Nemo Blank



A cautionary tale.


All characters belong to MTV. Used without permission. This story is not to be sold, but it may be distributed freely, so long as the authors name and email remain. All rights reserved. Enjoy!


I rate this story PG-13. Some mild, normal, sexual content. If that sort of thing bothers you, please log off and return to your planet of origin at once.


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     Trent Lane walked past the milk cooler, picking out a soda and a pack of pretzels. He was trying to get a lock on a tune that was lurking at the edge of his consciousness. As he paid and left the convenience store, he was jolted out of his reverie by a familiar voice.

     "Dammit, Quinn! You should've made sure that they picked me up! Do you know how far away from home I am?" She sounded angry indeed.

     His eyes widened in surprise. It was Daria, on the pay phone, just outside the door.

     "If you weren't sure you should have told me! Quinn, this crap has to stop. Why would you do something like this to me? You forgot? Are you high, again? Well forget you!" Daria abruptly hung up.

     "Hey, Daria." Trent smiled in anticipation. He hadn't seen her since Janey left, a month ago. Maybe she would loosen up and talk to him on the long drive home. He'd missed her.

     "Ahck! Trent!" She spun around and flushed red as a beet. It seemed that Trent inevitably showed up at the time of maximum embarrassment to her. She was bruised, mussed and covered in sweat. Naturally Trent appeared.

     Trent's smile faded. Daria wasn't wearing her glasses and was obviously under stress. "What's the matter, Daria?"

     "N-nothings the matter. I just got stranded here, is all." She looked away.

     Daria looked acutely embarrassed.

     Trent just stood there, staring at her. She was slim, long legged dynamite. He suddenly realized where the word 'adorable' had come from.

     "Trent?" She looked at his blurry face, a little puzzled.

     Trent snapped out of it. "Uhm, What are you doing stranded two hundred miles from Lawndale, Daria?"

     Daria angrily looked away. "I got conned into going on an outlet shopping expedition with my sister and her friends. I got a little bored and there was a museum on the other side of the highway that had a Monet, so I went over to take a look. Sandi said that they would pick me up when they were done shopping. They apparently 'forgot'."

     Trent frowned. "That's pretty cold. How did you get here from there? And where are your glasses?"

     "I got a ride from a guy I met at the museum. Embarrassed, Daria looked at her boots. "We were about four miles up the highway when he pulled over to shoot up. I got out and he grabbed my jacket. When I kicked free, my glasses came off. He yelled at me and then ran them over when he left. My jacket was almost ripped in half, so I threw it away."

     Trent grimaced. "That son of a b- How people can do that to themselves... I just don't get it."

     Daria smiled a little. "They don't have a guitar to be addicted to."

     Trent laughed. "Those poor devils. Well, come on, we're burning daylight." Knowing how bad her vision was without her glasses, he took her hand and led her to his car.

     A red Ford pulled by, the driver eyeing Daria, hard. Trent gave him a cold look that sent him packing, then resumed his own surreptitious staring at her.

     Trent's old Plymouth was totally crammed with band equipment and miscellaneous junk. It sagged on its springs.

     "Is there going to be room, Trent?" Daria couldn't see any free space at all. "Where did all this stuff come from?"

     Trent leaned into the drivers side and shoved the junk over as far as it would go. "There was a big hamfest and guitar swap at an old drive-in theater near here, yesterday. I swapped around, got some good stuff. I hope you don't mind a little crowding, Daria. You'll have to get in through the left side." Fortunately the old Plymouth had a bench seat. Trent would have hated to abandon any of his loot.

     Daria got in behind the wheel and then slid over as far as she could, which wasn't far at all. The floorboards and seat were full of duffel bags.

     Trent got in, hooked his arm in its accustomed position behind the seat and then pulled it away when he felt Daria try to draw away. She was pressed tightly against him and he could sense her discomfort with the forced intimacy.

     As they slowly pulled onto the road, Trent cast around for some conversation to relax her. "So how does your sister expect you to get home, Daria?" He winced. That definitely wouldn't calm her down.

     Daria shrugged and crossed her arms. "I doubt if her highness has given it any thought. The parental units aren't home and predictably, she's planning on having a party. She probably expects me to hitchhike."

     Trent looked at her. Her voice held real bitterness.

     "So they lured you two hundred miles from home and ditched you so that you wouldn't be at the party. What a nasty little-" He saw a tear slip down her face. "For Christ's sake, Daria." Trent was furious. "Doesn't she know about the Blue Mountain killer? They've been finding dead girls and bones along this road for the last six years!"

     "I was afraid, Trent." Daria spoke in a low tone. "I'm not a very brave person and there was just no one to call."

     "You can call me anytime, Daria. I like you. You're my friend. If you're in trouble I'll always come and get you," Trent husked.

     Daria smiled. "Do you really mean it, Trent?"

     "Yes." Trent put his arm back around the seat and she leaned her head back and sighed.

     "It's been lonely for me since Jane took that trip down to Mexico with your parents. I would have never fallen for Quinn's little plot if I hadn't been climbing the walls with boredom. All I do is work and sleep." Daria shifted into a more comfortable position. Trent seemed contoured to fit her.

     "You have a really pretty voice, Daria." Trent felt like biting his tongue. Where the hell did that come from? Smooth, Trent.

     Daria stiffened, then relaxed. She smiled. "People have run screaming in terror from my voice, Trent. I've made the sick rise from their death beds just to get away. You'd be amazed at how many nightmares my voice inspires." She told him about her stint of slavery at the Better Days nursing home. "The staff still uses me to scare the difficult ones into submission."

     Trent laughed. "It sounds fine. Believe me, if you didn't have talent you couldn't do any of that. So you still go over there?" Trent was entranced.

     "I did make one friend. Mrs. Blaine. I read to her every week, whenever I finish a story. She really likes my writing. I stop by and we talk, usually. I was going to stop by today. She'll be worried."

     Trent pulled his eyes away from her and put them back on the road, where they belonged. "I'll bet she's a cool person."

     "Yes. It amazes me how different the inmates are from each other. Esmarelda is still young. Some of those people are old in their heads. Some of the staff seem older than the patients. It just goes to show that chronological age isn't the only factor." Daria blushed and stole a glance at him. Fortunately, he was watching the road.

     "Amen to that." Trent was pretty happy. He slowed down a little. Fifty MPH was fast enough for an overloaded old clunker like his.

     The miles rolled by and Trent talked to Daria. He was coming to a shocking realization. She was the only person in his life that he could really talk to about the important things. He had missed her so much...

     They played car games and finally got down to truth or dare.

     "Okay, Daria, truth or dare."


     "Have you ever been kissed?" Trent glanced at her embarrassed face.

     "What's the dare?" Daria blushed.

     "Sing me a song, Daria. Anything you like." Trent smiled at her.

     "Oh No. Never. Well, you, that one time." Daria looked away.

     Trent's eyebrows rose in mock disbelief. "That's hard to believe. Are you sure that's the truth?"

     Daria rolled her eyes. "I think I'd remember. Your turn, truth or dare."

     "Hmm. Truth."

     Daria smirked. "Have you ever been in love?"

     Trent thought about it. What the hell. "Yes."

     "What?" Daria stiffened with shock.

     He froze, amazed at what he had just said. He tried to make a joke, but he couldn't seem to speak.

     "Do I know her?" Daria wished that she was dead.

     "Yes, you do, Daria." Trent took a deep breath. "You see her all the time. Whenever you look into a mirror."

     Daria gasped in shock. "Trent, did you just tell me... that you loved me?" Her heart was hammering. She felt like she was going to black out.

     Trent blushed so hard that he was almost purple. "I love you, Daria. Just don't jump out of the car."

     She glanced at his tense face. "I wont if you wont. And yes, I love you too, Trent." Daria suddenly kissed him, then grabbed the wheel and kept the car on the road.

     When the adrenaline levels had gone back down, Trent said with a huge smile, "Woah. True love and a near death experience, all in one day. I've been thinking about you for a long time, Daria."

     "How come you never said anything?" Daria felt like she had gone to heaven.

     "I don't know." Trent beamed at her. "Sheer stupidity, I guess."

     "Was it the age thing? My birthday is in two weeks. Esmarelda says that a few years difference is nothing. She told me that a man takes a little longer to grow up anyway and a slightly older man is almost always a better-" Daria broke off and clamped her mouth shut. She was rambling worse than Quinn.

     "Husband? So, you have been thinking about me." Trent grinned. With any other girl he would have gnawed his arm off to get away the instant he heard the H word. Daria was different. Trent looked down at Daria, who had nestled herself against him. The Lawndale exit was coming up and he just didn't want to take her home yet. Casting around, he came up with a delay. "She sounds like my kind of person. Hey! Let's go visit her."

     "Oh, good! She wants to meet you anyway." Daria sighed contentedly. "I tell her just about everything. She knows all about you, Jane, my whacked out family, my boring job. She's my other friend."

     Trent took the Lawndale exit and Daria directed him to the nursing home. They got out of the car and stretched.

     Daria smiled at him. That was something she rarely did and it was well worth the wait. His heart lurched.

     Trent smiled back, swept her into his arms and kissed her soundly on the lips. "Now, you've been kissed, adorable Daria." She sagged in his arms and he held her a little longer than he needed to.

     They entered the home and found Esmarelda Blaine in her usual spot by the window.

     "Daria! And this just has to be Trent! Did I see you two kissing or are my eyes deceiving me?" Esme had been watching the whole thing. She had had time to recover from her shock. Daria was like a daughter and Trent... Trent looked eerily like her long lost love, Anthony.

     Daria slipped her arm around Trent's waist. "No, it just sort of... happened. Like you said it would. We were in the car, playing truth or dare and Trent let slip that he loved me!"

     Esmarelda laughed and asked questions. When she learned of Quinn's abandonment of Daria, she became angry.

     "Little miss high-and-mighty deserves a good tanning over that one! My stars, that's out where all of those murdered girls have been found!" Esmarelda sighed. "Such a stupid little girl. What would she do if you never came home?"

     Daria smiled an evil smile. "The parents are gone for the next four days."

     Trent smiled back and Daria saw an echo of Jane's conspiratorial grin on his face. "I just happen to have a big, empty house. Would you like a little revenge? You're welcome to come and stay with me for a few days."

     Daria laughed. "As long as you'll have me, Trent."

     Mrs. Blaine laughed. "You kids. I'd give you a stern talking to, if I was still in my sixties, but I know better now. Take a good look around. What do you see?"

     They broke their gaze away from each other and looked around.

     Trent shrugged. "A nursing home. Boredom, ennui and physical suffering."

     Daria nodded. "The terminal of the cosmic bus station. Busses leave hourly for the great beyond."

     Esmea smiled at them benignly "You're very perceptive children. This place is the end of the road. Take a good look around, kids. If you're very lucky, a place like this is where you'll end up one day."

     "Woah!" Trent shuddered.

     Esme laughed. "Consider the alternative before you get too worried. There are two basic types of people here. The sad, angry people who just endured and never allowed themselves to feel and the happy people who jumped into life with both feet and didn't miss out. They all end up in the same place. All that's left to you at the end is memories. And even those go, after a while."

     Daria shuddered. "I'm suppose to be the depressing one around here."

     Trent laughed. "You only depress me when you're not around."

     Esmea smiled. "What I'm trying to say, is never deny yourself anything. Furnish your mind, because all of your other furniture wears out. I know that Trent already understands, but I'm worried about you, Daria. You have so much potential. Potential has ruined more lives than alcohol. Don't worry about living up to some damn ideal. Do everything. Try everything. Feel all you can, because that's all that life really is. Go ahead and spend the night with Trent. Live hard, Daria. You never know when the party could end." She smiled sweetly. "One day, when you're here at the portal to Hell or to Heaven, you'll be glad to have some good hot memories to keep you warm. I know that I am."

     They talked for hours. Trent got his guitar and sang folk songs to the old people. When dinner time came, they finally said goodbye to Mrs. Blaine and Trent turned his car for home.

     That evening, they made love for the first time.

     Daria awoke to the sound of a quacking duck. Trent was still asleep, spooning her. She didn't want to move, but the phone kept ringing and ringing. Daria blearily located the phone by its flashing light and finally picked it up.

     She put the phone to her ear and listened.

     "Trent? WAKE UP!" It was Jane.

     Daria sighed.

     "That didn't sound like Trent. Who is this?" Jane was puzzled.

     "Hi, Jane." Daria cringed.

     "Wha? Daria! Oh my god! Tell me that I'm not having some sort of aural hallucination!"

     Daria rolled her eyes. "Uhm, did you want something?"

     Jane laughed. "I want details, woman! It's woman now, right? I hear the gentle buzzsaw snoring of my brother. You're in his bed! Did you two do the wild thing?"

     Daria rolled her eyes. "Okay, Jane, I'll only tell you this once. Last night I carjacked Trent and had my way with him. I just hope that he doesn't feel too violated."

     Jane giggled. "Well I guess he'll have to give up marathon sleeping!"

     "Oh he'll get plenty of time in bed, Jane, don't worry." Daria smirked.

     Jane laughed. "I always knew that this would happen. I'm coming back tomorrow morning at seven fifteen on Delta flight 417. Could you make sure that loverboy picks me up from the airport?"

     "Sure, Jane, 417. I'll come with him. I'm going to wake your brother now, so I'll let you go."

     "Wait! Put him on, I want to tease him a little."

     Daria smiled. "Um, Jane, the way I'm gonna wake him up makes it unlikely that he'll want to chat on the phone with his sister."

     Jane laughed, wickedly. "I see. Well, have fun! Bye, Daria." Jane hung up.

     Daria hung up the phone and twitched off the sheet that covered Trent. She feasted her eyes and smiled. "Wakey wake," she said.

     State Patrolman John Regan saw the crows first. The carrion eaters were working on something about twenty yards off of the highway shoulder. There were enough of them to indicate that it was a large animal of some kind. At least, he hoped it was an animal.

     He checked in with dispatch and got out to investigate. When he saw the girl's arm, he cursed foully and fired some shots to drive the birds away. Regan was a tough, hard, experienced man, but he lost his breakfast anyway. The young girl had been raped and mutilated in the same savage way as the other victims. Her face had been neatly removed. He looked north and saw the familiar peak. The God-dammed Blue Mountain killer had struck again. He called it in and stood his lonely vigil over the pitiful remains. Soon an army of police and media vehicles arrived.

     Quinn opened her eyes. "What..." She groaned and almost threw up again. The last thing Quinn could remember was the ceiling spinning and feeling thankful that she had made it to her room. The stereo was still thumping away downstairs and it was almost noon.

     Quinn got out of bed and opened the door. The hallway outside the bathroom was crusted with vomit. Quinn got a whiff and abruptly added to it. She retreated to her room and put on an old pair of sneakers. This was bad. She reached for the phone.


     "Hi, Sandi."

     "Like, what do you want, Quinn?" Sandi was impatient. She was trying to get a hold of Carla. Sandi really needed to score.

     "Um, Sandi, my house is like, totally ruined. I need you guys to come over and help me clean up. I can get the guys and between them and us we can get this place fixed up before Daria or my parents see it. Will you help?"

     Sandi felt a blast of anger. Quinn was tying up the line. What if Carla was trying to call?

     "Look, Quinn, I'd like to help you, but I can't. We have to meet Carla today. You might call Stacy. She's got nothing to do, anymore." Sandi laughed. She had kicked Stacy out of the Fashion Club the previous week when Stacy had begun badmouthing Carla.

     "But what if Daria-"

     "Daria!" Sandi interrupted, scornfully. "She's probably still trying to hitchhike home from Hadlyville! Maybe she'll get lucky and she won't have to put out for a ride. Bye, Quinn." Sandi hung up.

     "Hadlyville!" Quinn groaned. It was all coming back. She had been so high that afternoon. Quinn hadn't really known what was going on. They had all laughed about it, but Quinn hadn't truly grasped that Daria had been left behind, until now.

     Quinn looked around at the mess. Surely Daria wouldn't hitchhike. She decided to call around some more. "Who does she know besides Jane?" Jodie was out of town. Quinn thought about it and remembered that Daria and Brittany were kind of friends. Brittany usually invited Daria to her parties, anyway. Quinn looked in her address book and dialed.

     Brittany and Ashley Amber were doing Yoga in the exercise room when the phone rang.

     Brittany sprang up and answered. "Hello?"

     "Hi, Brittany. This is Quinn. Have you heard from Daria, lately?"

     Brittany frowned. Quinn didn't sound right. "No I haven't heard from Daria. What's the matter? Wasn't she at the party?"

     "No. We um, accidentally left her out at some museum, yesterday morning, Brittany. She hasn't come back."

     Brittany giggled. "Well, she could just take a bus or get a cab from the museum, Quinn. It's only a few miles from school anyway-"

     Quinn sighed. "The museum was a few miles past Hadlyville. No one's heard from her."

     Brittany gasped. She blurted her news out, tactlessly. "I saw on the news that they found another girl by the side of the highway near there this morning! I hope that it wasn't her!"

     Quinn gasped and started hyperventilating. Wordlessly, she hung up on Brittany and dialed 911.

     Early that evening, an utterly satiated Trent fell asleep on the couch from sheer physical exhaustion. Daria just didn't have the heart to wake him again. Yawning, Daria curled up next to Trent, watched a little TV, then fell asleep herself.

     Puzzled, Trent opened his eyes and said, "Hog futures?" The morning farm report was on TV. Daria was curled up on the end of the couch, her head twisted at an awkward angle. She looked like an angel.

     Trent yawned and looked at the clock. His eyes widened. He had less than an hour to get to the airport. He got up, dressed rapidly and gently straightened Daria out on the couch. She murmured a little and fell back into a deep sleep. He didn't have the heart to wake her, so he scribbled her a note and left.

     Trent arrived in the terminal just as Janey came out of the boarding area.

     "Trent! So where's Daria?" Jane hugged her brother and then punched him on the shoulder. "That's for stealing my best friend."

     "Ow! Come on, Janey, have a heart. Some things are just meant to be." Trent grinned at her, rubbing his shoulder. "Daria's still asleep. I didn't want to wake her up. Come on, let's get your bags."

     They got Jane's suitcases and left the airport.

     Jane suddenly grabbed his ear and twisted. "Okay, Trent, give it up. Tell all."

     "Aoowooh! Leggo!" Trent pulled away, laughing. "There's really nothing much to tell, Jane. We just got together and... well, we're together now." Trent fell silent.

     "Okay, I guess I had that coming. I want details, Trent! Do you love her or is this just a physical thing?" Jane was a little concerned. If Daria and Trent ever broke up, the chances were good that Daria would avoid her too.

     Trent rolled his eyes. "Damn, Janey, can't I have a little space here? Look, how long have you known Daria?"

     Jane thought about it. "A little under two years. It sure seems longer."

     "That's about how long I've known her. How many girlfriends have I had in the last year?" Trent didn't look happy.

      Jane furrowed her brow. "Well, there was... I can't think of any, Trent."

     Trent nodded. "How many before?"

     Jane shrugged. "You had a different one every week. I used to worry about you catching something."

     Trent nodded. "I did catch something, Jane. I caught the blues. I was beginning to think that all women were going to be like Monique. All sex and no talk. Then we went to Alternapalooza and I found someone who I could really connect with. She's the one for me."

     Jane laughed, delighted. "I guess that answers that. So how did it happen?"

     Daria woke up, looked around in astonishment for a split second and then smiled happily as the memories came back. She got up, showered, put on one of Trent's shirts and ate some cereal, only tripping once.

     After reading Trent's note, Daria calculated that she had over an hour to wait. She carefully made her way to Trent's room and picked up all of the dirty laundry laying on the floor. She took it to the basement, painstakingly sorted it and threw the first load in the washer along with her own clothes. She went back upstairs and cleaned Trent's room as best she could. Her awful eyesight made it doubtful if she got all the dust, but it was cleaner anyway. Daria put her face to the clock, read it and stripped the bed. Daria had bled a little and she hated sleeping on dirty sheets. If she was going to inhabit a space, it would be clean. Humming, she felt her way back down the stairs, put the first load in the dryer and put the sheets into the washer.

     Daria had just dressed and remade the bed, when she heard a knock at the door. She opened the door and peered out. She couldn't quite tell who it was.

     Jesse looked at her, puzzled. Finally he spoke. "Hey, Daria, I thought Jane was still in Mexico." Jesse smiled at her in a friendly way.

     "Um, Hi, Jesse." Daria blushed, embarrassed, when she finally recognized the voice. He'd grown a beard and without her glasses she just hadn't been able to recognize him. She hated it when she had to acknowledge her poor eyesight. "Trent's picking her up at the airport, right now. Do you want to come in?"

     "Yeah, sure, Daria. We have practice today and I'm just a little early." Jesse came in and sat down on the couch. He picked up Trent's note and his eyes widened. "Say, Daria, does this mean what I think it does?"

     Daria looked at him for a minute. "Yes, I think."

     "So you and Trent are finally together. That's very cool." Jesse smiled. "Happy?"

     Daria smiled, radiantly. "I never was before, so I have no basis for comparison."

     Jesse laughed. "Cool. I guess he just couldn't wait any more. He talks about you all the time."

     Daria was a little stunned. "Really?"

     "Yup. Trent's been stuck on you since Alternapaloza. Its 'Daria said this, Daria thinks that,' from him, all the time. I'm glad that you two finally got together." Jesse stood up. He smiled at her blush. "I'm gonna go on down and get things set up."

     Daria nodded. "Okay. I need to go home and get my contact lenses, so I'll be back in an hour or so."

     "Cool." Jesse was a little puzzled as she groped her way to the door. Following, he watched her slowly walk away. She tripped over a branch lying in the driveway and he belatedly came to the shocking realization that she was almost blind.

     "Daria, Wait!" He ran to her side and helped her up. "I didn't realize... I'll give you a ride, Daria."

     "Oh, well... Thanks, Jesse." Daria looked in what she thought was his direction and wilted with shame inside.

     Jesse shook his head, appalled.

     When they got to Daria's house, Jesse solicitously walked her to the door. She opened it and gagged at the vomit smell that rolled out.

     "Oh my god, she's just totally trashed the house!" Daria couldn't really see much, but the smell told all.

     Jesse followed her in and kept her from tripping on a broken kitchen chair laying in the hall. He looked around in awe. "This place is really thrashed, Daria."

     "Quinn!" Daria made her way up the stairs, Jesse kicking a path for her through the small debris littering the floor and helping her around the larger obstacles, but the house was empty.

     Daria's room was a wreck. Some of the padding had been ripped off of the walls and her bed frame had collapsed. Her computer monitor was lying on the floor, broken, as was her TV. The paintings that Jane had given her had been drawn on with a magic marker and a few were wet or punched through. The whole room stank of sour beer, piss and vomit. Someone had used most of her clothes to blot up a pool of vomit in the corner.

     After putting in her contacts, Daria found an intact suitcase and with Jesse's help, packed her few surviving things. Her big ceramic piggybank was smashed and empty, her drawers had been ransacked and the money she kept in her jewel box was gone, but she found her watch, her meager collection of jewelry and her checkbook.

     Daria and Jesse looked around the house, marveling at the destruction. She tried her parents room, but the door was locked. Quinn's room was untouched. The hall and upstairs bathroom reeked. Daria wrapped some rags that used to be her favorite T-shirts around her shoes, took a deep breath and raided the bathroom for her eyewash and pillbox.

     As they left, Daria locked the door and sighed. "Jessie, I wish I never had to go back in there again."

     "You don't have to. Stay with Trent." Jesse was amazed at the devastation. "Your sister did that to her own house?"

     "Anything for popularity." Daria was so angry that she was trembling. "None of her things were even scratched, but everything I owned was destroyed."

     "Guess you two don't get along." Jesse shook his head. He was an only child and had often wished for a sibling growing up.

     "I don't even know what to think of her anymore, Jesse." Daria told him about being ditched two hundred miles from home in a serial killer's hunting ground with seven dollars in her pocket and no one to call.

     "I know what to think of her. She's high." Jesse was sorry for Daria. What kind of person would do that to her only sister?

     "I think you just might be right, Jesse." Daria had suspected for a while that Quinn was getting high, but hadn't been able to tell for sure.

     When they got back to the Lane house, Daria hesitated, then knocked. Jane answered the door.

     "Daria! Jesse!" Jane smiled happily. "It's really good to see you guys!"

     Daria smiled back. "I missed you too, Jane."

     Later, Jane and Daria caught up with each other while Mystik Spiral practiced in the basement.

     "So southern Mexico is basically a poverty ridden art treasure house." Jane shook her head and dabbed at her canvas. "Some of those people were so poor that they didn't really have clothes, Daria."

     "I kind of know how they feel." Daria sighed. "I don't have much more than what I'm wearing right now."

     Jane nodded. "I guess you'd better have some of mine. You're bound to stink after a while." Jane frowned. "I still can't believe what that little bitch did to you. What are you going to do?"

     "I'm going to stay here for a few days. When the 'rents get back and announce their divorce, I don't know what I'll do." Daria looked increasingly stressed. "If it wasn't for you and Trent I think I really would need a padded cell right now."

     Jane was sympathetic. "Things are that bad with your parents?"

     "Yes, I think they are, Jane." Daria sighed. "They've been fighting all the time, slamming doors, screaming and yelling at each other. It's just hellish being around them." Daria frowned. "I think that Quinn might have gone right off the deep end. I can't really tell, though. She never talks to me anymore." Daria shrugged. "I fell for their little plot because I wanted to spend some time with her and find out if she was okay. Imagine my chagrin."

     Jane sighed. "That's too bad, Daria." Jane grasped her shoulder. "All I have to say is, consider yourself at home."

     Quinn walked into the house and shuddered. She had forgotten about the mess. She was alone, no one to talk to, no one who cared. Maybe for good. Quinn felt fresh tears start and throttled them down. She had gone to see Sandi and Tiffany, to try and get help. Quinn needed friends and they didn't care at all! They just obsessed about Carla and cut Quinn to shreds.

     Quinn pulled at her hair. The stress was making it brittle. Fortunately, Stacy, Jeffy and Jamie had said that they would help. The three had spent the day looking for Daria.

     Quinn surveyed the damage again. She would need to have the carpets shampooed, replace some chairs, clean the bathrooms and get Jamie to fix the upstairs toilet. Quinn unlocked her parents room and was relieved to find that it was untouched. Then she opened Daria's door. There was no way to hide this. Quinn felt a cold pang of dread. Was this a sign that Daria was the dead girl?

     Police Cadet Thoreston found the glasses. All the police, cadets, guardsmen, prison guards and trusty's that could be found were set to searching the highway, each section being covered by two separate groups. A clue, any clue was what they wanted. A cast was taken of the rut that the glasses were crushed in and the glasses were placed in the evidence box. The jacket was found soon after, also by Thoreston.

     Patrol Sgt. Sloan looked carefully at the jacket and had it filmed. He slipped on his surgical gloves and searched the pockets. In one pocket he found a receipt from the Lawndale City Library. It had a number on it and a very recent date. He looked at his watch and wondered what time the place closed.

     Stacy was helping Quinn clean the kitchen when the knock came. Quinn opened the door and two city policemen were there with an older man in a rumpled brown suit.

     "Yes?" Quinn felt faint. She had the impression of detachment, like she was watching this happen to someone else.

     "Does Daria Morgendorffer live here?" The man in the brown suit showed her a star shaped badge.

     Quinn couldn't answer.

     Stacy came up behind her, looking scared. "Y- Yes she does," she said.

     "I'm Sgt. Sloan with the State Patrol. Are you related to Daria Morgendorffer?"

     Stacy indicated Quinn.

     "Yes! I'm her sister. Tell me what's going on!" Quinn desperately tried not to black out.

     Sloan sighed. "Are your parents home?"

     Quinn began to hyperventilate. "No... tell me, is she okay?"

     The policemen shifted uncomfortably and looked away.

     "Miss, can we come in?" Sloan took her silent heaving for assent, came in and looked at the shambles. The uniforms immediately fanned out and searched the house, coming back with a tool-belted Jamie, who had been fixing the upstairs toilet.

     Quinn pulled herself together and once more asked if Daria was okay.

     "Miss, did your sister wear a green field jacket and big round glasses?" Sloan saw the photo on the wall as he finished the question. She had.

     Stacy gasped. "Did the killer get her? Damn Sandi! She's dead isn't she! Sandi just left her at that museum with no way to get home!"

     Quinn and Stacy both began wailing.

     Sloan cleared his throat. This had been handled badly, but he was in a hurry. He sighed and began interrogating the subjects.

     Helen was trying to get into the spirit of things, but it wasn't working. Jake launched into the exercises with his usual fake enthusiasm. Her contempt for him only grew. Jake had once seemed like a strong, tough man who could dodge any obstacle that he couldn't smash through. Jake had been the fiery leader of her antiwar group. She had just outgrown him.

     Jake was smiling for all he was worth, but this cold hearted lawyer wasn't the girl that he had married. His Helen had supported and nurtured him. She had brought him back from the brink of emotional deadness and helped him deal with the tightly packed rage that was a legacy of his childhood. This damn lawyer he lived with only punished him with acid contempt. What did she expect? He was a fifty year old marketing consultant. He had been kissing corporate ass for so long that he could barely remember any other existence. He had worked like a hero at a job that he hated for years, just to put her through law school and he would soldier on as a hired-gun marketing consultant until his daughters were out of college and on their own. Then Jake was going to fly the hell out of this burg. He dreamed of owning a small hotel on the beach down in Belize. Jake listened to Spanish language instruction tapes every day and made his plans.

     Pastor Lembek glared at his secretary. "Mrs. Jones, I told you that we weren't to be disturbed! These people are on the edge of divorce! One distraction and-"

     "It's the police! They won't tell me what's going on but they insist on speaking to the Morgendorffers." The elderly secretary wrung her hands.

     "I'll speak to them." Lembeck listened to the phone for a moment then paled. "Oh god, no."

     Helen fell apart. Jake had to go into the morgue to identify the body. When he came out, he was very somber. Helen looked at his serious face and sagged, leaning against the wall.

     "It's not her. It could be a sister, but I swear it's not her." Jake caught Helen as she toppled.

     "Oh god, it's her!" Helen was so overwrought that she couldn't absorb the good news.

     "It's NOT Daria. Helen, Daria's ALIVE! Calm down." Jake carried his wife to the waiting room and put her in a chair. "Relax, we dodged the bullet this time."

     Helen heaved a huge sigh of relief and glared at him. "Why the hell didn't you come out and say it then? We still don't know where she is!"

     "I did," said Jake, angrily. "I know she's alright! She's got to be! That girl isn't Daria. Let's go find her."

     Helen fixed him with a glare. "And how exactly do you know?"

     Jake just shook his head. "I know Daria."

     Helen braced herself. "I'd better go look."

     Jake simply held her. "You just can't, Helen."

     Helen struggled. "Jake! Let me go!" She pulled free and pushed her way into the morgue.

     Danny Ortez had only been working at the morgue for a short time, but this wasn't a new situation. He saw the wife pushing her way through the swinging doors and quickly covered the mutilated girl.

     He interposed himself. "Ma'am, wait. You don't want to see that. You're husband is pretty sure-"

     Helen stared at him, in shock. She'd gotten a glimpse of the body. "My husband is an idiot! Now let me see her."

     Helen didn't see Jake's wince, but Ortez did. "Ma'am, The dental record's will be here soon. How about taking a look at her effects first?" He opened a drawer and removed two plastic bags. One contained the girl's clothing. The other contained Daria's glasses and jacket.

     As Jake carried Helen back to the lobby, Ortez finally got word back from the lab. Jane Doe's dental records didn't match Daria's.

     After Helen had been revived and heard the news, they made their way to the exit.

     Sgt. Sloan stepped through and looked at them. "Excuse me, are you the Morgendorffers?"

     Jake nodded and stuck out his hand "I'm Jake. This is my wife, Helen. Are you Sgt. Sloan?"

     The two men shook hands.

     "Yes. Please, call me Tom. Jake, I just wanted to apologize for the scare. We checked your answering machine and found a new message from Daria. She's staying with a friend, a 'Jane', address unknown to us. We urgently need to speak with her. We also checked out Quinn's story and it had some big holes. As far as we can determine, Quinn and her friends Sandi, Tiffany and Carla deliberately lured Daria out to the state line and abandoned her at an art museum. The motive was apparently to get her away from a party that they were throwing at your home. According to Quinn, there was drinking and some drug use at the party. In the course of our investigation we arrested several minors for possession of a controlled substance. The LPD is investigating the drug allegations. Quinn's 'friend' Carla has a lengthy record. This matter is of no concern to our investigation, but I thought you should know. Quinn is being held in protective custody at the Lawndale Juvenile detention center until you pick her up."

     Jake nodded at him, feeling faint with relief. "I don't know Jane's street address, but I have it at home. I'll make sure Daria contacts you. Drugs...Thank you, Tom. Quinn will pay." Jake shook his head. "How can Daria be so smart and Quinn... Well, she's just not the sharpest chisel in the ol' tool chest."

     "Yes, thank you, Tom. Quinn is going to be grounded for the rest of her life." Helen looked haggard. "I felt the rest of my hair turn gray when I realized that Daria might be gone. Now Quinn, with drugs... That poor girl in there... For gods sake, catch this devil. If there's ever any way that I can ever help, please, don't hesitate to call on me."

     Sloan blinked, tiredly. "If I sleep, I dream about getting my hands on that animal. I just hope I can control myself when the time comes. Three seconds after I get a hold of him I might need a lawyer real bad. Well, when you locate Daria, have her give me a call. Maybe she saw something. We'll leave the APB out on her, just in case. Glad to help." He smiled at them. "I've got things to see to. Another couple is coming in soon. Goodbye." Tom Sloan walked purposefully away.

     "Good man. I'd hate to have his job." Jake walked with Helen to the car.

     Helen glanced at him and thought about apologizing for her outburst, but she soon rationalized her way out of it.

     Linda had Sandi backed up against the wall. "Your keys, now."


     Linda slapped her twice, very hard.

     Sandi shrieked and blubbered.

     Linda was shouting right in Sandi's face. "I don't care to hear it. You were the president of the Fashion Club and you had a reputation to maintain. Now you're just another drug abuser with a mouthful of lies. You lied to me, to Quinn and to her sister Dara. Liars, Sandra, aren't allowed to be leaders. Liars aren't allowed to drive. Liars get grounded for six months. That's after you get out of the Eastwood clinic. You won't be going back to LHS after spring break, Sandra. It's Catholic school for you. Do you realize the amount of crow I'm going to have to eat to satisfy that damned Helen? I said that I would watch her kid. You conspire with the little monster to destroy Helen's house and nearly get her other daughter killed. Helen's an influential witch. Her open hostility could be a real drag on my career. You've embarrassed me, badly. I could lose the park board election over this! Now go straight to your room."

     Sandi wailed. "But-"

     "NOW!" Linda slapped Sandi again, very hard.

     When they got home, Jake surveyed the damage while Helen called Jane's house.

     Trent and Daria were feeding each other chocolate covered cherries when the duckphone quacked again.

     Annoyed, Trent grabbed it. "What!"

     Trent smiled widely at Daria. "Oh, hello... Yes, I think she is still here. Jane said something about her house being wrecked. I'll go and get her." He pushed the mute button. "It's your mom, Daria."

     "Oh boy, the day of reckoning is nigh." Daria gave him a smoking hot kiss. "For luck," she said and picked up the phone.

     "Hello?" Daria was impatient.

     "Daria! Honey, are you alright?" Helen was vastly relieved.

     "A-OK, Mom. Everything's fine. Couldn't be better. Oh, by the way, Quinn and her little gang dumped me two hundred miles from home with eleven bucks in my pocket. Then they destroyed all of my possessions, stole my money and vandalized my room. I think that someone puked on my bed." Daria jerked as Trent started drawing an intricate little pattern on her belly with a gooey piece of chocolate.

     Helen clapped her hand to her forehead. "Oh my god! How did your glasses and jacket get by the side of the highway?"

     Daria waved Trent away. "How did you know-"

     "They found another dead girl, Daria. The police searched the highway." Helen's voice broke. "They thought it was you, Daria. Your father and I went to the morgue to identify the body. The police still want to interview you."

     Daria was stunned. "I can't believe it!"

     Helen sighed. "How did your glasses get broken, Daria?"

     Daria told her and Helen almost fainted.

     "Come home, Daria. You have to tell the police! There's an APB out on you. We need to talk." Helen was dazed from the closeness of her daughters escape.

     "Come home to what? I'm never sleeping in that bed again. I've really had enough of the Morgendorffer family circus for a while, Mom. Are you and Dad separated yet, or are you still tearing each other apart? If you're still just fighting I don't want to be around for whatever Quinn pulls next!" Daria bucked and gasped as Trent's artistic endeavors took a southerly course.

     "Don't cry, honey. Daria, I-"

     "You can settle your problems without me. Quinn wrecked the house, so I'm leaving it. God bless our broken home. I'm staying here. I'll call the police and find out what they want. Goodbye." Daria gasped, hung up and moaned loudly, then screamed as Trent slowly began removing his chocolate art. A while later, after Jane had pounded on the door and yelled that she was going to take a fire hose to them, they sat entwined, facing each other again, immersed in a sticky afterglow.

     "Another cherry, adorable Daria?"

     Daria had completely forgotten that she ever had a family. She smiled and nodded.

     He popped it into his mouth. "Come and get it then, Luv."

     Helen stood with the phone in her hand. Daria had never spoken to her like that before. She had sounded ... odd. Both furious and on the verge of crying. Helen hadn't realized how badly her squabbling with Jake was affecting the kids. She forlornly wondered if Daria would ever move back in. She would be eighteen in a week or so and she was working at the library...

     Jake came down the stairs, cursing. When Helen told him about Daria's refusal to come home, he just nodded, unsurprised. He sent Helen up to take a look around while he called his insurance company. When the adjuster left, he called an industrial cleaning service and arranged for a crew to get right to the house. He then called a plumber for the bathrooms and a contractor to look at Daria's room. Jake began gathering up the remaining valuables and picking up the clutter in preparation for the invasion. He looked at the newspaper and found a handyman with a truck, whom he called. He needed help to remove Daria's vomit stained bed, the wall padding and the other broken furniture in the house. Lifting a cushion he saw that the couch had to go, too. Jake was pissed, but he understood the message.

     Jake had changed into a crisp new set of coveralls and was watching for his reinforcements to arrive. "Helen, would you please go and get Quinn? She can damn well help clean up this mess! It might need a lawyer's touch to get her out and right now I'm afraid I'd strangle her." Now that Daria was found, Jake was worried about Quinn.

     "Alright, Jake, I'll handle it." Helen had already changed into her most intimidating power suit and called ahead to make sure Quinn was ready. "I think that this is mostly our fault."

     Jake turned to her. He wasn't going to be pushed out of the picture this time. "I agree! The message here is pretty damn obvious. I don't want to punish her much for the rest of the house, but by god, she'll pay for what she did to Daria."

     Helen smiled in surprised pleasure and agreed when he told her what he had in mind.

     Trent ran his soapy hands over her hard nipples once again. Daria turned to him, the heat building and then shrieked as the water suddenly ran ice cold. They scrambled out of the shower, looked at each other and then laughed, hard.

     Daria ruefully shook her head. "Well, I guess that was a message, Trent. I need to call the cops, check in and get back here for more fun and games!"

     "Sounds good. Maybe we can go out and get some real food. I feel kind of drained. I need some steak." Trent was exhausted. He had never been so satiated in his life. Looking at Daria, he felt a stirring.

     Daria gritted her teeth, jumped in the shower and rinsed off the soap. Shrieking she jumped back out and raised her arms as he dried her off.

     Trent smirked, stepped slowly into the shower and rinsed himself thoroughly. He turned it off and dried himself.

     "Show off." Daria smiled. It was good to have a man show off for her.

     Trent laughed. "Its mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter."

     "Pretty and witty too! I wonder what the lonely people are doing right now?" Daria sighed, happily. "I'd be sitting in my room, writing mushy poetry about you, if I hadn't gotten lucky."

     Trent kissed her. "I write songs about you all the time. Bring your mushy poetry, Daria. I'll sing you some of my mushy songs."

     Daria called the Lawndale police and told them who she was. They asked where she was staying, but she blew them off. The desk sergeant transferred her to Sgt. Sloan of the serial killer task force and he got right to the point.

     "Sgt. Sloan. Is this Daria?"

     "Yes. I understand that you're looking for me?" Daria just wanted to get this over with.

     "Daria, we found your jacket and glasses near a body. How and when did you loose them?" Sloan had been thinking about how she could have lost them and come to the conclusion that this might be a break.

     Daria cleared her throat. "It's a long story. I-"

     Sloan interrupted. "We know everything right up to the point that you left the museum, Daria."

     Daria was a little shocked. "Okay, fair enough. I met a guy in the museum who said he was an artist. He seemed okay and when he found out that I was stuck, he told me that he was going to Greenwood that evening and that he could drop me off in Lawndale. About twelve miles down the road he pulled over and got out his dope. When I saw the syringe, I bailed. He'd been giving off weird vibes and I was ready to run. He grabbed my jacket and my glasses came off in the tug-o-war. When he pulled away, he ran them over. Later, I threw the jacket down and just left it, because it was so badly torn."

     "Good! He fits the profile! That bit about the hypodermic is extremely interesting. Can you describe him?" Sloan beamed. A possible lead!

     Daria stared at Trent for a second, swallowed and gave a very detailed description of the man.

     "You sound just like a cop, Daria. How about the car?" Sloan wrote out the description even as the recorder captured it. He was desperate for a break.

     "I don't know one car from another. But I can tell you that it was red and the license number." Daria rattled it off.

     Sloan gave Cpl. Ridger a thumbs up. "Excellent! We'll check out your artsy hype, Daria. How come you knew his number?"

     "He almost hit me. I got a close up view of the plate. I knew there was a killer on the loose, but I figured he'd be after hitchhikers, not hanging around museums. He grabbed at me and I figured that if he came back and... did anything, I would scratch the number into the ground, or something. I have a very good memory."

     Trent was looking at her with a sick expression.

     Sloan was silent for a time. "You're a brave girl, Daria. How did you finally get home?"

     Daria looked at Trent. "I got a ride from a friend. Do you want to talk to him?"

     Sloan beamed at Ridger, who was now listening in. "Sure! I wish all police work was this easy, Daria."

     She handed the phone to Trent, who reluctantly took it.

     "Hello?" Trent absolutely hated cops.

     Sloan instantly detected the attitude and tried to deflect it. "Hi there, who am I talking to?"

     "I drove her home." Trent smiled at Daria. "I was walking out of a convenience store a few miles from where she got away from the sicko. I heard her voice. She was on the phone."

     "You're her boyfriend?" Sloan read his voice.

     "Yes. I'm Trent Lane. I hope to be more than a boyfriend, someday." Trent made eyes at Daria.

     "Did you see anything else out of the ordinary?" Sloan didn't really expect anything.

     Trent suddenly remembered something. "There was a redheaded girl about Daria's size. She was wearing a red shirt and black jeans, hitchhiking on the other side of the road in front of the store. I saw a guy in a red Ford Taurus turn around in the store parking lot and pick her up."

     Sloan felt his throat close up. "Tell me you saw his face."

     Trent furrowed his brow. "Yeah, I saw him. He was checking out Daria, so I made eye contact. Daria already described him better than I could. Now that I heard that description, I think that it could be the same guy."

     Sloan exhaled heavily. "You'll both have to come in, right now."

     "We were going to lunch-" Trent was cut off.

     "Stay where you are! Mr. Lane, the girl that we found exactly matches the description that you just gave me. This guy could kill again, soon. He might even be hunting Daria. His pattern is to never quit once he's marked his prey. The last girl that got free disappeared two days later! A car will be there for you kids in a few minutes." Sloan waved at Ridger, who was already on the phone with the Lawndale PD.

     "Hunting Dar- Damn. Damn! It was him!" Trent dropped the phone and sprinted to his room. He pulled out a crude, but incredibly lethal old Model 1911 Colt .45 and popped in a clip. He chambered a dull, fat hollowpoint round and gathered up everyone in the house. Rapidly explaining the situation, he shepherded Jane and Tom out of the basement. He got everyone into the living room and set Tom to watch out the back.

     Tom was a little freaked out at the sight of Jane's heavily armed brother catching him with his hands under Jane's shirt, but as soon as he fully grasped the situation, he kept watch.

     Daria told Sloan what was happening. He relayed the heads-up to the Lawndale cops.

     "Wouldn't want them to get nervous," said Sloan.

     Daria asked Trent, "Why do you have a gun?"

     Sloan listened with interest.

     "Sometimes it gets a little... rough, out on the road, Daria. A little edge never hurts. My grandfather gave me this old Colt. He said it was his lucky gun. It's been in the family for a long time." Trent rolled his eyes at the phone.

     Jane was watching out the door. "The cops are here!"

     Trent put his gun away and ignored the cops when they demanded it.

     Sloan talked to the Lawndale cops and they became much friendlier.

     As Trent and Daria were shown out to the police car, Trent turned to Tom and said, "Hey man, you'll look after Jane, right?"

     Tom put his arm around her and nodded. "Always."

     Trent narrowed his eyes, sending an unmistakable message. Then he relented and nodded back. "Cool."

     Trent and Daria were driven away.

     Jane looked archly at Tom. "I wonder if there's any hot water, yet?"

     They were separated at the station and gave statements, looked at pictures and answered questions until they thought that they might have imagined the whole thing. The trouble came later that night when the cops finally decided to turn their witnesses loose.

     Sloan sighed. "I'm sorry, Daria, but you're still a minor in the eyes of the law. We can only release you into the custody of your legal guardian."

     "Excuse me? I didn't realize that I was under arrest." Daria was monumentally pissed off.

     "You're not under arrest, Daria. You're in protective custody. I think I'll take you home myself and have a word with your father about this suspect. He knows your name, Daria. He can find your house. Until he's caught or cleared, I'll get a patrol car to prowl your neighborhood at night."

     Daria sadly said goodnight to an angry Trent and rode back to pukeworld with Sloan.

     The whole family was stirred up. Helen was in shock, Jake was in a rage and Quinn was hiding upstairs. Sloan took a look and quickly calmed Jake by asking him to calm down Helen. Daria had only a cold stare for her family. She planned to be gone again just as soon as Sloan was out of sight.

     Sloan spoke with Jake and Helen for a long time, handing them a printed drivers license picture of Jason Lee, the suspect and advising Jake to lock all of his windows and doors.

     "Well... goodbye, Daria, you've been a big help. You may have saved a lot of lives by remembering that license number." Sloan gave each of them a card. "If you think of anything more, or just need a favor, don't hesitate to give me a call. We're always open for business!" He waved and drove off.

     "Well, Daria..." Helen threw her arms around her daughter and after a tense moment, Daria hugged her back.

     Jake came up and hesitantly put his arms around her. He looked so pale and shaky that she relented and hugged him, hard. "Kiddo... Daria, that girl in the drawer... I don't know what I would have done..." His eyes began running.

     Daria smiled. "Bought yourself a pool table?"

     It was an old family joke that Daria had been conceived because the Barksdales had a pool table.

     They all laughed and the atmosphere grew warmer and less strained.

     Helen sighed and took Jake's hand. "Jake and I ... well, we wont fight so much anymore, Daria. We didn't realize what an effect it was having on you girls." Helen and Jake exchanged guarded glances.

     Daria shrugged. She didn't believe it. She looked around and sniffed. "It smells okay in here now. How did you get this place so clean?"

     "Money, Daria. We spent an awful lot of money." Jake sighed, tiredly. "We salvaged as many of your things as possible, but most of it had to be taken to the dump. You have Quinn's old room, now. She has yours. Your paintings and books are in there already. Her stuff is out. Pick any of her clothes that you want, for now and we'll pay for new stuff later. How much money was in the pig?"

     Daria shrugged. "I'm not sure, Dad. It was almost full. I've been stuffing that pig since Amy gave it to me eleven years ago. I called it my cabin fund. There was about seventy dollars in my jewel box though. It was gone too."

     "Give me an estimate, Daria." Helen choked down her anger.

     "A thousand? I put a lot of bills into that pig." It was probably closer to two, thought Daria.

     "Our insurance will cover it. We'll give it to you up front, though. We'll have to make a detailed police report." Helen would make sure that the insurance covered everything.

     Daria went upstairs and decided to sleep at home. Trent needed the rest, anyway.

     After brushing her teeth, Daria walked to her old room and listened at the door. She heard Quinn sobbing inside. Daria debated with herself and then opened the door. The room was very different. Without the padding, the walls were painted a dingy green, shot through with mildewed purple cracks that looked like an infection.

     "Daria!" Quinn was shocked that she had come in.

     "So. Here we are. I was going to chop you up for bait, but I can see that you'll suffer more if I leave you alive." Daria was far more worried about Quinn than angry with her.

     Quinn sniffled loudly. She could tell immediately that Daria wasn't really angry and she felt a sharp sense of relief. "I guess you'll have fun watching them punish me. I'm glad you're not dead, Daria. That's one problem solved and a million more to go."

     "What problems?" Daria was feeling very relaxed and mellow.

     "Well, everyone hates me because I told the police what was going on. I'm grounded until I'm eligible for Social Security and almost everyone that I know thinks that I'm a crackhead. Mom and Dad are going to divorce, Sandi said that she was throwing me out of the Fashion Club and very few of my friends were willing to help me when I needed it. Worst of all, I almost got you killed." Quinn grew depressed and buried her face in her arms.

     Daria gasped. "Did you smoke crack?"

     "No, but I've been smoking a lot of pot." Quinn squeezed her eyes shut. "I got so high when we were at the outlet mall..."

     Daria sighed with relief. "Why the drugs, Quinn? You Fashion Clubbers never used to do that." Daria knew exactly where the drugs came from. A Lawndale cop had come in to the interrogation room while the police sketch artist was getting her a soda and had a word about Quinn's party with her. He had been working his way up to something when Sgt. Sloan had burst in and run him off with a murderous glare.

     "It's chic. Sandi has this friend. She's always around and she always has all kinds of dope." Quinn shrugged. "I can't blame her. I didn't have to smoke."

     "That'd be Carla, right?" Daria was getting pissed.


     "Quinn, one of the cops told me that Carla's really twenty three years old. She's a hooker and she works for a dope dealer. They're recruiting. A popular kid like Sandi could make a fifty thousand dollar profit for them if they could get her to deal for a few months. After she gets a bad enough habit, the pimp will train her. Prostitution, porno flicks, anything for a buck. Cocaine to get her out on the street and heroin to chill her out afterward. She'll be butchered spiritually, Quinn, every part used until she's too ugly and degraded to be used any more. Unless she can break the chain right now she'll likely be dead before she's thirty."

     Quinn gasped. "No!"

     "You're a target too, Quinn. You're lucky that you only tried a little pot. Who smoked the crack?" Daria waited, arms folded.

     "Sandi, Tiffany, Jeremy and that freshman, Laurel." Quinn looked at the leprous wall and sighed.

     "Those people are lost now. Carla owns them. They'll try and pull more people down with them. You have to drop them like a red hot dime, Quinn." Daria felt a real pang over the freshman. "The Fashion Club is as dead as fried chicken anyway. Ms. Li will shut it down as soon as school starts up again."

     Quinn started crying. "It's worse than hell," she wailed. "They're my friends! I don't want to see that happen to them!"

     Daria shook her head, stone faced. "That kind of thing is contagious, Quinn. You just can't help them. We'll tell their parents, but they each have to deal with it themselves. Crack is instantly addictive. All you can get is hurt. They're thrashing around in deep, cold, shark-infested water. Quinn, don't try to swim out and rescue them. You'll just get dragged down."

     Quinn cried on her sister's shoulder and Daria tried to comfort her.

     "You didn't almost get me killed, Quinn. I did. You aren't responsible for my actions, or Sandi's. I should have known better than to get into that car." Daria hugged her. "All you did wrong was to let yourself be pushed into trouble by your so called friends."

     Quinn sniffled and said in a pathetic little voice, "I'm so sorry, Daria. Do you think that you could ever really forgive me? For telling people that you're my cousin and treating you so... bad? You're the only one besides Mom and Dad who cares about me. You're my sister. I- I really thought that you were dead and I um... I love you."

     Daria felt a lump in her throat. "I love you too, Quinn. The cousin thing really got to me, but I can forgive someone that I love anything." Daria hugged her again and cleared her throat. "Cheer up, girl, you don't have anything to worry about. Life goes on. You found out who your friends really are and you'll get out of the big house soon enough. The 'rents are chilling out and things might just work out fine for everyone. Catch up and think about things for a while. Use the time, Quinn."

     As Daria walked out, Quinn said, "Thanks for being here for me, Daria."

     "No problemo, Sis." Daria walked out.

     Quinn smiled. Except for sarcastic asides, Daria had stopped calling her 'Sis' when she had started the cousin thing.

     That morning, the first thing that Daria thought about was Trent. The second thing was her birth control pills, still over at his house. She had to be very careful now. Daria looked at the clock, got up and went down to breakfast.

     "Hiya, Kiddo!" Jake beamed. "Good morning!"

     "Morning, Dad."

     Helen smiled at her and gulped down her coffee. "How are you feeling today, Daria?"

     "Okay, I guess. I got a little sleep, anyway." Daria almost bit her tongue.

     Helen and Jake looked at her, sympathetically.

     "You must have had quite a shock, Daria." Jake gestured at the newspaper. "At least they kept your name out of it so far."

     Daria took the front page and read the story of the killing. It hadn't seemed real to her before, but reading the story in the paper brought it home. She trembled violently and felt sick. "I still can't believe that he came that close..."

     Jake cleared his throat, his eyes haunted. "Daria... Are you working today?"

     Daria shook her head. "I've got some time off. Ms. Barclay heard about the killer. I'm going over to Jane's and then I guess I'll have to do something about the clothes that I don't have." Trent's out of luck. I'm sore today, she thought.

     "Take this credit card for the clothes, Daria. I have to work... I'm a little bit worried about that guy. Sloan said that he might want to get you. I don't want you girls in the house alone." Jake swallowed. "I know that it's asking a lot after the way she treated you, but would you please take your sister with you today?"

     Daria nodded. "I can do that."

     Jake and Helen both relaxed and smiled at her.

     Daria ate breakfast, saw Helen and Jake off to work and then looked for something to wear. Her clothes were a little gamy so she raided Quinn's closet. The pants were a little short, which surprised Daria, until she took a close look at Quinn's platform shoes. She looked for a skirt, but they were all too short. Thinking of Trent, she finally picked out a red summer dress that wasn't too bad. She got a handbag and stuffed a few things into it and some sandals that Quinn had given her for Christmas and then permanently borrowed. Daria put in her contacts and then called Trent.

     Trent had been staring at the phone. "Daria! I was just about to call you. Are you coming over?"

     Trent was a little put out by the news that Daria was stuck with Quinn, but he saw the need. "Damn. I hate babysitting. I guess we can't just leave her for the psycho, though. Is she going to be a problem?"

     Daria's face hardened. "I don't really care, Trent. I'd rather they didn't know until after my birthday, but if they find out and don't like it, that's just to damn bad for them."

     "Well hey, maybe I'll get lucky and they'll kick you out." Trent told her that he would be over in about twenty minutes.

     Daria banged on Quinn's door and told her to get up, they had to leave. She turned on the TV to wait it out. Sick Sad World was on, but she couldn't get into it.

     "Daria! You look really cute!" Quinn had come down the stairs dressed in a regular T shirt, boots and jeans. "If you want, I could show you how to-"

     "Thanks, Quinn, but no thanks. You'll have to come with me today. That killer might be lurking around and we're both going to stay with Jane." Daria sighed.

     "Oh." Quinn looked around nervously and shivered. "Okay, Daria. What are we going to do over there?" Quinn had been there before and it had been boring. Jane didn't talk much and her brother was a little rude. Quinn would ordinarily have ditched her, but not now.

     "Quinn, can you keep a little secret for me?"

     Quinn nodded, eating some toast. "I owe you big, Daria. I'll really try, this time. What is it?"

     "Well..." The doorbell rang and Daria cautiously peered out before throwing it open. "Trent!"

     They were kissing deeply before either was aware that they had moved.

     "Daria? Oh..." Quinn's jaw dropped. Well finally, she thought. That's supposed to be the big secret? Well duh. I'd better get my gameboy. She's got hers...

     Trent looked her up and down. "Daria, You look great!"

     "You like me in this dress?" Daria smiled and spun around for him.

     Trent laughed. "I like you, period, Daria. I'd think you looked great if you were wearing a garbage bag with neck and arm holes punched in it."

     Daria smirked. "Haute garbage, coming up next on the Sick Sad World of fashion."

     Trent's smile died as he caught sight of Quinn. "Oh. Hi, Quinn."

     Quinn hung her head in shame. "I guess you guys all know that I did drugs."

     Trent was surprised at the remorse. He looked at Daria and raised an eyebrow.

     Daria walked over to Quinn and put her arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry, Quinn, it'll be okay. My friends aren't like that. We've all made mistakes and no one will hold yours against you."

     Trent took the hint and walked over. "Hey, Quinn. I did drugs while I was in high school. I did a lot of things that I'm not proud of, but I managed to stay clear of the law and lived them down. You will, too. You got off lucky. If you stop now, no one will hold anything against you. Especially not me, so cheer up!" He smiled at her and flicked his eyes to Daria. "I have a feeling that we'll know each other for a long, long time, so let's be friends, okay?" He stuck out his hand.

     Quinn tilted her head to one side, re-evaluating him. She smiled. "You're really nice, Trent. Sure, we'll be friends." She shook his hand and the three left.

     As Trent pulled away from the curb, a car parked further down the street eased into traffic behind them. Trent instantly saw it, but kept it to himself. He took a slightly roundabout route and the car stayed on his tail. Trent got a decent look inside the car and saw two men. Cops, Trent decided. He thought about it and decided that Daria should know.

     "Daria, the cops are following us."

     "Where?" Quinn and Daria spoke together.

     "That brown Crown Victoria two cars back."

     Daria considered. "They're probably hoping to catch Lee if he comes to kill me."

     Trent winced. "Don't worry, I'll be watching over you until he's dead."

     Quinn looked nervous. "Is it really likely that this Lee will come for us?"

     Trent shrugged and felt for the comforting walnut grip of the ancient Colt stuck in the door panel by his seat.

     Daria frowned. "No, not at all. They're killing two birds with one stone. Sloan said that the drugs at the party were under investigation by the local cops. I'll bet that those guys are following both of us, Quinn."

     Trent's eyes narrowed. "We all have to be careful then. If we break any laws they'll be on us like stink on s-, they'll try to make us into their snitches." Trent cursed silently. He would be at risk from these cops and he wasn't going to allow them to make him their pigeon. It was good that he had a carry permit.

     Daria grimaced. "You're the one that's vulnerable, Trent. We're minors and there's very little that they could do to us anyway. But they could frame you so easily that it's just ridiculous."

     Quinn was increasingly unnerved. "You can't be serious! I already told them everything at the police station. They know you guys weren't involved! Why would they do that?"

     "Don't you listen to Mom's war stories, Quinn?" Daria shook her head and looked at Trent worriedly. "Let's set a few traps for them, Trent. What could they do?"

     Trent looked at her thoughtfully. "That's a good idea, Daria."

     Daria nodded. "I read once that spies will sometimes glue a hair to the edge of a door. If the hair is broken when they come back, they know that someone's been inside. You could do that with your car, Trent. Just use a little bit of clear tape clipped almost in half. That way they can't plant anything at a gig."

     "Good one, Daria. I'll do it." Trent smiled at Daria. "I doubt if they'll get really nasty with witnesses in an important case involving other cops. We're probably okay, but you don't take chances with drug cops."

     Quinn was still thunderstruck. "How do you know so much about it, Trent?"

     Trent laughed. "I'm a musician, Quinn. I know a lot of shady people. I play bars, clubs, lounges and pubs. The night people tell me their stories."

     "Night people. It sounds like a good title for a story." Daria scribbled on her pad.

     Trent looked surprised. "Hey, that'd make a good song!"

     Esmarelda Blaine sat calmly in her wheelchair and felt the presence of death. She had held it off a year longer than she had thought she would, because she had been concerned over Daria. The pretty young girl had been too sad, too lonely and too smart for her own good, much like young "Esme" had been back in the twenties. Esmarelda could see right away that this kindred spirit was slipping down the same dead end path that she had followed. Daria thought too much and let herself feel too little. Esmarelda had been subtly out of step with the rest of humanity all of her life and her resentment of that fact had caused her to miss out on too much. Seeing Daria glowing with happiness and a love that was obviously reciprocated by Trent had been like a release, like her task was done and now she could go. Right after they left, she had summoned her lawyers and had a codicil to her will filed with the probate office. She had called that morning, made sure of the will and now sat waiting. She didn't wait long and it was far less painful than she thought.

     After a morning spent clothes shopping at the mall and on Dega street, Trent, Daria, Jane and Quinn pulled up in front of the retirement home and got out of the heavily laden car. Trent watched the cops park across the street and cursed under his breath. A hearse was pulling away.

     "Do you ever think/ when the hearse goes by/ that you may be/ the next to die?" Daria had a macabre sense of humor sometimes.

     Quinn shuddered. "I don't want to think about death anymore, Daria."

     "Well, you came to the wrong place then." Jane looked around. "This place gives me the creeps."

     "Me too!" Quinn hated to be near old people. That she would get old too, had never occurred to her.

     Trent frowned at them. "Esmarelda is really too cool, Janey. I want you two to meet. You'll like her too, Quinn. She's smart and funny. Kind of like Daria."

     They walked in and she wasn't there.

     Daria stood crying in Trent's arms, tears soaking his shirt. He squeezed tightly and felt a tear of his own drip down on her.

     Daria had been looking forward to reading the last chapter in her latest Melody Powers story and it devastated her that Esmarelda would never get to hear it. Jane and Quinn awkwardly tried to comfort them and only the cops across the street were entirely dry eyed.

     Quinn trailed into the Lane house behind Jane and wondered when the bad times would end. It seemed that every time she started feeling happy, something horrible would happen. She had been happy through her freshman year and through most of her sophomore year too, but somehow she had lost her bounce. She looked at Daria, stricken, yet clinging tightly to Trent. Even sad, she was basically happier than Quinn.

     "Come on, Quinn, I'll paint you if you like. I think these two want some time alone." Jane led her to her room and they settled in.

     Later, walking back to the bathroom, Quinn heard Daria moan from behind Trent's bedroom door. She shook her head. Daria was the smart one, yet she had allowed herself to fall for a penniless slacker like Trent. She felt superior, until she remembered that she had no one at all.

     After a day with Trent, Daria reluctantly decided to take Quinn home and check in herself. Trent drove them home and helped carry the goods in. Jake was asleep on the couch and Helen wasn't home yet.

     They walked out to Trent's car, chased each other around the yard and then shared a lingering kiss. Daria waved touchingly as he pulled away, the very picture of a girl in love. Neither noticed Helen's SUV stopped up the street, as Helen gaped at her daughter's antics. Daria watched Trent until he was out of sight.

     Helen swept into the driveway and jumped out of the car. That hadn't been an awkward first kiss by a long shot.

     Daria walked into her yard and was immediately collared by her mother.

     "Well, Daria. Where have you been?" Helen evaluated her, eyes full of suspicion.

     Daria winced. "Daria Morgendorffer, 553-98-7989. That's all that I have to tell you under the Geneva Convention."

     Helen snorted. "So. I guess you're looking for thirty days in the cooler? Judging by what I saw a few minutes ago you're in need of some cooling off!"

     "Uh oh." Daria looked at Helen closely. She wasn't bluffing, but she didn't really look mad.

     Helen narrowed her eyes. "Uh oh indeed, young lady. Was that Trent? I thought he was just a friend."

     Daria boldly looked Helen in the eye. "We were never together before, Mom. He just happened to be there when I needed help. He found me on the interstate and gave me a ride home. It was all kind of a big happy surprise. I love him, Mom. He loves me. I've loved him since I met him. Surprise! Get used to it, because I'm gone if you try and separate us."

     Helen sighed heavily. "I thought you were dead, Daria. The girl in the morgue could have been your twin. I know that I can't stop the clock. Just promise me that you won't allow yourself to be pressured into a premature physical relationship."

     Define premature, thought Daria. "Not to worry, Mom. I don't respond to pressure. Trent's a real gentleman. He's been waiting for me for over a year you know. He didn't think it was right to date me when I was underage."

     "You're still underage, Daria. You have a week to go. Don't forget that." Helen hugged her daughter. "I'm still so glad to see you safe. Let's go in, Daria."

     Jake was pathetically glad to see her. The experience in the morgue had taken its toll. "How have you been, kiddo?"

     Daria told them about the death of Mrs. Blaine.

     Jake paled and muttered a curse. "Kiddo...Daria, I think that you need a good luck charm or something."

     "I didn't know that you were still visiting the retirement home." Helen was shaken. She didn't know anything about either of her daughters, it seemed.

     Daria looked down to hide her fresh tears. "She was my friend. The funeral is Wednesday and I'm going."

     "Do you need a ride, kiddo?" Jake would miss his meeting but it didn't bother him.

     Daria shook her head. "I have transportation."

     Helen frowned uneasily, but said nothing.

     Daria stood. "I'm going to go put away my clothes. I want to be alone for a while." She went to her room to cry.

     Helen waited until she was out of sight and then glared at Jake. "Well you were certainly wide awake today."

     "What?" Jake didn't know what she was getting at. "I had a long day, yesterday, Helen. I took a nap when I got home. Big deal."

     "Didn't you see your daughter out in the front yard, kissing and hanging all over Trent?" Helen pursed her lips and tapped her shoe impatiently.

     "Trent? Trent who?" Jake, still groggy, thought she was talking about Quinn.

     Helen stamped her foot. "Are you so out of touch that you don't know anything about your daughters at all? Do I have to do every single thing myself?"

     Jake rolled his eyes. "For Christ sake, Helen, Quinn has more boys swarming around than-"

     "Not Quinn, you... I'm talking about Daria!" Helen glared at him. He should have been the one to deal with this. He could scare off undesirables like Trent, anyway.

     "Oh, you mean Daria's Trent. What's wrong with Trent? He seems all right to me." Jake began a slow burn.

     "You knew! Why the hell didn't you tell me!" Helen's voice lost its control and soon she was screeching like a harridan. "Trent's a grown man for god's sake!"

     The fight began to get ugly and Jake cut it short and left. "I'll be at the pool hall if you want to come and scream at me there." He walked out, carefully avoiding slamming the door.

     Helen glared after him, then looked guiltily up the stairs. Way to go, Morgendorffer. That's what those girls need right now.

     Trent parked and got out of his car. He was late, so he grabbed his guitar and got to the stage with seconds to spare. As they launched into The Hurl Song everyone cheered and his band mates glared at him.

     After the last set was played, Trent saw what he had been expecting. The cops were waiting by the back door.

     "Trent Lane?" The man flashed a badge at him. "I'm detective Al Patrice of the Lawndale PD."

     "Did you catch Lee yet?" Trent decided to play the fool for a while.

     "Lee?" The man looked briefly confused. "No, this is about another matter."

     "I'm tired, Patrice. What do you guys want?" Trent checked the micro recorder in his pocket, feeling to see if it was on.

     Patrice nodded. "We want your help. There's a new drug ring setting up in Lawndale."

     "I'm a musician, Patrice. I don't tangle with drug rings." Trent looked past him at Mystik Spiral, who watched warily as they loaded the van. "Do we look like the Hardy Boys to you?" What a great name for a band, he thought.

     Patrice smiled. "All we need is for someone to make a buy. You're the only one with a connection that we can use."

     Trent looked at him, skeptically. "What connection? I don't use drugs."

     "But you have." Patrice smirked.

     "Me and Clinton, but we didn't inhale." Trent's eyes narrowed. "I hope you don't go repeating that to anyone. My girlfriend's mother is one hell of a pit-bull lawyer. I'm no sitting duck and I don't care about drug rings."

     "Quinn Morgendorffer." Patrice watched his face. "So you know."

     "She told her sister and me all about it." Trent looked at him speculatively. "Why do you care? There's probably four drug rings operating out of this club. Drug rings are a dime a dozen. What's the big deal about this one?"

     Patrice sighed. "You're pretty well informed about things, aren't you, Trent. No one talks to us. If we go in there and try to find out who's dealing all we get is a headache."

     "You guys ought to start a band." Trent laughed. "Musicians hear everything. Call it The Hardy Boys and nail dope dealers big time."

     Patrice grinned. "Not a bad idea, really. Look, Trent, I know that narcotics enforcement has a rotten reputation, but I don't play that way. I saw the tape on your doors, so I know what you're thinking. I can't really blame you. If you had been the least bit dirty I would have nailed you and then used you up catching these guys, but I don't plant evidence." Patrice handed him a card. "If you hear anything, give me a heads up. It never hurts to have a cop owe you one."

     Trent still carefully searched his car before driving home.

     Jake sagged in relief. "Helen! They caught Lee!" He showed her the front page story.

     "That's wonderful news, Jake!" Helen turned on the local news. There was little mention of Lee, just that he was a person of interest. Helen admonished Quinn not to leave and went to work with a light heart.

     Daria was on the phone with Jane. "Sloan says that he kept records. Whenever he killed a girl he took a picture, collected a souvenir and wrote down the details. That means that we probably won't have to testify, much."

     "Good. That guy's going to get the death penalty and who wants to be part of that?" Jane shuddered.

     "I think my dad would. He wants to saw Lee's head off with a butter knife." Daria wasn't exaggerating by much. Jake hated Lee with a truly murderous intensity.

     Jane laughed. "This also means that we're not stuck with Princess Grace anymore."

     "Is Trent still asleep? I believe I'll just walk on over and wake him up." Daria smiled in anticipation.

     Trent groaned in his sleep. He dreamed of Daria. Trent wasn't really sure when it stopped being a dream. Afterward when his confusion had cleared he marveled. All the women he'd ever known paled in comparison with Daria. She was to them as whisky was to grape juice. Her eager innocence drove him mad. He couldn't bear the thought of separation that evening.

     When a somewhat worn out Daria returned at four thirty, Quinn wasn't in the house. She looked around and then sighed. Quinn would catch even more hell. Daria walked to the kitchen and caught sight of Quinn, Jamie, Jeffy and Stacy sitting in a circle in the back yard. Jamie was strumming a guitar.

     Daria opened a cold South Dakota Sarsaparilla, hesitated and then went out to see them.

     "Daria!" Quinn smiled a welcome. "Come sit with us."

     Daria came out, inspected the patch of grass and sat. "Hi everybody. I never saw you guys just hanging out, before."

     Jamie smiled at her. "Hi, Daria. I guess we're just a little stressed. All in all it's been a pretty cataclysmic week."

     "Tell me about it." Daria looked at Stacy. "How are you doing, Stacy?"

     Stacy sighed. "I'm alright, I guess. All of my friends hate me, though."

     Jeffy shook his head. "They weren't really your friends anymore, Stacy. We had to do it. We owed it to them."

     Stacy's insipidly tearful expression turned to shock as Jeffy suddenly took her hand.

     "What happened?" Daria had an inkling.

     "We told all the parents who was doing what." Jamie looked stubborn. He was an Eagle Scout. "We had to. Someday they'll understand, I hope."

     Daria shook her head. "No good deed goes unpunished. Expect no gratitude."

     Stacy looked upset. "That's not true! They'll see why we had to do it! Things will get back to normal." She scooted closer to Jeffy.

     Quinn shook her head. "Not for me, Stacy. I don't really care if I'm popular or not any more. I haven't been having fun for a long time. I think I'll just work on my grades from now on."

     Jamie nodded at her. "You'll always be popular with me. I didn't really like the old order anyway."

     "Yeah, Quinn. We'll always be friends." Jeffy smiled at a blushing Stacy.

     "It's the end of the world as we knew it." Daria sang, trying to cheer the glum little group up.

     Jamie clumsily played a couple of bars with her and they trailed off, laughing.

     "So what's up with you, Daria?" Stacy was curious. Quinn hadn't answered any questions about Daria, only that they should ask Daria if they wanted to know.

     "Oh, same old same old. Working in the library." Daria shrugged.

     Quinn laughed. "She helped catch the Blue Mountain killer and she's having a red hot romance with the lead singer of Mystik Spiral."

     Stacy gaped at her and Jamie's eyes widened.

     Daria rolled her eyes at Quinn. "Other than that, same old same old."

     "Daria!" Helen stuck her head out the door.

     "I better go see what she wants. Bye, all." Daria left quickly. She hated exposing her private life to people.

     "Hi, Mom." Daria walked into the house.

     Helen was reading a letter. "Daria, were you aware that you were mentioned in Mrs. Blaine's will?"

     "Her will? No." Daria looked puzzled. "How would you know? They haven't read the will yet, have they?" Daria didn't think Esme had anything to leave, except for some pictures and a few mementos.

     "I got a registered letter from the executor's, inviting us to attend the reading of the will after the funeral. It suggests that you bring council." Helen frowned and looked at her. "That usually doesn't happen when there's no money involved."

     "I'm sure it's a mistake. Why did you get the letter?" Daria was a little puzzled. Why would Esme have stayed in a dump like Better Days if she had any money?

     "As your guardian I still have to sign for you on property transfers." Helen frowned. "I'd better go with you tomorrow, Daria. If there is any money involved, the funeral is the place where you'll find out who else is after it."

     "Mom, don't worry about it. Esme was as poor as poor gets. I'm sure it's just a dumb executor or something behind the letter. Look here, this is a form letter! They didn't even sign it."

     "Alright, Daria." Helen looked at her appointment book. "I'll skip the service, but I'll see you at the reading. American Trust doesn't work cheap. I think you... Never mind." She looked up, sharply. "Will Trent be driving you?"

     Daria narrowed her eyes. "Yes, Mom. He knew Esme too. He's going with me." Everywhere, she mentally added.

     Later that evening, Daria dressed for her date. Trent was taking her to dinner and a movie. Helen had been in panic mode every since she had seen Trent, so Daria decided to bypass her altogether.

     Jake was watching the news, eager to keep track of his enemy. He saw Daria coming down the stairs. "Hi, Daria! You look nice. How are you holding out?

     Daria smiled at him. "Fine, Dad. I have a date tonight. Do you have a time that you want me back?"

     Jake rubbed his chin. "Gee, kiddo, I don't know. What time do you usually have to be back by?"

     Daria shrugged. "I've never had a real date before, so I wouldn't be able to help you there, Dad."

     Jake snapped his fingers. "Quinn has to be in by ten, but you're almost eighteen, so- No, forget it. I won't give you a time limit. Use your own judgement. Fair?"

     "That's fine, Dad. See you later!" Daria left.

     Jake went into the kitchen and pulled out a big pot. He wanted to think and he liked to cook while he thought. So Daria really does have a boyfriend..."

     Helen walked into the kitchen. "Jake, I was just talking to Pastor Lembek. He wants to reschedule us for two weeks from next Monday."

     "If you think it will help, I'm game. I don't have anything going that can't be rescheduled." Jake chopped up another carrot.

     "How about the kids?" Helen fumed. "Quinn's utterly untrustworthy. Daria's secretive, like Amy. She's liable to just disappear on us one day."

     "It's later than you think, Helen. Daria's out on a date right now. She actually smiled at me twice and hugged me today. I think she's in love." Jake abruptly chopped an eggplant in half with one violent stroke of his cleaver. "It's serious. She dressed for her date."

     "Damn! Why didn't you call me? I was going to keep her around here until she cooled off!" Helen ground her teeth. "The way I saw her kissing that Trent- Damn!"

     Jake looked at Helen and saw the stress mounting in her eyes. "It's time to let go, Helen. Daria's almost eighteen, an adult now. We need to treat her as an adult. She's a smart girl and she'll do alright. We can't keep her from making her mistakes. Remember how your mother tried to get between us? We see her every other year now. When you do see your family you guys restage the exact same fight you were having twenty years ago. I don't know what to tell you about your family, Helen, but we need to salvage ours, before it's to late."

     Helen suppressed a bitter retort. "What do you suggest, Jake?"

     Jake shook his head. "I don't have a clue about Quinn. Daria isn't a child anymore, so I suggest we leave her alone."

     Helen gasped. "But what if she gets pregnant? What if-"

     Jake winced and chopped a carrot in half. "She will, Helen. Someday. And when she does I'll be a grandpa. What I'm saying is that her baby will be her problem, just like baby Daria was ours. Remember what Willow used to say? The circle of life and all that crap?"

     Helen glared at him. "I never had Daria's potential! She's got a full scholarship at Yale, for god's sake! She shouldn't waste her life with that... musician! Her stats are so good it's scary. She needs guidance and-"

     "She's had it. Face it, Helen, childhood's over. Daria's strictly self guiding now. We need to concentrate on Quinn. She's the one who's likely to drop out and end up as a waitress living in a trailer park somewhere. That idiot stunt she pulled shows that she has no common sense." Jake sighed in exasperation.

     Quinn crept a little further down the stairs to eavesdrop better.

     Helen sighed. "She reminds me of Rita. We fought all the time, growing up. Rita was the pretty, popular one and I couldn't compete with her on that front. I buckled down and studied and look at us today. We fight like cats in a sack whenever we see each other."

     Jake laughed. "Quinn is your daughter, Helen. She's nothing like Rita."

     Helen looked at him, thoughtfully. "Maybe you're right. She's a competitor." She frowned. "Her and Daria are a lot like me and Amy."

     Jake shrugged. "Water under the bridge, Helen. We need to talk about Quinn. Something's got to give there, but I don't know what. How do we get inside her little head?"

     "I don't know, Jake. All she thinks about is herself and her popularity." Helen sighed.

     Quinn crept back up the stairs mulling over what she'd heard. It's much better and much worse than you think, Mom, She thought.

     Trent arrived early, wearing a suit. He was carrying a familiar looking form letter.

     "I see that you got one too, Trent." Helen gritted her teeth. Daria was hanging on to him with a death grip.

     "Yes, Mrs. Morgendorffer. I guess Esme wants to leave us some mementos." Trent looked away.

     Helen's eyes softened as she realized that he was fighting back tears. "Well, now she's in a better place."

     Trent laughed. "In the back of the cosmic bus."

     Daria smiled and leaned into him, relishing the closeness. "Throwing popcorn at the driver."

     God, I hope this guy isn't a moony, or some other kind of weird cultist, thought Helen. "Well, whatever your religious beliefs-"

     "Private joke, Mom. Come on, Trent. Lets go." Daria pulled at Trent, wanting to avoid provoking Helen.

     Trent smiled back at Daria, then nodded a farewell at Helen. "Well, see you later, Ms. Morgendorffer."

     "Yes. We'll all have to get together and talk, soon." Helen's expression softened as she deciphered the departing couples body language. Adept at reading juries, Helen suddenly realized that she was probably seeing her future son in law. Daria, he's a musician for God's sake! Think, Dammit! She wondered if Daria's fine mind would ever overcome the spell that she was under.

     Daria and Trent were directed to their seats and attracted much interest. The chapel was packed with business-suited men.

     Trent leaned over and whispered to Daria, "Ugh, look at them. Do you know any of these people?"

     Daria whispered back, "A few people from the home. Most of the old folks don't go to funerals. It depresses them too much."

     Trent nodded. "I can dig it. What about the suits? Do you think any of them are relatives?"

     Daria scanned the crowd, thoughtfully. "Esme never talked much about her family. I don't think she ever had any kids. As for this bunch, I never met any of them. They all look like lawyers." If there was one group that Daria knew the look of, it was lawyers.

     The service was short and the lawyers cell phones rang incessantly. Uncaringly, they whispered and talked through most of the funeral. When the funeral director got the name wrong, Daria stood up, ran him off, reamed the cellular people out for their indifference and then delivered an impromptu eulogy that even affected the hard eyed men in thousand-dollar suits.

     After it was over, the people from the home came up and expressed their condolences. They had all known how close Daria was to Esme.

     All of the suits focused on Daria. One of the more foolish among them pasted on a condescending smile, walked up to her and went on a fishing trip.

     "That was all very moving, Miss..." He waited in vain for her to supply a last name. Looking into her cold, expressionless eyes, the lawyer began to sweat.

     Daria stared at him like he'd just crawled out of a drain. "Are you a lawyer?" she asked, in a near monotone.

     "Why yes!" he boomed, full of false bonhomie.

     Daria nodded, like he'd said something of deep significance. "Do you like apples?" she continued, in the same tone.

     He looked at her, puzzled. Apples? Maybe she was crazy. "Yess... Sure!"

     Daria smiled, almost imperceptibly. "I'm not gonna tell you anything, Mr. Lawyer. How do you like them apples?"

     Trent and the pack of legal personages who'd gathered around began laughing mercilessly at Daria's flame-red victim. She didn't realize it, but she'd told them all something very important. They all knew that she was nobody's fool.

     Helen pulled up to the Hilton early and made her way toward the conference room, where the will was to be read. She entered the main lobby and went hard eyed, like a gunfighter entering a strange saloon. The lobby was full of lawyers, all of whom sized her up and many of whom she recognized.

     One walked over to her. "Well, Helen, it's been a while."

     "Hello, Ben." She shook his hand.

     "I didn't know that you did probate. What's your firm's interest in this little soiree?" he gently probed.

     She laughed. "Now, Ben, that would be telling."

     Ben smiled and began trading. "I'm here on behalf of the Barnes Foundation. The deceased had left a goodly portion of her estate to my client and now we find that someone has apparently snaked it out from under us, at the eleventh hour. We'll be closely examining those circumstances, as will you and your client, I'm sure."

     Helen smiled knowingly and twitched the lure. "Of course. How much had your client expected?"

     Ben shrugged and went the extra distance. Helen was a cold eyed, cast-iron bitch and having her on the team would be comforting. "We estimated that the old girl was good for at least twenty."

     Helen's mind raced. She serenely raised an eyebrow. "Twenty? That's all?"

     Ben frowned. "I don't know what kind of clients you have, Helen, but to us twenty million dollars is a hell of a lot of money."

     Helen didn't show the slightest flicker of reaction. "Yes, I'd say so. Excuse me, Ben." She turned and walked rapidly away.

     "But-" He glowered after her. "Okay, blow me off, Ms Lawyer. What goes around comes around."

     Helen hit the speed dial to her firm. Researchers marshaled their resources, facts were checked and a whole phalanx of probate lawyers and specialists was dispatched to the hotel by the senior partner. As they arrived, they gathered around Helen and she quietly briefed them on what she'd been able to learn. Associates were quickly sent to eavesdrop on the knots of out of town lawyers and Helen had two interns stationed in the parking lots, ready to intercept Daria and Trent. It was imperative that they not speak with the enemy, lest they inadvertently provide ammunition.

     The other lawyers took note of the new group and sent their own spies. They quickly compared notes and came to the conclusion that this must be the opposition.

     Trent and Daria pulled up in the lot. Trent had wanted to blow the whole thing off, but Daria had an inkling. They'd compromised by arriving at the last minute, after Trent changed out of the suit.

     "Daria?" A youngish man confronted her as she got out of the car.

     "Hey, Man, You looking for something?" Trent was beside them in an instant. His whole manner advised the interloper to look elsewhere, fast.

     He smiled. "Hi. You must be Trent. I'm Ken Darlinger. I work for Helen."

     Daria nodded. "So, I guess there is money involved."

     Ken nodded. "It looks that way. Have you spoken to anyone who might have been a lawyer?"

     Trent laughed.

     Helen felt a sharp sense of relief when she saw the two and Ken gave her a smiling thumbs up.

     Trent cleaved a path for Daria and Helen's mind shifted back and forth between lawyer and mother mode. The lawyer wanted him as a client. The mother wanted him as landfill.

     When they arrived, the firm's lawyers closed in around them and eyed the others. It was a declaration of war.

     "Daria! Mrs. Blaine was rich!" Helen knew she'd said the wrong thing the instant the words left her mouth.

     Daria glared and opened her mouth to rake Helen.

     Trent intervened. "Easy, Daria. She didn't mean anything by it."

     Daria snorted, but calmed down. "Okay. So then why did she live in such a dump?"

     Helen shook her head. "Our information is still pretty sketchy, but it looks like one of the companies that she controlled used to own it." She turned to Trent. "You need a lawyer, Trent."

     Trent shrugged. "I can't afford to hire a lawyer. She wouldn't have left me anything anyway. I barely knew her."

     Helen smiled. "Don't bet on it, Trent. Have you got a dollar?"

     Trent nodded and fished a dollars worth of change out of his pocket. He handed it to Helen.

     Helen, without pockets and not wanting to open her case, handed the change to Ken. "This is a retainer. It means that I'm your lawyer, Trent. We'll negotiate the fee later, based on what happens in there. Now there are two rules. Don't talk to anybody about this and try not to show emotion at all. They'll be fishing." Looking back and forth between the two, Helen didn't think there'd be a problem. She just hoped that her rather provincial law firm was up to the challenge.

     The appointed time rolled around and most of the other lawyers were excluded from the reading by the executors. After scrupulous checks of identification, Daria, Trent, Helen and her little troop of lawyers filed in and took their seats.

     A man introduced himself as Bob Maple, the paid executor, a senior partner with American Trust. He slowly and carefully explained the process of probate and his role in distributing the assets as Ms. Blaine had directed. He seemed to primarily address Daria.

     Daria glanced at the lawyers, expecting to see signs of boredom. She was surprised. They appeared to be absolutely riveted.

     After a long, boring lecture, Maple finally got down to the reading of the will. After a long list of small bequests of personal property to various charities and individuals, the meat of the matter was reached.

     Later, Daria and Trent sat together, on the steps outside of his house.

     "I still just don't believe it, Daria." Trent shook his head. "Twenty million dollars? It's a totally unreal amount."

     Daria laughed. "How do you think I feel, Trent? I'm still trying to get my head around one hundred and fifty eight million dollars.

     "But why?" Trent rubbed his forehead. "You were her friend. Why me?"

     Daria shrugged. "Because you're pretty. Maybe the answer's in here."

     Daria opened an envelope that Maple had passed to her. She hesitated, blinked tears out of her eyes and then passed it on to Trent.

     Trent unfolded the letter. He cleared his throat and read the shaky handwriting inside.

     "My dear Daria," he read. "I know that I don't have long and I suppose a few explanations are in order. Daria, I came to stay in this place after a patient's grandson wrote to me complaining of abuse and neglect. As I was the majority stockholder in the parent company, I decided to see if it was true. The first week that I was here, you came to read to me. Aside from servants, few people have taken the time to actually speak with me for a very long time. I enjoyed our conversations, so I resolved to stay. It was perhaps unhealthy to live so vicariously, but you have filled an empty spot in my life. We are so alike, Daria, that it is frightening."

     Trent coughed. "Daria, I think this is kind of personal-"

     "Go on, Trent." Daria sniffled.

     Trent shrugged and continued reading. "I was an intelligent girl, like you, Daria. Like you, I excelled academically and like you, I had an unsuitable beau. Anthony was a piano player and I let my intelligence override my instinct. God forgive me, I let him go."

     Trent coughed again and glanced at Daria. A sick expression briefly flickered across his features and a little raggedly, he began again.

     "I married late in life, after I had made myself wealthy. It was all ashes. I was never lucky enough to have babies and found myself in a gilded cage with no one to love. I fear that you are inexorably following me down that dreadful path. Perhaps I am wrong, but I will do what I can to help you avoid my sorry fate. Trent, like Anthony, is a poor musician, utterly unlikely to succeed. I shall render the point moot, by making his success and yours, irrelevant. Now, barring a complete global collapse, all either of you will ever have to do in this life is to please yourselves and each other. That is my gift to you Daria, daughter. So, as I take my leave of this world, in the hope that you find the happiness that so eluded me in life, I leave you with my final words of advice. Intellect is a cold blanket. Daria, Trent, have your fun while you're young. Go see the world. Make yourselves some babies."

     Daria started crying and Trent held her close.

     "Poor Esme. It would have happened, Trent. I can just see it." Daria hiccoughed and Trent handed her a tissue.

     "Maybe." Trent held her face and looked into her eyes. "Maybe I would have gone out and made something of myself, just for you. It's no use crying about what might have been. Good or bad, this is our time. Esme saw to that."

     Daria smiled. "So... Trent. Want to run away with me, next week?"

     "Hell yes!" Trent grinned. "We can do Europe first, if you like."

     "Great!" She smiled and then let her eyes drop and linger, suggestively. "So, wanna go upstairs?"

     "I thought you'd never ask!" Happily, Trent took her hand and led her up the stairs.



The End!