Dead Duck

Part 4

Anne Azel

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 < > or write Anne at <> The Anne Azel Murder Mysteries Book 1 can be ordered through or Openbookltd.

Dawn and Janet carefully followed the trail back down from the church camp using the path that Aliki and Robbie should have taken. They were nearly down to the meadow when Dawn reined up and jumped from her horse.

"Footprints?" asked Janet hopefully, as she tried to get more comfortable in the saddle. She was beginning to get worried that their partners might have got themselves good and lost. She loved her partner's free spirit and full-speed ahead attitude but it had caused a lot of emotional anguish for Janet. Being married to an "olive", however fun, took its toll.

"No, trail bar wrapper like the kind that they took with them," Dawn snorted. "It must have fallen from one of their pockets because neither one of them would litter. I can't believe it! The first split in the trail and Aliki took the wrong path."

"Those third trees on the left can be tricky,"chuckled Janet. "Where do you think they are?"

"Up on Sugarloaf Hill. It's pretty rocky. We can't ride the horses up there and it will be well after dark by the time we rescue them and make our way back. At least there should be good moonlight tonight,"Dawn said, as she surveyed the sky.

Janet looked up the trail a frown on her face. Dawn would find them faster without her and the horses and there were the girls to consider. Ryan and Reb would worry. She hated to turn back and leave her partner out there lost but it was the best thing to do, however hard. "Well, this is your territory. If it would help, I'll take the horses back to the ranch and let them know what is up," Janet offered. "I'm worried about Ryan. She frets when she thinks any of us are in trouble."

Dawn nodded her head, appreciating the offer that Janet had just made. "Yeah, that is a good idea. I can move much quicker then, if you don't mind." She handed the reins of her horse to her friend.

"Just make sure you bring my olive home safe and sound,"said Janet, smiling bravely to cover her uneasiness.

Dawn returned the smile, understanding what Janet was feeling torn between her responsibilities to the children and to her partner. She was grateful for Janet's offer knowing she could move much quicker by herself. She transferred what water and snacks they had into one saddle bag and draped it over her shoulder. Then she slipped the rifle from its saddle sheath. "We'll see you later tonight,"she promised Janet and set off up the Sugarloaf trail. Janet watched her go until she disappeared over a ridge and then, leading Dawn's horse behind her own, she headed down towards the meadow.

Dawn climbed steadily, moving at a quick and sure pace. Despite her concern for her lost partner and friend, she was enjoying once again being alone in the wild, northern terrain. No matter how long she lived in Toronto, the Canadian north-west would always be her home. The land spoke to her.

She thought of the ancient myth of the Salish people. It had been they who had named the area the Swan Hills. They believed that the summer thunder that rolled down the Assiniboine River Valley from the hills beyond was the sound made by the wings of the mythical giant Swans as they took flight. Dawn stopped for a minute and looked around her. Yes, the land spoke to her and she could hear the message of the Ancient Ones in the thunder of their wings.

Robbie stopped and yelled to Aliki who was up ahead on the trail. "Hey, stop, I got to get some of the mud off my boot treads. I feel like I am lifting half of Alberta with each step," she grumbled, stepping off the narrow deer trail to wipe her boots in some thick underbrush. "Did we have to cross that swamp?"

Aliki walked back and stood watching her sister with a lazy grin on her face. This was just too good to be true.

"What?" Robbie asked seeing the look.

"Having a rough day?" Aliki enquired conversationally, feeling both sorry for her sister and yet wickedly amused.

"I've had better." Robbie muttered, "Why?"

"It just got worse. That's poison ivy you are standing in," Aliki chuckled.

"Oh shit!"Robbie sighed with feeling looking down at the sea of broad green leaves surrounding her. "How bad does it get?" she asked, as she gingerly tipped-toed out to the path again. This was just what she needed. Why did these things always happen to her?

"Red rash, open weeping sores. Itches like hell. It can last weeks," Aliki answered, feeling a little guilty now for finding amusement in Robbie's predicament.

"God damn," Robbie muttered. Janet was going to kill her with the wedding only a day away.

Aliki's eyes twinkled with amusement. "Worse part is it spreads really easily so there goes your sex life."

"Oh that's it!"snapped Robbie in frustration looking up to heaven in mock despair. "Take me now, Lord! My kid wants to play the fiddle, I'm lost in the back bush knee deep in poison ivy, and now I have no sex life!"

A cough ended the sister's exchange and brought them about to see a wiry, middle aged man standing in the path, a shotgun draped over his arm. "Er, didn't mean to overhear a private exchange," he muttered looking very red and flustered.

"It wasn't private," smirked Aliki. "My sister was announcing to the world in general. Aah, I don't suppose you would know if there is a short cut over to Pine Ridge from here?"

"Sure would. You're the Pateas girl aren't you? And this must be Robbie Williams," the man stated looking with interest at Robbie.

"Yeah, that's Robbie the other Pateas girl," Aliki corrected, much to Robbie's surprise and quiet comfort. Aliki could be alright when she wasn't being so competitive.

The man nodded. "I'm Vince Dandurand. I'm glad I got this opportunity to thank you, Miss Pateas, for finding and identifying my sister. I can't say we was close but I feel better knowin' what happened to her and seen' that she gets a decent burial."

"That's Inspector Pateas," Robbie corrected returning the favour. "Or better still it's Aliki and Robbie."

Vince Dandurand grinned sheepishly and shuffled his feet nervously. "Sure. I'm Vince," he stated again in case they had forgotten. "Aaah, I'll show you the path. Leads right to the Church Camp. I got me a hunt cabin about a kilometre and a half away on Sugarloaf that I can reach by road. I put in a trail so that I can take my all-terrain across to the church camp. It makes gettin' supplies in there a lot easier," he explained, as he pointed the way they were to go.

"I don't stay much at the camp on account that it often gets used by the Young People. I aren't used to a lot of teens around," Vince explained, as he walked up the trail with the two sisters following. "I've just been out buildin' my blind down in the swamp gettin' ready for duck season. It starts September first. Had to carry everythin' there. The damn all-terrain is in for repair again and I can't pick it up until tonight."

Robbie looked at Aliki pointedly. Aliki rolled her eyes. "The police found some duck bones up on Swan Hill peak," Aliki stated, conversationally.

Vince stopped dead and turned. "They did, did they. Why were they snooping around there?"

Aliki kept a smile on her face and her voice casual. "Weren't. Some geologist reported it. He figured that there might have been some out of season hunting going on."

Vince snorted. "Aren't true. I bought those ducks down at Perkin's Poulty Farm. Some of the concerned church members and me meet up there now and again to get in touch with the Good Lord's land. You tell your police friends there is nothin' of interest for them there. I got no quarrel with the police but I don't want them up there with their guns. It's a holy place for us."

"That's where your sister was found," Aliki stated. "You have any idea why."

Vince looked visibly upset. "Wasn't proper, buryin' her up there. Wasn't proper at all." For a second, Aliki felt bad that she had brought his sister's death up but then he continued. "That there is a sacred place and it was defiled with the likes of her buried there."

Robbie moved forward and Aliki could sense her anger. "I don't think it was her choice," she drawled sarcastically. "The poor woman was murdered, after all."

Vince looked annoyed. "I aren't saying it was right, but she lived a poor life and I'm not surprised it ended violently. It's no secret that she worked the streets down in Calgary supportin' that no good Billy Picaski. Got religion from Jarvis and came home to start a new life she said, but I'm a thinkin' she was just interested in the Reverend. Made a fool of herself over him, she did. Told the police so too. She was like that. Got obsessed and went off without thinkin'."

The three climbed a steep, rock ridge in silence. At the top, while they stopped to catch their breath, Aliki continued. "I heard you visited Paul after he was questioned by the police. Does that mean you don't think he was responsible for her death?"

Vince looked shocked. "Of course he didn't do it! Why would he do an evil thing like that? If anyone in town felt like killing her it would have been me. She brought shame on us all. But I didn't. The Good Book said to forgive and I did my best to be civil to her. Don't see how it did much good though, with the Reverend bein' in trouble and all. He'll get off though once they find that Picaski. It's gotta be him, I figure."

"When did you last see Stella?" Aliki asked, as she held a branch so it wouldn't snap back into Robbie's face.

"You ask a lotta questions," Jarvis stated, stopping and looking into Aliki face. "I told you. It had nothin' to do with me."

"I'm a cop and I'm involved in the investigation. I need to know where she was and what she was doing before she met her murderer," Aliki responded calmly, not moving a muscle.

Jarvis thought about that one for a bit and then nodded his head. "Okay. Don't want it said I didn't co-operate. It's enough those old women in the Bible Study group are chewing that it never would have happened if I'd taken more interest in Stella. It wasn't my responsibility, was it? She was all grown up. She never worried about the shame she brought on us, did she?"

"So when did you last see her?" Aliki repeated stubbornly.

"The night she disappeared. She flagged me down on Main Street and asked for a lift. She'd just come from Bible meeting at the church. Said it was too cold to walk. I gave her a lift to her boyfriend's place and then circled back to clean the church and get it ready for Sunday service," Vince explained. Then added, "The police reckon she never got inside, on account of she was wearing the same things I saw her dressed in when her body was found."

"What about Jed, the guy Stella had been dating? What do you know about him?" Aliki asked, as she trudged along behind her suspect.

Vince snorted. "Nice enough, but he wasn't standing in the line when they were handin' out brains that's for sure. Stella was usin' him. She needed a place to stay, didn't she? She couldn't afford an apartment on what she got on welfare." Vince turned and pointed. "That there is the path you need to take. It's a bit rough on account as I am the only one really that uses it, but it will get you where you want to go."

"What about the dead ducks?" Robbie asked, stubbornly keeping to the point.

Vince looked uneasy and a deep red wash of anger spread across his neck. "Forty thousand acres of forests are cut down each year. There hasn't been any real fresh air produced on earth since the late 1960s. The air you just breathed in has been through four to five lungs before you. Our world is dying. And there ain't nothin' we can do about it. Sure we gotta get back to some of the basic truths that the Good Book tells us. But more than that, we gotta love this land and pay homage to Mother Nature. Nothin' wrong with that. I know Reverend Jarvis don't like it but I figure the likes of Abraham and Moses ought to know. A sacrifice sends a message to the land that you care. We aren't doin' nothin' wrong up there. It's our business and I don't need others meddlin' in it. I gotta go," Vince said suddenly, and with a nod, he walked off.

He started up the path in long, angry strides. Then he stopped, turned and took a few steps back towards them. "The police said she was strangled, that was all. Was that true?" he asked, looking for the first time genuinely upset for his sister.

"There were only bones, Mr. Dandurand. We could not say for sure what happened the night she died. I can tell you that there was no other evidence of violence other than the burgundy string around her neck that was used as a garrotte," Aliki responded, interested in how Dandurand would take this information. Vince looked surprised then nodded unhappily and turned and left.

Robbie leaned on a tree trunk watching him go. "I think Jarvis has his work cut out for him. Some of his flock seems to be missing a few skeins of wool."

"He does seem to have some pretty confused views," Aliki sighed. "I really need to talk to Nick. He has got to see that he is getting confusing messages. Jarvis has traditional, conservative Christian views and Vince Dandurand seems to be running some sort of strange nature worship cult out here at the church camp."

"Are we going on there?" Robbie asked, becoming aware that her left calf was starting to itch annoyingly. She used her right leg to scratch it.

"You are going to regret doing that," Aliki warned with a smile. "Nope, it's getting late. I think we would be better to make our way back the way we came instead of going on."

The itching was worse from having scratched it and Robbie lifted her leg and scratched furiously with her fingers. "Do you know the way back?"

"Sure," Aliki stated. "Sort of. We'll be okay. Come on and stop scratching!" The two women headed back down the trail at a steady pace, Aliki anxious to get down to the meadows before evening came on. She didn't want to be lost in the forest at night and she wasn't really sure what path they had taken. They had walked for about an hour when suddenly there was Dawn coming up the trail towards them. Aliki had never felt so relieved.

"Hi, my love. Hi Robbie. Got lost, eh?" Dawn smiled, watching the blush climb up Aliki's face.

Robbie was quick to defend her sister. Robbie thought teasing Aliki was her right as her big sister. Besides, she knew that Aliki didn't like to disappoint her partner. "Actually, we just came from talking to Dandurand. You know he has a cabin on Sugarloaf Hill. He is one strange guy," Robbie explained, standing on one leg and rubbing the other against the rough bark of a tree.

Dawn raised an eyebrow at Robbie's own strange behaviour. "She went wading in a patch of poison ivy," Aliki explained with a smile.

Dawn shook her head. "Come on, you two. If we set a steady pace we should be able to get back to the ranch just before dark. Janet went ahead with the horses so the girls wouldn't worry. Robbie, stop scratching. You are going to be a mess." Dawn took Aliki's hand and gave it a squeeze before starting off. She was more than relieved to have found her partner and friend safe and sound.

"But they'll be alright won't they?" Ryan asked fretfully, after hearing all the news from Janet.

"Sure, Hon. They'll be fine," Janet said smiling, as she brought the tea pot over to the kitchen table around which the family was meeting. Truthfully, she was worried that Robbie and Aliki might have got themselves in trouble but she knew she had to appear unconcerned in front of the girls.

"You no worry, little one. My Dawn could trek a spider through a hurricane. Now, Aliki, that is another matter. Once I sent her to count the new born calves and she couldn't find the herd. How could you not find eight hundred head of cattle?" Baba laughed, trying to ease Ryan's tension.

Reb, who sat on the telephone book for extra height giggled. "Obbie is in trouble again,"she stated with a dramatic sigh. They all laughed at Reb's antics and the tension eased a bit.

Janet sat for a minute looking into her tea, half listening to some tale Baba was telling about a skunk in the outhouse that had the girls in stitches. There was some elusive clue, a thread of an idea that was just out of reach. It had been bothering her all day.

"Girls, what do you say we take the van into town and get some gas?" Janet suggested, her worry making her feel restless. "Maybe by the time we get back Dawn will have returned with the others."

"Okay, Aunt Janet." Mac smiled, leaping up to take the cups to the sink and to put away the rest of the home made cookies that Aliki had baked. Aliki was an awesome cook. Her mom said that Aunt Aliki really liked cooking even though she pretended that she didn't. Just like she hated housework but was always cleaning because she couldn't stand the house not being clean and tidy.

Reb was already climbing off her chair. "I go too. I know the way," the small child boasted.

Ryan frowned. "Maybe I'll stay here and play chess with Baba. I'm trying to improve his game," she joked to hide her worry.

"Ah! You win one game and now you think you are Bobby Fisher! Ha! I will not let you win tonight to teach you a lesson," scolded Baba good-naturedly, winking at Janet to let her know that he would keep an eye on the fretting Ryan while Janet and Mac were in town.

Mac, Reb, and Janet headed out to the van. Mac waited until Reb had been fastened into her seat and they were under way before she asked excitedly, "So what is our real reason for going into town? Are we going to interrogate someone? Ryan will be so bummed if we catch the murderer and she wasn't there."

Janet laughed. "Nothing so dramatic. But I thought it wouldn't hurt to go talk to Jed down at the garage."

"He was Stella's boyfriend, right? They lived together." Mac clarified.

"That's right," Janet stated, not wanting to go into any details with a young teen or with Reb listening on.

Mac, however, was used to discussions about crime and passion around the dinner table with Aliki, no matter how much her mom discouraged it. And then there was the fact that there were often boxes of bones around the place and the things that her Aunt Aliki was liable to bring home and leave in the garage fridge were the stuff of horror movies! This train of thought reminded her of a funny story.

"Once mom put a partly decomposed hand on the table. She thought it was the left overs." Mac giggled. "Aliki brings human bones home all the time."

Janet shivered comically. "Yes, your mom told me. Honestly, between your Aunt Aliki and Aunt Robbie anything is likely to happen!"

"Rufus has lots of bones too," Reb informed them. She thought her dog's collection of bones was pretty impressive.

"He sure does," Janet agreed with her small daughter.

Mac smiled and then frowned in worry. "Ryan's worried about her mom," she said. "She worries a lot about things like that."

Janet nodded. "Ryan has some insecurities because she has only known her mom a few years. I'm sure that your mom has found our two strays by now and they are on their way back to the ranch."

"I don't remember my birth mom," Mac said quietly. "Just the night my dad died." Janet reached out and took Mac's hand. She was well aware that the trauma of that night had resulted in Mac being unable to speak for years. Children often paid for the mistakes of adults. They rode the rest of the way in silence, Janet stroking Mac's hand with her own.

Jed was just locking up the small variety store as Janet pulled the van up to the pumps, but he grudgingly unlocked the pump and filled the van's tank. "Been a slow night and I thought I'd close a might early," Jed informed them in his slow speech pattern.

"Well, it's really nice of you to let us have some gas. How are you doing with all this police investigation? It must be hard on you, with you and Stella having been so close," Janet asked softly, concern in her voice.

Jed looked surprised that anyone would worry about him. "I kept telling them something bad had happened but no one listens to me. They should have listened," he finished angrily.

"Yes, they should have," Janet agreed.

"Weren't right, her buried up there all winter long. They should have found her," he complained, having fixated on the issue. "I worried all winter."

"I'm so sorry," Janet stated, a bit uncomfortable with the intense emotion that Jed was displaying to someone he barely knew.

"There you go. That's your gas. I don't want to unlock the till again so you can pay me the next time you are in town. It was $45.00. I'm going to lock up now," Jed explained. His eyes kept shifting over to where Mac and Reb stood looking at a trail bike in for repair and at the goods in the window of the small variety store. Mac hadn't got anything for Reb's birthday yet. She had helped Reb down out of the van to see if there was anything in the store window that Reb would take an interest in.

"Sure, thanks, Jed. I...I hope everything works out alright now," Janet added awkwardly, but Jed had already turned and was locking up the pumps again. "Come on, you two," she called and the teen hurried back to the van with Reb running ahead of her.

"He's a bit of a strange one," Janet stated with a frown, pulling back onto the street.

"He seemed in a hurry didn't he?" Mac observed. "Nick says he drinks a lot." Janet nodded and then headed back to the ranch.

By the time Dawn led the lost pair back, Robbie was miserable. "Fucking county, they should give it back to the Indians. Ice, snow, mosquitoes, black fly, poison ivy, the country is not fit to live in. I'm moving to Hollywood," the actor-director bitched as she scratched furiously at her arm.

"No country would willingly let you immigrate. You have the disposition of a miserable camel and besides," Aliki smiled evilly, "you have a skin disease."

Before Robbie could snap off a reply, Baba and Ryan came out onto the porch. Ryan smiled with relief at the sight of her mom and leapt off the porch to greet them. Aliki wrapped her arm around the teen before she could touch her mom. "Don't get too close. Your mom has been swimming in poison ivy. It started as a small patch on her leg but she has been working very hard at covering herself with it. I think we should make her wear a bell and call out 'Unclean' when she enters a room."

"Mom!" giggled Ryan. "How did you get into that stuff? One of the kids at school got into poison ivy and she itched for weeks."

"Thanks kid, that's reassuring," muttered Robbie, scratching her elbow. Just then the van cleared the driveway and pulled up in front of the homestead. Janet and Mac were told the whole story by Dawn with a few asides by a smirking Aliki. With a shake of her head, Janet led her afflicted partner up to their room to apply some first aid while the others went to wash up and prepare dinner.

"I'm miserable!" grumbled Robbie as she tried to stand still while Janet applied pink calamine lotion to the infected spots and covered them so the infection wouldn't spread.

"You've been scratching and spread the stuff," Janet accused.

"Only a little bit!" Robbie lied, wiggling in discomfort.

Janet snorted and stood on her tip toes to give her lover a kiss. "You are going to be a mess for the wedding. Tomorrow, I'll take you into town to get a shot and a prescription at the doctor's. That will help. By the way, you are sleeping in the spare room."

"No!" whined Robbie pathetically, as she stopped pulling on fresh clothes and looked at Janet in horror.

"'Afraid so, my silly olive. I'm not going to the wedding looking like a remake of The Mummy," Janet said firmly. Robbie sighed dramatically and sulked.

It was after dark when Baba came out of his den and made his way to the kitchen where Aliki and Janet were busy getting a late dinner ready. "I can't find Nick," he announced in worry. "The boys, they tell me he made a phone call and then left them to finish the repairs on the fence. He said he was coming back to the ranch to clean up and then head into town. His horse is not in the barn. Nick, he never misses a meal especially when his sister is cooking."

"Does Ari or Joan know where he is?" Janet asked, as she prepared a salad.

"They drove up to Kinuso this morning to pick up Joan's Granny to bring her back for the wedding. They won't be back until tomorrow," Baba reminded them.

"Oh, that's right," Janet agreed. "It's unusual then for Nick not to be around when Ari is away, isn't it? What do you think, Aliki?"

Aliki put down the paring knife she was using and wiped her hands on a dish cloth. "It is not like Nick not to report in. It is Friday night and he usually goes into town after dinner. But if he'd come back then his horse would be in the barn." Aliki looked out the window. " There will be lots of moonlight tonight. I think Dawn and I had better take a ride out and look about. It is probably something simply like he decided to check a few more fences and his horse threw a shoe," Aliki reassured. "Don't wait dinner," she instructed Janet and left.

She found Dawn in the livingroom playing Monopoly with Robbie and the girls. "You owe me two million," Robbie reminded Ryan.

"Hey, not fair, I let you stay on Broadwalk rent free because you gave me a loan," protested Ryan.

Dawn and Mac laughed at the antics of the mother and daughter who made the rules up as they went along.

"Dawn, Nick hasn't come back and Baba is worried. I think we should saddle up a few horses and go see if we can find him," Aliki stated in her blunt manner. The laughter at the table stopped and everyone looked at the tall, serious scientist.

"You worried?" Robbie asked. "Because we could all come."

Aliki shook her head. "No, then we'd have a bunch of people lost in the night. No, Dawn can track anyone. She'll find him and I'll just go along as her tail gunner. It is probably nothing. Most likely his horse came up lame."

"I go too," Baba stated from the doorway. Aliki nodded. "Okay, Baba." The three of them headed off.

Baba and Aliki rode a little behind, staying out of Dawn's way. They had galloped a good distance up the trail and then slowed to a walk. Dawn now leaned over her horse's neck using her flashlight to look for any signs left by Nick on the muddy path. "He came up this trail but he didn't come back this far," Dawn informed them.

Aliki looked at the fresh hoof marks left on the trail by a half a dozen horses since yesterday. "How can you tell?" she asked.

"Nick's roan has a built up horseshoe on its right front hoof. It needed it because of the wear to the hoof from barrel racing," Dawn muttered, as she pulled up and leapt from her horse. Squatting down she looked carefully at the ground. Then she wandered off into the bush.

There was the rustle of leaves in the darkness. Then a cry of terror. "Nick! Oh God! No!"

Baba and Aliki swung off their horse and were charging after Dawn before her cries had faded into sobs. They found her kneeling beside Nick's still body giving him mouth to mouth. For a second, Aliki thought that her brother's throat had been slit. Then she realized that a thin cord had been pulled so tight that it had cut into his neck. He would have been dead for sure had he not been wearing a scarf around his throat. The material had given just enough protection that his laryngeal cavity had not been crushed.

Aliki moved around to the other side of Nick so not to get in Dawn's way. Swallowing hard, Aliki pulled the embedded cord and scarf from around Nick's neck while Dawn continued CPR. Then she felt his neck through his warm blood to see what damage had been down. The cord, thank God, had cut into the small area below the thyroid cartilage and above the cricoid cartilage. Aliki could not feel any damage.

"Aliki? " Baba asked, holding his son's hand.

"I think he'll be okay. He hasn't been without oxygen, I don't think." Aliki placed her fingers on her brother's pulse. It was weak but steady. Nick was one lucky boy. Suddenly Nick's hand came up and he pushed Dawn away and gave a wheezing cough. Dawn sat back in relief and wiped blood off her hands onto her pants.

"Lie still, Nick. Looks like someone tried to bump you off." Nick nodded, tried to say something and passed out again. "We need to get him out of here. Baba, can you ride back to the ranch and call an ambulance? He needs to be taken out on a backboard just in case."

"I go," Baba stated, getting up awkwardly and heading to the horses. "You no let him die, Aliki," he ordered, and then swung into the saddle and was gone. The women took their jackets off and covered Nick. Aliki found Nick's horse standing near by and tied him up. Then she and Dawn settled down for the long wait.

Aliki looked at the bloody piece of cord. It was a thin, tough burgundy nylon. "The same line that was used to garrotte Stella," she muttered.

Dawn looked at it. The cord rang a warning bell in her head but she couldn't remember why. Then it came to her. "Aliki! Paul Jarvis was using this cord to tie up some chicken wire fencing around his vegetable patch! B...But wait, Paul couldn't have done this! He's in jail!" Dawn spluttered in confusion.

"No, he isn't. He was held for questioning and then released," Aliki growled in frustration. A cold chill ran down her back. Whoever it was, she was going to get the bastard that had done this to her brother.

Over an hour later, Baba returned with help and the next hours were a blur of lights, forms, and hospital wards for the worried family. It was in the early hours of the morning when Aliki, Dawn and Baba made their way back from the hospital to the ranch. Nick was in serious but stable condition and resting. Early tests indicated that he was responding to stimuli. Tomorrow, farther tests would be conducted to make sure that there hadn't been any brain damage. Nick regained consciousness now and again during the long night but had slipped off each time without saying anything. He had taken quite a blow to the back of the head as well as being strangled.

They had barely got inside the door when Robbie and Janet came down the stairs tying on their housecoats. "How is he?" Janet asked, hugging the three in turn.

"The doctor is optimistic that he will wake in the morning and be okay. They run tests tomorrow to make sure," Baba stated, his voice cracking with emotion and fatigue.

"Come on, you three need a good cup of tea and some light sandwiches and then it is off to bed with you," Janet instructed, taking Baba's arm and leading him into the kitchen.

"What do you think, Aliki?" Robbie asked, before they followed the others.

"I think he'll be okay. We can't know for sure though until he fully wakes up. Someone really clobbered him," Aliki muttered, the anger still showing under her fatigue.

The tea and sandwiches were consumed mostly in silence and then the three exhausted people, headed off for a shower and sleep.

"You going back to bed?" Janet asked Robbie, who was sitting moodily staring into her tea.

"No, I hate that spare room. It's too small and the bed's lumpy. I can't sleep anyway. I itch," grumbled Robbie, although the real truth was she missed having Janet beside her.

"Never mind, Lover. We'll get you fixed up today and in a week or so you'll be a lot better." Janet smiled sympathetically, understanding what was really bothering her partner. "Robbie, I think I know something," Janet went on. "It has been bothering me all day and tonight when Baba came back for help and said that Jarvis was released after questioning it came to me. The day Dawn and I went to Jarvis's house, he was putting up chicken wire with thin red cord. I think it might be the same stuff that the killer has been using."

Robbie looked up sharply. "If it's him, that bastard is going away forever if I have anything to do about it. That's my kid brother!"

"I know, Hon," Janet soothed, reaching out to rub Robbie's hand that wasn't covered in bandages. "But we need more proof than that. We don't want to jump to conclusions." Robbie nodded, her jaw working with stress. Having been thrown in jail for a murder she didn't commit, she understood what Janet was saying.

The women filled in their time tidying up and preparing food that could be easily warmed up. With the wedding only a day away and Nick in the hospital, there would be little time to prepare meals. It was coming up to nine o'clock when a squad car pulled into the driveway.

Janet went out to meet the RCMP officer, knowing that her partner was not at her best when she had to deal with the police. "Hi. I'm afraid most of the family are still in bed. We had a bit of a long night last night," Janet stated.

"Hi," Brad Nicholson responded, smiling up at the cute woman. He placed one booted foot on the bottom step of the porch and looked around with obvious approval at the beautiful homestead. "There's been some developments. I thought Aliki might want to hear."

Janet nodded. "Come in and have some coffee and toast. I'll get Robbie to get her sister," Janet said, stepping aside and holding the door open.

Brad willingly took Janet up on her offer. He'd been up since before dawn himself. "Hi Robbie." Brad blushed, a little unnerved to find the famous actress in her silk housecoat. There sure as hell was a lot of beautiful women staying in this house. Then he noticed the bandages. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Poison ivy," sighed Robbie in annoyance.

"Robbie, the Sergeant needs to see Aliki," Janet explained. "I'm just going to get him a cup of coffee."

Robbie nodded. "I'll get her," she stated and headed up the stairs.

Brad watched her go with more than simple admiration in his eyes. Then he blushed, realizing that Janet had caught him staring. "" he stumbled.

Janet laughed. "It's alright, Sergeant. I think she is pretty hot too." Brad went beet red and still laughing, Janet led him into the kitchen.

A few minutes later, Aliki, Robbie and Dawn came in and took up seats around the kitchen table.

Brad swallowed his cookie with a sip of coffee and then got to the point. "Jed Casse is missing. From all accounts he locked up early last night and just disappeared."

"Yes, he was locking up when the girls and I went to get gas last night around four," Janet stated.

Aliki looked at the sergeant with annoyance. " Did you search his apartment and the garage?"

Nicholson reported all he knew openly. "Jed's mom reported him missing. She showed up to do the books at the garage variety store like she always does at the end of the month and couldn't get in. She doesn't have a key. Jed is the sole owner of the business although his mom does all the paper work. The place was left to him when his dad passed away. I'm just waiting on a search warrant to get in and have a look around. I looked through the windows and he's not on the floor or anything and things look in place." The officer stopped for another slurp of coffee then continued. "The land lady let me into his rooms. It was hard to tell if he'd been there or not. I don't think he makes his bed or washes his dishes very often. There was no evidence of a break in or ransacking and no one could recall seeing him about. His truck is still at the garage though."

Aliki frowned. "It's damn funny that Jed would go missing the same night Nick was attacked."

Brad almost spilt his coffee. "What? Nick was attacked? When the hell did this happen?"

Aliki explained the sequence of events ending with Dawn finding Nick in the dark and their long night in the Swan Hills' emergency ward. "Shit," Brad muttered when she was finished. "This is one hell of a mess. Did Jarvis try to kill them both or did Jed attack Nick and then go on the run? And what about those crazies up there burning ducks? Or is none of this related?"

Dawn and Janet both started to talk at once. Then stopped and laughed. "You go ahead, Dawn. I think we must have both twigged to the same clue last night," Janet stated.

Dawn nodded. "I think so. Sergeant, Janet and I visited Paul a few days ago and he was putting up a chicken wire fence. He was attaching it to bamboo stakes using thin red cord. It was very like the cord that Aliki took from around Nick's neck last night."

"I think I need to go talk to the good Reverend Jarvis," growled Brad, feeling kind of stupid that he had failed to notice this vital bit of evidence when he had picked Jarvis up for questioning with Chen.

"I'll come with you if you don't mind," Aliki stated, "but I think we should go see Nick first. If he saw his attacker then we are on pretty sure ground in solving this murder."

"Good point, Inspector," Brad said immediately. He was feeling tired and well out of his depth on this one. He was glad that murder cases were few and far between in his district. This case was well out of his league. He figured though that Chen ought to know his stuff and now there was enough evidence to try to convince a judge to charge Jarvis with murder. He didn't want the guy getting away while they sat over coffee. Still, Pateas was a pretty big name in homicide investigation and if she said wait, he'd better.

The women went upstairs to change and Janet got the sleepy Reb ready as well. Once they had left a message for the girls and Baba, they were ready to head off to the hospital. They found Nick looking a lot better than the night before. His colour was still pale but he was sitting up in bed and looking alert. Nicholson shook his hand and each of the women gave him a hug and kiss. Reb gave him some slightly wilted flowers that she had picked on the way to the van.

"Hell, if I'd known this was a way to get kisses and flowers from beautiful women I'd have got myself strangled years ago," Nick croaked out barely above a whisper.

Aliki gave her brother a playful swat. "Cut the bull and tell us what you saw,"she bossed, to cover up her relief. She remembered the day of her oldest brother's funeral as if it was yesterday. She never wanted to have to face anything like that again.

Nick went beet red. "I can't remember," Nick muttered. "I've been trying since early this morning but it is a complete blank. I know I was going back to town to meet Vince Dandurand about something important. I remember that part because I phoned him on my cell phone. The next thing I remember was being in pain and you guys being there with the rescue personnel. The nurse said that can happen with a bad blow to the head," Nick justified to his sister nervously.

Aliki nodded. "Yeah, it often does even without a blow to the head. Shock does strange things,"she explained, taking Nick's hand in an unaccustomed display of affection. "You scared the shit out of us, little brother."

The sergeant left them and went to phone the station to see if the judge had signed the search warrant yet. The rest of them stayed. They were relieved to hear that Nick would be released later that day and would be able to stand up for his brother at the wedding tomorrow. When Nicholson returned, they said their good byes so that Nick could rest and Aliki, Dawn and Nicholson headed out to go to the manse.

But as they left Nick called his sister and partner back. "Aliki, Dawn?"

"Yeah?" the scientist asked, leaning closer to her brother in order to hear what he had to say.

"I was wrong. I'm sorry. I've thought about it a lot since last night...what you and Dawn's good. I got all caught up in the condemning and not in the love and understanding. Can you two forgive me?"

Aliki smiled down at her brother and then pulled at a lock of his hair. "Of course we do. You can't help being cute but stupid," she teased, tucking in his sheets like she used to when he was a little boy. Dawn leaned down and kissed him on the forehead and the two women left.

Once outside, Janet pulled the reluctant Robbie away from the group to go over to the clinic across the street to get the famous actress some treatment for her poison ivy. "We could go with them," protested Robbie. "They might need our help!

Janet snorted. "As if. Let Aliki and the police do their job and don't interfere."

Reb looked up at her tall second mom. "You have to go to see the doctor, Obbie, like a good girl," she said seriously. Robbie laughed and the three of them headed over to the clinic.

Sergeant Nicholson stopped at the squad car and turned to face Aliki and Dawn with a worried expression. He didn't know quite how to approach this subject considering the relationship between Aliki and Dawn. "The warrant is not ready yet but a bit of information about Paul Jarvis was sent up from Edmonton. Seem a few years ago he was caught with a male prostitute. He was charged, paid a fine and was released."

Aliki sighed. "That might be motive. He certainly spouts off that he thinks homosexuality is a sin. If he is in the closet he might have felt really pressured if Stella came on to him," Aliki speculated much to Nicholson's relief.

"Or Stella found out about his arrest and was putting the screws to him," Dawn considered.

Aliki nodded in agreement. "Let's go talk to Reverend Jarvis."

At the Pateas' home, Mac had slept deeply after the night's events and when she woke she immediately went to find Ryan. "You awake?" Mac asked, peeking her head into her cousin's room.

Ryan put down the sheet music that she had been memorizing. "Yeah, I didn't go back to bed. I snuck out to do some practising in the bush. When I got back, I found this note on the kitchen table," Ryan explained, picking up the folded piece of paper and waving it at Mac in disgust. "They've gone and left us out of it again."

Mac took the letter and read it over.

Hi, Kid of Mine,

Out scaring the squirrels again, huh? I saw you sneaking out. That Mountie showed up this morning. It seems the guy down at the garage (Jed Casse) has vanished. We are going over to the hospital to see how Nick is doing and find out what he knows. Then we are going to have a word with Jarvis. Janet and Dawn say he ties his veggies back with the same red cord that is preferred by the local murderer. Oh yeah, Janet's going to take me into the clinic to see if they have a bell I can wear. <bg> Let Baba and Mac know what is going on, okay? Don't get into any trouble.

Your itchy Mom

P.S. We have Reb.

"Red cord,"muttered Mac to herself, staring at the piece of paper.

"What's up?" Ryan asked, as she carefully put her music away into her case.

"Mould resistant cord for gardening. I saw it for sale in the garage's variety store when Aunt Janet took Reb and I to get the gas and talk to Jed yesterday," Mac stated with a thoughtful frown.

"So anyone could have that cord," Ryan sighed, closing her violin case with a snap.

"Yes, but ....I'm not positive but I think the all terrain vehicle I saw parked in the garage belongs to Vince Dandurand. Ryan, what if Jed Casse killed Dandurand because Vince didn't care that Stella was killed and then ran away?!"

"Or maybe Jed killed Stella because she was having it off with Jarvis and Vince found out and killed him in revenge! We'd better go do a little snooping down at the garage. Maybe our moms have got it all wrong in suspecting Jarvis and the murderer is Vince or Jed." Ryan smiled with sheer devilment sparkling in her eyes.

Mac's eyes narrowed. "Ryan, it says right here,"she slapped the letter in her hand to emphasize her point, "that you are to stay out of trouble."

"Yeah, but she didn't mean it. She knows I can't stay out of trouble anymore than she can. We are olives," Ryan announced as if that justified everything. "I have my car license now and I know where the keys to the truck are kept."

"What about Baba?" Mac asked, practically.

"We'll add a post script to the letter and leave it on the kitchen table again. Are you coming?" Ryan was organizing the expedition excitedly.

"Of course, I am!" Mac smiled, and Ryan gave her a hug of appreciation before the two headed off downstairs.

They took the ranch pick up, Ryan driving carefully and responsibly which was her way when handling machinery. They parked a half block from the garage not far from the historical trapper's cabin. From there, they cautiously advanced on the garage. "It is probably too late to mention this but if Jed has vanished, how are we going to get inside the garage and what are we looking for once we are in there?"Mac asked.

"We'll get through the back window. There is always a back window in every movie and then we'll find the body, let the murderer chase us around with a butcher knife for a couple of scenes - just for dramatic effect - and then subdue him with the karate blow that we've been keeping in reserve, before we call the cops," Ryan explained with a smile of devilment. She really didn't have a plan either but being out snooping about seemed so much more fun than sitting at home waiting for their moms to return.

Mac looked at her and laughed. "I think you have been watching too many of Aunt Robbie's movies."

They cut down an alley and came up behind the garage. With a cocky smile, Ryan pointed to the small window at the back. Mac sighed and rolled her eyes. "Okay, so you got lucky,"she muttered.

Ryan moved an empty oil drum over, balanced on the top and pulled the screen off. Then she used the Swiss Army knife her mom had given her for Christmas to pry the window open. She looked in, discovered it was a storage area at the back of the garage and slipped inside. "It's safe, come on,"she whispered back but Mac was already working her way through the small window and down onto the workbench as Ryan had done.

Together, they moved over to the open doorway and looked cautiously inside. The two bays were empty and silent; the old fashioned mechanic pits formed dark, rectangular eyes in the floor. A three wheeled motorized vehicle sat parked in a corner. "That's Vince's all terrain vehicle alright. Ari was telling me about it. It's Korean made," Mac whispered, then gasped as noise exploded around them. They both jumped back in fear and then sighed nervously as they saw a tin can with a few metal nuts had crashed to the floor, the contents rattling and rolling across the oil stained cement. The culprit, a spooked cat, gave a hiss, jumped from the counter and tore past them to leap up on the work bench and out of the window. The girls waited a minute - nothing stirred.

Then Ryan gave a jerk of her head, trying to act braver than she felt, and the two of them entered the garage, fanning out and around the outer edge of the bays. Ryan looked over at her friend. Mac shook her head - nothing. Ryan shrugged and turned to check behind a stack of tires. Mac moved cautiously to the edge of the pit closest to her - nothing. She came around to join Ryan by the second pit.

"Oh Jesus Christ,"gasped Ryan in fear and heard Mac gasp in horror. There in the bottom of the pit was a man's body. His face was beet red and the tongue that hung from his mouth was swollen and black. The man lay wedged in the corner, his stiff hands out in front of him, as if warding off some evil. The fingers were bent like claws in death.

"Who is he?" Ryan asked, her voice shaky and strained.

"I don't know. It might be Jed. I...I...can't tell. I think I'm going to be sick!"

Ryan went to take Mac's arm, missed and tried again. "Come on, let's get out of here. We have to get Aunt Aliki," she said in a rush, pulling her wobbly friend along.

"Ryan, that was awful!" Mac moaned, as she climbed up on the workbench and crawled through the window. She could feel Ryan close behind her, hot and sweaty with fear.

"You're telling me!" the teen muttered, gasping in deep breaths of fresh air once they were outside. "Come on, we have to get our mom's. They must be at Jarvis's."

The two teens ran down the street and piled into the truck. Ryan tried to start the engine, failed, and had to try again. They pulled out into the street and headed towards the edge of town. It was when Ryan checked her rear view mirror that her heart almost stopped with fear. They were not alone; dark, angry eyes stared back at her from a face rough with stubble and etched with pain. "Just keep on goin'," the man hissed, "or I kill your friend."

Mac gasped as the garrote slipped around her throat and pulled tight, Ryan felt her world tilt and then forced herself to concentrate on her driving. They were in big trouble.

Aliki, Dawn and Nicholson found Paul Jarvis in his garden weeding on his hands and knees. He got up and took off his gardening gloves, looking worried as the three approached.

"We need to ask you a few more questions, Reverend Jarvis," Sergeant Nicholson announced. Jarvis didn't responded. He nodded dully and indicated with a jerk of his head that they should sit down.

He looked tired and old, Aliki observed. Fear ages people over night and she could smell the fear on Jarvis. She sat on the edge of her garden chair and waited for Brad Nicholson to start the questioning. Dawn took the chair farthest away. She shouldn't be here and she want to keep a low profile and leave the investigation to Aliki and Nicholson.

"We need to know where you were last night, Reverend," the big police officer started, looking uncomfortable in the small garden chair.

"I was here. All night. I can't prove it. Vince and Nick were supposed to come around but they didn't," Jarvis stated, heavily.

"Why didn't they?" Nicholson asked.

"I don't know. I got a call from Vince that he and Nick were coming over, Nick wanted to talk about things. They are worried about the effect my being questioned was going to have on the congregation," muttered Jarvis, looking not at them put off in the distance.

Nicholson looked at Aliki and with a nod Aliki took over. "Reverend Jarvis, we know about your arrest in Edmonton for picking up a male prostitute," she stated.

The eyes now made contact with Aliki's. They were filled first with pain and then tears. Paul Jarvis buried his face into his hands and sobbed. Nicholson squirmed uncomfortably. Aliki looked at him and shook her head. Dawn bit her lip and sat on her hands so that she wouldn't interfere. They waited.

Finally, the tears slowed and Jarvis wiped his face on his sleeve. "You don't know what it is like to be born with such an awful affliction. I denied it for years and when I couldn't anymore, I turned to my faith to give me the strength not to sin," the man sobbed. He swallowed hard and then went on. " was only the once...I just needed...we were caught. It was awful," he finished.

"Did Stella know?" Aliki asked softly.

Jarvis looked at the ground. "Not at first. She kept coming on to me and it was very awkward. Then, last fall, she went to Edmonton to sign her divorce papers. She must have talked to some of her old friends because when she came back she knew all about it. She laughed at me - wanted money to keep quiet. God forgive me, I gave it to her!" The tears started again and Jarvis went on between raspy sobs. "Dear God, I was so relieved when she disappeared! I didn't care what happened to her, I was just glad she was gone!" The man broke down now and Nicholson shook his head in disgust.

Aliki's face showed no expression. "Did you kill her, Paul?" she asked gently.

The man looked up with tears staining his face. "No! No, I never killed her. Please, I wouldn't hurt anyone. I weakened just once and accepted sin into my life and look, look what happened."

Aliki stood and so did Nicholson and Dawn. She didn't think that Jarvis was involved but he certainly was in no state to be left alone. "Reverend Jarvis, Sergeant Nicholson is going to take you down to the station so that you can make a statement. We are going to hold you for some more questioning. You need to make sure that you contact your lawyer."

Javis nodded and stood obediently, his head down and his shoulders still shaking with emotion. Nicholson took him by the elbow and he went along quietly. Aliki watched him go with sad eyes. She promised herself that she would keep his secret if she could. The poor man just couldn't accept being a homosexual.

"Reverend Jarvis, " Dawn called. The broken man stopped and looked back at her with eyes haunted by guilt and pain. "You are only going to be truly happy when you accept what God made you." The minister shook his head, evidently unable to get past his own bigotry.

Janet took her little daughter's hand as they came out of the clinic, and gave her lover a sideways look. "Stop pouting. You needed that shot. You'll see. It will take the itch away."

"It hurt!" protested Robbie. "Did he have to give it to me in my backside? I think he just wanted to see my tush."

Janet laughed. "Have no fear, I was there guarding your rear-admiral. We need to go down to the drug store and get this prescription filled. What.....?!" Janet stopped and stared and then grabbed Reb up into her arms and started running for their car. "That was Ryan and Dawn in the ranch pick-up! There is someone in there with them and they look afraid!"

Robbie leapt in as Janet put the van in reverse and spun out of the driveway. "Are you sure it wasn't Baba?" she asked, doing up Reb's and then her own seatbelt and looking for the car phone.

"It wasn't Baba. They were afraid," Janet said firmly.

Robbie nodded. "Don't let them see you are trailing. I'll contact Aliki. Reb sat watching her moms with big round eyes not sure what was going on while Robbie placed the call.

The phone vibrated in the scientist's pocket as she walked down the street discussing the case with Dawn. They planned to meet Robbie, Reb, and Janet at the clinic and catch them up on what was happening. "Wait a minute, Love," Aliki stated and pulled out the phone to flip it open. "Pateas," she stated.

"This is Robbie. We are in the van following the ranch pick-up truck. Ryan and Dawn are in the front seat and according to Janet who saw them when they passed by us, the kids looked scared and there is some wild-looking guy sitting in the back."

"Where are you?" Aliki asked, already looking around for a mode of transportation.

"On Main Street but we are just turning east heading out to the highway," Robbie stated, trying to sound calm when all she wanted to do was scream.

"Keep them in sight but don't get too close," Aliki ordered. She hung up and dialled the station. "Constable, it's Inspector Pateas. I am at the corner by the Legion. Come and pick me up immediately. Hurry!"

Aliki explained to Dawn what was going on as they impatiently waited for the squad car to pull up. Aliki was opening the door before the car was at a full stop and Dawn jumped in with Aliki right behind her. "Red flashers, no sirens unless someone is blocking your way. We are heading out to the highway. It looks like our daughter and niece are driving the ranch truck against their will. There is an unidentified male in the back seat," Aliki explained crisply, as she reached for the mike and sent in the call to be on the look out for a truck that might be involved in a possible kidnapping.

While she was doing so, Dawn took the phone and called Robbie back. "Hi. Where are you?" she asked, nervously playing with the strap of her shoulder bag.

Robbie's voice came over clearly enough that Dawn could hear the strain. "We are a few cars behind. The truck is maintaining a steady pace south on the highway and may be heading for Edmonton."

Dawn looked up and repeated the information to Aliki and the Constable. The officer nodded and increased his speed. Aliki reported the information to central dispatch who relayed it to all cars in the area.

Dawn went back to the phone. "Robbie, we are just coming out on the highway now. We are in a squad with the flashers on so we should be catching up soon. Stay on the line, okay?" Dawn begged, fear gripping at her heart for her daughter and friend.

"Okay," came the nervous response.

"They all think I'm stupid," the man in the back seat grumbled. "They didn't think I knew. I did though. I knew Stella was sleepin' with Jarvis. Suddenly, she got all sorts of new fancy stuff and said she bought them with her own money. She didn't get that much from her welfare check. He was givin' her gifts, I figured. I'm not as slow as everyone thinks I am. I had to kill her, didn't I? I didn't want to. I loved her. But a guy has to have some pride. The police were too dumb to even find the body!" the man whined in a wheezing, strained voice.

"I left her some place they ought to have found it with all them wackos up there burnin' sacrifices to the Swan Gods. Poor Stella had to stay in that awful grave all winter long. Wasn't right, they shoulda found her. I meant her to be found. And they say I'm slow," he muttered angrily.

Mac struggled to breathe, trying to keep her fingers under the cord so it wouldn't bite into her neck. The man didn't seem to be aware of the cord tightening around her throat. She could see the worry on Ryan's face as she drove. Every now and again she would glance over at Mac to see if she was okay.

"Then that Nick know-it-all Pateas had to go poke into my business. He phoned me askin' questions. Him and Vince Dandurand worked it out didn't they, because they knew the cord came from the store. They're so stupid. Shoulda known to keep outta my business. I had to kill them too!" He stopped complaining long enough to cough up blood and then continued.

"I took Vince's all-terrain and met Nick on the road back to the ranch, and then I came back to the garage to wait of Vince to come and pick up his all-terrain. I'm smarter than people think, ya know." The man was babbling. There was something wrong with him Ryan realized.

"Stupid bastard, Dandurand, stabbed me. He shouldn't have had a knife! He stabbed me and I passed out. Stabbed me in the gut, the bastard. I had to hide out 'cause I couldn't drive in this state," he slurred. The garrote tightened as the man fought to remain conscious. Mac gasped and choked.

"Let up on the cord! You're strangling her, you idiot!" Ryan roared, swatting at the man as she tried to drive with one hand and one eye on the road.

"Fuck you, bitch!" the man yelled, and letting go of the garotte , he slammed his fist into the side of Ryan's head.

Ryan's sight dimmed and she slumped forward. "Ryan!" she heard Mac's panicky voice call and then hear no more.

Robbie and Janet watched in horror as the silver truck farther down the road swerved violently off the highway, ran sideways along the ditch in a cloud of dust and then rolled over and over until it came to a stop in a field. Janet slammed on the brakes and pulled to the side with others who had witnessed the accident. Robbie was out of the vehicle and running before Janet had even got the van into park.

She got to the truck and looked through the broken window. Mac was conscious but cut and bruised. She cradled Ryan's head in her lap. "He hit her in the head," she sobbed, realizing that because Ryan had suffered a serious head injury a few years back any blow to the head now could have grave complications.

Robbie paled. "Ryan," she called softly, terror gripping her heart. "Ryan, hon." There was no response.

Janet came up beside Robbie having carried the three year old awkwardly over the uneven ground. She made sure she had Reb's head facing over her shoulder so that the small child couldn't see and then looked into the truck. Janet took in the situation at once, shock causing her heart to skip a beat. Mac looked badly shook-up and Ryan lay still and limp. In the back seat, she could see the bloody and unconscious form of Jed Casse. She moved away and but the frightened child down. "Stay beside me, Reb. Don't worry, Ryan and Mac are going to be okay."

She flipped the cell phone open. "Dawn, the truck rolled. Mac's cut and bruised but looks okay. Ryan is unconscious and Jed Casse looks seriously hurt," she summarized, forcing herself to stay calm. She wrapped one arm around Reb's shoulder comforting the scared child and keeping her close to her side.

There was a moment of shocked silence at the other end, then a voice tight with fear responded. "I'll have Aliki call for emergency assistance. Don't move them."

Robbie sat beside Ryan's bed holding her daughter's hand. There was some swelling in the frontal lobe area other than that Ryan, like Mac, had escaped the accident with only cuts and bruises. She had not yet regained consciousness. It was eerily like the time a few years back when she had been called to her daughter's side after a school lab explosion had given Ryan a head injury and put her in a coma for three weeks. At least now she had Janet and Reb here with her and she wasn't facing this alone like she had then.

Robbie looked over at her wife. Janet had fallen asleep with Reb in her arms. Sometime earlier, a worried Baba and Ari had come to the hospital and picked up the others. Both Mac and Nick had been released. But Ryan was still unconscious and the Williams family waited at her side.

Ryan's hand moved in Robbie's and the actor-director looked up to meet her daughter's eyes. "Is Mac okay?" Ryan whispered.

"Yeah, she is fine, Ryan," Robbie choked out. "How are you feeling? Can you see okay? Can you move everything?"

Ryan wriggled her fingers and toes. "I'm okay. Just got a bad headache. Why is it always the head?" the teen sighed with a weak grin.

Robbie shook her head, too emotionally upset to respond, and buried her head beside Ryan's hand.

"Hey, mom, it's okay. I'm fine," Ryan protested awkwardly. Robbie's rare displays of vulnerability always surprised her and made her feel embarrassed.

Robbie kissed Ryan's hand and forced back the tears. "You have to stop scaring me like this, kid. I'm going to get grey hairs and that would ruin my career."

"Is that Ryan?" Janet asked, as she placed the sleeping form of her younger daughter on the seat and came over to stand by the bed. "How are you doing, sweetheart?" she asked in relief.

"I'm okay, Aunt Janet. I just got my bell rung again." She smiled and then frowned. "What happened to the bastard who was choking Mac?

Janet looked at Robbie and it was the actress who answered. "It was Jed Casse. He was dead on arrival. Bled to death from the knife wound. Mac has made a statement to the police but you will have to talk to Aliki, Sergeant Nicholson, and detective Chen later on when you are feeling better.

"Okay, mom," Ryan sighed, then she looked suddenly worried. "What about the wedding tomorrow?"

Robbie looked at her watch. "Today, actually. Nick and Mac have both been released. We'll see what the doctor has to say about you. If you're not released maybe they would let us take you out on a leash for a few hours."

"Mom!" complained Ryan good-naturedly.

"Hey, is it me that is always getting into trouble?" questioned Robbie in response.

"Yes," Ryan and Janet said together and the three of them laughed.

Ryan was released in time for the wedding, which went beautifully despite the fact that a number of the family looked like the walking wounded. Nick wore a bandage around his neck, Mac and Ryan, a series of plasters to cover cuts and abrasions, and Robbie was still sporting bandages to cover the bigger areas of poison ivy. The reception with friends and family afterwards was lively and fun. Ryan was allowed to stay for a little bit but then Robbie and Janet took their daughters back to the house for an early night. This was partly out of concern for Ryan, who was looking pale and admitted to still having a bad headache, and partly so that people could relax. The presence of the famous actor/director tended to make people gawk and act in a manner that they wouldn't normally.

Everyone slept in the next day after sending Ari and Joan off on their honeymoon in a blizzard of rice and well wishes late in the evening. It was as the family was sitting around finishing a late brunch that the helicopter landed in the paddock.

"What is this about?" Baba asked, looking with surprise out of the window. He was feeling rather on overload, his quiet life having been turned upside down in only a few weeks.

"That's for Dawn and me," Aliki informed the surprised group, in her calm manner. "We are going up to Dawn's cabin for the day."

"We are? Oh, Aliki, what a nice thing to do," Dawn said smiling. She had been raised in the log cabin high in an alpine valley, miles from civilization. Although she loved her new life, she did miss the beauty and peace of her northern home.

Mac grinned knowingly, having been brought into the secret by Aliki earlier.

"Next week when Ryan is better, Aliki said we can all go up there and do some fishing and hiking for a few days," Mac informed the others.

The two women piled into the helicopter while the others watched. Janet came up and wrapped her arm around Robbie as they watched the helicopter lift into the sky. "Wonder what that is all about?"the actor mused.

Janet looked at her in surprise and laughed.

"What?" asked Robbie in confusion, looking down into Janet's eyes that sparkled like emeralds.

"You are soooo lovable and so clueless," Janet snorted, giving her partner a happy hug.

Aliki had everything planned. She had thought about it for a long time, her pragmatic mind struggling to be creative, and then had finally hit on what she thought was a really romantic moment. Doing this right was the most important thing that Aliki had ever undertaken. She licked her lips as Dawn unlocked the door to her old cabin and stood blinking in surprise. The cabin was spotless, the smell of hot soup and warm bread filled the air, a CD of pan flutes played softly in the background and a fire snapped happily in the fireplace.

"Wow! How did you arrange all this?"Dawn finally asked. She turned to give her lover a big hug. "Thank you, Aliki. You couldn't have done anything nicer."

Aliki smiled and swallowed nervously. "I need you to come over here and sit on the couch," the scientist said. With a quizzical look back at Aliki, Dawn went over and curled up on the sofa.

Aliki went down on one knee and looked at Dawn with serious, caring eyes. "Dawn, I love you and Mac very much and I want us to be a family,"she stated and then took Dawn's hand. "I have already asked you to marry me but now I want to make that commitment public and legal." She reached into her pocket and took out a small box. From it, she took a beautiful solitaire. Nervously, she slipped the ring on her lover's finger. "My love, my life, now and always,"she promised. Dawn wrapped herself in Aliki's arms and held on tight as tears of joy rolled down her face. She had wanted this for so long and Aliki had made the moment so very special.

Aliki held on to her lover tightly, relieved that she had managed to do it right and that Dawn now wore the ring that she had saved so long to get for her. She knew that Dawn would have been just as happy with a simple gold band but Aliki needed to do things right. She never wanted this wonderful woman to ever regret becoming her wife.

Aliki kissed Dawn's ear and then her mouth. The kiss deepened and Dawn pulled at Aliki's t-shirt. "You, here, now," the writer moaned. Aliki pulled her lover off the couch and down onto the rug beside the fire and they quickly shrugged off their clothes to lie naked together.

"You mean the world to me," Aliki whispered, kissing Dawn's throat as her hand teased a hard nipple.

"Show me," came the response, as Dawn leaned up to catch one of Aliki's nipples in her mouth. The scientist growled with need and bathed with the warm glow of firelight, Aliki did show her the depth of her love. Far off thunder roared. The sound of the legendary giant swans taking flight across the sky.

Miles away, Robbie took her seat beside Nick, Baba and Janet in the livingroom. Ryan stepped forward holding her violin nervously. "Aah, I'm going to play Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto No. 1 and Mac is going to change the pages and Reb is going to introduce me," she explained, and then went back to stand at her music stand and settle the violin comfortably under her chin.

"Go ahead Reb," Ryan said to her little sister.

Reb stepped forward proudly. "My big sister is going to play Spring from the Four Seasons," she stated proudly.

Ryan swallowed nervously and adjusted her violin under her chin. Mac smiled at her encouragingly and Ryan put the bow to the strings. Music floated out across the room filled with the joy and warmth of spring. It was light and lyrical and touched the souls of the listeners. When Ryan finished there was stunned silence. Finally, Janet shook herself from her trance and clapped and Nick and Baba joined in with a cheer or two. Robbie sat and stared at Ryan completely motionless.

"Mom?" Ryan asked nervously.

Robbie got up and rushed from the room. Ryan's world crumbled. She needed her mom's approval desperately. Suddenly, her Aunt Janet was there beside her. "Go talk to her, Ryan. She needs you," Janet whispered, giving her adopted daughter a hug and taking the violin from her hands.

Ryan found her mother standing in the kitchen sobbing. "Mom?" Ryan asked timidly, confused by her mom's reaction.

Robbie turned and looked at her daughter with new eyes. She walked over and wrapped the teen in her arms and held on tightly. "That was some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard, Ryan. I am so proud of you. How the hell did I ever end up with a kid that is as special as you?" she sobbed, letting the tears flow freely now that she and Ryan were alone.

"Just lucky I guess," came the muffled laugh and reply as Ryan snuggled deep into her mom's arms, knowing that everything was going to be okay now.

Outside the distant thunder echoed across the Swan Hills.

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