Lauren rolled over and reluctantly opened her eyes. The room was dark so she figured she must have slept the afternoon away. She groaned and closed her eyes once more to take stock of herself. Everything seems to be in working order, she thought. Though I feel like someone has been beating me with a baseball bat. She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. I really should get up and see what Rachel is up to. She rolled onto her side and looked towards the closed bedroom door. The sound of muffled voices filtered through to her and she frowned. Who is Rachel talking to? she wondered.

With a sigh she sat up and ran her fingers through her hair causing it to stick up in all directions. She yawned and stretched before swinging her legs over the side of the bed and sitting up. Her eyes fell on the black case of Ash’s guitar as the streetlight from outside bathed it in an eerie glow. She swallowed the lump in her throat and reached out a hesitant hand to run her fingers down the cool surface of the case. Oh Ash! Where are you? What are you doing? her mind cried. She sniffed and struggled against the urge to crawl back under the covers and hide in sleep.

"I need to get up," she ordered firmly. Her stomach chose that moment to rumble and she smiled. "Yeah, I’m hungry."

A gentle knock at the door sounded. Lauren turned her head and stared at it puzzled. "Come in?"

A dark head peered around the doorframe and Lauren felt a jolt of surprise course through her as she recognized Sheila through the glare of the hall light.

"I thought I’d come and see if you were awake," she said as she entered the room and took a seat beside Lauren on the bed. She reached out and gently took Lauren’s hands between hers.

"Sheila? When did you get here? What—what are you doing here?" Lauren asked nonplussed by her sudden appearance.

"Lu and I came over this morning. We were worried about you and thought you could use a couple more friendly faces around," Sheila explained softly meeting bloodshot green eyes.

Lauren nodded as her tired mind tried to wrap itself around the reality of Sheila really being there. Her very presence soothed something deep inside of Lauren and she felt the tears begin to rise to the surface once more. "Oh Sheila! I don’t know what’s going on!" she cried choking back a sob.

Sheila smiled sympathetically as she pulled Lauren into a hug. "Its okay, honey. We’ll figure it all out—together," she soothed as she rubbed Lauren’s back.

Lauren nodded into her shoulder as she let the tears come. It felt so good to have Sheila there--someone who really understood. She let herself fall into the comfort of Sheila’s arms and let all the grief and frustration pour out of her.

Sheila held the sobbing Lauren and gently rocked her, murmuring comforting words. Her eyes fell upon Ash’s guitar and a flash of anger tore through her. You and I are going to have a long talk, Ashlin. I know you think you’re doing the right thing, but you’re tearing Lauren apart by your gallantry. I hope Lu and Benson are able to track you down. Her mind flashed to the types of places Lu was probably searching at this very moment and fought down the wave of fear that washed over her. Lu will be fine. She knows what she’s doing; she reassured her rapidly beating heart. Benson won’t allow her to get herself into too much trouble—I hope. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Lauren’s stomach rumbling.

Lauren pulled away slightly with a blush. "Guess I’m hungry," she said as she wiped at her swollen eyes.

"I would say so," Sheila agreed, studying Lauren’s face. "You want to come out and eat, or do you want me to bring you something?"

Lauren thought about it for a moment as she pulled herself more or less back together. "I think I’ll go out," she said with a small grin. "I’ve been cooped up in here long enough and I’m sure Rachel is frantic."

"No, not frantic," Sheila replied rising from the bed. "But I do think she’s bored and I’m afraid I’m not that entertaining."

Lauren giggled. "Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Sheila." Lauren stretched and stood. "Rachel is just high maintenance. She gets bored easily. Needs a lot of stimulation. I think that’s why she goes through women so fast—none of them can keep her attention for long."

Sheila smiled. "Well, why don’t I go out and see what we can order in, since Rachel’s cupboards leave a lot to be desired."

Lauren giggled. "Sounds like a plan. I’ll just go brush my teeth and attempt to become human."

Sheila nodded and quietly left the room, leaving a void behind her. Lauren sighed. "Guess I better be about it." She grabbed her bag from the floor and rummaged through it for something to throw on. With outfit in hand she headed for the bathroom.


"She up?" Rachel asked as Sheila reappeared.

"More or less," Sheila replied walking over and taking a seat across from Rachel at the kitchen table. "She’s going to get dressed and then come out. We need to decide what we’re going to order for dinner."

Rachel reached behind her for a stack of coupons. "How’d she look?" she asked as she began sorting through the various restaurant fliers.

Sheila shrugged. "Washed out. She had a good cry and I think that helped relieve some of the pressure." She reached out and took half the stack Rachel was sorting. "I hope Lu and Benson find Ash and are able to convince her to come back with them. I think the only thing that is going to help Lauren now is to see her."

Rachel nodded in agreement. "Can’t argue with you there, but Ash is pretty damn stubborn from what I’ve seen so far."

A pensive look falling across her features, Sheila glanced up from the fliers and looked at Rachel. "That’s what I’m afraid of."

"What do you mean?" Rachel asked the fliers forgotten momentarily in her hand.

"I think that once Ash sets her mind to do something, there’s no talking her out of it," Sheila explained absently shuffling through the fliers. "And I’m half afraid she’ll talk Lu into helping her with any hair-brained idea she’s come up with."

Rachel gasped. "Oh shit. I never thought of that! Ash can be pretty persuasive, huh?"

Sheila nodded. "And my Lu would probably be pretty easily convinced." Rachel looked at her puzzled. Sheila saw the look and hurried to explain. "Lu is leaving the business. She may see this as her last chance for a big adventure."

"You’re kidding, right?" Rachel asked incredulously.

"Afraid not," Sheila replied with a sad shake of her head. "Hopefully she’ll call tonight and I can convince her that they need to go to the police with the information they’ve gleaned and let them handle it." She laughed cynically. "I’m not going to hold my breath though."

Rachel sat back as the implications descended. "Shit. So they may go out and try and get this guy on their own? Don’t they know how crazy that is?"

Sheila laughed. "I didn’t say it was logical—just typical."

"Well, that’s just great," Rachel groaned throwing up her hands in disgust.

"What’s great?" Lauren asked as she stepped into the room

Rachel spun around and tried to think of something to say—anything. "Hey, sleepyhead. Sheila and I were just trying to decide what to order. What do you feel like?"

Lauren crossed her arms and leveled a penetrating look at her best friend. "Obviously I interrupted something. Care to share?"

Rachel looked at Sheila pleading for help. Sheila nodded and turned to Lauren with a reassuring smile. "It’s nothing, honey. We were just wondering when Lu would call. Why don’t you come sit down and help us go through this mess?" She pointed to the stack of fliers on the table for emphasis.

Lauren eyed the two suspiciously, knowing they were hiding something. She figured they were probably talking about her or Ash and didn’t want to upset her by coming clean. "Okay," she said finally, letting it go for the moment and coming over to the table to take a seat between the two.

Rachel sighed in relief and diligently began sorting coupons. "How about Chinese?"

Lauren’s eyes tracked to Sheila and she couldn’t help but laugh. Sheila rolled her eyes but laughed indulgently.

"What?" Rachel asked confused.

"Nothing, Rach. Absolutely nothing," Lauren assured her as she pulled out a flier for a Chinese restaurant. "This one’s pretty good. I’ve ordered from there before."

Rachel looked to Sheila for an explanation but she just shook her head. "You guys are messing with me, but I can’t figure it out," Rachel said with a grimace.

"Would we do that?" Sheila asked opening her eyes wide and taking on an innocent air.

"Yes." Rachel nodded fervently.

"It’s nothing, Rach," Lauren assured her. Her green eyes danced with merriment and Rachel found herself returning the smile.

"Okay. What do you all want?" Rachel asked turning her attention to the menu.

The three put their heads together and poured over the menu. After deciding what they wanted, Rachel quickly phoned in the order and the three friends retired to the living room to wait for the delivery.


Ash led the way into the hotel room and promptly did a swan dive onto the nearest bed. Quickly pulling a pillow under her head she closed her eyes and relaxed.

Lu entered the room with Benson trailing behind her. Lu glanced at Ash and snorted. "Figures." She walked across the room and dropped the bags of fast food they had purchased on their way to the hotel.

Benson looked at his sprawled cousin and shrugged. He strolled over to the easy chairs, set to one side, and lowered himself into one with a sigh. As he stretched out his legs and leaned his head back against the wall, he realized he’d never felt so tired in his life. The drive had been a tense one and he consciously began to try and relax his shoulders that were screaming from the strain.

Lu collapsed into the other chair and began rummaging through one of the bags for something to eat. She popped a French fry into her mouth as she pulled out two grease-stained bundles and set them before her. Pulling one of the Styrofoam cups of coffee towards her, she popped the lid so she could dump a handful of sugar packets into it.

Benson watched numbly. His stomach churned as Lu unwrapped one of the questionable burgers and bit into it with relish. "How can you eat that?" he asked pointing to the greasy mess in her hand.

Lu swallowed and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "It’s not that bad. You just have to not think about it too much."

Benson grimaced and let his head fall back against the wall. He wasn’t that hungry. Stretching his legs out he bit back a moan as tight muscles protested the move. I’m going to be feeling this in the morning. Hell, I’m feeling it now, he thought rubbing his burning eyes. A whiff of stale beer and smoke reached his nose. Ugh. I need a shower and to get out of these clothes. He sniffed his shirt and nodded decisively. "I need a shower," he announced.

Lu looked up from her meal. "Go ahead."

Benson pulled himself wearily up and headed for the bathroom. He stopped halfway there when a thought intruded. "Damn, I don’t have a change of clothes!"

Lu swallowed, belched, and pointed to a duffle bag she had tossed on the other bed. "Look through there. I grabbed you some clothes while you were changing before we went out."

Benson nodded in thanks and was grateful Lu had thought of it. He knew he wouldn’t have. He opened the duffle and pulled out a pair of pressed jeans and a clean green oxford. He smiled at the sight of fresh clean clothes. "This is more like it," he said taking up the clothes and heading for the bathroom for a much needed shower.

Lu chuckled as she finished off her first burger and took a long swallow of lukewarm coffee. Enviously, she eyed Ash’s sprawled form. She’d love to just lie down and forget for a while, but she knew she couldn’t. Shit, I better call Sheila and let her know we found Ash and are okay. Wiping her hands on a napkin, she began searching her pockets for her cell phone. Finding it, she flipped it open and dialed. She glanced at her watch as she listened to the rings. Shit! It’s after two. Hope Sheila won’t be too upset.

"Hello?" a sleepy voice answered.

"Sheila, honey?" Lu asked leaning back in her chair with a groan.

"Lu? Is that you? What time is it?"

"Yes, baby, it’s me. Just after two. Sorry for calling so late, but I figured you’d want an update."

"Did you find Ash?"

"Yeah, we found her," Lu replied looking at her friend lying spread eagle on the bed and wondering idly if she was really asleep or just faking it.

"Is she okay? Are you okay?" Sheila asked in concern. "You don’t sound okay. What happened?"

Lu rubbed her eyes as she tried to think of someway to reassure her wife. "No, we’re fine. Honest. Just really tired."

"Lu," Sheila said in that tone that Lu knew meant she didn’t believe a word she had just said.

"We found her and we’re all in one piece. We’re at a hotel," Lu said trying to sound reassuring.

"Hotel? Why are you at a hotel?"

"Because we couldn’t talk Ash into going back to Ben’s. This was the compromise," Lu explained tiredly.

"I see. Do you think you’ll be coming back here anytime soon?"

"I’m not sure, hon, I’ll keep you posted," Lu replied regretfully. "Hopefully this will all be over soon."

"I hope so. Get some sleep. You sound exhausted," Sheila ordered in a loving voice.

"Yes, dear," Lu said a smile tugging at her lips. "I’ll call again tomorrow."

"Okay. And Lu?"


"Try and talk Ash into calling Lauren. The poor girl is beside herself with worry."

Lu sighed, her good mood banished. "I’ll try, but I’m not making any promises."

"Okay. Guess that will have to do. Good night, love."

"Good night," Lu said softly. She clicked off the phone and tossed it on the table amidst the refuge of her dinner.

"What did she say?"

Lu started and looked over to the bed to see Ash looking back at her. "She wants you to call Lauren," Lu said bluntly.

Ash cringed, but didn’t turn away. "I can’t do that, Lu."

"Why the hell not?" Lu demanded in frustration.

"You know why," Ash said quietly as she picked at the bedspread nervously.

"No, Ash, I honestly don’t have a fucking clue," Lu replied, glaring at her friend.

Ash dropped her eyes and gritted her teeth in frustration. "You saw me tonight. Do you really think I’m what Lauren needs right now?"

Lu snorted in disgust. "You are clueless you know that?" Lu practically shouted as she stood and began to pace. "Lauren doesn’t give a rat’s ass about that! She’s scared and probably thinking you don’t give a damn about her. And you" —she pointed an accusing finger at Ash—"seem bound and determined to reinforce that very idea!"

Ash’s own anger rose at her friend’s accusations. "You don’t know a damn thing about it, Lu! I’m doing this for Lauren! And the only way I know how to do that is go back to being the Wolf!" Ash shouted as she sat up and scowled at Lu for making her admit it. "I can barely stand to be around myself and you want me to expose Lauren to that? Are you out of your mind?"

"Bullshit," Lu growled coming to a stop before Ash. "You are full of shit." She poked Ash in the chest with each word. Ash brushed her hand away but Lu wouldn’t be dissuaded. "That’s just an excuse to run and you bloody well know it!"

"Do I?" Ash growled back as she slid back off the bed to face Lu across it.

"What the hell is going on out here?" Benson demanded storming out of the bathroom with a towel around his neck.

"Your cousin is showing what a dumbass she really is," Lu informed him, waving towards Ash.

Ash shot her a dirty look before spinning on her heel and stomping over to the window. She pulled the drapes aside with a jerk and stared moodily out into the rainy night.

Benson glanced between his cousin and an obviously furious Lu and struggled to think of something to say to defuse the situation. "Okay," he said slowly. Oh that was brilliant! "I… uh… I’m going to go get some ice."

Lu blinked in surprise at the announcement and watched mutely as Benson grabbed the ice bucket and left the hotel room in a hurry.

"Why the hell did you have to bring him along?"

Lu turned at the question and eyed Ash’s back warily. "He invited himself along. He was worried about you." Lu sank back into her chair and waited for Ash to say something. When the silence grew too long she said, "I decided it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have him as backup. The guy is as big as a tank and I figured you wouldn’t be in the nicest of places when I did track you down."

Ash’s shoulders slumped and she bowed her head in acknowledgement. "True."

"So you want to cut the crap and get down to business or what?" Lu asked.

Ash nodded and walked over to the table taking the chair Benson had recently vacated. She grabbed one of the bags and pulling out one of the burgers began to eat without thought.

"You want to tell me what you were asking that guy in the bar?" Lu asked watching her friend devour the burger like a woman half starved.

"I talked to one of my old informants and he told me that this Remi guy would have information for me," Ash explained between bites.

"And did he?"

Ash nodded. "Some."

"Care to share?" Lu growled impatiently.

"I was trying to find out who hired that scum that shot at Lauren," Ash explained. "Or at least who hired them to hurt her. I don’t think the shooting was planned. It was too messy and totally out of character for a professional shooter."

Lu’s eyebrows rose impressed. "Did you find out who’s behind it?"

"Yeah. Rico told me that the Garbacik family was nervous after the shooting. That’s why I went to Remi. He’s one of their boys on the street," Ash began as she rummaged in the bag for another burger. "I started thinking about it while I was trying to hunt down this Remi guy. I put one of the Garbacik boys away about five years ago. Remember Sal?"

Lu nodded her eyes narrowing. "What the hell would one of the families be doing getting involved in something like this?"

"I don’t think it’s the family. I think it’s a couple of people related to the family. My brain finally clicked and I remembered where I’ve seen those two guys before."

Lu waited for her to enlighten her, but Ash seemed to have forgotten she was there. Lu slapped the table making Ash jump and look up at her with wide-eyes. "Who the hell are they?"

"Oh. Sorry," Ash apologized sheepishly. "Guess I’m more tired than I thought. They’re a couple of brothers. Roy and Tommie Moreni by name. They’re small time hoods. From the information I was able to get on the street, it seems Tommie has a serious drug problem and he and his brothers are neck deep in debt to one of the big drug cartels."

"Shit!" Lu exclaimed.

Ash nodded. "Yeah. I think they hired themselves out to whomever and things got out of hand. I know Tommie was the actual shooter—I recognized him once I figured out who he was. I don’t know which one was driving the car that tried to run Lauren down in Spokane, but that doesn’t really matter."

"Any idea where they’re at or who hired them?" Lu asked picking up a fry and chomping on it as she listened fascinated.

"The family’s hiding them, I’m sure of that. They’re nervous the cops will find the brothers and get the family involved. It’s going to take a lot to track them down and when we do…" Ash paused with a faraway look on her face. She finally shook herself and met Lu’s attentive gray eyes. "When we do, it’s a sure bet they’ll be well protected."

"Why don’t you just hand all this over to the cops?" Lu asked even though she already knew the probable answer.

"You want me to trust cops?" Ash asked incredulously. "And besides, it’s just conjecture as far as they’re concerned. I don’t have any hard evidence. Besides, I bet they think Alexi was the target."

"You’re right about that—they do," Lu replied. "Did this Remi tell you who hired them?"

Ash’s eyes narrowed dangerously. "No. But I have a pretty good idea who it is."

"You do?" Lu asked surprised.

Ash nodded. "Judith."

"Judith?" Lu questioned incredulously. "As in Judith Sinclair?" Ash nodded. "You can’t be serious! What the hell is the motive? How did you come up with this?"

"It all fits, Lu," Ash said calmly. She raised her hand and began ticking off points on her fingers. "First, no one knew about my relationship with Lauren until the charity auction. Judith was fawning all over me and trying to get me to take her back." Ash grimaced at the memory. "Second, none of this started happening until I rejected Judith’s advances. Third, why else would Alexi go looking for Lauren? That’s totally out of character. She doesn’t know Lauren from Adam! I don’t think they were even introduced! But if Alexi overheard Judith say or do something, she may have had a fit of conscience and sought Lauren out to warn her."

Lu sat back and thought about it. It did make sense in a way. "Okay. I can see where you’re coming from, but how are you going to prove it?"

"By torturing Judith until she confesses," Ash offered only half joking.

"That may be a bit tough since my sources tell me that she’s spending all her time at the hospital hovering over Alexi. And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that security is tighter than a virgin’s—"

"Lu! Such language," Ash interrupted with mock sternness. "What would Sheila say?"

"Sheila knew what she was getting into when she married my sorry ass," Lu replied pleased by the easy banter that was developing between them. The real Ash was beginning to reassert dominance and Lu prayed she could keep her from spiraling back into the darkness.

"Okay, torturing Judith is out," Ash replied with a grin. "So what does that leave us?"

Lu rubbed her chin contemplating their options. "I still think we should go to the cops and tell them." She held up a hand to forestall Ash’s objection. "I talked to Pete and he said that the detective in charge is a good guy. I think he’d help more than hinder, Ash."

"I’ll think about it. What did Pete tell you?" Ash replied resting her elbows on the table.

"Let me grab my notes," Lu said as she stood and went over to her duffle. She pulled out her notes and returned to the table. She flipped them open and scanned them quickly. "Okay, the detective in charge is one Frank Morrison. Know him?"

"Yeah, I think so. Big guy, around 6 foot, blue eyes, salt and pepper crewcut. Works violent crimes," Ash replied calmly.

Lu glanced up at her in surprise. "Damn. You got quite the memory for detail, don’t you?"

Ash shrugged. "Sometimes. What else?"

"He’s got a new partner… umm… name’s Joel Dodd-- young guy, black, around 5’10—just made detective. Pete didn’t have much information on him other than that. What he did say was that we could trust Morrison. That he was a good cop and would be open to anything we had to say," Lu said looking up to meet preoccupied blue eyes. "What do you think?"

"I’m not sure," Ash said slowly as she considered.

Benson chose that moment to return with the ice. He stepped into the room and was relieved to see that Ash and Lu seemed to be working together instead of trying to rip off each other’s heads. He really didn’t want to know the ins and outs of it, he was just glad the crisis seemed to be over—for now. Setting the ice bucket down and grabbing a handful of ice he dumped it into a cup. He filled the cup with water and carried it into the room. Gingerly, he sat on the edge of one of the beds and looked at the two women expectantly.

"Hey, Benson," Lu greeted him distractedly as she thumbed through her notes.

"What are you two up to?" Benson asked hesitantly as he sipped his water.

"Just trying to pool our information," Ash replied leaning back in her chair and squeezing the bridge of her nose trying to ward off the headache she felt building.

"Oh," Benson replied not sure what else to say. He fidgeted with his cup, uncomfortable and unable to think of a way to alleviate it.

"Did you call Louis?" Lu asked not looking up.

Benson slapped his forward. "No! He’s probably worried sick!"

Lu grabbed her phone and tossed it to him without comment. Benson fielded the phone awkwardly with one hand. "Thanks."

"No problem," Lu murmured.

Benson stood and took the phone to the bathroom for a semblance of privacy. He really didn’t want to talk to Louis in front of the others; since he had a feeling he was in for a tongue-lashing and didn’t want them to hear him grovel.

"Okay. So what’s the plan?" Lu asked. She gave up trying to read her notes since her eyes were beginning to blur from fatigue.

"To confirm whether or not Judith is behind this," Ash said in a tight voice. "Either by finding the brothers and getting the information from them, or by somehow getting to Judith."

"Oh, piece of cake," Lu replied sarcastically with a snap of her fingers.

Ash grinned. "Why don’t we get some sleep and start fresh in the morning?"

"Good idea. I can’t seem to think anymore," Lu agreed as she stretched.

Ash stood and walked over to the beds. "Who’s sleeping where?"

"Don’t care as long as I get a pillow," Lu replied with a shrug. She looked at the table full of greasy wrappers, but just didn’t have the energy to care or clean it up. "I think you should either sleep with me or Ben though. I don’t think Ben would be real comfortable sharing a bed with me."

"True. You snore," Ash quipped as she sat to pull off her boots.

"I do not!" Lu retorted indignantly.

"Yes, you do," Ash assured her. "Benson’s a big guy. Why don’t we let him have a bed to himself and I’ll sack out with you?"

"Fine," Lu grumbled as she came over to the bed and began to dig through her duffle looking for something to sleep in. "Damn, I’m tired."

"You and me both," Ash agreed as she slipped out of her jeans. She yawned and decided that was good enough. She pulled back the blanket and collapsed into the bed wearing her t-shirt and boxers.

"Oh no! You are not sleeping in that stinky ass shirt!" Lu informed her tossing a wadded up t-shirt at her. It smacked Ash in the face and she grunted.

Ash quickly shimmied out of her shirt and pulled the clean shirt on without bothering to sit up. She closed her eyes and sighed as abused muscles began to relax. Lu climbed into bed next to her and groaned wearily. Ash grinned at the sound.

"What you smiling at?" Lu growled.

"Nothing," Ash replied innocently, rolling over to face away from Lu.

"Uh-huh. That’s what I thought," Lu said as she settled into the bed and closed her eyes. "Think we should turn out the light?"

"No. Leave it on for Benson," Ash replied sleepily.

"Okay," Lu yawned.


"Roy! Roy, get your ass out here!"

Roy sat up his heart pounding at the sound of his cousin Gary bellowing for him. He groaned as the effects of all the whiskey he had drank the night before, pounded through his head. He swallowed convulsively, fighting down the nausea as he swung his legs out of bed. "What the fuck?" he questioned as he rubbed his face trying to wake up.

"Roy? Where are you?" Gary’s voice demanded from the other room

"I’m coming. Keep your fucking pants on," Roy grumbled as he rose from the bed and took stock of his condition. His mouth tasted like a cat had died in it and his stomach was churning. Swaying slightly, he reached out a hand to steady himself. "What fucking time is it?" he wondered as he made his way across the bedroom slowly and out into the main room of the cabin.

Gary was pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, his face a study in annoyance. He stopped and glared at Roy as he appeared out of the bedroom. "You have some explaining to do, Roy!"

"What the hell are you talking about, Gary?" Roy asked grumpily as he staggered towards the kitchen, where he knew there would be a pot of coffee ready since he could smell it.

"You want to explain to me why the Wolf and Pocahontas are sniffing around?" Gary demanded following Roy into the kitchen.

Roy’s hand paused for a moment, hovering over the coffee pot. Keeping his head down, he gulped, not wanting Gary to see the fear in his eyes. He poured himself a cup as he tried to think of something to say. "How the hell should I know?" he said deciding ignorance was his best option. Gary grabbed his shoulder and roughly spun him around to face him. The hot coffee sloshed burning Roy’s hand. "Damn it!" he cursed setting the cup down and shaking off his scalded hand. "What the fuck, Gary?"

"You know something, Roy and I’m sick of pussy footing around it! I stood up for you with the family and you’re dicking me. Now spill!" Gary ordered his face contorted in rage.

Roy sighed as he reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "Okay, Gary. Get yourself a cup of coffee and let’s go sit down and talk about this."

"Fine," Gary said through gritted teeth as he pushed past Roy to pour himself a cup of coffee.

Roy picked up his cup and moved into the living room. He took a seat on the couch and took a tentative sip of the hot coffee feeling it burn all the way down. Closing his eyes, he tried to sort out this mess in his head so he could tell his cousin without him totally losing it and throwing them both to the wolves.

"Okay, Roy, I’m listening," Gary said as he took a seat and looked at his disheveled cousin expectantly. "This better be good. The family is pissed and you’re about two steps away from concrete shoes."

Roy nodded figuring that was probably the case. "You know Tommie owes Asim a ton of money, right?" Gary nodded in agreement. "Okay. Well, we were desperate for change since Asim’s bullyboys were starting to get antsy. This good-looking, high class blonde tracked us down through Johnny T. saying she had a job for us." Roy shrugged. "I didn’t think it would hurt to listen to her, so I met with her and she laid it out for me. Seemed easy enough. She wanted this little redhead taken care of, but she wanted it to look like an accident."

"Why?" Gary asked breaking Roy’s concentration.

"What?" Roy asked stupidly.

"Why did she want the redhead whacked?" Gary asked patiently.

Roy shrugged. "Hell if I know. I didn’t bother to ask. She was offering five gee for the job and we needed the money, so I took it no questions asked."

"Did you get any of it up front?" Gary questioned.

"Yeah, half. Gave it to Asim to get his boys off our backs," Roy replied.

"So how did the Wolf and Darkcloud get involved?" Gary asked not able to figure out the connection.

"I didn’t know then," Roy answered truthfully. "We followed the target to Spokane and I was thinking it would be the perfect opportunity to get rid of her, you know? She goes to this house and something about it looks real familiar. So I call up Pablo and ask him about it."

"And?" Gary prompted leaning forward.

"Turns out she was visiting none other than Darkcloud herself," Roy said shaking his head in disbelief.

"Shit," Gary cursed. "Why didn’t you pull out then?"

Roy grimaced. ""Cause we needed the damn money! I’d already spent the first half and believe me, this blonde wasn’t one I felt like double-crossing. She’s crazy."

"Any idea who she is?"

Roy nodded. "I didn’t then, but I do now."


"Yeah. When I was cooped up in the room, Hank brought in some newspapers for entertainment. I was bored so I started thumbing through them. I opened up the Arts section and the damn bitch was staring me right in the face! She’s some model or actress or some shit and she was with that Alexi bitch at some damn charity auction. It gets worse. The target was at the same event and was standing beside none other than the Wolf herself!" Roy announced with a deprecating laugh.

"Shit! You have to be kidding me?" Gary asked in disbelief.

Roy shook his head. "Afraid not."

"Damn, when you fuck up you fuck up big!" Gary replied shaking his head.

"Yeah, I know. But I guess that’s why the Wolf and that Indian bitch are sniffing around," Roy said. "What do you think the family will do when they find out?"

Gary sat back and thought about it. He couldn’t believe his cousins had managed to screw up so badly. "Well, you know they’re going to throw Tommie to the wolves."

Roy sighed. "I was afraid you’d say that."

"They have to. With the Wolf sniffing around its only a matter of time before she figures it out. She always does. They won’t take the heat—not for Tommie," Gary said solemnly.

"Well I have to think of something! I can’t let them do that to my brother," Roy said agitated by the thought of his baby brother taken the fall.

"Well, what the hell you going to do? You don’t think the family isn’t going to figure this out pretty soon?" Gary asked raising an eyebrow in question.

"You’re not going to tell them are you?" Roy asked in horror.

"Jesus, Roy! I’m going to have to sooner or later," Gary said sympathetically.

"Give me twenty-four hours to figure something out, okay?" Roy pleaded.

"I don’t know." Gary shook his head doubtfully. "What the hell you going to do?"

"I’ll figure something out. I have to. I know Tommie is a dumbass, but he’s still my brother. Please, Gary, help me," Roy practically begged.

Gary studied his cousin’s desperate face and sighed. "Okay, okay! I’ll give you twenty-four hours. But you better think of something fast! The family is going to start wanting to know what the hell is going on and I’m not going to be able to keep a lid on this forever."

"Thanks, Gary. I’ll think of something I swear!" Roy gushed profusely.

Gary rolled his eyes but nodded. "I better get going. I’ll be back tonight and see what you’ve come up with."

"Okay, thanks," Roy said gratefully.

Gary stood. "Don’t thank me yet, Roy. I haven’t done anything but keep my mouth shut for awhile."

Roy nodded and rose to walk his cousin to the door. "I’ll call you if I think of something before you come by."

"You do that," Gary replied opening the front door and nodding to the one of the guards on the porch.

"Okay, Gary, and thanks," Roy said.

Gary waved in acknowledgement as he walked down the stairs towards his waiting car. Roy watched until he drove off and disappeared. He closed the door and leaned against it his knees trembling. "I got to think of something," Roy muttered to himself as he pushed off from the door and strode determinedly towards the kitchen table.

He sank into a chair and dropped his head into his hands. "Think, Roy, think," he muttered. "What are your options?"

He struggled through his hangover to come up with a way to save his brother. He didn’t want to see Tommie killed by the family or incarcerated by the police. There had to be another way--but what?

"Tommie’s sick! He needs help not jail!" Roy mumbled helplessly. "But how do I get that for him?"

He frowned as he tugged his hair in irritation.

Can I go to the cops? No, they’d just toss him in jail and throw away the key. That won’t help him any. He thought furiously trying to come up with an alternative. The family is going to kill him. That’s a given. Gary didn’t say what they’d do with me, but they must think I can still be of use. Damn, what does that leave? Blazing blue eyes framed in a mass of raven hair came to mind and he shuddered involuntarily. That’s crazy! The Wolf? His mind wouldn’t let go of the idea so he sat back and thought about it.

There’s has to be a way. All I’ve heard about her is that once she gives her word it’s as good as gold. He scowled. So I just have to think of some way to get her to agree to get Tommie into a hospital instead of turning him over to the cops. Yeah, that might work.

He got up and headed for the kitchen. There were some calls he needed to make. He just prayed he could find someone crazy enough to approach the Wolf on his behalf. He shook his head at the impossibility of the task. "I’ll think of something. I have to," he muttered as he stepped into the kitchen and reached for the phone.


Morrison sat back and rubbed his eyes in irritation. He glanced at the clock and frowned. Dodd sure is taking his sweet time getting here, he mentally grumbled. Hope I was right in trusting him with that background check. He felt a tinge of guilt at the thought. He knew Dodd was a good cop and was better with computers than he was. That’s why when Dodd offered to take it—he gave it to him. He knew it was just that he hated losing control of anything. He wanted to be the one to get the information from the "horse’s mouth" so to speak. He wasn’t known as someone who trusted other people’s judgments, which was one of the reasons a lot of his fellow officers didn’t like to work with him—they thought he was an overly obsessive snob who didn’t trust their work. Morrison snorted as he pulled his mind away from that train of thought.

The conference room door opened and Dodd strolled in with a huge grin on his face. He slapped the folder in his hand saying, "You were right, Frank. Boy! Were you right!"

Morrison leaned forward in his chair and held out his hand for the folder. "I take it you found out something?"

"Oh yeah. Hit the motherload," Dodd replied taking a seat across from his mentor and handing him the file. He sat back as Morrison flipped open the folder and began to read. "Billy had a pretty hard time with this one at first."

"Why’s that?" Morrison asked absently as he scanned through the folder.

"Because she changed her name for one. That’s not too tough to figure out, but we found out that her real name had a juvenile file and they seal those you know," Dodd explained a touch of smugness entering his voice. "Billy thought to run her fingerprints. That’s how we found her."

Morrison glanced up and pinned him with a calculating eye. "Do I want to know how you managed to get her current fingerprints?"

"That was easy," Dodd replied breezily. "She had them taken for security at the last studio she worked at. We just ran a basic search and they popped right up."

Morrison nodded not wanting to admit that he had no idea what Dodd was referring to. He quickly jumped on the next bit that had caught his eye. "Juvenile record huh?" Dodd nodded. "And did your friend, Billy, get into that sealed file?"

Dodd studied the older detective warily. Morrison’s face showed only mild interest, but warning bells were going off in Dodd’s head. What he and Billy had done was illegal and he didn’t know Morrison well enough to know how he’d react. "Ummm—"

"Spit it out, Dodd. I’m not going to turn you in to IA or anything," Morrison assured him, waving his hand impatiently.

"Yeah, we got in," Dodd replied slowly, lowering his eyes to the file in front of Morrison. "It’s all in there—rap sheet, shrink profile, everything."

"Why don’t you just give me the highlights since you’ve already read it?" Morrison asked leaning back in his seat ignoring the open file before him and giving his full attention to his partner. Let’s see what you’re really made of, kid.

"Umm, okay. Give me a sec to organize my thoughts," Dodd replied lowering his head and staring blankly at the tabletop as his mind whirled.

"I don’t seem to have any other pressing appointments, so take your time," Morrison deadpanned as he watched his nervously fidgeting partner with amusement.

Dodd tapped his fingers idly on the table as he organized his thoughts. He looked up finally to meet Morrison’s attentive face. He cleared his throat and began. "Well for starters, Miss Sinclair was born Doris Eloise Holcomb of Wichita, Kansas to Bud and Judy Holcomb. Kind of interesting that she took her mom’s name huh?" Morrison rubbed his mustache, but didn’t reply. Dodd coughed and continued, "Father’s deceased. Died in a fire… umm… there’s a couple of newspaper clippings in there about it." Dodd pointed at the folder and Morrison pushed it towards him. "Thanks."

"Sure," Morrison said watching as his partner dug through the file.

"Here it is," Dodd said pulling out photocopies of the articles and pushing them down the table towards the older detective. "There’s a picture of Doris there too. Doesn’t look a thing like Judith. She must have had some major work done over the years."

"Just give me the highlights. What does her dad dying in a fire have to do with anything?" Morrison asked a touch impatient, ignoring the newspaper clippings, but picking up the photo of Doris Holcomb. She looked like the typical Midwestern fifteen year old to him. Long straight mousy brown hair, acne riddled face, brown eyes—no particular feature that stood out and made you take notice of her. She had that unfinished coltish look that most teenagers had at that age—like they hadn’t quite grown into their bodies yet and were all knees and elbows.

"Well, that’s just it. He died when their trailer burn to the ground. You know how those things are—damn death traps once they catch on fire and this was an older one. Guess Judith a.k.a Doris totally lost it after it happened," Dodd explained hastily noting Morrison’s irritation. "The fire was ruled an accident, but I looked up the fire inspector’s report and there were suspicions of arson, but it was never proved."

"Interesting. So then what?" Morrison asked rocking back in his chair and stroking his mustache.

"Well Doris was put in counseling for awhile, but that didn’t seem to last long. Her mother remarried within six months. I thought that was pretty damn quick," Dodd said shaking his head.

"Keep your opinions until the end, Dodd. Just give me the facts," Morrison ordered.

"Yes, sir. Okay, let’s see here," Dodd said sifting through the folder. "From what I could piece together from her juvenile record and the court appointed shrink, Doris started getting really wild after her father’s death. Mostly misdemeanor stuff--vandalism, curfew violations--but she did get involved with a pretty rough crowd that were known to deal in drugs and were suspected of a rash of robberies. When one of the members of the gang was shot and killed by police during a convenience store robbery, Doris ran from the scene and was found a few hours later comatose on"—he flipped through the file to find out the name of the drug—"says here, ‘a mixture of barbiturates and alcohol.’"

Dodd fell silent and Morrison dropped his eyes from contemplating the ceiling to look at him questioningly. "What?"

"Oh, sorry. I was just thinking that this kid is pretty messed up. First she loses her dad and her mom remarries some guy she doesn’t know at all. Then what seems to be a close friend is killed right before her eyes and she almost OD’s on drugs," Dodd explained with a sad shake of his head. "Just seems like such a waste."

"It happens," Morrison said coldly. "Do you have more pictures of her?"

"Yeah." Dodd found the envelope of snapshots and handed it to Morrison.

Morrison opened it and began laying out the different photos of Doris starting from when she was a toddler with her parents up until the last available photo, which was her high school graduation picture. "What happened after the OD?"

"She was hospitalized and put on probation for the next two years," Dodd replied, returning to the business at hand, trying to hide his shock at his partner’s callousness. "Seems she blossomed a bit in rehab. As you can see by that picture." He pointed at one of the pictures before Morrison. "She got out, seemed to shape up and fly straight. Graduated high school and then poof! She disappears three days after graduation with her parents’ entire life savings."

Morrison studied the picture of a young woman in the black cap and gown of graduation. The coltish girl of a few years ago was gone to be replaced by a leggy brunette with that mischievous half smile that Morrison had grown to hate on the face of Judith Sinclair. The acne had cleared up and she had finally styled her hair in a flattering way. Something or someone had obviously made Doris/Judith more aware of her appearance. He stroked his mustache as he contemplated the face of that eighteen-year-old girl smiling for the camera. He studied her eyes and that’s where he saw Judith staring back at him. She may have changed her nose and her hair color, but her eyes were still cold and calculating—even then.


Morrison pulled his attention away from the picture. "What?"

"What do you think?"

"I think that Doris or Judith or whatever the hell her name is," Morrison replied tapping the photo with a finger, "is one crazy bitch. Did the mother report her as a runaway or did the stepfather report the theft of the money?"

Dodd blinked in surprise. "Stepfather reported the theft. How did you know that?"

"Because I don’t think they gave a rat’s ass about the girl. The only thing that would have motivated them would be the money," Morrison explained his eyes glazing as his thoughts turned inward. "What does the report say the amount was?"

Dodd sifted through the folder looking for the report. "Huh, that’s interesting," he said studying the report.

"Not much right?" Morrison asked rhetorically.

"Nope. Says here about a thousand dollars and some jewelry of her mother’s," Dodd replied with a puzzled frown marring his features. "Doris would have been eighteen so the police probably wouldn’t take the runaway thing too seriously, but they would at least make an attempt at trying to find a thief. Do you think that’s why they reported it? To get the cops to look for her?"

"No," Morrison said firmly. "I think her stepfather really wanted the money back. I bet Doris made off with a hell of a lot more than a mere grand."

"Huh." Dodd read a few more reports and then said, "I think you’re right. Says here, that John Fordham—that’s the stepfather—made constant calls to the department demanding to know what was going on with the case. Says here he never once mentioned if they had found the girl, just where the hell was his money."

Morrison nodded as he studied the array of photos before him. Doris had seemed like the run of the mill normal lower middle class kid. In the pictures depicting her with her father and mother she was smiling and happy and he noted that the coldness wasn’t present in her eyes. Then in her teens, she changed—even before her father’s death. She seemed more withdrawn and didn’t smile so openly. Morrison frowned rubbing his mustache. "What did her father do?"

"What?" Dodd asked surprised.

"What did her father do?" Morrison reiterated pointing at a picture of Bud Holcomb with his arm around a smiling happy pre-adolescent Doris.

"Says here he was a long haul truck driver," Dodd replied reading the report. "Guess he wasn’t home much."

"I would think not," Morrison said tapping his fingers as his mind worked. "Well something happened that caused Doris to want to erase who she was and become someone else." Dodd nodded not wanting to break his partner’s concentration. "You can’t do that with barely a thousand dollars. I think she made off with a lot more than that. Went to some big city—L.A or maybe New York—hooked up with a crowd probably through her old connections in the gang she hung out with, and got into something to make money fast. She had the money she stole from her parents to buy her way into something. Don’t know what. Maybe she was hooking or selling drugs—but whatever it was made her enough money to get plastic surgery and get papers to change who she was. Good papers, since no one has questioned them before now."

"Yeah, but that doesn’t make her a murderer," Dodd pointed out.

Morrison glanced up and pinned him with a look. "Did I say it did?"

"No but"—Dodd gulped—"isn’t that what you’re getting at? Isn’t that why you wanted a background check? Because you were thinking that Judith could be behind Reid’s shooting?"

"I just wanted to cover all the bases," Morrison explained as he rocked back in his seat. "She may have just wanted to run away from who she was and where she came from—start fresh. Nothing wrong with that, other than the way she went about it."

"True," Dodd said a wave of relief washing over him.

"But," Morrison said holding up a hand and Dodd felt his relief disappear with that one word. "Look here at these," Morrison pointed out the pictures lying before him. "Start here"—he pointed at the picture of Doris and her father—"and work your way to the end. Tell me what you see."

Dodd dutifully got up and came around the table so he could study the photos. Morrison scooted his chair out of his way so he could get a better view and rocked back to watch him. Dodd felt sweat break out on his brow feeling the older detective’s eyes drilling into his back as he studied the pictures. He didn’t see anything unusual, but he knew Morrison expected him to see something. Question was, what? He fought the urge to wipe his brow and said, "Let me take a shot in the dark here and say her eyes?"

"You making fun of me, Dodd?" Morrison growled menacingly.

Dodd turned his head and met angry blue eyes in a scowling face. "No, sir," Dodd answered honestly.

Morrison’s eyes narrowed as he studied Dodd’s earnest face and finally nodded. "Fine. Tell me what you see."

Dodd breathed a sigh of relief as he returned his attention to the photos and struggled to tell Morrison what he saw in them. "Well, looks to me like she was a pretty happy kid when her dad was alive." He pointed at the photos of a young Doris. "But it looks like things got a bit rough when she hit her teens. Of course some of that could just be normal teenage issues. Then here," he pointed to the picture taken soon after her father’s death, "her eyes suddenly go cold. She’s smiling but it doesn’t reach her eyes, you know?"

"Right," Morrison agreed leaning forward to look at the picture in question.

"But I don’t see how any of this has to do with the here and now," Dodd said with a shrug.

"It’s all about knowing people and what they’re capable of. This," Morrison pointed to a happy picture of Doris and her father, "would not be someone capable of hiring a shooter to do in her lover. But this girl," he pointed to the teenage Doris with the half smile and cold eyes, "would do it without breaking a sweat. I’m not saying she did it; I’m just saying she’s capable of it."

Dodd studied the pictures and could see what Morrison was saying. "I can’t argue with your logic, Frank, but we don’t have any proof or motive. We talked to the other two girls with Reid at the campus and both of them said they didn’t know why Reid had tracked them down, that they didn’t even really know her. So the crime of passion angle seems a bit weak."

Morrison rubbed his mustache thoughtfully. "I don’t know, Joel. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is going on. Someone somewhere isn’t telling us the whole story and I’m going to find out who."

Dodd glanced up at his partner and saw the determined glint in his eye. "Okay, Frank. I’m with you. Did the doctors tell you when we might be able to question Reid?"

"Said they were going to wean her off the ventilator today," Morrison replied as he scooped up the photos and returned them to their envelope. "Said she should be conscious within the next twenty-four hours or so. The uniform on guard duty knows to call us day or night when she becomes conscious and lucid."

"Well that’s good. Maybe she’ll be able to shed some light on this whole mess," Dodd said shuffling the papers back into the folder.

"Yeah. Anything else?" Morrison asked settling back in his chair.

"Not that I can think—oh wait, there is one thing," Dodd replied sitting down across from Morrison. "Remember how O’Shea and Barrett said they had never met Reid until that charity auction last weekend?"

"Yeah, what about it?" Morrison asked, silently pleased that his partner had taken the initiative without having to be prompted.

"Well I checked into it. I called the owner of the gallery—a Louis Richards—and he was very helpful. Said the newspaper did a lay out and gave me the reporter’s name and even offered me a copy of it," Dodd said with a grin. "So I went and got a copy of it, and guess what?"

"What?" Morrison asked finding his patience somewhere. Dodd had a tendency to draw things out instead of just telling him and it drove him nuts.

"The regular newspaper spread was your typical who’s who, but one of the rags did a story too," Dodd said like a kid about to reveal the secret of life. "Turns out the woman that O’Shea was pictured with in the regular paper—an Ashlin Gray—used to be hot and heavy with Judith Sinclair a few years back. Interesting huh? Barrett wasn’t in any of the photos that I saw—in either paper."

"Hmmm," Morrison murmured stroking his mustache. "You follow up on who did the story in the gossip rag?"

"Yeah. I have an appointment with her this afternoon. Can’t wait to hear what she has to say," Dodd said grinning in amusement.

"Well, I’ll leave you to it. I’m going to go make some phone calls," Morrison said as he stood and headed for the door.

"Okay. I’ll check back in with you some time later this afternoon," Dodd said following in the detective’s wake.


"Was that Lu?" Lauren asked Sheila as she walked into the room and sank onto the couch with a despondent sigh.

"No, it was Louis. He wanted to know if there was anything we needed, so I gave him a grocery list," Sheila replied as she hung up the phone and turned her full attention on her melancholy young friend. Lauren had been moping around the apartment all day barely saying a word. Sheila and Rachel had both tried to draw her out and into some form of conversation, but Lauren answered in monosyllables and would then leave the room to go stare at Ash’s guitar.

"Oh," Lauren mumbled staring up at the ceiling blankly.

Sheila frowned as she tried to think of something that would draw Lauren out of her shell, but coming up empty. Rachel wandered into the room with a general hello and flopped down on the couch next to Lauren stealing her pillow.

"Hey! I was using that!" Lauren scowled as she made to grab the pillow.

"What? This?" Rachel asked holding the pillow out of reach.

"Yes, that," Lauren said attempting to snatch it.

Rachel laughed and held it out farther. Sheila watched the antics of the two and thanked whoever was listening for Rachel. She had managed to animate Lauren with something as simple as stealing a pillow. She smiled as the two young women laughed and began wrestling back and forth on the couch. Now if they could just keep Lauren from returning to her dark mood. I wish Lu would call and tell me what the hell they are up to! She said she’d call later today. I hope they haven’t decided to hare off and do something foolish, Sheila thought without much hope.

"Hey Sheila?"

Sheila glanced up at Rachel’s query and smiled at the two disheveled women lying in a pile on the couch. "Yes?"

"What are we going to do for dinner tonight?" Rachel asked, pushing Lauren off of her so she could sit up. Lauren grunted but moved aside.

"Yeah, I’m starving," Lauren said rubbing her stomach for emphasis.

Sheila laughed. "As if that’s a news flash?" Lauren blushed but grinned impishly. "I talked to Louis and he agreed to bring us over some groceries this afternoon so I should be able to whip something up."

"Louis is coming over? Has he heard from Benson?" Lauren asked sitting up straight and staring at Sheila intently.

"He said he’d be here around four and he said he’d talked to Benson late last night," Sheila informed her avid audience.

"Did you hear from Lu last night?" Rachel asked curiously.

"Yes," Sheila said and hurried to continue before the two could interrupt her. "She didn’t say much. Just that they had found Ash and were all in one piece. They were going to spend the night at some hotel."

"Hotel? Why didn’t they go to Benson’s?" Rachel asked perplexed.

Sheila groaned inwardly as her mind raced to come up with a plausible excuse. She had wondered the same thing, but she didn’t think Lu’s answer would be overly reassuring to Lauren right now.

"Probably because of the reporters," Lauren offered settling on the corner of the couch and pulling her legs up. Sheila and Rachel turned to her with looks of surprise and she shrugged. "What?"

"What reporters?" Rachel asked leaning forward eagerly.

"The reporters camped out in front of the Gallery," Lauren said with a shrug.

"How’d you know about them?" Sheila asked in surprise. Louis had told her that a few diehard reporters were still hanging around. He had ordered the back door locked and had stationed a few of his larger friends to guard the entrances of the galleries. He said that Lance had caught one trying to sneak up the back stairs yesterday morning.

"Oh, umm… well…" Lauren stumbled to a halt and stared down at her hands that were wringing a pillow into submission.

"Well what?" Rachel demanded.

"Okay! I talked to Louis yesterday and he told me!" Lauren said exasperated.

"Why didn’t you tell me?" Rachel asked sounding hurt.

Lauren glanced up and met her best friend’s wounded brown eyes and felt her stomach plummet. "I’m sorry, Rach. With everything going on, I guess it just slipped my mind."

"Oh okay," Rachel replied her good mood restored instantly. She gave Lauren a pat on the knee in acceptance. "Guess that explains that. Wonder why they’re still hanging around? I thought they’d all be haunting the hospital and Alexi’s condo since they’ve all decided she was the target."

Sheila frowned wondering the same thing. Neither Lauren nor Rachel’s names had been released to the press, but it wasn’t surprising that someone had figured out that Lauren was at least one of the women involved. After all, her picture had been in the paper last week in connection with Alexi and the Gallery. "They’re probably just fishing for a story. Nothing to worry about," Sheila remarked attempting to sound casual about it though she felt anything but.

"Yeah, you’re probably right," Rachel agreed.

Sheila silently thanked Rachel for being amendable to her suggestion. "Well, I guess we just need to think of something to do until Louis gets here." She suddenly remembered something and turned to Lauren. "Oh, Lauren, Louis said that if there was anything from your apartment you thought you might need to give him a call in the next half hour and he’d grab it before leaving."

"Okay," she replied as she tried to think of anything she might need but came up blank. "Oh crap!" she exclaimed suddenly, sitting bolt up right and making Rachel and Sheila jump.

"Geez, Laur! What?" Rachel said eyeing her friend reproachfully.

"Katie!" Lauren exclaimed untangling herself from the couch and heading for the phone.

"Katie? Who’s Katie?" Sheila asked confused.

"Lauren’s sister," Rachel explained before turning to Lauren. "What about her, Laur?"

"She’s flying in tomorrow! I have to call her and tell her not to come! Oh damn! She’s going to want to know why and—" Lauren stopped in mid phrase and sunk to the floor in defeat.

"Wait, wait, wait! What are you talking about?" Sheila asked holding up her hands.

"Lauren’s sister Katie is supposed to fly in tomorrow to visit. She’s staying through the weekend for Halloween. It’s been planned for months," Rachel explained as she scooted off the couch and crawled over to Lauren to wrap her arms around her in comfort.

"So why are you telling her not to come?" Sheila asked quietly.

Lauren and Rachel’s heads both shot up to stare at Sheila incredulously. "You can’t be serious?" Lauren gasped astonished.

"Quite serious. I don’t see any reason to change any existing plans. Besides, as you said, she’d want to know why and that would open a whole other can of worms," Sheila explained patiently. "I don’t think you want to panic your family and make them wonder what is going on by calling her and telling her not to come."


Rachel interrupted Lauren. "Wait. I think she has a point, Lauren. Why don’t you call your machine and see if there are any messages from her? I bet she called to make sure you didn’t forget."

Lauren brightened at the idea and quickly grabbed the phone and dialed.

Rachel looked over at Sheila and winked. Sheila grinned and thought, Damn, but its good to have a co-conspirator.

Lauren listened intently to the messages. Rachel fought hard not to give in to her impatience and frowned at how serene Sheila appeared. How does she do that? Just sit there like nothing is going on? Rachel was pulled out of her contemplation of the placid Sheila by a whoop and a seated happy dance by Lauren.

"I take it you have good news?" Sheila asked mildly her eyes twinkling with mirth.

"Yes," Lauren said clicking off the phone and placing it back in its cradle before turning back to her friends. "Seems Katie messed up on the dates because she thought Halloween was Saturday."

"What?" Rachel asked perplexed.

Lauren giggled causing Rachel scowl threateningly. "Give me a sec, and I’ll explain, Rach," Lauren said not able to hide her relief. Rachel nodded and waved for her to continue. "I guess Katie was under the impression that Saturday was Halloween since that’s when the party is, but Saturday is the twenty-eighth not the thirty-first, so her flight on the twenty-seventh is on Friday not Wednesday."

Rachel blinked as she tried to process the information. It finally came clear what Lauren was saying and she grinned. "Well that’s a relief! This whole thing should be over by then!"

Lauren’s smile faltered and Sheila answered quickly to keep Lauren from thinking about it. "True! I’m sure this will all be history by then. Lu said they had a really good lead and she thought they’d have this all wrapped up long before Friday!"

Lauren stared at Sheila’s confident face and wanted to believe her—no needed to. She nodded slowly and dismissed the lingering fears for the moment. "Well at least we don’t have to worry about Katie showing up in the middle of it all."

"Did she finally tell you what her costume is?" Rachel asked excited by the prospect of the party all over again.

Lauren laughed. "Of course not! She wants to surprise me!"

Sheila sat back and listened to the two vibrant young women regale each other with stories of Katie’s past costumes and other Halloween parties they had attended over the years. She’d add a comment here and there but her mind was on one thing—Lu. Honey, I sure hope you all do have a lead and this will be over soon. I don’t think I can take much more of this. She glanced at a Lauren who was laughing uproariously over something Rachel had said and begging her between gales to stop. I don’t think she can either. I know she’s not sleeping. I hear her pacing around at night. Oh, Lu! Hurry! Get Ash and just come home!

Sheila shook her head and turned her mind to the moment at hand, knowing she had to trust in Lu and just let it go. She could only pray they would all come out of this unscathed.


Benson sat back from the table and wiped his mouth with a napkin. "Well, at least it was edible."

"Better than mystery burgers?" Ash asked a grin twitching her lips.

"Oh yeah! I can’t believe Lu eats those things," Benson replied with a shudder.

"You’ve gotten really spoiled," Ash observed eyeing her cousin up and down with wry amusement.

"Spoiled? What do you mean by that? Just because I don’t want to eat congealed animal fat, and take my life into my own hands at greasy spoons?" Benson protested.

"Yeah, spoiled. Louis has made you into a spoiled wannabe yuppie!" Ash said her eyes twinkling with merriment.

Benson gawked and began to sputter. "Spoi--? Yuppie? Bu—"

Ash nodded solemnly and fought back her amusement at her cousin’s pole-axed expression. "Afraid so. It’s a shame really, but look at yourself, Ben." She waved her hand to indicate his neatly pressed powder blue oxford and chinos. "You dress like a yuppie. You eat like a yuppie. Last time I checked that makes you…" she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Hmm, yep a yuppie!"

Benson’s face had gone a most unusual shade of red and Ash half expected him to blow his top. Then Benson took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and seemed to recover his demeanor.

"You know, Ashlin," Benson drawled slowly opening his eyes and glowering into matching baby blues that were alight with mischief. "One of these days you’re going to goad me into a fit and then what are you going to do?"

"Put a knife between your teeth to keep you from swallowing your tongue?" Ash replied innocently as the smile finally materialized on her lips.

"Ha ha, very funny. You’re a riot," Benson retorted glancing around the restaurant for the missing Lu. "What’s taking her so long anyway?"

Ash shrugged chuckling at her cousin’s attempt to be taken off the spot. "Who knows? Maybe she decided to call Sheila while she was at it." Ash relaxed back in her chair with a grin. Goading Benson had achieved her goal—to make him see her as his cousin once more instead of the bloodthirsty bounty hunter of the night before. Benson had been walking on eggshells around her and it had begun to get on her nerves. She was relieved that he seemed to have replaced that image of her with the one he was more familiar with. Hopefully I can keep it that way.

"Maybe," Ben replied glancing towards the back where Lu had disappeared almost thirty minutes ago. "Do you think this Detective Morrison will listen to us? I mean not go off half-cocked and think we’re crazy?"

"Not sure, but I’m sure if anyone can talk him into meeting us it will be Lu," Ash said playing idly with a cold French fry.

"Here she comes," Benson said.

Ash turned her head to see Lu approaching and felt a wave of relief descend when Lu grinned and gave her the thumb’s up.

"Morrison said he’d meet us later tonight and hear what we had to say," Lu said as she reached the table and picked up the check. "Let’s get out of here and find some place that has a decent cup of coffee."

Benson laughed in agreement and stood, followed by Ash who tossed a couple of crumpled bills on the table. They headed towards the exit, pausing just long enough for Lu to pay the bill.

"Damn. I was hoping it would’ve stopped raining by now," Benson grumbled glaring vehemently out at the downpour.

Lu snorted hearing the comment as she approached. "Yeah right."

Ash just turned up the collar of her duster and put her Stetson on. Lu opened the door and waved the others before her. A chill wind swept over them and a couple pushed past them with a hurried thank you to Lu for holding the door. The three friends pulled their coats tighter and stepped out into the freezing deluge.

"Shit, we’re going to catch our deaths in this," Lu swore as she shaded her eyes with her hand and quickened her step.

Benson lengthened his stride and reached the truck first. Ash brought out her key chain and hit the button to unlock the doors. Benson heard the click and quickly opened the door and folded his large frame into the passenger seat. Lu opened the driver’s door and clambered into the jump seat swearing colorfully at Ash for all the crap she kept back there.

Ash was about to climb in when she heard a voice call her name. She turned and peered across the rain swept parking lot trying to pinpoint the speaker. A man wearing a ratty raincoat and holding a black umbrella aloft waved to get her attention. Her eyebrows rose in surprise as she recognized him. She waved back to acknowledge she had seen him and leaned into the truck. "I have to go talk to someone. Be right back."

Before Lu or Benson could voice a protest she slammed the driver’s door closed and swept across the parking lot towards the distant figure.

"What the hell does she think she’s doing?" Lu groused watching Ash cross the parking lot towards a distant figured obscured by the rain. "Can you see who she went to talk to, Ben?"

Benson leaned forward and squinted out the rain washed windshield. "No. Can’t see a blessed thing."

"Damn," Lu swore as she sat back disgruntled. "Guess we’ll just have to wait for Ash to tell us what the hell is going on."

"Guess so," Benson replied sitting back and staring morosely out the window.

Time passed with just the sound of the rain hammering on the roof as they waited for Ash to return. Lu swore under her breath and Benson struggled to maintain calm and tried to watch the indistinct figure of his cousin as she talked to the stranger. He sat upright when he realized that Ash was heading back towards the truck.

"Here she comes," Benson said.

"About fucking time," Lu grumbled in irritation, trying once more to shift her position to try and get comfortable in the jump seat.

Ash pulled open the door and quickly climbed inside the truck letting in a gust of freezing rain. She pulled off her Stetson and shook out her hair, wiping the water out of her eyes. Lu watched all this with growing irritation but restrained herself from reaching over the back of the seat and strangling her.

"You going to tell us what that was all about or what?" Benson demanded showing no such restraint.

Ash turned her head and looked at her cousin abashed. "Oh, sorry," she apologized starting the truck and turning the heater on full blast. "Seems we don’t have to track down the Moreni brothers. Guess they’ve found us."

"What?" Lu barked.

"Who was that guy?" Benson asked at the same time.

"His name’s Mark and he’s a runner for the Garbacik family," Ash replied.

"What do you mean they found us?" Lu demanded sitting forward and leaning between the seats.

Ash turned in her seat to face the two of them. Her eyes were alight with an inner fire. Lu was relieved to see it wasn’t the cold hard stare she associated with the wolf, but one of determination and a touch of excitement. Ash was animated and seemed almost happy instead of foreboding. Benson seemed to have gotten over himself and was almost bouncing in his seat in impatience.

"If you’d give me a damn chance, I’d tell you," Ash said raising an eyebrow. A grin played at the corners of her mouth when Lu had the grace to blush.

"Sorry, go on," Lu grumbled sitting back a bit.

"Well it seems the family isn’t too happy with our dear brothers. I guess the older one, Roy, wants to meet with us. Seems he thinks we’re a better option than concrete shoes or the cops," Ash explained with evident joy.

"But why?" Benson asked puzzled by this turn of events.

"What does he think he’ll gain by coming to us?" Lu added trying to figure out the angle.

"Mark said Roy had some information for us about who hired them," Ash explained her grin turning feral. "I think Roy wants to make a deal. Not sure about the details, Mark either didn’t know or wasn’t telling."

"Make a deal? Can you do that?" Benson asked frowning doubtfully.

"No," Lu replied shortly.

Benson turned to her with a questioning look, but it was Ash who responded.

"She’s right, I can’t, but" --she held up a hand to forestall them from interrupting-- "we’re meeting with Morrison tonight and he can. I’m hoping we can talk him into agreeing with whatever Roy wants to get the information. What do you think, Lu?"

"Hmmm," Lu murmured thinking hard. "I’m not sure. If it was Pete then I’d say sure, no problem, but Morrison is an unknown." She shrugged. "We won’t know unless we ask though. I’m sure he’s interested in getting the shooter and getting the media and the department off his back. This has been high profile and I’m sure the pressure is on to rap it up quickly."

"My thoughts exactly," Ash agreed.

"Wait. What’s to keep Morrison from just grabbing this guy when you go to talk to him?" Benson asked looking between the two women.

"He does have a point, Ash," Lu agreed.

"Well we’ll just have to make sure he doesn’t," Ash said ominously.

"Where does this Roy guy want to meet you and when?" Lu asked quickly seeing Ben open his mouth and quickly snap it shut when she posed the question.

"Believe it or not, the damn Space Needle at 2 p.m.," Ash informed them with a wry chuckle.

"What? Why there?" Benson asked confused.

"Because its about as public as you can get and he figures Ash won’t try anything funny with all those nice innocent tourists standing about," Lu explained with a touch of respect for the unknown Roy.

"That’s what I figure," Ash agreed. "But it also gives us plenty of time to set up and hopefully keep the cops from jumping the gun. I want to know who’s behind this. Roy and his brother are small potatoes. I want the head of who hired them."

Benson stared at his cousin in shock hearing the determination and was dead certain that Ash would get exactly what she wanted. "Well, I guess we can just go back to meet up with Morrison and then head home to wait for the meet then."

"No," Ash said squashing any hope of that happening.

"What do you mean no?" Benson asked feeling his temper rise. He was sick of bad food and lumpy hotel beds. All he wanted was to go home and sleep with his partner in his own bed. Why was Ash making this so damn difficult?

"Have you forgotten about the reporters?" Ash asked coldly.

"What?" Benson asked hotly, sitting up and glaring at his cousin.

Lu rolled her eyes and quickly came to Benson’s rescue before Ash ripped off his hide to make new boots. "Louis told you there were still reporters hanging around your place, Ben. Last thing we want is for one of them to get the idea that following us might lead them to a story."

Benson seemed to deflate and nodded. "Oh yeah, I forgot. That would be pretty bad, huh?"

"But you are going home, Ben," Ash said. Benson glanced up at her in question. "You’re going to go back and tell Louis what is going on and then go over to Rachel’s and let them know there."

"What? Why?" Benson asked more confused than ever. Had he angered Ash to the point that she no longer wanted him with them? Did she think he was a liability? Her comments about him going soft back in the restaurant flooded back and he suddenly felt insecure.

"Decoy," Lu said succinctly.

"Decoy?" Benson repeated dumbly. Then the idea sank in and he grinned broadly. "Oh! You want me to lead the reporters on a wild goose chase?"

"Exactly," Ash said slapping Benson’s knee approvingly. "If they’re following you and Louis then they won’t be following me and hopefully not the cops."

"We’ll have to ask Morrison about that," Lu suggested thoughtfully.

Ash nodded in agreement. "Let’s go find that cup of coffee. I hope Morrison is punctual. I hate waiting." Ash put the truck in gear and backed out of the parking place.

Lu swore and quickly sat back to hold on. "What the hell is all this crap back here? You usually have nothing back here and the one time you stuff me in here it’s full of crap!"

Ash stopped the truck and glanced into the back to see what Lu was bitching about. Lu shoved a large bag to the side and kicked it for good measure.

"What you have in here? Fucking rocks?" Lu complained, trying to hold the heavy bag at bay with her feet.

Ash paled. She had totally forgotten about her Halloween costume and seeing it now sent a flood of anxiety and longing through her. She wanted to see Lauren! Not go talk to some stupid police and a would-be hitman. Almost over, almost over, she repeated silently like a mantra trying to remain in control of her raging emotions. "Oh. That?" she muttered distractedly.

Lu glared at the back of her head. "Yeah, this!" she barked kicking the bag for emphasis which only made her foot hurt. "Damn!"

Benson couldn’t help but chuckle at Lu’s antics. Lu’s gray eyes pinned him to his seat and he quickly brought his hand up to stifle the laugh. "Sorry, Lu," he mumbled through his hand.

"It’s my Halloween costume. I totally forgot it was back there. Just shove it out of the way, Lu," Ash said as she turned back around and started the truck moving again. "We’ll be dropping Benson off to pick up your car so you won’t be stuck back there much longer."

"Damn right!" Lu grumbled crossing her arms across her chest and glowering darkly.

No one else spoke after that. The only sound the steady swipe of the windshield wipers as they tried desperately to keep up with the amount of water being dumped from the angry skies.


Alexi felt like she was floating in a vast dark pool. She became aware of murmuring and she frowned trying to remember what that sound was. Voices, her sluggish mind finally deduced. She began to swim towards them. For some reason she had an urgent need to know what they were saying.

"—Well we think she’ll be conscious and lucid in the next 12 hours since we were able to remove the ventilator this morning," an official sounding voice said.

Alexi frowned. Ventilator? What? She fought the pull of the comforting darkness and swam further towards the surface trying to focus on the sound of the voices above.

"Will she remember anything?" a feminine voice asked.

Alexi felt her heart stutter and then begin beating again at the sound of that smooth, cultured voice. Why does she frighten me? She floated in nothingness as she tried to remember. Tried to piece together what had happened and where she was, but before she could the voices continued.

"Her injuries were severe, Miss Sinclair. The bullet ricocheted around in there causing her lung to collapse, break ribs, and cause severe soft tissue damage. She lost a lot of blood at the scene and she does have this"—the official sounding voice paused and Alexi felt a feather light touch on her brow—"abrasion on her temple that we think she may have suffered when she fell. Any of these factors could affect her memory. Frankly, Miss Sinclair, we really won’t know until Miss Reid wakes up and talks to us."

Wait… bullet? I was shot? Alexi floated in the darkness in shock. Suddenly in a flash it came back to her. The campus—a greasy man approaching her and two other women—the glint of steel—a scream as she dove for the other two women—pain ripping through her chest—then nothing. Her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest. Her mouth felt so dry, she wanted a drink of water, but the drugs pull was stronger and she finally gave up the struggle and drifted back into oblivion.


"Do you have any further questions?" the doctor asked in tired voice.

Judith ground her teeth and fought the urge to strangle the arrogant prick. "Will they be moving her to a regular room now?"

"Once she regains consciousness, she’ll be kept here for observation for another twenty-four hours just to make sure she’s stable," the doctor replied glancing at his watch.

Judith’s eyes narrowed as she watched the impatient doctor. I’m not important enough to talk to, hmm? Have better places to be do you? She lowered her face and brought a tissue to her lips in a display of emotion to buy herself some time.

"She really is doing quite well considering," the doctor offered placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.

Judith gritted her teeth but managed not to knock the idiot’s hand away and just nodded. "Thank you, doctor. I’ve been so worried," Judith said letting a quaver enter her voice. "Do"—she sniffed and wiped her nose—"Do you think she’ll be able to speak when she does wake up?"

The doctor rocked back on his heels and a thoughtful look fell across his pudgy features. Judith watched him carefully for any deceit. She needed to know if Alexi would be able to communicate. Obviously the fool had no clue whether Alexi would remember a damn thing, but this he should at least be able to tell her.

"Not right away," the doctor said slowly. "There’s a lot of swelling due to the bullet damage and added soreness from the endotracheal tubing. We’re hoping she’ll fully recover, but I think it will be some time before she’ll be able to vocalize."

Judith bowed her head and sniffed, pretending to be distraught by the news that Alexi may not be able to sing anymore.

"We’ll just have to wait and see and hope," the doctor said trying to soothe her.

Judith thought furiously as she nodded absently to the doctor. She won’t be able to speak! Shit! How am I going to find out if she knows?

Ask her yes and no questions, Judith, the calm voice replied in her head.

Judith brightened. Yes! That will work! I can just lead her to what I need to know that way! Thanks.

The voice did not reply but Judith hardly noticed as she began to devise questions to ask Alexi once she awakened.

"Well, Miss Sinclair, I have other patients to see," the doctor said interrupting her thoughts.

"Thank you, doctor," Judith managed with a weak smile as she looked up at him with teary brown eyes.

"No problem. You have any further questions, just let the ward nurse know and I’ll see what I can do for you. Good-bye," the doctor replied and turned to leave.

"Bye," Judith murmured distractedly as her eyes turned to the sleeping Alexi.

She leaned forward and brushed her lips across Alexi’s cool forehead as she took her hand in hers. "Oh yes, my dear. We’re going to have a nice long chat when you wake up," Judith whispered an evil grin spreading across her full lips. "I have so many questions for you. And I’m sure you’re dying to know what has been going on."

Anyone looking in would have seen nothing more than a concerned lover holding the hand of her injured partner murmuring encouragingly to her. Judith’s crazed brown eyes were hidden from view. No one could see the maniacal glee glowing from within.

Part 18

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