In Service to a Goddess,
Book Two

Copyrightę2003 by Ed Howdershelt
ISBN 1-932693-11-4


    It takes a lot of living to form the basis for even a little bit of literature... - Ed

    If you haven't read the original ISTAG story, go back and do so. You'll need some of the background for book two.
    They begged me. They threatened and badgered me into continuing my ISTAG storyline. (Well, actually, a few dozen readers and some of the other writers have emailed to ask if there would be any more...)
    Nobody else has asked if I'm really a lesbian using a man's penname, but more than a few have asked if I'm into domination games. (No, I'm not.)
    Four of the dozen emailed comments I received from readers came from men, one of which was less than positive: "You should have found a way to become stronger than her. Men should be in control of their women."
    I told him to write his own damned story if he wasn't happy with mine.
    Everybody else who wrote in said they liked the story, so I'll go with that consensus.
    The ladies who emailed me mostly just liked the story enough to mention it, but one in particular was effusive in praise of my not being afraid to pair myself with a strong female character.
    I told her that fear had little to do with it, but didn't elaborate in email something that I believe is already evident in my writings and on my pages.
    Trust me, it isn't bravery or fear that causes me to want such women. Lots of women out there are stronger than me.
    I've met (in passing or at events) Marla Duncan, Cory Everson, two female American Gladiators, and Sable, and I wouldn't care to test against any of them for strength or general durability.
    In today's fitness-concerned society, women who are strong aren't as rare as they used to be, and in the business world, there are women who can run corporations with relative ease.
    When above-average levels of fitness and intelligence combine in women, you wind up with creatures who scare the pants (yes, a pun...) off control-freaks. That's your hint about the storyline.
    Many of the key incidents in the story have actually happened, of course. I always put that element in all my writings for realism.
    Our boat did go down some ten miles east of Sebastian Inlet (Atlantic Ocean) for reasons stated. That incident happened pretty much as written.
    Also, I did meet a lady cop during a violent drug bust, for instance, and she did have some issues to overcome, an effort in which I managed to be useful.
    And... The Dallas Morning News laughingly quoted my offer to make a suppository out of a protester's bullhorn when they wrote up the clinic incident.

Chapter One

    You know how it goes if you've been there. The passion of any new relationship will give way to familiarity once you've both explored each other thoroughly.
    After almost a year, April and I knew each other inside out. She was still my lovely goddess, but something seemed to have disappeared from our relationship.
    Our friend Sara was the first to voice the matter. She dropped in (literally) at the farm one afternoon after she and Andrea had helped some federal agency uncover and destroy a stash of nerve gas canisters that had gone bad.
    Sara was disgusted and upset by the whole affair and was pacing and chattering to blow off steam.
    "The stuff was leaking everywhere down there. I traced it all the way to the rock ledge above the water table. The stupid bastards almost waited too long."
    She paused as I handed her a coffee, then continued, "Three different bureaucrats were arguing about what to do, but all they really wanted was to cover their asses, so we made the decision for them."
    With a grin, she said, "You should have heard them bitch when we started tossing the canisters into space. All that shit is on its way to the sun, along with the bunkers and every bit of contaminated rock and soil. We sterilized the area and left them a hole almost a mile deep where their goddamn base had been."
    Sara wasn't given much to swearing. Being rather impervious to harm or discomfort gave these ladies little reason to pick up the habit, but dealing with government agencies had obviously had its effect on Sara's mood.
    "Do you believe that the sons of bitches actually wanted me to try to salvage some of that crap? One drop would kill a city, and they had tons of the stuff! I told them to screw off! I can't believe some of the nasty shit people have invented. How the hell have people survived this long?"
    Fifteen minutes of pacing and bitching later, Sara pulled up a chair at the kitchen table and said, "Sorry about the tirade. Is there any more coffee?"
    "Yes, ma'am, there is," I said, heading kitchenward, "How about you, April?"
    "I can get my own coffee," said April. Sara and I glanced at her.
    "Woo. I must be contagious today," said Sara.
    April rolled her eyes and said, "Sorry. Something on my mind." She dropped into a chair at the table and said, "Might as well bring the pot over here, Ed."
    Sara looked at April, apparently studying her for a moment, then she studied me in the same manner as I poured the coffee.
    "Did I drop by at a bad time?" she asked, "Do you guys have a problem?"
    There was silence around the table as April and I avoided having to try to say anything by sipping our coffees. Sara rapped on the tabletop.
    "C'mon, get it out on the table. I bet you just need a break from each other and don't know how to say it, right?"
    April glanced sharply at her, but said nothing. Sara turned her gaze to me.
    "Well, indeed. Maybe you could try being blunt about it?"
    That got a snicker out of April, but she continued her silence. Sara grinned.
    "Humor. Oh, that's very good. That's a fine start. Why don't you just tell sister Sara all about it, sweetie? I have a few minutes to spare."
    I looked at April. She shrugged as if to say, "I don't care. Go ahead." I took this to mean she wanted to hear my version before making her corrections to it, then realized that having that sardonic thought was a symptom of our problem. I decided to give it a shot.
    "Could be we need more than just ourselves for company these days."
    Sara waited a few moments, then asked, "Yeah, and..?"
    "I'd like to hear from April."
    April remained silent.
    Sara looked at her and again asked, "Well?"
    April slowly sat up and leaned forward. "That's about it, I think."
    "Uh-huh..." said Sara thoughtfully.
    She sipped her coffee a moment, then said, "Neither of you wants to hurt the other's feelings, but you both need some time off. Right?"
    There were a few moments of silence at the table. Sara seemed to take this as tacit agreement.
    "So, why not just do it? Take a couple of weeks or a month and see how things go? You guys have been holed up here at the farm too long anyway. The only time anybody sees either of you is when there's a job to do out in the world. It's as if you've both been on standby for a year, only coming out when necessary."
    April started to speak, but Sara held up a hand.
    "How much easier and quicker would today's job have been if we'd had you there? I mean, it wasn't an emergency or anything like that, but..." She let the sentence trail off.
    "Nobody called us," I said rather defensively.
    Sara gave me a flat stare. "We sort of got out of the habit of calling you, Ed. We always felt as if we were intruding unless it was really important."
    There wasn't much to say to that. I remembered a few times when the phone had rung at inappropriate times -- someone just calling to say hello or whatever, and probably that someone had been able to detect that I really wanted to get back to what I had been doing, which would have involved April.
    "Look at that grin," said Sara to the room in general, "He's thinking about the times he answered the phone with oily hands."
    "Me, too," said April in a soft voice. She looked across at me with a similar grin.
    I reached for her hand and stroked it lightly.
    "Damn, I'm good at this," said Sara, "Maybe I should change careers. Should I maybe wait outside a while?"
    "Oh, shut up," said April, "You're just jealous."
    "As IF!" said Sara, "I have a little something at home, too, you know."
    "Ha," said April, "Rumor has it you have three little somethings at home. If you aren't careful you could get a reputation of some sort."
    "Got it already," said Sara, grinning widely, "Earned it fair and square."
    "Jeezus," I said, "I'd love to read the walls in the women's room at the lab."
    "If you're real nice to me I'll show you sometime," said Sara.
    I was about to say something in return when I realized her tone of voice hadn't been so much jovial as matter-of-fact. She was gazing quietly at me across the table.
    I looked over at April. She had an eyebrow arched and was concentrating on unnecessarily stirring her coffee.
    "Maybe it's time," said April, "For both of us, I mean."
    I waited for the rest of the comment. April looked up at me.
    "Ed, remember when I told you about having other friends, and you said you could handle it? When you said that monogamy didn't apply to us?"
    I nodded. "Sure do. I also know that you've neglected to mention a number of sleepovers with Sara and Andrea. Why didn't you just bring them home?"
    April was actually startled. "How the hell did you know?"
    Sara chuckled as she said, "Wasn't me. I didn't tell him."
    I shrugged and said, "C'mon, April. You told me about your super-libidos, and your own mixed preferences in bed. You ladies don't all smell the same, but," I turned to Sara, "On April's skin, you each taste just as good as you smell in person."
    April just continued looking startled.
    Sara laughed and said, "Why, thank you, sir. I'm glad you like my residual flavor."
    I smiled back at her and poured more coffee around.
    "Let's change the subject for a while," said April, "I hear you're going to the State Fair this weekend. With John or Steve?"
    "Steve," said Sara, "He loves rollercoasters."
    "It doesn't sound as if you do," I said.
    "Not really. They're based on scaring the rider. I don't scare very easily."
    "Um. I can see how that might lessen the experience for you."
    I had a mental picture of Sara doing her nails while everybody else was screaming.
    "It's the same for me with most movies," said April. "I just can't relate to most of them. They usually depend on the audience sharing a sense of danger, and I haven't found a way to do that yet. I get bored."
    "Uh-huh..." I said, sipping some coffee. "Can't relate, huh? Hey, I have an idea. Are you ladies game for some experimental entertainment?"
    "Probably," said Sara with a quick grin, "What do you have in mind?"
    April just looked at me as she sat back in her chair and shrugged again.
    "Gimme a minute," I said.
    I gathered my thoughts in silence for a few moments, then asked them to join hands around the table. As soon as I felt we had a connection going, I began feeding memories to them.
    "Once upon a time..." I said with a grin, "Specifically, a Sunday afternoon in mid-1980, I went boating with a friend and his girlfriend in his new cabin cruiser. After most of a day on the water, we started back about an hour before dark. We were about 10 miles out from Sebastian Inlet, running fast on calm water, when we hit something that almost brought the boat to a halt. Linda, my date, and I had been lying on some mats on the lower deck. We were suddenly sliding forward on the wet deck and slammed hard against the rear wall of the wheelhouse."

    There had been a loud "BAM!" sort of noise and a grunging sound for a few seconds, mingled with shouts and screams. Then there was nothing but the lapping of the waves on the hull.
    Linda was gripping her left arm in pain, but it didn't appear broken. The feel of the boat was all wrong as I scrambled to the hatchway to have a look below.
    I expected to see water, maybe, and a hole. Instead, when I loosened the latch, the door burst outward and the soggy, broken roots of a tree sprang up and out through the doorway.
    I heard a thumping above me and saw David stagger away from the wheel. When he reached the edge of the platform, he just toppled over the rail onto the lower deck and lay there with his right leg twisted under him.
    Linda screamed and scooted across the few feet to David. I swung over the rail and landed nearby. He was still breathing, but you could see the imprint of the wheel on his chest. He'd been wearing a life jacket, but hadn't tied it shut. There was no sign of his girlfriend, Barbara, on deck or in the water.
    David was out cold. I left Linda to watch him and had another look below decks. Water was now lapping on the steps below the impassable hatchway, but the boat didn't seem to be sinking with any speed. Actually, it didn't seem to be sinking at all for the moment. I peered into the darkness beyond the roots and called Barbara's name a few times, but there was no response.
    I clambered to the front of the boat for a look at the damage. About twenty feet of pine tree extended from the bow of the boat. That meant that another twenty feet or so had punched through the boat to come to rest against the ladder and doorway.
    I didn't want to think that Barbara had been in the path of such a battering ram. Leaning far over the bow, I could see along the trunk into the boat. Again I called Barbara, and again there was no response.
    No lights on the radio dial. No power. Night was closing in on us. With no idea how long things would hold together, I decided to inflate the six-man life raft and move David and Linda onto it with whatever else I could find that seemed useful.
    The orange plastic oars looked like toys, but once the two parts were screwed together, they seemed fairly sturdy. Linda took them and tied them onto the oarlocks on the raft.
    There were two flashlights and some hand-held flares in the locker-seat, as well as an ax, a first-aid kit, a couple of rolls of parachute cord, a ski-rope, and a roll of garbage bags. I tossed all but the ax into the raft and checked the two big coolers we'd brought aboard.
    One cooler held several two-liter bottles of soft drinks and the other contained what was left of a case of beer. Both were half-full of icewater slush, but they'd float. I tied the handles together at both ends and tossed the rope to Linda, who tied them to the raft.
    I heard clanking at the hatchway. A few cans of starter-spray and WD-40 floated among the roots. Nearby floated a 1-gallon plastic gas can, apparently half full. I weaseled them through the roots without knowing quite why. Maybe because they were floating, and floatation seemed important just then? I tossed them to Linda, who seemed to be wondering what they'd be good for as she put them in one of the trash bags with the other loose stuff.
    The boat shifted backward and sideways, and the mass of roots at the doorway seemed first to jam forward, then to withdraw into the darkness. One of the broken roots was waving sideways as if to beckon me inside.
    Oh, yeah, I thought, always room for one more... Spooky. I did take the opportunity to look around in there again, but Barbara was nowhere in sight.
    The boat shifted again. The ax clattered along the deck to the rail, which was being topped by each passing wave. If not for the scuppers, the boat would have been swamped. I judged it time to get aboard the raft and cut it loose from the boat. Tossing everything but the ax to Linda, I was preparing to cut and jump across the slight gap when we heard a scream.
    It was one of those loud, long screams like you hear in the movies, and it came from below deck. Linda looked at the badly listing boat, the nearly-submerged doorway, then at David, and then at me.
    "You couldn't get to her, Ed. I saw you trying."
    "You saw me looking for her. I didn't see her in there."
    Her face hardened. The rear of the boat sagged a bit lower, then it rolled a few more degrees as it lost its grip on the tree. I could no longer see roots through the doorway.
    Barbara screamed again. I took one more look at Linda in the near-darkness and chopped through the rope holding the raft. Linda quickly reached behind her and tossed me an extra lifejacket.
    "For Barbara," she said, "And you'd better hurry."
    The deck was now at almost 30 degrees of tilt and everything was wet and slick. I used the ax to hook the wheelhouse ladder and pull myself up. Another scream.
    Since the right-hand side of the boat was under water, I reasoned, Barbara had to be in the bathroom on the left side. The roots had retreated somewhat, but I had no desire to go in there. Wave action was making them batter up and down, but didn't seem to be pushing them forward. I leaned far over to grasp the door handle. It wouldn't turn.
    "Barbara! Unlock the door!"
    "Ed! Ed! Get me out of heeerrre!"
    "Unlock the damned door!"
    "I can't! I've already tried! I think my leg is broken!"
    'Oh, shit,' I thought, watching the roots slam erratically against the ceiling a couple of feet away.
    The boat sagged some more and the roots jammed solidly against the ceiling. Good news, bad news. No more banging roots, but we wouldn't be hanging on this stick much longer.
    I stepped off the ladder and dropped into the chest-deep water in front of the door.
    The boat's new angle had put more than half the bathroom door under water, too. It was probably getting pretty nasty in there. I tried to brace myself and swung the ax at the wood above the lock.
    Bad position and weak swings, but three hits above and below the lock let me knock it completely out. I hooked the axhead in the hole and pried the door open.
    As if to let me know I should hurry faster, the boat shifted downward again. The roots were nearing the forward opening.
    I let go of the ax and shouldered the door upward and open. By the dim light from the porthole, I could see that Barbara was sitting on the side of the small sink, wide-eyed and shaking.
    No time to be polite. I grabbed her hand and yanked her down, then pulled her through the opening. This time her scream was one of pain. No time for that, either.
    The hatchway to the outside world was almost completely under water. I wrapped the lifejacket around her, tied it shut quickly, and pointed at the hatchway.
    "Through there," I said, "Find the raft."
    I shoved her at the hatchway. She was halfway through when the boat shifted again. I saw the door frame hit the backs of her legs, but she made it through.
    I bounced up to grab a couple of breaths of what little air was left inside the boat and tried to follow her.
    This time the boat twisted as it dropped. The hatchway was no longer in front of me and I collided with the same door I'd chopped open.
    The boat seemed to be hanging by its nose, turning around me. I could hear grunging noises again as I looked up. The jagged edges of the hole in the front of the boat were hung up on the root ball, but I could hear them crunching and snapping from the strain.
    I imagined the tree standing almost upright in the water from the weight of the boat as I lunged upward and grabbed some roots. I wondered if the boat would let go before I ran out of air.
    With another small twist and a rush of bubbles, whatever little buoyancy had remained in the boat left it. I heard the bow of the boat splintering above me before the ragged fiberglass and foam edges of the hole rushed past me at frightening speed.
    I cringed away from them far too late to have done any good, but they missed me. The tree nearly yanked itself out of my grasp as it flopped back down in the water.
    When I cleared my eyes and looked down, the boat was gone. A few bubbles floated up around me.
    I heard splashing and screaming in the darkness to my left, so I called out.
    "Linda! Barbara! Where are you?"
    I heard hysterical laughter and someone squealing my name, then a light appeared maybe fifty feet away. I hung on the roots to catch my breath and calm down a bit. There were more splashes and another scream. The light bounced around a bit and disappeared for a moment, then reappeared.
    "What the hell's going on over there?" I called. "Hold that light steady!"
    Linda yelled, "Barbara's here! She can't get in the raft! I think her leg is broken!"
    "Just wait till I get there and I'll boost her in! Hold that light steady!"
    "Okay! Where are you?"
    "I'm still at the tree! Keep the tree lit up and I'll find you!"
    Linda swept the darkness with the flashlight's beam until she found the tree, then me. I waved, of course, and I'm sure she waved back, not realizing that I couldn't see her do it. You think of odd things at times like those. I started swimming.
    I was about halfway to the raft when something brushed past my legs, swimming in the same direction. It was easily as big as me.
    My first thought was SHARK! and a little voice in my head screamed in primeval terror at the prospect of being ripped apart, but there was nothing to do but keep swimming.
    Something bumped my sneakered foot and slid itself along my legs. If it wasn't the same one, it was just as big. Terror shot through me and I glanced to see how much farther it was to the raft.
    TOO goddamn far! screamed that little voice, GO! GO!
    I kept swimming, maybe a little faster than before, and trying to will myself to be invisible. My stroking hand struck solid flesh ahead of me. I had to stop to let it go by, and it took almost two full seconds to pass.
    Big damned fish!
    That's when I realized that something wasn't right. Sharks aren't soft and smooth. I sensed one of the shapes passing by on my right, so I reached to touch it. Soft and smooth again. It scooted from under my hand and made a loud exhaling noise a couple of feet away. The light breeze carried a mist to my face.
    Dolphins! jabbered the hysterically relieved little voice, Porpoises! Things that don't eat people!
    Happiness doesn't cover my feelings of that moment.
    "Ed? Where are you?" called Linda. She sounded very worried.
    "I'm here. Hold the light steady. I've got some company."
    Linda found me with the light, and I guess she saw somebody's dorsal fin.
    She screamed, "SHARKS! Get out of there!"
    About the same time, Barbara screamed and began thrashing to try to get into the raft. She also let out a stream of incoherent words that ended in "SHARK!"
    "NO!" I shouted, "NO! NOT SHARKS! Dolphins!"
    I started swimming again, hoping Linda wouldn't bash one with that big-assed flashlight.
    I finally reached the raft and hung on the side-ropes next to Barbara. She was trying to look in all directions at once and made little keening noises every time one of the fins passed by us.
    She startled mightily when a nearby porpoise exhaled in a blast. I put a hand to her face and held her for a moment to get her attention.
    "They're dolphins, Barb. I'll help you get in the raft. DON'T hurry and be careful of the leg."
    She nodded. Linda pushed David to one side, then got a grip on Barbara's jacket straps. I put a hand under her fanny and we all heaved at once.
    When Barbara's hips were up on the raft edge, she rolled on her back to ease her legs in. Her left shin bent slightly and I heard her contained scream, but she finished hauling herself into the raft and made an effort to get settled.
    I'd hung an arm over the raft-edge, resting and waiting for Barbara to find a least-hurtful position. I'm not saying I had become truly comfortable with things, but suddenly I realized something was different.
    The dolphins weren't blowing all around us as they had been. That bothered me greatly. I wanted OUT of the black water and into the raft, as fast as possible.
    "Linda," I said urgently, "Let's get me aboard. Something's wrong out here."
    She grabbed my shirt and pulled me up as I clambered aboard. I checked Barbara's leg and David's head. His skull seemed unbroken, but he was still unconscious. There was nothing to do about David but keep his face out of the water in the bottom of the raft.
    Barbara hitched herself around a bit to lean back in the front of the raft and was painfully reminded that her leg was broken. Linda leaned forward to try to help, but all that did was create a dent in the bottom of the raft, which caused Barbara's leg to move again.
    I looked around for something to use as a splint. The only suitable objects were the two-piece oars.
    Each assembled oar was about five feet long. I unscrewed them to use the top parts to try to immobilize Barbara's leg, winding some of the ski rope around the whole affair to hold it. The paddle-pieces remained tied to the boat.
    Barbara was looking at me strangely. Her voice was almost accusatory.
    "You were still in the boat when it went down, Ed. The boat's gone. You can't be here."
    "Very logical, Barbara, but ghosts aren't afraid of sharks, are they?"
    I told them about my escape. Barbara still seemed somewhat dubious.
    What looked like a small plastic hat was tied by about a yard of cord to a special fitting on the inside of the boat. I didn't untie it, I just began using it to scoop water out of the raft.
    Linda was panning the flashlight around, looking for the dolphins. She thought she saw one near where my scooped water was landing and aimed the light at it.
    As it swam near the raft and snap-rolled like a fighter jet to cruise away again, we realized it wasn't a dolphin. The face was all wrong. It had a sharp nose, an open gash for a mouth, and way too many triangular teeth.
    I immediately decided to stop bailing for a while and looked at Linda. She seemed frozen, the light still shining into the water where we'd seen the shark and her eyes locked onto the spot.
    I reached for the flashlight, tilting it skyward and taking it from her shaking hands, but I didn't turn it off. She turned to face me, but said nothing. She was absolutely terrified.
    "No more lighting up the water," I said, "No more bailing for now, either, I guess. We don't need that kind of attention."
    Linda nodded slowly. I noticed Barbara staring at us.
    "Just a little shark," I said, "It swam away, though."
    "It wasn't little," said Linda in a small voice.
    "Well, no shark is really little, but that one wasn't big enough to worry about. It was only a few feet long. If we stay cool it'll go away."
    Truth: I didn't know if it would go away or not, but it sounded good enough. What I didn't say was that one shark probably wasn't enough to make dolphins leave an area. I'd seen them attack sharks on TV.
    "Okay," said Linda, "Okay. Let's take a minute to think, here. What happened to the boat and what do we do now?"
    "We hit a tree," I said, "Endwise, at about 30 miles an hour. Now we wait."
    "A tree? A tree?" Barbara was incredulous. "We hit a goddamned tree in the middle of the Atlantic ocean?"
    "I saw it," said Linda, "I think it was a pine tree once."
    "Floating around out here didn't change it," I said, "It was still a pine tree. A good-sized one, too."
    "So where is it now?" asked Barbara, "We don't need to run into it twice."
    "Good thinking," I said, "Let's have a look."
    I shined the flashlight around us, being careful not to let it shine in or on the water too near the raft. We located the tree some distance to the left. It seemed farther away than I remembered, and I said as much.
    "Good," said Barbara, "Maybe we're drifting faster than it is."
    "At least it's not where it can hit us," said Linda.
    "I just didn't want us running into any of the branches or roots," said Barbara, "They could put a hole in the raft."
    "They could put a hole in us, too," said Linda, "What if it gets closer?"
    "Then we look for a clean area along the trunk," I said, "We can paddle over to it and tie on there with the coolers between us and it. At least we'll know where it is all the time."
    "Shit!" Barbara was agitated. "How did it get out here? What if there are more? How long until somebody finds us? We can't just sit here!"
    Linda put a hand on Barbara's arm.
    "Yes, we can just sit here. It's all we can do, Barb. Don't worry. Someone will find us tomorrow. People knew we were going. They'll know something's wrong when we don't show up for work."
    It sounded good, anyway. But I was on vacation. David ran his own company and might or might not appear at the offices on any given day. Barbara lived and worked with David. Linda managed a restaurant, so she was the only one of us who should definitely be missed at work. I voiced my thoughts.
    "Damn," said Linda. "Damn, damn, damn."
    "What's the matter?" asked Barbara.
    "I asked for Monday off," said Linda, "Because I worked last Saturday. Nobody will miss me until Tuesday."
    The proverbial "deafening silence" settled over the raft for a few moments.
    About this time Sara released my hand and April's and leaned back in her chair. She stretched, sweeping her hair back with both hands, then reached for her coffee. April's hand stopped her motion.
    "You're trembling," said April.
    "Well, thanks for pointing it out to the world," snapped Sara.
    There was a moment of quiet at the table, then, "Sorry, April. You're more used to him than I am, I guess. Does he do this sort of thing often?"
    April grinned at her. "Often enough."
    Sara grinned back, then looked at me.
    "We've rescued people so often," she said, "But rarely with much thought about what they'd gone through before we arrived. The situation at hand is the one we deal with. We see suffering, and we feel for those suffering, but we really can't comprehend the depth of it because we don't share their vulnerability."
    April hesitated, then concurred.
    "No, we don't. We don't drown, burn, or crush very easily. We try to fix a situation, but that's about all there is to it most times. How someone got in a situation is unimportant. The job is to get them out of it."
    I asked, "Doesn't knowing what led up to a situation help you solve it? I meant it when I called this 'entertainment'. Just like a movie, but one that feeds you the emotions of the events as well as the story."
    "I don't think knowing how someone got there will help much in getting them out of a situation," said April, "And I didn't enjoy your feelings when the boat finally sank around you or when the shark appeared."
    "Well, I did," said Sara, "It was a rush. I felt so charged!"
    "Terror does that," I said, "And you can get hooked on it. Ever wonder why people jump out of planes, race cars, or do other dangerous things for fun?"
    "I used to," said Sara, "Is that rush the reason you soldiered so long?"
    "Partly," I said, "I was bored spitless as a civilian. In anyone's military, I was paid to be there. Out here, you need money to afford thrilling hobbies. Are you ready to hear the rest of the story about our shipwreck?"
    "Sure!" said Sara, reaching across the table.
    "No," said April, rising and heading for the kitchen, "I don't like what I felt. It made me nauseous, and I don't like that feeling. Go ahead without me."
    Sara was staring at April, mouth open in startlement. She turned to look at me. I gave her a "whatthehelldoIknow?" shrug. I didn't hear anything happening in the kitchen, so it appeared that April was just in there to be away from us.
    After a moment, Sara folded her arms and said, "Well, maybe later, Ed."
    "Sure. Later. There isn't much to tell, anyway," I said, "We were picked up the next day by a fishing boat. Everybody made it back to shore."
    Suddenly April came out of the kitchen. She was glaring at us, hands on hips.
    "Oh, hey, now! Don't let me stop your fun together, kids! In fact, why don't I just dash out and see if anybody needs a rescue somewhere in the world? Maybe they won't mind that I just don't give a fat damn how they got there."
    She then spun and marched out the front door. I made to rise and follow, mostly to ask April what the hell was wrong with her. Sara stopped me.
    "She needs some time to herself. You couldn't catch up with her anyway."
    "Time for what?" I snapped, "What the hell was that about? Can't she just tell me what's bothering her?"
    "It won't help to get angry. She'll talk when she can. In the meantime, why don't you consider what she said before she left?"
    "You mean about not giving a damn how they got there? I agree; I don't think people being rescued care what the rescuer is thinking."
    "You'd probably be right ninety percent of the time, too," said Sara, heading for the kitchen, "But that isn't what I meant. Want a beer?"
    She tossed a cold one to me without waiting for an answer.
    "Take a deep breath, Ed. Clear your head. It's my turn to tell a story."
    Sara opened her beer and took a long drink. I was going to do the same, but those ladies don't do anything that isn't worth watching. They're all so beautiful that their simplest motions can become fascinating.
    She caught me watching from the corner of her eye and smiled. She took another drink, playing with the moment. I finally opened my own beer and took a sip.
    Sara said, "April has never stayed with anyone as long as she has with you. She told me once that her feelings for you surprised her. The fact is, her feelings for you surprised all of us. We expected a few months, maybe, but not a whole year."
    "Wonderful. Who do you think will win the pool?"
    Sara chuckled. "Nope. No pool, no prize money. Just a bunch of surprised friends."
    "You're telling me you think she's ready to move on?"
    Sara sipped her beer again. "Could be. Are you ready for that?"
    I thought about it.
    "The signs have been there, haven't they? We've been pretty frustrated with each other lately."
    "Noticeably so, when you've been out where anyone could notice."
    "So why has she stayed this long? I knew she was seeing you and Andrea, but I expected that from day one. I only wondered why she never mentioned it. I figured she didn't want to hurt my feelings."
    "You got it," said Sara, finishing her beer. "She heard what you said early on about being able to adapt to our rather open lifestyles, but I think she didn't really believe you could handle it. I'm going to have another. Want one?"
    "Sure," I said, plunking myself on the couch and putting my feet up on the coffee table. I watched Sara stride to the kitchen. Great legs, just like the others. Also great hair, great bod, and beautiful, just like the others. The phrase 'Just Like The Others' began to take on some extra meaning for some reason.
    Sara returned with the beer instead of throwing it this time. She strode over to hand it to me, then opened her own beer. It spewed and foamed, and she hurriedly covered the bottletop with her mouth to contain it.
    There was beer dribbling down her cheeks, her throat, and her breasts. Some of it even made it to her legs. I watched a few droplets trickle down her thighs.
    When I looked up, she giggled and said, "Oops..."
    I opened my own beer carefully, but it just gave the usual hiss as the top came off. I sipped it thoughtfully and took a long look at Sara.
    Her expression changed from one of feigned embarrassment to a cool gaze as she returned my appraising look.
    "You didn't just happen to drop by, did you, Sara?"
    "No." She sipped her beer.
    "April set this up with you, right?"
    "And whether you were just taking advantage of a situation because you wanted me for yourself or were in collusion with April to change our relationship, you'd have given me the same answers just now, correct?"
    Sara laughed, almost snorting her beer.
    "You could think yourself into a corner, Ed."
    I laughed with her briefly, then said, "Drink up and run along, Sara. I have to pack a few things and make some calls."
    "What?" she seemed incredulous at this turn of events as she followed me into the bedroom. "What the hell are you talking about, Ed? Look, if you don't want me, that's fine, but you can't just leave without saying a word to April!"
    I dampened a towel in the bathroom and tossed it to her. She began wiping the beer off.
    "Wasn't going to sneak out, ma'am. And I do want you, Sara. That should be obvious."
    She glanced downward, then back at my face.
    "Then what's the problem?"
    Sighing, I said, "Sara, I used to have a big pile of principles. One by one over the years I've tested them the way Romans used to test their new swords. You know how they did that?"
    "The biggest Roman available would slam the sword on a log. If it didn't break, they bought it. That's how I've tested my principles, ma'am. I don't think I have any left that don't work. One of them is being able to tell it like it is or hear it like it is. Straightforward and outright, whenever possible."
    "Nobody's maligning your principles, Ed. We just..."
    I interrupted her.
    "April can't tell me straight out that she needs more? You and she had to set up a little charade tonight? Nobody seems to have any faith that I ever knew what I was getting into, and that bugs me, Sara. The only things I know for sure at the moment are that things have gone sour, that April and I seem to need a break from each other, and that nobody seems to grant me any credit for having common sense."
    I finished the beer and set the bottle down a little too firmly. The bedside table collapsed, taking the lamp and phone to the floor with it. I reached to place the receiver back on the hook and straighten the lamp. The table and bottle I took to the kitchen trash. When I came back, Sara was sitting on the bed.
    "So now you're pissed off and you're going to leave?" she asked, "Instead of maybe trying to fit in with our, um.., extended arrangements?"
    I laughed. "That's an excellent way of putting it, Sara. Maybe later I'll try to fit in. Right now April needs some time without me. Actually, I was going to go bunk in lab four until I can get back in touch with Solutions. They always need experienced personnel."
    I put my suitcase on the bed.
    "I thought you'd had enough of being a mercenary."
    "Yeah, well, I thought so, too, once, but I'm not the same guy I was when I retired two years ago and it's something I've always done well."
    "Bullshit. It's all you've ever done and you don't know anything else."
    "Maybe. So what?"
    "So why not learn something else? You don't have to go back to a damned war zone, do you? Haven't you ever wanted to do something else?"
    I stopped pacing and looked at her.
    "You're absolutely right, Sara. Now, like never before, I'm qualified to do something I dreamed of as a kid."
    "What's that?"
    I put the suitcase back and sat next to her.
    "Space, Sara. When I was a kid I'd read anything I could find about it, science or science fiction."
    Sara just stared at me as she asked, "What am I missing here? April or I could take you to space. You might even be able to get there on your own, from what I've heard. What the hell are you thinking, Ed?"
    "NASA." I let the one word say everything.
    Sara gave me a "get your head out of your ass" look.
    "What's the problem?" I asked. "I can learn the math and whatever else, and I'm certainly durable enough since my enhancement."
    "You're serious, aren't you?"
    "Show me where I'm wrong, ma'am."
    "Oh, well, hell, you may be right in thinking you could get in, but why would you want to? Like I said, just ask one of us. You don't need NASA."
    "How do I put this? A ride to the moon with you or April would be fun, Sara. Exciting, even, the first few times out. But that wouldn't be exploration. It wouldn't be the having-your-ass-on-the-line thing that being an astronaut is all about."
    "I'm going to get another beer," said Sara, "And wait for you to make some sense. You remember the shuttle explosion in eighty-six?"
    "Yeah, I remember."
    "An enhancee would walk away from something like that, Ed. If it's danger you're looking for, you'll have to look a little farther than NASA."
    "A good point, but not a win, Sara. There's more to it than that."
    "There better be," she said, stopping to face me in the kitchen archway, "Otherwise you're going to be very disappointed."

Chapter Two

    I followed Sara out of the bedroom. She tossed me another beer as I passed the kitchen alcove. I kept going, out the front door and down to the path that led to the pond.
    Moonlight lent everything a silvery sheen, particularly the water's surface. Sara caught up to me quickly. I glanced at her as she joined me.
    "Damn, lady, you sure look wonderful by moonlight."
    "Probably just the uniform," she said, smiling.
    I looked again. "In this light it's barely noticeable."
    "Yeah, I know." Now she was grinning at me. "Where are we going?"
    "Well, I thought I'd take a walk around the pond."
    "To get away from me?"
    "No, not particularly. Just to think."
    "You sure it wasn't to get away from me?"
    Shrugging, I said, "Yeah, I'm sure."
    She stepped in front of me and blocked the path, hands on hips. "Positive?"
    Looking her over from head to toe as she expected of me, I said, "If you ask again, it will be."
    I walked around her. Sara caught up again and we walked in silence for a bit. Moonlight has always fascinated me. Maybe it's the way it coats everything.
    Abruptly, she asked, "How come you don't want me, Ed?"
    I glanced at her silvery form.
    "I want you. That isn't the point."
    April's voice came from above. I was startled. Sara wasn't.
    "Then take her," said April. "She's wanted you since the beginning."
    April landed a few feet away and stepped toward us.
    I searched her words and tone for accusation. There didn't seem to be any.
    Nonetheless, I said, "And since the beginning, you never mentioned it."
    "I thought it was pretty obvious."
    "I didn't need obvious. I needed to know you'd be okay with it."
    I finished my beer and looked for the trash can next to the barn. About a hundred yards, give or take. My toss missed the can by a foot or so, tumbling in the grass. Probably just as well. The trash can was fairly new.
    "Well, now you know," said April. "Why didn't you ask?"
    "Why didn't you suggest it? You're the one who seems to have needed a bit more."
    Sara interrupted us. "Just hold on a minute, please. I'm still here, you know, and since I'm part of the discussion, I have something to say."
    April and I looked at her.
    "Go ahead," said April.
    Sara took a breath, then said, "When Ed showed up a year ago, your world shrank to just the two of you for six months, April. You couldn't or wouldn't call it love, but there wasn't any other name for it. When you showed up one night, I thought the heat had passed; that maybe things would be normal for us again, with or without Ed."
    She hesitated a moment before going on, "But they weren't, were they? You were afraid he'd find out. That he really wouldn't be able to deal with it. You even asked me not to tell him, and later you even let me think he wasn't interested in joining us. You've been keeping him away from the rest of us, so he wasn't likely to find out from anyone else."
    Sara held up her hand to stave off April's interruption. "Oh, yes, you were. I don't know if you thought you were trying to protect his feelings or just keep him for yourself, but none of us has seen him more than three times in the last year, and there's never been time to really visit, for a number of reasons."
    Sara turned to me. "Tell me, Ed... Do you even know where the rest of us live? Do you know our names, or how to reach us?"
    I shrugged. "I know how to reach lab two and lab four. They know how to reach everybody else. I didn't need to know, Sara. I had other concerns."
    "Other concerns..? You weren't even curious about us?"
    "Sorry, ma'am. Super or not, you were all just other people to me, and I didn't feel driven to find extra company."
    Sara just stared at me for a moment, then switched her gaze to April. Her voice became unsteady as she spoke.
    "I should have guessed. You didn't keep him from contacting us. You couldn't have, if he'd really wanted to. You just allowed it to be inconvenient and unnecessary until now, when it finally suits your need for freedom. What do you think of that, Ed?"
    Before I could answer, April stepped forward. Sara saw April's hand coming, but made no move to avoid it.
    The slap never landed. April stood shaking with rage, or perhaps some other emotion, or perhaps many emotions, her hand only a few inches from Sara's face.
    I saw tears on both their faces. For a long moment, the falling tears were all that moved in that moonlit tableau.
    I stepped forward, putting an arm around each.     "Whatever you're thinking of doing or saying next, DON'T," I said, "Just calm down and walk with me, please." They both looked at me as I took their elbows and led them on. "That's right, just walk. Don't talk."
    We walked together for some distance around the pond. When the tears had dried and the snuffling had stopped, I ventured an opinion.
    "You ladies had something together before I arrived. Looks to me as if you still have something together, otherwise you couldn't possibly hurt each other as you have this evening. Especially over something as trivial as a man."
    That statement earned me some giggles from each of them. I decided to press my luck and continued, "Ha. Gotcha. Anyway, I was about to say that I think we've all approached this problem from the wrong perspectives, and I was wondering if maybe all we really needed was a chance to start this evening over. Maybe it was the tears, but all of a sudden I need something from both of you."
    I paused to think of the best words to use and settled for, "I think I need for things to be more like the way they were when I met you."
    "No, you don't," said Sara. She chuckled.
    "Why not?" I asked, knowing the answer.
    "Because there wouldn't be a man involved. You wouldn't be an issue."
    "Yeah, I gathered that. Don't care. I've had my time without knowing the effects. Now that I do know, I'll stand aside before I hurt anyone further."
    "It isn't your fault, Ed," said April.
    "I know. I just said that. Fault doesn't matter, anyway. Done is done."
    "We can't just forget the past year," said Sara.
    "Remember it, then. Use it to forestall such things in the future, just as you would other experiences. Most things are either burdens or tools, depending mostly on how you carry and use them. This can be a shared experience or a wedge between you. I vote for the shared experience."
    I leaned forward and softly kissed first April, then Sara.
    "Alphabetical order, of course," I said, "Goodnight, ladies. Work it out."
    We were almost halfway around the perimeter of the pond. I chose the shortcut and began "walking" across the pond as I used to do when practicing for control of my limited flight capabilities.
    A few strides out and too late, I realized this must have appeared to be the height of ego on display and paused in mid-stride. When I looked back, they were laughing.
    "Don't worry," said April, "We know who you aren't."
    I shrugged, waved, and kept walking. About halfway across, I looked back again. They were gone. A flurry in the water made me yank my feet up. I watched a snake swim rapidly away, causing other flurries in the water.
    I wasn't worried about the ladies. The whole thing would have eventually sorted itself out, anyway. There were only a few of them on Earth and the number of enhancees was only slightly larger. Sooner or later any rifts would heal on their own.
    If I moved into lab four, I'd be put on a payroll and given something useful to do. I'd also be bumping into one or more goddess-blonde superwomen at least once a day, and probably three or more enhancees, most of whom were female. My immediate future presented no logistical problems.
    The moon was almost straight above, glowing brightly, and I remembered what Sara had said, "You might even be able to get there by yourself."
    It wasn't the first time I'd considered the trip, but just getting there would take me six days at my best accumulated speed. The whole first three days would be constant acceleration and last three days would be spent decelerating. Repeat the process to return. Two weeks of solid boredom, just to reach the nearest rock in space, plus any time on the surface.
    I could build some sort of personal craft, with solar-powered radio & TV and some books. Without re-entry concerns, it would last indefinitely, but my interest probably wouldn't.
    A longish voyage had to have some meaning or at least some distractions along the way. Old Route 66 had more interesting scenery than a continuous view of space.
    Oh, yeah, the first day or two would be full of new sights and wonder. Earth, turning slowly beneath your feet, the stars all around, the moon ahead.
    A grand adventure, etc.., for a little while. Then what? Bo-ring. Hell, no. It wasn't the destination as much as the trip itself. It had to include a shared experience, something to make it an adventure.
    I picked up my beer bottle and trashed it on the way in, this time making the shot at the trash can from maybe 30 feet. The clock over the hallway said it wasn't even 9:pm yet, so I took a quick shower and dressed for a visit to Dallas. I needed some music and chatter and a few games of pool.
    The note I left on the fridge said, "Dear Auntie Em; Kansas sucks. I'm going to the big city to become a pool hustler and I'm taking the dog in case I run out of sandwiches. Love, Dorothy."
    Fresh beer in hand, I then lifted off in the general direction of Dallas and flew for a few minutes. Parking wasn't a problem. I settled on a 3rd-floor rooftop in the West End to check out the action in the streets below.
    A mix of over-dressed, under-dressed, and strangely-dressed people seemed to be wandering aimlessly from bar to bar down there. My khaki shirt, jeans, and boots would blend just fine.
    I was looking for a clear area behind the building to drop myself to the sidewalk and start mingling when I heard voices directly below.
    Looking down, I saw a guy with a knife facing a man and woman who appeared to be dressed in matching western outfits.
    I stepped off the edge of the building, lowered myself to hover directly above the guy with the knife, and let my beer bottle drop. It missed his head when he moved, but it smacked his shoulder hard enough to get his attention and splattered all over the sidewalk.
    He was swearing mightily in Spanish when he looked up. I waved down at everybody from about ten feet up, standing on air.
    "Howdy, y'all! Especially you, shithead." I pointed at the knifewielder.
    His eyeballs got big and his rattle of Spanish ended in "Madre de Dios!"
    "Idiot," I said, "She'd send your ass to hell for what you're doing tonight."
    I drifted down to stand a couple of feet from him, holding out my hand.
    "You can give me the knife and run or you can try to cut me, but if you try to cut me, I'm going to use it to carve the word "stupido" in your forehead."
    He was a kid, maybe eighteen, wearing the usual "I'm so bad" baggy-pants gang-rags that make those who wear them look like drab rodeo clowns.
    He was momentarily frozen, his little brain struggling to understand what he'd seen. I snapped my fingers to hurry his decision. He looked at my hand, then dropped the knife in it and ran.
    I closed the cheap knife, wadded it, and tossed it at him. He screeched when it hit him. Finally hit something tonight, I thought.
    I started kicking the larger bits of beer bottle into the gutter. The man and woman were staring at me.
    "Could have been worse," I said, "But I don't drink the expensive stuff."
    After a moment, the man approached me.
    "I seem to owe you a beer," he said.
    "I wasn't hinting, there, I was just cleaning up a bit."
    He laughed.
    "I know you weren't." He stuck out his hand. I took it. "Chuck," he said.
    "Ed," I said.
    "This is Doris," he said, waving his lady to join us.
    I shook her hand, too. Her grip was casually stronger than his.
    They were in their thirties, both about five-ten, brunette, and dressed identically in jeans and western-style shirts. While they seemed comfortable together, they didn't ring quite right in my mind. They didn't fit together, somehow.
    He had developed just enough belly to overhang his belt. What little I could see of Doris was lean and solid. She carried herself regally, like a fitness queen.
    Doris didn't seem all that happy to meet me.
    "Got a favorite place?" asked Chuck.
    "Nope. I was just going to find a place to shoot pool, kill time with a beer or two, and blow off a little steam. I've had an unusual day."
    "You make an unusual entrance, too," said Chuck, but he seemed to be trying to take my unusual entrance in stride. Doris seemed unimpressed, too.
    Neither of them asked any questions about it, so I figured they were trying to be polite. Most of the world had at least heard of superpeople, after all. We all finished the job of kicking the bits of glass into the gutter.
    "C'mon, then," he said, taking Doris' arm and leading off. I tagged along.
    The first stop was a country-style bar. Chuck bought a round and left me with Doris, saying he had some "bidness" to attend to. He was back shortly, all smiles.
    He sat down, grabbed his beer, and took Doris' hand in his. I caught a motion and saw that he was tapping on Doris' hand. At first he seemed to be keeping time with the music, but a pattern emerged. It was Morse code.
    "...back/money/twof/twor/one/five..." -- the hand stopped moving.
    I looked up, saw Chuck looking back, and I nodded to indicate the area just beyond their hands, where a woman in a miniskirt was standing. He looked, then grinned approval.
    Doris also looked, then looked back at me blankly. I didn't think she bought my redirection of attentions. The Morse code didn't continue.
    The music was too loud for easy talking, as is often the case with house bands who play too loudly, thinking it will cover their mistakes. (It doesn't, guys. It just makes the mistakes louder, too.)
    I motioned that I wanted to check out the pool table and ambled over there. There were four next-up sets of quarters. It would be an hour before I could play.
    When I glanced back, Chuck was gone again. Doris was looking at me with the same expressionless gaze as before.
    I decided it was time to move on and made my way back to the table to finish my beer and say goodbyes. I had just sat down by her when all hell broke loose.
    There were two gunshots from the back of the club. Chuck came barreling out of the back with two guys chasing him.
    A guy near the side door reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun and a guy by the front door reached behind one of the decorative hay bales. He came up with a shotgun and aimed directly at Doris and me.
    I grabbed her hair and pulled her head down past my lap as I backhand-tossed my half-full beer bottle at the front-door guy and kicked my chair away. The bottle hit his head and knocked him down, but not before he fired.
    The blast hit my arm and chest, rocking me back a bit and shredding my shirt. Doris was on her knees behind our table. She shoved me out of her way and took aim with a semi-auto pistol.
    Her first two rounds hit the guy by the side door, punching him into the street. The shotgunner was trying to get up. Doris put two rounds in him, too, laying him out, then she looked back at the guy in the street. He wasn't moving.
    It was only then that she yelled, "Chuck!"
    A number of people who must have thought the event was over must also have thought she yelled, "DUCK!"
    Heads and bodies flopped back to the floor all over the room. I looked around for Chuck and spotted him on the floor. He waved at Doris and pointed toward the back of the bar. She covered that direction as she took a small radio out of her purse and edged toward us past tables.
    There was blood everywhere around Chuck when I got to him. The two guys who had been chasing him were also down.
    One had a hole in his chest, the other seemed to have no apparent injuries until I pushed him off Chuck. His head flopped rather loosely. A broken neck.
    Chuck was bleeding from a hole just above his belt buckle, but he appeared otherwise unhurt.
    I felt behind Chuck to see if the hole went all the way through. It didn't. Grabbing some napkins and a cigarette pack off a nearby table, I pulled the clear wrapper off the pack, then stretched it over the wad of napkins and used it to seal and put pressure on Chuck's wound to slow the bleeding.
    Doris circled over to us, kicking at the bodies of the guys who had been after Chuck. No responses from either of them.
    "How's Chuck?" she asked.
    "Shot once in the gut," I said. "He'll live, I think."
    After another glance at us, she started toward the back of the building again, this time in hunting mode. Chuck took over with the napkins and pressed a revolver into my hand.
    "Cover the front," he said, struggling to breathe, "We're cops."
    Within moments some cop cars pulled up in front. As soon as uniforms came through the door, I quickly put the gun down and went back to holding the napkins.
    There was a loud boom from the back, followed by two quick bangs.
    "She got him," said Chuck, grinning again.
    He seemed very happy about it. The medics arrived and went to work on him. Chuck passed out.
    Doris came striding out of the back of the bar, gold badge held high to identify herself, and came to where Chuck was being tended by medics. She conferred with them a moment, then turned her attention to me.
    "I'll have someone take your statement," she said.
    As she turned away, I grabbed her elbow to stop her.
    "Guess what, Doris? You have the social grace of a fucking stormtrooper. Chuck's hit and I took a damned shotgun blast meant for you and all you can think to say is 'I'll have someone take your statement'. What the hell's your problem?"
    Doris glared at me, then at my hand on her arm. I guess I didn't let go fast enough to suit her. She chopped downward on my arm with her free hand.
    Until I actually felt the pain coursing up my arm, I was prepared to laugh at her feeble effort. Afterward, it was all I could do to hide my surprise and minor agony. She continued glaring at me.
    "Yeah," she said, "I'm one, too, and you're part of a police investigation."
    She called a clipboard-equipped uniform over, pointed at me, and said, "He's ready to give a statement."
    The cop looked at my shirt in amazement.
    "I think they got me," I said, "How's that for a statement?"
    He raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Looking around, he then indicated that we should go over to the bar. I waited as he set up a multi-part form.
    The bartender stood nearby.
    "How about an Ice House?" I asked.
    The bartender gave me an "up yours" grin and jangled the keys.
    "Cooler's already closed," he said.
    "So open it."
    "I don't think so."
    I looked at the cop.
    "Officer, I think he's hiding something in the cooler."
    I reached over the bar for the cooler's padlock and twisted hard, yanking the whole sliding top off the cooler.
    "Huh," I said. "Guess not." Looking at the bartender, I asked, "How about an Ice House now that you're open again?"
    "Get it yourself," he said.
    His voice wavered, but he didn't move.
    Huh. Whatever. I pulled a beer out and opened it. A couple of cops came over to investigate the noise behind the bar.
    Mine tapped his clipboard and said, "We'll investigate your suspicions, sir. Let those guys take care of it. Let's get this done, okay?"
    "Sure. Hey, barkeep, you ever hear about the mouse who gave an eagle the finger? He was real brave, just like you, but he still wound up as birdshit."
    "You don't scare me none."
    "Then you're not very bright," I said, "You think I'm a cop. I'm not, and I've had a pretty shitty evening, full of people being unpleasant."
    I gave the cop a statement of events as I remembered them. Afterward, I asked when I could leave. He said to check with the detectives.
    There was a rush of wind and all of a sudden April and Sara were coming through the front door. Everybody stared at them, but nobody tried to stop them. They strode up to me.
    "That used to be a nice shirt," said April.
    "I'm glad you used to like it," I said.
    "Are you under arrest?"
    "Only if I try to leave, I think."
    "I'll tell you when you can leave," said a voice.
    Doris approached us. She stopped to confer with another detective for a moment, then said, "Okay, it's all yours, Collins." Then she joined us.
    April asked, "How's Chuck?"
    "He was hit, but it's clean. He'll survive."
    "Bad, but still good," said April, "Glad to hear it."
    "Is this the drug ring you worked on three months ago?" asked Sara.
    "It was. The ring was disbanded tonight. This guy's one of my witnesses."
    "Bear that in mind when you give me a hard time," I said.
    With a sharp look at me, Doris said, "We'll talk later."
    "If you're into bondage, forget it," I said.
    I grabbed another beer and left them there so I could put someone's leftover quarters in the pool table.
    As I walked away, I heard Doris say, "Okay, ladies, time to go. We're busy here. We don't need spectators."
    Say what? I thought. I'd never heard anyone speak to April that way. Well, nobody who wasn't either brain damaged or stupid, anyway. As I racked the balls I listened. As I sank the balls I listened some more.
    April was saying, "... and he may be very upset, we don't know..."
    Doris said, "That sounds like a personal problem to me, ladies. This is a crime scene, not a chaplain's office, and, as I mentioned earlier, we're busy here. Beyond that, why should your personal lives mean anything to me?"
    I slammed my stick on the table and said, "They shouldn't, Doris. April. Sara. And anybody else who may be within earshot. Not a thing."
    I walked up and handed the bartender my empty beer bottle, glaring at him until he gave me another one. I thanked him on general principles.
    Turning back to April and Sara, I said, "I left you two to get yourselves organized, not to follow me around. I'm sure she called you about your wayward enhancee, but I'm not in the mood to be discussed like a stray child."
    "You," I said to Doris, "You got your statement, so do whateverthehell else you have to do and let me go. Fair's fair, lady. I thought you were in trouble, so I stopped a mugging. Tell me it wouldn't have complicated your setup here if you'd had to deal with that kid. I had no idea you were cops. I also had no idea what you were dragging me into in this damned bar."
    To everybody, I said, "I wanted out a while to do a few beers and to shoot pool and give friends time to get past something. I'm not lost, okay?"
    About halfway back to the table, I turned and said, "One more thing, people. If you're going to discuss me, have the decency to do it in another county. I could hear a mouse fart at a hundred yards before I was enhanced."
    I heard titters, then giggles, then soft laughter behind me as they envisioned a mouse breaking wind. Good. That would take the edge off all the other words without losing their intent. I finished my solo pool game.
    April and Sara left. Doris came over to the pool table and stood watching me pocket the last few balls. She wordlessly put three of the quarters in the table and pushed the plunger, then racked the balls.
    "Be gentle with me," she said, chalking her cue.
    She grinned like a cat.
    "I'll just do my usual thing," I said, breaking the rack, "You do yours."
    "Don't you worry. I will."
    I made five balls, then got a bad bounce off a side pocket and scratched.
    As I handed her the cue ball, I asked, "Why are you doing this?"
    "Doing what?" Doris asked, snapping a couple of quick, easy shots into pockets and lining up her third shot, "Playing pool? I like to play pool."
    "Not long ago you acted as if you couldn't stand me. Now you're here. Why?"
    Her third shot was good, too.
    "Good cop, bad cop," she said, "I'm in charge, so I get to be both."
    She snapped a fourth ball into a corner pocket and lined up her fifth shot.
    "How very wonderful for you," I said, "But the question stands."
    Doris shot softly to stay set up her next shot, but the ball stopped at the very edge of the pocket. I chalked up and looked over the table.
    "I don't know," said Doris, "And detectives don't like not knowing stuff."
    "Heh. Guess not. Seven, side."
    The ball fell. I aimed for the next one. I made the shot. Only the eight ball left. A long green with a bit of angle. The eight rattled around in the pocket and climbed back out again.
    "Shot too hard," I said.
    "I'd say so," said Doris, "You should have had that."
    She quickly tapped in two and lined up the last striped ball for a long walk down the rail. It went in.
    Doris turned to face me.
    "Are you up for a bet, hero?"
    "Ha," I said. "If I say no, you'll say I'm chicken. If I say yes, you'll bust me for gambling. What's the right answer, officer?"
    Doris looked rather coolly at me.
    "Say no, and I let you go right now."
    I waited. Doris leaned forward and whispered, "Say yes, and... How about the winner gets the loser? How would that suit you?"
    I sipped my beer as I looked at her.
    "You don't know me from George of the Jungle, Doris, and twenty minutes ago I had the distinct impression that you wanted me questioned, then shot. Why don't we just finish the game and call it a night?"
    "Thought so," said Doris rather quietly.
    Her demeanor had changed greatly by the time she'd stepped to within inches of my face. I looked into her eyes and saw the miles-deep resentment there.
    "What's the matter, stud? I'm not blonde enough for you? Not strong enough? Not beautiful enough? Maybe I'm just not good enough for you now that you've been with one of them?"
    I put my hand to her face and said, "You have no idea how absolutely wrong you are about me, Doris. You have your bet if you want it."
    Doris said nothing, but her eyes were welling up as she turned back to the table. She lined up for the shot, apparently taking her time.
    Suddenly there were flying shards of black and white pool balls in the air, accompanied by what sounded like a rifle shot. Most of the bigger pieces either embedded themselves in the table cushions or the opposite wall.
    Her stick had splintered and what was left of it was quickly fragmenting between her wringing hands. There were wet spots where she'd leaned over the table. I made a point of not noticing them as I went to look in the corner pocket.
    I dug the biggest pieces of the eight ball I could find out of the plastic pocket liner and tossed them on the table.
    "I guess enough of it was in. Your game, Doris."
    The bartender and a couple of other cops had dropped at the sound of her "shot" and were only now getting up, staring at her incredulously.
    Doris looked at the remaining half of her cue stick, set it self-consciously on the table, and wiped her hands on her jeans.
    She took a moment to gather herself, then turned to me and said, "Let's get out of here."
    I nodded agreement.
    Once in her car, she called in a sitrep and got one back about Chuck. She looked down at herself and said, "First things first. I need to get the hell out of this Dale Evans outfit and you need a new shirt."
    "Sounds good. Lead on, ma'am."
    Ten silent minutes later we were in the University Park area in front of an old brownstone house. She seemed tired as I followed her up the steps and into the house, but I thought the fatigue was likely more emotional than physical.
    Doris put her purse down and indicated various directions as she said, "Bathroom's down the hall on the left, kitchen's through that door. Want anything?"
    "I'm fine," I said, "But you don't seem too happy. Bet or no bet, would you rather I just drop by the office tomorrow?"
    Doris just looked at me for a long moment, then dropped herself into the armchair and rested her face in her hands.
    "You want to leave? Go. I won't stop you."
    I stood waiting in the center of the room. After a little while, she looked up.
    "Don't talk," I said, "Listen. I'll choose my words according to the meaning I wish to express or convey. Innuendo is foreign to me, Doris. I seldom choose the wrong words, I never bother saying anything I don't mean, and I resent it all to hell when other people decide my words mean something other than what they mean according to a dictionary. That includes pretty cops who are wrapped up in feeling sorry for themselves for still-obscure reasons."
    After a moment, she said, "I've made a point of knowing who the enhancees are around here. Your file said you quit school in the tenth grade, but you don't sound like a tenth-grader to me."
    "Could it be you only picked up on negatives that would feed your need to justify disliking me on sight? Based on the fact that I'm an enhancee?"
    "Selective perception? Maybe in your case, I think."
    "Do you remember reading anything positive about me in that file?"
    "I didn't have time to give it more than a glance," said Doris.
    "That's an excuse. Your emotions are filtering your perceptions."
    "It helps with the job. Cops don't meet the cream of humanity, you know."
    "Crap. It isn't helping you with anything, on or off the job. I'll bet you can count your best friends on two fingers or less."

Chapter Three

    Doris gazed flatly at me for several seconds.
    "Now I know why I brought you here," she said sarcastically, "Cheap psychiatric advice."
    "Sure seems that way, doesn't it? That thought occurred to you, not me, Doris. Where did it come from?"
    "That's my business. Stop trying to pop-psych me, Ed. I don't like it."
    "Then don't ask questions if you don't want answers."
    We glared at each other for some seconds before a large gray cat hopped up onto the coffee table and sat down. I reached to pet it and said, "Hi, there."
    "That's Barrington," said Doris, "Barry, for short."
    "Good name for this one. He looks like a Barrington."
    Barrington accepted a few moments of attention, then jumped down and parked himself in the kitchen doorway, gazing steadily at Doris.
    "He's telling me I need to check his dish."
    Doris rose to tend to it.
    I nodded and looked around a bit. The house didn't have a lived-in feeling, even though there were signs of habitation. I could almost envision a single path worn into the rug from the door to the kitchen and up to the bedroom. It felt like a place to eat, sleep, and store possessions, but not a home.
    Doris came back into the living room and sat down. She picked at her sleeve a bit and said, "I guess I don't make for sparkling company, do I?"
    "I wouldn't know about that. You haven't tried yet. Nice cat, though."
    "Yes, he is. I guess by now you're wondering why I brought you here."
    "No, not really. You'll tell me when you figure it out."
    Her eyes narrowed momentarily.
    "Was that supposed to be funny?"
    "Am I laughing? No, I'm not. If all you wanted was a one-nighter we'd probably be upstairs by now. You need someone who just wants to be with you."
    "And you're that someone? Why do I find that hard to believe?"
    "Well, I'm damned if I know, Doris, 'cause I'm here. You want to talk? We'll talk. You want to bang like bunnies? I'll be happy to oblige you in that, too."
    She again looked hard at me for a moment.
    "You like Chinese food, mister?"
    "Pepper steak. Won-ton soup. That's about all the Chinese I know."
    "There's a place down the street, and there's a shirt upstairs. C'mon."
    Upstairs, she guided me into one of the bedrooms and told me to look in the closet. The room had the feel of a guest lounge, clean and impersonal, but the closet was full of male clothing, along with a tennis racket, shoes and boots, and a number of other items.
    I picked a dark blue shirt and checked the collar size. Sixteen. It would do. The sleeves were a little too short, so I rolled them up.
    Doris came out of the other bedroom in a blouse and skirt a few minutes later.
    She said, "I set out a toothbrush and a towel for you. See you downstairs."
    I used both items and headed down. Doris was on the phone with someone frustrating.
    "Okay, let me put it this way," she said, "I don't have to be a relative because I'm DPD Detective Abrams, and I want to know - now - how my partner's doing or I'll come down there in a very bad mood just to see you."
    Barrington came over to me. I petted him and listened as I re-examined Doris. The just-above-the-knee skirt revealed a pair of nice legs. I noticed a slight motion in the hall mirror and discovered her watching me look her over. I raised my eyebrows appreciatively and nodded.
    "Nothing else? OK. Yes. Thank you." She hung up and came over to us. "You like the scenery, mister?"
    "Very nice," I said. "Those jeans covered too much."
    "You like mine as much as hers?"
    "I'll let you know that when I know yours better."
    Doris stared at me briefly, then said, "A good answer for a bad question. Sorry."
    She didn't hand me the car keys the way most women I've known would, so I couldn't unlock the car door for her. I walked around the car as she dropped herself into the driver's seat and reached to pop my door open.
    She did, however, let me get the door at the restaurant and seat her at a table.
    During dinner the conversation turned to Chuck. A quick summation: Good Guy, workaholic, no family, and doing well after surgery. I asked Doris how she came to be a cop, but when that question created an awkward silence I dropped that line of questioning.
    She asked me to tell her a bit about myself, so I did. While we traded anecdotal stuff in conversation, she never really let much escape about her past or her present. By the end of dinner, I knew little more about her than her preferences in Chinese food.
    Next door to the restaurant was an "Irish" pub. We found a booth near the back and ordered a couple of brandies. Most everybody there seemed to know Doris to one degree or other.
    Someone involved in a nearby dart game asked if we wanted in. Introductions were made, but I forgot most of the names in a few minutes, as is my usual way in casual meetings. By the end of the game it was obvious that Doris threw darts as well as she shot pool.
    "Why don't you give up being a cop and make your living as a hustler?" asked some guy on the other team.
    "Too easy," laughed Doris, "No challenge."
    I laughed with the rest of them, but believed it was probably true.
    We shot some pool, too, and this time she didn't abuse the equipment. Tied after four games, she suggested we head back to the house. I hadn't expected that. Doris had struck me as someone who needed to definitely win or lose at whatever she did. Someone else seemed surprised, too, as he approached.
    "Hey, Doris, you aren't gonna let this guy live, are you? Are you feeling all right? Should I call a doctor?"
    "I'm fine, Bill. We have a big day tomorrow. Brass and gas. See ya."
    With that, we headed for the door. Bill stood scratching his head, honestly baffled by Doris' behavior.
    In the car, she asked, "You know what brass and gas means, Ed?"
    "It's the same in the military. Gold-trimmed hats and too many speeches."
    "You got it, but that's not why we're leaving."
    "Okay, I'll ask. Why are we leaving, Doris?"
    "We're leaving because we have something better to do."
    "Ah. Okay. Should I ask what that might be?"
    "I don't know. How much warning do you need?"
    She grinned at me. I grinned back.
    "Sometimes I don't get this much warning, ma'am, but I usually seem to muddle though."
    "Oh, goody!" Doris said brightly, "I'm going to get muddled!"
    "Well, thanks, Doris. I'll probably never be able to use that word again."
    She laughed as she turned into her driveway. "Not about that, anyway."
    "You make it sound like such an unusual event."
    "For me, it is. I think it's been about a year."
    "About? Doris, most women know to the very minute how long it's been. I don't really know why they're that way, but they are. I don't need to know how long, but I would like to know why someone who looks like you hasn't availed herself."
    "Availed herself? Such a nice term for it, Ed. I like it."
    "Well, then, you may use it with my compliments. The question stands."
    "You may not like the answer."
    "I'm wearing my seat belt, Doris. I'll survive."
    Doris didn't look at me as she spoke.
    "Uh, huh. Well... Unenhanced men just won't cut it anymore, however nice they may be. Enhanced men always made me feel as if they were just sort of making do until they could get back to one of those damned blondes. They made me feel as if I'd be serviced as a second choice or a kind of condescending favor."
    "Ouch. But I'm still here. You're hoping I'll be different?"
    "Let's say I feel as if I'm taking a big chance here, but I'm taking it because you seem to be different. You haven't prattled on about how wonderful they are, for instance, and you weren't thrilled to see them earlier."
    "I wasn't. I'm not with you now because I'm pissed at them, though, and I'm really not even pissed, I guess. I just needed out of there for a while. How long a while is yet to be determined. That's about all there is to it."
    "So you don't expect to go running back to her tomorrow?"
    "I don't think so. Visiting, maybe. My stuff is still there. April will likely always be a good friend, but I think some other things have changed for us."
    "Huh. First time I've ever heard anything like that from an enhancee. Maybe I should tape this for posterity. Can I believe it? Is it possible?"
    "Well, you weren't any happier to see them tonight, were you? You're an enhancee, too, Doris. If you can look for other options, so can I."
    "Oh, wow! Now I'm an option who's gonna get muddled!"
    I reached to cup her chin in my hand and smiled at her.
    "If you keep taking cheap shots, you may be an option looking for a date. Like I told the bartender, I've had a tough day with women, and there was one particular lady cop who acted like a rottweiler when I tried to be helpful."
    "You mean the one at the bar, of course. Not this one, right?"
    "Okay. I'll behave. I think. I'll try, anyway. I think. Maybe."
    "Give it your best shot, please. I will if you will."
    "Ooohh, that sounds fair. You ready to get out of the car?"
    "I will if you will."
    "Done. On three, or just run for it?"
    "Run for it. I'll race you to the door."
    We un-assed that car and raced to the front door like kids. She beat me by inches, laughing hard at the whole thing. I grinned back at her as she fumbled to find the house key among the others.
    When Doris looked up, she was so cute with moment of happiness that I just had to kiss her. It was a nice one. It lasted a while, she tasted good, she felt wonderful, and she enjoyed it very well. Her pleasure flowed through our contact and into me as I held her.
    A part of me began to solidify between us and pressed against her thigh. Her eyes opened for a moment, then closed again as she continued our kiss.
    When the kiss finally ended, I looked at her for a moment and said, "I think I'd like to try that again. How about you?"
    "I will if you will," said Doris as she opened the door and we entered the house, then she pulled me to her.
    It took us a good ten minutes to reach the stairs, and before we reached them we were naked. Doris pulled away from a kiss and looked me over for a moment.
* * Sorry, but a few pages have been cut to placate the censors and make this preview PG-13 * *

    A good lover is someone who desires your pleasure as much as their own, if not more, and enjoys trying his or her best to draw it out of you by whatever means works best for you.
    A really good lover wants you to achieve your pinnacle. If both of you try to be good lovers by this principle, everybody wins big.
    Doris had been a long time searching for someone to help her. There was a mountain of need and pleasure dammed up within her, and I looked forward to mining it heavily.
    Doris came out of it in a few minutes and looked blankly around. When she saw me smiling at her, she blushed. I pulled her face close for a kiss.
    "Thank you," I said to her, "I loved being able to please you."
    Her blush began to fade, but now Doris looked at me as if I were more than a little strange. I let the statement stand and kissed her again.
    "I'm not used to hearing things like that from men," said Doris.
    I shrugged with my free arm.
    "Sorry 'bout that. I wanted you to know how I felt."
    "You wanted me to not be embarrassed, too."
    "Sometimes people get embarrassed when they shouldn't, Doris. A good time was had by all, you know."
    As we lounged on the carpet, Barrington apparently decided it was finally safe to investigate the unusual events that were occurring in his living room.
    He stepped carefully over arms and legs, sniffing here and there as he explored. We watched his cautious progress, laughing now and then as he carefully examined matters.
    After a while, he looked at us in a rather skeptical manner and sat down a couple of feet away.
    "I think he's trying to figure out what just happened," said Doris, laughing. "He looks as if he's waiting to see if we'll do it again."
    "Looks that way."
    She patted Barrington.
    "Maybe later, Barry. Mommy's kind of tired now."
    Doris stood, stretched, and yawned. "Damn. I wasn't kidding. I am tired now."
    I let my eyes travel from her ankles to her face.
    "You don't look tired. You look absolutely fine to me."
    I reached to run my fingers lightly down her thigh.
    "Yeah, yeah," she said, watching my hand, but not interfering with it, "But before you go any farther, you have a decision to make."
    "Decision?" I got to my feet and reached for her, but she sidestepped.
    Doris gently fended off my attempt to touch her. "Yes, a decision. You were sweet and wonderful, Ed, but I want to know if you're going to be around tomorrow or make excuses and go back to her."
    I considered how to answer her question for a moment.
    "You need to know a bit more about my day, Doris. How things came to be as they are. Then you can decide whether I'm going to be here."
    I gave her a quick synopsis of the afternoon and early evening with April and Sara. Doris absorbed the story without comment while sitting on the stairs.
    It seemed to me that she was unconsciously blocking the stairs by her presence there as if she were symbolically blocking me from further access to her world until she came to a decision about me.
    "...and that's about it," I finished, "I left them by the pond to sort things out."
    "Sounds to me as if you were leaving the decision to them just as you're leaving this decision to me. Don't you make any decisions for yourself?"
    I grinned at her. "Sure! I decided to let those who would be most affected by any decisions do the deciding. When I left them to think things over, only a few outcomes were predictable. Sara and April without me. Sara and April with me. April and me and sometimes Sara with one or both of us, or Sara and me with sometimes April."
    Doris just gazed steadily at me for a few seconds.
    "And it didn't matter to you which of the options came up? You didn't have a preference?"
    "Doris, you need to know one other thing about me. I don't bother lying. If you don't like my answer and toss me out of here, I'll just go back there and ask how things turned out. If I have to leave to be happy, I will. If I have to leave to make you happy, I will. I'll find a place to go and a thing to do. If I find that April needs a long break, I'll see if Sara wants me. I don't hate either of them and I don't want to hurt anyone."
    "And what would you do if I were to ask you to stay here, with me?"
    "I'd say yes. Check my story with April and Sara first, though, Miz cop lady. Ask me then."
    "After tonight, I'm not sure that's a good idea."
    I gave her a disbelieving stare.
    "Think, Doris. They might ask why they weren't invited. No recriminations for sexual activities in that group."
    Doris laughed softly. "No, that would be unusual for them. Hey, you hear that? We've been using a lot of "them's and they's" tonight."
    "Yeah, I noticed that some time ago. April and Sara are "them", the other enhancees are "them", and the unenhanced of the world are "them". There's only been one "us" since we first managed to hold a conversation."
    "Goddamn," said Doris. "I felt alone before. Now I feel really alone."
    I sat next to her on the stairs and put my arms around her. "You aren't, though."
    "Bullshit. I'm not one of "them", no matter which group you choose. If I were, I'd be involved with what they're about. I'd be with someone instead living alone. I wouldn't be trying to steal a man, I'd have one."
    "I don't have a brand on my ass, Doris. You can't really steal me."
    "Then why does it feel as if that's what I'm doing?"
    "I don't know. Maybe that's what you're trying to do, after a fashion. You don't seem to like April and Sara much, so maybe something inside you wants to take something from them, but you don't feel good about it."
    Doris raised her head, mouth open to speak, then remained silent. She glared at me for a moment.
    "That's it. Please leave," she said.
    I sat staring at her in surprise. She repeated her words.
    "I said, please leave. I don't want to talk any more."
    I stood up and retrieved my clothes.
    "I'll send the shirt back," I said.
    "Don't bother. It was my brother's, and he doesn't need it anymore."
    Her words contained finality. I didn't ask about her brother. I just dressed and patted Barrington and headed for the door.
    Doris didn't leave the stairs. She said only, "Goodbye, Ed."
    "Goodnight, Doris," I said.
    I gave her a little wave and closed the door.
    Standing in the yard, I realized how late it had become. There'd be nothing much open at this hour. I drifted low in the night air, following the wind westward along Mockingbird until I came to Central Distressway, then headed south toward Dallas.
    No hurry. I realized I had no need to follow a road, but I had no need to hurry back to Mesquite, either, so I just cruised along maybe fifty feet above the highway, looking for anything of interest.
    A couple with a dead car were trying to get it started. They couldn't really get it off the highway on Central, so I told her to steer and pushed them to a gas station at the next exit.
    The guy was a little drunk, but he was convivial. He shoved a twenty in my shirt pocket and thanked me profusely. When I tried to give the money back, he became loudly offended, so I kept it and lifted back into the sky. He stood there with his mouth open, staring.
    I heard his girl say, "That's what I tried to tell you, Harry! He wasn't walking!"
    Heh. Maybe he'll listen to you now, lady. But don't count on it...
    I drifted on.
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