Chapter 41


Their trip to the hospital was a wasted effort because Polly was still unconscious, but though they learned nothing new, it did serve a purpose. The change in location and the activity seemed to calm down Emily enough so that she stopped clenching, grinding and mumbling.

They decided to check in with Naomi before they went to Valerie's hoping he had any new information on the residents there. Naomi could only verify that as far as he knew, Valerie wasn't there, but Nancy was. With no other options but to confront their suspect, they headed down the street to Valerie's.

"Harley, I think I should be the one to go to the door." Emily glanced up and waited for the objection she felt sure was coming.

"I agree. I was about to suggest it myself. If what we think is true and she sees me, getting her to even answer the intercom will be a problem." The sheriff watched the eyebrows on her companion fly up on her forehead.

"What?" She stopped them both and turned to her. "Do you really think I'm that much of a control freak?"

"Yes." Emily answered without a moment's hesitation.

Harley frowned. Thinking back quickly over the course of their acquaintance, Harley had to admit it might just appear to Emily that she was. She exhaled.

"Okay, I can see where you might have gotten that impression."

Emily just smiled.

Harley turned and continued walking with Emily only a step behind her.

"Let's just say there are some aspects of my life in which I feel compelled to be in complete control." Harley was careful to keep her eyes straight ahead.
"This just isn't one of them; after all I did say you could help out with the case."

"Oh, yeah?" Emily smirked. "Like which aspects, for instance?"

"We'll go into that some other time...maybe." Harley stopped them again just at the edge of Valerie's property line. "Right now we have a job to do."

Harley smiled. Emily was almost sure that the sheriff didn't realize that her voice changed so significantly into a deeper, huskier timber when she whispered that 'maybe', but Emily felt it like a live wire on her nerve endings.

Before Harley could speak again, Emily put up her hand. "Wait a minute. You can't just drop something like that on me and then put me off with a 'maybe'."

Harley grinned. "Sure I can. I'm the control freak, remember?" Harley took Emily by the shoulders, turned her toward Valerie's house and said, "Now, you get to be 'creative' again and find a way to get Nancy to let us in there. I'll worry about getting her to talk once you do that." Harley slapped her on her butt and pushed her toward the long boardwalk leading to a wrought iron fence and intercom.

Emily went. She had to bite her lip to keep from smiling as she turned her head back toward Harley. She put on what she hoped was her best face of indignation trying to tell the sheriff without words that she wasn't through with her yet.

Evidently it didn't work, as Harley just raised one eyebrow, quirked her head forward and smirked.

Thinking as fast as she could, she tried to figure the 'angle' that she should take with Nancy to have the women let her in the door. It didn't take long. She was pretty 'creative' after all.


The sound of the intercom buzzing was unexpected. Nancy knew there wasn't another grocery delivery and the mailman had already come for the day. She was careful to use the video screen as she answered it. A pretty blonde woman with her arm in a cast was standing at the gate. She noticed the woman kept glancing around and holding her arm.

"Yes. What can I do for you?"

Emily put on her best performance yet. "Uhm, yeah, hi, uhmn, Nancy?"

"Yes, this is Nancy," she answered cautiously. Who was this woman? How did she know her name? What did she want? Suddenly Nancy was very uneasy.

"I'm uh, I'm Emma...Emily and my uh, my Mistress. She got a call from Mistress Val and then she said I was to tell you what she, uh, Mistress Val I mean, what she said." Emily was breathing fast, glancing around and rubbing her face, trying her best to look abused and terrified.

Nancy's uneasiness grew. She tried to stay calm as she answered. "What did she say?"

"I can't," Emily stopped to hug her cast to her and moaned a little. "I'm not supposed to say until I see you see face to face. That's what my Mistress told me to do. She could be," she looked around furtively and then lowered her voice. Emily whispered anxiously. "Please, if she sees I haven't done what she told me to do. She could be watching me!" Emily managed to put some tears into her voice. "Please, just let me in and I'll tell you."

"Why didn't Mistress Val call me? Why didn't she send Eli to tell me? She told me never to let anyone in when she wasn't here." Nancy was panicking now. If she did the wrong thing here her mistress would beat her again. She wasn't at all sure this woman was telling her the truth.

It suddenly occurred to Emily then that if it was Nancy who put that knife in her bed she might have recognized her. That might be the reason she wasn't letting her in. A look of real fear crossed her face at the thought that she might have just blown her chance to make it in to see Nancy and finally get to the information the Sheriff needed. The thought made her heart race. Why didn't I think of that before I went with this little scenario? Damn! Oh, Harley I hope I haven't let you down. Again.

Nancy was watching the woman on the video screen, the sudden look of genuine fear that flashed across the blondes face was eerily familiar to her. She knew that feeling well.

"She can't" Emily said, "Her phone stopped getting a signal where she is and she only had one chance to call and people were listening. Please, Nancy I have to see you. I can't take another beating."

Nancy realized she would be responsible for the punishment this woman would face in failing to do her Mistress' bidding. She did look a little familiar. She might have met her at one of the parties or clubs, but when you couldn't look up without permission, it was hard to say for sure. She made up her mind.

Pressing the button for the gate release, she said, "Come in."

Emily let out the breath she had been holding and made sure to put her left hand on the door latch as she passed through the security gate. She pushed the wad of gum she'd been letting soften in her palm, into the mechanism and then made eye contact with Harley.

She only looked at the latch and then at the Sheriff but Harley smiled and nodded.

The front door opened slowly and Emily had to stop herself from gasping at the bruises on Nancy's face and neck.

Emily really hoped the woman would listen to her, if for no other reason than to keep her alive.

The elderly hobo made his way carefully around the ditch and, still mumbling to himself about 'people thinking they were better'n animals', tried to find the abandoned puppies that Mr. Smith told him he'd seen in this area.

Having just made the rim of the ditch, he saw and heard his own faithful dog whining and sniffing but going no closer to a lump of cloth on the ground.

"What you got there, boy" Did ya find'em?" It took only a few more steps for the smell and the sound of the flies to tell the oldster that what they found wasn't puppies.

"Oh, my, oh, my, oh my."

There was nothing for it but to get the sheriff. He called his dog and took off knowing it might be more than an hour before he could get to town.

"No help for it. S'gotta be done."

Being the inherent busybody that he was, Naomi just couldn't sit still inside and wait to see what was going on at Valerie's house.

It had taken all of his self control not to try to wheedle the story of what they were really after out of Shasta and Harley. His instincts told him this was something serious and that frankly worried him. Shasta was really very dear to his heart and he wanted nothing more than to help her and her friend, but what if it was something bad. Dangerous. He had to know.

He clipped the leash to the purple poodle, the other one to the wolfhound and decided that simply taking the dogs for a walk wouldn't be too conspicuous.

He headed out the door and turned left, just as he saw Harley open the gate to Valerie's house. A second later she was opening the front door.

It took Emily a few seconds to understand that she'd actually pulled it off. She really couldn't quite believe she'd gotten away with it until she saw Nancy peeking out the door at her and motioning her forward. She had to clamp down on a smile. Damn, maybe I'm getting this lying thing figured out finally.

She had to keep her head down for second to get rid of the smile. She remembered just as she got to the door to make sure to move Nancy away from it so that she could shut it and NOT lock it. Of course that meant she had to distract her.

Emily quickly moved into Nancy's personal space and taking her by the elbow, moved her from the doorway making sure she shut the door.

"Thank you, Nancy, I was so afraid. It would have been bad if..." Then she looked closely at Nancy for the first time. Suddenly all pretense was gone. "Oh my GOD, Nancy, what did she do to you?"

The woman was only a year or so older than she was from Harley's description but the damage done to her and the misery her life had been was clear.

Beyond the obvious bruising and swelling, she was rail thin, with dark circles under her eyes and pale dry looking skin. Her bones at the cheek and wrist and knees were prominent.

The eyes were the worst. In just one up close glance, Emily could see so much there. Fear that bordered on panic, desperation, despair, but worst of all was resignation...the absolute loss of any kind of hope. This was a dead woman walking. Emily felt chilled to the bone.

The writer was speechless. So many thoughts and feelings pin balled within her she couldn't speak to any of them. She was enraged that anyone could do this to someone else, angry too that anyone, this woman so like herself, would allow it to be done, but that a woman, her own sex had done this without any compunction was hard to grasp. She was selfishly relieved that Teddy's untimely overdose kept her from being alone with Valerie. She was frightened that this woman could come back at any moment and find her here, but overlaying all of it was an aching compassion for the empty, hopeless look in those soft brown eyes. They couldn't seem to stay on her own for more than a second before her glance dropped to her feet. It was that overwhelming feeling that froze her tongue.

Instead she acted, without thought for her charade, she stepped forward intent on taking this battered, broken woman into her arms. Nancy's words and actions stopped her.

"What are you doing? Who are you? Why are you here?" This woman wasn't acting right. Something was wrong. She'd made a mistake letting her in. She was in big trouble. She was in for it now. She'd never live though it.

Emily saw the full blown panic and heard the brittle, shrill, crack in Nancy's voice and it snapped her back to the reality of having blown her cover. Her own fear now kept her mute as she scrambled for the words to fix this. Her mouth opened and noise came out, but nothing resembling speech. She was well on her way toward her own panic attack when another voice spoke breaking the air with its power.


Emily jumped, Nancy immediately fell to her knees and Harley slammed the door.

Emily recovered fairly quickly and was about to let Harley have it for scaring her to death, let alone terrorizing this very fragile woman, when a severe glance from the sheriff over the cowering Nancy's head halted her.

Emily saw Nancy was shaking and whimpering. She also recognized that Nancy didn't even acknowledge who it was who had spoken. It didn't seem to matter to her. She wouldn't raise her head and made no effort to get up. She just knelt there seemingly awaiting the worst.

Emily wanted to comfort her and her body language must have alerted Harley, who shook her head emphatically and stared at the writer. They battled wills silently and much to Emily's surprise, the battle was brief and Harley the clear winner. She wasn't sure whether it was because she herself was so out of her depth in this situation, or because, for no reason she could ascertain, she simply gave in. It wasn't in her nature to behave this way and she didn't know why she had. Before she could figure it out, Harley was speaking again.

"Do you know what you did wrong, slave?"

There was nothing vaguely familiar in the woman who was speaking to Nancy now. If Emily hadn't seen her lips move she would have searched for someone else saying these words in this room.

"Tell me."

The voice was deeper, brisk but not clipped, the words enunciated with precision, controlled and controlling. Emily was mesmerized. She didn't even take note of what they said but only they way they were spoken. The feeling she got from them. She couldn't stop watching Harley's mouth and then something made her look into her eyes. She hadn't realized she was holding her breath until her head began to swim. Gasping a breath, she heard Nancy respond.

"No, Mistress. I will do as you say."

Emily shook her head. The whole scene was surreal and unimaginable. Finally focusing again on the sheriff, she saw her lean down and lift the frightened brunette from the floor none too gently.

Harley glanced over her shoulder on the way to the door and indicated Emily should follow as she guided Nancy out ahead of her and said nothing.

Emily mutely followed, still trying to grasp what just happened here.

Emily watched as Nancy was put in the truck. There was no consideration given to her by the sheriff and her manner hadn't changed.

"Get in."


"Don't talk."

Once the beaten woman was in the backseat and the door closed, Emily turned to Harley a question clearly on her lips only to have the sheriff place to fingers against them. "Shh. Trust me. We're working against the clock here."

Harley opened Emily's door as the sheriff pulled out her cell phone. She closed the door before Emily could overhear the very brief conversation Harley had and the next thing she knew they were on their way.

Emily just didn't know to where.


She never knew what made her wait but something was off. She had that 'something;s out of place here' feeling that she'd learned to listen to since she was a child.

Instead of getting out of the car and heading to the door, Darla decided to take a closer look around.

Some great queen walking a couple of mutts down the street. Just a few cars on the street. Some she recognized and some she didn't. Except for that SUV which she could almost swear belonged to...

The front door of Valerie's beach house opened and as she watched from across the street and down a few houses, out walked Val's little toy, Harley Ravensdown and that little blonde thing she met with Twyla.

She hissed and swore and pounded on the steering wheel.

"Someone is in trooouble!" she sang. "But it sure as hell ain't gonna be me." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, running a catalogue of possible scenarios through her mind of what kind of problem little Nancy could be for her. For her plans and dreams. Dreams that were soooo close she could almost touch them.

"Why? Why are they here? What do they know? How close could Harley be to figuring it out?" Realizing that Valerie would never willingly let Nancy leave she felt assured the whore was still in hiding, and somehow, someway Harley made a connection to both Valerie and Nancy. "But maybe not to me. Maybe Nancy just got tired of the beatings...or the rapes. Eli was a big man after all. Maybe she just called the only official she knew personally to get her out while Valerie was gone." She thought that over.

"Maybe? Maybe not. Better make sure just in case."

She put her car in gear and followed as closely as she safely could as Harley headed for the freeway.

Naomi's nose was twitching. It always did that when something was up. Something else besides his friend and her friend walking this Nancy to the car was happening here. He made a show of stopping for the dogs to do their business, though God knew they'd emptied out already as he just casually looked around.

Every car on the street belonged to a neighbor or a friend of one; all but one. It held a spiky haired platinum blonde. Naomi realized the woman wasn't paying any attention to him, so he could take his time watching her and bending down to pet the dogs would be his cover. She was staring so hard at Harley that at first he thought she was just on the make. After all, Shasta's friend was first class eye candy, if you played on that side of the fence. He was disabused of that almost immediately as the face he watched became as hard as a diamond and the look in those eyes... "Waay spooky guys." He petted the dogs some more as he continued to watch. "That's one scary ass bitch. Maybe I better ask Shasta girl if her amazon's-dream has an ex."

The minute the sheriff started her SUV and pulled away from the curb, so did the nut-job in the Lexus.

"Uh-oh. Come on fellas. I think I better make that call ASAP."


Emily kept quiet. It was all for the best. She was still trying to form the question that might provide the answers she needed.

Harley was just glad Emily was silent. She knew they needed to talk, but her first concern was Nancy.

The mirror on the foyer wall as she entered Valerie's house and the image in it of the woman Nancy had become was very familiar to the Sheriff. She'd seen that look before, too often, and knew as soon as she entered the room and saw it that no standard interrogation would garner the information she needed. But what Nancy needed just then was more important, so with no time to explain it to Emily, she did what she knew she had to do to get the woman to come with her.

Now the damaged woman sat in her back seat just staring at her hands as Harley made her way to a small clinic and safe house in Camarillo which she hoped could save Nancy from herself and of course, Valerie...or even Valerie's memory.

She kept Emily in her peripheral vision, knowing that the shock of her behavior would wear off soon and the writer would need answers. She couldn't have that just now. Nancy's mental state was all important and she had to keep her under control for as long as it took to get a professional to oversee her care.

Emily's phone vibrated in her pocket and keeping in mind Harley's admonition to keep silent, she leaned forward and spoke quietly for a few minutes. When she finished she ruminated on the conversations for a while trying to decide if maintaining the silence Harley asked for was more important than telling her what Naomi had to say. She re-ran the conversation over in her mind.

"Hey, girl."

"Hey, Nay."

"Listen up, sweet stuff...something happened, or rather something might happen and you should be aware of it."

"Yeah? What's up?"

Naomi wasn't sure what the relationship was between his long time friend and the tall brunette, but their body language spoke of wanting to be more than friends if they weren't there already. He didn't want to hurt Shasta, but he felt he had to be sure to explore all the possibilities for what he'd observed.

"Does your amazon cutie have an ex lover? A blonde, by any chance?"

"Uh, no. I don't think so" She thought for a minute but realized she really didn't know. With the exception of Harley's involvement with Valerie and Stephanie's revelation about Harley's dead lover while she was in the Navy, Emily realized she didn't know if Harley had any other 'ex's'. For that matter, considering just a few days ago she was here, in L.A. and had a 'date', Emily couldn't be sure she wasn't seeing someone or even several someone's currently. "I'm not sure though. I really don't know. We've never discussed that kind of thing much."

"Oh." Emily heard in the inflection from that one word that Naomi was trying not to say something, but she'd wait to see if more was forthcoming.

"Either way, it doesn't matter. I mean it might matter, but just how is... Ahhh, shit! Okay, here's the deal. I was down the street walking Poopsie and Bruno when you and Harley came out of Valerie's with who I have to believe must have been Nancy,.."

"Just "happened" to be walking the dogs, Nay?" Emily broke in, grinning.

"Oh puhleese, You know better than that, girlfriend. You didn't really expect me to stay in the house and sit on my hands with all your stuff coming down? I know you know me better than that. Say that you do!"


"Okay, then. So there I was, just looking around..."

"JUST looking around, Nay?" Emily kept on grinning. Naomi was one of her favorite people but he hadn't earned the title as "she who knows all and tells all" for nothing

"Hey! I'll have you know it wasn't just curiosity. Well, not JUST curiosity that had me out there. I just figured you might want to have another set of eyes to kind of back you up. I mean, if it was Valerie that did the damage I saw on that poor girl's face, I was not about to let her come sneaking up on you when your back was turned." He huffed out a little breath in indignation.

"Aw, Nay, I'm sorry." Her grin became softer now, into a real smile. She was touched that her friend wanted to help protect her from the big bad Dom-dyke. It was sweet. Of course if it came down to it, Emily knew she could do more damage with just one good arm in her own defense than Naomi's six-feet, five inches of tanned muscled flesh ever would. It just wasn't in him to be aggressive. "That really was very sweet of you."

"Don't I know it? Anyway, while I'm playing secret spy out there, I happened to notice a car in the neighborhood that just didn't belong. There was this blond in it."

He paused and Emily almost mentioned that it was a public street and people and cars Naomi didn't know did have a right to be there, but then she stopped. Naomi had a nose for these things and her friend was hardly ever wrong. "What about her?" she prompted.

"She scared me, Shas. She really did."

Emily heard the genuine tremor in his voice and wondered who would scare him or want to scare him. "Wha...?"

"Not for me. For your friend."

Her first thought was of Nancy wondering if it was someone other than Valerie who had hurt her, but then he went on.'

"For Harley."

"Harley?" She realized her voice was either a bit too loud or the sheriff had been listening to her conversation all along, as the woman looked at her with an obvious question furrowing her brow. She held up her hand and mouthed 'Later' and Harley nodded and turned back to the freeway traffic around them. "What about her?"

"It was the way the woman looked at her. It was creepy. I mean 'Silence of the Lambs', creepy. She just... stared at her and if Harley had been dried grass, her look alone would have set her on fire."

She knew from Naomi's tone of voice he meant what he said, but some part of her didn't want to believe it. To do that meant that someone hated Harley enough to want to hurt her, maybe even more than that. Everything in her didn't want to believe it.

"Look, Nay, maybe it wasn't Harley she was looking at. Maybe it was Nancy. I mean we don't know for sure that it was Valerie who hurt her. She hasn't said yet. Maybe it was.."

"Nuh uh!" Naomi was adamant. "She was looking at Harley. I saw it, Shas. She kept staring at her all the while Harley spoke on her phone and got in the car. Then she..."

"Yeah, well, I mean sure, just look at her" Even as she said it she knew she was just looking for a way that she could talk Naomi out of this truth.. "She's gorgeous. Lots of women stare at her, I'm sure." She laughed a little. "Hell, I do it all the time, she's just..."

"No!" He interrupted. "No, no, no. I thought so too, at first. I mean, day-um girl, girlfriend is a major babe if you go for that sorta thing. I mean she's all that and a pinky ring from Tiffany's but it wasn't that kind of a look. This woman wanted her hurting at best and dead would be better. That face! Her eyes! If you could have seen it!" He let go a heavy breath, then said very quietly. "This woman is seriously disturbed, Shas. I mean she's deranged, and she hates your girl like Fred Phelps hates gay boys."

Hating it, but accepting it, Emily said, "Okay then. Thanks for telling me, Nay. I'll call you later and let you know what's going on. Bye..."

"Wait, there's more."

Emily wasn't sure she wanted to hear any more. Especially if it meant this was one of Harley's past or, dammitalltohell, present girlfriends, but considering that it might be wiser to know than wonder, she relented. "What is it?"

"She's following you."

It sent a chill straight down her spine. Emily sat up immediately and pulled down the visor, looking behind her at the reflection in the vanity mirror attached. Harley noticed and once more looked a question at her, but again, Emily shook her head.

"How do you know?"

"The minute you guys left she put it in gear and followed. Almost hit the Goldbeck's new Ferrari making a 'U' turn to do it."

"Okay, Nay. What should I be looking for here?"

"A silver, late model, Lexus SUV. California license number and the plate has a C and an X in it, but that was all I saw. The woman had platinum blonde hair all spiked up and dark eyes. Lots of rings on her fingers. That's all I could see from my vantage point. I hope that's enough."


Emily exhaled. "Thanks, Nay. That's plenty." Seeing no car behind them that fit the description, she relaxed. She had a good idea who they were looking for now.

She turned to the Sheriff and didn't have to do anything else to get her attention. She found the woman already looking at her.

Quietly, she whispered. "We need to talk." Harley nodded. "Soon," Emily finished.

Harley furrowed her brow again, but just nodded. Ten minutes later they were drifting toward an off ramp and a sign they passed said, 'Welcome to Camarillo'.


Chapter 42

Darla saw where they were headed now, as the signs indicating the 101 freeway, north, came up. She was less than four cars behind them. The perfect place, she thought to herself. Back far enough not to be noticed but close enough to keep an eye on them. That would be a lot easier now since she guessed they were heading back to Bramble.

She'd been hitting the lights on amber for a while, riding behind them but not willing to assume their direction. When she saw them enter the freeway she felt sure at last of their destination. Stopping for an approaching red light wasn't in her game plan.

She didn't pay attention then when the turn arrow for the freeway onramp went from amber to red before she started her turn to the left. She didn't even flinch when the car closest to her in the oncoming lane had to screech to a halt to avoid hitting her. He wasn't important. Getting to the girl was.

She just cleared the ramp and started to merge when she saw the red and blue flashing lights of the CHP behind her.

Cursing Harley and the whole Ravensdown family, as she always did when any misfortune befell her, she had no choice but to pull over and off at the next exit. The ticket she had coming was going to cost her much more than money if she lost Val's little toy before she could find her answers.

It might have been a little too early for dinner or too late for lunch, but having skipped the latter completely and being reminded of it so pointedly at the safe house Emily didn't have to ask before Harley had pulled into the nearest restaurant minutes after they left .

The place was a fairly upscale steakhouse with a chain of like places all over the state and being after lunch but before dinner allowed them a good deal of privacy. They chose to sit in the bar in a back booth.

Like most places of like ilk it was fairly dark and at that time of day on a Thursday, mostly empty with only a few customers, only men, sitting at the bar and watching a game on television.

They ordered quickly and had their drinks and salad almost at once. Emily let herself enjoy eating, sipping her gin and tonic and pushing the salad onto her fork by way of a whole wheat roll while she thought of their last destination and the things she needed to share with Harley.

The safe house was just that; a house. Probably twenty years old in a quiet, older, middle class neighborhood. As Harley pulled into the driveway she had her cell phone out and dialed, simply saying. "I'm here.'

The garage door opened and she drove in, parked, and opened the back door for Nancy.

"Get out."

Just then the door to the house opened and a woman dressed in jeans and a T-shirt came out. She was followed by another, younger woman dressed all in leather and carrying a riding crop.

The first woman was in her late forties or so. As she approached she nodded to Harley, took a long look at Nancy and briefly smiled at Emily. The younger woman stepped forward directly in front of Nancy and then, she too nodded to Harley.

Harley then spoke to Nancy, gesturing to the woman in leather. "This is Mistress Anya. You will go with her and you will do whatever she says. Do you understand?"

Nancy nodded still not looking up, "Yes, Mistress."

The younger woman said simply, "Follow me," as she led her into the house.

"What's her story, Harley?" the older woman looked worried and concerned.

Before she explained she took the time to introduce the woman to Emily as Dr. Grace Tucker, a psychiatrist who specialized in battered woman syndrome. It was her house. After they shook hands Harley told the doctor everything they knew about Nancy and what had led them to her. It wasn't until she was at the end of her explanation that Emily got some answers of her own.

"The minute I saw her it was like looking at Anya all over again. I was sure she wouldn't live to see the end of the day. We'd lose her physically or mentally forever if she didn't get help now. It was all I could think of to get her out of there and bring her to you."

"You did the right thing. She's in real trouble." She sighed, and then looked up to Harley biting her lip a little. "I know it's probably ridiculous to ask, but are you sure you weren't followed here."

"I'm sure." Harley assured her.

Emily spoke up then. "We were followed, Harley."

"What?" Dr. Tucker said.

"I mean when we left Valerie's we were followed, but I kept looking and never saw her?"

"Emily, what are you talking about?" Harley had turned and put both hands on her shoulders, turning her to look at the sheriff directly.

"The phone call." She wanted to tell her all of it, but thought now wasn't the right time. "Naomi said some spiky haired, platinum blonde in a silver Lexus SUV was watching us and when we left, she followed us. I've been watching ever since his call and never saw any trace of her." She turned to the doctor. "At the very least, I'm sure she never got off the freeway. I kept my eyes on the rearview mirror all the way here from the off ramp. NO ONE followed us here."

It took Harley taking a casual drive around the neighborhood and more reassurances from Emily before everyone agreed the safehouse was safe.

Harley left instructions with Dr. Tucker to let her know when Nancy might be able to answer some questions.

Now she had some questions of her own to ask.

Halfway through the prime rib, Harley beat her to it. "Why don't you tell me more about Naomi's phone call and then I'll explain why I did what I did with Nancy?"

Since her tummy was no longer miserable she thought it was a fair trade. Between bites she relayed their conversation.

"It was Darla Dunhem, wasn't it?" Emily asked.

"That would be my best guess, yeah."

Emily realized she didn't know why Darla would do what she did. Why Darla hated Harley so much that Naomi, a virtual stranger, could see it in her expression? Recognize it clearly enough for Naomi to warn her about it? Why too, might she be working with Valerie? What did she have to gain? What was their motive? She'd need to ask about that, too..later. "Now, I think you have something to tell me. I realize you were in a hurry to get Nancy the help she needed, but I don't understand why you had to treat her the way you did."

Harley studied her plate and shook her head a bit. "I had no choice. She wouldn't have responded to anything else. She was in the middle of a complete mental collapse. Obeying authority was the only thing she knew how to do. It was a conditioned reflex. She'd lost herself completely when she realized she'd broken Valerie's rules by letting you in and that her Mistress hadn't sent you."

Emily sat back, gasped and brought her hand to her chest. "Oh, damn, do you mean I was responsible for that? That I," Her voice broke," I pushed her over the edge?" Emily's mind was spinning and she thought her heart would split in two as she remembered the poor woman, kneeling and shaking; scared out of her mind she was going to be punished again. Nancy was whimpering like a beaten dog, and it was all her fault. Her and her stupid "creative" ideas.

Harley watched as Emily's eyes filled. She grabbed Emily's hand and shook her head.

"No, no, it wasn't you," she comforted. "It was Valerie. It was everything Nancy had been through. It was the beatings. The mental abuse. The verbal abuse. The sexual abuse. Nancy just reached her limit and if anything, we were fortunate that we were there when it happened."

"What?" Emily asked, incredulously?

"She was on the edge long before we got there, Emily. Anything would have pushed her over." She held Emily's hand between both of hers and squeezed gently. "Don't you see, one more thing, anything would have toppled that poor scared woman over into an irreversible mental and emotional breakdown. Think of how Valerie would have reacted to that. Do you think she would have cared? Gotten help? But, because we were there, we got the chance to bring her to a place where they understand what she's feeling and thinking and can start the process of getting her back to health; to being herself again." Harley watched the turmoil roll over Emily's face and as the tears began to fall, she responded. She quickly slid into the bench beside her and wrapped both arms around the woman, pulling her to her chest. "Shh, sweetheart. It's alright." She whispered quietly as she wiped at the tears on Emily's cheeks. "She's going to be all right now. It wasn't you. It wasn't you. You didn't do anything wrong. Let it go, Emily. It wasn't you."

They stayed like that for several minutes until Emily got herself together. Harley reinforced over and over again that it wasn't Emily's fault. Eventually she came to accept it, grudgingly.

The feeling of being safe in Harley's arm comforted her beyond what should have been a reasonable and understandable response, given the circumstances. She was just upset enough not to question it this time. As Emily finally managed to sit up and tear herself away from the warm arms and steady heartbeat that calmed her down, Harley's cell phone rang.

They shared a look very close and revealing to both of them that spoke clearly of their genuine affection for each other. Harley kissed Emily's temple, gave her a small smile, then returned to her side of the booth and answered the phone.

Once again, the moment was gone.


"I just hope the next time I'm the sheriff and she's the deputy she has a day like I have. Damn stupid people. Damn stupid trees. Damn stupid traffic signals."

The wind was blowing quite fiercely today and it was causing chaos right and left. Cole had one thing after another to take care of from the moment he stepped foot in the Sheriff's office.

First the wind caught a rotted tree branch and pulled it down out on Prospector Road and someone, (he) had to come tow it off to the side. Then he'd ticketed not one, not two, but three women speeding down Bender on their way to the Village for a long weekend. They were not happy people, and seeing how he was a member of the gender who he felt sure was one of the reasons the women were going there in the first place, they made some rather ungracious remarks. Then there was the stoplight that went out right smack in the middle of Bender, where he had to direct traffic until Ches Pontry could finally get the short fixed way after lunchtime. Which he also didn't get a chance to eat.

He was waiting for the coffee maker to start filling the carafe, hoping this time to at least get one cup finished before someone else needed the law. Figuring if he watched it, it might fill faster he stood directly in front of it and stared. When the first stream of coffee hit the empty pot, the glass carafe shattered. "Damn stupid coffee pot!"

Now he had twelve cups of coffee pouring onto the pot warmer where it sizzled, spit, and steamed as well as broken pieces of hot glass all over the counter. Not to mention hot coffee stains sprinkled over the lower front of his uniform pants. He quickly pulled the plug, grabbed the paper towels and wadded up a large handful to soak up the mess, then threw the remaining roll across the room as his frustration level peaked.

It hit the door and began to unroll backwards as the old man and his big dog stepped inside.

"Good day, deputy. Thought you ought to know there's a dead body out in the woods near Platzer Canyon and Armistead road."

Then he turned around and left.

"I want my mommy." Cole whimpered as he fell more than sat on the coffee splattered counter.


"There's a what? Where?' Say that again, please?"

There was a childish little part of him that was enjoying this very much. He could just picture the look on Harley's face when he gave her the news.

It had taken him over forty minutes to find the body once he got there and after running police crime tape around several trees he felt it was only his duty to call his superior. Of course he knew it was unnecessary. If he had simply called J.D. and asked the same question, he knew his brother would be out here in a shot and he also knew, or at least thought he knew the answer to the question he called his sister to get. had been a bitch of a day. He was still hungry. He had to rely on the diner for coffee and a danish as he dashed out of town, and perversely he blamed it all on Harley being in Los Angeles when he felt she ought to have been here to do her share.

"I said, is this area of Platzer Canyon our jurisdiction?"

"Okay. Let me get this straight. You found a dead body on Platzer Canyon and is it our case? Is that what you want to know?"


"Who is it?"


"How were they killed?"


Harley let go an exasperated sigh. Cole was being difficult. She gave up the question game and simply said. "I'm on my way."

Harley and Emily were on the freeway headed north again minutes later.


"So who was killed?'


"How did they die?'



"Sorry, Emily, but I don't know anymore than I've told you. Cole is in a nasty little mood and gave me only the barest of information. I think he had a bad day and is mad that I missed my share of it. All he said was Walter and Tiny came in to the office about an hour ago and said there was a dead body in the woods by Platzer Canyon and Armistead and he went to check it out and there was and is it in our jurisdiction."

"Well? Is it?"

"I don't know."

"What does that mean?"

"It means, it might be or it might not.'

"Harley, I am going to have to hurt you if you don't start answering me with a little more information. I feel like I'm talking to a politician! "

Harley could see Emily was getting pink with irritation and bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Bad, Harley. Bad, bad. You need to behave yourself and stop pulling her chain. She knew Cole was tweaking her and she felt it was only fair to tweak Emily a little. Besides, having her miffed was better than miserable and she was glad she could provide a distraction from her feelings of guilt over Nancy's mental health. But getting a rise out of Emily was so much fun, she was sorry she had to end it.

"I know, Emily. I know. I'm sorry." She bit her lower lip and peaked at the writer through her lashes. "Forgive me?"

Emily couldn't help herself as she realized that Harley had been doing it on purpose. "You BRAT," she laughed. "You did that deliberately!" She shook her finger in the tall woman's face. "You'd best watch your back, lady. You know what they say, "Retribution is a female canine."

Harley plastered on a huge fake smile. "I'll keep that in mind." I know payback is a bitch Emily, but there's payback and then there's payback. Wonder what it would take for you to take a little payback from me? Once again she admonished herself to behave but had a hard time reining in her imagination.

Quiet prevailed for a while and then Emily asked, "So, how did you know about Dr. Tucker and her safehouse?"

Wondered how long it would take to get around to that. Harley said, "Just after the family took over the sheriff's office we started part time training in various fields with Gunny. The first week I was training with him we were driving back to Bramble from the state police station and saw a woman on the side of the road just outside of Santa Barbara. She was a mess. Obvious beating victim, one arm broken so badly the bone was exposed, burns on her chest and whip cuts all over her back. One look at her and you could see this wasn't the first beating she'd had. She was covered in scars. Gunny pulled over and tried to get her to tell us what happened. She never said a word. He tried to get her to get in the car, but she just stayed there sitting on her knees staring into space and shaking." Harley shook her head at the memory of the pathetic woman. "The look on her face was so....dead."

"Finally he had no other choice but to pick her up and put her in the car. Doing it had to hurt her but she only keened a bit and still wouldn't talk. I thought we'd head to the hospital, but Gunny drove us to Dr. Tucker's instead. When we got there he went in and talked to her and I stayed by the car just watching her. She was in her own little world and it wasn't a nice place. I felt so helpless." Puffing out a breath, she said, "Next thing I know we're pulling into the garage and out walks this woman dressed in leather and carrying a cat. She opens the back door, looks this woman over, points the cat at this poor woman and orders her to do anything the officer tells her to do. I'm sitting there trying to determine if my friend Gunny has been taken over by aliens considering this woman is so damaged, but he turns to me and says..."

"Wait a minute," Emily interrupted. "She pointed her cat at the woman? What was it, some kind of pet therapy or something?" In all her classes in psychology she'd never heard of using animals with battered women, but she only minored in it in college so anything was possible.

The look of utter confusion on Emily's face was so serious but Harley couldn't help herself. She laughed so hard she nearly lost control of the wheel.

Emily was getting seriously annoyed by the time Harley managed to calm enough to say, "No, no, no. Not a cat. A cat! A small multi-tailed whip. A flogger."

Emily nodded. "Ah. I see." She was pink with embarrassment and plunged ahead trying to get Harley's attention back on the road and a new question. "But her injuries, her arm, shouldn't she have been in the hospital?"

Harley finally quieted down enough to continue. She had to use all her skills to keep from snickering at the obviously embarrassed woman. Clearing her throat, she answered. "She did. After that Gunny got back in the car and we took her to the hospital. To make a long story short, Gunny recognized the injuries on the woman and guessed she'd been being kept as a slave and that in her state of mind, the only person to whom she would respond would be a dominant. Dr. Tucker specializes in all forms of abuse to women and children and knew that if they wanted answers and wanted this woman to submit to medical care, she had to be ordered to do it."

"After she was well enough to leave the hospital, Dr. Tucker took her back to the safehouse, where, with intensive therapy she managed to overcome her conditioning and help us convict the perpetrator." She paused briefly. "Who we prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," she ground out, clenching her teeth. "The son of a bitch." Harley turned to her. "It was her father."

"Oh,.. my... god!"

"Yeah. That was my first thought, too. Rich bastard with plenty of power to shut people up. He'd been doing it to her since her mother died when she was ten. He told everyone she was away at boarding school when he had her chained up in his basement, all along." Harley eyes were full of fury. "It went on until he realized he'd finally pushed her over the edge. She wasn't responding to him anymore, so the game wasn't any fun. He left her on the side of the road, sure she'd die of her injuries and if she didn't...well, she was so psychologically damaged he was certain they'd never be able to pin it on him." She smiled and it was a very cruel smile. "We did. He's serving twenty years and only escaped life because he copped a plea."

Emily shook her head and covered her mouth. "The girl? Is she okay, now?"

Harley grinned. "Yeah. That was Anya in the leather back at the safehouse. She works with Dr. Tucker now when they have these kinds of cases come up. She's been there so she really knows what is needed to get through all the conditioning. Just last month we got the judgment on her civil lawsuit against him. Took him for everything he was worth." Now the grin was huge. "She'll never have to work a day in her life and in about a year she should qualify for her GED. She plans to go to college to study psychology and continue to help Dr. Tucker."

Now the smile was sweet. "I'm very proud of her."

Emily smiled back. "I'm sure you are."

After a few minutes Emily asked, "So, what's Darla's story?"

"Too long to tell just now," Harley said, as she pulled off the road and stopped the SUV opposite a scrubby brush filled area containing bright yellow crime scene tape and a perturbed looking deputy.


It took forever. At least it seemed that way to Emily. At first, being at the scene of the crime was exciting. She stayed as close to Harley as she could, paying attention to everything that was going on and knowing this would some day be used in her one of her novels. They arrived at the same time as the Santa Barbara coroner and she was fascinated and nauseated in turns, as they examined the remains.

The body was riddled with flies and the smell was something she was sure she didn't want to remember, but felt she most likely would never forget. The woman was a mass of bloody, shredded flesh and only her face was marginally spared.

Harley assured her she wasn't a Bramble resident.

Emily learned that even though the crime scene was technically in Bramble jurisdiction, most of the investigation would be turned over to the state police and that if and when a suspect was arrested, they would be prosecuted by the district attorney in Santa Barbara. It had to be that way. Bramble just wasn't equipped to either investigate or prosecute a crime of this nature.

Now, hours after they arrived, she was cold, hungry and bored. They'd canvassed the area in ever widening search grids looking for and bagging anything that wasn't a part of the local habitat.

The body had finally been released and Harley was finishing up securing another role of crime scene tape in a much larger area as the state police arranged an officer to stand guard over night. All Emily wanted right now was a meal and to spend a little more time in Harley's company. She was hoping she could talk the woman into just that as they finally got underway back to Bramble.

"I don't know about you, but I'm starving. How about we stop for dinner?"

Harley considered. She had any number of things she had to do back at the sheriff's office, not the least of which was putting together a written report of the crime and making a number of phone calls, but Emily had been a very good sport. She was also right. Harley was hungry and since they both had to eat, why not do what she really wanted to do and spend more time with her.

"Sure. Let's call in an order to The Nest and I'll pick it up. I have to go to the office anyway. We can eat there."

The rest of the way back to town was spent in conversation and tired laughter at some of the weird, silly and even macabre items discovered in their search of the area and in Harley explaining to Emily what procedures would be followed the next day.

They were discussing whether or not this newest crime might have any bearing on the one they had been investigating together as they pulled up to the Sheriff's office.

Being a good and grateful sister, Harley made sure to get Cole a large piece of blueberry pie when they picked up their dinner orders. She'd sent him back to Bramble halfway through the search to man the office and to take a much needed break. She carried the meals and Cole's pie as Emily opened the door and was about to let him know of her piece offering, when she saw he wasn't alone. The visitor turned toward them as the door opened.

"Gabrielle?" Oh, my dear Goddess! I knew there was something I forgot!


Chapter 43

To say that the next few moments were awkward was like saying Stalin had an anger management problem. An understatement of Herculean proportions.

Harley made her way blindly to the nearest flat surface knowing only; her arms were full, she needed to empty them and she was facing a situation pregnant with imminent disaster. Someone, maybe more than one, was going to get hurt if she wasn't very, very, careful.

That was hard because she was also suddenly struck mute. As she scrambled to come up with something to say to save the situation, Gabrielle turned the whole thing into an emotional mine field.

"Hey, darling," Gabrielle cooed as she walked over to her. "I know I'm a day early for our weekend, but my shoot got cancelled and I found myself with an extra day and couldn't wait to spend it with you." With that, she pulled Harley into a determined and extravagant kiss.

Harley was left reeling. More from the situation than the kiss, which was nice, but was not the fifth level energy drain kissing Emily was.

By the time it was over, Harley saw Cole staring at her meaningfully as he passed her walking Emily out to his car. Emily was looking at the ground. He just shook his head at her and the look on his face said it all. Fix this and fix it fast!

She could only observe as the whole situation went south and she was left with a new date for dinner and a crisis of conscience.


Emily said nothing on the way back to Harley's house. She didn't have anything to say. She didn't want to know who the woman was or why she was here. She didn't want to know how well they knew each other. She didn't want to know just how intimate they were, especially remembering Harley's own words to her about not becoming physical with someone until they knew each other better. It appeared that they were well acquainted, if that kiss was any indication. It was clear as well, from what little the beautiful blonde said, that Harley had invited her to Bramble for the weekend, which left Emily....nowhere. She didn't want to talk about it and she would have been very grateful if she could stop thinking about it.

Cole, too, was quiet. Not being a real people person he didn't know what to say. He liked Emily. He and Sally liked her a lot. He knew for a fact that Harley really liked her, too. So, what was his sister doing inviting another woman to Bramble for a weekend? A Family Party Weekend. That was a really special occasion for the Ravensdowns and even though most of the town was invited, it was subtly understood that you had to be close to the family to attend. What was she thinking?

Emily thanked Cole for the ride as he opened her car door and walked her to the front door. He nodded, said, "Sure thing, Emily," and in a moment of brilliant insight for the animal lover, gave her a really big hug.

Emily closed the door behind her, cuddled both the Prince and the Empress, fed and watered them and sat down in front of the cold fireplace weeping quietly over lost chances and stupid choices.


Morning found Harley back at the crime scene. It was an infinitely more pleasant place than being in Bramble was, right now. She was in trouble with any number of family members as well as a certain underwear model who was extremely annoyed to be spending the night with her date's parents and not her date.

Mom was angry, Dad was disappointed, Cole was disgusted and J.D., who happened to drop in to the office while she was explaining to Gabrielle the reason she had to sleep at her parent's house and not her own, was dismayed at her lack of personal integrity. When she got back from dropping Gabrielle off at her parents house, he laid into her good about pushing away a woman he knew meant something to her for someone even he could tell had no emotional hold on her at all. He called her a coward!

Then there was Emily.

Harley tried all night to reason out what she would say to her. She picked up the phone any number of times to call and explain, but she never completed dialing. She wasn't even sure why she had to explain; only that she felt she needed to say something to her. What could she say? She had invited Gabrielle up for the weekend. Gabrielle had accepted her invitation. No matter how she tried to phrase it, the situation had to have hurt Emily. She tried an old ploy she used in court and put herself into Emily's situation. What would she want to hear if the situation was reversed? That was murder. She'd have been heartbroken. Just the thought of Emily showing up with an overnight guest devastated her. She could only hope that Emily didn't feel half as bad as she imagined she would, but then, if she didn't, it would mean that Emily didn't feel for her the way she felt for Emily. She didn't want that to be true, either. The whole thing was a royal mess and she had no one to blame for it but herself.

J.D. was right. She was a coward.

She'd spent the rest of the night beating her body into submission since she'd had no luck with her courage.

It was now five forty-five a.m. and she was standing in the early morning chill in the half light of dawn, drinking diner coffee and waiting for a call from any of several officials about the body found yesterday.

She walked the area just inside the tape using her flashlight to illuminate the ground hoping for any distraction from her problem and her sore glutes and quadriceps. After hours of squats and lunges, she was beginning to see the upside of smoking as a nervous habit.

Of course that made her think of Emily. She bit her lip still trying to find a way to tell her that she hadn't meant to hurt her, but she knew she had anyway. She remembered what her father said last night as she was leaving. "You know I always told you to be careful what you wish for, Mongoose. You can't tell me in the midst of all your agonizing about your feelings for that little writer that it never crossed your mind to wish Emily gone. You just might get that wish. Then where would that leave you? You think on that tonight."

She had. It was all she could think of.


"Maybe it's the flu. What do you think pretty one?" Emily consulted the little, striped feline regarding her 'condition'. Having very seldom been sick, suddenly to wake up feeling so bad had her considering her symptoms. She had no appetite and felt mildly nauseous; she had a jumbo sized headache. She'd slept poorly, waking often from formless dreams only to realize she had tears in her eyes. It could be the flu. Except that didn't account for the hollow, anxious, misery she felt in her chest. Maybe a chest cold?

So she did what she thought was best. She spent the day resting in her bath robe and slippers. She built a fire in the fire place and napped on the couch with a blanket. She drank warm spiced cider and took pain killers. She cuddled with her cat and petted Prince Potemkin as he lay down beside her, but she never felt any better.

Mostly she just felt wretched. She wanted company. She wanted particular company and every time she remembered how her evening ended with that particular person, she felt sicker. But that couldn't be it. Leave it to me to come down with something on top of everything else.

Closer to dinner time she realized she hadn't eaten and even if that was the last thing she wanted to do, wasn't there something about feeding a cold? She never really felt this way before so she didn't know.

She got up to warm up some soup when the doorbell rang.

"Hey, Steph. Hi Savvy. Come in." She stepped back. "Just be careful, I might be contagious."

Stephanie and Savvy smiled at the writer as they passed in and stopped to hug her, but the smiles faded into frowns as they looked at her.

"Hey, girl. What's up with you?" Stephanie asked.

"I don't feel so good," she answered as she followed them to the couch in front of the fireplace and tried to straighten up the afghan and pillow.

"You don't look so good."

As Emily described her 'sickness' a look passed between her guests. They'd gotten the scoop on the newest guest in Bramble from any number of the family when they arrived at the Nest for breakfast that morning. It only took a minute to put together the symptoms and cause for Emily's illness. It was a bit surprising that Emily didn't realize it, herself. It wasn't until just then that Stephanie understood how deeply Emily's feeling's for her cousin ran, and that the depth of that feeling was a new and foreign concept for the writer.

It amazed her that someone as brilliant as Emily was so emotionally immature as to never have felt heartache like this. Of course, that would mean that never before had she cared for anyone like Emily obviously, but obliviously cared for Harley.

As gently as possible, and with a great deal of subtlety, Stephanie tried to explain to Emily why she was feeling so bad. It didn't go well. The writer just didn't make the connection between her emotions and her symptoms.

For a moment Stephanie thought that Emily might really be ill and hastily checked her for a temperature. Finding nothing, she looked to her partner for help.

"Emily,Darlin'," Savvy leaned forward and touched the knee of the miserable looking young woman. "How much do you know about sympathetic pain?"

Emily, as she had been for several minutes, looked confused. She hadn't followed anything Stephanie had been saying and now to switch conversational topics so abruptly made her even more so. "I, uhm,... a bit?"

"That's good. Very good." Savvy soothed, patting her again on the knee. "Now try to follow along here with me for just a little minute."

Emily tried to do just that. Savvy seemed very intent on instructing her in some way and her lilting Cajun accent and low melodic tones were very comforting. She furrowed her brow even more and bent a little to concentrate on what the tall woman was saying.

"Now, I have a cousin, Elisha. She's very fertile and very catholic. That girl pops out another young one just about every year. She's very good at it. Says she only has to brush up against her husband and she's got another child on the way. Now after having her sixth or seventh baby, I don't recall just exactly, she was just out of her confinement and the babe wasn't more than three months old, Elisha starts feeling poorly. She was convinced she was coming down with the flu. Felt all achy and weak, even fainted once or twice, kept having to 'go' if you know what I mean, and said her shoulders and neck muscles ached somthin' awful. Kept taking some Pepto and Tylenol, took herself down for a nap and left her Momma to watch the kids. "

Emily nodded and tried to figure out where this was going. Could Savvy think she was pregnant? She opened her mouth to educate her about that impossibility when Savvy held up her hand.

"Now, wait, let me finish."

Emily nodded.

"So by late evening that night her Momma and husband seeing that she wasn't feeling any better in spite of her medication, called my Momma to come take a look as my Momma is a nurse." Savvy shook her head. "My Momma took one look at her, asked a couple questions, and right quick called the paramedics. They rushed her to the hospital. All the while, Elisha is complaining that she doesn't need to go as she just has the flu. She's not even running much a fever and she has kids to tend to. Finally, my Momma got up in her face and told her flat out to keep quiet and do as she was told if she wanted to live to see those babies in the morning."

Savvy sat back. "Turn's out she was pregnant. Only she didn't know it. Now, how a woman who had that many young'ins didn't know that is something I never figured out, but she didn't. Anyway, this time instead of the baby lodging in the womb, it planted itself up in one of her tubes. Now, I'm no doctor, but the way it was told to me was that as the baby grew it eventually ruptured that tube and she began to bleed internally. It was that bleeding that made her feel so achy and sore in her shoulders. You see?"

Emily thought she did but still couldn't find the relevance to her situation. "Savvy I'm not pregnant."

Savvy just smiled and leaned forward again. "I know that, sugar, but there is a reason I told you this story. See, cousin Elisha felt the pain way up here." She patted the spot next to her neck and shoulders with both hands. "But the trouble was way down there." She brought both hands to just below her navel. "As I understand it the bleeding she was doing was getting heavy enough to press on a nerve way down there and that was connected to a nerve way up near her neck and shoulders. So what she thought were just body-aches like you get with the flu was actually a sympathetic nerve response that manifested in her shoulders. She never did feel a thing in her belly and only Momma's quick response and emergency surgery kept Elisha from dying due to internal bleeding." Watching Emily's face and seeing no reaction, she continued. "You don't have the flu Emily, or a cold, or a virus. It's not your body that's sick, Emily. It's your heart. If you're looking for a cause for feeling so bad, you might say you picked up that bug when you walked in the Sheriff's office last night." She looked on sympathetically as understanding finally dawned on the younger woman. "You see, your body is just reacting to what's happening... in here." She put her hand gently over Emily's heart and then had to jump back as Emily bolted from the couch and ran out of the room.

Emily barely made it to the bathroom before she vomited.


Harley leaned back in her chair. The body had been tentatively identified as that of Mary Elizabeth Hanlin. They were waiting on positive identification from family members coming from Ohio as her print was only marginally identifiable from her driver's license. She was twenty years old and had been missing since she was eighteen. Last seen in L.A.'s China town doing research for a report on Asian immigrants at UCLA. The real shocker was the cause of death. It was still tentative while waiting for lab results to be in, but so far it appeared that she died due to shock and blood loss as a direct result of being flayed alive.

The phone rang again and this time it was the state police crime lab telling her that most of the tools she had given them from Polly Pechter's shed had only one set of prints on them, easily identifiable as Polly's, except for the hammer, which she had suspected of being the weapon all along. There was blood and tissue from Polly on the hammer's head. She was pretty sure when she saw it looking fairly dust free and with a small dark smudge on it that it was what was used to hit Polly. It was nice to be right about something else about this case. She was glad too that she'd been able to have the doctor's draw a blood sample for comparison and take prints from Polly to send to the lab.

The only non identifiable print on the hammer was a single index finger print and they were still running it thru the data base. She hung up and thought it over. She was fairly sure it couldn't have been Nancy's but she would ask Dr. Tucker to see if she could a get some usable prints from Nancy or get her to agree to be fingerprinted. She felt it had to be Valerie who did it and getting her prints were going to be fairly difficult if she wasn't around. She called J.D. and asked him to look into her background for any reason to be fingerprinted and let her know what he found.

What if anything, Mary Elizabeth Hanlin had to do with her current case eluded her. Her only oasis in a desert of trouble was that this newest case kept her from dealing with her personal life. For that she was grateful, if only for the rest.


Valerie was furious that Eli wasn't answering her calls. The dumb shit probably forgot to charge the damn thing again.

Finally, she had no choice but to call Nancy. Most of her business ran itself and more could be managed by her laptop on the net, but she needed some numbers and even if Nancy had to be given permission to go to the office, she had to have them. It was risky. If Darla was at the house or at the office, she'd have to make some quick excuses for her absence and have a plausible denial ready if the lunatic accused her of being the cause of the old broads 'accident'.

Six, seven, eight rings and no answer made her initial impatience morph into worry. There were only a few reasons Nancy wasn't answering and all but one of them scared her to death.

She closed her phone and looked out the glass doors at the tropical beach four stories below.

Don't panic. Relax. Think it through.

The sunlight on the water put her in a better mood. She'd planned to get away for a small vacation for a while now, so she might as well enjoy it. After all, I'm probably just imagining things. The most likely reason the little slut doesn't answer is...she's dead! That made her smile. After all it would take care of all those nagging little worries and she'd be able to take care of it when she went home. No telling tales. No loose ends. And, after all I was ready to replace her anyway. That cute little brunette she'd met last night at the club just might be the one. Her smile was huge now.

Okay, let's just forget it all and have a drink on the beach. I'll worry about it all tomorrow.

She left the room with her only current worry how to make the bartender understand her drink order.


Darla woke hung over. By the time she'd gotten back on the freeway the night before her quarry was long gone. She'd driven by every place in Bramble she imagined Harley could be and couldn't find her car anywhere.

She'd dropped into the diner, ordered an early dinner and listened hard for the gossip and learned nothing.

Finally, on her third circuit around the town she saw her drive out of the Raven's Nest and stop at the Sherriff's office where she and the same blonde from Valerie's house got out....without Nancy.

Fuming, she went back home, made a list of places to call and drank herself to sleep.

After her third cup of coffee the taste of gin was finally leaving her tongue and her head was clearing. She picked up her phone.

"Hi, I hope you can help me. My sister is missing and I was wondering if she might have been admitted to your hospital. I'm so worried about her. I think her boyfriend beat her up again." She paused. "Yes, her name is Nancy McKinnon and I'm her sister, Jenny. Sure, I'll hold. "


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