Blurring the Lines

by Rhiannon Silverflame
rsilverflame@la-ex-heds.com





DISCLAIMERS:
This story is a work of original fiction.  It was originally conceived and started several years ago, but has since been significantly revised and the concept reworked (for those of you who may actually have read the two chapters of the original draft as they were posted on my now defunct site).

There is a heavy dose of strong language throughout the story.  Don't blame me -- I can't control Kendrick's mouth!  In addition, there is some graphic depiction of drug abuse.  Consider yourself duly warned -- this is not what I would call a "feel-good story."  While I don't plan to leave them wallowing hopelessly in misery throughout, these characters have their problems, and they're not exactly the happiest people in the world.

Romantic relationships between women factor heavily into Blurring the Lines.  I assume no liability for your negative reaction if you choose to continue reading despite my warning and your hangups.

Feedback?  I like feedback.  Even negative feedback.  Send it my way.  Please.  (That goes for the positive feedback too.  Preferably.)

Special thanks to my partner, R. S. Corliss (Shadowriter), who keeps on loving me, trusting me, and believing in me even when I can't believe in myself, and who has no compunctions whatsoever about metaphorically kicking my ass to make me keep writing even when I get tempted to slack off.  Shadow, this one's for you, baby -- your faith, confidence, and love mean everything to me.  I love you.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

For most people, dreams were a welcome thing, an escape from reality into a world where anything was possible. That made for a pretty broad set of parameters, so dreams could be unpleasant as well as pleasant; sometimes one or the other, sometimes a bizarre blend of the two. Still, good dreams were enough of an incentive for most people to accept the possibility that sleep just might bring nightmares; you could always wake up from those. On the other hand, going back to sleep in an attempt to recapture a particularly good dream didn't always work, which didn't stop most people from trying anyway.

The trouble for Leigh Lukas was that she could never decide which prospect was more appealing.

Today was no exception, as consciousness steadily unraveled her hazy dreamscape. Most people couldn't remember the majority of their dreams; Leigh could. It wasn't that hard, considering she pretty much always had the same dream.

She was never sure exactly how long from now it took place, but this particular dream always involved her winning the Nobel Prize for her accomplishments in researching hormones and human behavioral studies. That was the good part. How could she argue with worldwide recognition for work she'd done in relative obscurity, slaving away in her isolated laboratory?

The bad part always came when she stepped up to the podium to give her acceptance speech. Palms sweating, heart pounding, she'd lean in toward the microphone and swallow hard, staring out into the sea of people and the flashes of countless international media cameras. Then, with her voice breaking from the emotion, she'd begin to speak, completely disregarding the stack of index cards she'd prepared.

"There's so much I could say right now," she'd tell the crowd. "All the people I have to thank for this success my colleagues, my mentor, my friends . . . especially my family. I'm extremely honored and grateful to accept this Nobel Prize today, and I do so in loving memory of my brother, Joseph Barrett Lukas. Everything I've done to get to this point has been in his honor, and so I have to admit that my emotions upon receiving this award are very mixed. If my brother had not been killed in the Gulf in February of 1991, I would never have been motivated to do this research. But if he hadn' t. . . then all the good that this research can do might have never even been a possibility." That was when she'd choke up and duck her head for several long moments, until finally deciding that if she kept speaking, she'd completely lose it. "Thank you," she'd finally stammer.

The crowd would break out into tumultuous applause at that point, and Leigh would just stand there, gripping the podium, hearing none of it in that surreal way that only dreams can manage. The only sensation of which she was aware was the eerie roar of sound echoing in a vast, empty space. Then out of nowhere it would hit her that time had slowed to a crawl, and that the emptiness she felt was inside her, gnawing at her gut. And as she stood there at the podium, gazing at the crowd, each second stretched out to an impossible eternity, Leigh would find herself desperately wishing she could take back the last five years . . . or however long it was by now in this damn dream . . . of everyone's lives.

This morning, like every other morning that she woke up after the dream, the emptiness pushed her from sleep and lingered through her usual indecision over the advantages of being awake. It grew into the restless feeling that caused her to roll over and swing her legs over the side of the bed, letting her bare feet find contact with the carpeted floor. She reached out to shut off the alarm switch on her bedside clock. Without looking at it, she was already reasonably sure that it was about 6:45 AM and that, as usual, the alarm she'd set for 7:00 wouldn't get the chance to go off.

As she retrieved her bathrobe from the hook on the back of the door and padded down the hallway toward the bathroom, Leigh could smell brewing coffee, potatoes, herbs, and eggs; cheerful whistling and clattering utensils in the kitchen let her know that her roommate was in her customary high spirits. And awake at this hour that was a bit surprising. There was no sense in arguing with breakfast, however.

"Morning, Leigh-Leigh!" hollered Emily Lloyd, who could practically tell time by her friend's daily routine. "I'll be done by the time you get out!"

Leigh allowed herself a tiny smile as she shut the bathroom door behind her and turned on the shower, watching the steam as it rose up and coated the mirror over the sink. Sometimes she thought that Emily's presence was what really woke her up in the morning, more than the coffee or the shower. The younger woman had an infectious kind of energy, which made no logical sense whatsoever given how little sleep she got. Leigh, on the other hand, was in bed by 10:30 every night, and couldn't even begin to comprehend where Emily got the fuel to run around as much as she did. It made for a funny kind of reason behind why they got along so well, she supposed.

Once she got the water temperature to her liking, Leigh shed her flannel pajamas and folded them neatly on the counter before stepping into the shower. Running the soap over her skin, she felt the hot water washing away the layer of perspiration that had dried on her while she'd been sleeping that dream always brought on night sweats. The ache inside, however, didn't wash away quite so easily.

Finally, Leigh shut off the faucet and climbed back out of the shower, putting on her bathrobe. With her pajamas tucked under her arm, she emerged from the bathroom, toweling off her hair on the way back to her bedroom.

"Leigh!" Emily yelled from the kitchen. "If you don't get your butt out here in ten minutes, there won't be any breakfast for you. I'mstarving!"

"Relax, Em," Leigh called back, chuckling despite herself. "You're always starving."

She laid the towel over the back of her desk chair, then stopped to arrange the sheets and blankets neatly on the bed. With that out of the way, she headed for the closet to put together an outfit for the day.

From one section of the organized array of hangers, Leigh selected a dark blue dress shirt, then a pair of neatly pressed khakis and a braided leather belt from the next section over. Her top dresser drawer yielded underwear and a pair of plain white socks; the boots that would complete the outfit were in the shoe cupboard by the apartment's front door.

After dressing, Leigh brushed her long brown hair and pulled it into a neat ponytail. The hairstyle, she suspected, contributed to her frequent headaches; for casual occasions, she really preferred to leave it down. Practicality, however, dictated the ponytail, as it just wouldn't do to let a stray lock too near a Bunsen burner.

Picking her glasses up off the dresser and putting them on, Leigh glanced back toward the closet door to survey the finished effect. The full-length mirror on the door reflected a petite young woman with a serious expression and the distinct beginnings of worry lines on her forehead; her black plastic cat's-eye glasses lent extra intensity to her dark brown eyes.

Conservative and professional, just what she was going for . . . not that she would have known how to pull off any other look. With a sigh, Leigh picked up her attaché case, pocketed the car keys, and moved toward the kitchen.

"Okay, Em," she announced calmly from the hallway, "I'm coming out."

"About damn time you did," teased Emily, who was pouring coffee into the mugs on the table when Leigh entered the kitchen. "Like we didn't already know."

Leigh smiled half-heartedly. "Haven't gotten maximum mileage out of that joke yet, have you?"

"Well, I keep hoping one of these days it'll catch you off guard and get a real laugh."

"Sorry . . . I'll work on it." Leigh shook her head and sat down in front of the plate that her roommate had already prepared; ham-and-Swiss omelets with home fries, Emily's specialty, and still steaming from the skillet. She took a bite, enjoying the texture of the potatoes. "Good stuff. You should make breakfast all the time."

"I already do," replied Emily airily, shoveling sugar into her mug. Leigh shot her a look, and she quickly amended, "That is, the mornings I'm awake before you. And I'll admit, there ain't many of those."

"Uh-huh. What's the reason behind this one?"

"Excitement. Got a gig tonight . . . and you're coming. Right? Not that I expect you to say yes or anything." Emily drummed out a quick riff on the edge of the table using her fork and spoon, and looked at Leigh hopefully. "Eight-thirty, Jack's Sugar Shack on Hollywood and Vine."

Leigh raised an eyebrow at her friend over her mug of black coffee. Emily, a graduate student at UCLA, was a talented pianist with considerable skill on the guitar as well; she often got work sitting in with local bands ranging from jazz quartets to garage rock groups. It wasn't unusual at all for her to have a gig on short notice. "I didn't know. When did you find out about this?"

"Only about a month ago . . . and I swear I told you, Leigh-Leigh. You were just so preoccupied with work as usual that the information went right over your head." There was no malice in the words, and the rakish grin on Emily's face was genuine and affectionate.

Leigh swallowed her mouthful of omelet. "Sorry, Em," she said.

"Eh." The red-haired musician waved a casual hand and went back to devouring her own breakfast. "So how about it? You coming tonight?"

"Oh, Em, I don't know . . . I'm going to be so tired when I get home." Leigh offered her friend a rueful grimace. "I'll do my best."

"Which can be distilled down to a simple no." Emily sighed. "I saw that coming."

"I know. I'm sorry. I really am. But . . . I honestly think I'm onto something here, in this series . . . and I don't want to lose momentum now." Leigh stared down at her empty plate, unwilling to look up and meet her friend's piercing green eyes.

She felt them anyway, as Emily put her fork down and leaned forward, focusing her gaze on the top of Leigh's head. "More research?" she asked, her voice suddenly quiet and serious. "I worry about you. I really do. You drive yourself way too hard, Leigh-Leigh . . . you've got to get out of this apartment and have some fun once in a while."

"Soon. Promise." Leigh did look up then, and winced at the crestfallen expression on Emily's face. By way of apology, she quickly added, "I've just got a lot of work planned out for today . . . no telling how long it'll take me to finish everything." She got up to put her dishes in the sink and offered, "At least let me help you clean up?"

"No, it's okay." Whether Emily's voice indicated hurt or worry, Leigh couldn't tell, but in the next second the musician was back to her cheerful self as she went on, "Get going. You don't want to be late, and I don't have class till ten anyway."

"I'm really sorry, Em," repeated Leigh one more time.

"It's okay. I really wanted you to be there, but ah well . . . hope springs eternal with me, huh? Though some people have attributed it to cluelessness. I really can't decide who's right." Emily winked and made a shooing gesture. Sure, it frustrated her that the older woman never gave herself a chance to have fun it was concern for Leigh's emotional health that brought on the frustration, far more than disappointment that her best friend never came to watch her play. She hated the fact that scientific method was rapidly taking over anything that passed for Leigh's life, and often caught herself thinking that it might be a relief to literally slap some sense into her friend. But the thought was always pursued by guilt, and anyway, for whatever reason, she just couldn't stay upset with the woman for very long at all.

Impulsively, she reached out and grabbed Leigh into a tight hug. "Don't work too hard, Leigh-Leigh. Please?"

"I'll try not to," Leigh answered, wrapping her arms around Emily as an unfamiliar little flush of gratified warmth welled up in her. After a moment they broke apart, and Leigh started heading toward the front door to put on her boots. She straightened up, reached for the doorknob, and paused, turning back toward the kitchen. "And Em . . . be careful tonight, okay? Hollywood's not exactly the safest place to be."

 

* * *

It was hot. When had it gotten hot? The last time she remembered being aware of the temperature it had been cold, in that insidious way Southern California could get cold late at night. Something to do with that whole desert thing. Pretty damn close to freezing given enough time, especially for someone wearing only jeans and a t-shirt. But it was hot now, and bright. Stupid sunlight. The thing that pissed her off most was that she had no trouble feeling it.

The heat on her face, the persistent brightness of the sun burning past her eyelids . . . her awareness of them had been steadily increasing for some period of time that Kendrick Ashwright didn't figure was worth knowing. Possibly a few minutes, maybe hours. Either way, not terribly important.

She shifted and felt the scrape of warm, rough concrete against her face and left arm; the movement sent a jolt of pain through her body and she swore, out of some combination of the pain itself and her annoyance at the fact that she could feel the pain so keenly.

Kendrick lay still for a few moments. When she dared to move again it was to slowly roll over onto her back, hissing at the muscle cramp that had decided to make itself known. She considered that spending the night curled up on a hard, unforgiving surface could do that to you. As she settled into her new prone position, her right arm flew out, banging the knuckles of her hand solidly into a fire hydrant. She swore again, and the sound hurt her throat.

She opened her eyes, and was immediately sorry she'd done so as a burst of morning sunlight seared her vision. So much for figuring out if her eyesight was back in focus. Swearing more fluidly, she struggled up into a sitting position and stopped, waiting for the resultant wave of fresh pain to subside.

This was the shit thing about mornings, Kendrick decided for the millionth time. There was the waking up, and right after that came the gradual realization that all her senses were working again. Then there was the part where she forced her brain to function, just so she could figure out where she was, and if she knew her way home from there. She hated that part it took too much effort.

When a light breeze hit her with the acrid, pungent scent of dried urine, Kendrick knew her senses were definitely in working order. Damn . . . was that a disappointment. Sighing, she squinted at her surroundings until the blur of colors and shapes started to make some kind of sense. Years' worth of warring graffiti invectives layered the crumbling brick walls of run-down and abandoned buildings in the narrow alley that was now registering itself in her mind as familiar. Shattered beer bottles and other containers, more or less innocuous, littered a sidewalk stained with paint, blood, vomit, and gods knew what else.

Ouch. Something was jabbing into her thigh through her jeans, and Kendrick looked down at the array of syringes, vials, and cigarette butts surrounding her. Scowling, she yanked the hypo out of her leg and threw it against the wall.

The spot where she was, hidden behind a rusted and overflowing dumpster, kept her out of sight from the tourists who wandered by, armed with video cameras to dutifully film all the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame below. Never mind that most of the names meant nothing to them. The famous Grauman's Chinese Theater oh wait, they called it "Mann's Chinese" these days was a couple blocks' walk away, as was the Roosevelt Hotel, where Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, and countless other movie stars had caroused.

Seedy as it was, Hollywood Boulevard was a goddamn tourist trap. Kendrick found a sardonic sort of amusement in the oddly clashing mix of street kids and historical buildings, gangsters and neon signs, porn shops and movie premieres. They all seemed to go together, somehow. In a really fucked-up sort of way.

She ran a hand through the tangled, stringy mess of her hair and kicked away a couple of syringes lying near her feet. Remnants of last night, no doubt, though she couldn't really remember it. She didn't mind that, though as far as she was concerned, any chunk of time that she couldn't remember was less of a pain in the ass.

What the hell time was it, anyway? Her watch had stopped running long ago, and Kendrick wasn't sure why she still bothered to wear it other than the fact that she didn't care. She stared up at the broken fire escape dangling haphazardly from a second story above her, and at the shattered glass of the window that opened onto the fire escape's balcony. "God, I hate this alley."

Staggering to her feet, Kendrick shuffled down the sloping alley toward the Boulevard, thinking about heading home. She hated her apartment just as much as she hated this alley, but at least it would be a change of scenery for a little while.

There was a souvenir shop on the corner, cheesy t-shirts hanging in the window display beside a rack of faded postcards. A handful of grubby, mohawked punk rocker kids lingered just outside the doorway, not talking, just staring around listlessly. Kendrick emerged from the alley and ignored them on her way past, then paused to eye the postcards just for the hell of it.

Santa Monica Beach, a half hour's drive from here on the 10 Freeway. Beverly Hills, a ways to the west. Disneyland, which was in the next damn county. A bird's-eye shot of the Hollywood Hills, taken from so high up that it actually looked nice. The close-up view told a far different story.

"Stupid," Kendrick muttered, and moved on.

She had to walk around the wreaths and melted candle stubs that adorned a star on the Walk of Fame, left there by a couple of hardcore fans who remembered the death anniversary of some actor whose name everyone else seemed to have forgotten. Shit. At least whoever it was had done enough to be remembered by somebody. Not for the first time, Kendrick considered whether or not anyone would notice if she just disappeared one day. The thought depressed her, so she pulled a cigarette from the battered pack in her pocket and scrounged around for a light.

She could hear yelling, sprinkled liberally with profanity, from inside a smoke shop as she approached. A second or two later a bearded and scruffy-looking transient came hurtling through the doorway onto the sidewalk, as if thrown right into her path. Kendrick looked up at him, her expression distinctly bored.

The lack of intimidation in her eyes must have pissed him off. "Y'gotta problem?" he snarled, wobbling a bit as he tried to lean in menacingly. Kendrick just snorted and walked around him as he struggled to regain his balance.

Half a block further on, at the corner of Hollywood and Ivar, a loudly chattering bunch of Asian tourists nearly pushed her off the sidewalk and into the path of an oncoming Metro bus. They were immediately followed by a man and a woman carrying signs and yelling in both English and Spanish about how Jesus was the only truth. Tuning them out was easy; Kendrick had had a lifetime of practice in that at home.

In the window of a bargain electronics store on the corner, a row of no-name alarm clocks broadcast the time in lurid, glowing red. Curiosity got the better of Kendrick then, and she paused to peer at their displays.

"Hell," she muttered. 7:53 AM god, she'd been out here for nearly six hours? Or maybe thirty . . . she couldn't tell, but a quick check of the Los Angeles Times vending machine informed her that it was only Tuesday, which meant that her initial guess had been right.

Her stomach rumbled. "Oh . . . shut up." She could have gotten food, but all she really wanted to do right now was to pass out again and spend a few more hours oblivious to her hunger, and to any other sensation that might start to gnaw at her if she stayed awake. Kendrick rarely if ever dreamed, and that was a good thing.

Pointedly ignoring the "Do Not Walk" traffic light, Kendrick crossed to the other side of Ivar and turned, heading north toward the last in a row of run-down apartment buildings at the other end of the block. She stepped over the homeless man sleeping in the doorway, then trudged down the musty hall to the stairway to begin her climb up to the third floor. Boards creaked beneath her feet with each step and sagged, as if about to give way.

Her door key was on a cheap dog-tag chain around her neck it was the only way she'd ever keep track of the damn thing. Kendrick fumbled it out from inside her shirt as she wandered along the dark hallway, and stopped in front of the door labeled 342. That is, it would have been labeled 342 if the chipped plastic 4 hadn't fallen off last month. Someone had tried to take a permanent marker to fix it, and that hadn't worked too well either. Kendrick stared at the door, hating the sight of it, knowing that the emotion would pale compared to what she would feel at the sight of the room on the other side.

And, as usual, the lock stuck. It took a good couple of minutes of pushing, twisting, and swearing before the tumblers gave way, but Kendrick was finally able to wrestle the door open. In the next second, she tripped over a pile of dirty clothes.

"Slick . . . real slick. Good going, Ashwright . . . what the fuck jackass left those right where they could fucking kill me?" The answer was obvious, of course, so she neglected it. With a sigh, Kendrick stared at the shambles of her one-room apartment. Beneath the single dirty and taped-up window, her two scraggly little potted ivy plants were shriveled and thoroughly dead. The window didn't really get much light anyway. There was a building impeding its view of . . . well, anything, really.

The old movie posters on her walls were put up in a haphazard way to cover up the water-damaged paint and the bare plaster, except that the tacks in the crumbling surface couldn't quite hold up the weight. Half the posters had at least one corner falling down. The one light in the place, a bare 30-watt bulb in a ceiling socket, didn't do much but cast the apartment in a sickly sort of yellow.

It remained off most of the time.

The whole thing was one of Kendrick's least favorite sights ever, but it was like a goddamn train wreck, in both the sheer mess of it all and her inability to look away at the sight. It made her feel sick all of a sudden. "Shower. I sure as hell could use a shower."

A yawn and rush of dizziness hit her then. A shower might wake her up even more, and then she'd actually be able to process the jumble of feelings twisting her stomach . . . not to mention that she was hungry. "Fuck the shower . . . maybe later."

Kendrick shuffled over to the mattress that lay in the middle of the floor, not even bothering to kick off her shoes before she collapsed onto the blankets and curled up into a tight ball. Squeezing her eyes shut, she concentrated on forcing consciousness away from her bit by bit, she managed to slow her breathing and shut down her senses until the welcoming numbness of sleep enveloped her. When it did, Kendrick fell into it gladly.

At the very least, she could count on the relief of knowing that she would not dream.

 

* * *

 

 

Leigh pulled her Acura Legend a gift from her parents upon her graduation from medical school to a stop at the red light at the end of her block, and pushed Play on the CD console. The overture to Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific flooded the car, bringing to mind sunny beaches, salty breeze, and light sparkling off the waves. It was a brief moment of escapism, a glimpse of a surface that belied raging conflict and fierce passions.

She'd always loved this particular musical, with its themes of love and overcoming prejudice set against the background of World War II. In recent years it had taken on a painful new significance for her, but the pain kept her going, helped her remember that she was alive . . . which wasn't always a good thing, in her eyes.

World War II had been well before her time, and she had just been a kid during the Vietnam War era, unable to comprehend or even remember much about the thoughts and emotions of that period. People might argue that the Persian Gulf War which had marked the beginning of the 1990s couldn't even begin to approach the scale of Vietnam, but Operation Desert Storm had, regardless, yielded up its own share of casualties and grieving, a share in which Leigh felt her part keenly.

Her younger brother Joseph had been a pilot stationed at Vandenburg Air Force Base in northern California. Cheerful and energetic, he'd been very similar in personality to Emily, and Leigh often thought that the two of them would have gotten along well. She could imagine the kind of hyperactive banter that her brother and her roommate could have generated probably hours' worth, nonstop. She could see Joseph playfully and repeatedly pestering her to talk Emily into a date with him, despite her own constant pointing out that Emily just didn't swing that way. What Leigh couldn't see was getting annoyed with him over it; all throughout their childhood, she'd never been able to stay mad at Joseph for more than a couple of minutes.

The thought made her smile for a moment, just before the reminder that it would never happen hit her. Joseph hadn't made it back from the Gulf.

Leigh couldn't help wondering, as she navigated the tree-lined streets of Westwood, how much he would have liked it here. As kids, she and Joseph had always talked about moving down to Southern California, which would have been as much of a change from Chicago as they could think of. Later, after he'd been stationed at Vandenburg and she got accepted to Stanford Medical School, Joseph had teased his sister that they were at least getting closer to their goal. Back then, Leigh had already set her sights on UCLA Medical Center for her residency, and Joseph had promised that when that happened, he'd come and visit her on his next leave.

He would have kept that promise, too.

Leigh was so lost in her thoughts that she nearly missed the change of the traffic light, and to the sound of impatient honking from the car behind her she turned onto Santa Monica Boulevard for the most stressful part of her trip to the university campus.

Traffic on Santa Monica, from about Vine Street all the way into West L.A., was fairly heavy at almost any given daylight hour. The Westwood area and nearby Century City, through both of which the major street ran, were largely business-oriented, as evidenced by their corporate highrises; they jutted up above the Greater Los Angeles skyline like some kind of outcropping from the earth.

That was one thing Leigh liked about living here she didn't get the claustrophobic sensation of being hemmed in on all sides by tall buildings. Southern California skyscrapers, such as they were, didn't get very tall thanks to the constant possibility of earthquake damage. Anyway, there was plenty of room for the city and its outlying areas to expand outward instead of upward, and so they did.

Every now and then, for a fleeting moment, it made Leigh feel as though she were free.

But the traffic, on the other hand . . . the Los Angeles freeway system could be intimidating to out-of-towners, and for good reason. Interstate, state, and local highways snaked across the desert from Ventura to San Bernardino County, weaving in and out of one another in their efforts to connect the far reaches of the sprawling metropolis to its heart. Accidents were not unusual, and gridlock was a way of life out here. Everybody in L.A. drove, or at least it seemed that way.

Among the many drawbacks to this circumstance was that parking at schools like UCLA and Cal State Northridge, which had a large population of commuter students, was at something of a premium. At Northridge, some eighteen miles to the northwest, it wasn't unusual for students to arrive several hours before their first classes began just to snag a parking spot, especially since the campus's one garage structure had fallen in the 1991 quake. At UCLA, permits were issued on a priority basis, and the waiting list was rather formidable.

Fortunately for Leigh, she had a reserved space in the UCLA Medical Center lot. She liked to think she'd earned it through the eight years of hard work she'd put in during her undergraduate years and medical school in order to secure this job. Now in her second year of the resident program, Leigh was halfway through what she saw as her final stage of progress. Two more years, and she'd be a full-fledged doctor, but for now she had her research work, and she was happy . . . or at least, not dissatisfied. "Happy" wasn't a word she'd apply to herself; the most she could say was that so far, she hadn't fallen short of any of her short-term goals. So far, I'm failure-free. I think.

Turning onto campus, Leigh headed straight for the Medical Center garage and the space that bore her name on a blue and white placard. On the stereo, Mary Martin was singing about being a cock-eyed optimist, a description that Emily occasionally applied to Leigh herself. But Leigh pulled into the parking space and killed the car's engine, cutting the song off abruptly.

"Sorry, Ensign Forbush," she told the stereo. "You're just a recording anyway . . . you'll be fine. When I come back and push Play again, you'll never even notice the time." There was the faintest hint of bitterness in her voice.

It wasn't as if the character died in the musical anyway; that was Lieutenant Cable. Lieutenant Joseph Cable, as a matter of fact. Nellie Forbush's lover, Emile de Becque, survived the mission that Cable did not, but it had been the realization that she could have lost him that finally broke through Nellie's reluctance and her prejudice toward his two mixed-race children.

Why is it, Leigh asked herself, that it always takes death, or the threat of death, to make some people wake up and see how stupid they can be? And why just some people? The questions awakened that gnawing feeling in her stomach, and it only increased as she left the car and walked toward the building that housed her research laboratory.

Take that, she told herself. The questions hurt, but take that hurt and channel it. If you ever want to know the answers, deal with the pain . . . it'll make you keep going.

The directive was a mantra she'd developed over the past five years, and she'd used it to drive herself to a summa cum laude graduation from Stanford Medical School. Oddly, her sense of pride in that achievement had been far less than that of her parents. To Leigh, it had been just one more step toward her goal, one more item checked off the agenda.

Her soft-soled boots whisked quietly over the concrete walkway that led into the building, and the automatic doors parted with a tiny hydraulic hiss as she approached. Inside, the hallway was bright, quiet, and fairly empty; in about half an hour it would come to life with rapid-fire banter of both the professional and casual varieties, once staff and patients began to filter into the building in earnest. By that time, Leigh would be hard at work inside her lab on the fifth floor.

The security guard at the front desk, a cheerful and mustached man, looked up and nodded at her as she entered. "Morning, Doctor Lukas." His gaze flicked past her to the clock on the far wall. "Eight-fourteen and fifty-eight seconds. Fifty-nine . . . eight-fifteen on the dot. Right on time."

A twinkle showed in his blue eyes, and it coaxed a smile out of Leigh. "Hi, Mikey. How are you today?"

Mikey grinned. "Been better, but I'm not complaining. Yourself?"

"About the same." Leigh set her attaché case on the counter and fumbled around in it for a while before producing a handful of miniature Hershey bars Krackel and Mr. Goodbar, Mikey's favorites. She dumped the candies into his outstretched hands. "Here you go . . . your daily fix."

Mikey grinned and deposited them in his empty coffee mug, except for one Krackel bar, which he unwrapped and popped into his mouth with a wide grin. "Food of the gods. Thanks, Doctor Lukas."

"Any time." Leigh snapped the case shut and patted his hand. "See you later . . . I'd better get to the lab. Lots of stuff on the itinerary for today."

"You do that, then. Don't work too hard, okay?"

Mikey watched as Leigh headed down the hallway at a brisk and measured pace, her head down, her shoulders slumped. When she punched a button on the elevator panel, heaving a sigh as she waited, he noticed the subtle movement and shook his head. Their morning candy ritual always wrangled a brief smile or two out of the shy scientist, but as soon as the moment ended, all that sadness and exhaustion flooded back into her eyes.

"Don't work too hard," Mikey repeated, with a sigh of his own. "As if it ever does any good to tell you that . . ."

The elevator eased to a halt and opened to let Leigh out on the fifth floor, where the majority of the Endocrinology Department's work was done. She turned left into the main corridor toward room 587, pulling out her key ring as she walked. By the time she arrived at the door, she'd already singled out the key with the purple sticker and had it ready to insert into the lock.

There was a brief surge of pride as she stepped into the laboratory and glanced around at the neatly arranged bottles and glassware on the shelves, the spotless counters, and the top-of-the-line equipment. Every now and then, Leigh found it hard to believe that this place was, in a manner of speaking, hers.

It was a corner laboratory, and though not large by any means, it was fairly roomy and featured a large window that opened onto the campus quad. Earning a lab like this was a prestigious feat for a second-year intern, but Leigh had been working toward it ever since, as a first-year medical student who'd graduated from Cornell University with a double major in chemistry and psychology, she'd learned that UCLA had been making plans to mount a landmark study in human behavior. From that point on, she'd engineered her studies and planned her thesis with this very goal in mind, and as a result UCLA had practically dumped the lab into her lap.

She really should have been proud of that fact. Her family certainly was, and even her roommate could be overheard from time to time bragging about "what a whiz" Leigh was. As for Leigh herself, she left that job up to them, and just did her own.

Her office was in the back of the lab, and on her way over Leigh stopped to open the blinds. Light flooded into the room, sparkling off the chrome sink fixtures. Down on the quad below students and faculty milled about; there had to be hundreds of conversations buzzing around down there, but from this far up with the window closed, none of the sound reached Leigh, and the crowd itself was little more than a shifting mass of colors.

Leigh breathed in deeply, taking in the crisp tang of sterility that hung in the air of the lab. It invigorated her, and added an edge to her sense of motivation.

Not that those things alone would get her anywhere she had work to do. Leigh turned on the water distiller before she stepped into her office and pulled out file folders stuffed with paperwork. Taking her journal down from the shelf, she opened it to the previous day's record and settled into her chair to review her progress so far and flesh out today's agenda. She'd already completed the second in a set of three chemical reaction series; today she started the third, and hoped to be done with it by Friday at the latest.

Once these tests were completed, it would be time to move on to the next phase of the study, the one Leigh looked forward to the least. It would take a period of waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to approve the experimental hormone suppressor drugs she was developing, which frustrated Leigh despite her understanding that it was necessary. She wouldn't be idle during that time, though; the drugs were a vital part of the study, but so was the process of selecting and screening potential volunteer test subjects. Leigh would be co-chairing the committee in charge of that, and she wasn't sure how she felt about it degree in psychology notwithstanding, she was the first to admit that her people skills left something to be desired.

With a sigh of irritation, Leigh pushed back the anxiety and concentrated on her immediate task. It took half an hour, but she finally managed to work out her day's timetable precisely to her satisfaction. She'd just finished arranging her notes in the order she'd need them, and was trying to work out the cramp in her neck, when she heard a knock at the outside door.

She got up and exited her office to answer it; peering through the small safety-glass window was the kindly face of Dean Wagner, the chairman of the Endocrinology Department and her mentor. Leigh twisted the door handle and let him in. "Hello, Dean."

"Good morning, Leigh. How are you today?" Dean, a greying, portly man in his late fifties, patted her shoulder and gave her a warm smile. Fair and open-minded, with a deft diplomatic touch that smoothed quite a few ruffled feathers in the department, he was well respected by everyone, and well liked by most people. He had taken Leigh personally under his wing and on several occasions invited her to his home for dinner with his wife and three daughters, one of whom was doing her pre-medical studies at UCLA and looked up to the young scientist. Dean often teased Leigh that he suspected Tina had a crush on her, as a matter of fact. Leigh could swear that he'd even tried to set them up on a date once or twice, but there was no way she wanted to mix her career with her personal life.

She returned his smile with a tiny one of her own. "Oh . . . all right. You?"

"Just fine." His cultured voice was gentle, but bore a hint of concern. "I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to meet with you since last week, but how have things been going?"

Leigh's face lit up at the question. "Wonderfully," she said, clearly eager to give him the news. "The second series is done, and I start the third today. It should be done by the end of the week if not sooner. So far, so good . . . everything has gone according to the hypothetical formulas."

Surprise registered on Dean's face. "Already? Well . . . that's excellent, Leigh," he stammered, all customary composure lost for the moment. "But I wasnt anticipating that you'd be done with even the second series until the end of next week." He squinted at her, and Leigh winced under the scrutiny. "What time did you leave here last night?"

"Nine o'clock on the dot, and I went right home, had dinner, and went to bed." Leigh's voice took on a brittle edge, and she turned away to set up a titration stand, her hands shaking a bit as she clamped a pipet into the brackets. "I'm fine, Dean. Don't worry about me." Annoyance nagged faintly at her mind. Don't you get started on me too, Dean. Not today. Please.

"I do worry about you," he coutnered. "There's no need to rush this study, Leigh. I know you're not thrilled about waiting out the upcoming approval period, but it won't be that long, I promise. Too much groundwork for this study has already been laid out. And you still have two more years to go in your internship. Two years. There's no need whatsoever for you to push this through in a matter of months."

Leigh's response was the stubborn set of her jaw. "Are you saying I'm going to mess this up?"

"Not at all. I have the utmost confidence in your abilities, you know that. This has nothing to do with your competence . . . it's about the way you drive yourself. It's not healthy."

The young woman's brown eyes flashed. "The sooner I can submit these formulas to the FDA, the sooner they get approved. Which gives me all the time in the world to screen candidates instead of squinting at beakers in here."

"And then what?" Dean challenged. "Will you spend all your waking hours reviewing profiles, assigning test cases to the research committee? You know the university has no problem with paying you for all the overtime you put in . . . but you never spend that money to just go out and do something for yourself, do you?" Only silence answered the question, and he went on, "Maybe you do feel fine right now. But every morning you come through this door and disappear until it's time for you to go home. Then you sleep, and wake up in the morning, and repeat the process all over again." He leaned over the edge of the counter where she stood, both his hands gripping the stone surface. "My dear, it's no way for you to live."

Leigh sighed and let the edge of her irritation show through her words. "We're scientists, Dean. Aren't we supposed to be committed to our work? Aren't you the one who's been telling me that since my first day here? You know how much this project means to me . . . I have to see this through. I have to."

"I know, Leigh. I know. But you're so young . . ."

The edge belonged to a blade that was out now, keen and glinting. "I'm twenty-nine. I'm not that young. And Dean," asked Leigh, rounding on him, "are you changing your tune on me? God, you know how much I hate that! You're the one who's always told me how important focus and dedication are in this line of work. And now, what? You're telling me I should think about getting a life instead?"

"No, no, no." Dean held his hands up in a placating gesture. "Don't misinterpret me. I'm not trying to imply that you should change your priorities entirely . . .I'm only saying that, well . . ." He sagged, realizing that there was no way to say what he wanted without coming across harshly. "You need priorities other than work."

"What for? To distract me from what I'm trying to accomplish?" That last statement had hurt.

"No. To give you a fuller understanding of it. A more complete perspective." Dean pinned her with a stare, feeling guilty, yet oddly comforted, that she seemed to squirm a bit. "This isn't impersonal research for you, Leigh, I know that. You want to understand why people behave the way they do . . . why your brother wanted to go to war . . . why he had to die." He took her awkward fidgeting as confirmation and pressed on. "You don't have to answer this question right away, but I want you to consider it. When you come in to work every morning, what is it you're thinking of? Can you envision individuals behind your studies? The human beings within whom those hormones you research flow? Or are you just examining what amounts to a slide on a microscope a vague, nameless mass without personality or purpose or soul?"

Dean watched as the young woman exhaled in frustration, rubbed the back of her neck with one hand, and began to pace the floor in a tight circuit. "I can tell you don't want to hear this, Leigh . . . but there is a very real world out there, beyond this lab. Full of complex and intriguing people who can't neatly be summed up by formulas and theories." Quietly, he concluded, "If you don't understand that, then you'll only become more frustrated. You need to learn a perspective beyond the clinical if you ever hope to understand what you're doing here."

Leigh halted, pivoted, met his gaze with bleak consternation in her eyes. It looked as if she were going to say something, but no words came. Instead, she just shook her head and looked away again.

Dean came up beside her and laid a hand on her arm briefly. "I've got a meeting to attend in ten minutes, but . . . at least think about it, please? And . . ." The look in his eyes was one of paternal concern. "I'd suggest you get a drink of water, perhaps some aspirin, and just take it easy for a little while. If nothing else, turn the lights out and sit still for half an hour or so. You look like you're about to get another one of your headaches."

Seeing that Leigh seemed close to tears, he slipped out then and hurried down the hallway. She'd likely had enough of his presence for now, and besides, Dean very strongly suspected that she would not listen to his advice.

Leigh watched the door for a long time after the latch had clicked shut behind her mentor. She lifted her hands into view god, was she actually visibly shaking? That lecture had really upset her. She stared at her trembling fingers, watching the motion slow until she felt reassured that she was calm enough to go to work.

Retrieving her notes and agenda from her office, Leigh assembled the rest of her necessary equipment on the lab counters with the efficiency and care that came so naturally to her. But her usual enthusiasm was marred by the lingering weigh tof her thoughts.

Dean was probably right, she acknowledged; it might do her some good to get out for a while, just like Emily always tried to persuade her.

She just had no desire to go out and live.

* * *




Oblivion was pleasant. Actually, oblivion was just that nothing but nothing was pleasant. Here, there were no subconscious taunts of things that might have been, no tantalizing reminders of the carefree past, no magnified and twisted versions of the present, no omens of a bleak future. Here, there was just . . . oblivion. These hours of sleep were the sole sanctuary of Kendrick's daily life.

Then the clock radio went off.

"Oh, fucking hell!"

To say she woke with a jolt would have been literally true, if an understatement. Cher was singing "Half-Breed" in her raspy voice, which got on Kendrick's last raw nerve and didn't help the burst of pain that lanced through her head as she was jerked back to consciousness. She rolled over, swore, and swatted at the clock until a lucky shot hit the snooze button. "Last damn time I leave it on KLOS in the morning."

Morning? Afternoon? She forced one eye open and peered at the LCD display. 12:31. Okay then, afternoon.

Kendrick was fiddling with the dial, trying to find a classical music station or anything less strident than the local classic rock station's oboxious morning show. That definitely ruled out alternative and top forty, music genres she hated anyway. She paused when she found one of those stations they called "easy listening," considering. She ended up leaving the radio tuned to one of the National Public Radio affiliates. The drone of human speaking voices was much easier to ignore, and less likely to wake her up in pain. The easy listening station wouldn't have been painful, but the endless stream of treacly, poppy love songs from the past three decades would probably make her sick to her stomach.

Speaking of her stomach . . . it rumbled loudly in the now quiet room, reminding Kendrick that she was hungry. Food should be on the agenda today, for sure. She had a few bucks left over in tips from the bar last night, which would be about enough to get a Value Meal at McDonald's, or something. Money was getting really tight again.

Money . . . what is it about money that makes me think . . .

"Oh, shit." She had that appointment today at 1:45. It would take care of her money problem for a while, not to mention a few other things. Good thing she'd remembered. "Better get your ass in gear then, Ashwright."

Kendrick kicked away her blanket and scrambled off the mattress, tripping over an empty Bud Light box on her way to the bathroom for a shower. She'd never look like much no matter how hard she tried, but no sense in coming across as a total deadbeat slob.

The cramped little half-bath unit barely had enough floor room to maneuver around the ancient toilet, sink, and shower stall. The air was musty thanks to the layer of mildew forming on the ceiling and shower curtain; the fan had broken about six weeks back, and there wasn't a window in here to vent the steam.

Kendrick pulled off her grubby jeans and underwear and her faded Metallica t-shirt, dumping them by the sink before she turned on the shower. The pipes squealed in protest, sending another wave of pain through her head. She sighed and sat down on the toilet as she waited for the water to warm up, which would take forever since the heaters were so old and slow. Good thing utilities in the building were free . . . though the landlord got his revenge in more subtle ways, like the low water pressure and lack of maintenance.

When steam finally began to rise over the curtain rod, Kendrick stepped under the spray and set about lathering up. She felt the heat sink into her body and ease away some of the pain that still throbbed there. But the heat just couldn't penetrate deeply enough to soothe it all, and even if she scrubbed as long and hard as she could she'd never quite be able to stop feeling grimy somehow.

Both sensations went far beyond the physical, but she tried anyway, squeezing her eyes shut against the water pouring over her as she worked the rapidly diminishing bar of Ivory over her skin with feverish intensity. It was a futile effort some things you couldn't just wash away. Even so, the action made her feel vaguely like she was at least trying. Not trying very hard, granted . . . but some kind of token effort was better than none, wasn't it?

Eventually the hot water ran out, leaving an icy cold spray that forced Kendrick to shut off the faucet, swearing, and step out of the shower. Her towel hung on a wall hook; she grabbed it, dried herself off, and risked a quick look in the mirror after she'd mopped away the steam. Damn good thing she didn't expect to like what she'd see . . . which didn't stop her from bracing herself against the sight.

Dull eyes, closer to grey than any other shade, stared uncaringly back from the fogged glass, though they were partially hidden by a damp curtain of hair that was somewhere in the process of fading back from purple back to its natural dirty blonde shade. In that unwieldy between-cuts phase, nowhere near long enough to tie back and just long enough to constantly get in the way, it fell down to frame a gaunt, slack-jawed face and accentuate rather than hide the jagged white scar that slashed from just below the left eye down to the jawbone. Water dripped from the damp locks onto sunken hollows beneath the collarbone, and trickled down over arms laced with a spiderweb of track marks.

"Shit, muttered Kendrick, picking at the cigarette burn scar beneath her left breast. "I look like absolute shit. And this is new how?"

She considered putting her fist through the mirror. But then, she asked herself, how would I carry out my daily ritual of meditating on how much I hate my reflection? With a snort, she tossed the towel into the sink and kicked the pile of dirty clothes all the way back out to the main room.

After some digging, the laundry basket yielded clean boxer shorts and a navy blue t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off. Wincing at the pain when her shoulders protested the effort, Kendrick put these on and retrieved a pair of jeans off the back of her chair, then a pair of mismatched crew socks from the seat. She finished dressing, her back drawing another hiss of pain, and found her wallet and a half-empty pack of Winstons. Shoving her feet into her beat-up Reeboks, Kendrick cast one last baleful glare at the apartment before she slammed the door behind her. Time for breakfast. Or lunch. Whatever.

The sunlight on Hollywood Boulevard was punishingly bright now as Kendrick shuffled down the sidewalk and headed south on Vine Street. She passed the Hollywood Plaza apartment building, and it just got more depressing from there.

An offshoot of the Walk of Fame extended down this way, going the two long blocks to Sunset Boulevard. Only here, the black paving stones lacked the glossy and sometimes lethal, when it rained sheen they had up on Hollywood. The sidewalk beneath her feet was rough, cracked and uneven from the tree roots trying to force their way upward and the trees were scraggly, pathetic little things. Large chunks of the pavement, and sometimes of the red marble stars themselves, had been gouged away from years of wear and idle kids' stupidity.

There was the Doolittle Theatre a nice little venue, run by UCLA's Performing Arts Center, a hot dog stand that served up some pretty good food, and a tiny flower shop. Across the street were a shady-looking insurance agency, a couple of inconspicuous but outrageously expensive shops, and a DMV branch that only handled paperwork.

Kendrick crossed Selma, the narrow street where the Hollywood Farmers' Market was held on Sundays. The TAV Celebrity Theater stood on that side of Vine; back in the day, it had been a pretty prestigious place, first the broadcast home of ABC Radio, then, as the Merv Griffin Theater, the studio where a lot of TV game shows and talk shows were taped. Earlier this year, the building had been gutted by major fires and was now condemned, a derelict, burned out hulk covered with layers of peeling handbills, home only to the bums who braved its sooty and decaying structure, and the pigeons that left their droppings all over the damn sidewalk.

Just south of the TAV was a two-level strip mall, vacant except for two storefronts on the first floor, a one-dollar Chinese food place and a video store that mostly handled porn these days. This place was begging to be demolished too, but Kendrick figured that if the TAV was still standing, then this strip mall was also just going to keep festering right there on the corner until the Hollywood Historical Society, or whatever it was called, browbeat the city into doing something about it.

One more block past Sunset, and Kendrick arrived at McDonald's. There was another one up on Hollywood that was a little bit nicer and cleaner, next to the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum; but it was out of her way, and a longer walk, and always infested with tourists. This one was shabby and a little dirty, with a few plaques on the walls as a halfhearted attempt at a showbiz theme. But it was quieter, and more convenient, so she shoved the door open and walked up to the counter.

The cashier was a skinny high school kid with a bad case of acne, and once he caught sight of her, his cheerful trained, thought Kendrick demeanor entirely ceased to be convincing.

"Hi, w-welcome to McDonald's," he began uncertainly. "How may I "

"Save it," snapped Kendrick, holding up her hand. She damn well could have gotten refused service for that, but this kid didn't have the nerve. "Just give me a Big Mac and a Coke. No," she continued before he could pipe up again, "I don't want to Super-Size it."

"For here, or to go?" squeaked the kid, fumbling with the register drawer as he put away her dollar bills and handed back the thirteen cents' change.

"To go," Kendrick drawled, pocketing the dime and pennies. "Make it quick. Think I'm running late." Can't risk it, anyway. I need this money. She slid a finger into her wallet to check on the piece of paper she'd stowed there last week. Still there she whistled softly in relief.

The cashier practically shoved the grease-spotted paper bag and cup of soda across the counter at her. "Here you go, ma'am . . . have a nice day."

Kendrick didn't know if she wanted to laugh, or hit him in the face. Nice day, my ass. "Yeah. Sure."She took her food and stalked out of the restaurant, concentrating very hard on ignoring the discomfited stares from the two or three people who'd been behind her in line.

Still pissed about the look on the kid's face, Kendrick wandered up the side streets and into the parking lot behind the Pacific Cinerama Dome, the giant movie theater on Sunset and Ivar. She found a seat on the low cinder-block wall, still in full view but with a scrap of shade, and pulled her hamburger carton out of the bag. The smell of hot Big Mac had barely had time to waft up from the open container before she attacked it, wolfing down the burger with a speed that pretty much guaranteed her a cramp later on.

She'd just washed down the last of the food with gulps of cold Coke, and was starting on her fries, when an LAPD squad car pulled into the lot. Reflexively Kendrick stiffened, her eyes following the cruiser as it did a lazy circuit around the lot. As it pulled to a stop in front of her, she forced herself to relax and squint through the windshield.

There was only one officer in the car unusual, but not unheard of. His dark sunglasses hid his eyes completely, but Kendrick could feel his gaze burning through her, and she resented the sense of intrusion. So she stared back, hard and challenging, despite the sun's glare on the glass. The cop's mouth turned up into a smirk and he unbuckled his seat belt, swinging the door open.

With his immaculate sergeant's uniform, patent leather shoes polished to a gleam, and his chiseled profile, the damn fool could have stepped right out of an episode of Hunter, or ChiPs, or any TV cop show. Well-built but not overly muscled, he had a long, easy stride that oozed confidence, and seemed to give off vibes demanding that women throw themselves at him.

Which wouldn't have worked even if Kendrick were inclined to throw herself at a man she hated this guy.

"Afternoon, Ashwright."

Kendrick took a long swig of her soda and slowly glanced up at him with deliberate insolence, taking her time in answering. "Morning . . . Alex."

Sergeant Alex Miller of the Los Angeles Police Department gave an amused snort and sat down on the wall beside Kendrick, ignoring her glare. "Morning? Give me a break, Ashwright, it's almost one in the afternoon."

"La dee fucking dah." Kendrick pulled out her pack of cigarettes and shook one free, then fished the cheap orange lighter out of the box as well. She lit up, sending a curling wisp of smoke up from the tip of the smoldering Winston. "I just woke up, Miller. Far as I'm concerned, it's still morning."

"Right, right." The policeman stretched his legs out and helped himself to one of Kendrick's fries. "If you say so."

Amazingly, Kendrick restrained the urge to reach over and smack him. Much as she despised Miller, he was still a cop, and she didn't trust cops. Besides, there were no witnesses to testify against him if he decided to haul her in on a charge of assaulting an officer, and she had no desire to end up in jail again which was exactly where she'd be if a judge took one look at her record.

"Bastard," she muttered. "Those are mine. Ask, why don't you?"

Miller spread his hands in feigned innocence. "Hey, Ashwright, I thought we were buddies."

She raised her head to glare at him, holding back none of the venom this time. "Acquaintances? Maybe. Colleagues . . . yeah, I guess you could say that. Buddies? No way in hell."

He gave her a measured stare, knowing she'd squirm under the scrutiny. "Might want to rethink that," he said quietly. "One word to the wrong people you know that's all it takes."

Kendrick stayed silent, her jaw working against the words he expected her to say. She could feel the officer's eyes on her as she stared into the distance and finally gave a single terse nod.

"So then. Now that that's settled." She really wanted to hit him now, for the way he shifted so easily into a bright, friendly tone. "What d'you got for me today?"

"Sunset and Hobart," she spat, fishing out her wallet. "In that shopping center, near the nudie bar. Camo jacket, sometimes fatigues, really ratty brown hair halfway down his back tied up in a ponytail. Usually around in late afternoon . . . MJ, tweak, sometimes crystal meth and acid." Kendrick pulled the folded sheet of paper from her wallet and dropped it in Miller's lap. "His usual contacts. I think he's worth about twice what that last guy was."

Miller whistled. "Damn. And he was quite the haul. All over the eight o'clock news, d'you see that?" The look he got from Kendrick was pure hatred; she didn't have a television, which he knew perfectly well.

"What was the figure they gave?"

"Quarter of a million." Actually, the net worth of the illegal substances from that last raid had been closer to three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, counting the money they'd found in the house with the drugs.

Kendrick nodded. "Not bad. Not big-time cartel stuff, but not bad."

"Nope," agreed Miller. He held up the piece of paper she'd given him before tucking it into his breast pocket. "So this oughta be a good enough figure to keep me in front of the pack at work, and if we can follow those contacts to something bigger, well . . ." His grin was not a pleasant one. "You did good, Ashwright. Saved your own ass too."

That's all I ever do, Kendrick thought darkly. And it's a full time job. "Yeah? Well, I'm still broke, man."

The officer smirked and dug into his pocket. "Subtlety was never your strong suit, was it?" A rubber-banded roll of bills appeared from his pocket, and he slapped it into Kendrick's hand. "That's your share. More where that came from when we act on this tip."

Kendrick hefted the roll of cash in her fist. It had to be . . . what, eight hundred bucks? That would take care of rent for the next couple of months, and leave her enough for other necessities. However . . .

"This all I get?"

"In broad daylight?" Miller laughed, a harsh bark of condescension that echoed off the curved surface of the Dome. "You're not that stupid, Ashwright. Abby's got it. Check your mailbox when you get back."

"Will it fit?"

"What are you expecting, a brick? Naw, this'll last you a week. If you can hold off until after work tonight." He smirked again. "If."

"And your vote of confidence counts for so much."

The dispatch radio crackled loudly from inside the squad car then, rescuing Kendrick from the increasingly hostile banter. "Ten-fifty-seven at Franklin and Gower, gas station, Code Three. Repeat, ten-fifty-seven at Franklin and Gower, Code Three."

Kendrick took a last drag of her cigarette and flicked the butt as far as she could, deliberately arcing it over Miller's squad car. "Think you're bein' summoned, man."

"Yeah, gotcha. Duty calls." He stood up, his posture shifting immediately into something authoritative and businesslike. To Kendrick, it looked like some kind of parody. "Keep up the good work, Ashwright . . .pays off for everybody" He gave her a wink that made her want to hit him again, then added in a loud voice, "And don't let me catch you loitering here again, or I'll fine your ass so big you'll be paying it off the rest of your life. Probably from behind bars." He flashed her a last smirk, then turned and swaggered back to his car.

Kendrick watched him slam the car door and fire up the engine before screeching out of the parking lot, sirens screaming and lights blazing. Her lip curled in a sardonic sneer at the logo emblazoned on the police cruiser's door.

"To protect and to serve," she intoned mockingly. "Right. Good job, Miller."

TO BE CONTINUED

Chapter Two

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