No Quiet Find

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                                                                                             No Quiet Find
                                                                                                By ki woods
                                                                                            November 2006
                                                          For Christie – because quiet finds us all the same


                                  For thee and for myself no quiet find.
                                        Shakespeare‟s Sonnet 27


Max was ashamed to admit he‟d initially mistaken her for one of Grace's fans. It was no comfort that Nick,
minding the door, made the same mistake.

She could have been an idol worshipper. Dripping on the marble in a mirror walled entryway, wearing a
rain splattered green corduroy jumper, a cardboard box held in her arms like an offering, snagged his
imagination. A thick tail of hair gathered in a fat green band, creating a puddle in her right pocket tickled
his humor more than the champagne he wasn‟t sipping. Observing her bewildered shiver when
confronted by Nick's golden hair, blue-eyed baby-face of misdirection, standing a beefy six and a half feet
with shoulders slightly larger, enhanced Max's impression of a supplicant begging for an audience.

Her pupils were so dilated, he couldn't quite tell where dark brown and iris met but he could see shock
rounding them. He couldn't miss the way they darted from the suite full of beautiful, dry, people and her
image in the mirrors surrounding her. Plain as the brown shoes that no doubt squelched from the elevator
to the Bridal Suite, Max was never able to articulate why she held his attention. He was, however, sure
that even if she'd passed him on the busy street below, he would have been aware of her, as an
appealing puzzle if nothing else.

When she shifted the box to her hip and swung a denim backpack off her shoulder, smacking Nick in the
gut with it, Max moved. This, he had to hear, as well as see.

"I'm Jenny - Jennifer Benedict. Ms Temple agreed to sign these books for the Eighth Avenue Literacy
Project." Shaking a waterlogged piece of stationary from her pocket, her voice was a whisper of
trepidation. "See?"

Max deposited his mandatory glass of champagne on a passing waiter's tray and waded in. Unleashing
his greet-the-press smile on her, briefly, he turned to the large man and asked, "Trouble, Nick?"

Nick handed Max the soggy paper, so water logged the second fold was splitting. "Grace agreed to sign
books for a charity auction. Today, it seems."

Karl, medium of height, above average in every thing else, brushed Max aside and wedged himself
between Nick and the soggy woman. Dark as Nick was light, with hands smoother than his smile, his
voice was cultured, yet managed to shame the thunder outside, "I apologize, as you can see, we‟re a bit
behind schedule. We can get some shots – just, hang on, uh," he glanced at the paper, “Jennifer, yes.
Where's that photographer? Oh, there he is!” Waving the page at Nick like a semaphore, Karl dove into
the sea of laughter.

It was a good thing Max read lips; her voice was overwhelmed by the giggles from across the room. "I
could come back later."

"She'll be gone later." Max caught the box before it crushed Nick‟s toes or she destroyed the huge vase of
lilies on the table beside her. "Come on, it‟ll take Karl time to round up everyone."

"Oh, wait, I don't - I'll just - Excuse me, Mr. Uh, wait." Her sigh could have rattled the windows, but she
followed him, breathlessly begging pardon as she was elbowed and tread on. They wove through what
was really, for Grace, a modest group of people, no more than a hundred and twenty, excluding those
serving snacks and champagne.

Max dropped the box of books on the pass through from the kitchenette. When Jenny finally made it, he
asked, "Did Grace really write a book?"

"Authorized." Jenny corrected absently, her horrified gaze focused on Grace and Julian posing for photos
beside a large wedding cake. "What did - married."

"Do you always do that or just when you're nervous?" Max asked, thumbing through one of the books.
Rolling his eyes more than twice at the glossy black and white photos in the center. “I wonder if I‟m in

She hunched forward when a waiter with a large tray of glasses gouged her shoulder. Pressing her hip
against the counter, out of the way of traffic, she remembered he‟d asked her something, "What?"

Max selected a pen from the jar on the counter, opened a book and signed Grace's name before reaching
for the next book.

"What - you can't - stop that." Jenny tried to wrestle the pen from him without touching him with her damp
sleeve, or gouging the thin woman pressed close behind her. He shrugged his arm higher, blocking her
by virtue of height, and turned to finish signing with a flourish of curls beneath the signature. “I can't - Do

"Finish half a sentence and then start another?" He signed the next book. "She won't have time to sign
them. She‟ll just hold the pen and book for the photos."

"Who are - We're auctioning - They'll authenticate the signature." Jenny tried once more to grab the pen.
Someone jostled her shoulder and nearly toppled her face first into the box.

Max snapped the book shut, "Then I definitely should sign them. Don't worry. I sign everything for her. It's
perfectly legal." He tugged another book free of the damp cardboard, wiping splatters from the cover.

Jenny shuddered, "Diana is going - I'm going to jail."

More laughter skittered across the room. She jumped as if a battery of cannons had released a volley.

"I just knew - Send Carrie. She's good at - I'm not the - but the dentist – She wouldn't come to the door."
Jenny collapsed against the bar, handing him the next book as if nailing her own coffin. "I always - who
marries on a Thursday?"

"Grace Temple. It was on her chart or something." Max shrugged. "The Dentist? Carrie or Diana?"

"Carrie. Diana owns Secret Garden, a book shop, sort of, among other things."


"Aunt - Business Woman - Goddess."


"Some days." Jenny sidled around him with the empty box so he could sign the last three while she
packed the others.

Max paused; pondering the images her expressive face and half formed sentences had nudged to the
front of his mind. "Tall, suits, blonde or frost?"

"Auburn frost on black." Jenny confided, "Boldly stunning."


"Pumps. Black matte, two inch."

He nodded, and opened the last book, his pen hesitating. "Accent? Drawl? Oh God, not a twang?"

Jenny shook her head. "Crisp. Alto."

"Like you?"

"Like a tractor? No." Sighing wistfully, Jenny confessed, "Diana is an opera."

Max shuddered just to make the woman smile again.

"Busy and changing sets so quick." Jenny held out her hand for the final book. "It can wear you out."

"Well, here you go." Max ignored her hand, wriggled the book in between the others. Caught up in
thoughts, he glanced at her embarrassment. "I'll go find Grace for the photos."

"You don't - The books are enough." Her voice slipped back into the overwhelmed by laughter volume.

"Won't hurt to have a bit of publicity, for the auction. Don't run off when I turn my back or I'll denounce the
signatures as false." Max tapped her forehead with the end of the pen before dropping it in the jar.

"Would not." Jenny‟s grin, a tease of what he imagined it could be, made the cake seem lopsided.

Max hesitated, startled by her certainty. His eyes narrowed making blotches of embarrassment highlight
freckles splattered across her nose and cheeks. "No, I wouldn't, but I'd like Grace to meet you. All right?"

Jenny tilted her head, confused but intrigued enough to ask, "Who are you?"

"No one Aunt Diana would be interested in." He squeezed her hand, still waiting for a book, before
rocketing through the bodies toward the laughing star.

Exhausted, Jenny leaned against the counter and tracked his progress. He didn‟t pause and chat, as Karl
had, or have anyone grabbing at his arm for attention, but it was still no easy task to cross the twenty feet.
Not as tall as the man at the door, not as dark haired as Karl, Jenny tried to think of a memorable feature.
His eyes were bluish, his coloring fair, and his face angular though not cruelly squared. When he‟d
smiled, his face changed, as if sunlight burst through the clouds. Creases around his eyes and mouth
hinted that he had as many smiles as moods….

Jenny turned to straighten books that were already perfectly aligned in a rapidly degrading cardboard
box. “Champagne fumes, that‟s all.”

"It's good to meet you," Grace's palms were warm; her grasp firm as she sandwiched Jenny's rain

wrinkled hand.

"Your support will help so many." Jenny's stiff words matched her face. Eyes were focused on Grace and
happened to take her in at the same time. It was a nauseating experience.

Jenny expected beautiful, she hadn‟t imagined exquisite. Grace was tall, without towering. Ornate combs
controlled fine strands of bronze hair so they foamed across her lavender gown. Her face was always in
motion, fluttering one second, relaxed the next, anticipation was chased by amusement and throughout
the adventure her eyes were steady blue, without a crease, even her brows arched as if God‟s hand
curved them just so. Grace appeared unaware of this captivating hold she maintained on the room, it was
a large part of her charm.

"Leon? Let's get both of us in the shot. Where's that pen?" Grace sighed when she opened the book,
"Bless you Max!"

"Can't have your scratch on the auction block”. Max winked at Jenny whose gaze darted from his mirth to
Grace‟s pleasure. “Bad for business."

Grace leaned in close to Jenny's ear. "My signature looks like a third grader."

Jenny felt as if she were watching from a distance, the camera whirled and winked, while Grace, with an
earnest gaze at Jenny said, "It would be better for me to write with my toes."

Her tone and body language spoke of serious discussion, but her voice bounced in delightful boast.
Frowning, Jenny tried to reconcile the two. To the camera, she appeared to be concentrating on some
vital point Grace was making.

"Photographs are silent, you just look the part." She closed the book and handed it over. Afraid she'd drop
the book, Jenny doubled her arms around it and clutched it to her chest.

"Don't hide the cover like that." Karl yanked the book from Jenny's bosom with an exasperated gasp. He
handed the book back to Grace, "Again."

"Karl, don't be an ass." Grace glared at the bossy man, yet within a heartbeat, though her smile was
aimed, full force, at Jenny, her commanding tone was no less than Karl‟s, “Here, just cuddle it in your

"Receive it like a sacred text handed to you by the Goddess." Max crooned from the corner.

Jenny accepted the book like an acolyte of purist intent, unless you noticed the glint of anger in her eyes.
Grace hissed his name, but her wink at Jenny was familiar indulgence. Apparently, Grace didn't take Max
or herself seriously, with a breezy laugh, she asked, "Does that make you a former God, Max?"

"Just another mortal unable to reach your divine Grace." Max accepted the praise of laughter with a bow,
drawing attention from Jenny.

"Excellent." Leon pronounced, but kept snapping photos as if he could barely keep up with the action.
Jenny turned back to her box, securing the flaps against the brutal October wind.

"Send Diana my love," Grace floated away in layers of satin.

The others followed Grace, except Max, who stood in the corner, a false palm frond dangling just above
his head, arms crossed over his chest and a thoughtful expression on his face. Jenny hefted the box
intending to melt away. He frowned at the decomposing cardboard and muttered, “for thee, and for
myself, no quiet find ….”

Jenny couldn‟t stop the laugh that burst between them, or the blush that scorched her face.

Max shook his head, and re-joined the world, “Look, they aren't announcing the marriage for at least a

She smiled because he was so much easier to look at than anyone else in the room. Blessedly ordinary,
no overpowering gloss of splendor. Nodding emphatically, she promised, "Not a word … Mr.

Max's grin made her forget he was ordinary and soothing to view. "It was pleasant to meet you."

"Pleasant!" She backed away, bumped into someone before rushing toward the door, shoving the letter
Nick waved in her pocket and dashing through the door, a prisoner suddenly free.

“You were so right Julian! If only we‟d left the damn cell phone off.” Grace paced Max's kitchen, the
dividing line between Max and the rest of the world. No one went beyond the kitchen without a seldom
extended invitation.

Grace rounded the table able to seat at least two dozen guests, so long as they were comfortable eating
in the kitchen, and snapped, “Why, Karl, you just couldn't let us have one whole week?"

"Darling, if it was my doing, there'd have been so many cameras out there you'd be blind." Karl parallel
pacing Grace waved his arms wildly. "It's some hoax, or Julian's fund-us-with-a-big-grant-so-we-won‟t-
starve boss over at SBC."

"Not bloody likely." Julian stubbed out his cigarette and tossed his waves of sun-bleached hair over his
pure cotton smock. The documentary maker smoked like a chimney. He claimed the vice was his only
suspension of all beliefs, like the possibility of Grace loving me. Others differed on this view. He was
stretched across the chair at the head of the trestle. "SBC doesn't do sleazy publicity, we expose it."

"Let's just check on that shall we?" Karl flipped his cell phone like a movie cowboy eager for high noon.

"I wish you wouldn't." A large man, thick but not fat, fair of coloring in a tweed jacket, button up white
collar and brown oxfords intervened. He looked more like a professor than a small county Sheriff. "At
least, not yet. We‟d like to make discreet inquiries rather than accidentally alerting the media, or the

Karl clapped his cell against his thigh, a triumphant smirk aimed at Julian.

"Max, thank God. Now this will make some sense." Grace darted across the room to sag against Max.

His arm slid around her shoulder, turning her back the way she came, saying, "I figured it was some

Karl interrupted. "See, even Max thinks it's -"

"But when the package showed up, I called the Sheriff and contacted Karl. That's all the sense I have."
Max escorted Grace to Julian, who rose to comfort his bride.

"What package?" Julian asked. His long fingers massaged Grace‟s neck so she relaxed against him.

"FedEx, picked up from a drop box at a grocery store three miles from the hotel where you held your
reception." Sheriff Lucas answered, "Do you recognize any of this?"

A uniformed deputy tipped the contents of the stiff envelope on the table. Two women, twins by feature,

opposites by dress, a young man and Karl gathered around the table. The two uniformed officers backed
away as did the three security men who accompanied Grace everywhere, even her honeymoon.

They examined a thick strand of hair curled around a gold band on a fine chain, and a folded piece of
cream-colored paper as if a nest of snakes.

"That's my wedding band." Grace gasped.

"One of them you mean." Karl chuckled, "What's that, on the hair?"

"Blood.” Lucas shifted on his tired feet, “Same type as Ms Temple's but the workup isn't finished yet.
Common enough blood type."

"Max." Grace turned to him with stricken eyes. "No wonder Karl said you sounded like-"

"It was unsettling." He waved aside her concern before it developed into a storm. "Grady, nearly had a

Grace shuddered. Julian‟s arms tightened around her, but he winked at the Sheriff as if she were a drama

Kevin Lucas cleared his throat, confused by Max‟s frown and Julian‟s amusement. It should have been
the other way around, shouldn‟t it?

"Who would have access to your jewelry, Ms Temple?" He asked.

“Mrs. Myers." Grace absently corrected, "Only a dozen or so people, but that band wasn't with my jewelry.
I wear it on a chain, always. Well, except for my wedding day. It's bad karma to marry with another man's
ring around your neck."

Julian chuckled, rubbing his chin across the crown of her head, "I told you it was all right."

"Yes you did, but it's not." Grace tenderly caressed his cheek.

"Where did you store the band and chain, Ms - Mrs. Myers?"

"I gave it to Karl, just before the ceremony. He was supposed to give it to Max for safekeeping." Grace
raised her eyebrows at Karl.

Karl shrugged, but his indifference was a fable. His face paled as he realized someone had been walking
among the reception, planning this. "It was in my pocket. I forgot about it."

"Coat pocket?" Julian and Sheriff Lucas asked at the same time.

Karl sighed onto the bench, leaning heavily on his elbows, he swung the chain around by using a fingertip
in the band. "It was in the pile, for about nine hours, on the bed in the suite with about thirty other coats
and jackets. Anyone could have gone in there."

"Do you mind Mrs. Myers?" The Sheriff lifted the strands clotted together, and approached her to
compare. "Color is close, but the length is considerably longer."

Grace held out her hand, fingered the matted strands with a long pink nail. "My hair was tinted last week
to go with my wedding dress. Just a hint of lemon Maudie?”

The woman in an embroidered gauze blouse over faded jeans shook her head. Dark blond curls framed
thin cheeks, drawing your gaze to her sharp green eyes. “Splash of sun with a hint of moonlight. It‟s a

pink tint but it looks silver in the light. Tony can give you the exact information. I just noted it in the diary.”
She smiled at the Sheriff, “I‟m Mrs. Myers personal assistant.”

"Are all your people accounted for? Could this kidnapper have a, what do you call them, a stand in or
double?" Sheriff Lucas watched the loop of hair pass between the hands of the two women. Held up to
the light, thumbed as if they were scientists analyzing some rare discovery.

Molly, a spike haired woman with kohl broadly painted beneath her eyes and around her lips, fingered the
strands and rubbed it on the inside of her wrist before, elbowing the man next to her. "Cheap but reliable
shampoo. Rinses out regardless of water quality. Its wash and go stuff, none of us would admit using it.
Grace Temple would never use it, unless they paid her a great deal more than money to do so. After she
fired me, of course.”

A rail thin young man ran the tip of his pierced tongue over the strands, rubbed it against his lips and

"No gel or mousse. But she wore body splash, citrus. Probably that ghastly orange stuff, you know the
one where the mandarin orange breaks into segments that tap dance? God, what a horrible production."
He passed the hair back to Sheriff Lucas who bit his lip to keep from laughing in his earnest face.

Max laughed for him, "It's what they're paid to know."

"Obviously." Lucas cleared his throat and flicked his gaze around the room. "All right, what about this
page? It looks like stationary with your signature, Mrs. Myers."

"Max's signature." Grace waved the paper away. "I don't sign anything, ever."

"Look at it Grace." Max cajoled, handing the paper to her. "Think about it. Where have we seen this?"

"It's not photo paper." She fingered the paper. "Not the official fan newsletter either, no imprint. An
invitation? Copied maybe? Jesus, Max, you and Karl take care of that stuff, how the hell would I know."

"Easy." Max took the paper, and handed it back to the Sheriff. "Did the two of you get any sleep on the
flight back?" Julian shook his head. Max took Grace‟s hands, patted them. "You're fine. That's all that
matters for now."

With the next breath he was shuffling people into motion. "Tony, go get Grady off his death bed and tell
him to warm up the guest house for Grace and Julian. Maudie, think you can do some tea and
sandwiches? Good. You know where everything is. You can hang out in the garage for now. Karl, you‟ll
just have to rough it with the troops. Sheriff Lucas, where would you like to set up your people? Nick's got
security more than covered."

"We just need access; maybe some of those sandwiches." He craned to see what was being rustled up.
"Coffee would be fine for us."

"Maudie? Molly?" Max raised his eyebrow at the women on the other side of the stainless counter.

"Pot is already on." The woman who would be fired rather than use cheap shampoo winked at Max. "You
got any of that famous chili in the freezer?"

"Grady‟s fix? Bound to be, go and check." Max waved the Sheriff from the kitchen, his smile evaporating
as a hulk of man lumbered toward them in the narrow hallway. Tony was being drug along in a headlock
swatting at the man, both laughing like twelve year olds. Sixty plus years, the man was dark, whiskered
and peppered with gray. Dressed in jeans and flannel, he looked like the fishermen at the diner.

"Let him go you old fake." Max rolled his eyes as Tony boxed at Grady's shoulder before darting through

to the kitchen.

"Nephew tells me we're being invaded." Grady's voice sounded like sand paper over knotty birch. "Did
she take all of them on her honeymoon again?"

"Just the essential corps, not the whole army. Be nice." Max called out as Grady slapped his hand on the
swinging door.

"I'm always nice." He waggled eyebrows at Max. The echo of his swearing at the girls as if salad
ingredients were flying all over the kitchen, not merely being tossed in a large bowl rattled the hinges.

"Mr. Cooper, I appreciate your cooperation. You've been very-"

"Sheriff, that paper, I think I know where it came from." Max hesitated in the extended hallway that joined
the kitchen to his home. It could also double as a safe room, if necessary. "God, I hope I'm wrong. But,
you might discretely check out a book store called Secret Garden, ask for Diana Benedict, see if her

"She doesn't look anything like me, Max.” Grace's voice chided him, echoing off the slate tile. “And, you
spotted that right off even if you won‟t admit to touching and sniffing that hair."

Max sighed. "So, you did recognize it."

"I'm beautiful and brilliant. You think Karl's pulling some scam don't you? Paid that girl -"

"No." Max opened the door to his retreat. "I wish I did." He left Grace and the Sheriff in the hall.

"What does a book store have to do with all this?” Sheriff Lucas asked, scribbling the name in his

“Some woman brought a box of books for me to sign.” Grace shook her head as if to check her vision.
“She was going to auction the books to fund a literacy project. The signature is probably one of the end

“Diana Benedict?”

“She owns the bookstore, among other things.” Grace chuckled and rubbed her eyes. “Nick kept the log
of who was at the reception, ask him to look up the particulars.”

Sheriff Lucas stood between two doors, unsure which direction to go. Back to the kitchen and the
boisterous relief, or pursue Max and his probability. Deputy solved that question by sticking his head into
the hall from the kitchen, “Hungry, sir?”

“No, but save me some coffee.” He pursued Max Cooper.
The phone call came before the Sheriff had a chance to discuss anything with Max, let alone get a cup of
coffee. Max was instructed to go to a web site and he would be contacted by phone. When he signed in,
a grainy image wavered on the screen.

“High tech kidnappers.” Deputy Michael Hopewell leaned over Max‟s shoulder with interest.

Sheriff Lucas squinted, trying to see anything.

Text scrolled across the screen announcing Frankenstein was entering. A gruesome monster filled the
screen. “Mr. Cooper?”

“I‟m here.” Max addressed the speakerphone on his desk.

“Can you see me?” The monster asked.

“I can.”

The voice was difficult to hear through the vinyl mask and poor connection. He spoke slowly, as if reciting
a poorly rehearsed speech. “Your instructions are located in a text file you can access after this meeting.
You are to follow them exactly. You will be monitored every step of the way. Do you understand?”

“I understand.” Max leaned forward, “Let me talk to her.”

“Lights, camera, action.” The camera panned out of focus for a moment, before settling on a figure
awkwardly standing against a wall. She blinked and tried to turn her face away.

The monster was next to her, gripping her upper arm. Slamming the cell phone against her ear, he leaned
close to her. “Go ahead, she can hear you. Just remember, so can I.”

Max leaned on his palms, closer to the speaker, “Are you all right?”

Jenny tried to jerk free of the man‟s grip, shouting, “It‟s a trick – I‟m not- Don‟t do what-”

Frankenstein moved in front of the camera leaning into her face. Max‟s last clear view of her was grainy
horror. The camera was unsteady, then dark. Max heard Jenny scream, and then the phone was silent.
He slouched into the high backed executive chair, waving at the Deputy who was hovering over his laptop
set up on the large desk, “You better get the file while we still can.”

“Do you suppose they know she‟s not Ms Temple?” The Sheriff sighed.

Max met Lucas‟ gaze with brutal sorrow. “I‟m sure she‟s informed them.”

“I‟ve got the file.” The deputy crowed. “My sister has half the dorm figuring out where they are. Not an
Internet café in Boise, Idaho. How unoriginal, no flair….”

“Discreetly.” The Sheriff snatched the print out from the enthusiastic young man. “Did I not say

“They think it‟s a Halloween game. You‟re going to have to come up with some goodies, Sheriff.” His
fingers flew across the keyboard, reassuring the warrior women good prizes would be awarded, no lame

“Great. What do girl geeks want these days?” The Sheriff frowned over the brief instructions. “This can‟t
be right….”

“What?” Max rose to read over the man‟s shoulder.

“The money. I expected millions to be demanded. It‟s not much for someone like Ms Temple.” He handed
the page to Max, “She‟ll be insulted.”

Max shrugged. “Doesn‟t matter. Let me get Karl and make some calls. We‟re going to have to move it if
we‟re going to get to Winterworth on time. Has to be Sunday, ever try to get a banker on a Sunday?”

Sheriff Lucas exchanged a look with his deputy as Max grumbled his way to the kitchen. “It‟s almost like
we‟re supposed to dismiss it as a prank.”

“Maybe it is?” The young man sounded hopeful. “Bunch of dinks fucking around with university


“They‟d go corporate or government, something big, wouldn‟t they?” Lucas grinned at the flashy images
winking on the laptop. “Amazons huh?”

“My sister is no trembling librarian that‟s for sure.” Deputy Hopewell boasted. “If they were lusting after Ms
Temple, they might hack her e-mail and leave her love notes or stupid photos, maybe drop some spy
ware on her hard drive, but not this. Christine could discreetly ask some of the guys how they‟d
uh…infiltrate a love interest? Either way, everyone concludes they‟d certainly have better imaging
software and anonymizers.”

“Something is wrong.” Lucas tugged on his lower lip.

“Big wrong, or shit we‟re out of coffee wrong?” Hopewell continued instant messaging with his sister.

“Big wrong.” The Sheriff patted his shoulder, “Stay on it, discreetly. Don‟t want the feds in here unless we
have to. Tripping over Mulder and Scully wanna-bes makes my coffee curdle.”

“Leave it to me and the Amazons, Sheriff.” Deputy attended to the private chat room full of warrior women
mocking incompetent kidnappers, hypothesizing about goodies and bitching about some test on Monday
that none of them seemed to have studied for while they tracked back, pinged false ISPs and groaned
over bouncing e-mails from bogus accounts…. Multi-tasking at its best. Sure made him proud.

Max strolled through the park on Halloween, wondering if his next book would read like a Stephen King
novel. Wouldn‟t mind the sales, but doubted he‟d get the tone right. The thought made him chuckle,
startling young lovers in the shadows.

“It‟s not a peep show!” The girl spit at him, and Max judiciously moved on.

His white knuckled grip on a compact duffle was the only indication he was anything but a weary refugee
from the local gym. In the early evening, costumed children ran about, teens strutted in hideous masks
and twenty-something‟s tried to look above it all in trendy commentary. A community center was blaring
music and signs boasting about a blood curdling haunted house fluttered in the stiff wind.

Sheriff Lucas groaned in the earpiece Max wore as he approached the park per instructions. It had taken
them most of the day to reach the busy shopping Mecca, a suburb known for strip malls and peaceful
family life with large houses, good schools and ridiculous mortgages. The statistics on alcohol
consumption were slightly below the medium income.

“Well, we‟ve been tricked, so maybe we‟ll get treated now.” Max spoke at the zipper of his jacket and
continued to follow the path.

“Maybe.” Lucas sounded as doubtful as Max felt. “Hopewell says they‟re closing in on the source of the
transmission. They‟re calling Frankenstein some bizarre names that make him laugh but … damn when
did we get so old?”

“They can‟t locate our monster then?” Max waited for a squad of deformed and axe imbedded teens to
move on before approaching the bench and trashcan he was to drop the bag into.

“Shit, they‟ve triangulated it to a six mile radius, we‟re just waiting on you.” Lucas snorted in Max‟s ear,
making him wince.

“Sorry to be so slow.” Max dumped the gym bag into the trash, glanced around then retraced his steps
with a brisker pace.


The sun was coming up when the bicyclist blew by the men huddled in the bushes. Damp, grouchy and
sick of Deputy Hopewell‟s updates that were nothing but details of his warrior‟s intimate thoughts. Old,
hell, they were ancient….

Green and yellow spandex clad, the helmeted young man grabbed the gym bag from the can, tossed it
over his shoulder, skidded through the playground, ripped an envelope from beneath the slide and took
off down the bike trail like Lance Armstrong was gaining on him. Took six men twenty-three minutes on
foot, jogging, dashing and jumping over benches and bushes to corner him. The young man was laughing
like a drunk. The gym bag had three books in it, all Grace‟s authorized story, all signed by Max. When
Hopewell checked the trashcan it was, of course, empty.

The bicyclist was a local high school student who received e-mail with instructions. Figured it was a
friend, went and got the bag, found $200 in software promos in the envelope beneath the slide and let the
'cop' catch him. He thought it was a Halloween prank, like toilet papering the English teacher‟s house.
Sheriff Lucas chewed his ass, took the envelope, the books, and impounded the bicycle. He didn‟t call the
boy‟s parents, though he threatened to do so, numerous times.

“Where‟s Jerry? Take Bicycle Boy home. If I find out you‟re anything but a virgin honor student, expect
me to be sitting at your dinner table next Sunday. Got that?” Lucas jabbed a finger in the young man‟s

“Yes sir!” He nodded vigorously, and then followed Deputy Jerry like a kicked puppy. He was startled
when he was told to sit up front with the older man.

“Jerry will recruit him before they get three miles.” Hopewell elbowed the Sheriff. “How you got me,

“Too damn well. Where‟s my coffee?” Lucas stretched and dispatched men to eat, swill coffee, relieve
bladders and probably stand by some more.

Huddled in the back of the unmarked car, cradling a super-sized coffee and nursing a headache, Lucas
tried to read through the four hundred pages of discussion Hopewell had printed out. He gave up when he
got to the part about painting thongs on statues in the History Department.

“Moving on,” he threw the papers on the seat, “we‟ve got photos to go through from last night, but most
were dressed up in costumes. Not going to be easy to spot anyone.”

“We got those cell phone coordinates. Everything from the net has been a dead end. The café in Boise is
legit. The owner has identified everyone on his surveillance tapes. Sundays are busy, but mostly regulars.
They‟re only open six hours. Amazons have hacked in three times. Took them less than three minutes.
Our geeky kidnapper could have done the same.” Hopewell yawned.

“All this seems like one big prank.” Sheriff rolled his shoulders. “I swear if this is a bunch of dinks in
boxers -”

“Coming Mr. Cooper?” The Deputy nudged Max.

“I‟m driving.” Max threw his coffee into the trash, slammed the door and took off from the gas station so
abruptly, coffee sloshed out of the cup and on to the Sheriff‟s leg.

“Hey, save the aggression for those who deserve it.”

Max leaned on the car surveying the cabins, old travel trailers and outbuildings scattered around a
lake. It was misting, the wind was the tail of an artic front and the radio predicted sleet before
morning. “Since when do geeks hang out in hunting camps?”

“Owner is on his way out. Not happy about being hauled away from his football.” One of the deputies
announced. “Told him we have a set in the car he can watch.”

“You are such a pig, Joe.” Hopewell sniffed.

“Thanks, I try.” The liar sighed, gazed hopefully at Lucas to point out the obvious. “There must be four
or five dozen buildings, not to mention the deer blinds to go through. Sure you don‟t want to call in the
local Sheriff?”

“I alerted him to our presence, he‟s standing by.” Lucas pointed at a medium sized cabin with a
television antenna listing on the roof. “Let‟s start there. Two by two, just in case this isn‟t boys in
boxers, all right?”

“Max?” Lucas wasn‟t surprised by the stillness of the man still leaning on the car. The farther from the
interstate they‟d traveled, the quieter he‟d become. The molars he was grinding together had to be
wrecking his dental work.

“She was standing in front of a wall, wood, with a four paned window to the left – her right. That
probably eliminates most of the trailers.” Max‟s gaze darted around. “There‟s no vehicle tracks
beyond here, but it‟s been raining so maybe they were washed away?”

“Maybe.” Lucas let the man process his thoughts out loud. Was no hurry, doubted there had been
since the video was made.

“If they were up here since late Thursday or early Friday, they‟d have garbage, wouldn‟t they?” Max
pointed at a can outside a smaller cabin, closer to the lake. The only can not turned upside down and
secured with a brick.

“Tidy criminals.” Lucas didn‟t go charging off.

Max pierced Lucas with those sharp eyes. “If she were still alive, and they were here waiting on the
money, as soon as we pulled up they‟d be trying to negotiate wouldn‟t they?”

“Not necessarily.” Lucas buttoned up his coat and stepped over the chain blocking vehicle traffic into
the camp: Midwestern Security.

“Joe learned how to lie from you.” Max followed Lucas.

“Taught him everything he knows.” Lucas blew on his cold hands, chuckling at Max‟s determined

Gravel crunched beneath their shoes, the others called back and forth, someone had tapped into the
game and they were discussing the coaching decisions while clearing buildings and sheds. Like the
Amazons, they knew what they were doing, but it didn‟t interfere with more interesting conversation.
This more than Lucas‟ casually not calling in the local Sheriff, convinced Max that no one expected to
find anyone living.

“Go ahead.” Max waved Lucas through the door, choosing to look at the trash instead. “I‟m no hero, I
just write about them.”

“She could have been in on the whole thing.” Lucas had one foot on the bottom step, “Might be sitting
in her hide out sipping wine and petting her thugs.”

“You read my books, huh?” Max rolled his eyes.

“A few.” Lucas laughed and rattled the doorknob from the side, knocking and calling out, before
waltzing in. “Not all geeks are girls.”

Max examined the cans, bread wrappers and hot dog packaging wadded into the can. He slammed
the lid back on. “Stuff will kill you.”

“Max? Come here.” Lucas called.

“Shit.” Max skipped the steps, but ended up blinking in the darkened room, “What?”

“Box look familiar?” Lucas was crouched over a cardboard box, one of Grace‟s books in his hand,
mocking grin on his face. “You said you signed a dozen? There‟s only three here.”

“Three in the bag, the one they tore the page from… where are the other five?” Max looked around
the room, spotted a book on the window ledge, “This one is where they tore the page from.”

“Max.” Lucas dumped another box on the three-legged table. “Look familiar?”

He was holding up clothing. A pink blouse, a jumper with a small bee embroidered on the pocket,
bulky black sweater, brown shoes and pink tights covered the rough table. Folding things after
glancing at them, he said, “Nothing torn. Good sign.”

Max wanted to strangle the man with the knitted tights.

Lucas put the pile of clothing and shoes in the box with the books. “No sign of a struggle. No blood.
Another good sign.”

“She was dressed in the video.” Max reminded him.

“Sheriff?” Lucas‟ radio crackled. “Owner is here.”

“On my way.” Lucas picked up the box, pausing at the door. “Coming?”

“I‟m going to see if I can find those other books.” Max rubbed his face.

“You‟re not responsible for any of this.” Lucas leaned on the doorframe, waiting. He wasn‟t eager to
listen to some man grousing about missing the game.

“I keep thinking it might have been Grace.” Max‟s eyes roamed around the room, looking everywhere
but the Sheriff.

“Might have been, but wasn‟t. People are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Crossing a street or
walking into the 7-11 never seems like a big risk. Most days it‟s not.” Lucas shifted the box.

“When you call the local Sheriff, remind him we don‟t believe she was part of this, all right?” Max
opened a cabinet beneath a rusted sink.

“Shout if you find anything.” Lucas stepped cautiously over the rotted board on the second step and
headed for his car.

Shoving the cardboard box into the trunk, it felt good to slam it. “God save me from knights in dented
armor.” It was always a mistake to allow loved ones to be part of a search. He‟d thought Max
detached, his interest only in keeping Grace Myers‟ name out of the news as long as possible. “Mis-

read that book, didn‟t you jackass.”

Lucas went to face the owner and call for support. Local men would have knowledge of the area and
find any body sooner than he and his men bumbling around. Only had three hours till dark, not much
time to cover all the nooks and crannies.

The local Sheriff was a friend of Lucas‟ from Chicago days. He called up enough volunteers from in
front of the game to make any county proud. They found a man in an Alien Lizard mask under a bass
boat five minutes after Sheriff Murphy dispersed them. Single shot to the back of the neck, one of the
volunteers joked about X-Files and alien bounty hunters. Another one snapped across the radio about
being out in the woods unarmed not being such a good plan.

Sheriff Murphy was unimpressed, “You can come back for milk and cookies any time you want Dave,
help man the radio if you got the stomach for that.”

Dave spit an obscenity across the radio. It seemed as if even the trees were adjusting their manly
parts. Max, hunched into his jacket, leaned on the hood of the car, freezing his ass as rain continued
to spit at them. Todd Wiems, the owner of Wiems Hunting and Fishing Camp, was finding the woods
more entertaining than the game.

“Better than listening to Rita complain.” He nudged Max‟s shoulder with his own.

“What‟s up there?” Max pointed to the top of a hill where a shed leaned a bit to the east.

“That‟s the bait shed. Keep birds up there when I‟m training new dogs. Up wind so the dogs don‟t go
nuts before I want them to.” Todd spit, again.

“Locked?” Max asked.

“No need. Nothing up there but cages. Don‟t even keep feed.” Todd jumped off the hood of the car.
“Want to check it out? I‟m tired of sitting here.”

“Might as well.” Max followed Todd, envying his thermal clothes and down jacket.

The shed was farther than it looked, hill steeper than expected. Max slid on the leaves and hit his
knees more than once, soaking his jeans through and giving Todd a good laugh. Wasn‟t much of a
clearing and the shed wasn‟t more than a coop with left over wood for walls. Just enough to contain a
few birds and dog tie outs for restraining eager puppies.

An old travel trailer door was banging against the frame, tormented by the wind. There were no signs
of footprints in the leaves. “Doors open. That‟s odd.” Todd laughed like an elderly rusted chain. “Let‟s
hope it‟s not skunks in there set up for the winter.”

Max didn‟t laugh with Todd, but stamped twigs off his jeans and plucked needles out of his shoes.

“Let me toss - here, I‟ll use this,” Todd pounced on a chunk of a rotted limb, “if we smell anything,
make a run for it. All right?”

“Yeah, I‟ll just slide down the way I came.” Max agreed.

“Better to scratch your ass than stink for a week.” Todd pointed out. “Want a head start?”

“Just throw the damn thing.” Max rolled his eyes. It wasn‟t like he was in a three-piece suit. He‟d

dressed; yesterday, for a night watching a playground in a parked car, not traipsing through the
woods in winter mix precipitation.

No skunks or critters came dashing out to defend their home. Todd kicked back the door, dashing in
and skidding back out like a yo-yo. Gone was John Wayne, in his place was a man clawing for air to
keep from heaving up his guts.

“I‟m going for the Sheriff.” Todd sprinted down the hillside, hitting his ass at least twice before Max
forced himself to go inside.

Frankenstein wasn‟t recognizable, unless you‟d known what the mask was supposed to be. He was
spread eagle across the dirt floor, face and chest blasted open. Max imitated Todd, spinning back the
way he came, doing a full circle when something caught his eye.

In the corner, running the six-foot length was a chicken wire cage, half the height of the building.
Trapped inside, was Jenny in a slip. She‟d managed to get her bound hands worked through a place
in the wire, up to her elbows. Using her legs, she had obviously been working on enlarging the hole

Swallowing the urge to just leave this to better men, Max forced his feet to step over what was left of
Frankenstein. He knelt down to at least untangle her. Shoving her calves and feet back through, he
was chilled to his bones. Pausing a minute, he warmed his hands under his jacket, stunned to find
them shaking.

Feeling like a fool, he used more force than necessary to push her arms and hands through the wire.
When she whimpered, he jerked back, cutting his forearm. “Shit. God!” was his shocked prayer.

Fumbling with the hook and eye bolts on the frame seemed to take forever, but it was an instant or
less for him to cradle her and vault over the dead man. Carefully, he slid her to the ground, relieved to
hear men climbing up the hill.

Shucking off his jacket to cover her, he shouted, “Lucas – she‟s alive! Get your ass up here! She‟s

Her eyes moved behind her lids, but didn‟t open. When her arm twitched, he was afraid she was
having a heart attack – or maybe he was.

“N-no one … inersted in?” Her voice was hardly a whisper, the words slurred.

Max grinned like a child given a coveted present for Christmas. “That‟s me.”

“Plea‟nt meet you….”

“You too.” Max brushed leaves from her face, watching the smile fade. “Hey, stay with me. I‟ve got
tons of pleasant.”

“T‟red.” She sighed from consciousness.

Sheriff Murphy and Lucas squatted over the woman as men shucked off down jackets and whipped
off socks firing questions at Max like this was an everyday thing.

“Did she say anything, move her hands, skin damp?” Repeatedly, “Good. Good. Good,” was chanted
reassuringly, hopefully.

The rescue unit was loading her on an ambulance and alerting the hospital before most of the

searchers made it back. Max rode with her and didn‟t notice until hours later that no one, including
himself, questioned that.
Sheriff Murphy, reed thin and beanpole tall with a crop of silver hair sparkling in hospital lighting,
flopped next to Sheriff Lucas. Sunshine was creeping along the tile floor, nourishing Lucas‟

Wednesday morning, what the hell happened to Tuesday?

“How‟s she doing?” Murphy asked.

Lucas yawned over a cup of coffee as tasteless as the first. “Doctor isn‟t telling me anything.”

“Where‟s Cooper?” Murphy stretched into the vinyl seat that squeaked protest.

“I hope he‟s convincing the doctor we‟re the good guys.” Lucas raised his Styrofoam cup in salute.
“She woke up a couple hours ago. That‟s all I know.”

Murphy rocked to his feet. “Third Floor has the good coffee, tell Glenda I sent you.”

Lucas banged his head on the wall. “Now you tell me! I‟ve been swilling this piss all night.”

The door opened and a fair-haired young doctor and tidy silver haired dragon of a nurse tugged it
firmly closed behind. She nodded at the men and marched to the nurse‟s station to wait on the doctor.
Not thrilled by the delay to morning rounds, her hopes of getting to the third floor and a decent cup of
coffee before the first crisis disappeared.

“Hey Doc, what‟s the stats on your patient?” Murphy extended his hand, getting a warm response
where Lucas had received a stiff dismissal.

“Your men did everything properly, Steven. Make sure and tell them that.” Doctor Talbot grinned and
slapped the Sheriff‟s shoulder with his clipboard. “They can pick up their jackets and the fourteen
pairs of socks whenever they want. Laundry even sealed them in plastic.”

“Nothing like rescuing a damsel in the woods to make a man willing to give up his best socks.”
Murphy shoved his hands in his pocket, impressing Lucas with his „just a country sheriff routine‟ –
God knew he‟d used it, often. “I saw bruises, lacerations, signs of dehydration and hypothermia, what

Doctor relaxed, on familiar ground, "Most of it is superficial. Stitches here and there, re-hydration and
time to get core and body temperature stable. She's healthy, with rest and nourishment she‟ll be fine,
physically.” He paused and glanced through the window, back at the woman restlessly picking at a
breakfast tray she should be devouring. “Steven you do realize, days and nights with a bloody corpse
two feet away isn‟t something you can fix with bandages and stitches?”

“He wasn‟t dead all that time, Doc. No more‟n a day, maybe less.” Sheriff Lucas pinned the young
man with a stare that made the „just a country boy‟ unbelievable, "You trying to tell us she was

Talbot slapped his clipboard against his thigh. "No, but you seem to be missing the fact there are
other things, just as bad, if not worse."

“Psychologically.” Murphy nodded as if the doctor was preaching to the choir. After fifteen years in
Chicago, Dr. Talbot was. Lucas had eighteen years, ten of them in homicide; this was a Disney
cartoon in comparison.

“Why do I bother?” The young doctor asked the ceiling. “Just stick to the basics for now. I can‟t
emphasize enough the phrase: slow and easy. All right?”

“Gotcha.” Murphy rolled his eyes at Lucas who tossed his cup in the trash and joined the parade
through the door.

The woman‟s face was scraped and bruised on the right side with both her lips split in a several
places. A few stitches peeped near the corner of her eye. Her arms were bandaged from elbow to
wrist, where chicken wire raked her, ending in scraped and swollen fingers. No one had bothered to
clean, let alone comb, her hair.

Max leaned against the wall right inside the door, arms crossed over crisp clothes. Lucas was
disgusted by how rumpled he felt in comparison. Must be nice to be able to afford to sleep in a
recliner and send someone for new clothes in the morning. All he had was his back up uniform in the

“Ms Benedict?” Doctor Talbot halted in the middle of the room, trapping the two large men in the
doorway. “There are some men here who would like to talk with you. Sheriff Murphy managed your
rescue. Sheriff Lucas located you.”

Jenny frowned as if it hurt to hear. “All right.”

The doctor stepped left so the men could enter, waving them to a line up position beneath the TV. His
message clear: don‟t crowd. “I‟ll be down the hall, just ring if you need anything.”

“Ms Benedict, I‟m Sheriff Lucas from Staunton County in Michigan. This is Sheriff Murphy of New
Hope County, Illinois.” Lucas tried to catch her gaze but she was focused on the toast as if it would
lunge at her any second if she stopped watching it.

Sheriff Murphy cleared his throat, “We‟d like to ask you some questions.”

“Questions?” Jenny pushed the tray table away.

“We‟d just like you to tell us what happened.” Lucas felt like a vulture hovering over road kill. Nodding
at Murphy to pull up a chair, Lucas eased into the vinyl recliner wedged in the corner by the window.
He was relieved to see her hands relax.

“I really don‟t remember – His voice - coats – It‟s a blur.” Jenny frowned. “But, thank you.”

“They want to know what happened on Thursday, after I signed the books.” Max said. He shook his
head at Lucas to stop him from interrupting. “Do you remember that?”

Jenny paled, the scrapes on her face standing darker. Her voice was strained, none of the pleasant
rumble of nerves or flattered confusion. “It‟s important to say thank you.”

Murphy clasped his hands together and leaned forward. “We appreciate that, Ms Benedict. But, Mr.
Cooper is right, we‟d like to know about what happened after you left the hotel.”

“Cooper?” She avoided the Sheriff‟s gaze, glancing at a spot just beside Max‟s head.

“Max Cooper, yes.” He smiled.

“Short for?” She focused on something in the white paint.


“You write books!” Jenny winced. Her eyes flew to his. As her mind grasped who he was, her words
choked from harsh gasps. “No wonder you mocked – Grace was your – that‟s why – you must have –
how awful.”

Lucas‟ eyes boggled, Murphy whistled and Max chuckled.

“She‟s just figured out I‟m a writer.” Max raised his eyebrows at her, waited for her nod, and
continued, “Grace was my wife. The ransom note was delivered to me. I was probably distressed.
Why I was the voice on the phone makes sense now?”

Jenny‟s fingers massaged her temple. “Yes. I told them – but – the camera – and your voice – it didn‟t
– but now.”

Lucas waved his hands, “Can we back up a bit?” Murphy chewed his grin.

“Jenny?” Max sat on the edge of the narrow bed. Slowly, he untangled her fingers from where she
was trying to thread some order, eyes filling with each tug. She gripped his hands.

“I tried to tell – to warn you.” Tears rolled across her cheeks, pooling in antibiotic ointment. “No one –
they wouldn‟t listen – they said – I tried.”

“There‟s nothing to be sorry for. Nothing.” Max squeezed her hands, observed her struggle to breathe
evenly and waited until she was calm once more to nod.

Murphy cleared his throat, “After you left the reception, did you take the elevator?”

“To the basement. Cab was supposed to be there.” She tugged her fingers away, smeared ointment
and tears across her face, “There‟s a courtesy phone at the desk. I was going back up to call. I heard
a car, thought it was the cab, but it wasn‟t. Someone - I dropped the books - He said – he put me in
the trunk.”

“Basement parking?” Lucas interrupted.

Jenny nodded. “By the elevator. The fender touched - I thought – I was between the fender, facing
the elevator.”

Murphy shot to his feet, reaching the door in three strides, “I‟m on it.” He let the door whoosh closed,
his radio static echoing in the hallway made Jenny jump.

“See, already you‟re helping.” Lucas dug in his coat, fished out what looked like a slim pencil case.
“Can I turn this on? It‟s a digital recorder. Saves writer‟s cramp and paperwork.”

Jenny nodded. “What did I –?”

“There are cameras down in the garage. You‟ve given us something to look for, coming in or going
out.” Lucas set the recorder on the tray table and leaned back, “Just ignore it. You were in the trunk?
Was it a new car, older? Carpet in the trunk? Fumes from the engine?”

“Carpet?” Jenny spoke as if the word was unfamiliar to her, but rallied in the silence that was
struggling not to rush her. “A blanket – not sure.”

“Did they stop anywhere? Longer than a stop light?”

“Once. Gas – snacks - used the cell phone.”

“How long after you left the hotel?”

“An hour, more.” Jenny didn‟t rub her shoulder but flexed it as she traced a circle on the blankets. “Off
the interstate - round about ramps - jack fell on me.”

Lucas nodded, as if he were easily following her. “How long before you reached the hunting camp?”

“They stopped again.” She swallowed, whispered, “It was dark.”

“To get the hair?” Max asked, tilted his head to see her face when she tucked her chin low.

“Frankenstein used a knife.” Her fingers went to the back of her head, “Just a little – poked me – back
in the trunk. Another – another car drove up.”

“How long?” Lucas asked.

“A few minutes? Fifteen, maybe.”

“Voices? Anything?” Lucas leaned forward again, hopeful.

“Didn‟t get out of the car. Drove off before we did. I fell asleep – don‟t know how long. I‟m sorry.” She
dropped her hand in her lap.

“No, you‟re doing great.” Lucas rubbed his tired eyes, “OK, was it still dark when you got to the
hunting camp?”

“I don‟t know.” Jenny leaned back into the pillows and closed her eyes. “They left me – Was daytime
when – I had to use – After - the lizard made a movie – on the steps holding one of the books. I tried
to tell them. They stuck me back in the trunk because I wouldn‟t – couldn‟t….”

Lucas waited for her to say more, and then asked, “Did they say why they wanted to take a movie?”

“Practice.” Jenny opened her eyes, but turned to the window. Her voice as flat as the pane of glass,
“Was a fancy camera, he had trouble with the settings. Made Frankenstein mad. He hit - Lizard
dropped the camera - it was OK.”

Max shuddered. Jenny‟s hand inched toward his, her fingers brushed across his knuckles before
drawing away. “It was OK.”

Murphy eased the door open, entered slowly when Lucas nodded.

Murphy leaned against the door, not wanting to distract more than he already had. “Your deputy is
going to get the tape. Will call you when he gets there.”

“What kind of car was it?” Lucas smiled apologetically at Jenny, “Do you remember?”

“Brown.” She closed her eyes again, “Not big, two doors. There was a circle thing on the hood and a
dent in the driver‟s door, rusty so maybe not new? I don‟t know anything about cars.”

Lucas nodded. He knew people who never drove, lived on the schedule of trains and buses. “You live
in town?”

“In my grandmother‟s house – not in town.” She actually smiled, tight; it obviously hurt to do so. “I‟ve
only worked in town for six, seven months, for my aunt.”

“Have you been able to reach her?” Lucas glanced at Max who shrugged as Jenny opened her eyes.

“Just her assistant. I told her I had an accident.” Jenny plucked at the bedcovers. “What else do you
want to know?”

Murphy inched further into the room, “How long between the movie and the phone call to Mr.

“I‟m not sure.” Jenny rubbed her forehead, “I tried to sleep. It was sunny. Was hard to stand –
Frankenstein made a call-”

“To me?” Max frowned, having no difficulty imagining her terror in that rickety shack.

“No, before.” She looked at the ceiling tiles, running her palm across the strapping around her ribs, as
if it were too tight. “He argued - said the movie should be enough. Who ever they argued with set up
the connections and passwords, they had to call back and get it again. Camera batteries were low,
but no spare, no way to recharge. Was funny…I - Told them they could use batteries from the radio.
Is that collaborating?”

“That‟s smart thinking.” Murphy smiled, his gaunt, weathered cheeks making his eyes squinty. “Best
way to survive.”

Jenny didn‟t seem convinced even though she nodded.

“When they were calling for the passwords and arguing, did they use any name? A handle? Could
you hear the other voice?” Lucas shifted in the recliner.

Jenny flinched, but kept her gaze on the swirls in the ceiling. “They shoved the phone under their
masks. I could barely hear them.”

“When they contacted Mr. Cooper, tell me what happened?” Lucas sighed. She probably didn‟t know
how much she knew. It could take days, weeks to remember little details. Days that could be use to
cover tracks or land on some island, lounge and sip champagne with a whole new name.

“I was supposed to say: This is Grace Temple, please follow the instructions.” Jenny closed her eyes.
“That was all.”

“Why didn‟t you?” Max popped a couple tissues from a box on the night table and put them in her
hand. Her lashes were wet. He could see her holding her breath to keep from crying.

“I was going to.” Jenny threw the tissues at Max who caught the wad of unused comfort, “I heard your
voice - became an idiot.”

Max crushed the tissues in his fist, but managed to smile, “Such powers have I.”

“It‟s probably a temporary thing,” Jenny sighed, “Like a virus.”

The laughter erupted from Max without warning. He felt like the idiot, but Jenny smiled. Her eyes
were swimming, but behind the sorrow was a light so warm Max thought he might never be cold
again, until Lucas cleared his throat and snuffed out the light.

“Who ever set up the -” Jenny struggled to sit up and face the Sheriff who recoiled into the recliner.
“Shut down the connection. Called Frankenstein - Lizard pulled him off to shove the phone at him.”

“Did you hear the voice then?” Lucas genuinely hated to ask, but it was essential to get the outline.

“No, I was – Frankenstein told me to take off my clothes or he‟d - So I did. He hauled me – hit –
stuffed – and left. In the morning – he came back – said, „See, won‟t be long‟ and then he was-”
Jenny inched toward the foot of the bed, pain jerked her movements to a crawl, if not her words. They
rushed from her as if brakes hadn‟t been invented.

“Two shots – he steamed, but no one came in to shoot me. No car or a truck or a boat or bird.
Nothing…. Someone sat out there all night, half the next day. I heard a cell phone ring and footsteps
through the leaves, then nothing. Nothing but the wind and some rain on the roof. Nothing….”

She‟d reached the end of the bed by scooting forward on her bottom, using one hand to move, the
other to hold her middle. The covers bunched forward, revealing imprints on her back, blobs from
being kicked, thick finger marks. She was bruised from mid back to shoulders. The beige strapping
highlighted the discoloration. A large square bandage covered her left shoulder, seeping pink
darkening to red. She was panting like she‟d run a marathon, her shoulders curled forward.

Max tapped her right shoulder and she snapped at him from beneath a curtain of tangled hair.

“If you move another inch, I‟ll be able to see your fanny.” He whispered it, ignoring Lucas‟ frustrated

She blinked several times, not comprehending what he was saying, the inconsequential throttling
fear. “My – what?”

Max tried to wring some humor into his tone, “Your fanny is showing.”

She twisted to see, Max caught her shoulders before she tipped head first off the bed.

“Why do you do that?” Jenny hissed as he slid his arms beneath hers and carefully drew her up the
bed, wincing when she gasped.

“Do what?” He smoothed the covers, handed her a cup of water and held it steady because her
hands were shaking so badly.

“That idiot thing.” She was having trouble catching her breath. “Why? Idiot enough – why?”

Max brushed sweaty hair from her forehead, “I‟ll try and restrain my awesome powers.”

“Can you?” Her chuckle made it more difficult to breathe. Her knees drew up.

Max thumbed the nurse‟s button and waved his hand behind his back. Lucas pocketed the recorder
and jumped to his feet. Sheriffs planted their bodies under the TV, flat to the wall, just as the doctor
had left them.

“Breathe slow. Come on, they‟re going to shoot you in that cute fanny if you don‟t relax.” Max brushed
his hand across her abdomen, feeling the retractions.

“Don‟t – no shots. Please.” She tried to force her knees away, but it wasn‟t working. Her grip on his
wrist slid away, “Cute?”

“You‟ve probably knotted some of the stitches.” Max caught at her arm, barely able to feel the rapid,
irregular pounding of her heartbeat in her wrist through the tape and gauze.

She shook her head, trying to clear the fuzzy halo surrounding Max.

His whispered, “Stay with me,” didn‟t reach her.

Far away she heard Sheriff Lucas – or was it Murphy - shouting, “Where‟s that friggin‟ doctor!”
“It‟s not uncommon with hypothermia.” Doctor Talbot focused on his charting. “She needs to eat, re-
hydrate and rest.”

Murphy covered the chart with his hand. “Was it a heart attack? Sure as hell looked like one.”

“No, it wasn‟t a heart attack,” the doctor tossed his pen on the counter and shook the sheriff‟s hand
away. “Close enough though. Agitating her certainly didn‟t help.”

“And now?” Murphy nodded toward her room, “Is she all right?”

“Should be. Another twelve hours, couple decent meals in her, more fluids, some humid-therapy,
should do the trick. She was terrified of the tent. I tried to treat her without it. Certainly didn‟t want to
sedate her until lab work came back.” Talbot snapped the clipboard into the cart. “My prescription is
back off. Do your detective thing and catch the bastard, don‟t be one. Or get someone in here who
knows what the hell they‟re doing. Now, if you‟ll excuse me, I‟ve got patients.”

“Can I see her? Not going to ask her any questions, just to reassure her we‟re doing what we can.”
Murphy didn‟t like asking, hat in hand.

“Mr. Cooper‟s in there. That other Sheriff, Lucas? He‟s come and gone. Might as well.” Doctor Talbot
stalked away wondering why he bothered to wear his nametag. No one listened to him.

The light was dimmed when he inched the door open. Max met him, not letting the sheriff progress
further. “News?”

“No, just wanted to see how she‟s doing. Lucas is following up on the tape with local PD. I‟ve been up
at the camp most of the day. No prints, no nothing. Found the car in the lake. Laptop, cell phone and
camera are drying out, but doubt there‟ll be much we can salvage. Found her bag behind the shed.
It‟s at the nurse‟s station. Backpack probably weighs more than she does. Looks like everything is in
it, including the $12.73 and two packs of cigarettes she bought on the way to work Thursday
morning.” He craned his neck to see beyond Max. A clear vinyl curtain, tucked beneath the mattress,
surrounded the bed. Fans and pumps made enough noise to drown him out. “Vapor tent?”

“Yes. They slipped a mickey in the IV so she‟ll sleep.” Max rubbed his eyes and rolled his shoulders.

“Lucas said the natives at your place are getting restless. Might want to call them.” Murphy glanced
down the hall to the empty nurse‟s station. “I‟ve got two men downstairs and one that‟s going to park
his ass right outside here tonight. Lucas sent his boys home to keep an eye on your place.”

Max yawned and nodded at the nurse who asked if he wanted some more coffee. “Good.”

“When my Deputy gets here, go sack out at the hotel. Aren‟t going to do anyone any good falling over
on your face.” Murphy backed from the door.

Max let the door close and went to wash his face, thanked the nurse for yet another cup of instant
coffee and settled into the recliner. He was grateful for the thermal blanket the nurse brought with the
coffee. It was chilly in the room, all the fans from the pump circulating moist air. Couldn‟t figure out
how it was supposed to warm Jenny up to keep it so damn damp, but she did seem a better color and
when he touched her hand, it felt like flesh, not chicken skin. Whatever was in the IV had worked,
she‟d been sleeping for about two hours, nurse said she ought to sleep through the night.

Jenny woke Max trying to claw through the transparent curtain. He rang for the nurse and tried to
keep her inside the tent without adding bruises. Nurse dived under the curtain, tried to reason with
her, but when she gripped Jenny‟s shoulders and pressed her to the mattress, threatening to restrain
her, Max joined them.

He sat on the edge of the bed. Catching first one hand and then the other, he flattened Jenny‟s palms
to his chest. She tried to push him away, but he cupped the back of her hands. Her eyes finally
stayed open, though glazed with whatever was in the IV, and she stilled.

“I‟ll call the doctor, now.” The nurse said.

“No need to wake up the doctor, is there Jenny?” Max smiled, running his thumb over her knuckles.

She shook her head. “Bad dream.” Her gaze bounced off the nurse and her eyes slid closed.

The nurse checked Jenny‟s blood pressure and observed her for a few more minutes, then tucked the
curtain back in and left.

“Is she gone?” One eye opened.

“Faker.” He shifted but her hand grabbed his. “What?”

“Feel weird.” She squeezed her eyes tight, blinked, tried to focus, then gave up and let her eyes
close. “Like the flu.”

“They juiced you up with something in the IV. People would probably sell an ear to have a hit.” Max
sandwiched her hand between his, rested them on his thigh and enjoyed the smile she managed.
“OK now?”

She shook her head.

Gently, he cupped her cheek, and she turned toward it. Her breath stuttered several times, but no
tears dripped into his palm, though he‟d expected them. He could see the green light winking just
outside the curtain like a stoplight shorting out.

She sighed, warmth spread across his hand. “I can‟t remember where I am.”

Max battled the curtain to kick off his shoes, crawled to the head of the bed and shoved the pillows
behind him. When he drew her to his chest, she gasped. Flipping the IV line over his shoulder like a
winter scarf, he laced his fingers with hers and rested them below her breasts, above the strapping
and felt her chuckle. “So much for my awesome power.” He sighed into her hair.

“It‟ll stop in a minute.”

“My powers or your giggling?” He smiled, burrowing into the stiff pillows. Max rubbed his thumb along
her wrist, but no frantic pulse was pounding there. It was warm, slack. “Where are you?”

“Don‟t care….” Her head rolled toward his arm, and then flinched back to his chest. “Warm.”

“Good. Sleep now. You‟re wearing me out, woman.” He dropped a light kiss on the top of her head.

“My awesome power?”

“Must be.”



“Me too….”

She was quiet so long, Max was sure she‟d finally drifted back to sleep. First one tear, then another
soaked trough his shirt. He used the sheet to mop her face when she stopped, smoothed the blanket
beneath her cheek so she wasn‟t in a puddle. Her eyes opened once more, but there was no
recognition in her gaze, just fear swamped by medication and the alluring oblivion of warmth.

He began to wonder where the hell he was….

“Look Karl, if Sheriff Lucas thinks Grace should stay put, then stay put. She‟s supposed to be on her
honeymoon, what more do they need than a bed and food? Oh for God‟s sake, I didn‟t need to hear
that.” Max‟s exasperated sigh whistled through the vinyl. He was pacing in front of the window, dawn
breaking and highlighting the few silver hairs daring to rest with the black. His shoulders moved
restlessly, working knots away while someone carried on. At several points Max stretched the phone
from his ear and made faces at his reflection in the window.

“That‟s Julian‟s blessing now isn‟t it? All right! Yes, I‟ll talk to her rather than you any day.” Max rested
his knee on the ledge and forehead on the glass. Jenny could tell when Grace spoke, Max rubbed the
back of his neck, but smiled like a big brother listening to a sister‟s complaints about summer camp.
“Yes, I promise you, I‟m fine. The Sheriff here and Sheriff Lucas both seem to think it‟s best for you to
stay put. Personally, I agree, but if you and Julian absolutely must go back to that quaint little place to
consummate your union, be careful, all right?”

He closed his eyes and listened to another onslaught of dithering. “Oh, I don‟t know, the usual
precautions I guess. You‟ve got good security just listen to Nick. Ask Grady if you‟ve got a couple
hours for a detailed flow chart. Darling, that‟s for you and Julian to decide. Isn‟t he some expert at this
third world living? He surely has an opinion on how to deal with terrorist and kidnappings and - Of
course I‟m taking this seriously. Now Grace, that‟s not fair, did I say you should go? You‟re welcome
to stay. Oh, ignore Grady; he hates all your husbands, me included. Well of course you can fill up the
hot tub. Won‟t hurt a thing, we‟ll just winterize it again.”

Max looked to the heavens for strength. That‟s when he spotted Jenny listening with a lopsided grin
on her distorted face. He nearly dropped the phone stuffing the curtain back in place. She waved her
fingers at him before rolling to her other side and wrestled the curtain like she was battling some
jungle vines with her bare hands. When she realized the IV was still attached, she stilled, staring at
the back of her hand as if stumped for the next coherent thought.

“Yes, of course I‟m listening Grace. Yes. You are being reasonable. Julian is a wonderful man, I‟ve
said so a dozen times. For God sake, Grace, I gave you away, didn‟t I? Well, yes, I gave you to the
others too – except for Steve…. Oh give me a break; I was young and full of shit back then. He most
certainly did deserve – no you‟re right, no point in – I agree, Grace. Yes, Grace.” Max was trying to
nudge Jenny back behind the curtain, but her frantic tugging on the IV alerted him to the fact she
wasn‟t confused she was desperate. Covering the mouthpiece he said, “Wait. I‟ll get the nurse to help

“Just take this out!” She was peeling the tape while not listening to Grace lecture him about letting go
of old garbage, embracing tolerance and forgiveness, allowing the past to be the past.

“What are you doing?” The nurse made both Max and Jenny jump.

“Bathroom!” Jenny pleaded.

Max got the hell out of the way. “Grace, I appreciate all you‟ve said and I‟m going to really, really think
about it. Right now, I need to go. Because the cell phone is dying. Talk with Julian, I‟m sure – I know
you can make decisions for yourself. I do not think marriage turns a woman into a lesser being – I
didn‟t say anything, not a word did I utter about cows! Yes. I really mean it. You‟re welcome to stay as
long as you‟d like. I will. Yes, I‟ll be sure and tell her. I know you do. Bye.”

Jenny and her IV pole steered back to the bed by the nurse looked as full of energy as Max felt. He
hated hospitals, hated being on the receiving end of Grace‟s dithering when they both knew damn
good and well she wouldn‟t step one foot off the property until someone was behind bars or dead. He
just hoped Julian didn‟t throttle her before the ink dried on their marriage license. God help the man if
the rest of Grace‟s brotherhood of husbands showed up.

“The doctor will be here soon. I‟m sure he‟s considering removing the tent. But, until then, you need to
stay put. How about some tea?” The nurse was tucking the vinyl beneath the mattress as if she‟d like
to nail it there, but her smile never faltered.

Jenny crossed her arms mutinously and glared through the clear barrier. The nurse pretended not to
notice. “I‟ll go get your breakfast tray and see what‟s keeping Doctor Talbot all right?”

Without waiting for an answer, she breezed by Max and through the door. Jenny was peeling tape
from the back of her hand before the latch clicked. Max shook his head, flopped into the recliner and
shook out the newspaper. He‟d done enough pacifying for one day, thank you very much.

“Ms Benedict! Now really.” Doctor Talbot sounded so disappointed Max had to lower the two-day old
paper. Sure enough, Jenny had the IV out of her hand and looped around the pole, she was kneeling,
trying to reach the shut off for the incessantly running fans and pumps. Fortunately, she‟d put a
second gown on, backwards, so her bottom wasn‟t hanging out.

“Our hospitality isn‟t that bad is it?” The doctor chided her.

Jenny deflated to the bed, tucking a wad of hair behind her ear. “No, but I‟m – this is unnecessary.”

“And where did you go to medical school? Hmmm?” He glanced at the clipboard before shoving the
curtain aside, the one the nurse had just replaced. He listened to her lungs, fussed over how the
strapping had shifted and asked if she felt dizzy or light headed, “After the trip to the bathroom or your
acrobatics? Either one? No. All right. Let‟s shut it down, see how she does. Take her vitals as noted
and page me if necessary.”

He patted Jenny‟s hand. “We can probably discharge you today, if you eat a meal. A full meal, not
just a piece of toast or a slice of an orange, got that?”

“Wait a minute,” Max stuffed the paper aside. “Just like that you dump her in the streets?”

“No one‟s dumping anyone, anywhere. But there‟s nothing more we can do for her. Time, rest and
nourishment are all you need now.” Doctor signed the clipboard and absently offered, “I can give you
the name of several good counselors in the city if you don‟t have one of your own. I‟ll leave that with
your discharge instructions all right? Good.” He nodded once more at Jenny and strode from the

The nurse flipped off the machines, cut off the oxygen and rolled back the vinyl. “We‟ll leave all this
here for a few hours, just in case. But, I doubt you‟ll need it. I‟ll send breakfast along in a minute. After
Doctor is done with his rounds, I‟ll come back with your paperwork. Excuse me, Mr. Cooper.” The
nurse bustled from the room, sidestepping Max‟s astonishment.

“Insurance.” Jenny shook her head at him as if he were an imbecile. “Only so many days.”

“No.” Max reared back.

Jenny smiled, covered the corner of her mouth, and shrugged the shoulder that wasn‟t taped up.
“Thank God for stingy insurance.”

Sheriff Murphy waltzed through the door with her breakfast tray. Jenny‟s smile evaporated.

“No questions, just breakfast.” He promised and set the tray on the table. “Becca said if you eat it all
you get to bust out of this joint?”

“Yes.” Jenny eyed the contents of the tray as if it was a mountain to climb and she was in flip flops.

“Don‟t worry, they can‟t keep you much longer.” Sheriff Murphy took a big bite of eggs, swallowed and
waved the fork over the remains, “It‟s been twenty four hours since the „cardiac incident,‟ no fever, no
irregular heart tones, blood pressure is normal and stable, and no need for oxygen, plus your body
temp is stable. Stable means out you go.” He took another bite of gooey eggs and she grimaced.

“I can go home.” The relief was evident. She bit some toast and actually swallowed it. “Where am I,

“About seven hours from home. I checked your ID.” He winked and finished her eggs. “Think you can
do the rest or do I got to fling myself on your corn flakes?”

“Seven hours?” Jenny dropped her toast. “How did I – are you sure?”

“You really can‟t go home though.” Murphy folded a piece of bacon and popped it in her mouth,
hanging open in shock. Max reached across and nudged her chin closed, glaring at the Sheriff.

“What? Tell me you haven‟t thought of that already?” Murphy shrugged and hitched his bony butt onto
the window ledge.

“Just eat.” Max waved at the tray, “It can wait.”

“Why wait? She can eat and hear at the same time.” Murphy winked at Jenny who paled and chewed
her bacon. “Some bastard is still out there. He knows where you live, went through your backpack for
sure. He‟ll know you‟re alive once some twit here gossips. Maybe he‟s in South America living it up,
maybe he‟s sitting around the corner waiting for you to walk out of here, or maybe he‟s sitting in your

“I don‟t have a basement.” Jenny rubbed her forehead, encountered a tender spot and closed her
eyes in frustration. “He knows I didn‟t see him, hear him. I can‟t identify him. Why bother?”

“Because he‟s a crappy kidnapper, probably not the clearest thinker in the world.” Murphy was laying
it on with a trowel. “Now, let‟s talk protective custody. I have a nice little safe house out on route four.
We‟ve only used it once, but it‟s nice, clean and there is indoor plumbing, though it uses a generator
for electricity.”

Jenny blinked, shredded her toast, shook her head and asked her corn flakes, “Where do you really
want me to go?”

“Told you!” Max couldn‟t help crowing.

Murphy shrugged again, attempted to look crushed, but his grin broke through. “Was Lucas‟ idea, I
thought my performance was excellent.”

    Jenny dipped a teabag in and out of the hot water, “Just tell me. Please.”

    “Sheriff Lucas thinks it‟s a good idea to go with an „all the eggs in one basket‟ strategy.” Murphy
    leaned against the window and swung his leg. Max wasn‟t sure if he was still playing his part or if he
    really didn‟t give a shit about how Jenny felt.

    “I need to – excuse me.” She shoved the tray away and scrambled from the bed, her knees tried to
    cave, but she caught the wall, slid into the bathroom and slammed the door. Sounds of breakfast
    rebounding echoed through the room.

    “Fucked that up, didn‟t I?” Murphy sighed.

    “Pretty much.” Max tapped on the bathroom door. “Jenny?”

    Water running in the sink was her only answer.

Murphy folded the paper, then the blanket Max had left wadded in the recliner. “She said anything else?”

Max waved at the rolled up vinyl. “While she was stoned or while she was freaking out?”

“You spent all this time up here, thought maybe she‟d talked about-”

“She‟s been busy trying to breathe.” Max straightened Jenny‟s covers and poured out the corn flakes,
“She‟s not said anything else. I‟m sorry, I know you‟re trying to help.”

“Doctor called the aunt. She‟s not a happy tycoon. He caught her at some meeting, she chewed his ass
for not calling her the second Ms Benedict was admitted.” Murphy laughed, “Grilled him about what kind
of accident she‟d been in. Got Doc‟s hackles up but good, he mouthed all that confidential stuff and
pointed out she wasn‟t even listed as next of kin.”

“Aunt Diana?” Jenny leaned against the outer wall. “He called her?”

“Found your backpack, brought it in, didn‟t they give it to you?” Murphy frowned and glanced around,
spotting the blue denim bag sitting on the wooden chair. “There it is.”

She lifted the bag, sat down and untied the flap, prowling through the contents.

“We found it at the fishing camp.” Murphy beamed as if he‟d done an amazing thing.

“It fell – I dropped it in the garage. They left it.” Jenny was prowling through the bag, smiled with relief
upon discovering something, then closed it. “Are they going to let me have my clothes back? I need some
clothes - and a shower. God, I need a shower!”

“We‟ll get you-”

“I got you some clothes, there in the cabinet.” Max nodded at the cabinet with his chin, wondering how
she‟d stand on her feet long enough to shower, let alone dress.

Jenny sighed, looking at the seven feet from the chair to the cabinet as if it was seven miles.

“Ms Benedict, about the backpack. You said you dropped it in the garage, how do you know they didn‟t
pick it up after they uh, put you in the trunk?” Murphy leaned forward and watched her face, as if her next

words might unravel the universe.

“When I told them – they didn‟t have it – couldn‟t check my ID. Laughed about a „star‟ carrying a
backpack.” Jenny glowered at him. “I‟m not – there‟s no brain damage.”

Murphy rolled back as if she‟d slugged him in the head. “So someone brought the backpack to the

Max rolled the breakfast tray to Jenny, thinking out loud “Or they had it and were lying.”

“And didn‟t go through it?” Murphy shook his head.

“Do you think the nurse would let me take a shower now?” Jenny stuffed the other piece of toast in her
mouth. “No, I should call Aunt Diana, shouldn‟t I?”

“We really need to discuss this protective custody issue,” Murphy sighed.

“No.” Jenny shook her head. “I‟m going home. Aunt Diana will send her car for me.”

She shoved dirty hair that still smelled of antiseptic and decaying leaves out of her eyes. Eyeing the
phone, she took a fortifying breath and rose to her feet. Her knees locked, she waited a moment before
taking purposeful steps to the edge of the bed where the nightstand held a phone. Instead of picking the
phone up, she sagged to the bed and covered her face.

Her fingers didn‟t muffle the pitiful frustration. “I just want a shower.”

“Ms Bene-”

“That‟s enough, Sheriff.” Max waved his hand at the one-track officer. “No one likes to face the morning
without a shower.”

Murphy rolled his eyes, but shut his mouth.

Max rang for the nurse, who huffed a bit over the request during breakfast and rounds, but promised to
put Jenny on the shower list first. “There‟s plenty of time to finish your breakfast. Have a cup of coffee. I‟ll
get Gloria down here as soon as I can….”

“It‟s instant.” Jenny laughed, wiping at her eyes.

Max sat on the bed next to her, put his arm around her shoulder and commiserated about instant coffee.
“It‟s like waking up in hell, facing that in the morning.”

She nodded; her hand gripped his, when he captured it. “You can taste the plastic seal no matter how
many times you brush your teeth.”

“And those grains get between your teeth, right at the gum line, takes days to melt.” Max shuddered.

“Eggs in the basket,” Jenny whispered, “Tell me?”

“It can wait.” He ran his palm over her upper arm to reassure her, sorry when she flinched. Damn bruises
were everywhere.

“Better than instant hell.” She tilted her head to grin at him, the paleness of her face marred with bruising,
scraped raw in several places. Though most of the swelling had subsided, she looked worse than
Frankenstein‟s false face.

“True.” Max felt his lips twitching, gave up on the serious face, and smiled. “I have an eighty-eight acre
retreat. There is one-way in, one-way out with security in place. No one will think to look for you there.
Murphy and Lucas have been very, very discreet up to now. They need more room to work and the Feds
will be involved.”

“No one, meaning?” Jenny bit her lip, trying to still the wobble. Her left eye was threaded with red; several
stitches had been made near her eyebrow.

“Media. The story will be released in a controlled manner-”

“But they know you were here.” Jenny pointed out.

“Yes, but Murphy‟s going to set up the protective custody story, you won‟t leave with me.” Max felt her
fingers dig into his palm; the torn nails scraped his flesh.

“Why?” Her whisper clawed deeper than her nails.

“Safer for you. Safer for Grace, and I have room.” Max breezed through the moment easier than he‟d

Jenny shook her head. “I just – You‟ve already – It‟s not your fault, or Grace‟s.”

Max smiled, “Sheriff Murphy is a lousy actor, as you‟ve seen, so he‟s going to use a policewoman in that
safe house to create the illusion you‟re there. By the time the media figures it out, they‟ll probably both
have medals and cushy retirement will be a lot closer.”

“If – but – I might never – I should go home.” Jenny drew her hand away and inched from his arm. “If I
don‟t go now – hiding is never the answer.”

“That‟s Aunt Diana talking.” Max rubbed his stinging palm on his jeans.

“She‟s usually right though.” Jenny smiled at Max‟s hiss of exasperation. “Told me not to-” Her eyes
clouded for a moment, then cleared as another thought occurred to her. “They want to fill out more
paperwork. That‟s why, isn‟t it? If I‟m at home, they think I won‟t – but I would!”

“Would you?” Murphy‟s doubtful voice snapped Jenny‟s head around. He had one leg propped on the
window seat, his wrist resting across his knee. “Most people just want to forget things, get on with life.
Natural. We‟ve still got to catch this guy before you can do that.”

“What do I tell – how do I explain this – she‟s never going to believe – not any of this.” Jenny shuddered.

“Tell her you‟re going on a retreat, won‟t even be a lie.” Max suggested and leaned back on his elbows,
spread across the bed so he could see her face. Mocking her irritation, he asked, “How old are you

“Thirty-five.” Jenny sighed. “You don‟t understand – doesn‟t matter.”

“There‟s no instant coffee.” Max nudged her hand with his knee. She was leaning so heavily on it, she
nearly tipped forward.

“Tempting as that is, no.” Jenny closed her eyes. “Lock me in the protective thing. What are a few more

“You‟re in no shape to be alone.” Murphy shook his head. “Deputies will have enough to do without
worrying about you keeling over because you won‟t eat. Besides I need a trained decoy, not the real
thing. You‟d probably shoot yourself in the foot, or one of the deputies.”

“I eat.” Jenny wasn‟t defensive, as Murphy had hoped. Just defeated.

“Right.” Murphy said and hopped to his feet. They‟d already won. Damned if he was going to sit there and
grind her to dust over it. He‟d leave that to the feds. “I‟ll be back in three hours unless the doc tells me
otherwise. Mr. Cooper, make those calls. Ms Benedict enjoy your shower.”

Her eyes remained closed even after the Sheriff left. Max watched her face, but there was no sign of life.
When Gloria an aide with a raven black ponytail, bustled through the door and clicked her tongue over the
breakfast tray, Jenny remained as a statue.

“Ready for a shower?” Gloria asked, gathering soap, towels and clothing.

Max covered her hand with his, “Please?”

Her nod was barely perceptible, but he felt the tension that snapped her eyes opened. “Yes. I want a

The aide assisted Jenny to her feet and began a steady stream of chatter about taping stitches and not
using water too hot. “We‟ll need to let the nurse check all the stitches afterwards, but I‟ve done hundreds,
thousands of showers, never dampened a stitch yet!”

Max flopped back on the bed, sure she hadn‟t.

Jenny drew deeper into the hood of a dark green sweatshirt. It was at least three sizes too big, but lined
with fleece and warm. Riding down in the elevator with an orderly, two deputies and Sheriff Murphy had
been an exercise in exasperation. She‟d complained once about all the fuss drawing attention to them
and Murphy had grinned like a teenager.

“More fuss the better. If you could sob and shriek a bit, that would probably help us out.” He raised his
bushy eyebrows expectantly. “Well, leave it to us then.”

She was assisted into the back of the patrol car with the lights flashing and blinking, no siren, thank God.
The orderly had snapped the wheelchair flat after tossing her backpack, a trash bag of clothing and
instructions at her feet. Sheriff Murphy squatted by the car, using the door for balance.

“Now listen, Deputy Wallace is going to drive you out to the safe house. Do exactly as he says and you‟ll
be on your way before you know it.” He reached to pat her hand, but she shrank from his touch. Nodding
he unbent, slammed and slapped the door, waved his hand at the row of three cars lined up, “Move out.”

The car behind slowed just long enough for Murphy to hop into the passenger seat. He was grinning and
laughing like a maniac when Jenny turned back around. Deputy Wallace was smirking in the rearview
mirror. “You‟d think he‟d grow up wouldn‟t you?”

Jenny tried to smile, but it was as frozen as her hands. The misty day didn‟t help, she felt as shrouded by
the weather as the vapor tent. “How far is it?”

“About thirty minutes, give or take.” Deputy shrugged. He was young, maybe twenty-five, with a cap of
dark hair and droopy dog earlobes. His face was thickly pored, rough jawed and he made Jenny feel like
cringing into the corner. His smile was kindly meant, but she took no comfort in it.

None of the scenery made an impression once they reached the two-lane highway. She was surprised
when Wallace swerved to pass the first car on a covered bridge, her gasp made him laugh.

“Get down on the floor.” He slid in front of the other car.

Jenny slid off the seat, curling tight as the strapping allowed and tried not to feel as if the trunk would
close on her any second. The car stopped, but she stayed huddled on the floor. The Deputy didn‟t get
out, but she heard the car doors closed beside them. Leaning her head on the seat, she could see they
were directly in front of a small farmhouse, the paint peeling beneath a snagging roof.

“Go on to your regular spot. We‟re good.” Sheriff Murphy‟s voice came over the radio in the front seat.
Wallace did a three-point turn, down the gravel road and back out to the highway.

A few minutes later he turned into a side road and wheeled around to be cocooned in some trees and
overgrowth. Speed trap. “Just stay down till I tell you, all right?”

Her throat was so constricted she couldn‟t make a sound. He glanced across the seat, nodded his hat off
and tossed it on the seat beside him. “Won‟t be long.”

It felt like forever before a green pick up truck pulled up. A large man dressed in hunting clothes jumped
out, spit and hiked his jeans up before ambling over to the patrol car. “Morning. Murph sent me.”

“In the back. Careful, she‟s wobbly.” Wallace kept his eyes on the road as the man walked around to
open the door.

“Hello.” He smiled with a stained tooth grin, “name is Bear.” He grabbed her bag and backpack, shoved
them inside his jacket and zipped it so he looked like his name. “Stay low and shimmy up in the truck, I‟ll
grab your stuff.”

Jenny didn‟t move from the car to the truck quickly, neither did she „just shimmy‟ gracefully, but she
managed to crouch on the floor among the wadded fast food bags and empty oil bottles. Bear waved at
the Deputy before peeling out, unzipping, shifting and apologizing all at once.

“Sorry about the mess. Murph didn‟t get hold of me until an hour ago. I tidied some, but he said time was
ticking.” He laughed, but didn‟t glance down at her. “We‟ll meet up in an hour. You ok?”

“F-fine.” Jenny shivered.

“This old truck ain‟t got heat. Sorry.” Bear flipped the windshield wipers on and wiped at the glass with an
old rag. “No damn defroster either. But Murph said to use the old truck…. You‟re young, not like my old
bones, won‟t freeze to death in just an hour, huh?”

He was trying to be reassuring. Jenny ached to believe his off hand kindness. It wasn‟t working, so she
leaned against the door and closed her eyes. Better to let the man think she was sleepy than know she
was a terrified idiot.

“Where the hell are they?” Bear grouched. He could see his passenger was shaking like the trees in the
wind and her teeth would shear off if she didn‟t get warm soon. They‟d been waiting for thirty minutes at
the abandon gas station. Pulled up in the bay like Murphy said, but no one was there to meet. “Maybe the
storm slowed them down huh?”

Jenny nodded. Bear had yammered on and on as he drove. She heard more about his life than she would
ever remember. At first she thought he‟d gabbled because he was nervous and she was quiet, but it didn‟t
take her long to figure out he just liked to hear his own voice. Laughed at his own jokes, told her stories
about being in the war and how he celebrated when he got home. If even half of it was true, she was
more than impressed.

“Hey, wake up now.” He tapped her head, snug in the hood and her face snapped up. His smile was

relieved. “You looked ready to slip away on me there.”

“Just cold.” Jenny hunched restlessly against the door. Everything hurt after the hour jostling over back
roads and the whine of the highway. They must be halfway to Detroit by now, she thought, though Bear
told her they were just taking the scenic route.

“Well, they don‟t show up in the next ten minutes, I‟m taking you back. No sense this.” Bear rolled down
the window and spit for the hundredth time.

Wind whistled across her face and made her retreat into the hood, banging her head on the door. She
longed for Tylenol.

“Here they come. Stay put now.” He hopped out of the truck, standing beside it with the door open and
looked over the car pulling up. “Murphy say anything to you about two a limo?”

Jenny shrugged. Sheriff Murphy didn‟t say much of anything to her, or maybe he had and she hadn‟t
been listening. The shower seemed to suck every drop of energy and getting dress definitely borrowed
from next year‟s. It was all she could do to keep her eyes open as he outlined his „master plan.‟

The door opened and Jenny spilled backwards against someone‟s thigh. She couldn‟t look up because
the hood flopped forward and her hands were flailing to grab something, anything to keep her from
landing on the wet, oily pavement.

“Falling at my feet?” Max‟s humor was charged with enough energy to get from the truck to her feet.
“Come on, got a cozy nest in the back. You can sack out and we‟ll be there before you know it.”

She hesitated because her legs didn‟t seem to remember how to move. “My stuff….”

“Nick‟s got it.” Max frowned at the large man glaring at him.

“No heat in the truck.” Bear spit again.

“Shit.” Max gripped her shoulder and nudged her toward the big car.

“I don‟t – can I stretch a minute. Floors are getting hard-”

“No more floors, Jenny. You can stretch out on the seat. Come on.” Max chuckled and tucked her head
down so she wouldn‟t hit it getting inside. “Nick, crank up that heat huh?”

“You got it.” The young man flipped a switch and Jenny felt warm air sting her cheeks.

“Oh, Mr. Bear….”

Max stuffed a pillow beneath her head, “He already took off. Murphy will tell him thanks for you.” He
pulled a blue blanket over her, soft and full of insulating warmth. Tucking it around her, he noted how pale
her lips were. “Jesus. Finally got you warm just to drag you out in the rain and cold.”

“Better than – instant coffee.” She chattered.

“Not by much.” He laughed. “Let‟s get moving Nick. We‟re settled back here.”

The limo pulled through the bay and around the gas station, soared onto the highway and Jenny‟s eyes
drifted closed. “You shouldn‟t – get off the floor.”

“A football team could sleep on this floor. I‟m fine, just rest.” Max fingered hair from her face, tucked the
hood back a bit so the heat would reach her. “Warming up?”

She nodded, stifled a yawn and tried to keep her eyes opened. “Weird day.”

“You‟re telling me!”

She woke in a large room without a clue how she got there. Bed was much too comfortable to be a
hospital, that‟s all that mattered to her. Pale yellow walls, washed with impressions of blue flowers
dabbled in a random pattern, approached her like a field in sunshine. The comforter was in leaf green and
grounded the theme of the room well. Sky blue sheers graced two ceiling to floor windows and a French
door. A bookshelf with curios and books arranged to please the eye separated the sleeping area from a
table with two chairs upholstered in a burnt orange. Across from the shelf, a door led to a tiled bathroom
where someone had left the light on.

On the outer wall, just behind a love seat and coffee table sturdy enough for any one‟s boots to rest on
but stained with a pale sheen, was another door. Large chest of drawers and a rocking chair in the corner
led back to the bed. Grandmother would have enjoyed it, appreciated the color and comfort suggested.

Cautiously, Jenny rolled across the double bed, gripping the edge of the mattress to heave over. Stiff but
finally without sharp pain, she felt renewed by her sleep, except for the taste of instant coffee still coating
her teeth. The dizziness was unsurprising, but it passed. Plodding over the thick gray carpeting, she
wondered who took her socks off, but forgot such a mundane question standing in the bathroom doorway.

“Wow.” The room looked like something out of Handyman Quarterly. A raised tub with tongue and groove
paneling surrounding a forest green liner, double sinks, a shower stall, even the toilet had it‟s own little
corner with swinging bar doors. Combs, brushes, soaps and towels were arranged on the chest under a
window that was frosted to maintain privacy.

Afraid she might never get out of the tub, let alone tape up the stitches properly, Jenny settled for a
shower that took longer than expected but washed away the hospital soap smell. Grateful someone had
found her clothing that actually fit, she slid into a long sleeve t-shirt and green velour jumper. The tights
were too much effort as were the socks. The rails of new scabs on her legs and arms were coarse,
snagging on the t-shirt. Fortunately, clothing hid most of them well enough. At least she didn‟t have to
look at them. Untangling and combing out her hair wasn‟t easy since she couldn‟t stand to look in the
mirror at the mottled bruises on her face. It was disturbing to see a stranger with over bright eyes staring
back at her.

“Could have been much worse.” She chided her vanity. “Remember that.”

Jenny was examining the curios on the shelf when the door opened and a mountain of a man backed in
carrying a tray. Her hand closed around a large piece of sparkling quartz, shifting it to her palm.

“Oh, good, you‟re up. Got your medication and some coffee.” He crossed the room to the table as if
settling the tray was his only concern. Placing cups and saucers on the table, uncovering the coffee pot,
even a vase with black-eyed susans graced the pine surface. “I have a yogurt smoothie. When my jaw
was busted up, it was months before I could stand to chew. Figured you could use nourishment that was
slurp-able. It‟s my own recipe, high protein slop masked with strawberries and just a hint of peach.”

Jenny watched him dress up the table, not moving or speaking.

“If you‟re going to bash me with the rock, better get a step stool kiddo.” He tipped the tray against the
wall, turned and held out a chair.

She didn‟t move.

He smiled with a twitch of mockery. “I‟m Grady O‟Brien, general dogs body, retired. If I was going to hurt

you, would I bring coffee?”

Jenny dropped the rock on the shelf. “Probably not.”

“There now, come and sample my smoothie.” He waved her forward, but she did no more than dart her
gaze from the table and back to him.

“It‟s not poisoned.” Grady laughed. The sound was warm, rich as the aroma of the coffee. Shrugging, he
poured out dark brew into two large mugs. “Bring your rock if you want.”

He sat down, sipped his coffee as if he were in a tuxedo instead of plaid and jeans. Legs crossed and a
smile just polite enough to be friendly without so much as nudging the alarming zone.

“Will I need it?” She bit her lip, as surprised the words popped out as Grady was pleased.

“No.” He shook out a burgundy cloth napkin. Bite sized muffins spilled across a china platter. “These are
lighter than air.”

Jenny settled across from him, finding the smile stretching her scabbed cheek the first real moment of
pleasure for what felt like years. The smoothie was good, the bite of muffins as he boasted and the coffee
perfect. When Grady tapped the painkillers on the table, Jenny shook her head and poured more coffee.

“Do you know where my bag is?” Jenny looked around the room, shocked to discover she hadn‟t made
the bed. She hadn‟t done that since she was six. Grady rocked to his feet and was back with the bag
before she could truly remember the last time a bed remained unmade in her life… maybe when her
grandmother died? No, she stripped the beds that day – all of them.

“Thank you.” She rummaged in the bag, found a thick scrunchie for her hair and looped a ponytail.
Gazing with longing at the French door, she asked, “May I go out there?”

“Don‟t see why not.” Grady opened the door and moved aside. “Not raining.”

“There‟s a pond.” She placed the cup on the rail to light a cigarette. Her eyes closed as she inhaled.

Grady leaned his elbow on the rail next to her, grinning as he fished in shirt pocket, lighting his own
smoke. Exhaling, he pointed out, “Smoking will kill you.”

“Hm.” She nodded, sipped the coffee and leaned over the rail to better view the area. “I expected –
concrete fountains - orderly rows of – it‟s beautiful.”

It was, the woods seemed to come right up to the house, ivy, hardwoods without many leaves now, stems
where wild flowers had bloomed. A clearing to what she guessed was the back of the house, was where
the pond was nestled, “You have ducks this time of year.”

“Just the ones too lazy to fly off.” Grady sniffed. “There‟s a hut with a heat lamp, feed. It‟s a cushy life for a
bird. What made you think it would be like that, orderly and concrete?”

Jenny shrugged. “He seems to like order.”

“Ha! Can‟t stand books out of place but otherwise, Max is a slob.” Grady winked at her, wrinkles of flesh
under his eyes well used.

She glanced away, her smile a struggle to hold on to. “My grandmother smoked. Five a day: two in the
morning, one after lunch and two in the evening. She was 88 when – she‟d love the view.”

Grady nodded, “It is restful. Even in the winter when we‟re snowed in for weeks.”

“When did you – how did you hurt your jaw?” Jenny asked.

“Oh, some crazed fans tried to stampede Grace. I got in the way.” Grady tossed his butt over the balcony,
unlike Jenny who carefully tipped hers upside down on the rail. “I used to be her dogs body before I got
too slow. Some punk with a knife busted my guts and popped my knee.” He shrugged.

Jenny shuddered, finished her coffee and dug out another cigarette. “The smoothie was good.”

Grady laughed. “Glad you liked it. We‟ll have something a bit more filling for lunch. I‟ve got chores, want
some more coffee?”

She frowned, glanced at her empty cup but couldn‟t decide.

“I‟ll leave the pot.” Grady nodded at her as if he were tipping his hat, “Max‟ll be along. That Sheriff was
pacing on the doorstep before dawn. He‟s down in the kitchen gobbling eggs and making demands.”

Jenny‟s shoulders stiffened. “Sheriff Lucas?”

“That‟s him. Nosy son of a b- guy.” Grady paused at the door, “You can smoke in the house.”

“It‟s nice out here.” Jenny didn‟t turn around.

“Don‟t get a chill.” Grady shrugged at her back, gathered up the used dishes and glanced through the
sheers more times than he would have admitted. Never seen a woman so still….

When Max tapped and opened the door, Grady just pointed at the open balcony door with his chin. “A bit
scattered, otherwise seems ok.”

“Thanks. Lucas is gulping coffee with Karl. When he gets on your nerves, throw him out. I‟ve had enough
of the man for the day.” Max snagged the last muffin.

“Gladly.” Grady closed the door on his way out, a delighted grin on his face. Nothing he liked better than
being surly in the morning, encouragement made it a double pleasure.

“Good morning.” Max leaned against the doorframe. She didn‟t startle at the sound of his voice. She must
have heard him talking with Grady.

“It is lovely here. Just like a retreat.” There was a smile in her voice, relief.

“It is. How are you feeling?” Max leaned on the rail with his back to the view.

“Sick of being asked.” She bowed her head, stunned. Had she ever snapped like that before? Struggling
to force graciousness into her tone, she barely managed to whisper, “I‟m better, thank you.”

Max tilted his head, waited for her to glance up so he could smile reassuringly. It didn‟t happen, she kept
her gaze on her mug, even took another gulp before he gave up waiting.

“Better than instant?” He asked.

“Much.” She was brittle as the stems of the wildflowers.


She shook her head and a tear splashed in the coffee. Max inched closer, his arm brushing hers, relieved
when she didn‟t move away. “When my grandmother died, after everyone left, I made a big pot of tea, sat
at the kitchen table and howled for hours. Felt so good – now, they won‟t shut off, but…. Doesn‟t feel

Max laced his hands over his middle, elbows on the rail. “How long has your grandmother been gone?”

“Six, no eight months now. Seems less.” Jenny met his gaze and he nodded, not surprised. He
remembered when his dad died, seemed like years before the stabbing ache quit prodding him. Jenny
cleared her throat, re-focused on the beauty surrounding her. “When I was fourteen – a drunk driver hit
and run. Everyone thought she‟d never recover, but she promised – Took two years – she came home
and we managed. She was never physically strong after that, but her mind was clear and sharp. She
taught herself to paint, on glass. So many broken panes of glass – Sadie could swear like a sailor.” Jenny
giggled and bobbed her head against Max‟s upper arm.

“Where was Aunt Diana?”

“Keeping the businesses going.” Jenny gripped the rail and leaned forward when she heard something
moving around below, geese, several of them. “Ran with the big dogs. Sixteen book stores in twelve
cities, forty coffee shops in twenty-three cities, two exclusive restaurants and the BeneVilla Hotel Chain.
You know, the bed and breakfast intimacy with four-star service? That was Sadie‟s baby. Aunt Diana has
rounded her out.”

“I am impressed.” Max elbowed her.

Jenny tilted her head.

“You come from strong women.” He pointed out, the train of encouragement obvious enough to make her

Her snort was disbelieving. “Sadie said I was suited to tend people, not balance sheets. She started
BeneVilla when her husband was killed in the war. Opened the first Villa in her own home when Aunt
Diana was 5 and my mother was 3. Took a life insurance policy, invested it in some long shot. Within ten
years she was restoring old houses, turning them into Villas. She was an impressive woman. Took me in
when I was six. She was sixty, important businesswoman, like Aunt Diana is now. Changed her whole life
to raise me.” Jenny‟s voice drifted away for a moment, lost in comforting memories. “Even after the
accident, while she was stuck in the bed, she knew every manager‟s name and how many sheets were in
the linen cupboards. The bookstores, gift shops, and clothing were Diana‟s scheme, all right inside the
BeneVilla‟s but Sadie didn‟t like the branching out. It was their last argument, so bitter. Sadie had the
stroke. Aunt Diana felt so awful; she couldn‟t stand to come to the house. Five years Sadie waited. Sad
what strength does to people…. Wasteful.”

Jenny swiped at her cheeks and gulped air to stop the swell of more.

“Tell me, did you expect to step out of the trunk and go back to the book store?” Max asked the top of her

Jenny smiled, chuckled at the absurdity of the question. “But this is – I‟m not – oh, don‟t I‟ll just cry more!”

Max tugged her close, “I‟m drip dry.”

She chuckled and wailed at the same time.

“It‟s probably just the re-hydration. Too much liquid in you, has to spill off somewhere.” He rubbed his
cheek across the top of her head, ran his hand over her back and felt the chill beneath the layers. “Come
inside. The view won‟t go anywhere.”

Jenny sniffed, scooping up her bag and mug, “Not back to bed. I am so sick of bed.”

“Well,” Max snicked the door closed behind them, “You can come to the kitchen and meet the family. It
might make you crave the oblivion of sleep.”

Jenny dropped the backpack on the shelf, fingering the quartz. “I was going to bash Mr. O‟Brien with this.”

“Wouldn‟t be the first time. Grady‟s head is too hard to cave much, trust me.” Max straightened the covers
on her bed.

“I was thinking of you – not paying attention. Know better.” Jenny weighed the rock between her hands,
shifting it as if she were weighing her actions that day. “Coming down in the elevator – Pleasant meeting
and – Sadie said she knew – my mother and father met at a dance – was just … nice thoughts.” The rock
hit the wooden shelf with a thud. Jenny glared at the glitter daring to create rainbows on the ceiling. “Idiot

Max observed her drawing inward. It was like she was standing on a rickety bridge in a raging wind. The
way back cut off, the way forward offering no incentive to move and the storm below about to consume
the bridge, and her, in one tornadic blow. He‟d been there a time or two, with less reason.

“Go wash your face, Grady‟s bound to be whipping up something to eat. I‟m starving.” Max turned her
toward the bathroom, gently nudging her forward.

Jenny gripped the bathroom doorframe. “I didn‟t mean to say - Was just - I would have forgotten.”

Max felt a silly grin spreading across his face as he confessed. “I‟d already bribed Nick for the address
where you work. I wanted to remember.”

Her ponytail swung outward as she darted through the door, slamming it behind her with enough force to
make the stone rattle on the shelf.

“Way to use that awesome power there, Max,” he stilled the rocking quartz, but the grin didn‟t fade….

The house that Max built was really two houses. His was a comfortable retreat, the rest, three times as
large, was for guests. In his corner of the world, the three bedrooms opened to a hallway, above his
writing nook. The wood rail opened to and kept watch over a long front room that was really an extension
of his bookshelves and comfortable seating. The stairs ended on one side of the nook, a wood stove was
nested in an old stone fireplace at the other end. The kitchen was a blur as he led her into a squatty
hallway with two doorways.

“I feel like Alice. Which door?” Jenny giggled and covered her mouth. She‟d managed to get the socks on
her feet and tidied her ponytail but she still felt like her brain was half dressed.

“The one on the left goes to the Nick‟s office. The one on the right leads to the, uh, guest house.” Max
opened the door on the right, “After you, Alice.”

Jenny hesitated, “Maybe I should-”

“Might as well get it over with. There‟s no one here that will do more than irritate you. Promise.” Max gave
her shoulder a squeeze but didn‟t prod her further.

“I‟m not easily irritated.” Jenny grinned and enjoyed the echo of Max‟s chuckle when it bounced back at

“Well, the family may challenge your self-image. Just remember, I warned you.” Max sighed dramatically.

“I‟ll remember.” Jenny whispered and stepped through the door, marching the fifteen feet as if it was her
final walk.

The noise of the television and voices didn‟t surprise her. The size of the room did, bringing her up short
so Max bumped into her. A huge stone fireplace was the inner wall, actually hid the hallway she‟d just
walked. Two large rockers and an oval rag rug snuggled close to it. From there, a trestle table that was at
least twenty feet long with benches and two captain‟s chairs at either end. The kitchen itself was blinding
stainless reflection. An army could be fed from the six-eyed gas range. No cabinets above to break the
flow of the room, just the long counter “L” tiled in a checkerboard pattern of red and black defined the
kitchen and dining area. Nearest the fireplace were four bar stools, like in a 1950‟s soda shop.

Jenny froze before it all, not as overwhelmed by the size as much as the sight of Sheriff Lucas hovering
over a television and video on the far side of the room. The pie safe was actually an entertainment center;
speakers were built into the sides and used the room to enhance the distribution of sound. A man Jenny
recognized but couldn‟t place was hunched over a large mug of coffee, while Grace absently caressed his
back and laughed at the Sheriff.

“We‟ve looked at this half a dozen times. Everyone on the video was invited. None of them would wear
some cheap latex masks you buy at the fucking Wal-Mart!” Grace winced when Karl‟s voice raised an
octave and he slammed the coffee pot back on the warmer. “Leon took enough photos to paper the walls
of this place and not a person on there is unaccounted for – including the man who took out the god-
damned trash! So go away until we can focus both eyes.”

“Karl, must you have a tantrum every morning?” Julian kissed Grace‟s cheek and she snuggled closer, or
appeared to. It probably wasn‟t possible for them to sit closer.

“Gets his heart started,” Molly winked at Julian, her hair still damp from her morning swim, but at

“Let‟s us know he‟s with us.” Maudie sipped her tea, leaning one hip on the counter, laughing at Tony as
he groaned and held his hand in front of his face. “It‟s called the sun.”

“What‟s it doing?” The thin young man shuddered by Jenny and Max, stumbled to the table and dropped
his face to his hands. “Coffee. My soul for coffee!”

“Screw your soul – we want that diffuser collection.” Molly elbowed him as Maudie set a large mug before

“In your dreams.” Tony muttered.

“What would you know about my dreams?” Molly rolled her eyes at her sister.

“Only that they involve my diffuser, your hair and enough moaning to wake the dead.” Tony sneered.

Maudie patted Molly‟s hand then smacked Tony upside his perfect hair, “He‟s just a jealous old cow,
ignore him.”

Sheriff Lucas tried to redirect attention he‟d not really had. “If we could just get back to my questions-”

“The only thing worse than morning sun is your questions, Sheriff.” Tony sniggered into his mug. Molly
nodded her agreement.

Jenny inched backwards until she was pasted against Max. His hands rested on either shoulder. He felt

the moment she stiffened her resolve as tangibly as Tony defended his blow dryer attachments.

“What questions?” Jenny cleared her throat because her voice cracked when every eye shifted to her,
except Tony‟s, which sort of rolled up in his head, then bounced about like a rubber ball before centering
properly. “You think he was at the wedding…?”

Julian and Tony stood up, surprising Jenny enough to make her step on Max‟s toes.

“Good morning!” Karl came around the counter, hand extended to draw her to chair at the head of the
table. “Get her some tea Maudie. Where the hell is Grady? Have you eaten?”

Jenny tucked her shoulders from Karl‟s petting and Max nudged him aside when he planted his hands on
the back of her chair. “Grady‟s in the jungle room. He‟s not the chief cook and bottle washer around here.
Make your own breakfast.”

Six people shuddered over the thought of breakfast before noon. Jenny bit her lip and the Sheriff turned
to fiddle with his equipment. Max looked over the counter, “Any more of that tea, Maudie?”

“Plenty.” She grinned at him, “Herbal or breakfast?”

“Surprise me.” Max tapped a finger on Jenny‟s shoulder, “How about you?”

“Breakfast.” Jenny‟s grin couldn‟t help but expand as everyone groaned. She chuckled when Tony
mumbled „sadist‟ before stretching his arm on the table to rest his head.

Max accepted the two mugs without handles, and sat on the bench next to Jenny. “Let me introduce
Grace‟s family. You‟ve met Uncle Karl and glimpsed Julian, her adoring husband of the year. These are
her eccentric cousins, Maudie and Molly and her wayward nephew Tony. Where is brother Nick and the
Wild Things?”

“Nick is hurling verbal bullets at the wild things because he found one of them six feet from the spot he
was supposed to be huddled in last night.” Karl laughed and arranged his cell phone, laptop and mug of
coffee at the opposite end of the table. “Dainty man wanted to be under cover of a few branches instead
of standing in the freezing rain. Nick takes great exception to his „paced security corridor‟ being adjusted
without, you know, invading mongrels to justify it. Man is a tyrant of details.”

“Like you‟re not!” Grace mocked him and elbowed Julian who lit another cigarette and shrugged away
Molly‟s hiss of disgust.

“I don‟t throttle, I manage details so they can‟t evolve.” Karl snapped open his laptop.

Max sipped his tea and winked at Jenny who buried her blush in her teacup. “They can carry on for days
like this. Best to just sit back and enjoy the show.”

“Don‟t be rude, Max.” Grace glared at him.

“Me? The man giving you shelter and sustenance in your hour of need?” Max appealed to Molly who slid
closer to him and further from Julian‟s smoke. “I ask you, how is that rude?”

“Honestly.” Grace sniffed. “No wonder I divorced you. Too damn perky in the morning.”

Jenny felt Max‟s laughter rumble where she‟d expected smart retort. “No wonder at all. It was like living on
opposite sides of the world wasn‟t it?”

Grace tried to maintain her indignation, but failed and the laughter rang through the room. “It was.”

“Now can we review this video?” Poor Sheriff Lucas sounded like he might have to shoot someone if they
didn‟t look at his videos.

“Only if you don‟t start it and stop it forty-seven times.” Julian stubbed out his cigarette and Maudie ran
around the room with an aerosol can of smoke eater reciting the statistics on second hand smoke and the
potential litigation if this issue wasn‟t addressed. Karl glanced up from his keyboarding.

“Read the fine print, dear. You already get hazard pay. Smoking is covered under that. You want more,
you‟ll have to negotiate next year. Until then, shut the hell up, huh?” Karl covered his coffee but he wasn‟t
fast enough to avoid her spray can of contempt.

“You can‟t buy good health,” she slammed the can on the counter.

“Says who?” Karl sneered. “They‟ll transplant your lungs, angel, for the right price. Trust me.”

Lucas filled the room with the noise of the reception, drowning out the next round of morning festivities.
“Just watch the video and tell me if you see anyone unfamiliar, out of place, not who or where they should
be.” He rubbed his temples, trying to massage away the pounding headache he‟d endured since walking
into the mad house hours ago.

Jenny rested her cheek on her hand and watched the video that began with Grace and Julian‟s vows and
ended with them ducking into a white limo in the same garage where she was abducted only an hour or
so before. Max‟s hand found her clenched fist under the table, his thumb stroked her fingers until she
snatched at it, turning her hand in his and squeezing. She saw the smiling, laughing faces gathered
around the car, the elevator doors held open, but she felt and heard the echo of the trunk lid slamming
over her.

Jenny closed her eyes when Lucas shut off the video. Once again, everyone was staring expectantly at
her. She wanted to slide beneath the table. Instead, she pointed out the only thing she recognized, “Aunt
Diana uses those caterers. She says they‟re very reliable and worth every penny.”

“That‟s not exactly what I was hoping for, Ms Benedict.” Lucas sighed.

She shrugged. What else could she say? ’I looked like a drowned Chihuahua with mange, nothing like
Grace Temple, star of screens large and small across the world, and there is no way even the blind could
mistake me for her!’ Somehow, she doubted that would be much use, so she stuck with the conventional,
“I‟m sorry. That‟s all I noticed.”

“Actually,” Max leaned forward, “That‟s maybe something. Have you interviewed the caterers? They are
paid to observe everyone, to notice who needs a drink, who needs a napkin, who spilled red wine on the
carpet so they can cover it up until the guest leave.”

“Of course we did.” Lucas slapped the video on the shelf and shoved another one in. “The only thing they
noticed was being short one woman who had the flu and that the temp dropped a tray of glasses and ran
off crying and never came back. She filled out her paperwork incorrectly and so won‟t even get paid.
Transposed her social security number or something. Mr. Giovanni hopes she comes begging for it so he
can boil her in oil. We‟re still trying to trace her -” He tossed an enlarged photo of half her face on the
table. A robust woman in sensible heels, with, dear god Tony noted, helmet hair.

Max wrinkled his nose at the poor quality of the image. “This is the best Leon got?”

“He was photographing the guest, not the help.” Julian sighed. “That‟s Karl‟s elbow in the shot, he was
making his toast, that‟s the only reason she‟s in it. Everyone was enthralled by his tribute to love.”

Grace looped her arm through Julian‟s, “It was lovely.”

“Yes, it was.” Julian‟s voice softened, as his hand caressed her cheek. “Just like you.”

“Thank you.” Grace didn‟t simper or preen; she melted so her head mated to Julian‟s and the world was
excluded from their intimacy.

Lucas cleared his throat and started the video once more. Tony groaned and floundered sideways,
resting on Molly as if she were his only solace in life. “There, there, my fine boy.” She crooned into his ear
and pillowed him against her bosom.

“You two make me sick.” Karl shoved from the table to rinse out his mug and get another. “Incestuous
petting at the breakfast table.”

Maudie laughed, “They aren‟t related!”

“Might as well be. Bunch of toddlers….” Karl shook his head and returned to his urgent e-mails.

The video was of the garage. Jenny gasped when she saw herself exiting the elevator, juggling her
backpack and the box of books. She wanted to look away, but couldn‟t move, could barely breathe. She
re- experienced her irritation when scanning the well lit area, finding no cab and the hesitation that lasted
but a few moments before she shrugged and turned back to the elevator. Before she could turn around,
the vehicle surging forward, the bumper pressed to her knees so the box was jammed between her and
the doors of the elevator. Her backpack was wrenched from her shoulder and flung from view. Large
hands wrestled for the box.

“I thought they wanted the autographed books.” Jenny whispered, her hands flat on the table, either side
of the teacup. “Fans or something.”

The image was silent surveillance; no one could hear the men‟s voices or her scream, but they could see
her telling them to leave her alone. It was all there, the pathetic struggle she gave them over the box –
still not realizing this was not what they were after. When the box landed on the foot of the man in the
lizard mask and he backhanded her across the hood, you could see comprehension flood her as she
rolled to scramble across the hood. Lizard bent to gather the books, shoving them in the box quickly –
waving one at the other man. Frankenstein hooked Jenny‟s ankle, using it to haul her across the hood,
before jerking a pillowcase over her head, winding a bungee cord around her neck, and twisting it so she
arched, straining to breathe. Lizard tossed the books to the front floorboard, opened the trunk and nearly
slammed her leg in it. They got in, backed up and disappeared from view.

There was a brief moment of white static, another angle from another camera. Jenny‟s backpack was on
the hood of a white compact, resting there as if her shoulder would return any moment. A tall, thin man
with a large umbrella opened – in a parking garage? – strolled by, absently hitching the backpack over his
shoulder and kept walking. Camera angle changed again, all you could see was the tip of the umbrella as
he knelt to pick up a book that must have slid to the elevator. Next the full bloom of the umbrella at the
exit of the garage and one of the straps of the backpack as he leisurely ambled by the attendant. It was
pouring rain and the image was misted by splatters.

“Do you recognize the man with the umbrella?” Lucas snapped the remote and the image rewound to the
moment he reached for the backpack. Pointing at the screen, he asked, “See the watch there? Anyone
ever see that before?”

Tony sat up, “Good God. What a shitty production.”

“No Oscars for that bunch.” Molly patted his hand, but rested her head on his shoulder as if it took all her
effort to chuckle. His arm slid around her and gave her a squeeze.

“They saw her face. There‟s no way they mistook her for Grace.” Julian shook his head. “No way in hell. It
had to be about the books.”

“I admit,” Grace frowned, fiddling with Julian‟s gold lighter, “they were more careful with the box, picked it
up even before – it does seem an odd thing to do….”

“Ever wore one of those masks?” Maudie asked as she sank to the bench, back to the table, leaned on
the other side of Tony. Like a basket of puppies the three of them seemed to curl together for warmth.
“You can‟t see shit. They might not have seen more than her hair, and general features. Grace‟s was that
color for her last movie. People are always surprised by how tall Grace is-”

“Ms Benedict?” Lucas interrupted the critique.

Jenny responded to his voice by shaking her head. “I‟ve never seen the watch. The – Lizard said, „the
woman‟ – didn‟t – but he wasn‟t – they weren‟t going to leave me.”

“Accent? Drawl? Twang? Clip?” Max leaned forward, blocking her view of the television.

“Local, not Eighth Avenue, but close.” Jenny met Max‟s gaze, “Not projects or second generation, but
definitely inner city.”

He grinned as if she‟d done something amazing, before turning to Lucas who was encouraged.
“Excellent. Did you see tattoos, even the edge of one might help.”

“Not gang if that‟s – they were used to working together, alone. Resented the person giving the orders.”
Jenny pushed her chair back and rose. “No ink or mark, but Lizard - a scar on his left hand, an old burn.
His pinky - odd shaped, sort of – twisty.”

“Where are you going?” Lucas straightened as Jenny turned away, his tone sharper than intended.

“No – there.” She pointed to the fire, frozen mid-step, her face pale. “I‟m cold.”

“I‟d like you to look at the videos again.” Lucas smiled, but it held no option.

“All right.” Jenny nodded and sat back down, slowly, as if she might unsettle Lucas with a sudden

“Maybe we should take a little break, Sheriff.” Karl suggested.

“No.” Jenny waved Maudie and the teapot away. “Stupid not – It‟s why I‟m here. Right? Paperwork.”

“Well I‟m not going to watch it again!” Molly tugged Tony from the bench and the two of them stalked
away. Maudie set the teapot on the table and after a glance at Grace, who nodded; she darted from the
room as if Lucas had drawn his weapon.

“I have calls to make,” Karl snapped his laptop closed, stacked his tools of the trade and nodded at Max
on his way from the room.

“Come on, I‟ll show you the lazy ducks.” Grace nudged Julian with her shoulder and the two of them
sprinted out the sliding door behind Sheriff Lucas who was very interested in his remote.

Jenny looked up from her teacup, intending to apologize but the words died in her throat as Max covered
her hand with his. His touch was gentle, but if his face had been carved of wood, it might have splintered.

“Let‟s get something straight here.” Max‟s voice was calm, quiet, but both Lucas and Jenny jumped as if
he‟d shouted. “This is my home. Ms Benedict is my guest. You are here to serve and protect, not badger
and abuse.”

“It‟s OK.” Jenny drew her hand from beneath his, smiling at Max as if he might explode. “I just forgot –
Really. I didn‟t mean to upset – What should I see?” Her gaze pleaded with Lucas to redirect the

“Mr. Cooper is right. I‟m sorry.” Lucas slid the remote across the table so it rested in front of Jenny. “It‟s
just that we‟re releasing the news to the media today and we‟re no closer to this third person than the day
we found you. You really are our only hope at this point.”

Jenny reached for the remote with a steady hand, “Maybe if I just watch it through a few times – should I
get closer?”

Max shoved from the table and started clearing the mess from the table like a bus boy who knew he was
getting no tip.

“Whatever you think might help,” Lucas chewed on his grin as he tugged Karl‟s chair around so she could
sit directly in front of the set. “Let‟s talk through it. Every little detail you remember from the time the
elevator opened. Sounds from the street, traffic, kids, even an engine running might help….”

Max twisted the faucet on and washed the morning‟s dishes, tried to drown out the sound of Jenny‟s soft,
hesitant voice straining to answer the Sheriff‟s questions. Lucas soon lost his considerate, cajoling tone
and began firing questions at her. He started and stopped the video, flicked the remote from her hand and
reminded her about the digital recorder before launching into the next round of questions.

    Two hours later, Grady eased on to one of the bar stools beside Max. He was nursing a cold cup of
    coffee and contempt. Jenny was vehemently shaking her head while Lucas pointed a stubby finger at
    some blur on the screen.

    “Is he ever going?” Grady stretched for a cup and poured the dregs from the pot. “We got a crowd to
    feed and they‟re getting restless.”

    “It can‟t last much longer.” Max flinched when Lucas demanded she stop looking at her hands and
    look at the screen for the third time.

    Grady snorted. “She can‟t see anything.”

    “She‟ll stop it when she‟s had enough.” Max sounded more certain than he felt.

    “How „bout I just go kick his ass and we both feel better?”

    “Jenny wouldn‟t feel better.” Max sighed.

    “Going to wait for him to give her another almost heart attack?”

    Max closed his eyes when Lucas rewound the tape again. “No.”

    Jenny‟s face was toward the screen, eyes directed as Lucas instructed, but she saw nothing, heard
    nothing he said. When he repeated his request, waving the remote before her, she took it from his
    hand and stood up. Wavering slightly from sitting so long, she caught the edge of the table. It took a
    few moments for her to reorient her position, but then she purposefully walked to the rocking chair in
    the corner, dropped into it and stretched forward to slide the remote into the fire.

    Max caught it before it landed in the flames, “Uh, that‟s not really necessary.”

    Jenny shrugged back into the rocker and held her socked feet toward the warmth. “Tough to get

“Very. Shipping and handling is a bitch.” Max tossed the remote to Grady who pocketed it with a
delirious cackle. “Enough?”

“More than.” Jenny closed her eyes, rocking gently.

“Can I send him on his way then?” Max rubbed his hands together.

“It‟s your home, I‟m just a guest.” Her smile was pinched and her right eye twitched beneath the lid,
but her tone was pleasant as when dealing with any disgruntled customer.

“After lunch,” Lucas was shuffling the videos into boxes, “I think we should go over the digital images
we salvaged from the laptop and camera. There were quite a few images-“

“I don‟t think so,” Max said.

Jenny‟s hand shot out to grip his wrist. He glanced down at her, stunned by the question on her face.
“Why are you so upset? He‟s just doing his job.”

“It doesn‟t have to be all in one day.” Max crouched beside the chair, sliding his wrist through her
fingers so his warm hand joined hers. “You don‟t have to do it like this.”

“Better to get it done.” Jenny shrugged. “No offense, but I want to go home.”

“Do you think you‟ll win if you answer all his questions?” Max halted the rocker. “There‟s no prize at
the bottom of this cereal box.”

“No.” Lazily, her eyes opened and followed the grout between the stones. “But….”

Max watched the frown draw low on her forehead as she considered much more than the shapes the
river made of once large boulders. “But what?”

“I didn‟t put up much of a fight.” Her whisper was a gallon and a half of self-recrimination. “I could
have - Grace. She would have – I was – I just crouched in the trunk – tried to sleep, to be quiet -
forgotten. Didn‟t-”

Max shoved her sleeve to her elbow, snagging a few of the scabs with the fabric. “Didn‟t you?”

Jenny squirmed, gasped when Max tenderly ran his finger along the gouges. He held out his hand for
her other arm but she shook her head. “Please. It‟s not – I was just more afraid.”

“Are you afraid now?” Max tilted his head, easing the t-shirt back over her arms.

She nodded.


“Don‟t know.”

His smile was full, reminding her of the first time she saw it, stunned by how well used it was. Not like
Karl‟s to flatter and finagle, or Lucas‟ designed to elicit cooperation, but just … used, as if life was
worth finding things to smile about. Max winked and settled on the hearth, one of his knees popping
in protest.

“Maybe it‟s just a hangover,” he said.

“Scaredy cat hangover?” Jenny sounded doubtful.

Max shook his head; smile disappearing as his gaze flicked to the blank television screen. “Legitimate
terror hangover.”

“You‟re-” Jenny closed her eyes once more as if she couldn‟t help it. “Melodramatic.”

“Want to go rest?” Max asked.

“Don‟t want to … move.” Her head slid sideways into the quilted cushion backing the chair.

Grady tossed Max a blanket from a cabinet under the bar. “Soup and warm sandwiches, home made
applesauce and a bit of my blackberry wine?”

“Sounds like a feast.” Max nodded as he draped the fleece across Jenny. “I‟m going to go walk with
Nick a bit. Keep Lucas busy chopping vegetables or buttering bread.”

The older man blocked Max‟s exit, his voice hushed, “Something?”

“Maybe. Lucas has a bee in his shorts, but I‟m not sure I - We need an expert to observe.” Max‟s
gaze remained on the sleeping woman, unaware of the smile hovering in his eyes.

Grady nodded. “Go on then, I‟ll stand guard here. If she wakes up I‟ll make her go tidy her hair or

“Just don‟t turn Tony loose on her hair!” Max patted his shoulder and ducked to Nick‟s office.

Nick was Grady‟s pride and joy. His eldest son, first in the family to go to college, not to mention
gorgeous enough to give any of Grace‟s husband‟s pause. What he didn‟t know, he knew someone
who did. Spent six years in the military, three working for the federal government, but it was all too
focused on advancement to suit him. He didn‟t want to be a guarding a desk, so, he opened his own

He trained men and women from all over the world to unobtrusively protect those whose life was in
the public eye. When Grady was wounded, Nick closed up shop, married the woman who‟d
programmed his life for four years. They moved to Staunton in less than a month. Took over Max‟s
security, pissed his dad off so he‟d mind the doctors and now and then, when Grace had a big ta-do,
he‟d direct security for her. Mostly, he used Max‟s retreat to train those he felt might actually be worth
six months of his attention and time, even bid a subcontract for several governments. Former clients
seldom hired even a doorman without Nick and Julie vetting them and running them through the

Phil, his right hand man, was a buddy from elementary school days, he filled in when Nick was on the
road and pulled night duty when Nick was home. His marriage disintegrated the year Grady was just
about disemboweled so he‟d been in the perfect position to relocate and start over with Nick and
Julie. Phil had chronic insomnia. Meds, booze, nothing broke his inverse pattern of sleeping. Man
was a gibbering mess in the daylight, but at night, it was if he were a different person. He was the
only man Nick ever worked with who bitched about working days. But he had both eyes on the road,
as Grady liked to say. Knew his limitations and strengths and made sure he was in a position to be of

Max found Nick in the office, on the phone with Julie. He waved Max in. “I‟m sorry for the extra work,
honey, but there‟s no way I‟m keeping him on up here. Cut him a check and give him a soft reference.
Man‟s not worthless, he could do a warehouse or mall – something inside with a bank of monitors and

groovy two way radios. Yeah? Ya think so huh? Well, I know someone who has more balls than me –
that‟s right! So hustle up with the check and I‟ll take you to dinner tonight. Hell yeah, large fries and a
coke. Only the best for my gals!”

Max rolled his eyes and made gagging motions over the trashcan. Nick threw a Nerf basketball at him
and wrapped up his wooing.

“Even I pay you better than that,” Max objected. “Least you could do is take her and Kristine to the
Truck Stop.”

“And have her notice all those hunky truck driving men? You think my father raised an imbecile? No
way, better to take her to the golden arches so she sees nothing but flab and fat to compare me to.”
Nick patted his flat stomach and flexed his muscles.

“Soft reference, Nick. Over moving six feet?” Max sat down across the desk, genuinely interested,
though not genuinely questioning.

“Second time. Three strikes usually gets someone killed.” Nick shuffled papers into a folder, flipped
the phone so Julie would pick it up at the house on the other side of the pond. “What can I do for

“Walk you home for lunch?” Max checked the schedule behind Nick‟s head.

“Sure. Let me get Jerry up here. He‟s doing rounds. Meet you out back in five?” Nick held the phone,
waiting for further indications of need.

Max nodded and left Nick to his strategic maneuvering. Man didn‟t get a cup of coffee without being
sure troops were in position. That had never been more than a comforting bit of humor, until now.

Despite the sun Tony found so offensive, the grass was still damp from the sleet the night before.
Max didn‟t beat around the bush, much. “Has Lucas talked with you?”

“Questioned me for several hours. I was the first to go over the surveillance videos with the deputy.”
Nick said. “Identified guests, servers, in and out times, that sort of thing. If you‟re asking me has he let
me in on his theories, then no.”

“Were you in the office this morning?”

“After chewing ass you mean?” Nick laughed, “Oh come on, I‟m sure you‟ve heard.”

Max paused. “Is there any point to being delicate with your feelings?”

“No real need to be.” Nick tilted his head, “Next to the doctor who looks at guts, or a Priest who listens
to confessions, I‟m as intimate as it gets. Yeah, I was listening, if that‟s your next question. Dad was
in there with me after everyone fled your wrath. He scored 183 baskets. I now owe him $3.96. Still
can‟t figure out how he cheats, just know he does!”

Max bent to shake a dried pod, scattering seeds into the ground. “And?”

“He‟s working on the wrong end of the theory, in my opinion, which is what I assume you‟re asking.”
Nick helped scatter seeds. “He seems pretty convinced the woman knows who this third person is but
for some reason is protecting him.”


“He‟s glommed on to something she said, the sound of the cell phone and the fact he sat outside the

shed with a dead body and one freezing to death all night. He‟s probably figuring she‟s blocked
memory or some kind of Stockholm thing.” Nick snapped a sunflower head and weighed it in his
palm. “It‟s why he hit so hard this morning. Wear her out, and then trip her up when the story doesn‟t
hold. If he‟s barking up the wrong tree, he‟s going to loose his only reliable source of information. I‟ll
call Esther, put her on standby. When it finally hits, she‟s either gonna shut down or fly to pieces.”

Max crossed his arms, leaned against a tree and stared back at the rambling house. This was the first
time he took a conversation outside, didn‟t sit well with him at all. “Have you seen the digital images
from the lake?”

“Who do you think cleaned „em up? Phil and I spent three nights and two days on it. That man is a
genius, he deserves a raise.” Nick tossed seeds at the goose charging his direction.

“He‟d just waste it on more gadgets. We need to get him into some decent housing.” Max laughed at
Nick throwing the sunflower head at the gaggle ready to tackle him. “Better than dogs.”

“He likes rooming at Mrs. Squires. She feeds him like a king, does his laundry and all he has to do is
make sure her satellite stays on and tote her to church on Sunday in his best blue suit. He never had
a mother, his dad and him was all there was. After Amy, a bit of spoiling is just what he needs. How
about a better vehicle? Man has been driving that Escort for seven years now. Buick‟s in good

“Mrs. Squires would look smart in the Buick.” Max grinned. “Make sure it‟s expensed so he doesn‟t
get the shaft come tax season. I‟ll salvage the Escort and call it even.” Max waited for Nick‟s nod of
agreement. “Now, what did genius Phil and modest Nick discover that Sheriff Lucas is missing?”

“Ever think of being a detective?” Nick hiked through the woods and Max followed, more concerned
than when Nick started bargaining for Phil‟s wages.

“No way she was in on it. Not unless Hollywood is missing Grace‟s competition.” Nick‟s voice was
soft, but his pace was steady. Max kept up and listened to Nick think out loud. “She‟s close about the
city tone and manner, but I‟m thinking both Frankenstein and the Lizard were imports. South Bend or
Gary – steel workers grandsons. Too far removed to have any steel left in „em, just the heat of the
furnace raging at what they don‟t got. Young, hands weren‟t used to plowing that‟s for sure. Saw the
autopsy photos, Lizard did have a mangled finger, bad burn clear across his palm, saw some of those
from cocktail tossers when I was on vacation with Uncle Sam. She probably noticed when he was
holding the camera and that‟s why she didn‟t‟ see the palm. Thing is, Lucas is wasting time chasing
the hired boys. The masser is where it‟s at. He can run fingerprints and still won‟t tie „em to nobody
but the fools they weren’t running with last week.”

They reached the little cottage Julie preferred to a house in town. Looked like something out of a fairy
tale, only thing missing was gumdrops on the roof. Max stopped at the white picket fence twined with
ivy. “What are you going to tell me that I‟m not going to like?”

“Come on inside. I‟ll show you.” Nick opened the gate and Max cringed. “I‟m not staying to lunch. Not
even if she does that quivery lip thing!”

Nick laughed, “Ri- ight.”

Fortunately, Kristine was sleeping so no quivery lip tried to guilt Max into lunch. Nick‟s three year old
was a delicate blond beauty, just like her mother, and twice as stubborn. Julie was possible to resist,
Kristine hadn‟t lost a battle with Max since she was born.

Julie kissed Max, slid her arm around his waist and offered to wake Kris. “Or does he just want to see
the photos?”

“Smart ass.” Nick untangled her arms and Max tried to look relieved. “Always marry a woman smarter
than you, Max. Saves you a lot of work.”

“Like you work.” Julie went to the desk in the corner of the kitchen and slid a photo from a large

Nick shrugged out of his jacket, “There‟s only one worth examining. Yep, see, she reads my mind.”

Julie kissed his cheek, “I‟m still counting on those large fries.”

“Can you wrestle me a sandwich for now? Soup? Or do I have to grovel to dad?” Nick sighed.

“Heaven forbid!” Julie gasped. “He‟ll be over here learning me how to please a man. I haven‟t
recovered from the last time.”

“The bottle of blackberry wine didn‟t help!” Nick enjoyed reminding her.

Max sat down at the table, sighed and Julie took pity on him. “All right, I‟m getting the soup. Look at
the right hand corner, by the woman‟s feet.”

“I‟m handling this. Back off.” Nick slapped the photo on the table.

Max recoiled from the image as if Nick had slapped him with it.

“Yeah, felt like that when I saw it the first time. Lucas is a dumb ass if he‟s actually seen this and is
still pursuing his theory.”

Jenny was on the top step of the cabin, one of the books on her lap, cover facing forward, between
her hands. She was posed with the sun in her eyes, hair already tangled. When Max used the
magnifying glass Nick shoved into his hand, he could see the smear of blood from the corner of her
mouth. The terror in her eyes, even squinting in the light, was impossible to miss.

But, as Julie indicated, in the right hand corner, clearly, there were only two shadows, one with a
weapon pointed directly at Jenny. As interesting to Max, if not Nick and Julie, was the dust jacket
from the book wadded into a ball at the bottom of the steps. Had Jenny tried to force them to compare
her face to Grace‟s? It didn‟t make sense. If she had, even the blind could see the difference.

“What?” Nick leaned in, sucked breath between his teeth when Max pointed to the crumbled paper.
“I‟ll be damned. Woman‟s got guts. No brains, but guts. Anyone with sense God gave „em would‟ve
hidden the dust jacket, not waved it in their faces.”

“Was there any sound on the camera?” Max blinked refocusing his eyes on the room instead of the
enlarged image. “The phone picked up almost nothing.”

“Just a bit of garble. Nothing intelligible. We were lucky to get as many images as we did.” Nick
settled in front of his soup. “Sheriff has seen that, so either he‟s got other evidence he‟s not sharing
until he hits her with it – or he‟s seen too many mystery movies where the victim is really the culprit.”

“That‟s funny.” Max rubbed his eyes, “When we were looking through the cabin he was joking about
how she was probably sitting in her hide-out petting her thugs.”

“So this goes back to the FedEx envelope.” Nick nodded. “Was damn odd, I‟ll give him that.”

“What, that they didn‟t send the more traditional finger?” Max waved his hand over the photo.
“Doesn‟t look like they would have balked at that does it?”

“The odd part was where it was mailed from and to. Not even a note. It was addressed to you – but
the address was simply Staunton. They knew enough to know FedEx would track you in the
database. It‟s why I took it seriously and had you call the Sheriff. The phone call was timed exactly
ten hours after delivery. Now tell me where those boys got delivery confirmation from? Not the
bookshop she works at for sure.” Nick tapped the edge of the photo with his spoon.

“Still doesn‟t explain Lucas‟ theory. Jenny didn‟t even have a cell phone in the backpack. She has an
mp3 player, a mini laptop, a wallet, a little journal with doodles and sketches, a checkbook and the
usual, if you‟ll forgive me Julie, female junk…. Not exactly the tools of the hacker or wireless
wunderkind.” Max stretched out his legs.

“How long did it take Grace and her troops to arrive?” Julie rested her hands on the back of Nick‟s

“It took me a couple hours to reach Karl, then – about nine hours. All right, I see where you‟re
heading. Jenny knew they were off on their honeymoon, figured they‟d be inaccessible and she could
make a tidy sum before anyone figured it out. But, that only works if the third person is actually a
fourth person who double crossed her.” Max huffed to his feet. “The investigative mind is really that
twisted huh?”

“Only because the criminal mind is three times as twisted.” Julie sighed.

“What do you think?” Max asked.

“We‟re looking for a third person in a haystack.” Nick didn‟t hesitate. “She may have heard something,
but I doubt it she‟ll remember it before he hits back. Better to draw them out like Sheriff Murphy
suggested. Someone has a big ego tied up in this. Big fucked up ego…Or,” He pulled his lip as if it
just occurred to him, “A powerful need.”

“Have you been up there?” Max pointed at the photo.

“I sent Kyle. Julie get the baggie.” Nick grinned, embarrassed. “You have not seen this, all right? Kyle
doesn‟t officially get back until late this afternoon when he‟ll hand this over to Lucas.”

Julie unzipped the baggie on a napkin Nick spread on the table. Max knelt one knee in the chair and
leaned on his elbows, clueless as to what he was looking at.

“Kyle‟s my best fine toothed comb man. He went over that shed and the grounds four times, twice at
night with infrared. Who ever sat outside did so in comfort. Smell this.” He lifted a dried out leaf with a
pair of tweezers Julie handed him.


“For a burner, mini heater. Wouldn‟t give much light but would keep a body warm if positioned
correctly. He found it in the shed, not the clearing, probably filled it there. Backpack was found behind
the shed. You said Ms Benedict didn‟t find anything missing, but Kyle found a pair of earrings, a clip
for a woman‟s hair, a card with some thread and needle – like for emergency fixing, and this.” Again
with the tweezers.

“Do I smell this? Obviously it‟s burnt. What is – was it?”

“The letter, the one that listed Jennifer Benedict, not the aunt, not the assistant, but Jennifer as the
representative of Secret Garden bookshop. I scanned a copy of it for the records. Maudie is picky
about exact names, addresses. I handed the letter back to her as she uh, fled your charm. She
stuffed it in her pocket, I saw her.” Nick let the paper drift to the napkin. “Jude, in the lobby of the
hotel, only sent her up because the letter matched Maudie‟s master list. He thought she‟d got the

name wrong.”

“Which means…?” Max bobbed his head in frustration.

“It wasn‟t in the backpack. It was in her clothes. Clothing that this third person went through, which
means he was in the cabin, but left no prints. Why retrieve it? Why burn it? Identification was in the
backpack, driver‟s license, check book, even her library card. It was important enough to risk a flame
over the last people she spoke with? Again, why?” Nick tweezed through Kyle‟s baggie of treasure.
“And then there‟s this.”

“Good ole Kyle. He could probably find life on the moon.” Julie kissed the top of Nick‟s head.

“You just don‟t want me to forget who found him doing dumpster diving as a sociological study for his
PhD.” Nick swatted at her behind and missed by a mile.

“This?” Max lifted Nick‟s wrist.

“A wet wipe. Our third person is fastidiously tidy.” Nick winked at Julie, “There‟s a baggie of toilet
paper, used. We‟ll save that for the Sheriff. Kyle found it covered with leaves and a rock, about eight
feet from the shed.” Twisting his wrist, Nick showed Max the blood on the wipe. “It‟s probably from
Frankenstein, but it could be Lizard. Either way, there were about six of these in a tidy knot in a
trashcan in front of one of the trailers. Don‟t know how the Sheriff missed it, but Kyle does have a
thing for trash….”

“Prints?” Max asked hopefully.

“Probably not, but, if the blood is our third person, might get some DNA goodies from the feds.” Nick

“You still got the buddy?” Max straightened.

Nick hesitated. “If the feds get involved, could be a whole lot of trouble.”

“What‟s the likelihood of one of these being different from the others?” Max wondered.

“I don‟t do odds, Max.” Nick shook his head, “I cover all the exits and secure-“

“Yeah, yeah, do what you think best.” Max stretched his back.

“Best? Speediest or most accurate?” Nick glanced at Julie who shrugged.

“Least likely to get your ass thrown in jail is best. Most likely to get Lucas to accept the findings is
best.” Max zipped up his jacket and nodded at Julie.

“I‟ll get Kyle to do the geek boy enthusiasm thing, never fails.” Nick tucked the results of the fine
toothed comb back into the baggie. “Offering assistance to the Sheriff is better than ticking him off.”

“I don‟t have a Buick for Kyle….” Max frowned.

“Kyle wouldn‟t drive a Buick, trust me.” Julie grinned. “Approve those new goggles. He‟ll be a happy

Max felt justified pointing out, “Those goggles are going to cost more than a Buick.”

“But Kyle looks so groovy in them.” Nick fanned himself with the napkin.

“I‟m in for half – but I get the deduction?” Max still felt screwed.

“Fair enough. Who‟s covering his fee, you or Grace? This began as her expense, I didn‟t consult you
or Maudie before dispatching him.” Nick snagged his jacked from the back of the chair, kissed his
wife and followed. They debated expenses all the way through the enchanted forest as Kristine called
the woods between the cottage and Max‟s home.

Luncheon was pleasant, if subdued. Everyone made an effort to recover the morning atmosphere of
tolerant antagonism, but it fell flat before the wine. Grace admitted she was going bonkers in the

“How much longer, Sheriff? Before you wrap this up?” Julian wondered. “I begin filming in a two
months. I have a load of research and preliminary interviews to conduct.”

“Excellent, Mr. Grady. Thank you for sharing it with me.” Lucas pushed his bowl away. “Aren‟t you
supposed to be on your honeymoon?”

“We are, but we‟d like to know how-”

“Frankly, I can‟t even speculate at this point.” The Sheriff shook his head. “After Ms Benedict and I
review some of the recovered images, maybe I‟ll have a better answer for you.”

“Well, get to it then.” Grace tossed her napkin on the table. “I don‟t understand how you can‟t have
fingerprints or something to be chasing. All this watching videos and looking at photographs,
shouldn‟t you be out here – hunting clues?”

“Some times, the most vital clues are locked in the mind. Finding the key is all you need to solve what
appears to be a mystery.” Lucas offered his charming, professorial smile to Grace. Rock stars,
princes and lawyers had wooed her, charm used as an offering for indulgence held no weight.

“Then perhaps you simply need a good counselor and not a detective at all.” Grace rose from the
table and Julian followed, enjoying the idea. They considered the two dozen counselors they knew
and decided to make a list. “Do you prefer the Freudian keys or the more mystical Eastern keys,

The man was more than willing for them to spend an afternoon creating a list of experts. Kept them
out of his hair and who knew when such a list might come in handy. “Is there a balance of both?”

Julian laughed and opened the sliding door for Grace. “Come on, darling. He‟s obviously trying to get
rid of us.”

“Thank God.” Grace breezed through the door, catching Julian‟s hand.

“Remind me not to serve her my wine again.” Grady hefted to his feet to begin stacking dishes on the
counter. Tony hopped up to help. Maudie and Molly swung around the other side of the counter to
load the dishwasher. It was a familiar assembly line, impressive only if you thought about what they
normally didn‟t bother with. There was always someone rushing behind them to tidy their five-minute
bite to eat or the power luncheon or the late dinner party. When they came to Max‟s, there was no
one to tidy; they even did their own laundry. Grady growled if beds didn‟t get made before noon. More
than once he‟d dumped his nephew out on the floor so he could make his bed.

“Is there some place Ms Benedict and I could speak more privately?” Lucas asked Max.

“I‟m going to go outside and have a smoke.” Jenny jumped up from the table, “We could talk there.”

“Mr. Cooper?” Lucas wasn‟t going to budge.

Neither was Max. “Let Jenny have her smoke. They‟ll be done in here in a few minutes. You can
speak as privately as necessary, or there‟s the lobby across from Nick‟s office?”

The Sheriff wasn‟t pleased with either suggestion. But Jenny was. “A lobby? For – you have a lobby?”

“Not me. Nick. Come on, I‟ll show you.” Max scooted from the table. Around the fireplace, there was
the door back to Max‟s house, a door leading to the “guest wing” and an arch to the lobby. Which was
the width of the kitchen itself, with a thickly padded sofa, two cozy armchairs and a dark teakwood
coffee table. A French door led to a patio of flagstones and in the center was a delightful sight.

“I knew there‟d be a fountain. And it‟s so ugly.” She darted through the doors, in her sock feet, and
held her hand under the water rushing from the topknot of a hideous overweight gnome playing the
sax, in sunglasses for God‟s sake! One hairy foot was raised, as if tapping the rhythm, the other
pointed out as if he were mid slide for the big finish. Though glazed in muted colors, it was enough to
make the hardest heart laugh. The rest of the patio was serious wrought iron, a table with an
umbrella, respectable English Ivy and posey‟s.

“It is not ugly!” Max tossed a jacket over her shoulders when she dug in her pocket for her cigarettes.
“I commissioned this work of art from Grace‟s third husband, Michael Pierson. He‟s a famous artist I‟ll
have you know.”

“Tell me you did this, please?” Jenny caressed the gnome‟s bright cheeks and gleaming eyes.

“I gave Michael a preliminary sketch, yes. But he tarted it up a good deal. Got him through the
transition.” Max leaned in to whisper, “Don‟t tell anyone, but this is Michael‟s image of Joseph, the
fitness coach who became husband number four.”

“Oh my.” Jenny glanced at him to see if he was teasing, then back at the gnome. Cradling his cheek
in her palm, she whispered her greeting. “Hello Joe. I see your tears – you or Michael?”

“Me. Poor Michael had no perspective at the time. Tended to guzzle a bit too much of Grady‟s home
brew. Had to shuffle him off to rehab. But it worked out well, he fell in love with the director, Lee, and
facilitates Art: A Journey Toward Sobriety. He‟s even written a book.” Max laughed at life‟s little

“Is he still staring at me?” Jenny whispered, lighting her cigarette.

“No. Nick is keeping him busy.”

Jenny looked at the gate leading from the patio with such longing, Max felt his knees give out.
Without regard for the dampness of his ass, he sat down. “If I wandered away, he‟d just – he thinks I
– doesn‟t he?”

“It‟s hard to tell with inscrutable policeman. He may just be obsessive with details.” Max wasn‟t
surprised she‟d followed the train of Lucas‟ questioning. She was quiet, easily startled, but not dim.

“I‟m glad you‟re a bad liar.” Jenny told the gnome.

Max cleared his throat, “I‟m really not sure.”

“Yes you are,” she turned from Joe and sat on the bench beside him, peeling her soaked socks off to
tuck them behind her. “I watched you glaring at him all through lunch. He enjoyed it. Aunt Diana is like
that loves a good unspoken tug of war, especially if she knows she‟ll win. You didn‟t enjoy it.”

“No, and I apologize. I didn‟t mean to-”

“It‟s OK.” Jenny waved aside his words, not his regret. “Will he arrest me?”

“I doubt it.” Max mentally staggered, he‟d never considered that.

“Well, if he does,” Jenny pushed hair from her face, “I want to thank you now. For what you did, the
money and finding me and sitting there – for letting me meet Joe.”

“The honor was his, and mine.” Max shook his head, “This is ridiculous. He can‟t arrest you for
something you didn‟t do.”

Jenny nodded, but he wasn‟t sure if she was agreeing with him or reminding him that those things
happened all the time. “I can pay you back. When this is over – I have money, too much-”

“Shut up.” Max glared at the doors where Lucas was hovering, “You don‟t have to answer any of his
questions. In fact, maybe I should call my attorney first. Barton would know how to-”

“Was he before Joe or after?” Jenny tossed her cigarette over the gate. It sizzled in a puddle.

Max caught her hand when she rose, “After, but listen, you don‟t-”

“I‟m not – I‟ve been caged – at least the Sheriff wants me alive.” Jenny squeezed his fingers, then
retrieved the dripping socks. “Go, do – what is it you do?”

“Worry.” Max frowned.

“No you don‟t.” She threw the jacket around his shoulders and caressed his cheek, just as she had
Joe‟s, her hand cold as ice, but steady. “I can be brave for me. But it probably won‟t count if I do it for

Max covered her hand with his, grinning, rewarded by her smile. “That‟s two complete sentences in a
row. Now I am worried.”

“Idiot virus will strike again.” She surprised them both by brushing her lips across his forehead. As
she had on the first day they met, she backed away from him as if she dare not turn her back on him
– or couldn‟t. When she reached the door, she sucked a deep breath and sidled through, drawing the
thick curtains across the doors so he was shut out, in the rain, with only Joe the gnome for company.

He hot-footed it around the house and was wedged in with Grady, Karl, Molly, Maudie, Tony and Nick
in the warmth of Nick‟s office before Lucas cleared his throat. The monitors along the outer wall were
focused on the grounds except for one. Everyone watched and listened to the conversation less than
five feet away as if it were the most gripping drama. Nick‟s gaze kept darting between the grounds
and what was happening in the outer room.

Phil, lanky and fair as moonshine, came in an hour before dusk, yawning but unperturbed by the “stuff
an office with as many bodies as possible” contest. Nothing much, but being out of Caffeine Free Diet
Pepsi, disturbed Phil.

“You want me to go out there and shoot him?” Phil offered after watching the monitor for a few

“We might, but for now, get Kyle on the phone. Tell him to get his ass over to Julie and get his shit,
then crash the Sheriff‟s little interrogation with his trophies.” Nick handed Phil the phone. Phil
stretched the cord around the door, and Nick dialed, “Oh and tell him to wear his birth control glasses
and pocket protector. Geek Drama is what we need.”

Phil stuck his head around the door frame, “Be more fun to shoot him.”

Nick gave him the finger and kept his eye on Max who might just agree if they didn‟t distract the
Sheriff soon. Each hour had reassured Nick. Lucas repeated the questions, but no unexpected
evidence or escalation of hostility. Lucas appeared to be eliminating possibilities, not very
imaginative, but procedurally correct.

“Maudie if you don‟t stop sniveling he‟s going to hear you.” Karl hissed.

“No he won‟t. This room is sound proof.” She wiped her eyes with another tissue. “He‟s asked her that
question eight times now!”

“Nine.” Molly snapped a tissue from the box and shoved it at Tony. “Big baby.”

“Let‟s go through this one more time.” Lucas sighed as if he could barely stand to glance at his notes,
handwritten this time, though the digital recorder was going.

Jenny leaned her pounding head on the back of the sofa. “They took the practice movie.”

“With you on the steps?”

“Yes. Holding the book.”


“And?” Jenny fingered her temples, allowed her eyes to close, and recited in singsong the events
she‟d repeated nine times. “I tried to show them I wasn‟t Grace. Held the back photo up. Frankenstein
laughed. Tore the cover off the book. Lizard complained about destroying the investment.
Frankenstein said, „like this?‟ And hit me. Lizard dropped the camera. But it was OK. They adjusted
settings. Took the movie. Lizard went to make sure it would load. Frankenstein hauled me to a trailer.
Told me if I‟d be nice to him I didn‟t have to go in the trunk. I wasn‟t nice. He wasn‟t happy. I spent the
night in the trunk. It was cold and I think it rained. It was very windy.”

Lucas crossed his legs, examined the photo of her on the steps as if the question was an
afterthought. Instead of looping to the time frame between the practice movie and the phone call to
Max, he asked a new question, “What do you mean by „nice to him‟?”

Jenny raised her head, laced her fingers around her knees and stared at him until he met her gaze.
He flushed but plowed on.

“According to the autopsy report, Frankenstein was six feet tall. That‟s a lot of body to risk not being
nice to….”

She continued to stare at him; no emotion on her face, just watched the sweat rise on his forehead.

“Are you trying to tell me you fought him off, alone in the middle of no where, afraid for your life?”
Lucas shifted in the well-padded chair as if chiggers were chomping his ass.

Her silence continued. The gaze unchanged, breathing relaxed, no heaving bosom or clenched
fingers. It was as if she were frozen, untouchable.

“That‟s where some of the bruising came from?” He glanced at the notes, fumbling through pages
with an unsteady hand. “It says you have bruises consistent with – but there was no sign of – so how

did you fight him off?”

The statue in the fountain was more alive than Jenny.

Lucas leaned forward, tossing the medical records on the table along with photographs. He searched
her face for any sign of life. “Ms Benedict are you listening to me?”

She closed her eyes. “I didn‟t.”

Lucas raked his chubby fingers through his hair. “Didn‟t what?”

“Fight.” She said. “Instead of throwing papers, he threw fists.”

Lucas flopped back in the chair. “You‟re telling me you just stared at him, he belted you around and
that was it?”

“Lizard heard him. They argued. Lizard put me back in the trunk.” Jenny fingered a button on the back
of the sofa. “Frankenstein – he wanted me to – I was too scared to think of anything else.”

Lucas leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling tiles. She appeared to be calm and collected,
but he felt like a monster had pounded him. “It just doesn‟t add up.”

“What?” Jenny asked, not really expecting an answer.

Lucas rubbed his eyes and sighed, “Nothing. Let‟s go over-”

“Excuse me, Sheriff,” Nick slid the arched lobby door aside and waited for Lucas to nod. “This is Kyle
Withers. He is one of my sub-contractors. I sent him to the site and he found some things I believe
you‟d be interested in. He‟s come straight here, so I‟d like to sit in if that‟s all right with you and Ms

Kyle appeared to be all of twenty-one though he was forty-two. His black hair was curly, bobbing
about his head like a shredded Q-tip and framing large brown eyes shielded by black rimmed
glasses. His sweatshirt wished The Force would be with you and hung out of shape over jeans that
had seen better days. His left sneaker was duct taped around the ball of his foot, sealing off a leak.
Jenny observed his eager excitement as he knelt in front of the coffee table to organize the Sheriff‟s
materials out of the way of his discoveries.

Nick straddled the arm of the sofa, sliding the door closed as if to ensure privacy. He tilted his head
and looked Jenny over. She smiled reassuringly. Nick didn‟t return the gesture. “You want some
coffee? Tea?” He leaned forward and glared at the Sheriff, “Maybe a fucking bathroom break?”

Jenny‟s giggle startled the three men, but eased a bit of the tension. She pointed at Kyle‟s brown
paper bag, “Tell me that‟s not more autopsy photos, please.”

“Oh no!” Kyle reared back, horrified. “I do scenes, sites, trashcans, toilets, not body parts!”

“Thank God.” Jenny moved toward Nick, sat cross-legged and leaned forward to observe a map he
was unrolling across the table. “What is it then?”

Kyle rubbed his hands together, “As you can see, I‟ve detailed the area. Every red mark coincides
with a notation.” He shuffled in the soiled grocery bag and drew out a stack of pages gem-clipped
together. “These are handwritten, sorry. I did four grid searches, as you can see on the map. Two
days, two nights using infrared and metal detection. Raked in quite a haul, if I do say so myself. You
know, the fascinating thing about sites like this, is determining what has been sitting there for years
and surfaced in the latest rain and what was dropped yesterday. Often things are indistinguishable

until you use-”

Lucas interrupted Kyle with an indulgent chuckle, “I have a deputy who has a sister you‟ve got to

“Really?” Kyle pushed up his glasses, “Is she interested in decomposition as an interpretive science?”

“Good God!” Lucas gasped as if Kyle was whispering obscenities. “Let‟s just move along.”

“Oh, yeah, right.” Kyle handed Lucas the inspection sheets. With a flourish, he shook a white linen
across his map, poured out the baggie and tweezed through his discoveries.

“My earrings!” Jenny held out her palm. “My grandmother gave them to me on my thirteenth birthday.
There were dangles. Three silver threads with a heart on each end: One for her, one for mother, and
one for me. Aunt Diana has a pair with two strands, the third strand is in grandmother‟s jewelry box….
You didn‟t find the rest?”

“No. Just the earrings.” Kyle frowned.

Lucas held his palm out and she tipped it to him. “Were you wearing these?”

“I always wear them.” Jenny bit her lip, “I took them out – pierced my pocket. I was afraid they‟d get

“But he found them behind the shed. Your clothing was in the cabin.” Lucas held the silver heart with
a red stone center to the light. “Is it real?”

“Yes.” Jenny watched him toss it in his palm as if he were juggling her heart. “Can I have them back?”

“Later.” Lucas set it on the linen without another glance. “Any idea what this paper is?”

“Can‟t read it.” Kyle pointed out, “Just that it was burnt in the kerosene.”

“Probably the letter of introduction.” Jenny said, “It was in my pocket with the earrings.”

“And you didn‟t smell anything burning, didn‟t see any light? As quiet as it was you didn‟t hear a
match or lighter?” Lucas shook his head as if there was no way he could believe this.

Jenny rubbed her arms, “I didn‟t know anyone was there until the cell phone rang.”

“Just the one ring?” Lucas peered at the wet wipe, held it up to the light, sniffed it, and fingered it as if
he could feel who held it before him. Nodding at Kyle approvingly, Lucas dropped the wipe back in
the pile.

“One. More of a chime than – not like your phone.” Jenny frowned.

“Like a default tone?” Kyle‟s eyebrows rose over his glasses.

Jenny shrugged.

“This letter.” Lucas twitched the paper with the tweezers. “Of introduction?”

“It was correspondence about the Eighth Avenue Literacy Project.” Jenny explained.

“On Project Stationery?” Lucas flipped through the pages of notes on his lap.

“No. Secret Garden provided the books, arranged the signing. My Aunt.” Jenny laced her fingers in
her lap and glanced back at the earrings with longing. “There isn‟t a budget for Project stationery.”

“Is that where Carrie Lange works?” Lucas flipped his notebook, tapped it with his pen and smiled.
“Yes. Here it is. She says you called and asked her to let you take the books for the signing.”

Jenny started, surprised by his assertion, so he repeated it.

“Your Aunt told me she suggested you should give up the Literacy fundraiser, but you were desperate
to fund these folks. She said you couldn‟t take tutoring, couldn‟t handle it….” Lucas thumbed another
page, then another, and another. “She stated that she also suggested you needed … professional
help coping with your grief. Ms Benedict, your aunt, also told me your grandmother kept you a virtual
prisoner on the farm, that you didn‟t even graduate from High School because it upset her to be
without you. Your Aunt seems very concerned, but you haven‟t even called her. Except from the
hospital. You told her you‟d been in an accident. Why did you lie to her?”

Jenny‟s laughter bubbled like the fountain. “Sadie created a business empire from her grief. When my
parents died, she grieved again and created a home. She did both with the same passion and
determination. It was a loving home, not a prison. I didn‟t complete high school conventionally. I lied
to my aunt because she was in a meeting. It would have been idiotic to blurt out – She was in St.
Louis, what could she do?”

“Your aunt seems to think you are very troubled.” Lucas snapped his notebook closed. “Are you?”

“Yes.” Jenny glanced at her hands, unclenched her fingers, spread them flat in her lap. “Very.”

“This isn‟t a game.” His hostility was whispered.

“No.” She tilted her head and softly asked, “Are you going to arrest me?”

“No.” Lucas waved his notebook across the coffee table as if her question was a joke. “Did you ask
Ms Lange to let you go-”

“Aunt Diana called me from the airport. She said it was my project, I‟d have to deal with it.” Jenny

“Is it possible this Lange woman is lying?” Kyle leaned his elbows on the table, gazed at the Sheriff as
if he would pronounce an eleventh commandment just for him. Nick nudged his ass with his toe.

“Her boyfriend said they‟d been partying the night before. It‟s possible she‟s covering her ass.” Lucas

Jenny shook her head, “Carrie doesn‟t „party.‟ Not like that. She – Bill is a law student, but they - Did
he really say that?”

“He said Ms Lange very embarrassed.” Lucas sniffed as if he‟d heard that one too many times. “They
went out with your aunt, to celebrate Ms Lange‟s promotion to district manager and overindulged. He
missed class apparently.”

“Promoted?” Jenny grinned. “Really? Aunt Diana has – How wonderful!”

“Ms Benedict, if we could stick with the confusion about the letter.” Lucas scrubbed at his face.

“What confusion?” She stretched back from his exasperation.

“The letter had your name on it. Why your name if you weren‟t supposed to go?” Lucas snapped the

notebook against his thigh.

“I had to pick up the books. Megan, the manager, told me Carrie wouldn‟t even come to the door.
They live in the same building. So, I pasted my name in the letter, reprinted it and left the store.” She
shook her head as if the answer was obvious. “Mrs. Myers assistant probably has the original, with
Carrie‟s name and my signature. It‟s probably why my name wasn‟t on the list.”

“What list?” Lucas looked at the table, wondering where the conversation had gone.

“My list.” Nick jumped up, opened his door and crashed through the bodies trying to scatter from view.
“Maudie dig out your files. Extra, extra large fries tonight!”

“She‟s already doing it.” Molly hissed from behind the door.

Lucas buried his face with both hands and groaned. “Privacy. Confidentiality. Shot to shit.”

Jenny stared at the scrambling bodies with her mouth hanging open.

Max tilted his chair back, grinned and waved like a three year old.

Closing her mouth and her eyes, Jenny drooped against the back of the sofa, shutting out the
mayhem in Nick‟s office. Lucas barged in to admire the set up, and bitch about inappropriate
surveillance. Grady pressed Molly and Tony into service for creating some nourishment and getting
the kink out of his back. Phil wondered if he should just go ahead and log the shift change. Nick
waved paperwork at everyone to clear the office.

Max blocked the exit to the lobby so the others had to go around. His shoulder against the doorframe,
he observed Jenny slide into sleep. Her head bobbed three times, then stilled at an awkward angle.
No longer squeezed shut, her eyelids rested naturally and her lips were no longer pinched to maintain
self-control. It was satisfying to see her rest.

Without a sound, he shut off the overhead light and navigated around the coffee table to ease to the
sofa, behind her. Gently, he slid his fingers around her shoulders and quieted her to the cushion he‟d
elbowed across his lap. Her whimper stilled his breath, but it was followed by a sigh of relief and Max
gulped air.

Kyle darted from the office to grab his map and Nick followed, halted by the sight of Max‟s glare.

Nick extended his hands.

Max shrugged, slid the binder from Jenny‟s hair and glanced at the clock on the wall above the door
where the security eye was located. “You better call Julie.”

“She‟s tougher than she looks.” Nick hesitated, troubled by the game Lucas played and his part in it.
“I was surprised.”

“Imagine some one else is just as surprised.” Max ran his fingers through her hair, brushing it from
her face. Jenny shuddered and he soothed her with a reassuring murmur. “Go keep the Sheriff busy
before I let Phil shoot him.”

“Sheriff Murphy is going to do his press conference tomorrow, even has some big city shrink lined up
to give „implied details‟ that he can refuse to confirm or deny. Should be quite a show.” Lucas was
behind Nick, blocking the light from the doorway.

“That‟s tomorrow.” Max sighed. “Go compare your lists, or whatever.”

“I‟m going home.” Lucas shrugged into his bulky jacket. “Nick send your geek boy to my geek boy and
let them have an orgy. Just promise me they won‟t name the first born after me.”

“God forbid!” Nick walked Lucas through the door, hearing Max‟s hiss as the wind slithered across
Jenny and startled her to wakefulness.

“It‟s all right.” Max didn‟t try and restrain her flight, but followed her to the door.

“I thought I‟d dreamed it too….” Jenny‟s forehead banged against the glass pane.

“Jenny?” His hand was near her shoulder, but she twisted away, tangling in the curtains.

When she found her way to the center of the room, she turned around, twice, trying to gain her
bearings. “I‟m – which way?”

Max walked through the arch, opened the door to his private hallway and stepped back.
Unflatteringly, Jenny skittered by him and ran the twelve feet to the other door, closing it quietly, but
firmly behind her.

When Grady took her a tray, he found her curled in the center of the bed, on top of the covers, sound
asleep in her clothes. He left the food, tucked a blanket over her and shrugged aside every one‟s

“Bodies need sleep.” He sat down at the end of the table opposite Max. “Now eat and get the hell out
of the kitchen so I can have some peace and quiet.”

Jenny sat on the steps, three from the bottom, out of sight. Grady‟s television was a late night movie
of explosions and profanity, occasionally interrupted by commercial jingles invading her sleep,
enticing her to wake up and smell the softener. The light was on in the nook behind her, on the desk
or near it. She could hear Max at the keyboard, just a hint of music from his headphones.

Cautiously, she made her way down each step on her bottom. It wasn‟t that she had trouble standing;
she simply could not. Couldn‟t do anything…. Her throat was dry, her heart pounded and if she‟d
looked out the window one more time seeing only the sliver of a moon on the pond, she might have
screamed. That‟s why she opened her door, to stop the scream. Took her forever to dart across the
hall to the stairs, where she sat. Until, as if jumping off a cliff, she slid down one step. It wasn‟t a five
hundred foot decent, just felt like it. The next step was no easier.

Her toes touched the floor. Afraid she‟d never move again, they‟d find her in the morning, her heel
raised, other foot clutching the carpeted stair with her toes white, she put the both feet on the floor
and pushed upright. Erect, both feet on the ground and moving toward…where? Where damn it!

The fire in the stove, in the corner, called to her. Warmth penetrated and comforted her, some. She
knelt on the floor, close, but unable to hold her hands out. They were full, painfully gripping objects
she hadn‟t been able to let go of. Her arms burned with the effort to hang on, ached to just open her
fingers and drop the weight. Decisions she couldn‟t make, choices not taken, rested in her lap, easing
some of the burden, but her hands wouldn‟t let go. Her stupid eyes were raining again, dripping on
what she couldn‟t release.

“Jenny? What‟s the matter?” Max dropped to one knee beside her, drawing back when she raised her
face. “Jenny?”

Max pried her fingers from the cordless phone. It was blinking as if it had been on so long the battery
was nearly drained. “What‟s this?” He slid the music player from her palm, slick with sweat,

untangling the headphone cord from around her neck. Rising, he dropped everything on a shelf and
popped a couple tissues.

It wasn‟t easy to mop her face; tears kept rolling. Aiming for distraction, he asked, “How about some

She shuddered. “I can‟t.”

“You can. Come out to the kitchen. It‟s warm in there too.” He gripped her forearms and tugged,
nudging her gently from behind toward the kitchen he and Grady preferred to use.

She slumped into the yellow vinyl chair, tracing the red gingham pattern in the Formica while he put
the pot on to boil. Remembering she fell asleep before dinner, he toasted some bread and found
some apple butter in the under the counter refrigerator. The coffee pot was, of course, still warm.
Grady never went to bed without leaving him a pot in case he got up to „pound the keyboard.‟

When he put the cup and toast in front of her, the tears had stopped. She was sideways in the chair,
gazing at the UV bulbs illuminating the Jungle Room, Grady‟s hothouse. Her hand was fisted so her
chin could rest on it.

“He‟s enthusiastic, not exotic.” Max leaned on the counter, cradling the coffee mug.

Jenny smiled. “African violets aren‟t easy to grow.”

“That‟s what he keeps saying, but they seem to thrive around here.”

Sighing, she turned to her tea, even opened the apple butter and lifted the knife, but that was as far
as she got. The knife clattered to the table and she jumped, nearly tipping the cup. “Could you go
away? Let me go nuts quietly.”

Max chuckled, set his cup on the table and smeared apple butter on the toast. He took a bite and
then handed it to her. “No poison. It‟s safe.”

Her smile came and went so quickly, but he saw it. Sitting down, he propped his heel on the rung of
the chair and leaned on his hand. “You can go nuts loudly if you want.”

That smile lasted longer, but it was lost in the option of tea or toast. She put her hands on the table,
linked her fingers and forced her gaze to meet his. Words crawled from her in complete thoughts.
“Sadie always went to bed at eight at night. She would apologize about it when I was very young. She
joked about how even eternity wouldn‟t be enough sleep for her to catch up. When I was young, I
used to play in my room, fall asleep on the floor after an hour or so. When I was older, I read or
listened to music, studied, stuff that was quiet. I liked those hours, they were my own and I enjoyed
filling them…. After she – I‟d sit with her till she fell asleep, tidy the house, make sure meds were out.
It was still nice. When she died, I had so many hours that were busy – she died in the spring and
there was the garden to get in. But, my quiet time was nice, just different. Quieter, but not really, you

Max nodded, not wanting to halt her words with any of his.

“We – the farm is pretty isolated, nearest neighbor was fifteen miles away, but I was never afraid.
Once, a tornado came through, I went down to the cellar, read a book, fell asleep. It knocked down
some trees, and tore off the roof of a shed. Mr. Jensen came by in the morning, we both laughed
about sleeping through it. He helped me rig the tarp, sent his sons over with the chain saw to cut the
tree up. I made them pumpkin bread for the freezer. I worried about them not taking enough of the
wood, but they said that was so I‟d make them more pumpkin bread. Even if the tree had landed on
the house, it would have been fixable.” She reached for the tea, put both hands around it and sipped.

Closing her eyes as if it was just what she‟d needed, craved even.

“But now?” he used a finger to slide the plate of toast closer to her. She lifted the toast and bit into it

Glaring at the cup as if it made her hand tremble when she set it down. “I woke up, couldn‟t go back
to sleep.” she whispered, “I was afraid to put the headphones on. Afraid of what I wouldn‟t hear….”

Max closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the second her hand stopped, dithered about maybe
just one ear. When he looked at her, she was smiling. His brows rose in question.

“So, I decided to call my aunt.” She took a gulp of the tea. Shrugging, she blandly confessed, “I
picked up the phone, turned it on, heard leaves rustling outside, and froze. Listened. Looked outside.
Was going to put the phone down. Was going to put the headphones on. Looked outside again.
Heard the commercial for that truck that does all those amazing turns without breaking an egg – or is
that tires? Looked outside again… you get the idea.”

He nodded.

“Nuts.” She sighed.

“Reaction.” Max said.

“Normal huh? Happened to you when the aliens abducted you last year? She put her elbows on the
table and rested her chin on her joined hands. “I read about that in the grocery store.”

“Was that famous writer, not me.” Max sighed, “It‟s OK, happens all the time, people get us

Jenny tilted her head, examined his over-dramatic sorrow and smiled at him as if he were a tearful
garden gnome. “Your hair is nicer.”

“That was your cue to praise my writing, not my hair.” He shook his head.

“Oh, sorry.” Her laugh was sweeter than the apple butter. “I‟ve never read his books.”

“For that, I‟ll scramble you some eggs, woman!” Max surged to his feet and she laughed again,
warming the room enough Max worried he might fry the eggs before he got them in the pan.

She sipped her tea, listening to Max do a bad cooking show imitation, smiling and relaxed, but the
edge of anxiety kept nicking her unexpectedly. He could see her forcing her gaze not to stray to the
window beside her, to not try and discern what she might have heard. After he placed the fluffy eggs
on the table, he flipped the outside light on.

“My patio. No gnome in a fountain, just a bench and some ivy, there‟s a table in the summer and you
can see where the green house extends to create privacy. Look,” he stood behind her, hands on her
shoulders; thumb gently nudging her head to see, “that concrete wall is ten feet high. It separates me
from the guest patio. Sometimes the geese will come up in the morning to beg and bitch. Once a
mother raccoon and her two children moved in under the bench for a few days – noisy things. But
that‟s it. Stones. Wood. Leaves.”

Her right hand covered his left, “Nuts.”

“The squirrels like the balcony better.” Max moved around the table, his hand sliding from her gently.

Jenny bit her lip. “Will it go away?”

“I imagine so.” Max spooned eggs on paper plates, not the least embarrassed to hate doing dishes.

Jenny pushed from the table and before Max realized what she was about, she opened the door to
the patio. As if pulled, or pushed, she stumbled outside, walked to the bench and sat down on her
hands. Max turned in the chair, not sure whether to shout at her, or laugh. He waited instead. In a few
minutes, she got up and crossed the stones to the gravel path and disappeared in to the night.

“Shit.” Max swore at the eggs and followed.

With determined steps she marched into the dark. Phil, stalking them in the shadows, nearly had a
stroke when Max called out to him.

“Just me Phil. Stand down or whatever….”

Jenny skidded to a halt hands outward when the flashlight beam swept across her. Max thought she
said, “Someone was out here!” as if she doubted Phil‟s reality.

“What the hell?” Phil shouted from beyond the light, muttering into his radio before launching into
incoherent bitching. “Goddamnit I almost took your head off!”

“I‟m – I didn‟t know.” Jenny blinked in the flashlight beam. “I‟m sorry.”

“Yeah. Sorry.” Phil waved the beam toward Max, standing behind Jenny with a face paler than the
moon. Appeased by Max‟s comprehension, Phil managed a terse nod before stalking away.

“Jenny?” Max breathed slowly, “Uh, come back inside, the eggs are getting cold.”

She glanced at the pond as if she longed to defy Phil‟s warning.

“Eggs.” He insisted.

Jenny shrugged and started back the way they came. Max tried to phrase a hundred thoughts, his
socks weighing more with each step; words locked in his throat. Not a thing could he think to say that
didn‟t start with, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Didn‟t need to ask that question, though, he knew what she was thinking. Worse, he knew what she
was feeling. Being afraid was not the way she wanted to live. Like her concept of climbing out of the
trunk to go back to the bookstore, or her garden, or whatever she comforted her self with – she
walked into the night. She would not be afraid. Poof.

Max caught her hand when she stumbled, slid it to the crook of his elbow and walked with her,
instead of behind her. “We don‟t stroll at night without informing Phil. All right?”

Jenny nodded.

“I hope you like your eggs cold.” Max waved her through the kitchen door.

“Go change your socks.” Jenny turned off the outside light, turned to the table and crashed into Max.

He steadied her. Large hands cupped her elbows. Slowly, she met his gaze, fear battling confusion
and cold and something else that made Max almost – almost – forget what he was going to say.

“Letting fear trap you isn‟t good, allowing it to steal common sense isn‟t better.” He smiled when she
rolled her eyes, “I shouldn‟t write that one down huh?”

    “Maybe needs a little editing….” Her forehead crumbled to his chest as her hands fisted in his shirt.

    In one step, his arms surrounded her. She didn‟t heave sobs from her tormented soul – no, he
    wouldn‟t write that one down either – she just struggled to regulate breathing and control the
    shudders shrieking through her. The scream was nearer than when she‟d fled her room and damned
    if she knew why!

    “Easy there, little lady,” Max injected a bit of John Wayne swagger into his voice. “That‟s gen-u-ine K-
    Mart flannel you‟re wrinkling with your mighty fists. Under which is tender, but manly, flesh.”

    Her giggle sprang up as effortlessly as Grady‟s ivy in the springtime. She released his shirt,
    smoothing wrinkles without awareness of the impact of her hands across his tender – no, that was
    manly, right? – flesh. Leaning back to grin at him like a child of six, she laughed at the confusion on
    his face.

    “Weren‟t you going to change your socks?”

    Max stepped back, kept backing from the room, making a cross with his forefingers. He stumbled
    over his own feet backing to the stairs…and she laughed.

    Took him half an hour to put on those socks. Well, took five minutes to change his socks, longer to
    change his attitude. He needn‟t have bothered with the lecture or the self-recriminations. When he
    returned to the kitchen, she was nowhere in sight. The kitchen was tidy, her player and the phone
    gone and she‟d put more wood in the stove.

    Max sighed, relieved, but sorry, and went to bed.

    Grady snored through the next feature.

    Jenny sat at the table in the room she woke in that morning, headphones on the table, music turned
    up loud enough she couldn‟t hear the wind or the leaves crackling in the dark…. She was still afraid,
    but now and then a smile teased her lips.

Max liked quiet mornings. He‟d worked hard to get to the point he could indulge in them. Nothing in his life
was scheduled or considered before 9 a.m. even though he stumbled down the steps at six, regardless of
when he fell in the bed. Grady usually ambled along around seven, shuffling to his jungle and stayed
there until Max went to shower. They had a nice give and take that allowed for conversation if they felt
like it, or space to ignore the other if that‟s how the mood was swinging. Grady was able to gab or shut
the hell up, depending on the other person. He didn‟t much care, so long as he could shut the door and
„scratch his ass‟ when he felt like it, he was amiable the rest of the time.

So, it was a confused Max who yawned his way to the kitchen at eight the following morning. He was two
hours behind in his coffee quota and brain cells were protesting. Laughter was echoing from Nick‟s office,
which meant the door was open, unusual enough, but for Nick to be the one laying an egg that early in
the morning was apocalyptical. Grabbing his largest mug, Max went to investigate.

Walking into the office, he was stunned to notice Phil in the lobby, stretched out on the sofa, mouth open
in sleep. Belt buckle hanging off to the side, button of his jeans popped and his tube socked feet pointing
to heaven as if at attention, it was a sight Max would rather not have viewed before a full mug of life.
Someone had tossed a jacket over his chest, but that was all the comfort the large man seemed to need
to snore loud enough to rattle the doors.

“Morning.” Nick hung up the phone. “Wondered if you were going to join us today.”

“Don‟t mind me, I just live here.” Max slouched against the doorframe and gulped his coffee, knowing that

if he sat down it might be hours before anyone could pry him back up.

“Apparently, the media plans to live here as well.” Nick pointed at the upper bank of monitors with his pen.
“Got here an hour ago, three trailers, dish on top of two, generators running loud enough to make the
geese attack. Grady penned them up before someone decided roast goose would be an experience to

Max blinked at the hysteria on the road. The gatehouse and main entrance was quiet, but across the
road, it looked like an alien circus had landed. “What the hell. Jake gave them permission to set up

“Betty did. Jake is in Omaha this week, he‟s gonna shit his drawers when he sees what they‟ve done to
his hedges. Skinny witch even brought them down coffee and muffins.” Nick and Betty had been feuding
for four years, ever since he shot salt pellets at her Pekinese. The fact the pedigreed princess was
gnawing on a gosling at the time didn‟t matter to Betty.

“Great.” Max guzzled more coffee, “What happened to the decoy plan? What‟s Lucas-”

“Uh, Murphy called at three this morning.” Nick swiveled in his chair, shifted some papers on his desk.
“Someone set fire to the safe house around one in the morning. Took some pot shots at the decoy,
winged a volunteer firefighter. He faxed some photos, they‟re crappy, but you get the idea. Said he‟d
upload me photos but it would just make him look worse. Besides, Feds are handling the campers out
there. They didn‟t like the decoy plan in the first place.” Nick tossed a sheaf of pages at Max who
crumpled them to his chest and juggled to hold on to his mug.

“Where the hell is Lucas? You send for reinforcements?” Max fingered through the pages, threw them
back on the desk with a disgusted snort. “What a mess.”

“Yeah, speaking of mess, here‟s another one: „midnight, wanted to shoot Max and guest.‟ “ Nick raised
one eyebrow and smirked. “It‟s nicely vague. Care to fill in the blanks Phil left?”

“Not really.” Max crossed to the monitors, gaping at Betty Lyon in her bright green muumuu. “Just stomp
and shout, you‟ll feel better.”

“You know the parameters.” Nick reminded him.

Max shook his head at the simpering woman and yawned, “Did Julie get to the Golden Arches?”

“She did.” Nick tapped his pen on the blotter, glanced at the screen instead of Max. “They‟re going live in
a couple hours. Making mid-morning special statements. Hoopla is what Karl called it. Lucas says Agent
Segars – he‟s out of the Chicago office, buddy of Murphy‟s – is making the statements. News folks have
psychological experts, fancy pants lawyers and, oh man, get this, a psychic flown in from Germany who
can read auras through concrete barriers.”

“How do you know all this?” Max laughed.

Nick shrugged. “There are probably four hundred cell phones out there, not very secure you know. Kyle‟s
got some groovy interiors of the bathrooms.”

“I didn‟t need to know that.” Max chugged the last of his coffee. “Reinforcements? You didn‟t answer me.”

“Sent the milk van out at three fifteen this morning. Called in some favors, we‟ve got a twenty men and
women strategically located, four rotating through the gatehouse and immediate perimeter. Kyle and his
geeks are in the tower. Right now, we‟re setting up, hunkering down and bitching about the damp.
Grady‟s got groceries coming in at two this afternoon – enough for a three-week siege. Propane was
delivered two days ago, well is secure. Back up generators are lubed and good to go. Wally is camping in

the cellar with his big screen TV. There is enough firepower to hold off hoards of invaders and a three-
bed infirmary. No doubt he‟s counted every ounce of antibiotics six times and reviewed his video on
surviving the coming apocalypse.” Nick was smug.

Max plowed his fingers through his hair, certain the headache forming was creating quite an impression
on Kyle‟s infrared. “Don‟t you think that‟s a bit of overkill?”

“Its his bunker. He can do what he wants, including faxing me every fifteen minutes with updates. You
were the one who took him in, suggested he set up the bunker in the cellar instead of in your woods! I
wanted to shuffle him off to the VA when he busted the water line to my house and then tried to protect
Julie from me – remember?” Nick stretched to his feet, enjoying his warnings returning to haunt Max.
“Besides, we still don‟t know if this is some crazed fan or someone a bit more wacko.”

“Is there anything more wacko?” Max shuddered.

“I want to bunk Phil here,” Nick cleared his throat, “in the house. All right?”

“In here. Yeah, fine.” Max‟s eyes narrowed.

Nick shook his head, “Full access.”


“Then I pack up the troops and roll.” Nick didn‟t threaten. “You‟ve got the most vulnerable spots on the
place. Privacy costs. Phil, or Julie and Kristine will sleep on your front room sofa – well, Julie will, Kristine
will want to sleep with you. I‟ll be sure she has a great deal of juice before bedtime. So, take your pick.”

“That‟s – Phil. Fine. Full access, but for God‟s sake remind him to be sure of who he‟s got in his sights.”

“Stay where you‟re supposed to and it won‟t be an issue, will it?” Nick suggested.

“Get Phil in a bed, up in the garage. I don‟t want to stare at his … dental work.” Max stomped through the
office, heading for the kitchen with a chip on his shoulder.

“Big baby.” Phil grinned at Nick.

“Pays good.” Nick slapped Phil‟s sock feet off the arm of the sofa. “Go to bed.”

“Yeah,” Phil rolled to his feet, “My work here is done.”

Nick cackled for the second time that morning.

The kitchen was mayhem. Max expected that, but it didn‟t help that he had to cross it to get to the coffee
pot. Grady took pity on him, reached across the counter, snatched the mug, filled it and put it back in
Max‟s hand.

“Thanks.” Max wasn‟t very gracious.

“Uh huh.” Grady went back to his clipboard of command and giving orders into a cordless phone at full
volume. “No, I don‟t want whole tomatoes, I want diced, got that? Diced in twelve ounce cans and that‟s
three cases – three cases. Where is Lynette? Well now is a fine time to have a baby! Fine, let me talk to
Stan, he graduated from middle school didn‟t he?”

Max hustled away from Grady‟s grocer abuse. Karl was rocking by the fire, cell phone pressed to his ear,

big feet on the hearth, absorbing warmth as he chewed someone out for having a thought he didn‟t
approve of. Julian was pacing by the sliding door, cell phone in his ear too, denying someone‟s paternal
heritage. Grace was sitting at the end of the long bench, facing the television with a cup of coffee and a
cigarette. Max hadn‟t seen Grace smoke since the eighties. Being careful with his coffee, he sidled by
Maudie who jumped at Karl‟s bark to bring him the „goddamned Foster folder!‟

Grace glanced up at Max when he nudged her knee with his. Red-eyed and pale, she was fidgeting with
her lower lip and blinking from the smoke. He took the cigarette and put it out, sitting next to her with his
legs extended, looking at ease when he asked, “What?”

She shrugged against his shoulder, “Could have been me. Sort of hit me, all the hoopla out there, you

Max smiled at her over his mug, “It‟ll be over before you know it.”

“Julian‟s people want exclusive interviews with us, tomorrow. He and Karl are already negotiating.” Grace
made it sound like Karl was involved in some kind of sordid affair with her husband.

“Fact of your life isn‟t it?” Max nudged her gently with his elbow, right below her ticklish rib. “Besides, you
just have to stand there, dazed by the delights of recent matrimonial bliss.”

The giggle burst from her and she slapped his thigh in retaliation. “Why did I divorce you?”

“Because I‟m too perky in the mornings.” Max smirked, tossing his hair like a high fashion model.

“Oh yeah. That.” Grace shook her head, rested a moment on his shoulder but Max jostled her with a

“Well, that and Steve, and Karl, and what was his name… oh, yeah, Ben-gee.”

“You are such a traditionalist, and it was Jen`ge.” Her dramatic sigh was wrecked by another giggle.

“My greatest flaw, true.” Max beat his breast with a weak fist, coughing as if he were in need of a TB
sanitarium. It was too early to muster Grace‟s level drama.

Grace patted his knee, “Also your nicest feature. Shame I never could reconcile that.”

“It was fun trying.” Max squeezed her hand; let her hold on for a moment but slid away when it reminded
him how empty the rituals of long ago could feel.

Fingers held his for a second longer, drawing his gaze. “Thank you.”

Max winked and she released him.

On the other side of the counter, Jenny was at the stove, flipping bacon. Tony, an earpiece wired from a
radio clipped to his belt, was calling out orders like a gum-smacking waitress at the greasiest diner while
filling foam containers from the platters on the island. Apparently they were feeding a hot meal to the
reinforcements. Molly bagged the containers with plastic utensils and condiments, setting the hot meals in
a Styrofoam box on the floor. She was suited up in boots and layers of sweaters, concerned about how
far the golf cart would go before the batteries died.

Max poured the dregs from his mug in the sink and answered her concern. “There‟s back up batteries,
you should be good for two round trips before you‟ll need to switch out.”

Grady was still bellowing as he inventoried the pantry. He sounded pleased at least, “I don‟t have a
reasonable hair on my head, Stan, and you know that. I want this stuff here, in my freezer and locked

down by two. No, either you can fill this order or I‟ll take my trade down the road. That‟s what I thought.
Oh, and tell your driver, when the boys at the gate stick firearms in his face, the password is chili without
cheese. Blow it and they blow him away. No, I wouldn‟t send the pimple skinned bag boy if I was you.
Good, that‟ll do fine. Look forward to it, Stan.”

Feeling almost alive, Max poured another mug so he could lean on the counter and watch Jenny cook. In
sock feet, ponytail twisted into a loop, she had eggs going, batter bubbling and enough meat sizzling to
feed an army. Her face was flushed, a grin flashed each time Tony did the waitress bit, and yet she kept
an eye on the griddle, the island and managed to glance at Max twice.

“What?” She smoothed the green apron as if it might be wrinkled instead of smoothly draping across her.

“I‟m impressed.” He saluted her with the mug.

“Oh,” she backed up to open the oven and slid her hand into a mitt. “I volunteered at the youth summer
camp for years. Teenagers are never full.”

Max snagged a biscuit she plucked from the tray to a platter. Without remorse, he stole some bacon and
created a sandwich. Jenny swatted at him with the spatula. “Go away. You‟re distracting.”

“You‟re always telling me to go away. I‟m getting a complex.” Max grabbed another biscuit and returned
to the corner by the coffee pot.

Jenny ignored him by sliding eggs onto an empty plate. When she finally glanced up, he was ready with a
wicked grin.

“Distracting huh?”

Her laughter made Tony grimace, “Damn feedback. We need a few more wireless interactions here,

Turning back to the stove, Max felt safe enough to move closer, hopping on the counter next to the hot
griddle, he consumed his biscuits and coffee, actually enjoying the noise and overcrowding. Jenny was
clearly having fun. Even Grady paused to admire her pancakes on his way to alert Nick that Stan would
be coming personally, in the blue truck with the white trailer. “I‟ve got the chicken legs out to thaw,” he
told her, “I think we should roast them in lemon and garlic like you said. BBQ is nice, but gums up the
trigger finger I hear.”

Jenny‟s hand hovered a few seconds longer than expected over flipping the next round of sausages.

“I‟ll be back to start hosing things down in here in a minute. Make me a cup of tea Maudie, will you?”
Grady looked every one of his sixty-three years heading to Nick‟s office. He hadn‟t meant to be so blunt; it
just came out that way.

“You OK?” Max leaned over the griddle, flinched back from the heat and her glare.

She shut off one of the burners and nodded when Tony announced he‟d help Molly with the deliveries if
he could find some better looking boots. Jenny said, “Maudie if you‟ll tell me where the pot is, I‟ll make the
tea. Easier than climbing over all this mess.”

Max flipped the cabinet below him opened and pointed. “Tea pots, three or four I think. Grady is partial to
Earl Gray, thinks he‟s Captain Picard or something.”

Jenny smiled, “Got tea?”

“In the canister behind me.” Max waggled his eyebrows.

“Poor Grady.” Jenny shrugged and removed the last of the sausages from the griddle. “You can explain it
to him, right?”

Max laughed, but scooted his ass of the counter and filled the teapot with hot water to warm it before
spooning leaves in the infuser. When the pot whistled, he raised his eyebrows at Jenny in challenge. She
backed from the stove, smiling when he harrumphed at her. While he inhaled the steam, Jenny squatted
to scrub the front of the range. Maudie packed a few extra meals in the box, wincing when Grace‟s brittle
laughter rattled the teacups lined up on saucers.

Unlike everyone else in the room, Jenny glanced at Max instead of Grace. He focused on the teapot, as if
unaware of the argument between Karl, Julian and his former wife. The broadcloth shirt was stretched
tight over his shoulders from the tension of not soothing Grace or calming Karl, whichever role he must
have filled, or perhaps both. Jenny bit her lip to keep from smiling, using the edge of the spatula to scrape
the griddle.

“The first year I signed up to work at the youth camp, Sadie was not happy.” Jenny spoke to the stove,
but Max felt as if her voice was kneading his aching neck. “She yelled, badgered, fussed, whined, even
called Aunt Diana to persuade me not to go off to the wilderness and scrub pots for scruffy hoodlums. For
a month, she was angry with me morning, noon and night. Hated our Pastor, sneered at my cooking,
despised the bed linen and was convinced the ceiling was sagging. I must have more of her genes than
she thought. The more she nagged, the more determined I was.”

Max quit pretending to examine the teapot, he tilted his head to listen, watched her movements as she
tidied and carried things to the sink.

“Every year, it was the same thing. Even after her stroke, she‟d fuss and complain about my abandoning
her to vicious nurses and incompetent housekeeper for six weeks. She loved the fuss, but … she was
relieved I didn‟t give in. She couldn‟t care less about the kids or the cooking – checks and properly trained
personnel tended those things. But, the fact I went even though she didn‟t want me to was evidence she‟d
loved me enough all those years, no matter what anyone else said or thought.” Jenny smiled, waiting for
Max to meet her eyes seemed to take longer than cooking enough meals for thirty-five men and women.
“Sometimes, memories of the struggles to love enough are the nicest ones. They aren‟t the ones you
think you‟ll cherish, but you do.”

Max didn‟t grin, or even smile. He just stood there, his eyes devouring the planes and curves of her face,
sliding to the bit of batter in her hair and the grease splattered on her apron as if he‟d never seen another
human in his life. Jenny‟s grin faded to a shy smile. She physically jerked when his hand flashed out to
cup her discolored cheek, his thumb brushing flour from her nose. His smile didn‟t advance further than
his eyes, there was virtually no movement on his face, but the tension and frustration melted away from
him like butter on pancakes.

“Grace will always be that nice girl from Iowa who hungered for more from life. No one could be all she
wants or needs. It‟s a shattering realization, but, as you say, one to treasure.” He drew his hand away,
shook his head as if a rogue time warp had held him. “So,” he cleared his throat. “You‟re a rebellious
philosopher huh?”

“Rebellious Philosopher.” Jenny‟s smile returned. “I like that. Can I write it down?”

“You may.” He opened his mouth to say something more but wisely shut it instead.

“Max, haul five breakfasts up to the tower huh?” Grady bustled by them, rolling up his sleeves. “If you
hurry, you can be back down for the hoopla on that blasted box. Oh, tea! Hallelujah.”

Jenny turned back to the stove, plucking the now cooled eyes off the range top and cradling them in her
apron as if they absorbed every thought she had.


Kyle was enthusiastic, forcing Max to endure a full demonstration of new equipment. Breakfast saved
Max from a detailed explanation of every gizmo in the tower room above the garage. An elite title for a
twelve by ten cupola tacked on as an afterthought when Nick offered his input to the architect. The four
men and one woman lunged from their positions and devoured Jenny‟s cooking like ravenous house cats
that never actually get enough to eat.

Max slid out the door and down the two flights of stairs without one of them noticing anything but Charles
Edward the Third using way more syrup than they thought was healthy. It wasn‟t that Max didn‟t care; it
was just a total lack of comprehension when Kyle droned into the Matrix zone. Max preferred to know just
enough to be dangerous, not enough to be enthralled.

The kitchen was like a funeral home. Cell phones were silent, all eyes focused on the television,
whispered comments about hairstyle or clothing the only words muttered. Julian stood behind Karl who
assumed the chair nearest the TV. Tony was flanked by Molly and Maudie, when wasn‟t he, on the
bench. Standing in the hallway between the lobby and kitchen, Max could hear the echo from both the
kitchen and Nick‟s office tuned to the same channel. It was painful to hear, so Max shifted a few inches
closer to the kitchen. Grady leaned on the counter, large hands planted on the tile as if he were holding
the entire universe stable.

Grace and Jenny weren‟t in the room. Max glanced over his shoulder, saw them sitting by the fountain in
the sun, laughing and sharing a cigarette. No doubt they were mocking poor Joe, surely not him. At the
wrought arch, one of Nick‟s reinforcements kept watch on the drive and grounds, pretending he couldn‟t
hear their every word. Shrugging aside misgivings, Max went to help Grady hold the universe stable by
leaning on the counter.

Agent Segars was so close shaved and tight-lipped he made a clam look chatty. Tall, dark and crisp is
how Maudie described him. Murphy did his „country boy‟ routine, Lucas covered the middle ground and
the experts speculated so wildly Max expected he would see Grace‟s image as an alien abductee at the
grocery store next time he stood in line. The frosted haired newscaster was poignant with understanding,
oozed shock and effused praise for the official response. Special Agent in Charge Segars responded to
her snide shot about average citizens not receiving similar care or luxury.

“This isn‟t about privilege, it is about violent imprisonment and abuse of a person trying to live a decent
life. This sort of terror is unacceptable. Period.” Segars‟ starched white shirt most surely snapped

“Let‟s take a break, and when we come back, we‟ll hear from Doctor Talbot, the man who treated Ms
Benedict, the woman kidnapped and held prisoner for days, a victim of mistaken identity. More to come,
after this.” Her smile pleaded for viewers to stay tuned.

Karl slapped the table disgusted. “They couldn‟t put John on this? No, got to go with that bubble lipped
bitch. Play it like a soap opera, no wacko worth his stubble is going to be offended enough to crawl out of
the woodwork. Who‟s directing this? Maudie, get Agent Segars up here. Better yet, get his supervisor on

“He is the supervisor.” Julian sighed. “Hate to agree with you, but he‟s going about this all wrong….” The
two men took the commercial break to discuss who should be directing the episode.

Grady snorted, “I‟m going to the jungle. Let me know when this shit is over and I‟ll get lunch started.”

“Wait for me,” Max followed him, pausing long enough to be sure Grace and Jenny were still conversing
under a watchful eye. Nick was in the doorway of his office, one eye on the monitors, another on his dad,
and some third, unseen eye, no doubt aware of the women.

“Don‟t mind us.” Max waved at Nick, “We‟re just going to darn my socks.”

“Yeah, right. I‟m rotating Greg in here in an hour. Segars wants to „meet the victim.‟ ”

“Knit five, purl twelve, speed of light, that‟s me.” Max nodded, heading for a shower and toothbrush. He
felt like a compost heap.

Grady paused to ask his son, “All right?”

“No.” Nick said and turned back to his duty.

“Damn.” Was all Grady said, stalking toward his jungle as if he needed to hack it all down and start over.

“Everyone else smokes in the house, I don‟t know why you won‟t.” Grace fluttered in the doorway, waiting
for permission to join Jenny.

“It‟s more of a break.” Jenny waved her to the bench and bent her knees so Grace could sit down. She
was sitting sideways, gazing at the gnome basking in the sunlight.

“It‟s hard to hear your life dissected and speculated about. Especially when they get it wrong.” Grace‟s
voice was gentle, intimately pitched, but her smile was bold as Joe the gnome‟s love of music. “You‟re
wise to walk away from it.”

“Nothing to do with me, wrong or right.” Jenny squinted in the light, wincing when a scab pulled on her
cheek. “I don‟t know how you stand it.”

“I‟m an excellent actress.” Grace whispered. “It‟s why I have all those lovely statues.”

Jenny‟s grin became an embarrassed giggle. Grace laughed, full and broad, making the security man
shift in his boots.

“Poor Michael. He really hated Joe, but couldn‟t quite bring himself to ignore the light in his eyes, could
he?” Grace dipped her fingers in the bowl of the fountain. “It‟s our anniversary today.”

“Yours and Michael‟s?” Jenny studied Grace‟s face, noted the sorrow around her eyes.

“Max‟s. Oh, he doesn‟t realize it, I‟m sure.” Grace winked. “He‟s oblivious to most dates, except

“How long?” Jenny tilted her head, smiling at Grace‟s mockery.

“It was twenty years ago, today. I was young and breathtaking. Max was … God, he was so adorably
awkward, so earnestly intense. We met on the set. His first and only movie from that oh so heroic series
of books. We didn‟t even wait for the wrap to get married, took a weekend trip, both back on the set
Monday, smug with our secret. It was a series, cancelled after a season, but it was a launch for me, and
oh, what he and I were sure we‟d accomplish together…. He built this place with the money from the
movie and series. The land was in his family for ages. I didn‟t want to be buried with him in his books.”

Grace tugged a cigarette from Jenny‟s pack, taking her time over the memories. Resting her arm and chin
on the back of the bench, she laughed, a hint of regret throttled with wonder, even now. “We were sure
we could make some long-distance thing work. He‟d build and scribble, I‟d come and go…. Didn‟t work
out. My next series lasted longer than we did. I was hungrier than either of us realized. Darling Max was
crushed. I couldn‟t stand hurting him, but I was no good at fasting either. Now, I‟m mature and beautiful,

feasting on the life I wanted, well, normally I‟m feasting, lately it‟s been rather a famine. And, Max has
outgrown the awkward, but God, he‟s as intense and so damn much fun to torment with tender

Jenny choked on laughter. “You are an excellent actress.”

“Oh, there‟s a bit of bitch under that ponytail, huh?” Grace grinned, relieved to find Jenny more than some
pallid victim of wrong place, wrong time.

Jenny shook out her ponytail as if checking for stray bitch bits. “Maybe, darling Max reminds you there‟s a
nice person under all that feasting.”

“Nice!” Grace shuddered. “Please. No one should describe me as nice.”

“Max did.” Jenny considered her, a smile blooming across her bruised cheeks and tugging on the threads
of the stitches above her eye. “I would. I bet Julian does.”

Grace tossed the butt of her cigarette in the fountain. “I doubt that.”

“Why?” Jenny fished the filter from the fountain, dropped it on the lip, absently offering her observations.
“He looks at you as if you‟re not only breathtaking, but like he‟s glad you‟re nice too.”

“Save me from the quiet ones!” Grace jumped to her feet, paced around the fountain, fishing leaves and
pine needles from the water, not surprised when Jenny remained still as Joe. Crossing her arms over her
middle, she glanced at her reflections in the French doors and sighed, “I was hoping for at least a week of
mutual worship. This is all a bit too much real life.”

“I‟d think you‟d want – hasn‟t it – knowing how important someone is, helps, doesn‟t it?” Jenny felt the
tension from Grace invading her, struggled with the desire to dart away or worse, fling her arms around
Grace and comfort her.

“Julian and I plan to do a series of documentaries together. Mature, beautiful actress confronted by
horrifying conditions for children all over the world, that sort of thing. Karl negotiated the contracts. The
sizzle between Julian and I was, unexpected, a bonus feature.” Grace winked at Jenny who was
frowning, trying to understand what she was missing in the conversation. “I have this tendency to fall in …
lust with the intense. They see my drive and mistake it for a kindred passion. Eventually, they all see it for
what it is. I hate that „feet of clay‟ look, the disappointment and challenge to find it buried inside of me,
somewhere. So, I kiss them good-bye and move on. Damn Julian knows it isn‟t there, finds it too fucking
amusing. It won‟t last, thank God. Can you see me all teary-eyed pleading for rickety waifs? Well, I can‟t.
Not for long.”

“He‟s been all over the world - seen clay feet before.” Jenny swung to her feet, circling to stand next to
Grace, her arm sliding around Grace‟s shoulder even though she felt like an idiot.

Grace chuckled, pointed at them in the panes of glass. “Which one is a true image?”

“All of them.” Jenny grinned.

“You sound so sure.” Grace whispered.

“I am.” Jenny spun away, arms wide, dancing a little silly jig that made Grace laugh. “Besides, the sun is

Grace kicked off her shoes and climbed gracefully into the fountain, squealing at the cold water, but
splashing about like a child. She held out her hands and tugged Jenny up and into the freezing bowl with
Joe. They held their hands over his topknot and sang ring around the rosy, suiting action to the words,

except for the „all fall down‟ part.

The temperature forced them out of the water, teeth chattering, like giggling castanets. Someone opened
the French doors and threw a couple towels at the bench before banging it shut. Grace clutched her side
from laughing so hard. Jenny shucked off yet another pair of socks, draping them over the back of the
bench while Grace accepted one of her shoes from the blushing security man. When she turned around,
Jenny was drying her legs, foot on the bench, her skirt hiked up to her knee, humming the children‟s ditty.

“My God!” Grace gasped, pulling the towel from Jenny‟s hands. The grazes on her legs were long; the
scabs puckered from the cold water, her toes and foot a pattern of stitches and scrapes.

Jenny flipped her skirt over. “Its just – chicken wire is sharp – but – don‟t spoil it.”

Grace swallowed, forced a smile to her face and nudged Jenny to turn around, used the towel to dry the
ends of the woman‟s hair. “Spoil what?” Her voice was perfectly modulated, just the right amount of silly
adventure and teasing, only her hands gave away the fear that slammed in her chest.

“You‟re the only one – everyone else – it‟s just-” Jenny‟s breath stuttered in her throat, Grace could hear
the tears of frustration choking the thoughts.

“Forgive me,” Grace draped the towel over Jenny‟s shoulder, turned to pick up the other one. “I was just
consumed by a moment of jealous rage. You‟ve got better legs than me. Wear longer skirts huh?”

Jenny‟s laughter bubbled, “I might trip.”

“Price you pay for beauty, honey.” Grace snapped her towel over her shoulder and shrugged by Jenny.

Her hand was on the doorknob when Jenny whispered her gratitude. Smiling at the reflection of the
woman clutching the towel around her shoulders, more afraid than Grace had ever imagined being, it was
not easy to remember all the statues lined up in her honor. But she did.

“Don‟t let it go to your head.” Grace tossed across her shoulder, “All my other body parts are four hundred
times better than yours.”

Jenny‟s grin went next to those statues in Grace‟s mind. Hard earned, but so what she deserved.

    Agent Segars was inches taller than Nick, all that Nick went to great effort to tone down, Agent
    Segars worked to enhance. His smile was fringe on an angular face where gold wire rimmed specs
    enlarged evidence of his concentration. When he shook Jenny‟s hand, it was exactly the right amount
    of cautious pressure and precisely the number of seconds one met a stranger‟s hand. He waited for
    her to sit on the sofa in the lobby, took the chair closest and sat back, at ease with the moment.

    Sheriff Lucas hovered by the French doors. Nick took the ladder-backed chair outside his office door,
    which was closed, but undoubtedly holding half the house. Jenny tried to forget this, to ignore the fact
    she felt dwarfed by the large gathering of testosterone as Segars asked her how she was feeling.

    Glancing at Lucas, who was examining his fingernails and discreetly hooking the digital recorder on
    his jacket pocket, Jenny frowned. “How can I help you, Agent Segars?”

    “I just wanted to meet with you, perhaps clear up a few details and answer any questions you may
    have.” His smile nudged toward the officially reassuring zone, properly proportioned to keep his
    glasses at the correct visual angle.

    “Questions?” Jenny tilted her head, laced her fingers and tried to think of something intelligent to ask.
    Wondering out loud if that button under his tie was as sharp as it looked was probably not a brilliant


“I understand the phrase FBI conjures Gestapo-like images, but I want to assure you there‟s nothing
about my being here to concern you, personally.” He flicked a tapered finger in Lucas‟ direction.
“Sheriff Lucas has been very thorough and I‟ve reviewed his material. There‟s no question, at least in
my mind, that you were involved in the planning or execution of this incident. The fire at the safe
house certainly confirms this.”

“Fire?” Jenny shook her head, more confused than before.

Nick leaned forward, “Ms Benedict hasn‟t been briefed on the safe house incident.”

Jenny looked to Nick, “Incident?”

“It‟s irrelevant really.” Segars moved on. “All we‟ve managed to confirm is someone wanted to know
who was in the safe house and is undoubtedly aware it wasn‟t you.”

“I see.” Jenny said.

“Ms Benedict, would you like to walk with me? I‟ve been cooped up in a car and that trailer for most of
the day.” He unbent from the chair as if her agreement was a given.

Jenny‟s gaze darted from Nick who was not happy to Lucas who shook his head. Shrugging aside
their misgivings, she rose and preceded Agent Segars out the doors. Two men in navy blue suits and
fleece lined trench coats were standing by to walk with them, one in front, one behind, close enough
she could hear the „traffic‟ from their earpieces. They left the front patio, turned away from the garage
and walked toward the back of the house, passing Grady‟s jungle filled green house before Agent
Segars spoke.

“I want to ask you again,” He cleared his throat, “Are you all right?”

Jenny nodded; relieved some of the tension had been left behind. “I‟m a bit out of balance, I guess.”

Agent Segars clasped his hands behind his back and chuckled, “That‟s an interesting way to put it.”

Her smile twitched. “What do you want to talk about without ears and eyes?”

He glanced around. They were halfway between the pond and the guest‟s patio, in the open, but no
doubt surrounded if Nick was half as good as Lucas and Murphy seemed to envy.

“There are eyes and ears a plenty here, Ms Benedict, but you seemed uncomfortable with them.”
Segars waved her toward a bench that was obviously used for pond gazing. “I‟m guessing everyone
is trying to make sure you feel secure and you probably want five feet of privacy?”

Jenny sighed onto the bench, “Something like that.”

Agent Segars didn‟t sit next to her as she expected, he slipped out of his jacket and draped it around
her before sitting on the grass. “Don‟t look so shocked. I‟m tall, you‟re short, I like to see people when
I have a conversation.”

She nodded, and then feeling stupid, like some princess with a subject at her feet, slid to the grass on
her knees. “I can‟t – just tell me.”

“Actually, I need you to tell me some things.” He plucked a blade of grass and twirled it between his
finger and thumb.


“Watkins, bring me that recorder, please,” he tossed the grass. Watkins dropped a digital recorder in
his palm and paced away. “It‟s the cell phone you heard. I have various tones recorded. I‟d like you to
listen to them and see if you can identify which is closest to what you heard.”

“Oh,” Jenny frowned. “I‟m not good at – I only heard it once.”

“And over and over in your dreams I imagine?” His voice was gentle, but his intensions resolved.

“I don‟t remember dreaming about – maybe.” Jenny shrugged, resigned to getting this over with. She
could here Sadie clicking her tongue as if she were dawdling over algebra, “Can‟t hurt to try.”

“Good.” He thumbed a button and a series of beeps played.

“Nothing like that.” Jenny laughed, “Maybe I‟ll just eliminate things.”

“Even that will help, Ms Bene-”

“Can you just call me Jenny? Will it get you in trouble?” She sighed and rubbed her forehead, niggles
of a headache not aided by his focused energy. “Ms Benedict is my aunt or grandmother.”

“All right, Jenny,” he soothed. “Let‟s try these.”

Another set of beeps, lower toned, then a set higher and Jenny shook her head. They sat on the
grass for almost an hour. Her eyes wandered through the trees, saw the geese penned, the dogs
roaming and twice she was sure she heard Grady yelling about – Oh yes, the grocer was supposed
to be there…. When she heard a set of chimes, her eyes closed and her hand covered the recorder.

“Like that, just one. A pluck – like metal tube against metal – small echo.” She couldn‟t seem to let go
of the recorder so he could thumb the button. Her hand was shaking, all the way to her shoulder and
for a minute, she was sure her brains were frying in her skull.

“Just take a deep breath and uh, if you could take your nails out of my hand, thanks.” His amusement
helped her breathe easier. “Open your eyes.”

She did, his tone used to obedience. Shaking hair from her face, she stiffened her spine and met his
gaze, startled to find his professional smile replaced by concern. “Am I – did I do something wrong?”

“No.” He shook his head, “I should have warned you how it might feel.”

“You are not – are you sure you‟re The Fed everyone – Oh, I didn‟t – Shit.” Jenny ducked her chin,
covering her hot face with her cool hands.

Agent Segars‟ laughter didn‟t disturb anyone or anything. Not even the dogs were bothered. “Nice to
know I‟m appreciated.”

“Please, I‟m so sorry!” Jenny reached out and then drew back, more embarrassed, whispering her
plea, “Just play it.”

“I don‟t think so.” He shifted, shocking her further. No longer sitting to her left, so the recorder would
be dominant between them, he leaned to his elbow, stretched out his legs and dropped the recorder
in her lap. “You‟re not the first person I‟ve had to badger. Normally, I try and prepare people, or at
least anticipate, so you don‟t feel like they‟re having another almost heart attack when some stray
memory wacks you.”

“Wacks?” She bit her lip, “Is that official jargon?”

“Absolutely.” He grinned, his glasses riding higher, bumping into his brows. “My reports are full of

“I have this – I‟m a bit nuts I think.” Jenny whispered. She‟d meant it to sound funny, but felt stupid
tears flooding her eyes.

“No.” He stated. As if they were discussing ants at a picnic, “The person who did this to you is nuts.
What you feel is sane, rational response to insanity. My job is to muck about in the insanity that
touched you so it doesn‟t touch anyone else.”

She thumbed the recorder, listened to the next set of chimes, but shook her head. The next set was
off as well, but in the middle of the third set, she felt – felt! – the chime. Without realizing it, she shook
the recorder from her skirt and jumped to her feet, backing away, but halting when Agent Segars sat
up. Slowly, she walked to the bench, shrugging away his jacket and folding it across her lap. Flushed
with the heat of adrenalin, she felt smothered by the fabric.

“Which one?” He hadn‟t moved, though the two agents were poised for anything.

“Uh,” she raked her fingers through her hair, “Third one.”

He scooped the recorder from the grass. Gaining his knees, he dropped the thing in his pocket. With
cautious steadiness, he came to crouch beside her. “I won‟t ask if you are sure. Each of those sounds
is recorded by a specific model or brand of product. I have a list to compare it to. It‟s a good starting
point, Jenny.”

“Is it?” His voice sounded so far away to her ears, hers didn‟t seem to make any sound at all.

“Yes.” He tried to hold her gaze, but her eyes darted right, to the hovering suit, down to the geese, the
dogs, everywhere but him. “Just breathe slow. Do you need something?”

She vehemently shook her head.

“You‟re safe. There‟s enough security here to shame Fort Knox.” He slid to the bench beside her. Not
touching, but tangible. With a flick of his hand behind the bench, he signaled Watkins, who strolled
away to communicate with his lapel. “After you heard that sound, tell me what you heard next. Just
the sounds.”

Jenny shuddered, hunched over his jacket like a question mark, “Leaves crunching.”

“No, before that.”

“Before? The chime.” Jenny smoothed his jacket; her hand brushed the fibers, thumb catching on a
button, making her flinch.

“After the chime, before the leaves.”

“There – Oh!” Jenny‟s hand fisted around the sleeve and she breathed realization, “Another tone.

“Makes sense.” His smile was broad when she glanced up.

“And then – a hiss.” She frowned at him, not seeing him, but listening, remembering. “The heater or
light, whatever. Metal rubbing – maybe a handle?” Jenny stood up, the jacket slithered to the ground
and she stepped over it. “Plastic snapping – a thud, he tripped when he got to his feet-” Jenny

covered her ears with her hands, “Gravel or maybe stones – puffed by the door – God, he looked in –
stared at me … I – no, I imagined – or maybe that was – those rescue – or Max – just the leaves - I
heard the leaves crunch. That's all I heard, leaves….”

“That‟s fine.” Agent Segars was right in front of her, halting her progress down the slope toward the
pond. “Let it go, now.”

Jenny bounced off his shoulder, dropping her hands, stuffing them in the pockets of the large denim
dress. She turned her back on him, spotted Max coming toward them and spun back around.
Desperate to run – anywhere, away from everything, she skidded forward, halted by Agent Segars
stepping left, then right.

“Jenny, you didn‟t do anything you need to hide.” Without physically touching her, he managed to
restrain her with a conviction. “Mr. Cooper is probably just coming to make sure I haven‟t badgered
you excessively.”

Nodding, a step away from the Agent, she focused on the dog standing at attention by the pond.
Bitterly, she glared back at the animal, her hackles as irritated as the mutt‟s. “No. I didn‟t do anything.
Just – nothing.”

“You kept your head.” The man insisted. “You‟re alive because of that.”

Jenny refused to look at him. “No.”

“Trust me, I‟ve seen-”

“No. He didn‟t want me – I thought I‟d imagined – but now I‟m not sure – but he didn‟t want me dead.”
Jenny crossed her arms, turned and said, “Sometime in the night – I should have – probably would
have – the heater. He brought the heater in. Crouched – by the body. Watched me. I‟m alive because
of him - nothing. I did nothing.”

Agent Segars put a hand on her shoulder, “Are you sure?”

Jenny swallowed, nodded. “I thought it was a dream. Truly. I swear to God, I thought it was a dream.”

“What makes you think differently now?” His hand squeezed, holding her attention when she would
have allowed it to wander away. “What changed your mind?”

“The chime.”

“Come on, Jenny, help me out here.” It was the first and only impatience he‟d demonstrated.

“It wasn‟t outside. It was in his hand.” She licked her lips, gulped for air. “I didn‟t think – it didn‟t seem
real – possible. I kept trying to make the hole bigger – all night. When he didn‟t stop me – I thought I‟d
– nuts, you know? Fell asleep – the chime woke us both. In his hand.”

“Then what happened?” He caught her chin, kept her from turning away.

“He left. Picked up the heater and,” Jenny closed her eyes. “Left me….”

“Did you see his face, Jenny?” His hand tightened for a second on her chin before he stepped back.
“Could you identify him?”

Jenny shook her head, “Nothing. I saw nothing, shadow behind the light.”

“What was he wearing?”

“Boots. Jeans. Big Jacket – hood – furry hood. Parka.” Jenny felt her knees give way, but arms were
behind her, circling her waist, she chuckled and leaned back into Max‟s chest. “Expensive boots. Hi

“Hi yourself.” Max breathed warmth against her cheek. “Agent Segars looks ready to pass out. What
have you done to the poor man?”

Jenny‟s eyes were drooping closed, as heavy as her body. “Who?”

“…perfectly natural…overwhelmed…. If I‟d realized….Just thought it was…. I‟ll wait until
tomorrow….Damn freaky.” Agent Segars‟ voice was floating across the pond, teasing the dog. Max‟s
arms were turning to mist and Jenny was going to sink through the soil….

Agent Segars hovered in the nook for some time, observing Jenny‟s fitful resistance against oblivion.
He was irritated, but willing to concede she was safer here than cooped up in some hotel in a tiny
town. Briefing Max on what Jenny said wasn‟t against any rule, but it was difficult for him to trust Max
after having been kept in the dark for too damn long. He wanted to choke Lucas for wasting time
pursuing the „victim as mastermind‟ bullshit and delaying proper notification and requests. If Murphy
hadn‟t called him, chances are he‟d still be in the dark. Well, the aunt might have got to him first, that
would have been a joy.

Segars slipped into his jacket, “I‟ll send Watkins with a catalog of boots for her to look through.
Staying focused on one detail might prompt another.”

Max kept smoothing blankets across her, stunned by the sweat pouring from her despite complaining
of the cold.

“Lucas‟ games sure didn‟t help. Self protection slows everything down.” Segars shook his head. “You
realize she feels as much a prisoner here?”

“Do you have a better suggestion?” Max asked.

“No. I don‟t.” The agent un-hinged his glasses from his ears, polished the lenses with a handkerchief
and a smile. “Just thought I‟d mention it. Perspective can make a difference.”

“Meaning?” Max straightened, glaring at the man.

He slid his specs back on his face. “Just consider it a friendly warning when you hesitate.”

“Do you speak English?” Max sighed, his shoulders slouching in frustration. Jenny gripped the
blankets, muttering about spider webs.

Segars‟ indulgent smile was as purposefully directed at Max, as it had been at Jenny. Max wondered
if the man practiced as often as Grace did.

“I saw the videos of the reception.” Segars nodded toward Jenny, “Listened, read the reports,
interviewed the doctor in diapers. Timing is crappy, doesn‟t mean the emotions aren‟t real. If I
misread the situation then I beg your pardon.”

“Crappy timing.” Max‟s sneer battled with a grin. Self-Mockery won, “Sounds like the title for my next

Agent Segars nodded approval, said he looked forward to reading that, and asked Grady to show him

the door.

Max settled on the coffee table with a book he didn‟t bother to open. Reaching out when Jenny‟s
hands searched for the boundaries that were in her dream, so she would know someone was there.
Whether this comforted her or not was hard to tell, but it was all Max could think to do.

Cobwebs were cutting into her; a spider hovered nearby, consuming the heart of a monster, a tube of
poison to slime Jenny if she wriggled free of the web. The no-way-to-win scenario of nature.
Somewhere, beyond the spider, in the dark, a bird screamed warning. But it was too late, the poison
coated Jenny, the web was going to squeeze the breath from her, there’d be nothing but a husk, like
the monster, for the spider to feast upon. Spiders liked to wrap their prey, but they didn’t like the cold,
it was so cold….

“I‟ve got every blanket in the house on you,” a voice in the dark fretted at Jenny. “It‟s hot as hell in
here. Grady can‟t put any more wood in the stove without burning the house down.”

“The web is cutting – the spider-” Jenny bolted forward, five blankets bunched around her. “Max?”

She was on the sofa, in Max‟s house, in the nook. Must be. Computer tucked in the corner; the large
executive desk and the long leather sofa formed a “v”. Max was perched on a coffee table separating
the space for relaxing and working. It was sturdy, with sharp corners and light stain. Shoveling hair
from her face, she gasped when a tangle tugged her scalp. “Feng shui office?”

Max grinned, his eyes rounding as his cheeks rose. “Keeps my mind clear.”

“Wonder if it would work for me.” Jenny shoveled blankets away. “I‟m buried.”

“You kept saying you were cold.” Max peeled the blankets away, a bit of huff in his tone.

“Just a dream.” She leaned her head back, allowing the cool leather to cradle her throbbing head. “Do
you have Tylenol?”

“They say red wine is good for headaches.” Max rested his hands on his thighs, ready to move but
reluctant to do so.

“Just something.” Jenny massaged her temples. “I don‟t like naps.”

“I do.” Max‟s jovial tone drifted across her. His knee brushed hers when he stood up. “Be right back.”

Jenny was tempted to flop sideways into the mountain of blankets, smother the images of a spider
sucking the life out of her. It seemed more of an effort than she could muster. Everything seemed
more of an effort than she had energy for.

“The crystal is in the guest house, all I have are tea cups.” Max had a bottle tucked in his elbow, two
cups dangling from his fingers and a plate of sandwiches in his hands. “Grady says you should eat.
Of course, that‟s his solution to everything.” He lined up bottle, plate and cups on the coffee table,
with plenty of room for him to straddle the table.

Jenny accepted the cup and half a sandwich. “Sadie always drank from a jelly jar. Said dressing up
booze was the road to drunkenness. She preferred vodka, kept the natives confused she claimed.”

“This is Grady‟s blackberry wine. He said it‟s good for a headache, but doesn‟t have much of a kick.
He wanted to warm it up, but that is disgusting.” Max knew he was chattering like a nervous child, but
her face was pale as the day they found her. Pain glazed her eyes. She‟d knocked a couple scabs off

her cheek when he‟d gathered her in his arms, face rubbing against his shirt as he jogged back to the
house, more than a few words aimed at Agent Segars. Damn man just let him spew, and then
proceeded to brief him like some private giving a report. Two thin crevices of pink flesh surrounded by
angry puckers were now challenging his thought processes.

Sipping the wine, Jenny nodded but didn‟t say anything.

“That‟s ham and cheese, a little mustard. Not too spicy. Grady doesn‟t like spicy mustard when he‟s
serving wine.” Max gabbled on, “He believes tastes should enhance each other, not drown out.”

“Grady talks a lot.” Jenny rubbed her neck along the back of the sofa, grimaced when the stitches
hidden beneath her hair protested.

“Yes.” Max clamped his jaw to silence his inclination to expand on the virtues of Grady‟s sermons
while he sat there plotting the next twist or turn. “At least taste the sandwich.”

Jenny did. Chased it with the cup of wine and nodded approval. “Very nice. Harmony.”

Max sniffed to contain his laughter. “It‟s not summer camp food, but it‟ll do huh?” Her smile lasted less
than a few moments, but Max counted it a victory.

She drank another cup of wine and half-listened to Max expand on Grady‟s philosophy of food, wine,
plants, gardening, and politics. With each chuckle, Jenny felt her irritation grow. Pouring the third cup
made his eyebrows rise, but even that didn‟t silence the ongoing prattle. She shoved a cup in his
hand, poured him some deep violet wine, sloshing just a bit over his thumb.

“I‟m not going to jump off the ledge. You don‟t have to talk me down.” She let the bottle slide through
her fingers to the table, rose from the sofa and paced the bookshelves lining the outer wall.

The wall beside Max‟s desk was glass, revealing another angle of Grady‟s jungle. He waved at her
with a pair of scissors. She waved back, but turned away, ducking into the chair under the steps,
padded in gold. Felt nice, like a closet. She drew her feet up, turned sideways and drank more wine.

Max appeared at the end of his desk, leaning so his legs were extended, ankles crossed, hands
bracing him. “I‟m sorry. I didn‟t mean to treat you like-”

“I‟m nuts.” Jenny waved her cup at him. “I am, s‟ok.”

Max enjoyed her slurred declaration. “Its just Grady has so much wisdom, I feel I must share it,
spread the word and all that.”

“Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all nations?” Jenny twisted so she was catty cornered,
balanced the now empty teacup on her left knee with great care. “I don‟t have any shoes, did you
know that? Just - Grady‟s socks - wise man socks should make me wise – maybe there‟s a time

“Maybe they‟re just socks.” Max hitched himself onto the desk.

“Without shoes – I can‟t go anywhere – Not far – Not fair.” She shook her forefinger at him. “Do you
have shoes?”

“Where would you go, Jenny?” He banged his heels against the desk, his hiking boots making a dull
thud she ignored.

“Home.” She tried to stab her finger through the handle of the teacup, missed, tried again. “I‟d go
home – my fish – they‟re probably all – they‟ll eat each other if they get hungry enough. Cat is all right

though. He‟ll go begging, Mrs. Jensen will feed him. Fish can‟t swim fifteen miles – well, they could if
there were water – but there are plants, live ones – they ate the snail – maybe there won‟t be corpses
– they don‟t have shoes either. Of course, cats don‟t need shoes….”

Max rubbed his face, hiding the grin. But, he couldn‟t resist, “Except for Puss in Boots.”

“Exactly! He had boots. You have boots!” Jenny swung her legs to the floor and wove to the wine
bottle, poured a lot more, knelt by the table and ate a sandwich. “This is good,” she turned to tell him,
surprised he wasn‟t on the desk. Her eyes closed and she gripped the table, when she opened her
eyes again, he still wasn‟t there. “People don‟t disappear.”

“What?” Max leaned forward, he‟d moved to the sofa while she considered sandwiches.

Jenny flopped around, crawled to sit beside him on her knees. “Cheshire cats disappear, not people.

Max crossed his heart and raised his hand, “I won‟t.”

“Good.” She smiled. “Can I have a sandwich?”

“Sure. Have two.” Max forestalled her sideways stretch for the plate so she didn‟t pitch off the sofa
and handed the plate to her.

“Max?” Her whisper dismissed food.

He set the plate back just in time. Jenny pitched forward, hands winding around his neck, as a sob
became a plaintive, “I want to go home.”

She ended up sprawled across his lap, face and tears beneath his left ear, arms twined around his
shoulders. Max rubbed her back, nodded when she chanted about home and fish without shoes,
made a few inarticulate sounds of comfort when she admonished him for disappearing, even
managed to smile when she again mentioned she had no shoes.

“I noticed a lack of shoes didn‟t stop you, or Grace, from doing a pagan dance in the fountain like
possessed nymphs.” He fingered soggy strands of hair from her face, pleased to see her smug grin.

Jenny sniffed. “It was the Max forgot his anniversary fountain ritual.”

Mimicking his movements by thumbing his cheek, her grin faded as her hand roamed his face. Her
fingertips traced his eyebrows, even the delicate flesh of his eyelids, feathered his lashes before
trailing to his lower lip. His hand slid between them, covering hers, drawing it to his cheek, resting
against her palm giving and receiving comfort. Jenny‟s smile taunted him, brushed the lips he‟d tried
to protect from her touch. In the breath between her smile and his, a tender caress intended as
mocking banter, transformed to an energy that would have knocked Jenny‟s shoes off – if she‟d had

Max‟s hand, flat against her spine, went from tracing gentle circles of soothing comfort to pressure,
eagerly drawing her closer. His fingertips splayed between her ribs, precisely the size to meld into her
flesh, despite the layers of clothing, his thumb curved around her breast, touching, with enough force
to bring awareness, nothing more. When her hand crept from his cheek, inching to cup the back of his
head, Max shifted, caressed her neck. His fingers drifted into her hair, deepening the kiss. He felt her
shudder, the second of hesitation and though she forced herself beyond the moment, Max drew back,
enough their noses touched, but separate once more. Unsatisfying, but less dangerous, for the

“Crappy Timing is going to be the title of my next book.” He hadn‟t meant to say that, but it made

Jenny‟s eyes open and impale him with longing. Uncertainty fringed her eyes, as glazed by the kiss
as Max‟s heart.

She shook her head, their noses brushing before she buried her blush against his neck. “If a kiss
inspires a title like that.…”

“What? You don‟t like it?” He jiggled her, mostly to adjust uncomfortable body parts, but partly to
maintain the connection of humor, flushed with a taste of what might be.

Blindly, she captured his hand to lace her fingers with his. She still trembled, was encouraged to feel
his hand was none too steady. “It suits your anti-hero that‟s for sure. Will he go on a quest across the
battle scared galaxy for my shoes with Won-Kaz hot on his ion trail?”

Max‟s laughter nearly spilled her from his lap. “You have read the books! My God, there are only a
dozen people who bought that one.”

“That‟s not true,” she leaned back into his shoulder. “It did very well at the book store. They had to
order from the second printing.”

Max tilted his head, challenging her to argue with the wisdom of the publishing world. “Not according
to the reviewers.”

Jenny kissed his knuckles, cradled their hands to her heart. Quoting a review, she said, “A Time to
Mourn is just enough escapism with raw adventure to satisfy the desire to forget dishes, car
payments or finals. There is a tender hunger running through out the book as Miller accepts and
grows beyond the agony of loss of his, and our, beloved Yaslin. Poignantly understated.” She stroked
his palm, and continued, “It broke this reviewers heart a little. Miller’s willingness to carry on for a
cause he didn’t want to believe in. Yaslin’s hope of peace for a world he’d never seen except through
her heart. Miller is transformed from cocky, but loveable, idol to tender hero. It is beautifully done
without being trite or maudlin.”

Max searched her face for signs of pretense, or worse mockery. A sharp intake of breath rattled
painfully in his chest. He shrugged from beneath her, rising and pacing away to his desk, digging
around in his drawer for the wire bound pack of index cards he used for stray thoughts. “Definitely
Crappy Timing.”

Jenny dozed a little while he scribbled away, when he turned to the computer, she tidied the mess
and carried it out to the kitchen. Washing up the dishes to the sounds of Max‟s music when he
cranked it up. Grady came in with an armful of wood for the stove, startled to see Jenny at the sink,
smiling over her shoulder at him.

“Oh for God‟s sake,” Grady rolled his eyes, “Pounding the keyboard isn‟t he?”

“Right in the middle of – just Poof.”

Grady nodded as if fully understood her half explanation. “Man‟s an ass.”

Her giggle made Grady huff away. “Young folks got no respect for passion.”

“We do so!” Max shouted, “Get me some coffee you old grouch.”

“This isn‟t my table.” Grady loaded the stove and filled the wood box. “Get up and make sure you
don‟t get blood clots in your legs.”

Max kept typing, “Just coffee thanks.”

Jenny strolled by, large travel mug in her hand. Grady stretched from the stove and blocked her way.

“You‟ll spoil him,” he warned. “After you go, he‟ll remind me for months about how you brought him
coffee with a smile.”

“He won‟t even notice.” Jenny patted his shoulder. “Sadie was the same when she painted.”

Grady huffed aside. “Phil‟s looking for you when you‟re done being waitress and dishwasher.”

“In the office or napping in the lobby?” Jenny winked. Grady‟s grin hid his bright eyes long enough
she forgot to ask what Phil wanted.

“Go water the author, smarty skirt.” He headed to the kitchen. “I‟ll make us some tea. Might sober you
up after all that wine.”

Jenny squinted her eyes at his back, shrugged and carried the mug to the cork coaster on the
computer table without a word. Turning to go deliver a cutting retort to Grady, she squeaked when
Max‟s hand shot out and tipped her into his lap. Jenny flailed a moment, but his hands were warm,
his lips warmer and she forgot what her hurry was when the tip of his tongue tickled the flesh in the
hollow of her throat.

Gulping for oxygen, Max whispered in her ear, “Noticed you.”

“Did you?” Jenny struggled to figure out why the hammering in her chest was a dangerous thing. It
seemed quite nice actually.

“Jen?” He tilted his head, basking in her dazed expression. “All right?”

“I wish you‟d quit asking me that.” She squirmed to her feet, gasping when encountering two of the
buttons on her jumper were undone. “I‟m a nut, not sick.”

Max caught her hand, kissing her palm, enjoying the heat rushing from her hand to her face, and
back to his, asking once more. “All right?”

She took a ragged breath, “More than. Scary though, a little.”

He nodded and released her hand when she drew it away. Content when she fingered hair across his
forehead, “Good scary?”

“You need reassurance?” She wasn‟t teasing, her eyes watched him swallow a trite remark and relief
banished the last of her tension.

“Go away, you‟re distracting.” Max turned his executive chair back to the screen. Jenny‟s hand trailed
the back of his head, her thumb tickling inside the back of his collar. “Stop that.”

Her lips pressed where her thumb had been, so light he wasn‟t sure he felt it. “Agreeably scary, Max,”
she whispered before kissing the top of his head.

He stared mindlessly at the keyboard, shivering when her laughter tickled him from clear across the
room. “Crappy Timing. Focus Max, focus.”

Within five minutes, he was lost in the galaxy, thrusting toward the rumor of Yaslin‟s reincarnation,
certain it was a trick, but desperate to be sure – to find even a crumb of hope or crush it from his
heart forever….

Phil poured more tea, his slide into sleep but an hour away. Nick would turn up with the morning sun
and he could go to bed. Yawning, he interrupted Grady‟s mockery of fancy footwear, “I like the gray

Grady leaned over Jenny‟s shoulder, shoving her ponytail off one of the six catalogs scattered across
the table. “She said they were tan. Brown soles with waffles. Those look like dancing shoes!”

“They do not!” Phil looked to Jenny to solve the fourth or was it the fifth argument between them.
Grady enjoyed it all so much, but Phil had some pride. “They for trail hiking, lightweight for summer

“Right.” Grady scoffed.

“They‟re lovely, Phil, but not what I‟m supposed to identify.” Jenny rubbed her eyes with the heels of
her hands. “God, none of these look right. Maybe it was a stupid nightmare.”

Grady‟s hand rested on her shoulder. “Don‟t give up, now.”

Scooting from the table, she paced around the kitchen, rubbing her arms, nearly scraping at them. “It
wasn‟t – no. No damn more.”

Max, coming from galactic mayhem for coffee, caught her by the shoulders as she dashed toward the
door to the outside. “Woe. There‟s enough infrared out there to give you radiation poisoning. Wait till
Nick gives the morning all clear.”

Jenny leaned her head on the doorframe. “Let me go.”

“You don‟t even have shoes.” Max laughed, until she elbowed him in the stomach and flung the door
in his face.

She jerked it closed, stalked around the patio, pacing back and forth, settling into a circular pattern
that evolved into an oval. Max glared at Grady, glanced at the catalogs smeared across the table and
smacked Phil on the shoulder when he sniggered. “What‟s all this?”

“Boots. Six catalogs of expensive boots. Agent Segars asked her to look through them.” Phil
shrugged to his feet, “I‟m going to start my report and alert Kyle so he doesn‟t set the dogs on her.
Get her back inside, huh? Every one out there has an itchy trigger finger.”

“Great.” Max looked heavenward.

Grady stacked the catalogs and asked, “Plot going badly?”

“No, but thanks for asking.” He sighed, watching her waving her arms as if arguing with the Lord over
her ability to speak to Pharaoh.

“Her head still hurts and her stomach is empty. You can hear it thundering across the room.” Grady
sat down observing Max instead of Jenny. “I got some tea in her, but no food. Why won‟t she eat?”

“I don‟t know Grady.” Max sighed. “It‟s beyond me to - who knows.”

“She‟s not some skinny thing.” Grady sighed, “She ate a sandwich with you.”

Max shoved his hands in his pockets. “So she‟s supposed to remember these expensive boots and
then the man wearing them by looking at these glossy images? Wouldn‟t want to follow that yellow
brick road myself….”

“Hadn‟t thought of that.” Grady nodded. “Suppose she has?”

“No. She‟s only thinking about her fish eating each other….” Max scooped up the catalogs and went
to join her.

Grady glanced up at Phil who snapped the radio off his belt, “It‟s ok Kyle, just Max.”

“You know, some people watch TV!” Kyle complained while one of his companions alerted the
perimeter to Max‟s presence.

“Not in this house.” Phil snapped and left Grady smirking over his morning coffee.

“I‟m sorry,” Jenny backed from Max‟s advance, pressed to the concrete in the gray shadows. “I know I
was rude.”

Max didn‟t say a word, just threw the catalogs into the air, allowing them to scatter like leaves across
the patio. “I was rude, not you. Come inside?”

Jenny shook her head.

He hunched into his shirt, dropping to the bench. It was damp; he could smell the rain moving in.
“Probably get a bit of sleet before noon,” he glanced at the sky.

She didn‟t move from the wall or say anything. Her gaze remained on him, when he extended his legs
and crossed his ankles; recoiling as if he‟d kicked her.

“They were the same as Frankenstein‟s. Both – Brand new.” She whispered in stunned recognition, a
gurgle of clarity she didn‟t want. “Monster and spider wear the same shoes.”

Max closed his eyes, wanting to blot out the sound of her sigh.

“I should have-”

“What?” Max demanded, frustrated he rocked to his feet, halting his advance when she drew back,
“Just what were you supposed to do, Jen? I found you. Your ankles trapped in the wire, there was
rope digging into your wrists and you were nearly frozen stiff. Were you supposed to use, secret
super powers to cut free of the cage? Come on woman think. You did what you could.”

“I didn‟t – why does everyone keep saying that? I am a pathetic worm!” Jenny shoved her fisted hand
against her stomach. “Made me – I said it – didn‟t deserve – said it for – but the spider ate it.”

Max felt frozen to his soul, couldn‟t move or speak even if God himself had commanded it. Before his
eyes, he observed the memory dissipate, her face slacked, vacant eyed gaze at the socks on her
feet. Abruptly, Jenny pushed from the wall, “Are you taking a break?”

Max held his hand out and she took it. He followed her inside, stopped before the stove, and held his
hands out. Max watched her absorb the warmth, saw her struggle to forget whatever had brushed
across memory outside. He wanted to let her forget, to throw it away as he had the catalogs, but
doubted that was the best thing for her and was certain Agent Segars would be convinced it was the
worst thing to enable him to catch this spider.

Jenny yawned. “I‟m tired of feeling so tired.”

Max hooked his hand in her elbow, slid it around her waist. She rose on tip toe to meet his kiss. It was

not the storm of surprise like earlier, more of an exchange of regret, mingled with enough hope to
make her smile and Max hunger.

“All right?” She thumbed his lips.

“Just nuts.” He smiled, kissed the pad of her thumb, then her palm, and cradled it to his cheek.
“Agreeably nuts.”

She stumbled and dropped to the sofa, grabbed a handful of blankets and flung them over herself.

Max shook his head but didn‟t try and persuade her the bed was better. He‟d slept on the sofa often
enough to know it was as comfortable. It was easy to understand she had no desire to be alone,
especially in sleep. Loading more wood in the stove, he also turned the overhead light off; the desk
lamp was enough for her to see if she woke suddenly. In an hour the sun would be up. Maybe he‟d
get some more work done. She probably wouldn‟t hear a thing….

Phil poked his head in the kitchen. “Agent Segars is in the office. He‟d like to talk with you when you
have a moment.”

Max poured a second cup of coffee. “Kyle had his little buggies aimed at us huh?”

SAC Segars was a bit wilted after an eighteen-hour day with damn little to show for it and only three
hours of sleep. He‟d shaved and wore a freshly pressed shirt, but his glasses enlarged lines of
irritation in the whites of his eyes. He glanced up from his laptop when Max placed a mug of coffee
beside him.

“It‟s the good coffee, not that instant crap Phil makes.” Max saluted him with his own mug and
squinted at the monitors. “Three ring circus is still out there I see.”

Segars sighed over the coffee, “Worse. I hear the Aunt is arriving tomorrow. Flying in on her broom
packing a laser of wrath.”

“You‟ve met her?” Max slouched into the chair in the corner, it was more comfortable than it looked
and generally out of the way when Nick paced or Phil fidgeted.

“No, just spoken with her on the phone.” Segars shuddered as if the thought was curdling the coffee.
“Remember the Wicked Witch of the West? She was a selfless saint in comparison. All this aunt can
think about is the effect of this on her board of director‟s blood pressure and assuring the public this
did not happen at a BeneVilla. Her lawyer has been here, ensuring the incident is not mentioned in
conjunction with the BeneVilla name. Now, she wants a statement from the niece, before noon

“Is she planning to stay?” Max tried to imagine this woman on the guest floor with Grace‟s entourage
and security reinforcements. No matter how he considered it, someone died, hideously.

“I doubt it.” Segars rubbed his eyes. “Now, about the boots. We‟ve got the name of six major retailers
in the city that sell that brand.”

Max sat forward, a commotion between Phil and his radio was heading their way. “What now?”

“What do you mean on the drive? Inbound?” Phil slid behind the desk chair to get to the bank of
monitors. “Outbound! What the – Tell them to check fire, damn it, it‟s Ms Benedict. Kyle, wake up
damn it. Do you copy?”

Kyle‟s voice barked, no doubt rattling a few ears. “Quit pissing your pants, Phil. Oh come on,
someone get the FBI folks out of the way.” The plaintive wail wasn‟t encouraging.

Segars waved at Phil, issued orders and blocked Max from bolting through the door. “You‟ll just get in
the way. They aren‟t going to hurt her.”

Max twisted around to observe the swarm surround Jenny dragging her back to the house. Twice she
tried to drop and roll away, but made it no more than a couple steps. By the time she and the two
man escort came through the French doors, Max was sure he‟d had three, maybe four heart attacks.
Jenny‟s first words didn‟t help.

“You have no right to stop me!” She was struggling free of a large, thickly armored, and thoroughly
frustrated man. “I‟m not – let me go!”

Kicking at the man who still held her upper arm only hurt her, but the agent released her arm and she
dove for the door, determined to escape. When the other agent stretched an arm across the glass to
prevent her from opening it, she shoved at him with her hip, but he held his ground, valiantly grinning
at her.

Snatching his weapon from his side holster wiped the stupid grin off his face. Jenny backed away
enough to prevent him from retrieving it or her. “Get away from the door.”

Segars stepped into the lobby, Max behind him, Phil in the doorway telling Kyle to cut the chatter for
five damn minutes.

“That‟s Special Agent Green.” Segars informed her.

“Fine, Special Agent Green, move away from the door.” Jenny waved the gun but the Agent remained
perfectly still.

She put her tongue between her teeth, steadied the weight in her palm, “You can‟t keep me here.”

“No one is holding you here, Jenny.” Segars took several steps into the room, “You‟re free to go as
soon as you return the Former Agent‟s weapon.”

“Right.” She laughed, “I saw how that worked.”

“A misunderstanding.” Segars took another step, “They thought the object of this exercise was to
protect you. No one informed them you didn‟t want their assistance. I can do that. Is that what you

Jenny concentrated on the immobilized Agent. “I want to go home.”

“That‟s not what I asked you.” Segars took another step, but she shook her head. He halted his

“You can‟t fire him.” Jenny waved the gun around and the Agent flinched.

“Why not?” Segars shrugged and took one more step, sliding his hand under his jacket as if to draw
his own weapon. “Hell, I‟ll shoot him myself.”

“I think we should just talk about this for a minute.” Max slid between Segars and Jenny, a friendly,
would you like fries with that, smile on his face.

“I don‟t want to talk – more paperwork for everybody.” Jenny didn‟t meet Max‟s gaze, she stayed
focused on Segars who was smirking.

Max sighed, “You don‟t have to talk to anyone you don‟t want to.”

Jenny‟s forehead wrinkled, then cleared. “They send uniforms – or another suit, or a lawyer, someone
to chat – but it‟s just for the records, the paperwork, reports. No one is out there looking – they‟re all
here. Asking me dumb questions I can‟t answer and my gold fish are dying!”

Max took a step forward, stopped when she backed away, “What makes you think your goldfish aren‟t
all right?”

“A giant spider was eating the fish.” Jenny whispered, shifting her other hand to support the weapon.
Terror washed over her face for a moment, followed by resolve, “I could hear them screaming….”

“Could I call your neighbor, Jenkins?” Max heard the name going down in someone‟s mental
paperwork, and promised to apologize to the poor man someday. “Can he get in the house?”


“He can feed the fish can‟t he? Or one of his sons?” Max said.

“Yes.” She leaned her head against the glass, “Can‟t protect them. No one can.”

“It was just a nightmare.” Max reminded her. “I doubt they‟re in danger, just hungry.”

Jenny directed her gaze toward Segars, opened her mouth to say something, but words clogged in
her throat.

“Did you plan to walk a few hundred miles?” Segars crossed his arms and looked as if she were
inconveniencing him, nothing more.

“If I have to.” Jenny swung the weapon back toward Segars. “Make him to move away from the door.”

“No.” Segars raised his eyebrows. “Can you?”

Max thought for a moment she just might. Air rushed into his lungs when she lowered the weapon. No
one moved, including Max.

“That‟s better.” Segars nodded, “Place the weapon on the floor and step away.”

Glancing out the window as if she were giving up her last hope, Jenny bent to do as Segars
instructed. She backed to the corner, arms across her middle, face toward the glass. Unaware of the
commotion before her as Agent Green assured everyone the safety was on. Phil briefed Kyle and
promised Julie that Nick was not dashing up to Custer‟s Last Stand. Segars communicated with his
people and Jenny slid down the wall like a melting ice cube.

Karl stuck his head in the doorway to inform them one of the news crews got Jenny‟s dash on
camera. “Speculation about who might have been captured and is, even now, being interrogated are
flashing in little sound bytes across the globe. Just thought you‟d like to know.”

Jenny‟s cheek rested on her knees.

Grady came from the office, waving the cordless, “Aunt‟s on the phone. She wants to speak to the

“Tell her to please stand by, I‟ll speak with her directly.” Segars dismissed the Agents. They were out
the doors in record time. Grady shrugged and repeated the message, didn‟t wait for a response, just

snapped the off button.

Jenny tucked her bare toes under her skirt.

Phil tugged Grady into the office. Segars sat on the arm of the sofa as Max squatted, then sat with his
back to the glass, beside Jenny‟s hidden toes. He heard Nick‟s bitching squelched on Phil‟s radio.
Jenny closed her eyes.

“We can‟t help you if you run off with all the secrets locked inside you.” Segars rested his hands on
his thighs, “What else did you remember?”

“Just a nightmare.” Jenny‟s gaze returned to the glass, skittering past Max as if it all might still be part
of the dream.

Segars sighed. “Jenny, you can‟t wave weapons about over a nightmare.”

She chuckled, tracing the outline of Joe‟s topknot on the glass. “No, that‟s everyone else‟s job.”

“It‟s only been a few days-”

“Check your paperwork,” Jenny smiled, hollow as her voice, “It‟s been ten days. I‟ve missed church
again. We‟re practicing for Christmas…. He‟s off to some tropical place with coconuts and umbrellas.”

“You know that for sure?” Segars challenged.

Jenny closed her eyes. “No.”

Segars rocked to his feet, squatted beside her, and waited for her to meet his gaze. As if he were
confiding the secrets of life, he ruefully explained, “Believe it or not, it‟s the paperwork that gets the
bad guy. We can catch him and lock him up, but if the paperwork is screwed up, he gets to go out
there and do this all over again. A little wiser, learning from his mistakes, and ours.” Segars leaned
forward on one knee, propped his wrist over his other, “We‟ll not only get him, we‟ll do it right, fill in all
the blanks and he will pay for what he did to you.”

Jenny shook her head.

“I know it doesn‟t seem like it now, but-”

“No,” she tried to smile, but it didn‟t work. “It‟s just – nice speech, but it‟s not how it works, is it? Max
paid. Grace is afraid, Julian is worried and they‟ll pay. Karl paid. Grady‟s stuffed the pantry – oh,
that‟s probably Max again. You‟re loosing sleep, paying. All this,” she waved her hand to indicate the
security set up as tears began dripping down her face, “will cost. Board meetings and, you would not
believe that paperwork, everyone else is paying…. How long before it‟s not … cost effective? I have
to go home eventually. Now is better than later.”

Segars was offended and made no effort to disguise it, “This isn‟t a balance sheet with you in one
column and-”

“I heard the news woman.” Jenny leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “So many unsolved
cases. They all went home, got on with life. Kidnappers got the money, it‟s all they wanted-”

“If that was all he wanted, you‟d be as dead as Frankenstein and Lizard. There is no profit in waiting
around and watching a woman freeze to death.” Max could see Segars‟ regret as soon as the words
were out of his mouth. He hadn‟t intended to hit at her or express his doubts.

Jenny‟s eyes snapped open, her jaw worked, as if to contradict him, but no sound was made.

Segars fished a handkerchief from his pocket and draped it across Jenny‟s knees. “I have to speak
with your aunt, do you want to talk with her?”

Jenny whispered, “No.”

“Use the phone in the office, Agent Segars.” Max said.

“Thank you.” Segars didn‟t withdraw, though. He glanced out the window, as if considering his words
carefully. “I‟m not going to promise you it won‟t take another ten days, or even ten weeks. I will
promise that when you go home, you won‟t have to worry about who is still out there. But, I need you
to give us a little more time, please?”

Jenny rolled to her feet, not surprised when Max was there, steadying her, hand on her elbow. Her
nod was firm, if reluctant.

Segars looked up at her, a grin on his exhausted face, “No more waving weapons around, all right?
Green is a good man, I really don‟t want to have to shoot him.”

“My aunt doesn‟t like to wait,” Jenny sighed.

SAC Segars rose and patted her shoulder, “Neither do you, huh?”

Her laughter bounced around the room. “I never thought of that.”

“Now that you have, perhaps you can overcome?” Segars bent to scoop the handkerchief off the

Jenny accepted the white linen, with an unsteady hand, whispering, “I‟ll try harder.”

Segars hesitated, “Sure you don‟t want to talk to her? Might help.”

“No.” Jenny glanced at the floor, “I just irritate her. In her world, ten days is an eternity. Everything is
instant. Coffee, faxes, e-mail, cell phones and her orders are obeyed faster than that. I think too
slowly – speak too fast. No.”

“She sounds like my supervisor.” Segars sighed as only the oppressed can. He turned to face the
wrath of aunt, but Jenny‟s whisper caught him at the door.

“I am sorry.”

Though his shoulders relaxed slightly, he didn‟t stop or respond. She was as relieved as he must
have been.

Max slid the handkerchief from her hand and mopped at her face, examining it for signs of sanity. The
harsh growl he‟d intended became a plea. Made him feel like the imbecile he‟d planned to accuse her
of being. “If you want to leave, will you at least say good-bye first?”

Her laughter was no surprise, but her hand caressing his cheek was. “All right?”

“Barely.” He said and welcomed her arms cinching his middle with a sigh. “Idiot.”

Jenny‟s nod was energetic agreement.

“I don‟t know what to say.” Jenny tightened her hold.

Max chuckled.

She tilted her head so she could see his grin.

He brushed dry grass from her hair; thumbed her chewed lip regret stealing his smile. “I‟m-”

She covered his lips with her fingers. “This is not your fault. I‟m not – it isn‟t – please just-”

Max‟s kiss began as tender understanding, but Jenny persuaded him that enthusiastic impatience
was more than agreeable.

Grady cleared his throat, “Anyone want a sausage sandwich?”

Jenny sat forward in Nick‟s chair, half an apple and some toast sitting on a paper plate before her.
Observing Agent Segars abuse the keyboard of his laptop while he repeated the lecture delivered by
Aunt Diana. “Tomorrow, you will make an appearance and statement. She‟s faxed the draft to Mr.
Stone, the attorney. Do not answer questions. Make sure you practice, no stammering. And, for God
sake, Jenny, don‟t throw up like you did when you gave that speech.”

“I was ten. I had the flu.” Jenny informed the desk calendar.

Agent Segars corrected a typo. “Relatives have a hard time. They either want to smother you in
bubble wrap or shove you back on the horse for your own good.”

Jenny shrugged. “The business – Sadie created it for her, or her for it – Diana once said she couldn‟t
always tell. We found out a few months ago Sadie had never transferred some of the shares in
BeneVilla from me back to Diana.” Jenny yawned and leaned her forehead on the phone. “I was only
supposed to have them until twenty-one, in case something happened to Sadie. I own the damn
business. We‟ve been trying to untangle it all. Lawyers take forever to do the simplest things.”

Segars‟ head snapped up. His voice sounded disinterested, but his right hand nearly toppled the
laptop into the trashcan. “What kind of tangle?”

“Hmm?” Jenny fingered buttons on the phone. “Oh, you mean lawyers? Some clause or where to fore
about my reaching thirty-five without issue.” She giggled and pushed to her feet. “Sadie actually
talked like that.”

“Taking another stroll?” Segars pushed the laptop half closed and stood when she did.

“No.” Jenny gazed at Max with a smile. “It‟s idiotic to run from nightmares.”

Max inclined his head, “Hungry?”

She shook her head. “Grubby. I‟m going to clean up.”

“Grady‟s running around with biscuits. Eat one so he doesn‟t piss and moan.” Max winked.

Jenny frowned, hesitating in the doorway between the office and his hallway.

“I‟ve got feathers to soothe.” Max jerked a thumb at the monitors. “Nick is still out there frothing about
Kyle not jamming the news equipment fast enough. Someone‟s got to talk him off the ledge.”

She glanced at the monitors, no movement visible, even the fountain was still.

“Go pacify Grady.” Max held his breath, hoping exhaustion would be enough of a handicap she
wouldn‟t see through his bullshit.

“Biscuits. Right.” She bounced off the doorframe and closed the door behind her.

Segars stared at the door so long Max thought he might be in some trance.

“Well, well,” Nick strolled in, “Nice to see my office has been useful to you Special Agent Segars.
Anything else you‟d like, maybe a few hundred paperclips? Photocopy paper? Women to push

“Ink pens.” Segars sighed, “We‟re always running out of ink pens. Drop them while pushing women

Nick opened his lower drawer and dropped a cardboard box of ink pens on the desk before slouching
into his chair. His t-shirt was on inside out; his belt buckle out of alignment and his hair had a serious
case of static electricity. “Help yourself.”

“Date of birth?” Segars glanced over his shoulder at Max.

Max shook his head, “She said she was thirty-five, but women, who knows.”

Nick flipped through files, “Here on her driver‟s license. She turned thirty-five in September. In her
backpack,” Nick tossed clipped pages to Segars, “Letter from the attorney for Sadie Benedict‟s
estate. Also, advice from another attorney Jenny went to see two weeks before she was shoved in a

“Bottom line?” Segars rattled the pages.

“According to the fax Barton sent me this afternoon, Jenny owns the Villa‟s; every one of them, the
assets and income all of it. Diana is Managing Director as long as she wants to be, or until Jenny
names another. The Board cannot vote Di out or replace her except for mental incompetence. But, all
she legally owns are those enterprises begun since her thirtieth birthday. Granny had age issues.”

“You went through her bag?” Max was incredulous, but leaned over Segars‟ shoulder to look.

“No. Murphy and Lucas did that. I just stole.” Nick was unrepentant.

Segars leaned back in the chair, the paperwork ignored in his lap. “We‟ve been going at this as if
Grace Myers was the intended victim. Looking for wacko fan, obsessed ex-lover, even old thrown
aside boyfriends from high school. Jenny was an eye to see this person through. Shit.”

Nick tossed a thick manila file folder across the desk, “Maybe you have, but I‟ve been pruning the
hedges around the right tree. Help yourself to some ink pens while you‟re at it.”

“The SAC who let you get away should be shot.” Segars peeled his glasses off so he could rub his
tired eyes.

“She joined me in the private sector, and then married me. Much better than being shot.” Nick

“Wait a minute,” Max snatched the folder from Segars‟ lap. “I‟m having a little trouble keeping up here.
Are you trying to tell me Jenny was-”

“It‟s possible Grace was a smokescreen, the joke of a ransom demand, even the amateur video, all
designed to not be taken seriously, or send people down a sidetrack. Jenny dies, she wins. Jenny

gets found she wins. There‟s nothing to link it back to her, all the evidence points to deranged Grace
Temple fan. Plus, if Jenny crumbles emotionally or mentally, again, she wins power of attorney or
being named executor. Barton itemized several loopholes. Granny probably set it up so Jenny had
maneuverability, but Aunt can take that same advantage.” Nick sighed. “Gotta admire her balls.”

“Too damn bad we‟ve got no proof.” Segars sighed.

“Go forth, dig and ye shall find. Not gonna do it all for you.” Nick shoved from the desk after noting the
time. “I‟m going to put Phil to bed, want anything from the kitchen?”

Max turned a blank eyed gaze to Nick. “What?”

“Food? Coffee? A brain that functions?” Nick slapped Max like he was drunk.

“You can‟t tell Jenny this and -”

“Woe, hold on there.” Segars shot to his feet, trapping Max between him and Nick. “No one is going
to tell Jenny anything. Bad plan, stupid, idiotic, absolutely not good.”

“He‟s right,” Nick restrained Max‟s bolt from the chair, with a grip of steel. “You tell her, she makes a
bee line for aunt, either to protect the family honor or worse, confront her. We don‟t get the bastard
who sat there all night, or the evidence we need to tie aunt to him. Jenny just gets locked up or doped
up or some quack declares her incompetent. Bitch becomes the devoted Aunt. Jenny fades away,
less than a memory in some corporate historical report.”

“But, you can‟t expect me to say nothing, to just-”

“Who the hell are you to say anything? To decide what‟s best?” Nick pointed out.

“Diana Benedict is supposed to be here tomorrow.” Max knew he was wasting his time with Nick, so
he turned on Segars. “You said she would be here.”

“That‟s what she called about, cancelled, but wanted my assurance the statements would be made.”
Segars leaned on the desk, “Wants Jenny to meet with the lawyer in the morning, statement at noon.
She hadn‟t seen the latest news. I didn‟t bother to enlighten her.”

“We can set up a remote, in here.” Nick plucked at his lip, “Means we‟d have to let news people we
don‟t have time to screen on the premises. I don‟t like that.”

“Meet with the attorney in the gate house, do the remote there. Keep her on the grounds and limit
interaction.” Segars suggested. “Your people in the gatehouse, mine exterior. You‟ve got a sound
perimeter already established.”

Nick nodded, as if it were all decided. “I‟ll get Kyle to set up the remote.”

“Excuse me,” Max waved his hand over the folder, “What about Jenny-”

“One step at a time.” Segars tucked the folder under his arm, shut down his laptop and stretched to
grab a handful of pens. “I‟m going to do my homework, call in a few favors. Will you set up the remote
and transport? I‟ll be back for the briefing, where? In the tower?”

“Too small, use the kitchen. Don‟t make it a major production though. No laser pointers and flashy
presentation. Simple interview, though, we could perhaps word things a bit more… vague than aunt
might like….” Nick walked Segars from the office, and Max wondered if sanity had run up the drive
when he wasn‟t looking.

Jenny tried not to open her eyes. She could hear Max typing, felt the warmth from the stove, snuggled
into the quiet without the heart pounding fear that invaded once she admitted she was awake and aware.
Not a crisis was stirring that she could hear. For a few moments, maybe she could stretch them to more,
she was home, had fallen asleep with the quilts, cats on the window ledge, fish bubbling and if she
thought about it, everything was fine until morning….

Max tapped her nose with a piece of paper. “I heard the sofa squeak. I know you‟re awake. Come on, I
have a confession to wring from you!”

He was laughing, teasing her ear with the tip of the paper. Determined to treasure the moment, she rolled
to her side, away from his voice. Giggling when he nudged her bottom with his knee.

“You aren‟t fooling me.” He flopped beside her feet, sliding his hands under the blanket to tickle the soles.

“Hey!” She bucked away, wriggled free of his grip on her ankle so she could sit up and glare at him.
“That‟s cheating.”

“Is it? So‟s this.” He waved the paper at her. “I quote from the not very famous reviewer, J. Bene-Smythe
in the Times: “A Time to Mourn is just enough escapism with raw adventure to satisfy the desire to forget
dishes, car payments or finals. There is a tender hunger running through out the book as Miller accepts
and grows beyond the agony of loss of his, and our, beloved Yaslin. Poignantly understated.”

Jenny flushed, paled, then covered her face because his eyebrows were wiggling up and down. Laughing
in his face would be so mean. He peeled fingers from her face.

“You have a secret identity, Ms Benedict.” He leaned forward, whispering as if it were a state secret.

Her huff of indignation wasn‟t total pretense. Arranging the quilt in her lap, pleating it absently in her
fingers, she nodded confirmation. “Actually, there are three of us who do the reviews. J. is for James, I‟m
Bene and Smythe is Carole. But yes, I wrote that one.”

Max tossed the paper over the back of the sofa. “Ha! What else are you hiding?”

Jenny giggled, “A friend of Sadie‟s needed help, knew I read a great deal. Not exactly Clark Kent.”
Abruptly she caught at his hand, “I really did mean what I said, and wrote. I wasn‟t teasing you.”

Max turned his hand, pressing his palm to hers. “I didn‟t think you were.”

“How did you find that old review? That book came out two years ago.” Jenny crossed her legs beneath
the modesty of blankets.

“Ever heard of Internet Archives?” Max scooted closer, “I remembered the review, thought it was sappy at
the time. I‟m tragically insecure and keep all my reviews, did a quick search on my hard drive and there it

“Sappy?” Jenny covered her heart as if he‟d wounded her, “It was not! It was a tribute to Yaslin, a
wonderful character, fully developed, not simply a prop to advance Miller‟s development, though she did.
You treated her as a valuable character in her own right. Her life and death had meaning not only to
Miller, but to the reader.”

“So you said.” Max tilted his head, resting it on his arm hooked across the back of the sofa. His thumb
brushed her cheek, an intense query darkened his eyes, “But you didn‟t know me when you came to the

Jenny laughed, realized he was serious and shrank back. “No, I didn‟t – why should I?”

“My photo is on the jacket.” Max leaned over and retrieved a book from the coffee table, dropped it in her
lap with a smug grin.

“I – Oh.” She opened the back cover and there it was. A good photo, more than a few years old, none of
Max‟s animation of expression came through in the image. It looked like a passport photo or one of those
hideous shots the DMV took. She honestly didn‟t remember ever noticing the photo. He was right; she
had read all four of those books and several others he‟d written. She must have seen it at least once.
“Maybe that‟s why I felt - Not unexpected recognition–” Glancing at him, shock Registered on every one
of her freckles, “How stupid.”

Max felt like a cruel wind had just blown through the room, icy cold and bitterly dry. “What?”

Jenny fingered the raised letters on the front cover; a sad smile twisted her mouth. “On the way down in
the elevator – I thought – I was being foolish? But, it was just because of this.” Disappointment mutated to
horror and was drowned with earnest regret. “God, Max, I‟m so sorry.”

“You lost me in the elevator.” He smiled, but she retreated until her back was pressed against the arm of
the sofa.

Her knees rose between them, the book clutched, as she had done with Grace‟s book. That same panic
carving grooves along her cheeks that had little do to with the yellowed bruising. Jenny swung her legs
out, dropped the book between them and inched forward to flee.

Her sigh could have parted the pond. “Doesn‟t matter.”

“It matters to me.” Max put his hand out but she scooted up the arm and circled to the other side of the

“I didn‟t mean to be a sappy –” Her agitation was escalating. “And you‟ve been – but of course, you
wouldn‟t – obviously, if I wasn‟t nuts.”

“Jenny?” Max reached for her hand, but she jumped away as if he was poisonous.

Wrapping her arms around her middle, she pleaded for his belief. “I swear I don‟t remember seeing the
photo. I didn‟t know who you were – I‟m no actress.”

“Jenny, I was not questioning your motives.” He was staggered. If she‟d hit him with a piece of wood, he
would have been less amazed by her interpretation of his question.

“Yes, you were.” She whispered, her eyes wide and dry as abruptly as they‟d filled. “You think I schemed
– like Carrie said. Or my review made you consider it. I‟m pathetic, not stupid.”

“Damn it, stop saying that!” Max slapped the back of the sofa and Jenny backed away another step.
“You‟re not nuts, or pathetic, or stupid, or a schemer. I was curious how my gorgeous snap shot eluded
your sharp eye. I am swearing now, that was all. Curiosity, a bit of wounded pride.”

She rubbed her upper arms. “I take the jackets off when I read. Keeps them nice. Blurbs are always
stupid – authors hate them – but I must have seen it at least once, Max.”

Max ran his fingers through his hair, “I‟m going to stand up. If you back any further you‟re going to burn
your ass on the stove. I‟m not going for your throat. All right?”

Jenny was in front of him before he‟d gained his feet. “I really am sorry.”

“For what?” He searched her face, tried to fathom what the hell she thought she‟d done.

“Being foolish, thinking things – embarrassing you.” Her whisper gouged his heart like a rusted nail.

“For.…” He shook his head, as if he could clear it. “What?”

“Isn‟t that what this was?” She picked up the book, pressed it toward him. “That I was being sappy –
imagining interest – You‟re flattered but-”

“No, God, no.” He knocked the book from her hands and gripped her arms when she would have turned
away. “Jenny, I am flattered, but by your elevation of my pulp to such loftiness. I am interested, more than
interested. I‟m the one who is sorry, dreadfully sorry.” His hands slid down her arms, cupped her hands
with his palms and tried once more. “I wasn‟t questioning your intent. I wanted, oh hell, to maybe clarify
the agreeable insanity. I am childishly insecure. God, please don‟t smile at me like that.”

“Like what?” Jenny breathed.

“Like I‟m suffering from the idiot virus,” he bent his elbows and her hands followed, arms stretching to
slide around his neck, drawing his lips to hers.

“We could suffer together?” She suggested.

Suffering was more agreeable on the sofa, until his hand wandered across bruised ribs and she winced,
jabbing him with her elbow. “It‟s all right,” she whimpered when he drew away.

“Yes.” He kissed her less thoroughly, more gently, eased further back and soothed her frustrated
shudders by combing his hands through her hair. “There‟s time.”

“You keep saying that, but really, I‟m not getting any younger.” Jenny didn‟t allow him to escape, when he
tried to huff away, but drew his head to her lap and rested her hand on his pounding heart.

“Me either,” he crossed his hands over hers. “But, I don‟t want a rushed grope, or to be some thing you
use, to get through this, like … sexual Tylenol.”

She brushed hair back from his forehead, tenderly thumbing his hair line, enjoying the sense of warmth
and texture, gentling her own pulse to a steadier rhythm. His eyes drifted closed.

“That feels so good….”

Jenny glanced at the book, open on the floor, his photo glowering at the world as if someone was
threatening to do a root canal, without anesthetic. No, she never would have associated that image with
the man she met over soggy books and legal signatures. She didn‟t recognize his face because the man
who asked her not to go away enjoyed discovering a smile. The man in the photo had lost his, or
misplaced it.

“Max?” She tilted her head, examining his face, comparing it to the photo.


“When was that photo taken, the one for the book?”

“Oh, I don‟t know, five, six years ago. Right after my dad died. Was a horrible year.” He blinked, tried to
focus on her face but his lids weighed eight hundred pounds. “Leon did the best he could.”

“Yes.” She chuckled. “Come on, sit up a minute.”

He struggled upright, surprised when she nudged his shoulders back and pillows greeted the back of his
head. Jenny smeared the tears rolling across her cheek, “You are infinitely better than Tylenol, Max, but
what I know about sex wouldn‟t complete a sentence.”

Kissing his cheek, she went to see if Grady needed help with lunch.

Grace‟s temper destroyed a set of dishes. She‟d had enough of being trapped in the wilderness in the
gloom. Julian dared to laugh at her having flashbacks to the barefoot idle of Max. The coffee pot hit the
back of his head before he‟d finished the mocking commentary he was delivering to twitching Tony.
Grady grabbed his plate and scooted out of the line of fire. Molly and Maudie abandon their meal before
the coffee pot left Grace‟s hand. Tony made time to grab his plate and was splattered with hot coffee. Karl
slid under the table without pause in his phone conference.

“Are you certain about that fifth paragraph? Read it to me again, something not quite right there.” Karl
cautiously slid the laptop from the table so he could save it from the next, inevitable volley. Julian had
used the phrase, „but baby!‟ The man was about to be re-circumcised. It was difficult to keep laptops
working when coated with blood. “There, the second clause, see it? Sneaky bastard.”

Jenny was on the counter, swinging her legs across and scooting on her bottom to reach a safer place
than the middle of the kitchen with Grace. Nick came strolling from the office, whistling. When he saw
Grace lobbing cups and saucers at Julian, he elbowed Grady at the breakfast bar. “Honeymoon‟s over

“S‟pect so.” Grady shrugged and finished his meal. “You probably ought to do something about it.”

“I‟ll tell Wally to fire up his „home stitching‟ video. Julian will probably need „em.” Nick nodded at Grady
and went back to his office.

Tony slapped at Molly‟s hand, trying to snitch his buttered bread. “You should have grabbed your own.”

“Pig.” She reversed Jenny‟s escape, dodged and weaved through the kitchen to gather the makings of
sandwiches. Triumphant she tossed a loaf of bread to her sister, ducking the platter of cheese Grace was
flinging like a Frisbee at Julian‟s angry retort to her „Selfish Swine‟ accusation. Vaulting over the counter,
she gave a high five to Maudie.

“You‟re going to share that aren‟t you?” Tony whined. They turned their backs on him and he muttered,
“Evidently not.”

Several of the FBI Agents, strolling in for lunch, were waved back by Nick. “There are a few technical
difficulties. Might want to send someone out for burgers.”

Hearing the screech of Grace‟s voice and Julian‟s, “Oh shit!” the agents about faced and considered the
virtues of trans fats.

Jenny leaned toward Grady, whispering, “Shouldn‟t we-”

“Definitely not.” He chuckled. “Don‟t worry, she‟ll wear herself out quick enough. Julian will be fine. She
can‟t hit a barn after the first throw.”

Open mouthed, she observed Julian sliding in cheese and olives, his moccasins giving him no traction as
he tried to reach Grace who was now sobbing and beating her fist against the tiles on the counter.
Though a stream of blood from the back of his head was running from his wavy blond hair, Julian was the
one apologizing. Jenny glanced at Grady who was stacking silverware on his empty plate. Julian and
Grace were inching through the sliding door, his arms supporting her as she continued to accuse him of

being the incarnation of evil.

“Storms over.” He waved at the girls and Tony, “Come on, let‟s see what we can salvage. Get up Karl,
you‟re embarrassing yourself.”

“Not until I hear she‟s sedated.” Karl shuffled further under the table.

Tony drummed silverware on the table. “Chicken shit.”

“Damn right! Contrite doesn‟t last long enough to get the stitches.” Karl sighed, “Now, Evan, the whole
contract still seems too weak in the post production area. She‟s going to want to fling her twenty-five
cents in. Frankly, if this was anything else, I‟d lock her out of it, but let‟s face it, SBC loves to do the
mockumentary and call it artistic reflection. Exactly, see what you can do about that. Call me back when
you‟ve got it right. I don‟t care whose birthday it is, you know that. Fine. Two hours for the brat‟s party, but
not a minute longer.”

Max was high stepping through the remains, nodding at Grady. “He handled it better than most. Poor
Mike broke his arm trying to „soothe‟ her – remember?”

Grady laughed, “I do. Though Steve falling ass through the window into the swimming pool in Vegas is
still my favorite.”

“Hard to top that one.” Tony nodded.

“I don‟t know, that desk clerk in Dallas, nothing has been better than that.” Maudie confided to Jenny,
“Stabbed him in the hand with the pen chained to the desk. He thanked her for the best story he‟d ever
have to tell, so she took the chain and wound it around his neck…. Took two guys to pull her off him, and
he was still begging for more!”

“She was tired,” Max came back from the pantry, a broom and dustpan in hand. “If she‟d really been mad,
he‟d have found that ink pen in his eye and the chain wrapped around his jewels before he could say

“You miss those days Max?” Molly used a spatula to scrape off the table.

“Hell no. Didn‟t enjoy them at the time, can‟t imagine living like that now.” He shuddered and glared at her
when she scraped more on the floor where he‟d already swept. “Grady, how many sets of dishes did you
bring in?”

“Four.” Grady held up his hands, “It was all they had!”

“Better order more.” Max yanked out the bench, squatted and prodded Karl with the broom handle. “Get
out of there, you sniveling coward. Go make sure Julian hasn‟t passed out. I‟m not replacing the carpet in
the guest house again.”

Jenny inched from the room, abruptly certain why no one thought she was nuts. Agent Segars and Nick
were in the office, hunched over files.

Nick waved at her to stop, “Carrie Lange is on her way up with a package from your aunt.”

Jenny sighed, “Probably the statements for tomorrow. Should I go down to-”

“They‟ll bring her to you.” Nick grimaced as someone dumped broken dinnerware into a trashcan.

Carrie always looked delicate. Though tall, with her fair skin and coloring she managed to pull off
poignant with a hint of winsome beneath her dark suits and short heels. More than one customer had
anticipated a pushover and found a determination of steel to not only settle matters, but to do so without
anyone getting ripped off, customer or store. She was soft spoken, but quick thinking and concise, usually
making Jenny feel as gauche as her aunt did.

“Congratulations.” Jenny met her in the center of the lobby, not surprised by Carrie‟s stunned halt as her
escort split up, one outside, and one inside. “It‟s not – the bruising is almost gone.”

“You‟ll have scars.” Carrie dropped into the nearest chair as if she‟d walked all the way from home.

Jenny sat down on the coffee table, tucking one leg under her, “They‟re just scrapes. Why on earth did
Aunt Diana send you all the way up here?”

“Hmmm?” Carrie blinked. “Oh, When Bill and I got home from work yesterday, FedEx had delivered this to
me.” She set a medium sized box beside Jenny and fished for a folded letterhead in her bag, “Bill has to
study, so I used his car. He‟s had a horrible time of it.”

Jenny unfolded the letter, but frowned at Carrie instead of Aunt Diana‟s terse instructions. “Is something

“Oh, that‟s right, you don‟t know. Bill‟s uncle died last weekend.” Carrie sighed, “He‟s been sick for some
time apparently. Bill drove out after classes on Friday. Then, he finds out he‟s inherited a chunk of cash.
It‟s great! He‟ll have plenty to finish school now. But, I think he was more upset than he wants to admit.
He‟s been so out of it last week. Moody and downright grouchy.” Carrie grinned, “You know men, they‟ll
grouch and fume about the football team but never admit they actually miss an old man!”

Jenny nodded sympathetically, “Is this that famous rich uncle he‟s always talking about?”

Carrie laughed, suddenly relaxed. “It must be. To tell you the truth, I never thought he was more than a
euphemism. One of Bill‟s jokes.”

“He loves to pull your leg.” Jenny grinned.

“That box weighs a ton. What kind of a statement is she expecting you to make?” Carrie buckled her bag.

“Oh, there‟s some legal matters we were in the middle of when – She hates clutter in her briefcase.”
Jenny rose when Carrie did, “You‟re not going to turn around and go straight back are you?”

“I‟ve got four stores, now.” Carrie boasted. “Damn right I‟m going straight back.”

Jenny shook her head, “I‟m sorry your weekend got interrupted.”

“Oh, it‟s all right, with the raise I got, she can interrupt every weekend! Besides, I think Bill was glad of the
time alone. I know I was glad to get away from the gloom a bit.” Carrie patted Jenny‟s shoulder. “Take
care of yourself, all right. Get some vitamins in you, girl.”

“Thanks, Carrie.” Jenny walked to the door, envying Carrie the escape she was making, even if it was
back to grieving boyfriend and a ton of work to get done in a few hours before work tomorrow. “Drive

Carrie waved and looped her arm through her bag, asking one of the security men a question that made
the three of them laugh.

“Nice of her to make the trip.” Agent Segars was hovering over the FedEx box, reading the label. “Is Aunt
Diana always so inconsiderate?”

“Hmm?” Jenny frowned at his censorious tone, “She only takes one day off a week and she takes it;
leaves everything at the office on Saturday afternoon, even the cell phone. I don‟t think anyone has called
her on a Sunday in twenty years. Carrie can take a day during the week, but Aunt Diana can‟t.”

“How long does she expect this statement to be?” Segars hefted the box like a weightlifter straining for
the gold medal.

“I doubt the statement is more than one page, the rest is probably instructions on how I should stand,
wear my hair and what not to say.” Jenny smiled and held her hand out. “It‟s probably documents I need
to sign. I‟ve got writers cramp from all the papers to sign in the last month. I know why Aunt Diana has a
stamp for hers.”

“Jenny? Oh there you are, kitchen is almost put back together, come have a sandwich with me.” Max had
a hand on each side of the arch. “What‟s that?”

“Instructions.” Jenny laughed, “from Aunt Diana. Sent poor Carrie all the way up here with it.”

“Nick,” Segars tucked the box under his arm, “Stop that woman at the gate, will you. This came from the
same drop off. We‟ll need to talk with her.”

“Oh for – Carrie is an aggressive business woman, but she‟s – here!” Jenny slid the box from Segars‟ grip
and knelt at the coffee table. “It‟s just a bunch of documents.”

Three of Grace‟s books thundered from the box, followed by a clink of metal. The dangles of Jenny‟s
earrings slithered across the slick dust jacket to puddle on the table followed by an elastic band that was
snagged by the fine metal and rocked to a knotted halt.

“Max?” Jenny rocked on her heels, eyes unable to look away.

His warm hands brushed her shoulders, “Right here.”

“How many books were missing?” her whisper was steady.

“Five.” He tried to draw her from her knees, but she pulled away, leaning forward over the table as if to
protect the contents of the box.

“Aunt Diana didn‟t send this.” Jenny shook her head, fingernail brushing against the dangle. “The spider
sent it.”

“Spiders are usually women,” Agent Segars‟ subdued voice made Jenny surge to her feet and glare at
him as if he were the villain.

“No. Aunt Diana would never make the mistake of grabbing me instead of Grace. And she has access to
more than money than six people could ever need.” Jenny was vehemently shaking her head.

“Maybe she grabbed exactly who she wanted.” Agent Segars suggested as gently as a 2x4.

“No. NO. No.” Jenny clenched her fists, glanced at Max‟s who looked away. With a final denial, she
darted from the room and slammed the door to privacy.

“Woman is in the gatehouse, want to talk with her here or there?” Nick asked.

”I‟ll go down there.” Segars scooped everything back into the box, “She probably doesn‟t know shit. No
need to pour salt on the wound.”

Max glared at the SAC as he shouldered into his trench coat. “Maybe you should listen to Jenny first.”

“Why? If I‟m right, she‟s bound to protect her aunt. Even if she remembers, she won‟t say.” Segars‟
disgust was evident.

“No. If she remembered, she‟d say.” Max was as certain of that as his next plot point.

“I‟m going to interview Ms Lange.” Segars sighed. “Sending those things is either guilty conscience or a
declaration of power.”

Nick melted into his office. Segars paused at the door, “I‟ve seen parents burn their children alive
because they thought they were possessed, a man slaughter his wife and eat her for lunch, and a woman
decapitate her sister because she wore her sweaters. Blood is thicker than water, but it‟s often thick with

“This isn‟t some Shakespeare tragedy.” Max pointed out.

“Would you consider it a comedy?” Segars quietly closed the door, leaving Max with his hands in his
empty pockets.

“Aunt Diana?” Jenny sighed into the phone. “Please, pick up. It‟s-”

“Jenny?” She heard the gasp, felt it travel down her spine, as if she‟d woken Diana. “Dear God, are you
all right?”

“Did you send me a FedEx box through Carrie Lange?” Jenny jumped right to the point. Diana had no
patience for preliminary niceties.

“What? Why would I send a FedEx to Carrie instead of you? I asked if you were all right. Obviously not.”
Diana sniffed and Jenny couldn‟t help the smile.

“Exactly.” Jenny nodded though her aunt couldn‟t see her. “I‟m sorry for disturbing your Sunday.”

“Wait – are you there?” Diana gasped, her voice elevated, which seldom happened, even with Jenny.

“Yes. I‟m here.” Jenny twirled an ink pen on Max‟s desk. “Is Mr. Stone still arriving in the morning?”

“Yes.” Diana sighed, “Should I rearrange my schedule?”

Jenny bit her lip, smiled at the screensaver of dancing aliens on Max‟s computer, not sure how to answer
her aunt.

“Jennifer?” There it was again, that sharp voiced nudge Jenny knew so well. Already Diana was irritated,
God, in person… she‟d never be able to- “Jen, would you like me to rearrange the schedule?”

“I – no. No, I‟m fine, but,” Jenny shuddered, just before everything came bubbling out. Like a child she
stammered through the explanation, “The FBI thinks you‟re involved in – at first they thought it was me,
but now, since Carrie came – but I don‟t believe it. I won‟t believe it. No matter what, I won‟t believe it, do
you hear me.” The sob slid from her, expected, but embarrassing all the same.

“Jen, is there someone there a bit more coherent?” Diana sounded positively kind and this made a fresh
wave of tears drain down Jenny‟s face.

“Just me. I‟m so sorry.” Jenny gulped for air, squeaked when the phone was snatched from her hand.

“Ms Benedict? This is Max Cooper, how may I help you?” He opened a drawer and placed the box of
tissues before Jenny, “Yes, she is fine, just had a little upset and needed to hear a familiar voice.”

He hit the speaker button so Jenny could hear the conversation.

“What is this about Carrie and FedEx? Why would I send Carrie a FedEx instead of Jenny? What has the
FBI got to do with this and what is my niece vowing not to believe?”

“Carrie Lange found a FedEx box outside her apartment door with a note on your letterhead instructing
her to bring it to Jenny. She did so. The FBI suspects you may have something to do with Jenny‟s
abduction. Jenny refuses to consider this possibility as valid.” Max popped a few tissues and shoved
them in Jenny‟s hand. “The box contained items that only the kidnappers would have.”

There was several minutes of silence, the sound of ice and liquid being poured. “Is the FBI intending to
issue a warrant?”

“Not that I‟m aware of.” Max laughed, “I‟m probably first on their list for discussing this with you. Right
behind Jenny.”

“Jen? Are you listening?” Her aunt didn‟t find the humor in the situation.

“I‟m here.” Jenny leaned forward.

“Don‟t worry.” She hung up without waiting for Jenny‟s assurance.

“Wow.” Max hit the button on the phone and grinned at Jenny‟s bewildered smile. “Definitely Goddess.”

Her burble of laughter was misty, but relieved. “Will you – we – They won‟t - will they?”

Max shrugged. “Come on, there‟s some one I‟d like you to meet.”

Jenny shrank back in the chair.

“Oh don‟t look at me like that.” Max hopped off the desk. “It‟s not like I‟m throwing dishes.”

“What was that?” Jenny sighed to her feet, “Does she do that often?”

“Not really. But when she does – get out of the way.” Max winked.

A woman was sitting at the kitchen table, admiring Grady‟s jungle. Jeans, soft oxfords, and a thick white
sweater with green ivy twining along the sleeves went well with her bobbed silver hair and thoughtful blue
eyes. She looked like something from a casual wear advert at first glance, but when Jenny looked closer,
the shell had been pushed away and a gentlewoman was revealed.

“Esther Simmons, Jennifer Benedict.” Max inched behind Jenny toward the coffeepot.

“It‟s nice to meet you.” Esther smiled and held out her hand.

Jenny returned the greeting with bewildered formality. “You aren‟t FBI or Police.”

“No. I‟m a psychologist.” Her drawl was pleasant on the ears.

“Oh,” Jenny nodded, “the nuts thing.”

“When she‟s done with you, maybe she‟ll help me with my control that idiot virus.” Max pushed an apple
into Jenny‟s hand. She looked at it as if she‟d never seen one before. “I‟m going to go fuss with Segars. If

that doesn‟t work, I‟ll rile up Grace and sic her on him.”

Jenny nodded.

“I told Kyle to shut his equipment off. All right?”

“Guess I‟ll find out.” Jenny put the apple on the table and sat down facing Esther as if she expected the
Spanish Inquisition.

Max hesitated.

Jenny sighed, “Go away, you‟re distracting.”

He huffed from the room, muttering just loud enough to be heard, “No one appreciates how difficult it is to
control my awesome powers….”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Must be so tough for him.”

“Obviously.” Esther agreed.

“So…what do you want to know?” Jenny rested her elbows on the table and leaned forward, shoulders
hunched and tense.

“I‟m not going to prod you with a mental taser.” Esther sipped her tea.

“Feng shui for the mind huh?” Jenny smiled and spun the apple around.

Esther offered another reassuring smile.

“I‟m supposed to tell you all about what happened?”

“We could start with some thing a bit more mundane.” Esther‟s brow drew down a bit, but quickly
recovered. “I missed Grace‟s latest tantrum, you could fill me in on that.”

Jenny laughed and went to pour a cup of coffee. “Gossip?”

“Natural curiosity. Besides, no one can bean a man like Grace.” Esther leaned back in the vinyl chair with
an envious grin.

“I missed the beginning. Karl annoyed her over some contract point - Julian sort of went with it then –
Poof, she was flinging the coffeepot.” Jenny shook her head not sure why everyone else had seemed to
find it amusing. “I didn‟t – don‟t seem to get the joke.”

“Probably because there isn‟t one.” Esther shrugged. “Grace isn‟t temperamental, not usually. No fussing
on the set or arguing with writer‟s like others do. But, when she‟s not working, she‟s not quite sure what to
do with her self. Probably scares her.”

Jenny returned to the table with the coffee, cooling it with a sigh, “Poor Grace.”

Esther‟s eyebrows bobbed once more, her chuckle made them do it twice. “I‟d say poor victims in her

“No, they were – they enjoyed winding her up.” Jenny shuddered. “A way to pass the time.”

“Grady didn‟t bellow at them?” Esther warmed her tea.

“He just got out of the way. Told me to stay out of it.” Jenny smiled. “He‟s nice, isn‟t he?”

“Nice isn‟t a word I‟d use for Grady.” Esther looked doubtful, but smiled at Jenny when she held her gaze.
“Gorgeous maybe, but not nice.”

“Tell me!”

“Now who wants to gossip?”

Jenny just kept grinning at her. A flush crept over the woman‟s face, highlighting the laugh lines around
her eyes.

“When he was injured, he was … depressed. I knew Nick from the old days; he invited me over for the
weekend. When Grady figured out why, he was suddenly renewed with vigor and spent the entire
weekend either avoiding me, or sniping at my profession. By Monday, he was so riled up with plans for
the jungle I packed my bags and headed off into the sunrise.” Esther grinned but her eyes were lowered,
barely concealing the hurt. “I live near by, come for the occasional meal, holiday or crisis. Max takes pity
on the poor retired lady down the road when he wants to get back at Grady for messing with his notes or
serving sandwiches too many days in a row.”

Jenny‟s hand slid across the table and covered one of Esther‟s. “Maybe he‟ll-”

“He‟s already paused and glared before locking himself in the green house.” Esther‟s smirk startled
Jenny. “Obviously not indifferent is he? I find that encouraging, don‟t you?”

Jenny‟s laughter rattled the apple. She covered her mouth and resisted the urge to glance behind her to
see if Grady was peering at them from behind some frond or branch. Esther shrugged and there went her
eyebrows again.

“Some women throw dishes, others haunt.”

“I see.” Jenny bit her lip to stop another burst of laughter. “But Grady just gets out of the way of both, so
how do you haunt him?”

“He knows I‟m here. Trust me, it‟s better to be a tangible specter than an ghostly image.” She leaned
forward to whisper. “He just dropped a pot and is glaring at me across a bag of soil. Before you know it,
he‟ll stomp through here and mutter about an extra place for dinner as if he doesn‟t want to sit at the
same table with me.”

Jenny‟s eyes rounded with astonishment. “It‟s like middle school!”

“Worse.” Esther sighed dramatically, “The older you get the worse it gets. Like a teeter totter you try and
balance so no one falls off, but neither of you can touch the ground, so you just sit there, looking at each
other, hoping one or the other scoots forward, just a bit.”

“How long does it take?”

“For anyone but Grady you mean?” Esther grinned, her shiny pink lipstick all but gone, ringing the teacup
with an incorrigible smile. “Frankly, if he wasn‟t interested you wouldn‟t see my dust. Can you imagine him
not telling me to get lost if he wasn‟t … curious?”

Jenny shook her head, “No, I can‟t.”

Esther nodded firmly, “Now, you know all my secrets, let‟s talk about yours.”

“I don‟t have any – half the world knows.”

“Do they?” Esther crossed to the knife block and returned with a paring knife, slicing the apple and
arranging the slivers on her saucer, “Or do they just think they know?”

“I don‟t even know.” Jenny sighed, sat back when Esther scooted the saucer to the center of the table.

Nibbling on a slice, Esther tilted her head and smiled at the crash in Grady‟s domain. “Maybe you just
haven‟t realized what you know, yet.”

Jenny shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Well, we can talk about other stuff,” Esther smiled, the casual advert once more. “Your grandmother
recently passed away didn‟t she?”

“Any excuse to sit haunting Grady huh?” Jenny licked her lips, but didn‟t take an apple though her
stomach was nagging loud enough for Esther to hear.

“A woman‟s gotta do what a woman‟s gotta do.” Esther frowned when the teapot dribbled just a bit of
dampness in her cup. “Never fails. Pot runs out before thirst.”

“I‟ll make you some more.” Jenny slid from the chair and bustled to the two burner stove. As she was
rinsing out the pot, Esther scooted her chair back so she could cross her knees.

“Avoiding food you obviously want and need, is that new?” Her voice was as gentle as when discussing
the teeter-totter, but Jenny nearly dropped the pot.

Filling the diffuser with leaves, her hand shook enough to make her stop. “Yes.”

“Do you know why? Or is that one of the things you don‟t know?”

Jenny used the flat of her hand to wipe up the leaves from the counter, crossing to the can to brush them
away. She went back to the pot, whispering, “I know, but, it doesn‟t help to know.”

“Why not?”

“Because knowing can‟t fix it.” Jenny gripped the counter. “How long ago – when you met Grady did you
know he was – did he make your toes tingle, like they‟d been cold and were suddenly warm?”

“Hell no. Wasn‟t until I saw him throwing himself into something that I had more than a professional
interest.” Esther laughed, but her gaze followed Jenny‟s every breath. “He came alive before my eyes and
heart at the same time, if that makes sense.”

Jenny nodded and switched off the stove, pouring the boiling water carefully over the fragile leaves.
Settling the lid on the pot, she carried it back to the table. She didn‟t sit back down, just hovered beside
Esther, her gaze directed toward the apples without seeing them.

“Frankenstein.” Jenny whispered, “Promised to feed me if I‟d – but I wouldn‟t and so he didn‟t. In the
middle of the night, Lizard shoved some bread in the trunk – it was good, mold and all. Made me sick but
I couldn‟t – there was no where – but that didn‟t matter – so I swallowed it.” Esther reached out, but Jenny
recoiled, crossing her arms over her stomach. “Everything I put in my mouth tastes - Everything solid –
comes back up.”

“Did the doctor check for-”

“I didn‟t – It‟ll go away.” Jenny closed her eyes. “I just have to forget it.”

“Do you think your body will even if your mind does?” Esther tilted her head, “I can hear it telling you to
eat. Only your will is refusing. If it was up to your hands, to your stomach, that entire apple would be

“Not for long.” Jenny turned away, leaning on the counter as if her strength was flowing from her toes,
through the foundation of the house.

“What about one of Grady‟s smoothies? Does that remain?” Esther stood up slowly.

“The first one did.” Jenny shrugged. “The wine stayed down, but it burned.”

“Right. Well you can‟t battle on an empty stomach.” Esther marched by Jenny and barged into Grady‟s
sanctuary, “Hey, go make Jenny one of those fruit smoothies huh?”

“What?” Grady dropped his little pruning shears, rearing back from Esther‟s grim expression as if she‟d
slapped him. “Sure. You want one?”

“Why not.” She didn‟t move out of his way so he had to brush by her ample front, “Having you bring me a
drink ought to be fun.”

“Still charming.” He growled and stalked through the room, “Blender‟s in the big kitchen be right back.”

“Want some help?” Esther called out, winking at Jenny.

“Not from you!” He snarled.

“I think he‟s warming up to me, that‟s the first time he hasn‟t called me hag or crone or witch!” Esther put
her arm around Jenny as if confiding in her, but used the momentum of her delight over tormenting Grady
to steer Jenny to her chair. Kneeling in front of her, one hand on Jenny‟s knee, the other on the chair,
Esther said, “Just take a few sips, see how it goes. Better to try than just give in to the bastards don‟t you

“Battle?” Jenny croaked from a constricted throat.

“Max is the wonder with words, not me. How about … skirmish?” Esther brushed Jenny‟s ponytail back as
tenderly as Grady pruned his violets. “No one can fight for you, but we can carry your spear, shine your
shield, bring you sustenance and sing bawdy songs to encourage you. Besides, how else am I going to
convince Grady I‟m not just after his hot ass?”

Jenny‟s laughter was restrained, but she nodded as if agreeing to conspire treason.

Esther would have preferred a sob or a good, “fuck your love life, bitch” but took what she could get. Max
should have warned her how long she‟d been without a decent meal. Exhaustion and hunger were piss
poor tools to confront demons and the FBI with. Rising to give Jenny the space her stiff frame screamed
for, Esther longed for the comfortable cottage twenty-seven miles away, with the eyelet curtains and
chintz covered furniture. Retirement had been a welcome adventure. She wasn‟t sure, in her heart where
the energy she needed would come from, if she still had the stamina to endure battles and skirmishes.

“Maybe that‟s all Grace is asking for – when she throws things….” Jenny sighed. “Not the hot ass thing,
but someone to walk with her?”

Esther closed her eyes as a wave of relief made her dizzy, made the firm nod appear a bit lopsided. “Or

Jenny‟s giggle was as tentative as her hand giving Esther‟s a squeeze. “I‟m tougher than I look.”

Esther met Jenny‟s pleading gaze with bold assurance. “Good. So am I.”

“Lucky Grady.” Jenny astonished Esther with a wink.

   Nick watched the SAC and Max arguing up the drive. Agent Segars was not pleased. Max loped
   along, slowing Segars down and irritating him as much as possible. He probably thought he was
   helping by allowing the Agent to spew and vent, expected to siphon off the energy before it hit Jenny.
   Nick could have told him he was wasting his time. But, damn it was fun to watch.

   “That woman runs four stores?” Segars barked, incredulously continuing to rant the entire mile of
   driveway. “She did nothing but cry and sniff – couldn‟t remember if the letter was taped to the box or
   to the door or was under the label. Didn‟t occur to her to question why the box was left without a
   signature. Didn‟t notice Bubba Jones was the return addressee – in Timbuktu, Illinois? How does she
   order staples!”

   Max did not laugh. He wanted to, but Segars sounded as if someone had knifed him with stupidity.
   Having stared open mouthed at those around him, Max knew laughter would not aid his cause of
   calming and soothing the frustrated Agent.

   “You‟re an intimidating man-”

   “I am not!” Segars declared, extending his stride, “I excelled in the sensitively gathering information
   seminar – certificate with honors – two citations. I am the one they send when little old ladies are
   sobbing in their hankies and trembling over their cats.”

   “Maybe compared to the Gestapo, you are sensitive, but you‟re still an imposing figure of a man.”
   Max chewed on the inside of his mouth.

   “And you are so full of shit.” Segars scrubbed at his face and halted mid-march. Exhaling and inhaling
   as if he‟d run four miles, he glared at the rambling house with the cupola above a garage. A cupola
   full of geeks with gadgets no doubt listening to his self-doubt, but what the hell, “Nothing in this case
   adds up to four. Hell, nothing adds up to one.”

   “You say that like it‟s surprising.” Max shook his head. “What adds up about things like this?”

   “She should be dead, or there should be an obvious reason why not.” Segars continued to observe
   the house.

   “Maybe we found her just in time.” Max shrugged by him, turning so he could see the man‟s face. It
   was a waste; Segars was blank as the concrete beneath their feet.

   “Maybe. But why keep her alive through the night? He‟d already killed everyone else.” Segars shook
   his head. “He was waiting on something, besides the money. But what?”

   “Then he intended her to be found alive? Certainly left enough of a trail to believe that.” Max

   “A trail that really made no sense to follow.” Segars sneered. “If Sheriff Lucas weren‟t bored with
   country life, he wouldn‟t have bothered once he‟d found Grace was alive. Should have written it off as
   a prank when coupons were part of the pay off for picking up books. Why expose him self? Why keep
   her alive? Talk to her? There‟s pride and insanity, common enough reasons, but that feels wrong
   here. He didn‟t send those things to taunt her. If he had a need for that, he‟d have sent it directly, not
   involved … we‟re missing something important. Damned if I know what.”

   “Strange as this suggestion sounds, perhaps you ought to talk with Jenny instead of staring at my

house.” Max chaffed at his arms, wondering why he left the house without a jacket. Like he hadn‟t
lived there most of his life and didn‟t know it was cold even in the sunshine.

“Max!” Nick shouted from the patio, waving his arms above his head.

Glancing up, expecting a tornado to swoop from nowhere, Max spotted the helicopter lowering toward
his front yard. “Did you send for the president?”

Segars looked between the helicopter and Max as if he were trapped inside of a hallucination.

“Must be the Goddess.” Max sprinted up the drive, darted around Nick and slid by the open mouthed
gathering on the patio. Giving up hope of composing himself when Grady snickered, Max asked
where Jenny was.

“Sipping a smoothie in your kitchen. Should I tell her to duck and cover?”

Max didn‟t bother to answer the cackling man, but scooted around him to the kitchen.

Jenny was not surprised by the pandemonium filling the lobby and spilling out toward Joe the gnome.
Voices rose like barkers at a three ring circus, arms waving and bodies planting themselves in
defiance that would wilt in the face of Aunt Diana‟s disdain. Max glanced at her smile and felt anxiety
shift to amusement. She may find Aunt Diana overwhelming, but she wasn‟t afraid of her.

Esther leaned close to Max‟s ear and whispered, “Is anyone going to fill me in?”

“Where‟s the fun in that?”

“It costs extra when I provide my own illumination.” She informed him.

Max squeezed an arm around her shoulder. “I believe Diana Benedict is bringing her own, will that
get us a discount?”

She elbowed him away and faded to stand near, but not obviously present.

“You‟d think it was Oprah.” Tony muttered to Nick while stretching on his toes to see across the sea
of confusion, “Instead of a prune-faced businesswoman.”

“I need prunes in my diet.” An agent in a windbreaker waggled his eyebrows despite someone‟s hiss.

Diana Benedict descending from on high was awe-inspiring and the silence that settled after such a
furor was typical. Unlike Carrie, she arrived in a pale blue silk blouse with a thick cardigan of palest
green over form enhancing slacks. Her heels were black matte as Jenny had described, exactly two
inches in height. Max imagined she had a row of them inspected each morning for a hint of scuff that
would condemn the shoe to some charity before the steam hovering over her decaf-coffee vanished.
Straight hair, feathering around her face, black as midnight with the highlights of auburn suited her
fair coloring well, without giving the gothic appearance so many would‟ve tried to achieve with such a
combination of dyes and tints. Tony felt his life might be worth living if only he got the recipe for her

Diana Benedict walked to the shortest man in the room. He was a young black man, crisp shirt, dark
blue suit and a gaze that kept a perpetual scanning motion. “Agent Segars?”

Jenny hissed air in through her teeth, her giggle bitten off when Agent Smythe recovered so well.

“No, ma‟am. Special Agent in Charge Segars is standing directly behind you, to your right.”

“I‟m sorry, you sounded smaller when we spoke.” Diana held out her hand, nails blushed with pink.
Not an age spot marred her hand; the firm handshake didn‟t surprise Segars, though it was intended
to do so. “Where is Jennifer?”

Segars deployed the throng that had jogged across the grounds at her heels like a hoard of puppies.
Nick waved the guests back to the kitchen and nudged Grady between his shoulder blades to silence
his unnecessary observation about haughty wenches.

Jenny quickly bobbed between Grady‟s indignation and Segars‟ irritation, “It‟s good to see you.”

“Is it?” Diana raised one eyebrow. “I can‟t say the same. Good God, don‟t you have any shoes?
Who‟s attending to those stitches? Has anyone x-rayed your ribs or do you intend to heal in that
hunched up fashion? It‟s a good thing I brought Dr. Wauk with me; she‟ll look you over. Yvette?”

A small round elf of a woman with silver blond hair and bouncing blue eyes didn‟t need instructions.
Flipping a cell phone open she issued instructions with a gentle voice. Listened a moment, then
asked, “Should she come to the house or is there another facility?”

“The house. Let‟s not disturb the security precautions more than absolutely necessary, Yvette.” Diana
glanced around the room and shook her head. “Must we continue to huddle?”

“Please, come into the kitchen, Ms Benedict.” Max looked like he might whip out his sax any moment.

“The kitchen, lovely.” Diana followed him, her arm anchored around Jenny‟s shoulder as if she might
bolt. “I wondered if there was one. You look like you haven‟t had a decent meal yet.”

“Stop sniping.”

Diana‟s pace hesitated for a fraction of a moment, the contrast between the sterile and indifferent
lobby and the warmth and size of the kitchen aborting her next comment. Max ushered her to the
head of the table, “Satisfactory. Now, what is this about a box?”

Segars shot a glare at Max, “How did you-”

“My niece, quite rightly, called. She babbled about not believing I was involved. I forfeited my Sunday
to discern your ability to continue investigating this matter. If, after ten days, the only suspect you
have is I, there are serious doubts. Now, let me see the box. Jennifer, go with Dr.Wauk that she may
ascertain the level of neglect you‟ve endured. You, Mr. Bushy eyebrows, I would appreciate a cup of
tea, lemon, over ice.” Diana frowned at the lack of movement. “I‟m not accustomed to all this gawking.
Shall we see the box, now, Agent Segars or do you intend to arrest me for reasonable cause for

“I don‟t need to be dismissed.” Jenny informed her aunt. “Stop ordering people about.”

“It‟s here.” Nick handed the box and letter to Segars, shrugging off the Agent‟s glare.

Diana sighed. “This is silly, it is apparent you‟re in pain. There have been two cars and four agents
outside my building for days. If he were going to charge me, I‟d already be in custody. Agent, will you
assure Jennifer that you are not going to carry me off to prison in the brief time it will take for Dr.
Wauk to examine her?”

Jenny blushed but held her ground, even with Dr. Wauk hovering expectantly in the doorway with the
bright-eyed Yvette.

“You‟ll have to excuse SAC Segars, he‟s confused.” Max sat down near the sliding doors, at the head
of the table, “Jenny has given the impression that her ability to annoy and irritate you is beyond

Diana shrugged from her cardigan, nodding at Tony when he took it from her as if it were a royal
robe. Maudie rolled her eyes when he plucked a loose hair from the collar and twined it around his

“She excels at irritating and annoying me, but it‟s not her fault.” Diana settled with the minimum of
movement, lacing her fingers on the table, expectantly.

Jenny sighed, “I did call.”

“You left a vague message with Yvette.” Diana corrected.

“You were in a meeting – I was - I did call.” Jenny covered Diana‟s shoulder with her hand. “I didn‟t –
You needn‟t – Swooping in on your broomstick to kick-ass – That is not – I didn‟t call for-”

“Of course not, dear.” Diana patted her hand, stretching to cup Jenny‟s cheek, thumbing the scabs
and bruises. “I‟m here, though, so what the hell. Now, go on so I can abuse these people without
upsetting you. You know I‟m right, why argue.”

Jenny‟s gaze darted to Max, who was grinning at the end of the table as if thoroughly enjoying the
show. Shaking her head, she pointed out. “She doesn‟t miss.”

Max inclined his head, acknowledging Jenny‟s concern.

“Dr. Wauk. You can – My bruises are colorful.” Jenny left the room with the middle aged Doctor
dressed as if she‟d been drug from a family BBQ, shooting a bemused gaze at Diana.

“Just soothe me, Louise. All right?” Diana feathered hair from her forehead. “She looks ghastly.”

“Very well.” The doctor‟s nod resumed control of the situation.

Esther followed.

Diana nodded her gratitude for the tea at Grady who bowed and mimed tipping his hat. “Who is that

“That woman, is Dr. Esther Simmons, psychologist, retired.” Grady answered.

“Oh, stop pretending to be offended.” Diana waved him away, ignoring his chuckle. “You,” she
nodded her chin at Max, “are Mr. Cooper?”

“I am.” Max‟s smile, liberal for Jenny, was no longer present. The woman was a Goddess, but though
she genuinely cared for her niece, she didn‟t think much of her. This disturbed Max more than the
petty posturing. He‟d seen enough of that from Grace.

“You have my gratitude.” Diana turned to Agent Segars then, “Am I going to be allowed to see the
evidence, paltry as it may be, against me?”

“You may.” Segars dropped the FedEx box on the table as if he wished it were a ton of bricks he
could splatter on her head. “Your movements are all accounted for, obviously. So perhaps we can
begin with who has access to the stamp for your signature?”

Diana fingered the earrings dangling from her lobes, not touching the strands glittering on the table.

The horror on her face was as Jenny‟s when she first realized they‟d been separated from the studs.
“Where are the rest of – Poor child….” She stiffened her spine and stacked the books dismissing
them. Tossing the box to Yvette, she commanded, “Track it. I want to know which state the pulp and
ink came from to the make the box.”

“May I use the table out there?” Yvette asked Nick, who shrugged, making no move to follow.

“Let me see the letterhead.” Diana gently palmed the six fine strands, pouring them on top of Grace‟s
dazzling smile. “Oh for God‟s sake. Are we going to struggle over each detail?”

“No,” Segars sighed, producing the letter from his inside jacket. “We wouldn‟t be struggling at all if
you had made room in your schedule when I asked.”

Diana surprised Segars, “You‟re right. I do apologize. Now, see this little nick here in the corner of the
signature? It is an indication of which stamp was used. I have four in use, one in reserve at home.
Each stamp has a symbol.”

Nick crossed the room with a stiff page. “We‟ve enlarged the signature.”

“Ver-ry good.” She tilted her head genuinely looking at Nick, then glanced at Max, “One of yours?”

“He has an office here.” Max didn‟t feel like rising to the bait.

Diana laughed, full and operatic as Jenny had described, it made Max‟s teeth grind together.
Shrugging aside his defense, she examined the enlargement, then tossed it aside to look at the
stationery with a frown. “This can‟t be.”

Patting her hip, she looked like a lost child when she realized she didn‟t have her cell phone. It was
Sunday; damn thing was at the office. “Yv-“

“No need. Use mine.” Karl offered.

“Thank you.” Diana dialed and asked someone name Robert to check the safe for her signature
stamp. Leaning on one elbow, she closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Thank you. Yes, a
complete inventory. I‟m sorry to – Bless you. No, I‟d prefer just you if you don‟t mind. I suspect an
Agent or two will arrive shortly to assist, cooperate fully and serve them the good coffee, not the crap
I drink, all right? Again, you are the only living saint I know Robert – what? No, but she is better than I
expected. I will.”

Karl accepted the phone and thanks, all but genuflecting as he backed into the kitchen and told Grady
to warm her tea.

“The stamp isn‟t in the safe.” Segars nodded as if he‟d fully expected this. “Would have made life

Diana gazed sightlessly at the fire. “I thought this was a mix up? Inept – You knew of course, would
have checked with the printer. Why wasn‟t I arrested?”

“When I began speaking with the lawyers it didn‟t add up.” Segars dropped to the bench, glared at
Max‟s smirk and received coffee from Grady with appreciation. “Nothing adds up.”

“Doesn‟t it?” Her voice sounded as vague as Jenny‟s usually did, her gaze as unfocused as Max‟s
while plotting universal mayhem. Her chuckle was anything but amused; “We‟ve been trying to get out
from under Sadie‟s damn will for months now. Sadie tied everything to the farm, which personally I
don‟t give a … a fig about, but it matters to Jenny. She is concerned I‟ll never get out. She went
behind my back and tried to release her rights to the damn thing, to help…. I was so beastly. Making

her go with those books, it was nothing but spite….”

Max watched Diana crumple and recompose herself. She was genuinely shattered, and pissed as
hell all between a sip of tea. “She wasn‟t crushed.”

“How do you know?” Diana snapped.

“Crushed spirits don‟t generally flirt while dripping on the carpet.” Max winked at her, able to see more
than a passing resemblance and just where the admonition of goddess originated, in her transition
from pissed to amused interest.

“Truly? Flirting?”

“We have it on video,” Nick declared.

“How awful.” Diana reared back. “Has Jen – does she know?”

“She‟s seen it a hundred times at least.” Max sighed. “I‟m not quite sure she knows….”

Diana patted his hand, chuckling with commiseration. “Probably doesn‟t. Still, you have no idea how
encouraging…. Well, back to the stamp.” She turned to Segars, “Robert will do a thorough inventory.
There isn‟t a bar of soap he doesn‟t know about, but if you need to send your troops, he will answer
their questions and toss the closet drawers. When he realizes someone has invaded his sacred
space, they may have to sedate him so he doesn‟t go all Rambo on the cleaning lady.”

“I‟ve sent a man up, to assist, not badger. Someone to hold the clipboard usually helps.” Segars
smiled; couldn‟t help it. He vaguely wondered how long before she would be running the entire
investigation and if that was necessarily a bad thing….

“Please, Robert uses a mini-laptop with a seven hour battery. Special ordered from Japan for his fifty-
sixth birthday. The main entry has surveillance cameras of course, and he‟ll have the digital backed
up and in your agent‟s hands five minutes after he arrives. He‟ll even upload the images for him if the
man is illiterate.” Diana dismissed Segars‟ suspicion with a toss of her hair. “Everyone I employ is not
only computer literate, Agent, they are proficient. The gleam in your eye suspecting Robert is
unfounded. Not only is he well funded in his own right; he is like a doting uncle with regards to

Grady sniffed.

“Don‟t be such a snob Mr. O‟Brien.” Diana smirked. “And don‟t shock Jenny with my arrangements.
She is a product of Sadie‟s devotion, and it would disturb her, greatly.”

“I was thinking more about who he might be aware of that would wish to slow down or halt the
progress of dealing with the will?” Segars enjoyed his moment of thinking faster than Diana. “We
were already aware of your arrangements.”

“Bastard.” Diana laughed, then shrugged, “Ask him. Yvette might have a better line on that. She deals
with every assistant, keyboarder and gossip-mongering temp involved. What she knows and never
discusses would give a tabloid journalist apoplexy.”

“Thank you, Ms Benedict.” Yvette placed the box on the end of the table. “Made and printed in a plant
in Kentucky. They‟ve recently downsized and streamlined the processing. This box, as the SAC
noted, was shipped from the same drop box. It was one of twenty-five ordered for our main office last
month. However, the letter with your signature was neither inside or attached to the shipping label. As
you can see, the pull tab was opened here for the first time. Once this string is snapped, you use tape
to recycle it. The scuffing here suggests the letter was taped on the box, but not during the delivery

process. I‟ve spoken with the supervisor who contacted the driver. She said there were no „external
directives secured to the delivery.‟ Someone waited for the delivery and then placed the letter on the

“Lovely.” Diana nodded, flipped the letter over and thumbed the slight flaw on the paper, “No
envelope even. See what you can discern from this, Yvette? Is it from our office or one of the Villas?”

Yvette caught the letter as it slid down the table. “No. It‟s a copy. See the watermark here? It‟s a good
imitation, but it‟s not ours. Probably layered in some photo program.” She opened her khaki briefcase
with the koala patch on the cell phone holder and slid a few sheets from a folder. Passing them
around the table as if ready with figures for a board meeting. “You can even feel the difference in

“Carrie wouldn‟t notice that. Not yet.” Diana sighed.

“She should have.” Yvette wasn‟t as forgiving. “Why on earth she didn‟t call me to confirm-”

“Eager beaver syndrome, Yvette. Relax, you‟ll get her properly trained in no time.” Diana soothed.

“I doubt it. Five years with us. She takes off for the wilds without confirming instructions?
Irresponsible.” Yvette sniffed as she headed for the coffee pot.

“What about initiative?” Segars raised his eyebrows at the righteous assistant.

“Morbid curiosity. Sensationalism.” Yvette spooned sugar into her coffee. “Mark my words, she‟ll be
interviewed on some morning show. Shocking details of her errand of mercy to the victim. She‟ll think
of it as publicity for the stores, imbecile.”

“Then you can personally re-educate her, Yvette.” Diana snapped, not comfortable with business
laundry aired in public.

Yvette nodded, “Yes, anything else?”

“Go see what‟s taking Louise so long. Jen mentioned bruises, not surgical scars.” Diana frowned.

“Grady, check that out for Ms Benedict, will you. Ms, uh, Yvette, please, have a seat and make
yourself comfortable.” Max interrupted Yvette‟s exodus.

“People don‟t go traipsing through Max‟s home uninvited, Ms Benedict.” Nick explained.

“I see.” Her frown deepened. “Are you suggesting Yvette might pilfer your silver?”

Nick‟s bark of laughter was smothered, barely.

“No, of course not.” Max rose, unwilling to relent on the issue. “But unlike you, my domestic
arrangements are not open for idle curiosity.”

“My, you are the eccentric hermit.” Diana shrugged. “Very well. How else can I assist you Agent

Molly poured coffee for Max, nodding toward the glass door. “She walks in the daylight….”

“Oh that is all we need. Clash of the Titans.” Max shoved the mug back at Molly and darted through
the sliding door hoping to head off another round of fireworks.

“They couldn‟t have used dissolving sutures?” Dr. Wauk continued to pluck black threads from
Jenny‟s feet. “Still, I suppose they were more interested in getting your core temperature stabilized.”

Esther, sitting on the bed with Jenny‟s feet in her lap and Dr. Wauk tsking and muttering observed,
“You‟re well informed.”

“Hmm? Oh, Diana sent the medical records to my office as soon as she got them.” The woman began
working on the other foot. “Really Jenny, you‟re lucky it was so cold. Blood loss was probably
dramatically slowed.”

Jenny, her arm flung across her eyes, irritated from Dr. Wauk‟s removal of stitches there, said
nothing. She remained as still and silent as when they‟d entered the room. Esther and Louise
exchanged a glance. Esther felt Jenny‟s flinch as Dr. Wauk continued to pluck threads.

“The bruises are colorful, but they will fade soon enough. I‟m relieved there were no fractures.” Dr.
Wauk patted Jenny‟s knee. “This one has a bit more damage. Usually it is the dominant foot. You
aren‟t left handed are you?” She glanced at the folder of notes beside her.

“On my right side.” Jenny said, “Not much room.”

“Ah. That explains it. There‟s a bit of frost damage to this toe, you‟ll need to keep an eye on that when
the skin peels. Treat it like a burn.” She was turning Jenny‟s ankle and foot, running her fingers over
the skin on the side of her calf where the longest gouge was. “This is just plain sloppy. See this? They
should have layered it with less of a ridge. First year nurse could have done better. Good thing you
wear your skirts long. You might consider wearing slacks and I‟d definitely give away the flip flops,

Jenny jack-knifed from the bed, knocking the doctor‟s bag of instruments and the folder of notes to
the floor in her dash for the bathroom. The sounds of vomiting made the doctor shudder as she
gathered the notes. “That explains the sore‟s in her mouth. Post stress, of course. I‟ll give her
something for the nausea.” Dr. Wauk dug in her bag, “You can handle the sedation?”

“If necessary, yes.” Esther said.

There was a tap at the door and Dr. Wauk waved at Esther, “Get that, will you?”

Grady didn‟t even glower at her, just took in her flushed face and whispered, “What‟s wrong?”

“Little pause to gather composure is all. There are a lot of stitches to remove.” Esther stepped into the
hallway, closing the door behind her. She leaned against the wall and covered her face, “That woman
has the bedside manner of a two ton truck.”

“Tender ministry huh?” Grady chuckled, and then sighed when Jenny‟s heaving echoed into the
hallway. “She didn‟t keep the smoothie down.”

“Probably would have if Florence Nightmare hadn‟t shown up.” Esther banged her head on the wall
and scrubbed at her face. “I‟d like to pluck her stitches out.”

“We‟ll try again when the heathens evacuate, all right?” Grady patted her shoulder and headed for the

“Grady.” Esther sighed when he gripped the railing as if he might need support. “Thanks.”

When he turned around, she wasn‟t there.


Grace would not be put off and Max resigned himself to the need to order more dishes. As they
entered the kitchen, he whispered to Julian, “Better put Wally on alert.”

Julian rolled his eyes.

“It‟s wonderful to see you again.” Grace embraced Diana and fluttered to the bench beside her.

“You‟re looking well, Grace.” Diana nodded. “Hello Julian. Good to see you.”

They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries while everyone else hovered on one foot or the other.
Grady interrupted the polite-fest.

“Dr. Wauk is removing the stitches. Every thing is fine.” He steamed through the room to the blender.

Max joined him, half listening to the conversation. “What‟s wrong?”

“Esther says the doctor‟s bedside manner leaves much to be desired.” Grady yanked a bucket of
yogurt from the refrigerator.

“Is she-”

“Puking again.” Grady sighed.

“Explain how the house is tied to the sale of the Villas?” Segars was repeating questions, not a good

Max glanced at the huddle around the table. “Does Esther need the calvary?”

Grady raised bushy eyebrows at Max who backed away in mock surrender.

“…when Jenny came to Sadie, everything became centered around the farm, the domestic joys
denied to create the BeneVillas. But, in her mind, separating them was like hacking herself in two. I
suspect she expected Jenny would step into the business as she had all those years ago. Jenny is a
lovely girl, but not only has she no aptitude for the business; she has no interest in it. Give her a bag
of scraps and she‟ll recover the sofa, hand her a spreadsheet and though she can grasp the
essentials, her mind will wander off before the figures autosum.” Diana sighed. “I‟m ready to retire.
When I consulted the lawyers and discovered Sadie‟s „oh, by the way‟ I informed Jenny. We‟ve been
trying to untangle it ever since. Yvette has the legal opinions, with the specifics – yes, thank you
dear,” she nodded when Yvette produced a clip bound two-inch stack of pages.

Diana watched Segars boggle at the ten-point type and condensed it all, “If Jenny refuses to step into
my position and I refuse to maintain it, the business, the farm and the extensions I‟ve built up are to
be sold at public auction. The proceeds distributed to a short list of beneficiaries, including Jenny and
myself. The board members would be handsomely compensated and have first option on the
package. But, the problem becomes the whole package. The cost of the Villas, the stores, the fast
food chains, and other diversified interest is enormous. Not to mention the businesses I‟ve built were
designed to not only support my retirement, but to grow and expand so Jenny would inherit a
sizeable, but also economically stable, income when I die. I have managing directors in place; the
oldest won‟t be ready for retirement for a good twenty years. She wouldn‟t be brutalized by her lack of
knowledge and a slew of retiring fountains of information. The Villas are a different ball of wax. My
hands were tied with regards to managerial adjustments. It‟s why we decided to sell.”

“How many on the board?” Karl asked, drawn in.

“Seven. Someone has to die to be replaced. Incompetence, illness, desires to do something else,
none of those things matter. She named the board and no other can be named except in the case of
death.” Diana tapped her fingernails on the table.

“Would any of them want first option? Could they afford it?” Segars tagged at his lip.

“Any of them would and could.” Diana shook her head. “They‟re a bunch of bitches.”

“All women?” Karl leaned forward. “All seven?”

Diana nodded. “Intoxicating isn‟t it? Every single one of them started out cleaning rooms on the night
shift. Not a one of them has ever worked anywhere but BeneVillas, all of them began at the fourth
BeneVilla, in the early sixties. We grew up together you could say.”

“Any one of them able to-”

“Everyone smart enough to do so.” Diana fingered her hair back, impatient with the distraction, “Not a
one in need of doing so. The motivation would have to be the Villas. But essentially, they own them
already. It‟s the first option we discussed, dividing the Villas among the board members. Lawyers had
paperwork drawn when we discovered the farm issue.”

“Couldn‟t they work out a tenancy? Seems simple enough.” Karl was flipping through the pages
Yvette had drawn from her briefcase. “See, it says here….”

Dr Wauk paused in the door, Esther brushing by her making a bee line for Max with enough
indignation to incinerate the room. Diana covered Karl‟s hand, “Shut up. Is she all right?”

“Yes.” The doctor looked uncomfortable speaking across a room full of people, but Diana slapped the
table with her palm.

“Get on with it.”

“Stitches are removed. I found superficial cosmetic damage and a bit of post stress symptomology.
I‟ve prescribed some antacids. Dr. Simmons will take care of sedation if necessary. Other than
loosing a few pounds, she‟s fine.” Dr. Wauk didn‟t like being treated like a resident and her tone was
no kinder than her bedside manner. “Will you arrange for my transportation to the airport? I do have
office hours in the morning.”

“Yvette.” Diana didn‟t even say thanks, just turned back to Karl, “You were saying, about the tenancy?
See, Mr. Jensen already has a lease on sixty acres, the farm sits on eight, but it is five acres of
woods and a scrappy garden plot. She can‟t lease what she doesn‟t own and the Jensen‟s have
wanted that land back since Sadie purchased it. Jenny‟s determined they shall have it….”

Max followed Esther into the pantry. She was pacing back and forth, her mouth silently forming
profanity. He stepped in her path and waited for her to rail at him.

“Sorry, but … ooooh.” Was all she got out before shoving him aside to resume her voiceless tirade.


“Changing. I just wanted to get that woman as far from her as possible.” Esther sighed. “I‟ll go make

“Cool down. I‟ll go make sure.” Max didn‟t give her a chance to debate the issue. “Grady, where is
that drink?”


Max knocked on the bathroom door, concerned by the quiet on the other side. “Jen? You ok?”

“Oh God, just go away!” The shout echoed back at him, and no doubt, down the stairs.

Max opened the door with a tart, “Not God, just me. What are you doing?”

Jenny tossed her ponytail back across her shoulder and wrung out a rag. Without glancing at him,
she made another swipe at the floor. “I‟m cleaning the floor.”

“I can see that, why?” Max crossed the tiles toward her, jumping back when she shouted for him to

“You‟ll slip.” She picked up the bucket and poured it into the commode.

“Jenny, why are you cleaning the bathroom floor?” Max looked around the pristine bathroom, seeing
nothing but a face cloth across the sink and a towel drooping on the rail.

She tucked the bucket in the cabinet under the sink and squirted some soap into her hands. Meeting
his confused gaze in the mirror, she explained. “I didn‟t quite make it,” she whispered, and then
looked down to rinse her hands.

“Didn‟t…Oh, shit, I‟m sorry.” Max banged his head against the doorframe. “You don‟t have to-”

“Are you going to?” her face snapped up, a doubtful expression challenging his unspoken assertion.

“I would.”

Her laughter was cut off as quickly as the water. “I‟ll be sure and call for you next time.”

Max observed her hastily shoving the soft t-shirt back over her arms even before drying her hands.
When she turned around, he backed into the bedroom to escape the laser glare. Picking up the tall
parfait glass with a pale pink, yogurt, fruit concoction, he made his way to the small sofa and waited.
“I expected to find you having a nervous breakdown or something.”

Jenny hesitated just outside the bathroom. “Why? Did Dr. Wauk say-”

“Esther was fuming. It‟s a good thing she doesn‟t own a scalpel, or a gun.” Max licked his grin as he
glanced away, innocently gazing at the sunshine trying to win the battle with gloomy skies.

“Dr. Wauk has the tact of a skunk,” Jenny shrugged.

“Grady sent you a replacement.” Max elevated the fancy glass.

Jenny shook her head and shuddered. “Not right now. Come on, I need to-”

“Wait, please.” Max set the glass on the low table and patted the sofa. “Please?”

“Why? What‟s wrong?” Jenny sat down with a sigh, “Is she throwing dishes?”

Max took her hands and placed them on his shoulders, tried to nudge them behind his neck, but she
stiffened. Leaning forward, he pressed his forehead to hers, could feel her lashes close and brush his
cheek. When she swallowed a sigh, he slid his arms around her, and she gripped his neck with tense

“Can I hug you?” he whispered.

She nodded awkward as a seventeen year old on a first date.

“Just one, all right? A little one.” Max inched closer to her, hoping she‟d do that „melt in his arms‟ thing
he wrote about so often. She‟d read the books, knew how it worked, but damned if she didn‟t just sit
there as unresponsive as … a book! “Jen?” He tried to kiss her, but she turned her face away, and
that‟s when he felt the tears. “Oh Jenny.” Damn the books, he squished her close, ran his hand to the
back of her neck and gasped for air when her arms shot to surround his chest and squeezed the sob
from her heart.

“I hate to puke. I hate crying. I hate being sick and afraid and – I hate it!” She yanked away from him
as swiftly as she‟d grabbed on, would have tumbled from the sofa if he hadn‟t stopped her.

“Who likes to puke?” Max asked. “No body I know.”

Her breath stuttered several times as she tried to stop crying. “I need to wash my face,” she said,
without moving.

“It‟s all splotchy.” Max thumbed hair from her chin, leaning forward to catch her eye.

“Its just skin you know.” She whispered. “Not the end of the – It won‟t matter.”

“No,” Max smoothed her ponytail. “It won‟t matter.”

“I‟ll go barefoot if I want,” she declared and bobbed to her feet. “I might even buy a pair of shorts!”

“Green or … maybe denim?” He leaned back, draping his arm along the back of the sofa, nodding at
her suggestion as if it were a simple fashion discussion.

Jenny bit her lip, glaring at the geese in the pond, “White, bright white, with pink stitching – neon pink.
Maybe a stop sign patch on my – Yegods, that sounds hideous!” Her laughter made Max‟s chest
contract, limiting the air getting around the lump in his throat.

“I don‟t know,” he stood up, “maybe the patch is a bit much….”

She faced him, took two steps toward him, and brushed the back of her hand along his cheek. “Can I
hug you? Just a little one?”


One knee resting in the bench overlooking the pond, Jenny tried once more to persuade Diana an
interview was not something she was equipped for. “I really don‟t want-”

“At this point the speculation is more damaging than any thing you could say or do. Anyway, I gave in
on the officially read statement.” Diana waved Yvette ahead, “I‟ll be with you in a minute.”

Jenny sighed.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do.” Jenny found a smile, “Remember that tomorrow, all right?”

“I‟ll try.” Diana tilted her head, waiting for whatever Jenny couldn‟t find the words for. “Besides, you

have acting coaches and interviewers to practice with. If they can‟t get you ready for a simple fifteen
minute sound bite, no one can.”

The sounds of the rotors powering up drew Jenny‟s gaze. “Will you – could you call Pastor? I – we‟re
supposed – Practice for Christmas started last week – Hasn‟t anyone contacted you from home?”

“No. No one.” Diana sniffed, “You‟d think they‟d call to see why your check wasn‟t in-”

“Season opens today.” Jenny interrupted.

“What?” Diana flinched at the impatience in her own voice.

“I overheard – They‟d probably found me – my body, today.” Calmly, she met Diana‟s irritated gaze.
Struggling to sound bright, she whispered, “I‟m glad no one called you today.”

“Shut up.” Diana flung her arms around Jenny, squeezing her as if she were six. “You‟re alive and no
one called. But,” she drew away, hands curled around Jenny‟s shoulders, a firm smile on her face,
“are we Sadie‟s girls or not?”

Together they recited: “We get the job done while everyone else is having coffee and thinking about

Jenny nodded, “I won‟t let her down, or you.”

“You haven‟t and you won‟t.” Diana flicked Jenny‟s ponytail back over her shoulder. “Now, let me get
on my broom before I make a spectacle of myself.”

Kissing her cheek, Jenny whispered, “My love to Robert.”

“Brat!” Diana hissed.

“Tyrant!” Jenny mocked, then grew serious, “Be – this had to be about business – you – be careful,

“Don‟t fret. If these agents don‟t get on the ball, I‟ll kick some gubernatorial ass. Williams ought to be
good for something, God knows it wasn‟t the tax break he promised.” Diana rolled her eyes at the
inanity coming from her, and patted Jenny‟s shoulder before huffing across the grounds.

The geese ran from her, wings extended in envy.

Tony was running a comb through Jenny‟s hair and examining the strands, sighing often. Jenny
flinched when he hit the tender spot but remained still as Karl and Julian considered the questions
„bubble-lips‟ would ask.

“I really think she‟ll take one look at her face and focus on the physical hardship, probing for events
from the side.” Karl was scouring Jenny‟s face, tapping his lower lip with an initialed stylus for his
tablet. “Slip under the scabs so to speak.”

Julian shook his head, “No. She‟ll be putting her muscle into the hard ass approach; stories like this
only come along once in a lifetime. She‟ll charge at Jenny‟s privileged background like a bull. No
doubt she‟s got six people writing her a handful of questions and a legal advisor coaching her on what
not to say that could get them sued. The envelope will be pushed.”

“I don‟t think the tint is right.” Grace shook her head. “She needs a rinse and treatment at least.
Probably cucumber foam?”

“No, it‟ll mat her hair,” Tony was definite. “The gate house is bright, if I tint she‟ll end up looking like a
cherry. Style should be formal though, if we cut -”

“No.” Jenny shook free of his hands. “No cutting. Just – no.”

Jaws dropped as she rose and stalked through the glass doors, toward the pond. Tony glanced at
Esther. “What? I was just thinking about it….”

“Women don‟t have hair that long unless they like it, Tony. You know that.” Molly elbowed him. “Might
as well have suggested cutting off her head.”

“This isn‟t about hair,” Max leaned forward to rise, but Esther put her hand on his shoulder.

“Let her be.” She said, then snatched a gray sweatshirt from the tree by the entertainment center and
followed Jenny out.

Julian pointed at Karl‟s tablet, “Let‟s just combine the focus, practice the lot and then she‟ll be
prepared regardless. With the large FBI guy standing beside her, Stacy won‟t be as pushy, but she‟ll
try and keep him boxed into the standard rhetoric. We can use that.”

“Yes, good point.” Karl and Julian continued outlining the possible questions, with Maudie offering a
few tailored insinuations they neglected to consider.

Grace soothed Tony while Molly helped Grady cut sandwiches. Max stood at the glass and watched
Esther sit on the bench as Jenny circled. Once she leaned on the back of the bench as if the weight
of the world was pressing on her, but just as suddenly she was laughing and flopping down beside
Esther. Flinging her bare feet forward, she tugged the sweatshirt around her middle and leaned her
head back, the hair Tony had considered butchering, flowing across the back, reflecting what there
was of the late afternoon sunshine.

He was amazed by how she moved, like a wildflower in the breeze, not a bud or a blossom, but a
seed head, just before pod broke open and scattered promise. There was a steady rhythm to her
pacing, self-control in her movements, neither of which was unyielding. She knew how to bend
without breaking, but when to stand still, firm, in the face of the winds brutality. It was that same
weaving through the crowd; unnerved but determined that captured his attention. There was
hesitancy in her steps, her willingness to sit with Esther, but it was caution of a different sort than
mere nervousness. It made his hand fist in his pocket, anger boiling to the surface. For a second, he
understood Grace‟s need to fling dishes.

Grady‟s voice startled him, “Esther knows what she‟s doing.”

“You sound surprised.” Max uncurled his fist, slid his thumb through the loop of his jeans.

“Maybe a little.” The older man shrugged. “She always seems so … irreverent.”

“That‟s rich, coming from you.” Max chuckled.

“Isn‟t it.” Grady lifted the platter, “Come eat, or do I have to make you a smoothie too?”

“You don‟t have to do this.” Esther tossed Jenny an ugly sweatshirt.

“Yes, I do.” Jenny shouldered into the fleece. “I will. I just – I don‟t like being discussed like that.”

“Like what?” Esther sat on the bench, one knee propped on the seat so she could observe Jenny

“Like I‟m not really all there.” Jenny chuckled.

“Are you?”

“No, but I still don‟t like it.” She shrugged. “The board deserves the chance - they worked so hard.
Sadie, before her stroke – made it a point to meet everyone who worked in every Villa, even after
Diana – She said it wasn‟t enough to have finest linens and best coffee, if he person making them
wasn‟t as special, it was – everyone had a share, after five years, they owned a part of the business
too. You had to work for BeneVilla - It‟s not – there are no outside investors. I‟ve lived off – one
interview from the princess seems little enough, don‟t you think?”

“Interesting way to phrase it.” Esther pointed out. “Is that what Diana calls you?”

“Sometimes, when she was angry with Sadie.” Jenny grinned. “It really drove her crazy. Those two
couldn‟t sit down to a meal without squabbling before the dressing was on the salad. God did they
enjoy it!”

“What did you do while they enjoyed the squabbling?”

“Me?” Jenny hesitated, then grinned across her shoulder, “Listened. Learned. Did the dishes. Was
glad they left me out of it.”

“It didn‟t bother you?” Esther tilted her head as Jenny passed behind her.

“No. Well, maybe at first – I don‟t remember – Sadie wanted to know what was going on. Diana
wanted to tell her. But, Sadie didn‟t want to appear pushy or nosy. Diana didn‟t want to appear needy.
And neither of them wanted me to feel in the way, like I‟d interfered with life. It worked for them, for
us.” Her laughter startled Esther, “The only clear memory I have of my parents, is my father, dressed
to deliver his Sunday sermon, tossing his Bible on the hall table and saying, „Fine. Let‟s fuss, but
could it be on Tuesday, instead of Sunday?‟ and my mother‟s face. They laughed and she kissed him,
promised to schedule it for a Tuesday afternoon, when he was at choir practice…or something like
that. It was years before I understood….”

“When did they die?”

“I was six, having a week with Sadie – A boiler exploded in the parsonage. I don‟t really remember –
just never went home. Sadie showed me pictures, took me to the graves.” Jenny leaned on the
bench, “But it seemed like a story. It mattered to her, so it mattered to me.”

“Like this interview and those board members and the special people who worked so hard?” Esther
covered Jenny‟s hand with her own.

She threw her head back and laughed, “Yes.”

“So,” Esther turned to gaze at the pond, “you were jerked from your castle because someone was
hung over. A dragon hauled you off, and now, you atone, hoping you can return to your castle sooner
rather than later?”

Jenny skirted the bench, flopped down, adjusting the jacket. “No, it‟s a different dragon.”

Esther nodded, almost patted her hand, but stopped herself when she noticed how rigid Jenny sat
despite the slouch. She settled for simple words, “Better to name the demons than pretend they don‟t

“I know what people see – I mean, when they look at me.” Jenny leaned back, and sighed, “Once I
noticed Sadie watching me sew. She was nearly crying. I thought she was in pain, but she apologized
for feeding my temperament. Said, she should have hauled me around like she did my mother and
Diana, toughened me, instead of retreating, but she – wanted to hold on – I was so happy, though. I
mean, it sounds so silly, but I think I was the happiest child on the planet. I was loved. I had others to
love – sunshine even when it was raining. She didn‟t spoil me with stuff or sentiment, but she let me
grow. Gently. Even when I was stupid, she just told me to try again. So I did.”

“Doesn‟t sound silly. Sounds like a mature woman who understood life‟s priorities.” Esther leaned her
elbow on the bench and rested her cheek on her hand.

“This – he‟ll see the interview won‟t he, the spider?” Jenny glanced at her hands.

“I would imagine so.”

“That‟s what Agent Segars is counting on, wounded pride?”

“I think he hopes it will draw him out, yes.” Esther hesitated, not sure what Jenny was really asking.

“The better I perform, the more irritated he gets. Hopefully.” Jenny rocked forward, but Esther stopped
her with a hand on her shoulder.

“Don‟t let Tony cut your hair.” She winked.

“I won‟t.” Jenny grinned, then tilted her head as if a startling thought occurred to her. “Can I ask you

“Sure.” Esther was not surprised by the change in attitude. Jenny seemed to shift with the wind.

“Did you come out here to persuade me to do the interview, or not to?” Without waiting for an answer,
Jenny left Esther flabbergasted on the bench to chase a goose away and wave at Kyle who was
leaning out of the tower window egging her on.

Grady‟s bellow to come and eat barely Registered with either of the women. Disgusted, he slid the
door closed mid-curse.

“I appreciate your concern, but I‟ve been asked not to discuss the details of the investigation.” Jenny
repeated for the twentieth time. Her arms were extended so Molly could chalk a jacket of Maudie‟s. It
was a basic black suit, the skirt too short for Jenny‟s comfort, but they found some dark tights and
she‟d have to make do.

“Very good.” Grace leaned back in the rocking chair. “Sounded as if you hate denying the bitch any
details. She‟ll gobble it up.”

Julian nodded proudly from his position on the table, a clipboard in his hands. “I didn‟t even have to
prompt her this time.”

Karl shook his head, “Go back to the question about being found. Her gratitude for the volunteers was
well stated, but she hesitated over the night before. She didn‟t sound certain.”

“But I don’t remember-” Jenny turned when Molly nudged her. “How can I sound certain?”

Segars poured some more coffee and reminded her, “The impression you‟ve seen his face, that you

could identify him, that we have you here while we beat the woods for him is what we‟re shoving
down his throat.”

“All right, ask me again….” Jenny put her arms down so they could strip the jacket away. Standing
there in a white t-shirt, her jean jumper tied around her waist, she listened to Julian phrase the
question about the „night in the shed‟ with a bit more force. His gaze bore expectantly into her as he
leaned on the clipboard across his knee.

“It was dark, you understand, Stacy,” She began, as they‟d coached her, “and I was extremely

Julian pressed, pushed her for impressions.

“Mostly, I remember his boots.” Jenny licked her lips, “And being cold. I must have – I‟m sorry, let me
try it again.” She untied the straps of her jumper and flung first one and then the other over her
shoulder, hooking the metal clips over the buttons with unsteady hands. “I‟m supposed to make it
sound like I heard his voice but don‟t want to discuss it?”

“Grace, show her.” Julian waved the clipboard, glancing at Esther who shrugged.

“All right,” Grace rocked forward, composed herself, and said, “Stacy, you have to understand, it was
dark, by that time I was disoriented. Mostly, I remember being cold – wishing I had his boots and the
parka he was bundled in – and for him to finally tell me he was going to let me go….” Jenny studied
Grace‟s face and posture intently.

“That‟s not really it either.” Karl got up to pace, “It needs more, oh, desperation, as if she‟d rather not
hear what he was saying.”

“Get me a better script then,” Grace rocked back, not genuinely offended but fed up with being
critiqued by a man whose acting ability functioned best on a cell phone with a bad connection.

“No,” Jenny gripped the back of the chair. “It should sound like – but it wasn‟t. I didn‟t think he was

“If you say that, when this gets to court, the defense will whip out a video of this interview and rake
you over the coals, baby.” Karl sneered.

“Karl.” Julian hissed and Grace rocked to her feet, looking for something to throw.

“What?” Karl stilled like a deer in the headlights.

Segars put his hand on Jenny‟s shoulder, “I‟m sorry Stacy, but there are aspects of this case I‟ve
asked Ms Benedict not to discuss at this time.” The room stilled, battle and rage averted by his
authoritative manner. “You can get to the part about the boots and the cold, I‟ll interrupt, all right?”

Jenny nodded. Julian agreed it was an excellent thwart and even Grace settled back near the warmth
of the fire. Esther stretched from the other rocking chair and expressed amazement at how
knowledgeable every one was about these things.

“It is what we do.” Julian hopped off the table and tossed the clipboard at Karl. “Come on Gracey, I‟m
dying for that hot tub.”

“Ooh, sounds good!” Grace followed Julian, energetically tossing advice over her shoulder. “You‟ll do
fine, Jenny. Really, Stacy can only squeeze fifteen, maybe twenty minutes of air time out of this. If
she spends thirty minutes with you personally, I‟ll be surprised. They‟ll spend more time getting a mic
on you, and adjusting her key light. I bet she wears that bronzed frost lip gloss, looks like someone

shit on her lips and sprayed fake snow over….”

“Graphic.” Maudie shuddered. “Come on, let‟s go pin the jacket. Then I‟m going to bed.”

Molly yawned, tugging Tony to his feet, “We‟ll use Tony as the dummy.”

“No you won‟t!” He jerked his arm free, “Last time you stabbed me clean through with a safety pin.”

“Look at those piercings and tell me he suffered?” Molly jabbed his elbow and Maudie agreed it was
ridiculous to whine over a little safety pin.

Karl tucked the clipboard into his brief case but hesitated. “I didn‟t mean anything, Ms Benedict. If I
upset you, I apologize.”

“No, I appreciate your help. I just hadn‟t thought about – no, you didn‟t – it‟s all right.” Jenny sank into
the rocking chair Grace had left, focusing on the flames, glancing at Max who was tucked in the
corner, cushions propped behind him, an old book in his lap. He hadn‟t said a word, not in the entire
four hours. “What do you think?”

“Me?” He shook his head, “I‟m no expert.”

Jenny leaned forward, pressing her hands against her thighs. “I‟d like your opinion.”

Max snapped his book closed, looked at his feet, and then glared at Karl. “I think you should wear
your hair down, the clothes you prefer, remember this is an interview, not being shoved in a trunk.
And these people are actors – not you.”

Jenny nodded, “I see.”

She waited, but when he refused to meet her gaze, Jenny rose and quietly wished everyone a good
night. “Thanks for your help….”

Max slapped his forehead with the book.

“Smooth Cooper, smooth.” Karl snorted as he went to make another round of calls.

“Well this has been a fun day, but I think I‟m going to head home.” Esther nodded at Agent Segars as
he went to check on one last detail with Nick and Phil before heading out.

“You shouldn‟t.” Grady cleared his throat, “I mean, you ought to stay here, tonight.”

“It is not even 10:30.” Esther‟s eyebrows rose half a mile, “I‟m not ninety.”

“I was thinking about the reporters out there.” Grady grumped.

“Right.” Esther shrugged into her jacket.

Max bounced to his feet, but Esther stepped in front of him, half in her jacket, “Let her be. For God‟s
sake, enough is enough.”

“What does that mean?” Max recoiled.

“Don‟t you think she‟s had enough today, pushing, prodding and pretending?” Esther nodded at
Grady when he tugged her jacket over her shoulder. “Tell me, Max, honestly, would you have called

Max shrugged, his glare dark enough to shadow the moon. “I‟d have picked up the phone a dozen
times, but, then I‟d have moped for a couple weeks before calling you to annoy Grady so I could write
my way out of the black hole my plot was in.” He tapped her shoulder with his book. “Satisfied, smart

Esther shoved chunky blue buttons through roughly stitched holes, “She‟s not a rare book you‟ve
discovered at the flea market. Try and remember that.”

Max slapped his book against his thigh, genuinely irritated. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Back off.” Esther sighed, “Let her find her feet, make her peace, or whatever cliché you prefer.”

“I‟m not going to-”

“I didn‟t suggest you were. But, Jenny is still operating on instinct for survival, pure instinct. You don‟t
need the hurt and she doesn‟t need the confusion.” Esther patted his cheek, and turned to leave.

“Night Esther.” Grady finished gathering the cups and saucers from the table, aware of her pause in
the doorway, but not acknowledging it.

“Since when do I have a name that doesn‟t involve damnation?” She grinned at Max.

“Don‟t look at me,” Max pouted, “I‟m confusion.”

“Walk me out… Grady?” Esther whispered.

Grady walked the tray to the counter, took more minutes to let go than Max thought was humanly
possible to wait out, and then nodded as if a decision was made. “Be glad to.”

Esther stuck her tongue out at Max‟s gasp, slid her arm through Grady‟s and was rewarded with a
grumbled, “Don‟t be so damn pushy.”

“Tease,” she sighed, then laughed when he opened the door as if she were the queen.

Their laughter felt like lightening striking, it even brought Phil and Nick to the office door to raise
eyebrows at Max who shrugged and finished cleaning the kitchen.

Max had one foot on the step when Jenny‟s voice floated to him from above.

“She‟s wrong.”

His body shuddered to a halt, snapping his face upwards to see her, leaning on the rail and smiling at
him. Her hair was braided, swinging across a green flannel gown Grady‟s daughter Ellen wore when
she visited last Christmas. An expression of earnest concern wreathed her, reducing the impact of
her enticing smile but slightly.

“About what?” Max thought he might fall down the one step and break what remained of his heart.


“Really?” He hadn‟t meant to sound doubtful.

She walked to the top step, took two of them toward him and sat down, her hands around her knees.
“I shouldn‟t have poked at you.”

Moving upwards, Max sat down, one step between them. “I shouldn‟t have been an ass.”

“You‟re right though. Even Aunt Diana said I couldn‟t do more harm than good.” She stroked his head
when it bobbed to the step in defeat, his chuckle becoming a sigh.

“I didn‟t mean it like that.” He muttered to her toes as they disappeared under the ruffle.

“I know.” She chuckled, still fingering his hair as if he were a cat. Content to just be there, quiet,
unobserved, it was minutes before she said, “If you had called, we might have surprised them all.”

Turning his cheek to her palm, he grinned up at her, not surprised by the blush on her cheeks.

“I wouldn‟t hurt you, Max, not intentionally.” She vowed.

He stretched and covered her mouth with two fingers. “Esther is not omniscient.”

Jenny nodded, turned to rise, but Max rested his hand over her knee. “You don‟t have to do this. You
don‟t owe anyone anything.”

“For me then?” Jenny leaned against the railing, ran her fingers around a dowel, up and down. “I
didn‟t fight back. I didn‟t try and get away. I didn‟t even think it was real…. Part of me still isn‟t sure.
But, maybe, if I do this, now, I won‟t feel so – like I‟m still there – afraid to make a sound. Maybe this
is fighting back.”

“I still don‟t get what you think you ought to have done?” Max shrugged up a step, then another.

She scooted over, her hand gripping the dowel so her knuckles were white. “What would Yaslin have

“She‟s a character in a book.” Max pointed out with a nudge of his shoulder. “Besides, I would have
written it so she had a laser up her sleeve, maybe a knife in her pocket.”

Jenny chuckled, “She would have locked them in the trunk and then had wild sex on the hood with

“In the backseat. He‟s a modest fellow.” Max held out his hand and she placed hers there. “I thought
you were dead, you know. I almost walked away. You were making jokes with me while men were
peeling off their socks, Jen. Your spirit fought back….”

“I couldn‟t believe it was your voice.” Her head slid to his shoulder, “Had to say something so you‟d
talk back – then I‟d know for sure. Silly, huh?”

“No,” he whispered into her scalp, brushing her pores with the warmth of his assertion. “It was like
waking up, hearing your voice.”

Jenny let go of the rail and tucked her arm around his waist, hugging him gently, as if he might break.
Max closed his eyes, stunned by the moment, as confused as Esther warned.

“Are you two going to neck on the stairs all night?” Grady had a hand on the rail and a foot halfway to
plowing into them.

“We might,” Max exhaled, but rose and drew Jenny up the stairs so Grady could huff by them.

“Younger generation.” He muttered before slamming his door. “No modesty.”

“Want some tea?” Max tugged on Jenny‟s braid.

She shook her head, “Night.”

He released her hand, surprised to find he hadn‟t let go. “Jen?”

She paused at her door, not turning around.

“Are you sure about this? Tomorrow I mean.” He leaned on the rail, arms crossed over his chest,
trying not to beg her not to feed the media monkey.

“I‟m sure.” She opened the door, but didn‟t step through, “You can‟t hide from dragons. They will find

Max opened his mouth to ask what that meant, but she had already closed her door.

Snow was spitting on the world before the sun was up. Jenny‟s feet were pinched by Maudie‟s three
inch heels, but her fake English accent as she pranced around the kitchen made even Tony laugh.
Max was called away to the phone as Julian ran through a series of absurd questions about aliens,
advanced technology and the possibility she was hiding tentacles in those shoes.

“I haven‟t heard her laugh like that in so long.” Diana Benedict told Max on the phone. Jenny‟s
answers were obviously as outrageous as Julian‟s questions.

“Do you want to talk to her? They‟re just warming her up.” Max watched Jenny giggle with Grace as
Tony looped her hair into a twist.

“No.” Diana sighed, “I‟ll just make her tense. I‟ve got a meeting in five minutes, just…tell her I said not
to trip.”

Max laughed, “She‟ll appreciate that.”

“Has she eaten anything?” Diana was obviously shushing someone.

Max bit his grin and tried once more, “She really seems fine this morning. Ready to kick ass.”

“I‟ve got to go….” She clicked off.

Max shrugged and tossed the phone to Nick. “Every body ready?”

“Of course. We can watch the live feed in here or in the kitchen.” Nick gulped his coffee.

“Morning Nick,” Jenny pranced around the lobby, heading back toward the kitchen. Grinning at Max,
she said, “If I‟m not lame by the time this is over, it‟ll be a miracle.

“Hold up there your majesty,” Max fished in his pocket. “I‟ve got something for you. A talisman against
evil forces.”

“Really?” Jenny sounded like it was Christmas.

He held out a small pocketknife.

Jenny weighed it in her palm, grinning as if it were the most amazing thing she‟d ever seen. Her bold
wink almost shocked him, her words certainly did. “Yaslin could do major damage with this.”

Max sighed. “I almost hate that woman.”

Tucking the dainty weapon in her jacket pocket, she stepped closer and kissed his cheek, “I could get
used to being taller. Thank you.”

He grinned, “I‟m sorry I couldn‟t find my laser.”

“It wouldn‟t fit in my pocket.” Jenny glanced up at Agent Segars as he came through the door.

“I am if you are.” He was dressed as crisp as the morning, a flake or two melted on his lapel but didn‟t
dare leave a stain. “Did they find you a coat, yet?”

“A fleece shawl. Mustn‟t disturb the image of quiet business woman.” Jenny turned, but Max was
there, draping it around her shoulders.

He lingered a moment, his hands offering encouragement with a squeeze. Leaning close to her ear,
he whispered, “Advice from Aunt Diana: Don‟t trip.”

Her laughter startled Agent Segars who was adjusting his earpiece and testing his lapel mic. “Hey,
none of that. She‟s got to go show off her new acting skills. Beat it, boy.”

Max backed away, bowing and tipping an imaginary hat. Jenny froze, for just a moment, her fisted
hand pressing into her stomach, but she shook her head and marched through the door to greet
Agent Green.

“Nice easy walk, all right? I‟m not supposed to trip.” Jenny waited for Segars.

“Don‟t get too far ahead.” Segars rolled his eyes, “She might impale me on those heels.”

Half-way up the drive, Jenny slid, but Segars caught her upper arm and steadied her. “Women‟s

“Its why I usually wear sneakers.” She sighed. “My feet are already killing me.”

He felt her trembling through the layers of clothes and patted her hand, gripping his forearm; “I‟ll get
Green to give you a piggy back ride when this is done.”

“Aunt Diana would love that!” Jenny shuddered. “I am not going to puke.”

“Of course not.” He stepped slightly left. It probably saved his life.

Jenny felt as if her shoulder might wrench free of the socket as he went down into the snow laced
grass. Somewhere, near her, or maybe it was he; something impaled itself in the half frozen ground.
Green shouted, once. Glass shattered from the gatehouse like a hailstorm out of nowhere; a billow of
smoke followed the explosion.

“Stay down.” Segars shoved her beneath him, glancing toward Green, spread out, face down on the
drive. Struggling to keep Jenny covered, Segars snapped his earpiece back in. “She‟s fine. Where?
How many? All right, get us some cover fire. We‟ll head for the damn bushes.”

Jenny‟s hand was pressed against his shoulder. “You‟re bleeding on me.”

“What?” Segars focused on the distance to the hedges where a nice solid concrete wall would cover
their back. “Look, we‟re going to make for the wall. Kick off those damn shoes, stay in front of me and

no matter what, get under those hedges, flat as you can, close to the wall as you can. All right?”

She nodded.


It was a stumbling waddle, laughable if a round of bullets hadn‟t been chasing them, answered by
repeating fire from the other side of the wall.

Segars collapsed on top of her, but she squirmed and ended up on top of him, pushing her hands
against his shoulder, creating a wave of dizziness that nearly melted him. When she dug into his
pants pocket, he jerked his head from the cold ground, “What the hell are you doing?”

“Hanky. Your head is bleeding.” Jenny put the white linen against his forehead, ducked as a chip of
concrete flew by her face as she guided his hand to hold it in place. “I can‟t apply pressure stuffed
under you.”

Segars glanced at his shoulder, squirmed to his side and tipped her toward the wall, facing her, “Oh,
well, make yourself smaller, huh?”

“Sure.” She laughed just this side of hysterical, “I‟ll use my shrink powers.”

“What? Hell no we aren‟t all right!” Segars coughed and gagged, “She‟s killing me with her first aid.
What is taking so long?!”

Jenny didn‟t hear the response; it was another voice she heard, barking into a cell phone, in the

”What is taking so long? She’s not going to last the night! I don’t want to watch for God’s sake. You
just walk by them. What do you mean? They parked where? Well… wait for the kid. Yeah, call me
when they got him…. Let me worry about that….”

Stones, pebbles skittered against the tread of boots, laughter and then the flare of light, warmth that
never reached her. “A reprieve for the lucky little princess.”

“Hey! Hey, you still with me?” Segars blinked several times, but his eyes weren‟t cooperating. “Lost
my glasses, didn‟t I?”

Jenny lifted up on her elbow to see if they were reachable, but he pushed his body against her, “I said
stay down.”

“He – the man who got the money – parked next to Sheriff Lucas‟ car.” Jenny shuddered, adjusted
her hold on Segars‟ arm, “That – the cell phone call, it was to signal he got away. It was ok to let me

Segars shifted to get a better look at her face, “What else?”

“The voice – the heater – a woman, not a man….” Jenny swallowed.

“All right, hang on to that.” Segars fumbled around, “Watkins, you there?” He listened for a moment,
“Spider‟s a woman. Confirmed. Uh, no, not any shape to push. How the hell much longer?” Again a
pause, “Green?” A deflating sigh, “Tell Stacy to go – yeah, that‟ll work. Not much else I can do….
Yeah? Well you can do the paperwork.”

“What‟s happening?” Jenny folded more of her shawl and shifted it over his wound. “The shooting has

“They‟ve got them on the run. We‟ll just stay put a bit longer, all right?” Segars covered her slick
hands with one of his, “You don‟t have to push quite so hard. How about just wrapping something
around it. Can you do that?”

“Sure.” She hiked up her hips and wriggled around. Shucking off her pantyhose without revealing
herself was not an easy task, but she managed, apologizing a half dozen times for bumping him.
Cautiously, she sat up, but Segars was out of it, so he didn‟t fuss. Using the pocketknife Max had
given her, she cut one of the legs off the hose. The other she cut the bottom and toe out of and slid
up his arm to hold the wrapping in place before loosely tying the other leg around. When she reached
across him to retrieve the handkerchief he‟d let fall, he shoved her back against the wall, hitting the
back of her head so she‟d have another lump.

“Get down.” He shouted and yanked her back to the ground behind him.

“Stop yelling at me.” Jenny slapped the handkerchief against his forehead.

He groaned. “God do I feel sick.”

“I‟m sorry.” Jenny sighed. “I don‟t have a puke bucket.”

“You – really!” Segars rolled to his knees. “Come on, they‟ve given the clear.”

Jenny shoved her body under his good arm and pushed upwards on legs that were shaking though
she hadn‟t noticed it before. “Did they get them?”

“Huh?” Segars swayed and Jenny countered his weight to keep him upright.

“Come on, let‟s get you to the house.” Jenny steered a straight path for the house, through the grass,
instead of trying to guide him to the drive. “You weigh a ton.”

“You‟re short.” Segars accused.

“And freezing, please move your feet.” She pleaded.

Two agents and a grizzled man with a medical bag met them half way to the fountain. The agents
took Segars‟ weight off her and half carried him as he barked orders no one listened to. One of the
agents yanked the earpiece and mic from him and tossed it over his shoulder. Jenny caught it, then
darted back toward the drive to retrieve Segars‟ glasses and Maudie‟s shoes. That‟s when she caught
a glimpse of the gatehouse, smoke, charred window frames, displaced bricks and glass shattered,
blood on the pavement. It‟s where her knees gave out.

Distantly, she heard sirens, but they sped by, lights flashing. She didn‟t even see them. Just stumbled
to her feet and turned toward the house, then observing the tower, glass violated from inside, jewels
of what were once windows scattered across the roof. Voices were shouting, but she couldn‟t make
the words out. Dizzy, she rubbed a sticky hand across her forehead, Segars‟ blood smeared through
her hair, clotting quickly in the icy air. The flashing lights distracted her, four ambulances, lined up,
men and women rushing about, grim faced, appalled, damp with adrenalin.

Grady was bellowing, she could hear him, screaming at Nick stretched on a gurney, rolling by Joe
with several people running alongside, working as they moved – even as they pushed Grady out of
the way. Max appeared, behind the elderly man, steering him toward the garage, handing him over to
someone who would drive him, following Nick.

He started back toward the house, but spotting Jenny, he altered course. Agent Watkins was running
toward her, asking her something, but she couldn‟t hear him, even when he grabbed her shoulders

and shook her so hard the rest of the pins flew out of her hair. She heard the shout, but not the
words. Felt Max wedge himself between them, saw his inspection of her, knew he was asking if she
were hurt, but nothing penetrated the static. As if a radio slightly off the station, she could hear the
hiss and crackle of communication, but not what was intended.

Max waved at Watkins before looping his arm around Jenny‟s shoulders to draw her around the back
of the house, to his kitchen entrance. Esther was there, enveloping Jenny in a fleece blanket and
nodding at something Max was saying while guiding Jenny toward the stove where someone had
built a fire. Pushing on her shoulders, Esther got Jenny to her knees, and threw another blanket over
her. Jenny tried to shove them and Esther away, but the last of her energy gave way. She went down
on the carpet, missing the bricks by the grace of Esther‟s reflexes, SAC Segars‟ glasses still in her

“The blood wasn‟t hers.” Max assured Diana Benedict over the phone, wincing at the static feeding
back at him. “She hasn‟t – No, she‟s not – Yes. Look its still chaos enough here. We‟re still nailing
boards over the holes for – Yes, I will.” He thumbed the phone off and leaned his forehead on the
cool plastic.

Esther leaned on the doorframe one eye on him, one on Jenny sitting before the woodstove. Max felt
her gaze, rose and tucked the phone in the cradle. His arms circled Esther. She didn‟t resist his
comfort, drawing a shaky breath before releasing a chunk of tension.

“Nick‟s in recovery. Kyle‟s stable, the other three were on the stairs, clearing the tower like Nick told
them, just cuts, bruises, one dislocated shoulder. If Nick hadn‟t charged up there Kyle would‟ve died
trying to keep cameras moving. Soundman was dead on the scene, cameraman on arrival. FBI lost
three agents, four are holding their own. Sheriff Murphy has two deputies with burns from trying to get
into the gatehouse. Nick‟s got two men who should be released in a day or two. Two were in the
gatehouse. No one made it out. Phil said some kind of launched incendiary, probably homemade.
They‟ve been out there, watching, knew just where to hit to blind. How they missed her is beyond
everyone. Watkins thinks they took the chance presented….”

“Grady?” He rubbed her back, kneaded her shoulders and they sighed in unison.

“Julie got him to rest. Stuck Kristine in his lap and he rocked her and himself to sleep. He‟s scared,
but all right. Julie said she‟s seen Nick look worse, but that‟s not much comfort right now, is it?”

“No, it‟s not.” Max stepped back when Esther drew away. Turning to check on Jenny, Esther caught
his upper arm, “She‟s not moved in the last hour. Make me some tea.”

Tony tip-toed into the kitchen as Esther poured a second cup. “Karl and I got the tower boarded up.
Julian and one of the security guys have the camera hook ups going again. Phil has re-deployed
around the house. Looks like Belfast out there. The steel shields are down in the kitchen, he said you
could move from here to there without … sniper risk. Wally is demanding everyone get back in the

Max nodded and rubbed his eyes. “Are the feds done up there yet?” He‟d been chased away several
hours ago, nearly shoved down the narrow staircase when he refused to budge.

“No, they‟re crawling over everything. Still can‟t figure out how any of them survived. That Nick, on the
ball, saved them all….” Tony closed his eyes.

“Go eat.” Max said. “Molly has some hot pot and dumplings going.”

“You should see Grace,” Tony leaned against the counter, not ready to move, or perhaps without the

energy to do so. “She‟s running around with Wally, bandaging the scratched. I keep expecting her to
break out into „Your old kit bag.‟ “

Esther chuckled, “Better than boogie woogie.”

Max grinned, “Julian has a way with her for sure.”

“Want anything Esther?” Tony offered.

“I‟m fine.” She waved him away.

Tony glanced over his shoulder, at Jenny, shook his head and shuffled to Molly‟s tender mercy.

Max shoved his chair back, yanked a drawer open and warmed a washcloth under water. Esther
sighed when he filled a small pot with water.

“She still has blood all over her hands.” Max glared at her, “It‟s not right to ignore-”

“Let her walk through it Max. Push too hard, she‟ll pull back further.” Esther stirred her tea.

“Why does she have to walk through it alone? Is that some psycho rule?” Max turned off the water
and squeezed the rag.

“Go sing a sacred battle hymn then,” Esther tilted her head and smiled at him, conceding the point.
Max paused, opened his mouth, but thought better of it. Esther grinned, “Go ahead and try. Just …
don‟t push.”

Max nodded and went to kneel beside her. Finding her hands, he wiped the blood away, gently
speaking to her about the flow of his plot, the misbehavior of one of his minor characters and how
irritating it was. When he turned her face toward him, to wipe the crust of blood from her forehead,
she blinked, focusing on him.

“All right?” she breathed.

“Barely. You?” He scrubbed her cheek as gently as possible.


Phil startled them both, leaning over the sofa to say, “You aren‟t going to believe this.”

“Try me.” Max followed the trail of blood along Jenny‟s neck, tipping her head, “You‟re hurt.”

“Scratch.” She shrugged her shoulder to cover the slim scrape.

“Agent Segars is back.” Phil interrupted, “To see her.”

Jenny flinched.

“Bring him through.” Max dropped the rag in the pot and scooted it toward the stove.

“You sure?” Phil hesitated.

“Man shed blood, seems the least we can do.” Max rose when Jenny shifted to her knees to shake
the blankets away.

“I‟m a mess.” She stood up, brushing dirt from the borrowed clothing.

Max plucked a twig from her hair and agreed, “You certainly are.”

Segars wasn‟t much tidier. There was a bandage above his right eye, a bruise on his cheek, scrapes
from the twigs and shards of concrete. His dress jacket was over his shoulder, the remains of the
sleeve dangling. Someone had disposed of his white shirt, leaving him in nothing but a soiled t-shirt.
He made purposely for Jenny who was holding his glasses out as if they might ward off his wrath.
Sliding the glasses into his pocket, he sat down on the sofa and took both of Jenny‟s hands.

She stood; stained by his blood, bare legged and feet, swaying, without drawing a breath. His slightly
out of focus eyes searched her face, noted the new bruises. Smiling abruptly, he squeezed her
fingers and said, “Hell of a way to get out of an interview.”

“No one else would have thought of it.” She deflated to the sofa, drawing her hands to her own lap,
lacing them together, not eased by his humor.

“You did good. I‟m impressed by how you kept your head, though in the future, slapping the injured
with their own handkerchief isn‟t really suggested procedure.” Segars held her gaze, “I damn near got
you killed playing some wackos game. I apologize for that.”

Jenny looked away, “You didn‟t shoot-”

“No.” He covered her hands and waited for her to look at him. “Tell me what you remembered.”

“Just – a woman‟s voice…. I think, maybe.” Jenny bit her lip, slid from his reach and went to warm
herself by the stove.

“Jenny, they aren‟t going to go away, can‟t, not now. They‟re just waiting for another chance. I need
your help.” He searched for his handkerchief to clean his glasses from habit, nodded when Esther
handed him a tissue box. “What did the voice say?”

“A reprieve for the lucky little princess.” Jenny‟s whisper made Segars sit forward.

“Your aunt calls you that, doesn‟t she?” he said.

Max moved between Jenny and Segars, giving the Agent a rude finger behind his back.

“Not like that. Never like that.”

Segars stood up, “Maybe just like that.”

She glared at him, arms across her middle, “No.”

“Watkins,” Segars held her gaze as he spoke into his lapel mic, “Pick up the aunt-“

“Damn you.” Jenny darted by Max, around the coffee table to his desk. Slapping the speaker button,
she hesitated, turned to Segars and waited, finger hovering over the keypad, dial tone humming

“Stand by on that Watkins.” Segars crossed to stand on the opposite side of the desk, thumb over the
record button. He nodded and Jenny stabbed out the phone number.

Jenny pleaded, hoping for another reprieve. “I – I‟m still not sure….”

He gave her another nod, nothing more. “Go with your instinct, its kept you alive so far.”

“Jimmy?” A woman‟s voice gasped in hope.

“No, it‟s me, Mrs. Jensen. Jenny from down the road. Is – is Mr. Jensen there?” Her voice struggled
to remain even.

“He‟s here, but you won‟t be talking with him.” Mrs. Jensen laughed like she was watching the Tonight
Show. “Damn fool won‟t be talking to anyone. Hell of a mess though.”

“Yes.” Jenny leaned on her palms, locked her knees and asked what she didn‟t want to truly know.
“Where are the boys Mrs. Jensen?”

“Hunting.” Again Mrs. Jensen laughed. “Sixty acres is a lot of land, to some.”

“I - You wouldn‟t have lost those leases. I told Mr. Jensen-”

“That aunt of yours couldn‟t care less about our leases. Bottom line is all that matters.” The woman

Jenny sighed, “I went to my first – my only dance – with Travis. Doug stole my lunch money until
Jimmy made him stop…. And now … what? They‟re supposed to kill me for sixty acres? What‟s
gonna grow there Mrs. Jensen?” Max put his hand on her shoulder and she bit her lip. “Are three
good sons worth your bottom line?”

“They won‟t have a bottom line without that land.” Mrs. Jensen defended her reasoning. “We need
those sixty acres. Men need space or they‟ll leave me.”

“You can have them.” Jenny said, injecting some enthusiasm into her voice. “I‟ll sell them to you for
forty-six percent of the winter wheat….”

“Your aunt will never-”

“Aunt Diana has cancer Mrs. Jensen. She and Robert are going to Europe for some treatment at the
first of the year. She‟s – It was always my land, my choice, Mrs. Jensen, all you had to do was ask.”
Jenny slapped Segars hand from his lapel. “Do we have a deal? Mrs. Jensen? Are you there?”

“Oh Pat…. You were right…. I shouldn‟t have listened to that woman….” She sobbed, the phone
bouncing around in her hand. “I should have believed in you…. Didn‟t I always believe in you, even
when we didn‟t have nothing but diapers and bills? Remember, Pat? Remember our plans, then….”
She hung up the phone.

“Mrs. Jensen!” Jenny shouted, reaching to pick up the receiver, but Segars gripped her writs, to stop
her. “She‟d never – they‟re good boys, good men – She bakes cakes for – for…. You can‟t – she
needs help!”

Segars thumbed the connection and recorder off while Jenny struggled to peel his fingers from her
wrist. Max caught her shoulders, knocked back when she turned into him, butting her head into his
chest with a sob.

“She needs help, Max. She didn‟t mean – Please, she couldn‟t mean to - ”

Max caressed Jenny‟s back, promising to help Mrs. Jensen as soon as he could. Stroking her ratted
hair, his heart shattered with sorrow.

Unplugging and handing the phone to Phil, SAC Segars said, “Get this to Watkins in the tower, have
them broadcast it over the loudspeakers. Rattle the woods. Hopefully they‟ll give themselves up.”

“No!” Jenny dived for the phone but Segars stood between her and Phil‟s retreat. “Don‟t! Not like that.
Dear God, don‟t do that to them!”

“Ending this is my bottom line, Ms Benedict.” Segars said, following Phil from Max‟s house.

“No!” Jenny‟s plea followed him, echoing louder than the vibrations of the phone recording bouncing
off snow heavy trees. It was all he heard when they found the three men near dark. Segars figured
the sound would haunt him longer than the high-res images Watkins had taken of three bodies woven
together in a drainage ditch that had an inch of ice coating frozen earth.

The media pulled out as the winter storm moved in. They‟d be heading for the Jensen place no doubt.
Most of the FBI agents were holed up in town since the hotel had emergency power. Phil dismissed
all but the usual perimeter, plus a couple volunteers who were admittedly worried about „sight seeing
tabloid buffoons.‟ He reported every step to Julie so she could reassure Nick, even managed to stay
awake to help get the Plexiglas in the gatehouse. A simple two-way was set up along with a space
heater. It would be days before they could get the building assessed, let alone re-wired.

Watkins couldn‟t wait to write the report, peeled out for town with four inches of snow and ice on the
roads and the sun long obscured by thick gusts. Segars didn‟t bother to stop him. Instead, he called
his supervisor, and then begged a room from Max Cooper for the night.

“Sleeping with Wally in the bunker is fine, just a place to sleep off the effects of whatever they shot
me up with at the hospital.” He said.

“We can do better than that,” Max chuckled and led him through the garage door. Upstairs were
luxurious bedrooms that nearly met the standards of BeneVilla‟s. Down two stairs of what was
designed to be a four-car garage, a plasma television hogged the entire wall facing the drive. Theatre
seating complete with cup holders, lumbar massage and foot rests faced the monstrosity. A twelve-
foot wide fireplace centered the room, with a plush conversation pit. Between the mini-theatre and the
fireplace, a pool table with tiffany lighting. To the right, a full bar with a dozen stools led to a sliding
door where Christmas Lights hovered around a hot tub, stepping down to a walled patio that provided
ample space for outdoor entertaining.

“My God.” Segars shook his head, following Max up the open railed staircase twined with English Ivy
and skirted by 20 foot Palms to the dorm. “No wonder my supervisor‟s shorts have been on fire.”

“Not for me, I assure you. More likely Diana Benedict and Karl made a few well placed phone calls.”
Max sighed. “I built this for Grace, back in the days when I was young and foolish. Here, you can
have the quiet corner. Down here.”

Segars was leaning over the rail, jaw clenched to keep his mouth from hanging open. “I just wanted a
bed, really. Not the grand tour.”

“Sorry, it‟s a package deal.” Max opened a door at the end of the hallway. “You‟ll have to share the
john with Tony, but he‟s obsessively tidy – just don‟t touch his diffusers or hair dryers or, well, don‟t
touch his stuff.”

“I‟ll need a trail of breadcrumbs….” Segars marveled.

“Hideous, I know.” Max shrugged. “It‟s empty most of the time, except when Nick is training. They
barely notice it, he works them to death and only resurrects the worthy.”

“I appreciate this, considering.” Segars dropped to the bed, kicking his shoes off and intending to flop
back. If he could find some energy, he‟d fling the bedspread over his sorry ass.

Max tossed a couple shrink-wrapped packages at him. “T-shirt, drawers, uh…” he was rummaging in
a four drawer chest. “Socks, ah, good, sweat pants. They‟re … extra large, OK?”

Segars caught the fleece over his shoulder and winced.

“And in here,” Max opened a door, flipped on a light and tossed a bottle of Tylenol at the exhausted
man. “Extra Strength.” He leaned against the frame, grinning as if Segars‟ astonishment was worth
the day‟s destruction.

“I‟ve been bedded down at the lump-land hotel.” Segars rolled his eyes heavenward, “Where did I go
wrong Lord?”

“What‟s still not adding up?” Max asked, watching the Agent hesitate over opening a package of
boxers. Segars‟ hadn‟t asked for a cup of coffee since he got here. Joked with Nick about pens,
thanked Molly for every sandwich and made sure his men brought pizza or burgers in for everyone at
least once a day. Twice he replenished the coffee they‟d used to fill thermoses. But tonight, when it
seemed to all be over, he begged for a bed? “I‟d like to know if I should call those reinforcements
back out before we‟re buried under that twenty two inches of snow and ice they‟re predicting.”

Segars tipped clothing on the bed, without the energy to get to his feet it seemed. Hesitancy was an
odd garment for him, “Could be I‟m just too stoned to see it.”

Max shoved from the doorframe and crossed the room to leave, too irritated to voice more than an
“Uh huh.”

“Max.” Segars met Max‟s gaze, held it until he was sure Max would hear him. “Keep the perimeter
secure, just until I check my math.”

“There‟s blackberry wine in the kitchen if the Tylenol doesn‟t work.” Max tugged the door closed
without a sound.

Max jogged down the steps, skidded through the hallway and nearly gave Phil a stroke.

“What?” Phil was drawing his weapon even as Max was apologizing.

“You got a good perimeter?” Max glanced at the monitors, only four of them actually working since
the two rotating eyes in the tower were taken out that morning. “Whatever the hell that means.”

“I was just about to ask if you knew.” Phil transferred his desktop monitor to one on the wall, “There‟s
extra security in the woods, usual precautions we take whenever Grace is here, around the house.
Want more?”

“Damned if I know.” Max frowned. “Segars said, „Keep the perimeter secure.‟ He doesn‟t think the
math is good.”

Phil dived for the phone, “Shit. Damn feds never offer advice you don‟t wish you had it a week ago –
unless it‟s how to fuck up paperwork…. Jules? I got a situation here. Segars says the math is bad.
Wanna translate that for me?”

Max watched Phil‟s face pale and then flush, “They left an hour ago…. Uh, six inches, gusts to
40mph. They probably made it to town; doubt they made it further. Wouldn‟t make it back as tired as
they - That‟s true, but crazy people don‟t generally listen to weather warnings now do they?” He made
talking motions with his fingers and thumb. “If I need psychoanalysis I‟ve got Esther. I need

authorization and instructions Julie…. Naw, he‟s sacked out in the garage. Yeah, Max is here. Hang

Max was surprised she asked to speak to him, what he knew about security couldn‟t fill the eye of
needle. “Julie?”

“What exactly did SAC Segars say? Exactly, Max.” She sounded worn to the bone.

“He asked if I could put him up for the night. Then, „Keep the perimeter secure, just until I check my
math.‟ He wasn‟t going to give me that much, but I was being so charming – all right! Obnoxious. Why
the hell is Phil frothing in his Diet Pepsi?” Max felt like half his plot had been deleted and the back-up
file was missing.

“Then he‟s just uneasy.” Julie sounded relieved. “If he was concerned, he‟d have talked to Phil. Could
be the meds I suppose, they can creep you out. Some can‟t let it go until they‟ve got that last autopsy
report and fingerprint confirmation. Segars never seemed like – let me talk to Phil. Don‟t
hyperventilate, Max, uneasy is not alien invasion, all right?”

“Between the two of you I‟m ready to put on my Kevlar underpants.” Max winked at Phil when Julie

“Mighty sweaty, honey. Trust me.” He heard her yawn, “Now let me talk to Phil.”

Max slouched into his chair across the desk, startled when Maudie dropped into his lap. “Trouble?”
She asked.

“Not sure, yet. Phil is consulting the Oracle.” Max leaned his forehead on her bony shoulder and
reared back from the cold sweatshirt. “What are you doing roaming around in the snow?”

“Grace. Wanted her lavender oil.” Maudie yawned and poked Max‟s forehead with her pointy chin.
“God I‟m tired.”

“Good. Go to bed.” Phil waved her away. “I need to put Max to work. Shoo, baby doll.”

“Whatya need? I‟ll help.” Maudie hopped to her feet.

“Really?” Phil eyed her doubtfully.

“Sure. I‟m digging all this secret agent stuff.” Maudie winked at Max.

“Well come on then. We‟re gonna secure the externals.” Phil yanked key chains from the desk
drawer, tossed one at Max, “You remember how to do this by the numbers or you want the chart?”

“I remember.” Nevertheless, Max listened to Phil review it all for Maudie.

Maudie giggled and tossed her curls, “Can I be Scully?”

“Why not.” Phil shrugged. “On each exterior wall with a bank of windows or doors, on the right side,
you‟ll find a lock that looks like this. Waist high, don‟t bother to look for a plate; just the indent is all
you‟ll be able to find, two and three quarter inches from the corner – exactly the length of Nick‟s
thumb, a bit more for you.” He was in the lobby, lifting the curtain in the corner. “Plug this doo-hickey
in, turn left, turn right and push in till it clicks. When the steel plate slides down, thus,” he waved like
Vanna White revealing vowels, “and you hear the lock, withdraw the key. Can you do that?”

“What about Grace and Julian?” Maudie frowned, giggles long gone.

“That‟s where I‟m heading. I‟ll either escort them to the dorm, or Wally will sit in their suite with his
semi-automatic sawed off elephant gun.” Phil laughed when Maudie gasped. “I expect they‟ll prefer
the dorm.”

“She‟s going to scalp you, Phil.” Maudie‟s voice faded as she went to the hot tub exit in the garage,
the key held before her like a dagger.

Phil was busy on his radio, “Melvin? Jules called: Burrow & Shield. No movement. I‟m hauling the
honeymooners in. Lock it down till dawn. Yeah, secure the gatehouse and haul ass up here to double
check Mr. Cooper. Hell if I know. I just spit out the instructions and log the geese interfering with the
infrared. Naw, I‟ll alert Wally. He‟ll blow your brains out just cause you wear that cologne he hates….”

Nick and Phil had drilled Max at least a hundred times. He‟d stumbled and laughed his way through it,
usually ending up splattered with green paint by some bulky invader. He didn‟t feel much like
laughing, but he sure as hell felt green, or was that yellow.

“Where‟s that damn laser when I need it?”

Jenny waited until Esther was asleep before she slid from the huge bed. It wasn‟t that she didn‟t
appreciate the woman‟s concern, or need to be busy so she wouldn‟t worry about Grady and Nick,
but Jenny wasn‟t used to hovering. Perhaps if she‟d continued crying, Esther would have relaxed
sooner, but all Jenny‟s emotions seemed to have dissolved when she heard the Jensen brothers had
been located.

As if her heart was frozen clear through, she‟d accepted the suggestion that she take a shower, try to
rest. Esther waited for her on the love seat, covered by a crazy quilt with one of Max‟s books propped
on her knees when Jenny came from the bathroom. Max popped his head in the door, reported that
Kyle was off the critical list and Nick woke long enough to bitch about his ass hanging out of the
hospital gown. He disappeared before she could respond.

She‟d feigned sleep when Max crept in. Esther was nodding off, but wrenched to wakefulness when
he crossed the room to stick some key in the wall. Jenny observed the metal sliding from the ceiling
to the floor, like at the mall, through her lashes.

“Is that really necessary?” Esther tossed the book toward the coffee table and missed, her eyes
darting toward Jenny.

“Julie says it is. Besides, it‟ll help keep it warmer.” Max tossed an extra blanket over Esther, “Wind is
brutal out there.”

“Just another blizzard….” Esther snuggled into the large pillow. Max switched off the lamp as he left.

Max was at his keyboard, headphones on, when she reached the bottom of the stairs. Jenny turned
toward the little kitchen, but a metal door blocked her path. Glancing through the stairs she could see
the greenhouse wall was similarly sheathed as was the outer windows of Max‟s nook and the sitting
room. Sighing, she crept toward Nick‟s office, jumping a foot when Phil opened the door before she
could knock.

“It‟s OK. Didn‟t mean to scare you.” He grinned. “Picked up your movement, thought it was Max
prowling for coffee. He gets disoriented when he‟s writing.”

Jenny nodded, then asked, “Tea?”

“Pots on the stove in the kitchen. Go through the hall, I‟ve got the lobby secure.” Phil opened the
other door. “Also, just so you know, there‟s a guy named Jonah stretched out on the sofa by Max‟s

stove. He‟s smirking because you didn‟t notice him.”

Looking across her shoulder, Jenny saw a hand waving in the glow of the stove. “Hi Jonah.” She

He made the OK sign and tucked himself beneath a blanket.

“Go have your tea. Nice fire in there, warm and toasty. You want Jonah to get Max?” Phil obviously
was stationary.

Jenny shook her head, fingering hair she hadn‟t bothered to band from her face. “I just wanted tea.”

“Little damn peace and quiet huh? No problem, I understand.” Phil went back to his desk.

Jenny slipped down the hall, skidding to a halt as she rounded the corner. Agent Segars was sitting at
the end of the table, laptop glowing, headphones on, glasses slipping down his nose abruptly stabbed
back into position. He lifted a hand and waved her forward. “Ignore me. Headache. Couldn‟t sleep.”

She circled the kitchen to make a pot of tea. The man seemed intent on whatever he was doing, so
she felt comfortable flopping down on one of the ottomans in front of the fire and sipping her mug of
tea. It was so blessedly quiet. Feeding another log to the grate and fishing a throw off the rocking
chair to fling around her shoulders, she scooted from the ottoman to the hearth, stretching her legs
out, thankful for Grady‟s wise socks at the end of the dull gray sweatpants. Fire and all, it was still
cold. Not even the hot shower had warmed her up.

When Agent Segars leaned over with the teapot, she didn‟t startle, but turned toward the stones so
he wouldn‟t see the waterfall running down her cheeks.

“Here,” he dropped a gold table napkin in her lap and sat in the rocker, pouring a cup of tea for
himself, placing the pot on the table between the chairs. “Can‟t get five minutes of privacy can you?”

She shook her head. Her knees bent to catch her forehead as a sob choked free. Segars hand rested
on her shoulder for a moment, but he rocked back, propped up his feet and let her howl. If she‟d
wanted comfort she‟d have sought it, not a stone corner. He was probably the last person she‟d
accept soothing platitudes from, and damned if he had any to give her….

“The Jensen‟s don‟t have a computer.” Her voice drew his gaze from the flames. She was blowing her
nose, scrubbing at her cheeks. “Mr. Jensen finished eighth grade. His sons all graduated, but the
farm was all they ever wanted to be involved in. They all got cell phones two Christmas‟ ago. Mr.
Jensen has – had one that scrolled the news and weather.”

Segars cleared his throat, but she charged ahead.

“She said, „I shouldn‟t have listened to that woman….‟ You still think it was my aunt, don‟t you?”
Jenny bunched the linen table napkin in her fist.

“Actually, no, I don‟t.” Segars polished his glasses on the flannel shirt he‟d found in the closet. “I don‟t
think either Mrs. Jensen who was sixty-seven years old, or your aunt, who is sixty-one, sat in that
shed all night either. Mrs. Jensen‟s voice is not what you remembered, is it?”

Jenny reluctantly shook her head, “Watkins said three men – over your earpiece. I don‟t know that
many men.”

Segars nodded, not even surprised. Things generally came back in bits and pieces, bits of leaves, a
twig, the sound of a chime, a voice sneering in the half-light…. Jenny knew who sat there, but she
didn‟t want to know. Believing it was some frozen hallucination was better than admitting it was

insane reality. Shrink confirmed as much for him yesterday.

“I‟m going to make a sandwich, want one?” Segars rocked to his feet. “There‟s supposed to be some
wine for headaches around here, but damned if I can find it.”

Jenny stood up and led the way to the homemade wine in the pantry. “Grady makes it. Be careful, it‟s
got more of a kick than flavor.”

“Scary.” He eyed the clear bottle of violet liquid as he might a specimen in a lab. “Will it melt the

“Probably.” She went to the kitchen and slid a goblet free of the rack, after a second‟s hesitation, she
freed another. “Corkscrew is in that drawer. If you pour I‟ll make sandwiches.”

“Works for me.” They worked quietly, fixing a light snack without bother. Jenny carried a silver tray to
the table. Segars nudged the laptop out of the way and wound up the headphones.

“Paperwork giving you the headache?” Jenny sat down on the bench and left the chair for him.

“No, someone smacking me with a handkerchief half a dozen times did that.” He saluted her with the
wine and took a cautious sip.

Jenny grinned around a bite of sandwich. “Really? Bullets scraping your skull and shoulder had
nothing to do with it?”

“Flesh wounds are part of the job.” He puffed out his chest.

“I remember, your reports are full of wacking.” Jenny nodded, as if a sage full of wisdom that would
certainly elude him.

“Exactly.” Segars couldn‟t help but return her hesitant smile with an easy grin. Other than seeing her
giddy flitting about that morning, he hadn‟t seen a genuine emotion cross her face that she didn‟t try
and stuff away before anyone else noticed.

“What‟s your name?” She licked mustard off her thumb. “Your first name. Everyone has labels around

“Stefan Andrew Segars.” He poured some more wine. “I was born in a Bismarck, North Dakota, in an
October blizzard. I am one of seven children and I‟ve been married once, but she didn‟t like me
enough to tolerate Chicago traffic.”

Jenny choked on her sandwich.

“Here, drink this.” He shoved the glass in her hand. “Sorry, that usually makes people groan, not gasp
for air.”

Wiping at her eyes, she shook her head, “I can‟t believe you were going for sympathy.”

“Whatever works.” He shrugged and she laughed again, but it was forced, tension made her bite her
lip and fiddle with the stem of her glass.

“Someone had to have access to my aunt‟s apartment to get that stamp.” Jenny took a sip.

Segars finished his sandwich before she spoke again.

“Did you go to college?”

“I have a Master‟s in – yes.” He tilted his head as if a stray thought had impaled his throbbing brain

“It‟s – law school is supposed to be very stressful, isn‟t it?”

“You have no idea.” Carrie‟s sweet soprano echoed across the room. Max was standing beside the
rocking chair with his hands slightly extended and raised. The winsome district manager was holding
a gun to the back of his head. “I can‟t believe how incredibly stupid you are little princess. I expected
you to freak out when I showed up with the box, but no. Couldn‟t even get that right, could you? My
great denounce the crazy scene never had a chance to materialize. So, here we are. Cozy and
comfy, sipping fine wine and trying to add one plus one. Give it up macho man; she not only can‟t do
sums, she has the sexual energy of a nun. Isn‟t that right, honey?”

Jenny dropped her hands to her lap and nodded.

“Now, you two gentlemen are going to amble in to that little room over there, nice and quiet. All the
children are napping and we don‟t want to wake them, do we?” Carrie smiled at Segars like he was
trying to return a book with a missing page.

“And what about Ms Benedict?” Segars asked as he inched back from the table and stood up, slowly.

“I finish what I start. Bill thinks he‟s the one with brains and tenacity, but I‟ll show him.” Carrie pressed
the revolver against Max‟s head and he took a step forward. “Thinking he can pull that, „I need a
woman who can be as tough as I am,‟ crap on me now, after I‟ve kept him fed and warm – now when
he‟s so close to finishing? I don‟t think so. Once he knows about this, sees how ruthless I can be, he‟ll
know I‟ve got what it takes.”

Max exchanged a glance with Segars who remained at the head of the table as they approached. He
spared a glance for Jenny, but her head was bowed, shoulders hunched forward. She looked just
what Carrie denigrated. He tried to step outward, to keep Carrie as far from her as possible, but the
woman was having none of his maneuvering. Pausing just before he reached Jenny, Carrie told
Segars to walk to the pantry, slowly.

“You can‟t believe I‟m going to do as you ask, Ms Lange.” Segars didn‟t move.

“Yes, I can.” She sniffed. “This weapon has a full clip. I‟ve executed five men already. Now we can
stand here and wait for the militia to come charging up behind me, but Mr. Cooper won‟t ever see
them and I doubt you will either. According to your file, I‟m a better marksman. Do you think those
men are too?”

“Just do what she says,” Max hissed.

“Shut up nerd.” Carrie chuckled and caressed his hair, running her thumb along his spine to the
middle of his back. “He‟s got to think of his report, justify the number of casualties against the fact he
came down here without his weapon. That‟s right, I‟ve been in the house since the ambulances
arrived. I should thank you for shutting us in and your troops out, but I won‟t bother.” Glaring at the
SAC, her conciliatory tone disappeared. “Now move.”

Segars sidled between the chair and table, but Carrie never batted an eye as the chair wobbled, then
righted. He was at the door when she told him to stop. “Face the shelves. Hands on the back of your
head. You know the position.”

He didn‟t hesitate, but did point out, “You‟ve still got to get out with her.”

“Wally won‟t mind.” Carrie sighed. “God, you think I‟m as stupid as she is. All right science guy, let‟s

go, nice and easy.”

Max intended to take a long pace by Jenny, but Carrie‟s fingers crossed his shoulder, her nails
digging into his collarbone. “I said nice and easy.”

Jenny hadn‟t moved a muscle, just gazed at the goblet of wine as if in a trance. When he passed her
back, he wasn‟t even sure she was breathing – until she whirled on the bench and jabbed the
pocketknife into Carrie‟s side with one hand and slapped the weapon upwards with the other. One
shot hit the ceiling tiles as Segars sailed across the counter and pinned Carrie to the trestle table. Phil
hit the lights and a bloody scalped Jonah covered the woman with a weapon. Revenge was a thought
that obviously occurred to Carrie, because she quit kicking at Segars long enough for him to get
Jonah‟s cuffs on her.

Max knelt down on one knee beside Jenny who was knocked to the floor by Segars‟ Batman
imitation. She was sitting, staring at the bloody pocketknife as if it truly were a talisman against evil
forces. Segars was backing away from Carrie Lange instructing Phil to get Sheriff Murphy and his
four-wheeled chariot in gear.

Phil told him it would be a pleasure, adding over his shoulder, “Jonah, bring Ms Lange on out to the
Lobby. She can be comfy on the sofa while we wait on the Sheriff.”

“She stabbed me! The crazy bitch stabbed me!” Carrie was twisting against the cuffs and Jonah, “Did
you see that? Who does she think she is?”

Jenny sighed and leaned her head against Max‟s shoulder. “Did some major damage, didn‟t I?”

Max‟s breath stuttered, “Yaslin couldn‟t have done it better.” He was more than grateful for the wine
goblet Segars handed to him.

“I had a better writer this time.” She slid forward, spilled across Max‟s lap, oblivious to Carrie‟s
demands for a lawyer, anyone but Bill apparently. Phil‟s phone call to the Sheriff in which he told him
to get his lazy ass out of the bed and Segars attempt to assure Watkins that there was no need to
return, but to meet the prisoner and Sheriff at the local lock up to take statements.

“I‟ll fax my report to you there.” He glanced at Max for confirmation that there was a fax machine. “Get
someone to pick up the boyfriend, Bill… uh, look on the reports. Damn pain meds have screwed with
my – yes, that‟s it. Him. Material witness for now, screw the weather, what else do they have to do at
midnight in a blizzard?”

“What the hell is going on?” Karl was standing in the doorway in a crimson bathrobe, hair disheveled
and indigestion eating a hole in his stomach. “Jesus, Max, is it going to be gun fight at the OK Corral
day and night?”

Segars shuffled him from the room, explaining the nature of a crime scene and closing the door
between the garage and kitchen on Karl‟s protest. “He‟s kind of annoying isn‟t he?” He mentioned to

“It‟s one of his better days.” Max downed the last of the wine and wriggled to put the goblet on the
table. “Care to explain the wining and dining going on here?”

“No,” Segars shrugged by him and sat down at his laptop, “Not really.”

“Thought as much.” Max closed his eyes and ran his fingers through Jenny‟s hair. “Answer me one
question then?”

“Hmm?” Segars was clattering away.

“Does the damn math add up, or is there someone else she trusted lurking out there who had a hand
in this?”

The typing paused, stopped and Max looked over his shoulder. Segars was gazing at the woman
slumped in Max‟s lap, a pocketknife of victory clutched in her fist, the blood already crusting around
her knuckles. Without taking his eyes off of Jenny, Segars poured another measure of wine and
raised the glass to math.

“All we have to do now is prove the equation.” He sighed and resumed typing.

Max shifted, slid the knife from Jenny‟s fist and tossed it on the table. She didn‟t even sigh as he
carried her through to the sofa in his nook and sat down, holding her as close as he‟d feared he‟d
never get the chance to. Esther was perched on his desk, a smug grin on her face.

“I like confusion.” He whispered.

“Good thing.” She hopped off the table and tightened the belt of her terry robe. “I‟m gonna sleep in
Grady‟s room, think he‟ll mind?”

Max grinned. “I think he‟ll have apoplexy.”

“Might want to wash the blood off her, if they ever open your damn walls again.” She mounted the
stairs and mentioned, “If Grady‟s violets are damaged by this weather, you‟ll know apoplexy is a
prelude to murder.” She was still muttering threats in Grady‟s name when he heard the door above
them closing.

Jenny stirred, nuzzling closer to his neck. “No quiet find….”

“Got that right.” Max chuckled and pitched them sideways on the sofa. Scrabbling around he
managed to tug the blanket off the back to cover them.

In the kitchen, while they slept, equations were documented.
Jenny shaded her eyes, waved with little energy as Grace and Julian‟s chopper took off. The
honeymoon was over, but maybe the marriage would last, Grace had sighed when she kissed
Jenny‟s cheek.

“Take care of Max and Joe.” Grace hugged Jenny, releasing her with reluctance.

“Have a great adventure, Grace.” Jenny patted her shoulder, unable to infuse her voice with more
than a hint of warmth.

Grace didn‟t let go. “Don‟t give up on your own.”

Jenny snorted.

Julian shook her hand and Karl offered to book her on at least six morning shows, “When you‟re
ready, of course.”

“I won‟t ever be ready.” Jenny backed away.

Tony‟s shout startled Jenny who realized the chopper was long out of sight. “Get a move on Molly. I‟m
not packing this van by myself!”

Molly‟s voice came back from the kitchen, “Quit your whining. I‟m coming.”

Maudie was behind Jenny, her voice gentle. “Sure you don‟t want a ride, Ms Benedict?”

Jenny shook her head and turned to the house, walking through the sliding door. “My aunt is sending
a car in the morning.”

“I hate to leave before Nick gets back.” Maudie hugged Grady who was leaning against the kitchen
counter with a face like thunder.

“You‟ll see him when you come back in the summer.” Grady patted her shoulder. “Don‟t let Tony
drive. He‟s a maniac.”

“I heard that. My own flesh and blood!” Tony grabbed Grady in a headlock. “Who taught me to drive?”

“That‟s how I know.” Grady shucked Tony off him, but held him in an embrace longer than was

Jenny slid to the pantry, uncomfortable intruding. Tired of good byes she couldn‟t feel….

Esther located her there several hours later, dusting the shelves and filling in Grady‟s inventory
checklist, neatly pinched on a neon orange clipboard. “Want to go with us to see Nick and the guys?”
She asked.

Jenny, kneeling before a shelf of canned vegetables glanced up distractedly, “Hmmm? Oh, no,
thanks, I‟m almost done.”

Grady popped his head in the door, “Ready? Wow, haven‟t seen it look this good since I moved in.”

“Flatterer.” Jenny tapped a row of mini ears of corn with the end of a pencil. “I‟ll get the refrigerator
next. There‟s enough soup in there to drown twice as many geeks as you have.”

“They‟ll be going home, Jenny. Just Nick‟ll come back here.” Esther exchanged a concerned glance
with Grady who shrugged.

“You won‟t send some of it to them?” Jenny wrote down the number of remaining pickles before
leaning back on her heels.

“We‟ll load them down with soup.” Max said, patting Grady on the shoulder, “Cars warmed up and I
shoveled a nice path, if I do say so myself. Don‟t want you to slip and break those elderly bones.”

“That‟ll be the day.” Grady scoffed.

“Go on, I‟ll help Jenny with the soup. You still got those pens for labeling in the kitchen drawer.” Max
trailed after Grady and Esther, repeating instructions about peel and stick labels on disposable
dinnerware. “Here, if you don‟t take Kyle these cookies he‟s liable to take hostages.”

“How many cookies are in here?” Esther was laughing, it made Jenny smile as she counted the next
row of pickles.

“Well, he‟ll need some to bribe the nurses who keep insisting he should eat jell-o and sip lukewarm
fruit juice. Poor boy was begging me for a whopper this morning.” Max sounded so delighted, even
Grady was softened.

“When did he wake up?” The older man asked.

“Middle of the night they said. Complaining about his ass hanging out.” Max confided.

“Is it some secret man code?” Esther sounded exasperated. It was the very same thing Nick had said
eight days ago. “Everything is fine, now cover my ass?”

“Leave us some sacred mysteries, Essie.” Grady huffed, her response fading beyond Jenny‟s hearing
as they carried their banter to the car.

Jenny was bent over buckets of flour when Max returned with a bulging, battered shopping bag in his
hand. “Break time, come on, Cinderella.”

She rolled her eyes. “I‟m just helping.”

“And Grady appreciates it, even if I don‟t.” Max tossed the clipboard on the top of a bucket and
pinched the pen beneath the clip. Slipping his fingers around her wrist, he gently tugged her to
through the kitchen, giving her a gentle shove into a rocker before a well-banked fire.

“You‟ve answered a million questions, cooked dozens of meals, cookies, pumpkin bread, cranberry
loaf and even SAC Segars was almost … pleasant after his paperwork was reviewed. You were stoic
when Segars itemized evidence of how Carrie convinced Mrs. Jensen you were going to sell off the
land if they didn‟t stop. Positively serene as he outlined Carrie‟s twisted preparations over six months,
including her suggestion to your aunt that you should work at the book store.” Max sat on the
footstool and tucked the bag between his knees. “Faithfully, each night at eight, you‟ve called your
aunt. With great patience, you endured that musty lawyer and signed your name more times than I‟ve
signed Grace‟s.”

“You were busy with your plot,” Jenny leaned back with a righteous sigh, “How would you know?”

“The coffee has never been better, that‟s how I know.” Max winked. It was true, she‟d kept his travel
mug topped and even made sure Phil had his sodas stocked in the mini-fridge in the office.

“I – you all – I didn‟t mean to – I can be pushy.” Jenny‟s gaze skittered to the flames.

“Like I said, everyone has appreciated it, even me.” Max dived into the bag, “We talked it over and
decided to get you these in gratitude for taking better care of us than we did you.”

“Oh, Max, that‟s not true!” Jenny gasped, bolted forward in the rocker, but Max‟s hands anchored on
the arms and halted her protest.

“It is kindly meant, relax.” He soothed.

“Please, I don‟t want any-”

“Oh hush.” He lifted a pair of battered sneakers from the bag with a grin. “Your aunt went to check on
the fish and gathered a few things for you. They just got here because of the ice storm.”

Jenny hugged her shoes like long lost children. “I don‟t believe I‟m going to blubber over the shoes I
wear to work in the yard.”

“Here, tissues.” He stretched for the box sitting on the phone table beside her and dropped it in her
lap. “There‟s more. Do you want to put those on first or see more goodies?”

She didn‟t hesitate, “More goodies,” she nodded with the first genuine smile Max had seen on her
face since that day.

“One hair brush with, I am disgusted to point out, a great deal of hair in it. Sheesh, don‟t you ever
clean this out?” He held the wooden handle with two fingers, shuddering as if it might be lice infested.

“Give me that.” She almost laughed, tucking it under her skirt.

“One ragged ole sweater she found by the backdoor. Nice pockets.” He unrolled it across the arm of
the other chair. “A Polaroid – evidence of fish health I presume?”

Jenny snatched it from his hand, holding it close, counting each fin. “They look –Oh!”

He slid another photo over the fish, “Apparently she had kittens under the back steps. I count five.”

“Uh, that‟s not my cat.” Jenny grinned, “Obviously Captain Kirk has been busy.”

“Your cat is named after – Good grief.” Max sighed. “Poor cat.”

“Not if this is anything to judge by.” Jenny flipped the Polaroid at him with a smirk that probably would
suit the paternal feline. “He‟s done very well for himself. She‟s lovely.”

“Moving on from your sick cat obsession…” Max shoved his hand into the bag, “Sadie?”

Jenny tucked the photo to her heart with a sigh. “Yes.”

“The little girl is you. Is the strikingly beautiful woman beside the grinning matriarch your aunt or your
mother?” Max tipped the photo down.

“Mother, Diana took the photo.” Jenny pointed out the shadow on the grass beside the wicker lawn

“A letter?” Max hesitated over the envelope, reluctantly letting go when she tugged.

“Pastor Ben.” Jenny tapped the corner against her knee.

“Shall I stop?” Max tilted his head, disturbed by the shadow crossing Jenny‟s face.

“No. Just … wait a minute while I catch my breath.” Jenny settled the bundle of goodies in her lap,
opened the letter, skimmed it then folded it back into the envelope. “He‟s very kind.”

“May I?” Max took the letter when she nodded, set it on the hearth but made no move to read it. “Let‟s
see what else.”

“Wait, maybe this is enough.” Jenny glanced from the envelope to the bag, “Shouldn‟t spoil me.”

“Could I?” He asked, grinning and wiggling his eyebrows.

“All right, try.” She challenged.

Max gazed heavenward while swirling his hand in the lower regions of the bag. “Ha! I never would
have expected this. Ready?”

She smiled when he plopped the bag of chocolate kisses on her lap. “She does love me.”

“Obviously.” Max snickered, “I‟m not sure whether to be crushed or delighted by this.”

Jenny was peeling silver foil from a chunk of chocolate, one already melting in her mouth forcing the
word to work its way around goodness. “What?”

Max elevated his last book from the bag, a rueful grin on his face. “Where‟s the dust jacket?”

Her hand flew to her mouth to cover her chocolaty giggle, “It didn‟t have one! I got the book used.”

“Oh my barren bank balance.” Max thumbed the pages, his eyebrows rising over the penciled note in
the margin. He read and she blushed. “Well, this almost soothes my wounded ego.”

“It shouldn‟t.” Jenny swallowed, “I‟m no poet.”

“My little tale inspired you to use words….” He reluctantly closed the book, a thoughtful stare focused
on her flushed face. “Beautiful words.”

“No, it was just – I was – don‟t read more – Arg, did I say that?” She closed her eyes when he

“You did, I‟ll remind you of it, later.” He set the book on top of the letter. “Ah, now this makes sense.”

Jenny laughed, finally. Hideously bright pink crocheted slippers with a silver threaded crown between
droopy ears and googly eyes dangled from Max‟s fingers. “I made those for her. She looked at them
like you are, but you‟ll notice she has worn them, see.” She pointed out the crushed yarn on the
bottoms, “I knew she would.”

“Not yours then?” Max sounded relieved.

“Mine were an upside down turtle. Sadie just had the stroke, I sat beside her – kept me awake.”
Jenny fingered the ears with a smile, “I made Robert a pair, a frog with a prince‟s crown. Diana was
so huffy, that‟s when I was sure they – well, you know.”

“Uh huh….” Max slapped his hand in the bag once more. “Just one more thing, you ready?”

“Probably not.” Jenny leaned forward though.

“Ta Da.” He tugged fabric and watched it unroll across the bag to puddle on Jenny‟s knees. “Uh, what
is it?”

“My flannel nightgown.” She sniffed, snagging it from his hand and bunched it into a wad with a great
deal of haste. “It‟s three sizes too big, old, stained and not fit to be worn.” She threw it back in the
bag. “God, she‟s pitiless.”

“I thought women liked old nightgowns.” Max watched her drop the goodies back in the bag, except
for the shoes and the chocolate. She rocked forward and dumped the book and letter on top.

“They do.” Jenny shoved her feet into the comfy sneakers and sighed. “That‟s not the point.”

“Enlighten me?” Max was fascinated by the way she tied her shoes.

“I think that‟s my question.” She rocked to her feet and crossed to the drawer Grady said the labels
and pens were in before opening the fridge to rummage for the soup jar. “She‟s not sending the car,
is she?”

“No.” Max rubbed his palms over his thighs, the smooth denim absorbing the sweat. “I asked her not

Jenny nodded. “I see.”

“The media isn‟t sitting in front of my house anymore,” he went to peel lids off clear plastic bowls.
“They‟re sitting in front of the Jensen place and yours.”

Jenny ladled soup into the first container. “So what?”

“I heard what that fat choir lady said on the news,” Max slapped containers in a row for her to fill. “I
know it had to hurt.”

“She‟s - they probably edited any kind word she said – Anyway,” Jenny wiped a spill before dipping
the ladle back into the jar. “It was true. I am reserved, always on my own.”

“Because you don’t think you should mingle with ordinary folks?” He quoted in a nasally twang that
made Jenny cringe.

“The Jensen‟s have been there since Lewis and Clarke floated by making their quaint map.” Jenny
pointed out. “They sold that land because Jimmy needed surgery. My – Sadie locked them in to the
lease as part of the purchase agreement.”

Max slid the ladle from her hand, turned her to face him, “You don‟t kill people who helped save your
son‟s life.”

“Didn‟t matter – did it? In the end, I mean. Saved him to waste him….” Jenny shrugged his comfort
away, but he held on.

“That wasn‟t your-”

“No?” Jenny snapped. “I couldn‟t have made sure they knew the land wasn‟t going to auction? Gone
over, had a cup of coffee, explained it? Made sure Carrie‟s lies wouldn‟t terrify them into doing
something desperate?”

“Did they ask, Jenny?” Max shook her a little. “Did they even ask?”

“Mr. Jensen – when he came to the funeral – I told him when the paperwork was sorted out I‟d sign
the land over as Sadie should have. He – we never said anything about it, but I‟m still sorting
paperwork – almost a year later!” Jenny‟s head fell forward, grinding into his collarbone in despair. “I
was – after Diana told me – I went to the lawyer, but I‟m stupid and slow, it takes me so long to
understand – Jimmy asked how the paperwork was going. But, did I – no! All I could say was, „It‟s a
nightmare!‟ ” She lifted her face, eyes dry and red, “What was he to think?”

“That you‟d just lost your grandmother and it would take time to sort things out.” Max thumbed her
pale cheek, skimming the faint indention near her eye. “That you maybe needed a neighbor to listen
to your worries over a cup of coffee instead of running home to plan how to kill you.”

Jenny shook her head. “You don‟t understand-”

“Don‟t I?” Max ran his hands over her arms, “My family has owned this land for generations. There
were over eight hundred acres at one time. It‟s been hacked, discreetly sold, hell even auctioned for
taxes until this little bit is all that‟s left. I‟m not about to go shove Mrs. Lyon in a trunk, leave her to
freeze to death, so I can have it back. Though when her dog gets in my flower beds I do consider

Her smile flashed briefly. “I know you‟re right, but….”

“Knowing and believing don‟t always arrive at the same time do they?” Max squeezed her hands,
carrying them to his lips, feathering kisses across her knuckles.

“That‟s what – Esther said that.” Jenny tilted her head suspiciously, “Is this more therapy?”

“God no, its torture, woman.” Max sighed dramatically, blessed by her smile.

“Liar.” She kissed his cheek and returned to the soup.

“Wait a few more days, at least until the storm is scraped off the roads and the power is back on
there.” Max covered the container she should fill next.

Jenny simply filled another one. “Torture you some more?”

“I can take it.” Max boasted.

Hesitating over the next container, Jenny bit her lip, “I could stay with Diana. I don‟t have to go home.”

“You don‟t have to go anywhere, Jenny.” Max whispered.

With rushed determination, she dunked the ladle once more, “Yes, I think I do….”

“Why?” Hurt made the word echo in the half empty jar.

Jenny let the ladle slide into the jar. Wiping her hands on the towel, she struggled to ease words out.
“Tylenol. You shouldn‟t be Tylenol.”

“Is that all this is?” He fished the ladle from the jar.

“I don‟t know.” Jenny whispered, “Do you?”

“And, of course, Esther does.” Max slopped soup in the last container.

“No,” Jenny burped a lid. “But neither does Diana and her subtle bag of „giving me her blessing.‟ If
you – we aren‟t sure, that‟s what – I‟m not – Every day days aren‟t like this – I‟m so ordinary and
you‟re – You have a lobby for God‟s sake!”

“Nick has a lobby, remember?” He sighed, “When I decipher the rest of that I‟m sure I‟ll have a witty
retort.” He tossed the ladle in the sink and stomped from the room, slamming the door to his retreat
so Jenny spilled soup.

“I‟m sure you will.” She told the row of soup bowls. “That‟s what scares me.”

“They say the storm won‟t be here for another couple hours,” SAC Segars was surprised to find
Jenny in the hospital coffee shop. “You look like it‟s already arrived.”

She jumped, as if his voice was unexpected though he‟d been standing there for some time. Smiling,
she said, “I didn‟t know you were still here. I thought you moved on to the next – aren‟t there bad guys
to chase? You aren‟t here to take more statements, are you?”

“I‟ve still got a couple man cooped up here, came in to make them fill out more paperwork so they get
paid. I‟m on my way to another damn seminar.” Segars patted her shoulder, soothing her panic as he
sat down across from her in the duct-taped chair.

“Of course. I didn‟t think about - Are your flying out tonight?” She frowned into her Styrofoam cup.

“I was driving, but road conditions wrecked that plan.” He added some sugar to his brown water
disguised as coffee.

“It‟s an Alberta Clipper, going to dump a couple feet I heard.” She sighed. “Everything shut down for
days…. Again.”

“How come you‟re still here? I expected Aunty to bundle you off.” Segars tossed his stir stick aside
and grimaced over the lack of flavor.

“She‟s been grounded off and on for over a week. She flies out, but where she‟s headed is buried in
ice and snow so is routed elsewhere.” Jenny leaned forward, “She‟s beginning to think it‟s some evil
weather plot. Said she hasn‟t taken so many naps since she was three.”

Segars laughed, “Not to mention washing your socks out for the fourth time.”

Jenny nodded, licked her lips as she considered something, “We brought soup tonight. What rooms
are your agents in? You can take some up. There‟s plenty.”

“We?” Segars glanced around.

“Grady is up fussing with Nick about not making war with the doctor.” She set the cup down,
shuddering. “I hate instant coffee.”

“Is that what it is?” Segars peered into his cup, “Are you sure?”

“No, not really.” Jenny tossed her braid over her shoulder. “I chickened out when the yelling started
including descriptions of private parts.”

“Oh, I think I heard about that.” He nodded, “Couple of nurses were impressed with the …

“I don‟t doubt it.” Jenny shot to her feet, “Excuse me.”

Segars recoiled into his seat, unable to get a word out before she was running from the coffee shop,
and out to the parking lot. Her bulky sweater coat was still over the back of the chair, her bag

Max skidded to a stop. “Where is she?”

“Who?” Segars was dazed by the waves of anger steaming from Max.

“Jenny.” He held up the sweater. “Cleared out her things, not even a damn note. Rode into town with
Mrs. Lyon and a box of soup bowls.” He glared into the white cardboard box on the table next to the
confused SAC.

“She said she was here with Grady.” Segars hid his smirk around his cup. This might be better than
nurses discussing vocabulary. TV in the cheap hotel left a great deal to be desired.

“Just tell me where she is.” Max raked his hands through his hair, knocking his damp stocking cap off
and stuffing it in his coat pocket. “Damn woman.”

“She excused herself. Since her things are here, I believe she‟ll be back. Have a seat, drink some
coffee.” Segars suggested, not saying, calm down out loud.

Max slouched into the chair Jenny vacated. “Coffee?”

“I have a few reservations about that myself.” Segars gulped the last. “I take it Jenny‟s got a case of
cabin fever?”

“Huh?” Max glanced from his perusal of the small coffee shop. “No, just too many people telling her
what to do and not do.”

“And what‟s your advice?” Segars leaned forward, tucking his sugar packets and stir stick into the
cup. “Do or not do?”

“I just want her to wait until the damn media clears out from her home.” Max extended his arms.
“She‟s had enough of the three ring circus.”

“And after that? What‟ll be your excuse then?” Segars leaned back.

“I don‟t know what your – I am not keeping her prisoner!” Max defended himself.

“Did I say you were?” The FBI agent raised his brows; innocent as the day he left North Dakota.

“Every damn body else is.” Max propped his chin on his hand, forlorn.


“She doesn‟t say it, but she acts like it, well, not really.” Max sighed. “God, I sound as incoherent as
she is.”

“It‟s a good imitation.” Segars nodded with his chin at the entrance Jenny was marching through.
“Scoop your brains up, looks like you‟re going to need coherence. I‟m going to see about taking soup
to my wounded men.” He rose, gratefully accepting Jenny‟s offering from the box on the next table.
“I‟m staying at the Scottish Arms, room 2, if you need anything, all right?”

Jenny shook her head, “It‟s not like that.”

“Anything.” Segars squeezed her arm. “I can even get you on the first flight out to anywhere,
eventually. Perk of the job, I‟ll just have to claim you‟re my prisoner.”

Her laughter made a blue haired woman slosh her tea. “I should have hit your head against the wall.”

Segars saluted her with the soup bowls, “The hanky was enough, lady, trust me.” Nodding at Max, he
spoke from the side of his mouth, “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” Max hissed.

Jenny gripped the box, met his troubled gaze with defiant agitation. “I should have told you I was
leaving. I‟m sorry.”

“In the middle of a winter storm warning?” Max felt his anger give way. She was all right, scared, but
all right. “Was it so awful?”

“No, oh no.” Jenny slid into the chair next to him, covered his hand with hers. “I – if I don‟t make
myself – Oh Max, no! Not awful, it couldn‟t be.”

He felt the chuckle roll from his chest. “Does this mean you‟ll come back and at least ride out the
storm? Or do I drop you off on Segars‟ doorstep at the Scottish Arms?”

Jenny looked away, eyes full and distressed. It took gulps of air to settle enough to speak. Max felt
less alarmed than when he went to see if she wanted to go for a walk after lunch, much less like
choking someone than when he drove to town. Turning his hand beneath hers, he thumbed her palm.

“You don‟t have to explain, Jenny.” He leaned forward to press a kiss to her temple.

“Yes. I do.” She whispered against his cheek. “I wanted to go home – but now, its not – but your
home – it‟s everywhere – I don‟t even know what happened, not really. You – I don‟t want you to look
at me like Aunt Diana does.”

Max snorted and drew back to grin at her, “I assure you I won‟t ever-”

“Indulgent irritation.” Jenny asserted, “This morning – I saw it.”

“I wasn‟t irritated or indulgent.” Max raised his brows, “I wanted to wring your neck and steal all your

Jenny blinked, stunned, “Really?”

“Yes really.” Max propped his cheek on his hand. “Could you make some sense? I‟ve got nothing but
time, go slow as you want.”

“We don‟t even know each other.” Jenny snapped a chunk of Styrofoam from Segars abandon cup. “It
could be – you know – just the situation.”

“What don‟t we know, Jenny?” Max whispered, cupping her cheek. “What scared you?”

“I don‟t want to be a gnome in the fountain.” She blurted out, bit her lip and closed her eyes.

“A gnome – oh,” Max shook his head. “Grace is the one who collects gnomes, Jen, not me.”

“But – I‟m nothing like her. She‟s beautiful, bright – full of energy.” Jenny slouched, “I‟m pink crochet
slippers and worn out flannel.”

“Its Nick‟s lobby, Jenny, not mine. It was a way to keep him around for Grady. Ninety-five percent of
the time Nick‟s training people, he‟s only on duty when Grace is in town, as a favor to her. I provide
Nick space, lease land for use so I can pay the bills, Jenny. I didn‟t want to plow it under or open a
hunting camp, so I found another solution.” Max sighed, “Grace comes and goes two, maybe three
times a year. I hate the strain, but yes, I still love her. She is light and energy and beautiful, wonderful
to behold, but impossible to be held by. Like your aunt, no one should look at me as Grace does….
I‟d no more place my heart in her care than I‟d stick my tongue in a light socket.”

Jenny smeared tears away, “I‟m - your home, is like – another castle where I could hide. I‟m not sure
that‟s a good thing, for you or me. You write Yaslin – Queen Phena – Colonel Hawkins, strong
women, bold – I‟m nothing like that. Nothing.”

“Unless you‟ve got a pocketknife.” Laughing, Max shook a paper napkin open and wiped her face.
“Sweetheart, I can‟t even find my laser, let alone two socks that match if Grady doesn‟t tie „em
together for me.”


“How about we leave the but for now.” Max stuffed the napkin in the cup.

“Esther said-”

“Esther isn‟t God.” He winked, “We had that discussion. Remember?”

“I don‟t want to hurt you.” Jenny sighed.

“What about what you do want?” Max asked. He waited while she fiddled with the coffee stirrer,

swallowed, glanced at the obviously interested couple in the booth, folded another paper napkin and
shook her head. “Do you know what you want, Jenny?”

“I want to put both my arms around you and hold you until I can‟t breath.” She covered her face and

Max pressed his forehead to hers, a grin unmistakable when he spoke. “Will our timing always be this

“What?” She looked at him, frowning.

He palmed her braid and tugged. “After the not breathing thing, then what do you want?”

“I – well, I don‟t know….” She shrugged. “I – the not breathing thing is pretty much as far as I‟ve –
Why are you grinning like that?”

“Encouraged.” He scooted his chair back and she watched him shake her sweater out with
bewilderment. “Let‟s go deliver soup.”


“If you still want to go to the hotel, I‟ll take you.” He promised.

She slid her arms in the sleeves and grabbed her bag, careful not to bash him with it when she
tossed it over her shoulder.

“If you‟d rather wait out the storm, with me, I‟d be honored. Maybe we can think of some things to do,
after, together.” He left his hands on her shoulders, eyes gently pleading with her to hear what he was
as scared to believe as she was.

“Like a list?” Her tender smile helped Max find oxygen.

He pulled her braid from the back of her sweater and whispered, “I don‟t think we‟ll need a list. Do

Jenny searched his face, laughed when he raised his brows up and down. “Maybe not…”


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