Legal Disclaimer: "XENA: Warrior Princess" is owned and copyrighted by Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA Television Distribution LLC, and licensed by Universal Studios Licensing, LLLP. All rights are reserved by them. The following story is strictly nonprofit fan - fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.

Author's Disclaimer: The following story contains adult language.

This Halloween story takes place in the past, just after the release of Gina Ryan, USMC, from the Alameda Naval Air Station's psychiatric hospital, and when she and Gabriella Duncan, MD, USN, first moved into their new house in the former gold mining town of Nevada City, California.

Little did they know that their new home was already occupied...

 

"The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess"
"The Uninvited"

By Ernie Whiting
mailto:bloodyvisigoths@netzero.net

          They stood before the Victorian house in silence as they took in the scenery. As the movers bustled back and forth, emptying the van and carrying the last of the furniture and other belongings inside with an almost military precision, Dr. Gabriella Duncan sat back against the front end of her red convertible, 2001 Mustang GT with her arms folded across her chest, and smiled proudly as she gazed at the gabled house. With her dark - gold, aviator - styled sunglasses resting atop her head and with her green eyes slightly narrowed against the brilliance of the morning sun that poked its way here and there through the massive, gray, cumulus clouds, she finally turned to her partner. "So?" she asked hopefully. "What do you think?"

          Gina Ryan removed her smoky - gray aviator's shades, and with unreadable sapphire eyes she gazed at the house for a long, long moment. The place was at least a century old; it might even have been a holdover from the gold rush days. It was in need of a lot of sandpaper and elbow grease, perhaps two or even three coats of paint and varnish...the few screens that weren't missing were torn and in need of replacement, a couple of shutters up on the second story hung crookedly... And then, a moment later, one of them fell off altogether, and landed on the porch roof with a thud. It continued to cartwheel downward, bouncing on one corner after another with a mildly booming thump! thump! thump! until it sailed off and downward into free space, before finally hitting the ground and shattering on impact in a cloud of dust.

          The Marine took a deep breath and let it out in a long, soft, barely audible sigh. Under her breath, she said to herself, "And they say I'm crazy..."

          Having been recently released from the psychiatric ward of the Alameda Naval Air Station's hospital, she had been under treatment for partial amnesia, blinding migraines and screaming night terrors, all of which had been brought on by what had been diagnosed as post - traumatic stress disorder. Brie had sold their San Francisco condominium and had purchased this old house, up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and away from the city, where she hoped that its peaceful, rural and small - town settings would help her partner recuperate. Little did the doctor know that the cause of Ryan's migraines was not any attempt by the Marine to fight through her amnesia; to remember that night in which she had been forced to annihilate a civilian center with a nuclear missile in order to stop the spread of a highly infectious and malignant biological weapon. What Gina hid from her was the fact that it was the crystal - clear memories of having to vaporize sixty thousand innocent souls that had filled her with an unrelenting and self - imposed guilt that had driven her to the edge of suicide.

          Higuchi II; that was what the warrior called it. Only this time, she had allowed her soul mate to bring her back from the edge of death, even though it meant she would suffer with these guilt - induced migraines for the rest of her life. The Marine would suck it up and push on, because her love for Gabrielle far outweighed any sense of her own self - loathing.

          Brie was still watching her with mild hope and expectation as a cool breeze teased at her blonde, shoulder - length tresses. "Well?"

          With her midnight hair sweeping across her brow and her blue eyes sparkling, she flashed her a dazzling white smile that she hoped didn't look too forced. Rather than answering her directly, she said, "Let's go have a look inside." With her thumbs hitched in the front pockets of a brand new pair of olive - green cargo pants, she started slowly toward the raised, wooden porch. Brie started after her, but was stopped by one of the movers, who held a silver - colored, steel clipboard toward her. Quickly, she signed the receipt, and then went to work writing out a check for the balance owed on the mover's fee.

          Ryan climbed the rough, wooden steps slowly, and when she reached the top the solid heels of her black, custom - made cowboy boots (a friend of the family - a former costumer for the Clint Eastwood "spaghetti Westerns" of the 1960s - owned a shop in Milan) thudded resoundingly against the porch with hollow sounds as she approached the front door. There were no creaks under her weight; apparently, at least the porch was structurally sound. As for the rest of the house, well...that was a matter yet to be determined. She reached the door - it was sturdy and wide, with a wide and ornately framed dual - pane window of rippled and honeycombed glass that let in plenty of light but was impossible to see through - and pushed at it gently. It slowly swung open with a deep, ominous, creaking groan. Gonna need some oil, too, she thought dryly as she stepped inside.

          And then she smiled. Now, this is nice! she thought as her eyes roamed over the expansive living room. Although it was still in a state of mild chaos, what with the furniture yet to be arranged to their liking, it was obvious that the previous owners had taken good care of the place - which made her wonder why the friendly, although somewhat nervous, young couple had listed the place so cheaply. The hardwood floor consisted of smooth and polished oak, the walls were oak - paneled on three sides, and there were voluminous bookshelves on both sides of the large, granite fireplace that occupied the fourth. There was a bay window directly across from the front door, and a downstairs bedroom to the left of the entrance that could be used as an office, a small bathroom just beyond that bedroom, and there was a large, open kitchen and dining alcove off to the other side, with plenty of pine cabinets and counter space, and an oaken chef's island that provided more than ample space for preparing meals. The built - in stove and oven and broiler were all gas - operated, she noticed with a little sigh of relief (she hated the slow response of electric stoves), and there was a wide, dual - paned sliding window over the gleaming white porcelain sink that provided a wide view of the barn out back.

          Her smile expanded into a grin as she gazed upward, and took note of the Casablanca ceiling fan that added yet another touch of rustic and casual elegance. Yeah, she thought as she nodded to herself. She could understand why Brie had fallen in love with this old house. Beautiful, just beautiful, she thought. I could definitely get used to this. Y'did good, babe.

          Before taking another step, she pulled off her boots and left them next to the front door (she didn't want that hardwood floor to get scuffed before getting some throw rugs), and then started toward the bay window.

          From the front door there came a soft, "Ahem..."

          She stopped, and turned with a questioning expression in her eyes to find Brie standing in the doorway. "Yeah?"

          The young blonde was smiling at her a little bit. "It's bad luck if you don't..."

          Gina waited for her to finish.

          "Well..." she began again, almost reluctantly, "this is our first house, and..."

          She started to approach her. "Okay. And..?"

          "Well... I mean, this isn't a condo or some bungalow on a military base," she drawled, with her light and breezy east - Texas accent. "This is our first real house together."

          "Okay," Gina said, as she drew up in front of her. "So what's your point?"

          "It...uhh..." she began uncertainly. It was a rare occasion indeed when the bard was at a loss for words. "It's...bad luck if...if you don't...carry your soul mate across the threshold."

          She stood before her, and gazed into her eyes with an amused and expanding grin. "It is, huh?" she asked, her voice playfully dubious. "Are you sure you aren't just making this up?"

          She gazed up into those spellbinding, sapphire eyes that made her heart flutter and her thighs quiver. "Well..." she said, with a self - conscious little grin of her own and a shy little shrug of one shoulder. "...it's something I heard..."

          "So..." the six - foot tall Marine said thoughtfully as she gazed down at her. "You're saying...you want to carry me across the threshold?"

          Brie laughed. "No, you big dork!" she said as Gina laughed with her. And then she settled down into a mood that was a little more serious. "I thought it would be kind of...well...y'know..." She actually started to look a little bashful now. "...kinda romantic if..." She let the thought trail off.

          Silently, she gazed into those beautiful green eyes, and watched how the tiny flecks of gold in them captured the light. God, how she loved this woman. How could she have left her the way she did, in Higuchi? Stupid, stupid, stupid...

          "So you want me to carry you across the threshold, huh?" she said at last.

          Suddenly feeling very nervous now - she was beginning to believe that the Marine thought she was just being overly sentimental - the Bard of Poteidaia and mouthy Navy doctor of Dallas, Texas, the combat medic of Afghanistan and honorary member of SEAL Team 7, smiled bashfully, and actually started to blush a little bit. She was beginning to wish she hadn't brought this up, but it was too late to back out now. "Well..." she began with a very uncharacteristically shy and tiny voice. "...yeah..."

          Still gazing into her eyes, and with so much love in her that she thought her heart would burst, she slowly reached forward and gently stroked the side of Brie's face with the backs of her fingers. Very softly, and very fondly, she said, "Okay."

          And then, with a sudden and mischievous grin and lightning speed, she dropped into a crouch and grabbed her, and slung her over her shoulder like a sack of laundry. She straightened once more, and with an exaggerated and diabolical laugh she carried her inside.

          "This is not what I had in mind!" Brie said with shrieking laughter.

          Gina gave her a hearty swat on the butt. "I'll show you what I got in mind, my little pretty!" she gleefully snarled, like a Caribbean pirate, as she proceeded to carry her up to their bedroom.
***

          "Did I ever tell you the story about Juan the Professional Wrestler?"

          "Who?" Gina asked with a lazy smile. She was lying on her side, with her elbow against the mattress and her head supported in one hand. They were lying together on a bare mattress on the floor - they had not yet put together their four - poster bed, nor had they unpacked any of their linens - and they weren't wearing anything more than satisfied smiles.

          Snuggled in close, lying on her side with her arm across Gina's waist and her head nestled comfortably against a pillow, the bard continued: "This guy was the greatest wrestler in all of Mexico. There was no one that he'd shy away from; he'd take on anyone. Sumo wrestlers, WWF types... He even wrestled with crocodiles and grizzly bears; there wasn't anything that he wouldn't take on - and he won every time. The guy seemed unstoppable, y'know?"

          "Until..." Gina said softly, before leaning in to give her forehead a soft kiss.

          "Until one day, when he came up against the wrestling team of Eduardo y Eduardo. The prize was ten thousand dollars, and ol' Juan thought this was gonna be a snap. He stepped into the ring with 'em and...well, it wasn't pretty. These two ol' boys ripped him to pieces. They beat him to a bloody pulp, okay? They ripped off his arms and legs, beat him about the head and body with 'em, stuck his arms back where his legs were and his legs where his arms had been... I mean, they messed this guy up for good. It wasn't long before he died from his injuries, and they eventually buried him in this little cemetery down near Ensenada, with a simple epitaph on his headstone. And from this epitaph is where they got that famous old saying."

          "What famous old saying?"

          The bard and doctor looked up at her with that sweet and familiar Gabrielle Smile, and replied, "Two Eds are better than Juan."

          Gina bubbled over into soft and breathless laughter. "Oh, God," she said at last. "You kept stringin' me along for that?"

          Chuckling softly, Brie said, "You are soooo oblivious at times..."

          "That does it." Playfully, she began to shove Brie toward the edge of the mattress. And then she began to frantically tickle her ribs to elicit shrieking laughter from her. "You're gonna pay for that!"

          "Ack!" Brie screamed playfully. "Halp! Okay, I give! I give!"

          She slipped an arm around the doctor's waist, pulled her back warmly and snugly against her, and then gave her a loud, smacking kiss on her shoulder, up close to her neck. "I don't know about you," she said, "but all that sex made me hungry. You up for an early dinner?"

          "Sure. The problem is, we don't have a speck of food in the house."

          "So we'll go out; it'll give us a chance to check out the town." She started to rise from the bed. "C'mon, let's get dressed."

          Brie sighed. "I don't wanna get dressed."

          Leaning on one hand, Gina gazed down at her nude form and drank in this visual delight. Come to think of it, she didn't really want to get dressed, either. At least, not until the rumbling of an empty stomach changed her mind.

          She grinned at her. "Can't go out to eat nekkid."

          "You can in Berkeley," Brie replied. And then, as an afterthought, she added, "Maybe we should have moved there instead."

          "No thanks. Berkeley's too weird, even for me." Gina rose from the mattress, and approached a box marked "Gina's clothes," which rested next to the dresser that stood near the window. A slight movement outside caught her eye. "Hey," she said as she peered out the window. "We've got a visitor."

          "We do?" Brie asked. "Already?" She rose from the mattress and approached her from behind.

          Gina turned from the window and regarded her partner. "Somebody came to meet the new neighbors," she said with a little smile. Completely unconcerned with her own nudity - and perhaps even perfectly framed in the window from the hips up for any outside passerby to observe (Brie learned some two thousand years ago that Gina was anything but shy) - she returned her attention outside to the wide expanse of dust, gravel and dry weeds between the house and the barn as Brie drew up behind her. Suddenly, the warrior scowled in puzzlement.

          Standing behind her as though her partner was a shield, and with her arms comfortably around her waist, Brie peered over her shoulder to glance outside. "I don't see anyone."

          "Huh!" Gina said as her blue eyes darted across the yard. "She was there a second ago. Tall gal, dark hair...really pale complexion..."

          Brie shrugged. "She's probably just a little shy," she said. "I'm sure she'll turn up later."

          A cold wind suddenly came up from behind them, and made the both of them shiver uncontrollably as gooseflesh rose on their bare skin.

          "Whew! Damn," Brie said as she rubbed her upper arms briskly. "Cold." She slipped her arms around her once more, stood up on her toes, and kissed the side of Gina's face. "Come on, let's go eat."

          Ryan continued to gaze out the window. Only now, her puzzled blue eyes also reflected just a touch of unease. How, she wondered, with all that open space out there, could their visitor have disappeared so quickly?

          She shrugged the thought off, and then turned to get dressed.
***

          Dinner had been good. Gina had been delighted to find an Italian restaurant right there in town, and after dining on minestrone soup, plenty of garlic bread, healthy heaps of lasagne and a bottle of excellent house wine, they had stopped at a small market on the way home to stock up on a few groceries. With the afternoon's threatening storm now upon them, and with bags in the back seat, they had returned home to fill up the refrigerator and assemble their bed before settling down on the sofa in front of the television to watch a movie before retiring for the night. They had not yet signed on with a satellite TV service, so they had to decide on something on video.

          "So what do we got?" Brie asked.

          Gina held up the DVD case. "George Romero's all - time classic 'Night of the Living Dead,' starring Duanne Jones, Judith O'Dea and Russel Streiner." She examined the case a little more closely. "I don't see a copyright date on it, but the thing looks like it's been around since God was just a kid." And then she grinned at her again. "Filmed in glorious black and white."

          "Oh, please, no, Gina," Brie said, her voice mildly groaning with disagreement. "Not on our first night here. Wouldn't you rather watch something more...more..." She sighed heavily. "I dunno, more..." she searched around for the right word. "...more harmonious with our first night here? That's not exactly the word I'm looking for, but..."

          Gina nodded thoughtfully. "I think I know what you mean," she replied. "This is the first night in our very own brand new house, and where we're going to spend the rest of our lives. And you want something to set a certain tone, a certain vibe. Sorta kinda like starting a tradition, where you want to make absolutely sure you start off doing something the very first time just right. Yeah?"

          "Yeah!" Brie agreed, with a blossoming smile and quiet exuberance. "Yeah. Something that we can look back on in our later years, when the Alzheimer's starts to set in - "

          Gina chuckled softly.

          " - and we start askin' ourselves stuff like, 'Remember the very first movie we ever watched here?' and like that," the doctor added with a soft laugh of her own.

          "I know just what you mean. So how about we watch..." She thought it over for another moment or two...and then grinned with mischief. "'Aliens?' 'Predator?' 'Armageddon?' 'Apocalypse...'"

          Brie impaled her with The Look.

          The recon - force Marine cringed beneath it. "'...Now?'" she finished lamely.

          Brie sighed in exasperation. "I knew you wouldn't understand," she muttered as she began to turn away.

          "No, no, wait a second, wait a second," Gina said quickly as she swiftly yet gently reached out to prevent her departure. "C'mon back. I'm sorry. Listen, I think I've got just the movie."

          Brie folded her arms across her chest and regarded her partner with a suspicious scowl.

          Gina held up another DVD case. "'Practical Magic.' Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Diane Wiest, Stockard Channing, and Aiden Quinn. Warner Brothers Pictures, 1998." She raised one eyebrow hopefully, trying to get back into her good graces.

          Brie thought it over. "Yeah," she said with a growing smile. "Yeah! Our first night here should be magical!"

          "Hell yeah," Gina agreed. "I know our first fuck sure was."

          Brie fixed her with a wince of disdain. "Oh, classy, Ryan, real classy," she said, and then screwed up her mouth in a failing effort to suppress her smile. With a soft laugh, she quickly added, "Go plug in the movie. I'll see if I can find us another bottle of wine."
***

          Lying in the darkness hours later, with lightning flashing and thunder rumbling in the distance, and with the rain pouring outside - and as she lay snuggled up behind a warm and naked Gabriella - she sighed heavily and turned onto her other side with a bounce, and tried to go back to sleep. She pulled the pillow from beneath her head and clamped it over herself, but that didn't muffle the sounds at all; about all it did was to make it difficult to breathe. Finally, she sat up with a soft and disgusted, "Shit..."

          Brie cracked her eyes open when she felt movement in the bed, rolled onto her other side, and rose on one elbow. "Gina?" she croaked. "You okay? What's wrong?"

          "That goddamn cat's keeping me awake."

          She frowned in sleepy puzzlement. "Cat?"

          She looked at her. "Don't you hear it?"

          She listened silently as the rain pelted the house. "Yeah," she said at last. "Yeah, it does sound like a cat that's been left out in the rain or something. Or maybe it's someone's baby," she added a moment later.

          "Kid's got one powerful set of lungs to be heard caterwauling this loud from a quarter mile away," she grumbled to herself. When they had first arrived at this house, and just out of a curiosity to learn the proximity of their nearest neighbor, Gina had measured the distance with the Mustang's odometer; it had shown 0.3 mile.

          "Sounds like it's down in the fuckin' basement," she added. And then she regarded Brie with a wry look. "What did you call it? The 'peace and quiet of the rural - '"

          She never finished the statement, because there was suddenly a loud thud! that had come from just above them, up in the attic, which startled them both.

          "What the hell?" Brie asked, her eyes wide in the darkness. "What the hell was that?"

          "I dunno," Gina replied as she, too, gazed with wide eyes at the ceiling.

          They both listened silently, intently, not making a sound. The sound in the attic was not repeated.

          "Raccoon, maybe, trying to get in out of the rain," Ryan finally added, after nearly a minute of silence. "Could've gotten in through a window, or - "

          There was a long, deep moaning of wood against wood, right over their heads and throughout the entire upstairs, as though someone were pushing a massive crate or some heavy piece of furniture across the bare, wooden floor above them.

          "That's no fucking raccoon!" Gina said as she tossed back the covers. They reached for the robes that lay across the foot of their bed - shimmering, pale blue satin for Gina, and dark blue velour for Brie - and quickly slipped into them, each tying the sash tightly around her waist before reaching for the weapons that rested in a lock box, which was bolted to the bookshelf headboard behind them. Gina hefted the large framed Beretta 92 F that was standard issue for the Marine Corps, and Brie reached for her more compact Glock 19 before they headed for the attic.
***

          They stood on either side of the closed door, their weapons clutched in both hands and pointed at the ceiling. Gina freed one hand, and with it she silently counted down for Brie - three, two, one - and then she quickly spun and faced the door, raised one foot, and kicked it in. She spun back out of the doorway in case the intruder tried to fire on them, waited two or three beats, and then thrust her weapon in through the doorway, aiming high and right; at the same time, Brie dropped into a crouch and brought her own weapon to bear on the room, aiming left and low.

          "Freeze!" Gina shouted. With her weapon thrust before her, she freed one hand once again to fumble for the light switch. She found it, and snapped it on. Bright light suddenly flooded the room and -

          - and that was when the stench hit them. God, it was nauseating! It was an overpowering blend of fetid, wet feces and warm, moist putrescence, all crawling with maggots; an absolute foulness that nearly made even the battle - hardened warrior want to gag. Brie actually did, for a moment; with a hand flying to her nose and mouth in a futile effort to cut down on the smell, she barely managed to fight down the urge to vomit. "God!" she suddenly cried, her voice muffled only slightly by her hand. Whatever it was that was inside their attic, it smelled worse than any ripe and open cadaver that Brie had ever smelled back in medical school. "Gina?" she asked softly, her breath floating on the air in soft, white tendrils of mist that escaped through her fingers. "Why is it so goddamned cold? Jesus, it's like a meat locker in here!"

          Through the corner of her eye, Gina sensed a slight movement in a darkened recess of the attic, and she snapped her head toward it. It was one of their footlockers. Moving by itself, one of the two heavy, olive - green military footlockers was slowly turning around, inch by sporadic inch, so that it was now pointing directly at them - and then it suddenly slid across the room under the force of a single, powerful shove, as though it was slipping effortlessly across the frozen surface of a winter lake. With eyes wide in amazement, incomprehension and then growing terror, both women stared at it as the missile came straight for them. They dove full length in opposite directions just in time to avoid taking a hit that could quite easily have shattered bone. Gina went into a shoulder roll that immediately brought her to her feet again, never letting go of her weapon as the locker slammed into the wall behind her, while Brie didn't have quite the necessary room to execute the same maneuver; her side hit the wall as she tried to roll, but at least she, too, managed to hang onto her firearm. It only took her a second or so, however, to scramble to her feet once more, and to raise her weapon to take aim at...at...nothing. There was nothing there, there was just...nothing...there. They were alone in the attic.

          "What the fuck?" Gina softly asked herself. Still scanning the room with her eyes and slowly sweeping left to right with her weapon, she continued to search for a target.

          And then an icy, gale - force blast of wind came seemingly from nowhere. Screaming like a banshee, it enveloped them in a cold and putrid embrace, and pulled at their hair and tore at their faces with icy, dead fingers, and grabbed at their robes, snapping the loose material almost painfully about them; and across the room, the single, wide, octagonal window suddenly slammed shut with nearly enough force to shatter it.

          And then the wind was gone. Just like that. It was just suddenly gone...and the room was left in utter, deathly silence.

          Without saying a word, they looked at each other with wide eyes and windblown hair. Words weren't even necessary, because the expression in their eyes said it all for them: What in God's name happened just now? What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?
***

          Dressed in sweat suits of warm, soft fleece, they shared the sofa as they gazed into the crackling flames in the fireplace, while the rain continued to pour outside. The normally pugnacious Navy doctor had such hopes for this place; she didn't easily give in to fear or tears. She had fallen in love with this house the first time she had laid eyes on it; it had seemed so full of character, and filled with new hope and possibilities, and she had wanted so much for Gina to feel the same way. Now, however, all of her hopes and dreams for their life together in this picturesque old house and this quiet, small, gold rush town were brutally shattered and lying in ruins. The combined emotional impact of disillusionment and sheer terror had hit her with an overwhelming force that Gina could only begin to imagine.

          "We can't stay here," the young blonde muttered again as she continued to gaze into the fire, with a look of both despair and fear in her eyes. Her Glock lay on the armrest next to her hand, within easy reach, should she need it. Not that it would do her any good. "We can't stay here," she whispered again, shaking her head slightly, "not with all this..."

          "We're not leaving," Gina said, and there was no mistaking the determination in her eyes and in her voice. "This is our home, and we're not leaving."

          Brie rose up a little straighter as she turned to face her. "But how can we stay here? With God only knows what's running around up there? I feel like we're in the middle of the goddamned 'Exorcist!' We can't live here with that! How are we gonna get our down payment back? I mean, Jesus, Gina! Call it a tactical retreat, or - "

          "Brie," she began, as she gazed into the bard's eyes. "You trust me, don't you?"

          She regarded her with a stunned look, wondering why the Marine would ask her such a silly question. "Of course I do," she replied without hesitation, her voice a whisper.

          "Then please believe me when I tell you," she said with her trademark Warrior Princess/Marine Corps resolve, "this is our home. Our Home." She captured and held her partner's eyes with her own, and would not let them go. "We are not leaving it. We are gonna find this thing - whatever the fuck it is - and we're gonna fight it, and we're gonna fuckin' kick the shit out of it. That is my promise to you." She gently kissed her forehead before holding her close once more and returning her gaze to the fire. Without even realizing it, she softly quoted Colonel Wendell Neville, of the United States Marine Corps, when he had been fighting in France during World War I. "Retreat... Hell!" she growled. "We just got here!"
***

          There was nothing like bright, warming sunlight and the smell of frying bacon and eggs to lighten one's spirits. Oh, there were still more clouds out there, and it was a sure bet that there would be more rain for tonight; but for the time being, the cloud cover was partially broken, and warm, comforting, golden sunlight was keeping the night's shadows at bay.

          With breakfast sizzling on the stove, Gina was on her cell phone and talking to the real estate agent who had handled their purchase of this house while Brie seemed to be in the middle of an internal debate as she stood near the stairs.

          "Look," she said into the phone. "I understand that all his information is supposed to be confidential. But we've got a situation here that necessitates my finding out who he is and where he is so I can ask him some very important questions about all these weird noises and smells..." More quietly, she added, "Brie thinks the place is haunted..." She wasn't all that certain that she would disagree, but she wasn't about to admit to that. Not to him, anyway. "Hey - you can just shitcan the laughter, pal! Look, if you're not gonna tell me where he is, I've got other ways of finding out..." And then she started to get really pissed. "Hey look, buddy! I - " She stopped herself just in time. "Goddamn it," she muttered under her breath as she rubbed at one temple. She could feel a massive migraine coming on. "Yeah," she said more loudly, "yeah, I know, I understand. I just want to - " She stopped, and sighed heavily. "Yes, I know," she said, her tone now more understanding. "I know. Yeah, I know. Okay, I... Yeah, right," she finished skeptically. "Later." She snapped her phone shut, and softly grumbled, "Thanks for nothin'...asshole." She pocketed the phone, and then noticed that Brie was still looking up the stairs. "Brie? You okay?"

          She was silent for a moment. Finally, she said, "I gotta go to the bathroom."

          After the eerie circumstances of last night, Gina could certainly understand that her partner was reluctant to go back upstairs. "So why don't you use the downstairs bathroom?"

          Brie turned to face her, and for a moment a little bit of the irascible Navy doctor had returned. "What are you, kiddin' me?" she drawled. "Have you seen the size of that window in there? Have you seen how fuckin' big it is?"

          Gina started to grin. "Yeah," she said, pleased to see the return of a little of her partner's old spunk, "it's a really nice view of the woods."

          "Nice view?" Doc asked incredulously. "Nice view?" she repeated, with growing contentiousness. "The architect must've been out of his fuckin' mind when he had 'em put in a window that fuckin' big! Upstairs, it woulda been okay. Hell, I even would have liked that. But on the ground floor? Jesus, I don't need a goddamn audience when I'm in there takin' a grunt!"

          With a wry grin, Gina slowly approached her. "What audience?" she asked. "You think the chipmunks and the bears are gonna point at you and laugh?"

          Gabrielle's green eyes chilled dangerously.

          "Come to think of it, I saw a laughing bear once," Xena added. "It was with a Chinese circus that had come to town, and..."

          With a sigh of aggravation, the cantankerous doctor folded her arms across her chest and gave her partner The Look.

          Still working to distract her from her fears by getting even more of a rise out of her, Gina added, "You want me to go up with you?"

          She watched her with those cold and dangerous green eyes for a long, long moment, resenting the implication that she was some little girl who needed to have her hand held as she went to the bathroom...

          Gina patiently watched her with an inward grin.

          At last, Brie realized what the warrior was up to. She relaxed a bit, and even allowed the hint of a smile to tug at one corner of her mouth. "Naw," she said at last. "Naw, I'll be fine."

          Gina gave her an encouraging smile and a nod, and a thumbs up. "Atta girl," she said with a wink. "Oo - rah."

          Brie grinned crookedly back at her, shook her head a little bit in mild self - admonishment, and then returned her thumbs up. "Hoo - ya," she replied. She indicated the kitchen with a slight movement of her head. "Don't let the bacon burn."
***

          With the toilet tank refilling and the water in the sink running, Brie was just finishing washing her hands when she heard Gina bounding up the stairs. Breakfast must be ready, she figured, and the delivery of such news from downstairs would probably not be heard without raucous shouting. Her footsteps could be heard approaching rapidly, her boot heels thudding solidly against the floor.

          "Hey!" Brie called out merrily as she dried her hands. "Is breakfast ready? And whose rule was it against shoes in the house?" She hung up her towel and exited the bathroom. Crossing the bedroom, she heard Ryan's footsteps ending just outside the door. "Aren't you the one who was worried about scuffing the floor?" She stepped out into the short hallway - and stopped cold.

          She was alone.
***

          With a spatula in one hand and a frying pan in the other, and softly singing "Canto Della Terra" to herself, from Andrea Bocelli's "Sogno" CD, Gina turned from the stove - and abruptly dropped both with a violent start and a shrill and startled yelp. Fried eggs and ruptured yellow yolks and bacon - and blistering hot grease - splattered onto the floor as the cast iron skillet hit the wood with a loud thunk!, just barely missing her stockinged feet. In the old days, back in Greece, her first reaction would have been to go for her sword or chakram with a deadly snarl, because such surprises had usually meant she was under attack by soldiers or ruffians, or Romans; and even when she had been on deployment and in combat with the Corps, her first reaction would have been to go for her rifle or her sidearm. But that had all been a long, long time ago; she was pretty much a civilian now, and not in a war zone or under attack from roadside bandits.

          And besides, what had so unexpectedly come upon her just now was only a little girl, who was maybe six or seven years old.

          Frozen to the spot, and with wide, blue eyes that reflected a combination of surprise and terror, Gina whispered, "Oh, Jesus..."

          It wasn't the little girl herself that had frightened her so much, with her deathly pallor and her long, straight black hair, as though she had been out in the rain, and the sad, brown eyes with the deep, dark shadows encircling them. No, what had caught the Marine off - guard with such abruptness was her sudden and silent appearance...and the gaping red gash from ear to ear across the little girl's throat, and the glistening, fresh blood that saturated the entire front of her white party dress...

          ...and the open, bloodstained straight razor she clutched in one tiny fist.
***

          "Gina?" Doc asked warily. "Is that you?" She proceeded down the hallway cautiously.

          And then she heard her partner's scream.
***

          With wide, terrified eyes, and with a hand at her mouth to stifle the sharp and sudden cry that had already escaped, she stared at the little girl. "Oh my G..." she began, but her voice caught in her throat. "Oh, my God," she said. She knelt slowly, to rest one forearm on her knee and to reach out with her other hand, wanting to help but not knowing how she could. With an expression in her eyes that swiftly shifted from terrified to pained, and with tears that suddenly welled in her eyes she asked, "Oh, dear Jesus, what...God, sweetheart, what did they do to you?"
***

          When she reached the bottom of the stairs and rounded the corner, she found Gina in the kitchen, alone and down on one knee, and with one hand extended, almost as though she was reaching out to help a timid and injured little puppy. She approached her quickly. "Gina?"

          "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you," Ryan said. "I'm not gonna let anybody hurt you ever again..."

          She drew up alongside her, went to one knee, and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Gina?"

          She turned on her knee. "No, wait - don't go! Please!" Without even seeing Brie, she quickly rose to her feet and started for the cellar. "Wait, I want to help!" And had it not been for Brie's quick reflexes, the Marine would have run right over her. "Wait!"

          "Gina! What the hell's goin' on?" Brie asked as she followed her toward the staircase, and down to the cellar.

          Barely pausing at the door, she snapped on the light just in time to catch the little girl as she crossed the room to the opposite wall. She didn't run; with almost her entire bottom half dissolving into nothingness, she silently drifted like smoke across the room, and then completely vanished from sight as she passed through the brick foundation.

          "Wait! Come back!" Gina cried again as she rushed down the stairs and across the room. "Let me help you!"

          "Gina, what the hell!" Brie shouted. Following quickly behind her, and taking note of the chill once more as her breath appeared before her as drifting white clouds of vapor - the farther down she went, the colder it got - she reached for her and grabbed her arm to spin her around. "Gina!"

          The Marine whirled around and lashed out with one fist, and Brie managed to duck under the blow just in time. She threw up her hands to ward off a second blow.

          "Hey!" the doctor yelled. "Hey, whoa! Hold on there!"

          Gina glared at her with wide and enraged blue eyes, as though she'd never seen her before. And then, as sudden realization dawned on her, she glanced around the room to take note of her surroundings.

          "Shit!" she said at last, as comprehension finally washed over her like an ocean wave. "Holy shit!" She ran a trembling hand through her hair, letting her midnight bangs flop back against her forehead. And then she focused her eyes on Brie. "Did you see her?" she asked. "Did you see her?"

          "See her?" the doctor asked, with puzzled and worried eyes. "Who? Are you all right?"

          "That little g..." She glanced around the basement again, as though the little girl might reappear, and then hugged herself as she tried to ward off the intense, biting cold. She felt as though the two of them were standing inside of a coroner's freezer. "Oh, God," she breathed softly. "Oh God, oh God, oh my God..."
***

          "All those places where my teams and I were sent on covert ops," she quietly said as they sat together on the sofa, with an expensive, cut glass tumbler in one hand and filled with two fingers of Scotch. Sure, it was early in the day for alcohol, but the doctor judged it advisable for Gina to have a good belt of liquor rather than hitting her with a tranquilizer. "All those hot zones where legally we weren't allowed to go but we went to anyway 'cause we needed to take out the terrorists and the drug lords and the war criminals... The faces of death and destruction that always stuck in my mind the most were those of the children. The true innocents. The first time I saw a dead child, it...it hit me like a dagger in the heart. She'd been killed by a Taliban RPG, and from then on it's always twisted my guts and pissed me off that children had to suffer and die because of a bunch of goddamned Taliban warlords and fucking power - hungry religious wackos."

          Brie continued to watch her partner attentively, and said nothing. Even though she was no psychiatrist, the doctor knew her patient needed to vent, and that was exactly what she was letting her do. Get it off of her chest, and to purge the rage.

          "Children are the future," the warrior said. "Don't those dumb fucking savages know that? They need to be loved and cherished, and cared for, and protected! Not to be used as al - Qaeda shields and decoys! That's why I go on such a rant whenever I hear about some child molester, or...or some jihadist terrorist hiding behind them, or some kidnapper stealing a kid and holding her for ransom. It just fuckin' pisses me off. And when I saw that little girl in the kitchen, with all that blood, I - " She stopped abruptly and sighed heavily, and then sipped at her drink. Fixing her eyes firmly on her partner, she continued. "Something unspeakable and vicious happened here, Gabrielle," she said. "And something is stopping that poor little girl from crossing over to the other side. And God damn it, I'm gonna find out what it is."

          The bard and doctor laid a hand on the warrior's forearm, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "You know I've always got your back," she told her.

          Despite the dampness and the redness in her eyes, Xena allowed herself a little bit of a smile as she raised her glass in a toast. "Oo - rah," she said softly.

          Matching the warrior's smile with one of her own, Gabrielle raised her own glass and clinked it gently against her friend's. "Hoo - ya," she replied.

          She sipped at her drink, and then set it on the coffee table before them as she began to rise. "Come on, let's get moving."

          Brie set her own glass down, and she, too, began to rise. "Where are we going?"

          "You remember how I told you that real estate agent couldn't tell us anything about the previous owners of this place? Because of their confidentiality deal?"

          "Yeah...?"

          "I know where to find at least a couple of answers. I just wish I'd thought of it sooner. Come on, let's move it out."
***

          "I'm not sure I ever would have thought of coming to the county hall of records," Brie said as they settled down in front of the computer keyboard, mouse and monitor. The room they sat in looked like a small library, and it was just as quiet. "But isn't this just mostly birth and death certificates, and marriage licenses, and like that?"

          "Yeah," Gina replied as she continued to scan with determined blue eyes through the records as they appeared on the monitor. "And property tax records." She turned away from the screen for a moment, and regarded her partner. "Y'know all that junk mail that everyone gets? Offers for bank loans, refinancing loans, credit cards, and shit like that - and all addressed specifically to the homeowner? You know how they get people's names and addresses?" She gently tapped the screen with the back of one fingertip as she returned her eyes to it. "It's all here...and it's all a matter of public record."

          Doc scowled at the computer screen as its light softly shined in her face. "Huh!" she said. And then, as she turned her scowl on Ryan, she asked, "So what was all that bullshit the real estate agent handed us about client confidentiality?"

          Gina smiled cynically as she gazed at the monitor. "Precisely," she replied. "It's called CYA."

          Brie knew the acronym well: "Cover Your Ass." She shook her head slightly, and softly snorted in mild derision as she returned her gaze to the monitor. "It's simply to protect themselves from groundless nuisance lawsuits."

          "If you've got an address of a particular property, you can go to the county and find out who owns it. And speaking of which," she added, as she let go of the scroll button when their address popped up. Some poor, overworked and underpaid county clerk's assistant of this small, somewhat rural and therefore under funded county had not yet processed all of the paperwork concerning the transfer of ownership, so the previous owner's name was still listed there. Gina scribbled down the name on the pad before her. "All right," she said as she exited the file. "There are two other places I can think of to hit next to track these guys down. You want the Post Office or the DMV?" Both were within walking distance.

          Brie thought it over for a quick moment, and then reached into a pocket of her jeans. She extracted a quarter, and flipped it into the air. "Call it."

          "Tails."

          She caught the coin, and smacked it onto the back of her other hand. She showed it to Gina, and smiled.

          "Okay," Gina said, with a sigh of reluctant acceptance. "I can always have someone in the DMV nudge me awake when they call my number."
***

          The young blonde approached the counter with a disconcerted little smile. "Hi," she timidly said to the postal worker there. "I feel like such a doofus to ask you this, but could you help me out? I've just recently bought a new house, and..." Her sheepish grin widened, and her face even actually began to turn red with embarrassment. "...I can't remember if I gave the right address for the new house when I filed for an address change..."

          Behind the counter, the portly and gray - haired woman smiled from behind wire - framed spectacles. "Oh, don't you feel embarrassed at all, sweetheart," she said. "That happens to people a lot, what with the stress of moving and all. If I could just have your name and previous address..."

          "Amanda and Brian Pennington," she replied. "Two sixty - four Stagecoach Road, Nevada City..."

          She keyed it into her computer, and clicked on "search." It only took a moment. "Here we go."

          Brie faked another convincingly embarrassed smile. "Yeah, that's the place, all right," she said, memorizing the search results as she read them. "I can't be - lieve I could have forgotten something so simple... I feel like such an idiot..."

          The kind - hearted woman behind the counter gave her another grandmotherly smile. "Don't you worry about it. It happens more often than you'd think. I'm just sorry to hear you're leaving our little town."

          "My husband's job has transferred him," Brie lied easily. She was a bard, after all, and she knew how to spin a tale. And then, just in case this woman got a little too curious about her, she began to lay it on even thicker. "I want to stay, buy my husband always has to jump through the hoops every time his boss says 'Jump!' I told him he ought to quit that job and get something that pays better - and would let us stay here, because I really love this quaint little town, and - " She stopped, and stifled a sudden sob. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to get so emotional, but..."

          With a sudden sadness in her own eyes, she took Brie's hand and patted it comfortingly. "There, there, there," she said sympathetically. "I know exactly how you feel. The same thing happened shortly after I got married, and my husband was to be transferred by his boss. If you really want to stay in this little town, you tell your husband what I told mine."

          Through fake tears, Brie smiled politely. "What's that?"

          "If you're going to let your boss push you around like that," the kindly and rotund little grandmother said, and then she warily glanced left and right to see who might be within earshot. Noticing the elderly couple that stood nearby, she motioned for Brie to lean toward her, and then she leaned forward herself to whisper something into her ear.

          The Navy doctor listened politely for a moment, and then...and then her eyes widened in surprise, and her face froze in barely controlled shock and disgust. Fighting now to keep her polite but frozen smile in place - and suddenly feeling a little ill now, having learned more about this woman than she really wanted to know - she leaned back a bit, and gulped in mild horror.

          The kindly and rotund grandmother smiled pleasantly. "You take my advice," she said, "and you have yourself a nice day, child."

          Stunned and silent, and still wearing that polite but frozen smile, Brie nodded her thanks, turned, and headed for the door. Does she kiss her grand kids with that mouth? she asked herself with a shudder of revulsion as she made for the exit with increasing speed. The only thing with which she could console herself was the fact that she had successfully completed her mission.

          Now, if only she could pluck out her mind's eye...
***

          "Number fifty - one?" called out the woman, with an expressionless monotone, from behind the counter at this local branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles. "Number fifty - one?" She leaned over her counter and looked left, and then right. "Number fifty - one?" She straightened, and her gaze took in the rest of the sparsely populated room. There was a dozing young woman with a dozing baby, a thoroughly crushed, middle - aged man in jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat, who had recently resigned himself to the fact that he was powerless to fight against this particular cruelty of life, and a bearded, smelly and snoring drunk in an old army jacket, clutching a bottle whose neck was protruding from the top of a plain brown paper bag. "Number fifty - one?" After waiting another long moment, and receiving no reply, she turned and shuffled her way to the back wall near the gray metal filing cabinets. With the blinding speed of an arthritic desert tortoise, she reached up to tug at the beaded chain of the mechanical number changer once again. She turned, and slowly shuffled back to her window. "Number fifty - two?" she called out. She leaned over her counter and looked left, and then right. "Number fifty - two?" She straightened, and her gaze took in the rest of the sparsely populated room. "Number fifty - two?" After waiting another long moment, and receiving no reply, she turned and shuffled again to the back wall near the gray metal filing cabinets...

          Almost as though she were in a trance, or perhaps in a waking coma, and with one eyebrow raised just slightly higher than the other, Gina sighed heavily, and then pulled her gaze away from the invisible spot on the floor, and looked again at the little paper number she'd been forced to take. There had been no one in line at the window when she had first arrived; yet her inquiries had been met with, "Take a number, have a seat, and wait your turn." And from then on, the bureaucrat behind the counter had been deaf, unresponsive, or uncaring of any further entreaties.

          This is Purgatory, isn't it? Gina asked herself as she shifted again in the hard plastic seat. This is Purgatory! She squeezed her eyes shut, and massaged one temple as she felt one of her migraines coming on. Okay, God, I'm sorry, she thought. Okay? All right? I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all my sins. I sincerely apologize. I'm sorry I broke Mom's favorite vase when I was six, and blamed it on Mike. I'm sorry I talked Travis into snagging Dad's car when I was fifteen, and got it wrecked. So I'll make you a deal: I promise you that from now on I'll go to church. I'll go to confession. I'll become a good Catholic, like Mom wants, I swear it! In return, all I ask is please, God, please! Please, please, just...GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!

          "Number fifty - three?" the woman behind the counter called out, with that same, expressionless monotone. "Number fifty - three? Number fifty - three?"

          Empathizing more and more with the dejected cowboy with the passing of each and every insufferable minute, Gina looked again at the little scrap of paper in her hand, and read it to herself. It still said one hundred and seventeen.

          "Number fifty - four?" Long pause. "Number fifty - four?" Another long pause. "Number fifty - four?" Another...

          She sighed heavily as she returned her gaze to that little invisible spot on the floor. It was impossible to tell whether she was contemplating suicide or homicide.

          A hand fell on Gina's shoulder, and with a start she looked up to find Brie looking down at her. "Got it," Doc said. "C'mon, let's blow."

          If the chair's legs hadn't been bolted to the floor, Gina would have knocked it over in her rush to leave. Grabbing the hand of her blonde savior, she dashed for the door.

          "Number fifty - five?.. Number fifty - five?.. Number fifty - five?.."
***

          She opened the door when she heard the doorbell ring, and found a tall, blue - eyed brunette and a shorter, green - eyed blonde standing on her porch. With a friendly smile, she said, "Yes?"

          The brunette smiled pleasantly. "Hi, Mrs. Pennington?"

          The homeowner's smile faltered just slightly. "Yes?" How did these two strangers know her name?

          "I'm Gina Ryan, and this is Gabriella Duncan. We're the ones who bought your house in Nevada City, and if you don't mind we'd like to ask you a couple of questions about the place."

          As she stood with one hand on the edge of the door and the other resting on the inside knob, Amanda Pennington's emotions were a sudden and swirling blend of dread and anxiety. Had these people come to complain about the house? Their agent had openly advertised the house as a fixer - upper; it's not like they hadn't been warned about its condition. Were they about to serve notice in an impending lawsuit? How had they tracked her down? Should she just slam the door in their faces?

          "I..." she began. "There...there's nothing I can tell you, I... Why don't you come back when my husband's home? He - "

          "Mrs. Pennington," Gina said gently, "we're here about the sounds. The mysterious noises."

          The look in Amanda's eyes told Gina that she had struck a chord. After a short moment of uncomfortable silence, she asked, "You heard them, too. Didn't you?"

          "You sold the house for such a low price," Brie said gently, "you must have been desperate to move. Did you see the little girl, too?"

          Amanda took a deep breath and let it out in a ragged sigh. "I saw her the first night we were there," she said at last. "Her and...and someone else. A woman. Tall, with dark hair."

          "With a really pale complexion," Gina muttered softly to herself.

          "And the smell! I..." And then she decided she'd said enough. "Look, I really don't want to talk about it. I just want to forget it all...if I can, and...and just move on with my life." She started to close the door, but Gina gently stopped her.

          "If you could just tell us who owned the house before you," the Marine asked. "That's all we're asking. Just a name."

          She studied them cautiously, and then said, "I'll get you our copies of the papers. Take them. We don't need or want them anymore. Just take them, and leave us alone. Please."
***

          "Arthur P. Sizemore," Gina read as Brie skillfully guided the Mustang out of Sacramento's Arden Park area. The Navy doctor dodged in and out of traffic like a Roman cab driver, passing however she could and beating out signal lights, while Gina perused through the copies of the real estate contracts. "There's really not a whole lot to be learned from these except for his name," she said as an irate driver suddenly blasted his horn at the speeding Mustang. "But," she added, completely without concern for Brie's driving tactics as she reached for her cell phone, "I think I can remedy that." Shifting left and right against her shoulder harness and seat belt with the car's emphatic movements, as though she were in the back seat of an FA - 18 fighter jet that was going through training maneuvers, she hit the speed dial and put the phone to her ear.

          "Sawyer."

          "Jack! It's Gina."

          "Well hey, kiddo!" came Jack Sawyer's surprised and delighted voice through the earpiece. "How're you doin'? I haven't heard from you or Brie since Alameda."

          "We're doing good," Gina replied. "Brie sold the San Francisco condo and bought us a house in Nevada City. It's a beautiful place; you're gonna have to come up and see it."

          "Wouldn't miss it for anything," Sawyer replied.

          "Which brings me to this phone call. Listen, I was wondering if you could do us a small favor."

          "Name it."

          "We're trying to find a previous owner, a guy named Arthur P. Sizemore. We've got some questions we need to ask him about the place."

          "What, did he leave it with a busted water main or something?" Jack asked. "Holes in the roof? Crumbling foundation? 'Cause I know some deep cover guys who can make him disappear without a tra - "

          "No, no, it's nothing like that," Gina said quickly. "We just need to ask him some questions about some...disturbances. I was wondering if you might use some of your Company contacts in tracking him down."

          "I don't see why not," Jack replied. "Might take a little time. Have you tried chasing him down through DMV?"

          She was immediately reminded of her experience earlier. "Have you ever tried tracing information through DMV?" she asked wryly.

          Jack thought it over for a silent moment or two. "Yeah, I see your point," he said at last. "Yeah, I think I can probably help. How soon do you need results?"

          "The sooner, the better," Gina replied. "We're not under any deadline or anything like that, but we've got some weird shit going on that we'd like to clear up as soon as possible."

          "No problemo. You still got the same cell phone number?"

          "That's affirmative."

          "Okay. I'll get back to you as soon as I know something."

          "Thanks, Jack. I owe you."

          "Oh, yeah?" he said, and Gina could tell there was a smile on his face. And she could also imagine the playfully lascivious little glint in his eye. "So how 'bout you fix me up with one of Brie's sisters?"

          Gina laughed.

          Brie cast her a quick and suspicious little sideways glance. "What?" she wanted to know.

          Gina tilted the phone down and away from her lips. "Jack wants to date one of your sisters."

          Brie's eyes widened in mild horror behind her sunglasses. "Not a fuckin' chance in hell!"

          Laughing again, Gina returned her attention to the phone. "She says she'll think it over," she told Jack. "ASAP, please, Jack. If you can."

          "You got it, amica. Say hi to Brie."

          "Will do." She snapped the phone shut with a flip of her wrist. "Jack says hi," she said as she slipped it into an inside coat pocket. And then turned to face Brie. "So... Is Ronnie seeing anyone these days?"

          It didn't take much to imagine the look in Brie's eyes behind those dark gold aviator's shades.
***

          Heading west Arden Way, as they approached the on - ramp of the eastbound Business 80 toward Reno, Gina took a moment or two to simply take in the scenery. They were approaching a large shopping mall off to their right as Gina's stomach suddenly rumbled. "Arden Fair Mall," she said. She turned to Brie. "You feel like stopping here for lunch?"

          "Lunch at a mall?" Doc countered. "What are you, kidding me?"

          Gina looked a little taken aback. "Why not?"

          "You know why they're called food 'courts' inside of shopping malls, don't you?" After a moment of silence, she answered her own question. "It's because that's where the food is tried and condemned. And I am not a big fan of corn dogs on a stick and frozen purple squeezies; that's enough cholesterol to kill Godzilla. Wouldn't you rather stop at a restaurant?"

          Gina shrugged one shoulder. "You got one in mind?"

          She pointed off to her left. "There's a nice looking place."

          "Sure, hell, why not - " She was cut off by the ringing of her phone. "Hang on a sec." She reached for it and flipped it open. "Ryan."

          "I got that info you needed," said Jack Sawyer.

          Gina smiled a little bit. "That didn't take long," she said.

          "Hey, when you want it done right, you gotta call the best. Anyway, Arthur P. Sizemore - the reverend Arthur P. Sizemore - is head of the First Evangelical Temple out in Woodland. He's been living there for the last four months. Address and phone number are..." Gina wrote them down on the back of one of the real estate contracts as he read them off.

          "Outstanding, Jack. Mille grazie."

          "So," he said after a moment's silence, "about that date with one of Brie's sisters..."

          Gina cast her partner a quick glance. "She's...uhh... She's still thinking it over," she replied at last.

          And once again, from behind her sunglasses, Doc gave her The Look.

          With a wry smile, Gina said into the phone, "We'll talk later, Jack. I gotta call this reverend guy." She hung up, and then dialed again.

          The phone rang four or five times before there was an answer. "Hello?"

          "Hi, Reverend Sizemore?"

          "Yes?"

          "Hi, my name's Gina Ryan. I'm calling about the house you used to own in Nevada City."

          There was a short pause. "Yes?" he said again, only more cautiously now.

          "Well, sir, you sold it to the Pennington's for such a low price, and then they sold it to us - they actually seemed to take a bit of a loss on it, if I'm reading these contracts right - and I was just wondering if there was something about the house that, as the new owner, I ought to know."

          "Not really," Sizemore replied carefully. He was quiet for a moment, perhaps expecting Gina to add something else. At last, he volunteered, "After my wife and daughter disappeared, the place just seemed to be too full of sad memories for me. And it seemed pointless for me to live alone in such a big house. I wanted a quick sale, so I had my agent list it below market price."

          Gina considered this new bit of information for a short moment. And then she looked at Brie as she repeated, "Your wife and...daughter. They just...disappeared?"

          Brie glanced back at her, and raised her eyebrows in surprise. This new bit of information raised an entirely new set of questions.

          "I reported it to the police, and they investigated, but they couldn't find anything," Sizemore went on. "As near as anyone can tell, they just ran off. So, after a couple of months of living there all by myself in such a big and empty place, I decided to sell it."

          "I'm sorry to hear that," Gina said, with true sympathy. "I'm a bit of a children's advocate myself. If you don't mind my asking, reverend...how old was your daughter?"

          "Six years. She had just turned six. We'd had a party for her, and..." He stopped, and sighed heavily.

          With the phone still to her ear, a stunned and suddenly uneasy Gina continued to stare straight ahead. "Thank you, reverend," she said, her voice sounding a little distant. "Thank you very much. I'm sorry to have bothered you." Dimly aware of her own movements, and suddenly lost in deep thought, she hung up the phone and put it away.

          Doc cast a quick glance at her. "You okay?" she asked. "Gina?"

          "Yeah," she said softly, still gazing straight ahead with a vague yet disturbed look on her face. "Yeah..."
***

          It was just after dark when they returned home, at the end of a long day. Ravished by hunger, Brie had gone straight to the fridge, but Gina didn't seem hungry. She had merely toyed with her dinner, and had perhaps more wine than she ought, and she had been strangely silent all evening. Brie had caught her on a couple of occasions massaging one temple with her fingertips; perhaps her migraines were bothering her again. Having had her offer of pain killers politely turned down, and unable to engage her interest in conversation or a movie on DVD, the doctor thought it might be a good idea for the both of them to just call it an early night. Once the doors were locked and the lights were shut off downstairs, they headed up to their bedroom, slipped into pajamas - red satin for Brie, and black sweat pants and a Marine Corps t - shirt for Gina - and crawled languidly into bed. Within minutes, they were both asleep.
***

          She awoke to the sounds of her partner's soft crying. She cracked open her green eyes, raised herself on one elbow, and regarded her dark silhouette, sitting in the chair by the window with her head bowed, and with her shoulders shaking with each gentle sob. It was impossible to see her as anything more than a shadow. "Gina?" she asked softly.

          The Marine said nothing.

          She peeled back the covers and rose from the warmth of their bed, and went over to her. "Hey," she said softly as she knelt next to her. "Hey, are you okay? Migraines flarin' up again?"

          She slowly shook her head, sobbed gently, and said nothing.

          "Thinkin' about that little girl, aren't you?" Brie asked. She took her partner's hand - it was surprisingly cold - and laced her fingers with Gina's. "You need to give yourself a break, darlin'," she said. She fondly kissed the side of her head. "We're doin' everything we can to find out what happened. And we are gonna find out, so there's no sense in beatin' yourself up about not having solved this yet. So c'mon." She began to rise. "C'mon, let's go back to bed." She gently pulled at Gina's hand, but the Marine would not be moved. "Gina, c'mon," she said again.

          Her hand tightened on Brie's.

          "That's some grip you got there, girl," she said. "And you're cold as ice. Come on, let's go back to bed before you catch cold." On her feet now, she tugged at her again, but it was like trying to move the cold, solid arm of a marble statue. "Gina, come - ow! Hey, leggo!" she said, and the grip tightened down on her even more, almost crushing her fingers. "Gina, goddamnit, let go!" she said, her voice loud now. She pulled furiously at her arm, but it would not move. "You're hurting me! Gina, let go! Let go!" Now she was screaming at her as she struggled to escape from her crushing grip. "Let go, goddamnit!! LET GO! LET G - "

          One of the bedside lamps came on. "Brie?" Gina asked sleepily as she leaned on one elbow. She blinked against the brightness of the fluorescent light. "What're you doin' over there, babe? What's wrong?"

          With her eyes widened in astonishment and her heart racing with sudden apprehension within her chest, she stared in stunned silence at her partner as the Marine - at the other side of the room and still lying in bed - slowly sat up. And then, together, both women faced the shadowy thing that was sitting in their chair.

          "Oh, my God," Gina said with a horrified whisper, when the cadaver's head fell back to reveal its desiccated face and empty, black eye sockets -

          - and as Brie's expression shifted from astonishment to sheer horror, she screamed for all she was worth. She twisted her arm around and broke free from the skeletal, rigor mortis grip just as Gina leaped from the bed, and scrambled backward on hands and feet, still screaming and with her butt on the floor, as Gina rushed toward her.

          "Who are you?" Ryan roared as she interposed herself between Brie and the dead thing in the chair. "What the fuck are you doing in our house? Who the fuck ARE you?"

          Slowly, the specter rose from the chair and began to glide across the floor in eerie silence, and Gina and Brie stared at it in mute horror as it passed through the wall and out into the hall.

          "Enough!" Gina suddenly roared. She'd had it up to here, and she wasn't taking any goddamned more of it! "Basta cosi!" With clenched white teeth and blazing fire in her sapphire eyes, the thoroughly pissed off recon - force Marine went after it.

          "Gina, no!" Brie pleaded in terror as she grabbed her hand. "Please! Don't! Let's just get the fuck out of here - " But her words fell on deaf ears.

          Gina raced out of the bedroom and into the hallway, and toward the stairs, and after a moment's hesitation Brie reluctantly followed after her.

          It was already in the living room, and was still gliding silently as it continued down the stairs and into the cellar. Bounding down the stairs, the warrior went after it. When she reached the door to the cellar, she reached in and snapped on the light, and caught sight of the ghost as it continued to glide across the floor...and then it dissolved into nothingness as it passed through the brick wall.

          Gina took the steps two at a time, and quickly approached the far wall. She ran her hands over it, feeling for any loose bricks that she could pry out.

          "Gina?" Brie fearfully implored from the top of the stairs. "Let's just go. Let's - "

          Gina ignored her. Utterly determined to get to the bottom of this haunting, she turned from the wall and strode across to where her toolbox lay, next to some as - yet unpacked boxes, and took out a claw hammer and a stout screwdriver. She quickly strode across the room once more, and began chipping away at the mortar.

          "Gina, what the - Y'can't - y'can't go diggin' holes in the foundation!" she said at last, still at the top of the stairs, as Gina removed the first brick. "You're gonna..." She stopped, and sighed heavily. Once the Marine got a notion into her head, there was no dissuading her from it.

          Without a word, Gina continued to chip away at the wall and pull out bricks. Once she had an adequate opening, she returned to the toolbox, found a flashlight, and then returned to the wall and swept the bright, white beam inside.

          "Disappeared, huh?" she muttered to herself, and Brie thought she was talking about the vanishing specter. She pulled out a few more loosened bricks, and then knelt before the aperture she'd made. "Brie," she said, her voice a little louder now. "Call the sheriff's department. Our basement has just become a crime scene."

          "What?" she asked. She finally came down the stairs, and joined her partner. She gazed inside, and gasped.

          She'd seen bodies before. She'd seen them shot up, blown up, drowned, burned...all of them in combat. With the exception of the cadavers in medical school, all of them had been victims of war. But these two...

          They had been dead for at least six months. Both of them were female, and one of them was no more than six years old, and dressed in a white party dress whose front was discolored with rusty brown stains that could only have been dried blood. She had been placed in her mother's lap...and lying next to them was the murder weapon - an open straight razor that was caked with dried blood.
***

          Upstairs in the living room, and with all of the lights now blazing throughout the ground floor, Brie was just beginning to reach for the telephone when Gina gently laid a hand on top of hers. "Wait a second."

          Brie looked up at her. "What?"

          "I just had another thought. He said he listed this place a couple of months after his wife and daughter 'disappeared,'" Gina said. "He had to have know they were down there. Hell, he put them down there himself! He was just waiting for the mortar around the bricks to dry before putting the place up for sale in order to avoid any accidental discovery of what he'd done."

          Brie watched her for a moment, and then nodded once in agreement. "Okay. So why am I not calling the cops right now?"

          "Because those spirits need to be put at rest."

          "But how are we gonna do that?"

          Gina gazed at her, and said nothing.

          Brie regarded her with mild suspicion. "You're not gonna be hitting on Jack for another favor, are you?" she asked at last. "You're not gonna have a black ops team come in and - "

          "Oh, no," Gina replied. And then she smiled a chilling little smile. "Oh, no. No, this one's gonna be all mine. Y'see, I know why those spirits are so angry. At least, I think I do. They're tortured. And they need justice before they can find peace." She cast a quick glance at the satellite clock that rested on top of the fireplace's wide mantle, and took note of the time. Then she turned to Brie once again. "So what do you suppose the good reverend is doing right now, at two - seventeen in the morning?"

          Brie continued to watch her. And then she became the thoroughly adamant bard and Navy doctor. "You are not going to kill him," she said definitively. She remembered how her partner had dealt with the Horde and with the Romans and with the Persians; and while such tactics had been effective in their day, they were certainly not appropriate - or legal, for that matter - in these days of the early 21st century.

          "Killing him would do his wife and daughter no good," she said. "Nor would it do us any good."

          Brie found little relief in the fact that this was the only thing that stopped Gina from putting a bullet in him, or from cutting his throat - not because it was wrong or illegal, but merely because it wouldn't serve any purpose.

          "All I need from you is a ride out to Woodland," the Marine said at last.

          Brie thought it over for a long moment. At last she said, "As long as you promise me you're not going to hurt him."

          "You've got my word as a Marine," she told her partner. "I will not harm him in any way."

         

          She watched her for another silent moment. Once assured that she had Gina's word of honor, she nodded. "Okay, then."
***

          Dressed completely in black and staying in the shadows of the other houses, and with Brie also dressed in black, and parked in her Mustang across the street and down the block where she could easily see the house, Ryan quickly and silently made her way for Sizemore's house. He lived in an older neighborhood, where the houses were smaller and with larger back yards; and much to Gina's delight, the reverend's house had one other thing in common with so many others: an attached garage. That was going to make things even easier.

          She crouched in the shadow of the reverend's house. Moving like a shadow herself, she approached the wooden, six - foot - high gate next to the garage, and shook it gently. Not loudly enough to alarm any neighbors, but just enough to get the attention of any possible dogs in any nearby yards. If any canine burglar alarms should go off, she would merely scrub the mission, make her way back to the Mustang, and reschedule. But since her rattling of the gate was answered with only silence, she boosted herself up and over the gate, and approached the house from the back yard.

          The back door to the garage was locked. What are you, kidding me? she asked herself. Who'd try to break into his garage through the back yard? Did he really believe that anyone would go through the hassle of climbing fences or gates in the dark just on a slim chance that this rear door would be unsecured? Well, she supposed it was possible; after all, she was doing exactly that, she reminded herself with an ironic little smile. Oh well, not to worry. A simple little locked door wasn't about to stop her. Reaching for one thigh, she gently ripped open the Velcro on the flap of one pocket of her black fatigue pants, reached in, and extracted a small flashlight. She shined the beam on the doorknob for a moment, then stuck the light between her teeth as she quietly ripped open and reached into another pocket, and removed a leather case that contained a variety of lock - picks. Working silently and expertly, she worked the lock for a moment or two, and then smiled around the flashlight as the lock on the inside quietly popped open. She removed the flashlight from her teeth and clicked it off, and then slipped it back into a pocket. Next, she slipped the picks back into their leather case, and then slipped this back into another pocket. (She remembered a snippet of a conversation she'd had with Brie once, when the doctor had asked her, after viewing her collection of cargo pants, "Why do you always wear these things? Don't you ever get tired of them? Don't you want some jeans or cords, or some nice slacks?" "I like cargo pants because they got plenty of pockets for all my stuff," Ryan had told her. "'Stuff'?" Brie had countered skeptically. "What 'stuff'?" Well, flashlights and lock - picks, for starters, she now told herself with a smile.)

          She quickly straightened and eased the door open, and quietly slipped inside. She cautiously made her way around Sizemore's white Camry and up to the connecting door between the garage and kitchen, and gently twisted the knob - and was pleasantly surprised to find that this door was not locked. With a cold little smile, she silently let herself in.
***

          He awoke with a start when a strip of silver duct tape was slapped across his eyes. Before he could even cry out, he felt something cold and round pressed against his temple.

          "One sound," a voice whispered softly, "and I'll splatter your brains all over this pillow. Understand?"

          He could do nothing but nod in agreement.

          Not that she actually would shoot him; she just wanted him to believe it. The Beretta she put to his head was loaded, and a silencer had been screwed to the muzzle - but the chamber was empty.

          And then he was roughly flipped over, and his hands were yanked painfully behind his back. They were secured behind him with a belt from his robe, and then he was hauled to his feet and shoved from behind.

          "If you're here for money," he began, his voice a terrified whisper, "there's not much, but you're welcome to it - "

          She smacked him across the side of his head with her Beretta. Not hard enough to knock him out, but it certainly did deliver a painful message. "Shut your goddamned mouth," she told him. And as she did, she remembered promising Brie that she wouldn't harm this man in any way. Well, that blow to his head didn't hurt; she hadn't felt a thing. And then there was a hollow, tearing sound as she pulled another strip of duct tape from its roll, and she slapped it across his mouth. Without another word, she shoved him ahead of her toward the garage.
***

          Brie waited anxiously, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. It wasn't more than ten minutes before she saw the garage door open and the white Toyota backing out of it, the headlights off. The door lowered automatically as the car continued to pull out onto the street, and then it quietly drove up to where Brie was waiting, pulling up alongside her. The passenger's window powered down, and Gina's grinning face could easily be seen.

          "Hey ragazza," she said, with her black leather - gloved hands resting on the steering wheel, "you want to race?"

          "I think I'll pass," she said. "If I get pulled over, I'll just get a ticket. If you get nailed, though, things could get a little more complicated." She stretched her neck a little, trying to see inside of the car. "Where's your little buddy?"

          Oh, shit, Gina thought. How did she know I brought a weapon? Or is she talking about the good reverend? "He's tied up in the trunk."

          She nodded satisfactorily. "Good. Can we go home now?"

          Gina glanced at the dash. "Yeah. Just as soon as I stop for gas and a corn dog. This damn thing's just about running on fumes, and I'm hungry."

          Corn dogs, Doc thought with a mildly disgusted shake of her head. Jesus. "Okay," she said with a sigh. "I'll follow you, just in case you run out."

          "Roger that."
***

          "Sit," she said as she shoved him down onto the floor. She crouched in front of him, and with a single, brutal tug, she pulled away the strip of tape from his eyes first, and then from his mouth. And when he opened his eyes, he immediately recognized his old cellar. And then he regarded the two women; the tall, black - haired woman with the cold, blue eyes who crouched before him, and the shorter, blonde woman, who was standing near the staircase, with disgust in her green eyes and her arms folded across her chest.

          "Reverend Sizemore," Gina said, with unbridled contempt in her voice.

          "Who the hell are you?" he demanded. "What's the meaning of this?" He looked like a high - priced lawyer, or perhaps even a television evangelist, with silver hair and a deep tan, and he had the practiced, mellifluous voice of a professional barrister. "You release me right now, goddamn it, or I'll have you jailed! I'll sue!"

          "The only thing you're going to do," Gina said, with silky venom, "is tell me why you killed them."

          He flinched apprehensively when she said that. He actually jumped, as though someone had jabbed him in the backside with a pushpin, and there was a blend of shock and guilt on his face. "How did - " he began, and then tried to change his story. Forcing himself to be calm and aloof at the same time, he said, "I don't know what you're talking about. I didn't kill anyone."

          "Sure you did," Gina told him. "You killed your own wife and daughter." And then she pointed out the opened, improvised crypt. "There are the bodies, right there."

          And then his eyes widened in terror, and a sheen of sweat suddenly appeared on his brow. "How did..." he began, as he stared at the two parched and shriveled bodies. "How did you fi... How did you know..."

          "They told us," Gina replied. "They showed us where you buried them."

          "How could you do it?" Brie asked him. "How could you do it? Your own wife and daughter?"

          He was panting for breath now, and sweating profusely as he continued to stare in wide - eyed terror at the two bodies. And then...

          Perhaps it was just a combination of gravity and time that made the two of them move. It was just a simple, subtle movement; the tilting - or was it an actual, viable turning? - of both heads, so that they were now staring directly at him with black and empty eye sockets, and dried, gaunt grins.

          "It - It wasn't my fault!" he shrieked at last, as he stared at the bodies, almost as though he was confessing to his victims now. "It wasn't my fault! She made me do it!"

          Gina scowled at him in puzzlement. "'She' made you do it?"

          "Rhonda, my secretary!" Sizemore blurted out. "It was her fault! She made me do it!"

          "What the hell are you talking about?" Brie asked.

          He gasped, and gulped with ever increasing terror. "I caught Rhonda embezzling church funds," he said, without taking his eyes off the two bodies. "I was going to turn her in to the police, but...but she told me that I could h - have her, and that she would split it with me if I...if I ran away with her. I told her I couldn't because I...I was married, and had a daughter. She just laughed at me, like a wanton temptress, and said I was a coward. She called me a spineless coward, and told me that a real man would get rid of a nagging wife and child..."

          Brie gazed at him with barely restrained rage. "You bastard," she whispered. "You fucking bastard."

          "It wasn't my fault!" he shrieked again. His wild, imploring eyes darted between Gina and Brie. "She did it! You've got to believe me, the witch did it!" And then he broke down into racking, hysterical sobs. "That witch Rhonda, that temptress witch, she did it...she made me d - do it, she made me!" he finished with a scream.

          Brie snorted with contempt, and shook her head slowly. "I've had about all I can stand of this...this..." Words failed to describe what she thought of him. "I'm goin' upstairs."

          A movement from within the aperture in the wall caught his attention, and his wide, terrified eyes darted toward it. In the dim light, he could see the leathery, dried - out hand of his dead wife inching toward the straight razor.

          "God!" he screamed. He turned his frantic gaze on Gina. "Look!" he cried. "Look! Look!"

          Gina cast a short glance over her shoulder toward the bodies, and then returned her cold and uncaring eyes to Sizemore. "I'm coming with you," she told Brie as she straightened from her crouch. "I think the Nevada County Sheriff would like to have a talk with him." She turned, and started for the stairs.

          Brie quickly cast her eyes toward the desiccated remains of Sizemore's family. Gazing back at him once more, she agreed that he needed to spend a little time alone with them.

          "No!" he screamed as he watched his dead wife and daughter slowly emerge from their grave, and rise to their feet. "No!" He turned his terrified eyes on Ryan and Duncan. "Don't you see them? Don't you SEE them?? You can't leave me down here with them!"

          Close behind Brie, Gina slowly went up the stairs. With their backs facing him, neither of them saw what - if anything - was happening behind them.

          "God! Jesus! NO!" he screamed again as the two leather - skinned skeletons began to slowly shuffle toward him. In his wife's left hand was her daughter's, and in her right was the open straight razor. Slowly, unrelentingly, they continued to shamble toward him with empty eyes and parched, brown, menacing grins. "Please! God! Jesus! NO!"

          Behind Brie, and ignoring Sizemore and his hysterical screams, Gina reached the top of the stairs.

          "GOD! HELP ME!! JESUS, HELP ME!!"

          She reached for the light, and switched it off, plunging the basement into darkness.

          "JESUS! JESUS! JES - "

          With a soft click of the latch, Gina gently pulled the door shut, cutting him off in mid - scream.

          And down in the sepulchral darkness, the dead had their revenge.

***

          There was one car from the Nevada County Sheriff's Department and two ambulances parked outside, all with their red - and - blue emergency lights flashing like strobe lights in the pre - dawn darkness. Inside, and dressed in the rumpled, dark blue surgical scrubs that she frequently slept in, Brie was talking to one of the EMTs, informing him of the type and dosage of the sedative she'd given the hysterical man, while Gina, dressed in her own sleeping gear - sweat pants and wrinkled black t - shirt - spoke with Deputy Eric Andersen. The two bodies had already been removed from the cellar, and were now in one of the ambulances, awaiting transportation to the medical examiner's office.

          "Let me make sure I got this right," the deputy said. "He just came over, in the middle of the night and in an agitated state, waking the two of you and saying he had to confess, the guilt was too much, and then he forced his way in and down to the basement, where he proceeded to chip away at the brick wall - and he revealed where he had hidden the bodies."

          "That's pretty much it, yeah," Gina said.

          The deputy nodded. "Okay. Hmm." Her story seemed just a little too short and sweet. A little too neat. He raised his eyes from his note pad as he continued to tap his pen against it. "You're...you're an ex - Marine," he said at last. "Correct?"

          "No."

          Deputy Andersen looked at her in mild surprise. "No? What are all those pictures across the mantle about? The military gear and all?"

          Gina smiled a little bit. "You're not correct about the 'ex' part."

          "Ah. I see. You're still in the Corps."

          "Yes sir," she said.

          "Judging by the pictures and the medals, I'd say you've seen some action. I mean, geez - a Distinguished Service medal, a Silver and a Bronze star, two Medals of Valor, a Flying Cross, a set of Top Gun wings, an Expert Marksman pin, three Purple Hearts...and..." His eyes widened in sheer awe, and suddenly he thought that maybe he actually ought to be saluting her. "...Holy Mother of God, a Congressional Medal of Honor."

          "Yeah, well," she said, almost shyly, "maybe a little more action than I would have preferred."

          Holy shit, the deputy thought, still in absolute astonishment. Oh, my God! This woman was a bone fide war hero! Probably the only female war hero on the entire goddamn planet!

          But he still had a job to do. So what he finally said, after a moment's thought, was, "So... With all this combat experience, an unarmed man dressed in pajamas bullied his way past you into your house?"

          Gina sighed heavily, and reluctantly recounted some of her short, personal history. "I've just recently been released from the Alameda Naval Air Station hospital. I was being treated for post - traumatic stress disorder, and Brie and I - she's not only my partner, she's also my personal physician - we moved here to..." She took a moment to search for the right words. "...to help me recuperate. I'm still in the process of working off some of those long - term effects of those tranquilizers. It was also four - thirty in the morning, and I wasn't exactly at my best. And I'd had a little too much wine with dinner last night..."

          "Wine on top of the residual effects of tranquilizers?" Anderson asked, suddenly sounding more concerned than suspicious. "Is that such a good idea?"

          "Helps to keep the nightmares away," she replied forthrightly. And then, with a little smile, she added, "Besides, I've got my own personal physician."

          The deputy thought it over for a moment, and decided that was a reasonable enough response. He didn't really want to press the issue. How would it look, if this ever leaked out to the media, that he wanted to investigate an undeniable war hero and treat her like a criminal suspect after her home had been broken into?

          "But what I don't understand," he said, with his eyes still clearly puzzled, "is why he would come over at such an ungodly hour, dressed as he was."

          "I don't know," Gina replied. "I guess you'd have to ask him."

          He cast another look at the Reverend Sizemore, who was being wheeled out on a stretcher toward the ambulance. "He doesn't look like he's in any shape to answer any questions."

          "Not for a while," Brie said as she approached them. "He's had one hell of a shock. I had to sedate him pretty heavily." This was certainly true; the man had been quietly babbling about ghosts as he had been wheeled out to the ambulance. But she still needed to help cover up their part in actually kidnapping him and bringing him here to make him face what he had done.

          "After he pulled those bricks down and showed us the bodies, he just totally lost it," she added. "I've seen this kind of hysterical shock before, but it was usually in combat situations."

          Andersen regarded her with raised interest. "You're military too?"

          "Yeah. I'm a trauma surgeon with the United States Navy."

          Deputy Andersen started to smile a little bit. "Really?" he asked pleasantly. "I was Navy, too. Served in the Med on board the USS Enterprise back in '75."

          "No kidding?" Brie said with a grin. "Cool! Go Navy!"

          The deputy grinned at her. "Hoo - ya."

          "Oh, man," Gina groaned. "What am I gonna witness here, a love - fest or something? Should I leave you two squids alone for a while?"

          With a wry look, Brie indicated her partner with a slight, sideways movement of her head as she spoke to the deputy once more. "Jealous jarhead," she said.

          Andersen laughed softly. He decided he liked them, and immediately decided they were telling the truth about what had happened her tonight. He flipped his note pad shut. "I think that pretty well covers it all," he said. "Someone else from the department might want to stop by with a couple more questions, but I think we can pretty well put this case to bed. And once the CSI team is done processing your basement, you can probably go ahead and patch up that hole in the wall."

          "After finding a couple of bodies in our basement, I don't think I'm gonna go to bed for a week," Brie told Deputy Andersen.

          Suddenly, a warm and gentle breeze blew in from somewhere, filling the room with the scent of jasmine. Gina turned to see where the breeze had come from - it felt as though it had come from the cellar - and then she gave her partner a gentle nudge.

          Brie turned, and gasped softly as her eyes widened.

          The deputy gazed at the two women with puzzled eyes. "Something else?" he asked. "You okay?"

          Standing at the doorway to the cellar was the tall, dark - haired woman and her six - year - old daughter. Both were dressed in white, both looked alive and healthy, and both were smiling their thanks. With the girl in her mother's arms, the two of them turned, and vanished from sight.

          "Oh, I don't know about that," Gina said with a smile of her own. "I think we'll both be sleeping pretty well from now on."

Epilogue

          "Hey!" Gina called out from the kitchen. Dressed in faded blue jeans, white cotton socks and a gray sweat shirt with the sleeves tugged above her elbows, and with nearly the entire downstairs flooded by early afternoon sunlight, she was standing before the chef's island with a butcher's knife in one hand, and with an assortment of onions, bell peppers, parsley, tomatoes, basil and garlic spread out before her. "If you wanna eat tonight, you're gonna help with this!" There was already a pound of ground Italian sausage sizzling away in a large pot.

          "Okay, all right," Brie said as she returned to the kitchen. Dressed in jeans, socks, one of Gina's green Marine Corps t - shirts and a dark blue hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves pulled up, she had just switched on the wide screen television set - after a week in their new home, they had finally signed on with a satellite service - and "Pirates of the Caribbean - The Curse of the Black Pearl" was just starting on one of several movie channels. "What do you want me to do?"

          "Here." She handed her an onion and a knife. "Start slicing."

          Brie hefted the onion, and noticed how cold it felt. Good, she thought. If you keep onions in the fridge, as Gina habitually did, the fumes didn't escape to burn your eyes during slicing. As she cut off the ends and began to peel, she happened to catch sight of Gina's smile. "What are you grinnin' about?"

          "I was just thinking back," the Marine replied as she continued to slice a red bell pepper. "I don't know what reminded me, but I suddenly thought about when I was going through SEAL training so I could qualify as a Recon Force Marine. Part of it involved EOD - Explosive Ordnance Disposal. I was workin' away on a practice charge one day, and I guess the instructor thought I was taking a little too long. He was riding my ass and giving me a hard time, and I'm sweating like a pig and hoping to hell I'm doing everything just right. So after a minute or two, right behind me, there's this practical joker with a blown - up paper bag. I didn't see him; I was wearing all this protective gear and all. And when that sharp pop went off right next to my ear, I damn near shit my drawers."

          Brie chuckled as she began slicing.

          "So I whirl around and pull off my helmet, and here's the Master Chief standing behind me and laughing his ass off." She picked up a bottle of Chianti, and refilled their glasses. "I completely lost it, man," she went on as she put the bottle down once more. "Instructor or not, I started to chase that asshole all over the place. Everyone's laughing like hell, and I musta chased that fucker for a good quarter - mile, zigzaggin' all over the place like a heat - seeker on his six and my fingers about two inches from the back of his collar, and screamin', 'Come back here, goddamnit! I'm gonna kick you in the nuts!' I finally dropped and started laughing myself, after I had a chance to think it over. Even I had to agree that, yeah, it really was pretty funny after all."

          Brie shook with delighted, bubbly laughter. "You buncha crazy fuckers," she said.

          "Hang on, it gets better," Gina said with a hearty chuckle. She sipped at her wine before going on. "The paper bag thing is a tradition; a part of the initiation. They do it to everyone. Of course, I caught more shit than most, because I was the only female in the unit. Contrary to popular belief, Demi Moore's 'Jordan O'Neill' character was not the first woman allowed into the CRT - SEAL program; I was. And I needed to prove myself to these guys that I could take it as well as any of them.

          "So after my stint as a student, I volunteered as an instructor...and, of course, I felt obligated to continue the initiation tradition of busting a paper bag behind the poor, unsuspecting student."

          "Oh, God," Brie said with a grin. With all thoughts of preparing dinner temporarily on hold, she was leaning back against a counter now. With her arms folded across her chest and her wine glass sitting on the oaken island before her, and grinning from ear to ear as she watched her friend's spirited body English, she listened as the Marine continued her story.

          "So there he is, working away, and I'm sneaking up behind him. I crouched down behind him all nice and quiet, y'know? And then I go, Pow! with the bag!"

          "Oh, my God!" Brie laughed.

          "This guy jumps up, and whirls around with this bug - eyed look on his face and his mouth working like a fish out of water as he's trying to think of something to cuss me out with...and then he starts to gurgle."

          Her grin fell just a little as she leaned forward slightly, as if she hadn't heard quite right. "Gurgle?"

          "His face turns red..."

          Brie watched her in rapt fascination.

          "...and then his left arm cramps up, and with his other hand he clutches his chest" - and here, she clutched at her own chest, as if to demonstrate - "as he goes, 'Gaaaacckk!'"

          Brie's green eyes widened with surprise.

          "And he dropped to the ground with a fuckin' heart attack, right in front of me!"

          "No!"

          "He went into full cardiac arrest!" Gina said with a laugh. "And all I could think was - " and here her voice raised an octave or two to simulate the terror she'd felt - "'Oh, Jesus! I killed him! I killed him! Oh Jesus, I killed him! Oh Jesus, I killed him!'"

          Doc knew she ought to be horrified, but she couldn't help roaring with laughter anyway, because she knew there had to be a good ending to this story.

          Fighting off her own laughter, Gina continued: "So I drop to my knees and start pounding on his chest, trying to do the ol' CPR thing, right? And I'm goin', 'Oh, Jesus, help me! Oh, Jesus, help me! Oh, Jesus!' And I'm pounding on his chest and prayin', 'Oh God, please don't let 'im die on me! Please, God! Oh, Jesus...'

          "And then the guy opens his eyes, and for a second he's starin' straight up at the sky. And then he looks me right in the eye, and he says" - and here, her voice became low and gravelly - "'Hey, baby, how's about a leeetle keeess?'"

          Brie threw her head back, and laughed again.

          "I'm kneeling over him totally stunned for a second or two," Ryan went on, barely controlling her own laughter, "and this guy - and everyone else! - is laughing like a sonofabitch! And all of a sudden I'm screamin' at 'im, 'You asshole! You motherfucker! You cock - suckin' sonofabitch! You asshole!'"

          Brie screamed with laughter.

          "And I start smackin' at 'im with these girly smacks. I'm not punchin' him or usin' my fists, 'cause I didn't want to hurt him; I'm just bitch - slappin' 'im 'cause I'm pissed off, and screamin', 'Get on your feet, goddamnit! I'm gonna kick you in the nuts!' And everybody is laughin' their asses off..."

          "Oh, my God!" It took her several long moments to recover from her bout of laughter; and when she finally did, Brie went back to work slicing the onion. "You guys are all fuckin' crazy, y'know that?" she asked with a grin. "You're all fuckin' crazy!"

          "Oh, man," Gina said softly, with a shake of her head and a grin of her own. "Those were some good times, man. Good times..." She sipped at her wine, and set the glass down. They worked in companionable silence for a moment or two, lost in their own thoughts.

          "Y'know," Brie finally said, "that was a nice thing you did last Sunday."

          "What was that?"

          "Going to church, and lighting a couple of candles for those two souls that are finally at rest."

          "Yeah, well..." Gina shyly shrugged it off. "I was just kind of keeping a deal I'd made."

          "A deal?"

          "When I was at that hell hole they call the DMV the other day, and waiting to talk to someone about tracing down the Penningtons and dying from misery, I made a deal with God."

          Brie looked surprised. "You did? You never cared much for gods. As a matter of fact, if I remember correctly, you killed off most of the Greek ones."

          "But that was another lifetime. This time around, I was raised a Catholic. Anyway, I told Him that I'd go to church and become a good Catholic if He'd just get me out of there."

          "And?"

          She smiled at the blonde young doctor. "And then you showed up."

          Brie smiled, and blushed a little bit. She really didn't know what to say. Just to break the disconcerting silence, she said, "I suppose now you'll be going to Mass every Sunday, and you'll be trying to twist my arm into going with you?"

          "Hey, I simply told Him I'd start going to church and become a good Catholic," Gina said, "but I didn't say when."

          The former Bard of Poteidaia grinned, and chuckled softly. "Still wheelin' and dealin', and gettin' your way by foiling the gods, aren't you?"

          The one - time Warrior Princess smiled back at her. "Oo - rah."

          And then something else occurred to her. "Oh, shit!" she said. "I almost forgot!" She went to the stove and shut off the flame under the sausage.

          "What?" Brie asked. "What is it?"

          "Come on." She took Brie's hand, and started to pull her toward the living room.

          Brie put the knife down just in time. "What is it?" she wanted to know as she struggled to keep up.

          Gina continued to lead her by the hand until they were out on the front porch. "I just suddenly remembered something."

          "What?"

          Suddenly, she scooped Brie up into her arms. "I never did a proper job of carrying you across the threshold," she said. And then, with a suggestive grin, she added, "It's bad luck, y'know, if you don't carry your soul mate across the threshold."

          With her arms draped around her partner's neck and with her fingers laced together, Brie grinned back at her. "Yeah, I seem to recall hearin' that somewhere..."

          That familiar warm and jasmine - scented breeze enveloped them one last time, and then with a soft laugh coming from Gina and a little squeal of delight coming from Brie, the warrior carried the bard into their new home, and with one foot she gently pushed the door shut.

The End

No ghosts were harmed - actually, they had a jolly good time - during the production of this story. Happy Halloween!

 

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