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NaNoWriMo 2005

Disclaimer: this is a completely unedited novel. Once I finished writing it, I... never went back. But I was a NaNo winner!


There I was, this is no shit, thought I was going to die.

I was staring across the table, my face brilliant red, and my mouth hanging open.  It couldn’t BE.  It just couldn’t.  There is no way the universe would be so cruel.  No way at all.

“Rebecca?” Jennifer asked me, her face puzzled.  “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” I squeaked, then hastened to correct myself.  “No, well...  you see...”

I cast my eyes downward, feeling sick inside.  How had I let this happen?  I knew better, I really did.  I wasn’t a girl who took chances, or went out on limbs – at my weight, I was afraid they’d break.  But I had this time, believing it would never amount to anything, believing in the vastness of...

“Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, my voice shaking only slightly.  “I need to...uh, I’ll be right back”

I jumped up and practically ran to the restroom, my heart thumping madly in my chest.  Slow, deep breaths I told myself.  Easy, you can handle this.  The worst part is over.

I slumped onto the small bench right inside the door to the ladies’ room and rested my head against the wall.  Hot tears began gathering at the corners of my eyes as I took one deep, if a bit wobbly, breath after another. 

“I am a hollow reed.  Everything flows right through me.  I am calm and unaffected.  I am a hollow reed.” I chanted to myself, though quietly, in case anyone happened to be in the bathroom.  Not that I had any doubt that I was a certifiable nutcase, but no reason to broadcast that information, was there?

I sighed, and shifted in my seat.  I let my mind drift back to where it had all started.  That dark, dismal day eight months ago, when I thought my life was as bad as it could ever get. 

~~~

I was sitting at a tiny table in the quaint Internet cafe just down the street from my apartment.  Happily typing in my blog, searching the forums I frequented, and carrying on an on-line chat with my best friend, Jennifer.  I was so absorbed in doing these three things simultaneously that I almost didn’t notice when Brian walked in.  He always teased that he took third place in my life, behind my career and the Internet.  Looking back, I admit I was a little bit of an Internet junkie.  I mean, really, there is no reason to check your on-line writing community every hour.  Anything people post will be there for quite some time.  It’s just the thrill of seeing something new.  Yes, obsessive, I know, we’ve covered that.

He walked in and sat down in the chair opposite me, tilting down the lid of my laptop to look at me.  I suppressed a brief flash of annoyance at this, but clamed myself, telling my inner Internet junkie that this was the man I was madly in love with, that I was going to spend the rest of my days with, and that he should be granted my full attention.  Still, I couldn’t help but notice that when I pushed my coffee cup to the front of the laptop, I could see the screen reflected on it’s surface.  Jen was just typing something about Jeff doing... No, that couldn’t say...

“Rebecca!”  Brian’s voice made me jump.  I looked up guiltily.  “Have you heard a word I’ve said?”

The part of my brain that had been listening quietly in the background while my main attention had been on my computer leapt to my rescue. 
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I heard every word.  You said that you were tired of being ignored, that you found someone who really appreciates you during your last business trip to Rome, and that you’re breaking up with me and your company is transferring you to Rome so you can be with Cecilia and start up their new branch office.”  The words tumbled out of my mouth, even before I could process them.  I admit, perhaps it did sound a bit cold, but only because I didn’t realize what I was saying at the time.

“I see.”  He paused, a muscle working in his jaw.  “And you’re okay with this?”

By now my brain had processed the information, and was quickly chugging towards utter panic.  I was being dumped!  Oh my god, he was dumping me!  I was about to be ... dumped.  My brain fixated on the word, turning it over and over, repeating it until it lost all meaning.  Dump, dump, dump, dump, dump, dump...

“Rebecca!”  Brain’s sharp voice cut through my brain’s relentless repetition. 

I drew in a breath, surprised at how tight my throat had become.  Tears stung at the back of my eyes, but I mustered my self control and gazed back at him levelly. 

“Am I okay with this?  No, not really.  Have you been sleeping with her?  How long had this been going on?  And – is she the first, or just the first one worth leaving the country for?”  My tone was flat, dull, and lifeless.

“I... well... you and I... so...”  For the first time, Brian looked a bit shaken.  My eyes narrowed, and a welling of anger.  Being dumped was one thing, but this new suspicion was quite another.

“You’ve never been faithful to me, have you?  Heather and Jen were right, weren’t they?”

“Look, you know I had all of those business trips, and you never seemed that interested...  You and your damned Internet life.  You know, maybe if you’d pulled your head out of that laptop once in awhile and paid some attention to me, I wouldn’t have to have gone looking for it elsewhere.”  His voice rose, and the other patrons of the cafe were beginning to glance in our direction.  His eyes were gleaming with triumph at his logic.  “You never do anything fun or adventurous.  You’re boring.  Of course I needed to look outside of this relationship for a little bit of fun!”

I rolled my eyes.  “I cannot believe you’re saying that this is my fault.  I made you cheat on me?  That’s rationalizing at its very best, I tell you.  If you weren’t happy, if I wasn’t satisfying your obsessive need for attention, if I was so boring, perhaps you just should have broken up with me, instead of skulking around behind my back.”

“Well, I am now.”  He said simply.

“Hell with that, buddy.  You cheated on me, I’m breaking up with YOU.”  And with that, I stood up and snapped my laptop shut.  As I strode out of the cafe, I heard a smattering of applause from the other patrons who’d heard my parting remark.  That buoyed my feelings all the way home, and kept me from dissolving into tears until I had reached the privacy of my own living room.

Once there, I tossed my purse onto the entry table, dropped my coat on the floor, and collapsed onto the couch.  I stared blankly at the wall, not moving a muscle as tears slipped down my cheeks.  Oh, yes, it was all very cliché.  Poor, abandoned woman, sitting alone in her apartment, feeling sorry for herself.  The only reason I wasn’t pigging out on a gallon of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream was that I was just too drained to even get up and walk over to the freezer.  Which was a whole 20 feet away.  So I sat there, staring at the wall, moping and feeling as if life could not get any worse.  Now, how I would love to go back to that day.  That moment, right there, is where it all started.  If I could just go back and change one thing – one thing - to stop or even alter the chain of events that were about to unfold, then I wouldn’t be in this awful predicament.

As the waterworks began to shut down, I started mulling over Brian’s words.  Boring, was I?  Okay, so I didn’t take as many chances as some of my friends.  I’d passed on the skydiving adventure, because I was afraid of heights.  I’d passed on the spring break trip to Mexico partly because I was broke, but, yes, also because of Chagas disease.  Heart parasites?  No thanks.  And I’d cancelled my reservation for the spelunking trip at the last moment to go out and photograph the birds, which I got some wonderful shots of, by the way.  Not to mention I am just a teeny bit claustrophobic.  But really, not everything has to be heart palpitation inducing to be enjoyable, does it?  I’d never heard any of my friends say I was boring.  But maybe they were just too polite to say it to my face?

I lunged for the phone and dialed Jen.  She answered, breathlessly, after three rings.  I cut her off before she even got the whole “hello” out.
“Am I boring?”  I blurted out, unceremoniously.

“Rebecca?  What’s wrong?” Jen asked cautiously.  “Is this about that white water rafting trip?  I understand about the family reunion, I was just pulling your leg about being chicken.”

Ah, I’d forgotten about that one.  Yes, there was a family reunion, but I’d been looking forward to using my vacation with my friends to get out of it – until I realized that they intended to hurl themselves down a tumultuous watery path on a little inflated rubber thing.  I’d rather listen to Uncle Monty wax poetic about his tomato garden than be dashed against sharp, pointy rocks.

“Um, no, not really.”  I paused, unwilling to even tell my best friend what had happened.  I took a deep breath, and just plunged in.  Like jumping into a cold pool, I figured I’d better do it all at once.  “Brian dumped me.  He’s been cheating on me, and said it was all my fault because I’m boring!”  I sniffed.

“Sweetheart, you’re not boring at all!  Being around you is fun – so what if you don’t want to do wild and crazy things, that doesn’t make you a boring person.  It just makes you... sane.  And the one who will wait on us hand and foot when we’re all in full body casts.”  She added, a grin in her voice.  “Want us to come over and cheer you up?  I can gather up Heather and Megan and we can have a girl’s night in.  Chocolate or Vanilla?”

“Chocolate, of course,” I responded, me spirits beginning to rise.

“Chocolate chip or sugar?”

“Chocolate chip.”

“Cherry, apple, or pecan?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, sit tight, we’ll be over in a little,” she chirped, and hung up the phone.

I slowly replaced the phone in the cradle, still not uncurling from my ball of misery.  Though my spirits no longer felt trampled into the ground, I wasn’t quite jumping for joy.  I sighed, finally mustering the strength to push myself up off the couch.  I went in and took a shower, dressed in my most comfortable set of pajamas, and sat back down on the couch to await the girls.

I couldn’t have sat there for more than 20 minutes before the doorbell rang.  I stood up to answer it, but before I even got there, the door swung open.

“Darling, you forgot to lock you door!”  Heather exclaimed.  “That is so unlike you!  This must be serious.  Jen didn’t give me the details, just told me to hightail it over here with some of Pillsbury’s best in a roll for a pick-me-up night.”  She surveyed the flannel pajama set I was wearing.

“I didn’t lock my door?  Oh my god – I was in the shower!  Think about what could have happened...  What if a serial killer just happened to be walking by, and randomly tried my door?  I could be dead right now!”  My knees started shaking, and I began to back towards the couch.

Heather looked at me, then gently took my arm and maneuvered me back to the couch and set me down.  I sighed, and tried to pull myself together.  I was overreacting, and I knew it.  But I couldn’t help it.  My nerves were on edge, my confidence shot, and my paranoia level critically high.  I lunged for the plastic bag on her arm and grabbed a roll of Pillsbury Refrigerated Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, holding it like a drowning person holds on to a life preserver.  Heather looked at me sympathetically, and went to the kitchen to fetch a pair of kitchen shears and a spoon.  Prying the tube of sugary goodness from my hands, she efficiently snipped off the end and inserted the spoon, then handed it back to me.  I grabbed it and began shoveling spoonfuls of the sticky dough into my mouth just as the doorbell rang again.

I dimly noticed that Heather went to answer to door, but did not turn around to see who it was.  I heard hushed whispers, and the name “Brian” floated back, so I guessed it was Jen, telling Heather all the sordid details.

Jen walked into the living room, and plopped herself down on the couch beside me.  “Megan can’t be here until ten, they need her to pull a double shift.  But she sends her love, and says she’ll be over as soon as she can.  I got two pies and two gallons of ice cream,” she said, gesturing to the breakfast bar where two large grocery sacks sat, once beginning to turn a darker shade of brown where the condensation from the ice cream was seeping through.

I smiled wanly, trying to muster some enthusiasm.  After all, they had dropped everything to rush over here to comfort me.  And I didn’t want to be ungrateful.  So we puttered about, eating pie and ice cream and cookie dough, until Megan showed up.  Once she was ensconced in a chair with her food, I spilled the whole tale.  I’m proud to say I only broke down once, sobbing hysterically into Megan’s shoulder.

The funny things was, I wasn’t all that broken up about loosing Brian.  I mean, I know I thought I loved him, but honestly, he annoyed me more often than he made me laugh.  He was arrogant, condescending, and exceedingly vain.  It was a wonder he’d put up with having such a sub-standard girlfriend as myself for so long.  Goodness knows he would be happier with a plastic Barbie airhead who just nodded and told him how great he was.  Breaking up with him (I refused to think of it as “being dumped” any longer) was actually a bit of a relief.  And I know this sounds horribly cliché, but the problem wasn’t him – it was me.  I was worried that all those horrid things he’d said (and not just the part about me being boring during the break-up scene, there were other times, much nastier times) were really true and that no one else would want me.

“Rebecca?  Earth to Rebecca!”  Jen was leaning towards me.  “I’ve heard of woolgathering, but it looked like you were rounding up a whole flock of sheep!”

I smiled despite myself.  Jen was working on being witty, she was.  Mostly she ended up coming off a little corny, but that was part of her charm.  She was just the most positive person in the entire world, and she was always trying to life people’s spirits.  Sometimes to the extent that you wanted to strangle her, but her intentions were good.

“Oh, I was just thinking about my life.”  Groans all around. 

“Rebecca, you can’t let this get to you.  Just dust yourself off and start over,” Heather, the pragmatic one, said.  “It’s not even worth thinking about.  He’s an idiot.”

“But a lot of what he said is true,” I whined, “I am afraid to take chances.  Why do you think I stayed in a relationship with that insufferable bore for 3 years?  It may not have been a good relationship, but it was a comfortable one, and at least I knew what I had.  This... this ‘starting over’ is scary and unknown.  My confidence is shot.  My self-esteem is at an all-time low.  How can I even think about meeting new people?”

“What is it that really bothers you?”  Jen asked softly.

“Well...” I hesitated.  “I’m a bit on the plump side.  I’m not a risk-taker, not the life of the party.  I’m so average, I don’t think there’s any reason for anyone to take notice of me.”

“First, you look fine,” Heather reassured me.  “Sure, you’re not model thin, but you’re not a tub of lard, either.  You’re soft and feminine.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed.  I know she was trying to make me feel better, but I knew it was a load of hooey.  I was pudgy.

Megan looked at me with a critical eye.  “So what if you’re a bit fat?”  She said so bluntly I had to suppress a wince.  “Plenty of girls a lot fatter than you have happy relationships.  You just have to get over that insecurity.  That or diet and lose the weight.”

I cringed.  I knew she’d be the one to bring it up.  Yeah, if it really bothered me I’d work to lose the weight.  And if it wasn’t worth dieting, it must not bother me that much.  Yada, yada, yada. 

“Okay, fine,” I shot back, “But those other fat girls get guys because they have a personality.  They’re interesting people.  They go out and party like they own the world.  They are forces of nature.  I am bland vanilla ice cream in a lumpy package.  I’m the ugly, fat, plastic Barbie girl!”  The last bit of my tirade ended in a whimper as I choked back another sob.  My, I was being melodramatic!

“You’re a fascinating person, honey,” Jen consoled.  “Just look at the blogs you write.  They’re positively inspired!  And you have a huge following on L-J.  How can you say you’re boring?”

“That’s on-line,” I wailed, “Not real life!  No one knows me there.  And it’s not like I’m doing anything adventurous or scandalous, I’m just stating my opinion.  I’m still the same old boring me”

“But people like you,” persisted Jen.  “Isn’t that what you want?”

“No.”  I said, “I want to be un-boring.  Is that a word?  It is now.  I want to be exciting.  I want to be adventurous.  I want to do something completely out of character.”

“Why don’t you?”  Asked Heather.

“Do what?”  I replied, “Have a one-night stand?  Go jump off a bridge with a bungee cord tied around my feet?  Go hang gliding?  Shoplift?  What?”

“Nothing that extreme,” said Jen.

“No, baby steps, Rebecca, baby steps,” mused Megan.  “We just need to think of something...”

Her voice trailed off as her eyes landed on my laptop, still resting at an awkward angle on the entryway table.  She looked at me, then back at it.
“What are you thinking?” I asked her suspiciously.

“Something better than a one-night stand, but close...” she paused for dramatic effect.  “You’re going to have an anonymous on-line affair!”

“Ohhh, cyber-sex!”  Squealed Jen.  “How fun!”

I opened my mouth, but no sound came out.  She had to be joking, didn’t she?  There’s no way that I could possibly...

“Think about it,” said Heather, “She’s right.  This is wild, it’s crazy, but it’s also completely safe and anonymous.  No one will ever know it’s you.  It’ll be your own dirty little secret, right?  And it’ll give you the confidence you need to handle the “real world” as you say.”

“Okay, true, it would, but how do I even go about this?  Do I just e-mail people at random and say, ‘hey, wanna do my virtually?’ and hope someone responds?”  I gnawed on my bottom lip.

“No, here’s what you do.”  Piped up Megan, “Start a new LiveJournal account.  A new name, a new identity.  Don’t tell anyone who it is.  Not even us.”  She shot a meaningful glance at Jen, who had opened her mouth to speak.  “Don’t join any of the same communities.  Don’t friend the same people, and for god’s sake, don’t friend yourself.  Some of us would be able to figure it out, then, and that shoots the anonymous bit all to hell.”  She shot another glance at Jen, who had the grace to flush slightly.

“And then what?”  I asked, beginning to give the idea serious consideration.

“Well, then you start over.  Branch out, try to make new friends.  But not the kind you normally would.  Join the sex tips groups.  Join the erotic writing groups.  Start sharing your naughty dreams in your blog.  Trust me, with your talent for writing, I have no doubt the affair will find you.”

BR>After they left that evening, I sat down at my dining room table with my laptop.  Staring at the screen, I wondered if I could do it.  Could I let myself go, be wild and crazy?  Could I actually express my inner most thoughts and desires?  Granted, doing it anonymously would be far, far easier, but...
Before I could stop myself, or talk myself out of it, I turned on the computer and opened my Internet browser.  Surfing over to the LiveJornal site, I started the process of opening a new account.  Hmmm, username.  I needed something that wouldn’t be me.  Something wild and wacky.  I sat, frozen at the keyboard, as my mind mulled this over.  How does one come up with a wild and wacky name? 

Minutes ticked by, and I was still no closer to an answer as my computer went into screensaver mode.  Watching the little flying pigs race randomly about the screen, I let my mind wander along a free association path.  Flying pigs.  Flying toasters.  Bread.  Music.  Bands.  Rubber.  Tires.  Cars.  Driving.  Force.  Power.  Play.  Sports.  Pathetic.  Me. 

Well, that turned out to be utterly useless.  Now I was nameless and depressed.  I sighed, and jiggled the mouse to stop the little flying pigs and returned to staring at the registration page.  Chances are whatever I picked would be taken, anyway.  I mean, how unique of a name does it have to be for someone not to have claimed it?  Perhaps randomness is the key.  I rifled through my enormously long list of bookmarked favorites and found my “random generator” sites.

Clicking one at random, I found generated a list of “exotic” names and my eye skimmed down the list until one caught my eye: Vesbraxion
It sounded a little risqué, but not unpronounceable.  So I decided to give it a whirl and see if it was taken.  And, wonder of wonders, it wasn’t.  I took this as a sign from the digital gods that I was to proceed with this wacky idea.  After successfully registering the name, I realized I needed to have some information on my “about me” page, and set about creating a personality.  That turned out to be harder than I expected.

I tried not to put any of “me” into this on-line persona, but I realized that if I didn’t, it would seem like what it was – an unreal, two-dimensional fake character that someone decided to create on the spur of the moment.  She wouldn’t be real.  And, for some reason, I at least wanted her to be believable.

I nabbed a pad of paper from my desk drawer and picked up a pencil from the cup sitting on the edge of the desk.  I gnawed thoughtfully on the rubber eraser as I stared at the blank sheet.  This was just like creating a character for a novel, except I had to be able to be the character.  So she had to be a little like me, but mostly, she had to be what I only wished I was.

Okay, basics.  Obviously, she’s a girl.  She should be about my age...  Well, they say you only have to get 45 people into a room for a 95% chance that two of them share a birthday, so I’m going to give her mine.  The less I have to remember as a lie, the better.  I’ll make her short, but not too short.  Slender but curvy (of course).  Long dark hair, slightly wavy.  Amine hair...  What I wouldn’t give to have that!

As I thought about these details, my pencil was sketching a picture on the pad.  I looked at the sheet and saw a very pretty, vivacious looking young girl.  With just a bit of an attitude.  Just a hint of something wicked and mischievous in her eye.  I wrote her name in looping script below her picture, and tacked the sheet up to my corkboard.  Starting on the sheet below, I began to list her pertinent details.

Family: Both parents still living, though divorced and both remarried, one brother and a half-sister.  This was close enough to the truth, only leaving out the stepsister I never talked to, and didn’t particularly like. 

Career: Here was a tough one.  This I’d have to lie about, because what sort of wild woman would be an actuary?  She needed a more thrilling job, but still one that took place in an office, so if I slipped and said something about office mates it wouldn’t be all over.  Advertising.  That was it.  She could be a graphic design person in an advertising office.  I even had some artistic ability, and was fabulous at editing photos on the computer, so I could fake that.

Relationships: I didn’t think she should ever have been married, or even in a long-term serious commitment.  I decided to make her commitment phobic, unable to form long lasting relationships because... because why?  It couldn’t be insecurity, or she’d just lapse back into being me.  I decided to just stick with the idea that she hadn’t met the right guy.  Why not?  I’d make her a little unrealistic, expecting her knight in shining armor to come galloping up and sweep her off her feet.  And since no man had ever met her lofty expectations, she was still single.  Having her come off as a bit of a snob was better that having her seem like a wuss.

Hopes/Dreams:  Well, obviously she wanted her night in shining armor, she wanted to eventually own an advertising business, and ... well, that was about it.  So she was a little shallow and self-centered.  Who didn’t want to be from time to time?

Beliefs:  Non-religious, but mainly Republican.  There was enough to throw anyone for a loop.  I decided she’s moniker herself a “Left-wing Republican.”  She strongly believed in lower taxes, but also thought that same-sex couples should reap the benefits of joint tax returns.  I decided there that her two best friends would be Jake and Mike, the homosexual activist couple.  And her other friend from work, Amy, could be ultra-religious.  They wouldn’t hang out as a group, of course, and she’s only really friends with Amy because she’s the only person in the office she can stand...

I started as I realized my scribbling had taken up the entire page.  I tore off that sheet and tacked it up next to the character drawing.  I gnawed on the eraser a little more, letting my eyes drift over the picture and the notes I’d just written.  What else should I say about her?

Friends: Okay, I’d covered that in my rambling.  I’d say she doesn’t have many close friends, other than Jake and Mike, the rest are just acquaintances.  So why is she starting an LJ?  An outlet for her frustration?  Too angsty.  A place to live out her fantasies?  Better.  Ah!  Her therapist said it would help her open up.  That’s close enough to the truth to feel comfortable, as Megan often acts like a self-appointed shrink.

Life:  Last detail – where does she live?  If she works in advertising, it can’t be a po-dunk town.  But I’m not sure I want to pick someplace I don’t know, just in case – wouldn’t want the details slipping me up.  I decided to leave her location undisclosed.  That way I could talk about things without worrying about getting a detail wrong – since no one would know exactly where I was talking about!  Perfect.  I’d created myself a fake personality.  Now I just had to write up an intro and pick some interests, and I was in business!

I tacked the second, half-full sheet of info I had scribbled next to the other two pages, and turned back to the computer.  I began to type a quick summary, not pausing to let my brain second-guess what I was writing.

Hello lovely people!

I suppose you’d like to know a little about me, wouldn’t you?  Well, I won’t give you all of the juicy details here, because to read my deepest, darkest thoughts you’ll have to friend me.  I’m leaving a lot of the posts open for public viewing, but those are only to give you a taste...  If you want to sample the entire menu, darlings, you’ll just have to convince me to put you on my friends list.  And I’m a bit discerning – not just everyone will be accepted.  For one, you must be over 18 years of age.  This journal is strictly rated X.  Not all entries, but enough that I have to keep out any under age persons.

I don’t friend people who use net speak or improper English.  I don’t friend people who are melodramatic or angsty.  I don’t friend people who take themselves too seriously.   I don’t friend people who use their journals to simple detail every boring aspect of their lives (and by this I don’t mean to imply that you can’t tell me what happened during your day – especially if it’s juicy gossip or anything naughty – but if you start by telling me the color socks you chose and only get more detailed as the day goes on... no thank you).

I do friend anyone who has a lively, upbeat personality.  Humor and the ability to laugh at yourself and those around you are paramount.  I do friend people who tell quirky stories, amusing anecdotes, and delve into strange and unusual trains of thought.  There is no such this as too weird.  I friend people who say obnoxiously nice things about me and my writing, because I am vain and enjoy the attention. 

So, if I seem interesting, and you think you’d like to get to know me a little better, leave me a comment and I’ll let you know.

I rubbed my eyes, staring at the screen at the words that had flowed from my fingertips.  It wasn’t half bad, for late-night rambling.  It would do for now.  I glanced at the clock.  Two a.m.  I blew out a sigh.  I was tired, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep even if I tried.  I might as well stay up all night and get this finished off, and just suffer through the next day at work.  It’d been years since I’d pulled an all-nighter, but surely I wasn’t so old that I couldn’t handle it for one night!  Turning my attention back to the computer screen, I concentrated one more on Brax.  I smiled at the thought – I had already given myself a nickname.  I was beginning to like Brax, despite all of her various character flaws.

Okay, interests.  I randomly entered names of 14 television shows I liked, 16 bands I enjoyed listening two, and 11 authors I liked to read.  I added reading a writing to the list, as well as a few key words like erotica and sex.  I rounded it out with a few obscure words chosen at random.  Then I began randomly searching other journals, and added one interest from each of the next 20 English-speaking journals I pulled up.  There were some that the choices were very bizarre, others were more tame.  In each instance I chose whichever one I thought would best fit my character.  When I was done I had an interest list 75 items long, encompassing a broad range of topics.

I yawned.  Perhaps I was more tired than I thought.  I glanced at the clock again.  2:45. Rubbing my eyes some more, I forged on to the obligatory “partly friends only” post that would head my journal.  I needed a picture, first off.  I had an image of exactly what I wanted in my mind.  My mind’s eye could picture a woman, laying half on her side and half on her stomach, stretched out towards the viewer, holding a finger to her lips and winking.  She’s mostly naked, with just thin, wispy scarves coving the most critical parts of her anatomy.  Voluptuous and alluring, she would shriek of sensuality.

Jumping up, I grabbed my art supplies out of their storage bin and began sketching.  The first two drafts were utter failures, but by the third...  By the third I thought I had captured the essence of what I wanted.  I began fleshing out the drawing, adding details and color until I had my picture complete.  I sat back and smiled at it.  Perfect, or at least close enough.

Easing the kinks from my neck, I grimaced as I looked at the clock.  4 a.m.  I grabbed the paper, stuffed it into my scanner, and scanned the image into a digital format.  Then I opened it in my nifty photo imaging software, resized and color corrected it, added some text (“This journal is partly friends only.  Comment to be considered for addition so you can read the really interesting parts...”) and added it to a post-dated the journal entry, so it would be the first thing that anyone saw when they visited my page.

I considered writing the first entry then, but I was far to tired to think coherently, and decided that anything I would write would be gibberish and unworthy of posting.  The clock now read 5:45 am, so I jumped in the shower, got ready for work, and headed out the door.

~~~

Looking back, I’m honestly not sure how I survived the morning.  I evidently was too old to pull an all-nighter.  I dragged myself through the morning meetings, dozing off at my desk more than once.  Around noon my boss cornered me to tell me that I looked awful, and asked how I was feeling.  I’d like to say that I thought this was because she liked me and was truly concerned for my well-being, but honestly, she is just a complete disease-phobe and was terrified I had some weird bug that she might contract that would make her deathly ill.  I told her (honestly) that, yes, I was feeling a bit run down.

Before the sentence was even fully out of my mouth she had hustled me to the front door and was telling me not to come back until I was 100% better.  I felt only slightly guilty, but then, it wasn’t really even a lie, just an omission of some key facts.  In fact, if she had let me complete my sentence, I would have said “...but only because I was a complete and utter moron and stayed up all night.”

But they say you should never look a gift horse in the mouth, so I took the time off and went home.  I was feeling particularly drained, probably from a combination of stress, excessive sugar, and sleep deprivation.  I collapsed into bed and didn’t open my eyes again until 5:30 p.m. 
I awoke to the sound of my phone chirping noisily on the nightstand.  Damn, I thought, why didn’t I turn the ringer off?  I gazed blearily at the caller I.D. display, and recognizing Jen’s number, fumbled for the phone.

“Hello?’ I croaked.

“Rebecca?  Have you been asleep?  You sound awful.  I called you at work today, and on your cell phone, but you never answered.”

“I went home early.”  I yawned.  “Felt like crap.  And my cell phone’s in my purse in the living room.  There’s no way I would have heard it back here.  Sorry, was it important?”

“Oh, not really.  The girls and I were just worried about you, and I wanted to check in.  I mean, you seemed okay last night, but I thought I’d see if you thought any more about Megan’s plan.  I really think it would help you...”

I cute her off.  “Already in motion, that’s why I felt so awful today.  I stayed up all night setting it up.  I’m pretty much ready to go.”

“That’s good to hear,” she said, her tone giddy and high-pitched.  She giggled.  “You know, I decided to do it, too.  It just sounds like grand fun, being another person and all.”

“You did?  Really?”

“Yes I did, is that so surprising?”

“Honestly?”  I paused.  “Yes.”

“Well, I’m going to have a good time of it.  I made up a new me, a me that is completely different from me.  A me I wouldn’t even recognize as me, and I made her up!”

As usual, Jen’s dizzying logic was making my sleep-muddled head spin, and when the doorbell rang I muttered a quick thankful prayer to the sanity gods.  “That’s the door, gotta go.  Talk to you later.”

I set down the phone and shuffled to the door.  Who one earth could be here at this time of day, I wondered.  Rubbing my eyes, I opened the door as I stifled a yawn.

Standing in the doorway was a man I’d never seen before.  He was tall and good looking, but not in a classic, sleek “pretty” sense.  A little rugged, but still refined.  Nicely built, but not bulky.  Better than average, but not traffic-stopping.  If that term would apply to men, though I guess it just depends on who’s driving.

“Um, hello,” he said, his voice cool and amused.  And was that an English accent?  Oh my god, I was a sucker for an English accent.  “I just moved in across the hall, and wondered if you could help me out with something?”  His eyes roved over my mussed hair and my sleep-rumpled clothes.  “Unless I’ve caught you at a bad time.  I wouldn’t want to be a bother.”

I gaped at him.  My mouth opened, but no sound came out.  I realized I looked like a complete and utter idiot, but I was at a loss at to what to do about it.  My brain had become completely disconnected from my body.

“I’m Alex, by that way.  And you are?”  He said, looking quizzically at me.  He extended his hand and I automatically reached out to grasp it.
“Bec... Rebecca,” I managed to squeak out.  I gathered myself together.  He wasn’t the first good looking guy I’d ever seen, for goodness sake.  Brian had been much more handsome.  But, of course, Brian had also been pond scum.  I shook my head to clear it.  “I’m so sorry, I’ve been unwell today and just woke up.”  I managed a small smile.  “My brain isn’t quite functioning yet.”

He smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth.  A flaw that somehow did not detract from his charm.  “I know the feeling.  I’m sorry you are ill.  But if I could just ask you a quick question...?”

“Shoot.”

“Who do I contact about the internet connection for this flat?  Is it something the ... ah, “super” handles, or is that something I need to take care of on my own?”

“Cable is provided, however, a cable modem is not.  So if you want high-speed you’ll have to call the cable company and have them hook you up.”

“Ah, I see.  I was a bit confused, and the man downstairs did not seen very forthcoming with any information.  He seemed a bit... grouchy.”

I smiled.  That was the understatement of the century.  Jerry, our building super, was the surliest man I knew.  Getting information out of him was like squeezing blood from a turnip.  The man had been in a bad mood the entire time I’d lived there.  But he was competent, and looked after us in his own peculiar way.  What more can you ask these days?

“The bad news is that it’ll probably take awhile for the cable people to get out here to hook you up.  They usually have a backlog of people waiting.”

I swear he turned pale at the sound of that.  He looked at me, his face a mask of horror.  “Weeks?  How am I supposed to function without an Internet connection for weeks?”

I grinned.  A man after my own heart.  “There are a few internet cafes down the street, so as long as you have a wireless card, you should be fine.  One is even open 24 hours a day.”

He sighed, still not looking happy.  “That’s still inconvenient.  I hate updating my blog in such a public place.  You never know who could be reading over your shoulder, and the whole point of the on-line community is its anonymity.  But, sacrifices must be made.  Thank you for your time, I do hope you get to feeling better.”  He smiled at me, and started to turn back to his apartment door.

“Wait!”  I said, the word slipping out of my mouth before my brain could catch it.

He turned and looked at me expectantly.  I bit my lip.  “Well, you know, I could, um, allow you on my wireless network, I mean, we’re just across the hall, it’d probably reach.”  I started babbling faster and faster, the words tripping over each other as they fell out of my mouth.  “Of course, for all I know you’re a hacker and this is a scheme to get an internet connection without anyone knowing who you are and before long the FBI will show up at my door, drag me away for interrogation, and then slap me in a loony bin when I tell the story of a hot English guy who swore he moved in across the hall and I extended my network to, only there was no record of him, and they think my mind’s cracked from all the...”  I trailed off, my brain finally registering what I had said.  I slapped a hand over my mouth in complete and utter horror.  My cheeks turned bright pink.

“Oh, no, he most definitely lives there.  Signed the lease today, year long.  I’ll vouch for you, lass.” 

My head swiveled around at the sound of Jerry’s voice coming from the top of the stairwell.  He winked at me, then ambled back down the way he’d come.  I hadn’t even noticed him there.  And I hadn’t thought the situation could get any more embarrassing.  I sighed, letting my eyes drift back to Alex as I felt my cheeks grow even hotter.

He was smiling at me.  For a long moment, neither of us spoke.  Then he looked down at his feet, shuffled a bit awkwardly, and said, “So, can I hook up to your network?”

I burst out laughing.

Of course I ended up letting him hook up to my internet connection.  And, as far as I know, he never used my connection to hack into any top secret government facilities.  As far as I know.

He came over later that evening with his laptop, and I got him set up on my network.  We chatted briefly, sharing a few inane childhood reminisces.  I completely blame that on the fact that VH1 was running an “I Love the 80s” marathon, which of course I got sucked into.  Though he grew up in England and had different childhood toys, icons, etc, we still found we had an awful lot in common.  It was a pleasant, if short, evening, and I was sorry to see it end – without so much as a friendly peck on the check, I might add.  I thought Europeans all did that?  Maybe it’s just the French.
Anyway, I did not see hide nor hair of him for the next week.  I spent all of my free time  - time that would normally be used obsessing over the evening and wondering what I did wrong and why he didn’t call – working on my blogs.  Now I had two to maintain, and it was actually more than double the work.  Partly because the one was completely made up, and it actually took a great deal of concentration and creativity to write my Brax posts.  Plus I had her commenting in communities all over the place, trying to drum up some friends.  So far I hadn’t written anything too hard core in her blog.  I was still trying to work my way up to that.  Instead, I let her take on a lot of the free association writing I used to do in my own blog – just a little more vamped up and over-the-top, if you know what I mean.  My own journal remained a humdrum reporting of reviews, news events, and fluffy daily musings.  Sure, everyone still commented and said they loved it, but I have to admit it was starting to look a little flat to me.  I was looking forward more and more to writing as Brax.  She could be wacky and outspoken, and none of her friends would look at her strangely the next day and say, “Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

Even though I hadn’t started my prescribed on-line affair yet, by the end of that first week I was already feeling better.   Brax had brought in a few friends, though no one who seemed likely to engage in any on-line shenanigans.  In fact, it seemed to be her (um, my) strange and outspoken rants and musings that brought in the most interest.  People found her weirdness fun and interesting, instead of psychotic and scary.  She was quirky.  When I tried it, people discretely handed me the business cards of shrinks.  When she did it, people loved her.  Was this because the people were different, or does knowing someone beforehand, even on an insubstantial level, cause you to have preconceptions that you don’t want broken?
As I thought this, I realized that particular topic was exactly the kind of thing that Brax could wax poetic about and receive accolades, whilst me friends would look at me as if I’d grown a third head were I to post that.  And suddenly I began to wonder.  Was I really the boring one?  Was it just me?  Or was it that my groups of friend had just become so predictable that we were in a rut?  Even Brian would have fit into that group, as he was Jen’s boyfriend’s roommate for several years before we started dating.  Which was, of course, how we met.  I can’t believe I didn’t see him for the wanker he was then.  Live and learn, right?

Thinking about Brian was still slightly depressing, and I figured I had to take action.  It was Friday night and I had finished my blogging for the day.  The night was young, and I wanted to do something.  I reached for the phone, automatically starting to dial Jen’s number.  Then I stopped.  If I called her, we would end up going to the cafe, sipping lattes and complaining about our week at work.  She’s leave around 9 to go home and spend some time with Jack, and if I hung around for another hour, Megan would show up.  More lattes, a few hours complaining about why we were single while Heather and Jen had caught themselves hunks, and I’d come home and go to bed.   I could see the entire evening mapped out in detail.  But tonight I refused to be boring.  Tonight I was going to do something different.  But what?

Regardless of what I was going to do, I decided I would need a killer outfit in which to do it, so I might as well start getting dressed.  I wrenched open my closet and began sifting through my meager store of clothes.  I realized that I was woefully short of any trampy clothing,  After all, I’d never before had a reason to own any!  But now I found myself rummaging all the way to the back of my closet, looking for anything that wouldn’t look perfectly acceptable on a librarian.  I found one semi-short black skirt, as well as a slightly dressy top that wouldn’t scream “I am boring, ignore me” and set about doing my hair.  This ended up being even more of a chore than getting dressed.

Let me tell you a little something about my hair.  It’s mouse brown, thick, and lifeless.  There is not a stylist alive who could make it look sheik and glamorous.  And plenty have tried.  Sure, they can twist it up into buns and braids, or elegantly sculpt curls, but inevitably, 20 minutes later, it’s a wispy mess and looks like I’ve just woken up.  It refused to stay in any sort of style.  Which is probably why I am so fond of hats.  Now, hats are great for casual styles.  I have cute little pageboy hats to wear with jeans, floppy hats I wear with my shorts, baseball hats, and even fuzzy hats I wear in the winter.  But I was woefully short any type of hat I could wear while dressed to the eights (I felt I missed the mark by only a single digit – the outfit had turned out looking pretty good).

I ended up leaving my unruly mass of hair loose and slightly wavy, hoping for the sultry, wild, come-hither look.  Adding a little makeup and some simple jewelry, I stopped to survey the overall effect.  Not bad, I decided.  Not bad at all.  Now, where was I going to GO? 

I pondered this as I stuffed the bare essentials into a small evening bag.  There was the club two blocks down, or the bar around the corner.  I’d been to both before and would probably bump into someone I knew.  Whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing for my fledgling new personality, I wasn’t sure.  But if I went someplace new…  Someplace that no one knew me…  I could actually go as Brax.  I could take her for a test spin.  See how she’d hold up to public scrutiny.  It would be a good way to see if the character I created was really a whole person.  I scanned the sheets still tacked up next to my computer, even though I knew them by heart.  Taking a deep breath, I went out the front door.
And stopped dead at the sight of Brian standing in the hallway.  I gaped at him.

“Um, hello, Rebecca.”  He shuffled his feet slightly, looking at a point just over my left shoulder.

“What do you want?”  The question came out a little more curtly than I had intended.  Here I was, on my way to be someone new and exciting, and the very worst person to run into is standing here reminding me that I’m just boring old Rebecca.

“Can we talk?”
“Um, no, I’m rather busy at the moment,” I said haughtily.

“Are you going on a date?” He asked, smirking as if he already knew the answer was no.

Looking behind him I saw the door across the hall was open, and Alex was standing there, looking at us curiously.  He lifted an eyebrow questioningly.  I sent him what I hoped was a subtly pleading look. 

“Rebecca!  Are you ready?”  Alex suddenly asked, stepping forward, bless his beautiful English intuition.

Brian spun around and stared at Alex.  His eyes narrowed as he took in the impeccably dressed Englishman.

“Who are you?”  He asked suspiciously.

“He’s my date, Brian, and we are already running late, thanks to me,” I said quickly, stepping out into the hall and deftly locking the door behind me.  Alex also stepped out into the hallway and locked his door.  I felt very guilty about interrupting whatever it was he had been about to do, but I was desperate not to spend the evening being beaten into my old self by Brian.  My budding self-confidence was far too weak to handle such an assault.

Alex stepped forward, took me by the arm, and led me down the hallway, leaving a slack-jawed Brian in our wake.  We were both silent as we headed downstairs and out onto the sidewalk, where Alex hailed a cab. When a cab pulled up to the curb, he held the door open for me and I slid in, and was rather surprised when he slid in after me.  I looked at him questioningly, and he merely inclined his head toward the front of the apartment building, where I saw Brian standing in the front foyer watching us suspiciously.

“Oh, well, um, yes, I…” I said, trying desperately to form some sort of coherent sentence so he didn’t think he was stuck in a cab with some raving lunatic.  “I thank…  I want to thank you for rescuing me back there and all…”  I trailed off as he just stared at me, a half-smile on his face.  Why did he have to look so… bloody amused at the whole scenario?  I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

“No problem.”  He smiled easily, as if this was a situation he encountered every day.  “Where are you taking me?”

“What do you mean?”  I asked stupidly.

“You asked me out, I accepted, and now I’m just curious as to where you’re taking me.”

“Oh, I didn’t, I mean, I thought…  you plans other…”  I turned bright red as the words jumbled over themselves in an attempt to escape my head.
Alex smiled at me again, Looking annoyingly amused at my discomfort.  “I’m just kidding, of course.  While I would love to spend the evening in your delightful company, I, unfortunately already have other plans.”  With this, he signaled to the cabby to stop, opened the door, and stepped out.  As he was about to close the door, he leaned back in and said, “and you’re welcome.  It was a pleasure rescuing you.”

He closed the door and the cabby looked back at me.  “Where to?”  He asked gruffly.

I gave him Jen’s address, suddenly unwilling to face an exciting evening.  All of my energy had been sapped.  I wasn’t sure if the encounter with Alex had been any better than an ordeal with Brian would have been.  Snotty bugger, I thought crossly.  Of course you have plans already.  What handsome, if a but annoying, Englishman wouldn’t have plans on a Friday night?  I sighed and sank back against the seat.  I wouldn’t think about it.
As we pulled up to Jen’s apartment building, I thought I saw a familiar figure striding down the street.  I peered into the darkness.  Brian!  What on earth was he doing here?  I couldn’t very well let him see me heading to Jen’s apartment all alone, my “date” having lasted less than 10 minutes. 

“Um, hold one, let me find me money.”  I said to the cabby.

“Need some light?’  He sent to flick on the dome light in the cab.

“NO!”  I yelled, startling him.  My eyes flicked to Brian, wandering up to Jen’s apartment.  “I, um…”

The cabby’s eyes followed mine, and I saw a hint of recognition in them as his gaze landed on Brian.  “Right then, whenever.”

Ah, the all knowing cabby.  This probably wasn’t even the strangest thing that had happened to him today, let alone this week.  Still, I made a show of rummaging around in my purse, keeping one eye glued to Brian.  I watched in amazement as he slowed and turned up the steps to Jen’s apartment building.  As he was walking up the steps, Jen opened the door, saw him and smiled.  I watched in amazement as she happily skipped down three steps, threw her arms around him, and gave him a big kiss. 

Okay, yes, I should have seen this coming.  It’s in every romantic comedy.  Girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, boy meets girl’s best friend and starts sleeping with her behind her back, boy dumps girl, and…?  And then what?  What do I do now?  I sat there, frozen, one hand still absentmindedly rummaging through my purse as the both turned and started down the steps to the sidewalk.  Brian spied the cab and made a motion towards the cabby.

“I’ve changed me mind,”  I squeaked.  “Go!”

The cabby didn’t even hesitate, just threw the cab into gear and took off.  I didn’t even watch to see what Brian’s reaction was to the cab inexplicably speeding off.  I closed my eyes and softy asked the cab driver to take me home.

I tipped the cab driver handsomely, as he asked not a single question about the events that had just transpired.  I know there was no way I would have been able to contain my curiosity, had our positions been switched. 

I dragged myself up the stairs and into my apartment.  Flopping down on the couch, I stared at the blank wall opposite me.  This was, annoyingly, becoming a habit.  I sighed and rubbed my eyes, which felt gritty and sore, as if I had just spent the last 8 hours in a smokey room. I looked uncomprehendingly at the black streaks that were left on my knuckles.  Ah, yes, mascara.  I so rarely wore makeup these days.   I had forgotten about not rubbing my eyes.  Ah, well, who cared if I looked like a raccoon?

Of course, as soon as those very words entered my head, the doorbell rang.  I stiffened.  Who in the hell could that be?  I crept quietly to the door and peered through the peephole. 

Standing outside my door was an old, stooped man in a dirty raincoat.  As I watched he nervously looked up and down the hallway several times.  Then reaching into the inside pocked of his coat and withdrew a long white envelope.  Bending over, he slid the envelope through the crack under my front door.  I hopped out of the way just in time to prevent it from hitting my foot.  When I looked back through the peephole, he was gone.  I started down at the envelope on my floor, unable to bring myself to touch it.

I nudged it with my toe.  The flap wasn’t sealed, and the contents shifted, giving me a glimpse of the stack of money inside.  I shrank back as if I had been shocked.  My mind reeled.  I knew the envelope wasn’t meant for me, but who was supposed to get it?  And what lengths would they go to to get it back?

These questions were still running around in my head as I barricaded myself into my bedroom.  I pushed the dressers against the door, and sat down on the bed.  I didn’t think I would be able to sleep, so I put in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and turned the volume up as far as I thought my neighbors would allow.  I made it as far as the killer rabbit before I nodded off.  I woke briefly when the DVD ended, and turned off the TV.  Next thing I know, it was Saturday morning, the weak sunlight filtering through my curtains.

I woke up, groggily rubbed my eyes, and realized with a rising horror that my bathroom was on the other side of my bedroom door.  I stared at the pile of furniture blocking my way and cringed.  It had seemed like such a good idea last night, but now, with a full bladder, I just felt silly and paranoid.  I sighed, and began the laborious task of moving the furniture back to its original position.  Then I made a mad dash to the bathroom.

Vowing never to be so stupid and paranoid again, I stumbled into the kitchen to start the coffee pot.  It wasn’t until the pot had brewed and I had poured myself a cup (two packages of Equal and a healthy dollop of creamer) that I glanced toward the envelope.  Or, rather, where the envelope had been last night. 

I raced over to the door.  It was still locked, the chain still firmly in place.  But the envelope was most definitely missing.  I stood there, rooted to the spot.  A chill went down my spine as I thought, just perhaps, I hadn’t been so freakishly paranoid last night, after all.

I kept to myself all Saturday, unwilling – or perhaps unable – to deal with any of my friends.  Jen called and left a chirpy message on my answering machine, asking if we were still on for Wednesday night.  We were supposed to go see the premiere of the new Vin Diesel movie, but for once, even the thought of a sweaty Vin half-clothed didn’t buoy my spirits.  I didn’t know what to do.  And the people I would normally turn to for help, well, this time they were the problem.  So where else could I get advice…

My eyes settled on the computer, sitting smugly on my desk, as if to say “I hold all the answers, my pretty.”  My mood brightened as I realized that even if I couldn’t reach out for answers, Brax – well, she could!  I hurried over to the computer and logged on.  I searched out all the communities that said they were geared toward relationship or love advice – and revenge - and joined the top five promising ones.  And in those, I posted my conundrum.

Hello everyone!

I just joined and I really hope you can help me out.  My boyfriend just dumped me, and the other day I saw him and my best friend kissing.  I’m going out on a limb here and assuming that this has been going on for quite some time – he admitted that he had been cheating on me, but claimed it was with various girls on business trips.  Which could still be true, but I get the impression he’s been sleeping with my friend the whole time, too.  They just had a rather easy vibe between them, not the kind of scene you see played out between new couples. 

They don’t know I saw them, so my question is this: what do I do now?  I’m not really terribly hurt, surprisingly, as I’m beginning to realize I was never in love with the guy – he was just convenient, and it was nice to have a “boyfriend.”  Trust me, I won’t make that mistake again!.  I’m a little peeved at my friend, and feel retribution is in order.  But, of course, I don’t want just to come out and accuse her and have a screaming match.  I was thinking something a little more subtle – devious.  Something to make her squirm.  But my brian just isn’t quite up to the task right now, and I need a little help.

Thanks!

Just before I was about to post, I realized that I had subconsciously written “Brian” instead of “brain.”  I hastily changed it, and posted the message to the five communities and the Brax journal.  Sitting back in my chair, I contemplated my computer screen.  I guess now was as good a time as any to update my own journal.  I searched the news sites, found a suitably mock-able story, and typed a quick, hopefully humorous, blurb on the importance of good editing before you proclaimed to the world that the “meat panties” might be tainted with E. Coli.

I slept in late on Sunday, still not sure what I was going to do about the whole debacle.  My life had gone from boring to soap opera in less than a week.  I wouldn’t have believed this could actually happen, and yet, here I was.  A cheating ex, a lying best friend, the obligatory hot sexy guy across the hall, and the mysterious envelope.  What else was missing?  As soon as I thought it, I knew it was a mistake.  The phone rang, and I knew – knew – who it was going to be.  Because I had just realized what was missing.  The dysfunctional family.  And it was my stepsister.

“Hello?” I sighed into the phone.

“Rebecca!” She crooned, overly nicely.  “Darling, you are still planning on making it to the party on Saturday, aren’t you?  You wouldn’t forget about your dear mother’s birthday?  Plus, you did promise to bring the cake.”

“Why would you think I had forgotten?” I asked, puzzled.  She may dislike me and think I’m a total boob, but I’d never forgotten anything, so why the sudden concern?  An uneasy feeling crept down my spine.  She only ever calls to ask for things, and to gloat.  Which one was it going to be?

“Well, I heard about your nasty, nasty breakup, and thought you might be a little out of sort, you know.  Poor thing, being dumped so publicly and humiliatingly!” 

I could hear the glee in her voice.  I suppressed a sigh and rolled my eyes.  “Oh, how did you hear that?”

“Dana was in the coffee shop, dear, she heard the whole sordid thing.  I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” 

I paused a moment.  Normally I dealt with Tabitha by simple not reacting to anything.  Silence, nodding, and a lot of noncommittal noises has served me, if not well, reasonably so.  But I was in no mood for this today.  I didn’t want to be walked all over by yet another person.  I thought for a moment, and decided on a course of action that would have shocked the me of last week.

“I’m sure you can’t image.  I am so elated that the relationship is over.  I mean, he was terrible in bed, and the gift giving really had dropped off over the last three months.  And I can put up with lousy sex as long as I’m being compensated by expensive trinkets, but if you’re not going to shower me in gifts, what’s the point?”  I paused.  There was silence on the other end.  “Besides, Jason,” I invented a name out of thin air, “is so hot, and it was getting so bothersome trying to sneak around and jump him without Brian finding out.  I mean, we could barely fit in a rendezvous four or five times a week, with our busy schedules, and that’s just not enough to satisfy a guy like Jason.  Just yesterday we stayed in bed the whole day and must’ve done it three times – plus all the foreplay, of course – and he’s still up for another go tonight.  He wants to try this new position…”

Tabitha cut my off shrilly, “You were cheating on Brian?”

I smiled to myself.  She was really shaken up, and this was fun.  Why hadn’t I tried this years before?  “Of course.  It wasn’t like he was satisfying me in bed – I had to get my pleasure elsewhere.  But Jason’s not exactly wealthy, so I still needed a Brian around for the gifts and expensive dinners.  And to keep my place in society, of course.  Jason’s not exactly… mainstream”  I let her fill in whatever horrifying description she wanted.  I could see her imagining Jason as a grimy punk rocker, complete with a blue mohawk.  I preferred to think of him as a clean-cut, slightly criminal looking guy who walked close to the line of the law.  Like someone who would break into a girl’s apartment and steal an envelope full of money, but leave her unharmed.  Tall, muscular, good looking in a dangerous way.  I shudder ran through me as I imagined what might have happened if I had been sleeping on the couch when “Jason” broke in.  He’d kneel down beside the edge of the couch, letting his fingers trail gently over my face and neck until I woke up.  He’d look deep into my eyes, and kiss me, softly at fist, then…

“Rebecca!  Are you still there?”  Tabitha’s voice cut into my daydream.  I jumped, then felt annoyed at being brought out of my revere. 

“Sorry,” I said smoothly.  “I was just remembering yesterday…” and I let out a big sigh.

“Ew.  I’ll let you go then.  See you on Saturday.”  And she hung up the phone.

I smiled and began dancing around the apartment.  I was jumping up and down yelling “I won!  I won!  I won the phone call!” when the doorbell rang.  I was so elated the I didn’t even feel embarrassed.  Until I opened the door.

Standing on the other side was a very well dressed Alex, grinning at me.  “And what phone call did you win?”  He asked gravely.

I was suddenly aware that I was still in my pajamas and hadn’t even brushed my hair.  And I was still a little flushed from my happiness at besting Tabitha, as well as that daydream…  I realized with a start that Alex looked just as I had pictured “Jason,” only with the added bonus of a yummy accent.  This embarrassed me further, even though I knew he couldn’t read my mind.  Unless he was a superhero.  With psychic abilities.

“Um, it was my stepsister.  She hates me, and just calls to make me feel bad.  But I won this round, even if I did have to lie.”  I said, my voice hardly shaking at all.

“Hmm, what lie did you have to tell?”  He asked.  And suddenly I wondered how long he’d been standing there, and how much you could hear out in the hall.

“You know, that really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I won!”  And I gave him a brilliant smile and did a little dance.  The Snoopy celebration dance, to be exact, complete with the hummed music.  Hell, I was already completely embarrassed, might as well flow with it, right?

“Well, then, congratulations!  Anyway, I was just dropping by to tell you that the cable people came on Friday, and I am up and running.  I wanted to make sure that everything was in working order before I told you that you could cut me off.”  He smiled, “Thanks again for that.  You were a lifesaver!”

“Oh, it was nothing.”  I smiled back.  Then I just stood there, awkwardly, unsure of what to say.  I though about ‘hey, how about you step in for a quick tumble on the bed, you hot hunky Englishman’ but dismissed that as being just a tad too forward.

“You’ll always be a hero to me!”  He declared in an overly melodramatic tone of voice, and tacked on a theatrical bow for good measure.  With that, he straightened, gave me a little salute, turned on his heel, and walked off down the hallway.

I stood in the doorway, watching him leave.  I shook me head slightly, trying to clear it.  That man always left me just a little off balance.  I didn’t know quite what it was about him.  With a sigh, I went back into my apartment and sat down at my computer.  Not a lot was going on in the on-line world, but that wasn’t unusual for a Sunday.  I had gotten a few responses to my Brax revenge post, but they were all far too nasty, and at least three of the ideas were borderline illegal. 

I decided that the saying was true – revenge is a dish best served cold, so I would simply pretend, for now, that nothing was wrong.  That would leave my options open down the line.  In the meantime, I guess I would have to call her back and confirm for Wednesday.  I sighed, got up and dialed her number.  I did another little happy dance when her machine picked up, let a message saying I would meet her at 7 on Wednesday, and hung up the phone.

Monday morning came far too early – I had spent the majority of Sunday surfing the various LiveJournal communities, finding ones that would be good for Brax to post in.  I found a few, left some comments, and called it a weekend. 

As I arrived at work, the office seemed more abuzz than usual.  There was a low hum of whispered conversations all around.  Oh, god, I thought, don’t let this be about me.  The place was a huge rumor mill, and because of my stepsister’s phone call, I was in high paranoia mode.  But, as I found out three seconds after I sat down at my desk, there are far more interesting people at work than I.

“Did you hear?” Melissa hissed at me, her eyes darting back and forth to be sure no one was looking.

“Hear what?” I asked, puzzled. 

“I’ll take that as a no.  You would never believe…” she straightened as our manager walked down the aisle, “the reports are not good.  It seems there might be a glitch in the program, not major, but enough to throw off the long term predictions… anyway, Mary and Carl were caught on Friday.  Can you believe it?”

“Caught doing what?”  I asked, my mind imagining those two mousy people scurrying off with office supplies or some such nonsense.  Seriously, they might be the two most boring people you’d ever met.

“You didn’t know?”  Melissa asked, her eyes wide in surprise.

“Obviously not.”  I replied dryly.  “Otherwise I’d know what the hell you were talking about!  What on Earth could Mary and Carl have possibly done that would get everyone so worked up?”  I took a sip of my coffee.

“They were having sex in the supply closet,” she said, smirking.

I choked on my coffee.  Heads started to turn towards me as I coughed and gasped.  People smiled in my direction.  I’m guessing a lot of people had this reaction when they first heard the news.  I gaped at her.  “You must be joking.  Mary?  Carl?”

She grinned.  “Yup.  Evidently they are quite the wild couple.  Like the thrill of public places and all.”

I shuddered.  “Mary and Carl?  Oh, mental image I did not want.  And which supply closet?  I’m not sure I can handle going in there…”  I trailed off , my mind still simultaneously conjuring images of Mary and Carl locked in a carnal embrace and trying to block said images.

Suddenly I turned to Melissa.  “That is so not fair, you know?  How can those two be having a wildly exciting sex life while I…  Well, not so much.”

“I know,” she sighed.  “I had the same reaction.  I haven’t had a date in three months, and here these two are, screwing away under our very noses.  Evidently it’s been going on for quite some time.”

“So what will happen to them?  Were they fired?”  I asked, though I was fairly certain of the answer.  This is a pretty straight-laced, uptight business.

“Oh, no, they quit.  Funniest thing, that.  They were caught by the security guard, James – you know, the one whose brother makes movies?”

“Yeah, I always thought he just said that to get laid.  I never believed him.”

“Well, turns out it’s true. He just always failed to mention what type of movies he made.”  She nodded her head meaningfully.

“Porn?”  I guessed, though I thought I could now see where this was going.  I didn’t want to see it, and I hoped I was wrong, but this whole thing seemed to be leading to one conclusion.

“Uh-huh.”  She said.  “And, when he saw their, er, technique, he immediately called his brother and told him he had just the people he’d been looking for.  They went to his brother’s studio, gave a screen test, and are now in the movies.”

“Dare I ask what was so special about their technique?” I asked, unable to stop myself, but not really wanted the answer.

“Evidently it was very… funny.  And theatrical.  Goofy, even.”  She was grinning broadly.  I knew there was even more to this story.

I shut my eyes tight, warding off the mental images that were just getting worse and worse.  This was beyond belief.  I vowed to start keeping a diary, so I could sell it as a script for the next soap opera.

“I can tell there’s more by that shit-eating grin you’re wearing.  Out with it.”  I said grimly, trying to brace myself.

“Okay, the title of the movie is ‘Under the Big Top: Clowning Around.’  And they mean that.  Literally.”

“Clowning around?”  I said, puzzled.  She nodded encouragingly.  “Clowning… clowns… not…”  I stopped, my mind reeling from the sudden realization.  The coffee and doughnut from this morning did an uneasy flip in my stomach.  I’m not a prude, but even so, there are some things that just aren’t right.

“Clown porn?”  I asked quietly.  “You have got to be joking.  Please tell me you’re joking.  Clowns having … ewwww!”

“I wish I was!”  She said, “Bu honest to god, that’s what it is.  There’s a snippet of tape floating around here somewhere if you want to…”

“No!”  I almost shouted the word, cutting her off.  “You know, I think I’ve heard enough, thank you.”

She grinned and turned back to her work, chuckling.  I turned to my work, still creeped out by visions of Mary and Carl, if full clown face paint, panting and pawing at each other.  But, I thought brightly, at least Brax will have an interesting topic to write about this evening. 

And she did write about it that evening, not in graphic detail, but more of a piece on pornography in general.  Genres, film styles, etc.  It was a pretty good piece, though I had to admit my search engine was working overtime to gather the necessary information.  There’s a lot more to the porn industry than you would think.  I had gathered enough information for several articles, and decided that this week would be “Porn Expose” week in Brax’s journal. I figured I’d save the clown porn bit for Friday, leading up to - dare I use the pun – a climax.

I posted the first potion, then checked to see if there were any new responses to my conundrum with Jen.  There were a few, most of which were repetitions of what had already been said, and what I had already discarded as bad ideas.  But one reply caught my eye.

‘Voaughroth’ summed up a plan of slow, exacting revenge that would draw out for a good year.  Nothing obvious, nothing outright accusatory, and nothing (thank goodness) illegal.  But a subtle campaign of guilt warfare that was simply stunning.  I doubted I could carry out the plan to the perfection it was laid out for me on paper, but I could certainly pick up on some of the finer points.  The only drawback was that it required me to be devastated by the loss of Brian.  And I wondered if I’d blown that too severely with my little escape on Friday night.  Since I figured Brian had told Jen about it, I thought of a way to turn that situation around and use it…

Wednesday night found me standing outside the theater at 6:55, tissue in hand and eyes red and swollen.  Now, I’m not the sort of person that can cry at the drop of a hat, so this took some personal sacrifice, to the tune of rubbing my eyes while my hands were still coated with Tabasco.  Yes, it hurt, but I hoped the effect was worth it.

Jen showed up right on time, perky and punctual as ever.  She took one look at me and her face fell.

“Rebecca, darling, what’s the matter?”  She asked as we strolled into the theater.

“I just…” I took a long, deep, shuddering breath.  “I’m just still a little upset about the whole Brian thing.  I saw all these couples tonight, strolling arm in arm, and it just made me think about how I don’t have that anymore…”  I trailed off, snuffling.

“You’re better off without him, you know.  He wasn’t the one for you.”  She looked at me closely, “You do know that, don’t you?”

“I don’t know.  What if he was the one?  And now he doesn’t care at all…”

“I’m sure he still does, don’t be so hard on yourself!  And I’m positive he wasn’t the one for you.”  She said this with assurance.

“I even tried to make him jealous by pretending a meeting I had with a work colleague was a date.  Pathetic me, working on a Friday night.  He came by just as we were leaving, and I made like it was a hot date, but he didn’t seem to care…”  I watched her closely, and saw the shock in her eyes.

“He stopped by to see you on Friday?”  She tried to make her tone casual, but I could hear the tension in her voice.

“Yeah, probably just wanted a little bit of action, since the ‘girlfriend’ – that bitch – is in Rome.  He was always one to just drop by for a quickie.”  I said this mournfully, as if I was remembering all the pleasant times we had, and lamenting the loss.

Jen was still looking slightly shocked, though she was covering it well.  She chewed on her lip for a moment, before saying “Well, then, if that were the case, then he does still care about you, right?”

“Oh, no, that would just be sex.  I doubt Brian cares about anyone but himself, really.  But that’s, strangely enough, part of the attraction to him.  He’s the cool bad boy from high school, slightly grown up.  Still immature, but making a lot more money.”  We were in our seats now, talking in hushed tones before the movie started.  I gauged I had about 10 minutes before the previews started. 

I put that 10 minutes to good use, calling his “Rome girlfriend” every conceivable bad name, castigating her for sleeping with him when she knew he had a girlfriend because I was just certain she knew.  I railed on about how only the lowest skank would do such a thing, and watched as Jen squirmed more and more.  She looked positively blissful as the lights dimmed and the previews started.  I sank back in my chair, smiling in the darkness.

After the movie, Jen made her excuses and escaped quickly.  I was still buzzed from the adrenaline rush of making her squirm, and watching Vin on the big screen.  Oh, those muscles!  I felt impulsive and rash, but the common sense part of my brain won the battle and I headed home to get a decent night’s sleep before I had to get up and drag myself to work in the morning.

When I arrived home, I immediately went to my computer and checked my e-mail.  Nothing spectacular, unless I really thought I needed to increase my penis size.  In that case, there were three new miracle products guaranteed to do the trick.  Brax’s e-mail yielded a surprise.  Voaughroth had left an e-mail in my – um, her – personal journal:

Followed you home and friended you.  Am interested to see what (if anything) lies in your friend-locked entries.  What’s there publicly is very intriguing, but I’ m wondering: are you all a big tease, or will I see some real action if you friend me back?  Also, a thought for your porn expose week – ever thought about doing an article on cyber sex?  I could help you with that research, if you’d like.

I stared in surprise.  This had to be a joke.  One of my friends had found out my name and was playing a joke on me.  I surfed over to AK’s journal and read up on his – or her – bio.  Fairly generic stuff, surprisingly, but we had several common interests.  The journal entries were light and entertaining, not anything that would hint at someone who would have left such a message.  Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t logged in, and did so.  Then I saw the friend-locked entries.  These were very different from the public ones.  They were frank and open discussions of sex within the group of “friends,” everything from advice for first dates to keeping a long relationship exciting.  The most amazing thing was that the advice was really good.  Not like what you got at a lot of the communities, where people seemed to try to out-weird each other.  But an honest and open forum with some very knowledgeable members.  Suddenly I felt a little intimidated.  What did I know, really?  Was I even qualified to be in such a group?
I gnawed at my lower lip, uncertain of what to do.  I decided to be honest, and crafted a reply to AK.

Checked out your journal – very interesting stuff.  I have to wonder if you’re a group of psychologists, as you all give such good advice.  I’m afraid that, for now, you would be disappointed as I haven’t done a friends only entry – yet.  I’m working on detailing out a fantasy I had, but I can’t quite seem to get the right mix of emotions to make it as real as it felt.  Sadly, my fantasies are all I have at the moment, as I am not seeing anyone, so your offer of the exploration of anonymous on-line sex is very much appreciated.  That is what you were offering, was it not?  Let me know when and where, and I’ll be there.

I ended the message with my hands shaking.  I couldn’t believe I was going to actually do this.  My only hope was that AK wouldn’t have meant what I thought he – or she – meant.  Oh, my, I didn’t even know if it was a man or a woman!  I quickly went back through the journal entries, but could find no indication one way or another.  I bit my lip.  Was I not only about to become a cyber-slut, but a lesbian cyber-slut?

Thursday and Friday were nerve-wracking.  I heard nothing back from Voaughroth, and no new entries, public or friends locked, appeared.  I did honestly try to work on the fantasy (I decided to go with the one that had started in my head while I was on the phone with Tabitha), but writing erotica was so terribly difficult.  And it was completely embarrassing.  Every time I managed to get something written I would think, “Oh my god, what if my parents read this?” and would promptly throw it away.  Even though they probably never would, I couldn’t get myself past that mental block.

[Writer’s note: I don’t have Rebecca’s confidence that my parents will never read this.  Quite the opposite, they’ve said they will.  So, you’ll understand if some of the, um, sex bits, seem a little awkward.  I’d have a hard enough time writing them anonymously (as Rebecca does) let alone with my parents reading.  I’m already mortified this far!  And Mom, Dad, this really isn’t me at all.  Let’s just pretend that, k?]

By Friday afternoon I was a total wreck.  I was convinced I had completely misinterpreted AK’s comment, and even now they were mocking me.  Yes, paranoia rears its ugly head.  So when I got home and found a comment from Voaughroth waiting, I read it with trepidation.

Dear girl, that is exactly what I was suggesting.  A little cyber sex is just the thing in this day and age, and as long as you are of age and not in a relationship, who does it hurt?  I can assure you that I am, too, single and unattached, so there will be no mad woman trying to track you down for cyber seducing her man.  Respond with your AIM name and be online at 9pm, Eastern standard time.  I will see you then.

I took a deep breath.  Well, I wasn’t about to become a lesbian cyber slut, at least.  Just a garden variety cyber slut.  I realized that Brax did not have an AIM name, and hurriedly created one.  I reply with the name, and assured AK that I was indeed of age and very single, and would see him tonight.

I looked at the clock.  6 pm.  I took a quick shower, dressed in a skimpy, silky nightgown (I figured mood was important) and tried to eat some dinner.  My stomach was knotted so tightly I only managed a few bites of food, but I did drink a fair amount of wine.  I needed all of the relaxation I could get, if I was going to do this.

At 8:50 I sat down in front of the computer and clicked “Sign On.”  I sat there, nervous and waiting, until 8:58 (yes, it seemed like and eternity) when a window popped up inviting me to a chat room with Voaughroth.  I reached for the mouse and clicked the “Go Chat” button, my heart in my throat.  I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into, but I was sure I had to brazen it out, now.  I simply couldn’t give up on this new exciting world so quickly.  Besides, after all that daydreaming and working on the story, I decided I deserved to get a little action, even if it was virtual.

Voaughroth: And how are you this evening?
Vesbraxion: Fine, you?
Voaughroth: I’m doing well, especially now since you accepted my invitation.  I’ve been waiting for this all day.
Vesbraxion: Well, then, I must do my best not to disappoint, mustn’t I?
Voaughroth: I’m positive you won’t, dear. 
Vesbraxion: Hmm, I’m not sure I shouldn’t take you up on that bet.  My last boyfriend said I was boring.
Voaughroth: He must have been an idiot, since I can’t see how you could be.
Vesbraxion: His loss, he was lousy in bed anyway.  I think my acting skills have improved markedly in the three years I was faking my orgasms.
Voaughroth: Well, I hope you never fake it with me, though since I can’t actually see and feel you, I guess I’d never know.
Vesbraxion: Do you think men can really tell, then?
Voaughroth: If they care they can.
Vesbraxion: And I guess you’re going to tell me that you’re a man who never disappoints a woman?
Voaughroth: Not if I can help it.

And he didn’t.  I would give you the blow by blow details of the rest of our chat, but, well, I’m embarrassed to even think of the things I said, let alone repeat them.  Suffice to say that night on the computer was actually more stimulating than all three years with Brian, which I think was more of a statement of Brian’s prowess than to the fascinating world of cyber sex.  Still, I was giddy and happy the whole weekend, having made another assignation with Mr. Voaughroth for the following Friday.  We had not exchanged names, and somehow the complete anonymity had made it possible for me to say things like…  Oh, my.  I can’t even think it without turning red.

Saturday came and I did go to my father’s birthday party, but I was only partly there. The biting remarks my stepsister aimed at me went right past, as my mind was filled with thoughts of Voaughroth, my fantasy story, and what I was going to tell my friends about the whole on-line affair. I left after a few hours, giving my excuses (which Tabitha tsk-tsk-ed over, as if she didn’t believe that I wasn’t going home to cry my eyes out – I think she was still smarting that she hadn’t been able to upset me) and wishing everyone well.

I spent the remainder of that weekend working on my fantasy story.  I finally thought it was good enough to post, and with a deep breath and a calming glass of vodka, I did.

Dearest friends:

I realize I have been remiss in my duties of posting my glorious fantasy life here in explicit detail, as was promised in my intro.  I hope to rectify this with the following offering.  Sadly, this remains a fantasy, at least until the next time a gorgeous spy/thief decides to break into my house.  I’m currently accepting applications for the position…

I had decided, in light of the recent strange events, to sleep on the couch that evening.  I wanted to assure myself that the strange noises I had been hearing were, indeed, simply my imagination.  So I settled onto the sofa with a cozy quilt and a good book, intent on staying up the whole night.  Sadly, I drifted off around 2 am with the single lamp still burning and the book slipping from my fingers and onto the floor.

I awoke sometime later, to complete and utter darkness.  My heart stoped, then began to beat madly as I heard a soft rustling sound next to the couch.  I gasped as a warm hand reached out to stroke my cheek.  I would have screamed, I suppose, but all of the air had escaped my lungs and I was paralyzed, unable to draw another breath.  I heard a soft chuckle, and a low male voice said, “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you.”

“How… how… who?” I stuttered in a squeaky voice.

“Shhhh,” he said, “Just lay back and relax.”

Relax?  I thought.  Every muscle in my body was a taut as a bow string.  And why was it so dark in here?  There wasn’t even any light seeping in from outside, and his figure was a mere shadow in the darkness.  I strained to make out any features, but could not.

His hands began to roam gently up and down my body, and I felt his breath warm against my cheek.  His lips caressed my neck, my shoulder, and trailed a moist, soft line down to my breast.  While I had been concentrating on his mouth, his hands had deftly unbuttoned my pajama top, leaving my chest bare to his hand and lips.  I gasped as he took first one nipple, then the other, into his mouth. 

“If you really want me to stop,” he said softly, “I will.”

Of course I want to you stop, I thought, you’re a complete stranger who broke into my house.  But all that escaped my lips was a soft sigh.
His hands moved down to my pajama bottoms, slowly pulling loose the drawstring.  In his hands, even this felt like a supremely sensual gesture.  I lifted my hips off of the couch to allow him to slide them off of me, along with my underwear.  I was now completely naked, laying in the couch under his soft, strong hands. 

I felt his breath upon my cheek once again.  Kiss me, I thought, turning my head to try to find his mouth.  But he moved his head to the side, dipping to trail more kisses along my neck.  I twisted slightly, my body crying out for something, anything to happen.  Suddenly, I felt him pull away.
I lay there, able to see the slight dark shadow of his form still kneeling by the side of the couch.  I wanted to reach out to him, but felt unable to move.  Then I felt the merest touch on the inside of my thigh, just above my knee.  His fingertips trailed gently up my leg, stopping just short of the place my body was screaming for him to lavish his attention upon.  I felt him lean down, and place a soft kiss on my hip bone.  My body jerked in surprise, but also from the jolt of desire that coursed through me.

He chuckled softly in the dark, his hand beginning to move slowly, stroking up and down the inside of my thigh, each time getting closer and closer.  I moaned, a low soft sound in my throat.  At that, he leaned down again and began kissing my stomach, his hand moving ever so much closer to the center of my desire.

“Please…” I choked out, not even sure what I was really pleading for.

“Please, leave you alone?” He asked, drawing back.

“No!” It came out as a hoarse shout.  I felt myself redden in the darkness.  “Please, don’t stop…”

“Then what do you want me to do?” He asked, his hand resuming its slow stroking motion.

“I want you,” I whispered.

“Want me to what?” He asked again.

“Dammit!”  I said, “Make love to me.  Now.”  I was beyond caring, beyond thought.  His hands and mouth had driven me crazy, and he hadn’t even touched me … yet.

“Not yet,” He said softly.

He shifted my legs and settled between them on the couch.  I felt his breath, warm, on the inside of my thigh.  Then his mouth covered me and his tongue…  Ah, that did things that made cry out, and then beg for more.

I reached down for him trying to grasp his arms and pull him up to me.  He backed away, sitting upright between my legs.

“Please…” I whispered again, “I need you…”

“Need me what?  I satisfied you, didn’t I?  OR was that just an act?”  I thought I heard a note of smugness in his voice, and I longed to tell him coolly that, yes, it had all been an act, and could he please get the hell out of my house now.  But my traitorous body wouldn’t let me.  I wanted more, I wanted him.

“No, I want you…” I gulped, almost unable to say the words.  They seemed so silly, so romance novel, but it was all I could think to say to get what I wanted.  No, what I needed.  “I want you inside me.  Please.”

I could feel the bastard smiling in the darkness, and I wished again that I could have sent him away.  But, despite the pleasure he had given me, I still felt hollow inside.  I heard a rustle of cloth, then a zipper, and suddenly his warm, muscular body was covering mine.  His face rested in the hollow of my neck as his slid into me, and I gasped.  As he started a slow, mesmerizing rhythm, I let my mind disconnect from my body.  No conscious thoughts interrupted the waves or pleasure rolling over my body, rising higher until they crested in the best orgasm of my life.  I lay under him, shocked, dimly aware that he, too, had stopped moving and lay in a heap on top of me.  I heard his breathing, deep and ragged, and felt a small measure of happiness that I had managed to unsettle him a bit, too. 

Suddenly, he moved off of me, and I sat up.  I heard the rustle of clothing and grabbed for the lamp.  I flicked the switch, and looked around in the sudden brightness.  The living room was empty. 

And that, dear readers, is my idea of a perfect man.  Strong, capable, mysterious, and blessedly absent except when pleasuring you!

I stared at the post, unable to believe I had written it.  I mean, it was complete and utter drek, but it was still fairly…  Well, it was about sex.  And prim and proper little Rebecca would never talk about sex, let alone even try to write a steamy fantasy.  As I sat there, stewing, I clicked absently on my favorite links with the mouse.  Finally, my courage deserted me and I went back to delete the post.  But to my surprise, there was already a response!

Isoldranya had written:

Wow, that was awesome.  Think I’ll have to make a booty call, now.  Though, if you could, perhaps, write a girl-girl scene?  You can include a guy, but the sensuality between two women, well written – especially with your flair – would be amazing.  I would love to read that.  Keep up the good work!

I sat back, shocked.  I didn’t know what to say.  I was mortified by writing a simple, normal sex scene – I wasn’t sure if I could delve into deeper waters quite yet.  But, maybe, if it wasn’t my idea…  I mean, if I was writing someone else’s fantasy, now, that wouldn’t be nearly as embarrassing.  For whatever reason, that seemed to make sense to me.  Like when you’re giving a speech – it’s a million times worse when it’s a speech you’ve written, rather than reciting something that you’ve memorized.  So, I thought, what the hell.  I’ll give it a try.

I responded to Isoldranya, asking for some specifics so I could craft a story for her, and signed off.  I headed to bed, hoping that the week would pass uneventfully and quickly so that I could just get to next Friday, and my appointment with Voaughroth.  Of course, it did not.  And the trouble started early Monday morning.

My phone rang at 5:30 am. This is not a time I think it is reasonable for any human being to be awake, unless you haven’t gone to bed yet. I sighed as I thought of the hour of sleep I now was going to be denied, and silently rained every curse I knew at the person at the other end of the line. I rolled over and picked up the phone.

“Rebecca, did I wake you? Of course I did, silly me. It’s really early and I’m really sorry but I need… oh, god, I need you…” The voice broke off in a hysterical sob. It sounded familiar, but I wasn’t sure.

“Jen?” I asked tentatively “Is that you?”

‘I thought I heard something that resembled a “uh-huh” at the other end of the lie, then another strangle of wailing caused me to hold the phone out away from my ear, least I go deaf.

“Hey, hey, calm down,” I said slowly, in what I hoped was a soothing voice. “You have to tell me what happened. Take it easy. Deep breaths. Now, what’s going on?”

I heard her hiccupping on the other end of the line. Then her voice, barely a whisper said, “Brian…”

“Okay, what about Brian?” I asked slowly. Surely she didn’t call me at 5:30 in the morning to break down and confess about the affair. I was going to be royally pissed if she interrupted a good night’s sleep over something I already knew. Besides which, I wasn’t done tormenting her over it.

“He’s…” I heard a snuffle, “he’s… dead…”

Suddenly I was wide awake.  “What?” I asked stupidly, hoping I had misheard her.

“He’s dead.” She said again, her voice flat and unemotional.  “He was killed last night.”

“Killed?  As in, murdered?”  My mind struggled to grasp this concept.  Surely it had been an auto accident or something like that.  Who would want to murder Brian?

“Yes.”  She said, her voice hushed and frightened. “And they think I did it.”

“Of course you didn’t” I said matter-of-factly.  I had known Jen for years and while I was still miffed about her sleeping with Brian, I didn’t believe she could kill anyone.  Being a slut and being a murderess were two very different things.

“I’m at the police station,”  She said. “They’re done questioning me – for now – and I need a ride home.  Is there any way you could come get me?”

I said that of course I could, hung up the phone and got ready.  I figured I would still have enough time to drop her off, get a cup of coffee, and still get to work on time.  Funny, it never occurred to me that this would be a valid excuse for being a little late.  “Sorry, boss, but I had to collect my friend from the police station where she was being held for questioning in the death of my ex-boyfriend and her long-time lover.”

I drove downtown to the police station and when I saw Jen, it gave me a start.  She looked haggard and exhausted, giant purple circles under her red-rimmed eyes.  She smiled faintly when she saw me.

“Thank you so much for coming to get me.” She said as she got into my car.

“No problem.  Want to stop and grab some coffee before I take you home?”  I asked.

“No, no coffee for me.  I just want to go home, shower, and sleep for a week.”

We drove in silence for a little while.  I watched her out of the corner of my eye while navigating surprisingly heavy early-morning traffic.  Where were all these people going this time in the morning?  I glanced at the dashboard clock and noted that it was already almost 7 am.  I would have to hustle if I wanted that cup of coffee from the little coffee shop next to our office building.  They were always jam-packed in the morning.

Finally she broke the silence.  “Funny, you haven’t asked me what happened.” She said, looking at me with suspicion.

“I figured you didn’t want to talk about it.”  I shot back, not quite believing the accusation I read in her tone.  “Fine.  What happened?”

She looked a bit taken aback.  “You don’t even seem upset.” She said. “How can you not care?”

“I do care, I’m just not terribly broken up about it.  After all, he did just dump me and..” I trailed off, realizing I was about to tell her I knew all about her affair.  I didn’t want to deal with her rationalizations about why it happened now.  There was enough going on in my life as it was.

“And what?” She asked.  She was gazing at me with an inscrutable look in her eyes.

“And, strangely, it’s the least traumatic thing that’s happened to me in the last few weeks.” I finished up.

“What else has happened?” She asked, an insistence in her tone that made me glance at her.  But her face was still impassive and unreadable.

“There’s been a major shake-up at work, and the whole on-line thing has been more draining that I thought it would be.”  I said, vaguely.

It was then I pulled up in front of her apartment building.  She looked at me once last time, opened the door, and got out of the car.  As she was walking up the steps to her apartment building, I rolled down the passenger side window and called out to her, “Call me in you need anything, okay?”

She turned, nodded, and continued up the stairs.  I watched her until she was inside the front doors, then pulled back out into traffic.  I arrived at the coffee shop with about 15 minutes until work, decided the coffee would be worth any admonishments I would receive for being a tiny bit late, and hurried inside.  The heady aroma of coffee and fresh baked pastries lifted my spirits.  I ordered a Mocha Cappuccino and a cranberry muffin, and was on my way, ducking inside the office door with 15 seconds to spare.  Still, the secretary gave me a “tsk-tsk” look as she glanced from me to the clock, and I fought a ridiculous urge to stick my tongue out at her.

I sat down at my desk and turned on my computer.  As I did so, I mulled over my mood.  I didn’t know what most people felt like after someone they knew had been murdered, but I guessed that euphoria was not one of the more common emotions.  I sighed, and tried to concentrate on the columns of numbers on my screen.

At 10:30 am the call I’d been expecting finally came.

“Ms. Anderson?” A gruff male asked after I answered the phone.

“Yes?” I responded politely.

“This is Detective McKinney.  I was wondering if you’d have time to talk about the death of Brian Johnson sometime?” He asked.

“Of course.  What would be convenient for you?”

“Well, anytime that you have at least an hour to spare.  And I’d like to get the preliminary interviews done as soon as possible.”

“How about lunch?” I asked, figuring I could squeeze a little more than an hour out of Margaret if I told her I had to talk to the police. 

Anything to get out of this place for awhile.  My euphoria of the morning had worn off, and now I was just tired.

“Uh, sure.  That’ll be great.”  The detective seemed a bit taken aback.  I wondered if it was because I wasn’t a hysterical mess, or that I had just asked him out to lunch.  I winced as I thought how that might have come across.

“I normally just eat my lunch in the little park across the street from the office.”  I said quickly.  You can meet me there and we can talk.”
“How about I meet you in the front lobby of your office?”  He asked, and continued in a rushed manner, “Because I don’t know what you look like, and if the park is busy, since it’s such a nice day…”

Shit, I thought.  I was hoping to nip off and grab a bag lunch before I saw him.  I hadn’t brought anything with me today – though I often did – and I had blurted that out because he had seemed so uncomfortable with the idea of going out to lunch.

“Um, okay, how about 11:45?”  I asked, figuring I could run over to the coffee shop and get a bagel before he got there.

“That sounds fine.  See you then.”  And he hung up.

I sat back, mulling over the conversation I’d just had.  If the looks Jen had been giving me were any indication, she may well have cast some suspicion on me in her initial interview.  I didn’t think she knew that I knew about the affair, but you never know.  I gnawed on my lip, trying to decide if I’d own up to the knowledge to the detective.  After all, would knowing make me more likely to kill him?  I rather thought that it would seem unlikely that I’d kill him and not her if I knew about the affair, but…  And there was that whole guilt trip I had thrown on Jen at the movie.  I cringed when I looked back at it.  That would look bad.  Real bad.  I finally decided that owning up to the entire ordeal would be the best thing to do.  It was so bloody hard to keep track of too many lies, after all.

At 11:30 I hustled over to the café to grab my bagel, cream cheese, and a bottle of lemonade.  I desperately wanted coffee, but enough of my brain was still functioning that I realized it would be a dead giveaway that I hadn’t brought my lunch, after all.  I promised myself a cup on the way back in.  As I re-entered the office, and older man in a decent, but not expensive suit was standing in the lobby.  I froze, and looked at the clock.  11:40.  He was early!  I studied him for a moment, deciding he was exactly what I had expected after talking to him on the phone.  A gentle father-like figure I could open up to.  I stepped forward, just as Alicia came out from the back.

“Dad!” She cried, racing forward to hug the man.  They left the office together, and I figured I had at least been right about one thing.  As I watched the door start to swing shut after their departure, it was suddenly caught and pulled back open.  In strode a man in jeans and a sweater.  I almost dropped my bagel on the ground.  He seemed to fill the little reception area.  He was tall, broad shouldered, and absolutely breath-taking.  In a very manly way, of course.  My heart sank as he looked at me and said, “Ms. Anderson?” In that deep, gravely tone I recognized from the phone.

“Yes.” I squeaked, my heart pounding.  How was I supposed to open up to this man?  How was I supposed to pour out my whole sordid tale when all I could think about was how good he’d look naked and tangled in my sheets?  And where in the world were all of these thoughts coming from?  Me, gentle and mild-mannered Rebecca had metamorphosed into a panting, slobbering, wanton ball of desire the second e had walked into the room.  I shook my head to clear it.  “Shall we?” I asked in what I hoped was a cool tone, indicating the door.

He smiled and held it open for me.  The perfect gentleman, I thought.  Probably married.  I glanced at his hand.  No ring, but that didn’t mean anything.  Maybe he was just one of those guys that didn’t wear them.  I followed him out into the cool fall afternoon, trying to get a grip on my rampaging hormones.  We settle in the park, and as I munched on my bagel he filled me in on some of the details.

Evidently Jen and Brian had arrived at Brian’s house at about 11:00 pm on Sunday night.  Upon entering the residence, Brian had flicked on the lights and caught sight of an intruder.  He had pushed Jen back out the door, closed it, and she had then heard a gunshot.  She ran to the neighbor’s house, pounded on the door and pleaded with them to call 911.  When the police arrived, they found no sign of the intruder, and Brian was dead in the living room of a single gunshot to the head. There didn’t appear to have been a struggle.

“So,” I said when he had finished the summary, “you think he knew whoever shot him?”

“Very astute of you.”  He said giving me a level look.

“And I, as the jilted ex-girlfriend, and of course, a perfect suspect.”  I said, returning his level gaze.

“Um, yes, actually.  You are one of the people atop our suspect list.”  He said, dropping his gaze to the ground, almost as if embarrassed to have been called on this point.

“I understand.”  I said calmly, though my heart was racing.  “Unfortunately, I’m not exactly able to give an iron-clad alibi for last night.  I was at home, on the computer, until about 10.  Then I got ready for and went to bed.”

“Oh,” was all he said in return.

“Will there be anything else?” I asked, starting to rise.

He gabbed my arm to pull me back down onto the bench and I felt a jolt go through me.  All of the wanton thoughts I had managed to suppress came flooding back.  I felt my face flush slightly.  When he saw this, his mistook it for anger at being grabbed and dropped his hand from my arm.  I slowly sat back down.

“I’m sorry,” he said slowly, “just a few more questions.”

I inclined my head slightly as a gesture for him to continue. 

“You don’t seem very broken up about his death,” he said.  “May I ask why?”

“Well, Detective McKinney,” I started, but he interrupted me. 

“Call me Alan,” he said, “And may I call you Rebecca?”

“Sure, okay then, Alan, it’s like this…” and I poured out a condensed version of events about my relationship with Brian.  The fact that we had never been that close, that he had cheated on me (I did leave out that I knew who it was with) and that I had found myself somewhat uncaring about the break-up after the initial bout of hysterical crying.  I told him I was undergoing internet therapy, and that I was feeling pretty good about myself, and relieved that the whole crappy relationship was over.

“Internet therapy?” He asked, puzzled.

“Yeah,” I said, beginning to warm to the topic.  “I’m a pretty repressed and boring person, evidently, so my friends came up with the idea of me being able to let it all hang out, so to speak, on-line.  You know about LiveJournal?” I asked.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I blog there too.  I guess it is therapy, being able to talk about the work pressures and stuff anonymously.”

I smiled at him.  “Exactly.  So I’ve adopted a new, flamboyant personality, and am quite enjoying it.”  I stopped as I realized that this didn’t entirely make up for my lack of emotion over Brian’s death.  My lack of motive, perhaps, but I should feel something.  I cocked my head to one side and gave him a speculative look.

“I should be more upset by this, though, shouldn’t I?”  I asked.

“Well, different people deal with death in different ways, Ms… Rebecca.  It could be that you’re still in shock, or…” he trailed of.

“It could be that I’m an unfeeling bitch that just really doesn’t care?” I asked sweetly.

He grimaced, and sighed.  “Yes, it could be that.”

“Detective McKinney!  Did you just call me a heartless bitch?”  I asked in mock outrage, smiling at him.

Luckily, he did seem to know I was kidding, and smiled back at me.  Oh my god, the man was even more handsome when he gave you a full smile.  I felt the warmth spread through my body like warm honey.  Oh, what I would give to have that man naked and covered in honey.  I flushed again, as the images raced through my mind.  I caught myself just before I moaned out loud.

“Rebecca, are you alright?” He asked, looking at my flushed face with concern.

“Yes.  No.  Well…” I took a deep breath.  “Is there any way I can get another detective to do my interviewing?”

He looked taken aback, “I’m sorry, I really wasn’t calling you… I mean, if I’ve offended you…”  He stuttered, looking concerned.

“It’s not that!”  I rushed to reassure him.  I knew the types of accusations the police got when questioning suspects.  “You’ve been fine.  A perfect, professional gentleman.  It’s me, really, I…”  I looked at him hopelessly.  How was I going to talk myself out of this one?

“What about you?” he asked, puzzled.

I sighed, took a deep breath, and just blurted it out.  “How can I keep my mind on a murder while talking to you?  All I can imagine is how you look naked!  You’re too good-looking to be a detective.  I expected an older father figure I could open up to, who would be wise but aloof, and you…”  I trailed off miserably, casting my eyes downward.

He didn’t burst out laughing, as I was afraid he would.  Instead, he sat quietly regarding me for a moment.  “I think that’s the nicest compliment anyone’s paid me in a long time.  I can see what the Captain can do.”  He stood, and I stood as well, still not looking at him.  He put his hand under my chin and lifted my face to meet his gaze.  I stopped breathing.

“You take care, Rebecca.  I’ll talk to you later.”  And with that, he dropped his hand, and walked back towards the street, never once turning around.  I sat down on the bench and burst into tears.

When I got back to work, eyes only slightly red and swollen, I sat down at my desk and contemplated my computer screen miserably.  What had gotten into me?  I felt like Jim Carrey’s character in Liar, Liar.  I couldn’t have just told a lie, or better yet, just kept my mouth shut.  I suddenly felt gripped by a desire to watch that movie.  It was funny, and apropos, and I thought it just might lift my spirits.  On the way home, I stopped by the video store to rent a copy.

I was just about to settle into the movie with a big tub of popcorn when it occurred to me that perhaps I should call Jen and check up on her.  I also didn’t know if either Megan or Heather had been apprised of  the situation, and thought I should call them, as well.  I called Megan, then Heather, giving them a brief recap of the situation (omitting, of course, my foot in mouth scene with the detective).  Then I called Jen.

She seemed surprisingly upbeat, and I was reminded of my euphoric mood of this morning.  She brushed away questions of whether she was okay, and asked me what I was going to be at Megan’s costume ball this Wednesday.  I groaned.

“I forgot all about that.” I lamented. “What on earth can I put together in such a short amount of time?”

“Well,” Jen said, all the perkiness back in her voice, “you could always wear on of your renaissance costumes.  I know you have a few from the play you were in back in college, and all you need is one of those feathery masks.”

“It’s a mask ball, too.  I had forgotten.”  I sighed.  “Yes, I suppose that will have to do. But how trite and unoriginal.  I’m sure there will be tons of girls dressed like that.  With all the RenFests popping up all over the place, the medieval costumes are all the rage.  Wanna place a wager on how many pirates that have Johnny Depp eyeliner there will be?”

She chuckled.  “But it’s something you have, so you don’t have to stress over it.”  She paused. “Do you have more than one?  I don’t have anything, and…”

“Of course!  I think I have three.”  I thought back to the play, “the red and gold one, the green one, and there was a silvery one.”

“Oooh, silver, please!”  She said.

“No problem.  I’ll bring it by tomorrow.  Are you sure you’re okay?”  I asked again.

“Fine, fine.  Sorry I was in such a state this morning.  I didn’t sleep at all last night with the questioning, so…  I really didn’t mean anything…”

“It’s fine, I understand.”  I cut her off.  We said goodbye, and I went to my closet to try to unearth the dresses.  Once I delved into the store of old costumes, I found I had not one, but two silvery dresses.  One had faintly bluish accents, the other, a violet hue.  I decided to wear the violet one myself, and loan Jen the bluish one.  I laid the gowns out in the living room and went back to my movie.

Tuesday and Wednesday passed uneventfully.  I didn’t hear anything back from the police department, and though I wondered about the state of the investigation, I dared not call and talk to Alan.  Even the thought of him made me warm inside.  Wednesday I dropped the gown off at Jen’s on the way home, and went back to my apartment to get ready.

I arrived at Megan’s party fashionably late, and noted that there were, indeed, a huge number of Renaissance maidens, pirates, and knights in attendance.  All were wearing masks.  I recognized my dress, thought there were several silver ones, and assumed it was Jen in it, though I couldn’t be sure.  I marveled at how a tiny little mask really could change one’s appearance.

I decided to not go over and greet Jen, I was enjoying the anonymity the masked ball gave me.  I was enjoying myself thoroughly when I heard a man’s whisper in my ear.

“Darling Rebecca,” he said, his voice pitched low and unrecognizable.  I felt his arms go around my waist, spin me around and sweep me into the waltz that was playing.  I tried to get a closer look at his face, but he kept me pulled tightly to him, and he was much taller than I was.  All I could tell is that he was wearing a black cape (him and 50 other guys) and was a marvelous dancer.  As we danced, his hands began to roam up and down my body.  I tried to twist away, but he held me tight.  He leaned down again to whisper in my ear.

“It’s a dangerous game you play, Rebecca, be careful you don’t get hurt.”  And with that, he spun me around, and disappeared from the dance floor.

My mind reeled as I stumbled toward an alcove in the hall.  I felt like I should have recognized that voice.  It seemed familiar, but in a whisper, I couldn’t quite place it.  Did it have a hint of an accent?  A gravely quality?  What was it that made me feel like I knew it?

I was standing, holding up the wall of the alcove, when a voice I thought I did recognize said, “There you are!” and a pirate grabbed me by the waist.  I was shocked, because the face, the body, and the voice reminded me of… Brian.  I thought surely it was my brain playing tricks on me, but as he grinned at me, I saw Brian’s lopsided dimples.  My mouth fell open.  The pirate, unfazed by my silence, swept me off into an adjoining room. 

I was still silent as he pushed me up against the wall and began to kiss me.  Even his kisses reminded me of Brian’s, and that wasn’t a favorable comparison.  Suddenly I began to panic.  Fantasies notwithstanding, being pawed by a complete stranger was not fun.  I pushed away.

“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”  The pirate asked, looking hurt and confused.

My panic began to subside.  He wasn’t some psychopath that just wanted to maul anonymous women, it was just a case of mistaken identity.  Still, my knees felt a little wobbly and my voice shook slightly when I replied.

“I’m not your sweetheart.  It looks like you got the wrong woman.”

“Oh my god!”  He looked surprised, then embarrassed.  “I’m sorry.  My girlfriend said she’d be here in a silver gown, and you’re her size…”  He fingered my temporarily auburn locks, and said, “And I just thought she might have temporarily dyed her hair.  She talked about being a red head…”  He trailed off miserably.

“It’s okay,” I smiled up at him.  “I dyed my hair, too.  So it’s understandable.  How about we just not say anything about this?”

“And leave it as an honest mistake between two strangers?”  He said, hopefully.  His tone again reminded my acutely of Brian’s.  I shook off the chill that thought brought with it.  Suddenly I felt daring again.

“Not entirely strangers.  You can be a stranger to me, but I’ll let you know my name, okay?”  I winked impishly and smiled a seductive smile at him.  “That way you’ll know if you ever run into me again.”

He grinned.  “Sure!”

“I’m Brax, short for Vesbraxion.  Yes, yes, I know,” I held up a hand as he started to say something, “my parents were hippies and were probably high when they named me.  But I’m okay with it – at least it’s unique.”  And with that, I curtsied and exited the room.

I made a beeline for the front door, eager to put this entire night behind me.  I jumped in my car and speed home, shaking the entire way.  I ran up to my apartment, turned on all the lights, and sat in the middle of the living room trying not to have a nervous breakdown. 
After about an hour, I realized I was dreadfully uncomfortable, and felt the overwhelming desire to draw a deep breath.  I unlaced the corset and air whooshed into my lungs.  I exchanged the rest of the dress for a pair of comfy flannel pajamas and curled up on the couch to watch some TV.  I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke the screen was showing an infomercial and the cluck read 4:56.  I blearily rolled off of the couch and went to make some coffee.  Yawning, I flicked the TV station to watch the early morning news.  They started out with a story of murder.

As I listened, I realized that this murder was eerily similar to Brian’s.  The man had been seen entering is home by neighbors, who then heard a gunshot.  No one was seen leaving the house, and there was no sign of any struggle.  I started as they identified the man as another employee of Botcliff and Stevenson, the same advertising firm Brian worked – well, had worked – for.

I didn’t really expect any contact from the police for the rest of the week, since it now seemed obvious that Brian’s murder was most likely work related, so I was surprised when Detective McKinney called me Friday afternoon.

“Rebecca, hi,” he said, after I answered the phone.  “It’s Alan McKinney, uh, the detective…”

“Hello,” I said softly, my cheeks flaming with the memory of what I had last said to him.

“I was wondering, well, um, could we meet somewhere, for coffee or something?”  He asked, seeming uncharacteristically nervous.

“Oh,” I said, “I figured you wouldn’t need to interview me any more, since, well, since it seems obvious that Brian’s murder…”

“This isn’t police business.”  He said, clearing his throat.  “I just wanted to take you out for a cup of coffee.”

I was silent a moment.  The hunky detective was asking me, slightly pudgy mouse brown haired boring old Rebecca on a coffee date?  So it wasn’t dinner, or a movie, but still…

“Um, sure.”  I tried for nonchalance, and think I succeeded.  Unless he could hear me jumping up and down, dancing around my desk.  Melissa looked at me like I had gone off the deep end.  I grinned at her.

“How about tomorrow morning?” He asked, “The coffee shop next to your apartment building?”

“You know where I live?” I gasped, momentarily taken aback.  I recovered quickly.  “Of course you do.  You’re the police.  Sorry.  The whole murder thing probably has me a little jumpy.”

“I understand.”  He said, and I could hear the smile in his voice.  I pictured him, smiling, as he leaned in to kiss me.  His large warm hands gentle cupping my face…  “Rebecca?”  His voice broke through my daydream.

“Gah!” I said, startled.  “Um, oh, yes, that would be fine.  How about eight-ish?”

“That will be lovely.”  He said, and we exchanged goodbyes and hung up the phone.

I danced not only around my desk, but Melissa’s as well, being all-out childish and chanting “I have a date with a hunky detective” until she threatened to staple me to my chair.  I have learned (don’t ask) that when Melissa brandishes her stapler, you listen.  Somewhat calmer, I told her all about the delicious Detective McKinney.

I bounced all the way home that evening.  I not only had a date tonight (okay, so it was virtual, but it was still the best thing I’d had in a long time), but I had a coffee date in the morning!  Could this week get any better?  Apart from the gruesome murder of my cheating ex-boyfriend, that is.
Well, I ran into Alex in the hallway, and I’d like to say he made the week absolutely perfect by asking me out on Saturday night, but he didn’t.  I sighed as I closed my front door.  He had been his usual polite but aloof self.  What is it about that attitude that drives women completely mad?  I shook my head and went to get ready for my “date.”

I was another stimulating evening, and I don’t just mean physically.  We had a lovely conversation afterwards (go figure!) about movies, books, and all sorts of pop culture.  Turns out he likes a lot of the same BBC shows I do, and shares the same disdain for reality television.  He was perfect!  I signed off, reluctantly, at about 2 am, realizing that I had to get a little sleep before my real life date in the morning.

When the alarm went off at 7 am I groaned.  I dragged myself out of bed and made myself somewhat presentable, if not stunning.  I made it to the coffee shop with 5 minutes to spare, but he was already seated at on of the little tables in the corner.  My stomach did a little flip when I saw him, and I felt a delicious warmth spread throughout my body.  I was just making my way to the counter to order when he saw me and jumped up.

“Rebecca!”  He hurried over to stand in line with me.  “How are you this morning?”

I rubbed my eyes and peered up at him with exaggerated sleepiness.  “Who one earth suggested such an ungodly hour?” I yawned.

“Hm, that would have been you, my dear.”  He rolled his eyes at me as I recoiled in shock and disbelief.

“Me?  I would never suggest such a thing.  Unless I was mad.  In which case, what are you doing out with a madwoman?”

He laughed, and leaned over and hugged me.  I hugged him back, fighting the urge to bury my face in his chest and not let go.  He released me, but kept one arm around my waist and guided me forward as the line moved toward the cashier.

“Know what you want?”  He asked casually.  And suddenly it felt like we were a couple, one that had been together a long time and had fallen into an easy routine.  It was a strange feeling, on I had never really had with Brian, even after three years.  I mean, here I was on a first date, in an outfit only one step above pajamas, my hair in a hurried ponytail, no make-up, and feeling completely relaxed with a man I barely knew.

We got our coffee and muffins and sat at an open table.  We talked for two hours, about everything and nothing.  The silences weren’t strained, and the conversation flowed.  It was too perfect.  I couldn’t believe it was for real.  I kept asking questions, looking for flaws – if this guy was that great, how could he still be single?

When we finally got up to go (after a half an hour of very pointed looks by the waiter), he walked me to the door of my apartment building.  There we stood, facing one another, and he smiled, leaned down, and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek.  He squeezed my arm and was off down the sidewalk.  I turned and went into my building, puzzled and, I have to admit, disappointed.

Alex was just leaving his apartment when I reached my door.

“Hey, Alex,” I said, “can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” He replied, looking curiously at my tousled appearance.

I paused, unsure how to phrase my question.  I pursed my lips, frowned, and said, “It’s about guys…”

“Then I might even be qualified to answer,” he smiled at me, and I felt all warm inside again.  What was wrong with me that I was suddenly considering a simple smile foreplay?

“Okay, I was on a date with this guy,” I started, but he cut me off.

“This morning?”  He asked, his eyebrow raised as his eyes once again accessed my appearance.  I don’t know what it is that is so incredibly hot about a guy who can raise on e eyebrow, but I melted a little more inside.  I began to worry for my internal organs, what with all this heating and liquefying.  Still, I mustered up a frosty glare.

“Yes, this morning, and yes, like this!”  I replied haughtily.  “And he didn’t seem to mind, at all.  He even hugged me, and held my arm, and we talked…”

“But…” he prompted.

“But, at the end of the date, he just kissed me on the cheek and left.  And gave my arm a very sisterly squeeze.  I mean, what’s up with that?”  I eyed him critically, as if he were responsible for the whole male gender.

“Maybe he’s gay, and he just wanted to chat as a friend?”  He asked, mildly.

“Hmm,” I mused.  “I don’t think so.  Probably just didn’t fancy me in that way.”  I sighed.

“Are you all bent out of shape just because you didn’t get a proper kiss on your first date?”  He asked, almost sternly.

“Well, yes…” I said in a small voice.

“And because of this, you plan on going into your apartment, shutting yourself off from the world an moping?”  He continued.

“Maybe.”  I said, even more softly.

“And all that was needed to prevent that was a kiss?”  He said.

I looked at him, confused.  He looked slightly distracted, and I realized I was probably keeping him from something important.  “I’m sorry, you must be busy.  I didn’t mean to keep you,” and I turned to my door.  He reached out and grabbed my arm, pulling me up against him.

He looked down into my face and said softly, “I can’t be responsible for you being depressed all day.”

And then his kissed me.  Softly at first, and then with increasing passion.  His one had stayed lightly grasping my arm, the other reached up to cup the side of my face.  After a few dizzying moments, he stepped back and dropped my arm, his hand still caressing my face.

“Feel better?” He asked.

I nodded dumbly.  He smiled, dropped his other hand and walked off down the hall.  I watched him until he disappeared down the stairs, my hand rising to touch my lips in such a cliché motion I would have laughed if I wasn’t so utterly taken aback by what had just happened.  My stomach churned and my head reeled as I let myself into my apartment.  I mean, that kiss had been magical.  And I mean earth shaking magical, for me at least.  Alex seemed not to have noticed a thing, as if he grabbed strange woman and kissed them all the time.  Maybe he did.  Come to think of it, I had no idea what Alex did, anyway.

I sat on the sofa, even more miserable than before.  I didn’t know what either Alex or Alan thought of me, and I was completely in love with each of them for different reasons.  Okay, that might be a smidgen of an overstatement.  I was certainly in lust with each of them, at least.  I could imagine long, slow lazy afternoons with Alan in bed, relaxed and comfortable.  At the same time, I could imagine wildly exciting sex with Alex.  Two very different men.  And I wanted them both.  And I didn’t even know if either of them wanted me.

“Gah!” I yelled out loud to the empty apartment.  “This sucks.  I’m going out,” I declared defiantly to my toaster.  I got dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, ran a brush through my hair and put on a light coating of make-up.  I grabbed my purse and stuck out my tongue at the toaster as I flounced out of the apartment.

Once out in the street I sucked in a lungful of the cool autumn air.  The weather was turning chill, though it had been fairly warm until now.  I contemplated going back in to grab a jacket, but decided if I got too cold I would just buy a new one.  I felt like shopping, anyway.

Three hours later, a new jacket and half of my Christmas shopping done I sat at a café eating my lunch and enjoying a cup of coffee.  I gazed across the street and almost dropped my cup.  It was Brian.  And Jen.  I blinked, and they had disappeared.  I searched the street, but couldn’t see any sign of the couple I would have sworn was there only a minute ago.  I shook my head.  The stress must be getting to me.  I resolved to go home, clean up the apartment, and get a good night’s sleep.  With that, I picked up my bags and walked home.

Once I got there, my intentions were to stow the presents, do some laundry, clean the kitchen, and catch up on my blogging.  Those incredibly exciting plans were, unfortunately, put on hold when played the message on my answering machine.

It was Brian’s parents.  Evidently they were unaware of our break-up and expected me to help plan his funeral and clean out his apartment.  I had met them only once, briefly, and they had gotten my number from Brian’s day planner.  I grudgingly gathered up my purse and coat and went back out into the chill air, phoning them on the way saying I would meet them at Brian’s.

The whole drive over I tried to figure out how I was going to act.  I mean, I wasn’t all broken up the way you’d expect a girlfriend to be, which is understandable.  I did have the cool indifference of a jilted lover down to the tee, unfortunately.  I sighed as I pulled up in front of his house.  I’d just have to do the best that I could.

I thought about waiting on the front porch, until I remembered I still had a key.  I fished around in my purse until I found it.  Gah!  If I’d only remembered that sooner I could have wrecked so much havoc on his life…  But then, I guess I wouldn’t have been able to trump his being murdered.  I let myself in the front door, and stood just inside, taking it in.

The heat had obviously been turned down, and the air inside was just as cold as the air outside.  Everything else felt just as it did the last time I had been there.  There was no sign of another woman, no lingering fragrance or forgotten article of clothing lying about.  I wandered into the bedroom, where everything was neat and tidy as always.  Of course he’d made his bed the last day he had gotten up – Brian was obsessive about things like that.  I always thought, in the back of my mind, that we would never be able to live together for that reason.  My bed was never made, and my clothes were always strewn about.  I think I once saw Brian folding his clothes before he put them in the hamper.  I sighed, and strolled around the rest of the apartment, suddenly unaccountably sad.

Sure, Brian was a dick.  Sure, he treated me badly.  But, to be fair, I didn’t treat him all that well, either.  I mean, I never cheated on him or anything, but I wasn’t a model girlfriend.  We really should have broken up years ago.  But, somehow, it was just more comfortable to ignore the problems and just pretend…  I felt a tear slip down my cheek as I remembered some of the fun we’d had in this house.  Funny, when someone is really gone, all you remember are the good times.

That’s where I was when his parents walked in, standing in the middle of the kitchen, silently crying.  His mom put her arms around me, and we stood there while his dad watched awkwardly.  After a few minutes, I pulled back and wiped my eyes.

“I don’t know if you remember us,” his mom said, “But I’m Jean and this is Gary.”  She indicated her husband with a vague wave of her hand.

“Thank you for coming to help up, Rebecca.”  He said stiffly.

“I’m not sure what you’d like me to do…” I trailed off hesitantly.

His mom sighed.  “Well, we have to get the house ready to sell.  So we need to sort through his belongings, decide what we want to keep, and get the rest of the stuff ready to sell.”

And that is how I spent the next four weeks working at Brian’s house, meticulously going through everything in his house.  The police occasionally dropped by to see if I had found anything of interest, but other than the computer they had already taken and were analyzing, nothing seemed strange of unusual.  I opted to keep nothing for myself, Brian’s mom and dad kept a few things, and his brother dropped by once when I wasn’t there and left a note indicating the things he had taken.  I remembered that he had a brother, but they had some sort of falling out about a year before I met Brian and they’d not spoken since.  I’d never even heard Brian mention his name.  The note was signed “Dave,” so at least I could finally put a name, if not a face, to his brother.

The Wednesday after Thanksgiving was the day of the estate sale.  I had spent Thanksgiving weekend catching up on my blogging, getting my name back out there in the communities, and fulfilling a few fantasy requests for fans of Brax’s.  Some of them weren’t easy, but with each passing story, I found myself getting more and more comfortable with the genre of erotica.  And I think me newfound confidence showed in the stories.  I was getting a larger and larger fan base, and had even started a second on-line “affair.”  My Friday nights with Voaughroth remained a bright spot in my week, but now I also had Tuesday evenings with Tathelm to look forward to.  Tathelm’s journal was a typical blog, filled with current events and ramblings, but not a lot of personal details.  I did know that he lived in this city, which made me slightly uneasy, but I figured there were millions of people here, what was the chance I would ever run into him?  Besides, we wouldn’t know each other if we did run into one another.  Ah, the wonders of the anonymous internet age! 

Isoldranya and I had had a little bit of banter, and I found out that while she fantasized about women, none of her friends had any inkling and she was in a relationship with a guy.  But she wanted to explore this part of her before she got married, so, she was taking it for a spin on-line.  Though I doubted this was the best way to deal with her feelings, I realized that any criticism was the pot calling the kettle black and wisely kept my mouth shut.  I indulged her fantasies and wrote her several stories, which brought in a whole new audience to Brax’s circle of friends.

Alex was the one part of my life that left me flustered.  Sure, I could handle the disposal of my ex-boyfriend’s estate, using it as an excuse to avoid my friends, all while juggling two on-line personalities, but I couldn’t handle seeing my neighbor who had once kissed me and now acted as if nothing had happened.  He was as cool and polite as ever, never once mentioning the incident.  An incident that was still very much front and center in my mind.

Alan and I hung out, but it was all very “just friend” kind of activities.  He was very attentive, and would hug me or take my hand, but I still hadn’t gotten more than a kiss on the cheek.  Despite some evidence to the contrary, I began to seriously wonder about Alex’s supposition that he was, indeed, gay.  It was either that, or I was so unattractive to him that he wasn’t at all interested.  For the sake of my pride and self-esteem, I started looking harder for signs of him being gay.

The day of the estate sale two things happened.  One, the coroner finally released Brian’s body for burial.  Two, Jen stopped by to tell me she was engaged. 

“I know this isn’t at all the time to be happy, Rebecca, but…”  She flushed, looking at me guiltily.

“Who is it?  I didn’t even know you were seeing anyone!”  I asked, genuinely confused.  I mean, I saw her with Brian, and here she was, a month later, getting hitched to another guy?

“We’ve been seeing each other for about a year, on and off.  I couldn’t tell you because of Brian, and then…”  She broke off, staring at my shocked face.

“A year?  And you kept it a secret?  Why?”  I sputtered, really confused now.

“Well,” she started, but then a guy walked up behind her and put his arm around her.  I was frozen with shock.  It was, or at least it looked like, Brian.

The man immediately stepped forward and put out his hand.  “Hi, I’m Dave, Brian’s brother.”

I blinked, and automatically took his hand and shook it.  “H-hello.”

“He never mentioned we were twins, did he?”  Dave asked, looking at my shocked face worriedly.

And then I spilled the whole tale.  Seeing them, my suspicions, my subsequent behavior.  Jen took it in good humor, though you could tell she was hurt that I would believe the worst in her.  I apologized, but she waved it away.

“It’s okay, what were you supposed to think?”  She said sympathetically.  “You were hurt and confused.  I understand.”

Then she told me the whole story of how she had come to be at Brian’s house that evening.  The police had never volunteered any information to me, and I had never asked.  I assumed I had known the reason, but it turns out I was completely wrong. Jen and Dave had been having a drink at a local bar.  Brian had come in with a group of men.  He hadn’t noticed them at first, being absorbed in what appeared to be a business talk with the men.  Then things had gotten ugly, and the rest of his group had left, after shouting vague threats at Brian.  That’s when he had turned around and seen them, and proceeded to sit down at their table, drink, and take out his anger on them.  He had gotten so drunk that Jen had to drive him home.  He refused to step foot inside a car with his “worthless no-good” brother, so Dave had stayed at the bar, waiting for Jen to return.  After he got the call about what had happened, he went down to the police station and had been in with a sketch artist when I picked Jen up.

“Sorry to call you, Rebecca, but I just wanted out of there and I didn’t know how long it would be.”  Jen apologized.

“Oh, no, no problem.”  I assured her.  “So what was Brian doing?  What kind of a business meeting?”

“Well,” Dave said, “The only thing I can think of, based on what he said when he was trying to get me to go in with him – which is what caused the huge fight – was that is was some sort of international trade business, only not legal.”

“Smuggling?”  I gasped.  “You have got to be joking.  Smuggling?  Brian?”  Please…”

“Think about it.”  Jen urged, “He was always going on business trips, which gave him the perfect opportunity.  He always had a little more money than he should have – but he was pretty cool about that, not overspending so much as to make anyone suspicious.  It’s just that after the fact, we can look back and see all those little tell-tale signs that we missed.”

I thought back.  Suddenly it DID seem to make perfect sense.  A lot of little, inconsequential things suddenly had meaning.

“Rebecca,” Jen said softly.  “There’s one other thing I have to tell you.  Brian said something to me on the drive to his house.  He was so drunk he was rambling incoherently for most of it, but he did say this.  He told me, ‘Jen, if something bad happens, I want you to know… want you to tell Bec, that I love her.  She’s the only one for me, and I just did what I had to do to protect her, y’know?  Because if I didn’t hurt her… push her away… bad things, Jen, bad things...’  And that’s when we got to his house.”

My eyes welled with tears.  I sniffed.  “I feel so bad now, all the bad things I’ve thought.  And a lot of stuff makes sense…  If only…” 

Dave smiled grimly.  “Yeah, if only.”

I looked up at Jen, suddenly very angry.  “Why did you wait to tell me this?”

“I… I didn’t know if I should.”  She hesitated.  “I didn’t know if the truth would cause you even more pain.”

“The truth is always better, Jen.  Always.”  I stared at her, my eyes cold.  She looked pleadingly at Dave, but he turned away.

“Well, I guess I’ll be going, then.”  She said softly, and when I didn’t comment, she walked slowly away.

I spent the next week coming to grips with my new found knowledge.  I moved on autopilot, finally grieving for Brian.  The funeral was small but tasteful, and his house was sold.  The few things I had pulled from his house after Jen had told me about his confession were all I had left of him.  But the sadness was tempered by a sense of reality – I had never really known Brian, so how could I grieve for him?  Slowly my life started to get back on track.

And then Alan finally kissed me.

It was a date like most of the others, a companionable drink after work at the local bar.  When he walked me up to my front stoop, I turned my cheek up for the ritual good-night peck.  He sighed, and looked down at me.  He grasped my chin in his hand and turned my face towards his.  He looked into my eyes.

“I know you’ve been wondering what’s been going on,” he said slowly.  I nodded mutely.  “Well, just yesterday you were officially cleared as a suspect in the death of Brian.  I couldn’t allow anything to happen while you were still listed as a suspect, because of conflict of interest regs.  But now…”

And he leaned forward and kissed me.  And it was worth the wait, let me tell you.  His lips were soft, but strong, his hands pulling me tight up against him.  I moaned into his mouth, and he deepened the kiss.

Alex chose that exact moment to leave the building.  He looked at me and Alan, raised a single eyebrow in that infuriating way, and said coolly, “Be careful, chap, she nips when she’s excited.”

Then he sauntered off towards the taxi waiting at the curb.  I froze in Alan’s arms. He looked at me, the question in his gaze.

“I can explain,” I choked, my tongue darting out to moisten my lips.  I told him about the meeting in the hall after our first date (leaving out the bit about his possible homosexuality) and assured him that nothing had happened after that.  He seemed somewhat mollified, but declined my offer of going upstairs, claiming he had something else planned.  It sounded like an excuse, but secretly I was slightly relieved, because it was Tuesday, and almost time for my chat with Tathelm.

As I trudged up the stairs I wondered how I was relieved to be free to pursue an on-line affair at the expense of a possible real thing.  I decided I still wasn’t as adventurous as I thought, and the idea of getting involved again – after what I went through with Brian – was a little daunting.  The on-line business was so much neater and simpler, if not as satisfying. 

This did not, however, reduce my anger towards Alex one bit.  I resolved to confront him as soon as my chat was over, provided he was back home.  Sadly, the maelstrom of emotions swirling through my head didn’t allow me to enjoy my, er, conversation with Tathelm and I found myself, for the first time, faking it.  It would have been comical if I hadn’t been so angry and confused.  As soon as I could I signed off, gathered my courage, and marched across the hall to pound on Alex’s door.

He opened it, looking a little disheveled.  “Yes?”

“Hi.  We need to talk.  Now.”  I said brusquely, brushing past him into his apartment.  It occurred to me that I had never been inside his apartment, or even really seen in through the front door.  It annoyed me now to see it so tastefully furnished.  I was looking for anything and everything to criticize, and I could find no fault with his décor. 

“He closed the front door and leaned against it.  “And what do we need to talk about?”

Then it occurred to me that I was in a strange man’s apartment, and he was holding the only escape route closed.  I guess I should have been afraid, but it was a little exciting.  After all, it wasn’t as if he was a complete stranger.  I mean, he was Alex.

“That stunt out on the front step.  What the hell was that?”  I snarled, poking a finger into his chest.  Bravado, I told myself.  Don’t let him think you’re intimidated by his lanky 6’2” frame, disarming good looks and charming smile.

“I was simply telling him the truth, my dear.”  He said simply.

“I nibble?!  Where on earth did you come up with such utter nonsense?”  I frowned at him, and shook my head.  As I went to drop my hand, his snaked out and grasped my wrist firmly.  He pulled me up against his chest, reaching around with his other hand to grasp the back of my head.
I stared at his, breathless, as he lowered his lips to mine.  He kissed me softly, gently, and placed my trapped hand flat against his shoulder.  His hand then moved to the small of my back, pulling me even tighter and molding my body to his.  I moaned, and he took advantage and deepened the kiss.  His tongue caressed mine, and I felt waves of desire flood my body.  The hand that had been laying flat against his chest was now fisted, grabbing on to his shirt and tugging him toward me.  He pulled back slightly, breaking the contact and then gently dropping feather light kisses on my lips, stopping to caress them with his tongue.  I gentle sucked on his lower lip, and suddenly found myself nibbling gently on it.  I gasped and pulled back.  He grinned down at me.

“You nibble.”  He said.

I pushed against him as hard as I could, but his arms held me tight.  Glared at him.  He leaned down to kiss me again, and I turned my head. 

Undeterred, he nibbled at the base of my neck, sending a delicious tingling sensation down my body.  I shuddered, and renewed my efforts to push him away.

“Let. Me. Go” I said through gritted teeth.  Abruptly, he released me.  I stumbled backwards, and glared at him.  “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I was showing you where I had gotten such ‘complete and utter nonsense,’ as you put it.  You challenged my honor.  I had to redeem myself.”  He smiled again, looking very pleased with himself.

“Bastard.” I spat out.  I was breathing heavily, half from passion, half from anger.  He looked so cool and relaxed, like a cat playing with a mouse.  I lifted my chin and said haughtily, “If you would excuse me?”  And looked pointedly at the door he rested against.

He quietly stepped aside and opened the door for me.  As I was leaving, he leaned down ad whispered in my ear, “You know where to find me, love.”

I didn’t turn around once as I stomped back across the hall, unlocked my front door and slammed it behind me.  Once in my living room, I dissolved into tears on my couch.  How could he be so cold, and yet… so very passionate?  I sniffed.  Must have something to do with being English, I thought nastily.  Suddenly the buzzer rang.  I dragged myself to the door to answer it.

“Yes?”  I said.

“Hey, Rebecca, it’s me, Alan.  I got done with my thing and wondered if you still wanted company?”  A slightly tinny voice answered back.

“Sure, come on up.”  I said, and buzzed him in.  Then I ran to the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face, and ran a brush through my hair.  Just as I finished there was a knock on my door.  I answered it, mustering the best smile I could.  Alan leaned against the doorframe, looking wonderfully cuddly and handsome.  He smiled at me, and I ushered him in to my living room.

“Can I get you a drink?”  I asked, already heading to the kitchen.

“Sure, whatever you have is fine.”  He called back, heading for the couch.  Men have a sixth sense for remote controls, I think, because he had found mine (which had been wedged down between two sofa cushions) and had the TV by the time I got back from the kitchen with two glasses of wine.  He flicked over to a college football game, and settled into the couch.

We spent a companionable evening watching football, screaming at the refs, and cuddling.  When the game was over he stood up to leave.  I walked him to the door.  He looked down at me.

“I don’t know what to think about this Alex guy,” He said softly, “But if you say there’s nothing to it, I believe you.”  And he leaned down and kissed me.  My stomach churned, from the excitement of the kiss, the wine, and the incredible guilt.  I couldn’t honestly say there was nothing to it now, not after what had just happened.  But I didn’t want to drive Alan away if there wasn’t anything there.  I just didn’t know.  So I smothered my inner conscience and kissed Alan back.  After a few moments of heady kisses, he broke away.

“I’d better get going,” he said, “early morning tomorrow, and all that.”

He smiled, and left.  I closed the door after him and slumped against it.  I groaned, and sank to the floor.  My head was spinning, and I didn’t know what to do.  If only I knew what Alex thought of me.

Suddenly I straightened.  The hell with pride, I thought.  I want to know what’s going on.  I flung open my door, and there stood Alex.

“I-I-I was just coming to see you.” I stammered out.

“Yes, I was waiting for your boyfriend to leave before I snuck over here.  It felt like we had some unfinished business.”  He said, and started to walk through the door.  I held up a hand to stop him.

“Wait.  I just have to ask you a question.”  I stopped, and swallowed hard.

“You want to know my intentions, love?”  He smiled at me.  “Whether you’re just a game to me, or if we might someday settle down in a cottage with a white picket fence and 2.3 kids?”

“Um, sort of.  I don’t really want kids, but knowing if you want a relationship or just casual sex would be nice.”  I replied, shaken by his deductions.  Maybe he did have super powers.

“Are you implying that casual sex is an option?”  He raised an eyebrow.  “Because if so…”  And he raised a hand to start unbuttoning his shirt.

“Ah!”  I flung out a hand to stop him.  “No, I am not saying that is definitely an option.”

He cocked his head to one side, grinning at me.  “But it does at least have the possibility of being an option?”

I pursed my lips and looked at him.  Suddenly I felt very brazen.  Maybe it was the wine.  Maybe it was the sleep deprivation.  Whatever made me do it, I found myself saying, “Maybe.  Let’s see.  Take of your shirt.”

He raised both eyebrows, but obeyed and dropped his shirt to the ground.  I walked up to him, running my hand over his muscled chest.  I walked around him, dragging my fingertips across his equally muscular back.  When I got back to the front, I let my fingers trail down over his flat stomach as I dropped my hand.  I looked up into his eyes, licked my lips and said, “We’ll see.  Go home now, I’m tired.”

And I walked into the kitchen.  I didn’t come out until I heard the front door close behind him.  Then I raced to it, locked it, and collapsed on the floor for the second time that evening.  My legs were shaking and I was close to hyperventilating.  What was wrong with me?  And what was I going to do now?

I climbed into bed, and tossed and turned until it was time to get up and go to work.  Groggily, I got ready and headed into the kitchen to make some coffee.  I saw a slip of paper sitting on the floor in front of my door.  Shakily, I walked up to it, remembering the mysterious envelope incident.  Instead, it was a message from Alex.

Dear Rebecca,
I had to leave this morning on business, and I fear I shall be gone for at least a month, as I am traveling to Australia and India.  I hope that when I get back you will have made up your mind as to whether I am worthy of your bed.  And perhaps by then you will have tired of the detective and I won’t even need to sneak over to your place.  In the meantime, sweet dreams, my love.
Yours,
Alex

I stared at the paper, now shaking in my hand, with a mix of sadness and relief.  It didn’t solve my problems, but it did postpone the inevitable decision.  Because no matter what changes had happened to me in the last few weeks, I still wasn’t the sort of girl who would string along two guys.  I bit my lip.  Except on the internet.  And that didn’t count.  Did it?  I sat on the couch and dropped my head into my hands and groaned.  I was pretty certain most people would consider an on-line affair cheating.

That night, though I was tired and cranky, I crafted a Brax blog entry.

Hello, lovelies!

Today I pose a moral dilemma for you.  Yours truly has met someone, and though I dearly love our time together here, I have a question.  What level of intimacy on the internet constitutes cheating?  I realize the lines drawn in the sand of this topic are hazy and indistinct, however, I am interested in hearing your personal viewpoint.  I will screen the comments to protect your privacy, so please be honest!

My thoughts are thus: The sharing of erotic stories, fantasies and sex tips is completely okay.  Actual on-line sex chats, however, would have to cease.  I would feel that this was somehow a betrayal, even though nothing truly physical was happening.  I cannot defend this position, though, with any rational argument.  While it is more involved than, say, daydreaming about a movie star, it is no more real (providing that you do not know, or ever meet, the person you chat with) or tangible than that.  And yet it still just feels wrong.

And so I am, strange as it seems, looking to you to be my moral compass.  Let me know what you think, and help me do what is right.

Yours,
Brax.

Then I fell, exhausted, into bed.  That night I dreamed I was back in at Megan’s masquerade ball.  I remembered vividly the man who had danced with me, had called me by name.  And the other… I sat up in bed, remembering how much he had reminded me of Brian.  And his girlfriend had been wearing a silver dress…  Suddenly I realized that I had kissed Dave that night.  My best friend’s husband-to-be!  My stomach turned over.  I hadn’t spoken to Jen since the day of the estate sale, and though I was still angry, now I had guilt to carry, as well.  Not that it was my fault, but it was my nature to feel guilty for no reason.  You’d think I was Jewish, the way I crumpled under guilt.  I slumped back against the pillow, feeling drained.  That explained the one guy, but the other…  I couldn’t help but wonder if that wasn’t related to the whole envelope deal.  That memory sent a shiver down my spine.  I looked at the bedroom door, fighting the urge to wedge a chair under it.  I laid there for another hour before giving up on sleep entirely.  I dragged myself into the kitchen, made some coffee, and sat down in front of the computer.

Amazingly, Brax already had 15 replies to her query.  Seven proclaimed it cheating, five said it wasn’t for various reasons – most sounding like they were justifying their own on-line behavior – and three gave the whishy-washy “it depends” answer.  Isoldranya, Voaughroth, and Tathelm had yet to respond.  I decided, if I couldn’t sleep, I might as well write.

What makes an attractive man?  Through the ages, women have been attracted to the “bad boys,” yet, ultimately, they end up married to the bankers and lawyers, who live comfortable, predictable lives.  Studies have shown that female animals actually want different types of men – one to father their offspring, the other to raise them.  They want the dashing, handsome bad boy to mate with, and yet, when it comes time to settle down, they prefer the comfortable relationship of the “nice guy.”

I’ve noticed a few books I’ve read lately have dealt with this topic.  Joanne Fluke’s character Hannah Swenson outlines this classic conundrum perfectly.  She can’t decide between the hot, though infuriating, sheriff and the not so hot, but wonderfully comfortable, dentist.  One man makes her blood boil – both in passion and in anger – and the other makes her feel warm and safe, attractive but not overwhelmingly so.

Now, you might say that the choice is easy, and intellectually it seems so.  High passions can fade, but a friendship endures, right?  However, the heart is not so easily persuaded.  And who says passion has to fade, or that a comfortable relationship will stay that way?  Ah, I don’t even know what I’m saying.

I sighed, and hit the delete key.  I couldn’t even write what I was feeling.  I stared miserably at the now blank page.  I wanted to write, but I felt so bottled up inside.  I was tired, and confused, and didn’t know what to do, or even where to turn for help.  I thought back to the comfortable boring days of my life before this train wreck began.  I couldn’t imagine thinking that boring was bad.  I longed for boring, now.

I called in sick on Friday and spent the entire day in bed.  The two people whose opinions I valued most had not responded to my post, and I was worried.  I had become close to them, and as silly as it seemed, would miss our chats.  Not just for the physical satisfaction I got from it, but from the bond, real or imagined, that I had begun to feel.  Tonight was my meeting with Voaughroth.  I guess I would find out then.

But the prescribed time came and went, and he never appeared.  I felt hurt, and angry at being stood up.  I tried to tell myself that I’m sure there was a good reason, and it was just on-line, but still.  I pouted the rest of the evening and went to bed early.

Saturday morning I woke and went straight to the computer.  There was, indeed, a message from Voaughroth, apologizing profusely for last night.

Dearest Brax
I’m sorry to miss our appointment last night, especially as it appears it may have been the last of its kind.  I was unavoidably detained at work and was unable to get to a computer in time.  I do hope that, despite your new-found attachment, that we might still converse from time to time, though not as intimately as before.  I agree with you that it is a violation of the bond between a couple, and would not want to get involved in even an on-line affair with an involved person.  I hope to talk to you next Friday, perhaps I can tell you all the trials and tribulations of my work, if nothing else.
Love,
Voaughroth

I stared at the screen, both happy and sad.  I seemed to be experiencing a lot of mixed emotions these days.  Unlike that bastard Alex, who would be happy sneaking over and boinking me while Alan’s back was turned, here was an upstanding guy who didn’t even think I should cheat virtually.  Boy, they come in all sorts, don’t they?

I wandered blearily into the kitchen to make some coffee.  My toaster sat in the middle of the counter, staring at me.  I’m not kidding, the damn thing was actually glaring at me.

“What?” I snapped at it.

You don’t want to quit your affair with Voaughroth, not even for Alan, it said.

“Sure I do.  I mean, I don’t want to cheat on Alan, and it’s not like what Voaughroth and I have is anything real.  For all I know he’s a 60 year old woman from Trenton, New Jersey!”  I said crossly.

But you don’t think that, and you don’t want to give it up.  Not for Alan, but maybe for Alex, it said smugly.

“For your information,” I said frostily, “I am much more interested in Alan than Alex.  Alex would be nothing more than a fling.  Alan wants a relationship.”

But is that what you want?  Are you sure you wouldn’t be too bored with Alan?  It said.

“Of course not.  Alan isn’t boring at all!”  I said hotly.

But he’s no Alex, it responded smugly.

“Listen you…” I started, before realizing that I was actually arguing with a kitchen appliance.  I blinked, turned around, and went back to bed.  I didn’t get back up until Sunday morning when Alan called.

“Hello?” I answered the phone in my usual sleep-fogged manner.

“Rebecca – have you seen the news?” Alan’s voice sounded tense, and it jarred me into wakefulness.

“No, no, I’ve been asleep.” I said.

“Since yesterday?” He sounded puzzled.

“Yes, since yesterday.” I snapped. “The toaster was giving me lip and I decided that was a sign I needed a bit more sleep.”

He was silent and thoughtful for a moment, apparently trying to digest that last statement. I figured if that didn’t drive him off, nothing would.

“Well, yes…” he said slowly. “That’s a pretty good sign. Anyway, we need you to come down to the station.”

I was instantly alert. “I thought you had cleared me as a suspect?” I said, panic rising.

“Nothing like that, no,” his voice was soft and soothing. “But it was someone with ties to Brian, and we wanted to find out if you knew anything about him.”

“Oh. Well, I won’t be able to tell you much of anything, but whatever I have is yours. When do you want me there?” I asked, yawning.

“As soon as possible.” He said grimly, “We need to get a move on this latest murder before the trail gets too cold.”

So I tossed on an only slightly wrinkly set of slacks and a sweater, pulled a brush through my hair, grabbed my coat and purse and was on my way to the police station. Again. As I drove, I tried to cast my mind back over all the things I knew about Brian’s friends and business associates. It was a sparse amount of information, and it drove home the realization that I had never really known Brian at all.
When I got to the police station, they ushered me into one of the more plush, comfortable interview rooms and proceeded to grill me about every moment of the three years Brian and I spent together.

“Ms…” began the burly detective, after two hours of intense questioning.

“Please, call me Rebecca.” I said sweetly. “After all, you now know more about me than most of my close friends.” I gave him a frost smile.

“Ms… Rebecca,” he started again. “I don’t mean to imply anything…”

I cut him of again. “Of course you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t say it. Dispense with the niceties and just ask your damn questions. I have things to do.”

“Fine.” He said gruffly. “I cannot believe you spent that much time with the man and know so little about him. What are you hiding?”

Alan, who had been sitting in the corner, leaned forward. I shot him a glance, and he slowly settled back into his seat.

“Only an out-of control internet addiction.” I said wryly.

The detective looked puzzled, so I elaborated. “Brian traveled a lot for business. I spent a lot of time on the computer. If you recall, that’s what led to our break-up.” Here I paused. I still had not told them I knew what he had said to Jen. Alan thought I was still pissed at her for stealing Brian, because I hadn’t told him I knew about Dave. As I still was pissed at Jen – though for different reasons – I hadn’t seen a reason to correct this. Maybe this would be the appropriate time to get everything out in the open. “Or at least…”

The interview door swung open. A uniformed police man beckoned the old detective outside. That left me alone with Alan. He moved into a chair at the table.

“Rebecca, are you sure you don’t know anything? Anything at all?” His eyes bored into mine.

“Positive.” I answered, smiling. “I have no bloody clue why anyone would want to kill Brian. Unless a client was that ticked off about the latest ad campaign…”

Alan didn’t smile at my joke. He leaned forward and took my hand, and said softly, “Well, anything that you can remember – anything at all – would help us.”

I nodded and sighed. “I know. And I really wish I could. This has shown me that I really didn’t know anything about Brian at all.”

He sighed as well. “Probably better that you don’t know anything. I’d worry about the bad guys going after you if you did, you know.”

I shuddered. “I hadn’t even thought of that.” I said softly.

“What about this Alex character?” Alan asked suddenly.

“What do you mean?” I frowned.

“Well, he did move in just before Brian was murdered, and chummed up to you pretty fast.” He said speculatively.

“Yeah, well, buddy, you chummed up to me pretty fast, too, and even more chummily!” I shot back, putting on a melodramatic pout. “Is it so hard to believe that he would find me irresistible?”

“Not at all,” he smiled. “I just want you to be careful. He rubs me the wrong way.”

“You and me both” I muttered. Alan smiled at that.

“Now, you go enjoy your Sunday.” He said.

“When will I see you?” I asked.

His face fell. “Probably not anytime soon. They’re really pushing us on this case, stakeout, surveillance, the whole bit. I probably won’t see much of you for the next few weeks.”

I pouted. “Well, okay. Let me know when you have time and maybe we can meet for dinner?”

“Of course.” He smiled, kissed me gently, and walked me out of the police station.

Great, I thought when I was back on the street. Now both men in my life are going to be AWOL. And in December of all months! I wondered bleakly if this was just an elaborate ploy to get out of buying me Christmas presents. Hell, if my toaster could talk, anything was possible.

On the up side, I thought, beginning to perk, this certainly granted me a reprieve from breaking off my on-line affairs. Since I hadn’t officially began a serious relationship, and it didn’t look like I would for awhile, then I couldn’t be cheating. My heart warmed as I thought of the upcoming Tuesday and Friday nights. I hurried home to amend my post and assure my – I mean, Brax’s – adoring public that I – I mean, she – was back.

Dearest readers,
You may recall that I had posed an ethical dilemma to you recently. It appears that it is now moot, and I remain in the legion of singlehood, free to carry on my illicit on-line activities. Hopefully at least a few of you are cheered by this development, and I hope to see you at the same time, same place.
Love,
Brax.

The remainder of the holiday season passed in a bit of a blur. I finished my holiday shopping, met Megan and Heather for the occasional coffee (they urged me to talk to Jen, but I remained steadfast in my refusal), and saw Alan a few times, but only for a coffee or sandwich in the middle of the day. He was looking tired and haggard, and my heart went out to him. I promised him that when this whole sting operation was over, I’d make it my top priority to spoil him.

Then it was Christmas Eve. My boss had graciously allowed us to leave work at lunch. So I had stopped by the café and gotten both lunch and dinner. I then trundled myself off to my apartment, where I vowed to stay until at least three days after Christmas. I’d taken vacation days to bridge the gap between Christmas and New Years, and was looking forward to a pleasant, quiet week alone. Alan had gone to see his family in Maine, and while he offered to take me with him, I felt a little uncomfortable with that idea. I mean, we weren’t even dating, really, and I was supposed to meet his parents? How weird would that be?

So I settled into my cleaning and blogging, sipping a glass of wine and trying to find a channel that wasn’t showing “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I heard a knock on my door. I frowned and glanced at the clock. 9:30 pm. Everyone I knew was with their families. Even I had gotten invited to several family shindigs, but had wisely declined. Family gatherings of the Andersen clan (my Dad’s side) tended to erupt into massive arguments and occasionally fistfights over trivial things like Astroturf versus real grass. I’d suffered one broken wrist three years ago (I steps between two of my cousins who were arguing over which cheese spread was preferable on Ritz crackers, and which was better suited to Triscits) and had vowed never to attend again. The Williamsons (my Mom’s side) were the other extreme. Last year I actually fell asleep at the dining room table. The cranberry sauce took a week to fully wash out of my hair – Clairol should look into what sort of dyes they use in that stuff, because that red blob lasted longer than any red hair dye I’ve every used. Every time I try to dye my hair red it looks good for about three washes, and starts to fade. Which is sad, because I think I look rather fetching as a redhead. Anyway, after that embarrassing incident, I decided a night at home, alone, would be preferable to being rendered comatose by the most inane, boring conversation you’ve ever heard.

So I was a little nervous as I crept to the door to look through the peephole. Was it a burglar, checking to see if the apartment was empty so he could rob it? Or was it a psychotic killer, checking to see if someone was home so he could kill them? I looked out the peephole, suddenly aware that I was holding my breath. It was Alex.

My breath came out in a giant “whoosh.” I opened the door.

“Alex! What are you doing here?” I said brightly.

“Well, I got back into town and thought I’d just see if you were home. And to give you this.” His hand came out from behind his back, and there was a brightly wrapped parcel in it.

I gasped. “I didn’t get you anything…” I trailed off.

He smiled at me. I noticed that he looked tired, and a little… defeated. There were shadows under his eyes, and though his smile was sincere, it looked like it took a lot of effort for him to maintain.

“I didn’t get it for you because I expected something in return. I just wanted to buy you something. Am I not allowed to do that?” He asked.

“Well,” I said uncertainly, “I hardly know you, so, yes, it’s a little strange…”

“In that case,” he said, drawing his arm back.

I reached out and snagged the present from him. “But it would be so rude of me to refuse!” I smiled, and stepped back. “Come in and have some wine with me?”

We walked into the living room, and I grabbed another wine glass from the bar and poured him a generous measure. He sat heavily on the sofa, his eyes already looking half-closed. He reached automatically for the remote and began flicking through the channels.

“Unless you like “It’s a Wonderful Life” I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment.” I said.

He looked up at me and grinned. “Can’t stand the show. They really need to come up with some more Christmas staples. Ah! An infomercial. I guess that’s preferable.”

We sat in silence and watched the Ronco 3000 thaw, baste, roast and slice a turkey. At the end of the infomercial, I looked over at him. His eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling evenly. The rotter had fallen asleep! I sighed, and turned off the TV. I took off his shoes, swung his legs up onto the couch and covered him with an afghan. Then I turned off all the lights as I made my way back to my room.
Once there, I rooted around in my “Emergency Present” stash until I found a gift. It was a sweater I had bought months ago, planning on giving it to Brian for Christmas. He and Alex were about the same size, so I wrapped it and set it next to the bed, with a tag on it saying it was to Alex from me.

When I woke the next morning, it was to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and frying bacon. My confused mind tried to reconcile the fact that I was still in my own home, and yet, there was someone else there. I groggily got up and padded into the kitchen.

Alex smiled at me from behind the stove. “How do you take your coffee?” He asked.

“Two Equals and a glug of cream,” I yawned.

“A what of cream?” He asked, his brow furrowing in confusion.

“A glug. You know, tip it over, let it go “glug” once, and that’s about the right amount.” I said.

He placed a coffee mug and the bottle of creamer in front of me, and I demonstrated my extremely exacting measuring procedure. Then he tossed in some artificial sweetener and filled the cup with strong, hot coffee. He started to hand me a spoon, but I waved it away.

“It’s self-mixing,” I said. “As long as you put the creamer and Equal in first, the action of pouring the coffee mixes it. It’s a real time- and spoon-saver over traditional sugar,” I said wisely, nodding my head solemnly.

“And that’s why you use artificial sugar?” He asked, arching a brow.

“No, I use artificial sugar because, at 700 calories a cup, my ass would be the size of a Buick if I ate regular sugar.” I said, matter of factly. “I’ve barley come to grips with my Toyota sized hind end as it is.”
“Then I guess you don’t want bacon, or butter on your toast?” He asked.

“Then you guess wrong. Gimme!” I said as I lunged across the breakfast bar and snagged a strip of bacon from his hand. “Mmmmmm,” I sighed and closed my eyes as I crunched the bacon. “How did you do that? I always burn it, or it’s too floppy. This is perfect!”

He winked at me. “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

We had a companionable breakfast of bacon, eggs, and marvelously buttery toast. I’d always heard such bad things about English cooking, but this was the best breakfast I’d had in ages. Maybe I could convince him to cook me dinner, citing the need for an analytical study of the English cooking myth. I was formulation the proposal in my head when he jumped up and retrieved the gift he’d brought over from the coffee table.

“Oh!” I said, hurrying to my bedroom to get the present I’d wrapped the previous evening. “I know it’s nit much…” I said, thrusting the present into his hands. He tore off the wrapping and held up the sweater.

“It’s perfect – I love it!” He said enthusiastically. He pulled off his wrinkled button down shirt to slip on the sweater. Normally I would have been transfixed by his amazing pectoral muscles, but something else caught my eye. A huge white tangle of scars covered the entire left side of his stomach. He caught me staring at them.

“Childhood accident,” he said blithely as he slipped on the sweater. “Someday I’ll tell you the story.”

I smiled at him, “That sounds interesting. And that sweater looks great on you!”

I reached for my present, but my mind was still on those scars. There was something that wasn’t quite right… And then it clicked. The reason I had really noticed them is that they were still the slight pink of recently formed scars – they did not look like old, faded scars from childhood at all. So he had most definitely lied about that, but why?

Those thoughts were swept away as I opened the box. Inside was a delicate chain with an intricately wrought pendant of gold, silver, and emeralds. It was a fairly large pendant, and my mind swam as I tried to calculate the cost.

“Oh! I can’t accept this!” I gasped in dismay. “It’s far too..”

“Nonsense.” He said firmly. “I got a great deal on it in India, such a great deal, in fact, I’d be embarrassed to tell you what I paid. Please, take it.”

“Oh… okay…” I said, my eyes shining. I felt tears coming on and blinked hard to hold them back. Brian hadn’t been “big” on presents, and he had certainly never gotten me anything so beautiful. My friends tended to get me very generic presents, things I suspect they would have liked more than I did. I was feeling terribly weepy, and didn’t know why. Maybe it was because a complete stranger had given me the best present I’d gotten in years. Maybe it was just PMS. Either way, my voice faltered slightly as I thanked him.

“Now,” he said crisply, “The old woman who sold me this said it was blessed. You make a wish, and then put it on. And you can’t take it off for an entire year, or your wish won’t come true. She said it would also protect you.”

“And after a year?” I asked.

“At the end of the year it would need to be blessed again, or it can just be a pretty piece of jewelry.” He smiled, and held up the necklace. “Make a wish.”

I closed my eyes and did so. I felt his arms move around me to secure the clasp at the back of my neck. I opened my eyes, and his face was inches from mine.

“Now promise me you won’t take this off.” He said, sternly.

“I promise.” I said softly, and he leaned forward and gave me a gentle kiss.

Any hope I had that it might lead to a little more was cut off by a short, shrill chirp. He reached down and unclipped a small cell phone from his belt. He stood up and wandered over to the kitchen to answer it, and though he pitched his voice low, I still caught snippets of the conversation. And I won’t lie – it wasn’t that I happened to overhear. I was actively trying to eavesdrop and still only caught a little.

“Hello. Yes… Bloody hell… how did… flight… 12 hours, yes… I just… but… right, right… I’m on it. Bye.”

He strolled back into the living room and gave me a crooked smile. “Sorry, I have to go.”

“On Christmas?” I asked. “What one Earth can you have to do one Christmas?”

“I never get holidays,” he said wryly.

“What is it you do, anyway?” I asked nonchalantly. Okay, maybe it didn’t come out as casually as I had intended, because he gave me a shrewd look. Then he shrugged.

“Import-Export mostly. Americans are just crazy for British products these days.” He smiled, “As they should be. Your American tea is atrocious!”

I grinned back at him. “Yeah, well, at least we don’t boil everything. I’ve heard British cooking is the absolute worst.”

He raised an eyebrow. God, that was sexy. “I seem to recall someone raving about my bacon just now…”

“A fluke!” I cried. “Pending further proof, of course…”

“Did you just throw down the gauntlet and force me to cook you dinner?” He asked, looking a little impressed. I preened under his gaze.

“Unless you think you’re not up for the challenge…” I purred.

“You’re on, sweetie. When I get back in town, I will cook you a meal that will put all those nasty rumors to bed.” He said the last bit slowly, and I let myself believe he was also thinking of other things he’d like to put to bed…

And so I spent the remainder of Christmas alone, but I wasn’t upset by it. I enjoyed the quiet time, and I put it to good use organizing and cleaning. Alan called to make sure everything was okay, and to wish me a Merry Christmas. He still sounded stressed, and I commented that the time with his family didn’t seem to be relaxing. He told me that if I knew his family, I’d understand. We regaled each other with tales of family woe, and hung up.

Since I had an entire week off, I decided to do a little redecorating. Buying the supplies in the post-Christmas crush was a little daunting, but the repainting and sewing was very therapeutic. By the end of the week I felt good enough to call up Megan and tell her I would attend her New Year’s Eve party, albeit alone.

I wore my favorite black velvet dress, which set off my new necklace beautifully. I got a lot of compliments on it when I arrived at the party. I was having a fairly good time, mingling with old friends, avoiding a few, and generally trying to stay away from any serious talk. I don’t mean to sound self-centered, but yes, I know that Brian is dead, but could we focus on me? I was so tired of people feeling sorry for me, and I admit that I imbibed a little more than my fair share of champagne. Which is why, I think, that I didn’t react the way I should have when the big scruffy man grabbed me during the countdown to midnight.

At first I thought he was just drunk, or horny, or both. But he started to pull me back out of the crowd and my fuzzy brain began to perk up and panic. Unfortunately, he had his timing down to a tee, because just as I managed to get my mouth to respond and scream, everyone around me was yelling and crying out “Happy New Year!” and no one noticed him dragging me out into the alley. Even there, people were yelling, screaming, and shooting off fireworks and no one paid any attention to him stuffing me into the back of a black SUV and climbing in after me. As soon as the door closed, we were off.
I looked nervously up at him. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and that worried me more than anything. He knew I could identify him, so he must be planning on making sure I would never be able to. I shuddered.

“What are you going to do with me?” I asked, my voice shaking.

He looked at me, but said nothing.

“Where are you taking me?” I tried again, fighting down panic.

Silence.

“What the hell is going on?” I said, my voice rising as panic began to take hold.

He glanced at me. “Shut up.”

“Or what?” I shot back, before I could even think.

He laughed, a laugh so cold it sent a chill down my spine. I sat back in my seat and looked around. I couldn’t see anything outside of the SUV, as the windows were blacked out. Likewise, I could not see through the partition that separated the backseat from the front seat.

“Look,” I tried again, “What can it hurt to tell me what’s going on? I’ll just keep talking until you do, you know. And I can talk, let me tell you. I mean, you know the old days when a filibuster required someone to actually be speaking the entire time? I could’ve been a great politician then, because I could talk about anything. Or nothing. Like, for instance, your tie. Setting aside how hideous it is, really, who thinks that shade of Army green and bright purple actually go? Besides that, the squiggly pattern on it remind me of a quilt I had as a child, It was blue, a nice shade of blue, nothing too bright or too washed out, like your shirt – and who thought that shirt went with that tie. Honestly, are you colorblind? Because I would understand it if you were, otherwise you taste is just…”

“Okay, okay…” He cut in. “You’ve made your point.”

“But I was just getting started,” I smiled sweetly, stunning myself a little with my bravado. “So, are you gonna answer my questions?”

“Fine,” he said gruffly, “if it’ll get you to shut up. The boss don’t think you’re being real honest-like about whatcha know about the whole Brian business. He thinks a little persuasion is in order to getcha to fess up to what you know. So we’s taking you to a spot where you can be questioned without interruption.”

“And if I convince him I don’t know anything? Because, honestly, I don’t!” I said shakily.

“Wells, that’ll be ups to him..” He said simply.

“Are you going to kill me?” I asked bluntly.

“If’n he tells me to.” He answered just as bluntly.

We lapsed into silence for awhile as the car made several sharp turns. Finally I decided that any conversation was better than this infernal silence, so I piped up again.

“Um, who is this boss?” I asked.

“Not my place to say.” He replied.

“But… I’m going to meet him in a little, anyway, right?” I cajoled.

“If’n he decides you is, then yeah.” He replied diffidently.

“So, what can you tell me?” I persisted.

“Nuttin. Shuts up.” He became hostile suddenly, as the car slowed unexpectedly. Even through the dark tinted windows I could see the flashing red and blue lights of police cars. I tensed as the man next to me un-holstered his pistol and held it down by his leg. We could faintly hear the driver speaking to the police, and then felt him leave the car. Suddenly the back door was wrenched open and I was violently yanked out. Police swarmed the vehicle and I was pulled to the safety of a nearby squad car.

I sat, shaking, in the back seat as I was driven to the police station, and then ushered in to the all-to-familiar interview room. The police officers asked me all sorts of questions, and I answered them as best I could. Unfortunately, most of my answers consisted of “I don’t know.” It seemed it was fast becoming my mantra. Finally the barrage of questions died down, and a thought occurred to me.

“Um, Officer… Brown?” I asked hesitantly, “How did you know I was in the car?”

The officers glanced at one another, but said nothing.

“Let me guess, you can’t tell me?” I said wearily.

“I can answer that,” a deep male voice said behind me. I turned and recognized the grizzled detective that had questioned me the last time. “We were given a tip. Seems someone saw him shove you into the car.”

His voice had the ring of authority, but his eyes kept shifting. I knew he wasn’t telling me the whole truth, but I was too drained and exhausted to care. Most likely the police had been keeping an eye on the bad guys, and they had seen what happened. If they didn’t want me privy to their undercover operations, that was just fine by me. All I wanted was to go home, take a long hot bath, and get a good night’s sleep.

I did get home, and I did take a bath, but my sleep was anything but good. I kept having nightmares. This time the police didn’t stop the car before we got to our destination. This time the bad guys took me down into the dark, damp basement of an abandoned building, and tied me to a chair. A voice behind me kept asking me the same questions over and over, grilling me about Brian’s personal life, his friends, and what I found in his apartment. I kept sobbing “I don’t know, I don’t know” but the questions kept coming. Then I started to concentrate on the voice. It seemed… familiar, but I couldn’t quite make it out.

I’m not one to but any stock in psychics or psychic ability. I don’t believe that dreams are messages from beyond. I do, however, believe that dreams are our subconscious telling us things we’re too stupid or too stubborn to listen to while we’re awake. As I started to drift into consciousness, I analyzed what me dream had been telling me.

The voice. I knew I recognized it, but I couldn’t identify it. So I must think I know the bad guy. Maybe someone I once met at a party with Brian? That would also explain the question about his friends. The only problem is what I had already told the police. Brian didn’t have close friends. He had a wide-ranging network of business associates and social contacts. Far too many for me to remember or identify. And the last bit… I honestly didn’t think I’d found anything in his apartment, and if I did, it was long gone by now. What wasn’t taken by family members was put in the estate sale, and what didn’t sell at the estate sale was carted off too charity. There wasn’t anything left. Even the house and car had been sold. So that was a dead end.

As I slowly came awake, still very groggy from a bad night’s sleep, I decided that there really wasn’t anything to my dream, after all. I had been over the facts a million times, and any way I tried to force things together, the picture didn’t become any more clear. I stayed in my apartment for the rest of the weekend and let the answering machine pick up all of my calls. I returned a few of them, to my friends and Alan (who apologized profusely for not being there for me, but evidently the airports were shut down due to a blizzard), but the rest I left unanswered.

I returned to work on Monday to a barrage of questions. Thankfully, my boss shoed everyone away and warned them that I was not to be harassed all day. I made a formal “speech” at lunchtime, which seemed to assuage most of my co-worker’s curiosity.

Life passed uneventfully for another week. Then it all went to hell in a hand basket – again.

It was Wednesday, which has long been my least favorite day of the week.  I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it’s the day I’m most likely to call in sick to work.  And usually I am a little sick, but could probably survive the day.  It’s just that Wednesdays are such depressing days.  You’re far enough away from last weekend that your spark has died, and you’re not close enough to next weekend to get a boost from thinking about it.  I have always hated calling it “hump day,” though.  That bothers me in rather the same way as when people call conditioner “cream rinse.”  There’s just something wrong about it.

So I was at work this particular Wednesday, despite a long talk with myself that morning as to whether I could muster a realistic enough sounding cough to pull off calling in.  I do wonder what would have happened if I had.  Most likely it would have just postponed things, but you never know.  A butterfly flaps its wings and all.  But the police, at least, are happy I went in to work that day…

I was sitting at my desk at about 9:30, feeling miserable and tired.  The phone rang, and – against my better judgment – I answered.

“Rebecca!”  Alan’s voice instantly cheered me, making my very glad I’d decided to brave another telephone conversation with Mutual Preserves Insurance.

“Alan!”  I said, a little breathlessly.  “How are you?”

“Missing you…”  He said sweetly.  And normally, I would have gagged at such syrupiness, but it lifted my spirits so much to hear, I felt myself warming to the world of idiotic lover’s sayings.  Not that we were technically lovers – yet.

“And I miss you.”  I returned, and Melissa began making gagging motions at her desk.  I stuck my tongue out at her.

“Do you have plans for lunch?”  He asked.

“Mmm, not yet.  Am I going to?”  I said hopefully.

“I can meet you at 12:30, if it’s somewhere downtown…  How about the new Italian restaurant?”

“Sure, I can do that.  I’ll see you then,” I said.

We hung up, and Melissa rolled her eyes at me.

“What?”  I said huffily, “You were just as bad with Jason, you know.  At least you didn’t have to listen to 10 minutes of ‘No, I love you more.’”

She just grinned at me and turned back to her work.  I refocused my attention on my computer screen.  At least I tried to.  But every five minutes my eyes strayed to the clock, urging it onward.

Finally it was lunchtime, and I snatched up my coat and purse and flew out the door.  I figured it would take me about 10 minutes to get to the restaurant, but traffic was worse than I expected and I ended up being a few minutes late.  I parked around the side of the building and walked to the front door, trying to look through the glass to see if Alan was already there.

Suddenly a large arm wrapped around my waist and a cloth was pressed over my mouth.  I felt dizzy and faint, and a little sick, but I managed to struggle weakly as the man dumped me into the back of another SUV.  I had hoped someone would notice – I kept waiting for Alan to come rushing out of the restaurant – but it was a chilly day and there weren’t many people about.  As the man climbed in next to me and slammed the door, I felt my spirits plummet.  I slumped against the door, too tired to move any more.  Peeking out of one eye, I blearily saw that this time, the partition was open.  My abductor leaned forward to talk to the driver.

“Okay, she should be out for mosta the trip.  None of her jabbering this time.  The boss would have my nuts if I accidentally spilled anything.  He was pissed when I told’em what she was ajwing on about last time.”  My abductor – I decided to call him Tony – said.

“Yes, well, you should know well enough to keep your mouth shut.”  The cool, cultured tones coming from the driver had a faintly British accent.  I decided to call him Will.

“Yeah, wells, you didn’t have her pestering the living crap outta you, so what do you know?  She’s a cunning one.”  Tony shot back.  I sensed a bit of tension in the car, and would have chuckled if I wasn’t afraid it would make me throw up.  They were bickering like an old married couple.  An old dysfunctional married couple, sure.  But a married couple none the less.

“I’m sure you posses sufficient brain cells to fend off a mere woman,” Will said impassively, impervious to Tony’s emotional outburst.  “If you were as stupid as you appear, I have doubts that Vulpes would have hired you.”

“Is that an insult, you pompous jackass?”  Even though my vision was blurry and dim, I could see his face turning red.

“Not at all, not at all.”  Will said smoothly.

“Fine, just let me know when we get to the dock.”  Tony sat back and glanced at me.  I shut my eyes before he could see that I was, for whatever reason, still conscious.  He turned his attention back to the windshield. 

I followed his gaze and noticed that we were in a residential neighborhood.  I thought I recognized the streets, and if I was right, there should be a high school just up the road.  A high school that had open lunches.  And it was lunch time.  If I could just get out of the car, maybe I could get away.  My hand crept up to the door handle just as the school – and the masses of teenagers in cars, on bikes, and walking around – came into view.  I took a deep breath, yanked on the door handle, and to my surprise, the door flew open.

Honestly I had expected the child safety locks to be on, so I was unprepared to actually be free.  I went tumbling out onto the pavement and narrowly missed being run over by the SUV.  Luckily, Will was a conscientious driver and had slowed down to the school speed limit, so I was able to haul myself up off the pavement and drag myself to the side of the road, where a group of concerned teenagers huddled around me.  I craned my neck to see, but the SUV was long gone.

“Did anyone get the license plate?”  I croaked.

One girl stepped forward, “I saw it, why?”

“I was being kidnapped.”  I said, which was greeted with gasps, ohhhs and ahhhs.  “And can someone call an ambulance?”

As I lost consciousness, I saw twenty teenagers simultaneously whip out cell phones…

The first thing I saw when I woke was Alan’s concerned face leaning over me.  He broke into a huge grin when he saw me open my eyes.

“Thank god you’re all right!”  He exclaimed, hugging me.  “I’m so sorry… I was late, and if I’d been there on time none of this would have happened.  I’m so sorry!”

He looked so wracked with guilt that I felt bad for him.  I patted his hand.  “It’s okay,” I said softly.  “It’s not your fault.”

He sighed.  “But I should have been there to protect you.  I wish I knew why these guys want you so badly.”

“You and me both!”  I said.  “I think that they think that I know something, but I don’t, really.”

He looked at me intently.  “Are you absolutely positive?  I mean, there has to be some reason these guys are still after you.”

I blew out a long sigh.  “Positive.  I’ve gone over everything a million times.”

“And you’ve told us everything?  Even things that don’t seem important?”  He asked carefully.

“Everything.  Every tiny little detail about my relationship with Brian, everything I knew about his friends, everything – or rather nothing – that was in the house.”  I answered.

“And everything that happened since your breakup?”  He asked.

I felt a twinge.  Here, I was lying just a little.  But he didn’t know I knew, so what could it hurt?  “Yes!”  I blurted out, exasperated.

He looked at me carefully, disappointment in his eyes.  “Then I don’t know what to do.  I really don’t see what on Earth they are after.”  He sat down on the edge of the hospital bed.

I sighed again.  “I don’t know what I’m going to do, either.”

The doctors released me as soon as the drugs had worked their way completely out of my system, which was early the following day.  I went straight to the interrogation room, where I told them everything I could remember about the kidnapping, though I probably made it sound like I was even more out of it than I was.  Because for some insane reason, I seemed to neglect to mention that the driver had an English accent.  Every time I opened my mouth to say it, I saw Alex’s face.  He was in import/export he said…  Could it be?  I really knew next to nothing about him, but I liked him.  And not just in a “he’s really hot I want to jump his bones” sort of way.  I know this sounds corny, but I felt a deep connection with him that sadly, wasn’t there with Alan.  Sure, Alan was nice, but he was a little… shallow.  There wasn’t a lot of substance, at least from what I’d seen.  We just didn’t quite click.

As soon as they had finished raking me over the coals, I took a cab back to retrieve my car.  Alan offered to drive me, but it looked like the department was having a big meeting about the latest developments, and I told him I didn’t want to take him away from his work.  He grudgingly agreed, his eyes lighting up as he turned to follow the others to the conference room.  He certainly had a passion for his job, I reflected on the cab ride to the restaurant.  It’s too bad not everyone can say the same thing about their jobs.  I got in my car and drove to work, where I presented my boss with the hospital paperwork.  She looked at me as if she’d love to accuse me of lying, but took in all of my bruises and scrapes, and the haggard, tired on my face and softened.  She sent me home to bed, and I promised to be in on Friday.

I drove home, took a hot shower, and was vegging on the couch when I heard a knock at the door.  Since I didn’t think anyone knew I was home, I tip-toed to the peephole and looked out.  I saw a mass of flowers with legs standing in the hallway.  I cracked the door, leaving the chain in place.
“Yes?”  I said warily.

“Flower delivery for Ms. Andersen.  Ms. Rebecca Andersen.”  A gruff voice said.

“Just set them in the hallway,” I said guardedly.

The flowers were lowered to the floor and I saw a stoat older man standing there giving me a very perplexed look.  “Suit yourself.”  He said amiably, and turned.

“Wait!”  I said after him, grabbing my purse and fishing out some money for a tip.  I thrust it through the crack in the door, and he took it, tipped his has, and lumbered off.  I waited until he was out of site and quickly unchained the door, snagged the flowers, and brought them inside.

It wasn’t until I was standing with my back pressed against the re-locked door that I realized I was shaking and breathing hard.  This is ridiculous!  I told myself.  You can’t be afraid to go outside.  And yet, I was.  The thought of setting foot out in the hallway sent chills up and down my spine.  I reasoned that after what I had been through, it would be natural to feel nervous.  The key was to “get back up on the horse” as soon as possible.  I took a quick peek at the card in the flowers.

Hope you feel better.  Love, Alan.

I smiled as I read the simple message.  At least one person cared about me.  Well, maybe two.  I touched the necklace Alex had given me, still clasped around my neck.  It certainly had brought me good luck.  I had only taken it off to shower, but that hadn’t seemed to diminish the luck it was bringing me.  After all, who manages to escape not one, but two kidnapping attempts?

I puttered about the apartment, cleaning, catching up on some correspondence, and watching really bad TV for the rest of the day.  I was feeling much better by the time I got ready for bed.  I convinced myself that all would be well, and that I would be just fine getting up and going to work in the morning.  I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, and I had the most vivid dream.

I was standing in a clearing in the forest.  There was a mangy fox circling the outer perimeter, and a group of pigs sitting to one side playing poker. 

Every now and then, the fox would dart in and take a nip out of one of the pigs.  It would squeal, and then go back to the game.  I crept closer to the pigs, where I could hear their conversation. 

“It’s the wombats you have to worry about.  They are vicious animals, really.”  One pig said, nodding at his own wisdom.

“True, true,” said another, nodding as well.  “Nasty, pointy teeth, the lot of them.”

“And the claws!”  A third piped up.

I looked across the field, and there, on a stump, sat a wombat.  The fox ignored it as it continued to circle and nip.  I started to inch toward the pigs again, but the wombat held up a paw and motioned me away.  I noticed he did have rather long claws, but he didn’t look at all mean to me.  In fact, he looked… concerned.

I woke up, confused and disoriented.  My subconscious and I were going to have a long talk about what kind of messages it was trying to send me.  It was going to have to be a little clearer if it wanted me to glean anything from these dreams.

On the drive to work, I pondered.  Okay, pigs equals cops.  No real stretch of the imagination there.  And the fox must be the bad guy, the one they referred to as Vulpes.  I did happen to know that was part of the Latin name for fox, so that made sense, too.  But the cops were warning me away from the wombat – I didn’t know who he represented – instead of being concerned about the fox.  Which probably meant I thought their investigation was going in the wrong direction.  No surprise there.  Maybe the wombat was Brian, and all of the attention they were putting on him was misplaced.  After all, he wasn’t the only one killed.  Maybe he just had a tiny side roll in this whole business, and they needed to investigate the other murders more.  I chewed my lower lip.  Except they probably were investigating the others, just as much, only I didn’t see it.  So my subconscious was being silly.

I made the mistake about telling Melissa about my dream.  She’s nice, but tends toward melodramatic.  As soon as I finished, she launched into a story about her brother’s friend’s roommate’s cousin who went camping in the Australian outback.

“They were camping in a slightly wooded area, and Nathan was on watch.  He must’ve fallen asleep, because the fire died way down.  Anyway, when he woke up the camp was surrounded by wombats,  They were grunting and howling, their razor-sharp teeth glinting in the moonlight.  Nathan tried to get the fire built back up, but couldn’t.  The wombats rushed the camp, ran into a tent, snatched Alice’s baby and took off into the night.  Nathan and the others tried to fight them off, but said they fought like maniacs.  It was so sad.  They never saw the baby again.”  She ended with a flourish.

“Um, Melissa?  That wasn’t wombats.  That was dingoes.  And most people believe that the parents killed their own baby.”  I said evenly.  “I don’t remember the names, but it was back in the 1980s.”

“Was it?”  She said absently, already having moved on to the next topic.  “Anyway, so what about that handsome police detective?”

I spent an hour trying to convince her that it wasn’t serious with Alan – yet.  At least she didn’t know about Alex, or I’d never hear the end of it. 

I made it through the rest of the day on sugar and caffeine, and was eternally grateful when 5 o’clock rolled around and I was on my way home.  I took a hot bath the minute I got in the door, and must have dozed off.  Because suddenly I sat bolt upright in the tub, my brain still wrapped around the dream I had just had.  Melissa must’ve gotten to me.

This time I was in the clearing surrounded by a hoard or wombats.  They were all grunting and gnashing their teeth.  Over them I could see the pigs, and the fox, all circling the mass of wombats.  One particularly large wombat edged very close to me.  I kept thinking I should be afraid, but I wasn’t.  They were killer wombats, yes, but they weren’t out to kill me.  They seemed, instead, to be protecting me.  But from what?  The pigs?  The fox?  Something else?

I got out of the tub and dried myself off, slipping into my pajamas.  As I sat down on the couch to watch TV, my mind kept turning over the dream in my head.  It seemed the wombats really had been protecting my from both the pigs and the fox.  Was my assumption that the pigs represented the police wrong?  It seemed so obvious, but…  I flipped to the National Geographic channel where they were doing a special on Australia, and amazingly enough, wombats.  They really were cute little buggers, I thought as I drifted off to sleep.

Another weekend, another three thousand words blogged, I thought wearily on Sunday.  My on-line life was in shambles, accurately reflecting my real life.  I had broken off my on-line affairs with both Voaughroth and Tathelm a few weeks ago, and hadn’t blogged a single word in Brax’s journal for a good month.  Ever since the whole kidnapping thing began, the fun and mystery of an on-line life seemed dim.  I was keeping up with my own journal, sort of.  I didn’t seem to have the energy to put a lot of effort into the things I had previously.  The silly news stories I’d mocked no longer seemed that funny.  Esoteric arguments seemed hollow.  I just didn’t feel like the same person who used to spend all of her time on the computer.  Now that life seemed silly and unreal.  And there was, of course, the more pressing problem of why the bad guys kept kidnapping me.  I was pretty certain they weren’t going to just give up, no matter how much I would like them to.

A week passed without incident.  The next week passed without incident in my world, but as far as the case was concerned, that was a different story.  A cop was killed, one of the group working on the smuggling case.

I heard about in on the news, and tried to worm more information out of Alan, but he wasn’t budging.  Evidently there was some whisper that the policeman wasn’t quite the innocent bystander that he was originally assumed to be.  After his death, it came to light that he had quite a nice vacation home – in his wife’s native France – and his wife had a substantial amount of very expensive clothing and jewels.  She took the kids and fled to France shortly afterwards, leaving a lot of questions and no ready answers.  There was some effort to bring her back and question her, but as she was a French citizen, the French government was reluctant to cooperate with the investigation.

And as bad as this sounds – because it’s awful that someone was killed – I was glad the spotlight was off of me for just a little while.  Now they were all busy trying to ferret out who else in the department might have been involved because the only clue the slain policeman had left behind implied that there was more than one fox in the chicken coup, so to speak.  Alan was upset and distracted, and had even less time for me than before.  Our phone conversations were short, and stilted, and we didn’t se each other face to face at all.  As much as I was beginning to feel he really wasn’t right for me, I did miss him.  But I also understood what he was going through.  Cops get enough of a bad rap as it is, let alone when a scandal like this breaks.  The media was having a field day, and suddenly I found myself revitalized into blogging.

If there’s one thing that would drive me to a soapbox it’s the media.  They sensationalize everything, blow things way out of proportion, and will out and out lie if they can’t find a good enough story.  It’s all about the ratings, not the news.  So I fought back against the waves of negative police press the best I could.  Sure, there are always bad eggs – you’ll find them in every profession.  But people needed to keep some perspective.  There were far more good cops out there just trying to help people and do their jobs. 

Ironically, during my week-long pro-police blogging effort, I got a speeding ticket on my way to work.  The cop was nice enough about it, but gave me the ticket nonetheless.  Seventy five bucks, down the drain, I thought sourly.  I chastised myself all day at work.  I knew there was often a cop on that road, but I had been so intent on getting to work early enough to get a coffee.  And, of course, was not able to do that because of the time it took to write the ticket.  So I was stuck with the swill that came out of the office coffee machine, which did not improve my mood.  When I got home, I fired up the computer and began a new journal entry.

Subject: My speeding ticket

Hello all!
I’ve received a lot of flak for defending the police in the last week, and I just wanted to let you all know that today, on the way to work, I got a speeding ticket.  Incidentally, it’s the first speeding ticket I’ve ever gotten.  And I am very upset.

But not with the police.  Face it, people, every one of you that bitched about getting a ticket deserved it.  None of you denied that you were speeding, you simply didn’t feel like you should have been ticketed.  You were in a hurry, or didn’t see the sign, or had some other lame excuse.  But you were all breaking the law.  So deal with it. 

I sped, I got a ticket, and I’m going to pay the fine.  It was my fault.  I knew that if I sped there was chance I could get a ticket, and it was a chance I took.  This time I lost.  Personal responsibility, people.  It’s really easy not to get a speeding ticket, now, isn’t it?  Just don’t speed.  And if you get caught, you just have to face up to it.

So this is fair warning.  If you leave any more whiny comments about how you were “wronged” by the police they will be summary deleted, unless you were imprisoned on false charges.  Otherwise, you’re just not taking responsibility for your own actions and need to grow up.  End of story.

As for me, I still believe the majority of the police are doing a good job, and I know society couldn’t survive without them.  So I thank you for that - even the office who gave me the ticket this morning. 

I sighed and sat back.  I wrinkled my nose.  My, that sounded preachy.  I think the stress was started to get to me.  And I felt so bad for Alan and all he was going through.  I posted the journal entry and went to the kitchen to make dinner.  As I was grating carrots for my salad, there was a knock on the door.

Looking through the peephole, I saw Alex standing there, looking a little disheveled but as hot as ever.  He had a five o’clock shadow that made him look even more dangerous and sexy, and I felt my stomach give a little flip.  I opened the door.

“Hello.”  I said nervously.

“Hi.  What are you doing tonight?”  He asked, looking past me to the kitchen.

“Um, just making a salad.”  I said, shifting uncertainly from foot to foot.  “Would you care to come in?”

“Actually,” he said smiling, “I was going to invite you over to my place for dinner.  I haven’t forgotten the gauntlet you threw down about English cooking.”  His grin broadened, producing two dimples.  I felt a warm rush and I was certain my face was flushed.

“Sure, just let me clean up and I’ll be right over…” I said.

He smiled and turned to go into his apartment.  I shut my door and stood stock still for about thirty seconds, then rushed into the kitchen and threw everything back into the refrigerator in an untidy heap.  I could sort that out later.  I ran back to the bedroom, tore off my clothes and took a quick shower.  I dressed in my prettiest under things, slipped into a short, sassy dress, and did a quick job of my make-up and hair.  Thirty minutes later I stood outside his door, a bottle of wine nestled in my arm.

He opened the door, still looking rumpled.  His shirt now sported a large reddish splotch on the front.  I grinned at him.

“They make a handy thing called an apron, you know.”

“Men don’t wear aprons,” he scoffed, ushering me in.  “But since you went through the trouble of getting all cleaned up,” he looked me up and down appreciatively, “could you keep an eye on the sauce while I do the same?”

He wandered back into the bedroom, and I moseyed into the kitchen, setting the bottle of wine on the counter.  The kitchen was a complete wreck.  I lifted the lid o the saucepan and the smell of spaghetti sauce was heavenly.  He might be a messy cook, but it smelled like he could produce some edible food.  I grabbed a spoon and tested the sauce.  It tasted as good as it smelled.  I stirred it, and then ran back across the hall to grab an apron.   I was just finishing tidying up the kitchen when he came out of the bedroom, freshly showered and dressed in a nice pair of slacks and a button-down shirt.

“You didn’t have to do that!” he exclaimed, surveying the spotless kitchen.  “I was supposed to make you dinner.”

“And you did,” I said.  “Don’t you know that the one who doesn’t cook is supposed to clean?  That’s the way it works.”

“But I left this place an absolute bloody mess.  I’m sure most cooks are a little neater.”  He moved toward the oven just as the timer dinged.  “And you put the bread in!  So you officially cooked, too.”  He frowned at me.

“Fine, then, you can do the dishes!”  I smile, and swished out into the dining room.  I realized the effect was slightly ruined because I was still wearing the splattered apron, which I hastily ties and threw onto the kitchen counter. 

Alex brought the food out to the table as I poured the wine.  Now, Italian food might be considered romantic (who can forget the touching scene in Lady and the Tramp?) but it’s really not a food to be eaten on a first date.  It’s kind of hard to look sexy slurping up a spaghetti noodle.  Still, it was a very pleasant dinner, and I found myself drinking more than my share of the wine.  It felt good to relax and enjoy myself, even if I knew next to nothing about the man I was sharing the evening with.  I kept trying to ask him questions, but he deflected all of them deftly, and the more wine I consumed, the harder it was for me to try to wiggle information out of him.

After dinner, I sat on the couch while he cleaned up.  The wine had really gone to my head, and I felt woozy and drowsy.  He came and sat down next to me, putting his arm around my shoulders and pulling me against his chest.  I gazed up into his face, and he gently ran the tip of his finger down my nose.

“You look a little bit tired, love.”  He said softy.

“I’m fine,” I said through a yawn.

He smiled, and leaned over to gently kiss me.  I sighed and sank into him, wrapping my arms around his neck.  He picked me up and carried me back to his bedroom, where he laid my down on the bed.  He took off my shoes and removed my dress, then pulled the covers over me.  He stroked my hair as he leaned over to kiss my forehead.  I looked up at him, confused.

“You need some sleep.”  He said softly, and I felt myself drifting off as he shed his clothing and slipped into bed next to me, cradling me in his arms.
I woke up the next morning completely disoriented.  The first thing I became aware of was the fact that I wasn’t alone.  I could feel the heat of another body and hear a soft snoring coming from the other side of the bed.  Slowly my brain began to wake up and I remembered last night.  I sat bolt upright in bed.  Next to me, Alex started and also woke up, sitting up a little more slowly.

“What is it?”  He asked mildly, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.  The sheet sat pooled in his lap, and I caught myself just staring at his chest. Again.  I shook my head and pulled myself together.  I could be nonchalant, too.

“What time is it?  I have to get to work.”  I said.

He turned around to look at the clock.  “Six fifteen,” he said when he turned back around to face me.  “Are you going to be late?”

“No, no,” I said shaking my head and yawning.  “That’s fine.  I do need to get going, though.”  I paused.  “Um, where are my clothes?”

He got out of bed and walked around to the foot of the bed.  I let myself drool mentally as I watched him, clad only in his boxers.  Why is it men are never self-conscious about their bodies?  Not that Alex would have any reason to be self-conscious, but even fat guys are proud of their beer guts, it seems.  I forlornly poked at my slightly bulging middle and sighed. 

Alex tossed me my dress and I hurriedly slipped it over my head, not sliding out from under the covers until I was ready to pull the dress down over my hips.  If I thought my stomach was bad, my butt was absolutely dreadful.  Though I guessed he had seen plenty last night, which is why…  I blinked back sudden tears at the thought that Alex found me unattractive.  It seemed the only explanation for what happened, or rather, what didn’t happen, last night.

I slipped on my shoes and headed out the door.  Alex followed, still just wearing his boxers.  He unlocked the door and opened it.

“Have a nice day,” he said, grinning, and leaned down to give me a quick kiss.

I tried to smile back, but fear I failed miserably.  He looked down at me, frowning ever so slightly, as I turned to walk out the door.  And stopped dead in my tracks.

My apartment door was handing crookedly open.  The lock had been smashed.  I could see into my apartment where cushions and blankets lay strewn about the floor.  I gasped and stepped back, bumping into Alex.  He reached up and grabbed my upper arms to steady me.  He pulled me back into his apartment and shut the door.  He led me over to the couch, where he sat me down gently.

“I’m going to call the cops and make you a nice cup of tea, okay?”  I said slowly, looking into my eyes.  “Don’t move.”

I sat there, gulping in air, trying not to cry and listening to the sounds of Alex bustling around in the kitchen.  I heard him briefly recounting to the police what we had seen, then he gave the address and hung up.  He disappearing into the bedroom and emerged fully dressed just as the tea kettle began to whistle.  He brought me a cup of tea and a small plate of cookies.  I looked at him, and started to laugh.

“Cookies?”  I said, a note of hysteria creeping into my voice.  I have no idea why, but the idea of this man serving me tea and cookies was just so absurdly funny.  I sat there, laughing until tears started running down my face.  Alex sat next to me, put his arms around me, and rocked me gently.  A sobbed into his chest until the tears dried up and I was left hiccupping miserably.  He stroked my hair, staying silent and just holding me.  It was so sweet that it made me what to cry all over again.

But then the police arrived, and the questions began.  Had we heard anything?  No, we had been asleep.  Any idea who would have done this?  Oh, I don’t know, maybe the people who keep kidnapping me?  What were they looking for?  I don’t know.  How did they know you weren’t home?  I don’t know.  Why weren’t you home?  Because.

The last two questions gave me pause.  How had they know?  I found myself casting a suspicious glance at Alex.  Then I shook my head.  It couldn’t be.  I refused to let it be.  I started thinking of it in a different way.

“Maybe,” I said slowly, “They wanted me to be home.  What if this wasn’t planned as a burglary, but as another kidnapping attempt?  What if they decided to search only after they found the apartment empty?”

“That’s possible.”  The policeman said.  “We’re looking at all the possibilities.”

So I called work, told them I wouldn’t be in, and promised to fax over a copy of the police report as proof of my excuse.  I could hear the irritation in my boss’s voice as I told her what had happened, and I started to get angry.  Yes, I know this is a busy time at work, but I’d just been robbed, for god’s sake, couldn’t she show a little compassion?  I hung up the phone wearily.

Alex and I finished answering the police’s questions, and I went through the apartment with a technician, looking for anything that was missing.  Though a few things were broken, nothing seemed to have been taken.  Finally they cleared out and left Alex and I standing in the middle of my wrecked living room.  The super was sending a guy up to fix my door and replace the locks, and I needed to stay here until then.  By this time it was getting close to lunch time, though, and my stomach rumbled noisily.  Alex looked at me.

“Want me to go get some food?”  He asked.

I sighed.  “That would be lovely.”

“What do you want?”

“How about some Chinese?”  I said, perking up slightly.  I did love Chinese food, and I might as well take any happiness where I could grab it.  "That place on the next block makes a mean Hot and Sour Soup, not to mention killer Crab Rangoons.”

“You wish is my command,” he said, bowing and clicking his heels together.  I smiled as he turned on his heel and walked out through the shattered door.

By the time he returned, I had put the kitchen back together and the guy was there, fixing the door.  He had two giant bags of food, which he plopped down on the counter ceremoniously. 

“I had no idea what you wanted.”  He said, “So I got just about everything that didn’t look, well, frightening.”

I started unloading cartons of food, soups, rice and noodles onto the counter.  “For future reference, my favorite is the Sweet and Sour Chicken.” I said, and realized that I really wanted there to be a reason for that future reference.  That was when Alan walked in.

Now, in the excitement of the morning I had forgotten about Alan, and how I was going to have to explain where I was when the burglary took place.  I mean, it wasn’t like we were exclusive, we hadn’t even slept together – not even in the way Alex and I just had.  And yet I was feeling incredibly guilty.  So when he walked in, I went a little overboard on my greeting.

“Alan!”  I shrieked, dropping the carton of Chinese food on the counter and rushing over to him.  I flung my arms around him, and to his credit, he hugged me back.

“Are you okay?”  He asked quietly.

“I’m fine.”  I said, not looking him in the eye.  “This really isn’t what you think.”

“Oh?”  He said, not sounding at all convinced.  “We will need to talk – but later.  I just dropped by to see that you were okay.  Seems they found a few prints in your apartment and now we have a few leads to follow up on right away.”

“You can’t even stay for lunch?”  I gestured to the heap of Chinese food on the counter, and pouted a little for good effect.

He grinned at me.  “Nice try, but no. Unfortunately, I really need to get going.”  He shot Alex a ‘drop dead’ look and left.  I let out a deep breath and turned to Alex.

“Well, that was cozy.”  I said.

He grinned at me.  I grabbed a pillow and threw it at him.  “This is not funny!”  I said, frowning at him.

“I beg to differ.”  Was all he said.  We ate our lunch, and he stayed to help me clean up.  By that evening the apartment looked almost normal again.  There were some bare spots where things that had been broken used to be, but otherwise, it was just as I’d left it the night before.  Alex and I had more Chinese food, and then he bid me good night.  A quick kiss and he left, leaving me to wonder.  Did he really like me, or was it just a game to annoy Alan?

I sighed and turned to my computer.  It wasn’t as if I could really blog about my experiences of the last few days, btu I felt like I had to do something.  I decided to write out the strange animal dreams I’d been having and see if a little research couldn’t did up some hidden meaning.  I still couldn’t help but wonder if there was a kernel of information hidden there, and I was willing to do anything to uncover it.

After a few hours of fruitless searching, I sat back and studied my screen.  That, I decided, had been a gigantic waste of time.  There were so many different interpretations of the items in your dreams that it was virtually useless to look them up in any “dream dictionary.”  After all of that, I was sticking with my original theory that the pigs were the cops and fox was the villain.  I just couldn’t place the wombats.  I gave up, switched off the computer, and went to bed.

I woke up the next morning bleary and stiff.  I felt like I hadn’t slept at all.  So I dragged myself to the shower, hoping the hot water would clear my head.  But I felt even worse when I got out.  I contemplated calling in sick, but figured I would probably lose my job.  So I pulled on some clothes, brushed my hair, and stumbled out to my car.  Just as I was about to unlock the door I felt a stabbing pain in my arm.  I looked down to see a gloved hand holding a hypodermic needle.  As I tried to twist around to see who was behind me, all I could think of was “oh, no, not again.”  Then I passed out.

I woke up a little in the back seat of a car.  My limbs felt heavy and it took my a minute to realize my hands a feet were bound.  There wasn’t anyone else in the backseat with me, and I tried to twist myself so I could reach the door handle.

“Don’t bother,” said a cool, amused voice from the front seat. I recognized it as the man I’d dubbed “Will” from the previous attempt.  “You will find that the child safety locks are engaged.”

Bloody child safety crap, I fumed as I slumped against the seat.  I thought about trying to reach over the back of the front seat to, oh, I don’t know, cause a wreck or something, but as if he read my mind, Will raised the partition between the front and back seats, leaving my alone with my thoughts.

My head was still swimming and I felt sick to my stomach.  I decided that I just couldn’t deal with the situation and passed out.  The next time I woke up, I was untied and sat slumped against the wall in a dark, dingy room.  There was one window high up on one wall, but it was too high up for me to reach and even if I did, it had bars securing it.  The walls were concrete, and the only door looked like it was made of steel.  I could hear a faint shuffling outside the door.  I hugged my legs to my chest and began to rock back and forth, afraid to even think about what was going to happen next.

What happened immediately next was that I passed out again.  Weenie of me, I know.  But I was so tired, and the drugs were still pulling me back to never-never land, and I decided to let them.  Anything was better than facing the awful reality of being held captive in this scary, grimy cell.  Next time I awoke, I was still alone, but I could heard a tinny, metallic, disembodied voice.

“Rebecca?  Rebecca?  Are you awake?”  It asked me.

I groggily lifted my head and looked around, but couldn’t determine where the voice came from.

“Good,” it said.  “I just want to ask you a few questions.”

I rolled my eyes and yawned.  “Look, I can’t tell you anything, okay?  I don’t know anything.  I don’t have anything.  What more do you want?”

“We know you’ve lied to the police, Rebecca,” the voice said.  “So we have no reason to believe you’re not lying to us.”

“When have I lied to the police?”  I asked, truly puzzled.  I hadn’t… oh.  Did they know that I knew about Brian, the smuggling, the protecting me bit?

“You know that Brian was involved in some… ah, less than legal work.  We know that your friend told you all about it the day of the estate sale.  And yet you’ve never mentioned this to the police, have you?”

“Um, well,” I faltered.  “Yes, that’s true, but…”

“But what?”  The voice asked, sounding even colder, if that’s even possible.

“Okay, look, at first I was a suspect, and … It’s a long story.”

“We have time,” the voice responded.

So I spilled out the whole story about seeing Jen and Dave, my subsequent behavior, and the revelation about the real reason Brian left me.  “And I haven’t seen either one of them since,” I said.

“And that is all you know?  You’re not leaving anything out?  You aren’t hiding something you found in the house, or coving up some of Brian’s tracks?”  The voice was insistent.

“Look, why do you care?  Who are you?”  I baffled by the questions.  This seemed more like a police interview than a hostage interrogation.

“Brian, well, Brian took something that belonged to us.  We are simply trying to recover it.”  The voice said smoothly – or, at least, as smoothly as a tinny metal voice can sound.

“Well, I don’t have it, don’t know anything about it, so can I go now?”  I asked hopefully.

The voice sighed.  “No,” it said regretfully, “we cannot allow that.  You can identify my associates, and I can’t have you turning them in to the police.”

“How about I promise not to?”  I squeaked, beginning to tremble slightly.

“Um, no.  I’m sorry, really I am…”  And the funny thing is, the voice did sound sorry.  That did not, however, make me feel any better.  I remained silent, unsure of what I could possibly say.  And then I heard, in the distance, sirens.  There was a shout outside my cell door, some clanking and pounding, and then... nothing. 

Well, not entirely nothing.  The sirens continued to grow louder and I dared to let myself hope.  I touched the necklace and willed it to truly be enchanted.  Finally, the sirens arrived outside the building and I heard heavy booted feet on the stairs.  The cell door burst open and SWAT team members rushed in.  I stood very still as they checked make sure I was alone in the room.

Finally I was escorted to a waiting ambulance and, despite my protests, hauled off to the hospital to be checked out.  Surprisingly, the police hadn’t asked me any questions at the scene.  They had bundled me up and stuffed me into the back of that ambulance without saying more than ten words.  I found that a little odd, but figured they were more concerned with making sure I was fit and healthy for a really long, retailed interview.  And I was right.

The next day, I was discharged from the hospital and a police officer was waiting to escort me to the police station.  I took my usual seat in my usual interview room, and the questions began.  I recounted as much of the abduction as I could remember, and told them about waking up in the cell.  I told them as best I could the questions that the voice had asked me, and what I had responded.

“Could you identify this voice?”  The detective asked me.

“No, it seemed to be filtered or mixed somehow – it almost sounded computer generated.”  I frowned slightly, and continued, “but the speech pattern… that seemed familiar somehow.  I just can’t place my finger on it.”

“What do you mean?”  The detective looked puzzled.

“Well, you know that everyone has things they do that are distinctive.  Some people have mannerisms, some have things they say all the time, and some people just have a cadence to their speech that is unique.  A way of spacing and emphasizing their words.  And this person sounded familiar to me.”  I thought back over the conversation.  It was right there on the edge of my brain.  Something was so familiar about it…  But it slipped away every time I reached for it.

The detective nodded.  “Yeah, I know what you mean.  Let us know if it comes to you, okay?”

 I nodded back wearily,   “One thing, detective…”  I hesitated, then plunged on, “how did they know I’d lied to the police?”  I cringed as I said it, and hurriedly amended it, “I mean, not really lied, you know, just, um, left out some info…”

He grinned.  “No worries there, we’re not going to charge you or anything.  Turns out Brian’s house was bugged, and they would’ve heard anything that went on there.  The new owners were replacing a battery in the smoke detector and found one.  Since they knew the history of the house, they gave us a call.  We swept the place and found quite a few.”

I nodded, and took a deep breath.  “But how did they know I hadn’t told that to the police?”

His face darkened.  “There’s only one way they would have known that for sure.”  He didn’t finish the thought.  We both knew that the rumors must have been true – there was more than one person in the police station that was involved in this case.  It could be anyone from a detective to a secretary, but somewhere, someone with access to the police files was working for the bad guys.

“Um, one more question, if I may.  How did you find me?”

He looked slightly uncomfortable, then gave me a lopsided smile.  “The bad guys aren’t the only ones with their eyes and ears everywhere, you know,” he said softly, then escorted me out of the room.

I stood at the curb, trying to hail a taxi as I thought back over the events of the last few days.  I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I about jumped out of my skin when I felt a tap on my arm.

“Whoa!  Easy!  Didn’t mean to scare you!”  I turned around to see Alan standing behind me.

“Sorry, yes, I’m a little jumpy.”  I grinned sheepishly.

“That is completely understandable.  I was saying your name, but you didn’t respond.”  He looked concerned, and my heart gave a little lurch.  Why, oh why couldn’t I be madly in love with him, instead of mildly in like?  He was hot, he was so nice, he was…  okay, he was a little bit boring, to be honest.  But you’d think that after all I’d been through recently, boring would really appeal to me.

“Woolgathering, I’m afraid,” I grinned at him.  “Please tell me you’re hear to sweep me off to lunch.  I’m starving.”

He grinned back. “As a matter of fact, yes.  Then I will drive you back to your place and make sure you are comfortably settled – and make you promise not to leave your apartment until this case is resolved.”

“You know I can’t do that,” I said.  “And besides, it’s not as if my apartment is impenetrable.”

We headed off to lunch, him still nagging me about keeping out of harm’s way.  I was worried that if I didn’t do something to appease him, he’d forcibly commit me to a loony bin just to try to keep me safe.  I thought about it, and decided on a compromise. 

“Okay,” I told him, “I will talk to my boss.  If she agrees, I will take my vacation now and head out of town.  I won’t tell anyone where I am going, and I will make sure no one follows me.  I will spend a week away, and then call you and see if I can come back.  How about that?”

He grudgingly agreed that it would have to do.  “You won’t even tell me where you are going?” 

“Well, I probably would if I knew,” I flashed him a smile, “but I don’t.  I’ll just get in my car and go, I think.”

He grinned back, walked me to my apartment, and stayed to talk to my boss on the phone.  I think she only gave me the time off because she figured I wouldn’t be in anyway, so better to have scheduled time off.  I packed up a bag, and with Alan waving on the sidewalk, pulled away.
The first thing I did was t pull into a café and check my e-mail.  Thank god for laptops!  Though there was nothing important, I still felt better knowing that.  I guess even with all that was going on, I was still an internet junkie at heart.  I surfed the web while I drank my coffee and nibbled on a bagel, looking for places to go.  To tell you the truth, I’m not much of a vacation kind of girl.  I’m much more of a ‘stay at home in the comfort of your own living room’ sort of girl. 

On a lark, I decided to go bird watching.  Why not?  It was supposedly relaxing, it was outdoors, and I would be out of contact with the rest of the world.  Of course, that would also be the perfect place to be killed, I mused.  Out of the way…  Hmmm.  I’d have to think about that.

I drove to a camera store and bought a nice SLR camera and a few lenses.  Then I popped into the local Audubon Society office and signed up for a tour.  This, I decided, was perfect.  I would be with a group of people, but not in the city.  Plus, I’d have people to teach me about birds, as I knew very little.  I used to be a great photographer, though, so maybe I’d at least get some decent photos out of this whole mess.  I wondered why I had given up on photograph…

The tour was a four-day jaunt through the local wetlands and forests, starting at 6 am tomorrow morning.  Technically, I was too late to sign up, but they had had a cancellation.  I decided that it was truly fate telling me that this was what I should do.  I went off to find a motel, first stopping at the ATM for cash, because I was paranoid that the bad guys could track my credit card.  I spent a restless night, and was up in plenty of time to meet the bus in the morning.

The day was bright, cold, and clear.  Perfect for a day of bird watching.  I huddled down into my coat as we got to the first destination.  Thankfully, they had served us all hot, strong coffee on the way here and I was feeling much better with a high level of caffeine buzzing through my veins.  I got out my camera and settled on a folding chair.  It wasn’t long before I was happily snapping away at birds, critters, and the beautiful scenery.  I really was feeling more relaxed than I had in ages. 

The passed out box lunches and I was settling into my ham sandwich when I suddenly heard a crashing, cracking noise coming my way.  It was like several people running towards me.  I looked around, but couldn’t see anyone in the waist-high grass.  The other members of the group were a few hundred feet away, clustered in small clumps eating their lunch.  I felt panic begin to rise as the noise came closer and I still couldn’t see anything… wait!  There, a rustling of the grass.  Heading this way.

Suddenly my fear changed.  So it wasn’t a person, but a wild animal.  I honestly wasn’t sure that was any better.  I stood rock-still, hoping it would veer off and miss me.  But it came straight for me.  I held my breath as it burst out of the grass just a few feet from where I was standing.

A scruffy dog burst out of the grass, clambered to a halt and sat dog in front of me, looking up at me with huge brown eyes and a lolling tongue.  It was panting from its run through the grass, but looked pretty healthy and happy, otherwise.  It had a collar, and a leash, and a note attached.  I crouched down and the dog thrust its snout into my hand.  When I tentatively scratched its head, it leaned into me, pressing its whole body up against mine and giving a sigh of doggy pleasure.  I noticed that it was a very clean dog, so it hadn’t been running around long.  I reached for the note stuffed under its collar.

Dear whoever,

We can no longer care for Ranger, though he is a fantastic dog.  He knows all sorts of tricks and is very friendly.  He will even act as a pseudo-guard dog.  If you tell him “Angriff” he will attack anyone threatening you.  “Anschlag” will make him stop.  He’s very loyal – feed him a sandwich and he’ll follow you anywhere.  We are releasing him at an animal preserve in hopes that an animal lover will find him and care for him.  Our father will no longer allow us to keep Ranger, and has threatened to shoot him.  We thought that letting him go (as we have no way of getting to an animal shelter) was the best option.  We love him and hope that you will, too.  Please take good care of him.

P.S. He’s just over a year old and has all his shots.  His rabies shot will be due in June.  His heartworm medication is due on the first of every month, and he was on Sentinel.

Yours,
Karen and Marsha

I stared at the note.  It was completely unbelievable.  I would have thought that Alan had sent a police dog to protect me, except I was absolutely sure there was no way I had been followed.  No one knew where I was.  Plus, Ranger was not the high caliber German Shepard favored by law enforcement.  He was a large dog, but definitely a mutt.  He had brownish, fluffy fur, button ears, and a large head.  His long, fringed tail was thumping the ground as I scratched him behind the ears.

“Okay, Ranger,” I said, and his ear perked at the sound of his name.  He looked at me with his giant brown puppy eyes and I knew I was done for.  I absolutely love dogs, and even though I couldn’t have a dog in my apartment, I couldn’t turn this guy away.  I’d just have to move.
I picked up the trailing leash and walked Ranger over the head of the bird watching group.  I showed her the note and explained the situation.  She pursed her lips.

“Well, it’s highly unusual to have a dog on a bird watching trip,” she said.

“I know, I know, but what am I going to do?  Leave him here?”  At this, Ranger let out a little whine.  Either the dog was bloody brilliant, or just had an innate sense of timing.

Julie’s eyes softened.  She leaned down to pat Ranger on the head, and he thumped his tail.  “Okay, keep him out of the other’s way, and he can tag along.  We’ll stop by a pet store for supplies in the next town.  If he causes any problems, though, you’re in a cab back to the city.”

I swore he would be the model dog.  After she walked away, I turned to Ranger, “Now, I promised you would be good,” I said sternly.  “You won’t let me down, will you?”

He sat very straight, his chest puffed out, and gave one short, sharp bark.  I patted his head, and led him around to introduce him to the rest of the group.  Being animal lovers, they all ohhed and ahhed over him, and everyone agreed that as long as he didn’t frighten off the birds, he was welcome to join us.  No one even considered the possibility of leaving him out here.

When we got to PetSmart, I have to admit I went a little overboard.  Sure, there were the essentials such as food, treats, bowls, and a brush, but Ranger also got pig’s ears, bones, toys, a bed, a blanket, and a new collar, leash, and tag.  I also have the groomers give him a good bath and brushing.  While he was being groomed, I nipped over to the coffee shop next door and checked my e-mail.

There was the usual assortment of junk, as well as an e-mail from Megan.  Sadly, it was one of those chain e-mails that she was forever forwarding.  It was some sappy poem about telling your loved ones you love them before it’s too late, replete with opening cases of people who hadn’t forward it meeting disastrous ends.  I chuckled as I read the obligatory warning at the end: it:

You must send this on in 3 hours after reading the letter to 10 other people. If you do this, you will receive unbelievably good luck in love. The person that you are most attracted to will soon return to you.  If you do not, bad luck will rear its ugly head at you. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!  You have read the warnings, seen the cases, and the consequences. You MUST send this on or face dreadfully bad luck. *NOTE*  the more people that you send this to, the better luck you will have.

So, what has been responsible for my bad luck to this point?  I hit the delete key, figuring my life couldn’t get any more unlucky than it had been.  I wrote Megan a short message in response:

I will never forward on a chain e-mail, so if I die tomorrow, I guess it's your fault for sending it to me. Oh, and since you had an old e-mail address of mine in there, technically you sent it to less than 10 valid e-mail addresses, so bad luck should plague you as well.

The poem is a nice thought, but maybe dispense with the "if you don't forward it, doom will befall you" bit at the end.  Sort of crushes the sentiment.

Sorry if it seems harsh, but I am seriously anti-chain e-mail, for a lot of reasons.  Every time you forward on things to masses of people with masses of headers, you are providing people with TONS of e-mail addresses to sell to spam companies.  And then my inbox is clogged with adverts for penis pumps and underage girls.  Not pleasant.  So, if you must forward things on, please delete all previous headers and use the "BCC" address to send it to your group - that way you aren't opening up all of your friends to massive amounts of spam as well as incredibly bad luck.

I realized that did seem incredibly harsh, but damn it, I was tired, I was cranky, and I didn’t need what I perceived as another threat looming over my head.  I had enough to deal with as it was, including deleting all of the aforementioned spam.  I was clicking on all of the messages with subject lines such as “on fly of professor billiards” and “you are so good to me eggplant mike” when the subject line “It’s a dangerous game you play, Rebecca” caught my attention.

Not that my name is that unusual, and the phrase does seem like the gobble-de-gook that they put there to catch you attention, but I suddenly remembered.  The masquerade ball.  The stranger that had grabbed me and whispered that exact phrase into my ear before disappearing.  With a shaking hand, I clicked on the e-mail.

Rebecca,

I tried to warn you once.  Now you’ve gone off and tried to disappear.  But I will find you, and you will pay for what you’ve taken.  I don’t believe you when you say you know nothing.  You are a good little liar, but not good enough.  Just give me what is mine, and you won’t suffer.

The e-mail was unsigned, and the return address was simply “unknown sender.”  I stared at it for a long time before closing it without deleting and shutting my computer down.  I decided I would show it to Alan when I got back from my trip.  It seemed his idea of getting me out of town was a good one, after all.  I just had to hope that they would find the mastermind behind this in the next few days.

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully.  I snapped pictures, played with Ranger, and chatted with my fellow birders.  Ranger was turning out to be a great dog.  He knew loads of tricks, and when I sat down to watch the birds he laid calmly next to me and gnawed on a bone or napped.  I knew he was going to cause no end of trouble, what with me having to move and all, but I was bonding with him, and I couldn’t imagine giving him up.  There was something about having him around that just seemed to stabilize my crazy world.  It’s what we used to call “fuzz therapy” when I was growing up.  If you got too stressed out, you could just go and give Shep (our family dog) a giant hug and everything would seem a little bit better.  And Ranger seemed to know that I was in need of a lot of Fuzz Therapy, because he sat next to me and leaned on me every opportunity he got.

Though Ranger did make the trip more pleasant, I was still antsy to get home – back to the real world, so to speak.  I had always thought of myself as a bit of a coward, so it surprised me that this “running away” stuck in my craw.  I wanted to get back to the city and see if there was any way I could help.  I was tired of being scared, tired of running, and tired of letting the bad guys dictate my life.  So after the trip, I got back to the hotel and called Alan.

“Hi, Alan, it’s Rebecca,” I said after he answered.

“Hey, you!  Having fun?”  He asked, not sounding at all surprised to hear from me so early.

“Not at all.  Can I come home now?”  As I was talking to him, I was booting up my computer.  Time to check and see if I had any more threatening e-mails.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said regretfully, “as much as I would love to see you.”

“Nothing new on the case, then?”  I asked as I logged into my e-mail account.

“Nothing.  We tracked down the last leads we had to dead ends.  I’m afraid we don’t have much else to go on.”  He sounded frustrated.

I scanned the list of new e-mail subject line.  There, halfway down, was another one.  The subject line read, “Don’t ignore my warning, Rebecca.”

“I may have something new for you,” I said slowly.

“What?  What happened?”  He sounded anxious.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.  It’s a cyber-assault this time.  I’ve gotten a few threatening e-mails.”  As I spoke, I opened up the latest offering.

Rebecca
I know your first inclination is probably to ignore this e-mail.  Your second, most likely, is to report it to the police.  I would strongly caution you to do neither.  Just give us what was Brian’s and we will leave you in peace.  I have spoken with my associates, and as long as you agree to keep your mouth shut, we will let you live.  Provided you hand over the item and tell no one of the transaction.  Don’t let me down, I really don’t want to have to kill you.  But I will.

I read this e-mail, and the previous one out loud to Alan.  He whistled.

“Let me talk to the I.T. guys.  I’d love to be able to tell you that you could just forward the e-mails to us, but they probably want your computer.  Can you hold on a sec?”  Before I could even respond, I heard a click and then silence.  I hummed to myself, as the police department did not have fancy phone systems with hold music.  I was reaching the crescendo of “I Will Survive” when Alan clicked back on the line.

“Um, Rebecca?”  He said hesitantly, breaking into my song right at ‘as long as there’s a breath in me…’

I cleared my throat.  “Yes?”

“They need you to bring the computer in.  Can you be here by 5 o’clock?”

I glanced at my watch.  It was only 10 am.  “Certainly, if not well before.  I’ll start back now.”

“Great – they can get started processing the computer and I can take you out to eat.”  He sounded greatly cheered by the prospect.

“It’ll have to be an outdoor café,” I said hesitantly, “or take-out.  I have Ranger with me.”

“Ranger?”  He sounded mystified.

“My dog,” I said simply.

“You don’t have a dog,” he said slowly, “and it’s 20 degrees out.”

“I do now, so take out at my place?”  I said cheerfully.

“Sure,” was all he said, and we hung up.

Ranger whined and nosed my hand, and I took him out for his morning constitutional.  Then we packed up my bags, stuffed everything in the car, and headed back to the city.  We arrived at the police station at a little before one, and without even stopping to think I brought Ranger and the laptop in.

The desk clerk stopped me.

“You can’t bring that dog in here!” She cried, pointing a finger at Ranger, who managed to look hurt.

“I need to drop off this laptop for the I.T. guys,” I said, ignoring her outburst about my baby.  “Can I please speak to Detective McKinney?”

“I’m here,” said a familiar voice behind me.  I swung around and he was standing there, looking tired but still adorable.  He knelt down and extended a hand to Ranger.

“And this must be the new pup,” he said cheerfully.

Ranger looked at him like he had grown a second head.  Then, very deliberately, he turned around and sat with his back to Alan.  I stared at him in surprise.

“He’s never done that before,” I said, flushing, “it must mean that he feels threatened by you.  I mean, he has been the center of my world for the last three days, and …”  I trailed off.  Honestly, I had even made that little bit up.  I had no idea what had prompted Ranger to act that way.  I knew dogs had a sixth sense about people, so I suspected there might be something about Alan that Ranger didn’t like.  I looked at Alan out of the corner of my eye.  He had straightened up and was grinning at me and Ranger.

“Nothing half of my dinner wouldn’t fix, I’m sure,” he said jovially, and took the laptop from my hands.  “Give this to Jenkins, would you, Marge?” 

He handed it to the desk clerk, and she nodded solemnly, still shooting Ranger dirty looks.

Alan, Ranger and I went outside to my car.  We all piled in and I drove to my favorite Mexican restaurant, where Alan ran in and grabbed some food.  I took the opportunity to have a one-on-one with Ranger about his behavior.

“Look,” I said twisting around to face him, “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but Alan’s a really nice guy, okay?

Ranger cocked his head to one side and eyed my speculatively.

“Spending time with him does not mean I love you any less,” I continued reasonably, “and you shouldn’t feel threatened.”

Ranger snuffed, then yawned.

“That’s not it, then?”  I paused and pondered.  “So what is you major malfunction, then?”

Ranger whined and reached forward to lick my face.

“Yes, you love me, I get that.” 

Ranger woofed, and reached out to put a paw on my arm.

“And you want to protect me.”  Another woof.  “And you don’t like Alan”  Another woof.

I stared into his big brown doggie eyes.  He looked back at me earnestly.  I reached out to scratch his ear.  “But I just don’t understand…”

At that moment the car door opened.  Alan hoped in and looked at me speculatively.  “Were you talking to the dog?”  His voice was incredulous.

“Yes,” I said, and gave him a “and what of it” look.

“You know he’s just a stupid dog and can’t understand you, right?”  Alan sneered, throwing a dismissive look over his shoulder at Ranger, who let out a low growl.

I arched an eyebrow at Alan.

“Coincidence,” he said, matter of fact.  “Dogs are just dumb animals.  They don’t understand what you say.”

“You don’t like dogs?”  I asked, my face carefully blank.

“They have their place, sure, working or outside.  But a house dog?”  He looked at me suddenly.  “You know you can’t keep him in your apartment, right?”

“Of course I know that,” I said haughtily.

“Good.”  He sighed and settled back in his seat.

“That’s why I’ll be moving.”

“What?”  He looked at me like I was crazy.  “Are you serious?  Or are you just giving me a hard time because I called him stupid?”

“I’m dead serious,” I said coldly.  “Get out of this car.  Now.”

“Because of the dog?”  He asked, his face a mask of shock.

“Yes.  I love dogs.  Ranger is now my adopted baby.  If you can’t accept that, can’t treat him like a member of the family, well…”

“Rebecca, it’s a dog, not a person!” He cried desperately, looking at me with pleading eyes.

“He is to me.  OUT.”  I said with finality, and he finally got the message.  He got out of the car and, shaking his head, walked off down the sidewalk.

“Well, Ranger, buddy, looks like it’s just you and me,” I said over my shoulder, and Ranger woofed happily, his big tail wagging.  I glanced down at the passenger side floorboard.  “And the food!”  Ranger woofed again, and catapulted himself into the front seat, where he sat and stared at the bag of food all the way back to the apartment.

When we got to the apartment building, there was a large puddle of dog drool on the passenger seat.  I sighed, grabbed the bag and Ranger’s leash, and headed up the stairs.  My luggage could wait.  When I got to my floor, Alex was just coming out of his apartment.  Ranger saw him and bolted towards him, pulling the leash out of my hand.

“Ranger, stop!”  I cried, but he continued galloping toward Alex.  I say Alex grimace and brace himself as Ranger hit him at full speed, knocking him back slightly.  I rushed forward, only to find that instead of attacking Alex, as I had feared, Ranger was slobbering giant wet doggie kisses all over him.

“Down, boy, down,” Alex said, laughing, trying unsuccessfully to fend off Ranger’s affectionate assault.

“Ranger!”  I said sharply.  He stared up at me, tongue lolling.  “Wipe that grin off your face, buddy!  I guess it’s okay for you to pay attention to other people, but I’m not allowed to, eh?”

Ranger looked a little consternated by this.  He looked from Alex, to me, and then down at the floor.  After a minute, he shuffled over next to me and leaned up against me.  I patted his head.  “I’m not really jealous, you know.  You can like Alex, too.”

Ranger woofed again and began dancing in circles around us.  I looked up at Alex.

“So why does he like you so much?’  I asked suspiciously.

He grinned.  “Dogs all love me.  Always have.  Growing up all of the village dogs used to follow me around.  I think some people are just dog people.”

“And do you like dogs?  Or is it like me and cats – I can’t stand them, so they always jump in my lap?”

“No, I love dogs.  Can’t ask for a better friend, can you?”  Alex smiled at me.  “So, where have you been, and where did…- did you say his name was Ranger? – come from?”

I filled him in quickly about the bird trip, finding Ranger, and even my confrontation with Alan, which seemed to please him immensely.  As I was talking, I unlocked my apartment and started unloading the food.  Alex eyed it appreciatively.

“Tell you what…” he said slyly, “if I go get your luggage for you, would you share some of that food?”

I was exhausted and spent, and the idea of trudging back down the stairs was too depressing to contemplate.  I opened my mouth to speak as Ranger nosed my hand.  I glanced down at him, and realized we hadn’t, um, lingered downstairs before coming up.

“Well…” I paused and pretended to consider the offer.  “I guess, but you also have to take Ranger out.”

He grinned.  “Deal.  Keys?”

I tossed him my car keys and he gathered up Ranger’s leash.  “Be right back!”

He and Ranger headed out the door, and I piled Mexican take-out on a plate and slumped onto the couch.  I flicked on the TV and absently began flipping channels.  I stopped on Animal Planet and was watching an episode of The Crocodile Hunter where he was talking about wombats when Alex and Ranger came back in.

I turned and looked at them.  “I want my wombat,” I said with a sigh.

Alex froze, looked at me with a ‘deer in the headlights’ expression and said, “Excuse me?”

I waved my hand absentmindedly.  “Nothing, nothing.  Just a dream I had.”

He gave Ranger a treat, loaded up a plate and sat down next to me.  “What dream?”

I shook my head.  “It’s nothing, really.”

“No, if it has to do with wombats it must be truly fascinating,” he grinned at me.

So I told him the whole story, including Melissa’s incorrect recital of the old ‘dingo stole my baby’ story.  He listened intently, stopping occasionally to ask questions, which surprised me.  And they were odd questions, too, like what color was the felt of the poker table where the pigs were sitting.  Very detail oriented questions.  And the end he sat back on the couch, tapped his finger on his lips, and looked at me intently.
“You know what I think?”  He asked in a slow, smooth voice.  I arched an eyebrow in inquiry. 

He suddenly smiled.  “I think it’s complete and utter nonsense.”

“Then why did you ask so many bloody questions?”  I asked indignantly.

“Because it was amusing,” he said simply.

I opened my mouth to retort, but he grabbed me and kissed me.  It was one of those kisses that just makes your entire body go limp.  I sighed and relaxed against him, and he deepened the kiss.  He pulled back and looked into my eyes, caressing the side of my face with his hand.  I nodded slowly.

I’m not going to go into detail about what happened next, but suffice to say, yes, we did.  Look, it’s one thing to share a fantasy story with all of you, but quite another to kiss and tell about what went on in real life.  I will just tell you that it was heavenly.  Amazing.  The best sex ever.  Completely worth waiting for.  And the memory of it was the only thing that got my through the next three days, which were the absolute worst days of my life.  And this time I really mean that.

I woke up the next morning, Wednesday, alone to the sound of a ringing phone.  I rolled over and gazed blearily at the clock.  7:30 shined back at me.  I had a momentary stab of panic as I thought, “I’m going to be late for work!”  Then I remembered I had taken the entire week off and grabbed the phone, mumbling, “Hello,” or something close to that.

“Rebecca, are you okay?”  Alan’s voice came through the line.

I yawned and stretched.  I still felt pretty relaxed and sated from last night, though I did feel a slight fissure of irritation that I was alone.  But I didn’t think this was what Alan wanted to hear, so I just said, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“I feel really bad about yesterday, and I wanted to apologize.  I’ve been under a lot of stress lately, and I just…” he blew out a long breath.  “I didn’t really mean it.”

“Oh, so you actually love dogs?”  I asked, glancing over the edge of the bed at Ranger, who was stretched out on his side, his ears perked and one eye open and watching me.

“Well…” Alan hesitated.

“Don’t lie,” I warned him.

“Okay, no, I don’t love dogs, but I don’t hate them either,” he said hopefully.

“I’m sorry, I know this sounds psycho, but I just can’t be with someone who doesn’t love dogs as much as I do,” I said.  And while it was true, I think I probably would have said it even if I didn’t feel that strongly about it.  It was almost a relief to find a reason to break it off with Alan.  Before, he was just too nice to dump, and I could see myself falling into a rut, not wanting to hurt his feelings and ending up making us both miserable.  Just like I had with Brian.  So this was like a giant load off of my chest.  I again thanked whatever powers had send Ranger to me.

“Can’t we meet and talk about it?”  His voice was wheedling.  I found it irritating me, like lemon juice on a paper cut.  He was quickly evaporating the nice, happy mood I was in.

“Look, I really don’t’ have time.  I have to…”  I stumbled, unable to even come up with an excuse.

“You have to avoid me,” he said, his voice cold and hard.  “Fine, I’ll have someone call you when your computer is ready.  In the meantime, you have my number if you come to your senses.”  And he hung up.

I stared at the handset for a moment before putting it back in the cradle.  It was like Jekyl and Hyde.  I’d never heard him so… mean, even when he was completely stressed out over the case.  I felt a chill run down my spine.  I picked the phone up and dialed the police station.

“Can I talk to the people who analyze computers?”  I asked the receptionist.  She transferred me to the appropriate department.
“Yeah?”  A voice said into the phone.

“Hi, this is Rebecca Andersen.  You have my computer and I wondered when I might have it back?”

There was a long silence.  The sound of a throat clearing was followed by the sound of a hand covering the receiver.  I heard muffled conversation, but was unable to make out any distinct words.  Finally the person came back on the line.

“Ms. Andersen, I’m afraid there’s a problem.  You see, your computer… well, it’s missing.”

I blinked.  “Missing?”

“Uh, yeah, sometime last night it just…vanished.  Real shame too, because the prelim was looking promising.  I told Det. McKinney there was a really good chance of a trace.  He’ll be pissed when he finds out what happened.”  His voice sounded forlorn.

“The hell with him – you lost my computer!  There was a lot of important stuff on there!”  I decided not to elaborate, as I didn’t think they’d find the fact that I had worked up to $2,000,000 of the required $10,000,000 for the bonus game on Reel Deal Bonus Mania as important as I did.  But, damn it, that had taken me over 50 hours of playing!  I sighed.

“And we’re really sorry, Ms. Andersen, and we’re working on recovering it…” he trailed off.

I thanked him – for what, I don’t know, habit, I guess – and hung up.  I dragged myself out of bed, stepped over Ranger, and stumbled into the kitchen.  There I found a fresh pot of coffee and a note from Alex.

Took Ranger out this morning.  Sorry I had to leave, but business calls.  You were sleeping so peacefully I didn’t want to disturb you.  I won’t be back until late, but if you would, please spend the day in my apartment.  I don’t feel safe with you in yours, what with all that’s happened.

On top of the note was a key.  I picked it up, ran my finger over it, and felt a thrill of pleasure.  And an overwhelming stab of curiosity.  I showered, got dressed, and decided to take Ranger out before we headed over to Alex’s.  As we stepped out the front door, my gaze fell on my car.  Or, rather, what was left of it.

The window on the driver’s side had been smashed.  The trunk had been ripped open.  The upholstery had been ripped and shredded.  I rooted around in the car, and to my surprise, nothing was missing.  Not the stereo, not my CDs, not the various bits of flotsam and jetsam that invariably collected in my car.  I gathered up my stuff and trudged upstairs to report it to the police.

They promised to send an officer around to take a look and write up a report, but told me I did not have to be present.  So I trudged back upstairs with Ranger and let us into Alex’s apartment.  I spent the morning puttering around, watching TV and playing with Ranger.  It was relaxing at first, but really started to get boring.  I started a few things cooking, hoping the activity would set my mind at ease (Alex had a very well stocked refrigerator for a bachelor!) but it didn’t.  I was still jittery and ill at ease.

I was suffering from Internet withdrawal, I decided, and flipped on Alex’s computer.  I told myself it wasn’t an invasion of his privacy to surf the Internet through his computer, I just wouldn’t look at any of his files.

It’s amazing what you can learn about a person just through what they have bookmarked in their web browser.  Alex had a My Yahoo homepage, with nothing out of the ordinary.  His favorites folders were neatly organized, I noticed, skimming down the list.  Movies, music, Monty Python, radio, books, Rebecca…  What?  I clicked on the folder with my name on it, and it opened to show five web pages.  My LJ account, the Brax LJ account, a local police web page, an credit agency web page, and a DMV web page.  The last three weren’t accessible to me without the proper password, but I didn’t need to know what was in them for it to send a chill down my spine.  He had been researching me.  Why?

Just then I heard a hiss from the stove.  My sauce was boiling over!  I jumped up and ran into the kitchen, yanking the pan off of the stove.  The hot liquid splashed down the from of my shirt and I swore violently, yanking it off before it could burn me.  I dropped the splattered shirt in the sink and wandered into Alex’s bedroom to look for something to put on.  I was rooting around in his closet for a shirt when I saw the edge of a box sticking out from the shelf.  My curiosity aroused and my heart hammering, I reached down and pulled it off the shelf.  It looked so familiar…  Then it struck me.  It was the box that I had taken at the last minute from Alan’s house.  I remember he said it had been his Grandmother’s jewelry box at one time, but it was empty now.  I lifted the lid, and sure enough, there was nothing in it.  I had tossed it in the trunk of my car during the estate sale, and had never gotten around to taking it out.  Alex must had snagged it when he went down to get my bags the other day.  But why?  What would anyone want with an empty box?

The obvious answer was nothing.  Unless the box itself was a valuable antique, and this one was not.  Alan had kept it for purely sentimental reasons, I’d assumed.  So, the only other answer was that it was not an empty box at all.  I turned it over in my hands, and heard a faint clicking sound, as of something moving and shifting inside the box.  I opened the top again, and stared into the box.  Sure enough, the inside looked just a little too shallow.  I turned the box over again and studied the outside.

The entire box was delicately carved in a strange, swirled motif, but if I looked really closely at one side it looked like their might – just might – be a shallow drawer at the bottom.  I looked closely at the bottom, and toward the other side it looked like there was a small hole to one side.  I ran back to his desk and grabbed a paper clip, straightening it and slipping it into the hole.  There was a barely audible click and the side of the box popped open.

I slid the drawer out and extracted the velvet bag inside.  Opening the top, I peered at the contents.  Diamonds.  Probably a hundred beautiful, glittering diamonds.  Not huge ones, but perfect, flawless, brilliant ones that were almost certainly worth a small fortune.

I quickly slid the drawer back in the box, pocketing the velvet bag.  I slipped into a shirt that was hanging over a chair, ran back into the living room and shut off the computer.  I was just walking back into the kitchen when I heard the front door open.

Alex came in, followed by a large, gruff man in a tailored suit.  Alex smiled at me and turned to the gruff man.

“Luis, this is Rebecca.”  He turned to me, “Rebecca, this is Luis, a… business associate of mine.”

The slight pause was almost unnoticeable, but my smile felt frozen on my face.  I honestly didn’t want to know what kind of business he was talking about.

“Hi, Luis,” I said as warmly as I could muster.  “Sorry about my appearance.  I just splattered myself and grabbed a shirt off a hanger in the laundry room, so I’m not exactly ‘fashion forward’ at the moment.”  The omission of entering the bedroom came very easily.  The diamonds felt hot in my pocket, and I hoped the slight bulge wasn’t noticeable under the baggy shirt.

“You would look lovely in a flour sack, I am certain,” Luis said with an oily charm that made bile rise in my throat.

“If you will excuse us a moment, Rebecca?”  Alex said politely, and ushered Luis back toward the bedroom.  I crept to the spare room and through the adjoining bathroom to try to listen to the conversation.  My heart was hammering so loudly I was surprised they couldn’t hear it in the next room.  Their conversation wasn’t completely clear, but I got the gist of it.

“Here, I got it yesterday.”  Alex’s voice, low and soft.

“…trouble?” Luis’s voice questioned.

“There was… but it didn’t … here now.”  Damn it, Alex, stop mumbling, I thought crossly.

“Have you managed… open?”

“No, I haven’t had time… can’t figure… must be hidden…”  At this I smiled.  I had gotten it open in about a minute, certainly the same amount of time they’d been standing there talking.

“This has to be it, though, it matches the description perfectly.”  Luis’s voice was getting louder, and I imagined him turning the box over and over in his hands, getting frustrated with his inability to open it.

“Why don’t you… the whole thing… lab…”  Alex’s voice dropped even lower, and I crept away back to the kitchen.  A minute later the two of them came back out, a suspiciously large bulge under Luis’s coat.  I busied myself in the kitchen and pretended not to notice as Alex escorted him to the door.

Alex strolled back into the kitchen, and planted himself directly in front of me.  He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at me.  I shifted uncomfortably.  Silently, he held up the straightened paper clip and raised an eyebrow.

I frowned at him, “And…?”  I said in what I hoped was a convincingly confused tone.

Suddenly he leaned forward, putting one arm on each side of me and pinning me against the counter.  His expression was dark and unreadable, and suddenly I was very afraid.

“Where are they?”  He asked softly.

“Where are what?”  I squeaked.

“Rebecca.  Don’t lie to me.  I know you found them.  I’m going to be in deep shit when they’re not in that box, you know.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I maintained, my voice quavering.

Suddenly he leaned his entire body against mine, wrapping his arms around me and tilting my face up to his.  I don’t know what his original intent was, but I could tell the second he felt the bulge in my pocket.  His eyes widened, and he smiled.

“You don’t know what I’m talking about, eh?”  He asked, his eyes glittering.  I was completely frozen in fear.  Suddenly I felt a pressure against my leg and I looked down.  Ranger was nosing me.  Alex looked down at that moment, too, and I took advantage of his momentary distraction to slip out from under his arm and ran to the front door, yelling for Ranger to follow me.  I didn’t think I was going to make it out the door in time, but at the last minute I saw Alex stumble over Ranger, and that gave me the seconds I needed to wrench open the door and run across the hall to my apartment.  I quickly unlocked my front door and Ranger and I slipped in.  I slammed and locked the door just as Alex threw himself against the other side.

“Rebecca, it’s not what you think.”  I heard him say, but I was already grabbing Ranger’s spare leash and leading him to the bedroom.  There I opened up the window, climbed out onto the fire escape, and hauled him out after me.  Climbing down a fire escape with a 50 pound dog draped over your shoulder is no picnic, but Ranger made it as easy as it could possibly be.  He lay very still, allowing me to carry him to the ground in relative safety.  Once on the sidewalk, I realized my legs were shaking.  I knew I had to get somewhere safe, somewhere no one would think to look for me.  But I had no money and no keys (and no car, anyway).  I started walking Ranger down the sidewalk as fast as my legs would carry me.  Finally I realized there was only one place I could go, a place no one would think to look for me right away.  If I was still welcome.

I made my way to Jen’s apartment.  I didn’t know if she would be home from work yet, but I was willing to camp out on her doorstep if need be.  I was pretty sure they – and at this point I have to admit I wasn’t sure who ‘they’ were – would search a lot of other places before looking for me at the apartment building of an estranged friend.  Still, ‘pretty sure’ wasn’t much comfort as Ranger and I sat huddled on the steps of her building, trying to look inconspicuous.  I shivered, cursing myself for not grabbing a coat.  Ranger did his best to keep me as warm as possible by draping his body over mine, and I promised him a giant hunk of steak for that.  Even with his help, I was half-frozen when Jen walked up the sidewalk a half an hour later, chatting on her cell phone.

She stopped in her tracks when she saw me.  “Gotta go.  I’ll call you back,” she said and snapped her cell phone shut.  She walked up to me slowly, taking in my ragged appearance with concerned eyes.

“Are you okay?”  She asked cautiously.

“No,” I said softly, and to my horror I began to cry.  Ranger licked my face and whined.

Jen took my arm and led me into her apartment.  She sat me on the couch and made me a cup of tea, and even put a bowl of water down for Ranger.  He lapped it up gratefully, then laid down on the plush flokati rug in the living room with a contented sigh.  Jen sat on the couch next to me.

The entire story came pouring out.  Everything from the time she had told me about the real reason Brian had left me.  Alan, Alex, the kidnappings, Ranger, the diamonds.  She listened without interrupting me, nodding and patting my hand when I broke down.  When I had finished and was hiccupping pathetically, she finally offered her opinion.

“Rebecca, I can’t say that I have any idea who is responsible for what.  I won’t even pretend to have any great insight into what the hell is going on.  But I can say one thing for certain,” she said.

“What?”  I snuffled.

“That you are more than welcome to hide out here as long as you need, as long as you don’t mind Dave and I going at it on the coffee table,” she winked at me.

I laughed despite myself.

“So, is Dave living here now?”  I asked conversationally.

“Yeah,” she sighed, “we’re still looking for a place to move in together, because as you can tell, this place is a bit small for the two of us.”  She swept her hand around, indicating the tightly packed furniture and crammed bookshelves.

We talked for awhile about her, and Dave, and I told her a million times that I was sorry, and she told me it was really her fault, and then we hugged and made up.  It was all very Hallmark Channel movie of the week, but it felt good, even so.

Dave got home from work and the three of us enjoyed a nice meal.  We were sitting around, chatting amicably, when the phone rang.  Dave got up to answer it, and after saying ‘hello,’ he stood and listened for a moment.  He glanced at me, a slight frown on his face.
“Hold on,” he said into the phone, and set it on the counter.  He walked over to me and said softly, “Alex is on the phone and he wants to talk to you.  I’d try to tell him that you weren’t here, but he already said he knows you are, so…”

I stared at him, then at the phone.  I felt cold inside.  The last thing I had wanted to do was to bring trouble here.  I was so sure I hadn’t been followed!  I looked at Jen, who was staring at her plate, her face pale.  I stood up and walked over to the phone.

“Hello?”

“Rebecca, we need to talk,” Alex’s voice, low and soothing, came through the line.  “You have to let me explain.  I’m not going to hurt you, I…”

I cut him off, “I’m leaving here now.  I don’t want to talk to you!”  And I hung up the phone.

I looked at Jen and Dave.  “I’m sorry, I’ll leave now.”

“Where are you going to go?”  Jen asked, exchanging worried glances with Dave.

“I don’t know,” I admitted miserably.

“You don’t have any money, or a car, or anything,” she said reasonably.  “You should at least stay the night.”

“But I don’t want to…” I couldn’t even say it, couldn’t admit that I might be putting them in danger.  “I don’t want to put you out,” I finished lamely.  One look at Jen told me she knew what I had meant to say.

“Well, we can give you some cash, and drive you to a motel, if you want,” Dave said suddenly.

I looked at him, surprised.  “You can?”

“Sure, if it makes you feel better, no problem.” Jen smiled at him.  I let out a long sigh.

“That would be marvelous,” I said.

So Jen gathered up some spare clothes and an old laptop (she knows me so well), and we drove to a nearby motel.  Ranger and I settled in for the night and I decided to check my e-mail and do a little surfing to calm my nerves.

I regretted that decision, because when I scammed through the usual assortment of junk e-mail subject lines, I saw it.  “Rebecca, you can’t hide forever.”  I felt and icy shiver run down my spine.  I quickly shut down the computer without reading the message, as if that would somehow make it go away.  I curled up on top of the comforter with one arm over Ranger and lapped into a fitful sleep.

My dreams were troubled and confusing.  I remember at one point being in a room – a dark, cold room, rather like a poorly lit police interrogation room.  Barely visible in the gloom were Alex and Alan, one standing at each end.  They were both asking me the same question over and over, “do you know who I am?”  Then I realized I was holding a pudgy little wombat in my arms, except he was bleeding.  I tried to stop the flow, but he looked up at me and said, “I was trying to help you, and you’ve hurt me.”

That’s when I woke up, sweating and shivering.  Ranger was watching me, concerned, and whined as he licked my face.  I patted him on the head.  “It’s okay, boy,” I said, and got up to take him out. 

I scanned the parking lot as I took him for his morning constitutional, and my eyes fell upon a Lincoln Continental with a man sitting behind the wheel, two doors down from my room.  The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, but instead of fear, I felt a rush of anger.  After Ranger had done his business, I stalked over to the car.  The man in the suit saw me approaching and I saw his face contort into a look of utter shock.

I rapped sharply on the driver’s side window, and he slowly lowered it.

“May I ask what you are doing sitting here in the parking lot?”  I said acerbically.

“I’m uh, I’m… waiting for someone?’  He said it both questioningly and hopefully, looking at me with a pleading expression.  I stared at him.  “Okay, I’m watching you,” he finally said glumly.

“And you are?”  I said, arching an eyebrow.

“Special Agent Dorian with the F.B.I.,” he pulled out a wallet and some identification.  I noted the number and full name on the card and thanked him, walking back into my hotel room.  From there, I hopped on the internet and found the number for the local F.B.I. field office and dialed it.

“Hello, I’d like to verify that a man following me is actually an F.B.I. agent,” I said to the woman who answered the phone.

“Oh, I, um…” she hesitated, and I mentally high-fived myself for my newly found ability to flummox people.  “What is you name?”

I told her, and she put me on hold.  I hummed along with the music  while I waited, getting up to peak out of the window and verify that Special Agent Dorian was still sitting in his car.

“Ms. Andersen?”  A deep male voice said, “there is indeed an agent assigned to you.”

“And may I inquire as to his name and number?”  I asked pointedly.

“His name is Special Agent Greg Dorian, and I am not at liberty to divulge his number,” the voice sounded slightly impatient.

“Well I’m sorry to be such a bother, mister…” I hesitated, and I heard him sigh heavily.

“Barkowski,” he said sharply.

“Well I’m sorry to be such a pain, Mr. Barkowski, but you see, I’ve been kidnapped three times in the past month and I really am getting a little edgy about strange men hanging around me.  So pardon the hell out of me for being cautious.  Can you at least verify it if I give you the number?"

“I’m sorry Ms. Andersen,” he said, more gently.  “It’s been hectic around here.  Of course I can.”

I rattled it off and he verified that it was indeed correct.  “One more thing,” I said, “can you tell me what he looks like?”

“He’s about 5’10”, medium build, short sandy colored hair, no facial hair, no glasses, no obvious identifying marks other than a long scar on his upper left arm, usually hidden under his shirt sleeve.”  Barkowski rattled off.

I thanked him and hung up, grabbed my borrowed purse and cash, and took Ranger with me back outside.  I went back to the car, and Dorian rolled his window back down.

“Yes?”  He asked politely.

“Lemme see your left arm.  Upper part,” I said without preamble.

He looked at me suspiciously, but did as I asked.  There was, indeed, a long thin scar on his arm.  Ranger nudged me with his nose, and I decided that although I was still suspicious, there were things I needed to do, and I wasn’t sure I would have enough cash if I took a taxi.  I grabbed the handle to the back door, yanked it open, and stuffed Ranger inside.

“What the…”  Dorian exclaimed as I strode around the car and opened the passenger side door.  I plunked myself down in the seat and turned to him.

“I have some things I need to do, and no way to do them, because someone trashed me car.  You’re supposed to keep an eye on me.  I think we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.”  I pulled on my seatbelt.  “Now, if you would be so kind as to drive me back to my apartment?”

He put the car in gear and silently began to drive.  He hadn’t asked for my address, so I assumed he knew where he was going.  Before long, we pulled up in front of my building.

“No, go around the side,” I told him.  “I climbed out the window, and I’m going back in that way.”

He looked at me like I was daft.  “Why on earth would you do that?”

“One, I don’t have my keys.  Two, I don’t want to run into my neighbor.”  I said.

“Okay, whatever you say,” he said as he did as I asked.

I climbed up the fire escape, but when I got to my window I found it was not only shut, but locked.  Peaking out from the bottom was a folded slip of paper.  I tugged it loose and opened it.

Rebecca

You left your purse at my place, and I took the liberty of securing your apartment for you.  I still have your keys, please meet me at the Café Broulee at noon on Friday.  We have a lot to discuss.

Yours,
Alex

I stood there, shocked, and noticed something else peaking out from under the window’s edge.  It was an envelope.  I tugged it loose as well, and inside was a sheaf of money, all twenties.  About $500 worth.  At least I wasn’t going to starve, I thought thankfully.
I climbed back down to the waiting car and slumped down into the passenger’s seat.  Dorian gave me a sympathetic look.  “Did that not go well?”

“Um, you could say that.”  Ranger poked at the back of my head with his nose.  “Okay, buddy, I’m working on it,” I said to him.  I turned to Dorian, “Take us to a PetSmart, please.”

We got Ranger some food, bowls, treats and a new toy.  I bribed Dorian to stay in the car as I ran into a nearby store and bought some new clothes and toiletry items.  Then I had him drive us back to the hotel.  I showered and cleaned myself up, fed Ranger, and went back out to the car just as another Lincoln was pulling up next to it.

“Your relief?” I asked Dorian.  He nodded.

“I’m Special Agent Craig,” the new guy said, stepping out of his car to shake my hand.  “And you really shouldn’t be out here.  It’s not safe.”

“Nowhere is safe,” I said sardonically.  “How about we go get some food?  I’m starving.”

It took quite a bit of convincing and a little browbeating to convince Craig that I would be perfectly safe at a restaurant, but I did it.  Twenty minutes later I was stilling over a plate of spaghetti that I couldn’t help comparing – unfavorably – to Alex’s.

“So, Special Agent Craig,” I said jovially, “what is it you do for the F.B.I.?”

“I work with Interpol on international smuggling cases,” he said stiffly.

“That would fit in with the rumors I heard about Brian,” I mused.  He said nothing.  “C’mon, can’t you tell me anything?  I want to get to know my wombat,” I said jokingly.

The second the word ‘wombat’ was out of my mouth Craig stiffened even more and went deathly pale.  “What did you say?”

I looked at him, baffled.  “My wombat protector, you know, like a guardian…”  I trailed off.  He was already pulling out his cell phone and dialing a number.

“What does she know about Wombat?”  He said into the phone.  “I see.  Thank you.  Sorry to be a… Yes, yes.  I understand.”

He turned back to me and gave me a wan smile.  “You threw me for a loop.  I’ve been authorized to tell you that, ironically, the code name for the man in charge of this operation is, indeed, Wombat.  So it just gave me a bit of a turn, because I wasn’t aware that you knew of him.”

“Huh,” I said, “that’s really odd.”  And I went back to eating my spaghetti.

Later, back at the motel, I thought about my dream, and the wounded wombat.  I had hurt the one trying to protect me, my subconscious was telling me.  I looked at Ranger.  And then I knew.

Friday dawned bright, cold and clear.  A far as days of reckoning go, it wasn’t too shabby.  I dressed carefully, stowing the diamonds in my pocket, checked out of the hotel, and loaded Ranger and my bags in Dorian’s car.  He didn’t look happy to be back for another shift of Rebecca watching, and the drive to the café was quiet and awkward.

We got to the café about a quarter till noon and I made Dorian look after Ranger as I went inside. Ranger whined as I left, and I realized I couldn’t face this alone.  I opened the door, slipped on a pair of dark glasses, and led him into the café. 

The woman at the booth looked at me, and at Ranger, but I didn’t remove my glasses or turn my head in her direction.  I knew it was awful to fake a disability, but I needed to have Ranger with me.  He sat calmly at my side as I stood there patiently.  Finally the woman spoke.

“May I help you?”

“Yes, I’m supposed to be meeting a gentleman here, his name is Alex.  Do you know if he’s arrived?”  I asked coolly.

“No, I don’t believe he has.  Would you like to sit at a table to wait?”  She was still eyeing Ranger, but to give him credit, he was acting every bit the part of a service dog.

“That would be lovely,” I said, and she started to walk away.  I almost instinctively followed her, but Ranger didn’t move.  Just in time I stayed still.  She turned to look at me, and some of the suspicion left her face when she saw that I hadn’t moved.

“If you will come this way?”  She said politely, and Ranger stood up and damned if he didn’t guide me to the table.  As I sat down I patted his head and mentally promised him steak.  Leaving my glasses in place, I sat back to wait, making sure I didn’t absently look at the menu.

Suddenly I saw Jen and Dave coming towards me.  She frowned when she saw Ranger laying under the table, but comprehension slowly dawned as she took in my sunglasses.  She sat down at the table.

“Rebecca, what are you doing?”  She hissed at me.

Quickly I filled her in.  Just as I finished, I heard Ranger give a low growl.  Alan was walking towards the table.  Jen’s eyes widened, but she didn’t say anything.

Alan pulled up a chair and sat down.  “Hello, everyone.  How are we?”

“Fine,” I said quietly.

Alan’s eyes narrowed as he peered over my shoulder.  It just about killed me not to turn around to look, but I saw the woman who had seated me two tables over, and she was still watching me carefully.  I didn’t want to get Ranger kicked out of the restaurant.

I saw what had Alan riled up a moment later as Alex came around the table.  Ranger’s tail gave two thumps and Alex sat down.  Jen smiled brightly.

“Well, aren’t we a happy little group?”  She said cheerfully.

Suddenly Alan’s hand slipped into his coat and reappeared with his gun, pointed across the table at me.

“Don’t move, asshole,” he said to Alex, “or I will shoot her.”  He slipped the gun below the tabletop, but I knew it was still pointed at me.  Alex looked pale and angry, his fists balled on the table.  Jen’s eyes were as big as saucers, and she looked slightly green.  Dave looked, well, bored, actually.

“Now, Rebecca, be a good girl and give me the damn diamonds,” Alex said roughly.  “I’ve had enough of this crap, and they,” here he tipped his head at Alex, “are closing in on me.  So you’d better hand them over now, because I have nothing left to lose.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but in the instant, the waitress came up to the table.  She stood beside Alan and he briefly turned his attention to her.

Alex suddenly hissed, “Angriff” and in the next instant, Alan howled in pain.  He put his hand on the edge of the table to push himself back, and I saw that his wrist was bloody and mangled.  He managed to push his chair back a little, but then it caught on the carpet and went toppling over backwards.  Ranger was immediately hovering over him, his jaws inches from Alan’s throat and his hair standing on end.

The next hour was a blur.  Police came to take Alan away.  Alex gave a report to his supervisor, who immediately turned around and took all of the credit.  Dave went off to work, still looking remarkable unperturbed.  Jen stayed to comfort me, and to hear all of the details.

Alex explained that he was an agent for Interpol, code named “Wombat,” who was sent to protect me from the smugglers. 

“At first we weren’t sure who the rat in the police department was,” he said, “but once we analyzed the recording of them questioning you in that warehouse – and based on your statement that the speech pattern sounded familiar…”

“The what?”  I interrupted.

“Recording.”  He said.

“And how did you get a recording of that?”  I asked, but my hand was already rising to the necklace.  They were doing such amazing things with technology these days…

He nodded.  “GPS tracking system and audio broadcasting in that bad boy.”

I took off the necklace and handed it back to him slowly.  “That’s how you kept finding me.  I guess I should thank you for saving me.”

He looked at me intently and took my hand, “Rebecca, I didn’t mean…”

Just then an officer came up and said to Alex, “I’m here to take the dog.”

I stiffened.  “You are not!” I practically screamed at him.

“Rebecca, he’s a trained police dog,” Alex said gently.

“No,” I said stiffly, “he’s a dog someone callously abandoned in a field that I took in.  I have witnesses.”

Alex gestured for the man to leave for now.  I could see the officer nodding in a ‘see if you can talk some sense into her’ fashion.  Jen looked at Ranger and back at me, her eyes sympathetic.

“Isn’t there any way…” she started, but Alex shook his head.

Alex looked at me.  I snuffled.

“Is there anything else I should know?”  I asked him

“Well,” he said, “there is one thing, I guess.”

“What?”  I prompted as he hesitated.

“We also had to monitor your on-line activity, in case you were involved and spreading information that way.”

“I already saw that you had both,” I emphasized the word, “of my LJ account bookmarked.”

“Yeah, but, also…” he looked down at the table, “you should know that I’m…  I’m…  Bloody hell, I’m Voaughroth”

I was staring across the table, my face brilliant red, and my mouth hanging open.  It couldn’t BE.  It just couldn’t.  There is no way the universe would be so cruel.  No way at all.

“Rebecca?” Jennifer asked me, her face puzzled.  “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” I squeaked, then hastened to correct myself.  “No, well...  you see...”

I cast my eyes downward, feeling sick inside.  How had I let this happen?  I knew better, I really did.  I wasn’t a girl who took chances, or went out on limbs – at my weight, I was afraid they’d break.  But I had this time, believing it would never amount to anything, believing in the vastness of...

“Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, my voice shaking only slightly.  “I need to...uh, I’ll be right back”

I jumped up and practically ran to the restroom, my heart thumping madly in my chest.  Slow, deep breaths I told myself.  Easy, you can handle this.  The worst part is over.

I slumped onto the small bench right inside the door to the ladies’ room and rested my head against the wall.  Hot tears began gathering at the corners of my eyes as I took one deep, if a bit wobbly, breath after another. 

“I am a hollow reed.  Everything flows right through me.  I am calm and unaffected.  I am a hollow reed.” I chanted to myself, though quietly, in case anyone happened to be in the bathroom.  Not that I had any doubt that I was a certifiable nutcase, but no reason to broadcast that information, was there?

I sighed, and shifted in my seat.  I let my mind drift back to where it had all started.  That dark, dismal day eight months ago, when I thought my life was as bad as it could ever get. 

I frowned as my mind snapped back to the present.  Eight months?  No, it had only been about five.  My, that was the longest five months of my life, I thought wearily.  Slowly I got up, dried my eyes and went out to face Alex.

Jen was gone, and Alex was sitting at the table talking to Ranger.  Ranger walked over and placed his chin on my knee as I sat down, and I patted his head.

“I can’t give him up,” I said to Alex.

“I know,” he said.

“I’m dreadfully embarrassed, too.”

“I know that, too, but you shouldn’t be.”  He smiled at me.  “I love you, you know.”

My heart leapt, and I smiled back at him.  “I love you, too.”

And thing would have been utterly perfect, had it not been for Alex’s inability to convince them to let us keep Ranger.  If they had, we would have ended up in a nice flat in London, a perfectly ordinary family leading a perfectly ordinary life.

Instead, we’re a fabulously wealthy family living on a beach in Tahiti.  Sure, we had to change our names and figure out how to get the most for the diamonds on the black market, but I still have my dog, and the man of my dreams…

The end.

 


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