©2008 The Angst Guy (

Daria and associated characters are ©2008 MTV Networks



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Synopsis: Quinn Morgendorffer sets out to visit her aunt, Amy Barksdale, for a long January weekend. When her plans are literally shot to pieces, Quinn discovers that nothing is as she once believed, and saving her aunt from further harm might also mean saving the entire world as well.


Author’s Notes: To avoid giving away the plot, all notes have been moved to the end.


Acknowledgements: My joyful thanks go out to Kara Wild, Thea Zara, Deref, and Crusading Saint, who beta-read early versions of this story for me in 2002 (jinkies!) and gave me the encouragement to continue. Additional sincere thanks go out to the second batch of beta-readers from 2002, who looked over the first six chapters. They were (in no particular order): Kara Wild, Thea Zara, Robert Nowall, Crusading Saint, TerraEsperZ, Christian Wormwood, and Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty (who has never stopped badgering me to finish this—and hey, it worked!). The third batch of beta readers from March 2007 included (again, unordered): Richard Lobinske, E. A. Smith, vlademir1, Steven Galloway, Katrina Medina, Doggieboy, smk, Hershey-chan, Scissors MacGillicutty, Ranger Thorne, Kara Wild, and TygerStar29. Thank you all!














Chapter One
The Dark Half of the World


Chapter Two
Fifty-Two Pick Up


Chapter Three
Reach Out and Touch Someone


Chapter Four
Errare Humanum Est


Chapter Five
Catching Up with Amy


Chapter Six

Big Surprises in Little Packages


Chapter Seven

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition


Chapter Eight

Running on Empty


Chapter Nine

Apocalypse Here and Now


Chapter Ten

Quinners and Losers











Today’s children watch shows like “Sesame Street,” which teaches them that the world is full of friendly interracial adults and cute puppets and letters that form recognizable patterns. This is, of course, a pack of lies. When I was a kid, in New York, my friends and I watched shows like “Captain Video,” which taught us that the world was full of evil forces trying to destroy the earth, which turns out to be absolutely correct.


—Dave Barry




We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark. . . .


—Ursula K. LeGuin











Chapter One
The Dark Half of the World



       “This is not good,” Quinn Morgendorffer muttered aloud as she drove. She stretched and wiggled her fingers to keep them from cramping on the steering wheel. Outside, the bitter cold of a January night roared over the Lexus. She squinted at a green sign that appeared out of the darkness and flashed by among the bare trees of central Maryland. The Farborough exit to her aunt’s home was two miles away on I-70. Once again she glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard: 6:31 p.m. “This is not good,” she repeated glumly. “Sorry, Aunt Amy.”

       Quinn was running late. She was not fashionably late; she was uh-oh damn-it late late. She had told her mother’s youngest sister that she would arrive at her home about five-ish, an hour before nightfall, and her aunt had made dinner reservations for the two of them at six at an Italian restaurant. Being late to her first sleepover with her delightfully weird aunt was not a good way to start the three-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend, but Quinn hoped she would make up for it somehow.

       A good relationship with her extended family had become a priority for Quinn since her older sister had left for college in Boston the previous August. The family home in Lawndale, a suburb of Baltimore, was large and quiet with Daria gone. The times that Quinn had fought with her sister now preyed on her conscience, and she missed Daria’s intelligence and level-headedness. Perhaps in reaction to Daria’s leaving, Quinn’s parents had begun working longer hours away from home, leaving Quinn on her own much of the week. Reaching out to the rest of the family was natural. Her Aunt Rita was admittedly a lot like Quinn herself—beautiful, fashion-conscious, and forever stirring the pool of available boyfriends, none of whom were keepers. However, because of their similarities, Quinn found it difficult to tolerate Rita’s complaints about eyeliner, clothing sizes, and ex-husbands for longer than a day. Someone different was called for.

       In contrast, Amy Barksdale was a riot. She was outspoken, opinionated, and sarcastic—far more like snide Daria than Quinn herself—but Amy was also lively and funny and led a Bohemian singles lifestyle that intrigued Quinn with its possibilities for her own path later in life. The weekend ahead held great promise, assuming Amy wouldn’t be too ticked off about Quinn’s bad timing.

       “Okay, I know I spent too long in the Lawndale Mall before I started on the way here,” Quinn said to herself, as if talking to her aunt. “I’m sorry I’m late, but it couldn’t be helped. Sort of couldn’t. I hope you’re the understanding type.” She shifted in her seat and wished that her father’s blue Lexus had more padding for people’s butts. Hers was getting sore. In her rear-view mirror, she spotted the headlights of several cars and a truck coming up from behind to pass her, even though she herself was doing 76 mph on cruise control. She shook her head in annoyance and let them go by. One was a little red sports car that reminded her of Amy’s Triumph; a truck following it blocked any further view. It hardly mattered, as Amy wouldn’t be out at this hour anyway. She’d be at her home, tapping her foot and eyeing the clock and wondering where Quinn was.

       Despite the cold outside, Quinn was comfortable with the heater on while wearing a green long-sleeved top, tight jeans, and cowboy boots. Her white fur coat lay on the seat beside her. She brushed long, orange-red hair from her face as another green sign appeared in the distance. The Farborough exit to her aunt’s remote subdivision was one mile off. Quinn tapped the brake, taking the car off cruise control.

       “It could have been worse, Aunt Amy, it really could have,” she went on. “For one thing, I could have missed the Big Hits for Young Misses Sale at Cashman’s. I got some nice blouses, a great pair of embroidered jeans, some accessories, and a dynamite pair of snow boots. They’ll be great if we actually get any snow this winter, stupid global warming. Oh, and they’ll also have a sale a month before my eighteenth birthday in May, and I can give you a list of things I’d love to get that I don’t think anyone else will get for me. I would be thrilled if you could make it to my party. That would be so cool. Maybe Daria will be back from college in Boston, too, and I know you like her a lot.” More than me, she silently added, but that’s okay. I know she’s your favorite niece. I just want to know that I matter to you, too.

       Quinn sighed, easing on the brake as she left the Interstate and descended the off-ramp to State Route 513. No houses or businesses were in view. Clinton County was really the sticks; it made dull old suburban Lawndale look like downtown Manhattan. She stopped the car at the bottom of the ramp at the stop sign, turned on the roof light, flipped the hair out of her face, then squinted at the sheet of paper on the passenger seat with the directions to Amy’s home in Farborough. The route seemed clear enough. Amy had also given her the shutoff code for the security keypad, in case Quinn got there while Amy was out. Quinn hoped she had copied down all the—

       A sharp crack echoed through the night. Quinn looked up, startled. It might have been a gunshot. Was it a hunter? She frowned, hating the idea of shooting a living creature for sport or any other reason. Those damn idiots had better be careful if they’re hunting at night, she thought angrily. Who in his right mind would be out in this frigid wind shooting at defenseless creatures, for God’s sake? Jerks! She shrugged and picked up the paper.

       New sounds came out of the darkness. Tires squealing? And was that a crash? She shook her head in annoyance. A careless speeder, probably, or someone trying to avoid a deer. Deer were out this time of year, so it made sense that hunters would be around, too. Even if hunting was legal, it didn’t make it right in Quinn’s mind. Deer belonged in zoos and parks, not on trophy walls.

       Quinn put the directions aside, turned off the roof light, and turned right onto Route 513, accelerating to 45 mph. The two-lane highway passed through farmland. Rows of bare trees and tall weeds to either side screened the empty fields from view.

       “Ten minutes left to your house,” she continued absently. “I hope we have fun, no matter what. You are the coolest person in the whole family, Aunt Amy. I know I’m not like Daria, but I can be fun, too. We can certainly talk clothes; you dress a lot better than Daria does, thank God. That Big Hits for Young Misses Sale comes only four times a year, you know, one of those seasonal things. It was like fate that I was able to catch it, that’s for sure. And I did bring you a present! You’ll like the perfume, I hope. It’s called Secret Sensual Scented Garden, from Kissable Me. You have a really classy look, and you deserve a classy scent.”

       Quinn exhaled, more than a little nervous. There was nothing to look at in the darkness but the spooky road. “It was so sweet of you to let me stay the weekend,” she continued, “especially as the alternative would be me staying home by myself. Daria’s gone back to Boston with her friend Jane now that Christmas break is over. She and I had a better time together than before, but it was still hard to reach her. I really wish we were closer. And—” Quinn rolled her eyes “—Mom and Dad have gone off to an intimacy retreat, whatever that is. I hope I don’t have to worry about intimacy problems when I get married. Assuming I find the right guy. God, I don’t even know what college I’m going to, and here I am worrying about men. That’s just stupid. I should talk to you about that, too. There are only so many men in the world, and not enough time to date them all to find the best ones. Is that fair? Is that why you’ve been single for so long? I mean, how can a girl be sure she’s getting the one man who was meant for her, someone who won’t take you out to see a mercenary or spy movie on your birthday? I really need your opinion. Is there such a thing as a perfect mate? I mean . . .”

          Her train of thought derailed as her car rounded a shallow curve. Something flashed red in the headlights on the left side of the road ahead. Were those skid marks leading from her lane across the oncoming lane, then off the left side of the road to the weed-lined edge of a large ditch?

       As her car flew by the spot where she saw the red flash, Quinn glanced to the left—and was startled at what she saw. She braked immediately and looked up in the rear-view mirror. Was that a car’s tail light sticking up from the ditch? Was that the car wreck she’d heard a minute ago? Should she go back and check, or keep going to Amy’s?

       She spotted a mailbox and gravel driveway ahead, on the left side in the line of trees. That tore it—she could turn around there. She slowed and turned into the driveway, then backed the Lexus onto the highway again after making sure there was no oncoming traffic. Then she headed back to the accident scene.

       “Don’t let it be anything, please,” Quinn said, praying now and not just talking to herself. “Let it be a piece of junk or a—”

       She gasped and hit the brakes hard. A small red convertible sports car with a black vinyl top had gone off the road into the culvert. It rested crookedly on its wheels on the down slope. Was it the red car that had passed her up a few minutes earlier on I-70? Someone appeared to be in the driver’s seat. The car’s windshield was shattered into a milky web, so it was hard to be sure.

       Quinn hit her emergency blinkers and stopped on the road just ahead of the wreck, pulling the right-side tires onto the narrow gravel shoulder. The Lexus’s headlights bathed the unlucky vehicle in stark illumination as she studied the vehicle. Someone was definitely in the driver’s seat.

       After putting the idling Lexus into park with the emergency brake on, Quinn quickly glanced behind her. No other traffic was visible. The possibility that someone would accidentally hit her or her car was frightening, but the chance that the car in the ditch was Aunt Amy’s was much worse. But what the hell would she be doing out here like this? She’s supposed to be home already!

       Quinn put on and buttoned up her coat, then put on her gloves and got out of the car, shivering as the cold bit in. She flipped up her furry collar to protect her lips and nose. The stink of gasoline was in the air. Tree branches rattled and dead leaves hissed in the night wind, mixing with pops and hisses from the stilled engine of the sports car.

       She hurried around the front of the Lexus toward the wreck. The ditched car stood out in the Lexus’s high-beam headlights. Thousands of cracks in the windshield radiated outward from a low point near the middle of the glass, making identification of the driver impossible—but Quinn could tell that the car was a vintage fire-engine-red Triumph Spitfire. Aunt Amy drove a vintage Triumph Spitfire exactly like it.

          If that was Amy—and Quinn prayed that it wasn’t—why wasn’t she home already? She’d told Quinn she would be home by four after taking off a little early from her work as an art appraiser, at her office in Gaithersburg, Maryland. What could have delayed her until now?

       The car had gone into the deep ditch diagonally. The front-left side of the car was smashed into the ground at the ditch’s bottom. A large sapling with its bark half torn off supported the Triumph on its left side near the rear, keeping it from sliding further into the ditch or rolling over.

       What should I do? What should I do? For a few seconds, Quinn was paralyzed with indecision. Her cell phone’s battery had gone dead earlier in the day, and there had been no time or place to recharge it. She’d forgotten to bring the phone’s plug-in for the car’s cigarette lighter, so she had no way to call for help. That left only one option: get to the car and see if that was Aunt Amy inside. Things were going to be difficult enough getting any survivor out of this wreck.

       Her heart in her throat, Quinn looked for a way to get down the slope safely to the car. Because the ditch sides were steep, Quinn finally elected to sit on the road and scoot over the edge on her butt. Her gloves and pants would be ruined, but maybe someone would buy her new pairs later. She was doing this for a good cause, after all. Ditto for the boots and anything else that was damaged beyond repair.

       Once she reached the right side of the car, she braced herself against the tilted Spitfire and stood up. Expecting to see something horrible, she swallowed, gathered her courage, and peered in the side window, hands cupped around her face.

       A woman with long, wavy, dark-brown hair and a heavy gray coat was the two-seater’s only occupant. She hung unconscious in her safety harness, head leaning against the driver’s side window, chin on her chest, mouth open, eyes closed. The right side of her coat was torn open and glistened with a wide dark stain. Her arms were thrown forward and to the left in her lap. Her bloodless face was clear in the light from the Lexus.

       It was Amy Barksdale. Amy had always kept a youthful look, even at forty-plus, but now she looked much older than her age . . . and possibly dead.

       “Oh, God, no! God, no!” Quinn grabbed for the passenger door and tried to open it, but it was locked. She swore, hit the window with her gloved fist as she shouted her aunt’s name, then took a moment to think. She then worked her way around to the other side of the car. The stench of leaking gasoline was so thick she could taste it.

       She had reached the rocky bottom of the ditch and was hurrying around the Triumph’s crumpled hood when she noticed a curious thing about the smashed windshield. The web of cracks spread out from a low hole large enough to put several fingers through it. The hole was on a straight line back to Amy’s right shoulder, where her coat was stained dark, then on to the plastic rear window—where another hole, a small one, could be seen. Had a pole or rock gone through the car?

       Quinn reached Aunt Amy’s door just as the answer came to her. The gunshot in the darkness, only minutes earlier at the bottom of the off ramp from I-70—the squealing tires and crashing noise—

       Not daring to breathe, Quinn peered at her aunt’s slack, white face, barely visible through her hair. Amy had been shot.

       “Amy!” Quinn screamed. She slammed a hand flat against the window. “Amy, wake up! Look at me! Wake up, damn it!” Quinn began to cry as she pounded the window with her fist. She then tried the door handle. The door popped open at once and swung wide, hitting Quinn and knocking her off balance. She fell back hard on her butt, then scrambled aching and breathless to her feet and rushed back to the car.

       Amy hung half out of her seat, starting to slide out of her shoulder harness. Quinn grabbed her aunt and pushed her partway back in the car. “Amy!” Quinn shouted. “Amy, can you hear me? Wake up!” Getting no response, she reached down, found the buckle for the seat belt and harness, and popped it open. Amy’s body sagged into Quinn, who struggled to keep her aunt from hitting the ground. Though Quinn was not the athletic type, she managed to ease her aunt onto the frozen soil and debris at the bottom of the ditch. Quinn was vaguely aware that she was repeating Amy’s name and begging her not to die, pleading with God to reverse time and change this whole evening, start it over again from zero. Her stomach was in knots with terror.

       She needed something to use as a pillow for Amy’s head, so she climbed back into the Triumph and found a pair of brown leather gloves and a purple scarf on the floor on the passenger side. The Triumph groaned but held steady as she snatched them up and got out of the car again. Putting the wadded scarf under Amy’s head, Quinn then pulled the gloves over her aunt’s pale hands for extra warmth. She was adjusting Amy’s heavy overcoat when she looked down and noticed dark stains all over her own white-furred coat. Quinn turned so that the headlights from the Lexus fell on her. The smeared stains were bright red and wet. She looked down at Amy, then touched the wet place on her coat. Her gloved hand came away gleaming crimson. Her aunt’s blood was everywhere, too much of it to believe.

       Not this, no, she thought, numb with terror. I’m not ready for this, God. Not this, please, don’t do this. Don’t do this. She looked down at her aunt’s still form, then carefully unbuttoned Amy’s coat and pulled it back from her aunt’s right side. Amy’s thin, light-colored blouse was soaked with dark red. A ragged hole was visible in the blouse’s fabric below the right end of her collarbone.

       Amy shuddered and moved. Her blouse rose and fell. She was alive.

       Apply pressure, apply pressure, stop the bleeding—it was amazing to Quinn that she remembered any advice from the first-aid lessons two months ago in Phys Ed. There was nothing else around to use, so Quinn took off one of her own gloves to put over the wound. She then realized there would be a wound on the other side, in Amy’s back. She had to stop that from bleeding, too. Off came the other glove.

       Cold tears ran down Quinn face. She managed to get one hand under her aunt, pressing up on Amy’s back with one glove to cover the wound there. She pressed down on Amy’s chest with the other. She had no idea how long she could keep it up. Her hands were soaked with blood that became sticky and stiff in the arctic air.

       Amy groaned and swallowed.

       “Amy!” Quinn bent down to her face, keeping the pressure on. Her frozen cheeks ached and her nose ran. “Aunt Amy!”

       Amy’s eyes flickered open, glassy and confused. Her gaze wandered to Quinn as she licked her lips. “Hurts,” she whispered. “Hurts bad.”

       Quinn started to cry again. “I’m here with you, Amy! It’s me, Quinn!”

       “Hurts,” Amy gasped. She grimaced in pain and groaned. Her voice rose. “Hurts so bad!

       “I’m here, Amy! Don’t die! Please don’t die on me!”

          Amy struggled to sit up, then lay back exhausted on the ground. “Hurts,” she repeated through clenched teeth. Her eyes closed.

       The sound of an approaching vehicle reached Quinn’s ears. Moving light fell on her face. She looked up from the bottom of the ditch, shivering violently in the cold.

       Another vehicle pulled up, facing the Lexus in the wrong lane at the top of the ditch, not thirty feet from where Quinn knelt on the ground. It stopped, and the driver’s window rolled down. Quinn couldn’t see who it was through the glare from the headlights. It was a dark pickup truck with a dirty battered look.

       “Help us!” Quinn screamed. “You’ve got to get down here and help us!”

       The driver’s door opened. A man wearing a thick jacket started to get out. He held something in his right hand that looked like a pole or rod. As soon as his left foot touched the ground, however, he stopped and looked back the way he’d come. Headlights from behind played over him. To Quinn’s surprise, the man swiftly hurled himself back into the pickup and slammed the door. The truck roared to life. Its tires spun against the pavement as it swung around the Lexus and raced off into the distance.

       “Hey!” Quinn shouted after it in disbelief. “Damn it, come back and help us!”

       A new car pulled up moments later where the previous one had been. Rotating blue and red lights flashed from its roof and front grillwork. Doors opened. “Police!” a man shouted. “What’s going on?”

       “Help us!” Quinn sobbed. “Someone shot my aunt!”

       One of the officers immediately got back in the police car and began calling in a report over the radio. The other one climbed down the slope toward Quinn.

       A gloved hand touched Quinn’s numb fingers. She looked down. Amy’s eyelids flickered open. Her deep brown eyes took in her surroundings, then dully came around to Quinn.

       “I love you, Amy,” said Quinn through her tears. She bent down and kissed her aunt’s cold forehead.

       Amy’s white face did not change expression, but her pale lips moved. Quinn bent down to hear her whisper, “How’s . . . my favorite niece?”





Chapter Two
Fifty-Two Pick Up



          A hospital waiting room is a lonely place to spend a Friday night. Quinn sat alone, as far as possible from the TV and its mindless programming, a paper cup of steaming cocoa warming her fingers. A sheet of plastic covered the chair she sat on; the staff wouldn’t let her sit on anything else. Once in a while, others in the waiting room with her would steal long glances at her filthy, bloodstained clothes and the white plastic sack at her feet. She could tell when they were looking, but her mind was too far away for her to care.

       The ambulance appeared less than ten minutes after the police arrived. By then, the two officers had taken over from Quinn and cared for the unconscious Amy as best they could, wrapping her in blankets. Quinn collected Amy’s handbag, glasses, and car keys from the Triumph, but the police wouldn’t let Quinn touch the car after that. It was now part of a crime scene. The cops told her someone on a nearby farm had called the police after hearing the gunshot and crash. A wrecker later towed Quinn’s car to the hospital lot for free, thanks to her father’s Lawndale Automobile Association card. All the loose ends were tied up, except for whether Amy lived or died.

       Quinn looked into her hot chocolate cup and thought about the fun she and Amy were supposed to have had this evening. They could have been laughing over dinner or watching TV. Instead, she rode with her aunt in the back of the ambulance, holding one of her hands and praying with heart and soul that Amy would live one more day. The prayer seemed to have worked, for the moment at least. She lifted the hot cup and took a tiny sip. The drink burned her lips and was too watery to taste very good, but she took another sip anyway. She wanted chocolate, and it was all she had.

       It figures that Amy would mistake me for Daria, she mused. She must not have been able to think clearly through her pain, and it was dark, too. I overheard her call Daria her favorite niece once, the last time she visited us. I wonder if she’ll remember I was even there at the wreck with her. Probably not. She took another sip of scalding chocolate, barely noticing the pain.

       At twenty minutes to midnight, a young doctor with long, uncombed hair walked out of surgery. “Quinn Morgendorffer?” he said, scanning the waiting room. “Is Quinn Morgendorffer here?”

       Feeling her stomach drop out, Quinn struggled to her feet. The doctor spotted her and came over. “Don’t get up,” he said. “Just have a seat.” He took an empty seat across from her. “How are you holding up?”

       “I’m okay,” she said. “How’s my aunt?”

       “She’s stable now. She lost a lot of blood before she got here, but she made it through surgery pretty well. We kept her out of shock, stopped the internal bleeding, cleaned out the wound, stitched her up, and have her on an IV. She’s kept herself in good physical shape, too, and that helps. Right now she’s sleeping, probably until tomorrow morning. I’m betting eighty percent she’ll make it without complications.”

       “That’s good.” Quinn fought down an urge to burst into tears. She sat the half-empty cup of chocolate on the floor and wiped her eyes. “I was really scared.”

       “I heard you stopped the bleeding when you found her. You got there right after it happened, right? Good, that was good you did. She should heal normally with lots of rest. The bullet missed her right lung and every major artery in that region when it went through, but it broke her shoulder blade, the scapula. That’ll heal in time, but it’ll be stiff. She won’t be able to move her right arm around for a while because we’ve immobilized it, but she’s pretty damn lucky the bullet missed everything important. What was really lucky, though, was you coming along when you did. Had you missed her, then . . .” The doctor spread his hands. “That was quick thinking, getting her out of the car and plugging up the bleeding. You saved her life.”

       Quinn was too numb to absorb the praise. “I was late,” she murmured.

       “Late? Late for what?”

       “I was supposed to be at her place at five,” she said slowly. “I stayed too long at a mall before I drove out here, and I was an hour and a half late. I heard the shot and her car crash, and then I found her. It was all just an accident.”

       “Well, it was a good accident, then. Maybe it was meant to happen this way. She owes you everything.”

       Quinn nodded. She knew she should feel good about that, but no feeling came.

       The doctor looked down at her clothing. Dark brown stains marred her white coat and jeans from her chest to her knees. Noticing the doctor’s gaze, Quinn looked down and dully wondered how she would ever get stains like that out.

       “We have some extra clothes in storage, for times like this,” said the doctor gently, getting to his feet. “You should shower, too. Let me get someone to help you.”

       “Okay.” She hesitated. “I have some clothes in my car outside.”

       “Don’t worry about that. I’d rather you put on something here and washed up instead of walking around outside like you are. It’s not . . . it’s just better.”

       Quinn nodded and said, “Okay.” She picked up the sack with Amy’s belongings, then stood and followed the doctor with weary footsteps. She forgot about the half-empty cup of chocolate under the chair.

       “Do you need to call anyone?” he asked as they went down the hallway.

       She shook her head. “I can’t get anyone on the pay phone. My parents left on a retreat. My sister’s in college in Boston, but she must be out for the night. I called my Aunt Rita, but no one was there, either. I’ll try again later.”

       “Do you have a place to stay for the night?”

       She hadn’t thought about that. “I guess not,” she said. “I’d rather stay here and see how Amy’s doing.”

       “She’s going to be out for quite a while, at least until late morning. A waiting room isn’t the most comfortable place to sleep, either, as I’m sure you can imagine. It wouldn’t hurt to get some rest, then come back about nine a.m. She might be able to talk to you then.”

       Quinn reflected. Farborough was a small, run-down farming community several miles down the road from the spot where she’d found Amy’s car. The town had two motels, but they did not look inviting. She looked down at the bag with Amy’s belongings: her round-frame glasses, her handbag, her keys. . . .

       “I could stay at her house,” she said. “I’d have to ask the police, I guess, but I could do that. I was supposed to stay there anyway.”

       “Let’s get some clean clothes on you first, then,” said the doctor. “One of the nurses can get into the locker and help with the shower.”

       “Okay. Um, can I see my aunt before I go?”

       The doctor sighed. “Sure, after you shower and change. Just don’t try to wake her.”

       Forty minutes later, Quinn came back to the waiting room in a gray woolen winter coat over a baggy, pea-green sweat suit, the ugliest outfit she had ever worn in her life. It was warm, at least. She kept her cowboy boots after cleaning them off. Her soiled clothes and coat were wadded in a large black trash bag in her left hand, with Amy’s bag in her right.

       The doctor was in with another patient, but a nurse on duty led her down the hall to a room with an open door. Inside was a bed, shrouded by a curtain, on which her aunt lay under a sheet with tubes running into her, monitors connected to her chest, and a transparent oxygen mask over her bloodless face. The nurse let Quinn give her aunt a kiss on the cheek before escorting her out of the room and pulling the curtains around Amy’s bed.

       Quinn walked back into the waiting room and sat. The plastic sheeting that had covered her chair was gone, but most of the faces of those waiting were the same. She stared at her hands and saw Amy’s face in her mind. After a few minutes, she roused herself and went to look for a police officer. Spotting a Clinton County sheriff’s deputy, she explained her situation and desire to go to her aunt’s house. The deputy wrote down her contact information and Amy’s home phone number.

       “We’ll probably want to talk to you tomorrow if we have any questions,” he said, finishing his notes. “You need us to drive you out there?” he asked.

       “I’d rather drive my own car, outside, but maybe someone could follow me out if that’s possible.”

       “Sure thing. Give me five minutes, and I’ll go myself.”

       She agreed, then sat again and waited. The television set blared commercials for a used-car lot in Farborough, then went back to a late-night variety show.

       The deputy returned, and they left together with the deputy in the lead. Quinn did not remember much about the subsequent drive over the twisting nighttime roads to Amy’s house. She had memorized the directions before leaving the emergency room, but everything looked so different in the dark she was never sure if they were on the correct route. The deputy knew the area quite well and took the turnoff to the subdivision, next to a closed gas station.

       Faraway Acres, the subdivision where Amy Barksdale lived, was relatively new. Heavy woods were on every side, most of the lots were undeveloped, and most of the homes present were still under construction. All building work was suspended for the winter. Why does Amy like living this far away from anywhere? Quinn wondered. At least she wasn’t far from the Interstate, and she did like to travel. Given Amy’s recent trips to Hawaii, Europe, Alaska, and who knew where else, Quinn figured her aunt made a ton of money as an art appraiser, whatever that was all about. Perhaps this line of work would work for me, too, Quinn thought. She’d have to ask Amy about it—later, much later, when things were mostly normal again.

       As best as Quinn could tell in the darkness, Amy’s house was an attractive one-story ranch home, cozy in size. It sat on a two-acre lot surrounded by barren flowerbeds and recently planted saplings. A bright light over the garage door came on as the police car and then Quinn pulled into the driveway and parked, with more lights on poles coming on across Amy’s entire lot at the same moment. Some kind of burglar alarm system, Quinn decided. She remembered that she had the keypad number for the house and was relieved at that, at least.

       The officer got out of his car as Quinn got out of hers. “You sure you’ll be all right here by yourself?” he asked, gritting his teeth at the frigid wind. He kept his hands jammed into his jacket pockets.

       Quinn nodded. “I’ll be fine. Would you wait until I get into the house?”

       “You want me to come in with you for a second, look around?”

       “Yes, please. I’m still sorta freaked out.”

       “No problem at all.” They walked to the front door, where six tries were needed to find the right front-door key on Amy’s key ring. The deputy pushed the door open. A shrill alarm went off, but Quinn pulled out her sheet of paper, stepped inside, and tapped in the security code on the keypad by the door. A triple beep sounded as the keypad lights turned from red to green.

       They walked through the house and found it uninhabited, everything apparently in order. The deputy carried in Quinn’s pink suitcase and Cashman’s shopping bags from the Lexus’s trunk, then gave her a card to keep by the phone if she had to call for help in an emergency. She was grateful for his help, though she had never once questioned whether he would help her. Being naturally cute led one to expect all sorts of positive male attention along with the unwelcome leers.

       After she thanked the deputy and waved him goodbye, she shut and locked the front door. The back and garage doors were already locked, and all the shades and curtains in the house had been drawn before Quinn had walked in. The silence settled into her skin as she stood in the foyer of someone else’s unfamiliar home.

       “I’m here,” she said aloud, just to get it out of her system. “Sorry I’m late.”

       For a long moment, Quinn wasn’t sure what to do next. She felt a chill when she looked at the windows, wondering if anyone knew she was in Amy’s house alone. That was ridiculous, of course. No one could see through the shades and walls. It wasn’t like the world was invisible, though the creepy idea was hard to shake. She thought of hunters in the woods at night, shooting at anything that moved. It wouldn’t matter if they could see her if they shot at the windows. Security system—that’s what I need to do, boot up the house’s security system. A security keypad was by the front door, and it took less than a minute to figure out how to activate it with an occupant inside. Quinn felt only slight comfort when the keypad beeped confirmation that the alarms were active.

       What to do next? Phone calls, she would have to make some upsetting phone calls soon. The first one would be to the hospital to check on Aunt Amy again. She scratched at her arms where the sweat suit itched. No rush to change, as there was no one to dress up for. The trip was ruined, but she would do her best to see Amy through and take care of her things. High school classes would start again on Tuesday, after Martin Luther King Day on Monday. Maybe her mother could come over and watch things when Quinn had to leave. If not, school would have to wait. She could get by; she knew lots of guys who would do her homework for her if asked. Maybe she could get the local police to call in for her and eliminate the worry about making up anything at all. She would work out something. She was creative when it came to excuses, though she hardly needed a creative excuse now.

       Quinn shrugged off the hospital-given overcoat and hung it in the front closet by the door. She paused to admire the other coats, scarves, boots, and gloves stored there. Aunt Amy certainly had a nice touch selecting comfortable, casual fashion—Bohemian was, again, the only word for it. “Well, you are an art appraiser, after all,” Quinn said aloud. “It’s a shame you aren’t my age. We could have used you in the Fashion Club, though I suspect you were more like Daria than me as a kid. Pity.”

       She closed the closet door, but it wouldn’t shut all the way. Something was caught near the hinges, between the door and the doorframe. Quinn opened the door again and reached in to push the item back into the closet.

       The item that got caught was a thin, black, leather strap with holes punched in it like a belt. Puzzled, she pulled the strap into better view. Her eyes widened in surprise. The strap was attached to a black leather shoulder holster made for a handgun. The holster hung from a coat hangar by its shoulder strap. Quinn gently took the holster in one hand and turned it under the foyer ceiling light. Tooled into the black leather in small letters were the words: A. BARKSDALE.

       After a moment, Quinn let go of the holster and slowly shut the closet door, stunned. Her aunt owned a gun? A real gun? What was that all about? Was this something she should ask Amy about, or just ignore? She wouldn’t ask tomorrow, of course, but eventually. Not even Quinn’s neurotic, over-reactive father owned a gun, and he had even been to military school.

       “Self-defense, maybe,” Quinn said aloud—but defense against what or whom? Was Farborough a hive of criminal activity? Sure didn’t look like it.

       She let the issue drop and looked down at the black trash bag containing her bloodstained coat and clothing. Blood was difficult at best to get out of any material, as Quinn well knew—but with this much blood, and Amy’s blood at that . . . eww. She shivered. Plus, just wearing those clothes again would remind her of this horrible evening. And she did have extra clothing in her suitcase and bags. And Dad would surely give her the money to replace everything she’d lost, if Mom wouldn’t. They probably both would, after this.

       Her mind made up, Quinn picked up the trash bag and carried it through the living room, past the kitchen to the door to the garage. She turned off the alarm system at a keypad before opening the door, turned on the lights, and checked the garage as she’d done when the deputy was present. No car was in it, as the police had Amy’s Triumph. Quinn dropped the trash bag into a nearby garbage can, then shut off the lights, locked the door, and reset the alarm.

       She hesitated by the kitchen phone and checked the time. It was just after one in the morning. She was tired but still jittery and restless—and depressed. Chocolate would have been nice about now, chocolate shared with a whole and well Aunt Amy. She remembered her cup of chocolate from the hospital and wished she had brought it with her, even as dreadful as it was.

       The refrigerator beckoned. Quinn opened it and was startled to discover that it was empty except for two bottles of water, an orange, a bag of frozen peas in the freezer, and an open, half-empty box of frozen potato skins. Quinn wrinkled her nose. Not even a bottle of low-fat salad dressing and a bag of baby lettuce.

       “Doesn’t look like you spend a lot of time here, Aunt Amy,” she said. “You eat out a lot, or what?” She picked up the orange, which appeared suitable for consumption, and looked around for a small plate. Opening all the cabinets and drawers quickly cued her in on the location of everything she would need to make her meals. Her discovery of a fully stocked pantry of dry food was welcome. She sliced the orange, peeled the skin from the slices, and left the results on the table in the dining room with a bottle of spring water.

       Coming back into the living room, Quinn spotted a small-screen TV, which had caught her eye earlier while walking through the house with the deputy. She found the remote on a coffee table next to four other remotes, a notepad and pencil, and various recent news magazines—but nothing about art, oddly. Quinn clicked on the TV, turned down the volume, and flicked through the channels until she got to one called the Extreme Shopping Network.

       “This isn’t on cable,” she murmured, barely able to tear her eyes from the screen. A little experimenting showed that Amy had some kind of satellite TV service, with hundreds of channels in every language possible. Quinn went back to the Extreme Shopping Network, which was showcasing what it was like to shop in downtown Hong Kong. After a few minutes of watching, she looked around the living room.

       The furniture was stylish if also offbeat and kitschy, exactly the kind of room a single woman would have without the worry of a live-in man to screw things up: cream-color walls; a soft beige carpet; green houseplants scattered everywhere (which turned out to be plastic—eww); a steel-blue sofa and matching chair; an empty aquarium on top of a decorative chest of drawers; a floor lamp by the sofa’s side table; various posters and paintings on the walls; and a large picture window whose drawn purple curtains matched the purple pillows on the sofa. No underwear on the floor, no beer cans, no sign that a guy lived here at all. Quinn wondered if Amy had a cleaning service; she couldn’t picture her aunt pushing a vacuum cleaner, ever.

       The most unusual thing was a large picture on the wall behind the sofa, showing the Moon rising above the Earth as seen from space. Quinn frowned. Since when did Aunt Amy like space junk like this, anyway? The picture looked more like a giant color photograph than a real painting. She walked closer to the picture and noticed something glittering in the lower right corner. Next to a date and a series of numbers were the handwritten word “Discovery” and an inscription next to it, done with a gold pen: To our eye on the ground, from your eyes in the sky—thanks for your great work, Amy! This was followed by a number of indecipherable signatures written with the same gold pen, each in a different hand. Some names had military ranks attached to them.

          “Okay,” said Quinn, squinting at the writing, “now, is that my Amy, or someone else’s Amy? Did she get this on e-Bay or something? Since when . . . oh!” Quinn almost smacked herself on the forehead. Of course! To our eye on the ground—Amy was into photography! That almost sort of maybe explained the notation. Some guys had sent her an outer-space picture—Heaven only knew why that, of all things—because she’d taken some photos of something artsy for them. This was a good topic to take up with Amy, later on. Maybe Amy did fashion photography, too. Daria had done it years ago in Highland, Texas, for a school newspaper. Anything was possible.

       Curious, she poked and prodded various items in the room, finally shaking her head in disappointment over the plastic plants. Now, that wasn’t like Amy at all. She would surely go for fresh, live plants, wouldn’t she? Plastic stuff got dusty. On the other hand, you didn’t have to deal with dirt. Maybe Amy had something there. If she were gone a lot and couldn’t water the plants, that would help explain it, too. Quinn examined a plant near the TV and saw that the stems were sunk in a block of green plastic foam. She pulled the plant out and found a dead fly in the bottom of the pot. With a cry of “Eww!” she carried the pot to the kitchen, emptied it into a wastebasket under the sink, then put it and the plant back in place.

       Quinn watched a few more minutes of the Extreme Shopping Network, then decided she wasn’t in the mood for any more. Turning off the TV, she idly picked up one of the news magazines on the coffee table. As she did, a page marker fell from it to the carpeted floor. She leaned down to pick it up.

       It was a color photograph of her aunt, standing in bright sunshine and smiling at the camera. Amy was dressed conservatively, not quite the offbeat character she was around the family. In fact, her outfit was closer to the magenta power skirt-suit that Quinn’s lawyer mother liked to wear to her office, though in subdued earth tones. Behind Amy was a large bed of roses, and behind that the façade of a futuristic building that made Quinn think of a college campus. She saw no identification of the building in the photo, but it was certainly distinctive, and she liked it. She flipped the photo over. Penciled on the back was: Taking a break from work. It was written in Amy’s handwriting.

       “I hope the college I go to is as nice at that one,” she said. Her mood quickly sank. “And I hope Amy’s there to see me graduate,” she finished, putting the photo down again.

       One thing was for sure: if Amy needed Quinn’s help getting through this mess, Quinn would be there for her, no matter what.

       She sighed. If only she knew what she had to do. At least, she thought, things couldn’t possibly get any worse.





Chapter Three
Reach Out and Touch Someone



          Motivated by the photograph, Quinn decided that it would be a good idea to check on Amy before she wore out and crashed. She looked for a telephone and spotted an executive-type one with pushbuttons, sitting on the floor by the couch. Going back to the coat closet, she found the folded paper in her coat pocket on which she’d scribbled the hospital’s phone number, then sat on the couch by the phone. She reached down for the handset—

       “Whuh?” she said, staring at the row of buttons along the bottom of the phone. Each had a printed label above it: SCR1, SCR2, LN1, LN2, EME, FAX, MSG. What the heck was all that? At least it had caller ID, too, which was nice. Quinn always liked to know who and where a caller was.

       “Sorry, Amy,” said Quinn, cracking a tired smile, “but you are really weird.” She picked up the handset without touching any of the buttons and punched in the hospital number. It picked up on the second ring.

       Farborough Area Clinton County Hospital, may I help you?” said a tired woman on the other end.

       “Hi. My name is Quinn Morgendorffer. My aunt, Amy Barksdale, is a patient there. She was brought in a few hours ago. A deer hunter shot her by accident, can you believe that?”

       “Oh, goodness,” said the woman, more alert now. “Just a moment.”

       “She was in Intensive Care, I think,” said Quinn.

       “Mmm. Okay, there she is. Now, I can’t tell you anything about her over the phone, it’s hospital rules, but do you want to speak to the nurses’ station in ICU?”

       “Yeah, please.”

       “Hold on, then.” The phone clicked and went silent. Quinn sighed and waited. She looked down, feeling more tired than before, and focused on the notepad on the table.

       Quinn was nosy but not terribly so. She had enough going on in her life without trying to figure out what everyone else was up to. Tonight, however, she was overstressed and her inhibitions were down. She reached for the pad and pencil without a second thought. With the handset pressed between her right ear and shoulder, she held the pad of paper up to the light, tilting it to see if impressions had been left there from previous notes. To her surprise, there were quite a few grooves left by pencil marks. Holding the pencil so the side of the lead, not the tip, was against the paper, Quinn gently shaded over the page and made a rubbing.

       The phone clicked on. “ICU nurses’ station.”

       “Hi, my name is Quinn Morgendorffer. I’m calling to check on Amy Barksdale. She’s my aunt. I wanted to see how she was doing.”

       “Were you in here earlier, down in the ER?”

       “Yeah, I was there. I’m the one with long red hair.”

       “I thought I remembered you. The doctor was going on and on about you, how you saved that woman’s life. He said he didn’t know of one person in ten who would’ve done what you did. You were a quick thinker.”

       “Uh . . . thank you. I’m just worried about my aunt.”

       “Oh, she’s sleeping right now. She’ll be all right. Doctor thinks she might even go home Sunday or Monday.”

          Quinn put down the pad of paper. “Come home? After she was shot?

       “Honey, she’s doing pretty good, all told. We move ‘em out fast to keep the insurance down. I remember her coming in here last summer, when she got back from Virginia after she sprained her ankle running. She’s in real good physical condition.”

       Virginia? Must have been on vacation, then.”

       “No, I’m pretty sure she works there. She said she usually comes here only on weekends.”

          Quinn was silent for a moment. The conversation was taking a very weird turn. “She works in Virginia? I thought she had an office in Gaithersburg, Maryland.”

       “Oh, she might. She sure gets around a lot. I think she actually has an apartment in Arlington, closer to work. She’s a busy lady, your aunt.”

       “Yeah,” said Quinn, confused. “Yeah, she sure is. When can I see her?”

       “Oh, listen, why don’t you call back tomorrow—wait, I meant, later this morning before noon? We should have her condition upgraded by then if everything else is going well. You can come see her once she wakes up.”

       “Sure. Thanks, I really appreciate this.”

       “Love to help you, honey. You get some sleep.”

       “Sure. I will. Good night.”


       Quinn lowered the handset to its cradle. Amy had an apartment in Virginia and worked there, too? Well, the Washington, D.C. area had a load of art museums and galleries that Daria had often said she wanted to visit. It made sense Amy would work there, too, though Virginia was a bit of a drive from Farborough.

       It struck Quinn as odd that Amy never said much about her work. She talked a little about guys she dated and a little about plays and art shows—and a little too much about childhood conflicts with Quinn’s mother, Helen, and their sister, Rita. Very little came out of Amy about her work, though. She was good at getting other people to talk about themselves. When Amy showed up to stop a fight between Helen and Rita the year before (failing miserably and getting dragged into the fight herself), Amy had later gotten Quinn and Daria to spill their entire lives to her—separately, of course. Quinn had been happy to talk, then, but she now wished she’d turned the focus back on Amy.

       Maybe that was why Amy asked Quinn out for the weekend, to get to know her better. Amy seemed content in a way with whatever life she was leading, but the last time she’d come out, visiting during Thanksgiving, she also seemed tired and distracted. Quinn remembered a comment Amy made to Helen during dinner: “I’ve been away too long, and I don’t think I even know my own family. I don’t even know if I have a family.” It was right after that remark that she asked if Quinn would come over one weekend and just hang out, the two of them. Amy had promised to see Daria in Boston, too, for their own bonding weekend.

       Quinn’s gaze fell on the paper pad again. She reached for it and squinted to see what the pencil rubbing had produced. It looked like Amy had written out a schedule, with a date at the top—today’s date, to Quinn’s surprise. Her aunt must have slept over the night before. She squinted to read the rubbing: Stay over at house Thurs. & get it ready, Fri. 9—MTPB meeting, 11—Ralph lunch, 1—Back home, p/u groceries, 5—Quinn, 6—Allegro’s.

       Ralph—that would be Amy’s current boyfriend. She’d been seeing him for about a year now, Quinn recalled. Amy had never shown anyone a picture of Ralph (dorky name, but maybe he was okay), though she sometimes hinted she would love to go out with the actor Ralph Fiennes. Quinn doubted that this guy was the actor, though it would certainly make life interesting if it were. Groceries—Amy might have had groceries in her car trunk. The cold might preserve some of them, but with the car impounded, they were all likely lost.

          She held the paper closer to her face. MTPB meeting? Clear as mud. Shrugging, she tore off the note and wadded it into a small white ball. So much for the advantages of nosiness. She stuffed the ball into a pocket in the sweat pants.

       After a glance at the phone, she picked up the handset again and dialed from memory. Daria’s answering machine picked up in her apartment in Boston, and Quinn left a message for Daria to call her immediately, giving Aunt Amy’s phone number but no other information. Daria must be out with Jane, she decided. Maybe she was finally dating, too, but more likely she was eating pizza with her best friend or, worse, studying in the Raft campus library. Daria was almost hopeless when it came to having a real a social life.

       “Okay,” said Quinn, hanging up and dialing again. “I think I remember this next number correctly.”

       “Magic Fores’ Lodge,” said a slurred male voice. “Can I help you?”

       “Yes, I’m calling for Jake and Helen Morgendorffer? They’re at the intimacy retreat at your lodge this weekend. This is an emergency.”

       “Yeah, I heard that one b’fore. No, you can’t go messin’ with th’ guests. They’re not ‘sposed to see any girlfriends or boyfriends, jus’ their spouses, got it? Stop callin’ and tryin’ to get these people divorced, all right? Jeez.” The phone went dead.

          Quinn stared at the phone in horror. “You miserable rotten . . . oh!” She slammed the handset down. She briefly considered calling the police in the area to deliver her message instead, maybe getting the guy at the desk in trouble. The problem, however, was that she didn’t know the phone number of the police in that area. She didn’t even know the name of the town nearest to the lodge. Her parents had been very unhelpful; her mother had insisted on complete and total privacy for the two of them, even going so far as to leave her cell phone at home—a historic first for Helen “I’ll get it, it might be the office” Morgendorffer. It was the worst possible time to finally do the right thing. Quinn drummed her fingers on the phone in frustration.

       A soft musical tone went through the house. Her fingers stopped drumming, and she turned to see the big window. Bright light gleamed around the edges of the closed purple curtains. She put down the phone and got up to walk over to the security keypad on the wall by the front door. The red Perimeter Lights indicator was on. A low musical note sounded through the house a second later, causing Quinn to jump. The alarm keypad had a new red light blinking on it: Perimeter Breach.

       Perimeter. That was a geometry term, wasn’t it? Quinn strained to imagine what a perimeter breach could possibly be. Making a face, she walked back to the kitchen and noticed light coming in from around a drawn shade in the laundry room. She walked over and peeked around the shade. Bright lights mounted on poles had come on across the back lot of Amy’s property. Quinn looked around, saw nothing unusual, and left the laundry room. She glanced at the keypad by the garage door. The Perimeter Lights light was still on, but the Perimeter Breach light was now off.

       “Well,” she said, “I guess that took care of that.” She peered at the keypad to see if there was a way to turn off the outside lights, but she gave up shortly and went back into the kitchen. There, she looked in a drawer where she remembered seeing a booklet about the alarm system. She took the booklet back into the living room and thumbed through it until she found the table of contents. Perimeter Breach was explained on page eight. “Okay!” she said aloud. “Now let’s—”

       The phone rang.

       Quinn jumped and shrieked curse words she would never think of using in public. When she calmed down, she picked up the phone on the third ring. She glanced at the caller ID, which showed only the call’s source: ALEXANDRIA VA. “Hello,” she said, breathing heavily.

       There was a pause on the other end. “Sorry?” said a deep, pleasant male voice.

       Being alone in a strange house after midnight with her aunt wounded by gunfire inspired great caution where Quinn normally would have none. “Uh, can I help you?”

       “I seem to have the wrong number,” said the man uneasily. “I was calling for Amy Barksdale.”

       “Oh, this is her house,” said Quinn. Should she tell the caller about Amy, or not? She went against her instinct to spill everything and elected to be careful until she knew what was up. “She can’t come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?”

       There was another pause. “When will she be around? I’d like to talk with her. It’s rather important. I know it’s an ungodly hour, I apologize for that, but I do need to talk to her.”

       “She . . . um, she asked me to take a message. Can I have your name, please?”

       The man sighed. “Never mind. Thanks.” He hung up.

       Quinn hung up, too. He probably thought this was a wrong number and she had been spoofing him. She waited, and a few seconds later the phone rang again: ALEXANDRIA VA.

       “Hello,” she said, more relaxed this time.

       “Okay, this really is Amy Barksdale’s home, right?” said the man.

       “It is. I’m still willing to take a message.”

       The man hesitated. “Okay, just tell her that Ralph Blair called. Ask her to call me—”

       “Ralph? Amy’s Ralph?”


       “You’re the Ralph who’s dating my Aunt Amy? I mean, dating Amy Barksdale?”

       Another pause. “Is this Erin?” he asked in a pained voice.

       “No no no, this is . . . oh, the hell with it: this is Quinn Morgendorffer. I’m Amy’s niece, Helen’s daughter, not Rita’s. Is this the Ralph she was going out with?”

       “Um, yeah, but you said ‘was’ going out with. Is she not going out with me any longer?”

       “Oh! No, that’s not what I meant! Look, I have something really important to tell you but, um, I really need to know if you really know my aunt, okay?”

       “What? What’s going on?”

       “Look, tell me something about my aunt that I would know, so I know it’s really you, okay? I have to know if this is really the Ralph she’s going out with.”

       “Uh . . . okay, she’s going to be forty-four this August—”

       “Okay, I believe you. She never tells anyone her age except people she likes. Ralph . . . look, I’ll just come out with it. I was supposed to stay with Aunt Amy this weekend, but as soon as I got here, I found her little red car in a ditch on the road to her house and she was—”

       Quinn burst into tears.

       “Hello? Quinn? Quinn, are you still there? What happened?”

       “She was—” She gasped “—she was shot!

       Ralph began yelling over the phone, but Quinn sobbed for almost a minute. “Talk to me!” Ralph shouted. “Quinn? Is she alive?”

       “Yes, she’s alive!” She wiped her eyes. “She’s in the hospital here. I’m here all alone and I can’t wear my clothes because they’re all bloody and I feel awful and I’m scared she’s going to die and I had to keep her from bleeding to death all by myself and my clothes are ruined and I’m scared she’s going to die and I can’t take this anymore! I want her back, damn it!”

       “Quinn,” said Ralph for the sixth time, “Please calm down. Stay with me. Which hospital is she at?”

       “The one in town, Farborough something, Clinton County Hospital or Center or whatever.”

       “Can you give me the number? I want to call there now.”

       “Okay.” Quinn wiped her eyes on her sleeve, then read off the hospital’s phone number.

       “Okay,” he said quickly. “Listen, I’m going to call the hospital and see how she’s doing. Then I’m going to call you back, all right? Are you okay there by yourself?”

       “I’m okay,” she said, sniffing.

       “How did you get into her house, anyway?”

       “Oh, I have her stuff, her keys and bag and things. The police let me have them after I showed them my driver’s license and signed for them and all that. They took her car, I guess to figure out who shot her or whatever. It was some dumb hunter.”

       “A hunter? They caught him?”

       “I don’t know. She just got shot, that’s all I know. Some idiot must have thought her car was a deer. Some creeps around here.”

       “Huh. Okay, Quinn, I’ll call you back in about . . . I don’t know, ten or fifteen minutes, okay? That okay?”

       “Yeah,” she said. “Do you work with her?”

       “Uh . . . yeah, I do. We know each other from work.”

       “Are you an art appraiser, too?”

       He hesitated. “Listen, let me call you back in a few minutes, all right?”


       “Okay, bye for now. I’ll call right back.”

       “Okay. Bye.”

       After she hung up, she cried a little longer, then got up and went to the bathroom. She used the toilet, washed her face, and felt a little better. When she opened the medicine cabinet out of curiosity, something fell out. She picked it up from the sink. It was a condom package. Someone with red lipstick had kissed it.

       Quinn began to laugh. “Well,” she said, wiping her eyes with a washcloth, “I guess I didn’t need to know that!” She walked back to the living room and sat on the couch, tired but in better spirits. She called her Aunt Rita and cousin Erin, but neither was home, so she left messages for them to call her at Amy’s number immediately. She decided it was a bad idea to call Grandma Barksdale at this hour. She was not in good health, and the news could wait until tomorrow morning.

       Quinn looked down at the security alarm booklet. She picked it up and read the section about what a Perimeter Breach was. It took only seconds to figure it out.

       A gentle musical note again sounded through the house. She put the booklet down again and looked up with wide, frightened eyes at the purple curtains over the picture window. Bright light was shining around the curtains’ edges. The red Perimeter Breach and Perimeter Lights indicators glared from the keypad on the wall.

       Someone was on Amy Barksdale’s property, coming toward the house.





Chapter Four
Errare Humanum Est



          For a moment, Quinn was paralyzed with fear. The irrational thought came to her that it was the hunter who had shot Amy, and he was angry with her for getting the police involved. Could he see her? Was he going to kill her? She got up from the couch and nervously went to the front door, where she looked out through the peephole to see if anyone was visible.

       The front yard was empty except for leafless saplings. Everything had an unreal, ghostly quality in the illumination from the security lights. She moved her head to see further to the right—nothing there. She moved and looked to the left.

       A dark, dirt-splattered pickup truck sat motionless on the road, half a block from her house. Its lights were out. The driver’s side faced Amy’s home, but nothing could be told of the person who sat behind the wheel. Quinn could barely see the vehicle, as it was just outside the circle of security lights above the yard. A trace of smoke rose from the pickup’s tailpipe.

       “Oh, no!” Quinn whispered. It was the truck that had stopped by Amy’s wrecked sports car, just before the police arrived. She had told the police about it, but they had not said if they’d found the vehicle—and they obviously had not.

       Someone standing on the truck’s far side opened a door and got into the passenger seat, easing the door shut. The pickup then pulled away and drove down the street a short ways before its headlights and taillights came on. It accelerated and was gone after turning a curve leading out of the subdivision.

       The booklet said that the Perimeter Breach light was activated only if someone crossed onto the protected property itself. A vehicle driving by would not catch the system’s attention.

       Quinn had seen only one person in the truck the first time. Now, obviously, there were two people. Why would they be here, outside Amy’s house?

       They had to be stalking Amy . . . or, now, Quinn.

       “Maybe it’s not the same truck,” Quinn whispered to herself. “Maybe they’re lost, or it’s not the same people. They could be neighbors or teenage guys out goofing off.”

       Maybe it was not good to think about this so much. Quinn pulled away from the peephole and leaned against the door of the coat closet. Her thundering heart was so fantastically loud in her ears, she thought it could have been heard through the walls.

       The phone rang. She gasped and flinched, but she quickly got hold of herself. Walking over stiffly, she glanced at the caller ID.


       “Hello?” she said weakly into the handset.

       “Quinn? This is Ralph Blair again. Did I wake you up?”

       “Huh? No, no, I’m awake already. There was a truck outside the house. I think some guys were watching me. I don’t know what’s going on.” She explained about the pickup that happened by after she discovered Amy’s wrecked car.

       “Probably a hunter,” said Ralph. “I don’t know if he had anything to do with Amy’s accident, but you never know. If he did, it would explain why he ran off when the police arrived. I can’t believe the truck you said was just outside the house has anything to do with it, though. Amy’s had problems with the alarm system there before. It’s too sensitive, everything sets it off.”

       That’s comforting to know, Quinn thought. Maybe she was being paranoid. It was understandable.

       “Listen, I just talked with the hospital, and Amy’s doing better than expected. Thank God. She’s asleep right now. They think she’ll be awake sometime tomorrow, maybe in the morning. Look, I’m going to take care of a few things, then drive in as fast as I can and see her at the hospital. I should be there about noon or so. I can stay at a motel there in Farborough, if you don’t mind.”

       “Sure. Sure, that’s fine. Um, do you have a key to her house?”

       “Well . . . actually, yes, I do, but I’m not coming by if you’re there. It would be better if we met at the hospital, if at all.”

       Quinn thought about what had dropped out of the medicine cabinet. “You’re pretty close to her, aren’t you?”

       Ralph chuckled. “Close enough. We’ve known each other a few years, and yeah, we’re dating, if that’s what you’re asking, but if I say anything more than that, she’ll . . . well, she’ll be pretty unhappy with me, and I’d like to avoid that.”

          Quinn smiled thinly. “Barksdale women are pretty strong tempered.”

       “Well, not that I would know anything about that, but yeah, I hear that they are. I’ve only met Amy, not her sisters. You said you’re one of Helen’s daughters, right? Are you the smart one or the . . . the . . . uh . . .”

       Stung, Quinn felt her face redden. “The smart one or the what one?”

       After a short silence, Ralph’s voice came over the phone, low and contrite. “The—the popular one.”

       “I’m the popular one, not the smart one,” she said in a deadly tone.

       He groaned. “God, I can’t believe I said that. Listen, I’m sorry, that was a really asinine thing I did. My mouth goes off like that, and I regret it all the time. I owe you a dinner, you and Amy, I swear I’ll do it. I’ll make up for it when I get there.”

       The thought came to Quinn that she should gracefully decline and forgive him for the slight. She squashed the impulse. “Dinner out would be a good idea,” she said coolly. “Somewhere nice. Really, really nice, by which I mean expensive.”

       “You saved Amy’s life, and this is how I thank you. I owe you big time on this. I’m really ashamed.”

       “Good,” she said, and she meant it. “I tell you what. You want to make it up to me, right?”

       “Yes, I do. I’m really sorry.”

       “You can start by answering a question I have. If you lie to me, you will be so sorry, I promise. You got that?”

       There was a little silence. “You sound just like your aunt,” he said. “Exactly like your aunt.” He sighed heavily. “What’s the question?”

       “Where do you and my aunt work, there in Virginia? In Alexandria, right?”

       Quinn could hear Ralph breathing over the phone for several seconds.

       “I meant what I said!” Quinn snapped. “Don’t lie to me! Does she really work at an art center there in Virginia, or out here, or what? Why didn’t she ever tell us she doesn’t work around here? Is it an art museum where you guys work, or what? Does she handle a lot of really expensive—”

       “We . . . we work in Virginia, yes, but we don’t work at an art museum or art store.”

       “Well, where does she work? She’s got a degree in art appraisal or something, and she—”

       “No, she doesn’t,” said Ralph, sounding puzzled. “I mean, she likes art, but she doesn’t have any degree in it, that I know of.”

       Quinn blinked. “Wha—you mean she does art appraising without . . . wait, I don’t get this. What the heck does she do, anyway?”

       Quinn heard Ralph swallow again. “Quinn, your aunt and I work in McLean, Virginia, just west of Alexandria. Look, there’s no harm in telling you this, there’s nothing bad about it and I’m not breaking confidentiality, except that Amy told me if I ever breathed a word about her personal life to anyone in her family, even you or your sister, she was going to bury me in a shallow grave. She might also dump me, which would be worse. She said that talking about her work was something she would do herself, and no one, particularly not me, would ever say a thing about it to any of her family. I can’t help you with that.”

       “Tell me, or else.”

       There was a long pause.

       “Quinn, I really can’t. You’ll have to talk with her about this yourself. I don’t want to cause any problems between her and me.”

       “You should have thought of that before you called me dumb.”

       “Hey, now look, I didn’t call you dumb, okay? I really didn’t—”

       “Tell me, and I’ll make sure she doesn’t break up with you.”

       He groaned again. “For God’s sake—”

       “If you don’t tell me,” she added in an acid tone, “I promise that she will never kiss another condom for you, ever!”

       He gasped. “What?

       She knew she had him then. She almost smiled. “Tell me!”

       “Okay!” he yelled. “Jeez! We work for the government, okay? We work in McLean at the Bush—at some federal government building. We’re analysts for the government, nothing else. It’s a regular boring job, there’s nothing secret or special about it at all. For God’s sake, don’t tell her I told you this.”

       “You work for the government? Our government, the U.S. government?”

       “Yes, but I’ll let her tell you the rest of it.”

       “Why can’t you just tell me? I’m not going to tell her you told me!”

       “We—oh, Christ. We do budget analysis. We’re financial analysts, accountants. We crunch numbers for the government and—”

          “You liar!” Quinn hissed. “Amy told me she hates even balancing her own checkbook! She couldn’t possibly be an accountant! I warned you!” She slammed down the phone and got to her feet. The phone rang again: ALEXANDRIA VA. She snatched up the handset. “How stupid do you think I am, anyway?” she yelled. “Does Amy think I’m really stupid, too? How much of a moron do I look like? I mean, how much of one do I sound like, you know? Do you both sit around and laugh at me, the stupid popular one? How could you do this? How could you?” She slammed the receiver down again and fought back tears.

       “This is too damn late at night to be doing this,” she said to herself. She paced back and forth in the living room, occasionally glancing at the purple curtains. “I should get some sleep. This has been the worst day of my life. The worst. The absolute worst day of all. I should kick him when he shows up. I should kick him right where it counts, with my cowboy boots on. It would serve him right. She’ll be kissing Band-Aids for him for a year. That would put a crimp in their cuddle time.”

       She left the living room and walked into the dining room, where she spotted the peeled orange slices on the plate and ate them on the spot. She got juice all over her face and hands and sweat suit top, but she didn’t care anymore.

       “Shower,” she said, wiping her hands on the sweat suit. “Shower, then bed. Screw them both. I bet they do laugh at me. I know I’m not her favorite niece. I know Daria is, because she’s smart and she reads books and I don’t much, even though I am trying. I read, too. I know I’m not as smart as some people, but . . . but I . . .”

       She gave in to another crying spell, a quick one, then wiped her eyes. “Shower,” she said, sniffing, “then bed.” She went back to the front door, got her suitcase, and walked off to look for a spare bedroom.

       A half hour later, she walked out of the hall bathroom wearing a white terrycloth bathrobe, beaver-shaped slippers (that Amy!), and a large towel around her hair. The shower had cleared her head for a while. She was tired now, close to falling asleep once her agitation over the phone call passed. The stupid popular one, indeed.

       Quinn had moved all her belongings and Amy’s into a bedroom across the hall from what was obviously the master bedroom. The master bedroom was lush: a row of fake tropical plants by the window, an unmade king-size bed with colorful sheets and blankets, gold-embroidered wall hangings, and elegant decorations all around. The beige carpet was thick and ultra-soft. It was like being inside a cozy cocoon. The guest bedroom was spare, more like a room for unwanted furniture than a place anyone would want to sleep on a regular basis.

       Quinn looked around Amy’s bedroom a last time, her eyes lingering on a photo poster of a full Moon in the night sky, next to an illuminated skyscraper. She frowned at the word at the poster’s bottom: KOYAANISQATSI. She couldn’t even imagine how to pronounce that. It looked like a poster for a foreign movie of some sort. She shrugged, shut off the light, and went back into her chosen bedroom.

       Once there, she began taking things out of her suitcase to put them away. She set up her new ultra-light laptop Cuter Computer with the hot pink case, a gift from her dad when she started her senior year at Lawndale High School, plugging in the phone jack and power cable. She took out some of her clothing, but she quit after filling an empty bureau drawer. “This can wait for tomorrow,” she said to herself. “I’m beat.” She heaved the suitcase off the bed and set it next to the bureau, moved her purchases from Cashman’s next to the suitcase, and eyed the turned-down bed. It looked very comfy and inviting, but . . .

       Maybe not yet. She was a little hungry, even after the orange. She started to walk to the kitchen again when her gaze fell on Amy’s belongings, on top of the bureau near the door.

       Quinn checked to make sure the round-frame glasses, so much like Daria’s, were intact. She figured Amy must have been wearing them when she was shot. Maybe her night vision wasn’t so good. She was almost forty-four, after all, and the human body could take only so much. At least I have my youth, Quinn thought. Seventeen is a good age. Popular, popular, popular.

       But not smart.

       She frowned and put down the glasses. Amy’s handbag was a knit style, dark brown with an embroidered tree on it. Quinn picked up the bag, seeing a stain spot, and held it close to her face.

       The handbag was splattered with small drops of dark, dried reddish brown. Bloodstains.

       “Well,” she said at last, “maybe it will clean up.” She took the handbag to the kitchen and carefully emptied its contents onto the counter next to the sink: a round-trip airline ticket from Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C., to New York City and back; a sewing kit (with a needle that pricked Quinn’s index finger); an overstuffed combination wallet, calculator, and day planner; a half-dozen sales slips from various restaurants in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.; six foil-wrapped chocolate candies; a business card from a plant shop in Arlington; five empty candy wrappers; two combs; a hairbrush; a pink lipstick; Amy’s car keys (which Quinn had dropped into the bag earlier that evening); four fat pens in different colors; a pencil with a broken tip and no eraser; eight paper scraps with phone numbers on them and various initials and scribbles; a pile of coins from the United States, Europe, Canada, and Japan; an old two-dollar bill with Jefferson on it; two tampons; a case with a pair of round-frame prescription sunglasses; an empty case for regular glasses (into which Quinn put Amy’s regular glasses, rescued from the car); a contact lens case; a small bottle of contact lens solution; three cough drops; two used tissues (which Quinn threw out); another condom pack (that Amy!); a white container of birth-control pills (which Quinn set aside); a well-used toothbrush with plastic wrap over the brush end; nine sticks of cinnamon-flavored chewing gum; an expired coupon for an oil change at a Farborough gas station; a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for cheese fries at Pizza King; two unidentifiable brass keys; a credit card from Super Bank One in Bethesda, Maryland (which Quinn stuffed into the wallet before she zipped it shut); a nail file; a small yellow card on which was printed “Thanks for double parking, you inconsiderate bastard!”; a business card from a landscaper in Farborough; a folded magazine article on the care of house plants; and a chain of maybe thirty or forty linked paperclips.

       Nothing in it was unusual, as far as Quinn was concerned—just normal stuff for the woman who was forever on the go. It did lend proof that Amy had a life elsewhere, though.

       The handbag was machine washable, according to its label. Quinn dropped it into the washer in the laundry room, added detergent, and set the machine on delicate fabrics. She discarded the idea of washing her own clothing, which was beyond saving, and made a mental note to ask Amy when the garbage went out.

       Quinn walked back into the kitchen and looked through the cabinets for a box of hot cocoa packets she remembered seeing earlier. She found it and took it down—diet, fat-free, sugar-free hot cocoa, perfect. She poured a cup of water, put it in the microwave, and tapped it for two minutes. She then looked at Amy’s belongings again, then picked out the fat black pen and uncapped it, meaning to make a list of things she needed to do.

       When she pulled the cap off, the pen tip and part of the plastic around it came off by accident. Visible on the pen’s new tip was a strange thing indeed, a plug of some kind. It looked like it was supposed to fit into a computer’s USB port.

       “Oh,” she said in recognition. The fat pen was a flash drive. A secret flash drive. What the hell was Amy doing with something like this in her purse?

       The pink computer was already booted up. Was it right to pry? No, but . . .

       She took the “pen” into her bedroom and popped it into a USB port on her Cuter Computer. Moments later, she finished running a virus scan of the contents, which came up clean. She then looked at the flash drive’s only contents, a large rich-text document file called RAINBOWARC.

          Quinn grinned. That liar! She ought to kick that dork Ralph right in the Hot Wheels. Here was total proof that Amy was an art appraiser, even if she had a workplace off in Virginia or whatever. She had a secret file about rainbows! How artsy was that, anyway?

       For a moment, she dithered with the idea of opening the file and reading it, but her moral sense was still fairly strong. Plus, maybe Amy would be able to tell if someone had opened the file. Best to leave it as it was for now. Quinn replaced the pen tip, recapped the pen, and stuck it in her pocket. She then went back to the kitchen and took her cup of water out of the microwave, fixed her cocoa, drank it, and went to bed at two thirty-three in the morning.

       And got up and fumbled with her computer. So, Amy and Ralph worked in McLean, Virginia? Maybe there was an art center there. Maybe Ralph was pulling her leg about the accountant stuff. Maybe Quinn had been too hard on him when all he was doing was kidding her. Quinn winced. Well, maybe that could be fixed later.

       She called up a search engine and thought, fingers poised over the keys, then pecked in: mclean virginia. She hit “Search” and checked the results. Nothing special: McLean, Virginia, was a suburb of Washington, D.C.

       Quinn frowned. Ralph had said something about where they worked, the bush something or other, before he corrected himself. She added the word bush to the other two search words, clicked “Search,” and skimmed the results. The third entry caught her attention.



Careers with the CIA: The George Bush Center for Intelligence, in McLean, Virginia, is the home of the Central Intelligence Agency, which . . .



       “Whoa,” said Quinn. “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” She clicked on the link. She didn’t believe for a second that her aunt was working for the CIA, but this was too bizarre. A webpage appeared on her monitor, detailing possible careers for those wanting to join the CIA. What caught her attention first, though, was the pretty photograph of the futuristic George Bush Center for Intelligence building in McLean.

       It was exactly, precisely, unmistakably the same building in front of which Amy Barksdale had been standing, in the photograph Quinn had earlier found in one of Amy’s magazines. Quinn proved it by walking back into the living room, getting the photo, and comparing it to the one on the screen.

       Taking a break from work, said the handwriting on the photo’s back.

       “Holy crap,” Quinn whispered, shocked to her core. This couldn’t be true. It had to be some kind of mistake. Her Aunt Amy, the Bohemian Amy, working at the CIA? Amy was a spy? That was . . . just not possible. There had to be some other explanation for this.

       Quinn turned off her computer and put the photo on top of it, then turned off the lights and made herself go to bed. It took forever to shut off her thoughts.





Chapter Five
Catching Up with Amy



          A loud ringing jerked Quinn out of a dreamless sleep. She shrieked once, kicking her blankets, then fell out of bed while reaching in the wrong direction for the telephone. The room was unfamiliar, and she couldn’t remember where she was for several seconds. It was also chilly, though Quinn had worn the ugly sweat suit and a pair of her heavy socks to bed for extra warmth.

       She managed to get the phone to her ear after fumbling and dropping it twice. “Hello? Hello?”

       “Room service,” said a deadpan voice. “Would you like someone to come up and fluff your pillow?”


       “The same. So, you’re enjoying yourself at Aunt Amy’s while I’m suffering the joys of higher educa—”

       “Daria, stop it! Listen to me. I have to talk to you.”

       “I don’t have an extra scrunchie I can loan out, but if you call—”

       “Aunt Amy’s in the hospital, damn it! Let me talk!”

       Dead air filled two long seconds. “What?” Daria said, her voice higher than usual.

       “I said, Aunt Amy’s in the hospital here! Someone shot her while she was driving here last night! I found her car off the road and had to stop her from bleeding to death!”

       More dead air, then Daria’s anxious voice came over the phone. “Quinn, for once I would be happy if you would please tell me this is a sick joke.”

       “Would I kid you about a thing like this? What kind of idiot do you think I am?”

       “Okay, okay, I’m sorry! She was shot?

       “Yes! Listen to me, all right?”

       Quinn could hear Daria breathing rapidly. “Okay. Is she—is she alive?”

       “Yes! She’s in intensive care right now. Some stupid hunter must have thought her car was a deer or something. I drove by right after it happened and found her Triumph in the ditch. The police came by right after that, and we got her in an ambulance and into surgery. I haven’t talked to her since then. The hospital says she might come home early next week if she’s doing well enough. She lost a lot of blood, but the bullet missed her lungs and everything important. She looked so awful. You wouldn’t have believed it. I had to throw out all my clothes. They were totally ruined.”

       “Ruined from . . .?”

       “From Amy! She bled all over me!”

       “Oh. Oh, no.” A stunned pause, then: “Quinn, how long are you going to be there?”

       “Until Monday at least, maybe longer if I have to. I can’t get Mom or Aunt Rita on the phone, can you believe that? Mom wouldn’t even tell me where she and Dad were going on this damn intimacy vacation or whatever it is, and Rita’s not home. I can’t get Erin, and I don’t want to call Grandma Barksdale and get her all upset, as bad off as she is lately.”

       “Okay, I’m going to drive there as soon as I get off the phone. Oh, crap, I’m going to have to call . . . listen, I’ll be there by Sunday sometime, no matter what.”

       Quinn felt a rush of relief. Daria wasn’t easy to get along with, but she could be trusted. This whole disaster would be infinitely better with her sharing the burden. “That would be great, if you can get away. I’m about at the end of my rope. Can you try to get Mom or Rita for me? I’m about to leave in a little to see how Amy’s doing. Oh, do you want the hospital’s number?”

       “Yeah, give me that.”

       “Hold on.” Quinn ran in the other room, retrieved the paper with the hospital’s phone, and read it back to Daria.

       “Quinn, I need to ask you something,” Daria said when that was done. “Have the police talked to you about what happened, the shooting?”

       “They’re supposed to call back if they find out anything.”

       “Are they sure it was an accident?”

       “Well, what else could it be? There are damn hunters all over the place looking for deer, I bet, and—”

       “Quinn, no one could possibly mistake a car for a deer.”

       “Well, I don’t know how those stupid Bambi-shooters think! Why would anyone want to shoot Aunt Amy?”

       Daria was silent for a moment before she said, “Talk to the police when you can and see if they know anything more about this. Let me know when I get there.”

       “Daria! No one would shoot her . . .” Unless, perhaps, Amy really is a CIA spy and an enemy agent came along and saw her and—

       Quinn angrily shook off the thought. This was getting more idiotic by the second.

       “Quinn, please, just do it, okay? Find out if there’s a chance it wasn’t an accident.”

       “Hey!” said Quinn, following her instincts. “Do you know something about Amy that I don’t?”

       “I have to go,” Daria said quickly. “I have to call the hospital and get out of here.”

       “Daria! Answer me!”

       “I can’t talk over the phone, okay?” Daria snapped, then continued in a calmer tone. “I’ll see you tomorrow at Amy’s house, I promise.” She then hung up.

          Quinn held the phone in her hand for a few seconds more, then carefully put it back on the cradle. The bedside clock/radio said it was 7:34 a.m., Saturday morning.

       Something was definitely going on. Daria knew something about Amy that Quinn didn’t know—something that Amy had told Daria, and Daria alone.

       Quinn’s mind raced, her face betraying her anxiety. If Aunt Amy had to choose between a smart niece and a popular airhead niece, which would she pick? It was no contest. What Amy had said to Quinn at the accident scene about being her favorite niece was nice to hear at the moment, but it wasn’t likely to be true in the long run. Or maybe Amy was hallucinating that Quinn was Daria.

          Everything was made worse because Quinn had already heard Amy, in an unguarded moment, call Daria her favorite niece. Quinn had tried not to think of it since then, but now it filled her head. True, Amy had also called Quinn her favorite niece shortly afterward, but maybe she was kidding then, or making up because she thought Quinn overheard.

       Ralph’s words came back to haunt her. Are you the smart one or the popular one? He could have gotten a comment like that only from Amy herself.

       “Why do there have to be favorites, anyway?” she mumbled. She quietly made the bed to give herself time to think, then walked off to the bathroom.

       At a quarter after eight, Quinn finished brushing out her long orange-red hair and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She applied a minimum of makeup, checked her outfit, then stood looking at herself, arms at her sides. She had on her new embroidered dark-blue jeans from Cashman’s, a robin’s-egg-blue top with a wild rainbow on it, bluebird earrings, a gold necklace, and her new pair of all-leather designer cowgirl boots. She stared at her reflection in the mirror.

          I look stupid. I am stupid. She turned away, feeling ashamed, and turned out the light as she left the bathroom.

       Amy’s handbag was a damp but clean lump at the bottom of the washer. Quinn tossed it in the dryer and set it on delicate, then went through Amy’s belongings again. She picked out the eyeglasses, the birth-control pills, and—after some thought—the hairbrush. She remembered Amy had said once that she brushed out her hair when she needed to calm down. Maybe it would help even if she didn’t think Quinn was all that great a niece. And who was to say Amy wasn’t right about that?

       “I am a good niece,” Quinn said aloud, but without conviction. She went back to the bedroom, her stomach growling, and got the gift-wrapped perfume bottle. Maybe Amy would like it, and it was all Quinn had to give.

       She was on her way back to the kitchen when the phone rang again.

       “You had better not be Ralph,” she grumbled as she picked up the receiver. The caller ID said it was from LEEVILLE VA. It had to be Erin Danielson. She and Brian had moved there soon after their honeymoon, when he lost his government job but got a new job with the state. “Hi, Quinn here.”

       “H-h-hellooo?” said a somewhat familiar female voice. “Whoozis?”


          “Yeah? Whoozis? Quinn?”

       She sounds like she’s drunk. “It’s me,” Quinn began in a relieved voice. “Did you get my message?”

       “Yeah. You said t’ call here, and I’m callin’. Is Brian there with you? Huh?”

       Quinn blinked. “What? Brian’s not here. Erin, listen—”

       “Th’ hell he’s not! He’s run off with you, hasn’t he?

       Stunned, Quinn’s patience burst. “Erin, I don’t have time for this! Are you drunk, stoned, or what? Snap out of it!”

       “He’s there with you, isn’t he? Brian! Damn it, are you hidin’ there? Brian!

       Aghast, Quinn stared at the phone in her hand. “Erin!” she shouted.

       “Brian Danielson, you cheatin’ bastard!” Erin screeched, slurring her S’s. “You’ve been gone a week! Are you shackin’ up with my seventeen-year-old cousin? You don’t want a real woman anymore? I’m twenty-five, damn it! I’m almost at my sek-shul peak! You don’t need a teenager, you moron, you need me! A real woman! You get your ass back here now, or—”

       Quinn hung up, swearing violently under her breath. Of all the nerve! She’d had high hopes for her glamorous cousin and her handsome beau once, but that seemed like a lifetime ago. First came the revelation from her mother Helen that Erin’s husband had given her herpes, and she’d married him because she thought no one else would want her. Then came their near-divorce just a year ago, then rumors of nasty arguments over money and Brian’s long work hours, then this. Damn you, Erin!

       Smoldering, Quinn stomped into the kitchen. The phone rang again, but she ignored it and looked in the refrigerator, forgetting that it was nearly empty. The phone cut off after three rings, picked up by a hidden answering machine. Aunt Amy’s gonna have some interesting messages to listen to when she gets home, Quinn thought. I still hope she’s okay, no matter what she thinks of me.

          Quinn shut the refrigerator in a foul mood. She didn’t want to think about Amy, because it would remind her of Daria and the special bond they had that Quinn would never share. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind. “Let’s see if Farborough has anything like a real grocery store,” she said aloud. “Maybe they have a Super Food Lord and I can get a salad or cereal for breakfast. Or even a low-fat milkshake, something. Anything.”

       She cleaned up before she left, throwing the sweat pants and her other old things into a hamper in the laundry room. The fat “pen” fell out of the sweat pants pockets, so she stuck it in a back pocket of her jeans. The big gray coat would have to do until she got something better. She decided to give the sweat suit to the hospital later, so someone else could wear it. Maybe she’d have a new coat by then, too, but she doubted it.

       On her last tour through the house, Quinn stopped at the one door she had not opened yet. It was the door at the end of the hall, past Amy and Quinn’s bedrooms. Quinn had thought it was a linen closet the night before, but she later found the linens in another closet off the dining room. She tried the doorknob, but it was locked. She shrugged. It could wait for later. Feeling a chill, she looked around the walls and spotted a thermostat next to the locked room. She reached up to move the dial and warm up the house while she was gone.

       Her fingers touched the dial, then stopped. The “thermostat” had a round sticker on the knob showing an anxious white rabbit wearing a waistcoat jacket, staring at a pocket watch. On either side of the rabbit was written, “I’M LATE!” The dial’s numbers did not go like a regular thermostat, either; instead, they ran from 01 up to 00 (one hundred). Turning the dial caused nothing whatsoever to happen.

          “Amy, you have got some weird things, but this is a weird thing,” she said. The rabbit looked like the White Rabbit from the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, which Quinn had enjoyed as a child. She vaguely recalled a song that the rabbit sang, something about being late. How did it go? She shrugged, played with the dial a little longer, then gave up and walked away. Fixing the heat in the house would have to wait.

       A similar thought came to her as she walked past the living room again. She could try calling her parents and Aunt Rita again, or even try to call her best friend, Sandi Griffin . . . but maybe later would be better. After the double blow from Daria and Erin, Quinn was not in the mood to share the bad news all over again. Sandi couldn’t do anything to help except listen, then she’d begin to complain about her own problems, as she always did, and . . . never mind.

       A quick check out the window showed no one was around in front. The sky was overcast and it was cold, but little wind was blowing. Quinn peeked out the peephole, then turned off the alarm system and reset it so she could leave the house. She was surprised at how desolate Amy’s property looked in the daylight, all brown grass and bare gray trees and dead flowers in their beds. She walked to the Lexus in the driveway, which seemed no worse for its stay out at night. A few minutes later, she drove into Farborough.

       Farborough was as rural as Lawndale was suburban. Small taverns, hardware stores, truck repair shops, feed stores, mom-and-pop restaurants, fishing and hunting supply shops, and gas stations were the main features along the highway. Half the townspeople owned pickup trucks, it seemed, and the rest owned battered cars from previous decades. Quinn saw no sign of the rusted pickup truck from the previous night, but she remained wary in case it appeared.

       A Super Food Lord was near the center of town. Quinn parked and went inside, drawing the usual stares because of her cute looks and long red hair. She ignored everyone and got a box of diet cereal bars, a small bottle of milk, and a six-pack of diet decaffeinated Ultra Cola. The salad bar was closed for cleaning.

       “You new here?” the cashier asked. He was a tall, pimply teenager who would not have been called cute even by blind space aliens. He smelled like he needed a quart of deodorant.

       “Maybe,” she said, picking up the bag with her items.

       “Want me to carry that home for you?”

       “No, thanks, I’m driving.”

       “Want me to drive you home?”

       “Let me ask my chauffeur. He’s right outside.”

       “Cool! I’ll be right here waiting for you.”

       “That’s the best place for you to be,” said Quinn as she drove away.

       Farborough Hospital looked smaller in the daytime than at night. Quinn got her breakfast bag and gifts bag, grimaced at the cold when she got out of the car, and walked in through the main entrance. A few minutes later, she stepped out of the elevator onto the second floor. She had to press a button at the sealed doors blocking access to Intensive Care, then after identifying herself was allowed inside. She headed immediately for the nurses’ station.

       The head nurse looked up as Quinn came over. “You’re Quinn, right?” she said with a warm Southern accent. “Darned if I didn’t know it was you, with that hair and all. Your aunt’s awake, just got up maybe twenty minutes ago. The doctor’s in with her right now. She’s down that-a-way in two fifty-five. You can go on in after he’s done.”

       Quinn nodded, not trusting her own voice. She forgot about which niece Amy preferred and what Amy might have told Daria. Amy was still her favorite aunt, no matter what. Suddenly she could not swallow past the lump in her throat. She wiped her eyes as she waited.

       When the door to room two fifty-five opened, a short, bald man wearing glasses and a white doctor’s smock came out. He nodded in Quinn’s direction and started to walk off with a red medical file under his arm. He then stopped and looked directly at Quinn as if noticing her for the first time. “Do you have anything infectious?” he asked, eyes narrowing.

       “Uh, no,” she said. “Not that I know of.”

       He looked relieved. “Okay, go on in,” he said as he left.

       Quinn steeled herself and knocked. As she pushed the door open, she found herself looking right at a hospital bed, its white sheets and white pillow framing a pale, drawn face with a tangle of brown hair around it. The eyes in the face darted to Quinn and lit up like stars.

       “Oh!” Amy whispered. She struggled to sit up, but Quinn had already put down her things and hurried over to give Amy a gentle hug, careful not to touch the massive bandage over her upper right chest. Quinn buried her face in the pillow by Amy’s head and wept.

       “It’s okay, sweetheart,” Amy whispered through her own tears, her left arm holding Quinn in a weak embrace. “It’s okay. Thank you so much for finding me.”

       “I was late!” Quinn sobbed. “I was at the mall and almost missed you!”

       “You found me,” Amy whispered. “You’re my guardian angel. I love you, Quinn.”

       This caused Quinn to cry all the more. Minutes passed before she pulled away and wiped her face with tissues from a box beside the bed.

       “Can you pull a chair up on my left side?” Amy asked. Quinn tried to do so, but the only chair present was too heavy to move. A hospital stool at a nearby table proved suitable, and Quinn sat it next to the bed so she could hold Amy’s left hand as they talked.

       “Well,” said Amy, her voice a rough whisper. “I was late, too, doing grocery shopping. I was juggling a million things and dropping half of them. I was afraid I’d missed you and you were sitting outside the house, ready to bite my head off from being out in the cold.”

       “Doesn’t matter.” Quinn wiped her eyes. That probably had been Amy’s sports car that passed her by just before she took the Interstate turnoff. It all made sense, now. “What did the doctors tell you?”

       “Not much yet. I’m in better shape than they thought, I guess, but still kind of groggy. Must be all the drugs they gave me. The bullet went right through me, didn’t hit anything important except my shoulder blade and one rib and some muscles. Nothing critical. They’ve got this arm—” She indicated her right one “—taped up so I can’t move it, so the wounds will heal, but that’s not so bad. I mean, I’ve still got another arm.” Amy raised her left arm and tried to laugh but coughed instead. “‘Scuse me. I haven’t talked much for a while. I’ve been lying around on my back all morning, then woke up about a half hour ago. Not really with it yet. What did the doctors tell you?

       “They said you might be out of here in a couple of days. I was really surprised. I thought they’d keep you in here a lot longer.”

       “Eh, they want to throw you back out on the street as fast as they can. Can’t say I blame them. This is expensive. Insurance companies hate it.”

       “I don’t think money’s the important issue here, Aunt Amy.”

       “Just call me Amy if you want, dear. So, how’ve you been doing since . . . well, since whatever happened yesterday happened?”

       “Oh.” Quinn sighed and thought. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “Oh, I’ve been staying in your house. I hope you don’t mind. I had your keys and just went there when they said I should go get some rest.”

       A touch of anxiety entered Amy’s face, but she nodded. “I didn’t think the police would let you have my stuff, but that’s fine. Are you in my bedroom, or—”

       “Oh, no, the one across the hall, the guest bedroom. I’m using the hall bathroom. The place is still cleaned up. You use a maid service?”

       Amy looked relieved. “Yeah. I hate cooking and cleaning. I didn’t get a Betty Crocker gene. I guess Helen and Rita didn’t get one, either. When I’m home, I just like sitting around and enjoying the quiet. Anything new at the house?”

       “Not really. The police escorted me there and checked to make sure no one was in there. I’m keeping it clean. Oh!” Quinn got off the stool and picked up her bags, carefully setting them on the bed by Amy’s legs. “Got you something. I washed your purse, by the way.”

       “My purse?”

       “It got stained.”


       Quinn grimaced. “You sort of bled all over it, but it’s okay now. I had to throw out my clothes, ‘cause they were a mess, but your purse is fine. I put everything from your purse into a pile on the kitchen counter. It’s okay. Here, you’ll probably need this.” She reached in the sack and handed Amy her birth-control pills.

       Amy’s pale cheeks suddenly turned pink. “Oh,” she said, in a surprisingly flat, Daria-like monotone. “You’re right. Thanks.”

       “Speaking of which, Ralph called.”

       The pink in Amy’s face deepened. “He did, huh? What did you tell him, and what did he tell you, if you don’t mind my asking.”

       “Oh, we had an interesting talk.” Quinn hesitated, sorting out her thoughts—and, for reasons she could not identify, she lied. “He said you had an office in Virginia somewhere, where you do all your art stuff.” Amy looked startled, but Quinn went on. “You should have told me about it. I’d love to come visit you there sometime. I told him how you were, and he’s going to try to get out here today or tomorrow to see you. He’s . . . well, he seems okay.”

       “Seems okay? Well, that’s what I think, too. He’s okay.” She cleared her throat, looking down at the birth-control pills, wagging the box in her fingers. “I’m not saying that this has anything to do with him, you understand.”

       “Oh, of course not,” said Quinn, fighting back a smile.

       “Um,” said Amy, “you said you were using the hall bathroom?”


       Amy frowned. “I should get in there and put things away. I didn’t think about it before—”

          “Oh, you mean the condoms. Quinn couldn’t help rubbing it in. “No problem. They’re still there.”

       Amy dropped the pillbox and covered her face with her free hand. “Crap,” she muttered. “I could strangle the cops for giving you my stuff, but too late now. I knew I’d mess everything up. Please don’t spread this back to your mom, if you don’t mind.”

       Quinn giggled, feeling devilish. “Don’t worry. I can’t even get Mom on the phone. She and Dad went off to an intimacy retreat somewhere, and the lodge won’t let me connect with their room. They didn’t want us kids interrupting things, I suppose, though that hasn’t worked out for the best. I can’t get Rita, either—”

          That’s probably for the best.”

       “—but I got Daria, and she’s coming. She’ll be here tomorrow. And Erin returned my call, but she’s, um, not doing so well.”

       Amy sighed. “Trouble with Brian, I bet. She sure knows how to pick ‘em. Eh. Well, I have two favorite nieces, anyway. Two out of three’s not bad.”

       Stung, Quinn looked away and swallowed. “Erin’s . . . she’s okay, sometimes.” She went on in a softer tone. “Daria’s probably more your favorite. She’s more like you, I think.”

       “Both you and your sister are my favorites.”

       Quinn struggled with this. “Well . . . Daria’s smart, and I’m not, and I can understand if you and she—”

       “Hey,” said Amy sharply. “Look at me.”

       Quinn looked up into Amy’s shining eyes. “Never say that,” Amy said. “You and your sister are both wonderful, and you mean everything to me. Neither of you is more special to me than the other, and you’re both as dear to me as anyone can get.” A shadow crossed her face. “I’m sorry I wasn’t around for so much of your life. I started thinking after I saw you and Daria at Erin’s wedding that I wasn’t a part of your life at all. It never bothered me before, don’t ask me why, but it did then. That’s why I started calling every month or so. Daria called me a few times, too, asking about contacts and things like that.” She paused in thought. “I remember when the two of you were born, how exciting that was—then I let my work wipe out everything else. I’m more like Helen than I thought, but at least she’s been a good mother at the same time she’s been a workaholic.”

          She coughed, then went on. “I can’t make up the lost time, but I want to know you again and find out who you are. That’s why I wanted you to stay over this weekend.” She fell back on her pillow, exhausted. “Whew! Talking’s wearing me out. Boy, things sure didn’t turn out like we thought they would, did they?”

       “No,” Quinn said with feeling. “They sure didn’t.” On impulse, she leaned forward and kissed her aunt’s hand. “Oh,” she added, sitting up again, “I have your glasses, too. Do you wear contacts? Oh, damn, I forgot to bring the contacts case.”

       “Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing to read here, anyway, and I don’t need contacts or glasses to see you.”

       “Want me to bring you a book from home?”

       “Let me think about that. Maybe that would be good. I’m afraid I might get bored enough to watch TV, and that would be a new low for me.”

       Quinn looked at Amy’s dark, wavy hair. She leaned forward and touched it with her fingers. “They need to wash your hair. I brought your brush, in case you wanted it.”

       “Oh, thank you, sweetie. I’ll have to do that. They need to wash the rest of me, actually. I bet I don’t smell very good.”

       “I can’t even smell you over the hospital smells. I’m sure you’re okay. Oh, and that reminds me of the last thing I brought.” Quinn pulled out the gift-wrapped perfume and nervously gave it to Amy. “I got this for you at the mall. Hope you like it.”

       “Oh, Quinn, you didn’t have to.” Amy held the package close to her face, turning it over in her left hand. She appeared to be quite nearsighted, like Daria. “What is it?”

       “Open it, silly, and find out.”

       Amy smirked at Quinn, then unwrapped the present with Quinn’s help. She gasped and became quite animated when she saw the perfume bottle. “Oh, thank you! I love Secret Sensual Scented Garden! Did someone tell you about it? I ran out of this a month ago and never got around to getting more! Thank you!” She reached for Quinn and there was a new round of hugs.

       Quinn glowed, happier than she had been since she arrived in Farborough. She decided to take a stab in the dark. “So, how’s the art business? You said you look at pictures and stuff and tell people how much their stuff is worth? Auctions and that kind of thing?”

       Amy was quiet for a little too long. Her gaze remained fixed on the perfume bottle in her left hand. “Let’s not talk about work right now,” she said evenly, “although I’m glad you reminded me of it. I’d better make some calls now that I’m up. Can you hand me that phone over there? Will the cord reach?”

       Quinn got up and brought a desktop telephone to the bed and set it beside her aunt. “Going to call Grandma Barksdale?” She grinned. “Or Ralph?”

       “Um, neither, actually, at the moment. I, uh, need to tell some people from work what happened. I won’t be able to come in on Tuesday, as things look now.”

       Quinn’s anxiety rose. “Amy, it’s Saturday. No one’s going to be at work, are they?”

       “Oh, some people will. They’ll need to know what happened, so I can, um, get sick leave. I’d better call now. Would you do me a favor? Can I have about fifteen minutes by myself? That’s all I should need. I won’t be able to talk longer than that. I’ll call Grandma and maybe Ralph, too, if I can get him. Maybe you could get something to eat, and come back in a little while once I’m done.”

          Quinn was surprised, but she was agreeable. Who would be working on a Saturday at an art appraisal business, over a long vacation weekend? Of course, if Amy worked at the CIA, and someone had shot her, she would certainly need to call in. But . . . was she shot by accident? Daria didn’t seem to think so. Should Quinn bring it up to Amy? What else did Daria know?

       “Thanks, sweetie,” said Amy, pulling the phone closer. “Just give me fifteen, twenty minutes, that’s all.”

          Quinn picked up her plastic sack from Super Food Lord, buoyant again. “I’ll leave my other things here with you. See you soon!” She blew Amy a kiss, then walked out and let the room door shut behind her. May as well find the cafeteria and have a real breakfast, such as it is, she decided.

       At that exact moment, someone grabbed Quinn by the left bicep.

       “Gotcha,” said a man right behind her.





Chapter Six

Big Surprises in Little Packages



       What happened next came straight out of instinct. One thought went through Quinn’s mind—the people who were stalking me have caught me—in the second before her fight-or-flight system flicked on and chose fight.

       Her right arm whirled around with the heavy plastic grocery bag in her fist. The diet cereal bars, small bottle of milk, and six-pack of diet decaffeinated Ultra Cola slammed into the stalker’s head, knocking him backward. Flight then took over as Quinn shrieked and ran for the nurses’ station. The grocery sack tore as she ran, and cans of Ultra-Cola clattered across the tile floor behind her.

       “Help me!” she screamed as she flung herself around a desk between two startled nurses, one of whom danced back and dropped a stack of patients’ charts. Quinn pointed the way she’d come. “Someone’s after me! There’s a man who’s trying to—”

       She broke off. The man was kneeling on the floor, holding the side of his head. She recognized him. “Brian?” she said. “Brian Danielson? Is that you?

       “Quinn?” he replied, gritting his teeth. “God, what happened?”

       “Oh, damn it!” Quinn rushed past the nurses and ran to Brian’s side, helping him to his feet as the nurses looked on. “You scared me to death when you grabbed me like that! I’m so sorry!”

          “Is everything okay?” one of the nurses called.

       “Yes, fine!” Quinn yelled back. “My mistake! No problem!”

       “Easy for you to say,” Brian moaned. Quinn helped him to a chair, then ran back to collect her scattered grocery items. She returned and piled her things in another chair.

       “What in the world are you doing here?” Quinn said, sitting beside him. “Did Erin get in touch with you?”

       “What? Oh, uh . . . did she call here?”

       “She called me at Aunt Amy’s house this morning. Erin said she didn’t know where you were. She’s been looking for you for a week now. Did something happen?”

       He exhaled heavily. “She knows where I am. We’re taking a breather from each other. Things have been a little tense at home, and we decided to get away for a couple weeks. I’ll call her back in a few minutes. Maybe she finally wants to talk.”

       Quinn elected not to mention Erin’s theory about Brian having a girlfriend on the side. “What are you doing here?

       “Oh.” He laughed, though painfully. “I’m staying in a hotel in town, scouting out some real estate. That’s my job now, running around selling houses, farms, whatever’s in the tri-county area. I passed my realtor’s exam last year. I don’t know if you heard about it. Selling real estate’s not as simple as it sounds. I got up—”

       “You’re here over a holiday weekend? You’re worse than Mom is, working over weekends at that darn law office. Isn’t the Martin Luther King weekend a holiday for real-estate people, too?”

       “Well,” he said, shrugging, “as I said, Erin and I are taking a break from each other, and I don’t have anything else to do but work. I’m looking at some properties in Clinton County before heading back to the office Tuesday. Good thing I like to travel. Anyway, I was in the hotel this morning and saw the paper, and there was an article about Amy’s accident. I thought I’d come by and see how she was, but I met you—” He laughed once, wincing as he held his head “—and here we are.”

       “Sorry about that,” Quinn said, embarrassed. “You and Erin are getting back together again, right?”

       “Oh, yeah,” he nodded, looking at the floor. He sounded more resigned than enthusiastic at the possibility. “We always do.”

       “You’d better call her back, then. She sounded pretty upset.”

       “Great,” he muttered. “That means she’ll . . . oh, forget it.” He looked up as footsteps approached. “Uh-oh.”

       “There a problem here?” said a hospital security guard. He had his right hand on the butt of a holstered Taser on his belt.

       It took five minutes of explanation to get the security guard to decide that indeed no problem existed. Quinn’s explanation of her paranoia after her aunt’s shooting seemed to satisfy him, but he still gave them a firm warning that any further disturbances would result in their removal from the hospital grounds and, very likely, their arrests.

       “I’m going to remove myself anyway,” Brian said to Quinn with a forced smile, pressing a cold compress to his temple. “Tell Amy I might drop by later. I’m going back to the hotel and take a nap. I promise to give you proper warning next time. No sneaking up on you ever again.”

       “I’m really sorry,” she said. “I really feel bad about this.” It was the truth. This incident would not go down well with Erin if she and Brian made up. Erin would be ticked about Quinn hitting her husband, but she was far more likely to wonder why the two of them were together in Farborough to begin with. If Erin had taken up drinking, it would only be worse.

       “Oh, by the way,” said Brian, “where did Amy’s belongings go? The stuff in her car—her purse, suitcases, things like that. Did the police get them?”

       “No, I did. She didn’t have much.” The words no sooner left Quinn’s mouth than she felt uncomfortable. Why is he even asking me about that?

       “So, they’re at her house, safe and sound?” When Quinn nodded, Brian looked relieved. “Good. Stuff can disappear from police evidence rooms. It’ll be safer with you.”

       Quinn nodded, frowning a little. Brian waved goodbye, promised to keep in touch, and walked to the elevators with the security guard. As the doors closed, Quinn heard them starting to talk about the upcoming “March Madness” in college basketball.

       With nothing else to do, Quinn sat and moodily ate two cereal bars and polished off her milk. Some of the Ultra-Cola cans were dented, and all were shaken up in the incident with Brian, so she avoided opening them. By the time she finished, it was time to check on Amy.

       She knocked on Amy’s door, then opened it a crack. Amy was listening to the phone with a disturbed look on her face, as someone ranted loudly over the handset. Amy spotted Quinn and motioned her in. After Quinn took a seat on the stool by the bed, her aunt pushed a button on the touch-tone phone, listened a moment longer, then hung up. “Just got my messages at home after calling work,” she said. “So, Erin thinks you’ve kidnapped Brian and made him your personal sex slave. You go, girl! I’ve got to hand it to you, though: you really know how to pick ‘em.”

       “Oh, God, no!” Quinn groaned in mortification. “She didn’t really say that, did she?”

       “Only five or six times, maybe more. I’m not criticizing your actions, you understand, only your taste in men. Me, I would’ve gone for a hottie and not an outright dork. Brad Pitt for sure, after he dumps what’s-her-name. You’ll have to tell me how you captured Brian and tied him up. I could use some pointers from an expert.”

          “It’s not like that at all!” Quinn hastily explained Erin’s accusatory phone call and Brian’s sudden and disastrous appearance outside Amy’s hospital door. The latter story brought a look of glee to Amy’s weary face, with joyful cries of “You didn’t!” and “Couldn’t you have hit him a second time before the cops arrived?”

       “There weren’t any cops!” Quinn said, grinning. “Just the guard. He let us go.”

       “A shame he couldn’t take Brian off for a cavity search. I wonder if you could’ve said a little something to make that happen. You could make an anonymous call to the police later. We need to plan this out. Nothing like a harmless practical joke to keep the family dysfunctional.”

          “Don’t you like Brian?” Quinn gasped through her laughter.

       Amy’s smile faded. She sighed and looked at the door, then back at Quinn. “He made a pass at me, after the wedding,” she said.

       Quinn’s laughter shut off in an instant, replaced by shock. “What? He did what?

       “Daria and I went to a bowling alley when your mother and Rita started to get into it, after they’d had too much champagne. I think you were with your escort, what’s his name. Anyway, Brian beat us to the bowling alley, but I don’t think he knew we were heading there. It was just our bad luck. He was drinking at the bar. Daria and I had some lunch, and when she went to the restroom, he came over and asked if I wanted to have a private party with a real secret agent.”

          “He what? Oh, no!”

       “Oh, it’s true. He was drunk as a Podunk skunk by then, and I’m not even sure he remembers doing it. I guess he wanted to take sarcastic little old me out for a test drive before he had to settle down with his shiny new Erinmobile.”

       Quinn was aghast. “Ohmigod, what did you do?

       “I poured my cola down his shirt, got Daria, and left. Never saw him again. Or Erin. Not that that’s been a problem for me.”

       “He told you he was a secret agent? So he really was?”

       “Oh, I don’t know if he was or not. Erin was blabbing to everyone at the reception that he had a job with some government intelligence agency, and if he was, he was too smitten to shut up about it. I bet he’s taken quite a few ladies out for test drives since then. He seems like the kind who would. I’d say ‘poor Erin’ if she hadn’t told me at the wedding how sorry she was that I was childless and unmarried and over forty, and she’s not over forty, the smart-mouthed little . . . Anyway, she also said my choice in radio stations sucked, and my car made me look like a traveling call girl. I kind of liked that last part, but that crack about my radio stations really got my thong in a wad.”

       Quinn laughed again, though she was stunned at her aunt’s revelation. “Oh, Amy!”

       “What, you never heard that one before? I made it up. Always wanted to try it out.” She sighed, looking wistful. “I guess I don’t have to worry about the car making me look like a hooker anymore. I should call my insurance company, too.”

       “Amy,” Quinn whispered, glancing at the door to make sure it was shut, “you, uh, know that Brian has herpes, right?”

       Amy blinked and stared at Quinn. “He what? He told you this?”

       “Oh, no! Mom told me!”

       Her aunt’s mouth fell open. “How did she know? This just gets better all the time!”

       “No, no, no! Erin told Rita, and Rita told Mom! Brian gave it to Erin, and Mom says she married him because she didn’t think anyone else would want her!”

       “The family secrets I’ve missed! Damn it, we have a lot to talk about, you and I. I’d hate to do it here, but I guess we’re stuck with the situation.”

       Amy paused to stare at Quinn, her face aglow. “I want to say something serious for a moment,” she said. “You know, seeing you right after the accident, that was the best moment in my entire life. I was so afraid I was going to die out there, and my shoulder hurt so much I couldn’t even think. And all of a sudden, there you were. I saw you and in that very moment, I knew I was going to make it. You would save me.” She reached for Quinn’s hand and squeezed it. “Thank you. I’ll never say that enough, never.”

       Quinn swallowed, feeling the lump come back in her throat. “So,” she said quickly, not wanting to cry again, “what was the second happiest day in your life?”

       “Oh,” said Amy. She blinked, looked tired. “Um . . . the day I was just plain happy, nothing went wrong at all? That would be July twentieth, nineteen sixty-nine. Definitely.”

       “What happened then? That’s not your birthday, is it?”

       Amy smiled tolerantly. “No, dear. That’s the day humans first landed on the Moon. I watched it on television when I was a teenager, late at night. That was the best moment ever for me, the best day of all, till you showed up and rescued me.”

       Quinn looked down at Amy’s hand. “I love you,” she said.

       “I love you, too,” Amy whispered back. “I’m afraid I’ve worn myself out already. Too much angst for one day. Tell you what. I’m going to try to get through to Rita. I don’t know why I should bother, but I’ll try anyway. And do you have the phone number for that retreat your mom and dad are visiting?”

       “Sure.” Quinn copied the phone number onto a paper towel for her aunt. “Maybe you’ll have better luck getting through those jerks than I did.”

       “I hope so. I’d rather talk to the Velociraptor any day than the Love Machine.”

       Quinn giggled. “Is that a monster, a velo-whatever?”

       “It’s a dinosaur, dear. We over-thirty folks are all dinosaurs to young, up-and-coming mammals like yourself. The Velociraptor was a tightly wound little meat-eater. It chewed off arms and legs like a chain saw in those Jurassic Park movies—the perfect analogy for my middle sister.” She smiled at Quinn. “It’s not really an insult. I admire your mom for what she’s achieved. It took a lot of willpower for her to get where she got in life. Better a Velociraptor than a jellyfish, any day.”

       “What’s this about a Love Machine? Do you mean Aunt Rita?”

       Amy smirked. “Oh, the stories we have to share! Listen, dear, why don’t you let me rest for a couple of hours? Maybe I can talk the staff here into giving me a sponge bath—God, I hate that thought—and get me cleaned up. I’ll be more presentable. Could you come back this afternoon? Let me write down a couple of books you can bring me from the house, if you wouldn’t mind.”

       “No, sure, anything.” She watched as her aunt got a pen from a side table, wrote out some titles on another paper towel, then gave her the list: some bestsellers, a romance, a thriller.

       “See if you can get a nurse to come in,” said Amy, looking tired. “I think I might be a little hungry, too.”

       “Sure thing. I think they’re about to feed you anyway. I’ll be back about, um, one? That okay?”

       “Perfect.” Amy closed her eyes and shook her head. “This turned out to be a crappy weekend, didn’t it?”

       “Well . . . you’re alive. That part turned out great.”

       Amy gently snorted. “You try doing this and see if you think it’s great. I hate hospitals, unless I’m visiting other people in ‘em. I like ‘em just fine, then.”

       “Can I bring anything else?”

       “Mmm, no, just yourself. Oh, if they have a cute male nurse, maybe the Brad Pitt kind, send him in for my bath.”

       Quinn smiled. “See you soon.”

       “See you too. Thank you, Quinn.”

       “Sure. Anything for my favorite aunt.”

       Amy gave a weary smile. “Get some rest yourself, favorite niece.”

       Quinn waved, blew a kiss, and left. She made a quick check outside the room for anyone trying to sneak up on her, then headed out of the hospital for the parking lot.

       It wasn’t until she was in her car and pulling out of the lot that she realized she’d forgotten to ask her aunt a few things, like whether Amy thought the shooting was an accident, and what was the story behind that space photo in her living room. She hadn’t even mentioned the dark pickup truck. She shrugged and blew it off. It was all best pushed aside for now.

       Quinn stopped at a convenience store on her way back to Amy’s house, bought some groceries and magazines, then noticed a local newspaper. She picked it up and found an article at the bottom of the front page about Amy’s shooting. Little information was given, only that a careless hunter was suspected. No suspects were known. Quinn put the paper back, paid for her goods, and headed off. Brian’s story checked out, then.

       She turned into Faraway Acres and was heading down a quiet residential street when a dirty black pickup truck appeared in her vision. It sat off in a cul-de-sac by the side of the road, a driver at the wheel. Quinn felt a chill of fear run down her spine. Her foot hit the gas, and she sped the rest of the way to the house. There, she hurried inside with the groceries, locked the door, and booted up the alarm as fast as she could. It took several minutes for her to summon the courage to peek through the windows, but no pickup truck was in view.

       Relieved, she dropped into a chair in the living room, quite worn out. The stress of the disastrous weekend was getting to her. She felt like she could use a long nap.

       Her gaze wandered to the phone by the left arm of the couch. A red light was slowly blinking on it. Someone had called. She wasn’t in the mood to find out who it was—cousin Erin, probably, yelling about Brian shacking up with her. That was going to be a hell of a mess to sort out.

       Quinn gave in and scooted over to the phone. She picked up the receiver and poked at the button labeled “MSG,” which she hoped stood for “messages.”

       The receiver softly beeped. “First message,” said a recorded female voice.

       “This is the Clinton County sheriff’s office,” said a male voice. “My name is Captain Carl Robbins, and I’m calling for a Miss Quinn Mor—” He stopped, then pronounced the name slowly “—Morgendorffer. If you could call me as soon as possible, I need to speak with you. You can also come down to the sheriff’s office in Farborough. I’ll be here until five this evening.” He gave his phone number and address, then rang off. The female voice came back with a list of numbers to push on the telephone to save, repeat, skip, or delete the message. Quinn put down the phone, got a pen from the kitchen, and wrote down the number on a scrap of paper. There were no other messages.

       “Wonder what he wants,” she mumbled. She resisted the urge to put the paper aside, dreading the news, and made herself dial the number given.

       “Sheriff’s office,” said a different male voice. “Sergeant Whitcomb. May I help you?”

       “Yes, I got a phone call from a Captain Robbins,” Quinn said. “Is he in?”

       “One moment.” The line clicked. She waited.

       “Captain Robbins.”

       “Hi! This is Quinn Morgendorffer. You called me—”

       “Yes, ma’am. Good morning.”

       “Good morning. I was visiting my aunt at the hospital, and I just got in again.”

       “How is she doing?”

       “Oh, better, but she can’t get out of bed yet.” Quinn leaned back into the couch. “They tell me she was very lucky.”

       “That she was,” said Captain Robbins. “Miss Morgendorffer, some of my officers were examining the area where your aunt was shot last night, along route five thirteen, and we think there’s the possibility that the shooting was deliberate. I want to ask you a few questions, if I could. Are you free this afternoon to come down to my office?”

       Quinn’s breath caught in her throat. She stopped thinking about everything else in the world except the captain’s voice. “Eh . . . what? What did you say?”

       “We think there’s a chance that your aunt’s shooting was not an accident, but that it might have been planned. We’re looking into this right now, and we’d like to get some information from you, if possible.”

       “Someone shot—you said someone shot my aunt on purpose?”

       “We don’t know yet, but we have reason to believe that’s possible. It’s also possible the shooter was just out to shoot someone, and your aunt came along at the wrong moment.”

       Words deserted Quinn. This was beyond belief. Someone shot Amy on purpose? Her Amy? Harmless, sarcastic Aunt Amy, who ran an art appraisal business?

       Amy, who might be a spy for the CIA, shot on purpose just like Daria suggested

       She shook off the thought. “I thought—a hunter, you said, or someone said, a hunter . . . may have . . . I can’t believe this.”

       “Yes, ma’am. Like I said, we’re not sure that’s what happened, either, but some things have come to light, and we need to investigate.”

       “Yeah. Of course. This—this—wait a minute.” Quinn lowered the handset and stared into space. After a moment to steady herself, she raised the phone. “What time did you want me in?” she asked, in too high a voice.

       “Anytime this afternoon. I get back from lunch at one, and I’m due in a meeting in a few minutes. Can you do that?”

       Quinn felt as if her sanity had deserted her. Amy had no enemies at all. This was completely impossible.

       “Sure,” she said faintly. “One is fine. I was going to see my aunt at the hospital then, but I’ll go after I see you. Will this take long?”

       “I can’t say, ma’am. I just can’t say.”

       Quinn nodded dumbly. “Okay. How do I get to your office?”

       He gave her directions to the station in Farborough, which she scribbled down, and they hung up once the meeting was confirmed. Quinn sat back on the sofa, overwhelmed. She did not move for what seemed like hours.

       Finally, she got up and went to the bathroom. When she came out, she stood in the hallway and leaned against a wall, staring into a dark corner.

       My mind has snapped, she thought. I’ve completely lost it. I am very tired and I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I have no idea at all what’s going on. I should go back to bed and sleep until I wake up and this awful dream is over. This idea appealed to Quinn, and she shuffled down the hall to her bedroom to do that very thing. She caught herself before she collapsed on the bed, however, and only stood beside the bed before wandering aimlessly out of the room.

       In the hallway, she stopped to play with the thermostat dial on the wall, running it from 01 to 00 and back. She looked at the rabbit again. I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!—that was how the Disney song ran, she remembered, and she smiled. For lack of anything else to do, she tried out her birthday date like a three-number code on a combination lock, using only the last two digits of her birth year, then did that with the current date, then tried it again as a four-digit code breaking her birth year in two, which made more sense. She then got bored and wandered into the kitchen to put away the groceries.

       Going back into the living room, she tried calling her parents’ home. When the answering machine picked up, she left another message for her parents to call her immediately at Amy’s house, warning that it was an emergency. She tried Daria’s dorm number, but no one was there. It was too stressful to try Erin’s number again, and no one was home at Aunt Rita’s. She put down the phone, feeling lonely and alone.

       She got up from the couch and wandered the house again. In her bedroom, she sat on the edge of her bed and checked her e-mail on her pink laptop, deleting a load of spam. Sandi Griffin, her best friend, had sent her a quick note to say her family was going to a dinner at a country club Sunday night, and asking if Quinn would be back in time to go with them. Quinn wrote a short reply, saying only that her aunt was in the hospital in critical condition, things were crazier than could be imagined, and she would write or call later. She included Amy’s phone number but warned that she would be out most of the day.

       Quinn thought about reading her favorite links online, but she had no heart for it. She frequented chat rooms and message boards about dating, fashion, romance, and relationship issues. Lots of shallow thoughts were being tossed around, little of any use or depth. She rarely posted, mostly just reading what everyone else said, too aware that she would be pounced upon by countless males if they discovered that the poster named “RedQ” was a teenage girl. Face-to-face flirting, she could handle, no problem. The rude, mindless groping of the Internet was just too much.

       She logged off of her account and was about to close her computer when she remembered she had the flash drive from Amy’s purse in her back pocket. Crap, I should have given that to her, she thought, then recalled the file on the flash drive: RAINBOWARC. She felt a little guilty over peeking at it, but no need to mention it to anyone later, of course. Quinn got out the “pen” and plugged it into the computer, then clicked on the file and waited for it to open. This would surely set to rest, once and for all, Amy’s true occupation.

       The document opened. Quinn leaned forward, expecting to see stuff about rainbows in artwork. What she saw instead was rather different.











ACCESS NUMBER: SJJS 26939-848BB0116-9A








Tactical and strategic directed-energy weapons were first employed at the time of Archimedes, who is believed to have developed a multipart solar mirror for the defense of Syracuse (c. 213-212 B.C.). In modern times, lasers and particle beams form the backbone of directed energy research. Certain speculations in science fiction are of interest. The matter-transparent particle beam (a.k.a. MTPB or “meson gun”) was recognized as a theoretical possibility after 1947, with the discovery of the meson subatomic particle. Exploration of the MTPB as a defensive system was begun in 1983 as a part of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Originally investigated as one of many particle-beam anti-ballistic missile weapons, the MTPB was dropped following then-insurmountable engineering difficulties and failure to create a coherent timed-decay meson stream using existing accelerators. The MTPB was revitalized with the accidental 1991 discovery of “Methuselah mesons” (decay at .2-.3 seconds) at Los Alamos (PROJECT HEIMDALL), followed by construction of the fixed-base BIFROST IV test model MTPB in 1993. Research has continued at Los Alamos at a rapid pace supported by Congressional oversight committees, as the discovery of M-mesons by foreign powers is only a matter of time. Current trends (PROJECT RAINBOW ARC: AISR) involve development and construction of very large, deeply buried, three-axis (spherical) rotating weapons located in the western inland continental United States, supported by space-based GPS targeting, capable of irradiating any targeted region on Earth or in high orbital space to lethal degrees within 2.6 seconds of a firing command. One MTPB battery of three weapons each will become operational at Warren AFB WY by 1st Q 2007, with a second battery projected to become operational at Minot AFB ND by 4th Q 2007 and a third battery at Malmstrom AFB MT by the end of 4th Q 2008. An advanced system upgrade (radiation armoring) is already anticipated c. 2010-2011 with the possible addition of up to six more batteries. Political consequences of this project are anticipated to be severe in international circles, as RAINBOW ARC renders obsolete the Cold War doctrine of triune nuclear delivery (land-based ICBMs, bomber-based cruise missiles, submarine-based ICBMs). The new paradigm is instantaneous command-to-target timing against which no defense whatsoever exists except a surprise first strike against all existing enemy MTPB batteries or the command structures directing them. The logical conclusions are inescapable and must be acted upon with dispatch.






















































       Quinn leaned back from her computer, staring at the screen with her mouth open. She scrolled down the page to scan what followed, but that was even less comprehensible than the introduction. She then studied the first page as carefully as she could, making only enough headway to realize the document was talking about a superweapon that fired through solid matter. The United States was on the verge of completing a group of these weapons that could strike anywhere on Earth in two or three seconds. Rockets with atom bombs were obsolete and about to be tossed in the trashcan. Horrific wars across Earth and into outer space would be fought and ended in the time it took for Quinn to inhale and exhale once in her sleep.

       And there was no possible way to flee or hide from an attack. The Earth itself would be as if it were invisible, super-guns firing through thousands of miles of rock in no time as all.

       Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide—much the way she felt right now.

       After a minute more, Quinn mechanically closed the file and put the “pen” back in her pants pocket—then thought a second time and stuck the flash drive down inside her right sock instead, deep inside her boot. It would be safest there. She then shut down her laptop and stored it in her suitcase before sitting down again on her bed and shivering violently. The urge to get in the Lexus and drive straight back to Lawndale was almost overpowering.

       Given everything she had just seen, she understood four things of paramount importance.

       One, Amy was a real spy. She really did work at the CIA. She was not an art appraiser and never had been. There was no further question about this.

       Two, the computer file Quinn had just opened was never intended to be seen by her. If anyone found out she had even glanced at it, no matter whether she’d understood even a word of it, she would be in a nightmare of trouble.

       Three, Amy certainly knew what this file was, given the little note Quinn had uncovered in the living room with a reference to “MTPB meet” at nine in the morning the day before. It had probably been a meeting at wherever Amy worked, held the morning before she had lunch with Ralph, then drove back to her home to get groceries and meet Quinn. She remembered she had stuck the paper scrap into the sweat pants now in the hamper; she would need to fish it out and destroy it as soon as possible.

       Four, Quinn now had Amy’s secret file, and only Quinn knew it.

       Quinn stared at the bureau across from her and felt more alone than she ever had in her life—and more afraid than she had ever dreamed was possible.





Chapter Seven

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition



       As Quinn pulled into the parking lot of the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, she remembered she was supposed to meet her aunt at one o’clock back at the hospital. She glanced at her wristwatch and decided she was doing the right thing by going to the sheriff instead. Ralph would be there for Amy anyway, best to let them have some alone time.

       Quinn couldn’t imagine what the sheriff was going to tell her, but if someone had actually tried to shoot Amy, that had to be dealt with right away. Exactly how it would be dealt with was beyond her. One thing at a time, she thought, feeling that she’d already taken a dozen major blows in less than a day and could not cope with any of them. She shoved everything out of her mind but the problem of the moment, put on her gloves, made sure her coat was buttoned, took a deep breath, and got out of her car into an icy wind.

       What does any of this matter now? she thought. They’re building weapons that can destroy the world so fast, I won’t even have time to scream before it’s over. What’s the good of doing anything about anything at all? Who cares? She swallowed and grimly pushed the thoughts aside.

       The sheriff’s office was a modern, one-story sandstone building with numerous antennas sprouting from its roof. Pine trees surrounded it on three sides, which would have given it an attractive look had the day not been overcast and cold. Quinn scanned the highway and surrounding businesses for any sign of a suspicious pick-up truck, but nothing came into view. She went through the revolving doors without incident.

          Inside the station it was warm enough to take her coat off. A large clock on a wall showed it was 12:57 p.m. A man sitting at a broad desk waved at her. “Help you, miss?” he called with a smile.

       “I’m here to see Captain . . . uh—” Bad time to have a mental blowout, she thought, annoyed with herself. “I’m sorry, but I forgot his name.”

       “Captain Robbins?” said the man. Quinn nodded rapidly. “I’ll call him. Just have a seat. Want some coffee or cocoa?”

       Quinn shook her head. She was too rattled to think of food. She wandered back to the small waiting area and was going through a pile of month-old magazines when she heard someone call, “Quinn Morgendorffer?”

       She turned and raised a hand. A uniformed officer waved back from the desk. He was tall, thin, and dark-haired, with a hawk nose and alert eyes. He shook her hand warmly, though he seemed preoccupied. “Captain Robbins. Call me Carl. We don’t stand on ceremony much around here.” He motioned for her to follow him. “Come on back to my office. Sergeant Zane will sit in with us. Cold enough for you?”

       “Yes,” she said, walking after him. “I hate it.”

       “How’s your aunt—Amy Barksdale, right?”

       “Yes. She’s doing better. I forgot I was supposed to see her now, but it can wait.”

       “Can she take visitors? I’d like to have someone drop by this evening to talk with her.”

       “I don’t know. I guess so. You’d have to call the doctors or something.”

       “I’ll do that.” He waved her ahead of him into an office where a tall blonde woman in a deputy’s uniform waited for them. “This is Sergeant Zane,” he said.

       “Quinn?” The woman arose and shook her hand. “I’m Elizabeth Zane. I’m sorry to hear about your aunt. I hope she’s doing better.”

       Quinn nodded and took a seat. “I saw her this morning. She did look a lot better after a while, but she’s tired. Her arm looks bad, but the doctors said she could go home in a couple of days.”

       “Good.” Sergeant Zane lifted an open folder in her lap. “We have your statement from the Farborough police about what happened that evening. You saw a dark pickup truck with a driver who got out for a moment, is that correct?”

       Quinn nodded again. “The headlights from the truck got in my eyes. I couldn’t tell anything about it or the man in it, except that he drove off when the police got there.”

       “Mmm-hmmm. The officers said the same thing. They didn’t get a good look at the vehicle, either, though they thought the license plate might be local. Have you seen anything like this vehicle since the incident?”

       “I might have, in my aunt’s subdivision when I was in her house last night.” Quinn described seeing the black pickup outside Amy’s house the night before, then seeing it again in the subdivision earlier that morning.

       “Why didn’t you call the police about it?” asked Captain Robbins.

       “I wasn’t sure it was the same truck,” Quinn said, feeling anxious. “My nerves were rattled and I didn’t know if I should call, or if it was just some hunters out driving around lost. There’s a lot of construction going on in that subdivision, and maybe it was some of the workers going home. I don’t know.”

       “Well, the next time you see a dark pickup truck outside the house, call us immediately,” said Captain Robbins. “Dial nine-one-one.” He looked at the sergeant. “Tell her what we found at the curve.”

       Quinn looked at the lady officer. “At the curve?”

       “Where your aunt was shot,” said Sergeant Zane, looking at the file in her lap. “You know how the road curves, coming from the Interstate to the place where your aunt’s car was found? A police detective from Farborough checked the area around the outside of the curve, where there’s a fence and scattered trees, and he found evidence suggesting that someone had been waiting there on the night of the shooting.” Zane looked up at Quinn. “You know what a deer blind is?”

       Quinn almost said it was a blind deer, but she quickly decided that was the wrong answer. “No,” she said.

       “It’s a camouflaged position where a deer hunter hides, so the deer can’t see him before he shoots them. Most people build deer blinds up in the tree branches, but it appears that someone took the time to set up a comfortable position on the other side of the fence by the curve, next to a couple of trees that gave him cover. I say ‘him,’ though we don’t know anything about who did this; it could have been a woman, too. Anyway, this person appears to have waited there for some time, maybe several hours from the looks of it, and fired off a rifle shot from there. We found a shell casing in the grass from a kind of rifle we don’t see much of around these parts. Doesn’t look like he was being careful with his brass, or else he didn’t care. We found tire tracks, too, leading from the shooting site to a gravel driveway that joins with the highway. The people who owned the property didn’t recall seeing anything unusual, so the truck must have had its lights out while it was there, but they did hear the gunshot and they were the ones who called it in to the Farborough police. The tire tracks match a certain type of Ford pickup truck, but it’s the kind that damn near everyone around here owns. No evidence was found indicating the presence of second person at the shooting site. Miss Morgendorffer, does your aunt have any enemies who might want to do her bodily harm?”

       Quinn froze. She works for the CIA and carries top-secret documents about world-destroying weapons around with her, but I wouldn’t know who would want to hurt her, unless they wanted the documents she had so they could destroy the world, or they were really mad at her for something she did as a spy or whatever. She could have a million enemies for all I know. “No,” she said softly. “I never heard of anyone who didn’t like her.”

       “Okay,” said Sergeant Zane, “do you know of anything your aunt was doing that might have upset someone, maybe badly enough that they’d want to hurt her?”

       After a beat, Quinn shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “I can’t believe anyone would shoot her.”

       The captain and sergeant quizzed Quinn about her plans to stay with her aunt, what she’d done the day of the shooting, last night, and through the morning to this point. Quinn answered truthfully, leaving out only the unimportant parts—and anything about her aunt being in the CIA and the nightmarish file on the flash drive disguised as a pen. Eventually, the interview ended with the officers getting a promise from Quinn to call if she was able to think of anything that would help the investigation. She left the station white-faced and shaken.

       Someone had not only shot Aunt Amy, but had taken special pains to make sure he got the best possible shot at her. The shooter knew where she lived and even knew the route she would have to take to get home. Why would he try to shoot her where he did? Did he think he could kill her and search the wreck before anyone else came by? And how did he know when she was coming? State Route 513 was a lonely stretch of road, probably not heavily traveled at night even though it connected Farborough with the Interstate. What was going on here?

       Quinn got in the Lexus, numb to the world. What should she do? She remembered that she was supposed to go back to the hospital and see Amy. She nodded. That would be best, even with Ralph there. Maybe she could ask Amy some questions—nothing suspicious, nothing to upset her right now when she was recovering, but just . . .

       “Oh, hell.” Quinn let her head drop forward and rest against her hands, clutching the top of the steering wheel. She had no idea what to do.

       A long moment passed. She thought about the secret file on the flash drive in the sock in her boot. I’m the one who’s got the football now. I’m the one who’ll get sacked if anyone finds out I’ve got the file. Well, better me than Amy, any day. Still, Amy would be pretty ticked at me for taking it, and she’s the one who wanted it, so the best thing for me to do in the long run would be to—

       “Replace it,” she said aloud. She nodded. She had to go back and stick the “pen” back in Amy’s stuff like nothing had ever happened to it. There was no way she was ever going to be caught with that particular item in her possession. It would be her secret and hers alone that she had dared peek at it. She had already destroyed the paper scrap with the rubbing she’d made on Amy’s notepad. It was time to complete the cleanup.

       Quinn sighed, feeling better. After all that was done, she’d head to the hospital and see Amy, maybe take a treat for her. She tried to remember if Amy had a weakness for any kind of candy or cookie. Well, chocolate was a cure for anything, if it came down to that. She started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, heading for the house again.

       The drive was uneventful. Construction crews had put a trench-digging backhoe on the shoulder of the road by the subdivision’s entrance, obviously preparing to lay cable or sewer pipe. Caution signs were up. The cold wind blew dust across the front of the subdivision where several new roads were being put in to add new houses. Quinn wondered what Amy would think of having her peace and quiet spoiled by the addition of so many new neighbors, not to mention construction noise.

       She drove the curvy road toward Amy’s house, planning out the rest of her day. She’d spend a couple hours with Amy, talk to the doctors and find out when her aunt could go home, then get on the phone and start calling family members again. Maybe Amy or Daria had been able to get through to Helen, Jake, and Aunt Rita. Amy’s boyfriend Ralph would be a welcome relief. Daria would arrive tomorrow, if everything went according to plan. That would help a lot.

       The Lexus came over a low rise. Amy’s house came into view.

       It took one second for what Quinn saw ahead of her to register in her brain. Her right foot then jumped off the gas and nailed the brake to the floor. The Lexus came to a screeching halt, dust and gravel flying around it. Her head nearly hit the steering wheel even with her shoulder harness on.

       Parked in front of Amy’s house was a dirty black pickup truck. The truck faced in Quinn’s direction, about a hundred feet away from her. A man in a filthy T-shirt sat at the steering wheel. A second man in dirty work clothes was at the front door to Amy’s house, doing something to the doorknob.

       The driver of the truck abruptly leaned forward, his face visible at the windshield as he stared at Quinn. He then leaned out the side window and shouted something to the man at the front door. The man at the front door turned, saw Quinn, and dropped whatever he was holding as he ran for the pickup. The pickup’s driver started the truck and made the engine roar over the dust-filled wind.

       Run, you idiot! screamed a voice in Quinn’s head.

       She threw the gearshift into reverse and stamped down on the gas. The tires of the Lexus shrieked as they spun on the road, filling the car with the stink of burned rubber. Quinn turned in her seat, left hand on the steering wheel and right hand on the back of the passenger seat to anchor herself in place as she looked out the rear window, struggling to keep the Lexus on a straight line as she accelerated backwards. The car hurled back over the rise, bouncing and fishtailing as it hit gravel on the road down. She locked her driving arm in place, fighting to keep the steering wheel steady as she continued to accelerate. The road stretched out in a great curve with suburban houses along either side. A car approaching from the subdivision’s entrance swerved into a yard to escape Quinn’s oncoming vehicle.

       In moments she saw she was in trouble. The car’s hyper-fast wobbling worsened with her increasing speed; seconds remained before she lost control of the car. She spotted a street intersection coming up and hit the brakes. The Lexus spun completely around down the center of the road, coming to rest still facing in the direction of Amy’s house. As Quinn shifted gears to forward, intending to turn down the nearest side road, she looked up and saw a man in the oncoming pickup truck lean out of the passenger-door window and aim something at her—a shotgun.

       She ducked her head below the dashboard and shut her eyes. The windshield and rear window both burst with an ear-splitting explosion. Crumbled safety glass flew through the car and into her clothing and hair. She stomped the gas and the tires squealed as the car leaped forward. She dared peek over the dashboard again and saw that she was heading right for the truck. The pickup swerved to avoid her, the men inside showing open mouths and raised arms, but she hit the truck with a tremendous bang that shook her down to her teeth. The Lexus tore off the pickup’s rear bumper, spun completely around again, then—with Quinn’s foot still mashing the gas pedal down—took off down the road once more, heading for Amy’s house.

       Quinn made herself look over the dashboard. Freezing air blew through the shattered windshield and made her eyes run. The Lexus flew over the rise at the end of the great curve, moving too fast to stop at Amy’s. A glance in the rear-view mirror showed the Lexus’s rear window was almost completely blown out. The pickup was still coming after her, its rear bumper dragging behind it in a shower of sparks.

       She looked ahead and gripped the steering wheel. The road now ran through a wooded area as she continued accelerating to over seventy miles an hour, hoping to find a place that she could hide or else get back to town. No escape appeared before she rocketed out of the woods and past a large sign that read: NEW HOMES UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Ahead was a long straightaway of cleared, hilly land, lined with weed-covered vacant lots and half-built homes.

       Quinn spotted a four-way intersection and slammed on the brakes, taking the curve to the right in a huge cloud of flying dust and rock. The back of the Lexus slid into the curb with a bang, bouncing the car and jolting Quinn, but she hit the gas again and roared off down the new route. If she could make a full circle around the streets, and if the pickup stayed behind her, she could get back onto the main street leading out the subdivision and head for Farborough. They wouldn’t dare chase her into town—or so she hoped.

       The pickup slowed to take the right turn Quinn had taken. Ahead, the road made another broad curve to the right. She would either head out of the subdivision in moments or would discover herself on a dead-end road. Quinn gritted her teeth as she took the curve; the Lexus’s tires screamed as the rear of the car slid on gravel, but she avoided spinning out. All the driving lessons from past boyfriends were coming in handy. She let herself believe she might escape the maniacs who had doubtless shot Amy and were now after her—and doubtless that damn fake pen and its contents.

       Another straightaway lay ahead, the road rising and falling as it ran through partially cleared woods. She flew past an abandoned road grader, then hit the first rise. The Lexus was doing seventy and left the asphalt for a split second, bouncing hard when it hit the road again. The next rise came up very fast. Quinn raised her head and glanced in the rearview mirror at the top of the rise and saw the pickup was gaining on her. The Lexus went airborne again over the crest of the rise. A bang! rang through the Lexus when it slammed hard into the road again, jerking to the right. A loud whop whop whop whop now came from the right rear of the car—a flat. Quinn fought the pull but pressed down on the accelerator at the same time.

       The Lexus passed a yellow sign warning that she was approaching a T-intersection. It didn’t register for a second that she was coming up the vertical part of the T. Her car went up another roller-coaster rise, sending Quinn’s stomach toward her car seat, and she came over the top of the ridge at over sixty miles an hour—

       —and the end of the world was right in front of her. She saw the cross road, the stop sign, the wooden fence beyond the flat shoulder on the other side of the road, and nothing beyond that but brush, a sudden drop-off, and the walls of a limestone rock quarry far beyond that. She stood up on the brake, her body a straight line from head to foot, and the tires shrieked as the Lexus decelerated. An old red hatchback appeared out of nowhere and drove right across in front of her on the crossroad. Quinn could not take her eyes off it, her eyes glazed with horror. The screaming Lexus missed the rear of the red car by one foot. Quinn didn’t even think to duck her head as the car smashed through the wooden fence on the other side of the road and dropped









       The Lexus slammed into the left side of a massive boulder. The front of the car disintegrated. Quinn flew forward to meet the steering wheel—

       Whiteness boomed into her face, arms, and chest, throwing her back into her seat. She lost consciousness, coming to a few moments later with a head full of cotton and a choking cloud of white powder in the air around her. Some of it got in her mouth, and she dazedly tried to spit it out. She flailed her arms and pushed the whiteness down so she could see.

       The sound of tires screaming came from behind her. She had the idea that she had to hide or escape, but she was too stunned to think about how to do it. A dark shape roared past on the left. The outside rearview mirror was torn away by the dark pickup, which hit the ground, bounced, then fell and disappeared over the drop-off with its front end pitching down. It seemed to have gone right into a big hole—the quarry.

       Quinn stared after it, her brain not functioning very well. How are they going to get out of that big pit? Are they going down a road, or did they fall? I need to get out of here.

       As she fumbled for the door handle, a loud crash echoed across the landscape. I guess they fell, she thought. Sounds bad. Quinn shoved the damaged door open two feet before it jammed, then unlocked her seat belt and shoulder harness, pushed away the white remains of the steering-wheel airbag, and dragged herself out of the car. Her legs shook like Jell-O, and she immediately fell to the weed-covered ground.

       Near the end of her energy reserves, Quinn hauled herself up on her elbows and began crawling uphill away from the car. The air smelled horrible—something was burning, a terrible stink like burning oil and gasoline mixed with a sickening burnt-meat stench that turned Quinn’s stomach. Even without seeing the crash, she knew the two men in the pickup were as dead as dead could be. She fought to keep from throwing up, focusing on getting away from the wreck.

       A voice shouted from far up the slope. Quinn raised her head, remembering her danger.

       The battered red hatchback had returned to the top of the slope and parked behind the smashed-out wooden fence. A man in a heavy jacket was making his way down the slope toward her with an anxious look on his face. He could be a friend, or another one of the people trying to kill her. It didn’t matter, Quinn decided. She kept her head up. She had been through too much to turn away from death now. She would show them who was brave.

       When the rescuer finally reached her, Quinn smiled up at him. The smile then faded, only partly because Quinn was about to faint. The other reason she stopped smiling was because her rescuer was Brian Danielson.

       She lowered her head and knew no more.





Chapter Eight

Running on Empty



       Quinn came to consciousness sitting in the passenger seat of a cramped car. An unfamiliar rural landscape was going by the windows very fast.

       “Quinn? Are you okay?” The driver of the car was talking to her. She looked to her left. It was Brian. She remembered him coming to help her. She was sitting in his little red hatchback.

       “Are you hurt?” Brian said. “I’m taking you out of here. You’ll have to stay with me for now, okay? It’s not safe to be anywhere else.”

       Dully she looked herself over. Her clothes were torn and filthy. Her head and neck were beginning to ache. Whiplash—that would be very bad. She would have to wear a brace if it got worse. Neck braces were not cute.

       She could still feel the fake pen in her boot. Good, one thing finally went right.

       “Listen to me,” said Brian, talking rapidly as he drove. “You’ve got to trust me. I’m in the CIA, too. Amy and I work together. I had to put up a smokescreen after Erin blew my cover at the wedding reception. She and I aren’t getting along anymore, but that’s neither here nor there. You’ve got to trust me, Quinn. Do you understand? You’ve got to trust me.”

       She nodded once after a long pause, trying to make sense of it all.

       “The police are going to be out in force after they find that wreck, looking for you. We’re going to have to find a way to get Amy’s things back. Is all of her stuff still in her house? Hey, Quinn, I need you to answer me! This is very important! Amy took something home with her from the office Friday, something she didn’t know she had. She’s been set up by someone inside the CIA. We have to get that item back. Do you understand me?”

       She nodded again and ran a hand through her long hair. He wants the flash drive. He doesn’t know I have it. The headache was becoming worse, focusing over her eyes. She moaned. Her whole body was beginning to hurt.

       “We’ll be safe in a few minutes,” said Brian, taking a sharp curve that made the tires squeal. “Got to get out of this area before the cops get here. Just hang on.”

       Brian was in the CIA, too? Quinn frowned, but it made her face hurt all the more. It didn’t seem possible for Brian to be an ally of Amy’s. He was too much of a jerk. Quinn didn’t trust him if Amy didn’t trust him—but hadn’t he just saved her life? Was it possible he was telling the truth?

       Quinn tried to focus on the road ahead. Brian was turning off the highway into a subdivision that seemed to be under construction. The area did not look familiar. To one side of the entrance was a large sign with a beautiful modern house on it. The sign read:




Where You’ll Always Be At Home!



       Brian was driving in yet another entrance to Amy’s subdivision.

       “We’ll be at your aunt’s place in no time,” he said. “It’ll just take a second to get that thing she had in her purse. You’ve got to help me with this, Quinn. A lot of people’s lives depend on this. Show me where Amy’s stuff is, and then let’s get out of here and get Amy out of the hospital, too. She’s not safe there, either.”

       “Whuh . . . why?” Quinn licked her lips and tasted blood. I must look like crap.

       “It’s too complicated to explain right now. We’re almost there. We’re going to have to run in and then run out. We don’t want the local authorities mixed up in this. Those men that were chasing you were after the thing Amy brought home from work. Are you following me? We have to hurry and get her stuff before they come back, or the police. Okay, there’s the house. Can you get inside?”

       The headache was like a bomb exploding very slowly inside her skull. It made it very difficult to concentrate on Brian’s words.

       The car came to a stop in the driveway of Amy Barksdale’s home. Brian opened the door and got out, hurrying around to her side to open her door and help her out of the car. He then led her to the front door. “Do you have the keys?” he asked. “Quinn, where are the keys?”

       She felt her pants pockets. It took a moment for it to sink in.

       “Car,” she mumbled. “In . . . the car.”

       Your car? The wreck? Your keys are there?”

       She nodded.

       Brian slammed his fist into the door. “God damn it!” he shouted, then shoved Quinn aside and pulled something from inside his heavy jacket: a large black pistol that looked like something old-time gangsters would use. Before Quinn could react, he aimed and shot at the door lock, causing Quinn to jump. He fired again, then kicked the door open. The alarm system came on with a shrill whine.

       “Turn off the alarm!” he shouted as he caught her by the arm and dragged her into the house, forcing her to stand by the main keypad. “Hurry! Do it!”

       “I don’t remember the number!” she yelled, feeling like she was going to vomit. “I don’t have it! I don’t know where it is!”

       Wait—I have it in my pocket on a slip of paper. She almost said that, but something stopped her.

       Brian grabbed her and rushed her through the house. “Where’s Amy’s stuff?” They entered the kitchen. “Is this it? This stuff on the counter?”

       “Yes!” she screamed, clutching her forehead in pain. “Leave me alone!

       Brian jammed the pistol back inside his coat, then began pushing the contents of Amy’s purse around the counter, searching for something. He grabbed a fat pen, uncapped it, and pulled off the tip. Finding nothing inside but the ink cartridge, he threw it aside and grabbed for another. “Where is it?” he shouted at Quinn. “Just tell me!”

       Quinn leaned against a wall in the hallway leading off from the kitchen, hands pressed over her ears to block out part of the house alarm, which had begun to warble at a deafening volume. Her head was about to burst open.

       “Hurry!” Brian threw aside another fat pen. “God damn it, Quinn, I’m trying to help you! Those two men that were after you might come back, and they’ll bring more men with them! We’ve got to get out of here!”

       She tilted her head back. A thought crawled out of the chaos inside her head. How did he know I was being chased by two men? He couldn’t have seen what happened very well, he had already driven by when the truck went through the intersection and crashed.

       She opened her eyes.

       He sent them. He knows because he sent them after me. Brian’s in on it. He’s the one behind this mess. He’s trying to get the file Amy had in her purse, the file I have in my boot, the file no one should ever read. He’s probably going to kill me when he gets that flash drive, and then he’s going to get Amy out of the hospital and kill her. He’s a spy, too.

       But not one of ours.

       He’s helping someone else who wants to destroy the wor—

       “God damn it!” Brian swept an arm across the counter, flinging Amy’s possessions across the kitchen. “Where the hell is that black pen?” He jerked counter drawers open and dumped their contents on the floor, throwing the drawers aside. “Where is it?

       Quinn slid sideways against the wall, moving further down the hallway. There was nowhere to run, he would shoot her any second now, and—

       Her head bumped into the false thermostat on the wall, the one like a safe’s combination lock mounted next to the door that would not open. She swore in pain, and as she did she thought again of the White Rabbit’s song: I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. . . .

       A memory surfaced.

       What was the second happiest day in your life? she had asked Amy.

       Oh, the day I was just plain happy, nothing went wrong at all? That would be July twentieth, nineteen sixty-nine. Definitely.

       It all came together. She had nothing left to try but this. With a hand pressed to her pounding forehead, Quinn reached for the dial. Seven . . . twenty . . .


       A rough hand grabbed her by one shoulder and jerked her around. She struck out in panic and raked her fingernails across Brian’s face. Howling, he backed away with both hands clamped over his right eye. Blood ran through his fingers.

       Quinn went for the dial again: nineteen . . . sixty-nine.

       The door that would not open suddenly clicked and opened into darkness. She half staggered through the doorway, grabbed for the handle on the other side, and pulled the door shut. Thunk, click.

       Someone pounded on the door from the hallway side, then struggled to open it, to no avail. Her head pounding, Quinn felt around with her free hand for a light switch. Her fingers found a toggle, and a small light mounted high on a wall snapped on. Quinn was in a small square room with metal walls. The walls and ceiling were featureless, but the floor had one notable element, which was a trapdoor with a handle on it. Amy’s secret escape room, she thought. Of course. She’s a spy, she needs a secret escape room—but out here in the countryside? Why the hell would she ever need something like this? This is crazy! Unless she thought her house might catch on fire . . . but why would she be worried about that?

       “Oh, screw it,” she said aloud. If there was a trapdoor in Amy’s house, it was high time Quinn found out where it led. Funny—Quinn now understood the full meaning of putting the White Rabbit on the combination lock outside. Once she put in the Very Important Date, she was about to go down the Rabbit Hole to Wonderland, or wherever the damn thing led. It was better than being here with—






       Quinn gasped and jumped away from the door. Brian had shot the door on the other side—but nothing had happened. She really was, for the moment, safe—but safe or not, it was time to go. She reached down and jerked on the trapdoor handle, lifting the heavy covering with gritted teeth. Below was a narrow square-shaped shaft less than three feet wide, with a metal ladder bolted to one side that went straight down. At the bottom, which seemed a long way down, was another light. Quinn guessed the shaft was perhaps twenty feet long—two full stories.

       It didn’t matter. Hearing Brian pounding again on the hall door, she proceeded to get on the ladder and climb down with care. Once she was almost below floor level, she reached up and managed to get the hatch to lower over her, though she banged herself in the head with it and gave out an angry cry. In the dim illumination from below, she noticed the hatch had a sliding deadbolt lock on the bottom, which she flipped into place once the trapdoor closed.

       Her headache had receded briefly, but as she went down the ladder it began to return. When she reached the bottom her stomach lurched, but she kept herself from throwing up. She thought she might have a concussion from the accident, but there was no time to worry about it. She had a very high tolerance for pain, usually for hair-care treatments but applicable to most other situations as well.

       To the left of the ladder was a bare concrete-walled tunnel, as narrow as the shaft down and barely higher than Quinn was tall. The electric ceiling light showed it leading off a long way to another light mounted on the wall. She had no idea how far she had to travel, but it didn’t matter. Brian would kill her when he found her, she was certain of it. More important was what would happen to Amy if Brian went back to the hospital. Ralph might be at Amy’s side already, but Quinn couldn’t take the chance. It was time to get back to her spy aunt. She set off at a careful pace, hoping she wouldn’t fall over anything—and fighting off an acute case of claustrophobia along with her headache.

       No snakes, rats, spiders, or monsters impeded her journey. The corridor air was stale but dry. After what seemed like ages of walking, she reached the distant end of the tunnel. Another ladder was there, leading up a second shaft. She figured she had to be some distance from the house, but what was above her, she had no idea. Except for the electric light, nothing else was around. She paused at the foot of the ladder to rest and take account of herself: bruised, battered, beaten, but still moving. If only my friends could see me now, she thought. I almost wish they could. Then they could get me the heck out of here—but wait, I still have the football, the fake pen. What a stupid game, football. I hate it.

       She pulled herself together and began the ascent of the ladder. Her grip was not as steady as she would have liked, but she had no other option except to keep going. She had to get to Amy and warn her. It was time to stop pretending she didn’t know her aunt was a spy. At the top was another trapdoor with a rusting lock, and she undid the latter with some difficulty. The real problem came when she pushed up on the lid.

       It did not budge.

       “Oh, crap!” She managed to climb up closer to the top and, with great care, locked her legs in the ladder rungs so she would not fall. “I hope Brian’s not on the other side,” she said, then put her shoulders against the lid, head bowed, and shoved upward. The lid creaked and moved slightly, but fell back. She swore viciously and took a sharp breath, then shoved harder. The trapdoor groaned and opened a few inches. Dirt fell in from all around, all over her. Still cursing and sensing that the door was about to fall shut again, she stuck a hand through the hatch opening to keep it from closing—and the hatch came down and smashed her wrist.

       OW!” she shrieked, then shoved upward as hard as she could. The hatch came up. More dirt fell into the shaft. Quinn forced the hatch back enough to allow her to climb out, though she had to crawl on her hands and knees with the hatch’s full weight scraping down her spine. When at last she dragged her legs and feet out, the hatch thumped shut behind her. She spit out dirt and bits of leaves, then looked around. She was in the forest behind Amy’s house, among birches and maples. In the distance she could hear the house alarm still going off. I’ve got to get as far from here as I can, she thought, and she dragged herself to her feet and staggered away through the bare trees.

       After an eternity spent slogging through dead leaves and stumbling over logs and rocks, Quinn heard a car pass by on the other side of a low hill ahead of her. She picked up her pace and soon looked down on a two-lane road. She reached it by sliding down the hillside on her rear end, braking with her feet, then stumbled to the asphalt and looked left and right.

       A small blue car was approaching from her left. She waved her arms over her head. “Help me!” she shouted, near tears. “Stop and help me!”

       The car did exactly that. As it pulled up alongside her and the passenger window rolled down, Quinn looked in. The stunned driver was none other than the pimple-faced teenage boy from the Super Food Lord. Quinn jerked the door open. Litter from a half-dozen fast-food restaurants covered the empty seats and floor, but she climbed in and sat on them anyway. “Drive!” she cried. “Hurry! Someone’s after me!”

       “Someone’s after you?” the teenager repeated.

       “Yes!” she shrieked. “Drive!

       Her message got through. The boy accelerated hard, throwing Quinn back in her seat and reminding her she needed to buckle in. “Someone was chasing you?” the boy asked again.

       “Just get me to the hospital, please!”

       “Wow, sure! Yeah, sure, I’ll do that!” He stared hard at the road ahead, then said, “Will you go out with me after we get to the hospital?”

       “Just get to the hospital! Hurry!”

       “Are you, like, injured or something?”

       “Just shut up and drive, damn it!” she yelled.

       He shut up and drove. Judging from the way he zipped along the road, he knew the area well. Quinn checked the rear-view mirrors two dozen times, looking for Brian’s hatchback, but no one followed them.

       The boy pulled into the parking lot of the county hospital at last. “You want to go to the emergency room?” he asked.

       “No, the front entrance! Over there, let me out right there!”

       “Can I come in with you?”

       “No! Only sick people can come in!”

       “Can I call you later?”

       “I’ll call you instead!”

       “Oh! Cool, that’s great! Thanks!”

       She jumped out of the car at the entrance before he could ask for her phone number. The car ride had briefly rejuvenated her, though her numerous aches and pains became clearer as well. Bolting through the double doors, she looked for the elevators, ran to them, and jabbed the up button with her thumb. It took ages before one elevator door opened, and she ran inside before anyone in the elevator could even leave. “Everyone out, quick!” she snapped in her most commanding tone. “This is an emergency! Get out, now!

       Everyone looked at her in shock, taking in her disheveled appearance and numerous cuts and bruises—then quickly left the elevator. Amy was on the second floor in the ICU, unless they had moved her, so Quinn punched the proper buttons and forced the doors to close as well. She then leaned back against the hand rail in the elevator and sighed, taking a moment’s rest break. The moment was then gone as the doors opened again. She shoved away from the wall and forced her way through a knot of visitors waiting to get on, then spotted a sign pointing to the ICU and ran in that direction. She got to the ICU doors just as they opened, almost knocking down a doctor on his way out. She squeezed through at the last instant and ran down the hall to Amy’s room. The door was closed. She twisted the knob and went in without knocking.

       Her startled aunt looked over from where she was propped up against a stack of pillows in her bed, the TV remote in her left hand as she watched an old movie starring an actor Quinn recognized as Cary Grant. Amy was pale but alert. “Quinn!” she began. “I thought you were—ohmigod! What happened to you?”

       “Amy, listen!” Quinn interrupted, waving her hands to cut her off. “It’s an emergency! Brian’s coming, and he wants that file!”

       Silence reigned.

       “Whuh?” said her aunt, completely at sea.

       “Do you have any clothes to wear, anything besides that gown? Is there anything in the drawers or closet, anywhere? It’s doesn’t matter if it’s fashionable or not! You have to get out of here and hide or run for it or do something, now!”

       “What are you talking about? Is this a joke?”

       “Damn it, Amy, no!” yelled Quinn. “Brian’s a spy, like you, but he’s not on your side! He wants that file you have on that weapon that shoots through planets, the Rainbow Arc thing, and he’s got a gun, Amy, a real gun! He wants that ink pen that you had in your purse that’s really a flash drive—this one!” She reached down and snatched the pen from inside her boot sock, then held it up in front of Amy’s face as she pulled it apart and revealed the USB plug within. “He wants this fake pen, the one that was in your purse, so he can get that secret file from it and destroy the world with it!”

       Amy’s mouth stayed open, but no words came out. Her eyes grew as wide as teacup saucers, the white visible all around, as she looked from Quinn to the false pen and back.

       “Is this yours, Amy?” Quinn repeated, shaking the flash drive.

       “Uh—whuh—I—no! No, it isn’t! And I don’t know what the hell you’re—”

       Stop it! Stop lying! You were at the MTPB meeting Friday morning at that CIA place in McLean, Virginia, and Brian knows all about it! He said he works with you! Does he?”

       Amy flinched. “Jumping Jesus!” she yelled. “No, he doesn’t work with me! He was fired ages ago when he was in training! He doesn’t have anything to do with me! And how in the name of sweet holy—”

       “Are you listening to me?” Quinn put a firm hand on Amy’s shoulder and spoke with deliberate emphasis. “Brian’s got a gun and he’s coming to kill us! It doesn’t matter how I know it, I know it! He wants the Rainbow Arc file you had!”

       Amy was trembling, white-faced. “I didn’t bring any goddamn freaking files home with me! Are you crazy! What the hell is going on with you? This isn’t possible!”

       “The hell it isn’t! Someone stuck the pen in your purse, Amy, someone you work with, probably so they could get it back from you later! I bet they thought if you got caught with it, you’d take the fall for them! You were set up!” More pieces to the puzzle came together in Quinn’s head, faster than it took for her to figure out which girl at her high school was spreading which ugly bit of gossip to whom and why. “Brian must have hired the guy who tried to kill you on Friday night, and that guy and some other one have been chasing me all over the place and trying to kill me but they crashed into a rock quarry and I don’t know what happened to them after that! Then Brian got me and shot the lock off the door of your house and tore the place up looking for that damn pen, but I got out through your secret tunnel with the rabbit and Brian’s probably on his way back to get—”

       Quinn stopped—not because Amy appeared on the verge of fainting, but because of a sudden, frightening realization. “Listen!” she said. “Who do you know at work who could get into your purse?”

       No one can!” Amy shouted, her face now turning red. “I lock it in my freaking desk! No one gets into any of my things, ever!”

       “You had lunch with someone Friday before you left work, didn’t you?”

       “I—I—you—how did you know that?

       “Answer me! Did you?”

       “Yes! Ralph and I ate in the cafeteria, we didn’t go out! When I went to the bathroom, I left my purse with him at the . . . the . . . table . . . oh, my God!” Amy stared open-mouthed at her niece with the look of a cornered rabbit that knows a pit bull is coming. Quinn already knew what had happened. It was so simple. Amy wouldn’t let anyone into her purse except for someone she completely trusted, someone she had already let come into her home and into her bedroom, someone to whom she had even revealed her true age.

       “Is he here yet?” Quinn whispered hoarsely. “He said he was coming today! Is he here?”

       “No!” Amy cried. “Give me the phone! Quick!”

       Quinn snatched the phone and handed it to her aunt, who knocked the handset off the base and immediately punched buttons with her left hand.

       Someone knocked loudly three times. Both women gasped and froze in place, their eyes on the closed door.

       “Amy?” said a familiar, resonant voice from the other side. “It’s me, Ralph. Are you decent?”





Chapter Nine

Apocalypse Here and Now



       Quinn reacted first. She flew around the end of the bed and snapped the doorknob’s lock shut, then motioned for Amy to say something to stall Ralph.

       “Wait a minute!” Amy cried, getting the message. “I’m not dressed!” She threw back the covers and tried to swing her legs off of the bed, dropping the TV remote. Her good left arm still had an IV tube taped to it, and she grabbed the IV stand pole to steady herself.

       Ralph laughed. “Since when has that been a problem?” he called.

       “Just wait!” Amy hauled herself out of bed with an effort, pain visible on her face.

       “Is someone in there with you?”

       Quinn waved her hands to get Amy’s attention, then pointed at herself and vigorously shook her head no.

       “Uh, no, just the TV!” Amy called back. “Uh . . . I have to go to the toilet! Give me five minutes, okay? Five minutes!”

       “Okay,” said the voice on the other side of the door. “I might do something like that myself. See you in a few.” Footsteps headed away from the door and down the hall.

       Quinn ran over to the windows and looked down. Escape from the room was impossible. They were trapped. “Call the police!” she told her aunt. “Hurry up!”

       “I’m working on something better.” Amy wobbled on her feet as she reached for the phone and carefully punched in a number. She picked up the handset and raised it to her face, waiting for someone to pick up. Quinn heard the phone click. A woman said an unintelligible word or two on the other end of the line.

       “Hello,” said Amy, her breath coming shallow and fast. “This is Amy Barksdale, Division Three. I need immediate assistance. I’m at the Clinton County Hospital in Farborough, Maryland, room two fifty-five, but I might have to leave at any time.” Amy stopped, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “I can’t explain it right now, and I can’t get to a secure line. Tell my boss I might be late. I might be very late! I have to go!” She hung up.

       “Is someone coming?” Quinn asked.

       “Every son of a bitch within fifty miles is coming,” gasped Amy, grabbing her IV stand again. Sweat ran down her face as she trembled. “If even a tenth of what you’ve said is true, we can’t afford to bring in the police. Do you have a car?”

       “I told you I crashed it trying to get away from the guys who were trying to kill me!”

       “Well, that’s great!” cried Amy in exasperation. “I don’t know if I can run anywhere or do anything at all! Just getting up out of bed wore me out!”

       Quinn looked at the open bathroom door on the other end of the room. That doorknob had a lock on it. “Hurry, go get in there!” Quinn said, taking her aunt by the shoulders and turning her to face the bathroom. “I’ll move the bed in front of the door and block it!”

       “This is crazy!” Amy grumbled as she shuffled away. She looked back with an angry expression. “And you have a hell of a lot of explaining to do, first chance we get!”

       “Whatever! Just—”

       Footsteps approached the door again. These did not have Ralph’s sure, confident step, instead coming up at a pressured trot. The doorknob rattled as it twisted back and forth.

       “Doctor here,” said a man outside the door—in Brian Danielson’s voice.

       Quinn stabbed a finger at Amy and angrily mouthed: Go! She then grabbed Amy’s bed by its lowered side rails and tried to roll it toward the door. It didn’t move. She looked down, then kicked on the wheel lock as she had seen nurses do while she was visiting hospitalized classmates. The bed rolled when she tugged on it, and she rammed it into the door and kicked the wheel lock a second time to hold it there.

       “Hey!” Brian called on the other side of the door. “Amy Barksdale?” He knocked and tried the doorknob again. “Amy, are you in there? Doctor here!”

       Quinn figured if Brian still had his gun, he would shoot out the lock at any moment. She quickly moved to get against a wall, out of the line of fire. As she did, she spotted a white plastic box attached to the wall by the door. BIOHAZARD, read the label. It was a sharps box with a horizontal opening for the disposal of used hypodermic syringes.

       A gruesome movie scene came to mind from a spy flick that a long-ago boyfriend had taken her to see, laboring under the mistaken impression that Quinn liked violent bloody movies as much as he did. Having no other plan available, she grabbed a steel-handled medical instrument hanging on a wall and pulled it over to the sharps box, stretching out its coiled anti-theft cord. Jamming the instrument’s upper half into the box’s opening, she pulled down hard on the end. The front of the sharps box broke off, sending dozens of used hypodermic syringes clattering across the floor. She carefully snatched up two and gripped one in each hand.

       Nurses in the hallway outside asked Brian to identify himself. “Get the hell away from me or I’ll shoot!” Brian shouted back. “Get out of here!” The hospital staff members screamed and ran. Quinn stationed herself three feet to the side of the doorway, near the knob. She covered her eyes with one arm, raising the other over her head to stab downward.

       The door banged hard and loud, but the lock held. Quinn guessed that Brian had kicked it. She gritted her teeth and shut her eyes, knowing what would come next.

       The gunshot blew off the doorknob and sprayed Quinn with splinters and metal bits from the lock and knob mechanism. More screams rang out in response, but they were quite distant now. The door came open only an inch, stopped by the bed in front of it. Brian kicked the door again, opening it a few inches more, then stuck his right arm inside as he tried to force his way through. In his bloodstained hand was a smoking black revolver.

       Quinn struck down with both fists. The needles went through the skin, muscles, nerves, and veins of his wrist and forearm, striking bone. Brian roared and jerked his arm back through the doorway, dropping the pistol when it hit the door jam. His sudden withdrawal ripped the needles out of their syringes. Quinn threw the broken hypodermics aside and slammed the door shut, then unlocked the bed’s wheels and hauled the bed up to the door once more before locking it in place again. It wouldn’t hold up to a determined assault, but it was all she had for a barrier.

       Code one hundred!” cried a woman’s panicked voice over the intercom. “Second floor, ICU: code one hundred! Staff, lock down all floors!

       Brian screamed and raved incoherently outside the door. Quinn spotted the gun and snatched it up with both hands. As she did, she saw the bathroom door was ajar. Amy peered out, staring at Quinn with boundless astonishment. Furious, Quinn forcefully motioned for her aunt to go back inside and shut the door.

       “Amy!” It was Ralph, just outside the door. “Hey, Amy, are you okay?”

       Quinn raised the handgun and aimed it at the door with both hands. Amy immediately closed the bathroom door, but left it open just a crack.

       “Amy, are you all right?” Ralph shouted. “Answer me!”

       Kill her!” shrieked Brian. “Shoot the bitch!”

       “Shut up, you idiot!” Ralph shouted back. “What the hell happened to you?”

       “She stabbed me in the arm! Quinn must have called her and told her we were coming!”

       “Brian, shut your trap!”

       Shoot her! Just shoot her and let’s get the hell out of here and go find that—”

       The gunshot caught Quinn by surprise, but no bullet came through the door. There was a sound like someone had been punched hard in the gut, blowing out his wind all at once, then came the sound of something hitting the floor. No sounds came after that for several seconds. Everyone else must have run away, Quinn realized.

       “Talk to me, Amy,” said Ralph. “Say something, or I’m coming in there.”

       Quinn bit down on her lower lip and kept silent.

       “Amy! Talk to me!”

       Quinn fought to keep the gun steady in her hands, aiming it at the door. The index fingers of both hands crossed over the trigger. She judged that Ralph was on exactly the opposite side of the doorway. Does he even know I’m here? Does he know that I have a gun?

       “Amy, this has gone on long enough!” he shouted. “I don’t have any time to screw around here! Open the door and let me in! Do it!”

       Quinn steeled herself, then slowly tightened her fingers on the trigger. As she did, for the briefest moment she looked at herself in horror and wonder. She had a real, loaded gun. She was about to shoot someone with it—her aunt’s boyfriend, no less. She had in the space of one day become the complete opposite of everything she had ever imagined she would be. What in the world was she doing?


       She took a deep breath. She knew damn well what she was doing. Her aunt and her world were seconds from ending, and the saving of both was in her hands.

       Someone body-slammed the door and forced it open half a foot against the bed.

       She pulled the trigger. The gun jumped against her hands, bruising them, and she lost her hearing at the same instant. Someone on the other side of the door cried out and cursed—then gunshots blew holes through the wooden door, one-two-three, throwing splinters into her face and stinging her cheeks. Stone deaf, she instantly returned fire, pulling the trigger as fast as she could without counting shots. Something punched her hard in the left side; gasping, she straightened up and fired back, then was hit in the right leg and went down on her knees. She almost fell but lifted the gun again and fired two more times, thinking she could see someone through the numerous holes blasted through the door. Then she lost her balance and toppled onto her left side. No more shots came through the ruined door.

       Her hands were quivering and numb from the handgun’s brutal recoil. She waited as long as she could, watching the door for signs of forced entry, then let the pistol slide from her fingers. No telling what had happened to Ralph. She carefully rolled on her back and pulled herself up on one elbow to look down and assess the damage. It was very bad. Her blue blouse with the rainbow was soaked with bright red blood everywhere below her ribcage, around a frayed hole in the blouse’s fabric just above her belt line and left of her belly button. Blood pulsed out into her embroidered jeans from a bullet wound in her right thigh.

       “Oh, hell,” she said, feeling giddy. She could barely hear a word she said through the impossibly loud whining in her ears. She had the vague idea she was in the direst of straits, but for a few moments all that came to her mind was that she looked like a horrible mess and was mildly ashamed of her unfashionable appearance. Sandi Griffin would never approve of it, and her mother would have a major fit. She would never let Quinn go out on her own ever again. The world was not safe to go anywhere.

       This is what it will be like in the future when they fight wars, she thought, feeling more than a little crazy. This is how it will be after they build those big guns that shoot through rock as if the earth was invisible, like shooting through doors and walls with a gun. You’ll never see your enemy, never see a single face you kill—just push a button and everyone’s dead and gone. This is the world of tomorrow, and I am that world, dead and gone.

       The whining in her ears began to fade. She heard Amy call out her name as she sobbed in the bathroom. Quinn had never before heard her aunt cry. The sound made her very sad, and she wanted to comfort Amy and say that everything was going to be all right. Then she thought maybe she was wrong there, because the first waves of real pain crept through her mental fog and forced out her breath through her teeth. She fought to keep her head clear and come up with a plan. Stop the bleeding! cried a voice in her mind from that Phys Ed first-aid class; grab something, anything, and stop the bleeding! Do your leg first, make a tourniquet if you have to. She dully reached down to unfasten her belt and tie off her thigh.

       Something banged hard against the door. She looked back and saw the door jump inward and shove the wheel-locked bed back a foot. She forgot about the belt and rolled on her left side, then used her arms to drag herself over the linoleum floor to get to the gun again. The floor was slick with her blood, and the going was hard. She got the revolver back in her hands and raised it just as the door swung open with a crash, knocking the bed aside. Leaning against the doorframe, panting with exhaustion, was a tall, dark, good-looking man wearing an open gray trench coat. Broad wet stains marred the gray coat’s fabric over his chest and legs, and red dripped from the bottom of the coat to the floor. He had a military-style pistol gripped in his right hand, which hung at his side dripping a stream of red like his coat. His left hand was pressed against a chest wound on his right side. Blood ran over his fingers.

       Quinn pulled the trigger on her gun twice. The hammer cracked each time against an empty chamber. She held the gun on the man anyway, unable to think of anything better to do.

       The man looked at her in dull surprise. “You,” he said, and he shook his head in disbelief. “It was you shooting at me. I can’t believe it.” His gaze wandered the room, ignoring the useless weapon she aimed at him. “Where’s Amy?”

       “Get out,” she said. She lowered the gun but didn’t drop it.

       “She’s in the bathroom, I bet,” he said. “I can hear her in there.” His breathing grew labored. When he licked his lips, his tongue left a smear of red behind. He looked down at Quinn. “It was you, all this time, wasn’t it? You . . . you were there right after Brian’s man shot Amy. You got to her before he could get to the purse, then the police came and he ran for it.”

       One corner of Ralph’s mouth came up in a crooked smile. “I blame Brian for this. He screwed up everything. He hired the worst people he could have hired ‘cause they were the cheapest. I thought he’d have some common sense about him, but he didn’t. Made a total mess of everything. He had a grudge against the agency for letting him go, but that was his fault, too, thanks to his big mouth. He had the motivation . . . but nothing upstairs.”

       Quinn put down the revolver and looked around for a substitute. Close at hand was a daggerlike shard of translucent white plastic from the broken sharps box. She picked that up and readied it for an overhand strike, but she could tell she was getting very tired. Too much blood had been lost. She didn’t think she had the energy to stand up.

       “Where’s that pen?” Ralph gestured with his gun, though without pointing it in her direction. “Where’d you hide it? You found it, right? Or did Amy find it? You could have just given it to me, I would’ve gone away. I swear I would’ve. It wasn’t worth this.”

       The bathroom door behind Quinn squeaked as it opened. “Ralph,” said Amy softly, carefully. “Please don’t hurt us. Please put the gun down.”

       He glanced at Amy before looking down at Quinn again. “I can almost believe you knew what was happening all along, kid,” he said. His voice grew hoarse. “Brian called me when I was on the way here and said . . . you got away from him, said you gouged him in the eye . . . then locked yourself in a bulletproof closet, and somehow . . . you caused his two hired boys to crash their car into a rock quarry. You were there every step of the way, wrecking everything we did from square one, and . . . and now . . .” He gestured around the room with his pistol. “Now . . . we have this. What a waste.” He exhaled as if he were wearing out, then looked at Quinn once more. “How did you know?” he asked. “How did you find out? I don’t get how you could . . . I mean, I don’t think that Amy knew.” He looked at Amy. “Did you, angel?”

       “Ralph,” Amy repeated in a shaky voice, “please, put the gun down.”

       He shook his head no. “I dropped a flash drive in your purse,” he told her. “I downloaded that MTPB file into a flash drive disguised as a pen, slipped it in, and you never knew it. That’s funny. They didn’t even catch it on your way out of work. She did, though—your niece knew. I don’t know how, but she knew.” His lopsided grin returned as he gazed at his one-time girlfriend. “I was going to be a billionaire, angel, a real billionaire. Had buyers lined up for an auction and everything to sell off the greatest military secret in all history, and then your cute little niece showed up, little Miss Popularity, and . . .” He shrugged. “She’s better at this than you, angel. Better than me, better than all of us were. She’s dynamite.”

       “I can’t believe you’d do this,” said Amy. Her voice began to break. “How could you do that to me? To us? Didn’t you love me? What happened, Ralph?”

       “What happened?” He grinned before coughing hard. “Nothing happened, Amy,” he said when he could speak. “It was wasted, all my planning and string-pulling and waiting and listening and looking for opportunities . . . all the time I spent setting you up to be my courier, wasted. We had a good time, though, didn’t we? We were a great team: the queen of the intelligence analysts, the best one alive, and me . . . a washed-out operations officer, a wannabe James Bond trying to keep his hand in.” He shook his head, looking at the floor, then looked up and gave Amy a dark grin. “I gotta tell you, angel, as far as boyfriends go, you really know how to pick ‘em.”

       His unfriendly gaze returned to Quinn. “Looks like I really know how to pick ‘em, too. You have a hell of a niece, angel. She beat me at my own game, probably without half trying. She’s a real wildcat.”

       His right thumb pulled back the hammer on his pistol. When it clicked into place, he raised the pistol and pointed the barrel at Quinn. She stared back at him without fear.

       “Ralph!” Amy cried. “Wait! No!”

       “You are a dangerous little kitten,” he said, aiming at Quinn’s forehead. “Way too dangerous to live.”

       Quinn glared back at him without blinking. “Go to hell,” she whispered.

       “I probably will,” he said agreeably. A red stream trickled down from his mouth to his chin, and dripped on the floor. “And you . . . kitten . . . can . . .”

       His trigger finger tightened. Long seconds ticked away.

       The pistol wavered from side to side. His finger quivered. In moments his face went slack and lost all color. His arm came down, the pistol slapping against his blood-soaked coat. Watching Quinn all the while, he sank back against the doorframe and slid down to the floor as his legs buckled at the knees. The doorframe was painted bright red everywhere that his trench coat touched it. He sat on the ground with a soft thump, then slowly fell over on his left side until his head bumped into the linoleum floor. His eyes stared at nothing. Blood dripped from his open mouth.

       Quinn felt her aunt kneel by her side and hastily work to stop the bleeding. Far away, down the hall, she heard men coming, many men, shouting for everyone to throw down their weapons. About time the police got here, she thought. Or maybe it’s the CIA or IRS or someone. Who cares, they’re late.

       She found herself looking up at the ceiling, her view of the acoustic tiles blocked in part by Amy’s tear-streaked face. She thought it was odd that she didn’t remember rolling over to lie on her back. Her grip on consciousness was sliding away.

       As Amy bent over her and wept, Quinn had a funny thought. She smiled. “Hey,” she whispered, “how’s my . . . favorite aunt?” She wondered if Amy would get the joke. Before she could find out, she closed her eyes and the world faded out. Her smile stayed behind.





Chapter Ten

Quinners and Losers



       There was a soft knock at Quinn’s hospital door. She pushed the power-off button and put aside the TV remote control, staring at the dark screen on the opposite wall. Sunday morning television sucked, even with cable. “Come in,” she said.

       The door opened two inches. “Quinn?” said Amy, peeking in. “May I come in?”

       Quinn nodded, too tired to sit up. Amy pushed the door open and came in, hands gripping her wheeled walker. Her eyes were red and damp. She wore a flower-print hospital gown that had been carefully tied in back so her rear wasn’t exposed to view. She stopped, one hand on the door to close it, but she was looking at her niece. “Do you mind if I stay a little?” she asked.

       “That’s fine,” said Quinn. “Just watching TV. A new low.” She tried to laugh but couldn’t.

       Amy gently shut the door, but she remained standing by the foot of Quinn’s bed. “This might be our last talk before Helen and Jake get here,” she said. “The police are giving them an escort on the Interstate. Daria’s going to be here, too, in a few hours. It’ll be crowded.”

       Quinn nodded again.

       “Nice security you have outside,” Amy added. “Two cops and one of the agency’s own. They seem to be getting along well enough. I know the agent from work. He’s a good man.” Her face fell. “Not that I guess I know anything about that anymore.”

       “Did they give you a bodyguard, too?” asked Quinn.

       “She’s talking with the guards outside.” Amy swallowed, looking uneasy. “I’m so sorry, Quinn,” she said at last. “I just can’t believe this happened.”

       “I know. Me, either.”

       A weak smile appeared on Amy’s face. “The weekend’s only half over, too. Who knows what’ll happen next.”

       “Huh. I hadn’t thought of that.” Quinn looked around. The hospital room had several chairs. “Why don’t you sit down?”

       Her aunt’s face tightened. “I’m all right. I just want to stand a little.”

       “Are you okay?”

       Amy’s smile fled, and its absence left her face old and weary. “Am I okay?” she repeated. “No. No, I’m not okay. I had a boyfriend I loved with all my heart, and he was just using me to steal secrets from the government. He tried to have me killed, then he tried to kill you using Brian and other people, and you had to fight them off and everyone else as well, and you almost died, but he did die, so . . . no, I’m not okay. When Helen gets here, she’s going to cut my throat for letting this happen to you. She’ll be furious. I almost hope she does kill me. I deserve it.”

       Quinn frowned and shook her head. “Don’t say that.”

       “I am saying it. I’m ashamed of myself. I had no idea . . . I just can’t believe—”

       “You couldn’t have known, Amy.”

       “I should have known! I should have!” Amy’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the walker bars. “I let him get into me, into my life, and he did this! He—I thought he loved me! I can’t believe this! I hate myself!”

       “Amy,” said Quinn in the silence, “come over here and sit next to me.”

       Her aunt hesitated.

       “Come on.”

       Amy moved slowly around the bed. The wheels of her walker squeaked. Quinn patted the mattress beside her. “Sit with me. There’s room.”

       After more fidgeting, her aunt did. Quinn reached for Amy’s hands and took them both in one of her own. “I have to ask you a question,” said Quinn, looking serious.

       Amy tried not to look anxious, but failed. “What, dear?”

       “Why did you put that escape tunnel in your house?”

       “Oh.” Her aunt looked relieved and laughed briefly. “I always wanted one. I used to imagine things like, if my house caught fire, how would I get out? If someone was trying to break in, how could I protect myself? It kind of went with growing up wanting to be a spy. I’m not a real spy, just an intelligence analyst, but still . . . I had the money and when I had the house built, I had the tunnel put in. The builder thought I was nuts. Maybe I was.”

       “I’m glad you did it,” said Quinn. “I liked the White Rabbit thing. That was cute.”
       “I always liked that movie. I liked the books better, though. I still can’t believe you figured that out. Jeez, I can’t believe you figured everything out.” Amy cleared her throat. “They told you not to talk about what was on—”

       “Yes, yes, yes, this morning. They told me thank you for saving the file, but asked me to forget about it, and I said sure, don’t worry. I didn’t understand it, most of it anyway, and I don’t even want to think about it. I had one more question, though—not about the file.”

       “Um, sure.”

       “Daria knew you were with the CIA, didn’t she?”

       Amy froze, staring at Quinn in surprise, then slowly relaxed. “Yes,” she whispered.

       “You told her.” It was a statement and not a question.


       “Were you planning to tell me about it, too?”

       Amy drew a deep breath. “I was thinking about it, for the weekend. I didn’t know how you’d react. I kind of wanted to . . . get to know you a little better first.”

       “You were thinking about Erin, blabbing about Brian being in intelligence?”

       Her aunt’s gaze dropped in shame. She did not answer.

       “It’s okay,” said Quinn absently. “I understand. That makes sense. Is Daria thinking about doing what you’re doing, intelligence work?”

       “Probably not after this,” Amy whispered. Her gaze grew restless, moving everywhere but to Quinn’s face. “Boy, when I’m wrong, I really blow it wide open, don’t I?”

       “What do you mean?”

       “I should have recruited you first.” Amy almost smiled, but stopped. “Or not, I guess. I don’t know.”

       Quinn thought about it. “Daria would be good at your kind of work, analyzing stuff,” she finally said. “She’s got the brains and the concentration. She could do it.”

       Her aunt shrugged, less interested in pursuing the topic.

       “What I don’t understand, though,” said Quinn, “how you can keep from letting things like what was in that file from bugging you. There must be so much stress with your job, even if you are at a desk all day. How do you cope with it?”

       “Uh . . . well, you sort of get used to things like that, I think. It goes with the job. You deal with it as best you can during work hours, then you go home and enjoy yourself, try to forget about it. Maybe that’s part of the reason I drink sometimes—not a lot, but sometimes.”

       “And travel a lot.”

       “Yes, travel a lot.” Amy looked away, her expression turning empty. “I think I’m going to take some vacation and travel more than usual, very soon. They’ve already put me on administrative leave until they sort out what happened and how. I need to get away, far away, and for a long time.”

       Quinn understood. “I wish you could take me with you,” she said, squeezing her aunt’s hands.

       Amy snorted gently. “Maybe one day when you’re old enough to drink,” she said. “I could probably teach you a thing or two about serious drinking.”

       It seemed best not to follow that thought, so Quinn said instead, “I love you.”

       That made Amy shake her head. “I don’t deserve that after what I’ve done, after who I’ve let into my life and what happened to you. I don’t deserve it.” Tears fell from her eyes to the sheets. “I’m so sorry I don’t know what to do to fix it again.”

       “Hey,” said Quinn. “It’s already fixed. We’re alive and we’re together. I’m not sorry for that.” She pulled Amy’s hands put to her lips and kissed them. “I’ll always love you.”

       There was no response from Amy after that but a good hard cry. Quinn held her aunt’s hands and gazed at her, her face filled with peace.

       Inside her, though, was a different world.

       Forgiving her is the only thing I can do, she thought. None of this was her fault. She’s devastated and heartbroken, and I’ll do all I can to help her, because I’ll need her to help me cope with what I’ve done. I’ve killed someone, a thing I never imagined I would do. I did the unthinkable and maybe the unforgivable. She did no real wrong. She’ll get over it in time, but I will carry my guilt to the grave.

       Daria would know what to do. She’s smart and wise, but I’m just popular. Maybe being popular isn’t so bad, though, if by needing other people I can reach out to them and make them feel better, helping myself in turn. Maybe Amy will get over this quicker because of me. I would like to see that happen. It would help to know that I could heal as well as harm . . . and maybe harming wasn’t completely terrible, in a way. I’m not sorry I saved my aunt or stopped the world from ending. I suppose I can’t be too sorry for how I did it, either, though I am. I killed her boyfriend, and my actions led to the deaths of others as well. Even though they were doing bad things, they should have lived to be punished instead. They might have learned to do good things in time, or at least learned not to do evil—but they never will now. They’re dead, and I brought that about.

       I wonder what disturbs me more: that part of me feels guilty for what I’ve done, or that part of me does not, and is glad of what I did. Amy deserved better than Ralph’s betrayal. She deserved someone who truly loved her instead of someone who used her and tried to have her killed. No one should do that to my family and get away with it. At least now she has a chance to love again, if she dares. I don’t know if she ever will, but she at least can try.

       One thing for sure: I don’t believe in guardian angels anymore. Daria was right, they’re just make-believe. You have to make things happen on your own, be your own guardian angel, as I guess I was for Amy.

       I don’t believe in the future now, either. I’ve seen the future, and it’s more terrible than anything in nightmares. I wonder if that knowledge is worse than knowing you’ve killed someone. No, I think not. You can always pretend the future will get better, even if you know it won’t. You can’t pretend away what you’ve done, though. It will always be there. You have to accept it, and move on.

       I’m not the same as when I left on this trip. I’ll never be the same as I was again.

       I’m not sorry for it, though. Sad, but not sorry. If I had to do it over to save everything I did, I’d do it. I really would. I know what I’m capable of now. I saw what’s in the future, what stands to be lost, and what it will take to save it.

       She studied her tearful aunt in silence, mulling over a new thought.

       I wonder if popular people are any good at intelligence work?











Author’s Notes II: This post-canon story is the sequel to a previous Daria fanfic, “Prayers for a SAINT,” and takes place a few weeks after the events in the latter story. It is not necessary to read that fanfic in order to understand this one. “Prayers” is at:


       The action herein takes place in January of the year after Daria graduates from Lawndale High School—assumedly January 2001, per Richard Lobinske’s superb essay, “The Daria Temporal Analysis Project,” found online at:


       Lawndale is assumed to be a suburb of Baltimore, per comments made by series creator Glenn Eichler during an interview with Kara Wild, found at:


       Kara Wild’s many writings about Quinn Morgendorffer substantially affected my depiction of her, particularly Kara’s as-yet unfinished masterpiece, “Working Girl.” In addition, I borrowed the idea of Amy Barksdale being an art appraiser from Kara’s work, plus Amy’s nickname for Helen Morgendorffer (“The Velociraptor”). Ms. Wild’s invaluable input is gratefully acknowledged.

       Renfield came up with the excellent phrase that was used as the title for chapter ten, in a post on the old version of PPMB in March 2003. (Thanks!) D. T. Dey’s essay, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” on Outpost Daria helped identify Amy Barksdale’s sports car. One room of Amy’s home appeared briefly in the episode “Through a Lens Darkly” and is further described here. The use of Ralph as Amy’s dating partner spins off from Amy’s attraction to Ralph Fiennes, also mentioned in “Through a Lens Darkly.” Speaking of Ralph Fiennes, the shootout in Chapter Nine was inspired by the shootout at the end of the most excellent movie, Red Dragon (which happens to be Quinn’s nickname in another fanfic, “Winter in Hell”).

       The quote at the beginning from Dave Barry comes from Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book, page 67. The quote from Ursula LeGuin comes from The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, page 1.

       The MTPB (matter-transparent particle beam) superweapon described herein does not yet exist. It was derived from descriptions of the meson gun, a futuristic particle-beam space weapon detailed in the 1970s Traveller science-fiction role-playing game from Game Designers Workshop. Much of what is written here about the MTPB came from an unpublished science-fiction novel I wrote a few years ago which used the same device, elaborated upon here.




Original begun in 2002, completed 03/16/07, modified 05/21/07, 06/04/07, 07/20/08