Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Seasons Series and the Murder Mystery Series are the creation of the author.
My praises to Lisa, Inga and Susan, who work very hard as my beta readers. Thanks.
Note: The Seasons Series and the stories in the Murder Mystery Series all interrelate. It is best to start at the beginning.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Special Warning: These stories deal with the practice of forensics in a fairly accurate manner; more sensitive readers might find some of the scenes upsetting.
Visit Anne Azel's World at < http://www.jes.com.au/~azel/ > or write Anne at <firstname.lastname@example.org> The Anne Azel Murder Mysteries Book 1 can be ordered through Amazon.com or Openbookltd.
Dawn fastened the saddle bag to the back of Janet's saddle while Janet watched as Ryan and Mac mounted their quarter horses. Then Janet lifted the excited Reb up in front of Mac. Mac and Dawn were by far the best riders and so they were going to take turns riding double with Reb. The two women then swung up into their own western saddles and led the way out the gate and down the road.
"Hold onto the leather horn of the saddle, Reb," Mac explained, "and squeeze in with your knees."
"I drive a horse, Ryan!" the little girl squealed with delight. "I like horses."
"Way to go, kid. You're a regular cowgirl," Ryan laughed, as she struggled to get comfortable in her own saddle. Ryan had taken English riding at several of her earlier boarding schools and wasn't used to the big western saddles.
"Don't post, like you would with a horse trained for English riding, Ryan," Dawn explained referring to the style of riding. "Lean back in the saddle and loosen your reins and give the horse her head. Western horses are trained to pick their path through rough terrain so they are not used to a tight rein," Mac explained.
Ryan did as she was told and found that the saddle was very comfortable when she wasn't trying to post. Also her horse stopped fighting the bit, shook its head in relief and plodded happily along the trail once she loosened the reins.
They cut through a small bush in a single file, ducking under branches and emerged in a wide meadow of tall grass and flowers. Dawn led them down to the river edge and then they turned up stream and followed the bank of the meandering river. As they went, she told them the story of how she and Aliki had come face to face with a grizzly.
"Weren't you scared?" Ryan asked in awe.
"Mom knows the Swan Hills better than anyone," Mac bragged. "She can take care of herself."
Dawn smiled at her daughter. "We were lucky. Grizzlies are very territorial and aggressive. Aliki was prepared to take it on with a knife and she'd have got herself killed trying to save me. Fortunately, I had my whistle," Dawn pulled on the cord around her neck and showed them the metal whistle. "I am just in the habit of carrying it. I blew it really sharply and loud and it scared the bear away. It must have wandered down from the high country in search of food. Being out of its normal territory it was less aggressive and more skittish. It sure gave us a fright though." Dawn admitted and then pointed. "Look over there girls. There are some mule deer."
On the other side of the river, they could see three reddish deer about three and a half feet in height looking at them as they rode by. The deer chewed slowly, grinding their lower jaw back and forth like a cartoon character. Their long ears were up and alert, however, and their short, black tipped tails swished in annoyance. "They like to graze on grasses and herbs so this flood plain is ideal for them. It is unusual to see them at this time of day. You mostly see them in the early morning or evening," Dawn explained. "We have white-tailed deer like you have back east too. But they are browsers not grazers so you find them closer to the woods. They like twigs, shrubs, acorns and the like. Usually, all you see is the warning flash of their white tails before they disappear deeper into the bush."
Mac smiled with pride at Ryan as if to say see, I told you so my mom knows everything. Ryan winked back to show her agreement. "Aunt Dawn? Does Santa Clause have mule deer or white-tailed?" Reb asked seriously.
"Neither, hon, he has reindeer. They come from Finland and Russia in Europe." Dawn smiled.
Reb thought about this information carefully. "Obbie was in Ourope but she made a movie. She didn't see no reindeer."
"She didn't see any reindeer, Reb," Janet corrected.
"See this weed. It's in the Angelica family. This is one of the few places in Alberta that you find it. You can tell it by the purple colour of the stem. It's in the parsley family. That's probably what brought the mule deer out to munch," Dawn concluded.
Ryan looked around nervously. "Aahh, Aunt Dawn, is that grizzly still around?"
"No. Baba called the forest rangers and they set a trap for it. Then it was tranquilized, put in a sling and lifted by helicopter to a safe zone," the writer explained. "We try not to kill them unless they are known to have attacked farm animals or people."
They set a steady pace moving higher through the beautiful mountain valley. Janet fell back so that her horse was side by side with Ryan's. Dawn was now in deep conversation with her mom and Reb about the legend of Swan Hills.
Janet had been waiting for an opportunity to talk to Ryan and this seemed like a good moment.
"Ryan, I've been worried. I know you are up to something and have been for sometime now. You need your privacy, of course, and I do trust you, however, the school phoned to say you have been cutting classes and by accident I learned that you have taken quite a bit of money from your emergency account. It puts me in an awkward position. I feel I have to talk to your mom about what I know but I wanted to talk to you first."
Ryan sighed and rolled her eyes. "You are too late. Mom has already been asking me questions. Look, Aunt Janet, I will tell you, I promise, but not yet...just not yet."
Janet eyes widened in surprise. She hadn't realized that Robbie had noticed that something was up with Ryan. It was not like Robbie not to talk to her about it, but then, they'd had very little time since Robbie got back from England. "Ryan, your mom is a wonderful person and she loves you very much but patience is not her strong point. She is under a lot of stress at the moment. Her movie will be released this month and she is here meeting her father for the first time. Don't add to her stress levels, okay, or you are likely to be facing a T-Rob. I don't want to see the two of you getting your feelings hurt. Those sort of wounds take a long time to heal."
Ryan nodded seriously. "Okay. I hear what you are saying."
"Look, just ahead of us," called Dawn, "a herd of elk."
Janet and Ryan rode up to join the others and to watch a herd of some twenty beasts wade across the river to the opposite side. They were large animals, rusty coloured with yellowish rumps. Some had large racks of antlers. "We'll wait until they have all crossed and have settled down again before moving on. Elk don't like humans to get too close. Many a tourist to the west has learned that the hard way," Dawn laughed. "When a five foot tall animal weighing in at nine hundred pounds and with a sixty inch antler spread gives you a butt to the backside it is going to hurt!"
They waited patiently, the last huge male with a magnificent rack taking his time before he crossed to join the others. Dawn pointed out things to the children while their horses grazed. "See, Reb, that blue-grey bird is a Belted Kingfisher. Do you see his bushy crest and how he can hover over the water looking for his dinner."
"He look for fish," Reb explained knowingly.
"Yes, and crayfish, small frogs, salamanders and things like that. Oh look! Do you see the big, yellow and black butterfly? It's a beautiful Tiger Swallowtail. Can you see how its hind wings have long tails like some swallows? If you look closely, you'll see it has a lovely band of blue on each of its hind wings too. I imagine they are feeding on wild cherries this time of year."
"Look over there," Ryan pointed, "There are lots of smaller yellow butterflies."
It was Janet who responded. "They're Clouded Sulphurs. They like moist places and they usually are seen in swarms. You find them out east too."
"Okay, the elk have moved off. I know a nice outcrop just around the bend where we can stop to picnic. Then we'd better head back. I'll take you inland a bit and if we are lucky we might see a moose," Dawn said, and the party set off again.
"Okay, give me one of your forensic shirts," Robbie demanded, coming into Aliki's room and flopping down on her bed.
"I don't think so," stated Aliki, raising an eyebrow.
"You let Ryan wear them!" sulked the actress, "and I'm your sister and partner in crime."
"When did that happen?" Aliki laughed, as she sorted through her luggage.
"Hey, we've worked two cases together. Two is a pattern," Robbie explained stubbornly.
Aliki rolled her eyes and pulled out two black t-shirts with white lettering on them. She had many such shirts, each with one of her own definitions of forensics stenciled on it. Robbie considered it a hopeful sign that her half-sister might really have a sense of humour.
"I only brought two. Which one do you want to wear?" Aliki asked, laying them out on the bed.
Robbie looked from one to the other laughing. One read, "Forensics: The straight and the marrow!" The other said, "Forensics: We operate on a skeleton staff!"
"I want to be the skeleton staff," Robbie decided gleefully, and whipped off her shirt to pull the black t-shirt on while Aliki slipped into the other. "Hey, we look like twins." Robbie smiled.
Aliki took out a navy blue baseball hat with RCMP stamped in big gold letters across the front. "Now we don't," she said, settling it on her head. "Let's go."
"Can I wear the hat?" asked Robbie, bouncing happily along beside her sister.
"Can I drive the van?" Robbie asked.
"I begin to understand why Janet complains that you see Bartlett as your personal playground," the scientist muttered, handing the keys over.
"Hey, I am on holiday!" Robbie protested, as she slid into the van.
They drove into town playing the radio loudly and going much faster than they would have if they'd had their families with them. Robbie pulled up in front of the RCMP station surprised to see that the parking lot was nearly full. "Busy day," she said, getting out. Aliki smiled but said nothing. The office fell silent as they walked in and all eyes turned to the famous Robbie Williams.
"Hi everyone," Aliki said into the silence. "Let me introduce you to my sister, Robbie Williams Pateas. I know you wanted autographs and Robbie said she would come down and sign a few for you while I see to business." Robbie's stage face slammed into place immediately but the eyes she turned on Aliki sent daggers. Aliki smiled. "Looks like the station called some of their family and friends," she laughed.
"How nice," Robbie responded through stiff lips, as she watched Aliki walk over to Sergeant Brad Nicholson. Released from Aliki's protective custody a small crowd of well wishers formed around Robbie. Aliki and Brad disappeared into the back room.
Brad got out a shallow box with a lid, the kind used to store forensic evidence. He placed it on the table and stepped out of the way for Aliki to have a look. The forensic scientist lifted the lid and set it aside then looked with interest at the mix of bones, charred feathers, and sinew in the box. She sighed; it was a hell of a mess.
She slipped on rubber gloves and took out a magnifying glass and then sat down to sort, examine and classify. Birds were not Aliki's area of speciality and she was careful not to do any damage in case a professional in the field was called in. Counting beaks, she realized that at least half a dozen ducks had been killed. The repeated cracking and grinding marks found on the small bones of the upper vertebrae indicated to Aliki that the ducks had most likely been strangled. The weathering and pattern of decomposition was interesting too.
A little over an hour later she looked up. "Did you take photos?"she asked.
Brad smiled, pleased that he'd had the foresight to do so even though there was really no reason.
"Yeah, I took black and whites and colour. They turned out pretty well too," he said, getting a brown envelope out of a nearby file cabinet and handing it to Aliki. She took out the shots and spent a good deal of time looking at them.
"Well, it's certainly bears some looking into, Brad. Yeah, I think you should send it onto Edmonton, although to be truthful I don't suppose there will be a follow up. It covers you though. Can you give me directions to the site? If I have time, I think I'd like to go out there and have a look around."
Robbie signed another piece of RCMP stationary with: "To Helen, With fondest regards, Robbie Williams" and handed it over to the woman who stood giggling on the other side of the counter.
"I think word's got out," laughed the duty corporal, as he ripped open another packet of paper.
"There you go. Don't forget now, that a new movie will be out in a few weeks." Robbie forced a smile for the fan even though her jaws were starting to ache, then turned to the police officer. "At this rate there won't be a piece of paper left in the station. You want me to tell them to get their own?"
The corporal shook his head. "Nah, it's community good will. It can't hurt having a celebrity seen supporting the police." The smile Robbie gave him didn't quite reach her eyes. She had been in jail on a charge of murder for weeks because of the police and she still harboured resentment despite the fact that her sister was a cop.
Suddenly, Aliki was there beside her. The woman walks like a cat, Robbie thought grumpily.
"Thanks folks, Robbie has really enjoyed having this opportunity to mix with some of her Swan Hills fans. If you see her around town please allow her to enjoy her stay here by providing her with some space," Aliki announced to those still in the office. Then she whispered into Robbie's ear, "Come on, I have the van out back."
Robbie nodded, and quickly signed her name a dozen times on a single sheet of paper so that waiting fans would not be too disappointed. Then she followed Aliki through the backroom and out the backdoor, where Brad waited with the van.
"Thanks, Sergeant, she said, sliding into the driver's seat this time as Robbie hurried to get in the passenger's seat before anyone spotted her. "I'll be in touch." Nicholson nodded and waved as the two women drove off.
For a while there was silence while Robbie nursed her sore hand and sulked. Then the actress-director shook her head and looked at her sister. "I have suspected for some time that your sense of humour ran towards the macabre and I was right. You set me up!"
Aliki chuckled. "You had it coming. Besides you walked into it with your eyes open. I didn't invite you, you begged to come along."
Robbie gave her sister a playful swat. "This means war you know," declared Robbie. Aliki's eyes sparkled with delight as she glanced over at her sister but she said nothing. "So tell me what you learned," Robbie asked.
"Later, when the others are back," Aliki promised.
"Jerk!" Robbie grumbled.
"Hey, I'm your sister!" Aliki protested innocently.
"Jerky sister," Robbie amended, and swift as lightening swept the RCMP cap off Aliki's head and placed it on her own. They both laughed.
Mac and Ryan were ass-end up along the river bank helping Reb catch a frog. Janet and Dawn still sat on the rock outcropping, having just finished tidying up the picnic remains. Their conversation was broken with outbursts of laughter. "So can you imagine? I reach my hand into the fridge for a plate of meatloaf without looking and deposit someone's chopped off hand on the kitchen table! When I finally could speak to the woman rationally again, I sent her out immediately for a fridge to put in the garage to keep her homework in. Honest to God, most partners just bring home a briefcase!" The two women laughed.
"So what bugs you the most about Robbie?" Dawn asked.
"Her feet," Janet answered immediately. "No matter how many times I tell her to take her shoes off at the door, I am always finding a muddy trail of sneaker prints through the house. And when she and Ryan bring the Bartlett Volunteer Fire Department home after a run... I could plant potatoes on my kitchen floor after they have left! Of course, the nice thing about having Robbie in the fire department is she needs lots of extra showers," smirked Janet, wiggling her eyebrows comically.
The two women laughed again and Dawn pondered. "I wonder if they look alike naked?"
"Hmmm, Robbie has this cute little mole on her abdomen," Janet confessed.
Dawn shook her head. "Nope, no mole on Aliki but you know what she does have?"
"What?" Janet demanded, seeing by Dawn's excitement that she was about to reveal some good information.
"You have to promise not to tell a soul," Dawn laughed.
"Okay," Janet grinned.
"She has a really small red maple leaf tattooed on her left hip," Dawn confessed
Janet's eyes widened. "Aliki- sobber-sides- Pateas has a tattoo!" Dawn nodded. "Well, still waters DO run deep!"
"Mommy, we caught a frog! Can I keep it?" came Reb's excited voice from down by the river.
Janet rolled her eyes at Dawn and the two women got up. "No, sweetheart. You have to leave the frog here so that it can find its way home. But tonight I'll give you your crayons and some paper and you can draw me a really nice picture of your frog."
It was very late in the evening, after Ari and Joan had said good night and Ari had gone to drive Joan home, the kids had been put to bed, and Baba and Nick had gone out to the barns to do their nightly check, that the four women had time to talk about the case that Aliki had been called in on.
"You mean someone offed a duck?!"Robbie laughed incredulously.
Aliki smiled tolerantly. "It appears so. Hard to tell."
"What do you think, Aliki?" Dawn asked, coming to sit by the woman she loved.
"I'm not sure what I think. Counting beaks, there have been at least seven ducks killed and burnt. Looking at the weathering and drying of the bone, I suspect that they were killed one at a time over perhaps a year or so. Strange."
Janet paled and looked distressed. "They were dead weren't they? I mean this wasn't some really sick mind..."
"The damage to the bones of the vertebra would indicate to me that they most likely had their necks wrung, then they were soaked in something and torched. The feathers and skin burnt off and the remaining tissue was left to rot or be gnawed at by scavengers."
"It wasn't someone's barbecue pit?"asked Dawn.
Aliki considered. "I don't think so. It was more of a sacrifice. Dawn, would the Salish do anything like this?"
"Gifts of food are left to appease the spirits but they are tokens, nor do they burn offerings," Dawn stated.
"What about when the native people burn sweet-grass or tobacco?"argued Robbie. "The legends Janet tells are always full of stories about burning sweet-grass or smoking tobacco"
"True," Janet agreed, "But it is not the same thing. The sweet-grass is used in a similar manner as incense would be in the Catholic Church and the tobacco is part of establishing a link either politically or spiritually. It is not sacrifice in the sense that one would find it in the Old Testament."
Dawn shifted on the couch so that she could see Aliki better. "Do you think there is someone who is practising some strange religion of their own creation?"
Aliki shook her head. "We have many religions in Canada. This might be as simple as a ritual that we are not familiar with that has been brought to the area by an immigrant. If that is the case it will be a matter of tracking the perpetrator down and asking the SPCA to check to make sure that the birds have not been tortured and that they are domesticated. We don't want duck hunting going on out of season or in an illegal manner. It could also be just a lone crackpot who is very misguided, in which case it will probably end up in the hands of social services."
"What if it is more than that?" Robbie asked, "Magic or Voodoo or something."
Aliki shrugged. "Citizens have the right to practise their faith anyway they wish, as long as no law is broken. If the ducks are domesticated, bought legally, and killed humanely and no one has been threatened by the action, then it is not the business of the police."
"But you don't think so, do you?"Robbie asked.
"I think it bears some looking into,"Aliki stated carefully.
"When do we start?"Robbie beamed.
"WE do not start,"Aliki stated emphatically. "First, you are not an officer of the law and second, this is a local police matter and not our business."
"You were called in to help with the case!" Robbie protested, "And I'm your sister and right hand support system!"
"I was called in to ID bones, NOT to get involved in this case, and you are not so much a support system as you are a pain the butt," snorted Aliki, rolling her eyes in mock frustration.
Robbie folded her arms and looked stubborn. "Be difficult Ms-I've-got-a-badge-and-you-don't, just don't expect me to bail you out when you find yourself among the ducks on some weirdo's altar."
Aliki waited until she heard Dawn's shower running then she once again slipped the small black velvet case from a side pocket of her suitcase. She opened it up to reveal a beautiful diamond engagement ring. Aliki had been putting money away all year for it. It was important to her that she gave Dawn a ring that expressed her love and that it didn't look shabby next to the rock that Robbie had given Janet. Not that Dawn would care, she wouldn't, but Aliki needed to feel that Dawn was not being short changed in marrying her. It had cost her a small fortune but it had been worth it.
Sometime this holiday, she would give it to Dawn. That thought sent an icy chill to her gut. Not that she didn't love Dawn and Mac. Hell, they had lived together for over a year now. It was just the responsibility of thinking of some romantic way to make the moment special for her partner. Aliki knew she wasn't very good a that sort of thing. She was going to have to think of something soon.
She put the ring away, and went to knock on the bathroom door. "Need help drying off?" she asked, opening the door to see the naked form of her lover standing in a swirl of mist. A raw need rushed to Aliki's loins as her eyes traveled slowly over the curves of her partner.
Dawn smiled and walked towards her, stopping only to slip Aliki's black housecoat from her shoulders. Then flesh met flesh and a shudder of desire coursed through both of them. Aliki picked Dawn up in her arms and gasped as the smaller woman ran her fingers wickedly over Aliki's nipples. The kiss that followed was long and deep. Aliki carried Dawn to their bed.
The next morning, Robbie watched from the window as Ryan stepped from the woods, looked around to see if anyone was watching and then, clutching her small knapsack to her, bolted for the house. Standing there in worry she felt Janet wrap her arms around her. "What's up, Lover? You look deep in thought."
"I'm worried about Ryan. There is something on her mind and she keeps disappearing into the woods," Robbie muttered.
"I've been worried too,"Janet responded, moving around to look into her partner's face. "What have you noticed?"
"She's been distant since I got back from England and since we have been here she has got up early each morning and disappeared into the woods with a knapsack. I didn't think I should interfere at first but I'm getting worried. Do you think I should follow her and see what's up?
I don't want to be an interfering mother but...well...Ryan has a way of getting in trouble."
Janet smiled softly, and pulled Robbie over to sit on the edge of the bed with her. "She is an olive off the same tree that is for sure."
Robbie smiled at the old family joke. Janet had once described her as being like an olive, an acquired taste. Robbie's fiery and moody personality made her very difficult to get to know and to deal with at times.
"I need to talk to you about Ryan, but first I need you to promise that you won't over react."
The colour drained from Robbie's face and in one startling movement she was on her feet. "What the hell is going on?" the volatile director demanded.
Janet raised an eyebrow in warning. "Probably nothing but if you charge in with that attitude there will be a problem! Now sit down and let's talk through this."
Robbie bit her lip and then sheepishly sat down beside her wife. Only Janet could stand up to her and get away with it. Robbie trusted Janet completely,
"You are right, there is something going on and it has been for about six months now," stated Janet. Robbie's face changed to an expression of shock and apprehension.
Janet went on. "Ryan has been leaving school early and driving somewhere. I don't know where, but it does use up an extra tank of gas each week. Lou down at the garage mentioned it to me one day."
"Shit," Robbie muttered, as her stomach tied itself into knots. Maybe Aliki had been right, maybe Ryan did have a secret boyfriend...lover...The word sent a shiver down Robbie's spine. Ryan was just a kid.
"There is something else, too, Robbie," said Janet, taking Robbie's hand. "She withdrew five thousand dollars from the emergency account you set up for her."
Robbie's features convulsed with anger and she leapt to her feet, dragging Janet with her as the smaller woman held on for dear life.
"What?!"Robbie snapped. The account had been set up by Robbie after the girls had been kidnaped. It was emergency money for Ryan in case something went wrong and she needed to take some action at a time when Janet and Robbie were not around.
"Hold it," Janet warned, her voice calm. "Ryan is a good kid and I'm sure there is a logical explanation for what is going on in her life. She just doesn't want to share it."
"We're her parents and she is just a little kid!"growled Robbie.
"She is a teenager and a very insecure one at times. We need to talk to her but we need to do it in a manner that is going to provide positive guidance not resentment."
"I won't yell, I'll just chain her to my wrist until she confesses," suggested Robbie with irritated humour.
"I was thinking more that we tell her what we know and ask her to be open with us," Janet laughed.
"A frontal attack,"smiled Robbie, regaining some of her natural good nature. "I'm all for that."
Janet held on, maintaining her ground as the compulsive director made for the door. "Let's set the ground rules first. No yelling."
"No yelling," Robbie agreed.
"No over reacting in any way," Janet clarified.
Robbie considered. "Does this mean locking her in her bedroom closet until she is thirty-five is out?"
"Yes," snorted Janet, loving her partner and understanding that Robbie's silly humour covered a really deep love and concern for their daughter.
"Okay, but I am reserving the right for a dawn execution if necessary," Robbie grumbled, and the two of them headed out to find their worrisome daughter.
They found Ryan in her room. The teen looked up guiltily as she quickly stuffed papers into her suitcase.
"Hi kid. Listen, your parents here need some reassurance. Can we come in?" Robbie joked.
Ryan forced a laugh. "Whatever it is, I didn't do it and I wasn't there."
Robbie folded her arms and looked at her daughter from under arched eyebrows. Ryan had her mother's features, strong, classic lines, but strangely her colouring was more like Janet even though they were not related by blood. The blond hair and green eyes must have been on her father's side.
Ryan's father had been a university professor whom Robbie had got involved with in her wild and reckless youth. It had been a brief and stormy relationship that ended abruptly when Robbie had found herself expecting. She had taken off to parts unknown, had Ryan and had her cared for and raised by a series of nannies and boarding schools. It was only when Robbie had met Janet and Reb that she had started thinking about making personal contact with her own daughter. It still might not have happened if Ryan had not been in an accident that had nearly taken her life. Sitting by her child's unconscious form, Robbie had realized how much they had both missed by her keeping her identity a secret from her daughter. The thought of that hellish time fed Robbie's insecurity and to Ryan and Janet's surprise, instead of making some witty come back, she suddenly dropped the cocky attitude, stepped forward and wrapped her daughter in her arms. "You mean the world to me," she muttered into her daughter's thick curls.
"Hey, mom, it's okay, honest," Ryan stammered, hugging her mother tightly. She wished, not for the first time, that people could know how special her mom really was. It had not been easy at first. She had harboured a lot of resentment against the mother who had paid to have her raised instead of raising her herself. Now she knew that Robbie had only been trying to protect her, fearing that someday she would be arrested for murder and that fact would have haunted her daughter for the rest of her life.
With Aunt Janet's support, Ryan had learned about her mother and how to be part of a family. There was still a lot of insecurity but gradually they had forged a strong, deep family unit. Hell, her mom had almost been burnt to death trying to save her and Reb's life. That's what made her problem so difficult. The last person in the world she wanted to disappoint was her mother.
"Your other mom and I have heard things, seen things. We haven't been spying Ryan, but you know what small towns are like, especially Bartlett. We know you have been leaving school early and driving somewhere a few times a week. We know you took five thousand out of your emergency fund and we know that you take a knapsack and disappear early in the mornings, even here. We are worried because we don't know what is going on and how to protect you. A...and I guess we are a little hurt that whatever you are up to, you don't feel comfortable sharing it with us."
Way to go, Robbie! Janet thought. Her partner, for all her insecurities and often unorthodox methods, was a really good mother.
Robbie felt her daughter stiffen in her arms and pull back. Robbie let her go reluctantly. Ryan wandered around the room, obviously considering what to do next. Janet pulled Robbie's hand and indicated that they should sit down. It was a less threatening position and yet it sent the message that they meant to stay until they had got some answers.
Ryan stopped and looked at them. She licked her lips and swallowed hard. She opened her mouth to speak, closed it, and then went to her suitcase. She withdrew a violin case. With reverence she placed it on the bed and opened it to take out a worn instrument. "I spent the money on this. I'm sorry, mom, I know that is not what the money is for but it came on the market and it is a really good instrument for the price. I...I've been taking lessons."
Ryan saw Janet's eyes fill with understanding and compassion. Her mother's eyes widened with surprise and confusion. "So you are taking music lessons. That's cool. So why didn't you just tell us?" grumbled Robbie.
Ryan looked down at the instrument in her hands. It was plain and worn a warm honey colour. With care she packed it a way again, giving herself time to brace herself before telling the rest to her mother. "It's not just a matter of learning to play an instrument, mom. I love it. I...I might want to make it my career."
There was silence in the room. Ryan looked at the floor, not wanting to look at the disappointment in her mom's eyes. Janet stole a sideways look at her partner, who had stiffened beside her. She could see Robbie's jaw working with emotion.
Finally, she managed, "I see. Well, okay, I guess you need to explore this avenue. Like you want to learn about film. Okay, it's good to be diversified. Ahh, you are not thinking of dropping out of school or anything are you?"
"No mom. But I might take a degree in music," Ryan stated bravely.
"Oh," Robbie said weakly. "Who are you taking lessons from?"
"Mr. Lawrence, the music teacher, recommended a retired musician from the Toronto symphony, Alex Fielding. He used to play first violin. Alex said that if I practise I'll be far better than he ever was." Ryan beamed.
"I guess you had better practise." Robbie smiled weakly. "Are you past the cat-squeak stage?"
"Mom! Of course, gee!" protested Ryan, relieved that things were going so well.
"In that case, you'd better practise in the house not out in the bush. You could traumatize the squirrels and get us in trouble with the forest rangers." Robbie smiled shakily.
Robbie stood and Janet followed her partner's lead. She knew the signs. Robbie was VERY upset. Ryan was so relieved that things had gone well that she had missed the signs at first. She hugged both her moms with feeling "You two are the greatest!" she sighed.
Robbie hugged her child closely, mumbling the appropriate words and walked out of the room.
Ryan looked at her adopted mom in surprise. "She's really pissed isn't she?" the teen asked in worry.
Janet gave Ryan's hand a squeeze. "More shocked. Give her time, she'll be fine with it. You know that she will be your biggest fan. Ahh, you can play that thing, huh?" Janet smiled already knowing that Ryan was brilliant at most things she took on. Robbie didn't fully appreciate just how bright her daughter was.
"Yeah, I'm getting pretty good." Ryan blushed. That was not a statement she would feel comfortable making to many people but her second mom had a way about her that just made Ryan feel safe and comfortable.
Janet found Robbie in the garden. "How are you doing, Hon?" she asked.
Robbie paced in agitation. "First, she wanted to go into film now it's the damn fiddle,"she complained. "What 's wrong with science?"
"A career in science is what YOU wanted with your life, Robbie. It might not be what Ryan wants. You just have to accept that."
For a second, Janet hesitated and then proceeded with caution. "Do you remember when you first brought Ryan home and I went over her CAT test results with you?"
"Of course I do. That's why I am so worried about her future. She is bright and she should be living up to that intelligence. Not playing the damn fiddle," Robbie grumbled.
Janet sat down on a rustic wood bench and patted the spot beside her. Reluctantly, Robbie joined her. "First, let's not call it a damn fiddle. Ryan wants to play a violin and music is a very difficult and exacting profession that requires skill, intelligence and passion. In your more reasonable moments you are well aware of that." Janet smiled, giving Robbie a playful push with her shoulder. She was relieved to see the blush rise in Robbie's face. The woman was going to be reasonable.
"I don't think you realize just how bright Ryan really is. She is not going to be satisfied with one focus in her life, Robbie. I think you'll find that she will jump from one interest to another, achieving success in many of them before she finds her life passion. You need to support her in that discovery and not make her feel guilty."
"I was good about it!" Robbie protested.
"You were wonderful about it,"Janet agreed, leaning over to give her lover a kiss on the cheek. "Keep it up, okay? Ryan needs you. You might not be aware of this but Ryan adores you and wants so very much to please you."
Robbie sighed. "This raising a kid is really hard. Neither Ryan nor Reb will ever have to worry about money but I want them to have careers and feel like they have purpose and direction in their lives."
"I know, darling, but don't push too hard. The Williams' name is very difficult to live up to."
Robbie snorted. "It seems she doesn't have to. Neither Ryan nor I are real Williams."
"Does that bother you?" Janet asked, looking at her partner with worried eyes.
"I don't know....it's hard. I didn't respect my father. I hated him after I found out what he'd done to Elizabeth and Billy. It's just, I don't know ...your identity I guess. It's hard to readjust after all these years."
"Baba is pretty special, isn't he?"Janet stated, trying to help her partner towards a comfort level with her biological relatives.
"Yeah, he is. I like my brothers too. Ari and Joan have really made us welcome and Nick is all right."
"It will be good for our children to have these family ties. They need a bit of so-called normality in their lives."
"Yeah."Robbie smiled. But there was more concern reflected in those marvelous blue eyes than happiness.
Aliki walked along the river in the early morning light with Ari at her side. "Nick is really into this stuff, Aliki. Baba thinks it is good. You know he is of the old school that believes religion can only be a positive in a person's life. I think that can be so but Nick was a pretty good guy to start with. Baba and you brought us up to know right from wrong and to be tolerant of others. I don't like the way he has started to draw lines in the sand. He...ah...he's made a few comments about trying to make you and Dawn see a better way," her brother finished awkwardly.
Serious eyes the colour of glacial ice snapped up and flared with anger. "He's already tried to make me see the errors of my ways. Unfortunately, he also admitted to preaching to Dawn. We got into a fight and I bruised some of his muscles for him. I hope that will teach him to keep his views to himself."
Ari laughed. "So that's how he got the bruises. He should have known better than to take you on! He told me he'd run into some trouble in the barn. I guess he did! I doubt your reminder will make him stop though, Aliki. He's seen the light and it appears that he is beyond reason,"sighed Ari in annoyance.
"It's worse than that. He wants to divide our business interests because he wants to give twenty per cent of everything to his church. Says that they need the money to do good and he has far more than he would ever need. Up to now, we've just taken a salary from the business like everyone else in the company and the rest has been turned back into development, investment and diversification. I'm not going to argue that he hasn't a right to half of everything. I just don't want him to make a mistake he will regret later."
Aliki nodded, listening moodily and kicking a stone with her foot as she walked. "You tried talking to him?"
Ari snorted. You know Nick. He's got the Pateas' stubbornness. I'm delaying. I'm putting up as many road blocks as I can to the legalities, hoping he'll come to his senses."
Aliki shook her head. "How did he get caught up in this group to start with?"she asked.
"Nick was thinking pretty seriously about marrying Sally. This spring, they were supposed to go out to the dance at the Lion's Hall. Sally said she couldn't go, that she had made other plans. Anyway, Nick decides to go and walks in to find her dancing with some cowboy from Fox Creek way. The shit hit the fan. And our brother got religion."
"Oh boy! I thought he and Sally were an item. I can see why he was shook up."
"I guess it was all a misunderstanding but you know Nick when he gets his back up. He can be impossible. He was embarrassed in front of everyone and he's really pissed."
"What do you know about the Reformed Western Church?" Aliki asked.
Ari stopped and stared off into the distance as he considered. "Seems okay. They are one of the groups that broke from the United Church of Canada when they decided that homosexuals could be ministers. They aren't some radical fringe or anything, just conservative and traditional in their outlook, like most protestant churches. Joan and I have been a few times with Nick. It is just your regular service. They have quite a dynamic minister, Paul Jarvis. He is popular in town and the congregation is growing. He seems an alright sort of guy. Plays on the Old Timers hockey team. Has degrees in anthropology and world religions."
Aliki frowned, looking at the ground. "I'll try not to let Nick get to me. But if he makes comments in front of Dawn or Mac, there is going to be hell to play, I won't tolerate my family being upset."
Ari nodded his understanding. "I told him to keep his views to himself but you know Nick; fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
Aliki snorted. "He is a great guy, but as Baba says, he hasn't got the sense that God gave a billy goat!"
Ari laughed and headed over to the ranch office while Aliki doubled back to the ranch house. Baba had taken the Williams family and Mac out to his favourite fishing hole this morning and that left Dawn and Aliki free for a few hours.
She trotted up the steps of the house and was greeted with a big kiss from Dawn. "Hey, slugger, guess what? We have a few hours to ourselves."
Aliki held the woman she loved tightly in her arms. "Mmmm, nice. You want to do something?"
"What," murmured Dawn, dropping soft kisses on her lover's throat.
"You want to hike up and see the duck sacrifice site while Baba is keeping Robbie out of my hair?" Aliki asked excitedly.
Dawn snorted and then laughed, giving her confused partner a playful push. "Pateas, you have to be the last of the great romantics!"
Aliki blushed deeply and realized what she had done. "I ...er...I mean..."
"It's okay, sweetheart, I understand where thousands wouldn't. You need to see this site and now is a good time. Give me five minutes to grab a few things and we'll be on our way."
Aliki looked flustered but relieved and bent to place a gentle kiss on Dawn's lips. "Thanks," she said with feeling.
Dawn gave her lover a slap on the backside. "This isn't over. You owe me!" Dawn warned and Aliki blushed and smiled like a love sick goof.
They drove as far as they could and then hiked into the site. There wasn't much to see. A table of rock formed a small lookout over a hanging valley. It was a pretty spot but certainly not sinister. They found where the birds had been burnt on a rocky ledge. There were no other signs, symbols, or marks that would indicate what was going on there. The vegetation around had been badly trampled, however, indicating that a good crowd of people came frequently to this site.
"How was the site found?" Janet asked, looking out over the valley below.
"A geologist came across it while doing a mineral survey. He thought that there might have been some illegal hunting going on so he reported it," Aliki explained, looking around disinterestedly.
Then she hesitated and sniffed the air, moving about the clearing and brushing back the underbrush. She stood and sniffed again.
"What is it, Aliki? What do you smell?" Dawn asked, suddenly alert.
"Death," Aliki muttered, and pushed through some underbrush to see a decomposed hand sticking out of the earth where some animal had been digging.
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