©2009 The Angst Guy (theangstguy@yahoo.com)

Daria and associated characters are ©2009 MTV Networks



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Synopsis: “I’m in the witness protection program,” Daria told the bridesmaids at her cousin Erin’s wedding. “The Morgendorffers were kind enough to take me in after my real family was exterminated by the mob.” What if she had been telling the truth? Here is an alternate-history version of the wedding episode, “I Don’t.”


Author’s Notes: This story appeared on PPMB and SFMB from late March to early April 2007. The tale was spawned by Roentgen’s PPMB Iron Chef of November 2006, “Witless Protection Program,” and is also a response to  Kristen Bealer’s Iron Chef, “Beware the Sarcasm!” from February 2005. I was reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep while writing this story, which slightly affected its noir style. The remaining “Author’s Notes” are at the end of the story.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Roentgen for spawning this tale. Thanks also to Kristen Bealer, who gave the story a big push. DigiSim found an error, so thanks to him, too.











I prefer to sit here and watch the carnage unfold.

Luhrman, I Don’t





       The clouds moved in as predicted, and by eleven thirty the blue morning sky of April had turned the color of a week-old bruise. The outdoor wedding guests were in a fine state of agony, as no indoor facilities had been reserved in case of rain. All the conference rooms at the Windsor Hills Resort were held hostage by a lawn-care sales conference and a dermatologists’ convention; the churches in Leeville were having their own weddings and receptions. That’s what faith-based planning gets you: more opportunities to exercise your prayer muscles.

       The chance of rain had everyone worried but me. First, it wasn’t my wedding. I didn’t know anyone present, and I didn’t need to know them—with one exception. Second, I was required to stay near the refreshments tent, so my tuxedo would remain as dry as Carrie Nation’s liquor cabinet, plus I had all the fresh shrimp, cocktail sauce, and punch I could stand, and I could stand a lot. Third, even if I got soaked, the tuxedo had set me back nada because Uncle Sam had picked up the tab. It was one of the benefits of being a Deputy U.S. Marshal, that and being allowed to have weird hair to help your disguise. It helped make up for the times when you got bruises or worse as a bonus to your biweekly paycheck.

       It wasn’t a problem that I didn’t personally know anyone there. My cover story was that I was a friend of the bride’s family, specifically her father’s side. Her father wasn’t present because his ex-wife was there, and putting the two within sighting distance of each other was like mixing bleach and ammonia to get chlorine gas. I was there, the story ran, as her father’s diplomatic representative. Everyone who wasn’t in on the story swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, and because everyone there was on the bride’s mother’s side, they treated me like toxic waste. As I am not the most social of people, the assignment was almost too good to be true.

       The bride and her extended family were in on the cover story, of course. They had to be. I was assigned to protect one of the bride’s cousins, and the refreshments tent was where I was supposed to meet her—only she was late. It figured. She was a teenager.

       As I waited, leaning against a tent pole and mulling over a sixth return to the shrimp table, several bridesmaids stood behind me in matching baby-blue gowns and bleated about the weather. “The Forecast Channel said it was a forty percent chance!” said one. They all had the same Virginian drawl. Chance came out as a two-syllable word: chay-unce.

       “Oh, it can’t rain on Brian and Erin’s wedding. It just can’t!” Can’t came out as two syllables, too: cay-unt.

       “That would be so awful. I couldn’t stand it!” Stay-und.

       I couldn’t stay-und any more of it, either. “On the contrary,” I interrupted, not bothering to turn around. “Rain is an ancient symbol of fertility. Every couple should be so lucky.”

       “Really?” said two of them at once.

       “Oh, don’t you see?” said the third blue sheep. “A little rain won’t spoil the happiest day of Brian and Erin’s life!”

       The expectation that it was all downhill for a couple after the wedding was one that had never made sense to me, though perhaps in quite predictable ways it did. At least Brian and Erin, whoever they were, wouldn’t have to worry about the wedding bills. The bride’s grandmother was loaded, said the wedding guests’ rumor mill, and she’d footed the entire affair for her favorite daughter’s only child. I wondered how the rest of the family felt about that.

       “We are now entering hell,” said an unfamiliar voice, a nearly flat monotone. “Please keep your hands and elbows inside the car.”

       I turned my head halfway around to catch a side glimpse of the ongoing events. Two teenage girls had walked up on the grass. “You must be Erin’s cousin,” said a bridesmaid.

       “I am,” said a high, quick schoolgirl voice. “But Daria’s, um, her cousin . . . I mean, she—”

       “What?” said the confused bridesmaid.

       I sighed. Daria at last. Twenty minutes late.

       “Actually,” said the monotone, “I’m in the witness protection program. The Morgendorffers were kind enough to take me in after my real family was exterminated by the mob.”

       I heard one of the girls gasp. It took every nerve I had not to turn around at that moment. What the hell was Daria doing? Had she lost her mind?

       “Oh,” said the bridesmaid, electing to ignore the admission. “Well, how come you didn’t get the same dress as the rest of us?”

       “I did,” said the monotone peevishly.

       “Anyway,” said the bridesmaid, “it’s too bad you guys missed the rehearsal dinner. It was so fun. Let me introduce you to your escorts.”

       I checked and saw the group was heading away from me. With one of the nattering bridesmaids were two younger girls, one with long orange-peel hair and a perfect complexion. Quinn, I remembered, Quinn Morgendorffer—almost fifteen, a cuteness queen at the top of the high-school popularity chain. Beside her was a slightly shorter brunette with the biggest glasses I’d ever seen outside of movie props and a gown that struggled valiantly to fit a short, awkward body. She gave off nerd vibes like Chernobyl gives off radiation. Her sour look spoke volumes. She didn’t want to be here, she didn’t want to meet anyone, she wanted to go home and read a book, locked in her room. Since she couldn’t do that, she had to play along and suffer the torment of endless ennui until such time as she could find and drink a bottle of drain cleaner.


       I was supposed to prevent any drain-cleaner drinking from happening, of course. I was supposed to prevent anything even remotely bad from happening. With a crowd as large as this, I couldn’t imagine how that was possible, but I had to do it. As Yoda says, there is no try.

       In time, Daria was led back in my direction. I turned my head and affected my best bored look. I noticed then that she was wearing black boots under her gown instead of dress-matching heels. How anyone had failed to detect that niggling detail on the way to the wedding was beyond me. Perhaps they preferred to feign ignorance than risk an argument. There was a message in those boots: I am who I am, and I can kick.

       “Daria, this is your escort, Luhrman,” said the bridesmaid in charge, who then—mission accomplished—made a hasty escape.

       “Of course,” said Daria, looking me over. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. She waited expectantly.

       “How do you do, Dah-rye-ah,” I said, giving the standard password: an incorrect pronunciation of her name.

       “It’s Dar-ee-ah, actually,” she said, giving the correct response.

       “Sorry,” I said. I wasn’t, but I said it anyway.

       She ignored it. “So, Luhrman,” she said, “is that your first name or your last name?”

       I shrugged. “Does it matter?”

       “Whatever. You have cocktail sauce on the front of your tux.”

       I straightened and got a handkerchief out of a jacket pocket. No one was close to us, but I kept my voice low. “Mind if I ask what that was all about?” I asked as I worked.

       “What?” she said, frowning behind those huge glasses.

       “Your comment about being in the program.”

       “No one believed me,” she said, getting defensive. “They thought I was lying.”

       “The point is . . .” I began, then gave up. She knew what the point was. “Look, if you have to say something off the wall, tell some other kind of lie, if you would.”

       Her face closed up like a brick wall. “Whatever.”

       I got most of the sauce off the tux. The leftover stain would pass, and it wasn’t my nickel for the dry-cleaning bill. “So, Daria, where do you want to go?”


       “Right. Where else do you want to go?”


       “You like shrimp and cocktail sauce? I’ll get you a plate.”

       “I’ll get it.”

       “Escorts are supposed to do that.”

       “Whatever.” She looked at the top of my head. “I can’t believe your hair.”

       This was going to be a fun day, I could tell. Still, I couldn’t rag on her too much for her attitude. No one had shot my parents and older sister to death a year ago while I was checking out books at the public library. She was alone in the world now except for her uncle’s family, who had moved with her to a suburb outside of Baltimore, far from her old homestead in Highland, Texas. Daria didn’t have much of a twang in her voice. I wondered if she had worked at rubbing out all traces of her Texas past. There wasn’t anything cowboyish about her. She was pale, hardly over five feet tall, and not in good physical shape, but she had the IQ of a rocket scientist.

       And the manners of a teenager who hated the world, and had every right to do so. It was going to be a real fun day.

       I got her a small paper plate with a pile of shrimp on it and cocktail sauce dumped over the top. I was about to get one more for myself, but I can’t eat shrimp and reach for my gun at the same time, so I passed. No trouble was expected. My assignment was precautionary only. Still . . .

       “How’s your day going?” I asked, more to kill time than anything else.

       “Marvelously,” she said, accepting the shrimp plate from me. “I’m about to burst into song.”

       “Mmm. How are you getting along with Quinn?”

       She snorted. “The less we see of each other, the better we get along.”

       “What’s the problem?”

       “There isn’t enough time in the world to go into it.” She picked up a shrimp and eyed me speculatively. “Do you have a gun?”

       I sighed and checked to see if anyone had overheard. “That’s for me to know. Sorry if I was prying. Just trying to make conversation.”

       “You sound like Steven Wright, the comedian. Same flat tone and delivery.”

       Now there was the pot calling the kettle black. “So I’m told. I’m not always as quick with the comebacks.”

       “Yes, I know.” She ate some shrimp. Everyone ignored us. I checked my watch. They would be coming to put us in formation for the wedding at any time.

       “You do this often?” she asked, licking her fingers.

       “Nah,” I said, scanning the crowd. “I don’t like weddings.”

       “I mean protecting people like me.”

       “It comes up often enough. Usually I work in courtrooms, but I do this, too.”

       “No offense, but are you any good at your work?”

       “Good enough to be here.”

       She looked doubtful. “Are you the only marshal here today?”

       “No, but I’m the only one you need to know about.”

       “Whatever. I was just curious.” She began to study the crowd as she ate more shrimp. “What are you looking for?”

       “Nothing. Just looking.” I was wondering if her enemies had thought it worthwhile to put a sniper in the light woods that bordered the resort grounds. The paperwork had said it was unlikely, the area had been checked out before the wedding, and I noticed nothing unusual among the trees—not that that meant anything. I nodded at the brightening sky. “The clouds are breaking up. They might have the wedding after all.”

       “Damn,” she said, looking downcast. “All that time I spent on my rain dance, wasted.”

       “You make any friends in Lawndale?”

       She threw her empty plate into a trash can. “One.”

       “One’s good enough. What’s he or she like?”

       “She’s okay.” She got quiet then and looked away.

       “Does she know about you?” I finally asked.

       Daria was slow to answer. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes. “Does she know what about me?” she finally said.

       “Do you trust her?”

       She nodded at once. “Yes.”

       “Can she keep her mouth shut?”

       A beat, then more nods.

       I doubted the last part, but I couldn’t blame her for opening up to someone. She carried the burden of a dead family on her shoulders, plus the weight of a future trial at which she’d be expected to testify as to who had killed her folks. I wondered just how much she had really told her new friend.

       I let it go. “Okay, then. Everyone’s heading for ground zero. We’d better join the herd.”

       “Are you sure we have to do this?” she groaned. “I hate weddings, too.”

       I remembered from her dossier that she had attended the wedding of her older sister a couple years ago. In fact, she’d almost certainly been one of the bridesmaids, if not the maid of honor.

       “Most of life is doing stuff you hate,” I said. “I’ll be up there with you.”

       “You?” She gave me a puzzled look, then her face cleared. “Oh, right. You’re the stand-in for Erin’s dad. Do you have to walk her down the aisle?”

       We set off at a leisurely pace for the wedding. “That job was outsourced to someone in New Delhi,” I said. “Have you talked to your cousin since you got here?”

       “Quinn? Well, yeah. Why?”

       “I meant Erin.”

       She looked annoyed. “Airhead’s not my cousin. She’s on Aunt Helen’s side of the family, so she’s Quinn’s cousin, not mine. Quinn’s the only cousin I have.” She walked in silence, then said, “Uncle Jake was my mom’s little brother.”


       A crowd was forming around the wedding site. It looked like the ushers were slow in getting everyone seated. Your typical perfect wedding. No one would remember the chaos when they looked at the lovely photographs later, and the video cameraman would edit out the unpleasant spots in the final tape.

       Daria stopped and I waited with her. She was watching the bride’s mother, an attractive forty-something blonde with a big floppy hat, micromanage the placement of family guests in the front rows of folding chairs. The groom was trying to help out his future mother-in-law, but his efforts weren’t up to her standards and he was looking more than a little frustrated when she snapped at him, which seemed to be every few seconds.

       “I hate this,” Daria said. Her face was registering something, but I couldn’t tell what. She looked down and tugged at her blue gown, trying to make it look like it wasn’t tied on her like a burlap sack, then gave up.

       “It’ll be over with soon,” I told her.

       “That’s what the Greeks thought when they went off to Troy.” She shook her head as she looked at the groom, who was running a nervous hand through his hair and checking his watch. “The happiest day of their lives,” she murmured.

       “Strictly out of curiosity, do you believe that?” I asked. “That this is their happiest day?”

       She exhaled through her nose. “No,” she said. She continued watching the goings-on, then said, “Maybe it was for Melody, though.”

       I thought back to her dossier. “Your sister?”

       “Yeah.” She said it so softly I almost didn’t hear. “She always wanted to get married. It was all she ever talked about.”

       I couldn’t think of anything to add to that, so I scanned the crowd again.

       “I never could figure that out, why she wanted to get married so much,” she said. “It wasn’t like she was having a bad time with Mom and Dad. I never got it. I used to tease her by writing stories about her—” Her voice choked off and her face went rigid, fighting down tears. She sniffed, took a few deep breaths, then subsided, but you could still see it buried below the surface.

       Asking more questions might open an ugly can of worms at the worst possible time to do so, so I shut up. Her brother-in-law had never been found after her family had been killed, though his car turned up in a parking garage in Lubbock. Professional opinion was divided as to his fate. He hadn’t left any important body parts behind, and there were no bullet holes in the seats or shells lying on the floor with the stale French fries and cigarette butts. He could be wired to cinderblocks at the bottom of a river, feeding the fish, or he could be downing beers in a dive in Tijuana, waiting for his next lap dance. He’d been in a gang and his rap sheet wasn’t thin, but most of it was third-degree assault, trespassing, DUI, disorderly conduct. The cops in Texas couldn’t tie him to anything big. Neighbors in Highland said he’d cleaned himself up after he got married, got promoted at the auto body shop where he worked, dressed a little better when he went out. I wondered whatever had attracted Daria’s sister to a lowlife, but love is funny like that, funny in a way that wasn’t my kind of humor. I thanked God—for the upteen thousandth time—that I didn’t have any kids.

       Daria said something I didn’t catch. “What?” I said, leaning closer.

       “Till death do us part,” she repeated. She pointed. “I think they’re ready for us up front.”

       We made our way around the crowd and got in our proper spots. I was at the end of the line of groomsmen, Daria the last of the bridesmaids. The two rows formed a huge V-shape with Erin and Brian at the heads of the rows, and a little white gazebo at the apex, in which the white-robed minister stood. I had an excellent view of my charge, but I also had my back to the wedding guests—not an ideal position for a bodyguard in anyone’s book. Someone had forgotten about this detail when setting up my assignment. I gave a casual look around, didn’t notice any ninjas or cigar-smoking gangsters with violin cases, then turned to face the minister and groom.

       After a geologic period of time, the wedding march started, the bride came up with a male escort, and things got underway. The minister began the service with an overworked and aimless preamble that compared married love to a river running to the sea, a syrupy analogy that almost gave me diabetes. I glanced over and saw most of the bridesmaids were already in tears, except for the short brunette at the far end. Daria was twisting her pinky finger in her left ear as if she hoped clearing it would magically change the minister’s words into Shakespeare, or at least Allen Ginsberg. When that didn’t work, she turned her head and looked back at the congregation, or whatever it is that the audience at your basic wedding is called. She smiled at someone and started to giggle.

       Then her gaze shifted a tenth of a degree to one side, and she spotted something or someone else. Her smile faded and her dark eyes got almost as big as the Coke-bottle lenses in her glasses.

       I turned immediately, reaching for the inside of my jacket with my right hand. The red-carpeted center aisle was clear except for two bored ushers at the end. A hundred feet behind the last row of folding chairs was the huge white refreshments tent where idle staff chatted, then only the vivid green resort grounds stretching out to the tree line. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

       Most of the congregation began looking at either Daria or me, clearly wondering why we were looking in the wrong direction. Some even turned around in their seats to see if they were missing something interesting.

       I looked back at Daria. She was again staring in the direction of the minister but she didn’t seem to be paying attention to him or anything else in the real world. Her face was drained of color. Her hands were clasped across her abdomen and her shoulders were hunched. She seemed to be frightened—and waiting.

       After a moment, I followed my instincts and let go of my Glock, which had never left its holster. The ceremony continued uninterrupted, but I kept peeking at Daria to see how she was holding up. Something important had happened, and I needed to know what it was.

       The others in the wedding party hadn’t noticed a thing. Neither had Erin or Brian.

       “You may now kiss the bride,” said the minister. He smiled, but it came out as a leer.

       As the happy couple scampered down the carpeted aisle toward the golf cart waiting to take them to the reception in the resort ballroom, I made my way through a chattering gaggle of groomsmen and bridesmaids to get to Daria. She stood off to the side, surveying the crowd with her arms wrapped around her as if she had felt a chill. Then she stood on tiptoe in a futile effort to see over the heads of the adults present. I checked as well but saw nothing out of place. I had the uncomfortable feeling that my instinct to do nothing a few moments ago had been dead wrong. Grabbing her and running for it might have been better.

       “You looked like you saw something behind you,” I said when I reached her. “Anything up?”

       “Uh . . . I don’t know.” Her breathing was shallow. She was all nerves. “I thought I—”

       “Daria!” A bobbed brunette wearing a black cocktail dress and pink shoulder wrap inserted herself into the conversation. “Daria, didn’t you see me motioning you to turn around? You were supposed to face the bride and groom, not go sightseeing! They might have to edit you out of the movie!”

       The poor girl was taken aback but kept her head. “I’m sorry, Aunt Helen. It was just that—”

       “That was my fault, I’m afraid.” Yet another brunette, this one with long wavy hair, a black evening gown, and a sheer purple jacket, walked up and put a hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “Don’t be upset over it. I was mocking convention and I let it get out of hand.” She turned to Daria with a deadpan expression. “I’m sorry, dear. Next time I promise I won’t stick out my tongue. I’ll just fart.”

       Amy!” cried the bobbed brunette in horror.

       I glanced at my companion. Daria cracked a weak but genuine smile.

       “What good is a pointless, demeaning ceremony if you can’t find a little humor in it?” The brunette named Amy motioned for Daria to follow her. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s you and I beat the crowd and go raid the dessert table. I could use some chocolate after this torture.”

       “Don’t get into any trouble,” said Helen. Her warning gaze went from Daria to Amy.

       “Don’t do anything you did as a teenager,” Amy interpreted. “Got it.” She ignored Helen’s poisonous glare and set off. Daria started to leave with her, then turned and gave me a questioning look.

       “Don’t worry about me,” I said, waving her on. “I’ll be right behind you with the baggage train and the dogs.” We would have to talk later about what Daria had seen. It had shocked her to the core, and I had to know what it was.

       Helen had already left, but Amy had stopped in her tracks and was giving me the once-over. “You look a little old to be her date, unless you’re a stalker in training,” she said. She was half smiling, half not. I got the impression she was concealing fangs and occasionally got to use them.

       “It’s okay,” Daria interrupted. “That’s Luhrman. He’s my . . . uh, escort.”

       “Your escort?” Amy raised an eyebrow, then turned to me. “That’s interesting. Is Luhrman your first name or your last name?”

       “I get asked that a lot,” I admitted. “I’m still working it out.”

       Amy’s gaze lowered to my tuxedo jacket. “You have a stain on your suit,” she said. Before I could stop her, she reached over and touched the area to the left of my heart. The sauce stain was a hand’s width away from the spot she was touching, which happened to be right over my Glock 22. She pressed on the pistol grip and looked at me with hard, narrow eyes.

       It’s okay, Amy.” Daria’s nervous voice filled the silence. “He has to stay with me. He’s a—”

       “Justice Department, Deputy United States Marshal,” I said, keeping my voice low. I reached in a pocket of my jacket and pulled out a small wallet, flipping it open to reveal a bright steel star inside a ring.

       Amy’s hand fell away as she stared at the badge.

       “I also have a part-time job making balloon animals,” I added.

       She snorted gently. “I can’t believe they let you in with that hair,” she said, her smile returning, then promptly forgot about me and turned to Daria. “Let’s go,” she said, and the two of them set off together with me about eight paces behind, blazing a trail across the perfect turf. Everyone else continued milling around the wedding site to give the impression that each was the perfect model of restraint and moderation, trading personal views on the wedding’s various highlights and shortcomings until they couldn’t stand the wait and decided to stampede to the great watering hole of the reception and slake their thirst at the free liquor bar.

       Amy talked to Daria in a way that suggested they had been introduced earlier in the day. I couldn’t pick up all of their conversation, but Amy clearly did not have a high opinion of either Helen or the bride’s mother, Rita, who both turned out to be Amy’s older sisters. She referred to Rita as “the loved and pampered one,” and Helen as a “tightly wound pain in the ass.” Though she still looked shaken, Daria began to giggle.

       “You’re in college, right?” Amy asked. “I can’t remember. You young people all look alike to me.”

       “High school,” said Daria. “I’m a sophomore.”

       “You look older than that,” said Amy. “Wiser, maybe. Definitely smarter. Do you get carded at bars?”

       “I haven’t worked up the courage to try the bar scene yet. Maybe when I turn seventeen.”

       “Well,” said Amy, “I’ll spoil the surprise now by telling you that bars are full of drunks. If you’re going to drink, do it at home by yourself. It’s less embarrassing and safer, too. Better yet, don’t drink. You can become a public relations account executive like me, and that will give you all the self-loathing that being drunk would get you, only you’ll get paid for it.”

       Daria considered this. “Is the pay good?”

       “Every year I go to the best hotel on Maui for two weeks, whether I need it or not.”

       “What sort of products do you have to promote?”

       “Ah, that’s a very good question, and I’m glad you asked it. It shows insight and initiative. You have a great future in the PR field.”

       “Cigarettes?” Daria guessed. “Alcoholic drinks? Tranquilizers? Sex toys?”

       “Ah . . .” Amy did not sound enthusiastic about the conversation’s direction. “Well . . .”

       There was a brief silence.


       Another silence.


       “Uh, no.” Amy cleared her throat and mumbled a word. She was turning red.

       “Footwear?” said Daria, leaning closer.

       Futuramotors,” she said in a rush. “You know, trying to walk on grass in these clogs is—”

       Futura Motors? Daria gasped. “The company that makes those giant SUVs?”

       “Don’t shout!” said Amy, nervously looking left and right. “People might hear! And it wasn’t my fault, okay? They took me off the Maibatsu account because I had it running so well. I really miss test driving those sporty little cars. So to answer your question, yeah, my job is to sell giant SUVs that make us dependent on foreign oil, crush wildlife, destroy wilderness lands, and pollute the earth. I won’t blame you if you never want to see me again.”

       They walked in silence for a half dozen steps.

       “Is it true that a Futura Rhino can drive through a brick wall?” Daria asked.

       “Um, yes, if the wall is no more than two bricks thick. The windshield will crack, but it won’t cave in. The headlights usually work afterward, too.”

       “Hmm.” Daria thought about this. “Would it work on schools?”

       Amy started to smile. “Probably, but I’d use a Mastodon with an armored grill for that.”

       “Could I drive one? Around my school, I mean.”

       “I dunno. Do you have a permit?”


       “Good enough. I’ll see what we can do. We have a couple Mastodons on promo tours. You live in Lawndale, right? Maybe I can have one drop by and you can take it for a spin.”

       “That would be great.” Daria glowed with excitement. “Maybe once or twice around the high school parking lot, with a side trip to the football field.”

       “As long as you’re careful not to hit anything.”

       “Oh, of course.”

       Amy glanced back and gave me a mischievous look. “I’m not going to get arrested, am I?”

       “I can’t hear you,” I replied. “Too much background noise.”

       She grinned and went back to chatting with Daria. It seemed she had a lighter step. She was good looking for a public relations account executive pushing forty, or just past it. I liked the way she thought. Maybe we could get together later after Daria went home, and I could make her a balloon animal or two. It’s fun to dream.

       We made it to the resort intact, though we had grass clippings all over our shoes. When we got to the ballroom—gold walls, marble floors, and pink tablecloths—we found that the bride and groom had gone somewhere else. The resort staff had finished setting up tables, but the caterer was still a few minutes from finishing with the buffet. The dessert table had not been laid out. Amy stewed about it for half a minute, then left to find the manager. She was not one to accept a chocolate shortage without a fight.

       “She’s really different,” said Daria when we were alone. She was staring off in the direction Amy had gone. “She’s kind of like . . . I don’t know . . .”

       “Cool?” I supplied.

       “Yeah.” Daria nodded. “I never met her before. Aunt Helen doesn’t get along with her sisters, so she doesn’t talk about them much.” She seemed to deflate. “I wish I’d gotten along with my sister better. I wish I’d gotten along with my parents, too, but we—”

       “I need to ask you something, if you don’t mind,” I interrupted, hoping to avoid a waterworks display. “Something happened during the wedding. You looked around and looked like you saw something that surprised you.”

       “It was weird,” she said, wiping her eyes under her glasses. “I thought I recognized someone from back in Highland.”


       She started to answer, then stopped herself and was quiet for a moment. “A guy Slade used to hang around,” she finally said. “They were in a gang together. The guy I saw—thought I saw—was the leader.”

       “What was his name?”

       She hesitated. “Todd Ianuzzi,” she said softly.

       Todd Ianuzzi. This was bad news. I remembered his photo in another dossier. “Big guy?” I said. “Blond hair cut in a mullet, mirror shades, tattoos?”

       “Yeah, sort of.” She looked uneasy. “The guy I saw was wearing mirror shades, and he was as big as Todd, but his hair was dark and short, almost crew cut.”

       Could be a dye job. “Where was he?”

       “He was taking stuff out of the big tent in back. They were packing up the food.” She hesitated, then added, “He looked in my direction when I was looking at him, and he stopped as if he was watching me.” Her voice fell. “I don’t know if it was him, but—”

       “Excuse me,” I said. I reached into my jacket and pulled out an ear button on a long wire, then stuck it into my right ear. “Gray two, do you copy?” I said aloud.

       “Loud and clear,” said a tinny voice in my ear. “We’re checking it out. Stay inside, find a defensible spot until we come down or call back. Out.”

       I pulled out the ear button. “Where are we supposed to sit?” I asked.

       Daria stared at me as I stuffed the ear button back into my jacket. “Who were you talking to?” she asked.

       I checked my Glock, felt for the extra clips on the back of my belt, took a look around. “The rest of the team,” I said.

       She blinked. “Someone’s been listening to us this whole time?”

       “You got it. We need to sit where we can see everything going on around us.”

       “Oh. Uh . . . Aunt Helen said Quinn and I were to go over there.” Daria pointed to a table set against one wall of the ballroom. It was centrally located, near an exit, and had a commanding view of the area as long as not too many people were standing in front of it. It looked like the head table for the wedding party. The only drawback was the huge window behind it, but there was a one-story sheer drop on the other side, and the window was heavily tinted. No one could see in during the daytime. Safe enough for government work.

       “Let’s have a seat,” I said. “It might be nothing, but we’ll check it out.”

       “Okay.” Pale but steady, no trembling, no tears. Good girl. I was starting to like her a lot.

       We found our places at one end of the table. Our names were written in calligraphic style on little folded pieces of paper beside white china plates. The tableware gleamed like real silver. Given the volumes of money being poured into this affair, it might well have been. We took our seats. The ballroom was almost empty except for a half dozen catering staff. The herd hadn’t made it up the trail yet.

       Talking was better than just sitting. It kept me from getting nervous. Something about Daria’s manner bothered me, though. I decided to play dumb. “You said your brother-in-law knew this guy, Todd?”

       “Yeah.” For some reason, she wasn’t looking me in the face. “Slade ran around with him before he got married to Melody. Mom and Dad hated Todd. They didn’t like Slade very much, either, but at least he showered and had a real job. Todd, they didn’t like at all.”

       “Did you know Todd personally?”

       She shook her head. “No. Everyone knew about him, but I don’t know if many people knew him face-to-face. He had an ugly green Mustang that looked like it belonged in a junkyard. Everyone in town knew his car and avoided it.” She rolled her eyes. “Almost everyone.”

       I mulled over the next question because I already knew the answer, but I asked it anyway. “You think Todd had anything to do with what happened?”

       She knew what I was talking about. She still took her time thinking about it. “I don’t know. He might have.” She got quiet, then went on in an emotionless voice. “I was at the library when it happened, checking out a book on photography. My parents made me join the school paper, and the paper made me fashion reporter because I was a girl. I hated that so much. I liked having a camera, but I wanted to be an enquiring photographer, not a fashion . . . whatever.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter now.”

       “Todd,” I prompted.

       She looked down at her empty plate. “On my way home, I saw this old van parked in an alley. Some guys were getting out of it and changing out of these old coveralls they were wearing. I decided to take some pictures of them, but I didn’t want them to see me, so I hid behind a garbage can and took some shots. I had a pretty good camera, a Nikon with a telephoto lens. I shot some pictures of them because the light was good. I didn’t recognize any of them then; the viewfinder was dirty, and I was just aiming and shooting, seeing if I got anything good. I was trying to be . . . spontaneous.”

       She rubbed her nose. “I gave the camera to the police later on. I’m supposed to testify about taking the pictures. The camera put the time and date on each shot. It was right after . . .” She swallowed and looked away.

       She had skipped a bit, but I knew the story. Fate had played a dreadful joke on everyone involved. Daria had unknowingly taken crystal clear photos of everyone who had been involved in her family’s murder. The killers had earlier driven up to the family’s suburban ranch house in the van, parked in the driveway, gotten out, and walked calmly to the front door. When the door opened, they went inside. A few minutes later, they walked out and got in the van and drove away. A neighbor watering her yard down the street saw this. She thought the men were painters and wondered why they had left so soon.

       They had left because their job was done. They had used silencers. Daria’s father was found near the front door. His wife and oldest daughter were in the kitchen. The house had been ransacked. The killers had looked for something. The suspects who had been caught said their leader took a small suitcase out of the house, but nothing else. They didn’t know what was in it.

       A little while later, Daria came home.

       Daria had been shown the photos she had taken. She had looked over a library of mug shots and pointed out who was who. Her dossier said she had been a rock throughout the whole process. If she held up on the stand as she had up to this point, she would send her family’s murderers to Texas’s Death Row. They might fry even without her help. Every one of the killers would pay.

       Every one of them who had been caught up to this point, that is. Only one had not.

       It struck me as strange that Daria hadn’t said the most important thing about Todd Ianuzzi, which was that his face showed up in five of the photos she had taken of the van’s occupants. The other killers were members of Todd’s gang.

       Todd’s gang. He had almost certainly directed the murders of her family.

       And Daria thought she had seen him here, working at the Windsor Hills Resort, then started to backtrack and question herself. Did he kill her folks? I don’t know. He might have. My ass. Her dossier said she had picked out Todd in the photos with no trouble at all, even if she hadn’t recognized him when she was photographing him. She knew what he had done. She just didn’t want to tell me about it.

       I was suddenly very curious to find out why. I turned to ask Daria an important question. That didn’t happen, of course, because at the same moment I opened my mouth, she looked up and smiled. She wasn’t looking at me, though.

       “I came, I saw, I kicked some ass,” said a triumphant Amy, striding across the ballroom toward us with a small plate in her hand. The plate was piled with chocolate candies. She set it before Daria with a smug look. “You go first. I’m going to take a moment to bask in the afterglow of victory.”

       Daria took a chocolate and sampled it, nodded satisfaction, then pushed the plate to me.

       “No, thanks,” I said. “I’m not allowed to enjoy myself while working. Against regulations. The only joy is the joy of duty.”

       “I saw that movie, too.” Amy gave me a speculative look. “You’re kind of interesting. Almost.”

       “No, thanks,” I repeated deadpan. “I’m not allowed to enjoy myself while working. Against regulations. The only joy—”

       “Shut up, monkey boy,” said Amy. Her lips didn’t smile, but her eyes did. Daria looked from one of us to the other, then rolled her eyes and sighed.

       The outside doors to the ballroom opened, and jovial cacophony began filling the room. The herd had arrived. Resort staff hurried toward the free bar and called for help with the buffet. I mulled over the omissions and quirks in Daria’s story. My train of thought got sidetracked when Erin and Brian, still as fresh as new-laid eggs in their wedding outfits, waltzed into the room to greet the guests.

       My two partners hadn’t called, but none of the resort staffers present looked like the photos in Todd Ianuzzi’s file. Rita in the big floppy hat waved us over to get in line at the buffet. The three of us obliged. I let Daria and Amy go first, less out of chivalry than because it allowed me to keep an eye on things. We bunched up at the vegetable section. I wasn’t hungry after all the shrimp I’d had earlier, but I had to keep up appearances to stay close to Daria. And one other.

       “So,” I said as I spooned garlic mashed potatoes on my plate, “if I was thinking about getting a Futura SUV, what model should I look at?”

       “Depends on what you want it for,” said Amy, going for the three-bean salad. “Not that I would know anything about it.”

       “Say I like scuba diving.”

       “That would be the Orca,” she said at once. “Amphibious and airtight. Has a rear propeller, too.”


       “The Cyclops. It can be airdropped if you get the parachute package, but it’s best not to be inside when it hits the ground.”

       “What if I like running over other cars to get out of traffic jams?”

       “The Mastodon, definitely. Are you really in the market?”

       “For an SUV?”

       She turned her head and gave me a candid look. Her hazel eyes had threads of gold and green woven through them. “For anything,” she said softly.

       Those two words and the lips that spoke them left me breathless. Then reality crept in and sank the dream. “I am,” I began, “but—”

       “Regulations,” she said without expression.

       I slowly nodded. “I have to leave right after this is over,” I said. “Alas.”

       She sighed and went back to filling her plate. “Alas.”

       Once we were loaded up, Amy left for a table halfway across the room from ours. Daria and I meandered back to the end of the head table and took our seats. The rest of the wedding party was already there, laughing it up with the bride and groom.

       “What were you and Amy talking about?” Daria asked, putting her napkin in her lap.

       “Just a little pointless chit-chat,” I said without looking at her. “Forget it.”

       “A couple months ago I read an article about Futura Motors,” she said as she cut up her chicken. “They make limited-edition custom SUVs, never more than five hundred of any model and usually less. Some cost as much as a home in Malibu, but they can go almost anywhere and do almost anything. Some models came from vehicle designs submitted to the Armed Forces.”

       “Mmm. I could believe that.”

       “The Rhino was supposed to be an armored assault vehicle, but the Army stuck with what it already had. The Orca and the Mastodon were for the Marines, but the Orca was too slow in the water and the Mastodon was underarmored. They had one SUV that could go underwater, but it kept getting stuck in the bottom muck. That was the Kraken, I think. Rich people love them anyway.”

       You’re Kraken me up, I almost said, but it was too lame a joke. My sense of humor was out taking a long walk, feeling sorry for itself. “You were right,” I said.

       “About what?”

       “Amy. She really is—” It was too late to take back my words now that I realized what I was saying, so I bit the bullet and finished “—cool.”

       I wished I had just shut up. The lame joke would have been better. I shook my head and ate a tasteless slice of roast beef.

       She poked at her peas in thought. “I’m sorry,” she finally said.

       “For what?”

       “Getting in the way.”

       I glanced at her, puzzled. “You’re not in the way.”

       “Of you and Amy,” she finished. She swallowed and put down her fork. “I’m never where I should be.”

       It went through my head to deny anything had been going on, but she would know it was a lie. The implications of her last remark were also disturbing, given what had happened to her family. “There are always other times,” I said. “Maybe I could get her business card, then drive by later and check her out.” I winced. “Check out her SUVs, I mean. Sorry. I don’t know why I’m even telling you this.”

       “It does seem like there should be a caution sign somewhere between your brain and your mouth,” she said. “No permanent harm done, though.”

       “You’re one of a kind,” I told her. “And, by the way, you and I are where we should be—exactly where we should be.”

       After a moment, she picked up her cutting knife and cleaned it carefully on her napkin. “No,” she whispered.

       Something inside my tuxedo jacket buzzed. As unobtrusively as possible, I pulled out the ear bud and put it to my ear, covering it and the wire with my hand. “Gray Two?” I said.

       “We called for backup,” said the voice in my ear. “The Leeville police are sending over a couple cars, non stat, just in case. The manager let us go over the personnel files in HR. Nothing’s turned up yet with full-time staff. We went through the part-time and temporary batch, too, but the records are a mess. We’re going over to the staff lockers to check things out. Stay tuned.”

       “Out.” I pulled out the ear bud and put it away. It still could be nothing, but—

       “Hey, my man!” called a cheery male voice. “Catching some basketball action on the radio?”

       It was Brian. The grinning bride and groom had walking up to the other side of our table. Brian had the swaggering arrogance of someone who has just married a lot of money, but hasn’t figured out yet that he will be paying through the nose for it. Erin hung onto Brian’s arm, but it was hard to tell who was leading whom. She had the most elaborate wedding dress in the Western hemisphere, all lace and frill with nothing of substance. Her auburn hair was woven into a beehive that matched the white dress and veil for meaningless complexity. She was cute in the way certain small dogs are cute, and as her subsequent conversation proved, about as bright.

       “Rollerball action,” I corrected Brian. “Houston and New York just went into overtime.”

       “What?” Brian crinkled his forehead in confusion. “What kind of—”

       “Daria!” Erin interrupted. “I can’t believe I didn’t get to see you before the wedding!”

       “Aunt Helen had a lot of meetings yesterday at work,” Daria began in a flat tone. “It was a lovely ceremo—”

       “Oh, but you haven’t met Brian!” Erin gushed. “Isn’t he marvelous? He works for the government.” She leaned close and said in an excited stage whisper, “Intelligence!

       “Erin!” Brian admonished, but he looked deeply pleased that she had blown his cover—doubtless not for the first time.

       “Oh, I know, I know,” said Erin quickly, “I’m not supposed to say anything, but isn’t it exciting?

       “If our national security is compromised,” Brian told me sagely, “you can bet there’s a woman at the bottom of it!”

       Erin hugged his arm and gave him a gentle slap on the shoulder. “Oh, you!”

       “Oh, God,” groaned Daria. She spoke for us all.

       “Hey, Daria,” Brian said as he looked her over, “how come you’re not wearing the same dress as everybody else?”

       “I am,” she said crossly, then pushed back her chair and stood. “I think I’ll go to the—”

       “Little girl’s room?” Brian supplied.

       “Yeah, the little girl’s room.” She looked at me. “If you don’t mind the trek.”

       “Not at all,” I said, standing as well. “Maybe I’ll catch the latest Calvinball scores on the radio while I’m waiting.”

       We took our leave, side by side. “What the hell was he talking about?” I heard Brian ask Erin.

       The restrooms were down a corridor off from the ballroom. “I’m not supposed to say this to strangers with guns,” Daria said as we went, “but you’re kind of cool, too.”

       “I promise not to repeat that,” I said. “No one would believe me, anyway.”

       “You wouldn’t happen to know Brian from your line of work, would you?”

       “I’m afraid not. I thought I heard he had something to do with intelligence, but that couldn’t be right.”

       “He also said government, and ‘government intelligence’ is—oh, right, you’re with the government, too, so I can’t say ‘oxymoron.’”

       “Your tact is appreciated.”

       “On the other hand,” said Daria, “knowing that Brian’s in government doesn’t surprise . . . oh, hi, Amy.”

       “Don’t mind me,” said Amy, falling into step so that Daria was between us. “I needed a break from listening to everyone at my table complain about their constipation.”

       “You should come over to our table,” I said. “We have Erin and Brian.”

       “Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Amy. “Constipation is such a fascinating topic. I can’t wait to hear more.”

       “Can we sit at your table, too?” Daria asked Amy.

       When we got to the restrooms we came across the leering minister, blocking a doorway. He was leaning over Daria’s red-haired cousin Quinn in an overly familiar manner. He looked flushed and had an empty martini glass in one hand. Quinn had a strained expression, but she was being polite and hadn’t figured out how to end the minister’s non-spiritual advances in a civilized way.

       I decided to help, caring soul that I am. “Hey, padre,” I said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “God called. He needs to see you in church for some reason, something about Judgment Day.”

       His red face got even redder. “Excuse me,” he growled, “but I’m in the middle of a delightful conversation with this young—”

       As he spoke, I unbuttoned my jacket with my other hand and pulled it open just enough to show the Glock and holster. I saw the white all around his eyes. The rest of his sentence got lost somewhere in his throat.

       “Go walk on some water,” I said in a friendly tone. “Deep water.”

       He was agreeable to the suggestion and immediately left, looking back over his shoulder at me several times as he escaped.

       “Whew, thanks!” said Quinn in relief. “Boy, he sure likes to talk a lot about love!”

       “He needs to learn moderation,” said Amy. “Quinn, you need to go in with us?”

       “No, I’m heading back to the table,” she said as she walked off. “My escort’s probably wondering where I went.”

       “Tell the minister I’m looking for him, if you see him,” I called after her.

       “Sure thing!” She waved before she went out of sight.

       “You’re really going to talk to that creep?” asked Daria.

       “No,” I said, buttoning my jacket up again, “but it’ll encourage him to go home and reflect.”

       Amy was looking at me in an interesting way. “Daria,” she said, without looking away, “I’ll be in there in a second. You go ahead.”

       Daria snorted, shaking her head, then pushed the door open and stomped in. “Some people,” I heard her mutter before the door thumped shut.

       “Virtue is its own reward,” said Amy. Her lips were curved into a smile.

       “That’s what it says on my paycheck,” I said.

       “That seems so unfair.” Amy pulled something from a pocket of her dress and stuck it in the breast pocket of my tux. She patted the pocket shut and leaned close. She smelled of lilacs.

       “First chance you get,” she whispered, “when the regulations don’t apply.” She then pulled away and went into the women’s room and left me alone in the hall.

       I peeked at the thing she had put into my pocket. It was her business card. Her home phone was scribbled on the back. She must have done it at her table, before she ran into us. Virtue got a bonus check, once in a while.

       I didn’t need to use the men’s facilities, which was good since I was supposed to be guarding someone. With nothing else to do, I maneuvered into a corner of the deserted hall and propped myself up against the wallpaper. Amy and Daria were talking inside the women’s room. That seems to be all that women really do in public bathrooms, other than look in the mirror. I heard them mention Helen and Rita’s names, something about sarcasm. Then they got quieter. Occasionally there was giggling. It was hard to picture either of them giggling. Maybe someone else was in there, giggling for them.

       My suit buzzed again, one time. Glad for the distraction, I reached inside my jacket for the ear bud and wire. “Gray Two,” I said when it was ready. “Gray Two, come in.”

       Nothing. I gave it a few seconds, then repeated it. Same result. That was odd. I felt inside my jacket and clicked the frequency dial to another channel, then tried again. Nothing. I went back to the original channel. Nada.

       Did I imagine it? I didn’t think so. Why did they buzz me? Maybe it was an accident, and one of them bumped a transmitter button—but then they’d hear me call them back. Did they have their radios off? What was going on?

       What I needed more than anything was to be cloned. I couldn’t leave Daria, but I couldn’t bring her with me to find out what was happening. I decided to get to a real phone and make some fast calls.

       The women’s room door opened, right on time. Daria and Amy were trying hard not to smile as they went past me. We headed together back into the ballroom. Erin still had to cut the cake before we were free at last.

       “Do you know of a phone somewhere I could use?” I asked Amy.

       “I heard there was one at the bar,” said Daria.

       “You need to call someone about regulations?” said Amy, raising an eyebrow.

       “Uh, something like that.” We began dodging and weaving through the crowd in the ballroom. Tony Bennett was singing from the ceiling speakers and people were starting to dance. I spotted Helen at a table, empty wineglasses clustered in front of her like tired little office workers on break, waiting for more assignments.

       My suit buzzed again. I pulled out the ear bud as I walked, not caring what others thought if they saw me. “Gray Two,” I said.

       There was a strange noise on the other end, as if someone was trying to breathe with a throat full of phlegm or other liquid. That someone then laboriously whispered a single word.

       Todd . . .

       My blood ran cold. “Gray Two!” I said. “Gray Two, come in!”

       Nothing. It was long past time to call it a day. I jerked the ear bud out and turned to grab Daria—only she wasn’t there. I was standing alone between half-empty tables. Daria and Amy had stopped some distance behind me, intrigued by the number of Helen’s off-duty wineglasses and doubtless sharing a mutual color commentary about them.

       “Daria!” I started forward, waving. “Hey!”

       Amy turned her head. She seemed taken aback to see me in such a state. Daria looked up at Amy at the same moment, perhaps wondering what her confidante was looking at.

       Behind the two, on the other side of the marble dance floor, a tall, broad-shouldered waiter came into the ballroom with a tray in his hands. His left hand held the side of tray; the right was hidden, supporting it from underneath. The big waiter had a dark crew cut and mirror shades. He slowed down as he walked in and began scanning the room, head turning like a fire-control radar dish. His head stopped when he saw Daria.

       I went for my gun. Mirror Shades tossed the tray. A black Glock with a long silencer came up in his right hand. Popular weapon, that. I almost had him in my sights but couldn’t fire with Amy and Daria in the way. Wedding guests blocked either side. “Get down!” I roared, aiming right at them. “Down, get down!

       Amy must have caught the big picture. She never turned to look behind her. She lunged and threw her arms around Daria, then hauled her out of the line of fire. Todd’s silencer flashed twice and each time the air snapped. Something jerked on the left side of my tuxedo jacket as it missed my waist. Amy gasped and stumbled as she tried to run. She fell behind an empty table, clutching Daria to her. As she went down I fired as fast as the trigger would pull. Todd’s head snapped back as his shattered mirror shades flew off. Red sprayed from the back of his white jacket; his gun hand flew up and reflexively shot out a crystal chandelier as he went down like a target silhouette. The fresh splatter decorations on the ballroom wall behind him ran down the golden wallpaper in long scarlet streams.

       Maybe half a second passed in shocked silence before someone yelled. Then everyone was shouting and screaming and knocking over chairs and spilling drinks and stampeding for the exits. I was the only one trying to get to Amy and Daria. Or so I thought.

       I had almost reached them when a giant punched me near the base of my spine, by my right kidney. The next thing I knew I was flat on the marble floor with searing lava in place of my lower back, a pain I had never imagined possible outside of Biblical anecdotes about suffering in Hell. I tried to get up but my legs weren’t answering their messages. Priorities began to surface after the shock settled in, and I lifted my head to look back and see who had shot me.

       I needn’t have bothered. A resort waiter ran by not three feet away from me, a gangly twenty-something with a shaggy brown mullet. He wore a white tux jacket and carried his own silenced Glock. Just beyond him, I saw Daria struggle to her knees as Amy’s protective arm slid off her. Freed of her burden, Amy rolled on her back and gave the ceiling a blank, surprised gaze, her mouth slightly open. The Mullet snaked his left forearm across Daria’s throat and jerked her to her feet, crushing her shoulders to his chest.

       “This is your goddamn sister’s fault!” he shrieked as she struggled to keep him from strangling her. “Melody screwed it up! We were gonna be rich, I was gonna do one last job with the gang, but she didn’t want me to! She took the meth and said she was taking it to the police if I wouldn’t do it first! I couldn’t let her do that! This is all her fault! Her fault!

       It occurred to me as he ranted that I still had my gun, but Slade—it could be no one else—had Daria head-locked in front of him and they were thrashing around like wildcats. The upper half of Daria’s blue bridesmaid’s gown was one huge wet wine-colored stain, her face and arms streaked with blood not her own. Crying and fighting at the same time, her big glasses gone, she kicked at the air with her boots.

       Her former brother-in-law jammed the silencer against her head, burying the muzzle deep in her long red-brown hair. “I went through so much crap for this!” he yelled in her ear. “I had it all together and then Melody screwed it up and then you screwed it up even more! I can’t go anywhere or do anything without cops coming after me! I was going to be rich, do you hear me? We had to dump the meth and now I can’t do anything! Anything! You hear me?

       Daria heard him. She let go of his forearm with one hand and reached down as she raised her right knee. Her fingers felt for something down inside her boot, got a grip on it, then had it out. It was the silver cutting knife she had been cleaning on her napkin. I hadn’t noticed what she’d done with it afterward. In an instant she slashed down and back, burying the knife in Slade’s groin up to the hilt. The wind left his lungs in a mad howl as he doubled over, forgetting about everything but the long silver handle sticking out of his crotch. Daria pulled free of the headlock and fell.

       Slade lifted his head, still holding his Glock, still screaming, and I shot him in the face at a range of fifteen feet. The top of his skull and the gray matter below it smacked the ballroom ceiling in a thousand places. A repellent pink mist drifted down over tablecloths and china plates far beyond as he sprawled out on the floor and stopped moving.

       It got quiet in the big room. My ears rang from the gunshots, but even that wasn’t so loud. I looked around and slowly realized I was done; there was no one left to shoot at. After a moment I laid my weapon on the floor. The fire in my lower back had gone out; everything below my waist was turning cold. Maybe I was done in a more serious way than I had thought.

       Daria was curled up on the marble floor not far from me, shaking and sobbing. I called her name but did a lousy job of it, then tried again with more force. She stopped crying and uncovered her head to look up, then turned to see what remained of her ex-bro-in-law. He still had her dinner knife in him. The sight didn’t upset her. As her boots implied, she had a hell of a kick. I could guess why she’d pretended not to be sure it was Todd she’d seen. She had been planning to get him herself, and she wanted to stick around for the try. Slade, though, was a fine secondary target.

       Daria looked in my general direction, then crawled over on her hands and knees. She was a mess but in the best shape of any of us. She squinted at my face. “Are you okay?” she asked.

       She had to be as blind as a cave cricket. “I’ve been better,” I wheezed. “I hate weddings.”

       “Amy’s been shot,” she said. Her voice quavered. “Can you help me with her?”

       I glanced at the motionless figure in black and purple. “I’ll take care of Amy,” I said. “Don’t worry about her. You need to go get help. The police are coming. You’ll hear them any minute now. Bring them here. You know what to do.”

       “Okay,” she said, then she lowered her head. “I’m sorry. This is my fault. I’m never where—”

       “Hey, hey, knock it off. Look at me, Daria. Look up at me. Listen . . . you did good. I’m proud of you. Keep on doing it, doing good for me, and go get the police.”

       “I don’t want to leave you and Amy,” she said. Her face twisted and her voice broke. She began to cry.

       “Daria?” I reached for her hand and held it. She felt warmer than I did. “You have to go. Amy and I’ll be okay, but you gotta go. You have a lot to do. You’ve got to go finish the job. You know what job I mean.”

       She kept crying but nodded. She knew. Todd’s gang was done for. Three injections each strapped down on a gurney, and then it was the lake of fire.

       She slowly got to her feet. Her bridesmaid’s dress was ruined, as if it mattered. I still couldn’t get over those boots. “Daria,” I said as she started to leave.


       It occurred to me to say something funny, and I thought of something to say, but it died on the way out of my mouth. “You did good,” I said instead. “Real good.”

       “Thank you.” She wiped her eyes and started off, bumped into a chair, then kept going. She cried the whole way to the exit.

       When she was out of sight, I looked at Amy. She hadn’t moved. I had to see her. It was important to be close to her one more time. She shouldn’t have to walk over that last bridge by herself. It took everything I had to get up on my elbows and pull myself over, dragging my dead weight with me. The last few feet I went through the pool of blood around her. She was still on her back looking at the ceiling in mild surprise. I reached for her neck and pressed on the hollow of her throat. I held my fingers there until I knew there was nothing to feel. She had crossed the bridge without me. Dead tired, I put my hand over her face and gently closed her eyes.

       “We did it,” I said, hoping she would hear. “Daria’s safe. We got her through.” I pulled closer, then lifted her hand from the pool of blood and held it in mine. We were both getting cold. “Wait for me on the other side,” I whispered. “No regulations this time. I have your number in my pocket.”

       I pressed my cheek to hers and closed my eyes. Her long hair smelled of lilacs.










Author’s Notes II: Most of this story makes use of locations and characters from the Daria episode “I Don’t.” Daria’s reference to Erin as “Airhead” was inspired by Kara Wild’s DWU story, “Erin the Head.” Todd Ianuzzi and gang member Slade first appeared in various Beavis & Butt-head episodes. Daria was forced by her parents to become a photographer for the Highland High School paper, The Highland Herald, in the Beavis & Butt-head episode “Sporting Goods.” My thanks to the essay, “Beavis and Butt-head and Daria,” by C.F., at:




Maibatsu is the fictitious car company that appears in the Grand Theft Auto computer games. The movie that Luhrman and Amy were talking about was, of course, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

       One of the hinges of this story is simply the idea that Daria really is what Quinn so often claims: a cousin, not a sister (e.g., “Esteemsters,” “Camp Fear”). It also assumes Daria was serious when she claimed to be in the witness protection program in “I Don’t.” To make these assumptions come about, I went back to an interview Kara Wild conducted with Glenn Eichler, at:


http://www.the-wildone.com/dvdaria/glennanswers.html [3/16/2005]


In the interview was this exchange.


KW: Does Jake have any siblings?

GE: I think he was supposed to have an older sister.


       In The Daria Diaries is a photo section called “Masochist’s Memories,” and one of the photos shows Quinn, Helen, and Daria dressed up to attend “my cousin’s wedding” (says Daria). This is clearly not Erin’s wedding, as their clothes are different and the photo was taken before the family’s arrival in Lawndale. One assumes, since Erin is Daria’s only cousin on her mother’s side, she has one cousin on her father’s side, and that cousin is called Melody in this story. Melody is assumed to be the source of Daria’s “Melody Powers” stories from the series (e.g., “Café Disaffecto”), written to torment an older sibling.

       Glenn Eichler was also the source for Amy’s new job, per this interview (the second one, noted above):




As a final thought, I’m pretty sure that Luhrman’s bizarre hair violates U.S. Marshal policies, but maybe he’s a special agent!




Original: 04/01/07, modified 05/07/07, 05/29/07