by: Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Retribution, which, in turn is a sequel to my novel Redemption. (Thats right! Its a trilogy!) You really will want to read those first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. And quite a lot of each, to be truthful. Were dealing with a bunch of ex-cons and assorted other nasty type people here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love, between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not avoid anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: Well, its that time again, to thank everyone who made the writing of this work a pleasure. Its a bit sad, as well, since this will likely be the last we hear of Ice and Angel, but heck, its been a fun ride, huh? So, deep debts of gratitude go out from me to the following people: Carol "youd just better have a happy ending!" Stephens; Elizabeth "Four" Baldwin, Linda "Lola" Lynch, Lisa "Sulli" Sullivan, and the rest of the Angry Beavers; Judi "you just better have a happy ending part deux" Mair, Mary "is the Pope Catholic" D, Candace "Theodyke" Chellew, the members of my SwordnQuil list for their wonderful support and feedback, my dogs Kricket and Pudderbear, and a host of other people Im going to kick myself in the morning for not mentioning. Thanks guys!!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Disclaimer: As with my previous two novels, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J
Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.
My mother always loved Carl Sandburg. I dont know why. Reading one of his poems has always reminded me of the smell of chalk dust and mimeograph ink and the droning voice of Mrs. Davis, demanding I come forward and recite his works "by rote, Miss Moore, if you please."
I never liked Mrs. Davis.
I like Sandburg even less.
And yet, without any conscious desire, I found that quote echoing through my brain as I sat on a high-backed wooden pew near the center of the very same courtroom where, seven years ago almost to the day, my life as I knew it came to an end.
Courtrooms are interesting animals. Like prisons, they turn a blind eye to the passage of time as the rest of society knows it. Fads mean nothing. The change of seasons is measured only by the amount of overclothing the visitors enter with. To the victim, the wheels are ponderous in their slowness. To the accused, only lightening moves more quickly.
Justice, that blindfolded woman with scales in one hand and a book in the other, simply grinds on, unseeing and uncaring, bound by laws which have stood for centuries, nearly unchanged from when they were first set down.
Time, rather than a coin, seemed a tunnel through which past and present sped to merge and meld in one finite space, affecting me with a queer sense of déjà vu. Though now I was sitting behind the gate which separated accused from victim instead of in front of it as I had seven years ago, my purpose was essentially the same.
I was fighting for my life.
And though the fight was very much a silent one, it was fought with more intensity and more desperation than I had ever fought for anything before.
And, as was the case seven years ago, I was losing.
Come on, Ice. I know you know Im here. I know you know Ive been here since the trial started. Just turn around. Please. I need to see your face. I need to know that youre alright. I need to know that . . .you dont hate me.
If my eyes had been laser beams, they would have borne a hole straight through her skull, such was the intensity of my unconscious pleading. However, since God had seen fit only bless me with optical light catching devices, my continual stare was about as effective as putting rain galoshes on chickens.
Which is to say not very effective at all.
A murmur through the spectator section, followed by the judges pounding gavel, broke me from my musings and I looked around, startled.
"Order in the court! There will be silence in this courtroom!" As the gavel pounded again, the noise quieted and I turned to look at Corinne, who was seated to my left, my eyebrows raised in question.
"Donita just asked for a directed verdict," my friend whispered, her lips very close to my ear, the comforting smell of her sachet drowning out, for the moment at least, the pungent odor of too many people packed too closely together in an almost airless room.
"Whats a directed verdict?" I asked, softly as I could so as not to bring the attention of the imposing female judge to bear on me.
"It basically means that the defense believes that the prosecutions case is so weak that it doesnt need to put on a case of its own and wants her to render a verdict right away."
"But thats crazy!" I said, a bit louder than Id intended.
Quite a bit louder, I noticed, as the judges dark eyes, magnified to the size of golf-balls behind her huge tortoise-shell glasses, aimed their angered gaze at me. "For those of you who have difficulty with simple comprehension," she said in a voice that simply oozed exaggerated patience, "Ill repeat myself one final time. If any of you even thinks about making another noise while this court is in session, I will personally have you escorted out of my courtroom and into a rather uncomfortable jail cell for the remainder of the day. Am I making myself perfectly clear?"
If a tornado had chosen that exact spot in which to cause a little mischief, I wouldnt have been at all adverse to just spinning away. When the sky chose instead to remain blue and sunny, I sunk down into my seat as low as I was able and tied my best not to notice as my neighbors moved quickly away, as if just learning that I was the reincarnation of Typhoid Mary herself.
When absolute, pin-dropping silence reigned in the courtroom once again, the judge nodded authoritatively and switched her gaze toward the front of the room. "Both counsels, approach the bench, please."
I watched as Donita stood and smoothed the skirt of her bright red power suit before approaching the bench, the prosecutor following closely behind. Then I turned back to Corinne, making sure to keep my voice at its lowest register. "Thats crazy. Has she even been listening to the prosecutions case? I think theyll be putting this in the law dictionary next to the description of open and shut."
"One might think so, yes," she whispered back. "But then again, Donitas always been somewhat of a card shark. Im sure she has an ace or two up her sleeve."
"God, I hope youre right." Turning, I once again faced the front of the courtroom, my gaze fixed upon the glossy black head of my lover who was staring, as she had from day one of the trial, straight ahead.
"She knows youre here, Angel," Corinne whispered, reading my thoughts.
"Then why wont she look at me? Its been three months, Corinne. Three months!" I bit the inside of my cheek to keep my voice down as I felt the sting of tears welling up in my eyes.
An entire season had passed since that fateful, horrid night in late summer when my world was shattered, seemingly beyond repair. A season of tears, of guilt, of hopelessness. A season of repeated trips to the Bog, only to be turned away at the door. A season of unanswered phone calls and returned letters. A season of not eating and not sleeping.
And now, after three full months spent dying an hour at a time, I was finally close enough to touch her and she wouldnt even look my way.
"Im sure she has her reasons, Angel."
Only then did I take my eyes off my disinterested lover, pinning Corinne to her seat with my glare. "I just hope you never find out how heartily sick I am of that piss poor excuse for an explanation, Corinne."
A good deal less than injured by my withering words, Corinne calmly turned her head forward, appearing to watch the still-silent proceedings with intent interest and leaving me, once again, to fume alone.
A clack of heels against the highly varnished wooden floor brought my attention back to the front of the courtroom. Donita caught my eye and smiled faintly before turning and resuming her seat next to my lover. I felt an irrational flash of white-hot jealousy as their heads bowed together intimately, Ice nodding and responding to her beautiful lawyer in a way Id only known her to do with me.
Enough of that, Angel, I said, barely able to keep from voicing my thoughts aloud. Shes on trial here and that woman up there just happens to be the best damn shot she has of getting out of this mess.
Still, I couldnt help but breathe a sigh of relief when Ice nodded and they separated, both assuming identical postures of quiet confidence as they awaited the judges next words.
"This court will be in recess indefinitely. I expect both counsels to meet in my chambers at noon tomorrow. Dismissed."
The gavel banged as the bailiff stepped forward. "All rise."
Feeling strangely part of an extremely Fundamentalist religious congregationPentecostals raised to the fiftieth power, perhapsI rose in communion with my fellow attendees, and watched as the diminutive judge, who wouldnt see five feet if she stood on tiptoes on the New York City White Pages, gathered her robes and left the courtroom through a rear door situated just to the left of her bench.
Then the jury, composed of five white men and seven white women, left through yet another door, ushered out by the ever-helpful bailiff. Their faces were expressionless as they filed out one by one, obedient children exiting the classroom on the last day of school.
Only when the final juror had left the courtroom was yet a third door opened, this one admitting four large and well armed guards, two of whom were bearing, like cruel vestments to a fallen Queen, shackles and chains with which to keep society safe from the woman I loved.
Ice stood relaxed as they wound the belly chain around her narrow waist, holding her wrists easily out to be cuffed together by an officious guard as the rest stood by watching, hands on their holstered weapons. Even in flats, she towered over them all, looking elegant and refined and the very antithesis of a chained animal in her expensively tailored black suit.
Her wrists secured, another guard knelt, getting an up close and personal view of legs which went on forevera view that I would have killed for at that point in time or any otheras he attached the leg shackles to her ankles and rose once again, an almost sheepish smile gracing his otherwise somber face.
It might have been funny, this elaborate and ritualistic chaining of a woman beautiful enough to have stepped fresh from the cover of a fashion magazine, if not for the always present air of danger which hovered around her like a tarnished halo which is almostbut not quitevisible.
I could feel my neighbors react to it as she stretched casually, the chains jangling with her easy movements, the long, muscular lines of her perfect body hardly hidden beneath the expensive cut of her suit.
All around me, the crowd of onlookers tensed, as if the courtroom was the Roman Coliseum and Ice, the hungry lion.
Would the beast leave in peace, or would it feed?
I swore I could hear at least one exhale of disappointment as Ice obediently took up her position within the center of the phalanx of guards, never once looking at anything save for the space directly in front of her, now occupied by the balding head of a guard as he led the processional from the courtroom.
Quiet murmurs rose in the vacuum left behind and I felt the walls closing in on me once again. "Ive got to get out of here," I said to Corinne, blindly shouldering my way through the milling crowd, my lungs heaving and my stomach lurching. Of my heart, there was no sound. It had already been broken and so lay quietly as the rest of my body rebelled.
I could feel Corinne following in my wake, but I spared her not so much as a passing thought, such was my need to be free from room which held within its walls only the worst days of my life.
I went out through the open doors and didnt stop until I was standing outside on the steps, hands on my knees and gasping in great, sobbing lungfuls of air. My head was spinning as if Id just stepped off a carnival ride and I found my vision reduced to a point of light at my feet.
Im gonna faint! I thought in disbelief just as my knees started to buckle.
Fortunately, my soon-to-be intimate acquaintance with hard cement was mercifully halted by a pair of strong arms which wrapped themselves around me and pulled me back up to my feet.
When my vision finally broadened its scope, it was Donitas beautiful face I saw, her eyes narrowed in concern as she looked down at me. "Are you alright, Angel?"
I shook my head to clear it, which was a really bad idea as it almost served to start the whole process going all over again. Her arms tightened around me and I fell gratefully into her concerned embrace, using the safety and strength she offered to gather my own before somewhat reluctantly pulling away. "Yeah, Im fine. I think."
She smiled a little. "You think?"
"Well, Ive never almost fainted before, so I cant be too sure."
Her smile broadened as she fully released me, draping instead one long arm over my shoulder and guiding me away from the crowds and down the stairs. "Well, lets get you into the shade so you dont almost do it again, ok?"
"That sounds . . .really good right now."
Corinne attached herself to my other side, and together we walked onto the courthouses winter-brown lawn and under a denuded oak which nevertheless provided at least a modicum of relief from the surprisingly powerful November sun.
Faux marble benches surrounded a round cement table, and I gratefully sat down on one, absorbing the stones cool smoothness into my overheated and overstressed body. After a moment, feeling much more like my normal, albeit empty, self, I looked up at Donita, who was still standing, one elegant hand on the tables top. "Forgive me for sounding impertinent, but why are you here? Shouldnt you be with Ice?"
"Shes on her way back to the Bog. Ill catch up to her later."
"The Bog? Why arent they keeping her here for the trial?"
"Shes an escape risk. The court doesnt think its little county jail can hold her."
I shook my head in disbelief. "Did they forget that she gave herself up to the police?" I didnt know how they possibly could. It was a scene that haunted every minute of my life.
Donita laughed softly. "That doesnt matter to them. Shes a dangerous criminal, so they say. She escapes again, and heads will roll."
"So then . . .why are you here?"
Sitting down across from me, she laid her briefcase on the table and crossed her hands over it. "Because you need to be in the judges chambers with us tomorrow, Angel. Its very important that youre there."
A feeling curiously akin to dread rolled through me, but this time I was prepared and simply went with it. "You mind telling me why?"
"I cant. Not yet. Youll know tomorrow, though."
The not-good-enough answer paled, though, in comparison to the question I hesitated to ask.
"Yes," Donita said, answering it anyway. "Shell be there."
"Then so will I."
Reaching out, she gave my hands a squeeze before standing up and gathering her briefcase once again. "Thank you, Angel. Ill see you tomorrow then. Goodbye for now. Goodbye, Corinne."
She had gotten three steps away, maybe five, when I found myself bolting to my feet. "Donita!"
"Yes?" she asked, turning partway around.
"Tell her . . .would you tell her that I love her?"
Her smile was almost sad as she nodded. "I will."
"Bye," I whispered as she turned away.
I looked up as Corinnes warm hand landed softly on my shoulder. "Cmon," she said, jerking her head to the left, "lets get out of this miserable waste of prime real estate before the birds start mistaking us for lawn ornaments needing to be decorated."
Smiling a little, I squeezed her hand. "If you dont mind, I think Ill stay here for a little while. You go on ahead. Ill grab a taxi and meet you back at the hotel."
"Are you sure? I could stay, if you like."
I nodded. "Im sure. Ill be back in a little while."
"Alright then." Her sachet filled my senses again as she leaned down and gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek. "Stay strong, Angel. This is happening for a reason. Tomorrow, youll find out what it is."
"I hope youre right, Corinne."
"Im always right, Angel."
I watched her as she walked across the lawn and stepped into a waiting taxi. Only when the bright yellow car pulled away did I rest my head down on the cool table, closing my eyes and summoning up the image of my lover as I remembered her; free and beautiful, her eyes filled with love.
"God, Ice," I whispered, "I miss you."
The clock struck the quarter-hour as I was led into the chambers of one Judge Judith Allyson Baumgarten-Bernstein, a name longer than she was tall, and that by a long, tongue-twisting mile and a half.
Since my only previous exposure to judges chambers came from the television show Night Court, I didnt know exactly what to expect as I stepped through the massive oaken door which guarded her inner sanctum sanctorum like a blind sphinx guarding the secrets of Egyptian tombs.
Night Court must have had some legal advisor, I thought as I took a quick, and not very subtle, look around after first assuring myself that I was the first to arrive. Either that or a guy who spent way too much time in courtrooms. On the wrong side.
Early Urban Decay it wasnt, but in all other aspects, all that was missing was a hulking seven foot bailiff to make it seem as if Id walked right onto a studio set somewhere. All the requisite and familiar trappings were there: framed law degrees, letters of commendation from one high rankingand name-dropping, no doubtcitizen after another, leather bound books standing in staid rows upon scarred bookshelves, a coat rack behind the door, even a picture sitting atop a broad, varnished desk. Only instead of Mel Torme, the framed photograph showed a bespectacled young man in cap and gown looking so much like the good judge herself that he didnt have any hope of being anyone other than her son.
And, in the center of it all, the battleground; a large square table with chairs three to a side, its highly polished top shining smugly in the recessed lighting, taunting me with the myriad of secrets it alone could tell.
As I stood fingering the chair-back furthest from the judges desk, the door opened to admit a smiling Donita, dressed in another of her endless supply of knock-out power suits, this one a brilliant green. After giving me a warm and friendly hug, she pulled out a chair for me before seating herself to my immediate right and placing her briefcase atop the table.
"Is she here?" I asked, the first question always in my mind.
"Yes, shes here."
I nodded, then swallowed. "Does she know Im here?"
Before I could open my mouth to ask another question, the Prosecutor hurried in, giving us both a brief glance as he sat down and looked at his watch as if to remind us that his time was much too valuable to be wasted on the likes of us.
He was the epitome of every prosecutor, living, dead or fictional, that Ive ever seen. Keebler must stamp them out, I thought, biting the inside of my cheek as I pictured the little elves working hard in their treehouse making prosecutor after prosecutor after prosecutor and boxing them up for shipment to parts unknown.
Dark suit with regimental tie, straight brown hair cut by someone with very steady hands and not a creative bone in her body, and features so blandly handsome that youd forget him the moment you passed him bleeding in the gutter.
Which, of course, is exactly where I imagined him.
Just as I was about to slip his tie knot up so high and so tight against his neck that the next sound he made would have been a wheezing gasp instead of an aggrieved sigh, the door opened and the judge sailed in, her black robes billowing out behind her like the sails on a very tiny pirate ship going full steam into an unfortunate harbor.
"Im so glad you all could make it on time," she commented as she sat in a chair at the head of the table, looking at each of us in turn. The stare she gave me let me know in no uncertain terms that she remembered my little outburst in her courtroom, and that her offer of a cozy jail cell for the night was still very much open if I was so inclined to react in a similar fashion while in her presence.
I was tempted to tell her that jail cells held no fear for me, but somehow I think she already knew.
"Well, if were ready to proceed, have the bailiff bring in the defendant."
Four pairs of eyes, none more anticipatory than mine, went toward the door opposite of the one through which Id entered as it opened to admit two stone-faced guards followed close behind by the chained and shackled guest of honor. Resplendent in her bright orange prison jumpsuit, she looked exactly as she had the first time Id laid eyes on her; cool, calm, collected, and fitting her name to an absolute "T".
As always, my heart sped and my mouth dried at the sight of her and it took every single bit of strength I had not to jump up and rush over to her; not to put my arms around her and bury my face in the sweet warmth of her flesh; not to grab one of the guards holstered weapons and attempt a jailbreak, guns ablazing.
The look in her eyes as they met mine, however, stopped those notions unborn. Glittering and silver, her eyes were absolutely empty and absolutely dead, as if her soul had already departed for greener pastures, leaving only the shell of her body behind.
An involuntary shudder ran through my whole body and only the warmth of Donitas hand atop mine gave me the strength to stay where I was and return the look she gave me with one as warm and as loving as it was possible for me to give.
With a gentle jangling of chains, Ice gracefully sat down on the chair the guard had pulled out for her, her eyes finally leaving mine and turning instead to the judge, who stared back, her expression unreadable.
"Well," the judge began after a moment, her voice sounding just a shade less confident than before, "since were all present and accounted for, shall we begin?"
Both lawyers opened their briefcases, pulling out thick manila envelopes stuffed full of papers. The prosecutor opened his folder first, pulled out a very thick document covered stem to stern with typed writing, and slid it over to the judge, who adjusted her glasses and began to read.
Completely lost and trying my best not to fidget, I chose to spend the quiet time waiting by looking at Ice and reading the tale of her capture in the gaunt, pale lines of her face. Lines which told me that the past three months had not been any kinder to her than they had to me.
And though to a stranger her posture appeared completely relaxed and completely confident, I could tell by the tense interplay of muscles across her broad back that she was wound tighter than a watchspring.
After some time had passed, the judge finally looked up from the document before her, her eyes slightly narrowed. "This is . . .rather irregular."
The prosecutor nodded, folding his long-fingered hands over the open folder. "I know it is, Your Honor, but its within the bounds of the law."
"I realize that," she snapped back, pushing the document back across the table at him. "Or did you think these robes came as a prize at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack?"
Donita snorted softly as the Prosecutor blushed and lanced a rather weak glare at her.
"And you agreed to this?" the Judge asked Donita, the tone of her voice conveying her disbelief.
"We did, Your Honor."
Shaking her head in amazement, the Judge turned back to the Prosecutor. "Read the agreement aloud, if youd be so kind, so everyone here knows whats going on."
My look of infinite gratitude was disdainfully ignored.
Clearing his throat and adjusting his tie, the Prosecutor lifted the document and scanned it. "The People agree to drop all charges against the defendant, Morgan Steele, relating to her escape from the Rainwater Womens Correctional Facility and in addition agree to ask the Judge to commute her previous sentence to time served."
My immediate impulse to jump up and scream my joythe Judges order be damneddrained out of me the minute I realized he wasnt quite through.
"The defendant will be released on her own recognizance on the condition that she assist law enforcement in the apprehension and subsequent conviction of Joseph Cavallo. She will be under the constant scrutiny of said law enforcement officers and will have a period of time decided in advance by the State in which to effect a capture. If she fails in this duty, the plea agreement will become null and void, and she will be once again remanded back into the custody of the State and forced to serve her full sentence in addition to any further penalty the judge wishes to impose upon her for the escape. The People will, of course, ask for the maximum penalty to be added onto the end of her sentence."
"No," I whispered, before slamming my hands down on the desk and jumping to my feet. "No! This is ridiculous! Ice, you cant do this! Donita, tell her!"
"Sit down, Ms. Moore," the judge ordered, her eyes flashing neon warnings behind the thick glass of her spectacles.
"No! Not until somebody yells April Fool!. Donita, you cant let her do this! You cant just throw her back in the pit shes tried so hard to crawl out of! You cant!!"
"Sit down, Ms. Moore! I wont tell you again!"
"Why are you doing this?" I demanded, ignoring her. "Donita, why? You can win this thing! Her conviction was a sham! You know that! Why dont you fight?"
"Angel, sit down," Donita said finally, her dark eyes pleading. "Please."
Angrily shrugging off the meaty hand which landed on my shoulder, I finally returned to my seat, hitting the leather padding so hard my teeth clacked together, almost severing my tongue.
A nod from the judge, and the bailiff returned to his place by the door.
"Continue," the judge ordered.
The prosecutor rattled his papers, sighed, and spoke again. "In addition, should the defendant satisfactorily fulfill the duties spelled out in this plea agreement, no legal action will be taken against one Tyler Moore for aiding and abetting the escape of a fugitive from justice, and further, no legal action will be taken against Ms. Moore for knowingly harboring a fugitive from justice. Should she fail, Ms. Moore will be prosecuted on these two charges, as well as any others the State deems appropriate, to the fullest extent of the law."
A jaw frozen in utter rage now hung slack as I realized that the Sword of Damocles which had hung suspended over Ices head had stopped being the Bog and had started being me.
"Son of a bitch," I whispered, turning to the prosecutor. "You god damned son of a bitch!" Reaching out quickly, I grabbed his necktie and yanked him halfway across the table with it, my heart thundering painfully in my ears and my vision washed red with my rage.
"Angel, no!" Donitas voice sounded far away as she grabbed me from behind and spun me to face her. "Dont do this, Angel."
"Why? Because theyll arrest me? Fine! Great! I want them to arrest me. In fact, I demand it!" I whirled back to the prosecutor who was staring at me as if he were the rabbit and I was the barreling semi. I held out my wrists to him. "Go ahead! Arrest me! I wont fight you! Ill make it easy for you! Put the cuffs on! Throw me in jail! I admit it! Im guilty! I harbored a fugitive! I just assaulted someone! Arrest me, god damn it!!"
"Angel, dont . . . ."
"Arrest me!" I screamed before the sobs won out and I crumpled into Donitas warm embrace. I heard the sound of chains jangling, but I couldnt see my lover as the lawyer blocked my view.
"I know this isnt exactly protocol," I heard Donita say over my head, "but could you give us a moment, Your Honor? Please?"
After a long, silent and tense moment, the judges eyes softened just slightly and as I watched, she slowly nodded and rose from her position at the tables head. "A moment only, Ms. Bonnsuer, and the guards will remain inside."
"Thank you, Your Honor."
Without answering, the judge tapped the still frozen prosecutor on the shoulder, and together they made their way out of her chambers, closing the door softly behind them.
Gathering what remained of my strength, I pulled away from Donitas firm embrace, sidestepped her grab for me, and walked resolutely to where my partner was now standing, her bound hands clasped so tightly that the white of her knuckles stood out even against the prison-bleached pallor of her normally bronzed skin.
Though my mind ran riot with a million and one questions, my lips, Im afraid, could articulate only one. "Why?"
Though her eyes were steel walls behind which her emotions were trapped, I could see things warring behind them, fighting their damndest to come out. But, with the stubborn and determined strength of will which awed even me, who had been exposed to it on a daily basis for more years than I cared to count, her face maintained its expressionless cast-- a granite mountain against which no water flowed to soften and change its blank and foreboding facade.
The only sign that the woman I loved was somewhere beneath all that careful blankness was the faint tremor which ran, almost unnoticed, over her tightly clenched fists.
Reaching out a trembling hand of my own, I almostalmosttouched the warm flesh bared to my eyes, but drew back at the last second and covered my mouth instead. "Please, Ice. Why? Please answer me. I deserve that, at least."
If I thought my pleas would fall on anything other than deaf ears, I was sorely mistaken. It was as if the sound of my voice raised the shutters in her ever-changing eyes, closing them off to me once again. And with them, I feared, her soul as well.
And that angered me. I had been through too much heartache, too much guilt, and too many tears to just give up without a fight. "Answer me, Ice."
Squaring her broad shoulders and lifting her chin, she tore her gaze away from mine, leaving a gaping hole where my heart used to lay.
All around me, the world seemed to grow faint and unimportant. I felt as if part of me had painlessly detached itself from the rest of my body and stood hovering somewhere above my head. "Answer me, damnit!"
Was that really my voice, sounding so small and so scared?
Was that really my arm, raising itself up into the periphery of my vision?
Was that really my hand, striking a brand across my lovers pale face with the speed of a striking viper?
The sound of the slap, ringing like a rifle shot through the rooms still, stifled air, brought me back to myself much too quickly. As I watched, utterly horrified at what I had done, the blooming, bloody rose of my handprint appeared on her cheek, a death-writ outlined in stark, blinding white.
For the second time in as many days, I felt the world spin out of control as my legs buckled beneath me. This time, however, I welcomed the darkness I knew would follow.
Darkness which was staved off yet again as a pair of warm, living hands reached out at the last second and grabbed me by my shirt front, pulling me up and holding me steady.
Forcing the black spots from my vision, I looked up into eyes which had grown dark not with anger but with profound understanding, immense sorrow, and more than a little respect.
"Ice?" I whispered, not sure if what I was seeing was real.
"Angel." Her voice was rough and harsh and cracked, as if it hadnt seen use in a century, or maybe two.
Anything more that might have been said was lost as a large guard came up from behind her and pulled his nightstick tight across her neck, jerking her backward. Her hands released their grip on mine quickly so as not to pull me along with her. Just as quickly, I was grabbed from behind and pulled away.
"No!" I yelled, trying to reach her with the very tips of my fingers as the distance between us grew.
Across from me, Ice mirrored my attempts, stretching her long, strong hands out to the limits of her chains. The very tips of our fingers brushed together for the tiniest of seconds before slipping away once again.
"No!" I screamed once again, trying every trick I knew to squirm out of the death grip my captor had imposed upon me. A low, rumbling grunt told me I was on the right track, and, encouraged, I redoubled my efforts, fighting for all I was worth to escape the guards hold.
A nightstick found its way against my windpipe then, blocking my breathing for an agonizing moment. My panic reflex kicked in and I gasped for air that just wasnt there anymore. My arms came up quickly to try to pluck the club away long enough to gasp in a breath, but I might as well have been trying to pull a bolder from a mountain, for all the good the effort did me.
A roar that I first took for oxygen-starved blood pounding a desperate riff against my eardrums started out low, then gained strength and volume until the entire world seemed full of its primal, agonized rage.
Though Im sure the guards only thought at that moment was for my safety, as well as his own, he had managed to do the one thing that would guarantee him a death warrant as valid as if the governor himself had signed it.
He had touched me against my will.
And if my partner had anything to do with it, by the look in her eyes and the sound of her howl, it would be the last thing he ever touched.
Fighting against every instinctual response within me, I forced myself to go completely limp in his arms. No doubt surprised by this unexpected action, the guard let go.
It was the only thing that saved his life.
Blindly stepping forward while gasping for badly needed breath, I ran into Ices onrushing form. Somehow, even in the state she was in, she must have recognized me because I felt her still-cuffed hands latch once again onto the front of my shirt and pull me close against her tightly coiled body. I threw my arms around her and hugged her for all I was worth, my lungs still heaving, and my sinuses filled with her wonderful, heady and desperately missed scent.
Four guards hit us a bare second later; the American justice systems version of a goal-line stand, with me as the football and Ice as the halfback.
This is getting to be a very bad habit, I thought as my legs buckled under me once again.
Her stance compromised by the manacles on her ankles, Ice couldnt stop me from falling this time, but she managed to cover me with her body as we were both borne to the ground under the weight of the guards. Her long form protected me completely, her bound hands landing in a place where, had this been anywhere other than a judges chambers, I would have been enjoying myself immensely. A soft grunt of air was the only indication I had that the guards were doing more to Ice than just trying to pull her off me.
Which, of course, started me seeing red once again.
Before I could do anything with my anger, however, Ices body was once again separated from mine and she was hauled back to her feet, the nightstick making an unwelcome reappearance against her throat. I scrambled back to my feet, a stream of invectives raunchy enough to make an entire whorehouse blush dancing on my tongue.
The door chose that moment to fly open and the judge ran in, followed closely behind by the prosecutor. At the sight of her, everyone froze as if she were the principle and we all had lit cigarettes in our hands.
"Whats going on here?" the judge demanded, hands on her hips.
"Prisoner was attacking that woman," one of the guards supplied, jerking his nightstick against Ices throat for good measure, though she obviously wasnt trying to get away.
"Do that again and youll be standing on a street corner begging for quarters," Donita warned, pinning the guard with an angry glare.
Contrite, the guard loosened his hold. Which was a very good thing for him, because if he had maintained it just one second longer, he would have been wishing that Ice had killed him. I quickly turned to the judge. "Thats not what happened."
One eyebrow appeared from behind the protective shield of her glasses. "Then would you mind explaining just what did happen, Ms. Moore?"
"I . . .um . . .I slapped her."
Ive never seen anyones eyes go quite that large, my mind helpfully supplied as I watched the judge look from me, to Ice, and back to me again. "Ok, so I admit it wasnt the smartest thing to do."
The judge smiled slightly. "Has anyone ever told you you have the gift of understatement, Ms. Moore?"
"More than once, Your Honor."
"Mm. And then she attacked you?"
"She didnt attack me. After I realized what Id done, I sort of . . .collapsed. She just kept me from falling. Then the guards tried to separate us and . . .well . . .you walked in on the end of what happened after that."
The judge eyed each of the guards in turn. "Is she speaking the truth?"
"Looked like she was bein attacked to me," a guard mumbled.
"And the rest of you?"
The remaining guards seemed to be suddenly afflicted with cases of spontaneous laryngitis.
"I see. Do you wish to press charges?"
"She didnt attack me, Your Honor!!"
"I wasnt speaking to you, Ms. Moore."
"No." The answer came from Ice, and there was just a hint of humor coloring the low, liquid melody of her words. "I believe Ill live."
A gentle knock sounded, and a bailiffs head appeared through the opened doorway. "Theyre ready for you, Your Honor."
"Ill be right there, Mr. James." Walking back to the table, she hefted the thick plea agreement. "While you children were busy playing, the prosecutor filled me in on some of the background on this case. While highly irregular, he is correct in saying that it fits within the bounds of the law. That being the case, if there are no objections from either party, Ill sign off on this agreement and you can all be on your way."
"No objections, Your Honor," the prosecutor said.
"No objections," Donita added quickly, obviously afraid I might say something to squelch the deal at the twelfth hour.
Biting my tongue, I turned my head to look Ice square in the eyes. The dazzling blue threatened to swallow me whole. Trust me, Angel, her eyes said simply.
And though it killed me to do so, knowing exactly what that trust entailed, in the end, I simply had no choice. "No objections," I whispered.
The look in her eyes made everything Id gone through in the past three months fade silently away as the strength and power of her undying love filled me once again, leaving me almost giddy with its return.
Donitas sigh of relief was audible as the judge bent over the table and, with a flourish of the President signing a détente between two warring third-world countries, inked her Jane Hancock on the document that would send my lover back down into darkness.
Though no more words passed between us, the look of utter and undying love remained in Ices brilliant eyes as the guards, more gently this time, led her out of the room, closing the door behind them.
"What happens now?" I asked Donita after a few moments spent staring at the door in the hopes that it would reopen again and Ice would come back to me.
Closing her briefcase with an authoritative snap, Donita put her arm around my shoulders and gently led me from the room. "Thats something we need to talk about."
"Why dont I think Im going to like hearing what you have to say?"
"Most likely because you wont," she answered honestly.
Together, we walked down the hallway, out of the courthouse and back to the sheltered table out on the lawn, the silence growing pregnant between us.
After we both claimed seats, Donita reached out and grasped my hand. She smiled slightly. "As part of the plea agreement, the prosecution wanted you placed in the Witness Protection Program," she began.
"For starters, youre the only one who can identify Cavallo as Ices shooter back in the Bog. And were gonna need every shred of evidence we can dig up just to make sure hes convicted on charges that wont be overturned somewhere down the line."
"Surely youve got more than that one shooting to pin on him."
"Yes, but hes a snake, and he has an even bigger snake for a lawyer. That man could get Satan off if he wanted to." I thought I heard a grudging admiration in her tone, but when I looked up, her eyes were filled with nothing but revulsion.
"Well, I hope you and everyone else knows that Im not going to go for that."
She smiled. "No, I know you wont. It took a bit of doing, but I managed to convince the prosecutor to release you, as it were, into my custody."
"Which means that its my responsibility to make sure you dont decide to take another midnight stroll over the border, Angel."
I could feel my back stiffen and my teeth clench at her words. "The last time I checked, Donita, I was still an American citizen," I began, my tone as frosty as my lovers name. "Has something changed that Im not aware of?"
"Then why am I under house arrest?"
Donita sighed. "Youre not under house arrest, Angel. If you recall, Im trying to keep that from happening here."
"How, Donita? And more importantly, why? Since I seem to be the cornerstone upon which this entire house of cards is being built, dont you think I deserve to know?"
"Angel, Ive told you about all I can tell you. Im operating under some pretty severe constraints here. Lawyer-client privilege being the smallest among them."
"Then I guess there isnt anything else to talk about, is there?" I said, well aware that I was being churlish and not caring one little bit. Standing up, I looked down at her without smiling. "Thanks. Ill be going now. And dont worry about me leaving the country. Canada holds nothing for me now."
"Angel, wait," she called before I had gotten more than four steps away.
I stopped, but didnt turn around.
A bare moment later, her warm presence filled the space at my side. "Im sorry. I know this hasnt been easy on you."
"Youre right. It hasnt." After deliberating for a second, I turned to her. "Donita, I watched the woman I love more than I love anything in this world taken from our home in chains. Ive spent three months realizing that I never knew what true Hell was until I found myself actually living in it. Every avenue Ive tried has been a dead end. Every call for help Ive made has resulted in yet another door being slammed in my face. And then, when I finally think Im going to get some answers, I find out that not only isnt the journey going to end, its only just beginning. Im sure youll forgive me if that makes me sound a little bitter. I just cant seem to help myself."
She laid a tentative hand on my shoulder, her eyes warm with compassion. "You have every reason to be bitter, Angel. In fact, Im surprised that you arent taking this worse than you are."
"Well, Ill admit that buying a gun and going down to the Bog to break Ice out has a certain appeal right now," I admitted.
She laughed softly. "Im sure it does. Truth be known, it holds a certain amount of appeal for me as well. Even if it isnt a realistic solution."
"Then what is?"
Her shoulders slumped. "None of it, Angel. Were all between a rock and a hard place here. Theres more going on with Cavallo than you know. Suffice it to say that he has some friends in some very high places and those friends have a vested interest in making sure he doesnt get caught."
I felt myself relaxing a little, knowing that she was trying her best to tell me things she shouldnt in the only way she could. "Why Ice, though? Her special skills aside, shes one woman. What can she do that the police, or whoever, cant?"
"She can get the job done. She knows how he thinks, how he acts, what hell do. Shes been where he is and she knows his weaknesses. Shes the best person for the job, to put it as simply as I can."
After thinking on her words for a moment, I nodded. "Can you answer me one more question, though?"
"If I can, Angel."
"Why didnt you fight it?" I held up a hand as she opened up her mouth to speak. "I know that, no matter how strong of a case you have, theres always a possibility that the verdict could come back against you. Believe me, no one knows that better. But . . .even if it did, and even if I was charged and convicted, as horrible as this may sound to you, Id be happier in prison with her than free without her."
She smiled. "It doesnt sound horrible, Angel. But it just wouldnt happen."
"What do you mean?"
Looking down at the ground, she looked to be preparing her words carefully. "Since Ice has been recaptured, Angel, shes spent twenty-three hours a day in the Hole. Not because shes done anything wrong, but because shes considered a huge escape risk."
"Thats inhuman! They cant just keep her there forever!" I could feel my whole body go numb with the thought of what that would do to her, my mind going back to the last time shed been kept in the Hole, and the shell of a woman shed become because of it.
"No, they cant. If they tried, Id have so many protestors outside the Bog the warden would think that what happened with Corinne was a little pep rally in comparison." She laid a hand on my arm. "He knows it, too. Thats why, as soon as the trial is over, he wants her transferred out."
"So, even if I was convicted, we wouldnt be together." When the thought sunk in, I began to realize just why it was that Ice had agreed to the plea bargain. It also helped to explain the returned letters and the rest Id been suffering through for the past three months.
"Im afraid not."
"When will I get to see her?"
"I dont know. Probably not for quite some time." Though her words rang true to my ears, there was some sort of knowledge hidden deep within her eyes that, try as I might, I just couldnt decipher. And I also knew that she could tell I saw it there. Those same eyes begged me not to ask the question she couldnt answer.
With a sigh, I relented somewhat. "So, Ill ask again. What happens now?"
"The most important thing is for you to be kept safe during all this." Her smile was slightly lopsided. "The prosecution may have to answer to the people who want Cavallos ass, but I have to answer to Ice. And personally, if something were to go wrong, Id rather be them than me. They only run the risk of being fired . . . ."
As her voice trailed off, I couldnt help laughing a little, knowing her words for truth though some small part of me resented the hell out of the implication that I couldnt keep myself safe. The rest of me, however, well remembered my last run in with Cavallos men and wasnt too proud to accept help when it was offered.
"I have some friends who are very happy to give you a place to stay for the duration. Theyre good people, Angel, and they have a very safe, very secluded ranch south of Tucson in Arizona."
"Arizona?! But thats . . . ."
Grasping both of my shoulders, Donita looked me dead in the eye. "Cavallo isnt here, Angel."
"What? What does that have . . . ."
"Hes not here." Once again, those deep chocolate eyes begged me to take what she was saying at face value and to please just have faith in her explanation, poor though it was.
Now, I might not always be the brightest bulb in the bunch, but on occasion, I am known for putting two and two together and coming up with the requisite four. "So, if Cavallo isnt here," I said, putting the same emphasis on the word, "he just might be somewhere, say, to the southwest of Pittsburgh?"
Her smile was quite knowing. "Its a big old world out there, Angel. Who knows what little part of it hes stinking up?"
Faith has always been somewhat of an elusive enemy to me. Just when I think I have it in my grasp, just when I think Ive been rewarded for having it, it slips away yet again, leaving me damning myself for being foolish enough to believe in its existence in the first place.
And now I was being asked to grasp hold of it again.
Or maybe not. Faith is one animal. Belief, however, is another. And even if I didnt believe in Donitawhich I did, my belief in Ice, even after everything that had happened since her capture, remained absolutely bedrock.
And I knew, with every fiber of my being, that while Donita might be saying the words to me, Ice was the one pulling the strings.
So, in the end, the choice was a simple one. The mountain was high, but I knew without doubt that there would be a safety net well able to cushion the fall should I choose to damn the height and take the leap. And with that knowledge, I did the only thing I could do. The only thing my heart and soul would allow me to.
Donita must have seen it in my eyes, or in the set of my jaw, because she smiled and squeezed my hand. "Youre a very special woman, Angel."
"Yeah, well, thats not always the gift people make it out to be. I have doubts too, just like anyone else."
"I know, Angel," she replied. "And I know its hard. If there was anything more I could do to make it easier on you, I would. I hope you know that."
"I do know that, Donita. Believe me, if I didnt, I wouldnt be here talking to you right now." After a beat of silence, I released her hand and looked up at her. "Arizona, huh?"
The way she grinned at me, I got the feeling that a little time spent in warmth and perpetual sunshine just might not be such a bad idea after all.
"Shes . . .big," I commented to my lawyer as we watched a woman the size of a small mountain make her way from the large sedan parked at the courthouse curb to the table we were currently occupying. Of obvious Native American ancestry, she had a long fall of deep black hair which ended below her waist, deep copper skin covered with intricate tattoos, intense almond eyes more black than a storm-tossed night, and the body of a female Arnold Schwarzenegger, pre-heart attack. Massive arms thick with muscle eased out from a sleeveless flannel, swinging easily with every step she took. Legs as solid and as huge as full-grown oaks strained the seams of well-worn jeans.
Staring at her as she approached, I was forced to admit the true inadequacy of my words. To call the woman simply big was akin to calling my lover pretty. True? Yes. But hardly fitting the grandeur of the sight presented.
Before Donita could respond, if indeed she was even planning to, the woman stopped a foot or so in front of us both, all but filling up my vision with her sheer size. The two of us stood, Donitas smile warm and welcoming. "Angel, Id like to introduce you to my friend, Rio. Rio, this is Angel."
Mirroring Donitas expression, I held out a hand. "Hello, Rio. Its nice to meet you."
The reverse, however, was quite obviously untrue.
It was almost as if I were meeting Mouse or Derby for the first time back in the Bog, such was the chill that wrapped itself around my body as she looked at me. Her flat, black eyes held not even the faintest flicker of warmth, and her expression told me in no uncertain terms that she had assessed me carefully and found me wanting.
The woman who exited the Bog, however, was so changed from the one who entered it as to be a different person entirely. And that woman had changed even more during the last year. Instead of looking down and away as I might have once upon a time, I met her stare, look for look, feeling nothing more than a vague disquiet as the seconds blended slowly into minutes.
It was Donita who finally halted the standoff by stepping in between the two of us and laying a hand on my arm while looking at Rio. "Are the bags packed?"
"Theyre in the trunk."
"Everythings ready, then?"
"Thanks. Well be along in a minute."
And with that, she turned on her heel and started back the way she had come.
"If thats a taste of things to come, Donita, I think Ill take my chances with Cavallo," I half-whispered as Rio took up a stance beside the car and stared out into the light traffic as if daring someone to hit her.
"Im . . .not sure whats wrong with her, Angel. Normally, shes one of the sweetest people I know."
"Maybe she has something against green-eyed blondes."
"No. Not at all. Shes a little reserved at times, yes, but . . . ."
"Reserved?! I dont know if youve noticed, Donita, but that woman makes Ice seem like a regular Chatty Kathy!"
With a somewhat rueful smile, she turned to face me. "Just give her a little time to get to know you, Angel. She really is a good person, and before you know it, shell be joining your fan club just like everyone else who meets you."
"I dont need fans, Donita. What I need right now is someone who doesnt look at me as if Im something they just stepped in on the sidewalk. Believe me, I have no desire to find myself being scraped off the bottom of her shoe somewhere."
"Thatll never happen, Angel. I promise. Please, just give it a chance?"
After a moment, I shrugged. "Why not? Worse comes to worst, I still have Corinne and her magic teakettle on my side."
Laughing, Donita threw her arms around me and pulled me close, kissing me on the cheek. "Youre one in a million, Angel," she whispered into my ear. "And Ice is one hell of a lucky woman."
"You just remind her of that when you see her again," I said, only half-joking. Giving her a final hug, I pulled away. "Thanks, my friend. Although it might not seem like it right now, I really do appreciate everything youve done. I dont know where Ice or I would be without you."
"Its my pleasure," she replied, her dark eyes sparkling. "You just be careful and stay safe, alright?"
"Lets go then."
Side by side, we walked over to the huge silver sedan, a car that might have been all the rage prior to the oil crisis, but was now, in these days of streamlining, big enough to qualify for its own Congressman. Though I had no wish to be treated like a passenger in a taxi, Rios body language spelled out explicitly that I was either going to ride in the back with Corinne, or be forced to brush up on my hitchhiking skills if I ever intended to see Arizona.
Never having hitchhiked, I wisely opted for the former and slid into the back of the gigantic car with alacrity, pulling my feet in quickly lest they be amputated by a swiftly slammed door. "Service with a snarl," I remarked softly to Corinne as I tried to adjust clothing rucked up into uncomfortable crevices by my abrupt entry into the car.
"So I noticed. This behavior is rather unlike her."
I turned round eyes to her. "You know her?"
"Indeed I do."
Which, of course, could mean only one thing. "The Bog, right?"
"Its not as if Ive been making friends and influencing people anywhere else, Angel," Corrine replied, nudging me a bit. "Not for the past forty-some-odd years, at any rate."
"Please dont tell me I have another Derby on my hands," I moaned.
Corinne snorted. "As if Ice would allow someone like that within a hundred miles of you."
My reply was abruptly silenced as the drivers side door opened and Rio slid her massive bulk behind the wheel. Nary a word was passed between us as, with a roar of the engine and the squeal of rubber against road, I found myself moving forward into yet another unknown future. Only this time, the miles werent leading me into a future ripe with almost limitless, wonderful possibilities. They, rather, were leading me away from the only possibility I wantedneededin my life.
It took every single atom of waning strength I possessed not to jump across the seat and wrestle the wheel away from the behemoth babysitter Id so recentlyand reluctantlyacquired. Even the thought of what my face would look like after I failed miserably in the attempt didnt sway me.
The remembered look in Ices eyes as she silently asked me to have faith did the trick, however, and with fists clenched and jaw set, I slumped back against the worn, soft leather of the back seat and watched through weary, saddened eyes as the miles sped by.
Somewhere about three hours later, by my inadequate reckoning, too many nights of too little sleep combined with the soothing sway of the big car and made my eyelids grow heavy and drooping, the way they used to when I was a young child riding in the back of my fathers station wagon.
With that strange clairvoyance she always seemed to possess, Corinne read my mind like one of her precious library books and, giving me a warm grin, patted her lap. Well past the point of playing dentist to a gifted stallion, I took her up on her invitation without a seconds passing. Letting the comforting scent of her fill my senses, I felt myself drifting off into what I hoped would be a peaceful slumber.
It was a warm summers day.
The kind so perfect that it seemed to have been made just for me.
The sky, a brilliant, untouchable blue, seemed the perfect playground for the newly-born sun.
I found myself sitting beneath the welcoming shade of a towering pine, ostensibly writing in my journal. What I was really doing, however, was watching the splendor that was my lover as she laid out on the wooden raft which floated, buoyed up by empty oil drums, about fifty yards into the center of the lake.
Resting back on her elbows, her head tipped back so the wet, inky mass of her hair trailed along the weathered wood, eyes closed and lips parted just slightly, and both long, tanned legs stretched out to their fullest, she seemed the poster child for every boys first solitary foray into nocturnal bliss.
I felt a surge of jealousy as I watched the sun make sweet love to her bronzed and beautiful form.
My journal dropping unnoticed to the fragrant nest of pine needles, I stood and shucked off the long T-shirt which was covering my bathing suit, tossing it thoughtlessly god knows where as I ran down over the narrow beach and into the tepid water, suddenly unable to stand one more second separated from her.
My arms warmed to their task quickly, pulling me easily along through the water. Having long ago memorized the exact number of strokes needed to get from shore to raft, I stuck my hand out blindly at number forty, pulling up in surprise when it encountered nothing but air.
Blinking droplets from my eyes, I tread water, trying to discover if what I thought I was seeing was really what I was, in fact, seeing.
The raft was exactly as far away as it had been when I started swimming.
If I hadnt known for absolute truth that the raft was anchored to the lakebed with a secure cement plug, I might have thought Ice was having me on.
"Ice?" I asked, well knowing she would hear me over the still waters of the lake. We were the only ones there, after all.
If she heard me, she chose to ignore my summons, seemingly content with the suns relentless seduction of her body.
Shrugging mental shoulders, I struck out once again, carefully counting my strokes and willing myself nearer with each one to the woman who was my heart.
Something brushed against the bottom of my foot, but I took it for an inquisitive fish and continued on unafraid.
When the contact was repeated, I kicked out strongly, my foot landing against a soft, giving surface. A surface which was most definitely not a fish. Unless Id missed the biology class which would have let me know that fish had suddenly developed the abilitynot to mention appendagesneeded to grasp a persons ankle and yank. Hard.
Just managing a startled breath before I was pulled under, I kicked for all I was worth, using every trick Ice had taught me in our years together, as well as a few panic induced ones that she hadnt.
Finally able to break free a split second before the need to take a breath would have resulted in a rather rapid drowning, I rose to the surface and filled my lungs with sweet, sweet air instead.
"Ice!" I screamed when I had the lungs for it, hearing the sheer panic in my voice as my lovers name echoed over the lake.
Any chance at seeing her response ended abruptly as the hand, joined now by others, found purchase on my flailing legs and again pulled me swiftly beneath the now frigid water.
Forcing my eyes to remain open, I looked down and almost screamed again as I saw the grinning, water-bloated corpses of Carmine and his minions gathering around me like sharks to a bleeding whale. Blood oozed out from the bullet holes each had suffered, turning the water murky and dark as their hands, slimy and rotting, wrapped themselves around my ankles, wrists and waist.
Twisting with all of my strength, I was able to break away, using the bodies beneath me to push off and shoot to the surface.
My relief was short-lived, however, and after one quick gasp, I was pulled under yet again. And I knew without doubt that my first taste of freedom would also be my last.
Just when the lack of oxygen began to become a seductive Sirens call to death, another hand reached for me, from above this time, and I felt myself being yanked toward the lakes surface by a strength known and loved only too well.
"Ice!" my mind screamed with the last of its energy, my lungs already preparing for their first clean breath in what seemed eons of tortured waiting.
"Ive gotcha, Angel," came the blessed contralto purr of my lover. "Hold onto me. Ive gotcha."
Hold onto her I did, with both arms and legs, as I took in great, heaving breaths and tried to meld our bodies together.
"Its alright, my love. Its alright. Ive gotcha. Youre safe now."
Well and truly I believed, right up until the second that a death-frozen hand latched itself to the bottom of my bathing suit and once again pulled me beneath the water, this time dragging Ice down with me.
Though we both struggled with a might to rival the ancient Titans, we might as well have been fighting against the weight of the earth as we were pulled unceasingly down into the tenebrous, blood-filled depths of the lake.
Well knowing that I would never see air again, my soul did the only thing it could.
Unlocking my death-grip, I attempted to push my lover back toward the far-away surface, knowing that whatever Hell I found myself in would be made infinitely worse by having caused her death.
Baring her teeth in that fierce smile which scared as much as thrilled, she shook her head and grabbed onto me again.
This time, however, instead of struggling, she brought our lips together in what I thought was a final kiss. My eyes widened in shock as I felt the last of her air being blown into my starved lungs. They widened still further as, with a mighty wrench, she pulled me free and sent me rocketing back to the surface as if blasted from the worlds largest cannon.
My head broke through into the days warmth and I spent a moment instinctively gasping for air before I realized exactly what it was she had done.
The unmistakable sound of a gasoline nozzle slipping into the tank awakened me a split second before my scream would have shattered every window in the car.
"Are you alright, Angel?" Corinne asked from the darkness somewhere above my head.
"Yeah," I replied softly. "Just gimme a minute to collect myself."
"I still believe we should market these nightmares of yours, Angel. Apt to be a damn sight better than the current drivel filling the cracker-boxes calling themselves theaters these days."
"You dont wanna go there, Corinne," I said, pulling myself up and away from her and running still trembling fingers through my hair. "Believe me."
"It was just a thought," she replied primly before lapsing into silence once again.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I gradually became aware of the yellowish light that filtered in through the windows. "Where are we, anyway?"
"Somewhere just outside of Knoxville, I believe."
"Knoxville? Tennessee? Isnt that just a little bit out of the way for where were going?"
"Theres an ice storm headed out over the plains. Shes taking us via the southern route."
"You managed to get that much out of her, huh?" I tried hard not to sound as envious as I felt.
"But of course. Im not the one shes ignoring, after all."
"Just what I need," I sighed. "Trapped in a car for three thousand miles with Smug and Silent. And I thought my nightmares were bad!"
Her gentle laugh filled the car, chasing away the remaining fragments of my dream.
A few hours later, we pulled to a stop in front of a nationally known motel chain; a name youd recognize easily if youd ever been treated to the down-home earnestness of an announcer promising hed keep the illumination burning for all and sundry.
Before I could even think to blink my eyes against the bright neon which cut through the cars interior gloom like the motel chains promised beacon, the door beside me opened and a key, bearing the number 139, was thrust without comment into my hand.
"Thank . . . you," I finished to an empty space. "Corinne . . . ."
"Ill talk to her, Angel. Tomorrow. This car seat is doing a great number of unpleasurable things to parts of my anatomy best left to the tender care of others. So, if you dont mind too terribly much . . . ."
"Out it is."
"I knew youd see it my way."
Though my legs lodged a formal protest with my spine over being suddenly asked to bear my weight after so many hours of inactivity, they were soon happy with the chance to stretch and so promptly withdrew their grievance and willingly carried me to the open trunk, before which was standing Rio who shot me a look that would have frozen erupting lava, had a such a volcano been handy.
Responding to her look with a withering one of my own, I reached into the trunk and grabbed hold of my overnight bag, inside which lay nestled all the necessities for my life on the road. Pulling it out easily, I then reached for Corinnes bag, which was a great deal heavier than mine.
For a moment, I thought my "tougher than thou" act would be all for naught as my rebellious arms almost failed in their appointed task, but, wisely succumbing to the scathing invectives tossed downward from my brain, I grasped hold of the bag and hauled it out, giving my watcher a smirk that would have done my lover proud.
Corinne gave me a round of nearly silent applause as I reached the door bearing the same number as the room key. Taking said key from my outstretched finger, she jammed it home in the lock and flung open the door. A blast of frigid, disinfectant-scented air wafted out, causing my entire body to erupt into goosebumps the size of small boulders. "Jesus," I gasped. "Did somebody forget to tell them it was November?"
"Apparently, Tom Bodette doesnt get out much," Corinne muttered, striding to the air-conditioning unit and turning it off with a vicious twist of her wrist.
Shuffling forward, I managed to dump the bags on the bed before collapsing there myself. The bedsprings poked at my kidneys, reminding me of yet another task I needed to perform before I could try and relax the strain of the day away.
Getting up from the bed, I walked into a bathroom that made my cell in the Bog look positively mammoth. As I sat down on the commode, my knees brushed against the opposite wall. The image of Rio in a similar situation brought a nasty grin to my face and, though it embarrasses me to say so, I readily confess to hoping that the greasy burgers wed eaten along the way decided to play absolute havoc with her digestive system.
Though little more than a closet with a nozzle, the shower beckoned me and I, in my utter exhaustion, couldnt help but respond. Repeatedly smashing my elbows and knees to bleeding against the faux stucco of the rooms interior, I shrugged off my clothes, reached in and turned on the water as high and as hot as it could go (which was, unfortunately, no more than "gentle summer drizzle" and "slightly-less-than-tepid") and stepped inside, groaning with relief as the warm water hit my body.
My hands gliding over places which hadnt seen my lovers touch in months, I was sorely tempted to do more than just get clean, but the thought of Ice locked down in a rat-infested and pitch-black cell froze the little square of soap in its tracks and my libido promptly followed the water down the drain.
Drying off was another exercise in futility, given the scratchy towel of a size more commonly seen on the upper right corners of envelopes.
That task completed to the absolute best of my somewhat limited ability, I realized Id forgotten to bring a change of clothes in with me, and after debating for a brief moment over the wisdom of calling for aid, I shrugged my shoulders and wrapped as much of the pitiful excuse for a towel around my waist as I could; girding my loins, so to speak, against the comments I knew would follow once I stepped out of the bathroom.
And follow they did, though thankfully they were limited to a slight, almost inaudible intake of breath and the widening of dark eyes behind prim half-glasses.
Flashing Corinne my most rakish grin, I brushed airily by on my way to the bed and my suitcase thereon.
And almost lost what little composure Id managed to maintain when Corinne, too busy staring at me to pay attention to where she was headed, missed the entrance to the bathroom entirely and became intimate acquaintances with the wall next to it. Nearly biting my tongue clear through in my attempt not to give vent to the laughter rolling silent through my body, I heard clearly Corinnes muttered invective which promised dire consequences of the arsenic kind should she ever have the great good fortune to meet up with a certain male member of the Bodette clan.
After she disappeared into the bathroom, I let my laughter run free as I fumbled in my bag for something with which to cover myself. I pulled out an overlarge T-shirt that I freely admit belonged to Ice. Unlaundered, her scent clung to the fabric. I breathed deeply of it as I pulled the shirt over my head, hugging it close to my body after it was fully on and crying just a little with missing her.
Knowing that tears at that point would quickly degenerate into a storm of mournful sobbing, I savagely brushed at my cheeks and slipped in between the cool sheets of one of the narrow beds, picking up the television remote and clicking listlessly through the dozens of channels available.
When nothing struck my fancy, I tossed the remote carelessly back onto the nightstand, punched my pillow a couple of times and, with a sigh, laid my body down on the bed. Though emotionally exhausted, the six hour nap Id taken in the car guaranteed a restless night.
Corinne exited the bathroom clad in a demure nightgown which I would never have expected her to own, much less wear. Bypassing her own bed, she came to sit down on mine, smiling kindly down at me. "Cant sleep?" she asked, stroking the bangs from my eyes.
"Not really, no," I replied softly, closing my eyes in response to the tender caress. "Do you think Im doing the right thing, Corinne?" I asked after a long, silent moment.
"Do you think you are?"
I opened my eyes. "Would I be asking you if I knew?" Then I sighed. "Im sorry. I shouldnt be taking it out on you." The tears welled once again, Corinnes sweet compassion breaking down any walls of resistance I might have had. "Im . . .I just . . .I miss her."
She smiled tenderly. "Its quite alright, Angel. I miss her too."
"Why does it always have to be like this? Every time I think weve earned a break, something happens to separate us. Why? Is our love such a sin that were destined never to share it for more than a heartbeat at a time?"
"You dont need me to answer that for you, Angel."
"No. I guess I dont." Ices past was something that would never leave us alone, unless and until she paid full restitution on it.
"And would you have made a different decision had you known, way back when, how this path would unveil for you?"
"No," I answered without hesitation, knowing it for absolute truth. "Not even for a second."
"Then I think you have your answer, dont you."
I smiled a little at that. "Yes. I suppose I do."
Returning my smile, she gathered me close and laid a gentle kiss against the crown of my head. "Sleep well, sweet Angel," she whispered, releasing me. "Morning will no doubt come early."
"Goodnight, Corinne," I said, kissing her cheek. "Thanks."
Getting up, she sketched a bow and grinned, her eyes twinkling. "At your service, oh Angelic one."
Though I felt immeasurably better for our brief conversation, sleep was still a very long time in coming.
What little sleep Id finally managed to get was harshly interrupted by a savage pounding on the door. Had I been a cat, I would have been hanging upside-down from the ceiling, my claws sunk full into the plaster as my body shook in uncontrollable fright.
As it was, I let out a breathless scream and hit my head hard enough against the wall to see stars floating through the blackness of the room.
My life being what it is, I fear Ill never respond to a knock upon a closed door with anything close to equanimity again.
Beside me, Corinne shot from her bed in a move faster than any Id ever seen her make, her nightgown trailing behind her in a surprised blur as she strode across the small room and yanked open the door. Stepping through the space created, she slammed the door behind her, bathing the room in dark silence once again.
Silence which was fractured by the sound of Corinnes tightly controlled voice spewing epithets which would have peeled the wallpaper had she been enunciating them inside the room rather than outside the door.
While I might normally have either stayed nearby to listen or gone outside in an attempt to make peace, my heart was too busy trying to crawl out of my mouth for me to give more than a passing thought to either possibility. Instead, knowing my sleep was well and truly a thing of the past, I went into the bathroom and tried my best to prepare myself for the coming day.
By the time I came out, clean if not necessarily refreshed, Corinne was again sitting on her bed, looking completely composed, as if being jolted out of bed in the middle of the night was an everyday occurrence for her. She gave me one of those smiles that your pet cat might give you after hes eaten your prized canaries and made vast inroads on your goldfish as well.
Knowing better than to ask, I contented myself with running a quick brush through my hair and packing up my things in preparation for our no doubt imminent departure.
Still wearing that look of smug satisfaction, Corinne brushed by me on her way toward whatever morning rituals she had to perform.
A very short time later, we were both packed and ready. Opening the door, I winced as a frosty November wind sunk talons into my overwarm body, the scent of snow in the air reminding me of things I was trying desperately to forget. Like long Autumn nights spent curled up in front of a blazing fire, my body so entangled with that of my lover that I honestly didnt know where I ended and she began.
Enough of that, Angel, I told myself, looking up just in time to see the mother of all "hang-dog" looks being shot Corinnes way by an obviously still-embarrassed Rio. When her eyes came to rest on mine, however, the mask of cold indifference slipped smoothly over her face once again.
With a vast mental sigh, I walked over to the open trunk and stowed my belongings, preparing myself as best I could for spending yet another day in the company of someone who, for reasons beyond my knowing, detested the sight of me.
In some ways, it was even worse than being in the Bog. At least there, I had love to balance out the hate, friends to balance out the enemies, and a sense of belonging which made even the hardest day easier to bear for the family Id been so wonderfully given.
Now, even with Corinnes loving, comforting presence never more than a breath away, I felt alone, adrift, lost in a way that frightened me no end. It left my defenses in such shambles that I didnt even mind that Corinne had fought my battle for me.
I knew that I was headed square into the mouth of a very deep depression, one whose slippery slopes would be very hard to navigate once I got down far enough, but frankly, I couldnt seem to dredge up enough energy to care.
Ignoring the deeply concerned look Corinne tossed my way, I slipped into the car and stared nowhere but forward, hoping that time and distance would be allies in a war I had no desire to fight.
To Be Continued...Part 2
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