling his body with a predatory grace.

We dance round in a ring and suppose,

But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

Robert Frost

Chapter 2 – Chicago, Illinois – Sunday, August 23rd, 1998

“Stop being such an idiot, Jer!” Bridget growled with exasperation. “I’m not asking you to throw it in the dumpster or anything. I just want you to mail it to me!”

“No.” Her brother’s voice came back smugly. “That’s a valuable piece of our family’s history. A million things could happen to it if I tried to mail it. Its staying here.”

“You don’t give a good god damn about that journal, Jer, and you know it!” Her frustration was getting the better of her. “There’s no reason why you can’t send it up here. I need to see it.”

“Why?” Came the infuriatingly calm response. Argh! There was no way she could explain any of this to Jeremy, he’d think she’d totally lost her mind. But then, he might be right.

“That’s none of your business.” She grated, finally. “I have as much right to it as you do.” Not a single person in the world could irritate Bridget Stone worse than her twin brother, especially when he was really trying.

“Of course you do.” He agreed coldly. “And it’ll be right here for you any time you want to come and get it . . . If you still remember where the place is, that is.” Her mouth already open to retort, Bridget was silenced by the sudden click as the line went dead. She stood there for a moment, fuming. A steady stream of curses falling from her lips.

Of all the things that Jeremy could pick to be totally unreasonable about, this had to be the worst. How exactly was she supposed to explain it to him? Oh yeah, Jer, turns out that old story that Aunt Janice used to tell about meeting Ares might be true after all. I think he tried to kill me yesterday. So could you send me her journal so I’ll have some clue what the hell I’ve gotten myself into?

An irritating beeping came from the phone, causing her to jump slightly, which in turn brought back to her mind the countless aches and pains coursing through her body. Setting the receiver back down, she settled into the comfortable old leather chair in her small study, rubbing lightly on the bandages that covered her wrists, wondering what in the world she was going to do now. There really wasn’t a choice, she mused. She had to have that journal, and if that meant going all the way back home to get it, then that’s just what she was going to have to do.

Shifting in the chair, Bridget tried to find a position that minimized the steady ache in her limbs and throbbing in her left shoulder. She wasn’t up to traveling right now, though. Flying with a concussion sounded like an inordinately bad idea, and driving the whole distance didn’t sound much more appealing. So she would just have to wait a bit. She tapped her fingers on the smooth leather. It would just take a little bit of patience, that’s all. Her foot tapped on the floor. The problem was, Bridget didn’t really do patient very well.

In fact, her fingers drummed harder, patience sucked. It sucks cold, rotten, year old eggs . . . soaked in vinegar . . . with a little bit of sulfuric acid on the side.

Her eyes flicked upward to a shelf on the wall nearby, and an old framed photograph of an eerily familiar face that were smiling at her. Bridget calmed a bit at the sight, and allowed herself a moment of wistful contemplation. “Boy I wish you were here, Aunt Janice.” The figure grinned back at her, knowingly. “I’m up to my ankles in this, upside down, and I don’t have clue one what to do about it.”

Whatever Ares might be up to, Bridget felt pretty safe in classifying it as ‘not good’. But what could they do about it? They . . . she thought about that for a moment. If she was right, then it meant that Ares had been around Alex since she was a child. And that he had insinuated himself into her life as the only thing the child Alex had been ever felt like she could depend on. The bond between them would have to be strong. Which was, in all likelihood, exactly the point.

Sighing nervously, Bridget couldn’t help but wonder where Alex’s allegiance would lay if it came right down to it. She shivered at the thought. Alex needed, and deserved, to know the truth, though, and as soon as possible. Whatever she chose to do about it, Bridget was certain that the truth was the best place to begin. But without that journal, she didn’t really know how to go about explaining all this to her. Half remembered stories from her childhood weren’t going to cut it. If only Jeremy weren’t being such a prick!

Telling her, Bridget contemplated with dejection, was only the first step, though. Even if Alex did believe her, and that was a big if, and did choose to side with her, an even bigger if, what would that mean? What could they do against a god?

Her brow furrowed tightly at the deluge of troubling thoughts. One more reason why she needed that damn journal. Maybe there was something in it that told how Ares had been beaten in the first place. But even if it didn’t, it would still give her a better idea of what she was up against.

A soft click sounded as the front door opened, and Bridget tried to shake off her morose speculation. Standing with a groan, she headed into the living room, smiling, despite herself, at the sight of Alex dressed in an old pair of blue sweats that would have been baggy on Bridget’s small form, but hugged every curve in Alex’s body snugly. Sweat poured freely down her face and the sweats seemed to be soaked through. As she approached, Bridget caught the distinctive smell of her. It was . . . raw and sexy, in a completely hedonistic kind of way. Bridget was surprised by how much she liked it.

“How did it go?” The reporter’s eyes wandered over Alex’s frame, thinking back to the wonderful view she had of it earlier. It took her a few moments to realize she hadn’t gotten a response. Glancing up, she saw Alex’s eyes were distant, her face troubled. “Hey,” she called softly, waiting until those crystal blue eyes settled on her, “what’s wrong?”

“Uhmm.” Alex seemed uncomfortable. “Nothing . . . nothing really, just . . .” Her voice trailed off, Bridget waited for a moment, but no other explanation seemed to be forthcoming. She bit her lip, wondering if she should push, question further. There were so very many unknowns about Alex. Every time she found an answer, it only seemed to lead to a whole new set of questions. They hadn’t yet talked about Bridget looking into Alex’s past. Though she was certain Alex was aware of it. However, she reminded herself, her mysterious companion had seriously opened up to her the night before, telling her a story that she had probably never told anyone else. So where did that leave her now? Should she let it go, hoping Alex would talk when she was ready? That could wind up being an extraordinarily long wait.

With a sigh, Bridget realized that she just didn’t feel right about pushing Alex right now. Maybe because she was very aware of the fact that she had a few secrets of her own now, as well. It felt hypocritical to ask for honesty when she couldn’t give the same.

A long, increasingly uncomfortable, silence stretched between them, each lost in her own thoughts. Finally, Bridget let her body dictate the course of action, moving up to Alex and hesitantly sliding her arms around the taller woman’s waist and laying her head on a damp cloth covered shoulder. Falling back to the only communication between them that could be completely honest. She felt no immediate response from her companion, other than a slight stiffening of her body. This close, the smell of Alex’s body surrounded her, seeming to somehow engage all her senses at once.

After a bit, she felt the muscles under her hands shift slightly and a strong hand move up to tangle loosely in her hair. At that moment, Bridget could only think that she would have given anything to know what Alex was thinking.

Pulling back, she looked up into the clear blue of Alex’s eyes. Her face was still slightly troubled, but she smiled down at Bridget. Long fingers, still tangled in her hair, tugged softly as Alex ducked her head down, their lips meeting gently. But gentle very quickly gave way to something else, something surprisingly primal and desperate, and unbearably hot, as the thick muscle of Alex’s tongue swept insistently into her mouth. A low buzzing sounded in Bridget’s ears, but she ignored it as wrapped her arms more tightly around Alex’s frame. The need she felt radiating from the body pressed against her intensified her own, she clung to Alex in a quickly escalating frenzy.

Her mind vaguely registered pain throughout her body, centering on her shoulder and her wrists, while the buzzing between her ears increased rapidly. But she didn’t care about any of it. She only wanted to wrap herself around this woman, body and soul, and never even think about letting go. The buzzing gave way to a heavy throbbing which was soon accompanied by a sweeping wave of dizziness that carried her unwillingly into darkness.

The next thing to touch Bridget’s awareness was a soft sprinkling of cool liquid on her face. Blinking her eyes open, the reporter’s eyes struggled to focus on the concerned face hovering just above her. As she found that she had been laid out on the couch. “You all right?” The low voice called softly. Bridget blinked again, settling a hand over her eyes and sinking back down to the couch in embarrassment.

“Oh my God, Alex. I’m so sorry. I . . ”

“Shhhh.” Alex chuckled softly, putting a gentle finger on her lips. “I’m the one who should be sorry, I didn’t mean to get . . . carried away like that. I knew you weren’t up for it.”

Bridget smirked, dropping her hand and glancing up. “Oh, don’t feel too badly, I was carrying away right along with you.”

“I noticed.” Alex said quietly. Glancing up into her enigmatic companion’s face, Bridget was surprised to see a shy uncertainty there. One which she found totally disarming. It disappeared, though, all too quickly, to be replaced by a sly grin. “Never had anyone pass out from just a kiss before, though.” One eyebrow quirked upward. “I think I’m flattered.”

Bridget laughed outright, embarrassed as much by the blush she felt spreading across her face as Alex’s words. She shot a wicked glance back up at her companion. “You should be.” Oh, yeah. Her mind agreed readily. Hell, the woman could probably make me bark like a dog if she really wanted to. That thought embarrassed Bridget all over again as she glanced back up, quickly drowning in that intense azure gaze.

Driven by pure instinct, Bridget reached out for her, to brush the hairs away from her face, or stroke her cheek, really for nothing more than an excuse to touch. She had however, without thinking, been reaching out her left hand. Which was, unfortunately, connected to her left shoulder, and the resulting movement caused a bolt of pain to shoot down her arm, twisting her face into a grimace and pulling a groan from her chest.

Sinking back onto the couch, Bridget let out a defeated sigh. “Hey, take it easy.” The low timbre of Alex’s voice floated down to her again, she felt one hand wrap around her neck and looked up to see a glass of water hovering in front of her face. Letting Alex lift her up, she took a long drink before settling back down and closing her eyes again. “Let me get you a some pills.”

“No.” Bridget groaned. The pills knocked her out, and made her head feel like it was filled with helium, out of control. She didn’t like that. “I’ll be all right,” she gritted her teeth against the pain.

“You know,” glancing up at the words, she saw Alex shake her head with a bemused expression. “You really are the most stubborn human being I’ve ever met in my life.”

The reporter grinned. “I’ll take that as compliment, thank you very much.”

Alex laughed, shaking her head again. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Well,” Bridget rubbed the back of her neck. “I think we’ve pretty much established what you’re not going to do with me. Not for a while anyway.” She smiled, apologetically.

“True enough.” Alex smiled fondly down at her. “So what now?”

Bridget’s eyes moved to the table near by, where a paper was rolled up neatly. “How about handing me that, I want to see what they wrote about the fire.”

Her expression becoming somber, Alex dutifully reached over, sliding the rubber band off the paper and unfolding it. Her eyes scanned the page, widening in apparent surprise when she caught Bridget’s byline. “When did you write this?”

“Last night.” She settled back, closing her eyes. “Or this morning, rather.”

A period of silence passed where she knew Alex was reading the article. When she couldn’t stand the suspense any more, the reporter glanced up to see her friend staring down at her with a confused expression. To say that the article was an abbreviated version of their evening would be stretching it. Bridget had left out any mention at all of the club or Alex’s or even her own involvement, focusing solely on the video tape they had recovered.

“What?” She looked up, with a phoney innocent expression and a playful smirk. “You don’t think I have anything better to write about than you?”

“No . .” Alex replied, somewhat confusedly, as though she had indeed expected Bridget to write about her. “I just . . . how are you going to explain the tape?”

“I told them it was left for me anonymously, and had them forward a copy to the police. There’s no reason for them to suspect anything different. And if worse comes to worse, I can always claim a confidential source.”

Her companion nodded, processing the information.

“What does it say about the fire, did they find her?” Blue eyes turned to the page again, scanning quickly and shaking her head.

“No mention of it. But it would be pretty unlikely.” She turned to Bridget. “I don’t know how much you remember . . . but that big group of monitors hanging from the ceiling fell down into the pit . . .” The rest was left unspoken, but the reporter understood the implication only too well. Not much would have survived that. Victoria Carlyle’s body would only be found if someone knew where to look for it, and that was highly doubtful. Much more likely, was that the police, and maybe even her family, would assume that she found out about the story and simply took off.

Never to be heard from again. Blinking, Bridget was surprised to find tears flowing down her face. She was just as surprised by the sob that wrenched painfully from her chest as her dark companion seemed to reach for her instinctively, intending to fold her into strong arms. But Bridget’s own instincts took over, and she pulled back, a bit more roughly than she’d intended, fighting for control over her rampaging emotions.

She wanted so badly to let herself give into to the weakness, to let go and trust in the strength she instinctively knew she’d find in Alex’s arms, but instead fought off the tears with a vengeance. A flicker of hurt and confusion crossed Alex’s face. Grimacing, the reporter opened her mouth, wanting badly to be able to explain. But she couldn’t seem to find the words. Bridget just didn’t cry when anyone was around her. She almost resented the strong impulse she still felt to throw herself into Alex’s arms and weep like a heartbroken child.

Let it go, she chided herself angrily. She doesn’t need this crap. You think it was rough for you to see it? She’s the one who was actually having to kill people just to save your sorry ass. She roughly wiped the tears from her face. Buck it up, kiddo. Bridget could almost hear her father’s gruff voice saying those words to her. But then, he never could stand the sight of someone he loved in tears.

Clenching her jaw, she forced herself to sit up, fighting off a light wave of dizziness, which only angered her all the more. Alex seemed to sense her embarrassment and backed off uncomfortably.

“Listen, I’ll be right back, I need to go grab a quick shower.”

“Okay.” And then she was gone, leaving Bridget alone with her thoughts.

“Mrrrroww?” Blinking, the reporter glanced down to see her tiny cat, Princess, rubbing against her legs in a shameless plea for attention.

“I suck at this stuff.” Bridget confided in the cat, quietly. “You know that?” She rubbed the soft black fur affectionately. There was a reason why the most stable relationship she’d ever managed required little more effort on her part than the occasional trip to the store for batteries. Damn, she thought suddenly, guess this means I’m gonna have to start shaving my thighs again.

She glanced back down at Princess, who was batting at a piece of leather peeking out from under the couch. Reaching down, Bridget pulled out the length of a leather whip, her mind immediately going back to the previous day and the men she’d used it on. Was it only yesterday? It seemed like so much longer. A lifetime at least. Princess purred and batted at the tip as it dangled from her hands and the reporter chuckled, realizing that her playful companion was probably responsible for the whip winding up under the furniture. She indulgently waved the tip in the air, watching the small body reach for it, paws, with claws outstretched, flailed wildly in the air after the elusive prey.

They played for a few minutes, until her body once again felt strained and Bridget shooed Princess away, leaning back with the whip in her lap and merely gazed at it for a long while, her mind thrumming with memories.

“Hey.” Alex returned to the room, sporting another of Bridget’s quickly dwindling supply of sweatshirts, and a pair of jeans they’d bought a couple of days ago, which now fit tightly against her muscular legs.

“Hey, yourself.” The reporter glanced up, still fingering the whip absently.

“I saw that yesterday.” Blue eyes glanced down at her lap. “How did it get out here, anyway?”

Oh, that’s right, she was out cold. “Uhm . . .” Bridget felt inexplicably embarrassed once again. “I just . . they had guns and all so . . .I had to . .” She shrugged her shoulders, wincing again at the pain.

Alex stood in front of her for a long moment, her face an enigmatic mask. “You saved my life.” It wasn’t a question. And Bridget felt the slow heat of another blush rising in her face. Jeez, what is it with me and these damn blushes today?

“Well, I think I still owe you a couple, gotta make ‘em up when I can.” Her lips quirked into a shy smile. But as she looked back at her dark companion, Alex’s face had grown troubled again, her brow furrowed.

“Bridget,” her voice was low and smooth, her face deadly serious. “You shouldn’t have risked yourself for me.”

The reporter quirked an eyebrow of her own. “Why not? You risked yourself for me when I was still a stranger.”

“That’s different.”

“Why?” Bridget snorted. “You’re my friend, Alex. And you’ve been watching out for me since before we really even met. I wasn’t going to just sit back and let them shoot you.”

“Why not?” The reporter blinked up into blue eyes that appeared genuinely confused.

She thought for a moment, her mouth working slowly, trying to frame a reply. “Why did you do it?” She asked finally, her voice soft. “Why did you save me?”

Alex opened her mouth to respond, but no words came. Her brow still furrowed, blue eyes appeared lost in thought.

The reporter allowed a few moments of silence to pass. “Well, there’s your answer.”

Shifting uncomfortably, Alex walked over and settled on the soft arm of the couch. Another of what was becoming common stretches of silence passed between them, and Alex finally motioned toward the whip, another thought apparently having occurred to her.

“What happened to her? Your aunt?”

Blinking again in surprise, the question caught Bridget off guard. It was a bit too close to the secrets she was still feeling guilty about. She cleared her throat nervously. “Uhm . . . she disappeared, a little over 15 years ago.” Alex’s gaze was still questioning and the reporter felt her mouth dry out a bit. Okay, just give her the short version of this story. “It . . uhm . . . well, it all started a few years before that. Aunt Janice’s partner, Mel,” Bridget motioned toward Alex, acknowledging the similarities in the two women’s looks. “She was in a plane that crashed over the Aegean Sea.”

Alex’s shoulders slumped just a bit, and her face fell. She sank slowly down onto the couch. “Aunt Janice . . .well . . she didn’t handle the news very well. Mom said she went a little crazy. All I know for certain is that she went over there, bullied her way onto the rescue ships and when they gave up, chartered a boat herself and kept looking.”

As she spoke, Bridget continued to finger the whip, letting memories of her aunt wash through her. “Eventually they talked her into giving up. She came to stay with us, then. I was about six. I remember . . . she was so sad. You know? Like, she was totally lost. Her room was next to mine and I know she had nightmares all the time. She’d wake up, screaming. Sometimes I’d go in to check on her, and then we’d just stay up, and she’d tell me stories . . .” Bridget caught herself before she described the stories. “We were pretty close. I don’t know, maybe it was because we looked so much alike.” A soft smile touched her lips. “She used to say that she liked my spunk . . . taught me how to use this, too.” With a broader smile, Bridget gripped the handle of the whip, artfully cracking it in the air. That earned her a raised brow, but no comment. Taking a deep breath, the smile slid off Bridget’s face slowly, as she wound the braided leather back up and set it back in her lap.

“One day, she got a message. Some sort of telegram, or something. And she just took off.” Another deep breath and Bridget was fighting off a wave of tears. “Mom and Dad hired a private investigator, but all we found out was that she had flown into Athens, rented a car and then just disappeared.”

After a brief silence, Alex’s voice drew her attention away from the memories. “What did the message say?”

“Uhm . . I don’t know. I . . . they never showed it to me.”

“But you know where it is?” The dark hair woman leaned forward, her face intent.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m pretty sure it’s with the rest of her stuff. Oh,” she swallowed reflexively. “I called Jeremy, my brother. He’s, uhm. . .well, he’s being kind of an asshole about it. Says that he doesn’t want anything to happen to the journal, so I have to come and get it if I want it.”

“What, he’s never heard of UPS?”

Bridget smirked. “Apparently not. It’s . . .it’s really about the two of us. We haven’t gotten along very well since Mom and Dad . . since we lost them.”

Alex nodded her head, surprising Bridget when she stood and began pacing about the room. “What was . . your aunt’s partner doing over there when her plane went down?”

The reporter licked her lips nervously. “I’m not really sure. I think it had to do with the work they did. Aunt Janice was an archeologist, they did a lot of research over there.”

The tall woman continued pacing. “This message she got, do you think it had anything to do with . . . the plane crash?”

“Really, I don’t know. Aunt Janice’s work was very important to her, but her heart just went out of it when Mel died. I don’t know what would have gotten her so excited that she would have hopped on a plane for the other side of the world, but . . . it wouldn’t surprise me if it had something to do with Mel.”

“Can I look at the message?” Alex paused in front of her. “When you get the journal and everything.”

“Uh . . . sure.” Bridget was now thoroughly confused. “But why?”

“I just . . .I want to know what happened to her, that’s all.” Her. Somehow, Bridget knew that Alex wasn’t talking about her aunt. She wanted to know what happened to Melinda Pappas. A wide smile crossed the reporter’s face. This might just all work out after all. If Alex was interested in Mel and their work together . . . then maybe she’d be more willing to listen to Bridget’s suspicions.

“Yeah, sure. That’s . . .I mean, you’re welcome to look at all of it, if you want.”

Suddenly a loud growling was heard, and Bridget’s eyebrow raised as she glanced up at Alex, who had stopped and stared down at her stomach.

“I think that means it’s time to eat.” Bridget chuckled, starting to rise. She blinked at a wave of dizziness.

“You stay put.” Alex had moved to her side, a firm hand on Bridget’s arm guiding her back down. “I saw a couple of good places for take out when I was running. You need to take it easy.”

Opening her mouth to protest, Bridget bit it back at the stern look she was receiving. “Yes ma’am.” She gave a little mock salute. Her companion merely shook her head.

Alex had been gone for about twenty minutes when Bridget heard some sort of a commotion outside. Not completely sure why, she wandered over to the sliding glass door, and then out on the balcony. She blinked rapidly as she looked down, trying to focus her eyes. When she succeeded, Bridget’s mouth fell wide open a look of horror on her face.

A small crowd had gathered just down the block, and she had trouble seeing past the bodies. But she caught a glimpse of a familiar form as Alex seemed to be fighting with someone. Whipping her head about wildly, Bridget’s mind irrationally looked for a quick way down from this height, not wanting to take her eyes off the small group. A surge of panic was sweeping through her.

Turning quickly, Bridget raced through her apartment, slamming into the door as she tried to open it and racing out in to the hall. No. No. No. Please, God. Please.

Out of sheer luck, the elevator opened as she neared it and she bolted inside, past surprised faces and began tapping the button for the first floor rapidly. Please. Please. Please. The word ran through her mind like a mantra. When she reached the first floor, Bridget pounded on the door impatiently, darting through it as soon as it started to open and raced outside, through the courtyard and hit the sidewalk with a run.

She saw . . . nothing.

The small crowd had dispersed. People milled about at a normal pace. Her eyes moved desperately over the faces.

Nothing.

“Hey,” She grabbed a man passing by, trying desperately not to completely panic. “There was a fight here, a woman, did you see what happened?” With a confused look, the man shook his head, pulling his arm free and moved on about his business.

“There was a woman.” Bridget’s voice raised to a quavering yell, noting that about half the faces she saw turned toward her. “Tall, with dark hair. Here just a minute ago. Did anyone see what happened to her?” The anonymous faces turned back, without comment, and went on about their lives.

But I recognized death

With sorrow and dread,

And I hated and hate

The spoils of the dead.

Robert Frost

Chapter 3 – Saudi Desert – Monday, February 25th, 1991

She circled slowly, teasingly, and as gracefully as anyone wearing combat boots could have managed. The sand from the endless desert surrounding them shifted under her feet as she moved, testing her balance further. Her opponent moved more awkwardly. He was large, stocky with bulky muscles that bunched and moved under the fabric of green T-shirt which clashed noticeably with desert camouflage pants he was wearing.

Similarly mismatched clothing was donned by many of the soldiers who had gathered in a circle around the combatants, as one of the unsung casualties of this war was those articles of clothing that, once sent out to be laundered, would never be seen again. Alex had managed, somehow, to retain a full set of desert camouflage fatigues. But as the sweat poured down her back, driven on by the infernal heat though it was still early morning, she knew that soon they would likely fall victim to the laundry service as well.

Her opponent seemed to be feeling the effects of the heat as well. His skin was a dark, almost midnight black and she could see the sweat standing prominently on his forehead. He lunged at her and she sidestepped the charge, letting a foot snake out to trip him as he passed, sending the large body sprawling into the sand.

“That’s one. You sure you’re up for this Trig?” She grinned broadly. Taunting. He sputtered and jumped to his feet, brushing sand out of his face.

“This ain’t all I’m up for, Gunny Bry.” White teeth appeared as he returned her grin. Advancing on her again, this time Alex met the charge instead of dodging. Corporal Lance Lincoln, otherwise known as Trigger, managed to catch one of Alex’s arms, twisting it firmly behind her back as he spoke softly into her ear. “You meet me later and I’ll show you why they named me for a horse.”

Alex quirked a brow. It was almost tempting. She’d heard rumors about Trigger. His attributes were apparently the stuff that legends were made of. Ah, well, first things first. Blue eyes flickered toward a short, pudgy man with brown curly hair, standing amid the circle of cheering onlookers. He winked at her and she grinned again. Good ole Easy.

“A horse, huh? And here I thought it was because you were a hair trigger.” Her eyes gleamed wickedly and the large man sputtered.

With a quick elbow to his side to distract him further, Alex yanked her arm free. Spinning around, she snaked a muscled leg behind Trigger’s and caught him high in the chest with a sharp, open-palmed blow, toppling his balance and sending him into the desert sand once again.

“Two down, Trig.” She chuckled.

He scrambled to stand up, but Alex crouched and spun quickly, sweeping her leg around and catching him in the calves before he could straighten up. There was another sandy thud.

“And that’s three.” Groans were heard from the small crowd surrounding them, mixed in with a few whoops of joy. Money and other valuable items changed hands all around. Alex glanced again at Easy. Otherwise known as PFC Arnie Klein, Alex herself had dubbed him Easy Money, in deference to what seemed an almost obsessive drive on the industrious little man’s part to make a quick buck whenever, wherever, and however possible. He was now gleefully collecting money from several sources, his eyes fairly glowing.

Turning back to her opponent, Alex leaned over and stretched a hand out, which was taken grudgingly. As she pulled him up, Alex’s mind flashed back to his offer from earlier and a surge of impish wickedness coursed through her. “You couldn’t handle me, Trig.” Alex leaned forward, speaking in a low, sultry voice. Blue eyes glowed devilishly. “I’d ride you like a fuckin’ horse and you wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.”

Trigger went still, he blinked at her, his mouth opening and closing a few times noiselessly. Finally, he shook his head with a self-deprecating chuckle. “You’re something else, Gunny.”

“That’s one way of putting it.” A third, and familiar, voice sounded from nearby.

“Hey, LT, what’s up?” Alex turned to see Jake walking toward them.

“That’s what we were wondering.” Jake emphasized the ‘we’ and Alex followed a meaningful tilt of his head to find an unfamiliar face staring back at her. He was deceptively tall, with dark brown hair shaved high and tight, and eyes that were cold and piercing. Those eyes were wandering over her appraisingly.

“We were just having a little fun Lieutenant.” Trigger brushed some sand off his clothes. “It’s bad enough that we’re stuck up here while everyone else is busy shoving a sharp stick up Saddam’s ass today. Just looking for a little R&R.” Everyone had been buzzing with the knowledge that the Marine’s 1st Division was currently pushing into central Kuwait.

Having been assigned to guard supply roads leading into Iraq, they were all feeling decidedly left out of the action.

Jake shot an amused glance at Alex. “Not to mention a few friendly wagers, eh?” Alex shrugged with a good-natured smirk as Trigger took the opportunity to stage a tactical retreat into the crowd. “And I suppose none of this was Easy’s idea.” With the corporal gone, Jake turned and began walking back toward the edge of the crowd, motioning for Alex to follow.

“Mine too.” Alex admitted. “I’m more than a little sick of some of the attitude I’ve been getting. I think the locals are starting to wear off on them.”

“So you thought you’d pound a few into the sand as an object lesson.” Jake chuckled.

“The money doesn’t hurt either, though.” Alex grinned mischievously. “Who’s your friend?” She asked quietly.

“Name’s Salvatore.” He answered just as quietly, as they approached the man in question.

“Kind of young for a Major, isn’t he?” Alex had noted the insignia of his rank, and would have guessed his age to be a little over thirty.

“Yeah, he’s one of the latest golden boys. Made a lot of powerful friends in high places and now he’s steam rolling his way through the ranks.”

“What’s one of the Pentagon’s golden boys doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” Her brow furrowed. “Seems like he’d want to be where the action is.”

“Beats me.” His voice dropped another notch as they had almost reached the Major. “Just try not to piss him off, okay?”

A fiendish chuckle sounded from low in Alex’s chest. As they drew even with the Major, Alex snapped neatly to attention, saluting. A smile played at the Major’s lips as he returned her salute.

“You must be Gunny Bryson. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Something flashed through his cold eyes that Alex didn’t recognize, she felt a cold shiver trace a quick path down her spine. She stiffened unconsciously. If he’d been hanging around the Pentagon, then she could just bet what kind of things he’d heard about her. She’d been making noise about joining the special forces for almost three years now.

“Well, I’m sure most of it’s true.” Alex met his eyes evenly.

His eyes narrowed, almost imperceptibly. “Of that I have no doubt.”

Jake cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah. Well, Major Salvatore, if you like, I could show you the rest of the camp.”

“No hurry, Lieutenant.” The major said casually, never taking his eyes off Alex, whose brow momentarily flittered upward in question. “It looks like Gunny Bryson has another challenger.”

Turning her head, Alex groaned. A new combatant had indeed stepped forward. A little over seven feet tall, with a surprising muscular build, Alex’s new challenger was PFC Bruce Retzky. He had long ago earned the nickname Chewy, not only for his size, but for copious amounts of body hair as well.

Her eyes flickered unconsciously to Easy, who was desperately trying to keep a straight face as he spoke individually to the small group of men surrounding him while his eyes danced with mirth. Yep, they were still betting against her. Irritation flooded through her, fed by her frustration at being reminded of the constant rejection. She’d given her life and her loyalty to them, was over here in the awful desert ready to die for them. Yet she was shot down over and over again, all because she didn’t have a fucking cock. What a crock of shit.

“Last one, boys.” Alex announced as she moved forward, her body flowing with energy. At the muttered protests, she flashed a smile. “I’ve gotta get some rest before I go back on duty.” Her eyes turned to her opponent. Men had weaknesses to, after all. And it was time for another object lesson about that very fact. “You sure you want to do this, Chewy?” She moved closer, until she was just within arms reach, her tone filled with unheeded warning.

He grinned. So did she.

“All right.” With that, Alex dropped back onto the sand, her legs shot forward to catch each of Chewy’s legs just inside the ankle and kicked outward, splaying his legs abruptly. Glancing up into his face, she could see the realization of what was happening hit him a second before the pain hit. His eyes bulged and large hands shot down toward his groin. A chorus of sympathetic groans sounded from all around her.

Sliding back a bit, Alex rocked back, pushing off with her hands as she sprang neatly to her feet. Taking a step forward toward Chewy, whose face was now almost even with her own due to his awkward stance, she reached out with a single finger and pushed lightly against his forehead. The large man toppled backward, his hands still clutched tightly to his groin. On the ground, Chewy’s body curling almost immediately into a fetal position, his grip never wavering.

Leaning over him, she asked sweetly. “You give up?”

Chewy’s head bobbed up and down so quickly he almost looked like he was trying to burrow into the ground.

Casually brushing the sand off her backside, Alex winked at Easy, who appeared to also be sympathizing with Chewy’s plight. He shot her a pained smile. Men were just so easy sometimes. Chuckling, she turned back to Jake and the Major. To her surprise, she saw Major Salvatore collecting money from a nearby sergeant. His was the only face she could see, including Jake’s, that didn’t seem to be sporting a grimace. Hmmm. So you’re not easily intimidated, are you Major?

She strolled back over to them, her eyes moving over the Major’s form once again, her curiosity increasing. He seemed to exude power and confidence. While not exactly handsome, his features were striking and his eyes, though cold, held a keen intelligence. He was, all together, rather intriguing.

“That was . . . most amusing, Gunny Bryson.” His lips quirked upward in an oddly humorless smile. After holding her gaze for another long moment, Major Salvatore turned to Jake. “Thank you for the tour Lt. Jennings. It was very . . . stimulating.” He turned at the last moment, to direct his eyes once again toward Alex.

“Uh . . . you’re welcome. Would you like me to show you back to the command tent?” Jake eyed Alex and the Major with discomfort.

“No thanks, I remember the way.” He spoke with an arrogant air and a casually dismissing flip of his hand. With that, Major Salvatore turned and strode away, his hands clasped behind his back.

“What was all that about?” Jake turned to Alex.

“Beats the hell out of me, Jake.” She shrugged innocently, continuing to watch the retreating form. “So what all do you know about him?”

Despite relentless quizzing, Jake knew little more about the Major than what he had already told her. As she sat a short while later in the shade between two tents, sipping from a red white and blue can that had Arabic letters where the word ‘Pepsi’ should have been, Alex found her thoughts repeatedly moving back to the Major. So that’s what a ‘golden boy’ looks like, she mused. Not too bad at all. From the way Jake spoke of him, Major Salvatore was definitely on the fast track to the Pentagon, and maybe even more than that. A powerful man, and one who likely had the ears of other powerful men as well. Her fingers tapped lightly on the can, listening to the hollow metallic echo.

Alex had been butting up against a brick wall for so long in her quest to join the special forces. At twenty-three, she was very quickly approaching ‘over the hill’ for that highly competitive arena. She took another sip of the sun warmed soda. So maybe it was a mistake to try and climb over that brick wall of the old boy network, it certainly hadn’t been doing her much good so far. Okay then, if she couldn’t climb over the wall, maybe the answer was to look for a way around it. What was it Jake was always telling her? That she had to respect the power?

How better to do that, than to make a powerful friend?

A grin crawled slowly across her face.

With a decisive nod, Alex downed the last of her soda, standing and ducking into a nearby tent to toss the can in the trash, before turning back and walking purposefully toward a large tent in the distance.

She ducked inside, letting her eyes acclimate to the surroundings and caught site of Major Salvatore and another officer facing toward a large map and speaking in low tones. After a moment, the Major seemed to sense her presence and turned toward her. Alex noted that the Major had a peculiar habit of turning his entire upper body, rather than just his head, anytime he wanted to look behind himself. Almost as though he didn’t like the idea of anyone having a clear view of his back.

“Gunny Bryson,” he returned her salute. “What can I do for you?”

What indeed? Damn, she hadn’t thought this through very well. With a shake of her head, Alex decided the heat must be getting to her. Seeing her hesitation, the Major leaned over to speak to the other officer, who nodded without comment and walked out of the tent, securing the flaps of the entrance together as he passed.

The Major motioned to a chair nearby. “Please, have a seat.” He didn’t smile. Alex wondered if the man ever really, genuinely smiled. His face just didn’t seem to be cut out for it. “I’m glad I got a chance to meet you, Gunny. I’ve heard your name mentioned a few times,” he paused meaningfully, “in certain circles . . . It’s good to have a face to go with it.”

Alex leaned forward slightly, now completely intrigued once again. “Oh, really? I didn’t realize that I rated the kinds of circles you probably travel in.”

“Didn’t you?” Dark, penetrating eyes peered out at her from underneath a prominent brow.

“I guess I just assumed that I was little more than a passing annoyance.” She offset the words with a warm smile.

“I never said you weren’t.” A thin, half smile was returned. “Just that your name had been mentioned.”

Alex forcibly resisted the urge to pounce on him, not certain if she wanted to pound on his arrogant face until he told her what the old boys were saying about her, or indulge in a different kind of pounding. The intensity he exuded was working on her like an aphrodisiac. Alex loved power.

She loved to control it.

“I see.” She met his gaze again. Time for a gamble. “And what do they say about you, Major? You must have pissed someone off to wind up out here.” His eyes flashed with annoyance for a moment before he could replace his mask of aloof arrogance. Alex bit back a grin. She shoots, she scores.

Major Salvatore paused for a long time before responding. “People who hold positions of power often feel threatened by anything . . . or anyone . . . who might circumvent their authority. Don’t you think?”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. Was he talking about her, or himself? “Only if they feel insecure with that authority in the first place.”

He inclined his head in agreement, his eyes never leaving her own. “Precisely. Sometimes the most powerful of men are afraid of their own shadows.”

She paused, trying to discern what game he was playing. “Of course, shadows can be convenient places to hide. Maybe they have a right to be afraid.”

His eyes flashed once again. “When someone worthy of the power comes along to take it, they won’t bother lurking in the shadows.”

Ah, so we are talking about you, aren’t we Major? What happened, did they decide you were getting a little bit too big for your britches and send you down here to cool your heels? The question is, what does any of this have to do with me?

Time for another gamble. “In a perfect world, power and prestige would come to those who’ve earned it.”

He inclined his head once again. “And those who would take what they deserve . . . But, alas, it’s not a perfect world. Is it Gunny?” He emphasized the last word.

“No, it isn’t.” She agreed.

“But we all must strive to make it so, don’t you think? Sometimes it’s good to remind powerful people that they can be wrong about . . . certain things. It keeps them honest.”

As he spoke, Major Salvatore took a few steps closer to Alex, stopping only a couple of feet away and leaning back against the edge of a table. Their eyes were still locked together, and Alex could almost feel the air crackling with energy between them. “Sounds risky to me.”

“True.” He nodded. “But then, some risks can be made,” he paused to take a long deep breath, “worthwhile.”

Her heart started to pound a little bit faster, and one brow edged slowly skyward. She eased out of her chair, leaning a bit farther forward than she really needed to and gracefully straightening her body upwards until they were at eye level.

“I’ve always liked risks.” Her voice dropped to a sultry purr, and she watched his eyes begin to darken. “After all, it’s the biggest risks, and hardest . . . challenges, that tend to be the most rewarding.”

“Indeed.” His face betrayed little. But his body was another story.

With a backward glance at the doorway to be certain it was securely closed, Alex leaned forward. It felt, she mused, so good to know that sometimes you held your own fate in the palm of your hand.

To prove the point, she gave an experimental squeeze. With a soft groan, those arrogant eyes fluttered and closed.

An hour later found Alex trotting toward Jake, who glanced at his watch meaningfully as she approached. “Where have you been?” They turned and walked together toward the large truck that would take them out to their post, where they would spend the next several hours taking over the highly exciting task of guarding a supply road that, by all appearances, had known only a handful of travelers in the last millennium.

“I was delivering a packet to Simon Says.” Captain Richard Simon, the commanding officer of their division, had been surprisingly hard to track down. She’d finally caught up to him just as he was exiting the latrine. It was always funny to salute officers coming out of the john, especially if you could catch them mid-zip.

“What kind of packet?” They met up with the rest of their company, who were loading onto the truck. She bit back a smirk as Chewy grimaced while trying to climb on board.

“I don’t know. The Major needed it delivered, and I was heading out toward this side of camp anyway.”

Jake stopped cold, grabbing her arm and pulling her to a stop as well. “The Major?” She blinked innocently. His voice dropped to just above a whisper as he pulled her a few feet away. “And exactly how did it happen that you were with the Major in the first place?” The accusing tone irritated Alex, but she bit it back, seeing the honest concern in Jake’s soft brown eyes.

“Just . . . building a few bridges, that’s all.” She flashed him a reassuring smile.

He didn’t seem reassured.

“Hey, Gunny, you missed mail call.” Slim, so dubbed for his dynamic physique, mentioned as she settled down next to him.

“And did I get anything?” She asked with a note of sarcasm. The truck revved to life and Alex put a hand over her nose and mouth to keep out the sand that was kicked up toward her face as they started to move.

“Well, no, but . . . ”

“I did.” Jake’s whole face broke out into a grin as he produced a letter from his pocket.

Alex’s eyes jumped to his face hopefully. “Did she send anything else?”

“Maybe.” Jake teased. Which meant yes. Which meant there might be some homemade cookies in her future. With a grin of her own, Alex settled back, trying to get comfortable and ignore the small sand storm that the truck kicked up in its wake. All in all, she decided, this had been a pretty good day.

And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:

We will not be put off the final goal

We have it hidden in us to attain,

Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,

Steer straight off after something into space.

Robert Frost

Chapter 4 – Chicago, Illinois – Sunday, August 23rd, 1998

It flashed between a numb, empty feeling and a horrible pain in her chest, then back again. She stood for a while on the sidewalk, trying to catch the eyes of the people milling about, her gaze nearly pleading. But they all seemed to be almost purposefully ignoring her. Once or twice, she thought she caught a few glancing toward her, their gazes almost . . . fearful.

Taking a deep, trembling breath, Bridget turned back toward her building. Her legs felt like lead and a wild pounding once again flared up in her head, threatening her balance. Threatening her sanity. No. No. No. This isn’t how it’s suppose to happen. She can’t just be . . . gone.

But she was.

Alex was gone.

Gone.

Something light hit the top of her head and bounced away, but Bridget’s mind barely noticed. She continued walking, slowly, in a shocked daze.

Plop.

It caught her attention this time, and her eyes tracked upward in confusion.

Plop.

She saw it coming this time, her hand lashed out and caught the small object as it bounced off her head. It looked like a . . . grape? She looked upward again, irritably ignoring the wave of dizziness, and her eyes fell on a stooped figure, settled onto a chair on a second floor balcony.

Once they locked eyes, Bridget’s fuzzy mind realized who she was looking at. It was their building’s version of the weird old cat lady. Elderly, and by all rumors without family, the woman was often seen sitting out on her balcony with a bowl of grapes in her lap, watching the street below.

Watching.

Bridget’s head whipped back around to the street, noting where she had seen Alex, then moved quickly back to the old woman on her balcony, mentally judging the angle and distance. Her mouth hanging open slightly, she looked up at the woman questioningly. The wrinkled face winked at her, and one bony finger beckoned her.

Licking her lips nervously, Bridget trotted into the building and began punching the elevator button impatiently. Her mind was mostly blank, and she felt as though she were moving in a haze. The doors opened and she quickly located the old woman’s door. One arm raised and tapped tentatively on the door.

No answer. Shit.

She knocked again, this time harder. Still no response. Biting her lip, Bridget glanced nervously up and down the hallway before reaching out turning the doorknob experimentally. It opened and she pushed forward slowly.

“Hello?” As the door opened, the smell assaulted her, nearly knocking her back into the hallway. It was dank and musty, with cats lay here and there about the room. She guessed there were roughly a dozen of them. The odor of neglected kitty litter permeated the air and Bridget fought not to choke.

“Hello?” Her eyes moved to the glass doors leading to the balcony, and she saw the old woman there, still looking down on the street below.

Carefully shutting the door, Bridget made her way through the room, ignoring the few hisses that the apartment’s feline inhabitants saw fit to throw her way. She slid open the door and slipped outside, edging around the figure on the narrow balcony and kneeling down next to her.

Before she could think of what to say, a pair of watery hazel eyes turned to her, framed by white hair, her face was a map of deep wrinkles and sags. Her voice was a soft and crackled, as though it were rarely used.

“Saw her, your friend. She had to go.”

Bridget cocked her head in confusion. “What?”

“Your friend, the one that flies, men came and she had to go.” The wrinkled old face was grave.

“The one . . .” that flies? Her eyes glanced upward and then she understood. “You saw her the other day when she jumped down. Right? After I got hurt.”

The old face nodded quickly and leaned forward, conspiratorially. “Scared for you.”

The reporter smiled tightly. “And you saw her today? What happened? I need you to tell me everything that you remember.” The hopeless feeling faded into the background and her reporter’s instinct took over.

The watery eyes grew distant for a moment. “Walking down the street with a bag, then a car stopped and men came out. Jumped back and yelled, and the man held out his arms. One got kick, and the other one tried to hit her too. All of ‘em stopped and looked back into the car, where the door was open. It looked like she said something, then got in the car. The men turned and said something to the people and then they were gone.”

“She just got in the car?” The pain in her head asserted itself again and she felt tears burning in her eyes.

The old woman nodded sadly. “She had to go.”

“Did you hear what she yelled at them, or what they said?” The old face looked at her, shaking from side to side.

“The ears, they’re not so good. But the eyes work just fine.” The woman smiled and winked at her, then her face turned grim again. “Sorry about your friend.”

Yeah, me too. “Did you see her face, before she got in the car? What did she look like?” Did she want to leave, or did they make her go?

“Looked back just as she was getting in, looked up there.” The hand pointed upward, where her own balcony was. Bridget closed her eyes and her head bowed down to her chest. Alex was gone. The thought poured through her mind once again. Alex was gone.

This just couldn’t be happening, not now.

“Do you want a grape?” Bridget blinked up in confusion, and saw the look of concern on the old woman’s face. It was almost sublimely ridiculous. This poor old woman, alone with her cats and a balcony so she could watch people live out their lives, wanted to console her with a grape.

She reached out her hand and the old woman dropped the fruit into her palm. And Bridget carefully placed it on her tongue and chewed. She was surprised. It almost did seem to help. The way a mother’s kiss helps to ease a pain.

“What’s your name?” The reporter’s gaze traveled over the woman’s face, wondering what she had looked like when she was younger.

“Emily.” There was a strange, almost childlike quality to the woman’s voice.

“Well, thank you Emily. For everything.” Bridget looked back down at the street.

“Can’t just let her go.” Hazel eyes moved slowly over the passing crowd, as if she were searching for something. Her voice was sad and hollow. “Once they’re gone, they never come back.”

Never come back. The thought struck her like a blow. Reaching out and touching Emily’s hand where it rested on a bony knee, Bridget set her jaw. “I haven’t lost her yet, Emily. You wait and see.” The old woman’s looked down to where Bridget’s hand covered her own as though the touch were a gift to her, and the reporter found herself wondering when the last time she’d had someone merely touched her out of kindness.

“You come visit sometime?” Her eyes were filled with a longing and loneliness that almost broke Bridget’s heart. For a moment she forgot about Alex and her problems.

“I will.” She promised solemnly. Knowing that she meant it.

Standing, Bridget watched the old woman’s eyes turned back toward the street, observing the lives below passing by below her as though she were living through them. A cold shiver passed through her body. Without thinking, she leaned down, and planted a soft kiss on the white head. “I will.” She whispered.

By the time she made it back up to her apartment, Bridget’s mind felt like it was being pulled in a million directions at once. Alex was just gone. But it wasn’t that simple. It couldn’t be. Who was it? What did they say to make her leave with them? There had to be a reason, right? But how in the hell was she supposed to figure out what that might be?

Tons of questions, and not a damn answer in sight.

Well, so what?

I’m a reporter, right? Answers are my job.

She took a deep breath and fairly collapsed onto the couch. But here’s the question I’d better start with.

Will she want to be found?

“What should I do, Alex?” She spoke to the empty air. “It’s not like I can just call up the police and say, oh, yeah, the homeless woman that beat up a professional assassin and saved my life just got into a car and took off, think you can find her for me?” She almost laughed. Her head pounded and her eyes were burning with tears again as memories of the past few days slowly began to haunt her.

Opening her eyes, they fell on the coiled whip laying next to her on the couch. Oh, shit. The reporter felt a compelling urge to get up and pace so that she could clear her thoughts, but the pounding in her head prevented it. She fought hard to bring her thoughts into some measure of coherence.

As her head continued to pound, Bridget realized that part of her brain still expected Alex to walk in the door. That she wasn’t really gone. That she’d find a way back. But . . .

I can’t just let it go at that.

Jesus Christ, why didn’t I tell her what I was afraid of when I had the chance? If only I weren’t such a freaking coward.

And now, what is it exactly that I think I’m going to do? Head off on some fool’s errand of a wild goose chase . . . traipsing all over the countryside after a strange woman who jumps off of buildings and disappears off the face of the Earth for years at a time, not to mention somehow gaining about twenty pounds of muscle in a single goddamn afternoon, so that I can tell her that I think she’s being manipulated by the pagan god of war because she might be descended from some ancient warrior that he just happened to have a thing for?

Oh, yeah, there’s sanity for ya.

Also not forgetting that, whatever she was involved in before by all accounts was highly violent, the bruises on her body groaned in agreement, and at least moderately illegal. So if I go, there’s a pretty darn good chance that even if I do get lucky enough to find her, AND if she is still all right when I do, AND she even wants to see me, that I’ll probably wind up getting my idiotic, demented head shot off in the process.

It would be stupid, foolhardy, and probably suicidal. Is that really what you want to do, kiddo?

Bridget’s fingers drummed on her knee.

Yep, God help me, that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.

She took a deep breath and almost chuckled.

I’ve got to be completely out of my mind.

But the decision was made, and with it came a sense of peace and clarity that surprised her. She tackled the problem like she would tackle any hard story, by starting with what she knew and moving toward what she needed to know.

The next day was spent staring at her computer screen until her eyes were so blurry that they simply wouldn’t focus anymore. Paul’s initial search into Alex’s past had turned up most of the information that would be readily available. But it was worth the time to double check. It would still be a few days before she would feel safe flying. The reporter also tracked down the address of the woman who had filed the missing person’s report on Alex in the first place.

If she was going to look for a needle in a haystack, at least she knew which haystack to start with first.

Teresa Wong. She was a licensed physical therapist, and seemed to have some fairly extensive training in Eastern medicine. Her address was in Yucca Valley, where the report had been filed. Bridget toyed with the idea of simply calling her. But, that just didn’t feel right. She liked to look a person in the eye when she talked to them, and gage their reactions. Besides, she reminded herself, the base where Alex had been stationed was there too. And it was the last physical location where she could pin Alex down over the past decade.

One more piece of the puzzle toyed with her mind. Why Chicago, Alex? How did you wind up here? The best answer was simply, the airport. One of the biggest in the world. If someone wanted to disappear, just pay cash for a one-way ticket, step off the plane and disappear into the city. If Alex really didn’t want to be found, then she wouldn’t choose a city where anyone would even remotely think to look for her. And if Alex had meant to disappear, then she would have covered her tracks. Which meant that she had probably used a phoney name on her ticket. So that was probably a dead end.

She thought too, about the journal. Grumbling a few more choice oaths in Jeremy’s general direction, in the end, she decided it would be better to wait. To worry about finding Alex first before she hit her with the rest of it. Besides, Jeremy had been right in a strange way. There was no telling where this search was going to lead her. Better to leave the journal where she knew it was safe for now. With any luck, they would need it later. Bridget wasn’t one to go at anything half way, and that meant following the trail wherever it might lead. Heh, and she thought I was being stubborn before. Oh, Alex, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. She got her passport in order, just in case. Muttering questions about her sanity the entire time.

Never could do anything half way, could ya kiddo? Hey, that should be my motto. ‘If there’s a hard way, I’ll find it.’

Satisfied that she had at least worked through the preliminaries, the reporter grabbed a few hours restless sleep before getting dressed and heading out to do some more digging. It was late afternoon when a cab dropped her off at the Tribune building.

Bridget had carefully dressed in a long sleeve shirt and slacks to cover up most of the bruising that covered her body. The cuffs caused the healing wounds on her wrists to itch, but it was better that then trying to explain rope burns. She got a few curious glances, but avoided as many people as possible as she navigated her way through the room with practiced ease until she reached Paul’s desk.

“Hey.” She said quietly. He glanced up in surprise, his eyes moving over her face with concern.

“What happened?”

“Long story.” She sighed, pulling up a chair and settling in. “Did you find anything?” She called earlier, asking him to dig up anything he could about Alex’s military history.

He shook his head. “Not much. Most of her official stuff has to do with requests she put in to join the special forces. Seems like she wanted to play G.I. Jane.”

Intrigued, Bridget leaned forward. “Did she make it?”

“Nah, never even got the chance to try out. The last denial was only a couple of days before her company was sent overseas.” Behind his wire rim glasses, his eyes darted around the room nervously, as though he thought they were being watched. He leaned closer. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

Bridget thought for a moment. If he was going to help her, then Paul needed to know at least part of the truth. “It’s personal, Paul.” She said quietly. “I’ve got a friend whose in trouble and I need to find her.”

“Uh huh.” He glanced around again. “What did you find?”

“That the Freedom of Information Act is a beautiful thing.” The reporter patted the envelope she carried meaningfully with a small, satisfied smile. “I got all that they released about the accident, and the actions that followed, leading up to her discharge.”

“Okay, let’s check it with what I found.” They huddled together and Bridget pulled out the documents she had obtained. She filed through it until she came across the a page that listed the casualties. “This is their list of the dead and the wounded.” She set it down on the desk.

“What are we looking for?” Paul straightened his glasses again and began tapping at the keyboard.

“Discrepancies, or anything out of the ordinary.” She sighed. “I’m not sure really. There’s got to be something there. I’m certain there’s more to this than the military wants anyone to know.”

“Okay, well, you know that it was the same day that there was another big missile attack, only that one was to a barracks. I think that’s why they were able to keep it kind of quiet.” He tapped on the keyboard a few more times. “It just got overshadowed.”

Bridget’s eyes wandered back over the names of the soldiers that had been killed.

First Lieutenant Jake Jennings

First Sergeant Brent Talmadge

Corporal Lance Lincoln

Private First Class Amanda Ishtook

Private First Class Lamar Christian

Private First Class Reginald Jamison

Private First Class Bruce Retzky

Alex should have been on that last, the reporter reminded herself. But, instead Alex’s name lead off the list of those injured in the incident. Sitting back, Bridget let her mind work.

Okay, Alex. Here we go. What was it that you told me? You said that . . . there are all kinds of guilt, and what happened was because of you. But what does that mean? She stared at the first name on the list. Alex said she was playing cards with her Lieutenant. The reporter checked both lists, and Jennings was the only name mentioned with that rank. So you were right there with him when it happened. Only he was killed and you weren’t . . . But you should have been.

Bridget mulled that over until an unpleasant thought crept into her mind, ‘because of me.’

You weren’t supposed to survive, were you Alex?

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Robert Frost

Chapter 5 – Saudi Desert, – Monday, February 25th, 1991

The world was red.

Hot.

Searing.

Agony.

Everything was pain. Centered nowhere in particular, she knew only that it felt like her flesh was being ripped from her body.

The blackness mercifully carried her away, only to throw her back into blinding, mind- numbing pain once again what seemed only a moment later. There were voices, near but somehow very far away. The torment came in bursts now, scorching jolts brought on by movement. Touches that her logical mind knew where there to help her, her body could only register as torture. There was a short, stinging burst somewhere on her arm, and then the blackness came again, rushing up to consume her. As she sank down into it gratefully, Alex only knew that she didn’t want to return.

Eventually it began to fade. Light crept toward her, shifting the blackness into a warm, dusky grey. Crawling toward awareness, Alex struggled to open her eyes, wondering fuzzily why such a simple thing felt like it required the same amount of energy one would need to lift a boulder, or drag an airplane. Searching inside of herself, she found the strength and drug her eyes open.

For the rest of her life, Alex would wish that she hadn’t.

Bodies. They were everywhere. Some moved and groaned. Others were terribly still. The air was filled with the sickly smells of blood and charred flesh. Her head turned to the side and her eyes fell on a familiar profile.

Jake.

Alex tried to call to him, but her voice was only a croak. Blinking rapidly, she tried to see how badly he was hurt. One arm raised toward him as her mind stubbornly cast aside the terrible pain even the slightest movement caused. Her fingers settled on his arm and Alex tried again to call to him. But any sound she might have made died in her throat. The touch had moved his body slightly, shifting and turning it more on its side to face her.

Alex froze. Her eyes locked on the figure before her, burning the memory into her brain, where she knew, even then, it would stay forever.

Half of his face was just . . . gone.

A scream echoed from somewhere nearby. It hadn’t come from her, but Alex almost wished it had. Moving slowly, her eyes took in the gore that had once been the body of her friend. She wanted so much to scream, or cry. Anything at all to ease the horrific rushing of emotion through her body. But she just couldn’t. Something within her wouldn’t allow the release. Wouldn’t allow her to let go, no matter how her mind screamed for it. Instead it built, slowly, inexorably, the vision searing through her veins and into her heart.

Too much. Letting go would just be too much.

Her body rocked with rage and a deep mournful sorrow that sliced through her soul. Alex wanted to shrink back from the intensity of it, but it held her in an iron grip. Reminding her that this was the price to pay for allowing herself to care.

Closing her eyes, Alex finally lay back as the last of her strength gave out, and willed the blackness to come again. To wipe it all away.

Doctors came, but she was only vaguely aware of them. They asked her questions, pulling her mind away from the emptiness it craved and soon she resented them. Why couldn’t they leave her alone? All she wanted was to be alone.

Officers came next. They asked her questions as well. She resented them even more. Murmurs floated through the air. It had been friendly fire. That thought was almost sublimely ridiculous. Killed by their own weapons. It didn’t matter to her one way or the other, though she knew it probably should. Dead was dead, no matter who pulled the trigger.

Her body was badly injured. Alex knew that and tried to convince herself that she should care about that too. Her arms and chest were wrapped in gauze and Alex realized that she must have been burned. There were other pains as well. Probably shrapnel. She tried to remember the explosions.

The last thing she could remember was playing cards with Jake for the promise of cookies, her mouth watering at the thought. The only warning had been the high pitched whistling. They were all trained in field artillery. They all knew what it was. The entire company jumped and scrambled for just that precious few seconds before it hit.

She had the strange sensation of something against her back as she scrambled for safety. It felt almost like a body. And for one brief, irrational moment, Alex thought she caught the musky scent of leather. The first one hit just behind her. The blast pitched her body forward as flames licked around her skin. She felt her legs hit something solid, though she never found out what, and explode in pain. Another round hit to her left while she was still in the air. More pain, more flames, and then she was on the ground, knowing that she felt the sure weight of a body on top of her own, shielding her even as the sand dug into her wounded skin.

But when she had looked, nothing was there. Another blast, and she found her head being pushed down into the ground again, and the firm solid, impossible weight on her back. Only then had she succumbed to the pain, instinctively knowing that somehow she would be safe. Knowing that she had been saved.

Officers came again. They asked more questions, and she answered. Still wanting only for them to go away, to leave her alone with her pain. Time moved around the injured woman like a blur, as the pain ate away at her and she retreated further into herself.

When the officers came for the third time, Alex knew something wasn’t right. She had been moved to a hospital, though she didn’t care enough to ask where, and noted that this time they didn’t debrief others in the company. They came to speak to her only. Something was definitely wrong, the woman noted absently, yet she still couldn’t bring herself to care.

Every time she closed her eyes, Jake’s face floated in front of her. Memories of his mutilated body intermingled disturbingly with the memories of the one night they had spent together. More often than not, she woke up screaming. Only for the hateful nurses to come and give her medication that sent her, unwilling, back to the torturous visions in her mind. Bit by bit, the pain seemed to burn her heart away, leaving a cold, numb feeling in its wake.

It was almost two weeks later before something pulled Alex out of her morose reverie. Easy was wandering around, white gauze covering his eyes, only part of his curly brown hair peeking out on top of his head. He bumped into the end of Alex’s bed, jarring it slightly and causing her to yelp. Recognizing the voice, Easy felt his way to the side of the bed. Finding a chair and settling into it, he leaned forward with a conspiratory air.

“So what do you think, Gunny? Who was it?”

Irritated, Alex started to tell him to go away. But a vague curiosity won out.

“Who was what?” Her voice snapped impatiently.

Easy leaned even further forward, his gauze-covered face seeming surprised.

“You mean you don’t know?” Easy’s voice was incredulous.

“Know what, Easy? What are you talking about?” Her irritation and impatience rose quickly.

“It wasn’t an accident.”

“What?” Alex jerked forward, pain shooting through her body at the movement. Easy’s head moved, as if he were looking around and he shushed her.

“That’s what I’ve heard. No mistake. Someone gave out our coordinates as an enemy encampment.”

“Why? Why would anyone do that?” Alex’s mind was racing.

“No one knows. They’ve got special investigators coming in to sort it all out.” For the first time since this had begun, Alex felt like she had woken up. It hadn’t been an accident. Someone had set them up like lambs to a slaughter. She questioned Easy about what had been happening, her mind now a flurry of activity. The pain that had been eating away at her began to transform, gradually, into a slow burning anger. It left an acrid taste in her mouth.

They’d lost so many. Even Easy’s voice quavered as he grimly laid out the casualties. Chewy, Jake, and Handy, all pronounced dead on the scene. More died in triage. Trig had been the last, taken out by an infection a couple of days after the accident.

Everyone was injured in one way or another. A few limbs had been lost. Easy, of course, had been blinded. By comparison, Alex’s own injuries were relatively minor. Though much of her body had been burned, the most severe was on her left side. But the doctors told her in time she would heal without any significant scarring. And she had already begun to heal. Her right shoulder had been strained and dislocated, and both shinbones had been broken.

The thirst for revenge settled over Alex and she began to push herself, willing her body toward recovery. She was going to find out who had done this. And then . . . and then there would be a terrible price to be paid. Jake deserved that much.

The truth didn’t begin to dawn on her until the next day, when the investigators arrived. Alex was taken to a private room, away from the rest of the company, and saw that a guard had been placed at her door. Dread began to settle like a rock into her stomach.

When they came to speak to her, it was with cold, impassive faces, but eyes that were accusing. Alex idly wondered if they had been that way all along, and she had just been too oblivious to notice. They asked her about what she could remember again, giving her enough rope to hang herself.

Thinking for a moment before answering, her logical mind raced through what had happened, settling on the vague memory of the formless body shielding her own. Alex had been lucid enough to leave that detail out of her accounts of what had happened. But now, she almost wished that she had told them the truth. A psych ward might be preferable to whatever else was in store for her.

Clearing her throat, Alex told the story again, feeling a bleak sense of loneliness settle over her. How many times through her life had she been saved by that strange, nameless force? At times she had tried to convince herself that it was merely a delusion created by a lonely child’s mind. But now . . . now Alex sensed that same force had damned her to live the nightmare that was unfolding around her. It saved her when she shouldn’t have been saved. And somehow that thought hurt more than her injuries, even more than Jake’s death. For the first time that she could ever recall, Alex felt wholly alone. Once again she began to descend into a dark place within her soul. She had vague memories of screaming, of being held down. But it was all a blur.

Her broken legs ached as she lay on her bed a few hours, or days, later. Alex’s mind could only comprehend an utter sense of desolation. Despite her still injured shoulder, both wrists had been bound to the bed, preventing her escape, into the world or out of it.

Vaguely, her senses registered the door opening, and a familiar voice ordering others to stand outside. As the door closed, Alex blinked, forcing her mind to pay attention to the tall, dark figure. Major Salvatore paced toward her bed with his shoulders back proudly, hands clasped behind his back and the coldest of smiles on his face.

“Well, hello Gunny Bryson. And how are you feeling today?”

The sight of him worked on her brain like a key, neatly unlocking and fitting together bits of information, flashes of memory. For some reason, Alex hadn’t thought that she might actually know who had set them up, let alone that she might have actually played some part in it. But as she looked up into the cold, calculating eyes, pieces of the puzzle continued to fall into place as if of their own will. Vague memories of Salvatore and his assistant staring at a map of the terrain, one finger pointing toward the area her company would be located. His assistant returning to the tent after . . . a wave of revulsion hit her as the memory of what she had done so willingly, thinking only of what this man could do for her. She remembered the packet the assistant had brought, handing it to Salvatore with an impassive face. He had briefly perused the contents before giving the man a brief, perfunctory pat on the back and then casually asking Alex to deliver the papers to the company’s commander on her way out.

Accustomed to following orders, Alex had allowed herself only a brief moment of anger at being dismissed so easily, never questioning the order itself. Never questioned what was in the packet she had delivered, or why he had asked her to do it instead of his assistant or anyone else. Why would she have? He was going to help her, right? He was going to help her get her dreams.

Staring into the Major’s dark eyes, Alex realized now what had probably been in the packet – orders, coordinates – and with a powerful wave of disgust, she realized just how easy she had made it for him.

Her arms jerked against her restraints and her lips curled into an animalistic snarl.

Major Salvatore didn’t jump, or even flinch at the injured woman’s struggles or her demeanor. Pain shot through her body again, and eventually she settled down out of sheer frustration. Wanting to either shrink from mocking gaze or be free to wipe it off herself, preferably with a long, blunt, jagged, rusty knife. Alex amused herself with thoughts of what she would do with that knife while the Major continued to watch her with patient and condescending amusement.

Finally, Alex’s own patience snapped and her voice came with a low growl. “Tell me, Major, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

A wider grin split his face as he raised a brow and made a point of sighing at the thought. “Well,” he began, taking a step closer and leaning casually against her bed, just out of reach of her bound wrist, “not the same as last time, unfortunately. Unless, of course, you need a supplement to your hospital diet. Getting enough protein?” One lip curled upward in a cruel smirk.

A hot rush of shame tore through Alex’s body as she forced herself to hold his gaze. Tears, rage and a thousand emotions swarmed toward the surface, but she viciously stomped them down. “No thanks,” a thin wall of icy calm settled over her. “What I get here is stale and lifeless enough.”

The Major’s eyes flashed for a moment before he let out what sounded like an honest laugh. “Ah, Alex. A fighter ‘til the end, I see. Good for you.” He patted the cast on her right leg smartly, and her eyes watered as she bit down the cry of pain.

“What do you want?” Her gaze never wavered from his face.

“Oh, I just wanted to let you know, I’ve been put in charge of the investigation into this . . . incident.” He smiled again at the look of shock that she couldn’t keep from her face. “And I wanted to reassure you that I would be handling this case with the utmost care and . . . personal attention.”

So there it was. Any hope she might have had of convincing the investigator of Salvatore’s involvement dissolved in front of her eyes. Whatever holes there might be in the case against her, the Major would be there personally to fill in.

“Why?” The question was soft, and starkly honest, surprising them both.

The Major paused a moment, turning to sit in a visitor’s chair before answering. “Luck, mostly.” His voice was detached and dispassionate. “Circumstance. Opportunity. All rolled into one perfect little package. But then, I’ve learned that destiny has a way of taking care of itself.” He smiled coldly toward her once again. “For example, I was upset when I heard you had survived . . . you’ll have to tell me how you managed that one day, by the way . . . But then I realized that by heading up the investigation and prosecution myself, I could actually benefit much more this way, in the end.” He leaned back in the chair, his arms laying casually on the arms as though he were perched on a throne. “So I suppose I should be thanking you, Alex. Dead, you would have been easy enough to frame and that would have been the end of it. But alive . . . Alive, you can be crucified in front of the entire nation, in front of the world for that matter. Every channel, every newspaper in the world is going to hear about how Gunny Alexandra Bryson, after being constantly spurned in her military ambitions, finally snapped, and decided to take it out on her own men, her own company. How she had an insane desire to receive the recognition in death that she was never worthy of in life.”

Alex took a shaky breath, letting it all sink in. Hey, Oswald, move over. I think I’m threatening your title as the perfect patsy. She thought bitterly. Stomach churning, Alex tried to clamp down tightly on her emotions. “And of course, your face will be on every one of those stations, every one of those newspapers as well. You’ll be the hero of this story by uncovering the truth and stopping my dastardly scheme, right?” Anger and sarcasm warred with the terrible ache of hopelessness.

The Major smiled again, ducking his head slightly. “See, I knew you were smart, Gunny. A woman of many . . . talents.” Another flash of white teeth. “If you’d been some silly tart, this never would have worked. But you, Alex. You’re a very smart, very capable woman. It would have taken someone like you to make to this all believable. Not to the press, of course.” He gestured negligently. “They could care less if you were guilty or not, as long as they got their story. But the brass. That’s a different matter entirely.” He left the rest unspoken, knowing they were both aware of the fact that a good many high ranking officers already held her in disdain.

Alex cocked an eyebrow as the Major gloated over his victory. Frigid blue eyes narrowed as she realized that this was probably the only opportunity he would ever have to strut and savor the true brilliance of the frame he’d very neatly planted around her. The wheels in her mind began cranking again, flailing around desperately for anything to use as ammunition against this son of a bitch. After a moment, she touched on a plan. With nothing much left to lose, Alex dove in head first.

“Of course,” sighing, she leaned back against her pillow trying to get comfortable. “There are two sides to this. I mean, my face and will be on all those stations, but I might just get a few sound bytes of my own in, Major.”

Salvatore’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched almost imperceptibly, but he recovered quickly and indulged in a short, mirthless laugh. “Say whatever you want, Alex. No one will believe you.”

“Won’t they?” Alex smiled outright this time, the blue in her eyes glinting dangerously. “You said it yourself, the press doesn’t care whether it’s the truth or not. As long as it’s a good story. I think I’ve got a pretty good story for them.” The mirthless laughter filling the room came from her this time. “And I think I could probably guess enough of the truth to make even the brass wonder . . . Wonder, for example, what other reasons there might have been for that bombing. What someone might have had to gain . . by the distraction. What an ambitious officer was doing in the middle of nowhere at a camp that was babysitting nearly abandoned supply roads.”

She was clutching at straws and he probably knew it, but despite his bravado, some of the color had drained from the Major’s cheeks and the injured woman knew that she’d hit close enough to the mark. She was cornered, and there probably wasn’t any way around that. But Alex was used to bad situations, and impossible challenges, and she’d be damned if she wasn’t going to draw blood on the way down.

Salvatore hadn’t spoken again. Instead he seemed to be quietly considering what to do about her. She could almost hear his thoughts. Wondering if he could get away with killing her now. Wondering if she could really say anything that would be damaging. Wondering if it were worthwhile to take the risk.

The Major seemed almost subdued when he finally stood, taking precise, measured strides around the bed until he had a clear view out the window. With his back to her, he finally broke the silence.

“You’re out of the service . . . you know that. But the press coverage will be minimal.” A small sigh. “They can be distracted. And I’ll see to it that you go free afterwards.” He turned back to her, his demeanor haughty again after having shaken off a minor defeat. “As long as you are silent, then this will all officially be accidental. Break that silence,” Salvatore had moved to the end of the bed and now placed his hands firmly on the casts covering her lower legs, as he spoke, he began to squeeze, “and I guarantee you won’t live to regret it.”

Alex shook with pain, tears welling in her eyes despite herself, but she dug down within herself for an iron will that refused to back down. Her eyes never left his. Part of her bitterly reminded herself that she deserved this. She made the mistake of trusting this man, no matter how vaguely, in the first place. Just like she’d made the mistake of letting herself care so deeply about Jake. In the end, all any of it brought her was pain. So she welcomed the pain, let the memory of this moment burn into her brain along side the memory of Jake’s mutilated body. Silence? Oh, yes, he’d have her silence. It didn’t matter anymore. Everything she’d worked for for the past five years was gone. Her ambitions, her dreams, all of it. Now Alex realized that she’d been a fool for dreaming in the first place.

When he released his grip, Salvatore held her gaze for another few moments. “They’ll fly you back in a couple of days. I’ll take care of the details.”

That got a raised eyebrow, he merely smirked in return. “Don’t flatter yourself, Alex. This is all little more than a minor inconvenience to me. I know who I am, and where I’m going. There’s nothing you, or anyone else can do about that.”

She didn’t believe him for a moment. Anyone who was willing to sacrifice an entire company wouldn’t think twice about killing someone who did pose a genuine threat. But she probably had some time. Anything that happened too quickly would arouse suspicion.

“So be a good little girl and hold your tongue . . . Don’t make me come back and cut it off for you.” Salvatore couldn’t resist another smug little grin. Moving around the bed, he let a finger casually trace the line of her jaw down to her lips. “That really would be a shame, after all.” Alex struggled against the impulse to turn and bite his finger off. The Major seemed to realize this, and teasingly slipped his finger in between her lips, like a tamer testing the patience of a lion’s jaw. “At least this way, you know you’ve got something to fall back on.”

He must have caught the glint in her eye just in time to jerk his hand back as her teeth clamped down and growl sprung from her chest. The bindings around her wrists strained and the metal frame of the bed creaked and began to bend slightly. His eyes grew wide at the sight, but after a moment the Major chuckled, shaking his head with a smirk before turning to stride out of the room with the same air of arrogance that he’d carried into it.

Watching him go, Alex could almost hear a low voice in her ear. It told her to remember this moment. Remember the shame and humiliation of it. The helplessness as she felt the power that pig of a man held over her.

And she did. Promising herself that it would never, ever happen again. No matter what. This was the price of dreams, of caring, of trusting.

Never again.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,

Or those should not set forth upon my track

To overtake me, who should miss me here

And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew–

Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Robert Frost

Chapter 6 – Chicago, Illinois – Tuesday, August 25th, 1998

With a sigh, Bridget’s hand wandered up to massage her right temple, trying to alleviate the throbbing that had once again built up in her behind her eyes. She and Paul had spent the past few hours pouring over all the documents they could find concerning the accident. There was more, lines and pages in the documents she’d obtained that had been blacked out, but the reporter had no way to know what that might be. All she could clearly discern was that, according to the official record, Alex had somehow mistakenly delivered up her own company’s coordinates as a target to a Captain Simon, who had relayed the tragic information to a field artillery unit.

The rest looked like chaos. As she skimmed over the documents again, Bridget’s instinct prickled at the sparse details of the report. Had she not been looking for it, the reporter might not have noticed. But under a skeptical eye, the explanation seemed shoddy at best. Remembering the brief details Alex had given her, Bridget knew that the explanation couldn’t ring true. Yet none of it had been challenged. Surprisingly, not even by Alex herself.

It just didn’t make any sense. Every answer only lead to more questions.

The report was signed by a Major Raphael Salvatore. Biting her lip in frustration, Bridget made a note of the name. Another in the list of leads to begin tracking when she got to California.

It was now early in the evening. Most of the staff had gone for the day and a few of the overhead lights had been turned out, leaving the large newsroom half in shadow. With the glow of monitors and the flicker of screen savers throughout the room. Bridget sighed. This was normally her favorite time of day. The nine-to-fivers were gone now. The only ones left were those who, like her, were completely devoted to their jobs. Right now, there were only about twenty of them, scattered throughout the large room. A few were diligently finishing up articles. Some talked on the phone. One or two merely leaned back in their chairs, lost in thought. How many nights had she done that, pouring every bit of her energy into breaking a story that most people would have forgotten about an hour after they read it?

“Hey.” Paul’s voice startled her for a moment. The jerk causing a slight bolt of pain to run through her arm. Grimacing, Bridget sincerely hoped that her wounds would begin to heal more quickly. “What’s wrong?” Walking around her chair and settling into his own, Paul looked into her face with concern.

“Nothing.” She smiled, taking the mug of coffee that he had brought her. “Just tired.”

“I think you should go home and rest, Bridg, there’s nothing more we’re going to be able to find here.” Wincing again, this time at the much hated nickname Paul seemed so fond of, Bridget shook her head stubbornly.

“There’s got to be something I’m not seeing.” Besides, going home had taken on a disturbingly depressing connotation since Alex’s disappearance. Bridget wondered how someone who had been in her life such a short period of time could have changed her so much.

She wondered too, at how differently this felt from researching just any story. Maybe because these weren’t just random names, or faces. Alex Bryson, in a very short period of time, had become much more to her than that. It felt . . . peculiar. Almost as though everything she’d ever done had been leading up to this.

With a skeptical look, Paul glanced around conspiratorially for a moment before leaning closer to her. “They haven’t found her yet, you know. The police were here yesterday and cleaned out her desk.” Brown eyes danced with excitement behind the wire rimmed glasses.

Blinking, it took the reporter a moment to quell a bit of panic and realize what he was talking about. Victoria. With the name, unwelcome images flooded her mind and her stomach nearly rebelled. She fought desperately not to reveal too much in her expression.

“Do you think they’ll find her?”

“I don’t know.” Bridget answered honestly, knowing that her thoughts and Paul’s were going down completely different lines. “I hope so.” And she did, in a strange way. No matter what Victoria had done, it still seemed very sad that her family might not even have the chance to know what happened, and give her a decent burial.

“Eh, she’s probably basking on some tropical beach somewhere.” Paul shook his head sadly. “It’s just not fair.”

Closing her eyes, Bridget took a deep breath, trying to calm the emotions that speaking of Victoria Carlyle were calling up in her. Finally she opened them, feigning interest in the documents in front of her until Paul eventually turned back to his monitor.

As she got her thoughts back under control, Bridget’s eyes fell once again to the name Salvatore. Paul had checked and rechecked the Salvatore’s service record, finding that he was now a Brigadier General, and that his record was so clean that it practically squeaked. Biting her lip, Bridget considered what the consequences might be if he were somehow involved in whatever had happened. On one hand, that seemed too obvious. On the other, how better to hide than in plain sight? But if that were even partially true, then the reporter realized she might be thinking about opening a much bigger can of worms than she realized.

The idea was both scary, and somewhat thrilling in a way that only a really juicy lead could be. Her personal involvement only upped the stakes, making her heart pound a bit harder than it would have otherwise. Absently grasping a lock of hair nibbling on it, Bridget reminded herself that she wasn’t after a story. She was going to find Alex, and that had to be her priority, not rooting out every secret that might be connected to the mysterious woman’s past. If she dug up enough information for a story or two, well, that was just gravy.

“Bridget?” Fingers were snapping in front of her face and the reporter blinked.

“What?”

“I said . . when are you leaving?” Paul had pouted when she shot down his immediate offer to accompany her to California. So she had assured him that she needed him to stay so that he could help dig up any information she needed along the way. That, and he would also make a good kittysitter.

“I’m going to get a ticket for Friday morning.” She sighed, wishing she were leaving much sooner. And hoping that if she did manage to find Alex, that it wouldn’t be too late. Hoping that it wasn’t too late already.

“A ticket to where?” Bridget closed her eyes and grimaced as a gruff voice sounded just behind her. Crap.

“Hi Claude.” Shaking her head and sighing, she turned around and put on an innocent smile as she looked at the face of her editor. He stood with his hands firmly planted on his hips, one foot tapping on the floor and a disapproving frown on his face.

Shit!

Claude was very much like a father to Bridget. He also had an uncanny knack for knowing when she was lying to him, or not telling the whole truth. Needless to say, she’d been seriously hoping to avoid him until after she got back. Damn, I knew I should have left earlier.

After looking into her eyes for a few moments, Claude shook his head wryly, scratching absently at his short white beard. “Uh, Bridget. Could I see you in my office for a moment, please?”

“Uh, sure. No problem.” Bridget smiled sweetly, wondering if she could sneak around to the back elevator.

Claude’s eyes narrowed as he watched her. He turned to Paul. “I thought I asked you to let me know if she came in today.”

“Uh, yes . . . well, Mr. Nelson . . . I was going to tell you, it’s just that . . . well I was busy, you know, some of these files were hard to get into and . . .” Paul yelped slightly and stammered to a halt as Bridget surreptitiously kicked him under the desk. Floundering, he looked at Bridget helplessly.

“It’s my fault, Claude. I asked him not to tell anyone I was here. I didn’t mean to stay long.” Sighing, Bridget realized that she wasn’t going to be able to get out of this. Turning to Paul, she gave him a reassuring smile and wink, with a little pat on the arm, which brought an immediate shy grin to Paul’s face as he readjusted his glasses.

Gathering up her papers, Bridget headed toward Claude’s office without further comment. She plopped familiarly into the overstuffed chair that sat under a picture of Claude as a young man, in battle fatigues with a camera that had been taken during Vietnam. The grim faced editor entered the room behind Bridget, perching on his large oak desk and studying Bridget’s face for a moment.

In that look, Bridget knew he was taking in the dark circles that had formed under her eyes and no telling what else. She spent the silence debating what to tell him. Lying wouldn’t be fair to the man that had given her the chance to prove herself in this business, and supported her no matter what she managed to get herself into. But too much truth wouldn’t be fair to him either, because Bridget knew that she was about to walk into trouble. Not forgetting of course, the trouble from the other night that she had barely managed to survive.

“So, how long are we going to play around until you tell me what’s really going on?” He had folded his arms across his chest patiently. As though he were prepared for a long wait.

Bridget took a deep breath and shook her head. “What do you want to know?”

“That long, huh?” His lips quirked.

The reporter had begun to unconsciously squirm under the steady gaze. She had always hated the silent treatment. “I’m just going on a little trip, that’s all. I probably won’t be gone that long.”

“I thought you were hurt?” He asked with a patient smile.

“Well, I’m not leaving until late this week. I’ll be better by then.” One foot had begun to tap nervously on the floor and she put her hand on her knee with feigned casualness to try and stop it.

“So where’s your friend?” The question took her by surprise, but Bridget acknowledged wryly that it probably shouldn’t. Claude was the one that had taught her how to do this in the first place. How to ask leading questions, guessing just a bit more than you know for certain and then sit back and see what shakes loose.

“I have no idea.” She answered with complete honesty. Claude, being Claude, noticed the change and his demeanor immediately changed. He slid off the desk to sit down in his chair.

“I thought this might be about her. So what’s up?”

“Part of the problem is that I’m not sure exactly what’s going on. That’s what I’m going to find out.”

Propping his feet up, Claude leaned back with his hands tucked neatly behind his head. “Why don’t you just start from the beginning.”

Surprisingly, Bridget found that she wanted to. She wanted to be able to tell someone about everything that had been going on, within reason of course. But it still didn’t seem fair. “I don’t know that that is such a good idea, Claude.”

“Why not?” He smiled slightly.

“Because it could mean trouble, and I don’t . . .” She was cut off when Claude started laughing out loud.

“And this would be any different from the thousand and one other times you’ve come to me with trouble exactly . . . how?”

The young reporter straightened in her chair, bristling just a bit at the implication. “Aw, come on Claude, I’m not that bad.”

Grinning wryly, the editor scratched absently at his beard. “Well, there was the time you had the gang leader trying to kill you.”

“Now that wasn’t my fault.” Bridget started to protest.

“After you pulled over and watched the shoot out . . .”

“I was just driving down the road, minding my own business . . .”

“And then ran into the convenience store to buy a camera and started taking pictures. He’s still in jail, I hear. How long did it take to get those bullet holes out of your car, anyway?”

Bridget mumbled.

“Hmmm?” He raised a brow inquisitively.

“I didn’t, I had to get a new one.” She said more loudly. Not mentioning the fact that the other reason why she had gotten a new car was that the gang members had recognized her old one too easily.

“Ah, well. Then of course, there was the time called me from your cell phone after having spent the night under the police commissioner’s bed when you were investigating him for those corruption charges.”

Bridget flushed slightly at the memory. Well how was I supposed to know the man was into spanking? I don’t think I’ll ever forget that image of him with his shorts around his knees and his nose stuck in the corner. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have a camera on me that time.

“I didn’t expect him to be there that night.”

“Obviously not,” Claude agreed readily. “Personally, I thought sending a stripper-gram to distract him was a stroke of genius on my part.”

Bridget couldn’t help but laugh. “You know, I never did ask you how you knew . . .”

“That he liked boys in uniforms?” Bridget bit off a chuckle and nodded. “Oh, well, that’s a very long, very old story, that you’ll have to get me very drunk before I’ll ever tell in mixed company.”

Bridget raised a brow and decided she probably didn’t want to know. “Still, it’s not like I . .”

“Then, of course, there was that time that you wound up stuck on the roof of the Sears Tower during that snowstorm.”

“Hey, now that was just because . . .”

“Or when you got locked in Al Gore’s hotel suite during the Democratic National Convention.”

“He was actually really sweet about all that . . .”

“Of course, I probably shouldn’t mention that incident with the Sudanese Ambassador.”

Bridget blushed furiously and studied the carpet.

“Then, let’s see . . .”

“All right, all right. You’ve made your point.” The reporter held up her hands in surrender. “It’s not like I set out to get into trouble.” She grumbled.

Claude raised a single white brow.

“Well, not like that, anyway.”

“So why don’t you just tell me what’s going on, Bridget?”

With a final defeated sigh, Bridget leaned back, looking at the ceiling as she spoke. “The other day, when I was down on the East Side looking for those girls I . . . got into some trouble.” She raised her head and shot him a warning look before continuing. “Alex showed up and saved my life. She’d been living on the streets so I invited her to come back home with me, as thanks.”

“Bridget!” Claude scolded. “That was dangerous, she could have been scamming you.”

“Well, she wasn’t.” The reporter said simply. “Anyway, while she was there, we . . . became friends. Or started to anyway. She . . . helped me out a few times.”

To his credit, Claude left it at that. Perhaps sensing that it had something to do with Victoria and that it was better for both of them if he didn’t know.

“Anyway, she’s in trouble now. And I need to find her.”

Claude didn’t speak for a moment, but simply stared at her.

“I know, it sounds silly. And if you want me to give you a logical reason why I’m going to do it . . . I just can’t.” Biting her lip thoughtfully, Bridget leaned her head back again. “A long time ago, you told me that a reporter’s instincts are the most valuable tool I have. That the only way I was ever going to make it was to learn to trust them. Above anything. Even your own advice.”

Glancing up again, the reporter saw the grizzled face of her editor smirking slightly.

“I’ve got to do this, Claude. I owe Alex my life . . . But it’s more than that.” Much more, but she had no way of explaining that to herself, let alone to Claude. “This is just something that I have to do.”

Though he was clearly not happy with the decision, Claude seemed at least resigned to it, and to Bridget’s stubborn determination.

“And where exactly are you going to look?”

“California.” She smiled slightly at the wordless acceptance.

“Uh huh. And why do I get the feeling that still I’m missing most of the story?”

“Because you are.” Bridget replied honestly. She waited a moment for Claude to respond. When he didn’t, she took a deep breath and went on. “This isn’t about the job, Claude. It’s personal for me.”

“Personal?” Claude shook his head and chided. “Bridget nothing about reporting should be personal. That’ll get you into trouble more quickly than anything else.” This coming from the experience of a man who kept the pictures of ex-wives two and four in his upper left hand drawer, right below the bottle of Jack Daniels and above the medal signifying his Purple Heart.

She paused for a very long time, standing up and glancing at the images that adorned his wall. Not one of them was of a family member, or a loved one. Not even the daughter that he was sending to Yale. They were of politicians, or awards. Symbols of accomplishment.

A lifetime encompassed in a single wall.

She noted absently that no one was smiling in any of them. Not one real, from the heart, expression of happiness.

“Maybe you’re right.” She said finally. “But, you know, Claude. I wonder sometimes if there shouldn’t be something in my life that’s personal.”

Turning around, she looked him squarely in the eye, letting him see the honesty there.

“Have you ever had a moment in your life, when you had a choice to make? You didn’t know if you were doing the right thing, or if you were making the biggest mistake you ever would. But somehow, you just knew that this was a chance that would never come again. And you’d spent the rest of your life regretting it if you let it pass you by?”

For a moment, Claude seemed to pause, his eyes grown strangely distant. Finally, he asked with a resigned sigh. “Is there anything I can do?”

Bridget let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. “No. Thanks, though. I need to do this on my own.”

“Well then, go get ‘em, kid.” He walked over, enfolding her in a gentle hug. Pulling back his face turned serious again. “But please . . . be careful.”

Bridget grinned. “I’m always careful, Claude. You know that.”

“Somehow, I’m not comforted.” One corner of his mouth quirked.

Bridget leaned up, kissing her editor squarely on the cheek before patting his shoulder affectionately. Gathering her papers, she turned and walked out of his office, through the dark, now mostly empty, newsroom. She turned back around to glance at the familiar room for a moment before she walked out. Perhaps sensing how long it would be before she would ever see it again.

By the time she got home it was well into the evening and Bridget practically fell asleep before her head hit the pillow. Not even bothering to undress. The stress of the past few days had begun to take their toll on her.

Maybe that’s why the dream seemed so real. She pictured herself running toward Alex, thrilled beyond to see her again. Only to have the tall woman laugh at her scornfully. Telling her she was a fool for coming, just before raising a sleek pistol in one hand and pointing it toward Bridget’s head.

“You’d better be sure you understand exactly who it is you’re looking for little girl.” The voice was cool, while blue eyes glittered dangerously. She stepped closer, backhanding the smaller woman so hard that she fell to the ground. With an impassive face, she strode forward until she towered over the fallen woman, taking careful aim with the pistol once again.

Then she fired.

Bridget sat bolt upright in the bed, shaking with sweat pouring down her face. Her knees curled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them as she told herself over and over that it was just a dream. Finally, Bridget gave up, wiping the sweat from her face before crawling out of bed and crossing toward her bathroom, shedding clothes all along the way.

She turned water on until it was as hot as she could bear, noticing that her hands were still shaking as she turned the valve that controlled the shower. Stepping under the stream, Bridget felt an ache in her shoulder as the water hit it and a sharp burning as it soaked through the bandages on her wrists.

Perhaps it was the pain that started it.

A lone tear fell down her face. Then, suddenly, it all began to hit her. Her fear at almost being killed. The hope she had allowed herself to feel during those few moments in Alex’s arms. The terror at seeing Victoria’s life drain away. The anguish she had felt when Alex disappeared. And the uncertainty that now gnawed deeply inside her.

All of it.

Emotion rushed up inside of the young woman like a wave, until her knees grew weak and she sank down into the floor of her tub. Head down, sobbing like she hadn’t since the day her parents were killed, Bridget simply let go. The tears ran down her face, unchecked, disappearing in the hot rush of water.

The End

2 thoughts on “The Beautiful Lie by Curiositee

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