“I needed that,” Bornlan commented as she stretched beneath the sheet that covered her body. The sound of her bones popping into place made her flinch and she grimaced.
“That sounded evil as well, Teresa,” Shana commented as she gently released the tension in her muscles. She turned her head and blue eyes met brown. Bornlan chuckled.
“Yeah, it did. But I feel a lot better.” She threw the bedding from her body and rose, reaching her hands up towards the ceiling before bending to touch her toes. “Ah,” she commented.
“I feel better myself,” Kennian said. “Perhaps we simply needed some rest.”
Bornlan shrugged. “Maybe. At least we can go at things with clearer heads this morning.” She grabbed her bag from the dresser across from her bed and took out her hairbrush. “Do you want the shower first?”
“That will be fine,” Kennian replied as she slipped from the bed. “I will be quick,” she added before she stepped into the shower area, leaving the sinks free for Bornlan's use.
It seemed to take a little while, but in reality, less than thirty minutes passed before they were both showered and dressed and walking out the door. Kennian turned to Bornlan with a frown.
“I know it is a little late to be thinking about this, but do you suppose our reports are where we left them?” Shana pinched the bridge of her nose. “I cannot believe I did not think of this last night. I was obviously exhausted to have been so remiss....”
Teresa put a hand on Shana's arm, stopping her speech as well as her steps and bringing her attention to the other detective. Kennian arched a blonde eyebrow, but waited silently for Bornlan to speak.
“It's all right, Shana. The manager last night gave me a key; he just asked we return it when we're done with the room today.”
“Do you think we'll be done with it today?”
“We pretty much have to be. The conventions wrap up at three this afternoon. If we don't have a viable suspect by then, we really don't have a legitimate reason to stay on property. As it is, the captain's liable to give us grief about staying here last night.”
“Do we have anyone left to question?”
Bornlan shook her head. “I don't think so. We got all of the convention goers and all of Desdemona's employees. I want to take a look at those lists again and see if we missed anyone or anything. My eyes were crossing towards the end last night, so I might have overlooked something.”
“Myself as well,” Kennian agreed.
“Hell of a case to be cutting your teeth on, huh?” Bornlan asked with a smile. Then held up her hand before Kennian could reply. She pulled her buzzing phone from her pocket. “It's the Doc. Hey, Doc,” she answered, putting the device on speaker so Shana could also hear as they slowly resumed their steps towards their vehicle.
“Morning, Terry. I've got news.”
“Make it good, Doc, ‘cause we're running on empty over here.”
“Well, I'm not sure how much help this is gonna be. I've got the preliminary tox screens back.” They reached the car and threw their bags in the back before sitting and closing the doors to afford them a bit of privacy for the doctor's report.
“Yeah... and?” Bornlan prompted when the silence dragged on too long for her comfort.
“She was killed with a poison extracted from a stonefish.” Silence for a long moment.
“She was killed with a poison extracted from a stonefish,” the doctor repeated. “It's the deadliest fish in the world.” Kennian nodded her head in agreement. Bornlan shook her head.
“Wait... both of you,” cutting the doctor off before she could speak again and holding up a hand to Kennian. “Doc, are you saying someone milked a fish??”
“Essentially, yes. There was enough toxin in her system to ensure a prolonged, painful death.”
Bornlan blew out a frustrated breath. “All right, Doc... thanks. Anything else?”
“Not at the moment. We're still looking at all the other evidence, but it's gonna be a while.”
“Okay... thanks, Doc.”
“Anytime Terry. I'll let you know if we get anything else on this end.” Before Bornlan or Kennian could respond, they heard a dial tone. They exchanged a brief glance, then Bornlan shut off her phone and started the car. They'd drive back to the convention center and get some breakfast before starting their day of investigation.
“So what's your professional opinion?” Sofia asked Lilly as they sat down to breakfast together. Lilly took a swallow of her juice, then set it down and turned her attention to her half-sister.
“Of the murder, you mean?” watching Sofia raise an eyebrow and smirk at her slightly. She slapped her forehead lightly and shook her head with a grin. “Of course you mean the murder. I've never been much of a storyteller, have I?”
Sofia chuckled. “Oh, I don't know. I seem to remember you told some pretty scary stories during our sleepovers as a kid.” A beat. “God that's been a long time ago.”
“Yeah, it has, but those were some good times... some of the best of my life.”
“Mine too,” Sofia concurred. “Who'd have ever thought we'd both wind up as police detectives working on opposite sides of the country? Especially caught in the middle of an unsolved murder in which we are implicated.”
“Yeah – us and several hundred other people.”
“That really is a huge field to narrow it down from.”
“Which is why I think ultimately, there will be no true resolution unless someone decides to confess.” Sofia tilted her head and Lilly shook her head. “C'mon, Sofie... you're a detective. What we got yesterday was cursory questioning. The convention ends today and unless they make an arrest, they can't really compel anyone to stay. They can't make an arrest without evidence, and they can't get evidence without having something to go on in the first place.”
“So you think it's headed down to cold cases.”
Lilly nodded. “It's the kind of case I see on a daily basis.”
“I don't know how you can stand it, Lils. I mean, that would drive me nuts.”
“It's all in your point of view, Sofie. I give people a second chance for justice. Sometimes, I even manage to find it for them. And there is nothing on earth quite like that feeling.”
“Fair enough,” Sofia agreed. “I know how I feel when we finally catch the bad guy. Hey,” changing the subject unexpectedly. “You're staying for a couple days after this thing is over today, right?” waiting for Lilly to nod her agreement. “Good! You got anything special planned?”
“Not really – I was hoping to see a launch from Kennedy while we're here, but there's nothing scheduled. I wouldn't mind going to see the new Harry Potter attraction at Islands of Adventure, or riding Test Track and Soarin' at Epcot, but nothing's set in stone for me. Why? Whatcha got in mind?”
“Well, I'd been thinking about seeing that Harry Potter thing too, and I'd love to go to the Food & Wine Festival over at Epcot.”
“Ooh... I'd forgotten about that. I'd definitely be up for that.”
“Good. So we've got a plan?”
Lilly snickered. “As much of one as we've ever managed anyway. Mama would be proud of us.”
“She already is and you know it. Have you heard anything more about the talent show tonight?”
“You mean aside from Abbie Carmichael belly dancing to pay off a bet?” shaking her head at Sofia 's nod. “Not really. I'm looking forward to it, though, ya know? It should be an interesting evening, and who knows... maybe Gabrielle will tell another story.”
“Oh, she's going to,” Emma said as she took a seat at the empty table next to Lilly in the crowded restaurant. “We made a deal last night.”
“You did?” Sofia questioned. “What was the deal?”
Emma had popped a grape in her mouth and held up a finger while she finished chewing. “I told her I'd tell a story if she'd tell one.”
“That was very clever,” Lilly commended. Emma's grin was contagious.
“I know,” she said with absolutely no hint of humility in her voice.
“That's my girl!” Olivia cheered. Natalia covered her eyes and shook her head, and the table exploded into laughter.
“Can I just say how much fun I've had this weekend... murder aside of course?” Sabrina asked as she took another sip of her coffee. The rest of the table - save Kelly - stared at her with varying expressions of disbelief. Kelly simply smiled into her coffee cup. Sabrina looked around the table. “What?” she whined.
“Aunt Bre... you're kidding me right? C'mon... this is Disney World. How did you expect *not* to have fun here?”
Sabrina just looked at Emily, fighting the blush that wanted to come. Kris, however, laughed aloud. “No... she's not kidding. We had to practically bribe her just to get her on the plane. She figured it was Disneyland all over again and that makes it a kids' place to her. She even had a bet going that the conference wouldn't be particularly enlightening either.”
Emily's eyes went to her hairline. “What on earth was your bribe?” noting the wideness of Sabrina's brown eyes.
Kelly shook her head and cut in before Kris could answer. “Um... no. That would be telling, and we promised.”
Emily gazed at Sabrina. “Not even for your favorite niece,” batting her lashes. Sabrina snorted.
“*Especially* for my favorite niece,” she confirmed.
Emily pouted, but before she could up the ante again, JJ spoke up. “Well, whatever the reason, we're glad you came too. We wouldn't have met otherwise, and I'm really glad we did.”
“Hear! Hear!” Garcia agreed, raising her glass of orange juice in a toast. The others grinned, but gamely lifted their cups and glasses, joining her. “And just think,” she added as they set the beverages down again, “we haven't even gotten to the real fun yet.”
“Oh, I don't know,” Kelly argued. “I thought that Halloween thing Friday night was fun.”
“It was,” Garcia said. “But there's the talent show tonight and then we've got a few days to do nothing but play in the parks.”
“That's right – you're performing in the talent show, aren't you?” JJ asked with a smile.
“Yeah – it's gonna be awesome.”
“Modesty, thy name is Garcia,” Emily snarked, though her smile was teasing. Garcia stuck out her tongue, causing laughter to ripple around the table.
“Well, it looks like Disney's put something in the water this morning,” Serena commented as she stepped into the food court seeing the groups of laughing conventioneers scattered throughout the seating area. Her companions looked around and nodded their agreement.
“Yeah, you kind of expect it from the people that work here,” Kelly replied, “but it's a little unusual from some of these guys. Especially with this whole murder business.” She reached for a bagel, but both Serena and Tracey shook their heads no. “But...?”
“They're not New York bagels, hon. Do you really want to chance it?”
Kelly grimaced. “Thanks, ‘Rena,” she said, moving over to the station that was making omelets. Serena snagged a couple Danishes and then followed. Tracey moved over to the waffle making station. In just a few minutes, they were searching for a table.
“Crowded this morning,” Serena said as she weaved her way to an open seat on the far side of the restaurant. She put her tray down and grabbed an empty chair from a nearby table. Kelly took the seat beside her and Tracey sat across from them both.
“Wow – that's better for a workout than taking the stairs at Hogan Place,” Tracey commented. “Aren't all these people supposed to be out playing tourist or something similar?”
“They are,” Serena returned with a smile. “Why do you think all these families are eating breakfast together this early?”
Tracey scowled. “Well, they need to be out somewhere... away from here.”
Serena turned towards Kelly who just shook her head. “Don't mind her,” she instructed. “She's just nervous.”
“Nothing... it's nothing,” Tracey instructed fiercely, glaring at Kelly who studiously avoided her gaze.
“About performing in the talent show tonight. Apparently she was bragging about her many skills before this convention and was pointedly told to put her money where her mouth is.”
“And do you have the skills to back up your mouth?” Serena asked without a hint of laughter or apology in her tone.
“Yes,” Tracey bit off. Serena reached over and patted her hand.
“Then you have nothing to worry about. I for one am looking forward to your performance.”
“You don't even know what I'm doing.”
“Doesn't mean I can't appreciate the beautiful woman doing it, does it?”
Completely flummoxed, Tracey's jaw dropped wide before she snapped it shut. Then she turned her attention to the food in front of her, methodically decimating Mickey's ears. Kelly's eyes met Serena's and she mouthed ‘thank you' before turning her focus to her own breakfast. Serena just smiled.
“So,” she asked a few minutes later when they had sated their first pangs of hunger, “what are your thoughts on the conference... murder notwithstanding?”
Kelly and Tracey exchanged glances and Tracey shrugged, motioning for Kelly to speak first. “I've enjoyed it,” she replied honestly. “I've met some new people and made some contacts; learned some things I don't think I'd have had the opportunity to otherwise; and even had the chance to get to know some of my colleagues a little better. God knows there's not much time for socialization in the DA's office.”
“Yeah, I have to say I don't miss that part of it,” Serena commented.
“That reminds me,” Tracey said, suddenly looking for all the world like a cobra with its prey in sight. “Why are you here? Or rather... *how* are you here? You don't work in the DA's office anymore.”
“That doesn't mean I'm not associated with law enforcement, Tracey,” holding the eyes that met hers across the table squarely. “I'm actually teaching now.”
“I'm teaching at a law enforcement academy.”
“Do you miss it?” Kelly cut in, hating the sudden rise in tension at the table. “Prosecuting, I mean.”
Serena held Tracey's eyes for another moment before she turned to face Kelly. “Sometimes,” she answered truthfully. “Other times... not so much. But I do enjoy what I'm doing now, so it's all good. And that's what counts, right?”
“I think it's wonderful,” Kelly offered.
“So do I,” Tracey agreed unexpectedly. “God knows we've all had moments when we wondered whether this job was worth it at the end of the day.”
“Even you, Tracey?” Serena asked kindly.
“Especially me – you know those days when you can hear your mother nagging in your ear?” getting nods from her tablemates. “Sometimes all I have to do is answer the phone to hear that.” The other two women cringed, knowing exactly what Tracey was referencing. “And given that my mother is a typical New York Jewish mother,” she added, letting the thought trail off when she saw the dawning understanding in the eyes across from her. “Exactly,” she confirmed. “So even me.”
“Well,” Serena said as she stood, “we have one more day of convention then the talent show tonight which should be fun. Are either of you staying on after today?”
“We all are, actually. Somehow everyone managed to get time off for a few days.” Serena's eyes widened.
“I'd love to know the blackmail that pulled *that* off,” causing her companions to laugh. And it was to that sound that they left the food court and headed towards their final day of conventioning.
“House of Pie – Marshal Marshall Mann speaking.”
“House of Pie – Marshal Marshall Mann speaking.”
Detective Sergeant Bornlan pulled the phone from her ear and stared at the screen with a frown. Then she slid it back into place and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I'm sorry. I'm trying to reach the Albuquerque office of the US Marshal Service.”
“Well, you've hit the jackpot. It's your dime – what can we do for you?” Bornlan blinked. She didn't know what she expected, but she was pretty sure this wasn't it. Before she could speak, she heard the voice on the other end speak again. “Hello? You still there?”
“Yes – sorry. I'm trying to reach Marshal Mary Shannon.”
“She's not in the office at the moment. I'm her partner - can I take a message for her?”
Bornlan blew out an impatient breath. “This is Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan from the Orange County Sheriff's Department. I believe she might be in possession of some information pertaining to a murder investigation I'm currently conducting. I really need to talk to her. Can you have her call me as soon she comes in?”
Marshall sighed deeply and Bornlan slumped, pretty sure she wasn't going to like what was going to come out of his mouth.
“Detective, she's on assignment. It could be a day or two before she'd able to contact you.”
“Dammit! Listen, Marshal... what did you say your name was?”
“ Marshall ... Marshal Marshall Mann.”
“Would you make something like that up?”
“Um... not even close.”
“Yeah – trust me... neither would I.”
“Fair enough. Listen, Marshall , it's incredibly important I reach her.”
“Look, Detective – I understand that. I promise the next time I hear from her, I'll pass along your message. Let me have your number and I'll have her get in touch with you. It's the best I can do for you at the moment.”
Bornlan closed her eyes and blew her bangs off her forehead. “Thanks, Marshall . If that's the best you can do, I guess it'll have to do.” She rattled off her number.
“Got it. With any luck she'll be checking in the next hour or so and I'll pass this on.”
“I appreciate it, Marshall .” And without another word, Bornlan hung up the phone and slumped deeper into her chair.
Teresa opened her eyes and met the blue gaze fixed on her. She straightened, only to lean forward with her elbows on her thighs and her hands dangling between her knees. “Not the kind we need,” she sighed. “Marshal Shannon is on assignment. I got in touch with her partner in Albuquerque , but of course he wouldn't give me any information. He's going to pass on the message to her as soon as she checks in with him, so hopefully we'll hear from her soon.”
“Do you think she is the guilty party?”
Bornlan bit her lip thoughtfully, closing her eyes and raking her free hand through her hair as she lifted the other to put her phone away. After several moments of contemplation, Bornlan opened her eyes again and shook her head.
“You know, Shana – I don't think she is.”
“I think she may have taken the murderer into custody.”
Kennian frowned. “I am not certain I understand. How did you reach this conclusion?”
Bornlan rose and jerked her head towards the stacks of paper they had been going through for the past hour. “C'mere,” pulling out the sheets she'd been reading over just before she'd started frantically making phone calls – ending with her call to Albuquerque . Bornlan laid out the sheets in front of Kennian and then stepped back, allowing her partner to reach her own conclusions.
Kennian looked over each page slowly. Finally she put them back on the table in a neat stack and looked at Bornlan. “I still do not understand. I do not see why you do not believe Mary Shannon is a viable candidate as a murder suspect. After all, the doctor told us it was a professional hit – is a Federal Marshal not a professional?”
“Of course she is a professional – practically everyone on the law enforcement side of the house could be considered a professional if you look at it that way.”
“You are not looking at it that way.” The statement was flat.
“No. Not now. Look,” moving the papers around and spreading them out in front of Kennian. “Mary Shannon never checked in to the convention. According to Jackie, she didn't even get to Orlando until yesterday afternoon - *after* the murder was committed. AND,” stressing the word and holding up a hand to keep Shana from cutting in, “she did an almost immediate turn around departure to Washington , D.C. ”
“All right – she's not our murderer, but she knows who is.”
“I think so, yes.”
Bornlan sighed. She hadn't realized Kennian was as green as she seemed to be. Nevertheless, it was her job to teach the rookie to the best of her ability, so she sighed and pulled another sheet forward. “Okay, look – everyone... *everyone* on these lists except Mary Shannon was checked into to their conventions before they started Friday morning, correct?” Kennian nodded. “And everyone from these lists is still here, right?” waiting for Shana to agree again. “All right, we know Mary is missing, but if we eliminate her as a suspect, who does that leave us?”
“No one!!” Kennian said in a frustrated tone.
“What about the instructors... those who were brought in to teach the professionals? They didn't check into the convention. They simply showed up to do their presentations.”
Kennian's eyes started to sparkle. “One of them is missing?”
“One of them is missing. AND she was on the same plane headed to Washington , D.C. as our missing Marshal.”
“You think she was placed under arrest?”
Bornlan shook her head. “I think she's been placed into protective custody.”
“I don't have all the answers yet – including why the government would protect her or what her motive was. Her name's not on the list.”
“This just gets curiouser and curiouser.”
“C'mon, Alice ,” Bornlan invited with a chuckle. “Let's see if we can find out what's on the other side of the rabbit hole before Marshal Shannon calls back.” Together they headed across the hall to access the computer, hoping Jackie had dug up more information they could use.
“So,” Gabrielle asked as she and Xena entered the back area of the main convention room, “are you gonna share your theory with Detectives Bornlan and Kennian?” They waved to Devon as they crossed the hallway. Xena paused with her hand on the door and shrugged.
“If they ask. Kennian already has a problem with me. I don't think she'll be thrilled to know I solved their murder before they did.” She pulled the door open. “Shit,” she muttered as realization sank in. Gabrielle frowned, then glanced at the room and understood Xena's comment immediately. The room was still set for the storytelling lecture she'd given the previous evening. And while it was perfect for the coming talent show, it wasn't really what they needed for the day's seminars.
“Damn... I forgot about that.”
Xena rubbed her forehead. “It should be all right. The breakout rooms are still set for the seminars. I'll just ask Rita to move lunch in here.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I'll go see about letting everyone know.”
“I'll take care of breakfast too,” Xena said as they headed in opposite directions. “Be right back.”
Gabrielle nodded and went in search of their associates.
“I have to admit I kinda like this, Sammie. It's nice being able to have lunch together,” Brooke said as Sam took a seat beside her.
“Yeah, but I kinda miss having a table to eat at.”
Olivia, sitting nearby, chuckled. “It's better than a stakeout. No steering wheel or gear shift to work around.”
Lindsay nodded. “That's true,” licking some butter from her thumb. “And the food is much better.”
“Not a hot dog fan, Inspector?” Andy asked, laughing when Lindsay and Olivia both shook their heads.
“You can only eat so many hot dogs,” Jo commented with a grimace.
“Speaking for the doctors present, I'm sure we all appreciate your high regard for your health,” Melinda said dryly.
Mac snickered. “It could be worse – you could all have to subsist on the MRE's the military gets stuck with out in the field,” laughing at the faces Sam and Janet made.
“I have to agree,” Natalie said with a shudder. “I remember those.”
“Did you serve?” Annabelle asked curiously.
“Only as a journalist,” Nat responded with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. “I couldn't hack the food,” she added before the moment grew too solemn, garnering her the laughter she expected.
“You know what I want to know,” Blake said before silence could settle over them. “I want to know if we're ever gonna find out who really killed Desdemona. I think I could turn it into a best seller if we just knew who the killer was.”
Scribbs snorted. “Only if the police have more information than we do.”
“You could always make it a fictional work,” Bones commented. “Then the killer can be anyone you want it to be.”
“That doesn't keep us from wanting to know who the actual killer is though,” from Kris.
“Well, all I know is if they don't figure it out soon, it's gonna be a moot point. We won't any of us be here for a denouement,” Nikki stated as Helen took her hand, earning her nods from the assembled women. Then their discussion turned to their plans for the week following the convention.
“Detective Bornlan? This is Marshal Mary Shannon. My partner said....”
“Yes, Marshal Shannon . Thank you for responding so quickly,” she said, though it had been the better part of three hours since she'd spoken to Marshal Mann in Albuquerque . Bornlan knew she'd been lucky to have caught him in the office so early and suspected it had a lot to do with her current case. “Listen, Marshal – I'm investigating a murder here in Orlando and I need to ask you some questions.”
“Detective, I was barely in Orlando long enough to get my luggage from baggage claim before I was put on assignment out of there. I'm not sure I can help you.”
“I think you can, Marshal. I believe your latest assignment has something to do with my primary suspect.”
“Detective, do you know what my job entails?”
“Then you have to know that I can't help you if it puts someone in my charge in danger.”
“Marshal, if she is in your custody, I'm not gonna come looking for her. It just means I can close the case. That way, no one else will come looking for her later either. It won't be a *cold* case – it will be a *closed* one.”
Mary sighed. Just as her charge had intimated, the detectives had followed her trail right to Mary, and there her trail would stop. It made her shake her head in aggravation, but she didn't get to pick and choose who went into witness protection. In fairness, the other woman hadn't been a problem. And if what Marshall told her was true, they didn't even have to bother setting anything up for her once they got to Albuquerque . Mary simply had to get her there; after that, she would disappear.
“What would you like to know, Detective?”
“I need to know who you're protecting.”
“Detective, if I give you the information you need – you swear you're going to close the investigation?”
“All right. Let me put you on speaker. But Detective? Make sure you get everything you need. This is the only phone call you're going to get.”
Bornlan nodded, though Shannon couldn't see her response. She put her own phone on speaker and waved Kennian over. It was time to get their answers.
Bailey's phone, which had been ominously silent since Desdemona's death, rang – startling everyone at the table. The AVID people had been trying to figure out what they were going to do and had as yet to come to a consensus.
“This is Bailey,” she answered.
“It'd better be,” the voice on the other end joked. “It's who I was calling.”
“Sallie!” her exclamation drawing looks from the rest of her compatriots.
“Listen, sweetheart. I just wanted to let you know that everything at AVID will remain the same at the moment... except you'll be able to focus on your writing now.”
Sallie laughed. “It's all right, Bailey. I own AVID now.” There was silence for a long moment. “I love you, Bailey.”
“I love you too, Sallie… so much. I can't tell you....”
“I know, sweetheart. I love you too. I just wanted to let you know. See you soon, all right?”
“All right, Sallie. Bye.”
When Bailey hung up her phone, all eyes turned her way. She shook her head and rose. “I need some air. I'll be back.”
“Actually,” Detective Kennian objected, taking Bailey by the elbow, “you all need to come with us. “We know who killed Desdemona and how and why.”
“Sounds like a game of Clue,” Frank chattered. “Miss Scarlet in the library with the candlestick.”
“Shut up, Frank.” And as a group, they rose to follow Kennian and Bailey to the main con room.
Barbara wheeled herself over to where Gabrielle stood talking quietly to Xena and Diana. She waited for a break in the conversation before clearing her throat and watching their attention shift to her immediately. She gave them a weak smile.
“I'm sorry to interrupt, but do you have a minute, Gabrielle?”
“Of course, Barbara,” Gabrielle replied with her own gentle smile. She whirled back towards Xena and Diana. “Excuse us a minute?” seeing the minutest nod of Xena's head. Then Gabrielle turned back to Barbara. “Walk with me?” knowing her friend would understand the spirit of her request.
They moved away from the monitoring table and headed out the door towards the green room. Helena came up beside Xena and Diana as they disappeared. Xena cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Everything all right?”
Helena shrugged. “Yeah. Red just wanted to apologize to Gabrielle for missing her thing last night, ya know?”
“Yeah – is everything all right?” Xena repeated and this time Helena grinned, recognizing the difference in the question.
“Yeah... everything's great. We... we talked some stuff out. It was good.”
“So I didn't make things worse?” Diana asked wryly.
“Only to start with,” Helena stated truthfully. “But at least it got things started.”
“Maybe I should go talk to her.”
“She wants to talk to you too... especially about letting Dinah hang with you last night. But wait til she's done talking to Gabrielle, okay? She really is embarrassed about missing Gabrielle's performance last night.”
“I loved having her. Dinah's a delightful young woman. She's welcome to hang with me anytime.”
“Who's being hung from what?” Dinah asked as she walked up on the conversation.
“Nobody,” Helena said succinctly. “How you doing, Kid? Shields still holding?”
“I'm good. And the energy in here isn't really that negative. I honestly don't think the killer is here.”
“Interesting observation, Miss... Dinah,” Bornlan corrected with a swift look at the nametag Dinah wore as she approached the small group. “May I ask what brought you to that conclusion?”
Dinah nervously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and glanced around at the expressionless faces of her companions before meeting the detective's eyes squarely. “It's just... the vibe in here is all wrong, you know?” she said with a feeble smile and a shrug. She tucked her hair again, twirling the end around her finger. “I mean... no one seems nervous or upset – just kind of frustrated with the whole thing. Like this DIVA person got killed just to mess up their plans more than anything else.” She noticed the odd look Bornlan was giving her and tucked her hair behind her ear once more. “What?” looking around. “Did I say something wrong?”
Bornlan crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her head up to peer carefully at Dinah. “That's very astute for someone your age.”
“College psych course,” she answered, nodding her head for emphasis. Bornlan held her gaze for a moment longer before she turned brown eyes towards Xena and jerked her head for privacy.
“So we're okay?” Barbara asked softly as she and Gabrielle lurked on the loading dock just outside the kitchen doors. Gabrielle brushed an errant lock of red hair from Barbara's face and Barbara closed her eyes as the tender hand came around to cup her face. Though she was certain Gabrielle was closer to Helena's age than her own, there was something so soothing... so maternal in her caring and in her touch. For a moment, Barbara was content to simply breathe it in.
“Barbara,” Gabrielle coaxed, causing green eyes to meet. “We're fine. You and Helena needed the time, and gods know I of anyone in the world understand needing some time alone with your warrior,” smiling when Barbara blushed. “Especially after a fight. Besides, Dinah and Diana got it all for you on DVD. You can watch it later.” She paused. “Is everything all right?”
This time Barbara smiled. “Everything is... amazing.” She held out her hand and Gabrielle accepted it without hesitation. “C'mon... I still need to talk to Diana. I owe her an apology.”
“You probably don't, but it never hurts to offer one.”
They returned to the convention room and Barbara took Diana aside even as Xena jerked her head towards Gabrielle. Dinah and Helena moved to the monitoring table to wait.
Xena padded up onto the platform and whistled loudly, instantly silencing the room and drawing every eye to her. She didn't speak – instead she simply motioned towards the audience and waited for Gabrielle to step in front of her.
“Ladies... thank you for your attention. The police have asked that everyone remain in the main room for a few more minutes. They have an announcement to make.”
The murmurs started immediately, but they were happy to see that most of the women who had been seated remained so, and those who had been standing began looking for a place to sit. Those who had gotten up seemed intent on returning their dishes to the service table where they were being collected, then marched immediately back to their seats. Soon the whole room was in a state of quiet anticipation.
Helena casually lifted a hand to Dinah's shoulder, causing the younger woman to glance up. Blue eyes met and Helena cocked a dark brow in question. Dinah smiled and patted her hand, then allowed her attention to float across the room as the second detective entered with a new group of people. It only took a moment for them to be recognized as Desdemona's crew from AVID. They filed into the room, and the door closed noisily behind them, causing everyone in the room to jump at the sound.
Kennian lined the AVID people up against the wall, then nodded to Bornlan who was waiting casually by the monitoring table. Bornlan casually stepped onto the stage and accepted the microphone Gabrielle handed her.
“Thank you,” she muttered quietly, though most understood her words since the room had gone completely silent the moment she set foot on the stage. She turned her attention to the myriad of people staring back at her and cleared her throat.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” giving a cursory nod to the AVID employees ensconced along the wall by Kennian. “For those of you who do not recognize me, I am Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan and I'm the lead detective on the Von A'Calandra murder case. I just wanted to let you know that you have all been exonerated of any charges in the case and that you're all free to go about your business.” She handed the mic back to Gabrielle and started to exit the stage.
Silence in the room for several seconds as they contemplated her statement. Then....
“That's it? That's all you're going to tell us?” from a voice in the crowd. Bornlan's head whipped around to see who had spoken, but it was quiet by the time she got back to center stage and looked around.
“Who said that?”
“Does it really matter?” Lucy asked, stepping around the monitoring table and leaning against it with her arms crossed. “We all have the right to a few answers.”
Bornlan cocked an eyebrow. “How do you figure? I've just told you you're all in the clear. Isn't that enough?”
Lucy shook her head and snorted. “Would it be enough for you, Detective? Can you read a mystery novel and just stop before you find out whodunit? C'mon, Detective... cut us a little slack here.”
Bornlan held Lucy's gaze for a long moment, then her frown morphed into a reluctant smile. “All right – I see your point. I can't go into details, but I can give you the bare essentials.” Bornlan took a deep breath and looked around the room – honestly, this was almost worse than a press conference.
“First of all, let me assure you that the things that Detective Kennian and I have learned about you... the secrets that Desdemona held over each of you – they no longer exist. My tech team couldn't pull them up, so as far as we're concerned, they never did. They won't be part of the official report.” She felt as well as heard the sigh of relief flow throughout the room.
“Let me also add that I know no one in this room is mourning this woman's death. Give what we've learned about her, I can't say I blame any of you. However, she's as entitled to justice as much as the next person. Unfortunately, the most justice she's gonna get is for us to say her case is closed. Her killer has been placed into protective custody by US Marshals. She's going into the Witness Protection Program.”
Alex blinked and clutched Olivia's hand tighter, drawing concerned brown eyes to her. “At least we know why Mary was called away,” she murmured. Then their attention was called back to the detective standing casually on the stage.
“I don't know why,” Bornlan was responding to a question from the assembled women. “I was simply told that she was in custody and my investigation was over.”
“So who did it? Who's the murderer?”
Dead silence, then.... “Who? What? The artist? Who? Why? Is this some kind of joke?” and other mutterings. Only one set of eyes widened in astonished recognition and she remained silent. Bornlan let the rumbling continue for another moment, then held up her hand for quiet.
“I really can't tell you more than that. My orders come from pretty high up.” She turned and looked directly at Xena. “Government high up,” she added. Xena didn't even blink and Bornlan turned back to the audience. “If you'll excuse me, ladies and gentlemen....” She stepped back and passed the microphone back to Gabrielle.
“Wait,” Graham called from the side where he and the other AVID people had been standing. “What about us?” motioning along the line of them.
Bornlan shrugged and accepted the mic from Gabrielle once more to keep from having to yell across the hall. “I suppose that's up to your new owners. I'm sure you'll hear from them sooner or later,” holding Bailey's eyes for a moment. “Or check with her lawyer – he should have her papers.” Then she handed the mic back to Gabrielle and left the stage.
“So that's it?” Gabrielle asked as she turned the mic off before holding it out for Diana to retrieve, nodding her thanks when it was taken.
“That's it. Case closed,” Bornlan agreed. She looked at Xena again a knowing twinkle in her eye. “You knew, didn't you?”
“I figured out the who yesterday. I think I know why. Not sure about the how, but I really don't have enough facts without hacking into the police computers to get the autopsy details.”
“Could you?” Bornlan asked, then snickered at the level look Xena gave her. “Never mind.” She cleared her throat. “If you had it figured out, why didn't you tell us? Why let your attendees wonder?” She paused a moment, then continued. “Would you have told us if we hadn't figured it out or just left it as an open case?”
“I would've given you my suspicions, though I don't think Detective Kennian would have appreciated it.”
Bornlan smirked. “She's young. She has yet to learn that you take your help where you can find it. So tell me how you figured it out – because Katie's name wasn't on the list of people being blackmailed.”
“You first,” Xena countered. Bornlan just rolled her eyes.
“But why?” Mary asked as they got off the plane in Albuquerque. “Why give up your whole life for your cousin? And why wait til now? I mean all that did was cause all kinds of grief for a whole lot of people who didn't really deserve it.” They headed down to baggage claim while Katie thought about her answer.
“Why now?” Katie finally replied. “It was the perfect opportunity. The sheer number of suspects made it easy for me to get it done without casting suspicion on myself or my cousin. And by the time the police started putting things together, the book was taken care of and I was long gone. Given what was in that book, they would all have been suspects regardless – I just worked it to my advantage... and theirs.” She grabbed her suitcase from the belt, then resumed her place beside the marshal.
“And was it worth it?”
Katie smiled. “Since this makes things right for Bailey, Uncle Sal will make sure I'm well taken care of. The fact that it will make the world a little better place for a lot of people is just a bonus.”
Mary studied Katie quizzically. “It really doesn't bother you that not only did you kill this woman in cold blood, but that she suffered horrifically for several hours before she died does it?” She stepped forward and recovered her luggage. Together they headed out of the airport.
“Not at all, Marshal. I have done much worse to many more for much less. This was personal – a debt to be paid.”
Mary shook her head. “I'm not sure I understand. But then, I'm still not clear on why you needed me.” She held up her hand before Katie could speak. “I get that the trail ends here. I just don't see why that was necessary; you obviously could have simply disappeared.”
“Yes, but then the case would have remained open. And despite the fact that I was happy to use all those women to cover my tracks long enough to get away, I wouldn't leave murder hanging over anyone's head. This way there's an ending – they have a killer that will allow them to close the case. No strings left hanging – problem solved.”
Mary shook her head again, but didn't argue. At this point she didn't care if she understood – she just needed to get Katie on her way as someone else. Then her job here... however twisted... would be done.
“It was fairly straightforward,” Xena said to Bornlan as they watched the slow exodus of people from the room. Gabrielle, having already heard Xena's story, had taken charge of getting the last of the seminars underway and was busy getting folks herded towards their proper breakout rooms.
“I noticed Katie's absence, but I didn't take much note of it at first – even when you and Detective Kennian informed us of Desdemona's murder. After all, she'd only been contracted to be here on Friday to teach her seminars. The instructors were given the option of staying, but there's nothing to compel them to stay for the weekend.”
“Except for a free weekend at Disney.”
“There is that,” Xena replied drolly. “However, when I realized she was missing, I went looking. It threw me briefly when she wasn't on Desdemona's list. So I went looking for a connection to someone who was.”
“And you found it.”
“I found it.” Xena looked out at the now empty convention room. “Have you talked to her?”
“Not yet. You wanna come along?” pushing off the wall she was leaning against.
For answer, Xena gestured her to lead the way. Diana, Lucy and Dinah watched them go. “Wonder if we'll ever know the full story,” Dinah thought aloud.
Lucy snorted. “I'm not holding my breath.”
Diana grinned. “Me either.”
They found Shana Kennian sitting in the room the police officers had been using as an office. Bornlan acknowledged her with a nod, then turned her attention to the woman sitting with her. “Do you know why you're here, Ms Bonner?”
“I can only assume that you believe I had something to do with Desdemona's murder, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it. I didn't know what Katie was doing.”
“We believe you, Ms Bonner,” Teresa assured her as she motioned to herself and the other two women in the room. “Do you have any idea why she did this?” Bailey shook her head.
“No... I mean, she knew I was unhappy at AVID because we talked about it. But she just encouraged me to get out – to find something that would make me happy.”
“And what about your step-father?”
“Sallie? I didn't talk to him about it at all. He has enough responsibilities in his life without worrying about my screw-ups. I wasn't going to ask him to fix my mistakes.”
“Would he have... do you think? If he'd known, I mean.”
Bailey nodded. “Absolutely. He's always looked out for me from the time I was little and he became my dad.” The three exchanged looks and Bailey looked at each of them. “Is it all right if I go now? I... we... the AVID folks are getting together to figure out where we go from here – if there is anything left for us at AVID or if we should make a fresh start somewhere else.” Bornlan nodded and Bailey rose from her seat. “Detective?” she asked as she reached the door. “Do you know where my cousin is?” Bornlan shook her head no and Bailey's shoulders slumped. “All right – thanks.” Then she left without a backwards glance.
“Well that pretty much fills in the rest of the blanks we had. And knowing exactly who Sallie is means this investigation is officially closed.” Bornlan held out her hand to Xena. “I'd say it's been fun, but....”
Xena accepted the hand and squeezed it briefly. “If you two want fun, stay for the talent show tonight. It's gonna be something else.”
Bornlan smiled. “We might just take you up on that.”
“Good,” Xena answered, releasing the hand she held. “We'll look forward to it.” Then she followed Bailey out the door. Kennian just tilted her head in Bornlan's direction.
“So we are planning to observe this talent event?”
“If we can lock this stuff up quickly enough, you betcha! Given the BS this case was from beginning to end, I think we deserve a little entertainment.”
“As long as we do not become part of it,” Kennian stated flatly. Then they turned their attention to wrapping things up.
“Well, ladies – what did you think?” Gabrielle asked as both conferences resumed their places in the big room. Although this hadn't been the ending either she or Xena had foreseen, Gabrielle had to admit that she was pretty happy with how things had turned out. It was nice to see women from both conventions making friends across the aisle as it were. She had a feeling there would be some interesting alliances coming out of this.
A loud cheer greeted her words and she smiled, exchanging looks with Xena. Xena nodded her agreement and Gabrielle turned back to the large audience. “So maybe we should do this again some time... without the murder, of course?” Another raucous shout of approval went up and Gabrielle let it run for a long minute before she held up her hands for quiet. The sound died down and the women sat back expectantly, waiting for Gabrielle to speak again. She didn't disappoint.
“All right... so – you've all gotten the information from the seminars you each participated in, and we'll be sending each of you a DVD of the all the activities that took place on your side of the hall. And before you ask, it will include the storytelling seminar we had last night as well as tonight's talent show. However, before that happens, we have to *have* the talent show,” garnering more laughter and applause. “So with that in mind, I'm gonna bring the first Women in Law Enforcement and Women in Media conventions to a close with the reminder that the talent show starts at eight o'clock. And trust me, ladies… this is something you don't want to miss.”
“So please – go get something to eat and relax for the next few hours. Doors will open at seven-thirty. Performers, we need you here by seven o'clock.” Gabrielle cast a glance in Xena's direction and Xena shrugged at her in return. “That's it... that's all we've got. Now shoo... out. We've got work to do. We'll see you back here in a little while.”
Taking their cue, the women rose almost as a singular body, applauding politely before the buzz of their conversation escalated to make a comforting background noise as they exited the room. Soon only the core few remained in the room – and Xena looked around in satisfaction.
“Well ladies – I think we could call this a success.” She turned to Lucy. “Is Scud coming in to do the sound tonight?”
Lucy glanced at her watch and nodded. “Yeah... he should be here in the next fifteen minutes or so. Then we'll get started setting up stuff for tonight.”
“You got all the help you'll need?”
“I think so. The DEBS offered to give us a hand and most of our work is gonna be adding the curtain.”
“All right. You know how to find us if….” Lucy cut her off, shooing her off much as Gabrielle had done to the attendees only a few minutes earlier.
“We've got it under control, boss. Now get outta here, will ya? Rumor has it you and Diana here are supposed to be singing; Barbara and Dinah are juggling and Gabrielle is telling stories. So go get ready... or whatever it is you creative types need to do. We've got things covered.”
Xena looked a little flummoxed at the speech. Gabrielle just took her arm and said, “Thank you, Lucy. Let's go, troops,” motioning the rest ahead of her and they dutifully headed out the door. Helena hung back for a moment.
“I'll be back in to do the camera set up. It shouldn't take much, but....”
“Take your time. We won't be back here for at least an hour,” Lucy assured her. “We're gonna grab a bite to eat.” Helena nodded her thanks and moved to catch up to Barbara. Barbara extended her free hand and Helena took it as a matter of course.
“Everything all right?” Barbara asked, bringing Helena's knuckles to her lips briefly.
“Yeah – I'm on camera duty tonight since you and Dinah are doing your thing, remember? I just wanted to let Lucy know I'd be back soon to help set things up.”
Barbara nodded. “Gabrielle's had snacks delivered to their suite and invited us to join them.”
“Sounds good,” Helena agreed. “The way I hear it, you still owe her a story.”
“Yeah, I do. You okay with that?”
Helena gave Barbara a fond look that bordered on amusement. “Red, if we can't trust them,” gesturing to Xena, Gabrielle and Diana, “who in the world *can* we trust?”
“Good point. I just know how personal that story is for you and Dinah and I told her I needed to ask you two first.”
“And of course Dinah said yes.”
“I said yes to what, exactly? What am I being accused of now?”
“Being perky,” Helena replied flatly. Dinah narrowed her eyes in Helena's direction.
“That's not a crime, ya know. Especially here.”
“She does have a point,” Diana agreed solemnly.
“No kidding,” Helena mock-groaned. “It's fucking disturbing really... when you think about it. I mean, c'mon... it's not natural. Normal people... people who live outside of Gotham and Metropolis... don't act this happy all the time. It's just not natural,” Helena repeated and looked at Barbara who was doing her best not to laugh. “You should probably run some tests on the water around here – or check into whatever they're offering in the employee kitchen. It's got to be some sort of drug therapy regimen or something.”
“Really?” Barbara asked, her grin wide and infectious. Helena was having a hard time holding onto her scowl and Barbara could see the blue eyes twinkling.
“Yes,” Helena replied emphatically, drawing chuckles for the rest of the group. “It's probably the next great criminal plot to take over the world.”
Barbara lifted her free hand and patted Helena's, glad they had reached Xena's and Gabrielle's suite. “I'll look into it, Pinky. But first, we have a talent show to enjoy.”
Helena cut her eyes at Barbara and removed her hand from Barbara's grip so she could cross her arms over her chest. “You're pandering to me, Barbara.” Helena pouted and green eyes widened in an innocent expression.
“Not at all, Kitten. We can run all the tests you like... after the talent show.”
“Speaking of,” Xena cut in, seeing both Barbara and Helena start chuckling at the ridiculousness of their conversation. “How did you manage to escape performing?” pinning Helena in place. Helena simply offered her a wry expression.
“Probably because I don't have a creative bone in my body.”
Barbara frowned. “That's not true, Hel. Your particular talents simply do not lend themselves well to the stage,” causing Helena's eyes to pop open before she started laughing, followed immediately by the rest. Barbara reconsidered her words and couldn't stop the furious blush that started at her toenails when the implication of what she said occurred to her. “That's not what I meant,” she muttered.
Helena swooped over and dropped into Barbara's lap, wrapping her arms around Barbara's neck and nuzzling her like a cat. Barbara gripped the arms of her chair to keep from embracing Helena in return. “It may not have been what you meant,” Helena whispered in a voice so low Barbara almost missed it, even as close as she was. “But we both know it's true.”
Barbara's facial muscles didn't twitch, but she couldn't keep the twinkle out of her eye. “Maybe,” she responded without hesitation. “But if you don't be nice to me, it's gonna be a long, LONG time before you get to demonstrate them to me again.”
Helena captured Barbara's mouth with her own, kissing her with increasing passion until Barbara's hands left the arms of the chair and wrapped themselves around Helena's body of their own accord. Helena smiled into the kiss, easing down the intensity until they were slowly pulling away from one another with gentle, chaste kisses. Then she leaned forward and breathed into Barbara's ear. “I'm always nice.”
Barbara traced her face tenderly and smiled. “Yes... you are.” After another moment, they remembered they were in a room with four of their closest friends, and Barbara ducked her head into Helena's chest. Helena looked around, then whispered into Barbara's ear.
“They're not paying attention to us. We're alone.”
And it was true. The minute Helena had fallen into Barbara's lap the rest had removed themselves from the living area and into the master bedroom. Helena looked around again and chuckled, then removed herself from Barbara's lap.
“I'll go find them. It's not like they'll have gone very far.”
“We just went into the next room to retrieve the food. Devon laid the snacks out in our room and bathroom,” Xena commented as she opened the door so everyone else could exit in front of her carrying a laden tray before she crossed to the fridge and started removing beverages. “Coke okay for everyone? Or we've got milk. I don't think alcohol is a good choice before a performance.”
Dinah snorted. “Alcohol's never a good choice for me. Even Helena couldn't strengthen my walls enough for that.”
“What's that all about anyway?” Diana asked curiously. “I've never seen you do that before.”
Gabrielle squeezed Barbara's shoulder lightly as she handed her a drink, then made her way to sit beside Xena without a word. Barbara sighed, appreciating everyone's efforts to keep things casual. She wasn't much for PDAs, but the weekend had pushed her until she was glad for Helena's reassurance, and for friends who understood her need without making her feel more uncomfortable about it.
“It's....” Helena sighed and turned to Barbara who nodded her encouragement. “Did you read about the Gladiatrix incident – where meta-women were being kidnapped and forced to fight to the death for paying spectators?”
“I read the report,” Diana confessed, “but I don't remember....”
“I didn't put everything in the report,” Barbara muttered, causing all eyes to turn to her and Helena to take her hand.
“Let me tell it,” Dinah commanded, forcing their attention to her. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “When the women got taken, they were injected with a substance that brought their meta-skills to the fore. In Helena's case it made her more feral... and much more dangerous. She didn't recognize me at all, except as a familiar scent. Unfortunately, the feral part of her only remembered my scent as a threat to her security and she went on the attack as soon as I was put into the cell with her.”
“Was this for the paying customers?” Diana broke in to ask. Dinah shook her head.
“No – one of the ‘trainers' saw how she reacted to me and wanted to have a little fun. He wasn't happy with the ass kicking I'd handed him getting into the dungeon where the women were being kept and decided I needed to learn a lesson.”
Helena kept her eyes on the floor, trying to remember that the women Dinah was sharing her humiliation with were her friends – women who would not see or treat her any differently once they knew the truth. Barbara's hand in hers kept her grounded and the light scratching of her skull forced her to relax, especially when Dinah leaned forward and took her other hand, forcing Helena to look up and meet her smile.
“Go on, Kid,” she finally said. “Tell the rest.”
Dinah nodded and turned back to her audience, still holding Helena's hand. “I don't know how the drug worked, but it made her impervious to my TK and she was beating the crap out of me. When she had me down on the floor, I finally managed to break through the drug haze enough that Helena recognized who I was. She stopped fighting and backed away, curling into a corner.”
“I was pretty messed up physically – I suddenly understood just how easy she'd been going on me in sparring practice,” Dinah added with a smile. She turned to look at Helena who gave her a timid smile. “Mentally I was drowning in all the emotions I could feel coming from all those women and I didn't have the strength left to shield myself from it.” She drew a breath and let her eyes go distant. “I'm still not sure what triggered it, but after just a few minutes, Helena inched over beside me. Her eyes were still feral and I could hear a rumbling purr coming from her chest, but her hands were incredibly gentle... so different from what they'd been mere moments before. She nuzzled me softly – like a mama cat does to its babies – checking to see how much damage I had. My hands rested on her hips – not for any reason other than it was the easiest place for me to touch her and I needed the grounding that gave me. She wiped the blood off my face, cupping my cheeks tenderly as she looked into my eyes. Then she placed her forehead on mine and closed her eyes.
I still don't understand exactly what she did or how she did it, but in that moment, I felt like her strength was flowing through me. It was amazing, because though I was still hurt, I hurt less. Then she collapsed on top of me and I realized that what I'd felt from her was real, and she was in serious danger... again.”
“But you learned to control it?” Gabrielle asked, breaking the silence as Dinah tried to figure out how to end her story.
“Not right then,” Helena answered with a crooked smile. “When the jackass with the collar device came in and saw us together, he nearly had a shit fit. He ordered us separated and had Dinah treated, then he put the trainer into the ring in the next bout and gave Dinah and me a chance to recover. We were supposed to be his main event,” she added with a smirk. “What it did, besides give us time to recover physically, was to give Dinah a chance to get through to me psychically. So when we went into the ring, I was able to hold back long enough for Reese to get to me with the antidote.”
“That's astonishing,” Diana commented on a low whistle. “Does it work for anyone else?”
“We haven't tried it. It bothers Barbara that we do it at all.”
“That's not true,” Barbara broke in. “I don't want to see you suffer needlessly, Dinah... especially if there's something that can be done to make things better for you in a situation like this.”
“I know, Barbara,” shifting her body to kneel in front of Barbara and using her free hand to cover the clasp of Helena's and Barbara's hands. “But you don't like that Helena risks herself in ways that you don't understand and that you can't do anything about it other than sit by and watch,” Dinah stated gently. “And we're both aware of that, Barbara. It's why we only use this sparingly and only when there isn't another option.”
“If I can arrange a way to study it safely, would you be willing to give us a chance to do so? I believe Paula and I could remove most of the risk involved to both of you, and with the state-of-the-art equipment we have it might give Barbara some peace of mind by giving her an opportunity to at least monitor it. The scientist in her would probably appreciate the effort to understand it even if the lover wouldn't.”
“Please don't talk about me as if I'm not even here,” Barbara requested, though her voice was not sharp... just tired. “Where exactly could you find anything more state-of-the-art than the Delphi?”
Diana glanced at Gabrielle who gave her the barest of nods before she turned back to Barbara. “Home,” she responded softly. “Paradise Island.”
“Wait,” Dinah said, holding her hands up and rising to her feet. “That's real? There's really an island home full of immortal Amazon warriors?”
“Yep,” Diana said with a smile. “And we would be honored to have you as our guests.”
“Cool!” Dinah exclaimed. “I'd be a lab rat for the chance to visit... especially if it made us Amazons. Could we actually become Amazons?”
“Um... not to rain on your parade or anything, Kid, but don't you think you oughtta clear this with someone first, Diana? I mean I know it's supposed to be a secret and all. I'm pretty sure the people in charge are not gonna be real happy with you inviting five mortal women to join you, even if you can justify it by calling it scientific research.”
“Well, one of the nice things about being Wonder Woman is that I do have a little bit of leeway, especially in regards to bringing home amazing women who might possibly have something to contribute to our society. But even if that wasn't true, I'm still an Amazon Princess and that gives me special consideration as well.”
“So as Queen, your mother wouldn't mind having us basically sprung on her?”
Diana smiled and caught the slight motion from the corner of her eye. “My mother is Regent to the queen and if you decide you'd like to do this, I'll contact her tonight and let her know we should expect guests. Trust me – they'd know all about you before you even stepped foot on the plane.”
Barbara narrowed her eyes thoughtfully and cocked her head in question. “If your mother is the regent, how does that make you a princess?”
“For all intents and purposes, my mother is the queen, though she refuses to accept the title of anything other than Regent. She rules in the queen's stead, overseeing the Nation and its day-to-day operations as our queen prefers to live in the world of men. Therefore, as her daughter, the title of Princess falls to me – even when I'm not there.”
Helena's brow furrowed. “Why does your queen prefer to live here? I don't understand.”
Gabrielle stepped forward and smiled, her hands on Diana's shoulders keeping her from speaking. “It's all right, Helena. Most of the Amazons don't understand it either. They have simply learned to accept it for the truth that it is.”
Barbara straightened in her chair and bowed her head towards Gabrielle. “You're the Amazon Queen,” she stated flatly. Helena and Dinah exchanged startled glances, trying to figure out how they were supposed to act now, because Barbara's voice held complete conviction in its tone. Gabrielle held up a hand to Helena and Dinah, causing them to cease all movement. Then she tucked her hand under Barbara's chin and raised it until they were looking eye to eye again.
“I am. And we'd be happy to welcome you all into the Nation if you'd like to be a part of us.”
“Why didn't you tell me?” hurt coloring her tone.
“For the same reason you didn't share about Shiva's sister. It's just not something I go around announcing. I knew you'd find out when the time was right.”
Barbra smiled. “Fair enough. Can we...?”
“You don't have to make a decision today,” Gabrielle assured her. “But the sooner you let Diana know, the sooner arrangements can be made for your visit.”
“And you'll both be there?”
Gabrielle nodded with a smile. “We'll be there. We owe the sisters a visit soon.”
Barbara looked at Helena and Dinah for a long moment, then turned back to Diana. “Guess you better let your mother know to expect company soon.”
“You sure you're all right with this, Max?” Amy asked as she and the DEBS made their way back down the hallway to the convention room.
Max nodded. “Sure... I mean, what the hell, right? We've actually gotten a lot out of this conference, and it's cool to be able to give a little back.”
“Besides,” Dom added with a smirk, “we'll have the best seats in the house, no?”
Amy chuckled. “Yeah, you probably will.” She knocked on the door and it opened almost immediately, showing Scud in the doorway with a finger over his lips. They exchanged glances and nodded their agreement, then followed him silently into the room....
... only to bite their lips to keep from laughing out when they caught sight of Lucy lip-synching and dancing her way across the stage. Scud had put Erasure's A Little Respect on the sound system and it filled the room. Another knock caused him to turn away from Lucy's performance to let Helena in and she raised her eyebrows at the tableau playing out in front of them.
“What the hell?” she whispered directly into Scud's ear, knowing he would understand the gist of her growl even if he couldn't make out the words. He shrugged.
“This is kinda of Lucy's redemption song. When she started making amends to try and win Amy back, this was the song she did it to. She doesn't know you guys are here yet.”
Helena shrugged. “All right. It's not like we don't have some time before the performers get here. Besides, I don't think she's unaware of us,” Helena commented with a nod towards the front of the room.
Scud looked up just to see Amy go flying down the aisle. Lucy had activated her “Amy, Be Mine” device and had thrown the image up on the large wall that formed the back of the stage. Max and Dom just exchanged eye rolls and headed towards the front at a much more sedate pace. Janet leaned into Scud's embrace with a smile and Helena just shook her head and got to work on the camera set up.
Already it was shaping up to be one hell of a party.
The woman hesitated in the doorway of the restaurant, removing her cover and tucking it under her arm as she scanned the room. Mac noticed the uniform as she walked in and wondered; she and Sam and Janet had shed their uniforms after they'd checked in for the convention. Even though she had yet to see any uniforms... until this one... she found it fairly easy to pick out the military people who had come for vacation. They just had a certain bearing about them. Still, there was something about being at Disney that caused even the staunchest military member to relax and dress like a civilian. So seeing a uniform now – worn with such precision and stiffness – made her hesitate.
“Excuse me, Soldier?” causing the woman to turn and allowed Mac her first good look at the woman's face.
“Ma'am? Can I help you?”
Mac smiled and shook her head, holding the woman's dark eyes and pointedly ignoring the scarring down one whole cheek. “I wondered if I could help you. You look a little lost.”
“Oh... I was looking for a friend. She invited me to dinner to meet some of her friends; they're here for some sort of meeting or something.” The woman shrugged. “I'm not really sure, but Natalie said it was important, so here I am.”
Mac's brows rose into her hairline. “Natalie... Natalie Green?”
“Yes – do you know her?”
“I do indeed. I had the opportunity to meet her this weekend as a matter of fact. C'mon... let's see if we can find her. I'm Mac, by the way,” extending her hand.
The woman held up her hand a moment; first she shifted the walking stick Mac hadn't noticed she was using then tucked her cover under her other arm before accepting the hand Mac offered. “Rory... Sergeant Rory Talbot.”
“Well, c'mon, Sergeant. Let's see if we can find our friends.”
“I wouldn't want to keep you from something important, ma'am.”
“I think *this* is important, Sergeant. And please call me Mac.”
“All right, Mac. I'm Rory, then.”
They walked slowly in deference to Rory's pronounced limp and looked around the room. When they didn't see Natalie, Rory risked a quick look at her watch. “I thought she asked me to meet her here at six. Perhaps I misunderstood.”
“My friends and I would be happy to have you join us, Rory, and in the meantime, I'll see if we can contact Natalie through the hotel.”
“I don't want to impose, ma.... Mac.”
“It's not an imposition if you're being invited,” leading her to a table where several of her compatriots were already seated. “Hey guys... this is Rory Talbot. Rory, please meet Sam Carter, Janet Fraiser, Sam McPherson, Brooke McQueen and Jordan Cavanaugh. Rory was supposed to meet Natalie Green for dinner, but she's a no-show at the moment, so I invited her to join us.”
“Yes, please do,” they invited, shifting closer together to add another chair to the table.
“I'm going to go make a phone call... see if we can find Natalie for you. Sam, will you please order me the scallops and the steak salad – medium – if the server comes before I get back?”
“Oh ma'am, I can't....”
“Sergeant, I respect the awards you're wearing, but please don't make me pull rank. I haven't had to be an officer all weekend and it's been *really* nice.”
Rory had the grace to look chagrined. “I've stepped into it, haven't I?”
“Not yet,” Sam Carter assured her with a grin, “but you've gotta be careful with that one,” jerking her head in Mac's direction. “She's JAG.”
“Naturally,” Rory muttered, causing the rest to laugh. “I appreciate it, Mac. Thanks.”
Mac nodded and walked away from the table, making her way back to the restaurant's foyer area. A quick call to the main desk connected her to Natalie's room, and Mac was reassured that Natalie and her friends were headed to the main building. She spoke to the maitre`d and she motioned a waiter to move another table to the one where Mac and her friends were seated.
“They're on their way over,” Mac stated. “I figured we may as well have them join us,” getting agreement from the rest of the party.
“So how do ya'll know each other?” Rory asked. “Are the rest of you journalists too?”
Sam McPherson chuckled. “I'm the only journalist here,” she confessed. “Everyone else at this table is some kind of legal beagle.”
“HEY!” came retorts from three tablemates.
Brooke laughed. “Really, Sammie. You of all people should know better than to generalize like that.” She turned to Rory. “Mac and I are lawyers, Jordan and Janet are both doctors and the blonde Sam is with Homeland Security.”
Rory's eyes went wide. “Wow! That's um... pretty diverse.”
“How about you, Rory? What do you do?”
Before she could answer, Natalie spotted her and squealed, leading the way to the table. Rory stood up slowly, just in time to meet Natalie's fervent hug.
“Thank you for coming,” Natalie whispered.
“You knew I would.”
Natalie squeezed her one last time, then withdrew slightly. “I think everyone knows everyone here,” she started, waiting for heads to nod, “except for you three,” motioning with her hand. “Rory Talbot, meet Jo Polniaczek and Blair Warner. Guys, this is my friend, Rory Talbot.”
“Nice to meet ya,” Jo said, liking the firm handshake she got.
“Charmed,” Blair commented with a sincere smile. “I'm sorry we're late. It's my fault. The marionette that was supposed to be part of my talent show act tonight is having an issue and well.... It doesn't matter. Suffice it to say that we lost track of time trying to fix it. I really am very sorry.”
“Don't apologize, ma'am. These lovely ladies have been very kind... made me feel welcome.”
“So how do you know one another?” Mac asked after the latecomers had given their orders to the hovering waiter.
Natalie met Rory's gaze and Rory shrugged minutely. Natalie turned back to the table and took a deep breath. “We met overseas during Desert Storm. Rory saved my life.”
Janet leaned forward. “Can you share?”
Natalie looked around the table, seeing nothing but curiosity and friendly interest. “As long as it stays ‘eyes only' for now – it doesn't go beyond this table,” stating her case plainly. “Some of this story is deeply personal for me.”
Janet reached over and covered the hands that rested on the tabletop. “Natalie, if it makes you uncomfortable, you don't have to share.”
Natalie and Rory exchanged another glance and Natalie shook her head. “No... I think this story deserves to be told and I need to be the one to share it.” She waited for the waiter to place their drinks and appetizers on the table. “You're gonna want to get comfortable, though. This story isn't short, and it's not very pretty.”
The rest settled in and focused their attention on Natalie, anxious to hear what she had to say.
“Tell me, Blake... have you enjoyed the conference? Do you feel like it was a good use of your resources?” Miranda asked as they were seated with her daughters, Doris and Ashley. Emily had been dismissed for the evening and she was enjoying the brief respite before the talent show. Caroline, Cassidy and Ashley were talking quietly at one end of the table, leaving the three adults on the other end on their own for conversation.
Blake bit her lip thoughtfully and nodded her head. “I have really. I've made some new friends and found some new contacts, including a couple of distributors and some independent publishers. It's given me some ideas... things I want to think about as a possible direction for me to take my business in the future. What about you, Miranda?”
“Well, not a lot of what I learned from our seminars can be applied to the day to day operations of Runway, but I have made a number of contacts that I believe will prove most useful down the line. I also found a couple of ideas that will no doubt make their way into some future issues. What about you, Ms Wolfe? Did you find the law enforcement agenda enlightening?”
“I did, actually. We weren't limited to merely the aspects of law enforcement that we're a part of. So I was able to learn about other avenues in the broader outlook of the field of law enforcement. I found it very interesting.”
“And the murder?” Miranda smirked. Doris snorted.
“I found that damned inconvenient,” she replied wryly, causing Miranda's lips to twitch again and Blake to nearly choke on her wine. Doris shrugged, ignoring the glare Blake was sending her way. “What?” she asked. “I was just being honest. It was irritating.”
“I'll agree with that assessment. Otherwise, though, I've had a most enjoyable experience.”
Blake blinked. “You say that as if it's a surprise.”
“It was,” Caroline answered unexpectedly. “For all of us, actually. Mom generally doesn't do this, and on the occasions that she's forced to attend this sort of thing....” She shrugged.
“It's true, Mom, and you know it.” Miranda shook her head but smiled fondly, waiting until her daughter turned back to her conversation with Cassidy and Ashley.
“Kids,” she muttered, drawing grins from the other two women.
“S'all right, Miranda,” Doris assured her. “We've all got ‘em. They keep things interesting anyway.”
“That they do,” Miranda agreed solemnly, though there was a twinkle in her blue eyes. “That they most certainly do.”
“So do you know what story you're gonna tell, Jellybean?” Olivia asked as she brushed out her daughter's thick hair. “Bean?” she said a second time when Emma didn't answer her immediately. Olivia tugged gently on the hair she held. “Hey... you all right, Sweetie?”
“Mommy! What'd you do that for?” frowning briefly before breaking into a smile.
“Everything all right, Bean? I was talking to you, but you weren't answering.” She turned Emma's head away from her and resumed her brushing.
“Oh... sorry, Mommy; I was thinking.”
“The story I'm going to tell. Do you think Gabrielle will be disappointed if I tell a story everyone already knows?”
“I don't think she'd mind at all, Bean. I'm pretty sure she's just happy you want to tell a story.” She pulled Emma's hair up into a tight ponytail and fastened it up before pulling the brush through the long locks again. “I know I'm pretty proud of you, Bean.”
“Emma?” Natalia spoke up, passing Olivia the bow she'd been preparing and taking the brush Olivia traded for it. Emma turned her head to look at Natalia; Olivia sighed and shook her head, then gently turned her head back so she could attach the bow.
“Why did you decide to tell a story tonight?”
Emma scrunched up her forehead in thought. “Well, you know that Gabrielle is an Amazon Queen and that Xena is her champion.”
Olivia and Natalia exchanged smiling glances and responded, “Uh huh.”
“Right... so Xena told me that a Queen's Champion had to earn her place. She had to be the best warrior, the best tracker, the best hunter – she had to be able to take care of the queen no matter what kind of trouble the queen managed to get herself into.” Emma turned her head again and crinkled her nose up when she smiled. “Xena made a really funny face when she said that; I think Gabrielle gets into more trouble than I do,” she offered seriously. Olivia and Natalia studiously avoided looking at one another in an effort not to laugh aloud.
Finally Natalia nodded. “All right. But I still don't understand....”
“Well, Xena told me that a Queen's Champion has to be well-rounded. I didn't think she was very round and told her so. She told me it meant she had to be more than a fighter. Xena sings,” she finished, as if that explained everything.
Emma rolled her eyes. “So I can learn to fight and track and hunt – Amazons teach all those things. But I can't sing.” She made a face. “And all Amazons can dance. But not too many Amazons tell stories. So if I can tell stories, it will make me well-rounded and I can be a Queen's Champion.” She paused then gave a devious little smirk. “Besides, I wanted to hear Gabrielle tell another story.”
“And you knew she would tell one if you did?”
“No. But I knew if we made a deal, she'd keep her promise. Amazon Queens always keep their promises – Xena said so.”
“You really like them, don't you, Bean?”
“I do, Mommy. They've been really nice. And Gabrielle let me pick the prize I wanted for winning the scavenger hunt.”
“Oh that's right... we still don't know what you got,” reaching up to run tickling fingers along Emma's ribs. She squirmed and slid out of Olivia's grasp.
“No fair tickling,” Emma protested. “You'll mess up my hair. Besides, you'll find out soon enough.”
Olivia arched an eyebrow and traded glances with Natalia. “I'll find out soon enough?? When is soon enough? I'm not real patient, you know,” flexing her fingers and edging closer to Emma. Natalia just watched the tableau with a fond smile.
“Tonight! After the talent show tonight!” Emma huffed.
Olivia shifted her stance, bringing her fingers to her face to examine the nails before lightly buffing them on her shirt. “All right, Bean. You've got yourself a reprieve. But if I don't find out tonight,” wiggling her fingers and grinning wickedly, “you're mine.”
Emma flung herself into Olivia's arms and squeezed her neck tightly before leaning back to catch Olivia's gaze. “Oh Mommy… I'm already yours – yours and Mama's.”
Olivia grinned through the tears that suddenly flooded her green eyes. “You sure are, Bean,” leaning back into Natalia's body when she wrapped them both in her embrace. “Now let's get going – we've got a talent show to attend.”
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