"Weapons of Mass Distraction"

by PJ Wright and Brandy Dewinter


(c 2004, All rights reserved)



Chapter 1 - "Social Skills"


"Shake it, baby! Here ya' go!" the man-mountain called as he waved a Jackson at the shimmying stripper. It was understandable that his attention was focused on the scantily clad girl rather than his unimpressive companion. People found it easy to overlook the smaller man. He was short even by normal standards, and no more than a mouse next to the obnoxious Goliath. The mouse impression was confirmed more than denied by a certain furtive air, as though the little man was always wary of predatory cats waiting to pounce. Even the mousy color of his nondescript hair and clothes spoke more of camouflage than fashion.

For someone standing in the right place - and looking in the right direction - the impression of harmless mouse would have vanished when the smaller man's eyes showed the blue-green of high-energy lasers for a second, demonstrating the fierce intensity that had gained him his nickname. He was Jimmy 'The Eyes' Kincaid, and when that glare was turned on someone, his small stature and slight frame were suddenly irrelevant.

But the big man, Joey Laguaro, didn't notice. He used the money as an excuse to paw at what little of the girl's modesty was covered by her tiny g-string. As he fingered the girl, a small but surprising smile replaced the heat in the smaller man's eyes. He quietly wandered back in his memory to the first time he'd seen someone fondle a young girl. The girl had been his then-thirteen-year-old baby sister Angela. The man had been a nameless, nasty drunk, and it had fallen to the fifteen-year-old Jimmy to grow up quickly.

Half a brick introduced rapidly to the man's head had made short work of his interest in Angela. That same brick had then been used to smash each and every bone in the drunk's right hand. Jimmy was working his way through the left-hand bones when the brick had fallen apart on him.

That had been five years ago. Now he had skills and experience to go with the snake quick and wolverine mean that were survival imperatives in the world that had formed him.

Kincaid's eyes regained their sharp focus as his mind returned to the present. He carefully ignored his loud companion as they watched the nubile dancers cavort about the stage. It wasn't that Jimmy was concentrating on the not-quite-naked women, but he was not about to let anyone know that. A man of his stature, or lack thereof, did not take any chances that someone - someone like the mountain seated next to him - would question his masculinity.

Besides, ignoring his escort was better than thinking about him anyway. It was insulting and frustrating and demeaning to have a 'keeper.' That his hulking escort was no match for the concentrated violence that lived in Jimmy was not the issue. Laguaro was just a trip wire, a ball and chain to keep the smaller man under control. Jimmy the Eyes could have slipped that chain any time he wanted, but doing so would have been a sign of rebellion and even a man in Kincaid's line of work couldn't take on the whole Coranzo family by himself.

"You never saw nothin' like that when you peeped in somebody's window, didya?" Laguaro asked, jerking a thick thumb at a turgidly proud nipple. The big man's tone was a mixture of envy and sneer - something Jimmy heard a lot.

The slender little man was a sneak. A skulker in shadows who could get into anywhere, and then get out again. Leaving no trace if he chose. Leaving very ostentatious traces if that were his assignment. He was a thief, and a snoop, and, when it was required, a very nasty, very efficient assassin. It didn't show on the outside. Kincaid moved with such economy that he looked languid to the point of laziness. That natural grace was a birthright. Judgment had not come so easily.

Buoyed by the success of his attack on the drunk, the fifteen-year-old Jimmy decided he was ready to graduate to more profitable ventures. He had broken into the home of the richest man he knew, 'Slow Eddy' Ells, who just happened to be Capo of the Coranzo family. He got caught, but instead of terminating that youthful career before it had really begun, 'Slow Eddy' had been impressed by the young intruder. Perhaps it was the lack of fear the sneering punk showed in the face of his impending demise. 'Slow Eddy' liked to think he had that same courage, and perhaps he could have matched Jimmy in bravado then - when Jimmy was 15. Five years later even 'Slow Eddy' feared 'Jimmy the Eyes', which didn't stop him from putting the lithe, dangerous man to work. That fear was the reason Kincaid was never alone unless he was on a job. His Capo wasn't worried about Jimmy pulling a 'Sammy the Bull' and going to the cops. No DA in the country could afford to give Kincaid immunity from prosecution, not even if it meant bringing down the whole Coranzo organization. But if Kincaid got loose, his first act would be to unravel the thin string that was the real leash 'Slow Eddy' held. That string was a family tie to a mother and a sister who led a life of leisure as long as Jimmy did what his Capo dictated - and who were always invited to spend the night in the oh-so-respectful care of 'Slow Eddy's' associates whenever Jimmy was alone on a job.

In between jobs, Kincaid was treated to all the pleasures Seattle had to offer. The stripper club was among the milder divertissements - and on this night, among the less interesting. Bobbing mounds of silicone were no match for real contact, but any real contact would offer 'Slow Eddy' another leash on him and that wasn't going to happen. Other aspects of the Coranzo empire took care of his occasional physical needs, and emotional needs were a luxury he couldn't afford to indulge. The stripper club had become an unsatisfying compromise, and without comment Kincaid rose.

"Hold up, Ji . . uh, Mist' Kincaid," said Laguaro, tossing another Jackson on the small table to cover their tab.

There was just enough of a pause in Leguaro’s grudging addition of the (more or less) ‘Mister’ to make the hulking thug’s lack of genuine respect clear. But *Mister* Ells (in the capo’s case, the ‘mister’ would be delivered with almost fawning deference) had made it clear to everyone that ‘Jimmy the Eyes' was crucial to the operation and that therefore he was very important to Mister Ells as well. Leguaro might not be a rocket scientist, but even he was smart enough to know the penalty for angering ‘Slow Eddie' Ells.

In the old days, crossing a capo of The Family would find you sleeping with the fishes in New York’s East River. Nowadays, out here in the far more progressive Emerald City, they took you to the Cascade Foundry down by the Tacoma docks and tossed you in a vat of sulfuric acid. No mess. No fuss. No embarrassing bodies to turn up later and really complicate somebody’s day.

If you hadn’t screwed up too badly, ‘the cleaners’ that The Don sent around to fix the problem put a slug in the back of your head you before they tossed you in.

Laguaro didn't intend to screw up at all, and he took quite literally his orders to, "stick to Jimmy the Eyes closer’n his fuckin’ shadow" anytime he was out of the company of The Family. Say this for Leguaro; he might be about as bright as a burned out 5-watt bulb, but at least he was conscientious and dependable. That’s probably why he’d been entrusted with Kincaid's security.

"Wait here," Laguaro ordered as they exited the club. "I'll get the car."

Standing there in the alley, during the whole 30 seconds he had to himself, Jimmy absent-mindedly rubbed the sudden little tickle at the base of his skull. You didn’t necessarily have to foul up to have a neat little 9mm hole drilled in the back of your head. Sometimes all it took was being the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Given the current track his train of thought was running down, it was no surprise Jimmy just about jumped out of his skin when someone hit the push-bar opener for the door behind him. The noise the metal bar made hitting the stops was a very gun-shot-like ‘bang.’

He relaxed when he realized that it was just a couple of the girls going home for the night. When he saw that the dancer called 'Sable' was one of the pair, he even smiled. He liked Sable . . .

. . . a lot.

Sometimes he even allowed himself to fantasize that she could like him. Like him enough to let him do more than stand in the darkness of the hallway that led to the backroom offices and watch while she danced. Not that he could ever show it. Sable was Slow Eddy's favorite girl. End of opportunity for anything . . . personal.

“Hi, Jimmy. Where’s your sitter? Don’t tell me they let you out alone for the evening.” Sable’s smile was not overtly snide. Actually, it was genuine enough that Jimmy decided the comment wasn’t a crack – it was just a little inside joke. He wracked his brain trying to find some clever reply and so capitalize on this opening. As usual, his fluster at being near a pretty girl left him tongue-tied and stammering.

Women.

Mysterious, exotic women.

Mysterious to Jimmy, at least, unless their services were bought and paid for in advance. When you were barely five feet, four inches in height and even your mother referred to you as ‘scrawny’ . . .

Human relations - with either sex - had never been Jimmy's strongest subject in school. He'd had a surprising amount of formal education, at least by the standards of the typical soldiers in the Coranzo family, but that had been job-related. Electronics - as in alarms and surveillance systems - required mathematics. Architecture - as in how to penetrate a rich target's home - required an understanding of art. Jimmy could actually hold a pretty intellectual conversation.

Except with pretty girls. The sorts of girls whose acquaintance he had made weren't really interested in conversation. Most of them anyway. But Sable wasn't like most girls. Sable wasn't like any other girl he had ever met.

Maybe she was interested in conversation. Maybe she'd even like to talk with him . . .

Leguaro’s snarl interrupted that pleasant fantasy, “What the fuck you stupid bitches doin’ comin’ out that door? You suppos’ ta use the front door after two AM!”

Well, at least it saved Jimmy from babbling something stupid and embarrassing to the object of his secret infatuation.

Little Trish hugged herself in a timid embrace and meekly lowered her eyes before the big thug’s onslaught.

Sable, on the other hand and very true to form, just glared up at the hulking enforcer. “Blow it out your ears, Joey. My car’s closer to this door than to the front. I’ll be damned if Trish n’ me are gonna walk out the front door, all the way up 33rd and then all the way through the parking lot when we could just . . .”

Leguaro wasn’t used to argument. You could see the confusion beginning to dawn in his dim eyes. “Mister Ells says you girls is suppose’ ta use the front door . . .”

Sable poked a slender finger against the wall of Leguaro’s chest. “Mister Ells would have a freakin’ fit if one of his girls was to get mugged - or worse - on the way to her car. What do you suppose Mister Ells would do to the people who are *supposed* to be taking care of things around here if something like that were to happen? Hmm?”

Leguaro continued to glare down at Sable, the confusion beginning to seep out of his eyes and color the rest of his expression. But he was conscientious and he had been given instructions that were apparently being disobeyed so he made one more, half-hearted, attempt. “Mister Ells says . . .”

Sable gave an airy little wave of her hand. “Yeah. Whatever. Be sure you tell Mister Ells about this the next time he remembers that you can actually talk. Okay? Come on, Trish. You wanna get a cup of coffee at the 7-11 on the way?” Her “G’nite, Jimmy” floated out of the darkness sounding more like an afterthought than anything else.

Leguaro glared over his shoulder into that darkness and growled, “Fuckin’ bitches. Gawd, wouldn’t I love ta . . . Just once . . .” He shook a fist that had to weigh a good ten pounds in the direction the girls had taken. It wasn’t that he would have had any trouble beating the life out of a woman. At least not on general principle. Chivalry was as foreign a concept to Leguaro as were the Laws of Thermodynamics. But these girls, especially Sable Burke - Slow Eddie Ells’ personal favorite . . .

Again, Leguaro was clever enough to know the penalty for even touching her. Somebody down at Cascade Foundry would be wondering what was causing that calcium buildup around the rim of Etching Tank Number 3. The big hulk’s shoulders slumped in defeat. Now his muted growl sounded almost plaintive. “Bitches. Ya jus’ can’t talk to ‘em at all.”

For all their differences, at least Jimmy Kincaid and Joey Leguaro agreed on one thing.



Chapter 2 - "Never Trust a Damsel in Distress"


The drive home to Jimmy Kincaid's house in Bothel was never the high point of his day - or night. After five and a half years of association with Slow Eddie - three of which had featured a bodyguard - Jimmy idly wondered why the routine of it all didn't lessen the nervous unease he felt sitting in the backseat behind Leguaro.

He reasoned part of it was that fact that as conversationalists went, talking to Leguaro was about as stimulating as talking to the seat on which he sat. 'Shop talk' was out - you definitely did NOT take the job home with you each night. Since terse, non-committal grunts from Leguaro had made his distinct disinterest in other topics of small talk clear from the outset of their relationship, the ride home was always made in a tense, silent vacuum.

Nowadays, Jimmy contented himself by watching as the same scenery rolled by the windows every night. (Leguaro wasn't imaginative enough to occasionally vary the route they took.) Not that there would have been much of interest to see out the windows even if he cared to try. Long-after-midnight residential streets looked the same everywhere, lots of dark and deserted mixed with occasional dim and empty. It would have been painfully tedious by this point if Jimmy didn't keep remembering what would happen - what Leguaro would do to him, and more importantly to Jimmy's family - if something ever did go wrong before they got to Jimmy's house.

So, of course, Jimmy was looking the wrong way the night something finally did go wrong.

He caught sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. Leguaro had just enough time to bark a surprised, "Sonuvah bi . . .!" With a loud 'thump,' their heavy Pontiac skittered to the left then promptly straightened out. The bright red of brake lights flashed just outside Jimmy's passenger side window.

Funny how the mind works. In the midst of sudden, chaotic action, Jimmy's thoughts slowed to a preternaturally deliberate clarity.

*Oh. That car - the little Nissan. It came out of that side street and hit us. It ran the stop sign, I'll bet. Saw us just a second too late and tried to veer to the right. But it hit us a glancing blow anyway.

From what seemed like a long distance Leguaro's snarled, "You okay Jimmy?" finally registered. Jimmy peered owlishly into the frowning gangster's face and nodded. As near as Jimmy's currently muddled memory could recall, that was the first time Leguaro had ever called him by his nickname without at least following up with a grudging honorific.

Leguaro nodded, his concerned frown relaxing into his normal 'mad at the world glower.' "Good. You just sit there, okay? You don't move outta the car. Un'nerstan'?"

It must be shock. Suddenly Jimmy was feeling very companionable toward the big lug. "Sure, Joey. I understand. Stay in the car."

Satisfied that his instructions were clear and were being obeyed, Leguaro leaned forward and peered out the front window, evidently trying to make sense of the current situation. Jimmy craned his neck to follow Leguaro's line of sight.

The little Nissan, barely half the weight of the Pontiac, had come out very much the loser in the confrontation. It rested half up on the sidewalk a dozen feet away from where Leguaro had finally stopped. While most of the car appeared, in the scarce light of a nearby streetlamp, to be a deep burgundy red, the driver's door was a starkly contrasting pale blue. The left front fender, damaged in the just-now collision, was a third shade - dark, primer gray.

Evidently their collision wasn't the first time the little Nissan's luck had run out. It certainly didn't look to Jimmy like the kind of car that assassins from a rival syndicate would use.

Nor did the driver, when she opened the door, look like any kind of an assassin.

What she did look like was a very rattled nineteen or twenty-year-old woman. A young woman with disarrayed hair, a disarrayed waitress's uniform and a badly split lip.

With what might a drunkard's weave - or might just be post-collision disorientation - she half stumbled, half scurried over to Leguaro's window. Even with the thick glass closed, Jimmy could hear the panicky, "Ohmigod! Ohmigod! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

Leguaro just glared at the distraught girl, refusing to roll down the window. He wasn't going to take any chances. Jimmy found himself shaking his head. The little waitress looked about as dangerous as a . . . well, as a terrified nineteen-year-old girl.

Seeing that the window wasn't going to be rolled down, the little waitress tried to peer inside. "Are you all right? Oh God! Please! Be all right!"

Leguaro soothed the girl's incipient panic with a snarled, "We're just peachy. Get the fuck away from the car!"

The waitress answered with a relieved smile. "Oh, thank you God! I'm so sorry! I didn't see you. I swear I didn't. I . . . maybe I dozed off or something. I don't know. I've been working double shifts and . . . you're sure you're all right in there?"

Leguaro's answer was interrupted by the flash of red and blue lights in his rearview mirror. The police had arrived. A disinterested-looking cop climbed out of the cruiser and sauntered up to the Pontiac. The little waitress scurried over to meet him half way. "It's all my fault! I'm so sorry. I didn't see them, I swear! She started pointing frantically toward the side street down which she'd come. "I was just going home from work, I got off late and . . ."

The cop, who by his increasingly bored expression had obviously heard this story a hundred times before, interrupted with a terse, "Um hmm. I'll need to see your license, registration and proof of insurance, please." The little waitress bobbed her head and scampered off toward the Nissan.

The cop next used the butt end of his six-cell flashlight to tap on Leguaro's side window. "Everybody okay in there?" He didn't even wait for a reply. "I need your license, registration and proof of insurance."

Leguaro glared at the cop for a second. Jimmy could tell that Leguaro didn't want to roll the window down, not even for a cop. But he finally decided that it would probably cause more trouble if he didn't and so he finally lowered the window a grudging three inches. "I got 'em right here, somewheres . . . officer."

Things settled down fairly quickly.

The cop first took the little waitress back to his cruiser and evidently copied down her information and her version of events. He also gave her a pad of cotton dressing out of his first aid kit to press against her lip. Once he had her info, he shooed her out of his passenger seat and then made Leguaro come back and sit beside him to tell him the other side of things.

That left the little waitress standing forlorn, up on the sidewalk.

Jimmy hesitated, but only for a moment. Leguaro had told him to wait in the car but with the police here what could go wrong? If this were some kind of ambush, surely somebody would have done something by now.

Besides, the young - and attractive, despite the ravages of tears and split lip - girl was standing there, softly crying and looking very alone and scared.

What could it hurt?

He opened the door and climbed out.

Sensing movement, the little waitress turned a pair of large, frightened eyes in his direction. "Oh! I didn't even know there was somebody else. Are you okay? I'm really, really sorry! I swear I didn't see you until . . ."

For the first time in a long time, Jimmy didn't feel that usually paralyzing awkwardness when it came to dealing with a pretty (if somewhat frazzled) young woman. He was amazed to realize he was actually smiling. "No. It's okay. I'm fine. We're both fine. I'm sure it was all just an accident."

Her tear-stained smile was so grateful. Jimmy's heart skipped a beat when she gifted him with that smile. When, instead of a panicked whimper, her words were soft and shy. "I really am so very, very sorry."

This was almost too good to be true. Jimmy felt so strangely confident and in control. "Really. It's nothing. I mean, the damage isn't anything. I'm sure your insurance will . . ."

She shook her head, her smile now wistful sad. "No. Not for the accident." Far too late for him to do anything about it, Jimmy finally noticed the big, ugly gun that seemed to have appeared like a magic trick in her hand. "I'm sorry for what happens now . . ."

The big gun made a little hissing 'plop' and Jimmy's world went away.

* * * * * * *

When Jimmy woke up, his world had gone from late-night shades of gray and black to eye-stabbing institutional white. The walls had that just-off color that spoke of frequent cleaning, but with disinfectants that left a film to anchor dust rather than eliminate it. A hospital color to go with a hospital smell.

Jimmy had been hung over exactly once in his life - after the night he had been . . . .

The absolute blinding misery of the following morning's hangover had been the lesser of the memories he wanted never to revisit. Jimmy and alcohol had nothing in common. But he would have gladly traded the pain of another alcoholic hangover for the queasy agony that was pounding in his head now, and in his stomach.

He finally managed to summon the strength necessary to sit up on the cot he found himself lying on and look around, taking stock of his current situation. The good news was that he wasn't restrained. The bad news was that the only thing between him and nudity was a thin, scratchy blanket. Above him was a plain white ceiling illuminated by fluorescent light panels that jabbed something in the back of his brain when he tried to look directly at them. Undecorated walls rose out of a scuffed linoleum floor. The door to this small room - not even as large as his bedroom back home - was not white. It was a utilitarian gray and obviously made out of steel. Ditto the small desk and chair over in one corner. With distaste, Jimmy noted that the porcelain toilet bowl sitting right out in front of everybody over in the other corner. It matched the walls, ceiling and floor - unimaginative, institutional white. At least it was clean.

Jimmy cradled his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes and looking for the strength to begin trying to make sense of it all, when the door swung open and a tall man strode into the room. Someone, Jimmy couldn't see who, shut the door behind the man, triggering a sharp click that confirmed an obvious and expected additional feature of his accommodation. Well, he'd been in cells before, better ones than this place in fact.

His visitor was forty-something, with iron gray hair worn in a severely short crew cut. The rigid severity of his appearance was contradicted by casual clothing – beige slacks, a dark blue polo shirt and canvas deck shoes. Pulling out the lone chair in the room, he sat down casually as well, completely ignoring Jimmy as he opened the top-most file on his stack of files and studied something inside. The silence stretched for what felt like hours, but that was just fine with Jimmy The Eyes, member of the Coranzo family. He'd known how to keep his mouth shut in the presence of anyone smelling of official authority from long before he'd entered Slow Eddy's employ.

Finally the tall man spoke. Sliding the stack of folders to the side, he stood and spoke in a surprisingly mellow baritone. "Good afternoon, Mister Kincaid. Welcome to the afterlife."

Yeah, well, it could indeed have been Hell. Certainly Jimmy's stomach voted for dead and damned. Not that he was gonna let the goon know that, though maybe . . . .

The small man's only external response to the larger one's comment was a low moan, and a pressing of his knuckles into the hollows of his forehead. Then he began to rock a little and one arm wrapped around his stomach. His head came slowly up to see glacial blue eyes, cold and unblinking. The strategy forming in Jimmy's head played off that implacable glare. Letting a little of the pain he actually felt show in his own eyes, Jimmy's voice took on a childish tone. "The . . . the afterlife? You mean . . . wait a second! Are you trying to tell me that I'm . . .?"

The tall man's eyes didn't change, but a sneer formed as he said, "Dead. Yes. You're . . . "

Jimmy interrupted the man with a gasped, "Ohmigod, I'm gonna hurl!" He launched from the bed at the toilet, but his path was off the most direct line. It wasn't a wobble, as the taller man discovered when Jimmy's small body slammed into his solid form. A hard fist struck the man's throat with flickering rapidity even as a bare foot was slamming into the old guy's crotch.

Except neither the throat nor the crotch were where they had been an instant before. Jimmy's curled fingers crumpled against gritted teeth above a chin that had snapped into position to protect the vulnerable throat, and his foot hit a hip that might as well have been the wall behind the man. Something, he wasn't quite sure what, whipped out to arrest his momentum with a hammer that cracked at least two ribs.

Been there, had it done, Jimmy's mental voice snarled as he rolled back for a second shot at his captor. His fighting style was simple. Attack first, then attack again. Defense was for those with the luxury of shock-absorbing bulk. Legs with the power of coiled springs launched his small body even faster than before, and this time his thumb aimed at one of those infuriatingly unemotional eyes.

He almost made it. The taller man's longer arms were suddenly between them, though, and Jimmy felt his nose flatten as he tried to roll a shoulder far enough around the hand in his face to reach his own target. He hit something, but it was too hard for an eye. Then he heard the lock in the door.

Crouching back way from the man he circled around so that the door - and whoever was coming through it - wouldn't be behind him. The primary threat was still the man who was already in the room though, and if Jimmy had scored enough he might be able to put the guy out of the fight before anyone else could intervene. What he saw on his target was a cut eyebrow that dripped blood into the man's eye, and an even-more-damaged lip that showed the effects of Jimmy's first strike, but neither looked incapacitating.

Figuring the guy was too good at protecting his face, Jimmy had about decided to go for a knee when a woman's voice said, "I told you not to underestimate him."

The man looked at the source of the voice, drawing Jimmy's attention as well. Standing in the doorway was an older woman in a lab coat. She stepped further into the room, motioning to a hidden companion.

That companion had a gun, and she raised it just as Jimmy realized . . . . "Sable?"

Then she shot him.

* * * * * * * * * *

The next time Jimmy woke, his situation had not improved. The room was the same, but a single incautious breath in his half-awake state confirmed his nausea and headache had new pain-buddies from the ribs he had broken. There was also a massive bandage weighing down his face and blocking about half his field of view.

Once again the door lock rattled and the tall man strode into the room. Well, perhaps 'strode' was not quite right. The man limped noticeably, but not in a way that indicated weakness. He also sported a bandage over one eye and a swollen lip that showed the threads of sutures to Jimmy's focused scrutiny.

Rolling casually to the side of his cot, Jimmy surreptitiously planted his feet, checking how much the bandages wrapping his ribs restricted his motion.

"Don't waste my time, Mr. Kincaid," the baritone warned with a raspy overtone. "I'll admit you surprised me the first time, but it won't happen again. And if you're stupid enough to try, I'll have no further use for you."

"So let me go," Jimmy snarled, turning his patented glare on the man.

To no avail. The warning in the smaller man's eyes was reflected back in calm confidence that was even more intimidating. "I told you, Mr. Kincaid. You're dead. The only way you're leaving is in a box. The only question is when."

"Fuck you."

The man didn't bother to reply to that, at least not immediately. Pulling a manila folder from the stack he carried, he handed it to the still-seated prisoner and said, "Read it and weep."

Inside was a cutout article from the newspaper.

The Seattle Times
October 8, 2004

The Washington State Patrol is investigating a fatal traffic accident that occurred under suspicious circumstances late last night in Bothel.

A car, apparently driven by Joseph Leguaro of Tacoma left the Bothell Highway at a very high rate of speed in the 5900 block and plunged down an embankment, bursting into flames and killing both occupants.

Because of Leguaro's known ties to the Coranzo organized crime cartel, police are looking carefully into the, as yet undetermined, cause of the accident. Lieutenant Richard House, spokesman for the Western District of the WSP stated, "We can't rule out any possibilities at this point. Whether foul play was involved or this was just an unfortunate occurrence, we'll get to the bottom of it. We do know that the vehicle was involved in a minor fender-bender a little earlier in the evening and perhaps that contributed in some way to the fatal accident."

Also killed in the crash was James Kincaid of Bothel, another suspected member of the Coranzo Cartel.

The Coranzo Cartel is a reputed offshoot of the Bonnano Crime Family, which, in turn, can trace its lineage back to Prohibition Era New York and the . . .


Jimmy set the folder down on the bed beside him and tried to bluff some strength in his tone. The bluff didn't come off very well. "This is all a crock."

When Jimmy looked again into those ice blue eyes, any further words jammed in his throat. The rock-solid surety in the tall man's tone didn't feel like any kind of a bluff at all. "Jimmy 'The Eyes' Kincaid is dead. If you like, I can show you a copy of his certificate of death. Tomorrow you can watch the videotape of his funeral. Closed-coffin, of course. The two bodies recovered from the wreckage were very badly burned. In any event, I assure you that Mr. Kincaid, the man you were no longer exists. We know about your family, your real family of mother and sister. Now that you are dead, Slow Eddy's interest in them is over. But if you are ever seen - alive - then you and your family are in the same predicament as before - worse because he'll never trust you again."

Jimmy pounced on the words. "Ha! Slow Eddy knows I'd never talk. You're bluffin'."

"Bluffing, Mr. Kincaid? Do I look like I'm bluffing?"

Jimmy swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. "Who are you? You're not from the Families. If you were, I'd be dead. You're . . . you're cops, aren't you! That's what this is! Some kind of a cop thing!"

"We are not police as you understand the term. Actually, we're jointly funded by several Federal agencies, though our primary authority is from the military."

"The military?! What does the military have to do with the Families? Isn't there some sort of law that says you can't use soldiers against domestic crime?"

A little smile quirked the corner of the tall man's lips. "So you admit you are involved in organized crime?"

Jimmy felt a twinge of fear, but he quickly set it aside. "Fuck you. But that still doesn't answer what interest you have in me. If you really are military, that is."

The tall man thought about it for a moment, never taking his eyes off Jimmy, never even blinking. Just about the time Jimmy wanted to fling himself off the bed to wipe that basilisk stare off his face, the man came to some kind of decision. "We might as well be open with you. Why not? It's not like you're going to jeopardize any of the information we give you."

While Jimmy tried to decide if that was as ominous as it sounded, the man continued. "Our . . . organization . . . has no interest in the Mafia or in anything that you'd consider domestic crime. What does concern us is terrorism."

"'Terrorism'? What the hell do I have to do with terrorism? I hate the fuckin' towelheads as much as anybody!"

If Jimmy had thought the tall man's gaze was piercing before, it was nothing like the predatory intensity now. "Your boss has made a deal with the devil and as a result, all his underlings are guilty by association."
It was starting to make sense to Jimmy. The scene out on the street had been an ambush after all - just not a Mob ambush. Again he tried - not wholly successfully - to bluff a little bit of strength and bluster. "This is all bull shit! I want a lawyer! I know my rights, which you haven't read to me by the way! I won't say another word until I get a lawyer!"

The tall man continued with his glare, and this time Jimmy forced himself to meet it with his own blue-green lasers even though it took his entire stock of will power to do it. Finally the tall man spoke. "You really don't get it, do you Mr. Kincaid? We're not playing by those rules."

"What do you mean?"

The tall man sorted through his files, then passed another one across to Jimmy. Before Jimmy could even open the file, the tall man's voice took on a metronomic cadence, "United States Code, Title 18, Sections 452.1 through 454.8. 'The Anti-Terrorist Act of 2002.' Section 452.2; 'All persons engaging in acts of domestic terrorism or who actively further, aid or abet acts of domestic terrorism, shall be subject to the terms of this Act.' Section 452.7; 'Any person judged to be in violation of the terms of this act shall be deemed to be an 'enemy out of uniform in time of armed conflict' as defined by Title 2 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As such, said individual is deemed to have waived his or her rights under the Constitution, all Federal statutes and all statutes of the several states."

He paused, letting the words hang for a moment. "In simple terms, Mr. Kincaid; what all that means is we own you. A military tribunal has already found you guilty in absentia of violating Section 452.2." He waved his hand to still Jimmy's attempted denial. "Save your breath. The trial was very fair and very legal and it's over. As it stands right now, I can take you out behind the building and shoot you as a terrorist and nobody would say a word."

Half-way through the speech, when the words had started to sink in and begin to make sense, Jimmy had begun shaking his head. "No. This is . . . bullshit! I've never heard of a law like that. They wouldn't let you . . . you can't . . . People have rights! You can't just . . ."

"Can't we, Mr. Kincaid? Do you honestly think that nations always play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules? I assure you, the United States has people who are just as capable of playing down and dirty as those from any other nation on Earth. Particularly when the stakes are as high as they are in this game."

"Stakes? What do you mean? What are you talking about?"

This time, the tall man didn't refer to the pile of file folders. He just leaned forward, the air of predator menace palpable enough now that Jimmy found himself leaning backward, away from those dangerous blue eyes. "I don't need to tell you about 9/11. That's old news. So let's talk about something you don't know about. February 12th, 2002. The Portuguese Federal Police working together with Interpol and DSG-9 board a tramp steamer that had just docked in the port of Lisbon. In the hold of that vessel they found a 30-kiloton warhead from an old Russian SS-N-20 ICBM. It was fully armed and fully rigged, complete with a working timer. The Portuguese found the device just a little under two hours before it was set to detonate."

"Bull! Now I know you're making things up. If that had actually happened, it would have been all over the front pages of every newspaper in the world. I'd have heard about it."

The tall man leaned back, allowing Jimmy room to breathe at least. "The purpose of terrorism, Mr. Kincaid, is to terrorize. If you prevent the terrorist from making his point - of getting his message across - you've denied him his primary objective. You never heard about the incident I described because some very highly placed people took great pains to ensure that you never would. The Portuguese managed to keep the truth behind the operation a closely guarded secret. The majority of the troopers involved, along with the press, were fed a cover story that the freighter's cargo was a major drug shipment."

"Oh yeah! I remember hearing about that. Twenty tons of . . ." The sudden realization that what the tall man was saying might be true caused Jimmy's jaw to drop. "You're not making it up, are you? This whole . . . this isn't a joke, is it?"

More of that piercing stare. "I repeat, Mr. Kincaid – does it look like I'm joking? With the 9/11 incident, the world governments finally woke up to the fact that global terrorism had moved out of the penny-ante realm of car bombs and kidnapping for ransom. The result was the enactment of laws such as the one I've just described to you. I assure you, Mr. Kincaid, we're all very serious. Deadly serious."

Jimmy wanted to be out of there. He wanted to wake up in his own bed and realize that this had all been a sick nightmare. But deep down, he was beginning to feel the tendrils of genuine, soul-numbing fear. This was all true. This was really happening.

"So, what do you want with me?" he asked quietly.

"You're going to tell us all about Slow Eddy's operation. We know that, among other talents, you check out all the security arrangements for the Coranzo family. Then you're going to help us penetrate that security."

"Fuck you," snapped Jimmy. This was more familiar. Rival families tried to get guys to talk all the time. It was a threat that Jimmy had considered before, and one he was - or at least thought he was - prepared to handle. "I ain't talkin, and I especially ain't talkin' to clowns like you. . . ."

"James . . ." The use of his first name brought Jimmy up short. Long enough for the tall man to finish his sentence. " . . . shut up. I don't care what you say you know or don't know. We're going to find out for ourselves, so you can save your breath."

"Yeah? Fuck you. I've been worked over by guys who would make you shit your panties. Pain don't bother me."

The tall man rose from his chair and began collecting his file folders. Jimmy was fairly certain he saw more than a little disdain in his expression. "Despite your desperate bravado, physical torture is a discredited means of extracting information, Mr. Kincaid." Jimmy felt himself begin to relax just a bit, but the respite was brief. "What you're going to experience is not pleasant. But I give you my word, it doesn't leave any scars."

Pausing at the door, he looked back over his shoulder. "At least, not physical ones."



Chapter 3 - "Mislaid Plans"


After the tall man had left him, Jimmy sat for a long time on his bed, his knees hugged to his chest, his chin resting on his knees.

The thoughts chased themselves round and round in his head. He wasn't afraid of physical torture. Not really. Not a lot, anyway. He hadn't learned to be hard in an easy school of life. Deep in the back of his mind a little voice was telling him these people were more . . . skilled at that sort of thing than the thugs he'd faced before, but . . . .

But the real problem was that the man hadn't been concerned about physical methods either. And the calm confidence with which he'd proclaimed that Jimmy would break under the methods theywoulduse was . . . worse.

Finally, an immeasurably long time after his meeting with the tall man, Jimmy felt his eyelids growing heavy. (Hours . . . days . . . how could he tell in this sterile white cell?) With a bit of a shock, he suddenly realized how very, very tired he was. He curled up on his side under the scratchy blanket and tried to go to sleep.

He must have just been drifting off when the ringing of a telephone jarred him back to wakefulness. Almost by rote, he sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed . . . and then just sat there in deep puzzlement.

There was no telephone in this room. Just the sound of one ringing.

Jimmy looked around, trying to localize the source of the sound, but it didn't seem to be coming from any one part of the room in particular. It was just a disembodied ringing that went on . . . and on . . . and on . . .

Jimmy began counting the rings. By twenty, he was pressing his hands to his ears, trying to block the insistent, irritating noise out. They were playing mind games with him. He knew that.

But the knowledge didn't make the ringing any less annoying.

He was about to start screaming for them to 'Stop! Please make it stop!' . . . when the phantom telephone finally fell silent.

It didn't start up again until Jimmy was just about to fall back to sleep.

* * * * * * * *

They brought him his meals and slid them through a little slot under his door.

He was half-way through the first one - a badly burned and completely tasteless patty of some kind of ground meat served with soggy cooked carrots and cold mashed potatoes - when he was suddenly seized with the unreasoning desire to spit the partially chewed wad of burnt flesh out of his mouth.

Drugs!

What if they were feeding him drugs in his food? Truth serum or something to make him even more disoriented and therefore more pliable than he already was? He stared down at the plate of charred meat and watery carrots, forcing himself to resist the urge to vomit. Forcing himself to think clearly.

Maybe the food was drugged, maybe it wasn't.

Did it really matter? He had to eat.

He forced himself to choke down the food in his mouth then finish everything on the plate.

* * * * * * * *

They played other mind games with him. Some of the games he recognized only after the fact.

The tall man had said that they were going to interrogate him. So Jimmy huddled in that bright white room waiting for the Inquisition to arrive . . .

More and more he found himself trying not to think about what form the interrogation would take. About what means they would use to wring from him all the information they seemed to be so sure he had. Alone, with nothing to distract him, nothing else to think about, it became an obsession.

It was almost a relief when he heard the sound of keys in a lock, the door opened and the tall man once again strode into the room. Jimmy hunched up tighter on the end of his bed farthest from the desk and the tall man and his stack of manila file folders and tried not to tremble.

The tall man sat at the desk for a moment, making notations in one of the folders, then, without ever looking at Jimmy, he gathered the folders up and walked back out the door. The door closed.

Jimmy hugged his knees tighter to his chest and waited for the tall man to return from where ever he'd gone to get what ever it was he needed to begin the actual interrogation.

Jimmy waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Finally, the sound of keys again turning in the lock told him what was happening. Nothing they could do to him was as bad as what he couldimaginethem doing to him.

Another mind game.

Knowing it was a game didn't help a bit when they pulled the same stunt on him several . . . days? . . . later.

* * * * * * *

"Jimmy . . . wake up."

Slowly, Jimmy came to his senses. Rubbing his eyes, he realized the mass of bandages had been removed from his nose. A quick tactile inspection confirmed their absence, but something was different about the shape . . .

Asleep! He'd been asleep! He'd just finished his usual dismal dinner of burned meat and soggy vegetables when suddenly he'd become so drowsy . . .

They finally had drugged his food.

"James Kincaid!"

A woman's voice. Jimmy's head snapped around toward the desk. That middle-aged woman in the lab coat was sitting in the chair, regarding him with large, solemn eyes. "Are you all right? Any discomfort? Any nausea? That last one is important. Are you feeling queasy? Is your tummy upset?"

This had to be the most disorienting part of the whole affair. The sudden solicitousness and, most of all, the wildly inappropriate use of the word 'tummy' by one of his torturers.

Jimmy sat up abruptly, clutching the thin blanket around him in a display of modestly even he found pathetic. For a moment, the room whirled about him, but it settled down and he said, "I . . . no. No nausea. No . . .What do you want from me? I don't know anything about terrorists."

In a calm, friendly tone of voice she said, "I know you don't, Jimmy. I believe you."

"How do you know?"

"I know because I asked you."

"I don't understand. I don't remember you talking to me. Asking me anything."

"Of course you don't," she said, smiling. "You weren't in what we call a 'cognitive state' during the interrogation."

" 'Interrogation'?" Jimmy felt the fear return like a punch in the pit of his stomach. "You! You're one of them!"

She arched a neatly-shaped eyebrow and a pair of deep brown eyes seemed to be boring straight into the center of his soul. "Of course I'm one of 'them.' Everyone here is 'one of them.' Well, perhaps I should say 'one of us' to make the distinction clear. 'Us' as in 'us versus them' - the good guys versus the bad guys. To answer your other question; my name is Ruth. Doctor Ruth Langerhaus. I'm the one who conducted the interrogation. I'm the one you told everything there is to know about you and your association with all of the 'them's you used to work for. So yes, Jimmy. I know you don't know anything about terrorism."

Her tone was so casual that it was utterly convincing. There was no need to be persuasive when stating simple, irrefutable facts. 'The sun came up this morning.' 'You told us everything there is to know.'

She might was well have said, 'You signed your own death warrant.'

Except he was already dead. They had the press clipping to prove it.

Jimmy sagged back against the wall, closing his eyes. The woman waited patiently, but attentively. She had a bet with her colleagues on what Jimmy's first concern would be. A sucker bet, because she was sure she knew the answer.

"What about my family?"

The lady doctor - Dr. Ruth something - smiled in satisfaction, then answered Jimmy's question with a surprising one of her own. "Did you know your mother had a cousin who was quite wealthy?"

Jimmy's eyes snapped open and he shook his head. "She doesn't have any relatives."

"She does now," Dr. Ruth claimed, grinning. "Or at least, she did. It seems that her mother had a cousin who had . . . well, the details don't really matter. What matters is that your mother and sister have, ah, 'inherited' a nice little bit of money and a house somewhere in the Midwest. They're quite excited. It almost makes up for the loss of her son."

At this, Jimmy's 'hard-case' exterior nearly crumbled. His eyes began to glisten and he suddenly found the side wall fascinating - so fascinating that he couldn't look back to meet the warm brown eyes of his interrogator.

It didn't help. For the first time since he was twelve, Jimmy 'The Eyes' Kincaid broke down and cried. Huge, wracking sobs that stole his breath and crushed his throat.

The woman who had freed him from the prison of his duty left him to his emotions for a time. But as soon as the heaving of his shoulders started to damp out, she yanked him back to his situation with implacable firmness.

"You're quite the specimen, aren't you, Mr. Kincaid?" she asked analytically - a scientist studying a moderately unusual bug..

"What?" he said, visibly jerking at the change in tone. The gentle kindness the woman had displayed to 'Jimmy' was nowhere to be found in the piercing gaze that she laid on 'Mr. Kincaid.'

She put on half-frame reading glasses and consulted the notes before her. "Genuinely concerned about those close to you, but when it comes to strangers - to those not 'of the family . . . One could, perhaps, excuse the petty burglaries and the home invasion intimidations." She lifted one of the file folders off the stack sitting on the desk and held it out toward him so he could read the name stenciled in bold red letters across its face. It was a name Jimmy remembered from a cold November night just a little over six months into his association with Slow Eddie’s operation. Once sure that he'd indeed read the name, Ruth let the folder fall back onto the desk with a dull, flat thud. "But how do you excuse taking a life?" She lifted another folder, let him read the name and then dropped it. Thud. "How do you explain it?" Another folder. "How do you excuse it?" Thud. "How do you atone for it?" Thud ... thud ... thud ...

His whipsawed emotions were too raw for an ostentatiously tough guy response, but his eyes held an echo of the glare that had earned him his name when he said, "None of whatever you found out is admissible in court. I know my rights."

Dr. Ruth sighed and looked disappointed. "Jimmy, Jimmy, don't waste my time. Unlike Major Ipney, I know you're not stupid."

"Major who?"

"Oh, yes, I forgot he had never introduced himself," she shrugged. "He is the commander of the, ah, 'operational' elements of the team."

That reminded Jimmy of a memory he was no longer sure was even real. But he had to ask. "Sable?"

The corner of Dr. Ruth's mouth quirked in a little smile, a little reprieve from the stern demeanor that was all ‘Mr. Kincaid’ deserved. It was an answer, of a sort, but it wasn't enough. After a moment she relented and added, "Sable is one of our more . . . effective operatives."

Then her smile disappeared and the harder look returned. "But let's not talk about the other people here. Let's talk about you. As I said, Mr. Kincaid, you've been a pretty nasty example of humanity. Or perhaps I should say that Jimmy The Eyes was a nasty person. That person was a ruthless killer and a key enabler of a major criminal enterprise. The question before us is: Was he remorseless as well?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that you may have a chance to start over. Do you want to take it?"

"Start over?"

"You died. Would you like to be reborn?" she asked bluntly.

Jimmy shrugged his shoulders, a bit of his habitual hardness returning. "Like I have a choice."

"Oh, you have a choice," she asserted. "That is, in fact, the point."

She apparently knew that her comments were not particularly enlightening because she continued immediately. "You answered every question we asked of you, Jimmy, and I can assure you that you would answer any further questions we decided to ask you. The problem is, we don't know all the questions that need to be asked."

He sat passively. Silence had been one of the key tools in his arsenal for a long time, and it was starting to become obvious that she needed something from him. After a moment, she smiled again.

"Ah, Jimmy, working with you will be interesting, to say the least."

She pulled out a sheet from the stack in front of her and quickly read it, nodding her head slightly as she confirmed what she had already known was there. Looking over her half-glasses at him, she said, "It is clear from your responses that you truly think the security systems you have set up cannot be penetrated by anyone else. You're quite proud of that, in fact. But it begs another question. Can you penetrate those systems yourself?"

"What's in it for me if I say I can?" he asked guardedly.

Her answer was interrupted by the sound of a key in the door. The tall man - Major Ipney - strode through the door with the controlled power he had demonstrated on his first entrance. Jimmy's quick glance recognized that the signs of their aborted struggle were essentially healed, giving him a better timeline than the residual twinge in his side provided. It must have been at least a week, more likely two, though he didn't know whether to be surprised by that or not.

Ipney spared only a glance at the lady doctor before walking to loom over Jimmy. "Your life," he said tersely. "What's in it for you is your life. Is that clear enough?"

Jimmy met his gaze without flinching, but his defiance triggered only an amused challenge in the chips of slate blue the tall man owned.

"Major," Dr. Ruth said, "This was to be my opportunity with Jimmy."

"'Was' is right," the major replied, but he moved over to rest a hip on the desk - never taking his eyes off of Jimmy.

"Listen, punk," the man said, "unlike the good doctor here, I'm a man of action. And I'm tired of beating around the bush. This is the deal. If you cooperate with us - willingly and to the best of your ability - and show our team how to penetrate the terrorists' safe house without them knowing about it, you get to live. We'll arrange something in the witness protection program for you. But if you give us anything less that your full cooperation, we'll fry your ass and we'll let the Coranzo family know you talked."

"Major Ipney!" Dr. Ruth said sharply.

"My decision, Doctor," he said remorselessly. Speaking again to Jimmy he said, "Obviously, if Slow Eddy found out you talked, your family would become - shall we say? - an example."

"Major Ipney," Ruth repeated. "I protest this high-handed, threatening . . .!"

The major interrupted her with a grim smile, "I'm just speaking in a language that your precious Jimmy understands. Right, punk?"

"Fuck you," Jimmy snarled.

"Big words from such a little man," he sneered. "And not an answer. Are you going to cooperate?"

"Fuck you," Jimmy repeated. "You might was well kill me now. Your whole plan is so fucked up it's sprouting shit balls."

Ruth stood up and walked around the desk and stood in a way that inserted herself between them without actually blocking the direct line of sight. Looking at the major, she said, "Ipney, I told you that I would handle this. We need, as you have pointed out, his willing cooperation. Your . . . methods are hardly conducive to gaining that."

"My 'methods' are the only thing this punk understands," he growled.

Before Jimmy could reply, Ruth turned to him and said, "Jimmy, would you mind telling us why you think the plan won't work?"

"If all the clowns on this asshole's team are as full of shit as he is, the smell alone will give them away," Jimmy snapped.

"Jimmy," Ruth said, stepping directly between the two men, "that's not helping. I'm sure you have some specific concerns."

"I ain't talkin'," he said, retreating into punk hardness.

Ipney laughed out loud. "You just don't get it, do you? Dr. Ruth could make a stone turnip sing like the first robin of spring if it suited her purpose. Even I wouldn't have any more chance that you do - than you did. Now, quit wasting our time. Are you going to help us, or do we write you off like a bad debt and get someone else?"

He shrugged and leaned back against the wall behind him. "Like who? There are maybe three men in the world who could get around my security. One is in Europe, and he's taller than you.. One is in Leavenworth after screwing up a bank job, and I understand he weighs close to 300 pounds now. I'm the third."

"It's got to be - at least the first part has to be - an inside job. And after that it's even harder. There is no way in hell that I can teach someone to be me. It's more than just training anyway. It's instinct and talent. I'm that good, and you know it. And so does Eddy. What do you think is going to happen afterwards, assuming you get what you're after and do something? Slow Eddy is going to go back over everything that happened, and when he finds out a short guy was anywhere near the place, well, you can do what you want to me, but if I help you, my family is dead. He'd do it even if he thought I was already dead, just to send a message that nothing stops his retribution."

"We can get someone else inside," claimed the major.

"So what? I told you it has to be me."

"So we'll get you inside," he insisted.

"How?" Jimmy challenged with a snort.

"I imagine if the crapper backflowed in one of Eddy's places, they'd let someone in," sneered Ipney.

"The Coranzo's control the unions, so you don't get your own guy in there with some bullshit plumbing problem."

"We can work something out. Fire inspection or something."

Jimmy laughed. "Hell, Eddy owns the city even more than the unions. That's part of the reason my security works. No one gets into Eddy's houses unless they're approved by him. Or by me. And I'm dead."

The small man shrugged and said, "You can take the place out with a SWAT team, or a bomb, but you're not getting in without him knowing about it. And if he ever even suspects . . . Like I said, you might as well shoot me now, because at least that way my family is safe."

Dr. Ruth interposed. "Suppose I could guarantee that Mister, ah, Ells would never suspect you'd been anywhere near the safehouse. Would you help us?"

"Yeah, right. You can't make that guarantee."

"Suppose I could," she persisted.

Jimmy shrugged. "Okay, sure, whatever."

Ruth's warm eyes let up with genuine amusement and she said, "You just need to think outside the box a little, Mr. Kincaid."



Chapter 4 - "Over My Dead . . . um, Yeah"



"Geez, I hate that buzzword shit," snapped Jimmy. "Think outta your own damn box. You can't make me look as tall as Major Asshole, and young or old, any short guy is a dead giveaway - and I do mean dead. Go get van derLochen from wherever the hell he is now. Lichtenstein the last I heard."

"That would not be acceptable," Ipney said. "No non-US citizens."

"Fine. Now that we've settled this, can I get some real sleep or are you gonna play more games?"

"We've settled nothing," Ipney growled.

"Exactly," Dr. Ruth agreed cryptically.

For the first time since he'd been kidnapped, Jimmy the Eyes turned the full force of his laser glare on the kindly woman. She laughed, not the least intimidated. In fact, she considered it a good sign. That did nothing to reduce Jimmy's building anger, but what really sent him over the top was the decidedly unkind smirk he saw on Ipney's face when Ruth proved immune.

"Okay, asshole," Jimmy said, rising from his cot and letting the blanket drop away. If you want another piece of me, come and get it."

"Not that I couldn't, Spartacus" the major said as he stood, "but from here I can't see any particular bits that I'm interested in."

"Stop it, both of you," Dr. Ruth snapped in a tone of voice appropriate for a mother addressing a pair of bickering three-year-olds. "Jimmy, if I could guarantee that the Coranzo family would never know you'd been involved, would you help us?"

"The only way that's gonna happen is if I don't go anywhere near any of his operations," he growled, but he moved back and picked up his blanket. Then he shrugged away her question as unimportant. "I ain't doin' nothin' that can hurt my family, but I don't care if Slow Eddy gets taken down and I ain't no terrorist."

"Let's think about this logically for a moment," Ruth said. "You said that Mr. Ells controls the unions so that service personnel are out. And you said he has equivalent control of local officials. Who else enters the safe house on Hampton Road?"

"Nobody," Jimmy answered dismissively. "Besides Slow Eddy's invited guests. You got a tame terrorist handy?"

"Our information indicates that others are sometimes invited to the house. In fact, we've had one of our agents inside already."

"Bullshit," snapped Jimmy. "Nobody but nobody gets into one of my, um, Slow Eddy's safe houses without clearance. I didn't clear any feds, not unless you got some that have been - what do they call them? - sleeper agents in the unions for 20 years."

Then he surprised himself by chuckling. "Though, come to think of it, 'sleeper' is the best way to describe some a' them union guys."

His smirk was short lived. The light going on behind his eyes chased it away, then fled to follow the smile as his brows narrowed in a frown.

"Sable," he declared with suddenly self-evident truth.

Ipney interrupted any response the lady doctor might have made by ostentatiously raising his wrist to look at his watch. "Finally see the obvious, punk? If you're the best Slow Eddy's got, we can probably get in with an Avon lady."

"Fuck you," Jimmy growled, but quietly, wheels still turning behind his hooded eyes.

He shrugged his shoulders and leaned back against the wall. "Okay, so the boss lets them have girls in. So what? I told you I gotta do the work myself."

A gentle, sad look came into Ruth's eyes and she leaned a hip on the desk. Even Ipney's lined face showed something resembling sympathy as he moved around to the chair - distancing himself from Jimmy to eliminate any further physical confrontation.

Jimmy knew he was wearing an expression of increasing confusion. He prayed the increasing worry didn’t show as well. If even the arrogant major felt sorry for Jimmy, this had to be really, really bad news.

Ruth asked quietly, "You have all the elements, Jimmy, can you work it out?"

"No, dammit," Jimmy snapped. "I can't teach Sable what she needs to know, and I can't go myself. We're gettin' nowhere."

"You can go yourself, Jimmy. Only not as yourself," she claimed. Then she dropped the bomb he should have seen coming. "You have to go as a woman, like Sable."

"Get real," the small man growled. "Nobody would believe I'm a chick, and for damn sure not one babe enough to get an invite to a party."

"Not that I'd go anyway," he added belatedly. "That's just crazy."

"You a betting man, Kincaid?" Ipney asked, his tone for once not unkind.

Before the smaller man could answer, Ipney explained. "I'll bet you, oh, something we can agree on later, that Ruth can make you walk, talk, and most of all look like a gorgeous young woman."

The major's smirk was not friendly as he added, "Especially with that 'cute' new nose you have."

"Nose?" Jimmy asked, reaching again to touch it.

"You bought yourself a nose job with that shit-for-brains fight the other day," Ipney declared disdainfully. "By the time they dug out the chips slivers of cartilage, your honker ended up quite, ah, 'delicate.'"

Before Jimmy could make another retort, the major stood and stepped around the desk, a small nod toward Ruth showing the respect his words made light. "Why don't you give her a chance? If you don't agree - yourself - that you can get in and out without being made, then we'll . . . well, we'll work out something else."

"Get stuffed," Jimmy snarled, but his tone betrayed that confusion was greater than his anger. His fingers traced along the line of his nose, wondering if what Ipney said was true even as they told him it was.

Ruth wouldn't let another argument get started. "Jimmy, I know this isn't easy for you to consider, but Major Ipney is right. I've, ah, had some experience with this problem before. I won't insult you with lies about how masculine your current appearance is, just as I know your outward appearance is not a reflection of your inner strength. I assure you that your . . . features will lend themselves to the masquerade. Are you brave enough to try to help your country?"

Jjmmy laughed at her, a cruel, mocking laugh that dared her to question his courage again.

She continued unrepentantly. "Do you think we'd have gone to all this trouble just - to be blunt - to get rid of a small-time crook? We do need you. Your country needs you. ‘Your country’ as in all the common people that make it up, Jimmy, innocent targets of remorseless mass murderers. All the common, ordinary people like … oh … like your mother and sister, for example. People like those people in the file folders. Remember them?”

“That is a fucking cheap shot!”

Ruth immediately nodded. “Yes. Yes it is. And I’m not above taking it, Jimmy. I’m not above it at all. Not when we’re playing for these stakes. This is more than prostitution or drugs. We have solid evidence these terrorists are expecting weapons of mass destruction - mass murder. Have you ever seen what mustard gas does to someone? It causes internal and external bleeding and attacks the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane. It's excruciatingly painful for the four or five weeks it takes to die. Even the survivors are blind, and can never again draw a deep breath. Or smallpox, where the lucky ones are scarred for life and the unlucky ones have to be tied down so that they don't claw their own skin off - and then they die in screaming agony anyway."

She took a deep breath and visibly forced herself to relax. After a moment, she said, "You've made the case that only you can penetrate their security, and that only a woman - a beautiful woman - can get inside the house. There's only one missing ingredient. Will you give it a try?"

"It won't work," Jimmy whispered.

Even Ipney's harsh face had become visibly grimmer as the lady doctor related the effects of weapons outlawed by all civilized nations. Something in his tone, or in his eyes, told Jimmy the tall man's anger was not directed at him, but the fierce determination in his tone resonated in the small room.

"It has to work," he said. "This is what we call a 'watershed' point, Kincaid. If terrorists get away with even one major attack using weapons of mass murder, they'll do it over and over again. No one will be safe. That's what they want, what the terrorists want. Terror."

He stepped closer to the slight figured huddled in the thin blanket and repeated, "No one will be safe. Not even in the Midwest."

Jimmy's eyes looked sharply at the major to see if there was a threat as well as a warning in his words. But all he saw was implacable, unavoidable, bleak and ugly truth.

Now Ipney was the one to realize he'd revealed more of himself than he'd intended. He stepped back and regarded his prisoner for a moment. "So what have you got to lose if you try? And there is a, um, an added incentive."

He reached behind the desk to push a button, and in a few moments they heard the rattle of a key. All eyes snapped to it as though drawn by strings. The door opened to reveal a beautiful, dark-haired woman who stopped after taking a step into the room when she realized everyone was staring at her.

"Um, you wanted to see me?" she asked.

Ruth sent Ipney a dark look, but sighed and stepped back.

"Sorry, Doctor, but this is too important," Ipney said, no hint of actual remorse in his voice. "I'm not wasting any . . . opportunities."

"Very well," Ruth said. "Jimmy, it was always my plan to have Sable help us with this. I had hoped you'd agree without that element because . . . well, for reasons we don't need to go into now."

"Help you with what?" Sable asked.

Jimmy was once again caught by the paralysis that he always felt in the presence of beautiful young women. Especially this beautiful young woman. He barely heard Ruth explain the mission that required Jimmy's expertise. At least, he barely heard most of it.

". . . and so we need to disguise him as a girl who can accompany you to one of the parties," concluded Ruth.

"No," Jimmy said, clutching his blanket as useless armor against an unacceptable idea. "No way. There's no way that I'm . . . with Sable . . . just . . . no way."

"Over your dead body, punk?" Ipney asked harshly. "We already have that. I can take you to the grave!"

Ruth sighed and frowned a message at Ipney that forestalled anything further the major might have said. Next, she sent a question with a glance at the dark-haired girl.

A frown had formed on that heart-stopping face as the plan was explained, and it darkened further when she looked at the subject under discussion. Looking back at the doctor, Sable said, "This man is a thief, and an extortionist and a murderer."

"At least I'm not a whore," Jimmy growled.

Sable whirled and slapped him so quickly even his reflexes couldn't get him out of the way of the blow. Some echo of gallantry stayed a counterblow that would have been much more effective - though not at all chivalrous - and the disdain in Sable's eyes vanished behind fear. Fear that mixed with a surprising hint of respect at both the quickness of Jimmy's riposte and the control that had arrested it.

Ipney's reflexive impulse to intervene was itself arrested by the quiet voice of the doctor.

"Sable, can you do it?"

The curvy brunette sighed and looked again at the now-standing prisoner. Her sneer at the body she saw revealed was almost unconscious as her appraising eyes focused on feature of more relevance to the question she was charged to answer.

Finally she shrugged and looked back at her two superiors. "I don't know. His face is fine. Those cheekbones could cut silk, and his eyes are . . . . well, we'll get a lot of mileage out of those eyes. And his new nose is okay. But I don't know about the body. He's slim enough we could pad him up to an acceptable shape, but the party girls don't wear much, and I think the pads would show."

"Assuming we can get past that . . . ?" Ruth prodded.

"Dammit!" Jimmy snarled, grabbing at his blanket and trying to regain some dignity. "I'm the one who has to decide this, not you. It's my fuckin' life we're talking about here!"

"No, it's not," Ipney declared flatly. "Your life is over. I told you that already. The only question is whether or not you can be made to pass as a beautiful woman."

Ruth contradicted the man with an observation from her area of expertise. "Actually, Major, there is more to it than that. Assuming the physical details can be handled . . . ?"

Her eyes asked a question of Sable, and at the brunette's confirming nod, she continued, "I will, of course, handle the mannerisms and personality issues, but for that to work, I'll need Jimmy's willing cooperation."

Turning to the captive young gangster, she asked, "Will you give us that cooperation?"

Jimmy's mostly hidden face showed nothing. His laser-sharp eyes lost focus as he thought back over the life they had taken away from him, and considered the vastly different one they were offering.

It wasn't much of a life that he had given up. Some people would have seen the gaudy lifestyle as successful. He rode in expensive cars and wore expensive clothes. He was feared by those who knew what he did even if that fear held little of genuine respect. He knew what respect he had received was based on things that didn't depend on the way he looked or dressed. Physical dangers had been meaningless to him for most of his life - literally meaningless, triggering neither thrill nor aversion. Death was a release unsought, but avoided only because his family - his real family - needed the protection his status provided. The cold, calculating efficiency with which he had served his unwanted master was untarnished by softer emotions.

It was clear the lady doctor was trying to replace the duty to his family that had given his life purpose with a duty to the nation itself. Was it enough? Could it fill the void that nagged at him, the sense that other people actually enjoyed their lives? He knew, without knowing exactly why he was so sure, that Ruth enjoyed her life and that even the disciplined major enjoyed the sense of accomplishment his duty provided. His eyes flickered to Sable and he realized that despite her beauty, she did not enjoy the life she led, yet it was clear she willingly accepted her role as well. Was that any better than what he had endured under Slow Eddy's dictatorial organization? Was it any worse?

A wistful look he tried to hide even from himself showed on his face for just a moment, then his eyes cleared as the obvious solution occurred to him. Embarrassment at his slow thinking wrote itself on his face and neatly misled the others in the room. He should have seen what to do from the second they started talking about the mission. Step one was clearly to get out of the cell, and the major had made it clear that wasn't happening unless he went along. So okay, he'd go along - for just long enough to get out of the place. Then they could take care of their own damn terrorists!

Schooling his features into a carefully selected display of grudging compliance, he nodded agreement - with caveats. "I'm still not putting my family at risk. You've got to convince me that, um, that I'll be convincing. And I ain't . . I'm not, well, you know, with the . . . with men."

"That shouldn't be necessary," Ruth promised, and if there was an echo of doubt in her eyes, it couldn't be heard in her voice. The she smiled and a sense of briskness entered her manner. "I can see you're already starting with the required, ah, improvements. I'm glad to see we'll have your creative participation."

"What?" Ipney asked in confusion. "Just because the punk rocks his head back and forth like a bobble-head doll doesn't mean he'll cooperate in any positive way."

"Surely you've noticed, Major," Ruth said, but with a grin that said she knew he surely had not noticed, "that Jimmy's speech patterns were, shall we say, artificial? The 'ain'ts' and double negatives and other sloppy use of language only showed when he was playing the tough mobster. When he doesn't deliberately mangle it, his use of English is as good as ours."

Turning back to the prisoner-turned-colleague, she said, "It's one of the reasons I'm sure you'll do well in this assignment. You're a natural mimic, and you can obviously display the refined manners required for the persona you must create."

She started to pace about the tiny room, then frowned and glared at the wall before her nose when she couldn't take enough paces to let her creativity loose.

"The first thing we need to do," she announced, "is to get you a better room. Come with me."

She turned and headed toward the locked door, only to have Ipney stand in her way.

"Wait a minute, Doctor," he said. "Even if he has agreed to go along with your, ah, training doesn't mean we let him go free. He's a multiple murderer, for Chrissake!"

"Major," Ruth said quietly, but with a strength in her tone that snapped the pecking order of Jimmy's world into a new configuration, "it most certainly means exactly that he is now free. Jimmy the Eyes is dead. This agent is making a sacrifice for our nation that I daresay you wouldn't willingly embrace. You made that deal yourself. Are you reneging?"

"Dammit, Ruth, that's not the point. After we see how things go, then maybe . . . "

"No, Major," she replied implacably. "No maybes. You have his commitment to the mission. That's good enough for me. If my judgment is not good enough for you, then you clearly need a different psychotherapist."

Seeing his chance, Jimmy gathered up his inadequate blanket and moved to stand with the imperious woman.

"All right, dammit," Ipney snarled. "But if we're going to release him from custody he'll have to be sworn in formally. And he'll need a case name. Let me see, I'll have to check the available . . . . "

A dismissive and decidedly unladylike snort from Sable interrupted him. "Don't be silly. With those eyes? It's clear he, um, she is going to end up as a redhead. The case name just has to be 'Copper.'"

Ipney shrugged, but nodded and touched the door buzzer. The women escorted Jimmy - now 'Copper' - from the cell, and he was too busy clutching his blanket around himself to notice the hard grin of triumph on the major's face.



Chapter 5 - "Would I Lie?"



Jimmy made a show of modesty, twisting and tugging at his blanket while they left the room. However, his eyes were anywhere but on his thin covering. For the first time since he had been tranquilized on the street, he was out of his featureless cell.

Not that it helped him much. The corridor they followed was unrelieved by more than a couple of anonymous doors in addition to the one that had closed his cell. No windows, no signs, not even ventilation ducts broke the monotonous institutional white.

However, after walking a dozen paces down the hall, a side corridor appeared. A few more paces showed that this was even shorter than the one outside the cell, but it had a feature that Jimmy found very interesting indeed.

An elevator door. With a button that only pointed up.

Well, that explains the lack of windows, thought Jimmy. We must be underground.

The inside of the elevator was interesting to Jimmy for another reason. It was paneled in what looked like real oak and his fingers reached out to touch the warm color without conscious thought.

"I'm sorry, Jimmy. . . I mean, Copper," Ruth said. "It supports the methodology to have a cell like that. But that won't be necessary any more."

"Um, right," Jimmy replied carefully. "I understand."

"No you don't," Ruth said, but a smile took any offense from her denial.

When the door opened, Jimmy almost groaned with frustration at another empty corridor.

"Oh, I'm so sorry to disappoint you, Copper," Sable gushed, no hint of actual sorrow in her expression. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Jimmy winced at yet another use of the unwelcome name, but he was careful not to show any real offense. Placid, he told himself. Inoffensive. Meekly going along . . . for now.

Ruth noticed his discomfort and lightly offered him an unexpected choice. "What would you like to do first?"

Her words declared a freedom that he didn't really trust, but Jimmy wasn't about to turn down any opportunities. Don't let them think I'm trying to escape, but . . . "Well, I'd like some decent food, and maybe some fresh air."

"You need something else even worse," Sable said, holding her nose. Lapsing into language more appropriate for the problem, she said, "There ain't gonna be any fresh air around you until after you get a bath."

"Um, yeah, well . . ," stammered Jimmy, lapsing in his accustomed incoherence when addressed by a pretty girl. Somehow, having a girl point out his shortcomings overcame the strangeness of the scene and allowed old - though unwanted - reflexes to surge upward.

Ruth laughed and patted him on the shoulder, "Don't worry about it, Jimmy. It wasn't your fault. Still . . ."

"Okay, okay," he said grumpily. It's your fault I was in that fucking cell. But he forced a neutral expression back on his face and nodded.

"Sable, you'll find what you need in there," Ruth said, indicating one of the doors they were passing. After a nod, she continued down the hallway.

"Let's go," the dark-haired girl said.

"What's this 'us' crap?" he asked.

"You'll need some help with your bath," she explained.

"Not since I was six," he denied.

"Well, Copper, since this is the first day of your new, um, life, I guess you're back at the beginning."

"I can still take a shower by myself."

"Not today," Sable declared, then pushed him toward the door.

Jimmy saved any further arguments for later when he noticed something more important in the indicated room. He saw a window.

Not that it helped much. After he moved over with a casual air that didn't fool Sable in the least, he saw lots of dark, mixed with gloom.

And something more.

A reflection of a face that wasn't really his.

His hands lifted once again to the strange shape he saw there, both confirming it was truly attached - and hiding it.

"Can I at least open this window?" he asked plaintively, trying to find some way to deny the truth he saw there.

"The windows are controlled from some central ventilation thingy," Sable shrugged dismissively. "I expect you'd understand it better than I do."

The blanket-wrapped man just shrugged in turn.

Sable pointed at the bathroom. "Quit wasting time, Copper."

Jimmy turned on her and snapped, "Could you just . . . call me Jimmy? I mean, I may have to act like a, um, girl, but I'm really not, and I never will be. Can't you just . . . can't I just be me, when we're private?"

"Ooh, does mama's widdle boy wanna be my 'Studmuffin?'" Sable offered, eyes wide and innocent looking. Then she snarled, "Or I could just call you, 'Killer.'"

"Get off my damn back," snapped Jimmy. "If you had grown up where I did, you'd do whatever you have to do to survive. You sure didn't hesitate to shoot me."

"With a tranquilizer gun," Sable retorted.

"I just . . ," he sighed, stalling out. Then he tried again, "I don't know why you . . . why you seem to hate me so much. I mean, you were, um, okay back before . . . "

A fire flared in Sable's eyes, then she turned to look out the window herself. "I can see why you can't get laid unless you pay for it," she said bitterly.

"What the hell has that got to do with anything?"

"Do you really think I liked what I did as Eddy's girl?" Sable demanded, whirling to look at him. "Any fucking part of it? It was an assignment, dammit. Every single minute of every fucking day. If you think I'm really that sort of girl, that every bit of it wasn't an act, you, you, . . . you don't know much about women." With her last words she looked again to the window, dark enough to reflect her beauty - and something more.

More than anger at Jimmy. More anger than she could lay on Jimmy alone.

He hated the whine he heard in his voice when he said, "Yeah, well, I didn't have a lot of opportunity for the dating scene."

Sable's agreement was not a sign of camaraderie. "No shit. Too busy killing people."

"I told you, get off my back," Jimmy snapped. "I never hurt anyone who didn't deserve it."

"Oh, right. I should have considered that, Mister Judge, Jury, and Executioner."

"Sure as hell none of them met your lofty standards, Miss Perfect. They were all gangsters, right? Thugs like me. The world's better off without my kind, right?"

"I didn't say that," denied Sable, forcing her voice into neutrality as she turned back to Jimmy. "But you did hurt innocent people. I'm not about to recommend you for a damn medal."

"I told you, everybody I hit was part of, well, the business. Maybe our, um, justice was not blessed by some rich lawyers in a fancy government building, but the Family took care of its own."

"And what about those who loved the ones you murdered? Suppose someone killed you. If we hadn't taken care of them, what would have happened to your mother and sister after you 'died?' Are you saying they weren't hurt by what happened to you? Or are you saying they aren't innocent?"

"Leave my family out of it! They didn't have anything to do with what I did."

"So, sometimes innocent people - like your family - could be hurt when the gangsters played games with each other, right?" Sable's eyes burned the point into him.

Jimmy had no counter, none that he cared to make anyway. He avoided Sable's eyes, which didn't help a bit since their glare was burned into his memory. Once again his hands clutched at the thin blanket that was his only armor.

After a moment, the anger in Sable's eyes faded as well. "Listen, ah, Kincaid, you can be a little shit all day long for all I care - except when there's a mission at stake. I've been assigned to help you with your physical transition. I have some . . . expertise with cosmetics and fashions . . . . "

"That, uh, yeah," Jimmy stammered his agreement, damning the flush he knew was lighting his cheeks, but Sable was so pretty he couldn't even pretend to be cool when he thought directly about her beauty. Even through his embarrassment, the change in topic was welcome though. Anything was better than arguing about the morality of his chequered past.

"If you keep thinking of yourself as a guy playing at being a girl, it won't work," she continued, quietly but implacably. "The same applies to us. We need to think of you as Copper all the time."

"Hell, Sable, I am a guy playing at being a girl. I told you this wouldn't work."

Sable shrugged, but there was an echo of pain in her eyes as well. "By the time Dr. Ruth gets done with you, you'll be having PMS right along with the rest of us."

"I don't believe it," he growled.

"I don't care," she said flatly. "It doesn't matter what you believe." She said, and the pain was back in her eyes. "I know what Dr. Ruth can do."

"You, I mean, she. . . did something to you?"

"Time for your shower," Sable said, flatly changing the subject.

She grabbed him by the hand and pulled him into the bathroom of the small apartment. Before she let him into the promised shower though, she grabbed his chin and regarded his face intently. Even with nowhere else to look, Jimmy couldn't meet her eyes. Sable didn't seem to care, releasing his face after only a moment.

"Well, at least you don't grow much of a beard," she observed. "Shave what you have, and we'll take care of the rest in a minute."

Jimmy's green eyes showed confusion, but the lure of the shower drowned out other considerations and he shrugged without comment. In the small shower stall, he found fancy, scented shampoo and soap. Wasting no time, he took advantage of the flowery cleansers and of the disposable razor that had also been provided. Despite his grateful haste, he was not finished when three plastic tubes sailed into the stall.

Sable's order accompanied the new items. "When you're done, turn the water off and smear that all over your body, everything you can reach below your eyebrows - but don't get any in your eyes."

"What is this stuff?" asked Jimmy.

"You're a smart guy. You figure it out," she replied unhelpfully.

"Hey, this stuff is hair remover," Jimmy yelled after reading the labels.

"Got it in one, genius," Sable replied. "What did you expect?"

"I, uh, I don't know. I just . . . ."

"What?" prodded the beautiful dark-haired girl.

Jimmy's shrug was merely a hint through the clouded shower door. His figure could be seen slowly removing the cap on the depilatory cream, and then beginning to spread it on his leg. Maybe it was the way the way the frosted glass simplified his shape, taking away the details and leaving only an impression of overall posture, but it seemed to Sable as though - for the first time, and despite all the deliberate indignities of his interrogation - for the first time, Jimmy looked . . . .

Defeated.

His hands moved with fatalistic inertia, an automaton going through motions that no longer had meaning.

The same shadowy anonymity that separated the vague feature from the very real gangster also seemed to separate Sable's anger from its focus on her charge. For the first time, her voice was gentle. "Are you all right, Jimmy?"

The figure didn't respond, hands still slowly rubbing the chemical into his skin.

"Jimmy?" Sable prodded again.

The voice that replied was barely audible, forcing Sable to lean close on her side of the door.

"It's just . . . this makes it . . . . real. Y'know? I mean, I know I have to do this . . . girl thing, but . . . I never . . . I didn't think it would be so . . . permanent."

Sable laughed despite her sympathy. "Oh, hell, if that's all it is. . . your body hair will grow back. It's not like you had a real heavy crop of it anyway."

"I know that," Jimmy snapped, anger returning at the implication he was lacking in masculine attributes. But his anger lifted him from his distraction in a way that Sable's sympathy had not. He quickly smeared the goo over the rest of his body and threw the now-empty tube back over the wall.

"There, happy now?"

"I'm not doing this to make myself happy," Sable replied. "And if you think that's bad, you in for some rough times."

Without warning - or permission - Sable yanked the door open and looked at the naked man. Jimmy moved to cover his nudity with his hands, but she wouldn't tolerate any modesty.

"Oh, grow up! I've already seen all there is to see, and on guys with a lot more to be proud of than you."

With a raised hand, the shapely woman forestalled any response from Jimmy. Resuming her more conciliatory tone, she said, "Look, we've got to work together - whether either of us wants it or not - and we won't have time to put on genteel airs. It's all part of becoming Copper anyway. You're going to have to be comfortable when there are other girls around. Just deal with it."

"Easier said than done," Jimmy muttered, but he let his hands fall to his sides.

Nodding her agreement, though it was not clear if she was agreeing with the sentiment or the motion, Sable twirled a scarlet-nailed finger to get Jimmy to turn around. She picked up another of the tubes of depilatory and started to spread it on the places Jimmy couldn't reach.

After a few moments of brusque efficiency, she stepped back. "Five minutes. No less," she ordered, then abruptly left the bathroom. Jimmy waited for a while, not particularly caring if it were the full five minutes, then rinsed the irritating goo off his body. The difference wasn't as bad as he feared. He'd never been all that furry in the first place.

Then he got some relatively good news - relative to his fears, anyway - when the clothes he found in the little bathroom were almost reasonable. There was a pair of modest panties in a pale green, slick material, and a dark red warm-up suit in soft, fluffy fleece. For the first time in a long time he was dressed comfortably and he couldn't stop his hands from slowly stroking the warm fabric.

"Nice, isn't it?" a woman's voice asked, but it wasn't Sable's clear soprano. Instead, Dr. Ruth smiled companionably from the doorway.

Jimmy felt a sudden need for the security of the thin blanket he'd been using earlier as a shield. But the blanket was gone and he was left standing in the middle of the room, trying to figure out what to do with his arms and hands so he didn't look as vulnerable and defensive as he felt.

From the doorway, Ruth gazed at him with a small, enigmatic smile playing around her lips and the corners of her eyes. "I've seen that reaction … hmm … well, certainly more than once. And I have to say; to this day, I still can't figure it out."

"What? Figure what out?"

"Why men look and act so guilty over something as simple as feeling good about good-feeling clothes."

Jimmy gave up trying not to look defensive. "Oh, come on. You know that's not it."

"Oh?"

"It ain't cuz the clothes feel good. It's cuz they're … they're …"

The smile had disappeared from Ruth's face. "Jimmy, please – when it's just you and me, let's drop the gangster sloppiness, okay? It grates because we both know it's not real. And since you and I are going to be doing so much with illusion, additional, unnecessary layers …"

"Fine! Whatever. I'll come right out then and tell you that it's fucking embarrassing to be standing here, wearing girls' clothes. Okay?"

He found it disconcerting to see Ruth's smile return, more evident than before. "'Girls' clothes', huh? You're sure about that?"

He stared down at the soft fabric of the warm-up suit. "You mean it's not?"

Ruth shook her head. "Nope. Unisex. Though I grant with the current situation, it is a very natural assumption."

"Okay. But what about the … the …uh …"

Now it was no longer a hint of a smile. Now it was broad and open and friendly-playful. "'Panties'? You can actually say the word. I won't faint, I promise."

Jimmy felt himself bristle at her playful demeanor. "Tell me that standing here wearing panties ain't … isn't embarrassing. Tell me you wouldn't be embarrassed standing there wearing boxer shorts!"

Her smile didn't slip a bit. "How do you know I'm not?"

"'Cuz girls don't …" Then it occurred to Jimmy that he'd heard, somewhere, that boxer shorts for girls was actually a real thing. He'd once heard one of the girls at the club talking about it as he'd passed (slowly, as he always did) by the door to the dressing room.

The abrupt halt to his tirade evidently suggested to Ruth the current train of Jimmy's thought. "Brings up an interesting point, doesn't it?"

He finally met her eyes and it took some of the strength from his 'bristle' to see that the friendly and evidently very genuine smile was still firmly in place. "What point?"

"'Girls don't wear boxers.' Except they do. Or they can if they want to. On the other hand, men aren't restricted to boxers. 'Tighty-whiteys' are still quite common. In fact, men can get flyless briefs that look a lot like women's panties. And isn't that what this is all about?"

"Huh?"

"You put on underwear shaped very much like those acceptable to men, but in a different fabric. You were embarrassed. Then you assumed the warm-up suit was 'wrong', too. Why were you embarrassed?"

"Well … cuz … It's just wrong!"

Ruth laughed, a chuckle really, and lifted an eyebrow to offer him an opportunity to reconsider that statement.

Jimmy's scowl deepened, and his eyes started to glare at the gently amused woman. Before he could snap off some comment that reflected his anger, she put up her hands in a sign of surrender.

Her expression showed no real contrition, however. "Jimmy, just how many formal laws of this society have you broken? Are you really going to try and tell me that breaking a few unwritten, variable, and local customs is going to bother you when extortion and murder do not? The reason it feels wrong for you to be wearing girls' clothes is not because it goes against some basic law of nature. It feels wrong because social convention – and social convention derived from the narrow focus of Western Europe at that! – says it's wrong. And haven't you always defined your own standards for 'right' and 'wrong', anyway?"

"Well, yeah, but . . . "

Again, Ruth's sardonic grin offered him a chance to continue. Unfortunately for Jimmy, he had no idea what else to say.

After a moment long enough for Ruth's silent 'I've made my point and you know I've made it' message to sink in, she said, "You've got to become comfortable in your role as Copper. I can help you with that, but there are some things - a lot of them - that will work better with your active cooperation. With your confident commitment to success. And the foundation for that is getting over silly, inconsistent and illogical hangups that get in your way."

"Hangups? Pretending to be a girl, I mean, not wanting to pretend to be a girl is not a hangup. It's normal!"

This time Ruth's chuckle threatened to build into full-fledged laughter, yet there was no spite in it. Her good humor invited Jimmy to join in and laugh with her, not at him about the silliness of the situation.

He couldn't really stay angry with her since she was clearly not attacking him - and worse yet, she was right. He had done some pretty bad things in his short career. Against that record, what difference did it make how he dressed?

A wry grin of his own rewarded Ruth with the victory in this round. But it soon fell into a frown. "Oh, hell, it don't matter if I'm embarrassed or bold as brass. No one is gonna believe I'm a chick."

Jimmy slumped back against the wall and sighed. "Sable is the prettiest, most sensual . . . oh, god, she's just perfect. If anyone could make me look like a girl, she can. But even if I look like a girl from a distance, or in a controlled situation like, oh, a picture or something. There's no way I can act like a girl."

"That's where I come in," Ruth declared. "I can help you with that. Help you more than you can imagine."

"Yeah, right. Look, I'm not going to claim I'm Joe Studly, oozing macho with every breath. But even if you can turn an average sort of guy into something that passes for an average sort of girl . . . . Eddy just doesn't invite average girls to his parties."

"Who said you'd be an average girl? You've never been satisfied with average in your life, and neither am I."

He just shrugged. There was no combativeness in his gesture, but now he was the one to raise an eyebrow in silent challenge. Words, even good intentions, were not going to solve their problem and they both knew it.

"Look, Jimmy," Ruth said, "I won't tell you it will be easy, but I am confident we can do this, if you give me your best effort." She paused, then continued, "Look at it this way. Why would I lie? If we can't make you look glamorous enough to be invited into the safehouse, then the mission is a bust. We'll have wasted a lot of time - time we could have spent going after the terrorists and their weapons. Yet I think this is the best option available to us. I'm that confident we can pull this off."

She moved over to the young man and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Will you at least try? Really try, to the best of your very considerable abilities?"

"Flattery, doctor?"

"Hell, Jimmy, I'd use flattery, bribery, skullduggery, and voodoo magic if it would help," she said, chuckling. Then her eyes grew very somber, worried at a level that was more compelling than logic. "We have to, Jimmy. Too many people will die if we don't succeed."

For a long moment they just looked at each other. Then Jimmy's eyes caught an echo of the determination in hers, and he nodded.



Chapter 6 - "Plans and Programs"



"Nice nails," Sable observed, pulling out a chair at the small kitchenette table in Copper's mini-apartment.

"You should know. You made 'em," the seated redhead replied in a clear alto with just a hint of Marilyn Monroe breathiness. The deep-red wands brushed back a waterfall of fiery locks with unconscious reflex.

"You changed the color," persisted Sable, carefully not commenting on the seemingly natural grace with which her slender companion manipulated both hair and talons. How much of it was natural, and how much was . . . ?"

"The bright red you used clashes with my hair."

"Yes, it does," agreed the dark-haired girl. "So, Copper, how did your session go with Dr. Ruth?"

"Okay, I guess," the redhead said, shrugging. "No offense, but better than my, ah, my session with you."

Sable laughed, and pretended to disagree. "I can't see why. After your session with me, you had long hair, long nails, and . . . well, you were beautiful." There was a pause just long enough to be noticeable. "Are beautiful."

Copper's response was an all-too-typical blush - made more rather than less noticeable by the clashing contrast with the molten copper of the hair that had defined 'her' agent name. But she couldn't really disagree. She still wore sweats, now a light lime green, but as had been pointed out to her, the casual outfit was not in itself a clue to her gender. All the other clues not only proclaimed her femininity; they shouted it with unsubtle stridency. Her hair was indeed longer, long enough to dance lightly on the seat that supported her. Her nails were also elegantly long, and gleamed with glossy highlights.

Those were the minor changes.

If you compared a photograph of the 'old Jimmy' with one of the 'new Copper', the most dramatic change would have been the face framed by that glowing hair. A face now strikingly beautiful, just as Sable had asserted. And for Sable, the most disconcerting part of it all was that if you didn't know better (as she did), the transformation didn't look like a transformation at all! From sculpted brows to pouting lips, it was 'merely' the enhancement employed by an already attractive young woman to appear fashionably stylish for the early afternoon. Perhaps even a bit . . .

'Expressive' would be a polite word. A sign of justified pride in gifts not given to all women.

That they hadn't been given to a woman at all was unbelievable, denied by all appearances.

The motions of Copper's hands and the way she tossed her hair recalled the fluid efficiency once displayed by Jimmy Kincaid. But there was nothing of masculine Jimmy in Copper's ethereal poise, enhanced by a sensuality that made nails and hair into weapons of feminine power wielded with comfortable confidence.

It was amazing - so much so that Sable had to remind herself the beautiful woman before her had just days before been a gangster punk who murdered people without remorse. That bothered Sable at a level she couldn't quite understand even as she glimpsed within her own memories a hint of the cause.

"So, what did you and Dr. Ruth do?" she returned to her previous question.

Copper shrugged. "Nothing much. We just talked a little."

"About what?"

"Nothing, really," repeated Copper, then her blush lit her cheeks again. "To be honest, I don't really remember. We just started talking about, um, I think it was about how I would need to learn some . . . things that, well, things that women learn when they're growing up, I guess."

"What sort of things? Makeup? Hairstyling?"

"I guess. I told you, I don't really remember. We just talked for a while. I guess the real lessons will come later."

Sable looked at the distressed little pout displayed on Copper's carmine lips, at the artfully blended subtleties of the redhead's flawlessly made up face, and at the waves of sleekly brushed hair. If the 'real' lessons were yet to come, the brunette knew she'd have to sign up herself.

Then Copper stood up to get another cup of coffee, and Sable flinched at an internal 'fingernails on blackboard' screech of discordance. Feminine grace still showed in the graceful stretch of taloned fingers toward the coffeepot, but the lean, hollowed derriere outlined by the snug sweat pants moved with linear directness that seemed almost stiff - until Sable realized the motion showed the efficiency of a well-designed machine.

The still-seated brunette shrugged away the sense of incongruity and asked, "What about the things I helped you with? Is your wig okay? Not shifting or loose?"

Copper winced as she sat down again. "Like it had any choice. Did you really tie it on with knots in my own hair pulled through the cap?"

Sable grinned and nodded. "Among other things."

The redhead tossed a long wave of captured fire over her shoulder, then sent ripples through the rest of her mane with another shrug. "Well, it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. When I brushed it this morning the tangles felt like they were hooked to my own scalp."

"Good." Sable's own full lips showed an apologetic smile for a moment as she said, "I'm afraid that's not likely to be the worst bother you're going to face."

Copper's sarcastic tone showed little surprise. "Oh, really?"

Sable touched the redhead's wrist in a gesture of quiet sympathy. "Did Dr. Ruth mention anything about, um, doing something about your, ah, whiskers?"

"Oh, yeah," Copper replied. "I was supposed to tell you about that. You're supposed to remove them. Permanently."

"You don't mind?"

"I guess not," Copper said. "I've never been able to grow a beard that didn't look stupid. I guess getting rid of the whiskers altogether would be okay. And I can see it will make things better for the mission."

Some of the tension went out of Sable's shoulders at Copper's easy agreement. She still felt she owed her nominal partner a warning, though. "I'm afraid it will be a bit, um, uncomfortable."

Copper just shrugged, a hint of Jimmy's brash bravado showing for a moment.

"Well, shall we get started?" Sable urged, not wanting to lose the opportunity.

"Just give me a moment to, um, freshen up," Copper requested demurely, a wave of her hands implying a fastidiousness that had never troubled Jimmy. When the redhead re-entered the little kitchenette, her lipstick was refreshed, her hair was brushed into gleaming perfection . . . .

. . . . and her hips still moved with discordant linearity.

*********************.

"Have a seat," offered Dr. Ruth as she invited Sable into her office. "How did the electrolysis go?"

"Almost too well," Sable replied. "That is one tough kid. I've had some electrolysis myself, and it smarts. He just sat there and took it, without even wincing. I couldn't have done that."

"He?"

"Oh, um, . . . I guess I forgot."

"That's interesting," observed Ruth, leaning forward in her chair. "Copper looks amazingly feminine - better than I expected thanks to your skill in her makeover. And I got the impression earlier that you were starting to think of our subject as female."

"I was," Sable admitted. "Especially when I met her this morning for coffee before we started the electrolysis session. What you did to her. Her gestures and ... Well, I can't believe she is so graceful and comfortable with long hair and nails after just one day. It was just amazing."

"But . . . ?" prompted Ruth.

"It's just not . . . reasonable for a woman to be so . . . so . . . tough," the beautiful young brunette claimed. "And there's still something about the way he, I mean, she moves that's . . . wrong."

"Indeed there is," agreed Ruth. "But we'll fix the movement things later. Do you really think we need to tone down her toughness? In what ways? Should we make her more sensitive to pain, or should we make it easier for her to cry? What do you suggest?"

A shudder sent ripples through Sable's dark mane. "I can't believe you can just . . . do that sort of thing to someone. She's not a . . . a robot you can just program."

Ruth glanced away. When she spoke, her tone was strangely subdued and distant. "Actually, in many ways that's just what Copper is. If we can define the behavior, I can instill it."

"But why would you? I mean, it's like . . . like playing God or something. She's not a 'thing' to play with."

Again Ruth met Sable's stare. " 'She' isn't?" Another little shiver rippled through Sable's hair with the implications contained on Ruth's emphasis on the word 'she'. What could be worse than turning the brash young gangster into a girl?

Then Ruth surprised her with a partial agreement. "No, she's not. But she is malleable, in some ways." The doctor looked sharply at Sable and asked, "Don't you think this is worth it? Don't you think the sacrifices you've made yourself are at least as . . . difficult?"

Sable's eyes darkened and this time it was she who looked away. The slender brunette didn't answer, which was an answer of sorts. After a moment Ruth continued softly, but with flint clipping her tones. "If I have to expend Jimmy to make Copper, and expend Copper to save a thousand people from agonizing death, I'll do it."

If Sable intended any argument, her intentions melted away when she saw the glisten of unshed tears in Dr. Ruth's eyes. But the pain they both felt would not evaporate as easily as Sable's anger.

"And me?" the younger agent whispered. "Would you expend me, too?"

Ruth's eyes still showed pain, but her words were implacable. "And me, and Major Ipney, and anyone else it took to protect the innocent."

There was an almost irresistible power in that simple declaration. And an inevitability that was more than a little frightening. Still, the young agent squared her shoulders and sat up straighter in her chair. "You're right, of course. I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Ruth's said as her face softened with the honest compassion that Sable knew was just as much a part of that woman as were the strength and the determination. "God help us if we ever quit being sorry for what we have to do, and are only sorry that it bothers us."

Sable nodded. "Can I ask a question?"

"Of course."

"Why didn't you tell Copper that you hypnotized her?"

"I will," Ruth promised, "but not until after Jimmy escapes tonight."

"What?!"

Ruth's eyes showed genuine humor for the first time in the interview. She leaned back in her chair and allowed herself to drift into lecture mode. "Jimmy has a most impressive ability to mimic behavior. It goes with his physical grace and agility. More than anyone else I've had the pleasure to work with, Jimmy is totally in control of himself. If he observes something he wants to be able to do, he can learn to do it with amazing quickness. That's both good news and bad. In order to prepare him for the mission, I need to show him that we could add to his own abilities in a way that doesn't diminish him. And I had to help him get past his cultural inhibitions on appearing feminine."

Sable had snickered when Ruth claimed Jimmy had such total control. "He never showed much self-control to me. I never met anyone so shy and awkward."

Ruth's smile deepened at her comment. "Don't discount the effect of your own, ah, 'charms.' I expect Jimmy is not the only man you've ever reduced to incoherence."

As a blush lit the dark-haired girl's face, Ruth continued, "But also remember ..." Ruth's smile faded. "... and be grateful, that you never met Jimmy on a job." The doctor of psychology sat up straighter in her chair. "In part, you should be flattered by his awkwardness. Not only because it shows he's aware of your beauty - extremely aware of it - but because in that awkwardness he allows you to see the real Jimmy Kincaid. The insecure, too small man who thinks he's not adequate to interest you. The coldly competent thief and assassin is a role Jimmy plays."

Dr. Ruth stood up and started to pace around her office. "In part, what I need to do is show Jimmy that the role has become as real as his self-image. He truly is tough, as you noted, both mentally and physically. With marvelous physical agility and quickness as well. Once he integrates his current skills with a sense of personal attractiveness, he'll be quite . . well, I was going to say formidable but he was already that. Even Ipney was impressed by his fighting skills. Let's say that he will be more comfortable in life, and that will actually benefit him."

She turned to face directly at her young colleague. "And that's my justification for keeping some aspects of his training from him at this time."

"Until he escapes?" prompted Sable.

An impish spice flavored Ruth's smile as she confirmed, "Yes, tonight."

"You're going to let him go?"

"Of course not. Neither in the sense of giving him an easy way out, nor in the sense of letting him get away once he's out."

An introspective look filled the doctor's eyes as she said, "Though tonight is also the night that Copper truly will escape."

"I don't understand."

Ruth smiled wryly and said, "No, I don't suppose you do."

*************************.

A less-disciplined person might have crowed in triumph as the window opened, or at least exhaled a muted sigh of relief when the difficult task was accomplished, but Jimmy's only sign that he appreciated the success was a momentary gleam in his laser blue-green eyes. That, and a deep, satisfying, though utterly silent inhalation of the fresh forest air that wafted in through the opening. Jimmy put away the metal nail file and lamp cord he had used to short out the window controls, and used the also-helpful hairpins to arrange his waist-length hair into a neat, snug twist. Gathering a few other essentials into the pockets of his forest-green exercise outfit - still the only type of clothes he had worn since he was released from his cell - he flowed out onto the tiny ledge below his window. Like a lot of modern buildings, it looked smooth and bereft of meaningful handholds. Like a lot of modern buildings, window sills and water-runoff features provided a virtual highway for Jimmy Kincaid. In moments he had reached the damp floor of the wooded area surrounding his more-or-less prison.

I must still be in the Seattle-Tacoma area, he mused. Certainly the constant clouds and drizzly precipitation supported that assumption - but the view out his window had offered few clues on where he might be within that fairly large climate zone, and the view from the forest floor even less. I'm not about to walk around this damn building and back into Ipney's hands, so . . . . downhill, I guess.

I wonder if they think that fence would stop anyone with at least a room-temperature IQ, he snorted when he found the next barrier. Even the barbed wire on top leaned the wrong way; intended to keep intruders out, not prisoners within. Two lanes of asphalt beckoned and Jimmy pulled his track suit closer against the wet chill as he continued his more or less downward journey.

A car approached, tires announcing their presence with splashes before the idling engine could be heard, and for a moment Jimmy thought about fading into the woods again. But he was going to have to interact with people at some point, and better here in isolation than in some crowd. So as the car approached he donned what he hoped was a friendly smile and let one hand gracefully point down the road in a slightly more genteel version of the universal hitchhiking thumb.

The smile was indeed as friendly as Jimmy intended. What he didn't intend and what he didn't realize (at least not consciously) was that the smile affected more than the curve of Copper's full lips. Her slender brows also arched a little higher and her striking blue-green eyes opened just a little wider.

So not only did the approaching driver see an expression that was friendly. It was also beguilingly feminine. And timid. And helpless. Something that Jimmy Kincaid would have found both arousing and disconcerting if a woman as beautiful as Copper had offered it to him.

Not that it helped. The car hissed by, narrowly missing Jimmy with a spray of oily water.

"Asshole," he muttered, but he resurrected the smile when the next car approached.

And the next.

It wasn't until the fourth car that one slowed and he could lean into a descending window.

Before he could speak, the driver asked, "Aren't you out a little late, honey?"

The glare that had named Jimmy 'the Eyes' stared to heat up, but there was enough time before it fried the creep for Jimmy to realize his current appearance was as much opportunity as challenge. Transforming his burgeoning snarl into a pout that reinforced his apparent helplessness, he sighed. "My, um, ride didn't show up. I guess she got off work late. Again."

"Hop in, and I'll at least get you somewhere dry."

Right, Jimmy thought. Reach one inch past the center of the car and you'll be eating your own fingers, pervert.

But he turned off the pout and turned on a smile before sliding into the seat. "Thanks, mister. I was getting a little chilled."

"Where ya' headed?" the man asked, glancing at his newfound companion.

"Oh, just anywhere I can make a call."

"I can give you a ride anywhere in Bremerton," the man offered. "I don't mind."

Bingo! thought Jimmy. At least I know where I am, more or less. "Oh, no, don't bother. I don't want to go clear downtown anyway. Just drop me anywhere I can make a call and wait for my ride."

"If you need to go somewhere close, I can drop you. It's no bother."

"No. Thank you," Jimmy answered more sharply. Then he let the smile show again and said, "I'll be fine."

"Whatever you want," the man said, surrendering.

As though the resolution of their intentions were some sort of signal, the surrounding forests receded to reveal a little strip mall just off to the right. Prominent in the mall was a franchise restaurant, nice enough to support sit-down meals yet casual enough for Jimmy's outfit. It was such an obvious choice that the man pulled into the lot without further conversation.

"Thanks a lot," Jimmy said, politely but quickly, as he exited and headed for the restaurant without looking back.

Once inside, he moved to the hostess station, but before he could say anything, the woman guarding the stand asked, "Table for one, miss?"

That drew him up short. Somehow, even though he knew what he looked like, he was still surprised to be taken for a girl. Well, that's a good news/bad news thing, I guess. As soon as I take care of a few things, I can change back to looking like Jimmy. I mean, to looking like myself. And then the trail will go cold on a certain redheaded bitchette. In the meantime . . . I might as well take advantage of the way I look.

When he spoke, it didn't register with him that his voice was reinforcement for his appearance, not a contradiction to it. "I, um, need to use a phone, but I didn't bring any money with me. Have you got one I could use? Once my friends show up I can pay for the call."

If I can just figure out who to call. Shit. Everyone thinks I'm dead. I am so screwed.

A light, feminine voice interrupted his internal dilemma. "Don't bother, Copper. We're already here."

Sable, accompanied by Dr. Ruth, stepped from an alcove partially screened by rows of ferns.

Before the shocked redhead could re-engage tumbling senses and decide on a response, Sable took 'her' arm.

"You owe me a quarter," Sable continued, making easy conversation as they moved to a secluded booth where three soft drinks and a tray of appetizers waited.

That non sequitur seemed so outlandish that it became the one thing Copper could focus on. "What?"

"I had an over-and-under bet with Dr. Ruth on when you'd show up," explained Sable. "You beat my estimate by half an hour."

"I knew she'd get a ride," Dr. Ruth claimed, a slight emphasis on the 'she' telling Copper to play the role that had been created for her.

Once they were seated, Dr. Ruth reached out to take Copper's trembling hand. "I owe you an apology."

The redhead's wide eyes focused on the doctor, who smiled at the impact of those brilliant gems. "Do you remember when we talked yesterday?"

The easy question could be answered without much though, nor much effort. A quick nod and Ruth continued. "Well, that wasn't a simple conversation. I hypnotized you."

That started up the lasers in Copper's eyes again, but before they could discharge Ruth said, "Only in three specific ways, and because it was very important that you see what could be done."

Copper settled back in her seat and - by notching down the building glare - offered Ruth the chance to continue.

"Let me ask you a couple of questions, first," Ruth requested. "As a way of demonstrating what I did. Would you show me what you have in your pockets?"

Shrugging, Copper pulled out their contents. A small hairbrush, a compact, a lipstick and some tissues. The redhead stared at the pile as though surprised to find those items, even though they were the same things unthinkingly placed there less than an hour before.

Ruth's next question was another surprise. "Who are you?"

The answer was immediate. "Jimmy Kincaid."

"How did you get your window open?"

"I bridged the servo with a lamp cord and a few hairpins."

"How did you get down from the window?"

"There was a drain spout, and the windows a level down had protruding sills, and after that I could reach a tree."

"Someone gave you a ride, didn't they?"

At this, Copper just nodded.

"Okay, my turn to explain," Ruth promised. "I did indeed hypnotize you. But all I did was suggest that Jimmy's gestures and expressions should be feminine, that he should take care of his hair and makeup, and that he should speak with a feminine voice."

"Turned me into a robot, you mean," snapped Jimmy, for the first time in 'his' own voice.

"Listen to me, Jimmy," Ruth ordered with matching strength. "I did NOT turn you into a robot. I could have. I've done it before. But I did exactly what I said. I suggested that you behave like a woman in three very specific ways. Think about that for a minute. I didn't even tell you what the specific behaviors should be. I just made it 'okay' for you to act and speak like a woman. Even then I limited it essentially to your hands and head." She balanced her admitted manipulation by pointing out an opportunity not taken. "I didn't even change your self-image. I saw the way you hesitated when the hostess addressed you as 'miss.' Despite some superficial changes in matters of fashion, in your own mind you're still Jimmy, right?"

An introspective look wiped away the remaining glare from the redhead's eyes. Inside that beautiful head, an inventory was taking place - checking for changes, testing limits.

After a moment, the doctor asked another question. "Do you remember that first night you were out of your cell, when we talked in your room?"

Jimmy nodded and Ruth continued. "I told you that your embarrassment was because you thought you had broken one of society's rules for clothing. And I reminded you that you had not felt bound by society's rules in larger issues like real felonies, so being constrained by unwritten social convention was foolish."

Ruth kept pushing. "All I did was allow you to use skills you already had. You're a great observer, Jimmy, and you have an amazing ability to mimic what you observe. But you were limited by your culturally induced inhibitions just as thoroughly as if you were still locked in your cell."

"Are you telling me that I wanted to be a girl?" demanded Jimmy.

"No," denied Ruth. "What I'm saying is that you had already observed enough of women to be able to mimic one, and very successfully. In conjunction with Sable's skill with your physical appearance, I wanted to show you that you could succeed in this mission. Do you believe that now?"

Jimmy's mouth opened, then closed without comment.

Ruth wouldn't let it lie. "Would you have believed it before?"

"I won't be a robot," Jimmy insisted.

"And I have no use for one," Ruth insisted in turn. "Do you think I knew how to get your window open? Or how to get down from a fourth story window? I'd have fallen and killed myself, and you didn't even break a nail. And I'm not the one who told you to wear darker nail polish because the bright red Sable used clashed with your hair."

Now Ruth leaned back in her seat and let her voice become gentle. "Jimmy, I can help you be Copper. I can help you release the skills you already possess so that you can carry off this impersonation without losing the initiative and creativity you also possess, nor losing the - ah - 'specialized' skills you used in your gangster role. That's what this mission requires. And nothing less. You must be real, Copper. You must be so real that your plumbing is unimportant. I know you can do this."

Then she hit the redhead with the weapon that had been keeping her off balance since she entered the restaurant. "Just as I knew you'd escape tonight, and come here."

Jimmy's eyes flared again. "You programmed me for that."

"Do you really think so?" Ruth challenged. "Do you feel that all your choices tonight were made for you? Or can you accept that I understand you well enough to know you'd try and escape once you had a couple of better meals and a decent night's sleep? That you'd head downhill because you're a city person and you know the cities are along Puget Sound, not up in the hills. That you'd be pretty enough - yes, pretty - to attract a ride, and pragmatic enough to accept one. That you'd find a place to hide out while you contacted someone, a place that was reasonably private yet casual."

Ruth slid from the booth and gathered Sable up with her eyes, then turned to the still seated redhead. "I guess this is the crisis point, Copper. If you aren't willing to commit yourself to this project with all that you are and all that you can be, or if you think you're weak-willed enough that you can be programmed until something vital to who you are is lost, then we can't use you anyway and a lot of innocent people are going to die. Good-bye, and good luck with your conscience."

"But if you can accept that I can help you overcome your inhibitions without losing your essential strength, then come with us back to headquarters and we'll get on with the rest of your training. It's your choice."

"That's a damn cheap shot!" snapped Jimmy, and it was indeed Jimmy's voice they heard. "You kidnapped me. Don't talk to me about my conscience! What about your own?"

Ruth sagged, and a look that twisted in Jimmy's heart showed on the older woman's face. "The burden on my conscience is already very heavy," she agreed softly, "and for things you can't imagine. But I won't add the deaths of a thousand innocents to it, not without doing whatever I can to stop it. I won't apologize for what I've done to you, and for what we'll have to do if you come back. But I do - sincerely - regret it."

With that she turned and walked to the exit, for once her age showing in the slump of shoulders that were normally so erect. Sable's eyes locked with Jimmy's for an excruciatingly long instant - long enough for the tears to start to spill from the brunette's eyes - and then she turned to follow the doctor.

They hadn't gotten more than a few steps toward the door when they heard an alto voice with just a hint of Marilyn Monroe's breathiness call after them. "Um, Ruth, Sable, get the check while I make a quick visit to the powder room, will you?"



Chapter 7 - "The Best Things In Life Are Real"



The next morning, a knock at the door interrupted Copper just as she finished capturing her voluminous hair in a neat ponytail. Checking her appearance one last time in the mirror, she smiled, then frowned. Damn. What the fuck am I doing to myself? That ain't right. I don't know whether to pant after that hot babe or puke because it's me!

Another knock interrupted her self-analysis. Forming a much less natural smile on her face, she moved to the door and opened it to find Dr. Ruth wearing an answering smile along with the accustomed lab coat that signified official business.

Ruth's greeting was friendly enough. "You look lovely this morning, Copper."

"Thank you, Doctor. I seem to have overslept a bit."

"I guess that depends on when you went to bed," Ruth offered as she motioned Copper down the hallway. "As I recall, you had an, ah, 'eventful' evening."

Dr. Ruth's carefully-neutral excuse for the late start was too formal for Copper's confused state of mind, so she changed modes into a flirtatious tease - a monster that Ruth herself had created. "Next time you decide to go trolling for boys, leave me out, okay?"

"I never . . . . " the staid doctor started to protest, then grinned. "Okay, score one for you."

"Why do I have a feeling the score isn't likely to stay in my favor?"

Ruth laughed, and motioned Copper into a room she'd never seen before. "What makes you think the score is in your favor now? One point doesn't necessarily catch you up."

Copper didn't respond. Her attention was focused on the room - a room full of racks of clothes. Brightly colored clothes, in delicate fabrics.

Girl clothes. Flamboyantly, joyfully, exuberantly girl clothes

Plus one gorgeous brunette in ice-pick heels and a glittery red dress that loved every voluptuous curve.

The doctor smiled at the complex interplay of emotions chasing across Copper's smooth features. "I suppose you've been wondering why we haven't been having you wear feminine clothes."

"You mean, other than satin panties?" Copper retorted.

"Yes, other than those."

"I, um, yeah, I guess so."

"Meaning you were trying to avoid thinking about it. Well, Copper, the time has come, as they say . . . "

The slender redhead squared her shoulders and sighed. "Okay."

Ruth's eyes held gentle sympathy, but Sable's voice left Copper little slack. "Oh my, you are so very, very brave. You're about to strike off into the unknown, a realm of terror and despair. A desperate challenge, successfully overcome in all of history only by . . . half the human race!"

Sable's taunting beauty - when her words forced Copper to focus on the brunette instead of on the doctor - had its usual effect, reducing Copper to stammering incoherence. "Well, I, um, it's a . . . it's not what I, um . . ."

The older woman bestowed her redheaded charge with a benevolent smile and patted her lightly on the arm. "First, let me explain a little. Call it a doctor's prerogative. The reason I haven't had you wear any truly feminine clothes is that they affect your movements as much as long hair and nails. I didn't want you to learn any behaviors that you'd have to unlearn once your new body was ready."

"My new body?" Copper asked in shock.

Ruth nodded. "Technically, it's called a 'prosthetic.' In order to give you a feminine shape - a new body - I've arranged for something your grandmother would have called a 'foundation garment,' though the technology in this is quite a bit more advanced."

"You mean, like a corset?"

A wry grin lit Ruth's face, tempered by sympathy. "You should be so lucky."

Ruth pointed toward a privacy screen that would allow Copper to undress without feeling like she was in a fishbowl. When the redhead stepped back into the room she was wearing only a thin nylon robe. Ruth and Sable were standing at a basin full of steaming water which also held something Copper couldn't identify. The tail end of a whispered conversation didn't help.

"At least let her try it on," Ruth insisted.

Sable's ebony tresses rippled as she clearly disagreed, though from Copper's side her face was hidden.

"Try what on?" asked Copper, announcing her presence with her question.

"Oh, Copper," Ruth said, startled and turning in a way that didn't quite hide the basin, though it implied that for some reason she would if she could. "I didn't hear you."

"Keeps me alive," the redhead replied, deepening the frown she saw on Sable's face once the dark-haired girl had turned as well.

"This is the prosthetic," Ruth explained, still not really showing what was in the steaming water. "It expands when warmed, then shrinks back to normal when it's at body temperature."

Ruth's posture took on a brisk, no-nonsense professionalism as she gave orders. "Sable, I think you'll need to help Copper with the lotion."

"Not in this dress," Sable protested, glancing down at the elegant gown.

"Oh, right, well, you can change, too," the doctor offered, still keeping herself between Copper and the basin.

"This is silly," Copper said. "If I'm going to be wearing that - whatever it is - then you might as well let me take a look at it."

"Very well," Ruth said, standing aside. "It's just, well, I don't want you to be . . . put off by the way it looks when it's not . . . when it's . . . empty."

A sharp glance sent Sable on her way to change, then Ruth tested the water to make sure it wasn't too hot before pulling up a bit of wrinkled skin. Empty skin, a flesh-colored, shapeless wad that looked half melted.

"Think of this like a, oh, like a diver's wetsuit," Ruth said reassuringly. "Except it has some features that will help with your masquerade."

"Not much help, as small as they are," Sable said cryptically as she moved from behind the screen, now dressed in a robe of her own.

"Later, Sable," Ruth warned, then turned back to Copper. "You'll need to, ah, you'll need lotion to make this slip on when it's wet."

Sable held a squeeze bottle of lotion in her hands and motioned for Copper to drop her robe.

When she did - 'she' wasn't a 'she' any longer. It wasn't the lack of bosom alone - there are small-breasted women. Nor was it the presence of discordant plumbing - which (to Jimmy's all-too-familiar lament) wasn't really all that dramatic though the attributes were unmistakable. In fact, Sable noted in passing, under the right circumstances they might even be . . . useful.

The real problem - problems - were the sharply defined cuts in abdominal muscles and pectorals. They weren't bulky, but the array of rocks that marched up the redhead's stomach had none of the softening of fat and skin that made women sleek. For once the impression of masculine fitness overwhelmed the hair and makeup and their perceptions did a little snap-twist as the two genetic women re-oriented.

"I must say, Jimmy, you are fit," Sable observed wryly, not even noticing the change in the way she addressed him.

"Nothing you ain't seen before," he mumbled, his own self-image shaken.

Sable nodded, and covered her momentary lapse in briskness of her own. Squirting some lotion on Jimmy's shoulders, she said, "Yeah, but it's been a few days. You've, um, you've come a long way."

"Tell me about it," Jimmy confirmed. Ruth handed him another bottle and he started to apply it to the places he could reach.

"Everywhere," Ruth ordered, her manner becoming increasingly professional. "From halfway to your knees, all the way to your shoulders."

Jimmy sighed and did as he was told, suffering the indignity of a clinically impersonal inspection from Dr. Ruth to ensure all parts of his skin showed a slick sheen.

"Very well," she announced once she was satisfied. Taking the heated plastic from the water, she said, "Inside the prosthetic you will find a sleeve. Make sure you seat it properly."

"A sleeve?"

Sable snickered and said, "For your Johnson. I hope she got the right size."

Jimmy's face showed a flush that had little to do with the heat from the plastic sheath he drew up over his legs. The wince that accompanied his attempt to arrange the necessary 'features' prompted a concerned question from Ruth.

"Is there a problem?"

"No. It's just, um, hot."

"Oh, sorry," she said. "It needs to stay above 120 degrees until you get it in place."

"Well, if you hear a sizzling sound, that would be me," Jimmy complained, but he managed to work things out and drew the squirmy shape up to his shoulders.

"Let it cool down now," Ruth ordered, handing Jimmy a robe.

There was another mutual re-orientation when Jimmy donned the thin robe. Hiding both his original musculature and the still-shapeless prosthetic appliance let hair and makeup artistry dominate the perception, and just as suddenly as 'she' left, Copper was back.

"How does it feel, Copper?" asked Ruth, emphasizing the transition.

The redhead looked up sharply, then sighed. Using Copper's voice, she said. "It still feels pretty warm, but not really hot. It's getting tighter, though."

"A lot tighter," she continued in a minute. "It's getting hard to breathe."

"Don't panic," Ruth commanded. "It won't be that bad."

"Speak for yourself," gasped Copper. But true to Ruth's prediction, after a moment she felt the tightness stabilize. 'Things' quit moving under the thin robe, except for a gentle oscillation of familiar - though not to Copper - curves.

"Take off your robe again," Ruth ordered, quietly but firmly.

Copper let the thin material slip to the floor . . . .

"Oh, my!"

"Damn!"

"What?" asked Copper, twisting to look for a mirror.

Ruth, whose comment had preceded the others by a heartbeat, said, "It's amazing. Much better than I've seen before."

Sable's assessment was much less complimentary and not at all reassuring. "It's worse than I thought."

By this time Copper was pushing through the clothes toward a mirror. When she saw herself - in apparent nudity - she gasped. "Oh my God!"

Any hint of masculinity was gone. Absolutely vanished, beyond even a shadow of memory. A pretty young woman - natural redhead from the neatly trimmed evidence - turned and swayed in the reflected image. Her figure was more athletic than voluptuous, but no one, not even on a dark night at a distance - in the fog - would consider the possibility that she was not vibrantly, deliciously feminine.

Copper's self-examination held her attention for some immeasurably long time. What protruded into her fascination was not a diminishing of interest as much as an increase in the volume of comments behind her.

"I'm telling you, it won't work!" Sable snapped.

"She's gorgeous," Ruth insisted. "No one will doubt she's a woman."

Copper turned, blushing again as the impact of what she looked like became both more real and more embarrassing. She slid back through the hanging racks and grabbed at her robe. That didn't help resolve the argument between her colleagues.

"See?" demanded Sable. "I told you . . . "

Dr. Ruth interrupted her with firm authority. "Sable, please be quiet. I won't have you undermining Copper's confidence before she's even had a chance to make this work."

Copper decided, since it was her appearance that was being vivisected, that she deserved an explanation. True to her aggressive nature, she went directly to the problem. A slight turn did not so much shut Ruth out as make it clear the redhead's focus was on Sable.

"Why don't you like . . . this? I thought this was what you wanted?"

Sable's eyes fell for a moment, then she tried to look at Ruth.

"Dammit, Sable, answer me! I don't care what Ruth thinks. I asked you!"

"Now, Copper," Ruth said, trying to calm down the agitated redhead, but she was not going to be placated.

"No, Ruth, not now. Not from you. Right now I want to know what's bothering Sable."

The curvy brunette sighed. "It's, um, nothing really, just . . . ."

Copper's glare was unyielding, and Sable continued. "It's just that you're not the sort of girl that would, uh, that Eddy would . . . invite to one of his parties."

The tension relaxed so quickly from Copper's shoulders that Ruth's arms moved to steady her, but in fact the redhead's poised balance was unthreatened.

"Good," she said quietly, prompting a frown from both her companions.

"I'm sorry, Ruth," she said, turning to the scientist, "but I told you I wouldn't make a convincing woman. And Sable agrees, so . . . "

"Actually, I don't agree," contradicted Sable. "Damn, Copper, you're drop-dead, howl-at-the-moon beautiful." When she realized how extravagant her praise had been, Sable's cheeks colored with a blush. "I mean, if you're into that sleek, sinuous look. But that isn't what Eddy goes for, nor do the guys at his parties. Still you have definite potential."

"Potential? Geez, what else is there to do?" Unable to stop herself, she twisted her lithe body in front of the mirror, the thin robe making the peeks of femininity all the more alluring.

Sable looked at Ruth again, and this time Copper didn't argue. Nor did Ruth, who nodded for Sable to continue.

"There are several problems - minor ones, and most people wouldn't even notice, but Eddy considers himself an expert on women, and . . . he doesn't tolerate fakes."

"Hell, Sable, this whole thing is a fake."

"Not that kind of fake," she said, then sighed. "I guess there's no polite way to address this, so I'll take it head on. Your boobs are too small . . . "

"She looks perfectly well proportioned," protested Ruth. "She could have stepped off a movie set."

"Eddy doesn't want a movie star," Sable countered. "At least, not the ones in feature films. His standards are a bit . . . specialized."

She took a deep breath, then shimmied her own assets to make her point. "Hell, Ruth, Eddy likes strippers. 'B' cups just won't get the job done."

Before either of the others could comment, she continued, speaking directly to Copper, "Honey, you've got wonderful skin, but it's nearly translucent and even in the last few minutes I've seen you blush several times. There, see? You're doing it again. And the blush flows right down to the boundary of the plastic and stops."

Turning back to Ruth, she said, "Eddy caught a dancer using stick-on boobs one time, and cut one right off of her. Took half her real nipple with it. He'd spot this the first time Copper blushed. And they won't sweat right which that means perfume won't smell right, and, well, it just won't work."

"I'm not going to be a dancer," Copper said, feeling the need to protest the litany of her shortcomings. And if that doesn't show the depth of shit my life has fallen into . . .

"No," agreed Sable, "but you're going to blush. You can't help it. And you'll probably sweat at some point - not like a damn horse, but enough to put a shine on the parts that are real. If Eddy thinks you've got fake boobs, you'll never get where you need to go. It's not enough to pass as a girl, even a beautiful one. That much you have locked. No question. But you've got to be a girl that Eddy wants for . . . entertainment."

"I'm not going to do that, either!"

"I know that," Sable snapped. "But you've got to make him want you for entertainment. That's what I said."

Ruth inserted herself back into the conversation. "Suppose we just have her wear clothes that don't show the boundary."

"Won't work," Sable insisted, then she reached out and ran a scarlet nail along Copper's collar bone. "Look, whoever did this thing is a freakin' genius. There's no contour break at all. And the color is almost perfect - it even varies like her real skin does. Almost. But . . . look at the way the colors change as you go around her leg where it's more obvious." Her lightly scratching nail caused Copper's muscles to twitch like a fly-bitten horse.

"The prosthetic thingy is close, real close," the brunette continued, "but that almost makes it worse. It will nag at the back of Eddy's mind until he figures out what's bothering him."

She straightened up and shrugged, "We can fix her legs. It's at the right place for the top band on stockings, and she won't need to go bare-legged. But she's gonna have to show some cleavage if she's going to catch Eddy's attention. Lots of cleavage. And it's going to have to blush right along with the rest of her."

"Maybe we could . . ," Ruth started, but her voice ran down without a real idea.

Copper's face had displayed irritation at being discussed like an object - even a pretty one - and when that passed she didn't realize her expression showed disappointment rather than relief. Sable noticed it, though, and a look of sympathy Copper also didn't notice showed in the brunette's eyes before it was replaced by resigned determination..

"Copper, honey, there is another option, if you're willing . . . . "



Chapter 8 - "Won't You Step Into My Parlor?"



The shapely redhead paused for a moment at the doorway, wrinkling her delicate nose at the smell of stale smoke. Wincing again as the driving music boomed with an especially-loud rattle, she nonetheless moved into the club toward a table in the back, gliding with a grace that spoke of long hours at the barre’ in some classical ecole d’ ballet - practicing until perfection the art of movement that was at once both hauntingly sensual and elegantly demure. Or perhaps her sinuous grace owed more to the martial arts dojo. Her bright eyes pierced the dim room with a predatory confidence that spoke of skills older and more primal than cloistered dance lessons.

The shapely redhead paused for a moment at the doorway . . .


Fantasies fermented in several masculine minds as she smiled broadly, even though the cause of her smile was the woman dancing on the glowing stage.

Or maybe because that was the cause.

A flash of lean thigh as she sat revealed a hint of something darker below her trimly tailored dress. (The band of an elegant stocking? It was hard to see clearly in the shadowy room.) Tugging down the hem of her tasteful little - emphasis on 'little' - black dress did more to call attention to the sleek display than conceal it, though the motion was clearly reflexive, not a deliberate tease.

Not at all.

Just as it was purely coincidence that the thin, glossy heel of her dainty shoe caught a flash of light when she crossed her legs. And that her long-nailed fingers gleamed as she placed her handbag on the table.

Though the little gestures might as well have been coincidental, for all the good they did. The eyes of anyone who looked her way were not really paying a lot of attention to her fingers, nor even her legs. It wasn't only the lower extremity of the dress that revealed a lot of skin.

The brunette on stage grinned at the display even as she reclaimed the attention of the crowd by slowly letting her sequined gown slide down her body. The redhead's smile, emphasized by the gleam of striking blue-green eyes that seemed to glow in the dark club, took on a hint of satisfaction as she noticed that smile.

"Unescorted girls get their first drink free," a diffident voice shouted - the volume just enough to be heard over the pounding noise.

The redhead turned to look at the speaker, a twenty-something bottle blonde already showing the downside of time's arrow in sagging bosom and thickening waist. Showing them unambiguously in a waitress costume that consisted only of a handkerchief-sized skirt and stilt heels.

"Vodka martini."

"Shaken, not stirred?" the blonde asked with just enough of a plastic smile to cover a sneer that spoke more of jealousy than disdain.

"If you think I can taste the difference, knock yourself out," the redhead returned with an equally artificial smile that spoke only of disdain.

The waitress retreated to the bar with the order and the redhead turned her attention back to the stage where the dark-haired dancer had lost her dress down to her waist and was working snowy gloves down her arms. Some of the patrons were even watching her hands - though most seemed much more interested in watching what she was doing with her hips.

As a result, no one really noticed that the brunette seemed now to be playing only to a certain part of the club.

To a certain table.

No one noticed that the smile on the redhead's face tightened as a slobbering drunk offered to tuck a bill into the dancer's g-string. Though it was hard to tell in the dark, the sea-green gleam from the visitor's eyes had now hardened to emerald ice. After the drunk finished with his demonstration of appreciation, the redhead sighed and leaned back in her chair, tugging again at her inadequate hemline.

She felt a looming presence behind her left shoulder before he spoke. It was a good thing he had approached from behind because facing away as she was, he didn’t notice the sudden catch in her breathing or the way her face froze in neutral immobility when he finally spoke.

Though when she turned to face the intruding male, nothing showed on her face but casual (albeit somewhat aloof) acknowledgement.

"I don't think I've seen you in here before," said a man standing by her table. He was well into middle age, and clearly well into corpulence despite the efforts of an obviously skilled tailor. Without asking for permission, he pulled out a seat at the redhead's table, sending little sparkles and flashes of his own through the club as lights caught the heavy rings on his hand.

"Not surprising," the woman said with minimal politeness. "I've never been in here before."

"Oh, and to what do we owe the pleasure of your company?"

"I'm meeting someone," she claimed. A pursed-lip little smile (not quite enough to be a grin of derision … not quite) lit the girl's face as she sent ripples through her gleaming hair with a negligent little toss of her head.

Not discouraged, the man said, "I'm Eddy Ells, the owner of the club. And you are .?"

A deepening of that mocking little smile and a lifted brow indicated, ‘You'll have to come up with a better line than that, Buster.’ But a hint of twinkle in those dramatic eyes invited him to try.

"I have this feeling we've met before," he continued, apparently oblivious to the messages playing out in her eyes. The twinkle he didn't notice faded with disappointment at the obvious line. Disappointment . . . or something like it.

Surely it couldn't have been a little twinge of fear.

"Except, it wasn't you or I'd remember for sure. Maybe it was a relative?"

The expressions had flowed across her face like cloud shadows on wildflowers as he struggled and flailed, ending with a warming congratulation at his segue into something more original.

"Perhaps," she agreed as the waitress brought her drink. Sipping it, her eyes met his over the rim of the glass. Amusement feeding challenge. Continued invitation countering a warning that he was still far from victory.

Their conversation was first impeded and then facilitated by the crashing finale to the dancer's number. A round of raucous applause and shouted lewd suggestions aimed at the departing brunette was momentarily distracting, but the relative quiet once the music had ended offered an opening for more comfortable tones of voice.

Ells didn't take immediate advantage of it, though. Snapping his fingers at the waitress, he summoned a drink of his own. It must have been already prepared because a thick tumbler of amber liquid was placed on the table before his attention was fully back on the enigmatic redhead.

"I'd know if you were a working girl," claimed Ells. Despite the potential insult, he was rewarded with another mane-rippling head movement and a minute expansion of her smile.

"Not a dancer either, though you could do that, too," he mused.

"Why, Mister Ells, I just love to dance," she gushed, then giggled as she twirled a long-nailed finger in her deep-red tresses. The vapid humor disappeared as quickly as it appeared, to be replaced by a frown that showed the beginnings of impatience. You may impress bimbos with that line, Bozo, but not me.

Slow Eddy Ells considered himself quite accomplished at seducing women, and he liked to think he enjoyed a challenge. But this woman was not only resistant to his charms, she was making him feel inadequate. That was not done, not to the Coranzo Capo, and it was about time to show her the error of her ways. The frown that marched across his own brow would have been intimidating even without knowing the violence at his command, but before their joust flared into genuine combat, they were interrupted again.

"Copper!" A throaty voice carried through the chatter of the room.

Turning easily toward the sound, the redhead stood to embrace the dark-haired dancer, now wrapped in a thin robe that was nearly as revealing as her on-stage attire. “Sable!”

Eddie allowed himself a little fantasy of what the hug the redhead was giving Sable would feel like if she were giving it to him instead. Except it wouldn’t be a hug like that - two women wrapping their arms around each other’s shoulders but not pressing close enough for their tits to collide. No, Eddy wouldn't waste an opportunity like that. He'd have to show her how it should be done. And fairly soon, too.

Hug concluded, Sable leaned back at arm’s length and spoke, in an aside, to her boss. "Eddy, let me introduce you to my cousin from Dallas, Copper Burke."

"Copper is an interesting name," Eddy said with a smile of triumph.

"Oh, that's just what we call her, on account of her hair. Just like people call me Sable on account of mine," Sable explained needlessly. "Her real name is . . . ohmigod, it's been so long I don't remember. Audrey?"

"Ashleigh," the redhead corrected with a wry grin.

Sable pulled out her own chair and tugged Copper back into hers. They went into the girlfriends re-acquainting themselves routine, leaving Ells to smile in semi-isolated amusement at the silly chatter.

He kept his attention on the glamorous redhead, and after a moment he caught her stunning eyes. They smiled at him, unabashed by his earlier irritation, but they dipped slightly as well. Temporary armistice while I get reacquainted with my cousin. We can get back to jousting later.

A smirk danced on his own shadowed features for a moment, accepting the challenge, but he wasn't willing to wait. He interposed himself into their - actually, primarily Sable's - conversation.

Placing his hand possessively on Sable's arm, Eddy said, "So, you are related to someone I know."

"It would seem so," Copper agreed.

"Sable and I are very good friends," he claimed. "Very good, if you know what I mean."

"I suppose I could figure it out," Copper said, shrugging away any interest. But that emerald hardness had returned to her eyes with his condescending attitude toward Sable.

Sable didn't seem to mind, though. She giggled and lightly danced her nails on his hand. "Oh, yeah, Eddy and me are, like, close."

The note of disgust in Copper’s growled, "Good for Eddy" didn’t carry above the background noise of the bar.

Any further conversation, at least at comfortable tones of voice, was interrupted by the sound of the next dancer's intro. Eddy smiled and leaned closer to the two girls.

"Sable and I are going to a party tomorrow night. Any friend of Sable's and all that. I'd be pleased if you'd come as well."

A warning shadow darkened Sable's face, but neither Eddy nor Copper noticed it. The serene redhead's eyes were fixed on Eddy's face, not surrendering an iota of personal dominance. And Eddy was definitely not looking at Sable's face. Faces didn't seem to have much interest for him. Copper leaned back in her own seat and crossed her legs the other way, shifting her knees away in a claim to modesty that was belied by the expanse of thigh she knew she was showing.

Not to mention another expanse. One that just happened to be . . . affected by the deep, slow breath she just happened to take.

Ells fell into her velvet trap, his eyes locked to the impressive display. When he managed to look back at her face, a smirk danced in her bright eyes. 'Gotcha, Bozo. Round Two to me!' Once it was clear he had gotten the message, she nodded.

"We'll be glad to come, Eddy," her full lips said - or at least, those were the words they formed. The undisguised smirk they still showed made it clear she was not expecting to be impressed. Amused, perhaps, in a condescending way, but not impressed.

The light in Eddy's eyes burned for just an instant, but faded quickly to the point where they no longer actively contradicted the smile on his own lips. They didn't support it either, and the gauntlet thrown down by her smirk was well and truly taken up by the powerful crime lord. 'Oh, you'll be impressed. One way or another.'

Nodding, Slow Eddy extracted his hand from Sable's grasp.

"I'll see you girls tomorrow night, then," he shouted over the din. "I'll send a car to Sable's. She knows the rest."

Not looking back for acceptance of his orders, he stood and strode away.

Sable stood nearly as quickly. Tugging on Copper's hand, she pulled the redhead toward the dressing room.

"Oh, my, you do live dangerously," the brunette gasped once they reached a place of relative quiet.

Copper shrugged. Keeping her voice low, she whispered, "I'm already dead. Not much more that he can do to me than that."

"Don't try that bullshit on me," Sable growled. "First off, death is a light sentence around these parts - at least a quick one is. And second, well, just . . . be careful. He's not as predictable as you think."

Her red-haired colleague was unrepentant. "I've known him longer than you have, and I do think I know just a little more about what makes men tick than you do."

Sable stared at her in disbelief. "Get out! I know more about men than you will ever guess."

Copper's reply was a husky chuckle, and a wryly lifted eyebrow.

"Well, okay," Sable said, snickering herself. "Maybe not. But I do know the tricks a woman can use to manipulate men."

"Yes, you do," agreed Copper. Then she giggled and said, "But I know which tricks work best."

That triggered a rumbling snicker from the dark-haired girl that exploded into full-blown laughter. She nodded agreement and put up her hands in surrender.

A second later, Sable was frowning. "Oh, god, I almost forgot. We're in trouble."

Copper's expressive eyes asked the requisite question and Sable continued. "You shouldn't have agreed to go to Eddy's party."

"I thought that was the whole point of this," Copper said, sweeping her hand down her curves.

"Not this party," Sable explained. "This one isn't at the safehouse, it's on Eddy's yacht. It's gambling, mostly, though I know he talks business with his lieutenants. And, well, there will be several girls there."

"Damn," Copper growled, then she gasped as the implications hit her. "Ohmigod. You don't mean to tell me that it's . . . I mean, I didn't know it would be, like. . .” Her voice dropped to a frightened hiss. “I can't do that!"
"Calm down," Sable chewed her lip, her brow creased in thought. "You probably won't be expected to, um, 'entertain' anyone. Not on your first visit. He doesn't know for sure what your background is, whether you like to, you know, to 'party.' The challenge you gave Eddy won't keep him satisfied forever, but it should work one more time to make him try to 'win' you before you have to put out. And I expect he'll make it clear that everyone else is to keep their hands off of you, too. If you, like, throw a drink in someone's face or something, you might get slapped around, but if you just refuse someone I don't think anyone will, like, rape you or anything. But if you piss Eddy off, you may never get into the safehouse."

"I'll just have to walk a fine line," Copper sighed.

Sable frowned again, and pulled the redhead's face to where they looked directly at each other. "Can you . . . could you put up with a little, well, fondling and things?"

"And things?" Copper repeated carefully.

"Well . . ," Sable started slowly. "If he really wants to claim you, he'll want you on his arm, and he'll probably get fairly fresh."

"Fresh," Copper repeated with frown. "Hell, the bastard couldn't even tell you what color my eyes are. His own eyes never looked above my tits." The irony of Slow Eddy's standards jabbed at her sensibilities yet again. It turned out that there were 'fakes' and 'fakes.' Apparently, as long as the skin itself was real, 'enhancement' was fine. Silicone or saline or whatever on the inside was okay, but stick-ons were not. At least - so Copper had been promised - her new bounty would be as possible to remove as glued-on breasts, if not quite as simple.

"Boobs, Copper. Or breasts. Girls don't call them tits. And you better get used to it. Those weapons of mass distraction are almost as big as mine," the curvy brunette claimed with a laugh, shimmying her own attributes. Then she sighed and made her warning clear. "He'll probably do some squeezing, and pinching, and . . . well, before the evening is over I'd take a large bet you get kissed."

"Oh, god," groaned Copper.

"Can you do that? Put up with it, I mean? I know Dr. Ruth told you it wouldn't be necessary, but that was when we thought the only party you'd be going to was at the safehouse."

"I guess I'll have to," the redhead sighed, sagging a little and closing her eyes. "Me and my big damn mouth."

"It's cute, though," Sable claimed, and leaned down to give the shorter girl's forehead a quick, friendly kiss.

At least, that was her plan. But Copper started to look up just as Sable was leaning down, and the contact was a lot more . . . dramatic than either was expecting.

And suddenly more then just 'friendly'. A lot more.

Copper's arms clutched at Sable to replace strength vanished from knees gone AWOL and this time their embrace would have earned full marks on Eddy's scale.

After much too short a time for Copper, who was not making any attempt to pull back, Sable straightened and leaned away. "Um, I, uh, I have to get ready for my next number. You better get back to the, um, to the room we set up for you."

"Right," Copper agreed breathlessly. "I'll, um . . . you'll call me in the morning so we can . . . so you can tell me, like, what to wear, right?"

"Yeah, sure," Sable replied. Warm mocha eyes locked with sea-green emeralds for a long second, then she turned to hurry down the hallway.

As soon as she was out of sight, Copper sagged back against the wall and whispered, "Oh damn. I am not ready for this."

It had seemed so . . . well, 'easy' would not be the right word. Nothing had been easy since Jimmy had awakened in the cell after being tranked. Straightforward didn't apply to the twisted mess the redhead found herself in either.

But she had felt confident. Ruth's trick with the hypnosis that showed her how to handle long hair and nails had been very convincing proof of the effectiveness of her methods - no doubt part of Ruth's plan all along. Skill at walking in heels, at all the little details of skirts and accessories and . . . well, skills at all the things a woman was supposed to know had just been there after the sessions with Ruth. It took no more conscious thought for Copper to keep her knees together in a short skirt than it took for her to breathe in her tight new body.

And trial runs had demonstrated that a pretty woman would be forgiven all sorts of things - especially since Eddy wasn't the only guy whose attention seldom lifted above her bosom. Hell, a lot of the women didn't seem to be able to look her in the eyes, either.

The one real issue had been her relationship with Sable. Every now and then the dark-haired girl had let her guard slip and she had been friendly, even fun, but then something would change and she would become rigidly professional again. Teammates couldn't work effectively on a cold, distant basis like that. And for damn sure, Copper couldn't work with Sable that way. The redhead still lost herself in Sable's eyes way too often. Not knowing how Sable would react from minute to minute - whether she'd be cheerfully helpful or disdainfully polite - Copper had been about to tell Ruth she'd have to work the mission alone. After all, Jimmy had usually worked alone.

Then, a few days ago, before she could bring the situation to a head, Ruth had announced yet another trial run . . .



Chapter 9 - "R-E-S-P-E-C-T"



"Thank you for coming by, Major," said Dr. Ruth, motioning him to take a seat in her office.

"Of course," Ipney said grandly, then his gracious attitude was replaced with a bit of petulance. "Though I was surprised to get your invitation. You made it very clear neither I nor any other of the male members of the team were to be anywhere around while Kincaid gets his, ah, training."

"I've already explained that," Ruth replied. "Copper - and please remember to refer to our colleague in feminine terms - did not need continual reminders of what she was leaving behind as she worked toward a new goal. Nor should she think there might be 'escape' by soliciting help from someone who would 'understand' her plight."

"Yes, Doctor, you have explained that," Ipney said impatiently. "I was just remarking on the unexpected nature of your summons."

"Very well, Major. I will get to the point. Your agent - Sable - is undermining the entire operation."

"In what way?"

"She refuses to treat Copper as a valued member of the team."

"I wonder why," Ipney sneered sarcastically. "The punk is a cheap thug, a sneak thief and a murderer. And, despite his illegal activities, he's an amateur. My agents are trained professionals and don't need civilians screwing up our operations."

"Sable is hardly a trained agent," snapped Ruth.

"You haven't told Kincaid that, have you," Ipney challenged sharply.

"No, of course not," the doctor replied. "I'm the one who recognized the need to have Copper defer to the supposed expertise of a lead agent as a way to maintain control - since in purely physical matters Sable is not in Copper's class."

"I know, I know," Ipney sighed. "Kincaid has some skills that are valuable in a narrow, specific context, but that doesn't make him an agent. And now he's going to be prancing around in drag. Pardon me if I don't place the highest value on him, either. We may - repeat 'may' - need him, but I don't have to like him."

"Well, I can see at least some of where Sable gets her attitude," Ruth said tersely.

Ipney just glared back at her, unrepentant.

The doctor sighed and said, "Regardless of your opinion of Copper as a person, unless you have some reason to say that the basic conditions that led us to this point have changed . . . . ?"

Ipney shook his head and she continued, "Then we still need to resolve Sable's attitude."

Standing, she moved around her desk to gain a physical edge over the seated officer. "They need a mission."

"They have a mission," Ipney snorted. "One that we've already wasted a month on, with nothing to show for it but some pretty strange expenses."

"What other problems are you facing right now - related to this mission but not the actual penetration of the safe house?" Ruth persisted.

"Nothing we can't handle," countered Ipney.

"Major, this is unproductive," snapped Dr. Ruth. "If you want to change the mission parameters - leaving Copper out of it - then say so. If not, then stop obstructing me in my program to prepare her."

"Fine," Ipney growled, equally sharp. For a moment it wasn't clear which of the doctor's options he would choose, then he shrugged and said, "I've been trying to get a line on the Coranzo finances. Their bookkeeper lives over in Vancouver. I could snatch him, but if there's an obvious government involvement they'll change all their plans. If your little darlin' is so skilled, have him get me a copy of the Coranzo books, and without revealing any government involvement."

"It will be a dual mission - Copper and Sable," Ruth reminded him.

"Damn right," Ipney retorted. "I'm not letting go of the little creep until this mission is over. I won't have him running back to Slow Eddy and blowing the whole operation. Sable will be his keeper."

"Very well," nodded Ruth.

**********************

The trial run mission briefing did not go well. Ipney started it by tossing a picture of Jonas Horner, the Coranzo accountant on the table. That was almost the end of the meeting as well.

"This is the target . . ," began Ipney.

"No way," Copper interrupted, reinforcing her negative words with negative body language as she crossed her arms below her breasts.

"You don't even know what the mission is yet," Ipney snapped.

"I don't have to know the mission, because I know this guy," replied the redhead, shifting her hands to her hips and glaring at the tall man. "If I get anywhere near him, he'll recognize me and we'll blow the whole deal."

"That's actually the point, dear," Ruth said quietly. "You need to demonstrate that you can move in your old, ah, 'circles' without being recognized. Don't you remember?"

"Um, yeah, but . . . I'm not ready yet."

"What is your problem?" asked Sable, entering the conversation. "You're healed from the implant surgery. We've done the 'mall trip' exercise and the 'evening at the opera.' You can pass just fine."

"Not with someone who knows me already."

"Hell, girl, you own mother wouldn't recognize you," the raven-haired girl laughed, but her smile was replaced by a frown almost as soon as it appeared.

Ruth's quiet voice was an anchor of stability in the edgy tension. "Copper, we are under some time pressure. If not this mission, then we would need to find something else that would confirm your success. It's time."

Ipney's snort brought a flare of heat to Copper's eyes, but before she could respond the major pointed again at the photo on the table. "So you know him. What do you know?"

"He keeps the books for the Coranzos," she answered tersely, relaxing enough to pick up the photo and look at it with honest attention.

"And . . . ?"

"And what?" she snapped. "That's what he does!"

The major's voice had a patronizing cadence, as though explaining the obvious to a dull child. "Where does he live? What are his habits? Where are the financial records kept?"

Chastened, Copper ducked her head. Then a shrug sent an interesting quiver through her hair - and more than her hair. "Vancouver. Some sort of dodge about search warrants, so he keeps the books outside of the US. As far as I know, he's a twerpy little family man with a little girl. The biggest part of his day is probably when he messes around in his garden, and I'll bet he wears a tie when he does that."

"Wife?" asked Ipney.

The redhead shrugged her slender shoulders. "Don't know. I figured she died or ran off before I joined the family."

Ipney's response surprised her. He nodded and said, "Good enough. Can you get into his house and search it?"

"Oh, I can get in," she asserted. "And I guess I can poke around once I'm inside, but you may not be interested in the sort of things I'd know how to find."

Once again, Ipney surprised her by accepting her assertion as a simple statement of fact. Then things deteriorated again when he said, ''Sable will need to go with you."

"No way," Copper declared. "I work alone."

Ipney was equally adamant. "Not any more."

Copper turned to Ruth for support. "Tell him, Doc. The reason I'm here is because there are things I can do that others can't match."

"Yes, there are," Ruth agreed calmly, then undercut the redhead's argument, "just as there are things that Sable can do that you cannot. Major Ipney is right. On this one, Sable needs to go as well. You can handle the details of security, but she is the lead agent who will ensure the mission objectives are met."

"I can handle it," Copper insisted, hating the whine she heard in her voice.

The worst thing was that no one even bothered to argue with her any further. Ipney just moved on to the mission goals, addressing Sable more than Copper. "You need to penetrate the house and get any financial records you can on the Coranzo family. We need to be sure it doesn't look like any government agency was involved, or Ells might warn off the terrorists. Can you do that?"

Sable was clearly surprised to be handed the responsibility for the mission, but her shoulders squared and she nodded her head with an attempt at military crispness. It didn't really work - her sensual motions and soft curves would never be considered 'crisp' - but Ipney was after the commitment, and that was received.

"Just, um, sneak in and out, with the records?" she confirmed.

Ipney's nod sparked a discordant snarl from Copper. "You are so full of shit . . . You think they won't notice that their books are missing?"

"No, Kincaid, I don't think that," Ipney replied with clipped stiffness. "I also don't think the Coranzo family financial records are dusty old ledger books full of quill pen scratchings. The records will be on Horner's computer, and can be copied without leaving any traces."

"Oh, and I suppose there will be a nice little help screen with an arrow labeled, 'Secret, illegal financial records here.'" Copper snapped. She turned to Sable and said, "I hope you're a computer whiz, because I sure as hell ain't. There weren't a lot of computers where I grew up."

"Copper," Ruth's calming voice intruded, "why don't we listen to the Major's plan?"

Ipney's scowl relaxed a bit, to make room for an undertone of smugness, as he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a small electronic device. "This is a PDA, a personal digital assistant. With a few hidden features."

He slid open a small port in the side of the device to reveal a connector socket. Ostentatiously turning again to the dark-haired agent, he said, "This PDA has enough memory to copy the entire contents of the hard drive on Horner's computer. You need to open the computer case, unplug the hard drive, and plug it into this socket. The PDA will automatically copy the whole drive. We can crack the passwords and extract the data later. Can you do that?"

"I, um, think so," Sable replied doubtfully.

Ipney handed her the little device, nodding gruff encouragement, then turned to Copper with her own orders - strictly limited, in keeping with his view of her contribution to the mission. "You will get Sable into Horner's study, and out again without detection."

The hard, bright glare in her eyes bounced off his weathered features without effect, absorbed into adamantine armor that did not slacken for a long angry moment.

"So you think I just might be useful after all?" she asked bitterly.

"Copper . . ," Ruth's voice interposed warningly before Ipney could reply.

That drew Copper's attention away from Ipney - or provided an excuse for her to look away. The slender thief focused on Sable, then sent shimmers through her bright hair with another shrug. "I can get in. If Sable will do what I tell her, I can get her in."

"And out? Without being detected?" Ipney demanded.

"Shit happens," replied Copper dryly. Then she sat forward in her chair and her eyes again burned into the tall officer. "The alarms won't be a problem. But we'll be in Horner's home. If he slips into his study for a little after-hours work, well . . . I can't promise nothing will go wrong."

"That's a risk we'll have to take," Ipney said dismissively.

"'We', paleface?" she snapped, then she stood up and faced the major, taut muscles undermining the impression of soft femininity she had learned to cultivate. "Just what do we do if Horner sees us, Major? You gonna come bail us out of jail?"

"There can't be any hint of government involvement . . . ," began Ipney, to be interrupted by Copper.

"Yeah, that's about what I thought," she sneered.

Ipney was about to resume his interrupted reply, but Ruth had caught something in the redhead's attitude. "Copper, you're planning something . . ."

"You don't want to know," replied the erstwhile gangster - a coiled-spring tightness underlying her poised grace and reminding them that she had also been a remorseless assassin.

With Ruth's hint, Ipney realized what Copper intended. To her surprise, he looked the redhead squarely in the eyes and said, "Get the records. Don't get caught. Don't make it look like government involvement. Is that clear?"

His blunt ruthlessness caught her off guard. For just a minute, there was genuine respect in her eyes. She started to hide it behind a sneer of disdain, but she had the wisdom to realize it was too late for that. Instead, she just nodded, then her grudging agreement was replaced by a frown.

"What about his daughter? What's her name?"

Ruth supplied the answer to that. "She, Megan, is away tonight on a school trip. It turns out the school received a grant for an overnight trip to visit some museums in San Francisco."

"Interesting coincidence," Copper dryly observed.

"Yes, isn't it?" responded Ipney just as dryly.

Copper gathered Sable up with a glance and moved toward the door. "I'll need some clothes," she said with a resurrected grin - artificial, but then, so were most of the mannerisms implanted by Dr. Ruth. However, it had the saucy seductiveness that showed she was fully in character again.

"Why am I not surprised?" Ipney said gruffly, but he also had a share of wisdom - enough to let her go with that consolation prize from the battle he had won. More or less.


Chapter 10 - "Give Me The Knife . . ."


"What do you like on your pizza?" asked Copper as they dressed for the mission - or more specifically, as they undressed to change into more suitable clothes.

Sable looked at the redhead like she had spoken in Sanskrit. "What?"

Copper’s grin teased Sable for long enough that the brunette's own glare started to heat up. But the explanation wasn't long in coming. "I need three things to set up this break-in. I need the alarms turned off for a couple of minutes. I need to know when that will happen, and I need to have Horner's attention focused on the front of the house at that same time. So . . ,"

Sable interrupted when understanding set in. "So you're going to order a pizza for Horner and do your, um, whatever when he answers the door."

"Exactly," Copper said. Then she frowned. "Damn, I wish I had my kit."

This time Sable was determined not to be so obtuse. "I assume that means the stuff you use to . . . sneak around." Her tone had started out neutrally, but by the end there was a sneer she couldn't hide.

"It's what I do," Copper said tightly, defending herself. Again.

"Indeed," Sable said, the sneer spreading from her tone to create a curl of pouty lip.

The curvy redhead just sighed and busied herself poking through a clutter of tools and electrical odds and ends on the dresser.

Sable forced her face into neutrality again, and mustered up a professional tone. "What do you need?"

Copper's shoulders lifted in a shrug - or a sigh. "For this, I'll need a lineman's phone, and . . . oh, hell. There were several things. Some magnets, jumper wires, jeweler's tools."

"Anything else?"

"I need my knife," Copper declared. "The one I had with me when you . . . "

"You're not going to kill anyone on this mission," Sable declared firmly.

"Good," Copper replied. "But I still need my knife. That's a tool, Sable, just like a screwdriver."

"One that you seem to be very ready to use," claimed the brunette.

"When I need to," Copper agreed unrepentantly. "When are you going to get off my back? I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again; you don't know what it was like where I grew up, what I had to put up with. You don't have any right to . . ."

"Oh, here we go again. What you grew up with? Don't even think about trying to use that whine on me. What you had to put up with was nothing compared to . . ."

Then, as before, a steel wall descended cutting off the rest of that thought. Instead, in cold, clipped tones Sable growled, "Make me a list of what you require and I'll look into it."

"Another pair of jeans, for one thing," Copper grumbled, though she accepted the change of topic.

Sable's own tones lost most of their anger in order to make room for tired resignation. "What's wrong with them?"

"They're too damn tight," Copper said, struggling to fasten up the ultra-low rise, ultra-tight pants.

"They look fine," countered Sable.

"Hell, they look great," Copper countered in turn. "But I can hardly bend over in them. If I do, they're likely to slip right off my butt."

The image tickled Sable enough that she had to grin. "That's why they're so tight - so they won't slip down. I'll be sure to watch and tell you if they do."

"Thanks," Copper replied dryly. "But I'm serious. I really need clothes I can move in better than these."

"Why don't you get something different? You told Ipney you needed to buy some clothes for the mission."

"I was just yankin' his chain," the redhead claimed. "As many clothes as I already have, I don't really need any more, unless you'll let me change the style."

"What we've provided fits the image we need for Copper, if we're going to catch . . . "

"Yeah, yeah, I know, Slow Eddy doesn't go for girls who dress like they're ashamed to be women. I've already had that lecture."

"So what do you want?" snapped Sable, her irritation returning.

"Hell, I don't know. Something I can move in. That won't look . . ."

"Dowdy?" provided Sable unkindly.

Copper didn't answer, but the look in her eyes showed enough genuine distress that Sable relented. "Look, I have an idea."

The shapely brunette went to the dresser and pulled out the elements of an exercise outfit - a dance outfit, really. Tights and a long-sleeve leotard, both in a shimmery black mixture of lycra and spandex. "You should be able to move in these."

"Oh, right, and no one will notice if I stroll around town in that!"

"Just hang on a minute. Put these on and I'll be right back."

In not much more than the promised minute, before Copper had finished closing the zipper at the back of the mock-turtle neck on the leotard, Sable was back.

"Here, wear this, too."

"A skirt?" asked Copper in disbelief. "That's no better than the damn jeans!"

"It's a dancer's wrap skirt," explained Sable. "Designed for just the problem you mentioned. It takes 30 seconds to put it on, and 2 seconds to take off. Wear it over your tights and it will look fine for the street. Then, if you need to . . ."

"Okay, I get it," Copper said grudgingly. Taking the cascade of cloth from the dark-haired girl, she tried to figure out how to put it on. Sable grinned at her confusion, but in not much more than 30 seconds the satiny forest-green material was falling sleekly around the redhead's legs.

"Well, at least it's longer than the ones you usually let me wear," Copper said, but a tentative smile showed genuine acceptance. Sable nodded, a smile of her own accepting the offer of truce. Copper's smile took on a teasing twist as she said, "So, aren't you gonna get one of your own?"

"Why? You're the . . . you're the one who has to get into the place."

"Where I lead, you'll have to follow."

"Oh," Sable replied quietly. Nodding, she found matching clothes for herself.

******************************.

"Hello, this is Jonas Horner, I'd like to order a pizza."

The masculine tones sounded strange coming from Copper's gleaming lips. Actually, the tones weren't all that masculine - not deep or gruff. There was a hint of pubescence, as though there was a risk that a newly-acquired voice would squeak back up into a childish treble. The order taker didn't demur though, and in a few seconds Copper pushed the button that disconnected her lineman's phone from the circuit. She did not disconnect the leads that bridged the gap to Horner's phone box, though.

Sable had already taken a step away when she realized that Copper wasn't moving.

"What's the matter?" the brunette asked the waiting thief.

"They're going to call back," Copper predicted. "I used to get that every now and then anyway, and I haven't been practicing with my real voice enough. I'll bet they think I'm a kid."

As expected, in a moment the handset buzzed. This time, Copper used the voice tones that had become more familiar to her. "Hello. No, this is Mrs. Horner. Yes, Jonas ordered a pizza. Yes, that's fine. Thank you."

"Told you," Copper said in satisfaction, then she frowned. "I shoulda had you do the call, or just claimed to be a Mrs. Horner in the first place."

Sable's shrug sent highlights flickering through her namesake hair. "Now what?"

"Now you find someplace you can see the front door, or at least the front drive, and where you can see the back of the house as well. I'll work my way around to the back. When the pizza guy gets here, wave at me or something."

"I can do better than that," Sable said. From her own pack - a handbag in the currently popular style with loops that could be used to carry it like a backpack - she pulled out a pair of headsets. Copper's recovery was very quick - a moment of surprise followed by a smile of congratulation - and they donned the lightweight microphones together.

Sable's voice sounded in the earpiece. "Testing, one, two . . "

"Yeah, right," Copper replied dryly. "Don't start goin' all geek on me."

Sable giggled, ran her hands down her own sleek legs - the dancer skirts had been shed as soon as they entered the shadows of Horner's landscaping - and struck a pose that did not look like a geek. Before Copper could react . . . other than a noticeable gasp . . . the dark-haired girl moved away to her observation point.

::What would you have done if I hadn't been here to watch for the pizza guy?:: the brunette's voice electronically whispered in Copper's ear.

"I'd'a climbed on the roof so I could see over the house," Copper whispered back. "But I didn't think you wanted to go in a third story window."

::Oh, yeah. I mean, no. I don't like heights.::

"A weakness in one of Ipney's agents? Heaven forbid."

::Up yours.:: Sable replied, but any impact of her words was undermined by the soft snicker that accompanied them.

"You wish," Copper said with a corresponding laugh.

After waiting for what seemed like a week, the humor in Sable's voice had been replaced with bored petulance. ::If that guy doesn't hurry up, there won't be much of a tip.::

"I don't think there's much chance of that anyway," Copper replied.

::Oh, right,:: Sable said, another giggle coming through the transmission. ::I forgot.::

Then a concern occurred to her. ::What if this wakes him up? I mean Horner. If he was asleep, and the pizza guy wakes him up, then . . . what if he decides to go do some work or something? In the study where we need to go.::

"Ssshhh," Copper warned. "Don't worry about it. We've got all night. Besides, he wasn't asleep."

::How do you know?::

"Because there's a light on in one of the second-story windows, and I've seen shadows move on the curtains. So he's awake, but not working in the study - at least not if the study is downstairs."

::And if the study is on the second floor? That very room?::

"Then we wait until he does go to bed. Now be quiet."

::Does that mean you don't want to know about the pizza truck pulling into the drive?::

Copper didn't bother to answer. She probably couldn't have even if she wanted to as Sable's whispered reports continued.

::Okay, the dude is at the door. Why do the fancy houses all have doorbells that aren't anywhere near the door? Okay, he's found it. Dum de dum de dee. Ringing the bell again. Checking his watch.::

::Oh! Light's coming on. The kid's saying something, but the door's still closed. Now the kid's starting to yell . . . Okay, the door is open!::

::Horner is shaking his head. He must have been ready for bed, because he's in a robe and slippers. They're arguing . . . . Horner is sending the pizza dude away. Poor kid. I wish we could pay him for the pizza. Okay, the door is closed and the light is off.::

There wasn't any reply in Sable's ear. ::Copper? You okay?::

Something pinched her leg through the shimmering nylon covering.

Her shriek was muffled as soon as it started, but the fire in her eyes when she turned on her assailant did not diminish when she saw the laughing eyes of Copper. For a moment, Sable's fist formed and it looked like she was going to try to wipe the smile of the redhead's face, but that only made it wider.

"Don't you ever do that to me again!" Sable hissed.

"You do like to talk, y'know?" taunted Copper, but she held her hands out in a sign of surrender - or at least of promise not to touch Sable again.

Sable was not entirely mollified, but she nodded and the fires in her eyes diminished. "Why'd you sneak up on me?"

"I thought about interrupting your play-by-play," explained Copper, "but you were having so much fun I decided just to come get you."

The redhead motioned for the dark-haired girl to follow, and moved back the way she had come. Sable realized in just a few steps that if it weren't for Copper's bright hair, the thief would have been invisible as she drifted like smoke to the back of the house. The branches that tugged at Sable seemed to glide by Copper, the leaves didn't rustle under her feet, even the buzz of crickets didn't pause - at least not until Sable blundered along, suddenly feeling very clumsy and lead-footed.

Copper took no notice of Sable's relative lack of grace, however, and in a few minutes they were at a partially opened window just above an artfully sculpted hedge.

"Do we have to go through there?" Sable complained.

"Not exactly," replied Copper, and while that wasn't immediately helpful, in another moment her meaning was clear as Copper had backed up, accelerated with deceptive speed, and bounced from a corner in the wall to the window sill, to perch like a gorgeous gargoyle.

"I can't do that," gasped Sable.

"I know," Copper agreed. "But inside this room are a couple of cushions on a couch. I'll put them on top of the hedge for you."

In a moment the protected pathway was in place. Sable took a few running steps of her own and jumped up to land on them, sprawling gracelessly but successfully on top of the tangle of hedge. With her redheaded guide's assistance, she managed to work her way through the now fully open window.

Copper's whispered words were no louder than her soft breath as they fell upon Sable's ear. "Okay, the alarms only work on perimeter openings - doors and windows - except the one I bypassed doesn't work now, of course. But voices, even whispers, carry so be quiet. And watch where you go, including your head and your feet. Chandeliers jangling are just as bad as footstools thumping. Okay?"

Given what seemed like their already perilously exposed situation, the lecture only served to make Sable that much more in a hurry to get started. Her agitation was plain in her hissed, “Can we please just go?”

Copper's answer surprised her, but the logic of it was compelling. "No, you can't go. Not yet. Just stay here and be quiet. I'll be back after I've scouted around a little."

**********

The room that Copper led her to a few minutes later was clearly some kind of study or home office. Thankfully, it was not completely dark. Sable was glad for the minimal illumination provided by a small lamp still burning over the desk.

Not too much furniture to worry about bumping into anyway, as it turned out. Just several file cabinets and bookcases against one wall and a fairly large desk complete with high-backed, leather executive’s chair. Copper was standing beside this chair, staring down at something on the desk.

“Fuck!” Copper’s growl was soft and breathy and objectively Sable knew it couldn’t have carried any distance. But still she jumped.

Creeping over to stand beside the redhead, Sable tried to whisper as softly as possible, little more than a modulated exhalation of the breath she was trying not to hold in her increasing anxiety. “What’s wrong?”

Copper pointed, and Sable saw a thin, ultra-modern laptop sitting next to the keyboard and monitor of a more conventional computer.

In that same soft, breathy tone, Copper whispered, “Now what?”

Sable bit her lip in thought and then whispered, “Can’t we just use the gizmo on both?”

“What if using it on the second one erases whatever we got from the first one, and the second one isn’t the right one?”

“Okay. Well, we just have to make sure we use it on the right one, right?”

Copper shook her head. “Which one’s the right one?” Some lights were showing on the keyboard for the larger computer, and Copper reached out to press a key, then stopped, her finger hovering above the ‘enter’ key. “Is this thing gonna make a noise when I … you know … ‘power it up’ or ‘power it on’ or whatever?”

Sable tried, desperately, to remember if her own computer made a noise when it woke up from ‘slumber mode’ – a mode she very rarely used. “Umm … I think it only makes that … musical thing … when you first turn it on. Not when you wake it up.”

“You ‘think’? You’re not sure?”

“Umm …”

Again Copper’s words came out in that soft, breathy growl. “Fuck it.” Sable’s heart skipped a beat when Copper pushed the ‘Enter’ key. The left-hand monitor returned to life, glowing a bright, cheerful … silent … blue. She started to breathe a sigh of relief, but the relief was very short-lived.

There was a dialogue box sitting squarely in the middle of the screen.

::Enter Password::

Copper shook her head and whispered, “I was afraid of that.”

“What do we do now?”

For what seemed like an agonizingly long moment, Copper stood there, staring at the monitor and its mocking demand. Then, even more softly and more chillingly than the growl that preceded it, Copper breathed, “We get the passwords.” And she turned toward the door.

But before she could take more than a step, Sable grabbed Copper’s arm. She knew she was speaking too loudly, more than the whisper she wasn’t supposed to be using anyway, but she couldn’t help it. “Wait! What do you mean, ‘get the passwords’? Get them how?”

Copper tried to tug her arm free. “How do you think? I’ll go ‘ask’ Horner.”

“No!”

“Shh!”

“Fuck ‘shh’! He’s gonna see you! He’ll remember your face. It’ll spoil everything. We can’t leave a witness.”

There was just enough of a pause before Copper’s answer that, when she spoke, an icy thrill skated down Sable’s spine. “No. We can’t, can we?”

Sable dropped Copper’s arm and retreated a step, colliding with the leather swivel chair. “God! You wouldn’t!”

“Watch me. Or better yet, you stay here. Until you grow up a little. You heard what Ipney said, and he knew as well as I did that he was signing Horner's death warrant when he said it. I gave it a shot, but I knew it would come to this. I’ll be back in … a while. You stay here. Stay quiet.”

“No! You bastard! Come back!”

But Copper was out the door and gone. Sable took a step to follow, but that was all she could manage. Her heart hammered in her chest. It couldn’t be real. It didn’t happen this way. People didn’t really go off to calmly kill someone. Nobody was really that cold. That cruel.

Another thrill ran down her spine. Except she knew that people were that cold and cruel.

And more so, sometimes. Like those who wanted to kill thousands of innocents - those for whom Horner was working. But . . . she was different, and Ipney and Dr. Ruth. They weren't . . . murderers. Even Copper had changed, hadn't she?

Out of the corner of her eye, she again noticed that bright-as-a-summer-sky blue screen. The password. All she had to do was get the password and it would all stop. Frantically, she lunged for the keyboard …

And then realized she didn’t have even the beginnings of a clue as to where to start. Passwords. What would Horner use for a password?

There was a soft thump from somewhere upstairs. Not a body hitting the floor. Not any kind of noise she could readily identify. But it was starting.

H-O-R-N-E-R

::Password Incorrect::

Stupid! Who used their own name as a password?

Another noise from upstairs – someone moving and a muffled voice. Not words. Just an inarticulate grunt. Of surprise? Of fear?

R-E-C-O-R-D-S

::Password Incorrect::

No! The records are what you want, not a password. Think!

Voices upstairs. Too low to hear the words. A man talking. Two men?

Her fingers hung over the keys. Nothing. No idea. Think! What would he use for a password? What would he remember? Something important.

There was a picture on the desk, off to one side. A prematurely balding little man with his arms around a serious-faced little girl perhaps five or six years old. It even had one of those little brass plaques beneath the photo. The kind of plaque you put on important memories. ‘Megan’s Sixth Birthday. 2/18/97’

M-E-G-A-N

::Password Incorrect. Passwords must include at least 6 characters::

Another thump. More voices. She couldn’t hear the words. Two voices, though. Horner and . . . . oh, God, it was Jimmy's voice.

Jimmy, the killer.

M-E-G-A-N-9-7

The little dialogue box disappeared and the familiar Windows desktop appeared in its place.

“I’m in! I’m in! Jimmy, stop! … I’m in!”

Voices again. Horner and Jimmy talking again. Horner still alive, at least. Files … where would they be? ::Start:: …::My Computer:: … ::Local Disk C:::

Too many files! Programs. All those weird, meaningless computer things with the strange icons that weren’t programs or files or anything she understood. That nobody understood. “Jimmy! Stop! I’m in!” But there was a commotion upstairs now and he didn’t hear. Where were they? The files. They had to be …

Numbered folders. Five. Six. Ten. Numbers like dates! Like dated records!

“You bastard! STOP! I’ve found them! Don’t …”

Double click on one of the numbered folders. Wait for the new catalog of contents to pop up. Loading. Thumbnails. Too slow! Double click on one of the blank place-holders. There! Loading! “Bastard! Stop! I’ve …”

Not files.

Pictures.

Not files . . . Pictures


A balding little man and a little girl. But not serious-faced. Not now. Not here.

It was like falling down a long, dark hole. The memories …

“Daddy … no! Please … You’re hurting …”

“Shh … Daddy loves you. Daddy loves you.”

“Daddy …stop. Please don’t! Please …”

A dozen years of living hell boiled up from Sable's past, burning away the sleek elegance of the grown-up woman. But what filled the residual emptiness was not the weak child of those memories. Something hot and implacable burned in her obsidian eyes as they looked from the screen to the door out of the room.

A dark angel flew up the stairs.

Vengeance.

Anger.

Death.

Death that was no longer to be feared, but embraced. Cherished.

Shared.

The tableau that she found did not affect her - not after what she had already seen. The man with the woman's appearance was taunting the beast with the man's appearance, threatening with a knife that gleamed from the reflection of the light of a knocked-over lamp.

But taunting was not enough. Threats were not adequate.

Not for this beast. Not for this . . . evil.

In the doorway, the dark angel growled. "Give me the knife."




Chapter 11 - "Mission Focus"


"Get out of here," Jimmy's voice snarled from Copper's ripe lips. He pulled the knife back as he looked away from the object of his attention - leaving a tiny dot of blood on his target's pallid chest. His victim's face was covered in a pillowcase, and his body was tautly bound with phone cord.

"Give me the knife," Sable screeched, her voice rising into tones that etched already-taut nerves. At her first demand for the weapon, the man threatened by the knife had sagged in relief . . . as much as he could sag within the tight, wire that left him bound in a ball. But his relief had vanished quickly when her voice had risen into shrieking anguish on the repeated demand.

"Give me the knife," she screamed again, moving forward. "I'm gonna . . . I'm gonna cut that slimy shit's dick off and feed it to him. I'm gonna cut his worthless heart out and piss in the hole. I'm gonna . . . "

"Sable, what's wrong?" Jimmy asked, holding the weapon away from the frantically grabbing brunette.

"That . . . that thing is wrong. That thing that pretends to be a man, pretends to be a father, pretends to be . . to be human," she shouted switching her attack from the knife she couldn't reach to the trussed-up accountant she could reach. Her slender, fine-boned hands started slapping at Horner, then balled up to pound at his hidden face, at his head, at his chest.

"Dammit, Sable, what are you talking about?"

The nagging demand to explain didn't relieve the brunette's anger, but the need to form words forced a focus to Sable's thoughts, a focus that linked words to actions. Each word was accented with a slap or a kick or a punch. "This. Filthy. Pervert. Does. Things. To His Own. Daughter. And. Keeps. PICTURES!"

A guided toe found a fragile target and Horner screamed. All that did was reward Sable with a sense of success, and her foot tried to find its way to that target again. Jimmy wrapped the flailing woman in his arms and pulled her away from the helpless man.

She was close enough to reach for the knife in Jimmy's hand again, but not fast enough to get it. Not nearly fast enough to counter the redhead's fluid speed and sharp focus. That focus, sharper than the gleaming blade, is all that saved Sable's fingers as they snatched and fluttered, vibrating with an external sign of the torment that gripped her.

Jimmy fended off her frantic motions for a moment, but one wild swing gained Sable a sliced finger and the lithe assassin had enough. A snake-quick hand slapped the brunette sharply on her cheek.

"Sable, settle down!"

The tall girl collapsed to the ground like the impact of the redhead's hand had flipped a switch disconnecting her from her power supply. For an instant, Jimmy was afraid he had knocked her out, but Sable curled into a tight fetal ball as soon as she reached the floor.

"Don't hit me, Daddy," she whimpered softly. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I won't do it again, Daddy. Please . . ."

"Oh, god," Copper gasped, masculinity banished from her tones and manner at the sight of the helpless child in an adult's quivering body. She kneeled beside the brunette and softly stroked her hair. "It's okay, Sable honey. It's okay."

It took several minutes, but the soothing - and very feminine - tones of Copper's voice, coupled with the gentle, asexual stroking of Sable's long dark hair finally reached where ever Sable had gone. Her eyes opened and she looked at her anxious friend.

"Copper?"

"Yes," the kneeling woman replied simply.

"Copper, I . . . I just . . . I mean . . ."

"Shhh," Copper interrupted a sentence that had no destination. She helped Sable to sit up, carefully shielding her from the sight of the trussed-up accountant.

It wasn't enough. Sable's eyes narrowed again and she started to struggle. "You don't know what he did! What he does! What he . . what he is!"

"I can guess, Sable," Copper said, still holding the struggling brunette in surprisingly strong arms.

After a moment, a long moment when Sable's sobs had softened to silent tremors, Copper gently squeezed her shaking shoulders. "Sable, honey, why don't you go back downstairs and, um, see what you can find out? I'll, ah, finish up here."

Sable's mane rippled, and she shifted her weight. Before letting her go, Copper asked, "Are you going to be okay?"

A shrug from slender shoulders was hardly satisfying, but it was enough to secure her release.

When Copper headed for the study a short while later, she found the brunette slumped against the hallway wall, knees pulled up to her chin and dark hair hiding her face. The lithe redhead slid soundlessly next to her, startling Sable despite a gentle touch that was intended to comfort.

"Don't touch me!" snapped Sable, jerking away. She kept her face hidden in her hair and didn't see the look of pain that clouded Copper's sea-green eyes. From the depths of the cloud of darkness that hid her, Sable said, "I just couldn't go back in there."

"It's okay."

"I just, if I had, I'd have, I would have thrown that computer out the window, or . . . I just couldn't . . ."

"It's okay," Copper repeated.

"You have no idea what sort of filth is on there, what sort of filth that beast did."

"I know," Copper's soft tones said soothingly. "It's okay."

The redhead leaned back against the wall, close enough that her shoulder just brushed Sable's tight form, and asked a surprising question. "Do you know why I started killing? The first time, I mean?"

"What?" Sable said, confused at the non sequitur. "Huh?"

"The first man I ever killed was groping my little sister. All I had was a brick, and . . . "

"A brick? I don't . . . What are you saying?"

"I had a brick, and I smashed him. Until I ran out of brick."

"You. Oh my god." Copper's gentle tones took away the physical triggers for Sable's rage, but the redhead's words reached the center of Sable's conscious anger and forced her to think about the image those soft words described.

"Believe me, Sable, I hate men who . . . who do things to little girls as much as you do."

"You can't," the dark-haired girl whispered. "You can't know what it's like." But her anger seeped away, to be replaced by tears.

"No, I don't suppose I can," agreed Copper in a matching whisper. "But I promise you that he paid for what he did."
"Not enough!"

Copper sighed and said, "The rest is not up to me."

She stood and moved silently into the study. Sable's head came up enough that she could watch her partner go, unable to hide from the need to know what Copper would do in the chamber of horrors she had found in the room's computer. A moment later the redhead returned, holding the laptop.

Sable looked at her red-haired partner and asked, "What did you do? Upstairs, I mean."

"We need the laptop," Copper replied, not answering. "I don't know the passwords, but if we take the whole thing, Ipney should have what he wants. In any event, the financial records are on the laptop."

"What did you do to Horner?"

"What was required," Copper replied flatly. When Sable just stared, the redhead handed the slim portable computer to the dark-haired agent. "Get this out of the house, and meet me where we dropped our skirts. I'll be there in a couple of minutes."

"What are you going to do?"

"Make it look like another family did this," explained Copper, still holding out the laptop. Sable sent a searching glace at her compatriot, yet it yielded her nothing. Taking the laptop without comment, the dark-haired girl stood and turned toward the hall that led back to their point of entry.

"Don't bother," Copper said. "Go out the front door if you want. It won't matter now."

* * * * * * *

When the girls reported for their debriefing with Ipney the next morning, the major was reading the morning paper. Prominent on the page was a photo of a raging fire. He made them wait while he ostentatiously read the entire article, his finger tracking the column edge to record his progress. When he had finished, he looked up..

Part of what he saw was not surprising. Copper lounged casually in a comfortable chair, dressed in a dangerously short skirt, long nails sensually playing with the hem as she waited - wide, innocent eyes betraying no awareness of the provocative gesture. Her hair shone, her makeup was flawless, and her mocking grin was both challenge and invitation.

Sable, on the other hand, looked like she had been in a fight all night - and lost. One cheek was puffy and there was already a bruise showing. Her eyes were ringed with a darkness that owed nothing to makeup, and her hair would be a long, painful ordeal when she was finally forced to deal with it.

Ipney's eyes showed a flicker of something unexpected. His deliberately applied frown of disgust softened into still-frowning concern and he motioned Sable to another seat. Before he spoke, he looked at the fourth occupant of the room, looking for insight into the problems facing one of his agents.

Only then did he begin to speak - or try to - but before could get a single word out, Sable herself made a statement. "Here is my report on last night's activities. And my resignation."

Once again, Ipney was too slow. This time it was Copper who spoke.

"You can't!"

Another layer of anguish darkened Sable's eyes, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "You know why I have to do this."

Ipney had been scanning Sable's report even as they argued. However, it was not his day for making any points he wanted to make - so much for being nominally in charge of the meeting - and once again his momentary delay cost him. This time it was Ruth whose voice filled the moment.

"Why don't you tell us why you feel that way?"

However, it was Copper who responded to her offer. And her words were for Sable. "I need you."

"You don't need anyone," Sable whispered, almost a moan. "Least of all me."

"Why don't you tell us why you feel that way?" Ruth repeated, determination underlying her pleasant tones.

Sable sagged into her chair and held her face in her hands. Silent sobs shook her shoulders, but she wasn't allowed to hide for long.

Copper knelt before her, and with gentle yet implacable force, pulled the manicured hands away from the brunette's face. "Sable, I do need you. More than ever. Don't you see? You're the only thing that keeps me from being . . . from being as bad as you think I am."

What passed between them at Copper's words was not what either expected. And not something that could be handled right then. Ruth recognized the importance of that moment for the two people she had come to care for very much. And for all of them it was a good thing she knew what to do.

Which was merely to ask yet another time, "Why don't you tell us what happened?"

"I screwed up," Sable said flatly. "I lost control. I couldn't handle it when I found out . . . when I saw . . . "

At the memory, she burst into tears and tried to pull her hands back to her face. Copper came with them and sheltered the shaking shoulders of the distraught girl. Turning to Ipney, the redhead said, "That's not true, not enough to matter, anyway."

"Losing control always matters," declared Ipney stiffly.

"Not when it helps the mission," Copper countered. "It was just good-cop/bad-cop, and it worked out for the best."

At Copper's claim, Sable's head came up and she looked sharply at her defender. Ruth's hand forestalled any further comment by Ipney, then invited Copper to continue.

"I was, ah, trying to convince Horner to tell us which computer had the financial records on it," she began. An accusatory look at Ipney preceded her next comment. "You didn't tell us he had two computers, and we didn't know if we could copy both of the hard drives on your little thingy. Hell, I'm not sure I could figure out the connections for a laptop hard drive, or if it was compatible. So I went up to find Horner."

She shrugged and said, "Sable actually managed to figure out the password to the computer, the main one, I mean, and came up to tell me. She was upset because of what she found - apparently Horner was some piece of work - but her anger just, ah, convinced Horner we were serious. After that, he talked."

"And you killed him," Ipney accused.

However, his accusation didn't provoke any remorse from Copper. "Yes, I did. And I'd do it again to someone who had done what Horner did to his daughter. But not until I found out the laptop had the files. Besides, that's what it took to make it look like family business."

"By burning down the whole house?"

Copper just smiled - a smile that did not look friendly at all.

"Sable's report said she fought you for the knife," Ipney supplied, pointing at the file.

"Is that what she called it?" Copper said, laughing. Turning to the dark-haired girl he said, "If that's how you fight, girl, we need to talk."

Ipney's scowl didn't lighten to match Copper's levity, and he returned to the key issue. "If she lost control, and put the mission at risk . . . "

"She didn't," Copper declared. "She was angry, but so what? Who wouldn't be with what she found?" Once again, an elegantly arched brow implied it was Ipney who was not measuring up. "Her actions ended up helping. We completed the mission. Or at least we did if your experts can get what they need from the laptop."

Ipney gave him a long, piercing look, but it bounced off Copper's calm countenance without a mark. His glare turned to Sable with more effect, but before the brunette could say anything Ruth made an accusation of her own, however gently it was delivered.

"Sable, dear, you didn't tell me you were abused as a child."

Slender shoulders moved in a shrug. "Like that would have mattered, considering what I was like when you found me."

"It would have mattered a great deal, Sable, and in fact it still does. We need to talk."

Sable shrugged again, not giving any corresponding assurance. Still, it was enough to shift the focus from the mission just past to what was yet to come.

Ipney finally managed to reclaim control of the meeting, opening a folder of his own. "As it happens, we did get the information we needed from the laptop, and more. In fact, for the first time we know the name of the terrorist organization we're facing."

He paused at that announcement, savoring the attention he had finally achieved from his nominal subordinates. "They call themselves something that translates as, 'Shining Scimitar' and see themselves as the holy sword of their god."

His tone changed to one of greater portent, but his words carried the message regardless of tone. "Their intention is to release a biotoxin - that's a poison that is derived from biological organisms rather than chemical processes, similar to what the Soviets did in Afghanistan - into the air over Seattle harbor as soon as they can get it here."

"What is this, um, biotoxin like?" asked Copper.

"I don't know," admitted Ipney. "The data weren't specific. It's got a name, but it's only figurative: 'Infidel's Judgment.'"

Copper stood from where she still protected Sable and drew the dark-haired girl with her. "So what do we do now?"

There was just enough emphasis on the 'we' to make it clear what Ipney should do with Sable's resignation, but the major's smug smile showed he was not giving up that lever. He took the sheet, read through it quickly, then carefully turned it face down before sliding it into the folder with the night's mission record. Translation: Resignation on hold, but not forgotten.

Copper's full lips curled into a sneer that was a prelude to a more permanent resolution of the issue. But this time, she was the one to be interrupted.

"Next," Ruth declared in answer to the last spoken question, "I need to talk with Sable. Well, actually I think the next thing is that she should get herself cleaned up a little. But I want to talk with her before there are any other mission orders."

She barely glanced at Ipney for confirmation, but he gave it with good grace. "Of course. It will take us a while to decide on the next step anyway. Though time is clearly getting shorter."

"Of course," Ruth replied with equal grace. Focusing on Sable, she asked, "Why don't you let me buy you a cup of coffee?"

Sable was like a sleeper recovering from a dream too horrible for the real world, yet one that couldn't be escaped by waking. Blinking her eyes, looking from one to the other, she was obviously out of her depth. She had entered the room steeled for a harsh, final scene only to find it transformed into new hope. The pressure she had braced herself against had vanished so abruptly she was unbalanced and struggling to find a new equilibrium. But she knew if anyone could help her with that, it was Ruth, and if all she had to do was agree to talk with Ruth, the brainpower to form that decision was within her capacity. Nodding, she let Ruth shepherd her from the room.

"You are really a piece of shit," Copper snapped at the seated major as soon as the other women had left the room.

Ipney's eyes showed a flash of surprise, but that transmuted to anger of his own even as he slid his chair back from the desk.

"Listen, punk, we've been down this road before . . . "

"Fuck you, asshole," the redhead snapped, laser-hot eyes spearing into the tall man. "Anytime, any place, but this is not about me."

"What?"

"You had no right to slam Sable that way," Copper declared. "You have no idea what she's been through."

"That is because she hid her past from us," Ipney said pedantically.

"Oh, get real. You are so fucking clueless you couldn't find your way out of your own asshole with a compass and a map."

Ipney's fist slammed down on the desk and he growled, "I don't have to take this from you, punk."

"That's the whole fucking point, asshole. You've never had to 'take it' from anyone. Don't you see it doesn't matter exactly what happened to Sable before, because something like it happens to all of us? All of us who didn't grow up as perfumed princes."

"I'll have you know . . . " Ipney began.

Copper's sneering interruption cut as deeply as her laser-hot eyes. "Don't even start. I already know your story."

"You know? How did you penetrate our security?"

Copper's full lips curled into a bitter laugh. "God, you are so fucking clueless! I know your story because I've seen tough guys like you a thousand times."

Ostentatiously ignoring the implied threat of Ipney's angry stance, she draped herself into a comfortable chair and laughed. "Let me tell you about you. You were the hero of your high school football team - quarterback, of course. But you weren't quite good enough to be recruited for one of the real football factories, so you told yourself you went to a second-rate cow college because the academic program was better. Four year letterman but it was clear the pros weren't going to be interested. Mechanical Engineering major that drifted into Construction and then Industrial Engineering, and by your junior year you knew you weren't getting a decent job so you went ROTC. All the right Army schools, but never in the right place to see real action."

"You've never actually killed anyone, have you tough guy?" she challenged.

Ipney's fist had tightened as the slim redhead had begun her monologue, but by the time she finished, a wry grin had settled onto his features. Sitting in his own chair, he said, "Civil Engineering all the way, and Tau Beta Pi. And for your information, I have indeed killed people - in the service of my country, not murder."

Copper's nails flashed as she airily waved away the corrections. "The point is, you have no idea what it's like growing up outside your little whitebread gated communities. Even if you saw some of the underside of the world once you were in the Army, it's just not the same."

"Perhaps not," Ipney admitted. "But you know what, punk? I don't care. Even if I grant you that Sable's childhood - and yours - were tougher than mine, I don't care. All I care about is stopping those terrorists from killing a lot of innocent citizens. If she can't cut it - regardless of why - she's out."

"She'll be okay," Copper insisted, but her eyes didn't meet Ipney's. Then her sea-green gems did meet Ipney's eyes directly, but this time the laser-bright glare was missing. In its place was a need that said much more than her stammering words. "She'll be okay," the redhead repeated softly. "And I do need her. I . . . "

Her voice trailed off, and her eyes dropped. When she spoke again, it was soft, and all trace of her previous mocking confidence was gone. "I, um, I may have been as, I may have been the punk you say I am, but . . . but things are different now. And it's because of Sable, because . . . I need her."

"Shit!" Ipney snapped. "I do not need adolescent hormones screwing up this mission even more than it already is."

Copper's eyes flared with new heat as she snapped to her feet. "No, Major Asshole, but you do need me. And I need Sable. So deal with it!"

With that, she turned and left the room.




Chapter 12 - "Toughness"


The Sable who knocked softly on Copper's door that afternoon was hardly the icon of sensuality who had so flustered Jimmy Kincaid. But her face was scrubbed clean - clean enough to make her very red eyes quite noticeable - and her hair had been brushed.

"Dr. Ruth said we should talk," she reported.

Copper nodded and motioned her into the room. The space should have been familiar, but it seemed to fascinate Sable. Her dark eyes looked all around - everywhere but at Copper.

"Would you like some coffee?" her hostess offered. Sable's shrug was as neutral as the offer, but it provided an excuse to do more than stand around awkwardly.

Not that Copper was full of conversational topics herself. Actually, that was wrong. There were a lot of things she wanted to talk about - just none that she could talk about.

* * * * * * *

While the two prettiest members of the team were sharing coffee, the two older members were doing the same. Ipney was again seated behind his desk, this time regarding the psychotherapist. His mug bore what to Ruth’s eye seemed a rather ‘pushy-macho’ skull wearing a black beret, leering at her from above a Latin rendition of the words ‘Who dares, wins.’

"Kincaid challenged me again today," he said tightly.

Ruth couldn't stop herself from looking around the room for signs of damage. Ipney noticed and laughed grimly. "Not physically. But she is the most insubordinate, arrogant . . . "

His list of Copper's sins was interrupted by the slow clapping of the doctor's hands. That did little to reduce his anger, but it did add a quizzical lift to his brow.

"That's the first time you've referred to Copper as a woman. At least, the first time without me nagging you into it."

The major shrugged, but a wry grin showed briefly. "When you're looking at her, she's quite convincing. I'll grant you that."

"And quite competent," Ruth offered.

He shrugged again, but after a moment, honesty forced a nod. Then an introspective look showed on the harsh planes of his face. "How much did you tell her about me?"

"Why, nothing," Ruth answered, surprised at the question. "As far as I know, Copper doesn't even know what branch of the service you're from, or if you're even really a military officer."

"Well, Kincaid sat right there and described my past, as close as if he - she - had read a report on me."

"I told you she was smart."

"Cunning, like a damn fox," he snorted.

"Foxy, at least," she said, not quite agreeing.

Ipney granted her another wry grin. But it was short lived. Quickly, yet another frown replaced it. He didn't say anything though, leaning back in his chair and looking away.

Ruth frowned herself, and sighed. "Sable."

"Sable," Ipney agreed.

"She will meet your needs," promised Ruth.

"She lost control," he countered.

Ruth regarded him for a moment, then asked, "In all the world, what are you most afraid of, Major? What turns your stomach with disgust, and makes your bowels run with fear? Hmmm?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Courage," she answered cryptically. "How brave are you?"

"Brave enough," he snapped. "But my courage is not at issue."

"No, I don't suppose it is," she agreed. "I was just trying to help you see how much courage Sable has."

"Courage? She cracked at the first moment of stress."

"'First moment of stress?" she laughed. "You have no idea."

A sad look darkened her normally calm features, and she continued. "Whatever your worst fear in life is, I can tell you what hers is. Her father raped her from the time she four years old. She fears - and hates men - more deeply than you or I could ever imagine."

Ruth's eyes narrowed and she stood up in agitation. "And we assigned her to let a greasy hood like Eddy do whatever he wanted with her."

"You told me that she was a hooker when you found her," Ipney protested.

"Yes, she was. I didn't realize why, until now, but it was clear she had a lot of self-hatred when I found her. I though that would allow her to handle the, ah, nature of her assignment. But it was worse than I thought."

"Much worse," she whispered, sitting down again. After a moment she looked at Ipney and said, "It took more courage than I have, Major, to do what she feared most and make it seem . . . acceptable. More courage than you have either, I'll bet."

"She still cracked under pressure," he insisted.

"Perhaps," Ruth replied. "But consider this. When she lost control, and was reduced to the level of instinct, what did she do? Did she run and hide, or . . .?"

"She attacked," Ipney replied, seeing the doctor's point. "Incompetently," he concluded.

"Which was just as well, for the mission," Ruth pointed out.

She stood again, and moved toward the door. "She is brave, braver than I knew. And she is tough. Both of them are a lot tougher than you give them credit for. And I believe that the conditions that led us to believe we needed Copper remain."

"As Copper so correctly recognized, she needs Sable," the doctor concluded, then sighed. "This is not the way I would have preferred things to resolve, but at least we can expect Sable will work with Copper now. Sable has gained an, ah, 'understanding' of Copper that she didn't have before. She will not longer see Copper as someone too flawed to work with. And that was our objective for this unfortunate mission, was it not?"

She didn't even wait for Ipney's nod before turning to leave.

* * * * * * * *

Something had to break the strained silence between the two young women, and when it was clear that Sable's contemplation was even more inward focused than her own - and likely to stay that way - Copper said, "It's true, you know."

"Huh? What's true?"

"I do need you," Copper explained, her voice soft, yet echoing with depth beyond the artifice of training.

"Not much," Sable replied bitterly. "I don't know why you covered for me in there, but you know as well as I do that I blew it last night."

"Maybe," Copper agreed, surprisingly, "but you also made the mission last night, or at least, you made it possible for me."

"Do you know what I worry about the most?" Copper asked. At Sable's shrug, she continued, "I worry about becoming exactly what you think I am. Maybe becoming it . . . again."

Sable's eyes narrowed in a frown, and she tried to disagree. "You don't know what I think."

"Close enough," Copper insisted. "You think I'm, well, you think I'm pretty much the way Ipney says I am. A thug, and a heartless killer. Right?"

Sable's dark lips tried to deny it, but before the words were out of her mouth, the truth was in her eyes. Yet it was accompanied by doubt, and Copper carefully didn't let herself shout with joy at that doubt.

"I might be," admitted Copper. "And that's why I need you. To keep me, um, to keep me human."

"Human?"

"Someone who cares, someone who, who feels things. About people. Someone who truly can't kill without remorse."

"You did last night," accused Sable.

"No, actually not," Copper denied. "In fact, if you hadn't come up, I . . . Well, it doesn't matter."

"What? If I hadn't come up . . .?"

"It's nothing. Water under the bridge."

"You're saying you only killed Horner because of me?"

Copper looked away from her questioner, idly letting long nails draw moisture trails through a spot of water on the table.

Sable's voice raised in volume and force. "You only killed him because of me?" she repeated.

"I didn't kill him because of you. Or at least, almost didn't," Copper replied cryptically. Realizing it was not going to be sufficient, she closed her eyes and sagged against the chair. "Once upon a time, I only, um, did things to people I felt deserved it. Bad people. People who had gotten around the law, around justice, so I was really doing like, a noble thing, y'know?"

Her bright eyes sought out Sable's dark ones for confirmation, but all she really found was confusion. At least it wasn't argument, so the redhead continued. "Maybe that was even true, in the beginning. But I wasn't Eddy's only, um, enforcer. And the others seemed so, like, proud, y'know? Like they didn't care who they hurt, because they had the power and that was all that mattered."

Copper sighed, and the anguish that darkened her sea-water eyes made her look more like Sable than either would have realized. "I was . . . I was too much like that myself. Until I met you."

"That's Ruth," Sable said. "She made you, she worked on you."

Copper's slender hand reached out to touch Sable's wrist. Her voice was faint, but it was clear. "I said I changed when I met you, Sable. Not when I met Ruth. Or at least, I started to change when I met you."

"You never, I mean, Jimmy never said like, three words in a row to me," protested Sable.

The redhead closed her eyes for a long moment, then stood abruptly to move across the room, distancing herself from the dark-haired girl, the separation saying more about her self-image than about Sable. Returning to the topic she had chosen instead of the one brought up by Sable, Copper said, "Because of you, I hated what I did. But I did it anyway."

"That was because Eddy held your family hostage."

"That was my excuse," Copper declared, the bitterness now in her tone.

"So, how does this make it my fault you killed Horner?"

"I didn't say that," snapped Copper.

"Close enough."

Copper obviously wanted to talk about something else, and for a long moment she avoided looking at Sable. But the lithe redhead had to know how Sable would react to her revelation, so she turned her sea-green eyes on the still-seated brunette.

"I had a plan, probably a stupid one, but a way to keep from having to kill Horner," claimed Copper. "I went into his room in the dark, and I had him tied up with his head in a bag before I turned on the light."

"And I used a man's voice," she concluded. "I thought I could convince him it had been a rival family."

"Then I came in," Sable said, remembering.

A flicker through Copper's bright tresses sent confirmation. "After that, it was clear a woman was involved and none of the families in this area have female enforcers. The families are pretty old fashioned that way."

"So Horner had to die," Sable said quietly. She stood and moved over to her tense companion. Then she shocked Copper with a harsh, edged tone. "I don't care. That son of a bitch . . . well, in Texas where I grew up, we had a saying. 'He needed killin.'"

She put her arms around the smaller girl and said, "Oh, Copper, it was never about you - my unwillingness to, to work with you. Except, you're like, um, two people."

"No shit," Copper replied dryly.

"That's not what I meant and you know it," Sable said shortly, not amused. "When I see you, when I look at you and see you move and all of that, you're a beautiful, sensual woman and I truly enjoy our time together."

"But . . ?" prompted Copper.

"But then I'd remember, um, who you like, really are," stammered Sable.

"A killer."

"A man," Sable corrected, bitterness returning to her tones. "My father was a man. An animal on two legs. I . . . hate men."

Now she turned away from comforting the redhead to look out the window. Now it was her turn to offer physical distance as a way to preclude an emotional commitment. Behind her, Copper's shoulders slumped with rejection.

Sable's voice was directed at the window. "I know I, um, rode you pretty hard about, about your past life. But that was never the issue. It was my excuse. I haven't been innocent since I was," she stopped and turned around to face Copper directly. "Since I was four! I've been soiled goods since I was four!"

"Oh, Sable," Copper cried, "I'm so sorry." Then another implication of Sable's words came to her. "But, you're with, I mean, you and Eddy . . . ?"

"It's not a job I enjoy," Sable replied in a whisper.

Copper flowed across to the dark-haired girl with grace that made the distance meaningless. "I'm so sorry. I never knew. I'm so sorry."

She took Sable in her arms, in the comforting embrace of a sister, and one they both needed.

* * * * * * * *

The slender redhead in the black party dress roused from her reverie, looking around to refocus on the hallway toward the strippers' dressing room. Sighing, she glided sensually toward the main room of the club, though she had definitely had enough partying for the night. A nightcap before she called a cab would be a good idea. God knows she had a lot to think about.



Chapter 13 - "Rule Number 1: Treat Me Like A Lady"


A note had been slipped under Copper's door when she woke the next morning. It was unsigned, but Copper would have recognized the tone even if the handwriting were unfamiliar - actually, hand printing in neat, soulless block capitals.

MANDATORY MEETING: DR. LANGERHAUS' OFFICE. 0900 HRS.

"Major Ipney, giving orders just to remind us he's supposed to be in charge," she muttered. Unfortunately, his meetings were typically short, to the point, and conveyed useful information so it wasn't a good idea to skip them just to show a little independence.

"Damn little," she muttered again, but she headed to the bathroom.

When the appointed time came, Copper was at the door. Well, she was a few minutes late, but that wasn't all a bad thing. First off, it made the point she wasn't his lapdog to jump whenever he spoke.

And besides, she was just running a little late. The first outfit she chose was just too dressy for a morning meeting, and her tracksuit didn't look right either. All the skirts Sable had provided were too short. That was a general complaint, but it made them particularly unsuitable for a meeting with the old goat. In the end, she had chosen a pair of low-slung jeans and a midriff top. She was putting up with the constant compression that allowed her so-realistic body shaper to give her a narrow waist and she might as well get a little mileage out of it.

Especially since she'd added a little accent to her navel.

"Ooh, Copper, I love it!" gushed the sharp-eyed Sable as soon as the redhead entered the room.

Ruth just grinned wryly and pretended to ignore the decoration - a pair of shiny baubles that identified the ends of a piercing stud in the taut belly of the slender girl. Then the doctor frowned as a concern came to her.

"I hope you don't get an infection. That won't be easy to keep clean."

"What?" asked Ipney, then looked down her body. He had carefully not been looking below Copper's sea-green eyes.

"It only goes through the body, ah, prosthesis thingy," the girl claimed. "I used the hair dryer to heat it until it got loose, then pierced a fold of the thing."

"Oh, good idea," Sable said brightly, then her face was marred by a frown. "I don't suppose there will be time for me to . . ."

"No, there most certainly will not," Ipney declared. "We have some serious planning to do."

Copper shrugged and settled into one of the chairs. She didn't give him the satisfaction of active curiosity, focusing instead on lightly running an elegant nail around her new toy. Ipney's attention was captured by the sensual pleasure she displayed - captured for long enough to become noticeable to everyone in the room. Copper's grin tried to claim her triumph, but the expression in Ipney's eyes was not the one she wanted.

He was frowning, and there was a hint of . . . revulsion in his sneer. Instead of addressing Copper, he looked at Dr. Ruth and said, "We have to talk about what you're doing to, ah, to her."

Ruth just nodded silently, though there was obstinance in her own eyes.

Copper's flawless brow was marred by a frown of her own, and she tried to recover the sense of power her mini-seduction had not achieved. "So who called this meeting, anyway?"

"I did," snapped Ipney, brusquely. "Sable reported last night on your unintended invitation. I think, however, that we can turn this into a real opportunity."

"What's this 'we' business, paleface?" demanded Sable, repeating an earlier observation of her partner. "I think it will be our asses on the line tonight, not yours."

"That's exactly the point," Ipney declared. "I need to go with you."

"Oh, yeah, like that's gonna happen," Copper sniffed. The she laughed and said, "Sorry to disappoint you, but you're not really Eddy's type."

Ruth stopped what looked like yet another argument, raising her hands to both of them. "Major, I don't understand," she said, forcing the discussion to stay on topic.

Again, Ipney ostentatiously focused his attention on her. "One of the problems the terrorists face is how to get their biotoxin into the country past Customs. Now that there are at least random inspections of all containers and other cargo coming into the port, they can't take the chance that they'll be discovered."

Ruth nodded her understanding and he continued. "One option to overcome that is the Coranzo family yacht. We know he uses it regularly for smuggling, but we've never had the justification for a search warrant - at least, not one the judges around here would accept."

This time Copper nodded, acknowledging the depth to which her erstwhile employers had penetrated the local judiciary.

Ipney paused as though the next step was obvious - and at one level it was. Sable said, "So you think we can use this party as a way to take a look around the boat?"

"Not exactly," Ipney answered, smirking with the chance to show off his idea. "We sink her."

"Sink her?" repeated Ruth. "Why? And how?"

"The 'why' is obvious. If the WMDs were to be transferred to the yacht at sea, it will force them to change their plans, quite possibly force them to bring the actual transport ship into port instead. Anything that disrupts their plans improves our chances of terminating them entirely. The 'how' is what we need to work out," the major replied.

"Why bother?" Copper asked. "Just whistle up a team of SEALs and put a bomb on it or something."

"We need to make it look like an accident, or at least an inside job. Otherwise they'll know we're onto them. We don't want them switching ports on us."

"And where do you come in?" Sable asked.

"Well, while you and Copper are, ah, 'entertaining' Eddy's friends, I'll find a place to plant something that will sink the yacht."

"While Copper and I are - as you so snidely put it - 'entertaining' Eddy's friends, you'll be feeding the fishes."

"The proper term, Sable dear, is 'sleeping with the fishes,'" Copper pointed out dryly. "Though it is a bit cliche. That's really only an East coast thing anyway. Eddy has other methods he prefers."

"Including one little sneak thief with an affinity for knives," Ipney sneered.

"You might remember that," Copper offered softly, showing teeth in a not-smile that accented the lasers beaming from her eyes.

"Stop it, both of you," Ruth said tiredly. Turning to the dark-haired girl, she asked, "Do you think your invitation could be stretched to include the major?"

"Not a chance," Sable replied. "It'll blow the whole deal."

"It will not," insisted Ipney.

"It will," insisted Sable in turn. "Just how to you think we'll explain bringing you along?"

Under his weathered tan, Ipney's face took on a darker hue - something that would have been a blush in a younger man - and he stammered, "Well, I . . . "

"Look, Major," Copper said, accenting his rank with a sneer. "Eddy already knows about Sable's friends - and he for damn sure doesn't let her have any competing boyfriends. Besides, you're too old for either one of us, unless you're a 'sugar daddy'. And there is no fuckin' way in this life or any other that you're gonna be my sugar daddy, even a fake one."

She laughed in a bitter tone that didn't hold any humor, then ostentatiously fluffed her hair and looked at her glittering nails. "A girl has to have some standards, after all."

"Quite," Ruth said, interrupting whatever Ipney might have wanted to say. "In fact, Major, I must agree that there does not seem to be a logical reason for you to accompany them."

"Relative?" he asked weakly.

"As if!" sniffed Copper.

Ruth hurried past that issue as well. "I would think the coincidence of Copper and Sable being related would make introducing yet another relative seem suspect. If you claimed a peripheral kinship as her, ah, 'uncle', I expect it would be considered a lie to cover the true relationship - as Copper said, a 'sugar daddy.' And if you claimed to be her father, then the complications become, I think, untenable if Mr. Ells is to make his own move on her in your company. Don't you agree?"

"But we can't let this opportunity go," he protested plaintively.

"Fine," Copper said surprisingly. "I'll sink the stinkin' boat."

"You're not trained," sneered Ipney. "And I've seen what Sable wears to Slow Eddy's parties. You won't be able to hide enough C-4 to dent the paint, let alone knock a hole in the yacht."

Copper's eyes had glared again with Ipney's challenging words, but she didn't say anything immediately. She let her talons dance around her bellybutton stud again, seemingly unaware of the gesture. Then she stood and pulled at Sable's hand. Laughing, she said, "C'mon Sable, let's see what you have in mind to wear. If it's what I expect, we won't need C-4 to make an explosion."

Her apparent exuberance vanished as she reached the door. Turning back to Ipney and the doctor, she let a hard, uncompromising look settle on her delicate features. "I've been wrecking things all my life, Major. Sinking a boat is not going to be a problem."

"The problem will be doing it without sinking ourselves at the same time," she added quietly, discounting the risk with a fatalistic shrug that worried Dr. Ruth.

***************.

Copper smoothed an invisible wrinkle from the sleek, sea-green dress that caressed her curves. She sighed and tugged ineffectually at the abbreviated hem, then sighed again. "You know, much as I hate to admit it, for once Major Idiocy was right. If I take a deep breath, I'm gonna pop right out of this top."

"Quit bragging," Sable grinned, but she nodded. "Not much room for spy toys in these dresses."

"You shoulda got me a bigger size," insisted Copper.

"Not if we want to catch Eddy's attention," countered the brunette.

"Sable, honey, in these outfits, we're gonna make the nightly news! Everybody's gonna pay attention."

"I know," giggled Sable, tossing a hip one way and her dark tresses the other.

Copper's shoulders lifted once more in a distressed sigh, but the grin she'd been suppressing forced its way out through a matching giggle. Patting her own carefully disarrayed hair, she said, "Yeah, me too."

The tactile inspection complete, Copper asked, "So, when's the limo due?"

"In a hurry to meet your new boyfriend?"

"No," retorted Copper sharply, her humor vanishing as quickly as it had escaped.

"You gonna be okay with this?" asked Sable gently.

The redhead nodded, smiling grimly. "As long as they don't find out my secret, I'll be okay. And if things get that far then my, ah, delicate sensibilities won't really matter."

Whatever further thoughts Sable might have had were lost in the blare of a horn below the windows of her apartment. She shrugged and hurriedly checked the contents of her purse, jostling with Copper at the mirror in the entryway for one last, unnecessary check. Then they were moving with careful grace down the stairs, their spindly heels making hurry impossible and even the attempt foolish.

"Oh, shit," breathed Copper as they approached the idling car.

"What?" Sable whispered back.

"It's Mickey Indy," replied Copper. "Next to Joey Laguaro, Mickey's the one who drove me most often. Hell, I even gave him his nickname, because he likes to go on about how he could drive a race car."

"So?"

"So what if he figures out who I really am?"

Sable laughed out loud. "Oh, yeah, like that's gonna happen. Any more than it did with Eddy."

"The club was dark, and it wasn't a place Eddy expected to see me. The old me, Jimmy. But Mickey Indy has seen me in a car lots of times - that particular Caddy, in fact."

"And if Mickey is a man, all he's gonna see is your boobs, just like every other macho creep who works for the Coranzo family," Sable claimed, then she reached below the hem of Copper's green dress and pinched her.

"Ha," Copper smirked. "Hardly even felt that."

"Ha yourself," countered Sable. "I knew you wouldn't feel it, but it got your mind back on track."

Then Sable showed a smirk of her own as she added, "Though, come to think of it, Ol' Micky Indy might be looking at something other than your boobs at that. You do have dynamite legs, girl."

"Weapons of mass distraction," Copper replied, then smiled. "Okay. I get the message. Confidence and poise, all the way."

The quickly passing crisis had occupied the time until they reached the limo, and true to Sable's prediction, Micky Indy's attention was sharply focused - though not on the eyes that had been Jimmy Kincaid's trademark. Nor on anything else that might be considered a holdover from that previous life. He did jump out the car to open the door as they approached.

"Sable, who's your friend?"

"This is my cousin, Copper," the brunette informed him.

"Fits," he observed laconically. Or perhaps he was just distracted. Other observations continued to absorb the bulk of his mental capacity.

*******************

The Coranzo Family yacht, unsubtly called, "Numero Uno", was not the largest vessel in the Sea-Tac area. There was, after all, a US Navy base at Bremerton right across the Sound. Actually, it wasn't even the biggest private yacht in the area. In a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless" countdown it would barely have rated in the top ten. Which meant it was only about the size - and cost - of a Navy destroyer. The departed Jimmy Kincaid had only been on it a few times, mostly to work out security arrangements. He'd never been allowed on an actual evening cruise so Copper wasn't entirely sure what to expect. The limo pulled up at the marina and Mickey Indy got out of the car with surprising quickness to hold the door for the exiting girls. Of course, the view as they slid from the car might have had something to do with his desire to be there at the door.

"Show time, girl," whispered Sable as they smoothed and tugged and patted themselves back into perfect order.

"Don't remind me," Copper whispered back.

Their heels tapped lightly on the wooden dock as they approached the looming vessel. Though it would only have been one longish step from the planking through the opening in the boat's rail, there was a little gangway in place. After that, they might as well have been in an elegant hotel, except for the deliberately nautical touches like round portholes instead of windows.

"Right this way, ladies," a man said.

It was probably a good thing that Copper had already been through the experience with Micky Indy, because this man was another one of the Coranzo family soldiers that she knew very well. Their escort was one of the other Coranzo family enforcers. Like the dead-and-gone Jimmy Kincaid, this guy wasn't all that impressive to look at. Taller than Jimmy, of course. Even several inches taller than Copper in her nose-bleed heels. But her impression of him was that he was 'compact'. He was late thirties, she knew, but physically he looked like a college athlete - lean and hard-muscled, dark hair and darker eyes. Copper knew he was hard on the inside, too, with no trace of conscience. Like the chauffeur, the killer's eyes barely flicked above her cleavage, though it was clear they had no aversion to the view extending below her skirt, either. In fact, his only problem was in deciding whether the brunette or the redhead were more interesting - a problem neither girl did anything to help resolve.

The enforcer escorted them to where the capo of the Coranzos was holding court in the main salon. His seat was not quite a throne, though only because there were similarly lavish chairs scattered about. But the compartment was unambiguously a throne room. Slow Eddy's courtiers hovered around the head of the Family, seeking audience and favor.

Even the search for advantage fell into hushed wonder as the girls entered, though. Sable was not one to resist the attention, and struck a sensual pose that simultaneously highlighted her sleek legs, her raven hair, and most of all her own impressive cleavage.

"Tramp," Copper whispered, but smirked as she found some flaw in her stocking - a flaw that she examined with casual nonchalance though it required her to bend over for a clearer line of sight. It was just a coincidence, of course, that her own pose aimed her artificially-enhanced assets directly at Slow Eddy.

Sable's light giggle punctuated the silence, and she broke her pose to swing a hip into her redheaded companion. The cheerful sound was enough to re-ignite the susurrus of conversation. It was also enough to remind Slow Eddy of his duties as host. He rose from his seat with surprising agility for a man of his bulk and moved grandly toward his newest guests.

"Come in, come in," he ordered, ignoring the fact they were already within the compartment. "I'm glad you could make it."

"Gee, Eddy, you know I never miss one of your parties," Sable gushed.

Copper just nodded politely. There was both challenge and amusement in her eyes, not that Eddy noticed either. His attention was otherwise occupied. The capo moved between them and wrapped an arm around each girl's trim waist, demonstrating their status as arm candy - and his possessions - to the observing courtiers. His voice was loud enough to carry to all corners of the room as he started his introductions, but that didn't stop him from repeating them to each and every lieutenant, proclaiming and insisting they acknowledge his superior status as babe catcher as well as his power as family boss. That the former was dependent on the latter was understood by all. But in the power calculus of those who made their own rules, that was only just.

Sable's wisdom was quickly demonstrated when Copper's still natural skin felt Slow Eddy's probing fingers fondling the swell that threatened to escape from her low-cut dress. Not so fast, Buster. With a move right out of the teenagers' high school handbook (the unexpressed pun lighting Copper's bright eyes with amusement), she deftly intertwined her fingers with his and offered both welcome and rejection in the same gesture. They ended up holding hands in a semblance of innocent closeness, yet Eddy's hand was back at her waist.

At this, Eddy's eyes did raise enough to meet hers. Copper's lightly mocking smile was coupled with innocently wide eyes. Rule number one. Treat me like a lady. Eddy matched her grin, and slid his hand down just far enough to cup her padded hip. Rule number one. I make the rules.

"What's a girl got to do to get a drink around here?" Copper asked throatily, using the cover of her words to urge Eddy's hand back to her waist yet again. Okay, so you make the rules, but it will be worth your while to treat me right. After an initial resistance to show it was his choice not hers, he relented and let his hand be moved. The offer within the redhead's question was not subtle, but it was not meant to be. It was, however, a challenge as well and Eddy deigned to accept it. Releasing the arm around Sable, he snapped his fingers at the bartender. The bartender - a buxom blonde in an artfully tattered pirate outfit - hurried over with Copper's martini.

"You remembered," purred Copper, sipping at the drink.

"What?" asked Eddy in confusion, then realized what she meant. "Oh, sure, babe. No problem."

Copper's arched brow made it clear she knew better. Don't think you got away with that. Eddy nodded in satisfaction anyway. I don't have to convince you. Whatever I say goes. By her silence, the redhead respected his power - including the power to command minions to do the things he didn't bother with himself. And power was Slow Eddy's weapon, not a memory for trivialities.

Sable was not a woman to be scorned lightly - nor did she have long to wait for another's interest. Her pout vanished in a bright smile when another courtier brought her a drink of her own. "I seem to remember you like champagne, Sable," he said.

"You remembered," she simpered, turning Copper's comment into a cheap flirtation. Taking the man's arm, she led him away from her friend and supposed boyfriend. Only a stiffening of her back betrayed that she had heard Copper's low chuckle.

Eddy had frowned at seeing the dark-haired girl respond to another's attention, but the frown vanished as he, too, heard Copper laugh. Looking back at the woman who still held his hand, he smiled and nodded. Okay, babe, for now at least, you're woman enough for me.

"Let me take you on a tour," he offered.

"Thank you. I'd like that," Copper replied elegantly. On the inside, her heart started to hammer. If the tour includes the bedrooms, I'm in trouble!

The first place Eddy took her was the bridge, though. There he introduced her to an officer wearing a white naval uniform.

"Cap'n Charley, this is Copper," the capo said proudly. "Copper, Captain Charley keeps the boat floatin.'"

"You take care of this whole ship by yourself?" she asked breathlessly. It must have been an artificial condition, the officer decided, since she certainly had the lungs to keep her well supplied with air.

He told her breasts that he had helpers - a bos'n to handle the maintenance, plus a few of the boys that Eddy brought along whenever they sailed. He told the swelling mounds that it wasn't really proper to call the yacht a ship. Cap'n Charley must have decided her cleavage was also interested in how the ship was steered and how the engines were controlled. However, when they stepped over to the radar screen, it was her legs that needed to know about the navigation systems and radios.

Of course, she'd already had an equivalent tour in another life, so she was paying closer attention to the alarm systems than the topics that were supposed to be of interest. Nothing seemed to have changed since she had installed the critical circuits, except that there were indications of corrosion that Jimmy Kincaid had never allowed. Apparently, Slow Eddy had not found someone to maintain the alarms properly. That was good news for Copper on several levels.

Eddy didn't notice where her attention was focused any more than he discouraged the bridge officer's ogling. It was "look but don't touch" for the officer, and her obvious attractiveness was why Eddy had her on his arm, after all. But it wasn't long before he was antsy anyway, pulling Copper back to the passageway. At that point the tour was supposed to include the bedrooms ("staterooms") but despite increasingly active hands, Eddy's plans were interrupted when a soldier came up to whisper in his ear.

"I'll send for you after our business meeting," he promised - or threatened - when he turned toward the salon. His presence was apparently a well-understood signal, for all the hangers on immediately left the compartment. Only Slow Eddy and his senior lieutenants were invited to the next phase of the evening's agenda.

Or at least that part of the agenda that he knew about.



Chapter 14 - "Steering A Careful Course"



There was really no reason for me to be here, mused 'Cap'n Charlie,' and not for the first time. The automated systems running the engines and controlling the helm on this boat were quite adequate. . .

'Boat'. Too small to be a ship. Too small, really, to be anything but a rich man's toy. A status symbol to sail around the confines of the Sound on evenings like this when the sea wasn't too rough. Not even enough of a vessel or enough of a challenge to confer on the man who piloted her the legitimate distinction of 'captain'.

Boats didn't have captains. Only pilots. Only people who steered them and then stood around in starched white uniforms so the rich man who owned them - boat and pilot both - would have someone to point to as he gloated, "See? Not only the boat but a whole crew at my beck and call too."

And that was no reason for a person like ‘Captain Charlie' - once Chief Bosun's Mate Charles Fortunado, USN - to be standing here. It was a waste, pure and simple. All the training, all the testing. Proving over and over his ability to command, his fitness for the Master's Certificate he'd worked so hard to earn. All of it only to wind up aboard a useless little boat standing a meaningless watch, his only reason for being here to help his boss nail some air-headed little bitch with big tits and long legs.

A pimp for some gangster.

The darkness outside the bridge windows blurred as Fortunado let his mind wander with the fantasy of how things should have been.

What would it be like if this boat were his? As it should have been if there was any justice in the world. But not this rich man's toy. A real boat.

No, by God! A ship! What he should have commanded if the sons of bitches in the Navy hadn't always kept him down. Hadn't denied him the chance at commission that he'd earned with all those years of playing the game!

Not for Charlie Fortunado, though. One little mistake. One little roll in the hay with that Lieutenant Commander's wife down in Coronado. That was all it took. No charges were ever pressed. God forbid the Navy should have another scandal that soon after Tailhook. Just a cryptic comment in his service jacket that became the albatross around his neck. The one that whispered to every commander of every new duty station, 'This is as far as Fortunado ever goes. This is as high as he ever rises.'

So fuck 'em! Fuck the Navy. Fuck the officers and gentlemen.

Slow Eddie didn't care about cryptic comments in his Navy records. And so 'Captain Charlie' didn't care about what Slow Eddie did with his boat.

Fuck 'em all!

Especially fuck that little red-head.

Oh, yeah! What would it be like with her? Those big, soft tits squeezed between his fingers. Those long, sleek legs wrapped around his waist. Her panting and whimpering and him reaching up under that shiny, tight little dress, finding her silky smooth panties and the silky smooth skin underneath and then …

The hatch in the lower companion way thudded into the standing latch jolting Fortunado back to the present.

But almost immediately the fantasy began to tease him again. Voices.

Feminine voices. Giggling and whispering down at the foot of the ladder up here to the bridge.

"You're gonna get us in trouble!"

She'd only said a few words, but he knew that smoky voice. The little red-head. The object of his fantasy. She was down there at the foot of the ladder. And she wasn't alone.

Another feminine voice. Lighter. A soprano, but breathy and sensual. Also giggly. And obviously more than a little drunk. "Oh, who cares? Slow Eddie's not gonna be lookin' for us for 'n hour at least. 'sides, I wanna see this hunky cap'n. So where's he? 's he up …? Fuck. How'm I suppos' to get up those stairs in these heels?"

"Take 'em off, ditz!"

Now he was at the head of the ladder looking down. The little redhead and another one with midnight black hair. Just as beautiful. Just as provocatively dressed. He stood there staring down at the two of them, swaying and giggling and holding each other as 'Midnight' wrestled with a spike-heeled shoe with one hand while the other flailed around for something to lean against, finally winding up on ‘Red's' shoulder. Her already short skirt hiked up clear to her hip, flashing him with the neon glow of white silk panties in the darkness at the foot of the ladder.

Red giggled and weaved a little, struggling to find her own balance. She'd had a few too, though apparently not quite as many as 'Midnight'. "Bitch! Be careful or we're both gonna be on our asses."

Midnight glanced up from her concentration on the reluctant shoe apparently intending to deliver some scathing retort. As she did she caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye. She turned toward him, leaning even more heavily on Red for balance, leaning backward just enough to be able to see the man in the starched white uniform backlit in the glow of the nearby city. Turning and leaning just enough to show him the lacy little fringe around the bottom hem of those glowing white panties.

He was staring at those panties and he knew it, but he couldn't help it. She knew it too. With a sly little smile - a smile, by God! - she slowly, casually lowered her foot back to the deck. Then making more of a show of it than he thought was necessary, even given her intoxication, she very carefully tugged that skimpy little skirt back down and then stood there, both hands still plucking at the bottom hem, her legs pressed primly together. Teasing him with pretended modesty.

They just stood there, the three of them staring at each other. He could feel the tension in the air, the itch of perspiration beginning to form of his brow.

Long, silky hair - raven and copper. Tight, shimmering dresses. Big, soft tits openly displayed by low-cut dresses. Moist lips, one set in the beginnings of a little frown, the other set quirking even more with that mischievous, teasing grin.

He needed to say something ... anything! ... to break the tension, but he couldn't find the words.

It was 'Midnight' who, with her eyes staring deeply into his and that predatory little grin on her lips, finally snapped the spell. "Hi. Are you the Cap'n?"

He had to swallow before his dry throat would work. "Yeah. Uh, yes. You ladies looking for something?"

Midnight nodded. "Um hmm. I've, like, been on this boat a buncha times now. But I've never seen the ... the ..." With one hand now relaxed on her thigh, she waved the other hand at the space behind him. "Whatchacallit. Steering thing." Her eyes still bored into his. " 'n I'd really like to. See it, that is."

Was her odd emphasis on the world 'it' and the entirely different meaning that implied just his imagination?

"Um. Sure. Come on up. No reason not to give a little tour."

They made it up the ladder - Midnight and Red - though not without difficulty. Midnight paused several times when her balance became unsure enough for her to have to grab the railing with one hand and hug a little tighter against Red who was coming up beside her - her own hand firmly grasping the other railing.

The itch of perspiration became a burn as Charlie imagined what it felt like to hold Midnight like Red was holding her. Pressing up against her with one hand wrapped tightly around her waist. Holding her close enough that hip rubbed hip and, on more than one occasion because of the narrowness of the ladder and when one of them turned even slightly toward the other, breast pressed against breast.

Breathless, flushed and in Midnight's case at least, giggly-relieved, the two women finally stood on his Bridge.

"Wow! Lookit all the dials and buttons and stuff! Do you work all this all by yourself?"

He smiled. "Yup. Pretty much. Though if the weather gets rough, I sometimes have a watch-stander up here too. He's called a helmsman because he mans the helm. That's the 'steering thing' you talked about."

Midnight blinked and looked around. "Where is it? The steering wheel. I thought it was a big, wooden …"

His smile broadened. "You've seen too many pirate movies. It's over here." Maybe it was just 'drunken dignity' - a desire not to look like she was as tipsy as she obviously was - but when Midnight moved from the head of the ladder over toward the helm station, her steps were very deliberate with shoulders back and arms held, just a little, out from her sides. With the sight of that delicious woman-shape slinking toward him, the city lights glittering in shifting patterns on her shiny little dress - Red more or less faded into the background for Charlie. He wasn't really even aware he'd lost focus on what, just a moment ago, had been the object of his fantasy.

He'd found a new fantasy to replace her.

Midnight finally stopped and stood, swaying ever so slightly. One hand was once again tugging at the hem of her dress as she pointed with the other and giggled, "That? That little thing? The steering wheel on my car is bigger."

That wasn't the reaction he'd been hoping for - a snickering put-down. "Well, it doesn't have to be very big to get the job done. This is a very high-tech bo … ship. Everything is computerized. It has to be if one man is going to run everything."

"So you really run everything? Wow."

Better. "Yup. Sure do."

"How does it …" She paused for a second with her eyes closed and her brow furrowed, her long-nailed fingers pressed to her lips to stiffle a genteel little hiccup. She had been hoisting a few. "…'scue me. How does it work?" Before he could answer, Midnight was speaking over his shoulder. "Copper. C'mere and see this. This is totally cool."

He'd forgotten all about 'Red' (apparently and appropriately named 'Copper') but she quickly reminded him of his previous fantasy when she unfolded her arms and treated him to slightly different rendition of that shoulders-erect, hip-swinging feminine strut from the ladder to the helm. She promptly refolded her arms and glanced, briefly, at the helm station. Not nearly as interested as she'd seemed to be when Slow Eddie had been around during her previous tour. "I've already seen it. Slow Eddie already showed me everything."

So that was it? The little bitch was more interested in sucking up to the boss than she was in the hired help? "You've seen it, but how about giving it a try?"

Ha! That got her attention! The 'I'm s-o-o bored' expression cracked and she turned to favor him with large, shining eyes, though in her case they were an amazing shade of blue - or green - hard to tell in the red light of the instruments but certainly not dark. Funny he hadn't noticed those eyes during her last trip up here.

"Me? You mean, like, me driving?"

"Why not? It's not that hard, um, that difficult. Here. Let me show you."

This was more like it! She didn't object at all when he stood behind her and then, subtly, leaned in, pressing her closer to the helm while pressing himself closer against her. "Okay. Here, first we'll take it out of auto-control. That's this big switch here." He guided her soft, smooth hand atop the enable switch. "Turn it to the …yeah. Like that. Now, take the wheel. You just need one hand. It's not hard to turn or anything."

She leaned forward. Nothing obvious. Maybe even nothing intentional.

Maybe.

But that firm, round ass was suddenly pressing against his crotch. Pressing just enough that when she turned to look at Midnight, he could feel the shiny material of her skirt slide over the silky little panties underneath. And 'hard' was certainly now part of the picture.

"Sable! Look! I'm driving!"

"Yeah. Cool."

The pouty tone of Sable's (the one he'd been thinking of as 'Midnight') voice caught Charlie's attention and he glanced in her direction. Now she was standing there with folded arms and a 'getting bored' expression on her face. So, that was the game, was it? Who could make the 'hunky captain' pay attention to her?

Well, that was just fine with him. Never let it be said that Charlie Fortunado didn't try to please the ladies. He leaned just a little more forward against Copper. "So. Think you've got it?"

She was smiling and staring at the helm like a kid with a new toy. "Yeah. This isn't so hard." Then her smile changed to something less innocent as she shifted the weight from one foot to the other causing that skirt to slide across the panties in the other direction. "The steering, anyway."

"Ah, right. But here's the tricky part. See that digital readout?"

"The … huh?"

"Those red numbers on that display. There above the …"

"Oh! Yeah. '313'. What's that?"

"That's our current heading. We're steering 313 degrees right now. Sort of northwest."

"Oh. Cool! Steering numbers. Like Star Trek!"

He couldn't help it. He had to smile. This was so typical of Slow Eddie - he liked his women dumb and willing and this Copper obviously fit both requisites. She was obviously tits and ass and not a lot of brains to complicate things. And that was just fine with Charlie. He'd learned his lesson back in Coronado. "Yeah. Just like Star Trek. Now, here's the game. You have to stay as close to that heading as possible. That means you have to pay really, really close attention to those numbers and mind the helm … uh … turn the wheel occasionally if we start to drift one way or the other. Think you can do that?" Christ, you could train a chimpanzee to do it.

The smile had vanished from Copper's lips and now she was staring at the digital readout like her life depended on it. "Yeah. I … I think so."

"Okay. Good. Now, I've got to go out there on the bridge wing." Before she could panic, he gave her shoulders a little squeeze. "But I'll be real close in case there's any problem. Okay?"

She was gripping the helm in both hands and staring fixedly at the readout. She mumbled, "Okay" and then very carefully shifted the helm to port to compensate for a drift of one whole degree (from 313 to 314). And just like a complete novice, she managed to overcompensate and the heading wound up at 309. She growled a little "Shoot!" and tried to correct the error - winding up on a heading of 316 … and the whole process started again.

Charlie smiled to himself. Copper was clearly going to be so engrossed in chasing that heading, he probably could pin ol' Sable up against the bulkhead right behind her and hump Sable's brains out and Copper would never even notice.

Speaking of Sable …

She was still standing there, still hugging those gorgeous tits in a self-embrace, shifting her weight from one hip to the other with a drunken little sway thrown in to make things interesting. Don't worry, babe. More than enough Captain Charlie to go around.

"Okay. Now, since Copper here has the helm well in hand …" 'Well in hand', get it? "…you want to help me take a celestial fix? It's time I did one." Yeah. Right. Time to do a 'Great Circle' navigation plot so I don't get lost out here in the broad expanse of Puget Sound. You never know, I might run out of Texaco signs and McDonald's arches to use as landmarks.

She stopped swaying long enough to blink at him. "Cel ... cele … huh?"

Another one of Slow Eddie's girls, all right. There was apparently more stuffed in the top of that dress than there was between her ears. More by a long shot. " 'Celestial fix'. It's how you navigate. By the stars. Here. Let me show you."

The seldom-used sextant was in a cupboard above the chart table. As he grabbed it, he spared a quick glance in Copper's direction to make sure she was still distracted. She was. God only knew their current heading. Probably 180 at the moment and heading hell-bent for Portland. But they had a lot of sea room and it wasn't like they were trying to get anywhere in particular so let her fuck it up. Who cared?

He suddenly had more pressing concerns.

Sable, like Copper before her, seemed to have no objection at all to letting Captain Charlie get 'up close and personal' as he led her out onto the relative seclusion of the bridge wing. Out of the corner of his eye, he even caught her glancing back over her shoulder in Copper's direction.

The little grin of triumph he saw quirking her lips said it all.

*************************

Copper continued to play 'dumb broad trying to steer the big boat' for several seconds after Sable and Cap'n Charlie had made their exit out onto the bridge wing. Then, with the pretended concentration still furrowing her brow, Copper risked a quick glance sideways toward the door through which they'd gone.

Both of them were out of sight. She was alone and unobserved, at least for the moment. Time to go to work.

Sable had been quite confident that she could buy Copper at least five minutes, probably a good deal more, in which to accomplish her task. But there was no percentage in counting on that. Counting on the 'more than five', that is. Nor was there any need. Five minutes would be more than enough time for what needed to be done.

Still, for just an instant Copper gazed at the door and at what couldn't be seen beyond it. Sable hadn't been specific about how she was going to earn those five minutes and there hadn't been any good way to ask.

Hell, who cared? It was Sable's problem. Not Copper's.

That's what Copper told herself. She didn't care what Sable did with some other guy.

Really, she didn't.

With casual ease she brought the ship's bow back to a heading of 313 and then flicked the auto-pilot back on. It had actually required skill to make steering look as hard as Copper seemed to find it. But Cap'n Charlie had evidently believed that his intended distraction was working, that Copper was completely engrossed in what she was doing, and that was what was important.

The indicator panel was just to the right ('starboard' as it had been labeled on the builder's schematics) of the helm station. Copper quickly scanned the indicators - indicators she remembered from her work (as Jimmy Kincaid) setting up the ship's security systems.

There was the group of lights she was looking for - 'Bilge and Engine Room Spaces'. In the upper left-hand, a green indicator read 'Bilges Normal'. Right beside it, and currently dark, was its counterpart: a red 'Bilges High Alarm' indicator. These were her targets. At least her targets up here on the bridge.

The panel itself was held to the console by four knurled knob/screws that she quickly loosened, lifting the panel up and away as far as the cables attached to the various indicators would allow. Beneath were all the wiring and, more importantly, the relays that made everything work. Copper quickly scanned a small block of peanut relays near where the wiring to her targeted indicators connected to the circuits. There. 'A-R-7'. That was the relay that controlled which indicator was illuminated depending on the feed from the sensors in the bilges. It was also the relay that controlled the audible alarm that would sound when the green 'normal' indicator clicked off and the red 'trouble' indicator clicked on.

She reached into the panel, aiming the little finger of her right hand toward the upper-most of two screws holding the relay in place. A little relay not much bigger than the tip of the finger reaching toward it.

The finger with the elegantly manicured and oh-so-chic French gloss, square-cut nail at its tip.

The elegant nail that, like the other nails on the hand, was fake. Of course, there were a lot of fake nails on a lot of the other female hands aboard the boat tonight. But this one, unlike any of the other fake fingernails, was made of a military composite that was ounce-for-ounce five times stronger than steel.

Like the steel in screwdrivers.

Using her camouflaged screwdriver - Carefully! It might be stronger than steel but it was still attached to a fragile and very real fingernail! - Copper quickly loosened both screws, then carefully removed them with the tips of her other, more prosaic, artificial fingernails. (She had to admit, they were quite suitable for this particular task. Almost as good as a set of precision-grip needle-nose pliers.)

Freed from the two retaining screws, the relay quickly and easily popped out of its socket.

Copper stole a quick glance at the door. No sign of Sable's or Cap'n Charlie's imminent return. Still watching the door, she reached down with her left hand and quickly slid her tight little skirt up above her hips till the bottom hem was just below her counterfeit navel. Then sliding that long-nailed right hand into her panties, she deftly plucked a carefully ‘broken' replacement relay out of the one spot in all of Copper's persona where no one would be likely to discover it. Not unless things had gotten completely out of hand and at that point a hidden relay would be the least of her troubles.

The replacement relay fit the socket perfectly, just as Copper knew it would. She replaced the two retaining screws and then closed and re-secured the panel. The green 'Bilges Normal' light continued to burn. 'All is well. No problems to report.' It would now continue to burn like that no matter what state the bilges were actually in.

Her task accomplished, Copper returned to the helm, released the auto-pilot and then surrendered herself again to the role of mindless little ditz who, with furrowed brow and bitten lip tried so valiantly and with such single-minded concentration (and such little success) to keep the ship sailing on a more or less northwesterly heading.

*************************

Their visit with Cap'n Charlie concluded, the two girls once again navigated their giggling, tipsy way back down the ladder from the bridge to the door - nautically, a 'hatch' - that led into the yacht's luxurious interior. Before she stepped through, Sable turned to smile up at Captain Charlie. She touched her fingers to her lips then wiggled those fingers in a childlike little 'bye bye' as she purred, "Call me. 'kay?" Then the two of them - Sable and Copper - were through the hatch, which once again clanged as it seated itself closed. With a sly little smile, Captain Charlie returned to his helm and the boredom of his watch. 'Call you? Oh yeah. Count on it!'

For several moments the little alcove at the foot of the ladder was quiet and dark. Then, this time without any noise, the hatch again opened and Sable's face appeared, her eyes still wide and tipsy innocent, her vacuous smile still in place. The innocent eyes and vacuous smile lasted just long enough for her to make sure Captain Charlie had not figured out some excuse to follow them. Once she was sure she was unobserved, both the smile and the innocent-wide eyes vanished leaving in their place an expression of cool, alert resolve. She nodded over her shoulder and she and Copper quickly and quietly made their way aft, negotiating another ladder - this time the one leading from the salon deck down to the staterooms - noticeably without any of the difficulty they'd shown getting up and down the ladder to the bridge.

As soon as they were out of sight and alone, Copper laid a hand on Sable's shoulder, stopping her before she could open the hatch leading aft. "Hey. You okay?"

Sable glanced backward over her shoulder. "Huh? Sure, I'm fine. Why?"

"I ... umm ... I just thought ... you know. Up there. With Charlie. Did you ... uh ..."

"What?"

But Copper could only stand there, blinking and frowning, obviously out of the 'right words' to frame the question that had become obvious in the sudden tension.

Sable's reply - growled in a tone of finality hinting that since there were no right words, there was no point in even trying to ask - did nothing to ease that tension. "I'm fine." She turned away from those piercing blue eyes.

Copper wouldn't take the hint. "He didn't ...? You and he didn't ...?"

Sable stopped and turned again to look over her shoulder, this time meeting those intense blue eyes with chocolate brown eyes grown cold and hard. "What we did really isn't any of your concern. It bought you five minutes and that's all you need to know."

The tension stretched, each of the women staring into the other's eyes. It was Sable who finally glanced away. "Okay. So …now we're in business, right? I mean; now the ship's gonna sink?"

Copper shook her head. "No. That - up there on the bridge - that was just to disable the alarms. Now we actually gotta do the damage that will sink this tub."

A frown still hardened Sable's features as she asked, "Okay. And how do we do that?"

Sable's frown and her no-nonsense brusqueness distracted Copper, upsetting the friendship they had seemed to share. Up to now, Copper had been so cool and in control. But the thought of Sable - hell, the sight of her - in a blatantly sexual situation had resurrected a lot of things that Copper had carefully suppressed. Her confident strength was replaced with the embarrassed fluster that had so often characterized Jimmy Kincaid in the presence of a beautiful woman like Sable. Words spilled from the redhead's lips almost too fast for sense.

"Simple, really. I mean - the struggle with a ship … any ship … keeping it afloat is the trick, right? So we just gotta …back there in the engine room, lots of possibilities back there. I was thinking … Well, first we gotta find and disable the bilge pump, but that's easy. The pump is gonna be down in the bilges. Probably a motor-looking thing. And with a lot of labeled piping going in and out. It's a motor, the pump is a motor. Or rather, it has a motor that …"

It was becoming painful to watch. And taking too much time. Sable pushed for some better progress. "Yeah. I get it. How do we disable it?"

"Oh. Uh … easy. We just disconnect the power leads, one of the power leads. Break it or cut it so it looks like it corroded at the connection point to the motor."

"Okay. Then what?"

"Then we just need some kind of leak into the engine room bilges. That's easy too. There's bound to be dozens of seawater connections to the engine, the equipment. Just find a wrench and loosen one of the connections so it starts leaking. And then …" The shrug looked defensive. A quick, nervous hunch of shoulders. "That's pretty much it. With all the automation on this tub, by the time someone finally notices all the water, it'll be too late. I mean - too much water and probably too much damage to the pumps and stuff to do anything but man the lifeboats."

"How long?"

Copper replied with a quick shake of her head, setting those copper tresses swaying. "Couple of minutes. No more."

Sable's frown looked more worried, now. "If this thing sinks that fast, how are we gonna get off - especially from down in the engine room?"

"Huh?"

Before the brunette could answer, Copper recognized the source of their confusion. "No, the boat won't sink that fast. I mean, we can make a pretty good leak and it will still take hours to fill the bilges and ... you know ... everything. I meant it'll only take a couple of minutes to start the leak, especially with you helping. The biggest trick will be not getting wet when we're working with the sea water connection."

"Good. Let's get going so we can get this over with."

Without another word, Sable turned away, opened the aft hatch, started to step through ...

... and collided with Slow Eddie coming through the hatch from the other direction.

*************************

Slow Eddie Ells didn't like surprises. He never had. His childhood had taught him that for everyone else, surprises came in the form of birthday parties and unexpected gifts. For Slow Eddie Ells, surprises usually came in the form of a kick in his crotch.

Still, maybe some surprises weren't all that bad. An unexpected collision with a ripe, soft body coming through the hatch definitely beat a kick in the crotch.

The look on those two gorgeous faces was even better than the feel of Sable's body pressing against his. That was something else life had taught Slow Eddie. If you could startle someone that showed you they could be frightened. If you could frighten someone, you could control them.

And in the end, control was everything. Control was the difference between getting a kick in the crotch and delivering it.

Sable stumbled back a step from her collision with Slow Eddie and almost had another collision with her stuck-up little bitch friend standing behind. A stuck-up little bitch who hadn't been quite quick enough to cover her own look of startled surprise with what Slow Eddie now knew to be just a mask of calm indifference. He'd seen beneath that mask … and liked what he saw. If you could startle someone, you could control them.

Sable pressed a hand to her chest with a nervous little giggle. "Oh! Jeeze! Eddie, you about scared the life out of me. I didn't expect … I thought you'd be in that meeting for another hour at least."

Eddie smiled, ignoring Sable and enjoying how hard Copper was working to look nonchalant. "It's all details and donkey work in there now. That's why you have people under you: to take care of things." Since he was staring at her, he hoped he was making it clear that the not-so-veiled innuendo was aimed at Copper and not at Sable.

But the little redheaded bitch was going to start playing that hard-to-get routine again. She just stared at him and blinked, once, as though she didn't understand nor was she interested in any of this.

Eddie felt the smile slipping from his face.

Hard-to-get was okay … for a while. But it quickly got old. Yeah, she could play that game in the club when he could play along and pretend that it was all just coincidence - her being there, acting like she wasn't really teasing him because she hadn't intended any of it in the first place.

But it didn't play here, on his ship. This time she had intended to be here. And if she'd intended to be here, then she intended to do what he knew she'd wanted to do all along - get him into the sack and win some of his favor for herself. That being the case, it was time for her to stop trying to play games. Especially control games. She'd had her share of that kind of fun and more by his reckoning. Now it was time to let the real boss be in charge and have some fun of his own.

Still, no reason to be a complete brute about it. That was something else life had taught Slow Eddie, after he'd paid more than enough dues to learn the lesson. Power could be a blunt instrument you used to batter your enemies into submission. And it felt good to wield it that way.

But power could also be a smooth, subtle tool - a scalpel you used to shape and mold. And that could feel very good too.

"So, what are you doing down here? Bored with the party upstairs?"

Sable tried to recapture Slow Eddie's interest by stepping between Copper and him. "No. It's okay. In fact, we just wanted to … you know … get a little air. So we thought we'd go exploring."

Eddie decided to make things simple for Sable. She might be yesterday's news, but she'd given good service and, again, there was no reason to be a brute about it. Still, he wasn't terribly subtle when he brushed past her to take Copper by the arm. "That's right. We didn't get below decks during the tour, did we? Come on. I'll show you the staterooms." Then he smiled and made sure his tone of voice made the message clear. "You'll like ‘em."

There it was again. A little slip. A little glimpse of fear flicking across Copper's face before it disappeared behind the nonchalant mask. "Oh, I don't know. I'm … umm … I'm not feeling too well and …"

Oh yeah. He had her now. ‘Not feeling well'? Was that the best she could do - that lame old put off? What happened to those smug barbs that seemed to come so easy back at the club? Ignoring her weak protest he tugged her forward, toward the hatch. "There are four staterooms down here. Three on the right and the main one, my stateroom, on the left. Come on. I'll show you my stateroom first and then we can …

Sable wouldn't take the hint. "Uh … yeah, Copper. You gotta see Slow Eddie's room! It's …" She started to tag along behind them and, on any other occasion, that would have been just fine with Slow Eddie. He had no objection to ‘sharing the wealth' when it came to ladies. At least, not usually.

But tonight …

"Sable. Why don't you go back upstairs and make sure everyone's got a full drink? Take care of things up there for me." Since subtlety didn't seem to be working, he no longer bothered to smile or to try and make it sound like anything other than the command it was.

She didn't want to be replaced, you could tell by the way she still took another, tentative step forward, her jaw working as she tried to come up with a reason to stay, to find a way to at least share his favor with Copper.

Copper saved him the trouble of having to slap Sable down. In a quiet, measured tone and without even turning her head back to look at Sable, Copper murmured, "Yeah. Why don't you go take care of things? I'll go check out Eddie's stateroom."

*************************

"Numero Uno" might not be a big ship in the estimation of her pilot, but her designers had known how to get the most out of the space they had. Slow Eddie's stateroom would have seemed perfectly adequate in any five-star hotel, both in terms of size and in the obviously expensive appointments.

The bed that dominated the room was nothing less than imposing.

"Go ahead, doll. Try that out." Eddie smirked and casually flicked his hand toward the expanse of sky blue bedspread.

She just stood there, her arms folded loosely enough you could pretend, if you wanted, that it didn't look defensive. "Um hmm. Very nice. Very … big." She was still trying to look so cool and casual and in control. Since it was now obviously all a front, it no longer upset Slow Eddie. Quite the opposite.

"Touch it." Then he softened the tone of command, taking a turn at playing a role of his own: jovial host. "It doesn't bite."

She hesitated for a second, just enough to ruin the nonchalance with which she finally unfolded her arms and reached out a long-nailed hand to gently press down on the bed. With a little start, she jerked the hand back and Eddie couldn't help it, he had to laugh.

"Isn't that a hoot? A waterbed on a boat. When I saw that, right then and there I knew I had to have it."

Her arms were folded again. "Yeah. Unexpected. So … umm …" She was looking around now, looking for something to use as a change of subject from the bed. "How much does a boat like this cost?"

Slow Eddie continued to smile. Let her flail for a while. It served her right for that crap back at the club. "Oh. Enough. Not like I can't afford it, though."

"Umm. Right." Then she spotted something atop his dresser. "Oh! Look! What a pretty clock! Is that, like, an antique or …?" She took a couple of hurried little steps over to the dresser (and away from the bed) like she was just absolutely fascinated by some cheap-ass clock that had come with the boat. Another stall. Slow Eddie realized that he was starting to lose patience again. A little chase was okay, just like a little hard-to-get.

But enough already.

"Yeah. Antique." He reached out and grabbed her by the arm and spun her around. Not excessively violent. But enough to make it clear that it was time to get to work. What flashed across her face this time …

A little spark of something dangerous. Anger? Something else? Did the little mink have claws?

But again she tried to hide it under that nonchalant mask as she laid her hand atop his and tried to work those long fingernails under his palm. She was going to try to be subtle about it - not demand he let go, just take his hand off her without saying anything at all.

Not this time. As Slow Eddie had already decided, it was time Copper learned who was stronger here, who was really in charge. He just gripped her arm harder.

For a moment longer she tried to pry his hand away. She was strong. Stronger than she looked. Slow Eddie actually had to put some effort into it to keep his grip. Again that little spark of something flickered across her face and for an instant he thought he might actually get a chance to see the little mink's claws. Then, for some reason, her eyes flicked again toward that clock on his dresser … and suddenly she relaxed. In an abrupt reversal of attitude, she whimpered, "Eddie, please. You're hurting me."

He was almost sorry to see her give up. It might have been fun to fight with her - at least for a little while. But this was how it always worked out. Women were smart that way. They always recognized, in the end, how things were going to work with him. The smarter ones surrendered to the inevitable sooner. So, mark Copper down as one of the smarter ones.

Still smiling (he'd never stopped) he loosened his grip, a little, with his right hand … and laid his other hand on her hip. "Oh. Sorry, babe. Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you. There's no need for anyone to get hurt, now is there? This is a party. And parties are for having fun. Right?"

She almost carried it off. Her brows were climbing right up her forehead and there was even a little tremble, both in her voice and in her lips. She almost managed the ‘timid and helpless surrender' routine.

But those eyes … there was something not quite right in those amazing blue eyes.

"Eddie, please. Like I said, I'm not feeling so good. I think I need some air. I don't know if it's just … you know, being on the water. Or if I'm …"

"Seasick? Well, the best thing for seasick is to take your mind off it. Think about something else. Something fun. And, in the mean time …" He pulled her closer, off-balance and against him. " … grab onto something solid. That's what you need. Something solid to hang on to."

Damn! What a body! Hard and lean in some places … soft and round in others. And hard and soft in just the right amount and in the just right places.

"Eddie … no!" But the little bitch was playing games again. Yeah, she struggled - a little. But in struggling she managed to press those big tits against his chest and rub that hard little belly against his crotch. She wanted it. She just wanted to make him work for it.

Well, why not? She obviously liked playing games and as games went, this wasn't the worst.

Not if he got to win in the end.

He hugged her even closer, pulling that luscious body even tighter, feeling it mold itself to his. He tried to kiss her, but she dropped her head and he almost wound up with a mouth full of hair. Not so bad, though. The deep copper-red color of her hair wasn't its only amazing quality. It was soft and whisper light. More like breeze than hair as it brushed against his cheek.

Still enjoying the feeling of that hair brushing his cheek, he slid his hand from her hip to her butt and began sliding that silky skirt up. His reward for boldness was a little moan of equal parts fear and pain. Like she didn't really want him to do what he was doing - though her own hands had found their way around his waist so she could pull him against her and press all that harder against him as she continued to squirm and ‘resist'.

This was just so perfect.

Too perfect.

In the back of his mind, Eddie realized she was still playing games with him. This was just a new tactic. His eyes had been drifting closed but now he opened them and glanced down at the top of her head. It was turned sideways, with her left cheek pressing against his chest. Not necessarily suspicious. But was she still looking at that damn clock?

Was this all so much a game to her that some fucking clock was more interesting than the hand he had about half-way up her back at this point?

Letting her skirt slither back down her hips, Eddie reached up and grabbed a handful of that copper mane and used it to not-so-gently tug her had back and up to face him. This time it wasn't a soft little moan of pretended fear. It was a deep, sharp bark of genuine pain and anger.

Now those eyes were boring into his. Now there was no attempt at all to hide her true emotions behind a mask.

Fine. Time to stop playing roles and games. Time to get down to business.

He dropped his chin and slammed his lips against hers. The contact was something a little less violent than actually biting her. But only a little.

That soft, willing body she'd been rubbing against him went as rigid as the steel wall he had her pressed against. He could feel her hands suddenly flailing. He could feel her trying to turn her head first one way, then the other, trying to escape his ‘kiss'. He just used that handful of hair like you'd use a horse's reins, pulling her head even farther backward as he pressed his lips harder against hers.

Then, somehow, she managed to get her hands between them.

He'd felt some strength when she'd been trying to get his hand off her arm. But he hadn't seen how strong the seemingly petite little thing really was. Not till she planted both hands on his chest and now it was him getting pushed off-balance and away. As he staggered back, in the corner of his mind he wondered how much of that attempt to pull his hand off had been just another game. Another little tease.

Before he could recover sufficiently to reach out and grab her again, she had one hand pressed to her mouth and the other pressed to her belly as she gagged, "Oh God! … I'm gonna hurl!"

Then she was through the door to his little bathroom, a door that slammed in his face. Leaving him standing there, fuming and furious, listening to what sounded far too convincingly like someone being violently ill for him to believe it was all just another act. Another game.

*************************

Mickey Indy and the limo were waiting on the pier as Numero Uno, under Captain Charlie's expert guidance, glided to a stop in its assigned berth. A gangway was quickly secured.

Almost immediately, the two girls Mickey had watched strut aboard came slinking back down. Without a word or any seeming acknowledgement they both quickly climbed into the back seat. With a shrug, Mickey closed their door then climbed behind the wheel. It was no surprise when the privacy divider separating the rear of the limo from the driver's compartment whirred closed as he pulled away from the curb.

He'd seen it all before. The hunched shoulders and defensively folded arms. The distant, ‘leave me the hell alone' frown on a woman's face. Just another typical Slow Eddie Ells party with the typical outcome for the prettiest of the female guests. At least, the new ones who hadn't already known the score.

Back in the limo's spacious passenger compartment, the tense silence stretched. Finally, in a soft, neutral tone Sable murmured, "Well. I'm pretty sure I did everything right. The bilge pump was right where you'd said it would be. Found it, no problem. That labeled piping helped."

Copper just stared out the window at the passing nighttime scenery, her arms clenched beneath her breast. Her knees pressed so tightly together, Sable knew that Copper's thighs must already be starting to ache from the muscle strain.

She plowed ahead, trying to draw Copper out with ‘harmless' conversation. Anything that didn't touch on what had happened while they had been separated. "I pulled a big, white colored wire off the pump. Is that right? I mean, there was a black one too. But the white one was already corroded some. And it snapped off really easily."

Silence. Copper just continued to stare out the window.

"Copper? Is that okay? The white one, I mean."

Copper finally nodded, a quickly little bob of her head. In something disconcertingly like a return to Jimmy Kincaid's accustomed growl she mumbled, "Yeah. That's the right one."

"Okay. Umm … Then, like you said, I found a wrench and I loosened a couple of pipes labeled ‘Seawater Cooling'. It wasn't too bad. The spray, I mean. The pipes didn't seem to be under all that much pressure."

No response.

Sable reached out a tentative hand, intending to lay it on Copper's thigh, hoping to get those painfully clenched knees to relax. But the response she got was just the opposite of what she'd intended. Instead of relaxing, at Sable's touch, Copper jerked as if the brunette's fingers had imparted an electric shock.

Now Sable's words came out in a whisper, just loud enough to be heard over the already muted travel noises. "Please. Tell me."

If anything, Copper seemed to knot up even tighter and now it was definitely Jimmy's surly growl. "Nothing to tell."

"What happened?"

The intensity of those laser blue eyes was so startling, when Copper speared her in their light, Sable actually flinched back. "Nothing happened. Okay? Understand? Nothing happened at all."

Then Copper turned back to the window releasing Sable from that piercing glare.

Suddenly, Sable's anger boiled over. "You … You … Patronizing bastard!"

Again Copper impaled Sable in that glare and again, laser blue collided with iron brown. "What the fuck's wrong now?"

"Where do you get off? Huh? Back there on the boat you were all ‘Ooo, poor baby' freaked out because Captain Charlie got to stick his hand in delicate, fragile little Sable's panties. But when it comes to macho Jimmy Kincaid …"

"Yeah! An' if I recall correctly, I got slapped down pretty good when I expressed that concern. So keep your fucking concern to yourself now and we'll just call it even. Okay?" Copper hunched back into her tortured knot and the anger drained out of Sable as quickly as it had arrived.

Again Sable tried to reach out and touch Copper and again she shied away. "Don't you think I understand? That I can understand?" Copper didn't turn her head, but instead of that fixed frozen stare, suddenly her eyes were starting to blink. More quickly than normal. As someone would blink when the tears started to burn at the corners of their eyes. " ‘Been there. Done that.' I know it hurts. I know you feel so dirty. And I don't mean dirty like shameful. I mean dirty like there's this … greasy… Like it'll never wash off no matter how much you …"

"Shut up! Shut up!" Then the words were choked in the rising, heartbroken wail and the hot tears streamed down Copper's cheeks. Sable's arms were around Copper's shoulders, gently rocking as Copper sobbed out the rage and the shame against Sable's chest.

Finally the wracking sobs subsided to ragged, deep breaths. Copper was spent, hugged close in the shelter of Sable's arms. Sable's words were whispered to the veil of Copper's hair, whisper-soft against Sable's cheek. "You have to do what I do. You have to tell yourself that they didn't win. You did. They didn't take anything from you. You took from them and you beat them by doing it."

The eyes that a moment ago had been as hard and cold as million-year-old ice shimmered beneath the layer of the last remaining tears. "But they did take … He … He took …" Those eyes closed and the unshed tears spilled from the corners. "…me."

Sable touched Copper under her chin, raising it. Again their eyes met. "No. He couldn't. He's nothing. Too small to ever be able to hold even a little part of …"

The kiss was as gentle as the brush of moonlight. As deep as time.



Chapter 14 - "Jail Time"



The next morning Major Ipney and Doctor Ruth met, per their usual routine, in the doctor's office.

Ruth took another sip of coffee from her Penn State mug. "So. All in all, how would you rate last night's mission?"

He took a sip of the coffee he insisted on making himself to his own specifications and then shrugged. "I'd rate it as satisfactory."

"'Satisfactory'? That's all?"

"The objective was accomplished. Of course we don't have anything like a comprehensive report on the damage to 'Uno'. But a friend of mine at the Coast Guard - one of the guys on the response team - tells me it'll be several days before they can raise Slow Eddie's boat. And then it's going to be in dry dock for a month at least. Probably more like two. Cleaning up all the water damage and so forth. In any event, it's out of play for whatever Slow Eddie had originally intended. In my book that's a satisfactory conclusion to the mission."

"And the girls? How would you rate their performance?"

Ipney snorted and gazed into the depths of his cup as he sneered, "'Girls'."

"You're still having trouble with all of this, aren't you?"

"My 'troubles' aren't relevant."

"But they are. This is a very difficult, very delicate thing we're attempting. A very fragile thing. You have day-to-day contact with Copper. As a result, you can easily undermine …"

"All right. Yes. It bothers me. It bothers me that you continue to insist on referring to Kincaid as 'Copper'. It's all make-believe. I mean, if Schwarzenegger walked into the office, would you insist on referring to him as The Terminator? There is no 'Copper'. There's just a role."

Ruth stared at Ipney for a long moment. He just continued to sip his coffee, the lingering silence his continuing challenge.

"When does a Marine become a Marine?"

Ipney blinked. "What does that have to do with …?"

"When does a Marine become a Marine?"

"Well. It's …you don't just 'become' a Marine. I mean, it's a whole life-style …"

"When does it happen? At what moment?"

Ipney sighed and set his cup down on Ruth's desk. "If you need a precise moment, I'd say it's at the end of Boot when the recruits get the 'birdy and ball' pinned to their collars."

"So. Being a Marine depends on that emblem pinned to their shirts?"

"You know it doesn't. You know that it's much more a mental set and the product of training than it is a little, metal …" Realizing the trap he'd just stepped into, Ipney wound down to a glaring frown.

Ruth spoke in a mild, moderate tone. "And what's 'Copper' if not 'a mental set and the product of training'?"

"A Marine is a real-world thing. It's not make-believe or pretend."

"And neither is Copper. Reality is what you do, Joshua. It's what you perceive and feel. Like you, I don't have all the details from last night. But I do have a brief report from Sable. Enough of a report to know that last night Copper was very real because she felt some very real, very painful things."

"Painful things? What kind of things?"

"Suffice it to say, Copper was forced to experience something that every woman dreads. That she - and I very intentionally say 'she' when referring to Copper - that since she didn't have even the minimal sense of self and perspective that every other woman takes as a matter of course … well, it just made the cuts that much deeper."

Ipney retrieved his cup from Ruth's desk, but the last few sips of coffee were going cold. "'Perspective'? Jesus." Before Ruth could reply, Ipney flicked his hand in dismissal. "Look, Doctor … what do you want? I've committed to this course of action and I'm trying as much as I can to support it."

"But it's grudging support. I'll say it again. This is a very delicate, very fragile point in Copper's development. It will take very little negativism to push her over the edge in the wrong direction and we'll lose everything we've accomplished."

"I can't give what I don't have. I don't like Kin …'Copper'. I don't trust 'her'. And I'm not as good as the rest of you at playing pretend, all right?"

"What does it take to earn your trust, Major? How many dues does a person have to pay?"

"Dues? What kind of dues has Kincaid paid? He ran one mission. Two if you count taking over from Sable on the debacle at the accountant's house. That's his job. That's what we're expecting of him."

"The devil is in the details, Major. I could say that the men who … who … Iwo Jima. Reduced to the minimalism you're allowing, that was just some Marines who captured an island and that's what we were expecting of them."

"The men who took Iwo paid for that place in blood and sweat, Doctor. They paid with their lives. As far as I know, Kincaid accomplished his task by putting on a pair of panties and flaunting a pair of fake tits. Not exactly a comparable …"

Ruth slammed her open palm against her desk, startling the Major with the sudden, violent change in her usually placid demeanor. "Are you so small-minded that you can't comprehend there are more kinds of suffering than getting shot? The Marines from Iwo who didn't get killed … the ones who … I don't know … Unloaded cargo or … or the medics in the hospitals. What about them? Were they less heroes because they 'only' dealt with the horror of that? Because they suffered in a different way? Did they 'pay dues', Major?"

Ipney was bristling now too. "I don't see anything in Kincaid's conduct last night …okay. I don't even know what kind of conduct it was. But that's irrelevant! A cocktail party just doesn't have the potential for making the kind of sacrifice that I would consider dues."

Ruth's eyes bored, unflinching, into the Major's. "Oh? All right. Let's talk about reality again. Let's talk about experience and perception. Let's violate your body, Major. Let's make those 'fake tits' a very real part of your person. Let's crawl around in your mind and rip away that machismo that seems to be your whole reason for being. Let's put you in those panties and force you to flaunt that pair of 'fake tits' that feel. That hurt when some monster like Slow Eddie Ells grabs them and squeezes them. Let's put you in a situation where none of the masculine armor you've spent your whole life building protects you anymore because you can't use it. Not if you want to accomplish what the people who've forced you into this situation are demanding of you. Instead we'll leave you powerless to stop Slow Eddie from using you just like he's used a hundred other women. Have you ever been used that way, Major? Do you think being used that way might count as some kind of sacrifice? As some kind of 'dues'?"

The tensions stretched as each stared into the other's eyes. It was the Major who softened first. "That really happened? Last night …Kincaid, really …?"

Her words were softly spoken, but there was steel in them. "No. 'Kincaid' did not. 'Copper' did. And she earned your respect by doing it. If you're any kind of a man at all, you'll acknowledge that sacrifice. Because she did it as much for you as for anyone. Even though she doesn't like you any more than you like her. Even though she doesn't trust you any more than you trust her - though God knows, she has far less reason to trust than you do!"

The Major finally glanced away. The soft tone with which he said, "I'll try, Doctor. I'll try" were as much of a concession as Ruth knew she could expect.

Before Ruth could follow up with a return to a more gentle, more rational appeal to reason and logic, the door to her office opened and in strode the object of their discussion, closely followed by Sable.

Ruth had to stifle the groan as she watched the red-head stride across the space from the door to her desk, her smug - call it 'gloating' - smile never turning away from Ipney. Copper's entire manner was …

Well, to be fair her walk, the set of her shoulders, the hard lines on her face - it wasn't a complete return to Jimmy Kincaid. It couldn't be, really. The shimmy of two apparently unrestrained breasts beneath Copper's baggy sweatshirt gave the lie to that image. So too did the swing of a pair of undeniably feminine hips encased in drawstring tied sweat pants. As for the shifting highlights on that long, shimmering mane that swayed back and forth in counterpoint to each bold step …

Not Jimmy Kincaid. But not the Copper she'd so carefully fashioned either. There was something new here. Some kind of elusive …

Then Ruth recognized it. She'd seen this mannerism before. Indeed, she needed only to glance beyond Copper to the raven-haired beauty still lurking in the door for a reminder of another person who had once carried herself this way - this challenging, brittle, 'armored against the world' aggressiveness.

Given how common this particular defense mechanism was, Ruth chided herself for not recognizing it (and the implications it carried) the instant Copper opened the door. But then she relented. No, understandable really. Understandable that Ruth hadn't recognized it because she had no reason to be expecting it. It usually took more than just one bad experience for an abused woman to become so injured … so self-hating and self-destructive.

But then Copper wasn't a 'usual' case.

With that taunting grin on her face, Copper slammed the morning Post-Intelligencer down on Ruth desk and then sneered at Ipney, "Read it and weep, Major. Mission accomplished."

It was all going to come crashing down. Ruth could visualize it. Ipney would lash out in typically macho Ipney fashion. And because they'd …

… because she'd robbed Copper of all of Jimmy Kincaid's defenses to that kind of attack, Copper would simply self-destruct. That brittle mask would shatter and there'd be nothing beneath.

Ipney stared up at Copper looming over him as he sat there in front of Ruth's desk. Then, for the first time in along time, a subject of hers did the one thing that Ruth didn't expect. Ipney's normally challenging stare softened and he nodded. In mild tones he murmured, "Indeed. Mission accomplished. Well done."

The silence stretched. Both Ruth and Sable blinked in surprise. Ipney just sat there, calmly gazing up at Copper. And Copper …

Her jaw actually went slack sufficiently for her unadorned (but collagen enhanced) lips to part.

Ruth knew she was staring. She could feel her own jaw tightening as she realized that the mask hadn't shattered. That there might still be a chance. You don't have Jimmy to respond. Find a new way.

And it happened, as it had happened once before in the foyer of a little restaurant a few miles down the road. The defenses were still up. Copper was still a long, long way from relaxing, from trusting.

But her body language changed. Those tightly hunched shoulders relaxed, easing down and backward. As a result, her sweatshirt shifted to mold itself to the now more pronounced thrust of her breasts. Her out-thrust jaw relaxed as well, dropping a little more toward her chest. But at the same time her eyebrows climbed and those amazing blue eyes opened wider.

It was still a classic example of 'confrontation body language.' But it was classically female body language. Body language that Ruth herself had programmed into the slender redheaded agent.

"Huh?" Then Copper blinked and even slightly shook her head. "Uh …yeah. Okay. So … that's it? 'Mission accomplished'?"

Ipney's tone remained mild. "You were expecting a medal?"

Ruth realized that there was a golden opportunity here and she tried to interject. "Major. I think you …"

But this time it was Copper who surprised Ruth when she calmly interrupted. "No. It's okay, Doc. In point of fact, I wasn't expecting anything. So I guess even a little pat on the head and a 'well done' is gravy."

Ruth held her peace. 'Gravy' was a Jimmy-ism. But Jimmy would also have said 'I ain't expectin' nothing.' A lot was still in the balance and that balance was still very precarious. But it was starting to shift in Copper's favor.

It all depended on Ipney now.

In that same, non-aggressively casual tone he replied, "I expect my troops to do their jobs. But that doesn't mean I can't say 'well done' when a difficult mission is accomplished."

" 'Your troops', huh? My … that's mighty white of you."

Jimmy struggling to reassert himself?

No. Copper off balance and flailing for a way to continue to bluster. Or better yet, looking for and perhaps even finding a way to slowly back down from the confrontation.

Yes!

And Ipney played along. That continued, moderate tone was just exactly right. "A good commander doesn't become a good commander by simply barking orders. A good commander realizes that there are people on the other end receiving those orders. And at the end of the day, he recognizes their efforts. Especially if he expects them to expend such efforts another day."

Ruth forced herself not to cringe. The reminder that Copper still faced more challenges - perhaps challenges as bad or even worse than last night - was a serious mis-step by Ipney. To be fair it was his first one. But it was a serious one.

To Ruth's continuing surprise, Copper apparently missed it. Put it down to her being off-balance from Ipney's unexpected demeanor.

"Wow. From 'trooper' to 'people'. Hear that, Sable? We're moving right up the ladder here."

Sable's soft 'Um hmm" was, again, just the right tone. Agreement but without undue support for the implied challenge. Another person slowly ratcheting down the pressure.

Then Ipney made up for the previous mis-step. Indeed, in Ruth's mind he made up for all the mistakes and short-sightedness of the past. Very calmly, very casually - so casually that it looked completely natural and unintentional, though Ruth knew it was anything but - Ipney stood up then stood back from the chair, which he then indicated to Copper.

It looked natural and unintentional because, what ever else you could say about Ipney, he was a gentleman in the classic sense.

And a gentleman always offered his seat to a lady.

"So. Shall we get on with the debrief?"

* * * * * * * * * *

A little over two hours later and back in her 'room', Copper made a beeline for the bed. With a deep sigh bordering on a groan, she collapsed on her back, her arms flung wide. With closed eyes she grumbled, "Well, golly. That was fun. Let's do that a lot more often."

Sable's lips quirked in a smile as she perched on the end of Copper's bed. "Hey, it's a military thing. You know; 'see the hill', 'capture the hill', 'fill out the paperwork.' I think Ipney could have been standing there watching it all, but it still wouldn't be 'real' until he gets his briefing afterwards."

"Ipney. Bleh! What a jerk!"

Sable still smiled, but it was becoming a thoughtful smile to go along with her increasingly speculative expression. 'A jerk'? What had happened to the obnoxious, macho little monster who tossed off four-letter words the way most people used punctuation? Did mob killers say 'bleh'? He's just doing his job." Copper began to struggle into a sitting position, the better to argue her disagreement, but Sable cut her off. "Okay. Yeah, he's a jerk about doing it. But that doesn't mean it's not something he has to do."

Copper folded her legs, Indian-style, and hugged her arms beneath her bosom. Sable thought to herself, That's the way I sit when I'm sitting in the middle of a bed. Has she ever seen me doing that? Is she copying me? Or is it coming naturally to her - her own mannerisms starting to develop?

'She'? 'Her'?

"I haven't gotten enough lectures for today? You're gonna start in on me too?"

"I'm not lecturing. I'm just … Look, he made some good points. Okay?"

"For instance?"

"Well. Umm … okay. Having a plan. He's right about that."

"We had a plan. And it must have been a good one because it worked. Why does everyone seem to forget that little detail? That we did what we set out to do."

"Yeah. We had a plan. But be fair. It worked only because we got lucky." Before Copper could voice her objection, Sable plowed ahead in an even more stern tone of voice. "We did! And you need to admit that."

"So we got lucky. You have to get lucky to make things work. And that's something that Ipney needs to admit."

"Yes. And you have to admit that, like he said, 'You can't plan on getting lucky.' You need to …" She waved her hand, struggling to remember the way Ipney had said it, because at the time and considering what had happened the night before, he'd seemed to be making a lot of sense. "You know … contingencies and … and … stuff."

Now Copper was grinning. "Ooo. Boy, he sure made an impression on you. You can almost remember what he said."

"Don't laugh at me!"

With a twinkle in her eye, Copper made a big show of composing her grin into an impish smirk. "I'm not laughing at you. I think you're cute when you try to lecture."

"Stop it! This isn't being cute. This is serious! We need to have better plans. If we'd had a better plan last night, maybe you and Eddie wouldn't have …"

The smile had fled from her face and now Copper's arms weren't just folded in casual ease. Now they were wrapped tightly, defensively across her chest.

Sable reached out and laid a hand on Copper's thigh. At least this time Copper didn't flinch at her touch. "God. I'm sorry. That was … I didn't mean to …"

Copper shook her head in a quick, side-to-side flick. "No. You're right. I should have seen that. I should have allowed for that."

"Oh, Copper... How do you plan for someone being ... doing ... For a monster to ...?" There was just no way to say it and Sable finally gave up trying, instead conveying her sympathy and support by the gentle pressure of her hand still lying on Copper's thigh.

After a moment, Copper's anguished expression softened. Sable felt a knot forming in her chest when she gazed into the wistful, injured, beautiful smile and the …

… something she couldn't name …

… shining for her in Copper's blue eyes.

Copper's smile was echoed in her gentle tone. "Okay. Ipney's a jerk. But even blind squirrels find acorns. I guess next time we'll have a better plan. Right?"

Sable managed to smile around the disconcerting knot in her chest.

"Right! In fact, we better get working on that right now. We need to get you into the safehouse party."

* * * * * * *

"C'mon in, Sable honey," Slow Eddy said expansively. Walking back to the huge desk in his 'office' or study or whatever else he considered it, since it was indeed a place of business for all that nothing clerical ever happened there, Eddy pointed his blunt finger at the visitor's chair.

"What can I do for you, Eddy?" asked Sable, a helpless little pout tugging at her full lip.

"I need you to help me out with a little party Friday night," he explained. "You'd like to go to a party, wouldn't you?"

"Will you be there?" she asked, the pout vanishing into a hopeful smile that distracted the arrogant capo from the gleam of success that flashed in her dark eyes.

"Nah, baby, afraid not," Eddy replied. But his denial did not interfere with the pride that swelled his chest. Yeah, this babe needs me. Even though it's about time to trade her in on somebody new, she still wants what I have to give her.

A part of Sable's own thoughts showed when her lip pouted out again. Of course, if Eddy misinterpreted what was bothering her, that was his problem.

Eddy's smug grin belied his total lack of sympathy. "Too bad, baby, but this party is for some friends of mine. Or at least, clients. I want you to show them a good time. Get that other girl - What was her name? The blonde one? - Shawna to go with you."

"Shawna's in jail, Eddy."

"What?!"

Sable flinched at his harsh tone, and quietly explained, "She got picked up for drugs."

"God damn bitch!" he snarled. "Why'd the fuckin' cunt do something that stupid?"'

"I don't know, Eddy, honest. We were at this party, and . . ."

"Party?!" he roared, standing and slamming his fist down on the desk. "What were you two doin' at a goddamn party without my sayso?"

"Eddy, please, it wasn't like that. It was just a party, y'know? Not, I mean, we weren't, like, 'entertaining' or anything."

"So what the hell were you doing?"

"Just, like, having a good time. I mean . . ." Sable's eyes drooped into a sad, helpless little look that matched her quivering lip. "Oh, Eddy, you've been so busy lately. I hardly ever get to see you. And I was just . . . y'know. Bored. So we went to this party at a friend's place. Nobody important, not, like, a part of the family or anything. And we were just, y'know, dancing a little, and like, having a good time."

"So how did that cunt get caught with drugs?"

"I don't know, not really. I mean, it was like, we were just, y'know, there and then it's like, World War III or something, with cops everywhere and like, they were searching everyone. Anyway, they found some coke in Shawna's purse."

"I told you girls not to use that shit!"

"I know, Eddy. And I don't. I swear. Never. And I didn't think that Shawna did either, but . . . "

"Well, bail her out."

The brunette gulped and said, "I'm, um . . . . it was quite a bit of coke, Eddy."

"How much?"

"I don't know, but I heard she's up as a dealer, not just a user. I told old man Jacobsen, the fixer, but I don't know if he's got her out yet."

At the mention of the clerkish lawyer, a crafty look crawled into Eddy's eyes and he said, "There's something going on here. First somebody hits the bookkeeper, then the yacht sinks. Now . . ."

"What?"

"I don't believe in coincidences, babe, not when they all line up to bust my chops. I didn't put it together before now."

"Put it together?" Sable prompted carefully. If he had realized the government was involved . . .

"Somebody is trying to move in on me," he declared. "I always figured the hit on Horner was business, but I figured the yacht was that stupid fuckup Charlie Fortunado's fault, and I didn't see the connection."

"I'm sorry, Eddy, but I still don't see . . ."

"Somebody deliberately sank my damn yacht, and planted the drugs on that blonde bitch."

"How could they do that, Eddy?" she asked, and it was a good thing Eddy was used to people cringing when he went into a raging tirade, or her fear would have revealed more than she could afford.

"How the fuck would I know?" he snapped. "Fortunado is the boat expert."

He interrupted himself and chuckled grimly. "Well, not any more he's not."

Standing up, he started to pace about the office. "None of the families would try to push me in my own territory. It's gotta be someone from the outside, someone . . ."

Whirling to look at the curvy brunette, he demanded, "Did you see anyone on the docks when we pulled in the other night?"

"I don't remember," she answered tensely, wondering if one of Ipney's men had been observed. "Maybe."

"Yeah, I remember, there were some fucking niggers down there. That's who's behind this!"

"I, um, black men?"

"Fucking LA street gangs. Not one of the Families. Hell, none of them bastards even know who their daddy was anyway. And they're into coke right up to their, to their fucking noses."

He laughed at his pun and put the relief he saw in Sable's face down to humor at his joke. Then his expression turned dark and menacing. "No bastard nigger is gonna muscle in on me. I'll get Stick, or maybe Basher to look into this. . . ."

Relief warred with new concern on Sable's flawless brow at the mention of the dreaded enforcers. This was something she'd have to tell Ipney, and as soon as possible. On the other hand, it appeared that Eddy was going to send them off on a wild goose chase, so perhaps things would work out.

Thinking of reporting to Ipney reminded Sable of her mission, and she carefully returned to the topic that had been her objective.

"Um, Eddy, what do we do about Shawna?"

"I oughta just leave the cunt to rot in jail," he snarled, then relented. "She was set up. Jacobsen will handle it."

"Eddy," Sable said cautiously. "I wonder if we should use Shawna, at least for a while, until this like, settles down a little. I mean, if the Feds think she's dealing, then they might, y'know, follow her or something."

"Shit," Eddy snarled, but he sat down again and frowned at this complication. "I need another blonde. These, ah, 'clients' are from . . that is, they prefer blondes."

"I'm not blonde, Eddy," Sable pointed out in confusion.

"No, babe, but you're fine. It's not like they insist on blondes only. They just see plenty of dark-haired girls where they come from, and they wanted some . . . variety."

Sable's lip stayed prominent in a pout, but this time her elegantly arched brows furrowed in concentration more than distress. "Angela's off visiting her sick aunt, and Candi is, ah, this is just not a good time for her. You want me to get one of the girls from one of the houses?"

"No," Eddy replied quickly. "If these guys found out I was running hookers at them, they'd . . . well, it wouldn't satisfy them. Isn't there anyone else from the club?"

"Not a blonde," Sable reported. "Not a real one, anyway, and . . . I mean, what if they, um, will they care if they find out she's not a natural blonde?"

"Geez. Just deal with it, okay? Get a redhead if you have to," Eddy ordered.

Bingo! though Sable in silent exultation. Stupid SOB finally got to the right place. "Oh, Eddy, that's an idea. My cousin Copper might like a job. Can I ask her?" Sable dropped her voice to a confidential tone. "She felt so bad after the other night, when she got sick? That I know she'd like to, like, make it up to you."

"I didn't think she was a party girl," Eddy sneered.

"Well, she's not, really," claimed Sable. "But she can dance and I figure she can . . . do what's needed. Who are your friends, anyway?"

"Oh, they're a group from out of town. I've got them in the house out by U-Dub."

"How far out of town?" Sable pushed, holding her breath to make her interest seem merely 'professional.'

"Buncha ragheads from one of those Middle East shitholes," Eddy blurted out. "That gonna be a problem for your cousin?"

"I don't think so," Sable said casually, then her eyes lit up with a opportunity that overshadowed any problems. "Oh, I've got this killer harem outfit I've been meaning to wear that would be just perfect."

A deep heat smoldered in her eyes as she looked up at Eddy from under her lashes. "Unless you'd like me to save that outfit for you. That's what I was doing, but . . . "

"That's a great thought, babe," Eddy said, brusquely rising to cut off that line of conversation. Gotta dump these babes before they get to thinking they own you. "I'm sure they'll be pleased, and I'll see it some other time."

Then heat showed in his own eyes as another thought came to him. "Get an outfit like that for your cousin, too."


Chapter 16 - "Veiled Threats"


The house on the north shore of Lake Washington had been around since state-of-the-art security consisted of a palm-sized hole in the door - complete with sliding, 'Joe-sent-me' cover that could be opened to observe those who wanted to enter. Much more sophisticated surveillance equipment now guarded the criminal refuge, but the old ways were still more satisfying to some, especially those brought up in a largely low-technology culture.

More rewarding, too, when the guard at the door slid the panel open to see luminous dark eyes framed by a deep blue scarf and matching veil - though the veil was so sheer it was more teasing than modest, offering no impediment to a view of dark lips curled in a seductive smile.

"Can we come in?" the woman asked. "Slow Eddy said we might find a party here."

"Um, yes, of course," the guard replied, opening the door to see not one, but two women standing in the doorway. The second showed eyes of brilliant blue-green, and the hair that showed below her scarf was lit with the fire of the desert sunset. Her eyes danced with amusement at his gawking interest, then crinkled into a full grin when - together - the two girls dropped concealing capes to reveal outfits that would never have passed the "I Dream of Jeannie" censors. The deep blue framing the brunette's eyes extended into a flowing outfit that was some Westerner's fantasy of traditional Bedouin attire, but the material was so sheer the color was not always clear - and not at all important. The redhead's costume was much the same, though in a shimmer sea-green that matched her matchless eyes, at least where the folds were thick enough to see the color at all.

"So, what's your name?" the redhead asked in a husky, sensual voice.

"I am, ah, my name, uh, Maho . . . I mean, I am to be called, 'Sam,'" the man stammered out.

"Pleased to meet you, Sam," the brunette purred, dragging his attention back to her with the voice that sent thrills racing up the back of his neck - to match the flush that raced along the same path. "I'm Sable, and this is Copper."

The curvy brunette 'accidentally' brushed her full bosom against his arm as she turned toward her partner, and it was a clear Sam would have had no hope of passing a pop quiz on their names even with the clue their flowing hair provided.

Their escort was young, not much if any older than Copper, and despite Sable's smirking success at capturing his attention, his eyes seemed drawn to the spectacular redhead. Though he paid no apparent attention to where they were going, he managed to lead them into the common room of the hideout where they found four other conspirators watching a video. All of the men, including their escort, were dark-haired and had skin tones that had a strange, uneven look. After a moment Copper realized what was wrong, and in recognizing it she knew she'd only noticed because of the specialized training Sable had given her.

They've all recently shaved away beards, and their faces still show an uneven tan from where the beards were. Lord knows I spent enough time learning to blend in beard cover. Damn, but it's a good thing my whiskers were never as dark or heavy as these guys obviously have.

Three of the men who had been waiting in the room were also relatively young, in their twenties. The fourth was older, perhaps 50 though the seams in his face may have been due to a harsher environment than common in the United States and thereby prematurely deep. His face showed a sneer of insult when he saw the girls, but the hunger in his eyes was harsh and predatory.

He affected an air of disinterest though, and remained seated, saying nothing as the younger men made their 'guests' welcome with unchecked enthusiasm. It didn't take a translator to understand the lewdness of their comments, even though none of them were in any language familiar to the girls.

Any spoken language, that is.

It was only after a moment that Copper's wandering gaze took in what was showing in the video they had been watching. It made her gasp, even as it brought a flush of arousal that quickened her heartbeat. She forced herself to look away, but that let her eyes meet those of the older man, and a flicker of amusement - cruel, taunting amusement - showed through his hunger.

"Hello, boys," Sable purred, not noticing the unspoken communication between her partner and the seated man. She wriggled her way around the room, making each man in turn seem like he was the center of her universe as she avidly absorbed names ('Mike' and 'Bill' and 'Joe' - not that it really mattered either to Sable of the men themselves) and shamelessly found some manly virtue to mention in each of them. Copper noticed Sable's tactic - in fact, she had been briefed on it by Dr. Ruth - but somehow the only man she seemed to be close enough to meet was their young door-guard escort.

"So, Sam," Copper murmured, not quite matching the sensual purr in Sable's voice, but causing a very noticeable reaction nonetheless, "what brings you to my country?"

His eyes flickered guiltily toward the seated, older man, and when the obvious leader returned a glare, he shook his head. "Just visiting," he claimed, having at least enough sense not to try to deny his alien status.

"Well, we like visitors," Copper said, then leaned forward to breathe softly in his ear, "At least, I do."

At this minor intimacy - observed as were all things in the room by the glowering leader - the older man stood and claimed the attention of the room by force of personality first, and then by firm voice tones. "I am John, your host for this evening. And my host, in turn, is your, what shall we call him? Your sponsor, Mr. Ells. He has certainly made good in his promise to provide . . . 'entertainers.' At the word, his lips curled in another sneer of disdain, but the hunger still gleamed in his eyes.

Sable drifted up to him like silk on a breeze, but before she could get close enough to establish any physical contact, he scowled a warning that stopped her in her tracks.

Nodding at his obvious decision, the dark-haired girl looked around the room. The younger men made no secret that they would welcome her attention. But once again the leader interrupted their show of interest.

"Sam," he said, "you seem to be monopolizing that fire-haired one."

The simple declaration was enough to make Sam step back from Copper, leaving her exposed to the leader's attention.

"You are both quite beautiful," 'John' admitted. "And you move like the virgin houris of Paradise. But how shall you remain virgins if the young men have their way with you?"

That was *not* in the gameplan for the evening. Slow Eddy had made it clear that they were not to have sex with the clients. If they wanted hookers, Eddy would provide hookers, but for the house parties the idea was that he would provide higher-class girls - and not enough of them to go around. Multiple partners and unprotected sex were just too big a risk, and Eddy didn't want to waste the better merchandise that way. Both girls looked at each other with incipient panic in their eyes, which was actually the means of their escape.

It turned out the implied risk was just a demonstration of power, not a real threat. Once John had seen the fear in their eyes - especially in the brightly-colored eyes of Copper - he had smirked with his success and then turned to look at the TV.

On the screen was a further development of the scene that Copper had already noticed. As their attention focused on the flickering picture, it drew Sable's attention, and then that of the rest of the room. Despite their situation, Copper could not prevent another surge of arousal thrilling up her back, for on the screen were two women - two very intimate women.

"Ah, there's an idea," John said triumphantly. "There is a way for you to entertain us, and retain your virginity as well. Perhaps we should see if you infid..., ah, American girls are as . . . vibrant as your movements promise, hmmm?"

"You want us to . . ?" asked Copper, stalling out in mid-sentence.

"Only if you are willing, of course," John claimed benignly, then showed the lie of his good intentions with an immediate threat. "Though your Mr. Ells did promise that we would find you entertaining. I'm sure he would be unhappy if I told him you were not willing to do anything to please us. Of course, I may have misjudged you. If you're not all that concerned about your virginity, we could find something else to do . . ."

The cruel hunger had never really left his eyes, but the taunting disdain grew even more prominent as he grinned at them, pleased with the power he had over them. Pleased at their fear.

Sable glanced quickly at Copper. What passed between them was not anything that could be put into words - Copper couldn't have put it into words if she wanted to, and Sable' enigmatic expression raised more questions than it answered. Still, there was acceptance in both sets of dramatically made up eyes, and that was enough. Sable smiled at John, a saucy little smile that denied him the fear he seemed to value more than physical comfort, and nodded to the man closest to the video player.

"Why don't you run that back a little, and we'll see where we can, ah, fit in?" she offered.

Two of the men quickly cleared a space in front of the TV, casually throwing burger wrappers and empty beer cans aside. When the tape had been rewound, they saw a relatively ordinary video opening, one girl inviting another into her home. It didn't take long, however, before their friendship progressed beyond simple hospitality.

Sable looked at Copper to see that the redhead's control had slipped, not enough that the smirking men would notice, but enough for the agent to see something revealed in those bright eyes. Copper tried to show resigned acceptance, but there was more, more even than willingness. There was a hunger that was both very different and yet the same as the hunger in John's eyes. There was no cruelty in Copper's emerald gems, but there was need.

And shame. Shame at the thought of taking advantage of the cruelty of the situation to take what Sable would not give her willingly. Shame at the joy she felt because she had the opportunity. Shame at the thrill in her body at the thought of . . .

Of 'performing' in front of leering, mocking men.

"Oh my God," Copper moaned.

Sable held out her arms and stepped to the distraught redhead. "It's okay," she whispered into the soft, fiery hair. "It's okay. We can do this."

"But . . ," Copper tried to protest. "But I *can't!* I mean . . ."

"It's okay," repeated Sable. "I have an idea. Just follow my lead."

Sable's darkly outlined lips moved from Copper's thick mane to trace a line along her quivering jaw. In moments that seemed like an eternity to the breathless redhead, Sable's lips had found her own, and she felt the warm, soft pressure of a gentle kiss. The kiss became more insistent, but after a moment the brunette's lips moved on to nuzzle yet again in Copper's hair.

...she felt the warm, soft pressure of a gentle kiss.


"I said 'follow me lead,' you ninny," she whispered, humor apparent in her words despite the lack of volume. "At least *act* like you're enjoying it."

"Oh, Sable," Copper moaned again, and this time when their lips touched Sable's advances were met with passionate enthusiasm.

This set the hovering men into hoots and suggestions, but for just a moment the two women didn't care - didn't notice in a world that had suddenly narrowed. With a start of surprise, Sable pulled back and gasped. Copper's eyes opened more slowly but she gasped as well, and then blushed as the taunts of the men penetrated her daze.

Her eyes met Sable's and a smile of genuine humor showed in those of the taller girl. "Not such a bad assignment after all, hmm?" Sable whispered to the redhead, nuzzling her neck. "What do you say we show these guys how hot you really are?"

Without waiting for an answer, Sables long nails started scrape lightly over Copper's arms, and then her hands grabbed abruptly at the shorter girl's waist, pulling her into a pelvis-thrusting embrace. Another kiss, harder and more dominating forced Copper's head back, allowing her long red hair to dance lightly on the taut globes of an inadequately hidden derriere. Sable's mouth opened and she nipped at Copper's chin, then her neck, while her hips started to move with the pulsing beat of the video sound track. The pressure between their bodies pulled Copper along with Sable's motion, and soon they were both swaying to the beat, communing with each other in a way that was beyond rational thought.

Copper was too overwhelmed to do more than respond to Sable's movements for a long - and delicious - moment, but soon her own nails were tracking the contours of Sable's lithe form, tracing and caressing.

Once again Sable elevated the intensity, lifting her hands from Copper's waist to cup the swells of the curvy redhead's ample endowment. Her thumbs danced a tune on the hard, hot nubs revealed within the too-sheer material of the green harem outfit, and it brought yet another gasp to Copper's lips, along with a sharp look at her dark-haired tormentor. What she saw was amusement - and in the lift of an elegant brow, challenge as well.

Copper took the challenge, sliding her hands up Sable's ribs to reach the rounded globes of her partner, and then reaching with deep red nails to capture the hard buttons of arousal that showed so darkly through Sable's outfit. This time it was Sable who gasped and the sound caused the taunts and suggestions of the men to reach a higher and more demanding level.

Sable's mouth lunged for Copper's full lips, and her caress of Copper's breasts became a pull that refused to allow Copper any retreat. Her tongue danced a demand and then accepted Copper's surrender in a duel where losing was a victory as well. The tall brunette's red talons teased along the line of Copper's gauzy top, then pulled quickly to reveal their turgid tips. Her fast-moving hands captured Copper's before the slender assassin could move to cover herself, then just as quickly moved on. Long, elegant nails started a new dance - this time on Copper's ribs.

A light, playful dance . . . that tickled!

Copper exploded with a twitching gulp of laughter, and tried to defend herself against the attack of Sable's glistening wands, but even her agility was not enough to escape - not while she was laughing too hard to breathe.

It took a second or two for the men to realize what was happening, but Copper's laughter was infectious and in moments all of them were laughing as well, enjoying the control and dominance shown by the dark-haired girl - as well as the sight of treasure her playful fingers had revealed. When their taunts changed from lewdness to mirth, Sable abruptly stopped and grabbed Copper's hands in her own, pulling them behind the redhead as though pinned in cuffs. She leaned down to renew her claiming kiss, declaring her dominance, and then she leaned back.

"The next step in this little dance is one that we don't want to waste," she said to the men, her voice husky and inviting. "Let me dance for you. Let me show you my own interpretation of the 'Dance of the Seven Veils.' Then . . . well, then we'll just see what we see, won't we? By the way, I've only got five veils."

The men were more than willing to take her up on her offer. A quick scramble and the stereo was pulsing with an entirely different beat - slower, but hypnotically compelling. It might have been hard to believe anyone could forget Copper was in the room before Sable's sinewy body began to flow to the new music - but it would have been impossible to doubt a moment later.

Copper's smooth glide out of the room made no more disturbance than a drifting feather, but Sam was there before she made it a step beyond the door.

"Can I help you?" he asked her still-exposed nipples.

With an effort that didn't show on the outside, Copper pulled herself back into character and gave the man a warm smile. When that had no effect, she took a deep breath and slowly pulled the material of her cropped top back up to cover her hard little nubbins. The look of disappointment on his face was priceless, and it helped her find a teasing little tone despite her still-flaming embarrassment. "Oh, that's sweet of you, Sam, but I just need to find the powder room."

"Powder?" he replied with a poorly suppressed twitch. He sent a guilty glance toward the leader, but John was far too busy to notice, his eyes burning holes in Sable as she danced. Turning back to Copper the young guard spoke rapidly, "What powder are you talking about? We have no powder here. What makes you think we have powder here?"

Copper suppressed her own twitch, much more successfully, at the near-panicked reaction of the man. Clearly she had hit a nerve with her innocent - well, it was a cover for something not so innocent - comment. But it wouldn't do to have any of the men suspect the girls were more than they seemed, so she giggled and reached out a taloned hand to scrape lightly at Sam's cheek in a deliberately distracting reminder of the sensual scene with Sable.

"Oh, Sam, honey, I meant the ladies' room." She giggled again and reached into her small handbag to pull out a compact. "I need to, ah, powder my nose."

"But, I have seen ladies apply cosmetics in public," he protested. "And I'm not sure that you should be away from the rest of us."

"Oh, Sam," Copper repeated, snickering again. "You are such a dear." She stepped closer to the young man - which was disturbing enough - and then whispered in his ear with an explanation of the need she was claiming. He set a new personal record for blushing, but said nothing as Copper lifted an elegant brow in silent challenge - can I go or not?

Then Copper upped the stakes a little higher, looking past Sam into the room and gasping. "Oh my God, it looks like Sable is three veils down already!"

Slapping his face would not have caused Sam's head to turn any faster, and when he remembered to turn around again, the redhead was gone.

Sable was a dancer. She would never be the sweet little ballerina, twirling innocently on a tinkling music box. Innocence had been torn from her life long ago. For that matter, her body had ripened way beyond the ballerina look as well. She was a government agent, a gangster's moll, and a recovering victim of child abuse. Those were facts as inextricably part of who she was as her dark hair and flawless complexion. But in her heart where no one could touch her, her body drank music like the sanctifying waters of baptism, blotting out the ugliness of the world outside her skin.

It showed. It was what had won her a job as a stripper despite the fact her move to exotic dancing was a step up the social order from where she had started, instead of the more usual step down. Her dances were provocative and arousing, but that was due to a more basic quality that transcended the lusts of her admirers. Sable's dancing was sensual in a way that adding new meaning to the term. She *felt* the music, and lived for that feeling - pouring the joy her senses celebrated into movements that were as stimulating to her audience as they were to herself. It was so captivating Bob Fosse would have demanded to build a show around her.

Captivating enough that she was the only one in the room to notice Copper's departure, or to be aware of the fact the redhead hadn't yet returned. Unfortunately, she truly did only have five veils, and she had 'spent' the first three too quickly.

There is a line between enticing and teasing, but by the time Sable dropped her fourth veil, she had crossed it so many times it had been blotted out. Her final veil was the merest excuse for a claim to modesty - pretending to hide her 'virtue' behind a loincloth of gathered up folds in a material that would have been too sheer for stockings, let alone a panty. Arranging and rearranging the pleats, slowly drawing a little at a time through the belly-chain that held the cloth between her legs, she tried all the tricks in her amazing repertoire to hold their interest while she waited for her partner. But the line between teasing and stalling was more crucial than the earlier boundary - and less subject to being ignored.

It was predictable that Sam would be the first to start glancing around, obviously looking for Copper. Sable was an experienced-enough performer to sense the lessening focus of the others as well - and to sense that despite the impatience of the younger men, John's hunger was undiminished. She changed the focus of her dance, making it clear it was John and John alone whose attention she wanted - whose attention she craved, whose praise she desired above all other things. Her smiles became harsher, showing a need that reflected his own. Her dark lids shaded her eyes, dreams and promises playing out in her imagination while she looked only at him. No matter how restless the other men became, they would not interfere with the scene being created before their eyes.

Sable was successful. John did not care whether Copper, or any other woman, existed in the world. Unfortunately, her success in focusing John's desires fully on her opened the door for him to lose sight of another of his objectives - assuming any promises he had made to Slow Eddy Ells had ever been of real importance to him.

"Enough!" he shouted, breaking the spell of her dance. "Come over here."

At first, Sable just froze. The ugly tone in his voice was shock enough, but being jerked out of her dance reverie was painful in itself. She held a pose that was jarring in its own way, a stiff, unnatural residue of a movement of sublime grace just a moment before. Slowly, she let her body relax into a more natural standing position, but still made no move toward the seated leader.

"I said, 'come here,'" repeated John, a cruel smile beginning to grow again on his thin lips.

Sable took a couple of stiff steps toward him, then visibly put a smile of her own on her face, and let a sensuous sway into her walk. That lasted for another couple of steps, then she stopped abruptly.

When John reached to his zipper.

And slowly, lasciviously, pulled it down.

"Come here, houri," he growled. "You move like the promises of Paradise - too slowly, no matter how beautiful."

Sable shook her head, a hunch and twist of her shoulders, a crossing of her slender arms showing retreat without actually moving away. "Eddy said . . ."

"Your master said that you would entertain us," John interrupted her. "And I have found your dance insufficiently entertaining. Surely you would not want me to tell him you disappointed us."

"But . . . "

"Quiet, whore," John shouted. "Do not worry. I will not soil my manhood with your diseased cunt. But you have other means of satisfying me."

"Of satisfying us."

The growl from the men showed their willingness to follow where their leader was taking them, provoking a frightened shiver from Sable that only fed the flames of their lust even higher.

When she still didn't move, one of the men pushed her from behind. Sable shrugged her shoulder angrily away from the touch, turning to see who had touched her. But her turn was hardly begun when John's voice lashed out again.

"You would deny me this?" Standing, his swollen member still dangling obscenely from his open fly, he moved toward the cringing brunette. It only took a step and he realized how ludicrous he looked. John stopped and glared at her. "Fine. Get out! Now! And take that other whore with you."

He looked around the room for Copper, and only then realized she was not there. "Where is the other one, with flaming hair?"

Sam twitched nervously, then gulped before saying, "She went to the, um, to the wash room."

"How long ago?"

He looked guiltily at his watch, but was forced to shrug his ignorance of the time that had elapsed.

"Find her! Immediately!"

The situation was rapidly becoming a disaster, Sable realized immediately. If the redheaded sneak thief were not back, she must still be doing whatever she needed to do to circumvent the security in the place, and if they found her doing that . . . .

Taking a deep breath - effective, as always, at more than merely obtaining some oxygen - Sable slid a little more of her one remaining veil through the belly chain she wore so that the rear dropped free and left her fully exposed from behind. That froze the men who were about to leave in response to John's command. She set a careful, heavy-lidded smile on her features and looked down at John's display of arousal. A husky note in her voice captured even John's attention as she said, "I'm sorry, John, but I was just . . . a little worried, don't you know? I mean, I'm not used to such an, um, impressive challenge as you're showing me, and, well, someone, um, someone like you is not always that easy for a girl, you know?"

"So you're willing after all?" he asked, smiling cruelly again.

"Willing? Why, with a man like you, willing hardly covers it," she purred. *God, I hope I don't puke, you disgusting piece of shit!*

She sauntered slowly over to where he stood, and gently urged him back into his seat. A movement behind her triggered a quick, eye-catching flip of her midnight tresses, and another purr. "Don't run off, boys. I expect I'm woman enough for you, too."

Torn with indecision, they begged with their eyes for permission to stay, which John pompously considered. "How long did you say the other one has been gone?"

Before they could answer Sable responded. "Oh, it's just been a couple of minutes." She began to caress John's turgid erection, kneeling at his feet. "It takes a bit longer for girls, you know. I'm sure she'll be right back."

When John did not reinforce his order, the rest of the men took that as permission to remain. The need in their eyes changed, though it was not in any way a diminished need, as they moved to surround the kneeling girl.



Chapter 17 - "Death Reborn"


"What are you doing?!"

Copper's shocked cry brought all the eyes in the room to her. No one answered her question directly, though. Maybe they thought it wasn't necessary. Certainly the tableau offered enough clues to figure out what was going on.

John was sitting at ease in his chair - a very satisfied smirk on his face. Two of the other men - 'Mike' and 'Bill' if Copper remembered correctly - had much the same expression. If the cause wasn't made sufficiently clear by the nude Sable's kneeling position in front of Bill, his fumbling efforts to close his zipper would have added yet another clue.

"Ah, just in time," John said grandly, though the cruel taunt was back in his voice and in his eyes, fed by the redhead's dismay. The two men without satisfied expressions looked sharply at him, wondering what his interjection meant about their own opportunities to be 'entertained' by the submissive brunette. But they were equally submissive, making no move to take their turn in front of her now that John had reclaimed center stage in the little drama.

Sable's dark eyes refused to meet Copper's wide-eyed stare. The kneeling girl's face tried to show a frown of anger, but there was too much shame there to hide. And yet. There was something more there as well. Relief? Pride? Pride and shame at the same time? How could that be?

The lithe redhead flowed to Sable's side and tried to pull her to her feet. Copper avoided meeting John's glare as carefully as Sable had avoided her, but she probably wouldn't have cared if she had seen the frown that replaced the smug gloat on John's face.

She did catch the flicker of a hand movement out of the corner of her eye, but her preoccupation with Sable kept her from escaping the quick response of John's underlings. In a flash, Sam held her wrists while Joe had grabbed Sable.

Almost by reflex, Copper's stance started to shift to an attack posture. She still wore spike heels that would do a lot of damage in a very short time.

Or would have, if only they had been given the chance. Sable's voice lashed out sharply, "No! Copper. You can't. Not without . . . ."

John's eyes narrowed at the implication of Sable's words, and at the total lack of submission in Copper's taut posture. Could this redhead have some abilities her soft curves denied? A calculating - and deadly - look started to form on his dark features.

Sable interrupted the building confrontation with a tittering giggle and a sensual wiggle in her captor's grip. "Oh, Copper, you are sooo stuffy. And so slow."

Turning to John, as much to see his expression as because she spoke to him, she said, "I'll tell you, that girl is definitely 'high-maintenance.' She spends even more time in the bathroom than I do. I'd hate to be her roommate."

Her abrupt transition from cowed submissive, to sharp warning, to giggly flirt was not convincing to the glowering leader but the man who held Sable were surprised enough to relax his grip. The sleek brunette slipped through his hands to wrap her arms around Copper, quickly moving her lips near the redhead's ear.

"Play along, dammit. We can't make them suspicious now!" she whispered sharply.

Her attempt to get the situation back under control didn't work much better with Copper than it had with John. The tension in the little thief's stance did not relax, not even when - to her surprise - Sable's lips moved from her ear to her full lips for a deep, passionate kiss.

Of course, that tension may have been due to something a little different than an imminent intent to do battle.

"So, gorgeous, shall we pick up where we left off?" Sable asked huskily, long-nailed fingers reaching for the resurrected nubbins showing through Copper's filmy top.

Her offer was enough to get Sam to release his grip as well. It was not, however, enough to allay John's suspicions.

"Yes, and no," he said slowly, answering Sable's question when the still-dazed Copper did not. "I think we should indeed pick up where we left off - but not where you two left off."

"What do you mean?" asked Sable, still trying to keep a bright, cheerful expression on her face despite building worries of her own.

John had not risen from his upholstered chair, and now relaxed back into it. His voice was also light - at least in comparison to his typical raspy growl - and his posture implied an equally good nature. His eyes, however, were still narrowed and tight, suspicious and sharply observant.

"Did you know that, Ach. . . , ah, Joe and Sam are sworn brothers?" he asked in a confusing non sequitur that referred to the two men who had not yet been 'entertained.'

Not waiting for an answer he continued. "They are brothers of more than blood, sworn to share in all things for the rest of their mortal lives."

"Um, good for them," Sable allowed cautiously.

"Indeed," John nodded judiciously. "In fact, as I mentioned a moment ago when your fire-haired companion returned, her timing is most appropriate."

Copper's voice held not even a pretense of light-hearted flirting. "What do you mean?"

John's hand lightly indicated the other two men, then he spoke directly to Copper, "We were able to find a way to, ah, show our appreciation for your so-beguiling impersonation of the houris of paradise. A way that did not violate our promise to your master, Mr. Ells. However, your friend is not able to entertain both Joe and Sam at the same time that way, yet they must be served together. So, as I said, your return was well timed."

"What?" Copper snapped, then her voice dropped into a snarl as she realized what the arrogant man intended. "You are out of your fu . ."

"Copper!" Sable interrupted. "It's okay. I can, I mean, it's okay."

"No, it's not. We're outta here."

"Indeed?" John's question cut through her anger. "Should I tell your master that you were not willing to entertain us? After all, this dark-haired houri has made it clear our compromise is not unacceptable to him. Why should it be any different for you?"

"Unless . . . It seems to me that you have not been very interested in our little party tonight. Just what was it you did while you were gone so long?"

Sable tried once again to rescue the situation. "Oh, John, don't be so paranoid. It just takes longer for girls. You should know that. Copper is just, well, she's a little new. You know? She's my cousin, and I thought she would enjoy your party as much as I do, but if not . . . Well, it's her loss and my gain. As I said, I can, um, work something out."

Turning to the two still-unsatisfied men, she smiled and made them an offer with heavy-lidded eyes and a slow hip sway that they would be only to happy to accept.

John was not. "I have already told you, whore, that your diseased cunt will not defile my men tonight!"

"Yeah, well, have it your way," Copper offered, moving toward the door.

John's cruelty found a way to test his suspicions, and he stopped her once again with a growled observation. "Of course, this dark-haired houri does have a way to serve two men at once - and without the risk of disease her no-doubt, well-used womanhood presents."

If that wasn't clear enough, Sable's erstwhile captor Joe reached out to trail a finger down the exposed cleavage of her shapely derriere.

"Ohmigod," breathed Sable, this challenge too much even for her pretense at willingness.

John stood and moved to Copper. Taking a handful of her thick, red hair, he forced her to look directly at him. "Your friend has called me paranoid, and it may be that she is right. But you two are not leaving until my men have been served, and served together. If you refuse me this, I will be convinced you had another reason to come here than to enjoy a party with us. A reason that I will find out before you leave."

"No," Sable said. "It's just that Copper is new to this. But it's okay. I can, um, I can do them both at once."

Copper's bright eyes flashed to her, to see the fear she tried to deny. The laser glare that had earned a slender sneak-thief and assassin an underworld nickname flared with implacable hatred.

And then it changed.

The heat was replaced by something different, something . . . worse.

Where honest emotion had reigned, there was now coldness. There was now . . . .

Death.

Even the color of that glare changed, green leeching out into gray, leaving only steel. The cold, dead eyes looked slowly around the room - recording each face, each form, each feature. Writing them down in the Book of the Dead.

Ashleigh Burke, aka Copper Kincaid, aka Jimmy 'The Eyes' had taken on a mission.

Before this night was over, every man in that room would be dead. By her hand. Nothing would - nothing could - stop that from happening.

Not even useless gestures of defiance. The assassin analyzed the situation and determined that the odds were too great. Killing a room full of alert men, while she herself was unarmed, was not a certainty. And so she would find another path - a path more suited to her particular skills. And if the path to the point of vengeance were . . . unpleasant, still it was the path, and the vengeance was all that really mattered.

She had carefully avoided looking at John for the same reason she did not launch an immediate attack. His perceptions were another risk that would not be allowed to interfere with the mission. And so she schooled her face into well-trained expressions of demure femininity, and softened her stance. Only after her outward disguise was as soft and unthreatening as the inward reality was hard and dangerous did she let him see her eyes.

"I shouldn't have come here," she said meekly. "We both know that now. But it's not Sable's fault. She honestly thought we'd have a good time. I won't let her pay the price because I didn't know what I was getting into. We'll do your men, if you'll let us go afterwards."

John's piercing glare searched Copper's eyes to see if her acquiescence was hiding a deeper secret than concern for her dark-haired friend. There was something more there, and he would have been disappointed not to see it. The brightly-colored eyes showed worry and shame, but not guile. At least, none that he could see.

She is magnificent, this woman with hair of flame, his smug thoughts declared. The dark-haired beauty is merely a whore - a skilled one, skilled at flattery as well as the physical acts of service - but this one, ah, this one has a spirit that makes her conquest truly a prize beyond price. In this decadent and immoral land, it is too much to expect her to be pure, but I surely one such as she will be the first among the virgins I will have in Paradise.

The sensual redhead, with sprit as fiery has her glorious hair, must be humiliated by serving his men like all infidels should serve men of true faith. If his own desire could have been rekindled quickly enough, he would have taken her himself. And in any way he chose. But, in the end, she is just a woman and therefore weak. Her eyes may have burned with fire to match her hair, but she knows her place and soon she submits like any other whore.

The thought was satisfying, and he did need to remain in the good graces of his absent host for just a short while longer. If he held this woman and her dark-haired companion until he could enjoy her personally, it would be sufficient to give Ells cause to withdraw his support. So he decided not to keep her until he had recovered. Instead, he nodded and accepted the compromise that he himself had defined.

Joe and Sam quickly displaced the other two men on the couch, and just as quickly undid their own pants to provide the access their 'entertainers' required. Without apparent plan, it was nonetheless unsurprising that Sable ended up in front of Joe, leaving Copper to consider the young man who had been obviously enamored of her since his first sight of her tawny red mane.

Sable took the redhead in her arms and whispered to her once again. "Can you do this?"

The stiffness in the redhead's trim body did nothing to reassure Sable, and the sharp shrug that twisted Copper away from the embrace was even worse. But an adequate answer was given when the shorter girl kneeled before one of the waiting men.

Copper's stomach pulsed and the acid in the back of her throat nearly ended her attempt before it had begun, but the sight of the smooth, rounded orbs of Sable's naked ass reminded her of the alternative to the task she had accepted.

This is rape, she told herself. Just as surely as if they had us tied down and screaming. And I will kill them for it. Each of them. Tonight.

Dr. Ruth had never realized the true deadliness of her slender patient - not from the records she had originally assembled, nor from all the interviews she had conducted with the redhead as the touchy, insecure assassin was transformed into the glamorous agent. If the doctor had known what really lurked in the young man's soul, he would never have left the cell where they first met. Dr. Ruth had seen the potential that was there, the honest desire to be a moral person, and thought she could help that grow until it controlled the darker parts of her patient's psyche. She was right about the potential, but even her expertise could not have imagined how lethal was the combination of skill that lived within the curves of a feminine body, and will that lurked within the tumbling waves of fiery hair. Perhaps she could have been right about the control, if it had not been challenged so desperately. But the control that kept the danger within at bay faced a challenge none of them had anticipated.

That control was redirected. That control was consumed with the mission that the slender assassin had accepted. That control did not limit the cold death within, it cherished it - polishing it and honing it to a sharpness no razor could match.

Nothing existed in Copper's life but the mission. Nothing mattered but the mission and whatever it took to accomplish it.

Whatever it took.



Chapter 18 - "Drifting Smoke"


An anonymous dark car - any more characteristics were indistinguishable in the dank gloom - pulled up to the curb on a still side-street near the University of Washington. Two figures with curves unmistakably feminine even in the misty fog exited the car and moved toward an equally anonymous van, notable only for an unusual number of antennas poking out in various orientations. One of the women moved with sensuous grace, every wiggle exuding femininity despite attire of jeans, low-heeled boots, and bulky-knit sweater. Tossing her long dark hair negligently behind her shoulders revealed a frown of worry, but without a word she knocked on the door of the van.

The other woman was dressed much the same, and her own movements showed perfect balance and smooth control. But there was nothing of sexual promise about her motion. It was neither feminine nor masculine, merely superlatively efficient; the sleek glide of a hunting panther, noiseless and fluid. She waited patiently for the door to the van to open - when it did, the light that spilled out revealing her own hair was a rich, vibrant red - then she slipped in silently behind her taller companion.

"Ready to go?" They were challenged once the door was again closed. Their challenger was a slightly overweight, middle-aged man wearing half-glasses. The redhead tagged him, 'Tech 1' in her mind because Ipney had made it clear they weren't to know the names of the men. That was not a reciprocal limitation.

"You're Copper, right?" the man asked. "Ipney told us you'd be coming. I expected you a bit earlier." He was seated at a console whose purpose was not immediately clear. In the era of mass data storage on digital media, obvious clues to a surveillance operation like slowly turning reels of magnetic tape were no longer provided. Yet this was very much a surveillance vehicle.

Though it still lacked one essential element.

The van held one other occupant, 'Tech 2,' another man Copper considered middle-aged - at least 30 - though this one was quite fit and a bit younger. In front of his seat was an array of small round disks, from watch battery size up to a poker chip with six inches of wiry tail. Placing those disks where they needed to go would provide that final surveillance element.

Copper just shrugged. The brunette, Sable, addressed the comment and revealed the cause of her continuing frown. "She's not speaking tonight. We had . . . a problem in the house, earlier. I'm worried that . . ."

Despite her claim, Copper interrupted her. "I'm fine."

"Copper, we need to talk," Sable said, taking advantage of her colleague's sudden willingness to speak. "If you won't talk with me, let's go see Dr. Ruth. This can wait."

"No, it can't," Copper declared flatly, then turned to the younger tech. "Let me have the stuff."

Tech 2 seemed to feel a sense of responsibility, which he tried to exercise. "What's the problem? If there's a problem, we're supposed to tell Ipney. Haven't you checked in with him, yet?"

"No time," Copper snapped.

The fire that flared in her eyes pushed the technician back with almost physical pressure, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Without another word, she held her hand out to the man with the listening devices.

He didn't give his treasures to her, not right away. There was something unnatural - almost inhuman - in the way she stood. It wasn't the sort of thing that would show in a picture. She was very pretty.

Hell, she's drop-dead gorgeous, Tech 2 thought. So's the other one. If I had to pick between them, I'd be ecstatic. But she's too . . .

She's too still, he decided. Not stiff. God, she moved like drifting smoke when she came into the van.

The technician glanced at the other woman, and confirmed the distinction he had observed. The brunette had also moved with easy grace, so that wasn't the real difference. But she still moved in little ways. Long nails idly twirled a lock of thick hair. Her eyes moved from her partner, to the technicians, to the console when a disk relay clicked, and back to the redhead. She was not really nervous, though her face still showed a frown, but she was . . .

She certainly wasn't still, like the other one. The redhead might have been carved from stone, if even Michelangelo had the skill to capture this goddess. Her eyes remain fixed on his, yet relaxed enough it wasn't as though she stared despite not blinking that he had noticed. Her body was perfectly balanced - symmetrically balanced, unlike the hipshot model stance of her partner.

And her hand remained extended in silent demand.

He looked at Tech 1, then at Sable again, but after a moment he scooped the fruits of his work into a small waist pouch and handed it to the silent redhead. It wasn't really his decision to make anyway, and strange or not, this was definitely the woman who had been described to him.

"I'll go with you," Sable said.

"Don't be stupid," Copper said bluntly, not even reinforcing the refusal with any emotion. She fastened the pouch to her belt and turned toward the door.

"Please, Copper," pleaded Sable. "Before you go, can you at least call Dr. Ruth and talk for a minute? These guys have a line you can use, and I know she'll be there."

She might as well have been talking to the banks of electronic equipment. At least they responded with a few flickers of light and some clicks.

Despite the security protocols, Sable followed Copper out the door, still talking. "If we don't hear from you in 15 minutes, or at least know you're making progress through the bugs you plant, I'm calling in the cavalry. Do you hear me, Copper?"

This promise - or threat - gained her at least a moment of consideration from Copper. Something complex showed in the redhead's eyes for a moment. Not anger, something softer. Regret perhaps. But it was only there for a heartbeat, and then there was nothing. The eyes drank the darkness into themselves, giving only emptiness back. Without a word, the sinuous thief turned toward the Coranzo safehouse.

The van had been parked a bit uphill from the target house. In Seattle, nearly everything is either uphill or downhill. It provided a good line of sight over one row of houses. Those same houses, or at least the yards and fences surrounding them, were no more obstacle to Copper than to electrical signals as she vanished into the fog.

Despite the emotionally dead shell she showed on the outside, Copper was far from calm. Silent rage still howled within her at the humiliation she had faced earlier. But the rage impeded her thoughts no more than it impeded her silent glide.

She had a mission.

Her immediate goal was an oak tree near the safehouse. A two-inch branch was as good as a highway for the agile thief to walk along - but a short one, ending ten feet from the roof. However, unlike a highway, this path was springy. A few, well-timed pulses and it sent Copper flying through the air to land silently on the shingles. That had been the easy part, for all that none of Eddy's (remaining) enforcers could have done it. The next task was to penetrate the alarm-guarded confines of the building itself.

A brief flare of triumph lit her pale eyes as she saw that the first and most critical of her alarm bypasses was still in place. A thin strap from Copper's purse had disappeared while they were in the house earlier, not that anyone but Copper had noticed. It now bridged a sensor on an upper window, the clips that had once held it to the small handbag now clamped from one window alarm contact to another. Copper slid the window up just until the jumper wire was taut, and twisted to slide under the opening.

To find a problem she had never faced before. She didn't fit.

Arranging her thick mane through the opening was not really a problem. Copper had to turn her head sideways to fit through the gap, and that pulled the clasp that held her hair in a ponytail neatly through the open space. But then she got to a bigger problem.

Two of them, actually.

For just a second, the stone-hard control slipped again and she snarled to herself, Goddamn, bloated, government-issue boobs. In her past life, the depth of her chest was not much more than the width of her head, a convenient similarity that determined the size of her jumper wire.

It didn't do any good to take a deep breath, nor to let it out though she tried both. Finally, lying on her back across the narrow wind sill, she used both hands to compress her artificial endowment, squeezing hard enough to bring tears to her eyes that she had to fight through to see the tightly stretched wire. One clip started slowly to slide over the contact it held and the frantic intruder twisted quickly to reach for it.

She froze, not daring to breathe for more reasons than sound. When the house remained quiet, she pushed the clip back on more firmly, and finally managed to get her enhanced bosom through the window. Her waist was no problem, not in that drum-tight body shaper, and thankfully the forms that curved her hips added width more than depth to her pelvis. In another instant she was inside an unused bedroom that had been converted to storage for things Slow Eddy's guests didn't need. Jimmy The Eyes had known about it, but none of the visitors would have had reason to enter and perhaps to discover the thin bridge wire on the window alarm.

The next obstacle merely required silent stealth, and patience. Copper's bright eyes gleamed in the dark as she eased open the hallway door. A crack was enough, and done so slowly that even if there had been someone in the hall, they would have thought it was an errant whisper of circulating air. But there wasn't anyone in the hallway, and that was the point. Copper pointed a small remote control at a motion sensor located high in one corner. Near it, a tiny red LED blinked on. The redhead waited only 60 seconds before pushing another control, and then stepped confidently into the hall. Once she was beyond the silent sentinel, she used her control once more and the LED went out. The recorder whose operation that light had indicated stopped bypassing the real signal and the security system regained a live feed. If someone did walk down that path - the sort of roaming guard that Jimmy The Eyes would always have required - the guard in the security station would not see him vanish into a still hallway in the area supposedly watched by the blinded sentinel.

If the stupid ragheads manned the security room 24/7 like they were supposed to, I couldn't have done that, she said to herself in grim satisfaction. That had been the first thing she had checked after escaping from the too-attentive 'Sam' earlier that evening. It had also given her a count on the number of people in the house, using the unmanned surveillance gear for her own purposes before roaming further.

A banister provided another walkway that bypassed the weight sensors under the carpeted stairs, and then the thief was through with her part of the night's mission. Silence and agility were all that were required to defeat the remaining security measures, and thieves are not the only intruders with those skills.

Now only the assassin was needed.

But even the assassin needed time. Copper remembered Sable's promise to send the cavalry if the bugs didn't start transmitting soon, so she moved quickly to the lounge. One of the men, Mike, slept on the couch, the tinny music of a late night porn channel still blaring from the unwatched TV. It was a good signal source to prove the bug worked and that Copper was making progress, and in any event the lounge was the planned destination for the primary listening device.

In the space of a heartbeat, the first of Copper's mission objectives had been completed.

And Mike would never wake again.

A moment longer and a tawdry picture - black velvet, no less - concealed the primary transmitter disk and its slim wire tail, the TV sound track providing evidence of operation for the listening device despite the lack of 'live' dialog from the room.

Where should I put the rest of these things? she mused to herself. Then her eyes flashed with grim amusement. This one's for you, Ipney, you asshole, she thought as she placed one in a nearby bathroom.

Additional sensors were placed in suitably unobtrusive locations as Copper worked her way toward the security room. Voices stopped her progress. A moment's careful listening identified only two speakers, neither of whom were her primary target; John the terrorist leader.

A wisp of shadow placed the final sensor just outside the door where it would be free from the electronic interference of the house's own surveillance gear, yet still able to listen to any conversations in the room. Then the shadow drifted back and the mission from Ipney was complete.

But Copper did not make her way to the exit. Instead, the assassin found a deeper shadow and vanished into the darkness. Her pale hand was hidden in a tight leather glove, no more noticeable than the carbon-black blade of the knife it held. Only a thin line of razor edge gleamed in the dark shadow that shielded her, and by the time anyone was close enough to see it . . .

It took several minutes before her patience was rewarded, enough that Copper's stone-hard features showed the beginnings of a frown. If Sable sent the cavalry now, it would be a disaster. Or if one of the men she had not yet accounted for decided to join the on-duty guards. Or if . . . well, if a lot of things happened that weren't part of Copper's plan. The setting seemed to track the security measures that Jimmy The Eyes had put in place. Two guards always on duty at night, one in the control room and one periodically roving. The others should be asleep. Should be. But what if . . . ?

Despite her own self image as a brutally focused killer, despite the uncompromising efficiency of her movements, despite a suppression of external display of emotion that had frightened Sable and would have been of deep concern to Dr. Ruth, Copper was still human. She had fears to go with her anger, and both warred with her patience. The total stillness that reinforced her absolute silence became harder and harder to sustain . . .

And then it was very easy.

The voices had gone quiet, and a different shadow showed on the wall near the control room. She tensed, then deflated as the man made a stop she had not considered.

Well, at least that will prove another of the bugs works, she sighed as familiar sounds confirmed the purpose of his detour. I hope they play that one back for Ipney.

A moment later, the man - Bill if she remembered correctly - moved nonchalantly toward the staircase.

He never made it.

But now Copper was on a tight schedule. If Bill didn't show on the upstairs camera, the control room guard would get suspicious. The time for stealth was over.

The control room guard was Joe. He was alert and heard the light scrape of Copper's hurried boot on the hallway floor. It could have been a problem, but apparently his training was not quite as good as it should have been. Instead of instantly hitting the alarm button, he turned to investigate.

It was the last mistake he ever made. His throat sprouted the haft of her knife, and one more of Copper's objectives were met.

With the security system unattended, the risk of anyone being alerted to Copper's presence was negligible. But her drift back up the banister to the upstairs rooms was as shadow-silent as ever now that the need for speed was past.

That's when she discovered her second major problem.

John wasn't there. Neither was Sam. A quick check of all the remaining rooms in the house - upstairs and down - made it clear that the three men she had already killed were alone.

Perhaps that guy's training wasn't so bad after all, mused Copper analytically, trying to decide what to do. No sense hitting the alarm if there's no one to hear it.

It was too late - far too late - to try to hide the fact she had been there. Or at least, she realized, that someone has been here. But Slow Eddy doesn't need to know it was me.

She went back through the house, carefully undoing the security system sabotage she had earlier placed, and coolly exited the house through the rear door. In moments, she was back at the surveillance van.

"Good work," the Tech 1 said as she entered. "All the signals were loud and clear when you placed them. It's quiet now, but I'm sure they're still working."

A shadow flickered across Copper's emotionless features, but only Sable noticed. "Are you okay?" the brunette asked.

"John wasn't there," Copper replied, avoiding the question.

"We know," Tech 1 said proudly. "As soon as you placed the bug near the control room, we could hear the conversation of the guards on duty."

"It wasn't in English," Copper observed. The smug look on the technicians face was answer enough. Before he could claim his expertise, Copper moved on. "Where are John and Sam?"

"Well, they didn't use those names, of course, but apparently they left not long after you did - when was that? - anyway, they went down to the docks."

"To meet a ship?"

"Yes," he reported. "The MV Sunniva, registered out of Panama. Pier 43."

Copper's bright tresses shimmered with an unconscious nod, and she turned once again to the door.

"Where are you going?" asked Sable anxiously.

"Unfinished business," explained Copper tersely, not looking back.

With a flash of insight, Sable realized what that meant. "Oh my god!"

Another shimmer through Copper's thick mane revealed a shrug of apparent unconcern, but Sable was not pacified. "Oh my God, Copper. We have to tell Ipney."

"Do what you want," Copper offered, reaching for the door handle.

Sable said nothing immediately, but she nearly stepped on the redhead's heels as she followed from the van. Copper's shoulders tensed, and it was clear she was about to speak when Sable beat her to it. "I'm coming with you."

"Don't be silly."

"I won't let you go after them alone. Not when you . . . not when the reason is my fault. If it weren't for me, John would never have, um, wanted us like that."

The reminder of what had happened earlier could have crushed whatever humanity was left in Copper. It was the source of her anger, and of her resolution to vengeance. It was one more insult in a lifelong list of insults suffered by a too-scrawny kid from a bad neighborhood. It was the source of her control, and yet the reason she so desperately needed to maintain control.

That rigid control gave just a bit, and she said more than the mission required. "It's not your fault. None of it is your fault. John gets the biggest share, and whatever is left over goes to me. So stay out of it."

This time that moment of weakness didn't lead to ridicule of an undersized kid for being too short, or too thin, or too poor. This time the street-tough punk wasn't rejected for being too touchy, or too hard. This time it caused Sable to reach out and gather Copper's tense shoulders in her arms. "Oh, Copper, how can you say that? How can you shut me out? Don't you know how I . . ?"

This time the girl wanted to protect Copper from the cold in the world, not heap scorn upon her.

This time that tough kid had to fight very hard to remember to breathe, and to pretend the catch in her breathing wasn't caused by a sob.

It had to be a mistake. It must be because Sable didn't know, couldn't really know what Copper had done.

"I killed them, Sable," she whispered into dark waves of hair. "The three that were there. I went in there planning to kill them all, and planted the bugs only because that kept you off my back until I was done."

"I know," Sable whispered back.

"You know? I'm a murderer, Sable. I really am."

"So am I," Sable declared. Copper twitched in her arms, but once again Sable spoke first. "Oh, I've never actually killed anyone, so call me an incompetent murderer if you want, but I wanted to. I would have if I had the skill. I learned that in Horner's house when I found out what he did to his little girl. Just because I'm no good at it doesn't mean I'm not just as. . . just as angry. Just as ready to do . . . to do whatever needed to be done. Don't you think I wanted to kill John and his thugs, too? Don't you think I'd have done it if I could?"

The tall brunette shocked the anguished redhead even more when she laughed. It was a harsh laugh, and one would have to have a good imagination to hear any humor in it, but it snapped Copper's head up. "Hell, girl, I'm just pissed you didn't let me come along so I could have done at least one of them myself."

Copper's eyes dropped, and her voice was even fainter than before. "You're just saying that, but we both know . . . we both know I'm not good enough for you."

Sable's hand caught Copper's chin, and pulled it up until the redhead was forced to meet her eyes. But she didn't say anything. Instead, she just leaned down and kissed the shorter girl. Kissed her softly, and then intensely, and then with a passion that made her argument irrefutable.

Once again Sable was the one to pull back, but not in rejection. She was looking into Copper's eyes, looking for understanding. Looking for acceptance. The shapely redhead was not in much shape to speak right away, yet there was a tiny little smile on her ripe lips, one that nearly pulled Sable's own lips back to caress it. Instead, Sable reached out to catch a strand of bright hair that had fallen from Copper's tight ponytail and brush it back behind the shorter girl's ear. A genuine smile showed on the brunette's own full lips, and she said, "Well then, I'll expect you to get better until you are good enough for me, okay?"

"What? Huh? I don't . . ." Copper stammered to a stop as she realized Sable had been teasing, but her own sheepish grin vanished after only a heartbeat.

"Truly, Sable, I'm not, not a good person for you to . . . to care for."

She straightened her shoulders and looked up at Sable. "Ipney won't accept what I've done, even if you do. I've compromised the mission. If John gets back to find his men dead, he'll know they've been discovered, and unlike Slow Eddy, he won't have any doubt the government is involved. When Ipney finds out, he'll have me back in that cell, or buried out behind the building, before he even tries to pick up John's trail."

She sighed and looked off in the direction of the harbor. "I need to go finish this. Tonight. Before John finds out what happened, and before Ipney can get his army moving. I started it, and though I'd kill that sonuvabitch for what he did to us alone, I don't want him letting his shit loose in the city either."

"Fine. Let's go."

Copper looked sharply at Sable, and for just an instant there was longing in her eyes, but she shook her head. "No, Sable, I'm sorry, but I can't let you get involved in this. You didn't know what I was going to do, and if you call Ipney right away, you'll still be fine with him."

"Fuck 'im."

"What?"

Sable laughed, and this time there was a bite in her laugh that showed a lot of humor - mocking humor, though the target was not Copper. "Do you think I'm in this for that pompous asshole? I'm in this for Dr. Ruth. I owe her. But Ipney can go jerk his own dick. He doesn't need me. He's made that clear enough."

"But, you're a trained agent!"

"Geez, girl, get a clue. My 'contribution' to this mission has been just as much because of the - hah! - 'skills' I learned growing up as yours. They just needed somebody who could get close to Slow Eddy. My so-called 'training' from Ipney was pretty much limited to learning how to shut up and do what I was told."

She laughed again, this time with some real mirth. "Not that I was particularly easy to teach - at least, not that lesson."

Copper's eyes went wide again at this revelation, but all of a sudden a lot of pieces fell into place. Sable saw her calculation, and let her have a moment to consider the new arrangement.

When the look on Copper's face began to transition from shock to calculation, the brunette jauntily asked, "So, what do we do now?"

"What? Oh, sorry. Uh, 'we' don't do anything. I still need to handle this alone."

"Nope," Sable said bluntly. "From now on, we're joined at the hip. After all, how will you get to be 'good enough for me' if I don't point out where you need to improve?"

"Sable, really, I . . "

She was interrupted with a passionate kiss.

"No, really, this won't . . . "

This time the kiss was accompanied by a tickling of long nails on a hard little button that had popped up through Copper's sweater.

When Sable pulled back, she smirked at Copper and said, "I'm having fun, are you? Of course, that piece of shit John may be getting away, but if you want to keep arguing, I'm game."

"I could leave you on the dock," Copper offered a compromise.

Sable reached out a slender finger to trace the line of Copper's full bosom. "But you won't."

The look in Copper's eyes was hardly one of surrender, but there was no argument there either.

Sable was quick to follow up on her victory. "Besides, I have some things you'll want."

"Now that is an understatement," Copper said with a smirk, bringing a flush to Sable's cheeks.

"You'll pay for that, bitch," Sable promised in mock threat, but she continued. "I meant I have some weapons, and probably some explosives, and hell, I don't know what. After all, that is a company car."

"You know how to use explosives?"

"How hard can it be?" asked Sable nonchalantly, fooling neither of them.

Copper snorted. "So, we're going to attack a literal boatload of terrorists, with weapons neither of us have been trained to use. Is that about it?"

"Sounds about right," agreed Sable.

"Well, what are we waiting for?" the redhead said, ostentatiously sweeping her arms toward the car in invitation.


Chapter 19 - "They Make Holes In Things"


The gloom was even more oppressive when the car glided to a stop near a blank-walled building. The nearest street light was a long way away and if anything the mist was heavier, just short of a real drizzle.

The trunk light when they lifted the lid was startling in the darkness, and both women jumped in the sudden glare. Apparently their hiding place was adequate, though. In any event, no unpleasant sounds broke the silence.

Inside the trunk, there was an array of equipment that even Copper didn't fully recognize. Pulling out a SIG wondernine, she picked out an appropriate magazine and quickly chambered a round. The pistol went into the back of her belt, another couple of magazines went into a small belt pouch and she turned toward the edge of the building, already contemplating her approach to the ship.

After a moment, she realized Sable hadn't picked out her own equipment.

"What's the matter?"

"I don't, uh . . . "

"Oh my God. Don't you know anything about guns?"

Sable shrugged. "What's to know? You pull the trigger and they make holes in things."

"Have you ever even fired one?"

"Not since I was a kid back in Texas, and that was only a .22."

"Did you hit anything?"

She shrugged, then grinned ruefully. "Oh, I'm sure I hit something. Eventually the bullet had to go somewhere."

Copper sighed, then grinned at the taller woman. "It's a damn good thing you're pretty, 'cause you ain't gonna be much use in a fight."

"I'm a lover, not a fighter," Sable retorted reflexively, the words leading to an equally automatic hip wiggle, which in turn led to a quickly suppressed giggle.

"Promises, promises," Copper sniffed, any irritation belied by her own smirk. She looked back into the trunk and pulled out a MAC 10. Gathering up one of the much-larger magazines, she slid it home and chambered a ready round, then checked the safety.

"Well," she said, "it's a cinch we aren't going to be using the explosives. All we'd blow up is ourselves. I don't know what that poison shit would do if the ship sunk anyway. But you can just about close your eyes and spray with this thing. It'll at least keep their heads down, though if it comes to that, we're probably fucked anyway."

The redhead pointed at a little lever by the trigger and said tersely, "Safe, Semi, Auto. No noise - probably, but keep your finger off the damn trigger, one noise per pull, lots of noise."

Handing the blocky submachine gun to Sable, Copper rummaged around in the trunk to find a sling for it, and a dangly belt pouch to hold a couple more magazines. "There, with these you can keep your hands free while we climb on board."

"Climb?" Sable said tentatively.

"I don't think they're going to welcome us aboard at the gangway," observed Copper.

"I. . . don't know if I can do that," Sable demurred.

"Shit, we're about to take on who knows how many bad guys, and you're worried about climbing a rope?"

"How high would that rope be?" demanded Sable, not allowing her partner to minimize her fear.

Copper sighed, and softly breathed, "Shit, shit, shit."

Once again she rummaged in the trunk and found a coil of soft climbing rope. Pulling it over one shoulder, she took a deep breath and smiled at Sable. "We'll work something out. Are you coming or not?"

Sable gulped - Copper was carrying a disturbingly long rope - but nodded.

How does she do that?! Sable demanded silently a few moments later as she watched Copper walk up a mist-slick mooring line without apparent effort. The lighted gangway area was a hundred or so feet away from shadows deepened by the flare of the looming stern. More to the point, what the hell am I going to do?

Her answer came in the form of a soaring arc of rope, a loop-weighted end landing at her feet. A quick buzz of static filled her ear from the comset, then Copper's voice whispered, "Pull the loop around her shoulders, and start up the mooring lines. When you fall, I'll catch you and pull you the rest of the way."

"'When' I fall?" repeated Sable, but she didn't argue - neither with the order nor the observation.

She actually made it farther than either of them expected, mostly because when she did start to fall she wrapped her arms around the oily ropes and held on desperately. With a few words of encouragement from her partner - actually to her it was more like nagging - and the added lift of the rope from Copper under her arms, she managed to get her legs up around the doubled lines and make it over halfway to the ship before her hands started to slip.

"Copper!" she gasped.

"I've got you," the slender redhead promised, and Sable felt the rope around her shoulders tighten even further. That earned her another body length, enough that she could reach the fairlead from which the lines extended. In another moment, with Copper's help and by carefully not looking down at the inky water, she was standing just outside the deck rail. Her partner was tautly poised, watching down the port side toward the lighted area of the deck edge. Sable looked the other way, and seeing it was empty, unslung her gun and vaulted over the rail to stand next to Copper.

Sable...vaulted over the rail.



"What now?" she asked, breathing heavily with relief as much as from her exertion.

"Now we find John," Copper declared, then she sighed. "And we better find that biotoxin stuff, if we can."

"How long do you think we have?"

"That will depend on Ipney, I expect," observed Copper.

"On Ipney?"

The redhead turned to Sable and grinned wryly. "Our officious little Techies - did you notice they think my ears are in my boobs? Anyway, our officious little Techies are sure to call Ipney, and once they tell him where the ship is - and that we're on our way - he'll come runnin'."

"So why are we here? Why not let him do his thing?"

"Because I'm going to kill John," Copper said implacably. "But more than that, it will take Ipney too damn long to get his army together. All it takes is one check-in call from John to the safehouse, and anything else will be too late."

She glanced around the deserted deck and spotted a hatch leading below. "Speaking of which," she said, turning back to Sable, "we better get moving. You go over there in to that shadow. I'm going below to look for the WMD stuff. Maybe I can at least move it a little so they can't snatch it up and run when Ipney shows up. You watch the hatch and if someone comes down after me, or is waiting for me, let me know."

The tall brunette sent a confirming ripple through her midnight tresses, and slipped with commendable silence into an even darker corner. Copper vanished down the ladder just as quietly.

*********

A ship is a big place. Even the relatively small freighter was still an ocean going vessel, and Copper was no sailor. There were spaces inside of compartments inside of holds, and after a couple of minutes, she was happy just not being lost.

At least, she didn't think she was lost.

::Sable?:: she sent quietly over the comset. ::This isn't going to work.::

::Sable? You there?::

Damn, she thought. All this steel must be interfering with the signal.

She had still been moving through the ship as she tried to contact Sable, and then there was - for once - a pleasant surprise. She did find her target. Or at least she thought she did. The crate itself wasn't anything special. It was identical to dozens she had already passed. What tipped her off were four, shiny-new, commercial-grade bug-spray packages; backpack rigs sort of like a flamethrower for powder or mist, sitting on the deck near an opened wood box. Three of the rigs still had their hoses coiled and wrapped, but one had been broken out of its packaging.

Must have bought the spray rigs in the U.S., she decided. No sense trying to get something so obvious through customs, just in case they were checked.

The real prize was in the opened crate near the ready-to-use sprayer. There were a dozen or so gallon milk jugs, but she could see well enough through the cloudy plastic to tell that they weren't holding milk. Not that milk would be likely in an unrefrigerated crate.

Not that it did much good to find the stuff, either. She wasn't about to just pour it out on the deck. Maybe we should have waited for Ipney, she thought, betraying her internal dismay with a barely audible sigh.

At least she could mess up the sprayers. A couple of minutes with her knife and they wouldn't be spreading any poison with them. She was looking around for some way to identify the compartment, just to make sure she wouldn't get lost if she got a chance to lead Ipney back to it, when she nearly slapped herself for a fool.

Duh! If I get lost getting around down here, then there ought to be lots of places to hide this shit.

It took less than five minutes to move all the jugs to other compartments. And it was a good thing it didn't take the whole five minutes. Copper was slipping through a hatch with the last two in her hands when she heard voices and the clatter of boots on a ladder.

The voices didn't tell her anything. At least, not the words. The tone was pretty clear though, just as soon as they got to the hold where the biotoxin was supposed to be.

That tears it.

Copper quickly hid the last two containers and was about to make her way back to the stern to get Sable when she realized there the men were checking the hold for a reason. She ghosted back to see what they were doing, and saw one of them stepping through
a hatchway into a side compartment.

Ah, shit, she sighed. They'll find the stuff for sure. I only hid it to keep someone from grabbing it on the run in an escape.

Things were getting worse and worse. Copper was really worried about Sable. And about Ipney. And about John getting away. And . . .

. . . and about too many damn things to count. But she'd come this far, and she wasn't going to let the tangos have that poison.

Unfortunately, there were at least two of them since they had been talking, and she only knew for sure where one guy was.

Keeping her thick ponytail bouncing from shoulder to shoulder as she swiveled her head to watch all directions at once, Copper slipped through the dark hold to the compartment the man had entered. She'd skipped that one when she was placing the jugs - it was too obvious - so she decided she could wait for them to return. As best she could remember, that room had a couple of closets but no other way out. Unless she had it confused with the one on the opposite side of the ship. Which direction was the bow from there anyway?

Whatever the configuration on the other side of the door, she heard the men talking as they returned to the hold. Just two of them, and the same voices I heard before, she decided.

With guns, she realized a moment later as they stepped over the hatch coaming. Not that it was much of a surprise.

Just about what I expected on a fucked-up night like this, Copper snarled silently when they turned toward her hiding place instead of continuing across the hold. It didn't seem likely that they had seen her, but she couldn't take the chance. So, once they were fairly close, instead of waiting passively . . . .

Stepping from the shadows, she smiled brightly in the dim light and said, "Excuse me, but could you tell me where the ladies' room . . ?"

They froze the moment she stepped forward, and then brought their guns and flashlights up with commendable speed after that initial hesitation. But it was hard to fear the inoffensive- and very beautiful - girl who flowed toward them with her hands held coyly behind her head, lifting a thick blanket of hair in a sultry combination of pinup pose and hands-raised surrender. Maybe it had something to do with the sinuous wriggle she threw at them as well, one that not coincidentally moved her an extra couple of steps closer to them. They certainly didn't seem to be looking at her smile, and they relaxed their guard for just an instant. That's all it took. Because by then Copper was close enough to touch them.

Copper's hands dropped from behind the shielding cover of her hair and before either man could react the gun in her left hand phutted in one man's stomach, a natural silencer. The other hand . . .

With their flashlights no longer glaring in her face she could see that the remaining man was really just a kid. Probably no more than . . . no older than Jimmy Kincaid had been when Slow Eddy recruited him into the Coranzo family. His eyes crossed as he tried to look at the knife Copper held below his chin, but he didn't bring his own gun up again.

"Please, lady, don't kill me," he begged.

"Ah, shit," breathed Copper. She told herself, Just do it!

But herself didn't want to listen.

"Who are you?" she demanded while the unfortunate thing called a conscience tried to argue with what she knew she had to do. Things were so much easier before she had met Dr. Ruth.

"My name is Mikhail. I'm just part of the crew. I didn't know what was going on until the ragheads came aboard. They told me and Yev to check this stuff out after they found the girl, and . . ."

Copper interrupted him, "They found a girl?"

"Yes. The one they call John said he knew her."

"Where is she?"

"In the Captain's cabin, at least, that's where they were taking her."

"Damn," Copper said, more to herself than to the boy. Her eyes unfocused for a second as she tried to envision the layout of the ship.

It was a fatal mistake.

Fatal for the kid, that is. The twitch as he started to bring up his gun caused a reflexive twitch in Copper, as well. Unfortunately for him, her reflexes told her to attack, and her knife was still at his throat.

"Ipney is going to be soo mad at me," she sighed. Looking down at the still-gagging guard she said, "Tough luck, kid. I'm not buying your innocence story, not if you're carrying a gun and willing to use it. Consider it 'evolution in action,' because you're too stupid to reproduce."

**************

There was a bigger problem anyway, if they had captured Sable. Making her way quickly up the ladder the men had descended, she found herself within the superstructure of the freighter.

God knows where the damn captain's cabin is.

She didn't have to worry about finding the captain's cabin for long. Though the solution made her wish she still had that to worry about.

She heard Sable's voice - but the thin, desperate anguish that gasped out something too weak to be a scream tore at Copper's nerves with a fingers-on-a-blackboard screech, infinitely magnified by horror at the thought of what it would take to turn a human voice inside out like that.

It almost cost Copper her life. The stone-cold, shadow-silent assassin vanished and her place was a frantically charging explosion of destruction.

But that was not Copper's strength. That was not what had made her uniquely deadly.

Jimmy Kincaid had never had much use for guns. The macho posturing of the Coranzo family toughs had elevated guns into near-mythic icons of power, magic wands that made problems vanish. Enough of that had washed over Jimmy that he had learned the basics - more, apparently, than Sable ever picked up - but he had never been a particularly good shot. Leaping into a room full of armed terrorists was not an efficient strategy for Copper.

It was, however, effective, at least in the beginning. Surprise can add a lot of leverage. A dozen rounds from her 9mm sprayed around the compartment at any target that didn't have long, dark hair. She was lucky the captain's cabin had reasonably comfortable decorations. At least as many rounds hit the couch and the berth as hit any tangos, but that kept ricochets to a minimum in the steel-walled enclosure.

Fortunately for her, Sable missed any damage. Unfortunately for both of them, John was unharmed as well.

"Stop, or I'll kill her!" he shouted.

Copper's overloaded senses finally absorbed enough of the scene to take stock. Two unknown men were apparently down and out, certainly not moving. Another was still alive, but curled around a belly wound that would keep him occupied just staying alive, if he even wanted to stay alive once the initial shock passed and the pain started.

That left Sable, Copper, and John.

And John had Sable.

The struggling brunette was tied to a chair, most of her clothes ripped or cut away.

And there was blood. Lines of it. Dripping wells of it. Some of them in unspeakable places.

"Drop your gun," John demanded. A hand anchored in Sable's long, dark hair reinforced his order by pulling her head back until he forced a choked gasp from her as her neck bent under the strain. His other hand held a knife, and it lightly danced over that slim, pale column of flesh as though shaving away hair that wasn't there.

"Drop your gun!" he shouted, and Copper twitched at the noise. But the gun clattered to the floor. Copper raised her hands to the back of her neck, nestling them under her thick red ponytail.

Smiling with smug arrogance, John released Sable's hair, provoking another gasp as breath again became possible. He stepped away from the bound woman and idly twirled his shining knife, sending reflections around the room. His own eyes were drawn to the movement, and his smirk widened as he saw a discoloration on the blade. Slowly drawing the thumb of his other hand along the flat of the weapon, he wiped a smear of blood off, and then wiped his thumb along the line of Sable's chin, leaving yet another line of darkening red.

John's eyes went back to Copper. "So, you are an agent, too."

Copper shook her head in apparent confusion. "Agent? What are you talking about?"

"Don't assume that I am a fool!" John snapped. "It is clear you are both government agents, sent to interfere with our holy quest!"

"Save it for the evening news," Copper sneered. "I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't give a damn. All I want is Sable."

"I do not believe she is your relative," he retorted.

Copper just shrugged. "I don't care what you believe."

Her adamant refusal to admit to more than a personal interest in the situation brought a frown to John's heavy brows. He stepped toward her and brandished the knife again.

"Then explain why you're on my ship tonight. Explain why you attacked with such uncommon speed and skill. Explain why this other woman had an automatic weapon not available to civilians in your country. Explain why . . ."

With each demand, John's knife had jabbed out toward Copper, punctuating the charge with stabbing emphasis. As though it had pulled him along, his feet followed the motion and he ended up just out of reach for a true attack on the alertly poised redhead.

Copper appeared to be intimidated by his threatening approach and moved to the side, allowing herself to be cornered between a desk and the bulkhead.

Her retreat was short-lived.

Copper levitated to the surface of the desk the instant John no longer had a straight line back to Sable. Her hand slashed down, the knife hidden in her hair now clawing toward his eyes.

John wasn't as easy a victim as the others Copper had faced that night. His own reflexes were nearly good enough to protect him. Copper's blade drew a line of blood on his cheek, but the injury didn't even slow him down.

The terrorist's blade was longer than Copper's, and while not heavy, it was solid enough that a fencing duel would have only one outcome. So when John's riposte sliced toward Copper's ankles, she went elsewhere.

Not that she had far to go. The cabin wasn't that big, and Sable was still bound to the chair and not going to get free by herself. So Copper took up a defensive position, her leap from the desk placing her between John and his previous victim.

It all took only a heartbeat. Round two was announced by a snarl from John. "So, the bitch has teeth, hmm? Well, whore, even dogs bleed."

If it had been in doubt before, John's expertise with a blade was no longer in question. He approached carefully, knife hand coiled close to his waist where Copper could not easily reach it, free hand extended to block or to grab. In a death fight, a slashed hand or even a lost finger was better than losing your weapon, and John was prepared to make the hard tradeoffs. Though in this case, he actually had two weapons. Copper had to respect that aggressive hand, because his advantage in strength would made a solid grip a lethal advantage.

Copper accepted the challenge. Twisting her body away from his line of approach, she adopted something reminiscent of a traditional fencer's stance. Her blade shielded her body, and she offered him the chance to prove his willingness to sacrifice one hand to protect the other.

John's own balance had some of the fencer's tricks. He kept his back leg cocked as a ready spring for a lunge, and sidled forward with a slick shuffle that never crossed his feet. His advance moved him into combat range, then he stopped.

It was a moment of seeming calm amid a silent storm. His balance shifted, and hers moved to force his to reset. His free hand moved lower, threatening her forward leg, and the point of her blade glinted as it aligned with the motion. For seconds that seemed like ages, they explored each other's skill in a static promise of death to come.

John returned to taunting, hoping to reignite the fire of anger he had glimpsed in the safehouse party. "My men are coming. I don't have to do anything, and one will show up any moment. I only hope he has the skill to shoot you without killing you. That pleasure I want to savor for myself."

Copper's answer was made for her by the sound of approaching sirens. Sirens at night might have many causes, but they knew what these meant. Even without the small smile that glinted in Copper's bright eyes, the sagging relief showed by Sable despite her tight bonds would still have been proof enough that the cavalry was on its way; U.S. forces, who would stop John's plan even if he managed to kill both of the women.

It was his patience, not Copper's that broke. He lunged with his free hand to catch her wrist, but only reflex saved his fingers. They tucked back into a fist without conscious command, and the flashing edge of her knife sliced only knuckles. Yet that was enough for more traditional reflexes to jerk his hand back instead of continuing the strike.

But that was just a feint anyway. The real attack came from his knife. It sliced upward toward her crotch, and only reflexes as unconscious as his allowed her to turn enough to catch the blade on her hip instead of in the soft tissue he wanted.

What gushed from the wound was not red blood, but a clear fluid.

"What?" he gasped, recoiling out of reach to stare at the unexpected result.

He never got an answer to that question. John's earlier claim that his own reinforcements would soon arrive was proven correct when the door to the cabin banged open. In the doorway stood Sam, Copper's once-upon-a-time escort and later sodomist. And true to John's prediction, he had a gun aimed into the room.

"Shoot her!" shouted John. But Sam hesitated.

"Shoot her! I command you! In the name of God, I command you!"

The roar of Sam's gun crashed out. Once. Twice. Deafening the survivors with unbearable sound in the confined space.



Chapter 20 - "Exit Strategy"


The sound alone was painful in the small room. But only one person was overcome with pain, and that wasn't from the sound alone.

To Copper's overtight senses, it seemed like slow motion when John twisted in shock, looking first at Sam's smoking gun and then at the hole ripped in his own side. The arm that had been stretched to fend off Copper dropped limply as though to protect the wound, but it hung too low, dangling from a smashed shoulder.

His last words were something in a foreign language - something that only one person in the room understood. That one person countered with an equally sharp comment, then sneered as the older man slumped to the deck.

"Sam?" Copper said cautiously.

The weapon jerked up in response to her voice, but just as quickly it moved away. Sam looked at the body on the floor, then seemed to absorb the other bodies and he hunched as though he himself had been shot.

"Merciful God," he breathed.

"Sam," Copper repeated. "Why don't you let me have that gun?"

Pulling his attention back to the weapon was a bad idea. He jerked it up again, and this time he kept it trained on Copper - whose body was a much less than adequate shield for Sable. The dark-haired girl resumed her struggle in the chair she was bound to, but with no more effect than before.

"He was a coward, you know," Sam said softly, twitching his gun barrel at John. "I am not!"

"I know that, Sam," said Copper placatingly. "You're a brave man. I could tell that the first time I laid eyes on you."

"Don't patronize me!" he snapped. Then he sighed and lowered his gun again. "I was willing to give my life to serve God. I still am!"

"But he was not," he sneered, pointing again at the dead leader. "I found out he was going to sneak away instead of joining us in our holy quest. And then, I find him here terrorizing women . . . and demanding that I kill one - a woman - that he could not best in a fair fight. It was too much."

He let the gun barrel droop until it pointed at the floor. "I was coming to kill him anyway. For being a coward. But I was still going to carry out my own mission. I was still going to . . . . !"

He interrupted himself. Copper tried to prod him, "What mission was that?"

"Probably not what I thought it was," he sighed. "If he was a coward, I should not be surprised if he was also a liar."

The young man shrugged and said, "We were supposed to attack the American Naval base, but I have discovered that it is across the water from here. Instead, we are berthed where the civilian population is largest. I will not hesitate to kill the enemies of my people, but if a man such as, such as 'John' is not willing to give his life to attack them, then why should I? Surely God will not reward his cowardice."

He stared at the dead bodies, making no move as Copper drifted silently back to slice through the bonds holding Sable to her chair. Their ears had recovered enough to hear the wail of sirens, and over it, the screech of tires.

Sam slowly pulled his gun up, but this time it did not point anywhere near the two women. This time, the barrel began to reverse itself . . .

"Sam, no!" shouted Copper. She leaped across the intervening space and began to struggle with the young man for the weapon. For a terrifying instant, the muzzle was pointed at her, and his finger was still on the trigger. But he didn't add the additional pressure it would take to fire yet again. He looked at her with sad, desperate eyes - but not angry eyes. Not killer's eyes any more.

Then the struggle ended abruptly when Sable slammed Sam's ear with the butt of a gun she had grabbed from the floor. His eyes rolled up and he slumped bonelessly to the floor.

"Are you okay?" they both asked in unision.

Sable just nodded, but she reached out to touch the dark stain at Copper's hip. "But you're hurt."

"Not really," Copper disagreed with a not-very-successful attempt at a grin. "This thing that Ruth gave me might as well be armor. Except I do seem to be leaking."

Any further explanation was interrupted by a bullhorn demanding that all those on the ship surrender immediately.

"That's gotta be Ipney," Sable observed.

"I know," agreed Copper. She nudged the unconscious man with the toe of her boot. "I'm sure he'd be thrilled to have a live prisoner - if pounding his head with a gun butt leaves him alive."

Sable jerked in surprise. "But I . . ."

"Whacking someone in the head with a 'blunt object' does a lot more than give them a headache," Copper said. "Except on TV."

She looked at John's body, and the other men in the room, and then back at Sam. The knife in her hand twitched and she said softly, "I promised myself I'd kill every one of them. Tonight. It's how I got through . . . you know."

"Then why did you try to stop Sam from killing himself?"

"I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't have."

Sable offered an alternative explanation. "Maybe you're not as bad as you think."

"You don't know what I've done tonight."

This caused Sable to give a strange little laugh. "I think I can guess."

Her laugh prompted Copper to raise her head from Sam's unconscious form. At first she was defensive, but then a hint of a smile showed on her full lips as well. "Yeah, maybe you can at that."

Sable's dark eyes showed she had caught the disturbing undercurrent in Copper's voice. She pulled a strand of midnight hair from her eyes in a ploy to stall for a moment, staring out the porthole at the flashing lights reflecting from the mist. "What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know," the redhead said, shrugging, then she looked down at the knife in her hand again, this time with a different perspective. "I won't go back in that cell."

Copper snorted and said, "Ipney probably has something else in mind for me anyway - something more permanent and less expensive." She looked at Sable with a wry grin. "Did you know that in China, when they execute someone they send the family a bill for the price of the bullet? But since I'm already dead . . ."

"No you're not," Sable said, chopping off that negative tone. "Could you get away if, well, if Ipney and his goons were distracted for a bit?"

Her friend shrugged, but nodded.

"Then do it. Get away from here. Meet me at Ivar's by the I-5 bridge, north of the lake, tomorrow night. Now go!"

For a long moment, Copper just looked at her, not quite believing what she was hearing, not quite sure what she wanted to hear.

A shot banged outside the deckhouse and it seemed Copper might have been hit. She flinched at the sound, then bent downward. But she wasn't injured. She continued to bend and rifled through John's pockets to find a ridiculous wad of cash, then straightened. "Okay, Sable. I'll try."

"I expect you're able to do just about anything, Copper, if you try," Sable said softly, smiling.

"Tell Ipney I hid twelve milk jugs full of some liquid around the hold two spaces forward from the engine room. Can you remember that?"

"Of course. Now get out of here."

Copper turned toward the door, then reconsidered. She pulled Sable into her arms and kissed the dark-haired girl until neither one had any breath, then continued past the bemused brunette to dash for the porthole instead, quickly undogging it and slipping through.

**************

The whiskey glass sailed across the room to smash with an unsatisfying little ‘clink’ against the far wall. Needing something else to vent his still unappeased rage, Slow Eddie kicked the ottoman stool beside the chair he’d been too agitated to sit upon for more than a few seconds at a time.

It was fast unraveling for Slow Eddie Ells.

Worse yet, he’d never seen it coming.

"Fucking sons of bitches! This is how they repay me?!"

One hurried call from a nervous judge not even close in Slow Eddie’s circle of ‘associates’. Just barely enough warning to grab a coat, a handy body guard and a fast car out of town up to the ‘bolt hole’ cabin in the mountains that Eddie had set up years ago, back in the days when he’d been a crummy lieutenant in Angelo Tuppo’s syndicate. Now it was the one place he had left because it was so outdated nobody knew it existed. "Fucking sons of bitches!" None of his other ‘friends in high places’ had lifted a finger. No one else had called with a warning. No one had tried to use all the carefully cultivated power - power that in some cases the fucking traitors owed to Slow Eddie! - to run a little timely interference for him. All that could only mean one thing: they were no longer afraid of Slow Eddie.

Slow Eddie snatched up a fist full of the notes Rafe Stepano, his hulking bodyguard, had been madly scribbling in his gorilla-fist block letters earlier in the evening when the phone calls reporting each new disaster had been arriving faster than raindrops on a cold October night.

But now, an hour before sun up, even the phone had stopped ringing. Did that mean they’d run out of disasters to report?

Or that there wasn’t anyone left from his organization to call.

Eddie glared at the notes. The DEA raid on the Club. The ATF hit on his warehouse down on the docks. FBI and State Police in a coordinated sweep of his whorehouses. And all within a six-hour period! He wadded the notes up and tossed them against the same wall stained with a splash of bourbon. Cheap bourbon, left over from the old days, too.

What the hell had happened? Clearly, he’d pissed someone off. Someone with a lot of horsepower - all the way up to the Federal level. But who? How? Nothing had changed lately. His operation had been the same as always.

Except …

The raghead safe house. He thought about it for a moment. That was actually the first thing to go wrong tonight, before the panicked call from the pet judge and the mad dash for ‘the hills’. He chewed his lower lip in thought. Yeah, and then an hour or two after the safe house, someone hit the ship the ragheads were using.

Fuck!

That’s how he’d pissed off the Feds! He’d made a dumb-in-retrospect deal with a bunch of sand niggers and now he was paying for it. How could he have been so stupid? So long as it was just a little prostitution and a little dope nobody really paid much attention. That kind of stuff was old news way back in the 30’s. But terrorists … that was as touchy and as new as 9/11.

He shook his head and snarled at himself. Get a grip. Don’t panic. Think! It hadn’t been a stupid idea. First off, it had been a shitpot full of money. That justified some risk. He'll he'd made it to the top because he was willing risks. Besides, he’d realized he’d been playing with fire and he’d taken all the precautions necessary to make sure it wouldn’t all blow up in his face.

Hadn’t he?

Think! The safe house. Start there. That’s when it had started to unravel. But he’d covered his ass there. The security on that place was unbeatable. Jimmy the Eyes had been so proud of that place. "God himself couldn’t crack this nut even if He was wearing crepe-soled shoes and carrying gold-plated lockpicks!"

Jimmy was the best. He’d never let Slow Eddie down before. Never. Not on a security job. Not on any sort of job. One look in those eyes of his and you could tell that he …

Those eyes …

Those fucking blue-green eyes. He’d seen those again lately.

That little cock-teasing, stick her tits in your face and then scream rape bitch that had been hanging with Sable lately. She had Jimmy's eyes!

Rafe, the bodyguard, just about jumped out of the chair where he was dozing after a long, tense night when Slow Eddie barked, "Jimmy the Eyes! What kind of family did he have?"

The hulking idiot blinked sleepy eyes at his boss. "What? … Who?"

"Jimmy the Eyes you fucking moron! Remember him?"

"Yeah! Sure, boss. I remember him. Jimmy the Eyes is dead, boss."

"I know he's dead. I asked you what family did Jimmy the Eyes have," Eddy demanded again, sharply.

"Nobody, boss, just his mother and sister, and they moved away somewhere."

"Do you remember why they moved away, Rafe?" Eddy asked, danger growing in his voice even as the tone softened.

"Yeah," Stepano said. "Some relative died and left them some dough, anna house or sumthin'."

"So, if Jimmy didn't have any relatives except his mother and sister, where did the one that died come from?" Eddy demanded.

"Beats me," Stepano said, lifting his massive shoulders in a shrug of continued incomprehension. "I’m almost sure that’s what I heard."

"You’re almost sure?"

Rafe knew that look in Eddie’s eyes and knew there was only one acceptable answer. "I’m sure, boss. Yeah! I remember Sable telling me about it down at the club a few nights after …"

"Sable told you?! How the fuck did she know?"

"I don’t know, boss. She was … you know, reading the papers about Jimmy and I guess she saw an article about his mom and his sister."

"Where’s Sable tonight?"

"Umm … don’t you remember, boss?"

"What?"

"You sent her down to the safe house."

All the blood drained out of Eddie’s face as the pieces fell into place. He’d sent Sable to the safe house. He’d sent her there along with the bitch with Jimmy’s eyes. He’d sent them to a place with security that nobody on earth could break. He'd let them past the security himself - and that’s when the dominos had started to fall.

The pieces all fit, but what picture appeared when you put them all together?

Jimmy the Eyes was dead.

But Jimmy the Eyes had family nobody knew about.

Shit! He'd been figurin' it all wrong! It wasn't the fucking nigger gangs, it was family! That redheaded bitch had blamed him for Jimmy's death, and set him up. She'd gotten hooked up with the feds somehow. They'd been looking for a way to take him down for years. Sable . . . hell, Sable was a dumb street whore he'd lifted out of the gutter. She was too damn stupid to plan this, but Copper . . . that cunt was smart. He'd seen that from the start.

Suddenly it all made perfect sense. Eddy could understand family - and family vengeance. Not that it would protect those cunts - either one of them.

The flush of success at figuring it out faded. Yeah, he knew what it all meant … now that it was too fucking late. The horse was gone and the barn had burned to the ground. Slow Eddie was gonna fall, it was just a matter of time. He used to always smile anytime ‘Numero Uno’ cruised past McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, so smug and so sure that he’d never be on the other side of that view: on the inside looking out. But now he knew it was only a matter of time.

Slow Eddie was gonna fall.

But he'd be back. He'd made the climb to power before. And he still had money stashed away. Money that nobody knew about but him. Money was a power of its own. He'd be back. No fucking prison was gonna hold Slow Eddy Ells for long. And when he got out . . .

Someone was gonna pay.

***************

Sable pulled the dark sedan into the parking lot of Ivar's Salmon House. She looked at the person in the car with her, and frowned. "Maybe you better stay here until I find Copper."

"My dear," Dr. Ruth replied, "I'd be prepared to take a large bet that Copper already knows I'm here. She's probably watching us right now. We'll just have to believe that she didn't bolt when she saw you were not alone."

Sable had drawn a quick breath at Ruth's comment, then sighed. As the doctor had pointed out, if Copper were going to run from Ruth, she'd already be gone.

If she had come at all.

Dr. Ruth picked up a medium-sized package from the back seat as they got out of the car and made their way through the parking lot. Before they reached the entrance, a trim little Mustang cut them off.

"Get in."

Sable ducked down to look inside the car. "Copper?"

"Get in!" the redhead repeated.

"Dr. Ruth, too?"

"Dammit, Sable, just shut up and get in! Dr. Ruth too, if you want."

The lithe brunette slipped into the back seat, allowing the doctor to make a more dignified entrance. Before her door was fully shut, the Mustang's engine gave a surprisingly authoritative growl and they were racing off into the drizzly dark. For a few moments, hanging on was enough of a challenge to demand their full attention. The rain-slick streets and the over-powered car were a potentially lethal combination - not the least of which was because Copper seemed to have her eyes on the rear-view mirrors more than on the road ahead.

Then, just as abruptly as she had launched their journey, Copper slowed the car down to a quiet purr as she merged anonymously into the I-5 traffic headed north.

"I should have left you there," Copper said with her own growl.

"Why?" asked Sable. "I mean, I would have understood if you just, like, disappeared, but if you came at all, why leave us standing there?"

The redhead didn't answer directly, but her eyes flashed quickly to the doctor seated beside her.

"I'm not your enemy, Copper," Dr. Ruth said gently, no longer needing volume to overcome the car's engine noise.

"No. You just work for my enemy."

"Would you believe me if I told you that Ipney is not really your enemy either?"

Copper's snort was hardly ladylike, despite her continued display of feminine beauty. She wore an androgynous forest-green warm-up suit, quite similar to the first clothes she had been allowed on her release from her cell. But nothing about the person inside the casual clothes was androgynous, from her fiery mane of thick red hair to the long, glamorous nails that gripped the padded leather steering wheel.

Dr. Ruth's surprising response was a laugh. "Well, I can understand that," she allowed. "The mission was a great success, Copper, except for one thing . . ."

A ripple through Copper's thick tresses showed a shrug of unconcern. "Too many bodies. Or too few."

"I hardly think there were too few," Ruth said dryly.

"Ipney would have preferred one more," the redhead asserted, looking down at her own lush form.

"Don't be so sure about that," Ruth said, but all it prompted from Copper was another snort of disagreement.

"Were you hurt last night?" asked Ruth, changing the subject for the moment.

"No, but my, um, your prosthesis thing was ruined."

"Sable told me about that," Ruth replied.

The doctor showed Copper the package she had been carrying. "Would you like another one?"

"Another one?"

"It's the government. They always buy a spare for critical equipment," she smiled, still holding out the package.

"I just got the other one off," sighed Copper. "Hottest damn bath I ever took."

"Do you want to change back into Jimmy instead?" Ruth asked. "I can still help you with that."

Copper's head came up sharply at the offer, but she didn't look at Dr. Ruth. Instead, her bright eyes met Sable's darker ones through the rear-view mirror.

The dark-haired girl looked stricken, but her words were neutral. "I'll help, too, Copper . . . um, Jimmy. With whatever you want."

"I haven't had much luck on my own," the redhead said, smiling wryly. "I couldn't even get the wig off, and even without makeup, well . . . I don't look much like a Jimmy."

"Do you want to be Jimmy again?" Ruth gently repeated.

"Sure," the redhead said reflexively, but it was Copper's voice that said it. "I mean, this is all just a disguise, and the mission is over. Right?"

"Okay," Ruth said, her tone carefully neutral. "It will take a couple of days to set up the surgery . . ."

"Surgery? Oh, yeah, I forgot," Copper's voice said. Her hands stroked along her bosom, absentmindedly cupping her artificial bounty. She looked at the package in the doctor's hands, the body shaper that would return her to a fully feminine appearance. One of her own graceful hands went up to twirl slowly in a lock of hair, auburn in the dark but still gloriously beautiful.

Ruth nodded at the gesture. "I'll have to help you with your mannerisms, too."

Copper snatched her hand down from her hair.

"How would we, um . . ?" she asked to cover her confusion.

"Ipney has a . . ."

"Ipney!" interrupted Copper. "I'm not letting him get a hold of me again. No way!"

The car swerved and slipped for just a heart-pounding instant as the intensity of Copper's emotion almost caused her to lose control.

"Why don't we, um, find a place to talk - a place that's not moving at most of a hundred miles an hour?" suggested Dr Ruth.

"Ipney's after me," Copper offered in explanation.

"Yes," Dr. Ruth agreed, "but not for the reason you think. Please, Copper, pull in somewhere so I can explain."

Copper's arched brows narrowed in a frown, but she guided the car to an exit ramp. A moment later, they were pulling into the parking lot of a fast-food place. The redhead carefully backed the car into a slot aimed at the exit from the lot, then shut it down.




Chapter 21 - "You Want Some Help With That?"


"Okay, we're stopped. You go inside."

Sable's light soprano revealed her concern even in the darkened interior of the car. "You're not coming with us?"

"In a minute," promised Copper. "Get me a diet soda and something light."

Ruth smiled at the request. "Still eating like a lady, Copper? I'd have thought you'd take advantage of the time without your body shaper."

"Yeah, well, if the choice is that thing or Ipney, it looks like I'll be back in it pretty soon anyway. And I can't afford the bulge."

Sable sniffed at her concern. "As if . . . Don't even think of getting any sympathy from me about your weight."

Ruth laughed, but there was a wistful note in her humor. The two younger girls exchanged guilty glances, trying not to notice the doctor's middle-age spread. Which only made it worse, of course.

Their mutual embarrassment was covered up by a mutually bustling exit from the Mustang - then covered up again when Sable saw the handbag Copper took with her from the car.

"Ohmigod, is that really a Louis Vuitton?"

Copper smiled as she swung her stylish bag to show the monogram. "I figured if it was good enough for someone with the taste and sophistication of Paris Hilton, why not?."

"How much did that cost Ipney?" Ruth asked, laughing with more genuine humor.

"Nothing, actually," claimed Copper. "I, um, found some money last night."

"How much?" the doctor asked suspiciously.

"Enough," the redhead answered blandly.

Ruth just sighed, but her eyes twinkled with continued enjoyment. Turning toward the fast-food eatery, she said, "I guess you're going to make it up by treating us to such, ah, refined cuisine."

"Who said I was treating?" Copper challenged with another smirk. Then she became serious again and handed her bag to Sable. "Here. Take this with you. I'll meet you inside."

Her words drew the attention of both Sable and Dr. Ruth - which didn't help a bit, because before their eyes she seem to vanish into the gloom after only a step or two.

"Dear lord," Dr. Ruth said softly.

"I know," Sable sighed. "Spooky, isn't it?"

The two remaining women made their way into the restaurant, laughing as Sable rummaged in Copper's elegant purse to find the money for their simple meal.

Copper rejoined them a few minutes later. "Well, if anyone is following us, they parked a good ways away," she sighed.

The logistics of arranging napkins and sorting orders occupied a few minutes and when they were once again ready to talk, the psychologist chose the topic.

"Do you know what a 'functioning sociopath' is, Copper?"

"I expect you'll tell me," the redhead replied cautiously.

"It's someone who can seem normal to most people, but has no conscience, no remorse at doing things society thinks are criminal."

"Don't start with me," Copper warned. "I did what needed to be done."

"How many times?" Ruth demanded. "How many people did you kill last night? Do you even remember?"

"Of course," replied Copper, then proved Ruth's point when she needed to count them out to get a total. "There were three at the safehouse, and two in the hold - one of those was an accident, sort of - and three in the cabin, assuming the gut-shot one died."

"And do you have any regrets about all those deaths?"

"Yeah," the redhead snapped in a bitter growl. "I didn't get to kill 'John.'"

Ruth sighed, and reached out to place a gentling hand on Copper's wrist. It wasn't a constraint - the lithe assassin could have escaped before the doctor knew she was moving. It was a message of acceptance, a sharing that was at the same time a warning. "Copper, dear, I'm not your enemy. Ipney isn't your enemy either, at least, not in the way you think."

"Yeah, right. I'll bet he's carving my initials in a bullet right now."

"And lose his greatest asset?" Ruth asked wryly. Before Copper could reply, she explained. "I don't think he ever really understood your skills before last night. Frankly, attacking him head-on the moment you saw him was stupid, and he only continued with you because I convinced him it wasn't representative of your true abilities."

Copper's slim shoulders rose and fell in a shrug, but she didn't meet the doctor's eyes.

"Now though," she continued, "you've shown him what you can do, and best of all . . . you're a functioning sociopath."

"Huh?"

"For Ipney, that's perfect. You're a weapon not limited by conscience or moral qualms. Or so he thinks."

Copper's eyes narrowed in confusion. "'He thinks?' I thought that's what you just said."

Ruth leaned back in her chair, and looked pointedly at Sable. "There's your conscience. Or at least, the part that can keep you from - what did I say? - from 'doing things society thinks are criminal.'"

She leaned forward in her chair and captured Copper's pale eyes with her solemn ones. "What Ipney doesn't realize is that you have a very well-developed conscience, and strong, unshakeable morals. They're just not focused on what society wants."

"You got that right," Copper said sharply.

Ruth nodded calmly. "Yes, I do. I trust you Copper, trust you more than you trust yourself. But I know you need Sable to provide perspective."

Glowing blue-green eyes sought out Sable's darker ones. The redhead's nod was superfluous - the rightness of Dr. Ruth's claim irrefutable.

But not all needs are met.

"I can't," Copper said. She stood up quickly and turned toward the door, her expensive purse finding a place hanging from her shoulder without conscious thought. "I have to go."

Sable stood as well, gathering up her own handbag in a declaration that made her words redundant. "I'm coming with you."

"No, you can't. It'll be too dangerous. Wait until . . . "

"Wait nothing," Sable said. "You heard Ruth. You need me."

"I know that, beautiful," Copper replied, smiling. "But I need you alive. I'll come back for you."

"Not good enough, gorgeous," Sable countered. "Now, do you want to argue? You know how I settle our arguments."

"Oohh, baby, don't tempt me. But I have to go and you can't . . ."

The dark-haired girl reached out for her shorter friend, obviously intending to renew her anti-argument tactic. Copper dodged her grasp easily, but the wistful look on her face showed her most difficult opponent was herself.

Ruth stood as well and moved to the slender redhead. "Take care," she said softly wrapping the girl in her arms. "We do need to talk. I can help you. But I agree that Ipney is not the way to do it, not right now anyway."

The doctor turned next to the tall brunette. "You take care, too," she ordered with a finality that assumed into being a decision Copper hadn't really made.. Sable just hugged the older woman, unable to speak.

Copper's diffident cough interrupted her. "Sorry, Sable, but if you're coming with me . . ."

"Am I coming with you?" Sable asked.

"I guess so. At least for now," Copper said. She tried to appear reluctant, but the happiness in her eyes lit their corner of the restaurant even brighter than the harsh lighting.

Sable glanced at the gift Ruth had brought, then at Copper.

"For now," Copper repeated.

*************

Copper's paranoia about Ipney might have been unwarranted. They saw nothing unusual while they slipped out the restaurant parking lot. But Copper only drove for a few minutes - exiting the northbound I-5 near the largest mall in the area, where she parked well away from the buildings.

"We walk from here."

"I thought you wanted to get far enough Ipney couldn't find us."

"I do, but I don't trust that car. Dr. Ruth will describe it to Ipney."

"She wouldn't!"

"Of course she would," Copper countered. "She can't burn her bridges with Ipney. There are other bad guys out there, and she's made it clear she'll do what it takes to fight them."

"But, she wouldn't, I mean, she likes us!"

"Hell, beautiful, I'm prepared to bet she loves us," Copper said with a sad smile. "But she has a duty, too. Besides, she knows I'm not stupid."

Instead of moving immediately into the mall, Copper found a shadowy corner where they could observe their car. The redhead pushed Sable into a crouch, then began to open the box she carried. Inside was, as promised, another of the body prostheses. And, at least to the observations she could make in the gloom, there was nothing else in the box.

"You really are paranoid," Sable whispered.

"Keeps me alive," Copper hissed in response, then she froze.

"Five minutes," the redhead observed. "Not bad."

Sable tried to stick her head up to see what Copper was looking at, but the smaller woman held her down with surprising strength. "It's just Ipney, with a couple of goons. They've found the car. And . . . . good."

"Good?" asked Sable. "How is it good that they've found us already?"

"Well, in the first place, they haven't found us. They've just found the car," Copper explained, smirking. "And the second thing is that Dr. Ruth is with them."

"And that means . . . ?"

"That means Ipney's support is as limited as I thought. If he had to stop to pick up Ruth himself, he must not have a lot of vehicles. At least, not that he wants to use on this."

Their whispered conversation occupied the time until Ipney and the men completed their inspection of the car. They fanned out to cover the entrances to the mall, but it was hopeless and the scowl on Ipney's face made that clear even though he had to go through the motions. When the men had disappeared, either into mall entrances or around buildings, Copper leaned back against the wall behind them.

"What do we do now?" asked Sable.

"Nothing."

"Nothing? But . . ."

The redhead's long nails touched lightly on Sable's lips - a promise as much as a warning. "We've got several options, and there's no way Ipney can cover them all. We could have had a car stashed here, or we could have left on foot, or we could be trying to lose ourselves in the crowded mall."

"So we do none of the above, by hiding here?"

Copper teeth flashed in the gloom as she smiled. "Actually, we do all of the above, including hiding here."

To her credit, Sable didn't reply immediately. Her arched brows narrowed in concentration, then she said, "Okay, I can figure out that you must have a car stashed here, but the rest . . . ?"

"Ipney still thinks I'm stupid," declared Copper. "We are - if I do say so myself - quite noticeable even in a crowd. He'll think I'd plan to lose myself in the mall. That would have worked pretty well for Jimmy. But you and I would very definitely be remembered. So he's in there asking people if they've seen us."

"So we walk off somewhere instead?"

"Nope, we go in the mall."

"In the mall?!"

"Not right away, of course," the redhead said flashing another smile. "We'll give him enough time to give up - notice that we can see his car so we'll know when he leaves - and then we'll go in."

"But won't he, I mean, I would have, like, left my number with people and asked them to call if we do show up."

"Of course," the lithe assassin nodded. "But by the time he gets the message and returns, we'll have reached the other end of the mall and be in the other car, heading for anywhere he's not - since where he'll be is right back here at the mall. We can even pick up some other clothes so that Ruth's description won't help."

"Geez, you do think in twisty ways," the brunette sighed.

"Let's hope that Ipney is as much of a straight arrow as he puts on," countered Copper.

****************

Sensible shoes hinted at the woman's age despite the long, shapeless coat she wore against the damp chill. The lights at the mall entrance confirmed a matronly appearance when they illuminated her face - and the expression on it revealed an attitude to match her external appearance. The middle-aged woman frowned at the two girls exiting as she approached. Her parental mode kicked in and she spoke.

"You girls should wear warmer clothes in this weather," she warned. "And those shoes . . ."

"They're not shoes, lady, they're sandals," the shorter girl declared the obvious, accenting her disdainful tone by snapping her gum at the well-intentioned woman. She wiggled a slender foot, flexing her toes so that the thick-soled flip-flop added another accent as it slapped against her foot. A floppy hat concealed most of her hair, though a strand of red straggled against her cheek. But the hat was about the only concealing aspect of her clothes. A too-short skirt hung dangerously low on hips too narrow for safety. A taut belly was revealed by a ragged, cut-off t-shirt - the apparent poverty of the tattered garment belied by a very stylish leather jacket and expensive looking purse. All in all, the sort of sartorial confusion - confusion and tarty exhibitionism - that the older woman found so disappointing in young women's styles.

"I know that, young lady," the woman said sharply. "I'm only trying to help. You'll catch your death of cold dressed like that. Even your friend has more sense."

The other girl, a brunette, wore clothes that were a bit more reasonable on a figure that was obviously more mature. Her well-proportioned curves made it look like the shorter girl had resorted to artificial enhancements to her bosom in a not-very-convincing attempt to match the taller girl's endowments. But at least the brunette wore jeans and sneakers, and a real top.

Another pop of gum from the redhead answered the woman. The shorter girl sneered and moved on, but the older girl had learned some manners somewhere. She spoke first to her friend. "Hey, cuz, cut the lady some slack. She's just trying to help." Then she spoke directly to the well-wishing intruder. "Sorry, lady, but she's not from this area. She'll learn."

The woman nodded, frowning at the back of the still-moving shorter girl, and went on her way. If she'd have paid more attention, she might have noticed a bright gleam of not-very-respectful humor in the brunette's dark eyes. It would have offered her some advanced warning of the burst of giggling she heard just as she reached the doorway.

The two young women piled their packages into a dark blue 4Runner and launched from the parking lot with insouciant disregard for traffic lane trivia.

***************

"Do you think we got away?" asked Sable once the mall was out of sight.

"Probably," Copper said. "I think Ipney's mania for secrecy has caught him this time. And we'll be in Vancouver before he figures out where we're going."

"Vancouver? Is that where we're going?"

"For now," repeated Copper once again.

Sable nodded in turn, then looked at the window for a while. Her hand twirled in a thick lock of midnight-black hair, caressing it softly.

"Something wrong, beautiful?" asked Copper.

"It's all been so, so fast," Sable replied. "It's like my old life - my second life, thanks to Dr. Ruth - is over."

"I can always drop you off," her friend answered.

Sable's eyes tightened in pain. "Is that what you want?"

Now it was Copper's time to show hurt. "No," she said softly, "but . . ."

"Good," Sable interrupted her. "That's the end of that topic, okay?"

Copper nodded, but a frown marred her clear features. "Sable, what about . . . us?"

The curvy brunette shrugged. "I guess that's up to you."

"Hardly," snorted Copper. "I'm so screwed up, even aside from that sociopath thing, that there's no way I can see what we need to do. I mean, y'know. Us. I know that to do about Ipney and stuff, but . . . Us?"

Sable sighed, but wouldn't look at the redhead. When she finally spoke, her voice started out firmly but it choked away into tears. "I'm sorry. It's just that . . . I'm so . . . what happened to me was so . . terrible. It's made me into something . . . wrong."

"You?! Hell, I'm the murdering psychopath."

"Sociopath," Sable corrected, smiling despite her pain. In an attempt to change the subject, she ran her hands through her thick cascade of hair. "You know," she mused, "I've been growing my hair even since Ruth pulled me out of that gutter. Almost three years now. I'm going to hate to cut it."

"Cut it?! Don't you dare!"

Sable looked at Copper in surprise. "But, don't we have to, like, disguise ourselves or something? I mean, you're a walking display of teen grunge now. That's a disguise. And you said we were too noticeable before to go back to that look."

"That was just to get away from Ipney," explained Copper. "Now that I've thought of it a bit, we have to stay pretty much like this. It's what we're used to."

"Like this? But, won't he find us?"

"Maybe. But he'll expect us to change. He'll certainly expect me to change the way I look. Besides, Ipney has a boatload of terrorists and poison to deal with. He wants me back - or dead - but he won't make that his priority."

"But Dr. Ruth said Ipney wants you for an agent."

"Yeah, right, and if you believe that . . ."

"But Dr. Ruth wouldn't lie!"

"Probably not, but she might be mistaken."

Copper pulled the concealing cap off her molten tresses and tossed it in the back. Shaking out her thick locks, she looked again at Sable. "Y'know, we can't really hide anyway. Not forever. Slow Eddy will eventually figure things out and be after us. My family is still out there, somewhere . . . "

She sighed and looked through the windshield for a while. "If I go back to being Jimmy, Eddy will find out, and my family is screwed. For that matter, I wouldn't put it past Ipney to go put the snatch on them, just to make me come back, especially if I went back to being Jimmy and back to doing . . . what I did before."

Sable nodded thoughtfully. "So, what are we going to do?"

"We?" Copper asked wryly.

"We," Sable repeated firmly. The curvy brunette reached her hand out, and let her long nails stroke softly along Copper's jaw. "We," she repeated yet again.

All the sophisticated elegance seemed to drain out of Copper's manner with the touch of the dark-haired girl's fingers. Despite her carefully crafted beauty, the slender assassin had been up for a very long time, and was very, very tired. The soft caress cracked the facade of competence, revealing the tongue-tied insecurity that had been hidden by overlaid sensuality.

"I, um, what would, I mean . . ," she stammered, running down.

"What's the matter, Copper?"

Ripples flowed through the dark-red tresses as Copper tried to deny any problem, but Sable wouldn't accept that evasion. "Copper, tell me what's wrong."

"I'm wrong," whispered Copper. "This is wrong, all of it."

"Oh, Sable," she cried, her voice cracking as her throat tightened up. "How can you . . . how can you want to be with . . . with a freak?"

"You're not a freak!"

"Look at me!" demanded Copper. "I'm a man. Or at least, I'm supposed to be a man. But I look like something out of one of my own wet dreams. And you . . ."

"And me?" prodded Sable, a worried frown on her face that vanished when Copper's soft voice continued.

"You're so beautiful. And so . . . I don't know. Noble. Sacrificing yourself for me. For society, to keep me on a leash so I don't . . . do terrible things again."

To the redhead's surprise, Sable leaned back on her side of the car and laughed. "Geez, girl, get a clue." A heavy-lidded smolder she knew how to do so well - so very well - showed in her eyes as she said, "I intend you use you. Thoroughly."

"Use me?" asked Copper in confusion.

Sable's sensual bravado collapsed as quickly as Copper's had done, and now it was her turn to stammer and hesitate.

They rode along in silence for a few minutes, then Sable's soft voice murmured just loudly enough for Copper to hear. "I don't like men, y'know?"

Before Copper could respond, she spoke again, and more distinctly. "I don't like men. I haven't since . . . since my father . . ."

"Easy, Sable, it's okay."

Sable shook her dark mane angrily. "No, it's not okay. It'll never be okay. And here's the really sick part. I don't like men, but I do like sex."

Copper's voice was tentative, her reply drawn out. "Okkaaayyy."

Sable's voice was tight as she continued. "My father was really twisted, y'know? He used me, but . . ."

Her voice dropped to a whisper. ". . . he made me like it. He used my own body against me. Even though I think men are vile and every time I think of sex with a man I want to puke, when my body sees a thick, hard, . . . when I see . . . I just want it so bad, I ache."

Unconsciously, her gaze dropped to Copper's skirt, stretched just tight enough to reveal a building problem - building visibly after the brunette's erotic revelation. A smirk she couldn't entirely hide showed on Copper's face though she carefully concentrated on her driving for a long moment.

Sable saw the small smile, but her own eyes filled with tears. "Copper, I don't know whether I love you for you, or whether it's just . . . that you're a dream come true for me. I didn't want to admit it, but all the things that happened last night, when we kissed, when I touched you - even in front of those thugs - I just can't deny the way I feel about you."

"I, um, don't see that as a problem," Copper replied softly.

"But, I mean, it's not fair to you for me just to, to use you, like I've been used so many times."

"Do I look like I feel used?" the redhead asked, a real smile forming on her scarlet lips.

Sable was not distracted. "But I don't want to be the sort of, I don't want to be a user. I promised myself I'd never just use people, like, like my daddy used me."

"Sable, think about it from my side," Copper said - the sensual Copper, created by Dr. Ruth, but very real in any way that mattered. "You're beautiful, and you've always had men who were willing to go to bed with you - who wanted it a lot. All my life I've been a scrawny little punk kid. All my life the only reason a girl would go to bed with me is if I paid for it, or Slow Eddy did."

The redhead reached out and touched Sable's hand. "I'm willing to have a hot, horny babe chase me, even if it's because I'm a freak."

"You're not a freak, I'm just . . ."

Copper interrupted her. ". . . just a beautiful, sensual, woman whose worst crime is that she wants to make love with me. I don't really have a problem with that."

"Oh, Copper," Sable sighed, smiling as she abandoned her attempt to explain something she didn't really understand herself.

Copper grinned, then flipped on the turn signal.

"What's wrong?" asked Sable.

"We need to, ah, find a room."

"Now?!" Sable laughed.

Copper's blush was back in full force. "Yeah, well, it's not to, I mean, I'm willing if you are, but that's not the main reason, well, it sort of is, but. . ."

"Copper, dear, take a deep breath and tell me what the problem is."

Copper's shoulders lifted in a sigh. "I hadn't really expected this sort of conversation, not while we were driving anyway. And I think I'm going to have to put that damn prosthesis back on."

"Now?"

"I sure as hell couldn't walk into anyplace looking like I do now," the redhead explained. "I shouldn't have let you talk me into a tight miniskirt."

Sable laughed and leaned over to blow gently in Copper's ear. "Oooh, does mama's little boy have a problem? You want some help with that?"

"You're not making it any easier," Copper growled.

"Good," Sable said unrepentantly. "I'd rather make it harder."

"Damn it, Sable, that's enough. I'm hurting here."

"Then I guess we better get a room, hmmm?" purred Sable.

*******************

"I'd forgotten you're not a natural redhead," Sable said, tugging playfully on the evidence.

"Geez, like there's anything natural about me any more," Copper laughed, batting weakly at Sable's hand.

The brunette dodged the ineffectual blow, then let her fingers become a bit more aggressive. "Oh, I don't know. Some of you is quite natural."

"Sable, beautiful, sensual, talented, wonderful Sable, you're gonna kill me."

"Ah, but you'd die with a smile on your face," the unrepentant tormentor claimed. But she did stop her teasing and slid up to lie beside her unusual lover. Snuggling into a nice tangle with Copper's sleek legs, Sable purred contentedly.

Neither moved for a soft, delicious while. Copper wondered if Sable had fallen asleep, then realized a tension was building in the brunette's arms.

"What's wrong, honey?" the redhead asked.

"Me," Sable replied. "I'm still, I don't know, feeling guilty I guess."

"What? Of having turned me inside out six ways from Sunday? That's not a bad thing, y'know."

"No," Sable replied, but she couldn't quite get a smile into her voice. She sat up and looked at the lounging redhead.

"I used to hate myself, hate the need that burned inside me for sex, hate the men I needed to fill that need, hate everything and everyone."

"Yeah, well, don't feel like the Lone Ranger."

Sable sighed, but nodded. "Anyway, I owe Dr. Ruth. More than I could ever make up to her. I can't just . . . walk away."

"No, neither can I," agreed Copper.

"You can't?"

A shimmer of red tresses reinforced a reply. "No. I owe her, too."

Neither spoke for a few minutes. Finally Sable pulled herself up so that the headboard supported her back, and said, "I, um, well, I could call her. I know her cell phone number."

"Okay," Copper agreed, "but . . . maybe a bit further down the road?"

"Oh. Okay," nodded Sable. "So, just what is the plan?"

"Well," Copper said with a smirk, "once I can move again, I thought I'd put on that damn prosthesis and we'd hit the road."

"It's gonna be a pain to put that thing on and off all the time."

"Tell me about it," grimaced Copper.

"You know, there are alternatives," Sable said. "One of the dancers at the club was . . ."

"Was what?"

"I'm sorry, but I was going to say that one of the dancers was like you - a cross-dresser - but you're not really like that."

"No?"

"No," Sable repeated firmly. "You're, well, you're a real person. I mean as Copper. You're a woman to me, all the time, even when we're making love, somehow. For him it was an act."

"You think this is not an act for me, that I wanted all of this?"

"Oh, Copper, I don't know. It doesn't matter anyway, not really. We have each other, and we can take things one day at a time until, well, until we figure things out."

"Sound like a plan," the redhead agreed, rolling out of bed with obvious relief that the difficult topic was shelved for a while. "But in the meantime, I better get my butt on so we can get on the road. We can look into whatever your, ah, friend did later."

***************

"Doctor Ruth?"

"Yes."

"It's me, Sable."

"Sable! I'm so glad to hear from you. Where are you?"

"I, um, don't think I should say."

Ruth's tone changed, becoming formal. "You know, Sable, that I have to tell you to come back. Copper, too."

"Yeah, right."

When Sable offered nothing further, the doctor asked, "So, why are you calling me?"

"We need to know where Jimmy's family is."

"Why should I tell you?"

"Tell Ipney that the sooner Copper makes sure Jimmy's family is okay, the sooner she'll come back."

"Did she agree to that?"

"Just tell Ipney," Sable replied, not really answering the question.

Unseen by Sable, the doctor's eyes showed a satisfied smile. She told Sable what she needed to know, then asked, "Will you call again?"

"Probably."

"When?"

"I guess we'll both know when it happens. Thanks, and good-bye."

"Good-bye, Sable. Give my love to Copper."

"Thanks, Dr. Ruth, and, well, we both love you, too."

"Thank you, dear. That means a lot to me."

Despite the unhurried tone with which the doctor ended the conversation, she quickly dialed another number the moment the connection was broken.

"Ipney," the brusque voice on the other end announced.

"You owe me a cup of coffee," the doctor declared in turn.

"They called?"

"Of course."

"Sable or Copper?"

"Sable. I told you that's how it would work out."

"If you can predict those two that well, you should never have let them get away."

"My dear Joshua, I didn't let them get away. I helped them!"

"Dammit, Doctor . . ."

"Don't start, Major," Ruth interrupted, irresistible steel in her own voice. "I am responsible for their behavioral development, and I tell you that things are proceeding according to plan."

The major's sigh sounded over the phone. "When can I have them back?"

"They are not 'toys' to be traded back and forth!" she snapped.

"No, they are . . . they are both danger and opportunity, mixed with highly valuable skills. Skills the country needs. The nest of tangos they turned over is slithering away and they're . . .

"Loose," Ruth offered. "You just can't stand the idea that you're not in control."

"This is not about me, Ruth. It's about an assassin. And yes, it does bother me that, ah, that she is loose in society - in part through my actions. Sable is perhaps less dangerous, but she has skills of her own."

"I know, Joshua. I'm the one who helped her deal with the trauma that, ultimately, led to her developing those skills."

"Yes, you did. I've never denied . . . . Look, Doctor, this is pointless. Are you still certain they will return on their own?"

"Yes," Ruth replied tersely. But in a moment she sighed and her tone became more conciliatory. "Copper will need to be certain her family is protected. But . . ."

"Yes?" asked the major.

"Think of it this way," the doctor offered. "You've been involved in desperate, dangerous adventures all your life - all your adult life, at least, though Jimmy Kincaid's adventures started when he was too young to drive. How long could you just drift? Even if Ells manages to pull some strings from inside prison, it will be some time before he can arrange any threat to Jimmy's family. How long could you just watch . . . nothing happening?"

"Not very long," Ipney admitted, beginning to see the point.

"So, Copper will have three choices. Continue her passive surveillance of her family - which is to say, doing nothing. Or she could try to build a power base to protect her family on her own - start up her own criminal empire, since that's the only route to personal power she knows. But I've arranged for her to question her own motives on anything resembling criminal activity - effectively giving Sable a veto on something like that."

"Or there's her third option . . ."

"She can try to make a deal," Ipney offered. "With me, through you."

"Yes," confirmed Ruth. "And of course, Sable will be 'advising' her on that, as well."

"Geez, Ruth, you do think in twisty ways. A psychopathic killer . . ."

"Sociopathic," she interrupted.

"Whatever. And an abused ex-hooker who hates men. What a team." An exasperated grunt sounded over the phone, but when he spoke again he own tone had made the transition to conciliation. "But they do seem to be dancing to your strings. At least for now."

"They're hardly puppets, Joshua, in fact . . ."

Ipney's voice returned to its original brusqueness. "Yeah, whatever. The bottom line is that you've demonstrated you still understand them well enough to predict their actions. I'll take that, at least for now."

"Good," Ruth said. "I'm sure they'll call again, though it is likely to be another few weeks, probably a month."

"Very well," the major said. "Now, moving on to another topic, how much longer before we start getting information from the one they called, 'Sam?'"

"He's in the third day of his sleep deprivation. . ," she began.

Finis



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