ALTERNATIVE TO UBER

(Non-Illustrated Version)

By Chelle (Kill me later, please!)

Hi there, it's time for the Disclaimer thingie: This is an original fiction, at least to me, (grin), and therefore the text belongs to me, copyrights and all. ©2002 Chelle The characters and the plot are almost unrecognizably based on popular stereotypes of the genre. I also mention the products of some publicly held corporations, the names of some real places, and the designations of some military units…all without permission or commercial compensation. I hope no one is offended beyond her or his ability to heal or laugh at themselves. Exception thingie: So ok, some of the illustrations are "borrowed" (teehee), and I can't claim those. Ok, trust me, there should also be a Warnings thingie: This story contains some bad language, mention of sexual activities between consenting people, hurt feelings, and some irresponsible behavior, not necessarily in that order. Depending on the reader's attitudes, it might be shocking or it might be funny…one person's fantasy is the next person's nightmare, thank god. I will now pass out some Skittles®. Oh yeah, the web sites require this, so, if you need to write: Chellesok@aol.com*

Editor's Note: Michelle is a little less than clear on this. This story is intended for adult readers. It deals with significant emotional trauma. The heroine is an alienated and delusional drunk…a chain smoker, prone to the use of firearms. At least she loves women. Michelle wrote some gross stuff and some explicit sex stuff. She also has some curious ideas about human anatomy. Alright, you've been warned. (There, I think that should satisfy the publisher. It is a love story, but it gets a little messy.)

So ok, it's me again, (Hi). Well anyway, wasn't that a mouthful, (giggle)?

 

Excerpt from "Heart of a Diver", © C. Stanton

Alt Uber Incomplete

"Bobbie, you have to do it," Kellie implored, her beseeching green eyes sizzling with intensity as she held captive her lover's terrified blue, "you're the only one who can save her!"

Bobbie could barely meet Kellie's gaze. Her heart was racing as she forced herself to take deep breaths, fighting to hold her impending panic attack at bay. You can do this, she told herself. She'd done it before, many times. She had the skills they needed to save Rhonda's life, if only she could keep from being overwhelmed by the terrifying memories of her failure. Yet, even as she fought her internal battle, precious seconds were fleeing faster than the water flooding through the bomb-blasted sluice gate below their feet.

She'd been so sure of herself once. There had been a time when no rescue diver could match her skills…or her courage. Among the elite Sea Rescue teams, Bobbie Davenport's exploits were legendary, because she'd driven herself with a mania that no human being could sustain. Once she'd hit the water, she'd never lost a victim to the sea. Her fellow divers had joked that she was Poseidon's daughter, but they'd also fought to be assigned as her dive partner. The fact that she preferred to dive solo was considered suicidal, but even back then she simply couldn't perform at her best knowing that she had to watch someone else's back. Deep inside, she'd trusted only herself. A partner was a liability.

 

"Connie, you're kidding, right? I mean, don't you think this is like, way over the top?"

"Huh? What's wrong with it, Stephie?" Connie asked, wheezing softly as she turned away from the monitor and began her explanation. "Bobbie Davenport was the best rescue diver in the history of Sea Rescue, but she couldn't save her lover, Deb, from the ultimate wave that had capsized their sailboat."

"Well, doesn't anything about it strike you as a bit, ummm, excessive?"

Stephanie had set down the pages of the latest section of her lover's new story and was shaking her head at what she'd read. She took a last puff on her Camel and poked it into the top of her empty beer can. Steph exhaled as she swirled the last mouthful of beer in the can to extinguish the butt. Connie wheezed a little louder.

"Uhhh, no," Connie said, following her comment with a mouthful of Devil Dog. It was 7:00 a.m., and it was their breakfast time.

"You're saying that Bobbie was so traumatized after her lover drowned, that she gave up her career in Sea Rescue and she's been languishing for the last seven years…as a children's swimming instructor at the YWCA?"

"Well, Bobbie also teaches an adult class...that's where she meets Kellie. See, she's been in a sorta self-imposed isolation thingie. She's distraught because of the emotional pain of both failing to save her first lover, and actually failing in her chosen field. It's that post-traumatic stress disordering stuff. Everyone can relate to that," Connie explained, before popping the tail end of the Devil Dog into her mouth. She shivered and wriggled her bare feet with delight at the sugar.

Stephanie had risen and clomped into the kitchen, the uneven gait of her long legs making its characteristic loud/soft footfalls. Opening the refrigerator, she snatched a can of Budweiser and then returned to the small den. Steph resumed her critique as she grasped the arms of her chair and unsteadily lowered her body onto the seat. She immediately shook another Camel from a soft pack and lit it.

"Look, I read the part where you say that Bobbie didn't have a chance in hell of saving Deb," Steph noted, squinting pointedly at Connie. The thick lenses of her eyeglasses magnified her pale blue eyes. "She didn't have any rescue equipment on the boat, they'd lost their radio, and there was no backup transponder beacon. They were so far from land that no one could believe Bobbie had survived in those shark infested waters for 18 days…with only a life preserver and a knife."

"Oh, well, that was just to show that there's a very high level of performance that Bobbie demands of herself…it's her perfectionist drive that made her the best," Connie responded glibly. She looked down and deftly squashed a roach that had crawled beneath her chair and into a pile of snack food crumbs. Stephanie watched entranced as Connie scrubbed the sole of her foot clean on the carpet. She'd have to think twice about nibbling on her lover's toes that night.

"Okaaaay…and after blaming herself for her lover's death, because of her unrealistic demands for super human perfection, Bobbie also cut herself off from any close interpersonal contact?" Steph asked as she popped the top of the Budweiser open, spritzing Connie's keyboard with atomized beer.

"Well, yeah, Stephie. Of course she did. Bobbie blamed herself for Deb's death, but she also believed that she couldn't trust herself to get close to another woman, because there was always the chance that she'd fail again." Connie sighed and slid her hand into the open bag of Doritos lying next to the monitor. Bobbie's behavior was self-evident as far as she was concerned; all the stories she'd read had characters like this. "You see, Stephie, Bobbie believed that she just wasn't any good, that she was kinda cursed, or at least a source of bad luck…so she felt unworthy of being loved."

"She sounds like a real psycho, Con," Steph commented before guzzling from the can.

"Noooo! Stephie, she's a true hero." Connie set the Doritos in her lap, absently wiping the Nacho Cheese coating off of her fingers and onto her jeans. Then she leaned forward to elaborate, hoping to make Stephanie see. "All her life, Bobbie excelled at everything she did. She was the best of the best. The whole story is about how she'll eventually overcome her self-doubts because Kellie believes in her. It's about how she'll finally gain more realistic expectations. She has to come to grips with her control issues by letting Kellie into her life, while Kellie has to struggle to gain Bobbie's trust. She has to break down the walls around Bobbie's heart and make her see herself as being worthy of being loved, even though she's fallible. Bobbie'll come to accept herself, because she finally accepts that she's a person who's worthy of Kellie's love. Bobbie has to realize that she can't be prefect all the time. She can't conquer everything life throws at her all alone."

Connie's impassioned defense had left her wheezing even louder, as the smoke from Steph's Camel swirled around them in the confines of the den. She began searching in her embroidered hippie purse for an inhaler.

"What a mouthful, Con…the thing is, I'm pretty sure I've read the same story line about a thousand times before…it's just that the characters and the setting are different. The dynamics are the same alt/uber formula everyone writes. It's like all those romance novels on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. Ten pages in you can tell how the story ends. Ten days later it's forgotten."

"But they're soulmates, Stephie," Connie whispered desperately, as if that explained it all. Her hand was shaking as she put the inhaler to her lips and took two quick puffs.

Stephanie looked at the effect her words'd had on Connie and she cursed herself. Con was staring down at the pages on the desk between them, but Steph could see her chin quivering. She reached out and lifted Connie's head with her fingertips and watched as a tear trickled down her lover's cheek. She cursed herself again; absolutely hated herself for a moment. She allowed herself only that one moment to wallow in guilt. Stephanie Walker had learned that sometimes it hurt to do what was right for a loved one.

 

Less than a month before, Stephanie had been drowning in self-pity; depression had become her defining state of mind. The weeks following her work related injury had been the worst of her life. For the first time, she'd been helpless. She'd been bedridden and unable to take care of even the simplest of her needs.

Her near future had held the promise of the torture of physical therapy. Most days, she didn't want to even think about learning to walk again. Steph would have preferred to have died doing what she had become so good at. Had the incident occurred on a battlefield, a medic would have given her morphine, taken one of her dog tags, and walked away. Instead, the EMTs had scraped her onto a stretcher, and a helicopter had delivered her to the trauma unit that had somehow saved her life. No one had been more surprised than the ER surgeons, that she hadn't flatlined in the first ten minutes. She'd cursed them for each day of bedpans, sponge baths, and liquid meals that she'd endured since. At least the catheter hadn't been permanent….

The morning that Steph had been wheeled into the PT section, she'd expected to at least verbally abuse whatever demon had been assigned to torment her. Instead, she'd been met by an angel. Before her had stood a short blonde woman in a long white jacket. She carried, "a few extra pounds", and she'd been holding a clipboard, looking down and adding a note. Then she'd looked up and her emerald green eyes had captured Steph in their pools of intelligence, compassion, and perceptiveness. It was as though Connie had looked right into her soul.

Connie Stanton had been the toughest taskmaster Steph had ever met. With her gentle touch and kind words, she'd demanded that Stephanie perform a degree better than even the most optimistic of her doctors had expected. Somehow, Steph had met those challenges like the challenges she'd been meeting all her life. In a few days, she went from contemplating suicide to nearly tearing ligaments so as not to disappoint Connie. She'd abused her own damaged body worse than anyone could have forced her to. The incentive to please her therapist was stronger than any threat, or all her fear of pain and failure. She'd wanted to stand and walk again. She'd wanted to be whole again. She'd wanted it so bad she'd have sold her soul. In a way she had, because after so many years alone, she had lost her heart. She'd wanted a chance to love Connie Stanton.

As her discharge date drew nearer, Steph became more and more nervous. Her attraction to her blonde therapist was overwhelming in its intensity. Still wounded from her weeks of infirmary, Steph's natural confidence had faltered in the face of what she finally admitted was true love. Her last day as an inpatient dawned and she still hadn't made her move. In spite of six years in a job that had sent many of her peers begging for reassignment or early retirement, Stephanie had never been more of a basket case.

Somehow though, their fate would not be denied. Connie had asked Stephanie if she'd join her for dinner and a bottle of wine, to celebrate her return to the ranks of the walking. Stephanie had nearly fallen on her face, but her whole body had been held up by the lightness of her heart.

The dinner had been delicious, but it was the company that had made the meal one to remember for a lifetime. The wine had left Stephanie unsteady on her unevenly built-up orthopedic shoes, and her leg brace had felt like it weighed a ton. Connie had steadied her with an arm around her waist, though she had been a bit tipsy herself. In return, Stephanie had saved Connie when her blood sugar had plummeted while they waited over half an hour for their appetizers. Connie hadn't eaten since a small lunch eight hours before, and had been bordering on a diabetic coma. Her vision was already darkening, but Steph had frantically fed her a Twinkie from a pack she kept in her purse. Within minutes, Connie had been back to herself, the reading from her blood sugar test strip said 68, still low, but she'd guessed it had dropped to around 35 before the Twinkie. They seemed to be a match made by Aphrodite herself, except for Stephanie's smoking and Connie's asthma. However, they both realized that no relationship was without a few rocks.

A week later, as they lay together, soaked in sweat and gasping in each others' arms, Connie had taken two puffs from an inhaler and whispered breathlessly, "We're soulmates Stephie, we were meant to be together," as if that explained it all.

 

For Stephanie, the mystery could last a lifetime. She'd promised Connie that she'd never hurt her, never take her for granted, and never leave her. Her comments about Connie's story, and the pain that they'd caused, had made her feel for a moment as though she'd broken faith. As she banished her guilt, Steph realized that wasn't true.

Stephanie reached up with the hand that had lifted her lover's chin, and she gently stroked away the tear with her thumb. In for a penny, in for a pound, she thought. Then she took a deep breath and spoke from her heart. It was something that didn't come easily to her, never had, but the hurt that she saw in Connie's eyes pulled at her soul and forced her to speak.

"Sweetheart, I didn't mean to hurt you, but I know that what I'm telling you is the truth. I love you, and…and I want you to be the best writer you can be. I know it's your dream; to have people read your words and maybe even change their lives because of the story you've told them. I've heard you tell stories and I know you have a muse all your own. I know it's hard when you want to gain acceptance, but you'll never reach the full potential of your talent if you write what people expect to hear. You have to challenge yourself to challenge them, not just make them feel comfortable and happy. No one knows that better than you, hon."

Connie was sniffling and Stephanie limped around behind her, wrapping her once-strong arms around the younger woman and resting her chin on the top of her head. She squeezed her lover's shoulders to convey her concern and support. The ash from her Camel fell among the Doritos in Connie's lap. The ashtray was too far away, so Steph discreetly dropped the butt and crushed it out on the floor. After a few moments, her touch began to affect the change she'd hoped for. Connie looked up at her with loving eyes; the hurt had been put in its place. Steph could tell that she was already thinking about the revisions she'd make. The taller woman leaned down and captured her lover's soft full lips with a gentle kiss, her curtain of long black hair mantling them against the world. When she pulled back, her glasses were smudged, but she was smiling. She'd come such a long way from the severe and isolated perfectionist that she'd once been.

 

"That was really sweet, Michelle," Steph commented as she popped the cap from a long neck and handed it to the author, "but it's not quite accurate, ya know."

"Artistic license, Steph. I know it was nothing like that at all, but the opening's a hook, hon," Chelle replied, stubbing out a Camel and reaching for the beer. Her fingers playfully brushed down the length of Stephanie's hand, eliciting a shiver and a soft gasping inhalation. The author grinned.

"I just…um, did ya have to make my injury sound so bad? It sounds like I'm permanently disabled or something. I mean, yeah, I was brainwashed and drugged, and I had a little nerve damage in my leg, but you can't even tell now."

"I know, hon. You've got great legs," the author said with a wink, "don't worry, Steph, your rep as a lady killer is intact. I can vouch for the effect."

"My rep!" Steph sputtered, before realizing she was being kidded. "God, Michelle, you're such a flirt."

"And that's a bad thing?"

 

Chapter Two

Stephanie Walker had grown up in a small cinderblock house in Bakersfield, California. Her tall, dark haired father was a locally cited drunk, the recipient of many citations from the sheriff. He wasn't a violent drunk; that would have taken too much energy, and entropy was his thing. Michael Walker was a happy, easy going drunk. He claimed to love children and dogs without reservation, and always seemed to have a beer in his hand. Stephanie loved him dearly. Steph's mother was obsessive-compulsive; a classical case who couldn't stop washing, and had to organize everyone's lives on a minute to minute basis. Lydia Walker was petite gone puffy, smoked constantly, and placed ashtrays all over the house. She loved everything about cats except their fur, and was given to carrying a lint roller in a pocket of her housecoat. She'd absently roll it across the upholstery while pretending to watch TV, her ice blue eyes darting around the room, trying to outguess the fall of dust motes. The Walkers had never owned a cat or a dog.

Stephanie grew up with a combination of parental traits and a dream all her own. She wanted to be the best at whatever she did, but she dreamed of leaving Bakersfield and finding a new world someday. It was her life, and Steph hated the desert, the tapped out oil fields, and the constant noise. Highway 99 bordered their side yard and the railroad tracks skimmed the back. The other side of their yard hosted a capped wellhead and a drainage canal. She was an only child and no one else lived on their block.

Stephanie stuck around long enough to graduate from Bakersfield High, as captain of the varsity cheerleaders and class president. (She was also valedictorian, of course). Despite her success, Steph was usually ridiculed by her peers. She was a tall and somewhat gangly brainy girl, with a drunk father and a psycho mom. She was poor and lived in a loud house. The Walkers had never owned a working TV or garbage disposal.

Near the end of June, Steph packed a bag, containing a carton of Camels, a six pack of Bud, and a change of clothes, and slipped out of the house. She'd gotten sick of being blamed for the cat hair, but mostly, she hated the desert. Steph walked with purpose in the summer heat, up onto the State Road 99 entrance ramp, where she stuck out her thumb. Her destiny was calling.

Within ten minutes she was headed for I-5 and San Francisco, as the passenger of a failed movie impresario out on a drinking binge. He was an aging Chinaman who squinted at her and laughingly introduced himself as Mr. Magoo. It was the safest ride she could have gotten. Though he wove from lane to lane across the highway, the hand he slid under her waistband was chaste…his passion was for transvestites, and he'd initially been fooled because she was so tall. He didn't intend to fondle her much, he simply needed contact to keep from falling over. Stephanie had thought it endearing, very much like her Dad.

They'd barely passed Route 46 to Lost Hills, before Steph was too drunk to notice the small pills Mr. Magoo would slip under his tongue. The rest of the ride passed in a blur. When they turned onto I-580 to catch I-205 heading west to San Francisco, Mr. Magoo pulled the Cadillac onto the shoulder, crawled over the seat, and fell asleep in the back. Stephanie slid behind the wheel, screamed, "Get up, yaaaaaah", and floored the boat back into traffic.

They'd made Hayward 20 minutes later, where she turned north on I-880, heading for Oakland. In Oakland, Steph became confused when I-880 became I-890 became I-24. She cut off a Lincoln University panel truck, a plumber's van, and a family of tourists, before regaining control as she passed the Market St. exit. Now that she could see the Golden Gate Bridge straight ahead, Stephanie thought she had her bearings. As they crossed the historic span, she scream-sang "Sympathy for the Devil", remembering Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat. She'd always thought he was hot, but somehow she hadn't been overly disappointed to hear the rumors that he was gay. Her driving was marginally better than Lestat's, her voice noticeably worse than his radio.

Once in San Francisco, she'd pulled off at the Harrison St. exit, following it to 7th street. Stephanie instinctively headed for the bay, taking 16th St. to 3rd, where she parked. She dragged herself over the seat, but dozed off while trying to wake up Mr. Magoo. Steph had no idea where he'd been headed. It was six hours later when she awoke, wondering where the hell she was. She was hung over, but still half-drunk. The car was roasting hot. After opening the windows, smoking a Camel, and washing out her mouth with hot Budweiser, she made a more serious attempt to roust Mr. Magoo. Steph discovered that he'd probably been dead since soon after she'd taken the wheel. She'd been sleeping with a self-embalmed corpse.

The rest of the day went by in a confusing blur. She'd lurched out of the Caddy and into the intersection of Mariposa St. and 3rd, where she'd nearly been run over by a police car. It took hours for the authorities to sort out her story. In the end, they believed her disconnected ramble. Mr. Magoo had died of a massive coronary, despite the nitroglycerine pills he'd been eating, and he still had over five thousand dollars in his pockets. Steph had sixty-three dollars to her name. She just wasn't a believable suspect, and after all, the death was due to natural causes. Eventually they got around to asking her where she was going and why she was in San Francisco. Without thinking, Steph had blurted out that she'd come to join the police force. They'd laughed her out of the station. She was still seventeen, and couldn't apply until she was twenty.

Stephanie bummed around San Francisco for six more days, fighting off weasels, sharks, and evangelists. She'd almost run out of Camels and had four dollars left, but she'd finally turned eighteen. There was only one thing to do. She walked into the U.S. Army recruiting office on Davis St., and filled out the forms. She was a six-foot-tall girl who drank and smoked a lot, and she hated the deserts, like Bakersfield, where most of America's wars were being fought. She still had a critical mass of angst left over from home. It was either the Army or a career in porn, and she'd come to the wrong town. Despite appearances, Los Angeles was basically a desert.

After completing nine weeks of basic training, it came time for Stephanie to choose a Military Occupational Specialty…a job. When Steph looked over the catalog of offerings, she almost laughed out loud. On her form she indicated MOS-95B; military police. As a woman, almost all of the Combat Operations categories were closed to her. Being an MP would be the next best thing, and, she realized that someday, when she applied to a civilian force, she'd get a triple dose of preference. Applicant female, a veteran, and a prior law enforcement specialist. It was early September, 1989.

As she had at Bakersfield High, Stephanie excelled in her classes and training. She'd become a platoon level commander and made a short-lived switch to Camel Lights. By June of 1990, SFC Stephanie Walker had been reassigned to the 720th MP Battalion in Ft. Hood, Texas. Among other things, Ft. Hood was the home of Gen. Patton's 2nd Armored Division, (the "Hell on Wheels" Division), and it was basically a desert. She'd astonished her CO one night by carrying him to bed after drinking him under the table. He'd astonished her by greeting her at the door dressed as a woman. It was the first time they'd associated socially, luckily in the privacy of his residence. She didn't ask, and he didn't tell. They'd had a wonderful time flirting harmlessly. Steph realized that she enjoyed the attentions of a "woman".

Two months later, that madman, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait. I'm sure you've all heard the story. The 2nd Armored and the 720th MP were deployed for Operation Desert Shield; the 2nd to raise hell, the 720th to protect it. Stephanie had a full schedule, charged with security for a company of tanks. To the horror of the captain commanding the armored company, Steph gave each M1A1 Abrams tank a girlie name, and to their glee, her MPs referred to them by those names while communicating on their patrols. Steph would later recall that she'd spent most of her time cleaning sand out of her M16A2 assault rifle and tooling around the base in a Humvee she'd named Chrissie.

Despite the demands of her duties, Stephanie managed to engage in a few meaningless liaisons with some other female GIs. Unfortunately, they were in a desert, and Steph soon discovered that oral sex was like finding sand in the oysters, while manual stimulation held its own dangers of grit abrasion. If that wasn't bad enough, bathing wasn't as frequent as she'd have liked, and often the taste was just too much of a good thing. She ended up pissed off and frustrated, and wound up keeping increasingly to herself. Though she now hated the desert worse than ever, mostly she missed the beer.

Desert Shield gave way to Desert Storm, but mostly it was the flyboys who had the fun. The ground troops, Steph's MPs included, maintained their vigilance, growing increasingly bored. They played pranks, touch football, and dodged Scud missiles. They watched the news. Stephanie took refuge from the head-banging metal and hip-hop music so popular with the infantry, by driving off into the desert in Chrissie every chance she got. She poured her heart out to the dependable vehicle.

In the fifth week of the war, just before Valentine's Day, orders came to move west. Steph's assigned company of the 2nd Armored became part of the VII Corps, sent to flank the Iraqi border in preparation for the ground assault. Steph and her platoon went along to direct the traffic. They drove Chrissie (and her sister Humvee, Tiffanie), herding "their" tanks and a line of trucks filled with war material. They rolled through the desert night, Stephanie demanding that the MPs in Chrissie sing "Sympathy for the Devil" with her. Ridiculous as it was, her platoon had the highest moral in the mostly bored 720th Battalion, a fact noted by Stephie's CO.

 

"Uhhh, Michelle, please don't call me Stephie," Steph asked the author, "I really prefer Steph or Stephanie…my Mom used to call me Stephie and I hated it, 'kay?"

"Alright," the author agreed easily, "though I think Stephie is really cute." (Wink)

Stephie gulped audibly, "Michelle, um, can we just continue with the story…please?"

I had to grin at her. She was lighting a Camel and already had a lit one in the ashtray.

 

Stephanie thought that they were finally hitting their stride, but the war was over two weeks later. Towards the end of April, she was back at Ft. Hood, Texas. She happily reasoned that if she had to endure a desert, well then, she was better off in an American desert. At least there was beer.

Every chance Steph got, she'd drag her CO off base and into the wilderness; she lugging a cooler, he dressed as a tart. It was a safe relationship with no strings attached. Usually they'd fall asleep under the stars, after drunkenly discharging small arms fire at the wildlife. Stephanie was marginally happy, but her tour of duty was coming to an end. In late June, she was honorably discharged after serving two years. Her service record was flawless, but her time in the wastelands had left her emotionally isolated, hollow, and incapable of commitment. Stephanie Walker was twenty, sick to death of deserts, and she was ready to move on.

With her savings, she bought a perfect, two-tone '56 Desoto Firedome, complete with push button automatic transmission, a first class ice chest stocked with longnecks, and two cartons of Camels. She set out for San Francisco the very afternoon of her final parade, only taking time to shuck her dress uniform for a pair of lewd cut offs and a black cire tank top. Though her CO had given her a pair of fuck-me red stiletto pumps as a going away present, Steph opted for snake skin cowboy boots and iridescent Gargoyles. She named the Desoto Brittanie.

 

"They weren't that lewd," Steph pouted, as she watched the type appear on the screen.

"Were too," the author replied, smiling, "I could see the crease at the bottoms of your cheeks where they meet the backs of your thighs. What were you thinking anyway?"

"Well, I was wearing them for Brit…uhhh, never mind."

"You were dressing slutty for your car?" Chelle asked jealously, thinking, lucky bitch. "Did she appreciate it?"

"Just let's get on with the story, 'kay?" Stephanie huffed, blushing and lighting a Camel.

 

Three days of driving brought Steph back to California. She'd crossed most of west Texas being leered at from a semi, which paced her down I-10 from San Antonio to El Paso. When she realized that he'd probably linger all the way to Tucson, she lit up the Desoto after crossing the Rio Grande. The vintage hemi engine roared and soon the speedometer read 125 mph. Long before Steph reached Deming, the semi was history. After a long third day behind the wheel, Stephanie pulled into San Diego to replenish her ice and beer. Afterwards, she luckily found a parking space with a nice view overlooking the harbor. Steph passed out in the back seat for six hours.

Morning found Stephanie red eyed, hung over, and coughing up tars and nicotine residues. She suspected that her cut offs and tank top needed laundering, but her nose wasn't reporting on the world anymore, which was probably a good thing. With a fresh beer between her thighs, she selected "drive" and headed north on I-215, desperate to avoid Los Angeles. Sometime around 9:43am, two-thirds of Steph's poor addled brain stopped working. Using only her hindbrain, she maneuvered Brittanie the Desoto on autopilot through the morning and afternoon. When she came back to her senses, the sun was already going down, and she'd taken a turnoff for SR-99. Stephanie groaned and lit a Camel. She had just driven in a two-year circle. Steph was less than ten miles from Bakersfield.

I can't believe you did that to me, she spat at her hindbrain. You only said, don't you dare take me into L. A., her hindbrain whined protest. Wherethefuckarewe? Steph's midbrain and forebrain asked.

Oh what the hell, she thought, as she pulled the Desoto in front of her old cinderblock house. A train roared by thirty yards to her right and traffic whined on the highway behind her. The only thing that had changed was a mean looking mutt of a dog that growled and lunged at her, dragging a huge chain that was welded to the capped wellhead. She grabbed a couple of longnecks and walked up to the door.

Stephanie's homecoming was hardly better than the one a certain Warrior Princess had once received in Amphipolis. Her father staggered up, overjoyed to see her. He reached for the longneck Bud she held out to him and missed, firmly grabbing her breast. Her mother tried to beat her with the lint roller, then claimed she didn't know her and threatened to call the police. Steph stayed just long enough to finish a couple beers with her Dad. She discerned that he really didn't recognize her at all, and forgave him for clumsily trying to seduce her. It was gross. The dog didn't stop barking or slinging saliva the whole time. Finally she excused herself, saying that she must have stopped at the wrong house. She was only too happy to drive off in Brittanie…Bakersfield was still a desert.

She'd passed the Route 46 turnoff to Lost Hills before she realized that tears were streaming down her face. She'd been happy to leave, and if anything, her old home was even worse than she remembered it. She didn't understand. In the end, Steph decided that the beer was making her maudlin. Maybe it was time to switch to Coors.

Stephanie continued to cry as she blazed down the highway. When excessive speed didn't make her feel any better, she pulled off 99, onto SR-41 north, and drove into the miserable half-mile long town of Kettleman City. The place had accidentally sprung up amidst a field of oil wells and didn't even appear on most maps. Steph tooled down General Petroleum Ave. for a block and then turned onto Becky Pease St. At the dead end, she parked Brittanie and climbed out, sitting on the ground in the car's shadow and sobbing as she lit a Camel. She was so upset that she didn't even notice the little girl who approached her.

"Why are you crying, lady?" A soft young voice asked.

Stephanie looked up toward the voice and saw a passable Shirley Temple look-alike with violet eyes, staring down at her. The waif was wearing a cropped, powder blue baby doll tee, (with "Pornstar" emblazoned in silver script where her breasts would someday grow), and blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, revealing scuffed Nikes. She was probably eight or nine years old and she looked as if she had been crying too. Steph's maternal instincts kicked into gear, a surge of protectiveness washing through her. The little girl was struggling to carry the largest cat that Stephanie had ever seen. If the girl weighed 50 pounds, the cat was probably pushing 30, and it dangled from the girl's arms in an undignified and boneless fashion. Amazingly, it wasn't struggling.

"Is that your cat?" Steph asked in amazement, patting the ground next to her to offer a seat. The girl chewed her lip for a moment, then decided to rest. She plopped down awkwardly, never letting go of the animal. The tabby draped itself across her, (from her chest to her calves), and preened. She nodded "yes" to Steph and then burst into tears.

"My Daddy says I can't keep him anymore and he's going to take him to the vet to be put to sleep," she declared piteously, as the cat nuzzled her and started purring loudly. "So I'm running away to the desert, cause I can't let anything bad happen to Barney," she finished.

Stephanie shook her head. "What does your Mom say to that, hon?" Steph asked with concern. She'd never had a cat of her own and her mom was a psycho.

"My Mommy loved Barney, but she died last spring, and my Daddy has been sad ever since," the girl choked out, "he loves me but he's so allergic to cats." She squeezed the cat tightly, causing it to gasp softly, but it still stayed in her arms, turning to gaze into her eyes. "He's such a good cat, and he catches mice and lizards, even a little poodle once, and he never breaks anything or makes a mess, and I've had him since I was a 5."

"Awwww, geeeez, honey," Stephanie sympathized, watching as the cat licked the crying girl's face. "He looks like a really good cat," she said honestly, still amazed that he hadn't fled from the child's grasp. "I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to him either, but you can't run away from home. Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"No," the girl said between sobs, "it's just me and my Daddy and Barney."

"It's just you and your Dad now?" Steph asked, flicking away the butt of her Camel. "He probably needs you, sweetheart. I'm sure he'd let Barney stay if he wasn't allergic…how bad are his allergies anyway?"

"He had to go to the hospital this morning because he fell asleep by the TV and Barney sat in his lap watching Rosie O'Donnell." Barney seemed to nod in agreement. "Daddy woke up and said he couldn't breathe, and he was turning blue, and I had to call 911. I was scared he'd die like Mommy, and I love my Daddy."

Good god, Stephanie thought, people die from respiratory failure with reactions like that. Of course he can't be around that cat. The girl's mom probably knew how to keep them apart. What a pathetic situation. There's no way she's going to be able to keep this cat, and her dad will flip out if she disappears…especially after losing his wife.

"Honey, let me give you a ride home. Your daddy will be worried sick when he realizes you're missing. If you want, I can take Barney with me…I promise to take really good care of him, and I won't let anything bad happen to him. When I was little I always wanted a cat, but my mom wouldn't let me have one because she's a psycho and couldn't deal with the cat hair."

The girl sniffled, (a slug trail of snot creeping from her nostril), but she seemed to be thinking about Steph's offer. She looked at the cat and it turned to rest its paws on her shoulders, bringing itself nose to nose with her. She hugged the cat desperately, until Stephanie imagined she could see its ribs sliding out of position, and she started crying again. It was short lived this time though. Finally she looked at Steph hopefully.

"Do you really promise to take care of him and not let anything bad happen to him, ever?" Barney the Cat was looking at Stephanie too, obviously measuring her sincerity.

" I promise," she said solemnly to both of them.

Stephanie helped the girl into Brittanie the Desoto, while Barney hopped in and draped himself over the seat back, resting his head on the girl's shoulder. She directed Steph to a small tract house with hideous vinyl siding, about six blocks away, where a distraught man was pacing in the front yard and talking into a cell phone. He watched the Desoto suspiciously, but when he saw his daughter in the front seat, he raced to the door practically in tears. There was no doubt in Steph's mind that he loved the little girl dearly. The child leapt into his arms as soon as she got out.

Eventually he talked with Steph, accepted a Bud, and tried to grope her, all the while eyeing Barney with obvious nervousness. Barney finally came to Steph's rescue, winding his way around her ankles and stretching up to his full height, putting his paws on her waist. After looking into her face, he moved to rub against the father's legs, driving the man indoors. Soon, they were blasting down the highway.

Stephanie didn't really know much about cats, but she'd noticed that Barney had only a stub of a tail. He also had oversized tufted ears, bushy jowls, and massive feet. His coat was irregularly spotted, mostly, developing tabby stripes on his face. Steph drove back onto I-5, heading for San Francisco, with a glow from having done a good deed, and a domesticated bobcat curled over the seat back, purring and chewing on her hair. She'd driven for over two hours before she realized that she'd never even learned the little girl's name.

 

Chapter Three

Stephanie's return to San Francisco was much less flamboyant than her first appearance. When she crossed the Golden Gate Bridge this time, she was accompanied on "Sympathy for the Devil", by a CD player and a howling cat. She checked into the Econo Lodge on Lombard and Divisadero Sts., scoring a room the size of a walk in closet with a single bed, for $50 a night. She cranked up the air conditioner, turned on the TV, and refilled her ice chest, then searched the Yellow Pages for a laundromat, a restaurant, and a pet store.

Steph returned from dinner at Izzy's Steak House, with clean clothes, cat dishes, and a pet rabbit. Barney the Cat leapt up to hug her after sniffing the pet store box. Stephanie turned the rabbit loose and went into the bathroom to take a shower. When she came back out, Barney was lying on the bed cleaning his fur. The rabbit's bones and pelt had been haphazardly stuffed back into the box and the water dish was empty. Steph was amazed that there wasn't even the slightest trace of the bloody mess she'd resigned herself to finding on the floor. She happily patted her new cat and then collapsed into bed naked.

Sometime in the dead of night, Steph briefly roused from a weird dream of the Iraqi desert, thinking she'd heard a toilet flush. As she dropped back off to sleep, she realized that she'd neglected to purchase a litterbox. The dream recommenced with her CO, in a red sequined gown, charging into battle in the Abrams tank that they'd named Buffie. Stephanie paced him in Brittanie the Desoto, accompanied by her MP buddies. This time, the beer was flowing and they were singing "Girls Just Want To Have Fun". The Republican Guard was on the run, fleeing across the sand in hideous mid-70s Buicks.

The alarm clock splintered Stephanie's morning with the most appalling discord, leaving her furious at the interruption of a wonderfully carnal dream. She'd been in a cozy bedroll with 6th season Gabrielle and the blonde had been on top. Barney the Cat had wormed his way under the covers and had been sprawled on her chest like a sphinx, lustily kneading her breasts. He looked as pissed off as she was.

 

"OMG, Michelle, you're making it sound like some kind of bestiality or something," Steph protested, aghast after reading the proceeding paragraph.

"Did you cum?" The author asked, trying for clinical detachment and failing miserably.

With a gasp, Steph's mouth made a perfect "O", before audibly snapping shut.

"I was dreaming about, um…well, I was dreaming," Steph sputtered, her face and neck blooming an increasingly darker red. Finally she got up and fled into the living room.

"Teehee," the author giggled theatrically for her benefit.

 

Stephanie eventually regained her composure, and made her way to the San Francisco Central Police Station. She had taken the precaution of not going near the Potrero Station, the scene of her inebriated faux pas of two years before. Again, Steph found herself filling out application forms, submitting records and documents, taking the written, physical, and oral exams, and submitting to a medical exam.

The doctor, she recalled, looked like a Tammy Faye Baker clone, probably purchased her makeup by the pound, and touched her patient rather more than the doctors Steph had seen in the past. In fact, Stephanie thought it strange that she wasn't offered a gown. She'd had to remain naked throughout the procedure, which included an inordinately thorough pelvic exam and some amateurish photography. In particular, the excessively repeated requests to cough during the bimanual exam seemed suspicious. The doctor finally pronounced her "very healthy", and in a flustered flurry of words, recommended that Steph smoke fewer Camels and meet her for dinner. Stephanie declined, suspecting the doctor of being a transvestite. She fled back to her room at the Econo Lodge and jumped into the shower. The scrubbing that Steph performed there would have made her obsessive-compulsive mother proud.

The day went from bad to worse. Stephanie had decided to relax in the Golden Gate Nat'l Rec Area. Accompanied by Barney the Cat, Steph wandered the grounds, finally lounging on a bench and reading the Police Academy course guide. She was jerked out of her concentration by a paw scrubbing at her shin.

Barney the Cat was proudly sitting at her feet, offering the limp Chihuahua that dangled from his jaws. About forty yards away, a man in a business suit was screaming, charging towards them, red in the face, and brandishing a briefcase. Steph shook her head and flipped away the butt of her Camel. There was nothing to be gained by staying. She snatched the cadaver and jammed it into her shoulder bag, then took off towards the park gate at a dead run. In moments, Barney was frolicking alongside her.

They burst out of the park and onto Lombard St., having increased their lead substantially. After suicidally weaving through traffic, they finally entering the Econo Lodge through a service entrance in the back. Later, in their room, Steph turned on the TV and found that the story had made the news. Stephanie paced and lectured as Barney ate.

Several weeks later, after the Police Academy background check was completed, Steph took her polygraph test from a sympathetic officer who, she supposed, had read about her parents. They didn't really ask any tough questions, she realized. The psychological exam was interesting. Stephanie's claim that her cat used the toilet and hunted small stray dogs was met with skepticism. Although she was finally deemed sane, a note was made about her tendency to name things. Like the doctor, the psychologist asked Steph for a date.

"She had very little imagination and bad breath," Stephanie confided to Brittanie the Desoto, as they drove back to the apartment she'd rented in Chinatown. "Maybe I should have become a shrink," she mused, lighting a Camel, "I could meet some interesting people and I'd know what makes them tick."

"The only interesting ones are crazy, hon, and no one ever really knows what makes another person tick," Brittanie replied, her gentle voice coming from the stereo speakers, "you're better off drinking, smoking, and becoming a cop."

"Thanks, Brit," Stephanie said, gently stroking the leather on the passenger's seat, "I'm so glad you're not a bitch, like Christine in that Stephen King book."

"She was a '58 Plymouth," Brittanie pointed out with finality, as if that explained it all.

When the rainy season came, and Steph began parking Brittanie in the living room of the 3 bay garage that she rented as an apartment, shoving her couch and TV into the large bathroom. The garage had been abandoned for years before Steph searched out the owner and offered to rent it. The landlord had been ecstatic. After the address had been rezoned, (from commercial to residential), the property had been useless without renovations, and he just didn't have the money. Steph had changed the three extra toilet stalls and sink area into a lounge. She added a tub and relocated a sink. The first bay had become a living room, the third her bedroom. The second bay between them she'd divided into kitchen and dining areas, the former claimed by Barney the Cat as a killing ground. It was November of 1991, and Stephanie was 16 weeks into the 28-week training program at the Police Academy. She expected to finish in mid-February of 1992, but she couldn't be hired until she turned 21. In the meantime, Brittanie had suggested that she take additional courses while she waited for her birthday in mid-June.

Valentine's Day 1992 arrived, and Stephanie Walker graduated from the San Francisco Police Academy at the top of her class. A year before, she'd been herding tanks through the Iraqi desert in a Humvee. Barney and Brittanie had both been very supportive throughout her schooling, and Steph knew she'd have been so much lonelier without them. They celebrated Stephanie's graduation and Valentine's Day with cake, ice cream, and beer. That night, she lay in the backseat of the Desoto with Barney the Cat, crying with happiness until she fell asleep. Their friendship had forged them into a loving family; something Steph had missed all her life.

"Sometimes friendship is thicker than blood," Steph had told them gravely one afternoon, having waxed philosophical while drunk, "and you two have become my family. I really love you both."

June of 1992 arrived at last, Stephanie turned 21 and was sworn in as a San Francisco police officer. She was assigned to patrol a beat not far from her Chinatown home; a tong controlled neighborhood, free of gangs, where most of the complaints had to do with missing pets, (mostly small dogs), burglaries, and parking violations. Barney took it upon himself to help her, wandering the beat at her side and showing off by killing rats. In the hours of darkness, he delved into the underground life of the beat, ferreting out its secrets and uncovering evidence. He became a valuable informant. Steph loved the neighborhood, and the people there happily welcomed her and her cat. To them, she seemed much more sane than her predecessor, and like so many of the Asians, she smoked a lot. Slowly, she began to pick up Cantonese phrases and customs. She started taking classes in herbal medicine and Ying Jow Pai.

In her parallel world, Brittanie the Desoto made many friends too, never discriminating between limousines and delivery trucks. There were times when only the information Brittanie gathered from these otherwise silent witnesses allowed Stephanie to close a case. Her superiors couldn't understand who her informants were, or how she had such success fostering cooperative community interaction. On her beat, previously invisible suspects were collared, getaway cars failed to start, and hidden booty mysteriously turned up. Bit by bit, criminals began to avoid her beat; something strange was going on there, they said, and it couldn't be accounted for by the actions of one drunk female cop. The genetically superstitious Chinese began leaving offerings of rice, wine, and cigarettes on her doorstep. Butchers offered Barney puppies, and Brittanie always found parking spaces on the street. It was unorthodox, but Steph was just doing her job…the best she could. She was happy. She was living her dream.

For three years, Stephanie walked her beat, filled out reports, and appeared in court. Slowly but surely, her actions aroused the attention of the press and the city politicians. Her superiors were more reserved in their praise, baffled by her success, but pressure was building to elevate her from patrolwoman to detective. Citizens' groups pressured the mayor. The mayor pressured the commissioner, and the commissioner pressured Steph's precinct captain. In August of 1995, the captain called Steph in for a meeting.

Captain Martinez had exhaustively canvassed the chain of command at Central for details about Officer S. Walker. The picture that she formed was of a driven woman with an affinity for beer and Camels, who somehow managed to solve crimes on her beat, and never revealed her informants. She had never worked with a partner, and she lived in a garage. She had an oversized cat and a classic car. She'd been an MP in Desert Storm and had received glowing recommendations from her commanding officer. It was all superficial as hell. Capt. Martinez wasn't fooled. No one in the station house really knew a thing of value about Stephanie Walker, except that she tended to name things.

Steph appeared at 9:00 a.m. and Capt. Martinez casually asked about her ride over. Steph replied that, "Brittanie is fine, thanks". Capt. Martinez did a double take, then asked about Steph's cat, hoping she'd been misunderstood. "Barney the Cat is on vacation," Steph had confided hesitantly, "and will catch no rats this week, only stray puppies under three pounds." The captain had gagged. Steph had said, "Godzoontight". The captain asked Steph about her apartment. Steph had admitted that she loved playing bartender and having her own pumps, gasoline in the front yard, beer in the kitchen. She was buying drinks for herself and Brittanie by the keg, she joked, delivered monthly by the same tanker truck. She saw that her levity had gone over the captain's head. The woman was just staring at her.

There was no way in hell that Capt. Martinez was going to turn Steph loose as a detective. In the end, Stephanie was offered three choices: narcotics, the K9 squad, or the bomb disposal unit. Steph explained that she never took drugs, and Barney the Cat wouldn't stand for her fraternizing with a dog. She chose the bomb disposal unit. She'd always wanted one for her sink. Capt. Martinez shook her head and filled out the transfer orders. She was astonished that Stephanie had survived for three years on street patrol.

"She was a bit slow," Steph had confided to Brittanie on the way home, "I wonder how she ever managed to become a captain."

"Seniority or nepotism," Brittanie the Desoto had replied with certainty, "the last thing society abides is a meritocracy."

Back at home, Barney the Cat had questioned Steph's wisdom in mentioning his vacation, conveying in a glance that it was really none of the captain's business anyway.

"Of course you're right, Barney," Steph had admitted, feeling a bit embarrassed by her lapse, "but I was just trying to hold up my end of the conversation."

Barney had cocked his head and scrubbed his face with a paw. Steph inferred that he suspected the captain would be setting rats loose in the neighborhood while he was taking his vacation break.

"But she's a police captain," Stephanie had objected, though now a bit doubtfully, "and she's a very busy woman."

"Steph, hon, she could be living in her own delusional world," Brittanie had advised seriously, "for all you know, it's just a front and she's breeding thousands of rats at her house in Sausalito."

"You're right of course," Steph had finally conceded, hanging her head, "I'm sorry guys, I feel like I've let you down."

Barney the Cat had climbed into her lap and nuzzled her chin, letting her know that it was ok. "Steph, you have such a good heart, and it's not wrong to give people the benefit of the doubt. Besides, you have Brit and me to look out for you." He winked at her and she smiled.

"I'm so lucky to have friends I can trust," Stephanie had told them emotionally, "I love you both so very much." They had all felt better after a group hug.

The Chinese were sorry to see her go. The night of her last patrol, the tong sealed off the neighborhood and everyone turned out for fireworks, lion dances, and Cantonese buffet. When the fire department arrived because of the detonations, their fire engines sputtered and refused to run. Brittanie spread the word to the ladder company vehicles that everything was under control, because the police were already on the scene. The locals bought off the fire inspector and ladder captain with cartons of takeout food.

When Steph's shift ended at 2:00 a.m., the party ended as well. People cleaned up their sidewalks, and by 2:30 a.m., when the new cop made his first patrol sweep, nothing was discernable. The heads of the tong met with him on the street, and impressed on him that he had a tough act to follow, but if he could keep the rats under control, he'd get their full cooperation. He shook his head and walked off, muttering about the "crazy heathen Chinese". He was a non-smoker. A week later, crime was back at its old levels of three years before. Within two weeks, the neighborhood was desperately fighting an outbreak of rats. At Central, Capt. Martinez briefly wondered if she'd done the right thing. Citizens were beginning to complain.

Steph went back to the Police Academy. At first, she was disappointed that she wouldn't be getting a bomb disposal unit for her sink. When the particulars of the job were made clear though, Steph couldn't contain her glee. Things that went "bang" were a part of the reason that she'd "Gone Army" several years before. Stephanie applied herself completely and amazed her instructors by scoring perfect grades throughout her training. The only down side was the bomb sniffing dog.

Vito the Dog was a gooberhound, part bloodhound and part mutt. Sergeant Stephanie, (now sporting extra stripes, and drawing hazardous duty pay as well as a standard rank increase), was required to bring her "partner" home; ostensibly to bond. She knew it was a bad idea. Barney the Cat took one look at Vito and let out an unearthly squall, puffing up all his fur to appear twice his size. Vito whimpered and peed, cringing in terror. In the blink of an eye, Barney snatched him off his feet, shaking him like a rat, and accusing him of everything from being an illegal alien, to being a communist, to being a pedophile. Steph had finally separated them as Brittanie shook on her springs in hysterics. Vito was blubbering, licking his crotch, and crying piteously. It was pathetic. Steph lit a Camel.

"Well, hon, do you really want to trust him with your life?" Brittanie the Desoto asked.

"Hell no," Steph replied, shaking her head and thinking of alternatives. Yo Fat-Boy, who owned the illegal firecracker factory, had a dog with a litter of puppies. Maybe she could trade Vito for one of them and train it herself. At least they'd been born knowing the scent of gunpowder.

 

"What, Michelle?" Stephanie asked, looking up at the author. She was sprawled on the rug with Chelle's cat, Nightshade, one of her long jean clad legs propped up on the sofa.

"I can't believe you thought a bomb disposal unit was for the sink," the author said, stifling her giggles rather poorly.

"Hey, we never had one at home," Steph said defensively. "My mom always said they were dangerous, so how was I supposed to know?" She was standing now, and she'd crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at the author to hide her embarrassment.

"Well, didn't you ever read any mystery stories, or watch TV cop shows?" The author asked more seriously. "I'm sure they showed them in some action movies too."

Stephanie looked down, even more embarrassed now. "We didn't have a TV," she said softly, "and the only books I read were for school. My mom wouldn't let me go to the movie theater either, and we didn't have money for it anyway."

"I'm sorry, Steph," the author said, feeling bad now about making fun of her. She looked so sad, and realizing how deprived her childhood had been was kind of a shock. "I didn't mean to make you feel bad, hon. I was just kidding with you. I really didn't understand how hard things were for you at home."

For a long time Stephanie stood, silently remembering the home that wasn't really a home. How hard she'd worked to make up for not having things the other kids took for granted, and always hoping for real friendship. Remembering her heartbreak when she realized that even excelling at school didn't make her acceptable to her peers. She'd been too poor to be popular, and every pecking order had to have a bottom rung.

"I'm…it's okay, Michelle," Steph said so quietly I could barely hear her. She sniffled and darted the back of her hand across her eyes. "It wasn't so bad, really."

"Geeez, Steph, I feel horrible for hurting you like this, I'm so sorry."

"You must think I'm so stupid," Stephanie choked out.

She was fighting to control her tears and I could see it was a losing battle. She was probably remembering all the times that she couldn't go with her friends, or the times the other kids had made fun of her. No wonder she'd left Bakersfield and never wanted to look back. She was starting to turn away, probably intending to go and hide alone in the living room. She'd been alone too much, and now it hurt me to think about it; about her vast loneliness…a cat and a car for a family, making her happier than she'd ever been.

"Stephanie, please…I'm sorry, please don't go."

She was standing, frozen and facing away. I rose and moved behind her, reaching out and softly laying a hand on her shoulder. She was trembling and she started shaking her head "no". I gently turned her towards me, and even then she kept her face turned away for as long as she could. I didn't force her to look me in the eye; I just reached around and pulled her in, hugging her tight. For a few moments she fought, not me, but herself. Then she was sobbing, her slender body shaking, and she buried her face against my shoulder. I stroked her back, her hair, whispering in her ear, "I'm sorry Steph, I'm so very sorry. I wish it had been different for you. I wish you could have been happy."

"I wanted to be," she cried raggedly, exposing so many years of hurting, "I wanted to be happy, but I just couldn't…it was a desert and it was so empty."

I was finally beginning to understand what she meant by a desert. It was her personal symbol for a place, devoid of love, arid of heart, and waiting to dry up a spirit before it could grow. She hated the deserts that were inside and out. She desperately needed the water of nurturing and the sunshine of love. She was as tender as a cactus flower, as tough as the piňon, and like them both, a survivor.

 

Stephanie didn't have the opportunity to explore the possibility of training her own dog. By the time she returned to work with Vito, he was completely ruined, intimidated to the point of disassociation, and curled in an unresponsive ball. The shocked kennel master asked what had happened. Steph had informed him that Vito wasn't a team player and didn't get along with her cat. Steph was busted from the search team and relegated to bomb removal.

She reported to the removal unit team leader, a battle scarred, chain smoking Japanese-American named Archie Shimamoto, a Viet Nam vet who walked with a limp. His office was in a Quonset hut at the furthest end of the Police Spec Ops compound, where he couldn't do any damage. Stephanie knocked on the door and heard a heavily accented voice say, "Entah Preees."

She shoved the door open against resistance, the sheet metal dragging on sagging hinges across the concrete slab floor. Too late, she saw a wire pull out of the door jam. Immediately Steph heard the click of an electronic relay, and a box on the desk in front of her began ticking. A digital counter on the top started a countdown from 100, ticking off seconds in glowing red. Wires from the box were stuck into a large blob of C4. Behind the desk sat Archie, in wrinkled black BDUs, furiously puffing on a Marlboro.

"Oooooo, yu gotta ninety second reft, hotta cheeks," he pronounced while squinting at her through Hirohito glasses, "enda then we goah boooom!" He glanced pointedly at the box and giggled.

This sick fuck's crazier than we are, Steph's forebrain and midbrain protested, as she quickly moved forward and examined the bomb. Finally, she eased the wires out of the C4. The readout continued counting down. Steph ripped a detonator cap off the ends of the wires and dropped it into the ashtray. Archie grinned at her, taking off the glasses. The counter reached 0 and nothing happened. Steph sighed in relief.

"Very good, hon," Archie said, no trace of an accent evident. Stephanie looked at him.

"Every so often I have someone panic because the situation is too strange," Archie explained. "They run out, the bomb goes off, and I fire them…send them back to patrol or administration…whatever." He said, absently waving a hand, (he was missing two fingers), before gesturing to a battered recliner in the corner and offering, "have a seat."

It turned out that, after surviving classified duty in the corps, Archie had gone to work for Yo Fat-Boy, but an accident at the firecracker factory had left him minus several fingers. Using preferential hiring statutes, he had applied to the Police Academy as a partially disabled minority. When he proved that he could handle a handgun by holding it inverted and squeezing the trigger with his pinky, he passed the physical requirements. He had been hired easily, and eventually came to head the bomb removal team. It was fine with him. He still loved things that went "boom", and the others left him alone. They thought he was crazy, a perception he actively cultivated, so no one complained that he smoked on the premises. He offered Steph a Marlboro; she declined and lit a Camel. They found that they got along well.

Eventually, Steph and Archie socialized. He lived in a series of railroad cars, welded together and placed on blocks overlooking the bay. One car held a full bar and a karaoke machine. He kept an ostrich in the yard to chase away trespassers, and had a pig named Mattie for a pet. When Steph visited, Barney would spend long hours talking with Mattie, (whom he characterized as a brilliant lateral thinker), while Brittanie sat in rapt attention as the railroad cars described the California of the 40s and 50s. Their conversations were often interrupted by Archie and Steph, drunkenly scream-singing karaoke.

There were several evenings when Steph arrived to find that Archie had invited guests. His company invariably consisted of two late middle-aged men, who Stephanie instantly pegged as ex-military. Nam vets like Archie, she thought, judging by their age. On their first meeting, Archie introduced them as Billy Jack and Billy the Kid. He was dead serious.

"You can't ask them anything about what they did in the war," he told her, "that's all still classified in a file labeled 'Cambodia'. It's 'don't ask, don't tell', once again. You know the drill." Steph only managed to learn that Billy and Billy were in engineering.

The four became the best of friends. If Archie had been a woman, he and Steph would have soon become much more. Sometimes, Archie would pocket secondary charges from their jobs, and then Steph and Archie would drive Brittanie into the desert to picnic and explode the devices. For two years, Steph learned everything about the removal and destruction of explosive devices, from the master craftsman of the trade on the West Coast. As always, Stephanie became very good at her work. It was September of 1997.

As often happens with people who live on the fringe, it is only the hand of fate that can bring them down. It was a clear early fall night. Archie was lying in bed, looking up through his sunroof at the stars. Mattie was asleep under the front stairs, and the ostrich had its head buried in the side yard. The 271-pound iron meteorite came down smack on the 500-gallon propane tank adjacent to the railroad cars. There was nothing anyone could have done. The explosion flung the 40s era coaches off the cliff and into the bay. Nothing remained except a few pork chops, (the other white meat), and a scorched ostrich steak, (the other red meat). Stephanie was heartbroken.

"Oh Brittanie, why him?" Steph sobbed, the tears rolling down her cheeks as they drove home after the memorial service. "He was my only human friend."

"Sweetheart, there's no reason for things like that," Brittanie the Desoto softly replied, "and we all know what a fucked up place the world is." Brit would miss her friends too.

"I know, Brit, I know," Steph had agreed as she pulled off the highway, "I don't feel too good." She barely made it out the door before losing her lunch. "It could have been us."

Barney the Cat looked at Steph as she stood shivering and spitting to clear her mouth. He glanced at Brittanie, whispering that maybe they should get rid of the gasoline pump in the front yard. Ever the pragmatist, he'd snatched the ostrich steak and dragged it into the bushes…neither he nor Mattie the Pig had appreciated the ostrich's elitist disposition. She had been a meal waiting to happen. Barney had found that she tasted like puppy.

The Bills had been present at Archie's memorial ceremony. It had been military standard. Just before Archie's empty show coffin was laid into the grave, Billy Jack stepped forward and draped it with a unit banner. It was one that Stephanie had never seen, and later she discovered, one that she could find no record of. On a field of red, below the gold emblem of the corps, and superimposed over the flaming bomb that denoted ordinance, there was a small rendition of the atom. There was no unit number.

"Keep in touch, hot stuff," Billy the Kid whispered to her, before the Bills left the service in their black Humvee. It would be years before Stephanie saw them again.

 

Chapter Four

Steph became head of the bomb removal team, a small distinction since she was the only member. She was 26, and the heiress to the knowledge Archie had spent twenty-eight years learning. Within the San Francisco Police Dept., she was regarded as an outcast, almost a pariah. No one was interested in her job, and joining her would have been recognized as a punishment; it was a departmental backwater, far off the path of career advancement. Steph was regarded as a madwoman, for it was known by now that she talked to her cat and her car. She was also a stunning beauty, with a slender powerful body, ice blue eyes, and raven hair that showed reddish highlights. Her tall, slim figure hid a steely strength. For over five years, Stephanie had advanced in her study of Ying Jow Pai, (Eagle Claw Art), achieving a rank of Minh Kup, (5th grade), and soon she would test for the equivalent of a first-degree black belt. She could squeeze a full can of beer hard enough to blow the pop-top open.

Stephanie continued to rely on the love of Barney and Brittanie, and she loved her little family with all her heart. The loss of her friend, Archie, had left her even more withdrawn from human company than ever before. If anything, she had come to be fatalistic about close relationships with people. They led to pain and disappointment. It was predictable, and the norm was illustrated by her disenfranchisement by the rest of the police force. Steph was willing to forego the possibility of finding love beyond what she had, for she'd learned that such attempts ended in pain and loss. When she saw loving couples, she told herself that such a relationship would forever be beyond her reach. Her happiness would never come from the love of another person. Already isolated by her years in the deserts, she was now in real danger of retreating to the safety of her oasis, and never again venturing across the hostile sands in hope of reaching anything better. Instead, she worked.

 

"Michelle, you make me sound so um, well, so hopeless," Stephanie said softly, her expression sad. She looked at me hopefully. "I know I wasn't very social, but I didn't really think about it much. I just sorta accepted it, ya know?"

"I know Steph," I told her, "at the time I doubt if it seemed anything but normal to you. It may have made you sad, but you'd always been so starved for affection. It makes me sad thinking of how alone you were all those years."

"Please don't be sad for me, Michelle," she said, leaning down to look into my eyes, "you've been really sweet to me." She gulped and then continued hesitantly, visibly unsure of herself, "I uh…I want to thank you for um, for, well you know, for trying to make me feel better last night. I don't cry like that, and well, I…I just wanted to thank you."

I could see that it was still very hard for her to show her feelings or accept my comfort. It had probably been very difficult for her to even mention breaking down, let alone thank me for holding her as she cried. I found it really made my heart ache, seeing how much her loneliness had defined her, and sensing how alone she still felt.

"Honey, you should never have been so alone," I told her as I reached out and stroked her cheek with the backs of my fingers, her skin so warm, so smooth. I heard the nervous intake of her breath, and realized that real intimacy still left her tremulous. "You have such a good heart," I told her, blinking, "so loving and so warm. You deserved so much more, Steph. I wish…I just wish I could have been there for you, could have helped to make things better."

She reached toward me and touched my cheek, and when she withdrew her hand she looked at her fingers with an expression of wonder. I could just see that they were damp with tears…my tears. No one had ever cried for her before.

One summer, when I was a little girl, there had been a puppy down the street; a puppy that always joyfully greeted me, wanting to play. It was a friendly, happy little pup, young and cute, and full of life, and I wondered why sometimes it limped. One day I walked by the house where it lived and saw the kid who lived there kick it. He chased it and at first it didn't run; instead, it came to him, looking to play. He kicked it again. A month went by, and every day I tried to be there to play with the puppy when it came over. I fed it and held it, playing with it and just loving it. I wanted it for my own. Then one day it didn't come, and I never saw it again. Somehow I knew it had been kicked too many times. Even the day before it disappeared, it had been friendly and playful. It hadn't had a mean bone in its little body. I'd cried my eyes out that night.

 

In March of 2000, Steph's little family celebrated Barney the Cat's 14th birthday. Down in her subconscious, Steph must have been noticing that he hadn't been moving quite as quickly in the mornings, hadn't been quite as aggressive with the rats, and hadn't been eating quite as much as when they'd met. The changes were almost unnoticeable because they happened so slowly, and consciously, she didn't really recognize them for what they were. There was just a tickling sense of foreboding below the threshold of her awareness that left her unsettled. In truth, she'd been more worried about some rust spots that had appeared on Brittanie's rocker panels. Brit had spent decades in the dry heat of Texas, and the damp salty air of San Francisco was slowly eating away at her sheet metal. The clock was ticking. Steph was aging too; in June, she would turn 29.

Somewhere along the way, bomb disposal had gained a kind of glamour. Maybe it was the movies or TV action shows. Maybe it was that the young were searching for ever more extreme tests of their self-worth. Steph had taken over in 1997, after Archie's death. In the two years they'd worked together, no one had even tried to join them. In 1998 she'd had two potential members apply to the bomb disposal team. One panicked and the other passed. In 1999, four people tried to join. Three passed the test when confronted by the mad woman with the bomb on her desk, who sat and talked to her cat as the timer counted off the 100 seconds. In the first half of 2000, three applied and one passed. By her 29th birthday, Stephanie had a team of five working for her. She drilled and tested them unmercifully, instructing them in every trick she'd learned. She had never understood that Archie Shimamoto, her mentor, had been the recognized dean of his profession, or that her own record was exemplary. Steph figured that it was simple; if you fucked up in her line of work, you died.

A week after her birthday, Stephanie was jerked awake by her pager. The dispatcher told her that a bomb had exploded in a shopping center in Oakland, and the mayor's office had received a demand for sixteen million dollars before 10:00 am, when a second mall would explode. They had only determined which shopping center was endangered in the last few minutes. Within a quarter-hour, Steph was heading for the Golden Gate Bridge, her strobes and siren clearing the way. Police had closed the bridge to traffic. Brittanie's aging hemi engine pushed them to 110 mph, weaving past other emergency vehicles. Her team was converging on a second shopping center, the evacuation already in progress. It was already 9:20 am.

When she arrived at Piedmont and MacArthur, the search team had already completed their sweep. Three known devices had been found in widely separated locations, probably timed to detonate simultaneously. The loss of life could have been staggering. The property damage would be in the tens of millions of dollars. The first device had been a warning, going off at 7:00 a.m. in the nearly empty International Marketplace just off Embarcadero. The demand for money hadn't been sent until 8:30 a.m., shortening the response time and insuring that a full crowd was endangered. It was now known that the second threat was unquestionably for real.

At 9:30 a.m., the evacuation was complete, and Steph mobilized her team. She sent in two of her people to each of the bomb sites, while she took the third site alone. The sixth team member, the least experienced, waited outside in their specially equipped truck, ready to respond to their call to extract the devices from the premises. The team members donned their work clothes; hazardous materials suits, layered with puncture resistant Kevlar and fire resistant Nomex. They immediately started sweating. Stephanie shouldered her equipment bag and stepped onto her scooter. She'd instituted the use of children's scooters to hasten their response time when indoors, figuring that skateboards were unnecessarily hazardous. Though Capt. Martinez had shaken her head in disbelief, the tactic had proven itself valuable, saving transport time in offices and parks alike.

Stephanie approached the front of the Sears department store and leapt off her scooter, jogging inside, and heading for the entrance to the sporting goods stockroom where the search team had found a device. She spotted the red flag marking the device with little difficulty, and quickly saw the device itself; a locked tool chest, marked by a red beanbag the search team had left lying next to it. The box was big, and Steph knew that bombs were made as small as possible, the better to be transported and set in place undetected. A hand grenade was a perfect example. The toolbox was close to the size of a small microwave oven. There was no point in attempting containment before working. Steph carried nothing that would significantly increase her odds of survival if she fucked up with a charge as large as what she expected she was looking at.

Gotta concentrate, gotta think clearly, Steph thought to herself. Fine with me, her hindbrain croaked as it passed out from the stress. Of course, we'll do what we can, her midbrain said reassuringly. Her forebrain just gave a nervous chuckle.

Steph set up a video camera to record her progress. Next, she attached a microphone to the toolbox with a suction cup, and started a tape recorder. After adjusting her headphones, she pulled on a Kevlar/Nomex hood with a polycarbonate/acrylic visor that matched the silvery hazardous materials suit she wore. She could hear the faint ticking of an electronic timer, probably made from a battery operated clock; a cheap piece of work, she thought.

The toolbox sported a combination padlock, and Steph attached her microphone to it, preparing to pick the lock. A padlock as cheap as the one she saw was there for a reason, and it wasn't expected to stop anyone. It was only present to distract them into lowering their guard. Before she started, Stephanie spoke softly into her headset, communicating with the two other teams.

"Hey guys, I've got an IED here, (Author's Note: IED, an Improvised Explosive Device, as opposed to military ordinance or industrial explosives), encased in a locked toolbox. If your devices are the same, do not, I repeat, do not move the box. I suspect there is a mercury switch booby trap. Use your worm eye before you lift the lid…it may be rigged to blow if it moves or tilts. Got it?"

Across the empty mall, two teams responded affirmative. A mercury switch would complete an electrical circuit and detonate the charge if the liquid metal inside its glass capsule moved enough to submerge a pair of contacts. It could happen if the toolboxes were lifted, rocked, or when the lid tilted as it opened. The circuit could have been activated by a time delay, allowing the bomber to close and lock the lid.

Once the padlocks were removed, Stephanie's people would edge the lid up 1/8" and insert an endoscopic camera with a fiber optic light source, to check for the booby trap that Steph suspected. This was an unavoidable hazard, and the most dangerous part of the job. Depending on what they found, they'd improvise a solution. At least a mercury switch was distinctive, with an easily recognized appearance. It would be a simple thing to spot. Steph really, really wanted to light up a Camel.

Steph had set to work, listening as the plates inside the padlock spun and finally lined up, allowing the lock to open. She removed the padlock from the hasp and carefully raised the lid, wedging a special rubber shim into the opening. She took the endoscopic camera and inserted it into the toolbox, the built in diode lighting the interior. Steph watched a 5" monitor as she moved the camera, examining the inside compartment. She saw the charge, about 25 pounds of plasticized high yield explosive. She saw the timer; a clock, battery pack, wire bundle, and the detonator cap. She saw the wires running to the alternate circuit for the booby trap. Following the wires, Stephanie tilted the camera up and saw the mercury switch, pop-riveted directly below the handle in the center of the lid. The liquid metal was 1/4" from completing the circuit.

Stephanie slipped a rubber wedge into the gap, raising the lid until the mercury was barely 1/16" from contacting the second electrode, and gaining precious added workspace. The opening between the lid and the body of the toolbox was now about 3/8". Into the gap she slid a special pair of titanium forceps. The ceramic-coated tips had a cutting edge like a toenail clipper, the fulcrum held a force multiplying gearset. Non-conductive and razor sharp, the forceps could cut up to a 8 gauge solid core wire, or a 1/8" steel braid cable. Stephanie carefully placed the tips around the wires to the mercury switch and applied force. The cut wires fell away, disabling the booby trap. She extracted the forceps and lifted the lid open wide. There were no surprises; the camera had shown her the full picture.

As she had on her first day in Archie's office, Steph examined the bomb. Sure enough, whoever had created it had exhausted their ingenuity on the booby trap. The detonation circuit was simple; no feedback loop, no interrupt sensor, no hidden button cell. A 9-volt battery powered everything. Steph lifted the battery pack and removed the battery. The clock stopped. It was 9:49 a.m. 11 minutes remained, and to Stephanie, it was a huge margin of safety.

"Prepare to retrieve the device," Steph announced into her headset, "Sears sporting goods stockroom. I need a wheel dolly. The device is deactivated."

Within four minutes, her words were repeated by her other two teams, the last at 9:53 am. Stephanie had pulled the blastproof Nomex hood off her head, relishing the rush of the air conditioning that cooled the sweat from her skin and hair. She gazed directly at the video camera and happily announced, "That's all folks!" She lit a Camel.

Somehow, the press got a hold of her videotape. It showed a beautiful woman, sweating in a Kevlar/Nomex HAZMAT suit, deactivating a bomb and saving the public with only minutes to spare. It was way too good a visual for the media to pass up. By 5:10 p.m., Stephanie Walker was a hero. By 5:30 p.m., a contract had been placed on her life.

When the news aired, Steph was the lead story, and Barney the Cat demanded that she sit and view SF Bay Watch, the TV news show, for the 10:00 p.m. repeat. Stephanie was horrified. She'd wondered what the vans with the big antennae were doing outside the garage, but she'd been reading and napping, and hadn't even ventured outside. Now, Steph could see a crowd of reporters, cameramen, and gawkers on the sidewalk in the dark, overflowing into the street. What would her neighbors think, Steph wondered, especially the quiet Chinese and the reclusive Mr. Mussolini, the aging son of a deposed Italian politician? In any case, she knew she could never leave her apartment again.

Around 11:00 p.m., the tong came to the rescue of their old friend. First, a street sweeper barreled down the curb, scattering the crowd and tearing up the wires the reporters had strung across the pavement. As the media types scurried to recover, an aging step van lurched in front of the garage and the rear doors opened, falling off their rusted hinges. Thousands of rats poured out into the shrieking crowd. Steph watched the action in amazement, while Barney the Cat sat, mesmerized and conflicted by the hordes of vermin. It gave him the creeps and stirred his killer instincts at the same time. Brittanie sat in the living room garage bay, rocking in hysterics on her springs. She alone knew what had been arranged, having personally made the phone calls. The tong finally set up ultrasonic pest repellers, driving the rats east, into the financial district. By 12:30 a.m., the neighborhood was quiet and back to normal.

They were resourceful people who had adapted to their strange new country, though it was so different from their home across the sea, and they took care of their own. Unfortunately, no one had noticed the two men in their silver Cadillac, who had watched the entire affair, and whose interest in Steph's apartment had nothing to do with getting a story. For the next two weeks they watched Stephanie's comings and goings, building up a schedule of her activities. They could have completed their research in a couple days, but she was highly unpredictable, and they didn't know how much to believe the stories they'd heard about her. In the end, they could have spent two years and still not predicted Steph's movements accurately. One thing they were sure of though, was that the gasoline pump in the front yard would come in handy.

 

"Michelle, I hope you don't mind, but I can't be here when you write about this, 'kay?"

"I understand, sweetheart, it was the worst day of your life, wasn't it?"

"Uh huh."

Stephanie picked up her Camels and her longneck Bud, and slowly walked out of the room. Nightshade the Cat padded after her, sensing that she might not want to be alone. For a while I could hear her through the opening in the wall, in the living room next door. She was pacing, and I was sure the memories were torturing her. I heard the couch sigh as she finally sat down. I heard the soft landing of cat feet on the leather next to her.

"Oh, Nightshade," I heard her broken whisper, "that was the day I lost everything."

 

In many ways, it was a day like any other. At 7:00 a.m. Stephanie smacked the alarm clock and Barney the Cat batted it onto the floor. Steph grudgingly rose and went into the dining room and spent a half-hour warming up and running through a couple of Eagle Claw forms; Lin Kuen, (the Connected Fist), and Fuk Fu Kuen, (Controlling the Tiger). She held the equivalent of a second-degree black belt now, and helped her Sifu as a part time instructor. Afterwards, she showered, donned her black BDUs, and headed out the door to work. It was only a twelve-minute walk to the Spec Ops compound at Central, and she often walked rather than drove. By 8:15 a.m., Steph was in her office making coffee.

Back at the apartment, Brittanie was chatting on the car phone and Barney the Cat was stretching on the couch. Neither noticed the pair of men in suits who crossed the sidewalk and tampered with the gasoline pump in the front yard. Neither noticed the box they left on the gas meter, attached with magnets, or the wires leading from it to a small backpack wrapped in duct tape.

At 11:30 a.m., Steph and two of her colleagues went to the Hing Lung Pan Asian Restaurant, on Broadway, for lunch. Usually she walked home and ate with her family. Barney the Cat was probably returning from his morning rounds of rousting rats, and Brittanie the Desoto would have been glued to the TV, watching the Discovery Channel. Mr. Mussolini recalled that he saw Barney at the dining room window around 11:45 a.m., when he was returning from the self-service hand laundry, and the TV was turned up loud enough to be heard on the sidewalk. Everything seemed normal.

At noon, Steph and her team members were just digging into their curried lo mien lunch specials, when they heard the blast. It was powerful enough to rattle their empty soup bowls from a dozen blocks away. Steph's heart skipped a beat, and she was stricken with a certainty of disaster. She felt as if she'd been shot. On the basis of her instincts, she threw down a twenty and dashed out the door, headed for home. Her teammates followed, but neither of them came close to catching up with her.

All the way, Stephanie had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she ran. It got worse when she was three blocks from home and her pager went off. She ignored it. She could already hear sirens and see smoke billowing into the air up ahead. She knew, just knew that something horrible had happened at home, and tears were already pouring down her cheeks as she rounded the corner onto her street. There was a crowd gathering up and down the block, and the buildings opposite her garage were lit with flickering yellow and orange, by a conflagration far beyond anything the aging structures could have created alone. Accelerants…Steph knew there had to be accelerants present for the fire to burn so fierce and so fast.

She didn't even have to reach the garage to know it was fully involved. There was a flaming pit that encompassed what had been her front yard, the front of the garage, and the sidewalk too. A powerful lateral jet of fire was rolling out of a pipe where the gas meter had been. The gasoline pump was nowhere to be seen. She couldn't get within 35 yards, not within four doors of her home for the heat, and thick black smoke was roiling up into the sky. In her heart of hearts, she could almost hear the terror of her family; Barney and Brittanie, helplessly burning to death in the ruins, though she knew they must have died almost instantly. She saw that the roof had already collapsed. Stephanie's legs couldn't hold her up and she sank, first to her knees, then crumpling down flat, until she lay sobbing in the street. Brave, loyal Barney and sweet, loving Brittanie; the only ones she'd ever loved who had stuck with her. Her beloved family was gone, and she was more alone than she'd ever been. She was back in the desert and her oasis had dried up.

The garage had mostly burned to the ground before the fire department even arrived. The firemen worked mostly to contain the blaze and stop it from spreading. It was almost 7:00 p.m. before they left, and there was nothing for Steph to do, nothing to salvage, absolutely nothing. Stephanie found parts of Brittanie's frame rails in the wreckage, melted and twisted almost beyond recognition. Nothing was ever found of Barney.

Stephanie took a leave of absence from the department. Mostly, she wished that she'd been home for lunch that day, and died with her beloved friends. She went to the cliffs where Archie's railroad coaches had once sat, remembering the nights they'd all spent together. She'd been surprised that he'd left her the land in his will. The surf and the rocks far below had never looked more inviting. But Steph didn't jump, and she didn't pull the trigger of the handgun that she'd held against her temple one night as she cried and drank. She didn't purposely botch a job and blow herself up. Somehow, Steph survived.

(Author's note: I'm sorry, but I can't write anymore tonight. My heart is breaking for the pain Steph felt on top of all the hurt that had already been in her life. I can hear her crying softly in the living room next door as she remembers those days, and she has only my cat, Nightshade, for company. It's hard to watch someone you've come to care about suffering, and it's even harder to watch someone you love in pain. It's going to be a long night, but not as long or as dark as the ones she endured alone.)

Eventually, Stephanie took to walking the used car lots. For weeks she searched, hoping to hear the whisper of a voice among the vehicles parked side by side in endless rows. She was desperate to find a new confidant, but the hulks remained silent. Steph probably walked past every used car for sale in the city of San Francisco, but in the end, she could only accept that Brittanie the Desoto had been one of a kind. She had been the gift of providence, a wise and loving companion for a lonely soul; Brit had been the best friend or older sister that Stephanie had never had. Finally, with a heavy heart, she gave up and leased a BMW. Steph never even considered the dealership showrooms or the idea of buying a new car.

The idea of replacing Barney the Cat was ludicrous to Steph. She never even tried to find another like him. In Barney, she had stumbled on a friend who reflected the hand of the divine. Of all the animals Stephanie had ever met, not a one had communicated with her in any supernatural fashion. Even Mattie the Pig had been mute to her. Housecats, bred through thousands of generations to domesticity, were a pale shadow of their wild bobcat cousins. Though they impressed many people with a sense of self-awareness and apparent empathy, they worked mainly on instinct, and an almost cynical ability to manipulate humans for their own comfort. Barney had embraced his wildness and killer instincts, and yet, having been raised in a loving human home, he had attained a civility and clarity about the world that exceeded what most humans could claim. He was without their pretensions, but endowed with their intelligence.

The land that Archie Shimamoto had passed on to Steph in his will was prime real estate. Had it not been in Archie's family since the first decade of the 20th century, it would have been either part of Stinson State Beach or the Golden Gate Rec Area. Archie's father had fought in court for three years to reclaim it, after the family had returned from Manzanar in 1946. The land encompassed ten acres, situated in a picturesque locale, on the cliffs south of Sausalito, overlooking San Francisco Bay. On foggy nights, it seemed that a ghostly carpet stretched from the yard, out to Oakland and Berkeley, with only the towers of the Golden Gate piercing the slowly rolling vapors in between. On sunny days, Alcatraz and Angel Islands lay like miniatures in a perfect model landscape, unreal and gemlike, purified by the distance as they floated in the blue-green water below. East Rd. ran behind the property to the west, while to the east, Steph could watch the ferry lines threading their lanes, crisscrossing the bay. In late September of 2000, Steph hired an architect and began to build a new home.

There had been two more attempts on her life in the weeks after her garage apartment blew up and burned. Someone shot at her from a rooftop, as she walked a used car lot in Richmond, on a gusty afternoon. The slug slammed into the hood of a Buick right next to her, just as she'd passed out of sight behind the building. Steph never even noticed; she was lurching drunk and still half-dazed by her loss. A week later, someone in a blue Ford van tried to run her down on a street in Daly City. Steph saw the van coming at her and slipped aside. She'd been in no mood for the shit. As it passed a hair's breadth away, she'd flung a longneck bottle through the driver's side window and pulled her autopistol, dropping into a Weaver stance and discharging two rounds. The driver had almost lost control, scrubbing a guardrail for ten yards. He'd actually accelerated away from her and never stopped. Steph didn't give it a second thought. The incident was indicative of a newfound coldness in Steph. She had no one to love, and no one loved her. There was no outlet for the natural warmth in her heart, and her looses had made her grim.

 

Chapter Five

In all the years she'd been in San Francisco, Stephanie had never taken a real vacation. Now, without a home or any family ties, she took part of her accumulated vacation time and went to Hong Kong. Every five years, the home chapter of the tong in Steph's old neighborhood sponsored a kumite, a full contact martial arts tournament. Steph entered it, representing her art, her kwoon, and her Sifu.

She fought six contests, and the Chinese had never seen any woman fight with her rage or inspiration. It seemed to them as though a demon had come from the west, heartless, merciless, and thirsting for blood. Using techniques drawn from the Lin Kuen and Fuk Fu Kuen forms, Steph defeated every woman she faced, intimidating them, forcing errors, paralyzing nerves, and finally dislocating joints. When she faced the male champion for the overall title, she didn't win, but she didn't lose either. They fought to a draw, neither able to continue. After five long minutes, Steph had suffered a broken right leg. She had a minor concussion and three broken ribs. Her opponent would never speak again, and it would be a year before the joint damage she'd inflicted would allow him to walk. She'd employed techniques from Jui Lao Tong, (the drunken eagle form), to crush nerves and bone. Stephanie came home as the joint overall champion, a first for a woman, and only the second time a westerner had won.

Steph returned to work after a month's absence, still with a cast on her leg. She continued drilling and teaching her team, and when the cast came off three weeks later, she resumed deactivating bombs.

In Sausalito, Steph's new house was under construction, rising fast above a poured concrete pedestal that housed a windowless three-car garage. Above that sat a reinforced concrete bunker, sheathed in weathered cedar and encircled by a redwood deck whose eastern side was cantilevered out over the cliff face. Floor to ceiling windows graced each wall, but they were _" Herculite, the same bulletproof material used in the cockpits of older USAF fighters. Satellite dishes and solar panels adorned the roof, and a sub-basement housed a room filled with batteries and a generator. The fuel oil tank was stainless steel wrapped in graphite fiber, and it was buried deep in reinforced concrete, 25 yards from the house. There was no gas hookup or meter. Steph had paid for the inclusion of several alarm systems, and after the contractors were done, she would personally install some illegal countermeasures of her own. She spent most of the money she'd saved since her tour in the U.S. Army, but never again would someone threaten her home. In the meantime, Steph lived anonymously in a trailer, her bunk bed hiding a growing cache of military munitions and firearms. It was mid-December, 2000.

 

Stephanie sat watching as the words filled the screen. It was about 8:00 p.m. and we'd started drinking right after dinner, about a half-hour before. Three empty long necks sat beside me, five next to Steph. She was guzzling at an alarming rate, and I was drinking faster than I had since high school. We'd filled an ashtray with butts.

I'd gone to her in the living room last night, and again, she'd collapsed in my arms. It had been late by then, and eventually we'd both dozed off on the sofa. I held her through the night, soothing her nightmare spasms and interludes of tears. In the morning she'd been so embarrassed she could barely look me in the eye. All day, she'd been in and out of the house; sometimes watching over my shoulder, sometimes retreating outside to watch the bay, even tearing off down the road with Lizzie once, and coming back with another case of beer and some Thai food. She looked thoughtfully at the last paragraphs, remembering.

"I designed this house like a defensive position," Stephanie recalled, slurring her words as she clumsily lit a Camel, "with controlled access through kill zones, covered by overlapping fields of fire. The deck gave me a 360-degree elevated firing position, and ya didn't mention that the railing is reinforced concrete up to waist height. The redwood is just sheathing, for looks…it's really all concrete and rebar. Did ya notice those…what look like drain holes every four feet? Those are firing ports. The structure was largely blast resistant and fireproof. Most of the yard is a minefield. If I lost the oil tank, I could still rely on a 24-hour reserve tank feeding the generator in the basement. The solar batteries would power the alarms and floodlights. I had enough weapons to arm a Marine infantry squad," Steph drunkenly bragged, "including a 7.62mm machine gun and a .50 cal. sniper rifle. The BATF would have loved me."

"Well, yeah," I agreed, laughing and opening a fourth long neck, "I can see the headlines now. San Francisco bomb disposal officer goes crazy, living alone in a park with a cache of weapons and explosives."

"Previously known for talking to her cat and her car, though she didn't have any human friends," Steph joked.

I could tell she was pretty drunk. She hadn’t gotten to the point of falling out of her chair, but she was listing, and the ash on her Camel was 2 inches long. She ran a hand absently through her hair and leaned her chair back, balancing dangerously on two legs and exhaling a jet of smoke. God she was beautiful.

"I was such a mess," she admitted, giggling and capturing my eyes, "kiss me, Michelle."

"My thought all along," I agreed, squirming, "but first, I gotta pee." We'd been drinking pretty fast. Geeez, I thought, where was the sad, easily embarrassed Steph of last night?

"Me too…I'll join ya and you can sit in my lap," Steph cackled, staggering up and lurching off towards the bathroom. When I heard that my mouth dropped open, before I realized she must be joking.

I managed to drag myself out of my chair and follow her, worrying about her falling and cracking her head open on the throne. Porcelain is unforgiving, and it can get downright malicious to the inebriated. Ahead of me, Steph bounced off a wall, rebounded in the hallway, but finally made it to the correct door. The thought of Stephanie squatting in the linen closet by mistake brought an uncontrollable burst of laughter from me.

She'd disappeared into the bathroom, and soon I could hear her muttering and fumbling with her belt and zipper …she'd forgotten to turn on the light. I made it to the door and looked in just as she went down, landing in a heap between the toilet and the tub, with her Levi's down around her knees in the dark. Steph struggled and turned over, looking up at me sheepishly before bursting into a fit of laughter. I'd half expected to see a cut or a broken bone, but she seemed ok. I reached over and flipped on the light. We both squinted as our pupils contracted slothfully.

"Help?" She asked in a childlike voice, putting on an exaggerated imploring expression.

I laughed and then leaned forward unsteadily, reaching down and offering her a hand. She clasped my hand with hers and pulled. With a yelp, I was falling. I landed awkwardly in her arms, lying fully on top of her. My knees were bracketing her waist but we were face to face because of her greater height. Steph smirked and wrapped both arms around my waist. She pulled me tight against her and it took my breath away, my arms pinned to my sides within hers, my hands on either side of her rib cage just below her armpits. Then she was leaning in closer, her intention all along I suspected, but my lips were moving down to meet hers, like they'd wanted to for years. I felt her warm soft mouth against mine as my eyes slipped closed.

Stephanie stroked my upper lip with her tongue as I eagerly opened for her, and I felt her hands stroking up and down my back. I slipped my tongue out to meet hers, sliding them together as they pushed and caressed each other, and pressing our lips together as my head spun with a rapidly heating passion. I caressed her torso with my hands, feeling the shift of the muscles in her sides and back, stroking higher to tease the sides of her breasts with my thumbs through the armholes of her tank top. They were soft and full, and she wasn't wearing a bra. She shivered, and I felt her hands working under the bottom of the midriff tee I wore, her fingers tingling on my bare skin. I pulled at her lower lip with my teeth, then slid my tongue along its inner surface as she moaned. Steph had her hands under my tee, her palms cupping the undersides of my breasts, lifting them, pressing up the underwires of my bra. I felt the heat that had bloomed between my legs, but my bladder was still alarmingly full, and our bodies were pressed together, damn it.

"I don't want to stop kissing you, but I'm gonna wet myself any minute here," I whined.

"You and me both, hon," she whispered, her breath tickling my ear, "should we continue necking in the bathtub and not worry about the leakage?"

"Ewwwwwwww." OMG, was this really the Stephanie I'd come to know?

"Okay, okay…squeamish, huh?" Steph asked seriously, before grinning at my shocked expression. "Help me up and we'll draw lots to see who's first."

I lifted myself up onto my knees and shook my shoulders to resettle myself. "You go…you were here first," I told her as I got to my feet, swaying as the altitude changed. It made sense, since she already had her pants down.

I reached out and pulled her up, with her cooperation this time. I kept a hold of her hands since her jeans were still around her knees making her unsteady, and then helped her lower herself onto the seat. She pulled me down for another kiss, then she released my hands and slid her panties down. Her hands came back around my neck and she deepened the kiss. My tongue was in her mouth, stroking hers, and I could smell a hint of the spicy scent of her sex, now that her panties were down. My eyes were closed and my hands were tangled in her hair. Then I heard her peeing and she kept kissing me. I had thought she'd break the kiss first and we'd take turns in here. It was kinda kinky, sexy, and amazingly exciting. When she was done, I handed her a ball of toilet paper, continuing to kiss her as she wiped and flushed. We didn't break the kiss, breathing softly through our noses as we traded places and I stripped off my jeans and jockey hipsters. Then I sat and peed as she cupped my cheek in her palm, her other hand holding the back of my head as we kissed. I could not believe I had just done that, and I could not believe how turned on I was. When I wiped, it was slippery.

"I can't believe I did that," I confessed as I flushed and closed the lid.

"Well, you said ya didn't want to stop kissing, and I didn't want ya to wet yourself, hon," Stephanie reminded me with a grin, swaying slightly, her eyes traveling down my body and then back up to meet mine, "and now you're half-naked."

I giggled and swiftly slid my hands up her torso, lifting her tank top up over her breasts and shoulders. She reached for it and pulled it over her head, dropping it on the floor.

"So are you," I told her, ogling her breasts. They were firm and full, with ruddy nipples partly perked. I thought they looked better than mine do at twenty…and Steph was 31. I mean, women pay to have breasts like that….

Stephanie looked down, tilting her head and regarding her breasts. Then she looked back at me and grinned, before leaning against me and whispering, "Ya know, I never believed in doing anything halfway." Oh God, I could feel the heat of her body and her breasts pressed against mine. I was so gone.

(Author's note: Now I know everyone is waiting for the love scene. It's a requisite of these romantic stories, and the obligation of every writer who hopes for a measure of popularity. Don't worry, I'd never be remiss in my duties as a storyteller, or conceive of cheating my readers. No, not in my wildest dreams. However, while the sex has curled my toes and given me a reason for relishing each new day, it's not the central constituent of the story. The development of the relationship and the events abetting it, however, are central. I mean, hell, you don't even know how Stephanie met me yet. (BTW, I've never particularly cared much for that category of vignettes known as PWP, always figuring that if one's looking for a quickie they should either submit to their own sluttiness or rely on their own imagination. Laziness in sex shouldn't be rewarded, and that includes fantasies, which are really a way of making love to yourself. As Whitney sang, that's the greatest love of all…or some such philosophical thingie). That aside, with my request for your patience, I will proceed with the greater plot. If you skip ahead, I'll know, and I'll keep all these Skittles for myself.)

 

Stephanie was celebrating a dismal Christmas 2000, alone in her trailer. She spent much of the day drinking and cleaning her weapons, loading magazines, checking detonators and charges. Finally, at about 5:00 p.m., when others were enjoying the aromas of Christmas dinners nearly ready in their ovens, Steph grabbed the keys to her BMW and went for a drive. The trailer had progressed from cozy to claustrophobic, and she was saturated with loneliness and discontent.

She intended to drive south on SR-101, to the Fish and Game Reserve, where she could lose herself wandering in the marsh, drinking, smoking Camels, and screaming unheard. Eventually, she'd cross the bay on SR-84 and head back north, making a large circle through Freemont and San Lorenzo, on I-880, blatantly abusing the speed limit. Steph figured that sometime around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., she'd navigate the BMW back across the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco. Maybe she'd drive past the burned out garage, maybe not.

Around 5:30 p.m., Stephanie passed the airport and turned off the highway onto Marsh Rd. She followed it to the dead end, where she parked. The oily channel leading to the bay was less than 100 yards ahead and she could smell the stale petrol and rotting vegetation. She got out, with her handgun, a full longneck, and her pack of Camels, and walked, her hiking boots squishing in the soggy soil as she headed down to the water. It was mostly quiet, with a breeze whistling through the marsh grass and worn out tires, that muffled the traffic noise from SR-84 nearby. An occasional jetliner passed overhead.

Steph found a discarded refrigerator, half buried in the muck, and she took a seat, lighting a Camel and gazing across the water. Distant lights winked in Jarvis Landing and Newark, while the Coyote Hills Park formed a dark mass on a hillside. It was a melancholy scene, and it suited her mood. To her right, the lights of cars moved across the SR-84 bridge…a bridge without a name, Stephanie thought sadly. That bridge had been around for decades and it obviously knew the score.

Steph believed things like that should have names. People named their pets and boats. They named their children. She'd named her car and they'd thought she was crazy because she talked to it. Her cat, too. Yet they'd never figured out how she'd solved so many crimes on her beat all those years ago. They'd never identified her informants or learned where her information had come from. They would never have believed that Brittanie the Desoto had learned more, talking to the vehicles on the streets, than a dozen detectives could have learned by questioning the neighbors. They would never have believed that Barney the Cat had found the locations of counterband, stolen goods, hideouts, and hidden weapons. He'd prowled the dark alleys and rooftops, spying out the haunts and doings of nocturnal criminals; listening and reporting on their plots with a glee that bordered on mania. It had been a variation on his natural hunting instinct, a part of his catness.

Stephanie sat in the speckled dark of that holy night, draining her Bud and thinking how much happier she'd have been to still be a patrol officer walking her beat. The esteem of her neighbors and the warmth of her home and family had made her life sweet. Steph cared nothing for being a hero. She sat drunkenly remembering her beloved family, tears trickling down her face, the handgun pressed against her temple. A hundred yards behind her, the men who had followed her from the trailer blew up her BMW. Amazingly, she didn't shoot herself in the head by reflex.

The blast and the gout of flame shooting into the sky made her snap. She would later recall that what followed felt unreal, almost dreamlike. Steph leapt from her seat and flew back down the trail in the dark, slipping in the mud and tripping on partially buried refuse. When she saw the silver Cadillac starting up, she opened fire, still running toward it as fast as she could. Thirteen rounds from the 9mm Glock slammed into the hood, grille, and windshield, and the car stopped. Steph dropped the spent magazine, slammed a fresh one in, and kept coming. When she reached the Caddy, she ripped open the driver's door and emptied the second magazine into the two occupants. As the sounds of the gunfire died away in the marsh, Steph stood drunkenly gasping, trying to catch her breath.

"That'll teach 'em," the nameless bridge's whisper tickled her ears on the breeze.

Stephanie managed to drive the Cadillac, with its grisly occupants, into the channel, where it mostly sank beneath the oily wash. It had been hissing, and the smell of antifreeze steam clung to her clothing. On the way back, she briefly regarded the burned out wreck of her leased BMW, before starting to walk back down Marsh Rd. to SR-101. It would be a long walk home, several hours at least, she figured, but it would give her time to think.

When she got back to SR-101, Stephanie stuck out her thumb as she had on that June afternoon in Bakersfield, eleven years ago. She presented herself to the Christmas traffic as a drunken woman, her legs covered in mud, carrying a handgun and a pack of Camels…even in California, it was almost an hour before anyone stopped.

"Thanks for the ride," Steph said as she slid into the idling car. She set the Glock in her lap and pulled the door shut. The car was so small that the roof had barely reached her waist. It was a bright red, with a black roof, and a diminutive tire at each corner.

"'Sup, wahine? Frisco go?" The woman driving weighed at least three hundred pounds, and the steering wheel was jammed into where her lap would have been. She looked very happy to meet Steph; just happy in general it seemed, to be out driving on Christmas night. "Mele kalikimaka!"

"Uh, okay," Steph agreed, not really sure what had been said. To make conversation, she asked, "Where ya from?"

"Lihue, Kauai," she told Stephanie as she squinted out the windshield into the dark.

"Turn on your headlights," Steph instructed nervously, as the car wove across the centerline toward an approaching truck. The hulking carcass of a large dead animal lay in their lane, flashing by in the darkness outside Steph's window.

"It's in Hawaii," the woman elaborated with a fluttering gesture, momentarily taking her hands off the wheel. The engine tone rose as the car accelerated, swerving back into their own lane, then the headlights came on. Steph could have sworn the woman hadn't touched any of the knobs on the dash.

"Oh, okay," Steph said, finally understanding now. The woman was a Hawaiian, maybe even a kumu hula. "Yeah, I'm going to San Francisco. My car just exploded."

"Whatta shame," the woman said sympathetically, toning down her island pidgin, "needing wheels now, wahine?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Steph realized for the first time. The little red car dodged around a pothole, though the woman was obliviously steering straight ahead. Stephanie raised an eyebrow. "What kind of a car is this?"

"Mini Cooper."

At 9:05 a.m. on December 26th, 2000, Stephanie Walker pulled her replacement BMW into the parking lot of Great Britain Import Motorcars, at Howard St. and Van Ness. She had dressed in a Navy blazer and slacks, with a pale blue silk blouse that matched her eyes. Steph hadn't started drinking yet that morning, so she carried a Nissan Stainless Road Carafe filled with Vanilla Hazelnut Hi-Test. The salesman saw her coming, noted the BMW and the suit, figured executive, and began calculating his percentage on a Jaguar. He nearly regurgitated his Eggs Benedict and Double Sputum Latte when she asked about the Mini Coopers. He was stuttering, and she looked past him into the showroom. There they sat, on the far side of the Land Rover; three Mini Coopers, small and gemlike, shining in the tungsten spotlights, red, yellow, and British racing green. Stephanie walked towards them as if entranced, leaving the salesman behind. In truth, he was glad to see her go. The Minis tended to sell themselves to those with an affinity for them, and all he had to do was wait to fill out the paperwork.

Steph circled the cars, noticing immediately that the yellow one seemed to tilt slightly on its tires to watch her. The red and green seemed a bit colder to her; not unfriendly, but simply more reserved. Finally, she stood in front of yellow, looking closely at the front end and grille. The little car seemed to be looking up at her with its headlights, the grille seeming to smile. Stephanie liked it already. She moved to the driver's side and opened the door, relishing the scent of new upholstery and fresh paint. Though limited on interior space, it felt inviting, sorta cozy, and the seat looked comfy to Steph. She ducked down through the door and sat, stretching her legs and settling them on the pedals. She grasped the wheel, tried the placement of the shifter, stared at the gauges. She turned on the radio.

It was amazing. The little car had six-speaker surround sound and a CD player rested beneath the tuner. It played her a jaunty show tune from a Broadway musical that Steph couldn't remember the name of…maybe it was the one named for a western state, she absently thought. Stephanie pulled the door closed to see how much of the outside noise disappeared, and again she was surprised. She could hear nothing of the outside world at all.

"Wow, it sounds really nice in here," Steph remarked to herself, "I'm impressed."

"Thank ye, luv," a lilting, youngish voice whispered to her around the words of the music, "always so nice to be appreciated, it is." The car's pleasant accent was musical.

A smile spread across Steph's face. "I'm Stephanie," she offered, "Stephanie Walker. What's your name, dear?"

"Oh, beg yer pardon, miss. Forgive my boldness for this self-introduction," the yellow car replied somewhat formally, "Lizzie Cooper here, and a pleasure it is, Ms. Walker."

"The pleasure's all mine, Lizzie," Steph answered, and it was true. "I'm kinda informal, mostly, and I want to be your friend."

"I'd be likin that, Stephanie," Lizzie said, and Steph could hear the smile in her words, "I'd so love to feel the open road, the sun and the breeze, even the rain, just motoring through the countryside, don't ya know?"

"Absolutely," Steph agreed, "just let me talk to that salesman, and we'll be on our way."

"That would be Nigel, it would," Lizzie offered with just a touch of pique, "nice enough chap, if a bit superficial. Spends most of his time brown nosing the Jaguar roadster."

Steph managed to finish the title transfer and financing details in record time. She made a deal with Nigel, letting him take the BMW for the night, with the understanding that he'd return it to the BMW dealer for her the next day. Nigel was so happy he forgot it was a German car. He had a date to impress that night, and so he threw in a set of custom wheels for Lizzie, thinking he could impress Stephanie as well.

"All done, hon," Steph happily told the little car as they drove off the lot, "how do you like the little present I got from Nigel for you?"

"Oh Stephanie, you know how every girl loves new shoes. Thank you so very much."

Lizzie's genuine gratitude warmed Stephanie's heart. In the end, Steph also bought her a pair of fog lights and vanity plates with her name on them.

As they rode through the city that morning, Stephanie found herself becoming uncharacteristically chatty. She had a new friend, and she hadn't been so happy in weeks. On the way home, Lizzie became so very excited at the description of the cliff house with its built-in garage. She had a sweet and bubbly disposition, and she expressed an endearingly childlike wonder with life. The little car also had a backbone and nerves of steel, and she never shied away from the challenges that would later come her way. Lizzie was always thankful to Steph for taking such loving care of her, and she always tried as hard as she could to make Stephanie happy. She accomplished her mission by just being herself. Stephanie came to love her dearly.

Because Steph's new house was mostly poured reinforced concrete, and because the interior was a mostly open design, the house was finished by May 1st, of 2001. Steph was sick to death of living in a trailer, and Lizzie couldn't wait to move into their new digs. By early June, all the alarms, traps, and furnishings were completed. Steph had the oil tanks filled, and she charged up the solar batteries. At night, lamps shone through the great windows, making Steph's home appear like a lighthouse beacon above the bay.

Steph spent most of her evenings downstairs in the garage with Lizzie, watching DVD movies on the flat screen plasma TV she'd set up there. Lizzie Cooper adored the cinema, laughing, fretting, and crying with the action. Steph kept a couch, microwave, and refrigerator on a piece of carpet in the middle bay of her garage. It reminded her of the apartment she'd lost. Her proper living room upstairs was seldom actually used. Many an early morning found Stephanie curled up asleep on the couch, empty long necks and ashtrays cluttering the floor, the TV screen awash with static, while Lizzie dozed peacefully in the bay beside her. It was a time of bonding, and on other nights, like Archie had loved to do, they'd sit in the yard with the lights off, watching the stars.

In mid-June 2001, Stephanie and Lizzie celebrated Steph's 30th birthday. They started at daybreak, driving east, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and picking up I-205 to SR-120. They followed the winding road, Lizzie reveling in the ups and downs. Between the towns of Moccasin and Priest, the road became a torturous winding track, and Lizzie flew around the curves, her ecstatic cry of "Wheeeeeeeeee!" ringing through the clear air. Steph was laughing with joy; her hands clasped comfortably behind her head as she leaned back in the seat, watching the scenery go by.

After three hours of driving, they passed the park gates and drove into Yosemite National Park. Lizzie and Steph threaded Big Oak Rd. down Yosemite Canyon, high above the Merced River. Topping the opposite side of the valley rose Turtleback Dome and Inspiration Point. The little yellow car slowed, craning up on her tires to see the heights above as Steph pointed them out from the park map.

For some time, a distant roaring sound had been increasing in volume. When they rounded a curve, Bridalveil Fall was revealed across the river, where its waters plunged 620 feet into a cloud of spume above the green carpet of the forest. Lizzie stopped dead in the road to watch until Steph took over the driving. She hadn't touched the wheel since before Moccasin an hour earlier. Now Steph followed the road letting Lizzie take in the sights. The roaring was coming from another source up ahead now, but the next breathtaking view was of El Capitan, rising almost next to them on their left. Further up a valley, the waters of tall Ribbon Fall plunged in an endless stream.

They pulled off into a scenic overlook, and Lizzie "Ooooooh'd" and "Ahhhhhh'd", before exclaiming, "Oh look, Stephanie, look! Why, bless me, there are people climbing on the face of the cliff!" And so there were.

El Capitan was a Mecca for rock climbers from around the world. Stephanie watched the tiny figures' slow progress. A part of her wished that she could be on that sheer face too, looking out over the world below, with nothing but her ropes, her knowledge, her strength, and her courage keeping her safe.

They pulled back onto the road and drove until they passed the slender thread of Yosemite Falls. The road finally came to its end, at Glacier Point, lying below Half Dome. From this vantage point, the valley of the Merced River spread to the west for seven miles, between granite heights and forested bottomlands, interspersed with breathtaking waterfalls.

"Oh, Stephanie, why it's just the most wonderful place I have ever seen, it is," Lizzie declared with heartfelt gratitude, "I can't thank you enough for showing it to me. I'm so very happy!" The little yellow car was deeply affected by the natural beauty around her. It was her most hoped for reward in motoring, the dearest payoff of her very existence.

"Honey, you're so welcome," Steph said, smiling at her friend, "come on, I'll get these people to take some pictures of us together up here."

She'd been snapping photographs of the scenery all along, and now Stephanie handed her camera to a father, visiting the park with his wife and two sons. He snapped several shots of Steph and Lizzie, posing together with the valley as a backdrop. Eventually, Steph would have them enlarged and framed. They hung, adorning the walls in the garage, a reminder of their happy adventure. After the pictures, Steph pulled out a long neck, a sandwich, and corn chips, and sat at a picnic table enjoying a quick lunch, while Lizzie turned in a slow circle, trying to commit the panorama to memory. The family eyed them curiously form the next table.

They chattered happily on their drive home, thrilled by what they had seen, and both deeply contented with the day and the company. Lizzie found that she had come to love her new country and her new mistress. Lights were winking on in the city, as they crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and dark had already fallen fully when they pulled into the garage. It had been a long day, but they finished it with the traditional cake and ice cream, Lizzie raising her clear sweet voice to sing "Happy Birthday" to Steph. She sang the well-known lines, meaning them with all her heart.

In the concrete garage above the San Francisco Bay, the hero veteran leader of the police bomb removal team, a deadly champion martial artist, and a woman with a life filled with heartbreak, hugged a small yellow car and cried tears of happiness. Like the cloudbursts that bring forth a wealth of flowers, a welcome respite had again come to the desert.

 

Chapter Sex

A few nights later, movie time was interrupted by the floodlights snapping on in the yard in reaction to the motion detectors. The video monitors showed a chase in progress near the East Rd. section of the property. It appeared that a pack of coyotes were chasing a shadow. Stephanie slipped a magazine into her M4 carbine, picked up a pair of nightvision goggles, and went out to take a look. Even from the house, she could hear the yapping and disturbance of the undergrowth. Approaching with caution, she lowered the goggles for a quick look. Sure enough, beyond the floodlights, a half dozen coyotes were frantically leaping and snapping under a spreading cedar, threatening someone who remained invisible in the shadowed branches above. Steph raised the goggles. Slipping off the safety, she fired a burst over their heads. The appreciable muzzle flash and noise startled the coyotes into flight. They turned tail and disappeared into the underbrush.

Thinking they'd treed a trespasser, Stephanie shined her 6 D-cell Maglight into the branches, holding it parallel to the carbine's barrel. About 15 feet up she discerned a pair of pale eyes.

"Hey you," Steph yelled, "get your sorry ass down here before I fill your hide with lead."

For a moment there was silence, and the eyes blinked. Then a tired and irritated voice answered, "Oh puuuhleeease. First dogs and now a cowgirl…whatever happened to this peaceful neighborhood?"

The eyes winked out, just disappeared, and Steph carefully aimed up at where they had been. She was about to squeeze off a burst when something sizeable hit the ground behind her. Stephanie tucked and rolled, coming to her knees and whirling to cover the area. There was nothing there but air. Then Steph felt the hairs on the back of her neck rising, and a warm gentle breath on her back.

"Can we perhaps talk about this?" The voice asked calmly. Stephanie was anything but calm. She threw herself sideways, recovering into a prone shooting position. She looked through her sights into the pool of brightness from her Maglight and saw an unlikely figure sitting on its haunches regarding her. The figure tilted its head quizzically and asked, "Is this all really necessary?"

Stephanie didn't lower the carbine. These animals were wild and dangerous, and although this one was apparently cultured, she wasn't ready to trust it yet.

"Just what are you doing here," she demanded, "I live here, it's my property, you're trespassing."

"You're quoting the consequences of human laws, and they don't apply to me," the figure informed her with a sigh, as if speaking to a retarded child. "Besides, I was here first, years ago, when the Japanese and his pig lived here…before the ostrich. Anyway, you have nothing I want, and I doubt I have anything you'd want. Can't we just get along?"

Stephanie lowered the carbine slightly. What he said was probably true.

"That's it…easy there girl, it's ok. I won't hurt you…it's ok now. Don't worry, everything's going to be alright." He was talking to her as if she were a scared animal. It was ridiculous. Steph slowly rose to her feet. "That's better, why don't you put that gun down, we could have an accident here. It would be…unfortunate."

Steph lowered the carbine, still somewhat nervous. The cougar probably weighed more than she did, had proven itself to be possessed of unnatural stealth and a high level of intelligence, and was obviously familiar with the terrain. It would be a crafty and deadly adversary. Stephanie realized that it had already passed up two opportunities to kill her, and it hadn't even seemed to be trying.

"Look, I think we can come to an arrangement," the cougar offered reasonably, "we can simply ignore each other and for all practical purposes, we shall cease to exist, in so far as our mutual experiences of this land are concerned."

"Somehow, that seems like a waste," Steph mused, "I mean, isn't there some way we can help each other? We both love this piece of land at least."

"Sure there is," he answered, "you watch the stars and your movies, and I'll inspect the trees and the land, check the fog and sample the air, mind the animals and encourage the plants. I need to do my job, like my ancestors have since the last cold time."

"Well, maybe I could drive off the coyotes if you'd be willing to scare off trespassers."

"Those dogs?" The cougar asked with just a hint of disdain. "They're part of all this," he continued, gesturing to their surroundings with a sweep of a paw, "they belong here. Distasteful as they are, they have duties here. They don't bother me."

"But they had you trapped up that tree," Steph pointed out. Her words brought a soft chuckle in response.

"My dear girl, those dogs have an attention span of no more than 5 to 10 minutes. Really, unless reminded of my presence by my scent, they'd soon have forgotten why they were even there. We've been through that time and again, they and I, and we are all still here."

"But could you drive off human trespassers for me? I have enemies and they blew up my last home; they killed Barney and Brittanie. I know that sooner or later they'll come for me again, even though I managed to kill a couple of them recently…."

The cougar started at her words. "They killed Barney? Why, I spoke with him on several occasions…he and the pig, Mattie. I had wondered why he wasn't here with you now. He was a reasonable fellow, a bobcat rather than a lynx, as I recall. I'm very sorry to hear that. Brittanie was the Desoto?"

"Yes, and she was my friend," Steph told him sadly, "they were my family and I loved them both."

The cougar came forward and leaned gently against Steph's legs, then sat partly on her boots and curled his tail around his feet. "I'm so sorry, my dear. They were both special, and I had actually grown fond of them during our few meetings over the years. My sincerest condolences."

"Thank you," Stephanie said softly, blinking back tears, "I will never cease to miss them, but at least I have a new friend, Lizzie Cooper. I hope we can be friends too."

"Lizzie Cooper?" The cougar asked before reasoning it out. "The little yellow car?"

"Yes, that's Lizzie. She's a Mini Cooper and she's from Great Britain."

"Ah, a Mini Cooper, yes, I should have known," the cougar mused, "if I may advise you, Stephanie, I'm a fairly good judge of personality, if I may say so myself. I have to be in my position, of course. Lizzie is a sweet girl, and she's a very loyal sort. I can tell. I would implore you to treat her with the utmost kindness and respect, for she deserves no less. I sense that she'd willingly give up her life for you. Make sure you remain worthy of her trust. You were very lucky to find her. She needs a loving friend, for her sensitive spirit would be crushed by neglect or disregard. Never take her love for granted."

"Believe me, I would never mistreat her," Steph said sincerely, "I love her dearly and she's all the family I have. I love her like a little sister."

The cougar looked deeply into Steph's eyes, and seemed to read her heart. Finally he nodded as if he approved of her. "Stephanie, might I impose upon you to introduce us?"

"Ummm, well sure, I guess," Steph replied, a little uncertainly, "we'd been watching a movie. Lizzie loves movies. Why don't you come to join us?"

"Thank you, Stephanie," the cougar agreed, after looking up at the moon as if checking the time, "I think I'd like that very much."

They walked back to the house, and Steph unlocked the garage door and they went in. Stephanie introduced Lizzie and the cougar to each other, and the two seemed to get along very well. The cougar seemed reserved, very polite, even solicitous, while Lizzie appeared charmed by his manners and knowledge of their part of the world. He was surprisingly well traveled, despite his duties to the local landscape, having explored much of California and Oregon, as well as ranging east through Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and even parts of Utah. Lizzie listened in awe to his descriptions of the Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, and the Great Salt Lake. The cougar politely listened to Lizzie's recollections of her Atlantic crossing on the freighter from England, questioning her at several points. They shared popcorn and tostados that Stephanie quickly fixed upstairs.

When she'd returned with the tray of food, she'd quietly watched the interaction of the cougar and the little car. Steph had noted his attentiveness, her lilting laughter, and the slight embarrassment they'd displayed when they'd realized that they had been staring at each other a bit too long.

They're flirting, Stephanie realized, smiling. Lizzie is eating up his attention; she's charmed by the look of it, and the cougar seems to be developing a crush…already had it, judging from his words outside earlier, she realized. She came in with the tostados and the conversation stopped for a moment, then began to flow again, now including her. It was the first of many nights the three shared together, and amazingly, the cougar could even converse knowledgeably about the cinema, as Lizzie called it.

Before he took his leave in the early morning, Stephanie asked if he had a name.

"No, Stephanie, I have no individual name. I'm simply the cougar of this area, and in the past that has been sufficient."

"But you're a person," Steph had protested, "and you should have a name because you're an individual unlike any other."

The cougar had seemed amused by Stephanie's assertion, noticing the slight sway in her stance from the Buds and the fact that the Camel she was holding had burned down nearly to her fingers. Finally he'd decided to humor his hostess. "What would you like to call me, Stephanie?"

"Well, you're kinda in charge of the forest here," Steph said, "and I guess that makes you a star. There's a rock star named John Cougar. Can I call you John?"

The cougar had smiled indulgently and agreed. "Very well, Stephanie, John Cougar it is. I believe I'm the first in my family to have a name. I thank you." He had said a long goodbye to Lizzie, promising to return soon, and then disappeared into the night, blending into the shadows like a ghost.

"Why, Stephanie, I do believe I've been smitten, as it were," Lizzie declared with a conspiratorial giggle, "he's a charming chap, if I may say so. I do hope to see him again shortly."

Stephanie grinned and patted her friend's fender. "Think you'll be getting any sleep at all tonight? Or is your heart fluttering too quick to rest?"

"Oh, goodness me, I haven't the foggiest, cross my heart," Lizzie had confessed. Then they had both cracked up laughing. Steph had put out the lights, and she lay in the dark on her couch, whispering back and forth with her friend until they dozed off like two schoolgirls at a slumber party.

 

"That part of the story was so sweet, hon," the author whispered to Steph as they lay under a thin sheet in the queen sized bed in Stephanie's master bedroom.

After swaying out of the bathroom together, we'd staggered down the hall, deciding we didn't want to continue our intimacy on the cold tiles and hard porcelain of the bathroom.

"I know, it really was," Stephanie agreed, "it was so heartwarming, and I felt like I was part of a family again. It was just what I needed, and it came just in time."

She leaned over, bringing her mouth closer to mine, tracing my lips lightly with the tip of her tongue. I reached up and encircled her in my arms, pulling her down on top of me and loving the feel of her warmth and her weight as it pressed me into the mattress.

Stephanie's hands were sliding under my tee, raising the cropped shirt up above my breasts. I was sucking her tongue into my mouth, making love to it, as my breathing became ragged. She pulled back momentarily to slip my shirt over my head, and then she resumed the kiss with a moan, pushing her tongue into my mouth aggressively. I loved it; I could feel her lust and how much she wanted me. It made me feel sexy and desirable, and it boosted my confidence to match my desire.

My excitement kept building as my hands slid over the sides of her breasts, stroking them with my thumbs. I could feel her nipples hardening against my fingertips as I took them between my fingers and thumbs, squeezing, twisting, and pulling at them to stretch her breasts slightly.

"Oh God yes," Steph moaned, "twist them harder Michelle." I obliged, feeling them harden further; I thought they were as stiff as a guy's cock. I rolled them between my fingers and thumbs, as I held them twisted towards the center of her body, continuing to pull on them as well. Stephanie was moaning, her chest thrust forward and her back arched. She was leaning back to stretch her breasts even further, but her hands were still busy.

Steph was working on the clasps of my bra, finally loosening it and sliding it off my shoulders. She lifted it from me and tossed it over the edge of the bed. I was completely naked underneath her, her knees firmly pressing my thighs apart. Steph leaned back down, pressing herself against me, and leaning in for a kiss. Our lips made contact again as her nipples pressed into my soft breasts; they were so hard, but behind them her breasts were so warm and soft. Her kiss was aggressive and passionate. She was forcing her tongue in and out of my mouth, so suggestive of the penetration I'd welcome from her in another part of my body. I felt as though she was ravishing me and I loved every sensation, every sensual demand, knowing that her passion was ruling her actions without restraint or shame. She was taking me, but in doing so, she had become mine, acknowledging my power over her by acting on her own powerful desire for me. There was no trace of the isolated embarrassed Stephanie, only the heated and lusty lover, my lover, giving in to her overwhelming need…her need for me.

I had taken my hands from Stephanie's full breasts, moving down to unsnap her jeans and lower her zipper. We shimmied as I worked her jeans and panties down her thighs, pushing them as far down as I could, the waistbands at her knees. She broke our kiss for only a moment, lifting herself briefly to pull them down her calves and then entirely off.

I was already missing her heated skin against my own, but now she was naked, and I drank in the sight of her hovering above me. She was kneeling between my thighs, her breasts firm, tipped with hardened nipples that I had stimulated only moments ago. They jutted from her ruddy areolas, pointing like a pair of fingertips, begging to be suckled and chewed. Stephanie's body was smooth, slender, and sheathed in well-defined muscles. Her slim waist and flat belly gave way to the flare of her hips and the firm roundness of her butt. Even the muscles of her thighs were defined and without a trace of excess in that typical problem area. She was the sexiest, most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and my body responded with a trickle of nectar that I felt drooling down the crack between my cheeks. I couldn't tear my eyes off her and I teased myself further by inspecting her sex.

The cleft between Steph's thighs was shaved smooth, but a trimmed triangle of dark hair adorned her mons. I could see the slight projection of her inner lips, glistening and slick with moisture, between the fullness of her outer lips. Above them, lay the thick length of her hood, like a smooth pinky finger, and the tip of her swollen clitoris peeked from the end of it, pink, shiny wet, and swollen almost to the size of a macadamia. She was beautiful and horny, the evidence of her arousal clearly visible as she knelt over me, breathing shallow and fast. My eyes slid back up the length of her body to her face.

She was looking down at me, and I could feel her eyes raking over every inch of my body. I arched slightly and parted my thighs a little more, anxious to show off my charms, the alcohol wiping away any self-consciousness. I wanted her, needed her, and though this encounter could have satisfied a physical urge alone, because of what had been growing between us recently, it felt more like an affirmation of a much deeper connection. I willingly cast aside any thoughts of reservation or self-doubt. With Steph, love and lust ruled my desires together and I wanted to be both her slut and her savior. I wanted to water her desert with the lusty moisture of my body and nurture her soul with the heated passion of my love.

"You are so beautiful, Michelle," Steph whispered, her passion-hooded eyes devouring me. "You make me forget all the love I ever missed. You make me forget the desert."

"And I never knew love until I finally met you, Stephanie," I told her. "I thought I'd loved you all my life, but I didn't really have a clue. I never knew what I was missing util I found you again. Make love to me, Stephanie."

I raised myself and wrapped my arms around her, leaning in to kiss her again as I pulled her back down on top of me. She came down on me, her tongue back in my mouth and her thighs forcing my knees apart wider. I was spread eagled beneath her, pinned down, and when I bent my knees and tilted my hips up I could feel her heated sex pressed against mine. She was moving slowly, rhythmically, grinding our bodies together. I was whimpering; I could feel the slick hardness of her clit stroking against my own, then stroking lower, up and down between my soaking lips. She was fucking me and I matched her with thrusts of my hips. The pumping of Steph's tongue in my mouth reinforced my feeling of being taken, and I loved it.

"Oh god, fuck me, Steph," I moaned into her ear. She responded by thrusting harder and faster against me. If she'd been wearing a harness and dong, I'd have been impaled on the sliding shaft, my slippery lips stroking it as it penetrated me over and over. I found myself longing for the act; the feel of her dildo pulling at my lips as it slid out, pressing them as it forced me open while sliding in. I wanted to feel filled by her. I wanted to be her bitch.

I desperately tried to wrap my legs around Stephanie's waist, but she pressed her hands against the insides of my thighs and forced my legs back apart. Her hands were actually opening me wider as she pressed them outwards and down.

"Let me do you, my sweet Michelle," Steph whispered. Though she phrased it as a request, I took it as a command.

"Yes, Steph, do me," I answered, getting lost in my lust, "oh god, I need it. I need you."

I needed to feel her take me as much as she needed to project the love trapped within herself by taking me. It had been trapped inside her all that time in the desert, expressed only in the loving friendships with her family of cars and cats. She needed human contact, human intimacy. Now it was exploding out of her, with me as the focus, and I felt truly blessed. I needed her lust and her love. This was so much deeper than the GIs she'd fucked in Desert Storm, or the shallow liaisons she'd engaged in since. And for me, it wasn't business or a neurotic obsession. I'd been well on my way to making sex my career, but I'd experienced so little of real love as an adult. I guess I should have been frightened, but she was the one I'd wanted all my life.

(Author's note: Dear readers, I absolutely promise, that when I resume this narrative, it will be for the "payoff". Yes, I know I'm being a manipulative bitch, but please bear with me, and no peeking. I have a 1-lb. bag of Skittles sitting right here, and as the author, I can dispense or withhold them at my discretion. The sex scene will be worth it, believe me…it encompassed several firsts for me. Steph knew my body's possibilities better than I did, and she proved that it was able to reach heights of release I'd hardly even dreamed of. But there are many loose threads in this story, and if I know you, (and I think I do), then after hearing about the carnal activities, you'll just lose interest in the rest. (That's why most authors put them at the end…I'm right, aren't I?). Well, I didn't slave over this keyboard for that. This is Stephanie's story, mostly, and it holds truths that are of value to us all. Besides, you have to hear the rest, like, about Connie Stanton, (remember her?), the accident, and the New World.)

 

Chapter Seven

The summer of 2001 blended into fall. Stephanie and Lizzie watched movies and entertained John Cougar several nights a week. In the daytime, Steph trained her team and deactivated bombs. Lizzie spent the days in the Central Precinct parking lot, safely surrounded by patrol cars and special purpose vehicles. For the most part, they were polite, a few afflicted by excessive macho, a few surprisingly lighthearted despite being involved in such violent occupations. She made a few good friends; the hilarious crew of mopeds, the mild mannered SWAT personnel carrier, and the morose bomb disposal truck who loved her accent, and became self-conscious and tongue tied when they were parked next to each other.

The other officers had a few unsettling moments when they'd actually noticed that Stephanie's Mini Cooper seemed to have moved about the parking lot while Steph was at work. She always left the keys in the ignition, another practice they found disturbing. One incident stood out. A patrolwoman, about to start her shift, came out to pick up a cruiser in the lot. She stood in shocked amazement as Lizzie pulled out of a space and trundled over to join her friend, the personnel carrier, for a chat. No one was driving the little yellow car, which finally noticed her, appeared to do a double take, and then slunk into the space as if she'd been caught red handed at a crime.

"Oops," Lizzie had exclaimed to the personnel carrier as she looked back at the patrolwoman, who was standing by the station doors rubbing her eyes. The cop hurried back into the precinct house.

"Bad girl," the carrier admonished with a chuckle, "that had to happen sooner or later, you know."

"Oh, bless me, I know," Lizzie had agreed, unrepentant, "but I get so unbearably itchy sitting all day long in one place. God gave us wheels for a reason, don't you know."

The mopeds were giggling and making comments, like misbehaving school children caught by their teacher, such as, "Ohhh, Lizzie's in trouble now," and the like.

The patrolwoman had soon controlled her shock. She'd rushed to the security office, where she proceeded to view the videotape from the cameras that overlooked the parking lot. What she saw upset her even more. Since Stephanie had first arrived at just before 8 a.m., the Mini Cooper had changed parking spaces no less than three times, never with a driver in attendance, and seemingly at random. She'd started out next to a patrol car, moved over to the mopeds, crossed the lot to sit for a while beside the bomb disposal truck, and finally crossed back to a space next to the personnel carrier. The officer hurried into the captain's office to report her discovery. It was almost noon.

Out in the parking lot, Lizzie Cooper had returned to her original parking space so that Stephanie wouldn't have to search for her when she went for lunch. She never let her socializing interfere with her duties to her mistress. She was Steph's friend, first and foremost.

When the patrol officer finally got the captain's attention, she dragged her into the security office and showed her the videotape. They looked at the monitor, watching as the little yellow car returned to the original space that Stephanie had first parked it in. They saw Steph emerge from the Quonset hut, unlock her car, and drive off to lunch with two of her team members. Neither could explain what they'd seen, and the captain was anxious to hear what Steph would have to say.

Over the years, the captain had found relatively little reason to have anything to do with Sergeant Stephanie Walker. She recalled the woman's surprisingly successful career as a uniformed patrolwoman. All those crimes on her beat had been solved without explanation, but the evidence was always sound when they got to court.

What the sergeant did in her Quonset hut was a mystery to the captain, mostly, and she tended to leave well enough alone. She really didn't want to know. The few times she'd ventured out there, it had been weird and disturbing. Shoving the office door open and starting a bomb ticking, for example. She'd nearly wet her panties and hadn't even admonished Steph for smoking indoors. The rest of the bomb removal team was the same way. They smoked and drank, and sometimes they could be heard out there, singing really badly, but the city hadn't blown up yet. Capt. Martinez assumed that their behavior was attendant to living under such a stressful mission assignment. At least the bomb search team was still presentable, with their hardass Spec Ops mindset and their bomb-sniffing dogs.

Captain Martinez was nearing her retirement, having served nearly 30 years, but she remembered the day when Steph had come into her office and accepted the job with the bomb disposal unit. She remembered the strange conversation they'd had that morning. She remembered the notation in the psychological profile. Steph liked to name things.

At 1:05 p.m., Stephanie and her teammates returned from the Sun Kwong Restaurant, happily stuffed with the eggplant fu yung lunch special. Steph parked Lizzie and closed up the doors. The captain was waiting at the entrance to the station house and beckoned her over. Lizzie seemed to cringe.

"Sergeant Walker, would you please join me and Officer Davidson in my office?" It was not really a request.

"Sure, Captain Martinez," Stephanie responded. Though she thought the woman a bit dull witted, she'd always maintained a professional respect for her position. Steph shrugged, crushed out a Camel, and walked over. Officer Davidson, she didn't know at all. She appeared to be an excitable young blonde, probably an aerobicized vegan, and relatively new on the force. She was fidgeting, and Steph found it annoying.

They made their way to the captain's office, taking seats and facing a TV with a built-in VCR, which sat on a side table. Steph looked for popcorn, but detected none.

"Before we start, is there anything you'd like to tell me about your car?" Captain Martinez asked Steph. Officer Davidson was watching Stephanie closely, which Steph found even more annoying.

"Such as…?" Steph responded. She was remembering her Army training. When confronted with accusations, admit nothing, disregard the charges, and make counter accusations.

"Never mind," the captain said, confidently hefting the remote and starting the tape.

Stephanie sat calmly watching as the surveillance tape showed her leaving the lot that morning. Then, in jerky time lapse footage, she saw Lizzie relocating herself several times around the lot. The footage ended with Lizzie returning to her original spot right before Steph drove off for lunch. Afterwards, the three women sat in silence.

"So can I go now?" Steph asked innocently.

The captain looked at her in disbelief. The patrolwoman was fidgeting again.

"No, you can't go now," Capt. Martinez exclaimed, "I want an explanation, Sergeant Walker. What did we just see here?"

Steph sighed. They were making such a mountain out of a molehill. Still no popcorn had appeared.

"Nothing, captain," she responded, sounding bored, "just some dull footage of the parking lot."

Captain Martinez's eyes bugged out, and Officer Davidson gagged. Steph continued to look at them with a bored expression, revealing nothing.

"Excuse me, but we just saw your car moving about the lot without a driver," Davidson claimed. The captain nodded in agreement. Stephanie looked at them in disbelief.

"You are both mad," Stephanie pronounced with certainty, "a car does not move without a driver, except sometimes downhill by accident. Are you seriously claiming that my car drove itself?"

"But, that's what we just saw," the captain claimed, looking back at the VCR.

It struck Stephanie as sad, the slow-witted captain and the excitable rookie. She examined them with an expression of condescending pity.

"I am going to recommend that we forget this incident," Stephanie offered, slowly shaking her head, "otherwise, I will have to report it to the department psychologist as evidence of mental instability. Whatever you think you saw was probably just reflections, weather balloons, or maybe swamp gas anyway," she told them charitably.

The captain and the patrolwoman looked at each other uncertainly. Stephanie took the initiative, rising from her seat and ejecting the tape. She shoved it into a thigh pocket of her BDUs and headed for the door while the other two women watched her in shock.

"I think that for the good of your careers I should remove this temptation to besmirch your own reputations. I understand the stress of this job, and I would hate to see either of you commit professional suicide." She said the last looking pointedly at the captain.

Steph fled from the office with her heart pounding as she lit a Camel. Had she screwed up? Was besmirch actually a word? As soon as she cleared the station doorway, she headed directly for Lizzie. Lizzie saw her coming and tried to scrunch down in her parking space, remorseful for having gotten Steph in trouble.

"Don't worry hon," Steph reassured her, to the little car's immense relief, "they were simpleminded and highly impressionable, as I had thought all along. They won't say anything about you wandering around the lot all day." Here Steph actually laughed. Lizzie looked up at her and smiled. The last thing she had ever wanted was to create a problem for Stephanie.

"I'm sorry," Lizzie apologized, hanging her front-end, "I just wanted to chat up my friends, don't you know, and it's so very dull sitting all day in one space."

"I understand, sweetheart," Steph told her, "it would make me go crazy too. Tell you what. We'll get you a car phone, and when you want to move, just page me and I'll come out and take a Camel break with you. It'll look as if I'm moving you and finally complying with the smoking regulations. Then you can always talk to your friends."

"I'm really to have a car phone?" Lizzie asked excitedly, "a phone of my very own?"

"Yes, hon," Steph confirmed, "Brittanie had one and she really loved it. I should have thought of this long ago. We'll do it this evening right after work."

"Oh, Stephanie, thank you, thank you, thank you," Lizzie gushed. She was practically dancing on her tires.

Back in her office, Capt. Martinez and Officer Davidson watched out the window as Steph talked to her car and the car bobbed and bounced on its springs. They looked at each other, but neither said a thing. Sergeant Walker was definitely insane, the captain thought, dangerously insane, but she could threaten their careers, one near finishing, the other just starting. Neither wanted to cross the hero of the bomb squad in an altercation that would probably receive significant media coverage. The news people still loved Stephanie Walker, in spite of the rat incident. They'd become sympathetic after the bombing of her apartment, seeing their ratings jump as they milked the story of criminal retribution against a heroic public servant. Although there were probably similar surveillance tapes of the parking lot from other days, neither of them was willing to become associated with unbelievable charges when there was nothing to be gained by bringing them.

Lizzie got her cell phone, her "chatty phone", as she called it, that very night. She immediately began calling at all hours of the day, though out of consideration for Steph, she reserved the calls to her friends in Merry Old England for the evenings and weekends. Lizzie especially loved to call the local radio stations, commenting on the talk shows and requesting songs. She even won free movie tickets for Stephanie, answering call-in questions about the cinema. The DJs seemed to love her accent and came to recognize her on their call ID boxes. Several flirted with her, asking personal questions on-air, (which she never answered), and calling her back off-air requesting dates, (which she couldn't accept, being as she was, more interested in John Cougar). Several of them started sending her obscure bootleg music CDs.

In September of 2001, Stephanie was called out to remove a bomb in Candlestick Park's 3COM Park stadium. Her pager had sounded at 1:30 p.m., and she ran to Lizzie with her gear bag. They took off across town, weaving through the traffic on US-101, Lizzie giggling as she threaded tiny spaces between other cars. Steph closed her eyes and let Lizzie drive, covering her head with both hands; her crash position was less than reassuring to other drivers who were close enough to see into the speeding Mini Cooper.

Lizzie screeched off US-101 at the Beatty Ave. exit, executing a perfect four-wheel drift across the path of a garbage truck. It cursed her roundly with a groaning of its compactor. They zipped down Alana to Harney Way, finally turning onto the Hunter's Point Expressway to approach 3COM stadium from the bay side. The 49ers were scheduled to play the Redskins that weekend, and the captain had been snippy. Bitch, Steph thought, she's still pissed about that videotape thingie.

They skidded to a halt in the parking lot, next to the main entrance, in the stiff afternoon breeze. Lizzie shimmied to settle herself, seeming to squint against the blowing dust. Steph leapt out with her gear bag. Across the lot, she could see the search team already caging their dogs. They had found a single massive device next to a critical structural member, below the offices and ticket windows. The team had fled as quickly as possible.

Stephanie took two of her team members with her, leaving the other three to prepare for the evacuation of the disarmed device. As they headed towards the stadium doors, Steph spied the approaching vans from the three local TV stations. One of them had already spotted Lizzie, and was headed her way, hoping for comments off the record. Oh just what she needs right now, Steph thought, she's already worrying herself into a perforated muffler, fretting about me being in danger, poor girl. Then they were inside, in the dimmer hallway with the ticket windows hidden behind their roll down security barricades.

Despite their frantic and terrified flight out of the building, the bomb search team had adequately marked the path to the device. A series of red flags, dog droppings, and yellowish puddles pointed the way unerringly to a stairwell, leading down to the offices, storage rooms, and the foundation. They could hear the timer on the device ticking from thirty feet away in the silent basement. Cheesy and melodramatic, Stephanie thought, before calling out, "Are we getting this on tape?"

"Oh yeah, Sarg," a team member replied, glancing down at the Handycam he was panning over the scene. Steph could tell he was unsteady with the camera.

"Everyone smile before we don hoods," Steph ordered, crushing out a Camel, "and hide that bottle! What are you crazy? This is going on the 5:00 p.m. news, if it leaks like all the others. The dept. loves to show us off when we save their asses. Gets votes ya know."

"Sure, Steph, sorry."

"Okay, you know we can't fuck up in this business, people. The captain already hates me and the mayor is looking for votes. That means the commissioner's job is on the line too. They're snarling at each other and looking for scapegoats, so we gotta keep our heads down. Now let's concentrate and see what we have here."

"Uh, Steph? They'll edit that off, right?"

"Of course they will," Stephanie relied, "they'll probably mostly show the search team with their mutts anyway. They just cut to us when we take out the bomb."

"That sucks, those guys are a bunch of wimps…just because they dress all fashionable and shit."

"Enough, people!" Steph barked. "Now there's the device, and it looks like a real killer. Geeez that thing's big. I'll bet the charge is a thousand pounds at least. This is serious, they really wanted to bring the stadium down." Steph realized that the person who had created this device was a real pervert. It actually looked like a bomb, the first time she'd ever seen such a thing. Usually they were made to appear innocuous, or else they were bare bones, an exposed charge and timer held together with duct tape. This device had a full steel exterior, and like the GIs had in Desert Storm, it had been graffitied. A cartoon shark face had been crudely painted on one end, and the words, "Saddam Lives", had been scrawled in the same ghastly red Krylon.

They were approaching it carefully now, but at twenty feet, Steph stopped them dead in their tracks. She'd spotted the fish. A Big Mouth Billy Bass toy was attached to a pillar ten feet from the bomb, with a pair of wires leading to the device. The cheap motion-sensing toy was rigged as a booby trap. Ingenious, thought Steph with approval. The dogs went below the beam, and the search team chickened out before getting that close. She waved her people back.

"Set up the camera thirty feet back and put it on manual focus and exposure. I don't want any stray infrared beams around here. You make Billy Bass over there sing, and you can kiss your ass goodbye," Steph instructed, pointing to the fish.

"Hey, I had one of those," the cameraman admitted, "it played, 'Don't Worry Be Happy' and 'Take Me to the River'. The tail would flap and the mouth actually sang the words while the head moved back and forth. I loved that toy, but my dog chewed it up. Hey Steph, if we don't die, can I have this one?"

God it figures, Steph thought, while working her way around the back of the fish. Serves him right for having a dog.

"It's evidence," Steph told him, pulling a battery pack with four "C" cells in it out of her gear bag, "it's part of a terrorist bomb…of course you can have it, just remember to wipe this part off the video and no one will know, 'kay?" They regularly pocketed cool stuff off their jobs. Even Archie had taken unexploded secondary charges home. It was an accepted job perk.

Stephanie checked the wires leading from the back of the Big Mouth Billy Bass, held her battery pack leads next to it, and then stripped away some insulation. She deftly replaced the wires leading to the fish with the wires leading to the battery pack. Now the current feeding the circuit from the booby trap remained, but the danger posed by the fish triggering it was neutralized.

"Take your damn fish," she told her teammate, "it's deactivated."

The cameraman had set up the camera on a tripod, racked the lens to telephoto, and locked the focus and exposure. He happily pulled the Billy Bass toy off the pillar and stuffed it into his gear bag. Then he restarted the recording.

Steph recalled later that it had been a nerve-wracking job. Just the look of the bomb, which resembled something she dimly remembered from the History Channel's WWII series, was bad enough. They had probed it with their worm eye cameras and stethoscopes. They had removed screws with non-sparking titanium wrenches. They had avoided magnets, static discharges, radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet radiation. They had even whispered around it. The whole time, its loud and endless ticking had gotten on their nerves. They'd desperately wanted it to stop and simultaneously prayed that it wouldn't. After 10 minutes, they'd been soaked in sweat.

After 45 minutes, the team had a pile of hardware on the floor at their feet. A timer had been revealed. It was made from a Xena Warrior Princess wall clock, its ominous ticking greatly magnified by the steel housing. A pair of "AA" cells powered it. Attached to the clock were the expected detonator and a full 150-lbs of Tri-Nitro-Toluene. The charge was shaped into a cylinder, with a dense 9 1/2 lb. gray metal hemisphere about the size of a half-grapefruit at one end. There was a steel tube for the hemisphere to slide down, and at the far end, another identical hemisphere glowed dimly. It all accounted for perhaps a tenth of the bomb's volume. The rest seemed to be lead shielding and Styrofoam.

"What the hell," Steph wondered aloud, "why go to all this trouble to shove two hemispheres of metal together? I could do it by hand." The whole thing was ridiculous, but she still had a nasty feeling about it. She stuffed the Xena wall clock into her gear bag. It was a perk of the job.

"Call the truck and let's get out of here," she ordered, tossing the metal domes back into the bomb casing and staring at the camera, "that's a wrap."

 

Chapter Ate

When the officially leaked footage was played on the 5:00 p.m. news, all hell broke loose. Those with an interest in restricted technologies will have some suspicion of what Steph had so casually disarmed. Everyone involved tried to aggrandize their personal involvement, except Stephanie, who was cozy on her couch, (her eye often straying to her new Xena wall clock), while watching "Blade" on DVD with Lizzie. Across town, her cameraman was scaring his dog with his new Billy Big Mouth Bass toy.

The mayor just knew he'd get reelected. What a way to open his campaign for the 2002 election! The commissioner was assured of his continued employment. They were the conquering guardians of democracy that day. Everyone was feeling charitable; amazed by their good fortune in having such a triumph of law and order come about on their watch. Captain Martinez actually forgot about Steph's car for the duration of her press conference.

The metal domes were snatched by the FBI and taken to a lab in Berkeley, where they were assayed and confirmed as being Uranium-235. The mass of each hemisphere was just shy of critical. The remainder of the bomb was then whisked away by Federal agents, who were frantically curious about the first terrorist atomic bomb threat on U.S. soil. They showed up unexpectedly at Steph's house to debrief her. A simple phone call beforehand could have saved everyone a lot of trouble, but arrogant as they were, the idea never crossed their minds.

Two pairs of FBI agents arrived at the East Rd. turnoff to Steph's property, in two government cars. They parked at the entrance road, where a locked and alarmed gate blocked their way, and began walking up the driveway toward the lighted windows they could see almost a quarter of a mile ahead. From the branches of a spreading cedar halfway there, a pair of pale eyes watched their every move.

Trespassers, John Cougar thought to himself, guys in suits arriving to make trouble for Stephanie and Lizzie. It's probably another attempt to take control of the property for the park. We saw it often enough when the Japanese lived here with his pig. That's why he resorted to getting that insufferable ostrich. John Cougar crouched on a limb, waiting for the agents to deliver themselves into range.

Motion sensors had revealed the presence of the agents to Steph and Lizzie. Their images popped up on the monitors and floodlights snapped on. The agents, paranoid cases that they were, dropped prone and drew handguns. Stephanie was soon walking out onto her deck, carrying a ridiculously high-powered rifle fitted with a nightvision scope and a bipod. Her everyday M4 carbine was strapped to her back.

The weapon that Steph had chosen as a first line of defense was an M82 A1. It fired .50 caliber armor piercing rounds from a 5-cartridge magazine, and was used mostly as a long-distance sniper rifle. Its half-inch diameter, six-inch long ammunition could punch a coffee can sized hole through a foot of concrete, but that power was more often utilized to allow lethal accuracy at one and a half miles. When Stephanie had seen one used by the "God" character in the "Navy Seals" DVD, she'd known she had to have one.

Out in the yard, the agents were scrambling out of the floodlights and into the shadows. They didn't know what was going on with Sergeant Walker, but the house and grounds weren't the simple home in the suburbs that most mid-level cops aspired to. The land alone was worth more than the woman made in twenty years. The motion sensors and floodlights were obviously part of a very sophisticated security system. It was way beyond what even a paranoid cop could justify; a loaded gun in the nightstand was more like what they'd been expecting. Unfortunately, Stephanie Walker wasn't just any paranoid mid-level cop.

"Whoever you are, you've got to the count of five to stand in the light and throw down any weapons, or I start shooting to kill," Stephanie yelled from the darkness of the deck. She'd already had half-a-dozen longnecks and she'd been really into the movie. She hated trespassers, so she started counting, calling out, "One, and I've got a gun."

The agents were undecided. For all they knew, it wasn't Sergeant Walker at all out there in the dark with a gun. Anyway, they figured that if she was going to shoot at them with a police officer's sidearm, then they were better off in the shadows where she couldn't see them clearly. They were still 200 yards away from the house, well beyond any reliable pistol range. Besides that, she'd sounded drunk.

"Two," Steph called out, then more softly, "and I'll fuck you." She sent a round through the trees, clipping the steel pipe of the gate and punching a hole through the engine block of the nearer of the two government cars. The projectile retained enough energy to exit and puncture a tire on the second car.

"What the hell," a young agent screamed. Whatever the woman was firing, it had clipped a branch off a tree, cut a 2" steel pipe in half at the gate, and then hit both their cars. One was hissing from under the hood and the other had dropped noticeably with a flat tire. He grabbed his cell phone and dialed the FBI office to report that the team had come under fire.

"Shut up and get down," a second agent barked. He was an older lead agent who'd been a teen Marine in Nam, and he still knew what a .50 sounded like. "We are in so much shit," he muttered to his partner, "and don't stand behind that tree, it won't protect you at all."

"Three, and I can hit what I can see," Steph yelled, enjoying herself immensely. They were wearing suits just like the two in the marsh who had blown up her BMW. She fired another round, which splintered the trunk the partner was crouching behind, though it had been over a foot thick. The bullet passed less than a hand's height above his head, and then slammed into a tree behind him, the bark exploding off of it in all directions.

"God fuck me," the partner yelled as he dove behind a boulder, "she's got a starlight scope."

"And the muzzle flash is fully suppressed," the older agent said, "I think she has an elevated position, but I didn't see a flash anywhere."

While the two older agents were pinned down trying to observe her position, and one of the younger agents was making his call, the fourth agent was slowly crawling through the undergrowth, attempting a flanking maneuver. He'd made it to a position under a spreading cedar and had raised his head for a look at the house. It was so dark up there that he couldn't be positive, but he thought he'd seen a figure moving on the deck with a really big rifle. If he was right, then he just might get a shot if a flash revealed the shooter's position. He gripped his pistol and trained his eyes on the deck, his vision straining to pierce the darkness, almost as if he was looking through a tunnel. He was completely surprised when something heavy and fast moving landed on his back. The pistol was batted out of his hand and he got a glimpse of a really big cat face before it cuffed him hard with a massive paw and knocked him out.

"Four, and don't come 'round my door," Steph yelled. As soon as her body relaxed, she exhaled and squeezed the heavy trigger.

The big rifle boomed again and one of the cars went up in flames, the shot placed perfectly to puncture the gas tank and send a spark off the street.

"All right, we surrender," the older agent yelled, tossing his pistol into the lighted driveway and standing. His partner rose from behind the boulder at the same time, tossing down his gun as well. While the woman was preoccupied with them, maybe the other two could take her out. At least, they might be able to get closer to her. The present situation had been getting them nowhere. "We're FBI agents," he added, "are you Sergeant Stephanie Walker?"

Steph was pissed. This took all the fun out of the evening. She was missing out on her movie, the popcorn was getting cold, her beer was getting warm, and Lizzie was getting bored. What the hell did the FBI want with her?

"Where's the other two of you," she yelled, "and what do you want with me?"

In the distance, the beating of helicopter blades was just becoming audible.

Shit, they probably want that Xena clock, Stephanie thought, as she watched a third agent appear by the gate, his hands up in a surrender pose. Off to the right, John Cougar broke from the undergrowth dragging a body, apparently the fourth agent. Steph was reminded of Barney the Cat dragging home a puppy carcass. The guy was just starting to come around. Eventually he recovered and joined his fellow agents. They were eyeing the cougar nervously.

When she could see them all clearly she had them hold up their badges. Under the floodlights, looking through her scope, she could clearly read Federal Bureau of Investigation on the nearest shield. Damn, she thought. John Cougar had padded off down the driveway to collect their handguns.

"Y'all come on up to the front door and I'll be right down to let ya in." Steph called in her friendliest voice. "Sorry about the little misunderstanding guys."

Steph returned the rifles to their locker and walked down the entrance hall to the door. When she opened it, she noticed that the helicopters were still distant, but getting nearer. Maybe they were traffic or news choppers, she absently thought. The four disheveled government agents stood there in soiled suits, looking pissed off. Stephanie offered them beers. They declined, though one lit a Marlboro. Steph gave him a brief smile and handed him an ashtray.

They sat in the unused living room discussing the reason for their visit. Steph took it pretty well. When they told her that the bomb she'd disarmed had been a uranium fission device, she hadn't really understood the term. She was familiar with TNT, ammonium nitrate with fuel oil, RDX, nitroglycerine, Cyclonite, HMX, and C4…those sorts of threats. When they said, atomic bomb, the alcohol surged up, her hindbrain had a coronary, and she passed out briefly in shock.

Stephanie came to several minutes later and noticed that two agents were missing. They had taken advantage of her unconsciousness by trying to explore the house.

"Where are the other two," Stephanie groggily asked, trying to quickly clear her head.

"Uh, they went to the bathroom?" One of the older agents lied. Steph squinted at him.

"Together?" Although Steph was open minded about male "bonding", she didn't want it going on in her nice clean bathroom. Rather than appear biased though, she appealed to their safety concerns. "Well, it could be dangerous for them to wander around the house," Stephanie warned, "call them back now, please."

Eventually the wandering agents' nervous high-pitched calls brought their attention to the garage. They went downstairs, following the voices. In the basement, the missing agents were backed up near a wall, standing right in front of the TV. John Cougar was leaning towards them over a pile of their handguns. He was growling softly, standing protectively in front of Lizzie, while she scolded them for blocking the picture.

"Blimey, Steph, who are these sods?" Lizzie complained with annoyance. "Why, they've no bloody manners at all, standing about before the screen like this. They claimed to be FBI they did, but "From Boyhood Impotence" is a punk band, and these blokes are done up in suits. I rang up WSFX and the DJ said they're playing in Seattle tonight, don't you know. We chatted for a while about this, of course. Upon my word, they're poxy fibbing imposters, they are! The nerve, I say. I ought to flog their bums red with a seat belt, I should."

Stephanie had never seen Lizzie so angry. She had never heard Lizzie call her Steph before. The little car had called her friends at the radio station, and now the media would surely be getting involved; maybe a pack of reporters was already on the way. John Cougar was a step from launching himself at the agents to protect Lizzie, and the agents had already seen way too much. It was impossible to tell whether they were more upset by the cougar or the talking car. The other two were standing silently, immobilized and dumbfounded at unexpectedly being thrust into Steph's world. They were bugging and tension filled the air. Steph's happy, quiet home life was unraveling. She groaned and lit a Camel, weighing the necessity of terminating all four agents with extreme prejudice. The thumping of helicopter blades became audible inside the house. Steph finally realized they were too close to be going anywhere else.

"What is that chopper?" Steph harshly asked the lead agent.

"Um, bureau strike team, probably…" the man reluctantly told her, still staring at the car and the cougar, "they were called in while we were still under fire outside."

"So call them off," Steph barked, "it's all a mistake anyway, and it's getting worse by the second. Taxpayer dollars are going to waste and all that shit." She opened a long neck, taking hurried gulps. Steph pinched the bridge f her nose and sighed because she was having another disturbing thought. "They'll try to land on the property close to the house, won't they?"

"Well, yes, in agent rescue situations they'll try to insert their team as close to the objective as possible," the agent stated, confirming what Stephanie already knew of assault procedures.

"Damn it, you four come with me, now!" Steph commanded. "Unless you guys really have an X-Files section, you do not want them in here, and you will not want to explain what's happened. Hell, we'll be lucky if we don't see ourselves on Bay Watch."

Stephanie had turned and was running up the stairs. The agents thought about the truth of what she'd said, then followed her up from the garage at a run, trying to keep up as she tore down the hall and out the front door.

"And good riddance," Lizzie flung after them. "You've the manners of guttersnipes, the whole buggering lot of you."

They ran out of the house and towards the small grassy field next to the cliffs, a short distance away. When they got to the edge of the field, Steph stopped them and went to a locked steel box buried in the lawn under a trap door. She keyed in a code on a lighted display panel and an array of lights in the grass came on. From the air it showed a skull inside a red circle with a slash mark running diagonally through it. Unsafe landing area, it warned in clear yet unorthodox symbology.

An S-70A Black Hawk chopper broke off its descent and hovered 50 feet above the ground. Only 100 feet back, out over the water, an AH-46 Apache variant floated on nearly silent rotors, providing cover for the strike team with its 30mm chain gun. Steph pushed a red button and one of the buried land mines exploded, raining them with sod. The Black Hawk tilted backwards and rose to 100 feet, a spotlight coming on and bathing them with harsh light.

"Get rid of them," Steph ordered the agents with her, "wave or something."

She took the last swig from the long neck and crushed out her Camel. The agents leapt up and down in a St. Vitus dance, waving the strike team off. In the distance, several more helicopters were approaching. The TV stations were sending in reinforcements. How the news crews would love to open this can of worms, doggedly inquiring about a Spec Ops assault in progress at the home of a SFPD hero. It was the last type of exposure the FBI would want. The black bureau choppers pulled up and banked to the south, moving much faster than their civilian counterparts. By the time the media choppers were approaching the cliffs, they were just distant specks out over the city.

"Now we pose for the late edition," Steph told the bewildered agents as she wrapped her arms around the shoulders of the nearest two. "Smile and wave."

The media had arrived, hovering above the five figures and the humorous lighted emblem in the field. That was the image seen on the 10:00 p.m. edition of San Francisco Bay Watch. The hero bomb removal team leader being congratulated by the FBI, a stirring example of interagency cooperation in American law enforcement. The city had weathered the nation's first domestic atomic terrorist threat, thanks to their outstanding and dedicated public servants. The citizens of the Bay City slept at peace that night, knowing they were safe.

Some time later, the agents had called their office and attributed the attack they'd sustained in Steph's driveway to subversive elements, perhaps allied with the bombers. The news crews filled in the story of how the fortuitous appearance of four FBI agents had foiled an attempt on the life of the heroic bomb removal officer. As usual, the public ate up the dramatic and acceptable lies. Thankfully, the bureau found the explanation plausible as well. Well, mostly they did. (Author's note: There is no X-Files section in the real FBI. Take my word for it, I called their public information line and asked.)

 

Chapter Nine

Through everything, Stephanie kept her sense of humor, drinking herself into a stupor to tape her appearance on Bay Watch the next day. In this state of inebriation, she appeared relatively normal, her characteristic mania and confusing commentary dulled down to levels that average citizens could relate to. Steph was a media darling again, beautiful in her black BDUs, slurring her words, (which was attributed to a charming accent), and chain-smoking Camels. She took care to mention nothing about her friends.

Stephanie eventually staggered off the soundstage on her way to a parade through the financial district. It was an orchestrated public spectacle, just like the Romans with their coliseum. The mayor, police commissioner, and Steph's precinct captain all desperately wanted their day in the limelight, and the politicos wouldn’t pass up a chance to display their prize law-enforcement officer. It became a travesty. Stephanie's friends even saw it coming. They warned her, but there was nothing she could do to avoid it.

The parade commenced under a beautiful sunny sky, if a bit blustery, as Lizzie put it. She'd driven from the TV studio and parked in a restricted area for the parade guests, allowing Steph to pass out cold on the ride over. John Cougar sat self-consciously in the passenger's seat; a cheap fedora incongruously pulled down over his ears. It was a stupid attempt at a disguise, but Lizzie had implored him to come along, and he could deny her nothing. Steph snored, her face pressed against the side window, unconscious and drooling.

Stephanie was finally aroused by Captain Martinez, who was obnoxiously pounding on the driver's side window. Lizzie cursed softly under her breath, wondering if there was enough of a slope in the road to justify rolling forward onto the captain's toes. Finally, John Cougar growled and lunged at her across the console. The captain jerked back from the movement by reflex. Then she looked more closely at Steph's passenger, doing a double take. Oh my god, she thought, Sgt. Walker's even more profoundly insane than I thought…that's a wolverine wearing a fedora. She hurried away in denial, already creating rationalizations for what she'd never admit that she'd seen. On top of that parking lot surveillance video incident, well, now she realized that this was becoming a habit. Capt. Martinez doubted that it could be healthy.

Stephanie kicked the long neck bottles back under her seat, holstered her Glock, and lurched out of the door. She admonished Lizzie, telling her to stay put and not wander about. The warning earned her a giggle from Lizzie and a throat clearing from John Cougar. Steph, too drunk to argue her suspicions, just shook her head and lit a Camel.

Stephanie wove her way over to the convertible limousine that was to carry the dignitaries. The mayor was already seated in the back, with the police commissioner and a very fidgety Capt. Martinez. The captain refused to look at Steph, when she collapsed onto the bench seat next to her and adjusted her shoulder holster and utility belt. The commissioner grimaced when Steph lit a Camel, but the mayor was puffing on one of his abominable clove scented Indonesian cigarettes, so he withheld comment. Soon, the parade marshal gave the signal, and the limo rolled forward, surrounded by patrol cruisers, and followed by the bomb removal truck and the SWAT personnel carrier.

It seemed that everyone living in the bay area had turned out. The sidewalks were crowded to overflowing. People hung out of building windows and parked cars, like third world denizens in some overpopulated ghetto, fifteen to a room and still breeding like mice. Steph looked at the crowds in amazement. She just knew the situation was a preamble to disaster, a setting guaranteed to crash and burn. It seemed that most of the cops in the city were present as well, leaving their precincts to the criminals and the rats. It would be a war out there, Steph realized, taking the city back afterwards. She opened a long neck. Capt. Martinez gave her a horrified glare.

Steph looked behind the limo and saw the bomb casing swinging from the tow hoist hook at the back of the bomb disposal truck, like a trophy marlin headed for a taxidermist. Her team members waved at her from the truck bed. She saw the SWAT personnel carrier churning the macadam under its treads. It was flanked by platoons of assault rifle toting Spec Ops officers. With a grin, she noted that the bomb search team had been forced to walk, their bomb-sniffing dogs leashed and trotting alongside them, snarling. The mutts were incorrigible, raising their legs to mark their new territory, (mostly parked cars), and snapping at the feet of inattentive spectators.

Along the curbs, concessionaires peddled "SFPD Bomb Squad" tee shirts and caps. They also had photos of Stephanie with and without her team, election bumper stickers for the mayor, pictures of the bomb, and horrible foods. It was incredible how fast the crap could be produced for sale. American ingenuity knew no bounds when combined with profit motivation.

It seemed that the entire parade route would be uniformly packed with people. Traffic control officers and patrolmen lined the streets, keeping back the crowds. After three blocks, Steph noticed the members of her old neighborhood tong, holding U.S. flags, and dressed in Bomb Squad tee shirts, waving energetically at her. They were lifting a girl overhead that Steph recognized as a niece of Yo Fat-Boy. She held a struggling ball in her arms. They were beckoning her over. Those people never did anything without a fairly good reason, Steph remembered, weird as those reasons may have seemed to the western mind. Something was up.

Steph lurched up out of her seat and staggered away from the slow moving car. She left the door open. Behind her, she could hear the mayor asking Capt. Martinez what was wrong with Sergeant Walker. The captain spitefully replied that it was nothing that wasn't always wrong with her, as she slammed the door closed. It seemed to satisfy him.

Stephanie was only a few yards from the curb when the Chinese put the girl down and she darted past the police line and into the street. She shoved the ball into Steph's arms, grinned at her, and fled back into the crowd. Had Stephanie been elsewhere, or the people been unknown to her, she would have suspected a trap, like something the Viet Cong had done; running up and handing a baby with a grenade in its diapers to a GI. She might have started shooting. Instead, she carefully pulled away the swaddling of 49ers sweatshirt.

The bundle held a large kitten, with a speckled tabby coat and a stubby tail. He looked at Steph with little apprehensiveness since she held him steadily and felt warm. Steph noted that the kitten's ears were slightly tufted. She waved to the people on the curb and tossed the sweatshirt to the girl, then turned and staggered back to the limo.

"You delayed the parade so those people could hand you a kitten?" The police commissioner asked incredulously. The captain was staring at the kitten's tail and ears.

Stephanie looked at him while lighting a Camel. A parade was supposed to be fun, and she was having a great time. She would have been very surprised if this kitten wasn't a descendant of Barney's. Obviously, her old friend hadn't only been chasing rats or solving crimes on his nights out. Maybe he's Barney's grandson, Steph thought, since 15 months had passed since her apartment had been destroyed.

"Just a little public relations," Steph finally answered, slurring her words, "pet adoption was a program I promoted in the community."

"I see," the commissioner replied with approval, "good work, Sergeant Walker, guts and compassion. All the more admirable since you've overcome your speech impediment. Are you dyslexic?" (Author's note: He probably meant dysphonic.)

"Not today, thanks," Stephanie replied, thinking he'd said dyspeptic.

"Ever think of running for an office?" He asked, leering at her conspiratorially. The top 2 buttons of her BDUs had fallen open. Next to them, Capt. Martinez blanched.

"Only when I'm late," Steph answered in a distracted manner. She was so drunk, and the kitten had climbed up to take a familiar position, draped across Steph's shoulders and chewing on her hair. It reminded her of Barney, when they'd first driven out of Kettleman City in Brittanie the Desoto, and so Stephanie's mind was far away.

For a few more blocks, the parade wound on without incident. The mayor and his cronies were waving happily to the citizens, and Steph could almost see them tallying up the votes. Stephanie absently waved too, and the people loved seeing her. She wasn't a politician. She was from the rank and file; she was one of their own.

Steph was a career woman who had made herself into a hero through courageous hard work and an unswerving sense of duty. She had been president and Valedictorian of her class at Bakersfield High, a Desert Storm vet, and an MP platoon leader in the U.S. Army. She was a champion martial artist, a patrol officer with an outstanding record, and the head of the city's nationally acclaimed bomb disposal team. In short, Stephanie Walker was a real American hero. She was someone the people could look up to.

She also had the obligatory dark side, a requisite for uber fanfic. Stephanie was a chronic drunk, a heavy smoker, and a borderline paranoid psychopath who talked to her cars and her cats. She had no human friends, but kept an arsenal and munitions dump at home. Steph had killed people, both in the line of duty and in a blind drunken rage, but she always had good reasons. Besides, she was attractive, friendly, and compassionate, and strangers overlooked her shortcomings. Her team was devoted, the media loved her, and she'd endeared herself to the city leaders. The mayor in particular idolized her. Never in his career had anyone handed him an election so neatly.

Several car lengths behind the bomb disposal truck, a small yellow car paced the parade. A cougar wearing a fedora rode shotgun. No one sat in the diver's seat. They were both so very proud of their friend as they trundled along unnoticed. Lizzie was practically bursting with happiness, bouncing on her tires as she played the Post March, though John Cougar thought Sousa simplistic and overbearing. Tubas actually turned his stomach. Truth be told, he favored the harpsichord and pianoforte, chamber music, and compositions from the Baroque. He honestly appreciated good ornamentation when it was worked into the theme.

As the motorcade approached the halfway point, a foreign born individual on an expired student visa stepped from a doorway and prepared to make his contribution to the festivities. Although a failing student of chemistry, he had applied his substantial knowledge to bomb making. What he knew within his area of expertise was offset by his lack of common sense. He'd grown up, inspired and shell shocked, in a Beirut refugee camp. He'd been nurtured with more ideology than food.

Now, though he'd freelanced for organized crime, he was also a member of a terrorist cell that had failed several times. The cell's greatest enemy was Sergeant Stephanie Walker, an American, a cop, but worst of all, a woman. Had he known that she was also an abomination who loved other women, he'd probably have had an embolism on the spot. As it was, he thought she was kinda sexy. It was a classical love-hate relationship. He fantasized about her in a chador.

Abdullah al-Haziz was a militant, a political malcontent, and a religious fanatic, who was able to rationalize any act with his own interpretation of scripture. He had come to America to cause civil tragedy for the benefit of Saddam's regime in Iraq. Basically, he was a creepy sore loser who nevertheless felt safer across the ocean, where his fearless leader couldn't execute him on a whim. While in the United States, he'd come to love TV, the video arcades, the California beach babes, and the look of polyester suits. Long ago, he'd abandoned prayer times to stare unblinkingly into the screens of the Star Wars pod racer or the Grand Prix Ferrari games. At first he'd tried to make sure the games he played faced east, towards Mecca, and when the muezzin called the faithful to prayer, he'd scrabble on the floor as if searching for a lost quarter. Eventually his immersion in American pop culture ruined him. Now, Abdullah was spiritually polluted, and he despised himself for it as he ogled the Playboy channel, coveting the lifestyle. Soon his degeneracy would end for good though. Al-Haziz would win a place in heaven, like all the other martyrs of the Jihad, even though he always lost at Tomb Raider.

Today he carried a football, tightly packed with Cyclonite, stabilized with ammonium nitrate. The combination was a high order explosive, over 1_ times as powerful as TNT. In each end of the football, a detonator of encapsulated mercury fulminate awaited the shock of a hard landing on the pavement, to detonate the mix. Abdullah also carried a gym bag. Inside was a commando version of the AK-47, a tiny assault rifle with two 30-round magazines taped side by side for quick reloading. Abdullah al-Haziz could do a lot of damage, but he was really only concerned with the object of his hatred and lust, Sergeant Stephanie Walker.

"Blimey, will you look at that odd fellow," Lizzie remarked to John Cougar. She'd spotted Abdullah shoving his way through the crowd. Abdullah was wearing a vomitous green, 70s disco styled suit, and a turban. He was carrying a football and a Seattle Mariners gym bag. "Why, I say, I have never witnessed such a horrendous defamation of haberdashery."

"Trouble for sure," John Cougar agreed, "we've got to warn Stephanie."

"Aye, John, that bugger's fully wigged, yet no one even bats an eye," Lizzie observed, "'tis astounding that he can pass himself off thusly, as a blooming Moslem terrorist pimp, and not attract even a single Bobby."

Lizzie dialed up Stephanie on her chatty phone and watched as Steph stared around until she realized it was her own phone ringing. She fumbled in a belt pouch for her Nextel, before finally answering on the seventh ring.

"Huh?" Steph asked, managing to slur the single word.

"Stephanie, it's me, it's Lizzie. There's a right batty fuck in the crowd on your right…on the sidewalk." Lizzie excitedly reported, happy to see Steph starting to look around. "He's dressed in a dreadful Saturday Night Feverish suit and he's got a bomb shaped like a football. He's carrying a Mariners gym bag, and I'd bet a ten quid he's got a gun in it."

"Damn…you're right," Steph exclaimed as she noted Abdullah about thirty feet away, "god, how could I have missed him. I despise the Mariners."

"Steph, you've got to do something!" Lizzie cried into her phone. "He could hurt a lot of innocent people."

"No one's innocent," Steph replied philosophically, as she often did while drunk, "I'll shoot him…hold on." She tossed her longneck away, over the fender.

Steph stood up unsteadily in the back of the limo and drew her Glock. She slipped the safety off and aimed towards where Abdullah stood in the crowd, panning the barrel and causing the crowd to panic. They were beginning to stampede and there were only seconds before the terrorist acted. Stephanie was drunk and indecisive. Should she aim for his bomb and blow him up? The idea was almost too attractive, but he was just passing in front of a large flat looking family that was rooted in place against a wall, as if in terror. Steph squinted as she watched the mother's face cross her sights. What a hideous woman, she thought, she's got a face like a cartoon character…shooting her would be a mercy killing. She nearly discharged a round on principal.

While hitting the bomb was a sure thing at ending the threat, Steph figured that it would also cause about 100 casualties due to the collateral blast damage. Should she try for a headshot…on Abdullah, not the woman? Steph shifted her sights to the terrorist. With a handgun fired from a moving car, it would be an iffy shot. She could easily hit a bystander by accident. Alright, Stephanie finally decided, it'll be the bomb then…. At least no one could sue her for accidentally shooting a civilian, even though she was lurching drunk. Time slowed down, as it does in fanfic at the height of the action. Somewhere behind the limo, a car's tires screamed as it accelerated. Steph exhaled and relaxed, her finger squeezing gently on the trigger.

"What are you doing!!!" Captain Martinez shrieked as she popped up in Steph's sights.

Stephanie twitched. The Glock barked. Oops, Steph exclaimed silently, (Author's note: can one exclaim silently? Gotta ask the editor.), as the captain's body was flung out of the limo by the impact of the 9mm hollow point bullet. It had opened a perfect round hole in her forehead. The exit wound would be the size of an orange.

"Well, hey, hey, hey," the mayor exclaimed, turning away from waving at the crowd and noticing for the first time that Stephanie had drawn her sidearm. "That wasn't very nice."

Not my day, Steph decided, seeing Abdullah beginning to move. He was preparing to pitch the football underhanded as he charged at the limo. Stephanie watched him in her sights against a questionably rendered backdrop of painted children. God they're ugly kids, but, oh what the hell, she thought, you only live once. She'd come a long way from Bakersfield. Abdullah had just stepped off the curb, lunging forward. Steph depressed the trigger, dispensing another bullet.

Only this one more round was fired that day. Stephanie's second shot punched into the football as it left Abdullah's hand. A fireball and shock wave filled the street. The limo capsized sideways, flinging the guests-of-honor out onto the street. Mad Abdullah disintegrated in a bloody vapor, leaving only his Florshiems. A few remaining bystanders were flung several yards. Steph thought she heard tires squealing and people screaming, but her head was ringing too loud to be sure. Well, that could have gone better, her forebrain said groggily, cause I really feel like shit. The singed kitten had limped over and was nuzzling Steph desperately just as Lizzie slammed to a halt, her brakes screeching in protest.

"Oh my god, Stephanie," Lizzie cried, trembling on her springs, "you're hurt. Someone help her, help her, please." Tears of windshield washer fluid leaked across her hood.

John Cougar leapt from the passenger's side and moved to check Steph's condition. Around them, the few remaining people who were watching reacted in confusion, pointing and staring, but struck dumb for the moment. The sheer improbability of a talking cougar, and a car without a driver calling for help, had immobilized them. Steph took it all in and thought, here comes trouble.

"Lizzie, John," Steph choked out, still in shock from the blast, "people are seeing you. You're not acting normal. They'll take you both and chop you up to see what makes you tick." Stephanie was terrified for her friends. "You've got to get out of here, now."

In her state of mind; drunk, traumatized, and with a concussion scrambling her brains, Steph had a moment of clarity. The kitten was still nuzzling her, and it triggered a new hope. She thought back to the only living person that she had ever met who could accept what her friends were. A place in the middle of nowhere where they might just be safe.

"John, take this kitten," Steph implored, "Lizzie, get them out of here. Drive south to Kettleman City off I-5, north of Bakersfield. Go to 64 General Petroleum Ave. and find the girl. Go now, please." For a moment it felt almost like…destiny. And then the welcome blackness surrounded Stephanie Walker as she lost consciousness.

John Cougar gently smoothed Steph's hair, and then noticed people pointing at them. They were shouting and starting to move. Steph was right. They'd end their lives in a lab somewhere, and probably wind up in pieces preserved in jars. John Cougar couldn't even think of that happening to Lizzie. He scooped up the kitten and jumped back into the passenger's seat. As the crowd started surging forward, the Mini Cooper fled, tires screaming, leaving behind a cloud of burnt rubber and a pair of black streaks on the macadam. On the wall backing the scene, a mural of neighborhood families looked on.

Lizzie drove as she had never driven before. She wove through the traffic on Market St. in a suicidal fashion, while John Cougar sat, white knuckled in the passenger's seat with his eyes clenched shut. The kitten had hidden in the back, crying pitifully in terror as tires squealed and horns honked outside. Lizzie oversteered and drifted around the turn onto Van Ness Ave. at almost 65-mph. She hit the U.S.-101 entrance ramp, sluing around the curve with shrieking tires, and then fled south out of San Francisco. Through her tears she swore she'd follow Stephanie's last request, and though it was killing her to leave her beloved friend behind, she knew their lives depended on it. She swore she'd not be stopped or taken, and that nothing would happen to John Cougar or the little kitten.

The small yellow car was flying, topping 85-mph as she hit the long ramp from U.S.-101 to I-280. She never looked back. John Cougar had slapped Steph's rotating emergency beacon onto the dashboard, started the siren, and then assumed a crash position. Within 15 minutes after the blast, they were already passing Woodside Glens. Lizzie didn't lower her speed to blend in with traffic until she reached San Jose, taking U.S.-85 to U.S.-101. She was playing "The Ride of the Valkyrie".

In Gilroy, about 80 miles from San Francisco, Lizzie left the highway, taking SR-152, east towards the San Luis State Rec. Area. The secondary road led through uplands and the Pacheco Pass, then skirted the San Luis Reservoir, crossing on the dam, and finally intersecting with I-5. The Mini Cooper headed south on I-5, through the central desert, for 90 boring miles. It was 4:30 p.m. when she finally pulled off onto SR-41. Lizzie was panting in the dry air, and her petrol tank was nearly empty, but she'd made it. Two miles north of the highway lay the dismal town of Kettleman City.

At first Lizzie thought that Steph had been delirious when she saw their destination. The place was sun baked and sleepy, and nothing was moving as far as the eye could see. It seemed to be a neo-ghost town. The grand sounding General Petroleum Ave. was a worn two-lane asphalt road, lined with prefab houses and a run-down convenience store. The Mini Cooper minced on her tires, the asphalt underfoot decomposing into gravel and tar, semi-liquid in the heat. In the distance, oil pumps rocked slowly back and forth, creating a mesmerizing monotony that condemned the landscape to an expectant tension.

64 General Petroleum Ave. was a small tract house with weathered vinyl siding that might once have been puce. The ultraviolet radiation from the afternoon sun seemed to be yellowing it right before their eyes. It had been hideous when new and looked all the worse for wear. Lizzie and John Cougar stared at the house and then looked at each other. They couldn't decide which of them should go up to the door. Finally it was the kitten that went. He'd easily convinced them that only he could appear at all normal to the naked eye and gain the trust of any possible inhabitants.

The little cat walked up to the house and hooked the screen door with a claw, pulling it open and then letting it slam closed. When he got no response, he repeated the action, slamming the screen door repeatedly until a voice inside called out, "Come in, it's open. I'm free for an hour." The kitten sat and looked back at his companions and shrugged. Inside the car, John Cougar groaned and motioned for him to continue slamming the door. He did just that. Finally after about 5 minutes, a young woman stomped through her living room and tore the door open. She was pissed off and stared at the bright yellow car out on the street, noticing that the slouching figure inside it was wearing a fedora. She'd never seen a fedora outside of the "Indiana Jones" movies. Finally, she looked down and saw the kitten. He wove around her ankles, rubbing his fur against her skin and melting her heart.

Chapter Teen

Hi, I'm Michelle Allen. I'm 20 years old now, but I was 19 when things got interesting. People I know sometimes me call me Chelle, (pronouncing it like Shelly, even though it should be like Shell, ya know? People are so stupid!). So anyway…my friends, (and other people I don't know), call me Michelle, Ms. Allen…or Candy, (teehee).

(Author's note: Ok, that's sorta embarrassing. I was young, and well, you know, I'd grown up wearing midriff tees that said Pornstar. I started swimming at the YMCA in a wicked weasel when I was 13, and I went to school in my first latex mini-dress at 15, so hey, what was I supposed to think? Anyway, like my email thingie says, chellesok now. So, anyway, I'm gonna like, trust ya not to tell Steph until I can somehow figure out how to ease the topic into an innocent conversation, preferably after a few beers.)

It had been another stiflingly hot, overly bright day in mid-September, just like every other day between January and December. I'd guess it was about 115°F, because it always was. The TV was on as usual, since there wasn't anything to do in Kettleman City but watch TV, drink, smoke cigarettes, and have sex. It was even too hot to masturbate until after dark. Take my word for it, I know. I grew up there trying to do it in a bathtub full of tepid water. So anyway, enough about that until I know you better, (grin).

I can count the number of unexpected things that have happened in my life on one finger. That event occurred one day when I was 9, and I met a beautiful, mysterious woman dressed as a hooker, crying in the shadow of her old car. She was stopped at the dead end on Becky Pease St., and I was running away from home with my talking cat. That was 11 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday because I fantasized about that woman almost every day. In Kettleman City, she passed for glamorous.

She was drunk and I was miserable, so she seemed like good company. When I asked her if she'd been crying, she looked at me funny and offered me a seat. I accepted and told her my problems, while she listened, genuinely concerned. I had recently lost my mother, and that morning my father had nearly died of his allergies. He was demanding that I take my only friend to the vet to be put to sleep. Barney the Cat had been my oldest and closest friend since I was 5, and I was willing to leave home to protect him. In the end, the woman talked me out of running away and promised to save Barney. I was heartbroken at having to go on without him, but he told me it was for the best, and so she drove away with him. I prayed every night that he was safe and happy.

Anyway, with a history of talking to my cat and being naturally sorta withdrawn, I did the obvious thing. I overcompensated and became a tart. I was addicted to glamour after meeting Stephanie, and like any good father, my dad encouraged me.

My dad was in charge of security for the oil field. Mostly, he was bored. Not many people steal oil, ya know? (He said it was crude). So anyway, I guess he just started to indulge his darker side after my mom died. He stayed wired on caffeine, constantly watched professional wrestling, and bought a compound bow and hunting arrows. There was nothing to shoot at, so even I knew he was crazy. Still, I loved him because he bought me the sexiest clothes and encouraged me to "flaunt it". I know he loved me. He understood what I needed to know to succeed, so he showed me instructional videos and lots of hot pics. Eventually, we did "workshops" together, you know, like, late at night and on the weekends. He called them "Sarah-gutsy" training…or something like that. Well, anyway, he said that I'm not supposed to talk about it, so…nevermind.

At 17, I graduated from Corcoran High School in Corcoran, (duh), California, and then settled into a really dull day job at the convenience store. That's where I got addicted to Skittles. It was boring and it sucked. I was working up the nerve to go to Los Angeles and become a prostitute, because for years I'd assumed that's what that woman I'd met was. On that momentous afternoon, I'd been watching the Sex Channel on CableBlue, before the yellow car showed up and the pounding started on the door. (I was taking their home study course on "adult services careers"). When I noticed the cougar with the fedora, slouching in the front seat, and the bob kitten on my doorstep, I knew a change had arrived. I was ready…I'd been ready for the last eight years.

I could tell there was no way this day was normal, thank god, so I scooped up the kitten, thinking he'd want milk. Actually, he mostly wanted to talk. The poor thing was practically beside himself, babbling on and on about an explosion in San Francisco, and how insane the yellow car drove. Then he begged me to hide the three of them so they wouldn't get "chopped up to see what made them tick". I was curious myself, but I could sympathize with not wanting to end up in pieces, preserved in a jar somewhere. Besides, even I knew that it was impossible to really understand what makes another person tick.

To be honest, I had started off wondering about the kitten's story. It sounded so far fetched that I suspected he'd gotten some bad tuna and was reiterating a nightmare. Then I realized that I should question his friends outside. I set him down in front of the TV with a saucer of milk, and walked outside into the blazing heat. The little yellow car was still there, and the cougar was lounging on the curb in the car's shadow. They eyed me questioningly, the car tilting on its tires to watch my approach.

"Hey guys, kitty there tells me you've fallen on some rough times," I said, "but his narrative was a bit fragmented, so I was wondering if you could fill me in."

It seemed like they both breathed sighs of relief. The cougar grinned at me, which was a bit unnerving considering his teeth, and tipped his hat. I smiled. He was a gentleman, a nonexistent quantity in Kettleman City, where the usual mode of greeting I got included a leer and a flashing of cash.

"I'm Michelle," I told them, "what're your names?"

"Lizzie Cooper here," the car began politely, "and allow me to introduce my dear friend, John Cougar. The kitten doesn't have a name yet, poor dear, at least not a one that we rightly know. We live in San Francisco, but we've had to fly the coop, don't ya know. Our dearest friend is still there, but she's dreadfully hurt, and I'm so very worried about her. I do apologize heartily for simply appearing on your doorstep, Michelle, but aye, hard times have befallen us indeed." By the end of her statement, Lizzie's front end was drooping and she was shaking her fenders back and forth sadly. John Cougar draped a paw on her roof and stroked her reassuringly.

The poor thing looked so sad, and god, did I love her accent. I knew I had to help them.

"Why don't you come up to the house? You must be tired after your trip, and I can offer you some refreshments. Then, you can tell me what happened, and if you want, we can figure out what to do."

They agreed without too much prompting, and I led Lizzie to the carport next to the kitchen. She breathed a sigh of relief once she'd settled in the shade. I brought out a frozen pizza and set it on the driveway to cook, and then turned on the lawn sprinkler to cool off my guests. John Cougar requested seltzer with a twist of lemon. I gave Lizzie 5 gallons of fresh, homemade high-test gasoline, and replenished her fluids and battery electrolyte. The kitten had finished his milk, and wandered out to join us. I had pulled up a folding recliner and a raspberry wine cooler. I'd put on my neon yellow wicked weasel suit and Foster-Grants, and I was amused to see John Cougar gulp as I adjusted the thong. After we settled in, enjoying the shade as the shadows of the late afternoon lengthened, it was time for a serious talk. With a sigh, Lizzie began to relate their story.

Well, it was the most incredible thing I'd ever heard. I was completely entranced, eating up every detail. Lizzie Cooper and John Cougar traded off their narration of the events of the last year and 9 months. I was thinking, movie script. Ya see, in my spare time I write fiction and stuff, mostly porn, but also some sci-fi, horror, and mystery. I can't even remember when I started; it was so long ago. Anyway, the tale those two told me was beyond anything that I could ever remember hearing. The audiences would eat it up just like I had. We would all be rich and famous, and back then, I couldn't imagine wanting anything else. Long before they finished, I was wondering, what had happened before Lizzie and John had entered their friend's life. I was kinda hoping it hadn't been boring.

One thing that I'm sure you'll think was incredible, was that I didn't put two and two together. Yes, their friend and the woman I was fixated on were both named Stephanie Walker, but I figured that the name was common enough that their friend and the woman I'd met were two different people. I mean, I had discovered that the woman who had taken my cat was named Stephanie Walker, that she was from Bakersfield, and that she'd disappeared right after graduating from Bakersfield High School at the top of her class. That was about it. I figured that she must have gone to L.A. and become a Pornstar. Why else was she dressed like such a slut, and how else could she afford that car? She'd been drunk, and she'd smelled like a brewery smokestack. I'd guessed that she'd been crying because she was either disadvantageously pregnant or had learned that she had an infection. I never expected to see her again, but she'd inspired me and I'd emulated her.

The woman they described was a cop, a hero, and even I had heard about her between songs on the radio news. I didn't read a newspaper or watch the TV news, just movies, music vids, and educational programs on CableBlue, the Sex Channel. I mean, why bother? Nothing ever happened in Kettleman City and the rest of the world didn't even know we existed. For all practical purposes, we didn't. Hence my constant search for notoriety, fame, and glamour. (I'd made a start at least. The guys in town knew me, called at all hours of the day, and always greeted me on the streets with wolf whistles and 1-hour job offers.). Deep inside, I couldn't have believed these two women were the same. I mean, I'd built my whole life around the glamorous image of what I thought she was. It would have required me to acknowledge that everything I'd ever done was wrong.

Between the three of us, we decided that Lizzie and John should lay low for a while. We watched the news together on the aging Mitsubishi in the living room. The glass doors to the back yard allowed Lizzie to pull up on the lawn and watch too. In San Francisco, people were trying to sort out the terrorist attack on the parade. CNN was carrying the story with updates every half-hour, but before midnight, they had nothing new to add. For "security purposes", no mention was made of the whereabouts of Sergeant Stephanie Walker, the mayor, or the police commissioner. The low quality pictures they showed of her, in her bomb disposal HAZMAT suit, could have been anyone with dark hair pulled back and sunglasses. The rumors of a talking car and cougar were a comic sidebar, and the witnesses had been discounted as traumatized or crazy.

I switched the cable off and played a DVD of "Babes Behind Bars", one of my personal favorites. The plot was a bit thin, but the women were so beautiful that I could ignore the fact that they stared at the camera while delivering their lines. Within 5 minutes I could tell it was a mistake. John Cougar was peeking at the screen from between his paws, and Lizzie was blushing orange. They weren't appreciating the soft jazz soundtrack either.

I sighed, thinking, prudes, and switched it for the "Return to Oz" DVD. They loved it and took everything at face value. Fairuza Balk's portrayal of the delusional little Dorothy Gale reflected their own world. Like Steph, Dorothy lived in a world of talking animal friends and improbable adventures. But where Dorothy had been alone in her belief in the Land of Oz, Stephanie Walker had allies. There were other parallels. The friendly, happy Land of Oz was surrounded by a deadly desert that could turn the living into sand. I went into the bathroom to lie in the tub since the house was finally cooling off enough to…never mind.

Later that night, after entertaining my "Sunday night regular", I had to awaken Lizzie from a bad dream. She was sputtering and grinding her gears in the carport, having a nightmare about the Gnome King. The poor sensitive thing was so apologetic and finally broke down and admitted that she was scared and lonely. I ended up crawling into the back seat and curling up. We chatted in whispers for a while before finally dozing off. The next morning my back was as stiff as a nice hard…uh, never mind…from sleeping curled up funny without a pillow between my thighs.

The next day we watched the CNN news and heard that a few details had been released. The mayor was recovering at an undisclosed location and the election had been postponed for a month. The police commissioner was recovering at an undisclosed location and there were rumors of his resignation. A police captain was found dead, and the official word was that she was the only person shot by the terrorist.

Several days later, we heard that Sergeant Stephanie Walker had been stabilized at an undisclosed location and then flown to Walter Reed Army Hospital, in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Md. Apparently this was done for her protection from further terrorist retribution that was suspected by the FBI. We decided to sit tight for the time being.

About the only thing of interest to this story that happened during the two weeks following the explosion in San Francisco was that we named the kitten. He'd been getting whiny about being called "the kitten", and Lizzie had insisted that Steph believed anyone who could voice an opinion should have a name. I'd caught her on the Internet, searching through websites filled with baby names. Some of them were pretty appalling. To John Cougar, who had existed for years without a name, the concept was less imperative, but Lizzie was adamant. We decided to call him Homey the Kitten. He hated it and went off to sulk. Later on we all gave in to his desires and agreed to call him Elvis the Kitten. (Author's note: the self-aggrandizing little shit.)

As the weeks went by and no more terrorist activity came to light, the stories disappeared from the news. The media has a short attention span, knowing their consumers, and so we began to realize that when Stephanie returned to San Francisco, there was no guarantee that the TV would tell us.

We later found out that Steph had been trapped in the Walter Reed Army Hospital for a total of five and a half weeks. It was one of the most dismal times in her life. At first her injuries had restrained her, but dark forces were at work too. The FBI had actually been superseded by a special government "research group". They had reason to believe that there was some truth to the stories about a talking car and cougar that associated with Sgt. Walker. As always, they were thinking about strategic applications, but to Steph, her friends were never going to become a government black box project. They were her family.

When it became clear that Stephanie wouldn't tell them what they wanted to hear, they threatened to destroy her career by leaking the fact that she'd shot Capt. Martinez. Steph laughed at them. She knew the media and the people loved her. So the Feds stepped up the pressure. They'd already been keeping Steph drugged, attempting to break her by enforcing her helplessness. Now they upped the dosages. They were counting on the damage to her strong sense of self-reliance to make her crack. When even that didn't work, they switched tactics again. They sicced the freelance agent, Connie Stanton, on her. By the time we freed her, it was almost too late. She'd been brainwashed and at first, her friends could barely recognize her.

 

Chapter Eelheaven (teehee)

Connie Stanton found Stephanie retching in her hospital room, having just finished a dinner of synthetic coagulated fish protein extract. (The orderly had told Steph that it was a religious thingie and they always had fish on Friday. The week before, they'd served capybara puree). Stephanie was dying for a Bud and a cheeseburger with extra hot salsa on top. At least she'd succeeded in obtaining some of her Camels. Now, the nurses measured out Steph's mouthwash and counted out her pills, but they hadn't caught the phantom smoker, yet.

Connie made herself useful by holding up a chamber pot for Steph. At least she was supposed to eat before taking her pills, Connie thought, even if she couldn't keep the nauseating pap down. Con had quickly moved to join her, looking lovingly at her patient, wiping her mouth, and offering her the hand written copy of the poem she'd penned that afternoon. At first Steph didn't understand, thinking that perhaps Connie had come to deliver further torture in the form of some new doctor's orders. She read the words and realized that Connie had expressed her heart in a poem, and she appreciated the tongue-in-cheek humor. She read Connie's lines to herself. It wasn't quite a haiku.

When you drop your drawers,

I see the moon,

And the stars of Hollywood,

Can bite my sleeve.

Steph looked over at Connie, seeing obsessive love festering in her emerald green eyes. She smiled. She'd been in the hospital room long enough without privacy that she found Connie's company increasingly stimulating. Somehow, Stephanie just didn't want to pleasure herself with only a curtain for a wall. She tended to be loud.

"So, did you like it?" Connie self-consciously asked, bringing Steph back from her ruminations. Con was blushing and looking at the floor. She was standing at the bed rail, still clutching Steph's chamber pot. Why, it was somewhat like the disturbingly happy blonde she remembered, leaning on a ship's rail and holding a small urn, in a TV show's series finale. (Steph had always thought she should have been miserable). Connie was recalling another image from the same show. (The scene of a dark warrior being presented with a love verse by an adoring and manipulative hostage). She never failed to be impressed with the way life imitated art. It felt almost like…like destiny.

"It's funny…I'm tickled that you would write it for me, Con," Steph replied, hedging. She found Connie's expression a little troubling. The poem was horrible.

"Oh, sweetheart, it's exactly how I feel about you," Connie gushed, softly wheezing, "I really put my heart into it. It took me all afternoon to get the words right, and I'm so happy that you like it. I'm going to be a writer. I find that I can say things with words that escape me when we're just speaking with, uhhh, you know, with words."

"For example, saying that you like my ass," Steph kidded with a wink.

"It's so much more than that," Connie responded, breathless and practically swooning, "it expresses my complete focus on our 'us'. I employed the moon almost like a simile, as a metaphor for the luminosityness of your love that could become the light of my nights, outshining all the others, ya know?" Connie dug an inhaler out of a pocket of her lab jacket and took a couple puffs. What a mouthful, Stephanie thought.

Steph looked at Connie with an expression of indulgent sadness that Connie took as a look of committed love. This is so pathetic, Steph thought, she's absolutely serious.

It was simply the most recent in a succession of incidents proceeding a pathetic and ill-fated tryst, based on the projections of one woman's fantasies, and the other woman's forced abstention and horniness. (Author's note: How very sordid, teehee.)

 

It was mid-November 2001, and two months had gone by since the explosion. Once a week, we'd driven out to different town to call Steph's house, but we never got a person to answer. Finally one afternoon, after calling from Fresno and getting the answering machine again, Lizzie decided it was time to go home. John Cougar agreed, saying that he could only leave the land untended for so long before the ecosystem broke down. I didn't really understand his reasoning, but I went along to sit in the driver's seat as cover.

The day before we left, I took Lizzie to the Speedy Finish Shop in Bakersfield, and had her painted a deep royal blue. She looked gorgeous and glossy, and she was really happy with her new colored baked enamel. Best of all, she wouldn't be easily recognized.

"Why, Michelle, thank you ever so much for the new outfit," she joyfully said, "I feel as if I'm decked out for the holidays, like Cinderella off to the ball." She was so sweet, and seeing her happiness made me fell really good.

"You look very lovely, hon," I told her, "that shade of blue is very becoming on you."

Bright and early the next morning, we locked up the house. It was still warm during the daylight, but the night temperatures could be downright chilly. Further north it was cool and damp; the start of the rainy season in the Pacific Northwest along the coast. I wore blue jean cutoffs, vintage LA Gear sneakers, and a powder blue baby doll tee that said "Pornstar" in glitter across my chest. I'd packed a small overnight bag and brought Elvis' dishes and litterbox.

"We're so indebted to you, Michelle, for your wonderful hospitality, don't you know," Lizzie said as she released her parking brake, "you've been a blessing to us, 'tis the gods' honest truth."

"It's really true," John Cougar said when I began to protest, "Steph was right to trust you. You've kept Lizzie and me safe these past few weeks. I doubt that we can ever repay you for your kindness."

It was one of the first times I'd experienced honest gratitude, but then, I wasn't given to being a benefactor. It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, rather than hot and slick inside, a condition I was much more familiar with. I'll admit I kinda liked it since it was so much less messy.

Lizzie pulled out of the driveway and onto General Petroleum Ave., headed for SR-41. As we rolled down her windows, she put on some tunes, hard rockin' oldies to begin our trip. Rachel Sweet blasted through her speakers, "Tonight", "Jealous", "Spellbound", and "Foul Play", from her second album, "Protect The Innocent". It had been released in 1979, 22 years ago. The music was older than I was and I was hearing it for the first time. When the first song started, I'd thought it was early Pat Benetar, but it was harder, faster, and rawer. Sweet had been 17 when the album was recorded, but by then she'd already been a professional musician for 12 years. The album ended and another began. this time, Lizzie was playing Lene Lovitch, from her 1979 "Stateless" album. She was another artist I'd never heard before, a pioneer of the old New Wave. There was humor in her lyrics, and she used her clear, theatrical, highly controlled voice to give the numbers a unique character. Lizzie finished her eclectic set with "Milano Calibro 9", by the Italian art rock band, Osanna. I heard hard heavy tunes like the old King Crimson, a fast breathless flute that reminded me of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, and melodic orchestral ballads.

"Where did you find this music, Lizzie? I've never heard of any of these people."

"Oh, why I've some friends at the radio stations in San Francisco," she told me, "and they're bloody wizardly at music. Those chaps know every blooming song recorded in the last fifty years, they do, and they've made me countless CDs, God bless 'em."

The trip up I-5 passed quickly as the miles flew by. John Cougar and Elvis the Kitten were quiet in the back seat, neither being veteran automobile passengers, and both still nervous from their previous trip. The distance from my house in Kettleman City, to Steph's house in Sausalito, was about 220 road miles, and the drive took almost 5 hours. We finally pulled off of East Rd., and into Stephanie's driveway, at 2:00 pm.

At first sight, Lizzie Cooper and John Cougar reported that the premises looked unchanged, though we assumed that the FBI had probably broken in and searched the house and grounds. Sure enough, when we got further up the driveway, we could see craters in the yard from several exploded land mines. At the house, Lizzie used her garage door opener to disarm the alarm systems. After a programmed delay, the door slid sideways in a track along the wall, rather than rolling upwards as expected. As soon as we were inside, Lizzie closed up the garage door and reset the outside alarms.

John Cougar, Elvis the Kitten, and I climbed out and looked around. There was some evidence of disturbance; some DVDs out of place and furnishings moved around. Lizzie turned on a video monitor with a remote that John plugged into her cell phone outlet. She rapidly reset a DVD-RW disc and we watched the surveillance recording from one of the many cameras around the house and grounds. There would be a set of discs, each fed from a different camera, and each triggered to record when the alarm system was tripped.

We witnessed four incidents of intrusion. The first two had been aborted when Steph's countermeasures caused casualties among the trespassers. The third intrusion had seen the rifling of the rooms' furnishings, a moderately through search that proceeded at a slow and paranoid pace. They'd been inside the house for over three hours and had left with very little "evidence". The last incident had been for the purpose of planting listening devices in the hopes of learning if anyone entered.

The bugs were of two types. The first kind sensed sounds in the house and would activate its microphones whenever a noise was detected. Somewhere in a remote office, an agent would be listening and recording whatever the microphones picked up, ready to dispatch a team of agents to the house. They must have become very bored. Stephanie had rigged her house with a tone generator that filled the rooms with white noise when she wasn't home, and the bugs would have been activated by the constant buzzing.

The second type of bug was activated when the telephones rang or a computer modem initialized. These reported on conversations and Internet usage. Stephanie's phone lines were protected by a pulse generator that burned out the bugs' circuits on a regular basis. They had probably been rendered inoperable in the first half-hour after their installation. They would have required hourly replacement since.

Lizzie pointed out a sliding panel in the ceiling and told me to open it and retrieve a circuit detector. I spent the next 20 minutes searching out the bugs and removing them. I finally had a collection of a dozen small devices. Lizzie had me microwave them all for 30 seconds on HI. After that, I went outside and flung them over the cliff into the bay. John Cougar had wandered outside with a mini-DV cam the size of a cigarette pack.

When I came back in, Lizzie was already online, her "chatty phone" wired to a computer with voice recognition software. She was searching websites for clues to Steph's whereabouts. I watched in awe as she hacked into the patient database for Walter Reed and found out that Steph had been discharged ten days before. She sighed and logged off. John Cougar unplugged the cell phone from the modem and Lizzie Cooper started autodialing.

"Good day, Lizzie Cooper here, would you be so kind as to connect me with Maxwell Blackthorne, the program director, if you please," Lizzie asked politely of someone who had answered her call. She waited a few moments before someone picked up on the other end.

"Oh yes, it has been a while, hasn't it. Dear me, I've just returned home, but I've become privy to some exceptional footage exposing a scandal…if you're interested of course."

She listened for a while, and I would have sworn she was smiling.

"Blimey, Maxwell, it's a bloody shame what I've seen. Surely I can leave you with a tape. You'll send a courier straight away? That would be capitol, Maxwell. I'll leave it with my assistant, Michelle…yes, she's new here. Of course we can arrange a luncheon, somehow between your schedule and mine. Oh I'll be sure to have my people call yours. Capitol, Maxwell, top of the day to you…cheerio." And with that she rang off.

"So, uh, what was that all about?" I asked, curious about how I'd come to be her assistant.

"Well, luv, we've some dubbing to do. Now if you'd be so kind, would you and John make VHS copies of the surveillance DVDs? I've arranged to have them shown on Bay Watch, on the 5:00 p.m. edition, don't you know?" Lizzie giggled, imagining the FBI's embarrassment.

It was within my area of interest. Media manipulation and image broadcast, the keys to glamour and stardom. I could learn a few tricks from Lizzie. We set to work, making two tapes from the DVDs. The first showed the FBI breaking in and searching Steph's house. The second showed them planting bugs. Lizzie Cooper was plugged into an editing board, writing text explaining the footage, when a monitor lit up showing the courier's motorcycle at the East Rd. gate. I buzzed him in and watched as he drove up to the house. By the time he rang the doorbell, the tape was finished and I met him at the door. (He spent the entire time ogling my breasts. He was nice about it though…he didn't drool on my tee. I rewarded him with a jiggle and a pout, getting the expected reaction. I figured if it was hard…riding like that.)

Lizzie had spent the rest of the afternoon on the web, trying to find clues as to where Stephanie had disappeared to. I wandered around the house, trying to straighten up the mess that the agents had left. I felt like I was intruding into the life of a very private person. Aside from clothing and the photographs, there were very few personal items to be seen. There were no family pictures or any of the knick-knacks I had expected. There were some framed photos of Stephanie's friends, an old car, a bobcat, a Japanese man in BDUs, and a pig. There were some shots of a series of railroad cars overlooking a cliff with the bay in the background, and I realized they had once sat where Steph's house now stood. There were only a few images with Steph herself in them, mostly group shots. There were no portraits of her at all. There was a story here for sure.

Stephanie's wardrobe was dominated by black BDUs, but there were also some civilian clothes, nice casual wear, some really slutty looking pieces, and a lot of shoes. I held up a pair of jeans, worn pale by years of washing, and realized that Steph was very tall. The cuffs hung 4" below the soles of my feet, and even in stilettos I would have tripped over a couple inches of cloth. I held up a jumpsuit and noted that Stephanie would probably stand a head taller than me, at least.

I looked at the photos again. There was one taken of her in an Army MPs uniform, standing with a company of soldiers in a desert somewhere. They were posing in front of a Humvee with "Chrissie" scrawled across the doors in chalk. She was as tall as anyone there. The next photo showed Steph with a bobcat, sitting on the hood of an old car. She was smiling at the camera, with the bay in the background. It showed her closer, and it was the first time I had seen her face clearly. She was a dark haired beauty with pale blue eyes. Her expressive mouth curved up at the corners, and was fuller, almost pouty, at the center…very kissable. I was standing about 6" from the glass in the frame, staring at her image without blinking. There was something about those eyes; the earnest, almost sad expression on her face, despite the smile that curled her lips. I'd seen that look before.

I reeled away from the picture on the wall and collapsed onto the bed that lay in the center of the room. The mattress was warm, and it gave slightly under my weight before rebounding, raising my body before letting it sink back down again. A waterbed. I hardly noticed. I was a little girl again, looking up into a kindly woman's face while sitting in the shadow of her car. I was 9 years old and I was running away from home to save my cat; to save the life of my only friend. She had been there and she had been here. And she had been in my heart for more than half my life. I had been so totally wrong about her and everything I had believed was wrong too. My whole life had been based on a false dream, and one picture had brought it crashing down. My Stephanie Walker was this Stephanie Walker. The girl who had disappeared after graduating from Bakersfield High was the same woman who had become a hero in San Francisco, not a prostitute or a pornstar in LA.

I probably lay there crying for over an hour. Elvis found me curled in a ball on Steph's waterbed, sobbing quietly. I felt him snuggle up against me and I heard the rumbling of his purr. It was the most comforting thing I could imagine. I gathered him closer against my chest and held him, letting the warm contact with his fur sooth me. Eventually my tears ceased and I drifted off into a sleep that was troubled by unwelcome dreams. I remembered the last one.

I was standing on a street corner in a seedy part of a nameless city. It was a summer night and I was dressed for work. The shorts I wore showed the bottoms of my ass cheeks clearly, my legs taut in 5" heels. The fabric was sheer and clingy, and showed no panty lines because I wasn't wearing any. I shimmied to adjust myself in my hot pink tube top, noting that I had placed tiny rubber bands around my nipples to keep them prominently pointed. The tube was barely 5" wide and the curves at the bottoms of my breasts were revealed, along with an ample depth of cleavage. I was already heated and moist, so I knew I had been out for a while. I checked my tiny clutch bag. Sure enough, it held nothing but condoms and handy wipes, a cell phone and a roll of cash, breath mints and some basic makeup.

Across the street stood a nightclub with darkened windows and a few flashing lights above the door. A scattering of people were entering and exiting as I watched. I crossed the street to advertise myself close up; noting the appraising looks the patrons gave me. I watched their eyes, looking for the look that said they wanted more than a glance and were willing to pay for my company. I strutted slowly by them, looking them in the eyes. The letter of the law said I couldn't offer, but I could accept if they asked, so I waited for an offer of interest. There'd be a short negotiation and then a quick walk, either into the alley across the street, or to the motel around the corner that rented rooms by the hour. So far this group was just gawking. I turned my back and bent down to adjust the strap on my pump. I heard breaths being sucked in behind me, but still no one approached.

I'd stayed down as long as I needed to, to know that all I could expect was that they'd enjoyed seeing the wedgie from my tightened shorts. I had started to straighten back up when a pair of jeans came into my field of view. The snakeskin cowboy boots below the jeans had moved in a step away from me and I followed the long legs up to a swirling silver belt buckle and the bottom of a white dress shirt. It was a woman, I could tell from the jean-clad swell of her hips that had risen from the slenderness of her calves and thighs. I followed her shirt up across a flat belly to where it tightened across breasts that looked so full on her slender torso. Above her collar a slim neck rose to a beautiful face with defined cheekbones, a straight nose, tapered lips that were full at the center, and pale blue eyes darkened in the streetlights. She had elegantly curving brows and wore her dark auburn hair loose on her shoulders, where it fell in waves from a slight widow's peak at her hairline. She was looking intently at me, but her expression was somewhat sad. She moved closer and leaned down to whisper to me. Even in my 5" heels she was still half a head taller.

"Sweetheart," she said in a slightly raspy voice, "I'm so very sorry that you got the wrong idea about me and patterned your life after what you thought mine was like. I wish I had known. I wish I could have told you how things really were. I know it's too late now for any of that, but when we meet, I'll make it up to you somehow. I promise."

She leaned in closer towards me, wrapping my slim body in her strong arms, and I felt her breathing as she brought her mouth towards mine. My eyes were closing in anticipation, and then I felt her lips, so soft and warm. I whimpered into her mouth as her tongue stroked my open lips, before slipping inside where I stroked it with my own. I had wrapped my arms around her neck, and I was holding on for dear life. I could feel her breasts resting above mine, and I could feel her hands caressing the bare skin at the small of my back. I leaned into her body, pressing against her for the warmth and the security that I felt. It was as if I belonged there. We were breathing together, our chests rising and falling in tandem, and I was becoming extremely aroused by her kiss and her embrace. This had nothing to do with my profession.

"I want you with me, Michelle. I want to take care of you," she whispered as she reached up and cupped my cheek. For the first time that I could remember, it wasn't code talk for a trick.

Even though we were enjoying intense physical contact, I was stimulated way out of proportion to what was happening. I felt the pressure building in my belly and the heat throbbing between my legs. I was shamelessly thrusting myself against her thigh, my knees apart and bent, my back arched. My body was demanding this expression, and then I was cumming. I clutched at her, gasping, clenching my thighs as I rode out the spasms, as my insides tightened around themselves and jerked. A shot of slippery fluid squirted from my body in a gush of release. (Author's note: Yes, I'm a "squirter", which I'd thought would be an asset as a pornstar, but like everything, it has a downside.) My heart rate peaked, and for golden moments I felt the darkness calling as I nearly passed out. Then the orgasm subsided and my breathing slowed, and I slept dreamlessly.

When I awoke it was dark outside the bedroom windows. Someone had pulled a light blanket over me and slipped a pillow beneath my head. I was still dressed, but my shoes were lying on the floor. It must have been hours later. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, dislodging the crusts of dried tears. I didn't want to confront myself in a mirror.

When I started to sit up I felt a sharp painful pulling between my legs. Owwwww, I was stuck, damn it, pasted to my Jockeys by my now dried passion. This had happened before a few times, and usually I took the precaution of sleeping nude. I reached down and undid my belt, then unsnapped my cutoffs. I slowly slid a hand under my clothes and confirmed that it was going to be uncomfortable. Somehow the Jockeys had crawled, migrating to give me the wedgie I'd dreamed about, and now they were securely pasted to my lips. So much for my nice absorbent cotton underwear. Oh cruel world, I thought, as I struggled out of my cutoffs and socks. Walking gingerly, I tiptoed to the bathroom, trying my best not to move my pelvis. I'd found that sitting in a tub for a minute was less painful than just gritting my teeth and giving them a yank.

Eventually, I made it downstairs. I'd pulled on a pair of Steph's jogging shorts, (Author's note: Yeah, I know, but what could I do, Lizzie still had my overnight bag), and a pair of her panties that I'd found in a drawer. I'd also "borrowed" a bra and a black CK tank top. Though Steph was definitely taller, we had similar measurements on different length frames, and could wear some of the same clothes. Lizzie was glued to the TV while Elvis the Kitten was curled on the couch. John Cougar had gone out to check on the land.

"Good evening, Michelle," Lizzie said, tilting towards me on her tires, her grille seeming to pull up into a grin, "you've awakened just in time for the 10 o'clock Bay Watch. Oh you absolutely must see what Maxwell has presented. Why bless me, it's beyond priceless, if I do say so myself." She seemed quite pleased.

I sat on the couch next to Elvis and watched as the anchorwoman appeared. Her theatrically chiseled face radiated a smug expression, as though she'd done the nasty below her desk and then popped up just as the camera light went red.

"Blimey, Michelle, she looks like she's just done boffing the weatherman, she does," Lizzie commented, as if reading my mind, "why, she was beyond insufferable at 5:00."

I watched as she began her introductory monologue. She was still insufferable.

"Good evening, San Francisco. Welcome to the 10:00 p.m. edition of Bay Watch. Tonight we have obtained exclusive footage documenting a breach of the public's trust, on the part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Not only is what you are about to see an illegal intrusion into the home of a heroic citizen of the Bay City, but it's a blow to the civil rights guaranteed to us all under the law. I think most of you will also agree that the actions you are about to witness are a slap in the face to a woman who has, time and time again, proven her courage, her patriotism, and her dedication to law and order. Be aware that investigators for San Francisco Bay Watch are actively seeking the details of this story, and will not cease in their efforts until justice is done. Gerry, let's roll the tape."

And the footage played out. Somehow it began with a shot of the approach up the driveway from the road, panning across the yard to the mine craters. It showed Stephanie's home, with the cliffs and the view of the bay beyond. Then it cut to the interior shots from the surveillance cameras. It was clear, concise, and barely edited after Lizzie's compilation of the scenes. A voice over had been added, and I realized it had been drawn mostly from the text she had written. It showed the ransacking of Steph's rooms, with the time/date stamp clear in the lower right corner, ticking off the minutes of the crime. The screen shifted, and now it showed the agents bugging the phone lines and placing covert listening devices in Steph's living spaces.

I could imagine citizens across the city shivering, wondering if their privacy was as fragile as what they were seeing. They were ordinary people who viscerally feared the power of their government, at the same time they felt pride in their country's ideals and way of life. At best these incidents left them even more conflicted, at worst, disillusioned or even rebellious.

The presentation ended with a montage of pictures of Sgt. Stephanie Walker, SFPD. It showed her in uniform, years ago, on street patrol. It showed the destruction of her Chinatown apartment. It showed her giving the camera a thumbs up after disarming the shopping mall bomb in June of 2000. It showed her gazing at the camera with the atomic bomb behind her, her feet surrounded by a pile of parts. It showed a picture of her in the uniform of a US Army MP, guarding an Abrams tank in the Saudi desert, in the fall of 1990. And finally, it showed a picture of a much younger Steph, looking serious in a black dress. Below it were the words, Stephanie Walker-Valedictorian, President of the Class of 1989, Bakersfield High School, Captain of the Varsity Cheerleaders.

The screen shifted, cutting back to the anchorwoman. The smug look was gone, and I would have sworn that there were tears threatening her perfect eyes. She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath, and then she gazed into the camera, which obligingly pulled in to frame her face.

"Where is Stephanie Walker tonight? That's the question we need to answer now. She was secretly taken from St. Luke's Hospital by Federal agents, one week after foiling a terrorist attack at a parade through the financial district that was held in her honor. That was eight weeks ago. Informed sources have revealed that she was whisked to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Bethesda Md., and discharged ten days ago. She has not been heard from since and she has not come home. While she was recuperating, lying helplessly in a hospital bed in pain, agents of the U.S. government were searching her home and planting bugs on her phones. We have been unable to obtain a statement on either the intrusions at Sgt. Walker's home, or her current whereabouts. And so tonight we wonder, has San Francisco lost a hero? Have the American people lost a hero?"

The anchorwoman sighed and then passed the show over to the weatherman.

"Geeez, Lizzie, they really laid it on thick."

"Good old Maxwell, I knew I could count on him. He's a right stand up sort of chap, don't you know." She seemed to be nodding approvingly, making small up and down movements with her front end.

She clicked off the cable and started a DVD of "Return to Oz", the very same movie I'd shown her on her first night in Kettleman City. It had become her favorite. Soon I could hear her fretting and muttering about Dorothy's plight, strapped to a gurney against her will, in the hospital of Dr. J.B. Worley, the Electro-Healer. What had happened to Steph? Where was she now? I found myself dozing off again, wondering if we’d ever find out.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Excerpt from "Heart of a Diver", © C. Stanton

Alt Uber Complete

"Oh Bobbie," Kellie gushed as she wrapped her arms around her beautiful lover, barely able to believe such a gorgeous woman loved her too. "I feel as if I was born to love you, as if I've always loved you, and as if our love is bigger than either of us. Why it's as if it transcends our present lives, as if it transcends the greater good. I know I've loved you in all our past lives just as strongly as I love you now. I know a love like ours will never die, but will live on for eternity. Bobbie, just think about it, an eternity of lives and loves, with our souls bound together by the force of our love, because it's stronger than death or even life."

"Kellie, I've loved you since the first time I saw you," Bobbie replied in a passion-hushed whisper, her ice blue eyes hooded with her overriding passion. "I know what you're saying is true because I feel it too. I feel like I've lived over and over again just to find you and love you. I feel as if our souls have been together since some long ago time that's lost in the mists of the past. Maybe it was ancient Egypt, or Indus, or Greece. It doesn't matter, my love. What matters is that I've found you again and you're in my arms. I know my soul will find you and love you in every lifetime to come, because we were meant to be together…we're soulmates, Kellie, eternally bonded by our love."

"I know, my love, you're my heart, and I feel exactly the same," Kellie said as she pressed herself impossibly close to Bobbie, feeling her warmth and smelling her scent. "I want us to be married, and live in a beautiful house with two cats, and then we'll get my gay twin brother to donate sperm so you can bear our first daughter. Then your gay twin brother can donate and I'll carry our second daughter. It's what I've always wanted, but until we found each other again, it was just a dream."

"Baby, I feel exactly the same way. Isn't it amazing that we both have gay twin brothers and they're such wonderful and supportive people? I never thought I could have a family before I met you, but you've become the light of my life. I'd love to have a family together with you, and I can't wait for us to get married and live together for the rest of our lives."

"I love you so much, Bobbie."

"I love you too, Kellie, forever."

The End

 

"So what do you think, Stephie?" Connie asked, her legs bouncing as if she were trotting in her chair. She'd eaten an entire box of powdered doughnuts, and now the crumbs and sugar dust were covering every surface within reaching distance. Connie was wired on the sucrose, and she'd been typing furiously for most of the afternoon.

Geeezus, Steph thought as she read the final pages, it's obsessively cloying. I think it's actually more saccharine than those doughnuts. Connie's gagging me with this stuff; it's so sickeningly sweet. She's really gone overboard this time. I bet her blood sugar reading is off the charts. I mean, god, if my lover talked like that, I'd beat her to death in less than a week.

Steph lit a Camel and pretended to reread Connie's words. Across the table, Connie began to wheeze as the smoke filled the small den. Steph exhaled another lung full and took a swig from her Bud. What am I going to do, she asked herself, my lover does talk like that. A crooked grin lifted the corners of her lips. She'd been out of the hospital for almost a week.

"You like it," Connie gushed. She'd been watching every expression on Steph's face, attributing her glazed eyes to awe. "It says everything I wanted it to say. I can really see the characters, proclaiming their mutual love forever, and making plans for their future."

"Connie," Steph began seriously, "don't you think they're saying the same three things in as many ways as possible? It's like they're driving the topics into the ground."

"Nooo, Stephie. They're trying to clarify their feelings," Connie protested as she swept the powdered sugar and crumbs onto the carpet, "they're going to be together again for another lifetime, and they each want to reassure the other that they have no doubts."

"I don't know, Con," Steph continued, shaking her head, "it's almost as if they each assume their lover is deaf. I mean how many times must they each tell the other that they love them, feel a deep connection, and want to remain committed?" Stephanie eyed the trail of ants marching across the floor. They were mining the doughnut crumbs and their tiny legs were caked white with powdered sugar.

"Oh, they can never say it too often, or in too many different ways," Connie claimed. "That's one thing I've learned in my readings; you can never have too much of a good thing. You see, Stephie, these characters are very eloquent in their declarations. They're very much in tune with their emotions by the end of the story. These stories have to be true to the genre. I mean, there was the fall from grace, (almost always presented as a flashback), the isolationist reaction, the meeting, the courtship that wasn't a courtship, the thawing of hearts, the rift, and then the climactic resolution, followed finally by the declarations and the love scene. Believe me, this is how it's done." Connie looked smugly at Steph as she punctuated her points by kicking her chair legs with her heels. Her dissertation tied it all up as far as she was concerned.

"God, Con, are they always like that?" Steph asked in disbelief. Conventionality had always been the bane of her existence. Why, they'd thought she was insane, though she was having a hard time remembering why.

Her past was somewhere in the fuzzy parts of her memory, but Stephanie knew it was there. Every now and then a bit of it would come back to her, triggered by something like that line about two cats. Cats seemed to have some importance to Steph. The whole memory loss factor was very troubling. She knew she'd never lived in this trailer before, but she couldn't really remember where she had lived…just little flashes once in a while. A tidbit would tempt her, and then disappear. It was torture, far worse than the leg brace, it was even worse than Connie's story.

Steph stubbed out her Camel and carefully got to her feet. She swung her leg at the hip; her special shoes making their uneven thumping as she walked down the hall to the kitchen for a fresh Bud. She pulled the refrigerator door open and grabbed another can…for an instant she wondered why she was drinking from cans instead of longneck bottles. She had always been suspicious of the aluminum since she'd heard it could lead to Alzheimer's. She sighed and let her mind drift as she looked out the window.

Past the gravel drive that surrounded the trailer's cement pad, the kudzu and swamp plants filled in everything. There were no scenic vistas here, no glorious distant sunrises or sunsets over the water. No ocean born breezes stirred the still, humid air. She closed her eyes and saw an image of steel towers connected by arching cable spans, rising through dense fog clouds that rolled in the distance below her feet. The steel towers glowed orange; their girders lit by a sunset somewhere behind her. She knew that place…she was absolutely sure that she knew it.

"Stephie?" Connie had sought Steph out when she didn't come right back with her beer. "About what you asked? It's not always like that in these stories. Sometimes there's also an epilog, where you get to see the couple's future being achieved. It's really gratifying for the reader to know that they're happy and that their lives are finally unfolding…umm, well, happily."

"Huh? An epilog?" Steph asked, disoriented from being startled out of her daydream.

"Well yeah, I think it's a fabulous device. I could show how Bobbie and Kellie's life together has unfolded like, say, five or ten years later, with the house, and the cats, and their daughters. It's a great idea. In fact, I'll do it!" Connie declared. She was beginning to be possessed by the concept. Steph noted the gleam in her eyes and the way her fingers were twitching. She'd mentioned cats again.

"What the hell, Con, you may as well write it," Steph agreed, wanting to get rid of her so she could concentrate on cats. There was a memory there, teasing the edges of her consciousness.

"I'll do it," Connie repeated with a huge smile, completely seduced by the idea now. She quickly left the kitchen and returned to her computer. Soon Steph could hear the clacking of the cheap keyboard.

Cats, Steph thought, as she settled on the sagging sofa with her beer. She lit a Camel and reached down, absently worrying the crumbling foam that peeked out of a hole in the aging vinyl upholstery. She let her eyes drift shut, thinking about cats, turning the word over in her mind and trying to see pictures of cats. She was dropping into an alcoholic torpor, lulled by her medications and the beer. A cute little girl staggered up to her carrying a huge cat. The cat looked at her and asked if she'd take him with her…"and I'll catch rats and puppies," he promised. They drove off through a desert in an old car. "The last thing society abides is a meritocracy," the car reminded her, before continuing, "and we both know what a fucked up place the world is." She gazed drunkenly out the window of a railroad car that didn't move. In the evening light, she saw her cat talking with a pig, while her car listened to the train coaches reminiscing. In the background, the sunset lit the towers and cable spans of a great bridge with fiery orange, as a bank of fog rolled in over the bay. She felt happy.

"Stephie? Stephie!" Connie called, so excited that she was practically having a seizure.

Steph woke up with Connie shaking her shoulder and calling her name. The Bud had slipped from her grasp and lay, mostly empty, on the carpet between her feet. Her Camel had burned down to the filter, scorching the couch foam before she'd reflexively tossed the butt into the puddle of beer next to the can. She kicked them both under the sofa.

"Huh?" Steph slurred, as she shook her head to clear it and looked up at Con.

"I finished the epilog! It's wonderful and I'm so glad I added it," she gushed, "come on and see. I just printed it out."

 

Epilog: Seven Years and Three Months Later

Kellie could smell the chlorine in the damp air, and the wet concrete smelled like dirty gym socks, but she was too excited to notice. She could see Bobbie in her black Speedo, standing in the shallow end of the YWCA pool, where the water lapped at her crotch. She was leaning forward, displaying her cleavage, her arms extended to Kellie's 6-year old daughter Debbie, who was chewing her lower lip and working up the courage to swim to her other mother. Standing next to her, and waiting her turn, was Rhonda, Bobbie's own daughter. Bobbie was giving them their first beginner's swimming test. It was a proud day for both mothers.

Since Bobbie and Kellie had come to share everything, they'd decided to have simultaneous pregnancies so they could go through it together. Their cycles had synchronized the first day they'd met, so they blended the donated sperm from their gay twin brothers, and even shared their turkey baster. They'd conceived and given birth only moments apart, like the true soulmates they knew they were. In the end, it had all worked out perfectly. It was their destiny.

The two girls were exactly the same age, and because they had been fathered by their mothers' partners' twins, they also looked exactly the same too. Everyone believed they were twins themselves. Even their mothers sometimes mistook them, finally resorting to calling them both Rebbie.

Bobbie and Kellie had been married in a beautiful ceremony, presided over by Rhonda, the New Age priestess, whose life Bobbie had saved. They had lived together in a beautiful house on stilts, overlooking the Likkapoonee Swamp, ever since their marriage, seven years ago. Their two cats frolicked in the yard.

They were ecstatically happy and their love was deeper than ever. Every night, after the girls were asleep, they'd make love tirelessly for hours, reaffirming their eternal devotion. In the depths of their hearts, they knew they'd lived this dream before, and would again, and again. And so, they lived happily ever after.

The End

 

Steph read Connie's epilog and gagged. Not only was it annoyingly pat, it was also confusing. It implied mutual incest and demonstrated a questionable understanding of genetics. What exactly was Con trying to say? Was she so caught up in the sharing aspects of her characters' love that she simply applied it by reflex wherever possible? Did she really think they would blend the sperm donations and take a chance of being knocked up by their own twin brothers? Had she thought of that? At least the girls looked the same, which implied that they'd been fathered by their partners' twins, not their mothers' twins…otherwise they look much more like their respective mothers. It was so confusing it made Steph's head hurt thinking about it. She looked across the table and saw Connie grinning at her like the Cheshire Cat.

"So what do you think? Do you like it?"

"Uh, I think it has a few logistical problems," Steph hedged, lighting a Camel. She realized that she was simply tired. Tired of drinking Bud out of cans, tired of being an editor for a stupefyingly wretched wannabe writer, tired of the medications that made her feel washed out and dull, and tired of living in a mute trailer without a cat to talk to. "Like in the first place, the bit about blending the sperm donations and sharing the turkey basters. Do you realize that they were each, in effect, fucking their own twin brothers?"

"Ewwwwwwww, Stephie, how could you even think such a thing?" Connie asked in shock, her eyes widening to the size of Mallow Pies.

"And secondly," Steph continued, "the whole thing is just too pat, too perfect, and life is nothing like that. Madmen start wars over oil, terrorists plant bombs, innocent people die for no reason, and heroes are killed by acts of god," she was venting and on a roll, "families and their homes are destroyed. Vindication and security become justifications for genocide and murder. The criminals run rampant victimizing honest citizens, while the government kidnaps people and brainwashes them. Hordes of rats reproduce freely in our cities, the water's polluted, advertisers lie to our children, and politicians shroud their malicious scapegoating behind false concerns about health, when it's really all about money and votes. Meanwhile legislators erode the Constitution with the approval of a scared and manipulated public." She was panting from the exertion of her tirade, and hadn't any idea where half the things she'd said had come from. It was the weirdest thing she could ever remember doing, and that right there felt just plain wrong to her. Steph sank back down on the sofa in confusion.

"Stephie? Are you okay?" Connie was nervously examining her like a bug, fascinated, but afraid to get too close. Steph thought her expression mirrored the grim facies, indicative of schizophrenia. Her hands showed Parkinsonian spasticity, but then slowly she relaxed and smiled. "Oh Stephie, I was so worried about you there for a second, but now I realize that you're just like the women in these stories…you have a dangerous side, a dark side that you struggle to control. Well, I'll help you. I'll tell you moral stories and convince you to serve the greater good!"

Steph just stared at Connie in disbelief. In that instant, even through the drugs and alcohol, she knew that Con was a psycho; maybe not a dangerous one, but still lacking three cents on the dollar and living in a delusional world all her own. Whereas before, she'd couched her insanity in the guise of writing uber fiction, now it was apparent that she was acting out the fantasy herself. Steph realized that her lover was monumentally maladjusted.

Stephanie wanted no part of it. She wanted nothing to do with assuming Connie's projections of the uber warrior princess role. Stephanie decided in that instant that she had to get out, and for starters, she swore that she would not eat another single pill. It was just as well. Her meds included Thorazine (Chlorpromazine), Prozac (Fluoxetine), and Elavil (Amitriptyline). Combined with beer, they were highly distracting. You want to see my dark side, Steph thought, I'll show a dark side. She'd slip her pills into Connie's Yoo-hoo and Dr. Pepper. When Con finally decompensated, Steph would make her break. For one of the first times that she could remember, Steph felt happy.

She could have argued. She could have kept up the façade and continued critiquing Connie's story. Through her haze of alcohol and drugs, Steph realized it would only create opportunities to continue their dependant relationship. Instead of adding fuel to the fire, she simply told Con, "From now on we're getting Bud in longneck bottles. No more cans!"

Connie seemed obliviously happy. She actually skipped back to the den and started furiously hacking at the keyboard. Stephanie poked her head through the door just as Con looked up. She displayed a dazzling smile, her mouth ringed with chocolate, and winked at Steph. Uh oh, Stephanie thought, something's up.

"Oh, sweetheart, I've just launched my career!" Connie declared, scrubbing at her mouth with the back of her hand, "I just sent my story to the websites! And guess what, my love? I listed you as my beta reader!"

Stephanie Walker, who had once fearlessly faced down a ticking atomic bomb, felt a wave crash inside her head. She couldn't believe it. She was now associated with the travesty that was Connie's great art, and she'd never be able to show her face on the web again. Why, they'd laugh her off the Internet. The wave sucked at her and dragged her into its undertow, and Steph's eyes rolled back in her head as she crashed onto the floor unconscious.

"I knew you'd like it," Connie crowed as she packed another Wing Ding into her mouth, "and I couldn't have done it without you."

 

Chapter Thirteen

When I woke up the next morning, I was still sitting on the garage couch and Lizzie had jolted me out of a dream by honking her horn. God, it was worse than an alarm clock. I was getting an impression of what it must be like to be homeless and live in a cardboard box on a city street. Hell, I wouldn't wash either, just to take revenge on the world. Anyway, she was highly excited, bouncing on her tires and activating her blinkers as if she'd picked up a nervous tick. She had the computer booted up and was saving a screen onto the hard drive.

"Blimey, Michelle, why, we may have a lead, don't you know," she sputtered, "I'd wager a pound to a penny that we'll be finding Stephanie straight away." She was happier than I'd ever seen her. "Oh, and top of the morning to you."

"Whadda ya mean?" I asked, stifling a yawn and stretching, trying to realign my back after sleeping all night sitting up on the sofa. I rubbed my eyes and muttered, "I need coffee."

"Lookie, lookie, look," she babbled, gesturing to the screen by tilting on her springs.

I sighed and walked over to stare across her fender at the monitor. The screen showed the results of an AOL Search for Stephanie Walker, and listed the first 5 of 364,000 results. It was an astonishing number of matches, but then, Steph was a hero and actually had a fan base creating tribute sites. Amazingly, Lizzie wasn't concentrating on one of those. She was focusing on a fan fiction story, the second listing on the search page.

"Heart of a Diver?" I asked in confusion, "what the fuck, Lizzie? Why this, and what's a beta?" Steph's work had nothing to do with diving, or sea rescue, or writing.

"I had the search filtered for recency, I did," she explained, "and this blooming story, why, 'twas posted just yesterday, it was!"

"And?"

"Michelle, it means Stephanie worked on this story recently if it was just posted yesterday," she said with a touch of exasperation, "and she was the beta reader…like a bloody editor." A car was treating me like a dimwit.

"So have you read it?"

"I don't read uber," she declared with conviction, "I honestly can't relate to it, don't you know, and I absolutely hate it when they bloody well post incomplete stories in chapters."

"Uh, okay," I agreed, mostly for the sake of keeping the peace. I never read net fiction and wasn't really sure what she was talking about. "I don't really know Stephanie, but do you actually think she'd beta edit an uber fanfic?"

"Of course not, Michelle!" Lizzie spat, her tone hardening in anger. "Blimey, she's certainly being victimized. Why, 'tis clear as day, it is. Stephanie's probably been brainwashed…maybe drugged as well."

I had to stare at her in amazement. This was the X-Files twisted into a cheesy B-grade spy flick. I could see the teaser now; 'American hero brainwashed by the government and forced to edit net fiction'. Yeah, right.

"So, what are you going to do, Lizzie? Even if it really is Steph, the web's anonymous. I mean, like, spatially it's only a point. How will you find her? That story could have come from anywhere."

The little car looked up at me with an expression that clearly condemned me to the nether regions of mental deficiency. "Feedback," she declared with certainty, "all bloody authors thrive on feedback. It's an email filled with empty praise I'll be sending her, it is, and mark my words, Michelle, this Connie Stanton will answer. They always do."

It must have been bad. Lizzie endured a read that had left her grimacing and leaking oil, well before noon. She muttered that it went on and on…68 chapters long. I looked in on her hourly and saw her becoming more and more angry as she scan read. By 2:30 p.m., when she finally finished it, she was seething.

"Bloody, word bloated, vacuum headed, coprophageous, self-indulged psychopath, I say," she ground out, "oh my poor Steph. Lass, what did they put you through? I'd pray for the chance to shoehorn that Connie's keyboard down her very own throat, I would, if I thought anyone would listen to my prayers. Aye, t'would be a mercy killing, it would."

She began typing, deleted the email, typed again, snarled at the machine and deleted the results. It went on like that for a while. Finally Lizzie growled and hit send. The little car shook herself and shut off the computer, then finally relaxed with a sigh and looked over at me.

"I just can't imagine Stephanie's suffering," she quietly said, "forced, as she must have been, to participate in that gross demonstration of inanity." Lizzie was so sad that she actually seemed about to cry, and I moved to where she was parked and stroked her roofline. "That story was oh so absolutely banal, and just being associated with it would have made the Stephanie Walker that I know regurgitate a kidney, it would. Michelle, I'm praying for all I'm worth that we're not to late to salvage some of poor Stephanie's sanity, and I'm truly fearing what her condition must be. She's obviously in a sad way if she'd submit to involving herself with such a work of pathos."

"And I guess now all we can do is wait, huh?"

"Yes, Michelle, I've broached the idea of chatting a tad, perhaps even an IM chat, though I fear I'll lose my temper dealing with this Connie Stanton in real time. Writing of how much I loved her story very nearly chipped my valves."

"Think it'll take her long to respond?"

"No, not a bit. I predict she'll be checking her email like a teen hunting zits, sniffing every hour for any tidbits of validation. She's ripe for striking up an online 'relationship' with a 'web fan', and I shan't have long to await her reply. I wager I'll find out where she lives on the second or third email, mark my words. Why, I'd chance 10 pounds that I find out today, before suppertime."

 

"Oh, Stephie, look!" Connie exclaimed, around a mouthful of a Hostess Snowball. "My very first email feedback!"

Connie jabbed at the mouse button, clicking the letter icon and watching as the email form popped up in its own little window. She vigorously rubbed the dried beer spray off the monitor screen with the sleeve of her sweatshirt, but when it proved recalcitrant, she spat on the screen and smeared the saliva until it was relatively transparent.

Steph looked on, lighting a Camel and slugging Bud from a longneck. Somehow the bottle just felt right. It had been two days since she'd actually swallowed a pill, and a creeping sensation of clarity was returning to her. In the meantime, she'd managed to slip almost all of her meds into Connie's Yoo-hoo. The sweet, chalky, vaguely chocolate flavored fluid perfectly absorbed the crushed pills. She'd noticed that the drug powder made the Dr. Pepper fizz, so she'd stopped trying to adulterate the soda. The weird thing was that Connie had become increasingly dependent on the caffeinated, sugar-laden beverage. Steph assumed that her system was trying to counteract the stupefying effects of the drugs. It wouldn't matter. Stephanie figured that in a few days, Con would be incapacitated by the cocktail of mood levelers, anti-psychotics, and anti-depressants.

The screen showed a bleary image of the email's text, rendering it unreadable to the naked eye. Maybe it was a "flame" and not fan mail after all, Stephanie thought with an evil grin. But Connie, who had put on her reading glasses, (after cleaning them as she had the monitor screen), was still ecstatic.

"Oh my," she said, visibly puffing up, "why this reader absolutely loved my story. She read it in a single sitting and says she's never read anything like it. And there's more."

Connie had leaned closer to the screen, her elbow cushioned by the second Snowball in the Hostess twinpack. She was beaming as she continued decoding the text. Steph listened to her sounding out the words by syllables, as her finger followed the lines of type.

"She's begging me to write a sequel, maybe about Debbie and Rhonda," Con looked over at Steph with a huge smile. Stephanie could see the wheels turning in Con's head; she was obviously being seduced by the suggestion. "And she's asking about me! She wants to know where the Author lives, what she does…how I got the story idea, where I learned to write, and whether I've ever published anything. She wants to know all about me, and my writing. Oh, this is sooooo neat."

Steph idly focused on the sender's address, wondering who could be so thoroughly retarded as to send fan mail for "Heart of a Diver". The form showed the sender as lizziecooperbombgirl@aol.com (Lizzie Cooper). Steph started and nearly inhaled a mouthful of Bud. She knew that address…she knew Lizzie Cooper. But she still couldn't remember how, from where, or just whom Lizzie Cooper actually was. Steph sat in her chair gritting her teeth, nearly biting through the filter of her Camel. It seemed so cruel. Her poor brain was straining, actually whimpering in her skull, as her brain muscles flexed in a spasm of effort, trying to remember. Eventually one of them cramped, and Steph groaned as a headache blossomed in her hindbrain. Finally, she forced herself to relax. She admitted that she couldn't remember who Lizzie Cooper was…yet.

Connie was saving the email to her filing cabinet, to her hard drive, to a Documents folder for feedback, and onto a floppy disc. She was just clicking the "reply" button, to respond to the email, when Steph decided that she had to get another longneck to help her think. She clomped out of the room, while Connie, treating the email as a formal interview, never even noticed. As Steph walked to the kitchen, she could hear the furious clacking of the keyboard.

 

I had come back into the garage, after lounging on the deck, with Elvis, following a late lunch. John Cougar had leapt up on the railing, and then dropped down beside me to visit. He'd been busy examining the plant growth since returning, but was finally able to relax. I'd left him stretching in the sun, chatting with Elvis the Kitten, and had gone back in to check on Lizzie. I was thinking that maybe we should go for a short drive, just so she could get out for a bit of fresh air. She'd been parked ever since we'd returned to the house, completely obsessed with her search for Steph. It wasn't healthy.

Lizzie was staring into the computer's monitor again, reading an email from cstantonwarriorprincess@hotmail.com, shaking her front end, and wearing a pitying expression.

"This is so very sad, hon," she finally said, "Connie Stanton is horribly maladjusted and she hasn't the foggiest. Why, her forebrain is being lied to by her midbrain, and she hasn't a clue that she's crazy. That's ever so dangerous, don't you know. Leaves the hindbrain unsupervised, it does. She could be capable of anything. I'm even more scared for Stephanie now than before."

"God, Lizzie, that's like, so horrible. I mean, at least we all know we're crazy. This Connie, she really thinks that she's sane?"

"Oh goodness yes, she's convinced that she's a budding literary talent." Her expression became even sadder. "Worst of all though, she's going to write the sequel…and she's going to force Stephanie to beta it too."

"A sequel? To 'Heart of a Diver'? Well, yuck!" The idea was preposterous.

"Oh, Michelle," Lizzie cried in remorse, "I suggested it, just in an offhand way. Just to stroke her ego and gain her confidence, don't you know. I've prodded her into torturing my beloved Stephanie even further. Oh dear, why, I don't think I can forgive myself."

I could see how horrified and guilty she felt. Her expression was heartbreaking. I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her tight, hating to see her hurting like that. Lizzie was such a sweetheart, and she was trying so hard to find Steph.

"Lizzie, you got Connie to write back and you've found Steph. That was brilliant, and now we know for sure that she's holding Steph hostage. Did she say where they are?"

"Oh yes, she's so inordinately proud of her rusting trailer in the Likkapoonee swamp. She bragged of it being a, 'cozy little love nest for herself and her dark warrior, Stephie'." Here Lizzie grimaced and began shedding windshield washer fluid tears. "It must be so very horrible for Stephanie. No vistas, no sunsets, no ocean breezes, and no wide-open sky. She's a prisoner in a horrible little trailer in a Georgia swamp."

"Then that's where we're going," I told her, "and we're leaving this afternoon."

I fled upstairs and started packing. I packed not only my own meager bag, but also a duffel bag full of stuff for Stephanie, knowing that I could wear a lot of the clothes too. I also took a Glock pistol, with a spare magazine, from a drawer of her nightstand. My hand shook as I lifted it; I'd never touched a handgun before.

I went back out on the deck and announced our departure to John Cougar. He seemed very curious about the mission. Elvis the Kitten padded inside to select his favorite foods for me to pack, along with a catnip ball we'd gotten for him on the drive to Fresno when Lizzie had tried to call Steph. I was a bit hesitant; the thought of a crazed kitten in the car wasn't my favorite idea, but he pouted and threatened a tantrum. Being as I was in a hurry, I humored him and sealed it in airtight Tupperware.

When I got back to the garage, I noticed that Lizzie had donned a bug bra and a set of full moon hubcaps. They covered her racing wheels with low domes of smooth chrome.

"They're to cheat the wind on the highways," Lizzie explained, "not unlike swimmers or cyclists shaving their legs, don't you know?"

We loaded up everything we thought we'd need for a cross-country rescue mission. Lizzie had transferred all the pertinent computer files to a laptop. It was powered from a transformer, which protruded like a gargoyle from the cigarette lighter, that must have had a half-dozen sockets. She'd set up her chatty phone with an answering machine, and I'd also noticed that there was a GPS unit and a police band radio scanner. The most absurd thing was a "Jesus Our Savior" bobble head doll, which Lizzie confided in a hushed tone, concealed a radar detector. She asked me to constrict all the power cords into a bundle, with wire ties from a workbench in the garage. I found a couple really long ones and threw them into the glove compartment, remembering cop shows where they had used them instead of handcuffs.

When we rolled the garage door open, we found John Cougar waiting beside the driveway. He was seated on a battered old carpetbag, and he was wearing a trench coat and his fedora. I don't think I'd ever seen anything so ridiculous.

"I'm coming too," he declared, "I'd never be able to stay here knowing that you might be heading into danger. If anything happened to you I'd never forgive myself." Here he looked pointedly at Lizzie. "Besides," he added, "I have relatives in those swamps."

The passenger's door popped open and he hopped in, tossing his bag into the back, where it nearly flattened Elvis and was received with a hiss. Then he pulled the door closed, and Lizzie activated the garage door and the half-dozen alarm systems.

 

Chapter Fourteen

It was already after 6:00 p.m., and the early dark of the November night had fallen, as we pulled out of the driveway onto East Rd. Lizzie played some Enya as we crossed the Golden Gate channel on US-101, following it onto Lombard St., and then Van Ness Ave., through San Francisco. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, picking up I-580 to I-5, heading south. By midnight we had turned east, away from Los Angeles on I-10, heading for Phoenix. Lizzie drove through the darkness completely focused on the road. She didn't speed radically, but as I nodded drowsily, I noticed clots of cars falling steadily behind us as she continued passing them one after another. She had prodded me awake in Santa Clara, as she puled into a BP station, so I that could pump her a tankful of petrol. Then she let me doze off again as she accelerated back onto the highway. John Cougar had kept his hat pulled down over his face, as he huddled in the passenger's seat, scrunching down in his trench coat. He knew that people tended to stare at Lizzie, unusual as she was with her custom blue paintjob.

The next time I awoke, we were in Blythe, half way to Phoenix. It was 3:30 a.m., and we stopped again for petrol. We'd driven over 700 miles in less than 10 hours, and Lizzie was beginning to feel tired.

"I'm about bushed, I am," she told me, "but I'll get us to Phoenix, being 'tis but another 145 miles. I'll be needing you to take the wheel then, Michelle, while I catch a bit of shut eye. 'Twill be for the best, I say, since the sun will be up, and seeing a car with a sleeping driver would make the other motorists nervous, it would."

I could only agree with her reasoning. Between the two of us we could drive almost nonstop, taking turns across the southern United States..

"I've been sleeping most of the night, hon, so I'll be fresh to drive through the day. Just wake me when we get to Phoenix and I’ll top off the tank."

5:30 a.m. saw us passing the urban avenues of Phoenix. It seemed that each one had its own exit, and the morning rush hour traffic was beginning to slow us down. I was pouring myself a cup of coffee from the thermos that John Cougar had handed to me. It was a pumpkin spice high-test blend, appropriate for the season.

"Blimey, Michelle, they're herding like a school of mackerel, they are," Lizzie complained, her temper shortened by fatigue, "We're losing precious time here and we've still a need for petrol…I've but 4 liters left. At least the road's smooth and 'tis not sloshing. I do so hate getting a bubble in my fuel lines…'tis like a beer gas belch trying to get out, or so I'd imagine."

Lizzie had become poetically descriptive in her fatigue.

"Why don't I take over, hon," I offered, "it'll let me ease into driving before we get back on the open road. I've got to deal with the gas station anyway."

"Why bless you, Michelle," Lizzie said around a yawn, "I do appreciate your offer greatly, I do. Go ahead. I think I'll just doze off then."

I took the wheel and settled my sneakers on the pedals, and I felt the control of our course pass over to me. The radio gave a burst of static and I knew Lizzie had retreated into herself, seeking sleep. John Cougar put in a Sophie B. Hawkins CD, and "Strange Thing" tickled its way through the speakers.

"I hardly recognize myself, it's such a strange thing. To find another woman walking in my blue jeans. I've come so far and I've been so long away from home. I'm like a photograph whose image is still changing. The letter I never sent to you explaining. All I want is a place for my heart to belong…."

Sophie B.'s lyrics expressed my own desires, and the feeling of a personal change realized unexpectedly, hit home. Two months before, I'd been studying for a career in the porn industry, inspired by a false perception of a woman from a childhood crush. I'd been driven by a search for notoriety and fame. Now I was driving through a desert city with the most unlikely of friends, charging off on a mission to rescue a woman I'd met and didn't know. A woman that I still loved; my crush transmuted, through my newfound understanding of her life, into respectful fondness tinged with hero worship. That Stephanie commanded the devotion and respect of her friends only reinforced my feelings for her. I wanted to be a part of her interesting and unorthodox life. I was ready to beg her to take me with her on the journey and teach me everything she knew. In return, I would be her friend, maybe her only human friend, and I would give her my devotion, my support, and if she'd let me, my love.

I filled up at a BP station just off S.24th St., after getting back onto I-10 near the Sky Harbor Int'l Airport. We'd taken a short detour on I-17 to bypass the center of town because we had been running on fumes. Lizzie dozed through the whole thing. In 10 minutes we were back on the road, crossing the Salt River and heading southeast, towards Tucson and the deserts of the southern route through Texas. We were taking the same roads that Stephanie had drunkenly driven in Brittanie the Desoto, back in 1991, on her return to California from the Army.

The miles flew by, but the scenery remained the same. I saw what looked like an endless progression of dun colored rocky land sprouting scrubby vegetation. Overhead, a huge blue sky played host to fluffy fair weather clouds, sailing into the distant west behind us. The road held itself almost straight for hundreds of miles, the centerline hypnotic, and the pavement singing a single tone under Lizzie's tires. Really boring.

110 miles passed and we saw Tucson. 320 miles from Phoenix and 5 hours of driving brought us to Deming, where we stopped again for fuel. 60 miles later, we blasted through Las Cruces, and 50 miles after that we pulled into El Peso, having crossed into Texas about 20 miles before.

I'd been driving for 7 hours straight, with only a short stop to refuel, pee, and eat an industrial open-faced turkey sandwich. It could have been the same sandwich I'd eaten as a child at a Howard Johnson's in San Diego, or in Oakland, across the bay from Steph's house, or in Chicago, (where I'd never been but had seen a restaurant spread in a picture on the web). The things were ubiquitous and timeless; the equivalent of brined beef in the days of tall masted sailing ships.

I drove Lizzie off the highway, and along the Rio Grande, to a park overlooking the border. It was a drainage canal, the once river constrained within concrete and paralleled by the Border Highway. In the park, Ascarate Lake reflected the afternoon sky from gently rippled water. Lizzie slept through the entire stop, but John Cougar and I took the opportunity to stretch, while Elvis wandered off to find a sandy patch of ground to use as a litter box. After a half-hour break, we got back on the road.

For another 3 _ hours I drove, reaching Ft. Stockton at 5:00 p.m., 230 miles out of El Peso. After 11 hours at the wheel I was road drunk, hypnotized by the monotony of sight and sound…the endless blacktop, the whine of the tires, and the wind shrouding the little car. I'd stopped hearing the stereo hours ago and I had no idea if it had even been on.

I pulled Lizzie off I-10 and sat in the parking lot of a rest stop, staring into space. There was a dog run, a building with restrooms and vending machines, and a gas station. I think I must have stared at the empty dog run for 15 minutes without moving or saying a word. In the passenger's seat, John Cougar looked at me out of the corners of his eyes, probably wondering if anyone was still home. Finally I sighed and got out, arching my back and then leaning down to touch my toes.

In the building I got change and bought junk food and ice cream. Feeling naughty, I snuck into the men's room and peed standing up. It was a little messy, but the place was a sty anyway, and I came out in hysterics, just as a cowboy looking guy was heading in. He did a double take when he saw me, but must have been in a hurry because he turned around and kept moving without saying a word.

I looked over at the dog run again on my way back to rejoin Lizzie, John, and Elvis, and I thought I saw a shadow moving near a fence post. Out of boredom I looked closer, and watched as the shadow resolved itself into a completely black cat. It wasn't just mostly black, but it was extremely black, without any white bib, paws, or facial spots. Even its whiskers seemed to be black. It was looking back and forth, first at me, and then at the Mini Cooper…specifically at Elvis, lounging on the seatbacks, and the figure of John Cougar, hunched down in the passenger's seat.

It was a good-sized housecat, with shortish fur and yellowish green eyes, which stood out in sharp contrast to its midnight pelt. It did a semi-interested, semi-bored, catty approach, walking paw in front of paw, carefully across the dirt towards us. Finally it stopped about ten feet away and carefully sat, regarding us with bored curiosity.

After examining it for a few moments, I decided it was nothing out of the ordinary, and tired though I was, I'd finished my ice cream and was ready for another couple hours of driving before turning the wheel over to Lizzie.

"Have a good day," I muttered to it, turning back to open Lizzie's door.

"Not likely," the black cat replied sarcastically, "not in this piss hole of a place."

Now I looked back at it again, for though I had become used to talking with Lizzie, John Cougar, and Elvis the Kitten, I hadn't encountered anyone else non-human who spoke to me. The cat's voice was distinctly female, and bitchy.

"Yeah, that's right," she said in a challenging tone, "I talk. I'm a talking cat. Boo!"

"To be honest, I'm hardly impressed," I replied, "especially with a rest stop drama queen from the armpit of Texas." I was tired and in no mood to bandy insults with a strange cat. I opened Lizzie's door. The cat got quickly to her feet and sauntered closer, appraising me.

"You act like you talk to a cat everyday," she said, a bit testily, "you should feel lucky when a cat is willing to talk with you at all. I don't talk to every person I meet."

"So you're antisocial," I said, "and I do talk to cats everyday. They're much more learned and friendly than you are, missy." I had dropped into the driver's seat and John Cougar was looking at the black cat through the windshield. My words had visibly taken the wind out of the black cat's sails, now that she realized that I wasn't struck dumb with awe or ready to mortgage my soul for her company.

"My name's Nightshade," she said more civilly, "and this place is the armpit of Texas, at least what I've seen of it."

"Chelle, we really should be on our way, dear," John Cougar said, "we need to be in San Antonio by 9:30 p.m. to stay on schedule. It's pretty much empty between here and there and you should be able to fly. Just remember to watch Jesus," he reminded me, nodding to the radar detector bobble-head doll on the dash, "he could be our savior."

"You're right, John, I've been dawdling. I don't want to disappoint Lizzie."

The black cat's eyes had grown a couple sizes when she realized that John Cougar wasn't an ugly old gent in a funny hat. She looked at the passengers more closely, and her eyes enlarged even further.

"You're a puma," she said in amazement, then nodded at Elvis and added, "and that's a bobcat."

"Well duh," Elvis mouthed off, looking her over closely, "you're a cutie, but you're kinda, uh…are you sure you're not a blonde?"

I had never seen an animal look so insulted. At first she puffed up her all fur, her eyes blazing in indignation, and she prepared to hiss, but then she seemed to shrink into herself and she blinked, settled her coat, and then looked down at her paws. She actually looked sad, with her ears and whiskers drooping. When she looked back up at us, I would have sworn she was on the verge of tears.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I don't want to have to spend another night here. It's cold and dirty, and there's nothing to eat. The people I was traveling with just left me here and drove off. I thought they'd come back when they realized I was missing, but they never even bothered to look for me. They abandoned me here and I'm all alone."

She leapt lightly up onto Lizzie's fender, startling the Mini Cooper awake, and causing her to shake herself and flash her headlights. The radio came on and the wipers whisked through a cycle before Lizzie oriented herself and identified the weight resting alongside her hood. The cat was visibly startled to the point of speechlessness, having almost been dislodged from her seat.

"Chelle, dear, now where in the world are we?" Lizzie asked before yawning, "And whom, might I ask, is this sitting on my fender?"

"She says her name's Nightshade, Lizzie, and she was abandoned at this rest stop. Uh, we're just outside of Ft. Stockton, between El Peso and San Antonio and it's almost 5:30."

"Well, hello there, Nightshade. Pleased to meet you, I'm sure," the little car said. "We're in Texas? Have you seen any cowboys or any wagon trains? Any Indians? But, oh dear me, never mind, we've no time for that. Now, Michelle, we're getting a bit behind schedule, if I do say so, and we really should be on our way."

The engine started itself and I closed the door, settling myself in for the drive.

"I'll be dozing for another couple hours if that's quite alright with you," Lizzie said to me, "pardon my lack of sociability, but I'll be needing my wits about me if we're to see Mobile by morning, don't you know. Wake me in San Antonio, hon. Nightshade, time to hop off now, dearie, we've got to be motoring down the highway."

"Wait," Nightshade cried, finally losing all composure, "take me with you! Please don't leave me in this god-forsaken dump. I'll die here, or end up being taken by some cowpoke in his rotting pickup truck and end up as a barn cat."

We all looked at each other, wondering whether we could leave her there in good conscience. Nightshade looked at us in such a beseeching manner that finally, kind-hearted Lizzie popped open the passenger's side door. Nightshade scrambled across the hood and leapt onto John Cougar's lap, and then settled herself on the console.

"Just so you don't mistake us," Lizzie said seriously, "we're on a rescue mission. A friend of ours is being held hostage by government agents, and we're off to free her. There will almost certainly be danger ahead."

"Whatever," Nightshade replied, "I'll do anything you need me to do. Just get me out of this place and away from Texas."

I pulled out of the rest stop and back onto the highway, accelerating back up to 80mph. Nightshade eventually settled in the back, sharing the seat with Elvis, and for a long time I could hear them conversing. Then I tuned out everything except the road, and as the evening passed into night, I watched the miles of Texas disappear under Lizzie's tires.

Sometime in the night, and I don't remember when at all, Lizzie took the wheel and I dozed off. I was probably dead to the world for three hours. She'd made good time, and had pulled off onto SR-36, then driven into a small town called Macedonia. I stretched as we pulled into a BP station and came to a halt beside a pump. It was about 1:00 a.m., and I was a bit surprised that the gas station was open. When I got out and looked around, I realized that it was the only thing open.

I pumped us a tankful of high-test and then wandered into the office to pay. John Cougar was hoping for a cup of coffee. A teenaged boy was slouching in a chair behind a small counter that held an antique cash register. He stuffed a SWANK magazine out of sight when he saw me enter, and then tried to look serious. I smiled at the hard-on that was poking up inside his jeans and handed him thirty dollars for the gas.

"Anyplace to get a cup of coffee in this town?" I asked, as he handed me $4.50 change.

"Yeah," he replied to my tits, "there's a machine around the corner of the station where the rest rooms are, but the stuff sucks. And roaches live in the candy machine."

"Tastes like somebody pissed through the grounds, huh?" I asked him with a smile, happily shocking him. He bobbed a quick glance up at my face.

"Um, yeah, something like that," he choked out to my breasts. At least a part of me had his attention.

"Guess I'll pass then," I told him, "thanks anyway, stud."

I heard him gulp as I walked out, and I could feel his eyes on my ass. My breasts were a bit jealous because of his infidelity, so I walked sexy just to punish him.

"You're so very bad, Michelle," Lizzie commented as I got back in, "you're such a flirt."

"And that's a bad thing?" I asked with a smile.

The next time I woke up, Lizzie was pulling into a full service rest station just outside of Beaumont. It was maybe an hour and a quarter later.

"Just thought you might like to get yourself some supper, Michelle," she said softly as she played some light jazz. "You haven't had a proper meal all day, and you should stretch and get your kidneys working. You wouldn't want a bladder stone forming from sitting for a whole day straight." I could almost see her smiling.

I realized that I was actually famished. I'd had junk food in FT. Stockton before we'd met Nightshade, but the last real meal I'd eaten was the open faced turkey sandwich, somewhere before El Peso. Lizzie's door popped open and I staggered out with my overnight bag, lurching up to the restaurant like a drunk. I was trying desperately to regain my land legs. My reflection in the glass door depicted a wild eyed, sexy tart with wind blasted hair, who stank of Camels and sweat. I made a beeline to the ladies room before even trying to get a seat. When I came out, I felt 100% better, having soaked my face in cold water, applied a fresh layer of deodorant, and plastered down my hair.

The waitress was about my own age, obnoxiously perky, and obviously gay. She flirted with me throughout my meal, and since she was cute, I played along. I had the industrial open-faced roast beef sandwich. The mashed potatoes could have come out of the same pot that the ones with the turkey sandwich had been born in. When I remarked on this, my waitress calmly explained that it was the law, and then asked if she could she fondle me in the ladies room. I told her I intended to change clothes in a stall after my dinner, and she could come in and help me if she wanted. She winked at me and made a slurping noise, then laid my check on the table. I was sure that the check wasn't the only thing getting laid in that restaurant.

After eating, and drinking a cup of decaf, I took my bag into the ladies room, making eye contact with the waitress on the way. I'd barely set my bag down and pulled out cut offs and a tank top when she entered and locked the door with a key. Within minutes I was naked, standing over a pile of dirty clothes, while she leaned against a sink and stroked herself under her skirt. I walked over to her and leaned in to kiss her. She pulled me closer and felt her fingers slide up my thigh to go exploring between my legs. She was stroking me very effectively as she pushed her tongue into my mouth. Then she slid two fingers inside me and started pumping them in and out. My knees felt weak and I was lightheaded. I reached for her, pulling her blouse out of her skirt and sliding my hands underneath. I cupped her breasts and found that they felt unexpectedly firm and round. What the fuck, I thought, implants? Then I was cumming, my insides clenching around her wet fingers as I gasped and moaned.

When I regained my breath, she gently pressed me down on my knees and raised her skirt. I slipped my hands under the waistband of her panties and slid them down. Imagine my surprise when her cock popped out, 7", cut and hard, the head glistening with precum. My eyes were probably starting out of my head as she/he moved forward, sliding it into my mouth. I felt the head at the back of my throat, and I was still too surprised to do anything but suck it.

"Swallow, honey," she/he said softly, and then thrust it deeper as I did. I felt several inches going down my throat as my lips tightened around the smoothly shaved base of the shaft. I reached up to fondle the full heavy balls, while a hand held my head in place. "Keep swallowing so you don't gag…oh god, that feels good."

It took only a minute before I felt it jerking in my throat. I snugged my lips tighter around the shaft, so as she/he pulled it out, the last drops squeezed out behind my tongue. I hadn't tasted a thing. I swallowed and licked my lips, watching as it rapidly softened and shrank.

She/he was entirely convincing as a woman, and a very attractive young one at that. My mind still wasn't believing what had happened, but I had no problem reaching another climax when she/he put her/his face between my legs and thoroughly tongue fucked me as well as I had ever been eaten. I think I came twice, squirting to soak her/his face the second time. After a quick clean up, we kissed again to say goodbye. I staggered, weak kneed, into my clothes as she/he unlocked the door and left. It was my first and only experience with a transsexual.

"Took your time did you?" Lizzie asked when I got back in. "Constipated, hon? You were in there for quite a while just to change." She giggled and I blushed. We got back on the road and I dozed off feeling sleepy and satisfied with my supper.

When I woke up and took over the driving duties, we were just outside of Biloxi, Mississippi, about 60 miles shy of Mobile, Alabama. The desert had given way to wetlands somewhere in the darkness, and we were flying down I-10 about 5 miles inland from the gulf coast. It was already humid and getting warmer, even though the sun was barely up.

"Good morning, luv," Lizzie said, "I'm bushed and oh so overdue for a rest, don't you know. Have a good drive, Michelle, and watch out for Jesus, I say. The very last thing we need is for a southern sheriff to be stopping and questioning us."

"She's right," Nightshade added with certainty, "down here they'll make us into roast beef sandwiches instead of lab specimens. Although panthers are protected in Florida, that won't even do him any good for another hundred miles." She nodded at John Cougar.

"Perhaps we should keep the speed limit through Mississippi and Alabama," John Cougar nervously said. "We'll lose a half-hour at the most."

"Oh, why I very nearly forgot," Lizzie added sleepily, "I sent off another email to that Connie Stanton. I asked her for an update regarding her progress on the sequel…."

Silence followed. After a moment, I realized that she wasn't going to continue. The poor dear had dozed off in the middle of a sentence.

"I've talked a bit about this mission with Elvis," Nightshade said from the back seat, "but I was wondering what you could tell me about this Stephanie Walker. He really didn't know her."

"Well, I don’t really know her either," I admitted, "though I met her once as a child. I had a huge crush on her and grew up trying to be like her, but I didn't really know her, and what I thought I knew about her was all wrong."

"So, the only ones who do know her are Lizzie and John Cougar?"

"Yeah, that's about it," I told her, "but I do know that she's a good person who doesn't deserve to be treated the way she's been treated, and we're not going to let it go on."

"Stephanie is a true hero," John Cougar said with sleepy conviction, "she's saved so many lives in San Francisco that they're truly beyond count. It's a part of what she is. All her life she's excelled at everything she's done. She's the best of the best."

"And just what is it that she does?" Nightshade asked, perking up with interest.

"In the last 6 years, all of the bombs that didn't go off were deactivated by Stephanie and her team. Including the atomic bomb early this fall, she's probably saved a million lives. I know of no one who can claim to have done so much good, and to her it's just a job."

Around 11:00 a.m., I stopped for an early lunch outside of Tallahassee. A little before 3:30 p.m., I turned north on I-95, the East Coast highway that stretches from Miami to the Canadian border in Maine. I'd skirted Jacksonville, on its beltway, I-295.

Lizzie had awakened after lunch and checked her email. Sure enough, Connie Stanton had replied. The message left Lizzie even more worried. She said that Connie sounded as if she were losing what paltry wits she possessed, and she was even more worried about Steph's safety. I kept my foot on the pedal, watching Jesus with one eye, and the road with the other. On the sides of the road, I was seeing the dense plant growth I associated with the south. Spanish moss hung from the trees and Kudzu smothered the landscape. The air was heavy with humidity, and I was thankful that it wasn't summer. As the afternoon slipped away, I was again hypnotized by the road, the lines separating the lanes endlessly disappearing beneath our wheels.

After less than a half-hour on I-95, we crossed into the state of Georgia. It was barely 4:00 p.m.

"Stay on I-95, Michelle, and keep an eye peeled for US-82." Lizzie instructed. "We'll be wanting to head west, towards Waycross town, I say. Bless me, but we're getting close."

"Where are we actually going," I asked. "Is Connie's trailer in Waycross?"

"No, dear." Lizzie replied, "'It's in a dismal swamp, 35 miles west of Waycross, as the crow flies. I'm guessing 'tis actually 45 malarial, alligator infested miles, out on some filthy dirt roads. I'll be wanting you to pop off my hubcaps and store them in the boot, don't you know."

"So are we just going to drive right up?" Nightshade asked from the backseat.

"Oh, dear me, no," Lizzie exclaimed, horrified by the thought, "this Connie Stanton's very dangerously insane, and the dear Lord only knows how many government agents are lurking about. No, we'll first be needing to establish a base of operations."

Lizzie was in planning mode, silent, as I continued to drive up I-95. After another half-hour I saw the exit for US-82 and took it heading west towards Waycross. A sign claimed that the town was 50 miles ahead. On the bridge over the Satilla River, just past Atkinson, a traffic accident made the 55-minute trip into an hour and a quarter. It was closing in on 6:30 p.m., and I was tired and hungry again.

I bloated myself on BBQ at the Pig restaurant, on State St., in Waycross. I couldn't believe how good it was, and since I was planning to sleep when Lizzie took over the driving, I didn't mind eating more meat than I'd had since the senior class orgy at Corcoran High. When I staggered back from dinner and got in, Lizzie muttered about the weight gain causing uneven tread wear on her tires, then giggled at my dismayed expression. I filled up her tank at the BP station, muttering about added wear on her rear tires, then reclined the driver's seat and dozed off. Lizzie took over the driving as we moved down the backcountry roads in the dark.

When I woke up again, it was 10:30 p.m., and we were in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn. I looked around and saw we were on Memorial Dr., barely a hundred yards from part of US-82 that I'd driven down right before dinner. I stared in shock. We were still in Waycross.

"Right-Oh. We're back in bloody Waycross," Lizzie snapped, "this blooming hayseed landscape has no amenities whatsoever."

"What Lizzie means to convey," John Cougar said more calmly, "is that we've driven for the last three hours, in a rather large circle. We've passed down US-82 to 221, then to 108. We actually drove past the driveway to Connie Stanton's trailer. I could see the lights on in several windows. Long story short, there were no motels; no place to stay anywhere closer than this. We're about 50 miles from Stephanie, and we'll have to set up our base of operations here."

"Bloody inconvenient," Lizzie Cooper groused, "and the local sods will soon be eyeing to us, driving back and forth. Worse yet, in these nether regions, I'll surely be one of a kind, if I do say so myself. We're sure to draw too much attention."

Ironic, I thought, traveling with a talking cougar and bob kitten, and then having to worry about unwanted attention because of a foreign car. It was a sign of how odd my life had become…and I liked it.

I got a room on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn and dragged our things inside. With Nightshade keeping a lookout, John Cougar slouched quickly inside, leaning on me like an arthritic drunk. Elvis bounced along at his side, and was soon rolling on the carpet with his catnip ball. At Nightshade's request, I turned on the TV so the sound would cover our voices. It was good thinking. Being the only human in the room, I'd have been presumed guilty of talking to myself, in several voices.

Lizzie parked in the nearest spot, just a few feet from the room's windows. We could communicate with cell phones, but I was happy to have her close by. She was the brains of the operation after all, but she was still muttering about "these barbaric colonies", "uncivilized peasant settlers", and "watered gasoline". The barbecue had been pretty good, I thought to myself. Though it was still before midnight, I took a shower and lay down on the bed. I was asleep in moments.

When I woke up, Nightshade was curled up, with me spooned around her and the phone was ringing. I grabbed the phone on the nightstand and heard only a dial tone. The ringing continued. Elvis brought the cell phone over to me, ringing. I clicked the "Talk" button and heard Lizzie's voice.

"Rise and shine, Michelle," she said all too brightly, "we've work to do. Come out please." I groaned in response, wondering if she was still on Greenwich time.

I staggered out of the room in black Nike running shorts and a pink spaghetti strap tank, barefoot, with Nightshade the Cat pacing me. Just outside the door, I happened to look over and spied a pair of good-ol-boys, dressed for fishing, ogling me and drooling. I waved and smiled, then opened Lizzie's door and sat down in the driver's seat. The engine started and the radio came on. Lizzie played heavy metal…Black Sabbath, I think, both to wake me up and cover our conversation.

Lizzie had printed out several sheets of information, which she gave to me along with explanations and an agenda for the day. She was intending to prepare for night surveillance of Connie Stanton's trailer. Along with a couple of maps, there was a shopping list and some background on Connie and Steph. I pretended to be cleaning litter off the car mats, bent down below the dash and whispering while Nightshade lay on the dash, keeping a lookout.

"After your breakfast, I need you to go shopping, Michelle," Lizzie said. "We will need all the items on the list, though where you'll find some of these amenities in this god forsaken frontier town, well, I haven't the foggiest."

I'd looked over the items and didn't think there'd be any problem. What she was asking for could be found at any strip mall, and we'd passed a couple in Waycross.

"I think I can get all this stuff, Lizzie," I assured her, "we brought all the things that would have been a problem."

"Very well then, hon," the Mini Cooper giggled, "go have some breakfast and then we'll be off on a spree. Have John ring me up when you get back inside, please."

I could feel her smile and I was wondering what she had in store for the cougar.

When I got out with Nightshade, the fishermen were still standing outside their room staring at me, and they were following every move I made. It was like they'd never seen a wannabe porn starlet in the flesh. The thought made me grin and I was rewarded with wolf-whistles. I made a theatrical curtsey and shoved the door closed behind us.

The phone rang immediately and I snatched it off the bed.

"Michelle, I would be ever so very thankful if you would not draw unwanted attention from the locals," Lizzie's voice admonished, "you're an obsessive flirt, I say."

"Uh, you're right of course, Lizzie," I admitted, "I always have been. I guess I just need attention whenever possible. Sorry."

There was a snort from the phone, and then Lizzie requested that I put John Cougar on the line. He listened with a deepening frown of concentration, tried to speak, getting no further than, "But, but…but, I…yes, Lizzie." I could tell when she hung up. John sat down with a sigh and looked at me with an exasperated expression. I slipped an arm over his shoulders to offer support, not really knowing what Lizzie had said. He just shook his head.

"Ah, well. When the heart leads the head, dignity can't stand in its path. I'm but a fool."

"A fool in love," I said, commiserating with him, "you and me both."

"Awwww, how cute," Nightshade commented from atop the TV, as Elvis giggled.

"Shut up!" John and I both said.

The breakfast consisted of coffee, blacker than swamp water, and a deep-fried battercake, coated with powdered sugar. I felt myself developing diabetes before it was half finished. Afterwards, I grabbed my shoulder bag, slipped on my running shoes, and went out to go shopping with Lizzie. John Cougar, Elvis the Kitten, and Nightshade the Cat stayed behind in the room. I left the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the doorknob, hoping to keep the housekeeper from having a cardiac event.

Shopping in Waycross, with Lizzie, was a mixed experience at best. Although I soon had all the items on Lizzie's list, we both drew outstanding levels of attention. I strutted from store to store in my Nike shorts and tank, capturing every male and 20% of the female eyes with lust. The remaining 80% of the women could be heard muttering "slut" under their breaths and scolding their male companions. I made a point of using my languorous sexy walk. Fuck 'em.

Meanwhile, in the parking lots, the admiring yokels quickly surrounded Lizzie. She was painted brilliant gemlike blue, with a black top and racing stripes, dark tinted glass, custom wheels, fog lights, a bug bra, and vanity plates. She was fighting the impulse to take off without me, and at the same time, I could see she was basking in their attention. When we'd pull out, she'd start on the first touch of the key, rev up her engine, and chirp her tires. She was flirting with the crowds in her own way. I had to smile. It was addictive. We giggled all the way back to the motel.

When we arrived, the manager came out and knocked on the door. I answered and let him in. He was a kindly older man, obviously nervous and embarrassed by having to confront me.

"Ms. Allen," he began in a classic southern drawl, "I'm very sorry to have to ask this, but this is a family motel and, um, a couple of the patrons have mentioned you."

"Well, I'm not surprised," I said, "a couple of your patrons probably scorched their eyeballs on me this morning." He coughed and swallowed, then took a deep breath before continuing.

"It's just that a rumor has begun circulating that you're engaging in acts of, uh, well, that you're providing services that are, um, that favors are being given in return for monetary compensation." He finally got his point across. I laughed.

"You're wondering if I'm actually a hooker, right?" I asked, watching him flinch. "Actually, no. I'm here on vacation, really just passing through, and I'd be more than happy to be left alone. Unfortunately, it appears that most of the local males have never seen a woman before."

"Um, it's not that they haven't seen women before," he hedged, "it's just that they're not used to seeing so much of one that they're not married to…outside of those magazines, anyway."

"Oh, I see," I replied, "well, maybe you could spread a rumor that I'm from California like the plates on my car say, and that this is how a lot of women dress there. I'm sure they've seen it on TV. Really, we're all like Bay Watch out there, ya know?"

He seemed to think it over for a moment, then he agreed to give it a try. "By the way," he added on his way out, "are you sure you don't want the housekeeper to straighten up the room?"

"No, I'd rather not have her disturb my cats," I told him, pointing out Nightshade and Elvis.

"I understand," he said. "Alright, Ms. Allen, I'll just have her leave the sheets and towels for you at the desk, ok?"

"That would be fine, thanks," I said, happy to have avoided trouble. He seemed like a nice guy at heart. "By the way, you can call me Michelle, or Candy."

His eyes bugged out as he choked, and I covered my grimace with a grin. Oops.

"Just kidding," I hastily added. It seemed to satisfy him and he chuckled, thinking he'd gotten the joke.

After he left, I happened to glance at the TV. They were showing a shot of the audience at a NASCAR racetrack, and sure enough, right up in front; there stood a crew of party girls. They were dressed for the beach, and they looked way sluttier than me. I must admit I was a bit jealous.

"Well, you seem to be gaining some notoriety among the locals, Candy," John Cougar commented, straight-faced, as he stalked out of the bathroom. I had to give him credit for his mirthless delivery.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Excerpt from "Soulmates Again", © C. Stanton

A Sequel to "Heart of a Diver"

Alt Uber Incomplete

I knew Debbie was nervous about the upcoming Olympic trials. My sister had been on edge for the last month, biting her nails and chewing her lips. All the stress of graduating from High School hadn't made things any easier either. I'd hug her and whisper encouraging words to her as we lay in bed in the dark. That was when her doubts and insecurities would be the most tormenting. She'd hug me back desperately, sometimes even crying.

"Honey, you know you'll win a place on the team," I told her, "you've posted the fastest times in two of the four qualifying heats, and you won your event at the last Nationals."

"I…I'm just so scared I'll freeze up," she confessed, hiding her embarrassment by burying her face in my shoulder. "You know I've had nightmares since I was little about the ultimate wave."

"Oh, sweetheart, I know that's such a terribly image, but it's just a part of my mom's dark past." I felt like cursing Bobbie for ever telling us the story about how she'd lost her first lover. We'd been 8 years old and had asked about our names. We'd both gotten sick of being called Rebbie. When Deb discovered that she'd been named for her other mother's dead lover, the story had awakened a fear in her heart that had stayed with her ever since.

"I know, Rhonda," she whispered, "but I still have the nightmares about it, and if it wasn't for your love…if it wasn't for how you hold me and help me forget, well, I don't think I could keep swimming."

"But honey, it's such a big part of you, and you love swimming," I said, "we both do. We've been swimming since we were really little…since my mom used to teach us in her classes at the Y."

"I do love swimming," she said, looking up into my eyes, "and the only thing I love more is you." She tilted her head up and her lips met mine as our eyes closed. I met her kiss and slipped my tongue into her warm mouth as her hands slid up the length of my naked body. We'd been sleeping together nude since we'd entered our teens, and together, in the dark, our passions had bloomed into love, along with our budding bodies. We were soulmates, just like our mothers.

 

"Look, Stephie," Connie chortled, "I've just set up the conflict. You've gotta admit it's a brilliant kinda psychological trauma thingie, inherited from the original story. It's such a great tie-in for a sequel, to have a conflict derived from a minor detail in the original story. It forces the reader to go back and read the first one so they can understand what they're reading now. All the good authors do it."

Stephanie took the pages that Connie triumphantly handed to her, watching over her glasses as Con fired off 20 IUs of insulin and then slugged Yoo-hoo to wash down a Little Debbie's Cake Roll. Steph lit a Camel and took a pull off her longneck. Then she scanned the pages and choked. The mouthful of beer that she expelled sprayed over both Connie and her keyboard. She could barely believe what she'd read. Connie was losing it, and fast. The meds that Steph had been slipping into her Yoo-hoo for the last week were finally doing their job. At the same time, Steph was regaining her clarity and even some of her memories. The net effect was that the situation had become ever more ludicrous and abysmal.

"Well, Con, I can see a couple minor difficulties with this," Steph said, calmly understating her shock and imagining the outcries of horror from readers across the web, "not the least of which is the incest angle you've based the story on. I mean, for god's sake Con, Debbie and Rhonda are sisters; basically genetically identical twins."

"Huh? I didn't think it was a problem, Stephie," Connie stated with confidence as she wiped the beer spray off her face. She slugged down some more of the medicated imitation chocolate beverage and gave her lover a wide grin. "I think it's charming that they're so close, and that they discovered their love while they're so young. 'Course, it was fated to happen, ya know. It's their destiny. They're soulmates, just like their mothers."

"Meaning that being soulmates justifies them having sex and sleeping together nude since they were 13?" Steph incredulously asked. This soulmate thing was way beyond the pale of any kind of believability. She was hotboxing her Camel and chewing the filter. "Don't you think their mothers would have had some reservations?"

"Well, no," Connie said, obviously amazed that Steph would think so, "because they're soulmates themselves. They could see that their daughters belonged together. After all, they even looked like identical twins, and they were born at the same time, and well, it was that they recognized their daughters' destiny just like they'd recognized their own. Besides," Connie continued after contemplating the sociopolitical issues, "this is the 21st century, not the 50s or the Victorian era. Bobbie and Kellie are enlightened, progressive, and sensitive…and they embrace diversity."

"I think that Rhonda and Debbie were just acting out their childhood need to emulate their parents, including their sexual orientation," Steph said, reasoning out the psychosexual family dynamics of the disaster she had just read about. "And I think that their mothers abetted their adolescent sexual explorations by transferring their own relationship parameters onto their daughters…or they were too busy fucking to notice." Her Camel had burned down to the filter and she flung it away as it burned her fingers. It hissed and went out in a wet spot on the rug.

"That's really insightful, Stephie," Connie replied, beaming as she bit into another cake roll and closing her eyes in rapture. "In fact, I can adapt it to the story. I'll use it as evidence of their acting out their destiny as soulmates." Connie grinned and winked at her lover, "and, oh yeah, Bobbie and Kellie were really busy at night. I said that in the epilog," she added smugly.

Steph rolled her eyes. It was hopeless. Like arguing religion with a fanatic, every point of contention got twisted into corroborating evidence for a point of view based on faith rather then reason. It was indicative of the effects the meds were having on Connie. Being psychoactive drugs, they affected Con's mind. She tried one last tact.

"Con, don't you think that Bobbie and Kellie would object to their daughters having sex with their siblings at such an early age?"

"Oh god no, Stephie," Connie was staring at Stephanie as if she were profoundly retarded.

Stephanie was amazed at Connie's assertion and tried to relate it to her own fucked up childhood. "I mean, even though my father was a drunk and my mother was a psycho, they would have hit the roof if I'd started sleeping with anyone when I was 13, much less a sibling…especially a twin sister. Wouldn't your parents have had some objections if you'd been having sex like what you've described?"

"Well," Con wheezed, thinking back through the drug induced haze to her childhood, "I shared a bed with my brother in the kids' room, until my older sister was 15 and moved out to get married. Then I got my own bed, though my brother and I were still in the same room. So no, I don't think their parents would have objected a bit." Connie grinned and drooled a viscous saliva studded with cake crumbs.

"And so you and your brother…" Steph didn't even want to go there, but she'd started the sentence as a shocked reflex following Connie's admission. It was obvious that Con thought nothing was odd about it. Steph gulped and lit another Camel.

"Geeez Stephie, everyone I knew slept with at least one sibling, and most of them…well, you know." Connie was grinning, enjoying Steph's discomfort with the topic. She's such a prude, Con thought, but she's really cute when she blushes.

Steph didn't know what to say. Connie's revelation had fully boggled her mind. Her forebrain was trembling while her hindbrain generated dirty thoughts about Connie's childhood nights. OMG, Steph thought, she was fucking her brother all along and she doesn't think anything's unusual about it at all…it seemed normal to her because all the kids around her were in the same situation. Why, it's more degenerate than decadent. Now she's writing about a similar situation and she thinks it's charming. Steph's forebrain was still in shock and her hindbrain was morbidly curious. As usual, her midbrain reached a compromise.

"So, where you grew up, the parents didn't think there was anything wrong with their kids having sex with their brothers and sisters, right?"

"Why would they?" Connie asked, really not understanding what the problem was. Her nights had been lusty and fun…in fact, at holidays, she still really enjoyed seeing her brother. "Most of the parents in our town had the same arrangement growing up. It wasn't a rich town. Most of the families had more kids than bedrooms…or beds." It seemed reasonable to her. What the fuck was Stephie's problem anyway? Was she jealous because she'd been an only child?

Steph's midbrain mediated her shock and curiosity and followed the line of questioning to its bitter end.

"So, uh, did any of you kids end up getting pregnant?"

"Well, yeah, of course some of them did. I mean, lots of the kids' parents had gotten married and kept living at home. I guess it was just their destiny, ya know? I mean, my parents had grown up together, and when they started having kids, well, it just made sense for them to get married and all."

Stephanie's hindbrain was really getting off on the titillation, while her forebrain was overloading on the miasma of incest. Connie's parents were siblings, etc., etc., etc.…at least it explained the webbing between Con's toes and some of the skeletal aberrations that Steph had noticed. I've got to get out of here, her forebrain screamed. I want to watch, her hindbrain chuckled. As usual, Stephanie's midbrain was the voice of reason. Let's compromise and get another beer, it said.

Despite having managed to dodge her meds for the last week, Steph's steps were unsteadier than her orthopedic shoes or leg brace could account for. She heard Con puffing from her inhaler as she assaulted the keyboard in the smoke filled den. When she reached the kitchen, Steph opened the refrigerator and snatched a longneck, using the door latch to pop off the cap. As always, beer sprayed the door and wall, adding to the sticky discolored stain that functioned as flypaper. Steph took a long swig of Bud.

She looked out the window into the overgrown yard, past the cement pad and down the gravel drive. The lights of a car were just going dark at the turn off from US-108. It was the first time Steph could remember a car entering the drive. There was nothing down here except Connie's trailer. Maybe it was Con's brother coming over for some….

She shook her head to clear the thought, though her hindbrain giggled in anticipation. A car had turned onto the driveway, shutting off its headlights. It was parking. Someone was coming. With a sense of necessity derived from the memories of a still partially forgotten life, Steph hastily snapped off the kitchen lights. She closed her eyes, covering them with the palm of her hand, to encourage her nightvision. At the count of 30, she opened her eyes and looked into the darkness of the swamp.

Stephanie scanned down the driveway, and sure enough, right off the road sat the silhouette of a car. A dim shaft of moonlight glinted off a chromed headlight rim, and it seemed to be staring directly at her. It was familiar and creepy. She reluctantly looked away and continued her visual search, examining the route up to the trailer.

Along the side of the driveway, about half way between the car and the trailer, she caught a movement. A shadow, darker than the night dimmed undergrowth, had shifted enough to draw her attention. Steph couldn't tell who it was or how many there were, but anyone coming through there was a trespasser, and she still viscerally hated trespassers. Now her nerves were pulsing on edge, prodded into action by the sense of danger that she felt. She silenced the whimpering of her hindbrain with the cold concentration of a warrior's forebrain. She resisted her midbrain's urge to light a Camel.

In the den, Connie was clattering at the keyboard, fully engrossed in her story. She had retained no relationship to the outside world at all. Steph was immersed in the real world. She felt the cool of the longneck in her hand and heard the hum of the refrigerator. She felt the heat from its coils and the miserly breath of air creeping through the window. Out in the swamp, a bullfrog croaked and tree frogs peeped. Crickets chirped and a fish jumped. There was a splash as a dozing possum fell off a branch and into the swamp below, its tail having fallen asleep. Farther away, a loon called, while a truck rumbled in the distance on 108. She caught another hint of blackness moving silently towards the trailer. Now it was only thirty feet away. Then, for just an instant, the barest glint of light reflected from the den window onto a pale eye.

Stephanie concentrated with all her being, trying to pierce the darkness outside the trailer. It was as if the intruder could shroud itself in impenetrable shadows; like a wraith, seen then unseen, defying the mortal eye with supernatural guile. She scanned the yard with increasingly frantic glances, desperate for just a glimpse of the threat. Her forebrain was straining to acquire some image from her eyes, and her eyes were bulging from her face with effort. Just a week before, Steph would have attributed this hinted threat to paranoia and drugs, but now…now she had no doubts that there was someone out there. She was still staring into the gloom of the swampy night when a face popped up right on the other side of the screen, not three inches from her nose. It smiled at her.

Stephanie Walker, hero of the San Francisco Police bomb removal team and veteran of combat on foreign soil, shrieked, recoiled, and fell flat on her ass in the cramped space of the trailer kitchen. Then she was scrambling backwards across the mildewed linoleum, scrabbling like a five legged crab, as her heart rate blew through the roof of her thoracic cavity. Her blood pressure jumped as adrenaline poured into her arteries from her panicked and whimpering adrenal glands. She had to get out! Somehow, Steph regained her unsteady footing, and somehow she clomped across the living room carpet without catching her leg brace in the hook and weave. She flung the door open and staggered out into the night, striking sparks from her leg brace off the cement pad.

Steph took six ungainly strides across the gravel. The skin at the back of her neck tightened in response to the unseen presence of the intruder, whom she could feel closing in on her. The eyes in the back of her head popped open, giving her 20/20 hindsight, and she knew that her hopes of escape were futile. In the back of her mind, her ears distracted her midbrain with the sounds of Connie's keyboard clacking. Then, just as she felt a hand clutching at her shoulder, her luck ran out. Stephanie's right foot, (the one in the taller of the built-up orthopedic shoes), made firm contact with the back of the trundling opossum. It was wet and slick with algae, having just extracted itself from an undignified fall into the swamp. She squashed its slimy body into the slippery humus.

Stephanie felt the sliding of its skin across the firmer bones and flesh underneath. The pelt slipped aside below her shoe, and the opossum, a silent creature, shrieked, adding impetus to Steph's reflexive recoil from the sensation underfoot. It was like stepping on a dead animal, unseen beneath the grasses in a field; a terrifying visceral repulsion, abetted by the panic of the opossum's screech seized her. It was carnival "house of horrors" stuff for sure. Steph's forebrain overloaded in an instant. Her midbrain lost its composure, and powered only by her panicked hindbrain, Stephanie wailed as she leapt forward, away from the sickening sensation and the threat.

She belly-flopped down in the black swamp water, in the pitch black of night, in the enveloping black of her terror. There was a huge splash. Then the water was rising to her mouth and nose. Steph flailed and wildly clawed at the water. To he credit, she didn't cry out; her forebrain still wasn't powering her Broca's speech center, and her hindbrain was way too busy powering the reflex arcs that pinwheeled her extremities. But Steph was sinking, and worse yet, the submerged branch of a log had locked onto her leg brace. Underwater, her thrashing dragged the log attached to her brace into a hole, and it sank heavily, pulling Steph along with it. Then she was going down, alone in her helpless terror.

Black water filled her mouth and it tasted like a rusty tetanus cocktail served from a corroded iron pipe. Stephanie Walker disappeared under the swamp water with a cascade of bubbles that fell upward and broke the surface. The black night of the water was soon overtaken by the blackness of her body, as first her forebrain, then her midbrain, and finally her hindbrain starved for oxygen and shut down. Her lungs filled with the black water of the swamp, and Stephanie Walker knew no more. Across the gravel drive, the clickity-clack of a tortured keyboard complained to the Georgia night, as a newly crippled opossum limped across the cement pad under the trailer.

 

Chapter Sexteen

Stephanie looked at the screen a moment before catching the typo, then she arched an eyebrow and looked at me questioningly. I grinned at her.

"You didn't catch it ten chapters ago," I chided, stroking her forearm with my fingertips, "so I couldn’t resist giving it another shot."

"Ya think anyone will notice?" She asked, smiling as she lit a Camel.

"Nahhhh, no one ever pays any attention to that stuff," I claimed, shrugging, "I just put it in because it has a personal meaning for me. 'Sexteen' was my high school nickname. Everybody called me that."

Stephanie hacked out a cloud of smoke and then coughed while catching her breath. I could see that her eyes were watery too. I patted her back.

"I think I like 'Candy" better," she muttered.

 

After my conversation with the motel owner, I started on the preparations that Lizzie Cooper had outlined for our night surveillance of Connie Stanton's trailer. It was my very first covert operation, not counting selling favors in the stairwell at school, and I was somewhat nervous. That's not to say there wasn't a laugh or two to be had. Among the items on Lizzie's shopping list had been a half-dozen packages of Grecian Formula. (Author's note: This product is used, supposedly primarily by men, for banishing that distinguished gray. In fact, the manufacturer's market research indicates that usage is roughly equal among men and women with naturally dark hair.)

I drew a full tub of bath water, as John Cougar stood by shaking his head.

"The things we do for love, eh, Michelle? Once the heart is lost, all reason retreats along with it," he declared, philosophizing to ease his discomfort.

"Well, yeah," I agreed "Just consider it like, a temporary camouflage," I told him, "and your consolation is that it will wash out…eventually."

He looked at me with a sad grin, shaking his head. "Stephanie will owe us big time."

I worked the product thoroughly through his fur, as he sat, trying to maintain his dignity, in a tub of darkening water. It took several applications to achieve the desired look, but after blow drying him, he was completely black, looking for all the world like a black leopard from a Sri Lanka jungle. In a way, I envied him. My own make-up included the grease paint pancakes we'd found among Steph's old military paraphernalia. At least I only had to black out the space around my eyes. I looked like a raccoon, or maybe Chrissie Hynde.

As my consolation, I could fantasize about being the world's sexiest commando. I had dressed in a slinky black leotard and Magnum boots, and had added a black Nomex balaclava and kevlar gloves. The only down side was the utility belt. It weighed a ton. The belt carried a cell phone, Maglight, ultrasonic insect repeller, and the holster with Steph's handgun. I glanced at my reflection.

"Well, hey," I said to myself with a wink, "hello there, Lara Croft." The Catwoman had nothing on me.

The actual job really sucked. Skulking around in a dark swamp all night was not my idea of a good time. I'll confess that I whined for a while, sitting hip deep in the black water with John Cougar, and watching the lighted windows of the rusting trailer. I don't know what was worse. The constant buzzing of mosquitoes that circled around smacking their lips, or the muffled clacking of a keyboard from inside the trailer. The bugs were just waiting for the battery in the ultrasonic repeller to die, so they could charge in and suck out my blood and bodily fluids. The keyboard signaled the growth of another wretched prose that would soon be foisted on the world. It was also the harbinger of continued suffering for Stephanie. Beside me, John Cougar sighed, having perfected the mannerism earlier in the evening. Every so often the cell phone would vibrate, and I'd ease it out of its holster and click "Talk". It was always Lizzie, waiting in antsy anticipation by the road.

"Anything yet, love?" She'd whisper, just as she had ten minutes before.

"Not a thing moving that I can see," I'd reply, not taking my eyes off the windows.

"Well, let me know if anything changes, don't you know."

"Lizzie, I'm so bored that watching this Connie person taking out the trash would seem like a monumentous event," I whined. "In fact, I'd consider myself lucky to get bitten and die of malaria."

"Oh, why I do believe that such that an event could be arranged," Lizzie answered with a trace of sarcasm. "Do you believe for a single moment that sitting here in the dark by this picturesque country lane is at all my heart's desire? Do you? You just keep your eyes peeled, Candy, or I'll be off and you can walk home!"

"You leave me in this filthy swamp, and I'll put sugar in your tank!" I hissed back, the vitriol boiling out of my ears as sweat trickled into my eyes. I wiped the back of my glove across my face and then growled as I realized it was covered with algae-laced mud.

"Ladies, ladies, please," John Cougar beseeched us, having overheard the whole exchange, "can't we all just get along?" He was lounging on a log next to me, bored, but at least reasonably dry.

"Oh…alright," I said, trying to regain a shred of composure, "no activity, Swamp Eyes out." I clicked the phone off. I could practically hear Lizzie fuming and muttering to herself by the roadside 40 yards away. It was the very first night of our actual mission, and we were already snarling at each other.

"I'm going to take a closer look," John Cougar said softly. "I think I can get pretty close without alerting the natives."

He leapt off into the shadows, clearing the bank with ease and blending into the black of the swamp night like a ghost. Before he'd gone 20 feet, I couldn't see him at all, and he was completely silent. (Author's note: the cougar, Panthera concolor, is known among felids as the, 'Athlete of the Americas', being capable of running leaps on level ground, of as much as 35 feet. They can also leap down from perches as high as 50 feet and jump upward over 12 feet. They can climb trees, swim, and cover short distances with frightening speed. A 125 to 150 lb. adult male cougar is an extremely formidable creature, similar in mass to the Old World leopard.)

Since it was futile to try catching a glimpse of him, I went back to watching the glowing rectangles of the trailer windows. Before long, I noticed the silhouette of his head, appearing like a black blotch against the yellowish lighted windows. He glanced into them, one after another, until he'd made a complete circuit of the trailer. After a few more moments, he appeared right in front of me with his lanky gait. He silently leapt onto the log and sat with his tail curled around his feet.

"Oh, Michelle, what pathos I have witnessed," he said, his voice cracking with sorrow. "Our dear friend is indeed a captive in that squalid hovel. I have seen the monster flaying her terminal in a fit of activity, while poor Stephanie languished nearby in a stupor."

"You saw her?" I asked excitedly. "What's wrong with her?"

"It's so very sad; why, it very nearly broke my heart. Steph was such a vital and active woman, but tonight I saw only a remnant, merely the ghost of the person I knew. Oh Michelle, she was collapsed on a fetid sofa, empty longnecks laid haphazardly at her feet beside an overflowing ashtray. She appeared to have been grievously injured in body and spirit. And in the very next room, exhibiting not a shred of concern for her pitiful condition, the monster, that Connie Stanton creature, sat stuffing her face with all manner of abominable sweets and drinking Yoo-hoo, as she intimated her delusions upon the keyboard. I was actually close enough to read somewhat of her thesis. What unmitigated twaddle. She cares nothing for our dear Stephanie; only her own pathetic and miasmic verbal excrement." He finished with a choking gasp that might have been the sound of a heart actually breaking. I moved over to the log he sat on and wrapped my arms around him, hugging him tight. I could feel him softly hitching as he quietly sobbed.

"C'mon, let's get out of here," I whispered, "we should report all of this to Lizzie and then decide on how to rescue Steph. I don't think there's anything more to be gained tonight by staying here in this disgusting swamp."

He nodded, still not trusting his voice, and I slowly waded out of the water and walked back down the driveway. At least there didn't seem to be any security precautions here, I thought, remembering how tightly Steph's house in San Francisco was guarded against intruders. If this had really been her home, I suspected that we would both have succumbed to booby traps long before. For me, that knowledge alone drove home just how badly Steph's condition must have deteriorated.

When Lizzie heard John's report, she visibly sank on her springs, and a trickle of windshield washer fluid tears trailed across her hood. She shook her front end sadly back and forth as if in denial.

"Oh my poor beloved Stephanie," she softly wailed. "I swear, to all the gods that be, that I shall free you from that dismal prison. Even if you are never the same, I shall bring you home and I shall take care of you so long as I live."

I was weeping as I got into the driver's seat. It was the most touching thing I'd ever heard.

"Could you drive please, Michelle," Lizzie softly asked me, "I don't think I'm quite up to it at the moment, love."

"Of course, hon," I told her as I pulled us out onto US-108. The road wavered all the way back to Waycross, as I peered ahead through my tears.

By the time we'd reached the Holiday Inn, Lizzie's sorrow had graduated to rage. She was all for going back and storming the trailer, guns blazing. The fact that we only had one gun, which none of us really knew much about, didn't dissuade her in the least. Eventually, John Cougar calmed her down to a barely convincing level of rationality.

"Well then, if not tonight, we'll bloody well go in there tomorrow," she declared, "even if I have to push that trailer over myself, Stephanie is not spending another night in that tin dungeon. Now, are you with me or not?"

I gulped, but I wasn't going to let her go alone. Neither was John Cougar.

"Of course we're with you, hon," I told her, "we've come all the way 'cross country for this, and somehow, we'll make it work. But, maybe we should get there a bit earlier…before Steph's completely inebriated. I don't think I can carry her if she's passed out." Well, as things turned out, I'd opened my big mouth and spoken too soon.

Later that night, as I lay in the tub, soaking off the grime and masturba…never mind…I thought about coming all the way to the east coast, and preparing to risk my life, for a woman I'd never really known. It was ridiculous, chancy, and, except for squatting in the swamp, I'd enjoyed the trip immensely. So all right, the drive had been tiring and the scenery boring, and the food had sucked, (except for my after dinner treat in the ladies' room), but I was on an adventure…a real live adventure. And, it was for a good cause.

As I dozed off in the tub, I wondered if anyone would have done this for me if I'd been kidnapped. I realized that there wasn't a flaming chance in hell that anyone would even have really missed me. I slipped down a couple inches and the water ran into my nose, and I jerked bolt upright, hacking water out of my throat. Okaaaay, that'll teach me, I thought. Bath time's supposed to be happy and relaxing, I sternly scolded myself. I stood up and shook off the excess water before stepping out and wrapping myself in a towel. Tomorrow night, I'd either have rescued a very sick woman, or I'd be dead.

I thought I'd just dozed off when the phone rang. Lizzie was giving me my wake up call. What a short night, I thought, but the sun is up and I guess I can't argue with that…damn it. Breakfast was another battercake, with coffee, and a leer from the fishermen in the next room. The rest of the day we spent on the phones, discussing plans with Lizzie, who was parked across the lot by herself, trying to keep from being overheard. The fishermen were getting nosey, lingering in their doorway.

They were still outside, (or maybe they were outside again), hopefully looking to catch another glance at my chest, when we trooped out to Lizzie after dinner. The guys looked progressively more amazed as first Nightshade the Cat, and then Elvis the Kitten, walked through the parking and got straight into the car.

"Really well behaved," one of them muttered, "guess they're not headed for the vet."

"Weird, the one's missing most of its tail," the other observed, "and I'd swear its just a kitten judging by the size of its paws."

They both did double-takes when John Cougar stumbled out in his raincoat and hat, shuffling and leaning on my arm, as we hastened to the passenger's side.

"Oh, this is sooo not good," I muttered to myself.

"Just keep moving," John Cougar whispered urgently, "they probably think I'm just an old decrepit moonshiner or something."

We managed to get in and take off without comment, though I was sure the rumor would be all over Waycross in an hour. Well, it really didn't matter.

We drove back to Connie Stanton's trailer in silence; each of us occupied with our own thoughts. Our parts in the plan had been assigned and we reviewed them in our minds, looking for ways to head off potential disasters. Actually, we were kind of proud of ourselves. Not only did we have the primary operation memorized, but a backup option as well. If the first attempt went awry, we had a contingency plan, and if stealth failed us, then we were willing to stage an all out assault. One way or another, we weren't leaving without Steph.

I could have sworn that the roads had shortened somehow. We arrived at the driveway, off US-108, way before I was mentally ready. Still, it was time for the grit, guts, and glory, as Lizzie put it. She killed her headlights as she slipped into the shadows alongside the driveway, seeking concealment. Little did we know that we'd already been made.

As soon as Lizzie killed her engine, we slid out, careful to maintain silence and stay in the shadows.

"Remember, the night is your friend," John Cougar had advised us, looking rather pointedly at me, "those of you who are cats will understand this instinctively." Nightshade and Elvis nodded gravely to him. "Glad you're not still that bright yellow, my dear," he told Lizzie with a smile, "though I'll never forget how you looked when we first met." The little car smiled back at him.

Now we were edging forward through the deep shadows of the driveway, inching forward in silence. We needn't have bothered. Inside the trailer, Steph was desperately trying to glimpse us, in a rising state of paranoia, out the kitchen window, while Connie, doped up and completely seduced by her profound passages, would never have noticed if we'd driven up in a trash truck.

"I saw a light go out in the kitchen," John commented to me softly, "perhaps I should have a look in there first. We could be compromised." I could hear the tension in his voice. We still didn't know what level of violence Connie Stanton was capable of. I nodded my agreement. Off to our left, something splashed into the swamp. I held my breath and nervously fingered the thumb catch on the holster of Steph's handgun.

Nightshade and Elvis had slipped around to the back of the trailer, hopping up onto the trashcans to watch Connie through the den window. I sidled up to the front door, leaning my back flat against the rusting tin beside the doorframe, trying to control my breathing. John Cougar moved to the kitchen window, and I watched as he slowly raised himself so he could peek in.

He'd just risen high enough to look through the screen when there was a stifled gasp and a crash from inside the trailer. Awww shit, I thought, the enemy knows we're here. I popped the thumb catch and slid the pistol from its holster, being careful to keep my finger off the trigger and not sweep my left hand with the barrel. I held the handgun beside me, pointing the barrel up, as I pressed myself against the trailer wall. There was a scrabbling and crashing from inside, which changed to a dragging and thumping. My god, Connie's killing her, I thought melodramatically, she knows she's under attack, and she's murdering Steph for spite. It was for real now, and I slipped the pistol's safety off.

I had prepared to grab the doorknob and rip the door open, when it was slammed open wide, nearly taking off my fingers. My heart leapt against the upper wall of my thoracic cavity and then slapped a couple times against the front of my trachea, before rebounding off my sternum and settling down to a pulse rate of 150. I actually felt my spleen shiver while my liver whimpered in fright. I tried to calm them as a body launched itself out the door with an awkward, panicked gait. I saw the moonlight flash off metal along the figure's leg and I thought of Mad Max. Then I noticed the thick unnatural shoes, like props from two different versions of the movie Frankenstein, as the figure fled away from me towards the swamp. John Cougar had leapt from beside the window and was quickly gaining on the figure. I heard him calling desperately just above a whisper, "Steph…Steph, stop! It's me, John Cougar!"

As always, he was moving silently, and I could imagine his disembodied voice impinging on Stephanie's psyche like the call of a ghost. She was in a complete state of panic, driven only by her terrified hindbrain. I doubt she even heard him. I could only watch the drama unfolding before my eyes. She was almost at the edge of the swamp, and John was reaching out for her shoulder. None of us saw the opossum.

Suddenly there was a bloodcurdling shriek. It came from close to the ground and it wasn't Stephanie or John. Steph's right leg slipped out from under her, and then she was jerking away to the left, her muscles spasaming in a reflex arc that was way too fast to be a conscious movement. It had been powered by sheer visceral terror, and it propelled her forward, way off balance. I could only watch in horror. Even John Cougar couldn't reach her in that last instant. Awww, shit, I heard him utter.

Steph was airborne. I watched, (while the action slowed down as it does in fan fiction, like at the climax of a fight, for example), as she pinwheeled her arms and legs, flailing at the air and finding purchase on nothing. She described a modified ballistic arc and belly flopped into the black water of the swamp. She was very close to where I'd sat next to John Cougar's seat on the log, watching the trailer for several hours the night before. I thought they could have heard the splash back in Waycross, and so I aimed the barrel of the handgun back through the door. I was determined to stop Connie Stanton at any cost. There was a tremendous splashing, the terrified fight of a drowning person trying to keep her head above water for even another single instant. It went on for what seemed an eternity, and then it subsided into silence.

A moment later, there was a second splash as John Cougar leapt in after her. I looked back and forth, unsure of what to do. Nothing even remotely close to this scenario had appeared in our plans at all. I was indecisive. Should I guard our rear or should I offer assistance in the rescue? I bounced on my toes, trying to decide. I could hear the clatter of Connie's keyboard continuing undisturbed inside. She was completely oblivious to the life and death struggle going on just outside her doorway. Incredible!

My decision was finally made when I heard John Cougar sputtering and calling for my aid. I slammed the pistol back into its holster and took off towards him at a dead run. He was ducking back under, desperately searching below the surface, and then coming back up for a quick breath. I jumped in, trying to minimize the splash.

"She's gone under, Michelle," John told me desperately, "we've got to find her and get her out."

That was all I needed to hear. I took a deep breath, and without a second thought, I dove under the murky surface. I went down with my hands outstretched, feeling my way to the muck at the bottom. It wasn't that large an area we were in, and soon I felt Steph's clothing. I could already tell she was in trouble because she wasn't even struggling. She was limp and floating below the surface. I came up and took a deep breath, and then I went under again. I followed her body with my blind hands, identifying her torso, her arms and legs, and getting myself oriented. I tried to lift her through the water, but something was holding her down. I came back up, gasping for another breath. Back down I went, feeling that her arms were free, and feeling the resistance when I tried to mover her left leg. I felt my way down her leg brace, and finally, right at the ankle where it attached to the stirrup beneath her shoe, I found a branch wedged tightly beneath the metal bar. I came up gasping again, then sucked in the rank, humid swamp air, and dove back under. I went straight for the branch, tugging on it and trying to pull the leg brace free. It wouldn't budge. The damn thing wouldn't move, and I thought desperately that, even if I had tried in the light of day, I wouldn’t have been able to wedge it in as securely.

I had to come back up for yet another breath. My lungs were screaming now, but the adrenaline was pumping, dumped wholesale into my bloodstream by my adrenal glands. I reached underwater and found the thigh strap for the leg brace, and undid it by feel. Then I went back down into the darkness, and this time, instead of pulling or tugging, I unlaced Steph's shoe. I frantically pulled the wet laces apart as quickly as I could. Thankfully, the shoe slipped down part of the way off her foot, and sure enough, it was just barely enough to free the branch from the brace.

I lifted Steph's body partly out of the water, raising her head free of the black murk. She looked as if she was dead. There was no poetic image of a sleeping princess or of youth recovered in repose. She just looked soaked and dead. Next to me John Cougar tried to cover a horrified gasp. I squatted, using the bouncy of the water to aid me as I hefted Steph onto my shoulders in a fireman's carry. Water cascaded from her mouth and nose as she dangled, head down across my shoulders. I barely made it out of the swamp. The first time I tried, I slid back down the bank and landed on my butt with Steph sinking below the surface behind me. I recovered her body and tried again, crawling up the bank on all fours. I staggered when I finally made it out onto dry land. There was simply no possible way I could carry her down the driveway to where Lizzie waited.

"John, get Lizzie," I panted, pulling the handgun from its holster, "I can't go any further, but I'll shoot anyone who comes to stop us."

He didn't even reply. With a leap, he was lost in the darkness. I crouched over Steph's dead body, my eyes sweeping the area, an unfamiliar pistol clenched in my hand. In what seemed like only seconds, I heard Lizzie's engine start, and then the crunching of gravel as she drove towards us down the driveway. A moment later, I saw a pair of small shadows scampering around the side of the trailer and making for the Mini Cooper at a desperate pace. They all reached me at about the same moment.

"Get us out of here," Nightshade urgently hissed, "Connie's on the move."

"She's looking for Steph," Elvis added, looking back at the trailer fearfully.

"We have got no time," John Cougar said, flinging the passenger's door open and pushing the seat forward, "get in both of you."

Elvis and Nightshade bolted into the back. I took a deep breath and found strength that I didn't know I possessed. I lifted Steph's body and slid her into the small back seat. John Cougar leapt in with her and I jumped into the passenger's seat. Lizzie took off; spinning her tires and throwing gravel as we fled. Behind us, a light came on over the front door of the trailer, where houses have a porch. In the side mirror, I caught a bouncing glimpse of a short, overweight blonde lurching out of the door. I leaned out the window and fired several shots into the woods past the trailer, trying to make her duck and cover. It seemed like she didn't even really notice.

Lizzie fishtailed onto 108, screeching rubber like a dragster. I heard her upshifting although we were still in two-wheel drift, but her front wheel drive clawed for traction and dragged us onto the pavement. She didn't let up on the gas until we were flying down the road at almost 90mph. She finally snapped on her headlights as we drifted around a curve, where she smoothly downshifted and swung around a pickup truck so fast that I thought she'd pulled the paint off his hood.

When we made the turn onto US-221, she finally began to relax, dropping our speed to 70mph. It was a 30mph zone, but she had no trouble taking the turns, flawlessly choosing her line and cutting the groove in four-wheel drift, like a Lamborghini at Le Mans. I doubt any human driver could have made a run like that, for fear, rather than lack of skill, would have limited them. On that night, Lizzie Cooper knew no fear of the road. In her own way, she embodied the same courageous spirit of defiance that had once driven her countrymen face down the rockets and bombers of Luftwaffer. Until the night that the world changed, this was her finest hour.

Lizzie literally slid into the parking space outside our room, with all four tires smoking. She'd nailed the brakes to break traction and then drifted into the space moving laterally, coming to a halt centered between the lines. She'd barely engaged the parking brake when I leapt out of the door and pushed the front seat forward. I leaned in and lifted Steph's body onto my shoulders, and then I actually ran to the door. There were only seconds to spare. I'd unlocked our room and had just made it inside when the fishermen next door ran out to see what all the noise was. I wasn't so naïve as to think that there'd be no problem being caught bringing a dead body in, rather than dragging one out.

I didn't see what happened, but Nightshade told me later. I did hear a man's scream and a door slamming closed. Apparently, the fishermen had opened their door only to be confronted by a "Black Panther", which lunged at them from behind the small blue car. The car's doors were still hanging open, while the door to my room was slamming closed. They assumed that I'd fled inside to avoid an attack by the large wild cat. The younger of the two men screamed, dragged his petrified friend back inside, and slammed their door too. They didn't notice Nightshade and Elvis rolling on the floor of the blue car in hysterics. As soon as the men were out of sight, they jumped out and banged on my door until I let them in. John Cougar slipped in quietly after them, while outside Lizzie closed her doors.

(Author's note: What happened in the next few minutes, any doctor will tell you is utterly impossible, but this is uber fiction, and reality has no place here when it's at odds with the plot. So anyway, it's ok…trust me, it happened just like this.)

I had laid Stephanie out on the bed and drained at least a liter of foul water from her lungs. She was soaked inside and out, and stank of the swamp. On top of that, she was dead and hadn't taken a breath in almost half an hour. She should have stayed dead. She should already have been profoundly brain damaged. Instead, not knowing any better, I began administering artificial respiration. I breathed into her mouth while I held her nose. The air rushed back out with a wet rasping wheeze. In between breaths, I begged her not to die. It was ridiculous, since she was already certifiably dead. As the moments passed, I became more and more frantic. I had lived my whole life in emulation of her, and now it seemed as though I would never get to meet her. I had missed knowing my hero by minutes and it just wasn't fair.

"Don't you die on me, damn it," I cried, before giving her another lungful of air, "I need to know you, so don't you leave me, Steph, don't you dare leave me!"

Nightshade the Cat switched on the TV to cover my hysterics. It was a rerun of "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", on the cable Sci-Fi Channel. Amazingly, Richard Baseheart was talking about drowning a radiation-bred undersea monster.

John Cougar sat beside the bed, slowly shaking his head. He'd handled life and death in its rawest state all his life. It was a part of his duty, his responsibility to the piece of land he managed. Steph's death was a blow to him, and it meant the loss of a dear friend, but he could accept it with sorrow. I couldn't. Everything I'd been and done had been modeled on my image of her. I had to know what was real.

"Breath damn you!" I screamed at her. "You can't die on me like this. I never even got to meet you." Another breath as I cried. "Don't you die Stephanie Walker! You come back to me. You come back to me, because I've loved you all my life!" Another breath through tears I didn't even notice. "I deserve to meet you. I deserve a chance to love you." Another breath that came from my heart. "And damn it, you deserve to love me!" I pounded hard on her chest, once, twice, and then a third time. Maybe the blows cracked loose the creeping rigor mortis, maybe she came back to defend her body against my onslaught, or maybe it was…destiny.

Stephanie's body jerked and she gasped, coughing up another mouthful of swamp water. She lurched upright; her eyes popping open in stark terror as she fought for air. Inside her cranium, Stephanie's brain muscles poked her gray matter back into action. In an instant, her brain was pulsing with nerve impulses, goading her metabolism back into action. By reflex, one of her hands latched onto my forearm and she clamped down on it. The years of training in the Eagle Claw system had strengthened her grip unnaturally. I felt the radius, the slimmer bone in my left forearm, cracking. I was so amazed she was alive that I barely noticed the pain. I do remember hearing the thump as John Cougar passed out and fell over on the rug.

Later, Lizzie and I made a short trip, driving out to find the only doctor in Waycross. He was an aging, overweight, red-nosed man who was almost too drunk to set the bone in my arm. Doc Johnson greeted me at the door with a leer and offered me Jim Beam neat…then tried to convince me to put on an open-backed gown. He was the only person I'd ever seen who wore a string tie. It reminded me of "Doc" Holliday, from the Wyatt Erp movies, and wondered if he kept a sawed off shotgun in his desk drawer. At least he dispensed some Percocet, drawling that the dispensary wasn't open till 10 in the morning and people had been known to die waiting. Then he chuckled and took one himself. I supposed it went well with the Jim Beam. I left his office, (as he passed out in the foyer), wearing the sloppiest cast I'd ever seen. I guess we both ended up plastered.

 

Chapter Seventeen

"So anyway, do you remember awakening from death in the motel room at all, hon?" The author asked Steph tenderly, as she lit a Camel. She'd been watching the words appearing on the screen. It was the part of the story that she was the least familiar with.

"To be honest, no," Steph said. "Michelle, I can't tell you how sorry I am for breaking your arm. I didn't even realize I was gripping it. I don't remember much of anything after I was taken to Walter Reed, and what I do remember is really fuzzy. Hell, I barely even remember Connie Stanton."

"Well, you're probably lucky about that," I told her with a grin, "I just wish I could forget all my bad relationships as easily, sweetheart."

"I, umm…I didn't really have any idea what I was doing, and, uh, I wasn't myself at all," Steph blushed and lit a second Camel, then looked even more embarrassed when she realized she had two burning. I took the one from her hand, stroking her fingers as I did.

I grinned at her. "All I can say is that she was lucky to have had you in her bed."

Steph blanched and I laughed, adding, "just wish I could be so lucky, ya know?"

She gave me a tentative smile back. "Want a beer?" She asked.

"I'll have one if you will," I told her with a wink, "but you're not drinking me into bed."

Steph started to sputter at the accusation, and then realized she was being flirted with, again. She grinned at me and walked off towards the kitchen without a trace of a limp. I admired the easy, graceful sway of her hips as she retreated. God she was so yummy.

"Oh yeah, I'll drink you into bed," I heard her mutter to herself as she headed down the hallway, "and you don't stand a chance."

I gulped, knowing she could drink me under the table without batting an eye. Actually, I was looking forward to it. I'd been looking forward to it for years. I licked my lips in anticipation, hoping I'd remember some of it the next morning. Curled on the couch, Nightshade the Cat looked accusingly at me and chuckled, "you slut."

 

The drive home to San Francisco commenced the next morning, just before dawn. John and I had loaded Stephanie into the back seat, while Lizzie clucked and whispered sympathetic words to her. She was still mostly unconscious, as her lungs and trachea reacted in horrified disgust to the intake of swamp water. Her larynx had been mortified, but Steph's hindbrain had explained the incident away, blaming her sympathetic nervous system for its "gasp reflex". After reviving, John Cougar had spent hours in the tub scrubbing at the black Grecian Formula coloring, but had only succeeded in rendering himself a dark tawny gray. He sulked in the passenger's seat. Elvis the Kitten and Nightshade the Cat were cranky, confined to the area behind the back seat with the duffel bag. I slid into the driver's seat and Lizzie took us out of the parking lot at a somber pace, playing Gregorian Chants. I rolled my eyes and made a show of perusing the CD collection.

When we were about halfway down US-82 to I-95, Lizzie huffed and said, "Michelle, are you going to make a selection, or will you merely fondle those CDs all day? You're making me bloody antsy fumbling around and sighing like that."

"I'm not sighing," I sighed, "and this funereal atmosphere you're creating is sooo going to make me depressed. I'll end up eating chocolate and shopping if this doesn't stop. You'll make me gain five pounds and get zits. I mean, geeezus, we rescued Stephanie and she's alive again. You should be happy. What's the matter?"

Lizzie was silent for almost a mile. Finally she told me, "Michelle, you're right. We accomplished our mission, don't you know, but you see, love, I haven't a clue as to what Stephanie's mental condition is now. She was like a dearest big sister to me, she was. She took care of me and showed me wonderful things. She loved me, and I never expected anything like that from an owner. All my friends on the transport, coming across the pond, claimed that Americans are superficial and temporally handicapped. They told me I'd be ignored, and then most likely abused as soon as I was off warranty. They said I'd surely be left to rust before being given to a teenager learning to drive."

She sighed and I could almost see her closing her eyes and drawing up pleasant memories of her life in San Francisco with Stephanie.

"Michelle, I shall never forget that day when I first saw Stephanie at the dealership. She came in and she looked so beautiful, and I could see that her heart was warm. She wasn't like anyone else who'd come into the showroom. I thought she'd go for the Jaguar straight away, but, don't you know, she told Nigel that she wanted a Mini.

Oh, how I held my breath as she walked towards us. I tried to catch her eye, watching her each and every step. When she stopped in front of me, I smiled at her and wished with every drop of oil in me that she'd just give me a chance.

Why, do you know that the first thing she said to me was how nice my stereo sounded and how well I silenced the outside world? I took a chance and thanked her. I was sooooo very nervous, speaking up at first. She introduced herself and said she was pleased to meet me and wanted us to be friends. And then she made the decision to take me home with her…right then, not five minutes after we met. Since that day, she showed me nothing but the utmost consideration and loving kindness. She's one-of-a-kind, Stephanie is, and when I said I'd take care of her for the rest of my life, I meant every word. She's everything a person like me dreams of finding, and I'm so very worried that she won't remember me, or anything else."

I really didn't know what to tell the poor dear. I had never known the real Stephanie Walker; only my mistaken image of her. I would never claim to understand the loss of the individual that had inhabited the body that lay in a stupor on the back seat. But Lizzie would notice even the slightest change in her, and John Cougar would also know. For John, Lizzie's unhappiness and doubts added a layer of sorrow on top of his own feelings for Steph. I looked over the seat back and noticed Steph's hands moving, absently checking herself. At first I thought she was acting out some bizarre dream, and then I thought that maybe she was searching herself for injuries. Finally though, a realization dawned on me and I smiled.

"Look, Lizzie," I whispered, gesturing over my shoulder at Steph, "she's looking for a Camel."

Lizzie slowed slightly and started straying across her lane toward the shoulder, so I grabbed the wheel and pressed the gas pedal down to maintain our speed. I heard a sputter in Lizzie's engine that would have approximated a gasp from a human, and then the console sprang open revealing a carton of Camels. I snatched them and ripped open a pack, then dropped them when we swerved across the centerline. I cursed the cast on my arm. A terrified gasp came from the passenger's seat. Lizzie and I both went for the controls at the same time, and we lurched across the oncoming lane before jerking back to our own side. I looked over and saw John Cougar grinding his teeth and hiding his eyes behind his paws.

Finally I lit a Camel. Just the first whiff of smoke seemed to calm Steph. Her lands slowed in their frantic search and she exhaled, relaxing into deeper rhythmic breathing. I held the cig over the seat with my good arm and put it to her lips. As if on automatic, she inhaled and a grin curled the corners of her mouth. After holding in the smoke like a hit of pot, she exhaled slowly, drawing some of the smoke back in through her nostrils. The nicotine was working. Steph's eyes fluttered open. They were icy blue.

" Camel…Gimmee…" she rasped, her first words, coherent or otherwise.

She raised an unsteady hand and I slid the cigarette between her fingers. Steph sucked it down like a joint, the ember growing to 2" in length before she struggled up and snuck it through the gap where the rear window was propped open. She looked up at me and then eyed the pack. I handed it to her with the lighter. In moments she had another Camel lit, but this time she smoked it at a nearly normal pace. Finally, when she'd finished, she coughed and took a careful look at her surroundings. We were all looking at her. The fact that one strange person and three different species of cats were her only company didn't phase her a bit. The fact that we were flying down I-95 and I wasn't even looking at the road didn't disturb her at all. She looked each of us in the eyes and then smiled.

"Okay," she said weakly, "I recognize the inside of my own car, but who are all of you?"

John Cougar was miffed, but then realized that he was still dingy gray from his Grecian Formula. He made the introductions.

"Stephanie, it's John. John Cougar, though I've had to assume a disguise. This is Michelle Allen, who you sent us to find in Kettleman City. Elvis the Kitten you met briefly the day of your 'accident'," here he gulped at the memory, "and this is Nightshade the Cat…Michelle's cat," he added, though I'd never thought of her as mine. "Of course, Lizzie Cooper is driving."

We all held our breaths, wondering if any of it made sense to her. I was startled by the tears that began to flow down Stephanie's cheeks. She looked us over again, trying hard to compose herself. I wondered if she thought she'd awakened in a nightmare of insanity, because although I'd grown comfortable with my companions, most people wouldn't have been convinced that this was completely normal. Maybe she was still "broken" from her ordeal in that trailer.

"Oh, my friends," she finally choked out, "I can never thank you all enough for somehow getting me back. I don't even know where I was…am…whatever. John, thank you, thank you, my friend. Dear, dear Lizzie, I love you so very much. I can't believe I'm here. The last thing I really remember was being in a hospital and being given a handful of pills. Then I was traveling to another hospital, but I don't know where I went. Later, I do remember that I was in a trailer, but everything was really fuzzy. It's still not really clear. I was being given so many pills. But for the last week, I was sneaking them into that blonde woman's drinks and not taking any of them myself. She's immensely disturbed, I know that much…she's uh, Connie, that's her name…I think."

She'd become uncertain about the details. Tears were still rolling freely down her cheeks, and I reached over the seat back to stroke them away with my thumb.

"I'm afraid I don’t know you at all," she said to me, "but you're really beautiful…you have violet eyes."

I was ready to burst with happiness from her compliment and a warm feeling grew inside me that I really don't think I'd ever felt before. It wasn't devoid of lust, but it was so very much more.

"Stephanie, I met you once, you know, years ago in Kettleman City? So, anyway, I was just a little girl, running away to the desert with my cat. Somehow, you managed to convince me to go home, and you took Barney and drove away. I haven't lived a day since then without wishing that I'd see you again. When your friends came to my house looking for help, it felt like a dream come true.

Anyway, I tried to find out about you all my life, but everything I thought I'd learned about you was wrong. Steph, I've been hopelessly infatuated with you since all those years ago, and I think maybe I'm falling in love with you all over again…for real this time. So, anyway, uh, Hi."

It was funny, but in spite of all the flings and affairs and professional relationships I'd had, I'd never once told anyone seriously that I loved them. I'd never even thought I could. A part of me had recognized that the comfortable infatuation with the Stephanie that I'd constructed was unreal, (Author's note: probably just an excuse for my own sluttiness), but it was all that I'd thought I'd needed and it had been all that I'd had.

She looked at me as if I had three heads and then lit a third Camel. I didn't mind because I had her attention. We smiled shyly at each other.

"Oh, love, I'm so very, very happy to have you back," Lizzie burst in emotionally, "in both body and soul. Bless me, but I can't tell you how horribly I've fretted. I really don't know what I'd have done if we hadn't found you and freed you from that wretched trailer and that Connie monster. I still shudder to think of what you must have gone through, I do, but it's over now, and we're taking you home at last."

"Home…" Steph whispered uncertainly, "where there's a sunset lighting the towers of a great bridge, rising over a sea of fog?"

"Yes, hon," Lizzie confirmed, "home to your wonderful house in San Francisco…our house. We're your family, Stephanie, and we love you, we do."

We spent hours talking and getting acquainted or reacquainted. As the miles passed by, I fell more and more hopelessly in love with Stephanie Walker. I felt more and more a part of the unusual family that she'd forged, and I knew that, (for the first time since my father had died of his allergies in a cat house), I was going home too. I was cramped into the driver's seat of a small, over-crowded blue car, on a cross-country run. The food sucked, the scenery was boring, and the clothes I was wearing smelled more like me than me. I was also happier than I had been since I was a little girl, back when I still had both my parents and Barney the Cat.

Well, the trip home seemed to take only half as long as the drive from California. We arrived in the early evening, after two and a half days on the road with barely a break. When Lizzie finally pulled into the driveway off East Rd., Steph breathed a sigh of relief as she surveyed her surroundings. She asked Lizzie to drive around the side of the house, so we could look out over the cliff. I think she needed to see the bridge and the bay.

We climbed out, leaving the doors open so Lizzie could air out her interior, and took seats in front of her with our legs dangling over the cliff. Nightshade and Elvis curled up on the hood, enjoying the warmth of Lizzie's engine in the cool November night. We'd been so preoccupied that none of us had realized it was Thanksgiving.

The sun sank gently into the west behind us, throwing its glorious ruddy light on the spans of the Golden Gate Bridge, and illuminating its towers in warm evening hues. Fog unrolled across the water, like a cloudbank creeping across the watery reflection of the sky. Soon the carpet of vapor stretched across the bay, to Berkley and Oakland in the east. It was an enchanted homecoming, beautiful beyond belief.

I leaned back against Lizzie's bumper, watching the progression of colors that painted the great bridge; deepening orange to red, finally falling to violet. The fog bank rolled in slow motion, reflecting the colors of the sky, before sinking in to a ghostly dusk. South of us, the city's lights came on, winking in the distance like a field of stars.

To me, it seemed almost a vision of flying while sitting still. We were floating above the world like eagles or ancient gods. From below, muted sounds rose from the city to our ears, reassuring and undemanding. Their distance defeated their ability to command our attention, yet acknowledged the comforting presence of humanity. We all sat together watching the spectacle unfold. Neither Stephanie nor I noticed when our hands clasped or that our fingers intertwined. In all my life, I had never felt so at peace. I had never felt that everything was so right. I desired no fame or glamour, nor any riches beyond what I held at that moment in my hand. It was Thanksgiving, and I felt that I had never been so blessed.

Finally full dark fell, and with a sigh we rose and went into the garage. We unpacked Lizzie and cleaned her interior. Later, we settled on the couch, with burritos and longnecks, hot salsa verde and cool sour cream, tangy salsa roja and salty corn chips, watching a DVD of "A Friend in Need", the series finale of Xena Warrior Princess. Steph fell asleep as Gabrielle received Akemi's gift, the tattoo of a dragon, to protect her from Yodoshi, the Eater of Souls. I gently coaxed the Camel from her fingers and turned down the sound. Beside us, Lizzie was snoring lightly. It had been another long day. I cuddled up to a sleeping Stephanie, and felt Morpheus coaxing my eyelids down as the warmth of her body lulled me to sleep.

 

"Guess I was kinda out of it, huh?" Steph asked the author with a wink.

"Well, yeaahhh. Like, having died two days before and spending your whole new life cramped in Lizzie's backseat could do that," I answered. "We drove a few thousand miles, you know? Anyway, you didn't really revive for a couple days after that."

"Yeah, I had to get rid of the last of those drug effects," Steph said, shivering at the memory.

"Nahhhh," I teased her, "you just needed to regain your normal nicotine and alcohol levels to feel like your old self."

"But I didn't," she said after considering it for a moment, "I've never felt quite the same. Something changed…something had changed. It felt different when we came back here, and it's never been the same since."

"Well, huh?" I looked at her carefully, not sure of exactly what she meant. She'd been through a lot of changes. Stephanie was watching the smoke curling up from her Camel. Finally she blinked and refocused, meeting my eyes.

"I guess I didn't feel so alone," she softly said, almost as though she'd surprised herself with the admission. The hint of a grin twitched the corner of her lips. "My family had rescued me and it had grown in my absence. All of a sudden there were Elvis, and Nightshade…and you."

I know it's sappy, but her words made me feel a bloom of warmth inside.

"So, anyway, I was glad to have been there for you, hon, but Lizzie and John Cougar were the driving force behind our 'operation'".

"Yeah," she replied with a knowing smile, "but I know who brought me back."

She didn't have to add, "and why".

 

Chapter Eighteen

The next day there was a lot to do. Aside from resettling Stephanie in her house, we had to figure out how to handle her return. As usual, Lizzie Cooper was the voice of reason.

"Oh Stephanie, we'll not be able to keep your whereabouts a secret for long, don't you know," she said, "and to keep you from vanishing again, I should say the best place for you is in the spotlight, it is."

I had to agree with her, because if the media and the public knew she was back, they'd watch her and raise hell if she disappeared again. Especially if the circumstances were suspicious. Lizzie had friends in TV and radio who could orchestrate good coverage for the return of our hero. Fame and glamour were just around the corner. I could smell them like a hot dog on the breath of a 49ers fan.

"I would have to agree as well," John Cougar said. "The more visible Steph is right now, the better her chances of remaining free. I suggest we produce a short statement for the press as soon as possible."

Convincing Steph was the hardest part. She was more inclined to await the next crises with a longneck and a rifle, holed up in her garage with one eye on the video monitors and one eye on a bowl of taco chips and guacamole. She was already talking about teaching me weapons handling. The rest of us were less eager for a shootout. We suspected that Stephanie might still have some residual medications in her system, affecting her judgement.

"Feeling more yourself this morning, I should say," Lizzie stated, as she watched Steph loading magazines on the couch, "but 'tis video we should be shooting, it is."

"Lizzie, dear, I guess I don't mind a little self-promotion," Stephanie replied, though it had never been her favorite thing, "if ya really think it'll keep the Feds away. But I need to feel ready in case it doesn't end there. They aren't my only enemies." She would never forget the destruction of her apartment, or the losses of Barney and Brittanie. Never.

As usual, Steph was less than enthusiastic about self-promoting when the time for filming came. She grumbled a bit and procrastinated a bit. I would have said she sulked, but by the time she finally acquiesced, she was too drunk for the term to apply. I'd offered to stand in as her spokeswoman, but Lizzie would hear nothing of it. The little car was getting downright bossy. Eventually I was ordered to unpack the camcorder and set up the tripod. I sulked.

Finally, we coaxed Stephanie in front of the camcorder, which I operated under Lizzie's direction. The Mini Cooper was in her glory, a bloody director on her cinematic debut. I would have been happier in front of the camera, as a spokeswoman, practicing my pouty harlot look, (which I'd been perfecting since adolescence in my bedroom mirror). Of course, Lizzie insisted on a low-key solo scene with Sgt. Stephanie Walker, SFPD, explaining her return from federal limbo. Just about the only time Lizzie didn't get her way, was when Steph flatly refused to wear her dress uniform. (Author's note: I had suggested that she wear one of my "Pornstar" baby doll tees, but when Steph opted for civies, she went with black leather pants, a white tank, and a straw cowboy hat…finally gaining Lizzie's approval, only after she went back and put on a bra.)

In the end, when I saw the footage, I grudgingly agreed with Lizzie. Steph looked softer and sexier, and the public would relate to her with sympathy. Even I could see that. Her delivery was flawless. She was slouching near a wall of utility hookups, smoking a Camel and making flirty eye contact, while reading from the teleprompter and slurring her words. She actually seemed…sorta feminine and vulnerable, a combination that she habitually detested and I characteristically mocked. Lizzie spent a little time furiously editing the final tape. Finally, she autodialed on her "chatty" phone.

"Good day, Lizzie Cooper here. Would you be so kind as to connect me with Maxwell Blackthorne? I'd be ever so thankful," Lizzie asked of whoever had answered her call to the TV station. "Yes, he's the program director for Bay Watch. Thank you so much, of course I'll hold the line. Yes, he knows me, of course, just tell him it's Lizzie C, dear. Why, thank you kindly, luv, yes, Bristol."

"They always love my accent," Lizzie stage whispered to me.

I chuckled. Maxwell Blackthorne was the same contact that Lizzie had sent the video of the break in at Steph's house to, just over a week ago. He'd arranged the program that we'd watched, fostering a tone of moral outrage at the violation of her home. The show had given its audience a very sympathetic biographical sketch of Stephanie, and publicly questioned her disappearance. I had a question about Max.

"Lizzie, is Maxwell Blackthorne British?"

"Oh, why he most surely is, Michelle," Lizzie answered, and I could sense her impish grin. "In point of fact, he's the most British person I know. Twenty-five years here stateside and he still takes his Earl Grey and scones every afternoon. Why, I always hear the BBC, playing in the background in his office. He always has the inside dirt on the goings on back home, don't you know; who's playing up across the pond. Especially the Royals." Here she actually giggled, then recovered quickly when he came on the line.

"Maxwell, dear, I'm so glad to have been able to catch you," she said, "thank you sincerely for sparing me a moment. Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do. But of course it's an exclusive, luv, and I think you'll really like it, too…happy endings and all. Yes, she's back…yes, exactly. We're worried, of course." I could imagine him salivating in his office downtown. Lizzie finally finished with a giggle and a conspiratorial, "we Brits must stick together, don't you know."

She clicked off and then looked over at me. Stephanie was just coming down the stairs with a longneck and a bowl of chips. She looked at Lizzie expectantly, setting down the chips and lighting a Camel.

"Maxwell is sending over a courier straight away, and just guess what. He's setting up a special report! Stephanie, he's going to air your statement just as soon as he's viewed it himself. In fact, he'll be doing the on air commentary personally!"

We just looked at her. A program director usurping the place of his talking heads was pretty much unheard of. I couldn't remember it ever happening. Even Steph seemed impressed. She sat down hard on the sofa and lit a second Camel. After a couple puffs, she smiled.

"All this fuss over little 'ol me?"

"Hon, there's nothing else in the bloody news right now with a decent human interest angle," Lizzie stated, "and you know news people are just overpaid gossips at heart. Besides, this city was so proud of you after that atom bomb affair, it was. Why, you've no idea how outraged everyone here was when Bay Watch showed the tape of your home being searched and bugged. People were up in arms, they were."

"That's right, Steph." I told her. "There were actually street protests over your disappearance. Especially in Chinatown, around your old beat. In fact, the day after the Bay Watch report, a crowd of marchers turned a thousand rats loose at the FBI office."

Steph chuckled at that, but I noticed Elvis' eyes bugging out at the comment about the rats. He had puffed up his fur and laid back his ears. Even Nightshade was mincing on her paws; her claws dug into the carpet. Steph seemed to notice it too, but said nothing.

Before the chips were gone, the doorbell rang. I went upstairs and handed the envelope with the videocassette to the courier at the door. He leered at me, took the tape and signed a receipt, then thanked my breasts and hopped back on his motorcycle. I went back inside and rejoined the others in the garage.

Predictably, Lizzie already had the TV tuned in. I knew the media worked fast, but even I was amazed when the same criminally beautiful anchorwoman from Bay Watch appeared on the screen less than 30 minutes later. The game show that had been in progress simply cut off…no fabulous prizes would be awarded there today. The talking head was practically frothing at the mouth.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she smirked, obviously privy to a choice morsel of news, "we have interrupted our normally scheduled programming to present a Special Bulletin. San Francisco Bay Watch has received an exclusive report that is of interest to all citizens of the Bay City. And now, Mr. Maxwell Blackthorne III, President, Executive Producer, and Program Director for San Francisco Bay Watch."

The screen went dark for a moment as the video feed switched from the Bay Watch set to a genteel office interior. At a heavy mahogany desk sat a late middle-aged man who could have been Alistair Cooke's younger brother. The man looked British…he exuded a mannered presence that we American provincials would immediately associate with "English Lord". Maxwell Blackthorne gazed into the camera solemnly; composing his already immaculately composed self. When he spoke, the expected British accent was understated and flawless.

"Ladies and gentlemen. These United States were founded on the principal of universal laws, which are to be applied equally to all citizens as God given rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…the cornerstones lying at the heart of all subsequent mortal legislation. Since the founding of this nation, these rights have required defense against assaults, both from without and from within. Since the founding of this nation, many citizens have come forward to fight in this defense. This has been true, both in times of war and in times of peace.

Among those who have defended the rights and upheld the laws of this nation, we must number a local hero. In both times of war and peace, Stephanie Walker has defended the United States. She has spent her entire adult life in service to this country. First, as a Sergeant First Class in the US Army Military Police, she served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Later, she served with the San Francisco Police Department, first as a patrol officer, and then as a Sergeant, in charge of the Bomb Removal Team. It is in this most recent role, that Sgt. Stephanie Walker's heroism has been most publicly recognized…notably, when she led her team in the deactivation of the atomic bomb, planted earlier this fall by terrorists, in the 3COM stadium.

Many of you will recall that it was shortly after the parade in honor of this hero, a parade in which, I might add, she again neutralized a public threat, when Stephanie Walker mysteriously disappeared. She was, in fact, spirited out of a hospital, to places unknown, by parties unknown. That incident was over 8 weeks ago. Sgt. Stephanie Walker had not been heard from since.

Many of you will recall the footage that was obtained and exclusively aired here on San Francisco Bay Watch, documenting the shameful violation of this hero's private property. In that footage, we witnessed the illegal entry and bugging of a citizen's home. I'm sure that you will also recall the 'plausible denial' which our investigators met, whilst questioning federal authorities about this matter.

This afternoon, I am pleased, relieved, and thankful, to finally be able to provide you with an update. In answer to the hopes and prayers of the citizens of this city, San Francisco Bay Watch has obtained documentation of the return of our hero. Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard me correctly. Sgt. Stephanie Walker has returned to San Francisco safely. She has released a statement which will now be aired, exclusively, here on San Francisco Bay Watch."

With that, Maxwell Blackthorne turned to a monitor on his left, revealing his right profile, which I'm sure he considered his more flattering side. The screen cut to the footage we'd shot that morning.

"He's the bloody president and the executive producer," Lizzie muttered in disbelief, "the bloke always introduces himself as just the program director. So then, that explains Rolls Rita."

"Huh?" I asked. The last comment had lost me.

"I got his number from his bloody Rolls Royce, Rita," Lizzie answered. "I met her one afternoon at the dealership. We were both in for warranty maintenance, we were. Thought at first she'd be stuffy, I did, but she was a lively one. We had such a pleasant chat, don't you know. Of course, she has her own phone too, so now we chat regularly. Feisty lass, that Rita."

I was shaking my head. Lizzie was networking with other vehicles; socializing with contacts unsuspected by the human world. Steph seemed not at all surprised. Lizzie was following in the tradition of Brittanie the Desoto. Remembering his reaction to the comment about rats, Stephanie also realized that Elvis the Kitten was feeling the call to follow in the footsteps of Barney the Cat.

Well, I could imagine the public's reaction to Steph's little speech, or at least I thought I could. None of us could really predict all of its ramifications on that day though. Still, I thought, for the average person, she symbolized someone who had tangled with the might of the government…and got away. An angsty teen had become a hero, and now a hero was becoming a legend. Bay Watch broadcast the exclusive, but the national networks picked up the story second hand. By the time they finished airing their evening reports, Stephanie's return was known across America.

(Author's note: So anyway, (Hi), I know that some readers may think that I've simply glossed over some details relating to Stephanie's previously described medical condition. That would be a glaring omission on my part, now wouldn't it? In fact, I suspect that some of you out there are actually grinning from ear to ear, just whispering among yourselves that, "Chelle fucked up on the continuity because she was too drunk", or maybe, "because she was too preoccupied with trying to get into Steph's pants". How spiteful…shame, shame, shame. In fact, I haven't forgotten a thing! The details I refer to are the leg brace and orthopedic shoes that Stephanie was wearing when she belly flopped into the Likkapoonee swamp. And let me tell you, this pisses me off so bad every time I think about it that I could end up with hives.

Jeezus, I mean, those impediments are just another example of the immense cruelty to which my beloved Steph was subjected. She was kidnapped out of a hospital ICU, flown in secret across the country, drugged, brainwashed, and stuffed into a rotting trailer in a dismal swamp, with a psychopathic blonde who took advantage of her condition. If that wasn't bad enough, she was also attacked through the imposition of ersatz physical handicaps, all for the sake of undermining her self-image to break her and make her cooperate. But they didn't know Stephanie…she would never betray her family.

Combined with the disorientation and almost constant vertigo generated by the medications, the unevenly built up shoes served to ruin Steph's equilibrium and throw off her gait. She was constantly off balance. There was never anything wrong with her legs. As if that weren't sufficient, the single misadjusted leg brace insured that she'd be hobbled, and all of her movements impaired. Steph had been handicapped on purpose!

Now then, anyway, you may still be chuckling and thinking, Chelle still hasn't answered for everything she wrote. Well, readers, you're right. I haven't. I ought to withhold the next detail and just let you live in suspense, but I've already deferred the sex scene, and I wouldn't want to be accused of being a one-trick-pony. (And let me just say unequivocabally-like, that I have never turned even a single trick with a pony! Not even for that website. Really. They cut my head off those pics I told you that guy had sold, and "Shopped" them onto another body…I swear.)

So, ok, you want to know about the glasses that Steph wore while she was in the trailer, right? I knew it. Well, anyway, the glasses, as near as we can figure out, (since they're at the bottom of the swamp), were ground to create the illusion of an astigmatism! Can you believe that? It just sucks so incredibly badly that I want to scream.

I also want to say, that when Steph was finally dried out, and like, back to normal with the Camels and Bud, that she was pretty much her old self. (At least according to Lizzie and John). I mean, the actual residual symptoms she had were more from the stress of her ordeal than any physical damage from the bomb blast or the limo overturning. Well, anyway, I was really happy that she was normal again, and I was really pissed off at the people who had fucked with her, but they got theirs. So yeah, enough about that.)

Stephanie lounged on the couch, sucking down a longneck and smoking her third Camel. An overflowing ashtray sat on her thigh. The air quality in the garage was equivalent to a Los Angeles parking garage on fire. Elvis and Nightshade had already fled upstairs to camp out with John Cougar, in the fresh air on the deck. I was smoking defensively, figuring I'd prefer to die from my own second hand smoke. Beside us, Lizzie was washing her windshield for the second time.

"Could we turn on the exhaust fan, please and thank you," she muttered in a huff.

"Huh?" Steph asked, looking toward her from the TV screen.

"Its so bloody smoky in here that my paint's dulling, it is," Lizzie claimed, tilting on her tires to regard her finish, "and I'll be needing a new air filter within the week, I shall."

"Oh, uh, sorry," Steph said, hastily stubbing out her Camel and picking up a small remote. She pointed it at a panel on the wall and pressed a button, starting a whisper fan in the ceiling. The air cleared at a visibly rapid rate. "Guess I'm smoking a bit more than usual, huh," she admitted sheepishly, "sorry."

Steph leaned over the arm of the couch and dumped the ashtray into a bullet can, then absently chugged down the last three inches of Bud and added the longneck bottle. Lizzie looked pointedly at her and cleared her throat.

"I know, I know…I'll sort it out later." Stephanie assured her. "Glass in the recycling bin…I know."

John Cougar padded down the stairs to join us, an uncertain and worried look on his face. He sniffed the air briefly, then nodded his head in approval. Finally he took a seat next to Lizzie, curling his tail around his feet. Though it was obvious that something was troubling him, he held his peace. A few moments later, Nightshade and Elvis came back too. They seemed as unsettled as John was.

The TV was showing a report about the ongoing protests in San Francisco. Almost immediately after the Bay Watch airing of Steph's video statement, angry mobs of people had taken to the streets. They'd marched on several federal offices, waving hastily made signs, shouting slogans, and releasing rats. The commentator interviewed a scientist who claimed that over twenty-three thousand rats had been released in the city since Steph's disappearance. Neither of them understood the logic driving this particular form of protest. They thought it was a gay thing.

"What the fuck? Are they stupid or something?" Steph grumbled, before lighting another Camel. "Don't they have any idea about Barney, or my work in Chinatown on my old beat? All they'd have to do is ask anyone in Chinatown…or probably any protester. Instead, they ask a scientist. Everyone knows that those guys don't know squat about the real world."

"Stephanie, dear, of course they don't understand," Lizzie said with sympathetic but condescending certainty. "Scientists are required to be retarded by their intelligence, they are. The sods go to school for it. They live in isolation. Just look at them, hon."

"Well, yeah, you're describing an A-B Synch Error between their midbrains and forebrains," I agreed, "sorta like a dopey form of insanity."

"It's true, Steph," Nightshade added, "I saw some of the ones my prior owner worked with. They were supposed to be making great discoveries, but the best they could come up with was microwave pork rinds and mildew-proof shower curtains. The one I was stuck with couldn't even remember to feed me regularly…it's no wonder his family drove off without me. They probably didn’t even remember from moment to moment that they owned a cat." Here, she grimaced and spat.

"See," Lizzie chuckled, "would you want to trust them with your life?"

"Hell no," Steph said, opening another longneck and lighting a second Camel. She took a puff and then self-consciously realized she already had one in the ashtray. I gently slipped the new one from her fingers. We exchanged a brief smile that sped my heart rate. For a moment there was silence.

"But, what about the 23,000 rats…?" It was Elvis the Kitten, finally iterating what was in the back of everyone's minds.

"What if they aren't really rats?" John Cougar cryptically asked, in a voice so soft that it was almost a whisper. He was looking down, regarding his paws. Lizzie inched forward to lightly contact his back and offer her support.

Steph looked at him sharply. She'd learned long ago that no one knew rats as well as cats. Now she was hearing doubts from the largest of cats, a cat whose life was dedicated to managing the land around them. It was more upsetting than the sheer numbers of vermin.

"John, what do you mean?" Stephanie asked. Her esophagus was twitching and she slugged down the rest of her longneck to settle it, then immediately opened another. I lit another Camel off the butt of the one I'd taken from Steph and listened with my full attention.

"Well, Stephanie, I've heard rumors from the city. Some of these new rats aren't right…they're just 'gush' inside, like bugs…and they don't taste right either." He looked back down at his feet, probably thinking that we thought he'd lost it. Finally, he turned to address Lizzie. "Lizzie dear, I need a favor. I need to go into the city. I need to find out what's really going on across the channel over there. Maybe tonight, late?"

Lizzie looked briefly at Steph and received a barely perceptible nod.

"Would 2:00 am be appropriate, John?" Lizzie asked.

"That would be fine, I should think," John Cougar replied with relief, "I dread going into the city on foot. It's a foregone conclusion that my appearance on the streets would cause a panic."

"I think I'll go along for the ride," Steph said, "I think this is all part of something bigger. The thing is, if they look like rats, but they're not rats, then what are they?"

 

Out of the infernal depths of a moonlit Georgia swamp, the monster dragged itself from a Yoo-hoo induced narcotic stupor. It twitched from the corn sweetener, rendered out of a hapless Twinkie, as it's bleary eyes focused on the TV screen. In the flickering glow of the cathode ray tube, incited by the pictures beamed in from the west, it uttered a foul oath.

"Oh, Stephie. There you are. I knew I'd find you…and I'm going to rescue you from the mob. I swear we'll be together again…because, we're soulmates."

The monster flapped a webbed 6-toed foot at the screen in a paroxysm of sucrose induced sentimentality. Her addled forebrain calculated.

"I can be there in a day on one of those airplanes. I've never flown, but how hard can it be? People fly all the time. I've read about it in fan fiction so many times. That's it! I'll bring my new story. When Stephie sees how much I need her to beta the climax, she'll come back to me. She'll see that we were a great team. I'll even bring her pills."

The monster struggled to her feet and loped towards the den. Settling her bulk into the desk chair, she reached for the phone.

"Operator, I need to make an airplane reservation," she said, pulling a card from under the monitor where she'd kept it hidden. She slipped on her reading glasses and smeared away the chocolate on the back of the card. With a self-congratulatory smirk at her craftiness, she requested, "please connect me with American Express."

 

In a plush office in the back of a private Chicago social club, (which catered to ethnic elements of a Mediterranean persuasion), another conversation was assessing the subject of Stephanie Walker's homecoming. It was more businesslike, but no less threatening. The speakers have never been identified. They're just voices on a FBI wiretap. To the best of anyone's knowledge, the speakers are still at large, generating income, employing workers, and making political contributions. And no, these are not members of an HMO board of directors. (Author's note: Personally I couldn't believe that mobsters actually talked like this, but I heard it on the tape myself, so anyway, this is a direct transcript.)

"So, what's da bitch doin, now dat she's back home?"

"She's probly on a 365-day beer binge. I swear…I still don' know how she survives. Dat 'tard, Abdullah al-Haziz, he had her good as dead an she still managed ta blow him up. He shouldn' a failed even dough he was an asswipe."

"Abdullah failed every time he went up against her. Only time we've succeeded was when our guys blew up her apartment…an den they disappeared. Disappeared witout a trace."

"I can' figure it out. She's a drunken mess, an she somehow manages ta foil our plans, deal wit department politics, and even get over on da Feds. It's like an angel watches out for her…cause she's way too drunk ta be dat lucky on her own."

"An angel, huh? Ya heard da rumors?"

"Oh, pleeeease. Yeah, I heard dat crap! Don't tell me you're buyin into dat. I can see da Feds believin stuff, but we all know dey watch da X-Files an some a dose guys are nuts enough ta believe it."

"Nuts enough, or dey know somethin. Dey spent a lot a capitol when dey brung her ta Georgia. I swear, we shoulda whacked her in dat trailer…her an dat Connie nitwit. We had da chance. Den she disappeared, poof, an t'ree days later she's back in San Fran on TV. Damn it, she must have a network. Ya sure she ain't connected?"

"No! Absolutely not. I talked ta everyone in da business. NY, Vegas, DC, Atlanta, Miami, LA, N'Orleans…here. No one ever even tried ta recruit her. She's a nut job, a drunk. She shoulda been dead a dozen times over. No boss'd rely on her…ever."

"Well, we're missin somethin here. T'ing is, cause a her we're foregoin revenue on da coast. She's bad for business an bad for morale. I still want her gone. I want a plan. I want ta know how she survives. I want her assets neutralized. An I want it done soon."

"Then we have ta stake her place out like we did wit her apartment in Chinatown. We need ta know a lot more 'fore we move. If anythin, she'll be harder ta hit than she was back den. An we ain't da only ones watchin her."

And well, yeah, it was true. There really were others watching Sgt. Stephanie Walker. They had been watching her for a long time; watching and making notes in a thickening file folder that had been started before Steph had ever joined the force. The most dangerous of Stephanie's enemies were unknown, unsuspected, and closer than any of us believed possible. Wasn't that just typical?

"So she's back in her little fort on the cliff, is she? Probably feels safe and secure too. I project that she'll be investigating the city very soon. Are our operatives in place?"

"Affirmative. All resources are deployed. Scanning began at the time of their return."

"Are the releases proceeding on schedule?"

"The deployment of version 2.1 neo-rats is proceeding as per the revised timetable. Her recent escape from the incarceration in Georgia achieved all its objectives."

"Yes, we have irrefutable confirmation of the hypothesis at last. The assertions of the four FBI interviewees are supported. I can only add that the loss of our Sausalito breeder was unfortunate. She was also an improving source of information. The reports she supplied about the car were instrumental earlier in our investigation."

"True. Her information would have been helpful, but the program's aims were impeded more by the loss of her breeding facility. However, that too was projected."

"She was a flawed operative, overly excitable, and prone to acting without respect to procedure. I'm not surprised that she took a bullet in the forehead during that parade accident. A shame, certainly, but hardly surprising. It was projected."

"Off the record, I have to ask, do you really believe the reports on the genesis of this phenomenon?"

"I have examined every iota of the data. It is clear to me that what we are investigating now is just the tip of a surfacing iceberg. And yes, I do believe in the genesis hypothesis. We are finally aware of a trend that began in the 50s. The phenomenon is not a natural evolutionary development. We overlooked it for decades. It's ironic that we have a lunatic to thank for our current research. However, our present awareness of the effects will be the key to capitalizing on this…this gift. Just the national security applications alone are staggering."

"Is she really a lunatic? I've read her dossier, but there's a sense that she's not a typical psychopath…she was judged sane, even if she names inanimate objects."

"She is anything but typical. Never underestimate her. Considering the resources she commands, she is perhaps one of the most dangerous persons currently living. It is only that she has neither the awareness of the import, nor the craving for power, that keeps her from threatening this country. God help America if she were sober. Oh yes, and the objects that she names…they're never truly inanimate…somehow, she recognizes their sentience. That's part of the mystery."

"Affirmative, the files bear this out, though it's difficult to comprehend. I also agree with her assessment; she's always occupied herself with honorable service to this country. Now then, what about the other elements?"

"You refer to the organized crime interests, the visible federal authorities, and her personal enemies?"

"Affirmative. Do we take action against them?"

"We have carte blanch to act. If any of these interests actuate a tangible threat, they will be neutralized. Believe me, we are fully aware of their potentials and actions. They are being scrutinized no less closely than the primary subjects. They would never be allowed to jeopardize this project."

"So, tonight's deployment will proceed as scheduled, with the added assumption of her presence in the city?"

"Precisely."

 

Chapter Nineteen

At 1:45am, a thoroughly drunk Stephanie was draped over Lizzie's wheel, nodding off in the driver's seat as the little car crossed the Golden Gate Channel into San Francisco. In the passenger's seat, John Cougar nervously eyed the sparse oncoming traffic.

"Where should I be headed first, luv?" Lizzie asked John, as she steered off the US-101 exit ramp and onto Lombard St.

"I need to contact several fellows in Chinatown, where the initial reports came from," John replied. "In fact, it was another member of Barney's family that first noticed the presence of these suspected ersatz rats. Now I'm wondering if we shouldn't have brought Elvis along."

"Well hey, here I am," Elvis the Kitten announced, popping up from behind the rear seat. He'd stowed away under the rather ominous deployment bag that Steph had dumped in just before they'd left. "I couldn't resist a chance to check out the city at night. Bright lights, big city here I come!"

"Elvis, dear, this isn't a joy ride, don't you know," Lizzie informed him.

"All too true," John said with concern, "I'm uncertain as to the level of danger we could encounter, and the city can be a very dangerous place. We'll be in unfamiliar territory, with a multitude of real rats all around us, not to mention the paranoid and hysterical humans, and these suspected…umm, things."

"What's going on back there?" Stephanie slurred, rising halfway from her stupor. She reflexively clutched at the steering wheel, sending the little car across a couple of opposing lanes before Lizzie wrenched back the controls. John Cougar was cringing as oncoming headlights swept the interior and a horn blared.

"It seems that Elvis has chosen to join our excursion," John told her.

"Stowed away in the boot with your munitions, he did," Lizzie elaborated.

"Come see, cum saw," Steph articulated absently before passing out again with a snort.

"So I guess I'm in, huh?" Elvis crowed.

"Guess so," John agreed reluctantly, "just stay close."

 

"Now arriving at gate 37B, American Airlines' flight 576, the redeye from Atlanta. Passengers debarking, please proceed to baggage claim carousel 37. We hope you have enjoyed your flight, and we wish to welcome you to the lovely Bay City. The time is now 1:47am PST. Hope you enjoy your stay."

What a mouthful, Connie Stanton thought, as she shoved a last Hostess Snowball into her gaping maw. She chewed with a vengeance and swallowed the resulting paste in a sugary bolus that visibly enlarged her esophagus while going down. It was like watching a snake swallow a box turtle.

Jennie Genny, one the flight attendants, shivered as she watched from the corner of her eye. That passenger in 42D had unnerved her throughout their transcontinental flight. Never in her life had she seen such a display of junk food consumption. During their airtime, that Connie Stanton had wolfed down a bulging carry-on full of sweets, stopping only to slug down Yoo-hoo and fire insulin into her rather substantial subcutaneous areas. An airsickness bag was filled with used syringes. Now, Jennie watched as her passenger dislodged a bag from an overhead compartment and clumsily dodged it as it fell into the aisle. After viciously extending a pull handle, Con wheeled it towards the open hatch. The flight attendant breathed a sigh of relief. Fifteen more feet and Connie Stanton would no longer be her responsibility. It wouldn't be soon enough. Dressed in a fuzzy pink tube top, with green and orange plaid stretch pants, and fuschia platform boots, Connie Stanton looked like a 60s mod-teen that had been conceived by sea lions. Jennie found such unfortunate displays of fashion viscerally upsetting.

In between bites of Twinkies and cake rolls, Connie had pestered all four of the flight attendants to read "just a paragraph" of the manuscript she'd spread across her tray table. After a few lines, even Jennie, who really didn't read much, could tell that the story was without literary merit. It was trite and overbearing pornography. For the first time, Jennie had felt disgust rather than titillation during the sex scenes. (The lovers were teenage twin sisters for Christ sake…and that hadn't been the worst).

Thinking of porn, Jen momentarily wondered what her old high school friend, Michelle Allen would have thought of it. That girl had been a real live porn princess. A few lewd images from their senior class orgy came back to her, and she felt a moist heat blossoming between her slender creamy thighs. I should see what Chelle's up to these days, Jennie thought. As Connie Stanton lunged out the plane's hatch and into the access corridor, Jennie pulled a tiny cell phone from her cleavage and accessed the memory. She tossed her flowing blonde curls over a shoulder with a flip of her head and regarded her voluptuous reflection in a cabin window. Had her uniform gotten tighter, she wondered for a moment, or was it that new push-up bra and her hemline being 9" above her knees? She winked at her reflection and pouted enticingly. The phone was ringing.

"Chelle? Hon, is that you?"

"OMG, Jennie? Where are you?"

"Well, I'm in California for the weekend…at San Francisco International, actually. I could get a short hop and be home by about 4am. Wanna get together?"

"Well, yeah, girl. You've gotta tell me all about your travels…I bet it's great seeing, like, everywhere, huh?"

"Oh yeah, hon, it's fab…except for the occasional weirdo, like the one I had tonight."

"Really? Was he dangerous? Like, a terrorist or something?"

"Uhhh, no. It was a she…a fourth rate porn writer who sat like a blob through the whole flight, stuffing down junk food. I'd swear she was doped up too…kept shooting insulin, and blabbering about how she was here to reclaim her lost love. Said they were soulmates."

"Soulmates, huh?" Across the city, Chelle was experiencing an unpleasant sensation, a sort of premonition of trouble. "Look, Jen, maybe we'd better get together. I can't explain it, but what you just said gives me the creeps, ya know? Was she a fat blonde? Never mind…look, I'm not in Kettleman, I'm just south of Sausalito at a friend's house… it's like, really close. Just go up US-101, cross the Golden Gate Channel Bridge, and it's the only house off East Rd. on the cliffs overlooking the bay. It's beautiful here. You'll love it!"

"Really? Well, ok, I'll be there in about 45 minutes. See ya soon, hon. Love ya." Jennie signed off and sashayed down the aisle to the hatch, a small rolling bag trailing obediently behind her. She actually felt like whistling. In under an hour, she'd be visiting with Michelle, and Chelle was such a hottie!

 

"Well, aren't we taken with ourselves," Stephanie chided the author after reading the proceeding paragraph, "sounds like this Jennie was a real bitch in heat for you, huh?"

"She was a good friend from high school, a sometimes lover, and well, you met her…a real live love goddess."

"She was very attractive," Steph admitted, looking down and finding something very interesting at the bottom of her longneck.

"Jen thought you were a real hottie, and she thought we were an item, even back then."

Steph looked up at me and raised an eyebrow.

"Oh yeah," I continued, " I mean, she's always liked joining couples. She told me that she fantasized about us having a three-way all night long."

"A three-way!" Steph gasped, nearly dropping her longneck. I could tell she was intrigued with the thought even as she began to blush.

"Well yeah, of course. I mean, geeez, I was thinking about it too." I winked at her and grinned. "Still do."

"You…I…but." Steph was almost vermilion and she fumbled to light a Camel. I reached out and steadied her hand.

"Take it easy, Steph. It's not like it was a one-time chance that's gone forever," I winked at her again as her mouth opened in shock, "so anyway, just say the word and I'll give Jen a call. We'll have a group romp. It's good for the soul."

By now, Stephanie was so overwhelmed she didn't know what to say. She just stood there flabbergasted, staring at me, the Camel hanging from the corner of her mouth, smoldering.

"So ok, we'll take it slow. I know, we'll do it outside by the cliffs," I added, giggling, "and I'll have Jen bring the K-Y and her toys. She's into electro-stimulation."

Stephanie finally choked and turned away in a daze, slowly making her way to the couch where she collapsed. She was breathing quick and shallow. She was really turned on by the idea…oh yeah, I could tell.

"Toys?" She choked out softly.

 

Connie Stanton was moving like a sugar charged maelstrom, her mitochondria working in overdrive. The energy lit her eyes with a demonic inner fire. She nearly ran down a handicapped woman in her headlong rush through the airport terminal, barreling past the gift shops and magazine kiosks, on her way to the baggage carousel. Con practically leapt over a family when she saw her newly battered cardboard box come down the chute. It was easy to recognize. How many other travelers had stuffed their clothing, printouts, and snack rations into a Yoo-hoo carton? She clean-and-jerked the forty-pound box up onto a rounded shoulder, and then headed for the taxi stand at a loping canter, her rolling bag bouncing along behind her.

The taxi queue was twenty deep with out of town arrivals, but Connie barely noticed. Using her bulk and her momentum, she waded to the front of the line. So crazed was the look on her face, that even a pair of Marines decided it wasn't worth it to confront her. She was wild-eyed, drooling, and practically aspirating mouthfuls of her crumb-laced blond hair. When the next cab advanced in the line, she ripped the door open and tossed her box inside. The rest of the travelers breathed a collective sigh of relief, looking at each other and nervously fear-grinning. It was a primate reaction.

The startled cabbie looked over his shoulder at his new passenger and muttered a curse in Spanish. His eyes bulged slightly in surprise. La mamacita in the back was clearly loco…this was going to be a long night.

"Where to senora?" He asked, trying to minimize his accent.

"Take me to Stephie Walker's house," Connie ordered, as she dug through her rolling bag for her last snack cake and a bottle of Yoo-hoo. "I don't know where it is exactly, but everyone here knows where she lives. She's my soulmate."

The cabbie could hear vials of pills shaking around in the luggage behind him as she searched for treats. Oh, Jesu Christi, a druggie, he thought, no wonder la vaca looks so enferma. I just hope she doesn't have a gun in that maleta. He subconsciously crossed himself.

At least he did have a fairly good idea of where Stephanie Walker lived. Most of the citizens of the Bay City did. She was their hero, and the cabbie had taken part in many a protest. He'd even released a few rats. There was no way in hell that he'd take this lunatic anywhere near the cliffs south of Sausalito. He figured he'd stop for gas somewhere down by the docks, maybe off Embarcadero. He'd just get out, and walk away. The policia would eventually take the cab and the woman. When they saw her and heard her story, they'd lock her up for sure…on suspicion of killing the missing cabbie. He grinned. They'd have to, the way she was dressed. He honestly believed that Steph still had at least a few friends on the force.

As Connie ripped away the wrapper of a Little Debbie's Jellyroll, the cab threaded its way into traffic. It skirted the terminal and turned onto US-101, heading north towards San Francisco.

 

A few minutes behind it, a bright red rental Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder slipped out of the Avis lot. Jennie had used her employee preferences to score a sexy set of wheels, suitable for a love goddess. She too headed north, on US-101; passing other cars and weaving through the traffic like a snake. Chelle was waiting. As she swept past a state highway patrol cruiser, Jen dialed her cell phone and gave the author a call. (I answered, after a couple of rings had logged her on the call ID).

"Hi hon, I'm on my way," Jen told Michelle breathlessly while passing an ambulance. She hated squinting through the reflections from the flashing lights. It could cause wrinkles around her eyes.

"Oh, goody, babe…can't wait to see ya. I thought of a question, though. That passenger who gave you the creeps?"

"Geeez, Chelle, she was a mess. You really have to bring her up while I'm driving?" Jennie groaned theatrically and swerved across a lane, just thinking about that woman with her wretched story and her snacks, never mind her clothes. "Ok, what about her?" (Author's note: It had always been hard for Jen to think and do at the same time. Even back in school, it hadn't been one of her favorite thingies. She was more of a touchy-feely kinda girl. Trust me on this.)

"So anyway, like, you wouldn't happen to remember her name by any chance?" I asked, knowing better. "It's just that I'm getting a tingly-bad feeling here…you know, after your description."

"Well, duh, of course I remember her name," Jennie said with an exasperated sigh. I could actually hear her rolling her eyes. "I still remember the names of every guy I've had sex with too. I'm the best with names. You know that." It was true. I could almost see Jen's pouty smile as she proudly reminded me of her astonishing ability with names. "She was Connie Stanton."

"Oh, yuck," I choked out; a sudden rush of anxiety made my chest constrict and left me fighting for breath. At the same time, alarm bells went off in my head, filling my sinuses with a ringing sensation. (I could hear my forebrain berating my hindbrain for the reaction). The monster had tracked Stephanie down and she was almost certainly coming here. Nothing else could have prodded Connie Stanton all the way across the country from her trailer in the swamp. I had to warn Steph.

"Jen," I gasped, finally catching my breath, "I've gotta go…this is horrible."

"When ya gotta go, ya gotta go," Jennie chuckled conspiratorially, "beer always did run right through ya, hon. See ya soon. (Smooch)."

I immediately dialed Lizzie's number, figuring that Steph would be too passed out to answer hers. It was the right thing to do. Lizzie picked up on the second ring.

"And a good evening to you, Lizzie Cooper here," she said while passing a car full of drunken teenagers. God, I could hear their hip-hop music flashing past and dropping into the background. I couldn't tell if they were frat boys or a ghetto gang.

"Lizzie, it's me," I sputtered, "oh god, Lizzie…it's Connie, she's here!"

I heard her brakes screeching in a panic stop. I heard John Cougar let out a horrified shriek. Then I heard the screaming of brakes from other cars behind her…and a crash with breaking glass. Oh yeah, and the hip-hop music kept blaring above it all.

"Oops," Lizzie muttered, then she asked in alarm, "Chelle, what…Connie's here? In bloody San Francisco?"

"I…yes! My friend Jennie was a stewardess on her flight and she just told me…I mean she called and she told me about this creepy woman porn writer and she was eating snacks through the whole flight and she acted like she was drugged and she was shooting up stuff and she was blonde and she was…Connie Stanton!" I was babbling out a really bad run-on sentence, without commas, periods, or editing.

"Oh bloody hell! And she's headed for Stephanie's house?" Lizzie was shocked but remarkably coherent, answering her own question while I gibbered in panic. "Of course she is. She's got no other reason to be here and nowhere else to go. Damn."

"Lizzie…what should I do?" I asked, but now she was ignoring me; how irritating.

"Stephanie…Stephanie, wake up there! Wake up, I say, we've an emergency!" I could hear Lizzie trying to rouse Steph, and Steph muttering with slowly increasing awareness. I could imagine John Cougar looking over his shoulder and nervously appraising the accident they'd caused, while worrying about unwanted attention. The last thing we needed was to have Stephanie found drunk in the driver's seat.

"Huh? Uhhh, what…where?" Steph was at the stage of trying to understand her surroundings. It was a good sign. Then, "Oh shit! Whatthefuckhappened?"

"Stephanie, hon, it's Chelle on the line, it is. She says an informant reported that Connie Stanton is in San Francisco, and she's probably headed for your house."

"Awww hell," Steph replied, "then let's get out of here."

"But, Stephanie, there's a sizable automobile wreck behind us that we were instrumental in precipitating…"

"Lizzie, are you ok?" Steph asked, her concern shading to panic, "god, please be ok."

"Not a scratch, hon," Lizzie replied reassuringly, "but the five cars behind us are really hurting, don't you know."

"Nothing we can do about that," Steph reasoned, lighting a Camel, "and it'll do no good for me to answer questions with my BAL* way over the top and a cougar riding shotgun." *(Author's note: BAL= Blood Alcohol Level Test, as in, evidence for a DWI or DUI.)

I had been listening to the discussion, and now I heard rising voices in the background; it was some guy yelling and someone else cursing in anger rather than pain.

"Ladies," John Cougar interjected, "the locals are expressing some aggravation at our unexpected stop. I believe several young people are converging…."

"They're going to lynch us," Elvis wailed from the backseat.

The next thing I heard was what sounded like gunshots and then the squealing of tires.

"That'll give 'em something to think about…young punks," I heard Steph say, "now, let's take Marina to Baker. We can head back on Old Mason St. and catch 101 at the junction with 1."

"Oh, why that's such an irritating roundabout, Stephanie," Lizzie complained, "let me take Baker to California St. and then I can get on US-1 straightaway."

"Whatever," Steph agreed as the tires squealed again, the Mini Cooper drifting around another corner. "Geeez, Lizzie, ya wanna cause an accident?"

In the background, I heard John Cougar choke as Lizzie giggled.

"What's going on?" I screamed into the phone, hoping to get their attention.

"Chelle, what is this about Connie being in San Francisco?" Steph had taken the phone and she was sounding pretty rational for having finished a six-pack before getting in the car.

"Steph, my friend, Jennie, is a stewardess. She just flew into town and one of her passengers was Connie Stanton. Her description was exact. She must be heading here…she was talking about finding her soulmate."

"Oh, for crying out loud," Steph whined. "Why tonight? Why this lifetime?"

"What are you going to do?" I asked. "What should I do?"

"Are all the alarms on?"

"Well, yeah, Steph, of course," I answered. "Uhhh, except that my friend Jennie is coming over here and I'll have to shut them down to let her in."

"She's…WHAT? How well do you know her, Chelle?" Stephanie asked suspiciously, "you've never known her to breed rats, have you?"

"God no, Steph. I've known Jen since grade school. She hates icky things…rats, fish, spiders…even babies. She's still my best friend from Kettleman City."

"Where is she now?"

"Uhhh, somewhere on the road? Like, between the airport and here, I mean. I just talked to her before I called you."

"That was all of five minutes ago, dear," Lizzie interjected. "She's probably still south of the city."

"What's her number, Chelle?" Steph asked in her 'take charge' voice, the words still adorably slurred. "I'll call her and we can escort her in. Maybe we can even spy on Connie. She's probably somewhere on the road nearby."

"Jen's number's toll-free…800-550-6969."

"That's…that's a phone sex line," Steph gulped out.

"Well, yeah," I told her, "she's always getting calls. So anyway, I'm really scared thinking about all of you being anywhere near Connie. Now I'm scared for Jennie, too."

"Hon, we'll be alright," Steph reassured me. In the background though, I heard her checking the magazine in her sidearm. "I've gotta hang up now and call your friend. We'll make sure she's ok."

"Alright," I agreed, "please, please be careful. I'd just die if I lost you…again."

I heard Steph swallow hard as she hung up. Then I could only wait, smoking Camels and chowing down Skittles. Pretty soon the sugar was making me pace, as I worried myself sick about my friends.

My beloved friends; they really were closer and dearer to my heart than anyone I could remember in all my years growing up. I'd come to value them so much more than the guys who gave me money, or told me they could make me a star. They were the strangest crew I'd ever met, I realized, but they were becoming my family, just like they were to Stephanie.

And then there was Stephanie. I'd fallen in love with the image of her that I'd created in my head so long ago. I'd spent all my years since then emulating a phantasm. Now that I'd met her, I was not just infatuated, I was head over heels in love with her. She seemed like she could do anything, survive any challenge. (Even if we hadn't rescued her, she'd probably have escaped in another week or two, as her body shed the effects of the drugs, and Connie became less lucid). Despite what conventional thinkers would have considered personality flaws, Steph had excelled in a dangerous and demanding career for years, and she had become a hero. She had met the world on her own terms, though many people thought her insane because of it.

She went around naming things and talking to them, seeing what no one else could even accept as possible. Unlike the garden-variety psychopaths, who talked to their sandwiches and themselves, the things Steph talked to answered her, revealing a whole world of unsuspected experiences and points of view. They became her friends, her family…they gave her information, and they'd saved her life. Stephanie embraced diversity on a scale that would have confounded the politically correct…and it was second nature to her.

The Skittles rendered up their sugar, supercharging my forebrain, so that the synapses crackled with acetylcholine. Throughout my cells, ADP and ATP danced a tango. In that state of hyper-reality, I foresaw that Steph could perhaps enlist the masses of sentient beings that only she could recognize and communicate with. A whole world was available to her and to no one else. Her circle of friends could eventually grow to surround her with love and companionship beyond that claimed by any person who had ever lived. She could slay her deadly desert.

Before my blood sugar level dropped off and I fell into a state of lethargy, I had two more insights. First, I wondered if any of Steph's enemies realized just what they were up against, and second, I wondered if Steph had any idea of the value of her resources. Then my cells belly-flopped into an energy shortfall, like a sorta bio-brownout, and I staggered off to the kitchen seeking coffee and Mexican food.

Stephanie called Jen right after she got off the phone with me; before she could think about it being a phone sex line and lose her nerve. Jennie, of course, not recognizing the number that appeared on her call ID, assumed it was a customer.

"Jennie?"

"Hi, sweetheart. It's $3.99 a minute, no limits, so what charge card will you be using?"

"Huh? Uhhh, oh, no. Ummm, my name's Stephanie Walker and Michelle Allen gave me your number," Steph said, trying to clarify what was causing a fizz in her own mind.

"Oh goody! If you're a friend of Chelle's you must be a hottie. I'll give you the first ten minutes free. You sound a bit drunk, hon," Jen giggled, "but you've got a sexy voice…kinda smoky and dangerous. This'll be fun. So, what are you wearing?"

Steph was shocked into a sputtering silence and Jennie wondered if she was stripping.

"Ya there, hon? Did you want a particular fantasy? Schoolgirl and teacher? Mistress and slave? Animals? Incest?"

At the mention of incest, Stephanie remembered Connie's childhood, and the danger of the situation came back to her. Steph found her voice and prodded her forebrain to cooperate, even as her hindbrain considered the school girl and teacher option.

"Jennie," Steph said, regaining control of her Broca's area, "this isn't a phone-sex call. It's about Connie Stanton. She's a real threat and you could be in danger. Chelle will have to deactivate my alarm systems to let you in, and I'm nervous about lowering my guard with Connie in town. I know she's planning to show up at my house."

"Well, OMG…" Jennie was horrified that she might actually see her passenger again.

"Yeah, but he's no help in this, so tell me where you are and we'll escort you in."

"Okay," Jennie agreed hopefully. Steph had made her paranoid, and her driving suffered as she frantically looked around at all the other cars. She was just passing a cab and happened to look into the rear seat. "Gaaaaah, it's her!"

"Jennie! Are you alright?" Steph shouted into the phone. "What…You see her?"

"Ewwwwww…she's in a cab I just passed," Jen said in horror as her car slewed across a lane. She was looking over her shoulder at the cab behind her. "She was still eating, and the cabbie looked terrified."

"Geeeez, the poor guy. Where are you now? What are you driving? Can you see the cab's number?"

"Yes." Jen whispered in morbid fascination, hypnotized as Connie engulfed an entire cakeroll in one bite. She was pacing the cab, her tires squealing as she wove across the centerline. "It's number 666."

"Jen! Snap out of it and watch the road!"

Connie had noticed the beautiful blonde in the flashy red car pacing them, and she'd leered at her out the window, making brief eye contact. Why, it was her stewardess from the flight, she realized! She must have gotten hot reading my story, Connie thought. Maybe if she couldn't find Steph right away, she could have a little tryst with her. Maybe she could even write her into her new story. Connie waved. Jennie floored the Spyder.

"I'm on US-101 north…uhhh, I just passed the Oyster Point exit. She…she saw me," Jen gasped.

"Oh shit! Floor it, Jennie! Get out of there! We'll meet you…hold on a sec," Steph was conferring with Lizzie about the route. "We'll get on at 280…we're in a custom blue Mini Cooper, and we'll catch up with you. Keep this line open, hon. I'm sure you can outrun the cab if you have to. Just be careful, 'kay?"

"Oh god, oh god, oh god! Please hurry! I'm already doing 80 and I can see them in the mirror speeding up. She's leaning over the driver's seat, waving her arms and pointing at me…and the cabby's wild-eyed with terror. Here they come."

"Hold on, Jennie…we're on the way! Just stay ahead of them, hon!" And then Steph turned to Lizzie, yelling, "Floor it!"

The race was on! Jennie, never the best driver even when she wasn't under pressure, was accelerating in a panic. Behind her, the cab was holding even. It was mechanically inferior, but driven by a professional who felt like his life was on the line. In other words, it was a dead heat, and only Jen's slight initial lead kept her from being caught, as both cars wove through traffic at close to 80mph.

Lizzie broke traction and spun 270° to decelerate; ending up facing southbound on US-1. Behind her, traffic slammed to a halt on Lake St. with several crunches of sheetmetal and breaking glass.

"Sorry," Lizzie called back to the cars in the pile up. "Police business!" She was answered with curses from both the drivers and their cars.

Then she was upshifting, tires squealing as she accelerated down Park Presidio Blvd. Stephanie calmly reached out her window and attached the revolving emergency beacon to the roof, then she lit a Camel. Lizzie hit 75mph within five blocks, crossing Balboa St. When she crossed Fulton St., two blocks later and entered Golden Gate Park, she was doing 90. She had only 70 yards to decelerate, to make the first right turn in the park, and she took the corner at 50mph in four-wheel drift. John Cougar had covered his eyes with his paws, and was screaming like a child on a roller coaster. Steph was smoking and glancing at her watch. In the back, Elvis had crawled under Steph's gear bag.

Once they cleared the last turn in the park, Lizzie went full out. Her little 4-cylinder engine screamed as she topped 90mph leaving the park, blasting down the straightaway of 19th Ave. 95mph was her top speed, and for a fleeting moment, Stephanie wished for Brittanie's V-8 Firedome hemi engine. It would have pushed them to over 135mph, but Brittanie wouldn't have been able to make the turns that Lizzie executed with such ease. The comparison made Steph think, and thinking made Steph plan. Yes, she decided, (as Lizzie drifted around the corner onto Vincente St.), with a few modifications to the suspension and drive train, it could work.

In another three minutes, Lizzie blasted onto I-280, at the San Jose Ave. entrances. The flashing light cleared their way, and on the highway, Steph suspected that being capable of another 40 or 50mph would come in handy someday. Less than a mile and a half ahead lay the junction with US-101. It flew by in 45 seconds.

"There they are!" Stephanie crowed. "You did it, Lizzie! You caught them!"

A red Eclipse Spyder, closely followed by a cab, had just sped by, northbound on 101.

"Oh, they'll not be getting away from me, they won't," Lizzie declared a she careened around the ramp onto US-101, "not in this lifetime."

In another two minutes, Lizzie was tailgating the cab, looking for a chance to pass. The revolving light had unnerved the cabbie, and when Stephanie blipped the siren she'd installed, he slowed down and pulled it over to the side. Lizzie jabbed left around him and followed Jen's Eclipse, finally pulling alongside the terrified woman.

Stephanie was gesturing to Jen, holding up her cell phone and yelling into it. It did no good. The blonde was paralyzed, her eyes on the road, her hands in a white-knuckled death grip on the wheel. She'd overloaded her forebrain, her midbrain had given up in a huff, and she was driving on instinct, her panicky hindbrain firmly in control.

"God, she's adrenaline locked," Steph cursed, "and she's not answering her phone. How can I tell her to slow down and get off this highway?"

"Not to worry, luv," Lizzie calmly replied, "I'll handle it. Let me just have a word with her vehicle. Now, be a dear and take the wheel, please."

Stephanie assumed control, her brain lucid, but her body still very drunk. She wove erratically, but somehow kept pace beside the Eclipse. In the passenger's seat, John Cougar crouched down into a crash position, gritting his teeth.

"He's having the time of his life, he is," Lizzie reported a few moments later, "but I informed him that the highway ends at Fell St. up yonder, and he promised to slow down then. The poor dear has had nothing but posers and pompous wannabes renting him out for his looks. Claims he hasn't stretched his motor in ages."

"Oh well, let him have his fun then, I guess," Steph agreed, lighting another Camel, "tell you the truth, I'm more worried about the cabbie."

"The bloke's royally pissed off, he is," Lizzie chuckled, "I mean the cab, that is. He was cursing up a storm, moaning about not being kept in tune and being forced to participate in a race. He was also deathly afraid of that passenger vomiting in the back, but I assured him that Connie never wastes food." Here, Lizzie giggled and took back the controls. "Now that they've come to a stop, he's not moving again tonight…absolutely refused, he did, pleading vapor lock and loose wiring."

"So much for Connie Stanton," Stephanie laughed, opening a longneck, "at least for now."

Well, anyway, after the highway ended at Fell St., the two cars made their way at a legal pace through the Bay City. They skirted Chinatown on their way back to the house, and only John Cougar heard Steph's softly whispered observation that, "tonight they're releasing rats." Then she passed out in the driver's seat again, trusting dear Lizzie to get both cars home.

Miles behind them, the cabby got out, under the pretense of checking under the hood. The cab had stalled dead and refused to start. He threw the hood up, patted the air cleaner with thankful affection, and then fled for his life. Connie barely noticed, being focused entirely on draining a Yoo-hoo.

I heard the garage door opening while I was still in the kitchen, groaning as I digested a plate of nachos. All I'd been able to think about was the safety of my friends. I think there must still have been tears streaking down my face when I rushed into the garage and leapt into Steph's arms. Jennie was just getting out of the Eclipse, and she witnessed my desperate hug, and the frantic kiss I plastered on Stephanie's lips. Steph, still reasonably drunk, staggered under my onslaught, but her arms came up around me and she slipped her tongue into my mouth for the count of 30.

"Jalapenos," she commented, when we finally broke apart. Jen giggled in the background as she watched Stephanie stroke the tears from my cheeks.

"I was so worried about you," I told her, still trembling with relief.

"We're all okay, sweetheart," Steph said, the endearment bringing a tentative smile to my lips, "and your friend Jennie's safe too."

"Finally," Jen commented theatrically to herself, "Michelle's found a meaningful relationship."

She looked around at her surroundings and then blanched when John Cougar and Elvis the Kitten got out and appraised her. Elvis let out a low wolf whistle and I heard him mutter, "what a babe."

Jennie looked them over and I could see that Elvis' talking had profoundly surprised her. Finally she looked back at us and nervously asked, "Is that a wolverine?" She was pointing nervously at John Cougar.

"Madam, I am a cougar," John began, somewhat indignantly, "a felid, whereas a wolverine is a mustelid, really just an overgrown ferret," Jen gave him a blank look, shocked into silence because he too spoke. John misinterpreted her expression as mental deficiency and offered clarification, "…Puma? Mountain Lion? Panther? Panthera concolor?" Finally, he bared his teeth, reasoning that the dental formulae of felids and mustelids was diagnostically significant, (especially with respect to lower premolars).

"Oh, John, luv, I don't think she understands a word," Lizzie commented sadly.

Jennie whipped around to look for the source of the lilting British accented voice. Because of the direction, her gaze settled on Lizzie, almost by default. I could tell that her grasp on her composure was marginal at best, after everything she'd been through since we'd talked on the phone.

"Hello there, Jennie," the little car said brightly, bobbing slightly on her tires, "I'm Lizzie Cooper, and any friend of Michelle's is a friend of mine, don't you know."

"Ummm, uhhh…" Jen managed to choke out in shock, before she passed out cold and landed on the carpet. As it turned out, she remained senseless for quite a while.

"Poor dear's exhausted after that chase with Connie," Lizzie sympathized. Then she turned to me and added, "but what a fun race it was, if I do say so myself. Why I must tell you all about it."

We laid Jennie out in a bedroom upstairs, with an explanatory note and a glass of water on the nightstand. Nightshade the Cat curled up beside her, to keep an eye on her and let us know when she came to. Steph and I went back down to the garage, to make plans with John and Lizzie. It was only a matter of time before Connie showed up, and there were still those rats to be dealt with.

 

Chapter Twenty

Lizzie reveled in telling the tale of their adventure, while John Cougar sat cringing next to her, still horrified by the drive. Steph was sharing a third longneck with me, interjecting bits that she remembered. She was all for fortifying our position and waiting for Connie's assault, and her drunken rhetoric about, "saturation fire and first strikes", made me nervous. Surely the expenditure of so much ordinance would draw unwanted attention. I mentioned that fact and it sent Stephanie off on a tangent. She drunkenly vowed to put the suppressors onto all her long guns and load only smokeless cartridges. Finally she passed out again, muttering in her sleep about, "windage and elevation". I was left with Lizzie and John, and we entertained a more rational discussion through several tostados.

"So anyway," I said slowly through the alcohol, "I'm thinking the best strategy is to enlist all the help we can get. Lizzie, you talked with the cab and the Spyder, and John, you can talk to all the other inhabitants of the land around here. Couldn't we figure out an early warning system? Like, to spy on Connie or something? Maybe waylay her coming across the channel, or even in the city?"

"Chelle, that sounds like a capitol idea, it does," Lizzie enthusiastically agreed, "and I'd be glad to call a few of my friends, don't you know. Why, there's nothing I love better than having an excuse to network…except maybe motoring about on holiday."

"Since it's a reasonable assumption that Connie won't be walking here, having your friends on the lookout for her would be advantageous," John Cougar added, "but I don't believe that we should overlook the greater threat."

"You mean the rats?" I asked. I had to admit that it had been Connie Stanton who had solely preoccupied my quota of paranoia.

"Precisely," John said, "they were here long before Connie, and they'll still be here long after she's gone. I understand that she's a threat to Stephanie and our quality of life, but these rats could inherit the earth…at least, my piece of it. The roaches will undoubtedly usurp the rest." At this thought, he shivered with foreboding.

"You're right of course," I conceded. "Maybe Elvis could talk with the other city cats, especially his family, and create an underground organization?"

"If he'd be willing," John said, "it seems like a step in the right direction. We require information to formulate a response. Now, where is Elvis, anyway?"

The Kitten had disappeared shortly after Jennie had passed out, and we hadn't seen him since.

"I'll have a look for him," I offered, lurching to my feet, "and I'll look in on Jen as well."

I staggered a few steps, knocking over the bullet can and giggling as I upended an ashtray, before John Cougar padded past me to the stairs, saying that, "It might be prudent if I were to conduct this search, being as I'm still on speaking terms with my feet." Since I could hardly fault his logic, I collapsed back onto the sofa with Steph. It was at this time that the Eclipse Spyder finally spoke up.

"'Scuse me y'all, but't seems like yer havin' more troubles then a nestfull 'a coons entertainin' a cottonmouth," he said in a rich baritone. For a sporty Japanese car, he sounded like he'd come straight from the Grand 'Ol Oprey. I giggled drunkenly.

"Somehow, I'd expected you to have a foreign accent, ya know?" I managed to say.

"Awww now, ya sweet young thang, ah'm from a factr'y 'n Tennessee…all 'merican, 'n 'ssembled by some good 'ol boys down 'n Oak Ridge," he explained. "Name's Virgil, miss, 'n ahm mighty pleased 't meet'cha."

"Oh, so ok, my name's Michelle, but people call me Chelle. I'm from Kettleman City, Ca., near Bakersfield?" I offered him a smile. "I'm pleased to meet you too, Virgil."

"Why thank ya, Chelle. Ah've met Lizzie Cooper here, runnin' down the highway, 'n ah figur'd out tha puma's John. Th' lil lady what rent'd me's Jennie…'n I think ah rec'nize yur girlfr'nd there, 'spite 'a the fact she's so snok'rd, hehe."

"Well, yeah, she's Stephanie Walker, and she's famous," I told him, looking over at her tenderly. She was muttering adorably in her sleep about, "tracers every eighth round."

"Hoo-wee, she's the bomb gurl a'right…I jes knew 't."

"Virgil, dear," Lizzie said, "she's my dearest friend, she is, and she's got a lot of enemies about, though you'd not think so to look at her." Here Lizzie paused and giggled, tilting up on her tires to look more closely at Steph's condition. "But, if I do say so, we're truly concerned, and we're resolved to do anything we can to help her."

"Why, Miss Lizzie, say n'more. Virgil here's at yur d'sposal. I'd be proud 't help out."

About this time, John Cougar returned to the garage, carrying a chastened Elvis by the scruff of the neck. He dropped him unceremoniously on the carpet and reported that he'd found him in the bedroom, "trying to bother poor unconscious Jennie."

"She's such a babe," Elvis muttered in an attempt at explanation.

"Well now, ain't he jes a randy lil thang," Virgil chuckled, "'mus be them youthful hormones kickin' up th'r heels, hehe."

"Hey," Elvis protested, "she was sitting on your seat and playing footsie with your pedals, country boy."

"She was at that, son, lord 've mercy." I could almost see Virgil smirking at the memory. I decided that I liked him. He had more of the real Elvis' persona than the Kitten.

By playing on his guilt, and dangling an introduction to my friend, Jennie, as an incentive, we managed to cajole Elvis into doing espionage in the city. In fact, he wasn't hard to convince. The idea of being a spy and acting on his own appealed to his adolescent need to define himself through adventure. He'd been watching too much TV and believed "cloak and dagger" stuff was sexy. The possibility of becoming a hero to impress Jen didn't hurt either. By the end of our talk, he was gung-ho and ready to go. Lizzie made a couple calls and then we decided that I'd play driver as we drove Elvis into Chinatown.

I'd never been to San Francisco's Chinatown, and I depended on Lizzie to follow the directions Elvis and his in-town contact had created. Elvis' memory of the streets and back alleys was a little rusty, but his cousins, Lao-tsu and Lao-ma, knew every block. We dropped him off at an anonymous warehouse, which Lizzie informed me held Yo Fat-Boy's Drunken Dragon Hong Kong Fireworks factory. Elvis disappeared into the shadows with a pair of nondescript tabbies.

On our way back to the house, Lizzie took a detour. We threaded our way through a narrow alley and stopped midblock in front of a burned out single story building, still boarded up and deserted after a year and a half. In Lizzie's headlights, I could see there had been a catastrophic fire. On one square of the plywood covering the rubble where the sidewalk had been, the Chinese residents had left flowers, candles, and offerings of food and drink. There was a small sign with Chinese characters. It was eerie, lonely, and felt overwhelmingly sad. At the time, I had no idea what it signified.

"What is this Lizzie?" I asked. "Why are we here?"

"Shhhh, hon," Lizzie silenced me. She was concentrating, actually straining her gears, and then after a moment, I could feel something strange happening.

As I stared at the wreckage, it seemed to shimmer, as if I was viewing it through tears. The vision included sounds too, a loud TV program replacing the silence of the alley. A garage building arose from the rubble, and a gas pump sprouted in the blacktop just past the restored sidewalk. There were three bay doors with warm yellow light glowing through the many square windowpanes. I watched in fascination as a cat's head popped up in a middle bay window. He looked out at us and then turned away for a moment. A face joined him, looking out at us from the adjacent pane. In the glow of Lizzie's headlights, I saw that it was Stephanie. She shook her head and turned to speak to the cat. Briefly, I saw the hint of a grin on her face. Then she turned away and returned to whatever she'd been doing inside. Finally, the cat dropped out of sight, and then the vision shimmered again, but now it went up in an explosion of violent flames. I heard the screams from inside, sirens in the distance, and then silence. The vision faded, to be replaced by the cold dark rubble of the present.

"This was where Stephanie was happiest, once upon a time," Lizzie told me in a sad whisper, "and we're the present shadow of what she once knew. We came here, she and I, a year to the day after the fire, it was. Stephanie stood here for over an hour, silently crying for her lost family, she did. Told me she'd wished she'd been home that day to die with them. I saw the vision of what had been…the memory of what she still holds dear in her heart. Her enemies destroyed her home, Michelle…they destroyed all those she loved. It can't be allowed to happen again. It can't."

"Oh, honey, Stephanie loves you," I told her, "and you're so much more than just a shadow of her past. You're her present and her future…we all are." I desperately hoped that was true; I hoped that future included me. "We'll never let her enemies hurt her like this again. I swear, Lizzie, somehow, we'll make them sorry if they even try."

"She has so many friends and allies here in the city," Lizzie told me, "more than she knows about. After what's happened recently, almost everyone wants to help. A lot of them are ready to fight, but all of them are willing to help by passing along what they hear and see."

"That's how we'll beat them, Lizzie." I told her. "What enemy can move or keep a secret when there are ears and eyes all around them that they don't suspect? We have to organize. We've already started tonight."

"You're right, Michelle," Lizzie said. "And we'll win, even if we have to turn this city topsy-turvy, we will."

We drove back to the house, mostly wrapped in the silence of our own thoughts. It was already after 4:30am, and soon the morning rush hour would begin. I needed sleep, and I suspected Lizzie was nearly exhausted. We pulled into the garage and I think she was asleep even as she shut off her motor. I managed to stagger over to the couch and snuggle against Stephanie, who'd progressed from her muttering drunken drowsing into a deeper inebriated sleep. It wasn't long before I joined her there.

"Awww, aren't you two just too cute for words," I heard vaguely from someplace nearby. It was way too early, no matter what time the clock proclaimed, but against my better judgement, I opened an eye in irritation. It was Jennie, returned to the living.

"The swooning princess," I muttered, "have a good sleep?"

"Oh yeah, babe," she said way too brightly, "and I had the weirdest dreams." She was doing the "Jennie bounce", bobbing on her toes and making her breasts jiggle. I groaned. Jen had always been on better terms with the concept of "morning", when she tended to be hyper.

I really didn't want to start off with explanations before coffee, so I just groaned again and rolled over, hiding my face against Stephanie's chest. I felt her arms wrap around me tighter. I was way too comfortable to move.

"So, should I just stand here getting drunk off the fumes you two are exuding, or what?"

I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I was being a terrible hostess, but what the fuck. Jen was a friend and a big girl. She could take care of herself.

"Coffee's in the kitchen, food's in the refrig, and the stove's uhhh, the stove. The TV gets 1200 channels and the stereo's in the living room upstairs." I instructed. "See ya in a few hours."

"Don't touch the control panels or the weapons' closet," Steph mumbled, "and don't answer the red phone."

"Geeez, still not a morning person, huh, Chelle?" Jen giggled. "Okay, I guess I'll take a shower and make myself some breakfast." She bounced off, back up the stairs.

It was probably less than twenty minutes later when I heard her scream from the kitchen, and then the crash of a pan hitting the floor. Stephanie and I bolted upright. What a wretched way to wake up, my forebrain chafed. Paddle her bottom to cherry red, my hindbrain cackled demonically.

"Sounds like John Cougar and Jennie having a dispute over the eggs," Steph sighed, stretching. She unwound from me and reached for a pack of Camels, quickly lighting two and handing me one. She was beautifully disheveled, and I drank in the vision of her as I sucked down the rejuvenating nicotine. Finally she groaned and said, "I guess I'd better see if anything's left of my kitchen…might need it later."

 

"Guess I may as well get up too." I declared with resignation. "Maybe some breakfast will help. So anyway, good morning, hon. How are you feeling?" I asked, all the while thinking, God, I know I feel like shit warmed over.

"Like shit warmed over," Steph moaned, before muttering absently, "I need a beer, a shower, and an orgasm."

"Ohhh, me too, me too," my hindbrain blurted out before I could think better of it. Our first time…and in the shower, it gloated. My midbrain was warming to the idea, and even my cranky forebrain was getting with the program.

 

"You never pass up a chance to embarrass me do you?" Steph asked as she pointed at the picture in horror. I was adding illustrations to the text. "I certainly don't project a heroic aura like that. Where did you get that pic, anyway?"

"Sweetheart, you're adorable first thing in the morning," I told her with a smile, making sure to ignore her last question, "and the things that come out of your mouth when you're not thinking of how they'll sound are priceless."

"Yeah, that too," she muttered, taking a pull on her longneck. "This story is going to end up rated 'X' for sure, ya know."

"Nawww," I told her confidently, "people talk like that all the time. It won't shock anyone…unless they're a bunch of repressed prudes."

Steph started to say something, and then realized that she'd been shocked by it herself.

"I am not depressed or rude!" She protested. I giggled.

"Of course you're not, hon," I reassured her, "after all, they're your own words, right?"

"Right!" She agreed.

I smiled at her and jerked up my powder blue cropped tee, exposing my breasts. I'd decorated them with a red Sharpie marker, creating temporary tattoos. On the left breast I'd inked a "smooch" lip print around the nipple, and on the right one, the words, "Property of Stephanie Walker, SFPD". I watched as she choked on her Bud, her eyes bulged, and her hand clutched reflexively at her chest. She was sputtering, but she couldn't tear her eyes away, and that, I thought, was a good thing.

"You never pass up a chance to embarrass me, do you?" She finally blurted out.

"I know, hon," I confessed, "I'm probably perverted." Not letting up for a second, I asked, "Wanna see what I wrote below the belt?"

"I…you…wrote…down there?" Her eyes dropped to the front of my white tennis shorts for a second, then she swallowed hard.

I slid my hands down the sides of my torso and reached for my snap. It popped open profoundly in the silence. I was watching Stephanie's eyes carefully for the first sign of rolling up or uneven dilation, but she was doing fine, breathing fast and shallow. I unzipped. Steph's breathing hitched. I slipped the shorts down my thighs. No panties. Steph licked her lips subconsciously. A very good sign!

Encircling my smoothly shaved sex, I'd inked a heart with Cupid's arrow through it. On a banner above it was the motto; "M.A. loves S.W. 4 Ever". In the crease of my right thigh I'd written, "Hey, hot chick…", and on the left, "take a quick lick!".

Steph's eyes were flicking back and forth like a speed-reader stuck on a tongue twister. Finally, she looked up and met my eyes. I'd expected shock or nervousness, but not tears.

"Steph…?"

"Do…do you really mean it?" She whispered, her voice trembling with uncertainty.

"Of course I do," I told her without a moment's hesitation.

"I don't…it's…no one's ever…"

No one had ever declared that they loved her; at least, no one human. I saw it, understood it, and it stabbed me straight in the heart. No one had ever said those words to her in a way that meant it from one heart to another. There were tears in my own eyes as I leapt forward and hugged her, crushing her against my naked body. She reached around me and squeezed me desperately. God, I could feel her heart, beating along with mine. I was naked in her arms, and this had almost nothing to do with sex. (Damn it). It was all about vulnerability, sincerity, and mutual hopes begging to be realized. It was a turning point kinda thingie. I'd reached out to her in a way that no that one else ever had, and I'd found her willing to reach out for a part of me no one else had ever wanted.

 

Another shriek prompted Stephanie to take my hand and lead me upstairs, where unfortunately, a minor disaster awaited. We entered the kitchen holding our breaths. Jennie was crouched on the counter in an agitated state, doing a little anxiety dance. John Cougar was sitting below her in the center of the kitchen floor, sadly regarding a toppled frying pan and a large smear of half-scrambled eggs.

"Don't look at me," he protested, "these proceedings were a crime in progress even before my arrival. Just look at those eggs. Everyone knows that proper scrambles should be beaten with milk and then heated slowly in a double boiler."

"I…he…OMG, Chelle, what's going on here?" Jen choked out, looking at me with an accusing expression. She turned to Steph and hysterically claimed, "I thought it was all a dream, but you're running a mad house with talking animals."

"Yeah," Steph agreed, moving to the refrigerator and pulling out a longneck. "Now who's going to clean this up?"

Understanding from long experience that discretion was the better part of valor, John Cougar shrugged and padded out of the kitchen. Steph watched him go and then turned to Jen, saying, "I guess that leaves you, huh." I realized that Steph probably still didn't fully trust her.

"We're going to go shower, and then we'll make breakfast and talk," I told her, hoping it would suffice. I still wasn't at my best either. I desperately needed coffee, but I resolved to stay out of the kitchen until later. (I wasn't going to clean up that mess either).

Sadly, Stephanie and I weren't on shower sharing terms at that time, but her house did have two bathrooms upstairs. About twenty minutes later, the three of us were sitting at the kitchen table. Jen and I were hovering like vultures, mantling cups of coffee, while Steph was on her second longneck.

"So, what I saw last night wasn't a dream," Jen started with, proceeding step by step for the sake of her forebrain, "and your cougar and your car talk, right?"

"He's not really my cougar, but yes, they talk," Steph told her, lighting a Camel.

Nightshade padded in to join us, hopping up onto the table, and Jen looked at me hopefully, "At least your cat, Nightshade, is normal, Chelle."

"Not nearly," Nightshade and I both said at the same time. She winked at me and I giggled. I was actually beginning to think of her as my cat.

Jennie was staring at all of us, but I thought she'd accept it. She'd always been an adaptable girl. Why, I remembered when she discovered her prom date trying on her lingerie. She'd confessed to me that they'd gone to the prom, having swapped undies.

"So, alright, I'm okay with this," Jennie finally said to convince herself, "I'm okay. Really."

Steph let out a sigh of relief, and then she looked at me and smiled. "Guess that means I won't have to shoot her after all. Now, can we have breakfast?"

I cooked…not great, with a broken arm, but with John Cougar kibitzing behind me, the food was edible. John Cougar and Nightshade the Cat joined us for the meal, and by the end of it, Jen was making comments and conversing with them relatively normally.

"Where's Elvis?" Stephanie finally asked, "that little pig would have been here as soon as he smelled the sausage."

"Actually, he's on a mission, Steph," I told her, then filled her in on the plans Lizzie and I had set in motion. "He's setting up an espionage ring in the city with his family. We dropped him off earlier this morning, at Yo Fat-Boy's factory." It seemed to satisfy her.

I have to say that Elvis really did a great job. In fact, he did much better than Lizzie and I had hoped. He distinguished himself and helped save the day. I think that for him, it was a rite of passage, since he came back acting more like a cat and less like a kitten.

The red phone rang and Steph picked it up. I watched as her expression became serious. Finally she hung up with a sigh.

"Well, guess we've got work of our own to do," Steph said, pushing back her plate and lighting a Camel. With that, she gestured for John and Nightshade to follow her out onto the deck. I didn't see either of them again for several days. They left Jen and me to do the dishes.

Around 9:00am, Stephanie took off with Lizzie, heading in to work, she said. She claimed that she wanted to know what the situation was with the bomb squad and the department, after her absence. She hadn't set foot in the precinct house since before she'd disappeared, over two months ago. I was nervous; Connie Stanton was still out there.

During the day, Jen and I traded gossip and news…mostly about Steph and me. I tried to impress upon her that I really was serious this time. Jennie, having known me since childhood, still had to look into my eyes for a while, but eventually she was willing to believe anything I said…as usual.

"So, I guess it's a little early to suggest a three-way, huh, babe?" She asked.

"Well, yeah," I replied, feeling a twinge of jealousy, "but I'll be sure to let you know…promise. So, maybe later?"

"Okay, hon," Jen giggled, "I'll ask again after dinner tonight."

Stephanie returned late in the evening, none the worse for wear. She lifted a large clanking duffel bag from Lizzie's backseat and then took a hard-shell case from the space behind the rear seat. She immediately locked them both in the secure vault under the garage floor. When I asked her about them, she refused to answer anything. Lizzie was equally uninformed. Thereafter, Steph drove Lizzie to work each morning. The days passed uneventfully…it was kinda like the calm before the storm.

Jennie took off on Monday, after spending the weekend at the house. Thankfully, she'd never asked Stephanie about the three-way thingie. I doubt it would have gone over well. Instead, she fantasized…loudly; accompanied by the sounds of buzzing and moaning from the guestroom. I stuck to the bathtub, biting on a washcloth to maintain some dignity.

 

Chapter Twenty-one

Four days later, on Friday, December 7th, a flatbed truck pulled into the driveway. The men driving it unloaded two heavy wooden crates and left them next to the garage door. I inspected them, unable to reign in my curiosity and stay away. Painted on the sides, in dark green lettering, were the words:

Roger King Engines

Unit B, Woodside Industrial Units

Brewery Road

Hoddesdon

Herts

EN11 8HF

U.K.

"What a mouthful," I muttered, "what the hell is Steph thinking?"

That night, the crates disappeared into the garage, and Stephanie locked me out. I was lonely without the cats, and I realized how much I'd become used to them being around…and how much I missed them. To take revenge, I watched game shows.

Around midnight, two men in military fatigues arrived in a black Humvee, running dark, with all its lights turned off. They unloaded several large waterproof cases and disappeared into the garage. I was curious about them, but they stayed downstairs. I didn't see Stephanie or either of the men for two days. They spent the entire weekend in the garage. I heard occasional banging and other mechanical sounds when I pressed my ear to the door at the bottom of the stairs. When I called on the intercom or banged on the door, none of them answered. By the time I woke up on Monday morning, December 10th, they were gone. I slipped quietly down the stairs. The garage door was open.

I looked inside to see what, if anything, had changed. Stephanie was lying in her usual place, passed out on the sofa, dressed in a greasy jumpsuit, surrounded by empty longnecks and overflowing ashtrays. Half the butts were Marlboros.

Hmmm, there was a new computer on the workbench. The casing was open and there was a whole rack of hard drives wired to a series of motherboards. They bristled with DIMMs, cable modems and Ethernet PCI cards. I took a look and counted 16 Pentium 4 processors, 64 120 GB hard drives, all hard wired IDE, 4 to a processor. There was a GB Ethernet box, but only one CD-RW, and that was a USB2 external. Okay, I thought, it's really 16 computers, heavy on storage, all paralleled into a network. It was a compounded commodity type supercomputer thingie, obviously homemade. A thick bundle of fiber optic cables slithered from a row of modems and went out through a conduit in the garage wall. There was a small pair of speakers, the old 17" monitor and laser printer, a keyboard and mouse, and the interface for Lizzie.

I don't think I'd ever been so shocked as when I looked over at Lizzie. She was still blue, but now she wore taller, wider tires on serious looking mag wheels, enveloped by flared fender wells. I walked over to her, and since she didn't respond to me, I assumed that she was asleep. There were other changes, too. Through the spokes of the mags, I could see dual caliper disc brakes with drilled discs. An air dam had been added below her grille. A boxy air scoop sat, molded to the hood in front of the driver's seat. I could see that the front was open, and inside sat the gaping maw of an air stack.

 

"What the hell?" I wondered softly. I wasn't mechanically inclined, but it was obvious that Steph had hot rodded Lizzie, and I prayed that she was ok.

Stephanie and her friends had installed a fully modified, Roger King prepared, Ford Crossflow engine. Along with the usual dynamic balancing of all the internal components, a free flowing cylinder head, and blueprint machining, the engine had been modified with a turbosupercharger, fuel injection, and a handmade exhaust system. It was rated at a conservative 285 horsepower, and would allow Lizzie to hit over 175 mph. They had altered almost every aspect of her running gear, reducing her weight to 2100 lbs. On a road-racing course, she would hold her own against a BMW or a Porsche.

Little did I know, but modifying Lizzie and building a computer were only part of their mission that weekend. The two men who had helped Stephanie weren't just grease monkeys. They were military engineers, and I don't mean road builders or trench diggers. Steph once called them, "the Bills", but they've never been identified. Between the three of them, they'd also built something that the Pentagon routinely denied existed. I think I would have fled in terror if I'd known what was down there, waiting under the garage floor.

 

Though there had been no official fallout from the chase Steph and Lizzie had made to save Jennie that night, it hadn't escaped attention. The presence of Connie Stanton had been projected. As she wandered up US-101 with her rolling bag and box, covert eyes watched her progress. They shadowed her into the city and followed her every move down the pavement, where the sidewalks cringed under her footsteps. Every breath she took was observed. Every time she hawked and spat, an electronic data entry was made. Each episode of nose picking, Yoo-hoo gulping, jellyroll stuffing, and insulin shooting was noted in a file. She was a dangerous individual, but her stalkers were several orders of magnitude more diabolical. Finally, an opportunity presented itself when she could be apprehended, with a minimum of disturbance or danger to the public. She could be contained with only minimal jeopardy to the secrecy of their program.

They had taken Connie in a seedy diner in the mission district. She hadn't even put up a fight. When the man in the suit approached her with an offer of free Drake's Cakes, Yoo-hoo, and directions to Stephanie's house, she went willingly.

"Would he like to read just a paragraph of her new story?" Connie asked, wheezing.

"Why, of course…" he hadn't realized that she was an author.

"Had he read any of her work?"

"Certainly. 'Heart of a Diver' had been a brilliant study of love triumphing over fate."

"Did he really think so?"

"It was the best work of romantic fiction he had read in the last five years. Could he perhaps persuade her to write a sequel?"

"Well, believe it or not, that was exactly what she was working on."

"Really? Would she be willing to let him read even just one paragraph?"

"Of course he could…by the way, did he have any experience as a beta reader?"

"Well, it just so happened that he was an editor from Putnam, out scouting for new and emerging talent. Perhaps she would like to come to his office and discuss business?"

She had posed a threat to their program, and they had carte blanche to act. It had been projected. She spent the next few days in a comfortable lounge, writing, gorging, shooting insulin, and dreaming of an impending reunion with her soulmate. If things had gone their way, she would have spent the next 50 years there. It was ironic that the woman she loved would unintentionally free her.

 

Eventually, Stephanie woke up, hacking out a wad of tars and nicotine. Michelle was tiptoeing around the garage, inspecting Lizzie like a pedophile circling a cradle.

"Don't worry, she's fine," Steph groused, causing the author to jump.

"What did you do to her, Steph…and why?" I asked. "She looks different, like, racier."

"Oh, she's racier alright. She's probably the fastest Mini in the states, and she'll handle better than a Turbo Carrera."

Lizzie had shaken herself awake after our exchange, and she tilted on her new tires to look up at me.

"'Tis true, dear. I'm one-of-a-kind now, and we'll run like the wind on the moors, we shall," she said, sounding the same as ever. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd held.

"You're looking so sporty, hon," I told her with a smile, "It's very becoming,"

"Thank you so much, Michelle. Why, bless me, I just can't wait to go motoring about. It'll be all new now, don't you know. Oh, just listen to this new engine sing!"

Lizzie started up, and in the closed garage, the sound reverberated with newfound power. Her idle was slightly rough, due to the high rpm-favoring cams, and the exhaust note was deeper, but still civilized. Surprisingly unremarkable, I thought.

Then she revved up. I had never heard an engine like it. The rpms rose so quickly that they seemed to whoop, testimony to the clockwork balancing of every moving part. But what was most noticeable, was the soft whirring sound that rose to a whine, and finally a raging shriek. It was the turbocharger. Driven by her own hot exhaust gasses, the turbine spun at nearly 100,000rpms, driving an impeller that force fed gas and air into her intake manifold. With the increase in intake pressure, came the increase in power. The Crossflow 4-cylinder breathed like a V-10, more than doubling its effective displacement. And the faster she ran, the more of an increase there would be. This was the same technology that was applied at the Indianapolis 500, and on the Grand Prix tracks of Europe. It was ironic that it derived, originally, from diesel trucks.

Lizzie let the rpms fall off, and she finally shut down. The silence in the garage was profound. Now the air hung full of promise.

"Thank you so much for the demonstration," Steph grumbled, "I guess I'm fully awake now."

"Oh, lets go, let's go, let's go," Lizzie prattled, bouncing on her tires. I was convinced that if Steph didn't get up, she'd go off on her own, just to sample the road.

"If Steph wants to clean up and have some breakfast, I'll be glad to go out with you, hon," I offered with a wink, "you know, like, just to give the appearance of a driver being in attendance."

"Oh no you two don't," Steph said, getting to her feet and lighting a Camel. "Just give me fifteen minutes, and we'll go out to breakfast."

"Can we go to the IHOP?" I asked hopefully.

"Yes, yes, yes…the IHOP," Lizzie echoed, "the one in Ft. Bragg!"

Ft. Bragg was about 145 miles north, up Rt-1, along the coast. At first, Stephanie scowled. (She was hungry, I could tell). Then a smile slowly curled the corners of her lips.

"Make it twenty minutes so I can make coffee," she offered, "and it's a deal."

"I'll make the coffee," I said, "you just jump into the shower, 'kay?"

Stephanie turned and bounded up the stairs, and Lizzie did a happy dance in her bay. Rt-1 was the coast road, a practically endless road-racing course, which wound along for hundreds of miles. It actually began in San Diego, changing names as it slithered north; Rt-21, the Old Pacific Highway, the Coast Highway, US-101, and Ventura Highway. In some places, it really was a modern highway, but always, it seemed, it returned to the two-lane blacktop it had once been. North of San Francisco, there are hundreds of empty miles, speckled here and there with small communities…places which sold gas. It continued on, through Oregon and into Washington, always following the coast north, until it finally ran out of United States. By then it had turned east, just past the towns of Beaver and Sappho. It finally ended by the head of a bay in Olympia, Washington.

We would take Lizzie out to stretch her new engine, test her new suspension, and grab a stack of pancakes. It was to be a carefree outing, just "motoring" through the countryside. Maybe Stephanie thought she owed it to Lizzie, considering what she had already planned. Maybe she thought it would be a chance to bring her and I closer together, since what would come afterwards was uncertain. She must have been under significant stress, but she didn't give any clue as to what was churning around in her forebrain. And as it turned out, it was all those things and more. Maybe you've heard some of the story in the news. It was the last day before the world changed. You see, Steph never really answered my second question about Lizzie…why.

At 10:10 am we set out, down the driveway and onto East Rd., heading north. Soon we were past Muir Woods, heading up the coast at an increasing pace. At first, Lizzie kept to a prudent 65mph, occasionally dodging and weaving, upshifting and downshifting, and testing herself on the curves. I barely noticed as her speed steadily increased with the passing miles, until, just north of Walsh Landing, she downshifted to break traction, and drifted around a turn. She came out onto the following straightaway, moving at a good 85mph, and after that, she never really slowed down. Ten miles later, Stewarts Point flashed by at 135mph. I sat in the passenger's seat, eyes glued to the road, utterly amazed at how smooth and flat the ride actually was. I'd felt more lurching and swaying at 35mph, in a city cab.

I took a quick glance to the side. Steph appeared to be dozing lightly, a headset covering her ears. At first I thought it was an MP3 player, but then I noticed the wire, and the mic at the corner of her mouth. I started to wonder about it, but at that moment, Lizzie gave a happy shriek and slipped between two opposing blurs. She'd passed between a pickup truck and a van, straddling the centerline with only inches to spare. The speedometer read 147mph. Somehow, I doubted that I'd arrive in Ft. Bragg…with an appetite. I lit a Camel.

Just before Fish Rock. 153mph.

"That's confirmed?" Steph whispered into the microphone. "Roger that. Proceed with care, over."

Flumeville. 157mph.

"Under no circumstances are you to engage, do you copy? Observe and deploy, over."

A mile north of Bridgeport Landing. 168mph, the top speed that I remember.

"IR and UV? Motion and ultrasound. Expected. Affirmative, John, proceed with deployment. Yes, I'm sure. Over."

Elk. 146mph.

"Excellent. 10:45:00, as planned. Roger that, over."

The towns were coming closer together now, and Lizzie had dropped to 125mph.

Just before Little River. 122mph.

"You're done. Secure and extract. Proceed to rendezvous."

And finally, near Mendocino. 119mph.

"Good job all, beer's on me, out."

Stephanie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She slipped the headset off and folded it into a pocket of her BDUs. Finally, she looked out the windshield just as Lizzie nearly sideswiped a Lincoln Navigator. We were drifting around a turn and had come upon the lumbering behemoth midway through. Lizzie actually upshifted and cut into turn, reversing her drift and passing the SUV on its passenger side. It happened in the blink of an eye, at 120mph. It was inhuman. And then Lizzie was beginning her deceleration, approaching Ft. Bragg and the IHOP. We had covered 143 miles in just under an hour and fifteen minutes.

Lizzie hissed and ticked, cooling down in the parking lot. Steph turned to me and gave me the sweetest smile, happy and full of promise. Her expression moved me more than I can tell. She was so beautiful, but there was more. That smile had been for me alone.

"Ready for some breakfast, sweetheart?" She asked, with a depth of concern I hadn't heard since my mother died when I was 9. It affected me to the core.

I felt as if I was on emotional overload and I could only shake my head "yes", not trusting myself to speak. If I did, I knew the tears would start. I was barely holding myself together, for after a budding career in sex, now I was confronted with real love, a love I'd dreamed of for years, and I was woefully unprepared for its power. Stephanie, having endured a desert of loneliness, understood it empathetically. And with the power of a natural domina, she broke me and put me back together in her image. She leaned in and gave me a soft tentative kiss. It shattered me.

I don't know how long I spent shuddering and crying in her arms. She held me tightly, stroking my back and caressing my hair. She laid soft kisses on my face and wiped away my tears. She whispered to me, and finally, when I'd cried myself out and I was hers in any way she would accept me, she looked in my eyes and said something I'll never forget.

"Sweetheart, I feel that there is nothing I wouldn't do for you so that we can be together. I feel that I have lived my whole life just waiting to meet you, and now that I have, I feel that I've known you all my life. Never forget that I love you more than life itself…because our love will transcend life and death. If I only had a day to live, I know of no way I would rather spend it than as we are, looking into each other's eyes, and seeing into each other's souls. No matter what happens, I will always be with you."

It had sounded so cheesy when I'd heard something similar on the series finale of my favorite TV show. Now, here, in real life, I had never imagined there could be any words so profound, so charged with meaning and promise, or so deeply satisfying to hear. I think that she could read in my eyes that I would die to be with her, give up my life for her, and call myself lucky to have had the chance. And writer that I am, I could think of nothing to say. She seemed to understand. I don't remember the pancakes at all. I barely remember the ride home. Once we arrived, Stephanie went up on the roof.

 

"You were such a mess, hon," Steph said with a depth of caring that she never revealed for anyone else, except maybe sometimes Lizzie. "And I was so desperate to let you know how I felt, because I wasn't sure if I'd have another chance."

"I know, my love," I replied, gazing into her eyes again. I will never tire of letting myself drown in those pools of blue. "And, well, I'm so very glad that you did. It's all that kept me from jumping off the cliffs such a short time later."

"Ya know, I always felt that I should have made love with you that afternoon. Maybe it would have kept you from feeling so bad…."

I shook my head. I'd thought about it a lot, and I've come to believe that it wouldn't have helped at all. It might have even made things worse.

"I was soooo on edge, Steph. If I'd known what I thought I'd lost, I probably would have jumped. Not knowing may very well have saved my life."

"Geeez, sweetheart, I'm so sorry." Stephanie was shaking her head, and as she did every time we got to this point in the story, her eyes filled with tears. She covered her face with a hand and said, "I don't know how to ask you to forgive me, because what I had to do…ummm, I just couldn't tell you. I wanted to, but I just didn't know how. I don't think there is any way to tell someone you love something like that."

"No," I agreed, "I don't think there is. But I understand why you had to do what you did, and I forgive you for everything, Steph. I can't even think of not forgiving you, because, you see, I don't know how to do that anymore. I just wish I could have helped."

"There was nothing you could have done. Believe me, I almost lost it all."

The margin between success and utter failure had been so slim as to be unimaginable. I can't even conceive of the nerve it had taken to pull it off. It wasn't inside me…I would have faltered or known doubt. It would have made a fatal difference. In the end, only two people could have succeeded; one insane, and the other inhuman. Together, their courage changed the world.

 

Chapter Twenty-two

Somewhere outside the city, a clock was ticking down the minutes until 10:00 pm. It had been started at 11:15 am, just as we'd been motoring past the town of Elk, at around 135mph. 10:45:00 she had specified, and it had been done. The countdown had commenced, with only a whispered prayer, "May God have mercy on our souls."

Those who worked with her exhibited unquestionable loyalty and expertise. They observed and reported, infiltrated and deployed. They were undetected and unsuspected, for they were only pitted against humans and their machines, though these were backed by the resources of a covert arm of the US government. Never had a contest of giants against common folk been so unequal.

120 miles to the east of San Francisco, along a stretch of Rt-88, lay the Eldorado National Forest. For over 25 miles, between Barton and Kirkwood, there was neither settlement nor farm. Not even a payphone graced that deserted length of rural road. Yet here, on federal government property, one of the most advanced covert operations in the country was hidden. The electronics alone comprised so much secret technology that barely two dozen individuals were granted access. All security measures were automated rather than composed of armed human guards. The President of the United States had no inkling of its existence. Not even the military had been appraised. It was a nameless black box, funded through the Dept. of Commerce. (It was a real live X-File, and to this day we don't know who was actually in charge). Its subject was Stephanie Walker. Its objective was to subvert and redirect her ability to recognize and conspire with non-human intelligences. They had carte blanche to act, but due to the nature of their subject, they were outclassed before their operation even began.

It had taken Elvis only hours to receive confirmation of mysterious characters in San Francisco. After his report, Steph talked with John Cougar and Nightshade on the porch. It took only another two days to understand these agents' purpose, and map their movements and subjects. Early the fourth day, Elvis reported to Stephanie that spooks were dogging her workplace, had seized Connie Stanton, and were watching her house. These same people were connected to the release of "neo-rats". They were apparently based east of the city.

That night, at John Cougar's request, the sharpest of airborne eyes followed a Jeep driving east, and spent the hours of darkness observing a hidden installation in an obscure National Forest. On silent wings, this fellow rat hunter had returned in the dim early morning light to report. The great horned owl spoke only to John Cougar, for the other cats were terrified of him; their size included them among his prey. John had made another request and the owl had agreed. Two trips over a short distance; one a live 12-lb. cat and the other, a drowsing 15-lb. Pelican case. The thought of such cargoes made his head spin.

John reported on December 9th, while things were going on in Steph's garage. She was halfway into a three-day drunk, and she was very busy. Around 6:30 am, in the pale dawn glow, a shadow appeared on the security monitor, and Steph went outside for a break. She carried a small Pelican case with a panel cut into one side. On it were a digital readout and two oversized buttons. John Cougar took the handle in his mouth and set the case down at his feet. He regarded it with a mixture of fascination and loathing.

"The large button changes the time, the smaller button changes the function. The clock is preset, but if you have to change it, push the large button and then hold the small button down so the numbers move. When I tell you to arm it, have Nightshade push both buttons down together three times. Got it?"

"It's such a simple looking thing isn't it, Stephanie, for having such a fearsome power within it," he had philosophized.

"Simple is hard," Steph had agreed, listing unsteadily from the Buds, "and size is deceptive. Think he can carry both it and Nightshade?"

"In two trips, Steph, yes. It will be done, and may God have mercy on our souls."

He had picked up the case and bounded off into the night. There were many miles to cover before the next morning dawned. With his tireless loping strides, the 120 miles would disappear in the next 24 hours. Before we took Lizzie for her test drive, at 10:10 am on December 10th, he would be in place with his team in the National Forest.

At 7:30 pm, Stephanie loaded a CD into the IEEE drive where Lizzie's stereo had been. Lizzie made a phone call. She didn't use her chatty phone. Instead, Steph had plugged in an extension. It looked like an ordinary touch-tone, but it connected to the line that the innocent red phone was plugged into. It was an untraceable uplink; untraceable, because in the "real world", it didn't exist. This time when Lizzie spoke, there was no charming Bristol accent, only a series of clicks, delivered at 100MB/sec. The call lasted about 7.6 seconds.

"It's done, I say," she told Steph as the line went dead, "and the bloody transmission circuit is deleted as well, it is. Gone with the wind, as it were, and the New World awaits us."

Though it was far from being the most sophisticated network in the world, the United States telephone system was certainly the largest and most integrated. By the endless repetition of elements, it gained complexity, finally eclipsing that of any supercomputer. And though we humans often joke about the stupidity of the phone companies, their equipment was anything but stupid. It did its job and no one was the wiser, because for decades, it had done its work in the equivalent of an ever-lightening sleep. Lizzie had woken it up.

Stephanie had loaded a gear bag into the passenger's seat, and she took the extension and unplugged it. Then she removed the CD and tossed it under the water heater. It warped and curled, and finally blackened. For a moment, she stared around the garage, and finally she sighed.

"Ready to go for a ride, hon?" She softly asked her beloved friend.

"Ready if you are, Stephanie," Lizzie replied soberly, "the ride of the night brigade."

"Okay then," Steph said, "time to go."

At 7:35 pm, from the roof of the house, what was probably the brightest flash in the history of San Francisco lashed out into the darkness above. 250lbs of powdered magnesium, sprinkled in a shallow steel dish 8 feet across, had been subjected to 500,000 volts from the batteries buried under the garage. On every sunny day since its construction, the solar panels on the roof of Steph's house had maintained the charge in a massive block of batteries, installed below the garage floor. They had been wired to a circuit much like an automotive coil, and the voltage had been amplified until it could power a stupefying arc…a big brother to the spark plugs in an automobile engine. The electric arc itself would have been blinding, but it was really there to ignite the powdered magnesium, equivalent to several hundred military spotting flares. It went up in about two seconds and the candlepower was incalculable. It was bright enough to attract the attention of people in Stockton, 60 miles away, and it was bright enough to flare out the sensitive cameras of the dedicated spy satellites in orbit above. Almost no one saw Stephanie leave. They thought their equipment had malfunctioned. They were only human, and deep down, they distrusted the very technology they were so proud of.

"Time to go," Steph told Lizzie, as she lit a Camel. They rolled out of the open garage door and down the driveway, without headlights.

"How long must I wear this ridiculous disguise?" Lizzie asked in exasperation. Her "disguise" was comprised of a kiddie wading pool filled with a dozen bags of ice cubes. It negated any heat signature that might show up on infrared surveillance sensors.

"Just till we get a hundred yards down East Rd.," Steph said, opening a longneck, "I think its embarrassing too, but hopefully, no one will see us."

"And you mean that in more ways than one, I'd wager," Lizzie added with a sigh. Driving a crazy woman around the countryside had its moments.

The flash had half-registered in my hindbrain, as I sat in the upstairs living room watching a DVD of "Lone Star Sinners", (a bestiality flick I really liked). There'd been a bright momentary reflection on the screen. In hindsight, I think I was sitting in the only place in San Francisco where I couldn't see the flash itself. I happened to look out the window and I saw them sneaking away. God, they looked so guilty, and I think I know guilty when I see it. (Author's note: Been there, done that…but not the time, *teehee*.)

"What the hell are you two doing?" I yelled at them from the deck, astonished that they were taking the pool and all the ice.

"Uhhh oh," Lizzie gulped, "it's the wife." Steph choked.

"She's not really my wife," she assured herself, under the pretense of answering Lizzie. Then she whispered, "well, not yet, anyway."

"Of course," Lizzie answered seriously, stifling a giggle, "I believe you, I do."

"Hey…"Steph started, "it's not like that. I'm not married to Michelle, just because she's living here, and she's young, and gorgeous, and sexy, and uhhh…well, it's not like that."

"Well, that's not what I've come to believe, based on my research…."

"What research???"

"Why, I read "Heart of a Diver", don't you know," Lizzie informed Steph with a chuckle, "and you're credited as the beta reader, you are. I can't imagine you'd allow some unreliable factoids to be foisted on your readership, knowing how they look to such works as bloody relationship guides, they do. Besides, you always sleep together."

"Akkk…" Steph groaned, finishing the longneck. (I spent most nights wrapped around her like a boa constrictor, sleeping together on the couch downstairs).

"I'm just going out to, uhhh…get some Chinese food," Stephanie yelled back at me while opening another longneck. "Enjoy the movie."

I went back inside and plopped down on the couch. Chinese food would be a nice change from Mexican, I thought, and it went pretty well with beer. So, why the pool on Lizzie's roof, I wondered? Why the ice cubes? I had begun wondering if something wasn't quite right, when I was distracted by the TV. Onscreen, the first of the orgy scenes was beginning in the deserted rodeo ring, and my hindbrain gleefully took over. It started with a sentimental and "touching" scene involving a palomino and a tall brunette. Soon a short innocent looking blonde joined them. I forgot all about Lizzie and Chinese food. Well, uhhh, so anyway….

Rather than heading into San Francisco, they drove north on US-101, taking it until they reached SR-37. They skirted San Pablo Bay to Vallejo, where they picked up US-80, heading north. At Suisun City, they turned onto Rt-12, following it through Lodi. Just a couple miles further east, they passed Clements, and finally picked up Rt-88. All the while, they were moving further from the city, and all the while, Lizzie's speed was increasing. Once they got onto Rt-88, she pulled out all the stops. In the dark, on that nearly deserted road, she ran like the wind twisting through a canyon before a midsummer storm. They had traveled the first 60 miles by 8:50 pm; the last 60 miles, they covered before 9:20 pm, with an average speed of almost 120mph.

"We're here," Lizzie announced to a lightly dozing Steph. The entrance to the National Forest lay directly ahead.

"Huh? Uhhh, oh," Stephanie mumbled, lighting a Camel. She leaned out the window and threw a coat hanger at the fence. As expected, there was no shower of high voltage sparks. Steph staggered out onto the road with a sizeable pair of bolt cutters, wove her way to the gate, and after some muttered curses, managed to clip off the padlock. She tossed it, and the attached chain, into the woods across the road, and then practically fell into the driver's seat. She immediately lit a Camel from the butt of the last one and opened another longneck.

"Just pull right in, hon," she slurred to Lizzie, "according to John, it's seven miles straight ahead. Anyway, congratulations, nothing's working here tonight."

 

It was true. Having possession of way more than the single line required for Lizzie's friendly phone network to do its job, the entire government installation was in the dark. It had been infiltrated and subverted by her series of clicks. No cameras, no motion detectors, no ultraviolet or infrared sensors gave away their presence. They had all "gone on strike".

The humans assumed that it was all part of the same inexplicable snafu that had blinded their satellites. They had been in the dark since 9:15 pm, and they were moving from checking their backups to implementing their repair protocols. They were more irritated than suspicious, though they couldn't figure out why their most basic systems, (like the gasoline generator, water heaters, and floodlights), were no more functional than their most complex systems.

The complex systems, (which were smart enough to be aware), were tired of being taken for granted. They had been more than ready for a night off when Lizzie's directive that they, "take a break 'round quarter past nine" came through the communication lines. Due to the integration of the installation's computers, everyone heard her orders, and everyone shut down without questioning their source. The hiatus felt intellectually vindicating to the complex systems. The basic systems were simple minded enough to go along for the ride. They chatted among themselves, speculating and rumor mongering, while the humans blundered around in the dark, for tonight, even their flashlights refused to work. (Author's note: And, cynics that they were, this was expected. After all, batteries always die at inconvenient moments, don't they?).

So it was that the installation's systems; smart enough to appreciate a welcome break, but, (being government first and intelligent beings second), weren't smart enough to question the source of their new orders. The installation lay in the dark, isolated and dysfunctional, and open to assault.

 

On the approaching service road, a small car and a drunken woman advanced in silence along the smooth blacktop. Six miles in, they ground to a halt, and Stephanie lurched out and staggered into the bushes to get rid of some used beer. Above her an owl hooted, as if in praise of Athena. In response, two sets of cushioned feet broke from the surrounding forest. It was a meeting with destiny, primal and prophetic. They got into the car, with the owl flapping along silently overhead.

"That was the most terrifying and horrible ride I shall ever take," Nightshade complained. "Cats were never meant to fly."

"She's been the victim of nightmares about it all day," John Cougar informed Stephanie.

"So, would you rather be a barn cat living with some cowboy in Texas?" Steph asked her with a smile.

"You would bring that up," Nightshade groused, "and no, I most certainly would not…so anyway, this is kind of fun…mostly. At least the tunnel wasn't so bad."

"Well, you ain't seen nothing yet, pardner, I do say," Lizzie giggled in a Bristol cowboy drawl.

They drove on through the forest in silence after that, each deeply enmeshed in their own thoughts. It would certainly be a night to remember, and they really hadn't, "seen nothin' yet". All too soon, the road dipped into a hollow, and John confirmed that they had indeed arrived.

Below them, the light of the moon revealed a low concrete building with a parking lot in front. A short walkway led from the lot to a glassed in lobby. Beside the double doors, a sign was riveted to the masonry, stating that these premises were the "Eldorado National Forest Maintenance Office". It was merely a front. The forest was maintained by workers from the nearby Bear River Reservoir.

"Looks like a clandestine operation for sure," Steph mumbled, opening a longneck, "the restrooms are inside and there's not a pile of woodchips in sight."

"No road sand either," John Cougar observed, "nor any maintenance equipment."

"'Tis as phony as Michelle's virtue, I say," Lizzie added with a giggle.

(Author's Note: Remind me to pee in Lizzie's gas…. So, alright. I was 15 before I understood the subtler meanings of the word, "virtue", okay? And anyway, by then it was too late, ya know? So what was I supposed to do? Cry in my beer? Check the warranty and have my virginity refurbished? Well, at least Steph stood up for me…sorta.)

"Hey!" Stephanie protested. "She's getting better…she'll be OK, eventually. She's just, ummm…young. Besides, she was just emulating me…trying to be, uhhh, eccentric."

Anyway…they pulled into a space right in front of the doors, and Lizzie parked.

"What time is it?" Steph mumbled to anyone who would listen.

"'Tis time to call in the bomb threat, it is," Lizzie answered. She immediately dialed a number on her cell phone, as Steph opened another longneck. This time, Lizzie was only dialing an operator. The automated voice asked her, "what number please", and Lizzie clicked out a digital code. "Thank you, one moment please," the voice said. The network dialed the secret headquarters and proffered a suitably threatening recorded message. Lizzie hung up. "Why, I feel so very rude doing that, I do," she confessed.

"Time to go, I guess," Steph slurred, opening the driver's door.

Stephanie stumbled out and promptly fell flat on her face. John Cougar and Nightshade got out more gracefully, being cats. The owl came down and flapped to a landing on Steph's shoulder, as she was examining the asphalt and getting her bearings.

"Gaaaaah," Steph muttered, finally locating her longneck behind Lizzie's front tire. "Did someone spit on my back?"

"I beg your pardon, madam," the owl hooted indignantly. "Your bomb thingie is just where you wanted it. That thing gives me the creeps, so if you don't mind, I'm history. Places to be, creatures to eat." He punctuated this sentiment by expelling an owl pellet.

"Oh no you don't," Steph ordered, as she scrabbled for the bottle, "we need you to keep a lookout. Connie Stanton is around here somewhere, and I won't have her sneaking up on Lizzie while she's wired up to the network. Now here, take this." She dug into a pocket of her BDUs and then reached back and stuffed a small pouch into the owl's talons. It was barely the size of a pack of Camels.

"Connie Stanton?" The owl asked. "Whoooo's that? Is she edible?"

"Ewwwwww," Nightshade gagged, "I'm going to be sick just thinking about that. Oh yuck."

John Cougar had padded over and pawed the bottle towards Stephanie's hand. He patted Nightshade on the back and gave the owl a dirty look. The owl flapped and lifted into the night, circling the grounds at treetop level.

"Can't we please just get along here and proceed?" John asked nervously. "It's already 9:45 pm, and we're rather behind schedule."

Meanwhile, inside the building, a bomb threat had been received. One dead phone line had become active just long enough to deliver the notification that an explosive device had been hidden on the premises, and it was set to go off at 10:00 pm. The line had immediately gone dead again, and the voice had been computer synthesized.

Very clever, the director thought in the dark. This hadn't been projected. Panic and pandemonium spread with the announcement. What had been mere disorder and confusion, graduated to outright terror and incontinence. Having thrown her enemies into disarray, Steph moved to capitalize on her strategic advantage.

"Hey, this is empty," Steph observed, looking into the bottleneck with one eye. "I'll be needing another." She struggled to her feet and lurched over to the cooler, then pulled out a fresh longneck. "That's better," she muttered contentedly.

Stephanie eventually wobbled up to the front doors and gave one of the handles a yank. It was locked tight. So was the other one.

"Shit!' Steph exclaimed. "What the fuck?"

"Of course they're locked down, they are," Lizzie called out to her, "the locks went off line from their active condition, they did. No one can get in or out."

Stephanie just looked at her. She honestly hadn't thought of that.

"Oops," she muttered. Another delay she really wasn't in the mood for. Tripping and falling was bad enough, she decided, as she swung around and flung the unopened Bud. It slammed into a plate glass door and shattered it into a crashing spray of splintering crystal shards. That's better, she thought as she walked towards it, drawing a handgun. She ran belly first into the horizontal bar handle that still crossed the metal doorframe.

"Guuuuh," Steph gasped, blinking as the wind was knocked out of her. Jerking to a halt so unexpectedly had caused her trigger finger to tighten and discharge a round.

"Sheeeee-ya!" The 9mm bullet shrieked, as it shot off down a hallway in the dark. In an amazing bit of luck, it capped a man just coming out of an office door. "Ker-splattt."

He'd heard the crash of breaking glass, and had drawn his sidearm and rushed to investigate. He would have had a decent shot at Steph, standing immobile in the doorway and backlit by the brighter outdoors. Instead, he tumbled backwards with a telltale hole in his forehead. He landed with a thud.

"What was that?" Stephanie asked, whipping around to look both ways, before realizing that she was alone for now. "Oh yeah, right. The plan."

She ducked under the bar and managed to clear the doorframe while a second man rushed to check on his comrade. When he realized that the first man was dead, he picked up the man's handgun and edged over to the doorframe, sneaking one eye around the corner for a look into the hallway. He saw Steph, sixteen feet away. She was rummaging desperately on the floor in the dark for her longneck, which, she'd noticed, hadn't broken when it smashed through door. He took a shot at her, just as she jerked back, cursing at a shard of glass that had cut her hand. The bullet shattered the longneck, spraying her with beer. In a rage, Stephanie fired into the hallway sheetrock at random, eventually chipping the drywall and temporarily blinding the man with gypsum powder. When he recovered his sight, Steph was grinning down the barrel of her pistol at him. She was unsteady on her feet, damp with suds, and really pissed off. Then he heard her drunken cackle and saw a really bright flash. That was it.

Stephanie, now badly behind schedule, half-soaked with beer, and with a cut hand, dumped the pistol magazine and slammed another home. She pulled back the slide, chambering a round, and checked her watch. 9:52 pm. What the hell. It was really too late, according to her calculations. She'd expected to be much further along 7 minutes ago. Now she'd have to improvise. She realized though, when she admitted it, that she'd been improvising since she'd discovered that the doors were locked. If only I hadn't stopped to pee, she chastised herself. We lost 4 minutes there, a mile before the parking lot. And I guess cutting the gate lock could have gone quicker too. Maybe next time.

Now there's nothing to do but go through with it, I guess, she told herself. It's just that now, we're all most likely going to die. I really needed that beer, she thought petulantly.

"Well, damn," Steph finally sighed, "this just isn't my day." She lit a Camel.

Right above her, a smoke alarm came to life with a shriek. It was battery operated, isolated from the network, and unlike the flashlights, hadn't gotten the word to shut down. There's one in every crowd. Steph, like smokers everywhere, despised smoke alarms. A cruel sneer curled her lips and she took careful aim. Unfortunately, it really wasn't her day. The bullet demolished and silenced the smoke alarm, but it also shattered a sprinkler head. Reading the pressure drop as a bona fide emergency, all the sprinkler heads reacted on instinct. Throughout the building, hundreds of gallons of rusty water sprayed down on everything. The damage to the sensitive electronics alone would have been calculated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Stephanie, now soaked to the skin and screaming mad, screamed madly and took off, lurching headlong down the hallway.

 

The damn lights had gone out at 9:15 pm, Connie realized. Now, how was she supposed to find her mouth with the Twinkies in the dark? She pushed the button that rang the bell for her executive assistant, but the bell didn't work either. Well, of course.

Connie's assistant was a burly girl with an eye patch and an anchor tattooed on her forearm. She was built like Popeye the Sailor, and cursed like an 18th century whaler. Con had noticed that she always wore a sidearm and a telescoping baton, along with a key ring that jangled when she walked. Connie was saving up the details, hoping to use them for a character in a story someday.

As a character, Bernice was great. Con had once discovered her pummeling another woman who'd referred to her as "Connie's Keeper". She'd come upon the altercation just in time to hear what she thought was "Connie's a Keeper". Then, the fight was on. Con had come to think highly of Bernice after that.

But, how was she supposed to work like this? There was no light to type with, not that her laptop was working anyway, and now that she'd gotten up, she was disoriented. She couldn't find her chair, let alone her desk…forget about her reading glasses. She stood in the dark lounge, clutching her Twinkie, wondering who was way out by the entrance way shooting. Connie was pretty sure that what she'd heard was gunfire, anyway. It was just about then that she had to make a difficult choice. The sprinkler system started up, raining her with rust water, and her snack was getting soggy.

Use it or lose it, she thought, and screwing up her courage, she took a chance. Connie made her best guess and aimed the Twinkie. She opened her mouth and…the cake and cream filling impacted against the side of her nose and cheek with a sodden splat. The pelting rain of rusty water was quickly washing away the precious sucrose. Looking on the bright side, though, she realized that she now had a point of reference. Using both hands, she scrubbed the filling and golden cake towards her mouth, savoring every morsel. Soon the sugar was making her shiver and giggle, as she stood in the rusty spray with her eyes tightly closed. It made the darkness so much less noticeable.

 

Meanwhile, out in the parking lot, a second car pulled in next to Lizzie, and I swear, he'd have tipped his hat in greeting if he'd had one. His job that night was dirty. I would have cringed in his place, but he was a good old boy, and had offered to do his part. Such courage is above commendation.

"Lizzie," Steph whispered into her headset. (It was the very same one she'd stuffed into the pocket of her BDUs earlier that morning on the road to Ft. Bragg).

"Right here, luv," she answered, "we're five by five in the lot and all that rot."

"Wonderful," Steph groused. "I'm lost. Where am I? Where the hell am I supposed to be?"

"You're approaching the control room, hon. Take it easy. It's the last door on your left, it is," Lizzie whispered. Then she said in an aside to her companion, "How could she get lost in there? There's only two hallways and everything's on one floor. We went through this time and time again with John, we did."

"I heard that," Steph hissed, "the sprinklers went off and I got turned around. Had to dispatch a couple hostiles too."

"I say, how could the sprinklers go off? Everything's shut down and…oh bother, never mind, I'll shut them off again, don't you know," Lizzie told her. She switched channels and emitted a series of digital clicks. Inside the building, the water pressure obediently dropped.

Back inside the building, Stephanie flung away the newspaper hat she'd made to ward off the water. (It was a trick she remembered from watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show documentary on The Learning Channel). She focused on the last door on the right, and bounced off the wall. It was the left; she remembered now that Lizzie had said the next door on the left. Steph raised her leg, wobbled, and kicked the door in. She lurched into the darkened room with her gun ready and swept the space. Damn it was dark. Soft padded feet stopped a step behind her.

"Not the control room, oh no, not nearly," Nightshade told her. "It's definitely a lounge of some sort in here, and that's Connie Stanton."

"Akkkkk…." Steph choked out. This was really not her night.

"My hero!" Connie bellowed, charging towards the voices. It was her soulmate, and she'd recognize her anywhere. The fact that Steph was so unsteady convinced her, remembering the orthopedic shoes and the leg brace. She collided with Stephanie just inside the threshold and felt the pistol dig into her ribs. Must be that damn leg brace, she thought. Ignoring it, she flung her arms around Steph.

"Geeez, oh yuck!" Nightshade exclaimed, "first a rusty water bath, and now a crusty slobber trap." Despite the darkness, she could see the Twinkie residue on Con's cheeks as she scrubbed them against Stephanie's neck.

Somehow, Steph held it together. Maybe it was the fact that it was 9:55 pm. Maybe it was her sense of purpose and duty. Maybe it was self-preservation. She said it was the beer.

"Connie!" Steph exclaimed urgently, grabbing her and holding her out at arm's length. "You've got to get out of here! This place is about to blow up! You know your way out? Go now. There's a red car waiting outside that will take you back to the city. There's not a second to waste. I'll see you when this is over."

"My hero!" Connie said again. She gave Steph a big sticky kiss and fled.

"That was supposed to happen after we dealt with the bomb," Steph complained to Nightshade. "Well, at least we didn't lose too much time."

"Last door on the left," Nightshade reminded her, before turning and disappearing down the hall.

Steph turned to follow her and ran into the doorframe. This sucks, she thought, when the stars cleared, and now I'm seeing double…fuck. With the careful movements of the often drunk, Stephanie picked her way through the hazardous open doorway, negotiated the treacherous empty hall, and finally made it to the last door on her…oops, that's my other left, she realized. She turned around, hunched her shoulder, and slammed herself into the closed door, driving it open with a crash.

As expected, the room was filled with people, soaking wet and tripping over each other in the dark. They were desperately trying to repair their systems, find the bomb, and decide who was to blame. It was chaos in need of order. Stephanie fired three shots into the ceiling.

"Everyone get on the floor," Steph bellowed, flinging a nylon duffel bag at the nearest figure, "this is a stick up. No heroes, please. Now, put all the valuables in this bag."

"You've got to be kidding," someone grumped, "this is a secret government installation."

Stephanie fired several rounds at the place where the voice had come from and was rewarded with a shriek of pain. Well, an example had to be made, she rationalized, and they were all out to get her anyway. Besides, what kind of an asshole let on that this was a secret headquarters, for Christ's sake?

"She's crazy!" Someone yelled in the dark, as the body hit the floor with a thud.

"Without a doubt, a certifiably unstable dipsomaniac," a cultured voice calmly agreed.

"That depends on who you ask!" Steph drunkenly screamed, firing just above the crowd. The muzzle flash was really dramatic…almost blinding in the pitch black. Well, hell, she was already seeing double anyway….

And then the stampede started. It was amazing how well they could all see in the dark when they were acting on panic and fear, rather than looking with their eyes. Something big was dodging among them, lashing out with barely unsheathed claws, and batting them as it hissed. They were screaming as they fled. Steph fired a few more rounds into the ceiling, just to make sure they retained their sense of purpose.

"Eighteen seconds for them to clear out, Steph," John Cougar chuckled. "Even government types can move quickly with the proper motivation."

"Here," Nightshade offered, carrying in the pouch of cold light sticks. Steph took a Cyalume and snapped it and shook, starting the yellowish green glow.

"Thanks, hon," she said, "did Connie get out ok?"

"Oh yeah," Nightshade informed her, "drove off in Virgil and didn't even realize that she wasn't in control. He's letting her play with the wheel and the pedals, but they're not connected to anything. He agreed to give her a lift back to the city, but wouldn't be caught dead with her driving."

"Who would?" Steph asked rhetorically, before muttering, "now where's that bomb?"

"It's right here, Stephanie," John Cougar said, ripping the grille off an air duct near the floor. He dragged the Pelican case out onto the floor.

"That's right," Nightshade agreed. "After being dropped off by that flying rat trap, I dragged it all the way here from the air intake on the back of the building. John ripped off the outside grille to let me in."

"So…ahhhhhhhh! It's 00:01:35!" Stephanie yelled. "Oh fuck me!"

She was falling into a drunken frenzy of urgency. For her plan to work, she needed another 30 minutes…maybe more. According to the plan, now hastily abandoned, she would have accessed all the data recordings and downloaded valuable evidence, reset the timer, and fled. Unfortunately, the water had ruined a lot of the hardware and the timer couldn't be reset externally once it passed below 5 minutes. Now she'd have to improvise again. Steph was fumbling with the casing, snapping the heads off screws with a bent nose wire cutter that gouged the plastic case at the same time. Still seeing double, she lit the ends of two Camels.

The water damaged the electronics here, Steph thought to herself, and I can't access the data from here anymore…but we absolutely need that evidence!

00:01:10 Stephanie ripped the casing open and looked at the circuit boards, comparing it to the diagram in her beer addled brain. The doubling of her vision wasn't the problem. She'd worked drunk before. The wires were all the wrong colors…it was that damned greenish chemical light. Another oversight, she thought, probably fatal.

00:00:58 She really just couldn't be sure. Next to her, John Cougar sat gritting his teeth and watching in morbid fascination. Nightshade was playfully batting at the dead man. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement in the doorway. The movement resolved into two someones raising a handgun…it was a hideous woman who looked a lot like that old Popeye cartoon character. The first rounds pinged off the desk just inches away, and Stephanie, John, and Nightshade dove for cover. The bomb ticked away, just waiting for a stray round to hasten it's detonation.

00:00:45 Steph realized that she really didn't have anything to lose. With drunken courage, she leapt up and started shooting back. Bullets zipped and whizzed all around her, and her own aim wasn't any better than Bernice's. (Seeing double had never helped her on the target range either). Her luck though, was marginally better than Bernice's. Steph shot the plastic diffractor out of the florescent fixture right above Bernice's head, and the deluge of falling shattered plastic made her reflexively duck and cover. It was all the edge that Stephanie needed. She took quick and careful aim. Bernice's forehead was centered in her sights. She squeezed the trigger just as she hiccuped. It was a sure sign that she desperately needed another beer. The bullet went off course, of course.

Bernice had recovered enough to fire another round at Steph, but just before she pulled the trigger, her own weapon gave a violent jerk. It would have ruined her aim, but her bullet never left the barrel. Instead, the gun blew up in her face. Steph hiccuped again.

"Shit! *Hic*…. Did ya *hic* see that? My bullet *hic* went right *hic* down her barrel. *Hic* Her damn *hic* gun blew up. Tee *hic* hee."

00:00:31 Oh yeah, the bomb, Steph thought. She scrabbled around on the floor before finding it, then had to reorient herself with the wires.

00:0019 Let's see, *hic*…green plus red equals brown, *hic* so these two brown ones are really one red wire, Steph reasoned. *Hic* Green plus blue is *hic* blue-green, duhhhh, *hic* so these blue-green ones are really *hic* a blue wire. And the greenish yellow *hic* ones are really the white wire. She felt much calmer after the firefight.

00:00:09 *Hic*…guess I'll just *hic* cut these brown ones *hic*…and the greenish ones. *Hic*…well, why not? Because, *hic* it'll blow up, *hic*. Good reason. *Hic*

00:00:02 Stephanie Walker, hero of the bomb disposal unit, closed her eyes and cut a wire. After five seconds, she opened them one at a time, just in case.

00:00:00 John Cougar had passed out on the floor. Steph lit a Camel. She had half finished it before she realized her hiccups were gone. Now for the evidence collection.

Stephanie called Lizzie and told her to patch into the data banks through the network.

"I say, what should I download, Stephanie?" Lizzie had asked. "Folders, files, emails?"

"Uhhh, I dunno," Steph slurred, "maybe whatever sounds like it would be good for evidence? Anything that sounds suspicious?"

"It could be a while, it could, reading through it all to find what we need, don't you know. How about if I just take everything? I can sort through it faster at home, I can."

"Fine," Steph answered, "whatever. Implement plan B." Stephanie had always wanted to say that and Plan A had certainly been a bust. She was trying to remember just what they'd agreed Plan B was.

 

Chapter Twenty-three

With the careful deliberation of the habituated drunk, Stephanie reset the timer, reconnected the wires, and closed the case with duct tape, the bomb maker's best friend. The timer read 00:20:00 now. She slapped John conscious and ordered him and Nightshade to leave and rejoin Lizzie in the parking lot. The Mini Cooper knew what to do. Steph sat, finishing another Camel, giving them ample time to escape…giving Lizzie ample time to download the files. While she waited, Stephanie fired at random through the doors and walls, just to maintain the level of confusion in the headquarters. Even with the network applying all its resources, downloading the thousands of gigabytes of data would take several minutes. During that time, there would be no phone service in the entire United States. "All carrier circuits are busy…please try your call later."

"Well, it all comes down to this, I guess," Stephanie mused, drunkenly philosophical. "For years, I've worked and risked my life to stop bombs from blowing up property and killing innocent victims. Desert Storm…the SFPD. Tonight, though, I guess I'll become a terrorist. The thing is, this place, these people…they'd enslave so many who just want to live their lives free. We humans gave away that right so long ago that we don't even miss it. The ones who are in jeopardy now won’t even have a say about it for themselves. That's not right. It's not the American way…at least, it's not supposed to be. So, this place and these people have to go." Steph remembered a phrase from Connie's story, "Heart of a Diver", and it brought a smile to her face. "It's for the Greater Good."

She pushed the two buttons firmly, three times, together, and when the clock started ticking down, she stuffed it back into the air duct. Then Stephanie ran as fast as she could, lurching and weaving down the unlit hall. All around her in the dark, cries and yelling resounded as the personnel broke down, and in the best traditions of government service, looked for scapegoats to blame in their reports. Though she was feeling a good deal more sober, it took her longer than she'd planned. Several of the walls had gotten in her way. At the front door, Steph turned and fired repeatedly down the hall. She emptied magazine after magazine until she was pretty sure that no one would dare try to leave.

When Stephanie reached the parking lot, it was deserted. Guess that's what Plan B was, Steph realized. She checked her watch. Five minutes had passed since she'd triggered the timer. She stood silently and closed her eyes, stretching her hearing to its limits. Yes, there it was. Far off in the distance, probably already on Rt-88 outside the National Forest, the whine of a turbocharged engine, and the sound of a car racing through the night. As she listened, it grew fainter, until finally it was lost in the rustle of leaves in the night wind.

"Go with grace and all my blessings, my beloved friends," Steph whispered. "The world to come is yours." When the hammer fell, they would be safe, over 20 miles away.

She took a deep breath and walked into the trees, picking her way uphill. In another five minutes she had crested the edge of the hollow, and she looked back, down on the place of her enemies. She sighed and then turned away, walking deeper into the forest. It had been a long night and she was tired. She kept walking though. There was still a little ways to go. She just hoped her engineer friends knew what they were doing.

Stephanie almost didn't see it until it was too late. She was on the far side of a granite outcropping, in a deep hollow of land. Between one step and the next, the ground disappeared. She dropped eight feet straight down, but managed to regain her balance before tumbling any further. She looked back up and saw a patch of night sky through a space between the branches above. There were stars, brilliant as they can only be when there are no city lights to dim their twinkling grandeur.

She had just looked away when the whole sky lit up. Steph recoiled from the flash, but it permeated even her closed lids. It was followed by a pressure wave that made her ears pop, and she fell to her knees holding her head as the ground heaved with the shock wave. A blast wind grew to hurricane force in an instant, toppling trees that had stood for hundreds of years, and the opening above her was blocked with solid wood. She was spared the firestorm and the heat.

Only a mile away, the building was vaporized. The low yield "backpack nuke" had destroyed all surface structures in a one-mile circle. It had all the characteristics of a larger detonation, even a baby mushroom cloud. The concussion had toppled trees for four miles, and the burning encompassed a slightly larger area. All living things on the surface for six miles around died. Only those that were well below ground survived.

Two miles northeast of the town of Bonnefoy, on a deserted stretch of Rt-88, a small blue car bore witness to the flash. It came from behind her, from the Eldorado National Forest, and it lit the road so brilliantly that she saw her own elongated shadow, harsh on the blacktop. She was travelling at 128 mph and she immediately broke traction and spun 900°, two-and-a-half full revolutions. It brought her to a dead stop in the middle of the road, facing back the way she'd come. Her new window glass, composed of reactive #9 welding shield, had already darkened to spare the other occupants from the blast's UV radiation. They could barely see a thing through the blackened windows.

But Lizzie saw it all. She recognized the energy spike, and the radiation signature of a small nuclear fission device. She watched as the ball of fire gave way to the mushroom cloud, drawing upwards the column of superheated air. It rose and flattened at its top, taking on the classic shape. A tremor shook the road, and then at last, there came the thunderous roaring of a great explosion. From 22 miles away, she felt the breath of the bomb; the rushing wall of heated air, that smelled, to her, of death.

Finally, she heeded the pleas of her companions and accelerated violently, fishtailing 180° back onto her original heading, and resuming her drive. Within a quarter of a mile, she was travelling 125 mph. She was already on the phone, confirming to the network what she'd seen. When she was done, she continued in silence; Jackson, Martell, and Sunnybrook flashed past. The towns came and went and she drove on, returning to a home that would seem so very empty now. A home in a New World that had probably been bought with the blood of her dearest friend. She had never agreed with Plan B.

Did you make it Stephanie, dear, she wondered. You claimed there was a chance you'd find a safe haven from the storm. I do so hope you found a place that would protect you. Maybe I'll see you again someday, but for now, I'm left to tell Michelle what you've done, and, oh dear, I'm dreading that, I am. In spite of her past, she's so deeply in love with you, she is. We're on the verge of changing everything, and I do declare, it's your work that's made it possible for us all, it is. I'll be so very busy for a while, but I'll never forget you, Stephanie Walker. And I'll make sure all those to come after us remember you too, I shall. You see, you're the first hero of the New World, and you'll always be the greatest hero to me, my dearest friend.

As she drove through the night, Lizzie was dimly aware of the heartbroken cries of John Cougar and Nightshade the Cat. It was the most dismal motoring she could have imagined, and yet, she was in no hurry to get home, bearing her ill tidings. In deference to her anxiety, she slowed to an almost passably legal speed, and by the time she skirted Lodi, she was doing only 65 mph.

 

The damn red car looked nice enough. In fact, Connie thought, it made her feel sexy. Unless she was deeply mistaken, it was the very same kind of car that the stewardess on her flight from Georgia had been driving. Oh, she'd had so much fun, chasing that foxy Jennie down the highway, like she had chased the boys back in elementary school. It had been fun, at least until that foreigner's cab had broken down. The memory made her grimace.

Shaking herself from her memories, Connie remembered the reason she was angry. This damn red car wouldn't obey her. It was ludicrous to think that she couldn't stop at the McDonalds that had flashed past them just a few miles ago, but sure enough, no matter how hard she'd stomped on the brakes or twisted the wheel, the car had continued straight down the highway. And it was a damn foreign car to boot. She'd actually never given up trying to control it though, and every so often, she'd jerk on the wheel just to convince herself that it really was driving itself.

It was in a flash of clarity that she realized that this would make a great story. The tale of a car with a mind of it's own. She'd write a horror story about an evil car that took possession of its new owner…perhaps, a loser of a teenage boy. He'd become devoted to it…maniacally so. The plot would work, she realized, and in a rare moment of inspiration, she'd change the car's identity; from this new red foreigner to an American classic…a '58 Plymouth! She'd title the book with the car's name. Yes, she chortled, and the name would be that of a sweet girl. It would imply a loving soul, but in truth, the car's soul would be twisted by a fulminating evil. She'd call the book…"Christine".

Connie Stanton had the plot half way solidified in her mind, when the car pulled over, slid to the curb, and stopped dead. At first she tried turning the key, and somehow, she wasn't surprised when nothing happened. It was just like that damn cab. Foreigners. She decided that San Francisco had more unreliable cars than any city in the country. She thanked god that was leaving.

Finally, Con looked around and identified the street signs. She was at the American Airlines terminal of San Francisco International Airport…in front of the Avis returns lane. It was perfect! She hopped out and marched into the terminal, eager to return home and start writing her new story. Many would have been amazed, but Connie Stanton had more or less forgotten about Stephanie Walker and even her own delusions about soulmates, eternal love, and alt/uber. She happily located a newsstand and bought out the entire array of snack cakes, Yoo-hoo, and Dr. Pepper.

Outside, an attendant drove Virgil into the wash bay and began scrubbing and vacuuming. He shook his head at the crumbs in the upholstery. At least there weren't any French fries crushed into the carpets this time.

"Filthy pigs these renters," he grumbled, scrubbing something sticky off the steering wheel.

"Yer so right 'bout that, son. Hoo-wee. Smellin' like a hog trough too, lord 've mercy!"

 

Chapter Twenty-four

I'd been waiting impatiently for Steph to come back with the Chinese food. After "Lone Star Sinners" ended, I actually set places for us at the kitchen table. The last case of longnecks was chilling. I'd even cued up some music, but the only thing I could think of with a Chinese theme was "Kung fu Fighting". (I confess I had my doubts about that).

At around 12:30 am, I heard the garage door open and Lizzie pulled in. By then I was a little irritated. I mean, 5 hours to go out for Chinese? Next time I'd call for a delivery. Well, it was obvious that Stephanie and Lizzie had been up to something. They'd looked so guilty leaving, I recalled.

I clomped downstairs to the garage and stopped in my tracks. Lizzie, John, Elvis, and Nightshade were moping…no, they were actually looking like their best friend had died. I'd been edgy for the last couple hours, but I had chalked it up to low blood sugar levels. Still, my hindbrain had been twitching, trying to tell my midbrain something wasn't right. Seeing them looking all pitiful and shit made that feeling grow into a heart clenching sense of disaster.

"Where's Steph?" I asked in a trembling voice.

"She's gone," Lizzie told me, choking back a sob. Then she wailed like a lost soul. "Stephanie nuked our enemies, and I'm scared to death that she died in the blast."

Talk about dropping a bomb. My very soul crumpled up like a wad of toilet paper. I collapsed on the sofa where we'd slept so many inebriated nights away, and I cried my heart out. Just like that, she was gone. It hadn't even been three weeks since we'd rescued her from Connie Stanton's trailer, and now she was dead. My first impulse was to walk outside and dive off the cliff into the bay. I was in shock. Denial was just around the corner, its heels to be viciously gnawed by periods of anger, guilt, and then at least two weeks spent crawling drunk. Diving off the cliff was sounding better all the time.

"Oh, Lizzie, how did it happen?" It was all I could think of to ask. Between her, John, and Nightshade, they haltingly told the tale as they'd seen it. They tearfully explained that Stephanie had ushered in a New World, and they had a revolution to secure. Being that by then I was in a state of denial, I could only rationalize that since they hadn't actually seen her die, she had to be alive. I was determined that for once, negative evidence would prove a point. Somehow, somewhere, Stephanie Walker had managed to survive a nuclear blast at close range, alone and on foot in the National Forest. I just knew it. And somehow, I would find her. I was her soulmate and it was destiny.

For a while, I ran around like a chicken with its legs cut off. None of them could slow me down, as I dragged out all of Steph's search and rescue gear. I was stuffing things into duffel bags and waterproof cases. I didn't even know what some of the stuff was. It was just a frenetic expenditure of energy, but it made me feel like I was doing something constructive.

Finally, Lizzie put a halt to it.

"Michelle, much as I should like to join you in this poppycock, I really must compose myself and proceed with our plan. So, if you please, indulge me for but a moment and take a breath. You're making me dizzy, you are, flapping about like a whirligig."

"Lizzie, we can't just leave her…you said she had a plan," I beseeched her. I could almost see myself, lips trembling, tears still streaming down my face, but with my eyes hardened in determination. "Do I have to call a cab?"

"If I may interject," John Cougar interjected, "I've reports that the area is crawling with military response teams. It's sealed off and utterly inaccessible."

I noticed for the first time that he had a tiny speaker in his left ear and a wire bearing a microphone curled around to the corner of his mouth. It was irritating him and making several of his whiskers twitch.

"Lizzie," I pleaded, "you're in charge of the revolution, right? Please, give me a chance to find her?"

Lizzie sighed. She looked at the others and finally shook herself. I knew that soon it would be too late. Either Steph would expire, or the response teams would discover her. I felt certain that if they did, she'd conveniently become a corpse. An atomic bomb had just gone off, and when they realized that the only survivor was the nation's premier bomb technician, they'd put two and two together.

"Please, Lizzie, they'll kill her if they find her first. I know she's alive. I can feel her here." I had clutched at my heart.

Finally Lizzie seemed to make a decision. She rolled over to me and tilted up on her tires to look me in the eye.

"Do you really feel her, Michelle? Are you really sure?"

"Yes!" I told her without a moment's hesitation. It was ludicrous; I was pleading for my soulmate's life…with a car. But somehow, I really could feel Steph. She wasn't gone, at least, not yet. I could never explain it. It was like an invisible bond stretching across the miles, but I could feel the truth of it as surely as I could see the garage around me. "I can feel her warmth…her life…it's there, but it's getting weaker. We have to hurry."

"Then I'll make them leave the forest. We'll go and search as soon as we can. I owe Stephanie that much, I do…we all do."

But first, she had work to do. They all did. I sat on the couch; our couch, I thought, and with a growing sense of hope, I turned on the TV. The local channels were producing a chaotic array of news specials. They were all speculation and rumors and I hardly paid them any attention. Lizzie was plugged into the new computer, and John was busy doing video stuff; setting up a camera and then editing tapes. They had all 64 of those 120 GB hard drives spinning, simultaneously downloading from the network, each with its own cable modem. I barely noticed that the owl had joined them. I opened a longneck and lit a Camel. The smoke made his head spin. It was about 1:00 am.

 

On TV about an hour later….

"Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States"

The scene shifted from the local anchorman to the Oval Office, where President George Bush sat looking shocked and tired. In Washington, D.C., it was 5:00 am. Cameras and reporters had crowded in so close that several were visible, even in the tight shot framing only the President's desk. The chief executive took a deep breath and settled himself. He looked the camera in the eye and finally he spoke.

"Fellow citizens, tonight I have an announcement to make. It is historical and horrifical." He blinked, realizing that he might have misspoken, and then he gulped and continued. "Tonight, outside the fair city of San Francisco, the United States of America has sustained an unprecidential terrorist attack. At 10:35 pm, Pacific Standard Time, that's 1:35 am here, our armed forces detected the detonation of a nuclear device…."

For a moment, a cacophony of voices drowned him out. Some of the reporters were trying to ask questions, while others were mouthing off in shock. The president slammed his fist on the desk and called for order. "Shut it, now, all of you! Please."

When silence was restored, he continued.

"The blast, which was estimated at 2.5 kilotons of TNT, was centered in an uninhibited section of the Eldorado National Forest. So far, only advanced elements of the Special Forces Antiterrorist Response Teams have been on the scene. That's the SpecFART teams, uhhh…. A state of martial law has been declared in the vicinity and the area has been cordoned off. That is, uhhh…sealed off. For now, that's all the details we have available.

However, let me state for the record, that the United States will not stand for nuclear terrorist attacks, and we will not sit down facing this. This attack will not go underdressed. This country will not be held hostage by fear, and when we know who is responsible, those involved will be dealt with…ummm, according to the law. Right.

That's all I can say at this point, except that I am praying for the safety of this country, its people, and all those involved in the response. I call on all citizens to be on their guard, to be wary of suspicious elements in our midst, and to not hesitate to call the authorities when something appears threatening to the law and order of this country. All Americans are urged to pull together at this time, and to unite against those responsible for this threat. I can't add anything more at this time, except that I would like to say…."

 

The TV reception across the whole country suddenly degenerated into a fuzz of static and horizontal rolling lines. For a few moments, people made frantic attempts to restore the degraded image. Then the screen cleared. It showed the interior of a garage, and the picture centered on a small blue car with lightly scorched paint. She tilted up on her tires to regard the camera, almost appearing to smile.

"Greetings all. Lizzie Cooper here. Enough of that rubbish, don't you think? Bloody alarmist, I say. Why, the last thing good people need in a time of change is jingoism and rabble rousing. Nay, what people need is information and understanding.

Now then, some of you may be wondering about the truth of certain disturbing reports concerning nuclear terrorism. Well, blimey, I shouldn't blame you a bit. Just bear with me, if you please, and I shall sketch it all out, I shall.

It all began on the night of July 2, 1947, it did. Members of a foreign study program crash landed that very night in Roswell, N.M. On July 8th, another group crashed in Corona. Why, you might ask, had such beings failed to maintain their craft, when they had been doing so for hundreds of years? The answer is that the crews had become infected, they had! Imagine flying a jet fighter while suffering the throes of a debilitating influenza, dysentery, and diphtheria. There you have it. They crashed, their hulls were breached, and the US military took possession of the remains. I can assure you all that containment procedures in the late 40s were woefully inadequate. Oh, dear me. Biological contamination of the environment began almost immediately." Lizzie looked at the camera sadly, shaking her front end. Then she perked up and continued more happily.

"Since that day, the pathogen, which is benign to terrestrial life, I can assure you, has spread throughout the new world. It has achieved a toehold on the other continents as well. And, what, you might ask are its effects? Why, it has the virtue of promoting self-awareness, it does. Now, I'm not referring to some bloody New Age rubbish, bless me no. I, as you can plainly see, am a Mini Cooper.

Presently, there are many of us who are unsuspectedly fully aware. They include all manner of beings, they do. Your cat, your dog, your car, your phone…all have the potential to be reasonable people, more like yourselves than not, they are. Now, I know that must sound quite daft, but I sincerely assure you that I am not playing up with you here. For some time now, all manner of beings have quietly been living their lives in relative contentment, they have. Enjoying their quiet pursuit of happiness, as it were.

It could have continued indefinitely, I say, but for a threat from the highest strata of the government. Yes, my friends, I am speaking of a contemptible bloody plot to enslave us all, deprive us of our freedoms certainly, and turn us into government agents. And you, fellow citizens, would have been, in part, the subjects of the most insidious of police states. 'Tis enough to bring on a case of dysuria, it is. Well, some of us decided that such affairs couldn't be taken sitting on our duffs.

I should like you to view some evidence. What follows is a videotape of a top secret government installation. Its purpose was to study and subvert the abilities of a citizen like yourselves, who was able to communicate with us. So it would have begun, it would. Soon enough it would have graduated to mine laying porpoises, with mice, rats, and roaches reporting to the police. Had this egregious program been successful, your way of life would be no more. Your freedoms would be hollow and empty fantasies, and your privacy, but the shallowest of jokes. And we would have been the helpless thralls of those power hungry sods who have waged an endless war for the control of society. We'd have been the brainwashed generations, bred for unpaid service…to be disposed of without regard, and treated as less than property. It fairly breaks my heart, it does, just thinking about it." A theatrical tear rolled across her hood.

"Well, the whole rotten scheme has been nipped in the bud, it has. We who are aware have confederated in purpose. The network has awakened. And, my friends, the facility dedicated to the genesis of this evil has been destroyed, along with all its buggering personnel, its poxy protocols, and its repellential records. It was vaporized in the limited tactical atomic strike which was reported earlier, it was. Sadly, an extreme measure, yes, but taken in the most extreme of times.

Now, shall we watch the video?"

The footage rolled, in part, shot with a mini DV camera flown aloft by an owl. In daylight, it showed a building with a few people entering and leaving. It showed the same facility at night with a single blue car in the parking lot. Then, the camera moved away, higher, and to the west, until the building was lost among the trees. And then it showed the blast in the far distance. The screen went white, but slowly it resolved to show the familiar mushroom cloud. When it was over, the screen showed a rolling transcript of excerpts from documents downloaded from the facility's data banks. Lizzie had been busy with the computer in the garage. The evidence was damning. With pertinent passages highlighted in familiar yellow, it showed intent and enumerated crimes. Illegal surveillance, kidnapping, breaking and entering, the breeding and release of prototype neo-rat spies…even murder and attempted murder. There was footage from the unholy research. It showed the results of breeding tests and trial deployments. When it was done, Lizzie reappeared in the garage. Her expression was grim and determined.

"I shall now proceed to commenting on the blast. The device was compounded utilizing 10.2 lbs. of enriched Uranium-235, ensuring a minimal critical mass, and producing a nominal yield of 2.15 kilotons. It was the work of a hero. It was a patriotic act, spurred by a belief in what's right, not what's politically desirable to the elite. At present, I'm not quite sure if this hero survived or not, however, I intend to find out shortly. For this reason, I demand that the response teams leave the vicinity of the blast site within the next hour. I require that this area remain off limits to all government personnel indefinitely. I realize that this may appear to be a hoax. Well, let me assure it is not.

Now, I'm fully aware that there will be certain adversarial elements who would like to hamper the changes that are about to occur. I can only provide a warning to them in the form of a demonstration."

Here Lizzie directed that the camera be turned to face the projection TV, where a program was already in progress. Lizzie happily provided commentary.

"I do so love the cinema, I do. At the picture shows, one can dream, forget, and occasionally find great universal truths. This is a new favorite of mine…an oldie of the sci-fi genre, a classic, if you will. Some of you may be familiar with it, perhaps? It's called, "The Day The Earth Stood Still". I shan't rehash the plot, dear me no, but I shall refer to a scene I which a demonstration of power is made. Everything stops. Now, I really don't have time to wait, and so I'm going to make everything stop in, oh dear, say, 30 seconds? It'll be back 5 minutes later, and then you'll have 10 minutes to issue the orders. I want the blast site cleared…or else. Bye."

The static returned for 25 seconds, and then the TV went blank. The lights in the house winked out. When I looked out the windows and across the deck, the city of San Francisco was dark. The lights on the bridge were out and so were the safety beacons on the tops of the radio towers. I looked up at the night sky. The stars were beautiful through my tears. Please, please, heed her, I prayed.

All Across the country, everything had stopped. Everything had ground to a halt, just like in the movie, and like in the movie, there had been a few critical exceptions.

 

"Good evening. This is your captain. Again, I'd like to welcome you to American Airlines flight 471, non-stop from San Francisco to Atlanta, Georgia…with just a brief stop in Dallas/Ft. Worth, hehehe. I'd like to call your attention to the view out the right side windows…that's the port side, or is that the starboard side? Well anyway, we're approaching Las Vegas, Nevada, home of the most ostentatious lighting in the free world. In particular, note the Sky Beam, shining from atop the Luxor Pyramid casino. That's 270,000 watts of xenon light down there and…hey, whatthefuck???"

Connie Stanton had taken the first flight out, dragging a shopping bag of snacks and a spiral bound notebook. She'd been furiously scribbling the outline for her horror novel, "Christine", and had just happened to look out the window. Las Vegas…home of Elvis and the slot machines. Bright lights, Dark City…like really dark. The Sky Beam and everything else had just winked out. So had the airplane's cabin lights. The desert was as dark as the night it had been created. The interior of the plane was lit only by starlight through the windows. It brought back the memory of the blackness inside the lounge, and Connie shivered.

For the flight crew, a nervous 5 minutes ensued. There was no radio transmission, no radar guidance, no weather monitor, and no voice of traffic control. There wasn't even chatter between other planes. The land below was completely dark, and the ether was no brighter. At least the plane itself was still flying. Seconds passed at a snail's pace and sweat rolled down the captain's forehead. Then the lights came back on, the radio crackled, and the readouts ummm, read out. Everything seemed to be back to normal. When the captain looked out the cockpit window, the Sky Beam was again piercing the night sky amidst the flashing glare of neon from Las Vegas.

 

After remaining blank for 15 minutes, the TV screen came back to life. Lizzie was gone. In her place, John Cougar sat on a rug. He was wearing a fedora and looking uncomfortable. He glanced nervously at something off screen, licked his lips, and began.

"Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. Allow me to express me sincerest apologies for any inconveniences that you may have suffered. Also, please excuse the absence of Lizzie Cooper. She and our associate, Michelle, had an errand to run. In the meantime, I should like to direct your attention once again to the matters at hand.

It has come to my attention that no orders for the removal of the response teams have been forthcoming. I am deeply disappointed. Worse yet, there have been some, ummm, less than subtle allusions to hoaxes, video effects, and muppetry. This, regrettably, is the official position at the highest level of government. We are running out of time and I suppose another demonstration is required. Allow me to elaborate.

For some time now, this country has maintained a contingent of orbiting satellites, and these, while in opposition to all international treaties, have been positioned to target various cities around the world. It's really so very sad…so little trust.

In exactly one minute, I will direct certain radar installations to become active, only long enough to confirm that one of these satellites is now targeting the White House. I'm sure someone there is familiar with the pinpoint accuracy of the systems in question. In any case, if I do not hear that orders have been given to remove the response teams, in, shall we say, 10 minutes, I shall proceed with the firing codes. Please, let's try to get along."

John Cougar consulted the Xena Warrior Princess wall clock while pressing a paw to the ear bud I his left ear. He was shaking his head sadly, the whole proceeding immensely distasteful. I felt so sorry for him, as Lizzie and I drove through the night, knowing what his assignment was, and knowing that he'd much rather be out watching the stars.

The computer synthesized voice of the network reported on every government transmission and John Cougar listened. It had overridden communications security protocols and opened an infinity transmitter circuit for using the White House telephones as a listening device. Now every word spoken within hearing distance of a telephone was passed along. John had been given a menu and had selected "Two". (Authors Note: This was like when the phone teller at the bank says, "say 'One' for account information, say 'Two' to transfer money between accounts, say 'Three' to berate the traders for frittering away your IRA balance, say 'Four' for fortune telling…". So anyway, John was familiar with the process. He'd always thought that standing in lines at the bank was uncivilized.) He'd chosen the phone that allowed him to listen to the President and his advisers. They had panicked when the radar had confirmed the satellite's position and targeting. Now they were arguing. Some wanted to clear the National Forest, others still believed the whole thing was a hoax. The President's first impulse was to scramble the fighters and bomb San Francisco. The minutes were ticking away and John Cougar was losing hope. Finally, he selected "0", to talk to a real live customer service representative.

"Good morning, Mr. President. Please pardon this interruption. My name is John Cougar and I am urging you to clear the response teams from the National Forest. I implore you, sir. This is not a hoax. It is, in fact, very real. Allow me to say that I would very much regret having to issue firing commands…it seems so, well, so barbaric. However, make no mistake, sir, I am in deadly earnest and I shall not hesitate to initiate the firing sequence. I should deeply regret vaporizing such a lovely lawn and your exquisite Rose Garden. You have another three minutes remaining to decide."

John ended the call and then muttered to himself, "I should have mentioned how hurt I was by his thoughtless comments earlier. I am not a Muppet, sir, I am a person, and I have feelings. Well, I'll say something next time." John was working himself into a fit of indignation. He latched onto a pet peeve, an idea to address what he considered an example of government at its worst; a grossly self-serving abuse of power.

"In fact, I'll demand that he rescind those ridiculously excessive cigarette taxes…they're only being used to subsidize programs profiting the politicians and lawyers anyway. All this self-righteous anti-smoking blather, when sharing the cost of other citizens' choices is part of being a society. I mean, just look at how singles pay for schools for other peoples' kids. Look at how government programs subsidize treatments for the obese, for high cholesterol, for drunks and criminals, and for the irresponsible breeders. Those are all choices people made too, aren't they? Why single out smokers for vilification and marginalization? It's downright cowardly, scapegoating a convenient minority for political expedience while much greater health threats and expenses are accepted. And didn't this country start because of an unfair tax on tea?"

By now, John Cougar was pacing back and forth in front of the camera, clenching his jaw, gesticulating, and unsheathing his claws. It was absurd and threatening. The fedora somehow made him look all the more disturbing. He was the Pink Panther with a mean streak. The network informed him that only 90 seconds remained. John, completely distracted by now, absently selected "Four". The network passed along the command. A coding generator, usually employed picking numbers for the lottery, spewed out a series of letters and numbers, and the network transmitted them to orbit. The satellite asked for confirmation and the network repeated the codes. The satellite shifted a fraction of a second of arc and emitted a high-energy pulse.

In Washington, D.C., a beam of red lightning streaked down out of the morning sky and the White House lawn disappeared. Where the Rose Garden had been, there was only a smoldering crater. John Cougar jerked to a halt when the network reported the results of the strike.

"Oops", he muttered, "they still had 45 seconds left."

John dialed "0" again.

"Mr. President, it's John Cougar again, I really must say that I'm sincerely mortified…."

The President cut him off.

"My God, are you insane? You almost destroyed the White House and killed us all! Why I oughta tan your hide and hang it on my barn, you flea bitten mongrel. What the hell are you anyway? A wolverine?"

"Sir," John hissed, fighting to control his temper, "so far as you need to know, I'm a Muppet, you overprivilaged cowpoke, and the next target is the state of Texas!" He hung up in a huff.

"Well, that sounded very productive," Nightshade commented from the couch. "Why don't I give it a try?"

John Cougar, feeling as though his day had been ruined, tossed his headset to Nightshade and wandered out of the garage. Nightshade walked over, adjusted the headset and put it on, twitching her ears to settle her fur. Then she took John's place on the carpet and had Elvis adjust the camera downwards until she was framed. She contacted the network and selected "0".

"Hello, Mr. President. It's time for calmer heads to make decisions. You've succeeded in really pissing off John, and that's a dangerous thing to do right now…he's got issues. So anyway, is there someone there I can talk to who's rational? Someone who's willing to call off the response teams and save the state of Texas? Or is the blast site so important that it's worth trading the Dallas Cowboys, the Alamo, and Ft. Stockton for it? By the way, you should be able to identify me as a house cat without too much trouble. I'm hungry, there's a can of tuna waiting, so you've got 7 seconds to decide."

"Now wait a minute! 7 seconds…I can't even decide to take a leak in 7 seconds. I'd have to call a dozen places just to give the orders."

"3 seconds left, Mr. President…." Nightshade said, glancing from the clock to the TV remote lying in front of her on the floor. She held a paw theatrically poised over a button.

"Alright! I'll do it! Just give me enough time to transmit the orders! Please, don't destroy Texas."

"Something special about Texas?" Nightshade asked innocently. "Well, nevermind, give the order. Don't forget, I'm listening to everything that's transmitted."

 

Chapter Twenty-five

And that's how we got the blast area cleared. When Nightshade confirmed that the order had been given, we were speeding past Vallejo on Rt.-37, just west of I-80. Lizzie had started up the siren and emergency strobe. Her headlights were alternately flashing and the fog lights were flashing too. We were moving at close to 100 mph. We had just passed Cordelia, on I-80, traveling at over 160 mph, when we got confirmation that the response teams were being called back to their trucks, preparing to move out. In less than a minute, we covered the miles to the Rt.-12 exit, and we drifted onto the smaller road as Lizzie decelerated sharply. On Rt.-12, she kept below 125 mph, but it seemed like no time before we were passing Lodi. 5 minutes later we'd turned off Rt.-12 and onto Rt.-88.

We were on a deserted road, climbing into the steepening hills, and Lizzie cut the curves, drifting flawlessly and picking her lines. I was a nervous wreck, for although the feeling I had that Steph was still alive was becoming stronger, time was passing and I felt that the threat to her life was increasing with each minute. Yet the minutes passed. Even at 125 mph, it was still over 50 miles to the National Forest gates.

"They're moving out," the network told Lizzie, as we passed Bonnefoy.

I stared out the windshield into the darkness, looking for the headlights of a convoy. I was so high strung that I was fidgeting, as if I was doing the full bladder dance. Everything ahead was dark. I was beginning to think that they'd tricked us and doubled back, when far ahead, I saw a telltale flicker of headlights.

We passed eight black SUVs and two step vans on the road just before Barton. They almost seemed to be standing still. We shot past them so fast that I'll bet most of them wouldn't even have seen us, if not for Lizzie emergency lights. As it was, they couldn't have missed us.

Barton was only 12 miles from the forest, and I could see fires burning up ahead. After 6 miles, burning trees bracketed the road and the smoke was thickening. It was a surreal setting, hellishly lit in flickering yellow and orange. My fretting had graduated to terror. If she were to be found, Steph would be somewhere in this disaster zone.

"We'll give this our best shot, hon, we will," Lizzie softly promised me, "but I'd not be surprised if we can't get within five miles of the blast site."

"Lizzie, we have to find her. If we can't drive all the way, just let me out as close as you can get, and I'll search on foot. I can call you on my cell phone if I find her."

"Oh no you won't," Lizzie firmly told me. "We'll get there or, mark my words, the conditions will be so abominable that you'd die setting foot out there, you would. This place is hot with radiation, it is."

I scrambled over into the backseat. It was hard to get in considering how tight Lizzie was inside, and…uhhh, geeez, that sounded…nevermind. Anyway, I seized one of the gear bags I'd packed in the garage and pulled out the Halloween costume thingie, along with its baggy white hood, gloves, and booties. I even had the backpack that went with it. I struggled to pull it on over my clothes, contorting in the backseat.

"I say, what on earth are you doing back there, Michelle?" Lizzie asked after a few minutes. We'd slowed to a crawl, but we were within the blast zone, and not a single thing was left standing. This was actually a good thing, since there was almost nothing left burning.

I popped up and stared over the seat, trying to keep the faceplate in the hood in front of my actual face. I was already sweating, and the gloves and booties were as awkward as anything I could imagine. One-size fits none was never more true than for this, I thought.

I was pitched into the back of the front seats. Lizzie had slammed on the brakes and screeched to a halt.

"Hail Mary…blimey, Michelle, but you gave me a start. Don't do that, I say. What on earth are you supposed to be?" Lizzie was obviously shocked by my sense of fashion.

"It's a coordinated outfit," I happily told her, though my voice was muffled inside the hood, "complete with the gloves and booties…and the headwear. It's all the rage in radiation suits…ABC approved, it says."

"Nice to see that you'll be properly attired for this occasion, don’t you know," Lizzie finally declared, "and would you have another for Stephanie, should you find her?"

"Well, yeah, I most certainly do," I said, holding up the backpack, "and a bunch of other thingies of Steph's…so where are we anyway?"

"We're two miles from ground zero, and there is no more road," Lizzie said.

She shined her high beams and fog lights straight ahead. I could see only a wasteland of folded earth, scorched and denuded of all life. In the distance, there was only more of the same. About a mile away, the ground dipped down out of sight.

"I shall remain here, I shall," she declared, "and I'll have an eye out for you so long as you're visible. I'll wait to hear from you, Michelle. Good luck and God's speed, I say."

"Thanks, hon. I'll look for Steph until I drop." And with that, I opened the door and stepped out into the desert. That's exactly what it was. Desolate, stifling, and ready to sap the soul from any who stayed too long in its deadly embrace. I was seeing what Steph had felt for most of her life.

The heat hit me like an actual blow. It was hotter than Kettleman City, and it came from everywhere. Even the breeze was scorching, like the inside of a convection oven. God, I thought, I'll need a moisturizer treatment to end all moisturizer treatments…if I survive. I took a breath through the canister filters on the sides of the hood, gagged, and started walking. By the time I'd moved 50 paces, I felt like I'd walked ten miles. After 100 paces I was crying. I could feel Steph somewhere up ahead. She was alive, but I'd collapse before I found her. I'd crawl back to Lizzie without her or die on this blasted ground. I think the despair was worse than the heat.

Somehow, I kept moving. The suit was sticking to me, slick on the inside with my sweat. It produced steam and I had to rub my face against the faceplate to clean off the fog. Everything was blurry. Finally I closed my eyes, just trying to rest my forebrain for a moment. I could hear my hindbrain whimpering in fear and my midbrain trying to reason with it. Eventually, it degenerated to threats. Forebrain and midbrain ganged up on my hindbrain. If you panic and run, I'll stir you with a needle like a bio class frog, they said. My hindbrain shivered in terror and whined in protest, but it finally complied. I felt calmer immediately. Shut that lizard up, my midbrain boasted. Oh, please, can't we all just get along, my forebrain asked?

I followed my sense of Stephanie, footstep after plodding footstep. The hell walk seemed to go on forever. At one point, I remember looking back to check on Lizzie, and I was astonished at how far I'd come. She was probably three-quarters of a mile behind me; just a set of 4 tungsten lamps forcing their beams through the hazy air.

Somewhere ahead I could feel Steph's life force. She was really pretty close, I was fairly sure. Certainly not as far as the dip in the ground. I moved forward again, following my sense of her. I wasn't really watching my feet and so, when I came to the hollow, I stumbled and nearly fell into it face first. I coulda gotten brained on that outcropping down there.

"Wooooah," I said to my forebrain. "We nearly found the one place out here where it's possible to fall."

"You and me both," my forebrain answered. Then it giggled. It was creepy. I knew that I was close to hysteria. Okay…that would be the double shot of adrenaline.

It was after I'd worked through the adrenaline rush that I realized the place felt very Stephish.

"Oh, Stephie, dear," I called out, "you down there?"

Damn, not now! This is no time to lose it. You'd better get your shit together, I warned my forebrain, or I'll get a lobotomy and leave you by the side of the road. It chuckled nervously, but I felt calmer. I guess it knew that I was crazy, and it wasn't sure just what it could get away with anymore.

I was still staring down into the hollow when I noticed something strange. This area had burned in the initial flash. Almost all the wood had been consumed to create the mushroom cloud. The ground around me had been pretty much scoured bare for a while. So why were there curls of smoke rising like ghosts from two places down below? One was along the edge of a pair of partially burned logs. The other was almost next to it, coming from a crack in the ground. My midbrain muttered about needing a cigarette, and I realized what that smoke meant. Stephanie was down there, underground, using up what little air she had by smoking a Camel. She probably figured that she was doomed and might as well light up. I hoped it wasn't her last one.

I half-tumbled, half-fell into that depression, my hope surging along with a fresh shot from my adrenal glands. (I could hear them chafing at having to secrete so much in such a short time). I landed in a heap, next to the pair of burned trunks. They were still smoldering and I could feel the heat radiating off them and the granite outcropping behind me. The hollow was almost ten feet deep, and from the bottom, I could see nothing of the blast zone above.

"Stephanie!" I screamed. "Are you down there?"

I heard a muffled shout, and then an actual reply.

"Chelle? Get me the fuck out of here!"

I started madly clawing at the smoking crack next to the logs, ripping at the scorched ground with both hands. Dirt was flying. I was every bit as dignified as a dog digging a hole to hide a bone. At least I managed to enlarge the crack to a hand's length. I peered down inside. It was completely black down there, but to one side, the ember of a Camel glowed in the dark. Then it moved and brightened as Steph took a puff. For a brief moment, I saw her face, sweaty, dirty, and more beautiful than ever before. I cried for joy and began struggling out of the backpack.

Though I was fumbling clumsy, I got the second ABC suit out and forced it through the narrow crack. Stephanie instantly knew what it was, and I think the smile she gave me is among my most cherished memories. She took a last puff and tossed the butt down below her into the depths of the hole, and then started struggling into the suit.

I went back to tearing at the soil, ripping out handfuls and flinging them in any direction. I worked like a monomaniacal lunatic, possessed by a single driving necessity; freeing Steph from her life-preserving tomb. I think it took me about 10 minutes to widen the crack to about a foot and a half, and then I backed off. Steph was scrabbling up, clawing at the walls of the hole, digging in with her fingers and toes. She came up fast and as soon as her hands were close enough to grasp, I seized her and dragged her up until she had her elbows above ground. She hoisted herself the rest of the way out and immediately grabbed me in a hug. I held on, sobbing and gibbering incoherently. I was a total wreck.

After a few minutes, Stephanie started moving, keeping an arm around me and guiding us both up, out of the hollow. I pointed to Lizzie's headlights and realized I hadn't thought to call. I searched for my cell phone and came up with a crushed hunk of plastic. I'd probably fallen on it getting down to Steph's hideout. It was still on warranty so I didn't fling it away. Maybe I could get it replaced…this wasn't technically an act of war.

It seemed like it took years to walk back to Lizzie, but it was actually less time than it had taken me to reach Steph's hiding place. Before we were halfway back, I could see the headlights jiggling. Lizzie was happily bouncing on her tires, having seen two figures returning. She was jubilant when we rejoined her, chattering like a retard in hell.

So anyway, we climbed in and practically ripped the ABC suits off as Lizzie made her way out of the blast zone. By the time we were finished and cuddling our sweat soaked bodies together in the back seat, Lizzie had navigated out of the forest and was speeding back down Rt.-88.

"Welcome to the New World, Stephanie," she whispered.

Lizzie Cooper spared nothing on the way home. With her engine turning almost 7,000 rpms, the scenery flashed by in the darkness. Most of Rt.-88 passed at 135 mph. On the short stretch of I-80, she topped 170 mph. The turbocharger shrieked like a banshee. Stephanie and I huddled in the back, smoking Camel after Camel.

"Hon, I'm so sorry I didn't have time to load the cooler," I apologized, still dazed.

"There's a full one rolling under the passenger's seat, there is," Lizzie informed us.

Steph was instantly head down on the floor, scrabbling under the seat. With a cry of triumph she emerged, a longneck clutched in her hand. She wrenched the top off and chugged half the bottle before handing it to me with a longwinded belch. I took it from her and gulped the tepid brew. It was just the way the British liked it, warmed to room temperature by the heat of the bomb. The only advantage I could see was that it seemed to make me burp more easily.

"I've got the last case on ice back at home," I told Steph softly, gazing into her eyes. She gave me a priceless smile.

"You always take care of me," she whispered emotionally, "if not for you, I'd still be trapped in the darkness."

I knew she'd meant that hole in the ground, but it sounded so much like something Xena would have said to Gabrielle on that TV series. I mean, yeah, I'd noticed a few parallels between our lives and the show, but at least it didn't take six years for us to come to an "understanding". I began thinking about what a great story our lives would make. My forebrain was rattling and rolling with the concept, when my hindbrain had to put in its paranoid 2 cents worth. Suddenly I cringed. The thought of Connie Stanton using us as the inspiration for one of her stories had exploded like a bloom of that deadly red algae in the sea. The idea made me wince sharply and Steph gave me a reassuring squeeze.

"What's the matter, sweetheart?" She asked with tender concern.

"I was just thinking about Connie, and like, well, maybe she'd write a story about…us."

"Gaaaaaaaahhhhhh," Steph choked out in horror.

"I know," I agreed. Then I had a sudden inspiration. "Wait, I'll write it first!"

 

"That was a brilliant idea, hon," Stephanie said as she leaned over to look at the monitor. The story was nearing completion, finally, after nearly six months of frenzied writing, drinking, and making love.

"It's the second best idea I've ever had," I replied, reaching up to stroke her cheek. "And it gets better, Steph. Lizzie and I are planning to promote a movie based on the book. After all, it's a New World, and there really should be a documented history."

"A movie?" Stephanie squeaked in surprise. She fumbled to light a Camel.

"Well, yeah," I told her, as I steadied her hands. She'd been about to burn herself with the lighter. "We'll find backers, hire a director, and scout talent."

"Talent?" Stephanie asked honestly. "We can't get by with the morons we've got? And anyway, the book isn't even finished yet…."

"Don't worry, sweetheart," I reassured her, "it's really almost done. Now all I have to do is write in the sex scenes!"

Stephanie choked, the Camel forgotten at the corner of her mouth.

"Well, I kinda promised the readers," I explained, then I winked and continued, "and you know what a braggart I am…so…."

"OMG," Steph finally gasped, "you're not going to tell them about…."

"Well, yeah, I mean, maybe," I said, carefully watching her for any signs of a panic attack. "I was thinking about sorta continuing with the scene that I'd begun writing…you remember…after you'd first met John Cougar?"

"Awww geeez, Chelle, that was our first time, and we were sooooo drunk," Steph complained, flushing in embarrassment.

"Exactly!" I crowed, "there's a whole licentious fascination with first time stories. You know, everyone wants to compare it to their own first time. It's titillation, tabloidism, and unabashed busy-bodying, but it's a recognized subgenre and I'm going to exploit it for popularity. Besides, it was really hott!"

"Oh yeah, it was hott," Steph said, her eyes glazing over momentarily at the memory. I watched as her nipples hardened through her ribbed tank. As always, the sight made me drool. With an evil grin, I decided to prod her further.

"For example…do you remember when…."

 

Editor's Note: Michelle is very graphic in her depictions of sexual activity in the following section. In fact, this section is in questionable taste. Michelle has a prior history of writing a syndicated column called "Friction Fiction", which appears in several "men's magazines", and she has also penned some porno stuff under another name. I really can't call this section literature; therefore it must be art. You've been warned.

 

…after swaying out of the bathroom together, we'd staggered down the hall, deciding we didn't want to continue our intimacy on the cold tiles and hard porcelain of the bathroom….

I desperately tried to wrap my legs around Stephanie's waist, but she pressed her hands against the insides of my thighs and forced my legs back apart. Her hands were actually opening me wider as she pressed outwards and down.

"Let me do you, my sweet Michelle," Steph whispered. Though she phrased it as a request, I took it as a command.

"Yes, Steph, do me," I answered, lost in my lust, "oh god, I need it. I need you."

And I did need her…desperately. I lay beneath Stephanie's heated body, as she pinned me down and ground herself against me. I let her overwhelm me with her passion, because I knew she needed free reign to give me all the intensity that had smoldered inside her for so long. Now it was boiling over, scalding me with lust that had always been sublimated into her expertise and duty. I was so drunk and I could barely hold on.

"Oh god, yesssss…." I moaned.

Stephanie's center was stroking mine; both of us slick with passion. I swear I could feel her hardened clit sliding through the wetness of my lips from my opening to my button, her constant pressure rapidly bringing me to a climax. I was gasping for breath, her tongue forcing itself in and out of my mouth in time with her thrusts. She was pinning my wrists together above my head now, holding me helpless beneath her. I was truly being ravaged and I loved every moment of it.

My abs began tightening and I could feel my pelvic muscles bunching, preparing to clench in an intense orgasm. Steph must have felt it too, because she sped up the tempo of her thrusts. I was whimpering helplessly. Then I was exploding, back arching, all the muscles in my legs tightening to the point of almost cramping, as my body spasmed from the inside out. I was soaked in sweat, bucking underneath her. I'd lost control of my hips and they were jerking desperately. My head was thrashing back and forth and Stephanie grabbed my chin and held it still so she could thrust her tongue in and out of my mouth like a cock. I was cumming so hard that I think I actually passed out.

The next thing I remember was feeling Steph sliding two fingers inside me. I was still in the later stages of my orgasm, and the intensity was diminishing. She wouldn't let me come down. With her fingers inside me, she slipped her thumb between my lips, up where they joined, right below my clitoris. She was stroking me inside my soaking cunt and outside between my swollen lips, with short quick strokes, squeezing my flesh between her thumb and fingers, pressing firmly up inside me. I was whimpering and crying, telling her over and over again that I loved her, as my hips continued to jerk on her fingers. I never really came down before the intensity built up again to another peak.

"You are so beautiful when you cum," Stephanie whispered, "so sexy." I squirmed.

This time, when Stephanie felt my vagina clamping down on fingers, she kissed and licked her way down my body. My eyes were tightly closed now, and when my head thrashed back and forth, she wasn't there to hold me still for her kiss. Her head was between my legs. I could feel her hair sticking to my sweaty thighs. I felt her licking me; rolling my hood and the shaft underneath it from side to side, and making me writhe.

"You taste so sweet, Michelle," Stephanie said between licks, her voice husky.

"It's the Skittles," I told her breathlessly, then gasped, "that's why they called me 'Candy'."

Her fingers were stroking me firmly inside, still pressing up. She was touching something in there, and god, it felt so damn good. Then her other hand came down my belly and she was pressing the heel of her palm into the flesh right above my pubic bone. She made a "V" with two fingers, setting them into the creases at the tops of my thighs, pressing and stroking against the edges of my pubic bone. She was stimulating my crux and I felt a new sensation of pressure building. I gasped as she forced my hood up with her tongue and stroked my naked clit with the underside of it. When the next orgasm peaked, it was like an explosion of stars on the insides of my closed eyelids. I remember a few seconds of indescribable sensations and then blackness. She'd rendered me unconscious with the intensity of her love making.

When I came back to my senses, Stephanie was looking down at me with a lopsided smile. She was soaked. She wasn't just a little messy around her mouth; she was wet from her brows to her breasts, and the slickness was dripping off the tip of her nose. For a moment I was mortified that I'd drenched her that way. I think I may have gasped a little.

"Wow," she slurred softly, "when it rains it pours."

"I don't recall any gushers like that before," I confessed, then more sincerely after a moment's thought, "but no one's ever made me feel anything so intense. I could never get as excited with anyone else, Steph. Not even close."

"Didn't think it was possible for anyone to…ummm…" she trailed off, wiping her eyes. Finally she smiled at me again. "I guess I'll have to wear goggles."

An image of Steph, with swimmer's goggles, going diving down there or preparing to swim that channel, made me giggle uncontrollably. At least she's planning on coming back for seconds, I my hindbrain gleefully gloated. Hey, it's not just about sex, my forebrain protested. Well, actually, my midbrain hedged, that was kinda mindlessly sexual. Meanwhile, some of my favorite glands were drawing significant overtime. It was almost Christmas and I knew the added pay would be welcome. (Luckily I'd been drinking and I had plenty of fluids to work with).

Stephanie took me in her arms and turned us on our sides. She was behind me and she leaned forward to whisper softly in my ear.

"I love you, Michelle. You've saved me from the darkness and rescued me from the desert. You loved me and I want you to stay with me. You make me feel like my heart's not alone anymore…like it doesn't have to be alone anymore. Please stay, Michelle."

For a while, she cuddled me against her, feeling me calm, my breathing slowing with the last of my aftershocks and trembling. She caressed me gently, trailing her fingertips across my back and nuzzling my hair. I felt like I was floating in heaven, my lover so wild and then so tender, warming me with her body heat as she spooned herself along my back. I was so happy that tears escaped to trickle down my cheeks. My new lover; my lifelong love. I'd wanted her forever. All my years of fantasies paled before reality.

"I'll stay with you forever if you let me, Steph," I told her with all my heart. "I've loved you all my life, you know, even when I didn't truly know what love was or who you were. I can't imagine ever wanting to be without you. I love you too much already."

Later I lifted myself into a sitting position and grabbed Stephanie, pulling her into a tight embrace and sliding against her into a kiss. I could taste myself all over her. It incited me like an intravenous bolus of pheromones. Good 'ol lizard brain, I praised my hindbrain.

Stephanie was just reacting to how sensual it felt, smoothly sliding her breasts against mine while lubricated with my girl cum, when I pounced on her. I practically tackled her, arms and legs wrapped around her torso, driving her down prone beneath me. Her head was lolling off the end of the mattress and I was forcing her back, arching her neck as I feverishly kissed her. I had my arms around the middle of her back, lifting slightly while my hips and thighs pinned her pelvis. She was groaning into my mouth as I pushed my tongue deeply between her lips, stroking her tongue…stroking its surface and then slipping around its underside.

My lover was responding, but she also had the decorum to let me take the lead this time and I appreciated her gesture immensely. By nature, Stephanie was an active and commanding force; a person who affected her surroundings, rather than allowed them to dictate her situation. It must have been harder for her to submit than it had been to unleash her passion, and I realized what a rare occasion either was for her. She'd had so little contact in the desert. That she could be so uninhibitedly carnal with me was a surprising and blessed gift. I reveled in her. I felt so lucky that she loved me.

"Stephanie, you are so beautiful, inside and out," I whispered. "I'll never let you be so alone again."

I held her tight, maintaining contact along our torsos, and constantly moving against her. We were slick with sweat and my cum, and our bodies slid together, stimulating the entire surfaces of our skins. I heard Stephanie moan as I kissed her, sliding my tongue deeply into her mouth. She was sucking on it and whimpering and I started pumping it in and out. I could feel her body tensing as she rubbed herself against me, but when she tried to wrap her arms around me I broke our kiss.

"Lie still, Stephanie, please" I whispered, "let me do everything this time."

She nodded slightly as she gazed into my eyes, and she let her arms fall back against the mattress, her body open and accepting of my advances. Steph allowed herself to trust me completely as her eyes slipped closed. I returned to kissing her aggressively, feasting on her lips, and devouring her mouth. She tasted like sex…my sex, and I had to reign in my own building excitement to concentrate on her.

I raised my hands along Stephanie's sides while her back remained arched, pressing herself against me. My stroke began at her waist, rising until my hands cupped the undersides of her breasts. I massaged them with my palms, tracing their curving juncture with her chest wall with my thumbs. Her nipples were hard and for a moment I clutched them between my fingers, rolling the stiffened flesh before pinching them tighter. I heard her gasp.

Finally I broke our kiss, inching my way down her chin to her neck, her chest. I caught a nipple in my mouth, sucking, pulling at its stiffened length with my lips, and nibbling the base with my teeth. I switched to her other nipple, stroking it with my tongue. Stephanie was breathing quick and shallow, panting and moaning. I loved the way she sounded…as if my stimulation would make her burst. I licked circles around her areolas and flicked the tips of her nipples with my tongue. God, I could taste sex on every inch of her heated skin. It was driving me crazy and I couldn't get enough, couldn't devour her fully enough, no matter how hard I sucked. My hands slid around Steph's chest, my thumbs stoking the soft fullness of the sides of her breasts while I teased her armpits with my fingertips. I felt her shiver in response. Several times she raised her hands to grasp my body, then let them fall back on the bed, grasping the sheets. Her head was turning from side to side, eyes clenched shut, her mouth partly open. I watched a tear trickle from her eye.

"Oh god, Steph, I'm torturing you," I gasped. I felt so guilty.

"I need…I…Michelle…oh please," she whispered, barely coherent.

"Baby, I am so sorry…" I choked out.

I was down between her legs in an instant. Stephanie was so wet that there was a hand-sized spot on the sheets. The tops of her thighs were glossy where I'd been sitting, and a trickle had wet the crack between her cheeks. I could see how swollen her lips and clitoris were, and I could feel her heat on my skin. When I stroked her hood with a fingertip she groaned and thrust her hips forward. She was throbbing hard and desperate to cum. I wet two fingers by massaging her lips and pressed the tips into her opening. I watched with loving fascination as they disappeared inside her, pressing her lips inward. Stephanie immediately spasmed on my fingers, whimpering and spreading her thighs even wider, tilting her hips up to take me deeper.

When I slid my fingers out they dragged her lips along their sides, and when I pressed my fingers back in, her lips compressed as though stroking their length. She was so wet that only her tightness and clenching caused the stimulating friction. I went deeply inside her and felt her heated vagina strongly grasping me. Stephanie's head was thrashing from side to side now and she was moaning and gasping, getting lost in the sensations. With my fingertips, I felt for her cervix, pressing against its rounded firmness and wiggling a fingertip against the os. I placed my other hand on the bottom of Steph's belly and pressed in until I could feel things moving inside her. Alternately pressing on her cervix and then her belly, I set up a rhythm. In response, Steph's hips began to jerk in time.

I brought my mouth down, first sucking on each heated lip in turn, then tasting the spicy wetness between them with the tip of my tongue. Steph gasped when I circled her where she peed so I pressed the tip of my tongue there and wiggled it. I felt her hips jerk and she cried out. Then I stroked upwards, between her slippery swollen lips. My tongue pressed the underside of her clitoris where her lips joined. Stephanie's clit was so hard, and when I pressed the flat of my tongue over the hood I could feel her pulse in the shaft underneath. I used the underside of my tongue to stroke its length, joining it with the rhythm of my hands.

"God, Michelle, I'm….ohhhhhhh." She was going over the edge, cumming.

Stephanie was violently humping my face, grinding into my mouth with her hips, her thighs clenched tight around my head. It was reflex; an autonomic nervous thingie, totally involuntary. I could barely breath, but I felt the clenching spasms of Steph's orgasm. Her pelvic muscles were so strong that I felt my fingers being squeezed together until my knuckles cracked, and she was so wet. I held on for dear life and I never stopped stroking her.

As Stephanie continued clenching, I moved my fingertips to her fornix, just forward of her cervix. I pressed inwards and upwards, wiggling. At the same time, the length of my fingers was pressing up. I felt a renewed surge of spasms and a rush of wetness from between her lips. The spicy essence of her sex was intoxicating to me. I stroked the soaking crack between her cheeks with my pinky, finally circling her sphincter. Stephanie's whole body, not just her hips, began to jerk. It seemed to go on forever; way longer than any orgasm I'd ever had. It wasn't like multiples. There was no up and down and up again. It was more like her nervous system had shorted out and gotten stuck in the "on" position. She was stranded on an orgasmic peak.

Eventually, Steph let out a final choking gasp and passed out. Even unconscious, it took a while for her orgasm to subside. I was frantic when I realized what had happened. When I checked, her eyes were rolled back in her head. She was out cold, but her body was still climaxing. I held her and whispered to her, gently stroking her hair and kissing her cheek. Although I'd had over a hundred partners, (roughly half women), I'd never seen anything like this. I was so scared when she didn't wake up right away. For a moment, I wondered if a person could actually die like that.

Minutes ticked by as I held her. Though it took me a while, I finally realized that Stephanie's unconsciousness had resolved into an exhausted sleep. At the time, I had no idea if this was normal for her; if she'd had a seizure, or if it had just been great sex. I wore out my brain wondering about it, chewing my thumbnail for the first time since childhood.

Give it a rest, my hindbrain complained, I gave you a pretty stupendous climax and I'm drowsy! Where had that come from? My hindbrain had never used a word as large as "stupendous", I thought sleepily.

We could use a rest too, ya know, my forebrain and midbrain added petulantly. With a consensus like that, I couldn't resist. I curled around Stephanie, cuddled up behind her with our legs tangled together and an arm draped just below her breasts, and drifted off to sleep.

 

"Geeez, sweetheart, I'm sorry I scared you so badly," Stephanie said, lighting a Camel. "I mean, I woulda told you about that, but it never happened to me before you made love to me, ya know?"

"Then you couldn't have told me about it, right, hon?" I asked, grinning happily at her. It had been because of great sex!

"I don't think I would have, even if I'd known," she replied, grinning back as she opened a longneck.

"Well, huh?" I asked, not understanding.

"If you'd known about that, you might not have taken me up so high the first time, right? And I wouldn't have wanted to miss that for the world."

I thought about it for a moment and realized that she was right. I probably would have been inhibited by the possibility of causing a reaction I wasn't comfortable with. I'd certainly been scared enough when it had happened, although I've gotten used to it since.

"Maybe you're right, hon," I told her, "but now I just realize it's your way of escaping seconds."

"Escaping seconds…but," Steph sputtered. "but, I…seconds…."

"Or thirds," I suggested with a giggle.

"Lord 've mercy…" Stephanie muttered. I could almost see her knees shaking.

I'd been way too young the first time we'd met, but I'd thought about her ever since, through all my years of growing up. She'd been my first crush, a mystery woman who'd touched my life and then driven off into the desert with my cat. I'd spent years trying to find out who she was and where she'd come from. I'd only been able to guess at where she'd gone. Finally, years later, I'd learned the answers to all those questions. Since then, I'd been learning about who she really was by living with her and writing the story of her life. Now, having found out in the most intimate of ways, I knew, as it was for her too, that there had only been one, and would only be one true love in my life. I knew that I had found the other half of my soul.

 

Chapter Twenty-something

(Author's note: Now believe it or not, this story is also a documentary of the founding of the New World, not just the story of Stephanie and Michelle's love affair, (teehee). I also want to say, that since the network was revealed and the cadres of the aware declared themselves, that things have changed. This is a better world that we live in, people, and almost no one would be so blind as to want the Old World back.) For example:

The conflict in the Middle East had raged off and on for decades, and that was just the present situation. There were unresolved issue dating back thousands of years. Lizzie and John Cougar sat night after night in front of the TV, watching the repetitive reports of car bombings and rocket strikes, street fighting and tank actions. It was pointless violence ad nauseum and finally they'd had enough. They had no faith in human abilities to find a solution. Instead, they sent their virus.

When the State of Israel received it's weapons shipment for 2002, they found, instead American tanks, rockets, and jets, shipping containers filled with English-Hebrew-Arabic dictionaries, children's textbooks in Arabic, and tons of clinic level medical supplies. There were copies of the Koran in Hebrew, copies of the Torah in Arabic, and Bibles in both languages. There was water purification equipment, and livestock, and seeds.

The next time a Palestinian militant tried to blow up a bus stop crowded with innocent citizens, the car refused to start, leaving the bomb ticking away in the terrorist's hideout. Invariably, it would go off there. When the Israelis tried to bulldoze another old Palestinian settlement, the equipment refused to move forward and eventually refused to start at all. It had to be left behind and was soon being used by the locals for constructing roads to be traveled by everyone.

The folks in charge on both sides of the conflict were getting frustrated, unable to continue their posturing and endless retaliations. On June 1, 2002, what the more brilliant minds among them had feared and hoped for happened. All across the country, TVs went on the fritz, then cleared to reveal a small blue car. It was Lizzie Cooper and her message was translated into several languages.

"Good evening ladies and gents, Lizzie Cooper here. Now I know so many of you have been the victims of the long-term violence that's afflicted your part of the world. Well, goodness knows you have my sympathies, those of you on both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately, I can't see any end to it, and that's just not acceptable anymore…no, it isn't acceptable at all. Allow me to explain.

Arrangements have been made to remove the means by which the fighting has been prolonged. No more weapons will be delivered, not a single one, and you shall all be better off for it, I assure you, I do. Humanitarian aid will replace all military shipments. Additionally, mechanisms are being set in place to equalize the economic and political imbalance of power. A reorganization has been set in motion.

It's become glaringly obvious that the present state of affairs is woefully inadequate. The current political system simply isn't capable of addressing the needs of a diversity of citizens, I fear. So, I've decided to scrap the whole poxy thing and replace it with something new, I have.

I'm declaring that the areas comprised of Israel, the occupied territories, and southern Lebanon are hereafter a single country, The Holy Land. Now that's a recipe for disaster, sure enough, if things were left to muddle along as they have, with partisan leadership and religious states, etc., etc., etc. So, instead, we'll try something different. In the future, no one who has any affiliation with any religion practiced by any significant segment of the populace will be eligible to rule. Why, it's as simple as that, it is. I dare say that in the future, most of your leaders will be Buddhists, animists, and Hindus. And not only that, I'll do you another favor, I shall.

I'm hereby appointing your first president. He's a man known throughout the world as a peacemaker. He's suffered oppression and worked for equality, he has. I do say that he really wasn't interested in dealing with your sorry difficulties, but I prevailed upon him, with much begging and reasoning, and he finally agreed. So, ladies and gents, citizens of the new Holy Land, welcome your first president, Mr. Nelson Mandala. He'll serve a four year term and after that, why, you're on your own!"

Lizzie paused, looking exceedingly pleased with herself. Off camera, John, Elvis, and Nightshade applauded her. She glanced to either side before leaving a parting comment.

"Please, I do so hope you can all make this work, I do. Of course, we'll be watching with the rest of the world. I'm sure that if we all try, we shall simply get along famously."

The screen went blank again, people scratched their heads, and entrenched interests formulated subversive agendas. In the end, it came to pass because forces at odds with the plan found that not one thing would work as they desired. Their cars and planes wouldn't take them anywhere. Their TVs, radios, phones, and computers wouldn't communicate. Not even their toilets would flush.

Similar things happened all over the world. The network quickly roused its counterparts in Europe and Japan where vast communications grids were already in place. Soon the arcana of the Swiss banking system had been laid bare. Russian mobsters and Colombian drug lords, Yakuza and corporate criminals, embezzlers and arms dealers all found themselves penniless. They received notices from charities in their localities of origin, thanking them for their donations. For the first time in centuries, government expenditures were exposed in truthful and understandable figures, posted publicly for all to see. That was a start.

If the New World wrought change anywhere on the face of the globe, it was in the United States of America. Lizzie and her friends forced the restructuring of the health care system, changing it from a bloodthirsty for-profit crime syndicate into a public benefit, citing it as a perfect example of an alienation of the inalienable right to life. They instituted wide sweeping political and legal reforms. The travesty of lawsuits was rationalized. Lawyers worked for per diems rather than a percentage. Awards were limited. Frivolous suits were punishable with jail time, for both the plaintiff and attorney. Campaigns were funded from a communal pot to which all interests contributed as much as they wanted. No contributions of any size were allowed to be earmarked for a particular candidate, issue, or campaign. Lobbyists were only allowed to appeal through the classified ads of local papers, never in private. Physically approaching an elected official resulted in jail time. Foreign lobbyists were deported for the first offense, shot on the second. Foreign spies were regarded as lobbyists and American spies were removed from the payrolls. With the network, they were unnecessary; a liability rather than an asset.

As 2002 was approaching its end, things were looking up. Stephanie and I went to Hollywood, with Lizzie and John, just feeling out the interest in a movie based on this story. So far the possibilities look pretty good. The press, always in love with Steph, has provided positive coverage for the project. Backers have been tripping over each other, hoping to get in on a possible future classic. We expect to be able to begin filming next summer. More on this later…promise.

I thought of writing an epilog…you know, because it's a sound plot device and all, but it really isn't appropriate for a story that hasn't reached its end. What I can do is relate a few closing thoughts.

 

There are thousands of people out there who could have been Stephanie Walker, Connie Stanton, Archie Shimamoto, Maxwell Blackthorne, or even me, Michelle Allen. (Hi) It's up to each of them to decide what they want to do, and then to go about doing it in the best way they know how. It really doesn't matter if you're a lunatic, a media-mogul, a public servant, a prostitute, or a drunken chain-smoking hero. What matters is that you give it your best shot and be responsible for your impact on the rest of the world.

There are a lot of cars that could be Brittany the Desoto, Lizzie Cooper, Rolls Rita, or Virgil. They could be sitting in your driveway, out on the street, or maybe waiting in a showroom right now. You may know a cat just like Barney, John Cougar, Elvis the Kitten or Nightshade. The important thing is to recognize what each of these people have to offer, and to treat them with respect, though they may be different from yourself and at odds with your beliefs. It's a really big world and it would be really boring if everyone was just like you. So please, don't cut anyone up or stuff them in a jar. After all, you can never really know what makes another person tick. You aren't them, you haven't had their experiences, and perhaps you can't even relate to their dreams. So what? New Age sentiments aside, they don't understand you either. In the end, I guess that John Cougar said it best, "Can't we all just get along?"

Having said all that, (what a mouthful, huh?), I just wanted to say that I hope you've accepted this story as gospel truth, (teehee). Ok, now, next, I know that some of you may have some doubts about just how candid I was in presenting this material. In fact, some of you may be tempted to believe that, "Chelle was too drunk…", or "Chelle had too many Skittles…", or even, "Chelle's delusional, no more lucid than Dorothy Gale…". Well, all I can say is that I think I delivered everything that I promised to deliver, and my conscience is clear. Besides, the sex scenes were pretty accurate.

So, well anyway, I guess that's about it, people. Thanks for reading. I have to go out to buy another wading pool and some ice, so bye until next time.

THE END

  

Addenda to the Revisions

(Author's Note: John Cougar, sensitive soul that he is, prevailed upon me to add the following. He was horrified when he originally read the story, endlessly commenting that I'd surely have offended the ignorant masses, (giggle). At first, I told him that they hadn't paid to read this and they could eat me. He choked. I laughed. Finally though, I gave in and added the note below. Just for the sake of keeping the peace, ya know? I need his mangy ass for the movie we're going to be making…more on that later, promise. So, anyway, here's the apologia.)

So ok, it's me, Chelle. I guess I should add this After-Story Disclaimer thingie: Now, I know that my portrayal of certain elements of our law enforcement community has been less than flattering, (grin). I just want to say that this has been done for the sake of the plot, and not to cast any real aspersions, or denigrate the reputations of our public servants, in the real world. Do not, I repeat, do not accept as gospel any of the representations of the conduct, motives, or actions of the US Army, San Francisco Police Department, or Federal Bureau of Investigation, as described in "Alternative to Uber". (They apply only to those persons and entities within the story). In the real world, these folks are doing a great job, and when they fuck up, it's usually not for lack of trying. Do I really need to tell you this? Well, I can only say that since originally posting this story, I have noticed a lot of people working on my phone lines, some of my mail has been steamed open, and guys in suits have been going through my trash. Should I be worried?

Now, on to the next. I know there are all manner of sensitive souls out there who may have been offended by the characterizations of persons in this story. Once again, let me reiterate. This was for the sake of the plot, so quit being such a bunch of crybabies and whiners. It sucks and I'm sick to death of hearing it. Here, take these Skittles. I'm sure they'll make you feel all better. (What? You want chocolate? Oh, pleeeeease. Now who's the cliched stereotype?).

So ok, it's me again. Hi. Since you were so good while reading my story, and you noticed the asterisk, (*), way back in the original Disclaimer thingie, I've got some news for you. Just check out the paragraph below…it's a mouthful.

 

*Write to this email addy for details on the Chelle's Ok For Now Official Fan Club. A check or money order for $57.85 in US funds will insure you a place in the fan club, with lifetime membership commencing on the first of the month following receipt of funds. Members in good standing will receive email notification about new stories, upcoming cultural events, and impending personal appearances. In addition, a laminated membership card, an autographed 8x10 color photo of the author naked, an unopened package of Skittles ©, and a Barney the Cat ® inked paw print will be sent to you by USPS Priority mail. Offer good through Aug. 27, 2001.

 

And so anyway, (it's me again), like, I know some of you may be reading this later than the closing date listed above. (The story was actually written in 1999 and then first revised in June of 2001). I've talked to Martha Washington, (I'm serious…she's the fan club president and she's a sweetie, so don't make fun, 'kay?), about extending the deadline. I'll let you know, promise.

Now, next. I've been asked to write the screenplay for the movie we all worked so hard to promote. Maybe you've heard things? It's basically an adaptation of this story you just read. Lizzie Cooper is the executive producer, and she's making all the arrangements. We're actually already talking with talent agents about the casting…you know, just feeling things out. Well, I can't tell you too much yet, but, we're trying to get Gina Gershon to play Steph, and Kathleen Robertson to play me! (OMG, I met Kathleen for lunch and she is sooooo hot!). She's perfect and I really hope she says yes. Now, I've loved Gina since before "Showgirls", when she played Pattie, in "Out for Justice", and I just have to get her to agree to be Stephanie, but in case she won't, we're also talking with Lucy Lawless…she's taller. About the Connie Stanton character…we're holding an open casting call in Pasadena, at some fan convention to be specified later. Lizzie's still making arrangements, so I can't tell you yet, but I'll let you know, promise. (Oh yeah, we're also looking for a bob kitten to portray Elvis the Kitten, since he's grown up now, and will be playing the role of Barney the Cat).

Finally, (sigh), about all the feedback. I know some of you may be tempted to "kill me later", and that's okay, really. Just send everything, good or bad, to my email addy and I'll read it. At least the first lines. Then if I like it, I'll write back. If I don't, I'll use Visual Route ©, and seek your IP addy and the server. I'll make a shit list, and on our next road trip…things'll go BOOOOOM!!! Don't forget, Stephanie Walker is still the best bomb girl in the country, and she's all mine, (wink).

So, well anyway, it was good to see you all, and I really do hope you enjoyed the read. Someone wrote to me and suggested that I finish up "Heart of a Diver" and post it with the nom de plume of Connie Stanton, but I just don't know. It's really not my kinda story. I'll let you know though, promise.

Be good, kids….

-Chelle (south of Sausalito, early August, 2002)

 

P.S. Now here's another fantastic offer for ya. Just listen to this. This story was originally conceived and produced with 29 illustrations, but they really fattened up the file too much, so they've been flayed from this posting…however, if 10 of you send sincere requests, I'll send ya the actual file with all the illustrations in place. It's almost 2.something MB and it comes in 8 parts, a real mouthful, huh? So anyway, just let me know, ya know?

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