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"ALLIES"

by Ernie Whiting

Part 11

 

Chapter 30

Dr. Patrick Bennet's clinic had been built to resemble the ski chalets that one would expect to find in mountain resorts like Lake Tahoe or Big Bear, or the finest and most expensive chalets in Europe. The ground floor consisted of a waiting room that resembled a common area where vacationers might have sat, near a large stone fireplace, while sipping coffee, chocolate, tea, or mixed drinks, and trading stories back and forth of sights seen and experiences on the ski slopes. There was also a small kitchen located off to the left side of the waiting room, and to the right was an emergency receiving room. Upstairs there were two examination rooms, an operating room stocked with as much of the latest technology that Bennet could obtain, a room that contained a recently acquired x-ray machine, and several recovery rooms.

It was in one of these redwood-paneled rooms where Jasmine lay unconscious with an IV of Ringer's solution dripping slowly into a catheter in her left forearm. Beneath her dark tan there was a deathly pallor that nearly rivaled the whiteness of the sheets on which she quietly lay, as still as death and almost as silent.

Valerie was sitting on a metal chair next to the bed, holding Jasmine's right hand. Bennet had spent over an hour searching for and removing the bullet, suturing the bleeding vessels that led to it, cleaning the wound and freshening its edges, and then suturing and bandaging the wound while two units of whole blood had replaced those that she had lost. The bullet had pierced a major artery and had punctured one lung; between the blood loss, the shock, and the fluid in her lung, Bennet didn't think she was going to survive. But he did all he could do, and he was never more than a moment away in case her condition suddenly took a change for the worse.

Valerie had not been able to get any of the supplies she needed for casting a Circle--no candles, no incense, no athame. Everything she owned had been destroyed in the fire, and Jasmine's place had been too far out of the way to make a stop there. She had wanted to get to Jasmine's side as quickly as possible, so without going through the formality of casting a Circle, she gave her as much of her own energy as she could by holding her open hands a centimeter above her and directing the bluish-white light to the injured area.

Keller sat in another chair nearby. Bennet had come and gone just a few minutes before, and he and Keller had tried to convince Valerie to submit to the treatment of her own wounds. "Not yet," she had replied. "Not until I know Jasmine's okay." So Bennet went on to check on some of his other patients, and Keller sat with Valerie and quietly waited.

As he scratched gently at the white bandage on his forehead, he said, "Listen, I'm going to get some coffee. You want anything?"

"No, thanks. Not right now."

He rose slowly, wincing at the pain in his bruised rib cage and plastered right hand (he had fractured it in three places against Willis's face), and headed downstairs.

Once alone, Valerie began to speak softly. "Don't leave me," she said in a gentle but heartfelt plea. "Please, Jasmine, don't leave me. You've got to get well. There are so many things that I want to show you... There are so many things that I want us to do together. Remember the river? And that big stone that hangs over it? Remember how much you said it reminded you of home? We can go back there. We can go back and sun ourselves, and swim and make love all day... It won't be the same without you. I know how you must want to see your family again, and I can't blame you a bit; but I need you here. There are so many things we can do together..." Tears began to spill from her eyes. "Please, Jasmine, come back to me. Now that we've finally found each other, I can't let you go. Don't die... Please--" Her voice broke, and she couldn't go on. She kissed her palm and bowed her head, and silent sobs shook her.

Jasmine's hand twitched slightly, but Valerie didn't notice it. It twitched again, and this time a slightly deeper breath and a soft moan accompanied it. Valerie's head snapped up, and Jasmine's eyes just barely cracked open. "Earthquake," she whispered softly.

"What?"

"I thought I felt an earthquake..."

Valerie had been leaning against the bed, and her silent sobs had shaken it. "Jasmine?"

Her eyes slowly settled slightly out of focus on Valerie, and she smiled a little through the anesthesia's fog. "Hey there, wolf girl," she said with a slightly stronger voice. Her brow furrowed with concern when she finally focused on her bruised, blood-caked and sooty--and now tear-streaked--face. "Jesus, babe, you look like shit."

They both chuckled uncontrollably; Valerie then sobbed with relief, and Jasmine winced at a sharp pain underneath her bandage. Valerie wiped away fresh tears and sniffled. "How are you feeling?"

"Sore." She shifted slightly under the covers. "And tired...real tired..." She started to slip back under, and then her emerald eyes opened again. "I saw my folks... They miss me, but they said they'll wait..." Once corner of her mouth curled upward in a little smile as she added, "They said they really like you…"

She held Jasmine's hand against the side of her face and sobbed quietly again. When she regained control of her voice she said, "You rest up, okay? When you're better, you're coming home with me and Keller."

Her smile turned into a sloppy, anesthetized grin. "Good deal." Then she sighed and slipped back into the warm, comfortable fog of sleep.

Valerie leaned forward and softly kissed her lips, then lay her hand down on the bed. She dried her eyes and headed quietly for the door, and finally let Pat Bennet take care of her.

***

Severe psychological depression prevented Kelly from staying in her parents' house after their deaths. Instead, she stayed with Scott and Maggie Preston, and their daughter Lori. Everything at the old house reminded her of her parents and the good times she'd had there, good times never to be repeated. Valerie knew what the child was going through, so she asked her if she would like to live with Lori and her family, and Kelly had said yes. She might go back home some day, but she didn't know. Rob and Julie agreed to stay there and take care of the place until Kelly decided what she wanted to do in the long run.

After Jasmine was released from the hospital, they stayed in Oscar's house. And while Jasmine recovered from her wound, Valerie discovered that she was late. Not only late, but pregnant. ("Was it something I did?" Jasmine had asked in mock wonder, and Valerie had replied with, "Must have been after the peace rally Tony and I got tear-gassed at.") They quickly decided that they needed to build their own home, and as soon as Jasmine was able she rose to the occasion with unbridled enthusiasm. They worked as long and as hard as they could until Valerie's pregnancy prevented her from doing the heavier work, and it was at this time when Keller, who had come by for a short visit, volunteered his help in the completion of their home. It was just in time, too, because shortly after the end of construction--and shortly after Keller had taken off on a two-day supply run--Jasmine acted as midwife ("I've never done this before!" she declared in near panic) as she successfully assisted in the delivery of Sierra Ryan, daughter of Valerie and Granddaughter of Alexandra. "And daughter of Jasmine, too," she told her breathlessly as she leaned back on her pillow. Sweat matted her dark hair around her face and forehead, and drenched her bare skin. "Tony and I may have supplied, but you delivered." She grinned at Jasmine's surprised look. "Want to hold her?"

"Sure!" She moved to sit next to Valerie and accepted the infant. She wiped tears of joy from her face against one shoulder and then the other, and grinned as she gazed at Sierra. She sniffled once and said, "God, she's so beautiful..."

"She's more than that," Valerie said as she gazed fondly at the two of them. "She's the future."

She held her for a few minutes, cooing and cuddling, until Sierra began to whimper. "Here, I think she's hungry," she said as she gently handed her back.

Valerie took Sierra and began to nurse her, and Jasmine shifted on the bed and lay an arm around Valerie's bare shoulders. She kissed her forehead and then her lips as Valerie reached to hold her with her free hand, and the three of them bonded together as a small, new family.

***

The cottage was a creative combination of fairy-tale simplicity and NASA technology. The northern half of the ceiling of the new house consisted of a huge skylight made of insulated glass, which let in bright sunlight that warmed the house and provided light for a score of houseplants that were scattered everywhere, and at night it revealed a clear black sky that was sprinkled with sharp stars and a bright moon. A queen-sized futon bed, with Sierra's cradle nearby, was placed on a raised section of flooring under it and in front of a large, insulated bay window so they could stargaze and moon bathe from the comfort of their bed until sleep overtook them. The southern half was covered with panels of photovoltaic cells which absorbed sunlight and converted it directly into electricity, and supplemented the power provided by the waterwheel that hung over the river. The excess power from these two sources not used by the entertainment center, the refrigerator/freezer and a pair of small electrical fluorescent lights, was stored in twin rows that consisted of ten 12-volt car batteries. A large, vine-covered propane tank outside fed their stove, and a fireplace constructed of large gray stones--with Jasmine's katana hanging above the mantle--provided them with heat during the winter.

Scattered around the house were numerous Craft and other pagan artifacts. Their altar consisted of a round, polished, 2-foot tabletop sheet of redwood, into which was carved a pentacle, and on it, with their blades crossed, were two black-handled athames and a variety of colored candles. To the left there sat a fire-glazed clay chalice, and to the right there rested a matching bowl half-filled with sand that was used as a censer. In the center there lay a hand-sized pentacle made of red, blue and yellow stained glass, and standing on top of it was a white ceramic statue, about eighteen inches tall, of Artemis, the ancient Greek Goddess of the Moon. Standing defiantly against all enemies and surrounded by a trio of wolves, she held a drawn bow in her hands and wore a quiver of arrows on her back. And even though she wasn't a Hawaiian deity, Jasmine thought this statue worked just as well because Artemis was the patron goddess of another powerful group with whom the Asian witch strongly identified: the Amazons.

They had also managed to acquire a small entertainment center, on which there rested a stereo receiver, a TV monitor, and a DVD/CD player, along with a collection of cds (an eclectic blend of classic rock, alternative rock, jazz and New Age) and a small collection of DVDs that consisted of pre-FLM movies and foreign television programming, and documentaries on history and science--the latter of which had to be smuggled in from other countries, since they were seen by the Foundation as contraband. A pair of high-quality bookshelf speakers were positioned so that optimum sound imaging could be heard from anywhere in the house. The entertainment center was a get-well present for Jasmine and Valerie from Dutch and Nancy, who had moved out to the West Coast to join up with the Allies, as the Resistance now called themselves.

Books were far more difficult to come by; they were scrutinized by the authorities even more carefully than movies and music, even though there weren't nearly as many readers as there were television viewers, because books were known to contain far more food for thought--and the FLM didn't want people to think too much. People might start to get ideas, and ideas could lead to actions, so the books that Valerie managed to collect were special treasures to her--treasures which she swore to protect with her life, if necessary, for the sake of the future. The more she thought about it, the more she planned to start a public library for those people who lived within the borders of Allied Territory.

Scattered around the room were several huge throw pillows that could be molded to one's comfort on the thickly padded and carpeted floor, and attached to the back of the house was a spacious bathroom, in which there were a composting toilet, a heavy wooden table on which rested a water-filled pitcher of heavy silver and a matching bowl, and a large redwood hot-tub which rested slightly sunken into the floor and against another wall of clear insulated glass. The first choice for bathing and soaking was always the river, but that could be a little impractical on cold and/or rainy days; when the heavy rains and the lashing winds came, it was very enjoyable indeed to relax in a nice, hot bath and enjoy the scenery.

Thunder rolled gently across the night sky, and muted lightning flashed behind the clouds. Rain was falling softly, pattering on the window and streaking across the cold glass. Sam, the black-and-white cat that had adopted Valerie, lay by the fireplace, casually licking a paw. She looked up for a moment as the thunder rumbled, then went back to cleaning her whiskers.

Keller rolled onto his back inside of his sleeping bag to look through the huge skylight. Rain streaked across its panes toward the aluminum gutter that fed into a spout, and drained into a large wooden barrel where rainwater was collected. It was nice to lie here on the sofa and watch it rain, and to listen to it patter on the roof and not get wet. He sighed and tucked his arm underneath his head, and thought about the war against Warren.

Those had been some scary times back then. There hadn't been too many soldiers seen in the Territory since then, except for that one time when some two hundred of them had tried to get through the blockades in an effort to find the Wolf Witch, as the Foundation soldiers now called Valerie. They had been spotted by one of the mounted lookout teams near Ukiah, and radio messages had flown back and forth through the airwaves to send coded messages throughout the entire southern defense perimeter, warning of a sizeable invasion force; they had been ignorant of the fact that this force was merely looking for Valerie, and was not prepared for major combat. By the time the soldiers had partially cleared the first of the obstacles, over a hundred Allied guerrillas fired them upon. Caught completely by surprise, some thirty soldiers fell in less than a minute, and the rest retreated, abandoning much of their equipment. It was later collected by the Allies and distributed throughout the Territory. Most of the people here believed that the FLM was not going to tolerate such a loss; they expected another, more massive invasion. So, much like the people of Israel in attitude, Allies continued on with their lives while living in a constant state of emergency preparedness.

I'm so damned sick of fighting, he thought with a deep sigh.

"What are you thinking about?" Valerie softly asked.

He flinched slightly. He hadn't seen or heard her approach; she just seemed to suddenly be there, once again wearing the wolf's tooth earring at her right ear, and dressed in a long blue nightshirt and kneeling next to him. Her movements had become much more quiet and graceful from spending so much time in the forest, stalking animals with friendly intent, and as a result of her highly physical lifestyle she had not only gained a considerable amount of muscle, but she had also greatly increased her strength and endurance. She hadn't gone overboard on it, not to the point where she would have wound up resembling those muscle-bound professional body-builders with bulging veins of years before; instead, she now possessed an even more athletic physique than before that was a striking combination of classic feminine beauty and an unquestionable physical strength. She had acquired the strength and stamina of Artemis Herself, and the self-assuredness of the most aggressive of her wolves. She had at last become a forest animal, and she was not one to be trifled with.

"Just thinking back," he said as he slowly sat up. He looked at her, and in an instant he determined once again that the wounds had healed well; there was a fine white scar that diagonally bisected her left eyebrow, which served as a reminder of the night she dove through the kitchen window to save Kelly, and the swelling of the bridge of her previously broken nose was barely noticeable. Most people never noticed it at all, actually, until it was mentioned by either herself or by Jasmine. And rather than detracting from her alluring appearance, these faded battle scars seemed to add an extra touch of character. The rest of the physical wounds, which had been inflicted by Willis, had healed without a trace.

"Just thinking about the War, that last invasion, and about Warren being locked away in one of his own dungeons."

"In a way, I almost feel sorry for him," she said as she rested an arm on the armrest, and sat back with her legs folded beneath her. She and Keller had heard the news, via a police-band radio at one of the many Allied outposts, concerning Elias Warren, former Colonel of the Denver Holy Guards. He had been found nearly a week after the War, emaciated and wandering aimlessly along a lonely road outside of the Territory. The roots of his mousey brown hair had turned pure white from shock, and he had been muttering through blood-caked lips about a witch that had saved his life through the power of Jesus. He was diagnosed by the Foundation's Men of Knowledge, as they called themselves (because the term "doctor" had a scientific and therefore negative connotation to it), as having been possessed by a demon. He was now kept confined in a padded cell and wrapped in a straightjacket, and chained to a wall. Every so often he would awaken from a "demonic vision," screaming hysterically and thrashing like a wild animal at his restraints. All attempts at exorcism had failed, and by this it had been demonstrated just how powerful a witch Valerie Ryan really was. As a last, desperate resort, they used the medical approach and pumped Warren full of tranquilizers--but this was never formally acknowledged in any of their medical files.

And as for the witch herself? Her house had been completely destroyed that day; an aerial photograph, taken by helicopter two days after Warren had been found, had confirmed this. Based on Warren's admittedly questionable testimony, and based on the subsequent and abortive search efforts, the Foundation concluded that she was in hiding, still alive and well. There was too much armed resistance to get in for another massive search, and where there was no resistance there was also no information. Either that, or the people questioned in the surrounding areas outside of Allied Territory simply were not cooperating. Either way, any further efforts to find her were deemed unavailing, and would therefore not be continued. The authorities quietly decided that it was best to withhold this information from the public, and they stated in an official press release that through the power of black magic the Wolf Witch and her demonic pack of lupine allies had simply disappeared.

She looked him up and down once, and suddenly thought that maybe she ought to give him a second chance. With a sly grin she asked, "Why do you insist on sleeping over here? Wouldn't you rather sleep with a couple of hot young bi- chicks?"

"Huh?" He was caught completely off guard. "Um...well...aren't you and her...you know...wouldn't it seem sort of..."

She moved in a little closer, and grinned like a wolf. "Kinky?" she asked with a husky voice.

"Well, yeah..."

"Jasmine's into kinky." Her grin faded a little, and her voice took on a more serious tone as she went on, "We've discussed our relationship--hers and mine--at great length, and your name has come up several times." Now her grin widened again. "She agrees that there are a lot of possibilities."

"I don't know..." he said dubiously. "Somehow it wouldn't seem..." He tried to think of a reason why he shouldn't accept her offer, weighing honor and propriety against lust and personal desire; and he couldn't think of a single one. Now that he had the opportunity to fulfill an adolescent fantasy, he was astounded to find himself actually balking at the idea. "Really?"

Jasmine groaned softly in her sleep as she turned on her side. Valerie glanced at her, and then whispered, "Well, I'm going back to a nice, warm, comfortable bed and getting some sleep." Then she turned more serious again. "We've got a long trip ahead of us."

"Are you sure you want to go back to Denver? You could be asking for trouble."

She shrugged, and sighed heavily. "It's something that I have to do. Besides, we'll be safe enough. I think."

Keller looked at her uncertainly.

She grinned mischievously. "I'm just kidding." She spent a lot of time crystal gazing these days, whenever she cast a Circle, and she found that the combination of meditation and concentration greatly helped her to control her psychic flashes; they rarely came unbidden. Yet when she wished to "see," the impressions came almost immediately inside the small crystal ball that she had recently purchased, along with another athame, from a small antique shop in a neighboring village. But her ability to "read" objects--her psychometry--was still to be controlled. She doubted that she ever would. Sometimes, when touching an object, she would burst out in gleeful laughter as she suddenly learned something embarrassing about its owner, and on one occasion the feel of an apparently innocuous-looking pocket watch had sent a shiver of sheer terror up her spine.

"Look, you really don't have to come along, and Jasmine's staying to look after Sierra--like I said, this is something that I have to do."

"What--let you go by yourself with no one to look out for you? No way." Then, with a grin of his own, he added, "You don't even know which way to point an M-16."

She tried to give him a cold and stern look. She really did, but the dazzling, amber-eyed grin came anyway. Leaning over him with one hand on his shoulder and near his throat, she brought her face to within an inch of his. "Male sexist oinker," she quietly called him.

***

The "Whitman's Used Books" store was about to close for the night. George had already gone through the motions of balancing out his daily receipts (he was over by five dollars, so he pocketed the difference), drew down the Venetian blinds, and turned down the furnace. All he had to do now was just rearrange a few books here and there; his customers seemed to insist on never returning a book to its proper place after glancing through it. If he couldn't get that done in the next few minutes, he would let it go until the next morning.

The little brass bell tinkled above the front door. Damn it, he thought, it never fails. Ten more minutes, and I would have been out of here. He slid a book into place on an upper shelf and started for his desk by the door. When he got there, though, he found that there was no one there. Someone had opened the door and closed it. George thought immediately of thieves. It had happened before. When he was in the back of the store and there were no customers, there had been several occasions on which someone had come into the store, went around the desk and quickly popped open the cash box, grabbed a handful of loot, and then ran like a sonofagun. George kept telling himself that one of these days he was going to buy a cash box with a lock on it, but so far he hadn't gotten around to it.

He stepped around the counter to his desk, vaguely aware of the puff of cold air that had come in with the opening of the door, and quickly opened the cash register. It didn't seem as though anyone had stolen any money; there was still a substantial supply of ones, fives, tens and twenties, all neatly divided into their own separate niches. The small change wouldn't even have been bothered with, but he checked it anyway. He sighed with relief. But who had been at the door a moment ago? There was no one here.

A chill went through him. Heavens, he thought as he rubbed his arms, why is it suddenly so cold in here? The door hadn't been open that long! He got up to check the thermostat behind his desk. The needle was slowly dropping past seventy, past sixty...

What the hell? he thought.

Past fifty, past forty...

Frost was growing on the storefront's wide picture window, turning the glass to a foggy and then crystalline white. At first he merely scowled in puzzlement at the window...and then he was seized with anxiety as he saw his breath turning, before his very eyes, to floating white puffs of vapor.

Approaching thirty...

And then he was suddenly aware that he was no longer alone. He spun around quickly, and she was there, standing before him. Concentrating as he had been on his money and on the heater controls, George hadn't seen her as she silently stepped from behind a bookcase; to him, it seemed as though she had simply materialized from nowhere. Terror leapt into his eyes and seized his heart in a cold fist as he recognized the woman. She was dressed in black leather and denim, and a silver pentacle with a round, shining piece of obsidian and the silver horns of a crescent moon ("Devil's horns!" George thought instantly) on a leather lace hung just below her throat with fluorescent light gleaming from it. A sparkling white wolf's tooth, partially encased in more lunar silver, dangled from her right ear lobe. "Hello, George," she said with a low, soft voice that could almost have been comforting. But beneath that softness there was an undercurrent of something cold and dark, and deadly. "How's business?"

It was the witch whom Colonel Warren had gone after, standing right here in his bookstore! Oh, dear God, he thought, she's come back! And she knows who I am! A thousand burning questions ran through his mind in an instant. What's she doing here? How could she be here? Colonel Warren had gone after her over a year ago to kill her, and-- How did she escape from him? Where is...he..? The questions suddenly disappeared, and were replaced with scores of dark possibilities. Dear God, George finally asked himself, what has she done with him?

"I see you remember me," she said as she impaled him with a cold, burning look. Looks like he's still eating those bread and mayonnaise sandwiches, she thought. "So, George. Have you informed on anyone else lately? I hear you make pretty good money at it."

George slowly backed away, trembling uncontrollably. He stumbled over a stack of books that stood behind him, and he fell over them with a startled grunt and a scattering of paperbacks and hard covers. "No!" he cried as he was consumed by a new wave of terror. "Y-y-you stay-yay away from-m-me!"

Valerie stepped around the corner of the low counter with an almost supernatural swiftness, and pushed through the short swinging door. "You've caused me a lot of pain, George," she went on quietly, her voice a menacing growl. Anger was welling up from the bottom of her soul, and her eyes were as sharp and as cold as the gleam from an assassin's dagger. She leaned over, grabbed a hold of his shirtfront in one vice-like fist, and hauled him to his feet.

Good Lord, this woman is strong! he thought.

She yanked him forward so that her face was only an inch from his, and it was then that George realized that the cold, the chill that seemed to come from an open walk-in freezer, was coming from her.

"A lot of friends of mine have been hurt and killed because of what you did," she growled. The more she thought about this, the more she detested this oily, pudgy worm. She remained quiet for a long moment, and eventually she fought down the urge to put a real curse on him. "And I'm going to see to it, you little bastard--" She gave him a hard shove that slammed him back against the pile of books on the floor, and finished through clenched teeth, "--that you never cause this kind of trouble again."

Instead of a full blown curse, which would have brought agony and destruction not only on him but on every generation after him until the end of the family line--and to anyone who dared to give him help or comfort--she opted for a mild hex. She reached for the athame that hung on at her right hip and under the coat. She pointed its tip at him. "Never again shall you cause misery for the innocent," she said, and the athame began to glow. It's blue-white light pulsated to life, and suddenly a soft beam of light shot from its tip and struck George in the chest. It didn't hit him hard enough to cause any injury, but it did give him something to think about. "Heed my words, George; what you do unto others shall be done unto you, three fold...and you alone shall be responsible for whatever happens to you. By the will of Hecate, so mote it be." She slipped the dagger back into its sheath, then turned toward the door and left.

George lay unmoving on the pile of books in spite of the corner of one large hardcover that was digging into the small of his back. Oh my God, he thought, convinced that he was cursed for life and beyond. Oh God, oh God, oh dear God... It took him a good ten minutes to work up the courage to get to his feet and check the window to see if she was really gone. First thing after closing, he thought, he was headed straight for church.

***

Valerie was thinking about black horses as Keller guided the black Charger along the rain-slicked street. The black horse that she had seen in Warren's eyes...she didn't know if it represented the car itself, the driver, or the man who built it, but in the long run it didn't really matter--her vision had come true.

"Make a right over here, will you?" she asked, indicating through the rain-spattered windshield with a slight movement of her head.

Keller steered the car around the corner and immediately recognized the neighborhood. "You sure you want to go there?"

"Just for a couple of minutes."

They passed by the first five houses, then Keller eased the Charger over to the curb and set the brake. He looked across Valerie and saw the old house. There were no lights on outside. The front door had never been replaced; instead, a slab of plywood had been nailed over the doorway, and tacked to it was a battered "For Rent" sign.

She stepped out of the car and slowly approached the house that had once been so familiar to her. Keller followed closely behind, checking to be certain they were not being watched. He kept one hand resting on the Desert Eagle, just in case. Valerie touched the plywood and, in the dim light cast by the street lights, she saw that someone with a can of black spray-paint had scrawled the words "Witch House" across it. With this kind of a reputation, it was doubtful that the owner would ever be able to rent out this place again--or even sell it, for that matter

She pulled at a loose corner of the plywood, got a better hold, and then tugged hard a couple of times. Nails squealed as they were pulled from the doorframe, and the plywood came free. She and Keller quietly stepped inside.

The living room was empty. Most likely, the furniture had been impounded under the asset forfeiture laws and then sold, and the money went either into the police department itself or, more likely, it had been paid out to an informer, like George.

She stood silently in the center of the room with her eyes closed. Keller's eyes went from her to the front door, and then to the windows. He was hoping that no one had been attracted by the sound of the nails being pulled from the doorframe. "You okay?" he asked.

"They're gone."

"Say again?"

"Tony and Jeff. I wondered if their spirits might still be here; I'm glad they could move on." She stood quietly still for a moment longer, and her eyes roamed over the familiar walls. Even in this dim light she could see the five nail holes in the eastern wall where, nearly two years ago, she and Tony has spent some considerable amount of time trying to straighten his framed 1965 Chevrolet Corvette poster.

"Speaking of moving on..." Keller began.

"In a minute." She wanted to go through the small house one more time before never returning to it. A soft voice--that same voice that had guided her to the Tarot cards--was urging her into the bedroom. She went down the short hall, past the bathroom where there was still blood everywhere, now old and dried (No wonder the place is still empty, she thought), and into the bedroom. She stood in its center for a moment. Then she turned and went to the closet. She looked around in the darkness, and she thought she saw something on the floor in one corner. She stooped and reached for it. Without looking at it, she slipped it into an inside pocket. "Okay, let's go."

Back in the car, Valerie took out the small color snapshot that she had found. She strained her eyes in the darkness for a couple of seconds, and then turned on the Charger's dome light. It was an outdoor picture; bright sunlight shone on the three figures. Tony, bare-chested and dressed in a pair of cut-off jeans, was leaning against the right front fender of his old red convertible Mustang, which sat in the driveway with its hood up. Jeff Hastings, also bare-chested and dressed in cut-offs, was leaning with one hip against the left rear fender, and Valerie, dressed in sunglasses, a brown halter top and cut-offs, was sitting atop the backrest of the driver's bucket seat with one bare foot on the steering wheel and the other on the passenger seat. All three were laughing and toasting the photographer with cans of Foster's lager.

Who took this picture? she wondered silently. One of Tony's friends, of course, but which one? She wished she could remember. And why hadn't the soldiers, or whoever had confiscated all the furniture, found this picture and taken it?

"What's that?" Keller asked.

Valerie showed him the picture as she looked at the house.

Looking at the photo, Keller grinned. He slid the key into the ignition, and the engine purred to life as he handed the picture back to her. She looked at it one more time. She wanted to keep it for Sierra, so she would know who her father was and what had happened to him. She slipped the picture back into an inside pocket and said, "Let's go home."

Keller watched her for a moment. "You're sure you're okay?"

Her eyes misted, but the tears didn't fall. "Yeah," she said with a heavy sigh. "Yeah, I'm okay."

He put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.

She turned in the seat as they moved off, and as she continued to stare at the house as it shrank in the distance she could see the entire series of events flashing through her mind, from the time she came home with the Tarot cards to the break-in by the soldiers; she could even hear the faint echoes of gunshots. She remembered the chase from Denver and across the desert, and for a fleeting moment she wished she had put a real curse on George, the catalyst of all this madness. And then on further reflection she decided that it was good that she hadn't. After all, he'd really had no choice in the matter; he was merely fulfilling a role, a small yet also very important one. A small but necessary part of the Karmic cycle that had finally brought everything to an end. She hoped.

And then she remembered what Warren had said to her in the attic. And now that she had the time to think about it, she couldn't help wondering about something; what he had said about her being the very spirit of Freedom, and being the spirit of Resistance and Rebellion. That couldn't possibly be true, could it? She hoped it wasn't. God, she didn't need to have that kind of responsibility dumped into her lap by the Goddess, or the Great Spirit, or whoever the hell was in charge; she had a baby girl now, a baby girl who needed her and a long sought-after life-partner with whom she was crazy in love, and all she wanted was to just live her life in peace with her new family.

Had Warren really been revealing some great cosmic Truth? And how the hell would someone as spiritually stunted as Elias Warren have known such a truth?

Or had his words merely been the ramblings of a madman?

That was it. That had to be it. Please, dear Lady, she thought, let that be it.

She wasn't certain of what to believe. And the more she thought about the whole thing, the more it made her head ache.

Karma--the spiritual law of cause and effect that was so closely akin to the physical one. Perhaps now she finally would be free of Colonel Elias Warren, the Priest of Viella, and whoever else he might have been or might someday be. Her mind balked at the idea that in reality she might actually owe George her thanks.

But if it is true, she thought with a nervous sigh, and he and I--as the respective spirits of Repression and Freedom--are to be eternal enemies...well, damn it, then so be it.

Keller thought he heard her mumbling something as she turned in her seat to face front again. He glanced at her and said, "You say something?"

"I was just thinking out loud," she replied. "I was wondering what's gong to happen next time."

"Next time?" Something heavy sank into the pit of his stomach. Oh God, not again, he thought... He was already envisioning more gunfights, more chases, more danger...more adventure... He'd already had quite enough adventure, thank you very much.

Well, for a while, anyway...

"In my next life, I mean. Will any of this affect it? Have I done something for which I'm going to have to pay?"

"There's not a whole lot you can do about it, is there?" he asked. "So what good does it do to worry about it? I wouldn't lose any sleep over it."

Valerie Ryan--the Daughter of Alexandra and Granddaughter of Victoria--sighed once more with reluctant acceptance. "I suppose you're right," she finally said as she rested her forearm on his shoulder. Then she patted his shoulder and motioned forward. "Home, James."

Garrett Keller smiled a wry and amused smile. "Yes ma'am."

The battle-scarred black Charger came to a stop at the flashing red light on the corner as thunder rumbled in the distance. It waited for a moment as an old blue Toyota passed by from the left, then its engine rumbled as the Charger slowly turned toward the West, went around the corner, and vanished like a spirit into the rain swept night.

THE END


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