erniewhiting@centurylink.net

 

"Outlaws & Allies"

by Ernie Whiting

Chapter Fourteen

A single flickering flame, sprouting from the end of a black candle, danced unprotected from the air currents caused by their movements as it lit their way. Quite by accident, Murphy had discovered a glassed-in directory and map built into one wall, strikingly similar to the ones found inside of large shopping malls. It even had one of those little red arrows on which tiny words declared "You Are Here." Trying to keep this guide in his mind, he had managed to make his way here to the massive connecting door between the containment building and the operations center, a square and windowless concrete block of a building next door, where he would wait in the control room for the witch to come to him.

The door that connected the operations center to the containment building looked like a steel hatch one would find on board a submarine. To operate it there were two sets of controls; one was electronic and off to one side, and consisted of a large plastic button that would light up when operated. All one had to do was press it. Under proper operations, it would light up with a steady green with a loud buzz, and with a loud and echoing clanking of gears it would electronically operate the large metallic wheel. The wheel, in turn, would slowly spin, and the door would swing open on large, well-oiled iron hinges. If there was a malfunction in the unit, another light would flash red for negative function. The other set of controls was the wheel itself, which could be operated manually in case of an emergency or anything else that might cause a power shut-down. It also took far more effort to use, which was what prompted Murphy to try the electronic control first. It was coated with more of that disgusting putrid slime, so he depressed the switch with his denim-clad elbow. It didn't work. Of course. Goddamnitt, he thought. Not even the red would flash in warning because there was no power.

He thrust the black candle toward Sierra. "You hold that," he told her. "You hold it just like that"--he had her hold it at about his chest height--"and don't move."

For a few brief moments his hands were off of her, and in that short time she thought again about running. But where could she go? The thought of escape had crossed her mind several times, and she could even see him in her mind standing there like a fool, dumbfounded and holding her empty jacket just after she had slipped out of it and dashed down the hall to safety. But without the candle she wouldn't be able to see anything. Besides, how far would her little legs carry her before he caught up to her with his long strides?

Too frightened to disobey, Sierra did as she was told.

He tugged the ends of his jacket sleeves over his hands to avoid getting more slime on him, and then grunted with effort as he began to turn the wheel. Sierra wasn't sure of why he wanted to cover his hands; the wheel didn't look dirty or anything to her, and she didn't think it was hot. But this man wasn't acting normally, she thought; he looked crazy, and he was acting like there was something nasty on everything he touched. He kept muttering something about "fucking slime" all over everything, and he was always wiping his hands on his jeans, but she didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Under normal circumstances, she would have thought he was just a little weird; but here, and with that knife he was carrying, she rightfully thought he was a maniac--and extremely dangerous.

This was definitely no time to try for an escape.

Besides, she knew her two moms were on the way. They had to be. Please, she thought, once again on the verge of tears, please, oh please, find me...

The locking mechanism clanked and echoed, and suddenly the wheel spun easily. Murphy stepped back. "Hah!" he barked. "Couldn't keep me out, could they?" he asked the vast chasm of darkness that yawned beyond the door. And then he shouted, "Motherfuckers can't keep me out!" He backed up a couple of steps and grabbed hold of Sierra's jacket again, and then took the candle. He forced the child ahead of him as he held the candle high, and they started down the concrete corridor. Some forty or fifty feet into it, he stopped and pulled the child down with him as he went down on one knee. He dribbled some wax onto the floor and stuck the candle in the warm wax, and held it until it stood on its own. He reached into a pocket and withdrew another candle, and lit it from the one on the floor. "Let's leave her a trail to follow, eh?" he said. "We don't want to make it too hard for her to find us." He chuckled to himself. He straightened and pulled Sierra with him, and they started off into the darkness of the corridor.

***

Both women wore black pouches slung across their shoulders to hang at one hip, hunting knives sheathed at their other hip, and their katanas slung ninja-like across their backs. Arriving at Betatron on the horse they borrowed from the Chens, they found their own horse, still hitched to the wagon, tied securely next to the wide entrance gate; the gate was standing open as though it were waiting for them, extending a cold, dark invitation to come inside. They slid from the horse and tied its reins to their wagon, and then quickly approached the administration building.

"Where the hell do we start looking?" Jasmine wondered as she shined the beam of her flashlight across the front of the building. The place was stark and bleak, and as dead as a cemetery. Her wide circle of light slipped up and over the walls, and shined on a set of power lines that led from somewhere behind the building and into the woods. There was something about those cables that gave her a bad feeling, and it wasn't just the idea of these things spreading their invasive nuclear-generated energy.

"I don't know." Valerie thought nervously and furiously, casting back to seven years ago when she had first come here. She tried to picture herself standing outside the fence on that blustery, rain-lashed night, clutching her athame in both hands as she pointed it at the plant. She remembered that she had been standing at the northern quadrant, and the bluish white beam of light--solid in the middle and rippling around the outside--burned like an acetylene torch with cold fire, throwing off sparks as it blasted into...

"The containment building!"

They raced off into the darkness, circling around to the left. The place looked alien and totally unfamiliar to Valerie; the first time she came here she had come from a different direction, and she had been outside of the high, chain-link security fence; now she was disoriented. Where is it? she asked herself, leading Jasmine and looking for the place from where she had originally cast her spell. Where the hell is it? It's been so damn long, and everything looks so different...

And then she saw the blast mark. It was charred black, right into the cement, but the concrete itself didn't seem to be damaged. It didn't need to be; it was psychic energy that had entered the plant, not any electrical current or heat energy, or any other normally tangible form of power. In matters of Magic, the laws of physics didn't seem to apply. At least, not in the usual manner.

Memory came rushing back to her like a flash flood in the middle of a New Mexican desert. "This way!" She pointed with her flashlight, and they took off. In less than a minute they found the main entrance. Lying in the dust were a heavy stainless steel chain and a broken padlock, and next to them was a large rock. Valerie instinctively picked it up to see if she could get any readings from it. Murphy had not held it for long, but it had absorbed enough of his energy so that it seemed to squirm in her hands, only for a moment, with an oily slickness. It felt like the pack that she had discovered under the house the other night, only the impressions were not as strong.

They killed their flashlights and pulled the door open, and stepped quietly inside. The air was musty and stale, and not even a sliver of light disrupted the dark. And it was oppressively silent; they listened for a long moment, with their backs against the cool dry concrete wall, hoping that they might hear them, but all they heard were their own heartbeats and their own soft breathing. The place was as quiet as an abandoned, ancient crypt.

Cautiously, Valerie clicked on her flashlight and swept its beam around. It dissipated into the darkness. Dear Goddess, she thought, almost on the verge of tears. Oh, sweet Lady, how are we going to find her? I can't see shit in here.

Jasmine clicked on her own flashlight and indicated with it. "I'll circle around that way," she said in a near whisper. "We'll stand a better chance of finding them, and if we're lucky we might even catch this son of a bitch if he tries to escape." Then she quickly caught her in a tight and fervent embrace, which Valerie returned, as though it might be for the last time. "Good luck."

"You too."

Splitting up, they silently proceeded into the darkness.

***

We should be on the same side, Murphy was thinking as his harsh breathing echoed around him in the darkened corridor while he dragged Sierra behind him, one hand clutching at the front of her jacket. No, strike that, he told himself a moment later. Even he knew that Witches and Satanists had nothing to do with each other; but he didn't mind if they were commonly lumped together by the State and those who supported it. As long as they were, he felt there must be something there to be exploited. He just wasn't sure of what. But the point of his internal discussion was that they were both treated the same way; they were both victims of the radical Christian State in which they lived, and it would be advantageous to both of them if they formed an alliance. How was it that the pagan crowd was not vindictive like the Satanists were? he wondered. With all those people tortured to death, hung, and burned at the stake, didn't they want justice? Didn't they want revenge? He remembered reading a book about the Burning Times; the numbers of people executed by the Inquisition cited within it varied between 200,000 and nine million. Nine million! Jesus, if that had happened to that many of his allies, Murphy would have...would have...

Well, best not to think about that, he told himself, not wanting to admit even to himself that he wouldn't have known what to do. But he continued to tell himself that he would have gotten his revenge somehow.

With her magic under his direction, there wouldn't be anything they couldn't do, he thought. Murphy could see it now; they could form a new coven and populate it with their offspring, and from there they would finally smash the Christian State through the power of psychic Satanism. Hell, the entire world could be theirs.

Then he asked himself, Why the hell should I share anything with her, anyway? It's mine by divine Satanic right. Satan wants me to have it so I can do his will. And there's no way that a real Witch would ever join with him. A true Witch would be an impediment, so that means they would all have to go. All of them. Timid little pacifist weaklings, he told himself; they had no idea of what true power was all about. Fuck 'em. Besides, once I kill this kid, all that power is gonna be mine anyway.

But it would still be fun to use her as a breeder, he thought; chained naked and spread eagle on a battered, cum-stained mattress in the basement of his temple. So maybe he would keep her around anyway.

He found a second door, identical to the first. He tried the electronic switch to open it, and again nothing happened. He shoved the candle toward Sierra and said, "Hold that." After pulling his sleeves over his hands again, he grabbed the wheel and spun it. Again there were the sounds of clanking gears, and then the door opened smoothly. He took the candle back from Sierra, who was watching him with frightened eyes. He grasped the front of her jacket once more and pulled her with him as they stepped across the threshold. They were inside the operations center now, and with the candle in one hand and his other twisting the front of Sierra's denim jacket he roughly pulled her along as they made their way down the darkened, slimy corridor for the control room.

***

Valerie found the ladder and shined the light downward. She scanned left and right, but she couldn't see much of anything; the flashlight's beam was swallowed by the darkness. She had no idea of where this would take her, nor did she have any idea if Sierra was down there or not. But she had to start looking somewhere, and her sense of desperation was interfering with her thinking.

Keeping the flashlight in one hand and pointed downward, she began her descent.

Her breathing was loud in her ears as she descended the cool, dry rungs, one at a time, her left hand taking the rungs and the right one holding the flashlight with her thumb and forefinger and grasping the side of the ladder with just three fingers. It was only a few minutes before she reached the bottom, and once she was on solid ground she spotted the cold pool of hard black wax at the foot of the ladder. She knelt in front of it and touched it. Cold. He's been here, she thought, but not for some time. Then she shined her light around and scanned the surrounding darkness with sharp eyes. Slowly and carefully, and with one hand on the hilt of the katana which was still slung behind her back, she stepped away from the ladder.

***

She didn't know how long she had been slowly and stealthily moving with her flashlight in one hand and her back to the wall. Without even the faintest of sounds, Jasmine made her way along the catwalk with her ears alert for any sound and her drawn katana in her other hand. It was impossible to tell just how far she had come from the entrance; everything behind her, as that before her, was concealed in thick, soft, velvety blackness except for the narrow beam of her flashlight. She would sweep the floor before her, make certain that there was nothing in her way, and then raise the beam to scan forward, only to have it swallowed by darkness. I'm going to kill this miserable son of a bitch, she thought. When I get my hands on him, I'm gonna... She let the thought trail off, concentrating instead on the job at hand. Her first concern was to find Sierra. Once she did, and once she was assured that the child was safe and unharmed, they were going to meet up with Valerie and get the hell out of here. And after that she would go back inside once more to take care of the instigator of all this torment.

She found the steel ladder on the left side and a few feet ahead of her. She approached it and shined the light upward as she looked up, but she couldn't see anything. Should she go up to the next level, she wondered apprehensively, or stay on this one? Would Sierra have been taken up there or not? She just didn't know. If she had kidnaped someone, she didn't think she would want to go through the bother of either dragging a child up a ladder or pushing her ahead of her in the darkness, uncertain of how far the climb would be. But then, she wasn't a devil worshiper suffering from delusions of omnipotence.

Praying to the Goddess that she wasn't making a mistake, she sheathed her katana, shifted the flashlight to be encircled by thumb and index finger, and began what might possibly be a long climb in the dark.

***

Sierra was not moving quickly enough for him, so he yanked at her collar once more. "Come on, goddamnitt," he growled. "What the hell do you think you're doing, fucking around like this? Come on!" He finished with a vicious snarl, and emphasized it with another yank at her collar. For a moment both of her feet left the floor, such was the force he had used against her. The material of her jacket bit into her armpits...

...and suddenly she was aware of the weight of the pentacle that hung around her neck and bounced against her chest beneath her shirt.

***

She slowly came up on the low concrete wall as she shined her flashlight over it. On its edge were chalk markings in white and red that she immediately recognized, and Valerie regarded them coldly. The bastard, she thought as she slowly drew closer with sharp, furious eyes. He had already been here once before, attempting to work his own brand of magic to remove her curse. As part of her own studies, she had done some research into Satanism, and she had found the whole thing repulsive; she despised Satanism as much as any Christian did, fundamentalist or otherwise. Devil worship represented hatred and power, vengeance and wanton physical gratification, and a total absence of any personal responsibility. The markings resembled ancient Norwegian and Scandinavian runes, and secret Druidic and other Celtic alphabets that had been adopted by some Wiccan covens; some of them even resembled ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Whoever this Satanist was, Valerie concluded, he certainly was into his black art. But these markings--like many Catholic and other Christian symbols--had been twisted and inverted for malevolent purposes. There was also a plain, black wooden crucifix that had been placed upside down in the center of the markings before her. She snorted derisively. Satanists, she thought; those numb-nuts will steal anything and adapt it for their own use. Small surprise that his spell didn't work.

She leaned cautiously over the edge of the wall and shined the flashlight down, and peered over the edge. Her light was reflected back up at her. Storage pool, she thought to herself. Whether it was for the radioactive fuel rods or for the temporary storage of nuclear waste before dumping it into the ocean, this was the heart of the plant. Perhaps she ought to have come here, seven years ago, when she had originally fixed her curse on this place; apparently just cursing it from the outside had not been one hundred percent effective. Either that, or there were forces out there who would stop at nothing to have this place reopened.

She drew her sword as she began to walk around the storage pool, and with angered and vigorous motions she swept the Satanist's artifacts--the black candles, chalk sticks, the brass censer, the black iron cauldron and the inverted crucifix--into the storage pool where they landed with loud and multiple splashes. She lay the katana on top of the wall and then reached into the pouch that hung at her left hip, and withdrew a small leather drawstring bag that was a little larger than a golf ball. She opened it and poured its white crystalline contents into the palm of her hand--common sea salt--and sprinkled it over the markings and all around the low wall to purify the site. She closed the pouch and put it back in her bag, then fished out two more objects. They were small vials, each about two c.c.s, that contained rose geranium oil and Blessed Be oil. One at a time, she unscrewed the small black plastic caps and dabbed the oil on a fingertip, and at each cardinal point of the compass she drew a pentagram in the salt with that finger to add their vibrations of tranquility and protection, and to return the negative energy here to its source. She capped the bottles and put them away, and then withdrew a small plastic bag of red powdered dragon's blood incense. She poured this into a small pile at the eastern quadrant and lit it with a wooden match to sterilize the air and to further remove the Satanist's negative energy from this room, and then finally she lit and placed a small white candle next to the burning pile of incense. The only words she spoke were at the end of this ritual: "By the will of Pallas Athena, by the will of Lady Freyja and by the will of the Goddess Diana," she said softly, "I banish the evil and the hate that the Satanist tried to raise here, and I return them to him. So mote it be."

Her purification spell was done. There was nothing else she could do here, so she cinched her bag shut, picked up her sword and slipped it back into its scabbard behind her back, and started back for the ladder.

***

Jasmine reached the top of the ladder and drew her katana once again. Unsure of which way to go, she turned to her left and cautiously proceeded.

She didn't know how far she had come from the ladder, or how long it had been--five minutes or thirty?--when she found the doorway. Doorway wasn't quite accurate; there was no door, just a mute, foreboding rectangular arch. She had no idea of what lay beyond besides more darkness...and there was no way she would find out if she didn't go inside. Too fucking dark in here, she told herself with a pounding heart. With her sword at the ready, she continued onward into the mouth of darkness.

***

Valerie reached the top of the ladder and paused to wait for the dull ache in her arms to subside. Dear Lady, she thought for the hundredth time, what should I do next? Where should I go?

She looked back to where she had come from. Backtracking would be pointless; there was nothing there. She continued forward, one slow, silent and cautious step at a time...

...and then the flashlight went out.

Oh, God! she silently cried in despair. God damn it! Shit! ! Suddenly plunged into perfect blackness, she shook the flashlight uselessly. The light had disappeared just as if she had switched it off, so dead or weak batteries were not the problem; the damn bulb had burned out. Rage and terror burned within her as she uselessly shook the flashlight again, and then she flung it away where it shattered in the darkness and the echoing distance. Terrific, she thought, both angrily and fearfully as she stood completely blinded by the absolute blackness. Just fucking great. Now what the hell do I do?

***

Something dark and enormous loomed up on her left side, seeming to materialize from nowhere. Jasmine stopped abruptly and snapped up her sword, ready to fight off this new threat. With sudden fear and anger in her almond eyes and a heart that pounded even harder in her chest, she prepared to slice through the enemy as she shined her light over the massive shape. She wasn't sure of what it was; all she could tell was it was some kind of huge piece of electronic equipment with metallic toggle switches, dormant LED readouts, idle meters, and small darkened plastic domes that must have been colored lights. It looked like a massive computer or a control box or something; she didn't know exactly what it might be. All she knew was that it was big, and for something so inanimate it had startled the hell out of her.

She took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh of relief as she slowly lowered her sword, and then she approached the control box for a closer look.

***

They reached the end of the corridor. The connecting hall went to the left and right, and as near as Murphy could remember the map had shown the control room to be down the right-hand corridor. He paused here for a moment and regarded the child again. "Time to leave another trail marker," he told her. "Gimme one of your shoes."

For a moment she was motionless, paralyzed with fear.

He shoved her against the wall. Sierra thudded against it and slid to the floor, and Murphy bent to grab at one of her feet. "Goddamned stupid little bitch!" he snapped. "When I tell you to do something, you fucking do it!" He pooled more wax on the floor and stuck the candle in it so it would stand on its own, and then roughly yanked with such force at the laces that he almost snapped them. He yanked the shoe from her foot and tossed it over his shoulder, where it thumped against the opposite wall and fell to the floor. He picked up the candle again and grabbed hold of Sierra's jacket once more, and dragged her to her feet. "Come on," he growled, and he dragged her behind him again as he began reading the stenciled signs on the doors as they passed them.

While he was occupied with searching for the control room, with his back turned toward her so he couldn't see her, Sierra reached under the bottom of her shirt and up to her neck with one hand to clasp reassuringly at the silver pentacle that hung there. Valerie's voice suddenly echoed through her mind: "...It will protect you from negative energy and emotions..."

"Like if someone is sending you bad or harmful thoughts," Jasmine had added.

And again, Valerie had added, "This'll might even protect you against physical things that you can't control..."

If she ever needed protection, it was here and now.

They stopped at the fifth door down, and Murphy raised the candle once again to read the label on the door. He turned his face toward Sierra--and Sierra quickly yanked her hand back to her side before he could see her clasping her talisman. With a cold smile of satisfaction he said, "Found it."

***

Shaking with frustration and fury, and with her face twisted in both rage and anguish, Valerie glanced behind her into the pitch blackness, where she could see nothing. She looked forward again; still nothing. She didn't know what to do. She couldn't go forward because she couldn't see where the hell she was going, and she couldn't go back, because that would be pointless. She had to go on, there was no debating that question. But how?

She froze as she suddenly caught a flash of Sierra in her mind's eye, clutching desperately at her pentacle while her captor's attention was elsewhere. A psychic pulse--a wave that was both similar to yet different from what she had felt that day seven years ago, when her Uncle Vincent had come to rescue her from the soldier who had broken into her home--suddenly roared through her, filling her with love, terror and desperation. "Sierra?" she hissed in a stage whisper. "Where are you, baby?" She stared into the darkness ahead of her, and for a moment she could almost have sworn she saw something. Maybe her eyes were playing tricks on her, or maybe her mind was deluding her, but...

She took a couple of cautious steps forward, sweeping her katana before her like a white cane.

There it was again. Faint, very faint, almost imperceptible, but there it was; a faint flicker of orange light.

With suddenly renewed hope, she quickened her pace as she started forward. The closer she drew the brighter the light became, until it was recognizable as flickering candle light. Its source was around a corner, just a few yards ahead now. She closed the distance with quick and careless strides, and suddenly she found herself standing at an open doorway. She looked inside and saw a lone candle, its flame a single star of hope in an otherwise empty universe of despair.

***

Jasmine felt it, too. It was a sudden wave of hope and of love-and also of fear. There was still a chance, but she had to move quickly. "We're coming, sweetheart," she quietly swore to the child. "Just hang in there a little longer--we're coming."

Above the toggle switches there were five vertical rows of small plastic switches that flicked from left to right. Next to each switch was a small white label that indicated what the switches were for. Jasmine scanned them with the beam of her flashlight, and above them she saw a pair of large handle-like switches that were in a down position. Above these was a small, black plastic sign with white stenciled lettering: MAIN. She set the flashlight on top of the panel and wrapped her fingers around them. "Okay," she softly said to herself, "let's see if we can shed a little light on the subject." Throwing her weight into it, she pushed upward and threw the switches.

The lights came on.

They came on everywhere. The brilliance was so sudden that it startled her, but that didn't stop her from smiling in satisfaction. Softly, she said, "Cool."

But a moment later her feelings of self-congratulation were replaced by a chilling sense of dread. Now she knew why those power lines she had seen outside had left her with such a bad feeling. Not only had they carried electricity out of here, but they also fed power into this place. In spite of the media reports seven years ago, the power here had never been shut off! Not only was the State still planning to re-open Betatron, they were already prepared for it; all they had to do was bide their time, and wait to bring their odious plans to fruition.

God damn them! Jasmine thought. The bastards lied to us again!

She dashed out of the room and headed for the ladder.

***

Holy shit! Murphy thought as he anxiously glanced around when the lights came on. Did she do that? Does she really have that kind of power? To bring new life into a dead reactor? Sweet Satan, no, he thought. If she can do that, then what chance do I have of pulling this off? This is just too fucking much, man, I can't handle it...

Suddenly, he was very much afraid. He could no longer think of using her or her daughter to remove the curse; now his thoughts were of using the kid as a hostage to help him escape.

He pulled her into the control room.

***

The lights around her came on so suddenly and so brilliantly that Valerie was startled. What the hell?? she thought. And then a moment later she thought, Bless you, sweetheart, as she realized that it could only have been Jasmine.

She dashed down to the end of the concrete corridor where she found the closed door, and she slammed her palm against the activating switch. With a loud buzz and a clanking of gears, the wheel slowly spun counter-clockwise, a trio of massive stainless-steel bolts slammed back from the door jam, and the door silently swung open about a foot. She pulled it open and stepped into the brightly lit corridor.

One of Sierra's well-worn Nikes was lying in the middle of the hallway. She rushed forward and dropped to one knee, and picked it up to hold it in both hands; the laces dangled from it like a pair of limp, delicate stems of small, dead flowers. Her eyes burned with tears as she tried to read it, attempting to pick up any of her daughter's energy, but she was so afraid right now that she couldn't read anything; her near-panic was blinding her. Please, dear Goddess, she thought as another cold blade of terror thrust its way into her heart. Please, dear Lady, please, let her be alive.

***

She knew they were close, she could feel it. She glanced up at Murphy and saw that he wasn't watching her. She had to try to let her mother know where she was. Slowly, so as not to attract any attention, she took a deep breath, and at the top of her lungs she suddenly screamed, "Mommy!"

***

"Mommy! " The faint scream echoed down the corridor.

Her head snapped up. In spite of the glistening tears on her face, her red-rimmed amber eyes were sharp and alert. She looked up and then down the corridor. Where had the cry come from?

"Mom--" Her final scream was cut off by the sudden bang! of a door. The slam had come from her right; the corridor there seemed to stop at a dead-end thirty or forty feet away, but there was another adjacent corridor that went to the left.

"Sierra! " With new hope, she lunged to her feet and took off down the hall.

***

Clutching at her by the collar of her jacket, he slammed the door shut and locked it, cutting off her scream. Without releasing his hold on his hostage, he grabbed a nearby rolling chair; panting with exertion and fear, he tilted it at an angle and jammed its backrest under the knob and then snapped off the light, as though he might hide like a cockroach in the darkness. I've got to get out of here, he thought as he backed away from the door while listening to the doors down the hall burst open, one at a time. I've gotta get outta here, man; it's all falling apart!

He quickly took note of his surroundings as another door banged open down the hall, and suddenly a new surge of fear raced up his spine on little rat's feet. Oh, shit! he thought as he scanned the windowless room. Oh, fuck! He had come into a room that had no other exit; no windows nor any other doors.

He was trapped.

Another door banged open. Closer.

He shifted his grip on Sierra. Releasing her collar, he suddenly whipped his arm around her neck and yanked her tightly to him, bunching the thick denim at her shoulder in his fist. She grabbed at his forearm and pulled at it, twisting in his grip, struggling more for air than for escape.

"Cut it out, bitch!" he shouted at her in a near scream. His long blond hair was hanging lank and loose, and it swayed before his face as he struggled to steady the child. "Cut it out!" he shouted again, dragging her backward. "Stop it! " He pulled her with him away from the door and around the end of a control console that stood in the middle of the room in a vain effort to protect himself behind this useless barricade.

Something impossibly strong kicked at the door, rattling it and the wall around it. Murphy watched it with wide, terrified eyes. There was a second kick, this one sounding more like the slamming of a massive battering ram against a weakening castle gate, and Murphy instinctively took a step backward, dragging his hostage with him. With the third kick, the door exploded inward, tearing apart the steel frame and snapping the chair's metal back from its seat to slam against the wall with enough force to rattle the entire control room.

Standing in the doorway was a human silhouette, female and as dark as a shadow, with light glinting from the keen edge of the ninja's katana it clutched in its right fist.

Still clutching Sierra before him like a shield, Murphy took another involuntary step backward as his other hand flew to his hip to draw his ritual dagger. He held its point against her throat. "Back off!" he screamed as the wild panicked look on his face became even more frightened. And dangerous. "Back off or I'll kill her!" He had one last desperate chance, and he went for it. "You just stay back there and take the curse off this place, and then I'll let her go!"

The black shape took a menacing step forward, and threw the katana aside. It skidded across the concrete floor with a metallic clattering sound, and bounced against a wall to come to rest in a distant corner. The shadow took another slow and deliberate step forward, and through clenched teeth it spoke slowly and clearly, its voice a low, deep, and malevolent growl: "Get your FUCKING hands off of my daughter... "

Murphy's heart froze. That voice...it was that same terrifying voice that had spoken to him as it floated invisibly from above the storage pool! He didn't even realize that his hand and fingers, suddenly paralyzed with fear, had released their grip on Sierra. He took his eyes from the silhouette only for a moment to see how far away the sword had landed; at first he thought she had thrown it aside because she was going to let him go. But now he knew, as she took another menacing step toward him with another deadly growl, that she had carelessly thrown the sword away because she no longer needed it.

Sierra sensed the release of his hold on her, and she wasted no time in dropping into a crouch and slipping out of his grasp before he could grab her again. She lunged to one side and threw herself into a shoulder roll that took her well out of his reach, and then sprang to her feet and dashed out the door.

It was no human imitation of a wolf's growl that came from her, and the shadow suddenly ran and leapt full length at him. She fell on top of him, pinning him to the control console and grabbing his throat in one powerful hand. Dropping his athame to land near his head on the console, Murphy grabbed at her wrist with both hands and struggled to break her hold; but he couldn't dislodge the grip she had on him. He stared up at her in terror and--

--and then froze as he suddenly recognized her.

The dark hair, and those blazing yellow eyes...

Realization rushed over him like a riptide that was about to suck him out to sea. It hadn't been just a dream after all; that sense of déjà vu that had been plaguing him had in reality been fragments of a past-life memory, struggling to the surface. He could see the Indian woman's face now--it superimposed itself upon Valerie's and then replaced it--and it all came flooding back to him in one mad instant. He remembered everything; his former name, his unit, the name of his commanding officer...and shooting the other woman in the face, raping this one before cutting her open and pulling the baby from her womb, and tearing the infant's throat out with his teeth.

And in that same moment Valerie recognized him. It was the face from her dreams; the madman from her vision with Sarah Two Knives. The man who had murdered her sister and who had raped her and had stolen her unborn baby. This was the same walking obscenity who had gleefully taken part in the butchery of over a hundred defenseless Cheyenne women and children in 1864, and who had taken such malignant gratification in their blood and misery--and who had wallowed in his own arrogant sense of unresisted power.

The son of a bitch had returned from the dead to steal her baby again.

"Not this time, motherfucker," Wolf Eyes Woman snarled at him. Suddenly, she could feel the Wolf Spirit entering her, just as it had done the night of her vision quest with Sarah Two Knives. She welcomed its possession. Her eyes flared with unabashed hatred, and her lips peeled back in a vicious grin. And while the eyes never changed, her face suddenly did; it was quickly superimposed by and then replaced with that of a huge gray timber wolf--and its pale, clear, amber eyes blazed with vengeance.

The animal growled at him again with its face only inches away from his own, and warm saliva dripped onto his face in long, glimmering strands. It bared its sharp and glistening white fangs, and in these last few moments of life Murphy discovered that he had been wrong when he had told himself that there were no such things as monsters, like vampires or ghosts.

She slammed her knee into his groin, and his lower belly exploded in unimaginable agony. "That's for stealing my baby," she said in another lupine growl. Then she slammed a fist into his face, breaking his nose and bloodying his lips as they cut themselves against his teeth, and knocking several teeth out to land like bloody little white gum squares on the console. "That's from me," she growled, and then she grabbed a fistful of hair and slammed the back of his head against the console. Her other hand grabbed a fistful of shirt and jacket, and tore them open to bare his throat and chest; her sharp black claws raked his pale flesh, leaving long, blood-red welts on his skin. Not wanting to foul herself with his blood, the creature reached for Murphy's fallen athame and clutched it in one fist. It placed the tip lightly against the soft hollow of his throat, just below his Adam's apple, and twisted it gently. "And this, you son of a bitch," she said once more in a final deadly growl, "is for the people of Sand Creek! "

Upon his death, Murphy learned that there were indeed such things as werewolves...

...and that payback is a real bitch.

***

Hiding behind the door of the darkened office across the corridor, Sierra could hear Murphy scream in terror-and then the sudden silence as he was abruptly cut off. Still trembling with terror, she held her breath and listened for a long moment, but she heard nothing. She didn't know what was happening in there, and she even thought about risking a quick look outside...and then decided against it. On the other hand, she couldn't stay here; caught in a maze of uncertainty, she just didn't know what to do...

"Sierra?"

The sound of her mother's voice broke the child's paralysis. She whipped the door open and lunged outside. "Mommy! " She leaped into her mother's arms and squeezed her tightly around her neck with a torrent of sobs.

Valerie swept her into her arms and returned her fierce embrace with one of her own. With tears of relief running down her face, and shaking with silent sobs, she buried Sierra's face against the hollow of her neck. Rocking her gently, and with her eyes squeezed shut, she whispered, "Thank you, dear Goddess, thank you..." She held her like that for another long moment, and when she finally regained enough of her composure to speak she looked into her daughter's face. "Are you okay, baby? Did he hurt you?"

Fighting for control, she sniffled once and said, "Yeah, I'm okay...but I was so scared..."

"I know, sweetheart, I know," Valerie said, hugging her again. "So was I..."

Sierra leaned back a little and reached beneath the neck of her shirt, and withdrew the silver pentacle. It still pulsated with its blue-white glow. "But I knew you'd come..."

She grinned through her tears at the talisman, and then kissed Sierra's cheek and hugged her again. "It's all over now," she said with a sigh of relief. "It's all over."

Suddenly appearing from around a corner, Jasmine came skidding to a halt at the end of the corridor. "Are you alright?" she called out as she ran for them.

"Yeah, we're okay," Valerie replied, "we're fine."

Jasmine quickly approached them; falling to her knees, she slid the last few feet and hugged them tightly as she burst into silent tears of relief.

"He isn't doing too well, though..." Valerie nodded toward the control room with a slight movement of her head.

With a suddenly cold and dangerous look that Valerie had never seen in her eyes before, Jasmine turned and entered the control room, unsheathing her Samurai's katana from behind her back. When she saw Murphy lying on top of the control console with his own athame shoved through his throat, pinning him to the console like a bug in a collection, she decided that the job was indeed finished, and there was no more need for them to stay here. It was just as well; had Jasmine been the first to find him, she would have hacked him to pieces with malignant precision before finally decapitating him.

As Jasmine returned from the control room, Sierra looked from one parent to the other with drying eyes. She sniffled once, and in a small and hopeful voice she asked, "Can we do what one hockey player said to the other hockey player?"

With drying and curious eyes, the adults knelt in front of the child and gazed into her young, sweet, innocent face. "What's that, sweetheart?" Valerie asked.

"Can we get the puck out of here?"

For a moment, Valerie was so taken aback that she didn't know what to say. She looked at Jasmine, and saw that the Hawaiian woman was looking back at her with eyes that plainly showed that she was equally at a loss for words.

They both looked at Sierra. And then relief suddenly washed over them like a tidal wave that had caught them by surprise, and they bubbled over in almost uncontrollable laughter. "Yeah," Jasmine said at last, finally able to control herself. "Yeah, let's get the puck out of here."

The three of them rose together. The reincarnation of Wolf Eyes Woman continued to hold her daughter in her arms as Quiet Eagle Watches slipped her arm around her waist, and the three of them started down the corridor-finally heading for Home.

Chapter Fifteen

"It's time once again, boys and girls, for 'Law Enforcement 101'," said the rich voice of the female radio announcer, "brought to you by the A-Net-the mighty Allied Network. Today's topic: 'Drug Laws, Asset Forfeiture, and Secret Police.'

"Now, you're all familiar with the federal asset forfeiture laws that became so widely used back in the Eighties when the Foundation was seizing power, right? These laws were first used solely in"--and then her voice took on a deep electronic echo--"THE WAR ON DRUUUUGS!!!" It then returned to normal as she continued: "Asset forfeiture was and still is used against anyone accused of being a drug dealer or user. Accused, I emphasize, and not convicted or even arrested. With this national hysteria over drugs being even bigger than the McCarthy Red Scare of the 1950s, such an accusation can be made by any anonymous informant without any substantial evidence backing it up--and the arresting agency gets to keep all that property to auction off and replenish its coffers while you have to prove your innocence. And asset forfeiture only started with drugs; from there, these laws were expanded to enforce all other morals laws, such as prostitution and gambling, in spite of the Foundation's original promise not to expand into other fields. So you can see why the feds love these laws. Regrettably, nowadays, you've all seen where these laws have led us. If you hate your neighbor's guts and despise his politics or his religion, or anything else about him for that matter, you can turn him in as a drug dealer. The cops will come and kick in his door, and seize everything he owns--and not only do you get to shut him up once and for all, but you get a stipend for being a good citizen. Remember: The Gestapo is as close to you as your own telephone, and so's that reward money.

"Now, bearing all this in mind...it has come to our attention that somebody made a slight...well...boo-boo."

"'Pulled a boner' is another commonly used phrase," said a male voice in the background.

"Yeah, well, you know these guys," said the female voice, "they like to pull on their boners. Anyway, what happened was there was some good citizen out there who had been watching a neighbor's house across the street from him for about a week or two, and he claimed to have seen some very suspicious things that he didn't like. He didn't know what they were, but he knew he didn't like them. According to what he told the Guards, people had been coming and going from that place late at night, pulling up in dark cars and vans and delivering all kinds of suspicious-looking stuff in black nylon cases and cardboard boxes. Guns? the good citizen thought. Maybe druuuugs? Guns and drugs, as the State's mainstream media always mentions in the same breath, in order to subliminally reinforce that comparison? The guy said he had no idea, but he called the cops anyway and said they must be involved in drug activities.

"So out come the Holy Guards' SWAT team, with their German-made machine guns..."

"Have you ever noticed the helmets those guys wear these days?" asked the background voice. "They look just like the helmets that the German soldiers wore in World War II."

"Makes you stop and think, doesn't it?" asked the announcer. "German-styled helmets, German-made Heckler & Koch MP5 machine guns...

"Anyway, SWAT shows up, they creep up to the doors and windows, they get their flash-bang and CS grenades ready, and they don't announce themselves because they don't want the bad guys to know what's going on. They just go crashing in. All hell breaks loose, man; automatic weapons fire, explosions, it sounds like a fuckin' war zone, right? And the people inside the house are returning fire! And then you can faintly hear one man screaming 'Cease fire! Cease fire, goddamnitt!!' Another voice shouts out, 'Holy Guards--narcotics division! Put your weapons down and your hands up!' And that first voice says, 'Holy Guards? You stupid goddamn assholes, we're DEA!!! '"

The man in the background laughed. "What the hell was the DEA doing there?" he asked.

"Moving in their surveillance equipment. They had received an anonymous tip that the house across the street from them was involved in some kind of drug activity."

"What, two good citizens turned each other in for drugs?"

"Seems there was bad blood between these two individuals, and each apparently decided that the easiest way to handle their differences was by turning the other in for drugs."

"And these dope cops wound up shooting each other?"

"Two dead, seven wounded. Sounds kind of like payback for all those innocent people who've been abused by the System, doesn't it? Now, I know this sounds like a load of bullshit--"

"Sounds more like a Marx Brothers movie."

"--but we can back it up. You know how dope cops like to carry those video-cams with them at each bust so they can show their masters in Washington D.C. what a good job they're doing, and how they need more money to keep on doing it? Well, we've got our own anonymous sources, and we've got a copy of the videotape. More copies are being made for distribution, and they'll soon be available for viewing at your local Allied Library. Oh, and by the way--the two good citizens who started this ruckus are now in jail under second-degree murder charges for the two dead cops."

You could hear the wry grin in the background voice. "Let's hear it for the war on drugs."

"And class is dismissed until tomorrow."

Chapter Sixteen

Reaching toward her with one pale, talon-like hand, Murphy came shuffling from the darkened doorway of the control room. Slowly and deliberately, and with a hideous groan, he reached toward his neck with the other hand, and with a sharp wince he pulled his athame from his blood-soaked throat with a sticky wet sound. He opened his clouded eyes once more and turned them on them, and grinned a baleful grin.

No! Valerie's mind screamed. Her amber eyes were widened in terror. This isn't possible! It isn't possible!

He sucked air with a wet rattling sound through the open gash in his throat. "You can't kill a Satanist with his own tools," he gurgled, as though he were explaining an obvious phenomenon to a child. Then he raised the athame, clenched in one fist and ready to slam into his first victim. "Praise Satan!"

Crouching protectively in front of Sierra, all Valerie could do was try to shield her daughter from the approach of the walking corpse and scream...

...and then she would awaken in bed once again, with her heart pounding as though it was ready to burst from her chest.

She gently rose from their bed. Dressed in her Red Power! nightshirt, she went silently to Sierra's room to check on her. She sat on the edge of her bed and tucked the cover securely around her, then leaned forward and softly whispered, "I love you." Careful not to awaken her, she gently kissed her cheek and then slowly and quietly rose once more, and returned to the main room. She dragged a massive pillow away from the fireplace and settled down on it, facing the window, and then she rested her hunting rifle across her knees once more, as she had done every night for the last week. A silent sentinel once again, she spent the rest of the night gazing out the window at the night-shrouded woods.

***

She didn't go anywhere these days without carrying at least a hunting knife. Ever since the encounter with Murphy at Betatron, she had been moody and restless, showing signs of severe exhaustion--both physical and mental--and constantly on edge, at times bordering on volatile in her obsession with security. Sierra, on the other hand, seemed to be coping with her experience far better than anyone would have expected. And while Jasmine was naturally concerned with Sierra's safety--and convinced that they were all safe now--she was also keeping an increasingly concerned eye on Valerie. She had barely slept at all for the last week, and Jasmine had frequently awakened in the middle of the night to find her silently pacing back and forth like a caged animal, checking the windows and then silently moving to sit near the fireplace with the hunting rifle across her lap.

That afternoon, in order to alleviate some of the tension, she switched on the cd player, dropped in Melissa Etheridge's Yes, I Am compact disc, punched up "All American Girl," and cranked up the volume. It was one of those songs that Valerie particularly enjoyed; she would frequently grab either Sierra or Jasmine and swing her around, and dance around the house with them while lip-syncing along with the disc.

"Turn that FUCKING thing down! "

Jasmine flinched violently at her explosion, and quickly reduced the volume.

"How the hell am I supposed to hear anyone coming up to the house with that goddamn thing blasting like that? Jesus fucking Christ!"

"Hey, sorry," Jasmine said, trying to ease her anger. "I just thought you'd like to hear some--"

"I can't hear shit with that goddamned thing blasting--" And then she abruptly stopped when she saw the stunned looks on their faces. For a brief moment she wondered angrily and wearily what the hell they were staring at. After all, hadn't they ever seen an adult protecting her young before? Didn't they know you had to always be on guard? There were dangers out there, damn it! There were predators in the forest that were just waiting to kill one's cub, and cubs had to be protected. You think bears and mountain lions are a threat? Hah!--they're nothing! The biggest threats out there were those that walked on two legs. Those fucking humans, she thought disgustedly, they were the worst. Like Murphy, they were the most malicious and the most dangerous animals on the face of the earth. You had to be alert and on constant guard against them, and it was the duty of the pack's adults to protect the young, otherwise its cohesion would dissolve and--

Realization hit her like a hard, sharp slap across the face. She had never acted like this before; she had never raised her voice to either of them. Of course, they'd had their disagreements over the years, and they'd had their disputes and arguments, but certainly nothing like this. Now she was snarling and snapping, and raging at them like a rabid wolf. Ever since Sierra had been rescued, and even though she was safe at home now, Valerie was constantly on guard. The stereo was kept off and she was always vigilant, jumping at any minor sound, and her nerves were perpetually buzzing with energy and her muscles were relentlessly bunched in unyielding knots. She thought of nothing but that primal force to protect her pack and her young, and the only way she could ensure their safety was through swift and relentless violence...and for a week that violence had been seeking an outlet.

Suddenly, she caught sight of someone in the mirror behind them. It was a stranger--a stark, ashen, and dark-haired woman with black semicircles under her eyes, standing as rigidly as a statue and clutching her fists until her knuckles turned white. She was glaring dangerously back at her, and trembling with rage and nervous tension. Who the hell is that, she wondered, and how did she get in here? And at the same time she noticed there was something strikingly familiar about her...

She glanced down at herself and found that it was her fists that were clenched like a pair of vices. She hadn't even realized it.

Then she looked at her girls, and saw the stunned, hurt looks in their eyes. Dear Goddess, she thought, what's happening to me? When she had found Murphy clutching at her daughter, almost as though he were some kind of child molester, she had been possessed by the spirit of the wolf. She had even begun to shape-shift, as Sarah Two Knives claimed she had done during the peyote ritual, and at that time it had been a good thing to be a wolf, a necessary thing. But they were safe now, they were at home...yet still she continued to pace up and down like a caged predator, seeking escape and revenge against her captors.

Dear Goddess, she thought again, what have I become? I'm not a wolf!

She squeezed her eyes shut and felt the trembling increase. She was shaking uncontrollably, on the verge of a mental breakdown, and as she suddenly realized how she had been affecting her family she could feel hot tears on her cheeks. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice a high, strained whine. "I'm so sorry..."

It dawned on her, at last, that she could finally shed the spirit of the wolf. She had to. I'm not a wolf, damn it! she told herself again. She reached up and pulled the wolf's tooth earring from her right ear, and threw it across the room. I'm not a wolf, I'm human!

She sank to her knees with her hands at the sides of her head, trying to keep it from exploding. "I am not a wolf!" she screamed at herself. "I AM NOT A WOLF!" And then the floodgates burst open, and she broke into explosive, wailing sobs.

Jasmine and Sierra quickly went to her, and then all three of them were hugging and crying. Valerie squeezed Sierra tightly with one arm as the child's arms went around her neck in a fierce hug, and the other went around Jasmine. "I'm sorry," she said again between sobs. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean it, I'm sorry..."

"It's okay," Jasmine said softly as tears stained her own cheeks. "There's nothing to be sorry for; it's okay, babe..."

Sierra regarded her with damp, worried eyes. Sniffling, she asked, "Are you gonna be okay?"

Valerie looked at her, and she was startled out of her torment. "Me?" she asked, and almost immediately it occurred to her that with all her worries over whether or not her baby girl would be able to handle these recent events, it was Valerie herself who had been more frightened. But then, she was the one who was living with the memories of Sand Creek and of her unborn daughter having been taken from her by that bastard Murphy...and she had gone way beyond terror with the thought that it had nearly happened again.

"It was getting kind of scary," Jasmine said as she finally regained her own composure. "To be honest, you were getting kind of scary..."

Valerie kissed her. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," she said. "It's just that I've been so goddamned scared..." She took a deep breath to regain her composure and said, "But everything's going to be all right now. Everything's going to be okay."

***

But everything wasn't all right. She tried to relax, but she was still nervous and jumpy. Nor did she ever let Sierra out of her sight. They would go to the library and check out videodiscs and books, and stay up late at night watching movies and reading together until sleep finally claimed them, but Jasmine would still frequently roll over in the dead of night and awaken to find Valerie's side of the bed cold and empty. Glancing around the living room, she would discover her sitting by the sliding glass door and gazing out at the night-shrouded forest with haggard yet coldly determined eyes, and with their hunting rifle across her lap.

As long as Betatron still stood, they were still in danger from other Foundation forces. Should she try putting another curse on the nuclear plant, or try strengthening the one she had already placed there? She wondered. It didn't seem to be enough; these people were determined to have their nuke plant, one way or another, and they didn't seem to care who they killed in order to get it. She could see them in her mind; hundreds of men, dressed in forest camouflage and Kevlar, and carrying automatic weapons, storming her small forest home and firing at her house from a helicopter or two as though she were some kind of accused white separatist living in the mountains of northern Idaho. If things hadn't been so bad off in the cities, which were much higher on the Foundation's priority list than were the wilderness communes, and if resources and manpower hadn't been so drastically reduced because of the bio-war, they might have done just that.

Okay, she told herself, if that's how the bastards want to play the game, fine--if they've got guns, then I'm going to get some too.

She refused to be caught defenseless. At home she always carried her Parker-Imai hunting knife at her hip, and when they left the safety of their home--to go to the carnival, or out for visits, or for supply runs--the rifle went with them. Valerie made it a point that all three of them were to be armed; she and Jasmine kept knives on their hips and their katanas slung across their backs, and the rifle concealed behind the wagon's bench seat--and now even Sierra, along with being even more heavily trained in the martial arts of karate, kick-boxing, aikido and kendo, was allowed to have her own knife with her at all times.

But it wasn't enough. A sword was useless against an attacker keeping his distance and training a gun on her or her family. So Valerie decided that she should have another one, too; one that was easily conceal able and easily carried, and which fired much faster than her bolt-action Sauer 200. The problem was, where was she to get one? Those in the area who owned them chose to keep them, since they were so difficult to come by, and she had been damned lucky, after the incident with the bear, to find someone who had been willing to trade off the Sauer for a kilo of homegrown sinsemilla and a couple of movies. She would have to find another way. And once she did get her hands on another one, she would not only train with it every day until she was an expert with it, but she would have Jasmine practice with it, too--even if she had to force her into it. She would have tried an innocuous form of coercion, such as deprivation of sex or something, but their sex life was already a train wreck because of her continuing inability to relax. In the middle of it she would suddenly yet gently push Jasmine off of her, and would excuse herself for a moment or two--just for a few seconds--to slip into her nightshirt and go look in on Sierra to make certain she was okay. And when she returned to bed she was too preoccupied with security, and no longer in the mood.

The problem was, what kind of gun did she want--handgun or another rifle? She wanted something that she could carry easily, something light-weight and conceal able, so that meant a handgun. This she could stick in her waistband or wear in a holster on her hip or at the small of her back, or in a shoulder holster. But a handgun wasn't much good for long-range defense; after twenty or twenty-five yards she would need something with a longer range and better accuracy, so that meant obtaining a rifle. But what kind? She already had a hunting weapon...

As a defense weapon, the rifle should be high-powered and easy to carry if she were going to take it with her while running her errands. So that let out wooden, fixed-stock rifles like the Sauer. Besides, she wanted something that could be fired much more quickly. She wanted something more compact, and with a folding or collapsible stock.

She wanted an assault rifle.

And not one of those strictly semiautomatic civilian copies of military firearms, either. She wanted a real, honest-to-God, selective-fire assault rifle, capable of both semi-auto and fully automatic fire, just like the ones carried by Navy SEAL and Army Delta Force anti-terrorist teams...and every civilian police SWAT team in the country.

The problem was, what kind? She didn't know a thing about them, and she desperately needed advice and help in making a selection. Among the questions she asked herself was: Was such an assault weapon practical for stalking an intruder inside her house? Well, yeah, she told herself; if it's capable of selective fire, then she'd just keep it set on semiautomatic. It's just that an AK-47 made such a hell of a lump under the pillow...

Another problem--the supreme problem--was keeping Sierra away from the guns. A fat lot of good it would do to arm the family against attack if their daughter wound up putting a bullet in her own face with a handgun. She already knew well enough to leave the Sauer alone, but that thing--like an assault rifle--was too big for someone of her stature to mess around with anyway.

With a deep sigh she decided that strict safety training and a weapons locker under the bed would keep her out of danger. She would get the guns. The question once again was, where and how was she to get them?

***

The Stagger On Inn hadn't changed much in the last seven years. It was still small, still unkempt, and still populated with bikers, truck drivers, and wannabe cowboys. And fights were still frequent, too; usually between the bikers and the cowboys, while the truckers sat back and watched, and placed their bets. The posters hadn't changed, either; rodeos, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Kenworth trucks, and bare-breasted women armed with Uzis and AK-47s held in suggestive positions. The music seemed to be about the only thing that had changed; replacing the country western music was a wide selection of "southern rock," with bands that included the Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet, the Eagles, the Outlaws, .38 Special, and the Marshall Tucker Band.

Sierra had been left with Sonja and Viktor Belzac this morning so that Valerie and Jasmine could make this trip. At the moment, they were standing outside and surveying the building and parking lot. There were not as many trucks as there had been at one time; now there were mostly motorcycles and jeeps, and half a dozen horses tied near the front door.

"You sure this is a good idea?" Jasmine asked dubiously.

Valerie shrugged uncertainly. "I can't think of anywhere else to go," she replied. She was no more eager to enter this place than Jasmine was. "Keller mentioned this place once, and it's the only place I can think of. Maybe someone here can recommend someplace else."

Taking a deep breath to steady themselves, they both stepped up to the porch and went inside.

***

The tavern's interior was nearly as dim as the inside of a cellar. The music was silent for the moment as compact discs changed, and the air was choked with tobacco and marijuana fumes, the smell of beer and liquor, and the stink of sweat. The buzz of conversation droned sonorously as billiard balls clicked sharply and sank into pockets with small hollow thunks!, and here and there suspicious and dangerous looking men in boots, faded denim, and cracked leather laughed at obscene jokes. Then there was the creaking sound of the wooden screen door opening and closing on rusty springs, and people looked up with mild interest to see who had entered. Pool players paused in mid-shot, and as every pair of eyes in the place rose toward the door their expressions ranged from pleasant surprise to unabashed lust as these background sounds quickly faded to an uncomfortable silence.

Two women stood at the door. Both wore their dark hair in single thick braids, and they were dressed in faded blue jeans; the taller one also wore scuffed black riding boots and a black Harley-Davidson t-shirt that was emblazoned with one of the legendary motorcycles, a bald eagle with its wings spread wide, and an American flag rippling in the wind, and the Asian woman wore black boots and an olive-green tank-top over which she wore a black leather vest. At her hip each carried a hunting knife, and slung ninja-like across her back each wore a sword.

Feeling much like a European tourist who had just inadvertently wandered into gang turf, Valerie suddenly felt that this wasn't such a hot idea after all. Both women were tempted to turn and leave--as quickly as possible--but the desire to obtain defensive weapons overrode the loathing and disgust they felt for this place.

As games resumed and as an Allman Brothers c.d. began to play, Valerie and Jasmine moved toward the bar and settled down on tall padded stools. Still, however, a number of men watched them with great interest, lecherously feeling them up with their eyes. Valerie took out a worn five-dollar bill and laid it on the bar, and ordered a couple of beers.

A small group of men went to surround them, moving in like a quartet of piranhas. One of them, a tall and lanky biker with long and greasy black hair, a droopy and food-speckled moustache and bad teeth, sat next to Valerie and leaned with one hairy and tattooed forearm on the bar. "Well, hey there, good-lookin'," he said with an Arkansas drawl and a blatantly vulgar leer. His breath was even worse than his teeth. "What's a purty little thing like you doin' in a place like this?" His eyes drank in every rich detail, and when they zeroed in on her firm round breasts he could see the faint outlines of her nipples as they pressed against the black t-shirt. Whooo-eee! he thought with a lascivious sneer. She ain't got no bra on! Whooo-eee!

With only a slight movement of her head, she turned to face him-and then she tried to lean back out of range of his sour breath. "Looking to buy a couple of guns," she replied, taking note of the food stains on the front of his battered "Slayer" t-shirt. "I don't suppose you could help, could you?"

He grinned at her, revealing even more rotten teeth. "Sure," he said. He gently squeezed his crotch. "Sure, I got your gun for you right here."

Low and dangerous laughter filled the bar.

Oh man, Jasmine thought with an inward growl of indignation. She remembered meeting a shmuck like this back in San Francisco when she worked in a nudie joint; when he had tried to buy her, like she was some cheap hooker, she had left him sitting on the floor with a bloody nose and a broken elbow. Had she been sitting next to this guy instead of Valerie, she would have decked him, too.

Valerie was in no mood for this. She was tired, she was grouchy, and she didn't need any bullshit from some low-life ass-bite who thought of himself as Pierce Brosnan's interpretation of James Bond.

She glanced down at his crotch. Then she looked him in the eye with haggard eyes. "I said I need a gun," she said with a low and cold voice, "not a pea-shooter."

This time the laughter was loud, and damn near side-splitting. Only the biker's grin began to slip.

"I'm looking to pick up a couple of firearms. If you can help, talk to me. If you can't, fuck off."

There was a low, laughing "Oooooooh" from the others as the situation suddenly took a turn for the worse. Some of the men backed off to make more room; it looked as though there was about to be a fight. A very short one. A voice somewhere in the background said, "Go git 'er, Spike," and there was more threatening laughter.

It was definitely time to get out of here. Valerie started to turn away from him as she rose from her seat, and Spike's hand reached across to clamp around her arm. "You need someone to teach you some manners," he growled.

Valerie looked down at his hand for a moment, and then she raised her eyes to look at him. They were as cold as his, but far more deadly. "Move it or lose it, asshole," she growled back.

That did it. Everyone backed away, giving them room. Jasmine went to stand at the far end of the bar near the door, where she could keep an eye on the rest of the room.

Spike hauled back his right fist and sent it flying forward, thrown straight from the shoulder. Valerie's left hand swept up and blocked the blow, and then its heel slammed against his cheek bone. The blow was just sufficient to stagger him back a step or two, causing his grip on her arm to loosen and giving her the room she needed. She took a half-step back and her right hand came up, and its heel slammed against his chest, staggering him back another step.

Another man withdrew a length of shiny steel chain from around his waist and began to wrap one end around his hand. Very slowly, he started to rise from his seat at the bar, ready to attack Valerie from behind; after all, he wasn't about to let some woman beat up one of his buddies. He began to haul his arm back in preparation to swing the chain's loose end at the back of the unsuspecting woman's head, and then he felt a soft hand on his shoulder that gently held him back. He turned to see who it belonged to, and suddenly he felt the thin, cold razor's edge of Jasmine's dagger against his throat, lightly resting just above his Adam's apple. He froze immediately, afraid to move even his eyes. "I wouldn't," she softly warned him, slowly shaking her head as she continued to watch the scene before them.

He slowly lowered himself onto his seat again.

They were both on their feet. Spike was standing back a few feet with his fists raised, watching Valerie in rage and looking for an opportunity to strike; Valerie, on the other hand, watched him coldly, ready for any strike he might throw.

He threw a right roundhouse at her face, and she blocked it effortlessly with another sweep of her left arm. He threw a left and she blocked again, just as easily, with her right. He threw another right, and this time she grabbed his wrist with both hands and pulled him forward, side-stepping and yanking him almost off his feet; stumbling past her, he barely avoided falling flat on his face. He spun in rage and faced her again. "You bitch," he growled, and his eyes narrowed dangerously. He reached for a back pocket and flicked out a switchblade knife. "I'm gonna cut you up, you bitch!"

Jasmine wanted to get into it and help, but she couldn't; she had to stay out and keep her wary eyes on the rest of them. If one of them budged--if one man even looked like he might try to interfere--she would lash out with her katana and change his mind. In the meantime, she would have to let Valerie handle this one by herself.

He lunged at her with the knife. Valerie's left foot came up and blocked, the outside edge of her boot catching him across the wrist. It felt as though someone had given him a hard whack across his wrist with a chunk of rebar, and the blow sent the knife flying. Without touching the floor again, her foot came back and then snapped forward, and the toe of her boot caught him just beside and below his eye. The kick sent him spinning and crashing against the bar, and then she grabbed him by his shoulders and hauled him up again to face her. She cocked her arm back and sent it ramming forward to punch him twice in the face, smashing his nose into a flat, bloody rose. One more punch slammed into his midsection, catching him in his solar plexus and driving the air from him, and then her foot lashed out once more to sweep his feet from beneath him. He fell and sat hard on the wooden floor.

Two of Spike's friends lunged toward her. She spun to face them, and reached behind her back. With a brisk and ringing metallic scrape, and with stainless steel flashing like lightning, she drew her katana from its scabbard and swept it before her. Slicing the air in front of them with a wicked hiss, she convinced them to freeze on the spot; one more angry swipe scattered them like a flock of pigeons.

Jasmine grasped the back of the man's collar in one hand, keeping her knife at his throat. Together, they moved off from their barstool. "I hate to break up the fun, Thelma," she told Valerie, "but I really do think it's time for us to leave."

"Yeah, I'm afraid you're right, Louise," Valerie agreed. Slowly, keeping her sword pointed at the crowd, she made her way backward as both women made their way toward the door.

Spike was still on the floor, only now he was sitting with his hands over his nose and mouth; blood was seeping through his fingers and running down one forearm to drip onto his jeans. "She broke my nose, man!" he roared. "Fuckin' bitch broke my nose!" Only it came out sounding like, "She broke by dodze, bad! Fuckid bidge broke by dodze!"

Valerie glanced down at him with a cold look of contempt. "You'll live," she told him as she continued toward the door. She drew her hunting knife and made her way over to Jasmine. "Here, I'll take this guy," she told her. "I'll keep these good ol' boys honest while you make sure they don't follow us."

"Got it." She slipped out the door as Valerie took control of their hostage and held him in front of her.

"If just one of you moves..." she told them, deliberately letting the threat hang as she kept the knife at his throat and the sword pointed at the rest of them.

It seemed like an eternity, but in reality it was only two or three minutes. They heard Jasmine yelling and the stampeding of half a dozen horses, and then a moment later two more horses quickly approached the front door. Jasmine was sitting astride hers, and in her other hand she held the reins of Valerie's.

"Okay, all of you"--she made a slight but no less threatening motion with the knife and sword--"on the floor, or your friend dies."

No one moved.

"Now!" she shouted.

"Get on the floor, man!" the hostage yelled in near panic. "For chrissakes, do it! This bitch is nuts! "

Slowly, almost reluctantly, every man in the tavern lay belly-down on the floor.

Valerie switched weapons; she raised her katana to her hostage's throat and then sheathed the knife. Together, they backed up a couple more steps...and then she planted her booted foot against his ass and shoved hard, sending him stumbling forward and then falling to his hands and knees. She quickly switched her sword from one hand to the other, leapt into the saddle of her horse, and together the two women raced off down the trail and into the woods.

Every man in the tavern came outside to give chase. They stopped a moment later, however, and swore up a storm of curses.

The freshly cut leather of horses' reins remained tied around the porch rails, but the horses were gone. All of the motorcycles had been tipped over, and their fuel lines had been cut; and the rest of the vehicles--the few jeeps and other 4x4s in the parking lot--had at least two tires slashed, effectively rendering them all useless.

"Shit!" a voice yelled somewhere in the background. "Fuckid bidge broke by dodze, bad!"

Well, so much for that idea, Valerie thought as they raced down the path. Not only did she not obtain any weapons, she had pissed off just about everyone who might possibly have helped her get some. Now what the hell was she going to do?

***

Two days later, a horse and rider could be heard coming at a slow walk from the woods and toward the house. Valerie saw him through the sliding door; he had a dark, trimmed beard and was dressed in scuffed brown riding boots, faded jeans, a dusty and sweat-stained beige Swiss army shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, and a dark brown western-styled hat that was pulled low to shade--and hide--his eyes. He looked like a faceless model who had stepped from an ad in Rolling Stone magazine for Western wear a week ago, and had been on the road ever since. He didn't look like anyone she knew. She silently and immediately went to the fireplace and took down the two katanas, and tossed one to Jasmine. She caught it and held it for a moment, thinking that Valerie was over reacting. She had never reacted this way on those rare occasions when a stranger or two had come up to the house seeking directions, and she knew no one had been able to follow them from the tavern. Yet she also thought it might be wise to take a defensive stand anyway. Opting in favor of caution, she motioned Sierra toward her room and started to take up a position on one side of the door while Valerie, baring her blade with a metallic zing! and tossing the scabbard away, took a position on the other side. They stood with swords raised, ready to confront the stranger.

He dismounted from his horse, smiling to himself, and tied the reins to the porch rail. It had been a long ride, but finally he was here, and all he could think of was how good it would be to see Valerie and Jasmine and Sierra again. It had been something like...three years, was it? Good Lord, had it really been that long? He could have tried to notify them of his upcoming arrival, he thought, but where was the fun in that? It would be a lot more fun to surprise them. With a growing grin, all he could do was imagine the surprised look on Valerie's face when she saw him, suddenly appearing on her doorstep from nowhere.

He mounted the wooden porch with a deep, hollow thudding of his boot heels, and knocked at the door. Stuffing his hands into his back pockets, he rocked back slightly on his heels and kept on grinning, barely able to contain himself. Boy, is she gonna be surprised! he thought.

The screen door zipped open to the right and the razor-edged blade of a katana suddenly appeared from the left and was laid gently against his throat. The haggard amber eyes that fixed on him were so cold and deadly that they could have made the Devil himself shit down both his legs.

The only indication he gave that he'd been caught by surprise was a slight arching of his eyebrows. He took only a moment to look from her eyes to the blade, and then back to her eyes again. Then, very calmly, he said, "Well, it's certainly good to see you again, too, darlin'."

There was a subtle shift in the look in her eyes. The voice sounded familiar, although the southern accent was maybe a tad stronger than she remembered. "Keller?" she asked uncertainly, and the sword's blade began to lower a little bit; but it could always be snapped back up again. She hadn't seen the man in nearly three years, except for in her dreams; even then, the hat had been white and he had been dressed like a vacationer in the Bahamas, or perhaps like a character out of a Jimmy Buffett song.

But come to think of it, the beard had been the same.

He grinned that infectious grin of his. "Guilty as charged."

With a loud whoop, she tossed the sword aside and threw her arms around his neck as Jasmine sighed in relief. "Keller!" she screamed in delight, and squeezed him hard enough to almost break his neck. "My God, it's really you!"

Returning her hug, he said, "Who else would I be?"

She finally let go of him, and then it was Jasmine's turn to greet him. With a squeal of delight and a tight embrace, she declared, "We didn't recognize you!" Then she tugged playfully at his short beard. "What's with all this fuzz?"

"Sierra!" Valerie called out. "Come on out; it's your Uncle Garrett!" Then she turned back to him, grinning uncontrollably with tears of joy brimming in her eyes. "This is a new look for you," she said at last, taking stock of him and gently flicking the side of his hat's brim. "I like it."

"Evidently my face has become well known inside of Post Office lobbies, so I thought I'd try a new look for a while. It was either this or shavin' my head and piercin' my nose, and since I've been spending a lot of time lately runnin' between Tucson and Flagstaff I kinda figured this look would fit in a little better."

"I'd say you made the right choice," Jasmine told him. "I tried looking you up in San Francisco, but..."

"I haven't been there in a couple of years; too many damn-fool PCers. Mostly I live in Arizona now."

Sierra was slowly coming from her room, curious yet cautious. This tall stranger seemed friendly enough, but...

"Sierra, you remember your Uncle Garrett, don't you?" Valerie asked.

That's not Uncle Garrett, she thought. She remembered hearing lots of stories about him, and she remembered a tall, friendly man from way back in her past who gave her a wounded Panda, but that was about as far as her memories went. She was still uncertain and watchful.

Keller went down on one knee before her and took his hat off, and plopped it on top of her head. It settled down to her nose. "You still lookin' out for Dylan for me?" he asked softly.

When he had first given her the stuffed Panda, he had told her that it was his young partner--an undercover agent for the Allies--who needed to be looked after because he had been wounded by a Government spy. There had been a white bandage around the toy's head, and Keller had told her that the wound would be healed in about a week, and by then the bandage could come off; but Dylan would still need a long time to recover, and a lot of care and attention. That fragment of conversation had always stuck in her mind because they had been conspiring to commit a federal crime; to hide a fugitive from the Foundation. The "partnership" between Keller and Dylan the Secret Allied Agent had been extended to include Sierra, and from then on it had been their secret.

Sierra pushed the hat back so she could see him, and grinned as the memories came flooding back-and then she suddenly recognized the face behind the beard. "Uncle Garrett!" she screamed in his ear as she threw her arms around his neck. The hat fell back from her head to hang behind her from its cord, and she squeezed him with almost painful enthusiasm and surprising strength. "Hot damn!"

Keller was caught totally by surprise by her outburst, and this time he let it show-What the hell are they teachin' this kid? he wondered-and Valerie and Jasmine broke out in laughter. He laughed it off, too, and hugged her as he straightened, raising her from the floor. "How've you been, punkin?"

Sierra said nothing; she just kept on hugging him. Fiercely. And then she began to shake.

"Hey, Sierra?" Keller said softly. "What's wrong, sweetheart?" He tilted his head back so he could look at her face, and her hold around his neck loosened slightly. There was concern in his eyes, and there was terror in hers as the tears flowed from them.

"H-h-he kidnapped me," she said, and the words all began to run together. "He k-k-kidnapped m-me and then he was g-g-gonna kill me if m-mommy didn't take the curse off a-and I was so sc-cared and--" She buried her face once more in the hollow of his neck and tightly squeezed it again.

Still holding her, Keller turned quickly to look at the two women. "What happened?" he asked, his voice a soft demand.

"It's kind of a long story," Valerie said.

"I got time."

"I have an idea," Jasmine said. "I think we'd all be better off enjoying a nice long soak in the river. Sweetheart, why don't you and Sierra head on over there? Garrett and I will catch up in a few minutes and bring a few munchies along, okay?"

***

Valerie and Sierra were in the water, shrieking with laughter and splashing at each other. Jasmine was sitting waist-deep at the edge of the pool and leaning back with her arms extended to rest on the stones on either side, and Keller was lying on his stomach next to her and just a little above her, on the low, flat stone slab. At Valerie's request, he had brought his gun with him, and it lay on a towel next to him and the straw picnic basket, along with a pair of knives.

He was the only one not nude; he was dressed in a pair of red-plaid boxer shorts, and he denied that shyness had anything to do with it. "I tried a day of skinny-dipping once," he had said. "Believe me, it really brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'fryin' your ass.'"

She had just finished telling him about Sierra's kidnaping and rescue, and he silently cursed himself for not having been here to help them.

"Up until a couple of days ago, it was like walking barefoot on broken glass around here," she said as she watched them. "Now look at them." She smiled. "Sierra seems to have handled the whole experience a lot better than Valerie has; Valerie's still waking up every night and sitting by the window with a rifle. She's suffering from borderline exhaustion, and I'm worried about her." Then she turned to Keller. "I'll tell you something, though; seeing you again has really done us all a world of good."

His smile at Jasmine's compliment was both slightly self-deprecating and notably appreciative. "Yeah, well, kids can be pretty tough," he said with his slight Texas drawl. "They can surprise the hell out of you by takin' a fall and bouncin' right back."

They swam up to them, grinning and squinting in the bright sunlight. "Aren't you guys going to join us?" Valerie asked.

"I'm scared of water," Keller said with a grin.

"What?" Valerie laughed. "With all the gun fights and dope runs across the Caribbean that you used to brag about? Bullshit." Then, deciding it was about time to take a break, Sierra went to sit next to Jasmine and Valerie hauled herself out of the water, and plopped wetly next to Keller. Her eyes fell on the .45, and she dried her hands before reaching to pick it up. It wasn't the same gun he had that night they first met. "Whatever happened to that big old cannon of yours, anyway?" she asked.

Keller fought down the urge to go for the obvious answer. After all, there was a kid here. Instead, he looked at the .45 and thought back for a moment. "I've been through so many guns, I can't remember one from the next."

"What was it? A 'Desert Beagle,' or something..."

"Eagle," Keller corrected her with a grin as he suddenly remembered the weapon. "Desert Eagle. Now that you mention it, I'm not sure I ever did get that thing back; I imagine one of your neighbors picked it up from the soldiers."

Valerie was turning the gun over in her hands, running her fingers over its lines, studying it. "How long does it take to learn to shoot one of these things? Effectively, I mean."

"Not long," he replied. "I can have you hittin' bull's eyes at twenty yards in no time."

Valerie popped the magazine out of the gun's butt, looked at the hollow-point bullets that it held, then slipped it back in. Then she looked at him. "Show me."

"Okay," he told her. "First thing tomorrow."

"Why not now?"

"As in everything, you gotta be prepared and have the right kind of gear."

"Oh, come on!" she said, her impatience already rising. "You have the damn thing right here--show me!"

He understood her desire to learn, and he understood her impatience-and he could see the exhaustion evidenced by the dark circles under her amber eyes--which was precisely why he refused to back down. Unruffled, he gently took the gun from her hand and placed it back on the stone. He looked at her and said, "This ain't driving a car we're talkin' about, darlin', this is handguns. So here's lesson number one: Relax." He laid his head on his folded arms, facing away from her, and sighed contentedly. "Take a nap, or go for another swim or something..."

He could feel her cold eyes drilling through the back of his head. He didn't care; he knew he was right, and he knew that she knew he was right. Also, he knew that she had been angry for a long time--angry at herself, angry at the world, angry at the Foundation. While Valerie and Sierra had been coming ahead of them to the river, Jasmine had filled him in on all that had happened; the kidnapping, the recovery, the lingering terror and the explosive temper, the midnight security checks, the sleepless nights... Valerie had been filled with rage, in spite of already having killed the man who had kidnapped Sierra; but there had been no one at whom she could justifiably direct her surplus fury. Keller figured she just needed to blow off some steam, to direct her anger at someone else for a while, and since he was unflappable when it came to her temper he decided that he would let her go ahead and get pissed off at him for a while.

Now that he thought it over more, maybe he would even encourage her to get pissed at him; it could be fun.

***

In the darkness and the silence of night, she came awake with a start, her heart pounding hard in her chest; Murphy had been coming after her and Sierra again, with his bloody athame raised high and wearing that malevolent grin. She raised her head and listened carefully, and heard nothing. Slowly, she began to climb out of bed...and then she saw the shadowy figure sitting in one of the folded futons by the window. Her eyes widened in cold terror. Shit! she thought. Dear Goddess, that bastard Satanist has come back from the dead!

She rolled onto her other side and lunged for her katana...and her hand found only carpeting and empty space. Oh, God! God damn it--the sword was on the other side of the room, hanging above the fireplace!

She began to leap from her bed--and then she noticed, resting on a small table standing next to the futon, a steaming coffee mug and a Colt .45. Scared and confused, and suddenly freezing where she was, she thought, Wha'?

The silhouette's head turned slightly, and faint starlight illuminated one side of Keller's face. "Sierra's fine," he whispered, "and everything's secure."

Valerie watched him a moment longer, and then she exhaled a deep sigh of relief as the pounding of her heart began to slow. "Jesus, you scared the hell out of me," she whispered.

"Sorry."

And then a moment later she whispered, "Thanks, Garrett," as she relaxed. And then she smiled. "Thanks for being here."

"I'm glad I can help," he softly told her. "Now go back to sleep."

With one more deep sigh of relief she lay back down, and a moment later she was asleep.

***

She awoke to brilliant sunlight and the smells of breakfast. With a moan, she shifted under the cover and then reluctantly rose up on one elbow. She looked around languidly.

"Well, welcome back to the land of the living!" Jasmine said cheerfully as she looked at her over her shoulder. She was kneeling before the fireplace, cooking breakfast. "I'd ask if you slept well"--she returned her attention to the fire--"but I can already tell you did."

She slowly sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the platform bed, then held her head in her hands for a moment as she moaned slightly. Bleary-eyed, and with her hair mussed from long hours of sleep, she straightened and stretched, and yawned enormously.

"Tub's all ready," Jasmine told her. "Go treat yourself to a nice hot bath."

Slowly, she rose to her feet and pulled up the back of her "Red Power!" nightshirt to scratch sluggishly at one bare buttock. With another huge--and louder--yawn, she started lethargically toward the bathroom.

Then she abruptly stopped. Quickly looking around, instantly alert and suddenly alarmed, she asked apprehensively, "Where's Sierra?"

"Down at the river with Garrett, catching some more breakfast." She began salting and peppering the contents of the frying pan. "Hungry?"

She sighed and relaxed a little bit. "Starving."

"I'm not surprised." Slipping three trout fillets, scrambled eggs, and a generous helping of hash brown potatoes onto a plate with a spatula, she went on: "You've been asleep for nearly thirty-six hours."

Valerie looked at her in mute astonishment.

"I'm serious." She set the skillet back on the stone hearth, then reached with an oven-mitt for the coffee pot that sat on a grill above the flames. "Garrett said the last time he talked to you was when he was standing guard," she said as she began filling a cup. "Aside from a couple of bathroom trips, you've been asleep ever since."

Valerie started toward the table, and Jasmine pointed at her with one finger. "You." She indicated the bathroom with a thumb. "Tub. Now." She spoke with a smile, but her voice was commanding nonetheless. "I'll bring breakfast."

Valerie smiled a little smile. "Yes ma'am." She turned and headed for the bathroom.

The wooden hot tub was already filled with steaming water and frothy suds, scented with sandalwood bath crystals. Valerie pulled her nightshirt off over her head and dropped it on the floor, then slipped into the tub with a long, drawn-out "Aaaahhhh!" of contentment. She leaned forward and dunked her head under, raised up again, and then reached for the big loofah sponge that hung behind her. There was a small, low table standing next to the tub; on it was a burning candle, and draped over a towel rack nearby were four fluffy white towels.

Jasmine came in with breakfast a moment or two after Valerie had finished washing, and now she was relaxing with her eyes closed. She opened them and said, "Food! Gimme!"

Jasmine grinned as she knelt and set the plate and cup on the table, and Valerie turned on one side and rested a forearm along the edge of the tub. She attacked her breakfast with a voracious appetite; she piled a helping of potatoes and eggs on top of a small slab of rainbow trout, and ravenously popped the whole thing into her mouth. She chewed maybe five or six times, and washed it down with a gulp of strong black coffee. Nothing had ever tasted so good in all her life. She was already perking up; the food, the coffee, the bath and the thirty-plus hours of sleep were all leaving her feeling like a new woman. "God, this is good," she said around a mouthful of food as she continued to stab at her breakfast with her fork.

Then she put the fork down and took Jasmine's hand. "Listen," she said as the Hawaiian woman settled down, "I am so sorry about this past week..."

Jasmine stroked her hand. "Don't give it another thought."

She could think of nothing else to say for a moment. All she could do was just sit there and gaze fondly into Jasmine's emerald, almond eyes. Finally she said, "You're too good to me."

She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Can't argue with that," she said, and then lost the battle to suppress her smile.

Valerie grinned also, and then shifted her gentle hold on Jasmine's hand by lacing her fingers with hers. Silently and gently mouthing the words, she said, "I love you."

Responding in kind, she replied, "I love you too." And then, sensing that things were about to turn mushy, she indicated the plate. "Better finish your breakfast before it gets cold."

"Only if you slip in here with me," Valerie said suggestively.

She checked out the tub for a moment and then said, "It does look inviting..." Then she smiled and rose, and slipped out of her shirt and shorts, and stepped into the tub with her.

Later, they finished a cold breakfast.

part 7

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