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Family Values


Except for one or two references to Hunting Season, this story, which is the sequel, can be read on its own. However, reading Hunting Season will give you the background for this one, so do yourself a favour. <g> Please note that the Hunting Season disclaimers apply about equally to this. Some things, however, are worth repeating here, with variations on a theme:

Copyright: Although the main characters in the following do bear a strong resemblance to a cute couple with whom we are all familiar, all the characters in this work of fiction are the product of my own imagination and are therefore copyright to me.

Music lyrics quoted: Yes I quote several. Most of the ones I quote are favourites of mine sung by some pretty talented people, but since I am not profiting from this I decided that life was too short (and writing ’em all down would likely delay finishing this sucker by another month or two!) to give the full credits for each and every song. Except for Bev Bivens singing "Love Me Not Tomorrow," the information is readily available on the Internet.

Love/Sex: This is a work of alternative or same/sex fiction. The love and sexual relationships involve consenting adult women. This story, once again, likely qualifies for an R rating. If reading this is illegal where you live, you are underage, or this isn't your preference, please read no further and find something more appropriate to your tastes and/or laws.

Content and setting: The setting is sometime in the future - roughly 46 years from now. Again, my interest lies more in trends than predicting specific developments. Accordingly, I invented companies, weapons, vehicles etc to fit into my skewed (I hope!) view of the future. I also made up the legal system that Quinn has to contend with. And I had a lot of fun doing it. <g> One thing, however, that I did not make up was Kelly's book publishing story. It happened, but about 80 years earlier.

Language and Religion: The disclaimers that accompanied Hunting Season apply again here.

Violence: Is implied more than it is described, although some of the violent acts implied are pretty awful.

Author's note: When I started the sequel, I had no idea it would take this long to complete it! Really! I apologize for that. Real life, including a partial career change, and the deaths of two beloved furry family members and the serious illness of a third (unfortunately, it happens when four-legged family become middle-aged, then geriatric) for long periods undercut my interest in writing at all. However, I have to admit that whenever I felt like giving up on this, some nice person would write and ask if I was working on the sequel. The fact that this thing is seeing the virtual light of publication at all is due as much to people’s interest and appreciation for Hunting Season as any act of will on my part. For that I say a heartfelt thank you to you all.


  • The Uber Xena bards – long may they write!
  • Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor: two gorgeous and talented women who created unforgettable characters.
  • Harley and Zoe – for catly inspiration (and in memory of Lucie <feline> and Little Nik <canine> – tough little cookies, both of them!)
  • Thanks also to my beta readers – Holly, Jennifer and Anne -- who again rose to the occasion and helped me make this a better book than I could have done on my own. As with Hunting Season, any errors, egregious leaps of logic or just bad writing that remain are my fault and no one else's.

For Anne – Happy Birthday. <s>

Family Values

Somewhere in the Eastern half of North America, 2050

Chapter 1

I need love, love
To ease my mind
I need to find, find someone to call mine
But mama said

You can't hurry love
No, you just have to wait
She said love don't come easy
It's a game of give and take . . .

Ariel walked into the kitchen on bare feet, the sounds of her entrance masked by music from the info feed. The tall, dark haired woman on the other side of the room was dancing to the music as she prepared breakfast. Ariel took a moment just to enjoy the sight. The broad shoulders and muscularity perfectly complemented the swell of hips and the impossibly long, shapely legs, currently unobscured by the short shorts that encased what Ariel thought of as a perfect ass. Then again, she reminded herself with a grin, she was biased.

When she’d first met Quinn Thanatos, who’d been hired by Ariel’s publisher to protect her after a death threat, she’d mentally summed up the security consultant’s physical appearance in one word—Valkyrie. She soon learned that Quinn was much, much more than a strong, beautiful body. Smart, funny, fiercely loyal, a closet romantic, brave, compassionate, and passionate. All those things and a whole lot more. Ariel thanked the Goddess ever day of her life for bringing the two of them together, even if the circumstances had involved great danger. Considering we’ve just gone through it again, maybe that’s my karma, she thought wryly: I’m threatened, Quinn comes to the rescue. Down through the millennia. Aagghh! What a thought! Can we cool it with the death threats and dire situations now, please, she addressed the Goddess, only semi-humourously. Two attempts on my life should be enough for any lifetime.

The music ended and Ariel padded across to Quinn, locking her arms around the other woman’s waist and leaning her cheek against her back.

"Oh, hi Love. I didn’t hear you come in," Quinn said over her shoulder as she put down the juice container.

"Um. Well, you were temporarily in the sway of . . . " Ariel cudgeled her memory "Diana Ross and the Supremes," she said triumphantly.

"Hey! I’m impressed!"

"Nothing to it," said Ariel as she lifted and tilted her head to make eye contact with her lover who was grinning over her shoulder at the smaller woman. "It was the dance routine that really clued me in. I could practically see the Supremes in synchronized step with you."

Quinn turned around in her lover’s arms, brushed her lips over Ariel’s and murmured "You know, I’m really good at other synchronized activities too . . ."

Ariel grinned. "If memory serves me correctly, you were just proving that a short time ago."

"Well, just in case you need a reminder . . . " Quinn’s lips found the honey blonde’s and for a while all conversation ceased.

"Mmmm," said Ariel, when she got her breath back. "I’m impressed! However . . . " she turned her head to the side to continue speaking without interference from a nuzzling Quinn, "Just hold that thought until this evening since both of us have things to do today."

"We do?" said Quinn as she lightly nipped Ariel’s earlobe.

"We do. Starting with me doing my laps."

Quinn reluctantly pulled her head back and smiled into Ariel’s green eyes. "Laps? Think I could persuade you to—"

"No Quinn. I’m not doing them naked. I get along very well with the Rankins. I don’t want to scandalize them."

"Humph," said Quinn, recalling the shadowy figure who had often watched Ariel from the upstairs window of the neighbouring house, during the time, not so long ago, that Quinn had been on guard again against an attempt on Ariel’s life. "Somehow, I think that’s a non-issue. In fact I’ll bet it would even improve your relationship with the old girls. But if you don’t see it my way, I guess I’ll just have to bear up under the strain." She planted a small kiss on the end of Ariel’s nose. "In fact, if you’d like, I’ll even scramble some eggs for breakfast while you do your laps."

"You’re on! Back in a few." Ariel picked up her towel, which she had slung over a kitchen chair on entering, and disappeared out the door to the enclosed back garden and the pool.

Quinn watched her leave, then went back to her self-appointed task with a smile on her face. For a while, the terrible shock of learning that Ariel’s nephew, Scott, had hatched a plot to get his hands on her money, had led the smaller woman to abandon her usual routine and wander about the house and garden like a pale, blond ghost, her isolation increased by the media, which had camped on her doorstep. Quinn was thankful that in a few days the fourth estate abruptly dropped Ariel as a potential story to concentrate on ferreting out the gruesome details of a local mobster’s murder.

About two weeks after Scott’s betrayal, as she worked through it in her own mind, Ariel gradually began to pick up her daily activities again. Today, over a month later was the fourth day in a row she’d done her laps, which Quinn considered a good sign. Of course, the security consultant acknowledged to herself wryly, she still worried about Ariel constantly. Her lover had been estranged from her family for many years until Scott had appeared out of the blue, a seemingly friendly face. Ariel had given him her trust, and her love, discovering too late that his professions of friendship were all a sham.

Quinn’s nose told her the coffee was ready to be poured, so she continued down her mental checklist and got out the eggs and bread. "Now all I’ve got to do is find something to keep that son of a bitch in jail for the rest of his life, " she muttered, as she broke the eggs into a bowl.

"Mew!" echoed a voice from the vicinity of her ankles.

Quinn looked down to see Charlotte pacing at her feet. The black and white kitten had eaten moments before, but had taken to demanding more food whenever the level in her bowl was reduced. Quinn took a moment off to scoop her up, and hold her close.

"The thing is, Charlotte," she said, "most of the evidence against Scott is circumstantial."

As she stroked the cat, she reflected that there was a real possibility he might be able to wiggle free of the charges unless the prosecution could find something to nail him. "If we could just find the guys Scott hired to take a shot at Ariel, I’d feel a whole lot happier." So far, neither she nor the police had been successful in tracking them down, even though Quinn had provided a description of the shooter. In the meantime, Scott’s lawyer had been able to get his client out on $100,000 bail. Hank Walsh, the detective on the case, had told Quinn that he’d been told that the members of the church Scott had attended in his home town were raising money to help his parents, Donna and Blake Johnson, pay off the loan they’d taken out to spring him.

Quinn gave Charlotte a final hug and put her back down on the floor. As she thought, the attention had side tracked the cat from her dissatisfaction with her food bowl, and she wandered out of the room in search of her littermates, Hairy and Eminence Grise, known as just ‘Grise’ for short.

"I’ll be down in a moment, Love," said Ariel, as she returned from the pool, on her way upstairs to dress.

"No hurry," said Quinn, "I’m just starting the eggs." Turning back to the counter she reflected that she didn’t care what rocks she had to turn over or how long it took, she was going to make sure Ariel was safe.

The added complication, thought Quinn, as she ordered the Sulu Nebula Mark Five to take her to her first call of the day, was that Scott might also be an actual murderer, not just an attempted one. As the computer-controlled, voice-activated car pulled smoothly out of the parking spot, Quinn let her mind focus on that thought, leaving the driving to the Mark Five’s silicone brain.

There was no doubt about it—what Detective Walsh had told her, just a few days after Scott’s arrest for attempted murder, was nothing less than a bomb shell. An inquiry to the police in Scott’s home town had revealed that some years before he’d been one of those questioned about the disappearances of several young women, including his own sister. Since nothing further had turned up linking him to the missing women, the police interview had somehow not made it into the main data folder on the case. Consequently it hadn’t been uncovered by Joe, Thanatos Security’s computer research expert, when he had checked Scott’s background for Quinn on Scott’s initial contact with Ariel.

Quinn leaned back in her seat and stretched her long legs. Detective Walsh had told her that Donna and Blake Johnson had told the police that Katie was missing, then changed their minds and stated that they believed she had run away. A phone call Quinn had placed to the cop who’d spoken to Walsh hadn’t elicited much more information, except to add that a security guard at the bus station claimed he’d seen a teenager matching Katie’s description the night she disappeared. The cops had been at a standstill when the body of one of the missing women was found on the outskirts of a neighbouring town, a couple of days later. That apparently had sent the investigation veering in a new direction and away from Scott Johnson. Even though the murderer was never found, Scott was not interviewed again.

Quinn blew out her breath. "And that’s it. End of story." Actually, though, she mused, that’s not so much the end of the story, as an outline of an introduction. Now to fill in the blanks, and finish it.

"Well hi there, boss lady. You look like you’ve been run through a ringer."

"Thanks, and the same to you," said Quinn as she collapsed into a chair.

Kris Cavendish got up from behind her desk, walked to the refrigerator and extracted a bottle of water that she tossed to Quinn. The security consultant caught it in one hand, twisted off the top and downed it in two gulps. "Thanks. Got any more?"

"Coming right atcha" said Kris as she fired two more bottles Quinn’s way. Extracting a beer for herself she returned to her seat. Her boss quickly downed the second bottle, slowing her down fractionally, and started on the third.

"That feels good," said Quinn, as she took a gulp, then rubbed the bottle’s cold exterior over her forehead. "Air conditioning conked out on me this morning and today would be the day that I had to check warehouses that didn’t have air conditioning. It’s been a preview of hell."

"Poor baby. It is summer you know," said Kris with a grin.

"Get stuffed." responded Quinn, gulping the last of her water.

Before Kris could speak, a new voice said "Oh, hi Quinn. I thought I heard you arrive."

The security consultant glanced over her shoulder and nodded hello at the tall man who had just walked into the office and was now lounging against the wall.

"John, our leader has had a hard day. Grab her another water, get yourself something and have a seat."

"No more for me, thanks, John. Three’s my limit. But get yourself a drink and pull up a chair. I wanted to talk with both of you."

"Yeah? This isn’t just a social call, then," said Kris, leaning forward. "How is it I think this is going to mean more work?"

"Just your finely tuned intuition," responded Quinn as she leaned back in her chair and took a moment to enjoy the soft movement of air from the ceiling fan.

John selected a beer and went next door to pull in his wheeled office chair. When he returned, Quinn waited for him to sit and take a gulp before she continued. "As you both know, Ariel wants, no—needs—to find out more about Scott’s background. Between the added investigations here and in his hometown, my time will be pretty well taken up. I’ll also need another operative from the agency. So, I’ve decided to bring more people on board."

Kris leaned back, sipped her beer and eyed Quinn. "Uh huh. And the downside would be. . . ?"

"You’ll have to train them."

"Shit! Quinn you know I hate. . ." The compact woman came to a stop and eyed her tall boss sitting quietly on the other side of the desk. "Go on." she said, finally.

Quinn glanced down at her bottle of water, ran a thumbnail over the edge of the label, then looked up. "I don’t know how long it’s gonna take, but while I’m looking into this I want to know good people are holding the fort at home. As you know, Vanessa and I have been working on the drive-by angle and checking on Scott here in town. So far we’ve come up with nothing. We need to keep looking here and start checking his early background. To do that with our current staff would stretch our resources to the breaking point. We need more people but I don’t have the time to train them and run the investigations too. I need your help on this, Kris."

Kris looked at her a few seconds more, then said, "I must be a soft touch. Ok, I’ll do it, but it’s only because of Ariel, ya know."

Quinn grinned at her with relief. She figured Kris would agree but had discovered over the six years of their working relationship never to take the shorter woman for granted. "Thank you."

"So how can I help?" John asked.

Quinn turned to him. "John, you did a good job on the admin stuff while we were gone last time. If you’d continue that, it would free up Kris."

The tall man leaned forward, and said "No problem. That creep had me fooled too. I’d like to see you nail his ass. Count me in."

"Good, and thank you too. We’re going to need all the help we can get on this and I’m glad I can depend on you guys."

"So I suppose I should advertise . . ."

"Already done. The first interview is at 9:00 am tomorrow morning. If all goes well, I hope that Ariel and I, and maybe Vanessa, can head out of town by the weekend."

Kris sat back. "Why is it I feel like I was just faked out of my socks?" she asked rhetorically. "Ok, Quinn. Bring ‘em on. But get this thing wrapped up as quick as you can, ’cause I just might start to like being the boss lady!"

"Yes Ma’am!" said Quinn.

"Ariel Pedersen."

"You the lady what writes all them dirty books?" Quinn tried to inject a nasal, whining quality into her voice to disguise it.

"That would be me. What’s it to ya?"

Shit! Recognized already. Ah well, play it out. "Well, I wondered where yuh got yur ideas. Seems to me they’re ’gainst the laws of GAWD and MAN."

"Really? You’ve read my books?"

"Damn straight! Ah mean . . . yeah, and what them girls get up to, well, no self respectin’ law-abidin’ good girl would never do nothing like that. I think yur under an evil influence.

"You may be right. Seems to me I saw one around here this morning. She had long dark hair, cold blue eyes, and was too tall and muscular to be a Real Woman. Oh my, oh my! Is it hot out here or what?"

"You’re outside?" exclaimed Quinn, forgetting to stay in character. " Trying to fry your brain?"

"Oh, hi Quinn. Your friend wander away? I decided to get some sun, so yes, I’m outside working on my tan. What’s turned you against the great outdoors suddenly?

"Hours and hours of hot muggy summer and car air conditioning that’s been out of commission since just after I left this morning." Quinn paused while Ariel commiserated with her, then she continued, "so you’re working on your tan, eh? Wearing . . . ?"

Ariel chuckled sensually and dropped her voice an octave. "What do you think I’m wearing?"

"Oh Goddess! I’m already overheated! I should have thought twice before starting this game. Who knows what could happen if I let my imagination completely off its leash!"

"Ooh, we can’t have that. I’ll be ready to take corrective action when you get here."

"Corrective action?"

"Yeah. Something to restore your fluid levels and cool you down. Then, to make sure we got you help in time, we’ll do a test of the system . . ." The writer’s voice trailed off suggestively.

Quinn caught her breath. "Ariel, Love, my body temperature just shot up another 50 degrees. You’ll regret saying that when you have to drag my lifeless body from the car."

Laughter greeted this statement. "See you shortly Quinn?"

"You bet! In about 10 minutes."

"I’ll be ready," crooned the writer.

The security consultant leaned back in the big tub, and sighed.

"You ok?" murmured the honey blonde, who was currently nestled in her arms.

"Mmm. Peachy. Just thinking about that system test. Went off without a hitch. I’m back in full operational order."

The body in her arms shook with mirth. "I’ll testify to that."

They lapsed into silence, both luxuriating in the closeness. Feline feet pounded by the door and a siren wailed in the distance. The low hum of the air conditioning was the only other sound to disturb the silence. Quinn dropped a kiss on Ariel’s hair and said "We’re interviewing for the new people over the next couple of days. If everything goes well we should be able to head out of town on Saturday or Sunday. "

"Ok. I’ll make the reservations."

"Good. Make them for three."

"Three? Who are you bringing with us?"

"Vanessa. We’re heading into hostile territory. I want to make sure you’re well guarded."


Quinn leaned forward and studied the smaller woman’s profile. "Ok? No argument?"

"No. You know what you’re doing. And I like Vanessa, even if, beside the two of you, I’ll look like a munchkin."

"And a more delectable munchkin I’ve never seen," said Quinn, as she nibbled an earlobe.

Ariel smiled but declined to comment. Quinn slide her hands slowly and sensuously over the writer’s skin, noting idly that her time in the sun had turned it slightly pink, then grinned to herself as she thought that it was either that, or their recent shared activity. Ariel had come a long way since the day she learned of Scott’s betrayal but, despite appearances to the contrary, Quinn knew that the writer still wasn’t her usual, feisty self. That she hadn’t objected to Quinn bringing a bodyguard for her along on the trip spoke volumes. The dark haired woman slide her arms around the honey blonde, engulfing her in a tight, fierce hug, and made a silent promise to keep her safe from harm.


Chapter 2

"Welcome to Parsonville, the Friendly Town," Vanessa said, reading the large roadside sign as their car slowed for the town limits.

"Let’s just hope that means the inhabitants like to chat," said Quinn, as she glanced at Ariel. The writer was looking out the window, at landscape she’d only seen a handful of times in the previous 14 years.

Parsonville, population 15,560, had been Ariel’s world until she was 17. Her mother and father had had tenure at the small, local university, so she’d lived comfortably in a quiet, middle class neighbourhood until the age of 14, when her parents had died in a commuter plane crash. That forced her to move in with her sister, Donna, and her family, where she’d stayed until her sister had thrown her out just a month before she finished high school, when Donna had found her kissing her best friend. With help from Dawn Jameson, her English teacher, Ariel had survived, but the experience had scarred her. Quinn wondered what thoughts were now going through her mind.

The rental car that they had picked up at the airport 50 miles away pulled to the side of the road, having reached its destination. "Awaiting directions," it intoned. "I am currently in multi-user mode," it added helpfully.

Quinn glanced at Ariel, as the writer said "continue down this street then turn right at the first intersection. Proceed along the street until I give you further instructions."

"Noted," responded the vehicle and pulled out again. The outskirts—remnants of farms mixed indiscriminately with new houses and a variety of businesses—slid by. Still, the scent of freshly mown grass suffused the air and Quinn noted a field of hay, cut and ready to be stored for the winter, right beside a large modern mall that looked to be only a few years old.

"So much has changed," murmured her lover. "Oh, pull into the parking lot of the Good Night Inn coming up on the right." The car did as requested and Ariel directed it to a parking space near the main entrance. "Might as well stay here," said Ariel. "It’s pretty central."

Within a half hour they were settled in two rooms looking out over the parking lot next to the street. Not bad, thought Quinn, as she glanced idly through the blinds at the traffic. The room appeared comfortable and they were here early enough to begin their investigative work the same day.

Ariel, who had been on the phone behind her, concluded the call and stood up, just as a knock sounded on the door. "Come in Vanessa," said Quinn, recognizing the cadence. "It’s not locked."

"Hi," said the red head, as she stepped through the doorway. "All set?"

Quinn looked at Ariel and raised an eyebrow.

"Yup. Dawn Jameson says she’s thrilled we’re here and we should come right over."

"Ok then," said Quinn. "Let’s do it."

As they waited at the door of the small brick house, Ariel reflected that the Jameson home had changed little in almost 14 years. The wooden porch was still freshly painted, the flowers in the planters that were scattered artfully about were still in full bloom, and the virginia creeper that obscured part of the porch provided as much of a haven from the summer sun as it ever had. That train of thought was cut off as the door opened and she was engulfed in an enthusiastic hug.

"Ariel! It’s so good to see you! Please, all of you come in!" The middle-aged woman ushered them in and shut the door. "I take it you just got into town? How was your flight? Where are you staying?"

Ariel answered the rapid fire questions, made introductions and then she and Dawn Jameson led the group through the house to a large solarium at the back that had been furnished with both comfy loungers and a table and chairs. Quinn brought up the rear watching the interaction between the two women. Based on what Ariel had told her, she had been prepared to like Dawn before she met her. After being fooled so badly by Scott, however, Quinn, who was never very trusting, was reluctant to take anyone at face value. In preparation for their trip to Parsonville, she’d had Joe find out everything he could about Dawn and her son, Tim. Along the way, she’d discovered that Ariel had been helping Dawn put Tim through school, something the writer had never mentioned. Now Quinn watched them talking enthusiastically, face-to-face for the first time in two years.

"Ariel, you look wonderful!" exclaimed the older woman as she patted the writer’s arm. "I’m so glad you’re here. Tim will be delighted to see you too! He’s out playing basketball right now but he should be back shortly."

"I’ll be glad to see him too. He’s home for the summer?"

"Yes. A friend of his owns a small landscaping company so she hired him to help out."

"Hard work," interjected Vanessa.

"Yes, but he seems to be enjoying it."

Just then the solarium door to the outside opened to admit a tall, muscular young man who wouldn’t have been out of place in the backfield of a football team. He was accompanied by a big shaggy brown dog of no discernable heritage that rushed up to the guests and greeted them enthusiastically.

"Sorry Mom," apologized Tim as he collared the dog. "I saw the car and knew you had company so thought I’d sneak in the back way to get cleaned up. Didn’t think you’d be out here."

"It’s ok Tim. Look who’s here!"

Tim turned to the visitors and then exclaimed "Ariel!" and immediately engulfed her in a bear hug. "We didn’t know when you were going to get here."

Quinn watched carefully, but Ariel seemed ok with the second rib-cracking hug she’d received within 15 minutes of arriving at the Jameson home. In fact, she was doing her best to return it.

"They just got in a while ago," said his mother. "We haven’t even begun to get caught up." Glancing around the circle, she said, "It’s just about lunch time. I’ll get us something and then maybe we can fill you in a little on what people are saying about your nephew."

"Sounds like a good idea, don’t you think, Quinn?" asked Ariel.

"Yeah, I do. Get an idea of what we’re up against."

"Ok! I’ll go get something ready. You folks just relax here. Tim, are you staying for lunch or are you off somewhere?"

"With Ariel here? Of course I’ll stay! "

"Good," interjected Quinn, as Dawn smiled, nodded and left for the kitchen. "We’d like to hear your views on Scott too."

"Sure thing, but first I better go get cleaned up. ’Scuse me. Come on Dusty!" he said and disappeared through the doorway to the front of the house, the dog at his heels.

"Dawn said to relax, but I think I’ll just go see if she needs a hand," said Ariel, and followed him.

"Wow, that was good!" exclaimed Vanessa, as she leaned back in her chair.

"Dawn’s a great cook," agreed Ariel. "That lunch sure takes me back in time."

Dawn Jameson smiled. "It’s been quite a while since you last sat at this table." She placed her hand on the writer’s, and squeezed it. "I’m so glad you’re here."

"Me too," smiled Ariel. "It’s been too long. Phone calls, e-mail and vidchat can’t beat this. I’m sorry that I haven’t visited more often. I just wish this time it was a happier occasion," she concluded wistfully.

Dawn patted her hand and smiled in response, the fine lines around her eyes crinkling. "Well, we’ll just make the most of it. Now, how can we help with your investigation?"

Quinn leaned forward. "Tell us anything you can about Scott and his family. What you’ve seen, what you’ve heard, what you’ve read. Anything may give us a lead."

"Well," Dawn said thoughtfully, "I never taught Scott so I can’t relate any first hand information. Marta Willis had him in her English classes two years in a row, however, and I think he was a better than average student. I’ll call her for you, if you’d like, and see if she can tell you something a bit more concrete. I can’t recall any teacher talking about him much in the teachers’ lounge, so no one else comes to mind that might be able to help you. His parents, of course, are quite well known in the community. There was an article in the ’net news about the church members holding bake sales, auctions and car washes to raise money to help his parents pay back the loan they took out to pay his bail."

"Yeah," said Tim. "Made it sound like everyone who wasn’t from here was against him."

Dawn nodded. "Yes, it quoted some of the people raising money. They were full of praise for him and his parents, and they said that they thought that when the whole truth came out apologies to Scott would be in order. Not to mention a large cash settlement."

Quinn snorted. "Apologies! When this thing is over that little shit will be lucky if a life sentence in prison is the worst thing that happens to him."

Dawn glanced questioningly at each of the women in turn. "Something more than life in prison for attempted murder?"

Ariel leaned forward. "My niece, Katie, disappeared two years ago. She may have run away, but then again, maybe not. She went missing at a time when some other young women disappeared and then turned up dead. We’re looking into that too."

"Oh Ariel, I’m sorry!" exclaimed Dawn, and gave her a quick hug. "I remember those murders. They weren’t solved. And they think Scott might have had something to do with Katie’s disappearance, and the others too? When did you discover this?"

"A day or so after Scott was arrested. Apparently the police interviewed him but for some reason the interview never made it into the main data folder."

Tim, who had been watching the exchange, asked "so are they gonna re-open the case?"

"It wouldn’t have been closed, since the murders weren’t solved," interjected Vanessa, who had been listening quietly. "But unless new evidence is uncovered there’s probably no one assigned to work on it."

"But you’re gonna look for some?"

"If we turn something up, we’ll take it to the authorities for sure," responded the tall red head.

"Ok! I wanta help."

"Tim . . . "

"Mom, I could give them a hand. Show them where stuff is around town, help them find people to talk to they probably won’t get through the cops. Ally—" He paused and looked at Ariel then Quinn and Vanessa—"Alyson Ridgeway, one of the victims, was a friend of mine."

Ariel glanced at both Jamesons, then looked quickly at Vanessa and Quinn. "What do you think?"

Quinn, leaned forward. "I won’t kid you," she said. "Hometown boy accused of a crime in the big city, then outsiders come to town and start asking questions. We won’t be popular, and neither will you." She looked from Tim to his mother and back. "It could be dangerous."

Dawn swallowed. "Tim, I don’t want you hurt."

"Mom, don’t worry. I won’t do anything stupid. Just tell them some stuff and show them around a bit."

Dawn gazed at him thoughtfully for a few seconds then squared her shoulders. "Alright. But you be careful!" The middle-aged woman pointed a finger at her son to emphasize her point.

"I will, Mom. I promise."

His mother nodded but said no more. After a moment’s silence, Quinn announced, "Ok, it’s time to get started."

Dawn looked around the circle then said, "well, I’ll go call Marta to see if you can talk to her today."

"Fine," said Quinn. "I don’t know if we’ll find anyone in at the cop shop who might have any useful information, this being the weekend and all, but it’s also worth paying a visit there today, on the off chance."

"Boss, you don’t really need me tagging after you right now since no one knows we’re here, agreed?" questioned Vanessa.

Quinn nodded.

"So to maximize time, maybe I could go interview the teacher, if she’s in, and you guys could see what the cops have to say."

"May be a good idea at that. Tim could go with you to show you where she lives."

"105 Spruce Street," said Dawn, as she returned to the room. "Marta’s there now but is going out to her daughter’s place in about an hour."

"We can take my mom’s car," said Tim as he held the door for Vanessa.

"Everyone meet back here for dinner!" exclaimed Dawn, as Quinn and Ariel followed the others through the door. As the sound of the cars receded Dawn sighed. "Ok, Dusty. No use worrying until there’s something to worry about. Let’s go to the freezer to see what we can defrost to feed this bunch." The big dog, hearing his name, scrambled to his feet and followed her out of the room.

"Tim. Come in." The tall, thin, grey-haired woman stood to one side of the door and directed her visitors into a living room that smelled of gardenias. "Can I get you anything?"

Tim glanced questioningly at his companion who shook her head. "No, thanks Mrs Willis. We just finished lunch. This is Vanessa . . . " Tim paused in confusion.

"Alighieri, Mrs Willis. Vanessa Alighieri," said the tall operative, as she shook the older woman’s hand.

"As in Dante?"

"Yes." Vanessa smiled. "Most people don’t know that."

"Most people haven’t taught high school. You pick things up, useful or not, along the way," smiled the older woman as she indicated the couch and chairs.

"It’s nice of you to talk with us."

"Well, Dawn gave me a quick summary of who you are and what you’re doing here. If she says you’re Ok and asks me to tell you what I know ’cause it might help, then you’re Ok and I’ll tell you everything I can, although that might not be much." At Vanessa’s questioning look, she added "You’re looking for background on Scott Johnson? I taught him for two years, but I’m not sure what I can say."

"How’s that?" said Vanessa as she pulled out a pad, perched on the edge of a convenient armchair and began making notes. Tim folded his length into a low adjoining chair and waited quietly.

The older woman sat down on the sofa and took a moment to collect her thoughts. "I never got to know him at all. He got good grades, with very little work, I think. He expressed himself well when called upon in class. He was always courteous. He was never a discipline problem. Yet," she paused, searching for words, "I never thought that I really got to see what was below the surface."

Vanessa cocked her head. "Would you explain that?"

"Well, kids, they like to show off in a group. Scott might be in the group but he was never boisterous. He was never the one grabbing someone’s lunch or books or whatever and running with it. He was never the one talking loudly about what he was going to do that night or that weekend. But," she paused to think, "I don’t know, he wasn’t quiet because he was shy, or because he wasn’t very high in the pecking order. He was quiet because . . . he didn’t feel he had to interact with them. I’m afraid I can’t think of any better way to say it."

Vanessa sat back and thought, then asked "did you ever talk with him outside of class, or have any conversation with him that might give you any inkling what was going on in his head?"

"No. Never. I spoke with him a few times outside of the classroom but he was always the same."

"Ok. What about the rest of the family?"

"The few times I talked with anyone from his family it was his mother. His father stayed pretty much in the background. In fact, he answered the phone once and when he found out it was me, he handed the phone to her."

"And what was your impression of her?"

"I didn’t talk to her much but I got the impression that she ran the household. Whatever she wanted, the family did. As far as I know, Scott was an obedient child who never gave her a moment’s worry. But even though we never had harsh words over Scott, I can’t say I ever liked her."


The grey-haired woman made an affirmative sound. "Whenever I spoke with her, she was always . . . unctuously sweet."

"Unctuously sweet?"

"Oh, you know, rather condescending but fervent. As if she knew something no one else was privy to."

"Oh, Ok." Vanessa thought for a few seconds then said, "turning for a moment to Scott’s sister, Katie, did you know her?"

"No, she wasn’t in any of my classes. Dawn tells me that she might have been murdered." The older woman shivered slightly. "Poor child. I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about her."

"Ok. Is there anything else you think might be helpful?"

"No. I really can’t think of anything." The older woman sat forward as if she intended to get up, then paused. "Well, now that I think of it, you might want to talk with Bob Gerhardt."

Vanessa glanced at Tim who quickly supplied "shop teacher. He lives just a few streets over from us."

"You think he got to know him?"

"Well, I know they had some kind of run-in, which was rather unusual because I’d bet that the rest of Scott’s teachers never heard anything from him but sweetness and light."

"Ok. Thanks very much Mrs. Willis. If you happen to think of anything else, would you mind calling Tim’s mom to let her know and we’ll get in touch with you?"

"Oh, certainly. I wish I could have been more help."

Vanessa smiled at the older woman as she shook her hand again. "Believe me, every little bit helps."

The big cop hooked his thumbs in his belt and tilted back in his chair. "I understand one of my officers spoke to you by phone."

"Yeah." Quinn leaned back in her chair, mirroring the man across the desk. They’d found the chief at his desk but he was making it plain he wasn’t glad to see them. "We wondered about a few things. Wanted to clarify them."

"Such as?" The man pulled out the lower drawer of the desk with the toe of his cowboy boot and propped his foot on it.

"Well, for starters, why did the interview with Scott Johnson never make it to the main file?"

"Don’t know. You’d have to ask Elwood." He folded his arms and stared at the two women.

"Elwood?" Quinn stared back.

"Chas Elwood. The guy who interviewed him."

"So where can I find him?"

"Don’t know." A small smile.

"Don’t know?" Quinn kept a hold on her temper with difficulty.

"He’s retired. Retired about two years now. Takes trips. May be on a trip now for all I know."

"Alright," gritted Quinn, "where might I find him if he’s at home?"

"I’ll look it up." The big man rooted around in the detritus on his desk and unearthed a telephone directory. After flipping a few pages, he announced, "lives at 48 Elm."

"Ok, Thanks."

"Next question?"

"Why wasn’t Scott interviewed again? You had a total of five women go missing and only three bodies eventually turn up."

"Same answer."

"Same answer? Ah. I’ll have to ask Elwood."

"You got it." The big man was starting to enjoy taunting his questioner.

"Scott Johnson ever in any other trouble?" she paused, "or should I ask Elwood that too?" Ariel shifted her foot slightly to tap Quinn’s ankle, at which the taller woman tried and failed to look less combative and more conciliatory.

"Don’t know. Our systems are down for maintenance today, this being the weekend, so I can’t check ‘em. Come back Monday."

"I’ll do that. Quinn stood. "And thanks for all your cooperation."

The big man gazed at her for a second in stony silence then nodded once. In lieu of words, Ariel opted to flash him a smile as she slipped out of the office.

"What were you smiling at that asshole for?" grumbled Quinn as she held the door for Ariel to step onto the street.

"I figured we might catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

Quinn glanced sideways at her companion as they walked back to their car. "If we wanted flies," she groused. "I figure we’re going to be up to our necks in flies before this thing is through. And they’ll all be hovering around something smelly."

"Mmm," murmured Ariel as she got into their rented vehicle. "So you think there’s some sort of corruption in the ranks? You know, it’s possible that the chief might just have been pissed that a bunch of outsiders was in his town asking questions about people he’s sworn to protect. And on a Sunday too, when things should be a bit more relaxed."

Quinn, gave the car directions to Chas Elwood’s address then turned to the writer. "Not necessarily the chief. I think you’re right about why he was pissed. No, I mean Elwood. I’m getting vibes I don’t like."

"Maybe we’ll get a clearer picture once we meet him."

"Yeah. Let’s go see if he’s in."

"Mr. Gerhardt?"

"Who wants to know?" The middle-aged crewcut man stood up and dusted off his jeans at the knees, leaving his tools neatly laid out on the floor of the garage next to a partially disassembled bicycle. Vanessa couldn’t help but notice that from the highest shelf of the storage shelves at one side of the door to the freshly painted concrete floor, the building was spotless with not an item out of place.

"I’m Vanessa Alighieri, and this is Tim Jameson. Marta Willis suggested that you might be able to tell us something about Scott Johnson. You may have heard that he’s facing a serious charge."

The man glanced from one to the other, then said, "You’re Dawn’s boy aren’t you?"

"Yes sir, I am," agreed Tim.

"Unhuh, unhuh. You look like her." He ran his hand through short grey hair then nodded, as if he’d made a decision. "Yeah, I heard about it and the only thing I wondered about was why it took this long." At the look of surprise on his visitors’ faces he said, "Come and sit down and I’ll tell you why."

"So they had a big bust up over a chisel?" Quinn leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. She and Ariel had just related their lack of success, either with the police or Chas Elwood, whose neighbours told them that he was away for the weekend.

"Yeah. Gerhardt had brought one in from home to show them the difference between cheap and quality tools. Sometime later it went missing. He did his demonstration then put the chisel away while the kids collected the tools they’d need before they started work on their projects. Gerhardt always walked around the room during the class but kept his eye on the front where all the tools were stored and where he kept his briefcase. The only person he noticed near his desk during class was Scott, who, when Gerhardt asked him what he was after, said he had to get another screwdriver. The next time Gerhardt opened his briefcase, which was in the next class, the chisel was missing."

"So what happened?" asked Ariel.

"He confronted the kid first chance he got. Scott denied it angrily, the school administration got involved, Scott’s parents were called and his mother swept in, as Gerhardt put it, "like the wrath of God" claiming she was going to sue the principal, the school board and Gerhardt for every penny they could collectively dig up. They finally settled her down, and since Gerhardt couldn’t conclusively prove that Scott took the chisel, he was forced to apologize."

"Oh man," said Quinn.

"Yeah, and she told them that if they ever repeated the accusation publicly, she’d definitely sue them all."

"That must be why I’ve never heard about it," said Dawn. "How did Marta know?"

"Apparently she was in the school office when Donna Johnson arrived and began raining brimstone on everyone. The principal rushed Marta out and she heard no more about it."

Quinn rubbed her chin. "Well, if Gerhardt just had circumstantial evidence, it might, indeed, have been some other kid."

"You haven’t heard the biggest piece of circumstantial evidence," said Vanessa, pausing to gulp some beer.

"So? What is it?!" demanded Quinn, as Vanessa took her time with the beer she’d been nursing along.

"This happened on a Monday. The following Saturday morning, Gerhardt goes out to get into his car to run some errands and someone has taken something sharp to the car body, dragging it down the vehicle from headlight to taillight on both sides."

Quinn winced. "Ow, big bucks! Not just a key, but something sharp. Like a chisel."

"You got it." Vanessa drained the rest of her beer. "He thought about going to the police, but after weighing up the pros and cons, decided to bite the bullet, get the body fixed and get on with life."

"As if," said Tim, speaking up for the first time. "I think he’s going over that decision every day in his mind, wishing he’d had the cojones to go to the cops and let the chips fly."

"Yeah, Tim’s right. His mind made the decision, but his heart wasn’t in it."

"Hmm," grunted Quinn as she mulled over what she had heard. "So Scott might have been involved in other bad stuff but if it came to light, chances are Donna would have found some way to make it go away too.

"Yeah. But you know, I can’t reconcile the image of her threatening everyone with the way Marta Willis described her. What was the phrase again, Tim?"

"Unctuously sweet."

"That’s it, unctuously sweet."

"Church lady," said Quinn.

"What?" chorused Tim, Vanessa and Dawn, who added, "well yes, she is deeply involved in her church—"

"What Quinn meant, at least, what I think she meant," Ariel cast a quick glance at the dark-haired woman, who nodded in agreement, "was that the phrase conjured up a character from a TV comedy show from the last century." Then, because the Jamesons continued to look mystified, she added, "20th century movies, TV shows and music are Quinn’s hobbies. And yes, I can see Donna being both unctuously sweet and an avenging angel. Or devil."

"Ok, Quinn. Since you’ve categorized her, how do you categorize him?" Vanessa’s slight grin challenged the security consultant to come up with a good one.

"Well, I don’t need to go to old movies or TV to do it," said Quinn slowly. "You said that Marta Willis told you he didn’t interact with the other kids although he hung around with them?"

"Yeah. So?"

"Well then, I think it’s obvious."

"Well at the moment it isn’t to me!" exclaimed Ariel, leaning forward.

"I know," said Dawn, quietly. At Quinn’s raised eyebrow, she added, "Wolf in sheep’s clothing."

"You got it," Quinn nodded, grimly.


Chapter 3

A rainy Monday, reflected Quinn, as she, Ariel and Vanessa entered the Jameson home for breakfast. The security consultant really hoped that their investigations would prove better than the weather. The smell of fresh coffee and newly cooked bacon promised that at least something good would come out of the day.

"So what’s on the agenda for today?" asked Dawn, as she poured mugs for all three in the solarium. The previous night, the older woman had suggested they make her house their strategic headquarters while conducting their investigations, a proposal that was quickly accepted.

"Well, the cops to start with, a trip to Scott’s neighbourhood, and then we’ll just play it by ear from there," responded Quinn, as she glanced at raindrops trickling down the windows. The security consultant could hear an infofeed in the kitchen playing ‘Devil or Angel,’ and she made a mental note to find out which oldies station Dawn had tuned in. The music was a welcome mood lifter, considering the weather. Just then, she spotted Tim through the window as he jogged around the corner of the house and up to the door, Dusty at his heels.

"Hi all," he said, as he entered, kicked off his muddy runners on the boot tray, then started across the room followed by the dog.

"Tim! Hold it right there!" exclaimed Dawn. "Have you noticed it’s wet outside?"

"Yeah, so?"

The older woman folded her arms and waited. "Muddy feet!" she finally exclaimed.

"Mom, I took off my runners—"

She cut him off: "The dog’s! Use one of the old towels in the washstand and wipe them clean."

"Oh, well why didn’t you say so," he grumbled, as he extracted a towel from an antique washstand by the door, then crouched to dry Dusty’s coat and get the mud off his paws. Then, brightening, he said to the women watching "Did Mom tell you that I called Pam to see if I could take a few days off so I could help you guys?"

"We just got here," responded Ariel, as she buttered a slice of wholewheat toast from a plate in the centre of the table. "What did she say?" Quinn watched the writer heap strawberry preserves on the thick slice and reflected that Ariel’s appetite for food was almost back to normal.

"She says that she can spare me for a couple of days anyway, and if the weather stays rainy, maybe longer."

"Good," said Quinn. "If you go with Vanessa, we’ll be able to cover more territory in less time, although once we get known around town we may not be able to split up often." Seeing Dawn’s questioning look she added, "better security in numbers."

"So Boss, as Dawn says, what’s on tap for today?" reiterated Vanessa, as she added cream to her mug.

"Well, Ariel and I will go back to the cop shop to see if the chief can, or will, check for anything else on Scott. I’d bet there isn’t anything on file, since Joe did a second and more detailed scan of their files and came up with nothing, but it doesn’t hurt to see. At some point we’ll have to check on whether Elwood is back home, although his neighbours didn’t expect to see him until after lunch, so before we go there we’ll likely mosey through Scott’s neighbourhood just to . . . take it’s temperature. I guess you two should go over to . . . where was it they found one of the bodies? Anyway, go over there and see if you can get anything from the cops there. They might be a bit more willing to cooperate, seeing as how over there he’s not a hometown boy."

"Give me 10 minutes to shower, shave and eat something and I’ll be ready to go!" exclaimed Tim.

"Take your time," said Quinn, as she eyed the two-egg omelet, hash browns and crisp bacon gently steaming on the plate that Dawn had just set before Ariel. "We’ll be here a while yet."

"Well that was a waste of time," growled Quinn an hour later, as she and Ariel left the police station. Popping open an umbrella that she held over the writer, she looked up and down the street and continued, "that guy is beginning to get on my nerves."

"Beginning to?" Ariel glanced up at her lover’s face, which was currently set in a scowl. "I think the two of you were competing to see who could irritate the other more."

"Hey! I merely asked him what kind of rinky-dink operation he was running here. On the evidence it was a perfectly valid question!" responded Quinn hotly. Privately, however, she ruefully reviewed the previous few moments and acknowledged that it could have gone better. "And damn this rain anyway!" she continued as she surveyed the wind-whipped sheets of water that seemed to come from every direction.

"Ariel? Is that you?"

Both women turned around at the voice behind them. Quinn sized up the man with one glance who had addressed her lover. Late twenties to early thirties, she judged, compact body, short dark hair, well-trimmed mustache, and windbreaker with the collar turned up. That and the fact that they were right outside the police station indicated that he was likely a cop.

"Ariel! It is you!" he exclaimed, and continued "I thought so but you left so quickly I didn’t get a chance to speak to you in the station."

"Andy? Andy Billings? You work here now?" responded Ariel as they hugged each other. "Oh, Quinn," continued Ariel as she turned to the taller woman, "this is Andy Billings, a good friend of mine from high school. And, I guess, he’s on the Parsonville force. Andy, this is my partner, Quinn Thanatos."

"Yeah, I’m a detective," grinned the man. "You said partner? As in . . ."

"As in the love of my life," responded Ariel with a smile, but Quinn detected the underlying steel.

Andy grinned. "Ok. Pleased to meet you, Quinn," he said, and stuck out a hand.

Good handshake, thought Quinn as she returned the grin and the greeting.

"So what are you doing in town?" asked Andy. "I mean, I heard about your nephew and after what happened, I’m kind of surprised to see you back here. But I’m really glad to see you, and by the way, you look great!"

Quinn eyed the man but said nothing as Ariel smiled and responded "Thanks. You’re not too bad yourself, and I love the moustache." Then sobering she continued, "It’s because of him we’re here. Have you’ve got a minute or two? Maybe we could talk . . . "

"I was just going to suggest we get in out of this rain. "Why don’t we all go get some coffee across the street. They’ve got great double chocolate muffins too!" he added, grinning slyly at Ariel.

"You remember my weakness," she smiled ruefully. "Sure, why not. Quinn?"

"Lead the way."

Except for a couple of uniformed cops with styrofoam cups at a table near the entry, the Jiffy Home Cookin’ was empty.

"So you’re looking into this because the police are at a standstill." At Ariel’s nod, Andy continued, "When’d you get into town?" The detective pulled a chair out and gallantly gestured at Ariel to seat herself.

Quinn glanced around the Jiffy Home Cookin’ as she took a chair beside her lover. A rack of freshly baked double chocolate muffins – apparently a Jiffy Home Cookin’ specialty – gave off the seductive scent of chocolate, which easily competed with the mingled odours of fresh coffee and fried food. The security consultant’s mouth quirked as she glanced casually at her lover, who was happily nibbling a fresh muffin that she had bought at the front counter.

"Mm, these are good!" mumbled Ariel, around a mouthful. "Yesterday," she added. "We came over to see your chief yesterday afternoon."

"To ask about Scott’s background? Let me guess. It didn’t go well?"

"That would be an understatement," agreed Ariel, as she helped herself to a paper napkin from the dispenser on the faux wood grain tabletop. "And it wasn’t any better this morning, although we did get out of him that he had checked and there was nothing on file about Scott. At least, nothing other than the interview notes from the murder investigation of a couple of years ago. "


"The young women who were murdered. Scott was interviewed."

The detective leaned forward: "What’s your nephew got to do with that?"

"He was interviewed after his sister went missing, but the interview notes weren’t in the main data folder and they only turned up recently," supplied Ariel. "We were checking with the chief to see if there were any other . . . discrepancies . . . like that. He wasn’t pleased."

"Yeah, well, you’ve got to cut the chief some slack. He resents outsiders coming in and nosing around," said Andy, propping his elbows on the table. "But he’s not a bad guy really."

"Yeah? grated Quinn, as she eyed the man. "If he ran a tighter ship maybe nobody from outside would have to poke around." She couldn’t make up her mind about this guy. Ariel liked him, that was obvious, and Ariel’s relationship with her hadn’t seemed to bother him, so he got brownie points for that, but still . . .

"Yeah, he’s not a bad guy," responded Andy quietly. "He wasn’t here when the murders happened. Came from Wallaceburg . . . "

"Where at least one of the bodies was found," interjected Ariel.

"Right. So although he knows about them, he wasn’t here at the time. He replaced the old chief who retired shortly after the last body was found. Things had been a bit slack before but they sure tightened up under him."

Ariel glanced from face to face. "Do you think he knows something he’s not telling us, because we’re outsiders?" she asked quickly, before Quinn could say anything else.

"Hard to say for sure, but I think not. He’s a hardcase but I think he’s fair and honest. I’ve worked for them both, him and the old chief, and I’d take this one any day."

"You saying the old chief wasn’t on the up and up?" said Quinn, eyeing the man intently.

Andy gazed into his coffee cup for a few seconds, then glanced around the restaurant. The cops at the front were just going out the door. "No, not exactly. But he did tend to push some things and not others."

"Such as?" said Quinn, resting her chin on her steepled fingers.

"People with money, or from so-called good families who were accused of a crime were less likely to go to trial for it. Insufficient evidence, witnesses changed their stories. That sort of thing. I’m not saying any pressure was brought to bear, but still, that happens less often now."

Quinn nodded slowly. "I’d like to talk to your old chief. It sounds like he had some interesting connections. Where can I find him?"

"You can’t. He died about six months ago." At their questioning looks, he added, "He had a heart condition. And a young girlfriend, who’s a dancer out in one of the places along the highway. Add some medication to make him get it up, and, well, I guess he died happy.

"And you know all this how?" asked Quinn, skeptically.

"You can’t sweep a suspicious death under the rug. Even in hicksville. She tried to dress him and claim she found him dead when she came over to visit in the morning, but the guys from the funeral home have a few smarts. They called us. It so happens I investigated. She thought she’d be blamed because they were in the act when it happened, so she tried to cover it up, but I couldn’t find anything to indicate it was anything but an old guy with a bum ticker trying to keep up with a woman less than half his age."

"Ok," said Quinn, as she traced the wood grain in the table top with a long index finger. "That leaves us with Chas Elwood, then."

"Elwood? Oh yeah, he was the lead investigator on the murders. He’d be the guy to ask about the interview notes."

Quinn looked up from the wood grain and nodded. "Which is why he’s next on our list of people to see. So Andy," she smiled lazily, "what can you tell us about Elwood?"

"So you went to high school together?" Quinn adjusted the car’s info feed to decrease the interference on the oldies station she had tuned it to. What the hell was wrong with this thing, anyway; static was supposed to be a thing of the past. Looking out the window she didn’t see anything on the street they were currently driving down that would cause the problem. Damn this continual rain!

"Yeah. We were in a couple of classes so we started to hang around together. We lost track of each other after graduation ’cause he went to university here, and I took up my scholarship." Ariel smiled. "He was my first trainer." Quinn glanced sharply at her and raised an eyebrow. "Andy was a fitness nut," continued Ariel, seemingly oblivious. "Running, weightlifting, swimming, eating right, getting enough rest. Andy preached the gospel of health and lived it every day. Saturdays, we used to take early morning runs. He’d be at my door at 6:00 and we’d jog to the town centre and back to my house. Hardly anyone was around. It was nice." Ariel smiled again.

"So you were friends."

"Yeah." Ariel paused and glanced at Quinn, who had gone back to trying to adjust the infofeed. "And of course," she added, matter of factly, while watching her lover out of the corner of her eye, "there were the Saturday night orgies, when I’d do him and a half dozen of his pals. Relax Quinn!" she added, as the taller woman inhaled sharply and snapped her head toward the writer. "I’m kidding. To answer your unasked question, yes we went out a few times, but I soon realized that friends were all I ever wanted to be. And then Kim transferred to my school, and it finally hit me that I was not cut out to be het." The writer paused. "Anyway, after Donna kicked me out I needed friends, and he was there. But he was always a gentleman. He had no hidden agenda."

"I’m sorry," mumbled Quinn, shame-faced. "A little insecurity there. I was just being stupid."

"No you weren’t. Silly maybe, but never stupid." Ariel caressed her cheek and looked into the other woman’s eyes. "As far as I’m concerned, you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to feel insecure about." Lips made contact, and conversation ceased.

"Mmm." Quinn pulled away reluctantly. "You do know how to raise my self esteem."

Ariel smiled and traced Quinn’s lips with a finger. "And I enjoyed doing it, too. But I think we better get back to work, especially since we’ve arrived."

Quinn glanced out the window and found that the car had parked on the street not quite opposite Elwood’s house. The rain seemed to have slacked off a bit, although it was far from over. There was still no car in Elwood’s driveway, but looking on the bright side, the interference on the info feed seemed to have cleared up. Quinn chuckled.

"What’s so amusing?" asked Ariel, as she looked across the street.

"Listen to the song," said Quinn, and began singing along in a rich alto.

"When you're in love with a beautiful woman it's hard.
When you're in love with a beautiful woman you know it's hard.
Everybody wants her, everybody loves her
Everybody wants to take your baby home."

Ariel rolled her eyes. "Come on, Sport. Time’s a wastin’. I don’t think he’s home yet but we might as well go ring his bell."

"You ring my bell all the time" purred Quinn as she opened the door and prepared to get out into the rain.



"Give it up Quinn. He’s not home."

"Yeah, I guess not." Quinn gave the door a final pounding but was greeted only by silence from within. "Well, I guess the next step is go to Scott’s neighbourhood to see what we can see."

"Looks that way. This is frustrating. I hope Vanessa and Tim are having better luck."

"Yeah, you and m-"

"Girls! Hey girls! Over here."

The women turned to look at the house next door. A small, pot-bellied man wearing suspenders and carpet slippers was waving at them from the doorway.

"Hi," said Ariel as she closed the distance that separated her from his front porch. "We’re looking for Mr. Elwood. Have you seen him today?"

"You the two that was looking for him yesterday? You talked to the wife I think."

"Yeah," rumbled Quinn as she joined the writer at the foot of the stairs. We did talk to a woman here yesterday afternoon. She told us she thought he’d be back today. Maybe we’re too early."

"Nope. Nope. He was back long enough to drop off his suitcase then he took off again. Not more than a half hour ago."

Quinn thought an obscenity but kept her face neutral as she said, "Any idea where he might have gone?"

The man ran a hand through his sparse white hair. "Well, the wife don’t know this, seeing as how she don’t approve, but I bet my last dollar he’s at Rita’s."

"Rita’s?" said Ariel. "Is that a girl friend or a family member?"

"No! No! Rita’s Bar and Grill. Out on the highway. The wife don’t like it cause they got . . . " he sneaked a quick look over his shoulder and lowered his voice "nude dancers. He goes there a lot, although he tries to keep it quiet, being a good church member and all, just like us. I told him I wouldn’t breathe a word. Miz Johnson would for sure have a thing or two to say to him if she knew. Yessireebob!" The old man nodded vigorously for emphasis.

"Miz Johnson? That wouldn’t be Donna Johnson, by any chance, would it?" said Quinn, climbing the stairs.

"Why yes, it would! Do you know her? A finer woman never walked the earth. Except of course my Connie. And she preaches a damn fine sermon-’scuse-my-french. Miz Johnson, that is."

"I used to know her some years ago," said Ariel, joining Quinn and the man on the porch. "It’s a shame about her son."

"Yeah! A damn-shame-’scuse-my-french. He shoulda stayed right here in Parsonville, ’steada traipsing off east. And lookit what it got him. They was just waitin’ for him. ’Course his aunt that says he tried to kill her is a disgustin’ thing I won’t say the name of. And writes about it too! We all hope she gets what’s comin’ to her. It’s a shame what she’s puttin’ her sister through. What we need is a little justice in this country!"

Quinn tensed, then turned eyes like blue lasers on the man’s face. Holding him transfixed by her gaze she smiled her widest, most malevolent smile and purred: "Oh, I’m sure once the dust settles we’ll have justice. Thank you so much for telling us where we might find Mr. Elwood. We won’t keep you any longer."

Adam’s apple bobbing, a look of uncertainty flickered across the man’s face. "Ok, right enough. Hope you find him," he mumbled, as he hurriedly backed up and closed the door.

Quinn waited until they were back in the car before she turned to Ariel and asked: "Are you alright?"

Ariel was staring straight ahead through the windshield. For a few seconds Quinn didn’t think she was going to respond, but then the blond woman turned to her and said "Actually, yeah. I’m ok. Y’know . . ." Ariel lapsed into silence again and Quinn wondered if she was going to recant her words. The security consultant was about to ask her again, when Ariel said "I guess what I’m feeling mostly is relief. Finally we’ve met the enemy, or at least one of his minions, and now it’s real, what we’re facing here. And we’re going to win. I know it."

Quinn let go of the breath that she didn’t know she was holding, smiled, and gently kissed Ariel’s lips. "That’s my girl. Now . . ." she said as she winked at her lover, "let’s go to Rita’s to kick butt and take names. And maybe ogle the nude dancers too!"

"Hey Mom! You here?" Tim led the way into the house, with Dusty doing an ungainly dance around him and Vanessa. "Mom! M-"

"You bellowed?" Dawn emerged from the basement. "I was cleaning. Is it just the two of you? Would you like some lunch? Did you find out anything interesting?"

"Well we found out some more details about the murders but the cops there really couldn’t help much. Lunch sounds good, and yeah, it’s just us. You haven’t heard fro-" The ringing of Vanessa’s telephone interrupted. "Maybe that’s them now."

The tall red head cast him an amused glance and said "Almost certainly" as she flipped open the phone. "Alighieri," she said. "Unhuh. Yeah. Ok. And where is that? Ok. See you in a few." Turning to Tim and his mother, the operative snapped her phone closed and clipped it back on her belt. "Quinn says they may have a lead on Elwood. They think he’s at some place called Rita’s Bar and Grill, which I take it is quite the place. She says for Tim and me to come over."

"Ok, hold the lunch Mom. I’ll get a burger there."

"Yes," grinned Vanessa, "and likely an eyeful at the same time."

"Hurry back," said Dawn, as they disappeared through the outer door. "And don’t stare!"


Chapter 4

Ariel watched the naked woman with the long platinum hair grind her hips and then bend backward until her mane touched the ground. "These women have to be in terrific shape to do this stuff. I never realized that before, " she shouted over the music as she jotted a note in a small book.

"Mm," responded Quinn, sipping a bottled beer and glancing around. They had been sitting in the dark, dingy, smoky bar for 10 minutes trying to figure out which was their quarry. Music, heavy on the bass, reverberated all around them from a sound system set on max. Thanks to Joe, Thanatos Security’s computer expert, Quinn knew from the plate number that Elwood’s car was in the parking lot. Now, three possible candidates presented themselves but she was unsure which, and didn’t want to make a move without further study.

"You could do that," said Ariel suddenly, in Quinn’s ear, indicating the dancer whose current movements to a driving beat left little to the imagination. The writer grinned impishly at her lover. "It might be fun."

"Quinn glanced up, then raised an eyebrow at her lover . "Yeah?" the dark woman responded, leaning over and returning the favour. "Tell you what, I’ll go buy the six-inch heels if you get the pole installed."

"Ooh, Deal!" said Ariel, inches from Quinn’s lips. "I could probably write it off on my taxes as a research expense."

Quinn grinned, and ran a finger lightly up the writer’s arm. "I’d like to be there when you explain that purchase to the tax people."

Ariel smirked at her lover. "Hmm. come to think of it, explaining it to George is probably excitement enough. He always turns such interesting shades of red after he questions an expense and I give him the line that if I’m gonna write about it, I’ve gotta try it, so I gotta buy it."

"Do you really?" chuckled Quinn.

"Give him the line? Sure. If I have to spend the time keeping good tax records I might as well get some fun out of it. What better way than to torment my accountant, once in a while. He always disallows it anyway." Ariel made a quick note, sucked on the end of her pen, then leaned forward again. "If he ever approved one of those I might be so startled that I’d be the one who ended up blushing."

Quinn chuckled again. "This probably explains why every time he sees me he turns red. I just thought he had high blood pressure, or something."

"Well now," said a voice at her elbow. "I can’t let you two out of my sight." Ariel and Quinn turned as one.

"Hi Vanessa. Hi Tim," shouted Ariel, over the music. "We were just discussing the necessity of keeping good tax records."

"Unhuh," responded Vanessa, skeptically. Tapping Tim on the shoulder she said, "Sit down, Tim. You’re drawing attention to yourself.

"Oh! Um, sorry Vanessa," said Tim as he fumbled a chair out and sat in it, while keeping his eyes on the stage. The music came to an end and the dancer scooped up her g-string off the floor and disappeared into the wings. Only then did Tim’s eyes swivel to his companions, and he blushed. "Sorry guys. You’re probably offended. It’s just, I’ve been in topless bars but I’ve never been anywhere where they took . . . everything off before."

"Well, now that you’ve been here, don’t make a habit of it or your mom is going to be pretty pissed at us," said Quinn.

"No ma’am. I mean, no Quinn, I wouldn’t do that," said Tim, as his head swung back to the stage where a new dancer, heralded by loud drumming from the sound system, was just beginning her routine.

"So much for him," said Vanessa with a shrug. "Can we get something to eat here?"

"Yeah, I could eat something," agreed Ariel. "What?!" she added, catching a smirk on Quinn’s face.

"Nothing! Nothing at all," responded Quinn. "I’m just glad to see your appetite is back, that’s all."

"It was the chocolate muffin, wasn’t it? Well Quinn. I think of food the way soldiers view sleep," proclaimed Ariel, as she signaled a server.

Quinn raised a quizzical eyebrow. "And that is?"

"Soldiers sleep any chance they get in case they’ll have to go without for an extended period of time. Same principle."

"Hmm. Ok, I concede your point. What’s the special?" she asked the server, who strolled up to the table, more interested in chewing gum than serving customers.

"What it is every day. Hamburgers and fries." The woman responded in a bored manner.

"Ok, hamburgers and fries all around. And a pot of coffee. Anybody want anything else?" After taking Vanessa’s and Tim’s orders for beer, the woman departed.

Vanessa looked around, then leaned forward and spoke to Quinn, pitching her voice loud emough for the security consultant to hear over the music, but not loud enough to be over heard. "Since we haven’t made a move on anyone yet, I assume we’re not sure who’s who."

"You assume right," responded Quinn, letting her gaze pass over her three possibles. "The white haired guy on the far side, the bald coot with his hand in his crotch at 10 o’clock and the nondescript man a table behind him to his right. They’re the only ones I can see who fit the age bracket."

"Yeah, but there might be others in the private booths at the back," responded Vanessa, idly chewing some bar peanuts while watching the current dancer cupping and lifting her breasts in invitation to her audience.

"True, but unless you can think of a convincing excuse to use while checking those booths out we’re just gonna have to wait around here for a while. They gotta come out sometime," responded Quinn.

"Think so?" Vanessa smiled in a world-weary way. "We may be here a while."

"Well I thought of bribing the bartender to point him out, but figured that would likely get me nowhere but face to face with a bouncer. They watch the staff like hawks in these places."

"Oh, I agree. Don’t ask, ‘cause they won’t tell. Ok," the tall red head continued thoughtfully, "so that’s why you told me to bring Tim."

The two women looked at their male companion, who was still mesmerized by what was going on, on stage, and then looked at each other. "Protective cover" they said simultaneously.

Quinn nodded. "I don’t want to corrupt him, but on the other hand he’s a big boy. And three women sitting together here for a prolonged period without a man present would likely look a little strange. And he did say he wanted to help."

"That he did," agreed Vanessa. Ok, well, I guess we just wait for whatever opportunity presents itself. Once we figure out which one is your perp, what’s the plan?"

"Once we think we can get him by himself, in here or outside, you be the muscle and I’ll ask the questions. Ariel and Tim will wait for us at the cars."

Vanessa nodded. "Ok, I’ll be ready."

"Right, Quinn responded. "And in the meantime, I think I’ll go to the washroom." The security consultant stood, winked at Ariel, who looked up from her note book, and strolled slowly toward the back of the room, glancing at the stage and each of her possibles in succession, in as disinterested a manner as possible.

Ignoring Quinn’s departure, Vanessa turned to the server who was just returning with the beer they had ordered. After accepting the bottles, she tapped Tim on the shoulder. "Hey."

"What? Oh, thanks Vanessa," he said as he took the bottle she offered him. Then he glanced around, noticing Ariel, who had been watching the dancers and making occasional notes. "Where’s Quinn?" he asked.

"Exploring. She’ll be back in a while."

"Cool. So what’s the plan?"

"You sit here and ogle the dancers, and keep Ariel company. When Quinn or I give you the signal, you and Ariel make your exit together as discreetly as possible and wait for us at the cars."

"The cars? That’s all? What are you guys going to be doing? I thought you wanted help with this guy?"

"What I’m asking you to do will be helpful. We may have to hang around here for awhile, but when Quinn and I see an opportunity we’re going to react and fast. We don’t want to be worrying about Ariel when that happens. We’re depending on you."

Tim slumped in his chair. "Ok. If that’s what you want, you got it."

The red head patted him lightly on the shoulder and smiled. "Cheer up, and relax." Then noticing the server, she added, "And dig in, ’cause here’s our food."

The dancers were taking a brief hiatus, and the two women and Tim were almost done their lunches when Quinn slipped back into her chair. "Loo-cee, I’m home," she said.

"You got some ‘splainin’ to do," responded Ariel, smiling.

‘Hey! Good one!" chuckled Quinn.

Tim looked at each of them in turn then asked "What was that about. What did I miss?"

Vanessa grinned, and replied. "Don’t try to understand. Obviously Quinn’s obsession with 20th century culture has converted yet another to ‘the dark side.’" At her words, the security consultant and the writer stopped eating and turned startled eyes on the red head, then burst out laughing.

"Well done," complimented the dark haired woman, "but you needed a bit less Boris Karloff and a bit more James Earl Jones in the delivery."

"I can’t help it if my voice isn’t deep enough," said Vanessa, ruefully.

"Now I’m really confused," admitted Tim.

"More 20th century culture Tim. Don’t worry about it," advised Ariel. "And speaking about ’splainin,’ start talking," she said, turning back to Quinn.

"Yeah, well, I had a look around. Must be a slow day because I don’t think there’s anyone back in the private booths right now, but I can’t get in there alone, to make sure. I see our three suspects haven’t taken advantage of any offers to go back there."

"Nope," said Vanessa. The guy on the far side has brushed off a couple of dancers since you left. The other two are just sitting there, watching the stage."

"Ok. Well to continue, there’s a rear exit down the hall past the washrooms, which, by the way, are labeled ‘pointers and ‘setters.’ Ariel rolled her eyes. "Hey, these folks probably think they’re being original. I checked out the women’s. If the men’s is the same, it’s one room. Period. Tim, here’s an assignment for you. Check out the washroom and tell us what you find." The young man started to get to his feet quickly, but slowed down when Quinn growled "not so fast. Make your exit look natural." Watching the young man stroll toward the back, Quinn turned to Ariel and said "so, getting lots of research done?"

"Yeah, actually, if nothing else comes of this, I’ve gotten some ideas for my next book. I’d like to talk to some of these women. A couple have walked by and I really wished this was just a straight research trip."

"You and me both, Sweetie. I’ll take you to a place back home if you want, but it’s too dangerous to talk to anyone here." Quinn lifted the coffeepot, raised her eyebrows at her companions, who both nodded, and poured coffee into three mugs. "Now that we know pretty much what’s where, all we have to do is figure out who’s who." The three sipped the hot liquid and turned their attention to the action on stage, which was now occupied by two women, one of whom was stripping the clothes off the other. After a few minutes, Tim slipped into his seat just as the performance reached its conclusion.

Quinn waited for the women to leave the stage before turning to him. "So Tim, what’s the story?" she asked.

The young man tore his eyes from the stage, swallowed, but responded gamely, "must be like the women’s. It’s one room. And it hasn’t been cleaned in a while. God it stinks! I saw a couple of guys avoid it altogether and just go down the hall to the outside. "

Quinn nodded. "Boys will be boys. Ok, well, now we wait and see if we can figure out who’s our quarry. So sit back and relax everyone. It could be a long afternoon." As she spoke, her eyes followed one of the two dancers, who had just been performing on stage, wending her way through the tables to sit with the white-haired suspect on the far side of the room. Their conversation was brief and ended with the two of them rising and leaving for the private booths at the back.

"Shit," said Quinn, disgustedly. "Well, if it’s him we’ll be here a while. Unless he runs out of money or she has to dance again soon."

"Was Joe able to find out anything about him through a database search?" questioned Vanessa, as she glanced casually at the remaining two prospects.

"Not much. We learned from a friend of Ariel’s we encountered this morning that the trips he takes are sometimes out of the country. Or at least they used to be. Joe found out he’s still doing it, going to southeast Asia within the last two months."

"The Asian sex trade," responded Vanessa.

"Right. That was our thought," said Quinn, sipping coffee and noting another dancer circulating close to suspect number two, whom the security consultant had mentally labeled ‘the bald coot.’"

"Wait a sec, you found someone who knows him? Did you get a description?" asked Tim, excitedly.

"Way ahead of you. Unfortunately, it could be any of them. They’re all about the same size and build, and although two are balding, and ‘white hair’ appears to have a full head of hair, it could be a toupee or he might have had hair implants. Andy hasn’t worked with the guy in two years and so he couldn’t give us an up-to-date verbal snapshot."

Tim looked thoughtful. "Oh, Ok." Then: "Hey, if this guy Joe got into the DMV to get his plate number, what about the photo from his driver’s licence."

Quinn glanced at him. "Does your license photo resemble you at all?

"Yeah. Why?"

"Ok, so you’re among the two percent of the population whose license photo doesn’t make you look like either a moron or an axe murderer. His photo was taken three years ago and he was wearing glasses, and none of our suspects are. We couldn’t make a definitive match from it."

"Oh. Sorry, " responded a somewhat crestfallen Tim. Quinn grinned in reply and patted his shoulder as she watched the second dancer from the pair that had just performed close in on suspect number two. The woman sat down next to him and exclaimed, loud enough to be heard over the music, "Chas baby! You’re back!"

"Bingo," mouthed Quinn.


Chapter 5

The security consultant leaned back and sipped another beer. When that woman had so conveniently identified their quarry 45 minutes before, she had hoped they’d be able to blow the place in short order. Ew! The dark haired woman mentally winced. Not blow! Depart hastily, maybe, but not blow. However, identifying was only the first step; next, they’d have to find the opportunity to question him. Elwood wasn’t making it easy for them. Fortunately, however, he had only chatted with the dancer, and did not accompany her to the private booths. The woman had moved on to easier pickings, leaving him watching the action on stage. Quinn glanced at the three beer bottles on his table. Their best bet would be when he finally had to pee. She hoped it would be soon, since this waiting was beginning to get on her nerves. Glancing at Ariel she murmured, ‘how ya doin’?"

The writer looked up from her notes. "Fine," she replied. "You know, I’m going to have to do some research into why all these women feel compelled to get their breasts enhanced. There isn’t a natural pair in the bunch."

Quinn shrugged. "Beats me. Men are infants?" Then, noticing movement at Elwood’s table, she added "Hey, Vanessa, heads up. We may have some action here."

The red head glanced casually in Elwood’s direction. The beer seemed to be doing the trick because the man had left his table and had begun to thread his way among the tables and other patrons toward the washroom in the back corridor. Quinn looked at Ariel and Tim and said quickly "Ok, time to make yourselves scarce. We’ll see you at the vehicles." Then to Vanessa she added "Let’s go."

The two women stood and strolled toward the back. Ariel and Tim were to take their time about leaving in case Quinn and Vanessa had to abort, but if the two women didn’t return to the table after a couple of minutes they were to leave.

"Ok Tim. I’ve reached 120 counting slowly and they haven’t reappeared. Time to go." Ariel stood, dropped some bills on the table and then she and Tim made their way in a leisurely manner to the exit. Quinn and Vanessa were nowhere to be seen. "I only hope this works," muttered the writer.

Quinn and Vanessa watched Elwood saunter toward the washroom. She and Vanessa intended to catch up with him just as he got to the door and hustle him inside before any of the staff noticed. There were a number of ways this could go wrong but Quinn couldn’t think of anything better, so, she figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Elwood was ahead of them and about 10 feet from the washroom’s door when a man emerged, zipping his fly. Thank you Goddess, thought Quinn, for timing that exit just right. Increasing her speed, matched step for step by Vanessa, she closed in on Elwood’s left side, while the red head moved to his right. "Chas, baby, it’s so good to see you!" purred Quinn at her most sultry, as Vanessa grasped his right arm and applied heavy pressure to a nerve centre on his elbow. Elwood gasped, disoriented by the greeting on the one hand and the pain on the other. Quinn wasted no time opening the door then straight-arming a bleary-eyed drunk who tried to follow Vanessa and Elwood inside.

"Down the hall, Buddy," she said as she slammed the door in his face, throwing her weight against the surface when she found the lock was broken.

"Hey! Hey you! You’re not supposed to do that in there. Go to the private booths," yelled the man. "Shit!" he added, and staggered away when beating on the door got him no response.

"What’s goin’ on? Who are ya?" grated Elwood from behind her.

Quinn turned. Vanessa had the man well-controlled, and she was ready to apply more pressure if needed. The security consultant took a breath to speak, then wished she hadn’t; Tim was right, the smell was nauseating. Ok, she told her self, the sooner you get this guy to talk, the sooner you can get out into some fresh air. Putting the smell out of her mind, she said, "That’s not important. What is, is you tell us what we want to know and we’re outta here."

"Fuck you," spat the man. "You got the wrong guy." His next breath was a gasp as Vanessa acted.

"Answer the questions, and that won’t happen again. It’ll be like we were never even here. Stonewall us, and your arm and hand will be outta commission for days. You decide." Quinn held her breath waiting for his response, as seconds ticked by.

"Bitch. You got the wrong guy, I tell ya. I’m a retired cop." Vanessa had forced Elwood to bend forward slightly. Quinn saw the man’s eyes sweep the filthy room looking for something he could use to turn the tables on his captors. Good luck, she thought, noting the smeared walls and the pooled urine and dried remains of other substances on the floor. I wouldn’t touch a thing in this place.

The security consultant stepped in and grabbed the man’s chin, forcing it up. "I know what you are and I’m still waiting for an answer," she snarled. The man glared, then inhaled quickly. "And don’t even think of yelling for help," she added, shifting her hand to his throat. Vanessa underlined Quinn’s point. Still, despite his eyes closing tightly against the pain, he didn’t seem to be close to breaking. Quinn knew she better do something fast or they were going to lose the ballgame right there. Then, as a thought struck her, she smiled wickedly and suddenly closed her fingers around Elwood’s crotch, causing him to gasp. "Well now, if imminent damage to your elbow doesn’t persuade you, maybe this will. It’s simple: you want to keep this in working order, you’ll talk. If not . . . For the first time she saw fear in the man’s eyes.

"Awright! Awright! Ask your fuckin’ questions."

"Good decision. You were the chief investigator on the murders a couple of years ago. Right?"

"The girls? Yeah, so what?" The man seemed surprised by the question.

"Why did your interview with Scott Johnson not make it into the data folder?"

"Is that what this’s about? Whaddaya want t’know that for? Owww!"

"Answer the question," said Vanessa in his ear.

"Yeah, ok. So it didn’t make it into the folder. So what. Scott didn’t do anything. I only interviewed him ‘cause the chief said to."

This was interesting, thought Quinn. "How do you know he didn’t do anything? Do you know something that you didn’t record in the interview?"

"Scott’s a good boy. Goes to church regular. He wouldn’t do anything like that."

Quinn stared at the man. "Let me get this straight," she said, slowly. "Because Scott goes to church regularly, he couldn’t have had anything to do with the murders of those young women."

"Yeah, that’s right." The man’s eyes slid away from Quinn’s.

Quinn stared at the man. "No," she said, thoughtfully. "Somehow, I don’t think you really think that. I think you’re just saying that because the Johnsons bribed you. Well, at least you stay bought," she added with disgust.

"Nobody bribed me!" exclaimed Elwood indignantly. "Maybe I looked the other way a couple of times but I never took a bribe. Thirty-five years on the force and you won’t find nobody can say I took a bribe!"

"Well if they didn’t bribe you, they must have something on you to get you to pull a stupid trick like that." Quinn stood back and eyed the man. "You go to the Johnsons’ church, don’t you."

"So what? A lot of people go there."

Quinn ran a hand through her hair while she considered that. "But you’re a member in very good standing, right?" she said. "Respected, retired police officer, whose whole working life has been dedicated to upholding the morals of the community. I bet people look up to you, don’t they. I bet Donna Johnson doesn’t know what you spend your time doing, does she."

A self-satisfied look flickered across Elwood’s face. Uh oh, thought Quinn, that shot wasn’t even on the dart board, let alone near the target.

"Miz Johnson has prayed with me about my addiction," he responded piously. "She understands a man’s urges can get out of control. She wants to help me."

A knock sounded on the door. "You coming out soon? I gotta go, man."

Quinn glanced quickly at the door, shifted her stance to lean her weight against it, then lowered her voice to its lowest register and snarled, "Do it outside."

"Oh man, I can’t! You gotta let me in man. Please!" the voice wailed.

Damn it, Quinn thought. We’ve got maybe only a couple of minutes left to wrap this up. "Go away" she yelled again, toward the door.

Turning back to Elwood, she lowered her voice and said: "So Donna Johnson is loving and forgiving. A shepherd to her flock."

The man nodded, but Quinn thought she caught an uneasy look in his eyes, for just an instant. Wish that guy outside would go away, she thought, forcing herself to focus. That look, fleeting though it was, gave her the feeling that she was zeroing in on target. Too bad she didn’t know what that target was.

"And what the shepherd says, the flock does." The man nodded again, but now she was sure that something was making him uneasy. "So . . ." Inspiration struck. "So if she told the flock to turn against one of her lambs, because he could not be . . . saved, they would." Bingo. Elwood was saying nothing, but he didn’t have to, since his face said it all.

"So she tells you to keep the interview out of the data folder, ’cause if you don’t you’ll be expelled from the church, and shunned by all its members. And you couldn’t stand that, could you. No one would look up to you anymore and you’d just be like all the other losers." She leaned on the door, ignored the knocking, and looked at the man. "But you’re a smart guy, and it didn’t take you long to see that now you had something on her as well. Neat. She goes on praying for your soul, and letting you stay a church member, or you tell the authorities. I like it."

Grabbing the man’s chin again, she growled "So what else have you done for her? With a kid like Scott, there’s gotta be something."

"Nothing! I swear. That’s the only thing I ever did! Honest!"

Quinn shifted her hand down again to his crotch and squeezed slightly, causing the man’s eyes to open wide as he shouted "It’s the truth! S’help me GAWD!"

Bringing her face close to his, Quinn snarled quietly, "that better be the case, ’cause if it isn’t, we’ll see each other again. And I can promise you, you won’t enjoy it." Underlining her words with a final savage squeeze and twist, that dropped Elwood to the floor with a moan, the security consultant straightened and turned. Quickly pulling the door open, she stepped around the anxious man outside and, with Vanessa at her shoulder, strode down the hall toward the exit.

Tim kicked a stone in the gravel-covered parking lot. "Dammit! What’s taking so long? They shoulda been out here by now."

"Calm down, Tim," responded Ariel, casting a worried glance at the building they had just left. "Getting information out of someone takes time, especially if that someone doesn’t want to talk." To herself, however, the writer was addressing the same question.

In their haste to leave the strip joint, she hadn’t noted the time. When she finally remembered to check her watch she had no idea how long it had been since Quinn had told her and Tim to go outside and wait. Now, they were standing in the parking lot next to the cars, trying to look inconspicuous. It crossed her mind that they probably should each get a car started, but she realized that her mind rebelled against getting into a vehicle and patiently waiting. Just as she was beginning to think that she should go back inside to find out what was going on, Ariel spotted two familiar figures rounding the building’s back corner. Quinn and Vanessa were covering the ground quickly, but weren’t running. Likely a good sign, thought the writer.

"Let’s go," said Quinn, as they reached the vehicles. "We’ll talk back at Dawn’s." She and Ariel slid into the rented car, while Tim and Vanessa jumped into the Jameson family vehicle.

"322 Westway Road. Best possible speed," said Quinn, surveying the parking lot one last time to check for anyone following.

"322 Westway Road," intoned the vehicle as it pulled out ahead of the Jameson car.

Ariel took the opportunity to lean over and hug the taller woman. "I was beginning to worry back there," she said. "I had just begun to imagine all sorts of things that could go wrong, and then you appeared."

Quinn smiled and returned the hug. "Well it was dicey but it could have been worse."

Ariel gave her lover another squeeze and a quick kiss and then straightened up again. "So, do I have to wait ‘til we get to Dawn’s to find out what you learned?"

"Well, not to disappoint, but we didn’t learn as much as I’d hoped."

"No? Damn! I thought that . . . " But the rest of what the writer intended to say was left unspoken as the car lurched to a halt.

"Shit! What’s wrong now," grumbled Quinn, as she noted in the rearview mirror that the vehicle in which Tim and Vanessa were riding had also halted.

"Fuckyouhaha," said the car.

"W-what?" exclaimed Ariel.

"Fuckyouhaha," answered the car.

"Damn it!" growled Quinn. "It’s a computer virus. It must have gotten into the central traffic system."

"Fuckyouhaha," commented the car.

"A virus? But aren’t those things impossible now? I can’t remember the last time we heard about one . . ."

"Fuckyouhaha," said the car.

"Ariel, switch off the speakers. The switch is on your side."

"Fuckyouhaha," responded the car.

"Which one is it? They all have pictograms on them. Doesn’t anyone use words anymore for the Goddess’s sake!

"Fuckyouhaha," answered the car.

"Apparently hackers with juvenile senses of humour," responded the dark-haired woman as she reached past the writer to flip a switch on the instrument panel. Pausing a moment she waited to see if that had solved the immediate problem. "Ah, silence. Computer viruses don’t disrupt city traffic anymore because our traffic control has state of the art virus-killing protection. Apparently traffic control in the boonies is a little lacking."

"Ok, so now what?" asked the writer.

"I drive. These things all have manual controls," responded Quinn, oozing confidence.

"I know that, but . . . you drive? When was the last time you drove one of these things?" queried the writer, skeptically.

"It’s like a bicycle. Once you learn, you never forget."

"Unhuh," groused the writer. "Why doesn’t that fill me with confidence."

"Just relax and enjoy it. We’ll be there in no time."

Dawn checked the driveway again, hoping that this time she’d be lucky. The afternoon was almost gone and she’d had no word at all. About two hours before, she’d started to feel uneasy. That had slowly progressed to outright worry.

Just as she concluded that something must have gone wrong, the two cars pulled into the driveway, although there seemed to be something different about them. Dawn hurried to the door, to greet the occupants as they filed up the walkway.

"Hey Quinn," Tim was saying as she opened the door, "didn’t you see that truck?"

"Of course I saw him! I just didn’t know he was going to end up on my side of the road!"

"That wasn’t your side of the road, that was a turn lane," interjected Ariel, who looked both peeved and shaken. "After this, if there’s any driving to be done, I’m doing it." Then, turning to Dawn she smiled wanly. "Hi. Sorry we weren’t back sooner but we had a few hitches along the way."

"I was beginning to worry!" responded the middle-aged woman. "Come on in and relax. It sounds as if you need it. Can I get anyone something to drink?"

"Ooh, no Mom. I think we all gotta pee since the bathrooms were so disgusting," said Tim, as he greeted Dusty and his mother, in that order. "I’ll be down in a minute."

The others grunted agreement and shuffled off to the main floor powder room, while Dawn went to the living room to await their return. Ariel was the first back. "So," Dawn said, "were you successful? And what is this I hear about driving?"

The writer sat down on the couch, and stretched her legs out. "I don’t know everything yet. Quinn said she’d fill us in once we got back. As far as the driving part goes, we were barely out of the parking lot when traffic control was hit by a computer virus, and we had to drive home manually."

"Yeah, Mom," grinned Tim, as he vaulted over the couch to land next to the writer, earning him a frown from his mother. "That Quinn, what a maniac! It was something to see!"

"Made me glad I was with Tim," agreed Vanessa as she returned and collapsed into an easy chair. "Did your life flash before your eyes, Ariel?" asked the red head, smirking.

"Just about. When she said we’d be there in no time I didn’t realize she meant that time would stand still."

"I heard that," said the object of the discussion as she entered the room and slouched in another easy chair. "You just don’t appreciate skill when you see it!"

"Likely because I was too busy praying to the Goddess to get us here alive!" snapped Ariel.

"Whoa! Wait a sec!" exclaimed Dawn, making time out motions with her hands. "You’re here and that’s what matters. Now, someone please tell me what you found out."

Quinn, still irritated, gave them the bare bones of what they had learned, with Vanessa fleshing out the details.

"So," said Dawn thoughtfully, "Donna Johnson blackmailed Elwood to keep the record of his interview with Scott out of the data folder. And, apparently, Elwood doesn’t know anything more about what Scott may or may not have done while he was growing up here."

"That about sums it up," responded Quinn, disgustedly. "As close to a big fat zero as you can get."

"Well, you did find out why the interview wasn’t included, you know what Elwood looks like, now, and he’ll likely be more forthcoming if you need to ask him any more questions," said Dawn, trying to put the best face on things.

Quinn looked up, then finally nodded, her mouth twisting slightly. "I suppose."

"Good! Now that that’s settled, I’m going to start dinner. Tim, you’re on KP duty for jumping on the couch," said Dawn, and left for the kitchen.

"Aw Mom!" exclaimed Tim, but Quinn noted that he did get to his feet to follow her. Mothers, mused Quinn. Sometimes you can’t live with ‘em, but other times you sure couldn’t live without ‘em. Donna Johnson, she was sure, was a good example of both.

The pretty young anchor smiled and said: "Brad, what can you tell us about how traffic is moving now?" The info screen split to add a trenchcoat-wearing reporter standing in front of the Parsonville police station." Quinn, who was sprawled on the bed in the motel room, looked up from her notes, as she flipped off her cell phone.

"Thank you Mia," responded Mr Trenchcoat. "All is calm now, but it was sheer chaos across the quad-county area a few hours ago when a computer virus brought traffic to a standstill." The screen dissolved into scenes of cars sitting motionless in the middle of streets, angry men kicking vehicles, and children waving from the windows of a bus that bore the logo, Kamp Ketchacalla.

"The traffic snarl up is the lead story on the news?" asked a towel-clad Ariel as she sank onto the edge of the bed and began to dry her hair with a second towel.

"You bet. It affected a wide area," yawned Quinn. "Probably the biggest story they’ve covered in a while."

" . . . officials were quick to reassure the driving public that they were taking measures to prevent the stoppage from happening again."

"Let’s hope," said Ariel. Then changing the topic: "How are things back home?"

The news segued to a commercial break touting morning-after pills. Quinn stretched, laid her notebook on the night table, then rolled over and slipped her arms around Ariel’s towel-clad body. "Mmm. Fine. Michelle and the kittens are getting along fabulously, the new people are working out without Kris quitting or having a coronary, and the company got a bodyguarding job today for an actor coming to town for a shoot early next month."

"Good," said the writer. "I’m glad things are going well."

Discovering that she was lying on the infofeed’s remote unit, Quinn fished it out and zapped off a commercial pitching build-it-yourself panic rooms, on special at your local home centre, today. "Sorry I didn’t finish that call sooner. Otherwise, I would have joined you in the shower. Mmmm," she added, as she took the edge of the towel in her teeth and pulled it back, exposing a tanned muscular thigh.

The writer grinned down into laughing blue eyes but continued drying her hair. "Sound carries in showers," she observed.

"True," responded the dark-haired woman, as she braced her hands on either side of the writer’s thighs and pushed up so that she could use her teeth on the knot keeping the towel together. "But given that this is a motel room, I doubt that the sound proofing in here is anything to write home about. There, much better," she added, as her efforts proved successful, causing the bath towel to settle around the writer's hips.

"We might scandalize Vanessa," responded Ariel, abandoning her intention to continue drying her hair and beginning to unfasten the buttons on Quinn’s shirt.

"Hmm. Somehow I doubt there’s much would scandalize Vanessa," the dark-haired woman responded, as she sucked on Ariel’s left nipple, then moved south.

"Ooh," breathed the writer. "You may be right. In any case," she paused, adjusted her position to accommodate her lover, and inhaled sharply as sheer sensation overtook her, "this . . . conversation . . . is rapidly . . . becoming . . . academic . . . QUINN!

The dark-haired woman raised her head from between the writer’s thighs and grinned wickedly. "Yup," she agreed. "It sure is."


Chapter 6

"So what’s on tap for today? asked Vanessa, as the car pulled out of the motel parking lot. Quinn glanced over her shoulder at the tall red head lounging in the back seat. She was still trying to decide if the woman’s good morning smile had been wider than usual. Other than that, there’d been no indication from the security operative that she’d heard anything of their late night activities.

Quinn cleared her throat. "Well, we still have to take a swing through Scott’s neighbourhood and I’d also like to talk to the security guard who may have seen Katie at the bus station on the night she vanished."

"Ok. Why don’t you two take the neighbourhood, for obvious reasons, while Tim and I, if he’s still available, go see the security guard?" suggested the red head.

"Sounds like a plan," agreed Quinn, checking the skies outside the car window. "It’s cleared a bit since yesterday. With any luck we won’t have to put up with any more bad weather."

Forty-five minutes later found them setting out from Dawn’s house, Quinn and Ariel in the rented car, and Vanessa and Tim in the Jameson vehicle. "I don’t know about you," said the writer, "but I sure hope that after this fact-finding trip is over the highlight is something other than the fabulous food Dawn has been serving us."

"Yeah," Quinn agreed ruefully. "Maybe our luck’ll change today." Both fell silent as the car drove down Main Street for about a mile before branching off to make a series of turns until it eventually settled on a tree-lined street, down which it cruised.

"The house Donna lives in now should be just down that street there," said Ariel, as they glided across an intersection, "and the church is just up here," she added, a muscle jumping in her cheek. Quinn’s glance lingered on her for a few seconds then moved to the large white building at the end of a long sloping lawn on their right.

"Well," said the security consultant as she took in the prefabricated, plastic ugliness of the most prominent part of the structure, "I see they bought their steeple off the shelf."

"Yeah. In my mind there’s something grotesque about a prefabricated church, but that’s the way it was built. I remember when the steeple was trucked in here on a trailer truck, after months of fundraising."

"Speaking of fundraising, check that out," responded the dark-haired woman, indicating a temporary sign on wheels that occupied the corner of the parking lot closest to the street.

"Help GOD conquer Satan!! Support the Johnson family" read Ariel. "Yeah, well I guess it goes along with the message over there."

Quinn looked at the sign the church used to convey pithy or inspirational sayings and read: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. Leviticus 18:22. Well," she observed, giving Ariel an amused look, "I’m with them – lying with mankind is abomination. Womankind suits me just fine."

A small smile came and went on the writer’s face, but she made no comment, saying instead: "Ok, so now we’ve seen the church, what next? You don’t intend to go in, do you?

"No, there’s no reason to," responded the dark-haired woman, serious again. "What we’ll do is . . . start right over there." ‘There’ was a mom n’ pop grocery across the street and about half way down the block.

As they opened the door, a bell rang in the back. No one was visible, but next to the cash, an infofeed was murmuring: ". . . For a limited time only, order one Gamester ‘Execution City’ and get a Gamester ‘Axe Murderer’ too, for just $40 more. Don’t miss out on the fun! Order yours today!!"

"G’morning," said a grey-haired man who stepped through a doorway behind the counter. Quinn, who had started browsing in the drinks cooler, turned and responded "G’morning. Looks as if it might clear."

"By golly I hope so. We needed rain but nobody asked for a flood!" chuckled the man. "What can I do for you folks this morning?"

"Oh, just picking up some odds and ends," said Quinn as she pulled a couple of bottles of water out of the cooler. "I saw the sign back at the church," she said, gesturing over her shoulder, then adding a bag of chips and a couple of candy bars to the pile on the counter. "About supporting the Johnson family? Is that where Donna Johnson is a lay preacher?"

"That would be the place, alright. She’s been there a few years, now," responded the man as he rang up the security consultant’s purchases.

"Bet you do a good business around here, with the church, being so close," ventured Quinn, handing over a bill.

"Not bad. Not bad." The man paused. "You thinking of buying me out?" then grinned to show that he was joking, as he handed her the change.

Quinn shook her head and smiled, quickly weighing her options. "Ok, I’ll cut the chitchat," she said. "I’m a private investigator interested in Scott Johnson. Do you know him?"

"The kid? He’s been in here a few times, but know him? No. And I’m just as glad."

"Really?" said Quinn. "Why do you say that?"

The man rubbed his chin. "I don’t like two-faced people. He’s polite to grown ups, but he was in here a couple of times with a girl and treated her like dirt."

"A girl," interjected Ariel, who had been standing back. "As in, a girlfriend or maybe a sister?"

"Sister, for sure," the man answered promptly. She wasn’t hanging on him or anything. In fact, the way he was talking to her, calling her stupid an’ such like, I think she would have been damn glad to get free of him. In fact, one time, after they left the store, I saw him trip her up so she almost fell."

"So he wasn’t a problem in here, just not a particularly nice kid, said Quinn.

"Yeah, that about sums it up." The man paused for a moment, then said: "Can’t think of anything else I can tell you."

"Ok. Thanks for your help."

"Bobby Sandoz on duty today?"

The man in the bus station’s security office turned slowly then took his time sizing up his questioner. "So who wants to know, foxy lady?" he leered, then licked his lips theatrically. Vanessa mentally rolled her eyes as she noted his shaved head, sculpted goatee, and flexed biceps. Tim, she knew, was bristling behind her. Better cut this short, she concluded, before the kid did something stupid. "Private investigator," she said crisply. "So is he here or not?"

"Hey, baby," drawled the man, once again letting his eyes travel up and down the red head’s body in frank assessment, "What’s your hurry? You can investigate my privates anytime! What say you ditch the kid and you and me—" Whatever else he planned to say was forgotten, as he suddenly found himself jerked out of his chair and pressed against the wall, the security operative’s face inches from his own.

"Apparently you’re having trouble understanding me, so I’ll say this one more time, real slow and in words of one syllable. Is. He. Here. Or. Not?" Each word was accompanied by a strong shake that rocked his head hard against the wall.

"Yeah! Yeah! He’s here! That’s him down at the end of the platform!" Objective achieved, Vanessa shoved the man back into his chair, at which he added, aggrievedly, "Jesus! I was only trying to be friendly!"

The angry red head clamped a hand hard on the man’s chin, rocking his head once more into the wall, and snarled with quiet menace, inches from his face, "Better work on your technique. C’mon Tim."

"Wow! That was great!" burbled Tim as he hurried to catch up with Vanessa who was striding down the platform. "Bet that guy thinks twice before acting like that again!"

"Think so?" responded the red head. "Jerks like that never learn. I shouldn’t have wasted the energy but I’m tired of spinning my wheels on this case. Hey you," she yelled, addressing a rail thin man in a security guard uniform at the end of the platform who was jiggling pocket change. "The jerkwad in the office says you’re Bobby Sandoz. That true or do I have to go back and bounce his ass all around the platform to get some straight answers? "

The man jingled even faster as he darted a quick glance at her, then all over the landscape. As a variation on a theme, he chewed bubblegum furiously, popping it several times. Just as Vanessa reached him, patience all but lost, he hurriedly responded, "yeah, yeah I’m Sandoz. Whata ya want?"

"Conversation," she said, as she held up some money.

"Yeah, ok. About what?" he said as he tried, and failed, to snag the money from her hand.

"Nuh uh. Answers first," she responded, as she easily evaded his attempt. "You were interviewed by the police a couple of years ago. About a missing girl. During the time somebody was murdering women. You remember?"

"Maybe. Yeah," he said, nodding his head for emphasis.

"So tell me about her."

"Tell you what about her?"

" Whatever you remember."

"Jesus! She was a girl, she was here, End of story. Now gimme the money!"

"No, see," the tall red head shoved him back sharply with one hand while pushing the money into her jeans pocket with the other. "You talk. Get it? Move the mouth, sounds come out and maybe they make sense. Now, you’ve just wasted my time so you’ve run up against a time penalty. And you know what that means? It means you’ve lost out on some of that money I was going to give you. Better get started talking before you waste any more."

"Ok, ok! Uh, lessee. Um, ok, like I told the police, there was a little blond here for a while one night and it turned out she was missing from home. The cops showed me her picture and it was the girl who was here."

"Ok, so what was she acting like? Bored, tired, pissed off. What?"

"She was jumpy, y’know? Like every little thing made her look around quick. You know?"

"Had you ever seen her before? You didn’t recognize her from around town?"

"No." The man’s eyes darted some more, and he popped his gum.

"How long was she here? Did she have any luggage – a backpack or something? Did she get on a bus??"

"Hell, I don’t know!" I can’t be watching everything at once! I helped you! Now give me the money!" a command he attempted to make good on by reaching quickly toward the pocket in which the tall operative had stuffed the bills.

Vanessa slapped his hand away contemptuously. "No description, no money." The red head stated simply. Resting her hands on her hips, she glared down at the man.

"Ok Ok Ok! Alright?!" The little man finally seemed to realize the only way to be paid was to talk. "Um, let see, no, no backpack. Nothin’. Uh, it was kinda cool that night and she didn’t have a jacket or nothin’ and she kept rubbin’ her arms."

"What was she wearing?"

"Uh, uh, jeans and uh, a t-shirt. It was, whatayacall it, aqua. Yeah. Aqua."

"The police showed you a photo and you identified her from that?"


"And you’d never seen her before? On the street? Here? At church?" The red head extracted the bills from her pocket and held them just out of reach.

"How many times I gotta tell ya bitch! I ain’t never seen her nowhere. And I ain’t never seen her since, neither." Sohelpmegod. Now gimme my money!" The tall operative tossed a bill at his feet and he bent quickly to scoop it up. "Hey! That’s only $10!"

"Yeah. You lost out on another $20 when you called me a bitch. C’mon Tim."

"Where to now?" the writer asked, as she followed the taller woman out to the street.

The security consultant looked back the way they had come, then up the street. "What else is around here? Where we might find some people, that is?"

"Um, well," Ariel glanced quickly around, as she thought. "There’s a school about a block ahead. Now that the rain finally seems to be gone, there might be some kids playing in the schoolyard. But even if they knew something useful, how would you get them to tell you anything?"

"I’ll think of something, " assured Quinn. The two set off at a fast walk, the writer hurrying to keep up with her tall companion, the smell of wet earth and green grass all around. "Yeah, I think I see it now," said Quinn, after a few seconds. The two crossed the street and a couple of minutes later walked through a chain link gateway into an asphalt-covered schoolyard. Rain had left a large puddle in one low-lying corner. Quinn looked around for someone to question. Two girls about six or seven bounced a ball against the school’s brick wall. A boy of about 10 circled the yard on a bike, getting ready to ride up a sheet of plywood propped up on a couple of bricks, forming a makeshift ramp. The only person paying them any attention was a tall thin girl of about 12, who paused on the climbing equipment and watched suspiciously as they approached.

"Hey, I need some information." Quinn pulled a bill out of her jeans pocket and waved it in the air, glancing at the two older children.

"You talkin’ t’me lady?" the boy asked, as he slid to a halt several feet away. "Whatta ya want?"

"Mikey you’re not supposed to talk to strangers," said the girl primly.

"Shut up, Roz. Whatta ya want?" he reiterated to Quinn, as she walked forward slowly.

"Mikey, you’re not—"

"SHUT UP," he yelled over his shoulder. Turning to Quinn again he snarled "Put up or shut up lady."

"I’M TELLING!" the girl exclaimed, as she jumped down and ran across the street.

"Make it quick lady. She’s gone to get our mom."

"Tough guy," said Quinn as she came to a halt. "Ok. Quick it is. You know the church up the street?"

"Yeah. My mom drags us there every Sunday. Everybody ‘cept my dad. He watches football."

"You know who Scott Johnson is?"

"Yeah, sure. Who doesn’t? Why?"

"You’ve seen him around lots?"

"Yeah, I seen him. Not for a while, but yeah."

You know he’s in big trouble?"

"What about it? He’ll get off, least ways, that’s what Miz Johnson says. My mom’s baked stuff for sales they been having."

"A guy down the street told me Scott’s not very nice. That he’s a bully, but that he sucks up to grownups. That so?"

The boy shrugged. "Yeah, maybe. I never thought much about it."

"You’ve seen him bully kids?"

"Yeah, sure. All the time when no grownup’s around."

"He ever do that to you?"

"Nah, I stayed outta his way. Seen him push other kids around though. He shoved Sara Jeffers down the stairs once. She broke her arm. I seen it happen. It was really gross!" he added with a grin.

"Yeah? You were there?" The boy nodded. Quinn met Ariel’s eye, then looked beyond her to the thin girl now accompanied by a woman pulling on a sweater as she hurried down the steps of a small house across the street. "This was at the church?" Another nod. "You saw him push her? Had she done anything to make him mad?"

"Nah. She and Beth Watson were climbing the stairs and talking, ya know? He was going down and she didn’t see him, to get out of his way, ya know? Boy did she yell!"

"He must have got into trouble over that," said Quinn, eyeing the woman storming through the gate.

"Nah. He told everyone she was playing on the stairs and that he tried to keep her from falling."

"Didn’t she tell anybody what really happened?"

"Sure. Beth told too. Her father swatted her for lying. Didn’t matter who they told. Who’s going to believe a kid?" the boy said matter of factly. "That’s all I know, lady. Gimme the money before my mom gets here."

Time’s up, Quinn agreed. "Right you are, Mikey. Thanks for your help." Handing him the bill, she smoothly stepped between Ariel and the angry woman who had just arrived. Mikey stuffed the money in his jeans and pedaled off furiously. As his mother turned to shout at her son, Quinn sidestepped her, grasped Ariel’s arm and muttered "c’mon."

One quarry out of reach and the other rapidly escaping, the woman whirled and shouted, "Hey! Hey you! Why were you talking to my son? What were you doing? You’ve got no right! Hey! Hey, I’m talking to you!" The woman pursued them to the gate but stopped as they turned and walked briskly down the street.

"Ok, we can slow down a bit, she’s not following."

"Think she’ll call the police? asked Ariel, as they spotted their rented car. "With the way people are nowadays about pedophiles, you might have some explaining to do as to why you gave that boy money."

"Maybe, which was why I didn’t want to hang around and chat with her. I think now might be a good time to shift operations elsewhere. Or at least a street or two away. Let’s drive around a bit to see if anything else looks promising," said Quinn as they reached the car. "Random cruising, 6-block grid" she said as they settled in.

"Acknowledged. My sensors indicate that it is cool outside today. Would you like the heat adjusted?"

"Yeah, bring the temperature up to 22 degrees celsius and hold it there."

"Acknowledged," responded the car as it pulled away from the curb.

"I think we should have a little music too," said Quinn, switching on the infofeed and setting it to audio.

"--stand him, ’cause he rides the rodeo

"Ah, good," she added, as the soothing sounds of Judy Collins filled the vehicle. Cuddling up to Ariel she sang along quietly as the car moved slowly off on its mission.

My father says that he will leave me crying
I would follow him right down the toughest road I know
Some day soon, going with him, some day soon

And when he comes to call my Pa ain’t got a good word to say
I guess it’s ’cause he was just as wild in the younger days

So blow you Old Blue Northern, blow my love to me
He’s driving in tonight from California
He loves his damned old rodeo as much as he loves me
Some day soon, going with him, some day soon

Vanessa grimaced as she took another sip of bus station coffee. "Ok, Tim, unless you’ve got some other suggestions on people to talk to, I vote we start running through the names Quinn gave us yesterday."

"Well, said Tim thoughtfully, as he gazed through the windshield, "Didn’t Quinn and Ariel say that the old police chief died having sex with a dancer from Rita’s, so maybe we could go back there to see if we could find her and ask . . . . " Tim faltered to a halt as he glanced at Vanessa’s face.

"Hormones," she finally murmured, shaking her head. "I meant, someone you know who might have some knowledge of either Scott or Katie. Like, are there any names you recognize on any of the lists of interviewees that Joe was able to get when he hacked into the police departments’ files?"

"Uh, let me see," said Tim as she handed him a copy of the documents sent to Quinn by Joe, her computer expert cum hacker, the previous morning. Since the Parsonville police chief had been uncooperative, Quinn had decided to get her information the unconventional way, and asked Joe to see what names he could get of people interviewed by the quad-county police forces at the time of the murders. "Um, well, there’s a couple of people on the list I know from high school and some other names I recognize. Trouble is, not everybody is still around."

Vanessa shot him a sharp glance. "You’re sure about that?"

"Positive. This guy’s in jail for burglary – he got sent up just a couple of months ago. Mom sent me the link from the ‘net news. And this one hung around a bit after school then finally joined the merchant marine. He hasn’t been seen here since."

"Alright. We go to plan B. What names do you recognize, and can we find them to talk to them?"

"Ok. Well . . . there’s Brandy Sampson. I was never in a class with her but I saw her around the school. She’s got a summer job at a diner in town. I’m not too sure where to find the others, but maybe we could ask her that too. And maybe Mom would know some others."

"Ok. You got a point. First stop, Brandy Sampson."

"Alighieri, as in Dante?"

Surprised, the tall security operative responded, "Yes. How did you know?"

"Literature major," smiled Brandy. "As far as what I can tell you, I’d like to help but really don’t know much, if anything. The police talked to me because I was a friend of Alyson’s but I didn’t see her the day she disappeared so I couldn’t tell them anything useful." Noticing Vanessa’s coffee was half gone, she added: "Hey, can I at least freshen your coffee for you?"

Vanessa pushed her cup forward with a smile. "Yes, please. The coffee here is a heck of a lot better than what they sell at the bus station."

Brandy smiled in response as she topped up the security operative’s cup. "That’s because it’s 100 percent Colombian, made fresh every 20 minutes."

"Mmm," said Vanessa, inhaling appreciatively before taking a sip. "Smells good."

"Brandy, have you any idea where some of these other people are?" Tim handed over the papers, then sipped his own cup as the young woman glanced over them. They’d been fortunate to find Brandy alone in the restaurant when they had arrived so they had slipped onto stools at the counter that ran down one side of the room.

"Hmm. Well, I don’t know about Marly Bennett -- she might be working at the hardware store -- but Jill Murray is just down the street at Smart n’ Sassy."

"Jill Murray?" asked Vanessa.

"Yeah. She used to pal around with Katie Johnson. Maybe that’s why she’s on the list."

"Maybe why, indeed. Thanks Brandy," said Vanessa as she gulped the last of her coffee, dropped some bills on the counter and slid off her stool. "C’mon, Tim."

"Yeah, thanks Brandy," said the young man as he hurriedly stuffed the papers in his pocket and followed the red head out.

"No problem," she replied, and added wistfully to the empty restaurant, "and I get off at 7:00, in case either of you is interested."

Continued . . .

Copyright 2004, by Helen Smith


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