Disclaimer: "XENA: Warrior Princess" is owned and copyrighted by Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA Television Distribution LLC, and licensed by Universal Studios Licensing, LLLP. All rights are reserved by them. The following story is strictly nonprofit fan-fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.

 

The following story contains adult language.

 

Evelyn Duncan—the new deputy federal district attorney—has been abducted by a leader in the Russian Mob. And it’s up to Colonel Gina Ryan, USMC, and Captain Gabriella Duncan, MD, USN—to get her back in . . .

 

 

“The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess”

“Family Ties”

By Ernie Whiting

mailto:erniewhiting@centurylink.net

          “Working late again, Miss Duncan?” asked the security guard who sat behind the massive, curving desk with its banks of telephones, video monitors and alarms.

          “Yeah, ‘fraid so,” Evelyn Duncan replied softly, with a dry voice, exhausted, red-rimmed eyes, and a tired little smile. Having just exited the elevator that had smoothly and silently brought her down to this spacious entrance hall of Sacramento’s Robert T. Matsui federal courthouse, and dressed in an expensive gray pantsuit and stylish black high-heels, she almost lethargically approached the security station, her footsteps echoing slightly in the hushed stillness of the otherwise empty lobby. She finally leaned against the desk and rested one elbow on top of it, shifted her weight to one foot, and rubbed at her tired, blue-green eyes. “Man, I cannot wait until this trial is over,” she said as she laid her slim, black leather briefcase on top of the desk, and then ran her hand through her golden bangs, which flopped back into place against her forehead.

          “I heard you were prosecuting the Alexei Petchorski case,” the security guard said. “I hope you nail the guy.”

          “It’s tough to come up with witnesses against him, but I’ll do my best, Marty,” Duncan replied as she tugged her plastic identification tag from her jacket pocket and handed it over to him. She forced a wry and exhausted little smile. “I mean, heck; after my sister went through all the trouble of busting him and presenting the evidence to my office, I figure it’s the least I can do.”

          “Anyone who would get involved with slave trafficking, drug dealing and child pornography really doesn’t deserve to continue breathing,” Marty said as he swiped her tag against his computer’s scanner to mark her exit time.

          While watching him perform his duties, she fingered the small, round  medallion that hung from a silver chain around her neck. It had been a gift from her maternal grandmother, Sheila O’Shaugnessy, less than a month before the elderly woman had passed away from cancer; and to most who saw it, the medallion was recognized as the Virgin Mary. But their Irish grandmother had told them something different. “I found these in a little Catholic gift shop just outside of Kilkenny,” Grandma Sheila had said, with a soft voice and her light and lilting Irish accent, “and I know who she looks like.” And then she had leaned in closer to her three young granddaughters, and as though she was sharing a special secret with them she had added, “But her real name’s Morrigan, who is an ancient warrior goddess of the Celts of Ireland.

          “When the Christians came to Ireland,” she had explained to her small, young audience, “they appropriated the ancient pagan gods, and gave them Christian names in an effort to supplant the old ways with their own; and the Celts felt that turnabout was fair play, so they took Mary and Jesus and turned them back into the goddess and her son, so they could continue to secretly worship in their own way. Now come closer,” she had added as she motioned them toward her with one hand. “And may she always be with you, my own wee warriors,” she’d added with a smile as she began to fasten each chain around the neck of each ten-year-old girl in turn, “as you fight to save lives . . .” And here she fastened the chain around Brie’s neck. “. . . as you fight against crime and corruption . . .” She fastened the chain around Veronica’s neck. “. . . and as you fight for truth and justice,” she had concluded as she fixed the clasp around Evelyn’s neck. Brie’s medallion, with a tiny medical caduceus inscribed on the back, was now in a jewelry box somewhere, because she was a deist and didn’t wear religious icons; and Veronica’s medallion, with a small, five-pointed star that looked like a policeman’s badge on the back, hung from a corner of the wide mirror above her dresser, where she could always see it and where it would never be torn from her while she was wrestling with criminals—and therefore would never get lost. But Eve always wore hers, with its balance scales of justice inscribed on the back, because she particularly missed her grandmother, and it gave her the reassuring feeling that she was always with her and watching over her. As a matter of fact, the only time she had ever removed it was when she had needed to slip it onto a longer chain.

          She reached for her ID tag as Marty handed it back. “Yeah, well, we can’t prove that he’s actually pulled the trigger on anyone, or even that he’s ordered a hit on anyone,” she said, with a slight Southern drawl that occasionally managed to slip out in spite of her efforts to conceal it. “Not yet, anyway, so I guess the death penalty is not an option.”

          “I hope you get ‘im. Damned Russian Mob . . .” He checked the monitor next to the scanner. Not that he really needed to; after all, he knew Evelyn Duncan. She’d been in and out of here many times while he was on duty, and he knew her on sight. Just the same, though, he had to double-check; and, sure enough, her pleasantly smiling face appeared with all of her information listed next to the picture. The little light flashed green, confirming her identity. “So how does your sister like working for the U.S. Marshal’s office?”

          Evie grinned as she clipped the ID tag back onto her pocket. “It gives her a lot more opportunity for traveling than working for the Texas Rangers ever did. Sometimes I kind of envy her, and sometimes I think she’s welcome to it. I don’t know if I’d want to do that much traveling.”

          He smiled a little as he remembered his only encounter with Veronica Duncan; but during that brief meeting he had found her to be as delightful as her sister. While their faces, figures and voices were identical, he had found that the two women were also very different. They both had those lively and expressive blue-green eyes, an engaging smile, and shimmering, golden tresses; but where the lawyer wore her hair long and tied into a single, Nordic-appearing braid that reached beyond her shoulders, and liked to wear stylish and expensive clothes, Veronica wore her hair collar-length in back and mid-ear length on the sides, and was never without her cowboy boots, jeans, and dark brown Stetson. And neither could their personalities be more different. Ronnie was the effervescent, easy-going, and proud young Texan street cop with a relaxed drawl and the tenacity of a pit bull when it came to chasing down criminals; Evelyn, on the other hand, was the soft-spoken young prosecuting attorney with a ninety-four percent conviction rate who was always struggling to suppress her Dallas accent, and perpetually feigning such quiet and disarming naiveté when in the courtroom. (Wanting to learn more about Evelyn, in case their paths might cross some day, a Yakuza leader had decided to observe her in court one day. After having paid especially close attention to her quiet manner and velvety voice—and then being quite surprised by her go-for-the-throat tenacity—he had nicknamed her the Velvet Dragon.)

          “The next time you see her, please tell her I said hello,” Marty told her.

          “I’ll do that,” she replied as she started for the glass doors that opened out on the wide, gray portico that faced the corner of 5th and I Streets.

          “Uhh, ma’am?”

          She stopped, and turned.

          With a smile, he indicated the elevators. “Front’s locked for the night.”

          She watched him for a moment without expression before the light behind her eyes went on. “Oh, right. Right,” she said. She smiled an embarrassed little smile. “I must be more tired than I thought.”

          “I’m sure a hot bath and a glass of wine’ll fix you right up,” Marty said. “At least, it seems to do the trick for my wife.”

          “We’ll see if it works. G’night, Marty.” She grinned and waved to him, and then headed back for the elevators that would take her down to the parking garage.

***

          The two men sat in the front seat of the dark, nondescript sedan as they smoked and watched the front of the courthouse, with its granite waterfall-style fountain and a pair of what could only be described as massive, stainless steel and unlit Olympic-style cauldrons. They’d been here for a couple of hours, waiting patiently, and at just a few minutes past eight o’clock, their patience was rewarded.

          “There she goes,” the passenger said as he took note of the little white Kia that had just exited the parking garage. He tossed out his cigarette as the driver put the car in drive, and they pulled away from the curb as the Kia made a right turn onto 5th Street.

***

          Where 5th Street dead-ended at the rail yard of the Amtrak station, and where the entrance to the depot itself and a new Starbuck’s and a new Subway’s stood on the left, she made another right turn, which put her on the relatively deserted H Street, where the city of Sacramento was perpetually doing some kind of road work. The three lanes were temporarily narrowed down to one, which really did very little to affect her; she was going to make another right onto 6th anyway, and from there she would make her way to I Street, make another right, and proceed toward its end, where the Third Street exit on her left would take her toward Capitol Mall and where the historic district of Old Sacramento lay straight ahead, and toward the I-5 freeway and the I Street Bridge on the right, the latter of which led across the Sacramento River and into the rapidly expanding community of West Sacramento.

          On 6th Street, a battered maroon Lincoln abruptly pulled away from the curb, forcing Eve to slam on her brakes with a screeching of rubber to avoid hitting it. Darned fool, she thought. Idiot! (She didn’t swear at him, though. She never swore, because she thought it was rude and that there was just too much rudeness in the world.) But before she even had a chance to wonder what was happening, the dark sedan that had been following her suddenly slammed into her from the rear with a crashing of metal on metal. Her head flew backward and slammed into the headrest, and she might have then slumped forward and against her steering wheel had it not been for her shoulder harness. Oh, God! she thought. Aw, man . . . A blankety-blank traffic accident was the last thing she needed, and it was all because some brainless idiot hadn’t wanted to check for oncoming cars before pulling away from the curb. Had she been a cop instead of a lawyer, she would have arrested him, done a field sobriety test on him, and then hauled him off to jail. On the other hand, being a lawyer, she could sue his butt off and turn his life into sheer misery, and cost him thousands of dollars in fines and court fees.

          And then someone yanked open her door, and a gun was suddenly thrust into her face. “Get out of the car! Now!”

          Holy God! she thought as a tidal wave of panic suddenly rose from the bottom of her soul.

          Get out!”

          “Okay!” she said as she carefully reached to unbuckle her seat belt. What the devil was this, a street mugging? What . . . “All right!” she said, her voice loud and filled with fear. She hoped that some passerby might notice what was occurring, and would either intervene or at least dial 9-1-1 on their cell phone.

          Fat chance of that, she suddenly thought. This was the capitol of one of the richest and most populous states in the nation; the headquarters of the fifth largest economy in the entire world. It was a city that considered itself to be a major cultural center, with tourist spots and restaurants and art galleries. But those were all blocks away. Here on 6th Street, less than fifty yards from I Street and its reassuring overabundance of traffic, and between the federal courthouse and the Sacramento County Jail—two buildings that were filled with uniformed men and women wearing badges and guns—there was absolutely no one. At this end of town, businesses closed at the same time as the government offices—so there was not one living soul to render aid, or even to bear witness.

          “Okay, all right!” she said again. “Just take it easy, okay? Just take it—”

          And then he pistol-whipped her across the side of her head, and everything went black.

***

          The only light that illuminated the master bedroom came from the flat-panel television set that hung on the opposite wall from the king-sized, four-poster bed, and from a small, antique-looking touch lamp with a stained glass shade on Brie Duncan’s side of the bed. Sitting cross-legged with the covers pulled up over her lap, and dressed in soft, red, flannel pajamas, the Navy doctor set the TV’s automatic shut-off for one hour, then laid the remote control on the bookshelf headboard behind her head and picked up a bottle of hand lotion. The reporter on TV was reading a news story about the flu season as she squeezed a small dollop into one palm, and running some file videotape that had been shot at last year’s vaccine clinic.

          “Aw, God!” Gina Ryan exclaimed. Dressed in gray sweat pants and a faded black t-shirt with a torn neck and holes under the arms, she squeezed her eyes shut and drew her knees up, and then pulled a pillow from behind her and buried her face in it. “Damnit, why do they do that?”

          Working the lotion into her hands as though she were washing them, Brie looked up at the TV set. “They’re just showin’ people gettin’ their flu shots,” she replied indifferently, and with her easygoing, east-Texas drawl.

          “But do they have to zoom in with the camera for a mega close-up as they shove the needle into some poor little kid’s arm?” She could feel the needle jammed into her own arm, shoved all the way down to the hub and with its tip grinding and scraping in circles against the bone. “Jesus, I hate that!”

          The recon-force Marine’s fear of needles never failed to entertain the doctor. (“I am not ‘afraid’ of needles,” she always snarled. “I just don’t like the goddamn things.” “Whatever you say, darlin’,” Brie would calmly respond with an unconvinced little smile.) Still working the lotion into her hands, and now smiling a little bit to herself, she said, “God, when it comes to needles, you really are just one big sack of pussy, aren’t you?”

          With her knees still drawn up and her face still buried in the pillow, the Warrior Princess’s muffled voice asked, “Is it over yet?”

          Gabrielle continued to watch the screen with attentive eyes as yet another recipient stepped up for his flu vaccine. At the same time, her wry and amused little half-smile slowly expanded into a crooked and mischievous grin. “Yeah,” she drawled softly as she returned her attention to her hands, and continued to work the lotion into them. “Yeah, it’s over.”

          With a sigh of relief, Ryan looked up from the pillow. “Oh God!” She immediately buried her face again, and shoved at her partner with one leg. “You lying little stronzo!”

          Brie chuckled softly. Still grinning, she turned and reached behind her for the remote. “Okay, I changed the channel.”

          “Yeah, right. And I’m supposed to believe you now?” asked the Marine’s cynical and muffled voice.

          “Ah, y’big chicken . . . Here.” She handed her the remote.

          Careful not to look at the screen, Gina pointed the remote at the TV and changed the channel herself. She looked up cautiously, and then smiled. “Oh, cool—‘South Park.’” She laid the remote control behind her, and slid a little further under the covers to lean against her pillows.

          Brie switched off her lamp, then scooted a little more deeply under the covers. With a slight bounce and a little sigh, she settled in and rested her head on Gina’s shoulder as she slung an arm across her. “What is it with you and hypodermics, anyway?” she asked. “After all the shit we’ve been through before, and all the other stuff you’ve done, I just don’t get it.”

          “I don’t know,” Gina replied quite honestly as she slipped an arm around her and held her close. “Maybe it was all those vaccines you get when you first enter the military. Or maybe it was all those tranquilizer shots I got while I was in Alameda. I’d like to blame that, but I think it goes further back than that. It’s probably just a repressed memory of a bad experience; a childhood thing.” She sighed heavily. “Or maybe it reminds me of Rome.”

          “The whole crucifixion thing?” Brie asked. “Those were some damn big needles.”

          “Spikes going through your palms, yeah . . .”

          They were silent for several long moments, snuggled warmly together and just enjoying each other’s company.

          Brie raised her head from Gina’s shoulder, and regarded her sleeping attire with a tiny scowl. “Why do you wear this stuff to bed?” she asked as she gently plucked at her battered t-shirt. “Wouldn’t you rather have a nice pair of pajamas?”

          “I wear these because they’re comfortable,” she replied, as though she were explaining the obvious to a five-year-old. “And I don’t need to make any fashion statements when I’m going to sleep. Who am I gonna impress, the President?”

          “You look like a street urchin from a Dickens novel,” Brie said as she laid her head back down. “I’m going to buy you some real, honest-to-God peejays.”

          “You go right ahead and do that,” Gina said with a little smile. “I’ll still wear these.” And then her smile expanded into a full sized grin as she added teasingly, “Just to piss you off.”

          “Oh, good God,” Brie muttered under her breath in mild exasperation. “Jesus, you’re stubborn!” Then she playfully poked her in the side to elicit a surprised yelp. “Testa dura, right?” she asked as Gina jumped and squirmed. “Isn’t that what your mom calls you all the time? I can see why.” Grinning, she poked her again, and with a laugh Gina tried to simultaneously grab her hand and squirm her way out of range. “I just don’t—”

          The telephone behind their heads warbled softly.

          The blonde stole a quick glance at the digital alarm clock near her head; it showed 11:17 PM in soft, yellow numerals. “Who the hell’s callin’ at this time of night?” she wondered. She rose and reached for the phone. “Hello?” She sat in silence as she listened . . . and then the color drained from her face. “Sacramento  Police Department? What—? Oh, God. Oh God, oh God, oh God. . .”

          Immediately, Gina was sitting up. Was it bad news from home? Was it a family emergency? Had there been an accident, or a sudden death? She reached for the receiver in Brie’s hand, and held them both so she could hear. “This is Gina Ryan. What—”

          “I’m Sergeant Dan Ritter, Sacramento P.D. We’ve just received word that Evelyn Duncan’s been kidnapped. Her car was found abandoned by one of our parking patrol officers, just around the corner from the federal court house, apparently having been in an accident. Nothing serious enough to cause anyone any damage, but there was no one inside. Your sister Veronica is already on her way to the Sac Executive airport from Dallas on a U.S. Marshal’s Lear jet, where she’s going to be met by one of our choppers to bring her here. How soon can you get down here?”

          “I don’t know; maybe an hour, maybe less. We’ll be there as soon as possible.” She hung up, and leaped from the bed.

          Gina began dialing again as Brie began to get dressed. “Hi, Jack. It’s Gina. Yeah, I know it’s late. Listen, we just got word that Brie’s sister Evelyn has been kidnapped; who do we have in the Sacramento area that can assist?”

          Brie knew immediately who she was calling; Jack Sawyer—bumbling traveling companion from days long gone, loyal friend, CIA computer expert, and their first contact in getting hold of the Team. Working independently of—and covertly within—the federal government, and therefore with all of its resources, the Team was an unquestionably loyal and world-wide clandestine organization of close friends and experts in their fields who, having been hand-picked by Ryan and Sawyer, answered to no one except each other.

          She listened for a moment. “Great. Have him meet us at the main headquarters of the Sacramento Police Department. Thanks, Jack. I owe you.”

***

          Eve awoke to a hellish pounding in her head and the taste of blood in her mouth. She slowly and carefully raised her head, and the stiffness in the back of her neck told her that she’d been out for hours. She moaned softly, and worked her mouth a couple of times.

          “So you’ve finally decided to wake up,” asked a deep voice with a thick Russian accent.

          She cracked her eyes open, and moaned again. She was inside of a dusty and abandoned old warehouse, with corrugated steel walls and a matching roof. Dust-laden spider webs were everywhere, along with traces of grain dust and scattered pigeon droppings. The place looked as though it might once have been a warehouse for a grain elevator, where loaders and forklifts and other vehicles and tools and chemicals had been stored; but everything had been moved out. There was a long driveway nearby, between the warehouse and the tall, concrete head house, where trucks had come under the shelter of a ridged steel roof and gone to either pick up loads of grain from the swinging spout high above or to drop off their loads into the wide grain pit in the ground. As was the case with each end of the warehouse itself, the driveway also had its rolling steel doors, which were lowered into place. There was nothing here now but spiders, webs and dust, and pigeons and rats, and the occasional skunk and possum, and feral cat.

          She tried to move, but couldn’t; and it was then that she realized that she was tied to a metal folding chair, with her arms behind the back rest and her legs tied securely to the chair’s front legs.

          “I would not suggest moving around too much,” the Russian said. “We wouldn’t want you to detonate prematurely.”

          She winced as she tilted her head farther back to ease the strain on the back of her neck. “Who are you?” she groaned. “What do you want from me?”

          He said nothing.

          She sighed heavily, partially in fear and partially in an effort not to let him see that fear. “Well, let me see if I can piece it together, even in my addled state. Russian accent, just like Alexei Petchorski . . . same stink as Alexei Petchorski . . . I think I can put two and two together here.” She was silent for a short moment. “You’re his butt-ridin’ boyfriend. Right?”

          His eyes went cold. He stepped forward, and looked down at her with utter hatred. She looked back up at him with brazen contempt. He reached forward, and tore the medallion from around her neck. “Nice little trophy,” he said as he examined it. “Something by which to remember my trip to America. And something by which to remember my defeating you.” He slipped it into his pocket. And then he backhanded her across the face with a sharp smack that echoed across the warehouse. “You think you have a right to kidnap my brother?” he roared in her face. “To seize him? To put him in your jail? To make him answer to you?” He was silent for a moment as he composed himself once more. “Crack your little jokes all you wish, bitch,” he said.

          And then he . . .

          “You are mine, now,” he growled when he was finished. “Do you understand? You belong to me. You are my property, and I will be with you, in your mind, everywhere you go. This is what you get for fucking with my family, and imprisoning my brother. . . you fucking, impudent little bitch, with your fucking American law that you think you can impose on everyone else.” He grabbed a handful off hair at the back of her head, and yanked her head back, forcing her to look into his eyes . . . and he savored the terror that he saw in hers.

          And then he spat into her mouth. With a growl, he finally said, “You do not. . . fuck . . . with my family.” He turned his back on her, and then stalked away into the darkness.

***

          There wasn’t much that Sergeant Frank Ritter knew about Ryan and Duncan, other than that the former was a Marine and the latter was a Navy doctor, and that they lived in Nevada City. And he knew that Gabriella was the sister of Evelyn and Veronica. Which was why he was considerably baffled to find these two women accompanied by Dennis Hawthorne and a group of people whose credentials identified them as agents of . . .

          “NSA?” Ritter asked. Why would the National Security Agency be involved? Duncan was a prosecuting attorney, not a head of state. And since when did the NSA start hiring kids? Except for Hawthorne, these people didn’t appear to be any older than mid-twenties.

          “I take it the kidnapers have made their demands by now,” Hawthorne said as his kids, as he called them, began opening their suitcases. Inside was enough electronic equipment to start their own DoD communications center.

          “Yeah,” Ritter replied as he watched these people set up their gear. He thought that the Sac PD was well-equipped; it turned out that these people had a few extra tricks up their sleeves. “Yeah, we got ‘em on tape. They know she’s prosecuting the Alexei Petchorski case, and their demands are pretty simple; release Petchorski, or Ms. Duncan dies.” He suddenly wished he hadn’t said that when he saw the fear and fatigue in Brie’s eyes. “Listen, if you guys need access to a modem or any other equipment, I can—”

          “That’s okay, it won’t be necessary,” said one of the young NSA techs as he unfurled a collapsible dish, about as big around as a small plate, and plugged it into his laptop to establish an uplink between his computer and an orbiting communications satellite.

          “May I see that tape?” asked another nameless young tech. “I can run it through a filter and a voice pattern ident program, and maybe get us some idea of who the guy is and where he’s located.”

          “Already got it,” said a third young tech as he tossed him the digital audio tape.

          “Uh . . . yeah, sure . . .” Ritter mumbled, a little too late.

          The first nameless tech caught the tape in mid-flight, popped open his player, and slipped the tape inside. “Okay, let’s see what we got.” He snapped the player shut and hit play.

          Watching these people toss equipment around and catch it expertly made Ritter think of a basketball game; it was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters toying with the opposing team.

          “Running voice identification program,” said another of the nameless techs. “Scanning . . . scanning . . .”

          “We’ve got an incoming call,” announced another tech. “Might be our boy.”

          “You will release Alexei Petchorski,” announced the electronically altered voice over the loudspeaker. “Failure or refusal to do so will result in the execution of your precious federal persecutor.”

          “I’ve got an ident on the voice, boss,” whispered the vocal identification tech. “I was able to filter it out, clean it up, and match it to recorded transmissions intercepted through—”

          “Okay, all right, fine,” Hawthorne said, affecting mild exasperation yet unquestionably proud of the talent being exhibited by his team. “Who is he?”

          “Vassily Petchorski, brother of our guest downstairs.”

          “Any idea of where he is?”

          “Working, boss,” said another tech.

          “I will be sending a helicopter to the roof of your police station. You will put him on board, and will allow the helicopter to depart without escort. When we have left American air space, we will tell you where to find your lawyer. Any attempt to follow will result in her death.”

          His first impulse was to respond to a threat with a counter-threat. But he knew that would be worse than useless; most likely, that, too, would have resulted in Eve’s death. Instead, he kept quiet and kept listening, and kept learning.

          “Working . . . work—got ‘im! He’s trying to reroute his call through a number of switchbacks, but he’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is.” He grinned wryly, and shook his head with mild contempt. “Jesus, what an amateur. He’s routing it through his compound just outside of Bogotá, Colombia—latitude and longitude are coming up on the screen now—but his actual location is right here in Sacramento.”

          “How do you know it’s his compound?” Gina asked softly.

          “Previously recorded transmissions,” the tech replied. “There are a lot of drug dealers and traffickers in that area; we routinely record phone conversations and send them off to the DEA. They might not be able to do anything with our intel at the time, but at least they have it for possible future use.”

          “We will have him ready to go,” Hawthorne told the kidnaper. “What guarantee will you give us that Miss Duncan will be released?”

          “You will just have to take my word for it,” Vassily Petchorski replied, and one could hear the sneering smile in his voice.

          “I can’t believe we’re just going to sit here and wait for him to call back,” Brie muttered. “Damn it, why can’t we—”

          “I know, babe, I know,” Gina told her. “I don’t like it either. But we really don’t have any choice.”

          Hawthorne withdrew a small, two-way radio and thumbed the button. “How are things going with our guest down there?” he asked softly.

          “Bagged and tagged, boss,” replied another one of his kids. “He’ll be awake in about five minutes from his drugged meal, and will be good to go.”

          Brie looked at them in disbelief. “Y’all aren’t really gonna release this son of a bitch!”

          Gina placed an arm around her shoulders. “We don’t have any choice,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t know where he’s going.” She looked at Hawthorne. “Right?”

          “Absolutely. Let’s go downstairs, where my kids can tell you all about it.”

***

          “Okay. Okay, okay. You’re really gonna like this, okay?” said Gordon Mancuso, the young technician who looked an awful lot like a young and enthusiastic Joxer. The only difference was in his manner of dress and the wire-rimmed glasses. “Now, I was thinkin’, where’s the best place to tag him? To put a tracer on him? I mean, obviously, we can’t just follow him by line of sight across the sky with our own choppers, okay? So what I did was to give him an electronic GPS tracker. We don’t gotta follow him. We don’t gotta worry about losing sight of him. We don’t gotta worry about him getting out of range, ‘cause the high-orbit global positioning satellite will pick him up wherever he goes.

          “Now, first of all, lemme describe the tracking device. Anybody here own a dog?” He looked around at the surrounding faces. “Anyone? Anyone?”

          No one said anything. They were all as silent as stone as they waited for him to continue.

          “Jesus, you guys are a tough crowd,” he muttered. “No dog owners here, huh? What are you, a bunch of cat people or something? ‘Cause I hate cats, man, they’re—”

          “Just get on with it, Gordie,” Hawthorne said.

          “Okay,” he said rapidly, sounding very much like his favorite actor, Joe Pesci. “Okay, okay. The tracer is like . . . well, it’s a tracer, okay? It’s a lot like those things they use on dogs, okay? You know, like those little computer chips that they inject under the skin, and can be picked up by animal control with a scanner? The damn things never wear out, and they’re not much bigger than a big grain of rice. Same with this one, only it’s got a radium chip that can be picked up by that satellite.” He paused for a moment, and regarded his audience. “Anyone seen that movie ‘Enemy Of The State,’ with Will Smith and Gene Hackman? Where they’re followin’ his tracking devices all over the place with their satellites? Right? Okay? Well, those guys are so last season, compared to what we’ve got. If we were talkin’ fashions here, they’d be Levi Strauss while we’re Giorgio Armani, okay?”

          “Gordie,” Hawthorne said, “we appreciate your enthusiasm, but we’re a little pressed for time, okay? You want to get on with it, please?”

          “Okay,” he said. “Okay, okay. Now, first of all, I had a tracer stuck in his jacket, sewn right into it, okay? But I figure once they pick him up, they’ll probably figure he’s wired, and they’ll scan him for a tracer. And I figure they’ll find it, and take off his coat and dump it behind, okay? But that’s okay, ‘cause I had a second one sewn into his pants, okay? As a backup. But these guys are paranoid and sneaky little pricks, so they’ll probably scan him again after they find the first tracer, and I figure they’ll probably find the one I had sewn into his pants, too—so they’ll peel those off and toss ‘em away.”

          Brie and Hawthorne were growing impatient, but Gina sat silently and listened. She didn’t know exactly where the young technician was going with all this, but she did know he was going somewhere; so, as she would have done with one of her trainees, she was willing to cut him a little slack.

          “So after that, they’ll probably scan him again to see if there’s another backup. And there is, ‘cause I also had a tracer stuck into the heel of each shoe,” Gordie went on. “But that’s like almost a cliché, okay? I mean, everyone knows about the old tracer in the heel of the shoe trick, okay? I mean, that’s old even for James Bond, okay? So they’ll probably ditch the shoes, too.”

          Brie sighed impatiently, and refolded her arms across her chest. She wished he’d get on with it.

          “Okay. Okay, okay. So what wouldn’t he want to throw away?” Gordie asked. He looked at them all. “Anyone? Any ideas? Anyone?”

          They all watched him silently. Even Gina was starting to get a little impatient now.

          “Oh, man,” he said softly. “Okay. Okay, okay. So they’ve scanned him three times, and each time they found another tracer, okay? So what I did was, I had another one stuck inside of his watch. He probably won’t want to throw that away. I mean, it’s a Rolex, okay? Big bucks there, okay?”

          Hawthorne glared at him. “Gordie,” he growled in warning.

          “So they might scan him again, and they might find the one in his watch, and they can cut that sucker open and peel it out, okay? So he can keep his expensive watch, okay?” Gordie asked. “Now, they might scan him again, okay? Most likely they won’t, ‘cause by now they’re tired of scanning him, and they’ve probably figured they’ve found all the tracers by now anyway. But being the paranoid pricks that they are, they might go ahead and scan him again. And if they do, they might find the one that I stuck in his ring.”

          Even Brie began to smile a little now. This guy certainly was thorough. And dedicated. How many tracers had he stuck on their target?

          “So there’s still a teeny, tiny, almost infinitesimal chance that they might find that one,” Gordie went on. “I mean, they can pry the stone out of his ring and take it out so he can keep his precious ring, okay? So that’s why I gave him one more. One that I betcha that they’ll never find.” He glanced around at the surrounding faces. “Anyone wanna guess where it is? Huh? Anyone?”

          No one seemed willing to answer. No one seemed to have any ideas.

          Damn it, Gordie!” Hawthorne said. “Will you just . . .”

          “Okay,” he said. “Okay, okay.” He scanned their faces again. “Can I get a drum roll, please?”

          Gordie!”

          “Okay! Okay, okay!” he said. Suddenly, he sprouted a wide and proud grin, and with an encouraging twitch of his eyebrows he said, “So I had one more stuck in his scrotum.”

          They stared at him in utter silence, and then in mild horror.

          “He was still unconscious from the drugs he’d been slipped, so it was no sweat.”

          One of the techs winced sharply, and squirmed uncomfortably. And then he began to laugh. A moment later, the rest of the crew joined him.

          Gordie beamed with pride. “Yeah!” he said, barely able to contain his enthusiasm. “Let’s see ‘em try to cut that one out!”

***

          After several years of losing business to the larger and more modern ports at Stockton and San Francisco, the Port of Sacramento had been shut down and its facilities sold to a private contractor who, through a partnership with the city of West Sacramento, had plans of turning it into a water park where people could launch their boats and go fishing, and where kids could play in a planned but not yet actualized playground. Even the port police had moved on and found new employment, and had left their shack at the port’s main entrance empty and the wooden, red-and-white striped driveway barriers down in a failed attempt to prevent trespassing. Aside from the rats and mice that scurried along the unmoving conveyor belts inside the silent, dusty, concrete tunnels and skeletal steel towers, and between the massive, shiny, aboveground steel storage tanks, and other than the jackrabbits in the fields to the east, a few snakes among the tall weeds, and the occasional bass fisherman meandering his way along the deep water channel, there was no one around. The place was utterly silent and completely abandoned. No one was here in the port’s deserted grain elevator except for vermin, bugs and birds, and an occasional tagger.

          After the helicopter had arrived, and after Alexei Petchorski had been placed on board and after the helicopter had lifted off again, all the Team could do was watch the satellite map as the helicopter went south, and hope that Petchorski would keep his word. And apparently Petchorski had known that someone, somewhere, somehow had been monitoring him, because he did keep his word; once the helicopter had cleared U.S. air space and had crossed the Mexican border, his voice had come on the speaker again, informing them that Eve could be found in an abandoned warehouse at the recently closed down Port of Sacramento.

          The first black SUV had slammed its way through the driveway barrier, and was immediately followed by two more. With screeching tires, they rounded the bend in the road, swinging left, and proceeded on down to the abandoned office of the closed-down grain elevator. Sacramento SWAT officers and HRT, dressed in black fatigues and bearing automatic weapons and a battering ram, leapt from the vehicles as they screeched to a halt in the parking lot, and quickly deployed to surround the building. Without hesitation, one team crashed in the front door and raced through the office, and yanked open the unlocked office door that led out to the warehouse where suspects might be racing out to make their escape—

          —and there she was, sitting alone in the middle of the warehouse with her legs tied to the chair legs, her arms still behind her back, and with a black blindfold across her eyes and a gray strip of duct tape across her mouth.

          “Evie!” Brie screamed as she raced toward her sister.

          “Gabriella, no!” Gina screamed. “Don’t touch her! Nobody move!”

          Everybody froze as one, and the ensuing silence was so thick it was almost palpable.

          “Just . . . nobody move,” Gina repeated, her low and soft voice somewhere between a purr and a growl, as she scanned the warehouse with narrowed eyes, searching for booby traps. Seeing nothing obvious,  she slowly and cautiously began to approach Eve.

          Afraid to move, and with a soft and muffled cry, Eve shook her head just slightly.

          “Be strong, Evie,” Brie told her sister, with wide, terrified eyes and a catch in her voice. “You’ll be okay. Just be strong. We’ll get you out of here.” And then, so softly that only God alone could hear her, she said again, “Please, please, God, please, let her be strong . . .”

          “It’s okay, Evie,” Gina said, still slowly approaching and her voice soft and reassuring. “It’s all right. We’ll get you out of here. Just hang in there with me, okay?”

          She repeated the move in a vain and silent attempt to warn her off.

          “What is it?” Brie asked. “What’s wrong?”

          “Just stay back, okay?” she quietly told her as she finally stood in front of Eve. She slowly circled around the gagged and blindfolded figure, and then went down on her knees on the cold and dusty asphalt floor. Then she went down on her hands, and lowered herself to her belly. She peered under the chair, and confirmed her suspicions.

          “What d’you got?” Brie asked.

          She studied it for several quiet moments. “Modified dead man switch,” she replied at last, “wired into a pressure plate that she’s sitting on. There’s also a mercury switch, and enough C-4 to take out this entire complex.” She sighed deeply. “It’s not the most sophisticated rig I’ve ever seen, but it’ll sure as hell do the job. There’s a barrier or a canister of some kind around the back of the package that might be hiding some more goodies, and . . . oh, shit.”

          Her heart plummeted into her belly. “What is it?”

          “We’ve also got a remote detonator, which means we’re all living on borrowed time.” She raised her head. “I don’t suppose there’s a tool kit in one of the cars, is there? The son of a bitch didn’t mention anything about any bombs in his demands, and I didn’t bring—”

          One of the SWAT cops stepped forward. “I’ve got a Leatherman kit,” he said as he reached into a pocket for the hand-sized, multi-tool kit.

          “Good man,” Gina said. “Give it over.”

          He did, and then quickly backed away.

          “I got another one, if you need it,” said a second officer.

          Gina grinned a wry grin in spite of the dire situation. “You guys do come prepared, don’t you?” she asked as she accepted the second pocket tool kit. “Okay, why don’t the rest of you clear out of here in case this son of a bitch detonates remotely? There’s no sense in all of us going up.”

          Hawthorne turned to address his people. “Okay, people, let’s move out!” Then he turned back to face Ryan. “Good luck, Gina.”

          “Thanks, Denny. Brie, c’mere. I’m going to need the steady hands of a surgeon here.”

          Immediately, Brie was by her side. “What can I do?”

          “I need you to get down here and very, very gently take hold of that mercury switch in both hands,” she said softly.

          Brie dropped to her belly next to her, wriggled in as close as she could to the bomb, and very gingerly reached forward with both hands.

          “Do not let it tip either way; you’ve got to hold it perfectly still. Whoever the son of a bitch was who rigged this, he definitely doesn’t want us messing with that remote; the merc switch is attached to it.”

          “And if it does tip?” Brie asked softly.

          Gina looked into her clear, blue-green eyes with utmost seriousness. “We’ll never know it.” She returned her attention to the job at hand. “Now hold it just like that.” She did, with the steady hands of a seasoned trauma surgeon, and Gina cautiously placed one set of pliers’ grips on the wire that came off of the switch. And then, very carefully, she placed the scissors of the second tool on the wire, and gently applied pressure.

          Snip!

          She permitted herself a tiny sigh of relief. “Keep that puppy perfectly still . . . perfectly still . . .” She let go of the wire, and went to work on the second one that led from the other end of the switch. “Okay, here we go . . . nice and steady . . .”

          Snick!

          She took a deep breath, and let out quickly as she allowed herself a tiny smile. “Mercury switch is disconnected,” she announced. She placed it on the floor next to her, and then turned to Brie. “Okay, I can handle the rest by myself. You’d better go, too.”

          “No.”

          “Gabriella, please. Don’t argue with me. I understand you want to stay, but—”

          “I said no,” she repeated, her eyes and voice determined. “She’s my sister, and I’m not abandoning her.” And then she focused intently on Ryan. “And I’m not abandoning you, either. So just get on with it.”

          “And what about Ronnie?” Gina wanted to ask. “Are you willing to abandon her?” But she held her tongue. With somebody’s thumb possibly resting on a remote control detonator somewhere, Gina looked into those compassionate yet determined blue-green eyes, and once again she saw in them the soul of the Battling Bard of Poteidaia and the Queen of the Amazons. She saw the blonde young Samurai of Higuchi and the irascible Navy doctor; her best friend, her partner in life, her eternal soul mate, and comrade in arms. An equal, honorable, and  fellow warrior in the truest sense of the word.

          One couldn’t ask for a better friend.

          Words failed her. Instead, she merely nodded, just once and ever so slightly. “Oo-rah,” said the Marine, with a soft breath of a whisper.

          Brie returned her tiny nod with one of her own. “Hoo-ya,” whispered the Sailor.

          She reached for the remote detonator with the wire cutter, and closed her eyes. If something was going to go wrong, she didn’t want to see it.

          Snip!

          She waited for a moment that felt more like an eternity, almost afraid to open her eyes. She had told Brie, just a minute or so ago, that if the bomb did go off they’d never know it; and as she lay here on the cold floor, she heard absolutely nothing, saw nothing, and felt nothing. Is this what oblivion felt like?

          She opened her eyes, and quickly assessed her surroundings. If they had been blown into the Afterlife just now . . . well, the Afterlife looked an awful lot like that stinking, cold and dusty warehouse that they had been in a second ago.

          “Two down, and one to go,” she said to herself.

          Brie opened her own eyes, and looked around to survey her surroundings. No clouds, no harp music, nobody with white feathered wings. “So far, so good,” she said to herself. Then she rose to her knees and addressed her sister. “I’m going to take your blindfold off, so don’t move, okay? Just hang tough, Evie.” She gently untied the knot at the back of her head and carefully removed the scarf, and the terrified expression in Eve’s damp and red-rimmed eyes pierced her heart like a dagger. She wanted so desperately to throw her arms around her and hold her, or to at least take a hand in hers, or to squeeze her arm or shoulder reassuringly; but if she did, she might cause a slight movement or shift of weight, and set off the explosives. Instead, she very, very carefully peeled off the duct tape. “You just hang tough,” she whispered.

          “Oh, God, I am so glad to see you guys,” she cried softly. She shivered violently, from both fear and the icy coldness that permeated the air. She gasped softly, and spoke with a voice that was laced with quiet sobs. “I was so scared I’d never see you again . . .”

          Very gently, Brie reached behind her sister and found her fingers, and curled her own around them. Evie squeezed back desperately.

          “Okay, all we’ve got left is that pressure plate,” Gina said, just as the echoing and approaching clock-clock-clocking sounds of solid boot heels against cement reached their ears. “I’ve got three wires here, and they’re not all easy to reach.”

          Brie looked up to see what was causing those sounds, and her eyes widened in surprise. “Ronnie?” she said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

          “I came to be with my sisters,” she replied, with that determined Duncan expression in her voice and eyes as she continued to approach. And then she frowned in puzzlement as she regarded the figure lying on the floor, whose head and her hands were hidden from view. “Sugar Puss?” she asked softly. “Is that you?”

          “Hey, Ronnie,” she replied, her voice sounding very casual and relaxed, and echoing slightly as she continued to work. One would think she sounded more like a mechanic working beneath a car rather than a demolitions expert working to disarm a bomb and save all of their lives. Only Brie suspected that the Marine was forcing herself to be calm in an effort to set everyone else’s nerves at ease. “I’m surprised Denny and his boys let you in here.” She took hold of the first wire with the pliers.

          “It wasn’t really a question of them ‘lettin’’ me in,” Veronica said, slowly and distantly, as she continued to approach.

          Snip! “That’s one . . .”

          Even with damp eyes, a red and runny nose, and shimmering, tear-streaked cheeks, Evie actually managed to work up a little smile in spite of their grim situation. “What’d you do, wave ol’ Bessie around?” She was so glad that both of her sisters were here with her; yet she was also so scared.

          “The sight of Bessie and the threat of a boot up the ass can work wonders,” Ronnie drawled as she knelt next to Evie. With both hands, she very carefully enveloped Brie’s and Evie’s. “Hang in there, sis,” she told Evie. And then she looked at Brie as she indicated Gina with a slight movement of her head. “What in the name of Sam Houston is she doin’ here?” she softly whispered.

          “Disarmin’ a bomb,” Brie replied. “What’s it look like?”

          “I can see that,” she said in mild annoyance. “What I meant was . . .” Ronnie had to stop and think for a moment. “I mean, I know she’s a Marine and all, but . . . well, geez, darlin’, no offense or anything,” she said as she now addressed Gina, “but I thought you were, like, a chef or somethin’.”

          “Hey, you’ve seen her collection of medals, haven’t you?” Brie asked softly, not wanting to break the Marine’s concentration. “You didn’t think she got those from bein’ a chef.”

          Ryan couldn’t help it. She just couldn’t help it. “I have many skills,” she said at last, with an unmistakable little smile in her voice.

          “Oh, brother,” Brie muttered as she gazed sardonically at her partner. “You never get tired of that line, do you?”

          Grasping the second wire with the pliers, Gina then addressed Veronica. “So who’s Bessie?”

          “My constant travelin’ companion,” Veronica replied, “my stainless steel Ruger Redhawk .357 Magnum.”

          “Oh, yeah?” Gina said, and one could hear the mildly amused little smile in her voice. “Six-shooter, huh? Well, if we get out of here alive, I’m gonna have to take you to a gun range and introduce you to Pietro.”

          Snip! went the second wire.

          “Who’s that?”

          “My Beretta 92-F. Fifteen-round semi auto.”

          Ronnie smiled wryly. “Nine millimeter, huh?” She snorted softly with playful derision. “Shootin’ that caliber, y’all are gonna need fifteen rounds . . .”

          Gina was silent for a moment as she continued to work. “Do I detect a challenge?” she asked.

          “Damn straight,” said the resolute young street cop (who tended to be a little swifter of language than the attorney. . . but nowhere nearly as swift as a certain young Navy doctor).

          “You’re on, kiddo.”

          Hey!” Evie finally snapped. “Can you guys get me out of here and talk about this stuff later? I really gotta go to the bathroom, okay?”

          “Okay,” Gina said gently. “All right. It’s just that when people get to talking guns, I get a little enthusiastic.”

          “You should have hooked up with Ronnie instead of Brie,” Eve muttered. “She’s a total gun nut.”

          “I don’t think so,” Veronica said. “Don’t get me wrong, Gina. I love you dearly, but I just don’t swing that way.”

          Gina grinned. “Hey, neither did I,” she said as she cautiously gripped the third and final wire with the pliers. “Not until Brie seduced and corrupted me.” She set the wire cutter in place, and squeezed.

          Snip!

          “Is that it?” Evie asked. “Is that it? You said three wires—is that it?”

          “God yeah,” Ronnie said as she began to untie her legs.

          “What the hell do you mean, I  corrupted you?” Brie wanted to know as she proceeded to untie her sister’s hands. “You’re the one who—”

          “Come on, let’s saddle up and git on out of here,” Veronica said. She and Brie started to help her up.

          “Freeze!” snapped the Marine. “Hold it! Hold it, hold it!”

          They all immediately froze in place, with apprehension in their eyes and worry in their hearts.

          “What is it? What’s wrong?” Ronnie asked.

          She said nothing.

          “Gina?”

          “I got a bad feeling about this,” she said softly. “I dunno, it just seemed a little . . . too easy.”

          “Too easy?” Brie asked, her eyes wide in disbelief. “Too easy? What are you, fucking kidding me? Too easy?”

          “Brie, calm down. Just . . . hang on.”  She couldn’t see around the package, no matter how she shifted her angle. “Anybody got a mirror? Any kind of reflective surface?”

          “Uh . . . yeah,” Veronica said after a moment of thought. She reached into a back pocket, and with a rapid clicking of metal on metal and a flashing of silver, she whipped out a butterfly knife. “Will this do?”

          “We’ll see,” she said, taking note of the expert way in which the cop handled the knife. “Remind me not to piss you off,” she muttered under her breath as she accepted the knife, and then carefully reached around the back of the explosive pack. Using the polished blade like a mirror, and tilting it up and down, she scanned the other side of the package.

          Her heart froze. “Holy Christ . . .”

          “What is it?” Brie asked.

          Gina was silent for a moment. And then her voice turned into that low, dangerous and pissed-off Warrior Princess growl that Brie knew so well. “Mother fucker,” she said softly.

          “Gina?”

          “Son of a bitch!” she added, more loudly.

          “Gina!”

          “We got another wire,” Ryan said. “This rat bastard was out to kill all of us.” And he came about this close to succeeding, she silently told herself.

          She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, and then let loose with a string of Marine Corps expletives that was so vicious and vile that even the potty-mouthed squid’s face turned red; the Marine was so utterly pissed off right now that she didn’t even realize she was blending English and Italian in an almost incoherent string of obscenities that insulted the Russian’s entire family line, his country, his sexual practices, his genitalia, and anything she could think of.

          And then she forced the rage down once more, telling herself she’d deal with it later; right now, she needed to keep her hands steady. Very cautiously, she reached forward with pliers in one hand and cutters in the other, and placed them both on the plastic coated wire.

          Snip!

          Once again, she very, very painstakingly scanned the bomb. “That’s it,” she reported at last. “We’re out of here.”

          With Brie on one side and Veronica on the other, they each reached under an arm and lifted Eve from the chair.

          The spring under the pressure plate popped it up, and the plate fell to the floor with a sharp and echoing clatter that made all four of them jump.

          Evie’s legs buckled under her. Brie quickly caught her and held her up, while Ronnie captured her face in both hands and kissed both cheeks. The three identical sisters held each other tightly while Gina sat up with her legs crossed, resting her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands, as the stress and adrenalin suddenly drained from her to be replaced with almost total exhaustion. She wiped the sweat from her brow with a trembling hand, and then looked up to find a grinning and teary-eyed Brie kneeling before her. The sailor and the Marine hugged each other warmly and tightly, and without words, before Gina finally allowed herself to be pulled up.

          And then Evelyn threw her arms around Gina and hugged her fervently, never wanting to let go of her. Words failed her . . . and all she could do was hold her, and pour out her heart and soul in sobbing relief and gratitude.

***

          “I don’t know why he didn’t just go ahead and take us all out,” Gina said. “Lord knows he could have.”

          “Hey, don’t knock a good thing,” Brie said softly.

          They were sitting in the living room of the Nevada City house; Brie and Ronnie occupied the two leather recliner chairs while Gina and Evie shared the sofa, holding hands with their fingers laced together as a bottle of Wild Turkey made its rounds. Freshly showered and dressed in sweats and pajamas, and with Eve also comfortably wrapped in Brie’s blue velour robe, they drank to decompress; to relax and to get drunk, and with the hope that maybe sleep would come later. But in the meantime, Eve refused to let Gina get more than a few steps away from her.

          “The only thing I can figure is that he left Eve rigged with the bomb to buy himself more time to make his escape,” Gina went on as she leaned forward to hand the bottle to Ronnie. “When I saw that remote control receiver, I damn near shit myself; I thought sure as hell he was getting ready to set it off.” And then she immediately wished she hadn’t said that. Evelyn had spent hours tied to that chair, and even before Petchorski had left, he had never even allowed her the chance to relieve herself. He had wanted so much to hurt her and humiliate her; to make an example of her, in case anyone else ever tried to challenge his supremacy and sovereignty. To send a strong and powerful message—to himself, if to no one else—that he was in charge, and that he made the rules, and that everyone answered to him.

          “But maybe he thought if he’d done that, someone would eventually catch up with him and take him out,” Brie quickly offered, hoping to distract her sister from a humiliating line of thought that she was certain she was now dealing with.

          “Yeah, fear of reprisal,” Ronnie added.

          “That’s what I was thinking,” Gina told them. “He just did it to buy himself more time.”

          “I’ll never get clean,” Eve said, her voice so soft that even Gina couldn’t quite make out the words.

          She looked at her, and gave her a reassuring little shake. “You okay?”

          “I’ll never get clean,” she said again, a little louder this time. “That bastard, he . . . I’ll never get clean.”

          She shifted in her seat a bit, in order to face her more easily. “Hey, take it easy,” Gina said softly. “It’s okay, you’re okay.”

          And then the tears began to flow. “That bastard, he . . .” She shook uncontrollably. “. . . he left me there for hours, and then he . . . he stole my grandmother’s medallion and . . . and  pissed all . . . all over m-me, like a dog marking it’s territory . . .”

          Raw emotion slammed into her heart like a sledgehammer. “Aw, God, baby,” Gina said softly. “C’mere . . .” She held her close. “It’s okay, it’s okay . . .”

          Struggling unsuccessfully to control their own emotions, Brie and Ronnie rose from their chairs, and sat with her in a sympathetic but unavailing effort to comfort their sister.

          She looked into Gina’s compassionate, sapphire orbs with pleading, blue-green eyes. “Why?” she asked. “Why did he have to steal grandma’s medallion?” And then she lost it, and broke down into anguished, racking sobs. “I hate him!” she finally wailed against Gina’s chest, clutching the Marine’s shirt in both fists and purging herself of all of her pent up terror and rage and humiliation . . . and all the warrior could do was to hold her close and try to comfort her. “I hate him, I hate him, I want him to die . . .” She gasped a ragged breath, and sobbed again, a horrible, wretched sobbing that shredded her very soul.

          Gina and Ronnie held her quietly while Brie went into her office. She returned a minute or so later with a syringe, some cotton balls, and some alcohol.

          “This is just a mild sedative,” she softly told her sister as she gave her the injection. “It’ll help you calm down.” She sniffled once, and wiped the tears from her own eyes. “Now, come on; let’s get you to bed.”

          Evie reached out a hand, and regarded Ryan with pleading eyes. “Gina?”

          “I’ll be up in a minute,” she replied. “I’ll be right there.” She watched as Brie and Veronica took their sister upstairs. When they were gone, the recon-force Marine turned abruptly and reached for the telephone. I will make it right, Evie, she silently promised with cold and vicious resolve as she jabbed at the number pad. I promise you I will make it right. They’re all going to pay for what they did to you. She waited as the phone at the other end of the line rang.

          “Browse About Books and Café, your place to read ‘n’ feed. This is Matt speaking. May I help you?”

          Her eyes narrowed into deadly blue slits, and her voice became the menacing, deep-chested growl of a fully determined and thoroughly pissed off United States Marine. “Chakram!

          There was a moment of silence, and then the call was re-routed.

          “What do you need, Colonel?”

          She proceeded to give him a list.

          He jotted down everything. “You’re gonna shut ‘im down and bring him in, huh? Oo-rah. Everything will be ready for you when you get here.”

***

          She hung up just as Brie came back down the stairs. She was relieved that her partner had not heard her on the phone, because she knew that Brie would never approve of what she was going to do. But this was no time to leave everything up to the police and the courts; this called for direct action.

          “How is she?”

          Brie sighed. “Physically, she’s okay,” she said softly. “Psychologically, she’s been through a hell of an ordeal; she may need counseling. There’s a buddy of mine who can help, he’s a retired Navy psychiatrist out of Bethesda. In the meantime, I left Ronnie to sit with her for a while. I knocked her out pretty good so she can get some rest.” She slowly approached her, with her hands slipped into her back pockets, and stood in front of her. “Before she went out, she asked for you again.” She smiled a little bit. “She’s formed quite a bond with you, y’know.”

          Gina smiled a little in return. “The feeling’s mutual.”

          Brie smiled a little bit more.

          “Evie’s always been sort of the civilian of us,” she said after a moment, and then her smile faded. “I mean, Ronnie’s a street cop, I’m a squid . . . We’ve been in situations where there are no rules and regulations, and we’ve both been shot at. But Evie . . . She’s never been through anything like that. Don’t get me wrong; she’s gone face-to-face with the bad guys plenty of times. But it’s always been inside of a courtroom or an interrogation room, with plenty of backup never more than just a few feet away. She’s never been in real, life-threatening danger. She’s . . . the civilized one.”

          Ryan smiled at her a little bit. “That’s a good way to describe her,” she said.

          “That medallion meant everything to her,” she said. She sniffled gently and wiped away a single tear, and then folded her arms across her chest. “She and Grandma Sheila always had a special bond, and that medallion was . . . well, it was just Evie’s way of honoring and remembering her. It was her way of remembering that she and grandma and their ‘warrior goddess of justice’ were always together and fighting for the greater good.” She sighed gently. “It’s kind of amazing how one can draw such great strength from such a simple little keepsake.”

          Gina understood fully. “Listen,” she said, after a short moment of silence, “I’m gonna go check in on her, and sit with her awhile.” She started for the stairs, but Brie gently stopped her with one soft, warm hand on her arm.

          “Yeah?” she whispered.

          With the fire crackling and popping in the silence, and casting its flickering orange light on her face, she gazed up at Ryan with a quiet but unmistakable rage that Gina seldom saw in those blue-green eyes. “You get him, Xena,” she said softly. “I don’t care what you do, or how you do it. Just get him.”

          Gazing into her bard’s eyes, the Warrior Princess gave her a single, silent nod.

***

          She shifted beneath the warm and comfortable covers, and stretched lazily with a soft moan. She thought she probably ought to get up, but it was so nice to just lie here in the darkness and relax. She vaguely remembered awakening once and seeing Gina while lying here, but that had been hours ago. She glanced at the digital wall clock on the other side of the room; it was flashing 7:19. Apparently, no one had remembered to come into this guest room to re-set it after the last power failure. And with the drapes drawn shut, it was impossible to tell whether it was light outside or dark.

          She filled her lungs with a deep breath, and sighed and stretched again. It was amazing what a few solid hours of sleep could do for you. She peeled back the down comforter, and with a smooth movement she sat up and swung her legs out of bed to slip her bare feet into the slippers that rested there. The robe was in a nearby chair; she reached for it and slipped into it as she rose from the warmth of the full-sized bed, and shuffled her way toward the door.

          And that was when she smelled something incredibly delicious wafting up from downstairs. Well, she’d always heard that Gina could cook; obviously, she was down in the kitchen right now, and whipping up something positively yummy.

          Veronica and Brie were at the kitchen table. “Hey there, sleepy head,” Ronnie said with a smile. “That was some nap you had.”

          “How’re you feeling?” the doctor asked.

          “I’m . . . I’m okay,” she said. “A little foggy, but I’m good. I feel like I slept about fourteen hours straight.”

          “It’s more like thirty-six,” Brie said.

          She stared at her, dumbfounded.

          “Yeah,” Ronnie said. “It’s Thursday night.”

          “Oh, man,” she said. She didn’t even remember the bathroom trips. She yawned a wide, cavernous yawn, and shuffled toward the table to join them for a late-night dinner. “God, I’m hungry,” she muttered.

          There’s a good sign, Brie thought.

          “Good!” said a cheery voice. “Good thing I made plenty!” The figure at the stove turned, and smiled at the young blonde.

          Her eyes widened first in surprise, and then in delight. “Mrs. Ryan!” she said. “How’ve you b—”

          With a frying pan in one hand and a spatula in the other, she stopped her. “Hey!” she said, with her engaging Neapolitan accent. “I’m a not ‘Mrs. a Ryan,’ cara mia; I’m a you Zia Antonia. Capisce?”

          Her smile expanded into a full sized grin. “Yes ma’am.”

          She grinned expansively, and Evie could see where Gina had gotten hers. “Bene!” she said. “Now come. Sit. You like a shrimp scampi?”

          Her grin morphed into a look of pure longing. “Oh, I love shrimp scampi!”

          “Ah, we’re a gonna get along a great,” Antonia Ryan said with sparkling eyes. She nudged her toward the table, and doled out a healthy portion. “Listen,” she said, softly yet earnestly, as Evie settled behind the table. “Gina told me you been through some tough a times over the last few days. She didn’t go into a lot of details, but I want you to know something.”

          She watched her, and waited.

          “If you ever need anything . . . and I do mean anything . . .” And here she took a hand and squeezed it comfortingly. “. . . you letta me know, okay? You gotta two families to rely on. And if I can’t help and Gina can’t help, you ask a my father—your nonno Vincenzo. He knows people who can help. You . . . understand what I’m a telling you?” she finished with a special significance that Eve could only guess at.

          Smiling warmly yet uncertainly, and then finally in acceptance of her offer, she said, “Yes ma’am.”

          Antonia smiled at her. “Good! Now you eat. Mangia! Putta some meat onna you bones.” She turned to regard the other two sisters. “What is it with a you girls, anyway? Always a so skinny?”

          Evie looked around for a moment. “Where’s  Gina?”

          “I really have no idea,” Ronnie replied, truly puzzled.

          Brie and Antonia shared a quick yet significant glance.

          “She had to take off for a couple of days,” the latter finally replied. “To take care of some . . . come si dice? How you say it? Some family business.”

***

          Two helicopters were streaking just a few yards above the ground in the dead of night, and leaving in their wake tall grass and weeds and bushes that had been flattened by their rotors’ down blast. One aircraft was a French-made Aerospatiale SA .365 Dauphan 2, a long and sleek aircraft that was popular with the U.S. Coast Guard for rescue missions. This one, however, was armed with HOT anti-tank missiles, Mistral air-to-air missiles, and a fifty caliber machine gun mounted in the wide, open cargo hatch on the port side. The other helo, which was smaller and flying as an armed escort, was a Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter that was armed with a 30-mm M230 chain gun and Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Both were built for combat, and both were built for speed and agility; both were black, and both were unmarked, save for a customized symbol, port and starboard—a  flat, silvery steel ring that sparkled against the blackness of the fuselage, with squared, golden teeth painted on the ring on one side of the aircraft, and angular, razor-like blades on the other side. A small, round stone of amethyst was painted in the middle of each tooth and blade.

          “Ground scanners show three guards on patrol, each with a dog,” one helo reported to the other, with the speaker’s voice electronically distorted over the radio.

          “Roger that,” responded an identical voice.

          Four miles out from the compound, both aircraft slowed, but did not come to a complete stop. The Dauphan dropped down to within ten feet of the ground, dropped off a lone figure, and then raised again in a single, graceful movement, and then the two helos swung around in a 180-degree arc to depart. The lone figure, dressed in black combat fatigues, face paint and cap, slung a rifle over one shoulder, and started in on foot.

***

          “. . . so here’s this farmer in his pickup truck in Alabama that was drivin’ across a bridge one day,” Veronica was telling her sisters. They were sitting around the kitchen table, and trying to lighten the mood by swapping jokes while feasting on Mama Ryan’s shrimp scampi. “He noticed a man standin’ on the rail who was gettin’ ready to jump to his death in the river below. The farmer stops his truck and runs up to ‘im, and says, ‘Hey, son, why are y’all doin’ this?’ And the guy says, ‘I have nothin’ to live for. I just want to end it all.’  So the Alabama farmer says, ‘Well, think of your wife and children! What’ll they do if you’re gone?’ And the jumper replies, ‘I have no wife or children.’ So then the Alabama man says, ‘Well, then think of your mother and father!’ And the man replies, ‘Mom and Dad passed on many years back.’ So the Alabama man then says, ‘Well, then think of General Robert E. Lee!’ And the would-be jumper looks at him and says, ‘Who?’ And then the Alabama man stared at him for a second or two, and then said, ‘Jump, y’damn Yankee! Jump!’”

***

          The first patrol passed by the lone intruder’s position, and vanished around a corner of the sprawling, Spanish-style mansion. Once gone, the shadowy figure went up the tree that stood next to the fence, scrambling silently and spider-like, and established itself securely to observe. The rifle it held was a bolt-action, U.S. Marine Corps M40 A-1 sniper’s rifle, loaded with full metal jacket .308s and outfitted with a night vision scope attached to the top and a sound suppresser/flash suppresser screwed onto the muzzle. Straddling the stout limb that hung over the electric fence, and leaning back against the main trunk, the shadow cradled the rifle in its arms and waited patiently for the next patrol.

***

          “I can top that,” Brie said. “I can top that. This is from an actual radio conversation between a U.S. naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland about, oh, ten years ago or so. It was released by the Chief of Naval Ops himself, so I’m not shittin’ you, okay?”

          Mama Ryan tsked! softly with mild disapproval at her nipotina’s language.

          “Sure,” Evie said with a skeptical little smile.

          “Yeah, right,” Ronnie drawled with a wry grin.

          “Okay,” Brie said. “Canadian authorities saw on radar that this Navy ship is approachin’ on a collision course on this cold and stormin’ night. So they radio to them, ‘Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.’ And the Americans radioed back, ‘We recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.’ And the Canadians replied with, ‘Negative, U.S. Naval vessel. I say again, you will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.’ And the Americans say, ‘This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, you divert your course!’ So the Canadians respond again with, ‘No, I say again, YOU divert YOUR course.’ So the captain of the American ship gets really pissed off and says, ‘This is the United States aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States Atlantic Fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers, and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change YOUR course fifteen degrees north. I say again, that's one-five degrees north, or counter-measures will be taken to ensure the safety of this ship!’

          “So the line goes real quiet for a second or two,” Brie went on dramatically, “like they’re talkin’ it over and wonderin’ what the hell to do. Finally, the Canadians come back on and say, ‘USS Lincoln . . . we’re a lighthouse. It’s your call.’”

***

          The dark specter dropped silently from the limb and onto the grounds of the compound, still with the rifle in its hands. It walked silently, past the three dead guards and the three dead guard dogs, and made its way around to the rear entrance.

***

          “Where does that kind of evil come from?” Eve asked. After hanging out together and just enjoying each other’s company after so many months of separation, they began to wax philosophical as they reflected on the occurrences of the last few days. “I’ve always thought I’ve seen evil before. I mean, I’ve prosecuted hundreds and hundreds of cases, okay? I’ve seen child molesters and murderers, and rapists and drug dealers. I’ve put them all in jail. I’ve heard their threats against my life, and against the lives of my loved ones. I’ve even put away members of organized crime. I’ve seen the crime scene photos of what they’ve done, and these . . . these animals . . .” She paused for a moment. No, “animals” was the wrong word, she finally concluded, because animals were just that—animals. There was no malice in them, no hatred. They didn’t scheme and manipulate, and use others for their own selfish benefit. So she continued with, “. . . these inhuman creatures truly do believe they have every right to do what they do. And I’ve taken them on, face-to-face, but . . .  it’s always been within the confines of a courtroom, y’know? This is the first time that I’ve ever been personally affected; the first time that I’ve ever been an actual victim of it. Lord forgive me for using this kind of language and for feeling the way I do, but I hate that son of a bitch! I hate him! And . . . after that, I don’t know if I can ever go back into a courtroom and do my job. I just don’t know.”

          “Evie,” Brie said, softly and gently, as she took her sister’s hand in her own. “I know you’re rattled. Hell’s bells, kiddo, you’ve had one hell of a shock. But if you give up fighting the good fight . . . if you stop fighting for the greater good because of what he did to you . . . then whatever forces of evil you believe in will have won. That son of a bitch will have won.”

          “I know,” Eve said. “Believe me, I know. But still, I . . . Do I still have the nerve to keep facing those people on a daily basis and keep trying to put them away?” she asked Brie. And then she looked at Veronica. “I just hope I haven’t lost my nerve.”

          “Naw,” Veronica said with a reassuring smile as she took her hand in hers. “You still got it in you, kiddo; you just need a little personal time for some R&R, that’s all. When’s the last time you had a vacation?”

          “I think all three of us ought to get away from it all for a while,” Brie said after a short pause. “We should take a trip or something.”

          “I don’t know,” Eve said again, only this time it was spoken so softly that only she could hear. And then she looked from one sister to the other. “Where does that kind of evil come from?” she asked again. “Does it come from within the soul? Does it come from without? >From the cosmos, or is there really a devil? Is it just a sickness of the heart? And when it runs unchecked, and the courts and the police are powerless to stop it, how does one ultimately deal with it? What can you do to stop it before it’s too late?” Her eyes darted from one sister to the other. “How do you stop a monster?”

***

          Sitting in the lavish comfort of his living room, and surrounded by a luxury that had been paid for with obscene profits made in child prostitution, slavery and drug-dealing, he admired the small, silver “trophy” that he held in one hand while he listened to “Oh Fortuna,” the opening of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” as performed by the Chor un Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin. His other hand waved sharply in the air, as though he was conducting the choir. With the volume turned high, their voices nearly rattled the walls and windows:

                    O Fortuna!

                    Velut Luna

                    Statu variabilis . . .

          And then the volume dropped to a near whisper as they continued to sing, their voices soft and the instruments muted. He thought about raising the volume with the remote control, but he resisted the urge; the sudden softness of sound was a part of the performance. And as the music and the singing softened, so did his hand movements as he closed his eyes to savor it more thoroughly, and continued to conduct the orchestra:

                    Semper crescis

                    aut decrescis

                    vita detestabilis. . .

          It was a short piece, only a couple of minutes and some change. This particular piece of music had been used in a number of commercials, mostly for grand and epic fantasy/action/adventure movies that could have been based on Norse mythology, or perhaps even Roman, or Greek. Nestled warmly and comfortably in his sofa with a beatific smile, he continued to savor the soft, soothing music for another minute or so, his hand gliding lightly through the air, like a feather in a gentle breeze.

          And then the music came crashing in again. He always knew when it was coming, but still it never failed to make him jump with an almost violent start.

                    Sors salutis

                    et virtutis

                    michi nunc contraria . . .

          The hand movements became strong again, jerking sharply with a clenched fist with fortitude and power. God, he loved this piece of music!

          And then louder. And louder, sounding like battle music and nearing the end of the track, and approaching its climax and sounding like victory—

                    Quod per sortem

                    Sternit fortem,

                    mecum omnes plangite!

          Victory! he declared, while savoring the riches he had acquired at the expense of young children’s shattered lives, and shredded souls and spirits. Victory! he proclaimed again, as he reveled once more in the humiliation of that shitty little blonde American lawyer who thought she had a right to stop him. Victory, by God! IT WAS VIC

          A hand clamped itself over his mouth, and viciously yanked his head back against the sofa. His eyes flew open like a pair of window shades as his heart suddenly raced in terror within his chest; and as the razor-sharp edge of a matte-black Marine Corps combat knife gently laid itself against the side of his throat, he suddenly found himself staring into a pair of eyes that were as cold and as blue and as deadly as Arctic ice.

          Baring her even, white teeth in a vicious snarl, the shadowy figure whispered into his ear, “I’ve got a message for you from Evelyn Duncan.”

***

          The choppers returned in response to the radio communication, and picked up the lone operative. She still carried her rifle, clutched in one hand, and over her shoulder was a hefty bundle. The Dauphan actually had to touch down this time; Ryan handed the rifle to a crewman before carelessly tossing the bundle on board through the open side hatch.

          “Gentlemen,” she shouted over the bellowing roar of the turbines and the rotors, “meet Alexei Petchorski.”

          “What, his brother didn’t want to come along?” asked the pilot over his shoulder.

          Gina regarded him with a humorless little smile, and said nothing.

          He understood perfectly. Had it been up to him, and had it been one of his family members who had been victimized the way Doc’s sister had been, he would have done the same thing.

***

          The sun shone brightly, and there wasn’t a cloud in the azure sky on this cold and windy Sunday afternoon. The day’s coverage of the Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, was about to begin on television, and inside the house there was plenty of talk and laughter, and food.

          “Nonno Vincenzo!” Brie exclaimed merrily when the tall, white-haired man entered through the front door, with his grandson—and Gina’s younger brother—Michael. “How good to see you again! Come va?”

          “Gabriella! Va bene, grazie,” he replied. “How are you?” He took off his gray Fedora and captured her in a warm embrace. Then he went to Evie, and greeted her with a warm embrace. The only way he could tell the difference between these three women was by the length of their hair; if that should ever change, he would be completely without hope. “I heard about what happened, and that your car was ruined,” he said as he rested his hands on her shoulders, and gazed into those beautiful, blue-green eyes, “and I come to make you an offer I hope you cannot refuse.”

          “Oh, my word,” she said with a nervous little smile, “that sounds ominous.”

          “Not to worry,” he said, with his Florentine accent and a warm smile. “Vieni con me. Now, come with me.” He gently took her arm, and guided her outside.

          Walking alongside him, she allowed herself to be led out onto the wide, wooden porch. And then, as she looked down into the driveway,  her eyes widened in shock and her chin just about hit the ground. Butterflies fluttered up from her belly to tickle her heart with their wings. With a soft Southern drawl, she breathed, “Oh, my.”

          The last time she had looked through a car magazine had been maybe a couple of years ago. And one picture in particular that had caught her eye had been that of a privately owned, 2001 Ferrari 612 Scaglietti. It had been red with tan interior, sleek, and it had made her heart skip a beat or two with longing. From that moment on, she had fantasized about having a Ferrari someday. Not that she could ever afford one on her salary, but one could always dream . . .

          The one sitting out here in the driveway was a 2005, and was a spotless and shiny bronze.

          “It’s last year’s model,” Vincenzo said, almost apologetically. “This is registered to one of my restaurants as a company car, so I can a use it as a tax write-off. And it’s fully insured, so there’s a no worry. Capisce?”

          Struck thoroughly speechless, she stared up at him. The damn thing must have cost more than this house! she thought.

          “I wish I could give you this, I truly do,” he said. “But if I did, there would be . . . how you say it? A gift tax? Madonna, the taxes,” he said as he raised his eyes and hands in mild supplication to the Virgin. “So I’m not going to give this to you, okay?” And then he leaned toward her just a little bit, as though he was about to share a little secret with her, and added, “But you are more than welcome to borrow  this modest little automobile until you can find a more suitable replacement. Si? Until you find something you like better.”

          “Oh, my . . .” Eve said again, approaching the car as though she were in a trance.

          Vincenzo watched her with mild expectation. “She’s a . . . adequate?”

          She reached a hand forward, and stroked the tan, buttery-soft leather seat while her gaze roamed over the dash. She noticed that the speedometer top-ended at 340 kph, which she quickly converted to 200 miles per hour. “Oh, my God!” she whispered.

          He wasn’t quite certain if she liked it or not. “I have a black one, if you prefer . . .”

          “No!” she said as she quickly spun around to look at him, with unabashed astonishment clearly plastered all over her face. “No! No, this is—” She turned to look at the car again. “What I mean is—” She turned to him again. “I—” Her attention swung between him and the car so many times she was almost dizzy. “That is. . .” She regarded him with a meaningful little smile as she finally found the right words. “I think it’s gonna take me a long time to find . . . a ‘suitable replacement.’”

          He smiled back at her with that same knowing little smile, and a quick wink. “You take a you time,” he said as he gently took her by one elbow, and guided her back into the house. “You take all the time a you like.”

***

          A cheer went up as the Italian cross-country skier was the first to cross the finish line with his country’s flag clutched in one fist; at the same time, Gina came in through the front door with a black nylon traveling bag slung over one shoulder. “Hi, gang!” she said with a grin as she pushed the door shut. “Thanks for the welcoming cheer!”

          “Hey! There she is!” Brie called out gleefully as she rose from her seat with a glass of Beaujolais in one hand.

          “What is it, my birthday or something?” the tall brunette asked hopefully. “Whose Ferrari is that out there?”

          Nonno is loaning it to me until I can replace my old car,” Evie was quick to answer with a dazzling smile.

          Gina looked at her for a moment. “Loaning it to you, huh?” And then, with a mumble, she added, “Yeah, right.” She was well aware of how her nonno always managed to legally dodge tax laws by “loaning” expensive items to various family members and friends.

          She turned to stare at her grandfather for a moment in stunned silence. And then she turned back to Eve again. “He gave you a Ferrari?” she asked at last. She turned to her grandfather again. “You gave her a Ferrari?” She looked almost hurt as she sighed in mild dejection. “You never gave me a Ferrari . . .”

          “So did things turn out okay?” Brie asked her, in reference to that bit of “family business” that needed to be taken care of. Gently taking her arm, she began to lead her away from the others so they could converse privately.

          “How come I never got a Ferrari?” she called out to her nonno over her shoulder.

          Gee-na,” she said again.

          What!?”

          She gave her a questioning and meaningful look. How did things go? she repeated silently, using only her eyes.

          Gina whispered into her ear, “Mission accomplished.”

          Brie nodded back. Not really wanting to know any of the details, but pretty sure she could guess what they might be, she softly whispered, “Hoo-ya.”

          She disengaged herself from Brie’s gentle grasp, turned, and approached the young lawyer. “Evie,” she said, “I . . . I got, um . . .” It was a rare occasion indeed when the Marine was at a loss for words. At last, she reached into a pocket and took out a small, white box. Wordlessly, she handed it to her.

          She put down her glass of Chardonnay, and opened it. Her eyes widened in surprise, and then began to mist over as she gazed at the replica of her stolen medallion that nestled against the white cotton.

          Then she looked back up at Gina with those blue-green eyes that looked so much like Brie’s . . . yet were so different. She smiled at her. “Thank you!” she whispered. They were two such simple little words, yet they meant so much because they came straight from the heart. “This is so sweet of you . . .”

          She smiled back at her. “You’re welcome,” she replied, with a sudden warmth that blossomed within her own heart. And then she added, “Listen, I gotta get my gear upstairs and hit the head. I’ll be right back.” She gave her a quick kiss on one temple, and headed for the stairs.

          Still admiring the gift, and then turning it over in her hands as the television station went to a short news break, she approached Brie to show it off.

          She stopped short, and gasped sharply as a hand flew to her mouth.

          With a concerned look in her eyes, the doctor went over to her. “What’s wrong?”

          She turned to her sister. “Brie, look at this!”

          She looked at the medallion, and grinned. “She found you another one! How cool!”

          “No,” Evie said, shaking her head slowly and her voice suddenly quiet, almost as though she was afraid of being overheard. “No!” she said again, more emphatically this time. “Look at the other side!”

          She took the medal in one hand, and flipped it over. Engraved on the back were the balance scales of justice.

          She looked back at her sister with curious eyes. “Yeah?” she asked. “So? She had it engraved like your old one.”

          “Brie . . .” She leaned in closer, and spoke softly so no one else would hear. “I never told her what was on the other side.”

          Brie watched her carefully, and said nothing.

          This is Grandma’s medallion!” she whispered. “This is the one she gave me—the one that . . . that he stole from me!”

          Brie continued to gaze at her sister with that odd and unreadable expression. Only now, there also seemed to be just the very faintest of hints of a smile in her eyes. Did she know something about this, or not? Eve just couldn’t be certain. And it didn’t seem that her sister was about to volunteer any information.

          Eve watched her with penetrating eyes. “How did she get it back?”

          “Hey, guys!” Michael Ryan called out, cutting her off as he turned up the volume on the television set. “Check this out, man!”

          “. . . in what is being called an attack by rival drug dealers,” said the reporter, “Vassily Petchorski—brother and reputed partner of alleged drug dealer, child pornographer and slave trader Alexei Petchorski—was found murdered in his living room early Friday morning . . .”

          Evelyn stared at the television in mute astonishment. “Oh, my God,” she whispered as a sudden chill ran up her spine and made her flesh crawl.

          “. . . with what is commonly referred to as a ‘Colombian necktie,’ where the throat is cut and the tongue is—”

          Oh, my God!” She tried to hug herself for stability as she shivered uncontrollably.

          “—which is meant to send a very specific message to other members of the gang . . .”

          In the background, Gina came bounding back down the stairs on her way toward the kitchen, now dressed in faded blue jeans, a gray sweatshirt and black cotton socks. “Mom’s making her world-class calzones again, isn’t she?” she could be heard asking. “Oo-rah! Man, I’m starved!”

          “. . . the bodies of three guards were also found outside, each shot through the forehead with a high caliber rifle . . .” the television reporter continued to recount as Eve continued to split her wide-eyed and horrified attention between the news story on television and Ryan, who was now standing with an arm around her mother’s shoulders. She said something to her in Italian that elicited a big grin from her, and then planted a kiss on one cheek.

          She looked once again at the television, which was now showing a body, covered by a white, bloodstained sheet, that was being wheeled out to a coroner’s ambulance. And then she stared again at the tall, cheerful, and sapphire-eyed brunette, and then at the medallion she held in her hand.

          Dear God, she thought with a sudden and chilling realization. Oh, my God! No, she . . . she couldn’t have . . .

          She looked at Brie again, uncertain if she should even ask. As an officer of the court, she had an obligation to, but . . .

          Brie could see the question in her eyes. “Eve,” she said as she put her glass down on the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. She regarded her earnestly. Quietly and very carefully, she asked the deputy federal district attorney, “Do you really want to know?”

          Her eyes held her sister’s for a moment or two as the question sank in. She then looked at the medallion again, and then toward Gina for a few seconds (who was now playfully punching her younger brother in the shoulder), and then back to the medallion again. There were a thousand questions that she wanted to ask.

          Her eyes darted repeatedly between the medallion and the Marine as the tenacious young prosecutor within her questioned the witness within her; the sedated, sleeping, uncertain witness, whose testimony would be absolutely useless in a court of law . . . assuming, of course, that anyone even bothered to ask.

          She looked at her sister once more, unswervingly convinced that Brie knew something about it . . . but she couldn’t tell how much the doctor knew.

          The federal prosecutor considered the evidence before her, and weighed her options. And then she sighed heavily in resignation. She finally looked at her sister once more, and with a solemn expression in her eyes she said at last, “Life is just filled with little mysteries, isn’t it?”

          “And in a related matter, Alexei Petchorski himself was returned by persons unknown in the middle of the night, via a mysterious  black helicopter that had landed on the roof of the Sacramento County Jail . . .” the newsman on the television continued to report.

          Eve watched the television with keen interest as a videotape showed Petchorski being escorted, shackled and shuffling, to a waiting cell. Her eyes went cold and hard for a moment, and then a tiny smile of satisfaction began to tug at one corner of her mouth. With a renewed spirit in her eyes, she looked at the Navy doctor. “I guess I’m gonna have my work cut out for me puttin’ that sumbitch away,” she drawled softly.

          Brie gasped at her oh-so-polite and oh-so-soft-spoken sister with exaggerated shock. “Evie! Such language! From you?”

          With a sudden and proud east-Texan drawl—and with that classic Duncan grin—she added, “He’s goin’ down permanently.”

          Brie gave her an identical grin. “Hoo-ya,” she said softly.

          Eve grinned back. “Hoo-ya.”

          Clutching the medallion in one hand, the lawyer slowly stepped around the end of the counter and approached Gina, who was standing by the stove. Standing next to her with a small yet no less heartfelt smile, she quietly whispered, “Thank you for getting this back for me. Thank you so much . . .”

          The expression in Eve’s eyes threatened to bring a little mist to the warrior’s. Fighting it down, Ryan smiled at her, and said nothing.

          “My grandma Sheila told me that this looks like the Virgin Mary, but in reality she’s Morrigan—a warrior goddess of the Celts of Ireland . . .”

          Gina remembered meeting an Irish goddess or two herself; but that had been long ago, another lifetime ago. She really couldn’t think of anything to say, so she just nodded once as she accepted this bit of information.

          “She hung this around my neck just shortly before she passed away. It’s never left me since then, until . . .” She was silent for a moment as she struggled to control her emotions. “And since you’re the one who got it back for me . . .” She turned around part way, and held her hair away from the back of her neck. “. . . would you mind?”

          She smiled again, and this time her eyes did begin to mist over a little. “I’d be honored,” she said. She accepted the small, silver medallion, and then she fastened the chain at the back of Eve’s neck.

          Evie smiled tearfully and gratefully. She turned, and kissed Gina’s cheek. “Thank you,” she said, “big sister.”

          She fought down the catch in her own voice by gently clearing her throat. “You’re welcome . . . li’l sister.”

          They hugged warmly, tightly, sealing their bond.

          At last, the indomitable recon-force Marine gently said with a little smile, “Y’know, you’re gonna make me get all mushy here in a second . . .”

          Evie grinned. “Well, wouldn’t that be a crime?” she asked playfully. “And then I suppose I’d have to prosecute you.” She poked her gently in the ribs to elicit a little yelp. “And prosecute,” she said as she gave her another poke, “and prosecute—” poke “—and prosecute—” poke . . .

          Laughing together, and each with an arm around the other, they turned to find Brie and Ronnie observing them. Noticing the mist in Gina’s eyes, the cop smiled wryly and drawled with playful cynicism, “‘Bad-ass’ Devil Dog, huh?”

          The Marine’s smile abruptly vanished without a trace, and her eyes went as cold and as sharp, and as dangerous, as a sniper’s stare.

          Gazing back at her with a sudden and rapidly crumbling confidence, Ronnie took a half-step back and one to the side, to place herself safely behind Brie.

          Ryan permitted herself a tiny, satisfied smile. “C’mon,” she said to Eve. “We’d better grab a couple of those calzones before they’re all gone.”

          “Yeah, no kiddin’,” Evie said, allowing her drawl to come through. “I mean, you’ve seen the way Brie eats . . .”

          “Good Lord, yeah,” Gina replied. “She eats like a Klingon.”

          “I do not eat like a Klingon!” Brie said defensively.

          “Like a starving Klingon . . .”

          Bullshit!”

          Laughing together, Evelyn and her three sisters headed off to score their share of calzones, and then went to settle in together to watch the Winter Olympics.

***

One Month Later

          “Evie! How was Ireland?” She settled into one corner of the sofa, set a steaming mug of coffee down on the table next to her, and held the phone to her ear with her shoulder as she proceeded to pull her shoes off.

          “Had a great time,” Eve replied over her speaker phone.

          “I wish I could have gone with you,” she said as she loosened the collar of her service uniform’s blouse. “I had to run down to Florida and clear up a Navy snafu with the specwar training program. I just got in a little while ago, as a matter of fact, and I found your message on the answering machine. Somebody down there screwed up a bunch of paperwork, and then I had to go out into the field and supervise, and . . . oy.” She sighed heavily.

          “SNAFU,” Eve said with a smile. “Lemme see if I remember this correctly: ‘Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.’ Right?”

          Still caught somewhat off-guard by Eve’s recent relaxation of her language and attitude, Gina laughed. “You got that right, kiddo! I thought it was only gonna take a couple of days, but one thing led to another, and the next thing I know a week  has gone by.” She sipped at her coffee.

          “I know. It was just bad timing, what with the completion of the Petchorski case and all.”

          “Yeah, I heard about the trial on the radio,” Gina said with ample enthusiasm. “Life with no chance for parole. Congratulations, babe! Ooh-ra! ”

          She grinned modestly. “Those kids’ll never have to worry about that bastard anymore. It’s just too bad that we couldn’t get our schedules together.

          “Anyway,” she added, suddenly changing the subject, “now that he’s put away where he’ll never hurt anyone again, I’ve been offered the opportunity to make a change in careers.”

          “Oh, yeah?” Shifting on the sofa, she tucked one foot beneath herself.

          Nonno Vincenzo told me that his personal lawyer is about to retire, so he’s wondering if I want the job.”

          She was pleasantly stunned for a moment. “He wants you to become his new consigliere?” she asked, clearly impressed.

          “I’m seriously thinkin’ about it,” she replied forthrightly. “After all, it’s the least I can do after he gave me a Ferrari.”

          “Evie,” Gina said. “Grandpa gave you that to help you out, he doesn’t expect you to—”

          “I know, I know,” she replied quickly. “But I love the dear ol’ guy, and I really would like to do something for him in return. Besides,” she added with an obvious grin in her voice, “I’d be makin’ more money than I do as a federal prosecutor, and I’d be on permanent retainer—so it’s not like I’d ever have to worry about job security. I mean, it’s the family business, okay? For that, I wouldn’t mind in the least bit being on call twenty-four-seven. Not in the least. But . . .”

          “But . . ?” She paused with her coffee mug half way to her lips as she waited for her to continue.

          “There are still too many bad guys out there who need to be taken down,” Eve said. “And by God, I’m gonna see to it that they are.”

          Gina grinned. I knew you’d make the right decision, she thought. “Good for you, babe.”

          “Anyway,” she said quickly, changing the subject once more, “Brie once told me you’re Catholic, and . . . I found you something while I was . . . well, it’s Catholic-friendly, and it was their last one.”

          Gina grinned. “Oooh! A surprise?”

          “I wasn’t sure of when either of us was going to be back, so I mailed it stateside and had Brie leave it on your dresser. I hope you like it.”

          “I’m sure I will. I hope she remembered to leave it there; she’s at the store right now. What is it?”

          “Well, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore, now, would it?”

          Gina chuckled softly. “Ahh, you smartass Duncan chicks are all alike,” she growled good-naturedly before sipping at her coffee again.

          “Anyway, I gotta git on out of here. I’m still at the office, and Ronnie’s supposed to be meeting me here. We’re catchin’ a flight to Texas for a couple of days of ridin’ and ropin’, and we’re hopin’ to beat the traffic out of town.”

          “You flying out of the executive airport, or out of Sac International?” There was less traffic on the I-5 out of town to the international airport near Woodland, but it was a longer drive, Ryan remembered; and while the executive airport was in South Sacramento, the traffic was much, much heavier, so . . .

          She was quiet for a moment. “I’ve got a pair of big, burly ex-Marine types here shakin’ their heads, advisin’ that I not answer that over the phone. Y’never really know who might be listenin’.”

          Gina arched an eyebrow thoughtfully. “Good point,” she said. “You’d better get going. Say hi to the folks for me.”

          “Will do. Love ya, sis.”

          Gina grinned into the phone. “Back at ya, sis.” She punched the disconnect button, and sighed happily. A present? she thought as she rose to her feet. Oh boy oh boy oh boy . . .

          She found the small, white, cardboard box sitting in the middle of the dresser with a small, yellow sticker attached that read, “For Gina.” She pulled the top off, and inside she found a small, silver, Virgin Mary medallion.

          Gina grinned as her eyes suddenly misted over. It was identical to the one that Eve wore, and to those that both Brie and Ronnie now wore. She lifted it out of the box and let it rest in the palm of her hand, and drew one finger over the little figure. That little stinker, she thought fondly. So that’s why she was so hell-bent on going to Ireland! To find that same shop that her grandmother had found.

          She flipped the medallion over, and on the back of it she found a small and expertly engraved eagle, globe and anchor of the U.S. Marine Corps, and three words: Semper Fidelis, Eve.

          She chuckled softly, and with one hand she wiped sudden tears of indescribable affection from her eyes. She put the medallion down, and then she reached behind her neck and quickly unfastened the clasp of her silver chain. She slipped the medallion on, and then re-fastened the chain at the back of her neck. Grinning fondly, and leaning with both hands on the dresser, she gazed into the wide mirror to admire how the little Mary/Morrigan medallion hung next to her chakram, and how they sparkled together in the sunlight as they lay against the khaki material of her uniform blouse. Gazing at the medallions in the mirror, with the sunlight shimmering in her glossy, raven hair, her sparkling sapphire eyes and her dazzling white grin, she softly whispered, “Semper Fi, Evie. Semper Fi.”

The End

No lawyers were harmed, and no lawyer jokes were told, during the production of this story.

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